Be Real–Rabbit and Bear Real

There are all sorts of conversations flying through the YA world on characters. Just this past week, I’ve been involved in a pretty intense debate on whether you should include diversity for diversity’s sake, a discussion on stereotypes, and even one on whether characters all have to be model pretty.

There’s an annoying trend, at least I find it annoying, for all the characters in a book to be amazingly hot, straight, white, able-bodied individuals. To me, this is just another side of the wish fulfillment character. There’s the argument that readers don’t want to read about themselves, they want to read about extraordinary people. Writers have also said, “why diversify? If it’s made into a film/tv show, they’re going to cast beautiful white people anyway.”

Sadly, this is true more often than not. Jane Eyre is a good example. In the book, she’s not attractive and isn’t supposed to be, however, in film a beautiful actress always plays her. Like Joan Fontaine, Ruth Wilson, Anna Paquin, and Mia Wiasikowska  for example. Or take “A Wrinkle in Time.” Meg Murray clearly regards herself as ugly, of course many teenagers do, but even her family and those around her comment on how average looking she is. There isn’t anything special about her. She’s been played by Katie Stuart who I guess could be called average for an actress, but is still way prettier than I ever imagined Meg to be. (In that adaptation, Calvin O’Keefe was played by the non-redhead Gregory Smith. I love the actor, but he’s not Calvin-so the casting director got the whole thing wrong in my opinion).

The authors always support the casting with the same answer. “The character is more than how they look. Personality, mannerisms, movements are bigger than appearance and actor XYZ who auditioned nailed it. He is the character, physical looks aside.” (I’ve melded several quotes into one here. If you’re really dying to know the actual quotes and authors and I can try to find them for you). I can agree to a certain extent, that the character is more than looks. But you can’t convince me they couldn’t find an actor just as good to be that character. Especially when they sub in a white person for a black/Native American/Middle Eastern/you name it character.

Then there are times when casting is spot on, but people still aren’t happy with it. Like the drama with the Hunger Games and the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue. Some were outraged they would *gasp* cast as black girl for a character described as having brown skin. The nerve of those casting directors.

I think everyone agrees there isn’t enough diversity in literature, especially YA, but no one agrees on how to go about fixing it. Should you be intentional about describing skin tone? Or should you not bring it up? If you mention that a character is black, isn’t it weird if you don’t mention another character is white? Will you get accused of pandering for praise for your diversity or will you get blamed for whitewashing?

When I write, characters just appear to me fully formed. I know their hair and eye color, skin tone, the way they stand, how they sound, and so on. But I don’t describe my characters all that much. Sure I’ll throw in a sentence about their hair, and then chapters later mention their eyes. There aren’t any descriptive paragraphs, though, unless that trait plays a specific part. I have a character who is a thief, so I mention she’s thin and can squeeze in small places. If not for that, I wouldn’t have mentioned body type.

Same goes for attractiveness. Unless the fact a character is really beautiful or ugly or just average plays a part in the story, I don’t bring it up (To be fair, I don’t mention many things that don’t play into the story. I’ve written about my problem with word count before–hence the name of this blog–so every word has to have a purpose or else I’ll end up with 100,000 words and a lot of revisions ahead!). I like to give a few characteristics and let the reader fill in the gaps. To me, that forms more of a connection between reader and character.  We all have our own ideas of what is attractive or unattractive or average. I’d rather let the reader get their own image. It’s something I liked to do anyway, but cemented itself after I read “On Writing,” by Stephen King. He chastised writers for giving too much away and not letting the reader participate, and I agree. I hate seeing a movie before reading the book because then I get the cast in my head instead of forming my own version of the characters.

I will say that most of my characters are average looking, because most people are average. If you ask me, there should be more average in YA. The majority of YA lit features characters who are hot. Plain and simple. What about the regular folks? All the crap about casting directors casting pretty people is just that. Crap. Diversity can be done, and well, and it can work.

Take a look at the British show “Skins.” That show, at least the first series, I never caught the others, is a great example of fairly normal teens with an average, yet diverse, cast. That’s why it was such a smash. The characters were flawed, externally and internally, but likeable and, most importantly, real. The majority were white and straight, but they were by no means drop dead gorgeous. Even the lead, the “hot guy” wasn’t conventionally attractive in the way American TV stars are hot. He was kind of quirky. His best friend was socially awkward and a bit odd. The lead’s girlfriend was insecure and pretty, with an absent parent. Her best friend was a black girl who was super smart and an incredibly talented clarinetist with a close family. Other friends included a lazy, fun stoner whose mom abandoned him, a goofy Indian guy who just wanted to get laid and had strict, religious parents, his gay best friend who was artist, and a mentally ill anorexic girl. Spoiler if you haven’t seen it, but at the end, the lead gets hit by a bus and isn’t exactly able-bodied anymore. The show defied stereotypes, included diverse characters, and was highly entertaining.

Compare this to, say, “Gossip Girl” in the states. Not that I watch the show, but I’ve seen enough. It’s about beautiful, white kids in New York. I’m not bashing the show, I’m sure the characters have their intricacies, but click my link and look at the IMDB page. Zero diversity and model pretty, stereotypical rich kids. Entertaining as people may find this show, I think we can do better. Of course that’s tv and I’m thinking more about books, but “Gossip Girl” was a book first. (Again, that’s just the first example that came to mind, I don’t have anything against the show or the book).

What it comes down to, for me, is be real. Write characters who feel real, who have depth and dimension.  Whatever kinds of characters you include, straight, gay, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, able-bodied, wheelchair bound, autistic, mentally incapacitated, genius, and so on and so forth, make them multidimensional. The more real your characters are, the more people are going to connect with them, root for them, and most importantly for writers, continue to read about them. The best advice I’ve read about writing is “be honest,” which I think goes hand in hand with be real. Readers will totally tell if you’re fake. They’ll know if your characters are cardboard cutouts of real people. Be honest about your characters and how they act and what they do. Be honest with yourself about why you’re including those characters. Are you intentionally trying to be diverse? That’s fine, but flesh the characters out, don’t just drop in a black, gay, Jewish, one-armed, paraplegic for no other reason than you want that character in your story so you can claim diversity and leave him. Give him some depth. Be honest with yourself if you’re not trying to be diverse. Why aren’t you? Is there a reason? Be honest with yourself about why your characters are all gorgeous/average. Do you just like pretty people?

One of my favorite stories as a kid was “The Velveteen Rabbit.” If you’re unfamiliar (you poor, deprived child!), it’s about a boy who gets a stuffed rabbit for Christmas. The toys come alive when no one is around, but they aren’t truly real. The rabbit finds out he can only become real if his owner loves it and “…once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.” The boy does love the rabbit and carries it everywhere, until he becomes ill and all his toys must be burned. The boy receives a new rabbit and forgets about his old one. While waiting to be thrown into the fire, the Velveteen Rabbit cries a real tear. A magic fairy appears and tells the Velveteen Rabbit that because his owner loved him, he can become real. He then discovers he’s a real rabbit and hops off into the forest with the other bunnies.

I insisted my teddy bear was real, just like the rabbit in the story. She was my dad’s first teddy bear, given to him on his first Christmas and loved by both of us so much she had no fur left. She eventually got so old, she’s 47 now, she started falling apart and has had several reconstructive surgeries. Even though I’m married, Mama Bear still sits on my dresser. And to me, she’s still real.

That’s what we have to do with our characters. Give them time and attention and love and eventually, just like the Velveteen Rabbit, just like my Mama Bear, they’ll become real. Then you will know you’ve created something truly magical.

 

 

The Triangle Game

I went on a mission trip a few years ago with a group of college kids.  To pass the time, they played a couple games that I found infuriating…until I learned the secret.  One was called the drummer game.  One person would say “I can play the drummer game,” then pat their hands around in some sort of beat and point to someone else saying, “Can you?”  That person would then try it and pass it along.  When it got to me, I said the words, drummed a beat, and pointed at someone.  “Nope,” they said.  “You can’t play the drummer game.”  Frustrated, I tried a few more times then settled in to watch others and learn the trick.  Another, the triangle game, was similar.  Someone would say “I draw a triangle between myself, John, and Mary.  Who’s the triangle pointed at?” and you had to figure it out.  Eventually, they would draw a triangle from the Empire State Building, to the Eiffel Tower, to the Brooklyn Bridge, or something absurd like that, and it would always be pointed at someone in the room.  If you don’t know the rules, I’m not going to give away the trick to either game so you experience my initial frustration (that’s half the fun of the game).  Just know there is no math involved in either (yay!).  (If you’re really just dying to know, you can leave a comment and I’ll message you or something).

These games especially irritated me because I hate being out of the loop.  Hate. It.  I want to be in the know.  Sometimes, I feel like published authors have their own version of the drummer and triangle games.  For instance, one of the most common questions I read in author interviews is “where do you get your ideas?”  The answers are usually the same: vague and unsatisfying.  You know what I mean, right?  They all say, “from everywhere,” or “they just come to me,” etc.  Sure, some give more specifics, but it’s like there’s some big secret they’ve all conspired to keep.

I think that’s one reason I love “Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King so much.  Hear me out.  People who don’t read King are usually immediately turned off by his name, but horror stuff aside, he writes some really amazing stories (“The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” for instance).  If you’re not familiar with “Lisey’s Story” (first of all there’s a link on my Books You Really Must Read page so you can buy it, haha), the basic story is this: Lisey’s writer husband dies and Lisey is reflecting on their lives together.  Her husband would frequently disappear when writing, to his study, etc.  After his death, Lisey discovers where he went and it’s not what she expected.  He went to another world.  A place he called Boo’ya Moon and got his ideas from a pool there.  To fully understand her husband and the demons that plagued him, she has to travel to Boo’ya Moon.

It’s beautiful really.  And it was the first thing I’d read that described where I felt my stories came from.  It’s like Steve was writing me (yeah, we’re on a nickname basis…although he doesn’t necessarily know that…).  I’d mentioned something similar to my husband before when he asked about the source of my own story ideas.  Steve’s image perfectly captures what happens to writers when we write.  We recede within ourselves and visit a place of ideas, then we transplant those ideas to the page.

But that’s not the most satisfying answer as to where ideas come from, is it?  Nor is it particularly honest.  Sure, there is a pool of stories inside me begging to bubble out, but something inspired them.

It hit me yesterday while I was, of all things, cooking dinner.  Hubby and I had just finished weeding and mulching a flower bed.  We were covered in soft, black dirt and our hands were stained dark brown by the damp mulch.  The air smelled like Spring: light and cool with a hint of grass and flowers and earth and rain.  Our growling stomachs told us the time, so we moved to the back yard to plant a couple blueberry bushes and fix supper.  The dog bounced around our ankles as I soaked the roots in a pail of water and Hubby dug the hole.  I went inside to cut up fresh yellow summer squash and zucchini and smoked sausage for grilling.  It reminded me of Springs and Summers as a little girl, picking fresh vegetables and shelling peas with my grandmother.  As the sausage and veggies sizzled on the grill, and my husband watered the newly planted bushes, I glanced around my yard (our property backs onto a nature preserve) and thought “there’s a story here.”  Not so much a story though, but a description, and, for me at least, the best stories grow from a great description.

I could see two teenage guys, Yankees, visiting one of their grandmother’s in the South for the Summer.  The air hangs around them like a wet blanket.  Blueberry bushes and muscadine vines run along the chain link fence that separates the cultivated yard, full of flowers and herbs, from the expanse of pasture full of cows.  Crickets chirp and lightning bugs flash as the sun sinks, casting a faint bluish gray hue over the world.  Somewhere, a bug zapper buzzes to life and fries mosquitoes before they can suck the boys’ blood, leaving red, itchy welts.  Dogs bark and the cows low and chain creaks as the boys sit on a wooden porch swing, waiting for supper.  The soft drawl of the grandmother stands out, sweet and slow, against the harsh tones of the boys as she calls for them to wash up.  Butter slides down cornbread, hot in its iron skillet, and fresh fried okra fills a small kitchen with a greasy, yet mouth-watering aroma.  In the house, the air is still and warm, the only relief coming from a soft breeze blowing through the screen door and open windows.  I knew that one of the boys was named Henry and the local guys called him Hank the Yank.  I don’t know what the boys are doing there yet, or what their story is, but I know the feel and the tone, and that’s where it all starts.

This morning on the way to work I found an old cd I burned in college.  Scratched though it was, it still played well enough.  As I listened to “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, I really thought about the feel of the song, especially the beginning.  Janis portrays the imagery so well.  “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, and I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans.”  From that one sentence you know exactly where she is, what she’s doing, how she feels and how she looks.  It inspired me.  Maybe it will weave itself into the story that popped in my head last night, or maybe it will evolve into something new.  It doesn’t matter.  The seed is there.  It’s in the bottom of my pool, and one day when I need it, a plant will rise to the surface for me to pick and use in a story, like fresh herbs pulled from the garden for supper.

That’s the trick to my personal triangle game and I have a feeling it’s the way it works for other writers as well.  But, then again, I’m not published (yet), so maybe there is some big secret all published authors have conspired to keep.  What do you think?  Where do you get your inspiration?

Chocolate Explosions and Stephen King vs Disney

I’ve been writing stories literally since I learned to write.  I’m also a bit of a pack rat.  Just a tinge.  Okay, so maybe I’ve kept almost everything I’ve ever written as well as every test and paper since the seventh grade.  Don’t judge.  They come in handy.  Sometimes.  Anyway, I recently found a stack of my stories from childhood.  When I was four, I wrote about my baby “bother” and how I loved him even though he drove me crazy (much like my real brother when he was born five years later), but most of my stories were a bit morbid for a kid.  I found one about it raining chocolate (This was before the “Chocolate Rain” viral video days; it was before we even had internet).  It sounds like a sweet story (pun intended), but quickly turns south.  I run outside with a bowl and drink up the chocolate, but I eat so much I explode and die.  That’s it.  The end.  Boom goes the Sarahmite.

I don’t know why.  I had a happy childhood and all, my writing just gravitated toward the macabre.  It only got worse when I started reading Stephen King, who is the king of dark twisted tales (yeah, that one was intentional too; as my brother would say, butter me cause I’m on a roll!).  I let my grandmother, we call her Karma, read my stories, and she pointed out that I don’t really have any happy endings, which caught me off guard.  When I’m reading, I love happy endings.  Or so I thought.  But looking back, she’s right.  Not only do I not read stories with happy endings, I end my stories weird, or bittersweet, never Pollyanna kittens and rainbows everything is all good happily ever after.  I guess because real life is usually weird or bittersweet and not a Disney movie, and I like for my stories to feel more real.  They aren’t bad endings, except for the chocolate rain Sarah-splosion (but really, isn’t there a lesson there?).  My characters are always happy(ish).  Their conflicts are resolved, they’re turning a new page, starting a new chapter, moving on to something else.  That something else might not always be shiny and bouncy as we would think of it, but it’s fresh and new for them and happier than they were before.

I’ve got a short story I’m about to enter into a contest.  It’s actually the first chapter of a book I started and stopped after the second chapter, so perfect short story fodder.  I posted the chapter here not long after I started this blog.  The way I’ve adjusted it, the main character decides to end all his cancer treatments and enjoy what’s left of his life.  Karma told me despite how the story ends, she holds out hope he’ll continue treatment and have surgery and the cancer will go away, puppies and rainbows and all that.  I can see how my ending may seem sad, especially for her because the character’s illness is based on my dad’s.  But my character felt good with his choice, so isn’t that a happy ending?

After talking with her, I started thinking about my endings.  I have all these stories in my head.  Almost every day I come up with a new idea, and usually a first chapter.  There’s a whole folder on my USB drive called “story ideas” that’s full of queries, synopses, and first chapters of shiny new ideas. While the details of my stories change as I write and get to know the characters, I always know how they end, and it hit me today that none of them has a Disney ending.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an optimist, and I guess this reflected in my writing, but is that a bad thing?  What do you think, dear reader?  Do you like happy endings, or do you like something that feels real?  I’m not going to change my writing style because that’s just how I write.  It’s me and apparently always has been, death by chocolate and all.  I’m curious, though, what most people look for.

