Characters Drive Plot: We Are Exeter Update

If you’ve been watching the progress meter in the sidebar, you know I’m almost done profiling the selection of Exeter characters who will appear in We Are Exeter. 🙂 For me, there have been a lot of unexpected bonuses in doing these.

WAE listI knew I’d get a chance to dig into characters I’d thought of for various stories, such as another classmate of Dan, Evan and Liz who returns to Exeter. You’ll see her in a short story at some point this year.

I knew I’d have a chance to flesh out characters who will appear in Books 2, 3 and 4 but weren’t much more than a name before I sat down to work on this.

I didn’t realize that a character I thought I was done with would insist on showing me, through that character’s answers to the questions in the Q&A portion, that this character’s not done. Far from it. The repercussions of the role this character is demanding are going to resonate throughout Exeter.

I still have eight of the 27 profiles to polish off — my project for today, at least until it’s time to go enjoy corned beef and cabbage. (I must admit, I’ve never had them.) Who knows what surprises will show up in the remaining eight profiles?

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Om Namah Shivaya: Creation Through Destruction

This afternoon, Bill at The Bookcast was asking me about All That Is Necessary, and I had to point out that I’d written the first draft of the book set entirely in 1991. It didn’t work like that. (Kyrie had to force her way through it.) So I ended up scrapping large portions of the draft to create an entirely new story, one set mostly present-day, with less than a dozen 1991 interludes.

The story is stronger and more compelling for it.

Often, that’s what we need to do with our writing and our life. We have to tear down what exists, even if it’s perfectly serviceable, to make room for something new to blossom. Kyrie and I were talking about that some over the weekend, as she prepares to go back to school more than 20 years after graduating from college. Beyond that, she could be relocating just a couple of years after she finally moved “home.” It’s scary, but the degree will open doors for her dream that she can’t attain any other way. She just has to tear down a lot of her existing life to do it.

Sometimes, these changes are our choice. We consciously decide to make a change, to take that leap of faith. Other times, circumstances decide for us. I did my yoga teacher training at a time when I wasn’t sure newspapers and journalism jobs would be around in a year or two. I needed a Plan B. That process opened my heart and mind. It’s where I first encountered the Om Namah Shivaya mantra.

Shiva is the Destroyer in Indian mythology. I was fortunate enough to see a number of historical depictions of Shiva on Saturday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a small special exhibit. Shiva is always depicted covered in ash, a metaphor, I suppose, for the destruction that accompanies his role in our lives. And yet, the translation of Om Namah Shivaya is quite different. This call to Shiva translates many ways, but my favorite is “We celebrate the dance of energy that is creation.”

We call to the Destroyer to celebrate creation. We do so because often the only way we can make space to create something new is to destroy what’s there. In 2009, that philosophy helped me come to terms with the possible destruction of newsrooms and journalism. I came to accept, even embrace, that if I was laid off, it was just the opportunity to open the door to a new path, whatever that would be.

I kept my job, and I’m still there, still enjoying it. But my decisions during those uncertain months took me down paths of self-discovery through yoga and brought me back to writing fiction, something I’d abandoned a few years earlier. It wasn’t the last time I would rely on Om Namah Shivaya as a guiding principle. Even today I think about life’s possibilities and recognize that to open myself to something new, I might have to give up a place where I’m comfortable. Moving out of our comfort zones and balancing on the edge is both terrifying and liberating — sometimes even at the same time. By nature, we often play it safe and err on the side of inertia. We’re not willing to destroy to make space for a new creation. But when we take that leap of faith, when we step out into the abyss without knowing where our next footstep will land, we make room for the next stage in our lives to blossom and grow.

#LegitLit and Writing on the Ether

My post on serious fiction from the other day is mentioned pretty extensively in this week’s Writing on the Ether over at Jane Friedman’s blog. Porter Andersonether grab responds to my commentary on his thoughts last week. Agreeing in some places and disagreeing in others, Porter weaves my comments through the intro to his usual astute analysis of the latest developments in the publishing industry.

Serious Fiction and #LegitLit: Creating a Hybrid Home

Print vs. Ebook

Traditional vs. Indie

Genre vs. Literary

Serious vs. Fluff?

Critics, readers and writers all like debating about fiction and where it’s going. One interesting sidelight to the Traditional/Indie debate has been the discussion about what works in print versus in ebook. Some genres are hugely popular in ebooks. Erotica leads the way — no covers to hide from people while reading in public — but romance, supernatural and other popular genres also do well in ebooks. Meanwhile, literary fiction doesn’t. Unless it’s popular literary fiction — akin to what Don Maass has dubbed 21st Century Fiction — and then it does well in both print and ebooks.

Blogger and critic Porter Anderson has been talking recently about the rise in “shirtless” fiction — romance, romance and more romance. For Porter, it’s akin to the 25-cent paperbacks people can buy by the bag at library book sales and used book stores. Easily read, easily discarded. He’s been pushing what he’s calling #legitlit and #seriousfiction — stories that make you think. Is that literary fiction? That might depend on who you ask.

My books always end up tagged as literary — despite the Irish mob’s presence — because they aren’t genre. I was talking with Mollie Cox Bryan in person for the first time this weekend at a book signing, and she had thought my new book (All That Is Necessary) was a mystery. Logical assumption, given the body count, but wrong. I’d like to think the Exeter books fall into Porter’s Legit Lit category: books that make you think and make you go deeper than the surface.

It’s an interesting distinction, and one Calen Spindler and I touched on briefly in a recent Facebook discussion about writing. She made a comment about writing pure entertainment, and then came back later to say that as much as she jokes about that, she does try and weave serious themes through her work.

I’m not sure I try to so much as that’s what comes out of my brain. For me, telling a layered story with strong characters is key. When a friend recommended Doris Lessing’s books to me recently, he said she’s one of his favorite authors because, “She’s one of those authors that makes me not want to read another book for a long time because there’s always a lot to absorb and reflect upon.” While my books don’t belong in the same breath as Lessing’s, that idea of providing a lot for a reader to absorb and reflect upon is probably the best expression I’ve heard for what I try to do when I tell stories. And I think it’s maybe the best way I can think of to define Porter’s concept of “serious fiction.”

Those books that have enough depth and meaning that we find ourselves reflecting on the book, the characters and the story in the hours, days and weeks that follow, those are serious fiction, or #legitlit. There’s nothing in that definition that excludes books that fall into a genre category. Calen’s writing, in fact, is supernatural. To go back to Don Maass’ idea of 21st Century Fiction, the books he’s talking about are the ones that take the best from the genre and literary worlds. That puts them into the serious fiction category almost by definition, and yet many can be commercial successes.

Those aren’t easy books to write. To make them easy to read, or at least engaging enough to pull readers along through the story, takes a certain skill as a writer. That’s one reason I like Porter’s “serious fiction” and #legitlit descriptions more than literary. Literary often involves playing with language in ways that are artistically pleasing, but perhaps veer too far into experimental for most people. And genre has taken on a connotation that is the opposite of serious fiction. More and more there are books out there that don’t fall into either category. If more people adopt the “serious fiction” category, maybe we can start to build a new genre.

Cross-Pollinating Among Writing, Art and Music

I already had plans to be in DC today, but after yesterday’s tragedy, it was a much-needed break. Updating the story online all day was difficult as more details came out and the story got worse.

My original plans were just to have brunch with a friend and visit the National Building Museum to see two new photography exhibits there. The exhibits were stunning, especially the photo of birch trees growing out of rotting books on the top floor of the old (now crumbling) Detroit Public Schools Book Depository. I was going to spend the rest of the afternoon there, but something sent me back toward Archives/Navy Memorial. I ended up at the National Gallery — always a favorite — and figured I’d stop in for a quick look at the Monets. On my way to the Impressionism section, I heard music in the rotunda and discovered the Xavarian High School boys choir from Brooklyn was performing Christmas carols.

Xaverian HS choir from Brooklyn, N.Y., performing at the National Gallery.

Xaverian HS choir from Brooklyn, N.Y., performing at the National Gallery.

I settled down on the floor and listened. I don’t usually decorate for Christmas because I spend all the time around it at work covering for vacations, and the warm weather this year hasn’t been screaming “Santa!” “Reindeer” “Christmas.” Once done, I ended up spending the rest of the afternoon wandering the two buildings and looking at both old favorites and artists I’m not usually inclined to view.

The East Building had a Roy Lichtenstein exhibit, including one room with his Masters series, an homage to various artists such as Picasso. Among the pieces were two series that riffed off of Monet’s Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral paintings, among my favorites of Monet’s work. Seeing how Lichtenstein turned them around into his own style of pop art got me thinking of an early scene with Chris in the book coming out next month. That led me to Becca, Exeter’s artist.

As I finished exploring the museum with Becca in the back of my mind, I started to realize some things about her I hadn’t before, at least consciously. Subconsciously, though, I must have because her actions at one point in her life — which I’ve always known without ever exactly knowing why — are consistent with my epiphany today. Beyond that, though, I feel like I got a better grasp of her just from being in an environment that is in her wheelhouse. It’s the same way I feel more connected to Dan when I dig into historic preservation.

I had a similar experience this summer when I went to the Staunton Music Festival. Although classical chamber music (including some instruments I’d not heard of before) is about as far away from what jazz trombonist Chris prefers as possible, just being in that environment helped me get into his head more deeply than I had before.

Beyond the character connections, though, just experiencing other forms of creative expression always seems to root me more deeply in writing and help me move to a new level in whatever I’m working on. Both art and music use different parts of my brain than writing does, and that cross-pollination always makes a difference. At least it does for me.

Fifty Shades and Profiting Off Fanfic

The Associated Press had a story a few days ago about how Fifty Shades of Grey has its own fanfiction now, and it was a pretty interesting story. It brought to mind a rant on a fan fic rant community I saw recently where somebody was pointing out that a Twilight fic labeled as a Fifty Shades AU was pretty much like dividing by zero.

One of the points the AP story hit on was the issue some people have with the idea of “file off the serial numbers” fanfiction being published (and sold) as original fiction. Since I know some authors who have done this, I generally don’t express my opinion all that loudly, but if it’s a topic even AP is writing about…

I’ll be the first to admit when it comes to fanfiction I have lots of rules and lines that other people don’t. I don’t like original characters beyond the villains/incidentals/known family members category. I don’t like AUs. I don’t like traveling to oddball locations because the author knows them. (This does not mean in younger days I didn’t do any of those things, but I’d prefer to burn those stories now.) Both of those are because Continue reading

Writer Yoga: See the World Through The Right Lens

In my first yoga teacher training that really touched on the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, one of the other trainees mentioned advice her stepfather, who had terminal cancer, had once given her.

Four versions of the same photo using different filtering effects“We see the world through the lenses we CHOOSE to wear.”

A simple statement, but one that has stuck with me ever since. It’s a great reminder about how our past history and experiences can color our outlook on life. In these days of political polarization, we see it all the time. People hold one opinion and use that to define everything else they see.

It’s the difference between the perception that a person is shy vs. standoffish, or that somebody is mean vs. stressed, having a bad day vs. out to get you. It explains how you can say one thing to me and I can hear something totally different. And it’s key to defining characters.

If you haven’t read Thrown Out, there might be a spoiler or two here, but it’s the best writing example I have. Dan and Chris Continue reading