Category Archives: Character Study

How To Deal With Your Past, Published and Bad Writing

Sometimes I write trash.

How about you?  Does it ever happen that an essay, an article, a story, a chapter, even a whole novel turns out to be pure, unadulterated garbage?  No?  Well, You’re lucky.  Happens to me all the time.

What do you do when you find out you’re written something that is embarrassing?  How does that even happen?  We’re all fairly bright, rather well-read, in other words, not methane-breathers, right?

Realistically, we don’t put our work out there in the world if we think it’s bad, now do we?  So how does it happen?

Sadly—and perhaps gladly as well—it happens because we grow.  The work we published  as teenagers, or later in life didn’t seem that bad at the time, did it?Of course not.  We just outgrew it.

How about the things we wrote and, say, put up on a blog 6 or 7 months ago?  How bad could that be?  Sometimes we can judge, sometimes we can’t, but hindsight is golden, isn’t it?  Those old blog posts might have been a little clunky, but the spirit was good, and (see above) we aren’t idiots.  We just kind of outgrew what we wrote earlier. 

Image: tvtropes.org

In most cases when you write something and post it on the Internet, you’ve started it.  “…like a snowball rollin’ down the side of a snow-covered hill.  It’s growin’…” 

Chances are it’s out of your control then, even if you can go back and change what is on your blog, others have looked, read, perhaps even copied.  Once it gets out there, it’s hard to control.

A few days ago I wrote about John Fowles, and the struggle he had getting his first novel, “The Magus” to light of day.  He wrote the book twice, and made a big hit with it both times.  His problem?  He didn’t think it was ready after all, even after it had critical success.

What’s the point?  Well, perhaps it is time for us to make deals with ourselves.  Perhaps it is time to say, “unless I stop growing, my writing will get stronger every time.  I may always find faults with my older work, but seeing the difference between then and now only affirms that I am growing.”

I think it’s worth a shot.

Now, I wonder how stupid this is going to sound to me in six months?

Your thoughts?

I’m Spoiled

This morning, as I was about to spring out of bed in order to start yet another very long day of writing, and writerly tasks, I turned to look at the clock.  And the clock blacked out.  I thought it was me, at first.  Sleep has been elusive of late, and I’ve resorted to sleepy pills (shhh, don’t talk too loud around the rest of them–you’ll wake them up!)  And of course, this means a groggy, slow to speed kind of morning.  So, maybe the clock didn’t go out.  Maybe we all just blinked at the same time.

Ah, but no.  In fact not only had the bedroom clock gone out, but every clock in the house except for the one powered by batteries hanging on the kitchen wall.  And I couldn’t see that one, because it was dark. 

Yeah, power outage.  One of the first things that occurs to me if I can’t get to my computer, and get some work done is this: Well, since I can’t write anyway, how about if I pop some corn and watch a movie.  (Yeah, I even think that way that early in the morning.).  Of course then my mean-kid-from-down-the-block-voice says nyah, nyah, can’t pop corn!  Can’t watch TV.  No POWER, idiot!

I’m spoiled.  I no longer have a typewriter.  Since I type more than I write, my handwriting is so bad I was actually—this is true!—asked if I was a doctor by a nurse when I had to sign for a prescription one day.  There’s no way I can write longhand and expect to make out more than a few words a day or so later.

I’m spoiled.  I need light to work.  I need my computer, and my connection to the Internet to get the job done.  One big EMP explosion and I’m killed, cooked and served.

To quote Edward G. Robinson from the rather scary movie, Soylent Green, “How did we come to this?”

Food in the freezer would start to go bad.  If you had a gas stove and had matches you might be able to cook some of the perishable things, but then what?  Feast time?

I’m spoiled.  If it weren’t for the battery-powered radio I keep in the bathroom so I can listen to the news when I shower, I wouldn’t have been able to check to see how wide the outage was.

If I’d remembered to charge up my cell phone, I could have called the power company to see what to expect.  But of course since it was my whole neighborhood that went dark—I went outside and checked—and who knows how great an idea was afflicted, the wait on the phone would have probably eaten the remaining charge.  My phone charge doesn’t last as long as an old-style one-function cell-phone.  See, I have one of those new phones that does 127 things besides being a phone, including downloading TV shows.  It doesn’t make popcorn, though.

I’m spoiled.   I want all of my services—services?  No, my divine right to power, heat, cold to store food, electrons to inform and educate me, and my Internet connection so I can tell you how spoiled I am.  Oh, by the way, I got a new cable modem installed yesterday.  It has a battery, so, while I couldn’t get this computer going, I still had Internet connection.  I just couldn’t SEE it.

Gahhh!  It did it again.  Another power outage.  Dark screen!  Dark screen!  I hate it.

