Category Archives: How We Create Magic

Layers, Like a Cake

chocolate cake

Naturally, I would put up a picture of chocolate cake

Let’s have an extreme example. Picture a man dressed in a nice gray suit walking into his boss’s office, where he suddenly shoves everything off her desk. Then he calmly sits down and tells her he’d like a raise, and he goes through reasons he thinks he’s a good worker and deserves it.

Does this sound like a real person?

And a less dramatic example. A person is waiting at a bus stop, gets on the bus and rides for a while, looking out the window, and finally gets off.

Does that one sound like a real person? Compared to the weird first example, which does not fit normal psychology, the second case sounds like something a person might actually do, but what do you know about the person on the bus? It’s almost like an empty space that we can fill however we want:

  • an old man in a military uniform, looking very tired, got on the bus
  • a young woman with pink-tinged hair, carrying a bag of fruit, got on the bus
  • a girl in her Catholic school uniform, talking nonstop on her cell phone, got on the bus

When I think of a character in fiction as being “real” I suppose two basic things are involved for me. First, the character must behave the way a person might be expected to. Of course people are varied and unpredictable, but if we get someone like the lunatic in the first paragraph above, we need a very good explanation. For me, this is extremely important, and my interest in psychological realism also concerns what kind of character the writer has created. A quiet, shy character, for instance, leads us to expect a certain kind of behavior. I’ve put a book down because the characters seemed unreal and it felt like psychological incompetence on the writer’s part.

The second thing I need for a character to seem “real” is enough detail for them to start to seem distinctive, with their personal habits and tastes and quirky bits. Like a real person. I think this is really hard to do, but when you get into working on it, it’s fun as hell. You can give that old man in a military uniform a white mustache, or he’s carrying a bouquet of white roses, or he’s reading a book of Persian poetry, or he’s humming a Willie Nelson song, or more than one of those at the same time.

This week I’ve been writing on the new novel, and I’ve been focused on getting the story down, just working out the plotline. So I was basically trying to figure out how to move from incident to incident, trying to say “this happened, then this happened, and then this”. Merely doing all of that takes quite a bit of energy, but when you get it worked out, you still don’t have very good writing. Maybe for some types of writing it’s good enough, but not for what I do.

My main character this week is an artist, and I had him mostly in two situations: at an arts center (Quinlan, if you happen to know Gainesville) teaching a class, and then he went home and helped his neighbor catch a goat.

So I worked all that out, but even as I was writing, I kept thinking that my character didn’t seem to have much depth. He was moving and speaking only because I needed him to, so that I could move the plot. He wasn’t moving or speaking because he wanted to, and he didn’t seem very real.

The way I write—and it just happens this way, I’m not planning this—is that I struggle to get some plot down, and then I go back and work on the characters, trying to do things that add some depth to them. One of the tricks for me, especially if they’re minor characters, is to have them speak, so that they aren’t just robots who move across the stage. For every character, I try to think a little about distinctive appearance and habits, so someone has a dangling silver earring, someone else has a baggy old corduroy coat, someone keeps brushing her hair out of her eyes, someone keeps looking out the window while he’s talking, and so on.

I think of this as writing in “layers”. The plot is one layer, adding depth to the characters is another layer, and eventually polishing the style is still another layer.

So I think my artist needs to go home, eat a piece of goat cheese, and think about goats.

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The People Who Came From the Sky

Australian dreamtime pictureLast weekend I saw a photograph of a small statue from about 30,000 years ago showing a human figure with the head of a lion. It was not a particularly sophisticated sculpture, but it clearly was a human-looking figure with an animal head.

The important thing about this small sculpture is what it says about human beings. No doubt 30,000 years ago seems like an awfully long time, yet even that far back, people were similar enough to modern humans to be able to imagine something that did not exist. Whatever else we might think about people from that time, they had the ability to mentally picture something far beyond the physical reality they lived in.

I was visiting friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, last week where I borrowed a book I’m reading now, called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. The book so far has been filled with ideas I’ve never considered, which makes it compelling to read. One point the author makes is that if we start with the physical world and the biology of a human being, much of our modern world consists of fiction, of things that exist only as ideas in our heads.

For example, money is fictional. Ten dollars can be a piece of gold in the shape of a coin, or ten pieces of printed paper, or the movement of electrons in a computer. Nowadays, in fact, money is most often abstracted down to nothing but an idea, such as when we make a purchase with a debit card and “money” is taken from the bank. In reality, money is only an idea that exists because we all agree to it.

The book Sapiens also argues that the “fiction” idea applies to organizations and countries, which also exist only because we agree they do. If tomorrow everyone agreed that Texas was at long last a separate cranky country, it would be, just because we all said so. Contrast this with the physical world, which does not depend on what we think. No matter how many people agree that an oak tree is a butterfly, you just have to look at them to see the difference.

Whether you can easily accept these arguments or not, you can probably see, at least with the money example, that many things do depend on the human imagination. We seem to be inherently wired for imagination. Being human means to have a capacity for fiction, for mentally picturing what does not exist.

As a writer of fiction, I’m struck by the idea that fiction itself is one of the things that makes us human, as well as by the idea that using fiction has helped us to create the civilization and cultures we live in. Of course this creation has both its positive and negative sides. We’ve created an awful lot of hideously stupid and harmful things, like racism, and we’re not done yet with our appalling sprawl of misery.

On the positive side, our imagination has allowed us to create not only good things, like the idea of justice—which doesn’t really exist, but it’s a nice idea—as well as myths and stories that we use to try to make sense of the kaleidoscopic chaos reality requires us to live in. And with the fairly recent invention of writing (about 4,000 years ago) we’ve been able to develop our imagination into amazing things, like Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and the Star Wars movies.

So most evenings, I’m sitting at my desk, doing something quintessentially human, imagining what doesn’t exist, like characters in a book.

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Many Thoughts From the Same Words

Greek pottery with a laurel wreath

Rewarded with a laurel wreath

On a warm sunny afternoon this past Saturday, I went with my girlfriend to Emory University, where I ignored a sign saying “Lot Full,” drove around it, and pulled into a parking garage where there were, in fact, empty spaces. Ha, lot not so full after all.

While I’m still parking the car, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “poet laureate,” a phrase with an interesting etymology. It’s odd in English to have the adjective “laureate” come after the noun, but we just think of the whole phrase now as a type of poet. The adjective refers to a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree, something started in ancient Greece as a way to recognize people who won contests, such as the Olympics.

So technically, maybe “poet laureate” means a poet wearing a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree. Or nowadays, it means the official poet of some place, such as the United States. This past Saturday, we were at Emory because my girlfriend had heard that the Poet Laureate of the U.S., Tracy K. Smith, would be giving a reading, and we wanted to hear it.

Thus we found ourselves at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, an impressive building with an extremely high ceiling, whose purpose appeared to be creating grandeur, although there could be an acoustic purpose as well, I guess. The building does have a two-story high organ against the far wall, behind a stage.

We had assumed we’d have to arrive well ahead of the event to be able to find a seat, so we got there at 3:00, an hour early. When we arrived, only five or six people were in the lobby, and I wondered if the place could be filled already. In fact—the doors had not yet opened. Those five or six people, plus us, was who had arrived that early. So my girlfriend and I sat and talked, and that was good, because we can both do that.

People drifted in gradually, and about twenty minutes till 4:00, the doors were opened, and we hurried to get seats, but we need not have hurried. We looked around and wondered whether the light turnout would be embarrassing to the poet. I said, however, that if the poet had reached the status of Poet Laureate, she had spent years going to small events, hoping to read her poetry to someone, and lucky if twenty people showed up. By the time the reading started, the auditorium actually looked quite full, though seats were still available.

Before that afternoon I didn’t know Tracy K. Smith, as I don’t really follow contemporary poets. There was something about her manner when she spoke that made her very appealing to me, a sort of calmness and intelligence. I found the reading interesting, and I was very glad to be there, but she only read for about thirty minutes, so I didn’t feel like I had been exposed to her poetry enough to say much about it.

At least from this reading, the main idea I got was Smith’s interest in history and for using that in her poetry. The use of history was not as simple as writing poems about events in the past, but rather writing with a sense of history, which might even form a kind of “substory” to a poem that takes place in our own time. I don’t know if I’m getting her exactly here, but maybe I have some sense of what has influenced her.

Smith also read some poems written with a technique I’d never heard of, using the original words from historical documents to create a poem. To me this felt a bit like pushing the envelope for what a “poem” is—though I’m in favor of pushing the envelope in art (maybe in life). She had one poem, for instance, that seemed to consist entirely of quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which I recognized), quotes that were pulled out and read to create a new sort of work from the fragmentary phrases.

I came away from this reading thinking about the concept of a poem, and more broadly, thinking about the concept of any kind of literary work. We had sat in an auditorium listening to the poet speak, and speech itself is, after all, just sounds. As those sounds reached us, our brains turned them into thoughts, then took those thoughts and went where they would go.

Every person in the auditorium was creating different thoughts based on the sounds of the speaker. Tracy K. Smith read us poems consisting of her words, or words from other documents, giving us the sounds to send our minds in multiple directions. Many thoughts from the same words. I suppose that’s part of what poetry does.

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More Like a Towering Granite Wall Than a Block

a mad girl wearing a straight jacket in front of a typewriter

I’m sure you’ve heard of writer’s block. It’s when… when you, um… oh, I don’t know what I was going to say. I’m kind of stuck here.

Anyway, you’ve heard of it. Even people who wouldn’t know writer’s block from a salt block have heard the phrase. I have a T shirt that makes a joke: Writer’s Block—when your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.

I’m here to question whether there is such a thing as writer’s block. I’m not questioning the fact that a writer can have difficulty and be unsure of what to write. I think that’s quite common. In fact, I know it’s a basic fact of normal writing. Ignoring my personal thousand years of experience, I used to teach college freshman writers, who illustrated over and over that not knowing what to write is the human condition.

Taking into account my personal thousand years of experience, I maintain that trying to write can bring feelings of strain, struggle, neurological dark and stormy nights, and existential despair at the vast and vacuous emptiness of all attempts at creativity. Sure, I’ve done that.

I wonder why some people think that’s special and needs its own name. “This is hard. Writers’s block!” Who thinks you’re not going to feel lost and struggle when you write? Who thinks it’s supposed to be easy? Suppose, for instance, you had a blog that you posted to every week, and every week in order to write you needed a few glasses of whiskey, a large bag of peanut M&Ms, and half an hour of sitting in the dark hugging the stuffed dog you still have from childhood?

I mean I just, you know, created that scenario out of thin air, but I’m saying some people could struggle to write a blog. And how much more difficult would it be to write something people were actually going to read?

On the other hand, it’s… it’s… it’s… damn. I was sure I had an idea here. Oof. OK, I can do this. The trick is to keep at it, to write something, anything, it doesn’t have to be good. It can be edited and made better, unless it’s for a blog.

When I’m working on a novel, for the most part it’s a constant struggle. Occasionally someone will say something to me about how I must write because I enjoy it. That’s not exactly how it is. Seriously, writing is not easy. But it’s something I do, so I put on my big-boy pants, I acknowledge that this will be real work—not just a phrase, not just a metaphor, but real work—and I sit down sometimes with a sigh and a determination that I will sit there and do it.

What is writer’s block? I guess that’s when you thought it was going to be easier than it is, and you’re shocked and dismayed by reality. At this point, I might offer some crafty hints from my thousand years of experience to help you overcome those moments when you feel stuck. I thought about doing that—I mean, it was kind of a thought. It went by pretty quick, but I’m sure that was what I was thinking.

Then I reverted to my real self and thought, “If you need help getting over the difficulty of writing, stop writing.” Nobody’s making you do this. If you have writer’s block, go watch TV.

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Magical Words

surface of the sunIs this an English word: dkimbi?

I’m pretty sure it’s not. I don’t think any English word begins with those two consonants. It’s just a combination of sounds, a noise.

How about this one: stick?

Now that’s a word. Or a more interesting one: ribald. Words are so strange. Both stick and ribald are also combinations of sounds, but in both cases—if you know those words—the sounds bring a meaning to the mind. Every word in reality is just a noise, like “dkimbi,” but when we know them, they’re like magic spells that put thoughts and dreams in our heads.

And if we allow them to, the magical spells of words can take us places, so that inside our mind, where all our sensations are processed, we really are there. Assume, for instance, that you’ve never been to St. Petersburg, Russia, and therefore you’ve never been to a little café called Жили-Были (which might be translated as something like “Once Upon a Time”). The café is on the main boulevard downtown, Nevsky Prospect, so crowded with people and with bridges across the Neva River. If you go into the café, you find a small space with tables where people already sit eating and talking. Obviously the Russian language is all around you, so pretend you speak it. Then you can walk up to the glass case containing dishes of salads and other items, looking to see what you want. “What is that one, with the white?” you can ask the young woman waiting on you. She has black hair cut short, three silver earrings in each ear, and a tattoo of Mickey Mouse on her arm. Seeing what you’re pointing at, she says, “Спаржа,” and since you know Russian, you think to yourself that you’ve never seen asparagus that looked like that. Then you order an apple tart and a coffee and sit down at a small table to look at your phone.

Finishing your apple tart, what if it were now possible to get on a bus, close your eyes for a few minutes, and when you open them to get off, you’re only one block away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland? If that happens, you can enter the enormous cathedral and stand in the wide nave looking down the aisle at the high ceiling, the pointed arches along the sides, and the distant altar. When you finally look down, you’re just as struck by how exotically the floor is decorated with patterns of colored stones. And at that moment, a tourist standing near you, someone with an American accent, says, “Wow, look at this floor!” It also occurs to you that you never before thought about the fact that there’s such a thing as an American accent, but it’s pretty obvious that woman in the red T-shirt and straw hat is an American. As you continue to look around, near the door where you entered, you find a grave in the floor and—holy moly!—it’s Jonathan Swift. Jonathan Swift is buried here? A few minutes later as you walk around, a choir begins to practice, and the sound of their voices in that stone space is ethereal. You sit down, unable to leave, listening to them.

There seems to be literally no limit to where we can go and what we can do with words. I was thinking of taking a stroll across the surface of the sun, because I just crazy love the sight of those vast mountains of fire that rise up higher than the Himalayas, then collapse again. And there’s that strange crackling feeling from so many atoms being disrupted by the incredible energy. But I need to go get another glass of wine. When I do go walk on the sun, you can come, too.

That’s what writers do.

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Words That Wake and Walk Around

old train stationIt’s one thing to think about writing a book, picturing the characters vaguely in your head doing….something, and won’t it be great when they do? It’s another thing entirely to think seriously about the book, to take paper and make notes, to do research and make further notes, perhaps talk to people about what you’re working on.

But the actual thing itself, putting down a word and another and another until you are creating a place and time and people who were not there before, this process of writing is so different from thinking or planning or making notes. When writing, you not only use your tools (knowledge of grammar and punctuation, vocabulary, etc.), but now there must be coherent sentences that make sense, and each sentence should reasonably follow the one before it in a way to tell things.

Even if you have the ability to make all this work mechanically, such ability does not necessarily make the writing interesting, or beautiful, or meaningful. And yet, at some point, if you really are going to write, you have to sit down and do it. At that moment, you realize how profoundly different writing is from planning to write. All along you may have said, “Oh, I want to begin with the old woman in her garden remembering previous years working there,” but what exactly is that first sentence supposed to do? Describe the woman? Describe the garden? The sky? Should she start in the house and then walk outside?

In the past week I began working on some sections of the next novel, sections that will be inserted into the book at various points. They are all flashbacks in time, so they aren’t directly in the flow of the main narrative, which made me think I could go ahead and write them separately. They concern a character named Wanda who will become a temporary cook for President Franklin Roosevelt. I’ve made notes on Wanda, and I drove down to Roosevelt’s house in Warm Springs and made notes there, but how to actually write this? So far, here is the first sentence of the first section: “Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn.”

I decided to open the scene with Wanda traveling down to the town of Warm Springs, to show that she is not from there, and opening with a train also helps to create a feeling of a time when you could actually travel on a train in the United States. In that opening sentence, in addition, I tried to give some sense of the rural setting, which has a certain importance for the place, and I wanted to use a bit of evocative detail, so I mentioned the cotton and corn. And of course, the cotton goes along with a rural Georgia setting, particularly in 1937.

In the second sentence, I brought Wanda herself in, and I began doing the little things that you use to build a character, such as indicate her emotions, show a memory, give some of her background. By the end of the first paragraph, I brought her to the town of Warm Springs and implied further action with the man waiting. I might instead have spent longer on the train, given more description, used more of her memories, but this is what I’ve done.

I can’t say I won’t change things in revision, but for now I decided to go for a faster opening and jump into action more quickly, and thus I had the man waiting for her. Below I give the first paragraph and a few lines after that. I will also say that this process, the writing part of writing, as difficult as it is, is 10,000 times more fun for me that all the rest of it.

********************************

Out the window of the train, April sunlight washed across the Georgia countryside, lying bright on fields that promised soft cotton and fat corn. Wanda Reed watched the fields pass by, trying to draw calmness from them, to still her anxiety. Out the window she saw a man sitting in a wagon pulled by a horse down a dirt road. The sight reminded her of her own father, several hours earlier, who had taken her from their farm in Mule Camp Springs to the train station in Gainesville, riding in a similar wooden cart, though theirs had been pulled by a mule. When they had arrived at the station, a ticket had been arranged for her, to ride to Atlanta, change trains, and head further south. From stopping at so many stations, the trip had seemed slow to Wanda, but at last the train pulled into the small town of Warm Springs, where she got off. Standing on the platform nearby was a white man in a dark suit, who saw her and said,

“Miss Reed?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I’m Jack Brewer, of the Secret Service. I came down to the station to pick you up.”

She nodded, not sure what she should say to him. This kind of attention from anyone, much less from a white man, seemed strange to her.

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Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie

Recently I got an email from a friend now living in Israel, originally from Russia, and she was telling me about reading Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace (in Russian, obviously). About a year ago I read that book myself, so I was very interested in what my friend was saying. It was her opinion that Tolstoy was not the world’s master in creating characters who have distinctive voices. She made the argument that most of his characters, other than the soldiers, all sound rather alike—they sound like Tolstoy. I see her point.

The distinctiveness of characters for me is one of the most important aspects of a book. All readers are different, and well-developed characters may not be what you look for, but I’m interested in the human aspect of novels. For me a novel, whether I’m reading it or writing it, is an exploration of human existence. More than once I’ve laid a book down in irritation, thinking, “That person would not do that.”

Let’s say the author has created a character who never goes anywhere, never does anything, and appears to be content with this life. If that character suddenly agrees to accompany someone on a dangerous cross-country trip, I’m not buying it without a good explanation. It is not rare—for bad writers—to have a character do something only because the author wants it to happen. That action moves the plot, even when the character has been created as a person who would not do the thing the author wants.

Character development all about illusion, of course. There’s not really a person there, it’s just words the writer chose. And yet, if done right, the people in the book can seem to rise off the page, take a breath, and wink at us, saying Sure, I only exist here, but I’m REAL here. We think about those characters, carry them around in our heart, and our own lives seem touched, as though we had met a living person.

I understand how incredibly, almost freakishly, difficult it is to make real characters in a book. No blog entry could possibly get into much detail about this process, but I’ll talk about working on one character I intend to use in Moonapple Pie. At the moment I’m doing a little background work on character development for the four main characters of this book (at least that’s how the book is developing so far).

I’m using a technique I’ve used in the past, of writing down random potential facts about the characters, but as I’m working, I notice that it’s not entirely random, and I’ll illustrate this with a character named Elliott, one of two twin brothers. In what at first appears to be a random process, I gradually find myself making notes on three types of things: (1) information necessary to the plot, (2) information important to the mental development of the character, and (3) trivial bits and pieces. Here are examples for Elliott:

(1) In 2018, when the novel will take place, he is 43, born March 4, 1975. This kind of stuff I try to be careful with and use a calculator, so that someone thirty years from now doesn’t say “Oh, look what this dumbass writer did.” Also as plot information, Elliott graduated from Georgia Tech as a mechanical engineer and got a job in Wilmington, Delaware, where he met his future wife. She’s from Glassboro, New Jersey, which is very close by (which I know because I lived there). This type of information is what I need for the mechanics of the plot, but in fact I don’t have to tell the reader all of it. Maybe it will be things I know that will never be mentioned.

(2) The most difficult thing I’m trying to do is figure out who the character is and what motivates him. Some of the notes I’ve made in that regard are that while he was in Wilmington he made a trip to Ireland, as it’s part of his family background, and he wants to go back and take his sons. Also while he was living in the north, he was sometimes teased about being from the south. While the teasing wasn’t much, it made him slightly defensive about being southern and about things from the south. On a different point, Elliott and his twin brother took art classes in high school, and even though Elliott eventually followed his “tinkering” side to become an engineer, he is still interested in art.

(3) The third category of notes I’m making is for things that are actually unimportant in themselves, as they could be almost anything, but these are the kinds of details that make a human being. It doesn’t matter so much what they are, but you need to have them. Thus, Elliott loves dogs and has three named Rider, Stormy, and Hoochie (named after Allman Brothers songs: Midnight Rider, Stormy Monday, Hoochie Coochie Man). All three dogs are beagles, and he trains his dogs, is very disciplined with them.

I also know from extensive past experience, in novel after novel, that no matter how much I make these notes, no matter how detailed I decide to get with this process, no character ever opens their eyes and breathes until they are actually in the book. Only when I can see them move around and hear them speak do they start to become a real person for me.

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