Sticking the Landing…

I had this amazing idea to use my car accident as the moment that defines the lives of two characters in my Always series. As I chronicled here, playing the what if game got me a basic premise of how they came to be where they are at the start of the story. The hook is an enemies to lovers theme with a much more serious reason to be enemies than usual. They aren’t in competition (but there’s one of those in the series percolating) and there’s no old family feud. No, the largely one-sided animosity is created by an accident, a horrible accident that changes the main character’s lives forever in two very different ways. For one, the accident brings realization, salvation, and hope; for the other, loss, anguish, and bitterness.

As soon as I realized what I was asking my heroine to do during the course of this book–forgive the man she holds responsible for his role in her sister’s death–I knew I would have to adjust things to make it work. I didn’t want to make it easy by revealing a twist like he wasn’t really responsible for her sister’s death (not that I have anything against this when done well–and I’ve read books where it is done well). I couldn’t if I wanted to be the hero told me he WAS responsible in the most basic way. So how can I make it plausible that they can get past this big huge thing separating them?

One of the things that I like to do is to figure out how to keep two characters determined to flee “in the room.” How do I keep them in the same place at the same time long enough for the sparks to fly and the magic to happen? One thing I find works well is when at least one of those characters wants to be in the room and is determined to keep that other character there. In this instance, my hero’s goal is to make amends to the people he directly affected, including the heroine. While there’s no way to give back what she lost in the accident, he has to find a way to make amends and ease some of the guilt he’s been carrying. It takes help from God to keep the heroine “in the room” and interacting with him, which is probably the only thing that will keep them in the room when our heroine is so determined she will NOT grant him the forgiveness he seeks.

The second thing I wanted to do is figure out how much time will have passed since the accident when the story begins. I had to do a bit of research to figure out a timeline for the judicial ramifications of the accident, and then I needed to leave time for healing to begin. I decided to start the story five years after the accident–enough time for the legal matter to run its course and for the food and the parade of sympathetic friends to be a thing of the past. Even then, I knew that this relationship needed to move at a snail’s pace. I’m still tweaking how long it will take for each phase of the story.

The thing that’s hung over my head the most, of course, is figuring out how to get the reader to connect with a hero who admits to the things he did surrounding the accident, which are very unlikeable things, without turning the victim into the bad guy or otherwise shifting the blame. I didn’t want the reader to hate him like the heroine initially does. So I decided to start telling this story from the hero’s point of view, to introduce the reader to who he is now before they know who he used to be five years ago. The hero has a sympathetic back story that he doesn’t use to excuse his behavior and isn’t over the top. I made the hero humble and sincere in his attempts to make amends. And I let God work on both of them, through nature, other characters, and each other, to show them how forgiveness can release both of them and how love can cover the multitude of sins between them.

I hope the reader, and the heroine, can appreciate the changes that God has made in the hero, and can move forward with an open mind. I’m working really hard on this one, drawing up character profiles, creating an outline, researching. I’m taking my time with it because certain details have touched me personally and I want people to understand the underlying message of the work that forgiveness does in us. If I’m being honest, I want to come to terms with my own accident and make sure I truly forgive the person responsible for it. I’m working hard to get this one right.  The gravity-defying flips and twists that make the crowd ooh and ahh are worth nothing if you don’t stick the landing. I want to make sure this one doesn’t have a shaky, unstable end that costs the story a spot in the reader’s heart.

What difficult things are you working on in your current WIP?

XOXO,

Erica

Three Sides to Every Story

My trip back home was fruitful. I found many old journals, stories, and story ideas. I found dictionaries, thesauruses, and grammar books, along with books on writing, complete with exercises. I don’t know what I expected to find, but I found far more.

There’s one story idea that I’ve had for a long time that I wanted to unearth and work on, possibly for this summertime incarnation of NaNoWriMo that is coming up (Camp NaNoWriMo). Through the years, I’ve scribbled this idea out as both a story and a play, never getting very far with it, just writing down the basic premise. I’ve come back to the idea any number of times, and promptly put it down when something else came along. As a result, I am now looking at three similar yet different plot points.

The story centers around a young woman who has a)just lost her father b)just lost her mother, or c)lost her father three years ago. In either scenario, both parents are now dead. She is a)a very wealthy heiress or b)drowning in debt. She’s either very meek and inoffensive or very rude. Obviously, I’ve come to this story with very different things in mind each time.

It’s kind of like what happened with the Southern Gothic novel. It started, in it’s earliest conception, being about the murder of a despised public figure. That idea somehow morphed into a ghostwriter helping a prejudiced woman write her memoirs. Explaining that huge leap is really simple: a minor character became the focal point instead of the original story, then the original storyline was cut away from this telling.

