Tag Archives: Anne Tyler

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?

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‘Did Not Finish’ Books: What Made You Put the Book Down?

Preparing to post my 2012 books read, I was struck by how long it’s been since I did not finish a book. Since I started reading a long time ago, there were only a handful of books I couldn’t get through. Out of deference to the authors, I will not mention them. I did some quick internet research on why readers don’t finish books. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Bad writing
  • Unrealistic characters
  • Uninspiring or boring characters
  • Faulty premise
  • Contrived plot
  • Confusing story

I found a “Did Not Finish Books” list on Goodreads and it included some famous best-sellers: Fifty Shades of Grey, Eat, Love, Pray, The Casual Vacancy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Shack. I don’t know the criteria for this list. It could have been books marked ‘To Read’ by Goodreads readers that the reader just hasn’t gotten around to reading.

At any rate, what turns me off are books in which the story isn’t clear or I simply don’t care enough about the characters to keep reading. In one instance, I got 70 pages into a book by a renowned author and I had no idea what the story was and where it was going. I gave up.

Some books are so well-regarded that I forced myself to finish them. One was Moby Dick. Though it was clear to me why it is a classic, I found Moby Dick a tough read. Herman Melville devoted whole chapters to discussions of such arcane topics as the different types of whales. I started reading it on my Kindle, but ended up taking out of the library an illustrated edition that really helped me to understand the things Melville was attempting to describe.

One book I almost didn’t finish was Anne Tyler’s classic, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Tyler is one of my favorite authors and this is one of her best books. When I first tried to read it, I wasn’t focused. I was going through some personal issues and I found the mother and the main character’s brother to be extremely unappealing characters (intentionally drawn that way by Tyler). I put it down, but six months later, I picked it up and read it through in just three days. I was blown away by the writing and I couldn’t believe I almost let this one pass me by.

I will give a book 75 to 100 pages  before I put it down. Some readers are less patient than that. The reasoning is there are too many good books waiting to be read for the reader to waste his time on one that is of no interest. What about you?

How long do you stay with an unappealing book before you put it down?

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Book Review: “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is about holding on and letting go. Aaron Woolcott and his wife, Dorothy, have a typical marriage, with ups and downs, love and pain, and unspoken grudges. One day, after a minor spat, a tree topples over on the sun room of their home, killing Dorothy.

Set in Baltimore, where many of her novels take place, the story centers on the months following Dorothy’s death. After 11 years of marriage, Aaron cannot let go. He doggedly goes about his business, rejecting the sympathies and kindness extended by friends, until one day Dorothy’s ghost appears. In the hands of a lesser writer, this device might seem like a cheap ploy. Tyler uses the ghost of Dorothy to delve into the unresolved issues that haunt Aaron. Through his unexpected meetings with Dorothy, Aaron probes the small hurts that festered during their marriage as he yearns for resolution.

Aaron is a sympathetic main character. He is an unremarkable every-man, who has a crippled arm and leg and speaks with an occasional stutter. He was initially attracted to Dorothy, a doctor, because she took no notice of his handicap.

Although this is one of Tyler’s shortest books, at roughly 200 pages, it has a lot to say about love, marriage, and the fragility of intimate relationships. When his marriage is cut short, Aaron struggles to find normalcy in his life. He drags his feet on repairing his home until his take-charge sister, Nandina (a sharply drawn character) nudges him into action. His friends try to cheer him up. There is one hilarious scene where two of his male friends invite him to a restaurant for dinner and spend the entire evening not talking about their wives because they don’t want to bring up the memory of Aaron’s loss.

Tyler finds the most interesting occupations for her main characters. In this case, Aaron works in the family business, a boutique publishing company in which the authors pay to have their work published. This is perhaps a wry observation and commentary by Tyler of the current state of the publishing industry. The publishing house’s speciality are “how to” books called “The Beginners” series, which explains the title of the novel. In one scene, Aaron struggles as he slogs through a deadly memoir of an old man’s experiences in World War II in which the writer described every boring detail of his life as a soldier, and none of the terror of war.

This story ultimately is about love, loss, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Like all of Tyler’s work, The Beginner’s Goodbye is a masterfully prepared and satisfying entre, spiced with quirky, loveable characters.

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Who Are Your Favorite Authors?

A blogger recently posed the question, “Who are your favorite authors?” It’s not an easy one to answer. Tastes can change as readers are exposed to different authors. J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, kindled my interest in literature. I was a teen-ager when I read it the first time. Until then I read mostly sports biographies: The Mickey Mantle Story as told to (insert name of author), The Phil Rizzuto Story as told to…These books could hardly be considered literature, though with the rose-colored treatment these athletics received, they could well be classified as fiction.

In my 20’s I discovered the work of John Updike, Philip Roth and, later, Saul Bellow—three of the most gifted and prolific writers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the 1980s, after watching the movie, The Accidental Tourist, I read the novel on which it was based. I was hooked on Anne Tyler’s work. She has become one of my favorite authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Alice McDermott and Alice Munro. I was drawn not only to the excellent writing and craftsmanship, but also the subject matter. Stories about family dynamics have always intrigued and fascinated me. The family is the basic social unit. Everybody starts out life as a member of a family. These writers explored the complex relationships and frailties of families in an original and authentic way.

When I began writing fiction in earnest in the mid-1990s, I gravitated toward family sagas. I felt at home writing in that genre. Though I prefer reading family sagas, I believe it’s important for writers to read widely among all genres. I also believe fiction writers should read non-fiction books on a regular basis. Nonfiction can be a good source of research for novels, but it also informs and enlightens the reader about the issues of the day.

Today, I read an eclectic list of authors, including Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Jennifer Haigh, Richard Ford, Sue Miller, Anita Shreve, and Richard Russo, among many others. I enjoy discovering new writers, including self-published authors.

