Archive for January, 2014
I’ve gone on before about my shift in reading. At one time, I read close to a 50/50 mix between lit-fic and SF, with a bit of mystery and political intrigue thrown in. Oh, and a non-fiction or two. In recent years, I have given up so-called “realistic” fiction in favor of genre work, almost completely.
Today, though, I find myself in the middle of two books, neither of which are genre, and both of which are non-fiction. One is Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave. The other is the Bob Spitz biography of Julia Child, Dearie.
The Julia Child bio was given to me for Christmas, and it was a good pick, because I adore Julia Child. The second I downloaded after seeing the movie by the same name, because (and this will also be familiar to readers of previous posts) I wanted to see if the movie stuck to the facts as given in Northup’s work. (I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and so far, it does.)
These books are wildly different from one another in some respects. One is about a twentieth century woman who transformed our nation’s approach to home cooking. The other is about a nineteenth century man kidnapped from his life as a free man, and sold into slavery. They are also quite different in quality. The Northup memoir is elegant, full of nineteenth century wordiness and flourish, but clear and brilliant in his descriptions of people, places, and events. The Spitz effort is full of cliches and clumsy wordiness…a nervous, twitchy sort of style. I stumble over his sentences the way I would stumble through a cluttered room. He also seems to have San Diego and Los Angeles counties mixed up with each other. Palomar Observatory is not atop Mt. Wilson. I put up with the writer, because what he depicts is of interest to me.
And now, the great similarity. Both Twelve Years a Slave and Dearie work on me the same way genre fiction does. They are each set in a time different from my own, and in a place so different, it might as well be a different planet. Julia’s childhood of privilege in Pasadena, her career in the OSS, and her transformation into an expert on the art of French Cooking is a grand saga of exploration and reinvention. Solomon Northup’s ordeal is a kidnap and survival story of the first order.
There is a deeper genre connection as well. I love SF because it asks the big questions about who we are, what we could be, what we might become, and where we came from. Julia Child reinvented herself at different times in her life, and Solomon Northup had himself reinvented by others, against his will. Because Julia’s invention was a matter of her own choices, her triumphs were true and solid, and carried her through a long and healthy life. Solomon Northup didn’t fare nearly as well, apparently. He was rescued from slavery, and restored to his true life in 1853, but after a few years, apparently disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. They didn’t have the phrase, “post-traumatic stress” then, but I imagine this is what he experienced. Plucked from his life, given a new name and sub-human status, and then suddenly restored to become a spokesman for abolition…who he was in his own soul couldn’t keep up with external events.
These are two remarkable life stories, both of which get to the essence of who and what we are.
I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.
But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.
Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.
Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.
I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.
In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.
I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.
I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.
Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.
Many, many years ago, a man in the office where I worked suddenly became concerned about my writing hobby. “You draw your characters from real life, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure. That’s the only place they could possibly come from.”
Now he was worried. “That means that any of us could end up in your story.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, “but whether you turn out to be a hero or a villain is entirely up to you.” I smiled sweetly.
He needn’t have been so concerned, because he was not much of a character. He was not, shall we say, the most interesting man in the world. In appearance, temperament, and personality, he was something of an Everyman.
But the Everyperson is in fact, a staple character, particularly as a protagonist. The Everyman or Everywoman can be a tough to crack. Building an Everyperson can feel like building a house out of oatmeal.
When plot comes into the creation, we encounter a chicken and egg question. Plot is a series of actions taken by characters. For my character to be plausible, her actions come out of character. To discover character requires observing action. Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Or they ought to be. But which comes first?
We have to begin somewhere. We have to decide something about our character before she ever takes a step. We have to know something about what happens, and what’s being done, before we know who’s doing it. Ideally, we have an idea about both initially, enough to get ourselves going.
If we take our Everyman, and try to make him do a bunch of stuff before we know who he is, his actions will seem forced. We’ve all had this experience as readers or viewers: the sudden disheartening feeling that this fictional piece we were enjoying a few moments before has taken a Very Bad Turn. We become painfully aware the plot was made up by somebody. Somebody wanted the plot to go a certain way, and the characters are now speaking from a script.
The best characters appear realer than real. They appear inevitable.
We cannot force our Everyperson into action, but it is also difficult to draw a character before he or she has opened her mouth or taken a step. I always dislike those character templates where you go through and answer a bunch of questions, like, what is the character’s favorite color? What is he wearing? Or, heaven help us, what are her quirks? I don’t do well on those; I am too bored, and I don’t give interesting answers. I end up with no character.
In the end, I rely on inspiration. I suddenly realize my character looks like Andrew Jackson, or stands with feet precisely placed, like a professional dancer. At some point, I must have some idea what my character’s childhood was like, what pivotal events occurred, whether or not that information ever makes it into the story itself. Gradually, the character becomes more full-color, and more three-dimensional.
I can’t force it, but I keep asking who this person is. I wait for the turn of the head, the wince, or the laugh that seems to come from a wound. Eventually, character happens, but I am never quite sure how.