Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Give That Drummer Something to Do

Driving in my (Awesome) Jeep yesterday, my daughter got all disgruntled with the song on the radio.

Gracie: This song is terrible. The drummer has to be bored to death.

Me: What are you talking about?

Gracie: The drummer. (Looking at me like I have two heads and one of them’s picking its nose) The drum beat, can’t you hear that?

Me: No. I hear the music and the lyrics.

Exasperated by my obvious musical stupidity, Gracie grabs two straws and starts playing air drums in the car, tapping out the beat (she was right, it was ridiculously slow) on the dash.

Gracie: (still playing, and rolling her eyes) See, that’s what the drummer is doing. That’s ALL the drummer is doing. B-o-o-o-r-i-i-n-g… I mean the words are okay. Eh, but man, you’ve gotta give that drummer something to do. When I have my rock band, we’re never going to play anything that the drummer doesn’t have fun with.

She switched the radio, screamed “This is better” and started rocking out on air drums the rest of the way home… driving with the kids is getting to be more fun as they get older, I have to say… but that’s beside the point.

With music, I don’t hear that stuff. I actually focus on the lyrics (gee, ya think?) and I can hear the beat, but I don’t break it down to different instruments. I hear music like a listener, not like a musician. But the thing is, if it’s off to the musician, it’s going to be off to the listener, we just won’t know exactly why we don’t like it. Same thing, I think, with writing.

A reader will know they don’t like something. An astute reader might even break it down into why, but they generally won’t know the fix – just the problem. And when she said this, said it was the drummer, I broke that down into characters.

For me, good fiction is character driven. That’s a lot of hoo ha, everyone says that. But the truth is, the characters can’t be different extensions of one writer. They have to be individuals that come together with their own complexity to bring you the full arc of an overall story. If any of them are “off” it compromises the whole. There are a lot of balls to juggle, or beats to hit if we’re staying with the drum analogy.

With the novel I’m currently working on, the one affectionately known as The WIP What Killed Me, I have a character I didn’t know was going to be as important, or as ass kickingly cool as she is, when I started… I knew she was there. She was in the original outline. But man, it wasn’t until I met her that I totally got her. The thing I’m struggling with in writing her wasn’t obvious to me. It just read wrong, rang wrong, didn’t quite hit that honest note I wanted it to. It was good. It lacked great. And she was great, I was just missing the mark with it.

And then I got it. With an offhanded music tutorial from the daughter type person. I’m not giving the drummer something to do.

Annabelle is blending in to the speech patterns and mannerisms of my main character. And in life, that happens. You adopt things from the people around you and they slightly change how you come across – your people leave their mark on you, the same way you’ll leave a mark on them. But in fiction, you can’t do that. Your reader won’t get that she’s adapting to her environment, they’ll read everyone as one voice. I had to give her back her own pattern and keep it separate from my mc.

So re-work, again… just slightly. As soon as it hit, I could see it everywhere I’d done it… everywhere her dialogue came out a little too neighborhood… everywhere she was more lax than she is… I love those dawning light moments, though. Because in all honesty, I knew there was something. But until you figure out what it is, the best you can hope for is that it’s good enough. And I don’t want good enough.

How about you guys? Have you given your drummer something to do? And what have you learned in life that translated to an aha moment in your writing?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Old Friends and Bad Politics

I found the joy of coffee shops and little dive restaurants when I was a teenager. That’s when my love of coffee started – free refills, man. The nice thing about it was that I could go in by myself, with my journal, a book, or my sketch pad, and write or read or draw while I waited for my friends to get there. We could sit for hours and hang out… and then go out drinking… or go there after we went out drinking… yes, there was usually drinking.

So, in case you ever wondered, that was where my addiction to coffee began. But this isn’t really about the coffee. I had a favorite coffee shop that I went to all the time on the south side of Chicago. They all knew me by name, from the owner to the wait staff to the cooks. They never kicked me out, and were more friends than anything else. One of the waitresses, Anna, was my all time favorite ever. She’d give me a heads up on guys I dated in her awesome Polish accent, “Ewwwww, no, Merry… I no like him, is cheeeep idjeeit.” Don’t worry, you had to be a real nitwit to get that reaction from her, that was just the funniest one.

There was a guy I met there when we were both in our late teens, we’ll just call him T. T. was from Mexico and came here on his own when he was fifteen. He started out as a busboy at the coffee shop, which is how I met him. He’d hang out with me sometimes on breaks and eventually he got to know all of my friends. I hung out there for years, and even worked there for a bit myself. In the time I knew him, T. taught himself both English and Polish (it was a large Polish population and he wanted to be able to communicate well – see how much cooler he is than most “real” Americans). In case you didn’t know it, busboys make relatively little money. T. still managed to support himself, put himself through community college, and send money home for his mom and younger sister. He worked his way up to waiter, which made more money than bussing, for sure, but still not what you’d call lucrative, all the while he was taking classes and doing things on his own to improve his life and fortune.

Eventually I got married and had my oldest, and I didn’t hang out at the coffee shop anymore. I came in a few times, but T. had moved on and it’s an odd thing because we were such close friends, but we just kind of lost track of each other. I wondered over the years how he’s been doing, though. He was one of those people who you just know is amazing – not in the ‘he’s going to change the world’ kind of way, but definitely in the ‘he’ll bless every corner of the world he enters’ vein of thought.

Last week I went to a concert at this very upper class, hoity toity venue. And who do I see, walking with two rather important looking gentlemen, but T – 15 years older, with a bit of gray on the sides, in a very spiffy business suit. He’s doing well, has a family, a fantastic job, and he’s happy, which is more than all the other things, really… and never have I been more proud of or happy for someone’s success.

This is one story among hundreds of thousands. On the political spectrum, people discount such stories, because they’re simply trying to push their own theories or points or whatever. I get the argument that immigrants are taxing our social systems – the problem is with the system, not the immigrants. I’ve heard all the puffed up bullshit about how “Our forefathers bled and died for this country…” blah, blah, blah… that’s awesome, but what the fuck did you do? Or are you just going to sit back and insist that you have the right to rest on the laurels of your ancestors? I call bullshit. And I think someone like T has actually earned the American Dream… I think a lot of the whining and hysterical bigotry surrounding the issue of immigration is perpetrated by people who are too lazy or stupid to go after theirs… someone else’s success does not diminish one’s ability to succeed.

I was born here through no effort on my own part – just luck, or providence or whatever you would name it. The same goes for any natural citizen. Maybe the ones arguing the loudest should be forced through the same hoops they want to force other people to jump, or maybe they should just sit down with some of the people they’re dismissing and have a real conversation… because I think in cases like that, ignorance tends to run rampant. I’m liable to annoy a few people with a post like this, and I normally stay pretty far away from religion and politics on this blog… oh well. This is one of those cases where I just don’t care. Mostly because I’m right on this one, and the one quote that keeps running through my mind is this:

“All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”