Struggling With Modern Literature

“Personal cynicism, disillusionment and bitterness.” This is a sentence I found describing the thrust of modern literature. If true, it describes why I don’t read much of it. A Twitter friend told me that he doesn’t believe that real life has arcs. I disagreed, saying my own life has had plenty of arcs, a lot of them resolved in an unsatisfactory way. This is my reason for avoiding cynical, disillusioned, and bitter fiction. Since I worked so hard to not give in to feelings of despair, it’s unlikely I should find them entertaining even in fiction form. Thus, I find my reading solace primarily in genre fiction.

Recently, someone wrote about how genre fiction remains popular. It’s always around and probably always will be. It isn’t out of the ordinary, which is why it isn’t very appreciated by critics. This may be true. In which case, we genre writers may be like male Bower Birds, each trying to make our niche nests a little more inviting to potential readers, decorating and rearranging our prose into something pleasing to ourselves. We reveal ourselves in our individual glory and hope that others find us attractive. We are dismayed when a flashier bird gets the attention.

But do we have any intention of trying to be that flashier bird? Don’t think so.

Some of us write to entertain. Some of us write to answer our own questions. Some of us write to find out what we know. There are other reasons and combinations of reason. One thing that unites us is that we find genre writing pleasurable.

Come to the genre side – it’s fun here.

What Makes a Character Worth Liking?

I’ve just started corresponding with my #LitChat friend @Mamafog (also known as Karen) about what makes a fictional character likable. In particular, she asks what makes a character likable for me?

As seen previously in this space, I’ve been giving my reading some thought, finding more and more of the novels recommended to me by others as not enjoyable or just okay. Where I used to devour anything readable – including the backs of cereal boxes when I was out of books – I now have to make time to read, so naturally resent spending time on books I don’t like. And, generally speaking, I don’t like books where I don’t like the main characters.

What Makes a Character Worth Liking?

  • I guess, first of all, I have to be able to see myself, at least a little, in him or her. Someone completely different will make it hard for me to identify with them as they struggle with their challenges. This isn’t usually a problem, since all of us share some traits.
  • S/he has to have a decent code of ethics at core. Just the basics – not killing people for fun or wanting to have ultimate power, that kind of thing.
  • S/he has to be self-aware. There’s no point in seeing how a character grows if s/he remains blissfully ignorant of the changes s/he’s gone through.
  • I like a sense of humour. It can be dark, sarcastic, self-deprecating, or just wacky. Humour helps us recognize ourselves and frame a situation. What makes you laugh helps define you. And if you have no sense of humour, that might be funny in itself.
  • With secondary characters, I prefer they not be there just to serve as cannon fodder or to scream on cue. Even if they won’t be around long enough for me to learn much about them, I like it when I feel they are as much people as the main characters.

That’s the short list for me. I’m sure that continuing to think about it will bring other things to light, like why some books I enjoyed even though I didn’t like the characters. And what part narrative plays in helping me decide whether a book and its characters are good or not*.

Got your own list  of what makes you like a character or not?  Let’s talk about it.

* ‘Good’ being a term relative to our individual interpretations, of course.

Show Me The Character

I started reading Incarceron (by Catherine Fisher) as part of my foray into YA books (also read Leviathan by Westerfield and Thompson, reviewed on Goodreads here). It started up slow for me and only now, where the two main protagonists are actually talking with each other, is it really starting to get interesting to me. I’m also reading The Pale Blue Eye (by Louis Bayard) and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (by Susanna Clarke). These books, in conjunction with some discussions on both LitChat and SciFiChat on Twitter have underlined for me the fact that if I don’t like the characters, I probably won’t like the book. Maybe this is why so many modern novels in ‘Literature’ remain only partially read by me – they seem to be inhabited by a bunch of people I would not want to know. Some writers have told me they like to read about the human condition. My condition is such that I want to spend my precious reading time with either an interesting puzzle, learning something new (nonfiction), or with fictional people I can admire or whose company I enjoy.

What have you learned about yourself from what you’ve read?

Wanting To Be

I have a story in this anthology; my first published work outside of a magazine

Read this; I’ll wait.

She desired to be a writer, but had not considered making a living as part of the plan. When she did, she gave up the notion of a writing life for a while and ‘did other things.’

I have a few thoughts about this.

One is that doing ‘other things’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re able to write all day long and not have to do other things, how good will you be? Even Jane Austen had to work at living in her constricted society, which provided much fodder for her post French revolutionary novels. One can definitely say that she wrote about what she knew. Most of us end up doing other things and write when we can.

Still, why shouldn’t a person who wants to write think about how a full-time writing life might be funded? My mother wanted me to be an attorney, my father wanted me to be either a nurse or a teacher until such time as I married and founded my own family. Idiot that I was, I thought a teaching career meant shoehorning knowledge into the brains of ten year olds and I never thought about becoming a professor of English; despite Career Day, I never had a firm grasp on the options available (which were fairly limited at the time).

I get annoyed with my callow, past self sometimes for being too easily dissuaded. But in the late 1960s, the library lacked the materials that could tell me what a writer’s life was really like and the books that famous writers wrote about writing were nearly unintelligible to a 16 year old with little life experience. There was no internet to browse, and every adult I talked with told me to pick something more serious and suitable for a girl.

What’s more serious than writing, and why can’t girls be writers? I might have asked. But I wasn’t raised to ask such questions. Since I could be stubborn about my writing, I might have chosen writing as a career anyway, but I didn’t know enough about it as a life that I felt I could choose it. I wasn’t confident in making the choice. As it turned out, I did make a living as a writer, putting out user manuals, marketing materials, speeches, and policies and procedures guides.

But there’s something about telling people you are – or want to be – a fiction author. It makes you hesitate. It makes you feel awkward or weird. Even now, when I’m mostly retired, I hesitate. Because I still get those looks, those speculative looks, sizing me up to see if I’m author-worthy. And why do I only feel comfortable saying it now because I’m mostly retired? Isn’t that sort of like saying, “Hey – I’ve done all the important stuff I’m going to do in my lifetime, so now I’ll just amuse myself with writing as a hobby.”? Like I’m asking for their indulgence.

Even people in their twenties probably get that pitying look when they state writing books as a career. Yeah, sure. You’ll find out soon enough, you sweet, deluded kid. Older people can only justify it by being done with traditional things. You can be a technical writer, a blogger/journalist, or a joke writer. But if you want to be a novelist, you’ll have to squeeze it in between family responsibilities and bread-winning. And you don’t mention it.  It’s not something you add on at introductions: “Hi, I’m Bob. I’m an expediter, but someday I’m going to write a novel.” And why can’t you? Because your worth as a creative person is determined by what you sell, not what you produce. Tech writers are paid by someone to write the manuals and online help. Bloggers can be paid by ad sales, nonfiction books about how to be a successful blogger. Journalists are paid by news outlets. Joke writers are paid by the joke and the good ones sell directly to comedians or work for SNL. It’s not art in the public mind, it’s production.

Can you really be considered a novelist if you’ve never been published?  Can you be considered a serious novelist if you pay for your own publishing? It’s weird. People can pay you to be a salesman and no one will question that. Tell them you’re a business owner and you get instant respect. You business might be in Chapter 11 and your employees think you’re the worst boss in the world, but hey – you own a business. Tell them you’re a writer, then tell them you write urban fantasy or science fiction and you can go to the restroom and come back before they can think of something to say.  Who pays the novelist to write?

Okay, this is becoming a Rodney Dangerfield routine…

What I’d like to see happen is that somebody show up on Career Day and tell those kids what it’s like to be a professional writer – that there’s all kinds of ways to do it, just like there are different kinds of engineers and scientists. Plan it like you’d plan for any other career.  If you want to write novels, that’s fine, but it may require some compromises. Unless you’re really, really lucky or really, really good, getting published in the traditional way won’t be easy and you may never hang out on a bestseller list with Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but it can still be satisfying.

And one more thing – it’s okay to tell other people; just say it with as much confidence as you can and try not to feel weird about it.


It’s Not Your English Teacher’s Outline

Recently, I guest moderated #sffwrtchat (science fiction/fantasy writer chat) on Twitter. The subject was outlining, and the newly-created “League of Extraordinary Pantsers” was there to welcome me.

Just in case you didn’t know, writers can be loosely divided into two camps – those who outline, and those who write by the seat of their pants. You might guess that I fall into the outlining group, and you’d be right. I was a technical editor and software project manager for a long time and there’s no way I could avoid outlining.

The chat was an eye-opener for me. For one thing, never having had a conversation about how I outline a story or novel, I’d never actually looked at my process in detail. Secondly, during the course of the conversation, I discovered that a number of the Pantsers didn’t actually hate outlining, they hated what they thought it was.

This Type of Outline Can Be Useful

The type of outline shown at the top, with its Roman Numerals and sub-paragraphs, is the one that most of us learned in English class. And detested. I can just imagine what people who didn’t like writing thought of it if those of us who did like writing disliked it.

It fairly screams dry, boring, and creativity-squashing and the samples (like in the picture) were generally poor. But the tool itself isn’t bad. It’s just our perception. Once you know how to use the traditional outline, it’s fairly useful. It’s a tool, like any other, to be folded into a process; shaped to fit. What I found with the Pantsers I was talking with was they were still stuck in English class, thinking the way they learned it is the way it had to be.

What Do You Use Outlining For?

A good question I was asked at the chat. I’m an INTP, which means that I can be good working with details, I just don’t remember them well because my brain tends to take a forest view, rather than individual trees. So I use outlining to keep track of details and find I refer back to it frequently when I’m writing.

I also use the outline to gauge how the flow of my manuscript is going and see whether a character or action is pulling me off course and whether or not I want to allow it to continue. Also to see if maybe I’m giving too much time to a scene, which is blocking the flow. For me, it’s all about flow. I write from beginning to end, without skipping around. I think this might be due to the technical writing, which was always linear. Once you understand the process for setting up and using an acid bath for etching silicon wafers, you then write about the process: you don’t jump into the  middle of an acid bath. But it could be that my mind just works that way. Whichever, I’m fine with it.

For me, writing a piece is like constructing a jigsaw puzzle. The outline is the edges and corners you lay down first to frame the picture.

I start at the start, end at the end. I may know in my head what the ending will be, more or less, but I don’t write it until I get there, because things could change and I hate wasted energy. As I put the puzzle together, I make sure that each piece fits before moving on to the next, which means I do a lot of rewriting and editing as I go. Because I can end up spending a lot of time reworking a chapter, the outline gets me back in the groove when it’s time to move forward. And when I have to change something, where I will need to edit the preceding work is easier to see because of the outline.

I create several documents for a novel. The character bible, where I list each character and everything I know about him or her. The main outline, which is a high level description of the book, its flow and arcs. I create an outline for each chapter, and – when the chapter is finished – a summary. Yeah, I know that can be a lot of docs, and a lot of work. But keeping these docs does two things for me: helps me maintain my course and helps me feel I’m in control of the novel, rather than the novel controlling me.

I also do outlines for short stories, though I don’t bother with a character bible or the detailed outlines I keep for novels. My short story outlines could even be plotted as line graphs, the elements are terse enough for it.

Do I Recommend This Style of Outlining?

No. It’s just what works for me. Outlining for someone else might be using the graph version, even for a novel. It could be Post-It Notes® or index cards on a corkboard, as some of the outliners in the chat use. A travel writer might print out the pictures taken and arrange them in writing order – a very visual sort of outline.

At the end of the chat, one of the pantsers paid me the compliment of saying I had almost convinced her to give outlining a try. Almost.

I hope she does give it a try. Once she comes over to the dark side, she may never want to leave. Bwahahaha.

In any case, what’s important is that no writer gets hung up on the idea of outlining. It is no more immutable than any of the other tools used by each of us in the process of writing. What’s useful is only what works to help you get the words out and the work finished.

What’s your take on outlining and how does it fit into your process?

Guilty Pleasure Writing

So I came across this post in the NYT by Gary Gutting  from June about relativity in choosing your reading pleasure. Gutting referenced this post in the New Yorker by Arthur Krystal which posits that, if long-lived (and a little lucky) any genre writer can become a literary lion. In the end, it seems that what separates the genre writer from being a literary author is the number and kind of flourishes we use in our work.

Are genre novels inherently inferior?

Gutting says:

…the standards we appeal to in support of comparative judgments within a genre (complexity, subtlety, depth, authenticity and so on) could just as well be used to judge one genre, overall, better than another.

Does Hammett’s Red Harvest have less complexity, subtlety, depth, authenticity than, say, Les Miserables? And how many of the giants of literature – like Dickens – started out as less than adored by book critics? And if rhetorical flourishes are to be the yardstick, then what of Steinbeck and Hemingway?

