Wednesday, March 31, 2010

7 Things - One Day....

Mr. Chuck Sambuchino runs one of the best (and largest) writing blogs out there (his link is on the left menu - Guide to Literary Agents).

I really like his running series called, "7 Things I've Learned So Far," where both published and unpublished authors tell about what they "wish" they'd known years ago. It's always informative, and this week's is no exception. Here's the link.

This one is told from the viewpoint of someone who's been there - a published author, giving us the pitfalls and un-glamorous parts of getting published. I love knowing this stuff, because part of me is always thinking, "One day....just maybe...will that be me?"

That reminds me -- it's always good to think ahead, to keep a notebook or document file on your computer for those "one day" bits of advice. Right now, unpublished, I don't need to know too much about publicity or book signings or financial issues of getting published. Those things don't apply to me now. And, I'm busy focused on the writing process, making my writing the best it can be, and submitting it to agents. But - one day, I might need that information. So, I keep an ongoing file that I add to once in awhile, of things I might need to know - "one day." It doesn't hurt to prepare yourself for that dream coming true. At least, that's what I like to tell myself... :-)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

My Go-To Authors...

In my spare time (ha! what's that?), I love to read. Big surprise, huh? I have a specific bank of "go-to" authors I re-visit time and time again. I will read ANYTHING they write, because I adore their writing so much and I learn from studying their craft. Some of these authors include: Elizabeth Berg, Rosamunde Pilcher, Elin Hilderbrand, Eva Rice, Raffaella Barker, and Anne Tyler.

Most of these women are classified as "women's fiction," and a couple of them (Berg, Tyler) could surely qualify as literary fiction.

When I read their work, I know something about myself - that I'm not talented enough or brilliant enough to be as good as they are. I'm just not. But that's why I adore them so much. They challenge me to be a better writer. To raise my standards. To aim for a higher target. Every single time I read one of their books, I think to myself, "Man, I wish I could write like that." And after I get over the momentary depression that I'm not, I pick myself up, poise my fingers at the keyboard, and at least give it my best shot.

Currently, I'm reading Anne Tyler's new book, Noah's Compass. I'll be frank -- the plot is rather thin (as most are, in literary fiction - because it's all about characterization for them): The main character, newly-fired from his job, gets hit over the head in his own home, and wakes up in the hospital. That's about it. He spends many chapters trying to remember the incident (which he's blocked out). And along the way, we meet his ex and his daughters and an old teacher friend. No huge plot twists or dramatic devices. No fireworks or car crashes. Ms. Tyler can get away with this because her writing is so rich and exceptional. No cliches, no over-writing, no telling-rather-than-showing. Her detail is crisp and vivid and exactly what it needs to be. Ms. Tyler is a pro.

Here's a long-ish excerpt from Noah's Compass, to show you what I mean about her vivid detail:
Most of the rowhouses were boarded up, and bits of trash flocked the gutters. The cafe, when they arrived there, didn't even have a real sign - just "PeeWeEs" scrawled in downward-slanting whitewash across the window, above a pale avocado tree struggling up from a grapefruit-juice tin on the sill. (and later....) She was leaning toward him eagerly, holding on to her Styrofoam cup with both hands, oblivious to the bra strap that had slid down her left arm (He could detect its outline through her blouse). He shifted his gaze to his coffee. Judging from the strand of bubbles skimming the surface, he wondered if it might be instant.

Love it! I can see every detail in my mind as I read her words. That is what good writing should be.

So, who are your "go-to" writers? I think all serious writers should have them, those authors they return to, time and time again - to be entertained, inspired, and mostly, taught.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The I-Pad...Woo-Hoo!

So, I'm turning the big 4-0 soon. Like, in less than 3o days. And my awesome mom and dad, who know how much I'm dying for an I-Pad, have offered to get me one for said 40th birthday! Wow, how cool is that? Parents rock.

What I plan to do with the I-Pad (besides waste incredible amounts of time on Facebook or surfing the web or looking at YouTube) is to READ. Yep, I'm gonna try it. Digital books. I'm so curious to see whether I'll warm to books online, reading words on a screen instead of a page. Weird. But I'm willing to try.

Today, I read about a possibility for writers, using the I-Pad, involving self-publishing. Now, I'm not a huge advocate of self-publishing. I think it's fine for some, and I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do. But for every uber-success story with self-publishing, I've heard about 1,000 negative ones. The process is expensive, the books don't get sold, the marketing rests solely on the writer's head (which makes it difficult, keeping a job and trying to sell your own books), etc. Time-consuming and expensive, with no guarantee of real pay-off (i.e., masses of people reading your work).

Well, this article talks about how "easy" and "inexpensive" it is for a writer - any writer - simply to go through the channels and post his/her OWN BOOK on I-Pad, for the world to read. Honestly, it sounds too easy to me. Surely, there's a catch. Maybe I'm jaded. Maybe the years of trying to get a literary agent have affected my brain. But then again - maybe this is the wave of the future. I just have my doubts. Anything that's that easy is, well, honestly, too easy.

I'm going to hold out a little longer in the hopes of getting an agent (by the way, the one who asked for re-writes months ago is getting thisclose to reading it and responding - *fingers still crossed*). But if nothing happens, if I just can't get the break I want/need, then yes, I'm actually quite tempted to give this e-book self-publishing a try. The appeal of it is that it's digital - see, with the I-Pad as an audience, I don't picture myself trudging from small bookstore to small bookstore, town to town, trying to peddle hundreds of hard copies of my self-published books from the trunk of my car. Wayyy too hard. But -- having my work be available at the click of an I-Pad, with so little work on my end? An interesting prospect. (But again, one that sounds too easy).

So, I throw these questions out to you, readers: have you ever had your own work self-published? Ever considered it? If so, how did things turn out? And if not, what are your reasons for going the more traditional (agent/publisher) route? I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, March 25, 2010


If you're a writer, then at some point, you will spend time alone. It's inevitable. Unless you're co-writing something, you will be alone when you write, in terms of you with the pen (or keyboard), your own thoughts coming to fruition on paper. Sure, some people can write while in a crowd, in a cafe, in a library. But for most people, the act of writing is a solitary one.

And I rather like it.

In life, being alone is healthy, to a degree. I think one should be comfortable in one's own skin, with one's own thoughts. I know people who HATE to be alone, even for a single minute of the day, and I actually feel sorry for them. Now, I'm not advocating that writers should become hermits. In fact, if we did, we would miss out not only on very necessary human interaction for ourselves, but also for our writing. We'd be less likely to accurately portray human nature, the complex dynamics of relationships, or even the sounds/nuances of dialogue, if we spent all our days alone.

But - a person (a writer, especially) should be able to be alone without falling apart - without panicking and needing "someone" to be in the same room. I think it's healthy, enjoying solitude. In fact, I love what Thoreau says here:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least - and it is commonly more than that - sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. ~Henry David Thoreau

Of course, this is unrealistic for most of us, who must work and live in the real world, amongst people. And 4 hours seems quite extreme. However, the reasoning behind Thoreau's words rings true: solitude in order to preserve health and spirits. That's a wonderful reason to seek solitude from time to time - rejuvenation, renewal of the spirit.

So, today, if possible, find a little corner of your home, of your life, and be alone with your own thoughts. Pray, meditate, or simply just let your thoughts go. Look out a window and watch that plump dove perch itself on the fence post, or muse at those puffy clouds floating by. Just sit and be still for a moment. It's amazing, what can come out of that silence: peace, rest, reflection - and yes, inspiration.

Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul. ~Marcus Aurelius

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writing Changes You

Just offering a fantastic quote today. Here's something to chew on...

Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free. ~Anne Enright

I couldn't agree more. Writing gives me something that nothing else and no one else can give me. I can't put my finger on that "something" as easily as Ms. Enright does ("freedom") - mine is something less tangible, harder to describe. But whatever it is, I love it, and I will keep on writing because of it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Agent Pet Peeves

If you were to ask me, as a teacher, what my pet peeves are with students, I could rattle them off in fast order: blatant plagiarism, lack of remorse over said plagiarism, late essays along with lame excuses, texting-in-class, etc, etc, etc...

Similarly, when given the chance to rattle off their pet peeves, literary agents have jumped at the chance in this article (specifically dealing with first chapters they see) - Agent Pet Peeves. It's great, because they're blunt and passionate about it. No holds barred. It's a wonderful list of what NOT to do, for writers who are submitting to agents.

Sometimes, it's just as helpful to know what NOT to do, as what you should do, when submitting your work. Avoiding pitfalls is equally as important as following the right path...

Friday, March 19, 2010

I *Heart* The Internet

Over the past few years, I've come to see the internet is the author's best friend. Three primary reasons spring to mind, though I'm sure there are others:

1) RESEARCH. I can't believe that once-upon-a-time, not too long ago, I would have to go to a library to research my books. Medical issues, cultural/regional information, historical facts. All of it now, available online, click of the mouse. Saves me a trip to the library, some gas money, and more importantly, time. Amazing. Of course, we have to be careful where the internet information comes from. As I tell my students during their research projects, even a 12-year-old can create a web page these days. So, accuracy and reliability are KEY.

2) FELLOWSHIP WITH OTHER (STRUGGLING) WRITERS. Messageboards, blogs, writer-friendly sites - all of it is here, right inside my computer. If I need a question answered about status inquiries, I go to a messageboard to see how other writers are handling it. If I need extra encouragement from other writers, I visit a blog and realize I'm not alone. If I need information on how to write a solid query letter or advice on editing, it's online, too. Everything I need, free and easy.

3) CONTACT WITH PUBLISHED AUTHORS. Just today, I stumbled upon this blog by one of my favorite (British) authors, Raffaella Barker. Her blogs are just as witty as her books. I love how accessible some published authors make themselves (some even have their own Facebook or Myspace pages!), and I enjoy following their writer's journey online. So much fun, to peek behind the scenes and see how things "really" are for them.

I *Heart* the Internet!!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Don't Stick Your Nose In It

It took me awhile to learn this bit of truth:

Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. ~Elmore Leonard

I don't know that I'd go so far as to call the use of adverbs a mortal sin, lol, but Mr. Leonard certainly has a point (Stephen King also gives very similar advice in his book, On Writing). For one thing, if the character is angry, we should be able to tell it by the curse word he uses, or by the actual terse wording of his dialogue. Therefore, it's unnecessary to follow up his dialogue with: he said, angrily. That would be redundant.

As a new writer, I was constantly trying to show off my language skills, making things flowery or super-descriptive, thinking I was "writing." But sometimes, as I've mentioned before, less is more. And dialogue, especially, should shine, all by itself. It is about the character. It's about what they're saying to each other, the words they're using - even the words they're not using. Writers shouldn't weigh down dialogue or interrupt its flow by adding too many descriptive (and unnecessary) words.

I say all of this with a caution - because I do think a writer's own natural voice should come through the writing, and I don't wish to stifle anyone's true voice. Some writers are naturally descriptive, even during dialogue, while others are more succinct. Description isn't always bad. There is a time and place for it. In fact, how boring would a long conversation between characters be if it looked like this?

"blah blah blah," he said.
"blah blah blah BLAH blah blah," she said.
"but...blah blah blah blah blah," he said.

So, my best suggestion is balance. Listen to your own gut, READ fiction and see how others handle dialogue (this is key), and then, dive in. Experiment. Read your own dialogue aloud (also key). Most importantly, let everything feel as natural as possible, and if any word or description gets in the way of the conversation, remove it.

