…are hard to write.
And that could be the end of the post. But it’s also about relearning the ingredients you cook with. If writing was cooking, we’d all know that a roux is butter and flour, equal parts more or less, cooked until the flour isn’t raw anymore. It can be white sauce all the way to ‘how in the heck is this not just called burned’ and each stage is used for something else. Some of us would know that the more you cook it, the less it thickens the sauce, some of us could do it in our sleep and others have watched every video on Youtube but have never been inside a kitchen.
When I realized how I was writing wasn’t working for me, I had to go back and reintroduce myself to every single technique and ingredient that I knew. I realized that while I said I knew them and could tell someone else how to make it, I’d been taking shortcuts with my own writing. Instead of using a good quality butter, I’d use industrial margarine because the butter was in the freezer and hard to get at. My main characters were awesome in chapter seventeen, but it took sixteen chapters of extremely non-effective numbly swallowing the abuse heaped on him until I got that reaction.
Far from being humbling, though, I loved it. I’d lost my passion for writing while I was trying to write at a level that would impress other writers instead of writing to make that emotional connection to the reader. I would get hung up on writing description before I realized that description, action and narration all falls under point of view. Describing anything no longer seemed like quite a chore. Last night I wrote a scene where the main character watches an older lady change a baby’s diaper, trying to figure out what the powder was for. She wasn’t dusting for prints. Nothing is worse than objective description. Every sentence needs to be filtered through the POV of the main character.
The number one torpedo that can sink the book before it leaves the safe habour is having a main character that doesn’t want to be the main character of this particular book. I’m not talking about the reluctant hero when the plane goes down and the pilot and copilot are dead, I’m talking about the slightly outcast main character whose chief motivation is “making things the way they were.”
Of course a lot of main characters start out with the idea that you can go home again, and home was a really awesome place to be, but the hero’s journey is literally sending children out into the world and have them come back as adults who have outgrown the son/daughter mold and now has to fit into the grown adult roll, like it or not.
I’m highly attuned to this because this was my greatest flaw in all my earlier writing. My character got kickass in chapter seventeen, when it really should have happened in the second scene. I know that having a main character decide that they were going to act instead of react was important. Protagonist (mistranslated or not) means the first character to act. Having a character react to the machinations of the antagonist can happen, of course, but the main character should be the chief acting force in your book.
I know, I know, all rules are meant to be broken. If what you are doing is working for you, keep doing that thing. If you have been doing what you’re doing and you’re still not selling, maybe start looking around for variables to start changing. In a nanowrimo writing session, I asked the person I was talking to to imagine the poor, broke intern staying at her desk to eat her lunch while her boss is out wining and dining. This assistant isn’t getting paid enough money to eat on the same street she works in, she’s haggard and tired and reading slush is just in addition to all her tasks she has to do to help the clients that are actually making her boss money.
She’s actively looking for that next great breakthrough. She didn’t take the crumby job or internship for the glorious fame and fortune that comes with every aspect of the publishing industry to crush the heart and souls of writers and keep the voice of the new generation down so that she could prop up and continue the same old, same old status quo. (See how ugly that word is? You do not want your main character fighting for what was. You want them fighting for what could be, and if you’ve created a paradise for him to fight for, he’s not going to fit back into that perfect world once he’s done with all his growing. We glorify the past once it’s beyond our grandparents, but any world, especially a monarchy, is never perfect unless maybe you are the king or the heir to be).
Oops, that was a tangent. Anyway, she’s looking for something that jumps off the page at her. From line one, page one you’re assuring this reader that sure, she’s read ten to fifteen Character X does Y while fighting Z, but the way you’ve done it is different and unique. Play with tropes and cliches all you want, but the voice of the character has to be something she’s never seen before. You want to be that book where the intern cannot wait for her boss to get back because she’s found it and they don’t have to crank out the same old, same old. Your book could be the shift towards a new paradigm. It probably isn’t, but it could be.
So starting with your reluctant main character, who’s just plain old plain folk muddling about his day, without anything interesting happening for the first two chapters because you’re building up to an awesome chapter four isn’t going to work. So many books I’ve read would be greatly improved if they just cut off the first three chapters of infodump and get with what is happening now. The past is the past. It has shaped and scarred your character in it new and unique ways, but the reader only cares about the bleeding wounds in him now. Yes, of course you could do the opposite of that and still sell it. Excellent writing can transcend any artificial limitations we put on fiction like “make your character interesting.” If you’re trying to catch the eye of an intern, chances are, you’re not at that stage in your life where you can make a character reading the newspaper exciting quite yet. There’s no shame in that. Talent can only take you so far before learned skills need to kick in and take you the rest of the way.
But it’s up to you. You can spend your time trying to write the passive, meek main character who doesn’t want to progress. You could get lucky and nail it on your first try (but then not know what you did that worked, so your next one might be a total failure) or you could dig your heels in and spend years trying to write the perfect passive and meek main character. Knock yourself out. The problem is characters are just one aspect of the book. You’ve got plot complications, worldbuilding and sideplots galore. No writing is ever wasted whether it sells or not. Writing takes time to develop. You might be the next Harper Lee, but no story has ever been rejected because it was too good. It could be excellent but not for the right market, but not too good. We’ve all felt that the rejection we got was because the publishing house was too whatever to publish your story (Everyone? No? Just me?) but the truth is, my story just didn’t speak to them.
So if you’ve read to this point and you’re not thinking of a counterargument that will utterly destroy a theory that is already protected by mosts and maybes instead of all and absolutes, I’ll be posting tomorrow to give you a couple things that helped me.
Writing is like figure-skating. The more intense the writing is, the more effortless the effort has to appear.