THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, Chapter Two!

Annnnd, here it is! The second of the two sample chapters I’ll be posting from THE WISDOMFOLD PATH. (You did check out Chapter One, didn’t you? Hmmmm? Well, if not, this would be a darn good time to do that!)

The book goes LIVE just two weeks from today, folks!

Chapter two, below the fold.

Continue reading “THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, Chapter Two!”

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THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, Chapter One!

All right, folks, here it is: Chapter One of THE WISDOMFOLD PATH. Chapter Two will appear tomorrow, and the book itself launches two weeks from tomorrow, on November 10! It’s coming!!!

(And make sure to check out the cover art, if you haven’t already!)

Here we go! (Below the fold, of course.)

Continue reading “THE WISDOMFOLD PATH, Chapter One!”

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It’s NaNoWriMo time!

Yes, that’s right: NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) is just around the corner! It’s that wonderful time of year when thousands of writers around the world spend their Novembers chasing the goal of averaging 1,667 words a day. I will be participating for my fourth consecutive year, and my record is two wins and one not-win (last year). I wrote this post for Byzantium’s Shores a couple of years back, conveying my advice for achieving NaNoWriMo success, and while certain facts in the post have changed (i.e., what I’m working on this year), the advice has not.

So here it is.

National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” as it’s usually called, starts one week from today. This year will mark my third go-round, after completing the goal the last two years. However, oddly enough, even though I cleared the NaNoWriMo goal of 50000 words in November both times, I still haven’t finished either manuscript!

The first year was Deliverance, eh? (not the actual title), a supernatural thriller involving a kayaking trip in the wilds of northern Canada. I still like this story and have every intention of returning to it at some point. I set it aside because it reached a point where I wasn’t sure how to proceed and I didn’t like the direction I had taken, and then I decided that it was time to write Princesses In SPACE!!! II (not the actual title), because it was about that time that I knew that if I wanted the Princesses series to be a thing, I needed to get going on a second book ASAP. So the kayak-trip-from-hell book is safely awaiting a revisit, maybe in another year or two. after I write Princesses III and a sequel to GhostCop (not the actual title).

Last year I used NaNoWriMo to finish GhostCop and then resume work on Lighthouse Boy, which has again been set aside so I can continue working on the Princesses series. I’ve discovered over the last couple of years that while I can be prolific and always have something in the hopper, I can really only work on one project at a time, whether it be editing an existing manuscript or cranking out a new one. It’s just the way my mind works best, on these sorts of things; I tend to focus strongly on one thing, be it editing or composing, and trying to do both never works as I invariably end up gravitating toward one or the other. So I don’t even try anymore. I have time for Lighthouse Boy, anyway, since my current notion is to finish it and then serialize it as a series of cheap e-books. I suspect that doing something like that will be better accomplished once I’ve established my “brand” a bit, which means getting at least the first two Princesses books out there and at least launching the GhostCop series.

But anyway, NaNoWriMo isn’t really about finishing, anyway. It can be, but my experience is that it’s more about the work. It’s about setting a high goal and working toward it, relentlessly, and with some camaraderie that can’t always be found in real life. Fifty thousand words in one month is absolutely doable, but it’s also not the easiest target to reach if you’re not used to it, and it’s particularly devilish that the challenge comes in a month with only 30 days and one of the major holidays of our year. (Well, for now, anyway, since we seem hell-bent as a culture on making Thanksgiving about as relevant a holiday as Columbus Day, but that’s a rant for another time.) NaNoWriMo is about producing a big chunk of work, regardless of worrying about if it’s good or not. So, in that vein, if you’re considering participating in NaNoWriMo this year, here are my thoughts on how to best approach it for success:

1. Know what you’re going to write.

Have your mind made up so as soon as you sit down at the keyboard on November 1, you can charge out of drydock, thrusters on full. Don’t sit down at the keyboard and then try to decide what story you’re going to tell.

Now, “Know what you’re going to write” has some wiggle-room. I’m the type of writer called a “pantser”, meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t outline entire novels prior to writing, and if I do any outlining at all, it’s merely a scene or two in advance just so I can work out the timing and sequence of events in my head in the very near term. Other than that, I rarely have any great idea where the story is going.

Perhaps, however, you’re an outliner. You like to have a detailed outline ready to go, or maybe you like to figure out your characters in gory detail prior to writing. Lots of writers spend lots of time doing this kind of prep work — outlines, character sketches, that sort of thing — and if you’re one of them, have as much of that done as possible before November 1. November is not a time for prep work, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo.

2. Choose your style, and the simpler, the better.

Remember, NaNoWriMo is about producing a lot of words in a specific timeframe. Therefore, it’s not really the best time in the world for experimenting with your literary style. If your default style is toward the florid but you’ve had a hankering for writing a crime novel in a kind of Dashiell Hammett style, maybe November isn’t the right time. Likewise, NaNoWriMo really is not the time to write your near-future dystopian tragedy in rhyming Iambic pentameter.

3. Give your internal editor the month off.

Again, you’re looking to cover a lot of ground in November. You can edit later. There just isn’t time for revision, unless you realize that your story has gone well-and-truly off the rails and that you simply must backtrack to Albuquerque so you can take that left turn you missed. If you have to do this, fine, but don’t delete the work you’ve done. Leave it in there. Move it to the end of the file, past a couple of page breaks, but those words are still work you did. When it comes time to verify your wordcount at the end of the month, all Na NoWriMo will do is count your words. Nobody is going to read your work to make sure it’s coherent.

So: if you really have made a story error, by all means, go back and take another stab at it, without deleting what you’ve already produced. Generally, though, NaNoWriMo is not the time to try and make every sentence sing and put every word in its exact place.

4. Know when you are going to write.

This might actually be the most important thing. If you’ve been noodling around with writing for a long time but new to the crunch of NaNoWriMo, you’ll likely be very surprised at the amount of work and time involved in producing 1667 words in one day, much less every day for thirty days. Plan your writing time, right from Day One. It’s important. Know when you are going to write. If you normally get up at 7:00 every morning, maybe get up at 6:15 and write until seven. If there’s usually an hour after dinner when you’re unoccupied, set that aside for writing. On Sundays, maybe join the football game in progress after 2:00 instead of insisting on watching the whole thing. You have to budget your time, because while the NaNoWriMo goal of 50000 words in thirty days is doable, falling behind is also very doable, and getting caught up once you’re behind by even a day or two is a lot less doable. Make every effort to start the month ahead, so that if you need to take a day or two later on to produce less than 1667 words, you can afford it.

It’s good that this year NaNoWriMo starts on a Saturday (unless, of course, your job doesn’t give you Saturdays off). Getting off to a strong start is essential, and with two weekend days to launch, the schedule is quite conducive to it. Take advantage! Don’t tell yourself that you can make it up with a couple of 5000 word marathon sessions at some point, because quite frankly, you won’t.

What NaNoWriMo really helps is to train the brain — mindhack, if you will — to see writing as a job that can be approached in discrete chunks, as opposed to some mystical process driven by the capricious magic of some Muse. Believe me, there’s enough magic and mystery in writing already, so it can also be seen as a job where a daily word count is similar to a pro painter’s “Get this many square feet of the wall painted today”.

5. Don’t let friends and family guilt you about your focus this month.

Luckily, this has never been a problem for me, but I know it has for others (there’s a long thread about it on one of the NaNoWriMo message boards). If anyone gives you shit about writing, be firm in claiming this time for yourself. If they press, tell them that you have set a personal goal for yourself and you are working toward it. Would they guilt you if the goal you set was, say, running a marathon and you were doing a lot of training? I’m guessing not. Well, it’s the same thing. A personal goal that needs met is still a personal goal, no matter what. And if the other person is mocking of your personal goal? Well…I can’t really offer advice there, except to note that mocking someone’s goals, dreams, and efforts to make those things come true isn’t really something that should be endured from a “loved” one.

6. Interact with other people pursuing the same goal!

NaNoWriMo is a fairly big deal. The website has a lot of separate forums, from genre forums to forums for people of similar age groups to regional forums so you can connect with people in your area. Some areas even have “meet-ups”, where you can actually go and hang out with other writers who are having their own sessions. I’ve never done that (in this area, the meet-ups always seem to be held in the Northtowns, which is a bummer), but I wouldn’t mind someday. Find NaNoWriMo people on whatever social media you use — Twitter and Instagram have a lot of them — and share thoughts and success stories and kudos and cheers and vexing frustrations. Writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be.

7. Don’t lose the story.

It’s about telling a story, after all. So go ahead and tell it!

UPDATE: My project this year is, once again, “Lighthouse Boy” (not the actual title). Over the last few months I have literally started the book over from the very beginning, but a lot of what happens in the book — at least the first third of it — is the same as what happened in previous drafts, so that should make the work easier.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, what are you working on?

