It Builds Character

22 02 2012

By Julia Indigo/@juliaindigo

My initial inspiration for writing was character-based. I invented a man, gave him a name, a profession, and built his character from there. I thought you might be interested in how I did it… and, of course, there are gaping holes in my process that you might be interested in pointing out to me in the comments. How could it be otherwise? I’m a newly-minted writer. I don’t know much. I’m going on instinct.

Oddly enough, for a musician, I am a very visually-oriented person. The first thing I determine about a character is his appearance. What kind of physical impression does he make? How tall? What kind of physique? Is he athletic and muscular, or friendly and pudgy?

 

Superficial things like eye/hair color and hair style. How does he walk? Does she stride, or mince? Does she live in her head most of the time, or is this someone who is completely at home in her body? Yoga, or softball, or websurfing? Or regular surfing? Running? Couch potato? Golfer?

Then style of dress. Does she dress up all the time, fashion forward? Is this someone who pays attention to grooming, or has he given up on all that?

 

Canelli is (obviously) of Italian heritage, and wealthy. Of course he wears Italian leather shoes! How could he not?

And what does it feel like to be in her presence? Does he dominate a room? Or is she a wallflower? What kind of conversationalist? Listener? Does he give you his entire attention, or is this person constantly scanning the room, in case there’s someone else they’d rather be seen with/ needs to talk to/ wants to seduce/ is dying to meet?

Is the individual an optimist or a pessimist? Do they kvetch? Constantly? Frequently? Rarely? Never? A joiner, or a loner? A thinker? A feeler? A sensualist? A judgmental S.O.B. or an airy-fairy ‘all is forgiven’ type? Oooh. I could see this turning into one of those online personality sorter questionnaires! There’s a thought! Go take the MBTI/enneagram tests AS THE CHARACTER!

What is his family history? I found this to be indispensable! In the case of Steven Canelli, he’s the youngest of seven, the only boy. The Canellis are a very wealthy Italian-American family. His father established their highly-successful family-owned ethnic foods company. They are Catholic, and live in Lake Forest, an upper-crust community north of Chicago, IL.

 

I don’t know about you, but when the above came to me, I knew bucketloads about this guy. Adding in that he is the product of his mother’s love affair, and as such his very existence is a constant (unpleasant) reminder to his (also unpleasant) ‘father’ that he’s a cuckold… well, you have the recipe for difficulties later in Steven’s life: addictions, problems with women, overachievement/workaholism, etc… and the story flows from these difficulties.

 

Then there’s history. I already know where he grew up. If he went to college, where did he go? What was his major? What did he like to do for fun back then? What is his work history? What is his relationship history? Did he break someone’ heart? Was his heart broken? And… How has that history molded him into the man he is today?

 

One method I use to construct temperament is to visualize/fantasize being the character. What does it feel like to be in his body? What is her point of view? This works well when I’m stuck, particularly when writing dialogue. I imagine myself as one of the characters, and physically move the way they might, if they were responding to what someone said. Do his eyes harden in response to someone’s comment, or do they soften? Does he glance away? Does she take a deliberate breath, or sigh, or pretend to cough? Is he cocksure, smirking and coming on to her? Does she meet his eyes, then roll hers dismissively?

 

And finally, what is the character’s reaction to the shit that I sling at them? As Chuck Wendig says, ‘Torture your characters! Throw them against the wall! Kill their kittens/puppies! etc…’ That isn’t a direct quote from Chuck, but you get the idea. Yes, I love Steven Canelli… but the dude’s got issues! The whole point is whether or not he can overcome them, and what craziness it takes to eventually get his attention. Hint: it isn’t called ‘hitting bottom’ for nothing! Oh wait! That sounds kinky, and I didn’t mean it that way! Let’s just say that the guy has a lot to lose, and yes, he loses it.

How do imagine your characters? Do you base them on people that you know? Do you interview them, or write their histories (as I have learned to do)? Let me know in the comments. And thank you for reading!





My First Anniversary: My First WIP

20 02 2012

Today is my First Anniversary… my first writing anniversary! I have been writing for one year.

February has historically been a questionable month for me. After all the darkness of winter I’m left in a deep depression, waiting for spring. I hit my lowest of lows in February 1994, when I had a nervous breakdown of sorts. I still have my struggles with depression, but for the most part, I’m okay now.

So it’s a blessing to put a gold star on February 20th, a star to brighten an otherwise bleak month.

My bestie is a writer, among other wonderful things. Sometime last winter she sent me a few pages of the novel she was writing, and I was blown away. Then it was as if a tiny angel whispered in my ear: you can do this too, Julia. Just give it a try.

I sat down with my laptop and opened up a word processing file, and started to write about Steven. I am character driven, but already had a scene for him. Boom. There it was. I opened up skype and read it to my bestie. She said, “Oh my god, Julia, you’re a writer!” I took on the mantle from that moment.

My life changed in an instant. Today I’m a happier person, more focused, more passionate, devouring everything I can about the craft… and, of course, WRITING.

I plotted out Steven’s life, and wrote out of order. For almost a year I had no idea how this book would end, but I kept on writing in fits and starts, until I had 90k words. Then I put it on the back burner for NaNoWriMo, and only returned to the Story of Steven Canelli in the past three weeks or so. I finally figured out the ending, which brought his life back full circle. Last night I wrote that final chapter, with a short epilogue planned.

But… and it’s a huge but… the book is nowhere near finished. I’ve cut out huge swaths of material (perhaps for a reader freebie in the future), and am seriously considering a complete rewrite to first person.

Even with that, I don’t know if I’ll ever publish this story. It is, after all, my first novel… and I hear that most writers have four or five of their first work in a drawer somewhere. But you have to start somewhere, and I did. I am a writer. One of the Creatives!





Catching up, part deux

19 02 2012

My day job has ‘dark weeks’ – weeks with no work/no pay. This past week was one of those, and it came just in time. I had lunch on Friday with someone who is involved with the company, and he asked how I had survived the previous five weeks – that’s when I realized that it had been a time that was noticeably more stressful than usual.

My November was stressful at work and I added NaNoWriMo to the mix. December was supposed to be relaxing, but my vacation was anything but that. Then came January and the above stressful working conditions… no wonder I was exhausted, when you add in my likely medical condition. Uff da.

Like a lot (most?) people, when I’m in the middle of things I don’t notice what’s going on, or the affect that it’s having on me. I just do what needs to get done, and if I’m having physical symptoms, I push through it. Now, at fifty-four, with a newish medical condition, it’s not working so well.

And what am I going to do about it? It’s times like this when I need a nurturing mother to stand by my side. Yes, my Mom is still alive, but at eighty-one she has her own issues, after a lifetime of being hard on herself (a lesson I learned in SPADES). So I’m going to step up to the plate and be my own nurturing mother.

It’s not that I don’t have resources – I do! – and it’s not that I don’t have ideas of what could be helpful. The first thing is to stop running long enough to breathe, pause, and take stock of my condition. When I do that, I’m not pleased with what I see. The inmates are running the asylum.

I had an interesting experience last night. I recently signed up for Holly Lisle’s “How To Think Sideways” class, and the first exercises were about busting through blocks by seeing, among other things, the false beliefs that one holds about what is the ‘safe’ way to live. It took me three weeks to sit down and actually do the exercise, and when I sat down to do it I was like a fidgety 7-year-old kid with ADHD. And when I actually finished, I realized that the most important thing that I can do is to Be My Own Mother.

And what does Mother think that Little Julia needs? To be present with her own pain.

Ouch. Did I just write that? I guess so, since my first WIP is about the disaster that one man’s life becomes when he is unable to do just that. He’s constantly medicating his pain, running away from it, with work, with cigarettes, with alcohol, with women. Now, I don’t do any of the above… but I can see why someone would do that.

Just be present with my pain, my frustrations, my anger, my disappointments.

Just breathe.





Catching up

14 02 2012

Life has happened, recently.

I haven’t written a word since the 5th, mostly because of health issues. I am shatteringly exhausted, but I have a good medical team, and things will sort themselves out soon enough. We’ve been working on this since early January – which is why I ditched Row80. It’s frustrating (to say the least) to not be able to do what I really want to do: write. I can’t even concentrate enough to participate on Facebook or Twitter.

The only thing I have energy for is work – and the only reason I have energy for that is the need to ‘put food on my family’, to quote President Bush. Thankfully, we have this week off, and I have a list as long as my arm of Very Important Tasks to do. This Virgo likes to strike things off lists… but that isn’t happening this week. I’m hoping to accomplish one thing per day – and sleeping might well be that one thing.

I’m sorry for the whinge, but I wanted you all to know that I haven’t fallen in a crevasse somewhere. I’m at home, propping my eyelids up.





Dealing with Difficult People

5 02 2012

By Julia Indigo/@juliaindigo

… at least, those you can’t summarily dismiss from your life!

Lucky me! I’m in the midst of a deepening friendship, with someone who is outwardly completely different than me. We’re different ages, races, ethnicities, we don’t speak the same language (though she speaks mine quite well), and if you saw us out together you’d probably look twice. We share gender and profession, and a direct manner of speaking. You never have to look for subtext in our words. We say what we mean. We’re also at the same level of emotional development – maybe. I say maybe because I have a feeling that she’s more emotionally mature than I am.

No, actually, I’m sure she is.

But I digress.

The other day we had a long lunch, discussing a particular situation in one of our lives… a situation with an emotionally manipulative and immature person, but one that is dear, and will remain close for some time.

How do you deal with that?

We talked about the situation and batted around various methods of dealing with the person. In that process, we came up with three attitudes that one can intentionally bring to any interaction with a difficult person.

