Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Spin It Back and Grandkid Days

A little while ago, a writer friend and I met for coffee and got to talking about characterization. Recently, Lisa has been posting on the subject, Getting to Know You being my favorite so far.

The way I approach character, it's not quite as structured as the 'Dossier' approach, where you know your main folks' shoe size and taste in breakfast cereals before you start. Nor is it quite so fey as the 'Found Object' approach, where folks show up on stage and gradually reveal themselves, though of the two, it's more the latter.

What I do, I start with what I need and spin it back. In other words, based on what I need this character to do, what sort of person are they? And go from there.

In Poison Door, I needed a young girl to be out in the middle of the night, where she witnesses a gangland murder. Eleven to thirteen was about the right age: old enough to credibly handle the crises I threw at her but young enough that boys and liquor and so on were... interesting, but still in the future.

What kind of twelve year old runs around the city by herself in the middle of the night? A dangerously underparented one. Her homelife wouldn't be anything flash. In fact, it'd be the sort of thing to make her want to stay out. Her mum was a full-blown alcoholic and addict, at which point the home life practically wrote itself.

So did the hope: Michelle had a ringside view of the trouble that came with guys and liquor and all the stuff the older street kids got up to after dark. She saw pregnancy, substance abuse and overdose take kids like her, one after the other. Unlike some other kids in the same situation, this one had a gritty determination to steer clear of that stuff, to keep her head down and stay in school long enough to grab a normal life. Assuming she can survive the rest of the week.

By the time I was done writing, I could tell you about Michelle's favorite subjects in school, her taste in clothes, movies and cute guys. Whatever you wanted to ask. But at the start, I knew I had a young girl, alone in the dark, watching horror unfold in front of her eyes. And being seen by the killers. Everything else unfolded as I spun it back.

Why a girl? Why Michelle? Well, that's how she showed up. Bit of a 'found object' that way.

Which sort of brings me around to Grandkid Days. For me, I start writing with an event or situation, the kind of day you want to tell your grandkids about.

By this I mean that the events in a story should be seminal in the lives of their characters, turning points in their lives or, at the very least, total red-letter days:

I ever tell you kids about the time bad guys locked up Father Christmas and I stepped in to do his job? (Hogfather, Terry Pratchett)

I ever tell you about the time I met my long-lost dad and he drew me into a war with the gods? (American Gods, Neil Gaiman)

You kids ever hear about how I met your father? I'd pricked my finger on a spinning wheel and fallen into an enchanted sleep... (Sleeping Beauty)

The War? Let me tell you kids, the war was hell, but even worse was what came after... (Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)

I'll never forget the day our little island first got the vote. Those were fun times! (The Sufferage of Elvira, V.S. Naipaul)

Some characters, Jack Reacher and James Bond come to mind, would have a lot of colorful stories. Some, say Hamlet and Macbeth, would have only one. And yeah, they'd probably have some trouble telling it, seeing as they're both dead at the end. But you can't argue that the events leading to their deaths were seminal!

For me, I start with the event, or with a situation like a powderkeg ready to blow. Who's there, what are they like and what do they need to do? From there, I spin the characters back, even as I march them forward.

How about you? How do you approach it?


Fancy and Lisa were both kind enough to give me the Pico. It's flattering (dangerously flattering, perhaps) to hear one is inspiring. Thank you both.

The hard part for me here is picking only five others. So many of you give me so much. Heck, some of you maybe don't even mean to give it: I'm greedy enough and ruthless enough to take inspiration! :-)

So, at risk of giving duplicate awards:

Fancy, back at you! Your bridge project is cool as hell, and you always put a smile on my face. Amazingly, you do it in a second (or third? Fourth?) language. I can order more beer in maybe ten languages, but I can't do what you do, and you make it look so easy!

Lisa, you get one too. Between watching The Founding Wheel come to life and the way you share as you learn, I learn heaps!

Etain, occasional blogger and damn fine poet. Also in a second language.

Wayne, mighty fine writer and too damn cool for words!

And Riss, multitalented, multinational, reminding me always that the artistic life is a self-defined life. Again, she takes the difficult and makes it look easy!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Stolen, With Credit

I wish I'd thought of this. I truly do. But I didn't, so credit is given where credit is due.

Hey, that kinda rhymes. Watch out, Charles! ;-)

Okay, seriously: Charles recently posted about a crappy literary novel he read, a much-acclaimed crappy literary novel. Lots of people complain about crappy literary novels. Others complain about crappy popular novels. In this verrrrrry long interview, Neil Stephenson (around question #2) casually drops the most elegant analogy possible for funding in Western Art: Beowulf and Chaucer.

Chaucer wrote for king and court. His meal ticket was creating art (The Canterbury Tales) that pleased and engaged his wealthy and powerful patrons. The anonymous bards who first sang Beowulf moved from town to town, night to night. A good tale that engaged the crowd meant a comfy bed and good food, etc. Boring or offending the audience... well, let's just say it's not a good idea to bore or offend a lot of big hairy men and women with axes.

It's probably no coincidence that The Canterbury Tales is a top-down look at medieval society: pious, occasionally bawdy (when the peasants feature) and gently teasing where Church-y materialism is concerned. Not that Beowulf features monsters by moonlight, subterranean caves of doom, flying dragons and the biggest, meanest, hairiest motherfucker to ever swing an axe riding into town to set the world to rights.

Modern fiction and movies, not much has changed.

And this duality is with us throughout the art world. While the very rich were daring each other to buy Picasso's throwdown to the art world, N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for Treasure Island were selling in the bazillions. About the time Martha Graham choreographed "Chronicle", Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were packing them in the aisles to watch the foxtrot.

Two camps, one where a small group of discerning patrons drop big chunks of money and another where a whole lot of folks vote a dollar or two at a time. It's probably no secret which one I'm in. (I mean, the blog title's a bit of a giveaway, innit?) Sure, I go to the opera and the ballet, and I dig those underlit European movies where a lonely guy drinks coffee and then dies. But you better believe I'm going to be there when Hellboy 2 opens here!

My own education geared me to a life in the ivory tower. My inclinations put me squarely on the street. Best advice I can give ANY artist is, know which camp you belong in and work as hard as hell in that one. If I have any regret about my art career, it's those early years I spent sucking up to arts boards for funding, chasing down gallery shows and all that. Many of my friends did well in that world, but it wasn't me...

At their best, the Chaucers give us bold and daring work, art that might never have a popular following but that still fills us with a sense of pride. Without the Chaucer approach, we might not have the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso or Claes Oldenburg.

The Beowulf crowd are easy to dismiss with a 'low-art' sniff. But our work endures, precisely because it appeals to the average joe. It's common, vital and alive. No endowment funding or princely patronage could have ever led to pulp fiction, comic books or the Blues.

Thing about the Chaucers is, when they fail, they fail BIG. At their worst, we get novels with no discernable punctuation. We get music with no tonality. We get much of the visual art of the 20th century.

Sure, the Chaucer crowd get it wrong sometimes. Okay, a LOT. Those ivory-tower eggheads are always looking over each other's shoulders, biting their lower lips and hoping not to embarrass themselves. Painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, it doesn't matter: they're all hoping to discover the next Van Gogh, all afraid of holding forth the next Jeff Koons.

Of course, it's not like we Beowulfs are perfect. After all, we brought the world the Da Vinci Code.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Special Treats

Yes, I have a great big To Be Read stack. It's full of books I 'should' read, books I look forward to reading and books I know I'll enjoy. It shrinks, it grows, it will never quite go away.

Then there's my treat shelf. There are a very, *very* few books that I set off to one side, precious gems of heart-stopping loveliness. There are a few old favorites and a few unread volumes by my absolute favorite authors.

Sometimes I look at that shelf, knowing I could dive in and lose myself in one great read after another. Sometimes, I look at it and fear that the authors will let me down this time. (Despite my love of Henry Miller's work, Black Spring is one of the worst books I've ever read) These aren't the drop-everything-else-the-day-it-comes-in books; these are books I save and savor. Same as I might save that bottle of Chateau Margaux for a special occasion, I wait until the time is right for each of these little gems.

The pressure is building for Lay Down My Sword and Shield by James Lee Burke, Henry Miller's Rooftops of Clichy and revisiting Double Indemnity by James M. Cain. But last night I dusted off another old friend: I'm sitting down with the complete Travis McGee series.

Pure. Bloody. Heaven.

How about you? What are your literary treats?

Monday, July 21, 2008

No Shorts

Not in this weather, anyway. ;-)

Seriously, though, when I gather with or swap emails with other writers, the talk naturally turns to story markets, especially for short stories. It always makes me feel like a bit of a freak.

I seem to be the only writer I know who doesn't write short stories. Never. aI just don't seem to have it in me. For that matter, I rarely read them. The average short story seems to follow a form that hasn't changed much since Edgar Allen Poe and Oscar Wilde: set a scene, develop it, then turn it on its head with a twist.

That may be my trouble. When I want to explore a scene in the back of my mind, I sit down with paint and canvas and noodle around.

If I like what I see, I develop it further.

A couple of hours later, I've got all the scene and atmosphere I need. There's no character development, but that's okay.

For that, I've got words.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Riss did a recent post that got my teeth to gnashing. She did a short rant on creative-types who spend more time talking about their work than they do DOING it.

Yup, everyone out there just thought of somebody. No use denying it, I know you did.

That's because they're everywhere. And the minute they sense the creativity in you, they descend those wraith things that guard Azkabhan, trying to suck the warmth and the life from your art.

These ghoulish creatures have been possessed by the spirit of anti-art.

Some, as in Riss's post, talk endlessly about what their work *should* be saying to people. They'll go on and on (and on-- you didn't have to be anywhere, did you?) about statements made by light and shadow in their poetry, about PostModern Deconstructionalsim and the New Structure in their dance pieces, about hearing forms of visual music in their paintings and about how, really, their work challenges the essence of what we have, until now, thought of as a novel, painting, sculpture, dance, mime, poem, song, pile of crap lying on the floor that you were about to clean.

This is one reason I steer clear of university coffee houses. These assholes are everywhere, but at least at the pub their words are smaller.