(Oh, and my user name is “Jaquandor”, for those who want to “buddy up” or whatever it is they call it.)

 

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Proofing, hooray.

My proof copy of The Wisdomfold Path arrived over the weekend, and opening it up to Page One, I discovered:

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Oops.

This is why we go through our proof copies, folks.

(The good news? As soon as I get the tweaks made and re-proofed, I’ll start doing things like…the COVER REVEAL! Hopefully next week! It’s coming, folks, it’s really coming!)

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On Character, part the second

Hello, all! Time for another post on characters and how to approach them…or how I approach them…or, in this case, how another writer approached them.

So let’s talk about Calvin and Hobbes.

This legendary comic strip is still well known today, despite that fact that its creator, Bill Watterson, ended it nearly twenty years ago (in fact, this coming December 31 will mark the 20th anniversary of the final strip of Calvin and Hobbes). Watterson created a bunch of interesting and memorable characters, and at the center of it all was six-year-old Calvin and his beloved stuffed tiger, who in Calvin’s presence (and only in Calvin’s presence) was a living, breathing being.

Calvin was not very well-behaved. He wasn’t focused in school, he engaged in all manner of shenanigans that got him in trouble constantly, and he wasn’t terribly nice to the little girl down the street. In these particulars, he probably wasn’t all that different from a lot of six-year-old little boys, and while it’s tempting to read into Calvin’s psychology (and yes, you can find a lot of such commentary online), it’s best to realize that it’s all fiction and that Calvin likely is the star of a comedy strip, and not a real kid desperately in need of a truckload of Ritalin.

Watterson does not depict Calvin solely by his negative qualities, though, and it’s telling that those negative qualities seem to only come out when Calvin is forced to engage with other people. Ultimately Calvin is something of a loner, and when he’s allowed to do his own thing, he is depicted as an amazingly creative and imaginative little boy. Mostly this drives everyone around him to distraction, but occasionally people notice that it’s a good thing. There’s one strip that has Calvin imagining that he is A GOD, creating a world out of nothing…and then we cut to his parents in the last panel. Dad says, “Have you seen how absorbed Calvin is with those Tinkertoys? He’s making whole worlds in there!” And his Mom replies, “I’ll bet he grows up to be an architect.” (Of course, they don’t know that Calvin is imagining wreaking his evil vengeance upon the world as a God of the Underworld, but what they won’t know won’t hurt them.)

I read an article some months ago — which I didn’t bookmark and now I can’t find to save my life — that seemed to argue, if I recall correctly, that Watterson erred in ending an early story arc in the C&H run. This arc had Calvin’s Uncle Max (his father’s brother) come to visit, during which time he stuck around and made some commentary on Calvin’s tendency to being a loner and attachment to an “imaginary” friend and so on. The article argued (and again, I may have this very wrong) that Uncle Max represented an opportunity to show Calvin’s continued “growth” in some way. Watterson, on the other hand, recognized Max as a storytelling mistake. In his Tenth Anniversary book, Watterson wrote this about Uncle Max:

I regret introducing Uncle Max into the strip. At the time, I thought a new character related to the family would open up story possibilities: the family could go visit Max, and so on. After the story ran, I realized that I hadn’t established much identity for Max, and that he didn’t bring out anything new in Calvin. The character, I concluded, was redundant. It was also very awkward that Max could not address Calvin’s parents by name, and this should have tipped me off that the strip was not designed for the parents to have outside adult relationships. Max is gone.

That’s pretty insightful. A good character isn’t a good character in and of him or herself. A good character isn’t just well-developed and realistic and memorable and all those other things. A good character must serve the story and fit into the story’s world and tone. A character who doesn’t do those things is not a good character. Unfortunately for Watterson, he realized his error with Uncle Max after the character had already appeared in print, so he couldn’t just strike him from the record, could he? So now, Uncle Max is a real thing, complete with fan speculations and whatnot. (Someone out there has a pet theory that Uncle Max and “Lyman”, a disappeared-character of similar appearance from Garfield, are the same person. I am not making that up, either.)

Max doesn’t fit in the Calvin and Hobbes universe because about the only thing he can offer in terms of storytelling possibilities is a new setting for Calvin’s adventures as a loner, and that’s a pretty lame reason to have yet another outside person to be flummoxed by Calvin’s oddities. The person arguing that Max could have been a key, in some way, to Calvin maturing over time was missing a very huge point.

