Walking through Storyland

canstockphoto15817518The most irritating writing advice for me is write what you know. Once I’ve written that paragraph, I sink into a morass of self-pity and caffeine. I wrote about finding narrative on vacation. Sometimes a change of scenery is the jolt needed to wake a person up from the glazed coma of being in one place for too long. Upon return, things look a little different.

Last night, I took a stroll around my neighborhood. With the latest addition of a grocery store, my neighborhood is like one of those preformed children’s city sets. I had a moment when I realized how lucky I was to live here, about two seconds before writer’s angst kicked in – could I create from such a comfortable and comforting kind of life? But wait! There’s more.

Welcome to the calm seas of a suburban life rendered into the turgid waters of human existence. Let’s take a walk.

I live in a neighborhood built in the 1950s, each little ranch home a duplicate of the one next door. Except that these houses have stories. Our neighbors on one side have home schooled their six children and the driveway is chock full of cars, as each child gains a driver’s license. Years ago, the husband got booted for smacking his wife. He’s back, contrite and polite. I watch for signs that he’s actually learned his lesson.

canstockphoto15722695The children all turned out a bit weird. One walks the dog sullenly, barely making eye contact when I say hello. The youngest has grown his hair as long as my daughter has had hers cut short. The next youngest used to follow me about the yard asking me if I was a Christian and telling me that the raspberries I picked were “God’s juice boxes”. I’m hoping the kid that keeps showing up on the weekend in camouflage is part of a well-regulated militia. And while they sound like a version of creepy Quiverfulls, they’re pretty good neighbors who don’t spray their lawn with chemicals. We share weeds.

The house that sits on the curve was thankfully bought after a brief time as a rental property. It worried us. They had pit bulls that occasionally got loose and the Sheriff showed up once a week to follow up on warrants for the son, an ex-con who was still dealing drugs. Cars would pull up at all hours of the night.

canstockphoto28260950I walk around the high school near us and pass a house where a couple of years ago, a man holed himself up with his shotgun and girlfriend. Eventually he surrendered, but we listened to the choppers all day.

John’s house is on the right. He is a veteran of the Korean war and following a valve replacement, would walk every night down our street. When I saw him coming, I put down my gardening tools and met him halfway. He’d lived here since the beginning and always had a new story. He has Parkinson’s now and I sometimes catch glimpses of him in the evening, slowly walking to his mailbox.

As I walk a few blocks away to the city park, I feel a moment of silliness. I’m in Lego Land. There’s city hall, the police station, the firehouse, the public pool. I think whimsical thoughts about how, if like Lego people, we could all turn our plastic hair backwards, everyone would look like Donald Trump.

There’s a gangly boy using the skateboard park. I always fear that I’ll be witness to a noggin being cracked open every time I pass the park. This kid’s not wearing a helmet and seems light on skills. My pace quickens.

At the outdoor amphitheater, they’re in rehearsal for “Oliver”.  A woman is warning them that four days is a long time without practice and that they need to keep at it. My daughter, years ago, took a summer acting class at this theater. They made the kids wear stage-worthy makeup which smeared in the August heat. She was morphed into a melty butterfly whose lack of interest in stage direction was only eclipsed by this summer’s soccer apathy.

Behind the firehouse, the police and firefighters are having a family picnic. The officer I talked to that morning is there. Two police cars and a fire engine had pulled up in front of our house before 7 a.m. I could see up and down the street, people looking out windows, strolling to the end of their driveways. Hovering at the edges with the odd, wary politeness of midwesterners. I watched officers break into the home across the street.

I used to joke that the guy was either a unabomber or that bodies would be found stacked like Jenga blocks in his basement. It seemed like he waited until no one was outside before getting his mail and his windows were always covered. After having a child, I decided that this was too weird. I started waiting for him to get his mail. And then I’d go out to check mine and greet him with a loud “hello” and big, fake smile. Who’s scary now?

It turned out to be a natural gas leak and he’d moved out a while ago and was just renovating his elderly father’s place, in order to put it on the market. Nothing exploded and no bodies were discovered.

canstockphoto2595648I was glad to see the officers and firefighters at a happy event. They deserve it. Earlier this year, after two new officers were sworn in at city hall, a man entered the building and fired on them, hitting the new hires. They survived. The shooter did not. One of the worst first days on the job ever.

