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Some 13 years ago, my teacher for a college creative writing course gave me memorable advice on a short story. I don't remember my character's name anymore--let's call him Dave--but I remember what she wrote on my last page about him.

"You need to cuddle up to Dave, have a cup of tea with him, get to know him and love him. Right now you're just getting him drunk and then spreading his secrets around town."

Dave, you see, wasn't entirely lovable; he was scruffy and rude and tough, a stereotypical working-class dude who fought with his wife a lot. But my teacher was still right. Writing isn't (usually) any good if the characters are stereotypes with no interesting layers, if they're people created only for the author to kick around.

This lesson came back to me today while I was working on the long process of revising an old novel, one I wrote many years ago. (It's the one previously called Tourist Attractions and e-published for a time; it's undergoing big changes now.) I realized that many of my characters, even some of the major ones, were like ol' Dave: stereotypes of some kind, people I made up to make fun of, not people I had sat down to talk to and get to know.

I can even guess why this happened. First, I was younger and didn't give as much thought to character depth. But, second, when I wrote that book I was under the influence of an internet friend whose entire outlook on life (as far as I could tell from a web-defined distance) was to sum actual, live people up in a few derisive words of stereotype, and make fun of them without any serious attempt to know and like them. If you're wondering why I was even this guy's friend, let alone under his influence, well, I felt ever so special for being the one he confided in, the one he made exceptions for! (Oh yes, I was naive. Because, oh yes, as it turned out, he was spreading my secrets around town too, just like an amateur author.)

I want to write more honestly now, and with more true-to-life complexity, so I'm having tea with some of my characters. I'm taking the paintbrush and adding shades and tints and highlights. I'm giving them layers and human qualities. I'm learning to respect them even if they wouldn't all be my friends in real life.

We could save the world if everyone looked at everyone else this way. But that's never going to happen, so all I can do is take it on in my writing. And in my real life too. Yes, even to that friend who muddied up my waters for a time there. Forgiveness and tea and human weakness, it's all on the table today.



( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 15th, 2008 07:13 pm (UTC)
an internet friend whose entire outlook on life (as far as I could tell from a web-defined distance) was to sum actual, live people up in a few derisive words of stereotype, and make fun of them without any serious attempt to know and like them.

*gasp* I know that person! Only he's a she! :D

Lovely advice. The thing that's so wonderful about writing is it keeps getting better, if you work it. I think I'm writing much better today than even 3 years ago, let alone 30. It's such a satisfying craft.

Good luck on your revisions! Keep us posted!
Mar. 16th, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC)
I guess by that brief description, we've all met that person. :)

I truly hope you're right about writing only getting better. I sometimes have those moments of doubt; you know, the ones where I wail to myself, "Everything fresh and sparkling I ever wrote was written when I was 22 or younger! I'm old and habitual now!"
Mar. 17th, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine is also a writing teacher, and he had this really great phrase about writing. He said that when you first write something it's the drunken phase, and everything looks better than it is. Then you look at it again later, and it's the hangover phase, and everything looks _worse_ than it is. But your writing is probably somewhere in the middle.

I think there is a freshness to ideas when someone is only 22 years old. We don't have the self-consciousness of seeing so many stories done, and start saying to ourselves, "Does the world need yet another rehash of Pride and Prejudice?" But I find that the craft of my writing gets better with everything I write. I guess it's like any art; if you keep working it, eventually you will become an artist.

Good luck! :)
Mar. 23rd, 2008 02:17 am (UTC)
Yes, the problem I have nowadays is definitely the constant self-editing. "Do I use that word too much? Is this essentially the same story as the last book? Have I explored the backstory sufficiently here?", etc.--all asked of myself during rough-draft writing phase, when bold freshness would be more useful.

On the other hand, I can definitely see what's wrong with my old unpublished novels now, and fixing them will be a fun challenge. The characters have been living in my head all these years, so tapping into them won't be too hard compared to creating brand-new ones.

Good luck with yours too!
Mar. 23rd, 2008 11:23 pm (UTC)
I think everyone has their own pet problems with moving forward on a new piece. I wish you luck in whatever you need to do that will give you the most momentum and enjoyment. Old stories are nice because they're like old friends, but new stories are more perplexing because I find new writing more challenging that rewriting. I say, go for what excites you!
Mar. 16th, 2008 04:04 am (UTC)
"Right now, you're getting him drunk, and spreading his secrets around town." (Hee!)

Have tea with your characters. Very sound advice.

She's not mine (though I play with her), but there is NO way I'm having tea with Umbridge.
Mar. 16th, 2008 03:33 pm (UTC)
Hee. Well, fanfic is a different thing entirely, since the characters are already created and well-rounded for us. (Though Umbridge, I guess, isn't as rounded as some in the HP verse.)
Mar. 16th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC)
ah - but you know, that's what I really like about HP fanfic. Because JRK is firmly harrycentric, the characters are only well rounded from his pov - change that pov, and there's lots of room for interpretation and tea.
Mar. 16th, 2008 02:58 pm (UTC)
Good luck on your revisions.

I find it hard to offer sound editing advice at times because I hear THAT voice coming out of Laurence [and I do not yet have enough distance from my own situations] -- therefore, I don't give Laurence a fair chance to be anything other than catty, pretentious bore who is preying on the weakness of others. I was recently making some notes on the scene where Eva climbs into bed with him and my edits were ones that tore Laurence apart (for example: do you want it to seem like Laurence is taking advantage of Eva's timidness and naievte?) I often project a villainy on the character that I don't think you intend for him to have.

Eva is well-rounded, but I have found the other girls to be a bit stereotypical side-players. I would work it out to make them each a bit more memorable. The simpering Christian is the biggest stereotype that can cause issues (and I'm never sure what purpose she actually serves). Tony and Gil could be fleshed out a bit as well.

I want to know what makes each of them tick.

I'll be emailing you some thoughts in the near future.

Mar. 16th, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC)
Yes, romantic-interest Laurence is only working for me again because I've recast him into his own person, as he and all characters deserve. Now I need to go through and root out moments that sound like I'm just mimicking someone else. One of my other reviewers already pointed out that it was odd for him to say, "I don't normally let girlies crawl into bed with me." Is he gay or what?, they wondered. (Ahem. *grin*)

Cathy (the Pentecostal) is actually the one I've just added a scene with, to give her some depth. She and Eva literally have tea; I went a bit far on taking my own advice there. I'm rewriting the final quarter or so of the book too, so Tony in particular, but the others as well, show more depth.

And in fact, having done all this, I'm thinking I'm going to stop posting new chapters, and instead go back and fix the inconsistencies in the early chapters and repost those. There are changes that will just be big enough to warrant doing that before moving forward.

Your help has been awesome! Thank you. And I understand about the difficulty you may find with Laurence nonetheless. ;)
Mar. 16th, 2008 08:45 pm (UTC)
"I don't normally let girlies crawl into bed with me." Is he gay or what?, they wondered. (Ahem. *grin*)

I saw that and mentioned it to Kevon who would only smirk.

I really like Eva this time around because she is a wonderful 18-19 year old... her inconsistencies and angst are well on par with the age of kids I deal with. For some reason, I keep thinking Laurence doesn't translate into a young adult as easily-- I want to know what makes him tick. Does his mother's death make him put on a persona of detachment and elusiveness? Is Eva's talk of intense relationships/marriage at such a young age psychologically motivated: as if she is trying to replicate the wonderful homelife she has? (As in, does she fear being outside of a protective homecircle/base and on her own because then she must find out who she really is in the singular?) The only character I have no connection with is Sharon... she's like a character I once saw in Not Another Teen Movie talking about being a stereotypical sidekick: "I am the token black guy. I'm just supposed to smile and stay out of the conversation and say things like: 'Damn,' 'Shit,' and 'That is whack'."
Mar. 17th, 2008 05:22 am (UTC)
Heheh--exactly; Sharon's too compliant and blank for the most part. I'm going to sit down for some tea with her too.

I plan to give Laurence less of that detachment and more basic teen-male defensiveness; fear of leaving home for college, leaving his widowed father, but also fear of admitting that and looking weak. And Eva's main issues are unsatisfying romance relationships so far, with enough insecurity that she doesn't dare be single, and latches onto people who pay attention to her if she likes them at all. I've got a lot of reworking to do!

In any case, I'm really glad you like her this time around. I've been concerned with her appeal as a protagonist, since she's so deceitful. I'll be toning down her deviousness just a tad. As for Laurence, just pick some new young geeky actor and give him the role in your head. Meanwhile, I'll do my best to adjust his lines and behavior so he's not so eerily familiar. ;)
Mar. 30th, 2008 11:06 pm (UTC)
P.S. Today I found this photo of River Phoenix in preppy mode. I think I'll use it as my mental image of Laurence. :)

Mar. 31st, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
That's very fitting for changing the Laurence vibe. I wuv it.

Mar. 17th, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC)
Laurence = Seth Cohen
Eva = annoying
Sharon and that other girl = not existant
Tony = dumb
Mar. 17th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
Ah, brave words from the anonymous commenter. Always enjoy those. Thanks. But I do like the Seth Cohen casting idea...
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2008 12:19 am (UTC)
Dude, don't you know? Our little Mol has been attracting anonymous trolls on various web venues since the late 1990s. :P
Mar. 19th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)
That's because she's a hot MILF!
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 19th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
Perhaps she can use that quote on the inside flap of her new book or something.

[Agreed. Hide your pictures and tell us you have moved to Fairbanks Alaska.]
Mar. 19th, 2008 09:48 pm (UTC)
Fortunately the MILF comment came from a different (traceable) IP. Now, who do I know in Kentucky?...

I think I will use the remark on my bio pages wherever possible, in any case.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 20th, 2008 01:11 am (UTC)
Nope, the snarky one came through an anonymous open proxy. The MILF one was from a town in Kentucky. I'm more popular than I realized, by far. :)
Mar. 19th, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)
*intentionally uses self-photo icon*

I may at least have to disable anonymous commenting if this keeps up... :)
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )