I broider my life into the frame,
And the only world is the world of my dreams,
I know when I read someone else’s work, I have an image of what their characters look like. Sometimes it runs contrary to how the person is described, for some incomprehensible reason, but it happens. I’m not a neurobiologist, so I have no explanation, except good old human nature. One man decided to feed the descriptions of literary characters from classic novels into police composite-sketch software. Maria wrote about this in her writing blog so naturally I had to check it out. The fascinating results can be seen at the website The Composites.
But how do we visualize our own characters when we write? Myself, I do what lots of other people do; I think of actors or models that have the right features and perhaps even personality. That’s what happened with Alan Mueller, Valerie’s brother-in-law in my manuscript Old Dogs. He needed to be blond and blue-eyed like Valerie’s family, to make her even more of the odd one out with her dark curly hair. Before I even wrote the first line describing him, his humorous expression and personality were forming in my mind and I was reminded of Wash from Firefly. So my Alan, taking his name from the actor who portrays Wash, is Alan Tudyk in my mind.
And you can ask any of my writing buddies, they know that Daniel looks like my favorite celebrity crush, Clive Owen. The whole reason I started writing Old Dogs is because I had chosen Mr. Owen in his role as King Arthur to be the face of Garoben, in my huge rambling fantasy saga about Rayne, and I had decided to leave Rayne’s story alone for awhile but wanted to keep in the habit of writing. So that exercise turned into a novel length manuscript for which I am currently in the throes of an agent search. But Arthur wasn’t quite the right image I wanted for Captain Daniel Hollingsworth, ex- RAF, now commercial airline pilot. When I describe Daniel, I’m describing the lovely Mr.Owen. So, back to Google I went. (It’s such a hardship, doing research, finding pictures of gorgeous men to inspire my muse to do something. It’s a sacrifice I must make because I’m a writer, dahlingk…;-) And I found something more like this.
Another character that I had a hard time finding an image for in Old Dogs was Valerie. I knew what she looked like in my mind; long dark curly hair, pale freckled skin, blue eyes, short and small, but not frail-looking. She has curves. Well, there’s no way I could find all that in any one actor, and Googling things like ‘dark curly hair blue eyes’ got me lots of the right hair, but nothing else that fit my criteria. So I went to a model/actor search website that allowed me to specify exact criteria. The Donna Baldwin Agency has a database of actors and models of all types and is searchable to narrow down those zillions of photos of people. Honestly, I can’t remember if this is the website where I found the pic of the closest I could find of Valerie’s description, but it was one of these sites. Your mileage may vary.
However we do it, with written descriptions, index cards, or actual drawings or photographs, the fact remains that most of us writers have some strong feelings about our characters appearance. And even if these images are never seen by anyone but us, it can still be a powerful tool to inspire and prompt us to greater heights of writing.
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
That Aristotle guy said it with more words, but he and Nike have the same idea in mind. It’s good advice.
But, being the giant procrastinator that I am, I write this post to remind myself as much as anyone, that the only way to realize your dreams is to do something about them. In my case, it means that in order to sell my writing, or to even finish something to try to sell it, first, I’ve got to write. And that means every day, I’ve got to get something out of my brain and onto the page/hard drive.
Every. Single. Day.
What’s keeping me from achieving this simple goal, you ask? How hard can it be to rattle out 1000 or so words, especially when you brag about how you can do it in something like thirty minutes? First of all, you aren’t supposed to be listening when I make such silly claims. Yes, I can do it, and sometimes I don’t have to dump those words like last month’s leftovers. Occasionally some of those words are even good. But very often they’re pure crap, but encasing a seed of an idea. The words may not be great in and of themsleves, but that little idea is there. And without the crap surrounding it, if that idea was still firmly stuck in my brain, such that it is, that tiny inspiration would never have a chance to receive the careful attention and encouragement of my friends who critique my writing and help me coax that seed into germination. The novel-length story I’ve ‘finished’ started out as nothing more than an excuse to fantasize about a certain British actor that I have had a celebrity crush on for years. Nothing more than that.
Aristotle speaks of excellence gained by repetition. It’s a common fact that any muscle, without regular use, will atrophy and lose its strength. The brain is not different, even if it’s not a muscle per se. Still, those neural pathways have to be stimulated into reinforcing old connections and making new ones. Repetition, repeated writing, thinking, reasoning, all serve to make those paths deeper, wider, more conducive to the frenzied electrical activity that our thoughts and ideas are made of.
Writing is what I do, yet I still find other things to do besides write. Hell, this blog entry is a distraction from the scene I should be writing. But it’s still writing. I’m taking my idea out of my brain and putting it where it can invade your brain and maybe shake a thought or two loose. Maybe this idea even likes what it finds in your mind and decides to stick around awhile, kick the tires, see where it can go. Take it places, show it a good time. If it inspires an idea that leads to more writing, excellent. But even if it just makes you think about it, even for just a few minutes, it has done its job.
Go forth and write, my friends. Make it a habit, show writer’s block who’s boss.
I’m going to do that right now.
Right after I check my email.
You write, carefully recording the stories your characters tell you about their lives. You polish and revise and then send your words out into the world, like a mother sending her children off to kindergarten for the first time, hoping that they’ll a) make you proud and b) not embarrass you too much.
Writers can have a bit of a blind spot about their own progeny, as any parent often does about their kids. As writers we know the backstory and the history of the characters whose lives we’re putting on display for the world to see; but the world doesn’t. When a reader picks up a book, they want to become immersed in the world within those pages, to lose themselves in the story. At least I do.
When I read, I want to be able to see the seagulls, smell the breeze coming off the ocean, hear the waves crashing against the breakwater rocks, the taste and crunch of the slightly sandy fried chicken from the picnic basket, as long as the scene is set at the beach, anyway. My point, and I do have one (aside from the one on top of my head), is that we have to make sure that we let the reader know what’s going on.
Wait, isn’t that what we’re doing? I mean, we write, we’re telling stories, aren’t we showing (not telling!) the reader what’s happening?
Yes and no.
You see, I am so guilty of rattling along, getting all the words out, enjoying a clever turn of phrase that I created (William Faulkner knew what he was talking about when he said “Kill all your darlings.”), that I forget that the words on the page don’t necessarily mean that my readers are psychically linked to me and automatically know who this person is when I introduce a character, but forget to name him right away so that he gets mixed up with the next character when I introduce him. Or I don’t describe the scenery, or a change in scenery when someone opens a door into the next room, or goes outside, or gets into an elevator. We, as writers need to use our characters’ senses to show the reader the surroundings and the setting. And we can do so much with that scenery; convey a mood by making an angry character have to shout over the noise of a crowd, or a depressed character listening to the rain coming down. We have that power.
Writing is an amazing thing. This is not my original idea, but it made so much sense when I read it. Someone said that writing was the only way that one person can take an idea out of their own head, put it on a piece of paper (or a computer screen) and give it to someone else to read, and put that idea in their head. How cool is that?
With great power comes great responsibility. That’s not to say that we need to describe every hair on the cat sitting in their lap, or read every road sign along the highway that they’re driving on. The details have to mean something, they should move the plot along by grounding it in the reality you’ve created in your story. Otherwise you’re creating a beautiful, vivid, confusing mishmash of details that don’t mean anything to the character or their story. Who cares what brand of tire is installed on the getaway car of a bank robbery? Unless of course there has been a recall on those tires for steel belt separation at high rates of speed that the criminals don’t know about.
That could be relevant to the story.
Something to think about.
The mysteries of where writing ideas come from has always fascinated me. How an author like Steven King, for example, can be so prolific and successful both heartens and discourages me as a potential writer. To someone like me, his rise to fame after the hordes of rejection letter he received spurs me to keep trying. Having read his memoir “On Writing”, I know where some of his ideas come from. I don’t have the background he does. My life has been relatively normal, even boring, but I still feel the need to write. I imagine I always will.
The creative process is a mystery, no doubt. All my writer friends joke about their respective muses. I’m pretty sure mine is more of the demonic nature, rather than some classical Greek icon wearing a flowing, diaphanous gown. Mine is frequently late or altogether absent. Further evidence of his (I’m sure it’s a male, though I’m not exactly sure why) diabolical nature is evidenced by the fact that I get excellent ideas for current or new stories when I am swamped by other tasks.
Such has been the case lately. Just two classes and full-time work have me writing things that are analyses of other people’s work, all structured a certain way, worded in an academic fashion, or as close as I can manage to the style. And then, out of the blue, a scene embeds itself in my mind. There is no backstory, no logical progression, the people in it don’t even have names, but they are real and insist that I capture their moment somehow. I know better than to ignore this directive. To miss getting the idea down is to spend the rest of my life remembering only tantalizing glimpses of that original seed. I certainly can take what I remember and turn it into something more, but it lacks that certain spark, the indefinable something that can only be captured in the moment in which the notion strikes. And the neglected characters are angry at being ignored and tease me with ‘what if?’ What if that story was The One, what if that story had more material accompanying it, what if the Great American Novel was lost
because you were too damned lazy to get up and get a paper and pen? I’m positive my muse has leathern wings and stinks of sulfur.
But this time I didn’t ignore the idea. I have just over a thousand words describing the scene that was part dream, part mind wandering into sleep. They don’t have names yet, the two main characters, just a vaguely archaic setting where healing is done by firelight. The narrator is a priest of some kind in a world with multiple gods and his protector is a woman who is brash and crude by his reckoning. Chances are good that a novel like it already exists somewhere. The fantasy genre has a fair share of such role reversals, but this one is mine. I’ll let these two take me where they want, show me the parts of their lives they wish for me to see. Sounds like maybe I have some
issues with reality, doesn’t it? My writer friends and I joke about doing ‘what the voices inside my head tell me.’ That’s an eerily accurate way of describing the process for me. These people in my head have a substance, an existence that is undeniable, that I feel a need to convey as best I can into a medium that I jhope others will enjoy, sharing in their adventures.
But first, they need names.
So, I’ve been taking an advanced creative writing class. I’ve had such classes before and they are loads of fun, as long as you aren’t afraid to let anyone else read your work. I got over that a long time ago. All our assignments have been 2-3 pages, some with some guiding theme. We were directed to write one story as our exact opposite type, personality, upbringing, whatever made that person different from ourselves. Another time it was a condensed life, packing a character’s life into those few pages. Such short assignments is meant to teach us to shape our prose, to weave a compelling story structure and do it in the space allotted. That and the short pieces mean we get to cover several per class, otherwise we’d never get anything done.
I’m amazed and in awe of the talent among my classmates. All of them have demonstrated humor, drama and deft skill in shaping words and phrases to tell a story. And Jill, our instructor, is amazing. She can cut right to the heart of what a story could use to make it even better and also tries to coax from the readers what it is they are finding in the story that needs helps, all of which is fantastic in helping me as a writer hone my skills.
Jill gave us an excellent analogy for writing. All of our pieces we have presented are first drafts. She likens writers to anthropologists and biologists, specifically Jane Goodall. Our characters are like those chimpanzees and we are the observer. We don’t know why Bucky just smacked Bubba upside the head, nor do we understand why Delilah broke up the fight. We just watch what they’re doing and write it all down. That’s the first draft. The second draft and those subsequent are when we writers/anthropologists go back to our tent in the jungle with our notes and start rereading them and figuring out what the motives behind the actions are. We sit under our mosquito netting and revise what we know about our characters based on everything we have observed. So, it becomes apparent that Bucky was retaliating for Bubba stealing his nesting spot and Delilah, as their mother, felt it necessary to stop the fight before it got out of control, Or whatever it is your characters are doing.
So, I’m off to the jungle, to follow some chimpanzees and take some notes.
This is new to me. I wish I had found it sooner. Just a whisical, thought-provoking way to look at everything around you and find something new about it. Keri Smith is a self-proclaimed ‘guerilla artist’ and I love how she thinks. It’s inspirational to look at the same old world around you that you experience every day and really, you stop seeing. Keri has suggestions and prompts that get you really engaged and restores and enhances your creative sight. For a writer, what could be better? Go have a peek…