Tuesday, October 28, 2014


So here’s my problem. I can’t be faithful. I’m not monogamous. When it comes to fiction, I just can’t do it. It would be simpler if I could be. But both as a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to many different genres: literary, fantasy, realism, mystery, sci-fi. To make matters worse I like serious novels that also have some kind of humor in them. I’m most excited by fiction that blends many of these genres and elements.

I’m a mess.

I was on a panel at a writing conference recently and one of my fellow-panelists said that the problem with genre bending/blending was expectation. An editor on the panel agreed. His point: The audience has certain expectations for a genre and if those expectations aren’t met they’re not going to like the novel.

The panelist said that it was like going to a soft-drink machine and pressing Coke and getting a Dr. Pepper. I absolutely see how that would be disappointing, even maddening. I don’t care for Dr. Pepper. Sorry DP fans.

And I do get what he means about expectation, but many of the writers I love have convinced readers to know them well enough to know that their fiction won’t fit neatly into a genre label. A few examples would be Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, Chris Moore—or they wander into new territory and later everyone says they’re writing in a new genre-- like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magical realism.

I like realism as a writer and a reader. I’m a fan of John Green and Pete Hautman (who writes in many genres) and Rainbow Rowell and Francisco Stork—to name a few. But I also like fantasy—The Golden Compass, Elsewhere, Harry Potter, and many, many others.

These two genres, when done well, really get me excited as a reader.

They also excite me as a writer but I don’t want to have to choose. I don’t want to write one or the other. I want to write realism and I want to write fantasy. Both at the same time. I’m telling people I write fantastical realism (which I’m pretty sure isn’t a real literary term but if I say it with confidence maybe I won’t get called on it) to try to describe what I do in Utopia, Iowa—my novel coming out early next year. There are magical creatures in that novel and people who have gifts that are magical. But the day to day of the novel has many ordinary moments. My main character has pretty normal teenager problems: girl problems, school problems, parent problems. He has a dream of becoming a writer for movies and it both scares and exhilarates him. He also happens to see ghosts.

This is what excites me as a writer. This mix.

To make matters worse and add yet another element: I like to write characters who find humor in our sad, strange, funny world. So that’s another thing that excites me when I write fiction. Writing with a sense of humor about the strange and sometimes serious aspects of our world. There are many writers who have this particular problem: Gaiman, Prachett, Green and, of course, Mr. Dickens and Ms. Austen. Many more. I love reading fiction that has this element, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I love writing it.

Maybe all I’m saying in all this is that as both a writer and a reader the books that most excite me are the ones that surprise me in some way.

I think you have to write what excites you. Anything less—even if it will be easier to sell because it fits more neatly into a category—will be less. The reader will notice. And, more importantly, you won’t have nearly as much fun. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Even Character Driven Fiction Needs Plot & Utopia, Iowa GIVEAWAY


Just listed this morning (Oct. 15) on goodreads—I’m giving away 5 signed ARCs of the very novel I use as an example in this post (what a coincidence!)—Utopia, Iowa. Sign up for the giveaway and add the book to your reading list if you’re so inclined. Thanks.

When I sit down to write a novel, I try to think of a situation for a character to be in. I don’t usually get it right the first time or even the second or third but I get some of it right and then a little more on the next draft and a little more and so on. The way I develop my situation is by writing my way into my main character. First drafts are always hideous and my main character—if I were to visualize—would be this monster, half-formed and everything out of proportion. Dr. Frankenstein and I have a lot in common.

But as I write, I start to know things about my character because of how he/she speaks and how he/she reacts or creates actions in the scenes and the situations he/she gets into. I have to be patient. This awkward stage is very hard to get through.

My character is driving the story—particularly what my character needs and wants within a specific situation. Scene by scene this might be small things. He/she wants a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate or to have sex or not to have sex. But in the marathon of the novel there will be something deeper that he or she wants, something I think of as desire (and Robert Olen Butler calls yearning) in order to distinguish it from all the other many, many wants a character has. This will help direct the entire novel’s plot.

So one connection between plot and character is that what the character desires, believes they need, will cause them to act and react in certain ways and this will cause things to happen in the novel. Keeping the link between the two helps me focus my story.

Again, character driven fiction will rely heavily—surprise, surprise—on the character(s). So in addition to this desire, you need to understand primary characteristics of your character. For me, character is where it all starts. BUT we still need plot in character driven stories, we need narrative drive, and the connection between plot and character, a symbiotic relationship, is going to power the story forward. It can create opportunities for depth and excitement. Plot and character, linked in a symbiotic relationship, can help you make those connections that are so important in writing a novel and in the finished novel.

In Utopia, Iowa, my main character, Jack, has many things he wants: he wants to write for the movies but is afraid to follow his dream; he wants to leave his small town of Utopia, Iowa, but at the same time doesn’t (he loves the quirky little town and its people but he also has the desire to see more of the world); he wants to be more than just best friends with his best friend, Ash, but is afraid that trying to make this happen will destroy their relationship as best friends. You can see the conflicts these “wants” of my character will create. You can probably imagine different ways these wants might play out in the novel. But, in addition to all of these, there’s an underlying character trait in Jack that pushes the story along—he likes to help people. In his case, because he, like many in his family, happens to see dead people, some of these people he helps are ghosts. Essential to this particular story is the fact that a dead girl comes to him, one who has been murdered, and asks him to help her find who killed her and how she died (she has death amnesia which, in case you are unfamiliar with this particular condition, is very uncommon among the dead). He should ignore her—he knows trying to find answers for her could get him into trouble-- but…he can’t.

I love character driven fiction but I think sometimes writers who say their fiction is character driven decide this somehow means they don’t need plot. Au contraire, the connection between plot and character is what makes for good writing and good reading.

Happy Writing…