Monday, September 10, 2018

Concept Writing

Years ago, we became fans of the show Face Off. We were at the height of the kid-friendly-but-not-cartoon programming era in our house and latched on to shows that everyone was interested in watching. And Face Off had a lot to like. For me, I enjoyed seeing the creations contestants came up with each week in the challenges. I always felt like it inspired writing, and that I could end up with a good idea for a horror story or something outside my wheelhouse.

Recently, Face Off dropped on Hulu, thank the TV gods. I'm always looking for a good streaming show with lots of seasons, because if I'm having one of my rough nights I have something I can watch or (hopefully) fall asleep to. I was happy to add it to my queue.

Something I had forgotten from the show was how important concept was. It might be easy for people who aren't in that industry to think of this as slapping on some paint and make up and costumes. As molding a bump for the nose or whatever it takes to make a person look like an alien.

It was never that simple.

Time after time after time, as the judges evaluated the characters contestants made, the started off wanting some specific information.

What was the concept?

The judges expected every single creative decision to be grounded in the character's story.

Now, these guys missed the mark, but notice that the evaluation started based on concept. Story.

This one is a better example, in a way. While it doesn't focus on the judges talking to the creator, the judges express all the reasons why this was such a memorable creation. As Neville Page puts it, the success was in the character.

Writers can really take something away from this. Some people might think of writers as making up stories and artists as drawing pictures or molding clay or whatever. Yet the origin is often the same. We're creating characters, and when you look at what they do on Face Off you see that every decision made in design is supposed to be informed by factors related to the character.

Writers could really do worse than to watch the first few seasons of the show and listen to what the judges have to say.

I found myself thinking about how concept writing applies to my own work. My recently published short story, 'Crossing Jordan', was centered on two factors. One was that the objective was to write something that fit the anthology theme (noir, police procedural or crime-related, with a kick-ass dame as your character). I chose noir, and opted to write about a post-op trans woman who wants to die, because I have a family member who is trans.

I was ecstatic to see someone really get the story when a recent review came out.

Crossing Jordan by Sandra Ruttan doesn’t feature murder or a shoot-out but does get us inside the head of a trans sex worker as she tries to unsuccessfully kill herself. But it’s not just A Man Called Ove done up in high heels.  It is a story of persistence and strength in the face of misunderstanding, rejection, and violence. A story that will stick with me.

It meant a lot to see how much of Jordan's character came through for the reader.

When I wrote The Spying Moon, my character presented different challenges for me. In many respects, reading a book can be like stepping straight into a character's mind, particularly if there is a single POV character. But what do you do when the character is an exceptionally focused person? Moreau was tough because of her background and upbringing. As a person who is part-Native, who spent much of her life in foster homes without family or a cultural anchor, she's almost like a blank slate. Instead of figuring out who she was and what she was interested in, she focused on getting answers about what had happened to her mother. She set a goal and every single thing she did, from working hard in school to earning good grades to becoming an RCMP officer, was in service of that goal.

Moreau doesn't think about clothes or music or relationships. She doesn't think much about having a personal life.

She simply focuses her energy on doing what she needs to do to get the answers that she seeks.

The only variation to that goal and her choices stems from principles that her mother did impart in her, things she does remember her saying and telling her to do. She strives to be the person that she believes her mother wanted her to be, while having a singular personal mission. And when the job she needs to properly investigate her mother's disappearance interferes with her ability to further that investigation, she remembers what her mother told her about doing the right thing.

In many respects, Moreau was a hard character to write because she's a hard character to know because she doesn't know herself. What I really found was that her story was a journey of discovery.

The Spying Moon is a welcome, gritty addition to Canadian crime fiction. Ruttan is a thoughtful and original writer, and Kendall Moreau is a compelling detective in the vein of Jane Tennison and John Rebus.”
– Sam Wiebe, award-winning author of Cut You Down, Last of the Independents and Invisible Dead
"With a keen eye for Canadian detail, Ruttan crafts a grim thriller with a unique social conscience. We need more stories like this one. Kendall Moreau is a Mountie you won't soon forget." --Sarah L Johnson, bestselling author of Infractus and Suicide Stitch: Eleven Stories

It's cool to see others relate to the strength of the character. It speaks to the strength of concept. I've worried that readers may find her a little distant as a POV character because of her lack of personal indulgences.

One of the things that is really important for me is to show how poorly Indigenous people are treated. In the midst of the #metoo movement, there's a lot more to talk about than just sexual harassment; racism is rampant and it is something that many people have to deal with every single day. Since Moreau had been cut off from family and her cultural heritage for many years, The Spying Moon focuses on all the barriers she must overcome. They're layered throughout the story. Detours from road construction, stacks of boxes from building renovations, bad attitudes from co-workers and sexist and racist remarks from potential witnesses and suspects are just some of the examples of obstacles Moreau faces. They're purposeful, because they represent the challenges she's had to face and the ones that she still has to deal with on a daily basis.

No single group of people in Canada is at greater risk of violent death than Indigenous women.

Given her concerns, I can see Moreau connecting to what Iskwe has to say. I hadn't seen this when I first wrote The Spying Moon but it certainly got to me when I did listen to this interview.

I can't change my own cultural heritage, but one thing I can do is make sure that my stories reflect real challenges that real people face and model inclusion, with characters of different ethnic backgrounds, genders and issues.

When people are cut off from their language and culture, they lose a part of themselves. It was a specific tactic used by the English, when they outlawed Irish. It was a tactic used by the Canadian government when they put Indigenous people on reservations and took their children away and sent them to residential schools.

When we talk about crime we think of murder or assault or drug-dealing. We rarely talk about the crime of robbing people of their cultural identity and sense of self.

That's Moreau's origin. Should her story continue, I expect she'll have a soundtrack in the future, as she fills in the missing pieces of her life.

PS: The book comes out next Monday. Amazon lost pre-orders of many titles, including mine, so if you did pre-order it that may have been canceled. That's the last I heard (as of a few weeks ago). 


As Anthony-Award winning author Kellye Garrett recently said on Twitter, "There have been just 81 black writers traditionally published in mystery all time. Of those 81 many aren't publishing today." 

Congratulations to Kellye on her Anthony win. May this be indicative of a turning of the tide, and a big step forward for inclusion in crime fiction writing.

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