How Things Are Going!

Good afternoon, Dear Readers! I know, I haven’t posted here in a bit. I’m going to try and start having content appear here more regularly, starting with the post right below this one. How about that!

Anyway, here’s a brief rundown of where things stand right now:

  1. Preparations for The Wisdomfold Path‘s November release are trucking right along! The wonderful artist who does the cover illustrations has finished her work for the book, so now I can really start working on the cover design and the back-cover blurb. The blurb seems to be something that always gives me headaches; I struggled with the blurb for Stardancer and I’m struggling with the blurb for Wisdomfold Path, so I expect to see that trend continue. Hopefully by the time I get to the last book in this series I can take a page from the Harry Potter books and just have the blurb be, “Here’s the last book.”
  2. One beta-reader gave good marks to GhostCop, which is nice. I need to line up a few other readers for that one soon. I also need to come up with a real title to that book. This is deeply vexing to me.
  3. I’m slowly getting more and more familiar with Scrivener! It is NOT an easy program to learn, but oddly, once you learn enough of it, it IS fairly easy to USE. I also suspect that I will find it easier to use once I get past this phase of having to import projects from other sources — i.e., when I actually use it from start to finish.

That’s about all. As I said, expect some more regularity of content here — especially as The Wisdomfold Path‘s release nears! November is right around the corner, folks!

 

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On Character, part the first

Writers love to rabbit on and on all day about their characters and how they develop their characters and how they decide what characters do and all that kind of thing. I, of course, am no different. This will, though, require more than one post, hence “part the first”.

So, where to start?

Well, with someone else’s thoughts on characters, of course! In this case, screenwriter William Goldman.

This is occasioned by a post by blogger Lance Mannion, in which he reviews the movie The Ghost and the Darkness. I never actually saw this film, but I know of it; it is a historical adventure movie about the two man-eating lions that terrorized the British railroad crews in Africa many years ago, and the struggles the railroad chief had with killing them. (The lions themselves, after being killed, were stuffed and are now on display in a Chicago museum, believe it or not…and they are a bit scary. But this post isn’t about the lions; it’s about Goldman’s thoughts on the characters in the movie.

The Ghost and the Darkness is not terribly highly regarded, either by critics or by Goldman himself. My impression is that it’s not seen as a bad movie, but mainly as a meh movie. Goldman has some very definite thoughts as to why this is, and he lays some of that blame at his own feet in the chapter on this movie in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? (which, by the way, I consider essential reading for fiction writers, even if they’re not writing for film).

By way of background before I excerpt Goldman: it took the railroad chief, a man named Patterson, nine months to kill the two lions, and he mainly did it by waiting and sitting vigil at night and laying traps and that sort of thing. Goldman’s problem, in scripting a movie about the lions of Tsavo (where this all happened), was that the real story doesn’t make for compelling film. So Goldman had to add a second, entirely fictional, character whom he dubbed “Redbeard”, to add excitement and drama to the story.

Here, now, is William Goldman.

Redbeard was always and forever only this: a plot point. I needed, for today’s audience, to make Patterson, my hero, more heroic. So I came up with what I thought would be a suitable device.

Redbeard would be a professional who came, did his job, moved on when the job was over. There were, in point of face, people who lived that way. Hunting was popular among the very rich, and there were men for hire if you were a Russian prince and wanted to shoot in America. Or Africa. Or the mountains of India. You hired them for weeks or months, and they saw you get the best chance at game. Protected you in the bargain.

What made Redbeard different was he was a legend even to other professionals. In other words, the greatest hunter in the world.

In the very first draft, his part was relatively small. Patterson was in terrible trouble. The lions had stopped the railroad. Redbeard entered, sized up the situation. Now, I couldn’t have him win immediately, because that would have denigrated the lions. So…he came up with the notion of putting Patterson high up, all alone, in a clearing, on a rickety wooden support. Patterson is alone and helpless. Redbeard is in the area. The Ghost [one of the lions, the other being The Darkness] comes. Then the Ghost attacks, Redbeard wounds it, together they kill it and triumph.

The point now was for the audience to relax. The cavalry had come to the rescue.

Then, the next morning, when Redbeard is eaten, Patterson, poor helpless fellow, would be alone against The Darkness, what chance could he possibly have if even Redbeard had failed?

The fact is this: Redbeard worked as a device.

My problem, Doctor, was he worked too well. In all the succeeding drafts, the powers that be wanted more of him. Obviously, they saw a costarring part. Fine for them.

Biiiig problem for me.

Let me try and explain why.

[In this telling, Redbeard sounds similar to Quint, the grizzled fisherman in JAWS. Or, that’s how he should have been. Reading on….]

