Friday, April 29, 2011
The Girlfriends' Book Club welcomes Paul Elwork who offers illuminating opinions on reader reviews from an author's perspective. We are a blog about women's fiction but since Paul has the word "girl" in his title of his novel, how could we resist having him as a guest blogger?
Writers aren’t supposed to talk about critics, I know—especially reader critics mostly found at web sites like Goodreads. After all, these are communities of readers who care enough about books to share their thoughts in a potentially global forum. And further, writers put their books out there; they certainly can’t expect the world to stand up and cheer at every turn, or for readers to feel anything less than welcome to judge something thrown into the commons. And I accept these things, of course, even if not always joyfully. Some people aren’t going to be so wild about my books, sure; some people are really not going to like my books at all, fine; some people are going to hate my books, okay (gulp), if they must. All’s fair.
Maybe I’m just asking for trouble in approaching this subject at all. Maybe even raising the questionable notion of responsible reading is a mistake. Responsible by whose standards? At what point does someone’s individual opinion on a book become irresponsible? And what the hell business is it of yours how people read anything at all?
I raise these reasonable questions as disclaimers. I cannot answer them in any complete, satisfactory way and won’t pretend I can. Still, I keep coming back to what is, for better or worse, my personal notion of responsible reading. Because despite the fact that my novel got a bunch of lovely blurbs out of other writers and strong endorsements from outlets like Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, it still stings when readers on Goodreads, Amazon, or LibraryThing, dismiss the book.
In conversations I’ve had with other writers during the weeks since my novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books) got released, I’ve discovered a similar sense of dismay at the way books get torn apart in reader social media. Everyone seems to agree that if a reader thinks a book is boring, doesn’t care for or actively dislikes the writing style, feels that plot and/or resolution are executed poorly, etc., than it’s as I say above—all fair. Something works for people or it doesn’t. The dismay comes when readers say things about books that are simply untrue and/or uninformed. The dismay also comes when it seems readers bring a rigid set of expectations to the act of reading and, when these expectations aren’t flattered outright, throw the book on the trash heap.
And the kicker is when someone accuses a book rashly or ignorantly out in the open, in a way intended to influence other readers. Maybe this is the only safe place to even suggest an idea of responsible reading—for reviewers, of all kinds and in all places. I’m saying maybe it isn’t too much to consider a few things when readers choose to read publicly, when they sit down to read with every intention of making their judgments on a book a matter of social media record.
1. Go into a book with an open mind. We all bring our biases and particular filters to books as we bring them to anything, of course—this is why humans excel at subjectivity and struggle with objectivity. It’s not even a bad thing, necessarily. What makes us more human than our quirky individual personalities? Would it be better to have the Microsoft Word spellcheck, say, “read” our books and judge them from some supposed place of 0-and-1 objectivity? Of course not.
Still—attendant biases notwithstanding, I think aspiring to open-mindedness when you sit down to read is a worthy goal. Instead of going in with a list of expectations of what we’ll find, we should try to let the work wash over us and see what the author going after. Every book, every piece of art you can name, has some internal logic that holds it together, and I agree with the notion that any open-minded approach to criticism should try to appreciate the cohesion particular to the work, then judge the execution. I’ve seen reader reviews—of my work and other writers—that praise a book for being well-written, full of interesting characters, even absorbing, and then undercut it all with the assertion that the book wasn’t what the reader expected.
Along these lines, I’ve seen fans of particular genres trash books essentially for not being in a given genre. If anything but supernatural romance—as one example—leaves you cold, why read a novel that really makes no claim to be neatly placed in that genre, to begin with, and why further bother to flog a book in public for not being supernatural romance as you understand it? (More on this whole business of genres below.)
2. Consider the terms you use in criticism. Though the larger issue of open-mindedness is my first concern (which is why I’ve given it so much play here), I think the clearest cases of reader/reviewer irresponsibility come in assertions that simply aren’t fair or true. In my own case, I’ve seen a few reviews that accuse my novel of having no dramatic climax. Without resorting to spoilers, I’ll simply state here—and short of reading the book, I realize I’m asking you to take my word for it—that the book has a dramatic climax followed by a denouement so clear that my worry, if anything, is that it’s too textbook a case of such an arrangement. Now, if a reader dislikes my execution of said dramatic-climax-to-denouement, well, that falls in the fair category and a matter of opinion he or she has as much right to as anyone else.
Another quick example: One book blogger characterized my book as throwing the writing guideline of “show, don’t tell” out the window because, on a few occasions in the book, I have characters tell each other stories. This depiction disregards the fact that most of the book, including most of the family backstory in the novel, plays out dramatically—that is, in character action, on stage, before the reader’s eyes. It’s fun, I guess, to pick up an honored literary/writing term and wield it like a blunt instrument, but before we do, a second thought would be nice.
3. Ask yourself who the intended audience is for a book, and whether or not you think this audience is served. Let’s turn this around and look at me as the reader. I have no interest whatsoever in what gets called romance fiction—it’s just not my thing. My biases would set up expectations of formulaic stuff, simplistic characterizations, and so on. If such a book revealed itself to be other than that, to feature fully human characters with interesting psychology, I would be surprised and revise my thinking on it. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t go out on the web and attack it for being just what it appeared to be and exactly what I don’t want to spend time reading. And if for some reason I found myself compelled to write a review, I’d make myself do the extra work of considering who the intended audience of the book is and what kind of job—by my lights—I think the author does in writing for this audience. It’s still going to be my opinion and I’m not going to pretend to like something I don’t, but at least I would try to apply some of the open-minded thinking above in regard to the book’s internal logic and author goals. I would try to understand the book’s parts on its own terms before venturing to take it apart.
So, a few suggestions—take ‘em or leave ‘em. It’s exciting that so many people want to talk about books even to the point of writing about them. It’s a big-picture good thing, one not to lose sight of that. And happy reading.
Paul Elwork lives in Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For more information and links to short fiction and other content, please visit www.paulelwork.com
I knew about halfway through writing The Summer of You that I wanted Jason to have his own story. But he was terribly irresponsible in that book, so I had to let him mature (like cheese) a little bit before he was ready to meet his own heroine. Thus, Follow My Lead is set 5 years after the events of The Summer of You. In that span of time, Jason has inherited his title, and all the responsibilities therein – responsibilities he feels he must try to live up to. There was a learning curve, but he’s got it pretty much down now. Not only that, but in the intervening years, he’s watched all of his rapscallion friends settle down and get married. So he feels like that’s “what’s next” for him.
2. I loved that the book was a road trip novel, but written as a historical romance. I loved that it gave the characters a chance to really get to know each other, and to see each other in so many different roles and scenarios. Where did this idea come from?
The ‘getting to know each other’ stage of a relationship is always my favorite – I often felt cheated when it is skipped over or truncated in a book I’m reading. And a road trip is the perfect place to get to know someone. Taking someone out of their comfort zone will reveal their character very quickly. A duke that is used to fine carriages and multi-coursed meals learns he can improvise if he has to – and a woman who has never been outside of her hometown shows that bargaining is a universal language.
Besides, I love a good road trip story, especially a road trip romance. One of my all time favorite movies is It Happened One Night. I also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in southern Germany and Austria over the past few years, and it’s jammed with so much history from the early 1800s that I knew I wanted to set a story there.
3. I feel that your books are not only so very good--so deep and so layered-- but often do things I haven't seen very much of across my years of reading in this genre. For example, in this book, Jason and Winn meet and... do not immediately fall head over heels in love. Or even lust! Instead, you drew out their interest in each other, letting it slowly simmer. What made you choose this approach to the central relationship?
For Jason and Winn, they had to take the time to get to know each other, because their focuses are so divergent: Jason is intent on marrying the proper society miss, and Winn is intent on being recognized as a historian. Neither of them are primed to fall for each other, so it takes them a little time to realize that they are.
But when they open up their eyes…
4. What happens to Sarah?! I liked her--and though I knew Jason was going to end up with Winn, part of me was so upset that Sarah's hopes and dreams were going to be dashed!
Never fear – Sarah is getting her own story next! I felt so bad crushing her, but it was sadly necessary. But don’t worry. She’ll rally.
5. I just loved Winn. Smart, focused, and not at all afraid to make her own way in the world if she had to. This is hard enough to do and be in 2011. What was it like to write a character like Winn in 1822, with so fewer options and so many more limitations? (And feel free to discuss that awful almost-fiance of hers. I loathed him.)
The education Winn had was nearly impossible for a woman back in the early 1800s. She only managed it because she was taught at the knee of her father, an Oxford professor. She was raised very much in a man’s world. The reason she is so determined, so headstrong, is because the only way to achieve what she dreams of is to put her head down and barrel through. Men, matrimony – hell, needlepoint – would be a distraction from that goal.
George, her awful almost-fiancé, as you put it, is just counting on the fact that as a woman, she will not have the respect necessary to pursue her career. He sees himself as her best option. At least with him, she’ll get to stay in Oxford, near what she knows and loves, and assist him in his work, the way she assisted her father, doing what she loves. It’s a scenario that grates Winn to the core but one that someone less focused and sure might not be willing to pass up.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Here I sit, desperate to talk about beginnings and wondering how to start, when I think, “Eureka! I’ll share the first graphs from some of my books, and we can see if I’ve gotten any better at it.” Okay, yes, I’m a glutton for punishment. But it might be amusing; and, with all the rain we’ve had in St. Louis lately—not to mention the tornadoes—I figured amusing would be very good indeed.
Just for clarity’s sake, I’ll italicize what I cut and paste from the books. The rest is just running commentary (aka, Susan Babble).
We’ll begin with BLUE BLOOD, the first of my Debutante Dropout Mysteries for Avon (circa 2004), where I needed to set the scene for murder:
That’s what she was.
Molly O’Brien pulled her T-shirt down over her head, not bothering to tuck the hem into her jeans. She squinted at her watch, barely illuminated by the faint stream of light flowing in from the hall, and she groaned when she realized it was well past midnight. God, how she wished she’d weaseled out of helping Bud Hartman close the place! He was creepy enough in broad daylight. If that didn’t bite, now she also owed the babysitter overtime.
She grabbed her purse from its hook, slammed her locker, and turned around.
Bud stood in the doorway, watching.
In all five of those mysteries, I started with a Prologue, written in the third person, while the rest of each book is in first person (seen through the eyes of my protagonist, deb ball refugee Andrea Kendricks). It was great fun getting into the head of either the murder victim—before the murder, of course—or, in this case, the prime suspect, Andy’s old friend, Molly, now a single mom working at a Hooter’s type restaurant called Jugs. Fun fact: BLUE BLOOD was originally called STABBED IN THE BACK, which was changed to DEATH AND THE DEBUTANTE DROPOUT before it sold to Avon then ended up as BLUE BLOOD, which suits it perfectly.
Let’s move ahead a few years, to my first “Debs” book with Delacorte, released in 2008:
Laura Delacroix Bell grabbed the arm-rests of her seat in a death-grip as the Southwest Airlines jet touched down at Houston’s Hobby Airport, the wheels bumping hard against the tarmac before rolling to a stop. The kid behind her let out a wail loud enough to split her eardrums, and she gritted her teeth, willing the Flight from Hell to be over with ASAP.
Ten more minutes, and I’ll be off this cattle car, she told herself, thinking that nothing would feel better than stretching to her full 5’ 9” after her cramped ride from Austin. Besides her neck getting a major crick, she’d been stuck smack in front of the crying child who’d kicked the back of her seat for nearly an hour. As if that wasn’t torture enough, all they’d fed her were two tiny bags of peanuts.
Confession: I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote the first draft of THE DEBS, my first-ever young adult novel. The story features four privileged prep school girls in Houston, and I wasn’t quite sure how to utilize all the different points of view. In the initial draft, I started with another character entirely, but I realized with the revision that the real starting point was Laura returning from "fat camp" where she’d been exiled for the summer by her teeny-tiny über-socialite mother. Laura probably has the juiciest external conflict in the book, and by the end of Chapter One, you can’t help but know she’s bought a ticket on a train wreck. So THE DEBS was definitely a case where my original beginning was not the beginning I ended up with.
Finally, let’s skip to this year and LITTLE BLACK DRESS, my second women’s fiction book (out August 23, 2011), which starts like this:
I never meant to resurrect the dress. I had intended for it to remain out of reach so there would be no more meddling. But I awoke before dawn with tears in my eyes after another strange dream about Anna, and I knew that I had to find it.
A bruised-looking sky bled between half-drawn curtains as I dragged myself from bed and padded down the hallway in my nightgown and bare feet. I switched on the attic light and grabbed the banister to climb, my knees creaking as sharply as the wood beneath my heels. At the top of the stairs, I paused to catch my breath and loudly sneezed.
I’d forgotten how dusty it was up there and how full of things forgotten: discarded furniture, a steamer trunk stuffed with my parents’ belongings, and more boxes than I could count. It could take me days to dig through all the detritus. I wished I had listened to Bridget about getting my life sorted out months ago so there would be far less clutter. The house was full of it now. Like so much of the past, I found it harder to face than to ignore.
This beginning was the beginning I had in my head from the start, going back to when I wrote the proposal a year ago. Once I knew what the book was about—two sisters, Evie and Anna, who could not be more different, and a magical black dress that shows each her fate and changes the course of their lives forever—I saw this scene of Evie at 71, alone in the Victorian house she’d grown up in, awakening at dawn after a recurring dream and realizing she had to unearth the dress from the attic. The story shifts between two points of view: that of Evie and that of her daughter, Toni. Evie’s voice is more immediate (first person) and Toni’s is third person limited. Somehow, the combination worked, with Evie kick-starting the tale and Toni capping it off.
It’s rare when I have that clarity from the get-go. Usually, I rewrite my beginnings over and over again as I go along. Sometimes as I figure out the pieces of the puzzle—and understand better all the nuances of each character—I see a different starting point. What I’ve learned through the years is to trust my gut and to just get the freaking first draft done. I always feel like, once I know the whole story from start to finish, the fun truly begins (aka, revisions!). But—as you’ve heard me say before—the first draft is pretty much verbal vomit.
Hopefully, I’ll start vomiting copious words very soon since I’ve got a new book to write (like, now). I wonder if Office Depot sells writers’ barf bags?
P.S. As you read this, I am trying hard to keep my nose to the grindstone, sweating over the beginning of a young adult thriller, DEAD ADDRESS, for Random House/Delacorte. No doubt, I will mess with said beginning endlessly before this draft is done. Feel free to drop by my web site any time or find me on Facebook!
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
But, more than a decade into this journey, I now realize that it's not exactly a straight-line continuum for me. I haven't been scaling the side of Everest, using ropes and climbing gear (and, thank God, because I'm scared of heights); it's more like walking on a curving, ever-rising path that starts at the base of the mountain and slowly spirals upward. Every new stage -- each circuit around those bends in the mountain, up to a slightly higher elevation -- is like being a newbie all over again. Novels may have distinct beginnings, middles and endings, but I think writers just a have long string of often terrifying beginnings.
At first, the path seemed to be all about learning to believe in the dream. That is, gaining enough experience writing, studying craft and building the skills to recognize when the story was working (or not). Knowing when I was being true to my voice, when I should accept or ignore feedback, when the elements of structure and characterization were coming together vs. just flitting in and out of the manuscript randomly and with no sense of authorial control. To put it in courtship terms, I was flirting, dating, falling in love with writing fiction as I walked along that part of the path -- coming to appreciate it for what it was, and for who I was when I was with it.
But, then, this stage merged into another. I had to stop and catch my breath when I realized I'd circled the mountain once and was now beginning a new rotation -- one I wasn't prepared for in the least. One that required a brand new skill set. This circuit was all about working to make the dream I finally believed in a reality. Committing to it with the exclusively of a soulmate, and attempting to understand what made the publishing industry surrounding it tick. (Rather like a dysfunctional family, I discovered, but that's a post for another time... ;)
I began to research agents and editors, learn more about branding, marketing, publicity/promotion and what was involved once a sale actually happened (contracts, copy-edits and royalty statements, oh, my!), so I'd know what to do when I finally got "the call." I imagined that moment would be similar to a fairy-tale marriage proposal, with the time between contract and publication like the engagement. The release day would be akin to a royal wedding and then, of course, there would be the happily ever after.
Only, I've been married for eighteen years, and I know better, LOL. Weddings -- royal or otherwise -- are lovely, but then the marriage starts...and, as many of us know, it marks a whole new stage in the relationship. Likewise, despite all of my attempts at being prepared for publication, I was, again, left breathless by this new level in my career when it finally came. Two books (well, three in November) down the road/up the mountain, and I'm still trying to get a few good lungfuls of air, stay sort of on that walking path and keep slogging forward without keeling over from exertion and fatigue.
I'm still very much a beginner in this stage, which seems to be all about dealing with the daily reality of the dream. Juggling growing responsibilities, having more writing-related commitments and/or presentations, handling reviews (positive and negative), getting awards and hitting bestsellers lists (or, um, not...), being in the swirl of other professional authors -- online and off, having opportunities to experience the incredible generosity of my peers, especially those who've trekked further up the the mountain than I have and are willing to talk about their struggles and joys and, sometimes, having to face disappointment when either the vagaries of the industry or the insecurities of other people let me down.
It's scary here. As with every beginning, I'm wondering if I know enough to handle this particular leg of the journey...or if I can learn what I need to know very quickly... I'm unsure of what's ahead and can only hope I'll have the strength and faith to continue on, even amidst all of the uncertainty.
Yet, I need to look no further than my current manuscript to understand why I don't know. Why I can't know. I'm on page 92 of the draft -- still, by my account, the beginning of this new project. I need to somehow make it through another 300 or so pages of wobbly narrative and half-expressed dialogue before I get to what I consider to be the middle of the book, which is the revising/layering stage after my first draft. (The end is when I get to tweak and polish -- and that's light-years away at this point.)
Of course, in life we know there's no revising, no copy-editing. It's ALL first draft: one long unpolished beginning. But, I have to be honest with you. I never would have become a writer if revisions and tweaks were all I did. Despite how frightening and perplexing those beginning stages are, despite the self-doubt that arises during them, I also know they can be the most thrilling of the whole book. It is, after all, in the beginning where the magic of the story is born. Where the drive to journey forward originates. And where we get the inspiration and the courage to take that very first step.
So, I wish you, too, the gift of many beginnings on your long and winding journey, no matter what mountain you're trying to climb. May it be filled with life-long passions, wonderful companions and stunning vistas...and may you get to the thousand-mile mark and realize you've only just begun.
Marilyn Brant did a lot of traveling in her pre-novelist days, which meant a bunch of long journeys, seemingly endless roads and a few mountain hikes (often wearing inappropriate footwear, which wasn't wise). She started writing women's fiction in 2000 and wrote for almost eight years before selling her first book. She's the author of According to Jane, Friday Mornings at Nine, and the upcoming novel A Summer in Europe.
Is there something in your life -- a hobby, a career, a relationship, etc. -- that you're in the process of beginning...or beginning again?
Monday, April 25, 2011
I'm writing this on Monday evening, approximately fifteen hours before bookstores will unlock their doors and my second novel, Reunion, will go on sale for the second time.
Its first appearance came a little over two years ago. It was a hardcover book with a different jacket; now it's a Random House Readers Circle trade paperback with this lush new look, along with an author Q&A, a discussion guide, and an excerpt from the other book pictured here, Exposure. Soon you'll see it in your neighborhood bookstore, and at Costco, and as a Target Emerging Authors pick.
One very cool thing I didn't know before I got published is that books can have multiple lives. A new beginning means a chance to reach readers who missed the previous go-'round. For example, my friend Meg Waite Clayton's debut novel The Language of Light came out in '03 and will be reborn this June. Other examples include The Lovely Bones and Water for Elephants, for their film adaptation tie-ins. They got new cover art featuring the film stars; they got new lives. WFE, which was published in hardcover in 2006, has sold and sold and sold and sold, until you'd think every possible reader who might want to read it has already done so--but you'd be wrong: there it was last Sunday at #1 on the New York Times trade paperback list, making its 116th appearance. There are lots of readers out there--who apparently are all reading WFE, too bad for the rest of us.
So, in fifteen hours, Reunion gets a new beginning, and then a week from Tuesday Exposure debuts, and with this I get a new beginning of sorts. I'm someone I've never been before: Therese Fowler, author of three novels. That feels new and strange, something I'll have to get used to quickly.
I have to tell you, it's a nerve-wracking time. But it's an exciting one, too. Early indications are encouraging, not the least of which was a chat I had this morning with a journalist from USA Today, who called Exposure a great read and said it's an exceptionally "talkable" book. I would tell you that even my dog loves it, except that I don't have a dog--and even if I did, that dog might not share the favorable views, in which case I would have to get a new dog.
The fact is, I'm as excited and anxious and exhausted as a pregnant woman who's been having Braxton-Hicks contractions for months and whose baby is due now. But I'm as grateful, too.
Thank you for being here, for being a part of my new beginning. To show my gratitude, I'm offering up two copies of Reunion and two copies of Exposure. Just leave a comment here, and the four winners will be chosen randomly tomorrow evening at 8pm (eastern). If your profile doesn't link to someplace with an email address, make sure to check back here tomorrow night, or you can include your email address in your comment. BONUS: anyone who tweets the link or shares this post on Facebook gets an extra entry in the drawing--because as the teens in my house like to say, "sharing is caring." Just tag me, @ThereseFowler on Twitter, or Therese Fowler Author on FB. Good luck!
Sunday, April 24, 2011
After a long winter, the weather is finally heating up. Ready to get in a little pre-beach reading? Here are some women’s fiction releases coming out in May and June
My Fair Lazy by Jen Lancaster—May 3
A couple endures renovation hell after buying a house in the Chicago suburbs. Jen Lancaster is the author of five nonfiction books. This is her debut novel.
The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls—May 10
Would you marry a guy who’s had eight previous wives? Is nine the charm?
The Story of a Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon—May 6
Unlikely Romance between an intellectually disabled woman and deaf African-American man
Mistress’s Revenge by Tamar Cohen
Updated version of “Fatal Attraction—June 7
Best Staged Plans by Claire Cook—June 7
A professional house-stager faces family troubles.
The Wedding Writer by Susan Schneider-June 7
Four female staffers at a glossy wedding magazine struggle with issues of ambition. Schneider, the author, is a real-life bride magazine editor.
Do you have an upcoming women’s fiction reads you’re looking forward to? We’d love to hear about it.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Stay Away From Absolutes
I spend lots of time with my thinking about my characters before I ever start putting anything down on paper. And since I'm always noticing details about people I know and run into, I have kind of a catalog of "quirks" in my head I can always reference. I make absolutely sure that my main characters have unique voices and as I write I see them in my head, I know which ones mumble, which ones toss their hair when they talk, which ones like coffee and which ones have an edge. A writing teacher I once had told me that I need to know what my characters were like when they were seven and seventeen even if the reader only sees them in their thirties. I try to remember that. No one is all good or all bad--so my characters need to reflect that. I try to stay away from absolutes with them and make sure I have lots and lots of shades of gray in each of them.
Getting A Visual
My tip is to see my character in my mind. I'm very visual, so unless I can picture them as clearly as if they are standing in front of me, I can't write characters. Once I get a picture, I find all the necessary background info - what kind of car they drive, what they like to eat - snaps into place quickly.
Living Vicariously Through Characters
I find that when I develop characters with big and small questions about life and love that I myself have, they come more alive for me and therefore more alive on the page. I once lived vicariously through one character of mine, sending her off to see what would happen (with regard to something that I was very conflicted about it In Real Life. Fiction is amazing like that. –
Believe in Them
The Four Things I Must Know About My Main Character
Before I pen a word, I need to know four things about my protagonist. (Other details come after a couple of drafts.)
1. What problem does the main character have at the beginning of the novel? Something must be wrong about her life from the onset, otherwise she wouldn’t need to go on the adventure I have in mind for her. Ex. Scarlett’s problem is that her beloved Ashley is marrying Melanie.
Stealing From Real Life
The first two things that I focus on are the character's physical ticks and internal dialogue.
I also like to steal from real life. I know it’s a bit unfair...maybe even cheating but when I am out in the world I watch people. I look at how people move their body when they express a particular set of emotions. I try to create a physical dictionary that I can pull form that doesn't just include my own visual ticks because really how many times can multiple characters bite their bottom lip when they are nervous? Which is what I do.)
I also enjoy thinking about the duality of humanity. The conservative Christian who is a closet pornography addict. The stay at home mom who appears to be so put together but is also an alcoholic. The family that belongs to an exclusive country club but has no money to buy groceries. I like to explore the front of the building (ie the part we show to the world with the pretty paint and flowers) vs the back of the building (where the stinky garbage and rats hang out). I find this duality an area of intense interest for me and a fountain of conflict both internally and externally for a character.
I then find that I have to write myself into knowing my character. I can noodle them for a long time. I also have found in this latest manuscript that I can get to know them through outlining my story. It often takes about 25,000 words for me to feel like the character is truly speaking or maybe, it just takes that long for me to get out of the way and actually listen to the character's voice.
The Devil’s in the Details
Draw from life. Certainly not the entire character, but pieces of reality can make for a great composite. For example, I once had a doctor whose trademark was the rolled up sleeves of his dress shirt. It was something that conveyed confidence. IDK, maybe it conveyed the ultimate combo: smart hard working guy. Anyway, I ended up putting those rolled up sleeves, plus his forearms, on Michael Wells, a character from BEAUTIFUL DISASTER. I don’t know that I ever mention the shirt sleeves in the book, but the image was ever present when I wrote about Michael. If the character is real to me, it’s that much easier to make him real for the reader.
I have writer-friends who do all kinds of things to figure out who their characters are, including writing detailed notes on index cards, "interviewing" their characters, and filling walls with Post-It notes. What I do is to treat my characters like friends. I can obviously see who they are superficially (physical description), and I know enough about them to accept them into my inner circle. But I don’t know every tiny detail about them, not in the beginning. That’s something I get to know the more I write about them and put them in various situations to see how they will react. The more time I spend with them, the more I peel back the layers of their personality. Often, they surprise me. Of course, I know their deep, dark secrets, which I hold onto tightly until I just can't anymore...and their secrets slowly spill out.
I think identifying a character's speech patterns and gesturing idiosyncrasies go a long way toward establishing a believable character. I've found it really helpful to pay close attention to dialogue between real people in everyday conversations -- the particular way someone will say something, how they use their hands, their use of eye contact (or not), if there appears to be any discrepancy between the words they're speaking and what they may actually believe, their comfort level with cursing or with certain topics. Those things tell me a lot about someone I might meet in real life, so that knowledge makes a character seem more three-dimensional to me, too.