When I’m asked what I write, I generally see the look of interest fade quickly to dis-interest, if not distaste, when I reply ‘urban fantasy.” I could probably get a better reaction if I said, “mystery” (with vampires and ghosts), since mystery has become what I’d call a respectable genre. Or maybe I’d get a better reaction if I said, “urban fantasy like Harry Potter.” But Rowling’s work and mine are alike only in being under the same, very wide, umbrella, so to link them would be misleading.

Though Urban Fantasy has become a potential Promised Land of best seller-dom (HP, 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight), it’s more than fair to say that hasn’t made it quite respectable. Not as respectable as The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee (here’s the New Yorker Review), which is “A haunting and often heartbreaking epic whose characters explore the deep reverberations of love, devotion and war.” This was the 2011 Pulitzer Prize Fiction winner, but I had to look it up on the Pulitzer site because I’ve never heard of it, stuck as I am in my genre ghetto.

Can a book’s worth ever be known to anyone but its reader? And will it always be relative? Then how are some books considered “serious” and others not?

We all know that being judged good enough for the Pulitzer Prize is not the same as everlasting glory and riches. It matters what you wrote before and what you will write after. Rex Stout may end up being more remembered by readers than Chang-Rae Lee.

So why would Lee’s book have more cachet than Stout’s if mentioned at a cocktail party? And it probably would, although there would be more people enjoying the conversation if it were about Stout than about the latest Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s the weird thing to me. More people will probably have read Stout and enjoyed his books than have read a prize winner, but his books wouldn’t be considered “serious.”

Why is that?


Here’s what HarperCollins is doing for Michael Chabon’s (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”) new book, “Telegraph Avenue” – morphing an indie bookstore into a record shop.

What’s the difference between Chabon’s work and Lee’s? Is it more ‘accessible’? Chabon’s work would still be considered more serious than Stout’s, right? Is that why he gets a quarter of a million marketing stunt budget?

Still pondering here…

Translating the Movie In My Head

As someone who sees her fiction work in terms of scenes, translating those scenes from visuals in my head to words on a page is probably the most difficult part of writing.

This morning, I awoke sluggishly as a scene played out in my brain. It was a familiar ‘surprise’ used in many thrillers: a dorknob turns, the door opens. A man seen only from mid section to the tips of his fingers enters. He has on a nondescript tan raincoat and black gloves. He walks forward a few feet and we become aware he is standing in a living room. He pauses. In the stillness we can hear the muffled laughter of children playing. The man turns to the right and begins to walk quietly up a staircase, his shoes making no noise on the carpeted steps. On the next floor, he moves quickly down the hallway, pauses in front of a door, turns the knob, and opens it. Inside the room, decorated for a young girl, are two children, playing on the floor. They look up wide-eyed at the intruder, who walks towards them. Suddenly, the expressions on the childrens’ faces turn from startlement to joy. “Daddy!” they exclaim, flinging themselves at the man.

I have described this scene the way it might be viewed in a film (although obviously, it’s not formatted as a screenplay). It took me less than a minute or two to ‘see’ this scene in my head, complete with suspenseful background music. It took me so much longer, lying there crafting the sentences, to come to where I felt I was just beginning to get a handle on how this scene would play out in a novel. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I worked it along until the point that I realized I was probably never going to use that scene because it was too cliched, and there was no point in polishing an apple that wouldn’t be eaten.

But it did make me think about how we translate images, picking just the right words in just the right order to get them to help our readers play out the scene in their own heads more or less the way we saw it first.

But why bother?

I have a friend whose writing is pretty much conversation. He’s minimalist when it comes to scene-setting, and I don’t think his story suffers for it. Anyone making a film from one of his works would have to supply most of the visual context. He ‘hears’ the conversation and he writes it down. I hear the conversation as part of a movie in my head. The characters are moving, gesturing, and I feel the need to capture that when I write the scene.

Like my friend, I believe that only what moves the story forward should be included, but for me that can include socio-political asides. I think the main difference between my friend’s work and mine is that he is telling a story as simply as he can. Hemingway would agree with this. I, on the other hand, am always world-building, and always on the lookout for ways to anchor the reader to my world. I don’t think one way is better than another, though my friend’s minimalist writing allows the story to move more quickly, which would probably make it more salable these days, where time has become even more of a commodity.

I’m unlikely to give up my style of writing, so I’ll continue to struggle with getting the scene on paper to match the one in my head, but I don’t mind. I know those worlds – they like me there.

Are you visual? Do you struggle with getting the scene down properly? Or do you favour the minimalist approach? Let me know.