Archive for June, 2012

When Characters Surprise Me, I Am Happy

I’ve found another way we can divide people into two groups. Well, writers, anyway. The first is, writers whose characters behave only in ways previously described in an outline the author has written. The second (mine) is writers whose characters do the equivalent of jumping out of closets, surprising and scaring them, and rarely doing what their author had planned for them.

Nine years ago, I was at a Tim Powers Guest of Honor speech at Loscon. Wonderful speech. He spoke of his writing process, which involved spending a year or so writing a whole bunch o’ stuff down on 3 x 5 cards and arranging and rearranging them until he had a detailed roadmap/outline to work from. Only then did he begin to write. He had to do this, he said, he had to know what each character was going to do, because he hated having to throw drafts away.

At question time, I raised my hand and asked, “Don’t your characters ever behave in ways you hadn’t planned?”

He appeared somewhat shocked. No, he said. What, I asked, if they just got up and started walking around, going places you didn’t expect them to?

“I wouldn’t let them,” he replied.

Huh. I know he was telling the truth, but I’m baffled. My characters don’t even begin to come alive until I begin to write. 3 x 5, even 4 x6, cards won’t do. I need 8-1/2 x 11. Even then, by the end of the first draft, only one or two of the main characters will be at all interesting. I require subsequent drafts to fill in the holes of the other characters, sometimes to take them in a different direction entirely. This happens. I am currently working on my almost-readable draft of a novel, trying to turn it into a rough-but-readable draft, and just became aware that the murderer isn’t who I thought it was. Another character revealed him/herself in the clearest and most unmistakable way. I must go with that gut feeling. I can’t help feel this is a good thing, and not an inconvenience at all, because if I can surprise myself with my tale, perhaps I can surprise my reader as well.

The thing about Tim Powers: his work reads as anything but pat and predictable. His work is smooth, original, darkly humorous, and quirky, as if it had sprung spontaneously and fully-realized from his brain. The year or so of index cards strewn all over the place has been crafted into a seamless piece. Here is what I conclude: His first draft is really his fifth draft. The first four are squeezed on all those little index cards.

This is a great thing to do if it works for you.

Alas, it seems not to work for me, and I accept that. My methods have their inefficiencies, but they hold benefits as well. It may be my brain’s limitations. One of those limitations may involve controlling tendencies that rein in imagination. That is, I want to write something good. I don’t want things to go wrong. Therefore, I must make my characters behave as if they are my children and I’m taking them to a nice restaurant. My characters have to dress nicely, and I don’t want them bothering the other diners.

I have to remind myself my characters aren’t people. They need to bother people. Unfortunately, they often don’t. Not enough. Fortunately, I am good at criticizing my own work. I can look at my characters after I’ve written a full draft, and say, “These people are boring. Can’t you make them do something interesting?”

Aha. Yes I can, indeed. Almost immediately, they start bothering the other diners, behaving immorally, and dressing inappropriately, and the entire project improves greatly.

(By the way, for anyone who likes outside-the-box dark fantasy and hasn’t read Tim Powers, do check him out. He has a new book out, Hide Me Among the Graves, which I’m looking forward to reading. Last year’s collection, The Bible Repairman and Other Stories is a dark hoot. I had never heard of Bible repairmen before, and now I’m glad I have.)


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“The Birds and I Don’t Like Change”

Real life and fiction are different when it comes to the notion of change, specifically, how much of it we want.

Ten years ago. I was sitting on our bed, watching TV, and our daughter came in with our four cockatiels perched on her shoulders and hands. The four got one look at our new bedspread/comforter, shrieked, and flew off to the safety of the living room. Our daughter did not run, but eyed the new bed covering, and said, “The birds and I don’t like change.”

Bird owners will recognize the reaction. For a prey animal, any change in the environment is a potential threat until proven otherwise. This includes large items, such as ladders or brightly colored brooms being brought into the house, new big-screen TVs with people playing basketball on them, and yes, new bedspreads. If you’re a cockatiel, you fly. If you’re human, you may be more open to changes in your environment, um, well….kind of.

We are and we are not. Some people love to travel to far-off places; others are agoraphobic. Some are always looking for ways to change their circumstances; others are content to stay where they are and not “rock the boat.” For some, tranquility is the highest good. Others become restless and will seek to stir the pot at the first sign the folks around them are getting too comfortable.

As individuals, we have our moods, and most of us both like and dislike change, depending on how much, and what kind, and how much control we have over it. Too much change, even good change, is stressful. Too little causes stagnation, and we know it. Most of us fall on one side or the other of the likes change/doesn’t like change spectrum. And while we may not know ourselves perfectly well, this is something I think all of us can answer, immediately, and accurately: How open am I to change?

I’m on the not-open-to-change side. Oh yeah, there are some changes I definitely want. I want people to stop doing stuff I don’t like. I want to try new restaurants. I want new carpet. That kind of thing. But my routine, oh, I am stuck on my routine. I tend to do the same things at the same time on the the same day of every week. In some ways, my routine is my salvation. My routine allows the bills to be paid, the laundry to get done, and the trash to be taken out, but it also allows me to get together with friends, to exercise, to write, to garden, and to hang out with my family. I do not like having my routine disrupted. I am not spontaneous. Spontaneity screams danger to me.

Well, that’s my life, but I must take care not to write that way, because change is always the center of fiction. What happens next? Plot is change.

They say there are only two plots, the quest, and the-stranger-comes-into-town. Your protagonist is either the hero compelled to go out, slay the dragon, and put the world to rights, or your hero is quietly minding his own business, and the disruptive factor suddenly rides in on a horse. Many tales appear to be a combination of the two. Sandwiching the plot often are two brief places in which a) we are introduced to the character and see his/her regular life, and b) everything is resolved, explained and everyone goes back to whatever they were doing previously. I like those bookends. They are where I want to live.

But not how I want to write. I recall years ago seeing Kurt Vonnegut being interviewed on some show. He said the number one thing a writer needed to do was be mean to his characters. Whatever you are thinking of doing to your protagonist, double down and make it worse. Doing so will raise the stakes, and energize the plot.

Our mortal animal bodies are in tune with Vonnegut’s advice. We are programmed to protect our lives, even as we understand fully that perfect safety comes at too high a price, that price being a lack of personal growth. If I become too comfortable, or lazy, or timid, I know I must shake things up. I must leave the castle and confront the demon. I do this for possible rewards, and also just to stay in shape, for the day I am confronted by change I had not anticipated, be it a new bedspread, or a trip to the vet, dragon-slaying, or chasing the bad guys out of Dodge.

Hates change. Takes few risks. Refuses to confront demons.

Phot0: Mine. All rights reserved.

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Where Have All the Snails Gone?

The other night, at a regular dinner gathering I go to, a friend asked what I did about snails. You see, among my friends, I am what passes for a gardener. In my mind, I’m not; I would say instead I putter around with it.

I would describe gardening as one of my “interests.” I only truly participate in a few, like cooking (ya gotta eat), writing, reading, and taking care of pet cockatiels, but over the years I have had the usual number of life experiences and a greater-than-usual interest in knowing about stuff and have been continuously fascinated by people who know what they’re doing. To a greater or lesser degree, I am capable of becoming interested in almost any subject. This has led to a pattern of random, diverse, but full-of-holes learning which gives me the knowledge necessary to shout out the correct question to a Jeopardy answer from two rooms away where I can barely even hear the TV, but not enough to make me feel as if I know much at all.

I am therefore surprised, even shocked, when a friend turns to me expectantly and says, “You know about birds. What is that one, the one singing, way at the top of that tree?”

If it’s not a crow, seagull, hummingbird, pigeon, hawk, mockingbird, or duck, my answer is: I don’t know. I have cockatiels. They screech and whistle a lot.

Anyway, back to snails. I occurred to me, while giving what little advice I could, that I haven’t seen any snails on my property for several years, and that I have never seen any in my backyard, not in twenty-five years of living here. Another friend at dinner mentioned that there weren’t any in Florida, and it was an experience to move to California and occasionally step on them and feel that awful, slimy squish.

Aphids sometimes, but no snails!

I did know that our garden snails are not native to California, and have heard that they were imported here from France as a food delicacy. I have eaten snails–in restaurants, not in my garden–and really, they aren’t much. Sort of like pencil erasers, but okay if swimming in a little pot of garlicky butter.

For snail basics, here’s the wikipedia article:

I could not recall any snails in science fiction, so I tried googling mollusks in science fiction. No snails, but A. Lee Martinez came out with Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain. But it’s more squid than snail.

Below the book reviews, however, came the truly interesting Google result. Take a moment to glance at it.

Bear in mind, this happened in Florida. I guess my friend was lucky to get out in time.

Photo: Mine. All rights reserved.

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