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Naomi Kwan: Strong like Water

Naomi is by far the nicest of my protagonists. She is generous and nurturing, a people-pleaser and a compromise-seeker. Unless cornered she will accommodate or retreat rather than confront, and she values peace over principle. She prefers physical exertion to mental effort, and sees no point in learning for learning’s sake.

In short, she is very much my opposite. I guess that philosophical/psychological saying about all of us containing infinities must be true. I created Naomi and adore her. but I have to step outside myself a long way to see life as she does.

Writing about her from other POVs also presented some serious headaches. Some of those characters don’t value the virtues of forbearance and endurance.  To them, Naomi looks like an unintelligent, ineffectual doormat waiting for people to walk all over her. I had to filter my words through their worldview while still showing readers the smart, compassionate, powerful person Naomi can be.

Victimization and abuse are hazards for self-effacing people,  granted, but they’re dangers Naomi has mostly worked out by the time she hits my stories. That was what I had to emphasize. She’s vulnerable, yes. Imperfect, certainly. Weak? No.

Naomi is strong like water: almost invisible, often taken for granted, but able to flow around any obstacle, seep into the smallest space and eventually, inexorably, get to the bottom of everything.

Let me digress a bit to discuss the way character creation meshes  with story design. Many authors start with ideas, plots, plans, or theme and then make characters whose skills and personalities will best present the desired ideas. Others take a real-life approach and put people they know into their stories, either as piecemeal traits or whole characters.

Me?  I … meet them. No, really.  Given the sheer amount of detailed advice and tools devoted to character development an author can find  on the internet, I suspect that’s not the norm, but it’s how I roll.

I came to storytelling through tabletop gaming, where I could sit and make new characters all night. Trait lists, talents, skills, vulnerabilities and fears– they come to me with as little conscious thought as making a fist or walking. I’m sure there’s lots going on under the hood, so to speak, but all I need is a germ of a an idea, a hint of a direction, and I can riff variations on a personality/past/plusses/minuses theme for hours.

Contrast this with my plotting struggles. Reducing the endless possibilities of a beginning to a single resolution requires tedious elimination of alternatives. It’s like chess, and I hate chess. It’s boring and brings me no joy. This explains why my writing process best resembles the technique I developed running role-playing sessions: begin with a set-up and an ending in mind, aim characters at the starting line, and let them find their own way to the ending.

I start every story with a mental image of someone doing something somewhere, and boom. The characters appear. The introductory pieces I write are rarely the first ones in the finished novel (often they don’t appear at all)  but the process itself is pure fun.

In this case, I was able to use the material as my first chapter. Serena showed up first. (I profiled her here, in case you missed it)    Before I finished writing that scene of her getting ready for a party, Naomi popped up from my subconscious fully-formed like some caretaker Athena, ready to do whatever needed doing for her friend.

That was great. I immediately knew she was my heroine. The drawback was that she was who she was. Risk-averse sweethearts are not  the kind of characters I picture when I think of fast-paced action storylines big on conflict, hostility and defiance of authority.

It occurs to me that I  could divide my characters into elemental groups. Take-charge, in-your-face, energetic fire characters like Parker and Alison move fast and burn nice straight lines to follow. Solid, principled, grounded characters like Justin and Felicity provide structure and framework, giving the story a direction. Flighty, airy, characters tend to breed complications and distractions (Hi, Carl) but they certainly add interesting detail.

But water? Oh, water is hardest of all to write. It’s difficult to contain, like air, and it’s even harder to push aside, but unless you do push it, it just sits there.

Like Naomi.

As it turns out, curiosity, laziness, and loyalty will push even the most conflict-averse heroine into action, and defiance comes in many forms, including passive evasion.

Naomi has no love for repetitive tasks, but poking her nose into things to see what’s inside is an irresistible temptation. Putting her in a situation where those two traits would combine disastrously was the key to getting her (and my plot)  moving.

And although she might not fight for herself, she will go to the wall for anyone she loves. All I had to do was write Serena into danger, and Naomi followed.

That’s how this all works for me. I set up my characters by playing to the weaknesses in their strengths, they do astounding things, and all I have to do is follow along and write it all down. Simple.  Well. Simple like riding a barrel over a waterfall is simple.

It’s worth the work and the risk of crashing at the bottom.  I meet such interesting people this way.




Writing again

(More) Aphorisms that Get My Goat

I collect platitudes as they annoy me, and share my grumblings whenever I have enough to fill a post. Time for another edition.

Write What You Know
Ludicrous, absurd, limiting and insulting. Yes, I need to study any topic I choose to explore in prose, but I do not, cannot and should not have to know it before I start. I don’t need to be a martial artist to write effectively about martial arts. I can make up an alien character or culture without being an alien.

I will accept learn as you go, or research twice, consult three times, or collect independent assessments of  your results. But writing what you know in the accepted sense that authenticity arises only from direct experience? That blithely dismisses the value of imagination with an arrogance seen only from those who never use theirs. It implies writing outside one’s necessarily limited life experience should be avoided rather than embraced as a challenge. It’s an absurd directive that attempts to plug the very wellspring of creative work.

Imagination and research together make any topic fair game, and while experience is a valid a justification for creating, inner inspiration is at least equally powerful.

Quitting is wrong. Quitters never prosper. Only cowards quit. Etc.

My life motto is stolen without remorse from the movie GalaxyQuest. (Never give up. Never surrender!)  So how can I object to all these tidbits of advice about gumption?  Because phrasing is important, and these sayings entirely miss the point.(yes, even my motto…sort of. There’s a difference between mantra and advice.)

Stubborn refusal to turn aside from a goal is not a virtue next to godliness. Sometimes it isn’t even a virtue. Sometimes it’s more quitty than quitting.

Quitting a bad situation and starting over can be the first tactical choice in a wise and winning long-term strategy. Sometimes never giving up means never picking up the grenade in the first place. Sometimes the only way avoid surrender is to refuse the battle. Knowing when to decline, when to turn away to fight another day– in short, when to quit–is itself a critical success skill.

Quitting isn’t always wrong. Quitters do prosper. Quitting can be the right choice.  It definitely takes a lot of courage these days when you know the decision will be questioned and criticized at every turn. Grr. That’s the sound of my teeth grinding.

Rejection is a part of the process. Just expect it and develop a thick skin.

Bullshit. Every time I come across this turd, I get a weird feeling because it reminds me so much of testimony from abuse victims. The same insistence that everything is normal and fine, it’s the way things are, and if  I don’t like it, the problem is me. (implicit corollaries: if I follow all the directions, learn all the rules, and I am perfect, then everything will turn out okay in the end. If I get hurt, it’s my own fault..)

Uh. Nope. This isn’t to say rejection is abuse. I grant rejection is part of the process of creating — in the sense that perfection is an ideal not a reality, and there is no such thing as a universal appeal. The dismissal of pain and all its disapproval baggage are what irk me.

Criticism and revision, craft development and willingness to explore and grow — those elements are vital. Pain? Not so much. Pain may inevitable and inescapable, but “get used to it,” is anti-supportive  no matter how many layers of inspirational fluff surround the message.

There’s also a popular myth that defies all logic:  that if your work is “good enough,” and you keep submitting it hither and yon,  eventually it will find a huge audience. That you should keep trying to put your work in front of others no matter what. Here’s hard reality: the audience for my art might not be alive yet. It’s also possible that it’s brilliant, genius work only a few people would ever appreciate. It’s also quite possibly rough dross and not spun gold. “Just keep trying, rejection is meaningless” doesn’t address any of those possibilities.

Also, what does”good enough” mean?  Good enough to win a ribbon for country fair? Good enough to enter the World Cup? Good enough for Olympic gold? It’s a long spectrum.  There’s a huge world of potential audiences and acceptances.  The number of variables involved in readers disliking a given piece of writing are nigh-infinite. One blanket conclusion about rejection cannot begin to encompass the complexity of acceptance.

That isn’t even getting into the question of whether a thick skin is an asset in the first place. Rejection from an intended audience might arise from a mis-match between creator and consumer. It also might arise from flaws in the work. The patrons at a country-western bar might not appreciate Chicago blues. The song might also be off-key, off-tempo, or played over a lousy sound system. Consider all the possible combinations of those two factors, and rejection as a singular force splinters into a million separate but related issues.

I get so frustrated every time I start thinking about this one that I have to walk away. That’s enough grousing and whinging for one post anyway.

Thanks for sticking through it with me.
Writing again

It’s All Right To Just Write.

Note: This one took lots longer than a tea-steep to finish, but they’re my rules so I can break ’em if I wanna. It’s more like bending, anyway. It’s a post, it’s a day in November. Spirit of the law and all that.

When word counts and achievement percentages flood my social media feed, I’m moved to write because of what I’m not seeing. The people who flail in that tide of productivity don’t post about it. People whose dedication and determination aren’t enough to keep them afloat with their peers often drown in quiet despair.

But they’re out there. I know they are, because I have been one of them Learning I wasn’t alone helped me find the strength to swim to shore (so to speak). So, then. In case someone else needs to hear this the way I did, here’s the speech I give myself.

Commodity counts are book-keeping tools, not book writing ones. Use the right tool for the job. Just as I wouldn’t use a desk ruler to measure out the frame for a house (I could, but why?)  I also won’t measure my writing by its statistics or calendar dates. Does it work for others? Great! I don’t use a trowel for gardening either. Others do. I prefer my sharp shovel. To each their own.

Yes, it can be inspiring to admire the sheer volume of what’s been made. I encourage everyone to indulge in admiration of each project’s hefty bulk. Giving voice to that gleeful, internal squeak of “I made this!” isn’t sinful pride, it’s a blessing of happiness shared. Sure, it’s good to shout my achievements to the world from a metaphorical rooftop when they happen.

Ah, but when. There’s the rub. What’s the rush?  Am I writing to a deadline? Do I have an advance, or otherwise rely on my word craft for a living paycheck?  No? Okay then. Breathe, me. It’s okay to slow down.

It isn’t often good to stop. Craftwork is work and needs to be practiced. But I will not feel guilty when I sit idle and listen to all the other little voices too. You know the ones. They distract by asking if Spartans had a word for ham, or how to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Google knows, btw) They want to know everything, not just the useful-now things. Those voices take me on strange and magical trips to lands of wonder and inspiration.

It’s also okay to listen when my gut says, “Whoa, that isn’t the word I want, that isn’t the right character to say that line, that isn’t the plot I want to follow” and my “forward progress” pauses for hours or days while I work on that one little detail in my head or on the page. I must never, ever sacrifice the joys of the journey for the sake of raw words. Not in my first draft, not in my last draft.

Inspiration will come and go like a tide. Since I’m not writing words as a commodity on deadline, the count is irrelevant. Any movement is good exercise. Art goes like a child grows, not in a smooth curve upward, but in fits and starts–equilibrium punctuated by flurries of change. Keep the baby fed, keep her warm, encourage her at every turn, and she will grow.

I don’t have to push her to fit into a particular shirt. I don’t need to worry if she doesn’t look the way I expected. I should not obsess about her size or her maturation date.

As long as I keep loving her and caring for her, she will grow.

Time: 5:30 PM
Tea: Old Orchard hard apple cider.
Steep: Yah, hey, I drank it cold and took my time.

Writing again

What Kind of Writing is Right?

Today I’m ranting about writing advice truisms. Again. This week’s target:
“Serious writers write.”

This one bugs the shit out of me. It’s true but useless,  like saying serious breathers breathe. Serious writers write, yes.  So do whimsical writers, depressed writers, lackadaisical writers, young writers, old writers…it isn’t the how or the when or the why or the how much that defines the term writer. It’s the word-making.

Anyone who wants to get better at their art must practice, practice, practice the craft foundation for it, with discipline always, with or without inspiration. That said, all writing counts towards craft, not just dogged, obsessive attention to a specific work. Wording is wording.  It all “counts.” It’s all right.

Writers write. Period. As an identity, there’s a lot of baggage and history and cultural associations attached to the word writer. I don’t embrace them. (long, complicated explanation here.) Other creators write too. I’m a storyteller. I tell stories and I choose to do that using the written word so I practice and polish word craft. 

No writing is more serious or less serious than other writing. Anne Frank never wrote her diary expecting it to become Serious Literature. I don’t expect this blog to reach more than a few dozen souls at a time at most…but you never know. Can one be serious about writing humor? It’s a silly word, serious.

“Serious writers write” is one of those advice tidbits that couples condescension with moral superiority and stinks of holier-than-thou. It implies that if I just write seriously, I’ll be successful. (whatever successful means.) The less pleasant implication is that any failure to write seriously is the sole reason for failure (whatever failure means) 

If words have are crafted, writing occurs. That’s all it takes. Outlook is irrelevant. Be lackadaisical, be furious or cynical. Just write. 

Journaling. Facebook posts. Emails to friends. Postcards. Random paragraphs written to a prompt. It’s all good as long as words happened, spelling was checked and sentences crafted. If ideas were made flesh in pixel or ink, chalk or crayon then it was the right writing.  Self-flagellation over whether it was serious work requires a type of goal-setting that I believe poisons the free flow of creativity. 

Commercial writers write according to a set routine and within rigid guidelines on specific topics, with or without inspiration, where success is tightly and restrictively defined as producing words for cash on a deadline structure. Professional writers have a much broader field of play, and so we have corresponding wider options on what defines success. Serious writing? Serious is an attitude, not a designation.

I’m serious about my art. That determined, sober outlook means I might not work on a specific project for days, weeks, months, even years at a time. Art will come and go. I know when it’s time to tackle it seriously.  I’m serious about my word craft. That means I seriously sit down every day to make words. 

That’s all there is to it. I’m serious. 

I’m also still rolling my eyes.