Saturday, September 24, 2016

Character Concerns

Sometimes when you query an agent you are lucky enough to get a personal response. I've been lucky a few times and these agents gave me their honest feedback about the sample chapters (most often the first three chapters of your book, but sometimes as little as the first five pages), which I am grateful for. More than one agent said the same thing; they ultimately didn't connect with my main character. That's pretty disappointing for me because I feel that the story I've written is so much about my main character and how she changes. To me, the book is more about how the challenges Rose Delaney faces change her, rather than what happens in the plot. But this is good constructive criticism that I am lucky to have, so I've been looking back over the book, thinking about ways to change that. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that despite spewing out a novel, I don't really have a full grasp of who Rose is, at least not at the beginning of the story. And that's a problem because if a reader doesn't care about your main character from the very beginning, they aren't going to invest in the rest of your book. Even I tell my students that if they aren't interested in the story or the characters within the first chapter or two of a new book, they should put it down and try something else. Reading is about enjoyment, after all, and if you aren't enjoying it - then why are you doing it?

So... What to do?

This is where I fall back on my teaching experience and one of the lessons I use when I teach characterization. There are four ways we learn about a character:
  • What a character looks like 
  • What a character says and does
  • What a character thinks and feels
  • How other characters react to the character
In a writing lesson, I have students create their own character. The point of the assignment is to describe this character using these four methods. They must also create a story around this character that explains this character's goal and how that goal came to be. Many students go on to write short stories about their characters because the more you understand a character you've created, the more ideas you have about their adventures in the life you've created for them, and the more you want to join in on those adventures.

So, I'm going to take my own advice and get to know Rose Delaney a little better.

Rose, 17, has dark brown eyes and long dark hair. Her hair is shiny and obedient, like the kind of hair you see in shampoo commercials. She likes flipping it over her shoulder when she knows admiring eyes are on her. She often wears it in a bun, but today has decided on a ponytail. She secretly enjoys the way it swings behind her when she stalks down the halls, knowing that even the girls who give her dirty looks or gossip about her behind her back are forced to stare jealously at her back, wishing the were as beautiful as her. Rose's effortless sense of style makes her look both classy and casual at the same time. Her trademark is the only shade of lipstick she ever wears, Big Red. It perfectly matches her red cheerleader's uniform and gives her lips a fuller, kissable look. Many of Rose's classmates have her pegged as stereo-typically shallow and stupid, but they don't know that she maintains a near perfect GPA, dreams of attending Julliard for dance, or that she has a passion for reading, and especially enjoys Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice is her favorite, and she often rereads her own worn, highlighted copy. Something in the smell of the dusty pages makes her feel warm and reminds of her when she read it for the first time, as a gift from her father. Her father, whom she can hardly think of now without her eyes welling up with tears. Suck it up, Rose Delaney. You don't cry over anyone, least of all him.

Rose rules the school as both Head Cheerleader and Prom Queen, titles she wears with pride and authority. She mingles with her subjects at football and basketball games, and makes appearances at parties. It never occurs to her friends that Rose never actually drinks her beer. She holds it in her hand like a prop, regretting each sip as she remembers her mother's most recent alcoholic binge. The aftertaste of alcohol becomes bitter and empty, and she holds onto the cup so no one hassles her, and observes in silent judgment as her classmates slowly become slow and stupid. Some of them get angry, like her mom, and a fight breaks out. That's usually when she leaves with the flavor of the month. With her popularity and beauty, Rose is in no danger of running out of Friday Night Dates. Or Saturday Night Dates. Or (day of the week here) Night Dates. Boys are desperate to attain the unattainable Rose Delaney, even if only for the night. They lust after her lithe dancer's physique and fantasize about the softness of her lips and skin. But none ever succeeds. It's all a game to Rose. Make them want her, make them need her, and then toss them away. There's always another sucker around the next corner. People always say, "Leave them wanting more," right? Well, it works. Especially on boys, who are so hormone driven, that they will do anything you want if they think they'll get to kiss you at the end of it. Idiots.