Behind the pool there are tennis courts. A young woman is teaching tennis to a group of elementary kids. Only one parent stays. He watches as her tennis skirt sways and flutters upward during a demonstration for the kids. I slow down as I walk past him, making him unconsciously lean left and right to keep his view. Sometimes I can be a jerk.

One and a half miles of the human experience. Subject to a thousand interpretations, waiting for a writer to take hold and grapple with the stories on paper. To say we don’t know what to write has as much veracity in my ears as my kid saying I’m bored during the summer. My response is the same: Go for a walk.canstockphoto7444328

A Cast of Androids

canstockphoto4462100For the first time in nearly a year and a half, I sat down and read, from start to finish, the draft of my first novel, written in November 2012 for NaNoWriMo. I was laid out by the flu that month, but determined to meet the goal of 50,000 words. I did it and then I put the damned thing away. I’ve returned many times, flipping disinterestedly through printed pages, redlining here and there, but found it incredibly difficult to commit to serious rewriting.

The obvious joy of reading something written so long ago and in such a mucous-fueled state, is that you are a reader, not a critical mean-spirited writer who is chagrined at every page turn. Let me leap off the self-deprecating train and say, it is a really good story. I was a little surprised. I was anxious to see what would happen. I teared up at all the appropriate moments. I hated all the right characters and feared for the ones I liked. It read like a real book.

Two seconds later, I was a writer again. It got preachy in parts – more telling than showing. There is not a single physical description of any character. There were leaps in time that could only be described as paranormal (and it’s not that kind of book). The points of view switch so rapidly that it’s like being at a tennis match on acid. It is a stinky mess of an amateur attempt, but I’m taking ownership and bringing it back under my wing.

The very first problem I need to tackle is that I either need to turn it into a picture book or I need to learn how to write the physical descriptions of characters. It puzzled me why I had such a strong sense of the characters – their personalities, quirks, weaknesses, mannerisms and no idea how they looked.

Perhaps it is because appearance doesn’t register with me as much as all of those other qualities. When I look at people, it’s a slow view. I am accustomed to reading emotions, mannerisms, watching expressions, hearing language patterns. I am not blind to appearance but it registers only briefly on my radar. It is also the understanding that appearance really doesn’t say much about what is going on inside. Humans are quite adept at being posers.

Still, the physical appearance of a character serves the purpose of first impressions, enough to interest the reader, without being so in-depth that they could be correctly identified in a police lineup. I have to get beyond my personal inclinations and develop real skills. Thank goodness this road has been plowed before (as a resident of Minnesota, plowing is critical).

I will spend the next week re-reading parts of some of my favorite books. How are the character descriptions handled? I will also stare at people in my daily life until they are uncomfortable, while I mentally catalog their appearance. And lastly, I’ll be writing full descriptions of all my novel’s characters and deciding what features say something about them as a person (unkempt hair, shifty eyes, callused hands). Then I will challenge myself to not use stereotypical phrases.

Here are some resources on writing characters that have all been mentioned elsewhere by many other people, but are tagged, dog-eared and actually on my bookshelf:

And for no reason at all, new reading acquisitions that have delighted me:

The Outlaw Bible of American Essays edited by Alan Kaufman

Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English: A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists by Robert Hartwell Fiske

If you’re a writer, how do you approach writing about your characters’ physical appearance?

If you’re a reader, how big a role does a physical description of a character play for you?

Turkey Wrangling and Other Curiosities

On the way to the grocery store last week, a police van stopped in front of me at a busy intersection and put on its lights. I reflexively wondered what I had done. The officer got out and walked back towards my car. I panicked – did I put my current registration in the glove box? He stopped and with a comical, defeated expression on his face, gestured for me to go around his vehicle.

I passed by slowly, wondering what was going on. On the other side of the officer’s van, a wild turkey came running out. In almost cartoonish animation, the ungainly, but speedy bird lurched this way and that in traffic, with the officer in close pursuit. The chase was on. And that was how his day started.

canstockphoto6249825I once started my day at 5am, making donuts at a grocery store, wearing a horrific name tag that said, “I’m new, but I’m exceptional!” I was new, but the thought that this was me being exceptional depressed the hell out of me. Mostly I pulled frozen crullers and bear claws out of the freezer to defrost. I was also charged with mixing batter, feeding it like toothpaste into a doughnut press, and dropping the heart attack bombs into the fryer.

Starting out with paper routes and babysitting, I’ve had one job or another since I was 10 years old. Babysitting was where I got my first exposure to porn. After the little wretches were put to bed for the 400th time, I was looking through videos for something to watch and there were magazines. I was 11 years old and had no idea people did things like that with animals. I didn’t tell anybody, but I never babysat for the Creepensteins again. They had farm animals.

