Saturday, June 25, 2011

Famous Writing Quote of the Day

“The only way your characters can come alive and cause mischief while writing your book is if they were dead to start with.”
                                Vince Mooney


  1. Interesting. Characters have no existence until the author brings them to life on paper (or eBook). They are not dead any more than an unconceived child is dead. They are thoughts, possibilities, and when they rush off, out of control, it's because the writer has given them breath, given them their head, their freedom.

    Dead characters are the ones that are moved about like chessmen.

  2. Hi Liz:

    Thanks for commenting. I find this topic to be of real importance and appreciate your thoughts.

    I think what you wrote here is valid for commercial fiction written over a span of a few months. But please, for just a moment, consider changing your POV to literature written over a number of years.

    You wrote:

    “Characters have no existence until the author brings them to life on paper (or eBook)”.

    I agree that the above statement is legalistically true in the sense of copyright law.

    Yet a character, who is fully formed in the author’s mind, exists as surly as he will exist later when he finds his way into a book. The difference is this: you can copyright what’s on paper but not what’s in your mind.

    I believe that Raskolnikov haunted Dostoevsky's mind long before pen was put to paper. Dostoevsky had to write ’Crime and Punishment” to get Raskolnikov out of his head.

    Consider Zorba: can one really believe that Kazantzakis developed Zorba after he started writing ”Zorba the Greek”? Did all of Zorba’s wisdom come only after the book was started? Isn’t it more likely that Zorba’s wisdom and personality is what drove Kazantzakis to write ’Zorba the Greek” in the first place?

    I believe that characters should be alive and vibrant before the first word is written. They should not ‘subsist’ as ‘potential characters’ waiting to come alive.

    I also agree with you that “Dead characters are the ones that are moved about like chessmen.” It is these characters who will stay dead unless and until they come alive after “the writer has given them breath, given them their head, their freedom”.

    To ‘come alive’ one must not be alive. I am only suggesting that characters be alive before the first page is written. This is only a suggestion. It’s only an aspiration. It’s very hard to achieve given a limited schedule. But sometimes it will be a possibility. And then, you may have a Zorba.


  3. Well, you've got it, Vince. A book that has taken years to write, is a very different beast from commercial fiction.

    When you have a three book contract, with four month delivery dates, there isn't a lot of time for introspection or letting the characters grow over months or years. Mostly. Matty in The Marriage Miracle wouldn't let go until I wrote her story, but she'd appeared in an earlier book and had set the page on fire the minute she appeared. I didn't want to write her story, because I knew how difficult it would be and I wasn't sure that readers would like it.

    She was a rare exception. Mostly I have a week or maybe two, before I start the next book, which is why I usually spend at least a month rewriting chapter one until it find my character. (It's my version of filling in index cards.)

    And didn't Will write fast, too? But then he used historical characters with well known stories, or dramatized the stories of earlier writers. I'm not getting into a discussion about the Russians. :)

  4. Hi Liz:

    “Matty in ‘The Marriage Miracle’ wouldn't let go until I wrote her story…”

    That’s it. That’s what I would call a “Zorba” moment. I love books like this. I just downloaded ‘The Marriage Miracle’ and started to read it this morning.

    BTW: here’s an interesting review of ‘The Marriage Miracle’ which is to point:

    “One of the best Harlequin Romances this reviewer has ever read. This story is exciting, fresh, innovative and a breath of fresh air, yet it is told in the traditional sweet tone of the line, which will make this book appeal to all readers".
    -- Romantic Times Bookclub

    I think there is something then to be said for trying, when possible, to have fully alive characters at the start of a book.

    I had a discussion with Maureen Child about what part of a book is hardest to write. I said beginners find the start of the book the easiest. All options are open at that time and the writer is the most optimistic at the start.

    Maureen Child said that her hardest part was the beginning. She added that she needed to get sixty pages or so into the book to get to know her characters. After that the book flowed naturally, from those characters to the end of the story.

    It seems than in order to write books quickly, one has to write them on the fly. This takes great craftsmanship and discipline. To say nothing of drive!

    You mentioned that:

    “I didn't want to write her story, because I knew how difficult it would be and I wasn't sure that readers would like it.”

    The above reminds me of reading Donna Alward’s first three books. Those stories were difficult psychological dramas that turned me into an instant fan. (Writing like this is so uncommon that I can remember the authors who have done it.)

    I like your comment:

    “And didn't Will write fast, too?”

    Yes, but then Will never really finished a play. They were all WIPs. He was always revising. He would change lines even on the day of the performance. I’ve read three different facsimile versions of the, “To be or not to be,” monologue in Hamlet complied over time. The first and earliest did not sound very much like Shakespeare at all. It wasn’t very special. The next version sounded like a Shakespeare imitator. Only the last version, (the last one we know about), sounded quotably Shakespearian.

    Of course, Will would act in a play, direct the play, revise the play on the fly -- all while he was writing the next play. Most writers should not try this at home. : )


  5. Oh, Vince, that last paragraph really speaks to me. The nightmare of reading your own book to find a quote for something and wishing you could change a word, a sentence. The "how on earth did that get past copy editing" shriek.

    I'm with Maureen on the beginnings thing. I did find it incredibly easy to write the opening three chapters when I was first published. They would fly. These days they are the hardest part and it is all about getting to know the character.

    I'm glad you're reading Matty. She won a Rita for me and I really wish I had a secondary character hanging around in the background right now with her kind of tenacity!

    And Donna is having the most fabulous year. Much deserved. She's a terrific writer. (And I'm not just saying that because she dedicated one of her most recent books to me!)

  6. Hi Liz:

    You wrote:

    “I'm glad you're reading Matty. She won a Rita for me and I really wish I had a secondary character hanging around in the background right now with her kind of tenacity!”

    I’ve read Matty and I have this to say right off: we are dealing with more than a character here.

    I agree, it would be nice to have a secondary character like Matty available to carry another RITA award winning book.

    Characters can come about in more than one way. Think of an American southwest high desert landscape. See the Rocky mountains in the distance. Think of southwest genre books where the location has the importance of a major character. (I love these books).

    Now ask yourself: “what kind of hero would be at home in this land? How could the physical characteristics be personified in this hero? In how many different ways could this hero mirror the setting?”

    By doing this you could come up with the character. You could also do it in the opposite way: you could create a character and ask, ‘in what setting would this character be most at home?’

    In a typical romance there is GMC. Goal, motivation, conflict – the hero and heroine want to find love, they have problems preventing that, they overcome those problems and enjoy a happy ending. That’s the typical romance.

    “The Marriage Miracle” is not typical. It’s a story that goes deeper than GMC. It’s a story about meaning. I would put it this way: GMC = Meaning. In a typical romance, finding love is a ‘good-in-itself’. I just read a romance in which the heroine could not marry a man who did not come home every night after work. (She had issues with her father). The hero -- in order to win her love -- eventually gives up his job as a professional athlete. This is trivial and simple GMC.

    Matty, however, is about the meaning of love itself. It’s not just that love is nice or a ‘good-in-itself’ but rather it’s about what it really means to love someone. It’s about what it means to be a ‘whole person’. It’s about what love means when there may be no possibility of creating offspring. Ultimately it’s about what it means when loving someone may require driving them away for their own good.

    Meaning is hard. It is sticky. It makes people think and that can make them feel uncomfortable. It can also pull readers out of the story. Meaning has a way of making the story speak more to the ‘human condition’ than to just the characters' needs in the novel. Matty is not just a woman in a wheelchair. She is everyone for whom there is an ostensive reason ‘not to love’ or ‘to avoid’.

    Matty as a character necessitated dealing with the essential meaning of love. As an existing character she required her story to be structured on her terms.

    But what if you didn’t start with Matty or a predefined character? What if you started instead with a ‘quest for meaning’? First define the meaning you want to address, like the landscape example above, and then ask yourself: ‘What kind of character would be at home given this kind of quest?’

    When I think of Francine Rivers’ “Atonement Child”, I don’t think that this story started with a character. I think it started with a quest to find meaning in abortion. It was an effort to explore this quest dramatically in story form. Just as a given quest can create a character, so too, I believe that a character will define the quest.

    Given that you can handle a ‘meaningful’ story, I don’t think you need to wait for another Matty. I think you can select another ‘quest for meaning’ and as you define the challenge, the right character will appear.

    If a man lost his wife and children, reputation, and all his money because of his own negligence and then was faced with carrying on in life, he would be facing a quest for meaning. Not just finding love but finding a reason why he should try to find love again. What would this man be like? Who would love him?

    I better stop. I need to write the “The Marriage Miracle” review next.