Saturday, July 2, 2022

Contradictory Characters Come to Life

What makes a written character interesting to readers? There are plenty of answers, of course, from honesty to loyalty to the ability to laugh at oneself. I think all those rank high on the list, but for me, what makes a character feel real is contradictions. If I am reading about a detective who is trying to solve a crime but also has a deep need to keep secrets, even when revealing one of those secrets will help bring a criminal to justice, I find that intriguing. If a character says they are doing everything in their power to help someone, but we see them take actions that clearly impede that assistance, that piques my interest.

This illogical, irrational behavior makes us able to relate to characters because, very simply, contradictions are in our DNA; they are a huge part of what makes us human. We constantly use our big brains to rationalize our behavior, because what we do—not just the actions we take, personally, but our influence and downright manipulation of others’ actions—so often goes against what we have professed to believe or know, and may even be in opposition to what we believe to be true about ourselves. 

That’s why when a character says one thing and does another, or thinks one thing, says another, and does a third, we sit up and take notice. We may or may not empathize, or even sympathize with the actions they take, but we are able to connect with that person on a level that we can’t reach with characters who are so squeaky clean that they don’t even think thoughts they wouldn’t articulate aloud. (Those people may work fine as secondary characters, because we won’t be likely to know their innermost thoughts, anyway, and will have to simply take their actions and words at face value.)

But our protagonist and hopefully, our antagonist as well, should be three-dimensional—living, breathing people who most often reveal their inner yearnings obliquely, not directly; the kind of people who don’t say everything they are thinking at all times, the kind of people we instinctively relate to, because we know them intimately and have been privy to their secrets all of our lives. Our parents, our brothers and sisters, our best friends, ourselves.

So, when your heroine has to make a tough decision between equally compelling arguments—one of which will benefit her more and the other option that is the right thing to do, don’t skimp on the moments when she vacillates. Show the inner struggle before she rises to the occasion and does the right thing (or the wrong thing for the right reason). And if she is required to show courage in the face of danger, don’t skip over the part of her that wants to cut and run, to save her own skin, to protect her precious loved ones at the expense of strangers. Because that is what makes simply “doing the right thing” into something righteous, and what makes a kick-ass fight scene meaningful as well as exciting.

This kind of complicated and contradictory inner life is what makes characters written by skilled authors like Elizabeth Strout, Jennifer Egan, and Lily King—I highly recommend Writers and Lovers, pictured here— so very intriguing and so darned likable, even when what they do and say is not always likable.

We humans are flawed. We are selfish, often defensive, and easily scared by change. In an age of better and better artificial intelligence, those foibles might be the final thing that we can cling to, as proof of our kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom. One thing is for sure, though, our insecurities and our self-doubt, and our willingness to rationalize away our bad choices are all a huge part of what make us—and the people and worlds we create on the page—so very interesting.

Keep writing, keep challenging yourself, keep growing. 
Hasta pronto!

Monday, May 30, 2022

Summer Reading and #1000WordsofSummer

First off, Summer reading has to include the compelling new book from Leslie Johansen Nack, The Blue Butterfly: A Novel of Marion Davies. What could be better beachside or poolside reading than the story of this bright, beautiful, talented and scrappy woman, and her relationship with the (at the time) richest and most powerful man in America? The author has captured her voice to the point where you absolutely believe that Marion is speaking to you, telling her "glad rags" to riches story. 


Another winner for summer is Sunshine Chief by Eric Peterson, which just took home the Silver Medal in Popular Fiction at the 2022 Ben Franklin Awards, sponsored by the Independent Book Publishers Association. The second in the Horace Button Series, which began with The Dining Car, Peterson's second is a whole new genre (mystery), but still just as much fun, with Horace's requisite (lavish) amounts of great food, strong drink, and top-notch living in private train cars. 

Speaking of genre-bending, check out Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki, which is a finalist for the 2022 Hugo Awards for Science Fiction. This book bends genres, genders, space and time. You won't know what hit you, but you won't want to put it down either. It is as hard a book to define as I have come across in my 25 years of writing book/story pitches, because it truly it is not quite like anything else out there. Suffice to say, it's got space travel, classical music, and donuts.

Enough about books, let's talk writing: I am going to take on, for the second year, the exciting and fun challenge of #1000wordsofsummer, the brainchild of author Jami Attenberg, whose new memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home  is right at the top of my "to read" list, in fact it is next on my list. Find out more about the two week challenge, which starts June 4, supports great charities, and could get you two weeks into your newest writing project.

I love the accountability of having said "I am going to do this," and I love knowing a whole community of other writers are signing on, too. I really like a challenge, and I like being part of a (virtual) gathering of writers. But whether you do or don't pledge to yourself to write 1000 words a day for the first two weeks of summer, I hope you will decide to take on some new writing project this summer, or will recommit yourself to your current writing project. Why? Because it is what writers do. We write.

hasta pronto!



Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A Wild, Wet, and Windy Spring—and Some Writing News!

The big move happened and our boat is now in Washington State. There was much drama with the lead up to the trucking (so much to do!); the hauling and trucking itself (not enough to do!); and the boatyard and launching and refitting (so much to do!), but Watchfire is back in the water again. The other day, I celebrated Easter Sunday at the top of the mast, since it was the only sunny day (it has been raining A LOT) of the week.

There's still a long list of tasks to complete and both of us are busy with work every day, so the list has to be attacked in a desultory manner. But we have now begun to believe that we will actually be exploring the cays, bays and waterways of Puget Sound this summer!

        Me at the top of the mast, Russel mans the winch and the camera

Meanwhile, back in March, we had an essay published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, which was pretty cool. My friend Kara also published a piece in the very same opinion section on the very same day, both thanks to my amiga Laura Castaneda, and that is really good too, so check them both out.

Kara and I have been in the same writer's group for about ten years now and someone is always publishing something. The brilliant editor Laurie Gibson is working on a very cool rock-and-roll novel set in London, entrepreneur Carol Burt is working on her years-in-the-making memoir—just like me!—and graphic designer/writer Kara is working on some humorous short pieces while working on their new ranch-in-the-city and a child (she and hubby Mark are expecting in May). 

But the biggest news this week from our writer's group is that the other two members, Lisa Gulick and Maria Groschup-Black, have taken over the reins at Sunbelt Publications. If you don't know Sunbelt, then click on this link right now and see their books and a lot more. If you are interested in Nature, Baja, Deserts, Flora and fauna, Hiking, Biking, California (and Baja) History and Natural History, or Native American Culture and Heritage, among other subjects, then Sunbelt has something for you.

You may know that I worked at Sunbelt for over a decade and I still love their history, their books, their ability to help small publishers get out in the world, and their overall mission. I truly believe that the company has an important place in the world of California book publishing and distribution. I wish Lisa and Maria and the whole family at Sunbelt a hearty felicidades and wish them all the best of luck in this transition.

Stay tuned for more pics of the Pacific Northwest this summer.
hasta pronto!




Friday, February 4, 2022

Writers: What are You Giving Yourself for Valentine's Day? How about SCWC?

Yes, it's February 4 and that means only two weeks until the Southern California Writers Conference begins in San Diego (on Friday, Feb 18).  I always look forward to this conference with great expectations, and that is even more true this time, as I prepare to teach a new series of workshops on writing nonfiction.


This year, we are at a new-to-us hotel (the Marriott Mission Valley) which looks fabulous, and after all, this is San Diego, so it no doubt will be fabulous. I know I've said all this before, but bear with me as I remind you of a few reason to attend SCWC:


1. To find your “tribe.” The key reason that this conference changed my writing life—we all need people in our life that "get" us and our writing...You will have plenty of opportunities to find those folks who resonate with you, and vice-versa, at SCWC.


2. To meet industry professionals. Where else can you chat with agents and editors and successful authors in an informal setting like coffee or drinks? At too many conferences all the pros and workshop leaders hang out together and you never actually meet anyone except other first-timers.


3. To get eyes on your work. Your manuscript isn’t necessarily done just because you are tired of working on it. Whether you take pages to read and critique meetings or go to late night “rogues” (or early ones like mine at 7am Sunday) you'll learn what works—and what doesn't.


4. To learn more about craft and story in hands-on workshops like my three new classes, and to learn what's new in the industry. From workshops on publishing, marketing, & promotion for your published book, to great speakers who have a wealth of experience to share with you.


5. Because it's fun! We all need to get out and meet other writers and socialize once in a while. And who doesn't want to hang out with a talented, inspiring, upbeat group of creative souls? So, show yourself some love and take yourself to SCWC—your work is worth it and so are you!


Don’t wait to register; I hope to see you there—hasta pronto!


Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Bloat, or The Power of the Shaggy Dog Story

I recently watched “The Power of the Dog” and could not believe I was watching the same movie that had been touted and lauded for so many weeks. The acting was fine, and the cinematography was beautiful, but the film's pace was glacial. The script was somewhat intriguing, but so spare as far as the actual story that it could have been the plot of a short subject, maybe thirty minutes in length. As a feature film, it was tedious.

Over the last few years, I have noticed something similar creeping into much of our visual and written arts. I think it may have started with Netflix, which is why it was dubbed “Netflix Bloat.” This awful tendency is, simply, the desire to stretch things into a longer format than their inherent story demands. TV shows are fattened up into endless miniseries, and single films are sold as the first installment in a series—to be written, if there is any demand, very soon.


Of course, I am aware that this change was driven by money. The success of franchises drives Hollywood, I get that. Obviously the LOTR trilogy was amazing in its multiple film form, and some long TV series are wonderful—I am as guilty of binge-watching “Downtown Abbey” as the next PBS devotee, but those exceptions only prove the rule. Most series episodes are fattened up with long minutes, and even whole episodes, of what can only be called “filler,” with the characters talking about things that don’t reveal anything new about themselves, or further the plot in any way.


Once upon a time, writers wrote to be serialized over a period of weeks or months, in popular magazines that paid by the word. The result was often quite enjoyable, in the hands of a master of prose like Charles Dickens, but Bleak House has a fairly limited readership today—actually, it is probably being developed as a not-very-limited series as I type these words.


Not surprisingly, we editors have been in agreement, over the years, that less is usually more. When rewriting, we attempt to always “omit useless words,” as the quote goes. Editing is about cutting the chaff and keeping the wheat, as well as taking out the colorful but pointless tangents that take readers nowhere.


But then someone told an author that “to sell well, you need a series,” and every writer took that as marching orders. If they had an idea for a book, they assumed it could be turned into a series. And so stories that had a fairly simple story arc, that could easily be told in one book, become a series of three or four or even five volumes. Next, authors will be paying editors to expand their word counts and suggest tangents.


Bottom line: More is not always better, and quantity is not the same as quality; readers will recommend your one or two books if they contain compelling stories. Period.


Hasta pronto!