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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Secondary Characters

Yoo hoo.  Sunny, I'm here.

Yeah, she's thinking.  About time, you b*tch.  (She might think that.  I, personally, wouldn't. I just don't use that kind of language much.)

The bad news for me is that Sunny would be justified in thinking it.  I told her back in January or February that, yes, I would be delighted to be a participant in her blog.  You see, I love writing.  I love sharing my opinions and ideas.  I loved her slant and ideas for this blog.  I love Sunny.  She's one of my fallback, supportive, most-encouraging, consistently upbeat, optimistic (for me) friends. Why wouldn't I want to be a part of Safari of the Writer's Soul?  

The good news for all of you is that Sunny is the Primary Character here.  I'm a secondary character.

We are all the Primary (Protagonist, Heroine/Hero, Lead, Main) Character in our own stories.

And we are all secondary characters in the lives of the people we know.  (In some peoples' lives, we're just walk-ons. Not even minor characters.)

Secondary characters have only two jobs in our stories.

They can either be a help--they are there with a shoulder when it's needed, available to listen, or share adventures with, interact with, make you think, give you feedback and try to help keep you on track, and receive the same from you, etc. They are supportive and help the main character make progress in the story.

Or they can be a hindrance.  As in all stories, the bad guys can be obviously that: striving to stop you from achieving whatever it is for nefarious reasons or striving to gain what is YOUR goal and you both can't achieve it. (The 'other' woman, for example, in some of the classic traditional romances.) Or sometimes they can be disguised as good guys, subtly throwing roadblocks in your way or undermining you by encouraging you to make choices that take you further from your goals.

So far, in Sunny's Safari, this particular secondary character has been a hindrance.

But I'm the main character in my own story.  I control what happens to me. I decide a lot of it by where I go, who I hang out with, what I decide to do, how I decide to spend my limited time.  Yes, sometimes I have no control over what happens while I am wherever I am.  I don't totally control the demands job, family, day to day obligations make on my time. But I do control whether to set aside a half hour to do something I've promised I'll do or whether I'll use it to play a couple of quick games of Spider Solitaire.

As the Main Character in my own story, I'm going to choose to be the good kind of secondary character in Sunny's story. Expect me back soon, Sunny.  (Hope I don't scare anyone away...)  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mama's Quilts ~ Seeing The Whole Picture

Something on voice from a blog post years ago...

Diabetes runs strong in my family, and my maternal grandmother went blind a little earlier than expected. Her passions were reading, funny movies, and sewing. We could get her books on tape and take her to movie theaters (as opposed to having her watching something on television). But with the sewing--she was on her own.

One of the things that often 'needled' (for lack of a better word and not really intending a pun) those who received her handiwork was that she loved drab olive or deep forest green as a landscape on which to place other colors. Sometimes she'd choose denim blue. I never complained, because to me every quilt square meant something--I knew who had worn that shirt or dress before it was cut up into fabric for a blanket, but there were others in the family who flat hated her choice of colors and didn't take into consideration the time and effort spent on Mama giving them something she made. They saw only the background and not the details. They didn't see the whole picture.

Then I found out while talking with her that everything else in her quilts stood out by contrast when she worked with greens and blues. She was better able to see the vibrant yellows or reds or other colors she used when they were on a flat-colored background. In retrospect, I applaud her for even trying when she could barely see to stitch.

I catch myself wondering why my stories are often set in ordinary, even mundane, backgrounds, every-day settings in which my main protagonists jump to life when presented with other colorful characters or scenes/situations that seem out of place. The fact that John Grisham has lawyers or Tess Gerritsen uses the medical field as props against which their stories are set...just speaks volumes when I think back on Mama and her quilts.

Every good painting needs a canvas --size, background, shading, use of light all matter. Every good story needs the same--for instance, a setting that doesn't overpower the characters who must come to life and generate interest. Stories need contrast, conflict, design, all of which capture a reader's imagination.

Each author paints a word picture with their own unique brush stroke and colors, and whatever we use has to come from within, for if we're to develop our voice as writers, we can't be copycats--we have to use what we own and develop that talent before we can be heard.

