Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Phantom Tollbooth

I re-read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster yesterday. I actually didn't really care for this book when I was younger, but I went through a phase where I didn't like fantastical books, so I thought I might have read it during that "try to be a grown up and stop reciting the entire script of Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz" phase. My aunt still tells me she has no need to see either movie because of me. Anyway, I actually only partly liked it this time too. I loved the idea of it, and the theme of it, but I didn't actually love it. I didn't care about Milo. The characters, although some of them are fun and absurd, really aren't that memorable. It was all about plot, which was told in a rather choppy manner. We went here and did this and then went here and did this and... I can see why I didn't like it as a child. I missed his points because I didn't care about the characters, so I didn't pay that much attention. I did the same thing yesterday. What's interesting is the short story I wrote in a creative writing class in college that I keep meaning to turn into a novel is written along the same themes. I should love this book. But I don't. After submitting that short story to my writing group in that class, they and the professor all encouraged me to keep going with it. And I did, creating a book-length outline and massive amounts of character notes. But five years later it's still just that. I feel like Juster took something like that outline and just slapped a few transitions and bits of dialogue in and called it a day. Forget the character aspects. Maybe because my writing process is different the same way my reading process is different. For example, Ryan cares primarily about plot. That's why he's not a big reader. He can get plot more efficiently from a movie, and can control the plot to some extent in many video games, so he prefers those. But I care primarily about character. I read about a great character doing a bunch of nothing. Which is why Ryan can't understand why I love Jane Austen and books like I Capture the Castle - they're primarily about character, then plot. I write the same way. A character pops in my head first, then I find something for them to do. You can tell when an author does it the other way - comes up with a plot and then creates someone to do it. I prefer the first way. Like with the novel I should be writing instead of blogging about - those character notes came first, then the outline. I probably did 30 different character development exercises. Answered hundreds of questions like: What's in her purse? What's her favorite food? What three things would she want if stuck on a deserted island? What does she smell like? What do her hands look like? Details that will never end up in a book, but that help flesh out the character and make them as real as possible. You can always tell the authors whose characters live in their heads and take on a life of their own versus those who simply make a character the way the author wants. Maybe this post has inspired me to get back to Charlotte and the Queen from my attempt at a novel. They both still live in my head even though I haven't written in a while. Maybe I should finally get them out and give them freedom and de-clutter my head a bit.

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