The goddess needs a slang term for heroin

“When you create stories, you become gods of tiny, intricate dimensions.”             –Metatron, Supernatural

Will somebody please tell my characters I’m the god—er, goddess, whatever—of their tiny, intricate dimension? I don’t think they got the memo.

All joking aside, I do understand that when push comes to shove, I’m in control of the world I create. It may require me to step away from the project for a while, reaffirm my goal for the story, rediscover my characters, but I’m ultimately in charge. I can make characters whatever I want. They can be male, female, sane, crazy, soldiers, attorneys, candlestick makers, anything. Well, maybe in theory.

The problem is, I don’t know the first thing about being a soldier, an attorney, or a candlestick maker. In fact, I don’t know the first thing about most things in the world. My knowledge base of first-hand experience is limited. The only thing I know that most people probably don’t is how it feels to get kicked in the face by a horse. Therefore, writing characters who have done and seen things I haven’t done or seen can be problematic. Exhibit A: drugs.

Embarrassing story time! In the first draft of a short story I wrote for class, I wrote something about a character “snorting crack.” Yeah.

That wasn’t the first time Carly’s lack of drug knowledge was an issue. In my failed NaNo project, one of the first people to die was a drug dealer. My friends and I joked about Googling “street names for heroin” and how I was probably put on a federal watch list (something something NSA something something irony), but even though I got my answers, it didn’t make the scene any more convincing.

There are some things you just can’t Google, but there are some things you may not be able to experience first-hand either. For instance, how do fabulously wealthy people live? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that, and I can’t very well contact someone who lives in the Hamptons and say, “Hey, mind if I hang out with your family for a bit? Just, you know, observe how you interact with each other, what your children are like, maybe take that Aston Martin out for a spin? It’s research for my book.”

Now, if you’ve never done drugs and you’re not fabulously wealthy, my best guesstimate of how drug dealers and rich people act may not seem noticeably out of place to you. However, the guesses will be brutally obvious to someone out there. It could be the deciding factor in whether someone finishes the book or tosses it aside, whether they recommend it to a friend or give it a two-star review. Exhibit B: horses.

I’ve been riding horses since I was four years old. I’ve had just about every kind of trainer out there. I’ve ridden a wide variety of horses. I can clean a stall more efficiently and automatically than I can vacuum a room. Absolutely nothing can pull me out of a story faster than an inaccurate portrayal of horses, and oh boy, are they everywhere. Do not ask me to watch a “horse movie” because, from The Horse Whisperer to Hidalgo, Hollywood does it all wrong. Horses may not be central to video games, but nothing reminds me the game is all fake better than seeing reins connected to browbands. Thankfully, most people who write horse books actually know what they’re talking about, but once in a while you get someone who just wants to throw a riding scene in there and positively butchers it. The point is, the little details you don’t think are important could leave a mighty big impression.

So, if you’re writing something with horses in it, feel free to ask me questions! Since most of you probably aren’t, that’s a useless offer but it stands nonetheless. However, what to do about those things you can’t Google? What if you can’t take lessons? I think the answer is to get interviews.

So here are my questions for all of you writing gods and goddesses. Have you done interviews as research? How do you get them? How do you get attorneys and doctors to take time out of their day to talk to you? How do you ask addicts or victims of crimes questions that could be painful to them? I have yet to do any interviews as part of my research, so I’m curious as to how more experienced people manage it and how well it works.

One more question. Have you used TV shows or movies as “research” and gotten away with it? Obviously I’m not talking about borrowing the physics (or lack thereof) in the The Fast and the Furious, but what about Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of a person with autism in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Charlize Theron as a serial killer in Monster? Does Hollywood do anything right?

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Love stinks

I’m not really a romantic. Maybe I was, some time ago when I was young and naïve. Back in high school, I thought I had a pretty good grip on what “love” was (laugh with me) and it seemed solid and immutable. Now that I’m a jaded old hag, love is a tenuous and often distasteful concept. In real life, romance is an awkward, trial-and-error affair and in the movies it’s predictable and ridiculous. I don’t like characters who give up “everything” for love. I don’t like those “boy meets girl” stories. I don’t sympathize with Romeo and Juliet or Jack and Rose and I can’t stand the people from that blasted epitome of chick flicks, The Notebook. I don’t mind when characters are married, dating, sleeping together, or whatever (a lot of my characters are doing at least one of those things), but I can’t stand romantic ideals. I don’t believe people actually fall in love or “just know” or that anyone completes anyone. And now that I’ve said all this, I’m going to contradict myself.

If I’m going to write a story, I have to fall in the love with the characters.

Male, female, young, old, beautiful, ugly, villains, heroes, whatever. I absolutely have to love my main characters. Since my idea of love is sort of unstable/cynical/different from most people’s, maybe I should just say I have to want to spend time with them. I must want to spend hours and days and maybe years of my life writing their stories down. I have to get to know them, appreciate their flaws, let their emotional ups and downs affect me, and patiently try to figure out what they want and why. That seems similar to how real relationships are supposed to work.

That probably doesn’t sound like a bad thing. If I care about the characters, readers probably will too, right?

Wrong.

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s wrong. After all, I’ve read a lot of stories that didn’t draw me in. I’ve read books that people—sometimes even people I know—have spent years writing and I’ve remained unaffected. Someone cared about those characters and I didn’t give a damn about them, so I can only assume the same holds true for my own characters. So if loving your characters doesn’t guarantee other people will love them, what does it do?

In my case, it’s limiting. Since I love them all, they all have something in common. A lot of people have a “type,” right? We’re drawn toward different external and internal characteristics: blonde or brunette, optimistic or pessimistic, idealistic or realistic, Superman or Batman. And if you’re a hardcore Batman fan, how often can you bring yourself to care about Superman? If you love the Dark Knight’s moral ambiguity, will you appreciate the Big Blue Boy Scout’s sense of righteous justice?

As readers, watchers, and consumers, it’s natural that we have a type. We have favorite genres and subjects and as long as we’re not too stuck in a rut, that’s perfectly okay. However, even though no one has said this to me explicitly, it seems like we’re not supposed to have favorites as writers, makers, and producers.

Maybe the adage “kill your darlings” gave me this impression. Writers are constantly told to edit, chop, cut out anything that doesn’t belong in the story, even if we love it, and to keep or add things that do belong. Sometimes it’s a matter of cutting a paragraph you spent three hours crafting. Sometimes you end up killing a character you wish could’ve lived. Everyone hopes, I assume, that the story they love is also a good story. But can you write a good story you don’t love?

I couldn’t. When I don’t love my characters, it shows. One of the biggest challenges of my current project is disguising my disinterest in certain people, which is an especially daunting task given that the story depends so much on how readers feel about the characters. Sure, I love my main characters, but the antagonists? The minor characters? Can I evoke sympathy, hatred, or admiration for a character I don’t sympathize with, hate, or admire? If I can, I think I’ll have a damn good story. If I can’t, it’ll be an amateurish waste of space on my hard drive. No pressure.

My uncertainty extends beyond this project. Can I make my characters in different stories sufficiently distinct? Am I doomed to write the same characters over and over, just with different names and eye colors? Will their motivations and philosophies always be the same even if their genders or ethnicities are different? Or will I allow the events of the story to organically shape the characters into unique people?

Do you have to love your characters? Does writing a good book require some amount of distance and detachment? Can you break away from your favorite themes for the sake of story? Is that something I should be working toward? Am I way off the mark with this entire theory?

Featured artist: Daniel Kamarudin

Daniel Kamarudin’s art is epic. With its dark fantasy and sci-fi themes, spectacular detail, and grand scale, I can’t really think of a better word to describe it. Daniel, who is from Malaysia and usually goes by his username theDURRRRIAN (count those r’s and tell me when your eyes cross) on the web, got some attention on BuzzFeed and other sites for his depiction of The Avengers. I don’t even like Captain America as a character, but I’ve shared Daniel’s version because I think it’s fantastic and a hundred times cooler than the usual rendition. However, my absolute favorite piece of his is “The Witch.” The eyes, the colors, the body language; how can I not love it? I want to write her a story, and that’s the feeling all of his work communicates. I can find a story in almost every single piece.

On top of letting me share his art with you, Daniel took the time for a little Q and A with me. Enjoy!

TCC: I had to look up what a durian was. What do they taste like?

DK: You get mixed answers to this question, so it’s more of an acquired taste really. Although [they have] a pretty pungent smell, I find the insides pretty nice!

TCC: Your deviantART gallery is so varied; one doesn’t often find the crew of The Big Bang Theory and the four horsemen of the apocalypse done in the same style. What’s your inspiration?

DK: TV, movies, games, basically pop culture stuff in general. I’m into that sort of stuff so I tend to draw what I like. My sketchbooks are full of miscellaneous fan art things similar to the Big Bang Theory stuff I did.

TCC: Your work has so much gorgeous detail. How long does one piece usually take you, start to finish?

DK: Depends really. The detail-heavy ones take 8ish hours but the character concepts take around 1-3 hours. These are just estimations though; I usually work on them on and off between class assignments.

TCC: Do you have any favorite books, movies, games, or music you want to share?

DK: I’m a HUGE fan of Guild Wars (my art style is heavily inspired by it). I’ve recently started playing (by that I mean 3-4 months in) and the game is simply inspiring. Other than that, the thing that got me into this whole fantasy genre was World of Warcraft and Dragon Age. Without them, I don’t think I would be pursuing a career in art.

TCC: Are you looking to do art for video games as a career? Or do you have another art field in mind?

DK: I definitely want to do something art/entertainment based; movies, TCG [trading card games], comics (I WISH) but video games preferred though. I guess I’ll go wherever I’m welcome.

TCC: How long have you been drawing/painting?

DK: Almost 3 years [author’s note: I was stricken with jealousy and disbelief when I read this]. I got into this about a year before I graduated high school and now I’m nearing my third year of college. I still have a lot to learn though.

TCC: Have you ever had a really serious creative block when it was difficult to come up with new things? If so, how did you get through it?

DK: Definitely. I had one recently, and I’m still in a bit of a rut at the moment, but it’s definitely getting better. I guess everyone has their own way of getting over the slump. I figured since mine was caused by fatigue in general I would step away from painting for a while and do something else. In my case, I played Guild Wars 2 for about a week, then got back on the tablet. Yeah, Guild Wars helps get over creative slumps.

TCC: Is there anything you find particularly difficult to draw? For instance, the lovely people who do Assassin’s Creed make some fantastic humans but their horses need some work. Anything like that?

DK: Haha! I have so many things I wish I could draw better I don’t know where to begin. I guess I’m pretty okay with characters [author’s note: understatement] but I wish I could draw cool sci-fi stuff. Moreover, I really don’t know how to draw animals. I use references to try to understand how they work but it never turns out how I want it to. Hopefully I can improve in the future.

For more of Daniel’s work, check out his deviantART and Tumblr! If you would like him to make something for you, send him an email at theDURRRRIAN@live.com (if you haven’t successfully counted the r’s, there are four of them). I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s featured artist, and a big thank you to Daniel for sharing!

The pen is mightier but swords are better exercise

Ah, the writing life. We writers are almost always grappling with something internally. We alternate between sweet-talking characters into cooperating and beating them into submission MMA-style. Sometimes it feels like plot-wrestling could be a show on Animal Planet. It takes discipline to sit down and write every day, and occasionally it can be downright mentally exhausting.

Are we all seeing the key words here? Internally. Mentally. Not physically. As challenging as writing can be, it sure as hell isn’t challenging me physically. If I’m struggling to write something, I can be glued in a chair for hours drinking mug after mug of coffee because we all know writers only drink coffee, tea, or liquor. I happen to like my coffee with around a gallon and a half of International Delight Almond Joy creamer. I don’t mind tea, but I only like it with a significant amount of sugar. Since I’m a) poor and b) a girly girly wuss wuss, liquor isn’t really a problem but hey, there’s always time.

I’m also what you might call a sugar hound. A candy fiend. A confectionery menace. If it’s colorful and loaded with things that will probably give me cancer, I love it. If I’m writing I want a bag of Twizzlers or Skittles and no one who knows me has even suggested carrot sticks instead because, well, they know me. It won’t happen. I don’t eat fast food and I can usually pass on cake and ice cream, but take away my candy and man, I get twitchy and start snapping at people for breathing too loud.

These habits, combined with a somewhat stressful semester, have led to what Chuck Wendig calls “authorial sludgebody.” And before anyone starts in with that “Don’t conform! Love your body the way it is!” stuff, this isn’t about being skinny. I mean, yeah, I want to look good (ooooh, aren’t I a horrible, shallow person?), but more than that I want to feel good. As a creative person, I think I’m especially susceptible to denial; I find so much satisfaction in my imagination it can be tempting to just stay there and forget that, while my characters are throwing each other over balconies and successfully running for their lives, my muscles are wasting away. But why should my characters have all the fun? Some of them are interesting, attractive, physically superior people. I don’t want to be a pale little slug who occasionally emerges from her cave only to find she can no longer open a jam jar.

With these things and a few other motivators in mind, I’ve just gotten back on the old diet/exercise/healthy lifestyle horse. I say “back on” because I’ve done it before; once upon a time I was in pretty good shape and I’d like to revisit that and hopefully you know, stay there. However, what I would not like to do is become so obsessed with it that I pitch everything else out the window. I’ve done that, too.

To combat my penchant for extremes (“It’s 500 push-ups and four miles a day or none at all! Why write anything if I can’t make 6,000 words a day? I AM A COMPLETE AND UTTER FAILURE.), I’m taking things slow. Here’s my plan:

 Blogilates with Cassey Ho

My mother is absolutely mystified as to how I decided to do this. Cassey, the instructor, is an adorable, chirpy bubble of happy who wears colorful tank tops covered in motivational phrases. She uses pop music in her workouts. Her moves are pilates or yoga-based poses and the cardio workouts often involve dancing.

This is the antithesis of all things Carly Vair. I am an uptight, judgmental choleric who wears a lot of black. I hate most American pop music and, when I’m working out, I like music with lots RAGE that reminds me how SUPER HARDCORE I am. My typical workouts are high-intensity sweatfests that require minimal coordination and maximum anger-fueled bursts of energy.

So, why Blogilates? Because it’s so much the opposite of me, I’m not too invested. It doesn’t trigger my extreme-obsession response. I see it as a tool rather than something that defines me. Also, the workouts are hard. While Cassey is chatting, singing along with the music, and making me laugh, my muscles are quivering and burning and I’m discovering new and inventive combinations of swear words. Cassey may not market herself as a hardcore drill sergeant, but she won’t let you get away with any pansy, half-assed efforts.

Couch-to-5K Running Plan

As someone who’s been in good shape, I thought I was too cool for this program. “I’m a better runner than that,” I said to myself. “I don’t need to build up to a 5K. I can go run three miles right now, easy-peasy!” Well, you know what they say about pride and falls. During my first run of this summer, I did something to my knee. I don’t know what I did to it and no I won’t go to the doctor because I’m not into people like, touching me, and besides I can walk so no, I won’t find out what’s wrong with it until such time as it prevents me from living. Anyway. It feels better now, but I’ve eaten a bit of humble pie (hey, a pseudo-junk food reference in a post about health, someone think of something clever for me) and I’m starting off like I’ve never run before.

Diet

I’m not counting calories. I’m not doing anything like cutting out all carbs or all sugar. I have stopped eating candy (don’t ask me how. I don’t know. My family will probably tell you I’ve done so by sucking all the happiness out of the house like a dementor. My parentheticals are awfully long and grammatically weird today.) but I haven’t stopped drinking coffee. I have to live, don’t I? I don’t drink as much as before—usually just enough to keep a caffeine headache at bay—so I’m calling that progress. I am also doing that vague thing called “making healthier choices,” which is sometimes as simple as having more peas than mashed potatoes instead of the other way around.

I’m not going to share any height and weight stats or anything because I’m not exactly what you’d call transparent and that’s just unnecessary on a writing blog. However, I’d love to hear tips from you on the subject. How do my fellow writers keep from becoming sludgebodies? How do you find balance? Are there any methods you find particularly effective?