Posts Tagged Creativity

The Disheartening Draft

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.

"Editing was much easier when manuscripts were made of paper!"

“Editing was much easier when manuscripts were made of paper!”

Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.

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Characters Are Real Characters

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.

What are this character's quirks?

What are this character’s quirks?

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Everything Is Broken

Since the first of the year, I have been complaining about things in and around my house breaking. Both April’s “When Life Annoys the Writer,” and January’s “When the House Is Falling Down,” address the the time energy it takes to deal with our things. This is time that could be better spent on our life dreams. Like writing.

In my postings–behind the words–was an implied assumption, namely that, after this brief flurry of incidents, things would stop breaking for a while. Guess what. They haven’t.

The dishwasher we installed a couple months ago has worked beautifully, up until a couple weeks ago, when it sprung a leak and ruined the engineered wood kitchen floor. And, our quarter-century-old air conditioner has given up the ghost.

More chaos. More people coming out to have a look, and offer remedies. And it’s all down to me: My husband is a good man, but he leaves the care of the house to me. He will assist in major decisions, but I am expected to take the lead. Given how hard he works, this seems a fair enough exchange.

Of course all this disrupts the schedule, but I am more concerned with what it does to my mind. If I am using my limited mental power to find creative solutions to real-life problems, what’s left for my fictional world? Indeed, a bunch of stuff breaking tends to break my concentration.

So, I’ll be deep in a scene, and all of a sudden, I’ll think, “Once they’ve replaced the dishwasher, I should wait about three months before replacing the floor, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I’ll go back to work, only to think, a few minutes later, “I would love to rip out the family room carpet and replace it with the same engineered wood we have in the kitchen. But if we do that, what do we do with the speaker wire?”

The story of my characters is replaced with the story of my house.

Gradually, persistently, I wean myself from compulsive thinking about the house and its care. I turn myself back to my fiction. Eventually, I come to weave the life experience into my work in more appropriate ways.

It helps to remember that real life is what generates fiction. Real life teaches me how things (and people) work. Every bit of it, mundane or dramatic, is potential fodder.

Years ago, in a writing class, one fellow student recalled falling off a hiking trail and tumbling down the side of the mountain. For all he knew, he could end up dead or paralyzed. Instead of worrying about that, though, he paid attention to every moment of the descent, knowing the information he was gaining on the way down (“This is what it feels like to fall off a mountain!”) was priceless and irreplaceable.

To paraphrase Stephen King, from his wonderful book, On Writing, art is meant to support life, and not the other way around.

So, it’s back to work. All the broken things that haven’t been resolved are waiting on other people now. Other deteriorating items I see before me haven’t actually broken. They can wait a few hours, while I write.

Stephen King's book supporting a faulty valve. Art is supporting life.

This is the faulty valve that ruined my floor! The little white dots are water drips. Aaaargh!!!

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Keeping It Moving

In a previous post which I will not look up and tag, I believe I cited some advice from writer Laurel Winter, who (and I’m going to go for a paraphrase here) said she made a point to work on her project every day, no matter what else was going on, no matter if all she could do was two sentences. Two sentences, she said, was her minimum. Two sentences was enough to keep that project in her mind, to keep the flow going. And, when she had more time, she could thereby avoid the “…awkward getting-reacquainted time…” required to pick up a project after a long break.

Good advice. Keep the flow going, and–in a mixture of metaphors–you’ll keep the pot simmering on that back burner. Metaphor #3: I think of a shark who never rests but is always swimming. A quick Google check indicates that thing about sharks perpetually on the move isn’t entirely true, but it’s a great image. Keep moving, keep the flow going, and keep the pot gently burbling.

Keeping it moving (or gently burbling) is necessary to keeping one’s attention, and I’m speaking of writer, not the reader. Nothing will ever appear before the reader unless it first makes it past the writer. If the writer becomes disengaged from her own work, the work will wander and fizzle.

I set aside two hours a day to work on my novel. If I am prevented from doing two hours, I do an hour and a half. Can’t do an hour and a half? Do an hour…and so forth. No day exists when I cannot do two sentences.

Let’s make that two paragraphs. No day exists when I cannot do two paragraphs. I can do something else as well: I can give myself my next assignment. Before I set down the work, I can look at the next two paragraphs and think about what might be next. I don’t actually have to compose them, I need only toss them in the burbling pot. When I return after a day, they will be at least partially cooked.

The alternative to keeping it moving is to get stuck. Getting stuck puts one at risk for writer’s block. When I am stuck (in the middle of my second paragraph?) I need to find a way to get moving again.

There’s no magic answer, but there are tricks. There are things I can do that are not unlike shaking out my arm when it’s numb from being slept on wrong. There’s nothing perfect or precise.

If I have a problem moving forward, what is the problem? Why am I stuck? Let’s say I need to get my character to the moon, but I want him to have a different reason for going there than the plot turn that actually happens. The reason I currently have for his going there seems stupid, leading me to feel like a Bad Plotter. In another situation, I suddenly realize I am not a biologist and my alien biology is therefore really stupid. I do not believe in my own science. My alien needs to be in more scenes, but I keep avoiding talking about it. I keep writing scenes where the characters seem to be in denial about the alien in the center of the room. Or…I’m tired and impatient. I want to get to action and dialog, but need to set up the scene first. I don’t want to set up the scene. It’s boring. It’s hard. I don’t seem to be able to imagine anything, and can’t seem to describe anything. The sun was shining. Her eyes were blue. I am a Lazy Writer and there is No Hope For Me.

In the third situation, being stuck on description, I simply close my eyes. I relax. I let the movie in my brain roll. I open my eyes and quickly write down anything I see, hear, feel, or smell. I do not judge the quality or appropriateness of what I write. I think as little as possible, except to prompt myself to remember to include all the senses, not just what I see. (Just out of scene, a spigot opens, a shark swims, and a pot simmers.)

In the case of the I-don’t-know-my-science-from-squat problem, I have resources. I can do research, and I can ask a biologist. I know some, as it happens. Find out what I need to know. Or sometimes, the very lack of knowledge can give me a whole new idea. My alien in the middle of the room? Hey, that sounds like a great SF absurdist play! Maybe I can work that into my story. (Just out of scene, a fish comes out of the spigot, the shark eats it, and an octopus jumps into the stew.)

Plot problems are usually easier than they look. There are always choices, different paths one can take, especially if–as in my example–I know where I’m going, i.e., the moon. If my character has no good reason for going to the moon, well, maybe he’s kidnapped. Why not? (The water scalds, the shark is arrested, and the pot boils over. The paths keep diverging.) Once it’s down on paper, I can trust the boiling-over pot to know what should go in it, and what should not.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

My stories all flow better than the Santa Ana River.

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Serendipitous Artistic Journey–A True Story

The year was 1987.

There was this blank wall at the back of the family room. The previous owners hung framed mirrors back there and it looked good, but we wanted something different. So much to do, moving in, though, so we let it slide.

Our friends were all beginning to buy large-screen TVs that were the size of a two-car garage. We thought of putting a TV on that side of the room, the only side it would fit on, but our old (even then) cable line would not extend that far from the source without significantly degrading our signal. And those big old fat-butt TVs were really expensive. We carried on with a small TV that fit in the niche built for that use on the opposite wall.

I tried various pieces of art on the wall, but nothing was big, or bright, enough. It’s kind of a big wall, at the end of a fairly long room.

One day, some time in the mid-nineties, my husband brought home an original oil painting from a charity auction. I hope it was a good charity, and that the money was put to good use, because I did not fall in love with this piece of art. Nonetheless, the painting was large, it was bright, it filled the space, and the colors–mostly orange and blue–went. It hung on the wall for eight to ten years. I never liked it that much, and each year, I liked it less.

One day, I took the painting down and foisted it off on an antique and collectible shop. I left it there on consignment, with the understanding that if it did not sell in thirty days, it would be donated to charity. I was asked if I wanted to be notified in the event it did not sell, to be given an opportunity to take it back. I did not.

Once again, I was left with a blank wall.

One Christmas, I attempted to hang a bunch of angels and lights up there, but really, it looked pathetic. Lame. Back to the blank wall.

So I had an idea: What if I took close-up photos of my backyard roses and hung them in an arrangement of eight? Right size, right colors. Off I went to Ikea to buy eight cheap, black, eight-by-ten frames.

Just beyond where they had the frames I was attracted to an oddity (not an unusual experience at Ikea). It appeared to be a package of three rolls of gauzy, jewel-toned fabric. I thought it was the type of fabric sold in craft shops: sheer, pretty stuff you might ruche around the tree, or over a mantle, at Christmas. I can always use more of that stuff, I said to myself, and purchased it, along with the frames.

Once home, I began printing up my photography.

The effect of all those roses was lame, almost as lame as the Christmas decorations had been. Even before I even framed them, I could see I had myself another dead end.

I decided to look at the fabric I’d bought, to cheer myself up.

Turned out, it wasn’t fabric. It was art.

It was a triptych of an out-of-focus orchid. The entire three panels measured about eight by fifteen feet all together. It was awful, and I could not imagine anyone hanging this thing up, it was so ugly.

But the colors were beautiful, jewel tones ranging from ruby, to gold, to emerald, to sapphire, to amythyst. I thought for a moment I could still use it to ruche around during the holidays, but then I read the tag: No washing, no drying, no dry cleaning, and no ironing. The material was an uber-unnatural polyester; I couldn’t use it for anything. There was nothing to do but take it back.

But then, like a zombie, not thinking, I brought over my eight frames. I began laying them down. At first, I attempted to put them together, to keep the orchid together. No. I placed them again, choosing to frame the prettiest color rectangles.

I had my wall. I had my art piece. The year was 2010. It took twenty-three years to fill my wall.

The Incredible Family Room Art Happening

What I learned from this serendipitous artistic journey:

1. Had I known what I was buying, I wouldn’t have bought it. Therefore, it is sometimes better not to know what I’m doing, and to do it anyway.

2. I returned to Ikea a week or so later, and saw the ugly triptych displayed on the wall. Had I taken note of it, I would have known what I was buying, and would not have bought it. Fortunately, I was oblivious. I learned that being oblivious can sometimes be a good thing. I would argue that this is a different lesson from the first. The first was lesson was the value of ignorance; the second, obliviousness.

3. Sometimes it takes twenty-three years to fill a blank wall. I need to learn patience.

4. It is good to let my zombie-self take over some tasks sometimes.

There it is: Ignorance, obliviousness, patience, and zombie-ness, all working together, solved my art problem.

Photo: I took it. All rights reserved.

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