Author: RJ MCarthy
Blog 21 April 24, 2021
Criticism is hard to swallow, but praise? I take a look at my reactions and wonder if you, my readers, have similar reactions to the opinions of others? Click here and feel free to comment.
Blog 20 March 18, 2021
The hope is to secure an agent to represent my novels. Meeting with multiple rejections is not for the faint of heart. If you are a writer you know. I share my feelings in this blog. The message is to not give up hope. Click here.
Blog 19, February 8, 2021
Though I believe when you caress an animal,
you quiet internally, nevertheless they can inspire intense
emotions, love prominent among them. Read my February
Blog where I discuss how pets influence mood and mental health,
especially during the pandemic, and how they sometimes inspire
Blog 18, January 13, 2021
Bob talks about the writing process and the steps to the final work: thinking, jotting, re-reading, and research. In his upcoming novel The Matchmaker: A Love Story in a Technological Age, research is important to make the science-fiction elements realistic and believable as possible, without losing the entertainment elements.
We've started the new year with a new blogging platform where you can leave comments, follow and share the content. Click below to read the blog and interact. Let me know if there are subjects you'd like to see covered in the future.
Blog 17 November 22, 2020
Changing My Reading Habits
I’ve always been an omnivorous reader. In the aftermath of a bitterly contested Presidential race and the increasing concerns that have infiltrated my thoughts over the past four years, I’ve found myself pondering the impact of daily political reality in my reading and writing habits. Have they changed? Have yours?
Since my reading intertwines with my writing (how could it not?), I believe there has been a narrowing in the scope of my reading. Living for four years with the daily task of tamping down anxiety per political developments and an unrelenting assault on truth, I no longer read thrillers, particularly political thrillers. The tension deflects my interest.
Though I still read crime fiction, per the bulk of my novelistic efforts, I need more than ever to believe in the credibility of the protagonists. While their morality remains a defining factor for me, I need to believe they could really exist. With apologies to Lee Child, I no longer look to Jack Reacher-like heroes for reading entertainment. His character, approaching comic book superhero dimensions, landed somewhere beyond my ability to suspend my disbelief. In what I believe is a pervading quest for believability, I’m drawn more to a Jack Taylor (Ken Bruen) or a Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly), normal-sized characters, their flawed humanity rescued by unfailing ethics and commitment.
I believe, also, that I approach non-fiction with a more cautious selectivity. My dietary hunger for books that examine socio-economic-political issues, particularly in the United States, is now more restrictive. Please don’t misunderstand, I still read Matt Taibbi, for example, as he explores the inhumane ways that some Americans use American institutions to exploit so many of their countrymen – and women. If anything, I read Taibbi and his ilk out of a sense of duty and responsibility to my country as well as a need to know. That said, uncontrolled indulgence in the spate of books spawned by the corruption of truth over the last four years could leave me immobilized to purpose, something I will never live without.
Finally, three to four times per year I deliberately choose a piece of what critics regard as literature, classic or contemporary. Even there, I’m guarded, more so currently. Sadly, since so much of it tends to bore me or leave me scrambling to comprehend (always a lousy feeling as it batters my belief in my own intelligence), I carefully pick over the story suggested by the flyleaf. If I see it described as the author’s intent to “explore…” (fill in the blank), I tend to tighten. If the story doesn’t intrigue me, I move on, regardless of author. For me, it’s always about the story, an intended message secondary. How about you?
In editing this piece, I noticed a repetitive use of some form of “belief” (belief, believe, disbelief). More than merely suggest, it underscored how critical believability is in my reading and writing. Even if it’s fiction, I need to believe it in order to believe in it.
Blog 16 October 2020
With the approach of Halloween, a friend suggested a thought about writing something scary or fearful. I chose the topic of fear, not for its connection to Halloween, but for its relevance at a time of creeping worldwide oppression toward divergent opinions, oral and written. In writing about fear, my focus turned to writing with fear. How might functioning fearfully inflect or even infect writing or any other form of public discourse?
For me, the inverse of fear is not fearlessness, but courage. The latter requires overcoming fear in order to act, whereas I’m uncertain as to whether fearlessness can even exist in a reflective human being.
It appears to me that fear can impel a writer, but it can also dissuade a writer from broaching a truth. Political climates can often suppress a writer’s grasp at truth while paving a path for opportunists to advance, i.e. across all art forms, think Soviet Russia. Currently and disturbingly increasing numbers of Chinese intellectuals are beginning to accommodate the Communist Party’s dogma while dissidents are being isolated and systematically punished.
