Monthly Archives: August 2012

Stop Protecting Your Main Characters

I think I’ve discovered my new pet peeve in fiction.

I’ve read two books in the past two weeks – different authors, different genres, one self-published and one traditionally published – that both bugged me in the same way. It wasn’t until the second book that I was able to put my finger on exactly what the problem was. In both books, the main character was reluctant to kill, and ended up in situations where killing was necessary… but were saved from having to make the choice because someone else stepped in and did the killing for them. This didn’t happen just once, either. Especially in one of the books, it became an ongoing theme.

I don’t have a problem with a character who finds it difficult to kill, or even completely refuses to do it. In general, I prefer it – although of course it depends on the character. But what I don’t like is a main character who doesn’t have to make any hard choices, because someone else does the dirty work for her.

It doesn’t have to involve killing, either. I read a book a few years back (said book was highly successful, and I actually liked it a lot except for this aspect) that centered around a moral dilemma – a dilemma that was then rendered meaningless by the book’s final pages. Suddenly, the choices all the characters had made no longer mattered. The characters no longer had to worry that they had chosen wrong, that their decisions would lead to consequences they couldn’t handle. And the book lost a lot of its power.

It makes things easier on the characters, certainly. It’s easier if, in the end, their choices turn out not to mean anything. It’s easier if they don’t have to make those choices at all, because someone steps in and does the hard thing for them. But that’s exactly why it robs the book of its power. Writers shouldn’t make things easier on their main characters. Writers should push their main characters to their limits, and then beyond. That’s what makes for a compelling story, one that sticks with you after it’s done. That’s what makes me get tangled up in a character’s life to the point where I don’t want to put the book down.

The dynamic I mentioned earlier can be done well. Another book I read in the same two-week timeframe is a good example of this. The main character didn’t want to kill. A secondary character had no problem with killing. This disparity in values caused problems, both internal and external, for the main character; it didn’t protect her. It increased the tension, and therefore the power of the story, rather than limiting it.

I want to see characters tested, pushed to their limits. I want to see them struggle, and fail, and succeed by the skin of their teeth. I want to see them make the hard choices. I don’t want to see someone else saving them from the consequences of their decisions, or saving them from having to decide at all.

Stop protecting your main characters. You’re only weakening your story.

Writers, do you find yourself tempted to protect your main characters? Readers, have you ever noticed this happening? Does it bother you like it bothers me, or do you have a different pet peeve?

Revision, Worldbuilding, and Staying True to the Story

There’s one primary rule I keep in mind when I’m not sure whether to include/delete/change something in a story. I imagine a reader complaining about whatever the story element is, and I think about what my initial reaction would be. Would I think, “Okay, that’s fair; people are always going to dislike something or other. But I stand by that story element; I’m glad it’s there”? (Or possibly, “Whaaat? How could someone so thoroughly misunderstand my book?”) Or would I want to tell this theoretical reader, “Yeah, I know, that really shouldn’t have been in the book. But I thought readers would expect it/my writing group thought it would be good/I was worried the book wouldn’t make sense without it”?

If it’s the former, I add it (or keep it in, depending). If it’s the latter, it goes. This is how I stay true to the story.

And I’m honest with myself. I know the difference between “This wouldn’t be true to the story” and “But I don’t want to do all that work!” The story has to come first – it has to come before laziness, and it has to come before the insecurity that might cause me to make changes that aren’t right.

Ever since I wrote the original version of The Torturer’s Daughter... no, ever since I first started writing in the world The Torturer’s Daughter is set in… I’ve struggled with the worldbuilding. I knew I wanted a dystopian society. I knew the type of dystopia I wanted – the feeling, the tone, the style of oppression. I knew I also wanted it to feel a lot like the real world. But I didn’t know the specifics. I didn’t know how the world had gotten that way, or what the government was like, or what their relationship to the rest of the world was.

I  answered some of those questions for that first story, but it just… never felt right, somehow. It never stuck. In The Torturer’s Daughter, both versions, I pretty much ignored the question entirely – mainly because I was so wrapped up in the story that I forgot about that part. When I did remember, I told myself I’d do it later. Until a couple of months ago, when I was reading through what was almost my final draft and realized, with a feeling of vague bewilderment, that I still hadn’t pinned down the answers to those larger questions about the world. How had I managed to get that far without something so crucial?

I came up with a few possible ideas. But when I tested them against that hypothetical reader’s criticism, the answer was always the same. None of them were true to the story.

I went deeper. Took a harder look at the story, at the world I wanted, at why none of my ideas fit. And what I realized was this: No matter what answers I came up with, they wouldn’t be true to the story. Answering those questions wouldn’t be true to the story.

The story isn’t written from the perspective of, “Such-and-such change happened, and it altered the world like so.” It isn’t written from the perspective of, “If such-and-such real-world trend continues into the future, these bad things will happen.” It’s written from the perspective of, “This is our world, but with a totalitarian overlay.” The more specificity I give the world, the more I define its relationship to our world and its identity separate from our world, the more it weakens the world’s central purpose. The more it becomes “The world after such-and-such happened” or “The world x years in the future,” the less it’s “Our world, but totalitarian.” That kind of specificity also brings the world into the foreground more (and gives it more of a sense of change), and thus creates the expectation that the story is about changing the world. It’s not. The story is about Becca and her changes, and so that’s where the focus should stay.

(That’s not to say I’m ignoring worldbuilding. I’ve made sure the world has internal consistency and abides by its own logic, and I’ve got plenty of specifics – on my head and on the page – about how, for example, Internal Defense works. Few things will pull me out of a story faster than a world that doesn’t make sense, and I’m not about to make the same mistake with mine. It’s the bigger things – the the history, the global context – that would be problematic. Glossing over the little things would actually be just as problematic, because I’m not going the stylized-and-allegorical route with this dystopia. I want the everyday-life aspects to feel as realistic as possible.)

This realization makes me nervous. Will it look lazy? Will people be unsatisfied? Dystopias are supposed to be set in exotic stylized worlds, and they’re supposed to be about fixing those worlds, and some people even argue that a book can’t properly be called dystopian unless it’s trying to get some sort of message across, and now here’s this dystopia that doesn’t do any of those things.

But the story comes first.

Incidentally, I intentionally didn’t tell my writing group about any of this when they started reading the story, because I wanted to get a sense of whether readers would find the way the world background was handled to be jarring. I waited for them to ask. And… they didn’t. As best I can remember, I haven’t gotten a single comment saying the book needs more information about the world.

I think that’s a good sign.

Why I’m Choosing Self-Publishing

I always assumed I would go the traditional-publishing route with my books. Until recently, after all, it’s been the only viable option. Yes, people self-published, but if you were writing fiction, it wasn’t considered a way to have a legitimate writing career. Now, though, things have changed. Not only is self-publishing is a valid means of putting your writing out into the world, I believe it’s the best option for me.

I came around to the idea of self-publishing gradually. As soon as I started looking into what it takes to be a professional writer, I heard all about why self-publishing was a terrible idea, and although this isn’t the same world it was back then, those prejudices are hard to overcome. At first I thought, “These people are naive and delusional.” Then, “Okay, this might make sense for other people, but not for me.” And then, “Well, why not? Why doesn’t this make sense for me?” And then I had to face the idea that maybe it was traditional publishing that didn’t make sense for me.

I started the querying process for The Torturer’s Daughter shortly before my hiatus from writing. The original plan was to essentially let the universe decide; I planned to send out a hundred query letters, and if by that point I still didn’t have representation, I would self-publish. And then my doubts started growing. With each new query, part of me started hoping not for an acceptance, but for another rejection to bring me closer to 100. I stopped when the doubts got too loud for me to ignore. It took a lot of time after that for me to decide – if you looked up the opposite of impulsive in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure my picture would be there – but a few months ago I made my decision. I won’t be pursuing traditional publishing with The Torturer’s Daughter; it will be self-published, as will – barring some huge shift in my thinking and/or the publishing landscape – my future novels.

I’m not trying to get rich here. I’m not looking for fame, either. If it happens, I’m not going to turn it down – who would? I think anyone out there would be thrilled to be the next J.K. Rowling. But that’s not what I’m aiming for, and that’s not what success looks like to me. What I want is a solid, established, long-term writing career. I want to spend my days writing, and I want to find readers for my books when I’m finished with them. I could get there by either publishing route, I think, but the way things stand now, I think self-publishing will get me there more effectively.

The average traditionally-published author (at least, one who is published by a major publisher; with a small press the lines blur a lot more) will get more readers than the average indie author. The book is out there in bookstores, and backed by a publisher, and those things are going to get more people to read it. And what author doesn’t want as many readers as possible? This is an advantage of traditional publishing.

But with traditional publishing, you’re under time pressure. You have to succeed in a certain amount of time, and maintain a certain amount of success, or your publisher will drop you. Or maybe just suggest that you write something different, something that will sell better. With self-publishing, there’s no time limit. If you publish a book, and a year later you’ve sold exactly one copy (to your mom), you’re exactly where you started. No more, no less. You haven’t lost anything except some confidence.

Traditional publishing also places less emphasis on finding the right readers, and more emphasis on appealing to as many readers as possible. It’s true that you have more of a chance of finding the right readers if your book is in front of more people – but in traditional publishing, finding the readers to whom your book is best suited isn’t the primary goal. Selling a lot of copies is the primary goal. Not that I would ever object to selling a lot of copies! But if there’s a conflict between finding a lot of readers and finding my readers, I know what I would choose. And this kind of conflict does exist; it comes up in how your book is edited, in how it’s marketed, in what you write next.

And then there’s the issue of selling the book before you write it. Before self-publishing was even on my radar, I knew that this part of publishing simply doesn’t work the way I work. In traditional publishing, although there are exceptions, after you’ve sold your first book you generally sell your next books before they’re written. You present your idea/proposal/outline to your agent, and your agent works with you on it, helps you figure out how to tweak it, and works on selling it to a publisher. I have serious doubts as to whether I could do that. I don’t even like to talk about my projects as I’m writing them, for the most part. It dissipates the creative tension, the energy that makes me want to write the story. If I worked with an agent and editor on a story concept before the book was even written, I suspect the project would be dead before I wrote the first word.

Self-publishing is a lot of work, and it takes a long time to get going. This is okay with me. I’m in this for the long haul, no matter which route I choose, and with the current state of both self-publishing and the publishing industry, self-publishing seems more designed for the long haul. I’m okay with working hard; this is what I want to do with my life, and if I wasn’t okay with working hard at that, something would be wrong. I’m okay with gradually building up momentum; I prefer that to being under pressure to succeed quickly, and giving someone else the power to end my career.

Choosing self-publishing isn’t about avoiding rejections. You still get rejections when you’re self-published, only now they’re in the form of reviews posted on Amazon for the whole world to see, and they’re usually a lot harsher than your standard form rejection. Besides, I’ve only gotten a handful of rejections on this project, plus a folder’s worth on another; it would take a lot more before I was ready to give up. (Who am I kidding? I would never be ready to give up. We writers are masochistic creatures.)

The prestige of traditional publishing does have an allure, I admit. If a publisher takes you on, your gains a sort of cultural legitimacy; it becomes official. You’re a published author. If you tell people you’re self-published, there’s a good chance the first thing they’ll think of is vanity publishing, and in any case, it just doesn’t have the same officialness to it. Do I want that officialness? Of course I do. I’m a writer, and I want to be recognized as one. But I’m not writing to “become a published author.” That’s never been the draw for me. I’m doing this to write, and to have my books read. That’s what comes first – how to accomplish that in the way that’s best for me and my books. Anything else is peripheral. Irrelevant.

I still have twinges of doubt, and I imagine I always will, just like I would always have twinges of doubt if I  decided to go with traditional publishing. It’s not easy to walk away from an option without knowing where it would have taken you, and it’s not easy to take the path that is seen as the easy way out, the failure’s option, even if you know better. But I think I’m making the right choice. Underneath the doubt I feel the solid foundation of rightness.

I was at the bookstore the other day, browsing the YA books like I usually do, and it occurred to me that my book would never be there on the shelves with them. I expected to feel doubt or disappointment. I didn’t. I felt relief – because that life isn’t what I want after all. This is what I want. I’m doing the right thing.