When I give my manuscript to a friend to critique, she tells me that Miguel and Jenny sound just alike. What do you mean, I ask. Of course they sound different! (As with much critique, I’m in denial.)
Miguel has the same introspective voice that Jenny does, my beta-reader points out. They both ruminate over things, try to make sense of things, look at all sides of an issue, want to be fair.
Show me, I say, still skeptical.
So she shows me the passages. OMG! They sound interchangeable! I see it immediately.
So I consider one more time what Miguel’s nature is and how he would talk to his best friend on a rainy afternoon in a Bronx apartment. After I get clear on that, it’s easier to put myself in his shoes and write as a young Latino man.
Of course, it’s easy to say that even Jeffrey Eugenides or T.C. Boyle didn’t become great writers overnight. How many novels did they write before they finally got published? How ashamed are they of those early works? We’re usually not privy to that information unless we see it in an author interview in Writer’s Digest or another writing journal.
But when I read a work by a literary author that so delights me—the way the words flow, the poetic cast to the prose, its breathtaking beauty, the originality of the metaphors, the brilliance of the imagery—well, I’m purple with envy. I tell myself, I’ll never be able to write like that.
And you know what? That’s probably true. For me. Because I haven’t spent years writing and I haven’t read as widely and seriously as lots of authors have. And I don’t have years left to spend doing those things.
But I do have some options:
1. I can get discouraged and lay down my pen, roll over, surrender to their magnificence and my insignificance.
2. I can study how they do it (reading as a writer), write some imitations (as exercises, not as copyright infringements), and try to improve.
3. I can accept that I’m not an author of literary fiction—the kind I most admire—but acknowledge that I can write and should keep on keeping on.
Numbers 2 and 3 are the ones I strive to carry out, but I’m not always successful. How wonderful it must be to have that much control over language (I think wistfully). How sad that I’ll probably never have it.
On the other hand, by reading these enviable authors, I share in their literary splendor. And that’s sweet!
How do you deal with this issue of envy while reading your preferred genre?
Motivation explains why a character does what she does. You can make characters do just about anything if you are able to motivate their actions. If you don’t, then readers think, “This is out of character,” or “He wouldn’t do that!” or even, "Why should I care what he does?"
But how do you as a writer make sure you put in sufficient motivation to make your characters’ actions seem to flow naturally? Answer: by tapping into their universal needs. I would contend that everything we do in life fulfills basic needs. Some of these are physical: food, shelter, warmth, health, comfort, sexual expression. Some are emotional: safety, freedom, autonomy, connection, support, respect, trust, to make a contribution.
Although you and I probably experience every need at one time or another, chances are that a few needs are stronger than others at any given moment in our lives. For example, if your character has a need for intimacy or excitement, this will affect her actions as she strives to satisfy this need. Put her into a situation with another character who has a different need at this time—for example, sleep or space—and you can see where conflict may arise. The conflict—and their responses to it—are motivated by their universal needs.
Add to the needs the emotions that those unmet needs evoke: sadness, rage, fear, and all shades in between, then you have rich and realistic characters. I didn’t mention the emotions of happiness and its permutations because happiness arises when basic needs are met, and if needs are met, then there would hardly be a story, would there? (“Thank you, Mortimer. You’re so wonderful to me. I feel all warm and cuddly right now.” “You’re welcome, Lucinda. I love the way you helped me today with my income tax. I too feel warm and cuddly.”)
Every character, whether in sci-fi, fantasy, romance, or realistic fiction, is driven by unmet needs and the feelings that arise from them. You as the author can decide which unmet need(s) your character is experiences. Often they will be multiple needs, and if you the writer are aware of them, you can give your character depth and complexity. For example, let’s say she has unmet needs for intimacy, respect, and security. She may act in contradictory or even self-harmful ways in a misguided attempt to get those needs met. Perhaps she’s trying to get intimacy by going home with men she meets in bars. I would guess that neither her need for intimacy or for respect or for security is being met, although you can’t say she’s not trying. Another futile strategy might be nagging. Often in life people’s strategies for meeting needs are guaranteed not to get those needs met. This is tragic in real life, but in fiction it makes a great story. Your character bangs his head against a brick wall (but in interesting variations) until something occurs which causes a change in him, either good or bad depending on whether it’s a happy ending or not. There’s your story: a character is mired in old, inadequate ways of satisfying unmet needs, and then something changes which changes her.
