Saturday, May 22, 2010

Nobody's perfect, not even in fiction

Usually, you can tell early on how you feel about the main characters in a book you're reading. You know if you identify with them, if you like them, if you want them to succeed.

But you may not know - not at first, at least - if they'll stick with you. You know the ones I mean; the ones you can't get out of your head. You think about them after the book has ended; you're eager to read about them again. Or maybe years later, you still remember their names - and why you liked them so much.

What is it, then, that makes a fictional character memorable?

When I was first created America Miles, my main character in Death on Deadline, I went in a few different directions. I knew she was a journalist, sure, and on that point I never wavered. But somehow, in the first draft, I realized I had created an uber-journalist. She never made a wrong move, or asked the wrong question, or said the wrong thing. But something was wrong. She just didn't seem ...real. So I started over. I recreated her. Several times.

Eventually, I realized my mistake - my fictional creation didn't have any non-fictional flaws. After all, nobody's perfect. Few pretend to be. And for me, it's those human elements, those foibles, that make a character resonate.

Think Jo in Little Women, or maybe Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. They're outspoken, forthright. But not perfect. They made mistakes, just like you and me. So we root for them. Feel for them. Even cringe for them. And we think more about them.

Or for a more modern take, consider Sookie Stackhouse, the popular telepathic barmaid of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire (True Blood) series. Is she memorable? Most definitely. Perfect? Hardly. She talks when it would be better to stay quiet, goes when it's better to stay, and tends to fall for the wrong (undead) men. And like her or not, you still think about her long after you've finished the last page.

It's so tempting, (for me, at least), to bequeath onto our protagonists those better, stronger, faster traits we wish we possessed. But our flaws, our quirks, are what make us interesting, make us who we are.

A few years ago, the USA Network adopted the slogan, "Characters Welcome." Writers more than anyone know exactly what it means.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Could a writer be too organized?

The comment took me by surprise.

I was at a meeting of my writers' group, and we were discussing ways that writers put together stories. There are some writers who simply begin with a nugget of an idea, and then go for broke - typing furiously as the ideas come, and then clearing a path of logic later. And there are others who know exactly how their story will start, have a pretty good idea of how it will end, and then spontaneously develop the path of action somewhere in the middle.

Then there are writers like me.

"I like to pretty much have stories plotted out in my head before I write," I told the group. A woman looked back at me and shook her head.

"You're too organized," she said. "You're not letting yourself be creative."

And then she turned, and started a conversation with someone else.

Apparently, she was unaware of the bombshell she had just dropped. I was too what? That was impossible. First of all, I barely made it out of my house fully dressed each morning. Secondly, how in the world could a writer be too organized? That was just crazy talk. Wasn't it?

Although there were plenty of other conversations that night, I thought about that comment long after the meeting ended. I was surprised. Annoyed. I even argued my points later to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Then I realized something. If I was this defensive, there was probably a reason why.

Maybe she was right. Maybe all those years of journalism, of not starting a story before all the facts were gathered, before all the sources were interviewed, were working against me now. I did find it hard to begin new fiction projects - I was overwhelmed until I had every plot point worked out just so. It was exhausting. And maybe,just maybe, it was stifling my creativity.

But to sit down and just write, without having a solid direction plotted and planned? That's completely out of character for me. Frankly, it's a daunting thought.

Then again, to try something new and different - even scary? Maybe that's where true creativity is born.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bookstores provide the perfect de-stressor

I had one of those weeks. You know the ones - where the work piles up with the stress and the days stretch on and even when you're finished and everything's okay, you still can't calm down.

By Friday afternoon, my stomach was knotted like a necklace at the bottom of an old jewelry box. I could feel myself growing snappish. So my daughter and I took off to the one place where I knew I could relax - the bookstore.

I love bookstores - any bookstores. It doesn't matter if they're filled with dusty, used tomes housed in hundred-year-old buildings, or if they're bright, shiny titles in chains with coffee shops in the back. There's something about being around books that changes me; it's like I'm meeting a room full of friends. I actually think I get friendlier.

Sure, I love online bookstores and I admire the accessibility of e-books - of course I do. I consistently and persistently hawk my own offering (see blatant plug for Death on Deadline at top of page) on But sometimes, I need that tangibility of seeing print on pages. Maybe it's all those years working at newspapers.

So this weekend, off we went. While my daughter made a beeline for manga (which, I'll admit, I'm still trying to embrace) I trolled the aisles, seeing what my friends were up to.

