Thursday, September 30, 2010

Vicarious Pain (for a change) ... and baconization of the world

I just had a conversation about reading in the school parking lot with a friend of mine. She was saying how much she prefers light novels over the heavy stuff. She has to deal with heavy stuff in everyday life, and she just likes a fluffy novel to immerse in. Naturally, I whipped out copies of my books for her as loaners and (since I couldn't resist) gave her my philosophy on cotton candy, how much we just need an escape.

This morning a different friend called. She is working on the "black moment" in her novel. She is trying to make the awful part at the 85% mark much more wrenching. But she likes things nice for her characters (she says today, but I know she does make them suffer!) so it's hard to get the black moment black enough. We talked about figuring out what her character values most of all (her marriage and family) and putting that on the chopping block for the character--upping the stakes, making it really dangerously close to possibly being lost to the character.

My friend was saying how hard it is for her to get down and write the angry feelings or the pain or the fear. I agree. It's tough!

A few months ago I was reading a book about how to do that. (I wish I could remember which one it was. When I do, I'll post a link.) The author suggested mining our own experiences for times of deep emotion. Think back on times of each different kind of emotion: pain, suffering, embarrassment, grief, anger, hatred, longing, love, fear, fear of loss, disappointment, anything.

Think of times when we've felt that. For instance, the sorrow I felt when my grandma died, or the embarrassment of when (okay, too many to choose from). Then, we can list these times and beside them make a list of what representative emotion they connect to. Make a catalog of those emotion packed moments or experiences, relive them in our minds.

In this way, we mine our own experiences for emotion.

Now, the point the author (bless his heart whoever he was) made was that we don't have to put our character into the same situations we were in. We don't have to make all our stories autobiographical. However, we can draw on those experiences and transfuse the emotion of our own moments into the character's moment.

So, what does all this have to do with cotton candy? We read to escape our own real moments of emotion. Instead, we trade them for the emotion of fictional characters. Sometimes "a change is as good as a rest," and so as we read, we feel the pain or sorrow or anger of someone else, and it's a relief, a release, a cotton candy moment. It melts into our reading souls and can help us forget our own troubles and root for someone else for a change.

Now, I need something salty for a change. I recently heard about a new product: Baconnaise. The makers say their goal is to make everything taste like bacon. Mmm. Sweet is yummy, but salt ... it's the spice of life. Am I right?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Unforgivable Broccoli in the Teeth

I just found out that Nicholas Cage is...Francis Ford Coppola's son? And Sophia Coppola's brother. How could I not know that?

Also, how could I not have known that there was a little green broccoli bud between my two front teeth when I went to that important political meeting the other night to meet big wigs from the state party and when I was sitting on the front row of the meeting smiling through the whole thing? How?

These things are just not acceptable.

If I'd skipped the broccoli and just gone with candy for dinner like I wanted to--stuffed my mouth with Red Vines (sounds like it's based on a plant food) and Sour Patch Kids (vegetables grow in a patch, right?) instead of that healthy stuff, I might never have caused myself to suffer the embarrassment. And now I can't even remember if embarrassment has one or two r's in it.

The Dinner of Champions:

What is forgivable, however, is an imperfect first draft. I think a lot of us authors get done with a first draft and voila! we think it's a finished product and we get all excited and show it to all our friends and family and writing group pals. Then, a few weeks or months go by and ... shoot. It doesn't look so great. The fervor for its glory cools significantly. Freezes over, in fact. We approach it with new eyes and we're horrified. Much like my glance in the mirror after returning home from the Marriott meeting with bigwigs.

However, we have to remember that first drafts are just that: first drafts. First implies that other drafts follow. Like second, third, fourth drafts. I like what James A. Michener said, "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." We don't have to be geniuses in the first place. We just need to get the clay onto the pottery wheel so we can begin to mold it.

And how many metaphors can I fit into a single blog post? Going for a new record, I guess.

But what I'm saying is I hated seeing my imperfections of teeth (and knowledge) as much as I hate seeing first drafts' imperfections. But once that initial shock of horror passes, we need to let that subside and we can begin to look for the good things in the story and start to work from there molding it into something greater than we initially formed--make it take a shape closer to our original vision, perhaps.

But still. How could Nicholas Cage have been that guy and I not know it?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


In one of my favorite novels, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, the main character Flora Post announces to her friend Mrs. Smiling, "I mean to write a novel as good as Persuasion by the time I'm fifty."

I say that's a pretty lofty goal.

But that phrase tumbled around in my head for so long (like a clothes dryer with no automatic shut off and I left on vacation with a load of towels in) that eventually I took up the challenge. I failed, naturally, but I did write a novel based on Persuasion, arguably Jane Austen's finest work (and the one supposedly most autobiographical.) It pales, but does that count?

Anyhow, I've spent the past three weeks immersed in a new and foreign (to me) form of writing: persuasive.

Given the choice in college, I signed up for the research writing class, not the persuasive writing class. Then when it came to the sales aspects of the technical writing courses I took, I pretty much stunk. Sigh. It's not my forte. But lately, my completely untrained moment has been thrust upon me. I've had to write the text for a brochure, six persuasive letters, a "convincing" post card, an entire website, several radio ads, and three newspaper ads.


It's a tall building to leap in a single bound. I don't know how the end result looks yet. And I won't know if they're effective for a few more weeks. And a LOT depends on it. In fact, I want to kind of hurl whenever I think about how much the success or failure of these chunks of text actually effects my life.

What I do know about persuasive writing is this: know your audience. Know what matters to them. Know what they want most. Suit your message to your reader. Figure out what will appeal to the reader and play on that. It can be based on fear, or deeply held emotions, or money. (Dang it. None of which I tapped into, I realize now.) It can be based on reason--well reasoned arguments (that's what I was going for). It can appeal to desires. (Avoided that one, too.)

Meanwhile, I'm thinking what I really desire is another dose of Tylenol and another dose of that fantastic Cherry Chocolate Ice Cream Bar by my good friends at the Blue Bell ice cream company. Is there more deliciousness anywhere? I think not. Unless it's in the Buttered Pecan Ice Cream Bar (which I have yet to sample. But my birthday is coming up in a few weeks. Hint. Hint.)

Now that's cold comfort.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Name that Tune (er, character)

So how could I possibly avoid eating the candy? It was a long-driving road trip. We were listening to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (it’s Roald Dahl month!), and the song on the radio was “Sugar, Sugar, oh honey honey, you are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you.” I’d been subconsciously prepped, so why not buy a Bit o’ Honey, a Snickers, a Spree, and a pack of Doublemint—and eat them all myself?

Good stuff. I love that honey taffy.

I have a dear friend named Taffy, actually. When I first met her I had to do an audio doubletake. Taffy? Excuse me?

But the better I got to know her the better her name fit her. If anyone ever was appropriately called Taffy it’s she.

I have another friend. She’s completely down to earth. She’s strong. She’s bright. She’s no frills, no pink, no ribbons or bows. She told me that when she was born, her mom (under the influence of post childbirth swirling emotions) wanted to name her Buffy.

Thank heavens her father stepped in and put a stop to that. She has a much more personality-appropriate name.
So, when we name book people, how do we come up with just the right name? I have read books where the whole way through the name of the main character has caused a little “ding” in my mind every time I see it. The name doesn’t fit the character’s age or personality or the time period setting of the book—something.

I find that choosing characters’ names is one of the great tasks. Sometimes the name hits me first, and then the story follows. I suspect The Great Gilly Hopkins. Perhaps Willy Wonka, too (while we’re on the candy subject.)

Other times I know the story, but I don’t know the character’s name for a long time. When I was pregnant with our oldest we bought these great name books—not just long lists of names listed alphabetically, but the listing included the connotation of the name, the way he might be perceived by his peers, whether it was stodgy or cool, solid or fluffy, plus lots of other naming theories. Loved them. The latest update of this series I bought was called The Baby Name Bible.

Between baby birthings (I don’t know nuthin’ about birthin’ no babies!), I found these books to be really helpful in naming the imaginary people in my life. It was great to use them, and an added bonus was if I had a name I adored (Maren, Stan, Bridget) and my husband decidedly did NOT adore that name, it could be slapped on a story person and come to life, even if only on paper.

It’s a tricky business naming a character. It has to fit just right. The character doesn’t have the opportunity to grow up and head over to Social Security and make the change if you don’t get it right the first time. Only the author has the power and responsibility for the perfect fit. That is a hefty burden sometimes.

Sometimes an honest mistake can be made. This is why critique groups are so important. I was proofreading a story by an acquaintance once and the main character’s name was … let’s just say it was offensive. A baddie. Because it was the main character, it was on every page. When I mentioned she might like to rename him, she got a little defensive (we love our story-children), and so I got my husband to explain the meaning to her. She decided to let it go. Whew.

In one of my novels I made the mistake of making two characters’ names sound too closely alike: Jed and Ted. And no, they weren’t twins. It wasn’t until the book had been out almost a year that my neighbor said, “I kept getting them mixed up.” Clutch at my heart! How could I have not noticed such a thing? Ugh!

It’s important, I think, to have names that are memorable. They don’t have to be wacky-out-of-the-realm-of-normality names, but they need to be slightly odd. John Grisham is good at this. I decided a while back I think he skims the phone book and finds some of the weirder names and picks some. I liked the fact that Charlie in the chocolate factory’s last name is Bucket. It’s believable but quite memorable. In farce (like that) the people can be names that describe them (Angina—fat mother of spoiled rich girl, means heart attack; Gloop for the greedy kid; etc.) I have made the mistake of having names be too pedestrian. It helps the reader, (at least when I’m the reader), to have the names be just enough different to be memorable. Think Holden Caulfield, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, etc.

Growing up "Jennifer"....I mean, in the '70s almost every girl seemed to be named Jennifer. Or Lisa. It had its pros and its cons.

So, I guess a couple of the things I now watch out for as I’m naming book people is to try not to have any rhyming names, to not have any two names begin with the same letter, and make it memorable.

There’s a poem by Robert Frost about a girl whose parents name her Maple. Not Mabel. It is forever giving her trouble, and then one day it becomes the springboard of a conversation with a man who ends up falling in love with her. The final line of the poem goes something like “Name children some names and see what you do.” Or what happens.

I like that.