Posts Tagged ‘readers’


Of the many totally awesome benefits to getting your book published, probably nothing is as cool as getting letters from your readers, and in the short time since Beautiful Monster has been published, I’ve discovered there are three basic types of mail that readers will send an author: fan mail, hate mail, and just plain-strange-mail.

Each of these types of mail are important to the author who is interested in knowing his or her audience and/or learning more about his or her own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It’s always great to get mail from readers, however, you have to be careful not to get too caught up in anyone’s take on your work. There’s something to be said about writing for one’s self.

I believe that anyone who writes a novel and gives it to the world has already got nerves of steel. Putting your work out there leaves you vulnerable, it makes you raw, and it is absolutely terrifying…but when you start getting feedback from readers, the good, the bad, and the ugly, that’s when things get real interesting. That being said, here are the types of mail you can expect to receive from your readers once your manuscript is published…based on my experience…

The first and best kind of mail is, of course, fan mail. This is the stuff that reminds you of why you wanted to do this in the first place. The writer’s of fan mail are always very excited about your characters and the world you’ve created. Many of these guys even share insights into your story and your characters that make you see your novel from an entirely new perspective. The writer’s of fan mail are your most important readers. These guys like you. They support you and they want more from you. Be very nice to these folks.

Another form of mail you’re likely to receive is the kind no one likes to get: hate mail. Before assuming that this kind of mail is limited only to writers of sex, violence and sensitive social subjects, be warned that receiving hate mail is almost inevitable. I know writers of the most delightfully sweet children’s books who have received their fair share. Realize that in a time when people are looking for reasons to be offended, there are no safe books to be written. The writer’s of hate mail like to tell you that you have no business writing. Sometimes, it’s your writing style that has set their vicious pens a-scribble. Other times, it’s the content. Too much sex, too much violence…not enough sex, not enough violence…these are all just a few of the triggers that get hate mailers in a dither of wrath. It’s best not to respond at all to these guys as any correspondence from you is only likely perpetuate the hate and increase the chances of them telling their friends and families what a prick you are…on top of being a lousy writer. That being said, don’t forget that even the hate mailers are important, though. As Oscar Wilde said, “there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”

Finally, of the three kinds of mail, the just-plain-strange mail is far and beyond the most interesting. These folks like to confess deep things to you. I suppose they figure that (if you’re a horror writer) you somehow understand their darkest, secret fancies. (These folks also tend to get the idea that your characters are real people with whom they would get along famously with, but that is neither here nor there.) There is not, in most cases, anything wrong with getting these kinds of letters. These guys are reading your books, and that makes them cool as hell. That being said, there have, however, been a few letters that have given me pause, and I would caution readers against revealing too much to a stranger, even one who seems to let his freak flag fly. There are just some things that need to be kept under the toupee.

And that is, as far as I can tell, the three types of letters that readers like to send to authors. As I said, all letters from readers are important, and the fact that I’m getting any letters at all is wonderful. I am still in the beginning of all this, but for what it’s worth, this is what I’m learning: don’t let the fan mail go to your head, don’t let the hate mail go to your heart, and… well, as for the just-plain-strange mail, I’m still not sure what to do with that…

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One of the first things that will hinder a work of fiction is poor characterization. A good rule of thumb is that before we sit down to write, we should have a firm grasp on the concept of characterization and the role it plays in the overall effect of good storytelling. Unfortunately, passion and inspiration generally beat good form and doctrine to the punch. We plunge into what we think is a brilliant plot concept, making the characters a secondary priority, tossing them in and out of the story as convenience requires it. Then we find out too late that as powerful as the plot is, the fictional folks who people our story have cast a long, dark shadows of suckiness that dulls the brilliance.  I used to do this all the time, and it’s something I still struggle against, but I’ve learned some general rules of characterization that I have found to be very handy.

First, there are a couple of different ways to present a character, which determines right away who these people are. One method is called direct presentation and the other is indirect presentation. In direct presentation, the author lays it out for us in either exposition or through the dialogue of other characters. “Bob Longfellow was a tall man,” is much the same as, “Wendy turned to her friend with wide eyes and said, ‘Did you see how tall that guy was?'” Either way, we know Bob Longfellow is a tall drink of water because we’ve just been told that he is. With indirect presentation, the author shows us the characters through their actions. “Jim Jones strained to reach the jar of peaches on the top shelf, cursing whoever had thought that building a shelf that was nearly ten feet high was a good idea. Losing patience with the whole shenanigan, Bob Longfellow strode over to the supply shelf,  swiped the jar from its spot, unscrewed the lid, and handed it to Jim.” Now you know Bob is tall, not because I told you he was, but because if he can easily swipe a jar from a shelf that’s about ten feet high, he couldn’t be a short man. From that same indirect method of presentation, you also get the impression than Bob Longfellow is an impatient man and that Jim Jones is stubborn.

This ties into the whole “Show vs. Tell” concept that no writer can get away from. As a general rule, readers prefer to be shown rather than told about a person or an event. That, however, just like almost everything else in writing, is subjective. Danielle Steele, for example, loves to tell us detail after detail about any given person, place or thing, but we keep reading her because, well… she tells a good story. However, the direct method usually lacks emotional impact because unlike the indirect method, it fails to present the characters as living beings of flesh and blood. Also, by too much telling, we give the impression that we aren’t crediting our readers with the intellectual capacity to connect the dots, and thereby, we are inadvertently insulting their intelligence, which will make us anything but popular among readers.

Aside from how we present our characters, we also need to understand what kinds of characters they are. There are three types of characters that populate a story: static, dynamic, and stock.

We don’t need to know much about “static” characters. They generally possess only a few prominent qualities and are there mostly to move the story along, or give the main characters some kind of conflict or resolution. Static characters are different from stock characters though, because these guys can have more than one dimension, and can play very large roles in the story, much like a “supporting” actor or actress in a movie. The main definition of a static character though, is that they do not change. Static characters are the same people by the end of the story as they were in the beginning.  We don’t get to see how they are changed by the events of the plot.

“Dynamic” characters are just the opposite.  These guys are usually the main characters and we get to see them change. Dynamic characters are multi-dimensional, life-like beings who undergo a distinct change of personality, attitude or character as the story progresses. One of the biggest mistakes writers make, in my opinion, is creating a main character who is entirely static. Sometimes, avoiding this is terribly difficult though. In the case of “Beautiful Monster”, (a manuscript I co-wrote with Kim Williams-Justesen) my main character was bad guy. A very, very bad guy. Bad enough that there was no believable way to give him a life-altering epiphany that would show him the error of his ways. Furthermore, I had no interest in redeeming him. Still, he is a dynamic character, and therefore, he must change. The possibilities of change for dynamic characters is wide open though. It doesn’t matter how they change, only that they do change.

Finally, “stock” characters are basically stereotypical characters an author uses for the sake of quick and easy grasp-ability by the readers. We are all too familiar with the wicked stepmother, the harlot with the heart of gold, the good-looking, dark-haired man on the white horse, the hospitable southern widow, the manic-depressive artistic genius, etc. Stock characters are just static characters with one single role: to bring immediate understanding to the reader by capitalizing on stereotypes.

The rules of characterization are some of the most important rules of writing fiction. Unlike many of the other writing rules, I believe these ones need to be firmly observed and respected. A great plot is a powerful thing, but without the right characterization to execute it, readers are left with a sense of having been cheated, a reaction that no writer I know wants to get.


Yesterday I received a text from a friend of mine who has been reading my manuscript, The White Room. “I can’t believe you killed him!” he said, referring to one of the characters in the story. I explained to my friend the reasons behind the macabre act and why it had to be done… and it got me to thinking about the reasons we kill some of our favorite characters.

 

When killing a character that the reader has invested in, an author walks a fine line between further engaging the audience and losing them altogether. The key to successfully murdering a make-believe person without repelling the reader lies in the reasons behind the character’s death and the string of events and ultimate outcome it provides.

We’ve all read stories or seen movies where a character we love dies for no good reason. At best, this divorces us from the active role we felt we were playing in the story. At worst, it offends and alienates us entirely, angering us enough to put the book down, change the channel, or otherwise find new and better things to invest our time in. Shock value, convenience, gore factor or just plain whimsy are not good enough reasons to kill someone you’ve asked the audience to care about.

The character my friend was referring to was the hardest character I’ve ever had to kill. My initial intention was to let the guy live, but as was pointed out to me in the process of writing the book, he had to die. He had to die not only for the sake of moving the story forward with its integrity in tact, but mostly, for the sake of propelling my protagonist forward and arming him with the conviction and wrath he would need in order to believably make the choices he had to make.

I did everything I could to find a way to reach the end of my story without killing this guy. For many reasons, I was incredibly attached to this character and accepting that he had to die was a gradual process that took place in slow sections. I fought with myself and with my mentor the whole way… but when the story was finished, I understood. Reading the manuscript from beginning to end, I realized that this character’s death was vital in the overall power of the story.

Murdering my all time favorite character was a good learning experience for me as a writer. I learned that, as it is in life, some things need to be compromised for the greater good; that even in the world of fiction, there is a price for everything… and if you want to write a good, strong story with enough emotional impact to keep the readers reading, sometimes you have to do things you don’t necessarily want to. I learned to tiptoe the precarious edge of good storytelling and cheap shots; that the death of a beloved character must be a kind of fictional human sacrifice for the greater good of the story. I learned the bottom line of all storytelling:  if it serves to further strengthen the story, do it… and if not, don’t.


     Collaborating on a writing project is vastly different from working by yourself.  It’s been said that no novel is ever written entirely by one person and that is true.  No matter how seasoned the writer, we all need to stop at some point and seek advice from others, and if nothing else, writers depend on other people for inspiration.  But all in all, writing is a pretty solitary venture; one that you suddenly realize has engulfed you for hours and sometimes days at a time, and only when the phone rings or someone stops by do you become aware of the time that has passed.  For the most part, I am okay with this.  I don’t mind spending time alone.  Even as a kid, I seemed to require substantial allotments of alone time, so this is nothing strenuous to me.

     So writing with someone, in terms of a 50/50 effort, is a unique experience.  First you have to be sure of the person you’re writing with.  It’s natural to become possessive of your work and overly sensitive to criticism, so the relationship between two writers of the same project needs to be professional.  As I write this, I am about 30,000 words into an alternating chapter-style collaboration with my friend and mentor Kim Williams-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, Love and Loathing, and the three-part series of Hey, Ranger! books for children.  So far, so good.  Kim was an integral component of my last (and first) full length novel (which is still in the hands of a literary agent I met at a writing conference – no word yet, although I did receive an e-mail from her saying she has received it and, due to the holidays, is a little behind schedule).  So when Kim introduced me to the idea of collaborating, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  I still have a lot to learn and it felt like the next natural step.  I figured it would be an oppurtunity to work one on one, side by side, quite literally, with someone who has not only the education, but experience in the world of publishing. 

     The first thing we had to do was decide which story we wanted to tell.  We both have a vast mental backlog of pending storylines, so it was just a matter of choosing the one that we both felt would most equally utilize our strengths and most effectively blend our voices.  Our first choice was a Gothic-era supernatural thriller.  I made it clear very early on that whatever we wrote together would need to fall into the “creep-factor” category to some degree, as experience has shown me that this is where my style naturally flows.  She agreed and we began.

