Dreaming in Character

G.L. Jackson


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Striving for Positivity

I’ll never get published, I hate my writing!

Oh, yeah, I love what I wrote.

I’m a fraud, people will find me out!

Damn, I’m incredibly competent.

I’m going to drop out of all social media!

Wow, look at this great conversation.

Nobody likes me.

I love you all!

 

This is what the inside of my brain looks like today. Which brings me to an important point about exclamation marks (seriously). Look at the list above. All the negative sentiments are emphasized with them, and none of the positive ones…until the last. Because that’s where I’ve ultimately ended up today.

Look, writing is a tough business. There’s precious little praise and entire dung heaps of rejection. It’s hurry up and wait. It’s biting our nails. It’s looking for validation anywhere we can find it. It’s the inevitable feelings of worthlessness, followed by the inevitable (but generally short-lived) feelings of competence. Like a good game of table tennis, we go back and forth, back and forth.

Last night I had to fill out a form detailing my occupation for the past ten years, and I left off writer. Why? Because in my brain–in that space I was in at the time–I decided I had no viable proof that I could call myself a writer. My published stories have gone out of print. I don’t write regularly on this blog any more. I’m not agented. I’m not even sure which of my works I’m going to pitch in the face-to-face sessions I have lined up. That old enemy of mine, self-doubt, made a roaring comeback.

It’s so easy to harp on all the bad things and forget the good ones.

But really, I am a writer and self-doubt will slink away like it always does, tail between its legs. Back into the darkness. Still, at times like this I am so appreciative of my friends and my writing community. Without you guys, I might fill with too much self-loathing and be one of those people who announces they’re quitting the writing world forever, see you on the other side. When I’m smart I remind myself it doesn’t matter what stage of our career we’re in–just starting, manuscript complete, querying, agented, on sub, published–we all have the same nagging doubts and fears.

So let me ward that off for you. When you sit there and ask yourself am I good enough? the answer is yes. When you wonder if you’ll ever be successful, the answer is yes. When you think you can’t possibly do this for one more day, the answer is you can. 

Now all I have to do is remember that myself.


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Criticism vs. Constructive Criticism

Concrit. Everyone wants it, everyone asks for it. Providing constructive criticism shouldn’t be that hard. I was taught if I can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all. While that’s generally a good motto, it doesn’t mean we can’t be truthful.

As with most things, being truthful comes with a caveat. If someone asks for unvarnished truth, fire away. If they don’t ask, it’s generally far kinder to provide constructive criticism. What is concrit? It’s being honest about the flaws while also applauding the things done well.

I read a lot of manuscripts. I used to edit professionally. It’s never difficult to applaud a great turn of phrase but still correct grammatical errors. Neither is it hard to give honest feedback highlighting both what didn’t work and what did work. I’ve never met most of the people who trust me to give feedback on their work, but that doesn’t give me carte blanche to be cruel simply because I might not have a face to go with the name.

The trend right now seems to be blunt regardless of the cost. I realize that the Internet is a big place filled with a lot of people, and when we don’t know those people it’s easy to forget that every writer has worked hard on their story and believes it’s something to be proud of. It can also be tough to remember that there are actual people behind the names on pages, and those people have feelings, wishes, dreams, good days, bad days. Why is it acceptable to focus solely on tearing them down without offering a hand to help them stand again? This happens in more areas besides editing, although that’s where I’ve noticed it most of late.

The silver lining is still there, though: when I see an editor behaving like an entitled ass online, I know not to hire or recommend them. Writers go to editors for help, not for wholesale mud-flinging. I’ve got my list going of people whose behavior has been elitist and reprehensible. To those people, I provide this piece of constructive critcism: you’ve saved me the trouble of ever having to consider working with you.


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Writing

Some random thoughts on writing.

I want to start something new, but I haven’t even really edited the last thing I wrote. Of course I went through and did a very preliminary review for spelling and grammar, but I haven’t gotten into the part where I take the guts of the story and twist them around and wring out all the excess moisture. I’m waiting on my first reader’s reaction before I pick up the axe.

There are two things I miss about NaNoWriMo: writing every day because it’s expected of me, and the stats graph that serves as a marker of my progress. I’ve always claimed I don’t do as well in structured environments, but I’m not so sure that’s true. However, when I finished with NaNo I didn’t feel some kind of emptiness any more than I felt a huge relief. I enjoyed the process of it, I enjoyed what I wrote. Can I set those same expectations on myself any time I want? Of course. Should I? Probably.

I’m always in love with the book I’m working on, and the characters in that book. When I move on to something new, it’s always with a bit of regret. I’m not very good at farewells. Maybe that’s why so many people write sequels. When a story’s told, though, it’s told. That doesn’t mean it can’t be revisited later in any of a grand number of ways.

