Be Real Be Careful

It’s hard to avoid, and probably we shouldn’t; the things going on in America right now are explosive and fodder for writing, but be careful please.

Avoid straw men.

Battling the Straw Men | Sojourners
No face on a straw man.

In telling the story of, for example, the protests going on, you have your perspective. Maybe you have incredible insight into the protesters and want to write their story. It would be very easy to paint cops as the unrepentant bad guys (or the protesters if you’re on the other side), but that isn’t reality. Every situation has a story and every person has a story.

Your story will be better if your antagonists aren’t monochrome; if your situation isn’t monochrome. Watching Facebook right now, it can be overwhelming. For every reasoned post there are a dozen one-sided posts or memes. You have the responsibility to consider all angles.

The protesters have solid points. The police have solid points. If you paint them as two sides facing one another, you’ve got it wrong. The situation is a vicious circle.

The police are there to maintain law and order and to serve and protect. They are trained in Police Academy that authority lost cannot be regained. Authority does not equal authoritarian, but it’s an uneasy balance. Treat a cop with respect and he’ll almost always treat you that way, but cops are human and cumulative disrespect can color any encounter. Consistently treated the with disrespect, not acknowledging authority and authority will respond.

People of community lose respect for police almost never because of the cop (though some times). Crime and drugs are rampant and “cops don’t do anything.” Upstanding citizens get discouraged, not recognizing that manpower distribution isn’t up to patrol officers, but to the brass. So criminals get more brazen, and community and police are endangered and disrespected. Drugs, gangs, crime, these spell danger to police. When they’re mocked or disregarded, reasserting authority is difficult, and so is safety. So they militarize. They generalize the threat, so any person of color is targeted and brutality becomes possible, as does retribution. How does one regain authority? If respect doesn’t work, fear will.

Meanwhile, gang-life is a requirement for some people in the community. Drugs are the only way to make money. Many feel their choices aren’t choices but foregone conclusions. They don’t see police as help but as foes. They feel picked on and constantly in danger from people who are supposed to be helping. From there, disrespect is easy. And disrespect is shown in many small and large ways that cops respond to. The vicious cycle is both “sides” coming at each confrontation with preconceived notions. Perhaps the fear makes a person resist arrest. Perhaps that flares a cop’s reaction, and a controlled situation descends into chaos. Throw in the strong threat of danger for both parties and things go wrong really fast.

We’ve watched this cycle for decades and it’s come to a head. We recognize PTSD, but what about CTSD? Continuing Traumatic Stress Disorder? Both Police and the community are stuck in this cycle. It doesn’t take much to trigger CTSD, and then reactions become dangerous.

Where does the writer come in? Telling someone’s story; showing the arc of understanding or destruction. You can’t move someone through an arc with straw-men bad guys.

The writer can’t afford a weighted bias, not if they want to tell a “true” story. Because the truth is, everyone is a little right and a little wrong. As the writer, you orchestrate the reveal, but nothing says only the hero has to change (and the hero can be a cop or a civilian), everyone can change.

Perhaps you cast this conflict with Elves and Trolls. You have to be able to see the perspective of both. Trolls think they’re right (and in their system they are), and Elves think they’re right (within their system).

Perhaps you’ve mapping a different story, perhaps about a contagion that brings out the worst (and best) of people. Consider The Core a movie about restarting the revolutions of the Earth’s core before life ends. I love it, though many don’t. There are several people on the ship taking them to the core, and each has their valid reasons for being on board, none of them the same and often at odds. What does that have to do with contagion and viruses? It’s the same story. Catastrophe must be averted by the actions of a few people. Even the vain, venal people matter.

Motivate all your characters, and to do so, you must understand the nuances of all stance, write that and you have a dynamic story that lives beyond the page.

First Edit is like Surgical Post Op

I had surgery yesterday.

Great word, surgery. It conjures images of operating rooms, nurses and doctors, scalpels, and knocked out patients. Not in this case, I only had a grape-size mass removed from my back. A local, some slice-slice, a few stitches and done. Quick, easy, no problem.

Then the local wore off 4 hours later.

It doesn’t hurt exactly, it just feels… wrong.

The back (and spine) is the junction of your body. If it’s a little out of whack, you know it and everything pulls. (“Don’t lift anything heavy.” “OK,” I said, forgetting I have a 20-pound puppy.)

The first-round edit is just like that. The “back” of the story is what it’s about. That’s a very powerful concept, “what it’s about.” It sums up your story, and better, it help you edit.

You’ve just finished your first draft. Congratulations! If you’re like me, the third act comes in a rush, so once you’ve typed “The End” (metaphorically or literally), your job is to get it out of your head. Go mow the lawn, pull some weeds, paint the house, bathe the dog. And celebrate!

Maybe start researching your next book. Maybe read some other people’s books. Try to forget the book you just finished. Then a month or so later, read it through.

Use a highlighter, add a few notes, but mostly just read it quickly. What you’re looking for is what feels wrong.

Consider: A great run of scenes where Atticus Finch finds true love. They date, they dream, they fall head over heals. Knowing the back of To Kill a Mockingbird, these scenes should feel wrong. They aren’t about what Mockingbird is about. Every scene should relate to what the story is about. Identifying such scenes is actually easy. Ask yourself, “If I remove this scene, does it matter?” If the answer is “no” remove it. To Kill a Mockingbird: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham ...
I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.
That’s what To Kill a Mockingbird is about.

This can feel difficult. A wrong scene can be written beautifully. It still has to go. A wrong scene is like a gratuitous scene in a movie where you’re hoping they get back to the story soon…

Also look for what’s missing. Are the steps to the conclusion clear? Are any stones absent? Does anything need to be clarified?

Remember, at this stage you’re reading, not rewriting. Take notes, mark any obvious typos (don’t slow down to look for typos), if you print it out, use colored pencils (not pens! You may need to change something later), online, highlight or comment (PDF is nice for this).

Remember, you’re looking for things that feel wrong. The ideal back condition is to be totally unaware of it, and so it is with your story. Wrong pulls us out of the story. Scenes that fail to tie into the back of the story need to marked and revisited. Is it extraneous? Cut it. Is it out of place? Move it. Is it missing? Add it in (or write a note about what should be in the scene). Could it work? Is there a genuine way to add purpose to the scene?

Do you have a long string of scenes that don’t fit? Can you turn them into a sub-plot that does tie into the back? If not, save them for another book.

That first read-through is get a handle on what goes, what needs to be added, and finding the right order.

Next is the rewrite following your notes. Then you can dig into language and pacing in your next edit.

Don’t Be a Hypocrite!

I stopped watching the CW’s Flash many seasons ago. The show had too many logic disconnects to make sense (not the physics of super-speed; you need a lot of willingness to suspend disbelief, but that’s expect for a superhero show), and just sloppy writing.

I did stick around long enough to see the introduction of Ralph Dibny who would become the stretchy sleuth Elongated Man. Ralph was immature, crude, gross, and rubbed everyone wrong. Hartley Sawyer was the perfect actor for the role, he looks identical to the comic book version and has a snarky sense of humor.

Kids, Elongated Man, Flash, Costume, Zentai, Bodysuit, Superhero ...
Elongated Man

Ralph’s particular arc was to grow, mature, become more heroic, and be all that he could be. And he succeeded, eventually winning everyone’s trust and respect.

Now they’ve fired Hartley Sawyer because 8 years ago he made several insensitive, offensive tweets. Sawyer was a young comedian, immature and going for shock value to get noticed.

Sawyer was Dibny, who has grown, matured, and become the adult he wasn’t then.

By firing Sawyer, the CW has become a steaming hypocrite. It’s heroic for Dibny to grow up, but not Sawyer, who’s apologetic and recognizes his offense.

This is a writing blog, though, so let me bring it home: write what you believe. Live what you believe. Obviously many of characters are negative examples… they aren’t what you believe but they counterpoint what you do believe in your favored characters. Clearly they should be growing in a manner consistent with what you believe to be good. When you see someone similar going through your character’s arc, you should be applauding it.

THE FLASH Finds Their Elongated Man
The comic book version.

Or is that a stretch?

Writers are SO Powerful!

It’s been a sad and scary week, studded with ugly racism, peaceful protest, some of it hijacked by violent people. Cities are locking down and social media is overrun with angry posts and comments.

The truth is racism is a horrifyingly real issue still, yet strides are being made. What used to be a (forgive me) black and white topic is now a complex topic with many subtleties and nuance. And you’ll find that social media does not put up with subtleties and nuance, because too many people aren’t listening.

Snow Falling on Cedars (film) - Wikipedia
A moving book. A story well told.

Hence the power of the writer and the ability to fully explore subtleties and nuance in novels and non-fiction. To Kill a Mockingbird was for many white writers of a certain age our first powerful awareness of racism and did more for white-locked regions than even well-done protests. I’m from Seattle, a nearly all-white community and racism wasn’t a big concern because, well, there was no one to be racist against (and the few minorities we knew were friends, and it’s funny how once you see someone as a person first, the skin color doesn’t matter). Years later Snow Falling on Cedars was a similar eye-opening book, this time about white-Asian racism, which for our area was more meaningful since a large Japanese community was close to ours.

Here’s a story of nuance that I fell into as a 3rd-grader. Sammy was a classmate who got into fights every day. I never saw why the fights started, just that he was always in the middle of it. Sammy was Japanese, but to me he was just Sammy. I hadn’t learned racism and never dreamed the fights were about racism. In the cloakroom as we waited for recess, I asked Sammy if he was going to get in a fight again. He said nothing, walked up the line and whispered to the teacher. When everyone else was released to recess, I was held back and lectured on racism by our teacher who was supremely disappointed in me. She thought I knew better.

Well, clearly I didn’t know better. It hadn’t occurred to me why he was fighting (I was on crutches and watched the playground from the sidelines. I could see a lot but hear very little), just that he was fighting. My question was not racist, I just wanted to know if he was going to fight today. I was so confused because I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. At first I thought maybe she thought I was going to fight him, but I couldn’t walk so fighting wasn’t possible. For a couple years I was an imperfect observer while kids played, much like Scout, who was too young to understand the larger issues facing grownups.

Story is powerful and the issues are plentiful, not limited to racism. In a book we can see all sides of injustice. Through fiction you can tell your story and give we readers a deep insight. That is needed more today than ever before.

Not every book has to be focused on a social issue, but social issues exist and your characters may deal with them as a texture of the period.

Make America Understand!