Monday, January 21, 2013


You talk about your false teeth, but you never mention the brain damage that occurred when you were accidentally whammed with that softball bat. I stipulate that you were merely doing the girls’ team a favor by running for an injured hitter. But it also cost the school good money to remove your teeth from the Louisville Slugger. Before your injury, you were fluent in several languages if you count pig-Latin and barking.  Afterward, you could barely decipher English. Be that as it may, I was talking/thinking about your comments on advice to writers.

The good news? We are all inescapably creative and make hundreds of creative decisions every day based on our experience and personality style and education. The issue is not whether we’re creative enough. Better we should ask ourselves do I love to read? When I run across something terrific, do I whoop and twirl? Do I have to read the marvelous passage aloud to the nearest person, even if it’s a weary man patiently waiting in line for his prescription to be filled?
And do I love words themselves? Playing with them, arranging them into images, stacking and shuffling them into sentences? Do I feel a strange pleasure when I write, like the activity itself is not only enjoyable but important?
Do I love movies and wish I had written every one that absorbs me?
Do I see re-writing as fun and can hardly turn loose of a piece that I’m working on?

If we answer yes to these questions, then we’re designed to be a writer. We have the passion it requires. So will we make the effort it takes to get good at writing? Figure ten thousand hours practice. Figure finding other writers we respect and paying attention to their comments on our work. Figure driving our mates quite mad with rereading incessant paragraphs. Figure learning how to tell the stories that reside inside us without making them autobiographical. Figure honoring our writing by persistently sending it places where it might receive an unbiased read. Figure weathering the many days when we decide to go into the refrigeration repair business instead.

Which reminds me, perhaps we missed our true calling. You would have made a wonderful harbor buoy, bobbing and weaving in the waves and clanging relentlessly. I myself, larger and less buoyant, would have made an excellent doorstop.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Those Weird Characters

First Charles, let me clear something up.  You said you were aware of my myriad floss.  I have false teeth so I don't even use floss.  Let's try to keep this blog real, okay?

That said, I agree with you about the creation of all those grey characters - which is to say, all characters - but particularly those who are a darker grey.  Once in a while, I'll create a total bad guy, such as Sarah Byrnes' father.  He's a guy I just want the reader to be scared of.  His job in the story is to make Sarah's life risky.  When I do that I show him only by his behavior and let the reader decide how he got that way.  All I want in that case is malevolence.  Even then, however, I have an idea what his history might be or what brain chemicals might be mixing in a toxic way because in the end, if the reader doesn't believe him, my story is in jeopardy.  In my soon-to-be-released (finally) book, Period 8, I've created a psychopathic character who raises all kinds of havoc in the lives of unsuspecting peers.  I had to let his psychopathy out a little at a time and I had to keep in mind that he objectifies all other life.  No empathy.  That's a character I can't relate to in general, but paying attention to times in my life when I've been embarrassingly cavalier about other people's feelings to meet my own ends, helps.  Beyond that I need a deep understanding of other characters' responses to him.

Like you, big Chuck, I'm often asked about writing, by individuals trying to break into the business or in more formal, writing workshop arenas.  I refer them to On Writing, by Stephen King and Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, because the information in both those books is invaluable.  But then I turn them inward.  It's important to know that you have to "just write it" and that about eighty five percent of modifiers should be edited out.  It's important to know the different ways different brains are capable of structuring story and character, and how your particular brain works.  But to me the most important character in your story is the character writing that story.  I need to know as much about myself - how I operate, my biases, my agendas, my strengths and floss, etc - as I know about any character I create, because my understanding of basic human existence will float or sink my story.  For most of us the most basic human is us: me.  Which means I have to back up to see the whole picture at the same time as I go deep into my own understanding so I can bring that certain brand of reality to the reader.

