Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Holiday Repeat: Writing Advice From Some Old Guys At My Gym

Here is a repeat post from 2007. I'll be back tomorrow with a fresh You Tell Me. 


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."

**12/28/10 UPDATE: Sad coda, the John Barleycorn is now closed. Also there is no longer a trash can on the Sesame Street website.


Amanda C. Davis said...

Oh gosh. I've been trying to remember where I heard that "Imagine my surprise" story for months now. And here it is. It's a Christmas miracle.

Emlyn Chand said...

It really does seem like there is writing advice everywhere you turn. You just need to have your ear attuned to its frequency.

I always learn a lot about characterization when I'm stuck in the airport. Watching the people go by, you start to match up attributes such as facial expression, gait, speech patterns, and other sensory clues.

If ever I'm stuck on describing a character I imagine him at the airport. Is he rushing towards his gate while yelling into his handsfree mobile device? Is he strolling leisurely down the walkway, looking at all of the advertisements as others pass by in frustration? Does he, like me, spread out his arms when he walks down the moving beltway and pretend to fly?

Like I said, these little surprise writing lessons are everywhere!

My Book Blog

ms in chicago said...

Oh, Nathan. Sorry it was your favorite bar. As an Ex SF'er & someone who now lives where there are 2, let's say I'm not a fan.

SF has tons more great bars. Imagine my surprise...

Tracey Neithercott said...

This is a great reminder. There's a character in my current manuscript that could use to make a hard decision. Thanks, Old Guy at the Gym.

Also, that "imagine my surprise" story is hilarious.

Perry said...

Great advice. It's always a good idea to listen to what's going on around you (yeah yeah I know it's supposed to be rude, but I'm a writer covers a lot of etiquette errors).

Peter Dudley said...

Timeless writing advice. Thanks for the refresher; I remember when this reminder helped me over a WIP speed bump.

One of my early stories years (and years) ago had a decent plot, but a writing group buddy pointed out that the MC was entirely passive--even though she was acting all the time in dramatic ways, all of her actions were driven by external events. She never had any choices to make. So, although there was plot, there really wasn't any story.

lexcade said...

Hey, I got writing advice from Victor Wooten of Bella Fleck and the Flecktones when he was speaking at the music store where my bf works. Advice comes from weird places sometimes.

Donna Hole said...

Excellent advice. Especially for action and fantasy characters. Well rounded with opportunity to make the wrong and well as right choices.


D.G. Hudson said...

Interesting post and advice. Instead of dismissing the old guys' conversation, you extrapolated their comments into a character lesson.

The ability (on your part, Nathan)to grasp what many of us might think of as inane conversation and turn it into solid writing advice indicates your 'core' values are solid.

Thanks for posting this week.

Mira said...

Lol - this is so funny. You're funny, Nathan.

I'm sorry to hear about John Barleycorn, but I'm even more sorry about the trash can. Now I'll never know what was behind it!! Arrgghhh. Could life please stop tormenting me so???

I think your point about writing is excellent. I think you've blogged about this before - tension. Internal tension about making hard choices can be riveting. It's probably my favorite type of tension because it's the most interesting to me.

But you know what else is interesting? Someone in a gym who hates a character enough that they want them to die - just because that character doesn't have enough courage to become a head gangster. Makes me wonder what's up with that guy in the gym? Maybe he needs to be more in touch with his FEELINGS. Maybe it would be worth writing a short story about HIM. Ha!

So, I just want to admit I don't have the balls to become a mob boss. Just in case anyone was wondering. No mob boss jobs for me. Even with benefits.

Fun post, Nathan - thanks.

terryd said...

Love these classic posts, Nathan. The updates add a fine patina.

Samantha G said...

Thanks Old Guy From Gym- that's good advice. (And Nathan, I really wonder if he would actually want to be called Old Guy From Gym.) You wouldn't like it if I referred to you as Guy From Blog I Read- or would you?

swampfox said...

Plenty of bars down here in Campbell. Don't go to them, though. Don't even drink. Can't stand the stuff. Hope it's not a requisite for being a great writer.

Corey Schwartz said...

Oh, terrific post. My husband and I often discuss "films' from a writer's perspective... and I blogged about character choices here:

But you make a much more interesting point.

P.S. Love your book cover!!!

Gracie said...

Nice post! And it's like that quote from Harry Potter... where Dumbledore tells Harry that it's his choices that make him who he is.

Teralyn Rose Pilgrim said...

I was very sad to see that there was no trash can on the Seasame Street website.

StaceyW said...

Great post. I really need to surf around and read all the stuff I missed before I discovered your blog earlier this year. Happy holidays!

StaceyW said...

A follow-up to my earlier comment. The post made me think, and so did this comment by Peter Dudley: "a writing group buddy pointed out that the MC was entirely passive--even though she was acting all the time in dramatic ways, all of her actions were driven by external events." I'm going to give that some thought as it relates to a character issue I've been struggling with in my WIP. So thanks Nathan, and thanks Peter!

Anonymous said...

Well, I was definitely going to choose the trash can!!!

The Invisible Writer said...

Thanks for reposting this. I needed the reminder!

This is such good advice!

J. T. Shea said...

No trashcan indeed. But today's letter is 'X'! Isn't that exciting? No? Okay. What WOULD have happened if there still was a trashcan, and we clicked on it? I have to know!

Speaking of corks and wine bottles, I live near the city of Cork in Ireland. We have a daily newspaper called The Examiner, which used to be called The Cork Examiner. Years ago the paper sent a reporter to a major wine festival in Europe. He was astonished at the respect and adulation he received from everyone. Until he realized they thought he worked for a daily newspaper devoted entirely to examining wine corks...

Interesting post, Nathan. The tension between destiny and freedom to choose is age old. And a matter of great interest to me, since my young protagonist is literally a passenger for most of the story arc. On a huge steamship. A fairly important passenger, and very active, or perhaps reactive, since he has little influence or control over the disasters that befall the ship. What he can influence and control is his own reaction and actions and survival. A bit like TITANIC if Jack Dawson had helped keep the damn ship afloat instead of fooling around with that silly redhead...

Sorry Swampfox, all great writers are or were lushes. Try low alcohol beers first and move up from there.

lisalenardcook said...

My daughter Kaitlin's the weekend bartender @ Swank, Laguna Inn, California & Presidio. Maybe it can be your replacement bar. It's got a great neighborhood vibe.
Happy New Year! ~Lisa

wendy said...

I love including actual dialogue from real-life observations. One character's dialogue I based on emails and phone conversations of someone who was very culturally different to me. This way, I was able to create a character with a very different voice.

I'm looking forward to telling you my opinion tomorrow. Love these opinion-sharing opportunities.

Mary-Lou said...

Oh yeah, I remember this post.
You must have been at LA Fitness or some place classy like that. I never hear that kind of stuff at the Y... MCA. Everybody calls the YMCA the Y, right?
Or is that just my generation?
Hey guys, it's fun to stay at the...?

Jen Albin said...

Great advice! Maybe I should be hitting the gym more.

kellerme said...

i have to say initially i always get a little perturbed when someone does the REpost. but damn, this was is good... happy FESTivus!

Heidi said...

This is awesome. It really helps me with something that has to happen in my book, and it made me realize that it has to be a tough decision made by a main character.
Thanks Nathan!

Shannon said...

Sounds like the guys at your gym should have been watching the Godfather instead of the Sopranos. What they noted was missing in the Sopranos character is there in abundance in Michael Corleone. Now THAT character made a choice!

Karen said...

Thank you Nathan! This is great advice and it came at just the right time (imagine my surprise!) because one of my characters has to make a hard choice. Now I see more of what I need to do to give him some big a** cajones so he doesn't look like a coward.

Peter Dudley said...

@StaceyW: [blush] thanks for the recognition. That particular bit of advice comes back to me frequently whenever I'm plotting.

Nicole said...

I know when I go to the gym I'm there to make muscles, not friends.

Lucy said...

J. T. Shea said...

Sorry Swampfox, all great writers are or were lushes. Try low alcohol beers first and move up from there.

December 28, 2010 3:23 PM

Well, at least I'll be sober enough to remember my non-greatness when I get there. :p

Honestly, I'll always wonder what brilliance some of these guys could have written if they hadn't pickled half their brain cells first.

Related Posts with Thumbnails