A good hard look in the mirror

On occasion, I try to paint. I’m not very good at it, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t have aspirations of becoming some an art-world wonder. Painting is something I do to get away from a computer (because everything we do these days seems to require time in front of a glowing screen).

When I want a new perspective on a painting in-progress I hold it up to the mirror. Seeing the image in reverse is much like seeing a photograph of yourself in that it’s just different enough to point out the flaws.  I can see where the shadows don’t agree with the light source, or how the eyes look more cartoon than sketchy.

Over the years I’ve tried to find an equal to a mirror for writing, but it’s not easy. Laying the pages down on a table one after another doesn’t work. A single-page outline of the story where I highlight the events and plot points always helps as it gives a view of the whole from a distance. But that’s not a true reflection.

A story or a play or a screenplay provide the audience with a journey. On this journey, there are uphill climbs, pratfalls, victorious dances and moments of true solitude. To see all of that in your mind’s eye in one go is impossible when you have your nose pressed up against the pages. Your nose gets stuck on the nitty, gritty.

What does work, however, is a very simple tool that takes great discipline: placing your manuscript in a drawer and leaving it there until you let the story go.

Working on a project is addictive. Moments in the shower or driving become opportunities to consider a character’s thought processes or the flow of a scene. It’s no longer a project, it’s a lifestyle.

That kind of rapture is essential for writing, of course. Like an actor who writes journal entries for the days leading up to a play’s action, it is in that state where insights and nuances are found.

But there are two ruts I find myself falling into:

1. In the scenes I don’t have the patience to figure out, I dash words together until I get something I think kinda works okay and then send it out before it’s ready. Sending it out is all about the dream: Someone will overlook the flaws as charming and declare it a work genius.

2. I dig into the perfection process, going in circles. I write and re-write and revise and revise and go back and start again and again and again.

What I’ve learned is that if you treat my writing like a box of food that can be heated up in a microwave, people see that.

Or, if I keep my nose so tightly in the words, they suck me into their vortex and I never find my way out of their grasp. The relaxed flow of language is also stiffened by over-thinking or over-writing. That characters stop breathing.

It takes great discipline to let go. If you do though, time will work its mirror magic.

When I come back to a manuscript after a month or so break, I find I have a new-found objectivity more clear and insightful than any reviewer could give me. In one section I’ve hit my stride. In another, the pithy words I was so attached to glare like dollar store bling.

The pace and flow of the work becomes more obvious. Am I writing in all one flurry, or are there hills and valleys for the audience to enjoy?

The drawer takes patience and discipline. But isn’t that what the craft of writing is all about?

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Making friends with monsters

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Who likes conflict? It’s so darned uncomfortable. Full of raised voices, tears, harsh words, exasperation, confusion. Who hasn’t tip toed past a door to avoid such nastiness?

Thing is, the very thing we all try to avoid every day is the meat of story telling.

When a writer is struggling with conflict it manifests in the work in one of these ways:

  1. No conflict – high realism style. Characters talk, scenes are described, but nothing happens.
  2. No conflict – perfect-world style. The perfect character jumps from one victory to the next. Readers yawn in disbelief.
  3. Too much conflict – the sky is falling. The sky is falling! Repeatedly. But the falling sky never has an impact on the world in a way that you’d expect.
  4. Too much conflict – it’s not my fault. The main character is a victim who has no responsibility for anything in the story because they never do anything, other than sniffled and moan and whine.

I’m being hyperbolic here, of course, for the purpose of highlighting.

The most common form of this I see in manuscripts is 1) as it masks quite well as “stream of consciousness” writing. But a story without the shaping afforded by conflict is not a story; it’s a bunch of meandering words on a page.

So, how can you make conflict your friend and make your protagonists suffer the way people want them to in stories?

At a story-wide level, start by looking for the monsters under your very own bed.

In Going Sane, Adam Phillips wonders if creating art involves packaging things we find difficult to face in a form that is somehow reassuring. Taking monsters and making them something we can face.

