"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I was in Vancouver B.C. teaching over the weekend and when I stepped off the plane on Friday, the clouds were so low they looked to be shoulder height, the tarmac was spotted with deep puddles and rain was roaring out of soot-colored clouds. So I kept mentioning that we have better weather here in Portland, which seems a likely supposition. When I left Vancouver the sun was beaming and naturally when I returned to Portland, it was gray and cold and drizzly. Today looks to be an improvement.

On Sunday I taught a workshop on fictional characters and since it was the first time I taught it, I’ve been fine-tuning it in my head ever since. As a follow-up to the workshop here are 10 tips for creating memorable characters.

When a story comes to life for a reader it is because the writer has created fascinating characters that linger in the reader’s memory and imagination long after the story is over.

1. Because fiction is written in the language of the heart, bestow a compelling vulnerability in your protagonist and possibly other cast members. You see, we don’t read fiction to follow the lives of perfect people who float through their days on a sea of bliss. We don’t read fiction to applaud from the sidelines as a hero who never missteps, but instead sails to an easy victory. Nor do we read fiction to follow people in the midst of goodness, luck, success and joy. Instead, we read to wallow in a character’s heartbreaks and struggles, to plunge into his or her emotional depths, experiencing the doubts, worries, and pains.

2. Give all your major players an agenda. Juan is looking for the woman of his dreams, and thinks he has found her in Marie, but because of her troubled dating history, she is fearful of intimacy and incapable of trust. An amazing example of a group of characters with opposing agendas can be found in Charlie Huston’s Six Bad Things which rollicks around a bag of cash that the Russian mob wants back. Stir in drug dealers and thugs and bad asses, a stripper named Sandy, Federales and vigilantes and you’ve got squalid tale and speed-dial action.

3. Build your main characters from primary traits as the foundation of their personalities. These traits will be showcased in the story events, will help him achieve or fail at goals, and will make the story person consistent. For example, Sherlock Holmes’ dominant traits are that he is analytical, curious, and intelligent. These traits are showcased in every story he appears in along with secondary traits such as his Bohemian outlook in Victorian times and contrasting traits which might show up under only the greatest duress. When the character first appears in the first scene, he arrives in the story with his dominant traits intact.

4. Bestow emotional needs within your protagonist and main characters. Emotional needs stem from their pasts, from the baggage and traumas and pains that won’t let go. These needs, coupled with motivation cause characters to act as they do. For example, in Silence of the Lambs Clarisse Starling is propelled by childhood traumas to both succeed and heal the wounds caused by the death of her father.

5. Make certain the storyline focuses on the most significant and interesting events in the protagonist’s life. Focus, focus, focus.

6. Backstory provides motivation in the most memorable stories. Motivation, the why? of fiction, is at the heart of every scene, fueling your character’s desires and driving him to accomplish goals. It provides a basis for the complicated reasons for your character’s behaviors choices, actions, and blunders. Motivating factors provide trajectories for character development, as a character’s past inevitably intersects with his present. Your character’s motivations must be in sync with his core personality traits and realistically linked to goals so that readers can take on these goals as their own.

7. Desire is the lifeblood of fictional characters. Not only do your characters want something, they want something badly. Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea desperately wants to restore his reputation and also wants his friendship and partnership with the boy to resume. And in the lonely hours when he is far out at sea, desperately struggling to hang on to the fish and fighting off sharks, we see his fierce desire acted out and the price he pays for it.

You can bestow on your character flaming red hair, an endearing, crooked grin and a penchant for chocolate and noir movies, but if she doesn’t want something badly, she’s merely a prop in your story, not a driving force. But if she wants to win the Miss Florida contest, take over her boss’ job, or become the first female shortstop

for the Atlanta Braves, then you’ve got a character who will make things happen and a story that will be propelled by desire.

8. Fiction is based on a series of threatening changes inflicted on the protagonist. In many stories these threats force him or her to change or act in ways he or she needs to change or act. Often too, what the protagonist fears most is what is showcased in a novel or short story. It can be fear of losing his family, job, or health with this dreaded outcome providing interest, action and conflict.

9. A fictional character struggles with inner conflict while dealing with the events of the story. He or she doesn’t arrive at easy decisions or choices. Instead he is burdened by difficult or impossible choices, particularly moral choices that often make him doubt himself and question his actions. Inner conflict works in tandem with outer conflict—an physical obstacle, villain or antagonist--to make the story more involving, dramatic, and events more meaningful.

