Monday, March 28, 2011

Humiliation, Survival, and Writing

Frankie here, on Monday this week.

Scene One - I am doing side steps and knee lifts as I “work out” (didn’t it used to be called “exercising”?). The “fitness instructor” on the DVD is upbeat and encouraging.

She is annoying. I try thinking of something else.

I’ve been inspired to exercise by an old (known long time) friend.

We haven’t seen each other in a couple of years. But I’m going to be attending a conference near where she lives in April and we’re planning to get together.
In our last e-mail exchange, I mentioned my decision to clean up my diet and get fit. To which she responded that, in addition to joining a diet program, she and her husband have joined a gym, are going three times a week, and taking long walks on weekends. She has even hired a coach for two of the weekly sessions at the gym.

I do another front kick and tell myself that if my friend can go to the gym three times a week, I (who hate gyms) can work out in the comfort of my own home.

I have been inspired.

But as I am trying not to listen to the annoying fitness instructor, it occurs to me that I have another reason for doing knee lifts and front kicks.

I do not intend to see my friend walk in looking great and . . . not.

If she looks good, I want to look good too.

A much more effective motivator than positive affirmations.

This thought reminds me about copyediting. I don’t like copyediting.

Last week, I was working with a copyeditor on a manuscript for a non-fiction book. I had responded to his queries and gone through that manuscript countless times. But I made myself read it one more time before I signed off.

Good thing I did. In the Acknowledgments that I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to after writing them, I discovered that I had left an “s” off someone’s name and gotten the name of an organization wrong.

I am incredibly grateful that my editor for my mystery series is relentless. I respond gladly to her endless and downright picky queries, and I never complain as we move through Rounds 1-4 of her copyediting process. Not even when we get to my “unidentified ‘it’” problem that always comes up in Round 3.

In writing as in getting fit, sometimes it is more effective to fix your mind on what you don’t want to happen than what you dislike doing. Think embarrassment. Think humiliation. Think e-mails from readers.

Scene Two – I come across an article about “doomsday bunkers.” The 21st century version of the 1950s “fallout shelters” that people used to build in their homes and that could be found in public places. In 2011, business is booming for the companies who build these modern bunkers, Customers can have a private, in-home underground shelter or reserve a place in a communal shelter with all the amenities. A woman quoted in the article says she used the $20,000 she was saving for a down payment on a house as a deposit for spaces for herself and her family.

What surprises me is not that people are investing in bunker space, but my own reaction. An event or series of events requiring retreat to a bunker would probably bring together a number of items on my fears/phobias list.

Yet my first thought when I read the article is not to wonder if I can come up with a deposit for a spot in a bunker. What I think instead is that if matters are ever that bad, I probably would rather not survive. This thought is a first reaction, and undoubtedly the by-product of all the “Twilight Zone” episodes I’ve watched over a lifetime.

But what surprises me is that I am more concerned with the kind of world I would be alive in than in making sure I continue to exist.

This makes me think of those “what if” exercises for writers. The kind with scenarios: “What would your character do if she were given too much change? Got stopped for speeding? Saw a teenager shoplifting?”

These exercises are intended to help the writer get in touch with a character’s values and beliefs. I don’t do them anymore because I think that by now I know my characters. But rather than assuming that, maybe I should come up with my own “what if” questions. Big questions . . .

What would Lizzie Stuart, my protagonist, think about staying alive in a devastated world? Or another choice -- what would her fiancé, John Quinn, do if he found out he were dying? Had less than a year to live and would not have a pleasant end?

Rather depressing “what ifs” and probably not going to turn up in my books.

But the kind of questions that should make me think more deeply. Think about the influences that shape my characters’ decisions.

Their decisions might surprise me as much as my own did.


Rick Blechta said...

My worst copy edit horror story concerns "a writer who shall remain nameless". His character gets kicked in the cookies, falls to the ground and curls up into the coital position. It made it into print.

He continues to suffer as Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride observed, "Humiliations galore." And of course we never let him forget it.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

That's what I call humiliation.

hannah Dennison said...

Great post Frankie—and a great reminder about the importance of writing exercises ... just like working out. Thanks for reminding me about the value of "what if''s"!

Vicki Delany said...

Great post, but I did have to shake my head at the bunker thing. What on earth is society coming to and what on earth sort of society are they planning to emerge into. Think about the London Tube in WWII. No one had to pay to seek shelter there. You were under attack, you were welcome. This is the best example I've heard of a club that I wouldn't join if they wanted me as a member.