As long as they actually, you know, *have* some work to talk about, I find these folks the most forgivable. A certain amount of self-promotion is necessary to pay the rent, and we all prefer an artist who can give a coherent and concise teaser about their work, the 'elevator pitch'. Key words being 'concise' and 'coherent'.

Others love to tell you about the work they'd make, if only it were possible. This bunch usually think they're visual artists of some stripe (painters, sculptors, installationists, etc), though I have known a fair few writers who were only too happy to tell me (at length) about how they'd write this great novel if only
a) they had a computer,
b) the computer was a laptop,
c) the laptop had a more intuitive word-processing program,
d) they had silence in which to write,
e) they had crowd noise around them, people talking and so on
f) the computer didn't make that little hum
g) pens and paper didn't cramp their hand
etc. etc. et freaking cetera...

Once, I thought these poor souls actually wanted to make something. Sadly, it took longer than it should have for me to realize that what they really wanted was to suck me in to their world of slack.

And then of course, there's the garden variety failure. Older men seem to delight in this role, but it's not a closed shop by any means. You know The Failure, you meet him all the time. When I was a kid he'd say, "Painting, eh? I used to paint a bit m'self, even had a picture on the wall in a coffee shop once. No money in it, of course. No, you'll soon come to your senses as I did and sell car upholstery over the telephone."

Now, they usually like to tell me how they had an idea for a novel once. It was going to be about a financial services advisor who lives in a van and solves supernatural crimes. Had a really great twist in mind, too... (furtive look from side to side) (hoarse whisper) the ghosts weren't really ghosts at all. They were going to be these old guys, dressed up in bedsheets and roller skates, pretending to be ghosts!


I joke, but these Spirits of Anti-Art aren't funny. If you allow them, they will derail every last bit of creativity, sucking you dry until there's little left but rattling bones. You'll drift up to that shabby kid typing in Starbucks and say, "Screenplay, eh? I have a fantastic idea, uses shadow and light to challenge the very essence of linear storytelling. I'd write it, if only I could use electronics underwater in a sensory isolation tank. Of course, nobody actually makes a living in movies, that's all just smoke and mirrors and accounting tricks. I should know, been an accountant for..."

Until you see the light fade from that kid's eyes, too...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Write More Betterer

Lisa awarded me the Pico del'Arte, for which I am *most* stoked! As I understand it, this award is all about inspiration. In that inspiring spirit (and to spend more time with 'The Remarkable Shrinking TBR Pile') , I've decided to emulate the finger pointing at the moon, and direct you to resources that you shall write 'more betterer'.

First, our very own Liz Fenwick has been posting her notes from a recent writing conference. Kate Harrison's Botox for Writers is recounted here, and tips from agent Caroline Sheldon are here.
Both are chock full of great info.

Speaking of great info, the inimitable J.A. Konrath has done it again: The Newbie's Guide to Publishing Book is 750 pages of priceless advice. It's like an MFA in Creative Writing, except that the information comes from someone whose writing actually SELLS, and its contents are stuff you can actually USE!

And for a little extra fun, here's his advice on 'How Not to Start a Story'...

And while I'm thinking about the sort of information MFA programs *should* give out but don't, one bit of advice I see given all to seldom is this: rent lots of DVDs.

That's right, rent lots and lots of DVDs, then sit down and listen to the creator commentaries. You don't even have to watch the movie, just listen to the writer and/or director talk about their storytelling. You can learn from good movies and from bad ones. You can learn from storytellers puzzled at the success/failure of their creations and from those too deluded to see what works. As long as they talk about how and why they told the story the way they did.

Sure, you'll get burned sometimes. Some creators, even writer/directors who had control over the whole project, seem unable to do more than describe the movie as it happens. Yea, Vince, I'm talking about you. Your commentary on The Breakup was like movies for the blind: 'Um, yeah, he's going into the kitchen here. Probably wants a snack. I'm pretty sure they're mad at each other. Looks like they might break up.' Gack.

And on that note, I'm off. Joe Lansdale, Jefferson Parker and Charles DeLint are calling me. In my quest to write more betterer, it's a grand thing indeed to spend time reading the Most Bestest!

Sunday, July 6, 2008


A lone figure wanders the vast and cavernous halls here at Secret Headquarters. A bitter southerly has blown for days now, howling Antarctic winds with needle-sharp teeth. Christchurch shudders under snow, sleet, frost and hail, sometimes in the same day.

In these dark and echoing chambers, a faint smile plays at the lone figure's lips. A faint tuneless sound teases the ear. Could it possibly be... whistling?

Yup, whistling. You see, winter it may be, but in my heart, summer reigns.

The lovely and talented Agent Anne has the latest manuscript. There are no revision notes yet, and no new project has been started. It's even too cold for oil painting. The Full-Throttle Lifestyle is as close as it gets to idle.

My to-be-read stack is dwindling. This...

is gradually becoming this:

With my time undivided, I'm reading whatever I want to, whenever I want to. It's bloody lovely.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to put my feet up by the fire with a small stack of favorites.

I'm hoping a few well-placed matches, a comfy chair and a big mug of hot cocoa should transform this...

into this: