Writing Characters: Playing the Cruelty Game

Think about your favorite characters in your favorite stories or novels. For me, that would be people such as Cory Mackenson from Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life. Or Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Or Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. Do your favorite characters travel a straight road, or rather are the beset by obstacles at every turn?

When you fall in love with a character as a reader, you might wish that they had things easier, that they could solve the mystery, defeat the monsters, win their true love, or whatever it is they’re fighting for. But if they actually do all those things easily, if there aren’t obstacles or the obstacles aren’t sufficiently challenging, your reading experience won’t be rewarding.

So, as writers, we need to remember this and make sure we put our characters on a twisting, rocky road: Be cruel to your characters in order to be kind to your readers.

At times, I know I have a tendency to go easy on my characters, to let them off with a warning, let’s say, when I should be cracking them over the head with a ton of bricks. I like my creations and I don’t want them to suffer. But it’s time to get serious and start doing some damage—I’ve got to put away my feelings for my characters and get cruel. I need to remind myself, again, of my favorite characters that others have written. Let’s take a look at Frodo’s journey. Continue reading

The Strange Dichotomy of “Life”

What do you do with those really great moments of life, those times when you’re most happy? Like when you’ve just sold your first short story, or a novel. Or it’s your wedding day, or the birth of a child. Maybe you’re celebrating a fiftieth anniversary. It’s your parent’s or grandparent’s eightieth birthday and they’re in great health. So you’re beaming. And do you, at that moment, spare a thought for the ending, the fact that no matter where we are in life, eventually it ends in death for all of us?

Of course not! Why would you? Revel in the now. (Unless you’re of a particularly morbid character.) . . . And yet, that death is still out there waiting for each of us, isn’t it?

Before I lose you, I’m not here to dwell on death, but rather to examine the uplifting message in the song “Life” by Devin Townsend. As the two or three people who read my posts regularly will recognize, I’ve been rather obsessed with the music of Devin Townsend recently. And I’m OK with that. “Life” is a happy song; you can have a listen while you continue reading below:

Continue reading

Fun Writing Is Fun—And Successful

I had a spot of good news this week. I had a short story accepted for inclusion in an anthology that’s due for publication this fall. Although I’ve been writing professionally for years (i.e., getting paid to write), this is my first fiction piece accepted for publication professionally, so naturally I’m fairly excited.

The story was written specifically for the call for manuscripts for this anthology, which is being published by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) organization. The anthology will include stories that explore Denver’s Colfax Avenue, “the longest, wickedest street in America,” according to Playboy magazine. When I first saw the call, I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t have any stories or ideas for stories that would fit. So I passed the call off to the members of my writing group, prepared to ignore it myself.

Fortunately, the historic nature of Colfax and its multifaceted personality continued to swirl in the back of my brain. A few other ideas from unrelated sources came into the mix. Then suddenly, a couple days later, I had a story. And I knew I had to write it, whether or not it would make the cut. By that point, I wasn’t even sure I could get it done in time to submit for the deadline. Continue reading

“Pixillate”: Fractured Identity & the Power of Art

I spent a lot of time writing about literature in college and during my MFA program. As a writer, learning to evaluate and talk about writing is a pretty handy skill, some might say an instrumental skill. Even when I read for pleasure now, part of my mind is always evaluating, trying sentences in different constructions, trying to predict character actions or upcoming turns of plot, and so forth.

Because music is a vital part of my daily life, it’s probably no surprise that I frequently run the same mental games on the songs and albums I listen to—evaluating how or why a song achieves its effect, explicating how lyrics and music combine to form meaning. I’ll show you what I mean.

