Well … it’s been a while. March brings some difficult anniversary dates for me and solitude has always been my best remedy. A week into April, things are beginning to feel different, better, brighter, in more ways than one. Anyone who has ever lived in the Midwest, namely Michigan this winter, knows what I’m talking about. I do love winter, but am so happy to say hello to spring. And to upcoming summer concerts!
In the past few weeks I’ve made plans to attend three fantastic concerts this summer, and am still reeling from the excitement of today. This morning my concert wing-woman Ann snagged us fantastic seats to see Jack White, and the high I’m currently on is amazing. I’m sure the thrill will mellow a bit over the course of the next few months until July, but the anticipation in and of itself is, in some ways, just as exciting as waking up the day of the concert. Because between now and then, for roughly the next ninety days, and then another twenty or so until we see Thirty Seconds to Mars and Linkin Park, I’ve got oodles of new and well loved music to listen to while I’m writing.
Words and music are inseparable to me. I’m sure it’s a result of teenage study marathons in my bedroom with one record album after another playing on the turntable. I had all the greats for a kid growing up in the seventies and eighties: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. John Cougar Mellencamp’s American Fool. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Duran Duran, INXS, Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin. Too many to name. Any free time between homework and the plethora of teenage obligations I must have had was spent writing for pleasure. Short stories, song lyrics, novel beginnings with high hopes. The constant in all of that, more than any specific writing tool, space, method, or habit was music in the air. I’m sure that’s why I must have a soundtrack playing in the background now when I write.
My playlist changes all the time. It changes depending not just on what scene I’m writing, but what mood I’m in that particular day or moment, and what mood my characters are in. And it changes with each novel I write. It’s funny that my current work in progress has already necessitated some Jack White as well as Thirty Seconds to Mars. Music addict that I am, after getting my TSTM concert tickets I immediately purchased and incorporated a ton of their songs into my playlist and they just flow seamlessly along with the writing. No need to purchase any Jack White, as I own almost everything the man has released in his various incarnations, and what I don’t have, my good friend Ann does; she’ll let me borrow in exchange for brownies (a blog post for another day: the great importance of coffee and chocolate as additional writing tools).
I realize that my passion for music, especially live music, isn’t something that is felt by everyone. That makes me feel even luckier. The love of music in multiple genres can be traced back to my dad, a high school teacher whose den was stocked with shelves of literary classics I devoured and two huge cabinets of musical classics he shared with me—sometimes against my will! I am a true product of my environment. Before starting my own collection, the music in the air of my childhood was The Beatles, The Moody Blues, Bob Seger (also a Detroiter, like Jack White, something my dad made sure I knew), Led Zeppelin, George Winston, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Roger Whitaker, ABBA … should I go on? The groundwork was laid before I turned ten. The common theme in every piece of music I fell in love with was the story inside. I know now that as I’ve aged, I haven’t really grown up. I haven’t really changed. Not so much. The best songs, my favorites today, are still the ones that tell a story.
Jack White is a great story teller. So is Eminem—another Detroit native and also in my current playlist. The stories don’t have to have a happy ending, a moral, a lesson, or even be complete tales. Sometimes the story exists without a single word; the words are there, hidden, spoken through the music. The stories are a glimpse, a hint at the human experience, at life through someone else’s eyes. They make us feel. That’s it. Just feel … something. Something powerful, insightful, impactful. Set against a really beautiful or rocking or haunting melody, could there be any better way to tell a story? And, to revisit the idea of live music, seeing the artists who wrote the story singing and playing their hearts out on stage is pretty much the best thing ever. The feelings stirred by those songs--those odd combinations of words and music organized into a three minute masterpiece we can’t get out of our head--those feelings are magnified a thousand times when we get to hear the artist tell us his story in person. Words and music.
My favorite part of the writing process is character development. My story ideas always originate with people. In The Fall of Our Secrets, there are two main characters: Laura and Nicole. They are different from each other in many ways, but have a common history and an unbreakable friendship. Before I ever had an inkling of what would happen in the book, I only had Laura and Nicole. As I got to know them in my mind, I began to see the details of their lives. This is how it is with each of my books.
