Don’t Judge a Book by Its Author

You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.

                                                                                                                                             –Truman Capote


The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy (Photo credit: Darlene Acero)


Avid readers, do you remember a time when you discovered a new writer, fell in love with one book, then went crazy looking for all of his or her other publications?

This has happened a number of times with me, from my early days of reading with authors like Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott, then ramping up to Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Crichton, and then Stephen King. In every case, I devoured their books, as many as I could get my hands on.

But sometimes… sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sure, every prolific author has an off-book or two. Even in the middle of bestseller series, it’s not uncommon to have a middle-of-the-road slump. (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix comes to mind.)

Sometimes, it’s no fault of the author’s, though, because they get pigeonholed. They commit the unforgivable sin of writing outside of one particular genre and so get panned by masses of once-adoring fans.

This often happens with actors. Think about how many of them, in the effort to avoid being typecast, take on just about any role they’re offered to prove they can do something other than what originally made them famous. You might be disillusioned when your favorite child actor tries to show she’s all grown up by portraying a risqué character.

Now, authors aren’t going around in the nude to prove that they’re all grown up. But sometimes we treat them as if they’re doing just that. If you find out that your favorite children’s author has an adult title coming out soon, don’t be shocked that it’s not all “See Dick and Jane” anymore. Dick and Jane might be doing something that you don’t want your children to read about. And that’s fine. Writing for children doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer the writing world.

The opposite it true for authors such as Stephen King. Many people shy away from him because he’s known primarily as an author of “horror” stories. But I’ve found that he actually writes much more fantasy and suspense than horror, not to mention moving love stories, at least one hard-boiled mystery, and one of the best non-fiction books on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read. (Check it out here.)

Truman Capote was right: we can’t blame writers for what their characters say and do. There is a certain amount of censoring that automatically happens if your story is meant for younger audiences, but the truth must always prevail. As Stephen R. Donaldson writes about the creative process:

[N]one of us can explain how it works. In a sense, writers don’t get ideas: ideas get writers. They happen to us. If we don’t submit to their power, we lose them; so by trying to control or censor them we can make the negative choice of encouraging them to leave us alone.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds very unattractive to tick off my muse by not letting the story be the story. I recently posted about striking gold with a story idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo. When this idea first occurred, I assumed that it would be another young adult novel. After all, the main characters are teenagers, and most of my stories end up going the middle grade or young adult route.

Yet the more I’ve thought about this new premise, I’ve realized that my novel might actually be for adults. That’s not to say that young adults wouldn’t ever read it – after all, I started reading Stephen King when I was 14 – but the amount of censoring I’d have to do to make it appropriate would change the intent and tone of the story. I suppose I could make it work, but would that be right?

This reminds me of a book I read recently, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yeah, she wrote that itty bitty Harry Potter series that a few people around the world seem to like.

Okay, if you know me, you know that I’m a Harry Potter nut. I bought The Casual Vacancy, which Rowling published as an adult novel, with no illusions of it containing wand-wielding teenage wizards. In the early pages, I sometimes scratched my head over this being the same author of the seven books I so dearly love. True, there are teenagers in her new book, but they’re facing very real temptations and demons, not the fantastical kind. The language, the grittiness was sometimes hard to reconcile with my previous experience of this author.

But knowing how hard it is to force a story into a genre that it’s not, I had an easier time – making my preconceived notions of Rowling disappear into the background – than many other readers who gave up on the book when they discovered it’s not about adult wizards. Rowling still has her fingerprints all over it, but in the form of turns of phrase, descriptions, and little gems that claim her no matter what the genre.

As much as I love most things young adult and fantasy, what I love above all are characters that come to life on the page and stories that pull me in. When I allowed the story to take over, it both compelled and moved me. It took a lot of courage for Rowling to put herself out there and publish something so different than the series that made her a household name. I know of people she’s upset because they expected more of the same, but I admire her for letting the story take the lead.

If you’re an author wrestling with a story unlike anything you’ve ever written, here’s some great advice from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “[S]ome days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Getting out of your own way means ditching those preconceived notions about what you can and should write. Let the story tell itself – at least in the first draft – and you can figure out what’s still appropriate to keep in the revision process.

And if you’re a reader who tends to pigeonhole, open your mind a little bit. Realize that the best authors, the ones that convey the truth through pages and pages of lies, are simply doing what Stephen R. Donaldson wrote about: they’re allowing the creative process to work as it should. To censor it, to hold back, would be to lie in the worst possible way.

