Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Psych 101 Last Question --#10

Q #10:
As a writer, how does intelligence of writring help you? In short, how did you come across your knowledge of writing novels?

A: Anyone can learn to learn, or rather take steps to learn more about a topic--any topic. I learn best via doing, as in teaching. You teach it, you learn it. The more a writer comes to own knowledge, the higher his or her WQ--writing quotient.

IQ tests are indicators of potential, but it is motivation that drives us to learn the lessons of such things as research, analyzing data, accurately reporting or using information in a story. As for learning about the creative process, whether it's in writing or another art form, one gains experience only in doing, not unlike shooting baskets long enough will teach you how to shoot. When you practice to become a wordsmith, there're years of apprenticeship involved. Some of us began when just children. Being born as a silver-tongued genius is rare. Most writers must work to overcome failings, stuttering starts, self-conscious writings, and a slew of problems. In fact, writing is in a real sense all about self-analysis. Only after much study and painting oneself into corners and many missteps does a writer see the path to sentences that sizzle, snap, crackle, and pop or just plain sing. Lessons such as "if you can't make it sing, at least make it clear" come hard won only after gobs and gobs of hard work and fun and play with words and language.

Working with words on a daily basis is the only way I know of how to improve oneself as a writer. With each new novel or short story I write, I am reminded of lessons already learned and that I need to learn more; the more you know, the more you need to know. Only through hard work, determination, persistence, and sometimes pestilence over long years in the field do you easily pick the fruit. If you can't get thee to a 'nunnery' or a 'university' where they will sweat you in a writing program in bootcamp fashion, then create your own rigorous program, and if you make it last as long as I did, four years, it might take. I would not ever trade in my PQ--persistence quotient for any amount of IQ. There is also the little matter of MO--motivation quotient. Let us not forget the EQ--experience quotient either.

This has all been directed at the author\writer\creator, but intelligence and knowledge play a huge role in character-building as well, not to mention reader intelligence and knowledge. Otherwise good characters who represent their careers and fields in many books seem lacking in knowledge of said field or career. A truly great character is partially great because she is so clearly knowledgeable (Ahab knew his whales!) in her field as with a medical examiner or detective. As for intelligent readers, they are the ones who both understand what we writers write and love us for it no matter who we have to kill off, no matter how tough things get, knowing we must 'sacrifice' for the good of the story.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Q#9 -- How does 'abnormal behavior' enter into the realm of creative writing and fiction?

Answer: Have you read any one of my books? OK...risky word phrase this 'abnormal behavior' as you have to ask then what is 'normal' behavior in a species that 'won' out as the meat eater of all the great apes? Authors are forever dealing with perceptions of what is right and what is wrong, what is good, what is evil, and the common error of taking things at face value. Is writing and painting and creating 'abnormal' in itself since, like actors, all artists have to be driven and obsessed to become a player in this field? This question may be too complex to answer here, but let's keep exploring.

Appearance is seldom what it seems in a novel, especially a mystery or suspense or thriller. Societal norms are taken to task. Since I write about murder and often times serial murder, murder is my stock and trade, my INC. This means 'abnormal behavior' is my bread and butter but once removed as I have killed no one except on a stage. My evil antagonists are always into aberrant and sickening words and actions; what he says, thinks, and does is who he or she is (see Final Edge for the worst female killer in all the history of books! Laurelie Blodgett). Such characters are motivated by sick fantasies, mania, fear, psychological disorders, obsessions, phobias, actual physical deformities, actual illnesses just as are Shakespeare's worst villianous scum like Iago. They are motivated often by 'abnormal' beliefs, but often such 'abnormal' beliefs come out of popular cultural beliefs, legends, even religion as in anti-religious behavior on a grand scale. Some sick beliefs have a foothold in historical fact about mankind--as in cannibalistic behavior, perhaps even necrophilia--sex with the dead. Certainly there are enough scatologically disgusting elements about mankind and his history to provide fodder for many, many an aberrant behavior or belief system or 'nutty' fantasy, desire, want, goal.

