Sunday, April 23, 2017

Writers, Be Careful With Your Bad Guys...

In the world of fiction, it sometimes seems that the only kind of Bad Guy that doesn't get a writer in trouble is a white, male lawyer or doctor in his 40s or 50s. If you move very far from that model, watch out.

In one of my books, the "Bad Guy" was a lesbian. The fact that she was lesbian had nothing to do with her being the antagonist in my book. Yet I got hate mail. After saying some nasty things about me, the person added, "Being a lesbian doesn't make you more inclined to be a murderer."

Of course not. A person murders because they are evil or because they are pushed up against an unmovable wall and see no way out other than murder. I think I made it very clear that my "Bad person" was bad for reasons that have nothing to do with gender preference. But I learned an important lesson. Some people are extremely sensitive about certain characteristics that have made people prejudiced against them.

People who belong to groups that have rarely suffered prejudice or have even benefited from privilege that comes from belonging to such groups may not be so sensitive if a Bad Guy appears to come from their group.

But lots of people are part of groups that have suffered prejudice. At the very least, that prejudice is insensitive and unfair, and it brings people pain. At the worst, members of such groups have been subject to unspeakable acts that can't be described in a PG-13 blog. So we need to walk softly if we identify a Bad Guy as belonging to any groups that have suffered from bigotry. We don't walk softly only because we're afraid of the reaction we might get. We walk softly because it is the right, thoughtful, sensitive thing to do.

There is an emerging flip side to this as well. If you identify your Bad Guy as a member of one of innumerable groups that are known for promoting hateful prejudice, you may incur that group's wrath as well. The last thing an author wants is for the wacko (fill in the name of one of the many hate groups here) to come after them.

As always, your Bad Guy does his nastiness because he's evil, not because of the groups he or she can be associated with. But not everyone will realize that. Some people will draw a connection.

You can give your novel's antagonist any kind of characteristics. But do it thoughtfully. And make it clear that those characteristics are incidental to the Bad Guy's motivation and have no connection to the cause of it.

If you're not sure you can pull this off such that your reader is confident you're playing fair with your Bad Guys, then you can always fall back on a white, male doctor or lawyer in his 40s or 50s... 




Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Rule All Writers Eventually Break

Writers always hear the advice, Write What You Know. It's a great idea. We are more likely to "get it correct" if we know whereof we speak.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work for very long.

I started out writing about stuff I knew about. By the time I finished my 3rd book, I'd used up all my knowledge. I'd plumbed nearly every subject in which I was a bit expert. I'd utilized most of the character types with which I was familiar.

To keep going, a writer needs to move into unfamiliar territory.

How do you delve into unfamiliar subjects? Read. Google every relevant question you can think of. Interview experts. Find beta readers who know the subject and can tell you what you got wrong. Due diligence will get you through any territory.

Sometimes the advice goes beyond subjects and ideas and is extended to ridiculous extremes. People will say that a writer can't write convincingly about about a character from a background that's dramatically different than the writer's background.

For example, I'm a middle-aged, straight, white guy, born in America, married a long time, no kids, somewhat educated, never poverty stricken, with no physical disabilities. (When I can't remember the names of people I've known for ten years, the question of mental disability does comes up!)

So how could I presume to write a character who is dramatically different from my background?

Research. Empathy. Careful thought.

I know lots of people who aren't very much like me. By paying attention, I can reasonably get a sense of what it might be like to be a person very different from me. If I'm thoughtful, I can create a wide range of characters.

Of course, a writer needs to be thoughtful and sensitive, especially if a character from a very different background turns out to be an unsavory person. One doesn't want to offend readers. Provoke them? Sure. Get them to question their own presumptions? Definitely. But all characters need to be treated fairly and accurately.

Which brings us to the question of Bad Guys. Or what writers call the story's antagonist. How do you handle it if the Bad Guy in your story belongs to a group of people who regularly suffer from prejudice?

Tune in next week.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The One Cliché A Writer Can Never Ignore

Wanna be a writer?

As writers, we learn to avoid clichés at all cost. (Oops, there's a cliché) But there is one cliché we should never forget.

Writers write.



You can talk about writing, take classes about writing, think about writing, get together with other writers and discuss writing. You can even book passage to the next major writing conference or convention and lose yourself for days learning about writing and meeting writers and readers. But even at those events, you'll notice that real writers write.

At the recent Left Coast Crime in Honolulu, this maxim was on full display. I kept hearing people saying things like, "I couldn't make the early-morning panel because I had to finish my thousand words."

As with all such events, there were wannabes in attendance. That is to be expected and desired. If you want a career as a writer, you need to sample these things, meet the serious writers, and see what makes them tick. (Oops, another cliché)

If you're paying attention at such an event, you'll notice that a large proportion of the most successful writers (try 100%) write continuously, devoting a substantial portion of every day or week to writing. Not talking about it. Doing it.

If you look at successful writers, you'll find that the only thing they all have in common is that they've written a lot of books. (Yes, there are exceptions, but they are very rare. And some of them aren't really exceptions, i.e., the one book wonder who turns out to have written two dozen novels under a pseudonym.)

At Left Coast Crime, I hosted a panel with four of the finalists for Best Humorous Mystery award. Between these four writers, they'd written a combined total of 60 mysteries. It doesn't take much arithmetic expertise to figure out that these writers have together put in something like 30 to 60 years of full time work writing.

Hmmm.

What is the hallmark of a successful brain surgeon? She's done lots of surgery. What makes for the kind of pilot who can put a plane with dead engines down on a river without losing a single passenger? Lots of flying. How did that fabulous waitperson get so good at waiting tables? Waiting a lot of tables. How in the world does a figure skater learn to do a triple salchow? By putting in more hours at the rink than you can count.

So if you want to be a writer... Yep, pay attention to that cliché.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Lesson From Lee Goldberg

During the Left Coast Crime 2017 convention in Hawaii, there were several dozens of notable moments, many of them worth remembering for writers. One of these was a statement that Lee Goldberg made during a panel.

Author Lee Goldberg
You are probably familiar with Goldberg's work even if you don't know his name. He created and/or worked on many popular TV shows including Diagnosis: Murder, Hunter, Spenser: For Hire, Monk and more.

He's also written something like 30 novels including the Diagnosis: Murder series, the Monk series, the Fox & O'Hare series that he writes with Janet Evanovich, and many others. The man is a writing dynamo.

The comment Goldberg made that struck me was when he said that "There is more story in a single TV episode today than there was in an entire season of a show back in the seventies."

For those of us in the story-telling business (especially those of us who were around in the '70s), Goldberg's statement is startling. It sums up what has happened in commercial storytelling. People want more story. Much more story.

Is this because we've all been so impacted by the profusion of inputs that only a fast-moving story will keep our attention? Probably. (I remember well the days when there were just three networks on TV, and everybody watched the same news at night - Walter Cronkite.)

Despite this new sound-bite world where a slow character-focused story has a hard time gaining attention, it's also likely that people are simply hard-wired to gravitate toward more story. We love a story that gives us many twists and turns. More of that is more exciting.

Two recent experiences made this real for me.

Back in the day, I devoured each Robert Ludlum novel as they came out. I recently reread his Bourne Identity. It was originally published in 1980. Rereading it 36 years later, it seemed rich and dense and fabulously plotted... And SLOW.

Yikes, what a terrible thing to think about a book I originally thought was fast and filled with action!

Another example: Not long ago, my wife and I rented the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The film stars Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katherine Ross. It was a smash hit when it came out in 1969, the kind of film that many people saw multiple times for the excitement generated by a fast-moving plot and charismatic, beautiful movie stars.

On seeing it again 45 years later we still found it wonderful... But SLOW.

Double yikes.

Lee Goldberg is dead on with his comment.

What exactly is the "story" he refers to? If current shows have more story than an entire season of shows in the '70s, what does that really mean?

I don't think the answer is particularly clear. But the best definition of "story" is "what happens." This mostly means plot. Yes, character growth and transformation is something that "happens." And those character qualities haven't changed. It's the plot part of stories that have shifted into high gear.

So, while we still need to have compelling characters who draw you into their trouble, we more than ever need stuff to happen.

Of course, there will always be readers who want "literary" fiction, stories that delve into complex characters, stories where the major action is when characters make internal discoveries and conflict is quiet, no car chases desired.

But commercial fiction has always had more action and twists and turns. This characteristic goes Way back. Just read Shakespeare. The difference today is that the action and twists and turns have to come at a much faster pace to keep readers happy.

This isn't as easy to do as it is to state. Many writers struggle with plot, sometimes complaining that they have a hard time simply plotting their way out of a paper bag.

Years ago I thought plot was the easier part of the plot-vs-character dichotomy. Now I think it's the harder part. But from now on, I'm going to keep Lee Goldberg's words in my head as I write.