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Friday, July 9, 2010

Writing Tips for the Practical-Minded #15: Please don't force me to read about a namby-pamby weakling...

I'm nearly finished ruminating on Gone with the Wind, but bear with me as I use it as a springboard to talk about a larger issue for writers hoping to create memorable characters.

How interesting would this story have been if Scarlett had said, "Fiddle-dee-dee.  I just can't figure out how to grow enough food for my starving family.  And keeping the books for my bumbling husband's business is just beyond me because math is hard.  Ashley?  Could you fix these problems for me?  No?  You're as big of an incompetent fool as I am?  Oh, whatever shall we do?  I think I'll just sit down and quit."?

How interesting would Melanie have been, if she hadn't been the kind of woman to rise from the bed where she lay, near-dead from complications of childbirth, and grab her dead brother's sword before staggering downstairs to save Scarlett from rape?

When my agent marketed my first novel, an environmental thriller called Wounded Earth, it got a lot of interest from some very prominent publishers and editors around New York.  There were nibbles from Hollywood.  I thought it was the beginning of my career as a writer, but I had to wait three more years before Artifacts eventually sold.  So what happened to Wounded Earth?

The feedback we got was that the editorial committee at an unnamed publisher loved it.  They loved the story, they loved the evil villain Babykiller, and they loved the heroine, a brilliant environmental scientist named Larabeth McLeod with an Achilles' heel in the form of the daughter she has never met.  Unfortunately, they thought she was too intelligent and strong and edgy for their readership.  In other words, only smart people like themselves could appreciate this book. 

Is it just me, or do you as a reader feel a little hurt by this?

As I began writing Artifacts, I asked myself if I wanted to write a meeker heroine.  Then I asked myself if I wanted to live with a wimp for 90,000 words.  The answer was a resounding no, so Faye Longchamp was born.  People seem to like Faye, and I do, too.  What is more, I respect her.

My current publisher does not do thrillers, so Larabeth McLeod has been sitting on my shelf for ten years.  But now, thanks to the wonders of e-publishing, I've been able to make Wounded Earth available to anybody with a computer or ereader or smart phone or ipad.  Just to make it easy for people who are interested in purchasing it, here are links to Amazon and Smashwords:

Smashwords edition of WOUNDED EARTH

If you're a writer, consider classic characters like Laura Ingalls of the Little House books and Anne of Green Gables.  Do you remember the passion that those two little girls put into being first in their classes?  If Victorian children were drawn to Anne, who certainly did not fit the prescribed standards for girls of their era, and if children ever since the Depression have been drawn to Laura, and if children ever since the Civil War have been drawn to Louisa May Alcott's little women, I think we can safely say that our readers are looking for female characters with fire in their bellies...characters like Scarlett and Melanie.  And they are looking for male characters who are their equals.

Nobody remembers the characters in those books who hewed to society's expectations, so remember that when you draft your characters.  Give them a passion for something they cannot have, like my Larabeth McLeod's lifelong grief for the daughter she gave up for adoption.  Give them Jo March's need to be a published author, even if she had to write trashy stories for tabloids.  Give them Anne of Green Gables' longing for a home.

And if you have ever met anyone whose favorite character in Gone with the Wind was the namby-pamby Ashley Wilkes, please drop me a line...although I'm not sure I'll believe you.


  1. So, Mary Anna, I guess what you're saying is you refuse to 'dumb-down' your story and characters. Well, readers are not dumb and really good editors and publishers would do well to remember that.
    To you, Mary Anna, I say...
    YEAH! WOOHOO!! Go get 'em!
    I'd send fireworks but I don't know how in a comment.
    I'm ordering Wounded Earth and I'm going to read anything else you write!

    Giggles and Guns

  2. After being married to a wimpy man for nearly 19 years (no longer,) I love women who kick butt! And if I can read about in an intelligent novel, so much the better - thank you so much! Pardon the language but intelligence kicks ass!

  3. Consider your language pardoned. :)

    I dwelled on butt-kicking women, since they are the protagonists in my novels, but the men in their lives kick butt, too. I like that in a man. :-D