Living With The Ghosts

Now that the writing is in full swing, I’m thinking about characters.  Every day – hell, every hour – I’m thinking about characters.  The ghosts are, to me, very real at this point…and will be until I finally exorcise them by putting words on the page.

In more detail, I’m currently thinking about how to communicate all the little details and realities of my characters without resorting to the dreaded “info dump” of exposition and backstory.

One of the things I love about writing – and reading! – is when a well-crafted and well-used phrase, laden with emotion and meaning, communicates far more than 500 words of info-dump.

Now, there is a lot I’m proud of in my writing…and an even greater amount that I know needs work.  It’s not better editing, it’s not better vision, it’s simply becoming a better writer.  But…that does not mean there aren’t things I write that I don’t look at and think, “Fuck, yeah.  That worked…”*

*Goddamned triple-negative sentences!  Maybe it IS better editing I need…and, yes, I’m way too lazy to just go and fix the sentence.  Besides, it’s more fun to write this little aside and mock myself.

Heading that list of things that worked?  Oz.

Of course it was Oz…  He is still my favorite character, and is far and away the character most personal to me.  Shit, he’s still the only character that can bring me to tears…

There is a lot to Oz: a lot of meaning and a lot of emotion.  More than I ever describe, honestly, even in the text.  He is, after all, my stand-in for those friends of mine who committed suicide…and for my own issues with that same impulse.  One of the keys to Oz as a character, and who he is as a person, is his history…

Connor describes a bit of that history to Nat in one particular scene, but that description is matter of fact and simple.  He explains Oz’s life of rape and degradation in the bluntest, coldest way.  That’s all he really can say: he has no way to express to her the truth and honesty of Oz’s past, nor to soften his life of horror and pain…the life that Connor himself barely avoided.

His statement to Nat tugs at you, yes.  It communicates something about Oz, yes.  But it isn’t real.

No, for me the real success came with what I mentioned above: that one key phrase/sentence that captures everything in just a handful of words.

“…Oz was a lump in his bed, a tight ball pressed deeply into the corner—his normal sleeping position, a hunt for the safety he’d never known.”

I know I wrote the fucking thing, so I’m pretty damned biased, but to me that phrase still captures Oz’s history, and his reality, far better than all the exposition in the world.

As I get better at writing, I’m realizing more and more that you really have to be careful with your words.  You have to minimize.  A good writer can communicate in ten-fifteen words what a bad writer needs a hundred to do.

Now, I’m nowhere near that “good writer” point…and I know – being as competitive and self-critical as I am – that I will never consider myself to be there.  But that just drives me to work and practice and strive for constant (if slow) improvement.

The best personal sign of that development?  When I go back and re-read older stuff, I cringe at my wordiness…and at the lack of focus in my vision and in my words.  That I see and understand those problems is an official Good Thing, by the way.  Well, good nowadays…not so good back then.

There was, to tie everything together, no key phrase to identify the emotion and honesty of those older characters in just a handful of words.

Shit, maybe Steven King was right: the first million words really are just practice.

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