Posts Tagged ‘the white room’


    

      There is no time to write. If the past six months of my life have taught me anything, that’s it. Today is the first day in a very long time that I have had all to myself. The plan was very simple: wake up, shower, write. I have no other responsibilities today, so it seemed a perfectly plausible idea. So plausible, in fact, that I put off writing earlier this week because I was so certain I would have all the time I needed to do it today. That was my first mistake.

     No sooner had I lifted my head from the pillow than my phone began ringing, my doorbell chiming, and the unforeseen duties began piling up. I spent the day arguing on the phone, making plans, breaking plans, texting the information back and forth between the concerned parties, changing reservations, making amends, and then turning around and changing everything back to the way it had originally been planned in the first place. All the while, chapter nineteen of the book I am currently working on is sitting still, waiting for me to get around to it.

     I have been on chapter nineteen for about a month now, I think. I just haven’t had time to write. I am in the middle of an out-of-state move. I have a new person living with me temporarily. I will begin babysitting my nephew full-time next week. I’ve been cleaning the house inside and out to keep it in pristine condition for open houses and interested buyers. I am full of shit.

     The reason the writing is not getting done is because I haven’t been making it happen. Life is life and it goes on with or without us. The “I just don’t have the time to write” excuse is a crutch I swore I’d never lean on, and up until now, I have done a pretty good job avoiding it. I avoided that excuse so well, in fact, that I didn’t even realize I was using it until today.  Yes, my life is a mess right now. Everything is up in the air and I am juggling too many things to keep track of. My life is a whole different story from one day to the next right now. Aren’t these pretty good reasons not to write?

     The answer, sadly, is no. In truth, this is the best time to be writing. Writing focuses me, brings me peace of mind and allows me to express myself explicitly without apology. Right now, more than ever, I should be writing. I have taken too many breaks from it and they have lasted too long. My goal was to have this project finished by July 15, 2011. I don’t know if that will happen or not but I am going to keep trying for it. The book I’m working on now is a collaborative effort with Kim Williams-Justesen, author of the Hey Ranger! books, My Brother the Dog, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim has been waiting on me for some time now, as we’re writing alternating chapters and she can not get very far ahead without me. I have been using the world-famous “I don’t have time” excuse for several weeks now and it’s time to put that mindset to a quick death before it gains enough momentum to become a habit.

     There is no time to write, it’s true. There’s also no time to grocery shop, pay bills, raise kids, maintain a full-time job, exercise, eat right, have pets, do dishes, read books, or floss those hard-to-reach teeth that always manage to attract the attention of those wayward, stubborn popcorn kernels.

        When I finished my first book, Kim bought me a very nice silver pocket watch as gift. In that book, there’s a pocket watch that has symbolic meaning to the story, and I know that Kim meant it as a reminder of my accomplishment and about how important my writing is to me. While it will still serve that purpose, I am, as of today, assigning it an additional meaning: I will keep that watch with me to remind me that time can not be created, it can not be destroyed, and it can not be otherwise controlled. But it can be managed.

     Twenty-four hours is all we have. I do not have less or more time than you, and you do not have less or more time than me. I bought into the excuse of just not having any time, and as a result, my self-respect took a hefty blow to the solar plexus. It won’t happen again.


    

     People are damned interesting.  And they’re everywhere. I have yet to get to know someone who doesn’t lend some kind of inspiration or insight into human nature, and the deeper you dig, the more you find.  The good news is that if approached the right way, most people will tell you just about anything you want to know.  In fact, a lot of the time, there’s nothing else most folks would rather discuss than themselves.  If you’re a writer, this is the best asset you have when it comes to character conception and development.

     But there is still something to be said about people in their natural state, when they think no one is watching. Before I even began writing fiction, I did a very creepy thing: I would watch people, listen to them, and jot down what interested me on loose pieces of paper that would ultimately do nothing but clutter my personal space (hey… don’t judge me). Anything that snagged my attention  for more than a millisecond was a worthwhile installation into the volumes of (at the time) utterly useless information.  Sometimes it was interesting dialogue or mannerisms; other times it was a person’s style or charisma, and sometimes, I just liked the way a person looked and made it a personal challenge to see how I could most interestingly and effectively put them on paper. (Some will say that spying is wrong and unethical.  I say that we live in an age where privacy is all but dead and if you don’t want any witnesses, then do it behind closed doors).

     These days, I still do much the same thing and I’m glad that, as pointless as it seemed to be in the past, I always did it. It gave me a lot of practice in people watching ~ something that is essential to writing… but now, I do it with more purpose.

     Last summer, when I was writing The White Room, I once followed a kid in grocery store because I thought that, if I were a vampire, this guy would be the perfect victim. I hung back far enough so as not to draw any attention to myself, of course, but still it was a little weird of me, I know. It turned out to be a valuable experience because it got me into the correct mind frame to write a necessary scene where my main character experienced blood lust for the first time. As I followed the guy around, I noticed things about him that I otherwise would have thought nothing of.  He was in his early twenties and seemed very shifty. Passing him, I could smell the lingering of marijuana which he’d tried to cover up with something minty. He was stoned, which explained his shiftiness. That and the fact that I suspect he may have been considering shoplifting a squirt gun from the toy aisle… but that is neither here nor there.  I ended up using this experience in the book and it is one of my favorite scenes.

     A few houses down from me lives another guy in his twenties. This guy has some of the most unusual habits. For example, he seems to always be looking for a good excuse to take his shirt off. If someone comes to his door, he takes his shirt off and stands in the doorway, literally posing so that all passersby can get a good look at him. When he is out walking his dog, he does it shirtless and is always on the lookout, as if trying to make certain that everyone can see him. He throws a lot of parties and I am often able to overhear some of his conversation with friends. I have determined that this guy is a total narcissist, much like the character I am currently writing, and I have used him more than once as a kind of yardstick for my story.

     I have another neighbor who is a great source of interesting things.  She has about a hundred boyfriends I think, and according to the snippets of conversation I’ve caught between her and her friends, this woman doesn’t know anyone who isn’t struggling with meth addiction. From her, I have learned the ins and outs of the world of meth. Not sure I’ll ever use the information, but I’m certain that at this point, I could probably even make my own meth lab!

    As fun as it is to spy on people though, it’s still a lucrative thing to ask questions.  A writer can spend hours, weeks, and even months agonizing over what a character would or wouldn’t do in a certain situation before realizing that the solution to the problem is really very simple: start asking people. They will tell you.  And if they don’t… well, polish up the binoculars, high-tune your hearing and start paying attention to people. In my experience, everything you need to know about writing believable characters can be found in the people around you. Just be sure to change the names…


    

     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.