Let it Ride: Feeling the Process

Today let’s talk about process; specifically, the process of writing. Some of you who have been reading this site for at least a modest amount of time may remember when I began talking about having an idea for a thriller. It was only a few weeks ago, right? It was exciting. I was really into it. I started reading up on conventions of the genre as I plotted the story.

Then I ran into writing reality as the concept revealed itself to be somewhat flawed. I was a little distressed, but not freaking out. I’ve found that this is a normal part of my process. Often the initial idea is good, but it needs a lot of refinement. And by refinement, I don’t mean sitting down up front and thinking through the idea over and over again. It’s kind of something that has to reveal itself, instead. Almost like a lottery scratcher; you scratch the first of those colorful little icons and reveal the basic concept; maybe this is your four-leaf clover or whatever iconography the card is using this time. Then you scratch the second and see how the characters connect to the concept. It may or may not be connected – maybe you get a cherry instead of a clover, but that’s okay, because you only have to match three and you have two more to scratch off.

My point here is that while I had scratched off and revealed a decent idea, the other concepts were other icons. The whole thing was not going to work together until I retooled one or more elements. Back to the drawing board. I’ve talked about that, too, about how I came to understand that the dynamic of the story needed to be inverted from what I had originally envisioned. Again, that’s cool, that happens. At least I figured it up front, rather than what happened with Corridors of the Dead, where I worked out what needed to be changed after writing it, editing it six times, and sending it to agents. Not that I’m bitter!

But that’s exactly what I’m talking about here – how the process of creation changes an original idea. Most people who know me in real life will tell you I’m a huge music buff. I really enjoy finding new bands and new types of music to enjoy. I’m never satisfied with just what I have; there always has to be some new sound or idea that I want to look into. When it comes to bands that I really like, one of my favorite things to do is get ahold of demos (this is easier for some bands than others) or a set of demos. For example, I have a CD of the Beatles that is 20 takes of one song. I’m the only person I know who would sit through that and actually find something compelling and useful here, and it’s the way that the song evolves.

Sometimes you hear how a completely different concept transforms into something else. An aborted song can be tacked onto the end of another song, and eventually become something more than two so-so songs. Since I was once such a huge pumpkin head, here’s an example of a song evolving.

First, we have a raw demo set down in a studio while on tour. Scratch vocals, and some musical elements are different.

Second, we have an acoustic demo recorded at home in the fall of 94, and we can see the vocals evolving.

Finally, the released version (there are at least three more demo versions of this floating around, but I’m trying for an example here, not to bash you over the head).

I think so much of that fascinates me because it’s so similar to the writing process. I mean, it basically is that, rendered as music. I know I constantly take old ideas that might not have worked in some other context and add them to a story that I might be working on at the moment. For example, if someone were to look through my archives, you’d see that the character Jazshael that’s referenced in Corridors of the Dead was actually the protagonist of an abandoned novel from 10 years ago.Some other concepts that came from dreams over the years also got incorporated into Corridors, sometimes unknowingly. Everything has to be fodder.

Of course, sometimes the process just takes you in unexpected directions. Going back to what I was saying about Entanglements, I started off with a concept for what I thought could be a pretty cool thriller, but as I wrote and really got to know the characters, I discovered that while there was some suspense still there (the sense of drive and tension is still very important to the story), there is a paranormal romance buried in there. Needless to say, this was very unexpected. It just…happened. I put two characters together, and their interactions went in a certain direction. They weren’t literally made for each other, and yet they seem to be made for each other all the same.

Now let me preface this by saying that I am the last person to write a paranormal romance. My opinion of Twilight stands: it’s just not good. I’m sure there are great examples of paranormal romance. It’s just not my thing. Which makes me wonder if my own take is going to follow some of the conventions that I observe when reading second-hand reviews. Hell, maybe that’s a good thing. The protagonist isn’t a teenage ~~waifu~~ in her final year of high school who discovers a handsome, older man with a dark secret (and I don’t say this to denigrate the genre, I believe there’s room for every genre and everything under the sun – it’s just my experience). None of that. But you know, put to it? Yeah. This is the definition from Wikipedia:

A type of speculative fiction, paranormal romance focuses on romance and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from the genres of traditional fantasyscience fiction, or horror.

That’s pretty much it. It’s a love story that happens in another world, in an entirely different context. How did I get there? Like I said, it’s that natural transformation that occurs during writing. The guy notices her hair. She notices how he smells. Etc. It just kind of builds from there. Oh, and throw in a good dash of Stockholm Syndrome, too. That’s going to be wrestled with throughout the course of the book.

That’s just the thing. The process sometimes grabs us and takes us where it wants us to go. You hear writers talking about how they don’t write the story, the story is written through them. It’s true. When you get into a groove and really understand your characters, it happens. So many times I just sit there reading what I’m writing, somewhat bemused. But it’s the story that wants to be told. I think otherwise, it’s dry and lifeless and not true to myself. Obviously, it’s coming from some part of me that needs to express it, and I can already see some echoes in this romance of issues that I’ve deal with in the past. Yes, they come from within, they come from our subconscious and are colored by our experiences, but they’re not always within our conscious control.

My whole point is to remind you to stay open to that process. Be open to the strange and unexpected twists and turns that a story can take. It’s what makes something new and unique. I think we need a lot more new and unique stories. Always.

Oh My Little Bird in a Cage: Observation and The Lovely Bones

Apropos of nothing, it occured to me while I was writing yesterday that the new novel starts off in much the same fashion as the last novel – a strong female character is kidnapped. I have to laugh – well, obviously Jonathan has something for women in peril, right? – but I also wondered if there was some other theme going on here. You know, some sort of hidden insight about my own psychology. Maybe something ugly. So I gave it some thought, and came to a few conclusions.

The good news is that I know for a fact that the third novel – the second “of the dead” book – doesn’t start like this, but there is a definite echo between the two. I tried to follow the idea to what seemed like a logical conclusion, that there’s some sexist issue that I haven’t worked out, but it rings false. In Corridors, the kidnapping is a wake-up call for Matty, a notice that she does have her own power of personal agency and sets her out against a world that’s determined to fit her into a certain mold. I realized that there are actually some echoes of the feminist struggle in there (and that’s 100% unintentional, believe it or not).

In Entanglements…well, some of the implications I’m not ready to go into yet, but Adshade’s tale is certainly a lot more complicated than a damsel in distress, but she’s constrained in many more ways than Matty. She does, after all, spend a good portion of the book either locked away in a cellar or suffering from severe Stockholm Syndrome (at least, apparently). In some ways, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that she was the shadow to Matty, the woman who actually finds herself trapped without as many options available to her, stuck in an overtly repressive situation as opposed to Matty’s mostly implied repression.

Reasoning it out and realizing that I’m working through some issues that are pretty close to my own heart made me both feel better about it using the trope twice and about my own emotional connection to the subject matter.

Moving on, the last week has been an interesting one. With the afore-mentioned house guest, we’ve ended up watching a lot of movies, at least by my standards. I seriously think that this may have been the most movie-heavy year for me in quite some time, but I’m actually enjoying it because it gives me a chance to perform analysis on a shorter time scale. Last night we picked The Lovely Bones from HBO GO on a total whim, as the fiancée had read the book and was curious to see how it was adapted.

The answer? Apparently not so well. Coming at it from the perspective of someone who hasn’t yet read the book, I had to question how something so uneven received such high praise. Turns out that the book wasn’t so uneven. But before I get into specifically analyzing the problems that I had, the plot, for those who aren’t familiar with it (courtesy of IMDB):

A 14-year-old girl in suburban 1970’s Pennsylvania is murdered by her neighbor. She tells the story from the place between Heaven and Earth, showing the lives of the people around her and how they have changed all while attempting to get someone to find her lost body.

The premise is a fascinating one, and reading that made me want to watch the film. The problem is that I think someone or some people on the production team didn’t quite grasp the tricky tonal issues that the concept introduces. Right up front I read that and I think someone is going to have to walk a fine line between being too depressing and too cheesy – too far in one direction and you’re just beating the reader/viewer over the head with a subject that’s already inherently very depressing. Too far in the other direction and you risk not giving the subject the gravity that it deserves. Tricky, but it can be done right by the right artist.

But, uh…well, like I said, I don’t think they grasped that. Or they did, and thought they could have their cake and eat it too, I don’t know. The tonal shifts are just downright bizarre. Take, for instance, one of the key moments in the story. Spoiler alert! Don’t go any farther if you don’t want to read a spoiler. All right, if you’re still with me. The murdered daughter’s sister has suspected the neighbor for awhile, and breaks into his house while he’s out. This leads to the typical scene wherein she discovers the evidence of what he’s done while he comes home and she’s unaware. I was already rolling my eyes at this because it’s so overdone, and of course the guy hears her upstairs and goes running after her. She escapes, etc. Big tense moment, even if it is a cliché.

Daughter runs home, desperate to show this evidence to her father…and discovers that her mother has returned home from her weird sabbatical (which I’m told makes a lot more sense in the book). So the building action is brought to a crashing halt while we have this tender, touching moment of the father and mother reuniting. I literally threw my hands up in the air. Oh, and this reunion is intercut with scenes of the killer packing to run away, to make the tonal differences even more stark and bizarre. Seriously, what were they thinking?

It’s hardly an isolated incident, either. The father starts catching on to what’s going on with the killer earlier in the film, and it’s cut together with shots of the idyllic other world – something like Seven meets What Dreams May Come. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what this film felt like!

I haven’t even touched on some of the pacing issues early on, and how the movie isn’t quite sure of the audience that it wants to target.  We have long (and I do mean long), lingering shots of her watching her teenage love from afar early on that really slow down the pacing, and once things do ramp up, we still get these interminable scenes in the other world, so far removed from what’s going on in our world.

And let’s examine the different scenes that I’ve mentioned so far here to get a sense of how the audience is unclear: mooning after a teenage love. An angry father threatening to attack his daughter’s murderer. The other daughter running for her life. A tearful reunion scene. That’s not mentioning the murder scene, the endless scenes of the protagonist musing on the meaning of life and death, the murderer experiencing euphoric recall, the protagonist playing with hair styles and music in this other world, and the hilarious death scene of the murderer. Seriously, who is the intended audience here? There’s something to piss just about every viewer off, or at least bore them to death.

That’s a lot of words about a movie that ultimately made me wish I hadn’t wasted the time to watch it, but it teaches us a lot about writing. To wit:

  • Be sure of your tone, and stay true to it. If you’re going to switch tone for a bit, be sure to telegraph it well in advance and don’t try to mix it with the previous tone.
  • Always stay aware of pacing. Don’t let scenes drag on, and try to maintain a fairly steady rising and falling action, always trending upwards.
  • Be aware of your intended audience. Sure, we write all our works for ourselves ultimately, but even that suggests an intended audience. No one can be all things to all people.

So it wasn’t wasted time at all, just one of those negative examples from which to learn. The most frustrating part is that I saw an incredible story buried underneath the junk, unlike some of the other stinkers that I’ve watched recently. It could have so easily gone another way and been great. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse than Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.