Monday, January 15, 2018

Easy Ways to Screw Up a POV Character

I found a self-published work with a beautiful cover that I just couldn’t pass up. The characters on the front had great expressions, their personalities glowing through a moment of high action. Regardless that it didn’t necessarily reflect the prose inside, I still thought of it some months after I first saw it, returning to the author’s blog multiple times. The more that I learned about what he was doing on a superficial level, the more that I wanted to like it. Massive world, several sequels, it was the sort of thing I wanted to obsess over.

However, upon reading it, there’s some problems.

The book is beautiful, formatted well, polished with nary a typo in sight. The characters have their unique characteristics, the wording and flow is fine, and there is still hope for it yet.

It’s just that the narration, and more importantly the opinions of the P.O.V. character, is annoyingly, unintentionally objective.

For this post, what I refer to as the P.O.V. character is the person’s perspective which dictates a) what gets described, b) in what order, and c) how.

If the story is told in first-person (I, me, mine), the P.O.V. character is obvious: Watson in Sherlock Holmes, Bella in Twilight. Most novels in third-person (He, she, they) tend to follow the protagonist and explore his view on the world—Harry in Harry Potter. Even though Harry isn’t technically the one telling the story, the way things are painted how he sees them. Uncle Vernon probably wouldn’t describe himself as “a big beefy man with hardly any neck.” Sometimes you’ll find an omniscient Point of View, in which the telling of the story is either multiple P.O.V.s (also known as head hopping) such as in Pride and Prejudice or The Stand, or where the narrator has a different character onto itself, such as in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or (in fleeting moments) The Hobbit.

Purely objective P.O.V.s are not very common in successful works. It’s hard to make the book interesting that way, and can be difficult to describe certain details completely neutrally, especially if you are trying to have an emotional impact. Even the difference of “He hit the other car” and “He smashed into the other car” can be considered leading the witness. It’s limiting and rarely effective. I believe Tobias Wolff’s works might be an example, but I haven’t read them in a long time, so I could be mistaking his non-invasive prose for an objective Point of View.

In the case of the book I’m reading now, and many works I’ve looked at by newer authors, I find that there are certain choices—or rather, lack of choices—when it comes to the P.O.V. that cause the voice and prose of the work to come off as fictionalized and two-dimensional. Certain traits and flaws are important when it comes to the way we describe things, and it’s not uncommon for manuscripts to ignore them.

Impulsivity versus caution.

Another name for this article I considered was, “There is No Universal Truth,” but I didn’t think anyone was going to give a shit about my denouncing of reality. But that’s really what the vast majority of this post is about.

One of the problems the P.O.V. characters had was a sixth sense for Truth (with a capital T). They had some sort of meta-foresight enabling them to know who to trust, who to dislike, and readily make accurate decisions/opinions with very little information to support it.

This character is likable. You can tell because the P.O.V. character thinks about how likable he is. This character is impressive. You can tell because the P.O.V. character thinks how impressive he is. This character is smart. This character is admirable. So on and so forth.

The most frustrating aspect was the fact that everyone agreed with each other. For the first seven chapters, so far there is no social conflict. Despite claiming to be a racist land, everyone likes everyone, except for the one ‘annoying’ character who everyone agrees is annoying.

Problem was, the P.O.V. character’s take on things was severely incongruent with mine as a reader. I wasn’t remotely impressed with the hero he just met. I didn’t feel like he’d talk to the woman long enough to determine how much smarter she was than ‘all the other women he’d met.’

It was clear that this character was telling me what the writer wanted me to believe, that the P.O.V. was too easily jumping to the correct conclusions. Not only that, but no matter who we were following, they all did it.

It’s possible that a character can read people quickly, but that should be a defining characteristic with some explanation behind it. Sherlock Holmes, in the television series, convincingly shows an audience that he can do just that. There’s also some downsides, like his inability to empathize. It creates a character who is impressive, but somewhat alienating.

But for the vast majority of characters, it’s important not to allow them to react to information they don’t have. They can’t know that the woman in the shop is going to be their best friend, so they’re less likely to remember her name or pay so much attention to what she looks like or her racial (elvish) heritage. They can’t realize that this far superior warrior is going to be friendly and down to Earth before they’ve even spoken to him, ready to agree to join up.

A defining characteristic is how a character reacts to the unknown. It is perfectly fine for a character to be impulsive—to ask to join arms the second the badass says his name, to fall in love with a tavern girl for all her ‘intelligence’ conveyed in two sentences. Readers like impulsivity, and there is an amazing dumb luck that follows decisiveness, even in the real world. But the readers should see that. They should be aware that this character is jumping to conclusions. They should see how unnerved his fellow comrades—more cautious than he—are, how they are discomfited by his rashness. Most importantly, impulsive people make mistakes. They trust the wrong people, go down the wrong path, and when they mess up, they tend to fall harder than someone who carefully considered the options.

Confidence versus insecurity.

In the same vein, it’s important to recognize the impact that confidence and insecurity can have on your point of view.

What annoyed me most about the first few chapters was just how positive everyone was. There is this epically awesome warrior and not a single one of them—not a single one of the peasants or caravan owners—has any remotely negative reaction to him. Everyone, including the protagonists, love him. I know from reading the author’s blog that this is not some sort of set up for a villain. He’s just a really cool guy that everyone likes without a pang of jealousy or resentment.

Except, you know, me. The reader.

I wouldn’t say that I’m jealous of his easy popularity; it’s obviously fiction. I just find it incredibly disingenuous to those of us who have dealt with jealousy, messing up, and a lack of instantaneous faith. The more everyone likes him, the more I dislike him. I can’t imagine that not one other person in the world has the same sort of cynicism as me.

Now, each of the P.O.V./main characters has their own insecurities. The elf who gushes about the human warrior the most (despite being a level-headed, perceptive character), just messed up in the same battle that the human gained the most praise for. Lloyd has all the right opinions and all the right moves, and yet Glo merely is proud of the human’s overt insistence on racial tolerance. Why would I be thinking about how I almost killed us? You’re so not racist! How novel! How goodly!

Confidence and impulsivity tend to go hand-in-hand. Caution is often misconstrued (or just construed) as insecurity.

It’s not that understanding your character’s opinion on himself will drastically change his interpretation of situations, but it can make a description and interaction all the more layered. Even if you want Glo the incompetent wizard to like Lloyd the epic fighter, understanding why he doesn’t feel in competition with him, or why, if he does, it doesn’t bother him, can dictate more interesting emotions behind the P.O.V.’s opinion. It’s not that Glo respects Lloyd for announcing how not racist he is, it’s that Glo is relieved Lloyd isn’t judging him.

Optimism versus pessimism.

This is probably the most relevant and therefore the most controversial.

Ask the majority of people if they consider themselves an optimist or a pessimist, and they’ll tell you they’re a realist.

I’m not going to go into my whole tirade, but it’s extremely important that you recognize your P.O.V. character is not a realist. They are not omniscient, they can’t predict the future, rationality is not a feeling. Controlling feelings are different from the absence of feelings, and it’s important to know which one your logically-motivated character is operating on.

Sometimes, your character is going to be wrong. A lot of times, there is no right answer.

If I took your character by the hand and led him into a room filled with stuff, without telling him why he was there, what do you think he would come out remembering?

People only have a select number of items they can recall from short term memory. For very intelligent people, it tends to be seven. Seven non-sequitur items. However, everyone can remember a narrative, piecing in details that make sense with that narrative.

So while he might only be able to remember seven titles of books on the bookshelf, he can remember the type of books the room had and logically recall what titles would fall into that category.

A positive person might say, “This guy is super smart and loves Russian novels!”

A negative person might say, “This guy is super pretentious and loves Russian novels!”

The opinion, or narrative, about what kind of person the owner of the bookshelf is, actually helps both parties remember more and fill in the blanks of what they can’t recall. It’s not just that the subsect of “Russian” novels ties together otherwise random books, but the categories of smart and pretentious will help them remember other “like” novels that are equally snobby despite alternative heritage.

When telling a story, the writer has to pick certain aspects to describe, and others to leave out. We can’t paint every leaf on a tree, so which leaves we choose to talk about will tie into this narrative that the P.O.V. character tells himself about the situation. Basically, we often describe what he would remember.

Is your P.O.V. character an optimist or a pessimist? Are their conclusions about people judgmental or trusting? These opinions help create the story and tone as a whole, as well as use each description to teach you something about the narrator. The important aspect of this, however, is that not everyone is going to agree with them, and sometimes their conclusions will prove faulty or problematic.

A narrator’s reliability varies depending on the book that you’re trying to write, but one of the benefits of switching P.O.V.s is that you can tell all sides of the story without having unnaturally omniscient characters.

Their type of intelligence.

I don’t exactly believe in stupidity, but I will admit some people are more discerning than others.

It’s important to consider your P.O.V. character’s intelligence, their strengths and their weaknesses, and factor that into how they see things. If your narrator is a child, as an obvious example, they’re more likely to take people at face value. He said he’s not racist, so clearly he isn’t! Immediate loyalty from someone inexperienced isn’t so odd.

If your narrator is good at picking up on patterns, but bad at reading facial cues, the reasons he knows to trust someone are going to be different (and more interesting) than if he was strong in body language. When he comes to the conclusion that ‘this is a likable guy’ isn’t going to be the same as it is for the other members of his party, but it definitely should make sense for the reader.

Whatever the P.O.V. character’s social strengths are, the author uses that to “show” the audience what he wants them to think instead of having the narrator tell the reader the Truth of the situation. If the character is good at reading body language, describe what physical cues were given that made him trust the other person. If he recognizes an intelligent person based solely on the information she has at her fingertips, have her express that information and let his response—verbal or physical—convey his surprise.

Truth is, none of the characters in this book showed any signs of social strengths or limitations. Lloyd the human was kind of embarrassed by the attention—noted by the P.O.V. character—but no one struggled with true humiliation, disagreement, awkwardness, horniness, loneliness, introvertedness, shyness, attention-whoring, suspicion, pushiness, misunderstanding, jealousy, resentment, pettiness, competitiveness, lashing out, or any of the daily conflicts we experience in real life. They had no social weaknesses, really.

No. In all their early chapters of teaming up, drinking beers, fighting orcs, traveling, only one character gives any sort of derision in a few ignored sarcastic remarks. They all get along. They are all on the same page. They all have the same goals. The only person who shows any true sort of resistance is the guy who sort of tried to haggle how much he should get paid for a job. (He never got a word out. Everyone just knew what he was doing before he could speak.) And yes, of those who witnessed it, they were all equally irritated by a completely reasonable action.

Their comfort zone.

How someone feels about a place or situation is drastically going to influence everything they describe. Understanding the mood of your character will tell you what he pays attention to. It will dictate the chaos/excitement of the scene. Telling a story from the Point of View of someone who loves the limelight and meeting new people shouldn’t be the same as if they’re dying of crowd-induced claustrophobia.

This is best left to the author to decide, but in my case, I would assume that a party lover isn’t paying as much attention to the details. He’s going to talk about the positives, the gist, the big events, the most exciting things. Someone who hates crowds and attention may be hyperaware. He might note every single person in the room, he might muddle information trying to take it all in, he might misinterpret a lot of hostility.

“Bright lights flickered across the smiling faces.”

“Bright lights elongated sharp features in flashes.”

Sometimes it’s not a matter of overall attitude of the world. Even the greatest pessimists can enjoy themselves from time to time. Moreover though, our judgments on things are affected by our fears, and whether that be insecurity about being in a new situation, your P.O.V. character might not like a perfectly fine person for reasons that have nothing to do with that person.

The characters in the novel in question kept level heads regardless of the situation. They are always respectful and open-minded, positive and friendly, handle all social interactions with successful decorum. They are perfectly perfect young gentlemen.

And they are obnoxious.

All characters are at their best when showing their flaws, but especially when it comes to your narrator, make sure to remember that, unless he is literally omniscient, he can only be the voice for his own Point of View, he can’t speak for the other characters, he can’t speak for the reader, and he should never be speaking for the author.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Thick Skin Or Fluid?


Henry Houdini died of complications of being punched in the stomach by a fan. He had rock hard abs, known for his ability to take a hit, and was asked by a larger man if he could try socking him. Houdini agreed, but before he could brace himself, the fan struck, doing serious damage to the escape artist’s unprepared insides.

You’ll hear me say I don’t like the approach most people advocate in criticism: The antagonistic relationship between writer and reader, the succinct and sweet social politeness, the demand that you take hostility as it comes, else you’re not good at what you do.

I’m sensitive, that much can be determined from a few posts, but that’s not why I recommend against the, “Just smile and say thank you,” philosophy. Thick skin implies the author brace himself, take it at full force, and keep on trucking without a moment to heal. Good writers don’t let little things like irrational hostility phase them, right?

Wrong. It’s not even just an issue of why put up with that if you don’t have to, but that rolling with the punches, instead of bracing for them, tends to work better. You go with the motion instead of fighting it, and, by being flexible, you can guide and control the situation better.

When being critiqued, have a real conversation. Listen to what’s being said, recognize how it affects you, and go with it. Instead of being strong and brave, be tactful and honest. Ask questions, try to understand, and speak your disagreements in a clear and useful manner.

But I’ve written about this before, and this isn’t just a repeat. In fact, I’m here to stand behind the opposite of my usual opinion: sometimes it is better to just stand there and take it, to move on without nursing your wounds. Sometimes you have to pretend like it doesn’t hurt you if you want it to actually not hurt you.

Truth be told, I’ve doubted my interested in becoming a successful writer for some time now. I wanted to connect with readers, to be read, but I don’t like how easy it is for someone’s hostility to influence me throughout the day. The second you get noticed, the second you are more likely to fall into a person’s line of sight at the exact wrong time. People will get angry with you (hell, I’ll get angry with you) for the dumbest, most trivial, or even non-reasons. In fact, I believe that most times someone is upset with you, it’s not about you at all.

Of course, I say that as someone who has struggled with anger the last two years. Perhaps it’s merely projection.

Guilt can paralyze me. It turns me into a doormat. The biggest mistakes I’ve made were when I thought I owed someone something, or when I thought I had made a mistake when, in reality, it was likely to be a two-way street. It is rare (although this makes sense) that I ever see a bad experience as just being someone else’s shitty day and not something I could control.

But successful people? Happy people? They don’t let their mistakes get them down. They are more likely to dismiss assholes as fools and move on with their life. Sure, they make the obvious mistakes, are less likely to be observant and are more likely to irritatingly impose their will or attitude onto others, yet it’s not as big of a deal as I like to make it out to be.

It’s not the end of the world to make someone mad. It’s not the end of the world to mildly irritate them. And, in some cases, it really doesn’t have anything to do with you. It’s not your fault, and they’ll do better if you just ignore them and move on with your life.

I say this as a warning to anyone who wants to self-improve, who wishes to be less of an egomaniac and more empathetic: sometimes other people’s opinions really aren’t your problem.

I’ve heard people say authors need thick skin since the dawn of my career, but it wasn’t until today that I really find it to be true. As I focused on letting people in, trying to understand their perspective, improving myself, and having open and informing conversations with others, I was allowing myself to be affected by them.

By wondering too much on where they were coming from, I dug deeper and deeper into the events that disturbed me. I should have been focusing on some positivity, what went right. By talking about my feelings and seeking out understanding from my rants, I kept repaving the path to those, often trivial memories.

My first really hurtful criticism took me years to get over. Today, I think back on it and feel very little. I made some begrudging changes to my style because of it, which I am happier for, but, more importantly, I learned that some of what I was told, a lot of what really disturbed me, actually was the half-hearted musings of a woman with different tastes and low patience. It really didn’t matter. I read through those critiques constantly, for months, asked others about them, reran arguments in my head, thought about why, why, why, until I was blue in the face. It wasn’t until I happened across her critiques one last time and realized that there was nothing left in them for me, that I threw them away and began my ability to move on to other considerations.

Being fluid to adversity helps with creativity and learning. Instead of just taking it “like a man,” which honestly could do some real damage (and not just to your morale), a lot of times you need to move with your critique, learn when to push back and pull away, and really think about the criticism given. But other times, you need to learn when to walk away and move on with your life, to just take the hit and then act as it never bothered you at all.

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Monday, January 8, 2018

The Short’s Story Doesn’t End There

I can be pretentious, and we all know I adore me some odd phrasing from time to time. My most common form of feedback is some rendition of, “I love your voice, but sometimes it’s a little jarring.” And confusing. And even outright incorrect.

When I was  a youngin’, however, I distinctly remember when I turned in an essay with the word “enigma” in it. Perhaps it was my love of Batman, but I never even questioned the commonality of the term. It was a word I knew as just as well as “mysterious,” “problem,” or “The Riddler.” When I received it back, I, coincidentally enough, had a huge “?” next to the paragraph with this tender little word in it.

Now, one of my most hated forms of criticism is the “?”, or “Huh?” or “What?” because of the reviewer’s expectation that I will understand what they don’t understand. That it’s just SO OBVIOUS what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense that I myself should be fully aware of its gibberish. No explanation required. But, in this case, like many cases, the issue could have been anywhere from, “This word doesn’t mean what you think it does,” to “I don’t agree with your point.”

(When giving feedback, always remember that a writer never does something without reason and never writes something that didn’t make sense to them at the time. Your job is to be clear why it didn’t work for you to help them see it from another angle. Universal claims are typically overstated, oversimplified, and vague.)

I approached my professor, asking what the question mark meant, when he blinked at me matter-of-factly, replying, “I don’t know what enigma means.”

That sounds like a YOU problem.

Knowing your audience is a talent (and debate) into itself. Some people, typically not writers, will insist that I know what words are common, that I know what words “a fifth grader would know.”

Why would I? I’m not a fifth grader, nor have I interacted with one since 2001. But not only that, I’ve found that people tend to assume stupidity onto younger people. I once wrote a manuscript at sixteen, workshopped it at 20, and was told by a 60 year old that 18 year olds wouldn’t understand the wording. Ironically enough, my younger peers understood it far better than the older gentlemen who were obviously projecting.

Quite frankly, I find that younger readers are more likely to accept words they don’t know while older readers are more likely to get hung up on them.

Today an author commented on her fifteen-year-old daughter’s writing class in which the prompt, the end of the world, lead her to write a story that was “too sad” for the professor. In order to get a good grade, the student was required to alter the ending to something more happy.

