I Idolize You: Musical Essence Of Building Characters

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This is a confession. When I like something, er, someone, I’ll take them. It’s my job as an author to have well rounded characters. It so happens that along with writing music fiction that a music idol, or two…or three…or eighteen will seep into a story I’ve written. I won’t say who exactly. That’s for me to write, and for you to find out. Such is the case in how I wrote Marlboro Blues. That was my first novel. Well, it’s about music and I needed music related characters. I did use some actors. (counts on fingers) Four of them to be exact. One totally made up character. The rest were all inspired by musicians.

Now why in pray tell would I use musicians as inspiration? Here it goes. Actors pretend to be somebody else, they immerse themselves in a world which is not their own. In creating a character from an actor, you have to go through every film (including the torturous turkey) just to get a smidgen of who they really are. Try and pinpoint the similarities they bring to each role. Sometimes their interviews are better, but I tend to find many of the actors dull. All of the attraction is in their acting or the character they play. Musicians on the other hand, don’t pretend. They usually write songs from the heart. There’s nothing to hide behind. They are fully exposed (so to speak) and share their music, their art, their words and most of all, feelings with the world. An interview with them can be incredibly revealing, so can the lyrics they write. They can try to lie about certain subjects, but the truth is in their albums. I find musicians to be extremely fascinating. Not in a stereotypical rock star quality, but in human value. It’s in their character of where they’ve been, the past they had, what they have seen, and the things they can tell. I set the story in ’87 because by then, many people had survived the turbulent ’60s and excessive ’70s. By the late ’80s, these people were veterans of life, somewhere in their 40s. By then, one would hope to gain a little more maturity. Plus, they aged like fine wine.

I wanted to write about a singer who had survived her tumultuous past. With that would have to be a cast of characters which takes us from London to New York. Like her, they too have grown a little bit. The sarcastic Scottish bartender. The willing friend who lends an ear and advice. The willing friend’s husband who is nobody’s fool. The talented although iron and brick guarded music producer. Another producer who is doubly talented in both music and amusement. A third producer who provides comfort. A producer’s wife who shares a past of regret and redemption. The engineer’s suspicious wife. A poet who exudes cool cruelty. A salesman/fan who accepts the singer for who she is and the music she made in the past. A younger singer who has a sugary sunny disposition. A bass player who doesn’t mince words. Factory workers who push their luck. Sound guys, record store operators, airport personnel, various other singers. All were inspired by musicians, and/or pertaining to music in one way or another. They fit. When I was writing the story, I felt like I was shopping for characters. “I’ll take this one. I’ll take that one. Oh, that one would fit perfectly.” I just liked all of these people for their looks, attitude, style, and outward honesty of who they are or were. God willing, if I were to get stuck with a character, I could easily punch in the name of their matching inspiration on YouTube and watch one of their interviews to see if I could get a better grasp on them. If there’s one thing I’m a total stickler in making a character of any kind is, can I see them saying that? I never want to make a character that’s so far out of bounds to who they are from. I’m a cheater. I need a blueprint sometimes. I admit it. For Marlboro Blues being my first ever novel, I needed all the help I could get, and I truly love writing. I’ve seen other people who have claimed to be inspired by somebody they idolized, but when reading their story, I just couldn’t see it. Knowing who they fashioned a character after, to me fell flat. There is no right or wrong way in how to develop a character. This is only me and how my mind works. Maybe I’m a little too much of a realist and I need an exact match. There are other times I’ve seen stories get judged on lack of character. I am determined to never get stuck in that rut. Perhaps that exactness helped me finish my story in about nine months!

Dick Clark had the immortal words of “Music is the soundtrack of our lives.”

Can’t we say, “Music can also be included in the stories we read?”

Act of paper dolls: Keeping It Real

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OK. So, I’ve got two books out.

“Ooh! With all these hot guys you’ve written about, you get to put yourself in these stories!”

NO.

People figure they know the writer has included themselves in a book. Some authors like to live out their fantasies through the stories they write. It happens quite often with that little genre of make-believe we call fan fiction. Only, that follows in the pattern of somebody else’s characters. When you come up with your own stories and characters, anything goes. This includes indulging in the act of pretending or role playing in the story, living the life of the character. Somebody once said they liked my first story, but my characters were too vivid. They informed me that some readers like to put themselves in the place of a main character. I said, “Oh, you mean like switching stuff on paper dolls?” Thus, I thought of it as the paper doll effect. I know it’s fiction I like to write, but I do like to keep it on a realistic level. Although, some people might say, “So what? It’s your story.” Yes. It is. I’m not a narcissist, I don’t need me in any of my stories. What you get are my beliefs interpreted through my characters, but not me or who I am or what I look like in them. Aren’t my words enough on paper?

I need to explain why it wouldn’t work for either of my stories. They are time specific, from the past. Marlboro Blues takes place in 1987. I was eleven for nearly seven months, and twelve the rest of the year. It wouldn’t make any sense to stick in a twelve year-old anywhere in the story. No way would it work as me being a main character. Can you say, jailbait? If that doesn’t work, then how about the next story? The Freedom To Rock. No. I wasn’t even born yet in 1966 (when the story first takes place.) “Aw, but you could be Tina! I can see you as her!” No. It wouldn’t work. I couldn’t see myself as her. I might share some of her same thoughts, but that can be said for any or all of my characters. I created them. I feel that’s enough.

Hey, but if the reader wants to kick out a character and pretend to be them, then be my guest. This is just for those who might say, “You lucky dog! You get to be (insert character) in the story!” Nope! Don’t want it. Don’t need it.

Forsake Thy Follicle Fallacy!

Stop, OK. Just stop. Put the razor down now. There is much to much of this going on. Can we just stop kicking hair to the curb? I’m looking at you Mr. Perfect Body on the cover of that romance novel. Yes, you with the six pack that looks like it’s lumpier and smoother than a Styrofoam egg bottoms carton! That goes for you Fabio worshippers!

I recently came across a review for a book. The big gripe? The reader was unhappy with the blaring character faux pas. No hair. The character in the book was a fuzzy chest haired Paul Bunyan-outdoorsy type guy who wore flannel, blue jeans, and work boots. The cover? The torso of what looked to be a 20 year-old hairless model fit for Abercrombie & Fitch advertisements. The reader alleged this issue got in the way of her vision of the character. Shame.

It shocks and saddens me how women choose to see hair as a nuisance or a male body has to be defined as being smooth as a baby’s bottom with abs that stick out like mutants, pectoral muscles which look like they were inflated with an air pump, and arm veins looking more ominous than images of lightening strikes. What is with this hatred of hair? Maybe it’s just me. I was born in the ’70s and grew up in the ’80s. I was one of those kids who appreciated Tom Selleck’s fuzzy carpet of a chest on Magnum P.I. There’s countless other male specimens who passed my eyes feasting on their furry or partly furry bodies. Do you really think I was a gal who dug Don Johnson in Miami Vice? No. Philip Michael Thomas in those nice half done shirts did it for me. I am the type who, when getting the past issue of a ’70s magazine would check out the ads, say something like Playboy (not too often in my case). Yes. The interviews are incredible. So are the ads. Those nice beverage ones, cigarette, fashion, cologne, you name it. A favorite of mine are rock stars (no surprise). These would include many guys who could rock the fuzz, shirtless, half unbuttoned, all the way open, with leather jackets, velvet jackets, jeans, wearing just a robe, shorts. I’m not too discriminating in taste. That’s not to say I like a man thoroughly covered in hair, or back hair. Abs? No. Never cared much for those. That little fuzzy belly? Mmmmm! Just a nice slender body with hair would do for me.

Image              Mr. Selleck and his fine attributes to P.I. work. Ladies eyes all over him and that’s no crime!

Far too many times I’ve read in romance novels (not that I look at too many) how there’s this fascination in writing genital related musings in love scenes. I personally don’t like to go that far. What about the chest? No love? That’s where his heartbeat is. Shouldn’t that count for something?