I don't have to mention Stephen King and Anne Rice made a killing on abnormal behavior, do I? Still there is a fine line at work here. Abnormal can slip over into caricature and unintended funnies in the blink of a cyclop's eye if one is not careful. How far from the 'norm' can our 'abnormal' Grandma Grimwood go before she becomes a twisted Dickensian comical granny?
In books about psychotics, sociopaths, organized and disorganized killers of every stripe there is great latitude in defining abnormal, but in all cases the sociopathic monster has to have its\his\her roots in humanity and where we've come from...from the primitve lizard brain to the present...roots are sunk deep. This is why the abnormal among us, in the end, are human after all. Humanity swings a wide arc across the rainbow from purity to the unspeakably vile and no author can turn away and not see this if the story demands it. Those who do turn a blind eye to the absolute end of the spectrum, the deepest rung in the pit miss an entire part of the human condition and it's like being color blind, missing an entire spectrum of the rainbow itself.
OK...believe it or not.

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Q#8 -- How does 'health and stress' play a role in fiction writing?

Answer: Health and stress are like chicken and egg, hand and glove as one is so closely linked with the other. The health of the author and the reader are crucial to the process. Lose your helath and the first interest to go is sex followed by reading. Laugh track here. Seriously, a loss of the ability to concentrate, focus, draw on memory is devastating to the creative process and reading is a creative process as well as writing. Too much stress bad things result all round. Too little stress...well isn't it like blood pressure and so many things? Everything in moderation. So health and stress are crucial to reading and writing, and inside the story, characters also battle health issues and stress at every turn. In fact, the stress level for the typical fictional person would likely kill any real human being. Imagine being at the stress level of an Indiana Jones for a day. The stress level and problems an author creates to plague his creation are crucial to a story, because in essence every working story is a war. One side wants X, side two wants Y, and they stand in one another's way (goal). It is stressful to chase a killer, to race toward a goal, to attempt to achieve but the brass ring is just out of reach. The old admonition is to get your character up a tree, then soak him with rain, pelt him with rocks, hit the limb he's on with lightning, have the limb careen to the earth where you've placed a family of bears or cannibals who're awaiting the poor sap. Any stress in the cartoon version of Tarzan? Disney films even for children have to carry conflict, else no story. Conflict and overcoming conflict is the essence of story. Stress, conflict, tension...the high wire upon which the story charcter walks and fails or prevails. It's the job of the author to establish bedrock characteristics (DNA) in a Tom, Dick, or Harry, and then to challenge these rock-hard, supposedly unshakable traits. You can't let a character rest in a state of bliss (not for long anyway). Stress and health play a major role in the creative process indeed.

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Q: How does 'personality' assist in the writing of fiction?

Answer: Personality...and this means A, B, C and all types, figure heavily in fiction and typically the author's own personality comes into play as does the readers for that matter! A writer has to be somewhat driven and obsessive to stick with it for the duration, and so too must a reader to bring a book to completion. Writer endures to the end, flip-side that, reader hopefully endures to the end.

In the depiction of character, personality is the culmination of conditioning, struggle against conditioning, or failure to make that struggle and accepting one's conditioning (we're all brain washed to something). What motivates a person = personality. Comes of having personal goals, and every character, good, bad, ugly and in between must have goals and perhaps a super goal. Characters have run in with themselves--memories, sensations, images. flashbacks or hallucinations, etc. These form layers in a character's personae. A character is molded by circumstances or resists them. Either way tensions and conflict can come of a stubborn obsessive compulsive, and the most memorable characters have these traits when they set their eyes on the prize. Ahab in Moby Dick had a wooden leg for a reason. If he was sound of leg and mind, if he still had both his legs, or if he had no legs and was confined to a wheel chair and could not act on his mad obsession over the whale, or didn't really care to be bothered, it wouldn't be quite the memorable saga it is. It'd be flatline. Ahab would never walk the deck of a ship. Would not be motivated to do so. Would retire.

