From the Basement

July 16, 2010

On Writing & Grief

Filed under: Family,Writing — jeannablue @ 6:28 pm
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Up until last night, the writing was not going well this week – prayer writing, blog writing, fiction writing. This has been hampered in part by exhaustion and in part by my own crazy expectations, but mostly because of the frightening illness that struck our 3-year-old cat, Lucy. She passed away late Wednesday night, and we got the call Thursday morning from the vet that she had died.

Strangely enough, I think that Lucy’s death has driven me back to writing. The week has been so clouded with uncertainty surrounding her illness that the clarity of her death was almost welcome – she’s out of pain, and there is an end to the madness that permeated the house. We said our goodbyes, and she is now buried in the backyard with a pinwheel marking her grave (stone marker to follow).

Where before the house was emotionally frantic, we are now settling down. There is sadness, and pain, and loss – especially for my mom – but things are coming back down to normal, whatever normal is.

Maybe the release of grief and frustration helped unlock the creative recesses of my brain, but the last 15 hours, say, have been a firestorm – not necessarily of writing (though I have been doing that) but rather of figuring out what the story is about. There’s a key event in the past that I didn’t know, and now I do. I feel like I can proceed so much more smoothly, knowing what it is that’s driving the heroine toward her present course of action.

Another thing that helped free the ideas was pictures. I don’t do this very often, but late last night I stumbled across a recommendation to go through magazines looking for pictures of your characters. I found many pictures, only a few that I know definitively are my characters, but that’s more than I had before, and seeing multiple pictures of them – even possibilities – was so encouraging, so inspiring.

I am well aware that losing a pet is not like losing a person, but there is a palpable sense of loss in a house that comes with the death of a beloved pet. And today, I am filling that sense of loss with writing, with experiencing my characters’ grief rather than my own, dealing with their families instead of mine. It’s times like this I am very grateful I have a story to disappear into.

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June 23, 2010

Breakthrough

Filed under: Fiction,Writing — jeannablue @ 8:25 pm
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Today, I was ready to set aside the novel-in-progress for a different idea. Just set it aside. I wanted to work on the other project – the more exciting, controversial project. At least, talking about the unruly women of history seems more striking than a quiet novel set in a small town on the Great River Road.

But my protagonist was having none of that. Today, she decided to come out and play. Finally.

Part of the reason I was ready to set the novel aside was because I was having such a tough time getting a picture of her. Almost all of my first writings are dialogue, and pretty much dialogue only. I’ve always had a good ear for speech and rhythms and such; of all the parts of a story, dialogue comes easiest. Description, now, that’s harder. And instinctually knowing what my characters feel – well, that’s just something that comes with time.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time – or at least, I’ve tried to spend time – with my protagonist, and I just wasn’t getting a read on her. Some things came; the post Trust Your Characters came on the heels of a good session.

Maybe it was the threat of moving to a different project – who knows? But today, I got a sense for her as I never have before. She started to do things and feel things, not just say things (for me, there is a difference, at least when I’m still getting to know a character). She decided to go kayaking with the guy I know she’ll fall in love with, and I only know that because he invited her to go kayaking before I could even catch up.

I love when characters do that.

So I am a very happy girl right now.

June 18, 2010

Trust Your Characters

It’s a slow process, learning about characters. Sort of like making a new friend – it’s gradual. You can’t force it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t force the characters. Force the characters and you risk killing the story. Ah hell, you kill the story.

It’s the same way with deciding which music will keep me going through the story. I write in silence but I listen to music to feed my muse, to put me in the mood, in that place that takes me there. Tonight, there were three songs that came to me for this story’s soundtrack: Beth (originally by Kiss, but I listen to the Glee version), Summer in the City (Regina Spektor), and Red Dirt Girl (Emmylou Harris). Summer in the City is for the piano; when I heard that song (God bless the random option on iTunes), I realized that my main character plays piano. Red Dirt Girl is for her mother. And Beth, I have no idea. Maybe the dad, who isn’t really in the story. Or maybe I just really like the texture of the song.

I cleaned my desk today. Clutter prevents creativeness. So I cleaned my desk, mostly. And I unwrapped a “note block” and started ripping off the small white notes (like Post-Its only without the sticky), and writing things I knew about my protagonist, and taping them onto my wall. I have 12 notes for her. Some are character traits, like that she’s impatient and restless. One is her favorite color (usually not something I think about, so that was weird, but it’s ice blue, in case you’re wondering). Some things come randomly, like the knowledge that she plays piano and her dad is the one who taught her. I know that she orders a Caesar salad with every meal and that she retreats into herself when asked about things she doesn’t want to talk about.

I also know that I have no idea what’s driving the internal conflict. Well, I know that it’s a conflict with her mother. Something happened three years prior to the story (that it was three years ago just got dropped into my lap), and I don’t know what. It’s big. But I don’t know. And I try to stop myself from filling in the gap: was it an abortion or a huge fight or manipulation or knowledge of her father or …? It does no good to fill it in. It’ll fill itself in.

When it comes to writing characters, I’m a firm believer that they should let themselves be discovered. I used to be the 20-step writer – you know, fill in 20 character traits, describe their physicality, decide on a personality, go from there. Now I’m more inclined to the Stephen King method (which actually applies to uncovering story, but I apply it to characters): they are bones that we as writers dig up. They’re already there. We just have to sense them, find them, excavate them carefully, removing one bit of dirt at a time until we get a clearer picture. It takes time, energy, devotion. The story is there. The characters are there. And if you trust yourself to find them, if you trust yourself enough to keep moving the pen, eventually the story and characters will start moving so fast you’ll struggle to keep up. Eventually, the story writes itself and the characters do their own thing.

That’s the point I’m excited to get to. I’m not there yet. I’m only three thousand words in right now. It’ll take a while longer before a picture starts to emerge. But it’s already changed from what I thought it was, and that’s a good thing.

Trust the process. And, to offer one of my favorite quotes on writing, never hope more than you work.

P.S. The reason for the hiatus was an excursion out west to attend the wedding of a dear friend. And then I was tired and took a break from blog writing. And now I’m back, working on a novel, still applying for jobs, and hopefully continuing to blog through the whole process.

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