Thursday, August 20, 2015

Author Don't Preach: Making Characters, Not Messages

As the mother of four teenagers, I can tell you that one thing they really enjoy is when you sit them down for a lecture on an abstract concept. Like responsibility. Or the importance of work ethic, or something like that. Boy, do they love to be taught things! You will find, when you start speaking, that a sort of calm comes over them; their eyes will never leave your face. It’s truly a joy to watch the process of comprehension. Oh, and make sure you tell stories from your own life; they love that. Also, throw in platitudes and maxims whenever possible. Watch the lights go on. At the end, they may even thank you for sharing your decades of wisdom. Right?

Recently, I read a couple of books, well-received novels (no, I will not name them) that addressed some timely themes and had well-constructed plots, dramatic turns, wonderful historical and/or cultural information, very competent writing and even some moments of brilliance. And never for one moment did I believe that the characters were actual people. I was aware all along, for example, that this one was intended to show that, and this other one was a symbol for something else, and this last one would be bearer of a lesson for the others. Sometimes other alarms sounded: a manner of speaking that didn’t seem to fit, an inconsistency, a flaw or action too exaggerated. Plot points came along when expected; each character marched along, doing what was required, not quite cardboard but certainly lacking spark and hovering just outside the sphere of believability.

Everything was there; each novel was a success in terms of craft, I suppose. Certainly, my opinions of these novels don’t jibe with the general public’s. But during my reading of each, I started to have very stubborn, adolescent-type feelings. I may have rolled my eyes a few times. I get it, I wanted to say to the authors. I get the point you’re trying to make, the statements you’re making about modern life, the lessons you’re preaching, the feelings you want me to have. And although, as a writer, I could appreciate and respect the craft of these books, they could never be loved by me, the reader. Primarily because of the characters and the way they lacked life.

I don’t know what that special something is, why some characters walk right out of books and into your heart and why others remain on the page. I do know that teenagers and readers alike don’t always appreciate a lecture, but they will listen to a story about someone they can relate to, every time.

“I am less interested in setting, really, than a lot of writers. For me, the landscape is often interior, the place is the psyche.” –Richard Bausch

For a master class on characterization, read anything by Richard Bausch but especially “Not Quite Over,” a short story I re-read this week for inspiration. His characters are immediately vivid, achingly real. For real.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Readings: Shirley Jackson on Memory, Fans and Garlic

Earlier this month, Random House released a collection of previously unpublished work by Shirley Jackson. It's called Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings and I eagerly anticipate the arrival of my copy any day now. Also this month, The New Yorker ran a three-part series, to whet your appetite for these new pieces by Jackson, and it's one of the best things I read this month. How could I not be affected, when she talks about her home life with four adolescents?

"My situation is peculiarly poignant. Not, perhaps, as sad as that of an orphan child condemned to sweep chimneys, but sadder than almost anything else. I am a writer who, due to a series of innocent and ignorant faults of judgment, finds herself with a family of four children and a husband, an eighteen-room house and no help, and two Great Danes and four cats, and—if he has survived this long—a hamster. There may also be a goldfish somewhere. Anyway, what this means is that I have at most a few hours a day to spend at the typewriter, and about sixteen—assuming that I indulge myself with a few hours of sleep—to spend wondering what to have for dinner tonight that we didn’t have last night, and letting the dogs in and letting the dogs out, and trying to get the living room looking decent without actually cleaning it..."


"Actually, if you’re a writer, the only good thing about adolescent children is that they’re so easily offended. You can drive one of them out of the room with any kind of simple word or phrase—such as “Why don’t you pick up your room?”—and get a little peace to write in. They go storming upstairs and don’t come down again until dinner, which usually gives me plenty of time in which to write a short story."
These excerpts are packed with practical writing advice too. The first relays the convoluted process we writers sometimes have; the third deals with symbol in fiction and speaks absolute truths about the short story form. Here are a few quotes:
"A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing..."
"Far and away the greatest menace to the writer—any writer, beginning or otherwise—is the reader. The reader is, after all, a kind of silent partner in this whole business of writing, and a work of fiction is surely incomplete if it is never read. The reader is, in fact, the writer’s only unrelenting, genuine enemy."
"Here is one of the greatest pitfalls for beginning or inexperienced writers: Their stories are, far too often, just simply not very interesting."
 "It seems to me that in our present great drive—fiction-wise—toward the spare, clean, direct kind of story, we are somehow leaving behind the most useful tools of the writer, the small devices that separate fiction from reporting, the work of the imagination from the everyday account."
So get a cup of something hot and clear some time for these three wonderful pieces:
"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