Writing Lessons from Angry Birds: Boomerang Bird

Like many of my peers,  I’m semi-addicted to Angry Birds. I used think of flinging birds and obliterating bad piggies as a mindless waste of time (we all need a little of that once in a while), but I can honestly say that playing Angry Birds has improved my writing—enough that I could write off the cost as a business expense if the Android versions weren’t free. Those cute little birds are very effective writing teachers. Seriously.

Angry Green BirdOne of my first Angry Birds Writing Reminders featured that Toucan-inspired guy to the left known as Boomerang Bird because of his interesting ability to double-back and hit things from behind.The first time I encountered Boomerang Bird, the spiffy introductory graphic told me what he could do, but without  revealing his deeper capabilities and nuances.

Boomerang’s behavior after tapping the screen is dependent on his exact speed and trajectory when you tap, and there are so many nuances that in the beginning he rarely did what I expected. With time and experience, I’ve gained some instinctive knowledge of exactly how to launch Boomerang bird and exactly when to tap to get the desired results. I also learned a few things the introductory graphics didn’t mention.

Which brings me to the writing lesson.

Know Your Characters

When I began writing fiction, my characters were so flat you could read right through them. I recall one critiquer who asked point-blank if I’d taken time to get to know my characters, asking a lot of obscure questions I couldn’t answer.  I thought she was nuts. After reflecting on the conversation and recalling the character development process I learned in the theater, I got the point. Since then, I’ve talked with many successful novelists about their character development process. Some journal, some do detailed character profiles, and others (myself included) use method acting principles to get inside characters’ heads and see what makes them tick. I’ve talked with successful novelists who spend months getting to know their characters before writing a single word of their manuscripts. Others just free-write and watch what happens, with the understanding that their first draft will be mostly dreck (which they normally are, anyway).

Whatever method works for you, do it with all the gusto you’ve got. The resulting character depth is like the difference between a plain, flat greeting card and a pop-up card with music and motion.

Just because they can doesn’t mean they should.

I was stuck on one level of Angry Birds for weeks, so stuck I considered deleting the game and trying to forget the thrill of obliterating those bad little piggies. I simply couldn’t get that Boomerang at the top of the birdie lineup to turn around the way I wanted and hit that sweet spot.

Out of pure frustration, I launched Boomer straight into the leading side of the pile and watched in amazement while it all crashed, pummeling the pig population and producing three stars. In a flash of realization, I understood why I was having problems with one of my characters.

I’m writing a series with a couple of characters that have unique and unusual abilities. The easy way out as a writer is to let my characters use those special abilities, but after my Boomer Bird revelation, I rewrote a few pages and forced one to not use them. The entire dynamic of the inter-character relationships changed dramatically, and as I dug into the character I found that she was afraid to use her special ability in that situation. It made her vulnerable. Her best friend (my protagonist) picked up on that fear, but interpreted it as anger and rejection, adding even more tension to the friendship, along with layer upon layer of character depth.

Like real life, we don’t know what a character might be capable of until we corner them and force their hand. Take away a man’s job, a mother’s children, or a Pastor’s church and you’ll discover a whole range of hidden strengths, weaknesses, motivators and flaws. It’s those hidden things that make characters interesting. Next time you’re face-to-face with a bland, boring character, boot them out of their comfort zone and see what happens.

Just don’t be a piggie about it.


Can You Be Shaken Off?

We have covered patio behind our office building known as the Smoking Deck, so named because it is frequently inhabited by the tobacco addicts who work in our non-smoking building. It’s a simple structure; metal lap roofing on a framework of steel “C” channels, supported by posts at one end and the building on the other. Not fancy, but functional—and even non-smokers appreciate it as a staging area perfect for gathering one’s nerve before bolting across the parking lot to your car on rainy days.

About five years ago, we  acquired some new tenants on the Smoking Deck. A tribe of Barn Swallows moved in and set up housekeeping, having found the inside of those steel “C” channels to be a perfectly wonderful place to nest. We didn’t mind at first. Most of our folks, both smoking and non-smoking, found the little family a charming addition—until the day someone mentioned the possible health ramifications of all those bird droppings collecting on the concrete deck. After enough people complained to outweigh the bird-lover vote, we decided to encourage our little friends to nest elsewhere the following spring by removing their little mud nests after they had been vacated.

bird2The following spring, the nests reappeared one day, in exactly the same locations, occupied by egg-sitting mama birds and guarded by a team of highly protective attack swallows. Over the protests of the anti-bird-poop coalition, I allowed the nests to remain until their purpose had been fulfilled and they were once again vacant. On that round of bird-bomb prevention, we installed heavy-gauge 1/4″ wire mesh over the open channels to prevent the birds from entering their nesting zone. Problem solved—or so I thought.

A year later, the Barn Swallows returned in force. One of the several resulting nests is pictured on the left. In exactly the same spots where they were born, the returnees built new mud nests using the 1/4″ wire mesh for support the way a plasterer uses wire lath. Birds three, humans zero.

No matter what we do, we can’t get rid of these blasted birds. After years of trying, I’ve officially surrendered. Those threatened by bird by-products are using either denial or a different door during bird season, and after the Barn Swallows complete their task and move on, we break out the pressure washer and thoroughly sanitize the concrete deck. It needs a little tar-and-nicotine scrub once in a while, anyway.

Shake, Rattle and Write.

The Barn Swallows remind me of the story of Elisha and Elijah in the Old Testament book of Second Kings.  The Prophet Elijah is about to be taken up into heaven, and Elisha is determined to be his successor. Elijah tried to shake him off three times, but each time Elisha stubbornly refused to be shaken. Three different groups of prophets tried to tell Elisha to give up, but he paid them no attention.

Moments away from being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah asked Elisha if he had any last-minute requests. Elisha upped the stakes by asking for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit, to which Elijah replied, “Kid, do you have any idea what you’re asking for? You’re going to need a mighty big vision to get that.” (My paraphrase.)

Elisha still wouldn’t be shaken off, in spite of his mentor’s repeated attempts, his peer’s discouragement, and a goal grown larger than his wildest dreams. When his vision test came, he passed—and because he wouldn’t be shaken off, he became what he new God intended him to be all along: Elijah’s successor.

How does this apply to us as novelists? If there’s one thing I’ve learned on the road to publication, it’s that there are plenty of opportunities to be shaken off. Rejections. Critics. Discouragement. The interminable wait for what could be the world’s slowest moving industry at times.  We think we’ve had a breakthrough, take a giant step forward, then stand there for months unable to move a single inch further.  I used to think that selling my first novel would end the shaking. I’ve spoken with enough published novelists—even best-selling authors—to know better now. For most authors, the shaking never ends.

If that’s the case, why do we keep on writing?

We’re Barn Swallows. We’re Elishas. We’re Novelists. We write because we have to, because we need to get these stories out of our heads and onto the page. Try all ytou want, we won’t be shaken off. This isn’t just what we choose to do, it’s what we must do.

Published or unpublished, old pro or neophyte, here is a simple test you can take once and for all to determine if you’re a true novelist: Try to stop. Go ahead, I dare you. Take a month off. Try to live one full month of your life without seeing a situation and thinking, “Hey, I can use that in a story.” See if you can live for one month without hearing a unique name and envisioning a character with that name. See if you can go for a month without waking up at night with a storyline in your head. See if you can watch a movie or TV program without brainstorming story ideas, or commenting on a character’s development, or seeing flaws in the plot that make it implausible. See if you can go a whole month without writing one single word of fiction, whether in your head on on a page.

If you can really quit—if you can be shaken off—then by all means quit. You’re not a Novelist. If you can do something else, then do it with all your might.

If, however, you can’t quit no matter how hard you try, then welcome to the family. You’re a Novelist, a victim of the writing disease called Novelism. There’s only one known treatment: Write, Rewrite, Repeat.

For the record: I tried to quit, and I didn’t last a full day. How about you?

Writer Cycle, Cat Cycle, People Cycle.

Yes, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog entry. All of my writing time has been obsessively focused on two major priorities: sending out proposals for Inheriting Air (and I might add, sending out a manuscript or two) and finishing The Voice, the novel that made me a finalist in the 2008 ACFW Genesis contest for unpublished novelists. My goal (a bit unreasonable, knowing how slow the publishing industry can move at times) is to make myself ineligible to enter Genesis in 2009.

I just did an incredible thing, a step that’s never been easy for my brain chemistry to embrace. I’ve declared the first draft of The Voice to be complete. I’m around 12,000 words short of my target length, but the story is finished. The word-count shortfall will evaporate in the next draft, as I fill in some layers and accommodate a few things that I discovered later in the story’s development. I’m excited about The Voice; it has a great deal of potential. I just hope the final-round Genesis judges agree. The results will be announced on Saturday, September 20, at the annual ACFW Conference in Minneapolis.