I have no idea how much of this post I lost.  Ever notice, though, how the writing you lose, the ideas you forget, are somehow so much better than the ones you don’t lose?

Well enough of this.  This is only a little about writing.  Mostly it’s about being annoyed, frustrated, and impotent in the face of a power failure.

I guess it’s true.  I’m spoiled.

How to Grow Your Character Over the Long Haul

My two favorite story lines are the “journey of the group” and the “transformation of a character“.  Even better are the stories which do both.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series is an excellent example.  Frodo must go from a simple, happy Hobbit to a seasoned, bone-weary, and world-wise traveler.  Of course he has three volumes to do it in, but grow he must, and grow he does.

There are stories where this is done in extreme, and the result is comedic.  While I love the John Ritter and James Belushi film, “Real Men“, but the transformation from Milk Toast to He-Man Special Agent is too fast and unbelievable.

Unless you are writing about a Superman-type character, your MC will need to grow throughout the book.  Only special proto-type characters can stay the same.  In such a case the supporting characters need to change.  Someone has to grow, has to change, during the story, or you find yourself slipping into Experimental Fiction

The change has to be subtle, by the way, in order to be believable.  Also, do yourself a favor, and don’t use the hackneyed old bit about guy meets girl and they hate each other only to fall in love.  Find a different way, OK?  I mean, really, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when boy meets girl and the sparks that fly are ugly?  Yeah.  That’s it.  They’re gonna be an item.

People might fall in lust right away, but love takes longer than that.  Let things perk.  Let them develop.

The trick is to know what the change will look like once it is complete.  Then, ask, will it occur half-way through the story?  Three quarters?  Will it take the whole book?  Will the character have to die, and in dying see the light?  If you know where the character is going, the chances are good that you can figure out how he or she will get there.

Your thoughts?

How to Name Your Characters and Avoid Readers

Have you ever gotten stuck when it came time to name a character?

I have.  I’ve resulted to thumbing through the phone book, looking through newspapers, watching TV and just wool-gathering.  Sometimes that works.

I have to admit I’ve been taken to task for some of my character’s names.  Sometimes I’ve backed down and changed them, sometimes a name seemed just too good to pass up.  The main character from my novel FIVE, Ray Kurtz, for example, took some heat from “Heart of Darkness” fans, but I stand by it anyway. 

Are there rules for names in novels?  Well, yes, but nothing really hard and fast.  For example, having the names of all of your characters start with “J” is not a great idea.  Why?  Despite the time, effort and love we pour into our work, not all of our readers will have the patience to figure out that Jamie, Jan, Joe, Jon,  and John are different characters.  They’ll get lost.

You can make up names for your characters, but consider this, how many friends to you have with truly unique names?  …and, how often do they all get together in the same room for tea and scones?

Cute names can be a problem, too.  Robert “Rob” Banks, for instance.  Or one of my old favorite, Helen Fire…  clever yes, good for a serious character?  Not on your tintype.

And this, of course, brings us to SPACE ALIENS.   OK, I got it.  Aliens from another planet are not likely to have names like “John Jones” (with apologies to DCs Martian Manhunter).  But come on, names like K’Lktz’P’B’Frum-mptlla cannot be pronounced by your readers—unless they too are space aliens, and perhaps related to K’Lktz’P’B’Frum-mptlla. 

Image: forums.superherohype.com

But wait, Doctor Scott, you say, if I can’t use cute and clever names like those, and I can’t use all names starting with the same letter, and I can’t be truly alien, what’s a writer to do?

One thing you could do is to use any of the following excellent name generators:

These are just four of the many sites that offer this help.  I like the first one, The Seventh Sanctum best, because it is massive and massively useful.

Then, again, you could just say, “What th’ heck?” and go with K’Lktz’P’B’Frum-mptlla

Rewriting or revisioning?

Often in the morning, sitting at my computer, watching the clock, and frantically looking for a topic for the first post, I relent and grab a book from my pile of novels and writing texts.  Sometimes that even helps.

It helped today.

One of my all-time favorite novels is “The Magus” by John Fowles.  It is a wonderful book filled with complex characters and subplots.  It has been called ‘A major work of mounting tensions in which the human mind is the guinea-pig’

One of the features of this book is how long it took Fowles to write, and what he did with the novel after it was finished.

He began writing “The Magus” in the 1950s, originally calling the manuscript “The God Game“.  If you’ve read the book you will know that this title also fits well.  “The Magus” was his first “completed” novel, but his second to see publication. 

It took him 12 years to write and rewrite the novel.  I read it the year it was released, and as said above, loved the book.  But, here is where it gets really interesting.  While the book was published, was both commercially and critically a success, he did not feel it was finished.

