Shop Talk: Three Pitfalls to Consider When Writing
It's always a risk for a writer to write about writing. Forget about the missteps you might make with other writers (and the unholy fury that might unleash), you alert readers to your process and they can become like the jaded audience of a semi-professional magician; always alert for the distraction, unwilling to join in the fun. (Or worse, the fun becomes pointing out the attempts at distraction by the flailing magician.) IF YOU ARE A READER AND DON'T WANT TO THINK ABOUT THE STRUCTURES UNDERNEATH YOUR BOOKS, TURN AWAY!(disclaimer #1)
Okay, if you are still reading this, I offer up these observations as part of a generous reading- not to tear anyone(or thing) apart, but as notes on writing that have come out of my own experience. (disclaimer #2) So, despite the high risks of embarking on this, today I am sharing my three current favorite pitfalls that writers of fiction can fall into, in the hopes of helping others (and myself): The Vampire Elvis; The Rabbit Habit, and the BFF Character Fail.*
*all three of these pitfalls are taken from extremely successful fiction writers whom I admire. Please do not confuse my looking at these issues in their writing as put-downs on their work. They are fantastic writers. I've linked all of their names- please check them out!
THE VAMPIRE ELVIS
In the hilarious and sexy Sookie Stackhouse vampire series by NY Times best selling author, Charlaine Harris, the author has the character of Elvis Presley as a badly turned vampire, which makes him awkward and touched in the head, and generally a buffoon. It is a funny explanation for all of the post-death sightings of Elvis. And though there is nothing wrong with Harris' depiction, it doesn't move the story at all. It strikes me as an early concept that was fun and entertaining, and so the author kept it in.
I read the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, and while I appreciated the cleverness, I found the digressions about Vampire Elvis in the book pulled me out of the story instead of engaging me in it. As writers, I think this is a common problem. We can often experience a joy and abandon in the early stages of working out a premise for your world. And we can find that we get enamored of the clever twists we have created. But as a reader, I appreciate when a writer places the needs of the narrative first. I have had many a Vampire Elvis in my stories, and have been able to clean out a few of them, though I'm sure some have gotten through. Turn to your editor to help you spot the devils, and sharpen your wooden sticks. If the "fun" character you created does nothing for the story, stake him in the heart.*
*and save him for extra content to populate your blog!
THE RABBIT HABIT
All writers look to create characters they can relate to, often by layering together details we have observed in the people around us, creating nuanced and complex individuals to populate our stories. And sometimes in that layering, we can develop what I call a "rabbit habit."
The extremely successful, entertaining and often heart wrenching storyteller, Alice Hoffman, has had more than one of her main male characters have a domesticated rabbit as a pet. This is a somewhat unusual pet for a single man, and I think that the choice to have a character be a rabbit fan is an interesting angle on providing insight into his character, but still, it is unusual enough to stand out if you use that detail on more than one of your characters. Making it the namesake for my second favorite pitfall to avoid: repeating your characterizations. In fairness to Alice Hoffman, I only noticed this because I read and enjoyed so many of her books- I love to get lost in her stories!
Every writer has tropes they rely too heavily on in character development- it may not be something as large as a repeated pet, it could be a name, or a common descriptor, or even a phrase. If you find yourself describing a character with a choice you've used before, be aware of the rabbit habit. Do it too often, and it does nothing to your reader but remind them that you pulled this character our of a well-used hat. Ask your editor to help you chase those rabbits down and set them free.
THE BFF FAIL
With this pitfall, I will refrain from mentioning the author who made me angry when she did this, and focus on the author who I admired who avoided this pitfall and who talked about his process in an interview. This pitfall is when an author becomes so attached to their character that they violate the terms of the narrative to give them a happy ending. (This can also work with giving a character an unreasonably bad ending...but that is less "Best Friends Forever"fail and more like a "Frenemy" fail.)
I believe that when you invite readers into your story, you have a commitment to them to follow the story where it leads. Since you had the upper hand in structuring the parameters of the narrative, it is important that you stick to it, even if the character you've come to love is coming to a bad end. The YA author, Robert Cormier, wrote a novel, After the First Death, about an elementary school bus kidnapping, that deals with terrorism both in the world, and in our own relationships. The author knew that he had to kill one of the children on the bus as part of the story, and anticipated the difficulty in doing that. It was made harder as he let himself get to know the child as he wrote from the child's perspective. He said that writing that scene was one of the hardest things to do and he grieved over the loss. I am so grateful to him. I still remember this book and I read it over twenty-five years ago. Don't fall so in love with your characters that you fail your reader, when you stay true to your story, it can live on for others.
I hope this helps a little. Fiction writing is hard work- and everyone will have their own way to do it- find your community to help you- your readers, your editors, your fellow writers. And so what if you fall into a pitfall- it means you are writing, and that is so much more important than not falling. Share your stories! Love, Laura