Personally, when I’m reading, I like for loose ends to be tied up, and I like to know the character is content.  Look at most the books on my “Books You Really Must Read” list; they pretty much all have this type of ending.  I don’t like stories that leave me crying and depressed and force me to watch something happy before I go to sleep (like “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer.  Good night that was a sad book!  It was good, but so sad!  I made the mistake of reading it while my husband was traveling for work and had to stay up half the night watching “Golden Girls” re-runs to stop crying), but I don’t like stories that are unrealistically happy ever after either (like “Breaking Dawn” by Stephanie Meyer.  I mean, come on, everything ended up too perfect in the end.  I get some people’s need for escapism in endings like that, but it’s just not my cup of tea).  I prefer Stephen King’s endings.  Everything isn’t perfect, and isn’t always good, but it’s always finished, and usually weird, and maybe bittersweet.  Read “Lisey’s Story” for a fantastic ending.  For me, King beats Disney every time.  Another great example, if you’re not into King, is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.  You want to talk about a great ending?  It’s real and raw and happy but poignant.  Overall, an excellent book, but the ending especially left me satisfied when I closed the cover, yet wanting more, and to me, that’s the marker of a great ending.

The Zone

I’m currently querying a manuscript and praying (fervently) that an agent wants to represent it.  In the meantime, I’ve started working on another book.  Okay, honestly I started working on several other books that didn’t go anywhere (for now).  I’ve mentioned before how Stephen King described writing as uncovering a fossil.  Well, the things I’ve written since finishing the last manuscript haven’t been fossils; they’ve turned out to be plain old rocks.  Maybe one day I’ll go back and look at them again and realize they really are fossils, but for now, they’re rocks.  Anyway, I finally found a fossil and started to dig and uncover it.  It’s the next in the series of the book I’m querying.

I was scared to start writing this one.  What happens if no one wants the first one?  This one flows from the last, can I make it stand on it’s own?  Or will I waste time writing a follow-up?  Finally, I just said “screw it, the story is there and wants to be written so I have to write it.”  I’m not worrying about whether the first one will get picked up or not.  I’m focusing on telling the current story.

Now I find myself back in “the zone.”  The zone is different for different people.  For me, when I finally get sucked into writing something, that’s all I can write.  Before I wrote the first book in the series, I frequently critiqued and wrote on the AW forums. (At the time I was re-editing a different manuscript).  When I got the idea for the first book though, everything else went out the window while I wrote.  I tried to critique different things and write other short stories, etc, but it just didn’t work.  It’s like the story pushed everything else out of the way and took over.

In the interim between the first book and the one I’m currently writing, I was able to critique again, as well as churn out bits of flash fiction and other short stories.  Now that another story has taken hold though, I’ve found that’s all I can write.  It’s like the zone sucks all of my creativity.  I attempted AW’s most recent flash fiction and although I had the idea and could see the characters that I wanted to write, it just didn’t work.  A couple of paragraphs in, I knew it sucked and scrapped it.

I’m not complaining; I like being in the zone.  It’s like drilling for oil.  You drill and drill and drill and come up empty, then you finally hit the vein and all of a sudden you have tons of oil that has to go somewhere (in my head I see words shooting out of the earth instead of oil and I’m trying to catch them all and channel them onto the page).  I love the feeling of finally finding the story, of finding a fossil instead of a rock. I just wish I could do other things as well.  I enjoy reading and critiquing and posting on AW, seeing what chances other writers are taking rooting for them to succeed.

So, fellow writers, do you get into a zone?  When you’re in the middle of a big work, are you able to still write other things?  Or does the writing suck you in too?

No Original Ideas?

I’ve heard many people say that there are no more original story ideas.  That everything has already been done in one form or another.  Is this true?  Have we run out of completely original ideas?  I don’t know about you, but that thought depresses me as a writer.  It’s like I’m doomed to repeat what someone else has already done better.  It reminds me of an episode of South Park (yeah, I watch it.  Believe it or not Trey Parker and Matt Stone weave some really poignant social commentary into those foul mouthed cartoon kids).  On this particular episode, Butters has an alter-ego called Professor Chaos who wants to take over the world.  He enlists a side kick and sets out on his journey for domination.  Every time he has a new plan, however, the sidekick chimes in, “The Simpsons tried that in episode 149” and so on for every plan until it just becomes “Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it!”

