February 28, 2009 Just, you know, because you care...
The third Derek Stillwater novel, now titled THE FALLEN, is scheduled for a May 2010 publication date by Oceanview Publishing. I've got a pile of editing on my desk that I received yesterday from my editor, so it's starting to feel real. (I also cashed the advance check, which also helped make it feel real).
And in case anyone wonders what this book is about, I've pitched it--and it's been described this way by some Hollywood folks as well--as "'Die Hard' at the G8 Summit."
No, I'm not going to launch into a George Carlin routine.
Here's what got me thinking about this. A couple days ago on Lee Goldberg's blog he was complaining that he didn't understand the DVD market because some lame TV show from a couple years ago that only aired about 6 episodes and had ratings roughly equivalent to the National Paint Drying Competition was being released as a DVD box set. Why, Lee wondered, don't they release shows people might want to watch?
There are a number of technical reasons, like newer shows are shot on digital cameras so the cost of going straight to DVD is almost nil in the grand scheme of things.
Although I don't claim to be an expert on this, I immediately thought: because the studio and producers lost money and they're trying to recoup it any way they can.
A couple responders to his post gave these same arguments, but at times the tone of some of them got very cynical, as if making money and recouping your costs is a bad thing.
I'm not one of those people who only does things for money. Obviously, if you looked at my balance sheets, you'd point to my fiction and exclaim, "Mark, WTF?" (My wife doesn't say it, but she thinks it, I'm sure).
Still, it's helpful when you're trying to break into writing, fiction or otherwise, that as a matter of fact, this industry is about making money. I worked in healthcare for a long time and I'm somewhat bemused by Americans' attitudes that healthcare is too expensive, blah, blah, blah. Prior to the economic meltdown these same complainers thought little or nothing of paying $3.50 for a cup of coffee, $7 for a fast food meal, $10 for a movie or $6 for a gin & tonic, but they pissed and moaned about a $15 co-pay on a doctor's appointment.
(This is increasingly on my mind because I'm in the middle of an article that breaks down just how many patients a doctor has to see in order to pay for his practice's various non-medical malpractice insurance and health insurance for himself and his or her staff, not even including wages and overhead or medical malpractice insurance. You'd be shocked.)
Publishers probably don't become publishers purely for money. If they do, they need to take a course in Remedial Economics (with a refresher course called Introduction to Reality). Nonetheless, even small presses are businesses trying to make money. Publishers like their lattes and tropical resort vacations, too.
There's a lot of haze floating around the publishing industry. Compared to other industries, I don't find its economics all that transparent. Part of that I believe is because it's primarily run by a bunch of English majors. Another big reason is because the returns policies and subsidiary rights policies make it difficult--maybe even impossible--to know just how many copies of a book have been sold at any given time. (If you get a chance, look up any news or trade articles about Clive Cussler's lawsuit against the studio that made the movie Sahara. One of the sticking points became the fact that although Cussler claimed to have sold a specific number of books, something like 147 million, the fact was, there was no real accounting to prove that number. The truth was, nobody really knew, not Cussler or his agent or his publishers scattered around the world. Even bestsellers lists are weirdly vague, with polls taken of a finite number of bookstores based on various different factors--like copies ordered from the publisher versus actually sold to the customer. If you remember, there was some furor over the U.S. census extrapolating population data based on sampling rather than on actual counts--well folks, that's how the publishing industry and bestseller lists work).
As fucked up as the auto industry is these days, I can guarantee you they know how many cars they've sold. They even have people whose jobs it is to go to dealerships all over the world and audit their books. Can you imagine an equivalent system in publishing? Can you imagine Doubleday sending an auditor to the Amazon.com warehouse just to figure out how many copies of John Grisham's The Firm have been sitting untouched for the last 23 months?
So here's the point of all this. We want to know how to get published. We say our story is entertaining and maybe it is. We say it's well-written and maybe it is. We say readers would love it, and maybe they would.
But agents and editors and publishers not only ask those questions, they ask: can we make money on it?
And sometimes I think that's a pretty significant distinction.
February 25, 2009 Yes, it's back. Here's some math for the aspiring novelist.
You've received a $10,000 advance! Congratulations!
$10,000 -$1,500 (agent commission)
Your favorite Uncle Sam gets his cut, which is 24% (welcome to the SE Tax, my friends).
$8,500 -$2,040 (Fed tax)
Your state may or may not charge you tax. My state, Michigan, takes about 4%.
$6,460 -$340 (Michigan state tax)
Let's say you thought, now that you're an author, you want or need to go to one of the big conventions for writers. Say, Bouchercon or ThrillerFest. ThrillerFest is now held yearly in NYC. Figure in airfare, cost to get in, hotel and miscellaneous expenses, easily spend $1000 to $2000. (If you prefer the $1000 number, then go to both).
Your publisher is "encouraging" you to promote your novel. Somebody suggests AuthorBuzz, an online marketing option. Price, about $1000.
