So when I read his second book, 2014’s “Love Life,” I expected the writing chops. I expected the storytelling abilities. I expected something entertaining, light, and frothy.
Never have I been so glad to NOT have my expectations fully met. “Love Life” is entertaining, yes – but also deep, vulnerable, and insightful.
We learn about Rob’s exotic day job, yes, but Lowe also explores his time in rehab and recovery, the benefits of marriage, and reveals how hard he and his wife of 25 years, Sheryl, worked to give their sons normal childhood experiences – something of a challenge when their father has one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. (Rob somehow managed to coach his son’s grade-school basketball team, and chaperoned school field trips.)
Today, I’d like to focus on one of the observations Rob makes in “Love Life”: that artists are “truth vampires,” that we tend to absorb life’s little details, sometimes standing slightly outside our own lives, feeding from its essence. We observe, then mentally file away what something looks like, smells like, feels like, tastes like, so we can faithfully render the experience later, in our work.
This, as Rob notes, can be…problematic for those who love us. In this excerpt from “Love Life” (pp. 38-39), Lowe describes having a “truth vampire” experience when his wife’s father, Norm, was dying:
We had to try to get to the hospital right away; the prognosis was grave.
I rushed home and collected Sheryl, who, in shock, was picking out the right shoes to wear for the occasion. Looking at her, pale and shaking, standing in a pile of footwear, I thought, “I need to remember this.” I pulled her out of her trance and into the car.
At the hospital, we rushed to the emergency room. A doctor who looked disturbingly young barred the door. “You can’t go in. We are fighting to save him,” he said, closing it in our faces.
I led Sheryl to a quiet corner where we could watch the ER door. Time expanded and contracted, as it seems to do when crisis surrounds you. Minutes felt like hours and yet everything happened at once. I held my wife’s hand but I didn’t dare meet her eyes.
Eventually the ER door opened. The young doctor began to walk toward us.
“I need to remember this,” I thought. His face betrayed no hint of the outcome. There was no “tell,” which Norm, the inveterate poker player, would have been looking for in this ultimate moment of truth.
“This is just like you see in the movies,” I thought as he opened his mouth to speak, yet in fact, it was nothing like the movies.
“I’m sorry. We did all we could.” His eyes were sympathetic yet businesslike. He was appropriate and decent, but there was nothing more to say and so he didn’t.
I held Sheryl as her knees gave way. Norm was the moon to her, bigger than life and always somewhere on the horizon. She was a little girl who’d just lost her daddy. I held her as she cried.
I hope I was a good enough husband to her on that terrible day. I’m sure I could have been better somehow, maybe stronger or perhaps comforting in ways I didn’t think of then. We got through it as well as could be expected and now, years later, I realize why my inner voice had split me off from the unfolding reality and had urged me to remember the awful details.
It’s because I’m an actor. And actors play real life. Actors play doctors who give bad news and actors play daughters who lose their fathers and we play shock and horror and dismay and we can’t do any of it, not honestly, unless we have been paying close attention to those moments in our own lives.
It can make you feel like a cipher, standing outside observing, taking mental notes. Or worse, like some vacant pretender, feeling and participating in the moment only partway, while you file away the details in an ever-expanding emotional toolbox you must fill to successfully ply your trade.
It is the details of human experience that matter. And as always, what even the most talented screenwriter could write pales in comparison.
Does anyone else find this excerpt…oddly comforting? SOMEONE FOUND A WAY TO DESCRIBE THAT WEIRD THING I DO! How, at random moments, a piece of my consciousness kinda…steps away, steps aside, to take a mental (or sometimes a literal!) note instead of fully engaging in the here and now. Instead of fully engaging in what’s happening in my life.
Thanks, Rob Lowe! I feel less abnormal. I do this because I’m a writer, an artist – and noticing the fine details and tucking them away for later, feeding from life’s essence, is my job.
Job description: TRUTH VAMPIRE. I like it. But then again, I write paranormal romance, so liking vampires is somewhat of an occupational hazard. 😉
Any thoughts about Lowe’s work, the excerpt, or the concept of truth vampires? Care to share a “truth vampire” moment of your own?
— who just received notification that the publishing rights to her first two books, TASTE ME and CHASE ME, have been reverted! Look for reissued and new Underbelly Chronicles books in 2017.
I have to start with a funny story: My first paranormal romance, TASTE ME (2011), is about an incubus security specialist, Lukas Sebastiani, who finally learns to trust his love for Scarlett Fontaine, a siren rock star who can manipulate his emotions with her song. While discussing final tweaks to the manuscript at 2010 RWA National, my then-editor grinned at me, clasped her hands against her heart, and said, “And you completed the extended metaphor!” (At the end of the book, Lukas “boldly crashed his ship into the cliffs,” confessing his love for Scarlett. Because…sirens, right?)
“Of course I did,” I replied. “There is no metaphor I can’t extend until it snaps.”
Unfortunately, this is true – especially in early drafts.
Metaphors, and extended metaphors, are abundant in romance fiction, especially in love scenes. They’re among our most effective and evocative tools. We use them all the time, sometimes without being entirely aware of it.
There’s nothing wrong with being aware of it! Indeed, it’s to your readers’ benefit that you’re aware of it, because well-crafted metaphors – careful and conscious word choice – can add so much to a reader’s experience.
First, some quick definitions:
A metaphor is a figure of speech that identifies one thing as being the same as some unrelated other thing, thus strongly implying similarities between the two.
An extended metaphor is when an author exploits a single metaphor or analogy at length through multiple linked vehicles, tenors, and grounds.
In this post, I’ll focus on extended metaphor, which, craft-wise, requires we choose specific words to evoke the selected metaphor over sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, books – whatever our “linked vehicle” may be – to produce a particular emotional reaction.
An easy way to get a feel for the concept is to study poems or song lyrics. So…here comes my spirit animal, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, to the rescue! Specifically, I refer to the Foos’ 2014 Sonic Highways project.
The creative conceit behind Sonic Highways is that the Foo Fighters traveled to a different American city each week for eight weeks, interviewing musicians and exploring the city’s musical heritage, then they wrote and recorded a song before leaving the city. That’s ONE FINISHED SONG PER WEEK, folks. Talk about deadline pressure! My example, Subterranean, came out of the Seattle session, where, sadly, so many grunge-era musicians died from drug overdoses – including Dave’s former Nirvana bandmate, Kurt Cobain.
Dave couldn’t go to Seattle and not address this topic – and for a man who never finished high school, he teaches an extended metaphor master class here, evoking dirt, and mines, and burial to explore death and resurrection in context with relationships and career. Seattle’s famously rainy, gloomy weather gets a nod here; musical guest Ben Gibbard (from Death Cab for Cutie) says that if you live in Seattle, you spend a lot of time indoors, underground in basements. Subterranean. And the song came from there.
Here’s the ballad, with lyrics conveniently superimposed (6:08). Watch. Listen. Think about the themes suggested by Dave’s extended metaphor:
Can Dave dig his way out? Can he go this alone? Can he begin again? The song doesn’t tie things up in a pretty little bow by any means, but given the Foo Fighters are considered shoo-ins for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in their first year of eligibility (2020), I’d say things look good. 😉
The composition is complex, featuring diminished chords and a plaintive lead guitar. The bass line is a pick axe, pulling the song along.
Need another example? Take a look at “Something From Nothing,”also by Foo Fighters. Another song off the Sonic Highways album, it’s laden with extended metaphor invoking fire, destruction, sparks and ambition. Is it any coincidence that this song was recorded in Chicago, home of 1871’s Great Chicago Fire? I think not. 😉
Some other great examples:
“Every Breaking Wave” by U2. Waves, the tides, chasing every breaking wave… A song about making mistakes, and perhaps learning from them.
Dirt, fire, breaking waves…lonesome roads and theatrical stages… Notice how, in all these examples, small and private human moments become larger, more elemental? When we use metaphor, personal moments become universal moments – moments everyone can relate to.
Consider the romance novels you’ve written, or those you’ve read. How many metaphors have we come across describing an orgasm? Crashing waves, galloping horses, tsunamis of sensation, shattering glass, shooting geysers (OK, eww) but metaphors abound. And there’s a reason for this, right? No matter how tame or hot the love scene, use a good metaphor and anyone who’s ever had an orgasm can relate.
Can you think of a metaphor or extended metaphor, either from your own work or someone else’s, that, to you, made a great scene even more memorable? That turned a serviceable description sublime?
I’d love to see some of your favorite examples in the comments!
P.S. Are you going to be in Minneapolis Saturday afternoon Nov. 12? I’m teaching a workshop at The Loft Literary Center called “Scene + Structure = Story: A Plotting Technique for Advanced Novelists,” and I’d love to see you there!
I got into an online chat with a writer friend the other day about keeper shelves, and an interesting question arose: what was the oldest book we had on our keeper shelves? Which old favorites did we keep coming back to, over and over again?
After some discussion, we determined the word “old” in context with keeper shelves had several definitions. For the remainder of our chat, we focused on two: our oldest book by first copyright date, and our oldest book by physical age.
My oldest book by copyright date:Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897).
My oldest physical book:Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976). I bought this book with my own money when I was 13 years old, when it was first published. I’ve read it positively ragged, and have replaced it with at least two later editions (pictured).
The reason why certain books are placed on our keeper shelf is a much more challenging question, isn’t it? (It doesn’t escape my notice that, in my oldest books, there’s a…distinct subject matter pattern here.) 😉 For me, my most enjoyable reading experiences feature complex characters doing interesting things in a fascinating world, and they’re rendered by an author with a singular, unmistakable voice.
Regardless of genre, those are the books on my keeper shelf.
So, tell me about your keeper shelves! What’s your oldest book by copyright date, and oldest by physical age?
Bonus question: which author is most represented on your keeper shelves? Mine? Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, of course. I bought Irish Thoroughbred in 1981, and like millions of other readers, I never stopped buying.
Dave and me, hanging out @ The Experience Music Project in Seattle
This is the fourth post in an occasional series about finding inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the second, featuring Trent Reznor, and the third, mourning the death of Scott Weiland, at the links.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a massive Dave Grohl fangirl. (Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and founded and fronts the Foo Fighters.) So when I heard Dave was keynoting the South By Southwest Conference a couple of years ago, in 2013, I blocked out an hour on my (then) day job’s Outlook calendar so I could watch the webcast uninterrupted.
Dave didn’t disappoint. In an f-bomb-laden, highly personal speech, and sporting ridiculously sexy reading glasses, Dave brought us along on his personal artistic journey, one inspired by wise parents and a love of punk rock. He reveled in his independence, developing and nurturing what he later recognized was his individual voice.
Voice. It’s an aspect of art, of craft, that musicians and writers share. It’s a tone, or a worldview, that makes a piece of work – or a body of work – belong uniquely to its creator.
Some key takeaways from Dave’s keynote that resonated for me:
“There is no right or wrong, there is only your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s (expletive) gone.”
“Am I the best drummer in the world? Certainly not. Am I the best singer/songwriter? Not even in this (expletive) room. But I have been left alone to find my voice.”
“I am the musician, and I come first.”
This statement about creative control of one’s art, spoken with such certainty during a time when my traditional publisher and I were parting ways and indie publishing loomed on my horizon, shrilled into my very bones.
Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten that.
I am the writer, and I come first.
I won’t forget it again.
I could quote from this keynote for hours – and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it since Dave made it 2013 – but I think I’ll just let the man speak for himself. Here’s Dave, being all hot ‘n wise ‘n awesome. The video is 49:32; it’s well worth the time regardless of how you write or publish, and the language is NSFW.
Listen. Learn. Enjoy. And remind yourself, if you need to: “I am the writer, and I come first.”
I realize fifty minutes is a significant time investment, and that comments might be few and far between at the blog today. But if you’re inclined to comment:
Do you think there are lessons writers can learn from musicians, and publishing can learn from the music industry, about the intersection of art and commerce?
Is there a writer whose voice you absolutely adore? Why do you like it, and which book do you recommend we read to get a taste?
I recently took a virtual workshop about writing multiple series from NYT and USA Today bestselling author Marie Force. Self-publishing trailblazer and author of not one but FOUR continuing series, Marie also owns the E-Book Formatting Fairies, hosts Reader Weekend events for her biggest fans, moderates one of the most useful self-publishing loops on Yahoo, and is a frequent conference speaker. In addition, the busiest woman in publishing generously shares her knowledge by teaching workshops. I suspect that, in her spare time, she’s either invented cloning, or discovered a way to circumvent the space/time continuum. 😉
All joking aside, it was an awesome class, and I highly recommend it for both published and unpublished series writers. Marie shared some great advice about anchor couples, mining connections between characters, world-building (particularly the factors she considers when creating vibrant fictional communities that stand the test of time), and of course, the biggie: how to write characters that readers care about. In the last class lesson, she advised creating a series bible early on—which made complete sense to me—but then she recommended doing something that, in hindsight, seems so completely obvious, but that never crossed my mind.
Re-read all the books in your series, at least once a year. According to Marie, re-reading your books on a regular basis reacquaints you with the details you committed to the page, and it also helps generate new story ideas.
Re-read my own books? Seriously? Study them, like I study the books on my keeper shelf? The very idea seemed…presumptuous. Intellectually, I know my books are decent, but for some reason the prospect of re-reading them with that level of scrutiny made me cringe as much as I do when my sisters haul out my seventh grade school photos.
Yes, really. Marie was serious. So I hemmed and I hawed, I bitched and moaned, but…I finally did it. I was gestating a new project, and…dang it, why take a class from one of the most successful series writers in our industry if I wasn’t willing to at least try something she recommended? Bottom line, I knew my series bible was woefully out of date, so even if re-reading my own books was excruciating, I knew I’d get something valuable out of the deal.
No pain, no gain.
So I sucked it up and started re-reading my first published book, TASTE ME, my 2009 Golden Heart finalist and the kickoff to the Underbelly Chronicles. And yes, there were a few winces along the way: Unnecessary dialogue tags. The occasional copy-editing error. The very rare head-hop that…worked, but that I’d never allow myself now that I’ve become a POV purist.
But…heh. Not bad, if I do say so myself. * buffs fingernails on shirt *
And the details I’d forgotten! The potential plot seeds I’d planted, but hadn’t yet cultivated. The nameless, sometimes faceless characters that walked onto the page for a sentence or two, served their purpose, then walked away again.
Story ideas flew at me hard and fast. OMG, she was right.
I re-read all the other books in my Underbelly Chronicles series over the Christmas holidays, and plot seeds are still sprouting left and right. A character who received two sentences’ worth of real estate in TASTE ME—such a minor character he wasn’t even in my series bible—has elbowed his way back onto the page of Book 5, where he’s a major catalyst for conflict. And an unnamed character in my TOUCH ME novella? Oh my, do I have plans for her. The garden of my imagination is over-run, and I’m still tilling. Still weeding, still cultivating. But I really like how things are setting up.
Another thing I realized? It’s what I didn’t commit to the page in those earlier books that allows me to re-purpose these characters, to expand their utility beyond their original walk-on roles. By not providing more information than was absolutely required, I didn’t box myself in.
I came out of Marie’s class with not only an updated series bible, but with new ideas and a fresh, new energy for my work—a gift beyond price. So, that’s the biggest lesson I learned from Marie Force: that no matter how excruciating it might initially feel, re-read your work, at least occasionally. You never know the bounty your imagination might be ready to provide.
Have you ever re-read your own published or completed work? If so, why did you do it, and what did you learn? Did you find it exhilarating, excruciating, or both?
Last week, I took a day off from security guards, sex demons and assassins (the WIP) and joined a group of undergraduate English majors, MFA students, and other writers on the University of Minnesota Mankato campus, where we had the pleasure of listening to the amazing Roxane Gay talk about writing difference.
Though Gay is both a fiction and non-fiction writer, my exposure to her work has primarily been through her eloquent, insightful essays (and her Twitter feed, @rgay), where she takes on race, gender, sexism, feminism, social class, sexual violence, homophobia, privilege, identity, corruption, and the intersectionality of these topics. While Gay’s non-fiction subject matter can feel fraught and political and scary and huge, the craft talk most emphatically was not—except for a comment about the need for publishers to be more inclusive about the writers they publish, and to expand the breadth of human experience published books present to the world.