I explored. I found out that John Grisham has a detective book for kids, which looks pretty interesting. And I read a few pages from the new book "Sh*t my Dad Says," by Justin Halpern, which, if you follow Twitter, you'll know is one of the funniest accounts ever, and if you don't, then Google it and you'll see why it's now a book.

Then, I found it. A new fiction offering by Laurie Notaro. My stress disappeared like it had never arrived, and I could feel my excitement mounting. Notaro is one of my favorite writers(she usually writes hilarious, biographical non-fiction), and I couldn't believe I'd missed the arrival of one of her books.

It's called "Spooky Little Girl," and I snatched it up like one of the grabby ladies you see fighting over the last designer bra at a New York fashion sale. I was so excited; it was like an old pal had arrived in town unexpectedly and now we had the weekend together to catch up.

I started it last night. I didn't mean to - I was in the middle of another book I need to finish. But I couldn't help it. And just as I expected, it's really good.

Oh, and that stress ... what was that even about? I can barely remember.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Little mistakes can make a big impact

I was reading a book recently, a non-fiction offering, and it was pretty compelling. I was a few chapters in when I came to this sentence:

"I left the house, children in toe."

I read it twice. What? Oh ... I see. Toe. Tow. Okay, okay, somebody screwed up. But boy, that's a pretty bad one. And I have to admit, I started reading a little closer. And then I read this:

"He was to close to the picture."

What? Oh, I get it. Too. To. Ugh. I was becoming an editor, not a reader, and I didn't want to be. But little mistakes in the copy were ruining the story for me. And after I found a few more, I have to admit, I flipped to the back to find out the background of the author. I was frustrated and becoming a little judgmental. But why, I wondered, didn't anyone check this? What happened here?

Because these little mistakes? They add up, they really do. People notice. It's distracting, and it ruins the flow of the story. That's why editing is so essential, and why guessing just doesn't work. Don't assume an editor will find your mistakes. Find them yourself. Better yet, try not to make them at all. It sounds simplistic, I know, but it's something writers, caught up in the excitement of the storyline, easily can forget. So it's worth a reminder.

If you're iffy on the difference between its and it's, look it up. If you don't remember why and when you use an apostrophe, it's worth the extra time to read the rules. I know, I know, writing is about ideas, it's about creativity, but if your reader is slowed down by bad grammar, those ideas will never get through.

I always think about this one episode of Family Guy, when Peter was opening up his own bar and grill. He couldn't decide where to put the "e" on the sign. First he wrote "Ye Olde Pub." He looked, pondered, and changed it. "Ye Old Pube." Then he changed it back. And then... well, you can guess how it ended up. Yes, I know, a little tacky - but it makes its point.

Little mistakes can make a big difference.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poetry that converted a 'non-poetry' type

There are poems that you find, and then there are poems that find you.

Recently, a poet has been popping up in my life. A friend sent me a quote from her; then not one but two of my favorite blogs quoted her the next week. While different poems were quoted, they were all from the same author. With all the poets in the world, this seemed quite coincidental.

And the oddest thing of all was the fact that I - not a poetry person in the slightest - really, really liked what I was reading. The poet? Mary Oliver. Have you heard of her? I highly recommend giving her a read. She writes about the beauty of nature and the strength of faith, and her poems have haunting, introspective lines, like this one, from "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches":

"Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?"

And as an animal lover, I found this one particularly struck a chord:

Making the House Ready for the Lord

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice — it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances — but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

Now I think I know why so many people love poems - certain words, certain ways, have the power to stir your soul. And sometimes nothing does that more succinctly than poetry.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sometimes it's best to simply walk away

You've finished it - that essay, the story, the article. You've worked on it forever, you've sweat blood and tears, and you're finally ready to turn it in. Wait - do one last thing.

Walk away.

Seriously. If you can, if you're not on deadline, save your file and take a walk. Get away for a few minutes, for a few hours, even, if you can swing it. You might be surprised at what you find when you return.

There's this great quote by artist Paul Gauguin: "I close my eyes in order to see." Now, Gauguin was actually speaking about painting, of course, but I think his words can apply to writing, as well.

When we're so close to something, we lose perspective. We know what we want to say, but are we really making our meaning clear to the reader? And when we're self-editing, over and over again, are we finding those little mistakes? We can't be sure. So walk away. Take a break. Clear your head.

And then come back. Read. Maybe your words will be perfect, and you can feel proud and relieved you took the time to make that one last safety check. But maybe you'll find some things you never expected - garbled sentences, repeated words, dropped punctuation. Maybe you're conveying something you didn't mean to; maybe your point isn't getting across as strongly as it should.

Time is one of our most valuable commodities - if you have it, by all means, use it. Close your eyes, open them, and really see.