     I hit a brick wall right off.  I don’t know as much about the Gothic era as I thought, and this became embarrassingly apparent as soon as I sat down to write.  Unfortunately, even when you’re writing fiction, there must be truth in your story.  If it doesn’t feel like the truth, readers sense this and they do not like it one bit.  So we had two choices:  I could spend several months emerged in the world of Gothic history, or… we could write something else, something contemporary.  What it came down to was scheduling.  I had just sent my first manuscript to the agent and Kim was in the revision process of a finalized work, so neither of us were wanting to put off beginning this project for several months, as it is important, (due to the expected dozens of rejections a writer will acquire and the fact that most literary agents demand sole viewing rights to your book), to have more than one manuscript out there circulating at all times.

     So, we settled on what we currently refer to as “Project: Evil Heart,” a kind of he said/she said thriller that, thanks to me, has become more horror and gore than anything, hee hee.  This is the kind of story that I will not be urging my mother to read.  In fact, when I think about that, I cringe.  I have no doubt that Kim and I will both be clobbered by all kinds of criticism when it is complete.  But that is a risk we are both willing to take.

     One thing I didn’t expect when collaborating are all the little differences of understanding.  When my character walks into the same restaurant as Kim’s, it’s interesting to see how different it looks.  To a point, this works.  Our characters are very different from each other, so they are not going to see things the same way, however, there are certain facts that need to be in synch.  If the restaurant has dividers between booths, for example, this can’t change.  If the waiter is a blond guy, no unexplained dye job is going to satisfy the reader it’s the same dude.  This can become challenging.

    Another thing I naively overlooked is the amount of time she and I would spend together.  Our goal is to have this baby ready to be looked at by June 15th of 2011.  That gives us, as of today, just over three months.  We began in January and are just about to the half-way mark so we’re doing pretty good, but there isn’t a lot of time to dilly-dally.   So she and I meet twice a week and not a day goes by without several phone calls or e-mails on the topic.  Right now, Kim is in Las Vegas, and I am stuck on a plot problem.  I need to know if her character answers the phone when mine calls, and if not, why… so I am waiting for her reply to my e-mail and hoping I’m not disrupting her business out-of-state.  These are the challenges.  But I have no complaints.  Our egos are such that we can collaborate with our claws sheathed and our tongues civil.  We have yet to get into even one of the brawls I anticipated when we first began this (well, she did angrily hurl a sizable bag of gummy  bears at my head once, but that had nothing to do with writing… and I deserved it).

    Within the next chapter or two, our characters will meet face to face and this will multiply the time Kim and I spend together.  Then it will literally become a side-by-side enterprise, and it is my hope and belief that we will continue in the same vein of professionalism, respect and allowance of expression that we have thus far. 

     Also, this has been a strain on the people around us.  I am, for the most part, very lucky to be surrounded by a supportive and understanding network of friends and family.  There are those folks though, who take it personally and I don’t know what to say to them except, “I’m sorry.”  There just isn’t any way to do this without sacrificing a hell of a lot of my time.  Those who will understand and accept this, I suppose, are the true friends.  The others will inevitably fall away, bitterly perhaps, but I can’t control their responses.  That’s their bag. 

     Overall, I would say the pros far outweigh the cons.  This is, after all, everything I ever wanted.  Of course, it would be great to be published and that is my ultimate goal, but I try not to get wrapped up in that.  The real joy of this though, is the process, the creativity, the expression.  I need to understand the business side of this, sure, but ultimately, I would rather be at home, “bloodletting” as I’ve come to term it, than twiddling my thumbs waiting for an agent to call, or networking in some hotel somewhere at a writing conference.  But that is a different blog topic entirely.

     As for collaborating, I think it can be done… and well, under the right circumstances.  I am lucky to have had as much opportunity to learn and grow as both a writer and an individual as I have.  Aside from being my mentor and co-writer, Kim is also my friend.  It’s impossible after all, to spend this much time with a person without either loving or hating them to some degree.  It is my sincere hope that this relationship will continue for many years to come.  Not many people have the opportunities I have received. 

     I don’t take that for granted.