Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Real-Life Fake People! FREE!

I was just sitting down to start working on this post when my sister-in-law texted me about the Supreme Court's decision on DOMA and Prop 8. I got completely derailed - listening to NPR, watching Twitter and Facebook explode, crying and laughing, and wishing profoundly that my wife didn't work in a concrete cave so that I could call her and hear her voice and celebrate with her. I know this is a blog about writing novels, but I can't help it; this is so far beyond just politics for me.

However, I'm going to try to re-focus, here, and talk about characters. You know, about Real-Life Fake People! FREE!

Seriously, who can resist FREE STUFF??? I can't. I'm a sucker for all the swag they give out at conferences (and really, how many flimsy plastic keychain lobs does one person need?), not to mention free food. And for someone who normally tries to eat very healthy, this is a very strange thing to love, because free food is almost uniformly horrendous. And yet, I love it, anyway, because I didn't pay for it.

BUT, lucky for you, this post includes NO cheap-o keychains or crappy packaged food. Nope. Here, you get FREE IMAGINARY PEOPLE! YAY!

Last week, I went on a heavily psychological tear about crafting real, three-dimensional characters instead of lifeless robots (incidentally, if you're writing a sci-fi novel about robots with no personalities, you should ignore these posts). This is the approach I used when I was working on Cloudland; if you haven't read the last post, go do it now. No really, I'll wait. I don't mind; it's important (can anyone else hear their Jewish grandmothers talking when I say that?)

All done? Lovely. So, on Ms. George's advice, I created a nice character analysis document in Word, and then I went to town. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and then I ignored all reasonable word limits, and kept writing. There are two main characters in the book (Jake and Sara, as I've mentioned), and then a second tier of four secondary characters (the Guide, Jake's father and mother, and Sara's mother), a third tier of one tertiary character (Sara's father), and then a fourth tier of some characters who are barely mentioned at all.

Everyone in the first three tiers got a detailed, in-depth, and otherwise exhaustive analysis. This included Jake's mother - who dies early on in the novel, but she's clearly so central to the story that I had to know who she was - and Sara's father, who dies before the novel starts, but since the whole book is about Sara's quest to find him, he needed to be developed.

Why? Well, a lot of reasons. For example, I had to know what, specifically, Jake and Sara missed about their parents, because that's how grief often works; it's so damned specific, it can seem crazy. You focus on the tiny, insignificant things about a person - an old shirt they loved, no matter how dingy; their favorite food; the way their hands moved when they talked - and then you spend a lot of time missing the hell out of those little things.

Plus, both of these people live in Sara and Jake's flashbacks, and in order for those memories to be compelling and real, I had to know how both parents would have acted, spoken, thought, and moved.

As for the other very minor characters, I didn't work on them, mainly because their appearances were so brief that it didn't seem necessary. However, my editor would probably argue (and she'd probably be right) that I should have created an analysis for at least one of those fourth tier characters - Sara's boyfriend, Brian - because he is currently giving both of us rather large, pounding headaches; he just doesn't quite seem to belong in the book. My editor keeps using writerly terms like, "you haven't earned that conversation" when he shows up. Meaning, in layman's terms, "what the &*$# is he doing here??" A fair question, and he may be one of my murdered darlings by the time we're done. I'm holding out for him for now, though.

At any rate, how do these analyses actually look, in real-world terms? Below, I'm posting an excerpt from the one I created for Jake. Why an excerpt, you ask? Well, for one, I tend to be rather, um, long-winded (I'm sure you haven't noticed that by now). Two, I really do dig in when I do these analyses, and I write for a long time, in free-form brainstorming-style, about who they are. And those two factors combined would make what is already a long blog post into a freaking monster.

So, excerpt-time:

Jake (Age 5-6):

Half Cape Verdean (mom's side), and half African-American (dad's side). He looks much more like his mother than his father, which will torture his father once his mother has died. He has his mother’s lighter brown skin tone, his mother’s delicate facial features and small frame, and, especially, his mother’s beautiful and soulful brown eyes. 

He is a quiet, introverted child by nature. Thoughtful, silent, and intense. He can communicate, he gets along with other kids relatively well, although he doesn’t have many friends: he prefers his own inner world to anything anyone else offers, except maybe his mom. I think he is an observer, a watcher. He’s probably quite bright. He is intensely curious, but unlike most children, he doesn’t ask questions out loud. Instead, he asks them in his own mind, and creates his own answers based on the facts he gathers from the world around him, and his own fertile imagination. Magic is very much alive for him, but he wouldn’t characterize it as ‘magic’ – it is every bit as real and solid to him as the so-called world of objects.

I think he had a special relationship with his mother, because they are so similar. He was much more communicative with her than with anyone else, especially his father; he can easily sense his father’s ambivalence and discomfort, and is a little afraid of him. His mother liked hearing his queer, strange ideas and stories; she never made fun of him, was never worried about what his brain created. 

It’s only when his mother dies that his quietness becomes deep, unassailable, and frightening (to the world). He withdraws into himself completely, into his own inner world where he can make sense of what is happening, where there is no accusatory father to disturb him. When his mother dies, and his father becomes so withdrawn and so angry, he is terrified. His world is full of danger, and there is no one to protect him. 

Core Need: To feel safe and loved, especially by his mother.
Pathological Maneuver: Introversion to the point of being totally non-responsive to the world around him. When he is afraid or upset, he retreats within; it is only within himself that he can be safe.
Sexuality: He was just starting to grow past the point where he was intensely attached to his mother, and starting to wonder if he could be more like his dad, when his mother died. This does two things in terms of child sexuality: 1) it made him intensely vulnerable to his father’s distance and coolness, and 2) it made him regress back to desperately wanting to be close to his mom.
Essential Past Event: His parents took him to the Museum of Natural History when he was very small, probably 3-4 years old or so. He got very interested in an exhibit, as he often does with things he observes, and didn’t realize that his parents had turned to the next exhibit. They were only a few feet away, but when he realized they were gone, he panicked. He sat down on the floor and concentrated very hard on his mother finding him, believing that if he thought about it hard enough she would. And she did. This led to a strong belief in the power of his own mind.
Core Desire: To find his mother.
Religion: Catholic. He goes to Church every week with his mom and dad, but he finds it a little boring, and hard to understand. He likes the beauty of the big churches, and the organ music, though. 

Spirituality: He is led, inspired, and informed by his mother’s true sense of spirituality. He believes very much that God and Jesus exist. To him, they literally live in a kingdom in the sky, close to or even the same as the place that his mother imagines escaping to. He has asked her before if her special place in the sky is close to where God lives; she doesn’t have a clear answer (“Maybe. Maybe they’re the same thing, maybe not. But I’d like to believe that wherever God is, there’s peace and lots of open sky.”) He sees God as a father figure; powerful, loving, a bit distant, a bit unfathomable. 

Hey, thanks for making it all the way to the bottom of this post! You are my new Favorite Person, and I will give a signed copy of Cloudland to you...once it's published :)

Next week: time to talk about PLOT. Probably. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mmm-hmm, and How Does That Make You Feel?

DISCLAIMER: I have made and will make no money off of this post, and this is just my own take on one small part of the process outlined in Write Away. If you want to know more about Elizabeth George's methods for writing novels, I recommend that you buy her book

Ah, psychoanalysis. Great for people AND characters. For those of you who have never been to therapy - WHY HAVEN'T YOU BEEN? Seriously. It's amazing. I'm going to agree with Dar Williams on this one. 

Anyway, I ended last week by introducing a small piece of the book-writing process author Elizabeth George uses, which starts with characters instead of plot. In other words, instead of brainstorming what's going to happen in your book, you instead first figure out who is in your book. Think about it this way: let's say you decide, "I'm going to write a book about a bank robber lady who is involved in the biggest heist of her life. It takes months of planning and tons of work and at the last second, when she's standing inside the open safe she's just cracked, staring at 3 million dollars' worth of pure gold, she decides not to go through with it!

Ok. Why doesn't she go through with it? Is it because she has sudden stomach pains? Because she gets bored? Because she realizes that the bank she's stealing from is owned by her lover's terminally ill father, and her long-hidden moral compass suddenly kicks into gear?

You have to know the answer to that question, because you have to set it up throughout the book, or else your big climactic moment won't make sense. And even if you know the answer, you have to know the why of that answer: does she have a strong moral compass that's been hidden because she was raised by nuns in an orphanage, and she's blocked out that sad, cold experience? Or were her parents renowned thieves, and this morality is a way of rebelling against them? The choice you make here will completely change the kind of book you're writing. And if you don't choose, you might end up at that pivotal plot point, with your bank robber standing in the safe, and she won't cooperate and walk away. She wants to take the damn money. And then you fight with her.

