Saturday, February 26, 2011

Does Structure Thwart Inspiration? Part 1

Sometimes, I admit, I use structure as an excuse to delay my writing of the actual story. I look up any number of rules and paradigms and try to apply them all—which I don’t recommend. Sometimes my brain refuses to let go of the notion that more is better. I beat the poor story to death before it even has a chance to take its first breath. Control issues, I guess.

It’s fear that holds us back really, makes us look for excuses to do anything other than actually write the darn thing. In my defense, however, this fear does have some sound reasoning behind it. When I wrote my first and only complete novel, I read a book that made me want to plunge right in, whether I knew what I was doing or not. It was called “No Plot? No Problem”, written by the NaNoWriMo dude. I was excited and encouraged by its message: It doesn’t matter if you suck, just start writing.

So I paid no attention to form. I didn’t care if I wrote the word “banana” seven times before I could think of something else to write, in an effort to not let the pen stop (yes I was writing longhand back then), but it was freeing. It was wonderful. It took me three months instead of only one, but I did have near 100,000 words by the end and a really good idea of what my story was. Indeed, I was convinced it was already at least as good as many stories already published… until I read it.

To be brief, I’ve spent the last several years with that story, trying to make form out of chaos. A very hard job, especially when you’re an inflexible person like me. Let’s just say I’ve learned to be much more flexible in the last few years than I have ever been in my life.

In my fear to never have a nightmare like that again, I was determined this time around to structure and know the story well, ahead of time, to have form already in place and perhaps only have to polish it up when I am done. Easy, right? I have anywhere from ten to twenty paradigms I’ve tried to apply to the structure of this one story, somewhat simultaneously. And as I said, I am rigid and demanding. Trying to force compliance out of a story is a lot like having a baby but insisting that it has to look exactly like the picture you drew of it before it can be born.

Obviously, I have to find a balance somewhere between these two extremes.

Ok. This, I just realized, is a really long blog, so I’m going to save the second half for next week—yes, the second half. But it will be the half that tells you what I learned—what would be termed the resolution of my story, according to many a writing paradigm. But for now, a quote:

“To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.” —Giorgio De Chirico

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Another Kind of Beast

I must confess, I’m a little drawn to the dark side. OK—I’m drawn like a magnet. I just got through reading a book, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and I have to admit I drink this stuff up like a lush at a jubilee. What is wrong with me? I must not be the only one in the world, right? And I’m not really a serial killer, I just like to read about them. Right?

Whatever it is—apparently, I passed on the genetic mutation to my son. This boy, who has the name of an archangel, loves Darth Vader. When he was old enough to talk he told me he wanted to grow up to be Darth Vader one day.

Uh oh. Better nip this, I thought.

“Are you sure you don’t want to be Luke Skywalker?” I asked. “Luke Skywalker is cool.”

“But Darth Vader is cooler,” he told me, this child whose favorite color is black because it’s “so dark”.

Yikes. Nevertheless, I agree. Vader is, in his own way, cooler. I mean, what is more interesting than someone who was such a chosen being (as Anakin was supposed to be) yet who falls—so very, very far.

I do get excited about the dark parts of story. I’m currently outlining for a new story and I find that I’m not content to write solely from the point of view of my protagonist. I need to get into the head of the villain… I need to. I just want to put in little snippets here and there throughout the text, like scintillating flashes of starry light. Fun, fun, fun.

What about you all, normal people out there? Do you enjoy playing the part of the villain in your stories? Do you enjoy reading about them?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Beast Within

I have a beast that lives inside me.

It questions me. Constantly whispers that there is something very wrong.

Something else tells me that to be good at writing, you have to risk everything. Tell the truth. But that can be scary. It’s so much easier to be pretentious, to hide behind something that is not really you, because it’s less risky. There’s less on the line. If people don’t like you, your whole world will not fall apart.

The beast is my greatest weakness. I know, intellectually, that this is stupid, this fear of another person’s opinion. This fear of risk, of failure. But the fear is there, ever present, like a caged beast that shakes the bars just to make its presence known once in a while.

For some reason it helps me feel better just to write about this fear, admit it’s there, this beast, expose it to the light of day. Show everyone, and then lock it back up again. I was going to write about something else, but I couldn’t hear anything over the shaking of the bars. As C.S. Lewis said, “I do not sit down at my desk to put into verse something that is already clear in my mind. If it were clear in my mind, I should have no incentive or need to write about it. We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand."

Whenever you write, you take a risk. The best writing takes the biggest risks, chances the greatest failures. The irony is you have to allow yourself to fail in order to succeed.

The closer we get to ourselves, to that inner core right down to the level of the beasts—exposing them—the more we allow ourselves to be who we are. Without looking to the world for approval of what’s inside, the more we can become who we were meant to be.

“It’s not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” —Seneca

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Creating Worlds, Creating Life

I want to create worlds.

A very lofty goal, yes. To take words and create something that transcends the world we live in, takes you to a place you know must be real—it has to be real—even though it plainly tells you it’s only fiction. Things that spark my imagination, light a fire inside me. Once you have been to the best of the fictional worlds, you can never fully return to this world again. Not without some of it trailing back with you. It’s real. Real in the fact that it will never let you go.

The question I have is this: Why?

Why do some books feel so real while others so obviously contrived? I’ve read books that convince me there’s secret populations among us, perhaps even worlds under our feet, worlds in the universe. Among us are immortals, vampires, witches, wizards. There are books that cause a little stir of both excitement and dread as I wonder how our world will transform in the future.

Is it the amount of time the author has spent in that world? As in, the more they develop it, the more real it becomes? Or are they simply gifted with a better imagination? Is it because they don’t explore by rules, but instead let instinct rule? Do they free-write their world until it becomes a living, breathing thing? Do they base it off of something real inside of them? I wish I knew their secret.

Here’s my list of books that have taken me to my favorite worlds: Harry Potter (the first book that made me want to write), The Stand by Stephen King, The Giver, Hunger Games, Twilight. I also read a book about a girl stuck on as island when I was little, and that island has never left me. Is, in fact, the inspiration to the deserted island in my first novel. I wish I could remember the name. But it does bring to mind Lord of the Flies—another cool island. The Hobbit. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Even, in a weird way, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Yes, many of these are books that everybody lists, and I think for good reason. They have all managed to create a place that embeds itself in the mind forever. How can you get more real than that?

There are also books with characters so real they stay with you. A couple that come immediately to mind are I Am Not a Serial Killer and the Stephanie Plum novels. I don’t know why, but those characters stick with me.

Do you have any thoughts on how it’s possible to take inanimate things like words and create life? Or, what are your favorite story worlds?