Windshield Wipers

When my husband and I moved to the Seattle area two and a half years ago, we had both just graduated from BYU. He was on his was to a PhD at the UW. I didn’t have a job, his job didn’t start for six months, and we were living in his parents’ basement until we found a place.

Our windshield wipers had already been baked by an early Utah summer, but it was still pouring rain in Washington. Still, with no immediate promise of income, I was willing to put up with a few streaks on the windshield rather than buy new wiper blades.

But after my husband and I returned from a walk one day, my father-in-law, Jim, mentioned in passing, “I put a new pair of windshield wipers on your car for you.”

Alone, it’s a small, sweet example of the way he lived his life, noticing needs around him and quietly filling them. But you have to understand that Jim was suffering from severe back pain, so bad that he hadn’t been able to lie down for months. He had tumors the size of golf balls spreading through his body. He was in and out of chemotherapy, and suffering from neuropathy from previous bouts of chemo. And through all this, he was still working so hard to keep up with his job as a sports photographer for the Seattle Times.

And he had gone out, bought windshield wipers, and installed them for us while we were out walking.

We had six more months with him before the cancer treatments became too much. That was two years ago today.

Those windshield wipers are starting to leave streaks behind, and with holiday travels ahead of us, it’s probably time to replace them again. But I count it a blessing that this gloomy Washington weather gives me frequent opportunities to use those wipers and give quiet thanks in my heart for the selfless man who changed our wiper blades.

Tradition!

Growing up, Thanksgiving meant my family, my grandma, and three or four families of aunts, uncles, and cousins cramming into a house and eating on fancy tablecloths and fancy dishes and fancy silverware. There were always the adult tables and the kids table. And let me tell you, the kids table was the place to be on Thanksgiving. Though I shunned the title of “kid” by the time I was twelve, I always took it back when Thanksgiving rolled around. I was among the youngest of the cousins, and I would join my brother and several cousins for olive fingers and games and general misbehavior that would have been frowned upon at the adult tables. We stuck to the kids table through our teen years. Thanksgiving dinner wouldn’t have been the same without it.

Traditions like these can really bring a story to life. One of my favorite parts of writing Demon’s Heart was figuring out traditions for various life events and how they differed from region to region. It adds depth to both specific characters and the world itself. So here’s my challenge for the week:

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What’s a long-standing tradition in your character’s life? Write a descriptive scene with your character’s thoughts and feelings as the tradition is happening—or during a time when the tradition has failed.

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Why do we care about Coulson?

Here’s your warning: major Marvel nerdiness and minor spoilers ahead.

So my husband and I have been making our way through the first season of “Agents of SHIELD.” Haven’t been super impressed so far. I mean, it’s okay, but the only reason I’ve stuck with it is to find out how Agent Coulson is still alive.

Last night, we watched the episodes where Coulson is taken by Centipede and stuff happens and you really, really super hate the creepy lady in the flower dress.

HOLY SMOKES, PEOPLE.

I’ll be honest, I was a little traumatized. If I were the crying type, I probably would have cried. Especially at the last bit, with Coulson and the doctor in the car . . .

All that emotional distress led to an interesting question:

Why the heck do we care about Phil Coulson?

Seriously. Him and his cellist from Portland. What is it about this little man with a receding hairline that made it so wrenching when he got an alien blade through the chest? He doesn’t have superpowers. He doesn’t have a cool bow with exploding arrows. He doesn’t deliver constant snappy one-liners. Why was his death such a blow?

My thoughts:

1. Familiarity. I love it when characters from one book (or movie) show up in another one that’s only loosely connected. As in, not a sequel or prequel. By the time we got to the Avengers, Coulson had shown up multiple times in the Marvel movies. It was always brief, but he was there. He was the thread tying them all together.

2. Character foil. In a universe of Hulk-sized egos and unbalanced superheroes raring for a fight, Coulson is quiet, efficient, and disarmingly friendly. He doesn’t rise to any bait. He doesn’t march around in a cape or a giant robot suit or a spangly outfit. He doesn’t even have a mysterious eye patch. He is a refreshing island of sanity in an ocean of super-sized egos.

3. Personality. Seriously, how can you not like the guy? I swear, he’s the only person in the Marvel movies that ever smiles. He’s a completely capable SHIELD agent while still being kind of a lovable dork. (Captain America trading cards, anyone?)

What do you think? Am I alone in my love of Agent Coulson? Are there any minor characters that you’ve liked better than the protagonist? What makes them so special?

Villainy, Sweet Villainy

I love me a good villain. There have been stories where the villain has sucked me in more than the protagonist. So let’s talk a little bit about the different types of villains:

1. The villain that is just evil for evil’s sake.

2. The villain that is evil, but has a clear back story that led to that descent into evil.

3. The villain that hovers in between good and evil, and you’re never quite sure which side will win out in the end.

Each of these villains has a place and a purpose. Sometimes, you just need a person or people or force that is evil personified. It makes for a clear distinction between good and bad, and can wreak unspeakable acts of horror with no real clarification necessary. It’s just what evil does, you know? Unfortunately, this kind of villain is hard to pull off with decent believability, and the “I’m just a bad dude” ploy gets old really fast.

I much prefer villains 2 and 3. Villain 2 can be just as evil as Villain 1, but there’s more believability, more attachment. You can see where the villain came from, that the villain was once a person. You might even feel sorrow for the villain. Villain 3 creates the best tension, and, when done right (read: not like Anakin Skywalker), makes for a great moment of either tumultuous jubilation or crushing despair.

Villains can make or break a story, sometimes more so than the protagonist. Guy of Gisborne was the only reason I watched all three seasons of BBC’s Robin Hood series (both because he was a compelling Villain 3 and because, come on, it’s Richard Armitage). Voldemort’s back story made for a great Villain 2, and Draco Malfoy was a wonderfully pathetic Villain 3 by the end. And oh, Bevin Conner! Where would The Ascendance Trilogy have ended without Bevin Conner as a villain?

Who are some of your favorite villains? What makes a good villain in your eyes?

And it’s time for another Monday writing challenge! In keeping with the theme of the post:

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Write out the scene where your villain makes (or starts to make) the turn from good to evil.

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Charting Fates

Have you seen JK Rowlings plot chart for the Harry Potter series? It’s incredible. A great visual of just how many plot lines she managed to interweave without crashing.

Tolkien had a similar plot chart for Lord of the Rings. I saw it in person at the EMP last year, and I wanted to squeal in sheer delight. It was amazing! He had exact dates on each event for each person and each plot line, painstakingly hand-written on a sheet of paper. Beautiful.

I went home that day inspired. I was going to plot like Tolkien. I was going to make a chart, and write out all the minute details, and it was going to be perfect.

Except that, instead of the train-schedule precision of Tolkien, my chart turned into a total train wreck.

I finally gave up on the chart and reverted to my usual method of plotting: a loose outline, mostly chronological, of the big turning point events. I had tried the chart, but it just didn’t work for me, so I shelved it.

Except that then, I got halfway through my novel and realized that I was spending as much time hunting through previous chapters, trying to figure out time frames and event sequences, as I was actually writing. It was incredibly frustrating, and I found myself wishing with all my heart that I had managed to get that stupid chart to work.

And then I realized: it was not too late for the chart.

I had been so caught up on the chart as an initial planning method that I wasn’t thinking about how useful it was as an editing help. And so, after this moment of clarity, I approached the chart once more with some trepidation born of my previous failure.

And guess what? It was a lot easier to make a chart out of something I had already written than something I was just beginning to plan out. After a couple hours’ work, I had mapped out my written chapters in a clean, crisp OneNote table. With the plot laid out in front of me at a glance, I dashed through the last half of the book at double speed, no longer slowed down by constant checking and rechecking of dates and times and sequences. Not only that, I realized that there was a point in my book where I had crammed about three days’ worth of hours into one day. Kind of an important thing to know going into editing mode.

The perfect method of planning a novel is an elusive beast. I’ve never written two novels the same way, because I’m always figuring out some new way to improve my process. But I can tell you for sure, this post-draft plot chart is here to stay in my plotting method.

Do you use a chart in your planning? How do you keep all your plot lines straight in your head?

Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout?!

So I’m reading this book right now. Well, I’m reading several books right now, but I’m talking about one in particular. I like the concept well enough, but the dialogue is so stilted it hurts. I feel like I’m getting poked in the eye with weird, starchy words.

So can you guess what the writing prompt is going to be about today?

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Write a bare-bones dialogue, with just enough markers to know who’s talking and what’s going on. Sit back and see if you can read it aloud like you’re having a conversation in a friend. In fact, go get a friend, strap her to a chair if necessary, and read it back and forth. Make necessary revisions until you don’t sound like a snooty Victorian. (Unless, of course, your character is a snooty Victorian.)

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“Don’t drive like my brother!”

I just found out that Tom Magliozzi died on Monday.

I’ll admit that I didn’t recognize the name at first. I only knew Tom and his brother Ray as Click and Clack the Tappett Brothers, good-humored hosts of Car Talk on NPR.

Now, I have never had much interest in the inner workings of automobiles. But I still loved listening to Car Talk on Saturday mornings with my dad as we drove to the tennis courts or the grocery store or wherever else we happened to be on our way to.

It was the laugh that made Car Talk what it was. If you’ve ever listened in, you know what I’m talking about. The jokes and cracks were ten times funnier because they were followed by that constant, goofy belly laugh.

As it turns out, Tom and Ray were more than a couple of radio mechanics. Both were MIT graduates, and Tom got a doctoral degree in marketing. Their DIY auto repair shops were a success, and the radio show started out with Ray trying to get out of a panel of mechanics on local radio and Tom trying to get out of a day of work. Needless to say, Ray didn’t manage to stay off the radio for long.

Even if you’ve never tuned in to Car Talk, chances are good you’ve heard Click and Clack. You know the Rust-Eze brothers from Cars? The ones sponsoring Lightning McQueen, who send him off after his first race with a cheery “Don’t drive like my brother!” There you go! You knew Tom Magliozzi.

Have you ever listened to Car Talk? If not, head over to CarTalk.com and have a listen. It’s well worth the time!