Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dexter Meets Clarinda Clarabelle and the Bear

by Jaden Terrell

I've been reading a lot of unpublished manuscripts lately. Most of the manuscripts aren't bad. Most of the writing is competent, sometimes even clever. A number seem like they could be publishable with some work--in some cases, with a lot of work. Very, very few are just not good.

There are two trends I've noticed in the unsuccessful manuscripts. Not all the unsuccessful ones fall into these catagories, but an astonishing number do.

The first is the story with the unsympathetic protagonist. If all a reader sees your "hero" do is kill or terrorize innocents, scam elderly grandmas, or say snide things to and about family and "friends," they're unlikely to care if the character escapes the trap your antagonist has set. In fact, they're more likely to hope said character gets swallowed by an anaconda.

Sure, it's fine to have a flawed protagonist. It's even fine to have a protagonist who is a criminal. Look at Dexter. Dexter is violent. Heck, Dexter is a monster. The thing about Dexter, though, is that he is sympathetic. Not because he's a monster, but in spite of it. For one thing, he only kills bad guys. The worst of the worst. But IMHO, the real reason Dexter is so popular is that there's something vulnerable about him. He's a lost kid who wants to be human--as much as he's capable of wanting--and doesn't know how. He says he's incapable of love, but you sense that he felt, if not love, then something akin to love for his foster father, Harry. He admired Harry, not least of all, for Harry's humanity. At the same time, Dexter has a sharp wit and a tilted view of humanity that allows him to make humorous yet insightful social commentary. It's a hard thing to pull off, but if you're going to put your readers in the mind of a psychopath, then you should definitely study how Jeff Lindsay makes it worth their while.

In general, though, readers want to read about characters they can like and identify with. If you want readers to invest time and emotion in your work, it's a good idea to write about people readers can care about.

The second trend I've noticed is the killer "hook" followed by forty pages of drinking coffee and picking up laundry. I'll read an amazing first chapter in which Clarinda Clarabelle snatches her baby boy from his cradle and flees through a blizzard, her maniacal, axe-wielding husband close behind her. She stumbles. The baby gives a squall of protest. A shadow passes over her, and she looks up into her husband's maddened eyes. The scene ends.

Chapter two: Twenty-six-year-old Buffy Belinda and her friends are sitting in a quaint little cafe grousing about their boyfriends, eating cream puffs, patting their skinny bellies, and moaning about how fat they are. One of them is getting married in a few days. They go try on bridesmaid's dresses. She share cute anecdotes and reminiscences. Buffy Belinda goes home and snuggles up on the couch with her cat, feeling a little sad because she just broke up with her handsome boyfriend, who is a lawyer, and while she doesn't begrudge her friend the big wedding, she can't suppress a twinge of envy. Forty pages later, as she is helping her friend attach her wedding veil, Buffy Belinda gets a run in her panty hose. She goes out to her car to get a bottle of nail polish from the glove compartment. Her cell phone rings. Her cousin Angelina has been killed while hiking the Appalachian Trail. The rangers say Angelina was killed by a bear, but that's impossible, because Angelina has always had an affinity for bears; remember how, when she was six years old, she climbed into the grizzly enclosure at the zoo and curled up with the mama grizzly and her cubs? No way would Angelina be killed by a bear.

But . . . What happened to Clarinda Clarabelle? That's the book I want to read.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to a good prologue, or even a first chapter that serves as a prologue, but that chapter should merge seamlessly with the rest of the book, not stand out like a fur coat tacked to the end of an heirloom quilt.

In some cases, it's obvious that the writer knew there was a problem with the story and tried to make up for it by putting the most exciting scene in the story--or even a tangentially related scene that wasn't originally in the story--right up front. Grab 'em by the throat and don't let go, we're told. You have to hook the reader in the beginning. True. But what do you do once you've hooked 'em?

I think the biggest reason for these problems--and most of the others I've seen--is that it's so hard to tell when your work is ready. You finish your first draft, and it seems wonderful. You love it so much you can't even see that your new literary baby is red and wrinkled and its head is a little squished on one side. Then you let it sit for awhile and it seems terrible. You edit and edit until you have something you're really proud of. Wonderful again. Then the rejections begin to roll in, and you're convinced it's the worst drivel ever written and why did you ever think you could do this anyway?

But we do it anyway. It takes a tremendous act of courage to put your work out there for others to see, even knowing that six months or a year from now, you may read over what you've written and cringe. Take heart. When you can see the previously invisible problems in your manuscript, it means you've become a better writer. And if you can write that terrific chapter one, you can write an equally terrific chapter two.


Shane Cashion said...

Great post, Jaden! Lots of good stuff. Years ago I read Stephen King's book on writing. I don't remember much about it, other than a couple of sections where he talked about how fast he cranked out some of his books. If memory serves me he finished one in a couple of weeks. To me it was very discouraging in the either "you've got it or you don't" sense.

I later ready an article by Richard Ford wherein he mentioned that it took him six years to write "A Piece of My Heart." He attached a copy of a few drafts of his text and it looked as tho a thousand transactional lawyers had murdered it with their red pens. In my humble opinion, writing doesn't get any better than his Frank Bascombe series. It was inspiring to see how hard a writer of his caliber had to work at it before he got it right. Your post reminded me of the difference between two very well known writers, and that if it doesn't come naturally it just means you have to be patient and work at it a little longer.

Ben Small said...

Very well done, Beth! And something to remember. I loved Stephen King's book and like Shane have forgotten a lot of it, but I think I remember most of his tenets. But reading your post turned me back to my book and made me decide I do in fact need the chapter I'd been debating about. Thank you!

Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks, Shane and Ben. I'm a big fan of Stephen King;s ON WRITING as well, but I don't think most of the rest of us are on the same plane as Steve when it comes to pouring out the words. How generous of Robert Ford to share his early work with you.

Shane Cashion said...

Very true regarding King :)! Actually Ford posted his early draft with corrections on his website for all to see. It was pretty interesting.