Thursday, January 19, 2012

Five Hundred is a Large Number (So is Fifty Thousand)

The frost dances across the windows and the world swirls behind the icy glass as the truck putts along the rough road across the property.  The January air is nippy and presses against the glass, turning my warm breath on the window into a misty layer between me and the wind. I’m bundled up, my hands pressed between my thighs to keep warm in their mittens.
The only sound is the hum of the engine of the old truck.  
It smells of old cigarettes and stale air fresheners and age.  The tattered leather seat is hard beneath me, stuffed too full of stiff foam.  I lean hard against the back as the truck starts up a hill.  Staring out the window, the scenery is white and brisk and wintry in the least inviting manner.
We level out, pull to a stop, and the truck jerks as my uncle presses in the brake and puts it in park.  I pull on the door handle and remember to jiggle the bare metal to get it to catch.  It opens with a rusty creak and the frigid air blasts me.
My uncle is already out, his hands in the pockets of his black wool coat.  He’s thin and looks cold.  His plaid scarf covers his face up to his intellectual black glasses, his expensive shoes covered in soft, crunchy snow.  His eyes are bright as he stares into the white woods.
I mimic him, stuffing my mittens into my pockets as I meander out.  The wind bites right through me, but I don’t complain.  I just hunker down deeper into my own coat, breathing in and feeling the hot breath moisten the collar around my face.  

“We don’t have to be here, you know,” he reminds me. “We could go back, to your mom.”  I look at him, but from where I am all I see is the reflection of the icy woods in his square glasses.  I shake my head.  We do. We can’t.
I turn and walk through the fluffy snow.  It comes up to my shins, and my jeans soak through. I have two pairs of thermals under them, though, so I keep pressing on.
The lake is an icy sheet before me, the reeds frozen bending into the frozen water at the edge.  All the grass is laced with frost and white powder.  The surface reflects the trees around it and the grey-white sky above.  The ice looks thick.  I walk up close and take a step down from the ledge so I’m standing right by the ice, with my toes just molecules from touching the lake.
“I don’t know how thick the ice is,” my uncle calls.  He sounds young and helpless out here, the largeness of the woods mocking the two of us, just a boy and a college kid up here with grandpa’s truck.
I take a step onto it.  It’s slick but bumpy.  I don’t fall, and I edge out until both of my feet are planted on its glassy surface. I hesitate for a moment, and take a few more steps.  Four feet, five feet, six from the edge.
“I don’t think you should go out there,” he calls again.
I look around, feel the cold air burning my nose as I breathe, feel the solidness of the ice beneath my feet, feel the solitude of standing on the lake alone.
I try to hold my breath.  My lungs feel full, bursting, and I can only hold it for a small while before I must let it out.  I try not to breathe in, to leave my lungs empty and devoid of air, but the pressure inside of me demands that I take more air. I can’t live without it.
“Do you think it hurt?”  I call over my shoulder.  I look into the ice and the lovely patterns and lines the water froze into.  “Drowning?”
I hear footsteps crunch as he steps closer.  Crunch, crunch, crunch.  “I don’t know,” he calls back.
“I don’t want it to hurt,” I say.
“You’re not going to drown,” he tells me.
“I’m not talking about me.”
His breath catches.  “I know.”
I stand for just another instant on the lake, frozen and powerless in January, unlike in June, when people can drown.  When daddies can fall out of boats and hit their heads on the rocks and slip into the water and leave their eight-year-old sons and their twenty-two-year-old brothers and their thirty-year-old wives lonely and not come back.
And then I turn and walk back on the ice, back through the crunchy snow, and I sit in my chair in the passenger’s seat of my grandpa’s old truck and stare at the chilly gear shift as my uncle stands and cries outside.
Eventually we go home.


It's easy to capture in one scene.  It's easy to capture for a few heartbeats of a character's life.  It's easy for a moment.

But for an entire book-- to try to get a character's way of thinking, constantly, for pages and pages and pages and pages, watch the character change, grow, morph, but stay the same-- to have a character become new while staying himself-- that's not easy.

I just read Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.  It was a marvelous book-- so beautiful, such a perfect picture of God's love towards us.  Though I will admit, reading it made me wonder that my friends said they first read it when they were twelve and thirteen and it was their favorite book back then.  Forgive me for my pretension, but twelve and thirteen year old girls should not be reading books about prostitutes and newlyweds.  There is WAY too much sexual tension, and you don't need that stuff in your head at twelve and thirteen.  I'm wondering if I need it in my head even now, and I'm seventeen. I don't think it wasn't appropriate, per say, but perhaps I should have waited until I was older, or married, or something.

This, however, is not a book review.  Sorry for the derailed muse there.

Mrs. Rivers stunned me with the adroit skill with which she changed Angel throughout the course of her novel.  The book is just shy of 500 pages, and not once was I sick of Angel on account of her being a cardboard character.  Angel changed, but in believable, natural, good ways-- all the while retaining who she was.  She did things with purpose, and her innate personality never changed though her habits and way of thought did.  Her emotions made sense.  They progressed, along with her reason.  She was beautifully three-dimensional.

I feel that it's so easy, when you need to change a character in a book, to pull out the old character and just replace everything when he or she goes through a major event or conflict.  "Oh, someone died! (or you got hurt! or, the ever cut-and-pasted, you got saved!)  Let's change you from a sarcastic, brooding and awkward girl to a happy, truth-spouting, certified lady!"

How do you keep your characters themselves for the duration of your novel?  How do you not tire of trying to change them all the while moving forward in the plot, staying true to their character without spending so many paragraphs describing how they feel and absolutely none about where they are going, much less what they're doing?

Where is the balance?

How do I keep from being so ADD I just give up on trying to change them after a while and leave them to be where they were on page one?

I've been convicted (though probably not by God).  I'm a terrifically awful book-writer.  Vignettes, they're good.  Short stories, sure.  I don't even have to name the characters or describe them to tell you what you should be seeing.  But books?

How to keep it interesting and new and fresh and interesting the same and familiar all at the same time for five hundred pages? For fifty thousand words?

I can't figure it out.

Christina Kuri Icarus

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