Are we all Butters/Professor Chaos, destined to redo things that have already been done?  It seems Hollywood has completely given up on original ideas with all of the remakes and sequels (prequels, three-quels, four-quels, five-quels; I wish I was exaggerating).  I mean, seriously, how many different plots can The Fast and the Furious come up with?  The first one was bad enough.  I love Indiana Jones, but do we really need 5 of them?  They just remade Footloose, are remaking Dirty Dancing, have yet another Mission Impossible and Step-Up movie coming.  Seriously?  When will it end?  I’m trying to think of the last time I saw a completely original (recent) movie and I’m drawing a complete blank.  Is publishing destined to fall into this well of repeats?

I write YA, so I constantly scan the shelves and read the book jackets in the teen sections of my local bookstores.  I read query critiques on agent blogs and on the AW forum.  I can’t tell you how many of the same story I keep reading.  How many variations of girl falls in love with vampire/werewolf/angel/fairy can there be?  How many times can the normal-teen-discovers-they’re-the chosen one/has magical powers storyline be done?  I literally read four book jackets in a row with that story.  Of course, they’re getting published so I guess they’re doing something right (or hit the trend at the right time).  Right now retelling of fairy tales and angel/demon books are popular, but even these stories are the same.  As much as I love Harry Potter, a boy wizard in a magic school wasn’t original either.  I read something similar when I was in the seventh grade (which was in 1995) and that had been out for a while.  And anyone who thinks the Hunger Games is original should take a look at The Long Walk and The Running Man by Stephen King.  I love Collins’s series, but she basically melded those books and made the main characters teenagers.

Personally, I get so frustrated when I come up with what I think is a great idea for a story, only to find out its already been done.  I think trying to come up with an original idea is part of the reason I’ve felt writer’s block lately.  Of course, I’ve read lots of agents and other writers who say it doesn’t have to be a unique idea, a new twist on an old story would work (such as Wicked), and while this is a great and interesting approach, it doesn’t answer my question: are there any original ideas left?  Or must we face the fact that everything has been tapped out and relegate ourselves to recycling?

Writer’s Block

Those are two of the worst words in the english language.  I shudder when I read them.  I want to cover my ears with my hands when I hear them. and sing “lalalalalala, I can’t hear you!” like it doesn’t exist.  Except it does.  And I have it.

I have been trying to write a particular story for a long time.  I posted the first chapter a little while ago (see “The Terminal Circle”).  The story won’t come to me.  I know the general plot and what happens to the main character, and I finally know who the main character is, but I just can’t get past the first chapter.

Heck, it’s taken me over two years to get the first chapter down.  I sit at my computer screen and beg the characters to come to life.  I lay down and close my eyes and try visualize them.  How they act, talk, and walk.  What they say and how they say it.  Their movements and mannerisms.  I just can’t do it.  I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to, which then causes me to seize up like a kid about to bungee jump.  I’m standing on the platform all suited up and ready to leap, but my feet won’t move forward.

What scares me the most is that this isn’t how I write.  This is a plot my dad and I discussed.  It was his idea, not mine, but he wanted me to write it.  Now my dad isn’t here anymore and I can’t even discuss it with him and talk it through, which usually helps when I’m stuck.  The big problem, though, is that I write spontaneously.  I’ve written two books so far, and both of them came from middle-of-the-night-can’t-sleep ideas.  They weren’t something I thought through and analyzed.  For both, I laid there in bed and saw the characters every time I closed my eyes.  Before I fell asleep, I knew their names, saw their faces, knew how they moved and acted instantly.  I knew what they were going to do and why.  When I woke the next morning, I put it on paper and just didn’t stop writing.  Of course it needed polishing, but getting everything down in a first draft was a snap.  For the most recent manuscript, I had a first draft done and to betas within two months. (So thankful for beta readers by the way!)

I’ve written short stories in this manner as well.  It’s like the story comes to me and begs to be written down, no matter what I’m doing at the time (even while studying for the bar exam…okay, especially while studying for the bar exam).   However, I have short stories that I’ve tried to write that don’t get past the first few pages, even though I know I have a good idea, because I sat and thought it through too much. 

I recently read “On Writing” by Stephen King (excellent read whether you’re a fan of his or not), and he describes writing as finding a fossil.  You trip over it in the back yard and start digging, then keep digging until bit by bit the fossil reveals itself to you.  I completely agree with this analogy.  The characters I’ve written about, I don’t feel like I’ve created them so much as found them.  Then I just had to keep writing to discover more about them until I had the whole story.

These stories that I’ve found, they write themselves.  Sure, I’ve had to put some thought into it, but once I sit down and my fingers hit the keys, it’s like my fingertips take on a mind of their own.  They fly and dance over the keyboard and before I know it, I’ve got 60 or 70 thousand words.  It’s like that in my legal writing as well.  I always had to wait until the mood struck me to write.  Sure, I would get things out by the professor’s deadlines in school (in my working life I was left to my own devices), but I did my best work when my fingers could think for themselves.  Sometimes that was down to the wire, but I’ve never missed a deadline in class or the real world and never made a poor grade (or below an A minus for that matter).

So I’m not entirely sure what to do with this…writer’s block (shudders like the hyenas in the “Lion King” when they hear the name “Mufasa”).  Do I try and push through and write the story anyway, or do I let it breathe and hope the characters come to life?  I’ve already let it breathe for two years, but maybe that’s not enough.  Stephen King said he encountered a block when writing “The Stand” (one of my favorites) and only got unblocked when he realized that his characters were too comfortable and needed a shake-up (i.e. a bomb in a closet).  That was a mid-book block though.  Mine always occurs in the first stages of a manuscript, and so far have all been stories I eventually abandoned (bless their little hearts.  I see them now, huddled in a forgotten folder on my desktop.  Ragged shawls draped around their shoulders, tin cups at their feet, begging for me to revist them, to try again.  I want to help, but what can I do?  So I ignore them and keep moving with hollow promises to one day return and do what I can). 

How do you handle writer’s block?  Do you work through it, or take it as a sign that the story isn’t meant to be written right now and move on?

Hang in There?

I’m currently in the middle of a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, and I’ve encountered a problem.  The mid-book slump.  I’m just tired of reading it.  My favorite books are those I can lose myself in.  I like for a character’s life to become entangled in my own.  A plot that makes me unable to put the book down.  These are the best books, to me anyway.

I so looked forward to Cuckoo’s Nest.  It seemed right up my alley.  Bunch of psychos in a mental hospital?  Great!  Con man who weaseled his way onto the psych ward to escape a work farm?  Bring it on!  Oppressive and possibly crazy head nurse?  I’m so in!  But I just can’t get into the story.

It’s not that the writing is poor or the characters are lacking.  To the contrary, I think Kesey is fabulous.  He expertly describes the delusions, the feel and smell of the ward, the entire atmosphere.  Maybe it’s the fact the book is written in first person, from inside one of the Cuckoo’s heads.  I have to think about what I’m reading.  The narrator skips words and describes things like…well, like a crazy person.  Try as I may, I can’t get lost in a book I have to think too much about, and to me, that’s the joy of reading.

There was a good blog post over on Dystel Goderich about Virtuous Reading that connected with me on this subject.  Except, I’m not reading Cuckoo’s Nest because I think I should, or because a book club, or professor told me to read it.  I’m reading because I want to.  I’m just not sure if I want to any longer.

I hate the idea of stopping before I finish.  Perhaps I’ll come back to it at some other point.  There have been very few books I can’t get through.  Go ahead literary junkies, berate me all you want, but the “Hobbit”? Ugh, couldn’t do it.  “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”?  Dry as burnt toast.  Anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne?  Sorry, I’d rather watch grass grow.  I read two pages of “The House of Seven Gables” and put it down.  Somehow, I managed to get halfway through the “Scarlet Letter”, don’t ask me how.

On the other hand, there are books I love that would cause a lot of people to have the same nose wrinkling, I-just-smelled-a-skunk, expression I get when someone hands me Tolkien.  “Crime and Punishment”? Brilliant!  “Anna Karenina”?  Amazing!  “A Clockwork Orange?” Genius!

In the end, I guess I know what I’m going to do.  Move on to greener (more interesting, less blah) reading.  I hear Stephen King will be releasing his much anticipated sequel to “The Shining”, “Dr. Sleep” soon (jumps up and down with the joy of a new King tome for my hungry eyes to feast upon!  Click the link to hear Mr. King read an excerpt from the book).  In the meantime, my shelf is jam packed with books just waiting to be read (or re-read), so I guess I won’t be hanging in there with Cuckoo’s Nest.