Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Bouncer

In so many ways, the analogy grows between gaining admission to a trendy restaurant or nightclub and getting one's manuscript beyond the bouncers at the door, which is to say the low-pay or no-pay interns who filter the patently unusable mss, and into the hands of an editor who either has contract authority or knows how to build within her organization a coalition that will allow her to contract.

At some point, self-publishing may even become an option, although, thanks to the Library of Congress putting certain limitation kibosh on LC numbers and CIP data, that, too, leads us down the primrose path toward the coyotes.

Much in the manner of those unscrupulous ones who herd illegal immigrants in over the border, literary coyotes await, offering shepherding services, making you smile at the irony.  Not all that long ago, you sat across the table from a shepherd, watching said shepherd  pounding six-dollar glasses of pinot grigio because, hey, business is good.

A significant reason business is good is the sale of character profiles, sets of questions the writer should know the answers to if, indeed, the writer wishes to enhance the potential for the manuscript being seated inside the restaurant instead of being left outside.  Character profiles are lists of dumb things the writer is challenged to know about his or her characters, things such as favorite foods, favorite colors, allergies, dog or cat person, even gay or straight, GOP or Dem, as though knowing this entire of litany of things before the fact will add significant dimension to the character as said character comes off the assembly line.

What, you might well ask,is the fact before which you speak?  That fact is the fact of knowing what the character wants,possibly even why, but for certain, what that character will do to achieve the goal.

Another thing to know about characters, offered here, gratis in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, free in some English-speaking neighborhoods, and politically independent in more conservative English-speaking neighborhoods,where the word "free" wither as noun or verb, tends to produce bat-shit crazy behavior.  Do the characters have any kind of inner life relevant to the story at hand?  A character with an inner life is more likely to turn the simplest plot into a layer cake of complexity, which, surprisingly enough, is what many readers want.

There is a cadre of men and women writing today who are producing in consistent quantity and quality works in which their characters have inner lives, agendas, and, for want of a term you'll have to coin a definition for one of these days soon, a psychological profile.  Ego armature has suddenly come to your mind because the ego is the armature about which is wrapped the strands of past history, goals, quirks, flaws, and those pesky triggers that are set off when the character least expects it, due to some buried stimulus.  Writers such as Louise Erdrich, Richard Price, Karen Russell, Dennis Lehane, Cynthia Ozick, Kate Atkinson, and by no means least of them, George Pelecanos, whose most recent novel, The Cut, is nothing less than an ensemble cast of characters with inner lives, including a few who have relatively few lines of dialogue.

Characters "acquire" inner lives by having preferences, which is one of the reason these easy-to-come-by personality tests on sale over the Internet at first seem so attractive.  They promise to do the work for the writer and the absolute fact is that the writer cannot delegate authority; the writer has to develop the traits and qualities, which must then be observed throughout the arc of the entire story.  These traits and qualities govern, direct, perhaps even control the character every moment that character has any relevance for the story.

Ah, story; glad you brought that up.  Moments before you began this essay, a student from at least three years back, emailed you to remind you of your take on an opening chapter he'd sent you about a month ago.  You went on at some length about the opening chapter NOT being a suitable place for auxiliary verbs in that such tropes as "had felt" or "had wanted" refer to past action, which should not get in the way of the opening scenes of a story because past action is of no value until the reader is down with the character.  One way around that would be to begin with Arnold seeing Sasha standing in line at Starbucks, approaching her, greeting her, and telling her "I have to ask you something," and then her reply, either, "Not again, Arnold." or "How many times do I have to tell you?"  Okay, whether Arnold is asking Sasha to marry him, go out with him, go to bed with him, or any combination of the three, we see story in action.  This time, you'd sent the former student a note in which you told him that of all the pages he'd sent you, there were some lovely descriptions, but no story nor any hint of a story.

The student's reply was classic.  You have lost track of the times you have heard his response over the years.  Oh, funny you should mention that.  It's there on the very next page.

Politely, you think, you told him, thinking another, subtext delivery all the while, Perhaps that's where you should begin.  TFS.

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