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’être.  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:

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