Nightmare, memory, learned experience, what's in the character's bedrock DNA is at the heart of personality and story. The best author know how to create full-blown characters fully realized. Characters are multi-layered and complex as in life. Readers today demand far more complexity of character than compelxity of storyline.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Q.#6 -- What role does 'motivation' play in mystery and suspense writing?

A: Motivation causes a person to move toward a goal. Always a good thing in mystery plotting and suspense building. In fiction, if you do not get your character(s) 'properly' and 'fully' motivated, either via cattle prod or bomb, toward a goal, you have no story, no plot development. It falls into the category of a flatline story. Perhaps a mood piece, but there be no seismograph or rollercoaster action at work. You must move the story forward, which means characters have to get out of their seats, off the porch, off the beam and out into the scary place where they must face all the horrid demons from self-doubt to a serial killer on the loose. Character X accuses my heroine of something she did not do, which in turn motivates her to prove otherwise, to prove herself (worthy, brave, courageous, bold), while another character Z, the killer, is telling her she can't do a damn thing about the fact he will kill again. This motivates her to struggle harder, to be smarter next time, to outfox the fox she chases. She may be motivated by a blind faith in her intuition or a certain clue or even her bedrock character trait of being a stubborn scientist or psychic, which can also become her weakness, a weakness or blind spot that can be used against her. A character filled with a desire for raw revenge may get himself killed for it. A psychic who trusts in the wrong vision may get herself killed for the error.

So characters are motivated by circumstances and by other characters (who become obstacles to a goal). Characters are also motivated by settings, storms at sea, an addiction, a past, preconceived and often skewed notions, a surfeit of faith, a lack of faith, a lack of sleep, a fevered brain, or any number of airborne pollens as in Monk. Any 'challenge' can motivate a character or spur him to action. These challenges are called, guess what, motivating factors or forces. Of course a 'force of nature' can really motivate a character to get off Mt. Hood. Nature itself is often the motivator. Sometimes that means human nature.

Motivation is a key to having a story with a forward moving dynamo; a compelling, fast-moving plot or storyline. If a story only exists because of tension\conflict...if a story is indeed a WAR, then the nature of said war itself is the great motivator. Typically, an author determines the nature of the war before he sits down to write. The war may be in the 'What If" question. What if a the captain of the ship you set sail upon happens to be a madman driven by an obsession that could easily get you killed?

As to the author's own motive for writing the story? Money, fame, glory, self-exploration, exploring a question of a paranomal or normal nature, seeking an answer to racial hatred , sheer enjoyment or passion in the act of creation...Vengeance' and\or 'validation' --whatever turns your crank, this is the author's motivating force. For love or money...for love and money? Go for it. Just do it. Motive and motivation is all about doing. Start your story with your character's hands doing something and you are well on your way already, in the midst of action and motive. Motive is everything, especially in mystery and suspense fiction just as surely as in True Crime.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

  1. Q#5 (halfway thru the course!): How does emotion play a part in writing fiction, short, long or otherwise?
  2. Answer: Emotion is passion and if fiction is about anything it is about the passions. All good fiction involves emotion and emotional responses. Good dialogue is about emoting and responding, and the best dialogue shows great passion, which is at the core of story conflict. Bodily responses, facial responses have all to do with 'giving up clues' to character and some secret the character is hiding. When your main character is depressed, for instance, your entire purpose for a scene might well be to depict a single overwhelming emotion, as when Inspector Alastair Ransom is brought to his knees in my City for Ransom, literally so by what a killer has done to him. Fear, anger, rage, suicidal thoughts and their opposite emotions make our characters real people with whom we can relate, and with whom our readers can relate. A great story is remembered for the depth of the emotions brought to bear by the circumstances and the characters that fit said plot. A character's emotions might be reflected, refracted, mirrored, twisted, bolstered, or destroyed within a given storyline. Conversely, they might be used to demonstrate how a character fits a setting or is in antagonism with that setting given his or her passions (think Wuthering Heights here). Characters rise and fall and orbit about one another and when their orbits collide, passions collide, and when that happens conflict and story are in simpatico with character and the entire symphony of emotions plays out so well. Give a thought to all the major characters that live on in your mind long, long after you have read of them and recall how utterably passionate they were about winning their goals within that story. From Gone with The Wind to a favorite mystery novel this is true. Emotion is the bedrock of great stories.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Question #4 -- How does memory affect the writing of the novel or short?

Answer: God help the writer short on memory. It takes a great deal of recall work to put any sort of mind-boggling work together. Short stories, not so much but still...Memory is essential. Memory affects the process of writing and the writer himself in so many ways and on so many levels we often take it for granted till we lose it! And you needn't be aged to lose it. Memory is a slippery quicksilver substance if you are having problems in the real world ranging from personal loss, depression, financial drain, or trauma and health issues (some speak of writer's block, but it is life block is what it is).

Imagine being unable to recall pivotal moments in the story upon which you had planned to resolve matters? Loose ends takes on a whole new meaning. Being unable to recall vivid memories of a real life situation the author wishes to place in her novel can be devastating. Being unable to recall vivid details in chapter one that need come back in in chapter thirty from a character's eye color to the breed of dog on his lap is equally frustrating. Each missing memory chip creates a hole in the story. If one can't recall details of character traits, names, ticks, etc., he may well use the computer nowadays as a crutch to re-locate such details, but this takes time away from writing the story. Questions of plot and plot development aren't so easily fixed; how do you do a search and rescue effort on a plot development gone horribly awry? Memory in both the creative artist during the creative process and embedded within the characters created becomes an absolute necessity.

Imagine creating a character without a memory. Of course, if that is part and parcel of the storyline, amnesia for whatever reason as in Mr. Budwing or The Bourne Identity that's one thing, but an unintentional outcome stemming from a character who can't remember his lines or remember his own traits might be a sticky problem indeed. Actually, there is no "might be" about it. As a rule...As a rule...As a rule of thumb then, characters require sharp memories (unless a confused old 'lodger' or 'codger' needs to have an inadequate memory for the sake of the story), especially our main detective(s), cops, medical examiners and such. Our Sherlock has to be up for battle, up and alert to catch the clues and ultimately the horrendously bad guy(s) and sometimes the terribly bad gal(s) who typically leave a trail of clues to the requisite doorstep. Again unless the intent is to create and develop a bungling Mr. Magoo who really does have memory lapses (which could be an interesting premise for a mystery detective tale or only frustrating a 'ell to the reader), we're going to want our hero or heroine to be fairly sharp if not razor sharp in the memory department. Besides, as a rule, characters require secrets, fears, experiences which all equate out to either pleasant or unpleasant memories. Memories in fact help greatly to establish and build character 'biographies' in the story. Bumper Sticker Alert: Hard to remember a memorable character who did not have memories. Harder still to imagine an author who could possibly work without memories to ahhh...Yeah, work with.

I have gone through periods when writing became impossible, due in large part to a shut down of the senses without which no memory gets through. We and our characters react to smell, sound, taste, touch, and sight, any one of which or any combination of which sets memory into motion. A good story is filled with characters hoarding secret memories, some of which are revealed, and in the revelation of character, secret, and memory, we find a fully fleshed out, fully-realized character staring back off the page of ink marks, someone we relate to because we share the secret and the memory now as we do with all the classic character from Ahab to Heathcliff.

Memories...Memories...

Monday, November 27, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Q#3: How does conditioning, as defined by psychologists, have an influence on a novelist?

A: Quick and dirty answer is--I write, I get paid. More seriously, authors get the job done out of a sense of ritual and conditioning, and the more times one writes, the easier it becomes; it helps if there are built in rewards for finishing a scene, celebrating a breakthrough, etc.

