Friday, June 12, 2015

Seven Decisions That Can Make
Or Break Your Book

red hearrings
It is like reconstructing the whole of Paris from Lego bricks. It’s about three-quarters-of-a-million small decisions. It’s not about who will live and who will die and who will go to bed with whom. Those are the easy ones. It’s about choosing adjectives and adverbs and punctuation. These are molecular decisions that you have to take and nobody will appreciate, for the same reason that nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false. So you have to work every hard in order for your readers not to note a single false note. That is the business of three-quarters-of-a-million decisions.”
See that quote above? (I know that I start a lot of posts with quotes and you skip over them. But please go back and take a second to read this one. We’ll wait til you get back…)
Okay, that quote is by the writer Amos Oz, and I have kept it around because whenever I get in the weeds with my writing, it’s helpful to read it and be reminded that creating a book is really nothing but a a very long series of decisions. (Click here to read the whole interview with Oz. It’s worth a detour later.)
Decisions, decisions…
We make thousands of them every day, and they run the gamut from the semi-conscious to the life-altering. Get up or hit the snooze button? Walk the dog now or hope he makes it until I get home? Buy or rent? Change jobs or roll the dice and go back to school? Call up the ex-wife and tell her the truth? Send my son to rehab? Confront mom about giving up her car keys?
Since this process is part of our everyday life, you’d think making decisions would be rote when it comes to our writing. But it’s not. Just ask any poor slob who has painted himself into the plot corner and said, “Oh crap, now what?”
Like Amos Oz, I think a good novel is made by careful and calculated decision-making. Not that there isn’t room for serendipity, flights of fancy, and raw passion. Yes, characters take on a life of their own, but we still hold their reins. Yes, we can’t anticipate every detour, but we can keep the car under fifty as we career down the road less written about. When it comes to writing, I really believe in the virtue of control. (Hey, whatcha want? I’m a Scorpio with Virgo rising). So I’d like to talk today about how to make our decision-making more acute.
I just finished critiquing a partial manuscript of an unpublished author (I do this for charity). And while there was good stuff going on, I sensed that the writer wasn’t in control of his decisions. He was like a guy thrown into a swift-moving river and had relinquished his fate to the rapids and rocks instead of making an effort to steer toward a goal. He was letting his plot and characters propel him forward rather than using his craft oars to guide him toward where he really wanted to go.
Years ago, I went on a white-water rafting trip on the Nantahala River (where part ofDeliverance was filmed. That’s me middle right in the picture above). It was white-knuckle stuff, but I always had faith that our guide could get us through. He knew where the rocks and whirlpools were, when we needed to pull right, or when we needed to ford a bad stretch. He made decisions.
Okay, enough with the metaphors. Give me a rock I can grab onto, I hear you saying. So let’s try to break down the big decisions you need to make that can make or break your book.
1. Where do I start?
We crime dogs get drilled into us that a fast break from the gate is vital to mystery and thrillers, and while I believe you can risk a slow opening if it is well done, I think your POINT OF ENTRY is the single most important decision you make. Yes, the opening must be compelling and hint at what’s to come. But enter too early and you risk throat-clearing. (Detective awakened by phone call in night summoning him to crime scene. Ho-hum). Too late and you risk confusion. (What the heck is going on here? Who are these people? Where am I in time and place?).
Let’s take a look at one opening. It’s a little long but worth dissecting:
Dawn broke over Peachtree Street. The sun razored open the downtown corridor, slicing past the construction cranes waiting to dip into the earth and pull up skyscrapers, hotels, convention centers. Frost spiderwebbed across the parks. Fog drifted through the streets. Trees slowly straightened their spines. The wet, ripe meat of the city lurched toward the November light.

The only sound was footsteps. Heavy slaps echoed between the buildings as Jimmy Lawson’s police-issue boots pounded the pavement. Sweat poured from his skin. His left knee wanted to give. His body was a symphony of pain. Every muscle was a plucked piano wire. His teeth gritted like a sand block. His heart was a snare drum. The black granite Equitable Building cast a square shadow as he crossed Pryor Street. How many blocks had Jimmy gone? How many more did he have to go?

Don Wesley was thrown over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Fire-man’s carry. Harder than it looked. Jimmy’s shoulder was ablaze. His spine drilled into his tailbone. His arm trembled from the effort of keeping Don’s legs clamped to his chest. The man could already be dead. He wasn’t moving. His head tapped into the small of Jimmy’s back as he barreled down Edgewood faster than he’d ever carried the ball down the field. He didn’t know if it was Don’s blood or his own sweat that was rolling down the back of his legs, pooling into his boots.

He wouldn’t survive this. There was no way a man could survive this.

This is from Karin Slaughter’s lastest, Cop Town. Why do I like this opening? Because even though she uses a lot of description, the effect is visceral and immediate. She could have started with the shooting incident itself, but haven’t we all read that a million times? No, she dives into the bleeding heart of the scene by showing a cop carrying his dying partner. What is left UNSAID is compelling and makes us want to read on: What happened? Why didn’t he just get in his squad car and drive? Where is he going? Are both men shot? Turns out, Jimmy carries his partner to the hospital but does he survive? You have to read on…you just have to. Cop Town is up for the Best Novel Edgar this year, by the way.
2. Whose story is this?
Every story needs a protagonist. That much we all know. But sometimes, in the hurly-burly of writing, we can lose sight of who owns the story. The result can be that seductive secondary characters take over, or the villain (whom we all love to lavish our attention on) becomes hyper-vivid. The protag-hero is, to my mind, the hardest character to create because you must invest so much of the story’s logic and impact in him that he can mutate from calm center to sidelined cipher.
Sometimes, you might start out telling the story from one character’s POV, believing he is your hero, but then a second character elbows into the spotlight. This happened to me with my current book. I opened with a woman waking up in a hospital with concussion-induced amnesia and she has a gut-punch fear that her husband tried to kill her. So she bolts from the hospital and goes on the run. She’s my unreliable narrator protag, I thought. Until her husband hires a skip tracer to bring her home. It took fifty-some pages before I realized I had a full-scale dual-protag story on my hands.
Now this is not to say you can’t have a teeming cast in your story. I’m still slogging through Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Early on, I was captivated by the protag Tom Builder, but whenever Follett moved away from Tom, I got impatient. Later in this massive book, the protag spotlight shifts to his step-son Jack. I missed Tom badly.
Don’t confuse point of view shift with protagonist. A book can have numerous POV’s, but the STORY’S ARC is usually best tethered to one character’s journey. The Lord of the Rings is a sprawling saga with at least three major heroic types. But isn’t Frodo the true protag? (Not sure…throwing it out for discussion).
And be careful about setting up a false or “decoy” protag. This is a character that dominates so much of a book in its early going, that the reader begins to identify with her and invest in her journey. But then this character is marginalized (usually killed). Think of Marion Crane in Psycho, who dominated the movie for 47 minutes until Norman Bates stepped out of the shadows to become the putative protag. It could be argued that Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist is a decoy protag, because while most the plot’s machinery is built around him, Lizabeth Salander is the true action hero and embodiment of the story’s themes. At the very least, I’d consider them dual protags.
A word about unreliable narrators and dual protags: Neither is easy to pull off. Believe me, I know — now. Being in the POV of an unreliable narrator is exhausting for the writer and can, consequently, tire the reader as well. As for dual protags, you the writer will tend to bond more strongly with one over the other. So will your readers. Unless you are confident of bringing two equal beings to life, stay with one protag. You don’t want your reader saying, “Gee, I wish Tom the Builder would come back.”
Don’t juggle with chain saws until you’ve mastered machetes.
3. What am I trying to say?
We’ve had great posts here on the subject of theme. I’m going out on limb here and say all good books have themes.  Yes, your goal might be modest — you just want to entertain readers. (Don’t we all?) But beneath the grinding gears of plot, even light books can have something to say about the human condition. A romance might be “about” how love is doomed without trust. A courtroom drama might be “about” the morality of the death penalty. Good fiction, Stephen King says, “always begins with story and progresses to theme.” And often, you don’t even grasp the theme until later in the book or even during rewrites.
Last week, our new publisher sent us a long questionnaire. They wanted our ideas on cover design, colors, typography, who we thought our audience was, and whose books are similar to ours. They also asked us to write our own back copy. Not because they wanted us to do their job; they wanted us to be able to articulate the essence of our story. And I tell you, if you can’t write your own back copy (about two paragraphs), you might not have a grip on your story and what it is about.
They also asked us some other pointed questions: What are your major and minor conflicts? What is the book’s theme(s)?  What are the recurring visual motifs or symbols? What is the book’s tone and mood? Which leads me to…
4. What mood am I in?
My publisher’s questionnaire listed some “mood” words to help us: haunting, witty, intense, sweet, hopeful, psychological, somber, epic, tragic, foreboding, romantic. They were asking us this because they want the design and promotion to enhance our chances for success in a cacophonous book market. You, too, have to think about this as you write your book, whether you self-pub or go traditional. What kind of world are you asking your reader to enter? How do you want them to feel? Once you can answer this question, you then must use all your powers and craft to create what Edgar Allan Poe called “Unity of Effect.”  Every word and image, Poe believed, had to be carefully chosen to illicit an emotion. In his short stories, it was fear, of course. In his poems, you could argue, he was going for melancholy. What are you aiming for?
5. Where am I?
Don’t neglect your setting. I know…that’s stating the obvious. But I’m often surprised at how paltry setting is rendered in crime fiction. We need to know where we are very early in the story, preferably inserted gracefully into the narrative flow via sharp description. Yeah, you can slap one of those tags at the beginning of chapter one — Somewhere in the Gobi Desert, Sept, 1904.  I concede that you need signposts at times; I’ve used them myself. But they can be a crutch. As a reader, I prefer to be parachuted into a place and use my senses rather than have the writer stick a sign in my face. Here’s a nice free-fall:
Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colorless grass, prickly gorse, and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the moor cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected.
That’s Belinda Bauer opening her thriller Black Lands. Now I don’t have the foggiest where “Exmoor” is, but I have a pretty good notion it’s a dark place somewhere up by England where bad stuff happens.
6. Am I doing this for me or for the story?
The story always has to come first. You can’t kill someone off just because you’ve stalled in the middle and you’re desperate. You can’t let a character hog the story just because you’ve fallen in love with her or she’s easier to write than your protag. You can’t add a twist just because you think it will make you look clever. All twists must be organic, emerging from the plot, not from your “hey-watch-this!” writer ego.  Go back to question 2: Whose story it is? Well, it’s not yours; it’s your characters’s. It’s not about you using fancy words or filigreed metaphors. It’s not about you trying to transcend the genre, win some award, or anything else. It’s about the people in your book.
As Elmore Leonard once said, “Always write from a character’s point of view. Write in their language to keep the sense that it’s their story. They’re the most important thing.”
This one is dear to me because my collaborator-sister Kelly and I sometimes have two distinct ideas of where a story might be going or what a character is like. We’re often asked if we argue. No, we don’t. Because we know that our egos don’t matter; only the story does.
7.  Does this make sense?
As I typed that headline above, I started hearing Olivia Newton John: “Let’s get logical, logical! I wanna get logical! Let me hear you characters talk! Let me see your story walk!”  So my last question here is a plea for simple clarity in three things: your writing style, plot structure, and character motivation. Let’s break them down:
Writing style: Don’t confuse your readers. Chose the simplest but most evocative words you can find. As Stephen King says, “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is dressing up the vocabulary, looking for long words because maybe you’re a little ashamed of your short ones.” In other words, most the time a lawn is just a lawn, not a verdant sward.
Be clear in your directions when you move your characters through time and space. If someone enters a room, tell us. If you jump ahead three days in time, tell us.  This is the “busy work” of fiction writing but it’s no less important. If your reader can’t follow the simple physical movements in your story, they will give up on you and your book.
Plot structure: Your story must have a durable thread of logic that runs from beginning to end. Events on your plot arc must emerge organically and not from coincidence. (no deus ex machina or long-lost Uncle Dickie from Australia showing up in chapter 40 to announce he is the killer) Your details of police, legal and medical procedure must ring true. Your twists and turns must be well-planned and hard-earned. Does the plot, as a whole, make sense? And if you write sci-fi, dystopian fiction or horror, does the artificial world you create obey the rules of its own logic and does it FEEL believable?
Character motivation: Man, is this one important. I can’t believe I left it for last. Characters are your lifeblood and if you want the reader to believe in them, to care about them, to root against them or cheer for them, they must be multi-dimensional and “real.”  They must conform to their own internal logic. They must be true to their personalities. We’ve all read books where we say, “Shoot, that guy would have never done that!” The writer has not done her job in this case, has not asked herself: “Does this make sense for this person to do this?” This post is running long, so I’m going to advise you to go back and read Jodie’s excellent post yesterday on consistency in characters. As she says, “Don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow.”CLICK HERE TO GO BACK.
