Someone asks in a recent blog post:
If you write, where do your ideas come from? Do you start with a scene? A character? A premise? Or do you have some ridiculous trigger that demands you spin a story out of it?
That is a good question. A novel thrusts itself into my poor overloaded mind based on two things: a character, and a theme.
This is the heart of my creative process. I need both a main character with a distinctive voice, and I need a unifying idea. When the two meet, it’s magic. My brain will refuse to let go of the two, and, at some point, they merge and I will have the resulting plot and setting. I am now compelled to write the story.
But where do these characters and themes come from?
Mainly, I observe. I am not a shy man, but I am a quiet fixture. Why does that smartly dressed woman at the airport waiting for the same flight as me have a perpetual frown? Why are the neighbors across the street so reclusive? Is the wife sick? If so, will she ever get better? The Sheriff Deputy in the coffee shop–if she were in trouble, big trouble, would she have the will and fortitude, beyond her training, to survive? If she did have this internal strength, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time, would anybody come to help?
Observation can give me characters, and it can give me themes.
For example, why does our society have a culture of blame-the-victim, bordering on the tolerance for the criminal? Where did this corruption come from, and where will it lead? Why do some cultures today feed off each other, becoming stronger, while others clash, causing conflict? Is a society that devalues the lives of children for the sake of control and equality doomed to failure? If so, how will it fail?
Sometimes, I will be thinking these questions and suddenly they will merge into a story. Like this proto-outline:
The Sheriff Deputy in the coffee shop is in trouble. She is a strong person but in the wrong place at the wrong time. She is a righteous woman, but righteousness is not going to save her now (this is the character, maybe the main character, or an important minor one).
Career criminals, released by our society to prey upon the weak once more without mercy, decided they were going to kill a copy one day. Our society tolerates evil men such as this. It has happened before (in the real world), and it will happen again (sadly, this is also a reality). Where did this corruption come from, and where will it lead? (this is a theme).
The righteous and the evil go at it in the coffee shop parking lot. Outgunned and outmaneuvered, the death of the female deputy is a forgone conclusion. How would she get out of this?
She gets help. A woman caught in the crossfire draws her sidearm and joins the gun battle (this is the glimmering of a plot and also a very strong character).
Why did this woman have gun? Well, she has the typical ex-husband who has threatened to kill her. She decided she wasn’t going to use a paper shield and actually defend herself (this is related to the theme, but also further characterization).
Only, she isn’t defending herself. She is defending someone sworn to defend her! She is shot. Several times. Nevertheless, everyone lives, except the evil men.
And this heroic action caused the next American Civil War (this is now the plot).
That’s my writing process. For me, only when I have a firm character, or characters, and a unified idea to generate conflict as a theme, can I get a plot that works for me. At this point, I have a novel. All that is left is my outlining process (which I do in my head) and typing.
You may think a gun battle in a coffee shop parking lot and the next American Civil War is a gigantic, random leap–but it’s not. The theme, as you recall, is “Where did this corruption (tolerance for evil) come from, and where will it lead?” With these characters and this theme, the plot burst out of me like the alien from the chest of poor Kane on the Nostromo.
This is my creative process, how I obtain ideas and turn them into novels. And it works very well for me.
Writer folks, check out this post:
I get the feeling many people are so saturated with media (books, TV, movies) that they are writing not from life but from their perception of life as shown in media. They’re writing stories I’ve seen and heard a hundred times before.
I love this post. I love it very much.
Rachelle is talking about stories with a heart.
Stories that speak to your soul.
Stories that bypass the surface and talk about things the way they are.
Stories that are honest.
That is exactly what I read.
And that’s exactly what I want to write, and I do write.
What an inspirational post!
This wine is exquisite. A blended red from Washington, the wine not so much swirls in your mouth, but french kisses the tongue. A heady wine rich with flavor, it reminds you of a woman who neither is teasing nor coy before embracing you for a night of sensuous lovemaking. It is the wine’s purpose. That is all she does. And after she is gone, the fruity taste on the lips remain, beckoning for more.
Real kisses have power in today’s Western society.
I belong to a rare club:
- I am married for a number of years (15!)
- This is my only marriage
In other words, I am a never-divorced, married man. Believe me when I tell you I am the odd duck at parties. On one hand, I am happy to be in this club. On the other hand, I think it’s sad.
No offense if you are divorced. I’m sure you’re sad too, and I say that with empathy and not sarcasm. I’ve seen it all.
I sometimes get together with my male friends in the same NOT DIVORCED CLUB™ and we talk about the other male species. Sometimes we have to as a defensive mechanism. We have to, or we’ll just go crazy.
One time, we were discussing a particularly nasty divorce, and we got to talking about infidelity. Somehow, we got to talking about degrees of infidelity, the inherent dishonesty of it all. We wound up talking about kissing.
Minor diversion: Do women talk about this kind of stuff?
Anyway, we all agreed that kissing was the crossed line. All the other acts of carnal nature were, at their core, not nearly as intimate as a passionate kiss.
Why is that? I could prattle on and on about it, but my point is, kissing has power. Forget about why people cheat. It seemed to us, divorce, due to infidelity, centered on two related things: the dishonesty of sneaking around, and the intimate aspects of stolen kisses.
Of course, we could be way off the mark. But I don’t think so.
Kissing is an intimate currency. Kissing money. Like real money, it has the potential to cause conflict and settle conflict. A passionate kiss on the wrong lips starts a chain reaction, for good or bad.
As a writer, I am a manipulative bastard. I’ll be spending my kissing money knowledge to press buttons. It might not be this novel, but the next. I am giddy at the thought of kissing tension.
Heh. You might think of this as a dark post. It’s not. Where you might see a depressing look at the state of affairs, I see plot and characterization opportunity!
Okay, that is somewhat dark.
As a fellow reader, you might be thinking, “well duh,” and I rather agree. But just as I think writers boof kissing in a good way, I also feel they boof kissing in a bad way. Writers of the illicit all too often describe the dishonest as carnal intercourse. When, at the core, the dishonesty of it all is the stolen kiss.
I’ve written about the sexual voice here in Hack Writerville.
Let’s be honest. Some writers just will never get it. And that is okay. They can write books and I’ll read them.
But when a writer boofs (and boofs is a technical term) kissing, well that just irks me to no end.
A good kissing voice is totally necessary if your main character is, um, kissing. TOTALLY!
Let me explain.
We all have first kisses. There’s that first kiss with the first person to really kiss us, and then there is that first kiss with a specific person. The interest. The hottie. The lovah!
First kisses mean so much to almost every person. There is a certain kind of magic in that first kiss of your new paramour. Its more than just sex or affection, it’s the wonder and anticipation of something new and sensual. It’s magic and if it works, it’s magical if anything really was magical.
So why do writers boof the first kiss? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read TELL first kisses rather than SHOW first kisses. I do not get it. Maybe I’m an incurable romantic. Here’s my theory:
1) The writer is a bad kisser
2) The writer has forgotten the magic
3) The writing is stilted. That is, the writer knows there is something wrong with the kissing scene but is not skilled enough, or brave enough, to fix it
4) Combination of the above
5) All of the above
Now, I’m not going to write off a good book with bad kissing. But I am going to wonder. I am going to wonder just how much better the novel could be if the writer was more honest.
I’m not saying you need to get porno with the first kiss. All I’m asking is bring back the magic.
Kissing, my friends, is where it’s at!
Masao and Bunny: their first kiss
“Thank you, oh, thank you. My family has waited a long time for someone, anyone to say that,” Masao whispered, “a long time.” His own tears fell into Bunny’s hair; his naked honesty a self-inflicted knife wound to his own heart.
Bunny looked up at his face, closed her eyes and parted her lips.
You are an old fool, Masao thought to himself, but kissed her anyway.
Her lips, tasting of wine, were soft and her tongue was comforting but sensuous, both generous and insistent in a slow, focused way. She smelled of flowers and the sea, and in his arms she felt of coiled passion but also pure softness—a feminine contradiction that declared her a woman as any woman he had ever held. Her arm came up to grasp the back of his shoulder and his hand ran down the smooth fabric of her tight dress to cup her bottom, pulling her closer. The other hand he ran through her hair and she relaxed into him.
Then the kiss really started.
An old fool who is on fire, then.
Had an itch to write sci-fi separate from the YOUR LITTLE SISTER manuscript. So I decided to do some more world-building and see where it took me. Since I have been accused (by more than one person, I should add) of having a fascination with kissing, here’s a sci-fi kiss. We have the return of Major Hackett, and a new character, Dex. After writing this, Dex seems really fascinating. I don’t know why.
I’m digging the expanded Major Hackett though. Big time.
“Leftenant Landau, the Space Marshal wants to talk to you,” said the Major in a neutral, flat voice. The short, sharp-featured woman looked him up and down, as if was a fresh piece of meat. Considering he was just off an orbiter, he was. He could almost see her mentally smirking through the thin veneer of her professional blankness.
Dex froze in place. He had not been on Space Station Mitachi more than five minutes. It was his first time in space. It was his first time in uniform. Hell, he did not even know where the head is, and he had to pee.
But he wasn’t stupid. He saluted the woman, remembering his training.
Training he received only yesterday.
She saluted back, and then stuck out her hand. “Jill Hackett,” she said, her voice warming up. “I am the Marshal’s attaché and all-around gopher girl.”
Dex took her hand and instead of shaking it, she clasped his wrist and pulled him close. She actually stood on her toes and kissed him on each cheek. He hoped his surprise did not wash across his face.
His cheeks felt warm as if he was blushing, and he realized the warmth was not from embarrassment. She was a wælcyrie! He had heard of them, but never had met one until now. His brain raced with the cultural meaning of having one kiss him. It was a social greeting, but also more. They were marking you with nano riders carried on their lips. No one knew why, or if anyone did, they were not telling. Eventually, his internal nano regulator would neutralize the benign foreign nano tech.
Theoretically, at least. It was some small comfort that if the nano was malignant, his regulator would go into full neutralization mode.
He pushed this from his brain as he realized she was now smiling at him. “This way, Leftenant.”
He followed dutifully. He tried to memorize the route but gave up after five minutes. She was probably following a trail displayed in her contact lens HUD, avoiding crowds and construction in real-time, both of which seemed abundant.
Dex decided being shy was stupid. He may be still wet behind the ears, but he was a commissioned officer, newb status notwithstanding. He was being silly.
“Could we take a detour to the head, Major?”
“Of course. This way.”
Soon they were in a unisex bathroom. He made a beeline for a urinal while she disappeared into a stall.
As they were both peeing, she got chatty.
“I saw you have a combat record, Leftenant. Did you see a lot of action?”
“No ma’am. In the war, my family operated a Whisper Net Repeater in the Northern Territories. We got hit with a drop. That was the extent of my contact with the enemy.”
“I glanced at your file, personal details are sparse. You have sisters, yes?”
“Yes. Four. Three older ones and one younger one.”
She came out from the stall and they washed up next to each other.
“Four! Goodness, Landau, how did you survive? And I guess that’s why you’re not shy with having a conversation with a female while peeing.”
“I learned to hide really well,” he said grinning.
“I bet the younger one has you wrapped around her pinky.”
Dex felt the grin freeze on his face. His mother used to say to him “You be careful, Dex, that sister of yours has you wrapped around her pinky!”
Concern played across Hackett’s face. She reached across and moved his hands away from the faucet, and the water turned off. He had spaced out to the point he did not realize his hands were still under the running water.
Now Dex was embarrassed. He didn’t know much about space stations, but he knew wasting water was rude. It had to be re-filtered.
“I’m sorry, Dex. I did not mean to bring up bad memories.”
Dex sighed. “Not so much bad as—bittersweet. Is it that obvious?” Sometimes he felt he was wearing his grief from losing his parents in the war like a cloak. He dried his hands quickly, still embarrassed.
“No, no. The war has been over for only three years, you’ll spot it yourself here soon enough. We all have the odd thing that reminds us of those who are no longer with us.” Suddenly her eyes grew large and luminous. “Sometimes, the hurt just sneaks up on you and wham; it’s like a punch in the gut.”
A single tear slid down her face.
Dex felt a pang of sympathy so strong, it nearly made him shudder. Almost against his will, he reached down to her pixie-like face and brushed the tear away. Suddenly, arms were around his neck and she kissed him, a desperate kiss of mouth and tongue, and he kissed her back, just as desperately.
The door to the head opened and they suddenly looked at the entering man and woman, Corporals. The two stopped in their tracks and stared, the Major still had her arms around his neck and he realized he had a hand on her shapely butt.
The enlisted quickly recovered and snapped smart salutes. Dex just as quickly separated from Hackett and they returned the salutes.
“Major,” said the man.
“Corporal, at ease.” The Major smoothed out her uniform.
“Leftenant,” said the woman. She bit her lip and her eyes were dancing.
“Corporal,” Dex said. Suddenly he felt very foolish. He gave her a nod and left, quickly followed by the Major. As the door closed behind them, Dex did not hear laughter but he was positive that is what was going on.
“This way, Leftenant.” He could swear she was blushing.
As he followed the mysterious woman, no, the wælcyrie, Dex had to remind himself—he wondered what the Space Marshal wanted of him. In the span of three days, he advertised his availability for work, received a commission, took a 12-hour orientation corpse, was deep scanned and re-assigned to Orbital and Space because of his genetic predisposition to neural implant acclimation coupled with high scores in AI interfacing. In moments, he will be meeting with the Commander of Orbital and Space. Tomorrow he will undergo surgery and then tanked for regen therapy for a month to finish growing the cyber tech and then acclimate his body to the implants.
Somehow, in the midst of all of this, he kissed the Space Marshall’s intelligence officer—a genetically engineered soldier from the war times who, technically, was not human.
Dex had to admit to himself that his future, if the present was any indication, was a big unknown to him, very different from his carefully sister-arranged life. This both terrified and elated him. Whatever tomorrow holds, it would not be boring!
Really, I do. Sometimes, I find myself writing and writing and writing about them and I suddenly I realize I have bloated my novel.
Let me give you an example. Here is the brief background: various peoples, ruled by a mono-gendered species called Tanvaias, populate the galaxy. This little bit is about two Jen’ari, a war like race found of humans, but not so found of “the tans”.
Doctor Kasarr was am imposing man, even by Jen’ari standards. He towered above most, and his voice was commanding and deep, full. He ran a private medical nano-tech lab, where he and his three assistants produced microelectronic prototypes for various medical conglomerates.
He was unhappy. His old commanding officer, Colonel Hershem, was at his door. Hershem and he departed ways; they used to rub each other the wrong way. Despite that, they were a good team. When they booth retired five years ago from military, the engineering regiment they left needed four people to replace them.
He keyed the door. “Colonel, this is a surprise.”
“Glad to see you still aren’t lying, Kasarr. I note the absence of the word ‘pleasant’.”
“Well, whatever your reason for skulking on my stoop, it can’t be good.”
“Yes and no. Congratulations, by the way, on finishing your medical degree. I can imagine it wasn’t easy. And I hear this lab is quite prestigious.”
“Hit me with the good news first.”
“You’ve just guaranteed your lab funding for life.”
“Then the bad must be really bad.”
“Maybe. We’ve both been drafted.”
Commander Kasarr groaned.
“Do you know a human called Mendal Cheverous?”
“Yes. He invented medical goo. Very smart.”
“Huh. Well, apparently he has a project we will be working on.”
“What? Last time I heard he was retired. The human should even be dead. Medi-goo has been around for decades.”
“This comes all the way from the top, my man, all the way from the top. Central Core. You’re on his team, and I am to lead the support staff and bludgeon anyone who gets in our way. I don’t know what we’re working on but anytime one of these things happens recently it’s usually War related.”
Kasarr looked at the Colonel as if he sprouted wings and turned pink.
“That sounds bad.”
“That’s not the worse part.”
“Oh? What could possibly be worse?”
“Our location. We’ll be working in the colonies.”
