Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

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Self-Education

February 24, 2009

I’m working on this short story featuring Lydia, a supporting character from Disposable Heroes, the manuscript I’m working on. Lydia originally started as little more than a piece of furniture; the book opens with a funeral, and what’s a funeral without a grieving widow? So Lydia’s at the funeral, and Zack (the protagonist) tries to talk to her and she bitches him out for getting her husband killed. From that start, she caught my imagination and started percolating in the back of my mind.

From very early on in the creative process, I had in mind this idea that in the sequel, Zack would be a minor supporting character, and that I wanted one of the minor characters from the first book to take center stage. Lydia was an obvious candidate for this treatment, so I started developing her in earnest.

As part of this process, I wrote a couple vignettes to help find her voice, and then I started work on a full short story about her. I wasn’t looking for an educational experience here, I was just messing around with a character I liked.

In the vignettes I had written her from Zack’s perspective. But when I sat down to write the short story, I wanted to do it from her perspective. And I did, and she stopped being Lydia, or at least the Lydia that I wanted her to be. Her insecurities, such as they are, were more prominent than I wanted them. Her lack of professionalism was glaring rather than hinted. Her aristocratic arrogance proved to be less effective the more it was shown, which is a problem because her notions of class are some of the primary ideas she uses to make sense of the world. It was also hard to let the reader see clearly what she looked like to the people around her: a young, ambitious officer with bags of charm, a fondness for theatricality, and a preference for spending her spare time alone. From the inside, she’s much less interesting, much less dynamic. Her actions lose their edge of unpredictability and surprise.

I’ve done this kind of split between what a character feels and what the show to the world before; Zack’s character is built on this, so I know it can be done. What makes Zack interesting to me is that we see, in detail, the contradiction between the face he shows the world and what’s happening inside him. But what makes Lydia interesting is that we get the idea that her persona is a mask, but we don’t know what she’s hiding.

When she’s the viewpoint character, all the things she tries to keep hidden from the world show up. I could go the route of simply not mentioning these things, there’s a danger of getting too cute with the smoke and mirrors there, and the readers may feel manipulated if I am obviously keeping things from them. Or, they may feel that she is too much the cipher, that I play her cards too close to the vest for her to be a compelling viewpoint character.

For her to work as a viewpoint character, I’d have to strip out most of her interiority, and describe the action as a camera would see it. Not coincidentally, I’m rewriting the story as a screenplay. I may go back and try to write it as “screen prose,” if that makes sense.

While I was struggling with this, I was confronting some of these issues for the first time. And I was learning in the process. I didn’t mean to, honest. I hadn’t sat down and figured out why Lydia interested me until I grappled with why she wasn’t working. So I taught myself how to analyze characters better, and now I’m a stronger writer. And I did this simply through practice and reflection. It’s fun when that happens.

Another example: Lydia and her mother have a big fight about Lydia’s decision to join the Army. I had this bit of dialogue I’d conceived of before I sat down to write out the scene, two short sentences that carried all the weight of their hypocrisy and were crucial to understanding Lydia’s motivations and emotional journey. But when I wrote out their fight the first time, I couldn’t find a place to insert these two lines. The flow of their dialogue happened so quickly and so strongly that it seemed like they were moving the scene along without me. I re-read the section over and over, and eventually I realized that I hadn’t been making a distinction between Lydia reacting to what her mother said and Lydia making an affirmative statement that moved the conversation along and forced her mother to react in turn (In this context, even ignoring the last thing the other person said is a reaction that carries meaning). Once I realized that, I understood that I could choose which character had the “initiative” and was directing the flow of the conversation, and then it was a simple matter of making room for what I wanted the characters to say.

It is very satisfying to get to a point where your skills are advanced enough that you can improve them yourself, without outside guidance. I don’t read books or articles about writing anymore, because they all tell me things I’ve seen before. I’m not a master by any definition, but now the best teacher for me is the work itself. It’s all very Zen.

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La Resistance

December 29, 2007

INT. A WAREHOUSE- NIGHT

We’re looking through the viewfinder of a camcorder. In the corner, a red dot flares to life next to REC. The PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES kneels blindfolded with his hands bound behind his back before a black sheet hung up on a cement wall. Standing next to him, pistol in hand, is the LEADER. He is a young, fit man wearing a ski mask.

LEADER
People of America! For too long you have allowed your corrupt masters to define your existence for you! The freedom they offer is a lie! Time and again you elect corporate stooges who do nothing but give you the illusion of control! It is time reject this false democracy and force the people to retake their own destiny!

The Leader raises his pistol to the President’s head.

LEADER (CONT’D)
Sic semper tyrannus!

CUT TO the CAMERAMAN, standing stepping out from behind the camera.

CAMERAMAN
Whoa whoa, stop!

LEADER (exasperated)
What?

CAMERAMAN
Sic semper tyrannus? Are you kidding?

LEADER
What’s wrong with it?

CAMERAMAN
Well nothing, if we’re the Cliché Liberation Front.

CUT TO the SOUNDGUY, holding a boom mic, a confused look playing across his face.

SOUNDGUY
Wait, I thought we were the American Revolution Leauge.

LEADER
Don’t be an idiot, Darryl.

CAMERAMAN
No names! We agreed no names around the hostage!

LEADER
Oh come on, it doesn’t even matter anymore! We’re about to kill him- hell, he’d already be dead if you hadn’t-

A window BREAKS. A flash grenade lands CLATTERING at their feet. The faint sound of CLOMPING BOOTS is heard lining up next to the door.

CAMERAMAN
Aw shit.

The flash grenade EXPLODES…

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Behold My Brilliant Use of Subtle Metaphor!

October 2, 2007

So there was a group of us riding in a van down the highway. Recently, we’d had an argument over who would get to drive, but that was pretty much settled and done with.

Then some asshole rear-ended us, and a couple of us got hurt real bad. Later there would be some argument over whether or not we should have sold this guy a car several years ago in the first place, or if the driver should have seen him coming in the rear-view mirror, but for the moment, we were just pissed. So we take off after this guy and along the way we get on the phone and call a couple of our buddies out with us and we’re all chasing the bastard down the road, ramming him like he did to us. We got in a few good hits, and just when it looked like we were about to drive the son of a bitch right off the road, our driver saw a sign on the side of the road:

Alligator farm- 10 miles

The driver said to us, “Hey, since this guy is an asshole, let’s go drive into the alligator farm and start running over the alligators.”

And about half of us in our van, and most of the people our friend’s cars all said, “What the fuck are you smoking? Are you insane? These alligators have nothing to do with the man who rammed us.” Read the rest of this entry ?