Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Notes From Carol's Class: What If Your Dad Dies?

My dad died last Thursday (Dec 15th at 4:30 am). The funeral services are today. I've known for a while that this was coming because he's smoked his whole life and the doctors said he'd only have about 18 months left about 23 months ago. My sister said there was an updated prognosis a few months ago, but nobody ever told me about it. Anyway, the week before last I received a call from my sister saying that Dad wasn't doing so well and he might not make it through the night. I got off work early and drove down to Richfield to be with my family. Dad put up a good fight and put us kids through some hell that we'd have been happy without, but I think I learned something from it...maybe.

Okay, so Carol never actually talked specifically about "what if your dad dies." But I think one of her writing tips applies rather well here. You will probably not have experienced what your character is experiencing. For instance, the main character in my book does something with a baseball bat that I never have done (and hopefully never will do). The key to good writing though, is to borrow emotion. Take something you have felt and use it where your character needs it.

With my dad, I've had a lot of varying emotions. When he was first diagnosed with lung cancer I already expected it, but the offical diagnosis dug up a lot of anger in me. I hated my dad for neglecting his health and for not trying to quit smoking sooner. I hated him for not trying to be part of my life more and for thinking that he could put all the responsibility of our relationship on me. I was in the anger phase for a long time. When I went to Richfield the first time this month and saw how bad my dad's health was, it was hard. I hated seeing him in so much pain and I couldn't even bear to stay for long. He was angry too. I think angry at what he'd done to himself. Embarrassed that he couldn't walk by himself or use the toilent alone or even wipe his own ass (I did it for him while I was there). Telling you how I felt wouldn't begin to allow you to know how I felt. I stayed up with him until 2 am trying to get him off the toilet and into his bed. He didn't wnat to move. The only audible phrases he would muster up were "Get the hell away from me" and "leave me the fuck alone". So, I tried to keep him hydrated as much as I could by feeding him Otter Pops becuase it was the only thing we could get him to keep in his mouth and swallow. He wouldn't open his eyes much. I think he was ashamed at the state he was in and he couldn't bear to look at us. Every move he made hurt. And every touch from his kids hurt even more--especially when we tried lifting him off the floor. He spit pills at my sister. Punched me in the leg. Tried to kick my sister in the face. He didn't go without a fight. And every time he cussed at me, I cussed back--something my sister didn't appreciate very much. I guess I was still in the anger phase (and to be honest, I probably always will be).

I left after that weekend. My sister didn't want me to leave. She hadn't slept in at least a week. But I couldn't stay. I had work and errands and I didn't want to watch my father die. 4 days was enough for me. I talked to my sister on the phone later in the day when he died. She was angry at me for not staying. Angry that I didn't want to meet with the funeral home right away so we could plan his funeral services. Angry that I wouldn't just put my entire life on hold to watch my dad die. I don't think she was ready to let him go. There were a lot of emotions flying around. Guilt. Regret. Uncertainty. Confusion. Anger. And a lot of hurting. It's funny how even when you know somone is dying it always comes as a surprise. You never know exactly when the moment will be.

I have a character in my book who lost a husband to cancer. She's the character that my MC can't relate to and doesn't understand. Maybe it's because she's sill grieving for her husband...maybe she does it in a different way than I would or than my main character would...maybe it's more like the way my sister is grieving--I don't get it, but I know that she has put a lot of pressure on me and I don't like it. Maybe that's why she was so angry at her own sister--for not being there when he died. For not helping. For not being the friend she had always been before.

Wow. I'm amazed at how I end up figuring things out about my characters when I try to share the things I've learned.

Okay, so here's some scenarios.
Your MC has been taken back in time and is in the land of dinosaurs. Where do you find the emotion for that?! Have you ever flown to a brand new city and had no clue where anyone was? Or a different country where you didn't speak the language? Or have you ever been hiking and seen a bear or a moose? Or have you just been on a stroll aroud the block and been chased by a dog? Or have you been left home all by yourself at night time and you thought that the shadows in the corner were creepy lurkers about to kill you? Maybe you can borrow some of those emotions to help you feel what your character is feeling.

Your MC played around on the jungle gym at recess and split his pants open and everyone could see his mickey mouse underwear (mickey mouse is so first grade and your character is in the fourth grade). But you never spit your pants open and never had mickey mouse underwear? Well, have you ever laughed while drinking somehing and it all spewed out? Have you ever forgotten to zip up your fly and someone had to point it out to you? Have you ever misspelled the simplest word (like gote or kat or sandwitch) and somebody asked if you were really an English major? Surely you've had some embarrassing moments in your life--now's the time to pull them out of the closet you've ashamedly stuffed them into and put them to some use.

