Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Books of the Year! (not)

It’s that time of year again …. The time where every newspaper and magazine that covers pop culture comes out with their best books of the year. I’ve seen lists in magazines like Salon, Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly … and even in these diverse periodicals, the books are pretty much the same. And I’ve read half of one of them.

What does it take for a book to be named one of the best of the year, or to get a glowing review from a major publication? From my admittedly jaded viewpoint, these books are either poetic-sounding historical literary fiction with titles like “Breath Forms Clouds of Sunlight,” or a non-fiction tome that could double as a dictionary, usually a biography about some nineteenth century general or cabinet member.

These books may be heavy and important, but they’re usually not fun. And I like fun. I read for fun.

It makes me wonder whether these lists are helpful in getting more people to read, or if the majority react the way I do – that reading these books is a task, something you have to do, like exercise or flossing or getting a colonoscopy.

I fell in love with reading at a very early age. Some of my earliest memories are of my favorite picture books, like “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” In early elementary school, I was addicted to the “Little House” books. A year or so later, my mother introduced me to some of Beverly Cleary’s books about teenagers. Even when I went away to sleep away camp in the mountains, I could usually be found in the library.

In middle school and high school, though, reading became a chore. It’s almost as if reading and English teachers deliberately assign the most obtuse, plodding work available. Rather than getting lost in intriguing stories and characters I could identify with, I was totally lost looking for symbolism and foreshadowing and trying to decipher strange vocabulary.

This is also the period where I got hooked on certain serial TV shows. Coincidence? I think not. It wasn’t until I’d graduated college, got my first fulltime job and needed something to do during those metro commutes that I discovered reading for pleasure again.

My son underwent a similar journey. I read to him from the time he could understand words, and together we went from Curious George to Harry Potter, with Animorphs and private investigators in between. And then the public school system struck. When he brought “Sarah Plain and Tall” home from the first grade, I knew it was all over. And while as a college student he’s become a voracious reader, unfortunately it’s all non-fiction. (although with some of those political books he likes, calling them non-fiction could be a stretch.)

I love women’s fiction. Early Stephen King-style horror. Mysteries with female protagonists, especially if they’re PIs. In other words, nothing you’d see reviewed on the front page of the New York Times book section.

Jennifer Weiner is well-known for speaking out about how female authors who write in her genre aren’t reviewed the way male authors are. Recently Jodi Picoult gave an interview with a similar complaint. Sadly, Jennifer is viewed as “Jennifer Whiner,” as some – including other authors – see her complaints as personally motivated. I don’t doubt her personal situation figures into her feelings somewhat, but the issue is bigger than that, and bigger than one or two authors. When Liane Moriarty can take over the New York Times bestseller list but be ignored for reviews in that same newspaper, it isn’t just about her, or Jennifer, or Jodi. It’s about you and me and every reader (and all these authors have owned the Times’ lists) who enjoys books in this genre. (And don’t get me started on the romance genre. I’m not a reader, but it’s the most popular genre in publishing.) These publications are saying our tastes don’t matter. We don’t matter. If we’re not reading “Blue Butterfly, Black Clouds” then we don’t deserve to have books in our genre evaluated. If it’s good, bad, whatever … we’re on our own.

And it’s also frustrating to me as a writer, because even though the conventional advice is “write what you know/write what you want to read,” when I do that, I hear back that that’s not what publishers think they can sell. Is this related to the review dilemma? I don’t know. I do know that while a positive New York Times review pretty much guarantees bestseller status, there are plenty of bestsellers that don’t get reviewed by any well-known magazines. I’ve even seen a few self-published books on that list. So I think I’m writing what people (at least women like me) want to read, but unfortunately that opinion is not shared by those in charge.

I’m currently about halfway into one of the books that’s been on many of the end-of-year lists. It’s good, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what makes it so special. If this had come to me as one of the manuscripts in the slush pile for the literary agent I work for, I might have told her to pass on it.

But what do I know, anyway? I’m just another average Weiner/Picoult/Moriarty fan, someone who loves Emily Giffin and Sophie Kinsella and her job reviewing books for Chick Lit Central.

Oh, and I’m someone who bought 83 books for her Kindle last year. Eighty three. And 2014 isn’t over yet.

And not one of them was called “The Peculiar Insurrections.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Most Interesting Man in the World

You all know who I’m talking about. Sharks have a week about him. Cuba imports cigars from him. When sailing around the world, he found a shortcut.

And he’s the star of your book.

Okay, the Dos Equis spokesman is not literally the protagonist of your novel. But the point is … your protagonist needs to be the most interesting man in the world. Or at least the most interesting person in your book.

Last week, in talking about back story, I noted that the current action of your novel needs to be about the most important events in your protagonist’s life – which is why some manuscripts that have the most important event occurring in the back story are so problematic. This is a similar rule – your protagonist needs to be the most interesting person in the story.

Many children and YA authors get this instinctively. It’s not “Ron Weasley and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” YA novels are littered with narrators who discover that they are the “chosen ones” for some universe. This can get tiresome if YA is your forte – how many damned chosen ones can there be, anyway – but really, who wants to read about the chosen one’s best friend? “I stared at my phone, willing her to text me back, while I imagined her in the sky, flying around on eagles and trying to kill the last dragon.” Um, no.

And, yes, this is why I don’t write YA.

I’ve read a surprising number of unpublished and self-published manuscripts where the protagonist was not the most interesting person in the room. They stood off to the side, describing their lives in the corner as their sister, or best friend, or ex-lover became a witch, or a movie star, or queen.

The only writer I know who got away with this was F. Scott Fitzgerald, and my English teacher took pains to distinguish Nick Carraway as the narrator but Jay Gatsby was definitely the protagonist. You, dear friend, are not F. Scott Fitzgerald, and you are not writing “The Great Gatsby.” And neither am I. Besides, look how Fitzgerald’s life turned out. Do you want to be him? No.

Movies get this right. Movies always get this right. No one puts Baby in a corner. Luke Skywalker might have been whiny, but he was the chosen one. (Forget what Lucas said about Vader being the protagonist of the series. Lucas lost all credibility with “The Phantom Menace.”) Indiana Jones. Probably the only exception to this rule is the possessed demon child in a horror movie or the serial killer in a slasher flick – they may be the most interesting person in the story, but we are not rooting for them to succeed. Usually. And let’s face it, would “Silence of the Lambs” be as gripping if Clarice hadn’t had those screams in her back story?

If you’re writing a story like this now, please take a deep breath and stop. In some genres – detective fiction, maybe women’s fiction – there are other characters (and sometimes they are real sickos) who will be more complicated and compelling than your protagonist. If you’re working in such a genre, add dramatic back story and character quirks to make your protagonist as complicated as the villain she tracks. But if your protagonist is named Lisa and she’s flirting with a waiter while her sister learns to dance from the camp hunk, think again about who your protagonist should be.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It’s All About the Back Story … Except When it Isn't

One of the first pieces of advice writers are given when they embark on a new story is about the importance of back story. We’re told to write elaborate character bios that spell out the events that shape their current personality and choices. We’re advised to create timelines so we can better picture what happened and when. Detail is important. Things that happened in the past matter.

Or not.

I’ve read several manuscripts and self-published novels lately that went overboard on the back story. With advice such as the above, this is easy to do. But writers need to remember that the novel is about the most important thing that happened in the protagonist’s life. If the most important thing happened in the back story, you’re telling the wrong story.

Back story is usually dealt with in one of three major ways:
 Referred to in dialogue or narrative;
 Through flashbacks
 With non-linear storytelling that features chapters and sections with scene work occurring in the past.

Which option is right for your story?

Many writers make the mistake in thinking that their back story is more important than it actually is. They create elaborate flashbacks that show exactly how a long-married couple first met and the issues they had building their house. It’s become important to the writer because they spent so much time writing those character bios and timelines. But it’s probably not important to the present storyline. Unless the husband has died and left the wife a cryptic clue about something buried in the walls of that first house, it’s perfectly fine to deal with this back story in conversation.

Most writers dealing in women’s fiction, romantic comedy, and other stories with straightforward narratives don’t really need much backstory beyond what can easily be explained. I recently reviewed Ann Lewis Hamilton’s novel Expecting for Chick Lit Central. The novel has a subplot about a man reconnecting with a college girlfriend on Facebook. In the hands of a less experienced writer, readers might have been forced to wade through long, elaborate flashbacks of their romance, or, God forbid, whole chapters devoted to their past relationship. Luckily Hamilton recognized that the details of the relationship were unimportant and gave the reader only what she needed to know.

Of course there are stories that call for a more detailed treatment of back story. Writers such as Jojo Meyers and Sarah Jio are well known for weaving together past and present almost seamlessly. Their stories tend to have mysteries at their core, and giving the reader that up close look at what actually happened plays an important role in the enjoyment of the story, and allowing the reader to try to solve the mystery along with the protagonist.

Some writers of literary fiction prefer non-linear narratives, oftentimes creating the feeling that past and present are closely linked. In these types of stories, character motivation is paramount, and chapters that detail the past let readers get to know the characters in ways that a few flashbacks or lines of narrative cannot deliver. Literary fiction tends to be more character-driven than plot-driven, so readers tend to fully immerse themselves in the reading experience without asking how certain scenes relate to the plot.

Every story is different, and back story will always play some role. In a blog post, it’s difficult to advise beyond generalities. But generally speaking, it’s usually not as important as most newbie writers think it is. Most histories can be dealt with in narrative description or in a conversation between characters. It’s something writers should ask their beta readers about: How much is too much? Back story is one area that is rife with babies to kill.