Back to Main Page

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"The End" is only the Beginning

            You’ve stayed up late and gotten up early, bleary eyed or teary eyed you’ve typed until putting that final period on the last chapter. Maybe even typed the words, “The End.” And now, behold, wonder of wonders, you’ve written your story. Whether your followed your outline and knew every step or dug up your story like a fossil, piece by piece as you go, this is it. It’s done. Good for you! Sit back, relax, go out to dinner or throw a party or whatever you do to celebrate. You wrote a book. Congratulations! Be proud.
            Because even though your story is complete, your manuscript is only halfway done. Perhaps a third. Every writer, no matter how brilliant or inspired, is still a flawed human and has made a plethora of mistakes in their first draft. And that’s fine. There are going to be spelling errors and typos and issues with grammar and placement, and a great deal of the book which doesn’t actually need to be there and drags your story down. Not an issue. You have done your job as a writer so far- you got the story down. That was the goal and you made it.
            And if writing the story was your only goal, then go ahead, be done. But if publication and authorship are what you want then you need to be prepared to finish the work you’ve begun. Editing is not the glamorous or exciting part of writing, but if you love your story and want to share it, editing is inescapable. And it should be. This is the part where you get to refine your ideas, correct your mistakes, and lovingly or grudgingly chip away the rough parts until the masterwork underneath is clear and unblemished. You owe your story that level of love, just like you wouldn’t deny your children vaccinations just because getting shots hurt.
Take a break. Walk away from your manuscript for a few days, even a few weeks. Let it fade to the back of your mind while you do other things. Read books. Go canoeing. Do whatever else it is that you love to do so that your manuscript is not the freshest thing on your mind. Then you’re ready to being editing. “Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear,” said Patricia Fuller. Dress your manuscript in its very best, black tie if you can. Do your first edit yourself, with the door closed. Read your manuscript all the way through and make notes. Don’t stop to correct things here. You need to get the feel of your story as a story, as one complete whole, rather than the piece by piece uncovering or the line by line of the outline.
You will notice things that you’ve missed, or failed to put down. Character motivations or foreshadowing that need to be there and aren’t. Important plot points that got missed. You’re not allowed to be upset with yourself over these omissions, because they weren’t the focus. You were supposed to write the story. You did. Now you are fixing it. Be proud that you’re catching your mistakes, not angry that you made them. This is the time to fill in gaps, make tweaks, add more foreshadowing and even begin to understand what you’re trying to say with your work. The theme of your story is rarely something you start with. Usually is something you discover along the way.
Once you’ve read it from beginning to end, you may go through it with your notes and start changing things. Fill out characterizations and motives. Tighten the storyline up. Figure out what matters to the conflict and what was written just for you. This isn’t editing for grammar or spelling yet, although now please feel free to correct any of those mistakes you find. Once you’ve done that, you can start on the next part of editing: trimming off the fat.
            Dr. Seuss famously said, “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” The first thing that should be cut is unnecessary words. I can make that easier for you right now. Open your document and go to your “Find” feature. Enter the word “very.” Unless it is in dialogue and spoken by a character who loves to use hyperbole, delete it. Every time. Nothing is ever very anything. It either is or it isn’t. Her eyes aren’t very blue, they are dark like twilight or bright, Caribbean water in pools. Two different colors, both of them “very” blue. Show, don’t tell, right? Get rid of very.
            Then search your document for words ending in “ly.” Brightly, gratingly, grudgingly, angrily, these are all adverbs. They modify verbs. Don’t modify your verbs if you can help it. The use of words that end in “ly” are a sign of amateurish writing. Stephen King in his “On Writing” book has an entire section about the evils of “ly.” Why is it evil? You’re just trying to be specific in your writing. You’re trying to tell your readers how he said “Back off.” He said it menacingly.
            You tell me which is more effective. Number one: “His eyes narrowed and his upper lip curled up in a snarl. ‘Back off,’ he said.”
            Number two: “‘Back off,’ he said menacingly.”
            Find those words in your manuscript and get rid of them. And you don’t even have to follow the example of number one. If you’ve already established that the character who is speaking is a dangerous person, then you don’t need to say that they do things menacingly or dangerously or angrily- your reader knows. Dialogue tags, those things you type to let your reader know who’s speaking, should be limited to “said,” “asked,” and maybe one or two more, like “mumbled.” If you are going to use a word that ends in “ly,” and everyone does because every writer writes to be understood and lives in fear of being misunderstood, keep it to any time a character says or does something that is out of character. And even then it isn’t really needed, because another character can react to let the audience know the speaker is acting out of character. Use adverbs like you would scotch bonnet peppers- not at all, unless you have to.
            Then identify lines, scenes, and even characters that aren’t vital to the story. Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Howard Tayler have all counseled writers to “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings,” which means that no matter how much you love a scene or character or even a particularly clever line, if it slows down the story it goes. Don’t delete them! Highlight them, cut them, and paste them in a document called “To Use Later,” or “Future Awesomeness,” or something. They don’t have to be gone, they just don’t fit here. It’s hard. Have you ever tried to lose weight? It’s that kind of hard. But it’s just as important and worth it for the results. Maybe more.
            And once you’ve gone through your book and cut it back and fixed the gaps and straightened out the story, go through it one more time. Line editing is dry and boring, but this is where you actively seek for grammar and spelling mistakes, errors in attributions, pronoun confusion, and punctuation mistakes. Don’t trust autocorrect or spell checkers, because words that are spelled correctly may not be the correct word. “Whether” and “weather,” for example.
