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Characters Are More Than A Means To An End

So I spent a lot of Thanksgiving week binge-watching “Jessica Jones” on Netflix as Marvel intended. One thing I loved about the superhero neo-noir was that no character seemed wasted. Every character, from the cynical hard-drinking Jones to her arch-nemesis, the all-powerful Killgrave, seemed to be more than just a plot point. All of them existed as well-rounded characters capable of surprising the audience beyond the demands of the plot.


Too often, characters fall into Checklist Trap. You need a protagonist, an antagonist, perhaps a sidekick or a love interest, maybe a henchman or two, all depending on the story you are trying to tell. It can be easy for a character to never rise above or veer from the roles you have set for them if you aren’t careful.


I recently read an article in which Aaron Sorkin said that characters aren’t people . . . at least not exactly. Real people don’t talk in snappy dialogue (especially outside of a Sorkin movie). Their lives usually don’t conform to a story arc the way a character does in a novel or TV show. But this doesn’t mean they have to be stuck in the convenient Protagonist or Antagonist box in either.


It’s already a good idea to give your characters distinguished voices to tell them apart. Dialogue can feel stilted if everyone gets along, has the same personality and talks the same way. But for your characters to truly live, it has to go beyond that. They need more than just voices – they also need lives – including relationships, likes, dislikes and hobbies – especially ones outside of the purview of the plot.


The opposite extreme is having characters hijack your plot altogether – something many a NaNo writer has fallen victim to. Once again, writers have to walk a tightrope between listening to their characters and sticking to the plan – even if the plan is to write by the seat of your pants. But either way, characters have to exist as more than a means to an end – they can’t just be a bunch of action figures you set upon one another. As both Jessica Jones and its predecessor Daredevil prove, a cast of compelling characters can be powerhouses on any line-up of any project.
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Ending’s Game

A few weeks ago, a friend told me he didn’t like movies where the main character died. He felt this was just the writer’s way at trying to be realistic. It was early, so my writing brain hadn’t sufficiently kicked on to properly argue with him. So here is my response . . . albeit a couple weeks late.

 

As human beings, we look to fiction for a lot of different things – but realism isn’t one of them. We get plenty of that on the news. This isn’t to say gritty realism has no part in writing. No matter what the genre, a sense of realism helps ground the reader in the setting and plot. But it’s rarely the end-all-be-all driving the story. Instead, something else is at play.

 

Most people prefer happy endings.

 

I suspect most writers prefer happy endings

 

So why write otherwise?

 

It’s because, as Dave Wolverton once said, powerful trumps happy. Some of the most powerful moments in movie history are from otherwise unhappy endings. Just look at “Casablanca”. (Sorry for the seventy-four year spoiler, but if you haven’t seen it yet . . . shame on you). Bogart’s Rick Blaine ultimately does the right thing, even though it means saying farewell to the love of his life, Ingrid Bergman’s IIsa, leading to the one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history.

 

But this isn’t to say the powerful ending is always the right ending.

 

Any ending, happy or otherwise, has to be satisfying in order to be effective. A happy ending can be undermined if the main character hasn’t developed or the plot’s resolution seems forced. Similarly. the impact of a serious ending can be marginalized if the reader feels cheated by a twist or feels the resolution is lacking.

 

Maybe all of this is why many good endings are a bit of both. Often times a character must make a sacrifice to achieve his or her happy ending, whether it is the loss of a mentor, the loss of innocence, or something else entirely. Meanwhile some stories end without a clear view of the resolution, offering a sense of ambiguity that prompts responses which vary with every member of the audience.

Ultimately, an ending is an culmination of a collaboration between both the the writer and the audience. As such, the ending, whether it be happy, sad or all of the above, is up to what you – and the reader – make it.

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The Importance of Being Lovecraft

Last week the World Fantasy Convention announced their trophies will no longer be based on the likeness of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Most known for the creation of the Cthulhu mythos and other cosmic horror stories, the famed writer also held disparaging views on a variety of groups – ranging from African-Americans to Irish Catholics. This recently lead the WFC to announce they will be removing Lovecraft’s likeness from their trophies next year in order to promote diversity and be more inclusive to writers of color accepting the award.

