Hi, readers –
The PNWA website is about to undergo a major overhaul! Even as I write this, dedicated volunteers are scurrying like mad to make it even more fabulous, user-friendly, and stuffed to the brim with useful info for all of you than it already is. Really, I think you’re going to like the results.
So don’t panic if you don’t hear from me for a few days – the blog will be in limbo during the reconstruction period, but it will emerge from its cocoon soon. My section will now be called GUEST WRITER, which makes me feel sort of like The Man Who Came to Dinner, but I promise you, even under the new aegis, I shall keep up my patented barrage of friendly advice, inside insights, and unsolicited gratuitous opinions. If you have writing- or publishing-related questions you would like to see me tackle, send ‘em in; if I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.
So to prepare you for the Grand Silence, I’m writing you an extra-long installment today.
Yesterday, I wrote about what a good idea it is to avoid incorporating stereotypes into your submissions, lest you offend someone on the reading end of your query. (Hint: not everyone in New York is straight, for instance.) In glancing over the post, I realized that I left a rather important piece out of the argument: even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions.
Why? Well, in a new writer, what they’re really looking to see is originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent. When you speak in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where your authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive.
Occasionally, though, marked personal prejudices may actually lend verve to a voice – which, incidentally, is nowhere more true than in the world of blogs. We bloggers are SUPPOSED to be absolutely open about our pet peeves and quirky interpretations of the world around us: the whole point is to be as subjective and stream-of-consciousness as possible. Think about it: wouldn’t Andrew Sullivan’s blog about politics (well worth reading, if you haven’t) be far less interesting if he didn’t make his personal views so VERY apparent? Or, for that matter, wouldn’t this very blog be rather uninteresting without my pronounced (albeit charming, I hope) personal slant? That’s why the mainstream news’ attempts at establishing themselves as legitimate blog voices tend to fall so flat: they are the products of PR research; the individual bizarreness has been utterly ironed out.
Minor vitriol, however, or personal anger masked as fiction, usually does not work so well in print. I cannot even begin to count the number of novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.
Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, they turn out to be lifted directly from real life. The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. (These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.) Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way he anticipated.
Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers will decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.
This revenge has clearly not gone as planned.
Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”
Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?
My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction. Call it a memoir excerpt.
A few years ago, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, artistic retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day (ah, the recently departed Norcroft! I shall always think of you fondly, my dear – which is saying something, as I had a close personal encounter with an absolutely mammoth wolf there, and a poet-in-residence rode her bicycle straight into a sleepy brown bear. And both of us would still return in an instant.) to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills. They’re sort of a crap shoot.
This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for a month was a painter, a sculptor, or a writer. The writers were a tiny minority; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the dark caves to which they themselves had been assigned. I elected to write in my room, in order to catch some occasional sunlight, and for the first couple of weeks, was most happy and productive there.
When I go on a writing retreat, I like to leave the trappings of my quotidian life behind, but not everyone feels that way. In fact, several artists had brought their significant others to the colony, or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise.
Although every fiber of my being strains to use their real names, I shall not. Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.
Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic or social. No one in the dining hall was really surprised that he often brought the conversation around to sex; honestly, once you’d sat through his slide show of breast, leg, pudenda, buttocks, breast, you’d have to be kind of dense not to notice where his mind liked to wander. He and I talked in a friendly manner whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I loaned him a book or two. We had coffee a couple of times. Never occurred to me to think anything of it.
Until Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon.
Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they liked jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I DO have standards” to an angry lover, is there? So I started sitting at a different table in the dining hall. A little junior high schoolish, true, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable.
The fellowship that each writer received included a requirement that each of us do a public reading while we were in residence. Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. Eventually, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.
It was almost enough to make me wish that I HAD flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.
But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the colony, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fight, but that was it.
At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and the very important, repeated National Book Award nominee who had dropped by (in exchange for an honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.
Two writers read: beautifully varnished work, safe stuff. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.
The first piece was a lengthy interior monologue, describing Hansel and Gretel having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the scene, a straightforward account of a mechanical act which included – I kid you not – a literal countdown to the final climax. It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” I have no objection to writers who turn their diaries into works for public consumption, but this was graphic without being either arousing or instructive. Also, I’d read some of Gretel’s work before: she was a better writer than this.
However, the painters in the back row hooted and hollered, so maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. (“Three…two…one.) Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants are pleased the act is over, it’s not the best sex imaginable.
Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first page. As I said, Gretel could write.
Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich – and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted, from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, bitch!” and “Are those real?”
She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. And to her credit, the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me – her physical description would have enabled any police department in North America to pick me up right away – never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.
There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion.
I was very nice to her; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.
Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around. True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly failed, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I was nice to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, it was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.
Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?
So do think twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses – or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you, or at any rate your narrator. Revenge fantasies tend to announce themselves screamingly from the page. If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective – at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate – give it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.
It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer – and, let’s face it, a lot of us do – please, please join a writing group. Find good readers you can trust to save you from looking like a junior high schooler on a rampage.
And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.
Hey, I’m only human.
Keep up the good work!
— Anne Mini