Monthly Archives: January 2013

Does Your Main Character Need a Job?

One of the major decisions a writer faces when creating an initial character sketch is what job to give to the main character. This is a crucial decision and must not be taken lightly.

Why does a main character need a specific job? What difference does it make whether she is an accountant or a lawyer? The occupation a writer chooses for her main character speaks to the character’s values and identity. It should also tie into the story. So how does the writer choose a job for her main character?

In some cases, the choice is genre-driven. In a mystery, the main character will be a detective or a private investigator or involved in law enforcement in some way. In a spy thriller, the main character will be, um, a spy. Duh! In a legal thriller, the choice of a lawyer is a no-brainer. In other genres, the choices can be far more complicated.

In Richard Ford’s classic Frank Bascombe trilogy, the main character went through a major career change. In the first book, The Sportswriter, Bascombe is, well, a sportswriter. However, in the second book, Independence Day, Bascombe transitioned to real estate. Sportswriting to real estate? What a strange and unlikely transition, one might think. Ford makes it work. Bascombe’s writing career is on a downward arc, as his marriage falls apart and he becomes unglued. Real estate works for Frank. He gains satisfaction from helping people achieve the American Dream of home ownership and this career gives Ford the opportunity to make a number of insightful observations on the way a person’s identity and worth are bound up in the homes they choose to buy.

Similarly, in John Updike’s “Rabbit” series, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom sells a kitchen gadget and then works for a printing company. A former high school basketball star, Rabbit finds his work and his marriage unfulfilling. By the third book, he has moved on to work for his father-in-law’s car dealership. This career choice allows for rich scenes as Updike chronicles the ups and downs of the auto industry tied to fluctuations in the price and availability of oil in the 1970s.

Anne Tyler has come up with some of the most interesting occupations for her characters. In “A Patchwork Planet,” the main character, Barnaby, works for a company called Rent-A-Back, and his job is to move heavy furniture for elderly clients. This job speaks volumes about the burdens poor Barnaby carries. In “The Accidental Tourist,” writer Macon Leary writes travel guides, even though he hates to travel. By traveling, Macon is running away from his problems and he accidentally finds love in the person of the woman he hires to train his dog.

How does a writer choose an occupation for her main character. Here are some questions to ponder:

  • How does the choice of occupation support the theme?
  • Is the character’s job consistent with his character?
  • Is the job of the main character important to the story? In genres like mystery, this is clearly the case.
  • Does the character need a job at all? A character who is enduring a period of prolonged unemployment or bouncing from job to job can provide a number of story possibilities?

How do you choose a job for your main character?

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Lessons from “Silver Linings Playbook”

Writers tend to watch movies with an eye toward story. I often think the ultimate test of a movie’s quality is whether it would make a decent novel. By that standard, Silver Linings Playbook (adapted from a novel) scores a touchdown—an apt analogy given the main character’s father is an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan.

The best novels create daunting challenges for the main character and this movie does that from the start. Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, is released from an eight-month, court-ordered stay in a psychiatric facility as the movie begins. He suffers from bipolar disorder and lovesickness as he is obsessed with getting back together with his ex-wife, Nikki, who has obtained a restraining order against him. As if that’s not enough, his father, played by Robert DeNiro, has just been laid off from his job and is pursuing a new career as a bookie to finance a new restaurant. And the father shows signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Adapted from a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook is at times absurdly funny and at other times dark and uncomfortable for the viewer. In his hopeless quest to reunite with his wife, Pat accepts a dinner invitation from his best friend, knowing his friend’s wife is still in contact with his ex-wife. There he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who also suffers from bipolar disorder, and they bond over a conversation about the prescription drugs they’ve been given. Their relationship develops when Pat  asks Tiffany to deliver a letter to his ex-wife, and Tiffany agrees, on the condition that she can train Pat to be her dance partner in a local competition.

From there, Pat and Tiffany ride a roller coaster of highs and lows as the viewer hangs on, all the time rooting for them to fall in love. I won’t spoil it be describing the rest of the plot.

Unlike the manufactured story lines that come out of Hollywood these days, the humor and darkness in this movie comes from a real place. It is a place that features the realities of modern life: lost jobs and pensions, family tensions, and mental disorders, and, love and redemption, too. It also features real complications, not clichés. And the acting is first-rate. In addition to Cooper, Lawrence and DeNiro, Jacki Weaver is brilliant as Pat’s mom, Dolores.