Writing is never an exact science. It's subjective. But I think we each have to find our comfort zone and write what comes most naturally to us - keeping in mind the good advice from other writers, such as Mr. Leonard.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Writing Doesn't Love You

Remember [that] writing doesn't love you. It doesn't care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on. ~Al Kennedy

The first time I read this quote, I thought it was rather odd, and even quite pessimistic. Writing doesn't love me back? How dare it! :-)

But then, I re-read the quote and realized it's spot-on. (Go with me, on this personification thing for a minute): Writing is a fickle partner. It doesn't care if you get rejected, lose the muse, have writer's block, or lose your confidence. This is a one-sided relationship, you and writing. You give and give and give, and it takes.

But here's the good news - it's generous, too. If you devote enough of your time, enough of yourself to it, writing does reward your efforts and give you something you couldn't get anywhere else - an outlet, a form of communication, a keyhole into a fantastic, imaginary world, an opportunity to know yourself even better than before.

Remember you love writing. It wouldn't be worth it if you didn't. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back. ~Al Kennedy

Monday, March 15, 2010

All About Blogging

I've only had my blog up since September of last year - it's still a baby, really. In this entry, I want to re-visit my initial reasons for starting the blog. And to encourage those who are thinking about it to jump on in. The water is fine!

The conception of my baby blog was a combination of things, really. I'd visited a hilarious blog of a good friend of mine, Becky. And I saw that she could have fun with it, could make me think, and could make me laugh. Shortly thereafter, I saw the movie Julie and Julia. I was underwhelmed with the movie itself, but LOVED the idea of a blog. Of someone having an idea and starting something from scratch. And for the first time, the notion hit me, "Hey, maybe I could do something like that."

The wheels in my head started turning, and I asked myself what I could possibly blog about. I'm not a good cook (like Julie), and I didn't really want a strictly-personal blog (I'm a little shy online, with people I don't know -- hence, no use of my last name, even now). But what I did know about was writing. Creative writing. I've taught creative writing courses for 6 years, and have been writing (mostly novels) for over a decade. I've been to numerous writing conferences, joined a writers' association, and had the experience of researching, submitting to (and being rejected by) literary agents. I've been in the trenches, waiting on agent responses, re-writing and re-submitting, and yes, seeing my fair share of "thanks, but no thanks" letters.

So, my blogging purpose was established. I knew I would focus my blog on writing - sharing both my personal writing journey and the wealth of information that others had taught to me throughout the years. And that was it. I asked Becky a few questions, did a bit of research, and dove right in - I was up and running in one afternoon and I haven't looked back since.

For anyone out there who's ever contemplated starting a blog, here's a great article - Now What?

Blogging can be addictive - but in a good way. And even if your readership is, say, petite - just putting your ideas "out there," into cyberspace, is quite exhilarating. I'm so glad I made the decision to blog all those months ago. I don't know if it's something I'll do forever (I always worry about running out of ideas), but as long as I enjoy it, and as long as there are readers to read, I'll stick with it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Read It Aloud...

My students get tired of hearing me say this over and over, but it's TRUE - reading your own work out loud is crucial. Whether you're writing an essay about Othello, a poem, a novel, even an important email. There's something about hearing your own words that brings them to life in a different way. And - an even better reason - you'll hear things like missing words, choppiness, and unnatural dialogue that you wouldn't otherwise recognize. If you stumble over a sentence or phrase, you'll know that particular section should be re-worded, clarified, tightened.

Esther Freud states it well: A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn't spin a bit of magic, it's missing something.

So, there's yet another good reason - even prose should have a sort of rhythm to it, a natural ebb and flow. And reading your work aloud will help you to hear that rhythm (or the lack of it).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Children's Books!

My primary focus on this blog has been adult fiction (since that's what I write), but I wanted to branch out today and offer a GREAT LINK for children's fiction: 5 Articles on Children's Books (from Chuck Sambuchino's awesome blog).

My mom writes children's poetry/stories, and so I know a little bit about that genre/age group from watching her work. Lest anyone think that writing for children is "easy" because it's a younger audience, be warned. Writing for children is a complex endeavor. In fact, so much so, that I've told my mom it's too hard for me to attempt. The crafting of poetry and toning down of complex ideas to fit small spaces is so much harder than it looks.

So today, I salute childrens writers. They have a special gift, and an even more important goal than I do (as a writer of adult fiction). I write to entertain. They write to teach and inform our children. A weighty, wonderful responsibility.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Less Is More...

I have a tendency sometimes to over-describe things in my fiction. To try too hard to paint a picture of a scene with my words. Of course, my honest intent is to provide a richness of detail for the readers, to "put them there," inside the scene with the characters. Sometimes that sort of description is okay. But as I tell my students, too much description can bore the reader, and worse, can slow down the pacing of the story. Not good. Put yourself inside the readers' heads for a moment - are there passages they'd be tempted to skim over quickly, to get back to the "good stuff," (ie, the plot)? If so, TRIM it down.

Sure, there are times and places for rich, elaborate descriptions -- but the descriptions should be vital to the story, to the plot.

Two great quotes to ponder on this issue:

Don't overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced....a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch. ~Sarah Waters

Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action. ~Hilary Mantel

Brilliant advice! I hadn't ever looked at description in quite that exact way before -- the idea of seeing description through a character's eyes, or making it valid/important to the character so directly, rather than simply "setting a scene" in a sort of vague, omniscient way.

I love it when I find a quote or idea that changes the way I've looked at something for years. And I hope I can apply the lesson to my own fiction: that less really is more...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Earning the Endings...

I fully admit it. I'm a planner. I make lists, write reminders on Post-Its, think ahead to tomorrow and what it might bring. I like to know what's ahead of me, what's coming next. Perhaps it's the teacher in me (organization and lesson-planning are key in my profession). This can be a good trait to have when mapping out a novel. Or, it can be bad trait. Because sometimes, I tend to over-plan, overthink my characters' destinies. I sometimes try to plot every little thing that will happen in the novel, which doesn't give the characters a chance to breathe, to act out on their own.

I read a quote by Rose Tremain yesterday that challenged me, but it's a notion I fully agree with. She says: In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.

Yes -- I do think that an ending must be a natural by-product of all that has come before. And how do you know that by-product, until you write "all that has come before?" So, in that sense, absolutely, an ending should be earned. I still think it's perfectly fine to have a vague idea of where the plot is going - to know where the characters will probably end up. But - I think that I shouldn't stick so stubbornly to an ending I conceived at the beginning of the book, before I knew my characters inside and out. I should, instead, write toward an ending, giving the characters freedom to change their minds, or even to change the ending! A difficult prospect for me, The Planner. But I'm going to try harder to let my characters breathe.

Actually, I've been doing that already, in little baby steps. For instance, a few months ago, I had "mapped out" a scene in which my protagonist was angry with her father. I knew the conversation they were about to have, knew the tone of it. Or, thought I knew. As I wrote the dialogue, something happened. The protagonist became less angry with her father, and more empathetic. And by the time I had finished the scene, instead of there being a rift between them, there was actually a deeper understanding, a bonding. I was proud of myself for letting the characters dictate the scene, for following them where they wanted to lead me. And, I think it made for a better scene.

Question: As a writer, are you a Planner, or a Go-With-The-Flow-Er? Do outlines help or hinder your creativity? (By the way, I really don't think there's a right-or-wrong answer, here. I think it's up to the individual writer. Many writers can write off the cuff, having no idea the direction of a scene or story when they begin. And other writers lean upon an outline of some sort, even a rough one. I think it has a lot to do with the writer's personality and what's most natural).

Monday, March 8, 2010

Antidote for Panic

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it's a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It's only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. ~Geoff Dyer

Mr. Dyer is entirely correct. Any writer that hopes to be more than a one-hit-wonder must always, always have at the ready a rich reserve of ideas, plots, characters.

I had this conversation with my mother just yesterday -- there's a specific sort of panic that sets in each time I finish a novel. It's the irrational feeling that I'll never write another book again. That the well has forever run dry, that I've stopped knowing how to write, that the Muse has abandoned me and will never return. See? Irrational. But very real.

One powerful antidote to counteract that sort of panic is to have an ongoing, eternal brainstorming file. Whether kept on your hard drive or in a notebook, every writer should have one. That way, the well won't ever run dry.

Thankfully, I'm in the middle of a book series that has a long end in sight. I've just finished Book 3, and could probably easily go up to Book 10, if I so desire. I have familiar characters and a familiar setting, with stories still to be told.

But even so, I'm not settling into my comfort zone. Only yesterday, I started getting ideas for yet another possible series - a young adult series along the lines of Anne of Green Gables. So, rather than let those ideas flit into and out of my mind, I sat down and added them to my "brainstorming file." With as much detail as I could, I wrote about 2 pages of future ideas, for characters and plots and themes. I might not even see those ideas come to fruition for a few years, but at least I know they're there. And that's extremely comforting.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

You Can't Please Everyone...

Great advice from Margaret Atwood:

Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

So true. She brings up two important points:

1) If you, as the writer, are bored with your own work, so will be your readers! Have there ever been times you're trying too hard as you write? You're forcing a scene to work when you know it's not? I have. Here's an example: In my last novel, I wanted something important to occur at a birthday party. It was a child's party, and I did everything I could to make it interesting. I had the cake, the party games, even a clown. But I was bored stiff as I wrote it. It just wasn't interesting to me. There was no spark to it, no energy.

So, finally, I decided to scrap it. I still kept the "important thing," but changed everything else. This time, I decided to let the birthday belong to the older main character (instead of her young sister). Except that nobody remembered her birthday. Not her father or her sisters or any of her friends. This added a whole new dynamic to the scene, and also gave her some extra character development. The point is, I was totally bored with the first version of that scene, and I have no doubt my readers would have been, as well! So, use your own internal "radar" to tell if a scene is working or not -- and then make the necessary changes!

2) This next point actually ties directly in with Point #1 - you've got to please yourself first. If you're constantly trying to "write to the market," or to think of what your reader will approve of, you'll never win. Like Ms. Atwood says, readers are totally subjective. You might adore romance novels, while your friend finds them shallow and dull. We each have a specific taste in literature, and there's no pleasing everyone. Thus, if I tried to determine what my (future) readers would love, I'd be wasting my time. So, I write for myself. And when I do that, I think the writing becomes more authentic because I believe in it more.

Which leads me to another fantastic quote, a philosophy I agree with, 100%:

Write a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? ~Hilary Mantel

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Likability Factor

It's true in real life, isn't it? We all want to be liked. It's human nature, to want people's approval, to gain people's good opinion, to want to be valued by someone else.

So, what about in fiction? Should we, as writers, consciously strive to have our main characters be likable?

Yesterday, I posted the link to a book called Save the Cat! I haven't read it yet, but apparently, it adheres to the philosophy that readers must CARE about the characters in order to turn the pages. That characters must have some sort of likability factor.

I agree with that philosophy, but as I look back on fiction, I'm a bit conflicted. I start to wonder if this "likability" issue is more of a MODERN philosophy. Here's an example. Honestly, I hated Mr. Darcy (I realize I'm terribly alone in my way of thinking, here). I personally considered Darcy to be arrogant, distant, dour, and downright rude. Sure, he had reason to be, as we find out at the end of the book. But even finding out "the truth" never stopped me from disliking him. In fact, if Pride and Prejudice hadn't contained the spunky, lovable characters of Elizabeth and the entire Bennett family, I'm not sure I would have continued with the story at all.

Another example - I teach Steinberg's "The Chrysanthemums" short story to my students each semester. It's a classic. It's "serious literature." So, I teach it. But, honestly, I'm not crazy about the characters. Not any of them. The main character, Eliza, is miserable and unhappy and wears a chip on her shoulder the entire time. Her husband is semi-likable, but he's only seen in about 10% of the story. And the salesman who takes advantage of Eliza's good nature is not only unlikeable, he's positively hate-able, by the end.

So, that brings me to modern literature. I think the tide has turned, regarding how important likability is, in modern fiction. If I start reading modern fiction and can't stand the main character - if he/she is irritating or has very few redeeming qualities - then yes, I do believe I would stop reading the book. Because I wouldn't CARE what happens to the character, whether he/she lived or died.

Ultimately, I think that's the true litmus test - asking yourself, "If this character fell off the face of the earth in the next chapter, would I even care?" If the answer is, "No," then I don't know that the book is worth your time. But if the answer is a passionate, "Yes!" then I think the book is absolutely worth your time.

As I type this, I'm re-thinking the focus of it -- perhaps instead of a "classic fiction vs. modern fiction" issue, the likability factor is more of a "serious literary fiction vs. less-serious commercial fiction" issue? Hmm....

So, what do you think? I'd love to hear your opinions. Is likability important? If so, how important? And do you see it as more of a modern trend, or is it something that should relate to all literature - literary, commercial, classic, or modern?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Save the Cat!

I've just read a review for this quirky book called, Save the Cat. The basic concept is this -- in order for a reader to continue reading, it's not about the fantastic plot or even the fancy writing. It's about CARING about the character. Rooting for the character, liking the character. If a reader doesn't care about what happens next to the character, he/she will stop reading. It's really that simple.

Monday, March 1, 2010


One of the greatest lessons ever I learned about writing came from an English teacher, Mr. D. I was his student teacher when I was about 21. He adored literature and writing as much as I did, and one day, as he read his own short story to the class, I was mesmerized. He reminded me how much I loved the written word - and creating thoughts on paper. Being an insanely-busy student teacher, with my eye on graduation, I had absolutely no time for writing. Or, so I told myself.

But shortly after Mr. D read his short story aloud, I realized how much I'd missed it. Writing. So, I waited until graduation and spent that whole next summer penning my very first novel.

So, back to the greatest lesson -- one day, Mr. D taught his students about the concept of weaving depth into a story. He used the example of stringing beads on a necklace. "You take the necklace," he said, using his hands to demonstrate, "and you add, say, five white beads. Then -- you add one red bead. Then maybe seven more white beads. Then - one red bead..." And so on. The point was, place a red bead - a "something" - a distinctive object, a color, a phrase that the reader will recognize throughout the story. Having that red bead creates depth and layers and familiarity. And consistency.

One of the best "bead" examples I've ever seen is from a David Duchovny film called The House of D (which Mr. Duchovny wrote and directed). The first scene involves the main character, stretched out underneath his bed, sketching in his notebook. Interesting. Quirky.

But then, as the story flashes back to his days as a boy, we see why he's underneath that bed, even as an adult. Growing up, he had a single mother who was emotionally unstable. He worried about her. So, the 13-year-old him would sneak underneath her bed each night, to hear her breathing, to make sure she was okay. He was protecting her. He did this a couple more times during the film, and at the end - in a poignant, fateful twist - he did it one more time. That image of him, underneath her bed, became a consistent "bead." A bright red one that sticks with the viewer. It's something we can point to and nod, and say, "Yes. I've seen that. I get it. There he goes again, under the bed." It's familiar, comforting.

Sure, in its purest form, we could call it a symbol, and that's exactly what it is. But I much prefer calling it a "bead." And from the moment the concept of beads was first introduced to me, I've been attempting to string them inside my writing ever since. Thank you, Mr. D!