Writing characters who aren’t good

Guest Post by Amanda Steel

I’m not sure whether it’s a new trend, or something I failed to notice before. In the past year, I’ve read numerous books where the characters (both main and supporting) are not typically good people; either bad or just extremely flawed in some way.

I co-host a book review podcast, and I struggled to review some of these. The Creative Writing MA I am halfway through made me realise this doesn’t automatically make them bad books. However. In one (I won’t name the specific books I didn’t like) the character whinged the whole way through. To be fair, he was in the middle of a zombie outbreak, and I would whinge a bit too. Do people want to read a book where the character complains and feels sorry for himself though?

Another book I read was about a character who lost his memory. The person who he discovered he was, turned out to be a cheat and a creep. He was a much better person without his memory. The other characters were no better. This left me with nobody to root for. I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to any of them. I knew then, something was missing from the main character. Even as a bad guy, he needed something to make the reader want to carry on reading.

After that, I read a book where the main character was someone I was able to feel for (in part) as she continued to make a series of bad choices – digging herself deeper and deeper into trouble. She was more than a little self-absorbed, which was off putting, but she suffered for the things she had done before getting her happy-for-now ending.

These books all helped me to learn what doesn’t work in a bad or not typically good character. Self-obsession is off putting, unless the character has somehow transformed by the end of the book. She/he doesn’t have to become a saint and can still be a little selfish, but character growth is important.

Using a range of characters with little or no redeeming qualities can be hard to get away with too. I’m not saying it can’t be done in a successful way, but the authors of the books mentioned above haven’t achieved it. Having someone good, or much further down the scale of bad is likely to be helpful in keeping readers, otherwise adding charm or an endearing trait to the character could also help.

The most recent book I read where the character wasn’t good, or at least she didn’t do good things, showed me how this can work. Jane Doe is written by Victoria Helen Stone. The book is about a sociopath who wants revenge, even if that revenge might be murder. She’s prepared to kill if she has to. The character is more complex than just being a potential killer though. She wants revenge for a friend, which at least shows she is capable of caring for another person, even if that leads to actions which many people wouldn’t consider. She’s loyal, determined and funny, even though she doesn’t mean to be humorous. There is a raw charm in her personality. The other characters are not sociopaths, but the author has portrayed them as more twisted and deserving of punishment than Jane. So, Jane was the one I was rooting for and I genuinely wanted to keep reading, as I hoped things would work out for her no matter what she chose to do in the end.

Reading these books has shown me as a writer how to (or how not to) write flawed characters who can hook the reader. This is why writers should also be readers. We can learn from so much from books, even bad ones. That’s why Stephen King says that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.

Amanda Steel is a multi-genre author, sometimes writing under the pen name Aleesha Black. She is the co-host of “Reading in Bed” with her partner, Andy. For more information about Amanda, visit her website. www.amandasteelwriter.com

Advertisements

#ShareYourRejections

I’m not going to share mine. Rejections are boring. I don’t think it’s helpful to hear that a published poet got so many rejections for her first book but kept going because:

  • Success isn’t just about persistence and tenacity
  • The try again and keep going message can give false hope
  • It implies rejections stop when you reach a certain level of success

Persistence and Tenacity

  • Some editors simply don’t like your poems. It’s possible to appreciate the craft and technical skills in a poem but not actually like it. Don’t give up at the first rejection, but if a magazine invariably rejects your work, move on and find an editor that likes your work.
  • Sometimes poets send out their poems too early which is why it’s worth finding a beta reader, workshop or writers’ group so you can get feedback on your work before you send it out to editors.
  • Editors don’t have time to give feedback on poems. It’s frustrating not knowing why you’ve been rejected but it’s more likely to be that your poems weren’t the right fit or too similar to work already accepted or the editor gets more poems in a week than she can publish in a year.
  • Do your research: find magazines that you like reading and that publish poems by poets you like and try them first. Check you’re not sending your traditional sonnets to a magazine that prefers prose poems. Continually sending prose poems to a magazine that only publishes villanelles wastes your time and irritates the magazine editor.
  • Don’t compare your failures with others’ successes. You don’t know how many times that poem was rejected before it was accepted. You don’t know how many rejections they got that week they posted about an acceptance on social media.
  • There are more poets than places to get published.

