Thursday, April 26, 2012

Misbehaving Characters

There are those times as a writer, when you are writing your book and everything is smoothly following the outline. The scenes, already preconceived, come together with little effort. And the characters each make their entrances, speak their lines, and follow their proper cues. Everything hums along, and things are hunky dory.

Now there are also times when the outline just doesn’t seem to work and the result is flat, contrived, and uninspired. Sometimes this is the result of a poor initial idea, and sometimes its just poor implementation of the outline. Either way, when writing with an outline this is a problem you will encounter from time to time.

But this post isn’t about that problem. It’s about a different one.

Sometimes, when you least expect it, a character you are writing will take the bit in his mouth and head off in a direction totally unplanned. There you are, minding your own business and pecking away at the keys, and one of the characters suddenly takes on a life of their own. Sometimes it’s in a minor way, like insisting on a line that you hadn’t planned. Sometimes it’s more significant, like them stamping their feet and insisting you are having them do something they wouldn’t do and they try and do something else on you. And every so often, maybe once in a blue moon, they go berserk and take over the whole scene and rewrite it at the same time.

(I had this happen today in my current project when my tough but somewhat stoic waitress suddenly flipped her lid, went totally cuckoo bananas, and rampaged maniacally through a scene where she was supposed to be grimly but dutifully supporting the male lead. What was supposed to be a scene of grim, intense combat against long odds turned into something darkly hilarious and slightly disturbing. It even foreshadows her possibly getting together with the male lead later. )

And when that happens, the author suddenly finds himself with a tough choice. One wanders away from ones outline at peril. Doing so can slow down, or even stall a project that had been on track while the author tries to figure out a new way to go forward with the book. On the other hand, when characters start writing themselves they come alive to the reader as well as the writer. The new scene is often more authentic and alive than what was originally in the outline, and it should not be discarded lightly. It just reads better.

So in the end the author is left with three choices… discard the outline, discard the scene, or try and make the two coexist. When the third is an option, I’m pretty sure only the most pedantic of writers won’t take it. (fortunately, today’s character blowup for me falls in this category). It’s when it’s not that the writer must make that toughest of choices.

And to be honest, I don’t know how to give advice on this one.

I have one novel stalled because I followed the character, but then discovered that later scenes I had mentally outlined no longer worked because of it. On the other hand, two different characters in that novel are much more interesting because of that, and when I do figure out a way to go forward the book will be the better for it.

So I guess if I have to follow my own example I would advise following your characters when they are willing to take the lead. But be very wary if they start to wander far. Characters don’t know where you are trying to go with a story, so always keep that in mind.  They will give you scenes even better than the ones you originally imagined, but they may also end up causing your manuscript to sit on the shelf while you try to figure out  how to finish the thing.

It’s so much easier when characters behave.

But it’s not always as much fun.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Seeds of Magic

When I was a youngster, the most magical day of the week was Saturday.
The weekend had begun, the neighbor kids were all hunting something to do, and Sunday school was still a day away. Nothing that we had to get up early for, nothing that we had to take a bath or dress up for, and the parents were still too tired from their own work week to be too restrictive about anything that kept us out of their hair.
From the time we got up till two o’clock in the afternoon, we built secret hideouts, and had bike races, and fought our own versions of wars against the nazis or the communists or space aliens and roving biker gangs. During the autumn, there was often an impromptu game of football between all the neighborhood kids or we rode our bikes over to the abandoned hospital and told each other stories that we “heard” about how haunted the place was.
But at 2:00 all of that got put on hold.
Many of us would race home to watch the Saturday Afternoon Matinee. And then the magic would really begin…
The Mummy, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Vincent Price, Gamara, Tarantula, Christopher Lee, Dracula, The Black Scorpion, The Werewolf, The Lost World, King Kong, Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein, The Blob, The Valley of Gwangi, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, and on and on and on…
While my parents worked to provide food to feed a growing boy, these were the fuel of a growing imagination. Afterwards us boys would meet and enthusiastically discuss the merits of the movies and the monsters involved.  Heated debates would erupt over who would win battles between the true stars of these pictures, and much thought was put into the chances of any of them ever coming true. And sometimes at night, when going to bed, some of those monsters became just a little too real and happened to be just the right size to fit in the closet at the foot of the bed.
Then parents would be summoned and they would grumble and wonder aloud why we would want to watch things that kept us up at night. And naturally we completely agreed and swore off monster movies forever. But next Saturday at 2:00 PM, our posteriors were once more planted in front of that TV. Because those movies were magic, and kids know that magic matters.
So today I listened to my son bewail the fate of being a bored eight year old and happened to think of those movies. Just out of curiosity, I did an internet search to see if I could find clips from any of those old movies. So imagine my surprise when I discovered you could find many of them in their entirety on Youtube…for free.
In no time at all, laptop was hooked to big screen TV and boy was planted firmly on couch with strict instructions not to move. And the first movie selected was “The Black Scorpion,” a fun little tale of giant scorpions from deep within the earth that now threaten Mexico. It took a little effort to keep him still through the “talky” parts, especially early in the movie, but when the scorpion showed up I saw the magic appear in the boys eyes.
It was a hit.
So next week I think we might try “Tarantula,” or perhaps something other than a giant insect. “Valley of Gwangi” would probably go over pretty big with him too. Seriously, how do you top cowboys and dinosaurs?
But as I watched the movie with him, I realized that all those years ago while I sat enraptured in front of that black and white TV, the seeds that would one day help me become a writer first took root. And while I have no idea if the same will happen again, I like the idea of passing those same seeds of imagination to my son. It’s kind of a legacy of sorts.
And I intend to watch more for my own benefit as well. Maybe even some I missed as a kid and always wanted to watch. Those old movies had a certain enthusiasm to their imaginings that I find missing in most films today. They weren’t slick, or polished, or sometimes very well written, but they were magic.
And if I can capture even a hint of that magic in my writing, I will consider it a job well done.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Advice on Writing from a Master

 The Poet
by William Cullen Bryant

Thou, who wouldn't wear the name
Of poet mid thy brethren of mankind,
And clothe in words of flame
Thoughts that shall live within the general mind!
Deem not the framing of a deathless lay (poem or work)
The pastime of a drowsy summer day.

But gather all thy powers
And wreak them on the verse that thou dost weave,
And in thy lonely hours,
At silent morning or at wakeful eve,
While the warm current tingles through thy veins,
Set forth the burning words in fluent strains.

No smooth array of phrase,
Artfully sought and ordered though it be,
Which the cold rhymer lays
Upon his page with languid industry,
Can wake the listless pulse to livelier speed,
Or fill with sudden tears the eyes that read.

The secret wouldst thou know
To touch the heart or fire the blood at will?
Let thine own eyes o'erflow;
Let they lips quiver with the passionate thrill;
Seize the great thought, ere yet its power be past,
And bind, in words, the fleet emotion fast.

Then should thy verse appear
Halting and harsh, and all unaptly wrought,
Touch the crude line with fear,
Save in the moment of impassioned thought;
Then summon back the original glow, and mend
The strain with rapture that with the fire was penned.

Yet let no empty gust
Of passion find an utterance in thy lay,
A blast that whirls the dust
Along the howling street and dies away;
But feelings of calm power and mighty sweep,
Like currents journeying through the windless deep.

Seek'st thou, in living lays,
To limn the beauty of the earth and sky?
Before thine inner gaze
Let all that beauty in clear vision lie;
Look on it with exceeding love, and write
The words inspired by wonder and delight.

Of tempests wouldst thou sing,
Or tell of battles--make thyself a part
Of the great tumult; cling
To the tossed wreck with terror in they heart;
Scale, with the assaulting host, the ramparts height,
And strike and struggle in the thickest fight.

So shalt thou frame a lay
That haply may endure from age to age,
And they who read shall say:
"What witchery hangs upon this poet's page!
What art is his the written spells to find
That sway from mood to mood the willing mind!"

Monday, April 2, 2012

Moving On

Well, it’s time to start the next writing project.

 After the way I did things with Shades, I’ve learned that it’s not a good idea to keep reporting on everything you are doing with a project, so I’m going to play things a little closer to the vest for a while. I’ll wait until I have something concrete to report on the project before making a big deal out of it.

So for now, all I’m going to say is that I’ve started working on my next project.

I guess that will limit my posts to other things for the duration. That’s fine. I’ll go back to using the blog to talk about writing in general, and occasionally throw in snapshots of life as well. Maybe even practice my photography.  I know I’m not near good enough to be a cover artist, but it’s still fun to play with and see what I create.

Other than that, I’m just going to go quiet and work.

There’s only two months left until the kiddos are home for the summer. So a deadline of sorts already approaches.