Empathizing with Your Characters

I once read a description of how to relate to someone with a motor disability.

  • Put your hand, palm down, on a table.
  • Make a tight fist with that hand. Put out your ring finger from the fist so it is the only finger not a part of the fist, while continuing to keep the fist tight and your hand on the table.
  • Try to lift that ring finger off the table while leaving the fist on the table.
  • It is physically impossible unless you are not making a tight fist.
  • You can look at your finger as long as you want and tell it to move, but it cannot.

This is what it is like for quadriplegics,paraplegics, and others who have lost the use of a limb.

This should give you a little insight into how uncontrollable a disability can be.

Or watch a video featuring the parent of a child with  Tourette Syndrome. See the utter anguish of the parent as she listens to her child lose control in a crowded room, knowing that her child is absolutely helpless to prevent the outburst, and hating it all the same. I’ve seen such videos and have ached at the agony in the parent’s face. The agony of embarrassment, and the agony of loss.

Or watch a child defend a disabled parent out in public, not using words, but subtly protecting that parent from stares and unkind looks by the placement of his body, shielding the parent from the looks and giving the offender a wordless, withering reprimand.

Watch the elderly. How do they handle the fast pace of life in a city? Do you ever see an elderly person pause, perhaps before stepping out into a crowd, or before stepping onto or off of an escalator? Do they notice that they are seen as obstacles in other people’s progress? What expressions do you see on their faces as they navigate a mall or a train station or a tourist attraction?

Take the time to sit quietly in a crowd and pay attention to these moments in life. Be aware of what it means to other people to get through one single day. What efforts must they make to survive where you unthinkingly traverse? As you watch, make notes. Don’t try to be clever. Simply record what you see. Interactions. Reactions. Distractions. Emotions. Always look for the emotion attached to any action. Even when there is no emotion, note that. A teen cuts off a mother with a stroller, completely laconic about what he has done. What is the mother’s reaction? A woman on a cellphone drives in fits and spurts in traffic. What havoc is she causing? What are the reactions?

Empathize with others in your life, in your wider circle, and you will be better able to empathize with your characters. You will also be better able to create characters with whom your readers can empathize. Most importantly, there will be truth in your writing, without which your writing is stunted.

Oh, the Pain!

So, I had to pare down my possessions in a big way this week, preparing for our move to Brazil. Didn’t think we owned that much. What naiveté! Now, having sold or given away two couches, a coffee table, an enormous (and comfy) easy chair, patio furniture, a baker’s rack, a file cabinet, a bookcase, a desk, etc., I feel free of all of these things. They were just things that we had come to own over the past 19 years.

But the hard part was giving away (to the local library) about half of my book collection. I love books. I read them voraciously, and hold on to the books that I’ve greatly enjoyed and many that I intend to read again. I love to collect all the works of favorite authors. I buy mostly hardback books, because I want to support the authors who worked so hard to write the books. But hardbound books weigh a ton! I would guess that I had 400 books, guessing low. I own half whatever I owned before. Gave away 40 Trader Joe’s bags worth of books first, then took a backend-of-a-Highlander load to the library this week.

My books! I am an aficionado of e-books these days, but how I love real books! I’ve collected them all of my life! In fact, I still have the first books I owned as a child. Every time my dad got orders to move (he was an Army Engineer), I would get one box to fill with my stuff. From the age of nine, I saved many of my favorite books. In the past three years, I’ve passed along so many books that I’ve lost count, but I’ve kept these childhood friends.

I also kept my collection of books by PD James and by Meg Gardiner. These mean too much to me to let them go. I also kept a couple of my Dostoevsky books, but not all of them. That man wrote TOMES! Many other authors I had to let go, despite owning all of their series (Lee Childs, Zoe Sharp, Dick Francis, Robert Crais). It was like cutting off limbs.

I know they’re just books. People tell me that all the time. But they are so much more than the paper and cardboard of which they are made. They’re also friends, and portals to adventure and other worlds, and solace and relaxation.

I guess that for the next few years of my life, I will buy few physical books and concentrate on e-books. But it just won’t be the same. I can’t curl up with an e-book and stroke its spine and feel the joy of opening to the first page. But, I digress. It’s e-books for the nonce. (But, I swear, some day…I will buy books again!)


Person of Interest

I was delighted to read that Jim Caviezel, best known for his role as Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” is now starring in a TV show, “Person of Interest.” It’s about time. Caviezel is an intense actor with a talent that might prove too big for television. I hope not. I’d look forward to watching him every week.

The premise of the show is intriguingly new. Kind of a crime-focused “Early Edition.” Caviezel  (along with Michael Emerson, another compelling actor who brings instant trust to his role) tries to stop crimes before they occur, and after they have been meticulously planned. After watching the premier of the show, I think it has real potential, as long as the writers stick to their game plan and pursue this story idea. As long as they don’t decide to change the premise and just make it another cop show.

