Sometimes, separating the writer from the character is hard. We find ourselves putting our own traits into those of our protagonist, so they become mirrors of us. They may share the same taste in music, food, or hobbies. Their favorite sports team may be ours; that song on the radio we just can’t stand may make them grind their teeth, too.
One trait that I’ve noticed that comes through in all of my favorite characters is an interest in cooking. Their proficiency levels vary (from Chie’s ignorance about what “simmer” means, to Marshall knowing the recipe for drop scones so well he can make them in his brother’s kitchen without a book), but they always enjoy cooking. It may have different meanings for them – a desire to please, a need to control, sometimes just a way for characters to relax or get to know each other better – but even those meanings are from my own experience.
Even though I’m not actively writing while I do it, cooking allows me the freedom to let my mind wander. It’s a time of day I usually spend alone with my thoughts, and those thoughts almost invariably turn to my stories and characters: Does Paige sneak chopped vegetables from the cutting board while Daniel looks away? Does Ross sway with Amber as she stirs some sauce? Does Axton have to stop making breakfast because the hounds won’t settle down?
No matter who the character is – doctor, dancer, reckless bounty hunter – they’re all me, in a way. I’m no doctor; I’m barely a dancer; I couldn’t track a skip to save my life. But there are more basic traits we share between us, like joy for art, work, and – sure – cooking. In honor of that sense of sharing, I thought I’d share a bit of a recent cooking experience: curried shrimp and mango soup. The photos below detail the real-life steps I took, but rest assured as ingredients were browning, bubbling, and coming together in that Dutch oven, my brain was equally bubbling with ideas for where my next story should go. And, of course, there’ll be cooking.
If you’re interested, here’s the recipe, originally from Eating Well:
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 serrano chile, minced (optional)
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups seafood broth or stock or clam juice
- 1 14-ounce can “lite” coconut milk
- 3 ripe mangoes, diced
- 1 1/4 pounds raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 bunch scallions, sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Heat oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, chile (if using), curry powder and thyme; stir constantly for 30 seconds. Add broth (or stock or clam juice), coconut milk and mangoes. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
- Puree 3 cups of the soup in a blender. (Use caution when pureeing hot liquids.) Return the puree to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook until pink and firm, about 3 minutes. Stir in scallions and salt.
What personal traits – if any – do you find you share most commonly with your characters? What do you see your characters doing when you’re cooking, doing the wash, or some other regular chore? Do you think you’ll try the curried shrimp and mango soup recipe? Let me know in the comments!
These last several weeks, I’ve felt mostly horrid. It’s been a rather hectic fall semester, with new projects to complete as well as new fires to put out. My students are either going through Senior-itis or studying abroad, so all the work they would ordinarily do falls to me, too. This isn’t actually that awful – what takes my students twelve hours to do, I can do in half that time – but it does mean tasks pile on through the week. Add to that my sleeping schedule is wonky due to changing weather and light, and I’ve felt sluggish and unmotivated.
I’ve also been working on a story edit.
When I edit, I try my best to concentrate on that story. It helps me keep overall voice and continuity better than notecards or Scrivener can do. I still read while I edit, because I learn more by example from my favorite authors on what’s important in a story, how to keep plot threads moving, and when to dangle, when to pull up, and when to trim loose. But the only writing I’ve done for the last month or so has been rewrites of an already-finished draft. Rewrites are good: I changed two whole chapters, cleaned up more than a half-dozen more, and had one character do a near-180 flip on me. It’s all better for the story as a whole, but it was sucking me dry.
I discussed this with my husband, who reminded me that “[r]ewriting is still writing.” But, he is much more comfortable working from what’s already on the page. The blank page doesn’t bother me; I just start writing words off the top of my head. In fact, it’s hard for me to find blank pages in my notebook when I need one, because so many of them are filled with first lines, initial ideas, or jots of dialogue. For some people, that’s all the writing they need to keep going. For me, all of those little notes and ideas are merely warm-up, like stretching before a workout. Have you ever just stretched and not followed up with the real workout? My body reacts poorly to that. It wants to work hard and make a sweat. Why couldn’t I see what that stretching-and-not-working was doing to my writer’s brain?
On my Thursday morning commute, I decided to open up a blank document. I just couldn’t face again one of the annoying scenes in the edit I was trying to make work. I began typing off the top of the head…and, over the next two days, I typed out over 4700 words of a new free write.
I haven’t felt this good in a long time.
Friends and colleagues – real writers – supported this, with cheers like, “Writing is therapy!” and “Writing is the best medicine.” I had apparently forgotten how sapped I get when I don’t allow myself the freedom to write something new and for fun.
