Beware of frozen food cups and bare feet

They should put a warning label on those new Stouffer’s Cheeseburger Mac cups. One that reads: Caution, Frozen Mac and Cheese Cups Can Cause Physical Injury if It Should Roll Out of Your Freezer and Drop on Your Bare Foot.

Ouch!

That’s what happened to me this morning as I opened the freezer to fetch a Jimmy Dean Breakfast Bowl. In doing so, the Mac and Cheese cup plummeted several feet and landed like a rock on my fleshy bare left foot. And it left a mark!

Now I don’t typically go strutting around the house in my bare feet, mind you. Not after my brother walked into the leg of a stationary bicycle in the middle of the night this past spring and promptly broke his little toe. And especially not while our house is a disaster zone of clutter. No, I usually wear my sneakers (slippers provide no more protection than socks, really, which is to say, none at all.) But for some reason, today I defied the gods and strolled into the kitchen sans socks, slippers or sneakers.

And I paid the price.

Fortunately, the frozen food cup landed on the top of my foot and not on one of my toes. Otherwise I might be off to have an X-Ray of a broken appendage like my brother did on his toe. Not that the hospital was able to do anything for my brother’s broken toe, by the way. All they did was wrap it up with tape against one of his straighter toes and send him on his way with a $900 hospital bill to go with.

(So what do you think hurt more in the end? Hospital bill or broken toe?)

I lucked out. I only suffered a small red mark and a stinging feeling around my wound, which has since subsided. No ice packs, broken appendage tape or emergency room visit needed. It probably won’t even leave a scar, so I won’t be able to make up a neat shark story like Brody and Quint in Jaws. Dang it all.

I can at least share my harrowing experience with my reading audience. And, since this is a blog about the writing life, here’s the lesson to be gleaned from all of this: Real life incidents are sometimes stranger than fiction.

I see this experience as perfect fodder for a quirky character in one of my books who goes around wearing steel-toed boots wherever he goes, even in the middle of the night to raid the fridge. Maybe he even sleeps with them on.

Hey, sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up!

Writers: You don’t have to do this … but you probably should

It’s a simple enough line of dialogue: “You don’t have to do this.”

But it’s also one of the most common and, perhaps, overused lines of dialogue in today’s movies and TV shows as well. Listen for it, and you will hear it uttered more often than not.

The line exists for one reason only: It represents a decision point.

The main character has one last opportunity to consider his or her course of action. Do they take on the bad guy even though it puts them, their family, their career, etc., at risk? Do they choose the action even if it goes against every moral fiber of their being?

Of course, the character faced with the choice always does move ahead. If not, the movie or TV episode would fizzle on the spot. The goal would go unfulfilled, the viewer would leave unhappy.

It’s unfortunate, however, that so many screenplays telegraph this choice in such a way. It’s not very original in terms of writing, and it sounds cliched. But there it is, time and time again. It’s clearly an audible cue to the viewers that this is an important decision to be made. It is a moment that everything in the film has been building towards. In other words, the big payoff is at hand.

I’m not sure if this line of dialogue has its own chapter in the many how-to screenplay books out there, but it should. Your story, your screenplay, is nothing without it.

 

 

When the pieces fall into place…

I’m getting a late start today (I slept late). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Last night was a wildly productive night. I used up one ballpoint pen and another is nearly spent of all its ink. I have page after page of hastily scrawled notes relating to my work in progress, or, more specifically, the main character of my work in progress.

What’s interesting is that I thought I had all this hammered out previously. I mean, I knew who my main character was. I knew what his job was, I knew what inciting incident was about to befall him, I knew he was facing a plethora of challenges that were about to make his life miserable.

But somehow, last night more pieces of the puzzle just clicked into place.

I think that comes from having spent much of the past few days, or weeks, reading about characters, character flaws and character arcs. I’ve been outlining my novel for months, trying to come up with plenty of scenes and situations to throw at my main character. I have a pair of small corkboards I bought at Walmart that I’m using to organize my scenes on, using sticky notes.

I’m approximating needing sixty scenes or chapters, averaging about 1,500 words each, to reach my 90,000 word novel. However, I noticed that I still have a number of gaps on the corkboards: missing scenes or scenes yet to be discovered. I also realized that while I have an exciting plot, I didn’t really have a great character arc.

Now, I believe I do.

Everything sort of coalesced last night. I woke up three times in the middle of the night and grabbed the notebook each time. The words spilled onto the page and with each new word my character’s flaw and arc began to take shape. I think I already knew this information, somewhere in the back of my mind. Yet, here it was flowing out of me onto my notebook, suddenly complete and completely logical.

Somehow, seeing it all on the page like that is immensely rewarding in itself. I feel like after my months of struggles and self-doubts over whether this story would work, my questions have been answered.

I’m determined to start pounding out the words now. I won’t call on luck to help guide me through the process. I don’t need it. I will instead call upon persistence.

So, excuse me if you will. I’ve got a book to write. Talk to you later.

 

Twisted questions can peel back deepest layer of characters

The Daily Post here on WordPress posted this writing prompt today:

A Pulitzer-winning reporter is writing an in-depth piece – about you. What are the three questions you really hope she doesn’t ask you?

Whenever I’ve gone on a job interview, the typical “where do you want to be five years from now” question has always bugged me. Obviously the interviewee wants to know about your aspirations and your commitment to the company. So you give some answer that you think they might be excited about. You certainly wouldn’t say, “I sure as hell hope I’m not here, hahaha!!!” Although, you may secretly be wishing it the whole time. Just be thankful you’re not strapped up to a lie detector when you are answering it.

Another question that always bugs me is the “what is your greatest weakness” question. Here, you are supposed to humbly acknowledge that you are not perfect, but that you have taken such and such steps to strengthen your skills or abilities regarding your weakness. This shows the interviewee that you can overcome adversity with commitment, training and resourcefulness. If you want the lie detector answer, I’d say one of my greatest weaknesses is lying. I just can’t do it. I can’t keep a straight face.My mom brought me up right.

How about this one: “Do you have any questions for us?” Oh, yeah. How about, “whose ass do I have to kiss to get ahead in this company?” Hey, you need to know what the office politics are like in any job, don’t you?

Characters are at the heart of every story and as an author you need to know them inside and out. One of the coolest things about being a writer is creating a profile sheet for your characters. Such character bios offer a glance at who they are, where they came from, what influenced them, what events shaped their lives, etc. Yes, you need to know all the basics about them: a physical description, family lineage, what their childhood was like, education level, work history, goals/aspirations,  likes/dislikes, etc.

But today’s  prompt got me thinking about some questions to ask that could further peel back the layers surrounding my characters. For instance:

  • Have you ever fantasized about killing anyone, and if so, what stopped you?
  • What’s the biggest mistake you made in your life?
  • Who or what are you most loyal to, and why?

Here’s a bonus question to ask your character:

  • If you could do things all over again, what would you do differently?

Questions like those above, while twisted, may lead to answers that deeply enrich your characters and, as a result, the story about your characters.

What questions do you ask your characters?