Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ouch! Smashed My Thumb!

Hammers!  I hate them. They never hit where I’m looking. If my thumb is anywhere near the target spot, that hammer usually delivers another missing thumbnail. Here I go blaming the hammer, when, in truth, the problem is the carpenter, not the tool. Same goes for saws, screwdrivers, most power tools and, of course, the dreaded propane torch...ouch!

What does this have to do with writing?

It’s about the tools of our trade. Have you ever thought about our tools? I’m not talking about sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, spelling, plot, character development or all those other “mechanical” things that are often thought of as writer tools. Can you imagine a reader finishing a great story and remarking, “Wow! That was awesome sentence structure through that whole story!” Or, how about this, “I loved that story because there was not a single misspelled word in the entire book!” Sure, an English teacher might orgasm over such a book, but normal people “react” to a story, rather than notice the mechanics of writing. In fact, the mechanics of writing are best when they go completely unnoticed. They are SKILLS, not tools.

So, we’re back to my question...what writing “tools” am I talking about?

All people experience life based on a unique set of core personality traits and values. What are they? Here is a brief list of some traits and their opposites:

Outgoing personality / Introverted
Loyal / Disloyal or Untrustworthy
Courteous / Rude or Inconsiderate
Open-minded / Closed-minded
Compassion or Empathy / Emotionally Cold or Lacking Empathy
Generous / Greedy or Self-interested
Industrious / Lazy
Energetic / Sickly or Lethargic
Positive or Optimistic / Negative or Pessimistic
Brave / Cowardly
Strong self-control / Weak Impulse Control
Calmness or Serenity / Excitability or Nervousness
Independent / Dependent
Happy Overall / Angry Overall
Honest / Dishonest

Human characteristics like those listed above create emotional reactions in readers. Here’s an example:

Handsome male college student, Andy, is romancing a particularly vulnerable young woman, Sasha. Her life experience includes the death of her father when she was only ten. Her mother did a wonderful job providing for them, but our young college coed craved male acceptance, leading her into several abusive relationships in the past. Naturally, she is reluctant to dive into another relationship and has avoided dating for over a year. Andy is different. He’s gentle, understanding, upbeat, sensitive...everything Sasha needs. After months of starts and stops on her part, she finally commits to the relationship and spends a weekend with Andy at a snow ski lodge. It seems like she finally found that special man she craved.

Andy’s temperament changes when they return to college. He becomes less tolerant, sometimes even rude, as she tries to carry on ordinary conversations. One Friday night, Sasha drops by his apartment and discovers a rowdy party of a dozen of Andy’s male school friends. He tries to prevent her from entering but several of the party-goers begin hooting and hollering about the girl in the video. Sasha pushes past Andy and sees a video playing on his wide screen TV. It’s them making love at the ski chalet. Sasha soon discovers that Andy won a bet by bedding her, and, distraught, she leaves college. At her aunt’s home, deep in the mountains of West Virginia, Sasha endures fits of depression and struggles with suicidal ideas. Eventually, she finds peace in a friendship with a small ground squirrel that learns to eat out of her hand. A long-standing drought caused severe danger of forest fire. The aunt goes into town to get groceries and a fire breaks out, preventing her from returning home. She calls her niece and tells her to get out using the back road. Sasha agrees, but never leaves. Instead, she tries to lure the squirrel into a box so she can take it with her. The fire cuts off her escape road and she hides in the house.

Andy deeply regrets what happened and has been searching for Sasha for months to attempt amends. He finally tracks her to the aunt’s place, but fire officials prevent him from passing fire road closures. While he looks up the road at the distant smoke, an old woman frantically approaches the fire chief pleading for someone to rescue her niece. You can figure out where the story goes from here...

Let’s examine the “tools” used in this story to create connection with readers. Compassion + Empathy - at the beginning of this short story, most readers care about Sasha because she suffered an understandable and unfortunate reaction to the loss at a tender age of her father. As Sasha overcomes her caution and Andy displays several traits that Sasha can trust, readers experience a sense of happiness for our female lead. Sasha’s betrayal is also the reader’s betrayal as they had also come to “trust” Andy. Readers then worry about Sasha’s suicidal thoughts and her withdrawal from society. A little reader-hope creeps into the picture as Sasha builds trust with the grey squirrel. The fire changes the reader’s reaction, yet again, introducing tension and fear. As the fire approaches, readers respect Sasha’s concern for the squirrel, but are frustrated with her poor judgment. Andy’s arrival at the road blockade causes mixed feelings in readers...some anger, some hope, curiosity about how he can possibly overcome his betrayal.

The point of this little story is to illustrate how the tools that pull a reader into a story are based on emotion, not of the characters, but emotions of the reader! The goal of a writer should be to draw a reader into the story; to make the reader “feel” the story-character’s angst. To do this, the writer has to use the emotional tools effectively. This is the secret to all great stories. The tools of such writing are human character traits that make life interesting.

I found a great list of human traits on the following website. It’s a handy reference I use while writing:

Now that you know what tools I have in my toolbox, I hope it helps in some way.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ooops...Broke a Cardinal Rule

Can’t believe I made this goof.

My manuscript, Jihad: The Breath of God, is reaching the end stages of scrutiny before being offered to publishers. Marisa, my agent, let a couple of her publishers know that she has a great thriller coming down the pipeline, kind of tickling their interest. Everything looked great, until...yep, there always seems to be a worm inside that shiny apple. Osama Bin Laden’s death was great for the nation, but a lousy break for my story. Why?

Every fiction writer understands that if your story contains an element of the present in it, then the book can become obsolete the moment circumstances change and no longer fit the story.

My story is speculative fiction. It features current airport security protocol, modern military ability and present day scientific knowledge and technology. I carefully referred to the President of the United States but never give him a name because I wouldn’t want my book to become outdated after just one election. Past events like the Second Battle for Mogadishu in 2006 are real. Street names, gang warfare in Somalia and ultimate outcomes are all real and recent history. I paid attention to avoid references that might “date” the book. All but one! I used Osama Bin Laden, by name, as the presiding leader of Al Qaeda. Guess that “realism” got shot to hell this weekend. Mind you, it’s a happy “shot to hell”, but it’s also a strong reminder to me that I violated a cardinal rule of writing by providing the story with built-in obsolescence. And now, it happened. To tell the truth, after ten years of avoiding our best black ops guys, I figured he was good for another ten years, especially with Pakistan hiding him. But, alas, an important character now doesn’t fit the ending. Yikes!

Fortunately, the correction requires simple changes to a few scenes involving him. I'll insert a replacement terrorist leader who says the same things and makes the same decisions as I had Bin Laden making. In fact, the story becomes even juicier as the plot incorporates revenge for BL's death as a core motivation. This actually might improve the whole thing, even the ending.

Got lucky this time. I broke a fundamental rule of writing and got caught. The end result will strengthen the story, but it could have been a disaster in the other direction. Imagine if the book was already on the market! So, if you’re writing a present day fiction, don’t learn the hard way as I did. Avoid temptation to incorporate known characters or evolving situations in such a way that they could change quickly and destroy your plot.

Well, I dodged a big one. Promised my agent the revised manuscript by Friday, so I’d better get to to the keyboard-mill. By the way, if you don't wash your hands a lot now, you WILL after reading this story!