BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS

 

There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter books in which Ginny Weasley looks up from her seat in the Great Hall and remarks, “There’s Harry. He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Harry PotterShe’s exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. When he’s not actually bleeding, Harry is suffering a searing pain in his scar, a broken arm or a smashed nose, not to mention assorted psychological tortures. There’s a reason for his torment. There’s also a reason that magic potions taste like pus and earwax instead of lemonade, and that Rowling’s other series’ hero, Cormoran Strike, has an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. It’s the same reason, and it’s one all writers need to understand.

I’ll tell you what that is in just a moment. First I want to cite His Holiness, Mark Twain. “The writer’s job,” he famously said, “is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.”  By dropping them into situations of conflict, we strip away the social masks and force their true selves, the way a gardener forces a bulb. Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes. Until they are tested, they can neither succeed nor fail; they cannot change, and change is essential in fiction.

Life is a struggle; all grownups know that. Fiction must be as well, or readers will not care or engage. We need protagonists who are passionately invested in some enterprise, something they need to achieve or avert despite all obstacles. The novel is a chronicle of that battle.

Dorothy2As readers we know this. We expect conflict and trouble in fiction; we demand it. And it needs to come, not all at once, but throughout the story. Imagine this alternative version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy lands safely in Oz. Instead of taking the ruby shoes from the witch she killed, she receives them as a gift. The Munchkins tell her that in order to get home, she needs to see the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road and meets many helpful people on her journey. They point out the way and give her whatever she needs. After a pleasant walk, Dorothy arrives in Oz and is taken at once to see the wizard. He listens to her story and agrees to send her back to Kansas. Following his instructions, Dorothy clicks her shoes together and is instantly transported home.

The end.

Do you love it? Of course not. You may even be asleep by now. Without its dangers and challenges, Dorothy’s journey would have been long forgotten. She might as well have stayed home.

So here is the reason Harry’s always covered in blood, and I’ll thank you to remember where you heard it: In fiction, every gain needs to come at a cost.

Dickens knew that. Tolkien knew it, too; and Rowling’s got it down in spades. By the time Harry Potter has to battle his nemesis, he’s acquired great abilities and knowledge, every bit of which cost him dearly, with the costs escalating throughout the series. Harry can read the enemy’s mind—but to do so he must bare his own mind to assault. When he needs essential information, it’s obtainable—but it costs the life of a key ally. He’s given the means to defeat his enemy—but  only if he’s willing to die in the process.

Nothing comes for free (except this blog).

mountainSo here’s the takeaway for writers. I teach writing, and before that I was a literary agent for 14 years, so I’ve read a ton of beginner fiction. One of the most common weaknesses lies in the writers’ tendency to smooth the way for their protagonists. If a detective needs information, someone’s sure to volunteer it. If our hero is stranded on a mountaintop, help will arrive in a four-wheel drive. If his house were on fire, the heavens would open in a dowsing rain. These authors are benevolent gods.

But that is not what fiction needs. To be kind to their readers, writers must often be hard on their characters. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place in fiction for good luck or gratuitous kindness: a gift of information, aid, comfort. But how much more powerful are those moments if everything else is hard-won? Don’t present your characters with gifts on a platter. Make them work for everything they get, make them pay a price; and readers will love them for it.

 

 

 This is one in a series of posts on the craft of fiction writing. Here are some others: The Biology of Fiction; Game of Words; Settings; and What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones.  You can subscribe to this blog via links to right and above. For more information about my online writing workshops, visit my website. And finally: if you or anyone on your Christmas list has a taste for literary mayhem, may I recommend A DANGEROUS FICTION?

 

WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

Rejection: Good for the Writer’s Soul?

 

There’s a schism in the writing world. Messianic advocates of self-publishing tout its benefits; skeptical opponents counter with the lack of all the services provided by preacherpublishers. As a novelist, blogger, and former literary agent, I’ve read countless iterations of both positions, which keep changing as self-publishing evolves. Just a few years ago, publishing and self-publishing were separate worlds; now they’re developing a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other. Success in self-publishing can lead to multi-book contracts with major publishers; while many published authors, formerly sidelined as “midlist” authors, are reviving their careers and making good money through self-publishing. A new species is emerging: hybrid writers with a foot in each camp.

As the tools available to self-publishers continue to develop, they may overcome many of the industry’s current deficits. But the greatest drawback to self-publishing is one that can never be overcome, because it is intrinsic to the enterprise: the lack of rejection.

Before the advent of simple, do-it-yourself e-publishing, when publishers ruled the planet, rejection was an inescapable part of the writer’s existence. Most published novelists were turned down many times, often on multiple books, before breaking into print. Most “first” novels passed through a gauntlet of rejection by agents and publishers before finding a home.  No one got through unscathed.

Rejection isn’t some sort of japish frat hazing we can all laugh about later. It hurts badly and over time has a cumulative effect on the writer’s psyche. Many give up. Depression is common. John Kennedy O’Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, due in part to repeated rejections of his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which was published years later and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Some writers go a little crazy, or a lot. I wrote about one such writer in A DANGEROUS FICTION, but it happens in real life, too. Last year, a West Coast literary agent was stalked and attacked by a disgruntled writer.

Connoisseurs of rejection, aka writers, know that not all rejections are the same. They fall into three basic categories:

crazyHomicidal. One publisher called Nabokov’s  Lolita “overwhelmingly nauseating” and recommended that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years. Another predicted that Mailer’s The Deer Park would “set publishing back 25 years.” When Hunter Thompson was responsible for evaluating submissions to Rolling Stone magazine, he wrote one rejection letter that started with “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead,” and went downhill from there.

Unhelpful.  These include form letters (“We regret that your work does not quite suit our list…”) and, cruelest of all, silence.

 “Close but no cigar.” These “good rejections” come with useful notes from the agent or editor and sometimes an invitation to revise and resubmit. They’re a sign that the work is almost but not quite where it needs to be.

Rejection hurts. The more you’ve put into a book, the more it hurts. And yet I suspect that rejection is the cod liver oil of the writer’s diet. It tastes vile but can have salutary effects.

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First, insomuch as it acts as a spur to revision, rejection is a functional part of the artistic process.  Good writers are always just a hair’s breadth away from becoming better writers, and the necessity to go back time and again at a piece of writing can be precisely the impetus that’s needed.  I had the rare opportunity, early in my career, of sitting down with an editor who had rejected my second novel, CAFÉ NEVO, and learning exactly why. It was the first real editorial feedback I’d ever had, and though the meeting didn’t last long—half an hour or so–the conversation opened my eyes. I rewrote the novel. It  sold it to another publisher and received wonderful reviews and praise from writers like Alan Sillitoe, Madeleine L’Engle and Alice Hoffman–none of which would have happened without the input  of the editor who’d rejected it.

The lure of self-publishing can abort this process, to the detriment of both writers and readers. When J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. She spent five years planning the series and writing the first book. A literary agent made editorial suggestions, which she implemented. The revised book was rejected by a dozen publishers until Bloomsbury bought it for £1500, at which point it underwent further editing. The book so many millions of readers came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the draft Rowling had finished years earlier. What would have happened, how much would have been lost, if she’d self-published her first draft straight to Kindle?

tigerSecond, the gatekeepers so despised by self-publishing advocates serve an essential role in the publishing ecology. Acting as super-predators, literary agents and editors thin the herd of writers, eliminating those who lack ability and/or stamina— both are needed—and toughening the hides of the survivors.  “Talent is helpful in writing,” Jessamyn West wrote, “but guts are absolutely essential.”

The_philosopherThird, not all novels need to be published. Writing’s like any craft: it takes talent, time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship. Most published writers have an early unpublished manuscript or two tucked away in a drawer, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. The brilliant writer Edward Whittemore completed seven novels before selling one: not an apprenticeship one would wish on any writer, but it demonstrates the devotion bordering on obsession that characterizes the breed.

One might argue that self-published writers have had their share of rejection; that’s why they self–publish. That’s not entirely true, since some writers are self-publishing by choice. Most first-time novelists, though, have indeed tried and failed to find publishers. If rejection is an unpleasant but salutary part of the writer’s journey, why hasn’t it worked its magic on them?

The answer is that there are limits to what rejection and revision can do. A fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach, but you’ve got to have the pumpkin. A person can pour heart and soul into a novel and still end up with something only a mother could pumpkinread. As anyone who has ever sloshed through an agent’s slush pile will tell you, most first novels can’t be salvaged. If it pleases those authors to self-publish electronically, at least no trees will be killed in the process, and no one will stand between their books and potential readers.

The fundamental problem with self-publishing is not that bad books are published, but that good ones are published prematurely: books that could have been better, even great, if the writer had worked harder on them, for years if necessary, until they were good enough to sell, and then worked on them some more with the help of a first-class editorial team.  Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or two later it’s in your hands or on your screen. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer, risks rejection, and often requires multiple revisions, but the result is a better book. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

Well, that and sales, too. As the holidays roar down on us, I will join in the chorus of heavenly pitches and mention that books make the very best presents; and I happen to have a few out there for the readers on your list. I’d also like to thank the San Francisco Book Review for their early present: a wonderful 5-star review of A DANGEROUS FICTION that called it “a terrific mystery novel, told with warmth and snarky wit.”