"He who knows others is wise;
He who knows himself is enlightened."
~ Taoist teaching
This is a little update, as I abhor the notion of keeping friends in the dark. Other than that, it has no point at all. About a week ago I shared the knowledge that my interest in writing is waning, changed my handle to The Frontier Navigator, and announced that henceforth I would primarily be a reviewer and promoter, "navigating the frontier" to find the up and coming writers. I set up a forum called "The Plot Room" to replace this blog, which will disappear next year when I renew my membership at a lower level. I set up The Plot Room to coincide with the Navigator theme, that particular space being the room on a ship where the navigator plies his trade, plus I'm sure I don't have to point out the double meaning of the word "plot" to this crew!
All these things remain true, but I'm having trouble adjusting to my new handle. Blimprider is a nickname I was given by my friends in the steampunk community for my work on Beyond the Rails. It's part of my life. Blimprider Publications with the blimp graphic at the top of this blog is the imprint on my books. Blimprider@ is my personal Email. I have no vested interest in The Frontier Navigator; I can't even pick my own items out of a list. So early next week I'm returning to Blimprider. We all make mistakes; the successful ones are the ones who learn from them.
If you've been a follower of this blog, I recommend you start making regular stops at The Plot Room, as that will be my primary focus going forward. See? I told you there was no point at all!
Read well, and write better,
| "Rain dripping from eaves sounds nature's poetry.
We speak and write to explain to ourselves."
~ DENG MING-DAO
Five days ago I hinted at coming changes, the biggest being a downgrade of my membership level to reflect my activities, a change that would remove this blog and a number of larger items from my Port. I removed my Quill nominations from consideration because of this. Now, after a week of introspection, that seems likely to be the smallest of the changes to come.
I've mentioned several times that my fifth grade teacher turned me on to writing to entertain others in 1957. It's 2017, sixty years on! That's a long time by human standards, and anything you do for sixty years becomes an almost unbreakable habit.
Would it surprise you to hear that I haven't done anything creative in at least four months? Oh, I've had this blog up and been posting fresh content, I've plotted stories and outlined scenes, but to sit down and write action, drama, to bring characters to life and immerse them in crises... Nothing. I've sat down at this very keyboard over and over again, reread unfinished stories, pored over the outlines, and tried to give them life, to no avail. I'm reasonably sure I could force it, but have you ever tried to force creativity? It doesn't amount to much when you're finished, does it?
After sixty years of being a writer, to face the prospect of no longer being that defining thing is daunting, frightening even. It's almost like the death of a close family member; you have to find new things to do with the time you used to spend with them. To fill that big empty hole in your life. It leaves you frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights. That not being a feeling that I particularly enjoy, I have invested considerable effort in finding a new path forward. That's what I'm here to share.
I shall first of all stop worrying about that which I can no longer do. If the urge to write returns at some point, then so be it. I've learned in 69 years never to say never, but I have to plot my course based on what my ship can do today. My membership will renew at Basic next summer, at which time this blog, "Temple of Exile" , "Possession of Blood" , and my incomplete novel "Stingaree" will vaporize like they had never been. Hint: If you want to read any of those, do it soon. Also, all my images and signatures will disappear. As a Basic membership doesn't support groups, "The Punk Fiction Library" will disappear unless someone wants to take it over and keep it running. I'll pay for the transfer, should anyone wish to do it. In short, my presence here will be reduced to a very small number of very small items.
So why stay here at all, you might ask? Primarily for the other writers. The majority of writers that I encounter here are not, or not yet published, and so are writing from their hearts about subjects they find compelling. I find so much of mainstream fiction published by the Big Five to be nothing more than desperate attempts to push their authors to recapture the Last Big Thing; seriously, how many interpretations of Twilight, The Walking Dead, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings can you read before you can recite the plot without opening the book? It's like the difference between professional sports and high school programs. One is milked for money, the other is played out of love. That's what I find here, beloved projects by enchanted authors. Sometimes the quality isn't the best, but the sincerity never wavers.
And that quality is what will keep me here and active. It might be expected that in sixty years on the page, I have learned a lesson or two, and I mean to share them. I shall, from this day forward, become primarily a reviewer. Most of my time will be spent on the newbies, encouraging those who are almost there to take those last steps, and showcasing those whose work I find at the pinnacle. It is my intention to build a reputation such that when you see a review from the Blimpster in your mailbox, it will be an event.
Of course, it won't be from Blimprider; I'm making a completely fresh start, and am considering several new handles that will better reflect a reviewer rather than a writer... stay tuned for that development. I expect to dabble in short verse, and I hope you will join me at "Twenty-five Words or Less" . The second forum which I will be allowed to maintain will have two purposes. First, it will be a place where people I have reviewed can comment publicly about their reviews or any other subject they wish to raise. Not just reviewees, either; anyone who wishes to engage me in any sort of discussion will be welcomed and answered. Second, when I find that exceptional story that just knocks me out, that is literature done right, I'll post my five-star reviews (and maybe four-and-a-half) there for an additional audience to find and enjoy those works. My dream is that this will become a go-to forum for people looking for exceptional stories to read and review, and that those authors come to regard it as a springboard to bigger and better things. Realistic? Probably not, but that's the beauty of dreams: They don't have to be!
So, that's what I'll be setting up over the weekend, plus updating and expanding my review template. I'll likely announce changes as they occur in my notebook, and if anyone decides they want to take over the Library, you know how to reach me. This is very likely the last outing for the Blimp, but I'm sure I'll be seeing you all around the stacks. Until we meet again,
Semper audax esse,
| "Express yourself:
That is meaning."
~ DENG MING-DAO
In 1957, my fifth grade teacher introduced me to the joys of writing to entertain others. I don't know what she saw, but she set me on the path of a lifetime of enjoyment. But after six solid decades of creating worlds, populating them, and setting them in motion by means of various crises, I have grown tired. I have known for a good long time now that this was coming, and what has really brought this to a head is the fact that I have had several items, including this blog, nominated for Quill Awards. You see, I've known for a while that those very items are not going to be here a few weeks after the Quill Awards are presented. Long story short, I'm paying for more features than I need here, and when my account comes up for renewal, I'm going to downgrade my membership level to Basic.
Here's what that means: First, Basic doesn't allow books, so 2½ novels plus this blog will go up in smoke on my due date. Second, you can't host groups at Basic, so "The Punk Fiction Library" will become an orphan and disappear unless someone is interested in taking it over. I'll be glad to pay for the transfer and serve as an advisor to whoever might do so, but if no one does, that's gone. Third, as I write mostly in the novella form, and Basic limits static items to 100KB of space, virtually all of my longer stories including most of Beyond the Rails will disappear. I will be allowed two forums, so "Twenty-five Words or Less" will stay, at least as long as it continues to generate interest, and I will have the option to start another any time I see the need, but I have a feeling that helping newer writers find their "voices" in this huge and convoluted pursuit will become my main focus for however many months or years I will be allowed to rattle around this earthly veil of tears.
But, back to the Quills. This blog, as well as "Temple of Exile" will disappear in the blink of an eye. My portfolio has also been nominated for Best New Port, but the member who so graciously nominated it will see it go from what you see here to a hollowed out shell of less than ten items, half of which will be book ads. Not exactly what was nominated, eh? So I have to ask you, what if you were in contention for best blog, and this one won, then a few weeks later it disappeared into the void? What if you lost to me in the Best New Port category, you clicked over here to see what had beaten you out, and all you found was a tiny list of tiny items? I think you'd feel cheated, and when I discussed this with the Moderator who is the public face of these awards, she agreed completely, and complied with my request to remove my items from contention this year. My apologies to the wonderful people who nominated me, but it would be dishonorable for me to compete using items that I know aren't going to be here after the presentation.
I hasten to add that this is not about money. I'm far from rich, certainly, but $50.00 for a year's membership is hardly beyond my means. I simply do not have the interest any longer in the items and activities that require an upgraded membership. I may let this blog dawdle along until the end, but IF I find that I want to continue blogging about the Craft, my GoodReads account will make a perfectly adequate home for that. For the fun stuff, I have Jack's Hideout, my oldest presence on the web, and still going strong; this blog here amounts to doing work in triplicate. Writing itself? That hasn't happened in months. I have been invited to submit a short story for an anthology. It's due at the publisher by New Year's Eve, and I hope I can generate enough interest to bring that home. "Stingaree" , which I'd like to finish, has been stalled for months with no breakthrough in sight, but those things can and do change suddenly.
