Tag Archives: writing

On invoking the ethos

The biggest surprise for me in writing my first novel came after I had written it. I won’t get into the issue of the editing process now, but suffice to say I’ve had to reread each chapter a hundred times. I know each sentence so intimately that if my husband had a question about something, I could follow it without a hint of the context – I would know instinctively what came before it and what came after.

I know what you’re thinking. Why shouldn’t I know that? I wrote the thing, after all. I came up with the ideas and the concepts, and I painstakingly put them to paper. But the truth is, you go into a kind of trance when you write. I would spend eight hours typing away, and when I was done I would reread what I had written with the same eager curiosity as I would read a brand new book.

I still experience the same thing today—that’s the surprise. I can open the book and experience the same fervor I do when I read something new. I don’t get bored with it. It’s like someone else wrote the entire thing.

Where am I going with this?

During my last post, I talked about writers as instruments. The story exists independent of us, and we are simply the mechanism through which it takes physical form. I believe the reason for that is the characters. As I mentioned before, in my experience, they exist independently of the written form; they live and breathe in a writer’s mind, and in my case it was the characters telling the story—that’s why I can reread the book a thousand times and always be surprised.

I don’t think I’m alone in this view. Ernest Hemingway said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.”

These living people carry the book. They are the souls the reader connects with; what invokes the ethos, so to speak.

So before the setting, plot, subplots, hooks, imagery, conflicts, et al, comes the characters. And if they’re anemic in any way, if they aren’t authentic, chances are the foundation of your story will collapse.

So how do you develop those kinds of characters?

For me, it always starts with what I call the pith, which means the essence of something; a forceful and concise expression of it. It usually takes the shape of a sentence; an undeniable truth about the character. That truth can change, but only in exceptional circumstances.

For instance, when I think of Anne Rice’s Louis, I would say his pith is merciful death. For Lestat, it would be The Brat Prince. I didn’t make up these descriptors. If you’ve read the books you know the characters have been described by the author in exactly these terms, and in my opinion they express the crux (pith) of those characters; what propels them forward throughout the entire story (as the writer, when I’m lost or confused about how to proceed or how a character should react I turn to their pith).

The first few chapters of The Butterfly Crest introduce the reader to three main characters: an unnamed one (let’s call him Mr. Muse), Elena Vicens (the protagonist), and Cataline Ferrá (supporting actress). These are their piths:

  • Mr. Muse – unyielding and immutable
  • Elena – still waters run deep
  • Cataline – beguiling decadence

Those are their truths; their best, but also their worst, qualities. Everything about them begins and ends with those words. From there, I build the character, layer by layer. I go into meticulous detail, imagining (shaping) everything about them—facial structure, body type, likes and dislikes, food preferences, what their home/furniture/decor looks like, what side of the bed they sleep on, what music they listen to, speech pattern, mannerisms, etc. I even go so far as to find avatars for them (images of a face that fits what I imagined), and images of what their wardrobe would look like and their favorite items. I also think about their past and their background (even if it isn’t relevant to the plot) because it is a major factor in the authenticity of their personality. The idea is to shape the character until I can slip into their skin and completely lose myself in them.

That’s not to say I have them fully formed when I start writing. Some of the characters I’ve developed for years (like Mr. Muse), but others are completely new (Elena and Cataline). Of those, the major ones I develop as thoroughly as I can before starting to write (during the outline stage), and the minor ones I begin abstract and develop with the story. Some even burst onto the page spontaneously (like Cataline did) and assert themselves (usually in a very visceral fashion). I write fantasy and focus a great deal on world mythology, so in some instances there’s a footprint I have to follow, but that only gives me a skeleton; I still have to give the character flesh and make it entirely my own. Everything around me influences the process—photography, music, other cultures, art, fashion, movies, people, my own personality traits (completely isolated and exaggerated).

Whatever your method might be, if you don’t create living people (if you don’t invoke the ethos through your characters) everything else will be for naught.

I recall settings and storylines, but I’ve only ever fallen in love with living people.

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The case of the wandering ego

You’ve decided to write your first book. You sit down in front of a computer. You have your cup of coffee or tea in hand. Maybe you’re sitting in your favorite chair or that perfect nook you found at your local library or coffee shop.

I’m sure in the back of your mind you have an idea. A plan. Perhaps a semblance of the story you want to tell. It’s taking shape, becoming clearer, even if it’s a little abstract.

You take a deep breath, put your hands on the keyboard… and nothing happens.

You know the story (at least the important points), you know your characters (hopefully), but for some reason, everything escapes you. It all becomes elusive. You had your vision, your goal, but now it’s wandering.

For me, it was a case of a wandering ego.

I knew my story and my characters. I knew the important points and I had a plan! But I sat for a week in front of my computer and nothing of substance came out. I tried visualizing it, massaging it, tempting it, forcing it… but all I got was a three page opener that didn’t do a thing for me. It was anemic. The characters, the context, the location, the scenery—they were all pale, like one-dimensional cutouts. I would sit and stare at the blinking cursor forever, completely annoyed.

There was too much noise in my head. Like any other writer, there were other stories and characters I had written about; so that when I sat down to write, they were the ones that were literally bleeding onto the page. I kept trying to force my muse in another direction—the one I had chosen. My plan had created a box, a road map for a storyline that I refused to deviate from.

My ego got in the way.

I forgot I was the vessel. The story existed somewhere out there in the aether, and as the writer I was just the tool, the instrument that’s supposed to give it life. Sounds cliché, doesn’t it? But it’s true. You hear about it frequently in art (Michelangelo, for example, believed that as a sculptor he merely revealed a figure that already lived, hidden, within the stone) but it applies to all forms of it, even writing.

I was so obsessed with my vision, that I couldn’t see past it. I had married myself to my plan, and I’d be damned if I was going to write something different. So I didn’t write anything at all. I deleted the three pages that had taken me days to write, and nothing else came out.

After days of this kind of self-torture, I confided in a close friend. Her response? It was simple—“Just write about what you love.”

Translation? Be the ball. “Stop thinking…let things happen…and be…the ball.”

Now, I love Caddyshack as much as the next person, but I’m not that enlightened yet. I’m the kind of person who fidgets when I try to meditate. I can’t empty my mind. Just thinking about it makes me want to crawl out of my skin. How in the heck was I supposed to be the ball? Plus, anyone who knows me knows that what I love could be one of a million different things; I’ve been known to be a little obsessive about my interests, and of those there are many. How on earth was I supposed to hone in on the one?

Turns out my friend was right.

After being stubborn and refusing to give in for several days after that, one day I just let go of the plan. I decided to… just write. Stream of consciousness. Whatever decided to come out.

I wrote three paragraphs, three small paragraphs that turned out to be the catalyst for my entire book (never mind they ended up being cut from the final draft).

All three were about him, a character I’d written about for years. I’d worn his skin and explored his world a thousand times—but I’d never considered writing a book around him, not once, because the whole time I’d been “planning” to write about something else. Turns out, of all my characters, I loved channeling him the most.

You hear all the time from writers that their characters have a mind of their own, but you don’t really appreciate the depth of what they’re saying until you experience it yourself; until one of them screams and yells so loud in your head that you can’t ignore it. In my case, he screamed so loud it changed my entire plan.

How much, you ask? The only thing that stayed the same was the genre.

Characters or storyline? The chicken or the egg? Obviously they’re parts of a whole, but for me it was a singular character, and one who isn’t even the protagonist. Once I had that, everything else fell into place.

Stories can’t exist without characters, but the opposite isn’t true. Characters exist independently of a storyline. They are born and grow in your mind, able to live an entire existence without ever making it onto the page.

Have a plan, but always be open to changing it. You would be surprised where it could lead in the end.

Putting vision into action

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” –Japanese Proverb

I would say the most important thing to remember when you take that step from daydreaming to doing is to make sure you have a vision – some kind of plan, and one you stick to no matter what comes your way. I spent the last fourteen years of my life daydreaming about being a writer. I came up with every excuse possible as to why it wasn’t the right time in my life; after all, I had to finish college, work while I finished college, go to law school, intern, study for the bar, pass the bar, find a job, and then convince myself that I loved my job. All the while, I daydreamed. I had a vision—hell, I wrote the entire time, developed characters and stories—I just didn’t write the book. I found every excuse not to sit down and do it; so my vision was nothing but a daydream.

Then something happened. One day, I reached my limit. I took action, one which I will admit was completely extreme, but I haven’t looked back since. I won’t get into the sordid details, but suffice to say I did what most people would consider insane – I quit a very stable and well-paying job as an attorney to spend the next year writing my book. It’s the best decision I ever made, and I’m certain it would have been a complete disaster if I hadn’t had a plan (vision) for what I would do.

So what was my plan? Sit down and write. Wake up every day and dedicate myself to it with the same tenacity I dedicated myself to my legal career. Write with a vision in mind, with the idea of the story I wanted to tell and see it through completely. Never mind whether the writing was awful or no one would like the story, but I had a story to tell… a damn good story to tell.

Ironically enough, my planned story wasn’t the one that came pouring out. Plans have a sneaky way of imploding sometimes, but that’s a story to tell for the next lesson.

For now, the important thing to remember is this – stop daydreaming. Stop saying “I want to write a book someday” and actually do it. That’s the first step. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s scary as hell, but if you’re serious about writing, it’s the mandatory first step; and you can’t be half-hearted about it, either. I’m not suggesting everyone be as drastic as I was about it, but you need to take the time. You need to decide to do it and take it as seriously as any other endeavor.

The tricky part after that is being open enough to let your vision guide you.