“In tannie space.”
Kasarr groaned even louder.
Suddenly transports of every size started landing everywhere.
“These yokels are here to pack up your lab. It’s coming with us. All of it.”
“These MPs here are to escort your assistants home to pack their things. They are also coming with us.”
“And my things?
“Already on the ship.”
“You really hate me, don’t you Colonel?”
“For this? For your damn smarts and skills? Like the heat of a thousand burning suns.”
Kasarr grinned. “It’s good to see you again Colonel.”
The Colonel grinned back. “Shut up and let’s hit the liquor store while we can. The tannies have exceedingly bad taste in booze.”
Oh man, how could you not love these two? They are bit players in the novel they come from, but man, I could write about them for days.
Ever feel that way?
Previously on Hack Writer TV: Setting
There was a knock at the door. Juliana looked at the clock. 5:45 PM. Terrance was early. She went to the door to let him in.
“Hello Juliana. I brought you flowers.”
Juliana once again found it difficult to be mad at the man. Frequently an ass and completely mercenary, he was still a rogue and a charmer. Wearing jeans and a simple buttoned blue shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, he held a vase of yellow roses, and, wonders of wonders, was not wearing that damn gun of his.
“Oh those are lovely, Terrance, thank you.” She took the card and read it.
May your expanded bookstore be everything you wanted it to be. Sorry if my mouth got me in trouble. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Juliana had to fight back tears. The cad. Brute. Meanie. Why were all men so exasperating? Damn it.
She put back the card. “Bunny is in the kitchen.”
Terrance winked at her.
I hate men, thought Juliana, but she smiled to herself, suddenly remembering Terrance from so long ago. Her face suddenly felt hot, and she was glad he was walking in front of her.
In the kitchen, Bunny stopped chopping as Terrance put the flowers on the counter. Juliana noticed Terrance giving her daughter an appreciative glance, but she could not fault him for looking. Bunny was wearing the gray sweater-dress again, all slinky and warm looking, hair pulled back into a ponytail, a wholesome look she realized Bunny recently perfected.
“Oh! Those are pretty, thank you!” said Bunny as she snatched at the card and read it before Terrance could say anything.
Juliana saw Bunny’s eyes go wide and she was frowning. Bunny looked at Terrance then back to her.
Whoops, thought Juliana.
Oh, shit, was the thought written all over Terrance.
Bunny slammed down her knife on the cutting board. “Oh, I see. You won’t fuck me but you’ll give my mom flowers!” She burst into tears and ran from the kitchen, stomping up the stairs. “I hate men!” she yelled and then slammed her bedroom door.
“Ah hell. I suck,” said Terrance.
“My daughter is seventeen,” said Juliana. She sighed. “Thank you for not fucking my daughter. But you have angered Teh Bunnahe.“
Terrance sat down without prompting. “I’m just a guy. I don’t have a lot of experience with women, or even women friends.” He stood up. “I should go apologize.”
Juliana placed a hand on his arm. “Wait.”
This is a post worthy of study to the writer.
Courtney Summers’ book, Cracked Up to Be also is a good study. Her main character, complete with appalling behavior, was sympathetic almost immediately. She did this is a sneaky fashion. Courtney, let it be known, is sneaky.
But I digress. Creating sympathetic characters is, I am convinced in a “hack writer” kind of way, a non-trivial literary accomplishment.
The Experts tell us the books people like to read need to be show and not tell. In doing so, it is easy to form a character in our minds that is almost as real as an actual person. So we place these literary people in our book, yet, in the guise of rushing to and fro for momentum and plot, it is easy to leave off the parts we know, as the writer, that the reader does not know.
Such as, why one should care about the character in the first place.
This is why having a beta reader or two is so important. It is not an easy thing to realize a character is unsympathetic, not because she actually is, but because of an unintentional error storytelling.
Check out Lauren’s post!
In Your Little Sister, I have two supporting characters, Corporal Tiffany and Sergeant Brittney.
Yeah, I am having way too much fun with that one. It ought to be a crime.
Oh man, Your Little Sister cracks me up.