For writers to deny themselves the chance to branch out into other genres and interests is to deny growth within the craft, to deny them doing what they’re meant to do.

Writers don’t just love to write – they must. Lamott also says:

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Amen? Amen.

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The Name Game

English: British versions of the Harry Potter ...

British Versions of the Harry Potter Series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, I’ll meet someone who compliments my name with something like: “Oh, Sarah is my favorite girl name. If I’d had a daughter, she would have been Sarah.”

And then there are the times that I meet someone with a name that I like. Yes, there are a couple girl names that Thomas and I picked before we knew we would have boys, but more often, I’ll meet someone named Emma or Jake, and I’ll open my mouth and start to say they’re my favorites… then stop myself because I can’t say I ever would have given my children those names. You see, those names belong to my characters.

Maybe it’s just natural that I became a writer because I certainly couldn’t have enough children to use the dozens of names on my list. When I first started writing fiction, one of the perks was that my characters could have the names that I love – or just the opposite: I could give the antagonists names I didn’t like, therefore delivering a little poetic justice.

I never went much further than that with regard to naming, except when I started to write fantasy, I made up names, as well. And that’s when I got into trouble. I workshopped my middle grade fantasy with a number of other writers, and I realized that I should have been paying better attention. Two names in particular jumped out at the other writers. One made them think of a particular Disney cartoon character that I had forgotten existed, and the other made them think of Nazis. Whoops.

I happened to remember reading something about J.K. Rowling and how she chose names for the Harry Potter series. Harry was a name she had always loved, so it was natural that she give it to the main character. Other names, however, she carefully chose by reading Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I immediately went to the nearest Barnes & Noble and bought a copy.

The Naming Books

The Naming Books

The book was almost 900 pages, and I read it cover-to-cover. I couldn’t use names that Rowling had already used, such as “Argus” (for Argus Filch), but I did find others that suited my needs – and their characters – much better than the names I originally chose. I also went to my favorite used bookstore Chamblin Bookmine and picked up German-to-English and Latin-to-English dictionaries. Then I discovered a great website, which has meanings of names from a vast number of cultures. Then I began the laborious process of renaming.

Whereas before, when I picked many names willy-nilly, now every single one had a purpose. I even carefully looked into the meanings of my favorites to make sure they were still appropriate. What I was somewhat surprised to learn was that two names in particular already had meanings (one of them strangely specific) that fit perfectly with those characters’ personalities and preferences. Other names didn’t fit at all, so I tossed them. And as for the ones that I just made up out of my head… well, I had to be a lot more careful not to make the book sound like Nazi Germany.

Since it was a fantasy, for the made up names I turned to my foreign language dictionaries (sometimes supplemented by information I found on the internet) to make new words that had a meaning for both me and the story. It took months, but once I found my method, it was much easier to assign new names.

I recently read an article in Authors Publish Magazine addressing this very issue. Give it a read to discover another author’s method behind assigning names (specifically for novels set in the United States).

When Thomas and I named our children, we didn’t just pick names out of thin air. We scoured the baby name book, looking for names and meanings that we liked. We knew that our children would have to live with their names for at least eighteen years, and we hoped that they would like the names we gave them and choose to go by them their whole lives. I even chose special middle names for them – names of two of my favorite characters, who also happen to be brothers.

Many authors are like me and have children of their own, but many don’t. Either way, our stories are our babies, in a very real sense, and the names we choose are important, even if that may seem laughable to someone who doesn’t write. So if I meet you, and you happen to be Stella or Michael or Lucian or Ingrid (I could keep going forever, I’m afraid), and I give a little smile upon hearing your name, know that it’s another of my favorites, and you may read it in one of my novels one day.

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Move Over and Let the Characters Drive

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Ha...

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Harris in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love reading books that are so good that you just have to talk to someone else about them. My husband and I have read a few of those lately. After finishing the latest trilogy, Thomas Googled the author to see if there were any interviews about the series’ ending. Sure enough, he found one in which she talked about how her characters continually surprised her.

“It’s just like so many authors say,” he told me, looking somewhat bemused.

“It’s true,” I confirmed.

As crazy as it sounds, we authors don’t have the total control over our characters that we wished we did. Yet some authors insist on absolutely smothering the life out of their characters to make them bend to their wills. You’ll know these characters when you meet them because they’re inconsistent, like someone is forcing them to do things they weren’t meant to do.

Since I think it’s safe to talk about the Harry Potter books without fear of spoiling the ending (and if you haven’t read them, shame on you), I’d like to bring up something author J.K. Rowling said back in the days when all the fans were itching for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7). Thomas and I checked her website on a daily basis, theorized with friends, skimmed the news for any possible updates, and any time J.K. Rowling came out with something – anything – new, we were beside ourselves with glee. And no, I am not exaggerating (although Thomas can suppress his glee a lot more than I can).

And one day, she said that she was having a particularly hard time with Dumbledore. Well, first of all, that made everyone scratch their heads because he died at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) – or did he?

But more amusing to me, aside from this nugget, was the image of Jo Rowling fighting her characters to straighten up and fly right. Characters will be difficult, and although non-writers may think we authors crazy or schizophrenic or overly imaginative to say so, there is an element involved that defies explanation.

There are some people who feel compelled to write in order to create characters that fulfill unrequited wishes. These characters are forced into ill-fitting molds. The beautiful girl that said no to a date with the nerdy guy suddenly falls in love with him. The bully at school finally get his come-uppance. The evil boss sees the error of her ways and starts treating her employees like human beings. These characters feel flat. They don’t do much – except what the author designed them to do.

What is truly beautiful, however, is when these characters are allowed to take control of their existences, teaching the author a thing or two while living their stories. Harry was an absolute teenage brat in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Sirius Black died laughing, in the thick of battle. Dumbledore gave his life, leaving a mess and a number of unanswered questions. Dobby – well, I don’t even want to mention him because I know it will start my mom crying. But the point is that J.K. Rowling could have made Harry a sweet fifteen-year-old, leaving everyone wondering if she remembered at all what teenagers are like. She could have let all of her characters live, eliminating the very important sacrifices that they made. Everyone would have hugged and been happy, and the story would have stalled and rung false. It would have cheapened their dear, fictional lives.

So next time you read a book and can’t believe that the author did something that you feel is the deepest betrayal, consider how you would feel if the author had taken the easy way out instead. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read in order to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I read to suspend disbelief for a time, to form a relationship with characters, to have an absolutely amazing experience – that may hurt at times but will also deliver a great deal of truth in a fictional package. The stories that I love the most are the ones that leave me conflicted, that keep me up at night, that sometimes break my heart. Maybe things didn’t turn out the way they could have, but often, they turn out exactly as they should have.

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Five Points to Hufflepuff, Please

English: Coat of arms Hufflepuff, house of Hog...

Coat of arms Hufflepuff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every week, I read a number of submissions for the online journal Fiction Fix, and the authors’ cover letters are available, as well. Although I don’t always read the queries, I sometimes check them out to see if there is any kind of intro to the story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started reading a piece, only to wonder if it was some sort of attempt at humor or just terribly written. If the author clues me in with something like, “This is a dark comedy,” at least I’ll have an idea of how I’m supposed to read it. One time, I had to re-write a critique when I found out that the current story was a lightly edited memoir, recorded from an elderly woman who had served as a nurse in WWII. There were still parts I thought should have been cut, but I could no longer argue that it was unrealistic; as subjective as the point of view was, the events had actually happened.

One other thing that Fiction Fix does is to award well-written or unique cover letters. The ones that are nominated by the staff for Fiction Fix‘s Gypsy Sachet Award are tagged, and I always read them. I’m actually quite disappointed, sometimes, when the cover letter knocks my socks off, and then the story that follows is just meh. I do understand that writing a great query does not guarantee publication, but it goes a long way toward warming an editorial staff toward a particular author.

When it comes to submitting queries for my own stories, I keep these preferences in mind. I want to include all the pertinent info, but I also want to do so in a way that doesn’t bore the agent or editor to death. They have to read this stuff all day, and mine shouldn’t be the one that makes them decide to take a lunch break at 9:00 A.M.

I keep a file of all the queries I’ve ever written to literary agents, and once I receive a rejection (or once it’s been so long that I have to accept I’ve been rejected, form letter or no), I change the font of the entire thing to red. So far, I have twenty-seven of these ugly red things, going back to late 2004. I know, in almost nine years of literary agent querying, that’s not very many, but if you consider that eleven are from this year. . . it’s kind of depressing.