Decisions, decisions…
As Amos Oz said in his quote above, nobody ever pays attention to a single note in a symphony in a concert hall, except when the note is false.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Yo! Muse!

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O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
O memory that engraved the things I saw,
Here shall your worth be manifest to all!
— Dante, The Divine Comedy
By PJ Parrish
If you are like me, you take your inspiration wherever — and whenever — you can get it. Writing is not easy. (Warning: tortured metaphor ahead).
Writing is like sailing a Hobie Cat in the ocean in the middle of a squall. I know because I used to sail Hobies during my first marriage, which is probably why it didn’t last. The marriage, not the Hobie. The day is always sunny when you launch your Hobie from the beach and you’re all aglow with hardy-har-har-endorphins. So it is when you sit down and type CHAPTER ONE.
Then the storm hits and there you are, hanging onto a 16-foot piece of fiberglas and vinyl, hoping lightening doesn’t hit the mast and fry your ass. You are out there alone in the storm, out of sight of land, riding the waves and the troughs, hoping you can make it home. You might even throw up. This is usually around CHAPTER TWENTY for me.
End of metaphor.
I often wonder what keeps writers writing. Tyranny of the contract deadline? Blind faith? The idea that if you don’t you might have to do real physical labor for a living, like paint houses? All of those work for me. But sometimes, the only thing that keeps me going is a visit from my muse.
Now, let’s get one thing clear here. I don’t believe in WAITING for a muse to show up. I get really impatient with writers who claim they can’t write until they feel inspired because frankly, 90 percent of this gig is writing DESPITE the fact your brain is as dry as Waffle House toast. (or as soggy, depending on which Waffle House you frequent. The last one I was in was off the Valdosta Ga. I-95 exit in 1976 and the toast was so dry it stands today as my singular metaphor for stagnant creativity).
But I do believe that sometimes — usually when your brain is preoccupied with other stuff — something creeps into the cortex and quietly hands you a gift. And these little gifts are what get you through.
There are nine muses in mythology, who were supposed to be the origin of all artistic inspiration. They were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Urania and Thalia. (I always thought it was cool that Dobie Gillis’s unobtainable ideal woman was named Thalia — the muse of comedy). The muses ruled over such things as dance, music, history, even astronomy. No muses for crime writers, unless you count Calliope for epic poetry but I think James Lee Burke has her on permanent retainer.
I don’t have just one muse. I’ve figured out I have a couple who specialize in particular parts of my writing. And they never come around when I am at the computer. Never get a whiff of them when I am actually in writing mode itself. They are like cats. They only come around on their own terms.
First, there’s my dialogue muse. I call him J.J. because he sounds like Burt Lancaster’s gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Always chewing at my ear saying oily things like, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic.” J.J. comes to visit me only when I am jogging. Never on the threadmill, mind you, only outdoors. J.J. makes my skin crawl, but man, can this guy write dialogue.
Then there’s my narrative muse. I call him Cat Man because he slips in on silent paws, sings in a fey whisper and only visits me just as morning has broken. He looks like Cat Stevens, but the old hot young version not the later one. Cat Man comes around about dawn, just as I am waking up as if from death itself. See, my husband’s insomnia means we sleep with blackout drapes, a white-noise machine and the A/C turned so cold the bedroom is like a crypt. So when I wake up, it is with a gauzy gray aureole rimming the drapes, icy air swirling around my nose and a soft swoooshing in my ears. And there is Cat Man, spinning a long segment of sensual exposition that salvages my stagnant plot. I have learned to lay there, very still, until he is done with his song, because if I get up and try to write it down, he vanishes. Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise of the springing, fresh from the word.
alice flo 2
And then there is my third muse. She’s my favorite. Her name is Flo because her voice sounds like that waitress who worked in Mel’s Diner on the old “Alice” sitcom. You know, like the door of a rusted Gremlin. Flo is my muse of getting real. Her Greek name is Nike (the goddess of victory) and her slogan is “Just Do It.” Because whenever those other two guys fail me, whenever they don’t show up, Flo is there. She is the muse who knows that the only way I am going to get the book finished is through plain old hard work. Like Nike, Flo has wings. They symbolize the fleeting nature of victory. Or, as Flo often tell me, “Honey, if you don’t get off your ass and just write the damn thing, you’re going to lose your contract and you’ll have to paint houses for a living.”
