Rereading Old Writings Wednesday, Jul 30 2008 

I am in the process of going back and reading an incomplete novel I started back in 9th grade. It’s about a family of six kids (I’ve written lots of fiction and never once about a small family, which, if you know me, ahem, I’m kind of breaking the “write what you know” dictum) who grew up in an abusive home. It had a nice structure — and I never pay attention to structure when I write, I’m not that kind of writer, generally. It had a prologue, with the kids mostly still at home, though two run away during the prologue (well, one elopes and a younger one runs away). Flash forward 10 years and we’re in the body of the story, the first six chapters of which focus solely on one of the six kids and where they’re at today, before everyone finds each other again in chapter seven (directly or indirectly through an ad the oldest sibling’s ex-husband puts in the paper [gimme a break, it was like 1989, yes, people still put ads in the paper] because she’s dying of cirrhosis of the liver due to years of excessive drinking).

One thing you’ll note about my writing style, I never met a parenthetical I didn’t like. There is grammatical recursion and then there’s parenthetical recursion. If you’re a linguist you’ll get that.

But I digress. (That’s another hallmark of my writing [and talking] style.) And yes, I did that on purpose.

So, body-body-body, two siblings are dead and the rest have worked out their problems and go on to live happy and fulfilling lives. We know that because flash forward another 10 years (the body would cover maybe about six months) and we have an epilogue.

Beautiful. Elegant. Symmetrical. I love symmetry.

And over the years I kept writing in this story, sometimes a lot, sometimes not for years at a time. But before long it became clear that I strongly favored one character over all the rest. I “felt her pain” more clearly, I related to her even though she’s nothing like me, and as I delved more and more into her “backstory” — meaning I wrote it, thinking it was just for kicks, exploring the character so I could write for her better and better capture the complexity of her life and her relationships — (dashes are nice, too) I eventually, not more than a year or so ago, had to admit to myself that I really wanted to write from this character’s perspective. There was no way I could write so “completely,” if that makes sense, for any of the other characters, unless perhaps I wrote some kind of multi-volume thing, or a weird kind of concurrent series followed by a massive tome where everyone is thrown together. Even if I did that I would still have the problem of not knowing the other characters so fully as I do the one — they would be much more difficult to write for, from their perspective. Hah, that is after all why I killed off one of the siblings. She was too hard to write for.

The joys of authorhood.

(Remember, I was in high school.)

So here I am, all this time later, and this story is still with me. I realized I had to start it from scratch, and was really thrown when it meant having to completely jettison my nice, neat, symmetrical structure. It was like banging my head against a wall to come up with a new beginning, and on top of that, I had come to the conclusion that it might be worth pursuing getting this novel published, so I had to come up with a way to not only write it with pretty words but in such a way that a reader is (hopefully) intrigued and wants to keep reading. And then one day at work I was in a meeting that had nothing to do with anything (I’m sure such things only happen in my office), so I started thinking about my story, and WHAM it kind of just came to me, and I started jotting down ideas (I’m sure it looked like I was studiously taking notes). Then when I got home I sat down at the computer and started writing and I wrote until like midnight or one or something, and didn’t know how to end the shortish chapter, but darn if I wasn’t fairly pleased with what I wrote. A bit intriguing (hopefully!), a dash of subtle symbolism, establishment of all the siblings but primarily from Kari’s perspective (essentially — after years of writing something in the first person I am, weirdly enough, still struggling at times with third person), a bit of foreshadowing of what happens to these people. It still has a prologue (gone is the 10-year things though, this one starts a bit earlier), but the prologue doesn’t end with the eloping and the running away. That’s in chapter 1 now, and it’s not an elopement anymore, though the character is still moving out to move in with her boyfriend whom she’s going to marry soon. There’s actually still a “structure” — there has to be because so much time is covered. I’m kind of thinking about it the way Russian novels used to be published — part 1, part 2, etc.  So part 1 covers the main character running away, seeking freedom only to find it’s all an illusion as she winds up on the streets, part 2 has her life getting straightened out and meeting the man she’ll eventually marry, and part 3 has was initially the body, the reunion with her family, including her sister with cirrhosis (which isn’t necessarily as terminal as I thought it was when I was 14…maybe she won’t die after all, but I still think it’s a better story that way).

It’s really, really weird rereading what I wrote in high school. Scary that I’m ever happy with something I’ve wrote because, oh my, I think I was pretty happy with what I wrote then, too! And there is not much to be happy about. Gosh, it’s painful to read at times. Embarrassing. Some relationships are complex, but they’re complex in fairly predictable ways, and a lot of the characters have little depth. But on the other hand, just as I roll my eyes at something and think, “Well, that’s got to go!” I’ll often think, “Well, hold on…if I tweak that, that’s actually a good plot or character moment.”

When I wrote back then, there was no internet. So I just made stuff up and glossed over facts. The only real research I did was getting some medical books from a good friend’s mother, who was a nurse, and asking her some questions about cirrhosis. I can remember even then wishing so badly I could go to a hospital and sit down and talk with a doctor who specialized in such illnesses.

And then they (and by “they” I of course mean Al Gore) invented the internet. So now, the things I glossed over before I can agonize over details of. How exactly does a runaway go about finding a place to live in DC? (Oh, yes, instead of all made-up towns, I’ve transplanted the action to the NoVA area — I finally live in a place that works as a setting for a novel that’s not about the place, if you understand.) What kind of services would a homeless shelter offer her? What kind of job offerings would she find online that she could apply for even without a high school diploma? How many buses would it take for her to get from Point A to Point B? Oh yes, all this and more is available at your fingertips. But then I wind up spending so much time on things that are so irrelevant…well, not entirely so, as every detail you add further contributes to making your character real, with a real life’s history and experiences. But still it’s frustrating.

Well, I’m rambling — I’m soooo tired. But I will read another of the old chapters tonight anyway.

And I think I will post in the future on writing in the third person and online researching for fiction writing.

All this because I was too tired to watch the commentary to my latest Netflix film, The Namesake. I am simply incapable of going to bed early. Even when I’m exhausted.

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They’re Alive! Tuesday, Jun 17 2008 

Uh, yeah, that was a nod to Frankenstein, but it doesn’t work so well without the appropriate audio.

I just came across a writer’s blog, where she describes how her characters are alive and almost act of their own volition, how they can surprise you how they react in a given scene once you start writing it. Captures precisely how I feel about my characters.

From the very start the characters were alive and “real” to me – I had created them so well in my head that it was easy to imagine what they would do in any set of circumstances I placed them in. So all I had to do was set the scene and then watch and listen to how they reacted – then write it down. I’ve always had a vivid imagination.

I have the idea for the particular scene in my head and I allow the characters to unfold and react to the situation I place them in. They dance with the page and the page dances with them. If you are familiar with the word duende you will know what I mean when I say: you cannot separate the characters from the author. I watch and then write it down. Some writers have every single action planned out in advance – I would find that too rigid, too limiting. Sometimes characters surprise me and react in a way I hadn’t expected them to when I outlined the scene in my head. I always give them free reign!

It’s terrible when you know you have to “get” a scene to a certain place, and the characters don’t cooperate. You try to force it and it just reads horribly. Something has to change. Writing is fun!

Here’s another one:

It’s a lot of fun writing. I find myself thinking about it in the middle of the night (”Wouldn’t it be cool if…”) …sometimes to my annoyance.

One of the most fun thing about writing, as least as far as the way I do it, is the characters. When I create a character, the basic information is in place… but as I write about them, I learn more about them, as though they’re people that I’ve met and are getting familiar with. It feels like their personality traits are discovered, not created. Granted, these characters are pulp characters; they’re 2 dimensional rather than fully fleshed out, but they become “real” to me as I write them.

Oh, all the time I’ve spent lying awake at night picturing scenes play out in my head!

Can you tell I’m on a bit of a writing high at the moment? =)

Fiction Writing (Anna Devane Pt. 2) Tuesday, Jun 17 2008 

So rather than make that previous post a whole book in and of itself, I’ll start a new post.

I have started taking my writing more seriously lately. I’ve met a couple of people now who are published authors, and there’s a bookstore locally that hosts a monthly meeting for local writers. I really want to go but the timing has never worked out — I’m either out of town or have guests or have another commitment. Someday.

I started writing something back when I was in 9th grade (I wrote my first complete original story in the 6th grade — it was dumb but whaddya want, I was in the 6th grade). I won’t go into detail because that starts to cross the line into personal stuff I won’t put on the internet. But it centers on a family of six adult siblings, and as I wrote and explored different angles on it over the years, I found that I loved one character more than any other. Way more than the others, and easier to write for too, because I “knew” her so well by that point. I’m also really handicapped from writing many many chapters of another novel in 1st person — I’ve actually lost the ability to write in the 3rd person, or so it feels. So writing “equally” for six characters became really difficult to the point of impossible, and I think it was while talking about it on the phone with my friend Amy, kind of out of the blue really, I really realized that I had to change the focus of the novel to this one character, and include parts of her life before being reunited with her siblings. Again, without going into detail, this completely destroyed the structure of the novel, which was nice and parallel. The only time I ever bothered with “structure of a novel” and I go and ruin it. I thought off and on about how I could rework it, actually coming up with some of it in that conversation with Amy, but couldn’t come up with how to start it. Originally there was a one-chapter prologue, then jump 10 years to the body, then jump 10 years to a one-chapter epilogue (see, nice and parallel). This was untenable with the new focus.

And then, while in a meeting at work, I tuned out (I’ve come up with lots of great fiction ideas during meetings at work, hah, hopefully no higher-ups at work will ever see this!) and focused on the beginning. And it came to me. And I went home that day and wrote it, wrote it until about 2 or 3 in the morning when I finally finished. And I was happy with it. Not ecstatic with it, but happy with it. (I think perhaps I am like other writers when I say that I often love what I write and hate it all at the same time.) It had a bit of foreshadowing, a bit of light symbolism (mostly in terms of what I’d now call blocking, after watching lots of DVD commentaries — I often picture a scene being played out as if on screen), an opening that is hopefully intriguing enough to catch a reader’s interest and keep him/her turning at least a couple of pages to see what’s going on, and it sets a mood and a feel for core relationships without hitting you over the head with it. Darn, I sound like I’m quite impressed with myself. Well, not really. I wasn’t pleased with how I ended it (I stink at endings — watch the commentary for Bend it Like Beckham, at the end. I totally get it.) for one thing. I was just surprised at how fairly easily and quickly it came out of me and onto the page. And it really made me think, hey, maybe I can really turn this into a novel that could actually be sold. I hadn’t thought seriously about that at all — not since high school anyway — until talking with a published author.

You see, mostly I write for fun. I want character and drama and emotion and dynamicity. I can create a million characters, a million worlds, a million stories. It’s FUN! And I would never want to sacrifice that for commercialization. It’s not like I’m thinking I could make a living off it or something. Apparently it’s next-to-impossible to get fiction published. So why think of publishing at all? A roller-coaster is fun by yourself. But it’s tons more fun with other screaming people along for the ride! I would love to share it and think others are hopefully having fun too. At the same time, when I’m writing for fun, for my fun, and expressing things that come out of me and things that in some ways (though probably not obvious ways even if you know me, unless I’ve already told you) are intensely personal, the thought of someone rejecting or criticizing it (in some ways — I think there are many types of helpful criticism I would actually not mind at all, and some I would be grateful for) is pretty terrible. In a way, if you reject something I have written, characters and events that have come out of me, you have rejected me. I imagine all writers feel that way.

I’m looking forward to being able to talk more with writers. I’m hoping one of them will give me ideas on how to relearn writing in the 3rd person. How in the world do you write from multiple points of view? How do you get into characters’ heads without doing this? It sounds so simple — and I used to have no problem with it — but try writing 40+ chapters of first person over a span of more than a decade and then writing for multiple characters in 3rd person. Argh. Actually of course there are many more things I can learn from talking with other writers, but this one is really bugging me and has been for probably at least a couple of years, believe it or not.

Anna Devane Delirium Tuesday, Jun 17 2008 

I write fiction. I loved General Hospital in the 80’s — I only started watching around the late 80’s maybe, but read about it (and every other soap — ok, I was and still am a bit of an obsessive freak sometimes) regularly in Soap Opera Digest. (Yeah, I had a subscription — it was kind of like a serialized novel where your imagination got to fill in the details.) I love strong-though-sometimes-vulnerable characters, male and female, who’ve done something pretty horrible in their past and seeking redemption while continuing to live with the consequences of their actions — some examples would be Xena (Lucy Lawless) from Xena: Warrior Princess and Angel (David Boreanaz) from Buffy. There are others, but those are the first that come to mind.

