Month: September 2012

Let’s Talk Characters

Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like  having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while  having a tooth pulled.”–Dean Koontz

I mentioned in a previous post how something seemed amiss with my writing. I called it having a case of the blues. None of us has written the perfect novel. I don’t believe that to be possible. Each reader won’t see the same words in the same light. Despite how much we may love our writing, there are most likely flaws. “How can we identify those flaws?” I hear some of you ask. Let’s take a look together.

One of the most frustrating things about being an aspiring writer, at least for me, has been not knowing if you’ve done something wrong. In order to correct a mistake, most people need to identify it first. Unfortunately, the only way to identify any writing mistakes is to hire an editor or have your manuscript critiqued. This means we have to open ourselves up to constructive criticism. A good critique partner will not only tell you when they spot a problem, but also why they see it as a problem. It is the critique receiver’s responsibility to be humble and listen. We must realize the ultimate goal of a critique should be to help make our writing better. Better writers tell better stories.

We’ll assume we’ve had a critique and multiple partners have pointed out problems with our characters. Cue the high-pitched scream and scary music. What should we do now?

Now that we’ve identified a flaw, we need to fix it. Nobody wants crappy characters dragging their story down. Here’s the kicker, there isn’t any concrete way to fix any potential flaw. It’s up to the individual writer to find the fix. Each writer will probably come up with different ways to do the same thing. Let’s take a look at a few possible ways to fix things.

1. How-to books. Orson Scott-Card, author of the Sci-Fi classic Ender’s Game, has a book called Elements of Writing: Characters and Viewpoint.  You can also find Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by Nancy Kress. There are many different books which can help with different aspects of our writing. The only drawback with how-to books, is they cost money. Eleven bucks for advice and technique on writing better characters seems worth it to me.

2. A little help from your friends. We mentioned critiques and critique partners and most likely these people are your writer friends. Why not pick their brains and see how they craft their characters. Pick a specific scene and go over it with a writer friend to see why it didn’t work. Get as much detail as possible. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible. I’m not saying we should let our friends write our story for us, but a little input never hurt anyone. The drawback for this solution would be time, on both ends. Perhaps your writer friend doesn’t have that much time to give. We may have to sweeten the deal with promises of future critiques, you know, the I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine scenario.

3. The internet. Cyberspace has many things. From viruses to viral videos about cute kittens, the internet is vast expanse of undiscovered knowledge. Go to your favorite search engine and type in what you’re looking for. Sure, we may have to sift through several different sites before we find something that appeals to us, but the information is fast and free. The drawback for this solution is time. Searching the internet takes up our precious time, but we may discover a new blog or connect with some new writers.

4. Seek out characters in other mediums. Watch a TV show, movie, or play a video game. Every form of entertainment has some kind of characters we love. Maybe you enjoy the Walking Dead and find Rick to be a fascinating character. Analyze what you love about him. Find out what makes him tick. Try to find a common pattern to the characters you love no matter where you find them and apply those findings to your writing. This again sucks up your precious time, unless you’d be watching a particular show anyway. Who cares if you’re frantically scribbling down notes in front of the television in your Oscar the Grouch pajama pants? You’re not insane, you’re a writer!

After taking a long, hard look at myself in the mirror, I’ve decided to expose my character weakness. *Stands up in front of blog audience* “Hi. My name is Brian and I have a character problem.” Instead of hiding from my weakness, I’ve chosen to shine a spot light on it. October will be all about characters on Descent Into Slushland. We’ll have other writers over to share what went into their characters and how they created them. We’ll dissect characters from popular movies to see what makes them memorable. There may even be a surprise or two. I hope everyone is as excited as I am.

Let’s kick off character month a little early with the Story Board and their discussion of characters. I find it a bit suspicious that I’ve been struggling with characters and Patrick Rothfuss decided to focus on them for his second discussion. The universe speaks to us sometimes. Here is the hour-long video with surprise special guest, legendary fantasy author, Terry Brooks. I took two pages of notes from this discussion. It’s like having a how-to book come to life. Seriously, grab a notebook and pen. You can thank me later.

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Song of the Week 9/26–Faith (When I Let You Down)

Not much to say today. We’ve all had bad days, just like the cat in the video. The people who really matter will stick with you no matter what. Don’t lose focus. Keep the faith. The band is Taking Back Sunday. You can find them here.

Faith is not trying to believe something regardless of the evidence; faith is daring something regardless of the consequences.”–Sherwood Eddy

Song of the Week 9/19–Wonderful

I’ve been thinking about being without lately. I grew up on the poor side. My father worked at an auto plant and while he made decent money, stretching those hard-earned dollars to feed five kids and two adults at times proved challenging. I still wonder how my mother did it. We rarely got expensive things for X-mas or birthdays. Although I did get the Millennium Falcon one year and was speechless. Yes, I had Star Wars toys. There were some holidays where we got five presents and half of those were clothes. Most kids don’t like getting clothes, but we were grateful and we understood. Making money and what we did have last are some of the things I’ve taken with me into adulthood. Again, I’m grateful for the lesson. Most of the things I learned throughout my life trickle into my characters in some way, shape, or form. Writers often draw on experience to help shape their fiction. Money, jobs, and the economy seem to be on everyone’s mind lately, so here’s Everclear and their song I Will Buy You A New Life. I guess I like Everclear because I can relate, on more than one level, with the emotional content behind many of their songs. And any good song should draw you in emotionally. Personal stakes make for great music, and great books (if you’re a writer, like me). If we can get a reader to say what they would, or wouldn’t, do in our character’s shoes, we’re on the right track. That’s why I smile when multiple readers say they wouldn’t get into a car with a vampire hitman. I guess I’m on the right track.

Just when you thought one song was enough, I’m throwing in a bonus song! This is the first official song of the week post and we’ve got to make it bigger, better, and more wonderful than you hoped it would be. Speaking of wonderful (segue anyone?), that’s the title of another Everclear song. Frontman Art Alexakis has had his share of troubles throughout his life. He’s struggled with addiction, a broken home, and a failed marriage just to name a few. Wonderful not only delves into his childhood, but also puts the listener in the middle of his divorce. If we take a closer look, we can see the pain behind the smile. I know, I used to do the same thing. Despite all the pain, Art is a down to earth and all around good guy. He often takes time for the fans before and after shows. If Everclear plays anywhere near your city, check them out. Everclear’s official website.

Reflections Of 9/11

Me and the bosses. I’m the guy in the middle.

Do you remember where you were when the towers came down?  I do.  I was in the middle of changing a bladder cell in the belly of a KC-10 aircraft.  The KC-10’s are aerial re-fuelers, which hold extra fuel in order to resupply the smaller jet fighters in flight, so they don’t have to keep landing for fuel.  One of my co-workers came out and said something was happening but we dismissed him because he was a clown and trustworthy wasn’t a word that normally described him.

We continued working until he came back out and animatedly hooted and hollered until we went into the office and looked.  I was shocked and saddened to see a smoking Pentagon and a commercial aircraft ram the side of one of the Twin Towers.  While part of me wanted to stay and watch, the logical part knew we needed to get that plane ready for the plethora of missions which would likely follow.  I gathered up my team and we pressed on with our job, as good people perished.

Any good soldier would have done the same.  You see, our aircraft, like many of us, were soon deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  We supplied the fuel for the fighters who dropped the bombs.  We needed every KC-10 operational and we made it happen.

I was sent to the desert twice in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  Once during the summer (March through June), and again in the winter (November through January), missing Thanksgiving, X-mas, New Year’s, and even my birthday (which falls in December).  It’s a little surreal trying to celebrate things that don’t seem real anymore.  My days were spent caring for fourteen aircraft, for twelve hours a day.  I was day shift, working midnight till noon.  My Sergeant and friend were night shift.  I was day shift because I was trustworthy, and did everything to the best of my abilities.  No shortcut was acceptable.  Think about that, one man responsible for the fuel systems of fourteen aircraft.

Spending twelve hours in 130 degree heat, fixing aircraft, or towing equipment, or even helping to launch aircraft made time seem nonexistent.  You were stuck in the never-ending cycle of working, sleeping, and eating.  But we had purpose.  Keep those planes in the air.  Keep those bombs falling.  We overcame and kept working.

The United States Air Force has a set of core values, which represent everything they do.  While these values were already a part of me before my service, enlisting only helped cement them in my heart.  Even now, evn in my writing, I find that these values permeate everything I do.  They always will be.  I won’t go into great detail, but let’s take a look.

The first core value: Integrity First.  Integrity is the willingness to do what is right even when no one is looking.  It means holding yourself to a higher standard at all times.

The second core value: Service Before Self.  Service before self means professional duties take precedence over personal desires.  The role of service member comes first, even if your deployment causes you to miss most of the holidays and time with family.

The third core value: Excellence In All We Do.  Every Airman should strive for continual improvement in self and service.  It means striving for the best in whatever you do.

My commanding officer was gracious enough to supply us with these certificates.

As yo can see these core values are still important to me, even now, years after leaving.  They still affect many of the service men and women, first responders, and their families even after their service.

So to all of the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces, from someone who knows, thank you.  To all of the men and women who lost their lives responding to the call of the lost and wounded that fateful day when the towers fell, thank you.  To all of the families affected by the actions of 9/11, thank you.

Stand fast and stand strong.  You are not alone.  Some are still fighting, and dying today.

I’m going to leave you with the band Live and their touching tribute to the 9/11 first responders with their song Overcome. Don’t ever forget. I know I won’t.