Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I was at my RA doctor for a routine appointment today, and she mentioned that my recent x-rays show signs of osteoporosis. Gulp. She said it's not a surprise since I'm "caucasian, pettite, and frail..."  Hang on! Did she just use that word to describe ME?  FRAIL?  I was that skinny little girl who played football with the boys and got called for rough play.  I was the only chick on the baseball team and I kicked ass.  I've wrangled spastic horses through the hunt field and slightly crazy kids in the classroom and at home.  I've travelled the world.  I've never backed away from a challenge.  What's she talking about frail?!

My mind sort of went white and silent all of a sudden as I considered this description.  Okay, so I was ever so lucky to develop Rheumatoid Arthritis when I was 34.  Does that mean I'm frail?  Somehow less than that balls-out chick who jumped from balconies and dirt-skiied down the dusty ravine beside my house when I was a kid?  There is a huge dissonance between the person I feel in my bones and the one this doctor was looking at.  But I guess what really bothered me was the dubious assumption that physical and mental weakness were not necessarily mutually exclusive.  (Don't ask me why I jumped there.)

Then I started thinking about my characters and how they develop.  Have I let some frailty slip by me when I wasn't looking?  Do they ever feel the way I did at that moment?  Probably.  Should I allow them to feel that way?  Maybe.

One of the big issues I tackle with my new characters is their flaws.  What does that really mean?  I look at it as more of a blind spot in most cases—that part of their personality that gets them into trouble.  But what if it's something that keeps them from achieving their goal?  They could be one in the same, but not always.  Good character development is complex and lets the reader squirm a little.  We cringe when they say the wrong thing, but that only makes them more real to us.  We slap ourselves in the head when they make some bonehead move that puts them in danger or alienates them from the other characters, but that only elevates the sense of triumph when they succeed or deepens the mourning when they fail.

I've spent most of my life hearing about and facing my flaws.  Let's just say I've had a lot of practice.  But what does that really mean?  Is there some continuum where the degree and number of flaws a person has add up to frailty? Somewhere in that doctor's office I started to think so.  I thought about it as I drove home.  I thought about it as I slammed the car door shut.  I thought about it as I prepared to take my child to the orthodontist to have her skull expanded so all of her teeth would fit.  I'm not sure I really have an answer, but in the end it seems to come down to that dirty little literary notion of the human condition.  In the grand scheme of things, I suppose we are all frail...small and frail and oh so significant.

W.B. Yeats wrote a lot about human frailty... (please pardon my maudlin indulgence).

The Four Ages of Man

He with body waged a fight,
But body won; it walks upright.

Then he struggled with the heart;
Innocence and peace depart.

Then he struggled with the mind;
His proud heart he left behind.

Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight, God shall win.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Story 3 and why I bawled my eyes out...

For Father's Day, we decided to take a family excursion to the event that is TOY STORY 3.   My expectations were only slightly guarded as Pixar has more than delivered on this franchise twice already. What I hadn't braced myself for, however, was my own parental journey as I sat there with my 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter and watched Andy say goodbye to his beloved pals as we, too, said goodbye not only to these wonderful characters, but to our own sense of childhood while our role as parents becomes ever more tenuous. This parting is particularly poignant when it comes to our son who has grown up far too quickly along with Andy.

The first TOY STORY came out in 1995, just 2 years before my son was born. Of course Ghost Hunk and I saw it in the theatre, young newlyweds who enjoyed good film making. Heck, one of our early dates was to see BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.  When our son was 2 years old, we introduced him to the magical world of movies, beginning with TARZAN and THE IRON GIANT and TOY STORY 2. That boy was made for the cinema. He loved sitting in a theatre with Mama and/or Daddy, drinking in whatever amazing story spilled across the darkness. We all cried when the Iron Giant sacrificed himself and when Jessie's torch song pulled us into her heartache and loss. Sure, Ghost Son saw the first one on video before we hit the theatre for the sequel, but it was no less enthralling and he immediately loved all the characters, old and new.

As I watched Andy pack for college yesterday, it suddenly struck me that our own little dude is only 5 years away from that. There is really nothing left of that baby, anymore, that fantastic toddler whose belly laughs filled up the house and shook us all with such joy. I know...this may get a little maudlin, but I'm a mom. I can't help myself.  (By the way, the same actor has given Andy his voice in all three movies.)

I felt him sitting there next to me in the dark, growing, maturing every minute. And it didn't help that Andy is a lot like our boy. I'm sure he's a lot like many boys, but I'll continue to believe our son is exceptional, unique, amazing.When Andy makes his decision to give his toys to a little girl who will love them well, I had mixed feelings. Happy that the gang will continue to be loved and treasured, but sad that Andy will forever be separated from them. That he has grown up. His own hesitation is so telling. As he played with his friends one last time, introducing them to their new owner and making sure their stories continue, my heart ached. The realization that our son would be leaving, growing up, abandoning his childhood things, well that started a flood. Yes, I cried. I sobbed. I bawled my freaking eyes out!

Ghost Son thought I was being a little too sensitive about Andy's toys, but then he, too, realized that he was growing up and what that meant to his loony old mom. That's the thing about all three of these movies. They touch real emotions. No matter how old you are, you can relate to the trials of Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the gang. We know what it is to be betrayed that first time, to be abandoned by someone moving on to another stage of their life, to learn the price of friendship and how to have a little more faith in ourselves. These are such raw, real experiences no matter how old you get.

And now, I've watched my children trip through these quintessential life moments and TOY STORY 3 just brought all of it home with a 1-2 punch to the gut. They are growing up. They will be on their own sooner than we want, but they are ready to take on the world. I just wish I were ready to let them...

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

In the Flesh

At least once in a writer's career, she will hear someone say, "Flesh out that character more." I chant that in my head sometimes as I work on more personal sections of my book. But what does that mean? How do you put flesh on the bones of an imaginary friend (or enemy)?

There are some great tools out there to give you a nudge: Nancy Lamb has some great checklists in her book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN.  You generate a lot of details (that you may or may not use in the actual narrative) that get you to see the character as a whole.

I'm also glancing through Orson Scott Card's ELEMENTS OF FICTION:  CHARACTERS & VIEWPOINTS for a few hints.  He takes you through some great discussions of motivation, emotional appeal, archetypes, and more.

But sometimes all this studying can get a bit overwhelming (not that I've done a lot of it).  In the end, I have to do the work.  Get down in the clay and start molding and sculpting with my own two hands.  The dirtier I get the better.

So for my latest WIP, I took my 4 main characters (including the narrator) and gave them each their own page.  I started with a GENERAL DESCRIPTION.  This can include physical and emotional, but I keep it simple and straight-forward.  The hard-core stuff comes in the writing.  In this section I also include and habits or ticks or preferences she/he might have—ie.  trips over her own feet, hates to clean the chicken coop but loves to muck the stalls, wears a red string on her left pinky toe every day, etc.  What pushes your character's buttons?

Next I look at RELATIONSHIPS.  What characterizes her relationship with each major character in the book? If it's relevant, what characterizes her relationship with people not present in the narrative?  Dead or absent parents, friends, or relatives, for example.  Characters don't live in a vacuum any more than a living, breathing person does...unless you have an agoraphobic personality!  Thinking ahead, I consider how those relationships will change through the course of the novel.  Think dynamic not static.

It's time to look at some FLAWS.  Every character has to have them.  Big or small, a flaw is what makes your character human.  Whether you write humorous MG or tragic YA, your characters cannot be perfect.  They may even piss the reader off once in a while, just as long as there is enough redeeming virtue to keep the reader connected and rooting for your hero.  These may come in handy when you build the climax and develop subplots.

Don't forget your villains.  Villains should evoke anger, disdain, even condescension but they should not be flat.  Take them through all the steps as well.  We need to have a sense that there is more to them than their slithery betrayal.

I'm keeping it short, so I end with a list of WORDS THAT DESCRIBE my character.  Gut reaction words.  You may find that some of them contradict each other, and that is not necessarily a problem.  After all, most of us get confused at some time or another, especially kids.  Come to think of it, adolescence is a cloud of contradictions!

That's the basic list I make for myself, and I post them on the wall by my desk or keep them in my WIP folder, along with a list of themes, snippets of research, and any other scrap of inspiration that will put a little flesh on the bones and breathe life into this shiny new world.  

What do you do?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Just for the Ghosts...

I've started a new blog dedicated to all my ghostly wonderings...and wanderings... I'll still post my usual (albeit sporadic) musings on writing and life here, but I'm dedicating The Darkling Veil to my spookier explorations. Stop by if you have a chance.