Friday, 28 September 2012

Body Parts are not Characters

Earlier this week, I read a fabulous blog post by Janice Hardy, which can be found here:

In the post, Ms. Hardy talks about writing what you mean. As I was reading the examples given in the post, I was thinking to myself  "I don't write like that." Wrong.

Sentences like "my eyes followed him to the door" might sound good in context and might even be okay if only used once or twice in a full-length manuscript, but when read alone, sentences like that sound weak.

My undergraduate adviser once told our creative writing class "to put every word on trial." Sentences work the same way. Mind you, this should happen in the revision/editing process. If you agonize over every word or every sentences as you are writing, chances are you will mess with your flow and won't get much actual writing done. For me, it is easier to tell if a paragraph is not working, but sometimes a weak sentence in a paragraph is harder to spot within my own writing.

Taking Ms. Hardy's blog post into account, I went back to the opening chapters of Borrowed Time and found that I did have sentences in which the body parts were the characters, and I noticed something, it happened almost exclusively in "love scenes." I had written sentences like "his lips met mine," "his fingers raked through my hair," and "his thumb rubbed my cheek." Technically the point is made, but when read as individual sentences outside of the context of the paragraph, they seem weak--passive. The character, in this case Trevor, the narrator's boyfriend, is doing the action, so he should be credited as such. It was an easy to make the sentences more active. "He raked his fingers through my hair" etc. I kept "our lips met" for the time being, but again, in writing what you mean, the meaning is implied, aka they kissed, but the phrasing sounds like the lips met up for coffee or something. "Love scenes" are the hardest for me to write and as it is I keep it PG-13, but that is only to be true to my narrator. (The problem is in trying to keep it age-appropriate, the writing often gets cheesy as evidenced by the above sentences. This is something I'm working on.)

Speaking of being true to the narrator, I tend to write "plot-driven" pieces. I remember my adviser once told us our characters should dictate the plot, we shouldn't dictate their actions. This was not how I worked. Wasn't I supposed to be in control? Wasn't I supposed to decide/know where the book was going? I think there is a happy medium between plot-driven and character-driven. As a writer, I like to have a blueprint for the plot. I like to know where the story is going because frankly I find I loose motivation if I don't. I don't like wayward stories. That being said, a writer should know one's characters, specifically what motivates them, what they desire, etc. I was talking to a writing friend the other day who reminded me that J.K. Rowling can tell you the complete history of any of her characters. Obviously the woman is impressive and can write, but that's what I mean. She knows her characters, and while the plot was obviously painstakingly thought out, her characters stay true to themselves and act on what motives them.

While combing through the opening chapters of Borrowed Time, I found one instance of "body parts as characters" that I immediately revised. To set the scene, Shelby has recently found out that she is being sent to boarding school. Her best friend, Adrienne throws her a going away party, but at the party no one seems genuinely sad that Shelby is leaving. In fact, at the party, Adrienne puts the moves on Trevor, which  makes Shelby want to give the party a little show ( a dance with Trevor that both he and those watching wouldn't soon forget) and then leave. There was a sentence in this section to the effect of Shelby wanting to go find the beer and get drunk but her "feet led her to the car instead." I remember when I wrote this scene I was thinking that leaving a party was not necessarily true to character. If she wanted to get drunk, why she leave. She made that choice, not her feet. However, my remedy at the time was to try to think what Shelby's character would do next. Plot-wise, I needed to get her out of the party, but what would Shelby do? Well, Shelby would call the cops and report the party to get everyone else in trouble. As I was editing earlier this week, I gave myself a little pat on the back for letting my character "act," but I cringed at the part about her feet leading to the car. I don't normally include my writing in my posts, but here's the revised scene. (A note about the reference to Trevor's brother, he is a cop.)

I wanted to get wasted, really, really wasted that night, but after I danced with Trevor, I found myself heading to my car instead of to the spiked punch or beer. I needed to get out of that party.
At least beer would help me forget that Adrienne had crossed the line, but since I was sober, I decided to return the favor and cross a line too. I grabbed my phone out of my purse and hit the emergency call button.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Hi, I’d like to report underage drinking at 1545 Thatcher Drive. You should send the police right away,” I said and hung up.
My guess was Trevor’s brother would give him and Adrienne the head’s up as soon as the call came into the station. The two of them would get everybody out of the house, and they’d be fine. As for those leaving who may or may not get pulled over and breathalized, well, that was my parting gift to them. 

**Hope you enjoyed that little teaser. Lesson learned this week: we might know the rules of writing, but we might not always execute them.

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