Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Crazy as a S***-House Rat

Why do I keep reading? Or actually, the bigger question is this: why would I put a book down?
Used to be that I would finish a book out of stubbornness. Apparently the older I get the less patience I have and I give the book about 50 pages to grab me. And if I’m grabbed, I stick with it.
This book I’m reading now started out KER-POW. So good, in fact, that I recapped the first chapter for my husband who (bless his heart) appeared interested. The “bad guy” is actually a woman who has lost touch with most reality and is a danger to anyone around her. She does manage to hold a job at Burger King, but that’s about all the normalcy there is. I was absolutely floored by this woman’s chapter, and wished I’d been the one who wrote it. “Holy cow!” I thought. “Hope the rest of the book is this good!”
Well, it wasn’t. The next chapter introduced a pregnant housewife whose husband is fooling around. I should feel sorry for her, right? Heck no, all I wanted to know was more about the crazy lady.
Every other chapter I got swept away by the insanity. Then the off chapters I’d try to stick with reading every word because I was afraid I’d miss something important, but it was just so stinking dull that I flipped like crazy until I got back to crazy.
Then about half way through the novel, I found I was reading only the crazy chapters and barely skimming the heroine’s scenes. Because, honestly, she wasn’t interesting and I didn’t identify with her in any way.
But I identified with the crazy lady? What does that say about me?
Action. At least in this case, that’s what it said. The heroine sat talking to her girlfriend at lunch. She sat talking to her husband at supper. She went to the hospital and had a baby and lay talking to her parents. BO-RING!
I’d had enough. I put it down with no intention of picking it back up. That was until read a book on schizophrenia and thought, “That’s what’s going on with the crazy lady!” Now I want to continue reading and see what happens, because with that particular mental disorder, anything is possible.
And actually, I did learn something from this book and this author. He writes a good villain. I want to write a character like that.
I don’t want to make this guy sound like a horrible writer, which is why I’m not including his name or the book title—maybe he had a reason for making the heroine so white-bread boring. Maybe balance is what he was going for, to show the disparity between two women of the same age from the same town. Balance is necessary, but this was just too much.
So I’m giving it one more chance. And if I have to hear one more whining moment of “poor me” from that boring lady, I think I’m going to just skip her chapters altogether and just read the crazy ones.
Maybe because I’m not completely over being stubborn.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Character Pantsing Game

         Consideration 1Pantsing versus Outlining: Larry and I write by the seats of our pants, whatever comes out, comes out. With pantsing characters reveal themselves to us (no pun intended). Character complexity develops as the characters grow in their roles thanks to plot complications.
          Outlining gives authors plenty of time to decide the characters’ strengths weaknesses, etc, but character growth can be limited by the plot thrust upon them.
          Consideration 2 – Infodumping versus Rainbow Sprinkles: Information dumping is something Larry and I rarely do, not by design, but because we don’t know enough about a character TO infodump. I would define a character infodump as a Who’s Who that takes two pages every time a new character is introduced. “Mary lived on a vast estate, rich with green splendor and white capped mountains. Mary loved to take long walks with her yellow labs, Sir Barfsalot and Ms. Yacksamuch. Because, you see, Mary didn’t like to be alone, not after what happened to her when she was eleven years old, living on the streets of London eating only stale rat from the alley and brown grass she pulled from the cracks of the sidewalks” and on and on and on for two pages.
Just because the author knows every single thing about the character doesn’t mean the reader needs to know. At least not all at once, and maybe not ever…
          Rainbow Sprinkles – MMMM. How can this NOT be yummy? I’ve been on a reading binge lately, and such immersion led me to realize something: my favorite novels are filled with rainbow sprinkles. I’m thinking of one book in particular, and even though the plot was carefully outlined, characters were revealed to us in sprinkles, throughout the whole thing, pieces of their lives that made them who they are.  This is helpful to me as a reader, because I remember things about the characters when they are fed to me in occasional spoonfuls as opposed to expecting me to digest a ten-pound banana split at one sitting. 
          Conclusion: Pantsters and Rainbow sprinkles go hand in hand. You can’t info dump if you don’t know the info. That’s what’s so much fun about being a pantster. You get to discover new layers as you go.
          A friend recently asked if I’d ever outlined anything. Yes, way back, my first novel. But I found that outlining and character development took the fun out of the actual writing—that when it came to putting the words on paper, I was bored. Nothing new to be discovered, just regurgitating what I’d already been buried in for weeks. (I’d outlined pretty tightly, so as to avoid writer’s block).
          Then it occurred to me…what if you combined pantsing and character development? What if you knew who all the players were going to be, fully developed with flaws and dreams and challenges, and then let them discover the plot for you?
          No idea, haven’t tried it. That’s just a thought I had this week, something to wonder about and test to see if there’s a way to be sure your characters are all complex and well developed enough to carry the story, but still have fun when it comes to writing the novel. This game is new to me, and one I haven’t played. Yet.
Let the games begin!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Bad guys, cookies, and cold fingers

This is a writing blog, not a book review blog. So trust me, that’s not where this is going. That said, I just finished reading THE HELP, and I can’t stop thinking about it. When I had to put it down, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. It was on my mind when I went to sleep and when I woke up in the morning. Some parts were so gripping that I gripped my Kindle until my fingers grew white and cold.
All books have to have some tension, even comedies. BIG TROUBLE by Dave Barry has tension and much of the humor comes from that. But where does the tension come from?
The characters.
          Just before I picked up THE HELP, I was reading another novel by a really famous author that should have been every bit as good as THE HELP—better, in fact, given his track record. In this book, people were dropping dead from an unidentified cause, but I never really cared. I was too busy trying to figure out what the heck was killing them. He spent a huge amount of time telling us all about their lives, their loves, their disabilities, but still…With so much effort given to character development, why didn’t they develop? Too little yeast in the dough? There was no depth, like they were caricatures instead of characters – dry crackers instead of fluffy rolls.
Near the end, I was just reading the first and last line of every paragraph looking for SOMETHING to wrap up the plot so I could quit reading and go on to something else.
I want to care who I’m reading about – like or hate, doesn’t matter, as long as I feel some emotion, and it’s okay to like a bad guy and hope he wins. Do I want a cookie cutter good guys and bad guys and hope the plot carries them? And what’s with all the food metaphors?
THE HELP has tension which comes from the characters in scenes that ranged from horrifying to others that were so sweet tears leaked onto my pillow.
The writer knew that characters would make the plot work and she created really good characters.
Crap, did this just turn into a book review? I want a cookie.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

It is to laugh...

            How did I end up writing humor? Completely by accident.
           The first person I made laugh with my writing was a comp teacher my freshman year. After a semester of positive reinforcement, I continued injecting humor into my assignments all the way through grad school. Some professors liked it—others didn’t. I adjusted for their tastes, because a high GPA beat out my love for humor and sacrifices had to be made.
I’ve continually heard that humor is difficult to write effectively. Everyone might agree on what’s sad, but it’s more difficult to agree on is what’s funny. I mean, we would all concur that a boy stung to death by bees in “My Girl” is a tear-jerkers delight. But fewer people I know think that “Cannibal the Musical” is comic genius. When “The Three Amigos” first came out, a girlfriend of mine said it was stupid and not to don’t bother. I watched it anyway and laughed until I cried. I mean seriously—how are the singing bush and the invisible swordsman not funny?
Nonsense. “Cannibal” and “Amigos” are all about nonsense. That’s what I love.
Back to humor being difficult: the hardest part of writing humor for me is feeling “funny”. If I get out of bed with a migraine, the only way I can be funny is completely by accident. I have written term papers with migraines and still gotten A’s. I have taken many tests while on pain killers and done well. However, when it comes to being funny, if I force myself to sit down and write I produce garbage so rank that even I can smell it.
          That is not to say I have to be in the middle of a giddy sugar-buzz to write humor, but I need to at least feel sharp and have access to parts of my brain that are dormant during a doped-up sick headache.
If I were all about production, I would write serious material because I can manage that even when I feel bad.  Humor is just like you’ve heard—it’s tough to write and even tougher to do well. I write humor because laughing makes me feel good. Making other people laugh makes me feel even better. And most importantly, because after years of experimenting, humor is what I’m best at. I may not produce as much or as often as I like, but when I do, I’m having a grand ol’ time.
And on a good day, somebody might actually laugh.