Your Characters As Allies

Characters can be either your best friends or your worst enemies.

I concluded that a few months back while writing a novel, MY FAVORITE LIFE.  My main character, a compulsive womanizer, was running amok in his pursuit of romance – dragging the story like National Lampoon Vacation’s dog down an increasingly rough and windy road.

My character had gone rogue.  He was fighting rather than aiding my desired story line.  Something had to give.  After long and painful consideration, I decided to kill the character.  Yes, I hold a near-religious conviction that we should keep our hands off our characters and let them do their own thing; but the singular exception, it seems, is a character whose “own thing” opposes the very universe I’ve created for them.

There are many well-known qualities to a good character, but one I’ve never heard mentioned is being a caretaker or ally of one’s plot line.  Or if your plot line sucks, a good character might just lead you out of the valley of darkness.  In either case, I think, good characters can help you tell a better story – if you listen to them.

How?  Because his or her personal integrity resists silly or distracting detours.  You may want to write a scene, but your character – much like the actor who refuses to say a stupid line – will balk if it doesn’t suit them.  Or, in the case of a bad character, will drag you screaming into a scene that may eviscerate your story.

When I changed my protagonist philanderer into a straight-shooting dude with values, all the crazy detours and off-point scenes came to an abrupt end.  The story flowed, at least to my eyes.  A 785-page monstrosity shed its layers of rancid fat and became a relatively lean 360-page machine.

Trust your characters to show you the way.  Even when they are trashing your story line.

 

Achieving An Objective Perspective About Our Own Writings

What do most of us see when we read our own writing? Can we make clear comparisons to the writings of others?

I remember when I was in my twenties I couldn’t see much difference between my science fiction stories (which were regularly being rejected by publishers and agents) and science fiction stories being penned by SF luminaries such as Heinlein, Clarke, and Silverberg.

Yet when I look at those same stories today, the difference between the luminaries’ writings and my own of that era seems greater than the difference between night and day. Are we doomed to wait for years or even decades to achieve this kind of impartial perspective?

First, why couldn’t I see the clear differences in quality back then? The obvious explanation is that in my youth I simply lacked the analytical acumen to see things clearly. Perhaps that was part of it, but I think it likely that there was a more important element missing in my vision: Honesty.

It’s hard to hear – and nearly impossible to conceive – that your writing babies aren’t especially cute or bright or interesting, and that your handcrafted world is lackluster. Imagine your response if some relationship critic told you that your friends are dull or that your love affairs are uninteresting? Or worse, that you yourself are dull and uninteresting?

Because we are so emotionally tied to our creations, it’s difficult – perhaps even next to impossible – to be completely honest in appraising them. So when we read writing that actually features truly beautiful “babies” with fascinating lives, I think we tend to gloss over their superiority to our own creations. We tend to look at those other possibly more brilliant worlds with half-closed eyes while viewing our own through rose-colored glasses.

I believe the solution to achieving a more impartial and accurate perspective is to remove those glasses.

Some authors and bloggers recommend that we set our manuscript aside and wait several months to attain a better perspective, and while that may help (though I’m skeptical about such a long-winded process; we’re not immortal, after all), it still doesn’t address the fundamental issue of seeing our writing honestly.

Toward that end, I would suggest a rather shorter but more effective (albeit painful) method: find a book that you greatly admire that is in your same genre, and compare several of its pages to several of yours in meticulous detail. Note examples of the writing that stands out in your beloved book, and see how they compare to favorite passages from your book. How do your best phrases and sections stack up against those in the book you admire?

Next compare a synopsis of your novel, including the high points and overall story flow, to those elements in one of your favorite novels. How does that comparison look?

You may find these suggestions to be neither pleasant nor easy, but I’m guessing you may find them edifying.

Love, Virtually *** 1/2

Not only did Leo and Emmi’s email exchanges strike me as utterly realistic, they almost seemed archetypal, as though the author had tapped into some primal blueprint of virtual communication (perhaps my impression was aided by the eerie resemblance of Emmi, both in appearance and verbal expression, to a former love).

This seems unlikely on the surface, since Leo and Emmi are better-educated and more articulate than most, but I think the pattern of coquetry and confabulation, along with the inevitable miscommunications, are very typical of this kind of interaction. For a certain category of individuals, which I would describe as reasonably intelligent and educated and comfortable with words while not necessarily being overly cerebral, this dialogue may seem hauntingly familiar. I know it was for me.

But Daniel Glattauer, in what I regard as an almost heroic fidelity to his minimalist vision, tells his story entirely through emails in an updated digital version of epistolary novels. Yet even Glattauer’s couple cannot escape the imperative which lurks within every virtual romantic exchange: eventually, for the online affair to have meaning, the couple must meet in the flesh.

A virtual romantic relationship is a lot like raising a child. Together, the couple creates a cute relationship “baby” which they raise and nurture, but as their child grows it will need at some point to take its first steps outside the virtual womb.

Of course, those first steps into the outside world are almost always scary, and couples often resist exposing their pretty baby to such potentially harsh elements. I know of couples who postponed their first in-flesh meetings for months and even years (sometimes, even after years, they never meet). Emmi and Leo are also extremely protective of their non-corporeal relationship, and never do meet in person in the novel (readers will need to read Every Seventh Wave for that epic event).

While some may consider the novel “unfinished” or “incomplete,” it is a very faithful mirror of actual online relationships, and I loved it for that.

Promotional Effectiveness in Self-Publishing and Conventional Publishing: A Tale of Two Books

I’ve been reading two novels. One novel – CALIFORNIA: A NOVEL, by Edan Lapucki – was published conventionally by Little, Brown and Company to considerable critical hurrahs; the other novel, THE TRANSITION WITNESS, was self-published and is being promoted by its author, Teresa Tsalaky.

As I write this, CALIFORNIA has a 515 sales rank on Amazon, and ranks high in three subcategories. THE TRANSITION WITNESS has a 49,331 Amazon ranking and also places high in three subcategories. CALIFORNIA is listed at $7.99 for its Kindle edition, whereas WITNESS is being offered at $.99.

Lapucki has one other title (IF YOU’RE NOT YET LIKE ME, a novella). Her About the Author bio on Amazon reads:

Edan Lepucki is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a staff writer for The Millions. Her short fiction has been published inn McSweeney’s and Narrative magazine, among other publications, and she is the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles. This is her first novel. {Technically true, but rather misleading, in my view, since IF YOU’RE NOT YET LIKE ME could arguably be classified as a novel.}

Teresa Tsalaky has a background as a journalist.

CALIFORNIA has been favorably reviewed by at least two major newspapers – the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times – and has about a dozen rave reviews from various authors in Amazon’s Editorial Reviews section.

Now this is where it gets interesting: CALIFORNIA is rather poorly reviewed by actual Amazon customers, while WITNESS, lacking editorial reviews, is well-reviewed by Amazon customers.
My main question here is about a couple of apparent disconnects regarding Lepucki’s CALIFORNIA: 1) Why does CALIFORNIA have middling Amazon customer reviews but fantastic reviews from a couple of newspapers and several writers?; 2) Why does a novel from a virtual unknown with a limited “platform” have such a buzz (sufficient to place it near the top of Goodread’s “Movers and Shakers”)?

CALIFORNIA is selling roughly 150 books a day; TRANSITION WITNESS closer to one. That’s a fairly large difference between two authors of similar journalistic backgrounds. So what’s making the difference?

Regardless of the actual merits of these two novels, that difference is clearly due to promotional effectiveness. I don’t know the details, of course, but I believe it’s reasonable to assume that Little, Brown and Company contacted some authors and newspapers on Lepucki’s behalf, thus managing to generate considerable advance buzz for her novel. This buzz in turn generated a high visibility placement in Goodreads and Amazon, and even a mention by Stephen Colbert.

Few of us, I suspect, would question that this kind of publicity would generate a massive increase in book sales for any writer, even if their book was rather mediocre. What do you think would happen if Tsalaky’s novel received such promotional largesse?

From what I’ve read – forty or so pages into CALIFORNIA, and eighty or so into TRANSITION – I’m not seeing any difference in quality that’s remotely proportional to the difference in sales or promotional buzz.

CALIFORNIA doesn’t contain any “hot button” or even “high concept” ideas that I can see. It’s well-written enough, I suppose, and the characters are fairly well-done; the premise is decent. Perhaps CALIFORNIA is more polished than WITNESS, but I don’t see much of an edge, if any, in terms of basic style. WITNESS is fairly well-written as well, I think, and certainly does have a much more imaginative and thought-provoking premise than does CALIFORNIA. Perhaps WITNESS is less commercial than CALIFORNIA, but that remains to be seen.

