Monday, March 26, 2012

Good Character, Bad Character

Recently, I re-read one of my favorite books from childhood, Harriet the Spy, in order to share it with my son Satchel, age nine. I wasn’t sure if he’d like the book. It was written in the 1960s, after all, and the main character is a spectacled girl who walks around Manhattan writing notes about people in her secret spy notebook. He loved it, and I loved it again, reading as an adult. Yesterday, I finished Harriet Spies Again, a sequel penned in 2002 with permission from the author’s estate. The book ends with this:

“She thought for a moment about bad things and good things and how there were always so many of each, and how sometimes they happened in a heap. And then the mixture of things could be rolled up in a rubber band, and it would always be there—in your toy box or your memory or your heart—so you could examine it whenever you wanted, in absolute privacy, wearing your pajamas, or sometimes in the company of an understanding friend.”

And it seemed to me the author got something wrong here, in the closing thoughts of her Harriet. Because what was so memorable for me about Harriet the Spy wasn't the things that happened but the people involved, and my own process of writing is the exploration between the good and bad in people, the probing of character, and this is the rubber-band-wrapped thing I examine in absolute privacy.

Harriet is rude and demanding. She speaks out of turn. She does things she knows are wrong and she feels badly afterwards. She can be very self-assured or painfully awkward. She’s going through a tough time, yet enjoys moments of genuine joy. In other words, she’s human.

Many types of books make clear right away who is the “good guy.” They follow a formula, or maybe have a very entertaining story with many twists and turns. But I’d argue that even books heavy on story give us characters with problems, even stock characters, those prototypes we’ve seen a million times—many of those are based on a good/bad dichotomy.

- The streetwise cop (or ex-cop) in crime novels. You know the guy—failed marriage, erratic behavior. He makes mistake after mistake but deep down, his heart’s in the right place.
- The thirty-ish single girl in chick lit. She can’t maintain a relationship, chooses the wrong guy continually, and doubts herself. In the end, she’s stronger than she thinks.
- The sexy vampire. He’s attractive and mysterious but let’s face it—he’s got a nasty habit and a long life ahead of him.

Nobody wants to be around someone who won’t show weakness; nobody wants to hang out without a person who’s horrible all the time. But a loyal friend with a little mean streak, a parent who’s made a mistake but still loves you unconditionally…well, these are the types of people we all know. And they make memorable characters in novels.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Monday, March 19, 2012

99 Reasons Why

Available starting today, a new adventure in digital publishing:  99 Reasons Why by Caroline Smailes. This "book with a difference" is only being published as an ebook and includes nine different endings which readers can navigate using multiple choice questions on their Kindle or via a spinning story wheel on an iPad or iPhone. There are also two additional endings. One will be handwritten by Caroline and auctioned for charity; the other appears below.

The book's description from the publisher:

Kate isn’t like other 22 year olds. She’s got a job to do for her Uncle Phil. Each day, she spies on The Kevin Keegan Day Nursery across the road from her bedroom window, writing down all of the comings and goings in her notebooks. That’s how she spots her little girl in the pink coat. She likes her, and it isn’t long before Kate asks her mam to get her for her. Plans are made.
But then, quite unexpectedly, Kate flashes her breasts out her bedroom window at the little girl’s father. And that's the reason that nothing will ever be the same again…

And without further ado, one of the eleven endings:

99: the reason why I was only worth ninety-nine quid
It’s been six days since the little girl in the pink coat went missing and me Uncle Phil’s in me bedroom.
We’ve been watching the little girl in the pink coat’s mam on the news. She was appealing to the public for witnesses.
‘Didn’t realise she had a mam,’ I says, looking at me telly.
‘Everyone’s got a mam, pet,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘She sold her story to The Sun,’ I says, looking at me telly.
‘Got a few quid,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
I nod.
‘She wanted nowt to do with that bairn before all this,’ me Uncle Phil says, looking at me telly.
‘Do you know where she is?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘Belle?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.
I nod.
‘She’s safe,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘Your mam’s keeping an eye on her.’
‘Can I be her mam?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘No, pet, you’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
I nod.
‘Can you make Andy Douglas come back, Uncle Phil?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
Me Uncle Phil shakes his head.
‘I love him,’ I tell me Uncle Phil.
‘Andy Douglas is your brother, pet. You didn’t seriously think Princess Di was your mam, did you?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.
I nod.
‘You’re a cradle snatcher just like your mam,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
I nod.
‘Your mam miscarried when she found out I’d been banging Betty Douglas. Betty was expecting you,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
I don’t speak.
‘When you was born, your mam went mad and I ended up buying you from Betty Douglas for ninety-nine quid,’ me Uncle Phil says.
‘Ninety-nine quid?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘I paid a hundred but got a quid change for some chips for your mam and dad’s tea,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘You bought me?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
I’m a little bit sick in me mouth.
‘It was the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘I got Betty Douglas pregnant straight away with Andy.’
‘I’m pregnant,’ I says to me Uncle Phil. ‘I’m pregnant with me brother’s baby,’ I says, and then I throws up on me purple carpet.
‘You’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘What am I going to do?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘You’re going to have the baby,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘Have me brother’s baby?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.
‘Then I’m giving it to Betty Douglas to bring up,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘You what?’ I says to me Uncle Phil.
‘It’s the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
‘I can’t—’ I says to me Uncle Phil.
‘It’s either that or I’ll make you disappear,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.
I don’t speak.
I’m thinking, they’re all a bunch of nutters.

Purchase the book:

iTunes                      Amazon UK

More about Caroline and her books:

Caroline Smailes

Thursday, March 15, 2012


It’s been a wonderful journey getting my novel out into the world. The book’s been with me a long time, sometimes neglected for years but always residing in some corner of my mind. There have been moments of doubt, sometimes entire continents of doubt to traverse. It’s been edited and reedited, plumped up and reduced, pored over and read again and again and again. And now it’s out there. People write nice things about it and sometimes, I have to stand and face someone who’s read what I've written. It’s the strangest feeling, like being exposed, some private part no longer entirely private.
But it’s good, the sharing. I nod and smile and offer my thanks and then I slink back to my hidden place and work on something else. Exposure, then fade back to black.

            “So what do you think your special talent is?” Dot asked. “You said your mother was hoping that you had a hidden talent, some calling.”
“I don’t know,” Vivian said.
Dot leaned forward. “Something you’re really good at.”
“What’s yours?”
            Dot paused, looking up at the withered porch awning. “I’m a good friend, I think.  I’m loyal and I try to be honest. Oh, I can make great paper airplanes. I had a book once on how to do it.”
            Vivian laughed.
           "I guess I haven't found one great talent, not yet. I hope I'm not disappointed when I find out what it is."     
from The Qualities of Wood

Monday, March 5, 2012

Speed Therapy

I’ve got an idea. You know about speed dating? It’s usually held in a hotel meeting room or at a restaurant. Single people show up, fill out a questionnaire, then spend an hour or so moving from table to table, meeting other singles. Here’s a helpful video that gives advice, so you can get an idea of it, in case you’ve never attended one or haven’t seen the process in a movie.

My idea is speed therapy. You sign up and write a single sentence on a piece of paper. Something that’s been bothering you. Something that crops up time and again. A deep feeling. One person is the listener; the other reads his sentence. You get several turns to do both. The listener says what comes naturally when he hears the other person’s sentence. Five minutes tops, then everyone moves to the next table. First you’re a listener, then a reader, then a listener again.

What do I mean by a sentence, a deep feeling that crops up? Something like this:

-          I’m not sure people are sincere in their affections.
-          I don’t think I’m a good person.
-          I fool myself constantly.
-          I worry about ________.
-          I have made wrong choices.
-          I don’t know how to proceed.
-          I feel very alone.
-          I’m afraid of ________.

Just a few examples. Because what if we verbalized these things, if we spoke them to another person, a stranger, wouldn’t they lose some of their weight? And what if the listener completely understood and said they felt the same at times? We could register their empathy, or their surprise, or their refusal to accept what we’ve said, and again, the power of the feeling would be reduced. Wouldn’t it? Imagine what you might say if someone admitted one of these feelings to you; imagine what you might write on your sheet of paper. Imagine the listener across the table saying: “I feel the same,” or even, “That’s exactly what I’ve written on my paper.” What if he tells you that you are wrong to doubt yourself, that you should have more faith. I have to imagine that no matter what is said everyone would leave feeling much, much better.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka