I was out on the patio, bundled up, and having a cigar, and looking at the sad frozen garden we have here. It made me think about writing, and books. Not only about the books that sit on our shelves, waiting for us to pick them up and breathe new life into them (like I talk about in this month’s newsletter). It also made me think about the time between books for us authors, and the readers waiting for us. We get a book out there, full of life and color. The readers give it more life as they explore the pages and scenes and characters. Then they put it down, and that world goes to sleep. Meanwhile we are trying our best to bring that world back anew, with more stories, and greater characters.
It’s like that for me, picking up the Dragonlance Chronicles again. Like coming home after a long time away, or a long winter break. Visiting old friends, familiar places, and faces I haven’t imagined in years. Breathing life into the world that has lived in perpetual winter in my head.
That’s what this time between books is like for me too. I have the scenes and characters, I have the adventures and trials, but they aren’t yet alive. They aren’t complete, the story isn’t finished, and there’s no readers to experience it. It’s a long, cold winter while your world waits on the sun and life your readers will bring to it. Maybe that’s why it is so easy to disappoint fans if we don’t deliver the garden they expect. They see the first little Eden, with all its brilliant flora and fauna, the koi ponds and fountains, and they fall in love. When they come back they expect something more. A statue here, and a bench over there. A cute little bridge over a bubbling brook. If they come back and find the same garden, or worse, a garden full of weeds and mosquitos, they won’t want to stay.
That’s kind of our job as writers. We need to make sure there’s something new to see. Something fun and interesting, so when the winter is over, the readers feel like exploring in the sunshine again. Like reading a familiar book you haven’t visited for a long time, we have to make sure that a new installment in a series feels like that. It has to feel familiar, and new. Comfortable, and different. We have to give them what they’ve come to love, and new things to fall in love with. Don’t disappoint, because if the garden isn’t up to snuff, they’ll let you know.
I wrote that title as much for you as for me. Rejection letters, especially those form letters that really don’t tell us why, are probably one of the hardest parts of this gig. It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s not easy to remind yourself, we just have to get our story in front of the right person, at the right time, with just what they’re looking for. How do we know what that is, though, when all they say is “It’s not right for us at this time.” Not the right what?
Anyway, I recently submitted to three big fantasy magazines. And I mean big, like the names of huge authors in the title of the magazine, and got three rejections in a weekend. Yah, you read that right. Magazines that typically take weeks, or months, to respond got back to me in hours. One I could understand, they were closing submissions very soon and going through all the slush pile. They got back to me in 12 hours. The next one, took about 12 hours too. Then I submitted one more time and had a response in less than 4! How bad must this story be? Can’t we give my ego (such as it is) a little break, maybe hold onto that email for a week?
So I gave myself a break from submissions and finished a piece I was working on for an artist. A rough character sketch and intro, not even edited, just roughed together to get his thoughts, and sent it off last night. This morning…he loved it! Literally, his words. No edits, barely first draft material, and he loved it. I’m not ashamed to admit, that brought a little mistiness to the eyes. I don’t have a huge ego, and I really don’t let rejections get to me that much, but it’s impossible not to dwell on it a little. That boost was huge.
The point, right, get to the point. One important thing that a lot of writers do, and I definitely do, is keep those rejections. No matter how sterile, or short they are, keep them. I remember hearing Vince Flynn talk about how many times he was rejected. Something like 60 rejections for his first book, and he didn’t get a publishing deal for his first book, he self-published. Later he got a deal, and the publisher went back and re-printed his first book. That’s a perfect example, his first book just wasn’t right for 60 different places, agents, and publishers, but one of his later books was. Even with his short career, he published eighteen books. Who knows how many more he would have put out.
Keep at it, keep submitting. Keep sending those queries, and manuscripts, short stories and cover letters. Those rejections are tough, but they don’t have to be the end of your story.
I was reading a conversation on social media about people who complain about problematic (Gods I hate that word) characters and why those people need to move along. Basically, villains, bad people, awful people, exist in entertainment media for a reason. That guy’s a jerk because it’s necessary for the story, not because the writer wants to be a jerk to people. It’s true. When people complain about, say the awful relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn, they’re right to find that to be a problem. There’s a reason it is, and there’s a reason it exists. But, you have people that find that sort of thing interesting, even appealing. There are memes out there showing those two characters with the caption: “Relationship goals”. No idea why anyone would want to be in that sort of relationship, but it’s out there.
The point of the original conversation was that this is not the writer’s fault. It’s not. If you have an issue with seeing evil characters in entertainment, you may need to reexamine your hobbies. But, this did make me think about why we are fascinated by villains, or often find them more interesting than the heroes. It’s often true, but why? And, I don’t think it has to do with a failure to make the hero interesting.
Take Star Wars as an example. The hero, Luke, is definitely a popular character, if the reaction to his story in The Last Jedi is any indication. But, in the entire trilogy who seems to be the most popular characters overall? Darth Vader and Boba Fett. Boba Fett, a throw away character with hardly any lines is arguably the most popular character from the original trilogy. Why? This guy looked cool, sure, but we know nothing about him. I think that’s part of the draw though. This guy we knew nothing about spawned some of the most valuable action figures, popular cosplay, and interesting mythology in the entire saga.
I think part of it has to do with how we are as people. It’s easy to relate to a hero. I think, in general, when faced with a choice between good and bad we’d go with good. It’s normal, expected, and frankly not that interesting. We are drawn to things we don’t understand, scared by them, intrigued by them and we find them interesting. Look how popular true crime shows, and documentaries about serial killers are. We don’t get why they do it, so it intrigues us. Why does an evil guy or gal do what they do? What drives them? We can’t wrap our brains around what would cause someone to do it, so it fascinates us. Oh, that guy over there saved some kids from a burning bus? Sure, that makes total sense. Who wouldn’t try to save some kids. That jedi there took his light saber and murdered a whole class of kids? What? How the hell? I can’t even imagine how someone would be capable. So we want to know more.
So, I guess the point is, for the sake of being a writer don’t get discouraged if your readers like your bad guy more than your hero. As long as they don’t hate your hero, you’re probably doing something right. If you make an intriguing villain, that just means you’ve written a character with more depth than, “Hey look at me, I’m the evil bad dude put here so the hero had something to do.”
I saw a meme about this topic this past weekend, which doesn’t really deserve more attention to be shared here. Like a lot of memes it takes a complex issue and boils it down to a very simple-minded ‘gotcha’ statement that’s supposed to be humorous. It dealt with the premise that male authors think that strong female characters have to suffer some sort of trauma to be strong. There’s this pervasive belief in some circles that female characters, or even underrepresented characters in general should be protected from negative experiences in literature. That if a male writer puts his female characters through any sort of traumatic experience that we do it for some nefarious reason, or because we are bad writers.
First and foremost, this is not everyone. I don’t believe it’s even remotely a large portion of the reading community that feels this way, but it is a loud part of the community. They’re the people who won’t bat an eye if thousands of male throw-away characters are killed in a war as part of the story, but touch one hair on a female character’s head and suddenly we have an issue. There are creators and writers that feel this way, so it can influence others. I firmly believe this will kill diversity in stories because many authors will just stop trying. At the end of the day some people just won’t be happy, no matter what you do. For example, the developer of the game Rimworld had several trans folk help write the backstories for trans characters in the game, but even that wasn’t good enough.
So, the point. As a new author myself this leaves me with a lot of conflicting feelings when I see that. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. I get the sense that, no matter what I do, it won’t be right with some people. It’s a truth we have to accept as creators. No matter what, some people will dislike our work. Some people are even likely to hate it, and take it as far as accusing us of all sorts of social crimes for it. It’s unavoidable, but we can’t let that stop us from doing what we do. We have stories to tell, stories that will work for some people. Learn as best we can to make those stories great for the people that will appreciate them. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t let the loudest few deprive everyone else of good stories.
There are good ways and bad ways to handle trauma with characters. The idea that trauma, suffering, grief, and all sorts of negative experience makes strong characters is based in reality, no matter what some silly meme says. No one gets strong skipping through life without struggling or facing any sort of adversity. Strong people are built by how they handle the hard parts of life. Losing a loved one, being assaulted, terrified for one’s life, being bullied are all aspects of life that will make or break a person. No one is ever reminiscing about the tough time they had binging Netflix on the couch and how it shaped their perspective on life. No real person anyway.