COMPASSION

As my friend said, “We are all stuck in this hard life.” I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but life is definitely not easy. Time moves forward inexorably, and it’s easy to be swamped by the environment. Whether it’s being caught driving in a hailstorm, acquiring a damaged car in the process (as several of my colleagues were on Friday night), or finding oneself old and almost friendless, it’s easy enough to be caught unawares as the world passes you by. Decisions made in better times turn out to have been wrongheaded, decisions made by someone else impact you negatively, and you struggle.

At times it’s easy to put oneself in another’s shoes and see what their life is like, but whether or not it is, one can always choose to approach another with compassion for their humanity.

ACCEPTANCE

In my own interactions with a particular difficult person, I realized that the true struggle between the two of us was the desire on both our parts that the other change. Neither of us accepted the other as we were! There was no end to this difficulty, until I decided that the other was fine just as they were. After all, who made me the judge of anyone else!

There is a wonderful passage in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous concerning acceptance. I’ll quote a bit of it to give you a taste of its wisdom.

And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.
I respectfully suggest that you go read the whole thing… it’s not very long.
And here’s the kicker from my experience, and it’s HUGE:
Accepting someone as they are frees them to grow, if they so choose. Because beating someone over the head with a stick that reads ‘you aren’t okay until you do X’ guarantees that they will armor and defend themselves, and resist changing!
It was only as I accepted the other as they were, that our relationship changed from one of almost constant dissonance into the relative peace that we experience today.

RESPECT

Many, many years ago I had a rough relationship with a colleague. It was obvious to me that he did not respect me, and it grated. Our work relationship was fraught, and it affected everyone around us (I hope I used ‘affected right! Let me know in the comments if I didn’t!).

Then something happened which is as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday. I was at home, and in a flash I realized that I didn’t respect him, either. That realization pinged my value system – and I made the decision to respect him from then on, no matter how he treated me.

Can you guess what happened?

The very next time I saw him, before I spoke a word to him, before there was any interaction between us AT ALL… he changed. It was as though my decision went through the ether, and affected him (that word, again! AAUGH!), and he treated me differently. He treated me with respect, and to this DAY our relationship is friendly. No, actually, it’s not friendly, it’s close. He’s retired now, but every time we see each other it’s a hugfest.

I wish I could say that I bring these three attitudes to all my interactions in my daily life, but that would not be true, as I am a work in progress. Blogging about it is yet another way to cement it into my consciousness, and perhaps, just perhaps, the people who I meet from now on will experience me as more compassionate, accepting, and respectful.

How do YOU deal with unpleasant and difficult people in your life? Do you consciously bring these attitudes, or other positive ones, to those relationships? Please share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!





My First WIP is…

2 02 2012

 

… giving me indigestion.

 

I bought Scrivener a few days ago, and was happily putting my NaNoWriMo novel into it. I love the way each part of the story is easily accessible, and how the outline and corkboard views make it easy to see the story’s trajectory. So far so good. I was psyched.

Then I decided to put my first (unfinished) novel in, and uff da. What a mess! What I’ve written covers most of the protag’s life, from just after birth to his 50s in therapy.

 

::excuse me while I die laughing at myself::

 

 

************************

 

 

Ahem. That took a while. Advice from the writing blogosphere: don’t write your character’s therapy. It’s boring to read! (in my defense, I got bored myself and didn’t finish the scene…)

I was a complete pantser when I wrote the Canelli book, with no concern for plotting. I had scenes in my mind, and though many of them turned into true chapters, the chapters don’t fit together. In fact, the character changed as I wrote, becoming a much more complex, darker character. That kind of character development works well in novels, but I’d been writing his story out of chronological order. At 38 (which I wrote in August 2011) he’s a dark character, while at 48 (which I wrote in March 2011) he’s a happy being of light.

I hope to rescue this 96k novel and turn it into something more readable. (Yes, I wrote nearly 100k in this meandering mess.)

My first task: setting up a three to four-act plot. What is the point? Who/what is the antagonist? What does the protag want? What is his passion? What scares him to death, makes him break out in a cold sweat? What would he give everything he has to have in his life?

My second task is like unto the first: deciding what happens in the end, and write it. Is the guy salvageable? Or have his secret compulsions backed him into such a dark place that there is no way out? Will he manage to weasel his way out of XXX?

Can I bust out a series of short stories from this manuscript? Or a bloody TRILOGY? (Duology?) Or a sensible Contemporary Fiction 85k word novel? Or will I finish it at all?

 

That’s a lot of questions to be answered. There’s a bunch of dreck to be deleted, okay stuff to be rewritten, and some awesome wordsmithing in the manuscript. Time to spend some time coming up with a working logline, and plot from there.

The basic formula for a logline (from Anne R. Allen’s linked post above):

When______happens to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.

That’s what I don’t yet have… but I will!








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