One of the toughest jobs I had was working as a security guard (sometimes a natural progression from the military) at a plant that made washers and dryers. It was a tough job, because I worked the graveyard shift (11pm-7am). This allowed me to attend college during the day. Apparently I didn’t need much sleep then. To save money, the company would use the non-union security guards to run and monitor their waste water treatment department. I spent the night watching chrome decanting monitors and opening barrels of treatment chemicals that burned holes in the front of my t-shirts. Those were the days of safety first third or fourth.

Over the last couple of decades, I’ve worked in nicer places – a library, a hospital, office cubes, eventually an office of my own. It’s a different kind of work from loading boxes on a trailer or digging trenches at a park reserve. I find office work to be more challenging than any other kind of work, as I am not adept at being in close contact with humans all day long. And you can spend a whole day being busy and get absolutely nothing of concrete worth done.

Working from home is a blessing and a curse. My human interaction is sometimes so limited that I frighten the UPS man with my perky greeting that says “I haven’t talked to another human today. Be my friend”. Now they’re like pranksters, they ring the door bell and run, in the hopes the crazy lady in yoga pants won’t try and talk to them.

I used to regard my consumer interactions as a nuisance, wishing cashiers and hair cutters and post office workers wouldn’t try to strike up a conversation with me. I was busy, dammit. Let’s get a move on. Now that my human interactions are not so forced, I find it enjoyable to do more than smile and be polite. I am becoming the nosy old lady who wants to know if you and Bob over at the car wash are related, since you both have the same shaped eyes. I am becoming Miss Marple.

As a writer, I should understand and embrace this curiosity. I’ve always been introverted and reserved, but these days, I’m getting bolder and giving in to my unfiltered questions. It’s no longer enough to just observe. I asked the lady cutting my hair yesterday if her hands hurt after doing this all day. She told me how she got carpal tunnel when she was pregnant and how a coworker of hers has no feeling in her pinky fingers anymore.

Being curious about the experiences of others, putting yourself in their shoes, asking impulsive questions and most importantly, making connections – this is something I’m finally embracing. I’ve started to pay closer attention to the people who I encounter throughout the day. Whether they like it or not. Although a nosy Nellie might be a step up from a wild turkey.

When the Writer’s Away…

I made the mistake of ignoring my novel, Phoenix Rock, this last week. It’s highly unlikely I’ll meet the word count goal of 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. I’m going to give it a good go, though, and last night I reviewed my work thus far, so that I could get back to work on it today. Big mistake to leave my characters mid storyline. They’re pissed at me and not cooperating at all.

I left my main character, Meg, to an awkward, but happy reunion with her brother, Jamie. They were standing out on Main Street, engrossed in conversation. I peeked in last night, only to find them leading some sort of riot. They were throwing rocks through storefront windows, randomly knocking down old ladies, setting cars on fire. Apparently these people have given into violent hooliganism when left to their own devices.

“Meg, what the hell are you doing? You were supposed to be talking with Jamie about the estate property and foreshadowing the complicated relationship I intended to develop for you.”

She sneered at me. “You were making me into some sort of passive weeny. I’m not all that, mate and frankly, there was some sort of ‘Flowers in the Attic’ vibe you had going. Ew – how gross is that, you perv?”

She wrenches a purse out of a passerby’s hands. “You got food in here, lady? This wanker left me wandering on Main Street for days. I’m hungry. Aha….Altoids. Excellent.” She shoves one Altoid after another into her mouth as her eyes widen. She runs over to the fire hydrant and with superhuman strength that she has apparently endowed herself with, rips open the cover and dives, face in, to the stream of water while shrieking “It burns! It burns!”

I better track down Jamie. I spot him on the corner, relentlessly punching, oh no – the town’s esteemed lawyer, Mark Allen, who is on the ground and whimpering. Shit. How did that happen?

“Remember when you gave me that wedgie in 3rd grade and made me cry in front of everybody? Who’s crying now, you worthless prick?” Jamie shouts, stands up and lands one more kick, while Mark cowers on the ground, shielding his face.

Wow, apparently my characters’ language in my absence has, uh….developed. And there are some unforeseen issues that they needed to work out.