I am not a plotter, at least not at the beginning. Of course I know what the story will be about, occasionally I even have an overall theme. Somewhere around 10,000 words in, I do step back and spend quite a bit of time constructing the story beyond what is already in my head. Sometimes this entails reworking what I've already put down in print—which is okay. Even discarded words and sections are useful, because they've done their job at that point in helping bring the characters to life for me. Of course I know the direction of the story: I have a beginning and an end, and an idea of what possible routes will lead me there. The fun is in the journey. And in getting to know the people with whom I’m traveling.
There’s a quote in On Writing by Stephen King. On Writing was a gift from my dad, who knew that I’d entertained the idea of writing for ages and just wanted me to start. I devoured that book years ago, before The Fall of Our Secrets was even an idea. At the time, I understood the concepts of good fiction, but more as a reader than a writer. We all know what works for us, what keeps us up late at night turning pages when we know the alarm clock will wake us far too early. It has taken finishing my own novel to really understand his words. King feels that “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible… Knowing the story wasn't necessary for me to begin work. I had located the fossil. The rest, I knew, would consist of careful excavation.” What an exhilarating feeling to know I get it. I actually get it. Exhilarating in part, I think, due to years of being trained to outline outline outline before ever daring to put pen to paper. As a liberated, tad-rebellious adult, I have learned that not everyone writes—creates—in the same way. As I said, I do use a loose outline. It gets tighter as the manuscript progresses. And it always revolves around the characters and what would be normal behavior for them, behavior that is already a vital piece of their established personalities.
Nothing bugs me more than reading a book or watching a movie and the protagonist (or antagonist) suddenly takes a hard right and does something completely out of character. There goes my suspension of disbelief; the spell is broken, and from that point on I don’t believe in the story quite the way I did before. Because it’s so important to know my characters, to know their innermost thoughts and what drives them, I find it necessary to climb inside their world for a while as I’m writing. I need to see things through their colored glasses—we all wear them. Each and every one of us sees the world through variations of the same glass, all depending on our experiences, our journey so far. In creating the characters in my books, I’ve noticed that they are all a little bit me, until they aren’t anymore. Every one of them. Some have only a small element of me, some lose that element of me by the second chapter, and some retain an aspect or two of me through to the end. Many times my characters are composites of people I’ve known, but in some way or another, in order to write them, I have to identify with them.
This is usually easy. It comes down to empathy. Even if I have never experienced something one of my characters is going through, you can bet I have a friend or family member who has, or who has known someone who has. Some of the situations my characters get into are ones I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Some of the situations are wonderful, fantastic, and as I live vicariously through my characters I know this is one of the greatest perks of making up my own fictional worlds. Either way, I am always mindful of making sure that the people in my stories behave in accordance with the character I’ve developed them to be. Sometimes they surprise me—but then, sometimes in life people surprise us! Sometimes I find my characters taking my plot and running off in a different direction with it. I’ve found the best thing to do when this happens is to follow them and see where things go. Maybe we’ll backtrack and get on course again. But, if it serves the end result well, maybe we’ll just take that little detour.
Physical appearance definitely comes secondary to the moment a character pops into my head. For instance, The Fall of Our Secrets began with Laura. She is the grounding force in this book, the everywoman, if you will. I knew her the moment I met her. It took sitting down and uncovering her backstory, fleshing out her life experiences and the little things—hopes, insecurities, strengths and weaknesses—that play into our choices and actions on a daily basis, for me to form a picture of her. Once I had an image in mind, I could write her. Having this image in mind makes it easier to communicate to the reader who Laura is, what she looks like, and why she behaves the way she does. I don’t think any of us enjoy reading an entire paragraph or more describing a character’s physical appearance. Even if it’s a really hot character. I always find it better to drop clues here and there, let the reader form their own image as they meet the character and get to know him or her. I’m sure Laura will look different in your mind than in mine, and that’s exactly the way it should be.
I fall in love with my characters. I worry about them, dream about them, suffer their failures and celebrate their successes. I have no choice but to create worlds around them full of depth and emotion, because I must do right by them. Anything less would be lazy and pointless. When we’ve reached the end of our time together, I am left sated and fulfilled…and I miss them so much when they’re gone. I hope you feel the same.