Went to a Society of Authors drinks party the other day - met some lovely writers and their partners. It was in the back room of beautiful old colonial building, replete with wood beams, deep carpets and sweet staff to help the night along.
We met a writer who had the dream happen to her.
You know the one.
You spend a decade or so trying to write a book, in between work and life, finally getting it done.
You send it out and it's immediately picked up and published to great acclaim by the first major publisher you submit to...
I mentioned to her at this point, "You know that never happens?"
"Yes," she said. "And I feel awfully guilty."
"No need," I said. "Writers need proof it can happen. Just to keep us going!"
We met other writers at various stages in their careers. Some unpublished, some having books coming out of their ears. It takes all sorts - and curiously I realized it's next to impossible to tell how well a writer is doing just by looking at them...
Most have this de rigueur scruffiness about them. I guess because dressing up is alien to most writers and not something that needs to happen much.
A couple of the successful writers mentioned that the whole concept of going out into the world and talking about their books felt bizarre. Clearly, if you're the kind of person who wants to spend long hours alone and writing, you're not going to be ideally suited to being a great public speaker. With exceptions of course.
Many of the conversations turned to how our parents felt about us being writers. And how most of our mothers disapproved or were openly hostile to the idea of writing for a living.
Odd that - because Robyn and I thought we were unique in that regard. Apparently not. Mothers - as a breed - obviously regard writing as some kind of shameful career, not to be encouraged.
I'm sure much of that has to do with our mothers wanting the best for us - knowing instinctively that the odds of success are against us.
There again, in my experience, pretty much all writers who commit to the life eventually make it in some way.
No, it seems to go further. As though the act of writing is somehow a betrayal. As if wanting to be a writer is a kind of slap in the face to our mothers. Like they've somehow failed in their parenting if they spawn so lowly a life form as a writer.
Plus, writing is about commenting on life, our upbringing, our beliefs, making sense of the world's insanity. So I guess if we spend our lives questioning and recording life's inadequacies and people's foibles, then perhaps we really are worrisome individuals who don't necessary feel content in our skins... perhaps that is the bad thing in their eyes.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it - and my mother wouldn't approve. She who got angry when I said - at fourteen - I wanted to be a journalist - and cried a few years later - at seventeen - when I said I wanted to be a rock star.
I'd failed her because I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer. But this is the woman who thought I should be an assistant in a hardware store or a factory worker or an office drone - ANYTHING but an artist.
Even when I was turning thirty and we met for drinks in London one fine day, she was still saying, "Oh, Robert, you should settle down. Leave all the music and the writing behind and get a proper job. Haven't you got all that out of your system yet?"
As if I ever would...
Funny things, mothers.
Maybe we just remind them of all the things they gave up to look after us - like being a writer perhaps.
They only want us to be happy, apparently.
And perhaps being a writer is like saying: "I'm not happy!"
But of course, if that's the case, then writing is what makes us happy.
I shouldn't go on so. Ever since Freud mothers have had a bad rap, probably always have, even before. Nowadays they get the blame for psychopaths too. Hardly fair.
Robyn's mother once apologized for not having faith in her - admittedly after her eightieth book! Mine's yet to do that.
Dad's always was a secret admirer - even when he disapproved of my rock band days, he whispered to me confidentially that he thought it was cool I got paid for drinking in the day time (his personal fantasy) and sleeping till noon when I wanted.
Later he was just relieved I'd got a house, a wife and cars. The rest - having bestselling books - was just a bonus as far as he was concerned.
Mom's harder to read.
Maybe we can never live up to our mother's expectations, if we ever knew what they were.
In the mean time, I still have a few projects left to write, Mom, now that I have settled down - as a writer.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
Friday, May 5, 2017
The other day, a writer friend of mine told me her publisher recommended she read a certain book to get the flavor of what they liked to publish. Eager to know, my author friend rushed to find the book and devour it... only to feel disappointed - and confused.She wondered what it was about this book the publisher liked. The story wasn't great. The writing was average. Some of the pacing seemed awkward. Then it hit her. It was the ATTITUDE of the protagonist that gave the book its appeal. The hero was feisty, quick to anger, even spiteful and yet somehow lovable.
It's no secret that I believe the key to good story telling is 'character'. It should come before everything else - before plotting, before story, even before putting pen to paper. If your characters aren't real to you, their stories will never work.
And while I've spent much time elsewhere talking about the importance of creating believable characters, I don't think I've given over as much time on their 'attitudes' as perhaps I could have done.
So let's do some exploring, shall we?
Think of some classic fictional characters. What's the first thing that comes to mind? Their physical appearance? Rarely. It's usually their demeanor, isn't it? Their unique way of interacting with the world - yes, their attitude towards what they do.
James Paterson's Alex Cross is a great character because he's all heart. He loves his family and truly values friendship - and takes his psychopath's activities very personally!
Patricia Cornwall's Kaye Scarpetta doesn't respond well to being patronized or underestimated. She's also way too protective of her niece. Notice too that she gets much more critical of her partner's habits as the series progresses.
The Da Vinci Code's Robert Langdon is intrigued by mystery and secret symbols. Interestingly, despite being a simple college professor he seems to possess almost superhuman powers of endurance. In Angels and Demons, for instance, he actually falls out of a plane without a parachute over Rome... and survives with barely a scratch!
I think Harry Potter's appeal has much to do his ordinariness. He never believes he's capable of what he has to face. Everybody and his dog knows he's supposedly destined for greatness but he doesn't ever seem quite ready for it.
The next time you're inventing (major and minor) characters, don't just imagine their physical attributes, try to give them depth by wondering what they would be passionate about or, conversely, have little interest in. What would annoy them - or thrill them?
Give them short term and lifelong agendas, things they are committed to achieving or seeing come to pass. These are the things that will help with your plotting. Once you know what one of your characters would definitely NOT do, your stories will begin to take on a life of their own.
Remember, never impose a story on a character. The best stories come out of the main character's conflicting agendas.
For example, it's not enough to have some anonymous killer trailed by any old ordinary detective. The killer must be fully realized - there must be very good reasons (if only in his own mind) why he does what he does. Similarly, for good fiction, the detective should be motivated by much more than just 'doing his job' to make a story like this compelling.
Once we know the killer hates women and perhaps himself, and that the detective is terrified of losing his wife to him, then we begin to care about the outcome.
I think one of the reasons Hollywood movies work so well is that the big stars come with a ready made attitude. We all know what to expect from actors like Robert Downey Jr, Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson. No matter what characters they play, we sense their attitudes, their strength and depth, even though we know they're only acting!
So, the message is that during character development, try to imagine being inside the head of your character. Don't just give them attributes, histories and agendas, go the extra mile and give 'em attitude!