I’d love to win, of course. I have a one-in-five chance, but even if I don’t come out on top, just being a finalist is a great honor and has already opened some doors for me (including a couple that I chose not to step through).

Now, I enter a different phase of the writing cycle. Difficult though it may be, I need to put The Voice away for a while, long enough to become emotionally detached from the characters and storyline so I can evaluate that first draft with a ruthless red sharpie. The detachment is critical; Not only do I need to cull the biological waste I might not see at close distance, I might have to hurt a character or two, or even sacrifice them on the altar of literary integrity. It’s hard to do when you’re still emotionally attached.


The Lovely Miss Tootsie

I have plenty of writing to do in the interim. As recently as yesterday at lunch with Sara I found an intriguing new story idea I’ll have to play with, I’m still trying to sell Inheriting Air, and believe it or not, the Lord has nudged me in the direction of trying my hand at short fiction for tweens (8-12 year olds). Yes, really.

We have a new member in the feline muse department of the Case household, an unexpected addition who insisted on adopting us during a recent run to PetsMart for food and litter. We left with a bag of kitten food and an avid consumer thereof who has given herself a name, Tootsie, by finding a hidden tootsie roll wrapper (God only knows where) and making it her favorite toy. Tingy and Marconi have come to tolerate her youthful exuberance, brokering an agreement that gives Marconi first dibs on the back of my chair and Tingy first dibs on my lap. Tootsie is a bold, fearless little four-month old tabby/calico mix (Tabico or Caliby, take your pick) and I’m sure she’ll be running the place before long.

We knew our broken hearts would eventually heal after Wookie’s death. We didn’t expect to have a new kitten as soon as we have–we were quite certain we weren’t ready–but Tootsie knew otherwise. Her playful presence and joyous embrace of life has brought us more healing than we would have imagined.

Tootsie is an unusually wise writing coach for her tender age of four months. She already distrusts adverbs and avoids them whenever possible, and has on more than one occasion looked over my shoulder and jumped on the keyboard to correct some errant bit of punctuation. That she has creative gifts in abundance can be seen in her choice of playthings. The entire world is her toy box, although she has not yet learned that everything that dangles is not meant to be swatted at by claw-equipped felines.  😯

Tootsie can by no means replace Wookie, Blondie, Buddy, or any of the other previous feline residents of our home. Each of our feline cohabitants is an irreplaceable individual, and to even consider trying to replace one with another is ludicrous at best. Tootsie represents the beginning of yet another cycle of friendship, a new entrant who has already carved out her unique place in our hearts. She’s carved a few special places on our hands, arms and legs as well. She hasn’t quite learned yet that a slight movement of the feet or hands while sleeping is not an invitation to pounce. 🙂

Fictional Dan

I had an email from a friend the other day, chastising me for not updating my blog since October 23rd. There wasn’t much I could say in reply other than, “I haven’t been writing because I’ve been busy writing.” I know, it doesn’t seem very logical, but it’s the truth. With logic like that, I oughta run for President! 🙂

The truth that I havebeen too busy writing to blog. But, I have a confession to make, one that might be hard for some of you to accept.

I’ve crossed over to the ‘other side.’ I’ve actually been writing fiction. 

Yes, I know . . . it’s shocking. And not only am I writing fiction, but I’m admitting to it openly. I’ve even joined an organization called American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). And when I say I’m writing fiction, I’m not kidding–I’m currently self-editing the second rewrite of my first novel, which I’ll be entering into a couple of contests shortly, and will be pitching at writers’ conferences this spring.

I haven’t completely quit writing non-fiction, of course, so if you’re a magazine editor and were hoping that this would mean no more queries from Dan . . . sorry, I’m not going away, just broadening my writing perspective. I’ve found that there are a number of advantages to writing fiction:

  • No need to deal with that pesky “truth” thing.
  • It’s okay if you make up people and situations (non-fiction editors seem to have a problem with fabricating examples)
  • If you don’t like a character, you can always kill ’em (another thing frowned upon by non-fiction editors)
  • You get to manipulate reality.
  • One word: control.
  • People are nicer to you if they think they might end up in one of your books.
  • Based on the current field of candidates, being a fiction writer can qualify one to run for President–some of the current candidates seem to be accomplished fictional storytellers. 😯

So, watch this space, fiction lovers. One of these days you’ll have yet another reason to love me! :mrgreen: