IWSG: Heading to the Lake House

Welcome to this month’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group where, thanks to the genius of Alex J. Cavanaugh, Insecure Writers Support Groupwriters all over the world-wide web gather to share their insecurities and triumphs. If you want to join us, click the linky and add your name to the list of some of the nicest writers on the web!
For this month’s post I have a question for my fellow writers. As it’s summertime all over the Northern Hemisphere, I’m watching people pack up their swimsuits and head to the lake house, where they will sit under shady oak trees sipping lemonade and ruminate on the folly of the daily grind.Image courtesy of Jo Ann Snover @ StockFresh
I’ve begun to wonder.
When everywhere the gainfully employed are kicking off their sneakers and running barefoot in the lawn, when do writers get a vacation? When will I feel entitled to set aside my storytelling wizard hat and turn into a normal human being for a spell?

Of course there are those who would mock me and say that sitting in front of a computer screen transcribing daydreams isn’t work at all. And, in that sense, they’re right. I do enjoy almost every single minute of my writing adventures. Even Image Courtesy of Marek Trawczynski @ StockFreshthinking about stopping makes me sad, and as Stephen King so aptly describes his compulsion to write in On Writing:

“… when I’m not working, I’m not working at all, although in those periods of full stop I usually feel at loose ends with myself and have trouble sleeping. For me, not writing is the real work.” (On Writing pages 148-149)

And yet, in contrast, he writes, about writing workshops, where entire days are devoted to writing one’s masterpiece:

“ … the larger the work looms in my day—the more it seems like an I hafta instead of just an I wanna—the more problematic it can become.” (On Writing page 235)

Image courtesy of Marek Trawczynski @StockFreshI think my issue lies somewhere in between these extremes: There is just so darn much I wanna do, that it’s starting to feel like I hafta.
I just crossed over 50k words on my latest WIP and that’s going gangbusters. If I could just focus on that I would be a happy camper. But I’m also more than halfway through posting my revised novel chapters at Critique Circle, and I’d really like to get through the whole book there. I’d love to devote more attention to all the courses at the Holly Lisle Boot Camps  I haven’t explored yet. And though I know I don’t post nearly enough here at A Scenic Route, I’ve even thought about declaring a blog hiatus.

I know. Blasphemy!

Image courtesy of ArenaCreative @ StockFreshSo, Insecure Writers, how do you decide when it’s time for a vacation? Is there a way to cut back and still be happy with one’s progress?

And would you guys really desert me if I missed a whole month of posting?

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Footprint images courtesy of Image Courtesy of Marek Trawczynski, lake house courtesy Jo Ann Snover, vacation in sand courtesy of ArenaCreative @ StockFresh.

The Adventure of Creation Anthology

With the official release of the How To Think Sideways Writers Anthology, I thought it might be interesting to explore the reason we are driven to create, and specifically why some of us are drawn to making pictures with words. Why is it that I sit down almost every day to write some words, even if sometimes my head hurts, or sometimes I’m so tired my Image courtesy of Clara Lam @ stock.xchngeyes are ready to fall closed, and write until my cat comes around to remind me that it’s time to eat? Why do I sacrifice overtime at work, turn off the telephone and the television, even put aside a book to write my own words? It didn’t take me long to figure out why, but I thought it might be fun to share my thoughts.

Why I write:

  • Writing enhances my experience of the world around me. Everything I see, hear, touch, smell and taste gains a new dimension as I fit words around it, trying to store as much as I can for future story reference. It’s a fun way to live!
  • I write to escape. Ah, the irony. Even though my experience of the world is deeper because I write, I still yearn to escape it? With words, though, I take the experiences I have and turn them into something completely new and different. I can live inside a world of my own creation if I choose. What could be more fun than that?
  • I write to make happy endings, or at least find some meaning in how our world works and why we’re here in it.
  • I write because I love words. Even though it makes me want to tear my hair out when the words come out crooked, once I get a sentence that sings there is peace in my universe.
  • I write to leave my mark upon the world—these are my cave paintings, this is me howling at the moon.

Adventure of Creation AnthologyHolly Lisle’s Adventure of Creation Anthology features thirty-five talented writers from her classrooms, each with their own story about creation leaving a mark upon the world, and it’s available today. I’m looking forward to checking it out!

Why do you write? What brings peace to your universe?

Journal image courtesy of Clara Lam @ stock.xchng

Missing the Boat

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to blog about this, because there is this sense of shame I feel at falling short. But I know all writers, even the great ones, go through this. It’s almost like a rite of passage I suppose. So I’ll come clean.Image courtesy of Guido Giardino @ stock.xchng

My miserable piece of dreck short story was rejected for the Adventures in Creating Anthology.

It’s okay, really. As I read the names on the list, and saw mine wasn’t on it, I naturally had all kinds of emotions going through my head: disappointment, frustration, surprise, jealousy, hopelessness. But I had another reaction I didn’t expect.

Relief. Overwhelming relief.

No more revising that one, no worrying about when it’s coming out or if the cover will look cool. (No harassing my followers to buy the book. ;))

I’m struggling to understand why I feel that way, because it is quite a powerful feeling–one that eclipses all the rest. I wanted to be in the anthology. I did my best with it and had lots of other writers give me feedback before I sent it in. I poured a little of myself into that story, all my favorite things, feathers, a cat, music, wings, all there.

So why am I relieved that the story will remain safely on my hard drive?Image courtesy of Vjeran Lisjak @ stock.xchng

Is it because I don’t care about being a writer? I don’t think so. My creative fire still burns hot. I’ve never needed recognition to pursue my creativity. I don’t need the title of Writer in order to put my words up on the screen.

Is it because I’m tired and just want to get some sleep? Maybe. Finally, I have validation that all this ambition leads to nothing, so I might as well sleep.

I finally concluded that I’m glad my work isn’t out there if it’s not ready. I chose to submit to this anthology because I knew there would be feedback from the contest moderators, and I’m hoping for some insight as to why this story isn’t up to snuff.

Because I want to know.

Did I miss the anthology theme? Was the conflict too small? Did my main character come off as one-dimensional? Was my setting vague? Does my dialogue confuse readers? Are my critiquers not honest enough to tell me what is wrong with this? Were seven critiques and six revisions not enough?

What, what, WHAT, tell me what do I need to understand to write decent stories?

Maybe I’m just tired of fighting the inner editor and ready to give in to her constant nagging that I’m not good enough.

Fine, I’m not good enough.

Not yet.Image courtesy of Marja Flick-Buijs @ stock.xchng

There will be other boats.

(Because you’re special, the Holly Lisle Forum members can find the password for my anthology page and read the story using this link. Be sure you’re logged in when you click. Please remember: This is a work in progress!)

And, how do you react when the boat leaves without you? Do you sink? Or do you swim?

Sinking ship image courtesy of Guido Giardino, folded paper ship image courtesy of Vjeran Lisjak, rainbow paper boats image courtesy of Marja Flick-Buijs, all three @ stock.xchng

1967

Hi there. I haven’t forgotten about ye olde blogge, it’s just that I’m writing. A lot!

To prove it, here’s some of what’s been going on in the land of revision, where I converse early and often with the story’s main character, Nick Moore. In fact, something eerie and magical happened the other day while I was writing an outline and I was excited to tell him all about it …

“Something kind of cool happened last night,” I type, hoping Nick isn’t too far away to hear me.

Image courtesy of Cema Graphics @ stock.xchngHe stumbles out of the bathroom, sleepy-eyed and unshaven. “It’s early,” he says.

“These are morning words– they’re supposed to be early. And besides, it’s Saturday. This isn’t as early as I usually get up.”

He cracks his knuckles and yawns. “Yeah, I suppose, but still …”

“I’m going to look up knuckle cracking. If it’s bad for you, you’re going to have to stop,” I type.

He grins. “Make me.”

I’m beginning to have misgivings about making him more bad@ss. So far, though, I think I can manage him. “I was going to tell you the cool thing that happened last night.”

“I’m listening.” Nick leans against the door frame, stretching his arms in front of him with his fingers entwined. “But you’re taking an awfully long time to get to the point.”

“I know, but this is morning words, and the point, I think, is to get a lot of words in a short period of time. Besides this will make me laugh when I read it over later.”

“Well, I think you’ve got that down pat then.” He raises his upper lip in a smirk. “But you had a point?” He’s done stretching and is fiddling with the tie on his sweatpants. Libra is right. He never stands still.

“Yeah. I was working on my Editor Outline last night.”

Nick holds up his hand, palm towards me. “Wait. Isn’t that part of Lesson Eleven of How to Think Sideways? And aren’t you on Lesson Twenty-One of How to Revise Your Novel?”

“Yeah, but remember our story is full of holes …”

He grins again and chuckles. “Did you ever think I might be messing up your story just so I can stick around? To keep you from moving on to other stories?”

“Yeah, I’ve worried about losing you. But the thing is, as a writer, I can conjure you up long after the story is over. It’s like my own personal fan fiction. I will finish this course though, even if I keep getting sidetracked.”

“Speaking of sidetracked …” He glances out the window and I notice the hyacinths have blossomed in the yard. Image courtesy of Claudia Meyer @ stock.xchng“Pretty,” he observes.

“And I’m in here with you. Working on an Editor Outline because I think it’s fun. Crazy, I know. ”

“So, how’s that going?”

“Splendidly, actually,” I write as my adverb alert spikes into the red. “I’m starting to see exactly where the holes in my story are. Do you want me to tell you about them?”

“Not particularly, but I have a feeling I don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“No, you don’t, but I’m going to tell you about the cool thing first. I was tired last night—“

“You don’t say?” He rolls his eyes and finds a spot on the bed, then pulls his feet up and leans against the wall with his head resting against his hands.

“Could you stop interrupting me?”

“Sure, but could you get to the point?”

“I will. I was tired so I stopped where you and Libby are in the apartment and you’re about to take her to the Hacienda.”

Nick raises his eyebrows. “Why’d you stop there? That was the good part, I finally get to kiss her.” His eyes turn dreamy.

“I told you. I was tired.”

“Okay, I suppose.”

“But anyway, as I was closing Scrivener I glanced at the word count, and noticed that I had exactly 1,967 words.”Screenshot 1967 words

“So?” Nick eyebrows rise again.

“Well, let me read you the first sentences of my outline. They’re about you and Milo:

They called it the Summer of Love. 

In 1967, Nick Moore packed up his guitar and joined his buddy Milo Young on a trek to the west coast …

“Okay, that is cool,” he agrees.

“Sometimes, Nick, it feels as if a ghost is watching over my shoulder. A good ghost, but still something bigger than I am, something that speaks through my fingers and guides me to what needs to be written.”

He cracks his knuckles again. Suddenly I know why. “It’s because you don’t smoke anymore, isn’t it?”

“What?” It’s when he looks innocent that I love him most. 

“Cracking your knuckles. You always need to be inflicting pain upon yourself, whether you’re ingesting nicotine and tar into your lungs, or cracking the bones in your precious hands.”

He looks stricken and I feel wistful because I love that word and have decided I simply must use it in the next thing I write. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Nothing. It’s just that you know me so well, it scares me sometimes.”

Silly man. It’s because I wrote you.

Have you ever had weird coincidences happen in your writing? Do you have a hard time letting go of your characters?

And, is cracking your knuckles really bad for your hands?

Alarm clock courtesy of Cema Graphics, hyacinths courtesy of Claudia Meyer, both @ stock.xchng

What's Up

In which I elaborate on the myriad and sundry reasons for my absence.

For one thing, I’ve been very busy writing! Finally, today, only a few hours ago, I hit send on my very first submission ever. It’s only a short story, the very one I discussed a month ago, but it took a lot to get it finished, revised, critiqued, revised again, polished, formatted … and finally sent. The details of this might make a very long blog post, especially the formatting which nearly put me over the edge, but I’ll save it for another day.

Image courtesy of Gerla Brakkee @stock.xchngWith all those steps to go through for just a short story of exactly 2497 words, I’m beginning to grasp why it’s taking me so long to get through a whole novel!

I’m also beginning to see that all that attention to detail and refusal to settle for anything less than my best is worth it. I’m rather proud of that little story, and now that it is floating in the ether of the world-wide web, I’m no longer worried about it. I’ve done the best I can with it, and the rest is now out of my control. It would be nice to be accepted for the anthology though!

As for what it’s about, I think I mentioned a cat and a mysterious Dr. M, as well as a serious need for inspiration. It’s part of an anthology themed An Adventure in Creating, after all. And there are feathers.

There’s been some travel on my schedule as well. Fortunately, I manage to travel and write (at least a little bit) at the same time, so there’s been some progress on a new draft, though most of my time was spent on, you guessed it, my short  story.

I’ve got a ton of blog posts I’m excited to write and post, so I hope everyone bears with me until I settle back into some kind of normal routine.

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this:

Deception Pass, Whidbey Island
Deception Pass, Whidbey Island

We visited Whidbey Island, WA on Tuesday and dined in Coupeville the day before the landslide. It’s reassuring to know that no one was injured in this massive landslide, though the property damage is tragic.

What have you been up to? Have you ever narrowly avoided disaster?

Feathers and rock image courtesy of Gerla Brakkee @stock.xchng, Deception Pass my own shot

Pardon the Tumbleweeds

Image courtesy Chris Dodutch @ BigStock.comDon’t mind me, I’ll just clear away these tumbleweeds that are blowing over the scenic route. I’m still writing, but it seems I took on too much again and left the blog to gather dust for a while.

What is it this time, you ask?

I’m writing a short story! Well, actually it’s done now and awaiting revision.

Usually not a big deal, as sometimes short stories ambush me and I bash them out in one big two thousand word rush to get them out of my head and onto the page. But in this case I wanted to try to get it right.

Holly Lisle, along with the forum moderators at the revision course I’m currently plodding through is putting together an anthology of stories by her students. Not only that, but there are prizes! Anyone who has taken a Holly Lisle course, from the Plot Clinic (short courses) to the How To Revise Your Novel course is eligible, so if you’re in that category I’m looking at you! The stories must be less than 2500 words long and the anthology even has a theme: Adventures in Creativity.

The thing is, I don’t really know how to write a short story. I write really, really long ones …

Image courtesy of ilker @ Stock.xchngSo I took the same approach I always do and threw up my hands and just started writing. I wrote three hundred words setting the scene for my idea, which was: What if a mysterious character who goes by the name of Dr. M were able to dispense inspiration and ideas, and what if he made house calls? I knew that I was saving what ‘M’ stands for until the very end of the story. I’ll give you a clue though: It’s very hard to pronounce.

I set up the main character and what she is facing, but did it in the form of a narrative. Then I stopped writing, and waited, turning the idea over in my head for a day, then sat down to write again. The idea grew.

A cat wandered onto the set. The name of the cat became an important turning point in the story.

I wrote four hundred more words and put the story away.

Dr. M changed from a man to a woman. She carried a suitcase full of feathers and a metal box marked Tea.Image courtesy of gyvulius @ stock.xchn

Four hundred words later, my main character was a costume designer at a fancy garden party.

Her husband arrived.

I did this for a few days in a row and by the time I was at fifteen hundred words, my ending came into focus. Four hundred more words and I summarized the rest of the story in eight or so sentences. I wanted to pace myself but from there a quick seven hundred fifty word session and I was done!

The coolest thing had to be looking down at my Scrivener word count and seeing that my story had skidded to a halt at 2460 words, forty words below the upper limit of 2500 words! Since the entries are paid in proportion to word count, and being of the wordy persuasion, I had decided to push that envelope as far as I could.

The beginning doesn’t quite match the end anymore, but that’s what revision is for and fortunately, I know a bit about how to do that. I have until March 30 to get that in. Wish me luck!

How do you approach writing a short story? Do your beginnings match your endings?

And, did I give too much of my story away?

Images courtesy Chris DoDutch @ BigStock.com, ilker  and ‘gyvulius’ @ Stock.xchng

Making It Sing

Image courtesy of 'Kimberlee Kessler Design'So, you ask, how is that novel coming along?

I kinda figured my novel-writing journey wouldn’t be an expressway, but sometimes it feels like I’m on a bus headed to the wrong side of town.

I always thought writing a novel would be like wandering from the Shire to Rivendell, but mine often feels like it has ended up on top of Mt. Doom.

And it seems that most writers’ story-writing sewer pipe leads straight to the street, but mine stops in the garden, then shimmies under the driveway and even takes a turn or two around some tree roots.

What am I trying to say with all these awkward metaphors?

Writing my first book is taking a really long time. How long?

Okay, I’ll come clean.Image courtesy of Barry Meyer @ stock.xchng

The first draft- and I use the term ‘draft’ loosely here, being the first story I ever wrote, long, short, or otherwise- was completed in September of 2009.

Yes, you read that right.

Two Thousand and Nine.

Why is it taking so long to share this story with the world?

Revision, my friend, revision …

Here is a picture of where I’m at with it:Lesson 18-Chapter 35

Chapter Thirty-Five, you say. What’s the problem? That’s pretty far along in a forty-three chapter novel, isn’t it?

Not really.

I started this pass of my revision (line editing for usage, self-indulgence, and commas) near the end of the story because I couldn’t stand to look at Chapter One anymore! I’m seriously starting to wonder if I will ever finish this story.

This is not my inner editor talking here. This is the voice of reason. I look at my words and I know they are not ready. Some of them are, and that’s how I know that I’m being realistic. I think I’m close, but there are quite a few sections that need some more work.

It probably doesn’t help that I keep scampering off to write other novel first drafts, five in all (finished) since I started Image courtesy of Irina Tischenko @ Big Stockrevision on The Tempest’s Serenade. I like to stretch my storytelling wings once in a while and it feels so good!

I’m here to announce that I’ve made a decision about my direction. After the second pass of block revision, (I’m pretty sure I’m going to need a third) I’m going to try to sprint— all right mosey, this is the scenic route after all— to the end of the How To Revise Your Novel course, whether or not the final result ends up being a publishable draft.

I’m on Lesson Eighteen of Twenty-Two. At the rate I work, it is conceivable that I could get through them all by summer. Maybe even in time for the Create Space offer for NaNoWriMo winners?

Someday, perhaps The Tempest’s Serenade will take the world by storm … but for now, I want to do my very best to make it sing.

How long do you think it should it take to write a novel? And what do you do to stretch your wings?Image courtesy Kate Childers @ stock.xchng

Images courtesy of ‘Kimberlee Kessler Design’, Kate Childers and Barry Meyer @ stock.xchng, and Irina Tischenko @ Big Stock

The Next Big Thing

Exciting news from the scenic route today!

Those of you familiar with the How to Revise Your Novel course by Holly Lisle will be pleased to hear that I have finished my second pass through the Lesson Seventeen Block Revision. I’m exhilarated, exhausted, but most of all I just want to give my manuscript a big hug! After everything it’s been through in this revision, I think it deserves one. Finally, I feel like I’ve written a real book, instead of just a collection of loosely related scenes.

To commemorate this occasion, I’ve  decided to pull over to the side of the road and let you guys check out the view. Thank you Jamie Ayres for tagging me with The Next Big Thing Blog hop and giving me an excuse to talk about my story!

Yay, questions! Ten in all. Ready?

  • 1. What is the title of the book?

The Tempest’s Serenade.

  • 2. Where did the idea for the book come from?

It took a bit of writing for me to even decide this was a book, and that I would have to be the one to write it, but once I started it, I couldn’t stop!

My idea was to write about a musician with a prodigious talent who didn’t live long enough to express it fully. I was inspired by the sad stories of musicians who died in their prime: Jeff Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison… and I asked the question:

What happens to the music if someone never has a chance to fully realize their talent? So I wrote about that, and more than a hundred thousand words later I had the makings of a book.

  • 3. What genre does your book fall under?

It has elements of mainstream, but there’s also a big helping of magical realism alongside a bit of paranormal with a side dish of romance.

  • 4. What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

For Nick Moore, my lead character, I would start with  Adrian Grenier’s easygoing charm, then mix in the athletic grace of Brandon Lee, add the brooding menace of Trent Reznor and I think I would have him.

For Libra Duvall, after much debate I finally settled on Avril Lavigne, in one of her quieter moments.

For Stuart Livingston, I’d borrow David Beckham for a soccer season, but put curly hair on him.

