Tag: Yours to Keep or Throw Aside

Death in a story

“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” – Norman Cousins

In my novels (Both The Lone Wolf that I’ve been working on for the past eighteen months, and A Handful of Wishes, my 2010 NaNoWriMo WiP), death plays a central role.  I don’t use it lightly – it’s there so my characters can learn and grow.  Each death serves a purpose, no matter how inconsequential it appears.

In that vein, I came across this advice for incorporating death in your stories:

One of the things that, for me, is a stopper in books is when someone dies and somehow all the ‘stuff’ that happens afterward is lost in the shuffle. The characters just go on with their lives as if nothing momentous has happened. Funerals or memorials are cursory. Just as in real life we seem to need that closure, so to do our characters. Besides, it is an added occasion to show what our characters, their friends and families are made of–what their characters are truly like in a time of loss, sorrow, or in some cases, ‘unnatural’ glee. Who’s concerned with the will? Who truly cares? Who is there to be seen. Were they buried or cremated? Were ashes flung from a bi-plane over Lake Michigan or scattered along a mountain stream? Were they kept in a hand-made wooden box or porcelain urn? Are they kept on the mantle in the drawing room or in a box in the basement? Were they tossed in the backseat on the drive from the funeral home, put in the trunk or seat-belted in the front seat? Do the characters talk to the urn? And if so, what is it that is said? There is much opportunity, in death, to explore the characters and their individual motivations.

Why roses, or daffodils or lilacs at a service? Is it a military funeral? Is it formal or not? Afterward, is it a wake or a party with folks sharing stories and memories? What happens as the liquor flows? Do embarrassing moments come up? Do we learn something about someone we didn’t know before? Do our characters stay ‘in character?’ Do we find out something important that is intrinsic to the ‘who’ that they are? Who can’t wait to get out of their heels and runs around barefoot? Who’s funeral suit doesn’t fit that well any more? Which character doesn’t ‘have’ appropriate clothing to wear in the first place and is everyone in black (or what-ever is the color in their culture) or dressed in bright, happy colors? Are there children there and if so, how are they behaving? Who is right in the middle of things and who is off on the side, at the outer edges of the gathering? Is there a huge crowd or just a few people? Are the people focused on what is happening or thinking about missed phone calls, meetings, or what will be happening next week? Are several people meandering around forming strategies on who will take over the family business and wondering how they can be sure it is them and not Uncle So-and-so? Is there a gathering in the church social room, a fancy restaurant or does everyone go back home? Do folks bring tons of food or do the central characters go home to an incredibly empty house? And of course, the whys behind the author’s choices.

How does this death change some of the characters? Does it change how they might go forward? Does it have an effect on future plans? Do they act differently now that they are no longer under the deceased’s thumb or no longer worrying about letting someone down or feeling free to go off in a new direction? It seems to me that a death in a book needs to serve a purpose or else why should the reader care that they died?

My first win!

A month or two ago, I wrote a short story for a contest. Prompt was for a first date.  There weren’t many entries, and the prize was just points for the website hosting the contest, but – I won!  Depending on how I do in the flash fiction contest, I might try to entire a contest every month or so.  Maybe even some with real prizes.

There was a debate on one of the writing sites about whether being a published short story author eases your chances of publishing a novel.  My story’s far from being sent to an agent (I realized I need to write the whole thing in first person POV, make the female MC stronger, and make her husband less of a jerk), but who knows.  Maybe in that time I could get a couple things published?

Giving in to conventional wisdom

Apparently my novel confuses the hell out of people.  Personally I like the different tone between Kasey’s and Andrew’s chapters, but if no one reading it does, then what I think doesn’t really matter, now, does it?

So, I’m giving in and rewriting Kasey’s chapters in 1st person present tense POV, instead of 3rd person past POV, to match Andrew’s.  Because let’s face it – Andrew is a much more interesting character than Kasey.  I’m also hoping that with 1st person she’ll appear more three-dimensional and readers will connect with her better.

Eight chapters to rewrite.  Looks like I’ll be busy for awhile.

The problem with novel writing

The problem with novel writing is that it takes so damn long.  I started the one I’m working on in the fall of 2009.  I had an idea for it, based on a song and a couple dreams that I’d linked together.  It evolved based on life experiences and perceptions, and I finished it in October 2010.  And now that I’m editing, things are changing that are coloring my perception of the novel.  The characters are the same but I’m not, and I have the big question – do I change the novel to reflect me, or do I let it stand and try to keep it how I would’ve written it 6 months ago?  Because right now the ending is perfect, absolutely fitting and perfect, but I’m not sure my characters now deserve it to end that way.

