Posts Tagged ‘character’


        At some point in the writing of every novel, the time comes when the author (or authors) need to block out a broad segment of time, sit down and read the story from page one to the last page written, and take out their little mental microscopes and search for all the little (and large) mistakes that weaken (or entirely ruin) their stories.  This is called a “comprehensive reading.” 

     Today marks the finish of chapter ten of “An Evil Heart,” the joint novel I’ve been writing with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen (Mimi).  I spent several hours at her home yesterday, and a few more hours this morning, finishing up the scenes that we weren’t able to write without the other person being present.  Now that the paths of her character and my character are fully intertwined, me and Kim’s “together time” will need to be multiplied.   Kim and I have chosen to do comprehensive readings about every ten chapters, so I will spend the next week revising and refining the previous chapters so that the story can be read with as little interruption as possible.  

     A week from today, she and I will get together, find a relatively private location and spend the whole day reading what we’ve written.  Because I hate to read aloud, and am more audibly oriented in my learning style, Kim reads and I listen.  This is a tedious process, but it is where all the logic flaws, plot problems, character inconsistencies and previously overlooked grammatical errors shine through.  

     Although this will be the first read-through we’ve done of An Evil Heart, we did several on my first book, The White Room (which is currently looking for a home somewhere in New York right now), so I have an idea of how this works.  It is a process that can take anywhere from nine to thirteen hours.  But it’s worth it.  In my previous read-throughs, I was continually amazed by the blatant errors an author of a novel can overlook.  Worst of all, perhaps, are the logic flaws.

     A logic flaw is just that: a flaw in logic.  During one read-through, I was made embarrassingly aware that a character had taken the last sip of the same beer three different times.  At another point, a crucifix that burst into flames and turned to ash suddenly reappeared in a characters front pocket.  These little things are so easily written but become terribly apparent when read aloud. 

    Plot consistency is another obstacle you’ll contend with during a comprehensive reading. For example, in The White Room, I had created vampires who, of course, could not go out into the daylight.  I can not count how many times a vampire appeared in the middle of the day, totally unaware of the sun shining above.  In writing entities who could only survive in the darkness, I realized I’d placed a terrible restriction on myself and continually had to change the story around to keep consistent with the “reality” of the storyline.    

     Characters also like to lose consistency throughout the duration of a novel, and some characters end up being completely unnecessary.  There was one character I really liked and wanted to give more presence to.  Reading the story through, I realized this character seemed like a kind of strange appendage of the larger characters, and really had no place in the story other than the original two or three lines she was given.  I then had to go back and cut her out of all the scenes she didn’t fit into.  At another time, one of my characters voices changed so dramatically as the story progressed that by the end, he was nearly unrecognizable.  He began as a wise type who used proper English and eventually evolved into the barely educated boy next door.  This was one of the largest problems I had with that story and it took considerable time and energy to rephrase all of his dialog as well as correct his general disposition. 

    Not all flaws are big ones though.  Reading your manuscript through, you could continually find little sentences and phrases that, when heard aloud, just sound ridiculous.  “Bob flicked concerned eyes at me.”  Oh yeah?  And from just whose head did Bob pluck these concerned eyes out of?  And why on earth did he flick them at me? 

    These are just a few examples of the potential corrections a comprehensive reading offers a writer.   If it weren’t for several such sessions of my last story, I could have easily made the fatal mistake of sending a fault-riddled manuscript off to an agent, who would take one look at it and surely deem me unfit to write fiction. 

     I am both excited and reluctant to see what errors we find in An Evil Heart.   I’m learning that we humans, unfortunately, are flawed creatures by nature and we insert a little of that nature into everything we produce.  A comprehensive reading is a good way to spot and correct enough problems that by the time the story reaches the hands of an agent or editor, it is in acceptable and semi-professional condition.  The side effect to this, of course, is that by the end, you’ll be so tired of your own story that you’ll just want to kill every character in it call it a day.  But don’t.  It’s about that time that you know you’re getting close to being done. 

   And no, it will never be perfect. But it can be damned good… and given the right amount of attention to detail, you might even find an agent who agrees.

Advertisements

     There is a famous adage in the writing world that says, “write what you know.”  I hate that adage.  It suggests that we never move outside the confines of our current knowledge and that, in essence, we reiterate and recycle that knowledge for all our years.  It prompts a timid and all-too-cautious approach to writing that is the ultimate cause, in my opinion, of very boring material.  But I do see the point.  After all, if you don’t know anything about football, writing a story about a professional football player’s anxiety over the big game is not going to come off well.  It will be superficial and ultimately, unconvincing.  That’s why I think that whoever first made the statement, “write what you know”, really should have said, “know what you write.” 

     And that is where research comes in.

     Research for me is mostly a proactive practice.  Although sometimes you are limited and must do a lot of reading on a subject, I think it’s important that, as often as possible, you experience the things you are writing about.  For me, this has meant some very interesting and mind-expanding adventures.  Most recently, for the sake of an idea I have for an upcoming story, I have made great friends with the nicest little Jehovah Witness woman.  She’s got to be a hundred and twelve years old and she is probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.  I invite her into my house and listen to her stories, all the while trying not to stare too intently at her eyebrows which, bless her ancient heart, she is no longer able to paint on straight.  We know each other on a first name basis now, and although we more often talk about her past than the Kingdom of the Lord, I fully enjoy her company and have come to consider her a great friend.

    For another project, I spent some time in a Catholic church.  I wasn’t raised Catholic and so I knew nothing about the religion except what I’d seen on television.  Attending mass, I was surprised by how aerobic being a Catholic is. Sit, stand, pray, repeat!  I left exhausted, understanding not only why their services only last about forty-five minutes, but also why they give you a cracker at the end.  Later, I had a friend of mine who is educated on the religion go with me to the cathedral and explain all the different meanings of the trinkets and shiny things therein.  It was fascinating!

     Probably the most compelling experience I’ve had in research was my exploration of the BDSM community.  I was writing something that needed my understanding of the dynamic between Masters and their human slaves.  I spent a year searching for the local kink subculture before, quite coincidentally, finally happening upon it.  I was informed of a local fetish website, which I joined and soon began making friends.  Eventually, I realized that kink was all around me.  They even have kink classes at the local university!  Soon, I was invited to an actual “play party”, which is where kinksters get together for a night of fulfilling their fetishes.  I connived some friends of mine to go with me as my human slaves.  I wore eyeliner and dressed my pets in next to nothing, put them on leashes on headed to the event with an odd mixture of trepidation and awe. Had I been more practiced, I suppose the four of us would have even gotten in and out of narrow doorways with a little more grace, but hey… I dare you to try toting two women and one man around on leashes in a cool, debonair manner!  For the most part though, we fit right in and I was able to meet some of the most fascinating people I ever have, some of whom I remain good friends with to this day.   I saw all kinds of things that fueled my imagination.  I was hesitant about participating much, with the exception of letting a trusted kinkster hit me with a bamboo stick, (yes, Martha, I did!), and I left with a deeper understanding of and respect for the community and it’s practices (as well as a big bruise on my ass).

     Perhaps hardest of all, is the research I have been doing for the project I am currently working on.  I’m writing about a narcissistic serial killer who was abused severely by his mother and later, his foster-father.   Since it’s in no ones interest for me to experience this stuff first hand, I have been doing a lot of reading on the minds of serial killers and the lives they lived.  It’s disturbing and  hellish and I am eager to be done with it.  I have learned things I’m not sure I ever wanted to know, but it’s important to me that I understand the characters I write. 

     So no, I don’t believe in only writing what you know, but I do believe in knowing what you write.   Research is a necessary part of writing, the great myth being, of course, that it involves hours of tedious reading about dull subjects.  In truth though, research is, in some ways, the best part about writing.  Something I have come to understand is that there’s a big difference between knowing a thing on an intellectual level, and truly understanding it.  I think that in order to write a convincing account of anything, a writer must possess full comprehension of his subject.  When you write something without that base understanding, readers know. 

     A lot of writers take the liberty of assuming a position of superiority.  After all, writing is a one way form of communication; you can not be interrupted and argued with mid-sentence.  But, what writers should realize is that, in truth, the reader has the power.  All he or she has to do is close the book.  And this knowledge is what prompts me to continue knowing what I write.


     I’ve finally moved past a major roadblock in An Evil Heart.  “Evil Heart” is the working title of the joint-effort book I’ve been writing with my friend and mentor, Mimi (Kim Williams-Justesen – check her out at http://kwjwrites.wordpress.com/). 

    The problems I kept encountering were aspects of the main characters past and how they served to motivate him in the present.  The trouble was, what I’d come up with so far didn’t make sense to me.  I didn’t believe that the things this guy had experienced in his life would prompt him to be such a monster.  After all, this guy is a narcissistic, nearly sociopathic, somewhat-obsessive-compulsive serial killer, so whatever he’s been through in his life (if the reader is going to sympathize with him even a little bit), it must have been some pretty hellish and dreadful things.  I didn’t want to simply slap a psychological disorder on him (although I’m certain there’s a little of that going on too), so I had to do something that was harder than I thought it would be:  I had to conjure up some of the most terrible things you could put a child through, sift through those hideous scenarios and apply the ones that made the most sense to the story.  Granted, this is not a story about a mans troubled boyhood, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time there, but it is important that I (and whoever might one day read it) understand why this man is the way he is.

     Mimi and I have been meeting on Wednesdays and Saturdays to work on this book, so this week when she came over, we spent several hours talking about this guy (his name is Sterling) and trying to determine the horrors he must have endured as a young boy.  Success in this incites a terrible contrast of emotion: you are giddy… because you have just concocted the most awful kind of abuse you can think of.  This is one of many unexpected and uncomfortable surprises I have encountered in this whole fiction writing thing.

     I am continually amazed and thrilled by the things I am learning in this.  There seems to be an endless reservoir of things I still don’t know and want desperately to understand, and what I’ve just recently learned is that it is impossible to write a character and his or her story if you don’t fully understand who he or she is.  It’s not one of those things, unfortunately, that you can make up as you go.  If you do not know where a character is coming from, it’s impossible to understand where they’re going.  The characters I have written before this one have all been pretty well-developed.  They were very old and I’d spent a couple of years mulling over them before I sat down to write their story.  In that time, without even meaning to, I came to understand them all quite well.  But this guy is new, so this is, in a sense, an entirely new experience for me.  Not to mention, this is the first character I’ve written (on this intimate of a level) who is this dark, this heinous… this capable of such wicked things.  It is enough that I sometimes squirm under the wretchedness of this guy.  But overall, it is good for me.  I want to learn to write diverse characters and the one I’m writing now is, no doubt,  going to extend my skill, burst my comfort bubble, and teach me new methods of execution.  It is an intimidating and frightening thing to see the world through his eyes, and should this book ever reach publication, I have no doubt I will be crucified by the critics… but I have avoided it for too long and I am coming to understand that this is what it’s all about: that willingness to reach into the deepest recesses of psyche and dark fantasy…

     As Mimi continually reminds me, “You have to be willing to dance with crazy.”  Now… I understand that.