Nope, this was a one-hour craft talk about writing difference in an authentic way. And unlike institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and the patriarchy, character development is a writerly choice, something I fully control in my own work.
Note the simplicity of Gay’s phrasing: “Writing difference.” It’s as inclusive as it gets. It doesn’t value any difference over another. It excludes no one, and meets every writer where they’re at. It’s about me, the writer, writing characters who are different than me. Hell, I’m a middle-aged, middle-class, straight Caucasian woman who writes about vampires, sirens, werewolves and sex demons—whose ancestors are aliens—and the phrase still works.
Here are some quick hits from my notes from Roxane’s session. Any errors or misinterpretations are, of course, my own:
Writing difference is about authenticity, about reaching beyond stereotypes and “lazy, half-assed assumptions.” Don’t merely write “the sassy gay friend, the fiery Latina, or the wise black maid. Dig deeper.”
People who are different than you are people first, and different second.
When writing difference, start with universal emotions. There’s natural common ground here.
“No one is any one thing, right?” No one is solely racist, or sexist, or disabled, or LGBT, or homophobic. We can’t assume that any person—any character—is part of any monolithic whole. People are multi-dimensional. Characters should be, too.
Research is important. READ difference. Read across genres. Expose yourself to others’ realities.
As a writer, it’s okay to not know. It’s okay to simply try. Even if you don’t quite hit the bulls-eye authenticity-wise, your attempt means you’re acknowledging that humanity isn’t a monolithic whole. Acknowledgment is a move in the right direction.
“Writers write what they’re called to write,” but authenticity is key. If your story needs a character of difference, write one—but it’s problematic, and inauthentic, and perhaps an issue of ethics, to write difference as a marketing ploy, or as a way to hop on a bandwagon, or to fetishize.
Though Gay writes both fiction and non-fiction, she says that fiction writing is her “happy place,” a way to “self-medicate.” Soft-spoken Gay clearly relishes the power she wields when writing fiction. “I control my characters. I create entire worlds.”
Yes. And by writing difference in an authentic way, we, as writers, help create the world we want to see—one character, one book, one difference at a time.
To get a taste of Roxane in action, here’s her “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” TED Talk from last year. Bad Feminist is an awesome book, and I very much look forward to Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, coming in June 2016.
What are your thoughts about writing (or reading, or watching) difference? Can you recommend any authors who write difference well?
This is the third post in an occasional series about how I find inspiration in other artists’ creative processes. Read the first, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and the second, about Trent Reznor.
I was on vacation in warm and beachy Key West when I saw the news that former Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver lyricist and front man Scott Weiland had died on his tour bus in my home town of Minneapolis. “Ah, damn,” I breathed. As a longtime fan, I wasn’t particularly surprised by the news. Weiland had famously – infamously? – struggled with drug addiction for much of his career, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to assume that he’d OD’ed. (Indeed, it was later determined he’d died of mixed drug toxicity – an accidental overdose.) But having had the privilege of seeing him perform live on multiple occasions, having picked apart his spare, evocative lyrics, I was swamped by sadness, and by a growing, helpless anger. One of the most memorable front men of his generation, forever still? That gorgeous, soaring baritone, forever silent?
F*ck addition, man. F*ck it sideways, with a bloody goddamn chainsaw.
Pardon my French.
This post isn’t so much about Weiland’s creative process as it is an appreciation for a gifted artist’s troubled, complex, too-damn-short life.
Scott was a spellbinder, painting beautiful, violent, bittersweet pictures with words, motion, and sound. As a lyricist he was self-aware and utterly fearless, singing of innocence lost (Wicked Garden), and diving unflinchingly into the villain’s point of view (Sex Type Thing, Plush). Mid-career, his work turned hauntingly autobiographical, with songs about the pitfalls of fame (Big Machine), about deaths of loved ones (For a Brother, Pills, Demons, & Etc.), and about how his addictions led him to disappoint his family and band mates over and over again (Interstate Love Song, Sour Girl, Vaseline, Fall to Pieces, Do It For The Kids, Atlanta, The Last Fight).
Days after Weiland’s death, Rolling Stone published a career retrospective, Scott Weiland: 20 Essential Songs, where you can watch many of the videos I reference above. The magazine also published a compelling essay by Mary Forsberg, Weiland’s ex-wife and the mother of his children, about the effects of his addiction on his family: ‘Don’t Glorify This Tragedy.’ But if I had to choose a single song or video that I feel comes close to encapsulating the man and his work, I’d choose “Slither”, Velvet Revolver’s propulsive, gutter-glam debut single. In fine voice, but with his formerly beefy body whittled down to sinew and swagger, the video captures Weiland at his most mesmerizing.
Weiland married three times, and leaves behind two children, a memoir (though it must be said, his ex-wife Mary Forsberg’s memoir is superior) and a Grammy-winning body of work with Stone Temple Pilots, Velvet Revolver, The Wildabouts, The Art of Anarchy, and as a solo artist. Though his voice is now silent, he leaves behind his recordings…songs of reflection, of penitence, of unflinching, brutal honesty. Songs of pleasure, songs of pain…and of his search for a sobriety that he sadly never found.
No, this post isn’t about the Hanna-Barbera animated character Snagglepuss. (Yeah, I’m definitely aging myself here.) Instead, it’s about stage direction – you know, those descriptions, tags and ‘beats’ we writers use to move our characters around within the setting we’ve created.
To be even more precise, this post is about UNNECESSARY stage direction.
Too much stage direction can really slow down the pace. Too little stage direction can really confuse your reader. Either can make the reader want to throttle you.
I’m doing some final revisions on my WIP in part to improve the pace. (ENTHRALL ME currently weighs in at a whopping 128K words, so some judicious pruning is definitely in order.) When writing early drafts, I err on the side of writing too much stage direction rather than too little. This means that later on in the revision process, my manuscript is littered with so much unnecessary walking and sitting and touching and crossing and glancing and noticing that the Pace… Grinds… To… A… Haaaallllltttttt….
“Duh, we GET it, Tammy. Move on. No, really. MOVE ON.”
Seriously, we don’t have to explicitly write every physical action every character makes in every scene in our books. Readers are more than capable of filling in the mundane details for themselves.
I write in very deep third-person point of view. Following are examples of some “Well, Duh!” revisions I made to eliminate unnecessary stage direction and pick up the pace:
He let himself stare while she continued the conversation with Thane and Valerian, cataloging her rose petal skin, her lush, pink lips, her foolish green-tipped hair, and the mismatched earrings. Her eyes sparkled with verve, with life. Her impish grin conveyed her energy and delight.
Had he ever been so young?
First of all: The scene is written from Wyland’s POV; we’re already seeing Tia through his eyes. Using the words “staring” and “cataloging” to explicitly reference the act of seeing is unnecessary, and actually introduces distance in the POV work.
Second: My purple-tinged description of Tia’s many physical charms * wince* not only slows down the pace, but it diverts the reader’s attention away from the point I wrote the paragraph to make: that Wyland feels old in comparison. This is the wrong place in the manuscript for so much physical description – description I know I wrote better elsewhere.
Third: Wyland is an educated man, but I think I’ve used too many multi-syllable words here. Simplifying the language will pick up the pace.
As she talked with Thane and Valerian, she sparkled with life, full of energy and delight.
Had he ever been so young?
As he dealt with the cork and poured the wine, he heard a series of electronic clicks and ticks behind him. Fabric rustled, and the whispered sounds made his body hair stand on end. He shifted his shoulders, trying to gain some breathing room in a perfectly-tailored suit coat that suddenly seemed two sizes too small.
“He heard?” OF COURSE he heard; we’re in his POV. And, OMG, did I actually describe him moving his shoulders? #FAIL
As he dealt with the cork and poured the wine, electronic clicks and ticks whispered behind him. Fabric rustled, making his body hair stand on end. His perfectly-tailored suit coat suddenly seemed two sizes too small.
Sometimes, when revising, a few snips with a cuticle scissors will do the trick. At other times, you need a freaking machete.
On this revision pass, I’m also pruning away a lot of eye, lip, and breath gymnastics. You know what I mean: the blinking, the frowning, the eye-rolling, the raised eyebrows, the tightening and pursing of lips, the sighs, the inhaling and exhaling, that writers sometimes use to convey a character’s emotional reaction…or to avoid using “said” quite so often. 😉 I seriously overuse these supposedly subtle reactions in early drafts, to the degree that reading them later on makes me feel like I’m banging readers over the head with a cast-iron skillet: “SEE? SEE? IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, THIS IS HOW SHE FEELS!”
A little of this ‘tagging’ goes a long, long way.
In this example, Tia and Wyland are sharing a shower. They don’t have time to make love – he’s late for work – but that doesn’t stop Tia from teasing him:
The commute from Marine On St. Croix to Chanhassen was a haul and a half under the best of conditions. “Rain check?” Transferring her hands from his body to her own, she started washing her breasts.
His gaze followed, his face taut with arousal. Swearing under his breath, he grabbed the shampoo. “What are your plans for tonight?”
Oof, talk about belaboring the point. Do I really need to explain to the reader that Tia moved her hands from Wyland’s body to her own so she could wash her own breasts? Do I need to interpret Wyland’s emotion for the reader quite so explicitly? In addition to flagrantly violating “show, don’t tell,” my unnecessary stage directions killed the sexual tension dead.
The commute from Marine On St. Croix to Chanhassen was a haul and a half under the best of conditions. “Rain check?” She started washing her breasts.
Swearing under his breath, he grabbed the shampoo. “What are your plans for tonight?”
These precise little snips can really add up. I’m about 150 pages into this revision pass, and I’ve already eliminated nearly 4000 words of unnecessary stage direction from my manuscript.
Revision-wise, one writer’s clarity is another writer’s overkill. As always, YMMV. But when revising for pace, every word counts. We don’t always have to be so literal or “explain-y.” Our job as writers is to not bore our readers with too much stage direction, or to confuse them with too little, but to find that Goldilocks Zone where the story keeps moving, the pages keep turning, and the reader doesn’t say, “Exit, Stage Left!”
Do you have any stage direction, face gymnastics, or pacing pet peeves? Care to share some of your personal “Well, Duh!” or “Exit, Stage Left!” manuscript moments?
Curtain image by Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
On May 4, 2015, the Monday following the wildly successful opening weekend of Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer/director/producer Joss Whedon deactivated his Twitter account.
And the Twitterverse went WILD, attributing his departure to everything from him receiving death threats, to militant feminists’ anger over his depiction of the Black Widow character in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. But several days later, Whedon gave an interview at Buzzfeed denying those reasons.
His real reason?
“I just thought, Wait a minute, if I’m going to start writing again, I have to go to the quiet place. And this [Twitter] is the least quiet place I’ve ever been in my life. … It’s like taking the bar exam at Coachella.”
“The quiet place.” Remember that place? I do, quite fondly – but with every day that passes, it seems to regress farther back in my memory banks.
In our day-to-day lives, we are deluged by media, by digital media in particular. Between time spent writing, and then promoting via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Snapchat, blogs, blah blah blah and whatever the hell pops up next to infinity and beyond amen, the idea of a quiet brain, a quiet place, seems…almost quaint, doesn’t it?
Social media can be a wonderful way to create community, and for readers and writers to connect, but let’s be honest: it can also be tiring. Time-consuming. Guilt-inducing. Overwhelming.
It can also be addicting. Again, Joss Whedon:
“The real issue is me. Twitter is an addictive little thing, and if it’s there, I gotta check it. When you keep doing something after it stops giving you pleasure, that’s kind of rock bottom for an addict. … I just had a little moment of clarity where I’m like, You know what? If I want to get stuff done, I need to not constantly hit this thing for a news item or a joke or some praise, and then be suddenly sad when there’s hate and then hate and then hate.”
Will he ever come back?
“I think the articles that I found [via Twitter], I can find elsewhere,” Whedon said. “I’ll miss some jokes. Maybe I’ll have to go out to a club to see jokes! I think that’s already an improvement in my life. … I need to go out, do the research, turn the page, see the thing, hear the music, live like a person. I’m not great at that. So, oddly enough, because I always feel like I’m the old man who doesn’t get the tech, right now I’m the man who thinks he could do better without it.”
Whedon clearly had the wisdom to realize he’d hit the wall, and he’s far from the only artist who’s made the decision to disconnect in order to preserve their creativity or their health. Neil Gaiman once took a six month social media break so he could better focus on his writing. Comedian Louis C.K. shut down his Twitter account because he kept regretting his tweets and found himself growing depressed. Actor Simon Pegg turned his social media accounts over to his official fan club because he simply didn’t enjoy digital engagement any longer. Comedian and actor Stephen Fry left Instagram, and briefly left Twitter, saying he felt “hounded” and “unsafe.” Feeling hounded and unsafe is, regrettably, a rather common occurrence for many high-profile women on social media these days – women whose only ‘crime’ is daring to state an opinion in public.
It can be really rough out there.
Where’s the happy medium? Where’s the personal “Goldilocks Zone” of not too much social media, and not too little, but just right? How can we create healthy boundaries, preserving sanity, safety and self, in this era where creativity and commerce often intersect? Where direct contact with readers (and other writers) is not only desirable, but pretty much a job requirement?
Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the pros and cons, the ups and downs, and the expectations and pleasures, of using social media. Do you have any tips or techniques for finding your quiet place in this noisy digital age?
When writers think about the tools of our trade, our thoughts might understandably go to craft: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice. Characters, plot, setting, tense. Point of view, goal/motivation/conflict, dialogue, pace. And yes – all these things all need to be taken into account, all these things and more.
But I’d like to add to the list something that I consider to be an essential character development tool: empathy.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
Film critic Roger Ebert once described movies as being empathy machines. I think the same thing can be said of books, because at the foundation, isn’t every great reading experience one where we temporarily abandon our sense of self so we can vicariously experience life from another point of view?
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d spent thousands of hours in fictional characters’ heads, considering someone else’s perspective, and the more unlike me the character was, the more fascinated I was…about the staggering breadth of the human experience, about the possibilities of the world outside my rural hometown, and about the place I wanted to make for myself in that world.
So this might explain why I feel a strong attraction to, and a strange affinity for, so-called “unlikeable characters”, and to fictional villains in particular. What intriguing psychological ground! What makes a villain tick? What secret pain does he or she hide?
I didn’t realize this affinity might be a marketable skill until I was in college, when a psychology professor suggested I consider a career in criminal psychology. “You have an unusual capacity for suspending judgment.” I didn’t end up interviewing with the FBI, but in retrospect, I think this sense of psychological curiosity came from a very obvious place.
From READING – and having free-ranged the adult library stacks from age ten, I’d met perhaps more than my fair share of dubious fictional characters. 😉
Which brings me to writing, and to empathy.
They say that a villain is the hero of his or her own story. He or she thinks they’re doing a good thing, the obvious thing, for very good reasons. When writing villains, we need to understand those reasons. Judgment and mental distance is a luxury we simply can’t afford, not if we’re going to do that character justice on the page. To get at a villain’s true goals, motivations, and conflicts, and to write from their point of view with any sense of authenticity, we have to dig deep, put aside our personal value systems, and try to find some common ground, some shared humanity, in what can be pretty unsavory psychological territory.
We need to be brave enough to engage our empathy machines…at least temporarily.
It can be very challenging to explore the inner lives of characters who might be very, very different than ourselves – REAL people, three-dimensional people, flawed people who both frighten and fascinate. Though it’s a tool that always needs honing, I find a well-developed sense of empathy to be a very handy tool to have around.
What are your thoughts on books as empathy machines, and the concept of empathy as an essential tool in a writer’s toolkit? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why? Please weigh in.
…who still receives letters from readers expressing both delight and dismay about Stephen, the villain in my 2011 release, TASTE ME – including questions about when I’m going to write “his” book! 😉
Composite image by stockimages/KROMKRATHOG at FreeDigitalPhotos.net