I don’t know about you all, but I am flattened by all of the activity from the last few weeks, and what I really want to do is goof off and go watch a good movie. I’m in the middle of creating a new voice for the WIP, which is fairly different from my previous work (this is darker, grittier, different world, no humor), and because of that, I’m interested in how others set up their worlds, hook us, and create their voice. [hmmm. Well, in part. Mostly, I just wanna be a slug in front of a big screen, but let’s pretend I made some sort of profound statement on voice here. I think the triptowhateverturkeystuff has kicked in and I’m knee deep in relatives, and I cried Uncle about a week ago. Thank you.]
Problem is, I just don’t see all that much at the theater that makes me want to bother. I’ve never been, nor will I ever be, interested in the Twilight films, much to the chagrin of several friends of mine who’ve been trying to convince me to give the books and films a try. (One friend even dragged all four books over here and piled them on my desk. Whereupon I made them into handy paperweights ’til she gave up and came and got them back.) I can’t explain why the disinterest. I’ve read plenty of other vampire books I’ve enjoyed. I’ve read plenty of YA. Dunno why the combination feels meh, but it does. (Clearly, I am not the one to go by regarding what will work, though, because holy box office, Batman, that did well. Thank you, young female audiences. Hi, Hollywood, hope you’re taking notes… females can rock the box office.)
The last thing we saw was last weekend: The Blind Side. (Desperation to get out of the house drove us there. It was… okay. Maybe meh tilting toward not bad.) I actually expected more depth to the story, more confrontation with the aspects of Michael Oher’s tragic upbringing, and while that’s shown, there’s a glossing over that frustrated me, as a viewer.
I honestly can’t say I’ve seen anything extraordinary, lately. I’m curious about Precious and it’s probably up next. I’d tried a couple of romantic comedies this summer (The Proposal, which was funny up until the point where it was a complete rip off of While You Were Sleeping, to the point of staging and everthing and that sucked the life out of that ending for me. We also saw The Ugly Truth, which was, indeed, Ugly. If you set aside all taste and moral compass, it had its funny moments. I so want to like Gerard Butler in a film.)
There have been entire months–multiple months at a stretch–where my husband and I will look at the multiplexes and feel completely left out of any thoughts regarding what we’d like. And we’ll go see a huge variety, so you’d think it wouldn’t be that difficult to find something. [Having been a screenwriter for seven years, I grasp how all of this comes about, but still… it’s disappointing to truly want to go to movies, to have the time and money, and repeatedly have nothing worth bothering over.]
There are a couple of movies I’m looking forward to. One is Cameron’s Avatar:
And another one is Rob Marshall’s Nine:
Jim Sherridan’s Brothers looks noteworthy:
But overall… that’s pretty slim pickings. I may have missed something coming out soon, though, so if you have some suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Meanwhile, what’s a great / decent / worth going to film you’ve seen in the theater lately? And I’m all over Netflix and have a few good ones in my queue, but I’d love to see your favorites in a list.
I wonder sometimes. I wonder about this journey we are on, this effort we make to create and breathe life into mere dots of ink. I wonder about the angst of it, the stress and beating of ourselves into smithereens small enough to sieve. How did we get into that mindset?
I’ve thought about this all week, after a few stressful events over the last couple of weeks. To get away from it all, my husband and I visited my oldest son and his wife and the four of us made a trek over to Moab, Utah where there are a couple of impressive national parks I had never heard about.
When you go into the visitor’s center of these parks, there are elaborate displays demonstrating the types of things you’re going to see on your travels through the park, with snippets of educational information that should prove useful. One of the standards in visitor centers of this sort is the big map—or model—of the area, with a star somewhere that indicates the location where you’re standing, with a big “You Are Here” note in bold red, just so you don’t miss it.
And most of the time, we barely reference the “You Are Here” sign.
YOU ARE HERE
We glance at it, note it in relation to the map, orienting ourselves for the journey outward, away. It’s simply a starting point, a place that is already boring for the very fact that it’s only the beginning. It’s where you are, not where you are going or where you want to be.
Lives can be like that. And careers. We’re so busy looking outward and onward, away from where we are, that we’re impatient with ourselves to just get over there. To that place. That place that is not here. We’re so focused on the end result, we forget that no end result happens without the journey.
There is always a journey.
On one of the treks in the Canyonlands park, the climb was fairly steep for someone like myself who has been sitting behind a desk for far far too long without enough exercise. For my 27-year-old very physically fit son, it was nothing. He kept saying, “It’s really not much farther, you’re almost there,” all along the way, which was, frankly, kinda annoying, because even as much as I’d like to have believed him, I could see with my own two eyes that there were a lot more steps above me than there were below. About halfway there, I had serious doubts about finishing the stupid climb. It really wasn’t that far, in actuality, but it felt like a zillion miles straight up at an altitude I wasn’t accustomed to, and I was wondering somewhere along the way how I managed to give birth to a drill sergeant who had this crazy notion that I should be up and moving instead of always sitting at my nice happy desk which required exactly 11 steps from my bed. All level steps, I might add. This whole outdoors thing was ridiculous, what with the fresh air and the beautiful scenery and the… hmmmm.
Then we finally got to the last part, a hard slope uphill with no actual steps, you just had to lean into it and use your legs to push on up and then bang, we were on top of the viewpoint where we could see this amazing Upheaval Canyon.
(A shot I took of Upheaval Mountain)
(And the 180 degree view)
The colors were stunning. The vastness of the canyon. The gorgeous sky above. The layers and layers of strata in the canyon that represented the hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of years that this particular canyon formed.
I loved this particular place because the beauty of it lies in the fact that it didn’t form quite like the many canyons around it. There are a couple of theories, but the prevailing one seems to be the idea that an ancient meteor struck the earth there, possibly collapsing a dome of salt. There are details here: http://www.utahtrails.com/UpheavalCan.html, but what struck me was that this thing of beauty was formed by great hardship and change.
I stood on top of that mountain and thought “You Are Here.”
Hardship and change are inevitable on our journeys. We can have a lot of signposts along the way, and educational snippets / suggestions from the best meaning sources, including friends, but nothing is going to substitute for us living and experiencing that journey.
When I looked back at that second view, I realized–that was my view on my way up. Those clouds, that sun, those colors, that world, and I’d barely seen it, because I wanted to be on top of the mountain already. I nearly missed the view, and only realized how far I’d come and how much I’d seen when I looked back and saw the whole picture.
The thing is, I had been mostly looking at my shoes on the way up that mountain, contemplating why on earth this had seemed like a good idea back at the hotel, grousing internally about the effort it was taking just to go see what amounted to a big hole in the ground. I think we do that a lot with our careers and our lives—we are so busy being frustrated with where we are, because we want to be over there, or there, or there. Somewhere not here, not in this particular hard place, because we want to have the end result.
Well, I could’ve looked at photos and had the end result, but it wouldn’t have meant as much. Until you stand there in that moment on the top of that hill that you had to climb, and experienced the vastness of the landscape, witnessed the brilliant hues in the earth, seen forever painted in the sky, you cannot really know the end result.
It’s always going to take work to get from here to there.
A few months ago, if you’d asked me if I’d be standing on top of a mountain, seeing something I’ve never seen, doing something I hadn’t done, I’d have told you no. It wasn’t a part of my plan, a part of what I thought my journey was. But I’d have missed something amazing and life has a way of giving you detours. It’s up to you if you learn from them or not. It’s up to you if you say, “Yes, I am here,” and appreciate where you are.
On my way back down that hill, I noticed the scenery. Little things I’d taken for granted or hadn’t bothered to experience on the way up, because they were just mere obstacles to my journey to get to the damned top already.
And I thought about that journey up. I had to rest a couple of times, whereas my son could’ve raced up the mountain without breaking a sweat. He has seen this site before and we were experiencing it for the first time. But there are things I’ve seen, hardships I’ve known, that he hasn’t had yet. Things he’s seen and known that I will never fully grasp.
But we both stood at the top, amazed. Speechless with the beauty.
(Another area of Canyonlands… what you cannot grasp from this photo is the vastness of the scale here. From where this shot was taken to the bottom of that canyon you see in the center of the photo is a 2000 ft. difference in elevation. There are canyon walls beyond that, levels upon levels, created hardship by hardship, over eons of time. Beautiful, sublime.)
You can’t compare your journey to someone else’s. Their journey is theirs. Yours is yours. Period. You cannot walk in their shoes. You cannot die their death. They cannot die yours. They may go farther than you, faster than you, but it doesn’t matter. What you can know, and the only thing you can know, is that You Are Here. You don’t know yet what you will be, when you’re done. You might have an inkling of what you’d like to be, where you’d like to be, but you cannot know if that is the best thing for you, when all is said and done. What you can only know is where you are and what your intention is. And all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, in good faith that you will eventually arrive at the right destination for you. Meanwhile, don’t miss the good things that surround you where you are because you’re so busy looking off to the horizon at that far away goal that you may obtain someday.
Embrace where you are, right now. This is part of your journey. You’re not alone. We’re all here, signpost and snippets and educational babble along the way. We cheer each other, sometimes being that annoying supporter who says, “You’re almost there!” when you suspect it’s a lie, but nevertheless, applauding you for trying. But your journey is going to have its own hardships. You’re going to learn your own lessons, and those are good things, both the hardships and the lessons. Because without the hardships, there wouldn’t be anything to compare the beauty to, to recognize the beauty when you see it. To bask in where you’ve gone once you’ve gotten there.
You Are Here.
Every place you are is the place of your new beginning.
(A shot I took of what seemed to me a most unlikely thing–a vineyard at the base of the mountains in Palisade, CO. A vineyard, in snow country surprised me. But their Reserve Riesling was one of the best I ever tasted. Surprises on the journey.)
So how about you, ‘Rati? What was a surprising turn in your life that brought you to a place you hadn’t expected, which you may never have planned, but for which now you are grateful? OR, if you’d rather, tell me something you appreciate about where you are in life right now.
This weekend, I’m at the most amazing writer’s retreat with a group of friends; we’re overlooking a gorgeous bay with cerulean blue skies, giant white cranes lazily circling the docks as competent white motorboats slide past in the bay. The weather has been stunning—low 80s, clear, light breezes—and the food has been wonderful. And in spite of all of that beauty, we managed an amazing amount of work done. This is the first time I’ve done this sort of a gathering of writers with a goal of workshopping (brainstorming) and it’s been one of the best weekends, ever.
What made it even more of a joy was that the writers I got to spend time with are women I respect and admire, whose writing styles span several genres and who have a great enthusiasm for storytelling at its finest. One of those women happens to also be a friend, CJ Lyons, who has a terrific new book out this week called URGENT CARE
I asked CJ a few fun questions that I’d like to share with you today, because it’s always a kick to me to ask questions of long-time friends and still be surprised by their answers.
Question: If you were to go to the great Coffee Shop in the sky, which five authors would you love to meet for conversations?
CJ: Hemingway, Dumas, Rilke, E. E. “Doc” Smith, and Shakespeare.
The reason for those five is that they know how to tell a damned good story and captivate your imagination. Hemingway could use very few words to evoke large emotions. Dumas understood the complexities of people as well as their society. Rilke for his ability to paint with words. Doc Smith for his ability to imagine new worlds and Shakespeare because he understood that it was as important to laugh as to cry.
Question: Who inspired you?
He was the first author that I read that understood that adult themes were not out of bounds for kids and didn’t talk down to children. He also introduced me to the idea of words, other than poetry, being able to portray emotion more than just creating action on the page.
Question: How long have you been writing and how did you know you wanted to write fiction?
Actually, I guess I’ve been writing fiction all my life, because I’ve been telling stories all my life. I had a hard time telling the difference between reality and not-quite-so-truthful reality, which ended up giving me a lot of time in “time out”… which, of course, meant I had more time to create new stories.
I was an early reader and an early writer. In grade school I created a Civil War saga about a blind orphan girl and her horse—because there always has to be a horse—who rescued other orphans from Confederate marauders. I didn’t write for publication until 2003 when I joined RWA and entered the Golden Heart contest (where I finaled) and I sold that book six months later.
Question: Tell me a little bit about your background which helps to give your current series so much verisimilitude?
My background includes 17 years of practicing pediatrics and pediatric emergency medicine in some of the east coast’s busiest trauma centers. Also, I lived in Pittsburg, where the series is set. But the most important thing is understanding the emotional costs of practicing medicine while working in an urban ER, because the stories are not just about the medicine, they’re about the people and their relationships. The idea for the series was that it wasn’t medicine that saves lives, but people who save lives.
Question: Your newest book hit the bookstands last Tuesday. Tell me about URGENT CARE.
URGENT CARE is darker and more emotional than the first two books. In it, ER Charge Nurse Nora Halloran must face her greatest fear when the man who attacked her two years ago returned and is now killing his victims.
Question: What is the funniest thing (non-X-rated) that you’ve ever seen in the ER.
Well, I was amazed to learn just how many men changed their light bulbs while naked and where the light bulb ends up. Note to the wise: wear jeans.
Here’s the summary of URGENT CARE, which I know is a terrific read because I had the great fortune of getting to read this in an earlier draft and was wowed by it:
URGENT CARE (Berkley/Jove, October 2009) by CJ Lyons. An ER charge nurse must face her deepest fears when the man who sexually assaulted her returns…only now he’s killing his victims. CJ Lyons’ novels give readers “a powerful and dramatic look into the frenzied world of emergency medicine…Lyons’ characters are dynamic and genuine.” ~Suspense Magazine
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a National Bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a “breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller.” The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, was released January, 2009 and the third, URGENT CARE, on October 27, 2009. Contact her at http://www.cjlyons.net
So even though CJ’s story is a very dark tale, I’d love to know what’s the funniest / silliest / craziest thing you (or a relative or friend) managed to do that called for a visit to the ER.
Keeping with the theme from my last post here, I’ve been looking at various other disciplines, at their fundamental truths, and using that perspective to think about writing. This practice is a bit like seeing the furniture moved around in your favorite room—you start to notice the walls again, and the windows and the scenery, where it had become too predictable before to prick your awareness.
So, here are a few fundamental truths about writing and creativity that I’ve observed:
A strong writer isn’t afraid to toss out a good idea.
I like Alex’s approach to collecting ideas that she blogged on yesterday, and it’s a tremendously useful exercise. One of the things I’ve found in the classes I’ve taught is that a lot of writers (whether new or experienced) are afraid to let go of a really good idea.
They’ve got the experience to grasp that it is a really good idea, one that has weight and length and depth and texture and lights and darks and those are hard to come by. But just like every cute thing is not something you can hold onto, not every idea is one you should write. Not every idea is right for you, no matter how good it is. And hanging onto that really good idea that you can’t make work means that you’re not able to have the freedom to explore other ideas and see if, maybe, instead of just really good, they could be great.
A lot of times, people think that they’re holding onto that really good idea because it’s not professional to quit on something, or that it’s indicative that they won’t finish what they’ve started, so they are determined to soldier through. And while this can be true, if it’s a perpetual thing, I’d believe that if you already know you’re tenacious and not prone to quitting, then the real reason behind hanging onto a really good idea that just isn’t working for you is fear: fear that you’re not going to have another really good idea. Or worse, that you’ll never have another idea at all.
This is the same trait that induces people to latch onto an offer or a sale or a relationship because they feel like it’s the best they’re going to get, that another one isn’t going to come along. It’s human nature to wonder about that, but it’s generally wrong. If you latch onto something because you’re in love with it? Wonderful. If you think that’s the best you can do and you’re settling? Even a little? Set it aside, and give yourself the chance to find out what else you can do.
All of which boils down to trust. Trust your instincts. Trust your gut. If you can’t let go of the really good idea because you love it beyond measure, but it’s just not working, then set it aside and trust that you’ll come back to it when you have the chops to do so. If you never ever have another idea, it’ll still be there, won’t it? But give yourself the chance to explore, to see what else is out there in the universe.
To enrich the full experience, you sometimes have to hold back a part of it for delayed gratification.
In architecture and in landscaping, this is called “denial and reward.” If you walk up to a house that is clearly magnificent, but easily visible from every angle on the grounds, there may be a sense of awe, but that experience is flat and over once the totality is already perceived.
However, create a winding path to the building where the view is obscured, but hinted at through partial views, or framed by unique architectural features such as an arch of a tree or a grove of oaks or suddenly rising out of a path of stunning gardens, and the anticipation of the total experience increases—the appetite is whetted—so that when the building is finally viewed, there is a greater satisfaction.
Life is replete with examples. The person who walks up and starts yammering about their entire life history the first time you meet them is going to be off-putting.
They may have had an interesting life, but it’s too much, too soon, to fully appreciate it. However, give us a little to whet our appetite and then let us discover more on our own, and that same person, same life history, could be fascinating.
Or, put in another example, we allow kids to dress up and trick or treat for candy rather than just go buy them a couple of sacks of their favorite junk, because it’s the work they have to do for it that gives them pleasure. They have to be creative, they have to cover a lot of ground, they have to see themselves as a different creature—all to get the thing that is rather common, but it’s the experience that they’ll remember.
So it’s true with stories. Resist the urge to give every piece of back story up front, every detail of history, the total of who the people are. Let us wind down some paths toward the totality by creating denial and rewards—give us greater and greater glimpses along the way, expose angles of the characters in new light and new detail as we go. We will love you for it.
Use juxtaposition to frame the quality you care about.
I want you to watch this video of an artist drawing the subject of a woman, and I want you to especially note a couple of things:
1) the artist uses decisive dark lines for some features and builds the shadows stage by stage until they are not just dark, but they are layers of charcoal from grey to black which give the subject contour and depth
2) those dark decisive marks are juxtaposed against the white of the rest of the image which
3) gives us a really strong image of a very soft, curvy, vulnerable face.
Had the artist used soft shades, backed off of those shadows, the overall effect wouldn’t have been a softer woman, but a poorer image. It’s the juxtaposition of lights to dark, hard strokes to soft that frames and evokes the quality that the artist wanted to achieve.
Juxtaposition is one of the best tools we have as a writer. If we never see the darks of the character, we can’t appreciate the lights, whether they’re the protagonist or the antagonist.
A straight path is a boring path.
Have you ever driven through Texas? Or Oklahoma? I have. That big, wide-open plain is shocking for someone like me who is constantly surrounded by immediate horizon here, with trees on every perspective, so the first few moments of traveling through that big big sky feels utterly freeing.
And then, not terribly long afterward, all that freedom and that straight line of road from here to waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay over there, with no bends or turns or scenery in the middle gets extremely boring. (No offense to those who live in the great big plains, but wow, how you do not fall asleep driving is a flat miracle.)
Now, on the other hand, hairpin turns that are organic to the story–meaning, it’s a mountain, of course there will be hairpin turns (organic) but how they’ll happen and when and how the characters will navigate them will keep us interested.
If, in your stories, the story arc is carried straight through – problem……solution – then the story will be flat and boring. Each problem should have what the characters believe is a straightforward solution—but that very solution should create a new problem that whiplashes them into a different direction. They need to be challenged in new and greater ways with each failure as they keep trying to solve the problems in order to accomplish the one overall task set up at the beginning of the story. Keep the curves in the road and you’ll keep us interested.
You have opinions, you believe in something. You do, whether you’re bashful about it or not, you have some perspective on the world that is uniquely you. If you’re a writer or endeavoring in any other creative art, you do so because you think you have something to say.
So say it.
Have faith in it.
No execution of any art is perfect. But persuasiveness in art, absolute conviction in a viewpoint often makes us forget the imperfections, particularly if we get to see that conviction through unique characters and conflict.
You cannot know everything in the beginning in order to prevent yourself from failing, so you might as well move forward and try for success anyway. To stand still and do nothing is to fail already.
When you were two and toddling around…
(my granddaughter, Angela Grace)
… you didn’t know what the joy of being able to run and leap was going to feel like, and you didn’t know that what you were doing was taking baby steps, though you might have perceived some difference in what you were doing vs. what your siblings or parents could do. Still, you put one foot in front of the other and when you mastered walking, you moved on to running.
When you were four and riding your tricycle, you did not yet know what driving or flying would be like, though you saw cars and planes. You may have even been inside those vehicles, but until you were responsible for navigating the actual car or plane or truck or train, you could not know all of the obstacles you’d have to avoid, preparations you’d have to make, maintenance you’d have to see to, obligations you’d have to field, or the freedom of the open road. Yet, you peddled that tricycle for all it was worth, racing around the yard.
Writing is the same. Start somewhere. You’ll eventually grow and improve and then you’ll see the next level to learn. But you’ll never see that next level if you don’t master the one you’re on now.
It’s not always about you.
It takes a tremendous amount of ego (and hope) to believe that if we create something, someone somewhere else is going to want to see it or hear it or read it. It takes even more ego to think those people might want to pay for the privilege to do so. This is normal. It takes a big ego to sustain any sense of self while going through the learning curve and getting negative feedback. It’s that sort of ego that is a distinctive divide between those who will send out their work for potential evisceration and those who will keep it safe from persecution—which, of course, prevents it from being seen/purchased.
However, once a work has left the artist, it is no longer about him or her, any more than a child is “about” his or her mother. That work has to go out into the world and interact with the world on the world’s terms, not the artist’s.
Everyone who views/sees/hears art does so with their entire life informing them as to how to respond.
All of their experiences, their hopes, dreams, failures, frustrations, lies, truths, expectations, cynicism, education (etc.) comes to bear in that first moment when they interact with the art.
Their mood of the moment, their stress, their time limits all have influence in their perception.
The artist cannot control those things. Because of that, art… arts… in that moment when the participant and art intersect. It is not about the artist in that moment, but is, rather, about the experience of the person interacting with the art. You can’t make everyone appreciate the same thing or appreciate it in the exact same way—they’ve come to that thing with too many differences. So, keeping that in mind, it is no wonder that the very thing some people love, other people hate. There is no universal when it comes to art, because there is no one single experience we all share, save for being human, and even that is somewhat questionable.
So when a work is out in the world, expect it to be hated, hope that it will be loved, and move on to the next piece. The world’s reactions to the art no more validates you as a person than it does eviscerate you. It just is. Let it go.
“No” is not the end; it is simply an invitation to pursue new ideas, new angles, new opportunities to re-think, reconfigure, and persuade.
Work the problem.
You do not build a city in a day. You build it brick by brick, yard by yard, building by building, road by road.
You won’t solve the problem by simply naming it and then whining about it. You solve it by breaking it down into solvable parts, working those solutions, and using those solutions to help you break down the bigger problems. You solve the problem by asking for others’ perspectives, by researching, working, listening and learning. You solve the problem by going to see what had been done before you historically and how someone else solved something similar.
If all of that fails, then you challenge how you’ve defined the problem, because often our failure in problem resolution is that we don’t fully grasp the organic cause of the problem to begin with. If linear cause and effect aren’t cutting it, think in 3-D.
Think associationally. [My Word doc is informing me that I totally pulled that word out of the ether.] Think in context. Think in layers. Turn the problem around and upside down.
One of the things that bugs me about watching a lot of sci-fi shows with ships in space is that they often treat space with an up/down forward/back context, as if the ships are cars on a highway. But as Orson Scott Card’s fabulous Ender’s Game so beautifully illustrated, there is no up and down in space.
The solution to problems can sometimes require us to break out of our own mold of thinking—how we think can be as much a part of the problem as the problem itself. So challenge the way you’ve defined the problem, challenge your assumptions. You may surprise yourself in that you are suddenly seeing the problem from a different angle and there, lo and behold, is the solution.
So that’s my ten. How about you? Any premise that you learned in one field that you can now apply to writing or any creative endeavor?
When I first went to college, my major was Architecture. (I had not yet realized that I could actually be a writer as an official occupation.) I couldn’t wait to take architecture courses and I perused the curriculum in the student’s catalog and read through the course descriptions with a lust that most kids that age reserved for hot cars or cold beer. (The caveat—I already had a hot car—a 1968 cherry red Mustang,
and I had access to plenty of cold beer.) (Hi Dad. I totally did not drink until I was officially 18, the legal age of drinking, because I was a very very good kid who did everything her dad told her.) (You cannot ground me retroactively, don’t even try.)
Anyway, I wanted to be an architect, and I imagined all the sorts of buildings I would design. I endured the first semester of boring classes and looked forward to being able to take Engineering Design, the very first freshman level course that was one of the official architecture courses.
(Frank Lloyd Wright — Falling Water)
(Craftsman style house)
Turns out? They expect architects to use math much more sophisticated than simple addition and subtraction to formulate all of those pesky things like load bearing walls that will hold the building up.
It is apparently not kosher to make wild-ass guesses, which is how I would frequently solve math problems, and they heavily frowned on the eeny-meeny-miny-moe method. Ironically, I had placed out of every math requirement, including calculus—I had this uncanny ability to guess the right answers on tests, and yet, my professors, picky bastards, would not go with the percentage route that I was going to be correct a good solid 80 to 90% of the time. 10% to 20% of the buildings falling down would be bad.
It was a very short career.
In spite of that, I’ve remained fascinated with architecture over the years, as well as interior design. I pore over magazines and web sites, absorbing new trends. I have dozens of coffee table books with photos of spaces—old plantations, castles, bungalows along an Italian coastline, the white cities of Greece.
Recently, Janet Reid recommended a little book titled: 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. I love this little book. Since I didn’t even get past “2 things I learned…” in my own career, it was like having a crash course in all of the cool terms I’d wanted to study, but hadn’t. Some of these things I had picked up in my journeys, but it’s nice to see them laid out so simply. What I expected when I bought the book: to learn a few more terms, satiate that longing to design by at least sidling up to it and conversing with it a bit.
What I had not expected when I bought it is to see an entire book that has as much to do with writing and living as it does architecture. And I hadn’t expected to have a startling revelation about my own life.
Now, to be fair to Mr. Frederick, he did not design the book with the latter in mind—it’s something I simply “saw” in the book. Which is a bit ironic, since the revelation occurred over the architectural term “positive and negative space.”
Mr. Frederick defines these terms thusly:
“We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces.”
It’s a simple concept.
When I thought about this in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page.
Simple enough, right?
The other meaning when applied to writing is the creation of the worlds we hope to evoke. Mr. Frederick goes on to explain:
“The shapes and qualities of architectural spaces greatly influence human experience and behavior, for we inhabit the spaces of our built environment and not the solid walls, roofs, and columns that shape it. Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.”
(a place to dwell–a positive place)
(An example of a city street–a corridor–a negative space.)
In writing a book, we’re attempting to create a world. We want to do such a fine job, that the readers feel as if they’ve inhabited that world and that they’ve met the people who live there, and know them well.
One time, a long time ago, my husband and I were house shopping. In the course of a random conversation with a man we’d met, he mentioned that he and his wife were about to put their house up for sale. When he described the location, it piqued our interest, because it was very close to where we’d been previously looking, and this house happened to be on a small lake with a decent view. It was the exact size we were looking for and, miracle of miracles, it was in our price range. We made an appointment to go view the home and double-checked with the owner prior to arriving to make sure the time was still convenient, since, obviously, they were still living in the home and it wasn’t yet listed.
We wound through the neighborhood of unique homes and arrived at his address to see a beautiful Craftsman styled house set against big oaks and a few pine trees. The landscaping was impeccable—and lush. They’d eschewed the boxy, regimented style of an English garden look and had, instead, created a free-flowing design that invited you to move through a winding walkway through a wonderland of color until you reached the front door. We had a hard time keeping our mouths from gaping open with awe and lust. I didn’t want them to add another $20K just from the look on our faces.
(similar to this)
Crossing through the threshold, however, was a shock. Though the home was beautifully designed, you couldn’t tell it for the clutter. Now, I have two sons and a husband, all of whom could easily be celebrated on the poster for “Packrats Unlimited,” so I’m not unfamiliar with the challenges of digging out from under the constant influx of junk. But this? This house was piled with detritus beyond my wildest imagination. Every level surface had piles and piles of paperwork. In the dining room, the table (which could have seated eight) had a pile so high, that the chandelier above it (and these were ten foot ceilings) was actually skewed at an angle, resting on the top of the pile. Every countertop, every sink, toilet, bed, side table: junk. We couldn’t enter the spare bedroom, though they opened the door to show us the room; there was junk piled from floor to ceiling, spanning the entire room. It looked as if someone had routinely just opened the door and tossed items in, for years.
(And waaaaaay worse than this…)
When we left there, my husband wondered if they were moving because they wanted a bigger house. I predicted that they weren’t going to even get the house officially listed and that within a year, they’d be divorced and battling over the house in a lawsuit. It didn’t surprise me in the least to see it for sale a year later with an “Owner recently divorced, highly motivated” notation on the listing.
They had not created for themselves a positive space to dwell; instead, they’d created a negative space that they could only move through. Disconnected, they became apathetic to their needs—each others’ and their own—and the family dissolved.
I’ve had people hand me novels in the past for critique and they spend a couple of chapters (or more) “building the world” – telling the reading about the political and economic machinations which have brought this world into being, into the state we find it in at this moment in time. It’s a huge mistake to do this. For one thing, the story hasn’t started yet until the characters are moving through that world and experience conflict within it. For another, the writer isn’t trusting the reader to extrapolate the positive and negative spaces from a select few examples.
If you look at the paragraph above describing the clutter, I’d be willing to bet you mentally filled in those rooms, though I didn’t describe a single stick of furniture, or the style of the interior. You filled every nook and cranny with junk in your image, though I didn’t get very specific about the junk. What’s more, if you thought about the couple, I’d be willing to be you saw them both in rather rumpled, dragged from the laundry basket wrinkled clothes, though I never described them.
We don’t have to give pages and pages of details—we just need to give a select few that show not only the space the characters are in, but how they’re interacting with that space. Some of our own choices are determined by economics which can be beyond our control, but some of the choices we make in our surroundings communicate who we are and what we think of ourselves. Same with our characters and their worlds: how do they dwell? What do they move through? Why? What does their surroundings say about them? What does yours say about you?
While I was thinking about this application of the architectural terms of negative and positive space, and simultaneously reading JT’s blog about the clutter of the online media and the expectations of what we have to do to create a writing career and maintain it, along with marketing it, I had an abrupt-but-fine appreciation for the connotations of positive and negative spaces and how they impact our lives. With regard to the social media/marketing aspect, I think the online world—particularly Twitter and Facebook—create the illusion of positive space, a space to dwell. Only, there is no “space” there, there is no permanent peace or interaction with tangible walls and windows, living areas and social areas. It’s all hallways and moving, traffic and business with the veneer of being social, and at its most fundamental sociological construct, it’s in disharmony with our need to dwell, because in social media, we’re always moving through. Targeting something—more interaction, more movement, more recognition, more awareness (both of each other, of marketing needs and trends, of products, not necessarily just of our own products).
It makes sense, then, that these sorts of venues create a sense of discord over time. I think it’s ironic, but I think that while it gives the illusion of greater intimacy and friendship, it also emphasizes the disconnect we have in our lives because we’re not interacting with a space or with a person, but with a computer screen. I enjoy Twitter, and, tangentially, Facebook, but I have felt far less stress in this last month since I have cut back my interaction at both places to just a few minutes a day.
Aside from that, though, is another fundamental truth of space, and it’s the fact that we build our environment. We choose where we’re going to dwell (or, at least, what we surround ourselves with in our dwelling place). The epiphany I had when reading Mr. Frederick’s book was that the positive and negative spaces were a part of our philosophy of life, not just our physicality in life. (I know this is not a new concept. It just opened up something for me.)
