Monday, October 24, 2011

Whose story is this anyway?

When I realised the character in my short story, ‘Mitigating Circumstances’ was a psychopath, I was so relieved because I hadn’t planned it but it worked perfectly.
You see I’d started the story in a bad mood—well, let me be honest; I was in a furious funk with a teacher at my kid’s school.  I’d said to my husband, ‘I’m putting her in a story and I’m gonna kill her and it’s gonna be messy.’  Well it’s my rules, and I can kill whom I like in a story, right?
So, I started this story, with very little thought except for the two opening lines, It didn’t have to end this way.  In fact, it didn’t need to go down the path it took.”  Then, I wrote like a demon for the next four hours, with a break for things like clothes washing, cleaning, picking the kids up from school, and dinner.  By 8pm that night, the story was finished and, as I typed the last line, I thought two things, I’m no longer angry and this is the best thing I’ve ever written.
I didn’t know from one paragraph to the next what was going to happen.  When the antagonist began revealing the reasons behind her disturbed mind, I was just as horrified as anyone, who may later read the story.
In the last paragraph, where we receive the twist in the final sentence—I always have a twist, you just can’t go to bed hungry—I looked over, in my mind, to one of the characters.  He was a nine year old who had sat there quietly while all hell broke loose around him.  I suddenly thought, amidst the action...I wonder what he is thinking.
 ‘So,’ I said to him, ‘What’s your take on this?’  Keep in mind, as I asked him, I had no idea of his reply.  I hadn’t thought about it.  When he replied, as he did, I was very surprised.  Then I turned to my protagonist, to see her response.  And she delivered one of the most ironic, funniest lines I could ever be given.
I burst out laughing and almost clicked my heels.  As, I wrote the last line, I thought, I would never have thought of that.  What a brilliant character.
A week later, another story came to me and I took off again.  This time, I only had the title.  But just like before, I wasn’t writing it, I was simply following the characters.  At the climatic conclusion, I was as surprised as the lead character, as to her fate.
If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon in writing yet, then you may think I am crazy.  But I’m not crazy.  This is where the clever writer in you breaks away from you.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just they can do the job a whole lot better than you could if you sat there and thought through everything you wanted to say.  They’re the writer.  You get to watch.
How do you do it?  How do you get characters in your head to think for themselves?  Well I have a few theories.  I think you must find your own doorway.  Stephen King has even suggested in a recent interview, that writers may even fall into a light state of hypnosis.
I think it is about letting go.  And that, is easier said than done.  About a year ago, or about seven hundred pages of writing ago—I think you should measure your experience in how much you have written and not in time—I had this niggling feeling that if I could just free my mind more, my writing would improve.  It was very frustrating because I thought my writing was technically okay.  But there was something missing.  That spark of cleverness, of deep characterization, of unseen plot twists, that my heroes like Stephen King, Audrey Niffenegger, Cormac McCarthy and Stephen Baxter—to name a few—were able to put on the page.  That spark was eluding me.
So, I would sit there, frustrated, straining at the boundaries of my ability, to leave my earthly surroundings and fly.  I’d have moments, well sentences really, where I’d think, there it is; that’s what I mean.  But it wasn’t something I could conjure consciously.  I had noticed that the more I wrote, the more I felt my feet lifting from the ground, just a little.
Then came my story ‘Mitigating Circumstances’.  My emotion as I began to write it, simply swept me away into the mind of this controlled but outrageously crazy woman.  If you are a skier it felt like that feeling when you’ve had the perfect run, where your body turned and weighted and reweighted without you even thinking about it.  Harmony with your body.  This was harmony with my mind.
 In a very good book I read years ago, ‘The Inner Game of Skiing’, the author discussed the idea of a Self One and Self Two.  Self One, being the not very good skier who continually directs your body on how to turn, the ice to avoid, constantly points out how badly you ski and how easily you are going to fall.  Whereas Self Two is the inner consciousness that knows exactly which muscles to move to make that perfect turn and could do it easily, if not for the constant yakking of Self One. 
The trick, the author insisted is to distract Self One, so Self Two can take over and perform the microsecond, micro-minute muscle movements needed to ski well.  The author suggested music as a way of distracting Self One, as he is just not a very good multi-tasker.  So, in sending him off to listen, he vacates the seat for Self Two.
I think this is where we come unstuck in writing.  Too many times, we sit down to write and, unbeknown to us, it is Self One, who shakes their hands with flourish and commences to type.  Self Two is a much more modest and timid soul, who simply awaits his turn.  A turn that sometimes never comes.
Our job as authors is to free that genius, who knows what to do and doesn’t have an ego about it.  You can recognise if it’s Self One or Self Two gracing your chair.  If the dialogue feels stilted, if the plot isn’t going anywhere, if you are not interested in what happens next, then the wrong guy is in the seat.
I suggest you stop, go for a walk, a jog, eat chocolate, play loud music, and do whatever it takes to get him out of there.  You need Self Two in residence because he is the guy who knows the ending, who knows these characters and who isn’t writing to prove anything to anyone.  Most of all he is not afraid of failing.  
And you will know when Self Two is there because you will feel your feet lift gently from the ground.  You will soar high above your story and you will feel like these characters are so real you could take them to dinner. 
The final proof, that Self Two is in residence, will always come as you type, “The End”.  You will lean back from your keyboard, knowing you have done something grand, and you will hear yourself thinking, ‘I couldn’t have written that better, if I’d done it myself.’

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Quick, where is the anti-repellent?

 I’m portable.  That is what I love about being a writer.  A laptop—and at a stretch, pen and paper—and me is all I need.  I can write anywhere anytime.  Peace and quiet are not a pre-requisite for my mind to take flight and my fingers to start tapping.  I have an office to make me feel official but I would rather sit outside in the garden in the fresh air.  And usually I do.
You will probably not like me for this, but once I get going, I’m also prolific.  When I start writing, I can churn out around one thousand words an hour.  Story ideas never elude me.  Give me a single line or a word, anything at all, and I can give you a story.
If given the choice I don’t want music playing in the background.  I know some writers love a soundtrack but not me.  Even though I wouldn’t choose it, I did write some good stuff at a very loud roller skating rink while my son was doing circuits.  So I guess that makes me adaptable.
You can even interrupt me.  I can pause, listen to an expose on a Lego project, feed a hungry child, settle a sibling dispute, answer the phone and any number of Motherly Duties, and then get right back into my story or editing.
Well, aren’t I a hero, you say?  And before, you click away because you can’t identify or decide you are starting to feel inadequate or think I sound too much like a smarty-pants, let me say, I do have my problems.
I have trouble getting started.  And I have trouble keeping going, once I do get started.
Do you know why?  Well, I wish you would tell me because I don’t know.  I’ve analysed it until the cows come home, and then go out again for milking in the morning.  I’m not scared anymore of a blank page.  I think my writing is maturing.  I’m not even worried about writer’s block.  But for some reason, my laptop is like a reversed magnet with some kind of power that repels me. 
Oh, I get down to it eventually but by then I only have a few hours to burn and sometimes, just an hour before school pick-up.  Then I’m frustrated because in that hour, I’ve really started to get somewhere and I’m enjoying myself.  I look at the time and think, why the hell, didn’t I get here sooner.
My husband tells me not to put myself under stress.  But surely, it shouldn’t be stressful to do what you love.  And yet, the idea of it is certainly something akin to that.  Is there an answer and will I overcome this starting problem? 
I think not.  I think it is the downside of being portable.  It is the problem of being the manufacturer, business owner, creative genius and kitchen hand all rolled into one.  There is nobody telling me what to do and when to do it.  So, I become not a writer but just normal me.  And normal me needs a whipping sometimes to get cracking and get on my way.
But there are many different ways to reach a destination.  Who is to say which is the most scenic, or most direct, or the fastest?  And who is to say there is an answer.  After all, we are human beings first, before being documenters of human nature.
So, I am having one of those days, where the writing is calling but I cannot respond.  I think we writers all understand those days.  But I’ve decided I really must stop indulging my human side.  After all, that human side kept me away from writing for most of my life.  I shall have to work on some tricks because this problem is really starting to bug me.
 And you know a funny thing happened on the way to this blog post, I ended up sitting at the computer.  So now, I’m one click away from my writing folder.  And I’d love to stay and chat but sitting here, I think I can hear a character calling.  It’s faint, but it’s there.   So I’d better go look and see if they need me...

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Friday, October 7, 2011

How do you solve a problem like prepositions?

Can we talk about pet peeves of writing or should I say reading writing? There are many writing do and don’ts and grammar rules, of which we need to pay heed. Then there are those rules, that when broken, actually work well.

In English class, back in my youth, we were taught to never start a sentence with "And" or ''But". But,or should I say, however, there are few authors who do not breach this rule. In all my first drafts, I find the "And/But" rule broken considerably. Although, on closer inspection, I realise, they are mostly unnecessary additions to the beginning of my sentences. So I remove them.

Stephen King, in his book, “On Writing”, rants about the misuse of adverbs in describing speech.  He means when an author writes something like, Peter asked fearfully, ‘Are you going to kill me?' or, Kelly said mockingly, ‘So, you think you are the boss?’ 
King suggests adverbs are for the meek writers who are uncertain of their writing, who are just not sure if the reader is getting the message.  And, King has a point—or, King has a point, as my “And” is really superfluous.  (Although, that “And” does add a tone of familiarity, which is one of the times I will allow it to stand.)
Sometimes, breaking the rules adds something to your character and pacing.  I can’t say why that is.  I doubt most writers can.  A writer simply hears a rhythm in their head and, somehow, you just know that that word needs to stay, even though all the rules tell you no.
But back to the adverbs—now I’ll let that “But” stand; it seems to work.  King says they are not all bad.  Unfortunately, though, they are like weeds, where once you let one grow in your lawn, pretty soon your entire backyard is covered in them. 
It is a good lesson and any time I go to use an adverb, whether it be for describing speech or even an action, I question its necessity.  Have I done my job well enough that the reader will know how that character will speak that sentence or move across a room or lean across the table?   And if I think I do need the adverb then I’ll go back and check on the previous paragraphs to find a way to lose it.  No weeds will take root in my garden.  No way.
Now that brings me to prepositions.  The misuse of these, I find hard to forgive.  Prepositions are in the adposition class of words whose most central members characteristically express spatial relations.
For example,
Jill sat upon the hill.  Bill ran to the gate.  Mary came from another planet. 

Writers drive me crazy when they place preopositions at the end of a sentence.  They shouldn't be there and I think it is just sloppy to leave them.  It is not a rule that is broken to help with rythm or pacing.  It is a rule not to be broken because the sentence always reads clumsy and cluttered.
The annoying thing is, this adposition misuse is turning up everywhere, and the more I see it, the more I notice it.  I’m reading along happily and then, bam, preposition at the end of the sentence and I’m back in reality and out of the story.
Here’s what I’m talking about.  Oh, sorry, I mean, here’s about which I am talking.  No that is a bad sentence, too.  What about, here’s what I mean.  (See, short and sweet.)
Try these examples taken from a short story in a national magazine.
Susan said, ‘They might want to fire me, if they find out.  But they aren’t going to’.   How much better would this sentence read, if the writer just wrote, ‘But they won’t.’  It’s also a passive sentence but I won’t get into that right now.

Another example to look at—I mean, another example...
‘You can get it back next Friday,’ she said patiently, raising an eyebrow, indicating she didn’t expect to be argued with.  It should read ‘she didn’t expect an argument.  And following Stephen King’s rule, the writer could lose the adverb, ‘patiently’ as well.  In fact, she doesn’t really need to tell us that the character doesn’t expect an argument.  Her behaviour in the previous paragraphs should have told us that, with just a raise of her eyebrow.  It certainly would read as a much cleaner passage with, ‘You can get it back next Friday,’ she said, raising an eyebrow.  Oh and for the record, ‘to be argued with’ is also passive writing.
However, I have no problem with ending sentences with prepositions if it is a character speaking.  Nobody says, unless you are English gentry perhaps, ‘From where is that noise coming?’  Of course, we would say, ‘Where is that noise coming from?’  Above all, you need to keep speech real.  
My issue is with the lazy authors who don’t clean up their little weeds, leaving me to rearrange their sentences in my head, when I should be continuing with their story.  Then again, maybe, I shouldn’t bother grammatically correcting them but simply take their misuse as a sign that this is a story I shouldn’t continue with—with which I shouldn’t continue—which I should stop reading.

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