J.A. Konrath claims that luck plays an important role – indispensable, actually – in literary success. In this case, it appears that Edan Lepucki is on a roll, whereas Teres Tsalaky’s luck seems rather moderate at best.

May the odds be with them both.

Skeptic by Holden Scott ** 1/2

When I first started reading THE SKEPTIC by Holden Scott, I was impressed. “Wow, this is a guy whose writing style reminds me of me at my best.” Granted, that may not be high accolades for others, but it’s not often that I read something that makes me feel humble. And I did feel a little humble as I read through his first couple of chapters.

In the first chapter, Scott has a brilliant grad student, Teri Pace, reflecting excitedly on a new discover she’d made serendipitously in a lab managed – in a highly desultory fashion – by the main character, a medical doctor named Mike Ballantine.

We don’t know what this breakthrough discovery is until page 140. That’s a lot of pages for the reader to cool his or her heels waiting for the purportedly mind-blowing “reveal.”
To keep us busy while we wait, Scott offers us an increasingly labyrinthine plot involving the assassination of the Massachusetts governor (best friend of the main character), some intrigue involving a Chinese plot and a dastardly Chinese super-agent, and a sexy and uber-competent Taiwanese CIA agent – all connected in some way with the discovery in the lab.

Since that discovery is named in the book jacket, I don’t feel a spoiler alert is needed when I say that her momentous discovery involves the existence of ghosts. It seems that under certain circumstances we can literally inhale memories of the deceased – particularly when the demise involves violent physical “discorporation,” which scatters parts of the dead person’s identity into the air, ripe, as it were, for sniffing.

I think that idea is clever, but as the story progresses it seems undecided about what exactly the story is. Is it, essentially, a spy thriller? A thought-experiment about life after death? A character study into the nature of evil? Now it seems at least theoretically possible to combine all these elements, but in this novel the combination reminds me of a high school chemistry class where we added three insoluble substances in a test tube. These substances formed three distinct layers that while being in surface contact, basically did not mix at all. Scott’s novel reminds me a lot of that test tube experiment.

The story rolls along more and more ponderously as it accumulates increasing mass in a kind of plot line snowball effect, until I felt as if the story were dragging half the state of Massachusetts along with it toward the end.

But some coincidence, I lost interest in the characters and story long before then, but forced myself to keep turning pages in the hope the author might shed some of this dead plot weight and redeem his story. Alas, that never happened.

Here’s my breakdown:
Cleverness of main story idea: ****
Characters: ****
Story Execution: **
Writing Style: ****

For me, despite the author’s high marks in many areas, his poor story execution – after all, the most important element of a novel – sunk this book.

Supporting Good Writers In And Out Of The Indie Community

J.A. Konrath, echoing a common sentiment in the indie community, counsels us:

“Use your peers. Do guest blogs. Trade back matter excerpts. Review each other. Buy each other. Support one another. We’re all in the same boat, and we all need to row.”

This sounds like a noble sentiment. Shouldn’t we all join hands, and while singing Kumbaya strive together to make our indie community a wonderful and prosperous place for everyone? Well, let’s dig a bit into this noble notion.

Does this mean that if I contact Joe Konrath and ask him to read and review my novels that he’ll do so? Color me skeptical, but I’m guessing that Joe is a very busy man who’s rather selective about how he spends his time, and therefore it seems unlikely that he’d devote the many hours it would require to read through even one of my novels, not to mention review it. Unless he believed that I had something worthwhile to offer him.

Should that be any different? Are we morally obligated to support other indie authors by reading their works even if they don’t interest us or are poorly written? Are we fulfilling a higher purpose of solidarity by encouraging even more writers who haven’t mastered basic spelling, grammar, and plot structure to enter the indie fold?

What I believe does make sense (and is probably what J.A. Konrath would say if pressed) is that we ought to be open to finding quality in indie publications, and that we ought to support the good storytellers in the indie community by purchasing and reviewing their books. And we should encourage, as compassionately as possible, those who aren’t yet good writers to work on their craft.

Giving poor writers raving 5-star reviews is not a kindness: it merely reinforces their self-delusions, and thus prevents them from improvement.

That is why I won’t be cutting indie writers (including myself) any critical slack. Rather than grade them on an indie curve, I will rate them by exactly the same standards as I rate other books.

A word about how I use “star” ratings. Five stars, for me, denote a truly superior work of fiction – a one-of-a-kind, tour de force demonstration of brilliance. Mine is not your Amazon reviews five star rating.

Four stars are for what I’d call excellent work. Three means “okay” or “decent,” with some good and not-so-good elements. Two stars is not okay/decent, but I don’t consider it to be utter garbage. One star is utter garbage. 

DIVERSIONARY WRITING – THE BANE OF STORY FLOW

Imagine you’re watching a sports contest, and the players constantly pause in the midst of the action to reminisce about grandma’s pancake recipe or to discuss the weather. An NBA player springs free on a fast break, but pulls up to hold forth on the evolution of basketball construction. Hockey players racing toward the goal suddenly stop to demonstrate their crocheting techniques. Imagine curling competitors stopping to…well, perhaps not all sports analogies will serve my point.

When these kinds of diversions happen in a story, I call them “Diversionary writing.” In diversionary writing, the writer has taken his or her eye off the ball (in some cases, even dropped it).

A while back, I was reading Ben Bova’s recent novel, TRANSHUMAN. Ben is a multiple Hugo award winner, a grandmaster of science fiction (I’ve read and enjoyed several of his novels). His story is, in essence, about an older professor of molecular biology who believes he has the means to save his young granddaughter through an experimental medical process. He abducts his granddaughter from her hospital, incurring the wrath of her parents, law enforcement, and even the White House as he seeks safe haven to perform his experimental treatment.

The “ball” here is clearly the grandfather’s flight from the law and his efforts to save his granddaughter. Mr. Bova, however, pauses the basic story “ball” constantly in order to journey back in the past for backstory purposes, portray several other characters in detail, and basically split the book into other points of view and other mini-stories. It’s as though he finds the basic story not worthy of telling.

Another form of diversionary writing occurs when the writer may stay on plot point, but simply clutters the story with too much description of inessential details. For example, let’s say you’re reading a romance novel and the two would-be lovers meet for the first time in a restaurant. The “ball” consists of the would-be lovers, not of how many cars are in the parking lot, what dress the greeter is wearing, or even how many nose hairs the waiter has. If the scene drifts into detailed descriptions of these things instead of the two characters’ interactions, the “ball” has been dropped.

SET YOUR CHARACTERS FREE

The way we treat our characters reflects more than our tastes in fiction: I believe it reflects the way we relate to people and life in general.

If you’re a bit of a control freak, or like your friends and living circumstances clean and orderly, then that will manifest itself in your characters. If you’re more of a live and let live kind of individual, that’s probably how you’ll also relate to your characters. If you’re only comfortable with a certain type of person – say, a person who’s well-spoken or never uses bad language – you’ll probably be comfortable only with clean-living, well-spoken characters.

What seems clear to me now – something I spent most of my life in the dark about – is that you can’t divorce your life, personality, psychology, and attitudes from your stories. And that applies double to arguably the most important part of your stories: your characters. I think that observation has powerful implications for one’s writing.

Your first thought might be a shrug: It’s not like I can change my basic personality. If that limits my writing, then so be it. That was my first thought. But then I noticed something: my writing seemed to be evolving. Over the last decade, my characters seemed to become funnier, more playful in their interactions. They also seemed less and less constrained by my personal beliefs and attitudes.

The first change, I think, relates to just growing as a person. As we grow older, we do have the option to learn and expand our awareness. If we do that, it stands to reason that one’s personal evolution will impact one’s writing.

The second change perhaps flows from the first. In my opinion, an essential lesson many of us glean from life as we age is that people truly are different, and that in most cases we should be respectful and accepting of those differences. If you’re a judgmental individual (as I certainly have been), you tend to believe there is a right and wrong way to see and do things (which you are of course specially privy to). Not acknowledging the validity of different personalities, opinions, and perspectives inclines one to be non-empathetic toward others.

That lack of empathy also disinclines us to see things from the perspective of characters we don’t like or consider deficient. This leads, inevitably to making our “bad guys” or otherwise disfavored characters into one-dimensional caricatures. We don’t know what’s going on their heads – we don’t want to know! – so what else can these characters do but act as mindlessly and insensibly as a zombie or the white shark in Jaws?

What’s the payoff for being empathetic toward your characters? One is that you will be comfortable creating a larger variety of them; you won’t be constrained from using people whose lives and viewpoints are significantly different from yours.

Another payoff is that your characters will come across as real, living-breathing beings. They will seem more whole, because you will be embracing rather than turning away from the qualities that compose them.

Another consequence of accepting your characters is that you aren’t as motivated to control them. This allows your characters to relax and be themselves rather than feel pressured to please you. Such characters are free to develop, to grow, to become interesting people who aren’t locked into you the writer’s personality and perspectives.

My experience is that characters who are in effect living, breathing beings will help power your story. As living/breathing beings they will not only bring out more entertaining elements of your story (some that you hadn’t anticipated, which is a great reward in itself!), but will also resist manipulation, thus lending stability and consistency to your narrative. They, by sheer force of personality, will guide your story to its proper conclusion, even if it isn’t the conclusion you planned (saving you from taking the wrong path – a common consequence, I think, of character manipulation).

What I take from all this is that an author ought to be a laissez-faire god: create your characters, and then set them free – to live their own lives, hold their own opinions, and generally exercise their own free will within the universe you’ve built for them.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FEEDBACK IN WRITING

If you’ve ever watched American Idol – and I confess with grave chagrin that I have – then you’re more than familiar with the phenomenon of clueless people.

The archetypical “clueless person” is someone who has little or no idea of how he comes across to others. Because they insulate themselves from the reactions of others, clueless people are free to form their own insulative views of themselves. Depending on how clueless an individual is, they may be either missing a few minor truths about themselves or they may concoct a truly delusional portrait of who they are. The latter is how people who cannot hold a single note in tune come to imagine that they are the next Pavarotti.

Some writers, perhaps more than a few, fall into this isolationist trap. They write on their own, marching to their own private drummer, perhaps believing that other writers are too inferior to be of any use and that people who do express reservations about their writing are mere ignorant naysayers jealous of their unique and even incomparable talent. That is how writers come to believe they can write better than Shakespeare or are in fact the next Shakespeare; this is how writers immunize themselves from criticism and thereby ensure they will not improve their craft.

Professor Uri Treisman of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a fascinating investigation into the study habits of Blacks and Asians. He was attempting to explain the large discrepancy in success completing calculus courses. What he discovered was, after allowing for all the other variables, that the most important factor appeared to be how cooperative the Asians were in their study habits – regularly gathering in groups that critiqued other members’ efforts and collaboratively strove to solve difficult problems – while the blacks studied largely in isolation.

I’ve thought about Professor Uri Treisman’s study many times since first reading about it a couple of years ago – particularly in connection with our different development as writers. How many of us, I wondered, have needlessly handicapped ourselves by refusing or neglecting robust feedback from others? How many of us are now mostly clueless about where we are as writers because we continue to maintain a protective barrier between ourselves and other writers (and readers)?

AUTHOR REVIEW SWAPS

Indie authors hunger for reviews much as buzzards hunger for dead bodies. Without reviews, it’s basically game-over for any novel, but even more so for self-published ones, adrift as they are amidst the flotsam and jetsam in an endless self-publication sea.

It’s not easy to get people to review your novel (particularly if it’s not an especially good novel – a possibility that rarely occurs to indie authors). It’s hard enough to get readers to check out your novel and actually read it, but tragically, even after reading it very few feel inclined to write a review.

One tried and mostly false approach is to bludgeon your friends and family to write reviews. Should you succeed in strong-arming your relatives and friends into submitting reviews, the likely payoff will be a handful of poorly written and non-credible accolades to your novel.

Another remedy is to do “review swaps.” You read and review mine, I’ll read and review yours. One basic problem is that writers would much rather be writing than reading your novel, which probably would not be something they’d otherwise choose to read. Another problem is that if they do read your novel, they may not like it much (in fact, they might want to stop reading it early on). Then the thorny issue becomes honesty: do either of you, not especially liking the other’s novel, write what you actually think? If you do that, obviously you may face retaliation from the reader of your novel. So because you desperately want good reviews, you’re more likely to fudge your review in favor of your swap-partner’s novel.

I don’t see a clear antidote to this. Yes, you can carefully select a novel that seems to be well-written and something you’d like, but the bane of all novels it while they might begin well, they often lose their way. So you swap with a novel that looks good from the Amazon (or other) excerpt, but which swiftly degrades into unreadablility. Then what?

This is something I’ve personally wrestled with. My conclusion is that I will no longer swap reviews, except with the clear understanding that I may decline to read your novel or to give it a positive review. If I can’t give it a positive review, then I think the right course is simply to post no review at all. That’s honest, and doesn’t harm your swap partner.