Posts Tagged ‘craft’

The Post: Under the Pier – Research Part II: Human Character R&D

March 5, 2008

If you’re writing about Abraham Lincoln, conducting research is pretty straight-forward. If you have a real person, you can find books, movies, articles, people who knew them or experts to interview.

How do you research someone who doesn’t exist? With fiction characters, a lot of times you first decide what your story is about and who needs to be in it, then you start hunting. A lot of the work is really character “construction.” You have to build the characters and give them a life to know what facts you need. Some research might go on as you craft the character, but for me a lot of it came after I had some idea who the people were.

For starters, I had to decide just what kind of characters this story needed – superficial or deep. If this was a plot-driven adventure story, the main change and action would take place outside of the characters. That means the characters, even the main ones, remain the same from beginning to end. So they just need their framework – looks, personality, talents, some backstory. It’s the adventure, the plot action, that changes.

Under the Pier is a character-driven novel. The real energy, drive and purpose of the story take place inside the characters. They will grow or regress, change for the better or worse, due to their personality and circumstances. It’s not about the story actions or problems, but how they REACT to those story problems. So this meant my characters had to have depth, history, psychology, family, emotional wounds, unanswered questions.

Before I could research anything, I had to pin down some concrete things about each character. As much as I hated to have to start picking traits and family backgrounds because to choose things is to exclude others, it’s the only way to have a true-to-life character. Nobody in life can have blonde, red and brown hair (unless they dye it that way), three different colored eyes, be both young and old, and do EVERYTHING you ever dreamed of doing. Neither can your characters. So for both sides of the story, animal and human, I had to create a character, build their life, and then relate their life to others in the story. Robert Frost said “way leads on to way.” In writing, character leads on to character.

For the human side I wanted more than just birth date, physical description, or the meaning of their names – yes, I selected names that matched some aspect of their personality, but I also wanted sections for things like: strengths, weaknesses, goals, fears, driving needs. I took a lot of the information from my extensive journaling and wrote up personality profiles that gave each person a life story – traumas and triumphs, parentage or lack thereof, marital status, family dynamics, issues, problems, glaring flaws.

And by the way, for well-rounded, true-to-life characters, it’s important that the heroes be jerks about some things, and the villains be saints about others. NOBODY in real life is all good or bad. If you do that with your characters what you end up with is a stereotype or a caricature. At the very least, what you end up with is dull and boring. I read somewhere that when police interrogate suspects and witnesses, they expect some discrepancies between the various versions. That’s normal human nature. Everybody sees different things. When the stories match up too perfectly, the officers suspect the story being told isn’t real. The same is true with characterization. For example, General George S. Patton, Jr.’s grandson shared this observation about the man:

“My grandfather once commented that in his view a gentlemen should be able to curse for three minutes, non-stop, without repeating himself.”

At first glance one would never figure a gentleman would use such language, but flesh and blood human beings are full of inconsistencies. So create a character that “overall” is true to his nature, but do sprinkle in some unexpected traits. It makes for more real, interesting characters, and adds to the story action possibilities.

In any event, when writing my characters’ biographies, I started with the simple date of birth and description, then went on from there. For Rosa, the old woman who runs the diner in the human side of the story, the physical description went something like this:

She is relatively thin and wiry, but solid-boned, strong from years of physical work, with short whitish hair that used to be black. She’s about 105 pounds, in good condition overall from walking up and down stairs to her apartment behind the diner. Some arthritis and she is slowing down, but still is healthy and strong enough for being almost 80. She does have high blood pressure and sometimes forgets her meds.

That gave me enough of a picture in my mind – one of those strong old women who worked hard all their life, like many old women I grew up around in my very ethnic hometown. The thing about pinning down part of a person, though, is that it provides the bridge to the next piece of their puzzle. For example, just talking about her life of hard work suggests a need to explore areas like her background, level in society, personality, and attitudes toward life.

The beginnings of personality start to show in the additional information I put down:

She was born on October 29, 1929. If you know any history – this was Black Tuesday – the crash of the stock market and the beginning of The Great Depression. Unless she was born rich and lucky, which she wasn’t, this tells you how her life was going to go. To continue with my description, I decided her parents were immigrants from Italy, arriving just a year before her birth. Her mom died giving birth to her, something not uncommon for the time. Her father wasn’t around much, either looking for work, drunk or simply gone for long periods. She was shifted from family member to family member, often not a happy situation. She had to work from a young age and got out of her aunt’s house as soon as she could. She started working in a place called the Midway Diner, run by this handsome young guy named Frank Santelli, his grandmother, and his maternal uncle, Angelo Campelli. Uncle Angelo started the diner in the late 1890s with a horse-drawn cart and built it up from there. She fell in love with the diner and Frank, almost immediately. She married Frank by 18, revered Frank’s grandmother who took Rosa under her wing, and spent the rest of her life preserving the legacy of that diner, even after Frank’s death. She had 4 children – a daughter who died as an infant, and 3 sons, all still alive.

Okay. Right in this section, by picking the particulars of Rosa’s background, I’ve set up not only the rest of her life, but set up the bridges to the stories of her husband, his grandmother, his uncle, the diner’s history, her children, and raised questions like, why did she revere Frank’s grandmother, where was Frank’s mother and father, and what happened to Rosa’s infant daughter? Just by picking certain details, you create the thread to more questions, more characters, more life situations, conflicts, and relationships. You create….a real person with a real life. MOST importantly I’ve set up the question in the reader’s mind.. Why is all of this important with regards to Rosa’s relationship with Max, the story’s 12-year-old female protagonist? That’s the ultimate thing to remember. Not everything the biography will be part of the story, but if you make it part of the story, it better have a real good reason for being there, ie, how does it relate to the protagonist and the story’s main question?

Now. Research on Rosa. Well for one thing, I looked for anything I could find to “validate” her personality traits so a reader wouldn’t think I was overdoing things. I spotted an article in a Rhode Island newspaper about a woman in her 80s who would go out after snowstorms and not only shovel her driveway and sidewalk but those of her neighbors as well. She shrugged off the effort as “exercise” and viewed it matter-of-factly. She was home, her neighbors had to go to work, so she just took her time and shoveled everybody’s sidewalks. So, Rosa rings true to life. (If you want more of a feel for her, click here for the January 24th, 2008 post where I included a bit from the book describing Rosa)

Other people in the story. I know a bit about diners growing up in New England, and what the people were like who worked in them and ran them. I grew up in an ethnic town full of those early 1900s immigrants from Poland, Italy, Slovakia, Ireland etc. and knew the rules of the culture: hard work, no wimping out, not very much money, family and church were everything. Those people survived the Depression and World War II by helping each other even as they fought with each other and drove each other crazy. They didn’t mince words, but put it right on the table, usually in colorful language. For holes in my knowledge base, I researched books on diners, history, New England, did Google searches, and talked to people.

For example, Rosa’s son Vince, her eldest son, a war hero from Vietnam who is kind of a mystery character with a shrouded past, finally returns home after many years away. He works nights at the diner making doughnuts. I interviewed a number of people who worked in bakeries at night making doughnuts, so I’d get my details right.

For other characters in the book, I did the same thing – wrote the physical characteristics, figured out ages, started linking them to other characters in the book, and creating a “web” of relationships and lives. The more you added to the people and the web, the more possibilities for story action and conflict.

For example, the human protagonist, Max, lives with her grandmother, who also works at the diner. Max’s grandmother is dating Vince. For a number of reasons this both disgusts and scares Max. And Max views Vince’s shrouded past with tremendous fear and suspicion.

Just setting up that scenario, suggests questions like: “Why is Max living with her grandmother? How long has this gone on? What happened to her parents? What IS the deal with Vince’s shrouded past? Why does Max fear him and fear his dating her grandmother?

Then throw in a quirk. Here is Vince, a mysterious character Max fears, and a still strong and burly man. I gave him a small poodle as a pet. Not exactly what you would expect is it? And then there’s that pendant he has around his neck that he never takes off. Just what happened all those years he was away?

If I ran into problems or a block, I “talked to the characters.” You interview them, start a conversation, ask them a question about school, politics, the person they hate the most and why, anything. But having a conversation with a character is like talking to someone at work. The more they talk, the more you learn who they are. Most writing blocks come from either not knowing who your characters are and hence how they would react, or not knowing where the story is going. So…interview and journal, then go back to writing the biography.

The minute you put down one trait on a character then add a second, you set up a chain reaction that leads to more questions, decisions, more characters, more background, more dark secrets in closets, whatever. By the time I was through, I had two binders of character biographies. Some of the characters are background ones. For example, Rosa runs a ladies’ poker game in the corner booth of her diner – her booth – every Friday night. ALL the area ladies who run businesses along Main Street play, and even Sister Rita Luke from Our Lady of the Seas up the street shows up to win money for her outreach programs. Father Steve is the “chaplain” As one of the old ladies in the group puts it: “First we pray, then we play.” So I needed some cursory description of who the ladies were and what stores they ran.

Once you’ve got the real people, the research part is easy. For medical problems I did Google searches, hunted through medical textbooks, talked to an ER physician, and even pulled details from the book, The Perfect Storm. For a legal issue involving Max, I talked to a lawyer. For emotional problems, again, there was Google, psychology books, and a psychologist. I researched Catholic history, and ethnic superstitions, both very big themes in that culture. I researched the fishing industry and what kinds of research post-doctoral students were doing in Rhode Island for either universities, the military or the environment. And yes, I got books on the meanings of names, so I could accurately name my characters, not just pick something out of a hat. In the course of the research, I looked for interesting tidbits or colorful facts that I could incorporate to give my characters the “authority” of that life.

Finally, I looked for things to use as character tags. Character tags allow us to quickly identify the character, tell us something about their deeper personality, and raise more questions for the reader to answer. Vince walks a poodle and wears a mysterious pendant. Rosa has her certain superstitions, Max walks around in the middle of the summer wearing a paint-stained oversized flannel shirt. Almost immediately, we associate certain things with certain people, then begin our quest to find out “why?”

Up Next: Under the Pier: Research – Animal Character R&D

The Post – Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over

February 14, 2008

As I mentioned, I had reached that place in my Phase I apprenticeship where I had grasped that it takes a long time to become an overnight success. There is no way around paying your dues and learning your craft. You can’t short-change apprenticeship. I knew I did not want to give up my dream to write, so that meant going back to the drawing board, taking classes, and starting at the bottom, all of which would take time. This also meant I had to find some way to bring in an income while pursuing my goal. The most marketable skill I had was that I was an extremely detail-oriented anal-retentive, par excellance. As it turns out, not such a bad skill to have.

I don’t think I was born with that skill. It became second nature from the 15 years I worked in a hospital lab. In a hospital, there is no acceptable margin of error. You have to be right. No matter what I did in the lab, whether it was a crossmatch for someone’s transfusion, a glucose level for a diabetic, a blood count for a leukemia patient, or a drug level for someone’s medication dosage – I knew that the results I reported would directly affect someone’s life. A doctor would base a decision to treat, or not treat, change a dosage or a medicine, based on what I reported. If I was wrong, their lives would pay the price. That training deepened when I worked in the pharmaceutical company. There I validated hundreds of thousands of pieces of data with an allowable error level something in the neighborhood of 0.01 %. The bottom line – details mattered – and in becoming a writer, that wasn’t such a bad place to start.