The False Hope of Try Again and Keep Going

  • It’s worth trying again if you’ve only had one rejection from a magazine and if you’ve done your research and think your poems are a good fit for the magazine.
  • It’s not worth trying again if there’s a mismatch between your poetry style and the magazine’s poetry style. Don’t get trapped into thinking you’re not a poet if you’ve not been published by The New Yorker or Poetry Review.
  • When you get a rejection, always re-read the poems that have been rejected. A fresh look might help you notice the awkward phrase in the second stanza or that the last line isn’t necessary. Edit and submit to another magazine.
  • If an editor doesn’t like your poems, they aren’t going to change their mind on the twentieth submission. Try another magazine.
  • If you’re getting good feedback when you perform your work but get rejected by magazines, chances are your performance is bringing something to your poems that’s absent on the page. Consider how to represent the missing element or consider recording your performances instead.
  • One rejection of a poem doesn’t imply there’s anything wrong with the poem. Multiple rejections of the same poem imply that it might be unfinished. Consider an edit or seek feedback before trying again.
  • Are you really a prose writer who wants to be a poet? Someone with amusia will never be a successful singer no matter how much they want to be, how many times they try, how frequently they change vocal style in the hope that their failure at opera will turn to success in pop, their failure at pop will turn to success in punk, how many hours of practice they do, how adept they get at using auto tune on their vocals or if they stalk the record label owner. However, there’s nothing to stop them becoming a successful drummer. You don’t have to stop writing poems just because your stories are more successful, but, when it comes to getting published, focus on where your talent actually lies.

Rejections Don’t Stop

Most of the magazines that accepted my poems in my first years of trying to get published no longer exist. The publishing landscape is forever changing: existing magazines change editors or fold and new magazines start. Being a published writer means being alert and open to new opportunities and that means potential rejection. Rejection can be minimised by doing your research, only submitting to markets where you know your work’s a good fit and knowing that you’re sending off the best versions of your poems, but it can’t be entirely eliminated.

To Publish or Not to Publish?

In a recent conversation on EAVA FM, I was asked for tips for aspiring writers:

  • Read, you can’t be a writer unless you read.
  • Guard your writing time – you may need to negotiate with family members or partners but if you don’t give your writing time priority, it won’t be important to them either.
  • It’s writing that makes you a writer, not being published.

Writing is the process through which ideas, characters, themes, issues, plots emerge from your thoughts and/or dreams in a way that enables you to write them down or type them. The process then extends to editing and polishing until you have a poem or story. It may be that you leave the new piece aside and come back to it at a later date so you can look at it with fresh eyes or you take it to a workshop or writers’ group or get a beta reader to look over it for constructive criticism to improve it further.

No piece of writing is wasted, even if it ends up binned or deleted, it’s all practice. Understanding how a story failed makes you better able to tackle a fresh story. Trying and failing to write a villanelle will give you a better understanding and appreciation of the form and there’s no reason to try and rewrite the failed villanelle in a different form or take one of the stanzas and start a new poem based on the extract.

Whether you show your writing to others is entirely up to you. If you want the external validation of publication, consider whether you are seeking that validation to confirm you are a writer or whether you want to share and communicate your work with others. If it’s all about you, it’s unlikely to appeal to readers. If it’s about sharing, publication is one of the routes to a readership. If others are pressurising you to get published, what are their motives? Do they need you to be published to call you a writer or do they think your writing should be shared with others? It is about you or your work?

Should you publish?

  • If it’s a shiny badge stating ‘writer’ that you’re after, make your own. The validation feels great, but publication is about reaching out to readers, not primarily to make you feel good
  • If you want to share and communicate to readers, you need a form of publication to make that happen
  • If you’re under pressure to publish, don’t. It has to be something you want, not something you do to please others.
  • Are you prepared to promote your publications on social media and market your publications? If you can’t engage with the process, it’s not worth doing and publishers, especially poetry publishers, need engaged writers.
  • Are you ready to accept that once out in the public domain, you have very little control over how readers react to your work? There will be critics and detractors as well as readers. Readers will filter your work through their lenses and may misunderstand your intentions or add baggage that you didn’t consider.
  • How will you handle reviews? Don’t read them is easier said than done. Reading, doing your research and approaching the right reviewers for your work takes time, but you won’t have control over what reviewers say.

Routes to Publication

  • Magazines and publishers – the obvious route but not the only one.
  • Competitions – many poetry competitions publish winning and short listed entries in an anthology or on a website
  • Blogs – some bloggers will publish poems but check the standard of poems (would you be happy for your work to be in the company of poems already posted?) and check guest post guidelines. You could create your own blog but be prepared to spend time promoting it. Also be aware that poems uploaded to a blog will be considered published and that will limit your options for getting blogged poems published elsewhere.
  • Performance – read at open mic slots or organise your own readings
  • Recordings – free software, e.g. Audacity, make it easy to record and upload readings of your poems. If your strength is in performance, burning a collection of recordings to a CD can be an alternative to book publication or a complement to a printed collection.

Why Woman’s Weekly contract changes matter even to poets

I’m a poet so news of the Woman’s Weekly contract changes for short stories was slow to come to the surface. It’s a useful illustration of why all writers (including poets) need to care about their rights and be cautious about what terms are in the contracts they sign.

Woman’s Weekly parent group has recently rebranded as TI Media and part of the rebrand seems to be changes to the short story contracts.

Generally if you sell a poem or short story to a magazine, it is on the understanding that you sell either first publication or one-time publication rights so the magazine can publish the poem or story. You are not selling any other rights and retain copyright so that you can publish your story or poem elsewhere, include it in a collection, have it translated or have your work adapted for another medium (e.g. film or an app). Regardless whether you were paid in cash or by complimentary copy for the sale to the magazine, you can still make money on your poem or story elsewhere.

If a magazine asks for any other rights, double check you understand what you’re being asked to sign. You should not be giving a magazine the right to republish your story without permission or payment, adapt your story for other media without permission or payment to you, translate it into another language or sell foreign rights without payment to you, make your story into a film or app without permission or payment to you or leave you unable to publish your poem or story elsewhere unless you obtain permission from the magazine or award themselves the right to republish your poem or story without crediting you (moral rights). They didn’t write your piece, you did, therefore you should benefit from selling the rights to use your poem or story.

This is what TI Media are asking from short story writers. Moreover, not only are they asking for more rights, they have reduced the amount they pay writers. So writers are being asked to give up more for less.

Why should poets, or at least those who don’t also write short stories, care? It shows writers should be protective of their rights and not succumb to a perceived power imbalance between writer and publisher. It shows that writers desperate to get into print should pause and think through the consequences. It is not worth losing your story to see your name in Woman’s Weekly.

Blogging: like Poetry; an eleventh birthday

The first post on this blog appeared on 27 August 2007. This isn’t the last post, but a summary of things learned and maybe an answer to that “Do I need a blog?” question. 

Blogging, like poetry, is a marathon not a sprint 

If you gain a thousand readers overnight, search engines rightly assume you’ve bought your audience and demote your blog on their results pages. The aim is to build your audience organically, article by article. Just as you build your audience poem by poem, reading by reading. Keep going.  

Blogging, like poetry, takes discipline 

A regular posting schedule helps manage your audience’s expectations. If you post a dozen articles daily, decide that’s too much and try to revert to a monthly schedule, your audience will be disappointed and look elsewhere. 

 You can still write a dozen articles over 12 days, just ensure you schedule your posts to the posting schedule you know you can keep to. 

 You also need to reasonably confident to keep going. If you think you’re going to run out of ideas, you will need to widen the scope of your blog. Luckily creativity is a muscle, keep using it and it will keep working. Trust your ability to write the next article. 

