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Reality vs. Relic

You Can’t Keep Borrowing Essence

So much is phony in our world that we hardly notice. Ever drive through a neighborhood and see the fake animals, deer, pink flamingo, and lion statues out in the yard or at the gates? I think phoniness in our inner worlds is just as predominate, and harder to recognize. So, how the heck does this relate to story building?
     In Donald Maass’ book Writing the Breakout Novel, he says, “It is all too easy for an author to project into his novel more than is actually there.”
     Those words haunted me. Because I do project a lot of emotion and I imagine lots of subtext and subplots into any scene I write. I have that strength; it inspires me to fill up the emotional cup for the reader, so to speak, to the level I’m feeling inside. I also listen to epic original movie scores while writing, editing, and revising. I pretend it’s the soundtrack to the movie trailer: CREED OF KINGS. Projections and the emotion of the music add something for me that won’t be there for the eventual reader. Not saying it’s a bad thing that I do this, it’s just that those add-ons have been doing a lot of work for me. I just need to be less reliant, I figured out why I’ve been reliant. Not saying I will stop but it is borrowed. Ultimately, it is insufficient to get me where I’m going. I need more, of course.
     Hang with me because I have a point to which you might relate. I need to tell you something else first. I have another little trick. It’s helpful but only applies in the realm of imagery. I cast actors in the roles of my characters. Charlton Heston, Linda Harrison, Viggo Mortensen, Jack Black, Angelina Jolie. I cast landscapes and buildings, too. I see these actors and settings playing roles in my story. Like pink flamingos and lion statues. Again, borrowed.
Here’s the problem. I’ve been doing another kind of borrowing. It was doing a lot of work for me, very crucial work. But I should not, and really cannot, borrow in this area. This area is mine. I can’t compose music or make movies, but this story is mine. I did not realize the impact of this until a few days ago.
     For a story to really hum, it needs all the core elements fully realized: character, theme, structure, and concept.
Let me give you a quick example of concept and theme using the movie Gladiator. Concept: What if a roman general became a slave? And what if that slave became a gladiator? And, what if that slave challenged an emperor? Theme (could be more than one): Don’t mess with a dude’s family. Love and family reach beyond death.
     The crime against my creativity that I’ve committed is, I’ve been compensating for my half-imagined high concept (a what if?) and theme (what is this story saying?). I had a strong but indistinct concept in mind in the beginning. I believed it is worthy of fueling three books. I’m very close to having it crystallize in my mind. Writing seemed like the biggest mountain to climb when I started, just do it. So, I climbed Everest with my fingers. Now, I realize that I have projected what I’ve been lacking in concept and theme into my story by counterfeiting feelings borrowed from the emotional reservoir of power in my soul created and stored by me from the inspirational concepts of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Gladiator and others. With some self-trickery, I used the feeling from those concepts—not the actual concepts—mixed it with my fuzzy theme and concept. I was pretending to be afraid of a lion statue. I transported those forces of poignancy into my mind to fuel my writing because I thought in the beginning that a concept and a theme was something I could get to…eventually. I’ve felt like I had the concept and theme in the bag, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice when it came time, just tweak it, retrofit it for the story. Therefore, rather than doing the hard work to fully conjure and finishing designing my concept and theme…I borrowed. It’s phony, like a fake deer in the yard.
     Subconsciously I was trying to refine my concept and theme by forging ahead. I’ve been on an exploratory exercise in search of the rest of the story (apologies to Paul Harvey) for the missing pieces. I would have found it, perhaps 5 years from now! That’s really all you’re doing if you don’t have a concept and theme defined when you start writing.
It has haunted me but I didn’t realize the lack of my full attention to this foundational element was going to be a brick wall, nor did I realize or understand the cost of what turned out to be an exploratory exercise. Again, not all bad, just insufficient for my goal. There is loads of meaning in what I’ve written but I was sailing further and further from my original and authentic, yet underdeveloped, concept and theme. It’s all good, but I’m not shooting for good, I’m shooting for great. My concept and my theme are the real deal, the real lion. It’s past time for me to do the work.

So it’s reality vs. relic. Which would you rather have?

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  1. April 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Well said! This is the hardest part of writing, for me. I can write a scene, and frequently do a bang-up job, but often trip when it comes to holding the theme in my mind or allowing the character arc through the book to happen. I guess that’s why it takes so long for a writer to get good, and why I’m happy most of our early stuff isn’t published!

    • April 19, 2011 at 4:17 am

      True that. I was embarrassed at some of things I’ve let friends read. Even though they liked it. After more experience, I see it as tripe.

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