I watched “Harry’s Law” last season, well the first half of the season, but then gave up when I found I couldn’t care less about the characters, except for Harry (played by Kathy Bates). Last week, I saw it was on for a second season, and turned to watch, to see whether they had improved the writing and plots. Lo and behold, now it’s just another lawyer show, a cookie-cutter replica of all of the other law shows on TV. They couldn’t make the original idea work, so instead of working harder to make something new succeed, they changed the premise, got new characters, and created a clone. So disappointing.

I understand. The producers want shows that work, that bring in sponsors. But once they’ve made the hurdle to get on TV, I wish they’d try harder to stick to their initial idea and make it work. I have high hopes for “Person of Interest,” but we’ll see how long it sticks to its premise and rises above the common surf. They have the actors, they had the writing in the pilot episode; let’s hope they have the writing and guts to press forward as something new, and succeed.

Plot Device

There is a fun film called “Plot Device,” which every new writer, and any writer feeling a sense of stagnation or disinterest, should watch. Watch, and then play this game that I thought of as I watched the film.

Here’s the short film, “Plot Device.” Watch and enjoy.

Now, how do we apply this to writing? Too often, I encounter writers who know where they want their stories to go, but must force the stories along that pre-determined path, insisting on following the story arc even when the characters and developing storyline resist.

To these writers, I say, step back and be prepare to be surprised. As in the film, just see where pushing the Plot Device button might take you. You could be pleasantly surprised. Granted, you could be horrified, as the hero is from time to time in the film, but, like him, you still have the option of hitting the button again and taking a different tack.

Be willing to try something new, something unexpected, in your writing. Without some surprises, you writing will be humdrum and predictable. In other words, your stories will fail.

So, you’re writing a love story, between a young man and a young woman. You want them to meet, encounter some obstacles, and eventually end up together. Great. But the story’s been done. It’s going to take something special to keep your readers interested. Otherwise, yawn. Closing the book.

Let’s hit the Plot Device button. Wait a minute, she isn’t young after all! She’s actually several hundred years old, and uses a serum to keep herself youthful and appealing. What will our hero do now? Will he run from her, frightened of what he doesn’t understand, or will he try to understand her, and grow to love her more, finally devoting himself to her in marriage?

Or, push the Plot Device button again, and he is actually a serial husband, marrying women in different cities around the nation, or the world. The reader finds out, but does the wife? If she does, how does she react? How will you keep the reader interested in this multi-wedder while also maintaining our interest in and compassion for the wife, or wives?

Hit Plot Device again. The lovers have just met, but are doomed to die before they can spend their life together. Oops, nope, that was “Titanic.”

Hit Plot Device again. Just as they are about to be married, the wife falls down a mine shaft (during a picnic) and he dies trying to save her. But she falls in love with one of the rescue workers, so the reader doesn’t feel too bad. Okay, so that’s for a romance novel, where we keep everybody happy.

But it’s as easy as that. If your story isn’t flowing as freely as it should, try using your own Plot Device button, shaking things up, rattling your characters, and getting your creative juices flowing.

Push the Plot Device button. Uh-oh, hadn’t you killed that spider in the cupboard earlier this morning?….

Popular Phrases Can Date Your Writing

I finished an editing project today, sent it off, and let me client know I had done so. Then, because I would be doing another project for the client tomorrow, while IM-ing with my contact, I typed, “See you tomorrow. Same bat time, same bat channel.” Then it occurred to me that she might have no idea what I was talking about. So I queried. Sure enough, she had no idea. When I told her it was from the days of the “Batman” series on TV, she said she wasn’t sure, but thought that was before she was born. I said mid-1960s. She admitted that she had been born in the late 1980s. Gak.

So, this brought to mind the warning I give to my writing students, and try to follow in my own writing: beware that popular phrases and sayings can date your book more quickly than anything besides putting actual dates in your story. For one generation, “same bat time, same bat channel” has meaning. For another, it’s simply cause for wondering how odd the person on the other end of the conversation actually IS (odd, and old). Think about it. Those of us who know “Here comes the judge,” or “Veeery interesting,” or “Sock it to me” can all recognize one another and have a conversation about those lines, but those who don’t remember Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In probably think we’ve popped a gasket.

Remember “Twenty-three skiddoo”? Well, I know it only from reading, but I know it was a popular saying in the 1920s (or think so). What about Zoot suits or peddle pushers, or spats or saddle shoes? Remember cut-offs in the summer? Well, those are back, so no mystery there.

Talking with my kids a week ago, I found out that they’d both had to look up the term “tight” to know that Hemingway was writing about a man being drunk, whereas the meaning was absolutely clear to me. So, I did some research, and came across a website that lists current and past terms for being drunk: http://freaky_freya.tripod.com/Drunktionary.

My point is, if you’re going to use slang, or phrases from a certain era, know that they will date your work, which can be a good thing if you’re writing a time-period piece, but which can also make your writing seem quickly outdated. If you do need to know what had been created by a certain time period, you’ll want to bookmark sites like this: http://www.localhistories.org/tech48.html, which lists inventions since 1948. Sites like this abound on the Internet, and you’d do well to save those sites for times when you need to check era-specific details.

A fun site for slang from Slappers to Rappers is http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/generation_test.html, the AlphaDictionary. On the site, they have a fun quiz that asks you questions and your answer will determine which era you grew up in for you high school or college years: for example, What did your generation call an awkward, unsophisticated person from the country? Yahoo or rube is from the 1920s, and again from the 90s; bumpkin or hick is from the 40s; clod or clodhopper is from the 50s, particularly down South; klutz was a Yankee word from the 60s; Redneck arose from the Civil Rights movement of the 60s; and Bubba came to popularity in the 80s.

Of course, there will come the day when phrases that were popular in YOUR childhood suddenly become what USED to be said, in the olden days. But, chill, it happens to the best of us. Until then, “Relax, you’re soaking in it.”

The Dark Ages: Before Google

What did writers (and editors) do before Google? I am constantly looking up information on Google as I edit academic books, verifying the spelling of names, dates, events, and any number of items which I, as editor, must ascertain are correct.

And I can do so by simply typing in the Google search box. Question on the Kosovo conflict? Thousands of hits at my fingertips. Uncertain about how Kafka viewed the unconscious, more hits. Need the names of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations? Voilá. And what is the difference between a barque and a junk? No problem, and here are photos to clarify further.

How did editors do this before now? Did they spend all of their time in academic libraries, scanning volumes and journals? I simply don’t know. Perhaps there were fact verifiers in addition to copyeditors, whose job it was to check this sort of information. I’ll have to ask someone who’s been in this business longer than I have. Meanwhile, it falls to me to check, and so I do. With gusto, and with the sense that I learn something with every mini-hunt I pursue. With each search, I push my own personal Dark Ages a bit further behind me, opening the doors to Enlightenment.

I feel my knowledge increasing on a daily basis, as I learn multitudes of new facts while scanning the Internet. As a friend said, I’m pursuing a PhD in Everythingology in my current career. And it’s all free (barring the Internet fee I pay to my provider). May it ever remain so!

Him Equals Whom

Today, I’m going to plagiarize. Well, actually, not really. I’m going to pay homage to the woman who originally wrote most of this text (Mignon Fogarty), and then repeat what she wrote. This has to do with the subject of “who vs. whom.”

As I edit books, I am continually confronted with this issue, and lord knows that we hear the rules broken every day. But who among us knows the rule? Mignon Fogarty does. And she explains it very well. As for me, I will never doubt what I know again. She has given me solid grounding in the rule and I’ll never forget it.

Taken from her website, Grammar Girl, http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/who-versus-whom.aspx, this is what she writes:

“First, to know whether to use who or whom, we need to talk about the difference between subjects and objects because you use who when you are referring to the subject of a clause and whom when you are referring to the object of a clause.” Don’t panic. She doesn’t leave us in the lurch with that statement, but goes on to clarify:

“If we think about people, the subject of the sentence is the person doing something, and the object of the sentence is having something done to them.” Subjects do, objects have done to them.

For example, “If I step on Squiggly, then I am the subject [doing the stepping] and Squiggly is the object [being stepped upon by me].”

Still clear as mud? Well she goes on to clarify still further: “Here’s my favorite mnemonic: If I say, ‘I love you,’ you are the object of my affection, and you is the object of the sentence [I am doing (loving) something to you]. I love you. You are the object of my affection and my sentence. It’s like a Valentine’s Day card and grammar mnemonic all rolled into one.”

Finally, Mignon gives a “Quick and Dirty Tip”:

“Like whom, the pronoun him ends with m. When you’re trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the answer to the question would be he or him. That’s the trick: if you can answer the question being asked with him, then use whom, and it’s easy to remember because they both end with m. For example, if you’re trying to ask, ‘Who (or whom) do you love?’ the answer would be, ‘I love him.’ Him ends with an m, so you know to use whom [in the question]. But if you’re trying to ask, ‘Who (whom) stepped on Squiggly?’ the answer would be, ‘He stepped on Squiggly.’ There’s no m, so you know to use who.

“Just remember, him equals whom.”