Day 15: Cracking Eggs & Writing Fears

The other day, my friend Michelle and I were having coffee at Java Joes, shooting the shit and talking–as we do–about the general nature of life.  Why is it, we wondered, that people get stuck?

We were talking about the nature of stagnation.  The person who stays in the job they hate even though it is sucking down their soul.  The person sleeping in the bedroom that reminds them of death.  The person in the unfulfilling relationship who stays because it is easy and safe.  Instance after instance, person after person, so many examples it is impossible to count.  Every person rutted.  Every person only moderately happy.

“This is my biggest fear,” I said.  And then, remembering my novel, I asked, “How does one get out of it?”

My novel, The View From Here, is told from the point of view of four different characters.  Each character is stuck in her own way.  Coincidentally, I’ve been spending the last two months working on the chapters for a character who is also named Michelle.  This is what I know about Michelle the character: She works a lot.  She travels a lot.  She is having an affair with a younger woman.  She is married to a very honest and good man named Jim.  She is unhappy.  I know that she and Jim will split (sorry for the spoiler), and though I’ve written many many drafts already, I’m still ironing out HOW this splitting will happen.  And so when I asked Michelle, “How do you get out of it?” I was trying to find an answer to the thing I’ve been struggling with for weeks.

Michelle, in true Michelle fashion, diverted the conversation.  She began talking about something else.  I brought her back.  “I mean it,” I say.  “How does this happen?  Do you know anyone who has gotten out?  Who’s changed their life for the better?”

Michelle shrugged.  She sipped coffee.  “Not really,” she said.

Dan Mueller, one of my teachers/mentors at UNM, likes to describe characters as eggs.  In a story, he says, there are many forces exerted upon a character.  Each one adds more and more pressure to that character’s shell until eventually, the pressure is too much, and the character cracks.

These are eggs from my community garden. They have very hard shells...

We may love our characters, but we want them to crack.  We need them to.  Otherwise, we don’t have a story.  Today, writers, try using the pressure of fear.  Let fear push your writing and your characters closer to that necessary edge.  And to get us there, here’s a writing exercise I snagged from Alice La Plante’s The Making of a Story.  I did this one with my English 321 class, and it is, perhaps, my favorite writing exercise ever.  I don’t have the book so this isn’t verbatim, but here is the gist of the exercise:

What’s behind the door of Room 101?

In George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-four, room 101 contained whatever a prisoner feared most.

  • First, take a character you are working with (or use yourself if you are writing Creative Nonfiction or Poetry), and imagine the character walking into his or her version of Room 101.  What does he/she see?  The key here is to stay specific.  Do not use abstractions (loneliness, anger, lust, etc).  Instead, render through concrete significant details (think of your five senses here.  We want to hear it, taste it, smell it, feel it, and see it).  Write for 10 minutes.
  • Then, for the next ten minutes, render a scene (or poem) in which the character encounters something that reminds him or her of this fear.  DO NOT mention the fear.

Good luck!

Day 12: Gesture “Drawings” of People

Ava Riley, challenger and author of erotic and paranormal romance novels, gives this writing tip:

Before I write I always have a picture (snatched from the internet) of what I think my main characters will look like.  I’m a visual person, so it helps tremendously.

If you haven’t played around with Google Images yet, it’s pretty phenomenal.  Today, try taking different faces (either through Google Images or through good old fashioned people watching) and practice writing character descriptions, arguably one of the more challenging aspects of writing yet.

To help you think through this process, here is Annie Proulx’s description of Quoyle from Shipping News.  Notice how she uses time (age six, age sixteen, etc) to characterize Quolye along with vivid simile and metaphor.

A great damp loaf of a body.  At six he weighed eighty pounds.  At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh.  Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back.  Features as bunched as kissed fingertips.  Eyes the color of plastic.  The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.

And here’s a lovely one from Summer Wood’s Wrecker that uses both a comparison to another person as well as a character’s situation in order to get the image of the boy across:

The boy turned his face to him, and Len peered closely.  He hadn’t seen Lisa Fay since he’d married her sister fifteen years back, but there was something of the family resemblance in the snub nose, in the delicate oval curve of the chin.  There was little else that seemed delicate on this boy.  In spite of his small size he was robust and muscled.  His pale hair was cropped short and badly, and his corduroy pants were bunched by a belt at his waist, the elastic gone slack.  Kid had a right to look bedraggled, Len thought, yanked from his mother that young.  He had the right to look forlorn.  This boy didn’t look forlorn, he looked ferocious.

And here’s a first person description courtesy of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.  Note the way she begins with a comparison (a desire to look like Paul Newman), moves through self-criticism (I wish I was X), and finally ends by grounding the character and his appearance in a specific place (his neighborhood):

I was wishing I looked like Paul Newman–he looks tough and I don’t–but I guess my own looks aren’t so bad.  I have light-brown, almost-red hair and greenish-gray eyes. I wish they were more gray, because I hate most guys that have green eyes, but I have to be content with what I have.  My hair is longer than a lot of boys wear theirs, squared off in back and long at the front and sides, but I am a greaser and most of my neighborhood rarely bothers to get a haircut.  Besides, I look better with long hair.

Writing character descriptions is not easy, so don’t be afraid to practice.  Visual artists make gesture drawings while they sit in meetings or in class or in waiting rooms or coffee shop.  They’ll go to a room to collectively stand around in a circle and sketch naked people for hours.  Why not treat character descriptions in the same light?  And wouldn’t it be funny to show up at an Art Studio with a pen and paper and sit around and write?

A Formula For Your Characters (that gets us into Plot)

A couple of years ago, I taught the Introduction to Creative Writing (English 224) at the University of New Mexico.  A multi-genre course, we used a multi-gengre book called Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway.  I share with you today a formula Burroway offered on character:

__(name)__ is a ___-year-old _(occupation)_ who wants _______.

Today Writers, try plugging each of your characters into this formula. (Poets, I’m not sure how this will work out for you, but perhaps give it a try.  Creative non-fiction people, remember to treat yourself as a character, too).

I like this formula for many reasons:

  1. The formula forces you to make decisions on your characters’ fundamentals: his or her name, age, occupation, and, most importantly, what he or she wants.  Since we’re halfway through this Writer’s March, perhaps its time to finalize some decisions.
  2. The formula is simple and my writing tends to be overly complicated.  Sometimes reminding myself of this formula helps me get back on track.  For instance, if I know what my characters want, I am more likely to know what should happen in the next scene.  Also, I am more likely to know where and how my characters conflict with each other.
  3. This formula also helps me when I am thinking through my story (or novel’s) plot.  Without going too much into the details of it.  Let’s not forget that plot is a function of a character’s wants.  Much of your story revolves around the obstacles that keep your character from reaching his or her goal(s).  Therefore, if you don’t know what your character wants, technically you don’t have a plot.  Trust me.  I learned this the hard way.

Keep in mind:  More often than not, a character’s wants drives your plot.  It tells you when the story should begin, what they should overcome, and when it should end.  And often, no desire = a bored reader.