In the window above is the next installment of The Accidental Author, some real heartfelt confessions in this one plus an homage to one of the finest authors living today. If you missed episode one, click here.
Recently, I was invited to participate in the ITW Thriller Round Table, which (as I dust my shoulders off) is quite an honor. The topic on everyone’s mind: “How do you separate the author from your characters?” Here’s my two cents which is worth a million dollars.
In the middle of writing my fourth book, I get the feeling that I am enjoying it a little too much. Maybe I am creating the ‘Great American Novel’ for an audience of only one American. You know, like laughing at your own jokes, or singing in the shower, which never sounds bad. Maybe I am self-referencing and modulating the characters and stories to make my own tail wag. It’s hard to know. I don’t like sending out chapters for comment or asking someone to read a work half done, but is my enjoyment of my story a kind of insanity, a delusion of isolation? A world I created that has no relation to the world of the potential readers at large. Which begs the question, am I writing for some, quantifiable segment of society or am I writing for myself? Right now it feels like it’s totally for myself and my own amusement.
Oh wait, I have an editor! Whew, what a relief to have another human, not inside my head, who can give an objective opinion without my internal bias. Did I mention, God Bless editors?
I am a big fan of precocious children, you know, that point right before they become judgmental teens. When you can still have a fun, multisyllabic conversation without them interrupting the moment, looking down for a text message.
What happens? How does an engaging, surprisingly aware 7 to 10 year-old, firing off word use and ideas in a seemingly random fashion, with each truly important to them, change with the onset of social puberty? Why do these wonderfully rich observations and conversations children have with inanimate objects or real people, disappear? In a mysterious way that an adult could never understand, these creative impulses are thematically connected to a stream of consciousness that makes total sense to their internal logic.
If you haven’t guessed yet, this blog was written right after Thanksgiving and the temporary immersion into family that comes along with Turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie. However, copious amounts and second helpings of Tryptophan cannot diminish the fascination I have with these young minds, situationally aware, yet full of imagination and not inhibited at all. Hence the delightful conversations which if attempted with a texting-teen would take 3 times as long as you pull teeth to get more than one word answers, i.e. “yes, no, what-ever, maybe, I duuno, yeah.”
What do I get out of all this? A method to spark creativity and a model to emulate. The precocious child is the essence of creativity and observation, without filters or the self-consciousness that later in life devolves our ability down to “safe,” tried and true methods of not taking any risks in conversation or our writing.
I was once involved in an effort to foster a better path to creativity and curiosity for young minds. It reversed the normal paradigm of teaching writing (creativity) to elementary school kids. That being; to let their minds go, unfettered by grammar spelling and the traffic cop adherence that stresses form over content. This resulted in more mental exercising, yielding stronger, more elaborate and involved concepts.
This was not just simply a matter of flipping the old way around to see what happened, instead it was based on a study that seemed to indicate that at early ages, mental activity and imagination are forming and active, yet the ability to grasp structure and grammatical laws actually develops later in life. So it is an educational model that better fits the natural expansion of the human brain.
This to me is a great lesson to writers, be as free with your thoughts, observations and conversations as a 7 year old. Resist the grown up internal governors that stop or stem a creative arc before it’s left the barn. Allow imagination to once again rule the roost. Be fearless in the reality that, in the end, they are all imaginary characters anyway, and not bound by physics, logic or flesh and bone. You can always find a “grown up” to clean up the grammar, usage and punctuation later – (and pay them well for it!)
Well, last week I got a tip on something, I’ll call it “Installation X,” a really good piece of reality that would make a beautiful plot point and revelation. For me revelation is as important as a tight story. I use “fiction” in my books to plant a few seeds on things that governments and media soft pedal or aggressively ignore into obliteration.
So I get this information that I could center my entire 4th book on. A juicy, real, almost unbelievable fact that I can fictionalize. Except, last week I got a note that asked I forget what I was told. The reason? Apparently, it’s hotter than even the person who shared it with me thought it was.
Professional dilemma: respect my source or go for it? Well, I decided to not only respect my source but also join into the spirit of our national secrets, which is mainly to keep them secret. So I took a deep breath and moved on. This happened with my first book, when I deduced, based on available technology, a technological process that could protect the President. I “made it up” and wrote it into my story. Then a person who was a protector of POTUS asked me to “not go there.” Fair enough. I broomed it for the sake of Presidential security and my acquaintance, and the folks he works with, lives. Easy decision… then.
Two days ago, I met a guy who tells me almost the whole “Installation X” story! Now this guy is a new source. I could go with his version of the events and situation since he so far has not asked me to forget it. (He may not be as in the loop as my original source.) But that would just be a way around what I said I wouldn’t do to my original source and my own feeling of obligation to the men an women who risk their lives carrying out our nation’s security that has to be done in secret.
So no. I am still not going to go near this thing. I will however scour the Internet, go to the library and see if any of this can be open sourced. Meaning if it’s already out there and thus I won’t be jeopardizing a source or my country. Although I hope it’s not.
Here’s a no brainer, find good books and read them – twice! Once as a reader, let it soak in, enjoy the ride, let the story take you. Experience the literary impact that a good book has on you. Then read it again, although this time as a writer! You now know everything the writer knew, during your first read, when he knew the outcome and you didn’t. Study the set ups, now that you know how they pay off. Look for how the writer infused them into the story? Pay attention to the character development, at best it should have been barely conscious to you in the first reading, but, as an analysis, note how that a person was being drawn before your eyes. Find all the little touches, moments, places where character was defined, enhanced or reinforced. Maybe even find a few things you were unaware of during your first read. Things like, the vocal styles of characters, style of prose of scene description that may subtlety have changed depending on the character that is in the setting. Or a change in point of view which enhances pacing. Possibly a dynamic pulse created by length of sentences to accelerate or slow up the plot. Apply this same analysis to Plot, Settings, Dialogue and Subtext!
Finally, this being the last tip in the series, I leave you with two thoughts;
One: Nothing an English professor, George Bernard Shaw or I could impart on you will actually help you write as well as you, writing everyday! Writing is a muscle. It responds to, and needs to be, exercised regularly. Write a sentence, a paragraph, page or (on rare occasions) chapter everyday. Write prose, poetry or essays, write anything, but just write. The more you do it, the more you hone your writing chops.
Two: To write is to rewrite. Don’t be afraid, it may seem like it’s perfect… but that was with yesterday’s eyes, today you’ll see new words, opportunities and connections. Rewrite your way to a final draft.
Text: “No, your honor, the sign said, ‘Fine for Parking,’ so I did.”
Subtext: Ignorance of the spirit of the law.
Pretext: This idiot got a parking ticket.
Context: This is happening in a courtroom.
Supertext: A law professor is giving an example of how words are at the heart of law.
As simple as the above is, it’s the basics and they never change. Every line you write has these attributes. They shouldn’t happen by accident. If you know these for every sentence you are writing. The next beat, or scene becomes evident as you see these 5 tendrils emanating from the last. Also this helps you shape the dialog within these parameters. If not, actions, dialogs or plot points may seem random or out of sync, kilter or motif for what you are writing.
Understanding this multi-dimensional impact of the text you write, will help your story-flow and character-polarity.
You write. You write. You write some more. And you never think about TIME. You don’t think about time when you’re writing, and you certainly never think about the time it takes someone to read it. It just never comes up, until you have the wonderful experience of recording part of your book on tape. (For you people who were born after 1980, tape is what we used to record audio on before it got all digital-y. )
You go into the studio, and the engineer sets up a mic. He says, “Okay. Let’s take it from the top.” And all of the sudden, you are speaking the words that you wrote, and the world changes. Suddenly, you’re saying to yourself, “Why did I write that? Oh, God. Did I really put those words together?”
And all of a sudden, all the scary parts of ‘vernacular’ slam into your prose that you’d thought was perfect. You read your work, only to find out that you may have written it as pleasing to the eyes/mind with a somewhat tinny ear. But you forge ahead, because, hey, after all, you’re paying for the time. Continue reading
So, you are deep in a scene, and the place you’re writing in disappears. A narrow tunnel into your screen draws you into the world you’ve created – a world where your characters are engaging each other and revealing plot and personality traits that enrich your story. As happens to many writers who are ensconced in that ‘Zone’, the characters start talking to you. Or more accurately, start making up their own dialogue and taking their actions in directions you didn’t intend when you sat down to write.
Some people would say that this is a mild form of insanity, the kind which afflicts all writers, but I’ve come to believe that it’s really the M.U.S.E at work. M.U.S.E, in the non-classical sense, standing for Metaphysical Universal Story Enlightenment. I’ll explain. I’m writing a scene that takes place in a restaurant. Before I know it, my character is in the men’s room. Before I know why, someone is intentionally in the men’s room to have a conversation with him. My hero demurs – doesn’t want to have a conversation in the men’s room, and tells him to come to the office. That whole bit of dialogue winds up with the intruder giving him a dining tip of, “Try the halibut.” At the time I remember thinking, “strange thing for me to write, Halibut?”, but I wrote it.
Two weeks later, on a beach in Puerto Rico Continue reading