Before we get to the good and the bad, I want to talk about the ugly. The idea that we authors hurt our characters ‘just because’ and that it’s easy for some of us is ridiculous in my opinion. Because I’m a man doesn’t give me some callous perspective on my female characters that makes it easy to put them through hardship. That’s what some people actually think and it’s beyond false. Out of necessity, we learn everything we can about our characters. We find out their dreams, hopes, loves, and hates. We learn what makes they get out of bed in the morning and why they cry at night. We know some of them better than we know ourselves. For most authors our characters become just as real as the people around us. When I know that a hard part is coming up for one of my characters I dread the writing of it. I love writing, but that part of it sucks. We know it has to happen, that we have to do it, and there’s nothing pleasant about it at all. The idea that it’s easy for me to make one of my female characters suffer, because I’m a guy, is insulting really. That’s the ugly part of writing. The knowledge that these people we create, that come from our own hearts and minds, will have to go through terrible things sometimes and we’ll be the ones doing it to them.
The bad ways to handle trauma all boil down to one thing. Pointlessness. Without a doubt, if your stories involve suffering, danger, and hardship you should never have a character that is immune to that. Your reader won’t care about a character if they know they’ll never be in any danger. If all your characters are hurting, scared, or suffering, and you keep one character ‘safe’ the whole time they’ll notice. But, on the flip side it has to mean something. Their pain should not be without meaning. If a character gets hurt it should have an impact on their development and the story. It should lead to their own growth as much as the progression of the plot. If they suffer a serious trauma and it doesn’t affect their personality or development then it was pointless and your readers will notice. Bad things happen to people for no reason, it’s just a fact of life. Fiction must include hardship to feel real to the reader, but it doesn’t make a good story when bad things happen to your characters for no reason.
Handling trauma and suffering well depends entirely on your genre and target audience. You don’t want a graphic description of sexual assault in a young adult novel. When handled well the event will be sympathetic to readers that may have experience with similar trauma. I’m not saying use trigger warnings, unless that’s your thing, but recognize that some readers may have trouble with the scene. Don’t make it unnecessarily long or detailed in its description. Less is definitely more in some cases. Also remember that this will change your character, for good or ill, but it should shape them going forward through the story. Victims of crimes, people who have lost family members, and those who have gone through war are not the same when they come out of it. Their view of the world has changed, as does their view of other people. The type of character you are building will determine what that change is.
Bottom line, the world is a dark place. It has a lot of good but we can’t ignore the bad. It won’t go away if we never explore it in our writing. A book where nothing but good things happen to people isn’t a very interesting book to read. Your readers will expect a realistic world and that will involve, at some point, hurting your characters. As a reader, know that this isn’t easy for us. As a writer, don’t avoid it because some people out there say it shouldn’t happen. We have to be honest to the story, our characters, and up front with the reader. Don’t coddle any of them because it’s difficult or you’ll come off as fake and people sniff out fake from a long way off.
I’m in the middle of editing When Heroes Rise, something I wish I had done more of with Embers, and I’m reminded again of what we all probably feel is the worst part of this dream job. I liken writing to climbing a mountain. You have a set begging, and a destination you can see in the distance. You have a plan, but you really don’t know what changes you’ll encounter on the trail on your way up. Your path will change, you’ll hit rockfalls and have to reroute, and all manner of obstacles will give you headaches. It’s a tough climb, and the accomplishment one feels when it’s over is indescribable.
Then comes the editing. The time when you look at that mountain and have to climb it again, sometimes more than once, but you have to find a better way to do it. You’ve already seen the views, so they aren’t quite as exciting. You become familiar with every switchback and tree, every boulder and shallow cave. You have been to the top, so the next time you get there it isn’t quite as exciting. You climb it again hoping that you won’t have to climb it too many more times, but knowing you will.
When you’re finally done, it really is all worth it, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy. It may not be as physically demanding as climbing a real mountain, but it will leave you exhausted. Then when you’re done, set your sights on the next peak.
It’s appropriate that my first post is about my first strange experience as a published author. Yes, I do have a couple of shorts that I published a few years back, but my dream was always to have a tangible book that I could pick up, that others could pick up. Embers of Liberty is that first book.
Anyway, we were having some plumbing done in the house and the handy-man we hired said that line, “So I hear you’re an author.” It was the first person I didn’t know who’d talked about it and it set me back a bit. Of course he’d heard it from his wife, who is a vendor at the same shop as mine, but it was still strange. I’m thing it has to do with imposter syndrome, which is a very real thing you start to feel when you produce something like art or writing.
It was quite the surreal experience. Next to seeing people post pictures of my book and talk about reading it. It’s everything I’ve wanted since I started writing, but it still feels strange. I felt awkward talking about it, something I hope passes because I want to have to talk about it for quite some time.
Mainly I’m writing this to let everyone else know that this feeling is normal. I don’t know if it every really goes away, but I think we creative types all deal with it to some extent. Just part of the process I guess.