As I said in the previous post, Kasey isn’t me.  The other characters are fictional as well.  Gotta remember that.

Who my MC is, and who she isn’t

As I may have said before, character development is a struggle for me.  As I rewrite I learn more about my character, but recently something dawned on me that’s helped immensely – my MC (main character) Kasey isn’t me.  She has her own goals that are different from mine.  She has mannerisms that aren’t mine.  And she reacts in ways that aren’t the same as how I would.

This realization has greatly helped me.  Of course she wasn’t working because I wasn’t writing her as who she truly is.

So who is she?  One of the ways to figure this out is to find a character in a movie or an actor that portrays a character similar to what you want, and then study them.  I watched Michelle Williams in Me Without You and realized that was how I wanted Kasey to be.  So now I’m watching Michelle in all the movies I can find (meaning everything NetFlix has on-demand), to see what she does that’s similar to Kasey, to see what I can apply to my main character.

The other characters have been easier.  Andrew – I know Andrew.  “You maybe able to read me like an open book, but you’ll never know what page you’re on,” he told me.  I know Andrew, better than he knows himself.  I know he would be played by Alexander Skarsgard because of his role in Generation: Kill; his eyes were what hooked me, that haunted combat look that I know Andrew has.  As for David, my third main character, I haven’t found who would play him yet.  I’m not as concerned, as he doesn’t matter to the story quite as much as Kasey and Andrew.

So, if you’re stuck on a character, take a movie break.  You never know what you might learn.

The First Date

Another tip for character development – outtakes!  Write a short story using your main characters, and look at it as fulfilling a duel purpose – get to know your characters, and practice your writing skills.  Maybe even enter it in a short story contest or something.

In the first chapter of my novel the main characters reminisce about their first date.  When I came across an amateur writing contest requesting a 1500 words-or-less story about “a date which ended with a good night kiss, and how that came to be,” I realized that my characters’ date would work perfectly.  So, here it is, my first outtake.


       Kasey checked her watch again.  Seven-oh-eight.  David had said he would pick her up at seven.  Why was he late?  Maybe he’d spent too much time picking out the perfect shirt.  Maybe his car bad broken down.  Maybe he had found himself a more attractive date while driving across campus to pick her up.  Kasey gave herself a mental shake.  First dates always made her nervous.

         And then he was there, in front of her dorm, illegally parking an older Honda Civic next to the doors.  She hurried out to meet him before campus security noticed him.  Sometimes it seemed like they had a sixth sense for parking violations.

         “Wow, you look great!” David’s brown eyes took in every detail as she sat got in and pulled the door shut.

         “Thanks.” Kasey blushed and looked down at her hands in her lap.  She had picked a short black skirt, white silk camisole, and thin gray cardigan, with her dark thick hair pulled into a low ponytail.  David had been secretive about the restaurant so she had aimed for something that would work no matter where they went.

         “Is Italian okay?” David asked as he pulled away from the curb.

         “Yeah, that’s fine.  Anything beats the dining hall.”

         “At least it’s all-you-can-eat, which works great with the one-third rule.”

         “The one-third rule?”

         “Yeah, one-third of the stuff you put on your plate is edible.”

         Kasey chuckled.  “True.”

         “I’m glad you said yes.”  David reached over and squeezed her hand, then quickly put his back on the steering wheel.

         “What do I have to lose?”  She grinned at him.  “It’ll work out or it won’t; either way I’m getting a free meal.”

         David pulled into the parking lot of Carducci’s, a small upscale Italian restaurant.  Kasey was impressed; most college guys she had dated were more the Olive Garden type.  As the waiter led them to a candle-lit table in a secluded alcove, Kasey mentally promoted David to a new league far above the others.

         “How’d you get this table?” she asked him.  It was a Friday night and the restaurant was packed.

         “Can’t a guy have his secrets?”  He grinned at her.  

         They made small talk as they ate the freshly-baked bread and roasted garlic and waited for the main course to arrive.  Kasey worked at their university library between classes as a way to earn extra money, and David, as a pre-law student, spent a substantial amount of time in the building.  His casual flirting as he checked out materials had gradually grown into long conversations, and finally he had asked her out to dinner.

         As they finished the bread, the conversation died.  Kasey tried to think of something to say, something interesting, but nothing came to mind.  This was just David, she told herself, the same guy she talked to all the time at the library.  But somehow being in the restaurant, on an actual date, transformed him into someone else, someone foreign to her.

         David, perhaps sensing the growing awkwardness as well, regarded her seriously.  “It’s at this point in a date that I have to ask you a very important question, a question that will determine our compatibility and, ergo, whether there’ll be a second date.”