One of the great exchanges in movie history — I don’t mean ‘great’ in the sense of Shakespearean, because screenwriting isn’t about that; I mean ‘great’ in the sense of being supremely helpful, of defining character — anyway, it’s in Casablanca, by the Epsteins and Howard Koch. Probably you remember the moment. Bogart is talking to Claude Rains in front of his club.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brings you to Casablanca?

BOGART: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

RAINS: Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

BOGART: I was misinformed.

Let’s talk about this for a moment. First of all, it is wonderfully elegant dialogue. Witty, plus it makes you laugh out loud. I wish to God I’d written lines as glorious as “I was misinformed.”

But what does it tell us? Well, it could be telling us that Rick is geographically challenged, coming to the desert for a water cure. But I think “I was misinformed” tells us he knew exactly where he was.

What it tells us is this: Don’t ask. What is tells us is: Bad things happened, it’s dark down there, and I will die before I tell you. A lot of that comes from the dialogue, a lot from the speaker of the dialogue.

The character of Rick, of course, is very old — he is the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past. Most movie stars — actors, not comedians — have essentially all played the same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways–

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.

Let me rewrite that exchange for you now. Let’s say Rains is talking not to Bogart, but to Dooley Wilson.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brought Rick to Casablanca?

DOOLEY: You don’t want to know.

RAINS: But I do, I asked the question.

DOOLEY: His life turned to shit, Claude. He hated his job, but he should never have sold insurance in the first place. And then his wife, she died having their hid, who died too. He got so depressed, y’know? [This continues a bit…snipping it down.]

Think about what that does to one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies. It makes Rick a wimp. It makes him a loser. Kills the flick, ruins it, destroys it, makes it an Adam Sandler flick. Never forget the following:

Hollywood heroes must have mystery.

OK, Back to Billy’s little Redbeard problem. I had written a Byronic hero. He’s Shane. The village is in trouble, he rides in, saves it, rides out. For that very great Western directed by the very great George Stevens, it is crucial that we know nothing about the guy. Ever.

The bigger Redbeard’s part became, the more risk for me, because the more you expose that character to the sunlight, the more he starts to fade.

Skipping forward a little, Michael Douglas comes on board as a producer and to play the Great Hunter role, originally named “Redbeard”. This is where Goldman finds things going awry:

The first thing that went was the name.

No big deal, you are probably thinking, and of course, you are correct. It is not a big deal. Except writers are nuts — that is a law in the State of California as you no doubt know — and we love the names we give our made-up friends and acquaintances. A lot of us can’t even start until we know our people’s names.

I loved “Redbeard.” I thought it was a terrific name; and I thought it was helpful in trying to make the guy mythic. Just that single word, those two syllables and you were talking about someone whose exploits had filled the nights beside a thousand campfires.

I lucked into the name Remington pretty quickly. Sold myself that if not as good, at least it didn’t suck. Still the one word, and there was the echo of the gun that was so famous in settling the Wild West.

Sigh of relief.

Then, sharply, I was into nightmare.

Michael wanted Remington to have a history.

 

This next scene is one of the worst things I’ve ever written. I actually remember my stomach cramping when I did it. It comes the first night Michael Douglas has arrived to save the day. In the background, a bunch of warriors are getting ready  to jump around and give themselves courage. Douglas is talking to Kilmer and Samuel, who is the narrator of the film, a native helping Patterson as best he can. Another native comes up and indicates to Remington that they are ready. Remington leaves and the camp doctor, who has also been present, comments that Remington is indeed a strange man. Here is what Samuel replies to that — get ready, hold your noses.

SAMUEL: Two great tribes of his country fought a terrible civil war for many years.

VAL KILMER: And his side lost?

SAMUEL: Everything. Land and family. The very young ones and the very old ones. All lost. He buried his family and left his country forever. Now he hunts all over the world but he always returns here. He says Africa is the last good place.

Remember my made-up speech about Bogart taking a course in nightclub management? Same thing here. This is what that speech and ensuing references to Remington’s past do to this legendary figure: They make Remington a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what — they play it as it lays.

This little speech may not seem like much but not only does it cast a pall over everything that follows, it destroys the fabric of the piece. Every ensuing mention of Remington and children and loss is all so treacly you want to whoopsie. Never forget the following:

Movie stars must have mystery.

Now, Goldman is primarily concerned with movie characters here, and while there are different concerns when writing for movies as opposed to writing novels or plays or teevee or whatever, storytelling is still storytelling. You’ve got to do right by your characters and you’ve got to do right by your audience, whether they’re sitting in the dark watching your tale or sitting by the sea reading it. Every character has a backstory, but there really are times when it’s best to not delve too deeply into it. (This is one reason I’m a little nervous about the idea of one of these one-shot Star Wars movies being a “Young Han Solo” story.)

I will, of course, return to the subject of characters in the future. This was only a start, dear readers!

 

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Starting Over: Go Ahead!

Writer Rae Oestreich (whom you should totally be following on Twitter) has a fascinating post up about when you have to restart a novel you’ve been working on for a while…and then restart it again…and possibly even restart it again.

Sometimes, you restart your novel many, many times before you feel like you’ve got it absolutely right. Personally, I believe that’s okay. Why? Because I’ve been working on my WIP, The Hollow Men, for two years, now. I’m on draft eight (or nine-ish? Possibly ten; I’ve lost count), and out of those eight drafts (current one included) I’ve only completed the novel twice.
Two complete drafts and six unfinished ones. Let that sit for you.

Her reasons for all those restarts lie in her perfectionism as a writer. I’m a perfectionist too, with the caveat that I’m generally able to temper my perfectionism for at least the time I’m cranking out the first draft. That’s not to say that I’m a complete slob during that point, but during first-draft composition I’m looking to get the story itself shaped out, so my perfectionism is focused on that. I don’t start looking at business involving character consistency and theme and everything else until I have the basic scaffolding, the story, in place.

But I have restarted works from the ground up. In fact, as I write this, my current WIP is, yet again, The Amazing Adventures of Lighthouse Boy (not the actual title). This is, I believe, my third start with this book. Why?

Well, there are a lot of reasons why a project get shelved. Perfectionism, and the sense that the project simply isn’t right at some fundamental level, is a big one. That’s why I shelved this book the first time. As a dedicated “pantser” when it comes to plotting, I believed very strongly that my characters had, in fact, got to where they needed to be. My problem was with what was happening next. I found myself with this deeply odd sensation that the events that were about to transpire were both the logical end of what had come before, and terribly goofy events that didn’t make any sense at all. Very strange! “Based on this state of affairs, which feels like the right state of affairs, THIS should happen next. But I don’t want THIS to happen next, because THIS is the wrong time for THIS to happen.”

So what did I do? What I usually do when I feel I’ve gone awry: I reverse course, backtracking in the manuscript to the most recent point when I felt things were going indisputably correctly (my most recent Manuscript Restore point, as it were), and taking another whack at things. I did this a few times and kept winding up with the feeling that it was almost right, but not quite. This didn’t work, and I ended up just putting the book aside while I went on to work on something else.

What then, you might ask. Well, I put Lighthouse Boy on the back burner for a good, long while. I got Stardancer ready for publication, I did a round of edits on The Wisdomfold Path, I did a round of edits on Ghostcop (not the actual title), and I wrote the first draft of Forgotten Stars III: Hey Look, More Stars! (also not the actual title). Now I’m back to working on Lighthouse, and I found myself with the same problems again as I considered the state in which I left my story. There was something fundamentally wrong with the thing, which I couldn’t put my finger on, until I was looking at the maps I had drawn for my fictional land of Old Eldra, and that’s when it hit me.

See, here’s the thing that I suspect many an author, but especially those writing imaginary-world fantasy, has discovered: geography is terribly underrated as a driver of plot. Very few books can get away with the types of geographic shenanigans perpetrated by The Simpsons, where you have mountains the size of the Matterhorn just miles away from the ocean, and where “East Springfield” is three times the size of Texas. In stories, the realities of your physical locations determine things, and that’s true with imaginary-world fantasy as well. I had already drawn my maps, and thus, things could only happen a certain way if I wanted my characters to visit a certain series of locations in a certain sequence.

The answer was clear: I had to start over, with a whole new map. So I literally re-drew the maps. I didn’t change anything radical, but I did move some places around. There are hills where once were mountains. One town just became a lot more important, and another has been reduced to little more than a trading post. The biggest change, though, was that my main character’s first major destination changed. In the book, he has to get to a certain place. I simply made it so the place he has to get to is twice as far away as the original place he had to get to, the first couple times I wrote the book. Twice the necessary journey will mean twice the hardship. (Meaning: Enter the smarmy thief who didn’t even appear in the first couple iterations!)

And then I started writing again. I’m keeping all the old chapters, because there’s a lot of material in them that will be preserved as I move forward. Hopefully things will proceed more logically this time, but as always, the proof will be in the doing. We’ll see. My next obstacle will be that I’ll be writing this draft at the same time that I am trying to get editing work done on Wisdomfold Path (coming in November, wow!), Ghostcop, and Forgotten Stars III. And I already have new ideas starting to percolate for other stories! Ye Gods, what’s a writer to do, but keep writing!

Ultimately, there’s no shame in rewriting or starting over. But before you do, make sure you think deeply about what issue will be best addressed by starting over. When you get to the point of starting over, you’re mainly conceding that there is something wrong with the current project at the conceptual level. There is no shame in this, either. It happens. Just get it fixed, and move on!

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