When a writer is successful, stories allow the audience to practice facing conflicts in real life, making them more manageable somehow. Phillips summarizes the famous essayist Charles Lamb on this, which I’ll quote here:

“The sane genius transforms everything that might disturb us, “the wildest dreams,” into something that is familiar and reassuring. It is his artfulness that makes us feel at home; it is the weak writer who makes us feel estranged, or baffled, or lost.”

How can you use this? 

For the story you are writing now ask yourself: What is it about this situation that I am frightened of and need to face?

Poke around in the idea of your story and look for the things that terrify you. Or those things that make you feel shameful. Perhaps you are trying to figure out a past relationship, or to figure out how to handle some aspect of your personality.

Your purpose isn’t to look at the struggle and become its victim. It’s to put on some galoshes and walk through the swamp of terror so you can figure out what facing this challenge means for getting through life. In other words, how can you find your way through the swamp as a hero who grows and changes?

What if your story is a tragedy? Then your tragic hero will put on galoshes, but some fatal flaw will have them make bad decisions with each step. In Woody Allen’s recent movie Blue Jasmine, for example, Jasmine is thrown into the gaping abyss and because she fails to admit she has any responsibility for where she is and what has happened to people around her, she keeps falling and falling and falling. A riveting and terrifying descent.

Once you understand the monster you are struggling with, you have the tools to figure out the plot points of your story. But that’s another post.

In the grand theme of things

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If a story is merely a collection of events told in sequential order we’d all be novelists and screen writers. But that just ain’t so.

A well told story captures our collective imagination, wins our hearts, changes minds and introduces us to characters we fall in love with or fear (and all those emotions in between).

As writers, isn’t that what we strive for? But how do we get ‘there’?

Hold that question and bear with me for a moment. I promise not to growl or maul you.

When a reader opens a novel to that first page, they are looking for something to connect with. That is, they want to see something of themselves reflected the pages.

If they wanted to meet a someone who waxes poetical about themselves for hours on end, they’d go to a party, a bar, or join some kind of group. Who among us hasn’t listened to a friend’s opera about… the latest boyfriend who dumped them, the reason they’re not a superstar, how well ‘designed’ their life is, the trivia of their days or pets.

But walking into the arms of a story is something we do for ourselves, not the good of humanity.

You or your character may have an interesting life, but that alone will not feed your readers. They need sustenance. Something in it for them. (Because enjoying a story really is a selfish activity, isn’t it?).

So, how does the writer get ‘there’? Through that writing tool known as ‘universal theme.’

The universal theme is the thing that everyone can connect to. The glue that holds your story together, because everyone can see themselves reflected there. It’s what your story is ‘about’ under the surface of events. It’s what takes all of those events and gives them meaning.

A writer doesn’t just select a theme and write about it (unless it’s really obvious, like in action thrillers or murder mysteries). It comes out of that digging you do as you first begin writing. It is like an uncovering process, searching for that special nugget of glue that will hold your story together. Once found, it serves as a tool to make decisions about what stays and what goes. What to emphasize, what to gloss over.

The place to look for your theme is in the struggle of the main character.

What’s your struggle?

A story about a woman fretting over ending her marriage may be struggling with:

  • How much of a life is worth sacrificing for the sake of the family?
  • What exactly is abusive behaviour? Where is the line drawn between abuse and character traits

A person who loses all of their family in a car crash may struggle with:

  • How do we learn to live with what we can never come to terms with?

Someone lying in a hospital waiting to die might struggle with:

  • What does it mean to live?
  • What does it mean to live a life that matters?
  • What is a ‘good death’?

A man who meets the love of his life online, and after years of messaging, talking and netsex finally meets her to discover she is truly ugly (and not at all like her photos). He might be struggling with:

  • What is beauty, really?

Notice how the words ‘I,’ ‘me,’ or ‘my’ are not in there (e.g., is my husband an abuser?). This is important, because by stating the struggle in universal terms, you take the question out of the character’s corner. Your character’s struggle must be experienced looking out, not in.

A universal theme is one that is timeless and all people can relate to. It is about the challenge of being stuck in a body and  having to relate to people and the world around us. In other words, being human. That is why it’s ‘universal.’ The more universal your theme, the broader the reach of your work. It means the difference between words strung together and the work of an artist.

A theme is a frame (or a filter, or a lense) that allows you to look at an individual scene and ask yourself, “How is this interaction an exploration of my theme?” If the scene has no relation to the theme, either you need to revise it or out it goes.

A theme also handily keeps your characters out of self pity or self loathing. It gives them a way to look out at the world, not at their navals. The point is to find the meaning of the struggle, not to indulge in it.

Now, keep in mind that your character may not be conscious of the universality of their struggle. In fact, that can be part of the story! Say, when a person’s obsessions or drug of choice is ruining their life or the lives of those around them.

The first theme you uncover may not be the one that works for your story. It can take some trial and error to figure it out. But when you do find it you’ll know it. It’ll ping at you. Suddenly, your work and all of the individual scenes will make sense. You’ll know what is detritus and where to look for gold. You know what else? It will also give your story a great chance of reaching into your reader’s hearts and taking them on a thrilling ride.

How does your character want to change the world?

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‘Should’ is a very powerful word. No other word shows us so well the ways we want to change the world.

How’s that?

It is through the word ‘should’ that we judge what is good and bad. Your boss ‘should’ consider how the employees feel. Your mother ‘should’ get herself to the doctor. Your girlfriend ‘should’ get her car in for an oil change. The bank ‘should’ have given you notice about rate changes.

All these little ‘should’s mount up. Oh, if only we were running things, the world would be a perfect place!

As we go through our days our critical eye scans the people, processes and things we come across. Just like Goldilocks, we judge each as either inferior, superior or just right. The highways are badly designed. Look at that guy driving like a maniac. Gosh, that girl is gorgeous. How can a bank teller not know how to process a foreign exchange transaction? Oh, here’s one of those new streetcars, I like how silent they are; finally our city has done something right!

The word ‘should’ is all about judgement. This should be that way, not this way. That should be this way, not that way.One thing is good and another is bad. The judgements are typically more negative than positive because these are our attempts to make the world perfect. Nudging things this way and that. It’s human nature.

How does a writer use this? To uncover what’s going on under the surface of your character’s relationship to the world.

Before you write a scene, consider what each character thinks the others ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do. For example if we were to consider the relationship of a married couple, we might consider what they think others should or shouldn’t do:

Martha thinks her husband Jason should…

  • Be making more money
  • Treat her like a woman once in a while (which means telling her she’s beautiful)
  • Stop bugging her about her drinking

Jason thinks Martha should…

  • Stop drinking (she’s downing almost a bottle a night on her own, for crying out loud)
  • Show some gratitude for all he does
  • Get a job

Each of us attempts to change the world in ways that range from the blunt to subtle.

“Are you sure you really want to do that?”
“It would be nice to afford a vacation once a year, but not on what you make.”
“Are you sure you want another glass of wine tonight, dear?”
“What have you done to your hair?”

“How dare you?”
Translation: You’re acting bigger than your britches and I’m going to bring you down a notch because you have no right to be different from what I expect you to be.

One common attempt at behaviour modification is to globalize:

“All you ever want to do is sit on the couch.”
“You never listen to me.”
“You’re always so mean.”

The other character, the person who is being accused of ‘always’ or ‘never’ doing something, tends to become defensive.

Having your characters globalize is useful, because we all do this, don’t we? But it is also a writer’s trap. The back and forth of accusing and defending can turn into “tit for tat”.

“You never listen to me.”
“Yes I do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Oh no, I do!”

Most readers want something deeper than this. They want a distillation of the conflict, not every moment played out in minute agony. Unless, of course, that agony is true agony. (But I digress.)

If a character is judging everyone else, they are usually doing the same to themselves. So, after you’ve looked at how your character is judging everyone else, you need to apply the same brush to their thoughts about themselves.

In the mirror, some of us see someone who ‘should’ get her hair done. Who ‘should’ exercise more, eat better, drink less, call her mother, and on and on. Some of us, however, suspend our judgement. We have reasons for the spare tire of flab around our middle, for our callous behaviour to a colleague or friend.

The act of exploring what characters think everyone else “should” be (doing, thinking) is to give you insight into the relationships beneath the gloss they show the world. Those insights help you to develop characters that breathe and thus write richer, more complex scenes.

And remember, it is not what a character says that reveals their character. It is what they do.

Actions always speak much louder than words.

The writer’s madness tickle trunk

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What a great many madnesses do we writers have to plague our characters! There’s depression, anxiety, obsessions, phobias, addictions, paranoias, doubts and suspicions about ourselves and others, feelings of unreality and insignificance, feelings of grandiosity and cosmic importance.

Consider those niggling terrors; the thoughts that won’t go away, no matter how hard your character tries. As individuals we fight these things in ourselves, so why don’t your characters? As a writer these are your tools, your opportunity, to make characters of depth.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. How is your character not happy about herself? Is she too fat? Too thin? Too poor? Lacking in direction? Too normal? Too low in status?
  2. Who does she see as the perfect ‘me’ in the future? What is she doing (and not doing) to get there?
  3. How is she fighting off insanity? Is she obsessive about cleanliness, saving money, staying away from ‘dirty people’, disease, germs? Does she slip into a bottle of booze at night? Is she so economical that she has started to wash all of her clothes by hand as he showers (a.k.a. become eccentric)?

Brave and unique choices give you great opportunities to create interesting situations that readers can connect with.

What does your character value?

A good place to find your character’s madness is to look at how your character defines ‘sanity’? This is the same question as, “what does your character most value?” When you know what is valued, you can find what most terrifies. You don’t obsess about something that doesn’t matter to you, right? So if a character doesn’t care about germs but is obsessively cleaning, the reader will know something’s not quite right.

To make this as deep as possible, a number of exercises can help, including:

  1. Free-association: Start with one idea for something that makes your character crazy. Do a free writing exercise, associating their current fear backward in their life. Keep going until you find something that ‘pings’ at you.
  2. Research the foible to see how it manifests in others. Little nuggets can really inform your writing. For example, many germ-o-phobes do not touch public handrails or will punch elevator buttons with a tissue. For example, a germ-o-phobe might carry a set of special gloves for dangerous situations.

Making the most of insanity

How do you make the most of your character’s insanity? There’s a famous writing quote about plot structure that goes:

In the first act you put your character up a tree.
In the second, throw rocks at them.
In the third, you get them out of the tree.

To put your character up a tree, you place them in a situation where they have to face their madness. If they are clean freaks, you put them someplace dirty. If they are power hungry, place them in a situation where they have no power. It is by facing our weaknesses that your character will be forced to change and grow.

If the character can face the worst life can throw them, then so can the reader. Great writing persuades us that there is not terror so dark we cannot overcome it, even as the earth shakes beneath our feet.

How are your characters mad?

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As we humans have the capacity to imagine a different future, many of us are actually two people. Yes, really. There is the ‘me’ you see in the mirror. Perhaps that ‘me’ is a little chunky, having a bad hair day, wearing yesteryear’s styles. Then there is that ‘me’ in the future who is fit, gorgeous, well dressed, and would never stand in the middle of the kitchen eating a full carton of double chocolate ice cream at two in the morning.

Self-help books assume that we can make decisions about the things we care about and stick to them. Those books forget that each of us is a tich mad. Our self-control isn’t there when we need it, our talents never meet our expectations, our ability to design our lives is frequently a fantasy.

As Adam Phillips says in his book, Going Sane, “Madness is equated with loss of control, which is equated with doing forbidden things; sanity, on the contrary, is law-abiding, makes sense, and is equated with self-possession.” When, truly, do any of us really feel ‘self-possessed’?

We live in an age when the ground is shifting and the foundations are shaking. Each of us has reasons to be insecure. Self-possession is much treasured but rare asset.

Add to this that we understand how time works and that one day,we’ll be dead, even if we pretend this isn’t so. This impending death hits us in the face at times and makes us a little crazy. Somehow, each of us has to find a way to cope.

When the ground shakes we scurry into religion, work, alcohol, drugs, exercise, art, popular culture, the news of the day, the rules and regulations that make the world work, environmentalism, politics and more. These things ‘busy’ us and keep us entertained as time passes. We convince ourselves sometimes that if we are good enough and wise enough that we will live past our death. We will leave the world a better place. We will have left a legacy.

What does this mean for you as a writer?

When sitting down to write, the natural tendency is to create characters out of our hopes. The future ‘me’s of your imagination. That is, characters who are better than ourselves. Trouble is, there is nothing for a reader to explore in this imagined perfection.

Why wouldn’t someone else want to explore your ideal world? Well, readers don’t go into a story to learn about you, the writer. They go into a story to learn about themselves.

The good characters of dream writing always do what they’re supposed to, are never surprised by themselves and never have a moment of indecision. These ‘good’ characters come off as featureless, bland and fake. Readers have highly attuned radar for spotting fakery. “Who could be that good?” they ask themselves as they drop your book.

Plus, if a character is totally good, why do they need to change? If there’s one thing I see in manuscript after manuscript, it’s characters who are ‘perfect’ and thus, have nowhere to grow. Without a place to grow, there’s no story.

The great characters of literature are far from perfect. Can you recall one “good” character who has memorable lines?

Just like you, great characters are struggling with their sanity. Like us, they may pretend not to be struggling, but they are. Think of King Lear, Hamlet, Withnail, Dexter.

What does Hamlet sees when he looks in the mirror? The reason hell tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery” is because he has such a low view of himself (and all men). He is full of loathsome, sinful, ambitious and revengeful thoughts, and Ophelia would be better off in a nunnery than marrying any man. See full speech, below.

Readers connect with characters that are struggling because they see themselves. They are looking at a mirror, not a mirage. And when they follow a character who is struggling, it helps them to figure out the challenges they are facing in their own lives.

Hamlet: 

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
 breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;
 but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
 were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
 proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
 my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
 imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
 in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
 between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
 all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.

Prepare to write like an actor

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When an actor prepares to play a role, she doesn’t only memorize her lines and reach into her schtick bag for an accent and wig. Creating a layered character requires getting under the skin of her character. To do this she might:

  1. Learn as much as possible about the time the story is set. What it looked like, smelled like. The kinds of jargon people used.
  2. Imagine the character’s personal history. Who were her parents and what kind of relationship did they have? Who were her friends and why were they her friends? What does she do when she’s alone?
  3. Write journals about scenes not in the play or movie to learn more about the character. Take an important moment and write a stream-of-consciousness monologue that follows her thoughts moment by moment.
  4. Find a piece of music that communicates the character’s rhythm. The music becomes the character’s theme that the actor plays on her iPod in preparation for playing a scene.
  5. Work on the character’s movement patterns. Work from the breath and find how the character holds herself, speaks and tosses the hair out of her eyes.
  6. Study not just the lines, but what lies under them

The actor may fill a notebook to brimming with notes and scratching and doodles. She may create an altar where she gathers images that relate to her character. Every dialogue exchange may have alternate meanings that she works through over and over.

The idea of this work is not to put on the character, but to live the character. To be the character. To feel inside the skin of the character.

This preparation work becomes like the tea bag, the actor the teapot full of water. The richer and more varied the tea, the more layered the performance.

If this work is done well, when the actor steps on the stage the audience sees a lot more than a person reading a bunch of lines. They feel the presence of a fully realized character. They feel it in vocal intonations, how the actor moves, the gleam in their eye. Even a raised eye brow at the right moment can speak volumes.

Because it really is like making a tea, the prep work doesn’t last in the actor for long. Like any tea, it gets cold and old and eventually evaporates into the air. It can be brought back, but it’s not like snapping fingers. The steeping process needs to begin again.

I have come to believe that writing works in a similar way. When you are truly writing the character, the words come from a special place. When your readers take in the words on the page, there’s something else that comes through. Your readers can sense the tilt of the head, the look in the eye, feel the breath moving in and out.