Rose's friendships are no more than tenuous connections based on jealousy and the Teenage Social Hierarchy. It isn't just her Head Cheerleader and Prom Queen status that keeps her at the top of the food chain. It's fear. As much as the other girls are jealous of Rose, they fear her. Because they know what happens when you cross Rose Delaney. Just ask the girl whose head she stomped on a few months ago. She may be pretty and dainty to some, but Rose has no problem getting her hands dirty either. Consequently, there's no one there to catch her when her family falls apart, but Rose stays strong by convincing herself that she prefers it that way, sticking a band-aid over her problems and surging forward. Besides, life's not about her or her problems right now. For Rose, it's about her five year old brother Liam. Daddy isn't around anymore and he doesn't understand why. She melts when she looks into his cherubic face, unable to bear the thought of his tears or sadness. Liam is too young to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. He should be busy with play dates and laughter. His world should be all puppies and rainbows. I'll do anything to protect him from the cruelness of this world we live in. He deserves that much.

Moira, Rose's mother, is never around, either at work or at the bar, looking for another man whose family she can ruin. Suddenly Rose feels like the lone adult in the household, keeping it running while her mother gallivants around town with the other drunks in skimpy clothes that Rose might see on some of her classmates. When she is around, Rose and her mother fight like cats and dogs, each slinging burning insults at the other until someone throws something or gets slapped. Rose does love her mother, but since adolescence kicked in, and especially since the divorce, Rose's anger at her mother is winning the emotional battle against love. She's a selfish bitch, my mother. And the world's biggest hypocrite. Some Catholic you are; sleeping around, divorce, binge drinking, slapping your only daughter, and breaking families apart. She forces us to go to church every Sunday, and I go without argument just to see if she'll burst into flames when she crosses the threshold. So far, I've been disappointed, but there's always next Sunday to look forward to.

I'm not the World's Best Daughter, or even the World's Best Sister. And getting suspended for stomping on that bitch's head a few months ago certainly won't win me Student or Catholic of the Year, but at least I'm honest with myself about my faults. I'm not perfect. Sometimes I'm not even a good person, and I don't pretend to be. All I really want in this life is to survive, and make sure Liam survives too. Of course, when I set those goals, I never imagined that I'd have to save either of us from our own murderous house...


So, there's Rose, the main character of Wolfhowl Mountain. It's through her eyes we witness the action. Right now she doesn't sound especially likable. She's going through a hard time, missing her father and blaming her mother for the divorce. Uprooting her right before her senior year and moving from big city Texas to small town Maine isn't helping matters. But this is only the beginning of Rose's story. This book is Rose's journey, in which she learns that the world does not revolve around her and that there's something to be said about leaning on other people, about allowing yourself to become close to another person. Can her inner goodness prevail? That is the question.

So how about you? What do you do to get to know and understand the characters you've created?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

My Book Is Too Long. Well, Now What?

Word count is going to be the death of my publishing dreams. I have to admit, when I set out to get serious about publishing my first novel, it never occurred to me that the length of my book would be the reason an agent declines to represent it. I just figured that if the plot and writing are both good, then who cares how long it is? Thinking about it now, I feel foolish for not considering word count sooner.

In the publishing world, everyone looks at the length of your work in terms of words, not in pages or chapters. My novel Wolfhowl Mountain is 183,000 words. If it helps you put that into perspective, that's more than 400 pages in Microsoft Word. So it's definitely a longer book, no doubt. However, I've always felt that every word within it was necessary. I told the story in as little words as I was capable, but I recognize that an editor or agent may insist I cut my work down in order to find success with a publisher. In fact, I'm starting to think that might be the only way for me to go if I'm to successfully convince an agent to take my book on.

It's my feeling that Wolfhowl Mountain should be marketed toward young adult readers because the main character is 17. In my experience, most people like to read a novel that has a protagonist about the same age as the reader. That being said, most young adult books normally top out at 80,000 words. (And even then, that's pushing it.)* So, crap! My book is a minimum of 100,000 words too long?

My mind quickly went to what I like the call the "but what abouts..."

But what about J.K. Rowling? What about her? Are you thinking about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and its some 197,000 words? Then you're forgetting that her very first novel, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone was only 76,000 words. Yup.

Okay. But what about horror master Stephen King, whose more recent novel Under the Dome is 334,000 words? Although King's first published novel was long (around 274,000 words), Carrie, the book that made him famous, is only 61,000 words. Yeah.

Well, but what about Stephenie Meyer; her first book, Twilight, was 130,000 words. Yeah...well, her book was about a handsome sparkling vampire and his whole beautiful sparkling family and their handsome enemy werewolf clan? What's not to love? She got lucky.

So what have I learned? It doesn't matter how good your book is. If it's too long, no one's going to take a chance on it, even if you're the next  J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or even Stephenie Meyer (which I don't purport to be, by the way). And the one consistent piece feedback I've heard from the few people who've read Wolfhowl Mountain is that some of the descriptive passages feel long, and they just skipped over them to get on with the story. I've been reluctant to cut those passages down too much because, for me, the setting of the novel is important to the plot and is in itself, a character in the book. But, blah, blah; blah. Of course I think it's perfect the way it is. I'm the one who wrote it.

So now comes the next lesson all writers must face at some point, one that's harder and more uncomfortable to swallow. What you write, be it articles for a newspaper or the next James Patterson-esque thriller, isn't about you. Your writing is not about you nor is it for you, the writer. It's about the reader. It's not about what you like or dislike. It's about what the reader likes or doesn't like. And readers don't like paragraph after paragraph or page after page of expository writing, no matter how beautifully or masterfully written it might be. They want to get to the story.

Case in point: I'm not just a writer, I am of course, also a reader. (Some people have told me that I read too much, but I don't think that's actually possible. I think far too many people read too little.) Even so, as a person who loves to read, what do I do when I get to really long passages, or come across several pages in a novel, that are jam packed full of tiny writing and descriptions of idyllic countrysides or  Gothic buildings or the handsome new stranger in town? I do what everyone else does; I skip over it until I get to a spot of action again. It might be the most beautiful and talented writing on this earth, but everyone one of us skips over it, even me.

Wolfhowl Mountain is something I wrote not to make a profit or win an award or have people slather me in praise for my writing abilities. (Though none of that would hurt, obviously.) It's a story I wrote because I couldn't not write it. And what is the point of writing something you think is good, if you aren't also willing to put it out there for other people to enjoy? And so, I understand that ultimately Wolfhowl Mountain is for the reader, and I need to go back and look at it through that lens for a while, to see if I can write the book that readers want to read instead of the the book I wanted to write.

And that's going to be difficult. Writing Wolfhowl Mountain was something I lived for, for ten years. Every word is written in a mixture of my own sweat and blood. And when I think about deleting passages from it, I think about computer technology and how once I delete those words and hit save, there's no going back. Those words I once wrote with such thought and care are no longer in existence. Those words are gone forever.

That's some powerful stuff right there, I'll tell you. Shortening something I've written, it's like I've been asked to slowly excise away pieces of my body until I've reached some form of acceptable societal perfection. Or like you've asked me which one of my limbs I'd prefer to have cut off, and I can't say none of them, because one way or another, I'll be leaving here without a limb. I may as well have a choice in the matter.

So someday, when I do succeed in publishing Wolfhowl Mountain (hopefully), read the book I wrote for readers with care, because every time you have the perfect mental image that I meant for you to have, every time you feel that I've touched one of your senses, each time you personally enjoy a piece of the writing I created for you, remember that I killed parts of my own soul in order for you to enjoy this book. Yeah.

I guess that's going to change the way I read books too.

*Even adult works are generally under 110,000 words