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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Character Crisis (in the wee hours)

The neurotic insomniac finds herself with so many tantalizing options. She can wile away the hours wondering if she took her slacks out of the dryer, or enumerating her snoring husband’s shortcomings. She can ponder the precariousness of her finances, contemplate the erosion of her physical abilities, or there’s the ever popular inevitability of death to keep her eyes wide open. If she’s working on a book, the possibilities for relentless inner debate are endless. 

But the theme of tonight's sleeplessness in Glendale is an upcoming workshop I'll be giving on Creating Credible Children's Book Characters. 

I’ve given this sort of talk many times and am not afraid to speak in front of strangers, not afraid they won’t like me or laugh at my jokes. Nor am I afraid I’ll forget to put on my pants. We all know the  drill of writing character is to build back story, and get to know your character’s world, what she wants, and fears, and needs, and thinks she needs, blah, blah.

But, in the nether-time betwixt night and morn, it hit me that The less we know someone, the easier it is to sum them up. The less we know them, the easier it is to hate them, or to be giddy in love with them, or even to be utterly indifferent. Example: We know only enough about political candidates to feel VERY STRONGLY about them. Ditto Celebrities.

We’re sure we know enough about the guy who cut us off in traffic to sum up his whole nature.  Add in the kind of car he’s driving (expensive or junker) to bring him into even sharper focus. Two little facts. 1. He cut us off.  2. He’s rich/poor.  Either way, we’ve got him nailed.

Likewise, we believe we have all the info we need on the mom smacking her kid in the market. Put her in a too tight tank top in Walmart, or dress her as an account exec shopping at Whole Foods and either way we're instantly sure we know everything about who she is, why she’s frazzled, what her life is like, and how her kids will turn out. 

Same with the old man walking his lumpy old dog.  And the boy on whom we have a debilitating crush. The less we know them, the clearer they are. Add in a few more details about any of them and they'll get muddied --- because the more you know about any person, the more confusing complications, contradictions and gray areas there are, right? 

A play writing teacher once told me that Romeo and Juliet, and early Disney princesses and princes, had to be bland and featureless. 


Creating a character with distinct characteristics gives your readers something not to like about him. Conversely, keeping him harmless and vague, pleasant and attractive, makes him universally likable and sympathetic -- unobjectionable. Readers automatically supply the missing parts drawing from their personal assumptions and experience, and the more blanks the better.  

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare saved all the interesting, specific, quirky traits for the character parts, Mercutio, the nurse, the priest... Comics, villains, side kicks.

What’s that got to do with my upcoming workshop for which aspiring writers are paying hard, cold cash? 

Well, am I to tell them that if they want readers to recognize and sympathize with their characters they should write caricatures? Choose two traits from column A, and two from column B?

He: Deep, brooding, tough on the outside  ---  Cream puff on the inside.
She: Free spirit, rebellious on the outside  ---  Scared, hurt little kitten on the inside.
He/She: Socially inept loner with obsessive interest in something arcane --- Loyal and loving on the inside.  
She: Pretty, peppy and popular on the outside --- evil on the inside.
He: Macho jock on the outside --- Sensitive scared puppy on the inside. 

Trite, predictable characters are easy for the reader to recognize. The iconic short hand of sit com characters as representatives of a type, require no effort for the reader/audience to grasp.  

But, isn’t that what perpetuates racist, sexist, ageist, stereotypes?  

We all want to sell our books and see strangers reading them on the bus. And as a speaker, I want to share whatever I think I know about how to achieve that. 

And maybe writing interesting, complex main characters that NOT EVERYONE WILL LIKE defeats the purpose of writing -- because it keeps readership and sales numbers low, and gets mixed reviews, if it gets published and reviewed at all...

But wait, we want to write good books, right? And the workshop is about creating credible characters...  See the problem?
xo Amy 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tomato Tales

In preparation for the planting of tomatoes, I spent months carting banana peels and coffee filters out to my compost bin, taking solace when my novels resisted writing, that at least I was making brilliant dirt. 
Come spring, I spooned my homemade compost into planters and then went off in search of a few, needy, inexpensive vegetable plants, to love and to cherish, until death do us part. Thus far, it has been exclusively their deaths. Their depleted corpses sent to the compost, but we both know the plant world will eventually get its turn to feast on my remains.  
Meanwhile I tuck the wee plants in like babies in a crib. I don’t name them, but I watch them grow, each, as is the nature of things, differently. I take pride in this one’s height, in the strength of that one’s young stalks, in the texture of their leaves and their yellow blossoms, as if all are a reflection of their devotion and gratitude, as well as proof of my exemplary worthiness. 
In my benevolent, omnipotent way, I tend to their needs, propping up a branch there, scattering fertilizer, banishing the weeds. 
I neither threaten nor bully. No need to rub their little noses in the precariousness of their fates. If they just peer out of their planters they’ll see the dry yellow grass I’ve abandoned to the drought. They’ll notice cacti and succulents growing where their needier brethren once grew.  Lift their little plant eyes and they’d see the surrounding hillsides have become heaps of kindling, just itching to burst into flames. 
My tomatoes get breakfast in bed, straight from the hose. 
And in exchange, I occasionally pluck their perfect babies from their arms and pop them in my mouth.  Their bodies, sweet, juicy and still warm from the sun, explode between my enormous teeth. 
I hate to think they offer their fruits like desperate villagers sacrificing their choicest virgins, fearing my wrath, and my fickle nature as clearly evidenced by the hard packed dirt where once a green lawn flourished...
And I hate to think they don’t offer them at all, but are simply unable to defend them from my insatiable, hairy, bipedal, heartlessness.
In the end it is hard to know what they think of me. Try as I do to think like a plant and see things from their point of view, it is difficult to know if I got it right. As I wander the yard of a morning, coffee in hand, nodding to my fig tree, saluting the eggplants, do they see Kindly Old Amy bringer of Water? Or do they smirk and make snide comments about my ass?  Do they tremble and quake asking one another if this is the day their young will be wrested from their bosom?
Parallels aplenty. The boss who believes he is beloved, because everyone laughs at his jokes and feigns interest in his grandson’s little league prowess.  Store manager who doesn’t even suspect he has a nick-name, let alone its nature. The principal who believes he is adored by the faculty. The Marine Sergeant who thinks he is respected. The PTA president who is sure that everyone loves her pasta salad with prunes. The politician, the coach... 
It occurs to me as I write these thoughts, that many things are amiss here. For one, as a vegetarian, personifying my garden could lead to starvation. And two, this may mean my fiction writing has expanded past the reasonable boundaries of keyboard and screen, implying time to up my meds. And three, it is possibly my utter powerlessness over my publishing fate that inspires me to lumber as a gristly flesh-eating monster loose and terrifying in the yard. 
Luckily my plants don't seem to hold a grudge. Or they think life at any cost is worth the imperfect trade. This is evidenced by the eager volunteer tomato plants springing up from last years crop as if to say, “I’m back! Let’s do it again! Absolved! 

The edited version of this blog appeared in the L.A. Times 
on Sunday July 15, 2012.  Here's the link:,0,1209653.story

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Plum Tree Blues

Once upon five or seven years ago, I planted a plum tree too close to the street which was a bugle-call to passing neighbors: 

Why stop at two or three? 
All you can carry! 
Bring the car!

And to squirrels and birds: 

Please Scatter slimy purple plum bits everywhere! 
No need to eat the whole plum!
One bite is best! 

So this year I went out early to outfox my nemesises -- canvas bag in hand, to pick as many as I could reach. Never mind that they were still hard greenish rocks, the point was THEY WERE MINE!

But it was difficult to pluck the plum babies off the branch when they were so young and helpless. They didn't let go easily. I could practically hear them cry, NO! NOT YET!!!!

So I only took a few. Put them on the windowsill. Squeezed them daily like the witch in Hansel & Gretel. 

Meanwhile, the plums on the tree put on their dusty gray disguise so I wouldn't recognize them. But I was way smarter than any plum so I tested and retested, carting samples off to the windowsill where they joined the others, ripening strangely.  

I just wanted to pick and eat one plum, ok eleven plums, soft, sweet, juicy, perfectly ripe, warm from the sun.  Was that too much to ask in exchange for all the fertilizer and water????

Plums FELL!

Hey! I would have eaten those! I told the tree. But she dropped even more before their time. 

Was she telling her babies, Enough is enough, get the hell outta here and get your own life? Or was she saying, Be free little seeds! Be fruitful and multiply!?
Either way, she was crazy to plant them there! Did she really want another plum tree just like herself to take hold and grow so close at her side? Did she want to spend her life battling her own offspring for water and light?
That's the stuff of Greek tragedy! 

It didn't make sense. So I decided I'd be helping all concerned by picking the rest of her plums, gobbling them up and carrying away the pits. 

Apparently I was not alone in that thought. You saw this coming, of course, and I should have too. But this am I crept up on my plum tree, canvas bag at the ready... and I was too late. Not a one left on the tree.