10. Although fictional characters will be responding to threatening changes and opposition throughout a novel, also feature your characters in moments of normalcy—a character that is always on the run or under attack wears on the reader. At times reveal your character through thoughts or reflection. Toss in a meal or a quiet conversation from time to time—this allows the reader to set down the book.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The morning sky is a hazy, unpromising gray. I had dinner with a student last night after teaching a plot workshop and a long day of talking. It was a class on plot, so it tends to feature a lot of lecturing, but I think that next time I teach it I want to create a new handout so we can dissect the structure of a novel together. (In the class I often use movies for examples because I can never find a single novel that everyone has read that can be discussed).

Later, our dinner conversation reminded me of a topic that I believe always needs exploring in writing. It is loss, the open wound that we all feel at times. And it is loss that people are defined and tempered. In fiction a writer can use loss as a means to bring clarity to a character and shape empathy in the reader; but loss is also a powerful topic for essays and natural road for exploration in memoirs. Centuries ago Marcus Aurelius said in that “Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight.”

Fiction is built on a structure of changes happening to a character, in fact it’s a sort of record of threatening changes, designed to throw a character off balance and supply endless torments. In real life a person can be defined by the grace with which he navigates change. And loss is irretrievable change. The word is derived from the Old French grève, meaning a heavy burden. In English “grief” connotes an experience of deep sorrow, one that touches every aspect of existence. Grief can literally “weigh down” the person who must face this harsh reality.

And where writers must turn their attention. There is the loss of widowhood, of losing a friend, a pet, of a lover leaving, of a friend dumping you because you said the wrong thing. There is the loss that comes from rape when you lose the sanctity of your body and your safe place in the world. There is the loss when a job is shipped overseas or downsized or turned over to a younger person. There is the scary loss of financial security, the loss of youth, the loss of hope, the loss of trust when your partner is abusive or cheats on you. There is the loss health, the dreadful loss when someone we love commits suicide and we imagine again and again the person’s suffering and terrible aloneness.

A few months ago when a friend died suddenly in her sleep I walked around feeling not only bereft, but fragile. It was as if my skin was suddenly bruised and too thin, the planet was tilting dangerously, as the meaning of everyday details paled. When you write of loss it must be done with aching specificity. Write about bed you once shared with the yawning, empty side where the beloved slept. Write about the smells you miss on the body of your beloved. Write too about the way the body reacts; the loneliness, emptiness, anger, sense of injustice, your numbness and inability to concentrate.

And find figurative language so that we can feel how absence goes through a person keen as a knife blade, grief that feels bottomless.

Sometimes you can pass through the valley of loss with grace, dignity and strength, sometimes not. Sometimes you bury it, sometimes you linger too long. Loss belongs on the page to be shared. And here is one last thought by Norman Cousins: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The sky is a baby blue with a few cirrus clouds drifting through like guests stopping off at a party on their way to a main event. It looks like a day for gardeners, but I’m expecting to be indoors all day except for a few brief excursions. Spring has brought along its finery and everywhere I look color is sizzling from the lemon yellows of the forsythia bushes to the candy pinks of the Japanese cherry trees.

Today is the day the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar about (or at least in Shakespeare’s play). He ignored the warning and called the senate together and on 44 BC a group of senators stabbed him to death. Then they partied. Speaking of criminals and murderers, NPR is covering the scandal about the United States Attorneys being fired and calls for Attorney General Gonzales to resign. (According to Sidney Blumenthal in today’s edition of Salon.com, all roads lead to Rove) Not to mention the FBI’s use of expanded surveillance powers to improperly obtain personal records of citizens.

Now, these federal attorneys have been fired en masse before, most notably by Bill Clinton and Janet Reno. But what bothers me about this latest case is that it seems the administration was using the attorneys for their on-going campaign of voter fraud and vote suppression. Maybe the right to vote has never been properly protected in this country, but isn't it time that it finally is? Recently on CBS “Face the Nation,” Senator Schumer said, “Attorney General Gonzales is a nice man. But he either doesn’t accept or doesn’t understand that he is no longer just the president’s lawyer but has a higher obligation to the rule of law and the Constitution, even when the president should not want it to be so.”

