Pet Peeve: Your Shiny Little Self

It’s a pet peeve of mine when a character is clearly just a vessel for the author’s little fantasy of themselves and their life – as they wish they looked, acted, felt, lived, etc.  If you want to have an alternate reality life of yourself, then go play The Sims 3, do your best to make the Sims in your household look like you and Johnny Depp or Catherine Zeta Jones (depending on your gender preference and all), and give those little folks some fantastic goals and life fulfillment.

Please do not write a polished-up version of how you wish you looked, fawning over the waves of scarlet tresses that your spunky little self is always fighting not to make frizzy (thus making you super-cute to the hunky guy), or, if you’re a male writer, fawning over the badassery of your jawline or the sharp looks of your suit and sunglass combination.  Don’t give me a protagonist full of your own best qualities, who always does the “cool” thing, if not the right thing, and always makes the predictable, plain-vanilla, obvious decision at every turn.  Don’t give me a protagonist with all the bad bits cut off, because you’re more interested in “playing pretend” than writing good fiction.

Good fiction requires ugliness.  Ugly truths, flaws, mistakes, accidents, injuries, pain, suffering, and existential crisis.  The dark pit full of stuff we don’t like to face – about ourselves, about other people, about life.  Not that it’s all bad.  It’s just that, to make characters real, they must have an awareness of the ugly stuff, even if they glaze over it, even if they deal with it well, even if they deny it so well you’d never know (if you met them in real life) that they felt anything that wasn’t superficial.  Why?  Because real people are aware of these things.  The constant struggle to meet all of your needs, to maintain a tolerable (if not healthy) internal life and a tolerable (if not healthy) external life, to present yourself a certain way in public, to hide things you hate about yourself, to have the life you want, to find meaning, to LIVE before you DIE….even people who don’t directly, consciously think through the dilemmas involved in being a mortal creature that’s incessantly struggling to properly identify itself, still feel the effects and, on some level, battle with it every day.

So it’s fine if you want to give me a tough guy narrator that’s the coolest thing you could ever wish to be, as long as you give me some hint that you, the writer, know that there’s a reason he presents himself as a tough guy.  That you understand what lies under that surface presentation, that you understand that he, the character, not you, the writer, chose to present himself that way and that he reaps the benefits and suffers the consequences of that self-created image.  Or maybe he doesn’t mean to be a tough guy, and others perceive him that way no matter what he does – now that’s interesting, too.  How does he feel about that, and does he fight against it, or has he given up trying and just embraced it?  Or did he grow into it naturally?  This is where your character stops being a stereotype and a wish-fulfillment, and starts to be a real person – when you start running off questions like this in your head and get excited because the answers start to get more and more interesting.

Sometimes I think writers are afraid to let their protagonists be realistically flawed because they’re afraid people will read it and know how deeply flawed the writer himself/herself is.  And I’m not saying your protagonist has to be the antichrist.  But let’s be honest:  we’re all coping with life as best we can, and none of us do it perfectly…and none of us do it without some struggle, even folks who take it lying down and have no ambition or drive.  There’s still a struggle there.  None of us are perky, spunky, self-assured heroes who just so happen find the perfect mate in the midst of a major catastrophe and live happily ever after.

We’re all screwed up one way or another, and frankly, I find it somewhat reassuring to read about people more messed up than me.  Another point:  most readers aren’t thinking about how messed up the writer must be (or if they do, it’s with a certain admiration) – they’re too busy looking for themselves in the characters.  Don’t ever assume, dear writer, that, to your readers, your book is anything to do with you.  Once it’s published, it’s a game between your readers and your story.  You’re not even in the arena anymore.

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Friday Exercise – Evidence of Others

Take a walk somewhere.  Anywhere.  Pay attention to your surroundings.  If you’re anywhere urban, suburban, or otherwise sometimes populated by other humans, look for one sign of another person having been there (who isn’t there now).  Graffiti.  A cross next to a bad turn on a country road.  A hand print on a toy store window.  Anything.  Brainstorm about this person – were they here alone, or with someone?  How were they feeling?  What was their purpose?  What is the rest of their life like?  Free write about it, or if a story just comes to you, start writing it.

If your walk is out in the woods, away from people, turn your attention to evidence of animals.  Prints, scraped bark, old nests from prior years, burrows.  See what’s around.  Write from the animal’s point of view, or if that’s not your cup of tea, think about what kind of character would pay attention to the details you’ve noticed.  A hunter?  A bird-watcher?  A conservation expert?  Someone from the past, who needs to pay attention to the environment around him/her in order to survive?

Keep Working

If you’re in the process of marketing a book, I wholeheartedly recommend that you get well into another project prior to sending out your completed manuscript.

I got lucky with timing, finishing the final draft of my novel in early October, which meant that when I participated in NaNoWriMo in November, I ended the year with one finished novel and one rough draft under my belt.  Once I recovered from NaNo, I started researching agents.  All of the times which would’ve been empty spots in my writing life (the month or two break most of us take between finishing a draft and starting the rewrites, the waiting game with the agencies, etc.) were filled up, because I could switch back and forth between tasks for one manuscript and tasks for the other.

Now that I’m well into the querying process and doing a lot of waiting and not much else for my finished novel, I’m so grateful that I have another book ready to be worked on.  As antsy as I am with a project to work on, I can just imagine how much worse it would be if my writing life, right now, consisted purely of sending out letters and samples and then waiting for replies.

Aside from providing a welcome distraction and being an efficient use of time which would otherwise be spent chewing your own face off from the inside, having something else to work on is also a good mood booster when you get a rejection.  At least, it works that way for me.  If I work out a problem with my rough draft, write a new scene I really like, or come across something awesome when I’m fact checking my details, it takes a little of the sting out of getting a rejection.  Even if it’s a bad writing day and I get a rejection, I can tell myself, “But see, you’re a real, professional writer.  You’re already working on a new book, the way professional writers are supposed to.  You’re just waiting for your break, and getting work done in the meantime.  See how awesome you are?”

Anything that boosts your confidence and makes you feel good about yourself, that’s what you want to do while you’re marketing your book.  So write, write well, and write something that makes you happy.

Mapping a Novel

I don’t know of anything more difficult about novel-writing than pulling off multiple story arcs.  I don’t mean a main plot plus a subplot or three, which can be a little tricky – I mean when you have an ensemble cast of major characters, for all of whom you have to shape a transformative change worthy of a novel-length storyline.

Personally, this is one thing I can’t do without an outline – at least a rough one – to guide me and help me keep track of the big picture.  It’s easier to keep everything in mind with a concise reference to help solidify it.  Plus, it gives me an excuse to color-code everything, which means I get to use markers or colored pencils, which is always a plus, IMHO.

In a way, it’s easiest if I think of it as a map of the book, rather than an outline, and I have to plan a route for each character to reach the destination of the climax, whether that’s the same place for two or more of them, or totally separate towns.  Then it’s just a matter of travel planning so I know what they’ll encounter on their journey.  Physical battles?  Confrontation with someone they thought was an ally?  An abrupt and ugly revelation about him/her self?  What do I want each person’s story to be about?  How can I bring them to their finest moment within that?  How can I bring them to their worst impasse or their ultimate failure within it?  And of course, where do the different characters’ paths cross?  Do they trip each other up, or spur each other on?  In what ways, and why?

Friday Exercise – Nightmare

The draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo this past November was based on an idea I’ve had (and written partial manuscripts for) for over a decade.  Last year, before I started writing it, I decided to cut the main character.  Yes, you read that right.  I cut the main character.  The main character, now, is the character who used to be the antagonist.  She’s still antagonizing, but since it’s her series now, she’s the protagonist.

Although she always had a sliver of decency and goodness in her, now that she’s my primary character, it hit home hard about halfway through November that I really didn’t have enough good and decent in my head for her, especially for the first book of the trilogy, before she goes totally batshit.  See, if you’re going to have an anti-hero as your main character, I feel like they have to be either (a) very funny, (b) heartbreakingly and tragically messed up, or (c) both.  And characters are not tragic if they are merely whiny or annoying.  No, what makes a character tragic is when they make the wrong choices while thoroughly believing they’re the right choices, or at least that they’re doing it for the right reasons.  Tragic is not being able to see the big picture clearly, while being firmly convinced that you do see it clearly.  Seeing no alternatives and moving steadily toward your own downfall because you’re missing something vital about yourself, the world, or life itself.

I’m getting to the exercise part, I promise.  I’m just verbose today.  Or loquacious.  Either word is a good one.

Anyway, it occurred to me that, both as a reader and as a writer of this book, I wanted more of a sense of this becoming-a-villain’s vulnerability.  NaNo requires such intensively fast work that one angle of that came out spontaneously – she’s claustrophobic about dim, underground spaces.  This particular fear is especially odd coming from someone whose race can’t tolerate sustained exposure to sunlight (they get “sun sickness”) so they usually live in underground communities.

The other thing that clicked into place was, late in November, frantic for inspiration to up my word count, I dug through every single cut scene, “parts” file, and scrawled-on-napkin note to myself, that I’d ever written for the series in these last almost-thirteen years.  And I ran across a nightmare that my previous protagonist (the one I cut) had.  I wrote this nightmare scene about eight years ago, for a completely different person, but I realized that it would work perfectly for Tessen (my new lead character).  The anxieties this nightmare points to, the imagery, the setting, and the foreshadowing all work for her inner conflict and the things to come for her, almost like I wrote it with her in mind in the first place…which I may have done, subconsciously.

So the exercise, finally, is this:  Whether you use it in the book or not, write a nightmare for your antagonist.  Start it as a free write, and keep in mind how dreams twist and settings change or combine, people in the dream with you shift into other people or aren’t actual people that you know (although, in the dream, you feel you know them).  Just see what comes out of it.  Afterward, give some brainstorm time to why this is your antagonist’s nightmare.  What underlying fears does this expose?  Is it the imagery of the dream that scares him/her, or what the imagery symbolizes (or both)?  What do the other people in the dream represent to your character?  The places?  What does this dream show is on your character’s mind – anxieties for the near future, reflections on the past, etc?  Does any of it foreshadow something further along in the book?

Snail Mail Sample Material

At the end of last week, I got a request from another agent for additional material – this time, a significant sample:  30 pages.  Sweet!  I’m beginning to have confidence in my query letter and the blurb version of my synopsis (as I mentioned here a couple weeks ago, I have a few versions of it, including a book jacket length/style summary).

Since he requested hard copy, I got my materials together and scurried for the Post Office.  What do you need to get together when you send something off, through the strange and archaic system of sticky little pictures and paper pouches that is snail mail, to an agent or publisher who has requested a partial?  Well, naturally, you need to send them what they asked for – x# of pages, double-spaced, well-written, spell-checked, clean and unblemished, in a standard 12 point font, with standard margins, with page numbers and your name in the header (or footer) of the pages (starting with the second page).  In this case, I was also asked for a full synopsis, so I sent my 3-pager (2-3 pages is a standard length for a full synopsis).  And you need a basic cover letter so they know what the heck they’re looking at – these folks look at a lot of material from a lot of people, so a reminder that this is something they asked to look at doesn’t go amiss.  Dear whoever, enclosed is the 30-page partial and synopsis, as requested, of my novel, Title, kind of thing.  In this agent’s case, the submission guidelines for the query didn’t want any information about the author (not even publication credits), but he asked about those in his request, so I put a little bio into my cover letter (including the fact that my only previous publications are short stories in local anthologies).  It really isn’t the worst thing in the publishing world to be a debut author – it would be way worse simply to be a bad writer, or an unprofessional one.

Anyway, once all that stuff is put together in a neat little stack of paper and costly printer ink, head to the post office and purchase your envelope and your SASE – Self Addressed, Stamped Envelope – which the agent/publisher will send your material back in (hopefully with helpful notes if they reject it, or with an acceptance letter).  Send that puppy off and hope for the best.

I know this is kind of basic stuff, but if I hadn’t grown up around writers, I don’t know that it would seem very basic to me – there’s a hell of a lot to the processes of the publishing world, and it differs from short story length work to novel length work, from publisher to publisher, agent to agent, agent to publisher, etc.  So in case there’s anyone reading this blog who’s not sure what to expect when they finish their novel and start trying to get it into the world at large, here’s one piece of the puzzle that is getting published.

Wish me luck!  🙂

The Little Rough Draft That Could

This week, I’ve finally buckled down and started serious work on rewriting the rough draft I finished in November.  In January, I reread it (the first time I’ve looked it over since I wrote it) and made about ten pages (front and back) of notes – too much exposition here, need clarification there, move this scene to here, more backstory for this person, cut that character out, etc.  Then I sidled uncomfortably away from it to avoid the part where you clutch your head in your hands and wonder how the hell you’re going to make it all work.

This week, I surprised my rough draft by confronting it outright.  It wasn’t expecting that, so my frontal assault went well.  We were honest and open with one another and the results were good – the rough draft is aware that it needs true change in its life, and it’s ready to face the challenges of transformation that it needs to go through in order to achieve its potential.  I have explained to it that it won’t do either of us any good for me to be gentle about it, that this is a time for straightforwardness and tough love.  The rough draft understands that, and claims to appreciate my good intentions, even when it hurts a little to hear the truth.

So now that we’re on the same page, (haha) I can finally get down to brass tacks.  At the beginning of a rewrite, I feel like there’s this huge, unmanageable nebula of STORY that is bigger than the sum of the words that make it up, and I’m overwhelmed at the prospect of shaping the STORY, not just the words.  It seems impossible to organize, and I worry about it for a few weeks without really accomplishing much.  Then, at some point (in this case, this past week), I just start working, and things begin to take shape and make sense – almost instinctually, connections coming together “all on their own”.

Maybe that two or three weeks of “Oh, crap, I don’t wanna do this!” are actually necessary, and maybe underneath the panic, my subconscious is working away on the story in an effort to soothe my terrified conscious writer-brain.

Regardless, once I get started, my method is firmly reliant on organization and note-making.  What I’m doing to get to draft two is:

  • Break the book up into chapters, since the rough was so rough I didn’t even try to make it coherent (50,000 words in one month will do that)
  • At the beginning of each chapter, make notes on what needs to be fixed about the material, unless the entire chapter needs to be moved to another part of the book – then, I note what material should be in the chapter and where the current material needs to be moved to
  • Include in the chapter by chapter notes any overarching themes/conflicts/ideas that need to be established by that point (such as, “By now, I need to have explained the Tiernan religion’s kin figures…might be a good spot here, when Cordell does [this].”)
  • Obey the notes.

Once you have a plan for every chapter, it doesn’t seem so horribly overwhelming to dig in and do the work.  It starts to feel exciting.  It starts to be easy, except where you run into snags, and even those start to feel like puzzles to enjoy solving (in spite of the swearing that occurs as you work on them).  It’s starting to feel exciting to me now, and although I know I will gripe and moan over this draft later, I also know that I’ll get it done and I’ll be glad I did it.

Friday Exercise – Judgement

Write an exchange of dialogue between two (or more) characters, during which at least one character decides he/she has another “pegged” – as in, understands what kind of person they really are, what category they belong in, etc.  How do they treat the other person, and the conversation, afterward?  If you get on a roll with this part, go one step further and, still in dialogue, prove the character’s judgement about the other person wrong.  And then how does the conversation change?

Goals

As with most things, it’s good to have clear goals when you’re marketing your book to agents and publishers.  This week, I’ve been very glad that I set myself the goal of sending out 5 queries a week (one per weekday), because after getting my hopes up over an agent asking for more material, her subsequent rejection left me cynical and frustrated (despite her very nice rejection letter).

Fortunately, if I write down somewhere among my various and sundry notebooks, TO DO:  5 queries per week until accepted! I will do it no matter what, as if to prove to the piece of paper that I can actually do it.  So I’m back in the saddle again, although I did cheat the week I was waiting to hear back from her, and only sent one query out all week.

The good thing about a goal (especially an ambitious and time-consuming one, such as sending out a query every single weekday) is that you feel some sense of accomplishment from fulfilling it, even if you haven’t yet succeeded in the larger goal of getting an acceptance.  Plus, if you have twenty query letters out there, when you get a rejection, you know that there are 19 more chances at a “yes” waiting in the wings.

Raising the Stakes

The trickiest part of writing a novel, IMHO, is structuring the story arc over such a long span.  Although there are exceptions, a lot of novels cover a course of months or years (centuries, if you’re Edward Rutherford), for the characters.  Readers will take days, weeks, or months (depending on their reading pace and how dense the material of your book is) to finish it.  And of course, you, as the writer, will spend months, if not a few years, writing and polishing it.  It can be hard to keep perspective from within all those thousands of words and hundreds of hours of work!  It isn’t always easy to tell, in the process, if you’re going on too much with one section and rushing through another.  Pacing isn’t something you can always judge on the first draft, or even the second.

But pacing is the least of a writer’s worries with structure – pacing is easy to fix.  What’s hard to fix is the scenes that don’t have a clear direction – especially when you have a lot of them – and the storylines that don’t fit together the way you want, and the plot holes that will take massive amounts of lead-up that you didn’t put in because you didn’t realize you’d need it.  My first finished novel, The Kind That Hurts the Most, which will hopefully never see the light of day, suffered from a hideous lack of plot structure and far too many directionless scenes in the middle.  To this day, I can’t see any way to fix it, short of throwing in some werewolves or zombies or possibly Godzilla, and I’d have to pay royalties for him.  Anyway, one of the tools I’ve picked up since that novel, which would really have saved it as I was drafting it, is raising the stakes.

If you’re meandering, unfocused, or directionless with your plot, one of the surest cures is to increase the pressure on your characters.  That doesn’t always mean changing the events of the storyline, either – you can make the events mean more to the characters, affect them more profoundly, as long as you have a basis established for why, for this person, is this event momentous?

There’s such a wide range of ways to approach the idea of “raising the stakes”, too.  In a comedy/adventure style of story, you can heap things on until it’s ridiculous (Indiana Jones’ “Snakes…why did it have to be SNAKES?” moment comes to mind).  In a literary novel, one character’s mindset can shift just a little too late, and the resulting regret can drive them to overcompensate, lash out, or strive to change.  In a mystery, the killer can come after the sleuth.  Loved ones can be threatened, or can threaten to withdraw or leave.  Loyalties can split at a crucial time.  Fortunes can be squandered, jobs can be lost, antagonists can attack in unforseen ways, storms can strike, wars can be declared.  There are a zillion options for making life hard in your story world.

One thing you can do is think about bad timing in your own life.  Everyone has had those times when bad news seems to come in like a tide – wave upon wave of bad news, pounding in on you.  What did you really need right then that fell through or went wrong, or what was the last straw?  And when you got to the last straw, no matter how you reacted, what would your characters have done, in the same position?  How would they have solved the problem, or made it worse?

See, you’re getting a free exercise here, even though it’s not Friday.  And writing therapy, sort of.

Anyway, as crazy as this sounds, I’m going to recommend Adam Sandler movies as prime examples of raising the stakes.  They’re formulaic in many ways, and obviously silly, but re-watching Happy Gilmore a couple weeks ago, I thought, “Damn!  If I ever teach a creative writing class in my lifetime, I’m using this to show my students how to raise the stakes.”  Several of Sandler’s movies would work as examples (formulaic, as I said) but Happy Gilmore has an element that underlines that the stakes are being raised – the sports commentators, who throw in lines like, “And things just keep getting worse for Happy Gilmore!  If he doesn’t calm down, he’s going to lose this round!” when the audience knows, of course, that he must win this round to save his grandmother’s house from repossession.  So thank you, Adam Sandler, for helping me with this blog entry.