Saturday, August 30, 2008

Getting Into Character

It's time for another blog chain posting and once again I am following the fabulous Mary Lindsey. The question this time around is a two parter: Are your characters real people to you? And how much do you really know about them?

I'll start with the first question - but I am going to change it a bit to make it the more general - Are fictional characters real? The answer to that is unequivocally - yes.

It is this belief that made me as a child always turn of the Flintstones before the end sequence when poor Fred gets locked out of the house and bangs on the door, yelling, "WILMA!" I don't know why, I just felt so bad for poor Fred always getting locked out (and don't even get me started on the cereal commercials where Barney is always taking his cocoa pebbles) of his own house - that I couldn't stand to watch it.

It is this belief that will also forever make me sigh sadly when I think back on the cancellation of My So Called Life and how I will never know how things turned out between Angela and Jordan Catalano.

And it is this belief that makes it impossible for me to watch horror movies because even with squeezing my eyes shut and chanting the mantra, "it's not real, it's just a movie" I still get so freaked out that I even once screamed out loud in the middle of a crowded movie theatre. As if this wasn't bad enough the bad guys inevitably follow me home and I spend the next several days unable to go into a room without checking under beds and in closets to make sure the bad guys aren't there. Sigh, my poor baby boy, when he becomes old enough to worry about the boogie man, instead of reassuring him, I'll be right there trembling beside him.

These examples are from movies and television, but characters come alive in books as well. How else to explain the fury a bad book adaption can ignite or even the recent backlash against Meyer's Breaking Dawn?

So, yes fictional characters are very real to me, but what about my own? That answer is a bit more difficult. While I strive to understand my characters real motivations and figure out who they are it is difficult to feel that they are as truly "real" when I have given them sex-changes, killed their children, and changed their entire past, present, and future with a click of the mouse.

That isn't to say it's all evil calculation in my Frankenstein writing laboratory. When I'm plotting, thinking about character arcs, and re-writing I am in analytical brain mode and at that point my characters are just pawns - however, it is when I am sitting and writing the actual story that my characters will do or say something unexpected and then for a small flash they are real - they are aaalllliiiivvveee (as Leah would say)!!! It is during these moments that I truly get to know my characters.

And to answer the 2nd question - how much I know about my characters really depends upon how many of these moments I have. It was during one of these moments in my first novel that I found out my main character was allergic to bees, and then when I switched over to the analytical plotting part of my brain - it was like, "Hey, I can use that" and it became a major plot point. I think this is what I really love about the writing process - the way it requires that give and take between the critical and creative, and between the real and unreal.

All righty, that's it from me. Now hurry over to Archetype's blog for what I am certain will be an awesome psychological examination of character.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Read This Now

Every so often I read something or watch something that grabs hold of me, in the way that I guess the Bible or religion does for some people, and I want to convert everyone around me - so they can read or watch the same thing and feel the same thing that I felt.

Today through Google Reader I came across an article called "My Long War" in the NY Times and had one of those everyone must read this experiences. The article was written by Dexter Filkins, who covered Iraq for The Times from 2003 to 2006, and the article is adapted from his book “The Forever War,” to be published by Knopf next month.

I know, I know the war - it's a touchy, painful, and confusing subject. Most of the time I try to avoid thinking about it too much - which is crappy and a luxury I have because no one I am directly connected to is over there in the midst of it. However, an article like this makes it as real as anything happening in a far away country can be.

I'm not going to say anthing else about it. Just read it. Read it now.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Blonking is my new word for a blog that mostly consists of links - I was going to use "blinking" but seeing as how that already exists as a word I thought I would go with blonking instead. Also, I just like the sound of blonking - it has the feel of a word you could use to tell someone off with, as in, "Oh, yeah? Well, blonk you, buddy!"

My first link is for a blog called Little People. I love it because it is the equivalent of a going to a chiropractor to realign your back, except this readjusts your mind. It just takes the way I normally look at the world and tilts it just slightly, so I go, "oh." Anything that makes you look at the world and see it in a new way has to be a good thing. Also in this category is the insanely cool, garfield without garfield site.

Next I have an article I found through the NY Times about how to make the best chocolate chip cookie. Interestingly, the secret in less in the recipe than in the methods used. However, if you have no patience to read the article you can skip straight to the recipe.

Finally, also from the NY Times is an article bidding a sad good-bye to the cassette tape. This article was of interest to me as I have a long and rich history with the cassette tape. I didn't break down and buy my first CD until 1997, my freshman year of college, when I got the Chicago Broadway Cast Recording. I also have fond memories of my sophomore year when my friends and I become fans of the television show Felicity. At the beginning of the show Felicity would talk into one of those handheld cassette recorders always starting with, "Dear Sally," and talk about what was going on with her life. Because my friends and I were (are) dorks we somehow got ahold of our own cassette recorder and would pass it around doing our own "Dear Sally's". Then we would play it back with the speed turned up so that we sounded like chipmunks, and laugh our asses off. Finally, my reasons for being fond of the cassette is that the car that I currently own, a 2002 Hyundai Accent, has a cassette player instead of a CD player inside of it. Clearly, I have good reason to mourn the passing of the cassette - it has been a good friend to me.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's the Big Idea?

Another blog chain has begun and this time I am in the middle. Today's topic - where do you get your ideas? The previous post can be found at Mary Lindsey's Weblog.

I have to admit that I found this topic difficult, not in the same "I'm harboring a dark secret" way as the last topic concerning genres did, but more in a drawing a blank kind of way.

My first instinct is to say something glib like, "Oh, I get my ideas at the end of the season when they go on sale 2-for-1." Really though this is just cover because my real response is to kind of shrug and say, "Ughh... hmmm... well, um, I.... hmmm."

In an effort to avoid being either glib or astoundingly inarticulate I am going to dig a little deeper, draw some comparisons to other things that have questionable relevance to this topic and see how that works out.

Metaphor/Analogy Thingy #1

If you have been on planet earth within the past week you have probably heard the name Michael Phelps somewhere between one to oh, I don't know a conservative estimate might be somewhere in the low thousands. And while the record-breaking eight gold medals he won might be the biggest story about him, I'd have to say that his insane 12,000 calories a day diet is a close second. The amount of food he consumes would (and has) made other people sick. The craziest thing is that most of the food he eats is the stuff the rest of us are told to avoid: sweets, carbs, and even fried stuff. He has to eat like this because he burns so many calories and spends so much time in the pool that when he's out of it he needs to get as many carbs into his system as quickly as possible.

In the same way that Michael Phelps indiscriminately fuels up with food, I do the same with information. TV, Internet, books, newspaper, back of the cereal box, overheard conversation at the grocery store, facebook updates, phone conversation with mom, husband telling me about his day at work - if I'm not writing, then I am information gathering. My friend Heather from film school used to say, "you have to feed the machine," and I know one of the chain bloggers currently on hiatus would agree with me as well. Michael Phelps needs calories to burn while he's swimming, and similiarly I information to burn while writing.

What happens to all that info once it is in my head brings us to:

Metaphor/Analogy Thingy #2:

My husband and I went to the grocery store together yesterday for our weekly (or bi-weekly depending on how many leftovers we eat) shopping trip. It was about halfway through the trip as I stood staring at the jams and jellies for several minutes that my husband accused me as he inevitably always does during these trips of putzing. I wasn't putzing, of course, I was trying to decide whether the apricot preserves that the recipe for Monte Cristo sandwiches called for would be best or if I should go with mango, as some of the recipe reviews suggested. Then on top of that I was looking at the different options for those two. (I won't keep you in suspense, after I explained the dilemma to my husband we chose apricot and with the leftover spiral sliced ham, a bit of brie, sandwiched between what is essentially french toasted bread it was pretty freaking delicious.)

I also wasn't putzing as my husband accused me of doing - I had a list and I had coupons and I was trying to make sure that I was using both. Which is not to say that on other occasions I haven't been a terrible putz - in fact I am notoriously putzy when I walk into a Target (especially the Super Target with the grocery section that we have around these parts) - I walk through the doors with the intention of purchasing something specific and then almost immediately something shiny catches my eye and the next thing I know I'm walking up and down the aisles of Target, looking at all the pretties and wondering what exactly I came in there to buy in the first place.

This is also my writing process. The information that I gorged on is what fills the store, that first flash of an idea for a story is what sends me in, and then I just wander the aisles picking up a bit of this and a bit of that. Okay, there is the occasional stab at structured thinking - of figuring out where the plot is going, but even for that I only have what's on my shelves to go off of. Also, while other minds or stores, might carry these same ideas, mine are still going to be uniquely my own because they are filtered through my store's own corporate mission statement: I believe most people are good at heart, I believe the bad guys that exist should get their asses kicked, and I believe in happy endings.

Speaking of endings, I think I'll stop here. You can find the next blog in this chain over at Archetype Writing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Coming Out of the Genre Closet

It's time for another Querytracker blog chain, and this time I am ending the chain instead of beginning it - which means that you can find the other posters in this order: Archetype Writing begins by discussing a love of science fiction and fantasy, then over at Mindless Musings Elana talks about speculative fiction, next up HL Dyer gave an inside look into the process of figuring out where her own novel fits into the genre classification system, and finally over at Write On! Mary discussed the stigma that YA authors sometimes face.

Now it's my turn, and to finish out this fabulous chain I am going to build on Mary's discussion of genre bias - because while YA writers suffer this to a certain extent - I think that romance writers and readers definitely get the worst of it. How do I know? I know because I shared this bias. Although I have always been drawn to stories with romance and began reading romance novels in the 7th or 8th grade, I was always ashamed of them. I mean c'mon having a book a day reading habit is already not the coolest thing for a middle-schooler, but to on top of that to have a book with the half-naked hero and heroine locked together in a passionate embrace... well that is just social suicide.

However, I am now older, wiser, and most importantly long enough out of high school that I can look back on it and say, "well, that was a good character building exercise." I am now ready to come out of the romance closet. I like romance novels. Oh, hell I love them. Especially, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Her books are like crack to me. Seriously, I own then and re-read them every few years or so. In fact, just this past Sunday I re-read This Heart of Mine and even though it is not one of my favorites (and again I had read it before) I could barely make myself put it down Sunday night and then read it almost all day Monday, until I finished it before dinnertime. Yeah, we had re-heated leftovers for dinner that night.

I like romance novels so much that I wrote one for my first novel, and right now I'm working on writing another!

Okay, yes, I am still not a fan of the super-lusty covers, preferring the new more cartoony style of recent years - but ya know what - if it looks like a good book I don't care if Fabio's face is leering at me from the cover - I'm gonna read it, and I'll do it in public too!

PS: I actually read all different types of books from every genre, and I think if everyone did this there would be no bias towards any genres at all, because a good book cuts across all categories. With that thought in mind I would challenge anyone reading this to step outside of their favorite reading genre the next time your at the library or bookstore and give something else a chance. A few suggestions to think about: If you think YA is just for little kids check out Australian John Marsden and his Tomorrow When the War Began series, if you think sci-fi and fantasy are just for geeks give Anne McCaffrey a try (I especially enjoy Pegasus in Flight and the entire Talent series, but she is best known for her Pern books), if you think non-fiction is dry and lacking in creativity then you need only read some David Sedaris (When You Are Engulfed in Flames is his latest) or John Krakauer (Try Into Thin Air) to see the error of your ways, and finally as I mentioned again my favorite romance author is Susan Elizabeth Phillips, so if you think romance is only for lonely cat-lovers, then maybe give one of her novels a try and see if it will change your mind.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Purple Prose Problem, Perhaps?

Oops... I have once again neglected my poor blog - is there a term for that? A dead-beat blogger? A procastinogger? Okay, so in trying to coin a new term, those two might not be exactly brilliant - although when Rachel Ray can get in the dictionary for EVOO, one is led to believe that standards for this type of thing are not as high as they should or could be. And speaking of coining words, can someone coin a word for someone who is trying to hard to coin a new word or phrase - like coinnoyance?

Okay, all of this is not just me being an ass, it actually serves as an intro to my blog topic today which centers around language usage, specifically Purple Prose and trying to determine what exactly pushes someone's work into the purple zone.

What got me thinking about this were some reviews I recently read for one of the hot debut novel's of this summer, Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle. I actually first heard about this week several weeks ago when the Wall Street Journal had an article discussing the original way the author went about securing an agent. Basically he broke every rule that you're supposed to follow in the whole query process, had a book that was then 195,000 words long, and got a request for a full. Ah, but before you start ripping your hair out because life is unfair - that full did lead to a rejection, but as every writer knows if you must get a rejection a personalized one with detailed editing suggestions is the best kind to get, and that is exactly what Andrew Davidson received. He did some editing and cut the book down to around 150,000 and then sent it back with yet another gimmic! He had a single paperback copy of the book printed out and sent it back to the same editor, and this time - Success! The agent fell in love with the book, publisher's fell in love with the book, gigantic checks were written, whole forests were cut down so that book stores all over the country could have glossy hardcover copies stacked by the front door. Sounds like a happily ever after, right? Well... except for one thing - the reviews.

This weekend's Wall Street Journal reviewed the book and while it wasn't scathing, it wasn't loving either. Then there was also a review in my Entertainment Weekly, where they gave it a letter grade of D. Now, this is not a book that I had at any point any intention of reading, the whole porn star who gets horribly burned with overtones of Dante's inferno story, is just not my cup of tea, but still these reviews got me thinking. And the thing that struck me was that both reviews specifically quote the same line from the novel, ''The sibilant sermons of the snake as she discoursed upon the disposition of my sinner's soul seemed ceaseless'' in a less than complimentary way. EW mostly just laughs at it, but WSJ makes a more interesting observation, writing that, "No doubt Mr. Davidson thought he was being witty, but such alliterative displays call attention to the author, not the character."

As a writer all this got me thinking. When is our prose getting too show-offy for our own good? And who makes that call? Obviously, the agent and publisher of this book had no problem with this sentence, and I also found the NY Times review and it was a good review that made no mention of that sentence at all.

Clearly, it is difficult to make a judgment when you take a sentence out of context, but just this once, let's not be fair and impartial. Is it a brilliantly constructed sentence that makes clever use of alliteration or is it a hot mess that deserves every snicker it has found itself on the receiving end of?