Posted on February 28th, 2010 by annakjarzab
Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to direct you to a post I put up on The A Team the other day about my rules for writing, which is a follow up to my last post here about that Guardian UK article, which I realize I didn’t link to there but I do on The A Team! So go read that (and learn my revision “secret”, aka an insanely disorganized probably useless points system!) and come back here for some discussion about unlikeable characters and the authors who love them.
Okay, so I, like many writers, am incorrigible about reading reviews. Sigh. I want to be cool about it, I do, but I’m hooked up to the Internet ALL THE TIME and I can’t just not look. Whatever. I comfort myself with knowing that I freak out about bad reviews way less than other writers do. I mean, some people flip out on Twitter, for heaven’s sake. I’d rather die.
So I do read them. And every once in a while, I come across one that’s not so flattering, but every negative/lukewarm review but one has praised the quality of my writing, which is an awesome compliment and really helps dull the pain. 🙂 Oh God, I just used an emoticon. (I wanted you to know that I was JUST KIDDING about the pain business!) A couple of reviewers have brought up something that I think is a really interesting discussion/authorial struggle and I wanted to talk about it here because it means a lot to me.
I’m talking about the unlikable narrator (or character, but to avoid having to write “narrator/character” throughout this post, let’s just assume when I say “narrator” that I mean both). I love ’em. Can’t get enough jerks and mopes and snarks and bitches, because they are way more interesting than bland ciphers who are more like pawns than people. Not all likable narrators are boring, of course, but a lot of them are. That’s just my opinion. I realize, however, that not everybody reads and writes in order to poke around in the dark parts of other people’s hearts and minds to figure out how they work, so I totally respect people who would rather read about genuinely nice folk–certainly nothing wrong with that.
I do think, though, that personality creates conflict, and the sharp parts of us are the ones most likely to stir up a story. I’ve got a couple of doozies in All Unquiet Things. There’s Neily, who’s snappish and angry and rigid; Audrey, who’s withholding and stubborn and passive aggressive; and Carly, who’s damaged and self-indulgent and let’s not forget that cruel streak. And they’re the good guys! But, okay: Neily is also sweet and caring and deeply loyal; Audrey’s strong and moral and determined; and Carly–well, she’s been through some stuff. It’s the combo of their good bits and their bad bits that make the story possible. If they were all angels, they’d just be nice to each other the whole time and the book wouldn’t exist.
My new book has yet more unlikable characters. One of my main guys, Will, is a total snob. My (hopefully) next book has a narrator who’s just kind of a bitch (although, like Carly, she’s been through some stuff). These are my people! But okay, so I don’t see that as a problem (and I love reading unlikable narrators, too, by the way–Courtney Summers is positively brill at writing them), but some people do. But I think that A.) a lot of boring, dull characters in fiction come from an author’s fear of being criticized for having an unlikable character, and B.) that people mistake “unlikable” for “unsympathetic” and they’re two totally different things.
Unlikable means you don’t like them. You wouldn’t be friends with them, you’re not interested in hanging out and going to the mall, or being in a relationship with them. Unsympathetic means you don’t connect to the characters on any level, that you don’t care about their lives or their story, and thus reading about them is a completely worthless endeavor for you. Unlikable is an opportunity in disguise, because it forces you to think about exactly what it is that bothers you about the person, and why that is–and, really, that’s what unlikable characters are there to do: stir up discussion about the things that make us human, which are, of course, our flaws.
Unsympathetic, however, is a Big Problem. I do think that, on some level, my characters are likely to be unlikable to a certain percentage of AUT readers. That’s a given; they’re tough people to love, because NEWSFLASH: we’re all tough people to love. I do love them, and so do a lot of readers, so I’m not particularly worried about that front. But not caring about them? That’s a whole different kettle of fish.
I was doing an interview recently where one of the questions was, “What was the purpose of all the flashbacks, and what do you think they added?” AUT needs the flashbacks, because their whole purpose is to make Carly sympathetic. The more stuff you find out about the person she was before she died (or the person you think she was before she died), the less and less sympathetic she gets, and without the flashbacks the reasons for her choices and the circumstances surrounding her most pivotal actions are not clear. On just a base writing level, that’s bad mojo. But it’s a bigger problem in AUT because Carly is the dead girl; if you don’t care about her, she’s just a MacGuffin–just something they’re chasing, that drives the plot, but has no real meaning.
