Now and then every Internet Mega-Publisher is doomed to make a pilgrimage to the Big City for a face to face with the techie types. Even I, the enormously successful and exalted N.K.Wagner, am no exception. Let me tell you: there’s something one gains from looking into the mesmerizing black holes that are the eyes of the inky Mephistopheles who holds your entire corporate empire’s cyber-life in his hands. I think it’s called humility.
It seems all these uber-geeks gravitate to a regional Uberville. I’m convinced it’s because that’s where everything – and I do mean everything – can be ordered in. They never have to unplug. And with Bluetooth, I mean never. Makes me wonder if they’re not really individual cells in the collective Universal Consciousness. <Ahem> Never mind. What I want to tell you about is my epic journey to worship at the feet of, well, my web designer.
The flight from Greensboro, NC to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport normally takes around an hour and fifteen minutes. I’ve made the trip many times without incident to visit my … hummana hummana … uh, relatives. I’ve always taken the early flight out, at dawn, without incident. Not this time, no-o-o. This time Babs II booked a 10:20 AM shuttle. And after that raise I just gave her, too. <sigh>
I arrived at the airport having driven an hour on the Interstate with my eyeballs well-seared courtesy of an acres-too-small sun visor. The cavernous gloom of the longterm parking garage nearly masked the black spots dancing before my eyes. Ever try peering around sunspots to decipher your car’s parking space designation? An interesting exercise, but not beyond the purview of your intrepid editor. So far, so good.
I’m a responsible packer. I got that way from being responsible for carting my own luggage through airports all over the globe during my lean years. What lean years? If you’re as smart as I think you are, you won’t go there. Anyway, I planned to be away for five days, and my single suitcase tipped the check-in scale at a paltry twenty-nine pounds. The other thirty-five was crammed into my laptop carry-on bag. Well, a girl’s gotta have oodles of mad money and a few pounds of caviar, right?
Guess what! I got to try out the new body scanner at security. “Do I get a prize?” I joked with the TSA official.
“You sure do,” he replied, grinning evilly. “You get a random full body patdown.”
Sure…why not? A nice lady performed the cursory body search – she sneaked a peek under the shirt I had layered as a jacket. As she promised, the backrub part felt pretty nice. She could have done a more thorough job on my shoulders, though.
I should have seen disaster on the horizon. You see, my departure gate was only half-way down the Concourse. That never happens. A welcome change, I naively thought. Yep! Naïve. Must be a BYKS-ie hangover. With carry-ons and boarding pass in hand and less than an hour to departure time, I made myself comfortable, pulled out my laptop and began work on this week’s Writers’ Table essay.
I was breezing along from my notes on writing humor when an announcement came over the loudspeaker: Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that Delta flight 1234 to La Guardia will be delayed one hour.
Okay, I thought. Enough time to get this essay drafted.
Eleven thirty neared.
Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that Delta flight 1234 to LaGuardia is still on the ground in New York. At this time, we will be changing your departure location to Gate 34. We will inform you when your flight is in the air.
For the next three hours we were informed, updated … and moved. I could have used a Bloody Mary. I could have used a bloody sandwich, but they kept changing departure gates on us and I was afraid if I made the half-mile trek to the nearest food vendor, the departure gate would be deserted when I returned. And they wouldn’t have left a forwarding address.
Eventually, Delta Flight 1234 landed in Greensboro and boarding instructions commenced. We dragged our sitting-stiff bodies down the stairs, out onto the tarmac and up the six steps to our reluctant chariot. I had to duck my head to enter the Chautauqua Airlines three-seat-across toy disguised as a real Delta aircraft. In my experience, window seats are good on short flights, aisle seats on long flights. Bloody Marys are good on all flights.
I found my window seat a row behind the wing emergency exit. Interesting view. I settled in. My hips haven’t been held in that tight a grip since the last time BYKS-ie and I … well, never mind. My seatmate turned out to be a disgruntled businessman who spent the entire flight scribbling random notes on his boarding pass. I was kinda relieved he never said a word.
The Bloody Mary? It turned out to be an over-iced cup of Sprite Zero. Not the same thing at all.
At 2:55 PM we bounced down at LaGuardia. After a shuttle bus ride and mini-marathon I kissed my bag hello and found a taxi. I handed the Islands-accented driver a map and the written address of my destination in Washington Heights. Hey! I told you. Relatives.
“Yes, mom. I know whar dey is,” he assured me and flipped the map back at me.
We headed up the east side of Manhattan to avoid rush hour traffic. I made some calls, set up appointments. Recognizing Spanish Harlem, I returned to business. Next time I looked up, I saw two signs: “Westchester County” and “Yonkers”. We were no longer on Manhattan Island. The idiot was headed for Upstate New York!
“Sir, I believe you forgot to drop me off.” My fingers began to tap 9-1-…
“What? You said drive north.”
“On Ft. Washington Avenue. You know: Ft Tryon Park. Mother Cabrini High School. The George Washington Bridge!” The cabbie slapped off the meter. I could see he was shaken. I spoke soothingly. “Let’s turn around and go back to Manhattan the way we came.”
The way we came is called the Saw Mill Expressway, a pretty, park-lined highway. The cabbie turned off. He turned again. And again. He pulled a u-ey. He was lost.
“Why don’t you call your dispatcher for directions?” I suggested with all the sympathetic encouragement I could cram into my voice.
Instead, he glanced to his left, beeped his horn and rolled down his window. I gasped. Pulled up next to us was Divine Intervention in the form of a carload of pale gray habited nuns. I don’t know their Order, but it should be Our Lady of Perpetual Direction. The good sisters got us turned around and on our way back to New York City.
“Where to?” my cabbie asked sheepishly.
“The George Washington Bridge?” I ventured. “But don’t take us to Jersey!”
“Okay. I’m very sorry, mom.”
“It’s okay,” I said as Presbyterian Hospital appeared beyond the Bridge’s entrance. I directed him through the two turns. “Please. No more turns. Just drive until I tell you to stop,” I begged. Two-hundred-odd street numbers later I left my intrepid taxi-driver with a wave – and no tip – and buzzed my host’s apartment.
New York City, I have arrived. Don’t mess with me, cyber-gods!
I always tell new writers to become their characters. So how can you do that? How can a grandma write about a situation that she’s never experienced, using a male perspective? She must put herself in her character's shoes by creating a male persona for herself, by creating a different personality and a different past.
In this example, my protagonist (hero) will be a 24-year-old soldier. For the story to work, he has to be in terrible trouble, so he’s been captured and beaten. I must know more if I’m to “become” him so I can tell his story through his thoughts, actions, and speech. My next step will provide him with a nationality, name, and rank.
Yeah, I know. You can’t see him and you don’t know when the story takes place, but we’ll get there. First, I have to build the character, and then I can put him in any century, in any war, and in any situation. I can change his name and a few details to make him anyone I want him to be, from a detective to a pirate. In this tale, he’s Hans Werner Schmidt, German, a second lieutenant (Leutnant, in his language.)
Now where did he come from? What’s his backstory? Backstory is what happened to Hans before the time of the present tale. The reader won’t care. In fact, he or she would find it boring. Never give the reader a lump of detailed backstory. Slip in only what he or she needs to know, preferably in dialog, a little at a time.
If I’m going to play Schmidt’s role, I have to know everything about him. This part of building a character is the fun part. Start with when and where he was born, in this case May 1, 1920, Berlin, Germany. That puts him in his twenties at the time of World War 2, but if I change the dates and/or nationalities, it could be a different war. Now, is he a Nazi like the ones in movies? No. That would make him a stereotype. Let’s find out who he really is.
What sort of family does he come from? What do/did his parents do for a living? In this case, father and two uncles are physicians. Does he have brothers? Yes, three of them. Does he have sisters? No. If I use my imagination, I can decide how he relates to his family as youngest son. So, if his family had a religion, did he share it or was he a rebel? Has being in combat changed his beliefs? How?
Will your readers like this fellow? (I hope not, because he's MY Hans and your readers should only meet him in My stories.) But yes, they'd like a character like him. He's polite (usually) and kind. Looks good. Has a good moral compass (mostly). OK, what I’m not saying very well is that nobody’s perfect, especially not when they’re in a bad situation. A hungry man will steal, although he may feel guilty and pay back if he can. Even heroes lie, cheat, or kill to protect themselves or others--but they never torture and they never hurt children or animals.
If he’s so nearly perfect, he’d better have a few flaws, right? So he’s impulsive, hot-tempered, and a bit arrogant at times, and these faults bring on most of his story troubles.
Humans have habits, mannerisms, skills, hobbies and definite likes and dislikes; so should a fictional being. Avoid making him great at everything. In Hans’s case, he plays chess, speaks several languages, and can cook. He loves real coffee, dislikes vodka. His attitude about women fits the time of the story (1940s). In other words, he adores the gentle creatures as wives, mothers, and grandmothers. They belong at home (on a pedestal) to comfort a man, make his home, and raise his children. He’ll accept them in the same way as nurses, but men make decisions and fight wars, not women. (Of course, he’ll mellow somewhat during the course of the story.)
Without conflict, there is no story, so Hans struggles with internal and external conflicts.
Internal Conflicts: He’s been hurt in a love affair and doesn’t trust women, and yet he falls in love with a Russian. His basic distrust of women and questions about patriotism tear at him. After all, he’s sleeping with the enemy. Is that treason? His torment deepens when she becomes pregnant.
External Conflicts: He clashes with various personalities, tries to escape and fails, learns from his experiences.
"But," you ask, “What does he look like?" OK, OK, here it is. When he enters the story, he’s too thin; the Russians shaved his hair, but it's beginning to grow out. He’s tall and not very attractive because he’s bleeding and he needs a shave. Later, his wavy blond hair’s thick, he’s clean-shaven and well built. His eyes are heavy-lidded and a vivid blue. I could describe his nose, hands, etc., but won’t do that here. In order to play the hero’s part, the creator has to live in this body throughout the story, so the detail and the backstory help the writer to understand how this guy feels about himself (vanity, pride, shame) and how he thinks.
Can someone write a story without knowing so much? Sure, but they risk creating a cardboard lead character. The more a writer understands, the better he or she can portray the hero for the reader. Lesser characters require less detail, but the lead must not be a stereotype.
So, next time you write, why not become your protagonist and live the story through his or her senses? Your readers will thank you for it.
ABOUT NORMA HOWELL
Comment from Ted Tillotson: As always, Norma writes great, helpful articles & essays all about improving our skills. Her stories are a treat to read and learn from. She's helped me get five novels in shape for publishing. Way to go, Norma!
Reply from Norma Howell: Thanks, Ted. It’s nice to have my work appreciated, and I’m glad the articles are helpful.
Have you ever tried to define poetry? That’s part of my task for a seminar class I’ve been asked to teach in … ohmygosh! ... five days! Almost time to panic, folks!
I’ve worn the Internet out searching for what I’m beginning to think doesn’t exist. A definition, that is. Not poetry. Seriously. Look at some of the definitions I’ve cobbled together, paraphrasing for clarity, and you’ll understand why.
Poetry is artistically produced words that evoke intense emotion or an Ah Ha! experience from the reader.
An “Ah! Ha! experience”? Isn’t that what you have just before you sneeze?
Poetry doesn't like fixed definitions. If you really want to know what poetry is, read it. Read it carefully. Pay attention. Read it out loud. Now read it again. That's your definition of poetry.
Heh! Heh! That little bugger can’t define it either! Try sneaking that one past your Creative Writing teacher.
Poetry is writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm. (ChaCha)
Somebody squeezed Mr. Roget … reeeal hard.
Poetry visually conveys the poet's meaning through the graphic arrangement of letters, words, or symbols on the page. (ChaCha)
Mr. Shakespeare may have something to say about that one.
The only things that separate bad poetry from bad prose are arbitrary line breaks and mawkish sentimentality. (Anon)
Ah! Ha! Something I can understand. I feel so much better now. Don’t you?
I’m not a poet, but I have written a few poems, usually whilst I am struggling to write a story or an essay. I’ve spent five minutes typing some doggerel that my cat could’ve written, in the hope that it might kick-start my sluggish brain. I’ve shared a few of these on writing websites for the entertainment of seeing the appalled reactions of proper poets, but I’ve been surprised by some of the responses.
I thought people would be printing my rubbish and using it as toilet paper, but some reviewers appeared to be impressed by my amazing literary genius. I though What Do You Call Your Toilet was a daft list of different terms for the smallest room. According to one reviewer, I had written a clever satire about the class system. After I had finished crying with laughter at this assessment, I gave it some serious thought. I could see how someone would take that meaning from the poem. I hadn’t written it with that subject in mind, but is that relevant?
What Do You Call Your Toilet
What do you call your toilet?
If you are English, is it Bathroom?
If you are American, is it Restroom?
If you are Australian is it a Dunny?
What if you are quite well mannered?
Would it be a lavatory?
Would it be the Smallest Room?
Would it be the Ladies/Gents?
What if you are a bit uncouth?
Would you say Bog Room?
Would you say Shit House?
Would you say Crapper?
What if you have children?
Would it be a Pee-Pee Tent?
Would it be a Little Girls/Boys Room?
Would it be a Niffy Noo-Noos House?
What if you are a bit unwell?
Would it be the Hell Hole?
Would it be the House Of Pain?
Would it be the Kamikaze Killer?
So go on, what do you call it?
Why so shy? We all have to go.
Tell me, what do you call it?
What do you mean, "Trevor?"
When I read a novel, story or poem, I do not know the author’s intentions. A poem about clocks may have been written as a metaphor for life, the universe and everything, but would I be wrong if I thought it was a nice poem about clocks? The answer to that, for many authors, would be “yes”. I’d probably get dismissed as an ignorant philistine. After all, the author is the lord of all he creates, and I’m a lowly reader. How dare I have the temerity to alter the meaning of his work?
I dare because I am the reader. I am the person who pays the author’s wages, so perhaps the literary god needs to shut up and listen to me, for once. Writers often tell us they get inspiration from their personal experience, people they know, conversations heard on buses, etc. They have moods which affect their writing, political opinions which influence their writing, and, in some cases, personality disorders.
As a reader, I have had experiences. I’ve got memories and opinions of my own (the jury’s out on the personality disorder). I have different moods. Do authors expect me to empty my head of these things before reading their work? I can’t! If, as a writer, I create a character based on someone I know, it would be unreasonable to expect the reader to picture that person, regardless of my wonderful description. Readers will create their own person, using that description as a guideline.
This is why film adaptations are often disappointing. The director’s interpretation of the novel will never be the same as that of every single reader of the book. Writers must learn that the creative input does not end when they put down their pen. Every reader adds something of their own to the work. Selling a novel is like selling a house. Ownership has transferred to the purchaser, and if they want to pave over your beautiful garden, you have no right to stop them.
If writers think I’m spouting rubbish, perhaps the words of French literary theorist Roland Barthes can convince them. In his 1968 essay, The Death of the Author, he explains, “The reader is the space on which all of all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination." Therefore, according to Barthes, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” So there!
ABOUT EMMA FAWSON
It’s been six months since Page & Spine: fiction showcase opened its virtual doors as a .com e-zine with me, N.K., at the helm—publisher, editor, IT department, toilet scrubber and lightbulb changer. You wouldn’t think that would be long enough to compile a list of guaranteed reasons for a writer’s work to be rejected, would you? Well, I’m as surprised as you are.
Before I share my list, let me explain. I'm a writer. I know what it is to birth the baby, put it out there for all to admire and watch it be kicked to the curb. I know what rejection feels like and, as an editor, I do everything in my power not to reject a writer’s work. I’d much rather share in a newly published writer’s “happy dance” than be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes I have to say “no”. Here are my current top five reasons for doing so and the ways to avoid them.
Don't submit inappropriate work. You've heard this before. Your work should be of the same quality and general tone as the majority of the publication’s archived work. Original approaches and points of view are welcome and encouraged. Inappropriate subject matter is not. For example, an article on the construction of windmills probably won’t be printed in a fiction magazine. But a story in which someone builds a windmill might. Or maybe an essay using the concept of a windmill to make some point about a facet of writing will. You really should read at least one issue of the magazine before you submit something. If you’re still not sure, ask.
Don't submit non-publishable work. An acquiring editor is neither the writer’s personal ghost writer nor his researcher. That’s blunt, but there it is. Early drafts should never be seen by anyone receiving submissions. That said, mistakes slip through and it’s up to the editor to catch them and suggest corrections. We all make mistakes.
Don't argue over minutia. Publication isn’t a contest of wills. There’s usually a good reason for an editor to suggest changes to your work. If the change doesn’t affect your intended meaning, go with it. Pick your battles. If you’ve been cooperative in the past, it’s more likely you’ll get your way when it really matters to you.
Don't miss deadlines. Issues are planned ahead of time. Sometimes, months ahead of time. If you keep an editor waiting, publication of your work will be pushed back to allow more eager writers to fill your scheduled slot. If your appearance is pushed back often enough, you may be lost in the shuffle.
Don't forget your manners. Don’t grovel. Don’t put on airs. If you start out in a relaxed but businesslike manner you’ll be well on your way to a comfortable working relationship. “Please” and “thank you” mean a lot.
One last thing. Recognize that when human meets machine sometimes machine wins, at least temporarily. Publication mistakes happen. If you spot an error in our e-zine, by all means let me know. Mistakes, caught early, are no reason for concern. They can, and should, be corrected. But when the gremlins are feeling frisky it can take multiple tries. As in most things, a sense of humor helps – a lot.