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Several days ago I received an email from a woman who’d recently read my latest novel, Bird in Hand.  She mentioned that she appreciated my “honesty” – she liked that my characters had “definite real quirks instead of being perfectly lovable all the time,” and discussed her own novel manuscript, currently facing rejection from publishers on the grounds that the characters “aren’t sympathetic enough.”

I don’t know anything about this woman’s manuscript.  But the question of what it means to create sympathetic characters, and whether it matters, is an ongoing source of discussion and debate in writing classes and even among working novelists I know.  Without alienating the reader, how does a writer create characters who embody the complexities of real-life experience – the petty preoccupations, self-delusions, and misplaced vanities that all of us possess; the qualities that, it could be argued, make us human?

Writing about Robert Stone’s story collection, Fun With Problems, in the New York Times Book Review several weeks ago, Antonya Nelson addresses this question head-on.  Noting that Stone “declines to make his heroes ‘likable,” Nelson goes on to say, “The writer pays his reader the deep compliment of refusing to simplify his creations.  They are as flawed and sophisticated and complex and conflicted and naughty and tempted and contradictory and brutal and surprising as readers themselves.”  Nelson concludes the review by saying that Stone’s stories are not for everyone.  “You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages…. [But] Fun With Problems is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer.”

The graduate students I teach tend to disdain the idea of the sympathetic character, viewing the entire notion as suspect. “Whether a character is likable or not is irrelevant in literary fiction,” they say.  And they have a point.  In certain – some might say formulaic – kinds of popular fiction (romantic comedies, detective stories, “chick” or “mommy” lit), the hero or heroine is expected to follow prescribed rules of likability.  That is, she should be smart but unpretentious, fallible but fundamentally decent; life has knocked her around, but she remains optimistic and open to the world around her.  These rules don’t apply to Robert Stone’s characters; his readers expect to be left feeling a little uneasy as they ponder uncomfortable truths.

But I think that generally what readers want from a character — even in commercial fiction — is something more complex than likability.  They want to understand the character’s (or, in the case of memoir, the writer’s) motivations, whether or not they can empathize with him or her.  A character’s likability is largely irrelevant.  What matters is that the character is richly developed in three dimensions.

In my work as a manuscript editor I have found that there are lots of ways to improve a book that isn’t working, but one of the hardest things to fix is a story in which you don’t relish the thought of spending 300 pages in the central character’s world.  There are all kinds of reasons for this: the character isn’t developed enough; he’s too much of a caricature; the author makes him superficially ornery, irritable, and quirky (rarely a winning combination) as a way to incite drama that would otherwise be lacking.  Whatever the reasons, these characters are wooden, lifeless.   They don’t live and breathe.  True, the character may be unlikable.  But more significant is that he is not fully developed.

Lots of books are published – great books – with difficult and irascible central characters.  These are the ones that Antonya Nelson calls books “for grownups.”  But there’s a difference between these books and the manuscripts that languish unpublished because the characters aren’t rich or deep or full enough, their unlikability a problem of the writer’s, not the reader’s.

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The founder of the social networking site SheWrites shares her vision for a better (publishing) world:SheWrites logo

Rumor has it that there was a time when writers didn’t have to do anything but write.  There was no such thing as a “platform,” no marketing plan to be incorporated into a book proposal, no need to hustle press opportunities and stay up till 3AM making long lists of bloggers who just might mention your book if you ask them nicely enough.  Writers wrote books; publishers did everything else.

It was never really that simple, of course.  In one of my favorite books about the lives of writers, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, a Marriage, Diane Middlebrook revealed the world of an ambitious and hardworking couple whose labors went well beyond creating their poems.  Both poets worked hard to publish and promote their work, chatting up editors, appearing on radio and television, and lobbying hard for the attention of critics capable of making or breaking their careers.  Getting your writing read – selling it and attempting to make a living on it – has always been part of the writing life.

And yet.  Things have changed profoundly for writers in the 21st century.  Part of this is a matter of scale.  There is no longer a short list of powerful arbiters who can make or break a book – instead authors are encouraged to pitch their books (and their “brands,” a word Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes would never have associated with themselves) to a dizzyingly long and diffuse list of critics, bloggers, and other media outlets in the hopes of creating that ever-elusive buzz.  The sheer numbers of outlets and the staggering scope of an author’s book-marketing “things to do list” has increased exponentially since the advent of the web, and as a result the job has gotten harder for the 99.9% of authors who are not best-selling publishing juggernauts.

