I once read advice from a novel editor who said, “There has to be a likeable character other than the protagonist within the first couple of chapters or the reader will put the book down. The reader just won’t bother.”
This assertion awakened my B.S. sensors… What about books about characters stranded on deserted islands like Robinson Crusoe? What about anti-hero stories where even the main character is unlikable? What about man-versus-nature survival stories with only one character pitting his wits and physical endurance against snow, hunger, sleet, or frostbite? Are those kinds of books always failures?
I also wonder: Who is this “The Reader” that the editor seemed to know so well? It was my understanding that there is no “the reader” unless you are writing for only one person, say, as in a letter or email. Otherwise there are many readers – at least potentially. I am a reader myself, and I have trouble seeing any connection between myself and the skittish and impatient creature called “The Reader” that the editor describes.
Guilt permeates my existence. It creeps into my dreams. Sometimes I feel guilty without knowing why and have to look for something to feel guilty about, invent something if necessary, to reassure myself that the intensity of my remorse has meaning.
Naturally my cat uses my guilt against me. By accident I stepped on her paw once. An ear-splitting yowl followed. To say I was sorry, I pampered her with tuna treats. Now she routinely feigns being stepped on in order to procure apologies in snack form. If my foot barely grazes her toe, she will unleash an agonized wail that would make the Marquis de Sade weep with pity.
However, as bad as guilt is, embarrassment runs a close second.
Recently someone accused me of being defensive.
My response went something like this: “Me? Defensive? Who’re you callin’ defensive, yer defensive. Yo mama! Hrumph!”
My critic rejoined that I should read the self-help classic How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. I rolled my eyes. From all I had heard about the book, it seemed to be all about remembering and repeating names so that people who loved hearing their own names would like you more.
For me, even the most well-intended criticism of my writing stings initially. An electric shock goes off in my brain. I can practically hear a buzzer going off, the kind used in game shows. It says, You are incorrect! Wrong. You have failed, failed, failed.
After the initial shock, an unexpected transition sometimes happens. I see things I was unable to see before.
Good writing criticism is chocolate wrapped in a thin, sour shell. At first it tastes awful. It zings the tongue. It triggers resistance. But once the shell melts away, the taste of chocolate delights as you imagine exciting new possibilities. You watch with fascination as metaphors enliven flat prose. You see how strong action verbs energize writing. You see vague phrases resolve into clarity.
As a writer, I sometimes have trouble vividly imagining my fictional settings. It is not as big a problem as it sounds. Characters come first and, unlike film makers, novelists can get away with a less-than-thorough imagining of physical surroundings. A few concrete and enticing details are sometimes enough to anchor readers while engaging their imaginations so that they can essentially complete the scenery themselves.
However, this feels like cheating to me. I want to make my worlds as real to myself as they are to the reader, and with the fantasy genre in particular, world-building needs to be more than an after-thought.
This is why I became so excited when I heard about a software program in the early stages of development that seeks to guide the world- building process: StoryTechnologies, conceived by Brett Alistair Kromkamp, a software developer living in Norway. According to his website, StoryTechnologies is “about telling compelling stories using whatever techniques and media are appropriate.”
I am happy to announce that my second short story collection, Remembering the Future and Other Tales, is here and is available for electronic purchase on Amazon.
Those of you who have followed my blog will find familiar stories, but my new book also contains new content, including “Kindness,” a 20 page digital apocalypse story, and a thought experiment on what it would be like to become “omniscient” through cybernetic technology, “The Library Behind Your Eyes.”
As I did with Becoming the Story, I let themes drive many of my stories. I never really choose my themes; growing out of my personal obsessions, they “choose” me. How do you get past fear when real pain underlies it? What is the best way to live when you know life is temporary? What does freedom really mean? However, themes are always secondary to the stories themselves and the enjoyment of reading them. Many of the fun science fiction and fantasy tropes I love run through my collection: robots, a mad scientist, a dragon, telepathy, and magic.
Thanks to all of you who have been following my blog and who have read my books! I would give you all cookies if I could, but cookies are hard to transmit digitally. However, if I ever figure it out, I will let you know.
Click to buy “Remembering The Future: And Other Tales”
The criticisms my imagination conjures are the worst kind there is. What I mean is the kind of criticism that I invent when there is no response from, say, an editor or Beta tester.
It goes something like this: Why would they not respond? Maybe they hated that I included an emu on page 2, which was sort of silly, I guess, since you would not really expect an emu at a funeral. And the worst thing is I know next to nothing about emus. Damn! Why did I not Google emus??? It would have been so simple! No wonder there is no response! They must have found an emu inaccuracy! They hate my emu! They hate my writing! They hate me!
Such imaginary criticisms strike without warning. They are not the kinds of thoughts you actively think, but the kind that come torpedoing toward you when you would rather them not.
Despite all the writing I have done, I am a kind of slacker – at least according to the conventional wisdom. Writing is supposed to require discipline, “will-power,” and punctuality with deadlines.
Though I adhered strictly to deadlines in school, imposing them on myself for writing rarely led to my finishing stories. Deadlines, and the accompanying threat of punishment, induced terrible dread. Rebellious feelings followed. I procrastinated. I always felt like I was fighting myself.
But not all writing goals are deadlines. I have written a blog post every week – on purpose – for the last two years with only a couple of skips, but the due date is subject to change if I discover an individual project needs more time. My consistency has nothing to do with “discipline.” It has everything to do with loving to write.
Note to Readers: This will be my last blog post for the next few weeks. I am taking a break for an exciting reason: I am making final preparations to publish my novel The Ghosts of Chimera scheduled for release in the summer. I am also creating new content for my new short story collection, Remembering the Future and Other Stories. Thanks so much to all of you who read my blog regularly. You rock! I promise to resume my regular blogging schedule as soon as possible. Here is my latest post. Enjoy.
Last week I wrote an article about the types of writing criticisms I have found to be unhelpful and even destructive; I wrote a list of seven criticisms I ignore, so that I can focus on the criticisms that really do help and write honestly without a paralyzing fear of offending.
One item on my list was “Attacks from the Political Correctness Brigade” and I deliberately used an example I knew might be controversial: critics who want all women in fiction to be represented as “strong.”
It might seem strange that I used that example. I am a woman, and the first article I ever published was in a feminist magazine called Herizons about under-representation of women in video games.
“Grow thick skin” is the advice often given to aspiring writers struggling to cope with the pain of rejection and criticism. Whenever I hear it, I cringe. The analogy is unhelpful and kind of grotesque. No one can grow new layers of real skin at will, any more than they can turn off hurt feelings at will. Besides, even the thickest skin feels pain sometimes.
I came up with a metaphor I like better than thick skin: a lens. Actually, I might as well go even further: What about super-specs that allow writers to instantly spot and disregard empty or destructive criticism, so we do not waste priceless energy worrying about what others think when we could be happily writing?
For a criticism to be worth considering, it must illuminate the way forward. There should be an “aha” moment. For example, if my writing has a plot hole, grammatical error, contradiction, or implausible character, I need to know about them. These are issues that hamper my goal of creating believable fiction. Since the problems are specific, I can imagine specific ways to solve them. But to spot the valuable criticism, I need to filter out emotional splatter that only distracts, upsets, and confuses me.