I’d be lost without her. Who — or what? — keeps you going?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Better Brainstorming

"It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one.” — Alex Osborn

I don’t know how you guys do it. Those of you who write alone, I mean.
I am blessed in that I work with a co-author, my sister Kelly. Our collaboration began more than 20 years ago and has lasted through 20-some books (counting the ones that didn’t get published). And while we have had our disagreements over the years, we have always understood the power behind the notion that two brains are better than one.
I want to talk today about brainstorming.
This came about because I was cleaning out my computer folders the other day. I have one folder I labeled BRAIN LINT. This is just a depository for all the stuff I can’t find a good place for but am too gutless to throw out. In this folder are still-born story ideas, pictures cadged from iStock that were meant to inspire, old newspaper articles about bizarre crimes and weirdos, and one completed manuscript that is so bad I keep it just to remind myself of how far I have come and how far I could fall.
When I was cleaning out the lint, I found one gem. It is a transcript of a story conference in 1978 between Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan. They were brainstorming about a possible movie. It didn’t have a title then, but it would eventually be made under the title Raiders of the Lost Ark. You might have heard of it.
Here’s just one exchange:
george-lucas-steven-spielberg-looking-radLucas: We want to make a very believable character. We want him to be extremely good at what he does, as is the Clint Eastwood character or the James Bond character. James Bond and the man with no name were very good at what they did. They were very fast with a gun, they were very slick, they were very professional. They were Supermen.
Kasdan: How do you see this guy?
Lucas: Someone like Harrison Ford, Paul LeMatt. A young Steve McQueen. It would be ideal if we could find some stunt man who could act.
Spielberg: Burt Reynolds. Baryshnikov.
Kasdan: Do you have a name for this person?
Lucas: I do for our leader.
Spielberg: I hate this, but go ahead.
Lucas: Indiana Smith. It has to be unique. It’s a character. Very Americana square. He was born in Indiana.
Kasdan: What does she call him, Indy?
I still can’t get the image of Baryshnikov in a fedora out of a mind. But that was how Indiana Jones was born, out of a brainstorming session between three creative guys. What a strange word – brainstorming. Ever wonder where it came from?
AFOsbornWell, in 1919, Alex Osborn, an ex-newspaper man from Buffalo, joined with Bruce Fairchild Barton and Roy Sarles Durstine to form the hugely successful BDO advertising agency. Osborn went on to write many books on creativity but he’s the one who coined the term “brainstorming.”
Nowadays, “brainstorming” is a catch-all for any type of creative group grope. But I thought it might be interesting to go back and see what Osborn had to say about it back in 1953 and find out if it could help writers today. Well, guess what? It’s still good advice, whether you are collaborating, working in a critique group — or even flying solo.
Here’s my main take-aways from Osborn’s ideas on brainstorming.
1. Think up as many ideas as possible regardless of how ridiculous they may seem.  It’s unlikely you’ll get the perfect solution right off the bat, so he recommends getting every idea out of your head and then go back to examine them afterwards. An idea that may sound crazy may actually turn out to work with a little modification.
Doesn’t this make sense when you’re plotting? I know when Kelly and I talk, we throw everything on the wall. You need to take the same approach with yourself. Write down every idea and let them bake for a while. Sometimes, the most outrageous thing leads to something useful.
2. Don’t be judgmental. All ideas are considered legitimate and often the most far-fetched are the most fertile. Ideas can be evaluated after the brainstorming session but judgments during the process should be withheld.
Are you sometimes too hard on yourself? Do you think, “Oh, that’s so stupid, no editor will ever buy it.” Or maybe you are a self-doubter, telling yourself, “I don’t have the chops to try this technique.” Or: “This is a great idea but it’s so complex so I won’t even try.”
3. Go for quantity not quality. Don’t get hung up (like I often do) on coming up with the most clever solution to your writing problem. Let your brain waves flow so the bad stuff bobs up to the surface along with the good. Osborn said: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud. Forget quality; aim to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”
Osborn’s books were geared more toward corporate types trying to get their teams to think more creatively on things like how to get traffic flowing better in big cities. But take a look at his suggestions for improving creativity and see if there’s not something here for us mere writers:
1. Break up the problem into smaller pieces. For writers, this can mean tackling each plot or character problem as manageable bites, not getting overwhelmed by the idea that you’ve got 400 pages to fill. Get that first draft written then go back and fix your plot holes or layer your characters better.
2. Search for alternatives. If you’ve painted yourself into a plot corner, look for a different way out than the old ways.
3. What can be borrowed or adapted? Read other writers and learn from them.
4. Modify with new twists. There aren’t many new plots in crime fiction but there is always a way to put your own fresh imprint on them.
5. Is there something that can be magnified or minified? Maybe the stakes in your thriller aren’t high enough. Maybe you need to play down a secondary character who is overshadowing your hero. Are you larding in too much research?
6. What can be substituted? Maybe if you changed your location the story would suddenly come alive. Would your mystery work better in a small town where you could exploit the English village dynamic? Is your setting banal and underwritten? Are you hitting all the wrong clichés if your book is set in Paris or some other iconic place?
7. What can be re-arranged? Maybe you’re writing in the wrong point of view? Try switching from first to third. Or maybe the guy you think is your hero is really the bad guy?
8. Consider the vice versa. I love this one. Do just the opposite of what you are now doing. Is your protag male? Switch gender! Are you relying on tired character tropes (lonely alchoholic PI, sweet antique store owner who solves crime). Make your brain do a 180 and examine what is on the flip side. I did this with my latest book. The woman I thought was my protag turned out to be one of two in a dual-protag parallel theme story.
Okay, enough lessons. Let’s end by going back and eavesdropping some more on the Indiana Jones brainstorm session. CLICK HERE to read the whole thing.
97147d290117720Lucas and Spielberg started with the idea that they wanted to make a movie that was like old Republic serials of the Thirties (Zorro, Dick Tracy, Red Ryder). Something had to always kept happening, every ten minutes or so another cliff-hanger situation. From there, the guys dreamed up Indiana Smith and other elements. In the beginning, even the ark was just a MacGuffin.
Lucas: The thing is, if there is an object of antiquity, that a museum knows about that may be missing, or they know it’s somewhere. He can go like an archeologist, but it’s like rather than doing research, he goes in to get the gold.
Spielberg: His main adversaries will be the Germans?
Lucas: Yeah, I think they should be. I’ve been trying to move him around the world a little bit to see if we can’t get a little Oriental influence into it just for the fun of it. I may have fit it in. The fun thing is, he’s a soldier of fortune, so we can move him into any sort of exotic thirties environment we want to.
Spielberg: Keep him out of the States. We don’t want to do one shot in this country.
Lucas: The film starts in the jungle. South America, someplace. We get one of these great scenes with the pack animals going up the mist-covered hills. Very exotic mist-filled jungles and mountains.
Spielberg: Where he goes into the cave?
Lucas: This is where he goes into the cave. We had it where there’s a couple native bearers, whatever, and sort of a couple of Mexican, well not Mexican…
Spielberg: They’re like Mayan.
imagesLucas: They’re the third world local sleazes…[LATER] He goes into this very sleazy Casablanca type club and makes contact with this agent. The agent is a girl. She’s sort of a Marlene Dietrich tavern singer spy. A German lady singer. She’s really a double agent.
Spielberg: I like the idea that she’s a heavy drinker and our hero doesn’t drink at all. She gets drunk a lot. She’s beautiful and she gets really sexy when she’s drunk, and silly. And he doesn’t touch the stuff.
Lucas: I don’t want to soften her. I like the fact that it’s greed. I like all the hard stuff, but you’re going to love her.
Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-indiana-jones-23708996-500-300Spielberg: There should be a real slimy German character. He’s the only gestapo involved there. Every time you see him, you know it’s going to be the worst pain, death by torture. This guy looks like a ferret. He’s got that slick black hair. His name is Himmler or something like that. He’s a stocky short guy, a master torturer.
Lucas: What can he chase them with? What if he jumps on a camel?
Spielberg: I love it. It’s a great idea. There’s never been a camel chase before.
Lucas: Is this camel going to chase a car?
Spielberg: You know how fast a camel can run? Not only that, he can jump over vegetable carts and things. We still have the big fight in the moving truck to do. And now we have a camel chase.
Lucas: We’ve added another million dollars.
Spielberg: Not really. How much trouble can a camel be?
And then they talk about the big scene toward the end where Indy and Marion are tossed into that deep tomb and the bad guys cover it up with a rock. They’re trying to figure out what is in the tomb that’s dangerous and how Indy gets out. They decide there is a huge artesian well that opens up and he and Marion are in danger of drowning. Then somebody suggests there are also wild animals in the tomb, like tigers.
Spielberg: It would have to be a neighborhood tiger.
Lucas: There aren’t any tigers out there.
Spielberg: I’m not in love with the idea.
Lucas: You could have bats and stuff, make it slightly spooky.
Spielberg: What about snakes? All these snakes come out.
Lucas: People hate snakes. Asps? They’re too small.
Spielberg: It’s like hundreds of thousands of snakes.
Lucas: When he first jumps down in the hole, it’s a giant snake pit. Then when he says they’re afraid of light, they throw down torches. You have a whole bunch of torches that keep the snakes back. So he only has one more torch, and the snakes start coming in. He sits there with one torch, knowing that when the torch goes out… It’s the idea of being in a room, in a black room with a lot of snakes. That will really be scary.
Spielberg: The snakes are waiting, looking at him. Thousands. And the torches are burning down. He’s trying to keep it going. The torch goes out. The whole screen goes black. The sound of the snakes gets more intense. You hear him backing up. The camera pans and suddenly you see, it’s black, but there’s light coming from several cracks. It’s not completely black. That leads him to an opening. To a rock that isn’t so flush against the other rocks. He knows there’s access. He keeps pushing on it, he gets a little more room.
Lucas: We shouldn’t have any snakes in the opening sequence, just tarantulas. Save the snakes for now.
Spielberg: It would be funny if, somewhere early in the movie he somehow implied that he was not afraid of snakes. Later you realize that that is one of his big fears.
Lucas: It should be slightly amusing that he hates snakes, and then he opens this up, “I can’t go down in there. Why did there have to be snakes? Anything but snakes.”
Now, aren’t you glad they didn’t go with the tigers?

Monday, June 1, 2015

What Does Your Character Want?

By PJ Parrish
Many moons ago, when I was just starting out in this crime writing business, I wandered into a workshop at SleuthFest. That day, all I was looking for was a reason to not lurk alone in the lobby of the Deerfield Beach Hilton. Besides, I had two books under my belt that got some nice blurbs and some good reviews. So I thought that I had all the answers.
Man, was I wrong. And thank God I went into that workshop because it forever changed the way I wrote.
The workshop was conducted by Les Standiford and he was talking about creating memorable characters. Now, every writing conference has panels on this. Yada yada yada…don’t rely on stereotypes…blah blah blah…give them interesting backstories and dossiers…humanize your villain…make your hero fallible but likeable…same old same old.  And despite the fact Les Standiford had his own successful mystery series and was a celebrated fiction teacher, I didn’t think I was going to get anything new from his session. But then, as I sat in the back of room, half-dozing off the effects of last night’s cocktail party, Les said something that made the hairs on my neck stand up:
“Ask yourself one question of every character you create: What does he want?”
He had hit a nerve in my writer’s subconsciousness. Because although I had been writing about my cop hero Louis Kincaid for a while, I had never really thought hard about what Les was talking about. So as I sat there in that hot crowded room, I asked myself:
What did Louis want?
Well, he wanted to solve the case! He wanted to find the men in the small Mississippi town who, thirty years ago, had lynched a black man and left his bones in a shallow grave in a swamp.
{{{{Loud sound of buzzer going off}}}}}
Okay then, Louis was a rookie who really needed a job and wanted to impress his new boss, the sheriff.
Well, dammit, Louis felt compelled to find the identity of the lynching victim and bring him peace.
{{{Close but no cigar}}}}
Okay, okay. Let me think hard about this. Wait…Louis is biracial. He was born in Mississippi but was fostered out to a white family in Michigan. He walks, uneasily, in two worlds. Could this be about him finding his “black” past, forgiving his mother for abandoning him and coming to terms with the white father who deserted him?
{{{You’re the writer. What do you think?}}}
I think that what Louis wants is to find himself. Twelve books later, both he and I are still looking. But way back when, I thought I had all the answers. That day I walked into Les Standiford’s class, I didn’t even have the right questions.
What does your character want?
It sounds like an easy question. But if you’re doing this novel writing this right, the answer isn’t so easy. Kurt  Vonnegut famously said, “Every­one wants some­thing on every page, even if it’s only a glass of water.“  That is true even of minor characters, but when you’re talking about your lead role players, I think you have get to the very bottom of that water glass.
Dead Poets
Are we talking about character motivation here? Well, yes, I suppose so. Les Standiford, Vonnegut and all great writers and teachers tells us we must plumb the depths of our character’s hearts and heads to find out what makes them tick. But it’s more than that. I think why Les’s question made an impact on me was because it forced me to come at the old question from a different angle. It’s sort of like when Robin William’s character John Keating in Dead Poets Society climbs atop his desk and tells his students, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”
The first step of character development is figuring out what passions, fears, regrets, or desires consume your character. Then, all you have to do is show him interacting with his setting and other characters in a manner consistent with those possible “motives.”
What Les was asking us to do was to go beyond the surface, to dig deep and deeper to find out what was the one essential consuming need of each character. Think of character motivation as having levels. Yes, you can get published by going no deeper than defcon 1 or 2 in character development. But what happens if you push yourself to take just a couple more steps down into the darkness?
Speaking of going into creepy basements, let’s go to a simple example: Silence of the Lambs. If you’ve read Thomas Harris’s book, you know how effective the author was at descending into the lowest rungs of every character’s motivations. But even the movie did a pretty good job at this. Let’s dissect our heroine:
What does Clarise Starling want?
Level 1: She wants to solve the case. She wants to find Buffalo Bill. (basic thriller plot)
Level 2: She wants to prove she can hang with the big boys of the FBI. (basic thriller with feminist theme)
Level 3: She wants to escape her suffocating southern small-town roots and the FBI was a ticket out of hicksville. Remember how impressed one of the victim’s girlfriends was with Clarise’s job? (Basic thriller with feminist theme and rich backstory.)
Level 4: She wants to impress her boss-mentor Jack Crawford. (basic thriller with feminist theme, good backstory and father-figure character interplay.)
Level 5: She wants to validate herself as being worthy of her father’s legacy because he was a cop killed in action. She gets approval by proxy via Crawford, who tells her at the end that her father would have been proud of her.  (Now this is getting interesting!)
Level 6: She wants to make the lambs stop screaming. Cool…But what does this mean psychologically? Clarise is haunted by a childhood memory of hearing lambs being slaughtered. I have always read this as her attempt to exorcise her demons of abandonment, her human need to deal with existential loneliness, her way of pushing back against the black void. “I thought if I could only save just one,” she tells Lector. She’s talking about saving Buffalo Bill’s victims, but isn’t she really talking about herself?
(While we are at it, has anyone else noticed how eerily similar Silence of the Lambs and Jodie Foster’s other movie Contact are in character themes? Both are smart, emotionally fragile women raised by fathers then orphaned, both manipulated by brilliant outcast men. And both women are staring into the vast blackness and hoping they are not alone.)
Let’s go to another example. What does Captain Ahab want in Moby-Dick?
Level 1: He wants to catch the whale that maimed him. (Simple story of revenge).
Level 2: He wants to prove to his crew and himself that even though he’s got one leg, he is still a man. (He even smuggles his own crew onboard just in case.)
Level 2: He wants to strike out against the pacificism of his Quaker religion. Not so simple theme that’s right here in this passage:
The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;—Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.
Level 3: He wants to vanquish evil, what he calls “the inscrutable thing.” And he’s not sure God is on his side or even exists. He’s like Hamlet, looking for some metaphysical truth in all the madness. And I am sure Peter Benchley had Ahab in mind when he created Quint the shark hunter in Jaws.  Both men are nuts but sort of magnificent. Which is why they had to die.
So here’s what I’d like to leave you with. The next time you think about your characters’s motivations, go deeper. Think hard and long, applying great gobs of elbow-grease of the mind. Don’t be content with staying on the top levels. Don’t skim the surfaces.
Don’t be afraid to descend to the very bottom rung and enter that dank dark basement of the human soul. That’s where you find the good stuff.