Category Archives: Essays on Writing

Guest Post: Author Lisa Vogel on What Makes for Believable Fiction.

Lisa Vogel and her cat

Author Lisa Vogel and feline friend.

It’s a good thing writers are different because readers certainly are. If you want to see some evidence, go onto Amazon or any other website which allows readers to review books. You’ll soon have no doubt in your mind that there are an awful lot of opinions about what constitutes good writing, and many of those opinions contradict. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who knows! The bottom-line is that what readers want differs. This is good news because it means there is a lot more leeway for writers than many of us might have originally thought. Of course, you should definitely be the best writer you can be. What constitutes being the best? That’s the part that varies. So, there is hope your individual style will connect with some (although definitely not all) readers.

Nowhere is this more the case than in relation to characterization. There isn’t a right answer. There is only personal taste. And, since I, as both a reader and a writer, tend to like books that delve deeply into negative attributes, that’s what I’m going to address. I’ll use two books to illustrate what I mean. Both We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III contain a plethora of deeply flawed characters and, ultimately, a bad ending for just about everyone. One book I found completely realistic. The other book left me feeling that the author had gone too far.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, the main characters are all part of one family (Mom, Dad, one daughter, one son), and everyone has personality issues. Kevin, the older child, is clearly the most flawed of the bunch, and Shriver never really says what’s wrong with him. Rather, she expertly leaves it to readers to interpret for themselves. What do you call a teenage loner who has murdered his fellow classmates? At the very least, he is extremely troubled. I didn’t personally relate to him (that’s probably a good thing), but I did completely relate to the manner in which the other characters were affected by him. And, as I know there are young people who have murdered others, I understood that his personality type, although rare, does exist.

On the other hand, I was easily able to relate to the other characters, especially Kevin’s mother Eva. I could feel within myself her struggles, her need to withdraw, her inabilities as well as her strengths. The same was the case with Eva’s indecisive husband Franklin and emotionally pale daughter Celia. All the characters were flawed but, other than Kevin, they seemed to me to be not so different from my friends, my neighbors and, well, myself. The problem for them was that they were tied to the railroad tracks of their lives and were therefore unable to get away from that out-of-control locomotive that was Kevin. Because Kevin was the only character that, of his own accord, went truly over the edge, it allowed me to believe in both the entire characterization of the novel as a whole and what I interpret to be a somewhat open ending.

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog, which also has characters murdered and in prison by the end, is a novel I had a lot more trouble relating to. No one is quite as troubled as Kevin in We Need To Talk About Kevin, but the three main characters in House of Sand and Fog are far more troubled than I am. And isn’t that how we all judge things in the end? I could believe that someone would be as troubled and oblivious as Kathy. I could believe that someone would make as many critical errors in judgment as Lester. I could believe that someone would be as controlling and stubborn as Behrani. But, although I could feel myself in Eva, Franklin, and Celia, I couldn’t quite feel myself as Kathy, Lester, or Behrani, just as I couldn’t feel myself as Kevin. While one hard to digest character can make for excellent fiction, three in one book is too much for me. It just didn’t seem realistic.

And then, too, are how the books end. In my opinion, given the nature of Kevin (as well as the other characters) everything in We Need To Talk About Kevin happened in a logical progression. True, a number of characters die, but it happens due to a worst-case scenario based on the actions of ONE character. In House of Sand and Fog the ending requires that a worse case scenario occur in the lives of all three main characters separately. It’s like a perfect storm of misery converging into one humongous pile of poo. Though it was masterfully done, I still didn’t quite buy it.

There are, of course, many readers who feel differently. As of August 14, 2014, there are 275 five star reviews for House of Sand and Fog (out of 836). No doubt those reviews represent readers who did not feel the book’s conclusion was over the top. We Need To Talk About Kevin has 441 five star reviews (out of 828). Both books were made into motion pictures. Whatever you think of them, you can’t say they were commercial failures.

So, what is the message that writers might walk away with from these two novels? I think it’s to not be afraid to write hard to sympathize with characters. If the novel justifies it, some readers will go there with you. On the other hand, don’t make things dark unnecessarily. Take a look at what feels true to you and write that. No book is for everyone but, if the way your plot unfolds is based on what you perceive to be realistic characterization, it will be a real plus for some readers no matter how bleak that road is. But even more than that, the larger lesson is this: write what feels true to you. Readers don’t all want the same thing. Don’t let yourself be talked into someone else’s idea of what sells.

LISA VOGEL lives and writes in Cascabel, Arizona.

Carrie’s Classics: LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott

I must have been eight or nine when I fell in love with Little Women. This cozy read follows the four March sisters as they grow up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the American Civil War. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are as different as sisters can be. Jo is the fierce and argumentative tomboy who wants to be an author. Meg, the responsible oldest sister, is embarrassed enough by her family’s reduced circumstances without having to worry about what “society” will make of wild girl Jo. Beth, lovable but dogged by ill health, is the musical third sister. Finally, there’s spoiled, artistic Amy, who knows exactly what she wants out of life even as a little girl…and it’s not to live in penury, even if her parents are so much in love.

Little Women (Little Women, #1)

Little Women

As a child, it was the girls’ adventures which captured my attention. Jo outwitting her grumpy Aunt March, who forces her to read dry religious tracts rather than the novels the young writer craves. The wild theatricals that she writes and produces with her sisters. Her ongoing battles with bratty Amy, who tries to horn in on Jo’s friendship with the Lawrence boy, who lives next door. Throughout the entire first part of the book, Jo and Laurie seemed destined for each other, even if she steadfastly denies any interest in romance and canoodling. I don’t know about other readers, but I never believed her. My mistake. Josephine March meant what she said–at least as far as poor Laurie was concerned.

Little Women was the first book I read where a main character–a young girl like me–actually DIED. I can remember my utter shock the first time I read of Beth’s final illness. I cried until I could barely breathe. Death. It didn’t seem real. And then again, it seemed all too real. I recall sprawling on my bed, eyes closed, as I imagined what dead felt like. But how can you “feel” nothing?

As I grew older, I re-read the novel once every couple of years. Strange, the sense of spending time with old friends, yet at the same time, enjoying a completely new experience. Scenes that didn’t register before suddenly stood out. The questions I asked myself changed. They had less to do with Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy and more to do with life under difficult circumstances. Or being female at a time when girls–even grown up ones–had limited options and very narrow influence. I asked myself how the March girls’ lives might have been different had they been born only a generation or two later. Then Jo might have, in some small way, been able to fulfill her wish to do something that mattered.

The Ways of Mud and Bone

The Ways of Mud and Bone

Eventually my questions grew so large that they had to be explored in some meaningful way. I decided to write a book about people a lot like the March sisters, only my girls would have wider choices. In The Ways of Mud and Bone, the Great War descends on a small town not unlike Concord. Meryl Goodson, 19, has the chance to serve in an overseas relief unit. Her sister Claire and cousin Nora stay home. What difference would these decisions make to their experience of tragic times? Would my girls be crushed? Or would they rise to meet challenges head on? The answers surprised me and demonstrated once again how character and circumstance mold one another, which is kind of what Louisa May Alcott
expressed so beautifully in her timeless classic.

Even now, in early middle-age, I love re-reading Little Women. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are still some of my best friends. I can’t wait to see where they take me next.

Five Reasons Why the Star System is a Lousy Way to Rate Books.

Amazon demands it of us. Goodreads nudges us to do it and then touts our responses across their site and our social media accounts. It leaves writers on tenterhooks and readers scratching their heads. Is there that big of a difference between a four-star “really liked it” and five-star “loved it!” review? The reader giving the four stars would likely say no, while the writer…

I do not use the star system to rate books on this site. If you take a look at the same review posted on Amazon, Goodreads or Barnes & Noble, you will see stars assigned. Amazon doesn’t give reviewers a choice. I’m not so sure about the other sites, but as all sites average the total ratings a book receives and lists that average in the book’s listing, not rating the book harms it. I don’t like harming books or writers.

But that doesn’t mean I have to carry over this arbitrary and often misapplied rating system to my own site. If you visit this blog, I assume it’s because you are interested in knowing what I think about the books I’m reading. My philosophy is a simple one. Good writers read. They read widely. They read critically. This brings me to number five on my list of reasons why the star system is a lousy way to rate books.

5. The star system rewards lazy reading and fuzzy thinking.

Too often a review on one of the major retail sites consists of a star ranking and the minimum number of words required to post the review.  I love Twitter, but it’s difficult to write a good–that means USEFUL–review in 146 characters or Amazon’s twenty-word minimum.  But people do it. All the time.