  • 5. What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

Disillusioned by the Los Angeles music scene and frustrated by a lead singer hell-bent on self-destruction, a gifted guitarist pursues the angel who haunts him to find the songs he left behind, and the soul he borrowed to escape his past.

  • 6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Published? As in hordes of strangers descending upon my unsuspecting story? Pardon me while I take a moment to compose myself!

Let’s just say that right now I’d prefer to navigate the treacherous waters of publication with an agent at my side!

  • 7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I started writing in February of 2009, but only recognized a few months later that I might have to write a book to get this story told. After that, it took me four more months to finish all 126k words of the first draft. However, the first draft was nowhere close to where the revision has taken me. I’ve been revising it for almost three years now!

  • 8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My story is inspired by books like The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones. 

If movies are your thing, it’s as if The Crow met Sid and Nancy.

  • 9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Any musician or artist who battles obstacles that stand in the way of their creativity is an inspiration. As I revised the story, I realized it was also about my own creativity, a reflection about where it had gone and why it had suddenly returned with such force.

  • 10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll … with magic!

Now comes the moment we’ve been waiting for. Tags! I get five for this blog hop. These fabulous novelists are working hard on stories that could very well be The Next Big Thing!

Nancy H. Doyle

Anushka Dhanapala

Armchairauthor

Peter Cruikshank

Katherine Checkley

How about you? Can you describe your story in one sentence? What actors would play the roles in your favorite books?

Five Stars? Really?

I was going to post a light-hearted character interview today, but got sidetracked by a post on Holly Lisle’s blog about Amazon reviews. Apparently, good reviews can be bought and paid for, and in fact John Locke, who sold one million ebooks in five months, did just that to achieve his rockin’ sales figures. The thing is, I was chuckling when I read the New York Times article that Holly kindly linked to in her post. While reviews-for-hire don’t surprise me in the least, cynic that I am, it seemed to me that authors are slugging it out for something that many readers don’t give a hoot about.

Would you read something by a new author simply because it sported a slew of four and five-star reviews?

Coincidentally, I’m a reader myself, so maybe I’ll use my own reading habits as an example of why Amazon reviews mean diddly-squat to some readers.

First of all, as a literary omnivore—I read everything from romance to hard sci-fi to classics—and a slow reader to boot, it doesn’t take all that many good books to keep me out of trouble. I’m not likely to go trolling through Amazon looking for random books, since if one genre seems bare, I’ll just switch to another. Meanwhile, if I’m not careful, friends will ply me with books they’ve read, asking my opinion of them. I also read a lot of blogs, and after I begin to connect with some of my cyber-buddies, I trust their judgement in terms of what sings and what stinks. (If you want some really insightful reviews and recommendations, armchairauthor at ‘Ink’ has got you covered.) Of course, I can always turn to tried and true established authors. If a book has the name ‘Neil Gaiman’ on the cover, I don’t care what people say about it, I’m going to read it. Last but not least, I take advantage of the ‘Look Inside’ feature. It only takes a few pages for me to recognize beautiful, concise writing, and clean storytelling. If I’m slogging through prologue number three by the time the preview ends, it’s probably a sign this one is not going to be for me. Literary omnivore or not.

But for those who do let Amazon reviews influence their buying decisions, I hope readers and writers see this as a sign that we need to review responsibly, or we destroy the credibility of the source. If readers are trying to connect with books they like to read, is a one-star review with the comment, “Lame. Blech.” going to do that for them? We need reviewer that writes, “Unlikable characters, inconsistent plotting, and a ‘deus ex machina’ conclusion,” and expounds upon the reasons why. In other words, don’t underestimate your readers.

How about you? Do you use Amazon or Goodreads reviews to help you choose what books to read? Do you write reviews? If so, what prompts you to write a review, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent?

And don’t worry, next week I’ll have that character interview for you!

Conjuring Up Characters

Buckle up, folks. This post got a little long on me!

But a fellow student at How to Think Sideways had a question about how writers might understand their characters better, and as I explored my answer, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was searching for a way to explain how my characters turned from nothing more than thought experiments into the companions, conspirators, and co-pilots of my novel-writing adventures.

Is there some sorcery involving a playlist, a handful of feathers, and a thousand words written under the light of the full moon that brings them to life? 

Probably not.

However, I think a part of me believes there’s sorcery involved. I call that part the Muse, and therein lies the key. My logical, rational self insists that I can’t possibly know what it is really like to be someone else, whether it’s a man or a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. (And I will leave it to my gentle readers to speculate upon the similarities between these two species!)

Unless we develop the means to read minds, I am stuck inside this head of mine forever. One brain, one human experience, one shot at this life.

I can hear the Muse already: “Boring!!”

(And, “What? I’m going to DIE?!)

In order to tap the well of experience, whether it’s my own forgotten memories, or some kind of conduit to a common human (or, heck, sentient) experience, the logical self, limited by my own perceptions, needs to let go of what is real, and allow me to believe these constructs actually exist. For them to be real, I can’t force the story on them. They must tell me the story, and I need to suspend my disbelief, on some level, for that to happen.

All of my writing exercises are predicated on that premise. Especially in the beginning stages, characters are fragile as soap bubbles to me. If I try to look too closely I will shatter the illusion and they might start to do things that don’t make sense.

Hauling them in for questioning under an unflattering fluorescent bulb is unlikely to uncover much that is interesting. How would you react if some stranger walked up to you and asked what is missing in your life?                  

You’d probably say, “Whoa—do I know you?”

I suppose I could search through my character’s imaginary rap sheet, and look up where she was born, where she lives and what kind of grades she got in school. But I have a better idea.

After all, I’m a writer. I have wings!

In free write mode, I can watch my characters from afar. A few hundred words a day will do it. I like to do this in my morning words which comes to 750 words, but the most important thing to me is that there’s no pressure. I just let the Muse ‘tell’ me what’s going on with this person. What does she do when no one is watching? What makes this character worth writing? Who are the people she cares about?

If I’m starting with an artifact or a world I ask, “Who would be worthy of such an artifact? Who would bestow it upon him?” Or: “Who is the most interesting person in this world? Why is he important?”

I note down basic things. Is he neat and orderly? Well-dressed? Slovenly? Boisterous? Withdrawn?  Timid? Arrogant? Does she smile a lot? Is she graceful? Awkward? Forthcoming?

Whether I’m starting with my gifted but world-weary guitarist, my cynical warrior, a disenchanted dragon-builder, or the flower child’s ghost, all of them have a story to show me if I just let the Muse out of his cage to lead me to it.

After a while, when I have an idea of where the character likes to hang out, I put on my reporter hat and pay them an imaginary visit, in free writing mode again. I’ll catch up with them in the woods, in a noisy bar, a parking lot, or a coffee shop, but usually it’s somewhere ‘public’. Again, it keeps up the illusion that I’m dealing with a real person, since in real life I wouldn’t meet someone in a private place like a bedroom or their home if I hardly knew them. At least, not at first!

At this stage yes/no questions work just fine for me. Even something easy like: “Are you cold?” works. Sounds simple, right? But if I get inside someone’s head, by asking, “Why?” I can find all kinds of interesting stuff that leads up to my character’s answer.

For instance, if you were in my head today, you’d know that I shivered all day at work. But if you went deeper, you’d find more. I was cold because my boss likes to crank down the air conditioning, since he thinks it will make the employees more productive, and I don’t turn the thermostat up because the more things I ask him for the less likely it will be that I get a raise.

That’s a lot of stuff going on my head for a simple question. I’ll bet a character can give a long answer like that too.

Your character might be cold because it’s dawn and all he’s had to sleep under last night is a thin blanket. He gave the thick blanket to his little sister, in exchange for an extra potato in his soup.

Or take my marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. Absolute zero is really cold, and if only it could find a way to gather enough supernovas, it could build a cozy nebula and finally settle down and start a family!

If I let the Muse field these kinds of questions, suddenly I get all kinds of interesting answers—like what is missing in my character’s lives. Before I know it, I’m dealing with another story that cries out to be written.

How about you? Where do your characters come from? What kind of questions reveal the deepest recesses of your character’s psyche?

And, have you ever encountered a man you nearly mistook for a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being?

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