But as for now, my interests lie in helping the newbies, young (and sometimes not-so-young) writers getting started. While I have had very little commercial success over the years, the critics have liked my work, which at least suggests to me that I know what I'm doing to some extent, and over the course of six decades, I have learned a few lessons that I may be able to save others from having to repeat. That would be very gratifying.
So look for me mainly on the Public Reviews page, and second, anywhere a newbie needs a hand. I may on occasion get a story up, but that isn't a priority with me right at the moment. I don't know where this blimp's headed, but it sure ain't stayin' here!
Keep an eye out for developments, and until we meet again, read well, and write better!
Semper audax esse,
| "My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder."
~ WILLIAM GOLDING
It has been remarked by more than one of my vast audience of a score or so readers that so many of my most powerful characters are females. Here in the aftermath of Wonder Woman, a female-centric movie directed by a woman that has so dramatically raised the bar for all the comic book movies to come, it seems to be time to examine this phenomenon. But before I launch into it, I should make one thing clear: I don't do this to preach. If my opinions were that important, I'd have millions of readers hanging on my every word. I don't. I view this as the starting point of a conversation; what you think is much more interesting to me than my own opinions, so join in. Conversations are so much better than lectures, don't you agree?
So, female characters in roles of leadership. They show up in my unpublished works, so it's fair to say that right from the beginning, the girls were calling the shots. In "Temple of Exile" , viewable here, all the women are either competent and assertive from the beginning, or they become so during the narrative. Tribes of the Southern Sky (unpublished), my space opera, featured Fumiko Nomura, an aggressive and tenacious frigate captain. Chameleon (unpublished) gave us Colleen O'Reilly, a former IRA bomber who had grown a conscience and become a paladin for the underdog. Flight of Heroes (unpublished) offers Karina, a laundry maid swept up in the panicked escape of a fugitive prince who becomes his bold cavalry commander, the unrelenting scourge of their enemies. Nearly every review of the "Invalid Item" series cites the impact that Patience Hobbs, the balloon pilot, has on the narrative, and the beat goes on. How did this come to be?
I must first point to my upbringing. I was raised in a house full of women, most older, and one younger than myself once my sister came along. The first real man in my life was my boot camp DI, so there was no one present during all those formative years to impart to me the dubious wisdom of women's many shortcomings. I never learned to view them as hormone-fueled, emotion-driven, almost-human creatures ever on the verge of hysteria. My grandmother was Rosie the Riveter, and my mother was a professional gambler back when gambling, far from the glamorous cable TV presentation it is today, was considered a sin one step removed from alcoholism or prostitution. I watched these two strong, capable women sally forth every day of my young life and pry a living out of the begrudging grasp of their male-dominated work places. Truthfully, mom spent a lot of my childhood on the road, and for the most part, I wasn't well-liked at home, but I would have had to have had some pretty thick blinders on not to see what they accomplished on a regular basis. So that defined my view of women: Tough and capable.
Men, by comparison, seem pretty one-dimensional to me. Have you ever noticed that when a woman decorates herself with clothing, jewelry, or by working out to get that smokin' bod, she does it to make herself more attractive to men (or other women, if that's her thing)? When a man does the same things, he does them to intimidate other men. Most men of my experience always have to have it known that they're stronger than you, smarter than you, better looking than you, richer than you, having more sex than you... How dull! I write action/adventure in various forms, and I find that a female detective, for example, can't crowd a male suspect into a corner and intimidate him into coming clean. She might be able to do it, but he isn't going to believe it until it's already done; she has to use her brains, her cleverness, and sometimes play on the male's desire to possess her body to reach her goal. Yes, possess, because women are still very much regarded as possessions by a lot of men; we've come a long way, it's true, but there's still such a long way to go.
I began this post by citing Wonder Woman as the initiating event, so let me return to that source to put the exclamation point on my point. Here's the thing that I think illustrates the difference between male and female characters: That iconic photograph seen at the beginning and the end of the movie. This superheroine who becomes a goddess has just teamed up with four men to liberate a village from the grip of an evil military occupation force. Unlike most superhero movies, the mortals are not just comedic relief; they make valuable contributions to her efforts. In the aftermath of the blood-and-thunder battle that has just transpired, she poses with them for a local photographer.
