Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanksgiving Leftovers: Writing Advice From Some Old Guys At My Gym

In honor of Thanksgiving week I'm joining the television networks and offering up some re-runs. Gobble gobble!


I did not expect to receive writing advice at the gym. I'm not the sociable gym type who knows everyone and asks about their various pets, I like to get in, get out, and go home to complain about how sore I'm going to be the next day.

But there I was, doing my core exercises with one of those exercise orbs (which always ends up making you look rather ridiculous) and I overheard this conversation between two of the gym old timers. Oh, and the conversation is PG-13, so the young and/or faint at heart should go peruse the Sesame Street website for a while (just don't click on the trash can. Seriously, don.... why did you have to click on the trash can???). And for the record, I don't watch the Sopranos.

Old Timer #1: So, how about the Sopranos? Who do you think is gonna get whacked next week?
Old Timer #2: I hope it's the kid. I hate that kid. He's a waste of space.
Old Timer #1: Whaddya mean he's a waste of space?
Old Timer #2: He's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: No balls? Whaddya mean he's got no balls? He's leaving that world behind. He doesn't like the violence. He's going his own way.
Old Timer #2: That's because he's got no balls.
Old Timer #1: So the only way to have balls is to be a violent sociopath?
Old Timer #2: No. But if you don't have balls it's not a choice. If you got no balls you're just a wuss. In order to make a real choice you have to have it in you, only you turn your back. He's just got no balls.

Imagine my surprise.*

The gist of what Old Timer #2 is saying is that in order for a character to make a real choice, he/she has to have the capacity to make both choices he/she is presented with. This is really good writing advice!

One of the best ways to reveal character in a novel is to have the character make a choice because it reveals the character's core values. We all have this innate curiosity about what makes people tick, and when a character makes a decision under pressure when they're faced with a difficult choice, we learn about their priorities and values. Does the character value his pride or his life? Does the character love the girl enough to risk his own neck? Etc. etc.

But in order for this to work, a character has to have the capacity to make both choices. Otherwise your reader will sniff out a false choice a mile a way. So I can see Old Timer #2's point -- if the kid from the Sopranos doesn't follow his father's footsteps it doesn't necessarily mean that his value system is different, he just might not (forgive me) have balls. A more interesting dilemma would be if we got the sense that he DID have courage, but then decided to go his own way. Then it would mean that he was rejecting his father's value system in a real way.

There you have it. Writing advice from the gym.


*The words "imagine my surprise" are an inside joke between me, my fiancee, and the wonderful patrons of San Francisco's greatest bar, John Barleycorn. Larry, the amazing bartender and owner, was working the bar when a homeless man stumbled in with a mysterious paper bag. He walked slowly up to the bar and things got quiet as everyone was wondering what the guy was going to do. Then he opened the bag to reveal a wine bottle with a cork instead of a screw top. He looked up at Larry and said, "Imagine my surprise."

UPDATE 11/19/07: I'm extremely depressed to tell you that John Barleycorn has been closed. Please check out this site for a sense of the history and San Francisco lore that has been lost. Very sad.






8 comments:

Linnea said...

Thanks for the gym story. It was right on the money.

Southern Writer said...

Regarding John Barleycorn: sorry for your loss. I was wondering if the bar was named for the old Traffic song, or if it might be the other way round. Then I realized the song is probably older than you are, and you wouldn't have any idea.

Scott said...

What a great place. It's tragic when a place like that is shut down. Hopefully, the artifacts will be reused in a suitably enjoyable way.

I mentioned it to my wife, who was much more of a bar hopper in her early days than I was, and she'd been there several times, leaving enough of an impression for her to describe it just like the pics on the Web site.

So. Writer:
Thanks for the excuse to do some research! It didn't take much, but it was a nice break anyway. The song "John Barleycorn: is an old English folk song, dating back in one form or another to Saxon England. That's even older than Nathan!

Erik said...

John Barleycorn is the personification of what seems to be an ancient god of brewing. This was too important of a deity to allow to fall by the wayside, whatever Christianity might say, so his "personality" was updated to that of a kindly gentleman of the pub.

I've heard that it was a Norse God as well as a Celtic God, but I can't make any sense of it m'self. John Barleycorn will have to do on his own.

And no, the prohibitionists could na' kill 'im, tho' they tried. 'Tis a sad loss to be grievin' a good bar, howe'er. I'll give ya my condolences in a toast later t'day.

Mary Witzl said...

I think it's sweet that you apologized to your readers before using 'balls' when so many use far saltier language without a by-your-leave.

John Barleycorn was there in my day, and yet another corner of old San Francisco will no doubt end up being gentrified. I'll never forget my disappointment and dismay when my favorite tea shop bit the dust 20 years ago. I've never found another one like it.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, a side question if I may?
Are you taking the holidays off? It seems like most everyone in the literary business is taking a break. Inquiring minds would like to know. Some of us were thinking of querying you around that time.

Southern Writer said...

So. Scott: Not that John Barleycorn. This John Barleycorn:

http://www.cduniverse.com/
search/xx/music/pid/1590902/
a/John+Barleycorn+Must+Die.htm

Winwood is doing a concert with Clapton in February!

(Sorry, Nathan. Thanks for your indulgence.)

Christy Lenzi said...

Great advice from the gym boys. Thanks.

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