More narrowly and personally, when I attempt to delve, to seek depth in an exploratory approach to fiction (as I did in my latest novel, One of the Boys), there were moments of personal confrontation. Just how deep did I want to probe and how explicit did I want to be? Was fear an element in this consideration? I suspect so. But if so, fear of what?
Fear of self-exposure? Probably. Once revealed, it cannot be erased.
Fear of self-judgment, of emotional regret? Once released, it cannot be denied.
Fear of external judgment? We now live in a world of anonymous trolls whose raison d’etre is to judge harshly. Once released, my writing belongs to everyone.
For me, dealing with fear is, among other things, a series of endless decisions, but ultimately a balancing act. It is not about charging a machine gun emplacement with a grenade between my teeth screaming, “Come and get me you (fill in the blank)!” That’s a Hollywood script. Rather, it is a pitting of my desire for objective examination housed in a subjective form – fiction. In self-revelation, what is enough? What is too much? In pursuit of “truth” or “a” truth is there such a thing as too much? For me? For readers?
In the end, how do I deal with the discomfort of tension, uneasiness, fear when it arises? I deal with it by attempting to balance the me and the you. If I quail and falter, I fail myself and you. If I fire it out there unrefined by measured thought, I might fail myself and you, provocation overwhelming nuance, more red meat for the trolls. For me, it is the hidden nuance, the shadowed truth, I’m after whenever I attempt to look within.
Blog 15 September 21
Although this is about writers and writing, it’s addressed to readers – what we were (and still are) prior to an attempt to write a story. So this piece is dedicated to all readers who have pondered creating a story as well as to those who already have.
Why do we do it – write that is? What do we tell ourselves, our reasons? What do we hope for – beyond the writing? What are our ambitions, if any? If we entertain ambitions, can we admit them – to ourselves, to others? How do these ambitions (hopes) affect us, affect the writing, the sustaining of the writing? And if an ambition is thwarted, does it suppress the desire to write?
For me, the fundamental drive to write exists in and of itself, as it has for more than fifty years. Irrespective of success, however one chooses to measure the concept underlying that elastic word, writing has a life of its own. I’m impelled to write. Though I wouldn’t label it a compulsion in my case, the word “impelled” would suggest there’s an inherent drive in my approach to writing, to the act itself.
Though there have been occasions across the last thirty years when I have sought feedback (via contests) regarding the quality of my stories, exposing them to independent judgment, in my case, I do not regard these interludes as reflective of ambition. In retrospect, they contributed reassurance – much as trail-markers to a hiker – that I had an ability to engage a reader. And I’m so-o grateful for those moments!
No, beyond the writing itself, my sole ambition was (and remains) to be published by a traditional publishing house. My ambition, to date, remains unfulfilled.
Does my ambition still breathe? It does and likely will until I cease – breathing. An explanation, if there is one, resides in the indispensable satisfaction I draw from participating in a creative process, from attempting to wring a coherent story out of a fragment of an idea, from the very act of putting pen to paper. This is my protection against allowing ambition to define me even as it urges me onward.
In the end, I love to read and write, quiet joys never farther than the reach of my fingertips and imagination. How fortunate those of us are, who exercise these soul-nourishing opportunities, in this tumultuous world.
Blog 14 August 23
Letter writing in a time of pandemic – if not now, when? I mention this at a time when too many have time on their hands, pandemic-enforced time that can weigh heavily as we already know. Still, precious time, as is all time. In this extraordinary moment, what an opportunity to reach out to a friend, a beloved relative, a fading acquaintance you think well of and surprise one of them with a heartfelt letter! Moreover, as a writer, you’re writing, exercising the habit, stoking the creative process. As a reader, you’re expressing your humanity.
Sadly for me, it is a vanishing form of communication that played a part in my development as a writer, reader and thinker. I’ve always been cerebral, given to thinking, viewed by others as “serious.” Letter writing, by its nature, form and requirements, helped me gather and refine my thoughts prior to exposing them on paper. In essence, if what I say partially defines me, then I prefer my thoughts examined with care and not strewn about willy-nilly.
For almost four decades, I’ve contributed my half to a correspondence with a friend. After years of listening to and laughing at the fervor of my political “rants,” a freeing gift to me, he eventually revealed his position(s) to be contrary to mine. “Polarized” is probably the apt word, but it now bears such a pejorative connotation. While acknowledging our differences, the discovery did not divert us from our friendship. We didn’t permit it.
