Monthly Archives: October 2008

Plot or Character?

Of all the issues related to writing fiction, none is more subjective or controversial than the long-standing argument of which is more important, plot or characters.  Anyone with even the most limited knowledge of fiction—reader or writer—could build a strong case either way, and there is no absolute right or wrong.  As a writer myself, I, of course, have my own opinion; a very strong opinion.  Needless to say, any successful, well-written novel must have both a strong plot and fascinating characters.  That’s a given.  However, I’d like to build a case for characters.

Of all the novels I’ve read throughout my life, those most memorable, locked in my mind forever, are books whose main characters were three dimensional and lifelike.  A novel could have a highly compelling plot, but if interesting characters do not support it, the story will likely go flat no matter how complex, and leave the reader disappointed.  As a novelist, you’re competing with God and that’s no easy task.  To create characters that live and breathe and literally jump off the pages requires a very unique talent.

Not to minimize the importance of plot, it is my strong contention that plots—and please forgive me for saying this—are a dime a dozen.  Consider this: if you pick up any major newspaper in the country and skim through its pages, you can find dozens of plot ideas from real-life situations.  The husband who has two wives—one on the east coast and one on the west coast. The corrupt politician who accepts a bribe.  A national security leak.  A conflict in the Middle East.  For no particular reason a lunatic walks into a classroom and executes the students.  An average Joe rescues a child from a burning building and becomes an overnight hero.

Not only are plots everywhere, but many storylines have a familiar ring. How many times have the two main characters in a romance novel hated each other throughout the book, only to fall in love at the end? How many times has the good guy, the character you least expected, turn into the villain? How many books about lawyers and doctors and superheroes follow the same formula? How many times have you read a classic cat and mouse whodunit mystery with a familiar storyline? 

On the flip side, have you ever seen the likes of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, or Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind? Has either character ever been cloned in any other novel?  Their uniqueness and originality cannot be easily duplicated.  Although the plots for both of these memorable novels were compelling and engaging, it was the main characters that grabbed your attention and kept you turning pages. 

The ultimate challenge for all novelists is to write a book with both an original, attention-grabbing plot and fascinating characters.  And this is a tall order.  But remember this: if you create complex, truly intriguing characters, the story can be a lazy tale about someone building a horse barn and your readers will be totally engaged.  We’ll dig deeper into building interesting characters and explore some tricks of the trade in another session.

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So You Wanna Be a Writer, Eh?

In a recent survey (don’t know who conducted it), a cross section of people was asked if they had any desire to write a novel. This may or may not surprise you but nearly 80% of those surveyed claimed that they did, in fact, want to write a novel. And of those who responded positively, almost all of them wished to get published. 

A decade or so ago, a good novelist had a pretty fair shot at signing a publishing contract based solely on the literary value of their book. But in this day and age, the publishing world has taken on a whole new identity. Roughly 95% of all published novels (this excludes self-published books) are written by established writers with a track record. You need not be a math whiz to figure out that the competition for the remaining 5% is fierce. The other thing to consider is this: even the most successful, high-volume publisher is limited as to how many novels they can publish in any calendar year. Here are some raw numbers that might make you want to be an artist, plumber or chiropractor.

If a publisher can print and distribute 500 fiction titles in any given year, and 95% of them are represented by established writers, then first-time novelists are fighting over a paltry 25 books. When you consider that the average literary agent receives somewhere around 200 submissions per week, which translates to 2,400 submissions a year, well, need I say more?

The struggle for these precious few publishing slots is intense to say the least. Even if you wrote the equivalent of Gone with the Wind or the next Silence of the Lambs, the likelihood that you’d be selected for publication is remote. And of course, you must also consider that in this day and age, who you know may be more important than how well your novel was written. Rarely, if ever, does even the most talented novelist write one book, find a willing literary agent, and sign a publishing deal. For the vast majority of novelists, it just doesn’t work that way.

For a nonfiction work, however, the rules are a lot different. If you’re fairly literate, you’re an expert in anything from basket weaving to scuba diving, and you can write an informative, entertaining book, you’ve got a good shot at finding a publisher. For fiction, though, it’s a totally different world.  For the serious novelist, rejection is the prerequisite of success. Although their story may never be told, many successful novelists like Stephen King, John Grisham, and J. K. Rowling spent years searching for that first publishing deal. It didn’t happen overnight for any of them.

So, if your goal is to be published, these are the issues you must consider. Are you willing to negotiate your way through a minefield of rejection to find the needle in a haystack? Are you willing to write two, three, even four novels knowing full well that it’s entirely possible you will never get published? Can your ego withstand harsh criticisms and a truckload of form rejection letters from literary agents? Do you possess the wherewithal to trudge forward with your chosen craft even though there may never be a financial payoff? These are the questions you must answer before you write that first word of your great American novel.

If this all seems like a bitter commentary on the life of a novelist, let me lift your spirits. There is a light at the end of a long dark tunnel. A writer, a true writer, is not defined by a publishing contract. If you write, it’s because you have no choice; you write because it’s in your blood; it’s your obsession; it characterizes who you are. Your mind explodes with thoughts and feelings and emotions that can only be communicated through the written word. You write not for fame and fortune, but because you have something to say. So, my fellow writers, my advice for you is to write. Write with your heart and soul. Write because you have no choice. And if you’re one of the lucky ones whose work is published, bravo. But if not one word you ever write is read by another human being, continue with your passion. Because in the end you are only accountable to yourself and your craft.

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