The Author Must Believe
The major tip I can think of for creating believable characters is to believe in them yourself. That sounds kind of obvious, but if you believe in your characters--really believe in them--they spring off of the page, and one of the reasons they do that is because your belief in them forces you to make organic choices throughout the book. You make THEIR choices instead of YOUR choices. When you don't really believe in them, you find yourself contorting to shoehorn them into the story, and that always ends up flat. Cardboard city. You want to think things like, "Mary would never go down to the lake of her own volition--she's terrified of water and has been since her sister drowned--so what might compel her to overcome that fear?" You want to steer away from things like, "It would be great to have a scene on the lake! I can talk about that place I went as a kid. Let me make Mary go down there. Wait. Maybe there should be some conflict--I hear that's good."
Research is Key
Differentiation Through Dialogue
Dialogue. What a character says and the way they say it should reflect personality. When I read a book where everyone sounds alike, I cringe. If you put a random group of real people in a room, how many would sound exactly the same? We all have verbal tics that identify us. My biggest challenge was writing The Sisters 8 series, creating octuplets such that each sister is defined but what she says. And few things give me more pleasure than encountering kids who are familiar with the series and making up random lines so they can guess which sister would say what. They never disappoint me. "What if the sky falls and there's no strong person to hold it up and I get smashed like a blueberry pancake and then eaten by a passing crow?" They always know it's Petal Huit. It couldn't possibly be anyone else.
The play “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, is the story of my life. In the play, a group of actors is rehearsing a play when suddenly the "characters" they're portraying invade the theater and tell the actors, "No this is my story, this is how it happened." They take over the stage and portray themselves, enacting their drama.That's how my characters deal with me. They barge into my head, fully formed, and say, "Here is my story." In fact, they're so real that sometimes I have to dismiss one. Maybe he's not getting along with the other characters. Maybe she insists on living a story I don't want to write. So I'll have to tell that character to go away and leave me alone.This probably makes me sound schizo, but it's how my characters come to me. I don't create them. They exist on their own. I just try to keep up with them as they share their stories with me.
2. Create character index cards. (I liked this much better than just a spreadsheet because I could keep it out where I could reference it easily.) That way I could stay true to their characteristics, physical profiles, goal, motivations and conflict.
3. If it seems out of character, cut it.
Borrowing from the Style Section
I start building characters by studying the New York Times Wedding Pages, a wealth of humanity who look like real people, rather than models. Describing facial features and appearances is easier from a photograph than vague memory or imagination. The accompanying articles are a great source of background details and interests I can apply to my characters.
When I worked in a cubicle, the single most useful thing we did (unlike building towers with coffee cups and pieces of paper and paper clips) was to learn about each other's Myers-Briggs type. It really helped me understand my coworkers.
Now I like to think about a character's Myers-Briggs type and how it might influence them. For example, an "INFJ radiates sympathy and fellowship and is persevering, conscientious, and orderly even in small matters. Sees value in others opinions, values harmony to the point of losing their own opinion. Find it hard to admit the truth about problems with people or things they care about. See the goal so clearly they fail to look for other things that might conflict with goal. May not be forthright with criticism." Just looking at those traits helps me see possible plot points.
You can learn more about Myers-Briggs at http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/
Lauren Baratz-Logsted's YA novel, The Education of Bet, is in paperback.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
I know there is the mythic vision of the solitary writer hunched over a rickety desk in their drafty loft scribbling furiously with their feathered pen inking their carefully chosen words onto parchment. There are even those writers, still, that when reticently interviewed speak of going off to their cabin in the woods, office without internet or hidden flat of which not even their closest family and friends know of its location. Unbothered by the drudgeries of daily life they toil relentlessly pulling out their hair for the correct order of words that will make their latest work another literary masterpiece.
That isn't my life.
As I write this blog I am fixing breakfast, folding laundry, helping my eldest with homework and my youngest with stickers...oh and retiling the bathroom with my toes. I exaggerate. A bit. But my life, including my writer life, involves the constant of family and the needs of my family and deadlines and writing and producing and tv...the list goes on and on and on. Sure I have a preternatural ability to live in a near bio-hazard of a home. Shoes in the center of the living room floor? No problem. Ignore them. Papers all over the kitchen table? Didn't see them. Dishes in the sink? Can't look at them. This ability to ignore the bits of life that would eat away at my writing time is a necessity. Otherwise how would I ever meet a writing deadline? There are two analogies that I received early in my career that I go back to over and over when I feel guilty about the six foot mountain of laundry.
First, you have a finite amount of time in each day. 24 hours. Everyone gets it. Visualize the day as a mason jar-a clear glass jar. Now what are the things you have to accomplish. Really must do or emergency crews, your parents, or perhaps child services will arrive at your home. For some authors it is their day job, for others it is taking care of a parent for part of the day, some have children to get to school. One of these must-do things should always be writing. Think of those must do events as rocks. You get to place 4 in your mason jar. Now you have space in your jar around the rocks but it is little bits and pieces of space 5, 10, 15 minute increments of time here and there. That is the part of day you will fill with sand...for me sand entails loading the dishwasher, folding a load of laundry, scrubbing the toilet...I do these things in fifteen minute increments around the big rocks of my day. Because I must get in my writing.
Second. Think of yourself as a juggler. Any Mom I know will understand this analogy. You have a dozen balls you are trying to keep in the air at any given time. Children. Husband. Job. Writing. Parents. Bills. Room mom. Car maintenance. Anything that you have got to take care of. Now here's the thing; some of those balls that you are trying to keep up in the air are made of rubber and some are made of glass. Getting an oil change for the car is a rubber ball. Your daughter's musical recital is glass. Meaning if you drop the oil change this week well that baby will bounce right up into the air for next week. You miss the recital? Well hell you've just shattered a little girl's heart and purchased fifty thousand dollars in therapy.
I guess this all comes down to prioritizing our lives. Writing must be a priority similar to showering and brushing your teeth. Things that we feel are important get done. Take the time to write. Whether it be four hours or thirty minutes. Demand the time for yourself and know that you deserve it. Realize that you can squeeze time in amidst life, in fact, oftentimes you'll have to. Sitting in the car waiting for soccer practice to end? Time to edit that last chapter. Standing waiting for the train? Pull out a spiral notebook and write down some ideas for the second act.
Me? I'm happy to live with all the dust bunnies as long as they leave me alone to dance with my words.
Please leave a comment and tell me all about your glass balls and the juggling routine that keeps it all in the air.
Maggie Marr is the author of Hollywood Girls Club and Secrets of The Hollywood Girls Club. She is currently working on a Young Adult trilogy. She also writes for film and tv. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can follow her and her glass balls at www.maggiemarr.com
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
1) The old gypsy prophecy is about to befall you. Many new and interesting strangers will enter your life. You will be grateful for the vast majority of them. None will be tall, dark, and handsome, though one or two will leave you wondering if Facebook was such a hot idea.
2) BE GENEROUS. Get your fifteen minutes and get out. (Well, you can’t really get out. If you don’t sell it, nobody will, but you know what I mean) Deserving authors wait in the wings. There’s room for everybody if you’re willing to take a turn.
3) Should you be invited to a book club relax. This is the social spotlight for you and your book and, so far, my favorite author’s perk. However, be wary of the person who leads with, “First, I want to say how much I enjoyed your book…” There’s a BUT coming. Preparedness is key, smile and say something smarter than, “Who invited you?”
4) Anne Lamott knows her stuff. I am not prettier, nor am I rich. The reality of that doesn’t surprise me, but I think it’s left a few relatives scratching their heads.
5) On the same subject is the gamut of reactions you will encounter regarding your spiffy new title. This did catch me off guard. People who aspire to what you have achieved will think the world of your accomplishment. Don’t stick a pin in it, which would be my proclivity. On the other hand, before you can polish the edges of that inflated ego something will remind you how far you have to go. Over-the-moon accolades and the real fear of selling all those printed copies must fit neatly into the same box. Make sure this is a box with a tight lid, a lock if need be. The people you lived with before have to live with you now. Wringing your hands over either end of the spectrum will lead to nothing but chapped hands.
6) People will expect you to give them a copy of your book. Choose wisely how and where you distribute those precious promotional copies. No matter how long your neighbor stands in your kitchen, claiming how much she would LOVE to read your book, the answer is, “Gosh, I just don’t keep a supply here.” But should you have an opportunity to put a copy in celebrity hands (in my case Gregg Allman, who gets a mention in BD) go for it, what have you got to lose—besides a book?
7) If you’ve harbored an author fantasy that involves a crowded airport (or other means of transportation, i.e. buses, trains, ferries) and flashing your novel about in hopes of a passerby asking, “My goodness, that looks fascinating! Whatever are you reading?” Know that it requires the actual book. Traveling with your downloaded Kindle copy will not result in satisfactory fulfillment of said fantasy.
8) Lastly, there will be extremes. For me, the oddest occurred at a funeral. When a family member of the deceased raced toward me, I thought he was seeking consolation. Heck no. He’d brought a copy of my book, anxious for a signature. Flustered, but able to regain the wherewithal to comply, I ransacked my purse for the purple signing pen. To my amazement, it was out of ink. Fumbling for a replacement (we used the guestbook pen) I found myself teary eyed with the bereaved party consoling me. I nodded and thanked him, sad for his loss, truly teary eyed that I’d signed enough damn books to empty a pen ( ;
Today, I have an author interview with a giveaway at Romance Reviews Today: http://romrevtoday.blogspot.com/ Starting on lucky Friday the 13th come May, I’ll be blogging regularly over at The Stiletto Gang, http://thestilettogang.blogspot.com/ You can always check in at http://www.lauraspinella.net/ for upcoming events and BEATUIFUL DISASTER info. Find me on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=538269154
By Hank Phillippi Ryan
I’m a little starstruck.
Back in the um, sixties, when I was just learning about the world and about writing and about how we’re all connected, I of course fell in love. With Paul Simon.
I don’t remember the first “record” (remember records?) I ever bought—it might have been Let's Twist Again. (Which I should have realized was a precursor to being a mystery author—“the twist” being such a critical part of any such novel. But I, as usual, digress. ).
And of course I remember the Beatles—those of us from a certain era can certainly bring back the memory of that first earful of the Beatles.
But I do remember the first song lyrics that really bowled me over. It was Sounds of Silence. I was a bookish kid, always reading and hyper-thoughtful and all that. And Sounds of Silence—wow. “Hello, darkness, my old friend?” Yikes. Paul Simon got me. And didn’t let go. And the idea of lyrics as literature, lyrics as poetry, lyrics as just as gorgeous and complicated and compelling as any good novel—began to evolve in my head.
Remember Paul Simon’s American Tune?
Many’s the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don't expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home
Let us be lovers,
we'll marry our fortunes together
(I promise this has a point.)
Even though my career took a different path, I always wanted to be a mystery author. And when you think about it –being an investigative journalist—as I’ve been for the past thirty-plus years and being a mystery author are actually similar.
Because they’re all about tell the story. Right? With compelling characters, and important conflicts, and in the end, there’s change and if you’re lucky, justice. Whether its fact, or fiction, we try to tell the story. In the most efficient, most succinct way. In the sparest possible way. The most power in the fewest words. And Paul Simon’s lyrics, always seemed to do that.
In The Obvious Child, on a man’s life journey:
Sonny sits by his window and thinks to himself
How it's strange that some rooms are like cages
Boy in the Bubble-where the universe and our place in it are put into perspective
The way we look to a distant constellation
That's dying in a corner of the sky
So you can imagine my delight, as a fan of Paul Simon’s for so many years, to be invited to a very exclusive PEN/NewEngland discussion-seminar he was giving in Lyrics as Literature.
The other panelist—the Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon.
About two hundred people, at the most, were individually escorted into a smallish room at the JFK Library, and I must say, I was nervous. Would I be able to ask him a question? What would I ask? Maybe about--The Boxer? Where does a story-song like that come from, and how is it crafted?
I am just a poor boy.
Though my story's seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
But most important, what could I learn about lyrics as literature? I knew, I just knew, that Paul Simon would have something I could take away and use. (I know, it would be ironic here if it turned out that didn’t happen, and he was boring and pompous and selfish. But for once, irony does not win. He was brilliant and thoughtful and astonishing.)
Remember Kathy’s Song?
And as a song I was writing is left undone
I don't know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can't believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.
So out he comes, all kind of shabby-in-a-cute-way looking, and smiling, and with a fleece and a battered old hat, and I’m fumbling in my purse for my camera thinking—I’m going to do it, I don’t care I’m going to get a photo! And my husband is poking me with an elbow—shush, don’t take a picture. I couldn't resist taking one or two quick shots but then, took notes.
Paul Simon first quoted Coleridge—that writing is “trying to put the best words in the best order.”
He talked about being in the zone—“As a writer, I’ve experienced that a few times. And that’s the beauty, isn’t it? When you’re starting from scratch, that’s the start of something interesting. If I knew what I was doing, what’s the point?”
How do you know if a song will be good? “You can’t know. It’s a mystery. That’s what’s so great about it. But you can access bliss. If you’re lucky, you can find it. That’s WHY you do it. Just to catch a glimpse of it.”
He was asked—is there anything you wish you could take back? He thought about it, smiled, then said, “I’d prefer not to tell you. Anyone can be bad. So why should I be ashamed?”
Do you know when you’re good? He smiled, and admitted—“You start to recognize it.” He said when he wrote in Graceland ‘And I see losing love Is like a window in your heart’: “I had to sit down.” And when he wrote ‘Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down,’ he said to himself, “Well, that’s better than you usually do.”
I didn’t get to ask a question, but I didn’t care. He said he “…wasn’t sure he believed in the muse, but what the heck. Can’t hurt.” And here’s the point of the whole thing: “If you believe in the Muse,” Paul Simon said, “the Muse may believe in you.” And let me just say—I left the room, clutching my camera. Thinking about my new book. Believing. And humming:
Still crazy after all these years…
So--what's your favorite Paul Simon song? Do you think of lyrics as literature?
PS--Any of you coming to the Malice Domestic Conference? My DRIVE TIME is nominated for the Agatha for Best Mystery of 2010!
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Several years ago, I was with a friend when she decided to assemble an elliptical trainer – a gift for her father. I thought she was nuts and needed to put Santa’s elves on her speed dial (I’m not an assembly-required kind of girl either),but then I became fascinated by her process. First, she unpacked the box . Big pieces of steel went to one side. All of the little packets of nuts and screws and bolts to another. I would have bailed at this point. The sheer number of pieces was daunting. I would have hired the nearest elf, headed for the patio and a bottle of wine, and waited for him to tell me it was finished. Not my friend. She calmly checked the bits and bobs against the packing list. Literally checked them –she put a tidy check mark on the page next to each item as she identified it, and then placed it in order on a white bed sheet (so she could see them better, she said). Then she read the directions. Thoroughly. And only then did she begin to assemble. Piece by piece by piece by piece, the elliptical trainer took form and is still in use today (Or until last week anyway, when her 78-year-old father fell out of a tree. That’s a whole nother story. Let’s just say he’s going to be fine but probably won’t be using the exercise equipment – or climbing trees – for a good while.)
So what does any of this have to do with writing? Well, the process for starters (pun intended). I know writers who outline and tack color-coded note cards to their walls. Others, like me, just start writing without a clue as to where the story and its characters will take them, hoping that we all end up someplace good. But there is a second aspect to “starting” as well. If we have developed our characters well, then they have pasts and futures. Our job is to find their “now.” We all have that relative who when asked a simple question will drone on and on before getting to the point. A book that started with the protagonist’s birth and plodded through day after year after decade would be a real snoozer.
I struggled with this in my novel, Mothers and Other Liars. A key incident happens ten years ago, and I tried writing a decade’s worth of pages of Ruby’s life before I figured out where her story should start. Many times in my critique group someone has suggested to another writer that the story should start sooner or (more often) later along a winding road. Sometimes we may write a couple of hundred pages that end up as mere backstory, reduced in the final draft to a sprinkling of sentences here and there.
Despite Julie Andrews’ lovely singing, starting at the very beginning is not always the best place to start. Sometimes it’s screaming at us in bright neon lights; sometimes we have to dig and sift and trash pages of writing that we think are particularly good. But we have to find that “now”.
Amy Bourret is the author ofMothers and Other Liars.
She’s currently working on her next “now.”