Try to imagine Superman, or one of the other iconic male heroes posing for a portrait with a group of mere mortals. Props to you if you can do it; your imagination is far better than mine! And by the way, here's a little afterthought: What made Wonder Woman seem so "adult" in comparison to the other DC and Marvel offerings? Could it be the fact that it never broke the tension of a dramatic scene with a half-assed joke? I'm lookin' at you, Iron Man!
Maybe I'll explore that point later, but that's my take on the rise of the female hero, both personal, and as an entertainment phenomenon. How about yours? Any opinions?
Semper audax esse,
| "To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk."
~ THOMAS EDISON
Steampunks are an exceptional lot. Most of us are imagineers. We invent the most wonderful devices that never existed and almost certainly never will. Steampunk builders and cosplayers are some of the most inventive people on earth. If you are putting a costume together for a convention, you don't just nip down to WalMart and buy a portable gunkulator. You build it. Are you an adventurer in need of a jetpack? A brace of cola bottles and an old mailbox could be just the ticket! Perhaps you're a Victorian tycoon who needs a pair of cufflinks that tells the world your backstory at a glance. Grab your soldering iron and pull the guts out of a couple of old watches, and go to town.
One of my greatest disappointments is that I never developed the eye to bring these constructions to life. My creative skills are confined strictly to the page, and I must be content with that. But everywhere I look, I see things, items of unusual shape or function, and in my mind they become other things entirely. An elegant lamp becomes a flying machine; a novelty incense burner becomes a mad scientist's secluded laboratory; a kitchen gadget becomes his diabolical invention. I am training myself to see the fantastic in the ordinary, and it is turning out to be an enjoyable and profitable journey.
How about you? Do you see things in everyday stuff that no one else can? Does it figure in your writing? It's just one more tool in the writer's bag of tricks, and the wise craftsman ignores a gift at his own risk. Train your eye to look for these unexpected gems, and you may find, as I have, that inspiration surrounds you everywhere you go.
Until next time, Read well, and write better,
| "Writers seldom choose as friends those self-contained characters who are never in trouble, never unhappy or ill, never make mistakes, and always count their change when it is handed to them."
~ CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN
1976 gave us Sybil, a film starring Sally Field in a tour de force as an unfortunate young woman who played host to thirteen personalities. She won an Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of this confused and tragic figure, and it was richly deserved, but of course, I write here about the Craft of writing, and the writers who pursue it. So, what can we take from this movie, and the disorder it portrayed?
As writers, we have multiple people living in our heads all the time, and far from being a problem for us, they are there by invitation. As writers, we must be focused on the plot, the story arcs, the presentation of grammar, speech, and setting, and yet as writers, we also have to manipulate the characters. Characters who come with quirks, foibles, agendas, and complete personalities. Characters who exist only in our heads.
I am not Patience Hobbs. I am neither a dirigible pilot, a graduate of finishing school, nor even a woman. I never lived in the Victorian era, and when watching a show like Downton Abbey, I am constantly astonished by the rules, customs, and mores that these people not only put up with, but wholeheartedly embraced. They claim to accept these things out of their sense of duty and honor, yet if someone spoke to me the way some of the junior servants are spoken to in this show, I'm afraid duty and honor would require me to punch them in the snout!
Yet I must "live" in this world to write in it, put aside my 20th-21st century sensibilities, and inhabit the lives of multiple Victorian personalities, male and female, because steampunk is at its core Victorian. I don't have multiple personality disorder (though I may be a bit bipolar), but I have to act like I do in order to breathe life into them. And so do you.
How do you manage it? Of course, character sheets are indispensable if you hope to keep any sort of continuity between a dozen characters or more, but what about the world? I find Victorian slang and customs creeping into my daily life. I talk with many people on the internet, and I nearly always address women as "Milady." "Invalid Item" was set in Kenya, and many of the characters were fluent in Swahili. I often greet people in person with jambo, and thank them with asante. That's the level of immersion I need to achieve to bring life to a world I'm working in.
How about you? Does your writing bleed into your real life, and in what ways? Do your friends think you a little "off," or do they find the weirdness charming? What impressions do your friends have of a person who goes out of their way to cultivate Multiple Personality Order? Curious minds want to know!
