Posts Tagged ‘mentor’


    

     In writing fiction, few things are as discombobulating as a surprise character.  You spend all this time and energy mapping out your story, putting the characters in their proper places, and then, at some point during the writing process, an unfamiliar personality appears and demands a role.  You are then faced with a dilemma.  Do you let the character take the stage, or do you simply bypass him or her and continue writing the story as you originally planned?  The answer:  it depends.

     The rule of thumb is that if a character (or a scene) helps to move the story forward, adds necessary depth to it, or contributes an unexpected twist (as long as the twist serves to further and/or add texture to the story) he or she can stay.  However, if the character doesn’t have any place except to show off his or her talents as a fictional being, you will probably need to cut them out.  The question then, is how do you know whether or not the character belongs in the story.  This is where writer’s intuition, a good sense of story, and a little sound judgment come into play.  

     I don’t believe any character should ever be dismissed entirely.  Sometimes, characters are speaking to you from the future (as in a book that has yet to be written) and will fit perfectly into a different story. These characters are jumping the gun, overly excited by their own existence, and don’t yet realize that their time hasn’t come yet.  Other times, a character is speaking to you from the past (as in a former character, probably in disguise, who doesn’t feel he or she got a fair shake the first time around.)  These guys often need to either be dismissed, or altered enough that they are unrecognizable from one book to the next.  Good characters, like good actors, should be dexterous enough that they can adapt to and blend into different storylines while still retaining their believability.  Resurrecting old characters under different names is a custom that, although common enough, can only go so far. After a while, your characters will become stale and predictable.

     When I was writing The White Room, my first surprise character was Aunt Mimi (this was before I started calling my mentor “Mimi”, by the way).  Aunt Mimi just appeared and in true diva style, demanded the floor.  I was terribly unseasoned then and never even questioned her existence.  As it turned out, Aunt Mimi went on to lend the story some much needed comic relief in those earlier scenes.  Later, in the same book, when Kendra Howell appeared, my mentor told me to stop and consider her place in my story before writing her out.  I was torn because while I didn’t feel Kendra had a very large part, my instinct told me that what little role she was going to play would be an important one.  I didn’t feel attached to Kendra like I did some of the other players but I couldn’t escape the sense that she had something of value to contribute.  After some deliberation, I decided to follow through with my instinct and let this surprise character play her part.  As it turned out, I was right.  Although Kendra’s role was a miniscule one in terms of presence and dialogue, she ended up being the answer to a serious hitch in my storyline.  As was Sir Purrcival (another unexpected presence in The White Room), my main characters irritating and ever-present pet cat.

    The same thing has happened in An Evil Heart, the book I am currently working on (and close to being finished with!) with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen.  As Aunt Mimi did in The White Room, a character simply known as The Thinning Man appeared in the first scene of An Evil Heart.  I wrote him and then dismissed him as nothing more than a passing face that would populate and add a little color to the book. But all along, I was unable to ignore the haunting suspicion that he had a more important role than giving my main character someone to talk to in that first scene.  As the story has developed, The Thinning Man has become crucial to the story as my main characters greatest enemy and ultimate downfall.

     Also, in An Evil Heart, there have been characters that showed up, been written, and finally, been decided against and deleted.  Such was the case with Julia, a girl who felt important but ultimately contributed nothing to the story.  Maybe one day, Julia will reappear somewhere else, but as for An Evil Heart, she will not be found in the final draft at all. 

     Often times, surprise characters like to show up right before or shortly after the leave of another more important character.  In An Evil Heart, a guy named Damien showed up right before my main characters best friend Brytt exited the story.  Damien felt very important but in truth is no more than an extension of Brytt; Damien is the materialized result of my reluctance to say goodbye to Brytt.  Damien had to be stopped. Now he only occupies a negligible slice in the overall life of the story.  But Damien is significant to me, because his appearance was the first one I recognized for what it was before I wrote him out, and that is a step in the right direction.  One day, I will give Damien his just dues and allow him his own story, so long as, of course, he isn’t so much like his predecessor Brytt that he smudges my style :).

