A little breathing room

September seems to be a popular birthday month. It must have something to do with cuddling together when it’s cold outside during the traditional winter. I celebrated my birthday this past week, too. While I may not have been able to celebrate with everyone I would have wanted there, I did enjoy a very fun and filling tasting menu supper in the city.

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But I’m not here to talk about indulgent food.

Recently, several storyteller friends of mine have brought up the topic of scenes or chapters in a story where nothing really happens. There’s no big action, no deep conflict, just the characters slowing down to talk, reflect, or enjoy themselves. The prevalent argument in today’s how-to columns is that every scene should push the story forward. In some cases, that technique works: strict short stories, for example, where the prose should be so airtight that every dialogue and action needs to contribute to the plot. For a longer story, though, I believe slow-downs are necessary.

A story can’t stay at 11 all of the time. The characters – and the reader – need some breathing room between the big conflicts. This downtime can be represented in any number of ways: a conversation, a love scene, even a birthday party.

For some reason, I like using birthday celebrations to look at a character’s life. In 1 More Chance!, I used Chie’s boyfriend’s birthday to introduce her to his family (among other things). In Fearless, Ross’s birthday is an excuse for his crew to get together for a party on the beach. In the “Finding Mister Wright” universe, Rob’s birthday is used to contrast the ideas of life and death. And, in my most recent story on the subject, one of my From Hell bounty hunters uses an old birthday to bury his past. Now, 1 More Chance! is a massive, meandering relationship story, and the “Finding Mister Wright” and From Hell examples are self-indulgent free-writes, so they follow their own non-rules. The Fearless birthday chapter, though, offers what I’ve always thought to be a necessary moment of relaxation between the second and third arcs, where the characters get to have a little bit of simple happiness before the new conflict hits. Seen alone, the party on the beach doesn’t do much for the novel as a whole. The main point of the chapter is to show how well these characters fit together, and how far they’ve come from the beginning of the story. There’s not much more to it than that. But I think it’s good to have smaller, calmer moments like this in a story, to show the reader who and what has been affected by the conflict that’s happened, or by the conflict yet to come. And, just as it’s good to have these smaller, calmer moments in stories, it’s good to have them in life.

Birthdays are as much about our own growth as they are about family, friends, noisemakers, and food. That growth includes rest as well as action. So let’s push on with our stories. But let’s also not forget to allow for a little bit of breathing room now and again.

What are your thoughts on quiet moments in stories? Do you ever use a birthday occasion in your stories? What kind of birthday cake do you like best? :)

My Masking Face

I’d meant to write a post about keeping balance in our lives, especially as writers, since many of us spend a lot of time sitting sequestered away in front of a computer. I was going to advise keeping a good exercise regime (I try to do 20-30 minutes every morning, plus walking or running through the day), a good eating schedule and habits (veggies and fruits are good and good for you!), and a regular sleep cycle (many of us ignore sleep in favor of work, studying, or even writing, when getting enough or even more sleep can actually help us do those things better). Then I had a horrendous work week that turned into two weeks – now approaching three – and I realized that I don’t even take my own advice. Instead, I put on a specific kind of mask: what folks at my institution call my PennFace.

“Pilot” by George Hodan; public domain image

Similar to the Stanford Duck, the image of which is a duck swimming placidly across the water while its legs kick furiously beneath the surface, PennFace is a term used to describe the mask some students wear to cover up their anxieties, fears, and stress. They walk around campus with smiles on their faces, saying, “I’m all good!” to their friends, and generally acting – on the outside – that everything is going swimmingly. On the inside, though, or behind the closed doors of their dorm room, they may sweat, cry, or curl into the fetal position while they wish for the world to leave them alone for a while. I have that closed-off feeling a lot, but I try to project myself as being confident and carefree.

Everybody has their own issues, and everyone deals with their issues differently. But nobody wants to burden anybody else with their problems. I certainly don’t. So, I put on my PennFace. And, that works. For a while. But we can only go so long before we have to stop running, stand up straight, and face our issues. The mask does no good then: when it’s only us and that which plagues us. The difficult part for me to admit is that that stop running bit isn’t so terrible when I finally do it. In fact, it’s very, very often a good thing, and what helps me get back on track with the rest of my life/job/whatever. Like the heroes about whom many of us write, we have to face our fears, and those moments of truth usually make us stronger.

We make the decision to stand up and confront our troubles alone. We don’t have to take the next step alone, though. Family, lovers, friends, coworkers, therapists, teachers, clergy – there are so many people out there willing to help. Asking is hard. But doing everything alone is so much harder.

Some people enjoy conflict and chaos: they thrive on it. Personally, I prefer control and routine. But, life by nature is chaotic, and how we deal with that chaos affects how we live. I still pull out and put on the mask, a lot more often than I probably should. I’m learning, though. And, I’m finding I like seeing my real face in the mirror a lot more than I like seeing my PennFace there.

How do you cope with your “PennFace?”

A moment of writerly hubris

I think all writers are protective of their characters. We’re told to kill our darlings, and the idea of making our characters face hardships, including death, is important, because conflict drives a lot of life. It certainly drives drama. As much as I love talking about my stories and characters, I always try to rein myself in, because I’ve realized over the years that nobody has or ever will care as much for my characters as I do. I can hopefully entertain with their stories, and maybe – if I’m lucky – I can even make a reader feel something for one of my characters, whether that’s compassion, disgust, fear, or just a simple interest to see what happens next. But, sometimes, I find myself becoming too attached to these characters.

I have – more than once, I’m ashamed to admit, mostly for the silliness of it – cringed at a misspelling of a beloved character’s name. Not everybody gets persnickety about names the way I do, probably because most people didn’t grow up in the environment I grew up in with a name like mine. For many years, I simply gave up correcting people over the pronunciation of my name, because it just seemed pedantic of me to do so. But not too long ago, a colleague asked me straight-out:

“What’s the correct pronunciation of your name? Is it MAY-you-me, or MA-you-me?”

I gave my standard answer at the time, which was a shrug and a dismissive, “I answer to both.”

He came back at me: “Yes, but it’s just as easy for me to pronounce your name the right way, if you tell me.”

That simple logic slapped me in the face, and I remember thinking, You know what? That’s right!

Nowadays, I introduce myself with the proper pronunciation, and I’ll correct someone if they give me that quizzical I-didn’t-quite-get-that look. For the most part, I let it go, mostly because I don’t want to sound like a pedantic ass. But when it happens with my characters, I still feel a little flare of defensiveness for them. Because I’m the only one who will ever care enough.

The following “Finding Mister Wright” short (link opens in a new window) came about with the pedantic ass portion of my personality in full force. I think it’s fitting, though, for the moment. And, it was fun to write, which I think is the most important bit.

“Always Daniel”
[another “Finding Mister Wright” fic – ~2100 words/7 pages]

Do you have an easy name? If not, do you school folks on the proper pronunciation? Or, do you let it go? If you could change your name, what name would you choose?

Extra question: If you read the story above, what name do you vote for, for little baby Wright? (Orville and Wilbur are not options.)

I want that love, that life

This is not a real post. I was going to talk about keeping balance in my writerly life, but I can’t manage it right now. This was a rough week all around – at work, at home, in my head – and I just needed to take a break with people who care for and about each other, even if it’s only in my stupid, self-indulgent fiction.

“Two Dads”
[Another “Finding Mister Wright” free write] ~3200 words/10 pages

I wrote this in a day, between work, emails, cooking supper, and everything else, and I’ve never written from Paige’s perspective before, but it’s part of my writing effort and I have to support it for being that. A story based on personal experience, just not the part I would have wanted.

Love and Death and Love Again

I think about death a lot. Not mine, so much, because there’s little point in that. I try to eat well, exercise, look both ways before crossing the street, that sort of thing. Beyond that, we’re all basically at the mercy of fate, and stressing over when my time will be up won’t change the ticking of the clock. I still think about it a lot, though.

I think a lot about love, too. The love between a parent and a child, between siblings, between lovers lucky enough to find each other in a great big world full of so many different individuals. How love can divide but also unite. How its grace can fill our lives with happiness, from the most mundane interactions to the most life-changing.

I also think about love and death together. How one can make the other sweet or terrifying, and how that can go either way, for both. Because I think so much and so often about death and love, they come up again and again in my writing. Sometimes, their place is blatant in a story, sometimes not. I think the former applies to my latest “Finding Mister Wright” short:

Another “Finding Mister Wright” story
(PDF will open in a new window; ~2800 words/9 pages DS)

I can’t always explain why I write the stories I do, but this one – looking at aging, love, and death – came to me as I spied a “Frozen”-themed birthday cake in a bakery window and thought about the kids who won’t have another birthday, this year.

I don’t apologize for where this story goes, for the love or the death, because I like to think both make us stronger, in their own ways and eventually. Whether you read the story or not, and whether you agree with me or not, keep in mind the significance of love and death in your own lives, both the fantastic ones you put to the page and the true one you build around you.

How has love or death affected your stories?