Fowles continued to work on the novel and finally republished it in 1977.  I was startled by this, but hurried to purchase it nonetheless.  Once again I was enthralled by the story.  So seamless was Fowles rewrite that I was hard put to find the differences between the versions.  (Of course many years had passed between reading the first and revised versions.)

How does this touch you and me?  Even though the chances that one of my novels will reach the same level of recognition as Fowles’, what he did gives me hope about quality.  One of the fears I have—and it is one that has held me back—is that the work isn’t quite ready to see light of day… that just another run-through will clean up the red herrings, the dead herrings,  the last few typos or logical flaws.  Then I think that no amount of editing and re-reading will ever find all the mistakes in a basically flawed work, I put the manuscript away and work on a new project.

Does this sound familiar?  Surely not all of you will have fallen prey to this, but perhaps some of you?

What Fowles teaches us by the way he handled his wildly successful book is this, just because it’s been published, it doesn’t mean you can’t make it better.

Stephen King re-released his epic novel, “The Stand” (another novel very high on my list of greats).  Not being sure of the quality of our work is a good thing.  Paranoia about completion can serve you, but just so far.

The trick, I think, is to do the best you can, and let it go.  There may always be time for a fresher version.

Your thoughts?

How To Grow Yourself Through Reading

Is that title a bit misleading, do you think?

Of course we grow ourselves through reading, but perhaps there is something we can, as writers, do with more care, with more skill, and in fact to get the result that the Buddhists call, “Skillful Means“.  As a quick note:  Skillful means is simply getting two, or more, for every one you put in. 

I may have given this example before.  Two people work together in the same two-story office.  Both are required to go up and down the stairs the same number of times each day, but there is a difference between them.  One mumbles, stumbles and grumbles on the stairs during every trip.  At the end of the day this is one tired person.

The second person has a mantra that is spoken each time the stairs are used.  “I’m getting exercise”.  Not much as mantras go, but very powerful in result.  At the end of the day person two is full of energy and ready for whatever is next.  All in the mind?  OK, sure.  But I’ll bet you’ve seen examples of this very thing.

But what, you ask, has this got to do with reading? 

Image: dharmagallery.blogspot.com

Glad you asked.  Try this:

Make two lists of books.  List one would be the books you would take to the beach, or to read under a tree, or on a comfortable chair in your home—for enjoyment.  These would typically be books in the style you like to write.

The second list should be books that keep you current.  Non-fiction should be high on that list, but current novels out of your genre would also be good.  These books are the type that will keep you up to date with events, with science, with philosophy, and those things in life that go into making a good novel, but are perhaps not what you would choose for the top of your reading list.

Now.  The secret.  Trade off between the two stacks.  Yes, I know, it will make your fun reading stack grow, but it will also make your knowledge, understanding, and your ability to involve what you learn in your stories grow as well.

So, you ask, is this really all that necessary?  No.  It isn’t.  But the fact is, it is a program that will pay you big over time.

All I ask is that you think about it.  ))

Your thoughts?

Experimental Fiction: The Non-Genre

 
I’ve heard the term “
Experimental Fiction bandied around of late, and I realized that I didn’t know what it meant.  So, I did some looking, and one way of defining Experimental Fiction is by contrasting it to mainline, or literary fiction.  In Literary fiction the reader expects characters that are believable, characters who act in a natural way, with attitudes and needs that the reader can relate to.  Literary Fiction features plots that can be resolved in a decisive manner, even if the resolution is somewhat predictable.  Literary fiction typically has a linear storyline, and is narrated in traditional ways. 

Experimental Fiction, on the other hand, breaks some or all the rules of Literary Fiction.  The problem with Experimental Fiction, as I see it, is the difficulty the reader has wading through the pages.  Rambling, unstructured un-stories peopled with characters with unpronounceable names, and unfathomable drives, are hard to identify with. 

In many cases Experimental Fiction is totally without plot, without a coherent story. 

While I have found some books of this sort titillating at first, my inability to follow often moves me to put the book down. 

Perhaps the trick to Experimental Fiction is to write short bits of it.  Short stories, dialogues, “out-there” essays.  Maybe the trick to understand it, and to make it work, is to do it in small bites. 

Interested?  Take a look at some recognized works of Experimental Fiction:   

Image: heroictimes.wordpress.com

 

Ishmael ReedMumbo Jumbo
William S. Burroughs – The Soft Machine
Kathy Acker – Blood and Guts in High School
Carole Maso – Aureole
Jean Toomer – Cane
David Markson – This Is Not A Novel
Gertrude Stein – Tender Buttons
Ben Marcus – The Age of Wire and String 

To be fair, I’ve only heard of two of these,  and have finished neither of them, but I’m interested.  I’m intrigued. 

What do you think?