I found a trick while researching the Dominican Revolution of 1965. After reading sections of several books on that subject, I found two books written by eyewitnesses to the uprising. Reading them, I felt I was there. I saw, heard, felt the incidents along with the authors. These were the most valuable sources. All I needed to do was place a fictitious character into this turmoil, give him or her friends, a family, hunger, thirst, fear or adrenal excitement or some other emotion, and actions based on his or her temperament. After all, there is no one way everyone reacts to life-changing and stressful experiences. As the author, I am free to imagine my character the way I want, as long as the scene is faithful to the real-life event.
It was an eye-opener to me that I could do this. I always wondered how writers of historical fiction knew how characters would respond in the distant past. But when I started putting Miguel into the Dominican Revolution, I learned something very fundamental: people back then had the same emotions and needs that we do today. They are universal! So you imagine your character reacting with his environment, and it turns out his reactions are basically no different than people today would react to a similar situation.
What's that blue car doing there?
I look at three or four things when determining whether to buy a book: the front cover, the summary on the back cover, the first sentence, and maybe the first paragraph or page. Less important to me are the blurbs because they usually don’t tell me much and they read the same: “His greatest work since x,y,z” or “A gripping story of love and betrayal.” Of course, if the blurbs are from famous people, that does carry some weight.
But as far as a first line goes, it tells you a lot about what to expect. If it’s witty, suspenseful, intriguing, or hints at something enticing to come, then I get tugged in right away. What will happen? (Amazing how one sentence can do that.)
Here are some first lines that hook me:
“Wait till I light up my coal-pot and I’ll tell you about this Zigaboo called Jelly.” Zora Neale Hurston, “Story in Harlem Slang,” in Spunk.
(Who is Jelly? I already want to know. And to read more of this fascinating slang.)
“The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.” Jhumpa Lahiri, “A Temporary Matter,” in Interpreter of Maladies.
(Oh oh, something promises to unfold when they are trapped without power, I can tell already.)
“I put my nose to your eyelashes.” Sandra Cisneros, “Eyes of Zapata,” in Woman Hollering Creek.
(Very sexy—or is it? Let me read on and find out. And who are these people?)
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home….” Albert Camus, The Stranger.
(The narrator sounds a little detached. What was his relationship with his mom, and how will he handle her death?)
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping,…” Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.
(And what were the other soldiers carrying, as the title promises to tell me.)
“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace.
(What problem? How did he solve it? I can’t wait to read more about this!)
“Still alive! from the doorway of the intensive care unit I can see my father in his bed swaddled in white like a comatose infant, and he is still alive.” Joyce Carol Oates, “The Beating,” in Sourland.
(Always a grabber: death!)
As well as sex, war, natural disasters, and almost anything else. So don’t waste time. Put them right up there, front and center.
Of course, a great hook does not have to be one that immediately gets you into the plot. The first line can also be so elegantly crafted that you say, “This is a writer who has mastered the craft; this is a book full of beautiful language.”
So just to confuse you, there is more than one kind of “hook.” But that will have to be another post, another day.
Description, much like flashbacks, can be tedious if unrelated to action. Sometimes authors go to great lengths to describe the physicality of a room, landscape, or character. It used to be customary to go on for a few paragraphs or even pages of pure description before getting to action. However, today we’re more plot-oriented; it’s common to make description part of the plot, just as you’d integrate flashbacks into plot. For example, you could describe a person through the point-of-view character’s eyes. But don’t have the character merely describe a scene. Have him react to it:
“Jaime noticed the perpetual smile hovering on Hyung’s lips and wondered if Hyung was really that cheerful or if it was just a habitual mannerism he’d picked up somewhere, perhaps for survival.”
