Monthly Archives: March 2013

Choosing a Character POV

cyclopsTell me if this is weird: As a writer of fiction, I never think about character point-of-view. My process is

1) Get a story idea

2) Start typing

Now that I’ve been poking around WordPress for a year, I realize I have a choice! I can be the main character. You can be the main character (don’t worry; I won’t do that to you). I can report on my main character. I can report on everybody. Or I can pick a different character altogether and start over. Who knew?

Yes, I’m being silly. I just think it’s boring to drag out English-teacher phrases like “Third Person Omniscient” right away. Yawn. But I’m serious that I never think about POV. So far, the POV demons have made the correct choices for me.

[For the unsure, there are no such things as POV gods, because gods are busier with more important things like cake and sports. I tried to hire POV angels, but they were like, “Yeah, right.”]

What about you? Do you have a hard time deciding between first and third person? Are you ever uncertain about which of your characters should be the reader surrogate? Here are some choices I’ve made and why:

1. I play the main character

I often use first-person narration for shorter pieces because it gives me a chance to play with different writing voices, like “crazy” or “evil,” that might become annoying in a longer work.  I typically combine first person with present tense, which lends immediacy.

First person is also useful for studying someone else’s character arc. Few of us walk around in life saying, “And that’s how I learned that relationships are more important than money!” If the first-person narrator learns something in such a telegraphed manner, the story is going to seem like an after-school special. If you have been reading this blog recently, you know I’ve been tossing around the idea of self-publishing a short-story collection. In the micro-novel I intend as the lead tale, the primary arc belongs to my narrator’s counterpart. He grows as a person as well, but he doesn’t notice, because it would be hokey if he did.

The pitfall of first person is you have to be in every scene, potentially limiting the scope the story… unless the whole novel is letters from different people or newspaper clippings or whatever, but that’s a tough sell. Also, with a novel-length work in first person, the reader is eventually going to ask, “Now when did this vampire sit down to write a 317-page novel?”

2. I am in my main character’s head… or at least hanging from his uvula

Perhaps I want to do an action-oriented piece, a character observation, or something heavily metaphorical, and I can’t imagine a scenario by which the main character could have taken time or had the inclination to write it down. Also, this approach lets me describe events on a scope that is beyond the character’s perception or awareness. It allows the reader to be intimate with the character yet not be trapped in her head.

Unless one is incredibly insightful, this narrative option might be useful when writing a character who is a different gender or ethnicity or is dramatically distant in age from the writer. Such a thing can be done in first person, but it can be done quite poorly.

I probably use this method to please readers and rule makers rather than myself, and I’ll elaborate in a minute. The pitfall for limited third-person POV is the same as that of first person. Your main character has to be in every scene, so you’re out of luck for simultaneous narratives you intend to unify later.

hydra

3. I am God, and you will do my bidding!

If you have several story threads going at once and a lot of characters, you kinda have to go with third-person omniscient. You know more than your characters know, because you are everywhere. You report the best bits to us.

I like this approach for writing novels. Especially the one I’m working on (cough cough). I have four story threads, each one told in third-person limited, but at some point they will all come together, and I can’t abandon three of the main characters for one, can I?

So this is what I was talking about a minute ago when I said I use third-person limited to please readers and rule makers: I know I am in an extreme minority here, but I think it is absolutely possible, as a narrator, to be a brain jumper. My pal Jodi at My Literary Quest, whose recent post inspired this one, disagrees with me adamantly. But I believe it’s only a problem when it’s done poorly. When it’s done right, you don’t notice.

The great mystery writer Agatha Christie was a genius at brain jumping. Read “And Then There Were None,” or any of the early ones not narrated by Captain Hastings. She jumps from person to person multiple times within one scene, and it works. My first full-length manuscript, written in 2008-09, wasn’t good, but one thing I did well was get into the heads of my two lovers and show them learning about each other as they fumbled along. Well, until the murders started, that is. Do I look like Nicholas Sparks to you?

I’m discovering something interesting about the so-called omniscience in my WIP: My characters are all under 15, so, though the narration is TPO, I’m omitting observations and awareness I feel are excusive to mature, adult thinking. This particular god, though able to create a universe, in only as clever and dimensional as the young characters he placed in it.

Your thoughts, ideas, arguments?

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Here’s “Taking in the View” by Kansas, a beautiful, unjustly forgotten song. Worth three minutes of your time!


Writing Groups: Yea or Nay?

[Full disclosure: I do not belong to a writing group]

Writers are often told by the experts to join a writing group. Having other writers critique your work can help you identify your weaknesses and improve your ideas, so the reasoning goes. Therefore, writing groups are good. That makes sense to me.

I’m not convinced it’s true, though. In my recent post about self-doubt, some people commented that they lost their motivation to write or otherwise had their confidence shattered after being bashed by other writers in a writing group. I’ve encountered similar claims in the past.

Speaking broadly, the problem with expert advice in an arts-related field is the lack of supporting science for its validity. How do we know writing groups are necessary? Because an expert said so? Because it seems logical? It’s very possible that, if you took a random sample over an appropriate time frame, a higher ratio of writers not in writing groups get published than do writers who are in writing groups (For simplicity, let’s state that most writers serious enough to join a group also hope to get published).

Science

Science

One argument against what I’ve just suggested:

“I’ve heard lots of published writers claim their writing group was essential to getting published.”

This is confirmation bias. That is, if I believe something, I only notice the times my bias is confirmed and I am blind to the times it is not. No writer ever says, “I got published because I am not in a writing group.” Nevertheless, it could be that a writing group was unnecessary for this writer or that she would have been harmed by participating in one.

Another possible response to my suggestion:

“There are good writing groups and bad ones. You have to quit a writing group that isn’t helpful.”

Writing groups don’t come with Yelp ratings or a coding system. If you are in a bad writing group (I’m not sure what that means. They beat up old ladies and spray-paint gang tags on the side of the library?), the damage is done before you know to quit.

A third response:

“Some people are overly sensitive and can’t take criticism. Maybe their writing is simply bad.”

Certainly possible, but I submit that a typical writing group might be too small of a population sample to say whether a given piece of writing has merit. For example, I know far more people who hate the Twilight books than like them. Stephenie Meyer’s writing style appeals to a certain audience and turns off many others. You could easily, by chance, come up with a writing group of 7 or 8 people who would have told Ms. Meyer her manuscript was terrible. If she were in such a group and had listened to them, the world would have a lot more trees than it does now. As we all know, the Twilight books have sold hundreds of millions of copies.

What if you showed your novel to 100 people, and only one person wanted to buy it? You’d be hurt.

But what if that ratio held? What if 100 million American readers had access to your writing? You could sell a million copies!

Note: I make no claim that writing groups are harmful or unnecessary or that they are not a key component of success. I’m merely suggesting that the possibility warrants further consideration. This post does not pretend to be a scientific assessment that identifies variables.

Right, then.

Anyone for a hypothesis?

For more on the writing group experience, check out this post by WordPress blogger and author Megan Cashman.

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Here’s one on writing by a guy who knows something about getting bashed. Mocking Barry Manilow was a practically a cottage industry back in the day. Good thing for him he devoted his energy to the 5% of people who love him and not all the haters.


Does anyone, anywhere, ever…

… use the number lock key on the keyboard? I’ve been typing on keyboards for more than 25 years, and I’ve never once thought, “I wish my numbers didn’t work. Oh look. A button!”

Ostriches have wings, humans have an appendix, and keyboards have a number lock key. Ostriches and humans don’t have a choice. The smart keyboard maker would offer options in the same manner that car companies offer remote starters and leather. For example, I’d replace my number lock key with a missile launcher. My enemies had better hope I don’t slip…

Down the road from me is a traffic light with a hanging sign that says “Wait for Green.” My town must have had a surplus in the road-sign budget that year. It leads me to suspect that the keyboard makers have a huge room full of number lock keys they have to use up.

That’s my thought for the day.

Carry on.

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I have two number-themed videos. Your choice.

The first is “One is the Loneliest Number” by Three Dog Night, because I think it would appeal to more of you.  The second is “Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden, in honor of the man on drums, Clive Burr. He died last week at the young age of 56 from multiple sclerosis. Goodbye, Clive. Tour the stars!

 

 

Clive Burr 1957-2013

Clive Burr 1957-2013


Self-doubt, self-publishing, and other selfish writer-isms

I wouldn’t trust a writer who did not experience self-doubt. The world’s best haiku master might be terrible at epic poems, and the finest mystery writer of them all could suck at composing science fiction. If you walk around thinking every word that falls off your fingertips is brilliant, no matter the subject or genre, you are deluded.

popeye2Self-doubt seems to be a burden we writers must bear as long as we continue to put words on a page. Despite the fact that I chuck out writing advice left and right here, I’ve only recently become comfortable calling myself a writer. After all, I don’t have a swarm of publishers and agents outside my door fighting to give me a contract, so I must not be any good.

Sound familiar?

I, like a lot of you, am probably setting the bar unfairly high. Nothing less than a publishing contract will validate me as a writer. I’m working on a novel (allegedly), and once I have done five million drafts and come to hate every single word of it, I intend to query professional agents. I know my chances of getting this thing in a bookstore are about the same as my chances of getting eaten by an alligator in New Jersey. No doubt, when lightning fails to strike, I will rant and rave about all the wasted time and declare that I shall never write another word.

Meanwhile, countless fellow bloggers – many of whom are at least as talented as me and more so – are having a blast self-publishing and taking total control of their careers. I know all the arguments for and against self-publishing, and so do you, so there’s no need to regurgitate it here. It suffices to say that I won’t get the validation I’m looking for if I self-publish. You can tell me not to think that way, but, like Popeye, I am what I am.

Then, why, you ask, is Baker thinking about self-publishing a book of his short stories? Well, it all started when I was five.

noir2Actually, it all started last fall when I finished a 10,000-word story I had been laboring over for months, all the while knowing no one was going to publish it. Not because it’s bad (it’s exactly the story I wanted to write), but because no one is going to publish a supernatural crime-noir musical micro-novel. My hard drive is now jammed with four not-so-short stories that no publisher will ever print. None of the stories fits in a genre, and they typically have oddball, deranged protagonists. But, you see, I worked really hard on these stories.

I’ve been hammering away at rewriting and refining those four stories (and mulling writing a fifth, with a mentally stable, well-adjusted hero, for balance), so I can package them for Kindle. Sure, it’s screwing up my novel-writing schedule. Yeah, I just got a new idea for a short story that may actually be publishable and need to get on that. On top of that, I rediscovered a fifth story on my hard drive that I gave up on two years ago and am now revising so I can submit it somewhere. Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!

The harder I work on a writing project, the deeper I sink into self-doubt. It’s a constant, nagging dialog in my head: No one will want to read this. It’s stupid. No one will want to read this. It’s stupid. No one will want to read this. It’s stupid. The rest of me, on the other hand, thinks the stories are great. Though I’m not yet sure if I’m a writer, I think I’m a pretty good writer. But I am also aware that no one thinks their own baby is ugly.

I’m going to self-publish this short-story collection (maybe). I’ve wrestled with every word in every one of these tales a hundred times. If I had worked a part-time job instead of slaving over these things, I would have enough money for a new car by now. I want this collection out there, because I wrote it and, who knows, it might fill a hole in at least one reader’s heart. What is the worst thing that can happen? Nobody likes it? That ain’t fatal, last I heard.

So what do you think? Should I do it? Is self-publishing the way to go? When you finish a writing project, are you proud or full of loathing? Are you a walking contradiction like me? Do tell.

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No relevant video today, just one of my fav songs ever, “Love You Madly” by Cake.


Going back to the “well” (another post about clutter words)

cowOne of the key steps in graduating from intermediate writing to professional-quality writing is getting rid of clutter. I’ve previously posted about this subject in general terms, but today I shall discuss a specific overused word: well.

There’s no need to say someone is “well organized” or an endeavor was “well worth it.” A person is organized or disorganized. Attempting to achieve a goal is worth it or not. The one true way to eliminate clutter is to ask, “Does this word add meaning?” The only purpose “well” serves in the above examples is to dull the impact of the statement. It adds no meaning.