Carly as MacGuffin could work if AUT was always intended to be about Neily and Audrey and nothing else. But it’s not. It never was. It’s about the three of them and their relationships and growing up and loving people and hurting people and regrets and friendship. Carly is a very important part of that, the lynchpin of the entire operation, and if you, the reader, do not care about her, then you might as well put the book down and walk away.
Now, this post was not intended to be a justification of my narrative/character choices–like I said, I totally respect dissenting opinions about my work, because I certainly have been known to be just a tad bit critical of other people’s work myself. I’m just using AUT as an example, because I can speak to the writer’s side of it. I’m just a little bit sick of reading about boring, impossibly perfect people falling in love with other boring, impossibly perfect people in YA. Come on! Real people are flat out messes half the time (90% of the time, if they live in New York City), full of insecurities and flaws and urges and sorrows.
I want, in my fiction, to create completely three dimensional people with good and bad parts in full view. I encourage other writers, particularly new ones, not to shy away from the tough stuff. If you’re clueless about how to do that, I suggest taking a good look at your own psyche, choosing something you don’t like about what you see, giving that trait to a character, and making it their tragic flaw that leads to their inevitable downfall–and then giving them the opportunity to redeem themselves. That’s what I do. It’s working out pretty well so far.
Posted on February 24th, 2010 by annakjarzab
Since my personal dramz lately has been 40% book related, my ever helpful roommate sent me this Guardian article in which a couple of famous writers riff off of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. I’ve seen Leonard’s rules before, and frankly I think they’re fine, but sort of besides the point–guidelines, if you will, as the Pirates of the Caribbean say. Because honestly, when you follow up each rule with, “Unless you’re so-and-so, in which case feel free to disregard this,” you kind of, um, dilute your message. Because if you are so-and-so, you’re not taking these rules seriously anyway, and if you’re not you’re going to think you’re just like so-and-so and ignore them. And rules are meant to be broken, etc. etc. Whatever. An adverb has a purpose in the English language; that’s why they exist, duh. Anything overused is ill used, but all in moderation is okay, too, I think.
I do like a lot of these other “rules”, though, which are really just pieces of advice gathered by long-time writers over their careers. My favorites are Margaret Atwood’s, and of those the one I felt was most applicable to me at this moment in my writing was this one: “Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.”
I’ve been wandering in the middle of the woods for a few weeks now. Things work for a second or two, and then they don’t. A glorious epiphany fizzles in the shadow of a work very in progress. It became clear to me that I was letting the enormity of what I still need to accomplish paralyze me, which is never good. So I did what Margaret Atwood says. I retraced my steps. I went back to the beginning, to the first half of the book, and started to integrate my editor’s notes into that part of the manuscript. The second half is still two thirds unwritten, but I knew, because I’m me, that with a loosey-goosey first half, my efforts in the second half would feel just as loosey-goosey. I needed an anchor for the work ahead.
I’m almost finished with that now. I spent two days this weekend going through over 100 pages of manuscript, reading and revising. TWO DAYS. That’s how slow this work can be. But it feels like progress. It feels like tightening up the laces in preparation to skate, or somesuch Winter Olympics metaphor.
I don’t know if I’m feeling more optimistic or less–it really depends on the day–but I do feel like I’ve accomplished something, like I’m working towards some goal even if that goal seems far into the distance. I don’t know what it is about this book that’s so hard. It could be the typical Book 2 Blues, sure. Maybe it’s nothing more.
But anyway! Enough of that sniveling. Maybe it’s the title that’s tripping me up. I’ve never worked on a book without a title before. Okay, that’s a lie. The book I wrote last fall had a rotating stable of titles, none of which quite fit. Roddy Doyle says this about titles: “Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.” Oh I’m so sure. But maybe that’s my problem. I have a couple of titles for this book bouncing around in my head, but, again, nothing quite fits like the original title, which doesn’t fit anyhow anymore. This book needs a title ASAP, but it might not come to me until it’s done, which is sort of depressing, but oh well.
Esther Freud says something interesting. “Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.” That’s what I always say. I mean, people talk about the Muse and whatnot, but you know I don’t believe in that bunk. Inspiration happens, sure, and it’s a boon when it does, but really (as I’m learning, yet again, as if for the first time) most of writing a book is just forcing yourself to look at the screen until something has been accomplished.
I like Neil Gaiman’s advice: “Laugh at your own jokes.” I’ve been doing that quite a lot in rereading the first half of This Book That Might Never Have a Title Let’s Just Face It. There are some funny characters in this book that say funny things, at least, I think they’re funny. It’s really keeping me going.
But probably the thing I most need to take away from this listicle (come on, it’s not an article) is this, from AL Kennedy: “Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.”
I just need to find a way to get it back.
Posted on February 20th, 2010 by annakjarzab
So, a couple of days ago, my coworker received this in the mail:
Cute huh? Yeah, about that…you put batteries in it and it breathes “realistically”. That’s all it does. It’s supposed to be a pet simulator, basically. It comes with a carrying case, a brush, a bed, a collar, an adoption certificate (like a kitty Cabbage Patch doll!), and…1 D alkaline battery. Cuddly! The reviews on these items on the website are sort of hilars, especially this one: Bought this as a gift for daughter who is a dancer/dog lover. Thought it would be the best choice given her love of both. She opened it Christmas morning and thought it looked like a dead puppy and refused to play with it.
EL OH EL/YIKES!
But this little guy (who she’s talking about naming Garth) got us on the subject of other sort of creepy cat toys we had as youngsters. She and I both had Kitty Surprise!, which was this big stuffed cat that came with a certain mystery number of kittens. Which is adorbs, until you realize that getting to the Surprise! part–the kittens, HOW MANY WILL YOU GET?!–involves having to rip open the cat’s stomach and deliver the babies yourself (don’t worry, there was Velcro, no scissors were necessary). It took me until now to see that this is, in fact, EXTREMELY WEIRD and unsettling, that you basically have to give your toy cat a C-section and tear the kittens from her womb.
Also weird? Mine looked exactly like this:
Have you ever seen a pink cat? I mean, HAVE YOU? Mine also had four kittens, which was sort of awesome because you could get anywhere from 1 to 6 but the most common number was 2, maybe 3. 4 was really special.
Does anyone else remember having this toy? A cursory Amazon search tells me they don’t make them anymore, which is really too bad, but understandable, I suppose.
Apropos of nothing, this is one of the images I got when I Google searched “kitty surprise”:
How has the Internet not exploded from an abundance of cute kitten pictures, I ask you? HOW?!
Posted on February 11th, 2010 by annakjarzab
You know that old adage that second books are nightmares for writers? It turns out it’s totally true! I was so confident this wouldn’t happen to me, this chest-squeezing Will I ever write a decent sentence again in my life? anxiety, because I had finished Book 2 before we even sold AUT, and we sold them together. I was all, “Okay, done, what’s the third book?” But guess what? Book 2 is not done. It’s not even close to done at this point, because, as I’ve mentioned before, I chopped 150 pages off the back end and started from scratch from there.
While I’m happy with that choice insofar as I think it’s the right thing for the story, it’s not moving along as swimmingly as I’ve hoped. I thought I’d gotten off easy having just one narrator in this novel, but now there’s two, so my old enemy–Differentiating the Voices–has reared its unpleasant head again, has taken up residence in my apartment and just sits on the edge of my desk, swinging its legs like a bored child and squawking “Sounds too similar! Sounds too similar!” at me all day long. The menace. It’s right, of course, but it’s annoying.
There are other things, too, the way there always are when you’re building a mystery (Sarah MacLachlan reference unintentional, I swear). I want the book to be similar in spirit to AUT, but that means that it needs to be different from AUT as well, which, it became clear today when Joanna brought up a plot device in Book 2 that was too similar to AUT. At first I was sort of out of my tree about it–I had actually identified the problem myself earlier, but I didn’t know how to solve it. So I called Joanna, we talked the problem through, and I came up with something that’s going to work EVEN BETTER than the old thing (this vagueness is totally intriguing you, I know) and it’s fresh. I’m so lucky to have such a great agent to bounce stuff off of, it really is the most terrific of blessings.
Anyway, so that’s where I am right now. The book is a sloppy mess at the moment, because I haven’t really touched the first half at all except for a few small things, and the back half is totally gone and being slowly rewritten, plus now we have this new complication of having to change this device throughout the first half and continue the change in the second, not to mention a myriad other things that need fixing…it’s a challenge. I guess the thing to do, when you’re facing this sort of work, which is almost worst than the blank page because you’ve put so much into it already and it still isn’t right, not even close, is to brace yourself and look it in the eye and not allow the fear of letting people down or failing bring you to your knees. I try to tell myself, in my weakest moments, what I tell other writers: There’s always a solution, and if you did it once you can do it again.
I’ll let you know how it works out. 😉
Posted on February 10th, 2010 by annakjarzab
Hey guys, I’ve picked a winner of the All Unquiet Things contest and it’s:
Whitney, go ahead and email me with your address and I will send you your copy of AUT. I hope you enjoy it!
Posted on February 6th, 2010 by annakjarzab
All Unquiet Things is a mystery; I think we all know that. But for me the mystery is sort of a subplot in comparison to the emotional journeys the characters take in the story, and from the reviews I’ve read (i.e. all of them, because I’m incorrigible), it seems like readers are really happy with the way in which the characters are developed, grow and learn throughout the novel. So that’s great.
AUT might pose as a mystery, but what it’s really about is grief. It’s about what happens to us when we lose a person, and how we battle feelings of guilt and remorse, anger and the deep, unrelenting sadness that comes with that sort of finality. Neily and Audrey have surface reasons for investigating Carly’s murder, but the truth is that neither one of them (Neily most obviously, but Audrey, too, in a much subtler way, I think, because she’s much more restrained emotionally) can let go of Carly. There’s a sense that if they can keep getting to know her and spending time with her (via memories, and also the things that they are learning about her life outside of them), they can keep her alive in some way that is meaningful and fulfilling. This is an illusion, but it’s a true illusion–their investigation brings them to a place where they can not only get her a piece of justice, but also where they can square their memories of her with the truth of her (insofar as anyone can ever get to the “truth” of anyone else) and put her to rest in their minds and hearts.
There’s a part in the book where Neily and his friend Harvey talk about what we can reasonably expect from people, and what the point of loving them is. There’s a sense–at least, I hope there is–that having people in your life who you care about so profoundly that when they are gone, really gone, it leaves a hole in your heart so big you think it might be possible for you to fall into it and never emerge is a huge gift, the greatest one there is in the human experience. There’s a reason why all of the kids in the book are wealthy; it’s not because I was hoping to provide a sordid peek into the lives of the truly privileged, although that’s a side effect of what I was really trying to accomplish–this isn’t Gossip Girl, and I’m not saying that in a dismissive way, but it’s true. You’re not supposed to aspire to these kids’ lives. The point of making them so wealthy is to contrast possession and privilege as a result of having a lot of money with the real riches life can provide for us, if we’re open to them, and that there’s no heirarchy in love except that which we create by being to a greater or lesser degree deserving of love and giving it freely to others.
But when you talk about love, you always have to at least think about loss. Loss, and the terrible pain that can come with it, is the price we pay for caring about other people. This is not to give the impression that AUT is a cautionary tale when it comes to talking about that stuff; I meant the journeys Audrey and Neily take to reinforce the idea that love is totally fucking worth it, in spite of the way it can shred us, because it’s the only thing that can redeem us in the end. Does their discovery of Carly’s murder fix anything? Absolutely not. They don’t miss her any less, and I don’t think they ever will. What it gives them is a sense of peace that comes from the fulfillment of their last act of love for her–this dangerous, foolish, reckless mission they undertake despite the physical and emotional risks it poses.