Let's assume for the moment that you want a really spiffy, professionally produced website (or you're a web incompetent like me). So you hire a designer, get your name turned into a URL and pay for hosting. I would say this will cost approximately $1500, give or take. I pay about $224 a year to host and my original design was somewhere over $1000 when all was said and done.
Your publisher would also like you to do some mailings of some sort. So you decide to get some postcards and bookmarks made up, then mail them off off to your list of book readers that you've either acquired from MWA or culled from various lists. Cost, oh, let's say $1500.
Hey, you got some book signings at bookstores and libraries. They're scattered around your state a little bit. So you keep track of your milage and your gas and the meals you eat while in transit. Cost: $120.
February 24, 2009 Okay, the Internet/cable has been down all day, so I'm finally getting my e-mail, etc. I'm tapdancing as hard as I can to nail three deadlines by Friday, I need to vote on a bond proposal after picking up my son from school (after I made a nuisance of myself by contradicting the local newspaper editor's columns with three different letters to the editor), and it's still freaking cold and snowy!
So, here's the first ten books I read, more or less, this year.
1. Divine Justice by David Baldacci I liked his writing better than I expected, even if I was so-so on the story.
2. The 39 Clues: One False Note by Gordon Korman The second book in this 10-book series for kids. Quite enjoyable.
3. Halo: The Cole Protocol by Tobias S. Buckell My friend wrote this tie-in, I liked it, even if my lack of familiarity with the Halo universe and games made it initially a little confusing. It rocks in a space opera way, though.
4. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner It took me about 8 months to read this book. Although interesting, I thought it took a unique gift to make a history of the CIA boring.
5. The Carnival Master by Craig Russell A serial killer book written by a Scotsman that takes place in Germany. Rather slow, but intriguing and layered.
6. Running for Mortals: A commonsense plan for changing your life through running by John Bingham and Jenny Hadfield A book on running, somewhat inspirational, oversimplistic and occasionally amusing.
7. Nightmare Academy by Dean Lourey A most excellent book for kids. MOST EXCELLENT.
8. Collision by Jeff Abbott A very good thriller by a very good thriller writer.
9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling Needs no explanation.
10. The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly One of his better ones. Features both Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch.
Oh, and a factoid from an interview I conducted this morning. There are about 7000 preventable deaths in the U.S. caused by prescription errors. To put that into perspective, imagine a 747 crashing every week for a year.
February 23, 2009 Every aspiring fiction writer, I'm convinced, at some point in their attempts to get published, thinks about quitting. Give up writing, take up competitive TV watching or computer programming or go to the Culinary Institute of America, go back to school, or become a sex addict and take to hitting the singles bars.
And here's something I suspect: every published fiction writer probably asks themselves the same thing.
And for damned sure, every aspiring fiction writer who's now published, no matter at what level of success, probably went through this themselves.
So, should you quit? What's the threshold for frustration? At one point do you feel that you're wasting your time, that your spouse is annoyed beyond belief with your "hobby" and the whole experience of stringing words together is making your life worse instead of better?
That's entirely up to you. Only you can determine that.
I just want to share an anecdote or two or three.
One, I was going through this years ago when I worked in a laboratory. I shared an office with a young woman, probably about 23 or 24, a single mother of a very young child who was sick all the time. Chronic ear infections and sore throats. I was grumping about how I wasn't getting my fiction published and I should probably just quit (why I thought she would give a damn under the circumstances is a mystery to me now, but I think we were just talking about our lives, killing time) and she said, "Do you enjoy actually writing?"
"Then why would you quit?"
Well, the answer to that seems to me to be because it wasn't the writing that was driving me crazy, it was the getting published part.
In terms of fiction, that's still a big part of the problem. And now, added onto that for me, is that even when I get my fiction published, the business aspects of fiction publishing drive me crazy--especially the marketing aspects.
Still, the stringing of words and the telling of stories is a wonderful, joyous thing for me. It's all that other shit that bugs me.
The second anecdote: for anyone who has followed this blog for some time, you know that this question of quitting writing fiction crops up fairly regularly for me personally. Today, this isn't about me. I'm fitting in fiction as well as I can. I have a book contract signed and scheduled for publication sometime next year. To-date the new publisher seems terrific. There are some exciting things going on in the background that I might get to talk about in the near future.
And if I had quit writing fiction, none of this would be happening.
Anecdote number three: I started out writing fiction. Nonfiction never seemed likely, I just wasn't interested. Then I tried my hand at an essay and sent it off and it got published. Somebody asked me to write a book review for a technical journal, I did, it got published, then I wrangled the job as book review editor, and a couple years later I ended up as editor of the journal, a position I still hold today.
Somebody suggested I write an article about genetics, I did, it got published, I wrote a couple more, then I pitched a column, and I'm still writing a column for that same publication today. And over the years, it kept expanding.
And you know what happened: I did it often enough and well enough to quit my day job and become a full-time freelance writer.
Thank God I never quit.
Thank God I was willing to try writing other things when people suggested it.
Thank God--and this might sound crass, but it's true--I was willing to follow the money.
