Flashbacking

apple cratesInspiration comes from the strangest places. I often have flashbacks throughout the day to random memories and times in my life that seem to come completely out of nowhere. I let myself ponder through the things I remember about that moment before I snap back to the present and wonder, “why am I thinking about this?”  Sometimes, it’s just the meanderings of memory that take me to that day in high school when I was put in charge of entering fruit orders into the computer for the FFA fund raiser.  Not that I was one of the “jacket wearing” FFA members, but I did participate in our “field day” demonstrations by churning butter in a series of jars with a sweet, sandy-haired farm boy who was almost too shy to talk to me.  What was his name?  I don’t know.  I only remember that he liked NASCAR and blushed when I teased him about being too handsome to not have a girlfriend.  See?  Why the heck was I thinking about entering fruit orders for the FFA fundraiser?

I’ve been working more regularly on a novel this summer, but I’ve been reluctant to share my progress with friends. I have the odd preference of writing in longhand for my first drafts, which means my “second draft” happens when I enter the writing into the computer.  I’ve started the second draft process, but I can tell the writing is missing something.  I need to add to it to make the situation believable, to make the character seem more like a real person, and to move the plot along without it feeling like it’s dragging.  I have the old pang of self-doubt that strikes when I start struggling with a project, but I’m dedicated to working through it.  But how?

My character is 18.  She’s in the summer between high school and college.  And she is in the middle of dealing with a moment of intense family turmoil.  How do I bring this girl to life?  How do I tell the reader who she is without banging them on the head with a list of likes and dislikes?  And how do I do this without making the long-form fiction feel like it’s crawling at a snail’s pace?

Then came the a-ha moment!  With a flashback, of course.  OF COURSE!  Why haven’t I thought of flashbacking (which may or may not be a “real” word) before now?  She is not far away from being in high school, so I have to tap into my own “yesteryear” memories to remember the angst of being that age again, being in the midst of a major life transition, and how to deal with complicated relationships between siblings and parents and grandparents.  But, she is not me, so I must invent a past for her.  I *can* use my own mental wanderings to populate her past, though.
woman-jumping-out-of-window
I remember when I was a little kid, I really thought I was a badass.  It was a freer, more dangerous time, I guess, in retrospect.  I played in half-constructed homes as new portions of my neighborhood were developed.  One of those houses was a two-story house–a rarity in the land of one-story ranch-style homes.  During an intense game of chase with two boys who were older than me (boys who kept calling me a “baby” and a “girl” like it was a slur and not just a fact of genetics), I jumped from the second-story window of the newly framed house, daring them to follow me.  They did not.  I remember laughing at the looks on their faces.  They were looking down at me from the window, stunned that I had jumped from so high.  I was all of 5 and fearless and had legs made of rubber.  Ah, how sweet was that victory!  I decided to give my character the same sense of “I’ll show you” daring.

 

Exercise:

Take 10-15 minutes to write down one of your childhood memories.  Try to remember as much as you can, especially sensory memories and the way you felt, emotionally.  After you’ve captured the essence of that memory, use the same “feeling” to write a new scene for your character.  You can frame it as a flashback to your character’s childhood, or not.  Maybe you have a character who is a child, so it could happen in “real time.”  Maybe you’re character has a child.  It can be translated in so many ways.  Maybe it will inspire a piece of non-fiction.  Maybe you won’t want to change the scene at all–you know how us writers are–always stealing from real life to tell our stories.  That’s what they mean when they say, “write what you know,” right?

Happy writing!

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Do a Little Dance, Make a Little Love

Spring is here (or right around the corner, I promise)!

And what does that mean?  It means that everything is waking up and feeling frisky!

Why not have your character(s) interact with this transition of the seasons from cold and gray to blustery and bright?  Have your most curmudgeonly character experience an awakening, an enlightening of the spirit that comes with blooming flowers and birds singing in the mornings–maybe even feeling young again?

Or have your youngest character fly a kite, dig up worms, or roll down a hill of fresh green grass.  Or have a character who is “coming of age” experience the utter gleeful hopefulness that comes with realizing the potential hijinks to be had during spring break.  And continue writing those hijinks with afore-mentioned dancing and love-making.

Of course, Spring isn’t only a time of sweet, warm weather.  If your character (or you) can’t bear too much happy, or if it just doesn’t work with your story, go for the tumult of storms, surprise snows, terrifying winds, and the possibility of floods that comes with the seasonal defrost.

The key here is capturing the experience of the season while it is happening right outside your window.  I apologize if Spring hasn’t arrived on your doorstep yet, but even just the longing for Spring can stir up that craving to “wake up” again from the cold.  To feel what it’s like to walk barefoot on freshly thawed earth.  To catch the heady fragrance of flowers in bloom.

So, take the challenge and put those desires into the hearts of your characters and see what they do with the urges of Spring!

Starting Up Again – Time to Write

Hey all!

I got married! Woo hoo! So glad THAT’s over…

SO…now it’s time to start writing again. I don’t know what it is about winter and colder weather and holiday vibes that make my brain go crazy with ideas, but here they are again. It’s like a cocktail party in my head what with all of these characters bouncing around and trying to tell their stories over each other.

So, I’ve devised a plan. A writing exercise based on this cocktail party idea. I really just want a way to tease out the characters, make them less like an amorphous, cacophonous crowd, and more like solid individuals.

First: Name each character with a full name (and if you are so inspired, explain why this person is this person, a la “Her mom and dad had met at the Starlight Diner, and so, logically named their firstborn child after the waitress who served them: Cleo.”)

Second: What is your character drinking at this cocktail party, if anything? Cleo likes Jack & Coke.

Third: What is the character wearing…party attire or “regular” clothes? Just make the clothing true to the character’s style or lack thereof.

Fourth: What would your character be doing at this party? Hiding in a corner, laughing the loudest, earnestly discussing the Superbowl prospects of her favorite team, getting drunk for drunk’s sake…?

And now that you have all of this fodder, try to focus in on these characters in pairs. They can be from different stories, even, but let them have a conversation. What would they talk about? What would the character share about his/her life with a person from a different story? What would they say about their own stories?

I am really excited to do this one! I can hear the glasses clinking and the smokers heading outside, and the one who MUST tell the story of the trip they took to Africa, and the one who is rustling through the coats…

Cheers! And good luck!

NaNoWriMo: Five Confessions!

Sigh.

Confession #1.  My word count, as of today, is 10,017/50,000.

This is good, because it’s better than nothing.  This is bad, because the goal for this day, in the middle of the month, is more like 25,000/50,000.  I’m only 14,983 behind.  Unfortunately, this is more than I can make up in one night.

Confession #2.  I am tempted to quit.

See?  This is where I was each of the previous years I decided to partake in NaNoWriMo.  Two weeks in and already so far behind that I feel like I can’t catch up.

So, let’s see if I can talk myself out of it with some rational numbers.  If I can write 2,665 words a day from here on out, I can still hit the goal by November 30th.  It’s not out of the question.  There may be hope?

Confession #3.  I am a really slow writer when it comes to writing in longhand.

Even when I pick up the pace, it takes me about 2.5 hours to write the original goal of 1,667/night with my pen and paper.   Actually, it ‘s pencil, but who is keeping score on that?  So…I have got to turn to typing.  As if with fingers ablaze!  I acutally type about 60 wpm, so with *that* math, it should only take me about 44 minutes to write that much a day.  Easy, peasy.  Right?

Sigh.

The problem with typing is that it doesn’t, for whatever reason, incite the same sort of creative spark that writing on paper gives me.  I wish it did…I really, really do!  But, gosh darn it, it just doesn’t.  At least, not yet.

Confession #4.  I am not in love with my character anymore, and I want her to hurry up and get where she is going.

So…yeah.  I have been writing this story chronologically.  I am stuck in El Paso with a runaway.  She is 18, but kind of…too methodical and beseiged by guilt/sadness to “get a move on.”  Plot twists present themselves and I think, “No, not this girl.  She wouldn’t take that bait.  She is too ____ to do that.”  Or I might think, “I should just skip her out of El Paso to someplace more interesting.”  But then I tell myself I am getting ahead of myself.

I think it is time to give myself permission to write whatever part of the freaking story/character I feel like writing and stop being so…controlling…about it.  Just putting that thought into words is like a little golden apple someone just dropped into my pocket.  How exciting!

Confession #5.  I can’t stop thinking about all the other stories on my “to do” list.

I think it’s because I’m getting into writing again, those favoritest characters of mine are just piping up in the back row of my brain with arms flailing, screaming “pick me! pick me!”  Or maybe it’s a grass is greener in the other story kind of thing.  Or maybe this whole NaNoWriMo method of bucking the system and “focusing” on a single project is difficult for my brain to catch hold of.  I mean, I literally have an excel spreadsheet with like 10 tabs in it to capture story ideas and character details so they won’t float away.  It’s a good exercise, though.  Deadlines and the like.  I get it.  I even want to do that.  It’s just hard to keep the creative juices flowing with just one flavor.  I don’t really have a solution for this confession except to tell myself, “Sit! Stay! Work!”

I’m sure we’ll all survive.  Somehow.  Hopefully, not by quitting.  Again.

“Ending” Exercise Outcome: Still Flabby!

Let me just start by saying that I have been remiss.  I will own up to that.  And…er…well, it’s obvious, considering my recent lack of posts. 

I apologize.  So…here is where I left off.

I was going to brainstorm new endings.  And I did. 

And then I thought maybe there wasn’t anything at all wrong with the ending I had and I marked through all my brainstormings with a big red X.  

And then I went ahead and picked my three favorites and wrote them.

This is my list:

1.  Max turns himself into the police.  Or Shannon talks him out of that.

2.  End it at the lake?  Max swims away?

3.  Bigfoot appears a la Flannery O’Connor!

4.  What else could he give her?  Less money.  The quilt (which has no value to her).  A ring (which also has little value to her, although he might intend it for her to sell). 

5.  Going back to “church?”

6.  Stopping by the cemetary? 

So, after considering this list, I decided I only really liked 2, 3, or 4.  And I made myself write, while hunched over a folding table at my local laundromat, through all of them, with the premise that I might actually include each ending as an option for my readers. 

HOWEVER, I then began a debate in my head.  If I conclude this story with four different endings, what am I conveying to my readers?   Would I be making my own statement about how I couldn’t decide what I wanted for these characters?  Maybe I don’t want my readers to think that four endings come from lazy writing.   If I give them options, perhaps that is more like a “gift” to my readers so that they will, hopefully, find in one of the endings, something that they find gratifying. 

Who am I kidding?  I have always had a hard time ending a story without some sort of gimmick.  I often circle back to the beginning of the story.  I don’t think that is going to work this time.  I want a happy ending, for once (since short stories often have terribly miserable endings).  I don’t know how to do that without it seeming schmaltzily cheese-topped and sugar-coated.  I used to have this rule that if the ending made  me cry as I wrote it, then I was there.  In my older age, I must be growing even more sentimental, because the cheesy ending got me.  One friend liked the cheeseball ending, but the other (a fellow writer), said it was much too much like a brick of cheddar.

I really just don’t want the ending to suck.  I think I will blend my “different” endings into one and hope that it works as a unified thing.  As NaNoWriMo approaches, I need to be done with this story and these characters.  I WILL keep you posted when I ge to that ending.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…if you want to keep up with a different writing project of mine, check out writeunderyournose.com.  This is another blog that I hope to someday turn into something more than a blog.  I will be posting more and different writing exercises there, as well (I’m keeping this blog, too, as a venue for more personal writing ponderings).  Hope to see you there!

Figuring out Shannon

Way back when I was in grad school, I decided for myself that it was important for my characters to have a recognizable and unique voice for the story to be “successful.”   True, some of my characters obviously sounded like me in diction and dialect, but many did not.  I did manage to fool one of my classes (we had anonymous story reviews, in which the author was unknown to the group at large) into thinking a man had written a story about Vietnam based upon nothing more than the strength and quality of the voice I had crafted.   It is my forte, I guess…or, rather, I like to think.

The unfortunate side-effect of this truth is the fact that I often present my stories in first person p.o.v.  It is a challenge for me to pull off 3rd person successfully, in my opinion, and this pet project, Church of the Palomino, is my own exercise in trying that more omniscient perspective.  A problem I am having, though (as is evident by my failure to continue posting regularly here), is getting my character, Shannon, right. 

So, I did do the exercise I last left off with, but I wasn’t really happy with it.  I feel like I am doing too much “showing” and not enough “telling.”  But now I’ve decided to give myself permission to just write and write about her in the hopes that I will somehow figure her out, or at least get a better, more realistic take on her.  And since I am trying to get her more solid, I am now thinking that Max needs to be balanced somehow by her.  Not to analyze my own work too much…

And I will put the disclaim on these to say that, necessarily, much of this work is not useful for a finished product except to help me build a character in my own mind. 