If you need to lose weight, before each meal, you might want to read about Ganzales and George W’s relationship during his rein as governor of Texas. Especially notice how they reviewed death sentence cases. Maybe we could patent this diet, publish a book? It seems to me that there aren’t enough prisons to hold all the criminals associated with the Bush administration, just as there aren’t enough places to hide all the obscene wealth racked up from the cronyism and war profiteering. It reminds me of chiefdoms of old who had special rooms in their castles built for treasures and plunder. I can just see these rooms piled high with plunder, can’t you? Which reminds me—whatever happened to all those treasures from the Iraqi museums? Who ended up with those artifacts and masterpieces from one of our oldest civilizations? And isn’t plunder a terrific word—I’m going to pause here and add it to my Word List. Oops, it’s already on my list.

In case I haven’t written about it in this blog, it’s a Word file in which I collect an alphabetized list of my favorite words, so that I make certain to keep building my writing vocabulary. I add to it almost every day, because it seems that each day I trip over new beauties worthy of savoring. For example under “B” I’ve got listed: banish, bedlam, beveled, besieging, blanch, blundering, bluster, bog, bombast, boondoggle, botch, brandish, brio, and bungle. Try starting your own Word List.

But on to writing. I’m working on two pieces right now besides my bad guys book and if anyone is reading this I’d love to hear from you at jessicapage at spiritone.com. I’m looking for your favorite secondary characters in novels, and especially for secondary characters that were spun-off into their own novel or series similar to how Diana Gabaldon spun off Lord John into his own series. I’m also looking for stories about how to recover from heartbreak—witty ones appreciated. Last night a friend told a great tale from her youth. It involves cows, tears, a boyfriend caught with another woman, and a broken heart. I wish I could tell you more, but that’s it for now, unless you have your own stories to tantalize with.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Dawn has finally arrived, the sky looks like a blanket of dust overlaid on the palest blue. Since Daylight Savings time is now in place I feel a bit off when watching the sky, when feeling my own inner rhythms. Yesterday it felt like something had been stolen from me when I woke at 6:37 and then found out it was actually 7:37, then went around turning all the clocks ahead. Yesterday even though the sky was roiling and soot colored, this place was so balmy and sweet and perfumed with spring blooms that the day was magical and dreamlike. I walked through the neighborhood sniffing the air like a hound dog, and everywhere I looked there was something new blooming, patches of jonquils and daffodils as jaunty as new flags. Sometimes tiny cherry or plum blossoms were fluttering to the ground like snow flakes, creating a carpet of pink and white.

Meanwhile, it’s hot in California today and fires are spreading across the landscape. Haliburton is moving its top executives out of the country, wherever Bush goes on his trip abroad protestors are holding up “No more blood for oil” signs, and on NPR the morning broadcast just ran their “This I believe” segment. If you’re not familiar with it, on Monday mornings and evenings writers read aloud their essay about closely-held beliefs.

This morning Amy Lyles Wilson wrote about the guts to keep going as evidenced by her mother who was recently widowed after a marriage of 52 years. She wrote in part:"I believe in old women who learn new tricks — gutsy, wrinkled broads who eat alone in restaurants and pump their own gas.

When my father died six years ago, my mother, then 79, had already done quite a lot. She had moved from her hometown in Mississippi to work in the big city even though many of her generation stayed put. She had raised three daughters, chaired PTAs, volunteered for a host of causes and nursed her husband through heart surgery. Along the way, she lost a breast and part of her colon to cancer.

What she had not done before Daddy's death, however, was pump her own gas. After the funeral, when she stopped the car at the filling station, neither of us moved. We were both waiting, I guess, for Daddy to wink at us before sliding out to "fill 'er up."

As I collected myself and turned to open the door, my mother said, "I guess you better show me how this works."

To read hundreds of writers through the years writing about their beliefs, visit www.npr.org. You will find Isabelle Allende writing about what she learned while caring for her daughter Paula who died at 28: “You only have what you give. It's by spending yourself that you become rich….. Give, give, give -- what is the point of having experience, knowledge or talent if I don't give it away? Of having stories if I don't tell them to others? Of having wealth if I don't share it? I don't intend to be cremated with any of it! It is in giving that I connect with others, with the world and with the divine.

It is in giving that I feel the spirit of my daughter inside me, like a soft presence.”

When I teach workshops I often explain to students that I don’t have lots of money or security. I don’t travel to exotic places or dine with kings, but I meet lots of writers, some famous who have written best sellers and mega series, some never published or just starting out. And I tell all who I meet, that this life, the writing life is a meaningful one. What do you believe?

Friday, March 09, 2007

There’s a light canopy of clouds hanging in the sky but no rain so far. I’ve been working on my Bad Guys book early in the morning and editing in the afternoon. It’s a long manuscript so it feels like I’ve been working on it and thinking about it forever, but it’s actually only been a few weeks. Thankfully my next projects are shorter since I need to spend more time writing.

Since I have a particularly tall stack of manuscripts to work through, I’ve been thinking about the reasons for writing fiction, some legitimate, some silly or unreasonable. So here are 11 reasons why you should write fiction:

1. Because you’ve been an avid and omnivorous reader since childhood when books whisked you away to faraway worlds, where you met ordinary and magical types, where you were wrung dry with worry over fantastical or believable situations. This love of story has never left you and sometimes you feel so alive in the midst of the story that the everyday world exists as an irritant or interruption.

2. You love words and have a passionate and respectful involvement with them. Words excite you, give you a sort of high, and you’re also on the hunt perfect terms to match exactly what you need to say.

3. You like to write. This sounds like an obvious point, but some people prefer to have written and find most aspects of the writing game excruciating.

4. You’re able to spend long hours in solitude with characters and your imagination for companionship.

5. You’re fairly analytical and can not only wrestle with story problems, but can also devise puzzles that unfold on the page and structures if your story includes a fair amount of backstory.

6. You’re not afraid to edit and revise heavily. In fact, you can bravely hack out chapters, change the POV if the one in use is not working and trim scenes, beginnings, middles and endings. On the other hand, when a part of the story is thin, you’re also able strengthen it.

7. You’re capable of handling criticism and using it to better your work.

8. You’re in it for life. Fiction isn’t for dabblers and it’s important to understand that agents and publishers are interested in writers who are in for the long haul. They want to know you plan on building a market segment of faithful readers and you’ll deliver the goods to these readers again and again.

9. The more you read, the more you long to write your own stories. Sometimes this urge comes from dissatisfaction with books you’ve read, that “I can do this better’ feeling. Sometimes you want to write novels because other writers have sparked story ideas or the beauty of their language or depth of characters propels you to write your own.

10. You’ve tried your hand at short stories, but the ones you craft are so long and involved that they need a novel format to make them work.

11. And finally, the best reason it seems to me: you have a story you’re burning to tell. It fills your imagination with its potency and you’re convinced it belongs in the larger world.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Dawn is creeping in waking the sky and I’ve been up for hours writing. I arrived home last night from teaching in Prince George B.C. and visiting friends. However, my suitcase didn’t arrive home with me, so I’m hoping it will be here soon because of course it holds some of my favorite clothes, not to mention my makeup and other things I need. I always carry my lecture notes with me when I travel, in fact, these stacks of oversized cards are among my most precious possessions.

I’d never visited Prince George before and it reminded me a lot of northern Wisconsin if Wisconsin had mountains. The landscape was frosted in snow and my friends live out in the country surrounded by aspens and pines and firs. They told me stories about the wildlife outside their door, about bob cats and deer and eagles and how a woman was recently attacked by a moose in downtown Prince George. Apparently the moose was crazed by fleas or would have never ventured into town.

When I arrived it was dark, but they described how the mountain pine beetle is ravaging the pine trees of British Columbia and advised me that when I flew out, that I should look down and notice all the red in the landscape, because those were the trees killed by the beetles. Yesterday as the plane lifted a man in the seat behind me said, “Look at all that red. I hear that it might spread all the way to Alberta.”

And below us a rusty shade of red was spread over the snow like dried blood. You see, the beetle is stealing the forests of northern British Columbia because of global warming. Mountain pine beetles typically attack mature lodge pole pines. They lay eggs under the bark, and when larvae feed on the inner bark they cut off the supply of water and nutrients to the tree. The beetles also introduce a fungus that interferes with the tree’s natural defenses by killing living cells in the inner bark and sapwood. The larvae and fungus combination kills most attacked trees. In times past, cold weather would keep the beetle infestation in check, but for more than a decade, forestry experts say, the weather here has not been cold enough for long enough to kill the beetle.

So the beetles have proliferated and are destroying millions of acres of trees. Luckily, the trees can still be cut for timber, in fact, if they aren’t cut they’re a forest fire hazard. Needless to say, it will take awhile to replant all that is being lost since a mature pine tree takes 70 years to grow. But if global warming continues, replanting isn’t the answer.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

In great fiction we are moved by what happens, not by the whimpering or bawling of the writer’s presentation of what happens. This is, in great fiction, we are moved by characters and events, not by the emotions of the person who happens to be telling the tale. John Gardner

The sky is dreary and since I’m heading up to Prince George later today where it’s likely to be cold and snowy, I’m not going to think about the weather except to pack some sweaters. NPR is humming along with the news and has just reported that 3,000 gallons of milk has spilled on a local highway. Sometimes my life feels so quiet as I sit here writing away with all this hubbub going on in the bigger world.

I’ve been thinking about melodrama in stories because it’s something I often warn my editing clients about, but I’ve realized that I don’t often define it adequately when I work on their manuscripts. Depending on the needs of the storyline, the best fiction is character-driven. Now, some action stories or thrillers are action-driven, so we don’t care as much about what happens to individual characters but rather how they can stop the terrorist threat or bring down a serial killer.

In character-driven fiction, story people we have come to know lose or triumph in situations that are believable and satisfying. Melodrama is the opposite of this and I recognize it when I see it on the page, but it’s sometimes a bit difficult to explain. Melodrama is often about the triumph of good over evil and idealizing goodness. What is helpful to remember is that the word has the Greek word melody or song combined with drama which means action or deed. So imagine that music is shrieking in the background when a melodramatic scene plays out sort of like the shower scene in Psycho. Or imagine all the shenanigans and tears and hype in reality television—it’s swimming in melodrama.

There are several formulas for melodrama. In the first type, you must take an underdeveloped character—a villain, a hero, or victim and place them in situations for which the reader hasn’t been adequately prepared for. When a reader isn’t prepared for action on the page it is sometimes called jumping conflict. That is, we go from watching a group of people enjoying a picnic to watching them running, shrieking, and tripping over each other in their haste to escape from a monstrous threat. It’s jumping conflict and melodrama when the readers don’t have an inkling about the threat, when there has been no foreshadowing or buildup.

Or melodrama can feature foreshadowing or a buildup, but is still an extreme action created solely for emotional impact rather then for satisfying drama. It usually involves some evil unleashed and a victim hurt or killed by the evil. Then a hero must right the evil. Now, that would seem like a timeless formula for drama. It’s typical of television series and soap operas and you can find it in Westerns, and mysteries, and modern day shoot-em-ups. Melodrama is designed to reinforce society’s values. To avoid melodrama, the trick lies in the proportion of things, the reactions of characters, the morality in play. Fiction requires balance and it’s so easy to have an unbalanced tale with too much violence or sappiness or weeping.

Melodrama might stem from embroiling your characters in a situation, then you pull the plug or stage the reversal with the suddenness of a punch to the groin. It can be unexpected, but it is always used to heighten emotions—the villain rapes the heroine, the hero finds out he has a terminal illness, the baby dies, the heroine is maimed, a tornado savages the town. You will recognize melodrama because the emotions in the angst-prone characters are at full-tilt while you, the reader or viewer, are not feeling much. Melodrama often uses stock or stereotyped characters, and usually, but not always features a happy ending. Often the themes are heavy handed and preachy. It also often is accompanied by purple prose, excess sentiment, clichés, heavy sighs, and characters emoting about their souls and purpose for being.

Remember when the judge said he knows porn when he sees it, but it’s difficult to define? I know melodrama when I see it on the page and I believe that it often stems from my lack of intimacy with characters. Or it can come when the hero is actually a superhero without flaws or believable feelings. The sort of hero featured in Greek dramas of old. Now I know that there is a place for superheroes in the world, but I like my heroes tarnished and flawed and real. Melodrama is opposite of slice-of-life fiction. It’s the broad strokes of writing with lots of torment, but little redemption; shrillness without nuance; arguments and tortures, with few quiet moments. Usually the character’s motives are not understood or characters are simply evil. It’s Tania Harding. For readers to believe in fiction they require that story also holds small moments and the dailiness of life found in setting details and chopping onions and wearing socks. Fiction illuminates the human existence, melodrama does not.