New Device Phobia

There are moments in my life when the technoflop in me leaps out in all her spandex and tinfoil brilliance, and I just want to crawl under a rock, refusing all digital modes of communication. Yes, I got a new laptop. The moment I saw the matte black surface, still in its plastic, something in me cringed and started sucking its thumb.

“Do I really want to do this to myself?” I thought, thanking my husband profusely. (First World ingrate here.)

I bravely took on the beast…on day 3. It was right after Realm asked, “Have you even turned it on?”

I just laughed. “I keep meaning to,” I told him. Inside I was crying, ‘No! No, I haven’t turned it on! That would require courage comparable to storming the living room and taking down the Christmas tree!’

I turned it on and found it wanted to get to know a little bit about me: my name, my occupation, my shoe size, any moles or important identifying marks… I tried to be open and answer all the questions honestly. After all, we would be friends for some time, providing I made it through the setup wizard.

The questions became more restrictive after that: Did I have an Outlook email address? I took the “alternative email” option, which it accepted for about three seconds, then returned me to the Outlook email prompt. Twice.

‘Fine, I’ll register for your sponsor’s account. Satisfied?’ I thought. Because, hey, I can always use an extra email account! I only have 306.

Armed with my new Outlook account, I entered the inner sanctum, the desktop. Oooooh, ahhhh. I was enthralled for a full ten minutes before I discovered how much I hate Windows 8.

1024px-Blue_Screen_of_DeathI was in the midst of giving my new laptop a gentle facelift when it happened. My laptop decided to update and needed to restart. So it restarted, I swirled the touchpad to enter my password, and it blue-screened me. Yes, it wielded the blue screen of death with its simpering frown-y face, informing me it would restart again after a few corrections. The cycle of powerlessness had begun.

I sparred with that patronizing blue screen for a few days. I learned a lot of new things about the virtual innards of my laptop. Had the blue screen continued, I would have become well acquainted with its actual innards. In that time my laptop began to take on a personality. At first it was smug, rejecting my “foreign” email address; then it was sullen because I ditched its ready-to-go software and changed its boot-up preferences. It became downright malicious when I installed open source—not open source! For shame!—software. The white frown-y face stared at me, impassive, but I didn’t flinch.

“You will not sabotage this relationship, Wizfect,” I whispered to it late into the night after the fortieth reboot.

It seems Wizfect the Laptop has a sensitive touchpad and didn’t want me to know. Since I have always found the touchpad an annoying bane of smooth typing, I had no qualms about disabling it. I think that’s when Wizfect began to learn to trust me. I have no doubt we’ll be making great stories together.

Save the Dangling Characters!

I needed to read Essential writing skills: why a bad first draft is better than no first draft by M J Wright this past week. I’ve been beating myself up lately. Here’s why:

I began a story last year in a flurry of excitement. I finished chapter 10 or 11, and the going got tough. After writing approximately 30,000 words, I started to wonder, “Is this really good? Am I wasting my time?” It was the “make or break” phase. My fear of commitment kicked in. I thought, “What if I invest in these characters, fall in love with them, and find out they aren’t who I think they are?” Weird? Maybe, but that’s how I tick. So, what did I do? I hung it up. Left it. Left my characters dangling. I don’t want to admit to you how many characters I do this to. It’s painful.

And I hate to quit. So I told myself, “You are going to finish this, even if it’s bad!” I wanted to commit to the project, to put my heart into it, but I couldn’t. I needed to know my characters were lovable, relatable. I needed feedback to continue.

None of that friend-y stuff would do. I’m talking about your best friend who reads three lines and says, “Oh, this is wonderful! You’re such a great writer! I don’t know why you’re not submitting to every publisher!” I needed the real reaction of the reader who wasn’t influenced by my wonderful personality and incredible wit. (heh)

Where could I find that? Where could I find an audience who would only pay attention to the story? If it was good, I’d know it by the following it garnered.

This is where I cracked. I gave up the dream of professionally publishing the book. I changed the story up a bit and posted it on Fanfiction, knowing I was giving it away for free. Why? Isn’t that like shooting myself in the foot? Ah, my friend, a free book is better than no book at all.

I’m deep in my latest obsession, The Kiss of the Gobboling King. It’s one of those fairytale-revisited works. It’s fun. It’s freeing. No requirements. No target audience. It’s already found a little following. Readers tell me they like Esda and Draill, so I feel safe that these characters won’t disappoint me. I can love them unreservedly. I can finish the story.

Is it written the way I imagined it, shined and polished for the bookstore shelf? No. It’s a first draft. But when I’m finished, it will be the entire first draft. That’s what matters.

Fall and Sour Grapes

I was seven years old and fighting to breathe. It was Halloween day. I lay on my bed, squirming and twisting, trying to find a position that would relieve the rock in my chest. Mom’s eyes showed her concern. I knew something was wrong, but I was too tired to ask what.

She took me to the doctor’s office, where they gave me a shot in my upper arm. For I moment, my lungs relaxed and I breathed freely. It lasted only a minute or two and my lungs became lead again, inflexible and heavy. They stuck me in the other arm. Nothing happened.

I stayed in the hospital for a week. That was the year I didn’t get to be Sour Grapes, the fancy, purple villain from Strawberry Shortcake. I missed trick-or-treating altogether. I had been so, so excited. In the top drawer of the hospital bedside table were a few pieces of Halloween candy someone had brought for me.

Every Halloween finds me sick. As a child, there were years I’d wheeze my way down the street to knock doors anyway. Hay rides were the asthma attack waiting to happen.

When fall comes, I breathe in the magic and forget. I forget about the disappointment of years before. My brain has this switch that only the smell of fall can activate. Story ideas grow like kudzu vines, latching onto my thoughts, tempting me to drop the work I’m doing and join them in the jungle of my imagination. I begin to scheme: How can I get away to write? I need a few hours for this story and a couple of hours to complete that one…

But the sniffling and the coughing start. I wake up nights, stuffed up and aching in my face. I can’t look at a computer screen; the light is too harsh, the letters too blurry. The throb behind my eyes won’t go away.

Fall allergies; I didn’t want to pass this down to my kids. They wheeze, sniffle, and cough. They pull themselves out of bed like they’re leaving a vat of molasses.

The humidifiers and essential oils are out. My house smells like cinnamon, cloves, lemon, and eucalyptus. At least, I hope that’s what it smells like—I can’t smell anything! There’s a tissue box in every room. Hot peppermint tea soothes swollen throats.

And I can’t think. I can’t focus. It’s like all of this mucus has stuffed up my brain and shoved out the lovely ideas and creativity.

So, I guess I’ll cross my arms and tell you fall isn’t all that great anyway. Who cares that the leaves are gorgeous, the weather is splendid, and Halloween is just around the corner?

Feeling Pumpkin-Headed? (Pumpkin and Image By C Tennie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
I’m not fooling you, am I?

When I Meet the Bad Guy

Some time ago I read a draft of a story written in the point of view of the villain. Let me say upfront that I was entirely judging this character to be in the wrong, and I wanted to explore the character’s actions. I wanted to consider the story from her perspective.

The author began with an objective voice. It was great…for the first few paragraphs. Then something happened and my interest waned. I closed the book. Later, I asked myself, “Where did that story go wrong? It started out promising!”

It doesn’t matter which character’s eyes I’m seeing the story through; for a bad guy to be, well, good, I need some questions answered.

1. When I meet Cruel Bob, I will ask him,

“What’s Your Last Name?”

There’s a scene in the movie Galaxy Quest where the guy, named Guy, knows he’s going to die because he has no last name. He panics because he has no hobbies, no love interest, no back story, nothing. He knows he’ll be the first to go. As Captain James Hook would say, this is “bad form” for any villain who is going to be around for a while.

Leroux’s Phantom was given great context, both in the revelation of his past and in his residence under the Opera House. [Scan of still of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Cruel Bob’s a cardboard character (aka, the two-dimensional chump) who needs context, or he won’t matter to me. I want to know his temperament, his tendencies, his surroundings–anything that will help me understand who he is right when I meet him. I want to relate to him, if only to roundly hate him.

Even a drunken, violent character has his times when I can see the struggling person inside. The manipulative liar has his weak moments, when I see his doubts creep in. He’s still the bad guy, but a bad guy with a human element.

2. I will ask that devious Madame Vitriol,

“What’s Your Problem?”

In real life, it would be much easier if people would go around with “bad guy” and “good guy” signs, but in reality everyone chooses what he/she will be. They have a past and a reason for doing what they do. It’s often the motivation from their past that helped create their present path. We all have a motive. What is the catalyst for your baddie’s behavior?

The scene where Willoughby cuts off a lock of Marianne’s hair. John Willoughby was by nature a man moved by the moment, and by nurture he could afford to live recklessly. [By Hugh Thomson. (A scan from the book Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
For a writer, motives become characters in themselves. A trickster can make a bad motive look like it’s good, and, sometimes, even a character with a good motive can behave in a bad way. So, tell me about those interesting events early on in Madame’s life that changed her. This helps me to better understand her and want to keep reading.

3. Then I will ask Mr. Eville von Furioso,

“Do You Come With Commentary?”

There are characters who are clearly wrong in what they do and think, but an author who uses the narrative to harp on this is really doing the reader a disservice. The story I mentioned at the beginning of the post is a good example. The author didn’t keep the objectivism. The emotion welled up before my eyes as the lines progressed. At first, the character waited patiently, set things in order, considered the merits of her work, etc. Then the phrases and words changed. Her ‘lip curled in disgust,’ she ‘ordered,’ and she ‘demanded.’ The author’s perspective took over the story.

I don’t want to be told your baddie is cruel, manipulative, delusional, misguided, or fiendish. This isn’t persuading me, it’s hitting me over the head with a thick Board of Obvious. What if each book drew a bright highlighter through the bad guy’s every action by using adjectives with negative connotations? What if each encounter with that character was weighted down with biased phrases? A good story should give me the pieces to help me draw that conclusion for myself.

In life I have to exercise my critical thinking skills to protect myself because the world has some people who are not nice living in it. Those who have the greatest influence on the way I think are the ones I’ve come to know personally. When I meet a real, living mean person, who is sometimes warmly sympathetic and sometimes cold and heartless, I have to learn to see past emotions and realize when that person is doing something wrong.

The book characters who mimic real-life people are the ones with whom I become emotionally attached. Mr. von F can’t resonate if he comes with the author’s complimentary “view my character this way” specs. I won’t remember him. So, please, leave the Board of Obvious at home and help me work my way through Eville’s schemes organically.

Being a fan of the character-based novel, I’m looking for a good bad guy. He/She must have (1) Context, (2) Motive, and (3) No Complimentary Commentary. I’m not saying the world would be a better place if authors did this, but I can think of a few books that would be better books.

Rilla Scriptzilla

“Bing Crosby Gary Crosby 1951” by CBS (eBay item photo front publicity release) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the past two years, I’ve become more acquainted with scriptwriting. This is odd because I’ve never though of myself as a scriptwriter. Scriptwriting requires me to utilize crisp segues to get to the point, which I think I have a knack for. It also challenges me to write out my vision of what is happening. I don’t get to practice this type of descriptive writing enough—oh, I write action, but not action this mapped out. So, tackling the tricks of the script is a fun exercise for me.

But there is another aspect to writing a script that I can’t get used to: the actors. These are people who don’t want to do things the way the script is written. Ever. I go from scriptwriter to patcher-upper, working to bring the actor-revised script back around to its point, the punchline of the joke or the principle message.

I’d prefer to write the script, turn it in, and watch the result without having any part in the massacre that takes place in the middle. I’d rather view the aftermath, saying, “Wow, nothing I wrote was used except that joke in Scene Two. And it wasn’t funny because it was set up all wrong.” Then I might cringe while my name rolled through the credits and be done with it.

“Stumme Coronation of Mary jpg” by Creator:Absolon Stumme (imgc.artprintimages.com) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You see, scripts are a temptation to the control-prone writer, which I happen to be. When a writer works out the specifics of every movement and word of an actor, it can have one waxing a tad dictatorial. I want complete control. There, I said it! I want everything to go exactly as I see it in my mind. Well, sometimes I let things go when I see it played out and realize it doesn’t work as smoothly as it did in my head. I’m okay with changing that. You know me, I’m generous that way.

When I was young, my cousins and I would put on skits at family gatherings. I was in charge of these skits. Every year my cousins would revolt against my direction. Oh, all right, my tyranny. I shouted. I threatened. I hovered. It’s true.

Every year I became more and more convinced that I was not going to do another skit the next year. I tried letting a cousin direct it one year, saying, “You do the skit. No, do it this way.”

Obviously, that didn’t work.

I tried, “Oh, you guys should definitely do a skit! I think I’ll watch this year.”

That came off like I was sulking or something. I wasn’t. I just knew I’d take over and be hated for the rest of that visit. I could never seem to help myself.

Then came the skit-less years. No one understood why I didn’t head up those fun skits anymore. One cousin in particular, who’d been captain of the skit mutiny every year, came to me and asked, “Why don’t you put together our skits anymore? I miss it.”

I laughed good-naturedly and said, “Because you were always mad at me for being so bossy.”

She crinkled her nose and smiled.

“And I am bossy,” I admitted. “I wish I weren’t, but it just comes over me.”

I don’t mean to be bossy. I really don’t. To be honest, becoming a mother confused me a great deal because, suddenly, I was completely within my rights to take charge. It was necessary. Someone needed to direct and instruct those crazy kids. Could that somebody actually be me? Yes! I was perfect for the part! And I have gotten, far and away, my fill of being in charge as a mom.

So, all that to say, I need to learn to loosen my choleric grip as a scriptwriter. And I can do it. I can let go. Just don’t overhaul the whole script on me, okay?

“Fat.” There, I Said It.

I have two copies of the first book in The Bobbsey Twins series. One is a 1961 edition, and the other is from 1989. My kids and I found, while reading along with these two versions, that an adjective from the nicknames of the youngest set of Bobbsey twins had been removed. Flossie is nicknamed “my fat little fairy” by her father, and Fred has the loving epitaph, “fat little fireman.” “Fat” was completely missing in the 1989 version.

“The Bobbsey twins were very busy that morning. They were all seated around the dining-room table, making houses and furnishing them…” By Carla Pettigrew Hufstedler [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
After the kids and I discovered this, we had a good laugh. The connotation of “fat” in the U.S. is much different from its harmless meaning fifty years ago. How about centuries ago? Wasn’t fatness a desired quality during the Renaissance? One risked being considered impoverished and easily susceptible to disease without a healthy display of bulk.

My kids are slender. They are all good eaters, but I have a child who tends to lose weight easily when she’s sick. I’m always trying to plump her up with cheese and spoonfuls of peanut butter. She often requests to melt the peanut butter with chocolate chips. That works for me.

Sometimes she will ask me if a food she enjoys will help her get fat.

“Mom, are these Kippers good for making me fat?”

“Mom, can we get those Little Debbie domino brownies at the store?”

I can’t stand those.

She knows it, so she adds, “I think they will help me get fat.”

In our fat-phobic society, a nickname like “my fat little fairy” or “my fat little fireman” is tottering on abusive language. If you use a similar phrase as a term of endearment, you might be blamed for your child’s years of therapy. So, don’t do that. Just stick to something noncommittal, like “nice” or “sweet.”

What about using “fat” as a writer? Do you find you avoid certain words and phrases merely because they could be offensive to that reader whose pet pug is going to need a dog whisperer because you didn’t think anything of naming your main character’s dog Pudgy Purple Pug? Or have you ever wondered what harmless adjectives, names, or even ideals might be offensive in later years?

No, never.

I don’t either. Not at all.

Cross-Eyed in Editing

Let me talk about my writing. I haven’t done that in a while. I’ve noticed when writers blog about their writing in any detail my eyes glaze over. I like knowing what they are currently working on. I love knowing what their latest MSes are about, but I don’t want to read the details. You know, like what the main character is evolving into in the writer’s head or how the plot has taken an interesting detour. Hey, I’ve blogged about it, too. I know their pain, but I have my own details to slog through. So how do I tell you my struggles without boring you with something I know would bore me? Hm… I’ll give you one paragraph and let that be all.

burnt paper sxc (gerbra...)My manuscript Dragonfly Prince—the one I thought was the one? Yeah, that one. I’m ready to take it out of its binder and stomp on it. Or burn it. I’m not picky. It’s not a bad story, it just hates me. I think my decision to be rebellious and write my YA in third person was all wrong. It’s a whole lot of work to change it from third person to first person because perspective changes everything.

What if I go through all this trouble and it’s not right? Again.

Have you ever worked so long on something you can’t even distinguish what it really looks like anymore? I don’t want to give up, but this is the bazillionth edit. I still haven’t queried the manuscript! I want to do the best I can so I can say, “It’s done. Whether it’s accepted or not, it’s done.” It’s killer being a perfectionist…and an amateur.

Was that more than one paragraph? Oops. My frustration refuses to be contained in one paragraph today.

Photo from gerbrak at http://www.sxc.hu/profile/gerbrak.