Spy Flash – Week 26

When I accepted Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge six months ago, I really didn’t think I’d still be at it now, but it took on a life of its own.

As I indicated when I started on this adventure, I looked upon it as an opportunity to flesh out back story on two characters I thought I knew pretty well. Suffice it to say, I learned a few things about them, and, despite what some may think, they talked to me and explained many things about their personalities. I never thought I’d turn these vignettes into a book, but when the thought of that struck me, it made the challenge much more exciting.

For example, who knew I’d need to come up with something other than the obvious to deal with the recurring pyramid cube? But it’s all in how you perceive the meaning of the cubes, and sometimes it isn’t as cut and dried as you think.

So, if you’re still reading along, you need to read the story for Week 26 soon because within the next week to ten days, I’m taking down all the existing Spy Flash stories and, well, you’ll have to buy the book. Please? I’m not stopping taking on the challenge, and, who knows, maybe in six more months, there’ll be a Spy Flash 2 collection?

This week’s story, “Cleopatra’s Barge,” features a character from a trilogy I wrote and am editing (A Perfect Hatred) about an act of domestic terrorism based on the Oklahoma City bombing. The character, John Thomas Carroll, is the bomber, in prison and awaiting his execution. One thing we know about the character Mai Fisher is that she keeps her word, and she’s made a promise to the bomber, whom she tried to turn, which she intends to keep. That doesn’t set well with Alexei Bukharin, who is the other significant character in this week’s story, though he’s never named. In the trilogy Carroll never knows Alexei’s name, so I didn’t change that.

Here’s this week’s roll of the cubes:

And here’s what I saw: l. to r. – breaking; a moon; a fish; a lightning bolt; a building; up in a tree/climbing a tree; dropping the ball; a light bulb; a bouncing ball/playing baseball.

If you don’t see the link on the story title above, then go to the top of this post and click on the Spy Flash tab then select “Cleopatra’s Barge” from the drop-down menu.

Look for Spy Flash in December as a paperback or an eBook on Amazon.com.

Feet of Clay

A writer friend lamented over the weekend she had been devastated by something a writer she admired had said on a conference panel. The writer she’d gone to see is a well-known sci-fi/fantasy author of a popular series. (And it’s not George R. R. Martin; I omit the name because I’m not interested in being sued by someone with a gazillion dollars.)

Someone in the audience asked the panel if any of them had ever had the experience where a character took a story in a different direction from what the writer had planned. This well-known and beloved author apparently sneered and said words to the effect that characters in his books are fiction, and the idea that fictional characters “talk” to writers means the writer is nuts.

My writer friend was dismayed at the answer. It actually put her on quite the downer, then she added that she still liked his books and would continue to buy them.

My question is why? Why continue to support someone who is so contemptuous of his audience?

I suppose you can separate a person’s body of work from their personality. I mean, my favorite author is Harlan Ellison, for whom the appellation “curmudgeon” is an understatement. However, Ellison has never dissed his audience. In fact, nearly forty years ago, Ellison picked me from a crowd of fan-boys and -girls to give me some personal writing advice. He was charming and encouraging, and, though his over-sized ego was definitely present, he never once disdained any of my stupid questions. That was twenty minutes of my life I’ll never forget.

When Tom Clancy gave an interview many years ago where he proclaimed that anyone making under $100,000 a year simply couldn’t relate to him or he to them, I was astounded and dismayed. That was the key demographic who bought his books, who made him a rich man, who enabled his first wife to buy him a freaking tank for his birthday. This, from the former insurance salesman who let fame and fortune go far enough to his head that he appeared on Fox as a “terrorism expert.” I stopped buying his books.

The reality is, yes, characters in a novel are fiction, but they are real enough that you hear their voices in your head. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t exist. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity. And, yes, characters sometimes insist that the story go in an unplanned direction. That isn’t crazy; it’s creativity.

The other reality is successful writers are human beings with personality quirks, and sometimes some of them reach a point where they don’t feel they need to cater to their audience anymore. They don’t have to be nice and indulge a perfectly reasonable question from a fan.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t look up to writers. As writers ourselves, successful writers are whom we aspire to be. Just accept that those successful and popular writers are human beings, too. Admire them, emulate them, but don’t idolize them. Spotting their feet of clay can be so earth-shattering.

How about you? Has a writer you’ve admired said or done something that has made you boycott their books?

Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume

Yesterday, I had a long talk about writing–its joys and frustrations–with another local writer friend of mine. She was talking about a character she created and a certain aspect of his life and how she didn’t set out to write him that way, that it was just “there.”

“He told you who he was,” I said. (No, I’m not usually that profound.)

I’ve had this conversation with other writers or heard or read other writers who say the same thing–a character you create somehow becomes his or her own entity and proceeds to tell you, “I’d really do it this way. No, no, no, I’d never say/do/believe/want that.” That character leads you down plot paths you never anticipated, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Merely, our constipated brains need the liberation provided by creating a fictional character who is our alter ego.

My main character–an Englishwoman who is a spy–gets to say things I’d never say, and I’m known for being outspoken. When your character can let loose with something society and propriety require you to keep quiet about, that alleviates a lot of pent-up frustration and keeps it from exploding at an inappropriate time. See, having your characters talk to you can be a good thing.

How do you know they’re speaking to you? When you’ve written something you think is the way you want the story to go, but then you’re pulled back to the keyboard and end up rewriting or revising or tossing out words until that story has set off in a different direction, and it’s for the good–that’s when your characters tapped you on the shoulder and said, “I think you need to reconsider.”

I struggled for a long time to find the ending for my trilogy about a domestic terrorism event, and it just didn’t come. Oh, the various attempts were good endings, but none of them was The Ending, the way the series was supposed to conclude. Then, the death of the person on whom one of the characters in the trilogy is based gave me that ending. It was as if the fictional character finally got through to me and said, “You’ve been avoiding the reality that this was the only way it could end.” And he was right.

We think we create our characters from whole cloth, but the truth is we take pieces–the good and the bad–from every person we’ve ever known or loved or disliked. We stitch them together and give them our own life-force, and they are as real to us as any flesh and blood person. They have to be. Otherwise, a reader would never be interested. They come from within us. They’re our “children.” We speak to other writers of them as if they were real and sitting around the table with us. We defend them and their actions to members of our critique groups/agents/editors. We think of them at odd times. We anticipate getting back to the story so we can see them again. We see something happen and know how our characters would react to it. They are our waking and sleeping companions, often our best friends and harshest writing critics. We are the ones who shout in triumph, as they rise from the laboratory tables in our minds, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

How about it? Do your characters speak to you? If so, leave a comment and tell me about a time when they did.


Writing Work Schedule Update:

Things are actually still going according to schedule, even with having had a nasty cold last week. On “Submission Friday” I send in two book reviews and two author interviews to a fiction magazine. This week, on the Editing/Revising days, I’ll concentrate on proofreading and finalizing the re-typed (and edited) manuscript of my collection of short stories, Rarely Well Behaved, which I’m re-releasing as an
e-book this spring–or earlier.