I’m calling out Amy’s terrific advice on how to treat secondary characters, and why it matters. That’s how much I like it.
TWO TIPS FOR SECONDARY CHARACTERS
Your secondary characters need love too, and they need to be as carefully created as your main character — just don’t tell her.
My two biggest tips for creating engaging secondary characters are:
Each secondary character must have her own arc.
To me, this means, a little story of their own going on — a subplot if you will, a storyline. Each must have her own beginning, middle, end. That character doesn’t know she’s in someone else’s story!! But…
Each secondary character must to serve the main character’s story.
EVERYTHING in your novel helps to drive the main story forward, even a secondary character’s personal storyline. Ask yourself HOW it does this to make sure, but more importantly ask yourself WHY.
This is something hard to do but easy to check. Go back through your manuscript or outline and focus on your main secondary characters (not the townspeople, as I call them). Note what she’s doing in a scene — why is she there? How is her own story being furthered? How is it impacting the protagonist and the main storyline?
Sorry we’ve been…ahem, MIA lately. Too much going on, and too little of it is writing. But thisterrific postfrom Women’s Fiction Writers popped up on my screen this morning, and I just had to share it.
Here’s a novel for any mother who has juggled childcare, work, and life (which means every mother) and especially for those struggling to do it under extra challenging circumstances. We don’t do enough as a nation for parents, especially for mothers who, despite all the advances, still bear the brunt of the job.
I can’t wait to dig into Janet Benton’s debut. Join me?
Cathy has been basking in glory lately, what with her new novel, all her cool readings and interviews, not to mention her latest score—a flash fiction honorable mention in the acclaimed Glimmertrain magazine.
I could be envious, if I had the time.
But slogging my way through the middle of a comprehensive novel manuscript rewrite—yes, line-by-line, adding new scenes, reworking a viewpoint, the whole shebang—has me just a tad too occupied.
I’m making steady, if slow, progress, but I’m not complaining. My mantra these days: one foot in front of the other—make each scene, and each bit of connective narrative glue, as compelling as possible.
Of course, I am taking some breaks. My family recently spent a weekend hiking in New Hampshire’s gorgeous White Mountains, where I stumbled (yes sometimes literally) upon a nifty rewrite metaphor: the steep, boulder-strewn trail we climbed.
Okay, it’s a little corny, but also kind of apt, and you can’t beat the scenery.
Our hiking route was the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which winds up the infamous and awesome Mount Washington. Here are a few milestone markers that—when you’re eyeball deep in a big rewrite—resonate both on and off the trail.
Chapter One, get moving. The Mountain—like the last page—won’t come to you.
Picking up speed, but pace yourself. One scene at a time.
Moments of early inspiration.
Look out for those rocky patches, and there are a lot of them.
This is called an uphill climb, dig deep and keep pushing.
Save your file, time for a coffee break. God bless the team that pitched these shelters along the mountain trail.
The end is in sight. Your feet are sore and your legs ache, but there’s no way you’re quitting now.
The end: A view worth climbing for. The manuscript’s ending? I’ll let you know when I get there.
I had a blast with the coolest group of ladies this week. They not only had me come to speak about my book A Hundred Weddings with three combined book groups in their neighborhood, but they put out a food and beverage spread you wouldn’t believe–one of them even brought a wedding cake with bride and groom on top!
The best part was they brought pictures from their own weddings and challenged each other to see how many people could guess which bride was which. So very fun! They had great questions for me too, and I hope they all enjoyed the discussion.
On June 4 I’ll be having a reading/signing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Please come out if you’re in the area to meet with author Andrew Gifford and me.
On the progress of current work, I’m now 25 pages into the new book. Yeah, it’s not much, but it’s a start. Karen is on her second or third rewrite of the full manuscript, and it’s a good one, I promise.
Oh, and I now have this awesome little video about my book on Youtube:
How goes it with you? Hope you’re renewed by the spring weather and working away.
Write well, everyone!
A quick bit of book news:
An interview I gave on the Authors Show radio program will air tomorrow. Give a listen to this Q&A (about 10 minutes long), where I talk about my novel A Hundred Weddings and how it came to be! This will be up on their site for 24 hours. (No fair making fun of how lame I sound).
Also, I’ll be reading at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 4 at 2 p.m. with Andrew Gifford, author of We All Scream: The Fall of the Giffords Ice Cream Empire. Please come out to see me if you can!