Blogging, like poetry, loves succinctness 

Succinctness doesn’t mean trimming all your article ideas into identikit 500 word articles. One of the most popular articles on this blog is a 4000 word film review. It means keeping your language precise, your articles on topic and cutting the bloat. 

Blog Readers, like poetry readers, like their efforts to be rewarded 

 A fourteen line poem isn’t necessarily a sonnet. It can take more effort to read a haiku than an epic ballad. If you try to condense your writing into snappy bullet points when the topic needs exploratory expansion, your article will be too opaque for your readers. If your articles don’t reward your audience, they stop reading. 

Blogging, like poetry, means finding the right format 

Densely packed prose and long paragraphs are hard to read. Like it or not, blog readers tend to skim-read so give them bullet-points, short paragraphs, and subheadings as navigational aids. Poems leave space on the page for a reason. 

Blogging, like poetry, cannot become a chore 

If you’re struggling for a topic, repeating something you’ve already written or are writing a blog article because you must have something to post, you’ll bore your readers. 

Blogging, like poetry, needs promotion  

You can’t build a blog and attract readers. You need to share on social media, mention your blog in your author biography, have a link in your email signature and mention you blog when you do readings. There are many writers’ blogs now: you’re entering a crowded market and need to draw readers in. Encouraging people who like your posts to share them helps. 

Blogs need engagement 

If your blog articles only broadcast, i.e. tell readers something, no one will bother to comment. If you ask questions, start a discussion and allow comments, readers will engage. 

Comments need to be moderated 

Blogs are about creating a community of readers who will hopefully look to your poems and books to complement their experience. Spam can disrupt a community. Hateful comments and trolls can kill it. Don’t moderate out those who are putting forward an opposing view, justified with quotes or statistics: debate is good. But don’t allow personal attacks or a hostile atmosphere to develop. 

The only qualification for a writer is that they write 

You don’t have to put your work in the public domain. You don’t have to create a blog. But If you want to be a published writer, you have to send your work out to readers either via an editor/ publisher or by self-publishing (books or blogs). Some people will like what you write. Others won’t. Some will send you polite, standard rejection slips. Others will publicity comment on your blog or leave a negative review. Some of those rejections or negative reviews will hurt. A good support network, e.g. writing friends or joining a writers’ group, can counter the negativity.  Don’t start a blog because someone told  you writers have to have one. Start a blog because you want to.

Working towards a collection of poems

Someone asked me last weekend if I was thinking of putting a selection of poems on a specific theme together as a pamphlet/collection or whether I would slot the poems amongst others instead. The poems weren’t written as a sequence or written together around a theme but as individual poems.

With my reviewer’s hat on, the advantages of a themed collection are

  • It gives a sense of unity to the poems
  • It can offer differing viewpoints or issues within the theme
  • It gives the poet space to present an argument and support it without becoming didactic or losing reader’s comprehension by becoming too compressed
  • It shifts the reading focus from ‘what’s this poem about?’ to how the poem is written
  • It tests poetic skill and craft as the poet varies the tone and voice of the poems
  • A shorter or pamphlet-length collection can be more effective if there is clear theme to the poems

There are disadvantages too

  • There are no surprises: I know what the next poem’s about before I read it
  • The poems become predictable and too similar to each other
  • Some poems might feel like slight ‘filler’ pieces rather than a poem that had to be written
  • Instead of the theme emerging organically from the poems, the poems can feel as if they’ve been written to order
  • A full collection can lose effectiveness if there is a clear theme and poems don’t vary from it
  • Depending on the theme, the poems might feel as if the poet is virtue-signalling or preaching to the converted instead of saying something new
  • The theme becomes restrictive so the poet gets labeled and boxed in as the poet who writes about this theme and this theme only

It’s worth exploring that last point in more detail. Labels can be restrictive and a way of dismissing a writer, “oh, she only writes about x.” Once the expectation that a writer only tackles a specific theme is created, it can lead to rejection of poems that aren’t on that theme. Locking writers into a ghetto doesn’t allow them to develop but traps them into going over the same ground repeatedly. Most writers start because they wanted to explore a theme or issue (even if they didn’t know it when starting out) and go onto to grow into exploring other themes or issues. Many may return to their original theme once knowledge, experience or perspective have grown and this will be an organic growth or a deliberate choice on the writer’s part. Where external forces, e.g. readers, demand a writer stays in their ghetto, it’s very difficult for the writer to move out without fear of losing readers or starting again from scratch possibly under a pseudonym.

