Wednesday, January 20, 2016

See it ... Feel it ... Write it

I’ve always admired—and envied—those writers capable of envisioning futuristic civilizations and painting them in glorious detail on the printed page.  Specifically, I refer to those authors successful in the Sci-Fi, Apocalyptic, Dystopian, and related genres.  They not only perform the basic literary tasks of weaving stories, conceiving settings and locales, and fleshing out characters, but they also create in toto the yet-unknown societies in which their characters come into existence, live, love, fight, and die.  It takes a certain breed of writer to visualize an entire world and establish—with an acceptable degree of believability--the sights, morals, behavioral boundaries, smells, dangers, pleasures, sounds, and mores of existence for that world.  I’ve tried some tentative writing in these genres myself with less-than-pleasing results.  So, I must content myself with good ol’ current-day planet Earth.

But that doesn’t mean that those of us who choose to remain of this world are permitted to write shallow, empty, throwaway stories populated by shallow, empty, throwaway characters.  Regardless of whatever world a writer chooses to portray, the responsibility still remains to write worthy stories featuring characters endowed with vitality (positive OR negative), meaning, and depth. 


Seeing, feeling, and writing are—in my humble opinion—three of the most critical skills necessary for an author to effectively convey a story (and its underlying message) to the reader.

Seeing—or visualization, if you prefer—requires a mind’s eye with 20/20 vision.  If you cannot see a character, a setting, a scene, a locale, or an environment on that movie screen in your head, what hope do you possibly have of painting that image on the canvas of your reader’s mind?  This skill is perhaps the most important of the three in this discussion.  Precise vision enhances a character’s “fleshing out” process, giving him/her a face, a human (or other) form, and an image that the reader’s imagination can process and mentally place onstage.

Remember the live radio shows of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s?  Before the widespread availability of television, they were THE preferred prime-time entertainment option for the millions of Americans who tuned in every night for the latest episodes of Burns and Allen, Gunsmoke, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow, The Life of Riley, Dragnet, The Great Gildersleeve, The Lone Ranger, and a wide assortment of others.

Why were they so successful?

Through the creative use of background music, sound effects, omniscient narrators, ingenious scripts, and the considerable talents of vocal performers, these programs utilized the principle of the theater of the mind: presenting their stories so eloquently through words, music, and sounds that each individual audience member was able to mentally “complete the picture” in his or her own mind.  For the creatives of that era, this was by no means a simple task; nor is it for the current-day author with only the written word as a medium.

For example, I formulated a clear and highly-defined mental picture of each principal setting in Child of Privilege: the Van Werner mansion; Dana’s bedroom; Richard’s study; Red’s, the rundown honky-tonk where Dana performed her impromptu nude dance to pay for a bus ticket; the cold, dehumanizing jail cell where she spent the night dreading her father’s arrival; Beckett Junction which was inspired by an actual rural community with which I’m familiar; and the college-dorm-room clutter of Greg Parmenter’s cottage.

The same precise visualization applies to characters as well.  An interviewer once asked me to select a cast for a hypothetical Child of Privilege movie.     

If only it were true!

I answered this question very easily because I had long ago formed exact facial impressions of my principal players.  I can still vividly see Richard’s pencil-thin mustache, slicked-back hair, and ubiquitous scowl; Maggie’s demure manner, excessive makeup, and feigned smile; Dana’s warm brown eyes, sandy-blonde tresses, peaches-and-cream complexion, and girl-next-door charm; Reavis’s vulgarity, drooling leer, and insatiable sexual neediness; and Angelo’s inner misgivings, hangdog expression, and hidden fear. 

Now that you can “see” your novel, the next step is to feel it. 

I’ve always believed that readers prefer emotionally-rich and multi-layered characters.  Let’s face it: we are emotional creatures.  Your players need feelings—whether evil or benign--to enable the rest of us to relate to them on some level.  Otherwise, they may project themselves from the page as cold, empty, and unappealing.

So, what kinds of emotions should they display?  And where should those emotions come from?

From YOU, of course.  Who is better qualified?  You created them; you gave them form; you gave them their raison d’ĂȘtre.  Who better than you to program their hearts and minds with emotions that’ll endear them to your reading audience?  A daunting task?  Not at all.

I accomplish this in two ways: First, I endow nearly every character I create with some personal attribute of mine, a tiny piece of myself, you might say.  This serves as the character’s emotional foundation.   I then use the rest of the novel to continually build—brick by brick, emotion by emotion--upon that foundation, creating an emotional portfolio that ultimately enlivens the player with a certain humanness that a reader can sense and relate to quite readily. 