In fiction, characters work out of a sense of conditioned response all the time. A positive character feels ill-at-ease in a hotel room, unable to sleep. Said character can't control her environment as at home. Same character exhibits a sense of relief and comfort in home. Characters begin with conditioned traits, often a bedrock of traits that can't or won't be denied or blasted out, and the writer's job is to blast away to see what happens if the bedrock conditioning (often childhood conditioning) begins to crumble or show chinks. In fact every great story and film is about this. Authors also work hard at exploding a 'load' of culturally conditioned notions about race, religion, education, and other issues as well by challenging the character who may believe something only because he has known no alternative.

Scarlett of Gone with the Wind fame leaps out as example. It's kind of a war between character and author. A character wants nothing more than to hold onto 'himself' and keep himself intact while an author most assuredly must tear him down, layer by layer until said character is examining his own beliefs and traits. He cannot remain static; can't be a Pavlovian fellow, and if he is and can't get beyond conditioned response the story and character will fall flat and bore the reader to the cliche of tears. A miser who remains a miser will not be as interesting as Ebeneezer Scrooge. By the way, the three pigs, conditioned to hide and flee rather than strike out do in some versions of the tale die because they can't change with the times or are technologically limited--laugh-track follows!

Watch for Q#4 -- How does memory affect the writing of a novel?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Psych 101 for writers, readers, and characters

Over a period of time, I will be considering 10 questions that delve into the relationship between psychology and writing the novel, and being a novelist. In other words, what has psychology got to do with imagination and creation--creating whole worlds populated with people out of ink marks on a page? The following questions and answers delve into the psychology of the author himself, and eventually will also ask about the psychology of characters an author creates: This is Psych 101 for Authors and readers interested in the craft and creative impulse.

Q.#2: How do sensation and perception enter into the realm of fiction writing?

A: Sensation and perception are the conduits to creativity, and without these and the detail they arrive at, the author could never make the unbelievable believable. E.B. White crafted through sense and perception detail a full-blown relationship between a spider and a pig in Charlotte's Web, a tale to make grown men and women, including gruff old gramps, weep for the death of a spider. How'd he do that? He paid extreme detail to the senses and perceptions of his characters and to his own as he wrote the story. In the details, White tugs at every sense we own and then some. How things look to the eye, taste to the tonuge, feel to the touch, smell to the nose, sound to the ear, feel to the spirit--our 6th sense. The entire body is wired to the brain, and the hands and other sense organs are the visible extensions of the brain, and we SEE only what the brain sess, and the brain sees through the senses, which make everything metaphorical and visual. Perception and sensation provide images, and even Einstein relied on images to see patterns and when we see patterns we learn, we SEE, we know, and we own the result.

A writer's stock'n'trrade is his tools and one of the largest paint brushes he or she uses is the notions of perception and sensations. It is our job to make the odors rise off the black ink marks on the page, and to make the sound effects create an effect to make you jump, and to make you fear what you're picking up, or to laugh aloud, or to smile at a fond perhaps lost memory. In a horror novel, creating a monster and making readers truly believe in its reality is no less a task than E.B. White's making you cry over Charlotte's demise. It is the same task. Make the reader believe the unbelievable. Every story is a war, a confrontation between or among combatants, and even if there is no violence in the story, every story hinges upon conflict and conflict resolution. No one gets through a war unscathed. Just as White so subtly invovles us in the life of Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider, whose war was with the unfeeling society that had laid out Wilbur's future for him--the slaughter house--Shelley involves us in the life of Frankenstein, Stoker in Dracula's problems, and so forth. The "devil is in the details" means the senses and perception. The author is always working to pull these out of the reader, and in doing so, he must first pull them from himself.

So Sensory impulses and perceptions enter into a story at every level and on every page, even the psychological perceptions as when a smart cop is interrogating a smarter suspect. Each character in a story is sizing up another, and through the various perceptions of said characters does 'characterization' -- busy determining if the other is a threat or an ally. Take the notion to Gone with the Wind....Rhett and Scarlet. Everyone in the book is laboring under right or wrong perceptions and the reader's every sensation is yanked at and tugged on....