Wednesday, June 20, 2012


The more you think about the meaning of the word “ordinary,” the greater your conviction that it has an enormous presence in the things you have read, read now, have written in the past, are working on now, and will work on in the future.

You began reading in the first place to buy your way out of ordinary events and circumstances, most of which were wrapped around the armature of being a child of the later years of the Depression, but also because you were buoyed up by a loving family and, with one major exception, good schools until you hit junior high school.

You read not so much for escape—although you often did read to escape potential boredom—as you did from curiosity.  Reading was a good way to find deeper answers to questions being lobbed at you.

You read because the characters you met in books and magazines were to a person remarkable beyond the individuals you came in contact with in real time.  Although no one made the equation for you—fictional individuals were more remarkable than real persons—nevertheless you were compiling quite a score of stellar characters.  At one point, before you were ten, your real-life heroes were Admiral Byrd, Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Count Basie.  You admired Gene Autry and had a boyish crush on Lana Turner.  Your list of fictional friends was growing with each book you read, a trend that has remained to this day.

Thinking about close friends, men and women who were well beyond ordinary, you begin to see a common theme, a braid of quirkiness, moodiness, outrageous talent, unquenchable curiosity.  In nearly every case with the possible exception of Barnaby Conrad, you did not see these friends often, but when you did there was a chemistry as of, how shall you describe it, of meeting a new character in a book.  Since about 1980, you’d have lunch at least twice a week with BC.

Because of your wealth of reading-level friends, you had no need of a great many real-time friends nor had you developed the techniques for making them.  The other side of the equation became your own attempts at acquiring skills in the storytelling craft.  These attempts in an indirect but tangible way helped you develop skills necessary to recognize fictional friends and get them to talk to you.  Early in your publishing career, you had the opportunity to spend a few moments in conversation with Elmore Leonard, a man who is so prolific that he has no need of a large cadre of real-time friends.  From him you learned that if you listened, characters might talk to you.  This was not all you learned because when you began to think about it, you realized he was creating characters as memorable, sometimes even more memorable than Dickens’s characters.  You don’t tell them what to do, you listen to them and they will often tell you what they wish to do.  This was not an easy thing to learn; nor was it an easy thing to recognize.

You have spent a good portion of your life being ordinary and doing ordinary things, some of which is necessary as an integral part of growing up.  Now, however, the time has arrived for you to be as little concerned with the ordinary as possible.  You experiment with stratagems to bring some quality of out-of-the-ordinariness into every day, sometimes focusing on the things you eat, the clothing you wear, the books you read, the stories and books you write, the things you go out of your way to see, the things you go out of your way to avoid.

Ordinary defeats the writer, ties lead weights to his feet, then pushes him off the edge of a pier.  A writer must think beyond ordinary in constructing a story, which is an unequivocal directive to begin with a cast of characters who are beyond ordinary, in particular when they are selected in order to portray ordinary individuals.

Ordinary does not allow escape routes or opportunities for having memorable goals, much less the intellect to contrive ways to achieve those goals.

Ordinary means your characters are not as smart as you; out-of-the-ordinary means they are smarter, know more than you do, think faster than you do, solve problems that would leave you weeping with frustration.

A reasonable question becomes how it is possible to produce characters who are smarter than you.  A reasonable answer is to cause them to think in a different way than you do, talk in different ways, ask different questions, have different goals.

Think about how you become aware a person is smarter than you, then think about the reasons you’re led to think so, then invest those characters you wish to be brighter with those qualities.  The big mistake is always resident in thinking shrewdness and intelligence have to do with memorized fact.  Another big mistake is thinking shrewdness and intelligence are related to not being wrong, about making mistakes, about embracing a hypothesis with some resident flaw.

Ordinary is being too easily pleased or never being pleased or wanting too much to please someone or something.  Ordinary is being so predictable that you are ordinary in your boring application.

You become ordinary if you try to apply the solutions that work in the story you’ve already completed and sent off to the story under way.  You become ordinary if you insist on the ending and turns of event you had when you began.  You lose ordinary when you write yourself out beyond your toolkit of easy fixes and repairs and into problems where you think you may have gone too far this time, only to realize you’ve only begun.

In metaphor, it is not ordinary to push your story vehicle far enough away from the point of departure to have lost sight of the shoreline, then realize you’ve left your navigation tools at home.  Now you’ve done it.  You’ve moved beyond ordinary.  Now you’re at risk of telling a story that is no longer ordinary.

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