That's a little obscure, but if I can ever articulate it clearly I will be a rich, rich man.  At which time I will send you flowers. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Knowing Myself as the Bad Guy


Yesterday I was on a Short Story Panel here in Redding. During a break a person told me the protagonist of her book was a cute little angel. Struck me. That’s not a story I could write. As you and Penelope Cruz know, I’m seriously cute but I’m no angel. In fact I’ve been embarrassed sometimes how easily I can inhabit and write about a horrible character. I identify effortlessly.  I believe it relates to what you were saying about your work. When I meet people, talk to them, try to understand how they arrived at the opinions they hold or the behavior they exhibit . . . something happens for me. I lose some of my judgmental nature and often find myself empathizing. Even if I hope I wouldn’t make the same choices or decisions they do, I can see myself in them.

I know what made Scotty a killer in Desert Angel. He was raised to be mean for self-protection. Learned his family's criminal skills as a means to make a living. I know what made Homer vicious in Interrogation. He felt isolated and ashamed and powerless at home and he wanted to get even with a world that had dealt him such a bad hand.

In years of work in psych hospitals I saw kids from the same families turn out differently --- one self-destructive, the other, moving toward a positive future. I cannot understand how or why. It’s a mystery to me. I came to believe that all of us have this range of possibility inside us. Writing effective characters requires self-awareness and the ability to explore or at least accept both light and dark aspects the soul. For example, I’m extremely aware of your myriad flaws and that helps me write about weird characters.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I Hate To Admit It...

I hate to admit any time you're right, Charles, but I have to say you're rrrrrrrrr..... I can't get it out.  Using characters that inspire me is absolutely essential.  If I'm writing a novel, those characters will be with me well over a year.  Nobody, least of all I, wants to go to the computer every morning and pick up on a story about someone they don't like very much.  And to paraphrase my retired editor, Susan Hirschman, "Give me a character I like and I'm more likely to give you a contract you like."  The point being, I believe, that if I create a character I like, that affection will translate to the reader.  Think of the number of stories you've read about characters you might not connect with in real life, but that you feel a strong connection with because of the way the author presents them.  Which brings me to a related point.  When I started working at the mental health center in Spokane, many many years ago, I believed I'd only work there for a short time because after all, I would be working with them.  My expertise was supposed to be with teenagers and adults (more likely adult males).  Well, teenagers who have been abused are usually no fun and adults who abuse them are even less fun.  Or at least that's what I thought.  What I discovered was, I would never work with a client who wasn't like me in some way, and often in ways I didn't like to admit.  It turned out I had to embrace those similarities to work effectively with them.  Turned out it was the same way with characters, particularly secondary characters.  The more I knew about the humanity of those clients the more help I was, and the more I knew about the humanity of those characters, the better they served me in story.  Perfect symmetry.  As opposed to perfect cemetery.  So, finding those characters I understand at an emotional - and nuanced - level, is necessary for me to write a believable story.  Much of this explains why I've never been able to write a story about you. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Cheers

Mr. Crutcher.  Why does cave sound okay but cranny ... ? Plato never mentioned it.

"The story tells itself." Impossible. And yet that's my experience, too. 
I would have said all my stories are “character driven” until I read your post. I attempt to represent teens that inspire me, composites of people I met in schools and hospitals. By placing them in a particular setting or situation (often one I myself did not know how to handle) I can watch them and report the story they unfold. On second thought, I realize several of my stories began with an action or event that kept me awake at night: the kidnapping of a local girl my own daughter’s age, a girl’s bizarre secret home life, a boy going to school and coping with a single mother who’s floridly psychotic. These events generated the idea to write the books and spurred the characters’ behavior
Several times I’ve tried to write books about people I don’t like. It doesn’t work and I can’t keep at it. I don’t want sad/sick/arrogant folks camping in my head. (That’s my own personality’s job.) Really, that’s why the characters are the most important element for me. I’m spending months with them! Like a road trip.
In DEAD GIRL MOON I admired Grace’s survivor courage. She was not defeated by her horrible experiences. I did not admire her ethics but I understood their genesis. That said, your genesis remains a mystery to me. I’m thinking DNA from an alternate universe. Somehow your string theory got all balled up.