Tag: Donald Maass

Passive Heroine

 

     Recently on Writer Unboxed there was a discussion about passive characters. Now, 99% of writing coaches tell us to avoid passive characters like COVID-19. Thus, I was flummoxed by the suggestion that passive characters could be the protagonists in a story.

I’m now reading a book with a passive heroine. Despite threats to her home, her livelihood, and her beloved village,  she refuses to act. Why? She’s shy.

I can’t imagine how that premise got by an acquiring editor, but it did. The book is published by Random House.

The plot, setting and secondary characters are all appealing enough that I’m still turning the page. But, for all that there have been some laugh-out-loud moments, I’m still annoyed by the heroine. Surely she’ll have to break out of her shell sometime, but I’m half-way through the book and it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps the author hoped to provoke empathy in the reader by showing the heroine incapacitated by her extreme shyness, but in this reader, she only provokes irritation. Not a great way to promote sales.

In his book, Writing the Break-Out Novel, Donald Maass has a whole chapter on characters. The first requirement he lists is “larger than life.”  When your main character hides in a corner, it is hard to think of her as larger than life. In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Jack Bickham says, “don’t write about wimps when you can build strong, active characters.” Dwight Swain says the character “must care about something, feel that some aspect of his world is important — important enough to fight for.”

If all these giants of the writing business urge authors to create active characters, how did I end up reading a book about a crybaby? I well remember one of my many rejection letters saying that the heroine, whom I loved for her strength in the face of catastrophe, was too reactive. This editor wanted the lead character to “drive the story,” to be the agent of change, not to merely respond to situations beyond her control. 

The reviews for this passive heroine novel are mostly favourable, with many middle-of-the-road ratings. I ordered the book from my local library on the recommendation of some other authors. Despite my annoyance with the protagonist, I do find the writing engaging and the secondary characters are a world of fun.

What have I learned from all this?

Even the best advice in the world, is imperfect. An author can use that wisdom to improve her craft, but the story she writes must resonate with the writer if it is to resonate with the reader. I’m grateful for all the coaches and teachers and authors who have shared their knowledge and advice. I’m also grateful to this annoying heroine for showing me that adherence to “they say” is not the only route to publication.

Views: 57

Kindness Journal

sharing the light

In December of 2018 I ran a series of good will stories on this blog. The response was encouraging and spending the Christmas season watching for instances of good will lifted my spirits. I’ve missed the Christmas season this year, but for the New Year, I’m looking for deeds of kindness.

I got the idea from a fellow VIRA member, Judy Hudson. Life has been rather unkind to her for the past several months so she is hoping to show kindness to herself for 2020. In a stressed out, maxed out, tapped out world, a little self-kindness is a much needed antidote.

I confess, I’m rather self-indulgent with chocolate, coffee dates and a good book always ready to offer me comfort. I need a different kind of resolution. I’m going with writerly kindness–both giving and receiving. What does that mean? It means posting a review when I’ve enjoyed a book. Sending a fan letter if I’ve really enjoyed the book. Voting in those cover contests. Contributing to my local writers organization.  I’m sure you can think of more.

Regular readers of this blog know I’m a big fan of “Writer Unboxed.” Here is a group of gifted writers willing to share their wisdom, experience and advice just to make the writing world a better place. Donald Maas wrote a post in that forum that struck me as a most generous act of writerly kindness. From someone who is a giant in the world of fiction writing, came words of encouragement and sympathy for a writer who had fallen into the abyss,  I bookmarked that post and keep it handy for days when I wonder “why bother?”

Social media can be vicious, destructive and nasty. Or it can make a forum for people like the contributors of “Writer Unboxed.”  At one end of the spectrum lies hate and selfishness, at the other love and generosity. I’m not much on new year’s resolutions, but I do promise to make 2020 the year I say thank you to those kind souls among us. As the song says, “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.”

I invite you to share stories of writerly kindness in the comments section below. At the end of the year I’ll compile my favourite stories. Contributors will be entered in a draw for a free book for Christmas 2020. Spread the word, . . . and the love.

Views: 181

Genre as Training Ground

My book club’s choice for this month was a  book by an author I knew first as a romance writer. I looked forward to a gentle read. Wrong! The author had written what Donald Maass might call a “breakout” novel, the story that is deeper, more complex, bigger, and usually a better seller than the genre novel that preceded it. The book I just read achieved all of that.

Yet, I could still see the “genre” fingerprints in the work. There was The Writer’s Journey technique of a call to adventure, the refusal of the call and finally crossing the threshold that launched the protagonist into the story. Since there were two parallel stories, the author used this technique with both of them.

I could also detect Goal, Motivation, & Conflict on nearly every page. Each of the main characters was focussed on a goal of protecting family, motivated by love of family. Then the writer threw obstacle after obstacle in their way. Sometimes small goals were achieved and the story moved forward. Sometimes those goals were thwarted, leading to further complications. In one memorable scene the main goal appeared to be accomplished, only to turn to ashes. You can’t go home again, no matter how desperately you try.

True to her roots, the author included a romance, but it was a side bar, not the core of the novel. The book was not what I’d expected, but it was a good read and I’m sure our book club discussion will be lively.

Coming from my perspective as a romance writer, I found affirmation in this author’s journey from genre to mainstream. Nearly every writer dreams of writing the breakout novel, both for the financial reward and for the literary satisfaction. Based on this book, writing genre fiction is excellent training.

I’m always on the lookout for a breakout novel. Any suggestions?

Views: 121

If You Could Visit. . .