It was good. I liked the writing. It deserved every star I gave it. Wonder if they’ll be a sequel with Jeremy. 

This book sucked. The writer calls herself an AUTHOR? Good thing it was free or I’d be asking for my money back. 

Readers browsing for their next literary love affair will usually click on the five-star and the one-star ratings. If all they find is the above types of non-reviews, their purchasing decision will fall back on the ratings, which are themselves supported by the non-reviews. How utterly useless. No help to the reader. No help to the writer, who may want to know why someone didn’t like her book, so she can work on improvements.

4. The star system mistakes the shorthand for the message.

Too often the first and last critical word on a book boils down to its average star rating. This underestimates readers and it short-changes authors, who deserve to have the work they’ve slaved over, sometimes for years, framed as more than a four-star mystery or two-star YA paranormal. Is the mystery a fabulous puzzle with engaging characters, but it lost a star due to an unpopular ending? Would the two-star paranormal rate five stars if the author bothered to get it professionally edited?

In the end, the star rating for a book is like the I.Q. of a human being–it very rarely means anything in the real world and yet can do a hell of a lot of damage to the person (or book) saddled with it.

3. The star system helps trolls turn reviews into weapons of career destruction.

On their own, the criticisms I’ve presented above might not have a huge impact one way or another on readers, books or writers. So what if some people give the written equivalent of a caveman’s grunt as a review? Who cares if a three-star book might really be an under-appreciated five-star gem?

Besides being annoying to people like me? Maybe not much.

But in the hands of someone with an ax to grind, star shorthand combined with minimal length/quality requirements for reviews can tank a book before it’s even born. Sounds unreal? Hang out on Goodreads for a while. Pick a couple of books at random and start skimming the reviews/ratings. The vitriol will reveal itself through a stench of sour grapes and the overabundance of grammatical errors. One-star reviews coupled with accusations of plagarism, of the purchasing of good reviews, and all manner of literary skulduggery. One writer I know of suffered this BEFORE her book was even published. She’d only announced the upcoming release and WHAAM! It broke her. She never released the book. I don’t know if she’s even still writing.

And, yes, this nonsense can work in reverse. Five-star reviews planted by friends and family with little if any substance to back them up.  But it’s the system itself that makes these abuses possible.

How?

2. The star system does not provide a truly standardized means of rating books.

There is no agreed upon, universally adopted criteria for assigning a given book a particular number of stars. Of course not, you say, opinions are subjective. My five-star masterpiece of global literature is your two-star pretentious clap trap fit only to be put thorough the shredder and used for hamster bedding. Fair enough. But what that means is that the stars cannot be taken at face value. The information they communicate must be evaluated with the supporting comments–the actual written reviews. By sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Goodreads not coupling these assessments (stars with their reviews) more rigorously, we allow the sort of abuse and gaming of the system discussed above. Just try and get a troll review removed off of your Goodreads or Amazon listing. Difficult if not impossible.

You’ll notice I’m limiting my critique to the big sites and retailers. Individual book bloggers who use the star system have their (usually quite extensive) reviews to back up their ratings. You may not agree with their assessment, but you sure know how they arrived at it.

This leads me to the number one reason why I hate the star system and won’t use it here:

1. The star system can make good book reviewers into liars.

It’s certainly made me into a liar. Many times. I read EVERYTHING. Literary fiction. Romance. Steampunk. Mystery. Dystopian Angel Family Sagas. Work by independent writers.  Work by bestselling masters of their genre. If it’s in print and doesn’t include the graphic abuse of children or animals, I will read it. And, as each book is different, each has to be evaluated individually. Who wrote it? What were her goals? Where did she succeed? Where did she fall down? How has this book changed me?  Those questions come first. Only then will I compare the book to others like it.

This approach of mine can lead to strange star assignments. Make me cry and you’ll get five stars. I don’t care if you’ve got typos on every other page. A new writer taking ambitious risks with form or plot…and failing miserably…can end up with four stars. I like writers with balls. A technically perfect narrative that doesn’t move me one way or another? Three stars.  A piece of erotica consisting of great sex scenes but a thin plot might get four stars, while an erotic mystery where the tightly conceived action is interrupted every other chapter for a multi-orgasmic boink fest gets only three.