So I'm grateful--even to this day--that I didn't quit writing fiction because it didn't seem to be going anywhere. It was, as a matter of fact, going somewhere, not necessarily where I was planning, but someplace good nonetheless.
But everybody's path is different. Some people have focused on one particular goal so hard, they may have missed out on some great opportunities and side trips along the way. Maybe those side trips aren't of interest to you. Maybe you'd rather work the job you work now than be a freelance writer. It's novels or nothing.
I can't tell you when to quit. Nobody can.
But I keep a sign up on my wall. I first saw this poster about 6 years ago, when I was visiting my father in the hospital. It was superimposed on some country road, but it said:
Success is a journey not a destination.
So, when it comes to quitting writing fiction, the point obviously is: don't get so fixated on the destination that you forget to pay attention to the journey.
February 23, 2009 Okay, I watched part of the Oscars last night, but since I haven't seen ANY of the movies except The Dark Knight, I'm going to provide my own awards for movies I've actually seen even if, you know, I saw some of them on DVD at home.
Best Film: Iron Man I'm sorry, but out of all the movies I saw in the theater, I think this was the one I enjoyed the most.
Best Director: Hell, I don't know.
Best Actor: Paul Giamatti. In John Adams, which we're plowing through now. Quite a performance.
Best Actress: Oh, I don't know. It wasn't Meryl Streep, who I like, but I don't think I saw any of her movies recently.
Best Supporting Actor: Okay, Heath Ledger. I didn't much like The Dark Knight, but he gave one hell of a final performance. And it kind of breaks your heart to see his parents and sister accept the Academy Award. Talk about bitter-sweet.
Best Supporting Actress: The only actress that comes to mind, which probably tells you something about their roles, is Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man. I'm not a huge fan, but I thought she looked fabulous in this movie and acted reasonably well in it, and frankly, I just can't think of any other supporting actress roles I saw last year. In fact, I barely remember the movies I saw this year. Maybe I should keep a list.
What about you? Hey, I know Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull sucked, but Karen Allen was pretty good in it even if Cate Blanchette probably wasn't.
February 21, 2009 We went and did our taxes today. It was made even more complicated because I spent a couple weeks working for a company in New York that made me pay taxes in New York--I live in Michigan.
Here's a conversational tidbit with my tax woman:
Me: The tax laws are sure unfriendly to small businesses.
Her: Yes, they sure are.
So, my recommendation to freelancers making any money: go to an expert. What a pain in the ass.
Let's wrap this up. I don't always do this, but sometimes I do, particularly if I've been away from a character for a while. I interview my character. Yep, I even do it in a Q&A format and on paper and have an interview or conversation with my character right on the page. And my characters almost always surprise me with their attitudes and some of the answers to the questions. I think it frees my mind up by getting away from plot and description by simply having a one-on-one with them.
So, in the interest of an example, I'm going to have a conversation with the main character of the SF novel I'm working on. His name is Dr. Con Torres.
MT: Hello Doctor. How are you today?
CT: Good morning, Mark. You seem tired.
MT: It's early. I've been getting up early to get some extra work done.
CT: Makes sense. Just make sure you don't overdo it. You know if you go too long without enough sleep you get sick more often.
MT: I'll try not to. Let's talk about you. What year is it?
CT: 2432 EY. That's Earth Years, which essentially refers to AD. It's 142 GM, which is Galactic Measure, which refers to the founding of the Galactic Union.
MT: You're employed by...
CT: Doctors Without Borders.
MT: They've been around a long time.
CT: They're necessary. Maybe more so than ever.
MT: But you worked for the Galactic Health Organization for a while, right?
CT: Not much left there. As you know, GHO scientists developed a technique for supercharging the immune system a dozen years ago or so. It was considered to be a huge breakthrough and because GHO physicians were constantly being exposed to a wide array of new infectious agents, most of us were eager to partake of the treatment.
CT: It wasn't tested thoroughly in the long-term. About 97% of the people who underwent the treatment died.
MT: But you didn't.
CT: Not yet.
MT: So you heal quickly?
CT: Yes. I don't seem to get sick and I heal from injuries very quickly. Although we don't know for sure yet, it seems likely that the side effect is a dramatically shorter life. We just don't know when. But none of us knows how long we'll live, do we?
MT: Can we talk about Sally's View?
CT: (Sighs). I'm trying to be cooperative here.
MT: You're not a combative guy.
CT: I believe I can get the things done that I need to do by convincing people rather than through force of personality. I'm often cooperative.
MT: You mean you seem cooperative.
CT: (Shrugs and smiles).
MT: What happened at Sally's View?
CT: Sally's View was a city on the planet Manitoba, one of the Earth colonies. Manitoba was attacked by the Kevlu from space. They then landed on the planet and went house to house killing everybody they could find left. Sally's View was a city of about 100,000 people outside New Vancouver, which had been incinerated from space. Over two million dead in New Vancouver, but the plasma blasts turned everything into glass, so there were no bodies, exactly.
MT: But on Sally's View?
CT: This isn't easy to talk about, you know.
MT: Out of 100,000 people, how many survivors were there in Sally's View?
CT: Six. Two of them died. Four of them are still alive.
MT: Do you keep in touch with them?
CT: (long pause). I do.
MT: All of them?
MT: Are you close?
CT: Allison is like a daughter.
MT: How old is she?
CT: She would be 19 EY now.
MT: Where does she live?
CT: Earth. She's attending medical school.
Damn, people. This really works. I knew about Sally's View, but I didn't realize he'd stayed in touch with any of the survivors and I knew nothing about Allison. You see why this is worthwhile? It's all pretty much backstory, but it's important backstory in developing this character.
The other day, Million Monkeys had a post about backstory. A couple of us got into a discussion/digression about how much of what you know about your character ends up on the page.
The conclusion: a lot less than you know.
The example Jon provides is our favorite aged wizard, Albus Dumbledore, who JK Rowling outed a year or so ago in an interview. God only knows what the question was, but she commented that she'd always thought of Dumbledore as being gay. The media, which apparently had nothing better to do, went a little nuts over this.
I rolled my eyes, wondering why she'd said it. Was she being honest or did she think a statement like that would create a little more furor over the books, which were already plenty popular.
I also thought, "Well, she would know, wouldn't she?"
Now, just last week I finished re-reading "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Starting last summer I've been re-reading all the HP books in order and, as you can see, I've got one more to go
Nowhere in these books is Dumbledore's sexuality in question, hetero, homo or any other variety. Partly this is due to the fact that, for the most part, the HP novels are told from the point of view of Harry Potter. In the first book Harry's 11 and by the end he's what, 17?
When I bother to muse over this question at all, I would note that except for the students in the later books, the faculty of Hogwarts seems made up of nursing home fodder. The only bit of romance suggested among faculty is between Hagrid and Madame Maxime. (And has anyone bothered to even remotely think about the sexual logistics of Hagrid's parents, a giantess and a muggle father? Okay, don't go there). In Half-Blood Prince, Harry and Hermione do briefly speculate whether the school's librarian had a thing going with the school's caretaker, Mr. Filch. But aside from that, there's no mention of Dumbledore's love life, previous relationships, current relationships or sexual proclivities. Neither is there similar mention of such things with McGonaggal, Flitwick, Sinistra, Sprout, Slughorn, Mad-Eye Moody, Umbrage (although she's clearly got an infatuation with Fudge) or the divination professor whose name momentarily eludes me. (Ah, Trelawney!)
That's not unexpected, actually. Students don't necessarily register teachers that way. They're inclined to think of them as not having lives outside the classroom, especially when they're younger.
And yet, I can attest that schools can be a hotbed of, well, leave it at hotbed. In fact, one of my son's teachers a year or so ago left her husband because she'd had an affair with the principal of the school. School never seemed so interesting when I was a student!
But it does bring us back to a couple more Hogwarts adult characters. First, Remus Lupin, who seems to have no sex life at all either until he apparently falls in love with Tonks, marries, and then the two of them are killed at the Battle of Hogwarts. Yikes!
And then there is Severus Snape. Ah yes. His underlying loyalty to Dumbledore and in a very odd way, to Harry Potter, was because he was in love with Harry's mother, Lily Potter. And he felt Voldemort betrayed him when he responded to Snape's revelations about the overheard prophecy by killing Lily and James. (Apparently Snape was okay with Voldemort attempting to kill Harry, who was a year old at the time).
So clearly JK Rowling spent some time thinking about some of the underlying relationships and romantic inclinations of her characters.
Yet, for the most part, they didn't end up on the page. (And weren't there enough pages anyway?)
I think it's a good idea to know a lot more about your characters, especially your main characters, than what ends up on the page. You should know if their parents are alive or dead, if they get along with them, if they have siblings, what everybody does for a living. You should know their sexual preferences and quirks, their favorite foods, their dreams and aspirations, fears...
Because it informs their decisions and actions. It helps take a 2-dimensional cutout and turn him or her into a three-dimensional human being. It can, with a carefully chosen passing comment or observation, give your characters more depth.
Does anyone really need to know that my character Derek Stillwater's parents were missionary doctors and very conservative from a religious point of view? Not necessarily, although I address this issue in the fourth book. Is it important for the reader to know that he had a brother, David, who is a physician for Doctors Without Borders? No, although I do mention it, because I don't want Derek to seem as if he's living in a vacuum. Do they need to know his parents now live in assisted living in Florida and his father has Alzheimer's?
There are a lot of other facts and things I know about his character. And plenty I don't know that if I have an opportunity to write more books featuring him will be revealed to me. But I do think it's important to know more about your characters than the readers do.
One of the key questions I ALWAYS ask myself about my main characters is: if they weren't doing what they're currently doing, what would they be doing? What's my character's dream job?
As both Erica and Lurker commented yesterday, you can have too many "tells" or use them too often. My reaction to their comments is that "quirks" or "character traits" do not make a character.
But why should I say it, when I can quote Lawrence Block? This is from his book, "Telling Lies For Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers."
"It's not uncommon for writers to do a lot of labeling and mistake it for originality of characterization: 'I'm starting a detective series,' a hopeful writer said to me not long ago, 'and I think I've got something really original. My character never gets out of bed before noon, and he makes it a rule always to wear one piece of red clothing, and the only thing he ever drinks is white creme de menthe on the rocks. He has a pet rhesus monkey named Bitsy and a parrot named Sam. What do you think?'
"What I think is that the speaker has not a character but a collection of character tags. It might work to have a character with any or all of these labels in his garments.... It is not the quirks that make an enduring character but the essential personality which the quirks highlight."
When I was thinking about this post I kept coming back to the Lincoln Rhyme novels by Jeffery Deaver. If you're not familiar with this character, he's a brilliant forensic expert who is paralyzed from the neck down. (He was played by Denzel Washington in the film, "The Bone Collector.")
The Lincoln Rhyme novels, to my mind, always runs the risk of being a novel about the injury instead of about Rhyme. Now don't get me wrong. I think Jeffery Deaver is a terrific writer. His strengths are plots and plot twists and I accept that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in a wheelchair unable to move anything but his head and little finger was a brilliant hook. It's all the other things that make Rhyme memorable, though, I think. His impatience, his sarcastic wit, how he responds to his own limitations with a combination of depression and anger. How, when necessary, he can have a lot of insights into other people--but most of the time he just doesn't give a damn.
So I would say Lincoln Rhyme is a great character... but I have reservations about him for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe you can help me with that.
Part of the reason, I suspect, is the hook is so strong. For a while there I used to say, "I've got an idea for a detective: she's a black, lesbian, quadriplegic attorney," thereby getting all sorts of "hooks" into the picture (This was sarcasm, okay?).
For those of you the right age, you might remember a series of TV detective shows from the 1970s. Excuse me if I get them wrong, but: "Mannix," I believe, was a blind detective. "McCloud" was the cowboy detective in New York City. Buddy Epsen played an aging detective, whose name I don't remember. McMillan and Wife, obviously, were a husband and wife team of detectives. Hart to Hart was also a husband and wife team of detectives, but they also had the advantage of being multi-millionaires.
Some of these worked, some of these didn't, but the "hooks" were obvious. Sometimes those hooks seemed to be, frankly, character tags. They never quite came to life for one reason or another. TV's still doing this, of course. "Monk" is a prime example, and if it weren't for the brilliance of Tony Shalhoub this character would be a bunch of tics and quirks, rather than a human being. (And sometimes he isn't, but I suspect that's the writers' fault). My response to "Monk" oddly enough, is to feel sorry for the character. He's trapped by his disease and he knows it. For a show that's ostensibly a comedy, it sure seems sad to me. (But funny).
Anyway, listen to what Lawrence Block said and make sure that your quirks and labels are more than that, that it's how or why they have these quirks and labels how they respond to them that makes a character interesting.
Oh, and one last thing. In the same chapter, Block says three things are necessary for memorable characters.
Here's a story. Bestselling author Michael Connelly wrote once about how when he first did research for his police procedurals he spent some time with LAPD homicide detectives. He was sitting by the detective's desk and he noticed the cop's reading glasses on the top of the desk. The glasses stems looked chewed on. Later, when they actually went to look at a victim, Connelly noted that when the detective was examining the body, he held his glasses in one hand and chewed on the stem of the glasses.
A "tell" is a bit of shorthand to a character's inner life.
It can be subtle or it can be a sledgehammer, but it's a good idea to have them. There's a tendency for writers to give us our character's inner lives, particularly in first-person narratives:
I was worried. What was going on with my sister? When we were five-years-old...
Might work. But better:
A sharp cramp made me wince. I pressed my hand against my stomach and reached for the bottle of Maalox I kept in my top drawer. My gaze rested on the photo of my sister and I when we were five years old...
In other words, show don't tell.
My series character Derek Stillwater has a couple tells and some of them are big and some of them are small. He has panic attacks prior to his missions--big. When he gets worried he has a tendency to clutch or finger one of the talismans he wears around his neck--a rabbit's foot, ju-ju beads given to him by a friend who died in Somalia, and a St. Sebastian's medal (the patron saint of plagues, who was, if I remember correctly, tied to a tree and shot full of arrows). There are others, more subtle, (and some perhaps less so), but the point is I don't have him pondering how worried he is every time he's stressed. Sometimes I do, but mostly there are "tells," characteristics he has that show his inner life.
Yesterday I mentioned about being specific.
A "tell" is a good example of both "show, don't tell," as well as being specific.
I want to mention a general method that readers and writers may have some ambivalence about, but which I often use. Call it a gimmick or a technique, but I like it. Sometimes, in a description, I look for the descriptive metaphor, something general, that gives a sense of the character. These could be:
She was as sharp and elegant as leaded crystal.
He was like a shark, he never stopped moving.