Editing strengthens a story. It’s an integral part of making the story the best it can be. And, I do enjoy it, especially to see the finished product. But, sometimes, I have to let myself just write, for the pure joy of the story, the characters, and the process itself.
“Breathe, another ‘Finding Mister Wright’ short-fic”
[~4750 words/16 pages; PDF]
Clicking the link above will take you to the latest chapter in my “Finding Mister Wright” slice-of-life series. It’s about love and family, fatherhood and brotherhood, and the big and little changes those things cause in us. It’s a free-write, so it’s choppy in parts and rambling in others, but I decided not to edit it despite that. Part of what brings me back to these characters time and again is how much joy and love they have for each other, and how much of the same I have for them. I doubt they’d be so therapeutic otherwise.
How is your writing journey progressing? What do you do when you find yourself in a writing or editing funk?
September seems to be a popular birthday month. It must have something to do with cuddling together when it’s cold outside during the traditional winter. I celebrated my birthday this past week, too. While I may not have been able to celebrate with everyone I would have wanted there, I did enjoy a very fun and filling tasting menu supper in the city.
But I’m not here to talk about indulgent food.
Recently, several storyteller friends of mine have brought up the topic of scenes or chapters in a story where nothing really happens. There’s no big action, no deep conflict, just the characters slowing down to talk, reflect, or enjoy themselves. The prevalent argument in today’s how-to columns is that every scene should push the story forward. In some cases, that technique works: strict short stories, for example, where the prose should be so airtight that every dialogue and action needs to contribute to the plot. For a longer story, though, I believe slow-downs are necessary.
A story can’t stay at 11 all of the time. The characters – and the reader – need some breathing room between the big conflicts. This downtime can be represented in any number of ways: a conversation, a love scene, even a birthday party.
For some reason, I like using birthday celebrations to look at a character’s life. In 1 More Chance!, I used Chie’s boyfriend’s birthday to introduce her to his family (among other things). In Fearless, Ross’s birthday is an excuse for his crew to get together for a party on the beach. In the “Finding Mister Wright” universe, Rob’s birthday is used to contrast the ideas of life and death. And, in my most recent story on the subject, one of my From Hell bounty hunters uses an old birthday to bury his past. Now, 1 More Chance! is a massive, meandering relationship story, and the “Finding Mister Wright” and From Hell examples are self-indulgent free-writes, so they follow their own non-rules. The Fearless birthday chapter, though, offers what I’ve always thought to be a necessary moment of relaxation between the second and third arcs, where the characters get to have a little bit of simple happiness before the new conflict hits. Seen alone, the party on the beach doesn’t do much for the novel as a whole. The main point of the chapter is to show how well these characters fit together, and how far they’ve come from the beginning of the story. There’s not much more to it than that. But I think it’s good to have smaller, calmer moments like this in a story, to show the reader who and what has been affected by the conflict that’s happened, or by the conflict yet to come. And, just as it’s good to have these smaller, calmer moments in stories, it’s good to have them in life.
Birthdays are as much about our own growth as they are about family, friends, noisemakers, and food. That growth includes rest as well as action. So let’s push on with our stories. But let’s also not forget to allow for a little bit of breathing room now and again.
What are your thoughts on quiet moments in stories? Do you ever use a birthday occasion in your stories? What kind of birthday cake do you like best? 🙂
Writing has a lot to do with first choices. We write from the tips of our fingers, trying to get down all the words running in our heads. When we sit back and take a read through what’s on the paper or screen, we can start to second-guess those words. I’ve written enough first drafts – enough words – to know it’s okay to trust my first choices. They’re usually right. But, sometimes, they’re not.
After I’ve finished a story, I’ll let it sit a while. For a short story, maybe a few days; for a novel, sometimes as long as a year or more. When I go back and read it again, it’s easier to see which first choices were right and which ones were, well, not so right as I’d originally thought. That distance is important. It grants us a fresh eye and fresh mind. It also grants us greater honesty with our work. Hopefully, we’ve grown from that first draft, using other stories. The distance, honesty, and experience work together to help us see that draft in a new light. If we’re ready, and inclined, it puts us in a better place to cut, weave, and create a more perfect story than what used to be there.
All of this is just me saying that I’m back in editing mode again. I’ve pulled up Fearless and have started to go through it piece by piece, chapter by chapter, conflict by conflict, to make it a better story than it was, even if it’s never perfect. I loved the story then and I love it still. I’ll likely be doing some more off-the-cuff writing while I edit this time, though, because I learned from the From Hell edit that I get a little lost when I’m not creating anything new. But I’m ready for this next challenge. Let’s see how good my choices were the first time around.
