Tag Archives: Character development

Readers vs. Writers

The Reader

The Reader by Dorothy F. Newland

I workshopped my novel through my writers’ group for over a year – revising as I went – before handing over a fresh draft to my first pool of beta readers. And with one exception, my beta readers were just that: readers, not writers.

When it comes to critiquing a story, writers can spot a “missed opportunity” a mile away, and can always point to at least three things they would do differently. If given the chance, a passionate writers’ group could tear the works of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, even Shakespeare to pieces.

But readers – at least the ones I roped in for this round of reviews – appear to take more of a 30,000 foot approach to novel critiques, and I’ve found it both illuminating and entertaining how different the feedback has been from these two groups.*

For instance, my writers’ group expressed concerns about the believably of the relationship between two of the central characters. Pam and Keith are so different from one another, with completely different backgrounds. What drew them together? What kept them together?

However, when I asked my beta readers if Pam and Keith’s relationship felt genuine and believable, the answer was a unanimous yes. One reader said, “I’ve met too many seemingly mismatched couples to think this is unbelievable or uncommon.“

On the other hand, while my writers’ group praised my ability to create distinct voices and personalities for each of my four central characters, my beta readers were less sure about this accomplishment, and several commented that they could hear my voice coming through the characters. It is important to note that, with one exception, my beta readers are close friends and family. My writers’ group members are not. One friend summed it up this way: “I think I know you too well to be able to answer this question.” Fair enough.

Last week, I saved a copy of my novel, this one entitled Small Legends V4. And one of the first items on my list of revisions is a common comment among both the writers and the readers: “The ending was very satisfying, but it was all resolved a little too quickly.”

Clearly I have some work to do. Time to get back down to business.

 


*In fairness to my writers’ group, they did read the novel a few chapters at a time over the period of a year, so it does make sense that they would focus more on the nooks and crannies than the overall story.

 

 

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One Tough Character

From the start, I knew I wanted to write my current novel-in-progress in four sections, each told from the viewpoint of a different family member: the mom, dad, brother, and last but not least, the daughter Alice. While I was excited to develop all of these characters, I most looked forward to telling Alice’s story. I felt that the 30-something year-old commitmentphobe would be the most compelling character in the bunch, with the clearest voice. I also relate to her on a personal level, having faced a few of my own commitment issues over the years. She is a little like me, so therefore should be the easiest to write. Right?magical-weave-mirror

Wrong. I have struggled with this character more than any other, in large part because she is a little like me. How am I supposed to resolve her conflicts even as I struggle with my own? But perhaps through her redemption, I will discover some of my own.

I am deep into the fourth and final section of the third draft of my novel. Next step, beta readers, which both excites and unnerves me. In celebration of getting this far (and to encourage myself to keep going), I’ve shared below a pre-beta excerpt from Part Four, Chapter One, and the first glimpse at the world from Alice’s point of view. Thanks for reading!

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Why I Hate Working in Offices:
1. People talking to me when I have my earbuds in
2. Having to listen to people talk to each other over the stalls in the bathroom while they pee
*Unique to this office: the bathroom is located next to the kitchen and it always reeks like whatever anyone puts in the microwave. Fish, popcorn, leftover Chinese. Bathrooms should not smell like food!
3. Close talkers
4. People touching my monitor
5. People touching my keyboard
6. Supervisors “checking in”, “reaching out”, and “touching base”
7. “Dialoging”
8. Having to comb my hair

“Hey Alice,” Shareen said, leaning over the edge of her cube and into my airspace.

I could smell her gum. Grape.

“A little bird told me it’s your birthday.”

Shareen smiled. Her eyes looked even bigger than usual due to the ring of peacock blue liner that circled them.

I was pretty sure I knew who the little bird was. Danielle, the receptionist, was almost clinically nosy. She peppered me with questions — where was I going for lunch, did I prefer waxing or plucking — nearly every time I passed by her desk. She also had a habit of complimenting my shoes or my purse or my earrings, but with her lip turned up just enough to make it clear she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of it. I’d taken to responding in kind: Love that color of lipstick on you, I’d say and then wink.

I ignored Shareen and kept my eyes on my monitor.

“Are you doing anything fun to celebrate?” she asked. “Is your boyfriend taking you out somewhere nice?”

“I’m on deadline, Shareen,” I said, still not looking up.

“Oh. Cool,” Shareen said. “Later.” And she disappeared into her cubicle.

I’d decided three years earlier that I would not take another contract job that required me to work in an office. I explained to my potential employers that I was much more productive working at home, and since they were paying me hourly, this would actually save them money in lost time due to non-project related activities (i.e., pointless meetings, over-the-cube-chit-chat, etc.). Most companies were happy to take the discount, but MediaBlitz apparently had money to burn. It’d been nearly a month since my last contract had ended, and my savings was starting to take a hit. MediaBlitz offered me a three-month full-time contract at a ridiculously high hourly rate. The only condition was that I had to be in the office from 8:30am to 5:30pm Monday through Friday. I was backed into a corner. I relented. And I had regretted it ever since.

“How are you coming along on the Emerson Winslow copy?”

This time it was my direct supervisor Janet leaning over the wall of my cube. She was always doing this — popping up behind me, ninja-like — as if she expected to catch me playing Minesweeper.

“Almost done,” I said, still not looking up.

I find it’s best not to make eye contact with suspicious people. Far from reassuring them that you are telling the truth, it only seems to make them think you feel guilty. Best to keep your eyes on your work as if you can’t bear to be parted from it.

“I’ll have the final draft to Proofreading before lunch,” I said.

Emerson Winslow was a huge law firm and Janet was their account manager. I couldn’t decide which was worse: copy editing for the world’s most boring ad campaign or working for Janet, who clearly saw it as her job to look over everyone’s shoulders. She was barely five feet tall and almost perfectly round in the middle, yet didn’t make a sound when she crept up behind you. She always wore black, not in a gothy sort of way but more like a mime. She pulled her hair back into a severe ponytail, a move that gave her face a stretched appearance, like an iguana.

I could feel her standing behind me, could feel her eyes on my monitor. My skin prickled and it was all I could do to keep from whirling around and shouting, How am I supposed to get anything done with you breathing down my neck?

But I didn’t, because that’s the kind of thing that gets you fired. Or at least, the kind of thing that got me fired in the past.

“Can I help you with anything else, Janet?” I asked. Janet didn’t say anything, and when I chanced a glance back over my shoulder, she’d disappeared like a puff of smoke.

Shareen was right. It was my birthday. 31 years old. I disliked birthdays. Not because I was afraid of gray hair or saggy boobs, but because birthdays and their associated celebrations had always been a source of anxiety in my family. I’d enacted a strict No Celebration rule years before, but this time around had agreed to let my boyfriend Patrick bring over take-out from my favorite Burmese place, as long as there was no singing or candles. My boyfriend. I was still getting used to that word. We’d been together for one whole year. My longest relationship ever.

I was dating a few different guys when we met. Well, dating wasn’t exactly the word for what we were doing. More like drinking and screwing. They were the kind of guys who had their jeans back on and a reason to leave before I had a chance to ask them to go. Which was fine with me, because the last thing I wanted was to wake up and find one of them still there, expecting breakfast.

But then I began to notice a curious pattern: whenever I went out with Patrick, not only did he end up in my bed but he was still there at 2am, at 4am, at 8am. And he didn’t once eye his discarded clothing longingly, didn’t look at the clock and comment on the lateness of the hour, the fact that he had to visit his mother in the morning, or meet a friend for breakfast. Patrick was solidly present and his attention was 100% on me. Until he fell asleep.  And even then, he cuddled into me, his arms and legs wrapped around mine. It was both comforting and suffocating. I wanted him to leave but I didn’t want him gone.

That first morning, he woke me with a kiss on the forehead, despite my plaintive groans. When I opened my eyes, his face was warm and sleepy. Peaceful.

“Why are you looking at me?” I asked, squinting into the light.

“Because I like seeing you in the daylight, Vampire,” he teased. I was too surprised to have time to recoil.

He smelled like vanilla beans, and when he kissed me, I felt spikes of lightening shoot through my body, like static electricity but much better. After he stayed the night, I could still smell him on my sheets the next day. It drove me wild.

Over the next few weeks, I stopped seeing the other guys and then it was only Patrick knocking on my front door with a bottle of wine. Only Patrick pulling my underwear down and sliding his face between my legs. Patrick fumbling with the coffee maker in the morning, inviting me to lunch, to meet his best friend from college.

And in this way, he covertly became my boyfriend, a word I had not used since high school.

“Don’t be late tonight,” Patrick said the morning of my 31st birthday, as we departed from my apartment and went on our respective ways to work. “I’ve got plans for you.” And he raised his eyebrows up and down in a Groucho Marx sort of way.

“Wild horses couldn’t tear me away,” I sung out to him as I walked backwards toward the bus stop.

It was a Wednesday in early February, the skies were gray and gloomy, and the temperature cold as hell. One of the downsides of a winter birthday is that you can pretty much count on bad weather. A real birthday present would have been to stay home, to avoid the rain and the irritating people at work, and instead spend the day curled up on the couch, watching my fish. Electric yellow cichlids, green cobra guppies, neon tetras, harlequin rasboras, and red cap oranda goldfish swam around the tank like colorful little gangs patrolling their territories, occasionally putting on a show of dominance to impress their respective posses, but never pulling out a switchblade or tire iron. Their movements seemed choreographed, like characters straight out of Westside Story. I could watch them for hours.

Patrick didn’t understand my fascination with the fish and had started campaigning for a cat. I tried to explain that just because cats were allowed in my building and not his wasn’t reason enough for me to get one. Anyway, my neighbors’ cats were always streaking down the hallways, scaring the shit out of me and practically knocking me down the stairs. I already had plenty of cat interaction without all the shedding and the shitting-in-a-box business.

The next time he brought it up, I suggested that a peppered cory catfish would be a nice addition to Little Puerto Rico. I thought it was a pretty good joke.

After the tenth or one-hundredth time he brought up his childhood cat Smokey and waxed nostalgic about how the flat-faced Persian had curled up in bed with him every night until the day it died of a respiratory infection, I knew I had to address the issue head on. I did not want a cat, I explained, because they shed everywhere and scratch the furniture. I did not want a cat because I did not want to be beholden to a small furry creature for 15 years. Patrick retaliated with the rewards of caring for another living creature, the comfort of a sleeping cat on your lap, the soothing sound of purring. He quoted research that suggested people with pets tend to be happier, less stressed out.

“But the fish make me happy,” I explained. “Easier than meditation and cheaper than therapy.”

“You’re impossible to reason with, you know?” Patrick said, for perhaps the millionth time. He was fighting back a smile. It was so easy to make him laugh, and this had quickly become my best tool to diffuse any brewing storm.

“What fun would life be if you could reason your way through it?” I said. I knew this didn’t make any sense, but Patrick smiled just the same, shaking his head at me in mock bemusement.

“The thing is,” he started again, his tone thoughtful now, “as much as I’d like to have a cat, I want you to want it too.” And then he looked at me with his big brown Bambi eyes, and I felt both a swoon of affection for him and a strong urge to leave the room.

He had this way of saying things that made the room contract, the air thinner around me. He had this way of saying things that made me want to diffuse the moment with a smart ass remark although I understood that to do so would be unforgivably cruel. So I did the only thing I could on such an occasion: I leaned in to kiss him. First on his forehead, then each cheek, then his chin, the tip of his nose, and finally his lips. At first he wouldn’t kiss back, but then I would feel the pressure of his lips on mine. His hands would wander up over my hips and onto my ass and before I knew it, desire would take over, blocking all other thoughts for the time being, and soon we’d be screwing on the couch, the bed, the living room floor.

I had a cat once. Or I think I did. It’s hard to keep the murky visual details of childhood straight. Maybe the cat belonged to a neighbor, because my brother swears we never had a cat. Anyway, I remember a cat. It was gray and black and somehow had both stripes like a tiger and spots like a leopard. Maybe it was two cats and my amorphous brain blended them into one for the sake of simplicity. Regardless, there was at least one cat. I remember the sensation of it butting its head up against my hand, its wet little nose grazing over my skin. I remember the sensation of its whiskers tickling my face when I tried to kiss it on the head.

I can’t remember the cat’s name and I have no idea what happened to it, but I always feel a little sad when I think about that cat. Or any cat, really. One time when I was twelve or thirteen, I spotted a gray and black striped cat in the window of a second story apartment; the cat was poised on the back of a sofa, gazing out the window like a sleepy feline neighborhood watch. And without warning, I started to cry. Not full-on sobbing or anything, but I definitely teared up. There was something so beautiful about that cat watching the world go by from behind glass.

I didn’t tell Patrick about the cat in my memories. I wasn’t nostalgic about my childhood the way he was.

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Thank You, Books

I can be a bit of a curmudgeon around the holidays. As much as I would like to blame the PTSD from my days of working retail at Christmas, most of my holiday-based anxiety is of my own creation: pairing my general intolerance for shopping with the self-induced pressure to find the “perfect gift” is asking for trouble. But when it comes to Thanksgiving, I am fully on board. I love everything about Thanksgiving, from the kick-off cocktails to the requisite crisp, after-dinner walk to make room for dessert. And although the cynic in me can’t help but raise an eyebrow at a nationally designated day of thanks, I do appreciate the nudge to, well…appreciate. So in the spirit of the holiday – and in the theme of this here blog – I have listed below just a few of the many, many books for which I am thankful:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I enjoyed this version almost as much as the original.

Now With Zombies!

I first read Pride and Prejudice whilst studying at the University of Swansea in Wales. I was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in my life, and – despite being three years into an English degree – totally intimidated by many of the classic works of the language. Pride and Prejudice was not assigned reading for a class, but rather a recommendation from my friend Emma, who proclaimed it as not only “a good laugh” but also as one of the smartest books she’d ever read. And she was right.

From Jane Austen, I learned to appreciate wit, social commentary, and early 1800s feminism. I also learned that I was perhaps more intelligent than I’d previously believed. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least a half a dozen times, and choke up every time Mr. Darcy says to Elizabeth: “Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.” I am such a sap.

Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

galapagos-vonnegut-kurtI was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut by way of my father’s bookshelf. Vonnegut taught me about satire and how to find truth in the absurd. With literary tongue in cheek, he reveals the darkest parts of the human mind, yet his writing never despairs of hope. He also demonstrates the indisputably powerful punch of the well-placed short sentence: “And so on.”

I have read and loved many of Vonnegut’s books, however it was Galapagos that inspired me to seek out that living diorama of evolution for myself. For my 40th birthday, I crossed off the item in the top spot of my Things To Do Before I Die list: Visit the Galapagos Islands.

She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb

She's Come UndoneAt the risk of being over-dramatic, this book changed my life.  While the cringe-inducing coming of age story is at times almost too painful to read, it feels 100% genuine throughout. The central character is complicated – her behavior sympathetic and abhorrent in turns – and her journey leads the reader to a wholly satisfying conclusion.

I am in awe of Wally Lamb’s beautiful, flawed heroine, but I am indebted to She’s Come Undone for inspiring me to start writing again after a very long, very dry spell. Read all about it in this blog post from last Spring.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

hppmeab05-w813I’ve probably lost a certain amount of credibility by including this on my list, but I’m willing to risk it. I wish these books had come out when I was a kid, because that’s really the only way I could love them more. Okay, so they are a tad formulaic in structure, but they have all of the elements of a compelling story: an underdog to root for, mysteries to solve, good vs. evil, and of course, magic. Who doesn’t want to be magical? Rowling is not only a master of world building, but also of long-haul plot development: her clear vision for her characters and storyline allowed her early on to plant the subtle seeds that germinate into major plot points in the later books. As a fellow writer, I am damn impressed.

I have reread this series more times than I can count, and have a special love for the audiobook versions, which for me are like aural comfort food. When I am anxious or unsettled, or can’t get to sleep, I can nearly always find calm in narrator Jim Dale’s soothing voice.

Road Trip, Party of One by Lisa Thomson (that’s me!). Unpublished.

BookQuestionMarkMy early attempts at novel writing were not unlike my attempts to quit smoking: I started off full of inspiration and determination, but within days or weeks – and often after a couple of drinks – I’d stumble off the wagon. My plot lines, like my will power, were too thin to carry a story for more than a dozen pages.

I finally quit smoking at age 24, but it was another few years before I was struck with the inspiration for my first completed novel. I was listening to the R.E.M. song Night Sleeper on my pre-iPod portable music device whilst on my way home from a long day at work when an intriguing character popped into my head: a misanthropic shift worker in his late 20s, cut off from all family and friends, almost without hope. Almost. He was both my alter ego and my cautionary tale. I was hooked.

Although this novel isn’t likely to make it out of the figurative box in the back of the closet, I will always be grateful for it. Through my experience of developing this story over a somewhat turbulent four year period, I learned that with a little inspiration and a lot of determination, I could create a whole new world. I wasn’t a failure as a writer; I simply hadn’t yet found the right story.

 

 

 

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Lost and Found

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I strongly advise against smoking so close to all of that hair product.

I was twenty-one years old, still wearing a lot of black and listening to angsty post-punk and industrial bands like Ministry and Skinny Puppy when I made one of my first attempts at novel writing. The story took place primarily in a nightclub called the Crimson Dungeon, which was inhabited by a cast of velvet-clad, liquid eyeliner-wearing malfeasants who alternately screwed with each others minds and bodies. Two chapters into my masterpiece, I accidentally deleted the file. There was no getting it back. I tried to rewrite it and move on, but it just didn’t feel the same. I had lost my momentum. I had lost my story.

In this case, it was probably a good thing. My characters were shallow and cartoonish, and the plot was both thin and overdramatic. At the time, though, giving up on the story felt like a failure. I couldn’t fathom the notion of writing for practice, couldn’t comprehend that although I didn’t move forward with this particular story, the whole experience had not been in vain. Chalk it up to equal parts naïveté, a false sense of creative grandeur, and youthful impatience, but I believed that “real” writers could craft the perfect story or novel the first time around, and that revisions were generally limited to minor spelling or grammar errors. It was inconceivable that a “real” writer would fail to complete any story he or she began.

Now I understand that all writers experience false starts. Some stories are simply not meant to be, while others are just not yet ready to be told. For instance, I’ve had a certain character clanging around in the back of my mind for nearly six years now: a thirty-something undiagnosed narcoleptic trying to form meaningful relationships while coping with an affliction that promises some truly awkward social situations. I have attempted to tell her story twice now – my most recent effort made it to the 50,000-word mark in NaNoWriMo 2011 – but it’s never felt quite right. Both times, I walked away from it. The story is in there somewhere, and I have to believe it will reveal itself when the time is right.

What kid wouldn't want to play here?

What kid wouldn’t want to play here?

For NaNoWriMo 2013, I revisited another stalled storyline. Initially, I’d set out to write a grown-up story about an eleven-year-old girl, but struggled to find a balance between accurately portraying childlike behavior and keeping an adult reader’s interest. Nearly three years later, I realized why it hadn’t worked: this story about a latchkey kid exploring the burnt remains of a neighboring home was actually meant to be for kids, not adults. I’d tried to force the wrong story a la square peg and round hole. Then I found the right path.

As I write this post, I am oh-so-close to finishing the second draft of a story that plagued me for nearly a decade. I am happy to report that it has found its home at last.

Patience. Perseverance. Exploration. Be willing to walk away, but don’t throw anything away. You just might want it someday.

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