I say all this to set the stage, because for the past three days (Saturday to Monday) I have been absolutely consumed with another such character — Anna Devane (Finola Hughes) from General Hospital. If you don’t write, I’m not sure I could explain this to you. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced any mini-character/writing obsession quite this strongly. It’s like electricity wanting desperately to escape from your body (and preferably into a keyboard). It’s insatiable obsession that makes you unable to go to bed (I was up all night Saturday and until after 4 Sunday, catching some late morning/early afternoon zz’s Sunday) or stop to eat or basically do anything but immerse yourself in the character, the storyline, the missing pieces, the analytical process of examining exactly what it is about the character that appeals to you so much — the aspects of the character & types of events that drew out or formed those aspects, not really the literal things that “happened” to that specific character. And then come the alternate versions you could write, and the parallel situations, and the transformation of one set of events into a different set that produce basically the same effect, the ways you would want to adapt your story to tell it the way you’d want to, and so forth.

You really can’t take too seriously the actual events going on in these stories, at least not in the examples I gave above. Xena lived in ancient Greece (ancient to be defined in verrrrry loose terms as the writers pretty much ignored distinctions in pulling things from a few thousand years of history) and was some kind of sword-fighting warrior who just might be half-god (Ares was possibly her father). Angel was from like 18th century Ireland or something, got turned into a vampire, then had a curse put on him after killing a young Gypsy girl that restored his soul so they he had a conscience again and felt the guilt of all the happy-go-lucky torture and killing he’d done for a hundred years or so [darn, quite a weight to carry around with you!]. And Anna was a “super-spy” for the WSB (World Security Bureau I think…) agency who fell in love with and quickly married her new partner Robert, also with the WSB and full of honor and integrity, and just a few weeks later when they’re on a mission Robert discovers she’s actually a double agent for the DVX (I don’t think they ever spelled that one out, it just sounds like “devious,” you know, the bad guys — besides, for Pete’s sake, what could “X” stand for — x-ray?). It was to be her last mission because Robert had changed her — she’d sought action, adventure, the thrill of danger, but she wanted to leave the DVX. Robert was disgusted, disappointed, etc., but didn’t turn her in, and she was devastated. (You can watch most of that scene here, originally created as a flashback on GH.)

Anna arrived in Port Charles in 1985. I wonder what the writers originally had in mind, because she initially came off a bit malevolent. Robert was married to Holly, and Anna insinuated herself in their lives, looking kind of like the typical soap fly-in-the-ointment bad girl for the otherwise happy lead couple. But Finola Hughes is (in my opinion) a phenomenal actress, and I wonder if that’s what changed the writer’s minds, because before long she is portrayed in a much more sympathetic light, and I think it’s perhaps 1986 when we find out she was pregnant when she and Robert divorced, and they have a daughter aged about 7 that Robert doesn’t know about. Anna’s love for her daughter was fierce, and it’s definitely one of the things that softened her character. Additionally, not far into her time in Port Charles, we see vulnerability in her despite her bravado and projection of total confidence, we see the guilt and shame she still feels over her past as a traitor to her country (errr, what country would that be? looking back, seems this was never explained — there are references to Canada and the US, and Anna’s a Brit and Robert’s an Aussie…so who knows, point is she was playing ball with the bad guys and at least one person lost his life because of it). Some of her shame is expressed by a fake scar she wears on her face where she was injured in an explosion on her last mission — initially this is written as more of a ploy to make some kind of point (garner sympathy, remind others of her suffering, who knows), but seems like it quite quickly changed to be written as a genuine expression of remorse, her self-imposed “scarlet letter” as she refers to it. (You can see the scar for the first time here — she wore her hair covering that half of her face [why wear a fake scar that no one can actually see…?], and then Holly’s discovery that it’s fake here. You can read the scene where she confesses it’s fake to Robert here.)

I have to say a word on Finola Hughes’s acting style, which stood out to me even in the early 90’s when I wasn’t paying much attention to such things (not that I pay that much attention now). Finola makes her characters feel real. She does things in scene I’ve never noticed other actors do. She licks her lips, scratches her nose, rubs her cheek, makes faces — not over-the-top stuff, but the normal stuff we all do that, ahem, doesn’t normally look so pretty on camera. She does it anyway, and I think it’s great. You don’t see too much of that here in the very early Anna days — though in one of the scenes above watch for her sticking her tongue waaaay out to touch her upper lip, and later pulling at her lip.

She makes Anna real despite a lot of ridiculously improbable typical soap storyline stuff. In ’85 Anna is a jewelry fence (and former double agent/traitor to her country). I think it’s in ’86 she become Port Charles police chief. Say whaaaaaaat? Yes, well, soap characters have to stay interesting, so there are no school teachers or gardeners or mailmen or office supply workers — there are nurses and brain surgeons and night club owners and mobsters and detectives. So, Anna the traitorous jewelry fence becomes police chief, hey, why not? The spy stuff and the later WSB/DVX etc. stories are pretty unrealistic of course, but darn were they fun! GH in the 80’s was nothing if not fun. (These days it should be called General Mob Wars or something, it’s apparently all about the mob and the mobsters are the good guys while the police are the stick-in-the-mud bad guys. Don’t get me started.) In the 80’s the good guys were the cops and good-guy spies, the bad guys were big-time crooks and bad-guy spies trying to do things like freeze the entire planet, and there were explosions and shoot-outs and location shots and fights on cable cars and bombs on trains — excitement, romance, and rip-roaring good fun.

It was so interesting to watch the really early Anna stuff (’85), or really any early stuff of characters/actors who stick around for a long time. You can tell they don’t know the character like they do later (either the actor or the writers — geez louise, check out the pilot episode of Stargate SG-1, or of Star Trek: The Next Generation, two long-running shows), and watching these with Anna I feel pretty confident saying that if Finola and the writers could go back and redo these scenes, they’d be done a bit different. The scene with Holly about the scar especially, that just doesn’t seem like Anna to me.

And, despite the occasional “romantic tension” between Robert and Anna (recall that they didn’t divorce over “regular” betrayal, not a betrayal of her wedding vows, but of his trust in who she was and who she served), I really liked the fact that they didn’t actually get together again until the early 90’s, when they began to see each other in a new light, and eventually re-married. And it really wasn’t played as though they would be getting together. Robert still loved Holly (she was presumed dead or something, you know, the actress wanted to leave), and I guess was later involved with some other women, and Anna met Duke (who was dead — or so Anna thought, yes, it’s a soap) by the time I started watching, but she really loved him and I don’t think really loved anyone else until she and Robert finally reunited. They were true friends, with some incredibly well-played comedic banter (some interviews I read said that the set in those days was “famous” for its improvisation with scripts) — see an excellent example here (the guy Anna’s daydreaming about and who’s on the phone later is Duke — I think they were separated at the time or something. Their fights were spectacular fun to watch, too, because they both had so much dirt to pull up on each other (hard to beat dragging the ol’ “yeah well you were a traitor” accusation) — see a particularly harsh example here, shortly before they got back together.

So, anyway, I discovered that a lot of these old clips were on YouTube, what a discovery! I watched hours and hours of YouTube clips. I found a site with fan fiction, including one particularly good, well-developed story that kept me up all night Saturday. I found a site I linked to above with transcripts of some of Anna’s earliest scenes, which was great because not all of those were available on YouTube. How I long for the day — which I’m sure will come — when I can purchase all that early stuff.

What will I do with all this? Well, I’m thinking I’d like to start with some fan fiction, just to explore the character, the voice. But fan fiction (my own and other people’s, with the exception of the one noted above) just make me giggle because it seems kind of silly. It can be confining, too. Fan fiction that changes “facts” about a character’s life, motivations, etc. is pointless, in my opinion. I think it will be a fun exercise though, and will help me really pin down those things about the character that so draw me to her. And then — and I’ve already been mentally meandering down this path — I will spend some time exploring how I can import those essential traits, the “spirit” of the character and the essence of the events that shaped her, into a completely different story (without explosions and double agents and WSBs and DVXs). Fun times!