Jul 17

Whitewashing Your Characters

Fiction writers whitewash characters when, for example, they base a character on a person whose real name is Rosenstein, but they rename him Stone and erase anything Jewish about him or his family.

I would bet you meet many more Johnsons, Smiths, Thompsons, Robertses, Millers and Joneses in fiction than in real life. Authors do this "ethnic cleansing" hoping to "universalize" the characters or create a "blank slate" supposedly without ethnic or historical baggage. Screenwriters, actors, even toymakers do this too. Mattel's Barbie doll, Barbie Millicent Roberts, dumped her boyfriend Ken Carson for Blaine Gordon. Midge Hadley Sherwood was Barbie's best friend and Francie Fairchild her cousin. Barbie's darker-skinned friends, such as Christie, an African-American, have no surnames. It was a business decision to tiptoe around the issue. All "ethnic" names come with "baggage," it seems. Can't name her Christie Jefferson, or Christie Afolayan or Christie Muhammad. All loaded with baggage! Better no surname at all.

Paging through the short fiction in a recent literary magazine, all of it "realistic" and set in the U.S.A., I found characters named Freeman and Mr. Henry. All the other characters, perhaps 30 in all, had first names only. Yet in reality your surname rules your life. Why such a dearth of surnames? Tension around this issue -- do ethnic names trigger reader prejudice? Do non-Anglo names distract the reader?-- makes it simpler for creators to default to Anglo in name and in being -- or, simplest, to default to no surname at all. This is in tandem with the tendency not to describe or name the story's setting, thinking that's more "universal." (Editors call this "hoboes in space.") As fiction writers gain experience they do this less and less.

Anglo surnames for your characters are not universal or neutral. Simply be aware of that when naming characters. At one time we opened the phone book at random to break ourselves of the "Johnson" and "Thompson" impulse. Today, seek out the surnames of the football-team lineup at the college nearest you. Because of migration and immigration, legal or not, nearly every nation is a nation of immigrants. Is it too much trouble to imagine what traces of Germany might be left in a character who is a fourth-generation American named Hochmuller? And no fair substituting Irish or Scottish names. Not everybody is from the U.K.!

Jun 09

Two "Things" That Will Improve Your Poems and Prose

Here's an easy way to improve your poetry and prose. I've noticed that many drafts, mine and others', include "placeholder" words. We use these words so often on a normal day that we might not realize they are like empty railroad boxcars. They exist to be filled (later) with specifics and meanings. The most common of these are:
  • Something
  • Nothing
  • Anything
  • Everything
  • Everywhere
  • Anywhere
  • Someone
  • Someplace
  • Somehow

If you're not careful you can end up with a line such as "Something happened and things changed," and it will sound so much like everyday speech you won't even notice it until "someone" in your workshop points it out! Especially, red-flag the word "thing" wherever you see it!

There are two "things" to do with these words (or rather, here are two suggestions for improving upon such wording when you find it):

1. Be precise; replace the vagary with the truth of the matter. Is it true that "There was nothing there"? Or was it more like, "The room had no furniture"? Was it "Somehow she got the money someplace," or "She tapped her relatives for money and borrowed from her friends"?

2.  See if you can excise the word. Example: "I will see her again sometime."

Apr 27

The 13 Most Common Errors on a Novel's First Page

Jane Friedman, e-book editor and publisher, wants to see on a novel's first page "an interesting character and the problem they face." She read a stack of opening pages aloud and told her audience at the Missouri Writers Guild conference about the red flags that tell an editor that a novel in manuscript is not yet ready to be published. She stressed that she reads at least the first 10 pages of each manuscript, but listed these as the most common first-page errors and cliches:

  • Over-explanation. This includes prologues. "Prologues are never needed. You can usually throw them in the garbage. They're usually put on as a patch."
  • Too much data. "You're trying to seduce your reader, not burden them," Friedman said.
  • Over-writing, or "trying too hard." "We think the more description we add, the more vivid it will be; but we don't want to be distracted from the story" we open the book for.
  • Beginning the novel with an interior monologue or reflection. Usually this is written as the thoughts of a character who is sitting alone, musing and thinking back on a story. Just start with the story.
  • Beginning the novel with a flashback. Friedman isn't entirely anti-flashback, but the novel's opening page is the wrong place for one.
  • Beginning a novel with the "waking up sequence" of a character waking, getting out of bed, putting on slippers, heading for the kitchen and coffee...a cliche
  • Related cliche: beginning the novel with an alarm clock or a ringing phone
  • Starting out with an "ordinary day's routine" for the main character
  • She sees a lot of manuscripts beginning with "crisis moments" that aren't unique: "When the doctor said 'malignant,' my life changed forever..." or "The day my father left us I was seven years old..."
  • Don't start with a dialogue that doesn't have any context. Building characterization through dialogue is okay anywhere else but there.
  • Starting with backstory, or "going back, then going forward."
  • Info dump. More formally called "exposition."
  • Character dump, which is four or more characters on the first page.

And, Friedman said, the "biggest bad advice" about opening a novel is "Start with action." She said she thinks, "But I haven't been made to care about these characters yet." Ideally, the first page introduces a character the reader feels he or she knows and understands.

Jul 13

Why Housepets Are Not a Good Subject for a Book

Like our families and our children, our pets are extremely interesting and important -- to us. A writer has to sweat to make an editor and readership care about our housepets as we do, mainly by presenting a unique and dramatic story, if there is one. Start an essay by describing a pet cat, and then for comparison, describe a previous pet cat that let itself get dressed in doll clothes, and the reader will think, "This is old news."

Housepets are not a good subject for fiction, either. We love them but they say nothing, do little and mostly go nowhere, and that doesn’t make for enjoyable fiction. Fiction narrated by a pet is old-old news. Think Black Beauty (1877).

Famous writers have published books about housepets. Virginia Woolf wrote Flush. I haven't read it. May Sarton wrote The Fur Person (a cat). Some people love it; there's even a gift edition. I haven't read it. Same with Doris Lessing's On Cats. I'm inclined to read about people, and then maybe animals other than housepets, as in Call of the Wild, Giraffe, and Watership Down. Readers are still recommending Watership Down, a misleading title for a novel about a colony of wild rabbits, published in 1972. I heard it recommended just yesterday. I have even read Will I See Fido in Heaven?, a work of nonfiction. (BTW, the answer, just as I had hoped, is "Yes.")


Having had pets I know how dear they are, and their lives have a few dramatic moments, but a reader is thinking, “What’s in this for me?” The author bursting to tell a pet story should write it, but for a readership, prepare to deliver a story never before told.
Jun 28

Fiction Writing Tips: The Rules of Three

Drab? Unexciting? "Shallow"? My short fiction was. As so much of it is! Why?

The questions of art are big, but the answers are small. Story writers, try these (my original discoveries):

1. Give three traits to every character, including the walk-ons.
2. Take your main characters to three distinctly different settings.
3. Have no more than three main characters.