What’s Your Line?

1394087_p_mEvery story has a theme.  Without a theme you just have a series of random thoughts strung together.  When writing your stories try to be clear on the theme of your story.  In other words….what’s the point?

There is a great scene in a great movie, Limitless, where the protagonist (played by Bradley Cooper), who is a writer, is asked what his novel is about. He stumbles through several scenarios, “uummm…it’s about this man…well this couple…it’s really about….it’s complicated…” Hilarious.  Writers, how can you write a clear themed story if you cannot even say what the story is about.  You should be able to state what your story /novel/book is about in one line.  Two lines tops. No exceptions. This does not mean you have to state all the side themes, etc.  Just the main theme, two lines TOPS.  Give you an example;  Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds.  There are many small themes in this movie.  There are Mommy issues and Daddy issues and rich-girl lost issues and a romance going on.  The main issue is The Birds.  Rich girl buys birds, cages them takes them to small town where birds are not caged and the birds band together and attack. Rich girl takes caged birds and leave.  Theme: Nature will prevail (birds say, “Don’t bring that shit here”).  Ofcourse, more complicated books sometimes seem to require more compacted themes. Not really.  Every book’s theme should be able to be stated in one line.  Keep in mind we’re talking MAIN THEME, not smaller side stories that support the main story and help carry it to completion. A more modern example would be A Few Good Men. The main theme here is a boy’s desire to measure up to his father’s expectations.  There are military issues and elitist issues and sexual tension but in the end, Tom Cruise’s character  is scared shitless that he will never be as good a lawyer as his Famous Daddy. The character is tested and prevails and is in fact as good as his father was at law.

This may seem hard but it really makes writing your stories easier if you stay focus on what is the main theme of your story.  Every character every plot line every event should support that theme.  And if you cannot state that theme in one line you need to take some time and get clear on what it is you are writing.  The lack of focus will show up in your work.  That theme is your reason for writing your book, it is what you are proving with your work. One line…two lines tops. Or else…what’s the point?

Sorry Grandma

imagesI once wrote a very hot steamy love scene between two women.  Then I immediately deleted it. I was terrified….that my Mom would see it…that my husband would see it…that people would think I was gay.  It was a great scene. It was one of those scenes where love   is borderline hate and the sex is both gentle and rough. I should have kept it in the story.

I read the story in my writer’s workshop and nearly everyone felt something was missing from it.  At the end of class I told my teacher,  John Killens,  about the love scene I had cut from the story.  He told me a writer must be willing to show his or her  ass in order to write effectively. He said, “You can’t be worried about what grandma will think when you are writing.”  That’s a line worth repeating. Writing should be about the story not what people will think about the story.  If you are scared of what people will think if you write something then do not write it.  The tentativeness will show in your work. Tell your stories, the good and the bad of it.  Don’t say, “Pee,” when your character is a truck driver who has to , “take a piss.”  Show your ass.  Grandma will just have to get over it.

Human Characters

Many beginner writers start out writing one dimensional characters.  By one dimensional I mean they are either all villain or all angel. And while these characters can be useful to your story and granted they are not the main characters it is quite frankly a lazy way to write.  

Your stories will be a lot more interesting, memorable and balanced with characters that are well rounded whether they are in your story for one page or one hundred. Readers connect with characters that are human, flaws and all.  Every villain in life and fiction has a sweet spot. Every angel has a weakness. Give your characters an endearing trait even if they are the biggest bastard in the world. Give your heroes a weakness that they struggle with.  It will engage and connect your readers, it will deepen your conflict and it will make your story live forever.Silence-Lambs-mv05

“Art is suppose to Inspire…” Lauren Hill (paraphrase of Lyrics from Super Star)

The first time I ever saw Amiri Baraka he was arguing some point with fellow writer Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee) outside of an auditorium on Howard University’s campus and I was mesmerized. There were a  handful of youngsters crowed around all of these published Black writers and we were in awe of them all but none more than Amiri.  He spoke with such passion, such conviction that even when you disagreed with him you found yourself stopping to admire his argument. He was an artist that pissed you off but fired you up at the same time.  He made you believe in the power of art and the responsibility of the artist to his community in particular and the world in general.  In a world where so many artists are trying to be popular and paid, it leaves a hole in my heart to lose one who wanted to be relevant.
“Superstar”     (Lauren Hill)

…Now tell me your philosophy
On exactly what an artist should be
Should they be someone with prosperity
And no concept of reality?
Now, who you know without any flaws
That lives above the spiritual laws
And does anything they feel just because
There’s always someone there who’ll applaud
Come on baby light my fire…
R.I.P.

 

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Do You

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People are always telling new writers to write like someone else in order to get published.  A piece of advice here;  avoid good advice.  Nearly every writer in the classic cannon was a failure during their own lifetime. Emily Dickinson left explicit instructions to her sister-in-law to burn every piece of her work.  No one, including me, should be giving you step-by-step instructions on your work. Your work should be a combination of what you’ve learned and what you create. The only way you can create your own voice, your own distinct style is if you create it.  This is not saying that others cannot help you develop that style.  Of course other writers have information that will enhance your own work but that information should not change your work completely unless it changes for the better and unless you want to change it. There are nearly 7 billion people on this earth today.  You do not need everyone to like your work.  You just need to find that sixty or seventy-thousand who gets you and buys your work.

The 11th place  best selling author of all time, J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) was discouraged from writing the first Harry Potter book.  She was told nobody wanted to read about wizards.  Somebody was $798 million dollars wrong because that is what she is worth today. Somebody wanted to read about wizards and somebody wants to read what you are writing.  You find your audience by staying true to yourself and your vision for your work.  Do you and the rest will follow.

Room To Imagine (cont.)

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The problem before us is how to describe a character without limiting the reader’s imagination.  To be sure, there is nothing wrong or incorrect about describing your characters.  The problem could arise when you describe your characters too well. Let’s see what this looks like.

Example # one:  Jordan had just graduated from college and was working any job she could get.  That’s how she ended up working in the bar. She was twenty-two years old but looked much younger, with long chestnut colored hair.  She weighed one hundred pounds and stood five feet-two inches in her bare feet, had a small waist, broad shoulders and small breast. She had hazel-colored eyes, a chiseled nose and pouty lips.

Her hands were small but quick and she wore a size five shoe. etc…etc…etc…

Example # two:

Jordan had just graduated from   college and was working any job she could get.  She was behind the bar pouring drinks and flirting with the customers when I walked in. I slid onto a stool and ordered a beer.  She winked at me and asked to see my I.D.   I was in my first week of the Alternative Careers program learning auto mechanics, and I was tired and irritated that day. Work had been brutal, and I was still wearing my gray mechanic’s jumpsuit topped off by my shaved head.  I was thirsty and grimy and I looked all of my thirty-one years.

Jordan, on the other hand, looked about twelve. She was standing there in a pink hooded sweatshirt and black jeans.  Two thick braids hung down her back, hitting her just above her ass. A handful of freckles were splashed across her nose.

I glared across the bar at her. “I should be asking you for I.D,” 

The difference in these two examples is one description moves the story along (#2) and the other (#1) stalls the story and gives TMI.  You can always add more description if you like as the story goes along.  Also, being too specific may lose the reader.  This doesn’t mean be vague about your characters.  You can describe your characters well and still leave room for the reader’s imagination to roam.

example #3:   

Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a
colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, 
which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical
nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and
were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair
was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to be
out of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet,
a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of
a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn’t like it.

Excerpt from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This example is very specific but blends a combination of the character’s personality and her appearance so that it is not a laundry list of physical characteristics. The reader needs room to add her  or his subjective view of what’s pretty or bold or awkward. Also, the description of your characters should not be speed bumps in your story.  It should not slow your story down and distract the reader from the action of the story. Let your character’s actions fully define him to your reader. Practice skills that teach you this skill until you master it.

 

 

 

 

Room To Imagine

An author once told me that the job of a writer is to bring the reader into your story and let him or her see what you see.  When I visualize this skill, I imagine the reader is standing by my side as we experience my story. I never imagine the reader is standing where I stand and seeing exactly what I see. The reader needs to see what you see but through his or her own eyes. Here is why. Each person has a subjective life-experience shaped by his environment, family, community, religion or lack of religion, health, culture, etc.  You get the picture. While we share many traits in common with each other, the tiny differences between us could make or break a writer’s attempt to micro-manage the reader’s imagination.  Hang with me here.  It gets better.  I’ll give you an example:

I have a protagonist who kills her lovers and collects the insurance money.  This is what she does.  The insurance companies know it, the men know it, the women know, and yet no one can stop her.  Why? Because she is so gorgeous it hurts. Now, here comes the  essence of writing; how do I convey just how gorgeous this woman is? Do I describe what she looks like?  Well, if I say she has hair that looks like wet chestnuts and lips with the perfect balance of fullness and pout, to the reader, that may describe a gorilla.  Or….if I say she was a bouncy red-head with smokey-gray eyes, a reader may be turned off by , “smokey-eyes.”

In this particular story, there is a private detective who goes after this woman.  What I want to do is describe what affect this woman has on this character(the private detective), and leave as much room in my description of the woman as possible to allow the reader to visualize my character within the reader’s subjective view.

Tomorrow:  How?

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