Wednesday, May 14, 2008

World's Biggest Wimp

I'm making progress on this round of revisions. Yesterday, I figured out how to rework a scene in a way that now makes it matter instead of just sitting there. The trick was to delete one of those "darlings" -- a bit of dialogue I really loved that the scene built to, but that really didn't need to be there, and its presence kept the scene from going in a better direction. Maybe I can fit it in elsewhere, but for now, it's out of there.

While I'm analyzing my weaknesses, I've discovered through my reading what may be my biggest challenge as a writer: I may be the world's biggest wimp. This occurred to me when I found myself struggling to read a children's book because it was too scary. Well, not so much scary as promising that bad things would happen. On a whim, I'd checked an omnibus edition of the first three Lemony Snicket books out of the library, since I'd heard a lot about them. I read the first one in one sitting, but then found that I almost couldn't bear to face the second one. When the narrator suggested that readers might want to put the book down now and tell themselves that things would work out okay because things were about to get really, really bad, I found myself actually putting the book down. It took me three days to read this children's book because I dreaded so much seeing what would happen next. I couldn't take seeing these characters suffer.

Which is weird, given that I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon, president and poster boy of the "put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them" school of writing. I love the way he takes characters to the brink, really testing their mettle, or else comes up with perfectly understandable motivations for doing the unforgivable, so that characters we love can do horrible things and we still love them. And I love the sense that no one is safe, that you can't count on all the characters surviving unscathed, which really raises the sense of tension. Maybe in the Lemony Snicket books my issue is that it involves children, or it's possible that I get frustrated by the fact that most of their problems stem from adults not listening to them rather than really being upset about the bad things happening.

(Though I have since discovered, after forcing myself the rest of the way through that second Lemony Snicket book and then reading the third in one sitting that part of the joke is that the reality of what happens in those books isn't nearly as dire as what is promised. And the bit about the adults not listening is really what it feels like to be a kid, so that's probably a big part of what makes the books so popular.)

While I was in the midst of struggling to get through a children's book that was freaking me out too much, I was also re-reading parts of The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, the book that takes the Joseph Campbell universal myth theories and applies them for modern storytelling. Vogler mentions that he saw the original Star Wars film at an advance screening, and the part that told him this was going to be a hit was the scene in the garbage masher, which maps to the "Inmost Cave/Ordeal" section of the universal myth plot -- the midpoint of the story. In that scene, Luke, our hero, gets dragged under water by the creature, there's some struggle, and then it goes silent. The moment is held just long enough to make the audience wonder if maybe Luke really is dead. You don't think they'll kill off the hero, but then you start to wonder if maybe there was a bit of misdirection, and one of these other characters is really the hero. And then just when you're really getting worried, he pops up again, re-born. Then almost immediately the walls start to converge, and all the characters are in jeopardy again, then there's the tease where you hear from C-3PO's point of view all the screaming, and he thinks they're dying instead of rejoicing. In a fairly short sequence, first the hero and then all the main characters are brought close enough to the brink of death that we can't help but wonder if they might actually die. That creates an incredible roller coaster of emotions and heightens the emotional involvement of the audience in the story.

And that's where my own wimpiness can hurt me because I may joke about torturing my characters (like with the end of book three), but I haven't really been willing to take them to that brink. Granted, what I write is generally classified as comedy, and you have different expectations there, but where I seem to be heading in my writing is in stuff that might be called fantasy with a lot of humor, and there I need to be a little bolder about being mean to my characters.

So I guess to toughen myself up, I need to read more children's books.

In other news, my blog touring continues. You can get a glimpse of my work environment at Jennifer Echols's blog.

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