My grandmother died last week. In spite of the fact that she was sick, it was wildly unexpected and totally devastating to me and my entire family. My grandmother helped to raise me, she cooked for me, she counseled me, she disciplined me, she tried several dozen times to teach me Polish (her first language), though naught but the occasional vocabulary word and a vague idea of how to pronounce things actually stuck. She opened her house to me when I needed a place to live the summer after graduating from the University of Chicago, and it was in her basement that I finished AUT and started the book formerly known as MB, which I’m working on now. She was a complete inspiration–independent and opinionated, she had a very strong sense of right and wrong and she expected a lot of people. She appreciated hard work and best efforts, despised laziness and complaint. She went to church every day until she got sick; she taught me to pray the rosary. She was pretty much my hero. It’s impossible to believe that she’s not alive any more. That was the refrain at the wake–“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” I thought she’d live to 90, possibly 100. This was, is, and will continue to be a complete shock to me, and I don’t know when I’ll get used to the idea.
In the last week, I’ve wished (when I’ve even occasioned to think about it) that AUT hadn’t been published yet, that I could revise it one more time using my evolving understanding of what it means to grieve in order to talk more intelligently on the subject, but it’s too late now.
Although, I did write a scene in which Carly and Audrey lose their grandmother. Audrey says on the subject, when Carly’s father comes into her room to tell them both that Mams (their fathers’ mother) has died:
I remember Carly’s expression of utter disblief. Se seemed stunned to find out that one major loss didn’t immunize her against others.
Carly didn’t speak very much at the funeral, but she did say one thing that’s followed me ever since.
“How many people are we going to lose before the universe decides we’ve had enough?” Carly asked me. I didn’t answer, but if I had known what was coming I would have said, “All of them.” Horrible, but true.
I remember writing that passage in a state of complete obliviousness. When writing about Carly losing her mother, and the way in which that affected her, I thought a lot about what it would be like to lose my own mother, especially at such a young age, which was a hard place in my mind to go, but go there I did, for the sake of the story. But I didn’t even say, “What if Grandma Helena died? How would I feel?” when I was writing that passage above. I’d already lost a grandmother (my grandfathers have both been deceased since I was a very small child, and I have no true memories of them, only what I’ve cobbled together from pictures and other people’s stories), and since that event had a lot to do with why I even went back to AUT in the first place I guess I might have been thinking about that, but honestly I don’t remember it. I certainly never thought I’d lose my other grandmother. It seems completely delusional to think someone might live forever, but aside from a few moments of panic as a child, I was never afraid of that inevitability.
There are other things I remember from writing that scene. I remember how sad Carly’s question is, how resigned–she’s not expecting an answer from Audrey, she knows that the answer Audrey wants to give in retrospect is the truth. And I also remember thinking how that there is a glimpse of the old Carly, the pre-Miranda’s-death Carly–she’s not just asking on her behalf, she doesn’t say “How many people am I going to lose before the universe decides I’ve had enough?” She says we. She means Audrey, too, and Carly’s father, at least. At most, she’s asking about the world. She recognizes the cosmic unfairness of what death does to the living, of what it means to have someone that you love ripped from your life. But Carly’s mistake is that she focuses on the price, not on the gift. It’s hard not to, when the wound is fresh. But time does heal all, except Carly doesn’t get enough time.
Lord, this is morbid. I’m sorry. It’s hard to talk about the heavier parts of living and feeling and writing without getting all maudlin and dark on everybody, and I hope that if you’re truly bummed by this post you’ve stopped reading by now. But as hard as this past week has been for me, I’ve also been realizing how well AUT has prepared me for what I’m going through now. What I’ve written in there is a very honest portrayal of what I think this growing up, getting hurt, learning to love, learning to lose process is all about, and what it gives us. I take comfort in a lot of the things I wrote in AUT, because I really believe them, and I haven’t stopped believing them.
When I originally decided to sit down and write this post, I wasn’t intending to give writing advice, but it’s pushing its way to the surface anyway. If you’re a writer–published, not published, just starting out, whatever–please, please, please, take advantage of the writing process to really sift through what you think and feel about the world. It might prepare you better for things you never even imagined.