In a post a couple of weeks ago, All Characters Must Die , I wondered why readers care so fiercely about fictional characters. I figured the key was identification and empathy. Readers find enough of themselves in the characters to climb inside their fictional skin and experience the story. But understanding isn’t enough. As a writer, I have to know how to breathe life into characters.

First, let me bring you up to date on Lady Catelyn, the character in A Storm of Swords whose death pissed me off. It’s relevant, I promise. You might recall that Catelyn is murdered along with her son and his followers at a wedding celebration. But that’s not the end of her. Since this is fantasy, she gets to come back – not from the dead but as the dead. A magically animated corpse, she wrecks vengeance against the villains who betrayed and killed her son. I no longer empathize with Catelyn. It’s not so much that she looks monstrous (her body was in the river a few days before the mage and his crew fished it out), as that nothing is left of her but vengeance. She orders the death of a woman who had been her friend. Alive, she would have heard the woman’s explanation and most likely shown mercy. Not anymore. Her soul is gone.

Now we jump from the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin to the gritty realism of Plain Jane, a thriller by a James Patterson wannabe. The principal characters are a female cop, her partner who is also her lover, and a brilliant FBI profiler who used to be her lover. Almost halfway through the novel, I still don’t give a shit about these characters. Oh, they have their amusing quirks (the profiler loves comic books), but somehow they aren’t quite real.

Maybe it’s because they don’t have lives beyond their trite love triangle and frantic campaign to find the serial killer before he strikes again. They aren’t shown at home or thinking about their families or eating scrambled eggs. They lack emotional depth and physical reality. I have no idea what kind of music stirs them. They never have a fanciful thought. They work without sleep and are supposedly dead tired, but nothing gives me the experience of that exhaustion.

They act in ways that seem incredible. During a strategy session, the female cop allows the profiler to pull her pants down and draw on her stomach with a magic marker. Okay, I understand he’s a dashing and charismatic guy, and she still has a thing for him. Granted, he’s talked her into helping him pull some dubious stunts. But if anyone undressed me in a roomful of men, I wouldn’t stand there thinking it was lucky I had my crotch hair waxed. Moreover, I have trouble imagining how any woman tough enough to be a cop would let herself be humiliated like that. Not that it’s impossible – human beings are capable of almost anything – but to believe it, I have to believe in the character. And the more outrageous her behavior, the more compelling that belief has to be.
The characters in Plain Jane are kind of like the reanimated Lady Catelyn. They have motives but no soul. I might go ahead and finish the novel anyway. I enjoy a puppet show every once in a while.

Speaking of puppet shows, anyone remember this classic?

When I began this blog I promised myself not to whine about my tribulations as a writer. I don’t have an agent anymore, my novel isn’t a bestseller, I have to work as a teacher to support myself, etc. Poor me. Given the tragedy and hardship many people face daily, nobody is going to care that some whiny writer has to grade several dozen freshman essays when she would rather be writing her novel.

So instead I’m going to remind myself that my situation is largely a result of my own choices.

For quite a few years, I wrote everyday while also teaching. My work week averaged somewhere between 60 and 70 hours. I accomplished a lot but had no time to spend with friends and no interests outside of reading and writing fiction. Then one day I remembered I was mortal and pictured myself on my deathbed with no memories except words on a computer screen. A bleak prospect. Now I have time for coffee with friends, for riding my horse and playing Scrabble, for just hanging out with my husband.

After I retire eighteen months from now, I’ll have more time for writing. Maybe I could retire sooner if I weren’t supporting the horse, if I had less fondness for clothes and handbags, if I gave up traveling to California and Utah (so what if I never see my family and friends who live far away). But I would have missed out on some amazing experiences. I watched blue whales frolicking off the coast of Long Beach and spent a weekend in an idyllic park called Crystal Cove. I met siblings that I otherwise never have known.
I feel much better about facing that pile of essays – but not now. The Charleston Scrabble Club meets today, and I want to see my friends.

In Stephen King’s Misery a novelist finds himself at the mercy of a fan infuriated because he has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. The woman is obviously a lunatic, yet a few days ago I found myself sympathizing with her. At the very least I wanted to write fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin an indignant letter.

Right now I’m engrossed in his Ice and Fire series. I can barely tear myself away long enough to do meet my obligations and do necessary work. The first volume, A Game of Thrones, runs more than 700 pages, the other three more than 1000 pages each. And I can’t wait to turn those pages. Martin writes a great story. On one level he serves up typical sword-and-sorcery fare – dragons, wights, dire wolves, skin-changers, giants, sorcerers, brave heroes on horseback, etc. – but he creates his imaginary medieval world in abundant detail and peoples it with complex and believable characters. And along with the many battles come political intrigues and betrayal.

He narrates the story from the point of view of a dozen or more characters. I have grown attached to a couple of them, only to have the author kill them off in one gruesome way or another. In particular I came to like Lady Catelyn Stark, maybe because she’s a woman around my age. Of course my husband isn’t the lord of a castle and I don’t have five children, but I understand and sympathize with Catelyn’s motives even when she screws up. Which she does, more than once. One mistake results indirectly in her husband’s death.

Before going on, I should warn that a spoiler is coming.

Poor Lady Catelyn sees her husband falsely accused of treason and beheaded, her two younger sons murdered, one daughter engaged to a sadistic prince and the other daughter missing and probably dead. But she still has Robb, her eldest son. He becomes king of the northern realm and goes to war with the prince and his scheming family. Catelyn worries endlessly about Robb. He’s only sixteen. Though he wins every battle, he makes a fatal political error. He’s pledged to marry a granddaughter of a crazy old coot but falls in love with another girl and marries her instead. Robb tries to make peace with the old coot by arranging for Catelyn’s brother to marry the granddaughter instead.

Off they go to the wedding. When they arrive at the old coot’s castle, Catelyn senses something wrong but figures they’re protected by tradition. It’s anathema to kill a guest under one’s roof. But the old coot, being nuts, has no problem ignoring the ancient rule protecting guests. At the end of the wedding feast his men ambush the northerners. Catelyn watches helplessly as her son is pierced by several arrows and stabbed through the heart. Then someone cuts her throat. Afterward her body is thrown naked into the river.

Reading this, I was stunned and indignant. For more than 2000 pages Catelyn had been an important part of the story. How could the author bring her so far and then kill her off so horribly? At least he could have let Robb survive and go on to win the war. Of course one of the few remaining Starks could triumph in the end, but I won’t let myself hope. I no longer trust George R.R. Martin. I think he’s going to snuff out every one of them.
But that won’t keep me from reading to the end. I’m Martin’s captive until I finish A Feast for Crows.
The larger issue here – the one that matters to writers – is that readers would care so much what happens to characters who are, after all, only constructs. I want readers to care that intensely about my characters. I want them to feel like writing me an angry letter when I kill one off. There’s no secret to it, really. Readers have to find enough of themselves in a character to empathize, to feel as if they themselves have lost a husband, a child. Easy enough to understand.
Making it happen is the hard part.

I first encountered the word ineffable when I was thirteen or fourteen in a dusty old novel from the library in Heber, Utah. I remember nothing of the novel, not even the title, nothing except the image of moonlight shining through the high window of some castle, its beauty ineffable. I found the word in the dictionary and learned it refers to something beyond description, something that defies the power of language. I liked the word, the way it slipped over my tongue when I spoke it to myself. I remembered it. But after I began writing fiction, I recognized ineffable for what it is – a kind of copout, an admission of failure.
To write the truth about anything, a writer uses language to build a transparent cage around that which defies description, holding it captive and magically alive. Look at the difference between a bit of exposition like “When my brother played the piano, I was overwhelmed by a tide of ineffable emotion” to this passage from James Baldwin’s great short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” where the narrator listens to his brother play. 

Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burninghe had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. 
 There is more, and I could quote pages, but Baldwin’s lyricism would overwhelm my simple message. “Sonny’s Blues” expresses ineffable emotion, and that is its power. I can only dream of writing something half as fine. But I’ll never get there by waving that flag of surrender, ineffable.  

Narratives are often classified as plot driven or character driven. In plot-driven works such as thrillers, events happen to the characters, who are defined by their reactions. In character-driven works, characters shape the events and outcome of the story. The categories seem simple and obvious – until l sit down to write.

I’m nearing the end of a novel titled Chasing the Light in which the protagonist, Kelly, tries to discover what happened to her missing friend, Day. I have a plot outline and know how the story ends. But I can’t foresee every twist and turn along the way.
Imagine hiking in the mountains. You stand on high ground and look over the landscape you’re about to cover. You see your destination off in the distance and know where you’re headed. But during the journey you encounter obstacles that weren’t visible from above– streams that can’t be crossed where you planned, steep paths that could be avoided with a detour, shortcuts you didn’t anticipate. That’s how writing from an outline works for me.

In one chapter of Chasing the Light, Kelly hikes into the mountains to meet a woman who gives her crucial information about Day’s fate. Then, hiking back to her car, she’s spotted by the bad guys. They’re in a Land Rover and could easily run her down – except a fence stands in the way. Kelly makes it to her car. In my outline she turns south toward town, forcing her to pass a side road where the bad guys are watching for her. They follow her and try to force her car off the road. But as I wrote the passage where Kelly reaches her car, she anticipates them lying in wait for her. I hadn’t planned for that, but of course she would. She has been to that place before and knows where the roads are. Unless she wants a harrowing car chase down a winding, precipitous mountain highway, she wouldn’t go south toward town. And so the chapter ends, “She went north.”

The upshot:

The novel loses a car chase that has been done so often in films it has become cliché and gains suspense as readers wonder where Kelly is going and whether she finally makes it home. Meanwhile, other events unfold according to plan, and the story moves toward the outlined conclusion. Only not quite on the course I originally charted.

Songs don’t exactly make me cry. I have to accept the invitation, and many times I say no. But when I say yes, I usually feel better afterward. I’ve never understood the mystery in music, how patterns of sound affect the brain and evoke emotion, with or without words. Certain songs combine music and lyrics in a way that tweaks particular neurons in my addled brain. It could be something as individual as an iris or a fingerprint.

“Dust in the Wind” by Kansas gets to me, much to my husband’s amusement. Crying to a song like that hardly requires a refined sensibility – the haunting melody, the refrain reminding us that “all we are is dust in the wind.” I recall a scene in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure where the two time-traveling stoners impress Socrates and his disciples by pantomiming the message of “Dust in the Wind.” Even Bill and Ted know the song is deep. Thinking about those dudes dries my tears.

“Someday Soon,” composed by Ian Tyson and sung by Judy Collins, sometimes has my neurons tweaking. The narrator of this pop ballad is a girl in love with a rodeo rider. She sings joyously of her intention to run off with him “someday soon.” Even though her father warns that “he will leave [her] crying,” she pledges to “follow him right down the toughest road [she knows].” It becomes obvious her parents are right, the guy is bad news and she’ll probably end up stuck in a trailer in some shithole town, pregnant and abandoned. Really, there’s no reason to shed a single tear for this naive girl. For her parents, maybe. They have to watch as she screws up her life. But the compelling melody and the purity of Collins’ soprano trump my intellect. They insist passion inevitably ends in heartbreak and love is worth the cost, no matter what. A simple and obvious sentiment. Only the music gives it power over me.

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” might be the song with the most power over my tears. I just don’t want to say no to Cohen’s gravelly voice. Neither obvious nor simple, this love song has inspired dozens of explications in online forums. They range from highly insightful to downright ludicrous, but the best ones confirm that Cohen’s lyrics are poetry. Some listeners point to the song’s Biblical allusions and give the lyrics a strongly religious interpretation. Others glom onto on its references to sex.

For me, the song honors the sacredness and profanity of love and the power of art to transcend heartbreak. “Hallelujah” unites the opposites and demonstrates that power. Cohen sings of two hallelujahs: the holy (whole) one that purely praises God and the “broken” one drawn from the lips of those in the throes of passion, at moments of orgasm and heartbreak: “Love is not a victory march. / It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

The hallelujah’s power comes from the union of the word and music. In the first stanza, Cohen tells of “a secret chord / that pleased the Lord” created by the Biblical king David and describes it as a musician would: “the fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift.” He addresses someone directly, remarking that she “never really cared for music.” So why is he singing to her? Later stanzas reveal that she is or has been his lover. She has taken his heart, perhaps broken it, without ever appreciating what he is. So he now he’s letting her know. For him, the passion, suffering, and ultimate loneliness of love have the same outcome:

                 Even though it all went wrong
                 I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
                 With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

When a poet’s heart is broken, he – or she – writes a poem. Or in this case, a song that invites my tears.

These songs are about the suffering and loss every human being experiences, the devastating kind worthy of tears. But all of us endure mundane aches and pains and frustrations that are considered unworthy of tears. We’re not supposed to cry over fender benders. We’re not supposed to cry over losing a game, no matter how much winning matters. I rarely cry about such things. Instead I carry around my pool of unshed tears and wait for an invitation from the right song. 

“Hallelujah” Lyrics from Song Lyrics .




             Family dinner on a winter porch. 
Our table, too large, squeezes us 
against fogged glass. My chair wobbles.
Others, more privileged, are eating 
inside the house. I complain, but 
someone whispers the man who shares 
the house is sick, it may be cancer. 
he others crowd onto the porch. 
My chair collapses. I reach for 
another, not to sit on but to hold 
the glass of water at my bedside. 

        Outstretched, I watch the procession: 
        a baby rhino, a zebra, a lion, 
        a giraffe swaying its long neck 
        like the maestro’s baton. A gnu, 
        alone. Behind the animals comes
        a strapping man outfitted for safari,
        his head smoother than marble, his face 
        youthful and cold. He commands, 
        Spend your last days with me. 

        Now the film winds back and the scene 
        replays: the solemn parade 
        of animals, the white hunter fixing 
        me with glacial eyes. And now 
        I recognize the porch. 
        Aunt Lila’s husband died there 
        not long after I was born.

Photo by Galyna Andrushko

Please stop by Dreambeast, the chronicle of my enthusiasms and obsession, where I blog about the things I love. The first post  is devoted to riding and my beautiful horse, Tucker.

In August I spent several days with my friend Carol in Studio City, California. Carol works in the movies as an art department coordinator. She was working then on a film called The Artist, so we partied in the evenings and I entertained myself during the day. I took my mini-cam and explored Ventura Boulevard. I trekked from Laurel Canyon Drive almost to Universal Studio, alongside a relentless stream of traffic. It seemed never to let up. My husband the eco-critic (yes really, he and Robin Murray write books on eco-criticism and the cinema) informed me later that Los Angeles has the most polluted air in America. It certainly seems that way when you breathe it.

Side streets with quaint names like Blue Canyon Road branched off Ventura and twisted up the steep hillsides, but the boulevard was mostly commercial. A sinister atmosphere emanated from the hustle and bustle and mixed with the pollution. Maybe it came from my assumption that so much commerce cannot exist without some corruption or from the bleak depictions of Los Angeles in novels by James Ellroy and Michael Connelly and films like Chinatown and Mulholland Drive. I imagined dark happenings in the seedy motels and massage parlors. I wondered what was cached in the windowless storage facilities. So many businesses exploited parents’ dreams of vicarious stardom: “Comedy Lessons for Kids,” “Children in Film.”

I passed a building of gleaming black glass with a large courtyard behind the tall bars of a fence. The sign on the building said only “Pure Beauty.” A spa, maybe? I must have passed 15 or 20 downscale spas in various strip malls. This could be an upscale spa. But a sign on the gate into the parking lot warned that the place was under “constant video surveillance.” What would happen if I took pictures? Would guys in suits and sunglasses come out and break my camera? Later I searched online and discovered it was just an ordinary spa. Maybe the patrons felt insecure or the facility needed protection from  feral gangs of starlets foraging for beauty products.

Here is the entire saga of my adventure in video production wherein I make my own book trailer, “Rad Pays His Respects.” Some readers may have already seen the first posts. If so, I invite them to pick up where they left off.

After some research into editing software, I narrowed my choices to three: Sony Vega, Corel Video Studio, and Adobe Premier Pro. All three companies offered free download of a trial version that would function for a month then shut down unless you paid up. So I began with Vega. I downloaded the trial version of Vega and imported my cemetery clips. To my bewilderment, Vega couldn’t open them properly. There was sound, but no picture. Back online I went, trying to figure out why. Thus was I introduced to codecs.

“No,” reassured me, “this is not just a cheap rip-off of Kodak. The name “codec” is short for “coder-decoder,” which is pretty much what a codec does. Most audio and video formats use some sort of compression so that they don’t take up a ridiculous amount of disk space. Audio and video files are compressed with a certain codec when they are saved and then decompressed by the codec when they are played back.”

So I recoded the clips in a format Vega recognized, using the Windows 7 media encoder. But I had to process them one at a time – a tedious job. Someday, I vowed, I would own a camera that would render all that unnecessary.

After trying Sony Vega and Corel Video Studio, I made a lucky discovery. Adobe offers special pricing to faculty at universities. As an instructor at Eastern Illinois University, I could buy Adobe Creative Suite 5 Production Premium at a fraction of the retail cost. The bundle includes not only Premier Pro and Soundbooth – the two programs I really needed – but Flash Professional, Illustrator, Photoshop, and several others. A deal too good to resist! I did the free tryout first to make sure I could work with Premier Pro. Then I went for it. Adobe offered some free online training, which helped a lot, but I’ve only begun to learn how to use these powerful programs.

When I began promoting Talion, I noticed book trailers were hot. I found dozens on You Tube, thirty-second or one minute ads with authors talking about their books or music and visuals to evoke the book’s atmosphere. I thought Talion deserved a trailer too. And I knew right away what it would be. In my novel, Conrad (Rad) Sanders, a serial killer, visits the grave of a victim to remember their night together. My trailer would be a sequence of cemetery shots with a voiceover reading the passage and creepy music playing in the background.

I looked online for a video artist to transform my idea into reality and found it would cost far more than my budget allowed. Disappointed, I knew I should forget the whole thing. But I couldn’t quite do it. The book trailer would be a highly dramatic and visual way to call attention to my novel, and I was proud of my concept. I hadn’t seen any trailers like the one I imagined for Talion. I decided to make it myself. Sure, I had zero experience in making videos. But my husband, Joe, a film professor, had taught filmmaking for years. He would show me how.

I already owned one essential piece of equipment, a Vado mini-cam that I’d bought on sale. It’s not much of a camera, but it does shoot high-def video. One lovely spring morning, I took it out to the local cemetery and shot footage for my book trailer. I rushed home, downloaded the shots onto my desktop, and asked Joe to look at them. I was mortified at what he saw. Surely my hands weren’t that shaky. I had to stop drinking so much coffee. And every single shot ended with a long and pointless pan, as though something off to the side kept drawing my attention.

“I suck,” I said.

“This shot is interesting,” Joe said, pointing to a tree shadow falling across a fresh grave. As for the others, he just shrugged. “If this is what you have, this is what you work with.”

No way, I thought grimly. I bought a small tripod and returned to the cemetery.

My second attempt at camerawork yielded more promising results, and I decided to plunge ahead and purchase editing software. This was the moment of commitment. So far I’d only spent a few bucks on the tripod. Now I was poised to lay out serious money. If I bought the software and never made the trailer, Joe would never let me forget it.