Obviously I’m only getting one side of the story, through the lens of a third-party no less. But I have definitely met some controlling people, those who thought that “teaching” meant, “do it my way.” A lot of critique partners will believe that getting someone to make a change is the end-all, not worrying about instructing the person to critically evaluate what edits can and should be made themselves.

However, while I agree this is a ridiculous requirement for the teacher to make—basing a grade off of the ability to take feedback to heart instead of on effort and improvement—I think it’s a good lesson. Most importantly, it’s brought me to one wrongful assumption that writers make in creative writing classes: That their story lives in a vacuum.

As I say to any writing students, “I am not here to make you write a great story, but to teach you how.” I often ask them to ‘mess up’ their work. “Keep all your drafts. Make erroneous changes. See what happens.” I ask them to make edits that may not solve any problems. To rewrite it as all dialogue. To rewrite without any was’s. To make it a sad ending. To make it a happy one. Then, at the end of the course, submit the version that contains the best elements of each experimentation.

Being a sci-fi and fantasy writer, the conversation of academics' hatred of the genres comes up a lot. I agree with the stupidity of some professors thinking that fantasy isn’t real writing, and there are times when I suggest to stick it to the man and do what you want.

But the real use of a classroom is to get OUT of your comfort zone, to understand subjectivity, criticism, and writing for your audience. When not to write for you audience. When to stick with what works. Whose opinion you care about and what you want to happen. Do you change a story for a closed-minded grade, or do you keep it for what it is. And why? It’s a learning experience to tell you more about yourself and help you make better decisions in the future.

Most importantly though, just because you wrote something in one context does not mean it is restricted to that context. Just because your professor didn’t like something and you had to change it to get a good grade does not mean you can’t take the original version and put it out there.

I suggested to the mother to go to have her daughter submit the story elsewhere. Help her understand that sometimes writing is about finding your audience, not catering to the one right before you. And just because you have to compromise your principles when the cost isn’t worth the reward doesn’t mean that your story has been fossilized in that version, doomed to sit on a Happily-Ever-After Nazi’s desk in perpetual optimism.

For that matter, a story that did well in a classroom shouldn’t stay there either.

Get your work out to the world. Understand that context and place matter, that one person’s opinion isn’t an end all. Classrooms are not to create the perfect art’s form, but to force you to start writing, critically evaluate yourself, and learn how to deal with shit heads.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

When You Don't Measure Up On Paper

In response to a post a few years ago “Why Typos Lose You the Most Sales,” I found a comment from a woman accusing me of bashing self-publishing and saying that typos don’t bother her.

The intention of the post was more for the psychology on why typos are important for credibility. There was no discussion on self-publishing in itself. I believe in self-publishing and I don’t think people self-publish just because they couldn’t get traditionally published. But, I read indie books and as a reader I despise the mentality that typos don’t matter. They do. Whether you like it or not, having typos is the easiest and most foolish method to shooting yourself in the foot. Typos are easy to fix—tedious, not something I am particularly good at myself—but they are more black and white, never beneficial to a reader’s experience, and not only do readers use them to determine the quality of the book, it’s actually sensible that they do so. There is no reason to have them except for an author’s laziness. Sometimes people will claim artistic style, but when unconventional grammar is effective, it won't look the same as if you just didn't let mistakes slip by.

I am the first to argue that grammar is different than storytelling; you don’t need to know the rules of language to be good at making people feel things. And sometimes inaccurate grammar works better than what’s technically correct. As I said in the post:

“Many artists—and rightfully so—believe that the punctuation, grammar, and spelling, do not state their ability to create ambiance, pacing, and characterization.

However, typos suggest a lack of editing, patience, and precision. They come from either inexperience or apathy. If you don’t know enough or care enough to fix obvious mistakes, why would I believe that you can keep my attention, make me fall in love with the characters, maintain the rules of the world, and satisfy me at the end? The things that are more difficult, that take more effort? Expert writers with a great deal of experience—those who have successfully written successful stories before even—can’t always offer emotional impact, not to mention if they’re limited to the first attempt.

I don’t judge a book by a few typos. Even traditionally published books will have them, though admittedly not to the same extend as my indie reads. But it is not a good sign for your precision and care when a reader finds them in the title, in the teaser, in the summary, or in the sample pages, and yes, I will be dissuaded from buying if you have them on the first page. It’s possible that it won’t constantly bother me, it’s possible that you put all your effort into the abstract decision making involved in telling a good story, but it’s simply more likely you lack skills or patience.

Out of a morbid curiosity, I went to the woman's website and found she did in fact practice what she preached. I found a self-published work accompanied by a haphazardly photoshoped cover, five reviews, and typos on the first page.

The summary had only a few commas missing and an extra one here or there, and that, to me, isn’t too big of deal. Commas are flexible, no matter what anyone says, and I believe should be used to determine pacing and tone of voice. Again, I’m not too positive about my correct application of commas myself, so hypocrisy ahoy if I judge too much. I didn’t wish to like her, particularly, but I wasn’t trying to hate her either. I was more fueled by a morbid curiosity and sense of procrastination.

I bypassed a couple of creative capitalization choices and the poor formatting and the lack of paragraphs until I finally came across a sentence that forced me to read twice to understand.

“Caro refused to follow in her sister dancers footsteps, refused to be made a slave again.”

Now, after a only brief moment I could determine the meaning. I considered two possibilities: “Caro refused to follow in her sister, Dancer’s, footsteps,” or “refused to follow in her sister-dancers’ footsteps.”

See, the problem with imprecise punctuation is two-fold. One is legitimate error in communicating what you actually mean regardless of how much “a choir” your readers are, the other is the ambiguity that comes with being untrustworthy. If you seldom have typos, it would be easily assumed that it was “dancers’ footsteps,” less likely that you would make two errors over one (the hyphen being optional, though useful in fictional pronouns). But, based off of previous capitalization issues, it wasn’t clear that she didn’t just wrongfully leave a name in lower case, and truth was it wouldn’t be that surprising to go either way.

In writing, you have several chances to convince your reader you know what you’re doing, and therefore your story will be enjoyable, not leave me in the lurch in the end by poor forethought or haphazard stream of consciousness.

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Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 Resolutions

It's that time again. Time for us to say, "I want everything to be different."

Last year I had fairly sensible resolutions, most of which I succeeded. I haven't yet submitted to 50 agents, and my intentions for this week was to spend some good amount of time making a publication strategy for 2018 when I remembered I worked in the airport and there are these things called holidays.

I no longer work in the airport.

I've put in my two weeks' notice after several fifteen hour days in a row. It's not as if these hours are going to continue, but the stress of being on call constantly left me in a state of constant worry, unable to focus. For the next few months I hope to really treat my creativity like a job and see if I can't do more of what I wanted before retaining a less stressful part time job to boost up my bank account.

The 2017th year of our Lord (is that how you say it?) set me up for a better understanding on what life really is. I hope to spend 2018 figuring out what it could be.

My goals for 2018 are...

To regain a habit of writing most days.

To establish a better understanding of marketing and publishing.

To learn better tactics to deal with stress.

To spend less time on websites that don't bring me joy (but rather mildly distract and irritate me), as well as staring at a screen less in general. After I am done with work, I hope to move my phone charger away from my bed.

To tighten my prose so that each moment is filled with a high high or a low low, and only the transition in between.

To come up with a distinctive and attractive style to create a more uniformed representation of my work.

To learn to ask people to participate in projects (and generally working on my tendency to avoid problems.)

To eat at least two real meals a day.

To keep up with my deadlines and have a reliable update schedule.

Most of these things are not quantifiable, but that just means it's harder to fail!

Happy holidays, everyone. And no matter what 2018 gives us, writers always make lemonade out of molehills.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

The Summary that Unsold Me the Book

How do I say this? “I don’t really want to say this.” Writing a summary is the most difficult part of the job, and even the greatest writers complain that it’s not the same as writing a novel well. I don’t want to write this because I don’t think I can be funny about it, I don’t want to say this because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, I don’t want to say this because I don’t want to look like an asshat. But when I saw the cover to this book, I was immediately excited. I felt drawn in, I thought it was my thing, and I considered that maybe I could put aside the myriad of stories on my list to-be-read for something that might be exactly the kind of story I’ve been looking for.

I had high hopes because the cover, like all good covers, gave me an indication of tone, genre, and dedication that made me confident in the author. It made me feel.

Then I read the summary:

Title of Book, Book One of space fantasy series, Title of Series, is classic fantasy for the current YA generation ... romantic, dramatic adventure written in rich, lyrical prose ... and an inspired, refreshingly original romp through boundless imagination! 

This 560-page novel also comes with an additional 70 pages of bonus content including a 50-page art gallery. All fantasy enthusiasts are asked to prepare themselves for take off on the next pop culture paradigm shift after Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games!

Inspired by Caribbean cultures and landscapes, Title of Book is the debut novel of Barbadian author Author’s Name, woven from a deep magickal sensibility, a love of fantasy literature and folklore, and a romance with words and the worlds they can craft.

To clarify, I don’t think the summary is horrific. The problem isn’t my aghast at any poor writing, but that it doesn’t do anything it is supposed to do. It, for me, makes all the ineffective choices you can when writing a pitch.

For one thing, it begins meta.

Instead of diving us right into the plot or character, it discusses what the book “is.” It’s not an active, intellectually or emotionally charged sentence. It lacks feeling, and just begins with description. While I don’t believe “is” is a bad word to use in general, it makes for an unexciting start, which when you only have a few sentences can be a major waste of time.

“Generic is a book about two loves lost from each other.” “John is a high powered lawyer.” “This short story was written for the Inky Men of Utah writers’ group…”

This is one of those places that considering a strong verb might be useful. I won’t say “is” is always a poor choice, but it’s something to at least consider carefully because, as the very first sentence a reader will see, writing something emotionally charged rather than informative is often the better way to go.

Also, the meta-thinking—reminding us that it is a book—isn’t what either the authors or the readers want. The audience needs to be immersed from moment one, forgetting as soon as possible that these people aren’t really real. Yes, it’s just a summary, and no one gets immersed by summation, but if you can humanize your characters, you should do it as soon as you can. Spending all of this time to remind us the name of the book (which, do readers really care?) and the name of the series is taking the chance that your potential buyers will quit before they even got to the actual summary.

But because I was really interested, I did keep going, hoping to find the plot soon to see if I really did want to read it or not.

She tells us what we’re supposed to think.

She made the genre clear at least. Her repetition of “fantasy” in the first few sentences didn’t seem very thought out, but that doesn’t bother me on a whole, not until after I realized she had spent all this time being extremely specific about the genre but never the actual book. She made it very evident what kind of story it would be, at least, with “classic fantasy” featuring romance and adventure (all of which intrigued me). Her insistence, however, that her prose was lyrical made me skeptical. I often advocate for poetry in fiction, and like a good turn-a-phrase and seeing authors attempt for unique voices. I hate how we push simplicity, especially in young adult fiction. But, when someone actually starts writing out qualities of their book, it suggests more like that’s what they want it to be like and might very well mean that it’s just a series of words that are trying too hard to be clever or beautiful.

With a few exceptions, like “funny,” adjectives that sound like they belong better in a review than a summary turn me off. When synopsis suggest how amazing or brilliant the book is, I’m not likely to take that seriously. Show me the interesting parts, don’t expect me to trust they exist just because you said so.

While I am interested in the page count, the size being very important in my consideration, when she goes off into the “extras” before telling me anything about the story, I feel like she’s trying to entice me with gimmicks instead of emotion. If it’s a book I already know and love, hell yes I want the extras. I’ll sit there and read every boring blog from an author, look through every photo on their Instagram, hoping to get just a little more of the feeling their stories gave me. But when I don’t know you…

‘Comps’ work better through examples.

Her comparison to the Hunger Games might have meant more if, instead of suggesting it would be a big phenomenon like that, explained how it was similar. Are characters the same? Setting? The tension? The plot? Just because I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t mean I’ll like every book on vampires, but I might like the contemporary fiction with sarcastic characters. She said “paradigm shift” so I’m not sure if that really means any lovers of Hunger Games will like it.

I want to know what it’s about.

Then, still having as of yet to actually summarize anything about what happens, she discusses herself. Not necessarily a bad move, but use the space for what is for. It’s organized that way for ease. You have an author’s bio on Amazon. Save your word count for what’s important; why do I want to read your book?

I don’t know. I have no reason to. I don’t even know what the character’s names are, for hellsake. I know it’s classic fantasy, but does that mean Tolkien? Narnia? The Ocean at the End of the Lane? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? I mean, I’d assume that it’s elves and dwarves in medieval-based England, but that’s just from what I believe “classic” fantasy would be, I don’t actually have any reason to think you and I are on the same page.


The book was thirteen dollars for an ebook. I believe that writers can charge whatever they want for their stories, and sometimes making your price more akin to traditional publishing and not one dollar can encourage readers to take you more seriously. But did she really think I was going to take a chance on a story that was that much money that I have no idea what it’s about?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You don’t want to give away the plot because then no one will be interested.

And that is why I have to say this.

It does not matter if they don’t know what happens when they don’t care what happens.

Tell us what your book is about. Yes, we want to be surprised, yes, if I knew I wanted to read your book, I wouldn’t want to know anything at all. But when it’s about making people care—and it is—it’s better to be predictable than to be too vague. Predictable stories sell all of the time. You know what’s going to happen, you know when in the plot it will happen, and you still invest. Why? Because we don’t just read for secrets and the unexpected. Nothing is better than to be delightfully surprised, tension is doubt as to outcome, and great manuscripts have twist endings, but the worst books are those that failed those things. Our most beloved stories don’t have to be original, they have fantastic characterization, perspectives, and epic settings. They have great stakes, high highs and low lows. You gain intellectual and emotional change. Most of these things, of course, are enhanced by not giving too much away. But your readers have to know something to care. Let’s face it, if they already knew they wanted to read it and didn’t want anything given away, they wouldn’t be looking at the summary in the first place.

So I’m not saying not to keep things under the vest. But authors must realize that most books sell because of the events inside them, because of the characters, because of the details of the settings. The story sells the story. Mystery only enhances it.

When writing a summary, don’t write a review. Don’t talk about how great it is or what it is, inform the audience of what happens or might happen, who the characters are, where they are, what humor or tension they can expect. Give us an idea of the protagonist, the place, the tone of voice, and make sure that if you are going to keep secrets, the audience even knows the secret exists. We can’t obsess over who the murderer is when we don’t even know a killing has transpired.

The balance of mystery and information in a summary is the keystone to its hook, we all know this. But, if you can’t decide, keep in mind that the events of your story shouldn’t be satisfied by just a summation.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

2017 Christmas Letter

In January 2017, I had just moved to NYC a few months prior, and had really just begun to settle in to my new apartment. I didn't have a job yet, wasn't entirely over the feelings of failure and worthlessness after my last relationship, and hadn't really written much of anything in the last year or so while working tirelessly to save up for the move, being incredibly stressed about several big life changes, and not really being close to where I wanted at the age 27.

In the months to come, I found a rhythm. I loved New York for its no-nonsense attitude, the people there were passionate and easy to talk to. There were a few unpleasant moments with the expected individuals, but overall, for a time, I thought that it might be a good place for me. It was exciting with high energy and many options when it came to who you talked to.

It wasn't until I had an annoying day at work sometime in may where I facetiously joked to myself, "I'm gonna quit!" that I realized my desire to return home.

My roommate, an older woman who had a near panic attack when I moved the mini fridge left in my room a foot to the right, always made me feel like a guest. I realize she was checking my light bulbs when I was gone, as well as just poking around to make sure things were the way she wanted them. I left the door open while away, and the tiny closet-sized room didn't leave much to hide, so the invasiveness wasn't necessary. At the moment I began to want the freedom of Wyoming, I started to realize how much I walked on eggshells when she was around, flinching every time she went into the bathroom in case I didn't clean out the hairs in the tub well enough.

I hated not having a car. I hated being dependent on the subway system. I had gone there to have things accessible to me - so I could just run out and grab something in the middle of a project. But things were always far, regardless of how few blocks they were, and leaving would take hours of my day for one item. If I could even find it. And many things New Yorkers just ordered online; you couldn't find them in stores.

I realized, being able to successfully live in one of the most expensive cities in the world on a part-time job at minimum wage, I could easily put myself up back in Wyoming, live with a more flexible budget and really try to give myself time for my real work.

I returned home to feel a huge wash of relief on me. I took my old job back at the airport, making a good amount of money and my bosses feeling very flexible in when I work, giving me room to travel and set things up the next year.

Writing has gone alright this year, but it could be better. I've long gotten out of the habit, and I feel some desire had left me for a time. Submitting to agents can feel futile. For many, it took up to nine months to get back to me, and prior I felt like I had been sending it out to the void, my work being sucked up into a black hole to be impacted into nothing. It's sort of like playing a difficult video game in which after struggling through, you realize you messed up way back in the beginning and have to start over. Or worse, it's not a screw up, just bad luck. It's out of your control. And still, go through all the motions again with no more guarantee of results. Beta-readers and critique partners weren't excited about what I was doing, and the advice could be convoluted, painful, and inaccurately biased.

The last few months, after a pretty good year, I've slipped with the comic, the Stories of the Wyrd, publishing submissions... Well, a lot of things. With sickness, travel, work, the theatre, I feel the need to reorganize my priorities because I gave up on some long term projects for a while.

Good news is that I did do most of last year's resolutions. I traveled to Ireland, did a trip across America visiting Niagra Falls and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I went to Seattle to see a friend, and have plans to go to Iceland this April. I didn't submit to as many agents as I wanted, but I did get my book out there more than I have before. I'm not sure I read 12 novels this year, but I did read a lot, including several books 800-1,400 pages. I've toyed with my website, which I assume will always be ongoing, but it is different and hopefully more accessible than it was before. And lastly, I very much did complete the three-year-old to-do list that I'd been working on for ages.

After some hiccups of 2015 and '16, 2017 really encouraged me to go after what I wanted, and therefore helped me figure out what it was I didn't want. My view of my future has changed a lot in the last couple of years, but admitting to myself what really mattered - free time to create - helped me make better choices for myself, and not worry so much about my credibility. A stressor that was never going to be completely solved.

Have a Merry Christmas and happy holidays everybody. The next year is coming, and we'll make it a bash!

-Cheers, Charley

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