            After that, you have two choices. You can begin to submit to agents or editors because heaven knows you’ve done enough work, or you can give your manuscript to a freelance editor and pay them to look it over. The bonus here is that they will catch mistakes that you did not, and your manuscript is fresh and new to them. If something doesn’t make sense in the story, they’ll catch it when you didn’t because you have all the information in your head. It was obvious to you, not them. And that’s good, because it helps make your story stronger.
            When you’ve finished editing your book, you may not feel like celebrating. You may feel like sleeping for a month. But what you have now, this rough cut stone you’ve polished into a gem, is more than a story. It’s a completed manuscript. This is vital in the publishing business because an agent or an editor is going to pay more attention to the line in your query that specifies “The completed manuscript is X pages, and has been polished and approved by freelance editor X.” I added italics for emphasis; don’t actually do that in your letter. Since every word in the query counts double or even triple, adding words that tell the editor or agent you are a serious and professional writer who is willing to put in the work breaks you out from the pack. And anything that breaks you out as a professional is memorable and worthwhile.
            And above all, your story will be better for it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Writers Must Read to Write

            Writers have the best job in the world. To be successful in any profession you must stay current, continue to study and learn about new breakthroughs and techniques. Would you go to a doctor who hasn’t completed his continuing education credits? No, because those doctors don’t have licenses anymore. Neither do lawyers or accountants. Writers don’t have continuing education credits or classes to attend because the way we keep current is by reading. And all good writers love to read, writers who say they don’t are untrustworthy, like skinny cooks.
            To be a good writer you must read a little of everything. Not a lot, feel free to indulge yourself with your favorites, but do sample other genres and styles. The more you broaden your tastes and knowledge the more flexible and complete you will be when you find characters and conflicts to write down. Stories need diversity of character to make the world feel whole. And so writers need to diversify, pulling good books from every period and section of the bookstore, even ones you feel you may not enjoy because of personal likes and dislikes.
            I’m not saying you should read things you find objectionable or offensive. Use your own judgment. However, don’t discount a book because of its genre! Most of my pleasure reading falls into the fantasy category, and I like it there. But that doesn’t mean all my favorite books are fantasy. I’ve added a Goodreads widget to my blog page to give an idea of the broad genre of books I love.  There’s classics, religion, mystery, crime thriller, non-fiction, plays, and yes, fantasy. There’s even a Western! Don’t limit yourself, never limit. One of my personal creeds is to never say, “I can’t.” The moment those words slip past your guard and into your consciousness, they’re true. If you believe you can’t, you can’t. And that kind of block is hard to get past. Forget it. Move on. You can, if you work at it. You can, if you want it badly enough.
            Then there are books on writing. Some of these are stiff textbooks that define terms like adverb, adjective, subjunctive, and other classifications of the words we use as story atoms. These serve a purpose, but are hardly engaging enough to inspire us. I recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing,” a fascinating look at the craft by someone who does discovery writing and compares it to hunting for fossils. King believes that stories exist whole and undefiled, but buried and it is up to the writer to dig them out carefully. His stories begin with situations, and he writes them down to see what happens. The entire first half of the book he calls his C. V. or curriculum vitae, which is a Latin term meaning a brief account of a person's education, qualifications, and experience, typically sent with a job application. Essentially a resume, but longer and more detailed.
            King’s C.V. isn’t a list of his education and published works, but it’s a meandering memoir through his formation as a person. He implies, although I don’t think he comes out directly and says, to be a good writer you must have suffered. You must know what pain and loneliness feel like intimately to do the writer’s job of telling the truth through telling a lie. I think that’s fine. We’ve all suffered and bleed sometime. Perhaps not as dramatically as Mr. King, but with no less depth of feeling.
            I do need to put a language warning on this book. If you’ve read his writing, you know King has no issues with using profanity. He never swears to swear- he states his belief that profanity is the language of the ignorant- but if an explicative is the word he thinks fits, he uses it. His discussions on writing are interesting and earnest, and his passion for the craft is palpable. It’s a great read. And it made me better at my work and more honest in my writing.
Another excellent book on storytelling is “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. If “On Writing” is fascinating, this book is mesmerizing and overpowering. Campbell takes a hard look at the hero’s journey story type. You’ve seen it. We all have. Young hero of humble beginnings is drawn from everything familiar and thrust into a much larger world. Young hero finds a mentor who guides them through and teaches them. Mentor is lost and hero must complete the journey, saving the world through the hero’s own merits. Star Wars. Harry Potter. The Hunger Games. Ender’s Game. Lord of the Rings. Percy Jackson. Around the World in 80 Days. The Odyssey. How many more? Sometimes the answer feels like all of them. I’ll do an entire post about the components of the hero’s journey, but for now I’ll recommend you read Campbell’s book. It’s academic and the language can be daunting, but it’s worth the read and you’ll come out the other side with a better understanding of almost every book you’ve ever read and every movie you’ve ever seen. There’s a reason it’s called the monomyth.
My final piece of reading advice is to re-read. Go back to great books you’ve read in the past, the ones that moved you or changed the way you see the world. A favorite book is both an old friend and a safe place. Ask yourself why you love this book. Are the descriptions vivid? Do the characters feel like real people? Is the story creative and moving? Then try to figure out how the author did that. Look at what’s been done before and learn from it. Try to emulate their style- seriously, go ahead. Practicing styles is one of the ways writers find their own voice, just like learning to speak begins with mimicking the sounds we hear our parents make.
Read every day. Think you don’t have time? Make time. Audio books are possibly the greatest advance in reading since the printing press. Books are available to you now when you’re driving, cooking, cleaning, shopping, anything that involves your hands but doesn’t use all of your brain. Hide books in places where you have to wait, in your car or bag for doctor’s offices, checkout lines, car rider lines at school. You have time, if you want to use it. And write every day. Even a few sentences before bed or scribbled in a notebook. Your imagination grows sharper and stronger with use. Don’t let that muscle atrophy.
Writers have the best job in the world, but it’s one we need to commit to. If you want to be a writer, then you need to read and write. That’s it, then end. If you don’t have time then you don’t want it badly enough or other things are more important to you. That’s fine. Sometimes other things are more important. But if this is what you want, who you want to be, then you find a way. Lawyers, accountants, and doctors have a set number of continuing education credits they have to complete each year.  Writer’s don’t. We’re never done reading or writing. When you finish a book, you open the next one. When you type “The End,” you open a new document and begin again. This is our passion, our commitment, and our very own journey.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Preschool Pet Peeves

            I've been teaching preschool for five years now. Considering how different the personalities of each child can be, every year is surprisingly similar. The kids are always adorable and hilarious. Some days I want to lock myself in the bathroom and not come out until the parents come. And I've noticed how some kids are at a disadvantage in preschool because of things they haven't been taught or some things that they have. I love my preschool kids and my preschool parents, and I believe every parent of my students cares about and is involved in their child's life. They are supportive and nurturing. But I have a pet peeve list that's been gathering for five years now, and I finally have somewhere to air it. If any of my preschool parents are reading this, know that when you think I'm referring to your child I'm probably not. After all, this list is five years in the making.
            Pet peeve number one: parents who stay too long. Sometimes a child has been having a bad morning. Maybe they're nervous about going to a new class. They could be upset because their shoes are too tight or they didn't get enough breakfast. It could be something huge, like parents getting divorced or a death in the family or even a new little brother or sister coming home. In cases like those please give the teacher a heads up. We know it's a big deal and we can be sensitive.
            Whatever the reason, your child has no frame of reference for how big a deal whatever is bothering them should be. They take their cues from you. If your child is upset and you hug them, hold them, walk in with them, try to engage them in preschool things, and try to commiserate with them, you are telling them over, “it's okay to be upset, this is a big deal, I know this is a problem, you go ahead and keep being upset about it.” Is it hard to leave your child when they're crying? YES. It's torture. Trust me, I know. But I also know cuddling them gives them permission to continue or even escalate how upset they are. Give them a hug and a kiss at the door, and send them inside. They are stronger without you there, because they don't have to be your baby then.
            If you want to wait outside for a few minutes and listen or peek through the window without being seen, that's totally understandable. You're talking with the woman who still checks on her children every night before bed to make sure they're breathing. My eight year old can't die of SIDS, but the fear was implanted and won't go away. I understand. But don't make them more upset by staying. The longer you hang around, the longer it takes them to calm down afterward. Don't make them afraid of preschool by giving them permission to be afraid and upset when they come.
            Pet peeve number two is harder to talk about, because I don't want to make anyone feel like spending time with their child or teaching their child is ever wasted. It isn't. That being said, children who come to preschool knowing how to SPELL THEIR NAME AND WRITE IT IN ALL CAPITALS ARE AT A DISADVANTAGE. IF THEY DO THAT IN SCHOOL, THEY CAN GET IN TROUBLE. So I spend weeks, usually months re-teaching them. It is so much harder to unlearn something than to learn it correctly the first time. And how do I respond when they say, “But mommy taught me this way!” I will not devalue your parenting, so I have to equivocate. “Your mommy is very smart and taught you all the right letters in the right order. Great job! Let me show you how you need to write your name at school.”
            That conversation alone has lasted weeks. With one child it took me two months to convince them to use lower case letters at all, then another three before they could write their name correctly. That’s a lot of time lost. It isn’t all bad news, though; kids who come knowing how to write their names usually know all their letters already and have better penmanship. I do appreciate any time a parent spends with a child- just don’t teach them things that they’ll have to unlearn later.
            Pet peeve numbers three, four, and five are much less common, so I’ll only briefly touch on them. Teach your children to speak with respect. They’re kids, so it’s not going to be perfect or even very good, but I can tell every time when a child feels like they’re the ones in control at home. There is a noticeable behavioral difference. Teach them to only draw on paper, not tables or walls or on themselves. Again, they’re little, so this is going to happen and I’m cool with that. If you see it happening, don’t let it pass without comment, that’s all I’m saying. And the last one is parents who compare their child to other children. “So-and-so did such a nice job on their paper, do you think you could do a nice job like that next time?” I almost put that parent in time out immediately. Again, this is uncommon, but don’t do it. Just don’t. If you feel tempted because you’re trying to inspire them, knock it off. No one was ever inspired by being told they weren’t as good as someone else, and certainly not when they were four.
            There are great things about preschool and hard things about preschool, but I want the kids coming out of it to feel loved, important, and confident of their place in the world. We’re all friends in preschool. I try to teach every child that every feeling is valid and feeling it is a good thing, even hard feelings like being angry or sad. What you do with those feelings is up to you. I also teach the same lesson three or four times a year about being frustrated. When you feel frustrated, stop, breathe, and think. Stop what you’re doing and take a step away. Breathe in and out slowly to calm down. And then think about the problem and a different way you could approach it.
            And so to any of you parents who may be frustrated out there, stop, breathe, and think. My pet peeve list has been aired, and now you know. And remember, I’ll forgive a lot to parents who obviously love their children, just like all the parents I know. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Where Ideas Come From

            Sometimes I am afraid of the color white. The blank page staring back at me, waiting for me to put words on it, words that are so brilliant and moving the page will be famous forever. It wants that, because I want it and I’m projecting my feelings onto the pixilated image of a white piece of paper. I almost never write with a pen and physical paper, largely because I once wrote my grandpa a letter and his response was, “It is always so nice to hear from you. Please in the future don’t write unless you have a computer or typewriter, as your handwriting requires inspiration from God to interpret.” I’m paraphrasing that, but only a little.
            And I go off on tangents and fiddle with my email because the page in front of me is still crying out for an idea. What do I write about? I want to write, I want to write for hours every day because nothing makes me feel more like me than writing. This is who I am independent of anyone else; I am a writer. A writer who has nothing to write about. So where do the ideas come from?
            There is in the creative arts a pervasive myth called “the muse.” Based in Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses, inspirations of literature, science, and the arts. They were considered the source of knowledge and were the nine daughters of the god king Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified). And they would bestow upon a mortal the perfect idea, fully formed, by placing it in his mind. Then he would write it, sculpt it, paint it, dance it, or whatever that artist’s creative medium was. Therefore the creation of genius was at the whim of the gods, and me sitting at my computer staring would sit and stare until one such muse took pity on me and planted an idea in my brain, or until I got too hungry and went to find something to eat.
            That’s a terrible thing to build a career on. If you believe that, you’re just waiting around for inspiration to strike, I fear I must disappoint you. It won’t work. But fortunately, I can tell you what will.
            It is nearly impossible to be truly original, and too many writers worry about it. You don’t need to be original, you need to be informed. If you want to write then the first thing you MUST do is stop staring at the blank page. Go read something. Read your favorite book, the one that inspires you the most. Or watch your favorite TV show, the one that gets your blood pumping. Then think about why. Think about your favorite character in those stories and ask yourself why you like them. What is it about them that draws you in? Why do they matter?
            Then take that character, yes, that character, give them a different name, and put them somewhere else. One of my favorite personal daydreams was about JRR Tolkien’s book “The Return of the King.” All I wanted was to take Sam and Frodo, after the battle of Shelob, and bring them out of the story and into my house. I wanted to feed them, give them fresh clothes and let them sleep for weeks beyond the touch of Mordor and where the one ring had no power so that when they had to go back and finish their quest, Frodo could remember what strawberries taste like.
            So what would I have done if there were actually Hobbits in My House? Would I have tried to hide them from my parents, or explain them away? How on earth could I have found enough food to feed two starved hobbits? And how would I get them back into their story so they could save their world? Suddenly I have an outline to finish, some discovery writing to do, and a story to fill those blank pages.
            The thing I love most about the mythos of the muses is their mother. Mnemosyne was memory personified, the sum of all experiences and gained knowledge and therefore the wellspring of everything you think and even the way you form your thoughts. Inspiration doesn’t come externally, lightning bolts or paperclips from the universe. It comes from inside you, bits of stories you’ve read or life you’ve experienced, people you know and goals you have all jumbled together and bursting out in different ways. And the more you have inside you the more combinations they can make, the more stories that can spring out of your muse inside.
            For example, take your favorite hobby. We’ve used me already so I’ll use my dad this time. My dad loves electric guitars, and is an incredible guitar player. I tease him that it’s his superpower, and this dad thing is his mild mannered alter ego. My father is soft spoken and kind, funny and understanding. But place an electric guitar in his hand and he blisters with fire. Seriously. You can check him out on YouTube. So my main character is a man who has worked his whole life in jobs he didn’t like for a variety of bosses, some okay, some awful, but who can play the electric guitar like Slash and Jimi Hendrix. I can go several directions from there- the conflict is the man versus his life when suddenly he gets the opportunity to perform on stage with a famous rock group and has to choose between the life he’s always known and the life he’s always wanted. Or he can burn with so much passion for music that his music becomes magic and changes the world around him. Or he can be given a magical instrument. Or he can die while playing and his music haunts musicians forever. Dark or light, fantasy or fiction, my story can go anywhere.
            We wait for brilliance when what we really must do is begin. Many writers have a scene in their mind, just one snippet of an idea that they can’t get out of their head. Write it down. Look at it. Who are these people? What’s the conflict? Where in the story is this scene? And think about things you know that make you unique. I have narcolepsy, so my next series features a main character who also has narcolepsy. Do you paint? Can you shoot a bow and arrow? Do you know a lot about Greek mythology? Gardening? Do you or someone you love have a terrible illness?
Writing can be cathartic. If you need to write because you need to deal with something, then write about that something. Don’t try to write about golden puppies that endlessly play in emerald grass if what’s inside you is eating you alive. Black unicorns are okay. People can die in stories. Writing isn’t about making everyone happy or fooling people into believing that life is grand and the good guys always win. Writing is about facing life, and life isn’t fair. Life is full of conflicts and distresses and the good guys don’t win every battle. We write to be okay with that. We read to be okay with that. Don't go into this with any preconceived limitations on what your writing should be. Save those for post. You can clean it up in editing. For now, just write. 
And if all else fails, you can always do the three word exercise. Remember that one? It was in my post about writer's block and how to fix it. If you don't remember it, then here it is again. Pick three random words from the dictionary and write a story blurb about them. Here, I’ll give you an example:

My three words: crucible (a severe, searching test or trial), octopus, space lab. Okay, so the last is two words, but it came up. Let’s see. So we have a location, a space lab. We have an object, an octopus. And we have an event, a crucible. We can take these literally, Captain Owen Boxley of NASA is called to transport a beautiful Marine Biologist, Breen Rowland, to the international space station where she will conduct tests on the effect of zero gravity on an octopus. Hilarity ensues when the octopus escapes its enclosure and travels around in a bubble of water, but danger strikes when the water causes a malfunction of key systems in the space lab. Will they survive the crucible of imminent death in space and return to earth?
Or we could take it figuratively. The octopus is the unofficial animal of the steampunk subculture (which I learned just now by typing “octopus associations” into google) so we could make our story a steampunk novel. Dr. Horatio Jason Fidelius believes that with imagination and machinery man can accomplish anything. He’s spent his entire family’s fortune trying to prove it. But now that his wife is ill and his children are nearly destitute, he has one last chance to redeem himself and care for them. Sir Ryan Gunwitch-Black has offered a sum of 2 million pounds to any man who can create a flying machine.  But not just any flying machine; a machine that can fly to outer space.
Two completely different story ideas from the same three words. So now for the challenge. Ready? I want you to come up with a story idea based on these three random words: peripatetic, innervate, and singer. Or get your own random three words by going to a Creative Random Word Generator. Either way, no matter what methods you choose to get your idea or whether you get a combination flash from your subconscious, write. The best way to become a better writer is practice. Every day. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Motherhood: It's Love and Fear

            It’s almost funny to me that I’ve gotten this question often enough to have developed an answer. What’s it like being a mother? In fact, I have two prepared answers, the long one and the short one. Here’s the short one.
            Motherhood is love and fear. Not always in that order.
            Thank you very much, goodnight everybody!
            The long one is more of a story, but it’s also a better explanation. When I got married I thought that would change my life. It didn’t. Well, it did, of course, but not very much. I still lived in an apartment, still went to the same university, worked at the same job, ate all the same foods, and went out with friends about the same amount. My world got a little bigger when I became a missus. And for the record, I love being married. It’s awesome.
            Then when we had our first child it wasn’t only my world that changed, it was me. I altered on a near-molecular level. It wasn’t just my daily routine that changed, it was everything. What I ate, what I wore, my opinions on certain topics- people who have never had children will never understand those who sacrificed so much of themselves and their personality to stay home and raise them. It isn’t because they lack intelligence or empathy, but because the experience is so unlike anything else in life. Someone who has never had a baby who cried 45 minutes out of every hour for six months will never understand the depth of my experience and how it has changed me just like I will never understand how horrific it was to be in a Nazi concentration camp or the wonder of standing on the moon and looking back at the Earth. It’s that unique.
            Because I’d altered so much, the way I saw the world altered too. I was never an adrenaline junky, but I was pretty daring. I enjoyed being spontaneous and never thought much about my own mortality. Now I had this life, this baby, which I was completely responsible for and who could die for any number of reasons. Allergies, falls, illnesses, sudden infant death syndrome, the list goes on and on and well meaning people all over the world continue to contribute to it in the name of keeping our children safe. And I read everything I could get my hands on. I, who had always wanted a doctorate and promised myself I’d never get married unless there was no other choice I, had dropped out of school and quit work to care for this baby of mine and I would not let that sacrifice go to waste.
            There’s your first explanation of the love and fear of motherhood. Even those mothers who return to work after having a baby have still given themselves over for six full weeks and changed everything about themselves to care for their child. Then when they return to work they have to worry about feeding and milk production and the crippling guilt that comes with being a mother because no matter what you do or how you raise them there is a study somewhere that says you’re doing it WRONG. So the only thing we have left is to protect them, since we’ve already screwed them up emotionally. Physically they will be safe!
            We are insane, we mothers. But that isn’t even all of it. Every child carries a part of your heart with them that bleeds when they cry. But we must be strong and kiss and cuddle when necessary but also help them to be stronger by making them figure it out for themselves. We ache to carry our babies, but know if we do they’ll never learn to walk.
            Do you know what the most unfair thing in the world is? Dry drowning. Don’t look it up. When I found out that my child could drown hours later after going swimming because of water in their lungs, I actually stormed away from my computer. I was furious. What do you mean, I could do all the work of taking them swimming and protecting them the whole time and make sure everyone had fun and no one drowned and get them home safe and then I could still lose one? No. No way. That was beyond unfair. That was cruel, and I was angry and even now thinking about it my heart is racing and I’m breathing in and out through my nose sharply. ARGH.
            That’s the fear. I still check on my kids every night after they’re asleep to make sure they’re still breathing. My youngest is almost six. The fear will get you, and it can paralyze you if you let it. Because everything is dangerous. Every day is a gift. And I want to give my children their very best chance at being happy their whole lives.
            But I don’t give them everything anymore. They’re not babies, and I still need to be a person. Even when they were babies I still needed to be a person. So does every other stay at home caregiver out there. We need to be people, not just parents. There’s a world out there that we used to be a part of, not just a chauffeur to. And so today I give you permission let go of your crazy for a while and be yourself. Especially if you’re not sure who that is. Your kids need to know that you are more than their personal caretaker because they need an example of a person who likes his or herself. This goes for both parents, regardless of working status (whether you work from home or an office, there is no parent who doesn’t work).
You need to find time every day to do something just because you like it. Because you want to. Because it’s good for YOU. The fear and the love are less overwhelming and more manageable that way, when you have some perspective outside your parental role. You love your kids, I’ll never question that and anyone who does you have my permission to shove a dirty sock in their mouth. Taking time for yourself isn’t taking time away from them, it’s showing them that they need to take care of themselves too and giving them a chance to do it.
What’s it like being a mother? Like being in a concentration camp on the moon where you stand between the zombie hoards and the ones you love most. It’s the most freaking awesome ride ever.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Making your Main Character Matter

            Did you know that Bella Swan, heroine and main character of the “Twilight” novels, was academically smart? In the first book of the series, even in the first scene where the two love interests interact with each other directly, Bella Swan mentions being in an advanced Biology program at her old school. And yet one of the biggest complaints (not the biggest, but top three) I hear against the Twilight books is how Bella Swan has no personality of her own. She is defined by the characters around her. Her personality and responses change depending on who she’s with.
            There are three problems authors can face when writing a main character: the character is uninteresting, the character is unlikeable, or the character is reactive. These are pitfalls authors must avoid, because the last thing you want is an audience rooting for the antagonist and being disappointed if your main character survives. These are people we have to care about and flesh out completely. We need to believe in our protagonist, and share that belief with our audience. It has to matter who wins. It can’t only be the plot that’s interesting.
            Your main character will be uninteresting if you aren’t writing a comedy or a satire and your protagonist is the best of good guys. A hero in shining armor, whether literal or morally, is boring. A character with no distinct voice or personality is uninteresting because we can’t relate to them. They won’t matter if we don’t know who they are. And a character who only has one or two defined character traits is dull. As side characters each of these work fine, but only if they move the story forward. The main character that you write needs to have both good and bad tendencies, talents and things they’re awful at, opinions that don’t need to be right, and something that they want so desperately that it drives the plot forward or makes their actions consistent within the conflict. In every scene you write, you need to know what that scene is doing to drive the plot and how your character is working towards what they want in it. That makes a character interesting.
            But it doesn’t make them likeable. The anti-hero is a term that gets thrown around frequently, but it doesn’t mean the villain or the antagonist. An anti-hero is the main character of a story, the protagonist, who is not really that good of a person. Their ethics are questionable. They rarely have moral high ground. Anti-heroes do whatever it takes to accomplish their goal, legality and collateral damage notwithstanding. And this is the person you want your audience to both identify with and root for. These kind of main characters have interesting in the bag; they usually have dark back stories and some kind of deep emotional trauma. They do the things that 99.9% of the population would never consider. But that isn’t enough to make your readers care about them.
            The two easiest ways to make an interesting character also likeable are to make them good at something or give them a tragic back story. The John Cleaver series follows the story of a 15 year old sociopath John who works in a morgue and has homicidal urges. The title of the first book is “I Am Not a Serial Killer.” How did the author make the readers sympathize with a main character who by definition could not feel empathy? John doesn’t want to be a serial killer. That’s easy to identify with. Most of us don’t want to kill people. And there is an inherent tragedy within a character whom we believe because he believes he is fated to become something that he doesn’t want to be. We root for him because the choice he wants to make is good, despite all the extra handicaps he’s working under.
            It’s also easy to like a character who is good at something. Katniss Everdeen, the female main character of The Hunger Games novels, is a socially repressed and sullen teenager who resents her mother and wants to protect her sister. She is generally surly and prone to judging and disliking people. But she is incredible at archery. That’s one of the first things we learn about her, that she is good at hunting and providing for her family. Other character traits come up as we go, like her determination to save her sister, but she isn’t self sacrificing or noble or a patriot. As the hero of her people, she gets coerced into the role and resents all those who try to direct or control her. She is frustratingly blind to the obvious and refuses to communicate with the people around her. But we want her to win. She kills other children because she doesn’t want to die, but there is no one better at archery, and once you win her loyalty you never lose it. So give your main character something to be good at, something that matters to the plot that they can do.
            Because the third problem with the hero is how sometimes the plot drives them. This is mostly noticeable where the good guys are bad guys are clearly defined, like any superhero genre or any time there’s an evil overlord. The hero, regardless of how talented or interesting they may be as a character, can fall into the trap of reacting to the villain throughout the entire story. The villain determines the battle ground and the terms, and the hero responds. The villain creates the conflict, and the hero is drawn into it. Your villain is interesting because everything they do in the story is goal driven, but your hero’s goal is defined by the villain. This is a problem for several reasons. Your protagonist should never be defined by only one thing, in this case, the plot. Your villain becomes more interesting than your hero, and your reader starts to skim through any parts of the story that don’t involve the interesting characters. Your side characters become more interesting than your hero. This needs to be fixed.
            And thankfully, if you’ve made your main character both interesting and likeable, it’s an easy fix. At some point in your story, your hero starts to get proactive. Your main character has to decide to take the power into their own hands and start setting their own terms. In the third book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has this turning point based on a conversation with Prim, where Prim (her younger sister) points out that if they need her to be a figurehead for the war, she can start making her own demands. In the Twilight series, this happens once Bella decides that no matter what, her child is going to escape the Volturi. Interestingly, all the complaints about Bella not having her own personality and only being defined by the male characters and being weak and submissive, which many feminists are eager and vocal to point out, are completely untrue in the fourth book. Bella decides to die rather than give up her baby (which feminists have an issue with, but I don’t. She made a choice and stuck with it. Respect that.). And in the final battle, it is Bella who turns the tide and won’t back down. They would have lost without her. The moment she decided that she was in charge of her own destiny was for me the moment she became her own character.
            Your hero can do that too. Don’t let them be satisfied with winning the battle- give them a moment where they can draw a line in the sand and say, “Thus far, no farther.” Those are stand up and cheer hero moments. Your writing will be stronger for it, you will be stronger for it, and your main character will matter to your reader so much that when they close the book at the end, it will hurt them a little to be saying goodbye to such good friends. That is a main character worth going back to visit again.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Writing Exercise

This is not a novel I’m working on. This was something I wrote for me, just to practice. Enjoy!

A thin layer of dust covered everything.  The room no longer stood ready for an occupant at an instant’s notice- it would take several hours, now, to dust all the tables and shelves with their various items.  Normally this room was immaculate, but not now.    Now dust muted shapes and softened edges, making everything look surreal. Usually a busy room, the center of all activity, the room had an air of hopelessness, as though it had stopped believing that anyone would ever come back. 
            Even if the room hadn’t seemed to stop believing, the young man in the chair next to the widow certainly had.  Ordinarily this much dust would have him sneezing hard enough to blow his spectacles off his face, but he had been sitting there before the first particle of dust had landed.  She was not here to tell him to banish the dust.  She was not here to remind him that cleaning was his responsibility, or to threaten that she would make him do it the long way if he let it slide for too long.  She was not here, and the dust had been gathering for three days.
            The young man listened limply to the drizzle of water falling outside the window.  Not enough to be a proper rain, the water still pooled and slid across the ground.  The dirt had been so saturated in blood that even three days later it could not hold any more liquid.  The remains of her flower garden were being washed away.  The young man closed his eyes, remembering his surprise that one such as she would have a flower garden, something so pretty and delicate and normal.  He imagined the water swirling through the bed of trampled daisies, stripping the few remaining petals, and sweeping the carcasses of flowers down towards the stream and beyond his vision.
            His magic was gone; he had used the last of it to banish all the corpses from her lawn.  She was gone; stabbed from behind while he watched out a window, commanded to do nothing.  He had discovered she’d even shielded him from using magic when he tried to disobey her- he could do nothing but scream at her to watch out.  Scream even though he knew she couldn’t hear him.  Collapsing, bleeding, dying, she had used her last bit of magic to send a wave of death around the tower to protect him.  He’d watched from the window as her life seeped out of her, impotent in anger and grief, shielded even from leaving the room.  He watched until her blood stopped flowing from the wound and her skin had turned blue-ish and translucent.  He sat in that chair and watched, waiting for her to stand and brush the dirt from her skirts and smile at him so that he would know that it was all right, that his world hadn’t fallen apart and he was still her favorite and only apprentice; and wasn’t it clever of her to play dead and distract the enemy?
            The young man sighed, and disturbed a puff of dust.  It floated upward and tickled his nose.  It wasn’t much: he blew it back out of his nostrils.  The expulsion of air raised more dust and he sneezed.  This sneeze sent dust back into his eyes, and he gasped as it stung.  He coughed.  More dust.  Out of habit he waved his hands in a simple gesture and spoke two words.  Dust flew from his fanning sleeves and up his nose.  He sneezed violently, jumping to his feet in an attempt to escape.
Soon clouds of dust filled the room and his spectacles cut through them, hurling through the air as he sneezed and cursed and tried to find something clean to wipe his eyes with.  His billowy robe knocked off things from nearby tables as he danced around and shouted explicatives between booming sneezes.  Something fell on his foot and smashed his little toe.  Howling and hopping up and down, he felt something bend and shatter under his other foot.  Rubbing his eyes and peering downward, he could barely make out the remains of his glasses as his sneezes blew shards of his lenses through the room.  He inhaled sharply and immediately began to choke on the patch of dust he’d ingested. 
“Aarrghh!” he wheezed, and began to cough piercingly.  He finally threw the window open and thrust his head into the drizzle.
            “May the demons of hell torment her!!” the young man wheezed.  The air did not answer, but the drizzle thickened into rain.  It slicked his brown hair against his skull and ran down his neck like fingernails of ice.  He took two deep breaths of the clean, cold air and sneezed again.  He could almost hear her saying he would catch pneumonia doing things like that, sticking his head out into the cold rain in the middle of winter, and she wasn’t going to cure him if he was just going to be silly about it.  Maybe being sick would teach him to be careful.  
            “What about being alone?” he whispered into the rain.  “What will that teach me?”  The water was bitter and salty in his mouth.  It took him a moment to realize that the rain was washing down his tears.  He wished crying would help.  He wished he could stop crying.

*  *  *  *  *

            The room proved that the sorceress was exceptionally rich and exceptionally powerful.  A clean indoor privy spoke of wealth for master masons to build it and servants to tend it.  The thief sniffed experimentally.  A privy, and barely a whiff of odor.  That was magic- power no amount of money could touch.  In rich houses, servants would sprinkle strong-smelling herbs to mask the scent of filth.  All the herbs really did was add another, stronger scent to the reek of waste, like an unwashed woman who wears too much perfume.  The thief resisted the urge to gag at the thought, and took a deep breath of the sweet smelling air.  Nothing to cover here- any unpleasant fragrance just vanished like smoke.  It had been three days ago that the wave of magic engulfed the rest of the adventurers, and the thief had crashed through a tower window to avoid being killed.   And landed smack into the privy. 
            “Better smelly than dead,” the thief reflected wryly, “and not even smelly.”  Three days ago the room had been spotless and fragrance-free.  It was only now that the thief could sense any smell at all, and that was only after using the privy.  “Can’t be here for that long and not,” the thief mused ruefully.  “Her magic must be fading.” Opening one of the many bags every burglar carried, the thief pulled out and ate the last bit of carefully rationed food.  “Time to look around the rest of the tower.”  And Mask grant that there be food, as well as valuables.  Otherwise the journey back would be harsh.
            The burglar’s hand hesitated over the door handle.  There were always nasty stories about the spells that wizards left on their towers: vicious magics to protect their libraries and wands.  The hand hesitated as fear and self-preservation discussed all of the horrible results of being on the wrong side of a spell.  “I certainly don’t want to lose any body parts,” the thief shuddered, then sighed.  “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a privy, either.”  The hand firmly grasped the doorknob and turned.  The door creaked, and the thief jumped.  Other than that, nothing happened. 
            The thief exhaled noisily, disturbing the dust on a hall table.   Quickly stifling a sneeze with a sleeve, the thief’s eyes jumped all around the narrow corridor.  There were no signs of life; no footprints in the dust, no lights from any of the visible rooms, no sentient noise.  It was so quiet that the faint pitter-patter of rain outside seemed obnoxiously loud.   And eerie.  If the thief didn’t know that the sorceress has died only three days ago… it felt like no one had lived here for centuries.  Maybe not ever.   Tentatively, the thief reached out a slightly shaking hand to touch the nearest wall.  For reassurance; something real and tangible to shake away this otherworldly feeling.  Something real…
            CRASH!!!!!!  The thief reeled back and smacked bottom to stone floor.  A boom followed the crash, and the sound of glass shattering with intermittent cursing.  The thief shot up and dashed into the nearest open door- thankfully not the privy again- and dove under the bed.  The thief froze, breathing so slowly and shallowly that even the air would barely move.  What in all the gods’ insanity was that?   Listening fixedly, the thief heard… sneezing?  Was someone sneezing in another part of the tower?
            Murmuring a quick prayer to Mask, the god of thieves, the burglar settled down to wait.  There were two things to do when the job got hot- get out or wait it out.  The thief didn’t think that there was food enough in empty bags to make it the four day walk back to the nearest town, and there hadn’t been anything to hunt on the way in, so leaving now seemed premature.  Not when there might still be a whole tower to loot.
            A window crashed open somewhere above, and someone cursed loudly.  Suddenly the thief realized the privy wasn’t such a bad place to be.

*  *  *  *  *

            The young man who had been an apprentice for most of his life began to shiver.  His cheeks were bright red, and each raindrop shocked and stung.  He pulled his head in out of the rain and tried to shake the water out of his hair.  The damp air coming in through the window had settled the dust enough for him to move around without starting a new sneezing fit.  Narrowing his eyes, the young man attempted to locate his glasses somewhere on the floor without tripping over his own robes.  Failing in that, he cursed again as he lost his balance.  His chin thumped on the floor and rattled his teeth, and he yelped in pain when he bit his tongue mid-curse. 
            Rubbing his jaw he pushed up off the floor and cut his hand on small glass shards.  Small drops of blood fell on the floor and smaller puffs of dust rose.  The young man stuck three of his fingers in his mouth, and reached around with the other to follow the glass shards back to his glasses.  Nearly all of his fingers were bleeding now.  He tore strips of cloth from his robe and started to bind his fingers, then hissed as the ground-in dust on the fabric worked into the cuts. 
            “I give up,” he muttered to himself despondently.  He grasped his glasses and rose unsteadily to his feet.  “I give up I give up I give up I give up,” he continued as he shuffled to the door and down the flight of stairs.  “Give up,” he mumbled as he went to the kitchen and grabbed a half empty bottle of cooking sherry.  “Give up.”  And he stumbled towards his bedroom.
*  *  *  *  *
            The sound of uneven footsteps drew closer.  The thief had listened nervously to crashing and shattering, and then shuffling footsteps.  With all of that noise upstairs, it seemed possible that five or six people were still in the tower- too many.  The thief tried to just breathe and stay calm.  The door crashed into the stone wall as someone stumbled into it, and a dirty shoe hopped up and down while the stubbed toe was lifted out of sight.  Muffled cursing floated in the air while the thief tried hard not to be there at all.
            The apprentice blearily considered whether he should kick the door or take a drink.  He decided to do both for good measure.  He tilted back the sherry and tried to swallow while his foot swung at the rough wood.  The resounding thump that followed was rather his rump impacting stone than his foot on wood.  The bottle of sherry rolled under the bed.
            Just after someone’s legs and rump came abruptly into view, a glass bottle rolled slowly toward the thief.  The burglar’s eyes widened as the sherry came closer, and finally hit right on the nose.  Fixed by fear, the thief stopped breathing.
            The apprentice flopped back on the floor.  He wished he could die.  He wished he could forget.  He was going to get roaring drunk.  The sherry.  Where did the sherry go?  Under the bed, that’s right.  The young man rolled onto his side and reached under the bed, to grab the sherry that was underneath those huge eyes.
            Really impressively huge, those staring eyes.
            Staring eyes.
            Someone was under his bed.
            The apprentice shrieked and scrambled backwards, his arms flailing.  The thief dove out toward the door, knocking the sherry towards the apprentice.  The red liquid splashed over the stone floor.  The thief slipped and fell sideways, landing on something surprisingly soft and a bit squishy.
            The young man forgot how to move.  There was a girl in his lap.  A pretty girl.  The apprentice forgot how to think.  Incoherent babble and the awareness that she was touching him was as good as he could get.  The girl sprang up and tried to run, but her feet got caught in his robes and she fell again, her knee coming down hard on his hand.
            “Ow-oww!!” he yelped.  The girl bounded sideways, trying desperately to get her feet free, but landed on her hip on the hard stone next to the hand she’d crushed.  The thief lay there for a moment, trying to get her breath back.  She’d have to talk her way out of this.  Fortunately, the male she’d inadvertently tackled looked too shaken up to think clearly.   She hoped she wasn’t so herself.  She knew she couldn’t be as dirty as he was- she could spend a week under a bed and not get that dirty. 
            The young man cradled his hand against his chest.  The impact had caused his fingers to bleed again.  His thumb was bleeding the most, and so he stuck it in his mouth. He was suddenly aware of the girl studying him, and he glared back at her.  Her eyes widened slightly as she looked him over, and abruptly he realized what she was looking at.
            He was streaked with drying dust and blood spatters, and his robes were in tatters. His glasses were askew and his hair stuck out in all directions. He must look insane with his dirty thumb in his mouth. His face heated with embarrassment, and that made him angry.
            “Who are you?” they said together.