CRAFT: Engage, Mr. Sulu!

Have you been told in a rejection that your voice or character just isn’t as engaging as [$agent] had hoped?

Well, what the 3@$#^% does that mean?

We can only guess. Let’s take a stab at it, though.

From the fiction writing list:

Maybe your main character is a pain, a be-yotch, a little pill–and you didn’t notice because you were trying to make him/her quirky and different, and you already knew her good qualities and were invested. Or you were concentrating on “making things worse and worse for the hero,” as emphasized on all those how-to sites, and the woman was reacting normally instead of like Supergirl. Unfortunately, the natural response to some events is to curse and throw things, or slap people, or just walk away in anger, and that doesn’t always come off well in print. Especially if it’s really early in the story, when readers are not yet invested in finding out what happens.

Most readers want the hero or heroine to be likable and sympathetic. They want to identify with the one who is at the center of the story, and they can’t see themselves in someone who’s cranky, whining, or just plain mean. (They have an idealized image of themselves . . . what can I say? I do, too.)

Now, there are exceptions to this. If you are writing a literary novel, or a novel with an antihero, you can’t make the hero all sweetness and light. And you don’t want the heroine to be disgustingly squishy and Pollyanna (the real Pollyanna isn’t nearly as nauseating as the stereotype says she was, either.) But still, for commercially viable fiction, we have to give some thought to engaging the reader. (This is hard work. We’re workin’ hard.)

Most of the time, this complaint/problem occurs early in the book. The first chapter or so is where you grab the reader. Once the reader cares what happens, you have more leeway in getting the reader to go along with “bad” things your characters do. This means you might need to, in Blake Snyder’s words, have her Save the Cat.

If you have a heroine who’s at or near the breaking point when your story opens, you may have some acting-out behavior. But as she’s stalking away from the hair-pulling, she may see a cat stuck up in a live oak, and a little old lady calling to it and waving catnip from the sidewalk. You know the drill–our hard-hearted Marine drill sergeant scrambles up the tree, grasps the scared kitty gently, and delivers her back down to Grandma.

And that’s Saving the Cat: something sympathy-generating that your protagonist does that lets readers see that there’s more to him or her than the mean part they just saw. That this is a guy with marshmallow inside. That the girl isn’t Cruella, but was just pushed past her limit.

Of course, you’ll find an appropriate action that’s not as cliched as saving the cat. That’s just the phrase Snyder gives to the general concept. Your heroine can donate her “spare” computer to the eleven-year-old next door whose laptop that was given to her by some other charity has quit working, and then the kid can reciprocate later by doing some hacking for your heroine. Your hero can be in line for a MollyCoddlers concert when a couple of teen girls are spied crying and crawling along the sidewalk looking for their lost tickets . . . and the hero can hand them his pair of tickets and take his date out to Make-Out Point instead (and discover the clue he needs there. Heh-heh.) You know the drill.

Sometimes a character is just naturally snarky or edgy, like my Daphne, and you accidentally make her TOO nasty in the first draft. Daniel Lazar (voted “Sexiest Agent Guy” at several writers’ conventions) read Daphne 1.0 years ago and called to tell me that she was just too snarky and he couldn’t imagine spending three hundred pages with that character–that her very thoughts were nasty and world-hating. Yes, I had tried to show how mean the world was being to her, and ended up with her flailing out and snarking it up right off the bat. I failed to show WHY this wasn’t the Real Daph, but only the result of frustration and hopelessness. I hope I have fixed that in Daphne 7.0 (I’m sure I am at least on version seven.) My character came across as having a bad attitude, being a whiner, and not caring too much about anyone else. Whoa! That is how her COUSIN RACHEL is supposed to come across–all business and no heart.

It was a little tough, as Daphne needs to start out as SOMETHING of a whiner at first, or else her character arc won’t be such a rainbow. She becomes a better person and gets straightened out over the course of the story through learning all those life lessons and discovering truths about herself. I softened stuff up a lot with more introspection to explain her actions (whenever those actions seemed mean or hard), which slowed the pacing a little more, so you can’t win.

Still, you won’t keep them reading if they simply start to hate the POV character. Unless you’re Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or some other genius.

Maybe your gal is too hard-edged and has shown no vulnerabilities. The classic show of vulnerability (one that’s been in the news recently) is Indiana Jones and his fear/hate of snakes. Giving your character a fear of heights early on also lets you call on that fear later when she’s got to walk that tightrope to rescue the hero (or save another cat.) Your character should face her worst fear at the black moment, if you can work it that way. You could have her be a total fan of (say) some down-and-out relative of hers, and when she meets a person who reminds her of ol’ cousin Dabney, her good side kicks in and she helps him to her own detriment.

Do let the heroine have some flaws, so that normal readers can empathize. I always feel tender towards a character who has to fight to keep from gaining weight and who has bad hair days. I feel less sympathetic towards the ones who can eat anything and still find their jeans falling off (because they’re too big–not because [$cute_guy] walks by.)

Check whether your heroine (especially in a YA or a chicklitty sort of story) complains prettily, but complains so often that it edges over into whining. “I can’t get a break! First the tire went flat, then I got a run in my pantyhose, and then my leg started to burn and I realized I was bleeding from the kneecap, and then I was late to work and got yelled at . . . it’s not fair!” Doesn’t that sound like my LJ? Well, you can laugh at me because you know me and you realize I’m yanking that for effect. (To some extent, anyway.) But in a book, this may not come across as well. I do this in Daphne when she’s at the baby shower–she breaks down into a full-on pity party in her internal monologue–but then she pulls herself up out of it. That’s to show how low she can get and still pull herself up. It’s a touchy little bit to write, and tough to pull off. (We’ll see whether I pull it off or not.)

Readers can also eagerly hate that disgustingly perfect person. If you have a Mary Sue–the woman of the year, competent at her job, able to leap tall buildings in a single hop, beautiful to the point of people fainting as she walks past, is up for sainthood because She Never Cheats Or Lies, and who never has a bad hair day–we find her very ick-en-spick and hope that she falls into a hole. And that her scheme of embezzling .00001 from every account is soon revealed. If you have Mary Sue, be sure everyone in the book hates her and that she gets her comeuppance in the end. *grin*

So where DO you start with your lovable, likable, ever-cat-saving hero[ine]? If he has built a wall around himself (of necessity, he believes) and now has a hard-but-brittle shell, you must show that he’s a good person at heart who’ll do the right thing when push comes to shove. The office be-yotch has a reason for being that way, and we need to have some glimmer of why that is, or at least that there’s a good reason, or we’ll never be able to read the book. Early on, readers must think that they like the heroine enough to go out shopping with her or work in the same office. They need to see your hero’s appealing qualities within those first few pages, but you can’t let that spill over into Too Perfect To Live.

Voice is tougher. If you get told that your voice doesn’t appeal, it’s probably got something to do with your word choice and the cadences of your prose. What do critique groups and beta readers say about your work? Have you been told by English teachers that you write well, or are you just learning? Maybe you just need to write more to find your authentic voice. That’s a tough thing to hear.

On the other hand, perhaps that agent is simply not in your audience. She likes page-turners, and you are writing a character-driven literary novel. Not every book can please every person. “You can’t please everyone,” as Rick Nelson sings, “so you’ve got to please yourself.” And hope that you’ll find someone who likes your singing.

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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