I decided with that kind of skill, perhaps I could find some editing jobs. Phase I was supposed to be about going “out there” and experiencing, experimenting, and trying new things. So I searched both locally and nationally. I cold-called countless managing editors in all of the publishing houses to let them know I was available for work. I was so terrified on each call, I had my “script” written in front of me while I talked. I sounded assured and confident, even as I sat there rapidly skimming every book on copy-editing, proofreading, content editing, and freelance editing that I could get my hands on. This was survival. I HAD to make this work or I had to find another 40-hour, 9-5 job. If I had to go back to that, I had to give up my writing dream. That, to me, would have been failure. I had given up good jobs, and good income. I just couldn’t give up the dream, too.

I did a few copy-editing jobs for major publishers. That was an interesting time, including the one publisher who didn’t like my work because the editor in charge of that project was a semi-retired person who liked stickies with notes in brown colored pencil . . . ONLY brown-colored pencil. I used the wrong color. No one told me about the colored pencil thing. They later acknowledged that that particular editor was a little “persnickety.” Whatever. I moved on.

A local vanity publisher hired me as their editor – copy-editor, substantive editor, press release writer, you name it, I did it. The money was terrible – flat rate no matter how long the job – but it was money, and it was training. I learned a LOT. After a while I could quote sections of the Chicago Manual of Style by heart and knew it inside and out. The trouble with that local publisher involved getting paid. When their cash-flow stopped, so did mine. It took an attorney to collect from them, so I vowed, no more small self-publishers.

In keeping with experimenting, I answered an online position announcement on the copyeditors email list, for a “native speaker of US English who had experience with other cultures.” It turns out that Bloomsbury, a publisher in the UK was doing a “Global English dictionary.” They needed someone to review all entries to make sure all definitions were there for each word, that they were culturally correct, and sounded “American.” I didn’t expect much but went ahead and sent a note indicating I grew up in a very multi-ethnic community and had just spent 4 years in a British drug company. They gave me an online-test and I passed, so my next title became “lexicographer.” I am listed as one of the lexicographers in the Encarta World English Dictionary, as well as in a thesaurus. They were GREAT to work with and I recommend the experience highly. It was all done by email and overnight overseas deliveries of work, and they paid well . . . and on time. Their Barclays Bank checks were so beautiful that if I hadn’t needed the income, I would have kept one just to frame.

During this time I also became associated with a medical ethics board that would be the mainstay of my freelance work for 10 years. I reviewed the research study documents, and edited, and often rewrote the consent forms that the research subjects would sign. This job spoke to my heart. It used every bit of my medical and pharmaceutical background and then some, REQUIRED someone picky and anal-retentive, and it tapped something else in me – the strong desire to protect. My job was to protect these people by making sure we gave them consent forms that told them fully, what the research might do to them, good and bad. I was well-suited for the work, well-paid, and the job did not require a large chunk of my time each week. That meant – I still had time to write.

I went ahead and did the other direction for Phase I: get outside knowledge. I took courses through the Duke University continuing education program. Classes in essay-writing, picture books, fiction, and how to run a freelance business. I also took and completed two children’s writing courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature. I joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and attended their conferences. I joined writing groups and paid authors to critique some of my work. And of course, collected more rejection letters.

I started to have a few successes in my writing efforts. I sold an essay to two parenting magazines about the heartbreak I felt every morning dropping my son at day care. I sold an essay to The Writer, and articles to Boys’ Life magazine. I even wrote two CliffsNotes – a result of one of the cold calls I’d made a year or two earlier – one for Dickens’ Great Expectations, and one for Michael Shaara’s, The Killer Angel. I still collected more rejection letters, but the quality of the rejections were getting better. 🙂 Busy editors took time to write personal notes on the form letters. Sometimes they even requested another revision or two before they said no. Overall, a good sign.

All in all, Phase I had taken a turn for the better, and I was learning a great deal very fast. My goal of seeing my name on the cover of a picture book, however, kept eluding me. Yes. Like many others, I had the idea that I should write picture books. They’re short, easy, quick to bang out, and besides, isn’t that what children’s writers write? I banged my head against the brick wall of the picture book writer idol for a long time before I finally surrendered to the truth that even my husband pointed out: I do NOT have a voice for picture books. He also noted I wasn’t getting any younger and maybe I should stop trying to be something I’m not, and focus on what my real strengths appeared to be . . . longer stories. When I finally accepted that truth, I also came to accept another set of truths: a good picture book writer, like a good poet, is rare. It takes special talent and voice, and writing a picture book is about the hardest, at least for me, of all children’s writing. Don’t let short deceive. Like the Tao Te Ching, those short entries are the hardest to do well.

UP NEXT: FINALLY, I GRADUATE TO PHASE II – FOCUSING THE LENS

 

The Post – Okay, So Now That You’ve Met My Fiddler Crabs, Who is This Deb Bailey Writer Person?

February 12, 2008

I’ve been promising the “where have I been, what am I doing, and where am I going?” piece. You’ve met the fiddler crabs and know that I’m doing some kind of strange book involving crustaceans and humans. And since it’s fiction, not nonfiction, God only knows what it’s about, right? You’re aware I am interested in everything from Nancy Drew, photography, and Tonka trucks (the old metal ones only!!!) to borescopes, poodles, and Buddhism. So, you know I’m odd.

My story as a writer – short version. Plan A: I had a dream. Left a job. Wrote a bunch of stuff. Submitted it. Waited for the money to roll in. It didn’t. So I was forced to move to Plan B: Take a step back. Scratch my head. Get a grip, then do what every writer since the cave man has done – learn my craft and build a business. SLOWLY. While earning paychecks to keep the bills paid.

I decided this story might be useful? Or at least entertaining, to any new writers who have illusions about how this business works. Maybe it will either inspire or make you laugh when you want to cry, so you realize you are not alone. Or you will run screaming from the room and say you never want to be a writer. That’s always a fair answer, too. But I have to tell you, writing . . . it’s a life-long affliction.

If you were born infected with the desire to write, you can run, but you can’t hide from that voice pulling at you to put words down. If you are honest, you will admit to secretly ripping a strip off of a paper napkin while driving because you just CAN’T let that thought go by. You might even admit to having torn bits of envelopes, doctor bills, the back of your son’s first draft of a term paper, or your hand, covered in scribbles of things you JUST CAN’T let escape from your brain without being written down. If it progresses to the more advanced stages, you may find yourself living with your walls, stairwells, garage, kitchen table and living room floor, covered in maps, sketches, notes, paintings, story outlines, books, articles, and half-written manuscripts. Let’s not even discuss what’s packed into storage boxes, onto book shelves, under the pool table or in desk drawers. Like I said, it’s an affliction. You just learn to live with it. And like Stephen King said, he’d do this job even if they didn’t pay him.

In any event, I will split this over a few posts. I think that way, it will also give living examples to the three stages of writer development as outlined by author and illustrator, Uri Shulevitz. The man has a tremendous body of work, has won awards from the Caldecott Medal to the Golden Kite Award, and I think, knows a few things about this business.

I have this old faded email from 8/27/96 from the Children’s Writing email group, where someone very kindly shared Mr. Shulevitz’s comments from a conference. By the way, if you want to write for children, that email group is a great group to be subscribed to. The writers range from the famous to the beginner, and the people there are generous, knowledgeable, and good-hearted. Just don’t show up and say – “I want to write for kids. What do I do?” Or the ever popular, “I wrote something. Where should I send it?” Do some of your own homework, first. Get a copy of:

Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market 2008 (Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market)  

Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market 2008 (Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market) Read the beginning pages. They have great basic get-started information about the profession – and it is a profession – of children’s writing. For that matter, Writer’s Digest Book Club has a ton of great writing books, some slanted for children’s writing. Just get or borrow some of these books, read them, then come to the list with your questions. They’ll be happy to help. To subcribe, send a message to:

childrens-writers-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

You can also visit the group’s home page at:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/childrens-writers.

To finish up today’s post and set the stage for the rest of this project, I’ll leave you with Mr. Shulevitz’s thoughts about the process a person goes through to become a writer. Most of us will travel this road I suspect, unless you’re Isaac Asimov, who could write almost perfect first drafts, and over his life wrote or edited over 500 books, an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards, and whose works have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. He missed out only in Philosophy. If you’re not another Asimov, here’s the stages:

The Three Stages of Writer Development (as paraphrased by the email author who apologized for not being as eloquent as Mr. Shulevitz):

Stage One: The Journey of Apprenticeship

Learn about the craft with an open mind. Set aside your preferences. Experiment, experience, try new techniques, look at different eras and styles. Copy other writers to understand their techniques. Survey all styles of children’s books to see what makes the best, good, and the worst, bad. In short: Gather Outside Knowledge

Stage Two: Search Inside

a) Find your own voice and vision. Seek solitude. Be alone with yourself. Seek a sanctuary where you can sort out the voices within and without. Achieve inner silence.

b) Be who you are. You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self and sort out all you have gathered in your apprenticeship. Sort out what you learned from your apprenticeship and learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love. Find themes which continue to repeat themselves within you and your work. Examine what may be to some, unpopular beliefs.

c) You will work alone in the end. Any teacher can only take you to your own frontier. You will have to take it from there.

Stage Three: Joy of Working

After the first two stages, you are ready to begin WORKING. You know yourself so well you can lose yourself in your work. Your work will be free and spontaneous because you know yourself so well, but not yet easy or simple.

And by the way, he notes: Sometimes you might have to go back to Stage One or Two once in a while.

UP NEXT: My apprenticeship

The Post – As Promised, What Photography Teaches You About Writing

February 6, 2008

As I mentioned earlier, photographing fiddler crabs helped me to “be one with them.” Armed with the heart of a crab, maybe I can get that across in the book.

In a broader sense, there are some similarities between the arts of photography and writing:

1) Narrow the topic:

The viewfinder of a camera sets the limits on how much you can fit in the picture. A photo is a one-moment slice of an event. You can’t show everything, so you have to choose. What will you focus on?

Good writing, especially essays and short pieces, needs limits too. Start with too broad a topic and the piece runs too long, lacks focus and depth, and leaves the reader wondering it’s about. You can’t say everything, so you have to choose what you will say. Choose a specific slant and give the reader depth for that one topic.

2) Composition – Create the Scene:

Part of the art in a good photograph is its composition. What did you include and why? How did you choose to portray it? What angle was it shot from? Lighting? Shadows? Contrast?

In a good story, “show don’t tell” is done with scenes. You’re the director. How will you set it up? Who will be in it and who will be left out? Why? What will they say and do? What are they holding? Wearing? Where are they? Is it frigid or tropical? Are they scared or serene?

3) Detail is the life of the creation:

The camera’s eye doesn’t miss much and often sees more details than the photographer did when taking the shot. The details that show up in the picture bring it alive, especially in things like still life and macro photography. The details ARE the photo.

In writing, specifics are the spice that creates the picture. Something doesn’t smell good, it has a licorice herbal aroma that wafts through the sunlit cottage and makes you salivate with anticipation. Something doesn’t feel rough and hurt you, it has a gritty surface that grinds against the tender flesh of your palm until it strips the skin raw and bloody. Specifics create the image.

4) Deliver the vision:

You can see the image you want in your mind’s eye, but if you can’t work the camera, all you’ll get is a dark blur. Master the technology.

The most amazing story may run through your mind. Yet if what appears on paper lacks organization, moves too slowly, leaves out needed plot points, has poor sentence structure, bloated dialogue, or no sensory details, no one will get it. Master your craft.

5) Know what you want to say:

A photograph may be wordless, but it will still speak to the viewer if the photographer knows what he’s looking for.

In writing, you may have a 500-page novel but you still need to be able to sum it up in a line or two. If you can’t do that, you don’t know what your story is about.

In the future, 10 or so things an oil painting taught me about the writing process. Stay tuned.