It’s interesting to look back at the evolution of a story, to see what ideas I scrapped that may be stories of their own. At the moment, I’m not sure which storyline I want to pick up in this possible Camp NaNoWriMo story, but the loss of a parent is so searing that it can be used again, taken in a completely different direction. But it does beg the question, which would you rather have: too many possibilities or only one alternative? When are you the most creative–when you have to choose between several options or when you have to make one work?

For me, I like options. I will take one, follow it along until it hits a dead end or I get bored with it, and choose another one. Sometimes, though, one option becomes the only option, the more I get to know the characters. If you ever get stuck, as I do, instead of killing the story, it may be time to go back a bit and take a left where before you took a right. I’m not sure if I’ll finally be able to focus long enough to make a great story out of this idea, but here’s to trying, right?

Wish me luck.

You Can Do That?

As I was thinking about my choices for the multicultural reading list post I did a few weeks ago, it struck me exactly what Jean Rhys had done: she took a classic story that she was unsatisfied with, changed the perspective of the story, and came up with something completely new. Instead of taking Charlotte Bronte’s word for it that Bertha was crazy and poor Mr. Rochester was doing the best he can, Rhys gave Antoinette (whom Rochester renamed Bertha) the chance to tell her story.

Of course, this isn’t new. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern were given the opportunity to tell their side of a famous Shakespeare play. Ophelia has been liberated from Shakespeare’s distracting rendering of her story. We’ve seen this done quite a few times, sometimes with fresh new stories that I like better than the original (and I’m sure you can guess which one of these three I feel that way about).

I’ve been thinking about this all day. What story would I like to retell from a different perspective(s)? Which character would I like to vindicate, implicate, or validate? Would I ever try to publish such a story?

I’m still mulling over my answer, but I’d like to hear some of yours.

Baby Crazy Days

When I was a teenager, I gave my mom a heart attack. Not a real one, just one of those Fred Sanford, “Elizabeth! I’m coming to join ya, honey!”, hand over heart ones that parents affect when they’re in shock. It was only fair, then, that she gave me one in return.

There was a little store quite a few blocks from my house. They sold cassette tapes, CDs, Black books, African Kente clothing, and incense. It was one of those eclectic mom and pop stores that are fast disappearing these days. I would walk up there on my own with my allowance and buy myself any new music I wanted or the occasional book (I made stringent use of my library card for books most of the time back then).

My most recent book from there had been a copy of a book about Rosewood. It had the husky, slightly sweet scent of incense clinging to the pages. I devoured the book, even though its contents horrified me and saddened me by turns. About halfway through, I set it aside for lighter fare and meant to return to it later. In the meantime, I was going to focus on my writing and strengthen some obvious areas of weakness.

So, on this particular trip to the little entertainment shop, I looked over the offerings for a book I’d seen several times but never had the foresight to buy: The Book of African-American Baby Names. I was horrible at naming characters. All of the women were named Hope or Janet (one white and one black). I didn’t want to use the names of people I actually knew, and that left me a small pool to work with. I was sure, though, that this book would have names that I hadn’t thought of that would be perfect for characters I was thinking about. I finally managed to quell my snobbery at picking a name out of a name book and took it to the cash register.

The shop owner, a kind older gentleman who willingly discussed all manner of old school music and Black history with me, eyed my purchase distrustfully. “That’s an interesting choice,” he said noncommittally.

“Well, I’ve been trying to come up with new names to use in my writing, and I think this is just the thing,” I responded, not thinking about the other reasons people might have for purchasing this book. I was so intent on conquering my name picking snobbery, it didn’t dawn on me that other people would come to an entirely different purpose for my purchase.

“Ah,” he said. I imagine the light clicked on for him. I was as naive as I looked, after all.

He wrapped up my purchase with the suggestion of another book, a writing book with hints specifically for black authors. I didn’t have enough for it, but I told him to keep a copy back for me if he could.

Pre-occupied with A names that were the Kenya word for this or that, I didn’t notice the curious glances I was getting. I made it all the way home before anyone had approached me about it. My mother, who, I imagine, had been cooking dinner or doing something similarly domestic, broke my reverie.

I was showing her my purchase when I noticed she wasn’t all that excited. “Why are you reading about babies?” she asked.

“I’m not; it’s a book of baby names.”

“Same thing. I’m not taking care of any babies.”

What? Suddenly, I got it (the backup generator finally kicked in). “What? No, I’m not thinking about babies. I bought it to find names for my characters.”

“That’s all you better be doing.” Clearly, my mother didn’t trust in my naiveté as much as my friend at the store.

I’m twenty six now, and I still don’t have any children. I have a plethora of names picked out for them, though. 😉

What’s your funniest writing misunderstanding? Have you ever used a book to find a good character name? Are you a snob when it comes to giving your characters names, mannerisms, or personalities?

Potato Chip Writing

Pringles chips (sour cream and onion flavor)

Since I couldn't find Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar, these will do... Image via Wikipedia

I used to love Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar potato chips. They were just so good–greasy, cheesy, salty goodness on a thin little chip. I couldn’t wipe my hands on my clothes for the grease (and the cheese), nor did I want to. No, you had to lick a finger covered in cheesy powder.When it came to chips, I am was one of those people the advertisers talked about. I couldn’t eat just one potato chip; in fact, I might have been known to shove eat more multiple chips at the same time.

I have the same problem with writing. I have so many pieces I’ve started and stopped over the years, pieces that still have life left in them, pieces that are just so good. I know I should really be focused on one particular thing at a time, but like potato chips, I can’t decide on just one project. I don’t want one story to whither on the vine while I’m working on another. When I’m right in the thick of a rough spot on one, I get inspiration on the rough spot of another. I can’t let that inspiration pass.

Just the other day, I was thining about something or other I’d read somewhere, when an insight into one of my characters struck me like a bolt from the blue. I suddenly knew her motivation. I still don’t know what she’s hiding (at least, not all of it), but I know why she’s giving another character the runaround. While this insight opens up a whole world of possibilities for the Southern Gothic Novel, I’m supposed to be finalizing the finalizing of Candy Apples. I was supposed to have it sent out for publication already, supposed to be embroiled in the long submissions process while working on the other pieces in that series. Yet, just when I get to a rough patch, this happens.

I’m not fooled though. I know that this is just an attempt to get off track. I get these “ideas” all the time while I’m editing my dad’s book, researching, working. These ideas are my brains way of escaping a tough or mundane task. The truth is, if I take this one potatoe chip at a time, I can still savor the taste and fulfill the craving. I can take my time and investigate each chip for the dreaded burned parts, or the bits with potato skin still left on them. I can decide whether or not it’s bad before I’ve bit into it. The great thing about doing things this way is if it’s a good idea, it’ll keep until I get to it, just like the really cheesy, bright orange chip in the bag will still be in the bag until I eat it.

How do you cope with errant ideas belonging to other works? Do you follow it down the rabbit hole, or do you stick out that rough spot in your current work? What techniques do you find useful to combat this lesser known form of procrastination?

The Gang’s All Here

Themed birthday party, ca. 1910-1915, likely i...

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When I was a little girl, about eleven years old, I had a birthday party. I was allowed to invite anyone that I wanted to. I invited the requisite family members and all of my best friends to my house for a party overflowing with pizza, ice cream, and buttercream frosting covered yellow sheet cake. This was going to be the greatest birthday party I’d ever had. It wasn’t going to be like the time when my younger cousin (birthday two days before mine), sitting on my lap to take a birthday picture, rammed his face and chubby little hands into the cake, destroying Ms. Piggy while leaving his Raphael Ninja Turtle unscathed. It wouldn’t be like the time when four people came with the chicken pox and gave me the disease. It wasn’t going to be like the time there was a blizzard and all the guest who managed to make it got snowed in at my aunts. Yes, I was still sharing a party with my younger cousin (four years younger) and my little brother (eight years younger), but my friends would be there this year.

Only, none of those friends came. I was so diappointed. While my little brother and cousin took pictures of them with their birthday booty, I pouted in a corner. All of my friends had baulked at coming to this “baby party.” I was, once again, the only one not having fun at my birthday party.

This isn’t an example of the worst birthday I’ve ever had. I’ve been in many a more awkward situation (hanging out with drunks, for example) on my birthday. It’s not the best birthday I’ve ever had either (that would have to be the weekend my boyfriend came to visit and took me to FISS, to dinner, to parties, to church, and bought me new shoes!). But, looking back on that birthday, I took away a valuable lesson.

There are times when I’m outlining, writing, or just living when I think of great characters. These characters are funny, daring, interesting, smart, beautiful, rich, elite. Of course, they must go in this story. Oh, I just have to befriend her. I invite them to my “literary” “writing parties.”  It’s very strategic. I know they will liven things up, open up old wounds for a character, push a character into doing something they really shouldn’t do, or provide the reader with a few good laughs. I just have to have them at my party.