A while back, I wrote about a musical selection by the Devin Townsend Band called Synchestra and how it had influenced a short story I was writing (“Synchestra: Unleashing the Transdimensional Space Goat on America’s Wickedest Street”). I’d like to take a look now at one of the tracks from this album, a song called “Pixillate.” The song comes on the second half of the album; if we were to consider the album as a novel—a not inappropriate comparison, considering we’re talking about progressive rock here—this song would be well into the rising action, heading into the dark of the woods, approaching the black moment or crisis.  Continue reading

Writing Obsessions

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir, by Justin HockingA friend from my grad school days was recently in town to do a reading from his new book, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf Press). In this creative nonfiction memoir, Justin Hocking writes about his move to New York City after grad school and a difficult breakup, and how he becomes obsessed with surfing, the ocean, and Moby-Dick. It’s a fascinating mix, told with raw honesty and wry humor.

It was great seeing Justin and having the chance to catch up a little; it had been twelve years since we’d completed our MFAs and gone our separate ways. Reading Justin’s book has been a somewhat odd experience. The book is excellent. But it’s weird reading such a personal “story” about someone I know. When we were in writing workshops together, I recall some of Justin’s stories involved skateboarders and I knew he was heavy into skateboarding himself, but I never knew how much this sport dominated his life.

Justin’s book shows how skateboarding is replaced by surfing in New York. It gets him outside the suffocating city, and this new attachment with the ocean helps him overcome anxieties related to his dislocation. Surfing becomes an obsession and an escape. In fact, there are all kinds of obsessions in this book. It’s got me thinking about the role of obsession to writers in general. That is, is it necessary to have obsessions to be a writer? Or do writers write because they have obsessions they’re working through?  Continue reading

Warts & All: J. Tull & My Early Creative Writing

I’ve pretty much been writing stories for as long as I can remember. It’s the only way you can get away with lying all the time. You know, if that sort of thing appeals to you. I did quite a bit of writing when I was first in college, right out of high school, in the late ‘80s. That was also the same period when I first listened to the music of Jethro Tull. It turns out that even back then, my stories were influenced by the music I was listening to.

When I started listening to Tull, they had already been around for nearly 20 years. In fact, the second time I saw them in concert, in 1988, was for their 20th anniversary tour. I was only 21-years-old at the time, so naturally, they seemed really old: I mean, they’d been performing for basically as long as I’d been alive. (Their first album was released in 1968; their best-known album, then and now, Aqualung, was released in 1971.)

As part of that 20th anniversary, Jethro Tull also released a box set of rarities and live performances. Among those tracks were a few songs from their famous abandoned album (from 1973), known as the “Chateau D’Isaster Tapes.” Due to technical difficulties, illness, and other problems, they scrapped a nearly complete album, but those recordings were still around; this was the first chance to hear a bit of what the band had been planning, warts and all.  Continue reading

The Changing of the Gods

[See the story behind this story in “Warts & All: J. Tull & My Early Creative Writing.”]

The center of the room was occupied by a pillar, a tall and sturdy, strong and functional pillar, rooted firmly in the floor and growing broader as it rose upwards. This pillar had a name: He was called Zeus.

Zeus was wearing his favorite white tunic today, the one with the fine gold fringe and tassels. He had arranged for the Eternity Suite and, upon arrival, had firmly planted himself as if he intended to grow still greater. He had checked his thunderbolts downstairs and now stood like a pillar with his hands behind his back, alternately gazing upward and then casting his eyes down.

He muttered, “So many. I had not thought death had undone so many.”

(This, echoing down through the Ages, would later be picked out of the Ether by some crazed poet.)

The others had by this time arrived and were lounging about, awaiting the solemnities. There was Aphrodite in the cushioned, low-backed chair, her leg over one of the arms, her golden hair trailing to the floor behind. She was gazing lustfully at Apollo, who had found a harp and was absentmindedly plucking the strings. Apollo glanced up and gave a slight smile. She licked her lips seductively. Suddenly becoming very aware of his short tunic (and the fact that he was wearing nothing beneath it), Apollo twanged a sour note and looked away.

Pan, meanwhile, was sitting on the floor in the corner, his knees drawn up, horns nicely polished, leg hairs neatly trimmed and styled. He was playing on his pipes in pleasant discord to each note of Apollo’s. Continue reading