You get the idea, right? We can describe a character from their toes to their hairline and physical description is fine (although I'm convinced that it's mostly lost on the reader, who provides their own physical descriptions of characters based on subtler cues than a line-by-line description), but these are also shorthand to the "sense" of the character.
So what are your characters tells? Is there also a broader metaphor you can use to give the reader the sense of your characters at the same time?
I'm starting a multi-part series on characterization. (We teach what we need to learn, I guess). I think it'll run 5 days, but we'll see. Today is part 1.
In Gary Provost's book, "Make Your Words Work," he provides this story:
A girl I once dated told me that when her mother nagged her to eat everything on her plate by saying, "Millions of people are starving to death in China," she would reply, "Name one."
The point being, of course, that millions of Chinese is an abstraction, but Wu Fong, who is 8 years old and has only had a cup of rice to eat this week is something very specific and very tragic.
We can relate to her at some level. We can sympathize. Even more so, if we don't just say what I just said, but feel her hunger pangs, her desperation, how she plunges into that cup of rice with her fingers, gobbling it down (or staring at it listlessly with no energy).
So characterization is about the specific. Specific details, a universality of emotions.
She Who Must Be Read harps on my writing not being quite emotionally authentic. (To be fair to myself, she doesn't say it quite that bluntly). She thinks my characters aren't responding properly to the situations they find themselves in--not enough fear, not enough wonder or amazement. (We're not talking Derek Stillwater, where I think I have that handled).
In fact, I think that's part of Derek's appeal. He's an action hero that gets scared. He has panic attacks. In fact, he finds himself in the midst of horrific events and he's not necessarily calm, cool and collected. He's often fearful, neurotic, and panicky--but acts effectively despite those.
An ex-brother-in-law of mine fought in the first Gulf War. He commented that when the artillery started going off around them some of the soldiers' reactions was to try and hide under the tank. Even the ones who acted the way they were trained to pretty much were scared shitless.
But how often do you see a movie or read a book where the soldier or cop or whomever acts totally calm and in control?
But in real life, few of us are that way.
So one of the keys to characterization is authentic emotion appropriate to the experience they're having. A mousy secretary being harassed by her boss might be burning with fury and shame inside, but may not be reacting on the outside (yet). A cop under fire in a crackhouse may be sweating bullets and his hands might be shaking and he might want to puke, but he will presumably be doing his or her job.
This is an important lesson, one we should pay more attention to, I think. Make the emotions specific, identifiable, universal, and appropriate. That way your readers can identify with them.
Facebook feels like it's so hip because a 25-things-about-me meme is sweeping it. It even made the "mainstream media" which is a euphemism for "24-hours-after-everybody-else-already-knows-about it." In this case, the notion that a meme of any sort is news ("new" is part of "news" people!) is a little bit baffling.
So, here's a 25 things about me meme. Feel free to do it yourself.
1. I was born in Kansas City, MO in 1835.
2. I'm a clone of a vegetable. A rutabaga.
3. My parents ran away from the circus and created a quiet life for themselves in the suburbs.
4. My "other" vehicle is a Mercedes stretch limo.
5. I play the flute. Without a condom.
6. One eye is blue and one is brown. The other is green.
7. My first girlfriend went on to be Gwyneth Paltrow.
8. Or Oprah. I can never remember which.
9. I was kidnapped by aliens in my twenties and underwent many deviant alien examinations.
10. I liked it.
11. I weigh 385 pounds dripping wet.
12. But a lot less when it's above freezing.
13. Twenty-five of these things? Christ, who has time for this nonsense?
14. My last novel became a bestseller.
15. It was called "The Da Vinci Cold."
16. It postulates that Jesus died of a virus, not crucifixion.
17. Early biological warfare.
18. One of my ancestors was named Adam.
19. Just kidding. Her name was Eve.
20. Wait, doesn't that mean I'm a descendent of God?
21. I like stingers for breakfast.
22. What's a stinger?
23. I have 13 siblings.
24. We had one bathroom growing up. (Oh, wait, this one's true.)
25. I don't have trixadecaphobia. Nor can I spell it.
Sort of. I'm sure I'll have something to say once I get unpacked, shaved and showered--I slept in a little bit this morning but would have liked to have slept in a LOT more--maybe gone to the gym, had lunch, dealt with about 100 unanswered e-mails and 55 unread blogs, talked to one of my clients...
Oh, I got an author's booklet from my new publisher, Oceanview Publishing, that outlines who I'll be working with, what their jobs are, with a schedule, etc. I'm already impressed.
Now, time to go unpack. Just FYI, I got home around 11:30 last night in a driving rainstorm. Rain--good. It it had been snow, I would probably still be trying to get home.
I'll be traveling for the next few days and I'm not taking my laptop with me, but will rely on my iPhone. (It occurs to me that if I had read that sentence in the 1970s or 1980s it would make no sense whatsoever). I'll be in Philadelphia, a city I've never been to before, and as it turns out, will be in meetings pretty much from 8 to 5, so I may never actually see anything except the inside of a hotel.
Anyway, let me leave you this to ponder. It has to do with a sliding scale for payment for writing.
One of the other nonfiction writing websites I visit regularly--primarily for a daily list of writing gigs--has a blog and the blogger went on a bit of a rant about crappy paying nonfiction gigs--blog jobs are the worst--that say things like, "Need highly qualified, motivated writer. Pays $15."
Not $15 per word or per hour (per hour, that rate still sucks). But, write an article or whatever and we'll pay you $15.
Or, as the title of this blog suggests, 3 cents per word.
Which also really sucks.
The best per word rate I've made is $1 per word. The worst, 10 cents. I also occasionally write per hour ($40-$50 or more, depending on the gig) and often per project. (As high as $20,000 to-date).
Ah yes, fiction. You know, a 100,000 word novel at 3 cents a word would bring in $30,000. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Oh shit. I just re-did my math. No, a 100,000 word novel at 3 cents a word would bring in $3,000.
For fiction, my per word rate is...
I don't know, is it possible to even break down cents into fractions? In fact, I DON'T want to know. Don't calculate this for me. I just plain DON'T WANT TO KNOW. (Actually, I just did. And I still don't want to know. Dammit.)
I would note that Jonathan Kellerman commented once that his advance for "When The Bough Breaks" came to something like 97 cents an hour, although it's worked better for him in the long run.
So I'll throw this out, asking for your thoughts in general, but a specific question is, If you know your fiction writing would earn you 50 cents an hour, would it still be worth it to you? A penny a word? The same word rate penny-dreadful writers earned in the 1800s?
Okay, it's none of my business, really, but I'm going to say what I was thinking. Yesterday my blog friend Stephen Parrish wrote a fantastic essay about working as a kitchen manager in a restaurant. I commented that he should write a nonfiction book about his experiences ala Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential."
Erica Orloff chimed in that she agreed. So did someone else.
Stephen's probably thinking we're all full of, er, excrement, or kicking himself wondering why he never thought of it.
You know, that old write-what-you-know.
Granted, I think Stephen might need to build a platform for it by writing some articles about his experiences--but that can be an interesting and lucrative end of writing--Bon Appetit, The New Yorker, the list goes on, because he provides background and insight into something we're all interested in--eating and how restaurants run. But still... "Kitchen Confidential" sold a boodle of copies and launched a big alternate career--hell, I've actually read one of Bourdain's novels--"Gone Bamboo" before.
The reason I was thinking about this was because I'd been working for 7 years or so in genetics before someone suggested I actually write an article about it, which essentially was the first step toward what is now a successful freelance writing career. One baby step, but I kept ignoring it. It was right in front of my face, but I never bothered to look at it. In fact, I was carefully NOT looking at it. We do that a lot. I'm sure I'm not the only one.
I have a friend who wanted (or wants) to be a novelist. He showed me his manuscript and he was a pretty good writer and he was writing about stuff that I knew interested him--maybe the novels were a sort of fantasy vacation for him (I know some of my earlier novels were). It didn't quite work, but the basics were there. We were having lunch one day and he told me about being a Navy brat from like three generations of Navymen, that he spent time in the Navy, visited Hong Kong while in the service, and I wondered why he didn't write a novel based on that. (Hell, I was thinking last night a murder mystery on an air craft carrier would seem pretty exotic).
We write and don't write for a lot of different reasons. I avoided writing about medicine and genetics for a long time because I was trying to escape from it. But I was ignoring a fact that I had insider knowledge and experience that other writers don't. And I bring a different perspective--a unique perspective--to my writing when I write about it.
So my question is: are you ignoring your unique perspective?
What is the purpose of a story? We can keep it in the fiction world. But seriously what are the rules for a story? Obviously they are for entertainment, and should have a beginning, middle, and end. But what are the elements, and ingredients, that you should try to achieve for, when writing them? Sometimes I think its a resolution to x problem, but that's not always the case.
The more I think about this question, the more complex, and confused I get. Maybe you can shed some light for me.
This is such a huge topic, one with no right answers. I could write about how the human brain physiologically has "narrative memory" and how we just naturally try to place the events of the world into a narrative structure. I could talk about Joseph Campbell's hero structure (recommended reading for all writers, I suspect, although I came to it reluctantly). Fundamentally I often think it comes down to: interesting people doing interesting things, which certainly gives a lot of leeway for interpretation.
I'm going to leave a Stephen King quote and then ask this wonderful community of readers and writers to give Ben your thoughts on the subject.
Mr. King said: "...I still see stories as a great thing, something which not only enhances lives but actually saves them. Nor am I speaking metaphorically. Good writing--good stories--are the imagination's firing pin, and the purpose of the imagination, I believe, is to offer us solace and shelter from situations and life-passages which would otherwise prove unendurable."
She-Who-Must-Be-Read is asking for your best, most trenchant writing advice today. In the interest of not having to work at actually coming up with something to write about this morning, I offered mine, which I will offer here.
Write less, think more.
(Which actually reminds me of a story I read by Stephen King, about going to a horror or sci-fi convention and meeting one of his heroes, I think it was Frank Belknapp Long, who at the time was in his late 80s or 90s. Long offered him advice. King leaned down to hear it, knowing it would be great. Long said, "Get a music stand and put your manuscript on it so you don't have to bend down to read it while you're writing. All those years craning your neck take their toll.")
My oldest son is reading The Odyssey in English class. I commented to him that one of the things modern readers should keep in mind about The Odyssey is who the audience was. This is not a story that was necessarily being told to the general Greek public, but being told to soldiers. Yes, it's a story filled with glorious battles and victories and particularly clever soldiers, but more importantly, it's a story about a soldier who went off to war for nearly 20 years and when he came back his wife and son were waiting for him.
My son commented on how odd it was that Telemacchus, Odysseus' son, greeted him and fought with him side-by-side, rather than told him to kiss off for being gone for so long. How odd it was for Odysseus' wife to be glad to see him.
Mmmm. Back to audience. That's exactly what the Greek soldiers wanted to hear. In fact, soldiers were probably quite glad to hear a story where they were stranded on an island with a hot goddess for 7 years or so and when they do finally make it back home the entire question of who you've been screwing while you were gone doesn't come up at all, but your wife remained chaste and faithful the whole time.
Anyway, in nonfiction audience is usually a no-brainer. When I write for Podiatry Management, I know exactly who the readers are--podiatrists who run their own practices. When I write for ADVANCE for Medical Laboratory Professionals, I know exactly who the readers are--medical technologists and technicians, sometimes managers of laboratories. If I wanted more demographic info, magazines have that right down to age and gender and geographic distribution.
Novels--not much. We often view our readers as a lot like us, because, after all, we liked the story enough to write it, we'd probably be the perfect reader. Yes and no. Anyone paying attention to reader demographics knows it skews toward women (about 60%) and a little older (mid-40s and up, which sounds a bit like "post-young children to death"). That isn't to say that men don't read or that younger people don't read, but the majority of book buyers fall into that demographic. So should your main character be a 50-something woman?
Probably not, unless that works. But I'm aware that a lot of the people who I've heard from about my own books tend to be women in their 50s or even older who bought the book for their husbands to read. Their e-mails often sound like this: I bought The Serpent's Kiss for my husband and he absolutely loved it and can't wait for the next one. When will the next one be out?
I mean--really--I've received a bunch of e-mails that sound like that. The women promise to be reading the book themselves soon and maybe they do, but I'm not so sure. That isn't to say women haven't read my books, they have. It just means that there's something slightly complicated going on with my reading demographic.
So, taking your own sorry self out of the demographic equation for a moment, who do you think are your readers going to be?
Groundhog's day, right? Well, I'm hoping for a short winter (as if it hasn't been long enough already).
I spent Saturday at a Sanchin-Ryu Retreat, which is the style of karate I study. A couple hundred of us holed up at a conference center in Lansing and on Saturday there were three two-hour workouts. It was fun and I learned a lot, much of which I'm still digesting. Here are some miscellaneous thoughts that might have applications to writing.
By the way, I'm a first-degree brown belt, which means the next level is first-degree black belt. I've had this belt for about 18 months. Like any aspiring writer who has recently had an agent, that next belt (think publishing contract) could be right around the corner ... or much, much later. Hard to tell.
Best Bumpersticker Seen While Driving To Lansing:
When Do I Get To Vote On Your Marriage?
Best Tactical Advice:
"You're telegraphing your hachi." (I think that's the spelling. It's a knee strike and I, like a lot of sanchinkas, was sweeping my foot back a couple inches as if winding up before striking, rather than launching off my toes).
Best Philosophical Advice That Can Be Applied To Everything:
"No, don't say that, you're placing limits on yourself." (Back to hachi, actually, which is a tough strike for everyone, but particularly for those of us with stiff hip muscles and tendons. In fact, sometimes I have pain in my right hip when I lift my leg. Might be a touch of arthritis or who knows. Anyway, I was working with a third-degree black belt and I made a comment about how our target was supposed to be the floating ribs--with your knee, folks--and I doubted I'd ever be able to do that. To which Sensei Phil told me I needed to rethink my attitude on that and not place limits on myself. Work toward it, but don't tell yourself you'll never get there).
Best Philosophical Advice That I'm Not Sure I Understand:
"Absorb this with your heart, not your head." (I suppose it means, don't think too much).
When some teenage a**holes were doing dives, flips, and other crazy things into the swimming pool, which was only 5-feet deep. One of them decided he was going to jump up and slide on his feet down the metal rail to the ladder, but missed it entirely. I thought he was going to break his head open on the ladder. I'm pretty sure these jerks were with the Motocross group that was also at the hotel.
Best Sanchin-Ryu Advice That Can Be Applied To Writing:
You just got a giant chocolate cake. You can't eat it all at once. But you can cut it into slices and by Wednesday it'll be gone. (I'll let you figure out what I mean with that) :)