Tuesday, March 13, 2012

When Characters Tell You What They Want

     One of the interesting debates among writers is the whole outline/plan vs. spitting it out. I've always been more of a "get it out" type of writer, but I also find that sometimes I plan or outline how I think a story's going to go because I don't have time right at the moment to finish, but I can at least write out the basic idea, since I know that once I break the flow of my thoughts, the writing may change directions when I return to work on that piece.
    That said, sometimes I think writers forget to address another phenomenon that tends to happen - sometimes the story we think we're writing turns into something else. And what, pray tell, might the catalyst of this metamorphosis be? In fact, many times it is the voices of the characters themselves.
     Now, this might seem a little odd - after all, aren't I in control as the writer? But the truth is, stories take on lives of their own, as evidenced by innumerable interpretations of literature and poetry. So, too, does characterization. But I think there's a lot of reasons for this.
    When I teach story writing to my students, one of the things I have them start with is the characters. Pick how many characters there will be, and what are their ages, backgrounds, wants, etc. Often times, this tells the novice writer something about their story. For instance, I had a student who wanted to write about four friends getting together at a cabin. One of the characters was very shy, liked to read, and enjoyed knitting. I told my student that tells us, at the plot-creators and audience/reader, that means that this character will probably not be up to date on sports, or maybe the main characters are not meeting to going skiing or hiking. It's a fairly simple way to approach writing, but sometimes it saves me a lot of time. And sometimes, I just get inspired. 
     Recently, I was writing a short story. It was a bit of an experiment for me - lots of humor and zombies, both of which I have little experience. So I just started jotting down some things. At some point, after wandering around with my prose and trying to figure out where the story was going or how it would end, I finally realized what my character wanted. I wrote the rest of the story that day because I listened to that inner voice that assumed the persona of this character I had brought into being. 
     Now, I'm also an actress, so in some ways, it's quite a similar insight. I don't have to go steal or knife someone to play a character that does. I simply study the behavior and let it inform my choices when I'm onstage. True, zombies aren't technically real, but the way my character communicates itself is, so I can use that to connect to the audience.
     The bottom line is, I start stories all the time. I get story ideas all the time. But a lot of the time I'm not sure what to do with them or where they are going. What do I do? I skip to the parts that I want to write and let the character show me which way the story is going that allows them to get closer to what they want.
     Everyone wins. 
     So sure, go ahead and plan. But just we sometimes have to throw our plans out of the window due to unforeseen circumstances, we also just need to let the words - and our characters - have their way with us.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Working Muscles

     I talked to a friend of mine recently who began our conversation saying that she hated everything and never wanted to write (or move) again.
     Well of course I was intrigued, since "hate" talk isn't really her thing.
     Turns out she was exhausted. Every day she gets up to workout then write then work.... every day. Every day? Every day!
     This made me remember when I first began working out: I was addicted. I loved the rush of adrenaline, the feeling of accomplishment, the immense freedom from guilt that working out gave me. I felt justified with every bite of food I took, because I had earned it. I would go 7, 8, 10, 14, 20 days in a row without stopping. However, what generally happened was that although I was going to the gym every day, my workouts were getting less intense. More like I was going through the motions than actually focusing on what I was doing. True, there was (and is) some merit to going and just walking for an hour rather than sitting at home reading or taking yet another nap. But then I had a friend tell me that they wished I would go on a vacation or get sick - just so I would take a few days off from working out. I was flabbergasted - take a break? But...but...I can't! What if I get out of the habit and stop, I asked worriedly.
     But the truth is, when you really care about something and you make it a vital part of your existence, you're not in any real danger of breaking that habit. I now take days off because I'm no longer afraid that I'm going to give up going to the gym. And I remember that same friend also told me that it was actually good for the body because it gave it time to heal and rest. Rest is the most important thing we can do for our bodies. After all, don't we sleep every night? And when we don't, things tend to start blurring, right? 
      Well, I did what my friend suggested and sure enough, I came back to the gym with frenetic energy, rejuvenated and not dreading my workout - which I later realized was keeping me from doing my best.
      In the same way, writing is a like building a muscle. I should do it on a regular basis, but it's also good for me to take time off. Maybe read, maybe reflect. Maybe just bake a cake or go hiking or swimming. Maybe do nothing but stare at TV. But most importantly, I'm not afraid anymore that I'll stop writing. Regardless of the way I spend time in-between each writing session, ideas will live and roll through my brain. And when I come back to the actual doing, the words are usually ready to spill out. Maybe it's not exactly what I wanted to write, but it's a story or a character waiting to share it's story... but that's another blog!
     So to end... write every day? Sure. But take time off?? Even better! Your muscles - both mental and physical - will thank you for it!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Measure of Progress

Progress is a strange thing. It is possible that I write nothing in a day yet feel I have done so much for my creative process. When I find myself trying to stay on task for my writing goals, but feel a little behind just because I have a slow day, I try to remember that every word counts. The ideas percolate in my brain, the images start to coalesce. I'm ready to turn them into plots and characters. There is a story being born,an embryo full of characters that is taking on definition and shape.  I only have to pause at little moments and let the words come. I can't sabotage myself with doubts or distractions. I can't keep time as my enemy. And should I forget, I only need take a deep breath and remember why I write...

Two of my fave lines from a couple of "end of the world" short stories I am working on:

"Did they ever look up and really expect to see us when we dropped down in our ships, the clouds boiling away from the heat of our engines?"
(opening to Behind These Eyes)

"For those who were too far away to hear the radio, the news was read in other ways – bowed heads, clenched jaws, streaming tears, shaking fingers, covered eyes – their worst fears reflected in every face shining dully in the dim red light. "
(from "Inside the Light, Outside of Time")