Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Discomfort Zone

Congrats to Lil, the winner of Karin Harlow’s L.O.S.T mug.

We’re always talking about taking our characters out of their comfort zones, making them do things they don’t want to do, making them face things they don’t want to face. These are usually things that mark critical turning points in a book. The claustrophobic hero has to rescue someone from a cave. The guy with the snake phobia has to drop into the pit filled with the slithering beasties.

But what about the little things? The simple, physical discomforts? I’ve been working on editing WHERE DANGER HIDES. I’ve done edits for five other books, so it’s not something new or different. But this time, it’s not “comfortable”. I don’t have my desk. I have a computer stand that’s only a little wider than my monitor. It does have a pullout keyboard drawer, but that’s about the extent of it. No drawers. No handy places to put things, or much room for taking notes. I do have my ‘real’ desk chair, but working doesn’t feel the same.

Until we get the new window treatments, I’m almost unable to work at the computer for several late-afternoon into evening hours because of the sun’s glare. I shifted the “desk” 90 degrees, but although I’m no longer looking into the sun, there’s still quite a glare. So, why not rearrange my schedule so that I’m not working during that time. I could be fixing dinner, or doing laundry, or reading, or any of a myriad other tasks.

Sure, there’s the laptop, which can go anywhere in the house. But that’s another set of discomforts—smaller keyboard, smaller monitor, so harder to look at. Different mouse. And not everything on the PC is on the laptop, so there are those shortcomings as well.

But late afternoon through evening has been when I’ve been most productive. How do I rearrange my normal writing rhythms? Can I? I think there’s something about familiar (and comfortable) surroundings that help working on any task. Cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, or using a different washing machine can slow down the process.

So, what about characters? Sure, the biggies make the story compelling. But, just as Donald Maass talked about micro-tension, I think you can have “micro-comfort.” How does your character deal with the little things? I have a small cut on the pad of my thumb, and while it’s not serious, among other things, it’s made pressing buttons on the tv remote painful.

What does your character do about a pair of too-tight shoes? Whine about it? Try to ignore it? Go barefoot? What if they’re out to dinner and the waiter spills their ice cold water into their lap? Or at a cocktail party, the hero drops a cocktail sauce-covered shrimp and ruins the heroine’s brand new dress. The one she melted out her credit card to buy? Or borrowed from her friend—not her best friend, but the one who was reluctant to lend the dress in the first place.

And as the author, you can parlay those little discomforts into more major plot points.

What if your character’s cut was on his trigger finger, and inhibited his ability to fire his weapon?

What if the heroine in the too-tight stilettos had to run for her life? Across treacherous terrain? Those little mishaps that cause discomfort can show the reader how your character will act when those biggies show up.

As for my uncomfortable office: Yesterday, we ordered the flooring for the upstairs level. It has to be delivered to the store, then to us, then sit for at least a week to acclimate to the altitude before the contractor can start laying it. Eventually, the floors will be installed in the offices, and I’ll buy a real desk. We’ve ordered closet systems, so I’ll have a filing cabinet and shelving built into the closet. I’ll be able to put stuff on my walls, and have furniture instead of boxes holding up my printer, scanner, and the like. I’ll have room for my story board, and I can hang my white board. But it’ll take a while—probably a month or more—before it’s done, and I certainly can’t put my writing responsibilities on hold because it’s not “comfortable.”

Tomorrow, I’ve got a close-to-home Friday Field Trip. See you then!


Lou Belcher said...

Yes, we tend to make many excuses for not writing. Perhaps when all the construction is finished, your office will be "too" comfortable to write.... Have a great day.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

I understand your attitude about time of day. My best time is late evening (my physical clock has always been reversed). Things flow from my mind at time. Other times it's as if I fight myself and everyone else.
Hang in there. Your comfort zone will soon return.
Giggles and Guns

Terry Odell said...

Lou - let's hope I find that comfort balance!

Maribeth - I seriously intend to write early in the morning, but my mind insists on dealing with the everyday chore type stuff -- compelled to check emails, do blog crawls, find out what happened while I was asleep. I need a 'clean slate' of time to get creative. My morning writing tends to be editing yesterday's stuff.

Wynter said...

It's tough to get set up and comfortable in a new spot, especially with the many distractions of a new home. Good luck with making it your own.

Terry Odell said...

Thanks, Wynter. Yeah, I guess after 22 years in Orlando, looking out over hills, trees, and ... snow! might be distracting. And the deer are fun to watch, too.

We'll see what happens when we have to deal with the painters and floor-laying, not to mention the revamping of the kitchen.

There's a nice deli in town with free WiFi -- might hang there a lot once things get underway.

Debra St. John said...

I love those little character nuances that make them come alive.

Good luck with finding your comfort zone!

Terry Odell said...

Debra - in the end, it's all about the characters, isn't it?

Cleo Coyle said...

Oh, I love your term "micro-comfort" and I could not agree more that a little annoyance can not only help define a character but also set up a greater impact down the road. Excellent point --and reminder!


Terry Odell said...

Thanks for stopping by, Cleo. I think I had some trouble with one of La Nora's heroes because nothing ever fazed him. Nobody's that 'comfortable.'

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points! And a nice way to add a bit of conflict to a scene or make it more stressful for our characters.

Terry Stonecrop said...

It's hard to do anything when you're not comfortqble. And I can understand the habit of writing at a certain time.

Thanks for the idea of making a character uncomfortable. I'm going to try that. I can see how it would heighten the tension in a scene.

Jamie D. said...

Excellent post. I hope your office gets all sorted out soon, but until then, this is obviously a great time to shake your writing routine up a bit. I like routines, I love them, actually...but it can be very inspiring to be forced to reevaluate occasionally.

And great points about the little discomforts with characters. You're right - those are the things that make a character "real". :-)

Terry Odell said...

Elizabeth -- well, we don't want our readers TOO uncomfortable. But yes, they need to be able to relate, and I think it's more likely they're going to relate to paper cuts over finding dead bodies. :-)

TerryS Glad I gave you some ideas

Jamie - eventually, it'll be an office instead of a room full of office-type stuff all over the floor. And if a character isn't real, what's going to entice the reader to turn the pages?

Helen Ginger said...

I have my office pretty much the way I want it. Problem is, it's also the guest room. When someone comes to stay, I move everything up stairs, computer, files, folding table, chair, floor mat....Then when they leave, it all comes back down.

Straight From Hel

Terry Odell said...

Helen, we're trying to avoid having to do that, although between the hubster and me, we're using 2 of the 3 'real' bedrooms as our offices. Eventually, we hope to convert the downstairs to a fully functional guest room. Meanwhile, we're using the "under construction" excuse to minimize overnight guests.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Adapting to change is part of the adventure, right? :)