Second, I place myself in my characters’ roles.  I ask myself what emotions I would be experiencing if I were personally living each role in the story.

In a single word: empathy.

Would I be able to breathe under my smothering feelings of powerlessness as I listened to my parents battering each other in the next bedroom?  How would I endure the trauma and pain of being pummeled by my father for no fathomable reason?  What emotions would be swirling through my mind as I abandoned the wealth, social status, and luxury of my past and found myself riding some dingy bus bound for nowhere?  How embarrassed would I feel standing onstage and taking my clothes off before a honky-tonk packed with drunken strangers?  How would I cope with the despair of spending a night in a jail cell waiting for my father to arrive and drag me back home to a certain nightmare?

What depths of fear and rage would drive me when I finally confronted the man whose hired thugs had pursued me—like a hunted animal--across the country?

This was undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of writing Child of Privilege: defining and molding into words the emotional imperatives of such diametrically-opposed personalities as Dana, Richard, Maggie, Reavis, and Angelo.

The question of how successful I was can only be answered by the world’s book-buyers.

The final element—write it—is probably the most bewildering for many writers to master.  Once the plots and subplots are finalized, the characters outlined and “fleshed out,” and the timing, sequence, and logistics issues resolved, the author then turns to the world’s largest toolbox: the English language.

With options from collective pronouns to adverbs (vigorously frowned upon in some circles), from compound subjects to independent clauses, from the dreaded preposition to split infinitives, and from participles to adjectives, a writer can become overwhelmed—and some do—by the sheer number of variables involved in constructing even the simplest cognitive sentence.  Every sentence seems to require 100 decisions and corrections before it flows properly from the page.  Then there are questions of verb tense.  And what about singular vs. plural?  POV?  Flashbacks?  Narrative vs. dialogue?  Dashes?  Hypens?  Semicolons?  Commas?  Spelling?

Writing is such fun!

That’s why—whether I’m composing an email, zipping out a short story, or stringing 96K words together—Mister Webster (both printed and online versions) and my trusty thesaurus are never far away.  I’ve also started devouring every grammar book carried by my local library.

Inquiring minds want to know!

And so the creative process goes: conceived by your mind’s eye, birthed by your emotions, matured by your writing skills, and given in marriage to your readers’ eyes.

If all of that were simple, everybody would be doing it!

A parting thought: For those who are curious, the hypothetical cast of the hypothetical Child of Privilege movie can be found here:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I Got Your Expert Right Here

The experts have warned me that I'm doomed to failure.  The experts have warned me that I'll be lost among the tens of thousands of other author hopefuls all searching for the same pot of gold at the same end of the same rainbow: the best-seller list.  The experts have warned me that my books will probably gather more dust than readers.

Well, I guess I’d better heed their sage advice (after all, they are the experts!), fold up my writing tent, and take up a more realistic hobby like growing candy canes in my backyard. 

Or perhaps I’ll quote Vinnie Barbarino, TV’s eminent 1970s philosopher/Sweathog: “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”

I don’t care about the experts.  I can’t allow them to take something so precious—my dream of writing success--away from me.  Nor can I allow them to dictate to me.  Most importantly, I can't allow them to affect my writing.

My lifelong wish has been to succeed as a writer; not just a good writer; not just an average writer.  My Holy Grail is that golden circle of writing's elite, one of those iconic storytellers whose words mirror life and reflect it back to the reader--like a prism—in a kaleidoscope of varying hues and shapes.  Sometimes I worry that my mortality will catch up with me before I'm able to conceive, develop, and write down all the stories that dominate my imagination at times.  I surely hope that doesn't happen.

So many lives out there are—as Thoreau so aptly observed--being lived in silent desperation.  There are perhaps billions of people out there suffering in silence, fighting private wars against heartache, pain, disease, misfortune, cruelty, and, in some cases, themselves.  There are so many people out there for whom getting out of bed in the morning is a major accomplishment.  Rest assured, they have names, faces, and lives, and are all around us: they could be your co-worker, your best friend, your neighbor, the clerk at your local retail establishment, or the person sitting next to you in church.  They could even be a part of your own family. 

It is their stories that I want to tell as succinctly and honorably as my meager abilities will allow. 

I've always believed that life's most meaningful stories are those of oppression, of man's inhumanity to man, of fighting losing battles, and of sadness so paralyzing that dying peacefully in one’s sleep could be considered a blessing.  These are tales of inner conflict, of battle, and of fighting to the last ounce of one's strength.  As dark as that sounds, these stories can be transformed into tomes of overcoming, of victory, of finally beating down one's personal demons and living life in a productive, fulfilling, and joyous way.  I call them "people stories.And some creative force I’ll never be able to define drives me to chronicle those battles and reduce them to words that the rest of us can take into our hearts, feel, and understand.

It's my goal to write about ordinary people beating odds that would terrify Las Vegas.  Look around you.  Everybody has a story; everybody is a story.  When I write a novel, a tiny piece of my soul is lovingly tucked between those covers along with my words.  I invest thousands of hours in the subtle nuances—the implications, the innuendos, the double meanings, and the hidden messages--of a novel.  If you promise not to tell anyone, I'll let you in on a little secret: sometimes I envision myself living the lives of my characters.  Sometimes I’ll cry as I'm writing; sometimes I’ll laugh hysterically; sometimes I’ll become a shadowy character standing silently in the background.  For me, emotions are the heart, soul, and the very core of all great writing: panic, joy, anger, love, sorrow, hatred, envy, loneliness, revenge, despair, and fear all reduced to words and painted on a page like so much human graffiti.

The deepest fear of every writer lies in writing a boring book: a book that is so hamstrung and hog-tied by political correctness, empty rules, meaningless traditions, and outmoded conventions that its true voice is stifled and choked to the point of rasping silence.

I ask you, dear reader: of what possible value is a book that doesn't move you?

Every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter of Child of Privilege—and every other novel for that matter--is there to engage you on some level.  Did reading it bring about feelings of contentment and relief?  Did you feel uneasy?  Uncomfortable?  Disturbed?  Angry?  Were there moments that made you laugh?  Cry?  Wonder?  Empathize?

EXCELLENT!  Then I've succeeded as a writer.  On the other hand, if you found my words and ideas boring, formulaic, predictable, or passive, I sincerely apologize and will try my damnedest to do better the next time around.

I keep telling myself that success’s lightning bolt could strike at any time, that I’ll someday achieve elite writer status, that my impossible dream will actually come true and my books will indeed claw their way onto the best-seller list.  That's pretty much all I have to keep me going as a writer.  That’s about all many indie authors have.  Some days, it's enough; on other days, however, it isn't, and I’m sorely tempted on those blue days to chuck it all into a closet and forget about it.

Looking back on Child of Privilege, I readily admit that it’s a violent, disturbing, and frightening story.  The feedback I’ve received—for which I am very grateful and humbled—readily reflects the book’s dark tone.

But please ask yourself this question: How violent, disturbing, and frightening is it to be pummeled at any second by somebody living in your home?  It’s a sad but horrifying fact that Domestic Violence is pervasive in our society, undelineated by income, race, culture, or class.  It causes untold misery and heartache for millions of people and destroys individuals as well as entire families.

It’s a classic people story, one I deeply felt (and still do) needed to be told.  Thus onto Amazon’s shelves came a novel about a lovable debutante serving as a human punching bag for her mentally-unbalanced and sadistic father.  While it saddens me that discomfort and revulsion will deter some folks from ever reading it, I know I left my best on those pages.  I’ll always be proud of my literary firstborn Child of Privilege.  My conscience as a writer is clear.   

The rest, dear reader, is in your hands.

Writers’ imaginations are abundant with stories both wonderful and repulsive.  There are stories about lives productive and aimless, about fortunes made and lost, about loves found and squandered, and about the day-to-day battles we all know as "survival."  We indie authors live to tell those stories, albeit through occasionally imperfect prose and sometimes poorly-constructed sentences. 

But our literary hearts are in good places.

We’re anxious to tell you about the hidden lives unfolding in the next apartment, in the house across the street, on the other side of the country, and on the other side of the world.

What does it cost you?  With a trip to your local bookstore (assuming there is one!) or a log-on to Amazon to buy a tangible copy or a download, you can purchase your key to the world of people, stories, and ideas.

A true bargain if you ask me.

Allow me to convey to you--through my words--how it feels to ... whatever.  Allow me--and other writers out there--to be your looking-glass onto this huge, crazy world and the people who inhabit it.  I volunteer to act as your conduit into the thoughts and feelings so keenly felt by the people who surround you every day.

Yes, dear reader, I still want to be a writer, an elite writer.  With Child of Privilege, I've already begun that arduous journey.  I invite you to join me in exploring those roads less traveled that silently await us just over the horizon.

There's so much I want to tell you about.  Let's explore people, places, ideas, and life itself--through the written word--together.

I’m looking forward to your company.