Monday, July 20, 2015

Another brief rant on the issue of likable female characters

As these posts attest, I've been hung up on the "likability" issue for years, even before Claire Messud brought the issue to the fore in 2013. What Messud made spectacularly clear in the now-famous interview is that readers seem to judge female characters as "good" or "bad," depending on whether one would want to be friends with them. Male authors--and their male characters--aren't subject to the same norms. Men, in fiction if not in life, just have to be interesting.

A more recent book, Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train, has a lot in common with Messud's The Woman Upstairs. And while the latter is classified as literary fiction, and the former a thriller, I think their similar titles tell us something. The main characters of these stories are "shadow women," existing in the periphery of society and of our notice. That's because they don't embody normal expectations at least for white, middle-class women: they've failed to become wives and mothers, as well as, to some degree or another, in their careers.

I would point out, however, that in both these stories, it's the first failure, to marry (or stay married) and produce children, that seems to pain both women more. Their envy of women who have achieved this status seems boundless, and produces rage and recklessness. And that's why both novels, to my mind, still subscribe to the conventional notion of the "likable" female character. Ultimately, they validate traditional notions of womanhood by showing how awful it is for women who have tried desperately, but can't manage to attain it. Ultimately I believe we're meant to pity these characters and be grateful that we've escaped their fate--assuming we either have or at least desire what they don't.

Mind you, I liked both these books quite a bit, especially Girl on the Train. But for an antidote to their conventional mores, I might recommend Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, where the female protagonist is simply ragingly selfish and vengeful--but also intelligent and anything but passive.

Or, if you don't think not craving kids and marriage automatically makes you a villain, try The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick--the real-life story of a woman who never really wanted either, and has lived quite a fulfilling life, thank you very much.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A voice that needs to speak

I've just started reading Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, and have had a little epiphany:

In fiction, voice is everything.

OK, time for the walkback. It's not everything. You need complex characters, a compelling and plausible plot...or, to start out with, maybe you just need a distinctive, interesting voice to tell the story. Maybe the voice can supply a lot of that other stuff, because that's all central to the voice's existence in the first place.

In first person, drawing plot and character from voice is relatively easy, because a character is telling a story about something that happened to--or, perhaps better, because of--her or him. However, in a lot of novels, especially those told in third person omniscient, we often don't sense that an actual character is telling the story. Still, there's a presence behind the words, which is somehow a version of the author herself: the author filtered through language, or constituted in language, perhaps. And, when you're writing this way, it's well worth thinking about what's driving this persona's choices--along with "What does she want to say?," ask yourself: "Why and how does she want to say it?"

The voice doesn't have to be just one person's, either. As in James's novel, different storytellers can pass the baton from chapter to chapter. This can be difficult to pull off, as every voice has to be distinctive (I think we've all read novels in which supposedly different narrators oddly seem to share the same quirky sensibilities). On the plus side, this technique allows you to look at events from several perspectives--not a new concept, but often an effective one, especially if you, the writer, are feeling stuck partway through your novel. You also can give your reader access to information that a single first-person or close-third narrator wouldn't have.

My point is, maybe it's worth thinking of your work not so much as a story that needs to be told, but as a voice that needs to speak.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

California Bookstore Day at Village House of Books

Saturday, May 2 is California Bookstore Day. Authors are fanning out all over the state to meet and greet readers and support independent bookstores.

I'll be at Village House of Books, Los Gatos, 11 a.m. through 12 p.m.

Visit their blog to meet all the visiting authors. Here's the little piece I wrote about publishing Bigfoot and the Baby.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Research for introverts: in praise of the email interview

There comes a time in the life of every novelist when she has to conduct research. There also comes a time when Google and Wikipedia and even the local public library don't provide exactly what you need. And then the novelist realizes that there is no workaround: she has to talk to an actual person. Specifically, she must ask a person questions about, say, aeronautical engineering--not only to fill in gaps in the subject matter, which are too vast to fill in the end, but to find out what it's like to be an aeronautical engineer. And yet she does not really want to ask a person, because she feels guilty about taking up someone's time, and also perhaps embarrassed about her total ignorance of what, for that person, is ordinary life. Where does one begin? Where does one end?

This is where I've found email to be remarkably helpful. Of course you may not get the kind of spontaneous expression you get by phone or in person. You may need visual or auditory information that email can't provide. But with email, you do often get considered, detailed answers to your questions, which you can refer back to later without having to take notes yourself. You also--and this is key--have the opportunity to ask further questions in a relatively unobtrusive way, and the interviewee has the same chance to send more info when he thinks of it later, which he often will. You have specific examples in the interviewee's own words of professional or personal language--with no chance you misheard or mis-transcribed it. And you--or I--feel less guilty because you've allowed the interviewee more control over when and where he answers your questions.

In short, for my fellow introverts, asking questions by email is way better than not asking them at all ... and can bring you truly surprising and useful results.

This has been another edition of Stuff Other People Have Known for a Long Time But Is Exciting News to Me.

For when the phone is just too much.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ten lessons learned after (nearly) one year of having a book out with a small press

1. There is both more love and more rejection out there for published authors than I ever imagined. I try to concentrate on the love--which can come from the most unexpected and delightful places.

2. Self-promotion and extroverting do not get easier. Ever. On the other hand ...

3. Once one has accepted the need to extrovert, author events are quite fun.

4. I just have to build in plenty of resting-up/restoration time before and after.

5. A book from a small press is not likely to become a big seller. Distribution is the main issue. However ...

6. The book is a "calling card" that proves you can finish a book and get a publisher to love it and invest in it, which is no small thing. It's also a chance to prove that you're willing to put yourself out there to promote your work.

7. The production quality of small-press books--and large-press books, astonishingly--varies widely. My publisher did an awesome job with the cover, paper quality, fonts, etc. This stuff is important, so look at other books the press has produced before signing on.

8. Taking two private acting lessons so I could give better readings was possibly the smartest thing I did, out of all the things I did for this book. Including writing it.

9. Networking with fellow authors is absolutely critical. It isn't as hard as it may seem. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of writers are kind, supportive, interesting people who genuinely want to help each other out (even if we also have to stifle a little envy sometimes). Try to be one of these kinds of writers, and you will meet them in abundance.

10. Publishing with a traditional press of any size is hard--and there are different kinds of difficulties at different levels. As various tennis coaches used to tell me, just before I was pulverized by much larger and more accomplished players than I, "just play your game." In other words, do what you can, the best you know how, and keep doing it.

Bigfoot and the Baby: Yes, it can be yours.

(See? You can always slip in a little self-promotion.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What is "successful"? What is "willing"?

I've been seeing this quote bouncing around on Twitter over the past few days:

Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don't wish it were easier, wish you were better. - Jim Rohn

All well and fine, I suppose. It seems true to me, to the extent that I've attained certain goals I've actually set for myself--as opposed to sort of stumbling into situations that feel comfortable for the time being, which has always been my default setting. This is especially true with writing and publishing novels. I've been surprised at what I've been willing to do in order to make this happen--lots of large and small actions that I wouldn't have been willing to take earlier in my life.

But. Does that mean I'm now more "successful"? That I'm "better"? I don't think so. Perhaps what I see as worthwhile struggles look to other people like untenable compromises. As the level of visible (superficial?) "success" rises, does one become more and more "willing" to abandon previously rock-solid principles? Plus, "success" for me might not mean "success" for you. Maybe you've succeeded by not doing some of the things I have done.

I get that the quote is loosely stated enough to encompass all these ambiguities. Whether you want a healthier family life or a best-selling novel or a corner office, these words can apply to you. Yet they irritate me. People who are "successful" are not necessarily "better," at least by the conventional definition of these terms. We can admire the fortitude of people who take on difficult tasks, but it's also worth noting what they give up--even what harm they may be doing on their way to "success."

I do not mean to dissuade anyone from pushing toward their goals. I still think that trying is better than not trying and that regrets are worse than mistakes. But it's cheesy and harmful to imply that people who aren't "willing" to do certain things are "worse." It would be interesting, instead, to find out why they aren't willing.