Getting Out of Your Own Way


To be a good author you must write buck naked. I suggest you close the shades and in my case, remove all mirrors. I don’t write humor or horror.
I’m not kidding. You can keep your clothes on if you must, but otherwise you should strip yourself bare. You cannot wear your teacher hat, your mommy hat, your religious instructor hat, your moral majority hat or even your Scout merit badges. You can’t teach, preach, instruct or lead. You can’t have an agenda. You are there to tell a story. That is your mission, your primary objective. If your objective is anything else, you get in your own way, it shows and it’s never a good thing.
None of this is to say that a book doesn’t illuminate, lead, instruct, teach or effect change. Good ones can. But that should not be your purpose for writing it. A novelist is a storyteller. And the novelist shouldn’t be telling his or her own story again and again, but telling the character’s story.
How do you know the difference?
How often does the word “I” comes into play would be your first hint.
Let’s look first at story conception.

Did you say: I want to write a book about. . . .
That’s a clue that you’ve gotten in your own way. I did this recently. “I want to write a book about. . . .” Hey, it’s a great idea. So good, I’m not telling you. I started getting research. I made copious notes. And I ended up with squat. A lifeless bunch of twaddle. I ignored my own rule. I was writing about an occupation not a person. Oh, now that’s interesting. It was like reading a resume. I wasn’t telling a human story. I wasn’t telling story at all. I was stepping all over MYSELF. I had an agenda, not a novel. Now, this is still a good idea. For background. But I need a human being. I need a reason for my person to want this occupation, to need it. I do think I can work backwards. I can ask myself who are the people who do this work, why do they do it, what drives them internally and start developing a person and let my person tell me his story. But my character and his story have to come first.

Back to concept: Ripped from the headlines—Again is it I can write a story about self mutilators! Yea. Or girls that hide their pregnancies and give birth and leave the babies to die, or. . . fill in the blank. Note the “I can write a story about.” It started with an agenda. It should start with a character. If the author keeps to the agenda of showing the why and wherefores of self mutilation, it will always be a problem novel. It will never be a novel about a person with a real problems.

If you really have an agenda, political, social, ecological, etc. and that’s your purpose—your novel will show that first and foremost. Your author self will show up and interfere with your characters and it will ring false. Get out of your characters way. The World According the Larry worked because Larry was believable. He was real. The author let Larry lead the way, she didn’t push him. There are still kids that believe Larry is real and the book was a diary. If there had been any author intrusion that couldn’t have happened.

Judgement: My biggie. If you have looked back over your shoulder as an adult and in any way judged any of your characters actions, deemed one character heroic or another a villain by slanting the book you have gotten in your own way. You are there to present. This isn’t court, you are not the prosecution or defense.
In my book, Shattering Glass, most people came away liking Young, they didn’t think he should have gone to prison, etc. Well, you want to know what the author thought about Young. I thought Young was guilty as sin. I thought he was weak and spineless. I thought he could have stopped the whole murder from happening if he had just said one word to one person: the word no to Rob. Somewhere along the line. But I left me out of the equation. I put in there what Young did and why he did it. I didn’t judge him from my adult perspective.
Lots of people hated Rob. Saw him as evil. The author saw him as wounded and trying desperately to staunch his bleeding with any thing he could find. He didn’t know what good looked like so he grabbed for bad. The only thing he’d been taught. I think that’s all in the book if you look at Rob’s actions and his history, but I didn’t spell it out. I didn’t slant my story to make him a victim. I was totally surprised when some people saw Rob as evil. Part of me wants to scream—“he’s a kid—an abused, confused kid. He did something horrible, don’t condone it, but give him therapy, straighten him out don’t throw him away.” But the author in my says “Yes! I stayed out of it.” The readers were the jury. They saw the evidence and they judged for themselves. I didn’t lead them anywhere.

Now after concept: And we got a little bit off concept in the last part but let’s look at voice and presentation. Whose voice should be presented in your book? I think it’s so confusing when reviewers and editors talk about an “author’s voice” being so distinctive. Ouch. They say that like it is a good thing. Now if the reviewers mean Author X’s CHARCTERS’ voices are always distinctive-- then sign me up. That’s a compliment. Now, agreed every author has a certain style, a way of approaching material that probably would allow someone familiar with that person’s work to pick an unsigned work out of a pile of manuscripts. But I’m not calling that voice. To me, and maybe this is wrong, but voice belongs to the character and to one particular work. Or should. When voice becomes interchangeable between an author’s works­he’s getting in his/her own way. The author’s voice has become the main character’s voice-and this is never a good thing.
A street kid that has been kicked around since he was a zygote, has never done well in school, is smaller than everyone else, relys on flight rather than fight, comes from the South, but is mean and dangerous as a coiled rattle snake has a voice. It is not the same voice of a shy girl from a rich, old family in the South preparing for her debut. It is not the same voice as a street kid that ran from an abusive step father after receiving schooling for 14 years in preparatory school, was on the football team and can organize the younger and dumber street kids to do his bidding. The voice has to match y our character. It has nothing whatever to do with the author. Well, the author does type it.
The worst mistake I see is the author trying to be young and hip. Let’s just get this right out of the way. Teens will not let us be young and hip. That’s their territory. If you try hard to be hip (just using the word hip, gives it all away, doesn’t it?) you’ve gotten in your own way. Write for the things that stay the same—the fears, the desires, the passions­that other stuff changes hourly anyway.
I’m going to mention character names here. I usually wouldn’t but I’m seeing a trend, not only in YA fiction but in adult fiction—well in other places, like celebrity babies—to slap a totally strange name on a character and then- nothing. In many of the instances this seems to be a short cut to characterization. The author seems to think that a strange moniker gives his character a sort of verisimilitude. Now, I am obsessive about character names. We can do a whole short session on names, so maybe this is just me, but names are important. You don’t slap a name on a character with no good reason. If your character has an odd name, I feel you are beholden to tell us why, or at least how this has affected the character. Because a name does affect a person.
But if you give your character a strange name to make him or her stand out in the first page and grab attention from an editor--then you got in your own way. And you were mean to your main character besides.
The I WRITE PRETTY SOMEDAY SYNDROME­don’t groan. We all have it. There’s all those gorgeous phrases inside us waiting to leap out. Those polished, pearly sentences--usually descriptive. We want to use them. We want people to read them and sigh. This is the reality.
Description is great. But kids don’t want to read it. We need some. We don’t need a lot. Beautiful writing is wonderful, but make sure it is necessary--does it advance the plot, makes of see or feel that character--get the mood established­and is establishing the mood justifiable right now? YA and middle grade books are lean, mean fighting machines--if you put anything in there for your own ego-do I have to say it? Repeat after me-- you got in your own way. Now, I can think of some Printz winners that have done exactly this. So you may ignore my take on this. Reviewers may eat this up with a spoon. It may win you some prizes. This is a decision you make. I find it to be author intrusion. Some serious scholars agree with me. Many teens readers seriously agree. Most, but not all of these prize winner books don’t get checked out of the library much. But the libraries buy them the first year.

When your plot and your character disagree. Huh? What do you mean? It’s my book, my character does what I tell her to do?
What’s wrong with that sentence?
I’m hoping all of you shouted—you got in your own way. Excellent. Those who answered in correctly will not be given drinks this evening.
When I first got into writing, I heard authors talking about their characters as if they were real people. I heard them say things like “I start writing and the character tells me what to do.” And I thought, “How very precious. What a load of pretentious crap.”

Well, now I’m here to unload all that pretentious crap on you. It sounds precious. It sounds pretentious and if it’s crap, then so be it, But it is the real deal. You cannot tell your characters what to do. They don’t play well with authors. Your characters are the boss of you. If you have plans for them (plot) and they disagree--the character wins. You, the author cannot make the character do what he/she wouldn’t do. Period. He or she has to make his own way. Your plot has to shrug its shoulders and step aside. I’m sorry, I’ve been there. Great plot. But my character kept developing in surprising ways. She was not going to do what she had to do to set the final plot twist twisting. In was not in her nature. Just wasn’t there. By golly, she was gonna. I kept to the plot. Couldn’t sell that book. Got close. But no cigar. Everyone loved the idea, but felt that if just “fell apart somehow.” So, I went back, got out of my own way and let the character do what she had to do. It took the ending to a new place and a contract. I had to do major restructuring, but this time it was right. I was out of the way and Sunny was running the show. Plot is good. I like plot. I think your characters have to DO something. But plot is secondary to character. Character dictates plot. Characters dictate authors. Oh face it, characters are dictators. All pun intended.