However, something else interesting happened as the strip neared its conclusion. Watterson eventually did allow a single outside character, and only one outside character, into Calvin’s world. He did this on an extremely limited basis (this character did not suddenly see Hobbes as a real tiger), but this storyline — one of my favorites in the entire run — was the only time I can remember an outside person interacting with Calvin on Calvin’s terms. That person was Rosalyn, Calvin’s embattled babysitter.

Rosalyn was a recurring character whose appearance on the scene always meant funny things were afoot. Her story arcs would run over the course of several days as each time Calvin did something else to get in trouble, make Rosalyn’s night miserable, and amuse the readers with all manner of hijinks. Rosalyn was also smart as a whip; having recognized the inherent lucrative nature of being the only neighborhood babysitter willing to supervise Calvin, she priced her services accordingly, much to the chagrin of Calvin’s dad, who knew that he was getting taken advantage of and could literally do nothing about it.

The last time Rosalyn showed up, the story started in pretty typical fashion. We know what’s going to happen: Rosalyn is going to threaten Calvin with doom if he misbehaves, and he’s going to misbehave anyway, and the night is doomed.

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However, things go slightly differently, as Rosalyn has a different plan:

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Calvin actually meets his end of this bargain (and God bless Watterson’s memory of how big an incentive it can be for a kid, being allowed to stay up late, even just half an hour), and Rosalyn meets hers: allowing Calvin to pick his favorite game to play. Now, she is undoubtedly expecting him to pick Sorry! or Monopoly or some such board game, but of course, Calvin picks Calvinball.

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Calvinball, for those possibly unfamiliar with the strip, is a game whose one and only rule is the rules are never the same each time out. Rosalyn, of course, has absolutely no idea what to expect, but into the game she goes, quickly picking up the “rules”:

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Rosalyn is actually engaging Calvin on his own terms here, and again, as far as I can recall this is the only time this happens with any outside person at all in the history of the strip. It’s really quite fascinating, since by its nature, Calvin and Hobbes is really fairly static in terms of character development for its entire run. Yes, we see different aspects of Calvin’s character over the years, but he never really changes, and that’s as much a necessity of the medium as anything else. (How much did Charlie Brown or Lucy ever change? Or Dagwood? Or Garfield? Or….) But here, we see definite change in one key way: Calvin finds a way (without looking) to connect with Rosalyn, and she finds a way to connect with him. As this story progresses, the water balloon is there, ready to be thrown at someone, and I remember thinking at the time that the water balloon was going to the source of Calvin getting in trouble this time, but then Rosalyn uses the “rules” of Calvinball to her advantage:

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There’s a wonderful coda to this storyline when Calvin’s parents get home and ask how things went, and Rosalyn says something like “Fine! Calvin did his homework, we played a game, and he went to bed,” to which Dad replies, “I’m in no mood for jokes!” He’s utterly convinced, you see, that this night will be like all the others and he’s coming home to an angry babysitter and his misbehaving kid.

(By the way, if you want to read this entire storyline — I don’t include each installment here — start here and click forward. There’s a Sunday strip in there that does not pertain to the Rosalyn storyline.)

Now, is Rosalyn a great character? Not particularly, because like everyone else, we only get to see her through the prism of Calvin and his reactions to her, but she does make possible some great moments along the way. Watterson wisely used her sparingly, noting that each time she showed up there was a sense that he had to outdo himself. With this story, Rosalyn does something no one else has done: she has entered Calvin’s world. It’s telling that this was the last time Rosalyn appeared before the strip ended. I don’t know if Bill Watterson wanted to have someone pull off this feat before he wrapped things up, but for my money, Rosalyn was really the only character who could have done this. For one thing, it’s completely unexpected, but for another, it’s done in the perfect way.

One last observation on this: Watterson also wisely knew what he could do with his characters when. This is important. He couldn’t have this story be the first one when Rosalyn showed up, because then there would be an underlying sympathy for her every time thereafter. This story could only be the last Rosalyn story. Likewise, the James Bond stories can’t start with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Macbeth can’t start with Macbeth having usurped the throne, and so on. The audience has to be prepared to go where the characters are going, and if the characters go there before the audience is — or even can be — ready, then the story is going to feel forced and false.

And with that, I’ll have done. Thanks for hanging in there, and hey! Over the next few weeks, I’ll start dripping out some real concrete information and teaser stuff pertaining to The Wisdomfold Path! November 10 is coming, folks!

 

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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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