Nev, revisited

One of my recent Timehop memories was a #TBT / #ThrowBackThursday to my very first 100 Word Challenge for Grown-Ups, from February 2012. At the time, I was deeply entrenched in writing the first draft of “Fearless,” which remains one of my hope-for novels. (It’s currently in draft 2.5, for anyone wondering.) That long-ago 100-word entry was titled “Everyone Loves Neville,” and, if you’re interested, you can see the original at the link. That first writing challenge started me on a path of picking up more over the years. Through those challenges, I learned a lot about the value of words.
There’s a lot in that first foray that I like. There’s also room for improvement. Here’s a second take on that effort, hopefully for the better:

The girl lingered beside him, her chest heaving even though they’d been out of the water for ten minutes. “Thanks for the lesson, Nev.” Her wet lashes flickered at him. “If there’s ever anything I can do…?”

“Just practise,” Nev said, before sending her on her way.

Ross sidled to his shoulder, to stare after the girl swaying up the shore. “You lucky bastard. Everyone loves you!”

Nev looked at him: his friend with the wide, luscious smile and eyes so deep and blue he often dreamt of drowning in them. He sniffed and picked up his board. “Not everyone.”

I tried to set myself to a 100-word story-a-day challenge this past May, but it didn’t pan out. I did manage a few short vignettes which ended up being pretty good, but the lack of readers and feedback quickly deflated my excitement.
There wasn’t much reason to go back and “fix” this bit of short challenge writing, except that Ross, Nev, and the others have been on my mind again, of late, and that Timehop reminder of my first 100WCGU challenge prompted me to revisit sweet, lovestruck Nev. Of course, I can never stop at rewriting just one thing. As it so goes, I’ve also been working on rewrites for lots of my “Finding Mister Wright” short stories (including the one I just sent in for 4amwriter’s Dare to Write summer challenge!), and Highs, Lows, and In-Betweens, the big sci-fi/action team novel from 2014’s NaNoWriMo. But, that’s an update for another day….
Who else out there remembers the 100WCGU challenges? Have you ever challenged yourself with a writing-limit goal? Working on any interesting rewrites, lately? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to know I’m not doing this alone. 🙂

Cooking it up with my (head)crew

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:

Ingredients

  • 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

Preparation

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

A moment of writerly hubris

I think all writers are protective of their characters. We’re told to kill our darlings, and the idea of making our characters face hardships, including death, is important, because conflict drives a lot of life. It certainly drives drama. As much as I love talking about my stories and characters, I always try to rein myself in, because I’ve realized over the years that nobody has or ever will care as much for my characters as I do. I can hopefully entertain with their stories, and maybe – if I’m lucky – I can even make a reader feel something for one of my characters, whether that’s compassion, disgust, fear, or just a simple interest to see what happens next. But, sometimes, I find myself becoming too attached to these characters.

I have – more than once, I’m ashamed to admit, mostly for the silliness of it – cringed at a misspelling of a beloved character’s name. Not everybody gets persnickety about names the way I do, probably because most people didn’t grow up in the environment I grew up in with a name like mine. For many years, I simply gave up correcting people over the pronunciation of my name, because it just seemed pedantic of me to do so. But not too long ago, a colleague asked me straight-out:

“What’s the correct pronunciation of your name? Is it MAY-you-me, or MA-you-me?”

I gave my standard answer at the time, which was a shrug and a dismissive, “I answer to both.”

He came back at me: “Yes, but it’s just as easy for me to pronounce your name the right way, if you tell me.”

That simple logic slapped me in the face, and I remember thinking, You know what? That’s right!

Nowadays, I introduce myself with the proper pronunciation, and I’ll correct someone if they give me that quizzical I-didn’t-quite-get-that look. For the most part, I let it go, mostly because I don’t want to sound like a pedantic ass. But when it happens with my characters, I still feel a little flare of defensiveness for them. Because I’m the only one who will ever care enough.

The following “Finding Mister Wright” short (link opens in a new window) came about with the pedantic ass portion of my personality in full force. I think it’s fitting, though, for the moment. And, it was fun to write, which I think is the most important bit.

“Always Daniel”
[another “Finding Mister Wright” fic – ~2100 words/7 pages]

Do you have an easy name? If not, do you school folks on the proper pronunciation? Or, do you let it go? If you could change your name, what name would you choose?

