Wednesday, September 26, 2007

When Good Characters Go Bad

Those of you who write fiction have probably had this experience. You develop a character who, in your head, is going to pull the reader through your story. Since I write women's fiction, I'll refer to my character as 'she.' You give her life by describing her physical attributes and her personality, providing her with a career that's fun or interesting. You hope she's a woman who will evoke the reader's sympathy--someone they'd like to have living next door, invite over for a cup of coffee. You get a few chapters into her story and then it happens--something goes terribly wrong.

Your character turns on you, like an obstinate two-year-old. No matter where you want her to go, she stamps her foot and says, "No!" Even the secondary characters can't stand her anymore. They take a secret vote and whisper in your head, "Please, do something with her."

You are at a crossroads. Do you change the story line to fit where your character is leading, or do you reel her back in and put her in her place? I'm raising this question because I am now just finishing a complete rewrite of ten chapters that I labored over the first time. What happened? My main character, originally envisioned as a bright, talented, albeit emotionally fractured young woman, became sullen, angry and rude. Her younger sister (a secondary character) took over. She is, at first glance, fun-loving and playful, a don't-take-life-too-seriously contrast to her older, more conservative sibling. Her purpose is to reflect the main character's personality and to draw her out throughout the story. But, since the younger sister is more enjoyable, she quickly shifted into a primary position with my critique partners. She was just more likable. It would've been fun to write her story.

So, what do we do when a good character goes bad?

I sat down with my character to talk about what was going on with her. My work as a psychotherapist helped a bit. (And my colleagues are now getting my committal papers ready. I'm counseling imaginary people.)

It turns out it wasn't my character, at all. I was over-writing her story. She simply put her foot down. I'm a pantser--I don't plot or do much of a story outline. I just write. When I took the time to 'listen' to my character and to go back through her story, as I'd written it to that point, I spotted the problem right away. I'd given her a conflict, added a past crisis, then heaped on another deep, dark secret. Well, no wonder she turned on me!

When good characters go bad and turn on you, their creator, take a look at the situation in which you've placed them. Odds are good you've put them in an impossible circumstance or painted them into a corner with too many problems to resolve.

Once I'd relieved her of her deep, dark secret, refocused her on the initial conflict, and put her past crisis into perspective (and with a possible resolution), she lightened up considerably. And my secondary character fell into place, as well, serving to show the contrast between the two women without overshadowing. She became the prop she was intended to be in the first place.

What I learned: It's all about balance.

And that leads me to my next topic, coming soon--the value of having a critique partner or critique group to help keep your writing balanced.

Happy writing.


Monday, September 17, 2007


…you spellcheck the grocery list, and you describe each item: plump tomatoes the red-orange hue of a western sunset;

…you have to read your email twice because, the first time, you focused on grammar and punctuation;

…you enter a bookstore with the same reverence as when you walk into church;

…you then stand over the ‘new arrivals’ table with much the same expression as someone gazing through the nursery window at the maternity ward;

…a friend is telling you about their most recent family tragedy, and you are simultaneously envisioning an opening paragraph;

…on your day off, you are still in your pj's and in front of the computer at three p.m.;

... and your UPS or FedEx delivery man begins to think you have a chronic illness;

…you have mastered the art of reading an agent's rejection letter while bearing an aloof smile;

…some of your family members ask, "So, how's that hobby of yours going?" followed by, "Any leads on a new job?"

…your Feng Shui book has gotten lost beneath the stacks of ‘how to’ writing books and manuscripts in the process of being edited. (Did I forget to mention the stack of rejection letters?);

…you carry a printed copy of your most recent work so that you'll have something to do while waiting in line—edit, edit, edit;

…you turn on the computer, just to check email, and, three hours later, you have an outline for your next masterpiece; actually 'listen' to the people in your head and quote them.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

And, Then, You Wait

We writers spend much our time waiting. We wait for inspiration. We wait for critique partners. And we wait for query responses from agents and editors. Once you finish that brilliant, one-of-a-kind manuscript and polish it to perfection, you open up your latest edition of The Writer’s Market and select an agent or publisher. You write your query and synopsis. (Frankly, I’d rather write an entire novel, than write a synopsis.) You puzzle over how the heck you are going to adequately represent your 100,000 word epic in one to two pages. How will they ever get the story with so little to go on? You rewrite your query letter a few times, crafting it, word by word.

Then, it’s time. You either attach your files to an email, or you make a run to the post office, planting a good luck kiss on the back of the envelope. (And all the agents and editors reading this just said, "Eeewwww.")

And, then, you wait—anywhere from four weeks to twelve months. Although, I’ve received a response to an email query as quickly as three hours after an email submission. (You don’t want one of those.) It’s no secret. Most agents and editors tell you right up front how long you can expect to wait.* So, now what do you do? Here are a few suggestions.

Top Ten Things to Do While Waiting for a Query Response

10. Clean out the garage (attic, storage closet, trunk of the car). Who knows—you may stumble upon the manuscript you were sure would never go anywhere, the one you stuffed into a drawer in total disgust, and discover it’s not nearly as bad as you thought.

9. Walk the dog (from Pittsburgh to San Francisco—and back.)

8. Join a book club and read a novel (or four or six or ten.)

7. Start an exercise program. (By the time you get that call, you’ll be a mere shadow of your former self.)

6. Have a baby. (Go ahead. There’s time.)

5. Potty train your toddler (see number 6.)

4. Wean yourself off caffeine. (Okay, so let’s not get carried away.)

3. Read the latest ‘how to write a novel’ book, and then make a list of all the things wrong with the one you just submitted.

2. Have a nervous breakdown (refer back to number 3.)

And the number one thing to do while waiting for a query response:

1. Write another book!

But look on the bright side--the agent and/or editor has waited for six months to two years while you wrote the book!

*Disclaimer: No agents or editors were consulted about this timeframe. Every writer’s experience will differ. It is this author’s belief that agents and editors do their very best to respond in a timely manner. Really.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Keeping the Fire Burning

If you're a writer, you know that burning passion that sweeps over you as you put words on a page, as characters come to life beneath your fingers, as worlds take shape in your head.

But what happens when the fire dies? Now, I don't particularly believe in writer's block. But I know from personal experience that the fire can burn down to a few glowing embers. I know that, "Oh, my God" moment of thinking it's all over. I'm not a writer, after all. I just got lucky for a while.

So, what do we do to keep the fire burning, to keep that flame alive? I know what I do. I write. I write anything--a letter, an essay to express my frustration with the cable company, a short-story I know I'll never publish, a journal entry about my fear of losing the fire.

It's primitive, this thing with fire. Ever since someone, eons ago, picked up two rocks and struck them together, watching the spark flare in dry grass and become something so vital.

It's like that for us. We strike words against one another, rub them till they're white hot, watch for that spark. You never know exactly when it's going to happen, and it's a thrill each time it does.

If you've ever camped out, you know the fire dies down in the night. You have to feed it, coax it with a gentle breath, protect it from whatever will dampen it, nurture it along until it flares again.

You d0 what you must to keep the fire burning, to keep that passion alive--the passion to create, to bring a smile to a reader's face, to touch a heart that's felt the same pain your character feels, to find hope in the world you create.

Now, go--write something!


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Another Step Forward

I am a writer. When I set the first words of my first book into type just four years ago, I never imagined becoming a published author. I just wanted to find out if I could write a book, start to finish, and create a story that caught anyone's interest. A few friends read the story and encouraged me to publish. Ah, but where to start?

I talked with other authors, submitted to agents and got a fair share of, "It's just not what I'm looking for right now" letters. Then I found a publisher (Wings ePress, Inc. who wanted to put my work into print. Now I needed a website. Something through which to make myself known and promote my work. I don't speak computer-ese. My critique partners will tell you I sometimes struggle with English.

But, I forged ahead and managed to create a web page ( that I've now redesigned (over and over). You know how that goes. You go in, planning to make one tiny change, add one little link. The next thing you know, your 'page' is four pages, includes your book cover, excerpts, reviews, and links to every other author and publisher you know. Okay, so I'm proud of my accomplishments. The book? Oh, yeah, that too. But navigating the web and creating a site. Now that was a rush.

Most of my friends have blogs. I swore I would NEVER have a blog. They seem too self-serving. They present the risk of revealing too much of one's personal life without an awareness of boundaries. The name alone sounds like someone spitting out a taste of something spoiled.

Okay, so I'm eating my own words here. The truth is--a blog can be self-serving. Self-promoting. (And a writer must be those things.) The truth is--a blogger has to be aware of and sensible about boundaries and what they post for all the world to see. I can do this. And the name--blog. Well--it is what it is.

My posts will center, primarily, around writing, in all its aspects. Writing and publishing are serious businesses, but not without a good share of humor. I'll introduce you to my writing and, hopefully, to some of my writing companions.

So, here I am, taking another step forward into the twenty-first century. Thanks for joining me.