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference happened a little over a month ago (February 8-11 in Washington, DC), and in addition to all the books, journals, and souvenirs I dragged home, I also took a ton of notes during the sessions and readings, and finally dug them out. Here are some of the best quotes, overheard remarks, and tips, most of them without attribution. Some are true gems, so please enjoy these takeaways from some great conversations about writing and publishing.
Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir (Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski)
“Prioritize clarity over adherence to the form.”
“Flash eliminates all the boring parts.”
Try writing flash stories and connecting them together for a novella or novel. This retains the strength of voice and character, and the overall tension of the book will join them and progress the story forward. (Voldemort is the big tension, little problems along the way are the smaller ones.) Tara Laskowski recommends The Desert Places as a great example of a hybrid text novel.
We All Have to Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good (Some raw language in this one. Oh, those bawdy writers.) (Panelists: Melissa Stein, Richard Bausch, Tayari Jones, Natalie Diaz, Nick Flynn)
“Fifty Shades of Gray reads like somebody shat it out.”
“Give yourself the freedom to suck.”
“You cannot fuck it up. You can’t ruin it. You can only make it necessary to do it again.”
“Your writing isn’t bad, it’s just off. Like a sweater buttoned the wrong way. Unbutton it. Rebutton it. It’s a perfectly fine sweater.”
Distinguished Editors Panel, featuring Nan Graham, Daniel Halpern, Jonathan Galassi, and Erroll McDonald
“The author/editor relationship is like an arranged marriage.”
“Voice and territory, more than structure, are the criteria by which I judge a book. Structure can be fixed. But you can’t fix writing that’s not fresh, that’s been done before.”
You know a story is done when others you show it to disagree about what needs to be changed. If they’re all telling you a character isn’t strong enough or the pacing is slow, for example, believe them and fix the problems. But if they’re all telling you something different, it’s probably finished.
A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges (Panelists: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng)
Being busy, working, having a job, makes you more productive in your writing.
Do not think about writing a successful book. Just “be true to the work.”
Do social media in an authentic way. Use it as a place of community. If you feed into that world, it will work for you too. Help other writers (with reviews, promotion, comments, etc.) and they’ll help you.
On creating more spaces/avenues for writing to exist: “We’re all fighting hard for a piece of pie, when actually there is no pie. Your job is not to get your piece, but to make more pie.” –Celeste Ng
Also try to post enough to stay connected with people, but don’t make it seem like a sales pitch. Tweet an overheard conversation. Do a daily task, like Ellis Avery who posts a haiku every day. Another writer posts dog pictures (often with a link to his book) every day.
Loose, Faithful, and Literal: Adaptation from Novel to Screen (Panelists: Christine Vachon, Neal Gabler, Magdalene Brandeis, Melissa Bank)
Screenplays make you focus on the narrative—how to bring character and plot into what can be seen and shown.
“In a movie, action is always character.”
One panelist says she tells her students not to call themselves “filmmakers” but “storytellers.” Because there are so many different forms (like streaming services) today to bring stories to life.
A movie is a “jolt,” whereas a TV show is a life. Characters grow incrementally, and that’s a “novelistic sense of life in real time.”
NO screenplay should be more than 110 pages!
By the time the Q&A rolled around, it was apparent everyone listening to this panel was there to ask the same question: How do you get your screenplay seen? Sadly, the answers were pretty vague.
“If you’ve written ‘trash’ like The Godfather, you may be lucky enough that someone will turn it into gold.” —Neal Gabler
Write a two-page summary of why this should be made into a film. Send it to a producer you think would be interested. A 20-something intern will likely read it, and will pass it along (or not) to the producer. Melissa Bank, author of Girls Guide to Hunting & Fishing, sent a story to Zoetrope. They put her in touch with Coppola.
Ask yourself who’s your dream director? Actress? Work on those connections. “I wrote this for you and here’s why.”
“Great works rise to the top. Books come to our attention through coverage, reviews, agencies, recommendations. It just happens.”
Um, yeah. But how do you get your screenplay seen?
“It’s difficult to get things read, and to work with and without an agent. The only sure way to do it is to make the film yourself.”
Kirkus Reviews was recommended as the primary route for movie companies to see synopses of stories that might intrigue them.
Foremothers: Southern Women Writers (Panelists: Charlotte Holmes, Cary Holladay, Lisa Parker, Lisa Roney, Adrienne Su)
A panelist talked about her mother, whose family moved from the south when she was young. The kids in her school couldn’t understand her because of her southern accent, so she stopped talking—for a year. She read books out loud, practicing in her bedroom, until she lost her accent.
One panelist recalled how Lee Smith studied at the Sorbonne and loved to let people there hear her talk. She could see them taking her IQ down about 20 or 30 points as she spoke. Then she would say something that would “take them out at the knees.”
Live outside the world of your past, but find your background. You have to get away from it to look back and find your voice.
The Ten-Year Novel: On why some novels take so long to write, and what writers can do to sustain themselves. (Panelists: Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson)
“It’s the persistence that makes you a writer.”
“My sense is that publishing has changed to the point that, a few years ago, an agent might say this book isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’ll work with the author a year or so and get it there. No more. Books today need to be as finished and polished as possible before they’re ever sent out.”
Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty: Women writers of the south talk about “grit lit.” (Panelists: Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, Jill McCorkle)
“If we think about the reader as we’re writing, we’re putting blinders on ourselves as writers.” –Jayne Anne Phillips
“There is true fear about the power of women.” –Watts
“In fiction, I love to have that alter ego character who rises up and defends herself.” –Jill McCorkle
“I’ve probably learned more from my characters than they’ve ever gotten from me.” –Jill McCorkle
On unlikeable characters:
By giving readers the history of unlikeable characters early on, they reveal a life, and it makes the characters human. So even if it doesn’t excuse their actions, it helps readers understand why they are the way they are.
Recommended story: “Lechery” by Jayne Anne Phillips
So I’m neck-deep in the third rewrite of my new novel. How’s it going? Slowly, occasionally painfully, and all I want is to be done with it. I’m fighting my usual impulse to speed ahead, and instead slow down and stay in the scene. I’m winning the battle—some of the time.
Ever been there? It’s not that I don’t like the story. I do, very much., I’m just not convinced that my skills aren’t doing it justice. And then there’s the old “Just because I like it, doesn’t mean anyone else will.”
At times like this, I like to hop onto the Facebook feed of my old MFA writing professor Richard Bausch. A master himself, Dick is also honest about how hard this is, and he doesn’t mince words. He sets you straight, in the best possible way. All these years later, I want to say, “Thank you, Dick. Your influence is still resonating and more important than ever.”
Check out some of Richard Bausch’s rewrite advice:
“In revision, try not to think of the long outcome much. Just concentrate on this morning’s work. Just be faithful to that. Try to be as good as you can be without straining it: “This morning, I’m just going to mess with this scene. See if I can get it right, or clearer, or sharper. I’m only going to think about that. And when I’ve put in my two hours, I’m going to forget about it and enjoy things without reference to the work. The work’s done for the day. And tomorrow, I’ll come at it fresh. I don’t have to write the whole thing in one morning, so I won’t think about the whole thing. Just this. This here, this morning’s work.”
“About the heavy doubt: it’s normal; it’s the territory, the province, the wallpaper in what Jim Dickey called the cave of making. It is your talent itself that produces it. So write through it. Do the work. If you let it stop you, if you let it make you hesitate, you’re making the first and most elemental mistake, and you’re acting like a dabbler, an amateur. This day’s work. Each day.”
“Be patient, yes, and how hard that is, especially when it’s yourself with whom you have to be patient. It’s very hard, of course. But nobody ever said it would be easy. And one of the traps we fall into is thinking too much about the result–whatever we imagine or hope that might be. The real thing happening is that you are using your time in a way that answers you deep, no matter what fits it gives you, and it always feels better to have worked in a given day, no matter how badly the work seemed to go or how hard it was. To engage in the activity at all is to do something sustaining; and in fact it gives meaning to everything else. That’s why I keep repeating the mantra: this day’s work. Just this day’s work. Did I work today. If the answer’s yes, no other questions. It’s enough. Try to forget about it and go have fun–enjoy that most delicious feeling of wasting time when you have used it well earlier.”