Until next time, Read well, and write better,
| "If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin."
~ KATHERINE ANNE PORTER
I had completely different plans for today's post, but we'll get to that next week. You see, I posted in my personal blog, Jack's Hideout, over the weekend, and linked it here with a suggestion that you go read it. Several of you did, and one of you made a request. I live for friends and followers, and when one of you requests something from me, I deliver. The request came in the form of an Email: Hey Jack, I saw that you mentioned a new outline method and was wondering if you cared to share any tips from it? A couple of things before I start: I'm protecting this member's identity in case this doesn't go well; if he or she would care to take credit in the comments section, I'll be happy to corroborate. Second, I'm not doing this to start the old war between planners and pantsers again. If you're a pantser, you can feel safe moving on in the knowledge that I will neither insult you nor provide any insight that you need. With that covered, let's move on.
I haven't always been a planner. I wrote my first novel with the idea that I could sit down at a keyboard with no more idea than "This sounds like fun," and write the book that would knock Stephen King off the top of the heap. As a warning to others, I posted that rambling, disjointed adjective-fest here under its title, "Temple of Exile" . Have a read if you dare! I know people, authors, who have written perfectly coherent books and stories who claim that they never plan anything. Based on my own experience, I don't know how that's possible, but I'm not in the business of calling people liars. All I know is that it doesn't work for me; I need a roadmap.
I began outlining in great detail, but found that I was really doing no more than an involved form of pantsing. I really had to have some training in outlining. At some point discovering that there was an entire "How to write books" section in my local Barnes & Noble, I began to read some of the authors therein. Slogging through reams of advice such as "Define your crises and enter them into a V-diagram," and "Keep the surprise and delight coming," I encountered Evan Marshall, a successful agent, who had developed a method for writing he called The Marshall Plan. This is a highly disciplined approach to story construction that basically assembles the facts of your projects and enters them into a grid. I found that this disciplined approach was what I needed, and have used it to write every book and story I've taken on since 1998.
To use his system, you must be a "viewpoint" writer. This means that once you have decided to write a mystery, an adventure, or whatever, you decide how many viewpoint characters you're going to have. Viewpoint characters are the protagonist, the antagonist, the confidant, and so on. You can have up to six of these; more than that, and you're writing a series. Once you've decided whose stories you want to tell, you plug that number into a grid, and it tells you how many scenes you will write, and how many each character gets.
Let's say you're writing a murder mystery, and you want to have four characters tell the story, the detective, the murderer, a reporter trying to turn the case into his "break," and the murderer's sister, who wants to help her brother get away with it. Plugging four characters into the grid gives you a range of lengths, from 72 scenes all the way up to 88. Let's say that you decide that 80 scenes is a good target. This means the reader will be in the detective's head for 48 scenes, the murderer's for eleven, the reporter's for eleven, and the sister's for ten. Now you can begin to assemble your outline with a clear view of how much space each character will get, where to put the surprises and the revelations, and when you need to start bringing the threads together. You outline with this grid clearly in front of you, and there is no question of adding a ramble or going down a rabbit hole, because you have a template, and it has to fit.
For novels, I use 96 scenes with six characters. I begin by taking a spiral notebook and numbering scenes down the margin of four pages, 24 to a page until I reach 96 at the bottom of the fourth page. Then I plug in the high points of the story, the surprises and discoveries, in the approximate places they should fit. With those in place, I begin to fill in the rest of it.
Knowing how many scenes each character is allowed, I space their names more or less evenly down the lines, knowing that I can move them around later as long as the numbers remain the same. With a clear idea of my story's arc, the characters who will be telling it, and approximately where their scenes will appear, I then write one or two sentences on each line (I can write microscopically small) describing in barest terms what that scene will cover. Using my novel in progress, "Stingaree" , as an example, the first two bare-bones lines of the outline read:
1. Harold Youngblood arrives in San Diego, contrasts it with Charleston, finds it grubby and disorganized. Gets belongings from ship and hires a carriage.
2. Youngblood goes proudly to city hall to register ownership of the Oyster Bar. He is treated like scum, learning it is a gambling den and whorehouse.