Now that we’re approaching eighty, though we still communicate and draw sustenance from our communications, we write less often. Our deal has always been we write when we want to and never as a duty. During the pandemic, I have written him. I continue to treasure what we’ve created through epistolary reach – the freedom to explore or test ideas within relative safety and with a lowered likelihood of unnecessarily stirring angst or worse, hurting someone pointlessly.
The act of letter writing enabled me to reconsider, to re-weigh some of the opinions that were erupting in me, that I was thrusting into this world. I’d like to believe I’ve refined my opinions from take that to something more nuanced, reflective of truth garnished with tact, my opinion weighed against respect for my listener. A letter permits a second chance that speech denies. If a written opinion, no matter how closely held, might land like a face slap, it can be stricken from the page and reconsidered. Verbalized, it cannot be retracted from a mind.
Then too, in writing a letter, plumbing my inner world, thumbing through memories, the act has afforded me a periodic glimpse into where I’ve landed developmentally, given me a sense of where my horizons as a thinker have expanded or at least, settled for now.
Not necessarily lastly, something many writers and readers can relate to, in writing a letter, we once more have an opportunity to experience the visceral pleasure, the sensory feast, of putting pen to paper, of converting impulses flashing through our brains to our unique take on language.
Blog 13 Point of View and Voice
A thought: It has been said (Isaac Bashevis Singer, I believe) that the purpose of fiction is to educate and entertain. A blog might aspire to both for anyone interested in a writer’s thoughts. Speaking for myself, I hope I attract readers through the medium of entertainment. But to educate? It might suggest an assumption on my part that I can educate – the lure of the ego-trip (life on social media).
That said, I’d like once more to focus on another aspect of becoming aware of changes in an author’s writing with the passage of time, i.e. choice of voice. Over the years, I’ve tilted toward third person, omniscient voice for the flexibility I felt it allowed me or, at least, that’s what I thought. I have also used first person in two instances (more recently) because the stories evolved through the minds of the main characters. A suspicion: I believe the willingness to utilize first person voice reflects 1) a strong sense of how the story should be approached and perhaps 2) an enhanced confidence to try the voice.
What do I make of the change over many years of adhering strictly to third person omniscient to now mixing in a first-person approach? A thought in pursuit of my growing confidence theory: With confidence as a writer accumulating slowly through the early decades, omniscient may have allowed me to unconsciously distance myself from the story, an odd way of playing it safe, a kind of standing back rather than getting too close emotionally. Choosing third person omniscient may have been my safety line to avoid falling in. I know that I am protective of my inner life, a likely problem for a self-declared writer. Just a thought, but it’s where I am at present.
Does this resonate with anyone or do I just come across as a writer trying to sound writerly?
Choosing the Words
In the last blog, I spoke of remaining alert to “changes over time,” the elements in what affects a writer’s work when.
This time, I’d like to narrow my focus to the entwinement of style and choice of language. While language has always been important, word choice has changed somewhat in my fiction. Decades ago, I had a tendency to allow words – my love for them, my desire to retain them – to interfere with the flow of a story. I risked breaching the reader’s flow with a sesquipedalian (see what I mean?) word. I’m not referring to writing down to a reader (what conceit!); rather, I’m addressing the use of language that jerks a reader from his or her reading rhythm, literally – from the story. My wife indicated this tendency many times over too many years. She still does, though with less frequency, suggesting I’ve learned and changed.
My challenge: Could I find a simpler, more precise, hopefully better way of managing what I was trying to say? A key to grasping the call to change lay in conceptualizing the importance of rhythm in writing. Effective writing is not solely about beautiful words. The beauty is revealed in the clarity of how they’re ordered into sentences, how they’re harmonized in the blending of meaning and aesthetics.
Let’s say I write a sentence that leads the reader to re-read it. If the catalyst is a poetic mellifluity (there I go again) to the wording and the reader savors the impact, then - good– I'm gratified. If however, the wording obscures clarity of meaning leading to difficulty in comprehension – not good; the reader’s rhythm has been interrupted. In effect, I’ve marred the reader’s flow for the sake of what? My writerly ego? The maintenance of an arcane, look-at-me vocabulary?
The above should not be construed as an abandonment of the search for the mot juste, the apt word or expression that fits what I’m trying to say as precisely as possible. Writing can alchemically emerge as art depending upon how the mot juste is employed and where it is lodged in its sentence. I experienced this years ago when I read Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) for the first time, when I was fortunate enough to stumble across a collection of short stories by Ander Dubus II.
Who creates this effect for you, transforming reading into magic?
Writing During a Pandemic
On this occasion, I’d like to pick up the thread from an earlier submission on writing during a pandemic. This time, however, my concentration will be less on process, more on options and outlets. The process of writing becomes moot without active writing or activities related to writing on a daily basis. Though I’m about to offer a list of outlets, optional for me each day, some form of writing is not an option.
I once read that Graham Greene wrote, habitually if roughly, 750 words each day – approximately two to three pages freehand – even on a vacation cruise. I do not make a similar claim. What I do state is that almost every single day, just as I perform physical exercise, I participate in some aspect of the writing life. If you already possess the habit, then you might not find the following particularly useful. If, however, the discipline at times proves inconstant, if not elusive, or if you encounter a dry period, often too narrowly defined as writer’s block, consider the following a menu of choices attenuating to one end – your purpose, a completed work.
1-Working directly on a manuscript, e.g. novel, short story, poem, narrative essay.
2-Editing and/or revising said manuscript.
3-Reviewing or creating archived story ideas for inspiration.
4-Reviewing or even rediscovering forgotten, older, archived stories/poems/essays.
Challenge: At a writer’s conference many years ago, a young writer claimed he was unable to rewrite older stories of his and therefore (to my mind) he passed on an opportunity to improve a work he’d given up on. As one who has rewritten older stories in an attempt to improve them, though I find it difficult, it can be done. I’d even say it should be done if it occurs to the writer that something is missing.
5-Reviewing archived story ideas for inspiration. Question: Do you archive story ideas as they arise? I recommend it.
6-Weighing stories for a possible publishable collection.
7-Remaining alert to changes over time in writing style, themes, emotional tenor, choice of voice, language usage, etc. and what they might reveal about you the writer. It might, for example, reveal a seam of what influences you now as opposed to then. This in turn might generate the grist of stories, i.e. memories, or a spate of new ideas.
8-Not least, writing a blog in order to communicate to anyone interested in your writing life.
My hope is that perhaps one of these daily options will be helpful to one of you as they all have and continue to be to me.
On this occasion, I’d like to subrogate my writing to the work of another fiction writer in place of my current efforts.
Well over one month ago, I sent out more than 180 query letters to agents who indicate an interest in literary / commercial fiction. To date, I haven’t had a single one express interest in hearing more from me – a first. In my several previous efforts to enlist agented interest in a work of mine, at least a few would request to hear more, e.g. part of or the entire manuscript. This time – nothing.
Is this a boo-hoo exercise, an indulgence in self-pity? To the best of my knowledge, it is not. Rather, it’s an opportunity to focus away from myself and to offer praise where I feel praise is due. This is my introduction to a belief I have in something of importance, likely of great importance, to a writer: the value of mutual support of one writer’s vocal admiration for the work of another. We need to try to let the world know when one of us stumbles across writing that lights up a day.
Lisa Sandlin’s The Bird Boys was that unexpected gift for me. It’s a reason why I’m willing to read low-impact fiction in my belief that I will eventually discover a work that will transcend the reading moment and lift me to fiction’s ultimate joy – language that transfixes, if not transfigures, me.
Set in 1970’s Beaumont, Texas, The Bird Boys unites Tom Phelan, private investigator with Delpha Wade, ex-convict and co-investigator. Delpha has killed two men in self-defense, the first landing her in prison, gratis Texas justice and its attitude toward women who kill men, regardless of cause. Phelan gives her an opportunity when almost no one will. Though the story is framed about a missing person case, it is the helical feelings zephyring between Tom and Delpha that lend the story momentum, warmth, charm, and as much intrigue as the plot itself.
Though Tom is a solid, credible protagonist, it was Delpha, not well-educated but inherently bright, honest and aware, who fascinated me most. I found myself looking forward to each chapter that focused more upon how her mind worked, how she made her way forward in a world more mysterious than the actual criminal case, as she adhered to her rules for living.
Above all, it was the author Sandlin’s excellent, original writing that impelled me from page to page. I’d describe it as atypical Southern, observant, pitch-perfect, witty but never saccharine. Her characters – major, minor – and how they interact are worth the journey, especially when they get talking. Sandlin allows each of them their own patch of intelligence, never demeaning an individual with yokel banality.
The satisfaction I derived from the story was such that upon its conclusion, I said to my wife: “I found one I believe you’ll love.”
Blog 9 3/24/2020
Thoughts about Writing in Trying Times
A challenge for all of us currently, in our geographically narrowed and socially straitened lives, is to find purpose in each day, concomitantly avoiding a drift toward lethargy.
For me, the coronavirus pandemic has opened up a time for thinking, the progenitor for so much of what I do, including, of course, writing. As a “retired” person, one could say I’ve all the time in the world to think. Okay, but do I actually do that, exercise my critical faculties when the opportunity looms? I would guess not as much as I could, though I’m known as a thinker – or perhaps someone lost in thought – by those closest to me. Categorically, thinking – deep, mystery-probing thinking – is crucial to a writer or anyone contemplating life, especially its purpose.
Thinking is the first step in creativity of any kind, lots of it. In that vein, I believe anyone could benefit from a creative outlet, a purpose in itself. You do it because, foremost, it’s fulfilling. You can create wherever, forever.
Again, for me, creativity goes hand-in-hand with reading. Food for the mind and plentiful, reading nourishes thinking (and the reverse, as well). I could almost cry for those who do not read, an entire universe of the imagination left fallow or ignored. How many times has a unique writing idea or even a world-affecting idea been catalyzed by reading a novel?
To stay with writing, more broadly with creativity, can the process be therapeutic? I believe so for others, know so for myself.
Creativity – writing in my case – can help combat a sense of isolation and aloneness, the latter susceptible to sliding into loneliness or even depression, a challenge for our sheltering times. It may suggest a contradiction when the act of writing can be, to an extent, self-isolating. But when I’m writing (or reading), I’m always with an old friend. My mind – as it reaches toward and probes a new way of imagining – works in rhythms, revealing unforeseen patterns and connections that are not only salubrious, but generative of creativity.
Then too, writing (creating) is never a passive activity that staring at a tiny screen too often is. When writing, one’s mind is fully engaged at its frontiers, pushing at them for insight.
By coupling some aspect of the writing process with a physical activity almost every day, e.g. walking, I believe the combination is therapeutic, boosting a sense of accomplishment and of well-being ─ of not just sheltering, but living.
Criticism. The word evokes an array of mixed feelings. I think of lyrics from an old song: “War – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” I substitute “criticism” for “war.” Do I believe that, believe that criticism is good for absolutely nothing? I’d like to. But, of course, I don’t.
Criticism is as much a part of this world, a necessary part, as creativity. It is here and it always will be in some form or other. Someone does something, especially when it’s creative? Very quickly someone else will offer an opinion about it, often unsolicited. In this day of online trolling, it has become an ugly problem. That said, as if I had a choice in the matter, criticism should be as much a part of this world as creativity. I view them as counterparts, at best ostensibly producing a state of balance.
Please know, I make this claim simultaneously admitting that I’ve always struggled with criticism, even when I sought it, particularly and not surprisingly negative criticism. (Perhaps the only thing worse when it comes to something one has created is no criticism, no reaction at all. It would be as if a work landed and left no imprint.)
Never a fan of rejection (who is?), no criticism of me ever seemed to carry the weight of someone assessing the worth of my words. I seize with internal tremors facing literary criticism. Sounds pitiful, doesn’t it? It probably is – except for those of you who have experienced something akin.
All that said, there’s an art to criticism, I believe, if the critic’s desire is to be constructive. To accomplish that, criticism must be offered in carefully measured terms. It is not always. At times, it can be brutal. And when it is, when I see it in a review, much less when I experience it, I’ll ask myself: Was that necessary? To what end? If criticism is not to help a writer (or anyone who attempts to create), then what is the point? In my case, when it’s my turn to critique, I recall the homily, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it.” Okay, overly simplistic. But I look for something positive to focus on, allowing silence speak for aspects I choose not to comment on. I leave it to the writer to discern if my silence is conspicuous.
At times, I’ve wondered about the part happenstance may play in criticism, e.g. the critic’s mood. Did something brush against a nerve of the critic, a closely cherished opinion? To what standard is a writer being held by a critic? Was the critic reading-exhausted (or life-exhausted) when that critique was offered? Conversely, did the writer touch upon something that was personally disagreeable to the critic? What I’m getting at is the human factor that comes into play when a critic criticizes. Since it cannot be avoided, it remains up to the critic to neutralize personal bias in order to offer a fair assessment of a work, i.e. the writer’s heart’s blood. But then, just as the writer / creator, the critic remains a human being, subject to all that lies within.
If the critic rationalizes brutality as “just being honest,” is that true? Can one be honest and still embed critique in considered sensitivity? I believe so. It might take a bit longer, patience required, to weigh one’s worlds more carefully.
What about the presumptive criticism, uninvited, by a reader? I tend to cringe at that, especially at a book signing. Years ago, my late (and beloved) father-in-law, a retired physician, asked if he could read a travelogue I kept of a trip to Scandinavia. At best, this was unshaped writing, raw, same-day, unedited recordings of my impressions as I experienced them. He, who had never written anything more lengthy than a prescription, read a single paragraph and began to criticize. Amid my wonder at this phenomenon, he caught himself and refused to read further. Probably just as well. Amazing.
For interested readers, I have two major projects in the works for 2020. The first is to publish my coming-of-age novel, One of the Boys. This story follows Case Parnell from a childhood in which Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) becomes his moral polestar. Adopting Atticus’s sense of fairness balanced with justice, Case struggles to match his mentor’s capacity for the mot juste. Two life-affecting incidents disrupt and mar Case’s coming-of-age trajectory: the first when his parents permanently separate at age eight, the second at seventeen when he’s devastated, accidentally overhearing a high school football coach mindlessly disparage him. The heart of the story follows Case as he comes to terms with the life he has as opposed to the life he tried to envision.
My current, untitled novel-in-progress, the second project I alluded to, is an update on a thirty-year-old movie, Batteries Not Included, a sweet story about fantasy drones promoting love among the denizens of an apartment building flaking with age. In my story, with scientific advances in drone technology and especially Artificial Intelligence (AI), I imagine a drone fomenting romance between two lonely people. Though I have already pursued considerable research on this project, I would remind any expert on AI and / or drone technology who might be tempted to pick nits (or worse per my likely errors), it’s foremost a love story.
In this installment, I’d like to briefly address the issue of research in my work, my approach to it and the reality it imposes upon me.
For me, research related to a novel is not something that ceases the moment I begin a first draft (pen and paper, written longhand). It remains an on-going process throughout the writing and the numerous revisions to follow. Until publication, I strive to remain open to new information that might have a bearing on what I write. True, it is my imagination at work, but, as much as possible, I want what is knowable to be correct or as closely so as possible. After all, whatever I write represents me.
To further focus this preference of mine, permit me to offer two examples. The first relates to a published work, Where Seldom Is Heard, a story of pursued justice set on an Indian reservation. Though I never mentioned it by name, I envisioned the Standing Rock Reservation overlapping North and South Dakota.
At one point, I decided I needed to reach farther for exactitude regarding tribal policing issues despite copious notes from online efforts. I called the reservation and, serendipitously, was connected to the tribal attorney. After an initial hesitation, he graciously answered my few questions once my purpose was clear to him. Thus, accuracy of detail was improved.
The second example relates to a work in progress, an as yet untitled story of two lonely people brought together by a drone. My idea of using an ever-learning robot, programmed with artificial intelligence (AI), to act as a matchmaker has necessitated daily re-visitation to drone sites to examine data on: drone specifications, materials including material physics and chemistry, issues of material lightness and strength, battery life, AI, flow dynamics, wind and solar power, etc. as well as on-the-cusp, cutting edge experimentation to further feed and reassure my imagination.
As many of you have likely experienced, there is almost always a precisionist (the gentlest way I can put it), a stickler for detail out there who will welcome the opportunity to point out to you (even better in a group setting) an avoidable factual or technical error no matter how tiny or insignificant to the story’s gist. Therefore, if possible, why not try to get it right? For those of you unaffected by the precisionist’s precision, no problem; I’d prefer to be ready for him - or her.
Once I’ve covered what appears to be known, I then turn to my imagination and drop the fetters.
In this blog, I’d like to address one of my ideas about a protagonist in a novel. For me, he / she must be credible to engage an adult reader’s suspension of disbelief. Therefore, at least for me, the protagonist cannot be a superhero, cannot rely on super-human powers. Nor can he / she depend upon the deus ex machina phenomenon, the idea of an intermediary suddenly materializing to lift the protagonist from a heretofore unresolvable dilemma. The great Dennis Lehane, in his early detective novels, tended to insert an almost indestructive character, Bubba, when his detective duo was at an impass. The character, while fun, pulled me from the story as something really occurring. It diminished my suspension of disbelief. If I can’t believe in him or her, I cannot write about it, much less sell it to a reader. The protagonist must be central to any problem resolution.
All that said, the protagonist can be big, strong, smart, supremely capable, you name it, but always within a human dimension. Beyond the latter, the protagonist becomes fantastic, and I’m not interested in writing (or reading) fantasy. Nothing against fantasy or fantasy lovers, but again, that’s not what I seek to write or read. I need to believe it could happen. That it could is a crucial part of what draws me into the suspense of a protagonist’s battle, whatever it may be.
No matter how imperfectly human a protagonist might be, he or she must be essentially moral, ethical in the end. A flawless, Galahadian figure would not do. Whatever his or her flaws, they must be acknowledged or, once acknowledged, accepted in the belief they can be overcome or at least worked on to prevent them from compromising or even contaminating the protagonist’s quest to battle iniquity.
In my novel, Harmony, for instance, my protagonist’s (the eponymous Harmony) primary flaw is a convergence of uncertainty about women and self-doubt regarding them. Despite excellent education and a probing intelligence, the flaw leads him to hesitate, to shy away from the very human companionship he seeks, leaving him marooned in loneliness.
If you have a comment as to my sense of a protagonist or a differing take on how you envision your protagonist, please, let me know on my Facebook page.
Among the ineffable rules that infuse my writing, and regardless how germane it might be to a plot, no animal will be tortured or killed in any story I write. If animal cruelty is ever implied, it is only in a historical sense or threatening situation to set a course toward redemption or retribution. This is a promise I make to any reader. A wounded animal will survive.
I know this goes against the literary grain of letting a story evolve rather than pre-setting it or, worse, forcing it. I don’t care. Knowing how I cringe when I news-read an act of cruelty toward an animal, any animal, I will not use an act of current animal cruelty to build suspense or for any other literary propulsion.
Growing up, my family had cats, generally one at a time. For Sue’s (my wife’s) family, it was dogs, usually Danes and, again, one at a time. That said, we have five animals at present, three cats (females), two dogs (males), all rescued. Do we sound certifiable? I wouldn’t argue with “Yes!” Do we know precisely how this came about? Vaguely, at best. I can say it evolved (that makes it sound orderly, doesn’t it?) years after our children left home. In other words, we can’t blame it on them.
If I felt accusatory (I don’t), I could blame the cats on Sue. With our oldest, Frenchie (French Blue, a gray) already ensconced, she bought home two black sister kittens, Tattoo (tuxedo, black chin fuzz on white) and Purr (who doesn’t, then does quietly). Did I participate in any decision-making process? Not that I can recall. Do I resent them? I love them.
As for the dogs, the oldest, Mufasa (largely Chow) and Marley, two years younger (largely white Lab), any accusations should be directed toward me. When I walked through our then North Carolina neighborhood with its laxly enforced leash laws, I carried dog biscuits. If confronted, guess what? Instant buddy. The problem: Mufasa, an alpha male, would follow me home. Eventually, his owner, overwhelmed with rescue dogs, let us have him. A year or two later, led by Mufasa, Marley arrived exhausted in an ice storm and stayed. Another big male, he was from the same neighbor’s dog pack. Again, I asked to take him; the neighbor agreed. Sue and I learned later that other neighbors were delighted with our decision, approving of our treatment of and care for the dogs. Do I regret my actions? I do not. I love the dogs, too.
So there we were, and here we are – three cats and two dogs where there was supposed to be only one cat. Putting it to paper this way, we don’t sound psychotic, do we? I’d dare say, no more than a little crazy. Crazy or not, my love of animals inspirits my writing as much as it guides it.
The products of science always outpace the ethics necessary for their proper use. Ethicists, due to the depth thinking they conduct for all of us, are always playing catch-up. Even with an ethical formulation to guide us, there are always unscrupulous practitioners who, in their quest for fame and fortune, will ignore ethical considerations. From the weight of this reality, I conceptualized Harmony out of a growing concern about the onrushing era of gene editing we are now entering.
My overarching concern – not mine alone – is that through gene manipulation we may eventually edit out experiences necessary for complete human development. As we seek perfection through genetic reworking, we may narrow our genetic make-up and, therefore, potential. If one were speaking of eliminating a genetic defect responsible for a terrible disease, e.g. Tay-Sachs, no problem. It’s the unanticipated effects, the unintended consequences that will also occur, that stir my angst, particularly as they might impact upon or unintentionally deaden the spectrum of empathic emotions. If, for example, we were to emerge from genetic tampering less able to experience empathy, shame, guilt, the emotions that enable us to balance ourselves in relation to others, would we be super-human or diminished in irretrievable ways? Would we emerge more separated from others than ever before? What might this portend in a futuristic sense?
