Monday, January 9, 2012

Bringing back the dead

Happy Monday, everyone!

Back in 2008, I had a writing professor critique my first completed novel, Rooster. The review was one of the most helpful I've ever gotten, and he was able to sum up the problem--at least how he saw it--with one sentence: You can't bring back the dead.

This man's argument was that my main character was at such a low point in the beginning of the novel that there wasn't enough time or pages to build him up to a point where he could reach a happy ending. He was so far down that there was no bringing him back up.

This concept has resurfaced because I recently got a review (read: rejection) from a small press editor who argued that the main character of my novella, Bread, was too numb to the world. She suggested I make him more emotional, thereby enabling the reader to feel more emotion in the story.

I've been writing for a good twelve or thirteen years now, and one thing that has become obvious is that I consistently become fascinated by the same type of character. This character is usually pretty repressed, to the point where any strong emotions that she or he may feel have been buried by layers of defense mechanisms and denials, etc. They are often numb and dead to the world. These are the people I am trying to explore for various personal reasons.

So, what exactly is a writer to do? On the one hand, I have some very valid criticism. On the other hand, I have my own personal interests.

What I come to realize again and again, and what I have to remind myself about again and again, is that the solution will not come from me changing my characters. I don't want the murderer of Bread to be full of emotions that surface easily. That's not what I'm interested in. Instead, my challenge is to figure out a way to communicate the story of my dead and numb character in a way that is interesting to the reader. What needs to change, I think, is my telling of the story, not the story itself.

To be clear, I'm not discouraged. Really, the rejection I got did not make me feel bad at all. (Others have, but this one did not.) The editor obviously invested a lot of time and energy into trying to connect with the story, and she offered a lot of feedback. So, I'm not asking to be consoled. But what I'm reminded of is that the job of figuring out how to pitch my product probably hasn't been accomplished yet. That poses an exciting challenge for me.

More and more I buy into the importance of pursuing one's own unique vision. The challenge is to present that vision in a way that captures the hearts and imaginations of readers. When that happens, instead of changing your world to fit the view of someone else, you change the view of that someone else to be able to see your world.


  1. (I happen to believe that every person on the planet is capable of killing if pushed far enough, but let’s put that point aside for a moment.)

    I think expressing them and not just keeping it all bottled in, is healthy. (Duh.) Healthy people generally don’t kill people, unless the money is good! Someone brought far enough to the edge to actually commit murder should have something mentally wrong with them. Of course, there are many reasons to off someone, I guess I’m thinking mainly of passionate reasons. As someone who seldom shows his rage (lol), a repressed murderer rings true to me. You can enlighten the reader as to why your murderer is repressed with something more to what “they” want, but please don’t change him just to compromise.
    …unless he’s an emotional mental case in a clown costume singing show tunes.

  2. A rejection that comes with editorial suggestions is not really a rejection at all.

    I personally don't want to read about charcters who are riding high on life. But does your numb, dead character have a few sparks of passion or personality that makes us root for her? I'm thinking of the Hannibel character, as an example, of a character who for all his flaws was actually likable. I wanted him to get away. Maybe that points to a flaw in my psyche.

    Congratulations on a rejection with feedback and by all means, hang on to your own personal writing style.

  3. Isn't that "You can't bring back the dead"?

    When I was rewriting my Hamlet novel while working with my first agent, I completely lost sight of the things that I wanted to write about in the first place because I was trying to shape the book into something to please one particular reader, the agent. I liked the book less and less with each revision, the more it became something the agent felt he could shop around. After seven or eight major revisions I finally threw up my hands and wrote a different book.

    Bread is a great story. So is The Whole Wide Open (or whatever you chose to call it). I don't think there's anything wrong with the way you present your characters, or the characters you choose to present. There's a cliche where a repressed or highly introverted character breaks through that repression/introversion and becomes more integrated into society or whatever, and it's a cliche and not the only (or most interesting) thing to say about those types of characters. Not every story should be about people becoming "well adjusted" or "likeable" or "happy." Not every story needs to be the transformational hero's journey.

    Maybe I'm just in a pissy mood because half an hour ago one of my coworkers was telling me how she heard an interview on the radio this weekend with Amanda Hocking, whose books weren't selling until she decided to write vampire YA and now she's rolling in money. My coworker said, "Sometimes you have to compromise your priciples." To which I replied, "No, you really don't."

    I am also coming to the point of view that "This is what I'm doing" is more important than "This is what will sell."

  4. Charlie, I agree with you, and I think what happened to me was that I decided my killer was a psychopath and pretty calm, cool, and collected. How do I make that interesting? There is no clown costume. Clowns are scary in a way I don't like at all.

    Yvonne, Hannibal was a fantastic character, perhaps one of my favorite from the movies. (I never read the books.) I think about him a lot when I try and describe my villains!

    Scott, typo corrected. And what a big typo it was!

    "This is what I'm doing" is the mindset to have, and I think a good critique should come in the form of "This is how you can get better at doing what you're doing" rather than "This is what you should have done."

    Your coworker (cow-orker) just wants money, and that's really okay too, if you just want money. Writing seems like a hard way to accomplish that, but that's me.

  5. Scott said: I am also coming to the point of view that "This is what I'm doing" is more important than "This is what will sell."

    Thank you! Your fan base does and will appreciate that.

  6. Davin, I think your approach to the Bread critique is spot-on: to remain committed to your vision for the work, but see an opportunity to improve your telling of the story. I agree it can be a challenge to involve your readers emotionally (if that's your aim, which it's usually a good thing) in a novel with a repressed protagonist, but a creative focus on how the story is told can do the trick.

    I see these repressed, emotionless characters as akin to black holes. Although no information can escape a black hole's event horizon, the black hole still interacts with its environment (though its gravitational field, the "emission" of Hawking radiation, etc.) and can be detected through its effects. Similarly, one way (not the only way) I could see of dealing with such a character in long-form fiction would be to create emotional resonance through other characters or other aspects of the narrative. Perhaps through symbolic association?

    I'm not at all trying to suggest "fixes" (I wouldn't presume to), but your post has me thinking out loud. It's like a puzzle: what are the ways one might use to get from A to B?

    And Time's Arrow comes to mind, where Martin Amis explores the Holocaust by creating a narrator who lives silently inside the head of the main character (a Holocaust participant), but lives his life backward. Because the narrator is an entirely different entity, you get none of the main character's thoughts and feelings (if I recall correctly -- I read the book so long ago), but you feel things through this unique viewpoint of experiencing the events of his life backwards, with no foreknowledge of causation.

  7. ...instead of changing your world to fit the view of someone else, you change the view of that someone else to be able to see your world.

    I believe we all essentially have to do this at some point or another. I don't normally read books about psycho killers, but if it were an honest portrayal, with a good plot and a lot of interiority, I would probably enjoy it. I would just have to change my view.

    @Scott -- "No you really don't." Agents and editors told me I had to have sex in my romance books to sell. Well, that's not what I write and I wasn't compromising for anyone. I'll never sell out my integrity for anyone.

  8. But what if your character is emotionally numb? I have to say I took that comment very personally when I read it because the protagonist in my last novel suffers (although it’s never mentioned in the text) from schizoid personality disorder and doesn’t behave “normally.” You are clearly a writer like me who write to learn stuff about yourself, to explore certain aspects of who you by personalising them and letting them run about on a page for a few thousand words. The big problem is how, as you say, to promote a book like that. It seems condescending to tell a reader how to read any book but the simple fact is that one doesn’t read Kafka with the same mindset as one might Ian Fleming. I’ve just had the first review of my new novel and the relief I felt was striking: it was a good review but that’s not the point; the point is he got the book. That’s what we’re really after.

  9. I've had this problem too. Sometimes I look at something I've written and it seems like the side-kick character is more alive and interesting than the main character. Sometimes the solution is to switch to the side-kick. Hey, if your characters want to take over, let them!
    Hope you get it sorted out!

  10. "What needs to change, I think, is my telling of the story, not the story itself." This is an important sentence and all writers should consider it carefully. Thanks!

  11. Oh, dear, this reminds me of Cinders and the feedback I've received about Christina not being likable enough for the story I wanted to tell. Let's just say that still leaves me scratching my head. I should write a post about that this week. But that aside, I agree with Scott's comment in that we should never write anything for anyone else. Unless, of course, you want to, which I find crazy, even with money involved. The whole concept has been an interesting thing for me to swallow as I've dealt with a publisher and different editors. When so many other people become involved in the project, things can start to change, and it's harder to keep my work in line with the visions in my head. But I have so far.

    Everyone has an opinion about your work, but only your own matters in the end. You already know that.

    As far as Bread goes, I actually loved that aspect about the story most - how dead your character was. It's a novella. The whole point, to me, was to explore where that would go and getting glimpses into what might drive a human being to do certain things. It was fascinating to me. I just don't understand for one second what making him more emotionally alive would accomplish besides wasting time on the story getting him to the dead point. That would be an entirely different story.

    One thing I love about Dr. Horrible (and you need to see it if you haven't) is that the character starts off emotionally alive and ends up emotionally dead. It's a well-told journey, but I see Bread as the type of story that happens after a character like that become emotionally dead. It's like the stories after happily-ever-after. I know that might not make any sense, but what I'm saying is rarely are those stories told. As a quote from one of my favorite movie says, "It's after the marriage when all the interesting stuff happens."

  12. I read Scotts post above before this one. But what I'm seeing from both posts is a question of whether agents/publishers truly are looking for the unique perspective. It seems to me they want the same old story concepts.

    Maybe today's reader really only wants to feel good and read a hero who starts with nothing and rises through unrealistic odds to be a winner. And does it with sex appeal.

    I think though, that because so many of us authors are writing the darker side, where a satisfactory ending isn't necessarily a happy ending, that the industry isn't totally paying attention. If you only flood the market with one thing, of course it will sell.

    I'm glad you're reworking Bread to your own perspective. Its great that you go so much useful feedback on the novel too.

    Good luck with the revisions :)



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