If you go and read the first two scenes of the story, you will discover that there are things in those scenes that are not in the short-form of the outline. Those two sentences are merely to spur your creativity while giving you a form to hang it on. I used to use the rest of the notebook to write a paragraph or two about the scene, amplifying and setting in stone everything that I wanted to appear in it, but I quit doing that before this work, as the pantsers convinced me that I was stifling creativity, so the first half of the novel, which is complete, was written without those amplifying sections. I discovered, though, by getting lost and wandering down unproductive paths, that no amount of pantsing works for me; the creativity comes first, followed by the mechanics of putting the story on the page. No multitasking for me, thank you!
So I have begun to amplify those brief bits of scaffolding again, but this time on index cards, and that's the innovation I spoke of. My sixth character is Wyatt Earp, a fire-breathing badass of the old west who owned a string of saloons in San Diego following the more famous business in Tombstone, eventually including the Oyster. He is intended to be a powerful presence who is nonetheless peripheral to the story. Time and readers will be the judge, but here's how scenes 49 and 50 played out. First, in the notebook:
49. Youngblood needs to learn all he can about Belmont. His staff only knows bare facts. Jackson is out in the back country. The only other man he trusts is Earp. Will visit him.
50. Jackson visits ranch, learns that Earp was there the night of the murder. He lost big, including his watch, which they're holding against payment.
I then expanded these scenes onto index cards, which became this:
49. Youngblood up early. Wants to learn all he can about Belmont. Staff doesn't know much. He owns a boatyard, and heads the Northside Businessmen's Association. The Association resents the existence of Stingaree, and if Belmont is serious about running for mayor, that could be bad news for the red light district.
50. Earp in cell reading dime novel about Wild Bill Hickok's days in Deadwood. Youngblood comes for a visit. Asked for news, he tells Earp that Jackson has gone out to the back country to check on his alibi. Earp passes on some speculation about Belmont being violently racist, and having the temperament to employ thugs to do his dirty work. He wouldn't be surprised if Belmont was behind Price's murder. That would be just the thing to sow a little discord among the opposition.
The first thing you'll notice is that Scene Fifty on the card has nothing to do with Scene Fifty in the outline. I'll get to this momentarily. This method accomplishes a couple of things. First, it gives me a fully fleshed-out scene to work with when I'm ready to commit it to the manuscript. Second, having these on index cards instead of in the notebook allows me to lay them out in the form of a timeline, and third, if I want to see how they look in a different order, I can just switch a few cards and see. Is that important? Well, the scene where Youngblood meets Earp in his jail cell originally came after Jackson had visited the ranch and questioned the workers. That alone isn't the problem, but it screwed up the timeline for the next few scenes, and that stuck out like a sore thumb with them laid out on the table. It also made it butt-simple to fix by simply stacking the cards in the adjusted order.
Yes, I'm an obsessive planner; maybe that's why I'm not one of those writers who can churn out six novels a year, but does it work? I invite you to check my books' ratings here, on Goodreads, and on Amazon.com. I think that will answer that particular question.
I will be the first to admit that this method is not going to work for everyone. I have two points to this post, beyond simply answering a request. First, if you are a detailed planner, here is a detailed method that pays huge dividends. If you don't use it exactly as described, it will certainly provide a starting point that you can modify into a system that meets your needs. Second, planner, pantser, or somewhere in between, be aware that writing is hard work. If it wasn't, we'd all be on the best-seller lists! Nothing will guarantee that you will find your way onto those lists, but the one thing that everyone on those lists have in common is that they did the work. If you hope to join them, there's a lesson here somewhere. Take it to heart, and get busy!
Until next time, Read well, and write better,
| "Fear makes men forget, and skill which cannot fight is useless"
~ PHORMIO OF ATHENS, 429 B.C.
Fear. The most powerful of emotions. It can strike you dumb and paralyzed, and make you forget a skill you've practiced for a lifetime. It doesn't matter what else you're doing, figuring your taxes, driving your car, or making passionate love to your dearly beloved, the second fear strikes, everything else, and I mean everything, is put on hold until it is dealt with.
You're alone in that lovely cabin by the picturesque lake that you rented for the weekend to work on your novel. You've had a productive day and a robust dinner, and turned in early, eager to make a full day of it tomorrow.
What was that?
You glance at the clock: Two AM. You listen to the sound of the wind in the treetops for a while, and finally convince yourself that it was the remnant of a dream, something that only happened inside your head. Your eyes begin to drift closed.
You ain't sleepy now, are you?
Fear, then, is the greatest motivator in the human experience. I'm postulating that as a given, and if you can prove me wrong, I would love to hear the argument. People are afraid of different things. Snakes, rats, falling in love again... With me it's spiders, flying, and rejection. That fear causes me to react with sudden and extreme violence when I see one scuttling around my work area, or God forbid, on my person! Want to see a funny dance? Just let me walk through a web! Flying? Forget it! The bravest thing I've ever seen anybody do is get on an airplane. Fear of rejection has made me the sort of recluse who grows into a writer; gotta do something with all that solitary time, right?
Much has been made in recent years of the so-called Hierarchy of Needs, but there doesn't seem to be a corresponding hierarchy of fears. Most humans have a healthy fear of death. It's healthy because it keeps us from doing stupid things like trying to jump between two skyscrapers, swimming with piranhas, or getting into airplanes. We try to avoid pain, though that may be classed as an aversion rather than a true fear. But once we get past those, there's a much more "cafeteria" approach to it. Many people aren't afraid of spiders, and snakes don't bother me a bit. And if you want to get an idea of how many people are in the air at any given time without a care in the world, feast your eyes on https://www.flightradar24.com/28.49,-81.46/6
So, as humans, we all carry all of these different fears with us, and like the song says, my funk ain't your funk, and your funk ain't mine. How do you use it to shape your characters' actions? And let's clear something up here: a character who never feels, let alone shows any fear is about as one dimensional and uninteresting as anyone can get. Someone who is truly and deeply afraid, and is able to shake it off, pull themselves together, and do what needs to be done are generally considered leaders, heroes, saviors and the like. Those who can't manage it join the ranks of the cowards who leave friends in the lurch, the damsels in distress that need to be saved, the ones who, in short, make heroes necessary.
In writing this article, I have realized that I could do better at this. Could you? How have you used fear, and the reaction to it, to make your characters richer, deeper, more compelling? Have any insights you might share with us? We'd love to hear them!
Until next time, Read well, and write better,
| "I'm not afraid on 'em. I'll shake out another reef, matey, and daddle 'em again."
~ ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
This week's quote is from Treasure Island, and loving the old adventures like I do, I grew up in the 1950s reading the "boys-own" adventure stories and emulating their style. Those books, specifically that writing style, is outdated, and yet it lives on in the works of Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling among others, and so it continues to be seen by impressionable amateurs such as myself.
It took me a long time to discover that books were written in this style in the Victorian era because in the age before the internet, television, and even radio, reading aloud to the family was a widely practiced form of entertainment, and the dialect was written into the story to assist the reader. Not so much the case anymore, and not such a good idea. Behold:
“Bah, you English mit your eternal jokings! Vell,” he ordered Abasi, “bring your boys up und collect him.”
Source material? This is a single line of dialogue spoken by Baron Dietrich von Redesky, titular anthropologist of my story, "Invalid Item" , and this isn't as thick as it gets. Take a moment and contemplate reading a story that's full of that before we press on.
Ready? Okay, here's the guidance for dialogue of this sort: Don't. Just don't. There is a modern style of "suggesting" rather than imparting dialogue, and rather than blow it, I shall quote directly from Evan Marshall's fine self-help books for authors, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing:
Some beginning writers, in an attempt to reproduce dialogue exactly as it sounds, take great pains to present dialect with all its idiosyncrasies. This is not a good idea. Readers inevitably trip on dialect.
"Lawd God, Serena, ah done tole you ter git yosef away from dat winder 'fo this whole town knows yo' bidnez!"
Instead of writing perfect dialect transcription, phonetic spellings and all, suggest dialect through word choice and arrangement.
"Well now, missy, I'd say your daddy and me are in for a mountain of trouble."
Would that I had read this before I tackled the good Baron! Learn from my mistake (the mark of true genius), and don't do this. I learned the hard way that it stops a reader in his tracks. There was a time when it was acceptable, even expected, but times change, and this technique, like the Tandy home computer, is most definitely a thing of the past. Don't try it, don't use it, and if it's in your repertoire, lose it!
And that's it for this week. One simple yet vitally important subject with no distracting side trips. This was perhaps my most embarrassing writing gaffe; have any you'd care to share?
Until next time, Read well, and write better,
| "There are two basic reactions. There are those who hate you because they think you put them in your book, and there are those who hate you because they think you didn't."
~ HANIF KUREISHI
We are all products of our past. Upbringing, peers, what family taught us about our heritage; what we learned in our first jobs we took into our second. From the loving aunt to the snooty receptionist, from sharing peanut butter with a fondly remembered dog to that first fall from the old oak tree, we are all collections of past experiences, stuffed in a sack and tied up with a bow. Your friends like you and your adversaries don't because of the hundreds of thousands of experiences and contacts that have combined to form your personality and world view. The vast majority of them, we don't remember, but they're all in there, having their effect on the face we present to the world, and that's fine. We don't have to remember every detail; we are who we are.
But what about our characters, the people who inhabit the stories we write? Oh, sure, if you're dashing off a piece of flash fiction, or a 3,000-word morality fable, maybe they don't need to be all that, but what if you're undertaking a novel, or a series? If that is the case, then I am here to suggest that if you want your characters to leap off the page, then you need to know every pertinent detail of the journey that brought them to this point. Sure, if your main character goes to buy some meat, and the butcher wants to tell a rambling story about his brother-in-law while he does the cutting, you can gloss it over; the butcher will never be seen again, and doesn't have to be explained. But your main character, the third-grade teacher who's tapped to serve as a juror on a high profile murder case, the killer's henchman who has decided that she is the weak link that can be influenced by threats, her husband, her sister, these people are instrumental to the success of your story, and nothing can be left to chance.
The henchman, the teacher, the criminal, the attorneys all have backstories, journeys, if you will, that made them who they are, and while it would be disastrously boring for you to give the reader all of these backstories in huge information dumps, you must know them! What made this woman devote her life to teaching? Was she dedicated to leaving no child behind, or was she afraid to leave the school environment and compete in the "real" workforce? Why did she not attempt to get out of jury duty? Was it a sense of civic duty, a desire to experience the courtroom environment to be a better teacher, or was she bored with the classroom and eager to take a break? How about her relationship with the aforementioned husband? Or is she a single mom, and if she is, how does she feel about that? Betrayed, abandoned, or relieved to be free? Does she have a tattoo? Something in her personality caused her to get it. Why?
Sure, you can just start writing: Most people are annoyed when they open their mailbox to find a jury summons staring back at them, but third-grade teacher Gloria Sims saw it as an opportunity. But if you want your novel to be memorable, to leave your reader thinking about the world you've created long after he's left it behind, you need to do more. You'd better know why, because fifty pages on, when she reacts to another unexpected stimulus, her reaction and her motives had better be consistent. This means a fully fleshed-out character sheet with background, upbringing, childhood, work environment, everything pertinent that contributed to who this person is. Let me repeat, pertinent. A lot of the little day-to-day things aren't, but the difference between an abusive childhood and a loving one is going to make specific differences in the life of the adult involved, and you, the writer, need to know how. And this is just for one of your main characters!
Once you know all these things, the temptation then exists to pile them all on the reader in huge information dumps. If you follow the sample sentence above with a six-page dissertation about Ms. Sims' education from kindergarten through her graduate work, I promise you that no reader will reach the end of it, and if your book doesn't get thrown at a stray cat, it will at best be used as a potted plant pad. But you need to know these things, and you need to use them constantly to inform your characters' words and actions.
I can hear the electric whine of attenuated nerves already, way up at the upper edge of the threshold of hearing: This guy wants me to become a planner! No, not really, not for the big picture, but characters are far more complex than simple plots, and it is flatly impossible for any one writer to keep up with every little quirk and foible that he attaches to the half-dozen major players that power a novel. What I'm telling you is that if you want your readers to be discussing your book a year after they've read it, your characters had better be as rich, nuanced, and consistent as your immediate family members. Readers notice things, and inconsistent characters are right at the top of the list. Get your characters right, and they'll write your story for you; take the lazy way out, make them up on the fly, and they'll get their revenge by dooming you to obscurity.
I think that about covers it.
Until next time, Read well, and write better,