It was from this murky concern that the idea of Harmony emerged. As an unedited FBI agent, Ari Harmony was hired precisely because a unit director sensed an emotional-spectrum narrowing of her gene-edited agents. It was her judgment that an unedited agent, exposed to a fuller range of human emotions, might instinctually possess an ability her enhanced agents were losing. It’s his knowledge and instinctive skills, whetted by unmodified emotions, that allow him to ferret out a serial killer overlooked by his “superior” fellow agents.
I’m not a science fiction writer by inclination, but since Harmony is set in 2044, my crime novel would seem to fall under the rubric of sci-fi as well. Hope you enjoy. Please let me know how you feel about it. A brief review on Amazon would be appreciated.
More on seizing creative ideas when they strike: Years ago (too many), Elmore Leonard, one of our pre-eminent crime fiction writers, addressed this subject in a manner as pithy as his dialogue. I’m unable to certify the setting, but as I recall it, he was sitting on a bench, possibly at a bus or trolley stop in New Orleans. He overheard one African-American man, chatting with another, use the expression, “Right from jump street.” My translation: Ab ovo. From the beginning. Is that accurate? I don’t know, but that’s how it speaks to me. Over the years, I’ve heard it shortened to “Right from the jump” to the even briefer “From the jump.”
To Leonard’s point, he indicated that expression was going into his next novel. It did. Prior to that, however, he recorded the words as soon as he arrived home, possibly sooner if a writing implement and a scrap of paper were available.
I have written story ideas – names, tones of voice, facial characteristics, expressive language, colloquialisms, attitudes, projections of an imagined life – on restaurant receipts, napkins, on a tiny reminder pad my wife carries, on whatever is at hand when something impinges one of my senses. If I’m driving, I’ll ask her to please record it.
My suggestion: Be ready! Act immediately! I’ve never consciously experienced writer’s block (not sure why), but I sense that being alert to the whirl of subject matter the world hurls at us is one of the reasons, perhaps even a key. I keep a folder labeled (and filled with) “story ideas.” Periodically, I’ll review it. I suspect I will never use the majority of the ideas. But they’re there, awaiting me to rediscover them, to cull one as a gardener lovingly harvests a morning bloom to brighten a breakfast table. It’s a start.
If there are subjects, pertaining to my writing life, you’d like me to address, please feel free to let me know. You can reach out to me on Facebook, and while you are there please like my page.
Where Do the Ideas Come From?
Not infrequently, I’ve been asked how I generate ideas for stories. My answers are likely as broad as the question. They come from stories I’ve read (I read a lot), stories I’m mulling, stories overheard, stories remembered, and of course, stories imagined. Often, what emerges is an amalgam.
On occasion, a story idea has been triggered by an article I’ve read, e.g. the obscene level of unaddressed violence, sexual and otherwise, directed against Native women on Indian reservations. The result, my published novel, Where Seldom Is Heard. A contest-winning short story, Smile A Mighty Jesus, emerged from an older, undereducated relative of a good friend who misinterpreted “spinal meningitis.” Some of my stories have been catalyzed by broad-based reading that encompasses geography and history.
One short story sprung from a newspaper article about a Jewish-American who served in the Israeli Defense Force and experienced action in Lebanon against Hezbollah. I tied it into another article about street hoodlums counting coup with a cowardly brand of “tagging” by selecting, at random, an unsuspecting pedestrian and punching him from ambush.
A novel not yet published, The All-American from Scuffletown, developed from a professional contact with a lifetime alcoholic who, in his own inimitable way, had led a fascinating and (in my estimation) morally estimable life. I decided I wanted to write about him; he wanted me to. After detailed consultation with him, and with his permission, I did.
My soon to be published crime novel, Harmony, set in 2044 (therefore, it falls under SciFi as well), evolved from rising concern about unintended consequences of human gene editing. Specifically, I fear we need to be as concerned about what we might lose as humans compared to what we hope to gain.
A great friend, Kathy F, has been a wellspring of ideas over many years. Inherently bright and unapologetic about her intelligence, it is nevertheless delivered in butchered English replete with colloquial witticisms, proverbs, old saws, and sayings from an extended family rich in a riot of unforgettable nicknames. My requirement: to listen.
If I had to narrow my explanations for idea generation, I would emphasize keying on alertness to something that perks a storyteller’s ear and to record it ASAP. If the idea appears as you’re falling asleep, in a conversational aside, or in a dream upon awakening, record it then.
Ultimately, It’s my (your) imagination that expands the idea into a story.