Extra question: If you read the story above, what name do you vote for, for little baby Wright? (Orville and Wilbur are not options.)

When Characters Speak

Anyone who’s read my longer works is likely well aware of my penchant for, shall we say, raunchier material. Admittedly, writing sex is a relaxing outlet for me. It puts me in touch with my characters in ways unmatched by any other technique I’ve yet found. But, like in real life, sex isn’t all about the sex, but about what we learn from it.

A few months ago, while I was in the middle of editing, I really wanted to write a sex scene. There’s just something very visceral about the experience of writing two people engaged in the physical act. So, I wrote one, using the characters from my “Finding Mister Wright” universe. At the time, I enjoyed the process: it helped me loose some of my writing energies, and that got me back on-track with the very different chore of editing a long work. But, recently, I went back and read that scene and had a new reaction to it.

I didn’t like it.

I found the progression and action passable, and I liked the ending, but the middle section – the actual sex scene – didn’t sit right with me. I realized it was because it wasn’t true to those characters. I’d forced them into a situation that served my own purposes but didn’t speak from their hearts. And I felt like it showed.

So, I rewrote it. I had to. For them. It’s not like anybody’s going to read the story, but I was compelled to re-imagine and re-do that interaction regardless, because I felt like I wasn’t being true to those characters otherwise. And – and this is going to sound weird and crazy – it felt like they approved. They flowed so much more naturally on the page, with their words and actions, it was like they were speaking not just to me but through me. I often feel my characters’ influence while I’m in the middle of writing a story, but rarely after the fact. That’s how I knew I’d messed up with them. Luckily, they’re generally an easy and forgiving bunch.

I guess the moral of this lesson is that writing is just as much about listening to a story – your characters’ story – as it is about telling it.

EDIT: For anyone interested in reading the story in question, I’m sharing it here as PDF media, which will open in a new window by clicking the link below. Please note that this scene involves two people engaging in sexual situations described in fair detail. Their story tends to run sappy and silly, but if you are at all uncomfortable with or offended by sex, please do not click the link for “Mirror, Mirror,” A “Finding Mister Wright” pre-fic.

That whispering in my ear….

I got a question about my writing the other day:

Do you picture your characters in your head, do you hear their voices? Do they flesh out the more you entertain them and actually write about them? … Do you even start out with distinct picture of a character/situation that grabs your attention?

Generally speaking, I do have voices for all my characters. They often don’t change, either. And, it helps for me to speak out a conversation when it’s still in the plotting stages as well as after it goes down on paper. If something doesn’t sound natural to me, I spend a lot of time reworking it. Unless it’s plot exposition, though I still prefer that to have a spontaneous rhythm to it. 🙂

My sister has an uncanny audio memory. She’ll hear something once and remember it for years. Even inflections! I’m not that good, but I do think that reworking fiction conversations in my head over and over until they become second nature has helped my character voices a lot. One thing a few recent readers have commented on is that my dialogue flows really well, so I’m proud of that.

Characters become more real for me the more I work with them. I think that probably happens with all writers, though. And, it makes sense. We spend so much time in the heads and hearts of these people, we come to know them better than we know the physical people around us. Likely because we are privy to all the inside thoughts and turmoils. Personally, I project a lot into my characters, though I try to keep some of them to specific boundaries, because they all have different conflicts. (It’s hard to articulate.)

My inspiration often can be traced back to a single face/moment/voice, and, as time goes on, characters develop into their own people. For instance, Daniel (“Finding Mister Wright”) evolved from Hal (“From Hell”) by way of Aral (“Anywhere but Here”), who was a different side of Ross (“Fearless”). But, they share similarities in look, manners, and voice, which unites them in my head, and allows me to jump into their shoes with much more ease than I might be able to do otherwise. Fresh characters, as it were, take much more time for me to grasp. One thing that my husband mentioned to me when he read “Finding Mister Wright” was that the first two acts work really well, but the third needed more time with one of the late-intro’d characters. As it stands, she feels like a plot device, not a person, as the other characters do. I see his point, and I think it’s because when she was originally written, she was still one of those “new” characters. Of course, since then, I’ve written more with her, so, now, it’s a matter of going back and growing her into a person as fully-fleshed as the others.

Do you hear your characters’ voices in your head?

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