As the novelist and entrepreneur Jennifer Korman put it in a recent blog post about how and why she decided to become her own publisher: “The new wisdom in the industry is that authors who sell well create direct relationships with their audiences. Ultimately the author is the brand rather than the publisher or the book itself.”  Profound changes in the publishing landscape, Korman points out, present authors with an unprecedented opportunity to take control of their writing lives.

On the other hand, most authors I know have no idea how to take advantage of this opportunity, and instead find that the increased responsibility placed upon them has meant more work for no pay.  Authors have been forced to become mini-entrepreneurs, to reinvent the wheel alone every time they publish, and to largely self-fund their efforts (often taken from their ever-shrinking advances) to boot.  As a result authors are overextended, under-supported, and finding it harder than ever to find the time to sit down and write.  A third way is needed – something between the old, top-down hierarchy of the traditional publishing model and the new, every-author-for-herself inefficiency we have now.

With this in mind, I recently started a social networking site for women writers called She Writes.  The idea is simple: give authors a one-stop shop where they can find the best editing, expertise and knowledge from publishing professionals, and a place to create a community where they can easily share what they know with one another.  The power of the latter should not be underestimated.  Jen Korman is a member of She Writes; her post laid out a budget for starting your own publishing house and publishing your first book.  What she has learned is powerful; what happens when she shares what she learned on a community like She Writes, and learns in turn from her fellow She Writers, is game-changing.  It’s my belief that the authors themselves are the most motivated, talented resource currently in existence in publishing today.  We just need somebody to help us organize and support one another.

On She Writes authors at every stage of their careers can quickly, efficiently ask questions of each other about anything from reviewing outlets to the best places to promote lesbian historical fiction to the most effective ways to use Facebook.  What you don’t know another author probably knows; what she doesn’t know, you may.  And precisely because the publishing landscape has changed so profoundly, this works.  We are not fighting for that one review in the New York Times anymore.  For most of us, sharing what we’ve learned with a like-minded author will not diminish the piece of the pie we’ve carved out for ourselves, but instead will increase our own chances of success, and free up a little bit more of our time to do what we really love to do, after all: write.

Kamy Wicoff is the Founder and CEO of She Writes, an online destination where women can create community and networks, and get the support and services they need at every stage of their writing careers. Kamy is the bestselling author of I Do But I Don’t: Why The Way We Marry Matters, and the co-founder, with the author and critic Nancy K. Miller, of the New York Salon of Women Writers. She serves on the Advisory Council of Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, and was the first fiction/nonfiction editor of Women’s Studies Quarterly.

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Tips on Networking 140 Characters at a Time, From the Guy Who Brought Me Pizza Oncetwitter_logo

(Not really.  I began following Chad Taylor on Twitter after reading his witty repartee with writer Susan Orlean.  Awed by his ability to be insightful, pithy, and clever within Twitter’s haiku-like restraints, I invited him to write a post revealing the secret of his success.)

I’m not a writer.

Well, using this blog as Exhibit A, a pretty strong case could be made to the contrary.  It’s true: I do write and it could even be argued that I don’t write badly.  But I’ve never published.  Nothing with a by-line or anything, at least.  I’m working on a book (who isn’t these days, right?) but I haven’t actually added anything meaningful to it in almost a month.  So, seriously, the guy who makes a living delivering pizzas is the last person who should be writing a guest blog trying to tell you anything about being a writer.  This irony is not lost on me.

What I am qualified to talk about, however, is why writers should use networking sites like Twitter, how they should use it to maximize its potential for them and what average Joes like me look for when we’re searching out new people to follow (read: new writers to read).

Everyone—or, everyone who isn’t delusional with self interest, that is—feels a little silly using Twitter at first because you’re walking the fine line between inundating your followers with every tiny detail of your lives (Carlos Mencia, I’m looking in your direction), or deciding that nothing you have to say is quite important enough, and not doing it at all.  But there are some easy guidelines.

First: Don’t resort to license plate shorthand or drastic measures like eliminating pronouns just to make a thought fit into 140 characters. In my own Twitter feed, I’ll often take an extra minute or two to restructure and re-write an update in a way that fits, rather than resort to a single “2” or “u.”  Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley‘s approval rating (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not) dropped 15 points since the beginning of the year, which is about the same time that he started Twittering things like:

“We in congress hv been agitating china for Tibet for decades Right! We need to b just as agitated abt Chinese treatnent of Uighurs NOW” (8/9/09)

and

“Saw Glenn Beck on Fox last and got his pt abt govt and the missing airplane engine but I need explanation photograghic dishonestyWhere engin” (8/2/09)

and

“Plsnt conv. w sotomyr. 1 hr mtg. Look frwd 2 hrg and mre details abt recrd.” (6/8/09)

Great for the “unintentional hilarity” file; not so great for much of anything else.  Which brings us to the first reason that Twitter is good for the writer:  Twitter forces us to think and write succinctly.  In his book On Writing, Stephen King likes to say that a 2nd Draft = a 1st Draft – 10%, which is a quasi-mathematical way of saying that every idea can lose a little weight.  There are few real-world situations where a writer can hone the skill of economical communication and make professional and personal connections at the same time.  Hello, Twitter.  Compare the Senator’s updates above with San Francisco monologuist Josh Kornbluth: “I am feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of being away from my family – trying to breathe, listen to music, avoid pull of narcoleptic bed.” (8/6/09)

Or (is this even allowed?) from my own Twitter feed: “Putting coupons on doors. They could literally train a monkey to do this job, but don’t because a trained monkey would cost more.” (8/12/09)

Another tip for effective Twittering (I refuse to call the updates ‘tweets’) is to remember that people are following you not only because you’re (ideally) funny and interesting, but because you’re you. The good thing about Twitter from a follower’s point of view is that it’s a way for people who might otherwise never come in contact with you to get to know more about you.  The good thing from the Twitterer’s standpoint is that you have control over how deep that access goes.  The more you allow your followers to see, the more successful you’ll be.  Giving the people following you insight into your thought process; taking a self-deprecating look at minor faults; even just venting personal frustration all open you up to readers and allow them to connect more intimately than a dust jacket bio or blog interview could.

Great examples of this can be seen from New York based memoirist Janice Earlbaum: “FINALLY finished a long-overdue freelance piece; doing a smug little happy dance in my chair. Lunchtime!” (6/5/09)

The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean: “Spent last night talking to a nice editor of HuffPost, thinking she worked for Daily Beast & gossiping accordingly. She looked…puzzled.”

And MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow: “I think I might be the only Real Time with Bil Maher guest to have ever brought mom and dad as entourage to the backstage party.” (8/1/09)

Which, finally, brings us to the second big reason a writer should want to use Twitter: if applied properly, the networking possibilities are enormous. For beginning writers, Twitter can introduce you publishers, editors, other writers, fans, potential readers, reviewers…you see what I’m getting at.  For established writers, Twitter is an additional medium to advertise a new novel being released or, as in the case of our gracious host, to link to your own blog or website.  Each person who finds your Twitter feed is potentially a new set of eyes to look over a draft of that manuscript.  Or someone who knows someone at Harper Collins.  Or someone who might wind up loving your last novel and now can’t wait for the next one.  There’s work involved (when isn’t there?) but by following the right people and—more importantly—getting the right people to follow you, Twitter can be a powerful addition to your networking repertoire.  For an excellent example of this, look no further than this very page: this blog post is a result of a connection made over Twitter.

Chad Taylor (33, Capricorn)  has spent time as a pizza delivery guy, security officer, telephone salesperson and itinerant malcontent.  He is widely viewed as one of the great underappreciated writers of our time (citation needed) and is a frequent contributer to both his Facebook status bar and ESPN.com’s “user comments” section.  Voted “Great Catch” by his mother for 22 non-consecutive years.

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I’m curious about how literary writers whose work is also commercial balance two often conflicting objectives:  telling a good story and exploring setting, theme, and character. One day this wee1118759_32303519k I was privileged to spend time with two terrific novelists, Alison Larkin and Marina Budhos, who had very different and equally useful takes on this question.

Alison told me that she reads the thriller writer Harlan Coben for plot. Coben is a master of building and maintaining suspense, she said; you can’t help turning the pages. Paying attention to how he withholds and reveals information has been instructive for her. Marina said that, for her, “a first draft is all about exploration, but at a certain point that exploration has to stop.” She talked about the challenges of revision: taking a first draft and pulling the threads of plot and character all the way through, while at the same time ruthlessly cutting and repositioning the prose so the story has immediacy and urgency. In a first draft, then, the writer should feel free to experiment and digress – and I would argue that the literary writer must do so, to remain open to the unanticipated byways of the creative process – but in a second draft the writer has to remember that the prose exists solely in service to the story.  As the writer Honor Moore says, “If you don’t put it in, you can’t take it out.”

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