In this context, some words are neutral and can be clarified with “well,” such as “well written.” Saying a book is “written” explains nothing about quality. Telling a waiter that you want your steak “done” won’t get you any closer to your goal of filling your belly with cow meat.

That said, “well written” is bland description of a book. We writers can do better than that, can’t we?

And while we’re lowering the bucket, “well written,” “well known,” and “well done” do not need hyphens, unless preceding or otherwise modifying a noun.

 ♦

Examples of correct hyphen usage for well known:

Godzilla is well known to the urban-planning committee in Tokyo.

Hannibal Lecter is a well-known bachelor.

 ♦

Examples of correct hyphen usage for well written:

Besides the misspelling, Norman’s “Mohter” tattoo was well written.

You probably think this is a well-written blog post, though you are likely to revise that thought and say it is an expertly written post, remembering that you don’t need the hyphen when your noun is modified by an “ly” word.

 ♦

Examples of well done:

“Pa Ingalls, is your well done yet?”

“Nope, still digging.”

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It was this or Blink 182. I chose this.

 


Interview with author and Motown historian Peter Benjaminson

Greetings readers and fellow writers. I have an awesome treat for you today!

Mary WellsPeter Benjaminson, author of several books about the famed Motown record label and its artists, was gracious enough to sit down with me for a few minutes this weekend to discuss his newest biography, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago Review Press).

For the uninitiated, Mary Wells was not the first Motown act to score a number one hit (that honor belongs to The Marvelettes and Please Mr. Postman), but she was the first solo artist to become a recognizable star for the label, thanks to a smash hit song that, nearly five decades later, is still beloved the world over: My Guy. She also toured with The Beatles (!) in 1964 and influenced a generation of singers.  But instead of joining the ranks of Motown legends such as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, Mary’s life took a different turn. Several, in fact. And Peter Benjaminson’s book is by far the most in-depth chronicle of those events ever written.

                                                          ***

EJB: Thank you, Mr. Benjaminson, for taking the time to talk about your latest book with us. What inspired you to tell the story of Mary Wells, Motown’s first solo star?

Peter Benjaminson: I was working as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press when Woodward and Bernstein used what they called “investigative reporting” to topple President Nixon. A fellow reporter named David Anderson and I went to the library to look up a book on investigative reporting so that we could learn about that kind of reporting. When we found out that no book had ever been written on the subject a light bulb ignited over our heads because we were actually doing that kind of reporting and figured we could write the book ourselves.  So we wrote it – it was titled, believe it or not, Investigative Reporting — and was the first and best how-to in the field. It went through two publishers and two editions and stayed in print for 20 years. This convinced me that book writing was for me.

Since I was in Detroit, I thought of writing about the auto industry, but that had been done already by numerous other writers. Then one day when I was sitting in the City Room waiting for an assignment, an editor told me he had heard that Flo Ballard, formerly of the Supremes, was on welfare. I roared over to her house, interviewed her, and wrote a story about her being on welfare, which was the equivalent of writing in the Washington Post today that Joe Biden is on food stamps. Flo was pleased by the sympathetic reaction to her story and invited me back to visit her on evenings and weekends after work to record her life story as told by her. But when I tried to sell the book idea to Grove Press in New York, they pointed out (this was in 1977) that no book had ever been written in this country about Motown itself.  So a bright light went on over my head and I filled that gap by writing The Story of Motown, which Grove Press published in 1979.

I kept trying to sell the Flo Ballard book idea, but I was unable to do it until – gulp – 2006 – the year that the “Dreamgirls” movie came out and convinced movie makers and book publishers that there was money to be made in the Supremes story. I then sold the Ballard book idea to Chicago Review Press, which published it in 2008 as The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard.

Then a guy named Randy Russi called me from Florida and told me he was a friend of Mary Wells (Mary had lived near him in Florida for a time). He suggested I write a book about Mary. I got peeved at him because I thought Mary’s story would be a replay of Flo’s story with the names changed, but he convinced me there were 100 or so reasons why Mary’s story was more interesting than Flo’s. Because The Lost Supreme had done so well, it was easy to convince Chicago Review Press to publish Mary’s story and they recently published the book we’re talking about, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.

Mary wells2

EJB: What do you think would surprise people the most about Mary Wells?

Peter Benjaminson: Some, but not all of her fans will be surprised to learn that, a), she married two brothers, one after the other (Cecil and then Curtis Womack, although her marriage to Curtis was common-law) and had children with both of them, and, b), that she had a fairly good musical career, including a No. 1 hit, Gigolo, after leaving Motown.

EJB: This is the second biography you have written about a Motown star who died young, the first being The Lost Supreme, about Diana Ross’s fellow Supreme Florence Ballard. Tragic figures make for fascinating subjects, of course, but what is it about the Motown era that intrigues you so?

Peter Benjaminson:  It’s not just me. I don’t believe there’s another record company anywhere about which more than two or three books have been written.  More than 180 books have been written about Motown, with mine being the most recent. That’s because Motown succeeded in closing the gap between white and black music in America, something that no other company was able to do and that will never happen again.

EJB: What’s next for Peter Benjaminson? Do you have any more Motown artist biographies in the works? How about one on Gladys Horton? Marvin Gaye? Tammi Terrell? I can guarantee you at least one reader!

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson:  Thanks for guaranteeing me at least one reader. I would hesitate to write a book on Marvin Gaye or Tammi Terrell because other authors have already done so. I admit I was the third author to write a book on Flo Ballard, but I had one thing that the previous authors did not: an eight-hour revelatory interview of Flo audio-taped the year before she died that had never been previously publicized or released. There’s no book on Gladys Horton I know of but she has fewer fans than Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Flo Ballard, or Mary Wells, which would make a proposed book a very difficult sell to publishers and readers.

What I am working on is books on two people who had millions and millions of fans: Rick James and Farrah Fawcett. James was Motown’s final superstar, sold literally millions of records and was a popular character on TV, sometimes playing himself, as late as 2004, which was also the year of his death. Farrah, a major TV, stage and movie star who died the same day that Michael Jackson died in 2009, changed the hairstyles of many American women, struggled to improve as an actress throughout her life, and was nominated for a posthumous Emmy for producing a movie about her own death. She also appeared on the cover of People Magazine some 14 times. Neither has been the subject of a serious biography. In book publishing terms, writing about either person wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me: James would be the third Motown star I’ve written about, as well as the fourth book I’ve written on Motown, and Fawcett would be the third female entertainer whose biography I’ve written.

EJB: Any quick tips for non-fiction writers looking to break into music journalism?

Peter Benjaminson:  They should take heed of the greatest advice ever offered to a music journalist: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The saying originates with Nietzsche but has been stated more recently by others.

More seriously, since I don’t actually believe the above, in my career “music journalism” implies writing articles for music magazines, websites, and blogs and “music book writing” implies just what it says. If you’re a staff writer or contract freelancer for a music journalism outlet, that’s great, but otherwise, at least in the world of journalism in which I grew up, you have to propose every single article to every single outlet you want to write it for, and writing the proposal and dickering with the editors about what it’s going to say usually takes much more time than actually writing the piece. In book world, you only have to write the proposal and dicker about it once or twice, and then spend years writing the book. I prefer the latter.  (Please note that this advice may be outdated in the world of on-line and self-publishing in which I did NOT grow up.)

EJB: Thanks so much, Peter, and good luck with your latest projects.

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at any bookstore with good taste. I also urge you to check out The Lost Supreme, Peter’s biography of Florence Ballard. It’s a vivid portrait of a talented singer who met a tragic end.

Here’s Mary Wells’s biggest hit:


My son just told me…

… that I have curmudgeon juice for blood.

I’d cut him out of my will, but the only thing he’ll miss out on is a stack of R&B, jazz, and heavy metal CDs and a few DVDs of Italian zombie movies.

Speaking of jazz, enjoy a little Wes Montgomery, whom I know at least one other blogger besides me thinks is the mad bomb. I’ll tell you what, I wish I had some Wes Montgomery juice in my guitarin’ fingers.