Reading is a continual source of joy and fulfillment. It will enrich your life.

Who are your favorite authors?

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What Makes a Good Book Cover-Part I

Writers can spend years working on a novel, sharpening and polishing the manuscript until it’s ready for publication. Shouldn’t writers spend at least something close to that kind of effort on the cover design for their book?

This isn’t an issue for traditionally published authors. Unless you are a superstar author the publisher generally determines the cover art for your book. For self-published authors, however, the cover design is crucial. It’s as important, if not more so, than the book itself. Why? Your friends and writing colleagues will buy your book based on their familiarity with your work, but consumers who don’t know you are going to be drawn to or repelled from what they see on your book page on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

So what makes a good book cover? A good book cover should have:

Visual Integrity. I was going to write “visual attractiveness,” but that’s subjective. What one person might find attractive, another person might view as ugly. Visual integrity means all of the elements of the design work together to evoke an image in the mind of the reader. Think of your book cover as a marketing piece for your work. It is the number one marketing piece for your book. From a non-designer’s perspective, what I don’t like in any marketing piece is clutter. A book cover should not be so busy the reader’s eye doesn’t know where to go.

Elements that reflect the tone and emotion of the book. The cover art should express what the book is all about. Look at the covers of a romance and a mystery novel. You will see how the different elements support and reflect the genre. A reader would not confuse the covers of a Carl Hiaasen novel and an Anne Tyler novel. One screams out “over-the-top” funny, while the other is quiet and introspective.

Readability. This means selecting fonts and typography that are clean and readable. Stay away from fonts that are difficult on the eyes. If the reader can’t make out the book title at a quick glance, you could lose a sale. It’s the same with colors. Choose colors carefully. Bright colors have a certain connotation to the reader. You wouldn’t buy a novel with a dark theme if the colors on the cover were bright pink and yellow. This also means that the type size should be big enough so a reader can clearly see the book title and author’s name at a quick glance.

Compelling images. Whether it’s a murder weapon or drops of blood –essential for a mystery book cover – or a spaceship with aliens, the images should draw the reader in. The reader remembers powerful images on a book cover.

An emotional appeal to the reader. This is one of those things that hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

Distinctiveness. Your cover must stand out from the crowd. A book with a religious theme could have a cross or a crucifix on the cover, but it’s been done a thousand times before. Unless the cross is displayed in an unusual fashion, it’s not going to stand out.

Should a self-published author design her own cover? My answer is a resounding, “No.” Unless you have no other option, find a graphic designer. You wouldn’t perform brain surgery without a medical degree and years of training. Why do you think you can design a book cover? If you can’t afford a designer, barter or try to get a young designer who is looking for work to design your cover.

For more detailed information on book cover designs read this excellent post by Jeff Kleinman from Folio Literary Management site:

Here’s another helpful discussion in this post by Andrew Pantoja

There’s also a site called 99Designs, a crowd-sourced design site where the author names his price and graphic artists submit designs in a contest with the author selecting the winner. I cannot vouch for or endorse this site because I’ve never used it, but the point is there are low-cost resources out there for self-published authors.

So how did I come up with the design for my first novel, Small Change? In my next post, I will describe the process I used.

What do you like in a book cover? What are some of your favorite book covers?

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Author Spotlight: Anne Tyler

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on authors I admire.

Anne Tyler, who recently published her 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is one of the most prolific and respected authors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, (1988) and Pulitzer finalist, The Accidental Tourist (1985), both of which were made into movies, Tyler writes with uncommon depth and uncanny perceptiveness about families and the struggle for individual identity within the whole of the nuclear family.

In a profile on Tyler that included a rare interview with her, Jessica Strawser of Writer’s Digest wrote: “Her books are about families and the complications therein—marital discourse, sibling rivalry, resentment, and underneath it all, love. Tyler’s eccentric and endearing characters are so intensely real, so thoroughly developed, they come to life on the page—both for her as she writes and for the reader, who suddenly can see a bit of his own mother, father, brother or even self in their blurted-out words, their unspoken impulses, their mistakes, and with any luck, their moments of triumph.”

Read Anne Tyler’s Tips on Creating Strong (Yet Flawed) Characters in Writer’s Digest

Her unique style is on display in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler considers her finest work. In a review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, fellow author and literature professor Jane Smiley wrote of Tyler’s style: “Tyler is subtle and retiring as an author. Her style is precise and insightful, her incidents are full of interest and psychological weight, and her structure works to lay bare the workings of the family.”

Although I found Dinner a satisfying work, my favorite Anne Tyler novels are Earthly Possessions (1977) and The Ladder of Years (1995). The two novels explore similar terrain—a  mother who is unappreciated by her family and has lost her sense of self. In both cases, the main character leaves her family, which in the hands of a less skilled writer, could come across as an act of selfishness, but in these two works it evokes empathy in the reader. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory decides to leave her husband. She goes to the bank to withdraw some money and is kidnapped. She decides during her ordeal that she doesn’t want to return to her family and actually begins to like her kidnappers. In The Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead walks off the beach during a family vacation in Delaware and simply begins a new life without her family. Her long journey culminates in self-discovery.

As an author Tyler doesn’t follow trends or write big, grandiose novels. Her subject matter is the every-day travails of families and individuals. She once said that, “there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel,” words that are anathema to most agents and publishers. And yet there are few authors who can match the consistent high quality of her work.

In the Writer’s Digest interview, Tyler said she doesn’t think of her audience while she is writing a novel. “I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside,” she said.

Tyler was born in Minneapolis but grew up in North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University at the age of 19 and completed her graduate work at Columbia University in Russian studies. She lives in Baltimore, where many of her works are set.

What is your favorite Anne Tyler novel and why?

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