Friday, March 16, 2007

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

73,000 words

Stephen King says building memorable and believable characters is nothing more or less than our own observation of human beings and our ability to tell the truth.

He also says, tell the truth and you won't be popular in polite society for long.

I remember being fourteen or fifteen years old. Being afraid all the time, and turning hard to hide that fear. Looking at the violence and addiction around me, the teenaged parents, the kids who came out of prison dead eyed and flat faced and the ones who never got more than a memorial page in the yearbook, I was scared.

I remember sitting with Interview With a Vampire and getting my first clear vision of a life beyond what I knew. The thought that I might one day sit at a sidewalk cafe on a sunny street in Paris was impossible, but too tantalizing to resist.

I got tastes of what I wanted, but I also plumbed a lot of my own personal darkness. One day, I finally did get free. My dreams came true because I paid what they cost.

When my work goes wrong, this is usually where it gets lost: it loses its honesty. It's tempting to write these sort of nifty-clean thrillers where you can imagine Roger Moore in the lead. Or genteel murder mysteries where old ladies have to figure out who killed the vicar. Hell, I love to read that stuff.

But that's not my voice. It's part of the human condition I can relate to vicariously, but not the part that I can speak from with any authority. I *can* be honest about fear, about predators and victims and souls in moral freefall, about violence, hope and love.

I once couch-surfed with a stripper/sometime hooker and her disgraced cop boyfriend/sometime pimp. I can be honest about the love and anger and sadness between them in a way that I can't about, say, a witty and debonair jewel thief, or a group of high school kids throwing a party with their parents out of town.

The Tiny Dynamo sometimes wishes I wrote Regency Romance. She's afraid to let her parents see my work. *My* parents never finished my first book. Ten pages, and they were out.

When the Dynamo read about the Christchurch I know, she was aghast. But she also admitted every word was true. So these last couple weeks, that's a lot of what I've been doing with this (almost finished) retrenchment.

Telling the truth.


Charles Gramlich said...

A friend suggested recently that I should try to write a paranormal romance, which are big these days. Said friend knows I like fantasy and Sci-fi and horror. But even though those elements are involved with that genre I know there's no way in Hell I could legitimately pull off such a book. It wouldn't be true to me. Good post.

cs harris said...

Yes, good post. Being true to oneself has always been my mantra. The deepest truths are usually found in darkness.

Kate S said...

Good post.

I was looking through some WIPs last night, telling myself to get off my lazy butt and finish one of them. I opened one, not expecting to find much--an abandoned work that I didn't really think was worth much--and found it held it my attention far more than the rest, and was much better than I had remembered it.

After some moments, I figured out why: it was real. It was based on one of my own experiences, and it was far better than the others that I had just made up.

73K words is nothing to sneeze at - congratulations.

spoon said...

But the thing is...we have some great writers, many of which never experienced the things they write about. Is it not just that they can take what they know and use it to write the stuff they haven't experienced well, that's where the truth in it will come from. Like, can you not imagine that cop/pimp accidentally killing his Mrs and how it would go down, assuming it did? That way, you only imagine and make up stuff to a point, the rest is real and in your frame of reference. I know i know, easier said than done...

avery said...

It seems a fairly common fear for writers to think their parents will read their work and then begin beating their chests, tearing their hair and wondering how they happened to raise such degenerates. I know it was (sometimes still is) mine. I guess I forget to give them credit for having lived an entire life before becoming instant saints via my birth.

Steve Malley said...

Thanks for the kind words, all.

Spoon, it's because we make so much up that we need to stay true. If the people don't sound real and believable, the made-up sstory falls apart.

And Avery, my parents have had years and years of naked women in my sketchbooks and sexually explicit art on public exhibit to get used to the deviant they raised.

They still beat their chests anyway when they got that first book. I'm off the Christmas card list, but they seem to like me okay otherwise.