As mentioned before, I follow the blog Writers Unboxed. Some time ago, in response to a post about discouragement, Donald Maas wrote what amounts to a love letter for writers.  I printed out parts of it for future inspiration. You can read the whole post here.

After the Christmas break, I’m getting back into my writing routine, but finding it hard to pick up the pieces of the story. I’ve re-read Mr. Maas’ post and found one of his suggestions really touched a chord in me. He asked about my story world. If I could visit, where would I go, who would I speak to, what would I eat, where would I lay a flower? Just reading those lines seemed to give me permission to turn “work” into “play.”

I know exactly where I’d go in Prospect. I’d visit the Rockingham Hotel and have tea with Emma North. I’d wander the boardwalks and drop in at The Mercantile. No doubt Bella Barclay will give me an earful about the latest goings on. I’d wander by Rev. Stanton’s church and spend a little time by the duck pond. Nothing like squabbling ducks to raise the spirits.

At the end of the day, I’d hire a horse and take the road through the woods to Pine Creek Farm. When I reached the house, I’d leave my horse and walk up the hill to the orchard. There I’d sit on Sean’s bench beneath the Sweetheart Tree and watch the sunset. I might feel a little melancholy remembering Lottie’s early life, but from my perch, I can see Bridget and her little brother playing tag on the verandah. Present joy replaces past sorrow. I’ll linger until I see Sean and Michael come in from the fields and know the family is sitting around the kitchen table, secure, happy and full of love.

Now that I’ve had my imaginary visit to Prospect, I’m eager to pick up my pen and continue the story. Thank you, Donald Maas for your insight and your compassionate words for writers.

How about you? Any story places you’d love to visit in person? Would you go back in time to Green Gables, perhaps, or are you a seeker who longs to float among the stars with Mary Robinette Kowal? What makes you want to visit a fictional place– the people? the landscape? the time period? Would you visit Prospect if you could? If you don’t know the gold rush town of Prospect, B.C. visit my books page and meet some of the characters.

 

Views: 143

Beware the Passive Heroine

I read two books recently on the theme of war, refugees and women.  One book had me nodding off after every page, the other kept me awake and frightened the whole time.  What was the difference?  Both dealt with women caught up in violence they couldn’t control, both faced starvation, brutality, and terror. Why was the effect of the stories so different for me?

The answer lies in the inner life of the heroines. One was full of passion and determination. The other was passive, bowing her head in submission as one calamity after another befell her. Instead of inspiring me with sympathy, this character pushed me away with her constant cry of “woe is me.”

Alice Orr in her book, No more Rejections, calls this the lacklustre character. She says “a protagonist [must] stand out among the very large pack of . . . submissions.” The late Jack Bickham in his book The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes has a whole chapter called “Don’t Write about Wimps.” Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, counsels writers to create “larger-than-life” protagonists.

Obviously, avoiding passive heroines is a foundational pillar in writing fiction, but I’ve never seen it so clearly demonstrated as I did in the two books I mentioned above. It’s a good lesson. Both books were critically successful, but, as a reader I much preferred one over the other.

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that the heroine in my current story spends too much time thinking and not enough time doing. So, while one book bored me and the other scared me, I’ve learned a valuable lesson about story-telling.  Off to edit!

Views: 232

Power of Symbols

Two things happened yesterday that got me thinking  about the power of symbols.  The first was a package from home.  For years, after I moved away from home and ended up half-way across the country, I felt Christmas didn’t really begin in my own house until the parcel from my mother arrived.  It was filled with little presents and silly rhymes, a piece of fruit cake and all the love my mom could pack into a box.  My parents have been gone now for years, but my dear sister-in-law continues the tradition.  When I get a box with the farm on the return address, my spirits rise and I feel like Christmas is really here.

The second thing  happened when I looked out my window at an inky blue sky — probably another storm on the way — and a pair of white swans flew by, their wings shining white in a trace of sunshine.  A pair of birds flying in close formation is a powerful symbol for me.  Once again, my heart lifted and I knew all was right in my personal world.

As writers we need to draw on the power of symbolism to strengthen our stories, or to feed the muse.  Think of the enduring stories of the ages.  Tara is a powerful symbol in Gone With the Wind.  For Scarlet, her home is worth any sacrifice, any lie, any relationship.  She draws her strength, her will and her courage from that house.  Can you see a raven without thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and death?  “Scarlet Letter” has entered our language as a symbol of shame and repression because of Hawthorne’s book.  The Titanic may have been a great ship, but now it is a symbol of looming disaster. Or how about the yellow brick road?  Don’t we all want to follow it to Emerald City?

In his Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maass says, “Symbols — which generally are physical objects but may also be phrases, gestures, animals or just about anything — pack a powerful lot of meaning into a small package.”  He goes on to suggest that the writer often has included symbols in the story without realizing it.  He urges writers to find those hidden symbols and make them shine.  Use them to add polish to your story, to plant an idea in your reader’s mind, to create a lasting image that will give your story enduring power.

In my book The Man for Her, Lottie’s yellow silk dress is a symbol, an outward expression of an internal change.  “The feel of the yellow silk beneath her rough fingers had stirred such an ache of desire, a yearning for gentleness and softness and pretty things.”   I refer to yellow silk only three  times in the book, but it means so much more than the colour of a fine fabric.  When she wears that dress she is no longer “Crazy Lottie” but a young woman ready to give her heart to a man.

Christmas time is rife with symbols, some universal, like a star or shepherds or a stable, others more personal, like a package from home or a pair of swans.   Look for those symbols in your writing and make them work harder.  Your readers will thank you.

Views: 213

© 2024 Alice Valdal

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