I've been there. Not fun.

So, instead, George recommends something she calls character analysis, which is a lot closer to actual psychoanalysis than you might think. You make a list of important information, including the basics (name, age, etc), and fill in the blanks for each important character. This list includes: Core Need, Pathological Maneuver, Sexuality, Essential Past Event, and Core Desire. I'll take a brief look at each of these.

Core Need: this is, quite simply, the gas that powers a person's engine. This is the one thing they need, that, as George says, "when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology." Examples might be the need to be good at everything you do, the need for excitement, the need to always be right, and so on.

Pathological Maneuver: this is directly related to the Core Need. When a person's core need is denied - or when they are under serious stress in general - how do they respond? The person who needs to be good at everything would turn that stress inward on themselves; they would never act out. Internal core needs usually have internal pathological maneuvers when that need is denied, and vice versa. This behavior can be a ton of different things, though, from addictions to phobias to delusions and so on. 

Sexuality: this is more than just sexual orientation. This is how a person sees and approaches sex, and a person's sexual history. You may have a character who is heterosexual, but that doesn't tell you anything except the gender of that character's partners. Does this character like sex? Is she addicted to it? Does she think it's shameful? How does she view her own pleasure? How many partners has she had? And so on.

Essential Past Event: exactly what it sounds like - an event that was instrumental in shaping this person's life. Now, in real life, we all probably have at least a handful of these. But for the purposes of creating characters, it's helpful to choose just one or two. Did your character lose someone important to them? Did your character witness a crime, or was she a victim of a crime? Did her parents split up in a messy divorce?

Desire: this is always going to be related to a character's Core Need, somehow, but it's also much more immediate, and much more changeable. It's really what a character wants at any given moment. You can have a character's Desire for the novel as a whole, and then Desires for each scene (very helpful when writing those scenes, actually). Our bank robber's Desire for the whole novel might be to be insanely rich (or safe for life, which could lead back to her Core Need...), but her Desire in one scene might be to get out of an awkward conversation, or find out the code to the bank's safe, or just get some sleep. 

To this list, I added two things when I was working on Cloudland: Religion and Spirituality. I did this because 1) I had a feeling that they were going to be important in a book about loss (which means a book in some ways about death, and the soul), and 2) for some people, religion and spirituality can be very, very different. And like Sexuality, these are about more than just what kind of church a person does or doesn't attend: they're about how that person feels about religion and spirituality in general. Is your character a dutiful Christian who attends church every week, but secretly feels there is no God? Is your character someone who distrusts organized religion, but prays to a higher power all the time anyway? And so on.

See? Pretty heavily psychological. It helps to have some familiarity with basic human behavioral psychology.

Next week: concrete examples of how this process worked when I was writing Cloudland.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How to Create Dull, Lifeless Characters, Or What Not To Do

Ok, my split personality disorder has subsided somewhat, mainly because I've finished editing a big chunk of Cloudland. I'm not actually done editing, period, but I'm taking a little break while my editor and I re-group.

Anyway, I now have the time (and attention) to write a little bit about characters, as I had promised.

One of the questions I often get has to do with characters. There are a lot of variations, but it goes something like: "How do you create three-dimensional, compelling, and interesting people, instead of boring flat unbelievable cardboard automatons?"

Excellent question.

To tell you the truth, I didn't know the answer to that question for a long time. An embarrassingly long time, actually. When I was writing plays, I used to just come up with ideas for characters, figure out the general details (age, appearance, career, etc), and then I would go on my merry way and, you know, write, like I was supposed to. Because only losers plan stuff, obviously.

You'll be shocked to learn that this didn't work very well. Not matter what I was writing, I would inevitably end up sitting in front of my computer, tearing out great fistfuls of my hair, and swearing at my characters (yes, out loud, like a crazy person), because they wouldn't do what I wanted them to do. I had fantastic ideas about where to take the story, but these people I had created would NOT cooperate for love or money. We would have frustrating arguments that would end with me throwing my hands in the air and deleting chunks of text, and writing more chunks, then deleting those and writing more, and so on, until I managed by pure stupid luck to write myself out of the corner I was in, and move on with the story.

Just as a side note, I now know that the fact that I was fighting with them instead of just making them do what I wanted (which is an option, by the way; it's called Bad Writing), was a good thing. It meant that I was forcing myself to create real, believable people, instead of robots. As a TOTAL side note, or really a side-track, this is one of the reasons I disliked The Grapes of Wrath; I felt as if Steinbeck was making his characters do things they really probably wouldn't do, because it made a better story. I felt the same way about The Memory Keeper's Daughter. I realize many of you may disagree with me, which is great, actually. Leave a comment and we can debate about it.

Anyway. Fun though that whole fighting thing was, let's call that crazy approach What Not To Do, shall we? So, what do you do, instead?

Another great question, and when I started working on my first novel, I had absolutely not one damn clue. So I did what writers do: I researched (incidentally, research is a great way to procrastinate). I went down to my local library and looked for books on writing, and found a book called Write Away, by British mystery novelist Elizabeth George. For those who don't know her, she's the highly successful author of the Inspector Lynley series, among others.

I have a confession, here. I didn't read the whole book, just a few pertinent bits. Sorry, Elizabeth.

At any rate, George has this whole process for conceiving, planning, and writing a novel down pat (something I think you pick up when you are a prolific mystery writer), one of which is to start with your characters, instead of starting with the story. You can and should have your seed, but before you build this glorious plot, build characters who will interact with it first.

Well, duh, right? Apparently not, since I hadn't figured that out on my own.

Ok, this is now a very long post. Before you all doze off, I'll end here - and I'll expand on how George recommends building those characters, and how I used her advice when I was writing Cloudland, next week.

In the meantime, leave comments and tell me why I'm wrong about Steinbeck :)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Serial Killers, Toddlers, and Lonely Dogs. Must be Editing Time.

I'm supposed to be writing about characters this week. Why? Because I ended my last post with a sneaky little hook of a line that gave some hints about the main characters in Cloudland, and then said I needed to figure out who the hell they were. That was supposed to generate interest in my next post; I have no idea if it worked or not.

Well, I apologize, but that promised post about characters is going to have to wait... mainly because I'm bogged down in editing right now, and I can't pull my brain out of the editing mindset long enough to talk about characters. So I'm going to talk about editing instead, and I'll get to characters next week.

What is that editing mindset, you ask (or at least, I imagine you do, you shadowy mystery readers)? Well, I'd say it's a combination of an organized, highly intelligent, ruthless serial killer; an attention-challenged and disobedient two-year-old; and a very sad, lonely dog who just wants to sit on your lap and be petted. In other words, sometimes I'm brutal and cold-blooded, murdering any paragraph that gets it the way of the action. Sometimes I trample wildly around the manuscript, squashing random sentences because it seems cool, then losing focus and toddling off to play in another section. And sometimes, I really just want someone to come and pat my head and tell me I'm a good girl and everything is going to be OK.

Yeah. I know. It sounds psychotic. It kind of is. Editing the rough draft of a novel means you have to wade back in to all of the words you painstakingly crafted over countless long hours of your life, and try to look at them in a detached way, as if you hadn't just spent years of your life sweating over them, and then cut and slash and reshape them with a cynical, steady hand to make them better.

I know I'm making it sound like it sucks. It sometimes does, but it sometimes is really wonderful and rewarding, because at the end of a long day of hacking your beloved manuscript to bits, you realize it actually is better. And that's the best part of all.

Besides that, I'm lucky enough to be working with a kick-ass, brilliant, wise, and patient editor, who helps me look at this book with new eyes, and is willing to talk with me about it for hours and hours and hours. I know she worries that she's going to hurt my feelings, but honestly, I get to talk about this book I wrote with another whole person (can you tell that writers get a little isolated sometimes?) who is actually interested in what I produced. And that, believe it or not, is really, really fun.

So that's what I've been doing this week. More specifically, I've been massacring great populations of exposition, because said editor pointed out that I have this small tendency to overwrite things. Just a teeny tiny bit. As a dear friend and writing partner of mine once said (and admitted to doing herself), I write these things called "frying pan moments." You know, you're reading the book, and I'm standing behind you with a giant frying pan, smashing it down on your head over and over again. "Did you get it?!" (smash, smash) "Did you get it yet?!" (smash) "Did you get it, huh? Huh? Huh?!!" (SMASHSMASHSMASH)

You know those moments. Some TV shows have them all. The. Time. (Yes, Once Upon A Time, I'm talking to you.) And we hate them. So I'm trying to trust that I've gotten my points across, and cut the rest of the explanation.

OK, off to crazy-land (I mean editing) now. Characters next week, I promise.