Why do I keep the darn things hanging around, reminding me of my failures? Well, for one thing, I don’t want to send the same query to the same place that’s already rejected me. For another, I don’t want to make the same mistakes, and at least I can look back and see if I’ve improved.

Assisting me this with year’s queries was literary agent Mary Kole, whose advice I obtained from her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. Kole gives a brilliant sample query from one of her own clients, although she is quick to point out that “even the most amazing query in the world can’t stand in for a brilliant book” (271, Kindle version). Too true. It’s also true that it’s hard to make a bad story sound good (while being honest, that is), but it’s also a sad fact that many agents request a query only – no sample chapters, not even a helpful synopsis. So while it’s easy for agents to say that they’re looking for a great novel, not a great query, if the only thing they ever see is the query, it has to be top notch.

There are two querying problems I’ve always had: boiling the plot of a novel down to a few short paragraphs and keeping it interesting. Brevity is a problem of mine, anyway (which you know if you’ve read many of my posts), and it’s especially hard snail mailing a query because all that necessary heading stuff eats up so many lines. With this most recent go-round, I’ve both e-mailed and snail mailed queries, and believe me, it was fun trying to cram the same info into two very different formats. But I did it, with Mary Kole’s help.

To digress for a moment, I’ve read countless sample queries, and I’ve written many more than the twenty-seven rejections currently on file. Plenty of how-to publications outline the proper cover letter format, and supposedly all the author has to do is fill in the blanks with her particular information, and the job’s done, right? Or, say you see a great cover letter that won an author a literary agent – I should just be able to swap out his info for mine. But it never works out so neatly. I find that successful letters have personal touches that simply cannot be copied. It’s all very well for an author to candidly admit that he and his wife blew the $500 he received for his award-winning short story instead of buying groceries, but I haven’t won $500; I don’t have a cute little story like that. Plus, since my published works were for adults, and I’m currently shopping a middle grade novel, mentioning my publishing history hardly seems pertinent.

So how to achieve just the right tone, find the perfect words to not only adequately say what I need but also win over an agent? Kole gives an excellent formula for coming up with what she calls the meat. “The best way to hook me into reading further is to make me care,” she writes (264). Good point. How does one do this? Well, by answering some very basic questions about the story: “WHO is your character?”; “WHAT is the event that launches the story (the Inciting Incident)?”; “WHAT (or who) does the protagonist want most in the world?”; “WHO (or what) is in the way of her getting what she wants (her obstacle)?”; and “WHAT is at stake if the protagonist doesn’t get what she wants?” (264). Put that way, it’s a lot easier than, “Tell us about your novel in three paragraphs.” For someone who’s known to ramble, specific parameters are a must. (Plus Kole answers her own questions using The Hunger Games as her example, which is awesome.)

After going through this exercise, what I had was bare bones, but I was able to succinctly state the most important aspects of my story. (This can also be used as a writing tool, to show how much a story still needs to develop and/or how much exposition needs to be cut.) At least the meat of my query was good.

As for the rest, ugh. I muddled my way through and was much more confident than in years past, but I was still missing that last bit of inspiration.

It finally came – late – from one of the agents way down on my list. (Actually, she was the last one, but the one before her was a snail mail query that I hadn’t yet sent, so I was able to tweak it, too.) This agent works for quite a large agency; she was one of twenty-one agents listed on the website. I love it when agents have bios because, otherwise, I’m unsure of how our personalities might mesh or collide (although that’s not a problem yet). This particular agent set the bar really high, asking for a “wonderful, personalized query letter.” And the kicker: “Five points to Ravenclaw if you can make me laugh out loud!”

I’m always afraid to admit that I love Harry Potter, especially since I write fantasy. Oh, it’s just another J.K. Rowling wannabe, I can hear them saying. But it couldn’t hurt, I thought, to mention that Harry Potter was my inspiration for getting into kidlit again. Or that the five points would do me more good in Hufflepuff than in Ravenclaw (and that has more to do with me being a Jill-of-all-trades than a Cedric Diggory groupie).

So I sent those two queries off, and my fingers are crossed. If one of them lands me an agent, maybe I’ll provide the letter as one of those useless samples that kind of (but not really) helps other authors. The important thing is to be yourself in your query, and this particular agent was one of the first to give me specific permission to do that. I suppose it’s only fair to let them know who they’re dealing with, anyway.