Of course, I need some down-time. These last couple weeks of the year are my time to absorb other media: read a bunch of books, watch a lot of movies, listen to all my favorite music. Although like most writers I never really take a complete vacation from work (I’m not just dreaming in character most days), it’s good to turn my attention to other things for a while. I suppose until I can’t stand not to write any more, I’ll be cruising along in this mode.

But… after I get my first round of feedback, I will be looking for early readers if anyone’s interested. More details will follow. In the meantime, my virtual bookstack on my e-reader is so high I can barely see over it.


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Writing a novel is like hiking.

I hike a lot in the park just outside my front door. The problem with living at the top of a canyon is that it’s an easy hike down, but it’s not as effortless getting back up to the top.

When I start any hike, I give myself a goal. A mile and a half, two miles, two and a half. Whatever I decide on for the day is good, and it varies based on how I’m feeling. The first part is always easy. I feel like I could walk forever. Inevitably I have to turn around and walk back home, though, and no matter which direction I head in the park, that means a hike back uphill. The return trip always takes two or three times as long as the first part. I have to stop along the way, drink some water, take a rest. Sometimes I can bull my way through it and hike back without stopping at all, going almost as quickly as on the downhill. More often than not, that’s a rarity.

It occurs to me that writing a novel is a lot like hiking. Once I’ve determined to get started and have a few things in order–the literary equivalent of a good pair of shoes, a bottle of water, sunscreen, my cell phone–I’m geared up and eager. Sometimes getting to the starting line is a push but once I’m there, nothing in the world can stop me. Words fly onto the page/feet fly down the path. Ideas are rampant. It’s fun, it’s energizing, it’s beautiful, it’s exhilarating.

Then I get to the middle, and I have to stop there for a while. I look at the way to the end and try to figure out if there’s a shortcut. There never is. The only way back is the way I came, but the work is a lot harder. A little while ago on this blog I talked about the middle being difficult. It is, but I’ve decided it’s fine to acknowledge that, take a little break once I’m there, and gear myself up for the far more difficult journey home.

Unlike hiking a predetermined path, the middle of a novel can be freeing. I don’t have to circle back on the same old route. I can start in my desired direction and see where the words take me. I can give the path free reign, instead of forcing it to fit my initial expectations. Writing as an organic experience is my preferred method, and while I might work from an outline, it’s really more of a suggestion than a requirement.

“And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.” — Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

May we all have as much fun on the return voyage as we did getting to the halfway point.


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Just Tell Your Story

I’ve been thinking a lot about the world of writers and writing. I know there’s a lot of competition in the world and a lot of spite and jealousy between authors, a lot of backstabbing, a lot of griping and sniping. Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve always believed that there’s enough room out there for everyone who wants to write to just go ahead and do it. There are readers for everything: every style, every genre, every piece of work.

There are people who enjoy my writing and people who don’t. Some people appreciate it while others fail to see what’s good about it… and that’s just fine. No one’s work will be universally loved; if that’s what we’re looking for as writers we’re bound to be disappointed. Of course we don’t love the rejection letters as much as we love the acceptances, but we have to take them for what they are and learn from them. The same rule holds for critiques. Everybody’s got an opinion, and who am I to say one is less valid than another just because I might not like it?

Maybe I feel this way because I’m new as a published author. Ask me in a couple years if I still feel the same way, but right now there are people who’ll read my work, people who won’t, people who might some day but for whatever reason say not right now. All of that’s okay by me. What I really want is for everyone who has a story in their heart to go out there and tell it. You will find a reader for it! Don’t worry about comparing yourself or your style to anybody else. Be your own unique voice and write the stories you love to write, and there will be readers who love to read them.


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Foes, Villains, Antiheroes, and Minor Characters

Today I had a coffee date with my friend Tami. She’s playing First Reader for one of my works in progress. I was busy bouncing ideas off her for the story’s conclusion and we started talking about foes, villains, and antiheroes. One thing I like to keep in mind as a writer is that very few people are bad just for the sake of being bad. They usually do what they do because they find it right or necessary. Sometimes they take a perverse sort of glee in what they do or even claim they love to be bad–think antihero Lestat in Anne Rice’s work–but most often they’re just people caught up in circumstances. Whether those circumstances are of their own making or not… well, there’s a major plot point just waiting for you to write it.

The other discussion we had was about minor characters. I mentioned to her that no character knows he or she is minor. They’re all the stars of their own shows, as it were. It’s just that when we as authors pick a main character, we become tied to telling the story through that character’s eyes. Exceptions are omniscient narrators or someone like George RR Martin, who uses multiple POVs in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’m not always a big fan of multiple or alternating POVs. It has to be done the right way to keep the story focused. In a world as big as his, it’s practically a requirement. There are so many stars in that particular universe that it seems a very crowded place, which is appropriate for that world. I don’t love all of his people, but I’m fond of many of them and the way the choose to narrate pieces of the whole story.

I know a great deal about my major minor characters (oxymoronic, isn’t it?). I know where they come from and where they want to go. I need to know enough about their motivations, wishes, and dreams to imbue them with realism. Sometimes they battle to crowd out my main character. Sometimes they threaten to take over. Sometimes they become the most interesting people in the book. Sometimes, if they’re intriguing enough, they get their own book. (I see how series happen now!) I’m such a huge fan of characterization that I feel no effort is wasted in fleshing out these non-headliners. It’s some of the best fun I have with fiction.

To recap: bad characters generally don’t believe they’re in the wrong but when they do stir our sympathy they become antiheroes, and minor characters all have their own lives to live. This last point, I believe, is why fanfiction is so popular. It allows those who write it to fill in the gaps left behind for those in walk-on roles.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts, and also to thank Deborah Layne, publisher of the Polyphony series, who started me thinking about all of this years ago. Thanks, Deb!

For no good reason other than the fact I find it so memorable and so richly characterized, I leave you with my favorite quote from a favorite (arguably minor) character:

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a pair. People will insist on giving me books.”


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Speaking in Tongues

In college, when I was involved with the student senate and considering a career in politics, my boyfriend gave me a very good insight into situational law. He said the standard wisdom in any me-versus-you case was that there were three takes on things: mine, yours, and what really happened. Those words have stayed with me to become one of my most useful tools where writing fiction is concerned.

As a long-time editor/beta reader, I’ve probably doled out one piece of advice more than any other: if the story doesn’t work the way you’re telling it, try telling it from a different character’s point of view. As writers we get ideas all the time. The act of writing a story is the act of fleshing out those ideas as best we can. Stories are like flowers: they start from a seed, they sprout, they blossom, they grow. They meet the sunlight, bask in it for a time, then come to their inevitable end. I remember a story I worked on years ago. The germ of it was what goes on in someone’s mind when they’re in a coma? I started out trying to write the story from the coma patient’s perspective. Ultimately, I couldn’t work that and the story became shared point-of-view between the coma patient’s mother and the patient’s physical therapist. The story became a brilliant illustration of my friend’s advice: what she saw, what he saw, and what really happened.

It can be hard to tell which perspective is the right one to use. Why not try out all the voices clamoring to be heard? Last year I wrote what I thought was a finished novella. I was proud of myself when it resolved in just about 50,000 words. Dutifully, I sent it off to my favorite first readers, among whom are my parents. I love getting their perspective on my writing because it’s a generational perspective and they’ve proved themselves to be excellent first readers, pointing out things I don’t notice. One of the book’s minor characters shows up sparingly but plays a pivotal enough role. My dad’s comment after reading? “You never described that character’s appearance.” In my defense I did, although not until his last appearance in the book, and then in a fairly oblique way since I’m not big on long narratives about the way people look. But my dad’s comment got me thinking about how that minor character was the one who stood out for him. I was secretly so pleased because he was my favorite character in the story.

Now he has his own book. It’s not the same story told from his point of view, but it is his own story that fits in as a precursor to the other one. I actually like it even better; it’s told from first-person POV rather than third-person. That gives it an immediacy and gives me a way of telling the story from the inside out instead of from the outside in. As a character-driven writer, I far prefer that technique although I’m smart enough to realize that not every story is right for first-person POV. (That’s going to be a separate blog post one of these days.)

So which character gets the focus? Who gets to tell the story? This week I saw Les Mis with my 17-year-old for the second time. Afterward, my very astute teen turned to me and said “I like Javert. He’s a great character. If the story had been told a little bit differently, he would have been the hero.” That’s absolutely correct, and I was not only filled with admiration for the observation, but also wanted to immediately hear the story with Javert as hero instead of antagonist.

Who’s the right narrator? The one who tells the story best, I always say.

When in doubt, there’s an exercise I like to do. I take a scene and retell it from the supporting cast’s perspective. However many characters are involved in the scene, that’s how many times I’ll write it. This not only helps me to get to know my characters, but it also helps me to understand the most important elements of that particular scene and where the descriptions need tweaking or improvement. When in doubt, try it out (thank you, Ms. Frizzle). This all gets back to my college friend and his legal description. Thank you, Michael, wherever you are these days. You’ve helped me more than you know.