I think manscaping is a true evil. It’s a crime against all man-kind. Why wax that hot body? Is he going to be the next Gerber baby? Metrosexual. Ughh. Don’t. Don’t go there. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as, fastidious grooming, among other things. That’s an obsession to be as hairless as possible and shaping eyebrows without a single hair out of place. Hey, I hear artist, Frida Kahlo laughing beyond the grave. She wasn’t afraid to rock the unibrow in all of her paintings. Rebel!

Do you really think the reason Sean Connery claims THE true James Bond title is because he was debonair? His Scottish accent? The way he used gadgetry? How he wore a tux? How he romanced women? No!! It’s because he was a manly man. A virile specimen sporting a cornucopia of chesty follicle pride. Now, can you imagine somebody having a character that resembled Mr. Connery in his prime, but then showing the cover of a baby-bottom soft, wax and lacquered in oil fellow with beaming pecs and washboard abs (On a side note, I still don’t get how they associate a washboard to human male abs. I can only think of the underbelly of snakes, male or female resembling this texture.)

Image                Yesssh! James “Fuzzy” Bond to you. Connery and his fluffy tuxedo.

Don’t you dare tell me the manscaping is a ritual of gay men. Anybody remember George Michael. When he came out of the closet, he still had his body fur intact. How about bi-sexual indian-english sex god, Freddie Mercury. He of Queen, blessed with an operatic voice, epic presence at Wembley Stadium, beautiful dark eyes, charming overbite, and sporting a vast spread of dark haired body goodness. That argument is null and void.

Image          The only thing Freddie didn’t have to come out of a closet for was a shirt!

Another thing, and yes, you were probably waiting for me to say something about writing since this is a writing blog. Besides baby soft book covers, reviewers, especially male ones seem to have a problem with men who have hair. Maybe it’s folicle envy. These pelt pushers having something the reviewers were not blessed with. So, what do they say? “He’s sporting more chest hair than Austin Powers.” Duh! Obviously, this non-blessed hairless cretin can’t seem to understand that the guy he was picking on was naturally born that way. Austin Powers is about making fun of people in the ’60s and spy films. A made up character. For shame if it was directed towards Mr. Connery and his dark angora physique. The actor who played Austin, Mike Myers, is hairless like a naked mole. End of story. End of rant.

ImageA fine blessed fellow of fur. He could be found within the pages of Playboy. Don’t let the lighting fool you. Ah, the’70! Glory thy be!

Let’s talk about the other stereotypes. . I can do without the chains, large gaudy gold or silver medallions, and definitely NO tattoos. It gets in the way. You remember that guy with the nice mermaid tattoo. She once used to look pretty, then the hair was choking her. Hair all over the place. Out of her mouth, fins, gils, body. Drowned in hair. Poor pretty mermaid. She didn’t have a chance. The war of hair and tattoos should not be an issue. It’s one or the other, never both.

Arm hair is another thing. Hello, Paul McCartney? Bruce Springsteen? Two guys of the furry limbs. Don’t touch it…with a razor that is (petting may be permitted).

A huge pet peeve of mine is the constant need to call a mustache a pornstache. What are you, a five years old watching Boogie Nights as your sex education? I won’t even question people’s parenting skills, because I’m not a psychologist. It’s a mustache. Plain and simple. Above the lip hair. Yet beards get lots of love. Like the chest hair, some guys can look good with mustaches and others can’t.

Image Saving the best for the last. Here in our literary world of Shakespearian prose and Steinbeck imagery, we have our sexy beast. I give you…Mark Twain!! Hirsuted hottie!

So, now that you know my feelings on the fuzz, don’t be overly surprised if a character in any of my stories rocks the fur. You will know. That’s a guarantee.

Happy trails to you!

Judging A Book By Its Gender: Stop Calling Me “Chick Lit!”

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How many times must this happen? I was asked by a book store to pass along my bio and synopsis of my story, Marlboro Blues for the media. I must have e-mailed about two dozen newspapers and TV stations. What did I get for it? Labeled. I need to explain that the reason I use my initials for my books is to be taken seriously. You don’t need to know the gender of an author to enjoy a good story. Well, not long after the book shop event, I took a look on-line and Googled myself. Come on, you all have done it too! It’s not a narcissistic thing. It’s a curiosity factor. In my case, I was looking up my short formatted synopsis because I was going to need it again and it sounded good. What do I come across, but one of my media letters to a newspaper. They modified it. What did they use as a genre?