This movie was a sleeper, but I am glad it’s been recognized with several Academy Award nominations. If you’re a writer, see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

Do you view movies in terms of whether they would make a good novel?

6 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

A Cautionary Note for Pantsers

Author Lisa Cron wrote a thoughtful piece over on Writer Unboxed on January 10, 2013, that got me thinking. If you haven’t read Lisa’s work, I highly recommend her latest book, “Wired for Story,” a guide to how writers can use storytelling techniques to trigger the brain’s natural ability to read stories.

Cron’s post on Writer Unboxed focused on the technique, advocated by Anne Lamont in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in the classic work, Bird by Bird, to “let it all pour out” when writing a first draft. Cron posits that Lamont’s point has been widely misinterpreted. Lamont was not suggesting writers dive into a first draft with no thought or regard for the story they are trying to tell. Having said that, Cron proceeded to discuss why the “let it all pour out” approach does not serve the writer well.

“Let’s face it, it’s much easier—seemingly liberating—to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go,” Cron wrote.

Read the full post

Cron recommended nine tips to avoid the trap of flying blind and ending up with an incoherent draft. I won’t repeat them all here, but four of these tips in particular resonated with me:

#2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.

#4. Know the over-arching problem your protagonist will face.

#5. Know your ending first.

#8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.”

As an unabashed pantser, I should have taken exception to what Cron wrote, but as I reflected on it, she was dead-on. It’s fine to “let ‘er rip,” but here’s a cautionary note: a writer must think his story through before putting a single word on the page. So here are the things I always work out before I sit down to write:

  • Premise: what is the story about?
  • Protagonist’s goals and obstacles. These should be made clear to the reader as early in the story as is possible.
  • Antagonist’s role and ways in which the antagonist will thwart the main character.
  • Major milestones in the story. What are the events that will drive the story forward?
  • Major conflicts. How will these be set up and developed and resolved for maximum impact?
  • Ending. Even if you change your mind about the ending (as I have done during the final stages of a first draft), a writer cannot reach a destination unless he knows where he is going.
  • Theme. Though this is sound logic, I nearly completed the first draft of my first published novel, Small Change, without having any idea what the theme was. It came to me in a quote by the main character’s mother that I wrote almost unconsciously (it must have been there all the time in my brain). It was one of those ah-ha moments a writer experiences.

I give a lot of thought to the points above before I start to write. I prepare a three to four page outline listing the major events of the story in narrative form. Then I let ‘er rip.

If you want to take a deeper dive into outlining techniques, I recommend K.M. Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel.

I will be reviewing both Cron’s and Weiland’s books in future posts.

If you are a pantser, how much thought do you give to outlining?

11 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Book Review: “Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling,” By Donald Maass

Someday soon, I will write a post listing my favorite books on the craft of fiction, but one that is near the top of my list is literary agent Donald Maass’s classic, Writing the Breakout Novel. Maass followed that up with The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. His latest work, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, focuses on what it takes to write high-impact fiction in today’s genre-driven age.

Maass decided to write the book after he noticed commercial, genre fiction dominated The New York Times’ best-seller list for hardcovers (as expected), but the trade paperback list featured literary fiction. His conclusion was that a new kind of fiction was emerging and that the best 21st Century fiction combined proven commercial story-telling techniques with high impact literary writing that exhibited powerful themes and emotions.

In an interview on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, Maass discussed what the book is about. “It’s about the death of genre, or more accurately the liberation from genre boxes—including the “literary” box. It’s about creating fiction that’s powerful, free and uniquely your own. It’s about how we change the world,” Maass said.

Read the Writer Unboxed Interview with Donald Maass

One of the major lessons Maass imparts to writers is the need to dig deep into their own emotions to create high-impact characters and stories. “The characters who resonate most widely today don’t merely reflect our times, they reflect ourselves. That’s true whether we’re talking about genre fare, historicals, satire, or serious literary stuff,” he writes. “Revealing human truths means transcending tropes, peering into the past with fresh eyes, unearthing all that is hidden, and moving beyond what is easy and comfortable to write what is hard and even painful to face.

