Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Old habits die hard (about the project and a couple of anecdotes)

About the Book

The basic premise of the book that I'm currently calling EMP (Ella Mack Project) is that a young woman who has lacunar amnesia after a serious car accident discovers that before the accident, she was part of an underground magical society. We think that she is the Harry Potter type, but it turns out that she's the Hermione and Harry disappeared on the day of her accident. Both sides of a war are trying to find him and as far as anyone knows, she was the last one to see him alive.

The idea came to me while watching a scene in the second Matrix movie. The following dialogue took place:

“I suppose the most obvious question is, how can I trust you?”
“Bingo. It is a pickle. No doubt about it. The bad news is there's no way if you can really know whether I'm here to help you or not, so it's really up to you.” -Neo and The Oracle, The Matrix Reloaded

I was struck by an inspiration to write a book in which you aren't sure whose side the protagonist should be on. As George Lucas wrote in Revenge of the Sith, "There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere."

The real villains/boogeymen of the book came to me as an utter shock. I have had strange dreams on occasion, but I had been trying to come up with the bad guys in the novel for about a month before I got pneumonia and had this dream while on medication. In it, I watched a crucial scene that I had planned in the book in which we find out how the car accident happened and my brain narrated. From that dream, I found out not only the nature and powers of the villains, but their names. It was quite helpful and just a little Stephenie Meyer. Yeah, we went to the same university, different years. Must be something in the dorm food.

Surprise: Story 1

So, after 19 or so years, I thought I was fairly familiar with my writing style. I'd kicked the habit of sighing characters who always put a hand on someone else's arm and who had to fight sci-fi villains who always had Greek or German last names. I stopped trying extended metaphors. I knew what my dialogue strengths and weaknesses were. I knew that I could write a kick-butt fight scene at the drop of a hat.

So, imagine my surprise this last weekend when I took myself by surprise. I was 500 words into a very serious conversation between my two principal players when I realized that all of their conversations seemed to involve food. Not "I'm worried about the dichotomy of good and evil and I could really use a cheeseburger right now!" but no matter what, I seemed to make them hold these profound conversations at McDonald's or at a Greek restaurant. "Life and death, life and death, fry sauce? Life and death, life and death."

So I went back and read some of my other fanfics. In my epic to end all epics, Lest Ye Be Judged (Star Wars), it's the same. Two main characters are eating the GFFA equivalent of crepes when the climax of the story happens a mile away. Any time there's a serious conversation, it's guaranteed someone else will show up with a julaberry torte or will be making pancakes at the time.

I'm trying to make sense of why this is. I think the closest I've come was remembering the nature of my talks with friends in high school. I went to Boston University Academy and some of my best experiences happened while we'd be at a cafe in Boston's North Station on our way home or at a corner table in the Academy lunchroom BU's student union. I think that, from that, I got the impression that food brought out the deepest darkest secrets in our souls. I wonder if any evil overlords have ever tried feeding their captives into submission.

So this last weekend, I erased that entire scene and instead wrote 1700 words of the novel that didn't mention food once. They took place on the steps of a high school in Philadelphia, a public park and the front seat of the main character's car.

Out of character: Story 2

Another thing that I'm trying out with some trepidation is non-sequential writing. I tried writing the ending of a story once, killed off the main character and went back to build up to that. By the time I got to the ending, the main character lived and went on to star in the other two stories in the trilogy. I vowed that I'd never do that again.

Until now, that is. I tried writing from page 1, but it just wouldn't speak to me. Eventually, I sucked it up and wrote a dream sequence from 15 pages in. Then my muse wanted me to write chapter 6. Then it finally cooperated and let me write Chapter 1.

For my trouble, my characters finally told me what they looked like. I had known the following about the four principal characters:

Ella--Last name is Mack, likes Greek food and wants to go to UPenn or Columbia. Hates wearing skirts and is good at math.

Julie--Ella's best friend. Decorates her messenger bag like a Jackson Pollock painting. Reminds me very strongly of my good friend Dana.

Michael--Missing. Harry Potter figure. That's it.

Alex--Funny and affectionate. Hates Calculus and is dating his Calc teacher's daughter.

Once I let my muse kick me in the pants and started writing non-sequentially, I found out that Ella looks like my younger sister--blonde hair cropped short, tall, likes American Eagle. Julie Wright just followed me to a character-design site and nagged me until I got the right combination; she ended up somehow looking like my best friend Katey, though I didn't mean for that to happen. Michael finally told me that his last name is Anthony after the patron saint of missing persons and that he has brown hair and brown eyes and likes jeans and comfortable shirts. And Alex decided he wanted to be another cute guy with black hair and green eyes. And his last name was Thorpe.

I'm listening more receptively to my muse these days.

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