Posts Tagged ‘literary’

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.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Read Full Post »

Writer Julie Metz offers some hard-won advice:

Like many of you, I am working on a new writing project, a novel. What made me think I could do this, anyway? But here I am, too far in to let go, committed to my characters. Some days are thrilling, but lately I often find myself stuck, wondering how I will push out the next sentence.

My first book, published last year, was a memoir titled Perfection. The great thing about writing a memoir is that you know the story; the art is in the writing. With fiction one has that same challenge but in addition the pesky problem of not really knowing where it’s all going to end, or, for that matter, what’s happening in the beginning or middle either.

So here’s what keeps me going on the dark writing days:

1.  Reading a very good novel. At first, as I am reading the very good novel, I’m filled with self-loathing and fear of failure. Wow, this book is so effing amazing, I’ll never be able to write anything like this! But then I relax and begin to enjoy and finally adore the world the author has created, and to see that we all can create our own worlds. I won’t be writing a novel about the day a tightrope walker crossed the space between the World Trade Towers, but I might be able to write a good book about something else. Like a demanding but inspiring teacher, a good book elevates my day-to-day language and my life.

2.  Exercise. While I might tell myself that I don’t have time to take care of my body, because I should be busy writing, taking time to keep fit helps my mind work so much better.  I have begun the year with frequent trips to the gym, which I hope will help me through the winter doldrums. It’s a cliché that our body is our home.  Right now I feel like my body is my home office. If I can keep it clean and tidy, there is room for clearer thinking and perhaps some inspiration.

3. Accidental moments of insight. Just when I think it can’t get worse, that I’ll never write a decent sentence again, that my first book was a weird fluke and now I am doomed, doomed, doomed to utter failure, I’ll have some odd revelatory moment about my story and characters. Often it’s feedback from one of my readers that I have been resisting (grumpily), but suddenly realize is fantastically clear and true. Other times there’ll be some small moment out in the world, a scene at the grocery store or an encounter with a friend in my neighborhood, that allows me to understand a character or scene. These moments help me clarify a point, and then I can move on. Not at the pace I wish, but I move on nonetheless.

Julie Metz, a memoirist, book designer, and soon-to-be novelist, is a frequent contributor to this blog.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Read Full Post »

… and why we shouldn’t all be writing novels:

Ebenbach.coverWe are frequently told, by the market and also by the novelists that the market promotes, to revere certain forms of writing over others. The publishing industry by necessity emphasizes profits, and novels sell better than collections of short stories, which means there’s pressure on fiction writers; often we start out writing short stories, on our own or in creative writing workshops, but we soon feel pressured to “graduate” to the novel. The short story is generally regarded as inferior, nothing more than a stepping stone. Yet there is no objectively best form of writing – only the form that suits us best.

It’s an old saw in creative-writing classrooms that content dictates form. This means that certain forms of writing are best suited for certain kinds of material, and not as well suited for others. In poetry, for example, a haiku, with its quiet imagery and its sudden leap, is ideal for describing a moment of insight, and lousy for epic storytelling. A Shakespearean sonnet, with its three quatrains and final couplet, is good for developing an idea in three stages and then summing it up, and not as good at conveying obsessively circular thinking. For that kind of thinking, you might need a sestina, a lengthy poem which repeats certain words over and over.

The same content-form truism holds for fiction. A novel is not just a long short story – it’s a whole other animal. Because of its great size, it’s well-suited to handle complicated plot and structure, and in fact you probably need that elaborate plot to keep a reader interested for all those pages. If what you want to do is shed light on a moment in time, you should probably write a short story, too short for a wildly complicated structure but plenty big enough to illuminate something powerfully. And so the short story is no stepping stone – not any more than a haiku is a warm-up for writing a sonnet. A short story is a vehicle for a certain kind of content, content that won’t be able to find a home anywhere if the only things we write and read are novels. Some authors – including Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro and Grace Paley – write for a lifetime without ever needing to “graduate” from short fiction. (And some novelists never feel the need to write a short story.)

This is easy to say, but hard to remember. Several years ago I worked on a manuscript about a new single mother struggling to adjust to parenthood. To make it a novel I intensified this mother’s feelings and embedded them in an elaborate plot, to the point where this woman was behaving in crazy and unrealistic ways. I hadn’t set out to study someone flirting with madness – I had set out to study a person struggling the way many new parents do. But because I felt it had to be a novel, I badly distorted my material.

As soon as I realized my mistake I returned to a more appropriate form; I am now writing short stories about the many diverse experiences of parenthood. Each one is a window on a feeling, a situation, a moment. In writing them as short stories, I am saying what I need to say, how I need to say it.

If we listen to the voices telling us that certain kinds of writing are preferable because they’re more marketable, we may find it impossible to say what we need to say. If we’re going to listen to any voices, I say let’s listen to our own – voices that tell us to find our form and, without apology, make ourselves at home there.

David Harris Ebenbach’s first book of short stories, Between Camelots, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award.  His short fiction has been published in the Antioch Review, the Greensboro Review, and Crazyhorse, his poetry in Artful Dodge, Mudfish, and the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he wrote a chapter, “Plot: A Question of Focus,” for Gotham Writers Workshops’ book Writing FictionRecently awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship, Ebenbach teaches Creative Writing at Earlham College.  Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.

Read Full Post »

butterfliesLast night, reading Anthony Doerr’s lovely essay, “Butterflies on a Wheel,” in a recent issue of Granta, I came across this line: “The brain contains, always, two opposing desires: the urge to stay and the urge to run.”

I read it again. The urge to stay and the urge to run. The phrase echoed in my mind: I had encountered this idea somewhere before. Then it came to me. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert says, “Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains.”

That same word: desire. Stay/restrain, run/impel. Flaubert’s idea is larger, encompassing as it does the notion of social mores and expectations. But convention might as easily come from within as without, and the fact that these forces are in constant tension within us is both a truism and an idea that bears repeating.

It really doesn’t matter whether Anthony Doerr remembered the line from Madame Bovary. I imagine he didn’t. This idea – doubtless repeated in different ways by countless writers over the years – is perennially interesting. Reshaped for a new time and circumstance and refreshed by context, it becomes new again.

(The title itself, “Butterfly on a Wheel,” is an allusion to a line in Alexander Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” about the foolishness of expending great effort on an inconsequential task. Same conceit, new iteration …)

Read Full Post »

george-orwellIn his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell made a list of six rules for writers. “These rules sound elementary,” Orwell wrote, “and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable.” Though he compiled this list in 1946, it’s as relevant and useful today as it was then:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Read Full Post »

Anna Karenina is more than 800 pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many 300-page books?

Anna KareninaAs I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. He often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense – a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk – which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is fairly easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’d be tempted to put it down, but then I’d riffle ahead to find that the next chapter was only three pages long.

Three pages – I can do that. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door …

Read Full Post »

Wendepunkt is a German word that means turning point.  In Modernism, Ray Bradbury defines wendepunkt as the moment in a novel “in which there is an unexpected yet in retrospect not unmotivated turn of events, a reorientation which one can see now is not only wholly consistent but logical and possibly even inevitable.”  This moment often involves a reversal of the protagonist’s fortunes.  Aristotle called it peripeteia, the crisis action of a tragedy.

wendepunkt In her masterful guide to narrative craft, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway says, “A reversal of some sort is necessary to all story structure, comic as well as tragic. Although the protagonist need not lose power, land, or life, he or she must in some significant way be changed or moved by the action.”  This internal and external change, when it comes, may surprise the reader, but should be organic to the plot. Whether shocking or confusing or exhilarating, it should feel intrinsic to the story.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »