A Team Effort with Imaginary People

 

 

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Writing a novel isn’t easy.

There are moments of doubt about the overall book. Crippling, terrifying doubt. (This idea is stupid. I am stupid. None of this makes any goddamned sense.) You pick your story apart, piece by tiny piece, until it’s in ribbons. But that’s not even the hardest part.

For me, at least, getting the characters going is the real nail-biter. At first, they feel flat and tepid and boring (and that’s being polite). There’s a time when it feels like the minor characters, especially, are just hollow plastic dolls that you’re bashing together while you play pretend in your head.

The thought of breathing life into dozens of imaginary people can be paralyzing.

Think of all the people you talk to in a day. Imagine their thoughts, their dreams, what they ate for lunch, where they’re going after work. They’re running late. They’re out of milk. They got shit to do.

Characters are like that. Individuals, all with their own concerns and priorities and issues. They don’t give a crap about your Hero’s story; they’re too busy living their own. It’s tempting not to give a crap about them, either: how dare they not fawn over your Hero the way you do? But each of them needs just as much attention as your main attraction, if they’re to feel real. And the only one holding the God-pen is you.

It won’t happen. Not this time. I’ve used everything up.

You show up to the story anyway, feet dragging if they need to. Tantrums are expected, if not outright encouraged. You sit and scowl at one of these pretend people until both of you feel a little uncomfortable.

Eventually, one of you will break.

“Okay, fine,” she’ll mumble. “I’ll tell you a little about myself. Listen close; I won’t do this again.” And your character will talk about how she couldn’t afford college, which robbed her of the career she wanted. She settled. She pretends like she’s happy, but she’s far from it: she’s miserable and exhausted and bitter. And, okay, sometimes it makes her grouchy. It makes her snap at your beloved Hero when all he’s done is ask for more coffee.

She won’t tell him why she does these things, but if you’re very, very lucky she might tell you.

And now you’re talking, and though you get to ask some questions most of it is just listening. You take notes as fast as you can because this faucet, once turned off, might not reopen.

And then suddenly, you know her. You know exactly what made her who she is.

And if you sit very, very still, the others will begin to come forward. “I had no friends.” “I was State Champion before I hurt myself.” “I fought against the odds, and won. These losers need to suck it up.”

You don’t breathe. You don’t dare scare them away. Minors are well aware they’re not the stars of your show, and understandably they’re reluctant to give you their stories. Why should they bother? You won’t use most of it, anyway.

But you want them to be alive, just as alive as your Very Important Person. Because if they’re just props, we’ll all know it and none of us will feel very good about it.

Here’s the thing: you can’t go any further in your novel without these temperamental jerks. They hold the fate of your story in their stubborn little fists. And sometimes they like to make you sweat for a while, wondering if they’ll ever tell you what makes them tick. So you wait (im)patiently, fingers crossed, hoping that eventually they’ll help you flesh out this world of yours.

My minors finally came to chat over coffee this weekend. They told me their secrets. Some went deeper than I expected. I am thrilled to finally know them.

And (just like that!) all those loose ends tied themselves up. There’s nothing in the way of the book, now.

Game on.

Damn You, Netflix.

I haven’t really watched tv in years.

Not in a snobby, pretentious, too-good-for-such-frivolity kind of way, where you tell everyone ever that you don’t watch it in order to sound more interesting and clever. More in the sense that DayJob, which is also sometimes AfternoonJob and even NightJob, hampers any sort of consistent schedule. I’m simply not always home at the same time, so I don’t catch shows with any kind of regularity.

And yes, I know about PVR. And I’m too cheap to buy one.

So, enter Netflix. I’ve wanted it forever, since it neatly solves this little dilemma. We finally cracked about a month ago and set it up.

Oh sweet merciful crap. All those box sets I wanted? Right there. Cheesy, campy horror movies at my beck and call? Ditto. I don’t waste time cursing terrible buffers or trying desperately to stream a show from a website with cramped bandwidth. I press play and it’s there.

Terrible for productivity.

The thing with working on an art career is that you have to cram as much work in as you can, around the confines of day jobs and family and scant nutritional intake. You need to wake up early, or stay up late, chasing your Muses down and pinning them until they squeak out ideas. You need to love your desk, since you’ll be there for hours. That’s the idea, anyway.

But now that my desk is in our living room, the siren song of the bigscreen is almost too much to bear. I have all the Charmed you could ever watch, it says. Come watch Pumpkinhead for the hundredth time. Then the couch gets in on the act, reminding me that I have a wonderfully comfortable pillow and blanket awaiting me, and maybe I could just relax for half an hour.

Which becomes an hour.

Which becomes two.

Lame as it is, it looks like I need to start scheduling blocks of tv watching for myself. Scheduling time and sticking to it. I’m not getting anywhere being tethered to this remote.

But the couch really is comfy. And they have the whole series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents

I think I’m in trouble here.

The Onion Weighs In on Chasing Your Dreams

“I have always been a big proponent of following your heart and doing exactly what you want to do. It sounds so simple, right? But there are people who spend years — decades, even — trying to find a true sense of purpose for themselves. My advice? Just find the thing you enjoy doing more than anything else, your one true passion, and do it for the rest of your life on nights and weekends when you’re exhausted and cranky and just want to go to bed…” – David Ferguson

Any of my fellow Creatives need a kick in the butt today? Find the rest of the article here.

Writers: Try a Writing “Sketchbook”

But, you’re a writer, right? Not a visual artist. What the hell would you want a sketchbook for?

I got caught up in YouTube recently, one of those tangled webs of clicking random “suggested video” links, and I ended up somehow at videos of sketchbooks. Page after page, turned for the camera, sometimes with the artist describing their ideas or inspirations. They’re visual candy, and what struck me about them was the freedom of the artist’s sketchbook.

Trying something new, crossing it out, fiddling with styles and colours and composition. Knowing even before you start that whatever you’re trying may be a colossal failure, and doing it anyway. Scribbling out, starting over, playing with ideas. Not caring about the end product, because if it sucks you don’t ever have to show anyone. The sheer joy of a happy mess unapologetic on the page.

Which is why I’ve adopted the “sketchbook” model for writing.

Sitting in front of a cold, impersonal monitor watching a cursor blink doesn’t exactly rev up my creativity. The harsh glow of the blank screen offers little in the way of inspiration. Show me a white screen and I’ll show you boredom, frustration, and occasional panic.

But show me a blank page, put a pen in my hand, and it’s on. Scribbling (even the word, scribbling, describes a freer way to write than the measured clicks of keys) encourages experimentation. Stuck? Doodle in the margins. Plotting? Draw the path of the story. Flash of inspiration? Throw a key word in the middle of a page and weave a web of related points, characters, and themes all around it. Try writing in a different colour (though not red ballpoint, trust me. It’s a bitch to read later). Your “sketchbook” will become art all on its own; ink stains, wrinkles, coffee and crumbs all marking the times and places you fleshed out your story.

At some point, it’s likely you’ll want to type up your story, whether it’s for publication or just to see it in print. I resisted the sketchbook method for quite a while, since it’s double the work: first writing longhand, then inputting every word. It feels like a huge waste of time, if you miss the major benefit: You can always edit your work on the fly as you type it up. By the time your story’s down, you’ve already caught a lot of the simple errors of tense, missing words, and the like. You’re one draft ahead. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll find that the time lost to typing is more than made up by the extra output of a few scribbles here, a few paragraphs there. A notebook can be crammed in a pocket or purse and snuck out almost anywhere in moments of inspiration, which puts you way ahead of the game in terms of production. No booting up, no waiting for apps to load, just uncap a pen and go.

Try it out, and let me know: Does it work for you?

“Mama”: A Very Spoiler-y Review

Like I said, spoilers ahead. SO MANY SPOILERS. Fair warning.

I loved it.

I had tried to avoid even watching the new versions of the trailer, because I hate going to a horror movie where all the scares are used up. Turned out that was completely unnecessary. There’s so much more to Mama.

So, we start with a distraught, suicidal father trying to kill his kids in the woods. No worry, Mama steps in to take him out, and from then on she adopts these little girls as her own. When they come back out of the woods, so does she. And she’s a very, very jealous parent.

There was a lot I didn’t expect from this movie. I liked seeing a female lead who’s “different”: tattooed, shacked-up, and not into the mother thing. Sure, the actress’s tattoos were probably fake, and she ends up ditching her Misfits t-shirt for a motherly turtleneck (REALLY?!) but still, it was a welcome change. I liked her impersonal interaction with the kids, though of course she warms to them in the end.

The jump scares were decent, too, and evolved from Mama being nothing but a shadow to having a horrible, twisted face. Her movements were disturbing; she died broken, and it shows. When she bent clear in half, backwards, the little hairs on my neck stood up. She scuttles like a cockroach, which never fails to be startling.

The kids were excellent. Lilly, especially. Her portrayal of a feral child was impressive, and her utter fixation on Mama and her artifacts had me believing.

SUPER-DUPER GIANT SPOILER TIME:

My favourite part? ONE KID DIES. When do you see that? When? I expected Uncle Lucas to die. I expected Annabelle, his girlfriend, to die. I almost expected both kids to die. But when Victoria refuses to go over the cliff with Mama, I thought for sure Lilly would stay with her. It turns out Lilly’s love for Mama trumps even the love she has for her sister, and she goes willingly into Mama’s arms one last time. That scene was unbelievable, in the realest sense: I thought it was trickery. I thought it was a “gotcha”, that Mama would fly back up at the last moment and drop Lilly unharmed into the arms of her family. NOPE. DEAD KID. WHAMMO.

And yet, I felt pity for Mama. She really wasn’t a monster, she was confused and heartbroken and yearning. Another twist I didn’t expect.

From the atmosphere, to the casting, to the creepy monster design, everything worked together. Del Toro did it again. Go see it.

The End.

I just finished watching What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? for the first time (I know, I know, shame on me). It was a great film, but what I liked best was the ending.

Spoiler alert for those of us who have been under rocks since 1962.

Okay, so the best part was the precise cut at the moment the cops run down the beach to check on Blanche. I loved it because the movie ended right before we find out whether Blanche is dead. We see a psychotic Jane spinning and dancing in the crowd, and the crowd moving away, and the cops almost reaching Blanche, then BOOM! It’s over.

Did Blanche die? If so, will Jane be going to prison? When Blanche told Jane that she’d caused her own accident, was Blanche only trying to befriend Jane so Jane would go get help?

I loved it so much because I love complex endings. I love not being told precisely what happened. I love it when the exact ending is left up to my imagination.

It’s something I try to do with my own fiction: take What’s Inside, for example. The story has an ending, in a way, but it’s up to the reader to decide what comes next. Some reviews wanted the story to have been longer, and I get that some readers enjoy complete resolution. But I like leaving an end or two untied.

The flirtation between “finished-enough” to be satisfying and left “unfinished-enough” to let the reader interact with the story is something that excites me as a writer. I want you left curious. I want to encourage you to participate in the story, to think about it long after you’ve put the story down.

It worked in the case of Baby Jane, and I hope it works in my stories, too.

This Person Must Be a Writer

This came from the Ugliest Tattoos site, but I beg to differ: I love it! I wish I’d thought of it first, as a sign of my devotion to the Lord of the Bean.

In related news, I’m heading into a three-day weekend, I picked up more K-Cups on the way home, I’ve been home for an hour and I’m gearing up for my second cup of many. Sleep? What’s that?