I’m scared to see what Sonya, the matriarch of this brood,  is up to, but I wander over to the house on Hamilton and Oak. Her front door is open. This can’t be good. I walk in – the house is still immaculate, but I can’t locate her. Then I hear scrub, scrub, sniffle…I go down the hallway and there she is, on hands and knees in the bathroom, scrubbing the tiles with a toothbrush.

I lean over and quietly ask “What’s going on, Sonya? Are you okay?”

She looks up at me, eyes crazed, mascara running haphazardly down her face. “Why, oh, why?” She wails. “You left me after that horrible confrontation with my angry daughter. You had Meg tell my live-in boyfriend that I was actually lying about still being married. You left me waiting to see my son after twenty years.” She bends to her task of tile-scrubbing again, scrubbing so hard that the bristles on the brush spread out flat and useless.

“I’m sorry. I’ve been really sick this week and couldn’t get more writing done. I promise I’ll get to it.”

“You’d better!” She shrieks. “Can’t you see what all this anxiety is doing to me? My OCD is running unchecked. My boyfriend walked out. He might have left me for good. Or he might be at the grocery store.” She stands up and grabs me by the shoulders, shaking me roughly, spittle flying out of her mouth. “For the love of god, where is he?”

I shake her off and run out of the house. I’d better locate Hal and fast. The grocery store is as good a start as any. The windows have been broken. The store has been looted. I call out. “Hal – are you in here?” I hear grunting and groaning from the back storeroom. I wonder if I should be adding some paramedics to my cast of characters.

I swing open the door. Hal is, ewwww, pants around his ankles with…who the hell is that? I haven’t introduced her into the story! I storm out and hear Hal shouting to me. I turn and he is scrambling to pull his pants up. “What?! I didn’t know how long we’d be here. I thought, hell, if we’re locked in time, I’d better have some fun.”

“Who is that woman? I didn’t write her into the story.”

Hal grins sheepishly. “Well, you’re not very far into the story. There’s a lot of characters waiting backstage. I just struck up a conversation. I was SO bored.”

I scowl at him. It still doesn’t explain the turtle tattoo on his butt, but I’m not asking. I’d better get to work, before I’m voted off the island.

The Making of a Serial Killer: Fictional Characterization

I’d like to kill them all – anchorless Meg, that milquetoast Mark, passive aggressive Sonya, hapless Hal. I want them dead and it’s legal. I’m on day 4 of the National Novel Writing Month challenge and I LOATHE the characters in my book, Phoenix Rock. I’ve started fantasizing about bizarre and grotesque ways to maim, injure and kill them.

I should state categorically that my novel is contemporary fiction about a dysfunctional family and how they come to terms with the past. It’s not a murder mystery or forensic whodunit. It’s just contemporary lit about people who, at this point in their development, you would really like to see at a crime scene. Yawn. I know – I’m writing it!

Yesterday, I tried to think about characters I really liked and it turns out they’re all weird – afflicted with neurological disorders or mental issues. I adore Lionel Essrog, with his Tourette Syndrome, from Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. The brilliance of that character is that his tics, his condition, they don’t rule the story – they just make the story have flesh. I can’t get enough of frenetic Ignatius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Boo Radley is more interesting in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee than Atticus Finch. I don’t wish them dead. I’m interested in what makes them tick. I want to read more about them.

My main character, Meg, is stereotypical for a first time novelist – she moves about in the world an awfully lot like I do. She’s wound a little tight and she has issues, but nothing that makes her interesting. I would like to see her really lose it and punch someone in the face, but that’s only because I’m desperate for a little action. She’s turning into the straight character – the one everyone else gets to bounce their weirdness off of and only present to provide contrast. She’s become the passive observer and I need her engaged. I need to be engaged, before I have to toss her down a well.

The other characters in the town of Phoenix, Iowa are thus far one-dimensional. They could be scooped up in an Oz-like tornado and dropped off somewhere in the Mississippi, where the undertow is powerful – and not a one of them knows how to swim. The characters I’ve come up with have yet to reveal anything quirky or of interest. I blame it on my Midwest upbringing. We know the weirdos are out there – we’re just polite enough not to talk about it. Everybody is “special” or “challenged” or “has issues”. I need to commit to the full range of the human experience, when fleshing out these characters.

“Nothing can be more limiting to the imagination than only writing about what you know.” John Gardner

Right now, my characters are cardboard and I’d like to set them on fire. Admittedly, I’m only near the end of chapter three in my book. There’s still time for them to reveal their quirks and obsessions. But it also leaves a lot of time for a piano to fall on each and every one of their heads.