Next time you're stuck in the details, try stepping back and taking another look, grasping what you envision as a whole. Maybe finishing the story won't be so difficult if you see that this part of it is out of focus, too large for the canvas, or too small to complete the final product.

Perhaps you have more than one story, more than one book in what you're attempting. I'm guilty of letting secondary characters take over, so trying to frame what I have written isn't always neat and tidy, and I have to whittle things a bit, save some of my material for other books.

Then again, I've been known to face the opposite problem--what to me is a brilliant kernel with which to start but major difficulty developing the story so that it is complete (no contrast/conflict, not enough emotional intensity--a bland background). Those works resemble so many unorganized specs on a vast wasteland where nothing connects until I step back and reevaluate where I want the story to go.

Mama has long since passed away, but her lessons linger, and I am forever grateful to her for helping me see the whole picture. Now it's up to me to develop the skills to work on background or details, whichever calls for the most attention.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Safari Voice

Think for a moment about your favorite writers. Even if their books have mistakes, even if they break the rules determined by whoever sets the standard to which you adhere--there's something in their writing that speaks to you, moves you, compels you to pick up their books and read their words. Perhaps it's the genre and they're the best in it.

Break this down, though. Scope the big picture. Somewhere in the myriad of reasons, what draws you is their turn of phrase, their ability to engage you, their style...the nearly indescribable and intangible quality called voice. It's unique, theirs. And if they can develop it, so can you if you're not afraid to be yourself.

In the 1960's there was beautiful housewife who with surgical enhancement became a phenomenally gorgeous actress. Her acting ability was debatable, but her power to draw a crowd to theaters was undeniable. Her studio swathed her in an animal skin, ran the projector, and Jo Raquel Tejada Welch became America's favorite sex symbol in the mid-sixties.

At the same time, the daughter of a roguish father and over-bearing mother wrote a book that shot her to stardom. She wanted to be an actress, but it was her penchant for pulling her past experiences--and those of her friends--that made her famous. Valley of the Dolls became an international bestseller for Jacqueline Susann.

I'm not advocating you wrap yourself in leopard skin or dive headfirst into drug abuse. I'm asking you to contemplate what makes you different. Can you use that in your writing?

An attorney friend calls John Grisham a hack. I asked "Why do you keep buying his books?" He couldn't answer to his satisfaction, but I hid a smile. Grisham drew him because of his uncomplicated, easy-going style, his ability to break down legalities that are convoluted so laymen could understand them. He has a unique voice.

If none of the above makes much sense, do an exercise that may make the light bulbs go off. One phrase: You can't handle the truth.

Who do you imagine saying that? If you're a film buff, you probably thought of Jack Nicholson.

Now...same sentence...this time spoken by George Clooney. Brad Pitt. Meryl Streep. Literally dredge your memories for those actors' voices. Different inflections, right? Different timber, pace, intensity, mood.

That's voice. Each is unique, including yours. Some voices are more powerful depending upon the moment.

Recall Pitt as Achilles in "Troy", his grief then fury after Patrocius is killed in battle. Can you see anyone else playing the part?

Just as each actor polishes their skill, as singers hone their talents (another exercise...have various people perform "Mary Had A Little Lamb" for you--note the differences in delivery between Tony Bennett and Elmer Fudd or NIN and Journey), writers must define and refine themselves in order to find their voice. This ability to deliver words in a fashion that projects them onto readers' memories is in essence what establishes them separate, apart from other writers, even within their own genre.

Before you find your true, authentic voice, maybe there are obstacles you must overcome. My money is on fear being your nemesis. Often we sit to write and are stymied not by what comes next but on how we say it. VOICE. Good friend and American western historical writer Leigh Stites covers this topic extremely well in her February, 2012, president's column for Midwest Romance Authors. As she states: Fear will kill you.  Fear will kill every dream you have.  It will kill the momentum you need to achieve those goals you set when you weren’t so afraid.  It will kill the future you might have had if you’d been brave enough to leave the cave and go out hunting.

Put on your rhino skin, because the writing world is tough. Arm yourself with your writers' tool box, and venture forth. Don't let fear stop you.