The Actress Who Would Make A Good Mouse

I worked with an older man a long time ago on a student project. The entire scenario was a mess; he wanted to produce a classical piece, had neither the chutzpah nor the balls to make the attempt, and reverted to a weird blend of neo-dadaism and theatrical posturing to avoid the question.

In plainer language, he really thought that he ought to play Hamlet, couldn’t talk anyone into using him for a real production, and so wrote a very strange half-experimental mish-mash of soap opera nonsense and called the main character Hamlet.

He played the main character.

Anyway, I dropped out of the project partway through for fairly obvious reasons (namely that he was a mess, the project was a mess, and it was a big visual accident waiting to happen), but the guy had the very rare ability to talk coherently about script construction, so I worked with him for a while on doctoring his (very strange) script.

I should explain, I was in the project at first as an actor. This guy was weird.

The reason I’m writing this now is that I’m thinking about something that happened in auditions and then callbacks for the project.

This guy wanted to use a redhead I knew as the Ophelia character. His reason for choosing her?

“You look like a little mouse, cowering into the corner.”

When being yelled at, she cowered in a way he liked, and he felt this was an appropriate flavor for Ophelia.

Yeah, he was an awful man, and I stopped talking to him after a little while, but the actress was flummoxed by his attitude.

This guy, like a lot of male and female directors I worked with over the years, observed female-presenting actors as mere props to be used in shows for the reactive emotions they could display.

Like being a mouse cowering, or having a good and dignified ‘classical’ face.

I pondered this phenomenon for some time, being in the very odd position of a bio-girl taught to act like a boy and present as a trans-male. My life was complicated. Anyway. I thought about this a lot, and I had grown adept, over the years, at mimicking and creating convincing reproductions of a variety of gendered behaviors.

Because of my background, I approached theatre production with an idea that I could use the leftover actors, the actors that no one else knew how to use or was willing to use.

I picked up the scraps and started to teach them things that I knew how to do.

Off-topic: Here’s a practice sketch for motion.

dressage

The reason I’m thinking about this today is that I’ve come, more and more over the years, to see writing as belonging to two general camps: 1. Writing produced by abusers and 2. Writing produced by good people.

Note: Many people who have been abused (and that’s everyone) reproduce abusive attitudes in their writing without at all meaning to; these people are not abusers, and the abuse floats within the writing and is easily fixed.

There are tells everywhere in a genuinely abusive person’s work. The way they strip volition or dignity from some characters while building up the import or abilities of others; the tone they take in describing locales or emotional events; and last but certainly not least, the attitude conveyed by the narrative tone when it comes to disaster.

I’m not going to talk about any of those things right now because reasons, but what I am going to talk about for two more seconds is how to discern whether you are, unwittingly or not, writing abuse into your novel.

Big question, right? Seems like a sweeping overgeneralization, yes? Probably bit off more than I can chew with the proposition, hm?

Well, here’s how to tell, and it’s super easy, and it takes about four seconds.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

See, that’s how long it would take to know if you’re writing abusive prose or not.

Curious?

Here you go, and once you know the procedure, it’s simple and straightforward.

First, you fix your mind on the main character. If you write omni-POV or something, focus your thoughts on the central crew whose thoughts the reader inhabits, or whose actions form the primary connection to the reader’s experience.

Once you have a good emotional hold on the feel of the character or characters, close your eyes and thrust the heat of your heart forward in time, towards the end goal.

Every story has an end goal. Every single one has a purpose, an emotional state that is the finishing picture of the words. Even something vague and fantastical, experimental and seemingly structurally formless, has a distinct and meditative emotional state as the clear end goal.

There is an emotional goal of communication you are attempting to achieve in the reader by writing down words.

If you learn to do this for yourself, you can also apply the trick to any story you pick up or absorb through any means; look for the ending, the panache of “I am complete!” within the progression of the words and doings of the main character or group of characters.

Once you have focused your mind on the main movers, and cast your heart-energy forward into the future, towards the ending and coalescence of the emotion conveyed within the work, ask yourself:

“Up or down?”

Is that eventual, tentative emotional conveyance moving your internal energy up and out, or is your energy moving down and in?

If your internal substructures of energy and soul move in and down, your body and mind are telling you to retreat, to hunker in and protect yourself from harm. If your energy moves out and up, expanding towards the verge of your skin and possibly even extending towards the outer world, beyond the boundary of your physical being, then your body and mind are saying, “Yes, I can grow, I can relax; I am safe.”

Now, that is the four-second test, and here is how you evaluate your results.

If you are looking into your own writing, at a particular story, and your energy moves down and inwards, you are flinching in preparation for kickback from potential readers because you know in your heart that you are deliberately hurting people, and you’re preparing for a fight.

If, when you look into your main characters and cast your heart forward to the emotional end, your energy moves up and outwards, you are sharing your true inner self with genuine, human desire for connection and communication.

I’ll give you half a guess which response indicates abusive writing, and the half-guess doesn’t count.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and today in my current novel, a former prostitute is facing demons with a murderer. There is chocolate involved, as well as doctored identification documents.

Advertisements

I’m Looking For My Anger This Afternoon

So every few weeks I circle back into the drain of generalized depression. There’s a kind of person, I’ve found, and I’m one of them, who were kind of destroyed as young children and they (including me) have a hard time caring deeply about themselves.

It’s not that I don’t realize I ought to; I just can’t sometimes. The anger is out of reach. Instead of indignation I feel numb nonchalance. Also at these times I sort of stop breathing.

Finding The Anger Helps

I met a guy a long time ago who had been raised the same way I was. I sort of feel he ended up on the dark side, though, because he blatantly used his empathy skills to defraud people of intimacy and then twist them into casual knots over it. I use my people skills that I developed from being a public commodity to help broken people defend themselves.

He and I understood each other pretty well, but he did try to destroy me while denying that he’d even noticed I was there. He was sort of a jerk. His wife doesn’t like his way of cheating casually, in an emotional sense. His dirtiest trick, since I’m talking about him, was to work up underdeveloped homosexuals into unbearable crushes and then smear his heterosexuality in their faces. He was really rude about it.

He Was Almost A Professional Emotional Torturer

Um, the reason I’m talking about him at this moment is because I’ve been trying to decide if I ought to have done something about him. His mother had raised him as a kind of piece of tempting nymphrodisiac bait (I just made that word up) to attract social flattery and then experiment with gender. She did that; he was only partially aware of what was going on.

Anyway, that really has nothing to do with writing books, except it kind of does, since writing is an expression of emotional experience, couched in story.

Examples

BAD Writing:

The angry, aggressive person appeared at the door and came inside with an awful and threatening aura of terribleness. He was scary. The man kicked aside a chair and sat in it. His body made a comfortable sound thumping here in the seat.

There was a poor hungry little child underneath a particular piece of furniture in the room. Was it a table? Yes! It was a table!

The man called for his wife. What would happen next? The little kid waited with bated breath to learn what unpleasant talk would be in store that he would find out about as soon as his mom came into the room.

She did come into the room and she was far too pretty for a person who wasn’t particularly loving. She ought to have been sort of hideous, like a wart-ridden hag with no hair, but instead of being like that she was refined in appearance like a princess. Smelled good, too, aside from booze-musk.

She asked what the matter was, and her angry person elucidated the situation with the young person hiding under sticks of wood formed into a table.

They fought for a  minute and the boy ended up in bed. He did not have a nice rest and no one read him any kind of bedtime story, partially because his mom was drunk and his dad was uneducated and didn’t realize the good effects of reading on developing young brains.

GOOD Writing:

Marco shuffled through the door, knocking his head against the lintel and swearing softly. He glanced around the room and spotted a pair of very thin, bare legs extending from under the table. Marco grinned and pulled out a chair, sitting down at the table.

The pair of legs vanished under the table with a swift motion. Marco grinned and thrust his own legs out, impacting against a soft body.

“Barbara!” Marco bellowed. The little body under the table made a covert motion towards the opposite edge; Marco hooked his boot around the child’s hip to keep him in place.

A very beautiful drunk woman came into the dark room, her hair falling in waves over her eyes and her shoulders sloped at an angle. She had a tumbler of whiskey in one hand.

“What?” Barbara asked, tossing back her hair and sipping her drink.

“There’s a dirty animal under the table. What’s it doing there?” Marco asked, his face creased in a smile.

“Bed!” Barbara snapped. The small body under the table fought back uselessly against Marco’s trapping heel, though the child made no sound. Barbara let out an exaggerated sigh, stalked to the table, reached underneath with one hand, and dragged the boy out by his hair. She had to rip him away from his father’s heels, but the child came unstuck and scampered farther into the house.

“You should make the kid wash, Babs. He’s probably covered in shit again,” Marco said, leaning back in his chair.

“Then you wash him, dolt,” Barbara murmured, turning with a swivel of her shapely hips and sauntering back to her room.

And So

This example makes use of some backstory for one of my main characters from the series I’m working on right now. Oddly, I know that I’m angry because of past experience, but I couldn’t tell you why I’m mad, and I don’t feel enraged at all. Maybe the emotion will catch up to me tomorrow sometime.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and today in my current novel, the mysterious Kimoan is on the hunt for his lost biological son.

Cranks

Am I a crank or a realist? I generally see the best in people, but I sort of think that I shouldn’t, based on experience of a few rude goblins disguised as people.

For example, this afternoon I’m thinking about some writers I used to know several years ago. They hardly got any work done–and I don’t say this as a comment on their inherent worth as people, but as a factual statement about their visceral output of material. They didn’t write much, but they based their identities around being writers.

I suppose I should write that more like this:

Writers!

I don’t approve of the way they acted around other people. I don’t approve of the way they spoke about themselves, their work, or the writing of other people.

Am I a crank?

There was one kid who was working on a couple of short stories. He wanted to write screenplays, but he was busy with a day job (which I respect). He gave me a pile of stories to read once. We were talking about developing some tele-plays together, possibly. I ended up moving away shortly thereafter, but I have never forgotten one of this person’s short stories, which was about a group of kids tormenting each other and creating a secret ritual out of swearing and pulling apart dead animals.

The feeling in my heart at the end of the piece was, “Why?”

I had no answer to the question. Why? Why write about children destroying each other and mutilating the body of a small fuzzy creature? What was the point? I had no answer to the question, which led me to ask another question entirely:

And Here’s That Question:

What did this young man get out of writing the story?

That answer was easy and clear: He wrote to pass on abuse.

You see, you can package bad emotion into words and let it grow, then push it along in the stream of life and give the ugly feelings to someone else. It’s wrong, but you can do it.

Disguised As A Growing-Up Tale

The structure of the story was misleading, and the abuse was tucked in near the end, to maximize the potential impact of the reader continuing on to read the ending if they’d made it that far already.

I read another opening paragraph from a different writer’s crime novel this afternoon, and I got a swift headache because of the choppy, mis-mashed state of each sentence.

Every word was ill-chosen, jammed in beside other words that did not cooperate or form any poetic impact.

Why did this crime writer choose these words? And what did he get out of writing them with such a lack of coherent rhythm?

Chaos, Not Pleasing

I suppose what I really mean when I ask if I am a crank is that I am responding to human beings’ behavior as if they are choosing deliberately to be as they are.

I get the impression, in general, that the unwashed masses (and the washed ones, too) have entered an implicit agreement, en masse, to avoid responsibility for their committed acts in a sort of group-avoidance of emotional consequence. I do not approve of this state of affairs.

Here’s a sample of science fiction writing:

BAD WRITING:

Life with being inside the big place was just changed for her. She felt alive, but also lost. She tamed the interest always catching behind her features, though in her heart, things hopped, and her body felt changed in every way after she’d discovered how things really were. Mary felt so superior now!

Two other people on the main floor left, and returned before long. Nothing seemed to have been taking place at all, but something was going on, she was sure. I am not as important as I thought I might be, Mary reflected inside the confines of her private mind. Those monsters, not all human, distracted her thoughts continually and she shivered to think that she might at one point have been chosen to become one! The horror it would have been!

GOOD WRITING:

Life in the Museum was fundamentally changed for Mary. She no longer looked past the cyborgs. She was alive to the precariousness of her position, and did not distinguish herself from the other humans in any material way, but her eyes were no longer blank. She looked at things, and she was taken aback at what she saw happening in plain view.

She saw two women pulled out for testing in the first month. She had now, she realized, become so used to taking events in the Museum as a matter of course that it took her a full ten minutes after the second woman left to think through to the fact that these women were probably going to be impregnated in a secure room near the cyborg half of the building.

In conclusion

Remember that somewhere out there are a few cranks, and when they see your earnest and honest endeavors to write building, socially-constructive stories, they will be very proud of you for being a good egg, and may even send benevolent well-wishes through the ether of time and space. Or you’ll just feel really good about yourself for being better at storytelling than the rest of the bunch.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Vincento is about to preside over a war council.

Why Breathing Is A Better Strategy Than Panicking

mountains

Here is a sketch from me looking at landscapes.

I’m working on expanding my word choice for the current series I’m developing. I’m okay with my general word palette being pretty consistent over the course of one series. My touchstone metaphors and described behaviors are fairly consistent within the universe of each individual series, but I am feeling gun-shy about repeating particular verbs too often.

How Many Times Should A Character [verb], For Example?

On the other hand, I really don’t like it when writers stretch so far beyond the point of casual readability that you feel as if they’re sitting with a thesaurus and making esoteric word choices just to keep from repeating any one word more than twice. I don’t like that either. So there’s a balance I want to achieve.

I’ve been thinking about the time when I, a dancer, was going to my local studio all the time. It was frustrating because one of my important classes got canceled right through the summer that I had the most time to practice, so I got behind on classical training catch-up, and had to practice on my own, which is still good, but not nearly so useful as having a teacher on hand to correct arm placement and all that.

I’m Also Agonizing Over Comma Styles Lately

I was reading a story today where the author made a premise and then jolted into a flashback as a casual way to sneak out of any action happening in the present moment.

I didn’t like that. I thought that author was behaving like a dastardly and sleazy skunk. I’d rather the author gave the premise and then followed through on it, and didn’t squeeze two or three stories into the umbrella of a lie (the lie being, in this case, that all the narrative fits under the original premise). (Because it didn’t! No action happened at all under the original premise! Booooo!)

I think, based on my own experiences, that authors often avoid making action and significant change, and often backtrack and dither. Here’s an example of that:

BAD Writing

Silas pulled out the can of shotgun shells and sorted through for the one he wanted. Today was the day he was going to hunt after that big doe, the floppy black one with big haunches and vicious red eyes.

(Here’s where that sneaky, avoidant backtracking normally comes into play.)

Silas remembered the first time he’d seen old floppy-ears. He closed his eyes as he was lost in the mists of long ago within the confines of his sappy mind.

(Sudden flashback to years earlier!)

He pulled up his jacket and shifted his rifle against his arm as he strode through the empty cars and the discarded clothes and possessions on the freeway. The giant, man-eating rabbits didn’t come out this way often, but it was better to be prepared.

Suddenly! A black do with floppy ears! Her eyes were so red! And her large front teeth sharp, violent! He could imagine those teeth stained with his own blood! Probably the blood from his neck where he thought she would sink her horrible bunny teeth in and chew him limb from limb, or head from torso, really, since it was his neck he was thinking of.

Silas brought his gun up and sighted along the barrel, fully prepared to brutally destroy this fine creature of predatory dominance over the fallen, extinguished-almost race of man! The rabbit looked up! She dashed away!

(Return to present moment.)

That darned rabbit always got away, Silas thinks to himself sadly. He was so depressed about how he’d never caught her before that he gave up on the hunt and went back to bed.

GOOD Writing

Silas pulled out the can of shotgun shells and sorted through for the one he wanted. Today was the day he was going to hunt after that big doe, the floppy black one with big haunches and vicious red eyes.

He felt the shiver of the morning air over his bare arms; the rabbits always went for his biceps, because they wanted to taste skin right away under their awful, slathering jowls, and Silas wore a mask and full-body suit to draw the rabbits onto his arms.

He’d rigged a sort of invisible armor, a kind of electrical system that ran from his wrist cufflets to his shoulder gear, and the rabbit who bit down on his arm was a rabbit that got its brain shocked, hard. Silas had thought when he’d first invented the arm-guards that he would be able to stroll among the bunnies and let them bite his arms and kill themselves, but he had found that his arm system was more of a last-defense, as it ended up stunning a rabbit for three seconds and then turned the animal crazy and rabid. He took the massive rabbits out from afar as often as he could.

Silas stood for a long moment at the mouth of his hideout, looking along the destroyed highway and the many piles of scrap metal, where the bunny families had chewed abandoned cars to pieces. He hoisted his ram-fire weapon over his shoulder, patted the useful shotgun buckled to his body, and strolled out into the early morning air to find the black doe.

She’d left her spoor near the left-hand exit again, and it was fresh. Silas licked his lips as he imagined roasting fresh rabbit over a bonfire tonight. He hadn’t eaten a doe for a long time now, almost two weeks, and he hoped to be able to strip her body and store up rabbit jerky for the winter.

Silas tracked the doe to a cluster of trees and spotted her nibbling at a lower branch. She was fully fifteen feet, from nose to fluffy tail, and her hide was slick, ebony, and looked very soft. I will make her into a bed, Silas thought, and he cautiously unfastened his shotgun and put down his larger ram-fire cannon in the same motion. Die, bunny, Silas thought, as he lifted his gun and aligned the sights with her violent crimson eye.

And So

Following through on a premise is a good way to gain trust and confidence in the reader’s mind. Abandoning a premise mid-story (or anywhere within the story, really), is a rude thing to do.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Dave Tinnels is about to have a very interesting conversation with a dead gangster’s bodyguard.

A Pep Talk Targeted At Me (But You Can Totally Listen In)

My kids keep singing little songs from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. You know, it took me a long time to figure out that show was a spin-off from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood? I wasn’t paying any attention to it at first; it was just noise in the background. I kept feeling like, ‘Why do they have a trolley, and make this big deal about putting on his sweater? It’s just like Mr. Rogers!’

Yeah.

Now For My Pep Talk At Me!

So, on to your performance rocking. This is how it usually goes: You sit down to do something awesome, and within the first fifteen minutes you find yourself having a full-blown crisis over the meaning of life.

Part of you is like, ‘Why am I worrying about the meaning of life when I just want to make some awesome shit!?’, and the other parts of you are thinking about how you’re too old to be successful, what the weather is like, and whether or not anything really exciting and unexpected might occur later on. (It usually doesn’t, though.)

So?

The answer is to ignore the crisis and carry on with making the awesome shit. I mean, the crisis is going to happen whether or not you participate fully in it. Your mind is like a searchlight, roving around and fixating on different things. You can move the spotlight onto making awesome stuff or you can turn it on your mostly pointless and self-fulfilling dramatics of failure and disappointment, yadda-etc.

The big difference between a secure, successful performer and a working-on-it amateur is the attitude. Rock-solid performers carry on and focus on the task at hand while the other people sprint around flapping their hands and squawking about the meaning of life. I’m not actually exaggerating. So to fix performance, let us shove our collective nose in against the metaphorical grindstone of doing shit anyway and carry on.

This Is Me Cheerleading For Myself (Hoo-Rah, Etc.)

And the answer is not to work harder. The answer is to work at a normal pace without getting sucked into freaking out. Worrying about hypotheticals doesn’t count as working, though it will wear us out if we pour our energy into the exercise.

Examples

BAD Writing: Horrible Obfuscation

Bicken threw paper up towards the ceiling and caught it, his rangy form spread over the divan. The paper made a whisper as it soared up.

“Who’ve we got at three?” Bicken asked.

The boy had a knife tucked into the back of his pants.

“New guys, two.”

“I told dad no. Go tell him again,” Bicken said.

“He won’t listen.”

“Then go cross out one of the names in the book and write it underneath,” Bicken said, flinging his paper at the boy.

“I can’t. You have Xixthor,” the boy said. Bicken scowled and got up.

“Dad!” Bicken shouted, going out.

GOOD Writing: Clues and Imagery Added

The lights burned a soft gold in the late-night shadows of the small room. Bicken threw a wadded ball of paper up towards the ceiling and caught it, his rangy form spread over the rich divan. He wore soft pants and an open robe of shimmering silk that showed off his shaved torso. The crumpled paper made a slight whisper as Bicken tossed it up through the air. A boy of twelve stood in the open doorway, his arms folded and his body an expression of malevolent caution.

“Who’ve we got at three?” Bicken asked, watching his projectile touch the ceiling and drop down again.

The boy in the doorway studied Bicken; the little kid’s eyes were dark blue, angry, and full of a vengeful portent that Bicken discounted as growing pains. The boy had a secret knife tucked into the waist of his pants and hidden under his shirt.

“A couple of guys.”

“I told dad I won’t do two at once. Go tell him I said no,” Bicken snapped with an irritable twist in his mouth.

“He doesn’t listen to me.”

“Then go cross out one of the names in the book and move it down to the next slot. They’ll have to take turns,” Bicken said, flinging his paper ball at his half-brother, who dodged aside.

“I can’t. You have Xixthor Ean right after that,” the boy said. Bicken scowled and got up, shoving past the kid as he went out of the room.

“Dad!” Bicken shouted. The boy put his hand against his secret knife as soon as Bicken was gone. Wait until after, he thought, and then kill him. Catero’s heart was pounding.

The End Of The Pep Talk

Just keep moving forward and don’t lose your head, Victor Poole. Yay you. Etc. And so on.

Here’s a sketch I worked on today. I’m studying motion and active, forceful lines. The source image is here.

for4j

You’re reading Victor Poole, and today in my current novel, Josh Bains participated in some socially-inflaming displays of affection with his lover and was spied on by rival gangsters.