Chick lit.

Really. I know for certain I never and would never be caught dead writing “Chick Lit” as a category in my PR. You know, most of us self-published indie authors don’t have our own agents. Why couldn’t have this publication written the category what it was…fiction? If you really want to get picky and need a sub category then (begrudgingly so) call it romance? For some other idiotic media outlets, they decided that T.L. was a he. You know, because if it doesn’t exactly sound like a romance novel then obviously a man wrote it.

I’ve told specific people about what I’ve written. For me, it’s music related fiction. No big deal. For some guys though, it gets dismissed. “Oh, you mean Chick Lit!” I feel like a furnace with a raging fire contained in it. I want to say some of the most harsh things about their gender.

Let’s talk about that other gender for a moment. Do male writer’s get a similar name bestowed upon them for what they write? Are they stereotypical in genre that a woman can pick up a book, poo-poo it and say, “Pfft! Dick lit!” Are we going to start measuring a man’s work in millimeters? How would they like it? Books about sports, mechanics, automobiles, tools, plumbing, occupational hazards are vastly written by men.

Where does it stop? Do we call a book by a lesbian, “dyke lit?” How about someone who is transgender, “trans lit?” Let’s break it down not only to gender/orientation. How about ability to write. “Smart lit?” “Dumb lit?” Somebody who has an unfortunate handicap, “handi lit?” I do know some dyslexic authors who are very capable of telling a great story. How about an egotistical slob, “pig lit?”

The answer to all of these insulting stereotypical names is, NO. It is just literature. Chick lit is truly insulting. It pigeonholes women writers to the point a reader will want to avoid a book. I know I don’t write like Candace Bushnell’s novel, Sex and the City. Is that what it comes down to? When one person of a specific gender becomes famous, everybody else is seen as writing the same? I’ll be honest with you. I’ve written far more male characters in my stories than female. The two books I have released are music related fiction. Just because there are elements of relationships doesn’t mean it’s all romance. There is far more about music than anything. I think characters and people in general contain a little more substance than one subject in their lives. Some folks though believe it doesn’t matter. All girls write about is gooey gossip, painting their nails, talking about their biological clocks, what their kids did or whether they want any, how to lose weight, obsessing over guys, blah, blah, blah.

Famed author, Sydney Sheldon always featured a strong female character in his stories. Does that make him an author of “chick lit?” Analyzing the likes of Ann Rice and her passion for writing gothic themed books, should she have stuck with her birth name of Howard Allen? Would that be odd in calling her “chick lit?” I wonder if any of the 99 rejections J.K. Rowling got before she became successful, was she dismissed as writing “chick lit?”

In the end, I don’t care about gender, orientation, political affiliation, lifestyle, religion, health discrepancy, race, or even if you’re an alien… (I’m told they walk among us. Hey! Maybe they can write a good story!)

There now. I’m taking off my boxing gloves.

Gray matter: the not so perfect character

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Such as Nabokov so eloquently stated, “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are there, throw rocks at them.” Well, I’ve got a bit of one-upmanship on Mr. Nabokov. Try this one out. I like to be a little more sadistic with my characters. Can’t make things too easy on them. Chase a character up a tree, throw rocks, pour gasoline around the base, light a match. Then see what your character can do before the fire department sends over a rescue helicopter. Yep. That’s the way I like it!

Okay, but after this hyperbole of epic proportions, we have what is known as a “gray character.” It is defined as a character who is neither good or bad. I can’t exactly call my own main characters “gray,” but they have some big flaws. I want to go over two of them. Two guys I created, Jaime Weston of Marlboro Blues, and Jerome Dagmar of The Freedom To Rock. In no way is this meant to be a blueprint in how to create characters. Do whatever you want with yours. I just like to make mine frustrating…frustratingly maddening at times. They are both male characters who have a strong presence, good looks, charm, talent, and you might think everything goes right for them. Sometimes circumstances create a state of upheaval and confusion.

Not so.

I created Jaime as a very complex guy. One of his buddy’s says later in the story, “You’re more guarded than the Berlin Wall, my friend.” I don’t know if that’s how I meant for him to come out, but that’s the result. Jaime though is in a quandary over life itself. He’s going through some big changes, and sometimes doesn’t handle them too well. He’s old enough to know better (in his mid-forties), but when things happen, it doesn’t matter the age a person is, because emotions can get in the way. Due to the circumstances of newness he’s put in, he treats it like a sixteen or twenty year-old rather than the dignity or sophistication of a forty-something. This creates a frustration in the reader of “Am I really supposed to root for this guy?” Think of it this way, nobody in real life is perfect. If we didn’t have flaws, there would be no distinction, nothing memorable to character traits. As Jaime has to figure things out on his own, he does get some help from others in advice, but nobody is going to change someone if they can’t see things for themselves. A character should be able to turn hot and cold whenever the mood arises. Not only should conflict happen within a story line, but also the characters themselves. I found Jaime to be quite interesting to write. I let his journey of self-discovery and overall personality dictate his outcome. One can only beat themselves up for so long over choices of either not acting on their emotions, or saying the wrong thing. That’s the inner turmoil. Jaime does plenty of it. He can be extremely charming, very wicked, shy, crude, serious, engaging, passionate both personally and professionally, annoyed, pissed off, puzzled, patient, gracious, warm, etc. You get the idea.

On the other side of the spectrum we have Jerome Dagmar. I think… No, I know he’s far more frustrating of a character than Jaime Weston. The reader might like him in some ways, but others they’d want to slap him. In all seriousness, Jerome is one very spoiled brat. I’m sorry to break it to people, but he is. I loved writing him for that exact reason. He’s unlike anything I’ve ever written in any form. Jer, as many call him, has temper tantrums of a ten year-old. He is a guy who went to college, but quits. He’s never had to work for anybody. His Norwegian father, Kare is a bank investor and his mom is a doctor of Kenyan-India descent. So, he’s got money. He later discovers like everybody else, he’s got problems. He’s a big time dreamer, but with that goes some big time let-downs and he doesn’t handle those well at all. Jer has some substance abuse issues, the story being set in the late ’60s with rampant drug use and all. His friend/business partner, Brendan hasn’t had such an easy life (Vietnam veteran drafted, Caucasian, middle class, disowned by his family, lots of tragedy). He can’t understand why Jer has these problems. Through it all though, Jerome sometimes keeps things to himself to fester. This holds very true in his personal life, which he unfortunately passes along his philosophies on relationships to others.) His company is successful, but not enough in his eyes. He tells Leslie at a Christmas party in the mid-’70s about what he wants. “Acceptance.” His frustration in not being able to schmooze with industry bigwigs bothers him greatly. Who doesn’t want to show off to others? It fires up competition. To Jerome though, it makes him throw things in the office. He doesn’t get why they don’t like him, and that the bands he has love him. He runs the gamut of emotions, too many to mention. Jerome sometimes uses his multiracial upbringing to gain sympathy, but it never works. Sometimes, you just want to tell him, “Shut up, you crybaby!” There is a big turn of events that happens in the middle of the story. It’s other characters who judge him where things change in emotion. What was I saying about flaws and not being memorable? That is huge to Jerome’s character and story. It was a very different and challenging way for me to write about him. He’s gray in a sense of, “I don’t know if I can learn to like him.” In the end though, you will have a feeling about him. I can’t say what it is as it’s up to the reader in their perspective or what they walk away with. It’s akin to the feeling after leaving a movie theater. You’re busy soaking up every detail of that 90 – 120 minutes or longer film you just saw.

What is it about people that creates a strong emotion? Especially one we have never met? Maybe it’s similar to somebody you have met. Maybe their character or personality traits remind you of a person who does exist in real life. Somebody who makes you think. Somebody’s circumstances you can see happening for real. Sometimes it can come from a person in your life that has passed away and you miss all of those quirks about them, the ones where they ran the gamut of emotions, those not always pretty.

We all have gray in us. The complexities of Jaime, and the temper tantrums of Jerome. It’s just the way we’re built. Books are no different. Words strike us just like personalities. Keep in mind that some characters don’t like being stuck up in that tree. It’s getting a little hot up there with the flames licking at their heels that were set and they don’t particularly care for the cramped room of of two-person helicopter. It’s not exactly roomy and there is no first class amenities they might be used to. Plus, it’s that height thing. They’ll be somewhat cranky, but don’t worry. Eventually, when they cool off, they’ll be thankful that you let them live for another story.

Mirror Mirror On The Wall: Reflecting On Words

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How many times have you come across a crucial point in your story where a certain expression or action is needed, and you can’t quite come up with it? It’s unnerving. You want to tear out your hair. You hold an all day swear fest, damning your own inability to find the right words to come up with for that one important scene. The agony of writer’s block is on your heels. It’ll take six months until the light bulb in your head goes off and the words come to you as clear as a ringing bell…or will it?

Forget about six months. There must be an easier way. There must be a way to work around it and find those missing words to the puzzle a lot sooner than half a year?

Here’s the thing, use a mirror. Your reflection can be your best friend. Not in a vanity sense either. You don’t have to Major in drama or theatre. A mirror can be of terrific assistance. Who better to use as a barometer for your characters, other than you? Rather than seeing yourself, you just might start to see that character your struggling with. Remember, it’s just you in the room. Write down what you see. Put it into words as best you can. There’s always room for improvement, but this way you have something rather than that blank portion of struggle. If that doesn’t work, then look it up on the internet.

If the mirror thing doesn’t work, then act it out without a mirror. Like I said, it’s just you in a room alone. Think of the words, actions, and act like a director is directing you. This is exactly what I had to do in a scene for Marlboro Blues. Ed goes into a half-drunken rage at a pub and unleashes his frightful fury. It wasn’t easy for me to create the tension, but I managed to somehow pull it off. I had to think of a myriad of things that had to do with why it happened. It dealt with Ed’s inner conflict, how he felt, loss of control, what he would do to save his sanity, and more conflict with someone hitting on a very sore subject which wounded his pride. Then came the actual rage. How does one convey such an intense emotion? At a bar? Chances are there will be a lot of bottles, glass bottles, glass. Lots of glass. Wood tables. Wood chairs. Depending on who or what that anger is aimed at is based on circumstances. Was it provoked? For my scene? You betcha! Not only is it circumstances that need to be remembered, but also timing. Timing is crucial for the action. How many paragraphs will be needed for the action to take place? You might think this is all too elaborate for a book. Maybe it is, but hey, it’s worked for me. Everybody has their own way of writing. I have mine. I’m a very visual writer. I base everything on what I see in my mind. I’ve always been that way and it doesn’t look like I’ll be changing my style anytime in the near future.

Another example from the same story comes from a different character. This is a morning after scene. I decided to have Jaime extremely modest towards his female companion. It consists of him flipping and curling up a sheet…to wear. Sure, one can take the route of simply writing about billowy sheets, but it has to be woven in with dialogue. There would be an exchange of words followed by the action. This would take place three or four times and need to be illustrated in such a manner to show the reader, this guy is determined to find the most proper way of wearing a simple bed sheet. It’s a struggle and awkward at the same time. Eventually, he’ll figure it out, but not perfectly. It’s messy and some of it is going to trail behind. Such is gravity. All of this could be solved in a heartbeat. Jaime could just forgo the sheet, seeing as though his companion for the night wouldn’t mind. Instead, he tells her, “Not in the daylight.” This is my way of teasing the reader, and for me as the writer to try and figure out the exact words needed. It gave me a great opportunity to play with a sheet and try to get the actions right. To me, it’s sort of like working with a still-life. Artists have their interpretations of how that item/object is supposed to look in their view. Different angles and various ways of seeing things that others might not. That’s the way I think of writing about inanimate objects or how a character uses them. It’s illustrating, in a word structure.

So, cancel that swear fest.

Leave your hair alone.

Turn up that little bulb in your mind a little brighter. Think outside the box.

There is hope.