I’ve always been the type of person who was an overachiever. I’d accomplish something, check it off as done and move on to the next thing. It felt lazy, almost, to just… be. To be in a place and time without some sort of pressing item that needed to be achieved next. The problem with this was that I was dwelling in the corridors of my life. If something was done, it was over and I passed on through to the next challenge, and there was no space to just enjoy.
In the world of publishing, there is always the next hurdle. Always.
As soon as you finish a book, you have to try to get an agent. As soon as you get an agent, you have to try to sell it. As soon as you sell it, you have to start worrying about what changes they’re going to want and whether you can deliver that. As soon as you deliver that, there are marketing decisions that are made (often without your input) and marketing decisions you make (which increases the pressure), because now there is a goal: sell the books. While all of this is going on, you’re trying to either write the next book on a contract (and you are worrying whether or not you can hit the bar you’ve set for yourself again, whether you even remember how to write a book, and why on earth did you think you could do it again?) or you’re trying your dead level best to convince someone that yes, you can write another one and here it is, or here is the proposal. As soon as your first book goes on sale, all sorts of goals will crop up—will it do well enough, will it further your career, will it die a stone cold death and stop your career. If the former, the bar is set higher. If the latter, that’s a whole set of other problems / goals / fears. People will tell you to stop and enjoy the moment, but you’re generally so frantic to accomplish all of the stuff you need to accomplish in the short window that your book will be on the shelf that by the time you think you have time to stop and enjoy it, it’s long past gone and is probably buried under the last three goals you were striving for.
It is very difficult to just “be” and dwell.
But positive space—not just positive thinking, but positive space—is as necessary to our mental health and our survival as that negative space—that moving, ever onward. We need the connections around us, the grounding in the here and now, the raft of joy in the midst of a chaotic world, to replenish the soul and the well of creativity. You can go a lot of years without doing this, and still function. I can attest to that. But you’ll be missing so much.
So beyond just the writing applications of space and how it’s relevant to character development, my own personal philosophy has shifted in priorities: take the time to enjoy the people around you. Take the time to look at the things you have done and enjoy them. Dwell. Be. Replenish. The world and the race will still be there when you’re ready to re-join. There is no one final race anyway, but millions of races. If you don’t join this day’s race, you can join tomorrow’s.
What is one thing you’d change about your physical environment that would make it a more pleasant place to dwell? Does your environment reflect the real you? If not, why not?
This past week, one of the news items that was depressing to read was the one about a woman in her 40s who lives in Australia who, according to the evidence mentioned in the article, was a victim of incest from the time she was 11. Her father fathered her four children, three of whom still live. In that article, the woman who encouraged the victim to come forward deduced the situation and spoke up. In another article, a third woman criticized the one who encouraged the victim as a “busybody” who was always putting her nose in other people’s business.
Well praise God for busybodies.
The victim was too terrified of her father’s violence to speak out, even when she lived away from his house. It took her three years from the time she first reported it to get up the courage to file a restraining order.
Closer to home, domestic abuse is on the rise. According to some statistics, every 15 seconds, a woman is assaulted in her own home.
Did you read that? Every. 15. Seconds.
Do you know what that translates into? Roughly 5.3 MILLION women, every year. EVERY YEAR.
The health-related costs of rape, physical assault, stalking, and homicide by intimate partners exceed $5.8 billion each year.
Of this total, nearly $4.1 billion is for victims requiring direct medical and mental health care services.
Lost productivity and earnings due to intimate partner violence accounts for almost $1.8 billion each year.
Intimate partner violence victims lose nearly 8.0 million days of paid work each year – the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs and nearly 5.6 million days of household productivity.
You know what’s going to make it worse? Tremendous amounts of people are out of work and their unemployment has run out, or will run out soon. They’re looking at extreme financial difficulties coming up on a winter, where heat and food are going to be luxuries. Heat and food. There are victims out there in fire areas, storm areas, who’ve lost what little they had that held them together. This does not even count the people who are already locked in a vicious cycle of welfare and abuse, where they feel like they have no other choices but to live in the hell they’re in.
Anecdotally, the cops I’ve spoken to tell me that domestic abuse cases seem to be on a serious rise. People are at their wits’ end, tempers are all over the place. Those who were prone to violence before become violent again. Some people who’d never been violent will snap.
Now, I know a lot of people want to help. A lot of people try. [Side note: my pet peeve, the one that drives me absolute batshit? Cynicism. To me, cynicism is the five dollar word that means lazy, butwith a hipster dress code. If someone can read those statistics and not feel a compulsion to do something, then I don’t want to live in the pretty world they live in, because that world is going to hell and they’re asleep at the toll booth.]
If you’ve read this far, I doubt very much that you’re cynical. You may know more about it and can help illuminate this problem even more. You may have already donated/volunteered and if so, if you’ve got suggestions for ways to help, see below — we want to hear from you. But maybe you don’t know what to do about it because the problem is so large, and you’re just one person. That, I understand.
Here are some ideas:
Food Banks are always desperate for donations. There is generally a big surge around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but people have to eat between now and then. You’re bound to have something in the pantry you can donate. I’ll bet your neighbors do, too. You could do something small (yourself), or join up with neighbors. Going to gather around a TV with friends over football? Get ‘em to bring donations.
Women’s Shelters – again, always desperate for donations. You probably have a shelter somewhere in your town. Call them, see what they take as donations, see what they need. Some have stores where they re-sell donated items to raise money; others use the items donated for the women. Some of these shelters are desperate for clothing—especially for women who had to leave their violent home without their belongings and now need to job hunt. Many of these women have children and children have this stunning habit of growing out of their previous year’s clothes – particularly coats and gloves and shoes.
I will be willing to bet you that you have stuff at your house or apartment you are not using that someone else could use. Most shelters will give you a tax receipt that you can use if you itemize. We went through every closet, our attic, and garage and found a ton of items we weren’t using, and this was after my kids had had a garage sale. We donated what was useful, and recycled the rest and I was astonished at the value of what we ended up donating. Stuff that was completely going to waste here, not to mention cluttering our house.
Don’t have time to clear out a whole house or apartment? I didn’t either. I did it one small area at a time over a few months. Piled everything in a “donate” corner and then every once-in-a-while, we’d run it over to the shelter. If you have kids, get them involved. Ask your neighbors to consider donating. If you have a vehicle and they’re willing to donate, maybe you can offer to drop the stuff off. Most people have good intentions, but don’t get around to doing it because it’s not on their way. Maybe you can be the one who changes that.
Do you Twitter? I put money in a jar every time I Twitter. At the end of the month, that goes to a shelter. I may not make a big difference with that amount, but combined with others’, every little bit helps. I’d love to start a Twitter drive. Suggestions?
What habit do you have that’s totally frivolous? Or maybe your kids? Could you sponsor a group? A marathon? Maybe have a contest between writing groups or book clubs.
Book Clubs – maybe you can bring used books to the shelters. Or donate toward a literacy program. The problem of literacy is pervasive and creates despair, which can compound violence in the home.
Will you be attending a conference? Whether it’s a formal conference-wide sponsorship or just a group of friends, how about putting one drink’s cost in a jar for a donation to a shelter in that city? One drink. Or one snack. Particularly for crime writer conferences, this could make a big supportive statement in the community. We write about crime, which means we write about victims of crimes. Let’s give back.
You don’t have any money or excess items to give, but you’re interested in making a difference? There are literacy programs. Or if that’s too long of a commitment or not do-able on your schedule, maybe you could volunteer once a month to help out with the food banks or the shelters or teach a class how to write a business letter or a résumé.
You don’t have to start a program. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are already a ton of programs out there who need volunteers. You don’t even have to do a whole lot. Just do ONE THING. One. Pick something that means something to you, and do it. I don’t care how crappy your week has been, if you’re sitting here, capable of reading with internet connection on a computer somewhere, odds are that there are people around you who are suffering and that YOU could make a difference.
I don’t care what you do, do something.
Tell me some more ideas in the comments, folks. Or tell me something you’ve been inspired (not necessarily by this blog, obviously) to do in your community.
IF YOU ARE IN AN ABUSIVE SITUATION, there is help. THERE IS A WAY OUT. If you don’t feel like you can confide in someone close to you, PLEASE please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline:
1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224.
Or, if you feel safe enough to use your computer (that it is not being monitored by the abuser), their website is:
You see it in some athletes. They walk out onto a field and in spite of being in front of a huge crowd, they’ll look like they belong there. They’ve put in the practice, they have the skills. They give the impression that they are formidable, that they came to win.
You see it in some performers. They take the stage, grab the mic or step into the role and whoosh, you believe in them. Just like that. Snap.
You see it in some professionals. The doctor under pressure in a life-threatening situation. The attorney arguing a case. The SWAT team running into a building with a hostage situation. You know they are going to do the job they came to do.
You see it in some writers. They start the story with an evocative sentence, something that pulls you in, that says, “Yes, you want to be here, reading this, right now.”
As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of confidence… until one day, I did. And the only thing that shifted was a fundamental understanding of what confidence was. See, for a long time, I kept thinking, “One day, I’m going to feel confident, and when I feel it, I’ll know I’m good enough to be confident.” It was as if I were waiting for a cosmic permission slip to believe in myself. Like at some point, whatever it was I had accomplished was going to ding ding ding on some giant meter and I would get my Certification of Confidence from the Universe. (The Universe, by the way? Doesn’t give a rat’s ass.)
The problem, of course, was that there really never was going to be any giant certification from the Universe. Rationally, I knew that all along, but I kept thinking that with the next accomplishment, I would feel it. With the next “A” on an exam, or the next strike-out on my softball team or the next award, I was gonna know. And because I was waiting, there was a hesitancy. I didn’t quite realize there was a hesitancy. If you’d asked me at the time, I couldn’t have explained it, but everything—particularly my writing—felt tentative.
I was thinking about the nature of confidence one day as I happened to be on a long drive, and I punched around the radio stations, craving background music. Unfortunately, I was between decent stations and I ended up on a talk-radio show I hadn’t heard of, some psychologist talking about something entirely different than what I was thinking about. I barely heard the first half of the story she told, annoyed that it wasn’t music, and then suddenly, I was in that story. It likely won’t mean the same to you, because it was a specific moment in time, me cocooned in that car on a long, hot drive in the deep south one Sunday afternoon. It was classic… and it wasn’t something new to me, but it had a profound life-changing effect.
The story was about a woman who bites her nails. She’d gone to a doctor for a consultation and as they sat there, him in a chair near hers, she explained how she was desperate for help. Her hands were nearly ruined, and she held them up for him to see, and sure enough, bloody, horribly bitten nails. She told him she’d do any sort of program he’d want her to do, and she had been all over creation trying to get help, but nothing had worked thus far. As she told him the story, she started chewing on a nail and the doctor reached over, pushed her hand down and said, “Stop biting your nails.”
“But that’s what I’m here for,” she cried. “I need to stop and I don’t know how. I have tried…” and she listed off a number of programs, and as she went into detail, she started chewing on another nail.
The doctor reached over, pushed her hand down and said, “Stop biting your nails.”
“That’s what I need help with!” she said, clearly exasperated. “I don’t understand what’s causing this need. I’ve been tested for…” and she listed off a string of tests various institutions had run and as she talked, again the hand went to her mouth.
The doctor pushed her hand down again and said, “Stop biting your nails.”
“Are you crazy?” she asked. “That’s what I’m HERE FOR. I don’t understand why—“
“You don’t need to understand why to change the behavior,” he said. “Quit putting your hand to your mouth. Choose. We can always explore the why later. But make the choice. And keep making it.”
That’s when I heard the ding ding ding. (The Universe is SLOW. I’m just sayin’.)
Because I happened to be thinking about the nature of confidence, I realized that a lot of people don’t have confidence because they’re successful… they’re successful because they choose to have confidence. Now maybe that got reinforced somehow when they were kids, or maybe they were just more predispositioned toward confidence. And maybe this is a concept every single other person on the planet got by the time they were two. (I doubt that. We all have insecurities.) The thing is, confidence isn’t borne out of a surety of success. Confidence is choosing to believe that the outcome will eventually warrant the faith and then acting on it by practicing for that eventual success.
Confidence is choosing. Practicing for the outcome we’d like to have.
I looked at my writing, then. Saw the hesitancy. Sure, there was skill there, but it lacked faith. When I recognized that, my approach to writing changed. Voice rang a bell and showed up to the game.
The thing is, in sports, you can’t play someone else’s game. You might practice as many hours, with all the same coaches, but no two people are going to play exactly the same. As long as you know the rules (and how to break them), if you try to play just like someone else, that’s all you’ll be: a copy of someone else. You might even win some, but you won’t be the best you.
But true confidence… true voice… is playing your game. It’s taking all of that practice, all of those hours and weeks and years of dedication and tackling the problem with faith that you have the skills and you can have the eventual outcome that you desire.
True success is rarely without practice. It is almost never without failure. Maybe even many failures. Failure is just an opportunity to learn and improve. It is nothing else. It is not personal. It is not a value judgment on you as a person. It is a circumstance, and most successes are successful because they’ve learned and grown and had faith that the practice they put in was going to be worth it.
Also? They competed. Performers put themselves out there for jobs, doctors compete for grades, athletes compete for position, SWAT teams practice relentlessly. Sometimes life isn’t fair and they failed, but they keep going.
Play your game.
And keep choosing it.
I put that lesson squarely in the “better late than never” category. How about you? What did you finally learn to do (can be anything) that changed your life?
[Side note to our readers… be sure to check Tess’ post on Tuesday, which deals with what it takes to make it in the business, which she posted first in the queue and I discovered as I post this. They coincidentally make great companion pieces!]
One of the things that we love to do here at Murderati is showcase fellow writers whose work we admire, who are Good People. I have had the best fortune in meeting so many Good People over the last few years, people who reached a hand out to help me, who graciously gave me some of their time or space on their blog, and did so with a “Pay It Forward” attitude, and so it is with great joy that I get to introduce the Murderati group to a debut author who just impresses the hell out of me: Leanna Renee Hieber.
It’s fantastic when you meet a new author and you think, “Wow, this is such a fun person to hang out with,” and then you read her work and think, “Geez, and she’s so delightfully twisted, and talented!” This incredibly beautiful woman writes about everyone’s favorite serial killer, Jack the Ripper, in The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. With a ghostly twist:
What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Hidden in the dark heart of Victorian London, the Romanesque school was dreadfully imposing, a veritable fortress, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met its powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadows, of the Ripper and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She saw simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gift. This arched stone doorway was a portal to a new life, to an education far from what could be had at a convent—and it was an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death…
I met Leanna about a year-and-a-half ago at RT, when she was helping director Morgan Doremus create video interviews of various authors in attendance. They had me laughing within minutes, completely forgetting my phobia of being in front of the camera (I am used to being behind it), and they made the experience enormously fun. (If you were to see the videos, I look like I’m constantly about to laugh. I am so freaking thankful Morgan didn’t do a series of outtakes of all the faces I made at them, or the time we all doubled over in laughter and one of us who shall remain nameless fell off the stool.) (Also, I did not realize my bangs had completely consumed my face. That was pre-Lasik and I was, apparently, legally blind. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
I recently interviewed Leanna because I love her work, think she’s a fantastic new writer and thought her journey would inspire.
So let’s just get an overview of your tastes as a writer… if you were to go to that Great Coffee Shop in the Sky, who do you want to meet most?
C.S. Lewis, Tolkein and the entire 19th century canon of Gothic writers.I can’t pick one, I’ve folded my adoration for each and every one of them into my muse.The whole Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood too—and their coterie – this means you, Christina Georgina Rosetti…
Writers always like peeking in on other writer’s writing rituals… we’re nosy creatures, after all. What’s yours?
I don’t always have this luxury but this is my best-case writing scenario as I’m working on the Strangely Beautiful series: While showering I’ll shift my thoughts into longer sentences with British accents. Then I’ll put on music (piano music, Phillip Glass soundtracks or 19th century classical composers) and light at least one of my two stained-glass lamps. Preferably a candle is lit. Must prepare and sip a cup of clove tea: the precise scent of my Professor hero. Wow, I guess I’m like I’m the method actor of writing books…
Along the way from first words onto the page through to publication, writers face rejection. Tell us a little bit about your journey and what your favorite rejection story would be.
I started my first novel somewhere around the age of 12.Ray Bradbury once said “Write 1,000 pages, bury it in the ground and you can become a writer.” I chose a fireplace instead.There are a few things about me that will make it obvious as to why Strangely Beautiful is my break out series.I can hardly remember not writing, not loving ghost stories, or not being weirdly obsessed with Europe in the 19th century.
Come September it will be about nine years from the moment young Miss Percy Parker waltzed through a wall much like a ghost, into my mind, and I couldn’t sleep or stop thinking about her.She couldn’t have had worse timing, I was working often 14 hour days with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.We’d be on the road touring Julius Caesar or Midsummer Night’s Dream to some sleepy high-school class and I’d be in the company van scribbling away like a madman. I was surrounded by wonderful ideas, artists, and so much great theatre that I couldn’t help but channel that energy into the first draft of the book, giving it some legs that none of my previous works had.It also gives it a bit of a dramatic flair and sparkle that those who know me quite recognize as a personal touch.But from those first scribbled notes, it was a long road ahead…
Percy, Alexi and The Guard were there all the while, waiting in my wings as I hopped around the professional theatre circuit, my favourite friends to come home to. I moved to New York with the hope that I’d figure out which passion should come first, theatre or books.I was at a Broadway callback and all I could think about was Percy. That was that. Thanks to dear writer friend Isabo Kelly I’d already joined the very-helpful RWA NYC chapter and threw myself into networking, got an Agent, met other helping hands like Marianne Mancusi and eventually one of the best in the business, editor Chris Keeslar, and Dorchester became the perfect house for a cross-genre work like mine.
Favourite rejection?After considering Strangely Beautiful, set in 1888, one editor rejected saying “It’s a little too Victorian.”That still makes me smile fondly.
I love that.Your book is very cross-genre. (I know the feeling.)What does that mean to you?
Allison Brennan wrote a great post on this topic here a little while ago.Branding is very important to an author, and to a reader.We want to make sure the right books go into the right hands.It can be very limiting to an author, however, when only one word is applied to a work of fiction.I hope that fantasy, historical, Gothic and romance fans (as well as those who enjoy blends of light horror, suspense and mystery) will find my book because I feel all will find a part of their respective favourite genre represented in the ways appropriate to the narrative.It’s hard to appeal to a whole fan base and yet I wouldn’t do without the genre label.The spine of my book says Historical Fantasy and I think that’s about right.The wonderful thing about the word “Fantasy” is that it is an open and over-arching word, and often Fantasy incorporates a romantic through line at the center of its questing adventures.A descriptive title and a cover that exactly fits the story really helps.
It took a long time for a marketing department to take a chance on this book.As I’d said, it was a 9 year journey from idea to bookshelf, and several of those years were spent with marketing departments and editors saying “this is really good, but it’s too much of this– or not enough this…”
Well, thank goodness someone took a chance, because this is a unique world which deals with crime fiction and fantasy and horror in a way I found wholly fascinating and original! Tell me, what sort of promotional things are you doing as a debut author?
1. August 22nd I kick off my Haunted London Blog Tour at the Bradford Bunch. The tour hops various blogs until September. Each day I’ll tell a different ghost story. Many spirits “Ghost-star” in my book, each of them a documented London haunt. They don’t get their full due in the book, as they’re quite familiar to my Guard of spectral police, but their tales are too fun not to tell– like telling spooky stories around a roving campfire. Each day I’ll give away a signed book.Schedule can be found here: http://www.leannareneehieber.com/haunted-london-blog-tour-book-giveaway/
2. The morning of Release Day, August 25th I’ll kick off a Virtual release party at www.RomanceNovel.tv, my video interview will go live and we’ll do a bit of a chat/book giveaway.
3. NYC Reading/Signing on Release Day! At the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble on August 25th at 7:30pm I’m thrilled to be doing a reading and signing with the inimitable Edgar winner Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, Stoker winner Jack Ketchum and thriller author Anna DeStefano
4. Running a contest on my website, a 3 question quiz about the Shakespeare references in my book, starting Release Day, 8/25 and running for the next three weeks.Winner has a choice of either a replica of the Phoenix pendant Percy wears in the book, or a gift certificate. The second name drawn receives the second item.Details: http://www.leannareneehieber.com/contest/
Thanks, Leanna, for letting me bug ya with questions. And now in the spirt of all writers who have had rejections, I’ll refer back to that previous question and share one of mine. Someone who read the first book in the Bobbie Faye series sent me an email that he thought it was funny as hell, extremely well written, and he absolutely “hated that woman” and “didn’t want to spend another minute with her. Ever.” That just completely cracked me up, and I loved it, because it was an honest response and a personal one. I respected that he just did not like tough female characters, but the books ended up selling the next week, which took the sting out of the rejection. I’m sure I’ve had worse, but I still think about that one and smile. No one is ever going to love everything (nor should they) and everyone isn’t going to love one single thing, all of us at the same time (nor should we), and as new writers, we need to remember that. And write with our passion.
So how about you, ‘Rati? What’s the best rejection you’ve ever gotten (and it can be something you realized in hindsight, something that ended up being a Good Thing.) Doesn’t have to be about writing… let’s hear it.
And as a bonus, all commenters are eligible for a free copy of Leanna’s book, THE STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL TALE OF MISS PERCY PARKER as well as a signed copy of my first in the Bobbie Faye series, CHARMED AND DANGEROUS. (Contest runs ’til midnight, Pacific Time, tonight — Sunday. Winner announced here on the blog after that.)
See, it started innocently enough. Not long ago I was at a conference, where I met up with a dear friend who’s recently become vegan. And let me tell you, she looks gooooooooood. Like ten years younger, thinner, prettier. She glowed, people. All glowy with the good. I, being no dummy, immediately asked what in the hell had she done? Who had she sold her soul to and where could I line up?
Then she told me she’d become a vegan.
Now, at this point, I had had exactly one (1) appletini.
(It was my first, ever, and let me just say for the record that it is a damned good thing I am too lazy to learn how to spell “appletini” much less make them, because otherwise? This blog would be brought to you by the letters J A I and L.) Anyway, in the warmth and happiness of said appletini, “vegan” didn’t sound so scary.
It was the second appletini where I sort of lost my mind, because “vegan” actually started to sound easy. I could feel better and get healthy and lose weight and be proactive, all in one move. Lots less choice of things to eat, but hey, that just simplifies life, right? Simplification is good. Smart. I even hauled out my iPhone and started recording her suggestions of what I could eat and in that moment, I knew I could pull this off. This was going to be great! I only sort of worried when “tofu” featured prominently on a couple of her menu suggestions, but I then realized (and this was the part of my brain which was suggesting I have another appletini) that hell, I eat crawfish. How traumatizing could tofu be?
I was allllllll the way back in the hotel room before I had the epiphany: Cheetos are not vegan.
I think I might’ve broken the world record for “fastest failure of a diet.”
The thing is, it works for her. Really works.
But it would never work for me. I don’t have the same inclinations, the same desire, or enough patience. [I am not exactly the most patient of people.] [I know, I know, that comes as a HUGE shock to you all. Buck up.]
I do know what works for me: plain old exercise. Boring, non-glamorous, just-do-it walking and weights. Doing these things consistently.
Oh, but that other method was tempting, partly because she’d had quick, amazing results. Partly because it seemed kinda cool to be able to say, “I’m vegan.” Like wearing a costume or stepping into some other role.
It’s tempting, isn’t it, to try to fit into a slot that someone else does well, which is clearly successful? It’s like, “Well, since they know what they’re doing and that works, maybe that’s what I should be doing, too.”
Trying to be “like” someone else, trying to write like someone else, trying to write “to the market” – are probably the most destructive choices a writer can make.
It’s great to learn from others. It’s a smart move to see how someone else accomplished something and analyze what they did and why. But the next step after that is to then see how it fits you—your life, your experiences, your style. Your voice. And then choose what works for you. Not how you can contort yourself to fit into what others do, but what you would like to use of what they do to enhance your own voice.
What do you bring to the table? Who are YOU? Value that. Look at it carefully and appreciate it, because it is your gift. It is what will make your characters and your story and your plot unique. Your take on the world, how you see it, your perspective.
Me? I am, at my best, a hopeful cynic. I am pretty sure that there are people out there who are not only going to shoot themselves in the foot, but they’re going to reload and aim at the other foot. I am hopeful, however, that they will miss at least one of those times. It is the suspense of watching that in action which fascinates me. It is how I frame the world, how I make sense of what is happening around me, how I communicate and function. [If it helps, I had written two books before I was able to explain that.]
Be authentically you. That’s who we’re going to want to get to know. That’s who we’ll value.
In the meantime, tell me at least one thing you’ve done in your life which just did not “fit.” (C’mon. I cannot be the only person who’s tried a diet or [and no, I am not posting a photo] gone blonde.) What harebrained thing have you done?
If we think about a visual representation of what our secondary and tertiary characters would look like in a physical representation of their uses and benefits in a story, it might look something like this:
This is the interior structure of a bridge, and every one of those supports is necessary:
But if you look closely at those supports, they work by being at cross angles—cross purposes. They are not all the same—some are even curving in the background in ways that seems counterintuitive to supporting the whole. Each one of these supports has more than one face: the solid side portion, the face with the sun hitting it. Darker, lighter, bent, straight, rusted in spots, repainted in others.
The main characters—and important secondary characters—form the foundation of the story:
Doesn’t this (admittedly craptastic snapshot) strike you as a three-act story? It has entrances and exits, it suspends disbelief by suspending us over water, allowing us to travel from here to there. But without the world of those minor characters holding the framework together, the whole thing wouldn’t work.
But this is, perhaps, where the metaphor breaks down most for a lot of writers. It’s a little too simple to think of story structure like a bridge and the minor characters as support of that story because we’re then thinking of those characters purely as a matter of how they must function within the story to make the final outcome work. Writers have a tendency to work exceptionally hard on the main characters and then slot in the minor characters, utilizing (whether consciously or unconsciously) archetypes: the underdog, the nerdy sidekick, the tough guy sidekick, the “girl,” the mentor, etc.
If you look at that first image, it’s black and white, all sharp contrasts, but each support is essentially interchangeable with the next one. There is no flavor there, no color, no uniqueness, and therefore, for as many supporting players as there are here, there is not a single one of them memorable. And if your main characters are supporting a world and a story full of unmemorable characters, then the conflict and the sense of being immersed in a fascinating world will be lost.
We can use cooking—or music as metaphors. Change an ingredient in a recipe and the outcome generally changes. Change the amount, even, and you’ll end up with an entirely different flavor. Same thing with music—add in that odd woodwind instrument that I always hear in Celtic music but never quite identify and you’ll have a vastly different effect than a trumpet.
So how do you go about creating memorable secondary and tertiary characters?
I’ve heard the old adage that each character is starring in his or her own story, and that’s true, and it’s useful to remember. They have their own goals and their own needs.But for the purposes of a novel, you cannot always show what they think their own story is in that moment that they have on stage, so that sort of advice can sound great but end up not all that practical to apply.
So what can we show?
This isn’t just a “trait” or a schtick. It drives me a little bit bonkers to read a story where the tertiary characters are reduced to one or two personal “ticks” – like a character (and I am picking a notion randomly and hoping no one has done this)… twitching. Or substitute any single physical habit like talking with a lisp or limping or smoking or blinking rapidly or speaking with a husky voice. These are all fine starting points, but there has to be more or the character is going to be one-dimensional.
I have a character in book one (Charmed and Dangerous) who is a minor character nicknamed “The Mountain.” He’s a rather large guy, a simple fellow who is eager to please the smarter henchman, Eddie, who is his friend. He wants to impress Eddie and the world, and he explains to Bobbie Faye’s brother, Roy, that he wants to one day be in the Guinness Book of World Records.To do this, he has been collecting doorknobs. Roy doesn’t quite realize the significance of this until The Mountain gleefully explains that he has one for every person he’s killed, and he wants to call Guinness, but Eddie won’t let him. At this point of the explanation, Roy is tied up and in serious doubt that he’s going to make it out of there and he’s too afraid to ask if The Mountain has taken a doorknob from his home.
Style is a close associate to personality, but not wholly so, because it’s a presentation by the character of themselves to the world. How they want to be perceived. Or maybe, the lack of thought into how they are perceived. Do they dress well? Poorly? Like a hooker? A pimp?
But we can’t stop there—that’s just surface. How does their style affect their perceived choices in life? Do they think of themselves in a negative way? Positive? For example, a hooker who thinks this is the best she can do and it’s a good gig and it’s feeding her kids and/or her mom will strut that clothing style in a different way than the woman who used to be a corporate executive, who’s loss of a job two years ago and her home and everything thing else she had and now this is the only thing she can do to feed her kids. Is there a conflict in how they present themselves vs. how they wish they could present themselves? Is there any irony?
How do they speak? Everyone should not use the same level of grammar, the same sentence structure.
Style is the soul sister to Attitude.
3.Goals / Conflict
Every single tertiary character needs to have some conflict with the main characters at some point. Every. Single. One. Even the ones who like the main characters, who agree with them on major points. They may agree, for example, on the overall goal, but not the strategy for getting there. They may agree on the strategy for some things and not others. They should have their own goals that are at some sort of cross-purpose with the main characters. These cross-purposes do not have to be big moments, big turning points, but they add dimension to a story.
An example I love is from the movie Witness. Harrison Ford is a cop from New York trying to solve a murder by getting a better idea from the witness: a young Amish boy. He finds himself attracted to the boy’s mother, Rachel, in spite of their many differences. Quietly vying for Rachel’s affections is the Peter Godunov character, who has one distinct advantage over Ford—but it’s also his disadvantage: he’s Amish. He was a good friend to Rachel’s (dead) husband, and he wants her. He is attractive to Rachel, but not as fresh and fascinating as Ford’s New York cop, who represents an entire forbidden world just outside Rachel’s grasp. I don’t remember all of the details, but while the Godunov’s character is helpful in many ways to Rachel and her family, he is clearly annoyed with Ford’s continued presence, though he is extremely polite. He is the epitome of what a strong Amish man is—and there are a wonderful couple of scenes of a barn building where the two men try to out-work one another. Rachel, at a late point in the story, has chosen Ford and tries to seduce him, and Ford makes himself turn away. He makes the decision for them both, because he knows it would never work—he couldn’t live in her world, she couldn’t live in his. As Ford drives away, the Godunov character is purposefully walking up the lane to go court Rachel.
That film is 24 years old and I have not re-watched it in more than 20 years, and I can still remember that character.
Now… whether TV or film or books, name a few secondary / tertiary characters that you just remember off the top of your head, without looking them up. Why are they memorable?
And don’t forget, coming from a woman who has a ton of memorable characters—main and secondary (!!) – our ownAllison Brennan’snewest book,CUTTING EDGE, hits the stores on TUESDAY, July 28th!
When security specialist Duke Rogan’s state-of-the-art computer system fails at a controversial bio-tech firm, a raging inferno spreads, and a grotesquely charred body is discovered in the aftermath. With an extremist anti-technology group claiming responsibility, the case grows even more complex when the victim’s autopsy unexpectedly reveals that he bled to death. Heading the FBI’s domestic terrorism unit, Agent Nora English is fiercely determined to track and stop a sadistic assassin.