“Someone told you somewhere, or inadvertently communicated to you sometime, that it would get easier? It gets harder, because you know more. Instead of putting down the first or second line that occurs to you IN REVISION, you think of fifty-five others that each have their advantages and disadvantages, and you start really getting down into the deeps of it, including what it is you are seeking in terms that have nothing to do with the STORY: you want others to know how deeply sympathetic you are to human troubles; you want others to have a sense of the sorrows you carry around like everyone else; you want others to know how much you know; you want others–even this–to see what you can do with a sentence, with your extensive vocabulary and your gift for metaphorical speech–and all of that has to be subordinated to the demands of the STORY that you are not even, quite yet, sure of. No, it will not get easier–its complications will change away from the ones you had when you were new; but these complications multiply, and exacerbate themselves as you grow. What you can do, simply, is accept this, and do the work. Even when it seems completely closed to you. Accept it as your destiny as an artist and go on with it. You’re not experiencing anything that everyone else hasn’t also experienced. Remember Joseph Conrad, having his wife lock him in a room and then shouting “Let me out. I’m a fraud. I never could do this.” And he was working on his twelfth novel.”
“I think that no matter how hard it is and no matter how difficult the subject, and no matter how dark your vision, writing a novel is always an act of optimism, even of faith–a generous expansion of one’s being toward something outside the self, and by definition, then, a giving forth for others of your kind. Inherently beautiful and valuable as an occupation, even if it takes years, and, yes, even if no one ever sees it. And, too, even if it is destined to be forgotten, to disappear. Wright Morris: two National Book Awards, one as a photographer, sixteen novels. Gone. Vance Bourjaily, Thomas Williams, William Goyen, George Garrett–one can’t find the books. And they were such wonderful writers. So, do the work for itself. And fuck all else. Make the record, and stop worrying about your place in the scheme of things literary.”
“I used to have terrible anxiety before I’d start a session of work–this was after Iowa, and I was thirty and should have known better. I’d pace and sigh and get a stomach ache, afraid it wouldn’t go well. Such a waste of energy, and what a lot of hell I put myself through, like some atavist cowering at a shape in the clouds. I should’ve been saying prayers of gratitude for the chance to fail my way toward something beyond me. Just for the happy fact that I had this work to do, and a place to pursue it, the need to try. I should’ve been celebrating that.”
Publishing a book is a little like following that famed “Yellow Brick Road.” Look out for witches and flying monkeys. Both seem to abound in this business. But just like Dorothy, determined writers push on. Diane Bonavist is one.
Diane’s new novel Purged By Fire came into print after years of near misses and disappointing rejection–making Diane a true survivor in very good company. Please welcome her to Write Despite.
I wanted to write a novel, but after three years of trying on my own, I felt it was time to find other writers who also wanted to figure out how it is done. At an adult ed course I met my future writing group. We were honest but kind and most important we produced our first novels.
In 1994, the group and I decided my Medieval fiction was ready for submission. I was thrilled when I quickly found an enthusiastic agent who boosted my confidence; unfortunately she couldn’t conjure a publisher for my book.
Six years later my novel found another remarkable New York agent who also loved it. With changes that he suggested, the next version hit the publishing world and sadly was again declined. Some years later, more of the same—rewrite, new agent, title, rejection.
During this time, I wrote many technical manuals, two more novels, short stories, and became editor of Tiferet Journal. I continued to write, yet the unease of unfinished business never left me. And though I was happy to spend time in the new pieces I wrote, they didn’t mean to me what my 13th century novel did; it was the book of my heart.
To evoke the stamina and resilience it takes to write, I’ve got to love my characters to death and delirium. The thought of my Medieval people never telling their story, never going out into the world, made me bereft.
A few years ago I decided to do one more revision and instead of an agent, I queried small presses where they usually deal directly with the author. I looked for publishers who knew my subject and found Bagwyn Books, the fiction division of The Arizona Center for Renaissance and Medieval Studies. And there I finally found a publisher who ‘got’ my story and was pleased to publish it.
Yes, it’s a cliché to say ‘never give up,’ but I’m so glad I didn’t. My path to publication is testament to listening instead to the voice inside that says, ‘Now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to write.’
Hi all! Just a quick post to wish you well and look in on you after this wild ride of an election. Everyone okay out there? Taking care of yourselves and each other?
Good, just checking.
So I had a great time reading at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book festival on September 30. Due to my switch in publishers, I was only able to hand out these nifty little “save the date” bookmarks instead of actual books.
But it was fun being able to read a chapter and to see friends, colleagues, and family all together in the same room.
A Hundred Weddings is now available for pre-order on Amazon. The e-book comes out December 1, and the print book December 15.
The book launch is scheduled at Epicure Cafe in Fairfax, Virginia, on Friday, December 16 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. If you’re in the area, please stop by to say hi or introduce yourself!