Readers choosing a book based on my five-star review and finding that typo-riddled tearjerker might rightly call me a liar. So would someone reading that technically beautiful novel that just failed to move me. It’s all so subjective.

That’s why, on this blog, there are no stars.

Reading is personal. Why even pretend to be objective?

A Fine Balance: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of the Contemporary Novella

I have mixed feelings about the current “novella” trend in fiction. Shorter works featuring secondary characters from a successful full-length novel or covering a discrete span of time before/after the action of the original can make sense from both a creative and a marketing standpoint. Problem is the novella is a deceptively difficult form to master. It requires more character and plot development than a short story, yet the narrative arc has to be a lot tighter than you’d find in a full-length novel. Careful pacing becomes paramount. Stuff too much into a novella and the reader will likely feel rushed and disoriented. Provide too little content and they wonder what the point of the exercise was other than to make a few more bucks for the writer.

A romance novella is especially difficult to pull off because there often isn’t enough space for the main characters to be set up as three-dimensional individuals, develop a mutual attraction, negotiate the complications keeping them apart and, finally, come together in a realistic and satisfying conclusion.

In PRETTY AND PREGNANT, Author Madison Johns makes a good start by having her couple already know one another. Kimberly Steele, pregnant and unmarried, works for lawyer Jeremy Preston. In this way, the plot gets a neat jump start. Jeremy’s client, the representative for a beauty product company, sees Kim and thinks she’d be a great spokes-model for their new perfume. This is where the plot starts to falter. Out of the blue, this interest makes Jeremy begin to see Kim in a new light and the great love chase begins.

The problem is that instead of developing Jeremy fully and giving us a genuine basis for his attraction to Kim (and the necessary ingredients are there: she’s attractive, kind, and a damsel in distress)the author throws in unrealistic complicating factors. First there’s Clare, Jeremy’s sort-of girlfriend. She’s also Jeremy’s employee…and also a model. Clare presents some sort of threat that never actually materializes. Yet Jeremy feels it necessary to propose to her to protect Kim. Then there’s the false complication of Kim’s pregnant-but-unmarried status being a danger to her reputation and that of the cosmetics company. Maybe in 1980. Not today. At the very least, Johns doesn’t make the danger real. Either way, Jeremy uses this fear to “trick” Kim into marrying him. Of course, Kim is secretly in love with him. The basis for her feelings is never established. But–BOOM–a happy ending is enjoyed by all. The reader is left shaking her head and wondering how the heck we got from point A to point B.

I think the problem is the novella form rather than the story itself. Johns had a good romantic situation but not enough room to execute it effectively. The result is a full-length romance novel played on fast forward.

In FINDING CINDERELLA, author Colleen Hoover gives us a glass slipper that fits.

The story focuses on one specific story line–the coming together of Six and Daniel, secondary characters from Hoover’s popular HOPELESS and LOSING HOPE. Setting aside the would-it-really-happen factor, Daniel has an intimate encounter with a classmate in a school maintenance closet. It isn’t a truly anonymous situation, there’s an emotional connection beforehand, but circumstances don’t allow Daniel to explore it. The girl tells him she’s leaving the school.

Fast-forward about a year, Daniel meets Six. She’s the best friend of his best friend’s girl. Six spent the previous school year in Italy. Hoover lets us know that it wasn’t a good year for Six. This early foreshadowing is the main reason the piece works as a novella. Without it the big reveal at the end would be pure melodrama. Instead, we watch Daniel and Six come together knowing full well that she’s Cinderella and never expecting the final twist that will threaten their relationship, a complication that works because it is based in that initial encounter. This is tight plotting.

Does Daniel resonate as a character for me? No. He’s jaded and man-whorish. Bad enough qualities in a grownup. Unconvincing in a young person from a basically decent family–no history of parental abuse or addiction or any other trauma to account for it. Speaking of parents, I also don’t buy the progressive parenting that riddles this particular neighborhood. It struck me as too author-engineered. Yet, I did like FINDING CINDERELLA and plan to check out the full-length novels Hoover drew from.

Taking a lesson from these two examples, the key to a successful novella, seems to be creating a scaffolding that mimics the structure of a good short story–close focus on a few characters working through a single pivotal complication over a sharply defined time period–and filling it in with the level of character complexity (psychological and emotional) normally found in a novel.
pretty and pregnant
pretty and pregnant

Finding Cinderella
Finding Cinderella (Hopeless, #2.5)