Only, they don’t show up. Instead, I get the characters that I knew would be there, the family of the fiction world. I get the over protective aunts, the fashionable older aunt, the bad cousins. I get the people you have to prepare for by hiding your purse and putting away anything breakable. I get the people you never really invite but who always manage to find the party.

The thing is, though, in fiction and in life, the people who should be there, who need to be there, all show up. Maybe the popular girl at school didn’t show up, but my favorite uncle who always makes me laugh was there to cheer me up. Maybe the catty high school nemesis hasn’t yet shown up in my story, but the best friend who always has my MC’s back and gets them into (and out of) a fair share of scrapes was the first one to show up.

If you look through my social media, email accounts, and cell phone, the people I wanted at that party are largely conspicuous by their absence. When I look back on that party, on the way I eventually had a great time with the people who really are important, I don’t notice their absence at all.

The same thing goes for a good story. No ones going to miss a great character who doesn’t fit. Sometimes the characters we want don’t show up to the party. But everyone who needs to get there will get there eventually…even if they do show up late, drunk, and without a present. 😉

So, I’m encouraging myself to trust my writing and not force the wrong characters into my story. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. Let that character, and yourself, go free. He might just show up in another story. This is my birthday present to myself, the gift to be free of my own outlines and get lost in the story.

What Writers are Writing

Día del Libro

Image by clspeace via Flickr

On my other blog, I’ve begun sharing the link love. Each Friday, I choose the post that I’ve read and enjoyed and post them up for my subscribers’ reading pleasure. It’s my way of passing on a good book blog. Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve come across some fantastic writer’s blogs. I have decided that I should share my favorite writing related posts of the week on this here blog, and any other reading/writing related bits that don’t fit anywhere else on Free to Read Fridays! Hmm…that sounds a little lame. No worries, I’ll come up with something better by next week.

What’s been going on with me this week? Well, I finished Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. It was so different from the movie. It was so much better than the movie. Although the movie kept the trip to Thailand and some other scenarios, it veered deeply away from the major conflict. The way they resolved the conflict in the movie…cheap is the best word I can come up with. It was a cheap trick. Helen Fielding is a much better writer than the movies would suggest (even if she does write without using pronouns: Right, will just meditate…Must call mother….where are the pronouns here? Is it a British thing? Maybe I’m misinformed.)

I also began work on my memoir and decided to send out Candy Apples as is for publication consideration. I’ve already blogged about the tiny breakthrough I had with my memoir in “Rusty Water.” As for my decision to send out Candy Apples as is, it was a bit spur of the moment. I was debating on adding further examples of the main character’s addiction and some other things, but I want to see how it’s received. Besides, I can always add those parts and publish it in the alternate form as part of a short story collection, right? I want to submit it before my birthday (two weeks from yesterday).

Speaking of my birthday, I have set a goal of having one chapter of my memoir done by my birthday. I think this is a reasonable goal, as the chapters now focus of specific images, ideas, or periods of time and can be elaborated on and fleshed out in a moderate amount of time.

Now, the Moment You’ve All Been Waiting For…Link Love:

Here’s what I found fascinating around the blogosphere, writing/reading wise:

What were your favorite writing and reading reads around the web this week?

The Bad Beginnings Blues

Pictograms of Olympic sports - Tug of war. Thi...

This is what I've been doing all weekend... Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been engaged in a tug of war with my brain. There’s an idea lurking in there that I have one end of, while the other end is tucked into one of those little squiggly lines on my brains surface. I try to pull it out, but my brain is not letting it go. It won’t allow me to fully realize this idea I have in my head, an idea I know will be epic, if I can just get it out

Let’s back up to the beginning of this tale. I accepted a challenge from Cordelia to write more often and actually finish some projects this year. I was excited at the prospect of having someone to bounce ideas off of, to proofread my work, to tell me whether or not a piece needed to be reworked for the eightieth time, to tell me when something is crap and should be flushed down the toilet. I even had a solid story to start with.

I didn’t think the story needed much tweaking, only, the story I was telling didn’t seem finished. The thing’s I wanted to tell didn’t fit the story I had, though, because of the focus. After mulling this over a bit, I came up with an amazing idea. One that would fix my little dilemma, but create a slew of others.

The story I’m referring to is Candy Apples. Candy Apples is one woman’s struggle with a specific kind of addiction. She is in a support group with other individuals, two of which she interacts with regularly. The problem was, as I reader, I wanted to know more about these other women. The glimpses of them I saw in this story were so compelling, I had to know their stories. But this wasn’t their stories. Through several days of thinking and plotting, I came to the conclusion each woman needed her own story. They were strong enough to stand on their own. If the stories unfolded in such a way, I could even share certain events in Candy Apples from their perspective.

Then my mind ventured on and came up with a frame work for the other stories, which led to the realization other stories, and a little research, were needed. All of this was falling together and working out seemlessly. I ended up starting to examine one of these women’s stories, where I wanted to start, where it fit in my framework, what symbols and motifs would be important, etc. Finally, I was ready to start writing.

Only nothing came out.

This never happens to me.

I usually have spectacular first lines of my stories that start right in the thick of things and really set the tone for the story. This is especially true of Candy Apples. In the creative writing class I was in when I wrote it, one thing everyone agreed on was how awesome that opening line was. But somewhere along the way, I’ve seemed to have lost my first line mojo. I blame it on planning.

I’ve talked about what part of a story I get first here. It’s usually one of two things–a character or an opening line. Rarely is it a plot or a scenario. I’ve also talked about planning ahead versus going with the flow. I usually go with the flow and plan where necessary. This time, I had a strong character, already established in another story. This time, I’ve plotted out many of the important plot points and I know where I want to end the story. This time, I can’t think of an opening line to save my life.

The opening line has to grab the reader’s attention. It has to be interesting and intriguing, yet subtle and alluring. It has to invite you to read more without giving the game away. It has to seduce. In short, it has to work. This is especially true in a short story, as you only have so much time to establish a scenario and characters before you have to get things rolling.

I’m at a crisis point, a major stumbling block, very early in this story. Could it be I’ve lost my first line mojo for good? Does anyone have any tried and true techniques for crafting opening lines? Do you know of any good articles I can read on the subject? How can I wrest this opening line from the slimy recesses of my brain-squiggles?

The Chicken or the Egg?

A-Character

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What part of a story do you “get” first? What do you choose to develop first? Is it a character, the plot, a setting? How do you begin getting creative?

If you’re like me, there’s no set answer to this question. My first novel attempt, with the working title Colorblind (no, this is not my NaNoWriMo novel), did not begin in my head with any characters or a plot, but with a house. I described the house, then in popped a character. Why was she going to the house? What’s so important about this house?

For my NaNoWriMo Novel, the idea came first. What if someone lied about their lives for years and were about to be found out? Would they just give up and admit it? Once I had my MC, I knew that she might fold and not do it. But then in came her best friend, and I knew I had something to work with.

What comes first, the name or the noun? Do you have in mind a specific type of character or place, then name it, or do you name it first and build around things associated with the name? Again, with me this is far from a concrete process. Sometimes I hear a name and build a character around it; sometimes I develop a character and find a name to suit. Neither way seems to work better or worse for me.

It all depends on the story. There are some stories that I’ve written that I wouldn’t have written had I known at the beginning what they would be about; I have to be eased into the weighty topics. Sometimes, I get ideas and I think to myself, I don’t have the talent/skill set/time to do justice to this. But then I’ll have a character or setting and start writing, and the same idea will work its way in. Now the idea can be worked with a bit. Now maybe I can do it.

Tell me about your writing process. Where do you begin? What do you find works best when developing a story? Do you have a different process for novels than you do for short stories? What about poetry?

You Got Real People in my Characters!

The Jolly Boat (the respectable middle- or upp...

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One of my biggest struggles with my NaNoWriMo novel has been keeping people I know in real life out of my work. It’s easy to begin borrowing characteristics of people you know or have known, yet in this age of sue-happy people, it is even more imperative to not fictionalize family, friends and acquaintances. But how far is too far to take it?

For example, my NaNoWriMo novel is populated with intelligent, upper-middle class African-American people who graduated from an exclusive private school. I went to an exclusive private school with affluent people. Some of them have names that would be perfect for my book. They were born around the same time as my characters, when those names were popular. I’m not basing the characters off of these people. In fact, they bear no resemblance to anyone I actually went to school with. Should I use the first names or not?

I haven’t used any of them, but I’m unhappy with some of the substitutes. Some may not have even been popular back then. Some of the characters just feel like a name they don’t have. Names are so personal, and do have a bit of an impact on the person. Names can be indicative of family lineage, and sometimes socioeconomic status, particularly in the Black community.

The other problem is my main male character, Nathan. He is beginning to sound a bit too much like my own boyfriend. He has some of the same views he does about marriage, for example. He is not my boyfriend. However, both the Nathan character and my boyfriend are grounded and logical, whereas their women are a bit more free-spirited and whimsical–one of few things I share with my protagonist.

How do you deal with characterization? Do you ever use names or characteristics of people you know? How do you avoid being sued? Am I overthinking it?

Note: I’m not entirely happy with the image, but it’ll work for now.