The First Steps of an Endless Journey

At times I become frustrated with aspiring young authors. They may ask questions such as ”I have this cool idea about a boy that can fly; how do I write the story?” Or they beg for even more help. “I want to be a writer; do you have any good ideas for books?” My immediate response is, “If you want to write, you have to be driven to do it.” Still, every author has to start at a less than proficient level. Just as athletes don’t walk onto the field knowing how to play their sport without years of practice, writers have to train.

Most athletes begin their career as children getting instruction from parents and school coaches. Even when the young person has lost a competition, this aspiring athlete receives feedback as a basis for their improvement. Does watching baseball a lot make you better at baseball? It does a little bit. Baseball players can mimic move by move what a professional athlete does. However, they must get onto the field and practice these moves in realistic situations to improve their game.

As a writer you are not allowed to copy exactly what somebody else does because that is known as plagiarism. So, the first step in writing is often to produce work that may follow a prompt but is based on your own idea. These early steps tend to be harder than many ever suspected. But take heart, over ninety percent of authors felt the same struggle when they first started. Even if you cannot copy another author’s work verbatim, reading it will help you learn how to write. The gist of how to write, taking the ideas in your head and reproducing them as words on a page, is learned by the act of writing. You can read a lot, but it will not help nearly as much as writing a lot.

Any creative skill does not spring completely from your imagination. It needs to be developed. Each author has their ideas on how to create a character, setting, and plot. You do not want to duplicate what they have done, but you can use their work as a springboard for coming up with your own ideas. It doesn’t really help much if you ask other authors for assistance until you have something written for them to review. Every writer must also develop techniques to maintain the discipline to keep going.

So where does a person, who really wants to write a book but doesn’t know how, go for help? The first obvious place is an institution that offers classes on writing. The instructions received there can often be deduced from books on writing. However, classes offer structure and deadlines. This second part is important for those that rely on external motivation. Also, visit the local homes of books–libraries and bookstores. They may provide books and magazines on writing with varying usefulness. These are also good places to find out about community writer’s groups. Being around other writers  may help you learn the ropes about publishing (which is constantly changing) and find a place to receive feedback on your work before you decide it is ready for publication.

All of this advice doesn’t negate the fact that writing a book still requires being driven to do so. It simply makes the first steps of an endless journey easier.

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When Writing is a Race

I’ve always envied authors who write quickly. Many of them pull ideas from their own life. Sometimes, when I finish reading a good novel I feel like I’ve met some of the characters, because the author has actually met the people who fill their stories.

Alan Paton was a prolific writer of academic papers and essays, many detailing the problems facing native Africans and expressing his own views against apartheid. However, he is most remembered as the author of Cry the Beloved Country. It was not only a well written book, but also composed rapidly. He wrote much of it in his downtime, stuck in a hotel during bad weather while visiting correctional institutions in Scandinavia.

Alan Paton’s job was running one of these correctional institutions for native African youth in the Republic of South Africa. He knew the material in his book because it was the kind of events that occupied his life. I realized when I read the court scene in Cry the Beloved Country that this was written by a person who unfortunately knew the legal routine used in criminal trials very well.

Here are some ideas that I gleaned from the life and works of Alan Paton that might help increase how fast I write and still produce excellent work.

1) Write frequently. A daily habit of writing is a way of practicing that art, similar to the daily practice of other skills such as playing an instrument. The repetition actually makes the task easier to do. However,  the challenge in daily writing is to continue to create something new.

2) Write about what is intimately familiar. This doesn’t mean I never have to pause to research anything as I write. Research can be necessary but it takes an increasing amount of my time because I justify doing this task even if I only glean a tiny bit of information for my writing. I need to realize when the time to find trivial facts is too great

3) Travel somewhere else and leave familiar places behind. New experiences do help the flow of creativity. However, new environments also help me see the place I left behind with new and more observant eyes.

4) Write in a place where I am alone and have nothing else to do. Most of the time I can find something else to do, even if it is a peripheral task like organizing my writing files. However, a place with no distractions, because I have no other tasks that can be done there, definitely helps to increase my written output.

5) Write what I care about deeply. This may be the most important item in this list. I will write intently when I have something to say. The drive to express what I want the world to know pushes me to continue when fatigued. Having a purpose to write provides the energy to keep doing it. 

Sometimes, I consider dispensing with the time required to create an outline in order to increase my output. However, I’ve heard authors admit that this shortcut results in writing three to four times as many words as needed for their final book. However, these five tactics listed above can be used no matter your technique for writing. 

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Whose Needs to Be Involved in Reading Curriculum?

Parents, children and school personnel all need to be involved reviewing books for the literature curriculum. I’ll tell you why.

In sixth they had us read the Iliad and I wasn’t getting it. I asked my mom to read it to me. At one point, she said it was inappropriate and stopped reading. She asked the teacher for my reading assignment to be changed. Instead I was assigned stories from the regular six grade textbook. It was still Greek mythology but had a language and content level specifically for sixth grade readers. This was not true for our unabridged version of the Iliad. It had sexual content that was going over my head. 

In ninth grade the school sent home a parent permission slip to read Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner which portrayed graphic sexual violence. The alternative was to read a book which had been in the curriculum for a while, Lord of the Flies. Both works contain some violence in them. But this permission was specifically to read the sexual violence included in The Kite Runner.

I discussed this with my mom. She said my older brother had read A Thousand Splendid Suns and did not like it. She said the regular curricular assignment, Lord of the Flies, was a much better book. We came to the agreement that if I was the only student who didn’t get the permission slip signed, she would sign it. I had gone through that experience before of being the only student with an alternative assignment. As it turned out I was the only one whose parents had not said yes.

I ended up choosing to read The Kite Runner, which was a decision I learned to regret. I disliked this book with its predictable plot and poorly written characters. The rape scene was only there to make the antagonist seem worst, just another accessory to an excessively bad character and not a thoughtful addition to the story. It could have been removed and the bad guy would still be an unrealistic Nazi sympathizer, child molester, and member of the Taliban. The part of the book that required the parent’s signature was not necessary for the plot.

The protagonist was an ordinary man, possibly a self-insert of the author. The author must have felt the need to create an over-the-top dynamic with a vicious villain against pitiable side characters in order to make this ordinary person seem like a heroic protagonist. This resulted in a heavy-handed story-telling. It was obvious what I was supposed to get out of the story. There was no room for discussion about the meaning of this book.

In eleventh grade gifted English Literature class, I was assigned a second book by Khalid Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the one my brother had read and disliked. It had characters just as unrealistic as Kite Runner. Some students in my class said it was the first book that they read all of the way through. However, it was one I could not stomach. The author was obviously trying to make a feminist point and yet didn’t understand the relationship between men and women. It turned out to be so oversimplified that I couldn’t push myself through this book. After the first few chapters I switched to reading the Spark Notes.

Later after I was out of high school I read Lord of the Flies on my own. I enjoyed it and realized the book had a deeper meaning. Was it about this specific war or the innate violence in human nature? But, I was not in a classroom setting. I had no one to discuss my ideas with me. 

The books assigned to classrooms should not be exciting stories meant to keep us engaged. They should be books that are slightly above our reading level with heavy topics for discussion. This does not mean “adult” content based on sex and violence, but political and philosophical ideas.

This is a guest blog by J.W. Listman

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Ninth grade literature class–I was not aware that I had been chosen for the class of only twelve students. We read a few short stories in common and discussed them. The lengthier novels we selected for ourselves and read them individually. Everyone had different essays to write based on what they read. I figured that this kind of independence was just the nature of high school. Now that I am older, I wish it were the norm for more students.

My favorite book at the time was the Count of Monte Cristo, a gift from my older brother. The teacher then provided me with excerpts from other French authors and recommended reading the unabridged version of Les Miserable. Years later when this play became a musical, I took my youngest child to see this play performed at the high school where I worked. (It was a version edited for high school production). Still a connection grew between us as she watched a drama unfold that had intrigued me as a student not much older than her. 

Back to my high school English class–it contained a modest size library of paperbacks, which the students could peruse. If I chose a book that was not to my liking, I could put it down and start another. At one point I selected Fahrenheit 451, not knowing that this copy had the curse words expunged from it. Did this censorship in a book about book burning ruin my experience with literature? Not at all, instead I became fond of Ray Bradbury’s work. My next selection was his anthology of short stories called Dandelion Wine, which I enjoyed even more. The author wrote about being human in a style filled with imagery and emotion that did not require an exciting science-fiction plot to keep my interest. 

Even though my child’s ability to read was hampered by dyslexia. I did not want her to miss the experience of reading classics. Often I would read works to her I had treasured as a young teen. When her entire class was assigned Fahrenheit 451, I read it to her aloud and did not think this time it would be any different. However, I was a bit surprised at the cursing and wondered why I did not notice it the first time I read the book. So, I asked her if it was okay if I skipped these words. She told me that the teacher was doing the same thing.

Questions formed immediately. Despite having dyslexia my child was in a regular ninth grade class. If the other students had normal reading skills, why did the teacher need to read the book aloud? If the other students had the maturity of high school students, why did she have to refrain from saying the curse words. Well, perhaps it was because they only had the maturity of high school students. Their snickering, or worse behavior, would cause a disruption. Would they be able to understand Montag’s desperate acts, such as turning the book burning torch on his boss? Or would they miss the point of it and assume they were reading the comic superhero kind of violence.

When I introduced literature to my own child, I had a sense of her maturity and readiness to face the crimes of mankind. Yes, the books were fiction, but the truth was not far off (and often more senselessly violent). Today, students are treated like clones, sent to classes to read without the ability to choose, and without real guidance based on their maturity. Perhaps that is the reason that some never connect with literature, and the diet of new books is not going to create the connection that needs to exist between the person personally recommending the book and the child who can choose it.

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Crime and picture books

At the library my five-year-old son pulled out a beautifully illustrated book of an old steam train. He had ridden in a few that still run for tourists. It was the kind of activity we did as a family, and he seemed to not mind these less than exciting trips. It was a little disconcerting for him to see illustrations in the library book of an old steam train being attacked by Cheyenne, and one of the workers lying by the side of the track pierced by arrows. The train was forced off of the track in a wreck as the braves celebrated. So, he simply disregarded the message that the author of Death of the Iron of Horse was trying to get through to 5 to 8-year-old children. He assumed it was a made up story; much like Where the Wild Things Are. Otherwise, his family would not have risked riding on steam engines.

In first grade my son was supposed to read a book on Thanksgiving and give a report, as was every other child in his class. We didn’t get to the library early enough to have any choice. We ended up with an illustrated grade school book mostly about King Philip’s war. In 1612 Massasoit was an honored guest at the first Thanksgiving feast. A little more than fifty years later his son Philip, the Wampanoag chief, engaged in one of the bloodiest conflicts between Native Americans and the British settlers. It concluded with Philips’ severed head being paraded through the streets.

Even as an adult, there is no way to comprehend the trauma of war without experiencing it—something I don’t want children to ever have to do. Without this experience we read the frightening part of books, even non-fiction books, as exciting events from which we are safe. Many adults still do that with a steady diet of murder mysteries and thrillers.

In first grade, my son still saw war as a game played on the computer. I discussed with him how much of this story should be described in class. It ended up being very little of it. There was no reason to have his first grade classes terrified of Native Americans. Sometimes, I wondered if people who determined which books went into the children’s section in our town library were aware of the greater representation of violence depicted in the picture books for that group.

That is a difficulty trying to lure in children with lovely illustrations to prep them for ideas that they simply are not ready to comprehend. Children understand make-believe long before they grasp the meaning of atrocities. However, once children have even a vague grasp of the violence that does exist, what happens then? Will children still refuse to acknowledge what is occurring? Or will they accept violence as something normal? 

I tried to find facts about the result of exposing children to violence in books before they were ready. There was no consensus. The only related research indicated that grade-school aged children growing up in a neighborhood with higher crime rates preferred a higher level of violence in books. Those growing up in relatively safer places, did not want to read stories with as much violence. This could be a preference to read about situations that reflected one’s own life. We often talk about author’s writing what they know. Children seem to prefer to read what they know.

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How Much Do You Know about Banned Books?

The banning of books has gained a lot of notoriety recently. The image that pops into most people’s mind is a scene from Fahrenheit 451 in which books are torched in a flaming show of destruction. This has occurred in the past in some countries. One of my favorite books was banned in the Soviet Union, and smuggled out into the rest of the world, The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But, now if a book is pulled from a school or library it is just sold elsewhere.

It’s crucial to know if books are actually banned in the United States, now. Many of the titles in the lists of “banned books” online are not actually banned, but have been challenged. People have requested the book to be removed from a local school or library. It only becomes banned if they are successful in this request, and usually the book is only removed from a specific location, such as one school or one public library. People in the US do not have the power to remove the book everywhere the country. Even the Anarchist Cookbook with instructions used to make explosives in the Oklahoma City bombing is available online. Think about this logically. If we didn’t have access to these books elsewhere, few people would know that they even existed.

Today, states and cities do have obscenity statues to prevent the distribution of pornography particularly the kind dealing with children. The request to ban a book is almost always made because of sexual and/or violent content; often because it is assumed to be unsuitable for children. The majority of people challenging books are parents of school aged children. I learned this because I tried to do it once. I had no desire to get a book removed from all places within the United States. (That’s just not possible.) But, I did request that it be removed from the curriculum in the 6th grade classes at the school where my child attended. It didn’t even have to be removed from the elementary school library. I didn’t fear children picking it up and reading it for their enjoyment because most of them were frustrated having to read the book in class. It was the ancient Greek classic called The Iliad.

I didn’t realize they were reading the entire story until one of the other parents talked to me about trying to explain the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Exactly does one explain to an 11-year-old why two Greek heroes were fighting over the possession of a war trophy concubine named Briseis? Children that age generally don’t even know what a concubine is. I know because I was working in another 6th grade class when a student asked me. Explaining the purpose of a sex slave is the kind of question that teachers don’t want to answer.

So, I asked my own questions, such as who decided that the sixth graders were going to read The Iliad. The person was a new reading curriculum coordinator who assumed that early exposure to the classics would make it easier for the children to read them later on. Therefore, I wrote a letter explaining why the Iliad was inappropriate for sixth grade and should be removed from the curriculum. All I got was the ability to replace it with something else for my own child. I talked to other parents, hoping that some of them would catch on to the problem. Most played it safe, and didn’t get involved. However, I did earn something of a reputation. When my child moved up to junior high school, one of the language arts teachers would send home books for us to read together to determine if they were suitable for the regular classes.

The young curriculum coordinator got to do things her way for a time, and the result was not what she probably envisioned. By the time my children were in high school, there had been so many complaints about the students not comprehending the classics, that many of their novels were now modern and some best sellers, even in the gifted classes. Front loading the curriculum with early exposure to difficult literary works resulted in students abandoning them later on. When it came time for the AP Literature test the high school scores were dismally low.

We need to be aware of what is assigned in school and available for our children. Then, we need to be willing to talk to the people making those decisions. They are not always aware of why exposure to books not suitable for a child’s age may actually prevent children from becoming better readers.

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What limits should side characters have?

Most people are at least vaguely familiar with Anna Karenina if they know anything about Russian literature. Perhaps they have seen one of the movies made from this famous novel. I even discussed this book with a student who had grown up under the Russian school system and learned that students read a simplified version of this classic in their elementary years. However, neither the stunning Anna Karenina nor her lover Alexei Vronsky is the major character in this novel. Rather the shy and unconventional aristocrat Konstantin Levin is the protagonist. I am fond of classic Russian novels because they contain multiple interesting characters in conflict. Just one intriguing character is usually not enough for me. 

Often authors are reluctant to create side characters with unusual qualities for fear that these will outshine their major character. However, it is often the nature of the protagonists’ struggles rather than their traits that draws the reader to these main characters. One high fantasy novella I read had major characters which fit that genre, an aging but still powerful wizard, a beautiful fairy with spunk and charm, and a human child with an enchanted singing voice. Unfortunately, this trio had the perfect combination of skills and power to help them defeat their enemy, a villainous wizard robbing the people of their voices. However, I was more intrigued with a side plot in this novella; a wind nymph had fallen in love with a warrior elf, who knew she existed but paid no attention to her. This story of unrequited love was never resolved. So, I found those two characters more intriguing than strong “one note” main characters.

It is not necessary to make side characters a bland vanilla flavor, but rather let them start weaving their own story into that of the main character. Even a protagonist that is not as flamboyant will not be overshadowed if the relationship is handled correctly. The protagonist can observe the lives of flashier side characters, such as Levin does in Anna Karenina. He provides an insight into the quandaries faced by people around him, quandaries similar to his own, and observes how they fail to overcome these conflicts. This is an important step in his own growth.

You may find that the side characters present a story that is richer and poses a problem more unsolvable than the one faced by the main character. Don’t worry about this. Major characters can still learn from minor characters who have more dramatic conflicts if you allow the reader to have insight into their own intimate struggles.  

Even as the most evil villain will not necessarily make the hero shine, the most interesting side characters may not make the main character seem boring.

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How likeable does a character have to be?

We often hear it is absolutely necessary for your protagonist to be likable. I take this advice not just with a grain of salt but with a huge chunk of sodium chloride. One of my very dislikable characters (according to a few) acknowledged that her friend was not very smart. But, she was willing to risk her neck for this friend. So, don’t try “the save the cat technique” and substitute a person of low intellect for the cat. The other female was even smarter and was accused of low self-esteem because she realized she knew more than 99% of the people in her small town. I believe it’s called high self-esteem if it’s true (and inflated self-esteem if it’s not). I have discovered that highly intelligent females are not high on likability, unless they are clueless about their own ability. Perhaps, they need to display a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. “Did I save the world? Oh, I was just lucky.”

Then, I realized the charge of ” unlikable character” was an easy thing to say when critiquing. So, a character not only doesn’t have to be likable, it’s not possible to get a majority of people to like any main character, if most people are honest about it. However, when it comes to favorite literary heroes, people aren’t honest. They really don’t know the major characters in these works are too embarrassed to admit it. Perhaps, they have only seen the movie and judge the protagonist based on their fondness for the actor playing the part.

The kind of character who readers will like depends on your audience. Some prefer heroes who are larger than life and insist women must be beautiful. But, most people actually prefer a character who is not perfect and is “broken” in some manner. A beautiful person who does not know that they’re beautiful, has a kind of perfection. A beautiful person who uses this trait to get what they want and manipulate people has a flaw.

The alcoholic person who seems very capable isn’t really flawed. The label alcoholic means nothing until this person passes out at a time when they need to be somewhere else or at a place where they endanger themselves. Then, they have a flaw. But, what if this is a flaw some readers dislike. That is a risk that must be taken. Different audiences may consider some problems to be repulsive. But, readers are just as varied as authors.

The character who gains the largest criticism from the public in general is the one who just does everything perfectly right. Pollyanna received criticism for her constant positive attitude long before Mary Sue showed up on the scene. So, it seems for most people, the likable protagonist must have an obvious flaw. Not the kind of flaw that you admit to when you’re having an interview, such as, I simply work too hard. Heroes need real problems, things they would never admit to during an interview.

The important traits in creating a character might not be those that make the character likable but those that make them human.

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Researching memorable characters

What makes a character memorable? There is no one clear cut answer and even much debate over which ones have that quality.  I have researched a number of lists, particularly for characters from novels written in the 20th century. After studying these, I chose a longer one, 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 From Book magazine, March/April 2002. Select this link to see the list and listen to a National Public Radio program discussing it.

Currently book series are gaining popularity among some readers and authors are obliging this audience. However, I’ve got bad news for those wishing to create an unforgettable character in a series. Many of the memorable characters near the top of this list didn’t survive their first novel. This includes Jay Gatsby, Lily Bart, Gregor Samsa (better known as a giant cockroach), Lolita and the insane Kurtz. There is something about the tragic hero and the character on a downward spiral that catches our attention. We often sympathize with them and don’t want to forget them.

Rabbit Angstrom and Sherlock Holmes are two of the few characters appearing both in multiple books/stories and high on the list. There are a few protagonists found in sequels or series further down the list among the sprinkling of works intended to entertain adolescents. Some characters magically manage to appear in multiple works, such as Peter Pan and Harry Potter.

When I look at the type of character who is considered memorable I noticed one outstanding feature. Males outnumber females three to one. But, then the number of books by male authors in this list also outnumber the books by female authors by a similar amount. There are a surprising number of animals (five) who stuck in the memory of readers, mainly those intended for children such as Winnie the Pooh and Toad. One monster also makes an appearance (I really don’t know what else you would call Grendal from Beowulf’s time). Sadly, there are a greater number of animal protagonists than Black characters.  

When I look at the type of novels from which memorable characters arise I note a number of them have chronicled the struggles within periods of history such Depression era America, or specific wars. There are the tales of soldiers, doctors, gritty detectives, devious criminals, adventurers and spies (like James Bond), and a number of characters forced to survive in the less than hospitable imaginary worlds known as dystopias. Then, there are some regular people trying to escape the nine to five rut. However, romance seems to be an afterthought rather than a major concern in most of their fictional lives.

Look at the characters in this list that you recall, and then consider why you have remembered them. That’s a good place to start thinking about how to create your own fictional people that will not be forgotten.

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Obnoxious characters

Creating villains is much like creating protagonists. They are people with depth and a history. A villain follows discernible motives just like the hero does. Only at some point in their life, villains take an ethical shortcut to get ahead. They sell out and they use their skills selfishly despite the harm that it causes to others. Rather than repent of this, as a hero would do, the villain justifies cruel actions.  However, many novels have characters in between heroes and villains. They range anywhere from annoying to obnoxious, from irritating to infuriating, from reckless to dangerous. These characters are challenges that the main character has to face, but they are not villains.

Jane Eyre is such a novel in which I could not pinpoint who the villain was. The unfortunate orphan Jane is treated poorly by her aunt and cousins as a child. But, rather than defeating the family that behaves so badly. She goes away to a boarding school, which is a worse situation. The director doesn’t provide adequately for students, so they get sick and start dying, including Jane’s best friend. However, this tragedy is not followed by any seeking of vengeance. The director stays in charge of the boarding school, but now he is under scrutiny and conditions improve.

Then, there is Mr. Rochester, who deceives everyone. This womanizer keeps his insane wife stashed away in his attic. In fact Jean Rhys wrote a celebrated prequel novel chronicling  the marriage and the painful spousal relationship that caused Bertha Antoinetta Rochester to breakdown called The Wide Sargasso Sea. However, in the novel entitled Jane Eyre, this unprincipled Mr. Rochester is the leading man.

It seems like everyone that had hurt Jane gets a second chance—her cruel aunt and her cousins, the unprincipled director of Lowood School and especially Mr. Rochester (but not his unfortunate first wife). However, this man that loves Jane, but he does end up suffering a lot and acknowledging his crimes before the happy ending.

Jane Eyre doesn’t have to face villains as much as characters that cause her problems. However, they are not static characters either. There is a balancing act between showing their annoying actions and their actual intentions. I have examined how to create this kind of ambiguous character, basing some of them on real people that have thrown roadblocks in my life. That makes it seem authentic when my protagonist is hurt by their behavior. These are the kind of people that I study and wonder if they are causing so many problems because of lack of intelligence or viciousness. Actually, what they lack is being held accountable for their actions. When their behavior comes back to bite them, they learn not to be controlling, greedy or deceitful.

The key to this trouble-making character’s arc is how much they have to suffer.

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