You can do the same for place: “Helena’s stilettos made hollow echoes across the polished parquet floor of the spacious empty ballroom, and she winced at the multiple reflections of herself in the large gilded mirrors framed by colorful tapestries. She stole a glance at the seams of her stockings. Were they straight?”
Flashing back to childhood
Flashbacks are tricky. They can slow your story way down. Some things I learned about flashbacks are to integrate them into the story in an organic way. One way is to insert sentences or brief paragraphs of flashback that help explain some present-time action by a character. Example: “The train was traveling along a lake now. Sara had always liked lakes ever since she was a child of eight and her grandfather had taught her how to swim in the Bay of Green Bay.” This flashback does several things. First, it relates to the present train trip. Second, it tells us that Sara had a special relationship with her grandfather. Third, that she is from, or at least familiar with, Green Bay.
Longer flashbacks can be integrated into the story. For example, in response to a present action, a character can suddenly think back to an experience and describe it as a whole, using several paragraphs, perhaps. For example: “Suzy wondered why Harriet was so snippy about the squashed tomatoes in the shopping bag. As if Suzy had done it on purpose. When the whole world knew it was just an accident that could happen to anyone. It seemed that Harriet didn’t approve of her for some inexplicable reason. It brought back evil memories of the girls in junior high who had shut her out. She could hear their giggles and rude whispers as she walked by them. She was sure they were directed at her. She knew it. The way their eyes met hers for just a second and then whisked away. She remembered one girl in particular....”
In this flashback, a motivation is provided for Suzy’s hurt response to something Harriet said to her. Also, we learn more about Suzy’s childhood: she was a kind of outcast, at least in her own mind. Whether this is a reliable view or whether she is misinterpreting or misremembering, we can’t be sure, especially because she tends to consider herself a victim.
In my novel I had an entire chapter early on in which the main character Jenny and the man she’s just met, Miguel, go to a restaurant, where she proceeds to tell him her life story. Every time I reread that I feel regretful and even chagrined because it feels contrived. How much stronger if I’d incorporated some of this background into the action, piece by piece, than to just clumping it all together like that.
One last (grammatical) note: The past participle (“had gone, had eaten, etc.) is often used when speaking or writing about something past the past; i.e., when the story is narrated in past tense already, and a flashback is necessary. Past the past. But after the first sentence or two, you can usually return to the simple past (went, ate, etc.), which streamlines the language. It’s cumbersome to use “had” before every verb throughout a flashback.
My novel takes place in the 70s, and since I wasn’t even born then (that’s a joke, folks, but it was a long time ago; my memory’s not that great), I had to “research” current events, music, makes and models of cars, culture, TV programs, and movies from the time. Yes, I could remember many things but other details were fuzzy. And exact years were necessary for authenticity. It’s OK to utilize the Internet because no one can remember everything. (How did folks manage pre-Internet?)
Thank goodness for supportive friends who read my drafts and pointed out factual errors. I’d caught most of them but not all. Things I did recall without research were those payphone booths with accordion doors (remember them?) that cost a nickel to use, clotheslines that you cranked, sour cream-onion dip, AMC Hornets (I drove one), industrial plants (almost extinct here in the U.S. now), Tad’s Steakhouse in Manhattan, the pre-vibrator days—yes, that kind of vibrator, another fun chapter in my book—the women’s liberation movement, the word “thongs” for “flip-flops.”
Many things are the same today as back then: McDonald’s, swing sets in city parks, the heat in the summers (although with global warming it’s getting worse—wait for a story set in 2050), waitressing (some aspects), leafleting, walk-up apartments. However, neighborhoods have changed drastically. So have music, cars, TV, and of course those news stories that became the character of the times: Patty Hearst, Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, Roe v. Wade, the Pentagon Papers.
Enter the Internet. I wanted the novel to have the flavor of the times so I resorted to many websites of lists. I googled decades, top 10 hits of the 70s, TV…, movies…, etc. You get the idea. I found these sites very useful, although it was so easy that I sometimes had a nagging feeling of cheating. On the other hand, what do you do if you don’t remember things? I had to watch out for overkill, similar to writing too many metaphors (see two posts prior to this one).
The task then became to integrate these events and data smoothly into the novel so they don’t appear to be tacked on. That’s where the craft comes in. A good memory is valuable, but being able to incorporate nostalgia into a story seamlessly? That’s priceless.
How about writing from the pov of a cat looking down from a chimney?
Why should point of view be consistent within a scene or chapter? Perhaps the standards will change in the future, but for now readers may find it jarring to have to figure out who is talking from one scene to the next when they’d rather focus on the plot.
It isn’t bad to change the point of view from time to time. That gives the author a chance to show that she can place herself in more than one character’s shoes—or sandals or construction boots or stilettos—and make it sound convincing. One of the most fun pieces of writing in Dancing was to write a few chapters from Miguel’s point of view: a male, a Dominican, a womanizer. Who knew I could do that—write from the point of view of a male chauvinist pig (please, I’m totally just kidding).
Someone implied that there should be an equal number of chapters from each point of view. I respectfully disagree. As long as the points of view are somewhat balanced, who cares? I have five chapters from Miguel’s point of view, but they’re interspersed throughout the 33 chapters, thereby providing balance.
How do you know which point of view to use? When I was writing Dancing, I started in third person but then tried on first person for size. I was amazed that in first person the story Hopopped. I ran it by a few other people who agreed. It also seemed easier to inhabit the character (Jenny, the protagonist) in first person. (Of course, this is often true for first-time novelists.) Somehow third person seemed slightly removed, even though it was third person limited; i.e., from the character’s viewpoint.
In third person limited, also called third person subjective, the narrator sees things from the point of view of one character only. All other characters have to be understood through their actions. The third person objectivepoint of view, aka the camera's eye, does not get into the head of any character; the narrator observes the characters and is privy to none of their thoughts, except as characters betray their thoughts by something exterior, such as a tear, a chuckle, a sardonic smile, a grimace, a shriek.
For my next novel, I want to write in third person, although I’m not sure whether limited or objective. My current novel teems with my protagonist’s analytic contemplation and melodramatic feelings. She wouldn’t be as strong a character if the reader couldn’t see her inner turmoil. Not everyone likes that angst in a character, but nevertheless, to be true to the story, I had to make her so. (And some folks love it, identify with it, find it compelling.)
I struggled around Jenny’s introspection, and I had to cut out a lot of it to make sure that enough action was integrated into her bouts of introspection. So I’d have her cooking, at work, hanging out at the park. In the beginning I often had long periods of little action or dialogue, just Jenny’s thoughts. Unacceptable. It read like a diary, not a novel.
The moon reflected off the river like a ..........
When I first started writing, I was enamored of metaphors. I thought they would make my writing “literary.” So I overused them and they sounded forced and “writerly” (consciously literary) and amateurish.
But the problem wasn’t limited to that. It was also the content of the metaphors that fell short. They were either about something unrelated to the topic such as: “She was as cold as a polar bear” (the main character had probably never even seen a polar bear) or: “the tea leaves reminded her of seaweed” (the plot had nothing to do with the sea). Such metaphors don’t help the reader get that insight one gets from a well-written metaphor.
Compare: “She was as cold as the icicles hanging outside her window.” Or: “She looked like that rag doll she’d seen in Woolworth’s just that afternoon,” or: “the molten copper flowed like honey from the furnace into the iron pots.”
Metaphors should intensify an image, bring it alive, and make it memorable. By linking two disparate images, metaphors should enable us to see the original image in a unique and often startling way. So beware of writing too many metaphors, and when you do, make them count.