While some writers really do want to tear down the house Lovecraft built, doing so is both inadvisable and very much impossible. Lovecraft created a startling reality where alien gods, some indifferent to humanity and others extremely hostile, existed beyond human perception, often resulting in madness for the protagonists of his dark tales. H.P. Lovecraft has influenced many of our literary giants on both the page and the screen – including the likes of John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. And beyond that, his horrific creation Cthulhu has lived on in a way that Lovecraft could have never imagined – as an Internet meme.

However it’s important to note that the Lovecraft legacy can – and will – survive the WFC’s decision. After all, this decision has more to do with the future of the World Fantasy Convention – and the genre itself – than it does Lovecraft himself. That’s because the WFC’s choice of a trophy – in both its Lovecraftian past and TBD future – is a symbol of recognition and pride in the fantasy genre. But if the Confederate flag controversy has taught us anything, it’s that symbols can have multiple meanings, simultaneously existing as both benign and hateful representations.

Truth be told, using Lovecraft’s likeness for the World Fantasy Award has always seemed to be a weird choice to me, the author’s racial views notwithstanding. Critics have pointed out no one has complained about the Bram Stoker Awards, the John W. Campbell Awards or the Edgar Allen Poe Awards. But whatever their personal flaws, these literary figures represent their respective fields to a tee. Stoker, the author of “Dracula”, represents an award given by the Horror Writers Association. Campbell, the writer and editor of “Astounding Science Fiction” (better known as “Analog”), now represents an award for science fiction. Poe, best known for suspenseful tales like “Murders of the Rue Morgue”, now represents an award for mystery. And so forth and so on.

But having H.P. Lovecraft represent the World Fantasy Award is already a little bit of a stretch. First of all, he’s a horror writer, and while fantasy does overlap with horror in dark fantasy, having Lovecraft represent all of fantasy is oddly specific. However, the biggest conflict is having Lovecraft represent the World Fantasy, which is especially ironic since Lovecraft held the Anglo-Saxon race among many others. To put it bluntly, why have a xenophobe – even a highly talented, wildly imaginative, extremely influential xenophobe – represent all fantasy spanning the globe?

For my piece, I think the the face of the World Fantasy Awards needs to be bigger than one man. For all his flaws, Lovecraft conceived of a world beyond the veil of human intelligence. Whatever form the next World Fantasy Award takes, it should represent the fantasy beyond the veil of our dreams, bordered only by our own imagination.

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My Agent Strategy So Far . . .

I’m amazed on how services online I’ve seen which promise “We can get you an agent!”. All of these services are well-intentioned, but they ignore a crucial standard. I don’t just want any agent – I want a great agent.

Of course, I haven’t actually found that great agent yet, but here are my thoughts on the matter so far.

First off, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, the publishing industry has changed. In the past, writers almost always needed an agent to get published. Now times have changed. I can just as easily put up a relatively small amount of money to get my book published on Amazon. So how do I justify giving someone fifteen percent of every book sale? That’s the million dollar question. Some say you don’t need an agent at all. (Check out J.A. Konrath’s awesome blog on self-publishing). But right now, as a new writer, I think my best bet is teamed with an agent and publisher backing me up. (You can read more about my reasoning here.)

So how am I going about finding agents?

Check Publishers Marketplace, Writers Digest and the backs of your favorite books. Publishers Marketplace has been an invaluable tool for finding agents. It costs $25 a month, but you can cancel any time. The website has listings of every agent in every genre, and you can see which agents are making the highest sales in your respective genre. Writer’s Digest also has listing for agents occasionally in their magazine. WD also includes quotes and full interviews with agents on what they are looking for, what frustrates them and what some of their favorite books are. It’s a good way to get insight on a potential agent’s personality, especially if their interest lines up with yours. Lastly, check the back of your favorite books. Most writers will thank their agent in the acknowledgements, giving you a view of who represents who. Just be sure that agent is still representing the author (sometimes it changes) before you query them.

Submit Simultaneously (As Long As It’s Okay with the Agents). Submitting to agents is a number’s game. It’s not practical to give one agent two-to-four months at a time to read your book. I was actually doing this, and it tied up the submission process for over a year. It is okay to submit simultaneously unless otherwise noted in the agent’s or agency’s guideline (check both just to be sure). If it is noted, respect it. You don’t want to get multiple offers to represent you if you can avoid it. This is a business where many agents have lunch together, and you don’t want any hurt feelings early on. But by the same token, you shouldn’t be expected to take five years querying 20-50 agents one at a time.

A “No” is Better Than No Answer At All. You will get rejected. While it’s disappointing, I’ve found the biggest frustrations are the agents who never reply at all. I keep a list of when I submitted to an agent and when they reply. And I have to be honest – I like the agents who reply, especially in a timely manner, even if it is with a courteous rejection. I know they at least read my query letter. I don’t take it personally – I might not be writing what they are looking for, or my writing skills might not be up to their standards yet. Whatever the reason, I’m going to submit to them again, because I respect their professionalism with regards to my submission. I can’t say the same about the agents who never respond at all.

Do Your Due Diligence. Make sure you do your homework if you get an offer of representation. This is going to be tough for someone as anti-confrontational as me, but it has to be done. First, check Preditors & Editors for any red-flags on your agent’s practices. If you can, reach out to current and previous clients to see what their experience with this agent was like. The industry is a business like anything else. Just because an agent and writer parted ways doesn’t mean there’s something wrong, but speak with the writer just to be sure. Sometimes personalities don’t mesh, which is why it’s good to interview the agent thoroughly to ensure their vision of your book lines up with your own.

So that’s what my gameplan is so far. What about the rest of you? What are your tips for finding representation in the writing landscape?

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Beware the Entertainment Trap

The problem isn’t sound byte-length attention spans. It’s not even a matter of people constantly demanding to be entertained. The real issue is that . . . for the first time in history . . . we have the means to keep ourselves entertained 24/7. Boredom – outside of the work variety – is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

And this overabundance of entertainment can devour your writing time whole.

But it’s not just the social media triple threat of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. There’s also tons of streaming content out there as well on services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Television is clogged with twenty-four hours of just about anything you could want from sports and food to shopping and home innovation. And lest we forget, there’s also video games on everything from your Xbox to your iPhone with games that can last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple years, depending on the MMO.

Not only do we have more entertainment than we know what to do with, but we’ve also got a fandom expectation to watch, play and consume it all. Without some guidelines, your binge-watching will soar while your word-count will plummet.

First off, prioritize. Despite what your teachers might have told you, none of this stuff is actually bad. Movies are an excellent source of inspiration. TV shows can provide engaging examples of serialized characterization and plot development. Video games can stimulate the problem-solving part of the brain while allowing us to step into the shoes of another character. But you still have to ask yourself what is more important – consuming art or creating it? Your answer will define how much time you set aside for one of the other. And lest we forget, there are other priorities in the mix as well – such as spending time with family, going to the gym and office time. No one person’s list will look the same, but you need to make sure writing and entertain inhabit definite place on the chart.

Secondly, in the words of Tom Haverford, treat yourself. Have you finished a project? What about that article you’ve been slaving on for a weeks? Or that novel you’ve been pulling your hair out for months? It’s okay to take a break and watch a movie, binge on a TV show or play through a video game. But don’t put aside writing altogether – instead put it in the background by focusing on writing prompts, research and maybe light revision while you give your brain break.

Lastly, understand that balancing the two can be more valuable than picking one or the other. Burnout is real (especially during this NaNoWriMo month). Trying to “go” all the time with your writing at the same high pace can be just as counter-productive as switching from project to project without finishing anything. We need mental and emotional refreshment every bit as much as we do physical rejuvenation, and sometimes the prior can be a mouse click away. Don’t overdo it though. I try to watch a limited number of TV shows – between five to seven – and sometimes I’ll only watch them one day of the week. Doing so keeps me energized without falling behind on my writing.

Like I said before, everyone’s list is going to look different. Maybe this is a hobby to you or maybe this is a lifelong dream. But wherever writing falls on the list, you need to strike a balance with your entertainment intake or your word count will surely suffer.