     Yet another irritating way in which characters can annoy the ever-loving bejeesus out of a writer is to deviate from the plan.  These characters already exist and are a part of the story, but they are rebels and will absolutely refuse to play the role you’ve cast them in.  As it is with surprise characters, handling rebellious characters requires intuition and storyline management.  When I was writing The White Room, a character I’d created named Winter went a completely different route than I’d intended.  He was supposed to be a bad guy.  He refused.  I threatened to delete him.  He said, “Go ahead.  See what happens…”  I tried forcing him to be deceptive and nasty.  He laughed at me.  (I realize how crazy this all sounds by the way, but personifying these characters here is the best way I can illustrate the strange nature of this process; bear with me.)  When I finally accepted that Winter would not be swayed, the story began to take a new shape.  A better shape.  “Look,” Winter said to me (after I’d agreed to have a cup of coffee with him), “if you’ll let me do this instead of that, I promise you won’t be sorry.”  I’m just kidding,of course.  That never really happened.  Winter hates coffee.  He prefers fresh blood. 🙂

     By letting Winter have his way though, a few different things happened.  First, the story got tighter and more compelling.  And second, Winter became one of my favorite characters of all time, despite his refusal to follow the rules.  So, personally, I am all for letting the characters have their own voices… for the most part. 

     The key then, is to recognize what can stay and what must go, and that key can only be found in the use of sound judgment and the observance of intuition.  Either way, it’s entirely up to the writer.  Some will tell you that must listen to your characters without question.  Others will say you must never, under any circumstances, let a character control the story. Myself, I’m somewhere in the middle. Personally, I look forward to meeting more surprise characters and seeing what they have to say… as long as it’s something I need to hear.

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     Collaborating on a writing project is vastly different from working by yourself.  It’s been said that no novel is ever written entirely by one person and that is true.  No matter how seasoned the writer, we all need to stop at some point and seek advice from others, and if nothing else, writers depend on other people for inspiration.  But all in all, writing is a pretty solitary venture; one that you suddenly realize has engulfed you for hours and sometimes days at a time, and only when the phone rings or someone stops by do you become aware of the time that has passed.  For the most part, I am okay with this.  I don’t mind spending time alone.  Even as a kid, I seemed to require substantial allotments of alone time, so this is nothing strenuous to me.

     So writing with someone, in terms of a 50/50 effort, is a unique experience.  First you have to be sure of the person you’re writing with.  It’s natural to become possessive of your work and overly sensitive to criticism, so the relationship between two writers of the same project needs to be professional.  As I write this, I am about 30,000 words into an alternating chapter-style collaboration with my friend and mentor Kim Williams-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, Love and Loathing, and the three-part series of Hey, Ranger! books for children.  So far, so good.  Kim was an integral component of my last (and first) full length novel (which is still in the hands of a literary agent I met at a writing conference – no word yet, although I did receive an e-mail from her saying she has received it and, due to the holidays, is a little behind schedule).  So when Kim introduced me to the idea of collaborating, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  I still have a lot to learn and it felt like the next natural step.  I figured it would be an oppurtunity to work one on one, side by side, quite literally, with someone who has not only the education, but experience in the world of publishing. 

     The first thing we had to do was decide which story we wanted to tell.  We both have a vast mental backlog of pending storylines, so it was just a matter of choosing the one that we both felt would most equally utilize our strengths and most effectively blend our voices.  Our first choice was a Gothic-era supernatural thriller.  I made it clear very early on that whatever we wrote together would need to fall into the “creep-factor” category to some degree, as experience has shown me that this is where my style naturally flows.  She agreed and we began.

     I hit a brick wall right off.  I don’t know as much about the Gothic era as I thought, and this became embarrassingly apparent as soon as I sat down to write.  Unfortunately, even when you’re writing fiction, there must be truth in your story.  If it doesn’t feel like the truth, readers sense this and they do not like it one bit.  So we had two choices:  I could spend several months emerged in the world of Gothic history, or… we could write something else, something contemporary.  What it came down to was scheduling.  I had just sent my first manuscript to the agent and Kim was in the revision process of a finalized work, so neither of us were wanting to put off beginning this project for several months, as it is important, (due to the expected dozens of rejections a writer will acquire and the fact that most literary agents demand sole viewing rights to your book), to have more than one manuscript out there circulating at all times.

     So, we settled on what we currently refer to as “Project: Evil Heart,” a kind of he said/she said thriller that, thanks to me, has become more horror and gore than anything, hee hee.  This is the kind of story that I will not be urging my mother to read.  In fact, when I think about that, I cringe.  I have no doubt that Kim and I will both be clobbered by all kinds of criticism when it is complete.  But that is a risk we are both willing to take.

     One thing I didn’t expect when collaborating are all the little differences of understanding.  When my character walks into the same restaurant as Kim’s, it’s interesting to see how different it looks.  To a point, this works.  Our characters are very different from each other, so they are not going to see things the same way, however, there are certain facts that need to be in synch.  If the restaurant has dividers between booths, for example, this can’t change.  If the waiter is a blond guy, no unexplained dye job is going to satisfy the reader it’s the same dude.  This can become challenging.

    Another thing I naively overlooked is the amount of time she and I would spend together.  Our goal is to have this baby ready to be looked at by June 15th of 2011.  That gives us, as of today, just over three months.  We began in January and are just about to the half-way mark so we’re doing pretty good, but there isn’t a lot of time to dilly-dally.   So she and I meet twice a week and not a day goes by without several phone calls or e-mails on the topic.  Right now, Kim is in Las Vegas, and I am stuck on a plot problem.  I need to know if her character answers the phone when mine calls, and if not, why… so I am waiting for her reply to my e-mail and hoping I’m not disrupting her business out-of-state.  These are the challenges.  But I have no complaints.  Our egos are such that we can collaborate with our claws sheathed and our tongues civil.  We have yet to get into even one of the brawls I anticipated when we first began this (well, she did angrily hurl a sizable bag of gummy  bears at my head once, but that had nothing to do with writing… and I deserved it).

    Within the next chapter or two, our characters will meet face to face and this will multiply the time Kim and I spend together.  Then it will literally become a side-by-side enterprise, and it is my hope and belief that we will continue in the same vein of professionalism, respect and allowance of expression that we have thus far. 

     Also, this has been a strain on the people around us.  I am, for the most part, very lucky to be surrounded by a supportive and understanding network of friends and family.  There are those folks though, who take it personally and I don’t know what to say to them except, “I’m sorry.”  There just isn’t any way to do this without sacrificing a hell of a lot of my time.  Those who will understand and accept this, I suppose, are the true friends.  The others will inevitably fall away, bitterly perhaps, but I can’t control their responses.  That’s their bag. 

     Overall, I would say the pros far outweigh the cons.  This is, after all, everything I ever wanted.  Of course, it would be great to be published and that is my ultimate goal, but I try not to get wrapped up in that.  The real joy of this though, is the process, the creativity, the expression.  I need to understand the business side of this, sure, but ultimately, I would rather be at home, “bloodletting” as I’ve come to term it, than twiddling my thumbs waiting for an agent to call, or networking in some hotel somewhere at a writing conference.  But that is a different blog topic entirely.

     As for collaborating, I think it can be done… and well, under the right circumstances.  I am lucky to have had as much opportunity to learn and grow as both a writer and an individual as I have.  Aside from being my mentor and co-writer, Kim is also my friend.  It’s impossible after all, to spend this much time with a person without either loving or hating them to some degree.  It is my sincere hope that this relationship will continue for many years to come.  Not many people have the opportunities I have received. 

     I don’t take that for granted. 


     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.