“Get out of the past. Get over trends. To write high-impact 21st century fiction, you must start by becoming highly personal. Find your voice, yes, but more than that, challenge yourself to be unafraid, independent, open, aware, and true to your own heart. You must become your most authentic self.”

Maass urges writers to consider carefully their characters’ inner and outer journeys. These journeys are different, but inter-connected. Each chapter ends with a series of questions and advice specific to character and story.

Action and tension are important to sustain the reader’s interest, but Maass urges writers to consider impact.  He writes, “Clever twists and turns are only momentarily attention-grabbing. Relentless forward-driving action, high tension, and cliffhangers do serve to keep readers’ eyeballs on the page but don’t necessarily engage their hearts. By the same token, a dutifully rendered reality (reviewers call such writing “closely observed”) may cause readers to catch their breath once in a while but the effect doesn’t last long. Not enough is happening, and when it does it feels underwhelming. How then can commercial novelists construct plots that have true power? How can literary writers conjure events that give their work long-lasting effect?

“The answer in all cases is to create events of enormous impact. If an event is external, excavate its inner meaning. If a moment is internal, push it out the door and make it do something large, real, permanent, and hard to miss. Whatever your assignment, you won’t find it easy. It’s not natural to you, since your tendency is to hold back.”

If you are a novice writer, I recommend first reading, “Writing the Breakout Novel” before tackling this book. If you are an experienced writer, I highly recommend this book.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Platform in Perspective

Platform, platform, platform. The blogosphere is filled with that word. An unpublished writer must have a platform to get an agent or a publisher. Your blog doesn’t have ten thousand followers? Don’t even talk to an agent or a publisher. You can’t write.

In late December I received an Annual Report from WordPress (another reason why I love WordPress). Let me share my stats. I had 8,300 views in 2012. I posted 89 new essays (for a total of 140 in the 15 months since I started my blog). My busiest day was October 17, 2012, with 117 views. My most popular post was titled, “What Drives Your Main Character?” My most commented-upon post was, “Are You NaNoing This Year.”

My posts have been viewed by people in 102 countries, with the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada showing the most views.

What do all these stats mean? Judging by the numbers, I am a rank amateur who has no right to call myself an author. That’s the trouble with numbers. I don’t spend my day promoting my blog posts on social media. I don’t have the time. There are only two numbers that mean anything to me: my word count on my Work in Progress and the number of blog posts (I try to blog every three days) I generate. My expectations are low, but realistic. I’d rather spend my energy writing the best book I can and sharing what I’ve learned with the good people who are kind enough to read my blog. The big platform benchmarks touted on blogs mean little to me. They’re not worth the price.

16 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

2013 Goals

It’s that time of the year again. I have mixed feelings about New Year’s resolutions and goals. Resolutions aren’t worth a thing without commitment. And goals are worthless unless they are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-oriented). So I only set goals I intend to achieve. Before I share my 2013 goals, let me review my 2012 goals:

  • Publish my first novel, Small Change, through the Kindle Direct Publishing program. Done.
  • Implement my marketing plan for my first novel. Done.
  • Finish and publish my current work-in-progress, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music, and Social Media. Well, it was done, sort of. I finished a first draft and decided to shelve it after concluding the massive revisions required would take me past the 2012 election, when I had hoped to release it. Half-done.
  • Revise the first draft of my second novel, Color Him Father. I never got to this. Life got in the way. Not done.
  • Write a 100,000 word novel. I wrote a 50,000-word novel for National Novel Writing Month so mark that as half-completed. Half-done.
  • Attend a writer’s conference. Done.
  • Read at least 25 books, including at least two books on the craft of fiction writing. I read 26 books, including three craft books. Done
  • Maintain my blog and post new essays at least twice a week. Done.
  • Engage regularly with other writers. This is not exactly a SMART goal but I did accomplish it. Done.

When I consider my 2013 goals, this will be the Year of Revision. With three first drafts hanging around, it doesn’t make sense to start a new project. So here are my 2013 goals:

  • Revise, edit, and publish one of my three first drafts.
  • Attend a writer’s conference.
  • Read at least 25 books a year.
  • Maintain my blog and post two new essays per week.
  • Eat healthy and exercise three times a week.

That is it, folks.

What are your 2013 goals?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized