Thursday, January 24, 2008

More on Resonance

First, a public service announcement: I know there are a lot of Chuck fans around here, and for whatever reason that makes sense only in the mind of a network programmer (who may actually be a crack-addled squirrel with a dartboard), NBC is showing the last two episodes of Chuck that were produced pre-strike tonight. One episode is at 7 Central time and the other is at 9 Central time, with some reality show in between (a good time to switch over to the CW for a pretty good rerun of Supernatural).

It's cold and sunny today, and I really hate cold, sunny days. They just seem wrong to me, somehow. Maybe it's the cognitive dissonance -- it looks like it should be warm, so it's a real disappointment to find out it's cold. I think there's also something about the blue sky that gives the feeling of cold and emptiness, while clouds give the feeling of a blanket. On a cold, cloudy day, it feels right to curl up under a blanket with a pot of tea and read or write, but on a sunny day I feel like I should be doing something more, even if it is cold. We're supposed to have freezing rain tomorrow, so I guess I only have to put up with one day of it. I hope it doesn't totally throw off my productivity. Then the weekend is supposed to be warmer and sunny, so I may even leave the house.

Meanwhile, last night I managed to continue my ongoing quest to add more interesting scars to my hands and wrists when I had a minor dispute with some hot oil while cooking (it didn't like having cubed meat dropped into it). It's only first-degree burns -- redness but no blistering -- but you can see where each little drop of oil hit. Last night it was really stinging, but today it doesn't hurt unless something rubs against the burns. Unfortunately, they're just at the spot on the side of my wrist where the cuff of my sweatshirt sleeve hits. I normally wouldn't cover burns like this, but I doubt that the constant abrasion of a sleeve is good for them. The challenge is that it's a spatter pattern, and there's no one Band-Aid big enough to cover all the burns without the adhesive hitting one spot (ouch), and even with smaller bandages, the adhesive from covering one burn would cover another. I resorted to several of those little spot bandages and then one bigger one that covers the biggest burn, with the adhesive going over the other bandages. It looks funny, but it doesn't hurt. I don't know if it will scar since there aren't any blisters, but if it does, it will be a really funny-looking scar and will join the IV scars on the backs of both hands, the jagged little lumpy scar on one wrist from a childhood playground mishap and the puckered arch across the pad of my thumb from a dispute with a can opener (really, the fight was more with the can -- the can won -- but it was started by an ineffective can opener). On the up side, with burns on one hand, I probably shouldn't plunge my hands into hot water, so I can put off doing dishes with no guilt.

Back to yesterday's topic, the list of things that resonate with me in stories ... I want to make it clear that this isn't meant to be a value judgment. This wasn't a list of things I think are "good," and things that aren't on this list aren't necessarily "bad" (and my one little rant that sounded like a "this is bad" thing was about a hugely bestselling book that people gush about and that really seems to resonate emotionally with huge numbers of people, so my idea of "bad" certainly isn't universal). This is just a list of things that are likely to make me grab a book, watch (and maybe even become obsessed with) a TV show or go to a movie, and they're the aspects of stories that I seem to really get into, and this isn't my complete list. There are plenty of other things I could enjoy perfectly well that aren't on this list. They just aren't elements where the very idea of them gets me excited. Everyone is going to have a different list, and there is no right or wrong. Since most of you are here because you either like my books or you like my blog, we're probably going to have more elements in common than you'd find if you did this exercise at a multi-genre writing conference, but there will still be individual differences.

I was asked what you're supposed to do with this list once you've made it. The point the author of the book was making with this exercise is that the best story ideas come from the inside out. A lot of would-be writers make the mistake of trying to develop ideas from the outside in. They set out to write the Great American Novel or Screenplay -- something Deep and Meaningful they think they should write -- or else they come from the other angle and try to write something in a hot genre that's likely to make the most money. The result is something soulless. Even picking a genre because that's what you like isn't a great idea. You'll get a story that you're more likely to put your heart and soul into if you work from topics that mean something to you and that get you excited. You're also more likely to get something that feels original when you're working from the inside out because the things that speak to you are going to be different from anyone else, and the ways they speak to you and the reasons they speak to you are also going to be different.

I wasn't doing it consciously, but that's sort of how I came up with the idea for Enchanted, Inc. I'd been reading the Harry Potter books, really identifying with Hermione and wishing there was something like that about grownups instead of school kids. From the outside in, if I'd set out to write the next Harry Potter, it might have seemed derivative. I might have been stuck mentally in the school setting, with the trio of friends, etc. But what I found myself doing was thinking of the things I wanted to read about -- I love New York, so that was my setting. I'd dealt too much with the corporate world, and there was much I wanted to mock there, so that got me totally away from the school idea. Meanwhile, I loved how chick lit books always seemed to offer up a menu of potential love interests, with some of the suspense of the book being which guy she'd pick. All the little things I put into that idea were elements that grabbed me as a reader, so it was distinctively my book and not something I was trying to fit into any particular mold. If I took this approach of looking at the things I love, I bet I could even write a book about magic set in a school that would be entirely unlike Harry Potter because even though those books contain a lot of the things I'm drawn to, there are a lot of other things that matter more to me.

Most writers do this instinctively, but it doesn't hurt to have the occasional reminder of why you write in the first place. I know from experience that when you get worried about your next contract, it becomes way too tempting to work from the outside in and try writing something because it's hot in the market.

When I finish reading this book and working through the exercises, if I like the rest of it I'll talk about it in more depth.

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