To celebrate this new chapter in my own journey, I pounded out another short-ish free-write set in my “Finding Mister Wright” universe, where the Wrights and McAllisters talk about, fret over, and celebrate their own first (and second) choices.
“First Choices” (~2700 words/9 pages; PDF will open in a new window)
Have you made any first choices lately with your writing?
I just got back from a work conference on television technology and production (that’s my day job). I had a great time, as I always do, connecting and reconnecting with colleagues from across the country, and learning new lessons from faculty, staff, and students working in video. I also attended a great session on reality TV production, presented by April Lundy. I’m not a big watcher of reality television – the closest I get to it are cooking shows or travel docs – but I was riveted by Ms Lundy’s session. Because so many of the points she made were about the importance of storytelling.
“Storytelling is everything,” she told her attentive crowd, and I grinned as she said it, because it’s true. Whether in television, film, poetry, or prose, the story determines the success of the medium. Ms Lundy spoke a lot about the ups and downs of conflict and arcs within a successful reality television show season or series. I could only think how much that applies to my own writing and editing; throughout the entire editing process of From Hell (A Love Story), I kept reminding myself to “keep to the arc” and “push toward the conflict,” and how each chapter – just like a television episode – needed to fulfill a thematic point in the ongoing story. When I spoke to her after the session, she said, “I kept looking at you, because I could tell you understood [how important story is].” Do I ever.
I wasn’t able to write much more than a fluff piece for my wicked gunslingers while I was away, but I thought about my writing craft a lot. And I’m already itching to get back into it, conflict, plot building, character nuances, and all.
I love it when my work and my passions converge. Have you ever had two parts of your life cross paths in an unexpected way?
I’d felt pretty down on myself the last few days. It happens: every so often, I look at my various hit statistics and comment numbers, and I start to doubt my skill, especially in comparison to other writers. It always seems like everybody else is getting hundreds of comments and thousands of hits per day, while three likes or just one comment on a story will send me into a dopamine-fueled fit of happiness.
Dopamine, dear dopamine. How do I love thee?
But those low-to-non-existent numbers were dragging me down, so much that I couldn’t even pull it together to put a few words together on the page, no matter how hard I tried. The only thought going through my head was, “I suck.”
Social media is particularly damaging during these downswings, because like-minded individuals tend to cluster together on these outlets, and I’ve never really been a like-minded individual with anybody. I have interest groups and fandoms I follow, but I’ve always been on the fringe of them: the oddball, the rebel, the outcast, the geek. The closest I’ve gotten is with my writer friends, though even they know how weird I am. Of course, all writers are odd, to an extent. I think we have to be, to want to sequester ourselves away to focus on getting just the right phrase down onto a piece of paper. And, to keep doing that over and over until we’re happy with what we have (which is almost never, by the way; there simply comes a time when enough is enough, and we have to let go).
Anyway, while slogging through that quagmire of depressive doubt, a familiar link popped up on my Twitter feed:
I’d read Guy’s article on Why Blog Hits Don’t Really Matter before, but it felt serendipitous that I happened to log in to my Twitter and saw it that day. I read it again, and it resonated with me, as it usually does. I talked with a few of my writer friends about it, too, and I remembered (again, because I’m a slow learner) that my writing isn’t about being popular, or publishing books, or trying to make a living from my writing. I already have a job I enjoy, that luckily pays my bills. I self-published my From Hell (A Love Story), and I’ll probably pull together a book of some more stories, but I’m never going to be a “successful” author. And, I’m okay with that. I write because I want to share the unique, silly, sappy, sexy stories inside me. Even if somebody doesn’t look today, they might find a story of mine next week, or next month, or next year. If that story makes them smile, laugh, or think, then it’s done its job. And, I’ve done mine. Once I remembered that, and put that realization back in my heart, I could write again. I sat down and wrote another vignette for my “Finding Mister Wright” universe basically in one go! And, it felt great.
I’m sure I’ll have more down days to come. But when they happen, I’m going to try to remember to look back at this time, when I felt depressed about the ridiculous merry-go-round popularity contests conjured by my defeatist brain, and remind myself why I write what I write, and why I love what I write. You’re welcome to join me, whenever you’re ready.
If you’d like to read the latest “Finding Mister Wright” vignette, you can click the link below; the PDF will open in a new window. Don’t worry – it’s not nearly as raunchy as the last one.
“Synchronicity” – Another “Finding Mister Wright” short story
What techniques or motivations do you use when you doubt yourself?