         Kasey swallowed hard.  She liked David and didn’t want to mess things up.

         “The big question: Batman or Superman?”

         “Batman.”  No hesitation.

         David exhaled.  “Good answer!  You really had me nervous on that one.”

         Kasey threw her straw wrapper at him.  “You’re a jerk sometimes, you know that?”

         “Yeah, but it only adds to my charm.”  He grinned and she shook her head, helpless to keep from smiling back.

         At that moment their food arrived.  David had ordered shrimp scampi, and Kasey the house lasagna.  As the waiter climbed the few steps to their alcove he tripped, spilling his tray of food onto Kasey’s lap.  She gasped as the food stained her clothes, then reddened to the color of the sauce as she realized the entire restaurant had turned their eyes to her.

         David jumped up.  “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he forcefully demanded of the waiter.  “How could you be so clumsy?”

         “I apologize, sir,” stammered the waiter.  “It was an accident!”

         “My date’s outfit is ruined!”

         “It’s fine, David,” Kasey said, knowing full well that the white shirt, at least, would never come clean.  “Please sit down.”

         “No, it’s not fine.  We come here expecting high standards, and having our dinner dumped on your lap is not part of that!”

         “I swear, sir, it was an accident!” The waiter dabbed at the edge of Kasey’s lap with a napkin, and she swatted his hand away, preferring her own administrations over those of a stranger.

         “Be that as it may,” David continued in a loud voice, “her clothes are ruined!  Something will need to be done about that!”

         “I’m trying, sir!”  The waiter, near to tears, again attempted to wipe off Kasey’s skirt, and she again swatted him away.

         A short balding man approached the table, hands clasped in front of him.  “I am so sorry!” he said in a heavy Italian accident.  “This should not have happened.  Lucas, run and tell the chefs to remake their meals as quickly as possible.”

         The waiter dashed off, relief visibly written on his face.

         The bald man turned back to Kasey and David.  “Of course, sir and madame, we strive for the best possible dining experience.  Your meal tonight will be on the house.”

         “Thank you, sir,” said Kasey.  The other patrons were still watching her table closely.  She wished they would focus on their food rather than the spectacle that her date had become.

         David remained standing, jaw clenched.  “David, sit down please,” she told him.

         “What about her clothes?” He waved his hand at Kasey.  At that point she had managed to clean the chunks of food off her lap, although an enormous red stain remained.

         “That is unfortunate, sir.  Would you like me to have your meal put in a box for you?”

         “No, I would not like it boxed.  Her clothes are ruined because of your waiter.  I want you to pay for the drycleaning bill.”

         “Sir, as I said, the accident is unfortunate, but you are getting the meal for free.”

         “David, it’s fine.  Please sit down.”

         “No, it’s not fine!  I want Mr. Carducci here to pay for the drycleaning!”

         “Sir, I must object…”

         “Really, it’s fine. Really.”

         “No, it’s not.  Pay for the drycleaning.”

         “David!” Kasey pleaded as his voice grew louder.  She wondered if she would fit under the table.

         “Please, sir…”

         “Is this how you treat your customers?”

         Kasey leaned her forehead on her hand and groaned softly.  She could feel the eyes of everyone in the restaurant upon her.  She wanted to melt onto the floor.

         The bald man sensed it as well.  “Very well, sir.  Send us the drycleaning bill and we’ll pay it as well.”

         “Thank you.”  David smiled and sat down.  “Could we get some more bread while we’re waiting for our food?”

         Kasey was quiet on the drive back to her dorm.  As soon as possible she wanted to change into pajamas, fall asleep, and pretend that night had never happened.

         “That didn’t turn out quite like I’d hoped,” said David as he pulled up to the doors of her building.

         “Well, I guess it’s a small relief that you didn’t plan for me to wear dinner.”  Kasey gave him a weak smile.

         “I did however have this planned.”  He leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips.  She closed her eyes, delighting in the warmth that spread through her body.  He gently placed his hand on her cheek and pulled her closer to him.

         She didn’t know if the kiss lasted a second or a minute; she just only knew that David’s lips felt perfect on hers and she didn’t want him to stop kissing her.

         The moment was over too soon, however, as seemed to be the case for most perfect kisses.  A tap on the window broke them apart.  David turned away from Kasey, regretfully it seemed, and rolled down his window.

         “Sir, you can’t park here,” said the security guard standing next to the car.

         “Alright, fine, I’m almost done,” David told him.

         “For tonight.”  Kasey smiled.  “Should we try burgers tomorrow?”

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