The (Endless) Circle of Life – And Writing

In the past week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of just how life keeps going forward regardless of what we, individually, happen to think. The first reminder came when my brother-in-law’s father passed away quite unexpectedly. It’s terrible to lose a loved one, and worse at this chaotic time of year. I offered our family’s love and support and asked him what he needed. He said something to the effect that his world had become frozen and he hadn’t really had time to figure out what the next step was. I know that feeling. I know it well. I felt exactly the same way when my own dad passed away about eight years ago.

I sat in the house with my dad’s empty shell of a body, waiting for the men from the funeral home to arrive in the worst snow storm of the year. I was there for nearly 10 hours, but I wasn’t even aware of the passing of time, and in the days that followed, time somehow became irrelevant. Those things that had all seemed so important just moments before I got the call from the sheriff suddenly lost all meaning and value.

But the world did not stop spinning on its axis, the universe didn’t freeze and wait for me to be functional. It kept going just as it had before. At the same time that I was experiencing life in a jar of molasses, other people experienced things spinning nearly out of control. My need to take time off to attend to family matters meant added stress and frustration for the instructors who had to pick up and teach my classes. My slow swim through grief made me feel as if time were crawling past, but as my dad passed away just before Christmas, there was a sense of last-minute urgency among other family and friends to make sure the holidays were as enjoyable as possible.sad-christmas-treeAs a writer, these lessons have value beyond just being potential fodder for stories. Life is what happens within a story. No matter what happens to a character, the world continues moving forward at a consistent rate. As the character’s world slows down or speeds up, the universe keeps doing what it has always done, and what it always will do. This consistent thread within the tapestry of a plot is sometimes subtle, and sometimes more obvious, but it is always present. It acts upon the character, and in turn, the character reacts – time feels as if it’s fluctuating to the character, but the universe remains the same.

New babies are born even as beloved family members are taken from us. Grief subsides eventually and we get back to the tasks that were once critical, then became trivial. We feel time return to its regular pacing, not because time changed, but because we did. It is a strange phenomenon (as if any phenomenon is not strange?), our experience of time, and of life, changes based upon what happens around us and to us. But life doesn’t change. This same cycle has been happening since we emerged from the primordial ooze.

Primordial-oozeStrangely, the writing process is very similar – things go along at a “normal” pace, then there is interference that slows me down, and deadlines that speed things up, and as one story comes to a close, another one is finding life. Sometimes I marvel at art imitating life, but it all seems to work in some great, universal synchronicity. So before I start singing the opening song from The Lion King, I think I’ll slow down, call it a day, and wait to see what there is to surprise me tomorrow,

Things of a Symbolic Nature – Take 2

Symbolism is a subject that I have a lot of interest in. I like finding it when I read (which was the only thing that saved me when I read MOBY DICK), and I love using it when I write. Obviously, not every story will have a place for symbols, but I like looking for places that I can include them, even if it’s very subtle and limited.

A symbol, as described by Robert Di Yanni in Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, is any action, object, person, or event that conveys a meaning beyond the literal interpretation or significance. An author will make a symbol known either by giving it emphasis, repeating is use in a story, by giving it detailed description, or by placing it in key moments within the story. These techniques may (though not absolutely always) indicate that the element in question is being used symbolically. Throughout literary tradition, symbolism is used to enhance and add meaning to a story; to bring the reader to a deeper understanding of the story.

Here’s an example: In Eudora Welty’s short story, A Worn Path, the main character’s name is Phoenix Jackson. The name Phoenix is a clue to the personality of the character – someone is resilient, determined, and perhaps mythical. The color black features prominently in the story as well. Phoenix is a black woman, she expresses her admiration for a large black dog that takes on the dog of white man who threatens Phoenix. And there are other examples. This story also features an assortment of birds, everything from little bobwhites to a buzzard among big dead trees which remind her of lynched men. Throughout the story, the symbolism is woven into plot, building upon critical moments, showing us more about the place and time where Phoenix lives, and giving us a greater insight into aspects of human nature.

a worn path

 

In my own work, I’ve used these techniques as well. Though it isn’t easy to spot (because I limited the use and held back) the shiny red dog collar in Kiss Kiss Bark serves as a symbol. Mattie sees the collar as everything that is wrong in her life: her unfair babysitting responsibilities; how her brother gets away with things she would never get away with; and ultimately, of her love for her brother and her acceptance of his role in her life.

kisskissbarkfront

 

In a much more obvious attempt at symbolism, The Deepest Blue  uses several symbols throughout the book. The first, most obvious symbol is the color blue. Because it represents depression, it is an appropriate color to use at key moments in the story when the main character, Michael, is feeling the loss in his life. But a blue sky can also represent hope, the lifting of a storm, or the start of a new and better day.  Another symbol I used was the storm. It builds at important moments, it rattles windows and reflects the turmoil that Michael feels, and threatens him physically as well.  The last significant symbol is water. Sometimes the water is in the form of rain, sometimes it’s the ocean, and there are other uses as well. Water is an emotional connection for Michael, reflecting his feelings, tying him to his father, and signifying the importance of place in his life.

deepestblue

 

So why incorporate symbols? Well, for one thing, I think it’s fun! It’s an aspect of writing that appeals to me at a deep level. Another reason is that I respect the readers I’m writing for. They like the challenge that symbolic meaning represents, they like a deeper story. As a reader, I like this, too.  There are wonderful stories out there that use symbolism, but that aspect isn’t one that is often given much attention.

The book I’m working on now also has symbolic elements to it, and I’m enjoying the process of giving deeper meaning to the story as I find new ways to incorporate these symbols. Of course, my greater hope is that my readers enjoy it just as much as I do.

And Now, for the Rest of the Story . . .

My best friend/writing partner and I developed the idea for “Beautiful Monster” after having worked with each other for nearly a year. The project went through several names. At first, we called it “Evil Heart” (that is still the file name on my thumb drive). Then when we were about 2/3 of the way through it, we started calling it “Gallery of Dolls” instead. This name stuck for quite a while, and very nearly ended up as the title of the book. But Jared wasn’t satisfied with the name, and so, as we worked on revisions we bounced around ideas for other names for this book. There were any number of candidates – good, bad, and downright stupid – but ultimately we settled on something that we felt captured the heart of the story – Beautiful Monster.

This title, most obviously, refers to the character of Sterling. He is beautiful – and incredibly vain – and he says and does beautiful things that cause Brenna to fall in love with him. But he is also a monster – a serial rapist and murder who uses pain, fear, and lies to torment his victims.

But this title is as much about Brenna as it is about Sterling. Brenna is, indeed, beautiful. However, the monsters in her life (other than Sterling) are insecurity and self-doubt. These monsters allow her to fall victim to someone like Sterling. Fear is another monster in Brenna’s life, and as Jared is so fond of telling me, “Fear is a liar.” Fear of her own sexuality, fear of love, and ultimately, fear of being “different” all lead Brenna to making mistakes and choosing to ignore her own instincts.

There are a lot of metaphors in this story – some we included on purpose, and others we discovered later! There is an over-arching theme, but rather than dwelling on that, I’d prefer to let readers discover their own meanings.  There is also a lot of violence, and there are places that get so graphic that even I got embarrassed reading it, but that’s not saying much because I get embarrassed easily. We were not gratuitous. We tried to keep things realistic and only include those elements that we felt were essential to the story.  Undoubtedly, there will be some readers who are offended. That can’t be helped. In in my children’s books I’ve had people complain about things that were “upsetting” so I guess that in this story, it’s just to be expected.

To be perfectly honest, I’m quite proud of this book. I’m proud of what it did for me as a writer – the levels I had to delve into in order to write this thing were the most challenging I’ve ever been to. I had to face some of my own darkest moments and draw on them in order to pull out what I needed for this character. Initially, I didn’t do so well with this, but over time and with Jared’s encouragement, I was able to confront my own monsters and write some very difficult scenes.

I’m proud, too, of this book because of the growth that Jared achieved in his writing. He began to understand story structure in a new way because of how we split the chapters. His writing tightened and became more polished, and he was also able to dig into some dark corners and come up with gems.  And all of these things happened amid personal chaos for both us. This book became a place for us to release our frustrations in a healthy and satisfying way. It became a safe haven for our anger, and it made our friendship even stronger – in fact so strong that we both were talking about writing another book together before this one had even been finished.

Beautiful Monster is Jared’s first published work, and I am proud of him for that. While not my first published work, this is my first adult novel, and I am proud of that fact as well. I’ve become so excited about this book that I have my own personal countdown calendar to mark the passing of each day! As of the writing of this blog, it’s now 9 weeks and 1 day! Plans are underway for signings and possibly for a release party (though we are not sure both of us can be there, but we will try).  And I have an awesome idea for a promotional thing near Halloween that I think will be fun – more on that later!

Of all the things I am most proud of about this book, I have to say that I am ecstatic that Jared and I became better friends. This process could be difficult for a lot of people, and it absolutely was for us at times, but if we didn’t have a solid foundation for our relationship, this process could have been brutal and we could have walked away hating this book and each other. We both worked hard to make sure that didn’t happen.

Nine weeks and one day – I hope the world is ready for this!

The Story of a Story

So many times, writers are asked where they got the idea for a story. Because I’m all a-flutter about a particular story right now, I’ll share the behind-the-scenes look at how it all came to be.

Many years ago, I read about Stockholm Syndrome – where hostages begin to empathize with their captors. I wondered what would happen if a kidnap victim began to fall in love with her captor, and vice-versa. I let it rumble around in my head for quite some time, then I turned my attention somewhere else.

About 2 1/2 years ago, I was introduced to the husband of a friend I worked with. Oddly enough, I was actually introduced to him through his sister-in-law rather than his wife, but that’s a weird detail. Anyway, after talking back and forth for quite some time, I agreed to help this guy write a book – a vampire novel, actually – and over the course of time, we discovered that we had a great deal in common, and an amazing friendship grew out of the critique sessions. That, in and of itself, is truly odd considering I would tell this guy that something just didn’t work, or he needed to delete entire pages.

Thus was born this awesome friendship. And as time went on, my friend Jared and I began to talk about writing a book together. I gave him the idea of the kidnap victim, and he took it to a dark and scary place: a serial killer and a potential victim, and at first she does fall in love with him, but then she realizes what a brutal, horrible person he is and she has to pretend to be in love with him.  It was genius! We finished writing the book a year ago (and there is a story in that, too). I wrote the final chapter sitting in Jared’s office in his house that was filled with boxes. As I wrote the last words, those boxes were being loaded onto a moving truck, and my best friend and writing partner was getting ready to move several states away.

I helped him move (as his wife had gone ahead and found a job), and as we drove along, I read our book outloud, critiquing as we went. We finished the critique the night before I got on the plane and flew back home. I had my moments of doubting that this book would ever do anything but take up space on my thumb drive. For one thing, I had never worked with someone long distance. For another, the book is quite graphic and violent, and I seriously doubted any publisher would take a look at it, let alone make an offer.

For the next six months, we figured out how to work through email, IM, and Skype. We revised and tightened the story. We let a few, select readers (and a few surprise ones, too) read and offer comment for us. Then, we dove in and started submitting. I don’t know how many rejections we got – about 23 or so I think (Jared will chime in with the exact number, no doubt). Then an interesting thing happened – Jared had been working at an independent bookstore and came across the card of someone from a publishing house called Damnation Books. We both looked at the website, and we both felt that this might be a good fit for our book. We querried with the first three chapter, the final chapter, and a synopsis. Within a few days, we were asked for the entire manuscript. We sent it along. Twentyfour hours later, we had an offer for publication.

Now, I’m a bit skeptical, and I wanted to see the contract to make sure we weren’t being scammed. After all, how many publishers respond that quickly? We did some investigating, asked around, and read through the contract carefully. It was an awesome contract with very generous terms. We signed right away! Then we filled out several forms with tons of information from which the designer would create our cover. We got the cover and we were blown away! Dawne Dominique, the designer, is my new hero! She nailed the main character, and the design is even more amazing than I could have imagined – creepy and compelling!

 

Our book – obviously entitled Beautiful Monster – will be released on September 1, 2012, and will be available through www.damnnationbooks.com. You can order the actual book, or the ebook format!

This is Jared’s first publication, and he is as giddy as a spring lamb over this! It is exciting for me to experience this through him, and I am grateful for that.  And we’ve even started working on not one, but two sequels! So far we have a solid outline for the second book and we will start working on it soon. There’s an interesting story behind the sequels, too, but that’s another blog!

Country Music, Sardines, and the Color Orange

I attended a workshop many years ago where the two speakers – two ladies who were writing partners – discussed what goes into developing believable characters. They used an elaborate system of character development worksheets that traced the lives of their characters from infancy to the exact moment the story began. The worksheets – all 5 pages of them – were used to record all kinds of information: best childhood friend, most memorable family vacation, favorite food, least favorite color, favorite book, favorite movie, and on and on. Their theory was that, as a writer, you need to know your character as well or better than you know yourself.

My writing partner Jared and I were talking about this recently. There is a lot of value in this concept, and I use a form of worksheet myself.  However – it certainly isn’t 5 pages long and I don’t need to know ever minute detail of my character(s) life.  Jared and I were discussing a piece of writing that included a lot of interesting character detail, but none of it really added anything to the story. Descriptions of certain characteristics were included that really didn’t help the reader to better understand either the story or the character, and didn’t really contribute to the concept overall.  But there are some things that I think it’s crucial to know about my characters.

The first thing I need to know is how old is the character. Since I write kid and adult characters, I need to have a good feel for the age and level of life experience of my characters. 

Next, I need to know what this character looks like. Is my character tall? Short? In between? Heavy? Skinny? Average? Being able to envision my character physically helps me to imagine how he or she moves and interacts with the world.

I also need to know who interacts with my character? Family members, friends, teachers, enemies, pets, imaginary friends – whomever. This is the group that populates my character’s world, so I need them to be believable, too.

Then I get to the fun stuff – I need to know what my character’s proudest moment is.  This tells me what my character values about him or her self.  This is what my character’s strength is primarily based on – that core value that gives my character integrity. I won’t necessarily show the event or activity in particular, but I will make this clear through action, dialog, and character choices.

Along with that, I need to know my character’s greatest fear. This shows me where and how my character is most vulnerable. When it comes time for the major conflict in the story, where is my character most likely to crack? Again, I don’t necessarily have to show the reader a specific memory or incident, but it should be clear to the reader that when conflict hits, this character has a weakness or two.

Then I need to know my character’s secret wish or dream – something perhaps even his or her best friend doesn’t know. This will tell me a lot about my character’s motivation, what will keep pushing my character past fear and on toward success. This can also serve as a way to make my character more vulnerable because he or she doesn’t want this secret revealed.

The final step for me is to ask my character if there is anything he or she wants me to know. I have found that my characters will always be happy to tell me all kinds of stuff, but that they always try to put themselves in the best light. For me, this is a form of reverse psychology. Whatever they tell me, I look for the opposite to see what the characters are trying to steer me away from.

It’s rare I need to know  character’s favorite food, least favorite music, or favorite color. Unless this information moves the story forward (in a novel in progress called “Death’s Kiss” the main character hate macaroni and cheese, and that plays an important role in an important scene), then it doesn’t matter to the story so I don’t bother finding it out.

The bottom line to me is, it isn’t the volume of information you gather on  character, it’s the quality and purpose of that information. And besides, who has time to spend filling in 5 pages of worksheets when you could spend that time actually working on your story?

I Can’t Teach You to Write

In the past 15 years, I’ve taught a lot of writing classes. I’ve taught for the University of Utah’s Lifelong Learning Program.  I’ve taught for the Institute of Children’s Literature. I’ve taught all kinds of English and writing classes for various private college. I’ve taught workshops on writing for different writing organizations.  Now for the shocking revelation: I can’t teach anyone to write.

It’s true.

Here is what I can do –  I can teach the elements of story.  I can introduce students to various components that go into a good story, like dialog, plot structure, character development, or conflict and resolution.  I can even teach the more subtle parts of story, like thematic development and literary devices such as metaphor and irony.  I can teach students about the marketplace – how to search for agents or editors; how to properly format a manuscript or a cover letter; and even proper business etiquette. And I can even teach students a little bit about the process of writing.  I can give them examples of developing an outline, bringing characters to life, how to incorporate revision throughout the creation process.

But I can’t teach anyone how to write.

So recently, when a friend of a friend approached me and said, “I’ve always wanted to come up with a great story and write it. Do you think you can teach me?” my immediate answer was, “Nope.”

Yeah – that garnered a very strange facial expression from the friend.

The reality is that writers are as much born as they are created.  Learning the elements of story, learning about the business, learning about grammar and punctuation, learning about better word selection or literary elements – these are not the challenge. There are these intangible qualities that make someone want to write. Stories swirl around their brain cells nearly nonstop. Characters speak to them at odd hours of the day and night. They just seem to feel a story and know pretty much how it should read.  Writers don’t ask “what if” and call it good. They ask “what if, and then what if, and then what if after that?”

This is what I can’t teach.  It’s something in the heart, or maybe it’s in the soul, or maybe it’s a little of both.  After this long, I can tell if it’s present or not.  There were students in many of my classes for whom this esoteric quality didn’t exist, and while I could offer them great feedback on all the different elements of their writing, I couldn’t reach into their hearts and flip a switch that made them feel, made them sense the alternate reality they needed to move into in order to bring life to the story.

On the opposite side, Ive met others who I instantly knew had this quality. A young student of mine from ICL named Lyndsie – still in high school when I worked with her – was one example.  It was clear from her first assignment that she could step into the alternate world and bring it back with her to share.  I have no doubt that one day in the not too distant future, she will be a published author. 

When I first met my Jared, I wasn’t sure if he had that indefinable quality or not.  It wasn’t until a month after our first encounter that I became convinced he had that writer’s soul and I agreed to work with him. We have great conversations about talking to our characters, about running around in the alternate realities we create, and about that compelling need to always be working on a story.

Jared has, on more than one occasion, thanked me for what I’ve taught him. I’ve given him some useful information. I’ve helped him to navigate his way around the insane business side of writing, and I’ve offered some guidance on minor issues.  But I didn’t teach him to write – he knew intrinsically how to do that. He is the most natural writer I’ve ever met. I couldn’t teach him any of the things that make him a writer.  If I tried, he – and anyone else I’ve ever taught or worked with – would ed up writing like me, and that’s not acceptable.

There are tons of companies, writers, and teachers who will gladly take a lot of your money and promise that they can teach you to write.  What they can teach you are elements of writing, styles of writing, qualities of writing – but they can’t reach into someone’s heart and flip a switch that creates the alternate reality, creates that other universe from which good writers draw their stories.

That’s the bottom line – I’m a great teacher, and there is a lot that I can teach students, but ultimately, I can’t make anyone into a writer if that switch doesn’t already exist.

Creating Road Maps

I’m on a tangent lately.  Every writer has his or her own unique way of approaching the process of writing.  Despite what a few people might think (TLWWHMG), I don’t believe there is only one way to write a book.  For every writer, there is a unique system or approach to achieving the finished product. However, there are a few things I know after doing this for better than 15 years, and one of them is that many writers (not all!) would benefit by creating an outline of their story before sitting down to hammer out the whole thing.

I look at it like this – when you’re young, it’s cool to hop in the car, fill up the tank, and just see where you wind up.  But eventually, winding up in the desert with nothing but snow gear isn’t fun anymore. Having a destination and a road map makes things much easier, not to mention much more productive in the long run.

True story time: Early on in my writing, I didn’t believe in creating outlines. I believed I did my best work by sitting down and just letting everything flow. I began working on a story that had a great premise, and I was so excited to sit down each day and just write.  I was hours and hours into the story, and it had reach 85 pages.  I was thrilled with my progress.  My dear friend Carol Lynch Williams agreed to take a look at what I had done, so I sent her a copy of the story.  A few days later, she sent me an email and basically said, “You have no plot.”  I know those weren’t her exact words, but that was general concept.  Essentially what she told me was that I had characters wandering all over the place, but it was really not clear where they were going.

I was so disheartened that I stuck that story in a file and never went back to it. It would have been easy to give up. It would have been tempting to say Carol didn’t know what the heck she was talking about (except at that point, she had more than 20 published titles, so it was a bit hard to argue with her), and it would have been comforting to say I was going to keep doing things my own way. The end result of that, of course, would have been that I never published anything. I believe that.

Instead, I asked every writer I knew (which wasn’t a whole lot, but I did know some) what process he or she used to keep  story on track. The majority of them said they created an outline first.  many confessed that the outline was subject to change during the writing process, but they started with something so that they knew where they were going and they would know when they had arrived.

Logic – WHOA – go figure!

Now, when I sit down to work on a story, there are two steps I must (must for me, and only for me) follow before I commit time and energy: first, I make a lot of notes about the character and the conflict to make sure that the story holds my interest.  Second, I create a rough outline of the story.  I figure out what the beginning, middle, and end might be, then I fill in a few details about the conflict, other characters, and the resolution to the problem.  I don’t need all the details, I just need a basic road map that shows me the highlights of the journey I want to go on with these characters.

Once these two needs have been met, I can proceed to bring this new world to life.  Undoubtedly, things will change along the way.  My writing partner Jared Anderson and I have experienced that repeatedly in the book we are working on together, tentatively titled An Evil Heart.  We have created our road map, then gone back in to create more extensive outlines of the chapters. But despite our best plans, we always find reasons that we need to deviate from the outline to accommodate needs that arise in the story. For example, in our original outline, the antagonist – a narcissistic  serial killer named Sterling – would die in the end at the hands of my character – a young woman named Brenna.  However, we ultimately decided that it would be more frightening and satisfying if we left his death unconfirmed, maybe even hinting at his survival. This requires several changes to the outline, but these are easier to accomplish given that we already knew what it would take to get to that point.

Another benefit of the outline is that it keeps your story on track.  Once you settle on the key elements of the plot, it’s easier to stay focused on keeping the story moving forward instead of recovering from side trips and off ramps that have sprung up along the way.

Many writers resist using an outline because they are afraid it will cost them too much time and keep them from getting to the thing they love most – creating story. When you incorporate an outline into your writing, you find you actually save time rather waste time, and really, you’re creating a more solid story as a result.  Your outline doesn’t have to be elaborate or detailed, but you should take some time to think of the central conflict, how it gets resolved, and what the final outcome will be.  You can add, or omit, any other detail you want.

The bottom line to this process is that it is a tool, just like any of the many other varied tools available to a writer. You can use it, ignore it, try it out, disregard it, abuse it, or pound the nail into the wall with your forehead instead of a hammer – your choice. Every writer finds his or her own way, but if you can make that way a little easier, isn’t it worth trying?