Your MC's dad dies at the climax of your novel. But you've never had anyone close to you die. Are you sure? What about the time when you were six and your puppy got hit by a car and you dug a grave for him out in the back yard and held a funeral and everything? Have you ever had to flush a goldfish? Have you ever seen a horrible accident on the highway? Or did your lover ever go out of town without you for a few days and you missed them fiercely? Did someone ever cut you off in traffic and you were in a hurry already and they didn't even use their blinker and you had to slam on your brakes? Borrow that emotion.

The thing about emotion is that it can be very specific to a character or situation, but it's also very transferrable and universal. You don't have to experience exactly what someone else has in order to relate or empathize. We've all felt pain, embarrassment, uncontrollable laughing type joy...you just have to use what you feel and figure out where when why and how your character feels that too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Notes from Carol's Class: Interviews


It is critical that you know your character.
No one should read a line in your book and mistake it for any other book.
Find a metaphor that is unique to your character.
Let your character's emotions feel sharply defined to your character.
Every character is in a different world--one in her own body. Your job as an author is to find a way into that world.

Carol always makes her students interview their characters.
How are you going to get to know them if you don't get to know them?

There are a lot of ways to go about interviewing your character. It's important to keep in mind that you don't have to go about it the way Barbara Walters does.


The point in interviewing your character is to get her to tell you her story. Probably you shouldn't interrogate her...

Start with the basics.

What's your favorite color and WHY?
Who do you hate? What happened to make you hate them?
What's it like in the town/city/place you live?
How did you meet your best friend?
etc.
etc.

The point is to ask questions that aren't one line answers (unless that's how your character is then maybe that's all you'll get). You want to draw their story out of them.

Keep in mind that you may not use all the information from your interview--but the point is to get to know your character, get in her head, understand what her past is and how that has made her who she is or how it has shaped her personality or the way she speaks or how she treats other people. Then write your story once you know who she is.

Write on!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Notes from Carol's Class: Voice

Today's notes are actually from Emily Wing Smith.

She came to our class and talked about voice--because basically she's the master.
Don't believe me?
Then read her book, The Way He Lived.
It's a story told from SIX different voices, and I think every one of them sound authentic and unique.

Here are some of the master's tips:

Do whatever comes naturally to you. Don't worry about what your mom's book club will think. Even if someone gets upset over your book, there's nothing you can do about it--you can't just NOT publish your book and not be true to yourself. If you try to cater to people, you'll have to change everything about your book and there will still be people who don't like it. Be true to yourself.

Don't be unfair to your characters--if your character would swear then let them swear. Remember it's fiction, not the story of your life--these are fake characters, and they don't reflect who we are (at least not exactly).

Make your metaphors fit the voice--you can know by ear if it fits because it will sound good.
Let it flow along.

Let your characters do their own thing rather than labeling.

Characters can change--say you start out with a character who is a gymnast, but it doesn't fit the voice that keeps talking in your head because really, she's a debater, then let her change. Let her be what she is.

Use the right form for your character's voice. (Emily used several different forms for her charcters in The Way He Lived--first person, second person [crazy right!], third person...). Maybe one of your characters would speak in short bursts (like my Sophie character) and chopped line would be appropriate. Or maybe a different character you have writes lots of letters or writes in a journal (like in The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky). Or maybe your character likes to include pictures because she's an artist and that's how she sees and expresses things (such as in Everything Is Fine by Ann Dee Ellis).

The best way to find the right form, tense, and point of view is to experiment. If it doesn't seem to be working then try something else. It's important to remember that it's still your story and you can change whatever you want. Find what works.

Write on!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Writing Through the Sludge of Life

Every so often I realize (as though for the very first time) that I NEED to write.
Not because I have this burning passion for it (although that's true, too), but because I can't turn my brain off if I don't.
If my brain doesn't turn off then I can't sleep.
If I can't sleep then I'm always tired and it affects my schoolwork, my work work, and everything else in my life.
When there are tough things I need to sort through writing is the only way to completely satisfy my mind enough to let me sleep.

It doesn't even seem to matter what I write. I just have to start writing. Usually when my brain is running and running and getting muddled all over the place I have to get out of bed, turn on the light, dig through my backpack for my journal and a suitable pen and just start writing about how frustrating it is that I can't sleep. Once I start then all my thoughts seem to spew out on the pages and in allowing them to escape and have somewhere else to be aside from my head, I'm calm and ready to rest.

Do you ever get to that place where your thoughts are racing and you can't seem to slow them down or gather them into one spot? What do you do about it?

Write on!