Writing Lessons from Mom (Part 2) — Cause and Effect

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Florence + The Machine “Dog Days are Over”

My mother’s method of discipline was based on the “if/then” paradigm. For example: “If you don’t clean your room, then you don’t get to keep it.” or “If you give me any sass, then you won’t be able to sit down for a week.” (You get the picture.)

When I was twelve, I decided that I didn’t want to do the dishes anymore. To my surprise, after making sure that I understood the consequences of that decision, my mother agreed. No arguments, no threats, just a simple nod. The next morning, while my mother and siblings dug into a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast, I made do with a plastic bowl full of corn flakes. That night, while my family dined on fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread, I choked down a cold bologna sandwich served on a paper plate. But the joke was on her. I had finally gotten a taste of freedom and I wasn’t about to give up my newly found independence so easily. (I lasted another two days.)

Despite my ill-fated attempts at rebellion, I found a strange sort of comfort in my mother’s rules. Everything was spelled out. There were no surprises. I knew the consequences of each action and made my decisions accordingly. To her credit, my mother never wavered. I couldn’t beg, barter or argue my way out of trouble. If I wanted to stay out past curfew, then I would be grounded for the next two weeks. If I didn’t clean my room when asked, then I would lose the privilege of having my space until I did.

I get the same comfortable feeling when I pick up a book and find that I am in the hands of a master storyteller who knows how to manage his or her plot. There is nothing more frustrating than getting deeply involved in a story only to have it fall apart near the end, or worse, wander off into completely new territory, leaving me lost, confused, and extremely irritated.

I guess I can understand why an author would deviate from his or her established plot. It used to happen to me all the time. I’d be putting the final touches on a story, when I’d suddenly get a brainstorm – a fantastic idea that would catapult my story into greatness. (Or so I thought.) I’d immediately plop down into my chair and start churning out new pages, completely forgetting about all that had gone on before. And what I’d end up with more often than not was a sloppy, episodic mess.

And then my teacher sent me a not so polite e-mail suggesting that maybe I investigate the causal chain in my stories. After looking up the term in the dictionary, I finally understood. If I wanted to be a decent writer, then I was going to have to take a page from my mother’s playbook and apply the “if/then” philosophy. That was how I discovered the magic of plot graphs. Now, whenever I come up with a new idea, I make sure that it fits in with the story arc and that it passes the stimulus and response test. Doing this allows me to write a solid, entertaining story that doesn’t come off like the transcript of a video game.

So, once again, my mother taught me a lesson about life and writing. Thankfully, this particular lesson came without the cold bologna sandwich.

In Distress — Getting into Your Characters’ Heads

WHAT’S PLAYING: Nicki Minaj and Rihanna “Fly”

Recently, I read an article about two adult siblings who sued their mother for “emotional distress” due to bad parenting.

You can read the full article here:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/adult-children-sue-mom-bad-parent/story?id=14407409

After reading their litany of complaints, my first reaction was “Are you f-ing kidding me?! What a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags!” When I was a kid, instead of a new toy, my mother would give me a stick and tell me to go play outside. On hot summer days, while other kids were enjoying sno-cones and freeze pops, I had to make do with frozen beef jerky.

After my initial burst of outrage, I tried looking at the situation from a writer’s point of view, unfiltered through the lens of my own experiences. In my ultra-pragmatic mother’s world, a parent’s only responsibility was to provide their children’s basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and love. (The last item became optional once the kid got past a certain age.) If I wanted something, I had to work for it. It was that simple. Then again, my mother was a blind seamstress raising three kids in one of the poorest states in the country.

The lawsuit siblings grew up in a very different environment, with unique perspectives. Maybe money was the primary way of expressing affection in their family. (Who needs hugs when you can get hundreds?) The point is that, without knowing what went on during their formative years, I was in no position to judge them. At least, not as a writer.

Many times, characters in my stories will act and speak in ways that I wouldn’t. Those are the times I have to become a method actor of sorts, sifting through false memories of parents, friends, childhoods and environments. I have to get inside each character’s head to see what makes them tick. Then, after I’ve assembled a complete dossier, I ask myself if it was really just the abuse that turned this person into a killer/sexual predator/complete asshole. Sometimes people just are who they are, childhood environment notwithstanding.

As a writer, I want to be able to write well about anything and anyone. Whether or not I choose to is beside the point. I want the choice. And so, I think, should you. So, go ahead. Dive deep into your characters’ psyches and see what kind of disturbing images you come up with. Maybe your next great idea will involve a serial killer or a sexual predator.

Or maybe even a couple of spoiled, entitled douche bags.

Writing Lessons From Mom (Part 1) — Motivation

WHAT’S PLAYING:  Sting “Fields of Gold”
 
Director: “Ok, when I say ‘Action!’, I need you to walk over and punch Jim on the nose. Got it?”
Actor: “What’s my motivation?”
Director: (Blank look.) “To get to the other side of the room and punch Jim on the nose.”
 
When I was about ten, a fad swept through my neighborhood. Whenever one of the cool kids was asked to do something, he or she would look up, cock an eyebrow and ask: “What’s my motivation?” (Sort of a snarky way of saying “Why should I?”)
 
That summer, I decided that I was going to change my image from painfully shy bookworm to ultra cool loner. I swaggered around the neighborhood, dressed in black and draped in silver costume jewelry (and sweating like a whore in church because it was July in Missi-freaking-ssippi). I even learned how to raise one eyebrow that summer and thought that made me the very definition of cool. For one whole day, every time someone would ask  me to do something, I would call on my newly acquired skill, cock an eyebrow, and say, “What’s my motivation?” I even said it to my mother once.
 
Just once.
 
My mother subscribed to the spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child philosophy and if there was one thing she could not stand, it was a disrespectful child. Needless to say that my “cool” makeover ended with a sore bottom and great wisdom: When your mother asks you to do something, your sole motivation is to avoid pissing her off.
 
As a writer, I’ve had to reverse my thinking. Every time a character says or does something, I have to constantly ask myself why. Why would Jim/John/Nancy walk through that door/poison his wife/mix plaid with stripes? Why would my hero or heroine put themselves in jeopardy in order to save someone else? Why is my villain working so hard to oppose my hero or heroine and vice versa? Without suitable motivation for their actions, characters just don’t work in fiction.
 
While it’s true that we all do things for no reason in real life, that just won’t fly in fiction. Whenever I run upon a character (no matter how cool or unique or well-drawn) who runs pell-mell through a story without rhyme or reason, I usually put the book down and won’t pick it up again. As writers, we have to ask a lot of our characters. So go ahead. Ask.
 
What’s your motivation?
 
But, whatever you do, don’t ask my mother.