Returning to the original question, my answer was that I would slot the poems on a specific theme amongst others rather than pulling them altogether in one pamphlet/collection. I couldn’t quite explain why my instinct was pushing me in that direction. I think I know now. I don’t want to be known as someone who writes on that specific theme. I don’t want to be labelled by that particular theme and if there are future poems on that theme, I want them to be on my terms, not from an external demand.


LWC_Logo

 

Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies, short story writer and novelist from 7-9pm on Thursday 21 June 2018 at Phoenix Square 4 Midland Street Leicester LE1 1TG. ÂŁ5 on the door for non-members. More details at Leicester Writers’ Club hosts Carys Davies.

 

 

 

 


 

What do to with those NaPoWriMo Poems

April’s not over yet and even if you don’t reach the 30 poems target, you may still have built up a body of work since the beginning of the month.

Do not rush to submit your NaPoWriMo poems

Editors don’t like receiving drafts and no matter how wonderful you think that poem you drafted on 2 April is, now is not the time to submit it. Read over your drafts and decide which ones you feel are nearly ready to publish, which ones need re-writing and which ones you will keep in your files (this isn’t necessary to do with the quality of your poems, but it might be that they’re too personal or were exercises). Now take a break: do some reading, write some prose, go for a long walk.

Edit, Read and Edit again

Start with the poems you feel are the better ones. Is this the best you can do? What happens if you re-write a first person poem in the third person? Is the narrating voice the best choice? What happens if you re-write the poem from a different viewpoint? Cut the first stanza – does the poem still work without it? What happens if you swap the first and final stanzas? Will those sixteen lines work if you cut them into a sonnet? Do you prefer your re-write or your original?

By changing the form, narrative voice or layout, you test your poem and discover which voice it works best in, whether it works better as a straightforward narrative or whether it’s more interesting told in non-chronological order and whether it works best in a traditional form or as free verse. Re-working the poem will also weed out unnecessary words and descriptive padding.

Read Aloud

Some poets record their readings and listen to them. You needn’t go that far, but reading aloud will force your focus onto the poem’s rhythm. You’ll discover that tongue-twister in line four or the awkward sentence structure in stanza three or how you ran out of breath in the final stanza, you’ll probably hear assonance, consonance, alliteration or repetitions that you don’t hear when reading silently from the page.

Workshop

A second opinion, even if you disagree with it, its always a good thing. If you’re not already part of a writers’ group or workshop, search social media for one that suits you. Some are ideal for beginners who are looking to build confidence and want reassurance, others are more robust and a better fit for writers serious about sending work to editors.

Be wary of groups that seem to want exclusive membership: if you’re being discouraged from joining other groups, you’ll get limited feedback and will find you’ll end up writing for that particular group rather than a wider readership. Take care not to end up joining so many groups you’re overwhelmed with advice.

Try out your poem at a local open mic event too. You’ll get pretty immediate feedback (Did you stun the audience into silence? Did they laugh at the joke? Did they laugh when you were trying to make a serious point?) but bear in mind it won’t be as in-depth or critical as a workshop where participants get to see your poem on the page or screen.

Don’t just take critical feedback on board and try and re-write your poem to suit. Filter the feedback through the lens of what you were trying to achieve with your poem and consider the feedback that aligns itself with your aims.

You’re still not ready to submit

Read the magazines you’re considering submitting your poems to and consider whether your poems are likely to be a good fit.

Don’t sabotage your submission by failing to follow the submission guidelines.