Thursday, April 22, 2010

A … trapped in a writer's body

by Bill

What is the most difficult scene you've ever had to write?

The last one? The next one?

And how did I get through it?

With the crying and the procrastination and the ice cream sandwiches.

But on a more serious note, I find there are different kinds of difficult scenes. For me, the most common struggle is also the most mundane. It's that getting from here to there stuff, the transitions between scenes. The good news is often the best transition is no transition at all. Just skip the interstitial hooey and get on with it. My problem is I rarely recognize what's hooey until after I've struggled through walking down the front steps, out to the car, fumbling with the keys, driving off, turning left at the light, then right at the Pizza Palace, then …

Yeah, you get it. Booooor-ing. Ergo, Baleeted!

The other kind of trouble comes when my reach exceeds my grasp. This is likely a familiar problem for many writers. I suspect it's a rare author of serial killer thrillers who is also a serial killer. (I hope.)

But there's always that whole research and imagination thing, so somehow we trundle along. Arguably, the act of writing (and any other kind of creation) is always an act of reaching beyond ourselves. While I don't think every scene we write should be the challenge of our creative lives, I do think if it isn't hard, perhaps we're not doing it right.

In Day One, among the goals I set for myself were to write from the point of view of a young woman and to write from the point of view of a teenage boy. Both offered challenges, but of course writing as a young woman was the greater reach. At least there was a time in my life when I was a teenage boy. I even remember those days sometimes. Especially when I watch The Breakfast Club for the umpteenth time. (Did anyone's high school life ever feature a cool dance montage, because mine never did. Damn it.)

Turned out the boy was a lot harder to write than the young woman. This did not surprise me. Years and years ago, I wrote a scene in which a woman gives birth after a long, difficult labor. The scene wasn't easy (I'm kinda the polar opposite of a woman giving birth after a long, difficult labor), but it turned out to be not as tough as I thought it would be.

At its core, I believe good story telling is about empathy, and I believe we strengthen our empathy the way we strengthen anything else: through practice and use. The question is then why I find it easier to empathize with females than males, at least to the extent that I can winnow my way into the voice of these female characters more readily than the males.

I'm not suggesting I somehow figured out how to practice being a woman in labor. (I'm not this guy.) I suspect the reason is related to why I find those mundane transitional scenes (including those I don't subsequent baleet) so difficult. It's a matter of familiarity.

A friend and world traveler once told me he found it easier to adjust and feel comfortable in places which were the most foreign to him. He grew up in Ohio and began traveling as an adult. "Vietnam and Cairo and are easier for me than Toronto, which is just familiar enough that my assumptions get often the better of me. In a city half a world away where I have no shared language or cultural touchstones I have no assumptions to fall back on."

Something similar is at work with me when I write. 13-year-old Eager Gillespie is just familiar enough to me as a former 13-year-old boy that it's easy for me to forget he's still very different not only from who I am now but from who I was then. In contrast, I have no illusions about my understanding of Ellie Spaneker. It goes without saying I'm going to have to do a lot of work to develop a sense of who she is and how to express her feelings, values and experiences on the page.

In the end, the trick is not to make assumptions about any of my characters. Skin Kadash is an adult male not much older than me who lives not far from where I live. But he's not me, any more than Eager or Ellie or any of the other characters I've created over the years. With all of them, I need to find a way to empathize with who they are, not who I assume they might be.

To help celebrate my joinage of Criminal Minds, I'm giving stuff away. Here is me holding galley copy of my next book, Day One, due out in June from Tyrus Books. Anyone who comments on this post or on my April 8th entry will be entered into a random drawing to win this galley. The drawing will take place on April 25. I'll also throw in a few Day One tchotchkes to the winner, including one super secret prize. In fact, I'm leaning toward TWO prize winners, cuz why not? So say hello for your chance to win.

I will announce the winners on both my Twitter stream and in the comments here on this entry on Sunday, April 25th.


Elisabeth Black said...

Strongbad reference FTW!

I was like "yes!" the whole last six paragraphs. And also the parenthetical bit in the bottom of the seventh.

Great post.

Bill Cameron said...

Life has far too few cool dance montages.

CKHB said...

Does it count if I had a cool dance montage in college? Does it count if the dance montage was basically five of us reenacting the Breakfast Club scene? And none of us were drunk or high, go figure...

Bill Cameron said...

That counts. I think. Though, . . . NERD!

Sophie Littlefield said...

my 14YO and her friends are working their way through all those 80s teen movies. between that and the non-stop Journey they are making me insane. Bill, I *love* writing my 13year old boy character. unlike you though i find that he is basically me with some superficial differences. i think i am a far more narcissistic writer than you!

Bill Cameron said...

But, Sophie! Lookit me! Lookit me! Are you looking at me?

But seriously. I don't want to suggest I didn't LIKE writing my teenage boy. I enjoyed writing him very much. When it comes to writing, I find myself enjoying myself most when it's the most difficult.

L.J. Sellers said...

Writing from the perspective of young teens (in The Sex Club) was the hardest part of the story for me. I'm more comfortable in the antagonist's POV, as long as I don't stay too long.

Good luck with your next book, Bill.

Graham Brown said...

Great post Bill.

My high school did not feature any dance montages either but it did include a teacher who was a lot like Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Rigemont High.

Bill Cameron said...

Clearly 80s movie iconography in real life is a touchstone for many of us! :)

Kelli Stanley said...

No 80s dance montages, but in some ways, my high school did remind me of "Footloose" ...

(Time to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!) :)

Thanks for the wonderful post, sweetie!!


Elizabeth said...

Interesting blog. I'm always very impressed with male writers who can convincingly write female characters, and vice-versa.

Bill Cameron said...

Thanks for stopping by Elizabeth. I'll leave it to others to say how effective I've been at writing female characters, but my goal with all characters is to write them as genuine and believable as is within my power.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

I never got a dance montage either! I think most of my high school was like Dazed and Confused, but set in Northern Exposure land (except when I was in Berlin and there are no movies that do Berlin in the mid80s justice). It has, of course, given me the weirdest set of assumptions. Which may or may not help my writing.

Great post, Bill!

Terry Stonecrop said...

I don't recongize hooey all the time either. So I also do a lot of Baleeting! Interesting point on empathy and assumptions.

Lesa said...

Good luck with Day One, Bill. Can't wait to see how the characters read. The reviews sound as if you hit the mark.

Gary Corby said...

If you got the feel of what it's like to be a serial killer wrong, the only people who'd know it are for-real serial killers. Which would certainly make for an interesting reader complaint.

Bill Cameron said...

Becky, I think the world needs an 80s Berlin/Northern Exposure mashup!

Terry, all I can say is thank goodness for revisions. Thinking one of my first drafts might get out into the wild is one of those showing up for a test in my underwear dreams.

Lesa, thank you! I haven't seen any formal reviews out in the world yet, but so far the early readers I've spoken to have said very nice things. Fingers crossed!

Gary, lol, yes. I never want to get that complaint. :)

Janet Reid said...

Wow, I want to read DAY ONE!

word verification, I kid thee not: lit i c u

Bill Cameron said...

Too late, Janet. You'll just have to wait your turn.

The winners are: (drumroll)

Terry Stonecrop

Harley May

I'll be directly in touch with the winners to find out where to send the goods.

Next month, I'll have another giveaway, this time for a release copy of Day One.

Thanks for chatting, everyone.