Anyway.  Here is what I have written about Shannon so far:

Shannon was realistic in one way.  She knew her appearance and the way her body, face, and hair looked were something she happened to have by the fortune of youth and luck of the draw.  She could afford to eat a cheeseburger now and then, because she danced it off every night.  If, for some reason, she stopped dancing, she knew she’d turn into her mother or grandmother with dimpled thighs, heavy arms and breasts, jowls, and a wide hump of a back.  Her hair would become thin, even if a brilliant silver would be something of a consolation.  She was not going to accept this fate without giving it a good kick in the face by dancing her ass literally off.

(Or, conversely…)

She took up smoking to help her not eat.  Being skinny was the name of the game.  She thought about her lungs every other month or so, quit for a week, maybe two, then something would happen and she’d want another puff.  Sometimes, though, when she woke up feeling like shit…too many shots with a bachelor party or something…a hangover coupled with ashtray breath, she’d swear them off forever.  Again.

Last time she bought a pack, she’d found Jeremy (her 15 year-old brother) with pot, her Mom had called asking for money, and one of the girls at work had been fired for no apparent reason other than Steve had been in a bad mood that day.  Some shit about how he thought she was laughing at him…talk about little man disorder…fuck!  Anyone would take up smoking AND drinking on a day like that.  It was just too much.

“Too fucking much,” she sighed, exhaling the smoke in a long stream that curled around and hung in the air. 

(And in the morning, which is her night time)

When she got home after work, it was usually between 4 – 8 a.m. depending on if it was a slow weekday or a busy weekend.  First thing she did was turn off the television, try not to wake up Jeremy (who was usually asleep on the couch), and take a shower.  She loofahed her whole body until she was pink.  Washed her hair with coconut shampoo, conditioned it with some secret hoodoo conditioner Brandy’s grandmother made from plants and tea and shit…she didn’t know what it was, but it worked like a miracle on her tangly curls.  Before drying off, like all good strippers know to do, she slathered her we body with baby oil.  She’d finally found one that smelled like lavender, not the sickening sweetness of a baby.  The lavender put her in the mood for sleeping.  She dried off in front of the steamy mirror,  twisting her hair up into a towel turban.  Then she removed her makeup and applied a thick night cream to her face and neck.  She brushed her teeth, took down her hair, and combed it out with a wide-toothed comb.  She applied extra ltion to her hands and feet, then threw on a huge, fluffy, chenille robe that hung on a hook on the back of the door.

She checked the answering machine.  Fixed herself a mugh of hot water with lemon, grabbed the newspaper from the kitchen table, and crawled into bed.  First, she read the want ads, then the comics, then, she worked the crossword puzzle.  In pen.  She lived on the edge.

(and then, a different take on the “piece of trash” exercise)

I can’t believe a grown man has so little sense, so little self-respect that he actually prefers to look at women he can’t have, paying with the cost of food and drinks and cover charges and lap dances and other wasteful ways.  When I realized men would do this, I was all of 18 years old, and of course had no qualms about taking that money they waved at me, threw at me, or tucked into my g-string.  It was about at this same time in my life that I began to realize that most adults I had met, if they weren’t trying very hard to behave otherwise, basically only worried about themselves, and therefore continued to act like small children.  The clever ones who were intentionally choosing a life of selfishness were still like small children, only they had mastered the power of manipulation. 

This, for example, was my mother’s perferred method of operating.  Out of selfishness (because what other possible reason could there be?), my mother threw out our father for getting fired, and has followed up with man after man who used her, got her drunk or gave her drugs so they could control her in their own selfish game of “do what I say so I can feel important.”  One or two of mom’s men did seem halfway decent.  Joey P. and “Uncle” Robbie, as I had been told to call them, had at least wanted to be a father to me and Jeremy.  They had treated us like valuable human beings–even mom–trying to get her sobered up, but ultimately each left for the same reason:  Mom is a bitch.  And a liar.  Sometimes a thief.  But mostly, an addict.  When she isn’t using, she is none of those terrible things.  But, like a child who must break the rules just for the mere fact that they are rules, my mom always returns to the sauce or the pills or both.

Not Shannon.  Never Shannon.  I have too much planned for my life to let a genetic disposition for alcohol and daddy issues turn me into the same fragile, selfish, and (now) incarcerated woman that my mother has become.