27 May 2009

The unlikeable character

It's always hard having an unlikeable character as your protagonist. After all, you want your readers to keep reading, right? So if your character is unlikeable, you've got a harder task to keep your readers interested -- if they don't like the character, why should they care what happens to him or her? And if they don't care, what's going to compel them to read on?

There is more than one way to get around this. You can write brilliantly so that there's other things going on with the musicality of your prose, its sheer poetry, to keep readers interested (which won't work on all readers). You can make sure your character is at least well rounded (as all protagonists should be) and that there are enough good characteristics to keep readers on-side. You can start with the good and gradually reveal the bad. Or you can trick your reader and suddenly reveal some abhorrent characteristic that totally puts the reader off.

Okay, I don't really recommend the last, but I've just had that experience as a reader, so clearly not all writers agree with me. Two thirds of the way into a book I've been reading, and the main character has done something that has left me so cold I'm not sure I want to continue. I liked this character. I empathised with him completely, but any empathy vanished with that one cruel act. It's something that was foreshadowed, so I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was led to a point where it seemed unavoidable and I was spared, so I relaxed and, then, when I wasn't expecting it: bang.

It's unusual for me to have such a strong reaction. But then this particular action was always going to be difficult for me to get over. Leaving it so late -- well, I feel manipulated. Two-thirds of the way in, I don't really want to abandon a story I was enjoying, but now I don't want to stay with this character at all. I suppose I will finish it -- my son asked me to read it because he wants to discuss it with me (and, no, it's not one of his school texts). He says it's one of his favourite books, and I mull over what's just happened and think, how can it be? But we're all different readers -- we all want something different, something we writers have to bear in mind.

18 May 2009

Currently reading

It used to be that I would only ever read one book at a time. I'd start one, and if it were any good, might have it finished in a day or two. And if it were not good, I'd pick it up and put it down, but would stay with it until I'd made a conscious decision (rarely) not to stay with it. This might mean that I would be stuck on one book for several weeks, perhaps longer. There are few books that I have abandoned, and it's usually because of a sludgy writing style -- think too many adjectives, too many adverbs -- rather than a lack of things happening. Sometimes it might be because I don't empathise with the characters, but most often it's to do with style and my own desire to take a blue pen and start paring these books back.

These days, however, I seem to have multiple books on the go. I might pick one up that someone has left somewhere and read a few pages. Next time I'm looking for something to read, it may be that book again or something I can more easily lay my hands on. We're constantly hearing talk of how our attention spans these days are shorter, that the TV age and computer age have made us almost illiterate for longer works. I don't really subscribe to this theory -- well, not in total, anyway -- I can easily believe we have shorter attention spans, but I still enjoy long books. Length is a bonus -- I get to stay with characters I love all that much longer. And yet here my own reading pattern has changed.

I'm currently reading a YA book, a biography, a genre novel, two literary novels and one classic. And I'm having no problems at all jumping from one to another. Interestingly enough, though, I still can only work on one writing project (happily) at a time. I've included "happily" as an aside because I am capable of doing more than one, but I love best just immersing myself in my work in progress, sinking through its layers. I wonder if that too will change with time.

10 May 2009

Chris Baty and NaNoWriMo

Last week we had Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, come in and speak to our students. As someone who entered (and won!) NaNoWriMo the year before last, I was keen to hear his insights.

NaNo was hard for me. I started well by going on a writing retreat to Phillip Island with my good friend Ellen for several days. Although Ellen wasn't doing NaNo, we both wrote furiously, and it was wonderful having time away from family and its constraints and interruptions, and emails. It made me realise just how distracting emails can be -- you're writing away and that ping sounds to tell you something has landed in your inbox, and you have to go see what it is in case it's something important. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyway, after a brilliant start, things dribbled off. I returned home to a series of crises (which seems to be an ongoing feature of my family life, but then I have teenagers...) and the writing dried up. But I was determined not to fail, and so, slowly, I picked up the writing again, but it was a bit sporadic. By the end of week two I was way behind schedule, but things weren't looking impossible. By the end of week three I was chasing about 20,000 words, till finally I had several days where I had to pump out in excess of 5,000 words. And I did it. It was daunting and scary and hard and fun, and it felt good to finally scramble those words and send them in for verification. And to see the confirmatory message that I'd won.

Chris Baty talked about tackling NaNo as a series of different weeks. He called weeks one and four the champagne weeks: week one, you're on fire and the words are pouring out, weeks two and three are the slogs, and by week four you're near the end and can see the finish line. Hmm. I'm not sure that quite describes my experience of week four, but I concede it's probably like this for most people who have paced themselves better than I did. I'm sure I couldn't see the finish line because of the burning of all that sweat from my forehead, dripping in my eyes. Never mind.

The great thing about guest speakers such as Chris is that they're usually so inspiring. Chris was no exception: filled with enthusiasm for a concept that's pretty exciting when you think about it. All around the world, all these novelists set aside a month where writing becomes their number one priority. And it did -- with 1660 words per day, every day (or 5000+ towards the end), there's not a lot of time left for frivolous socialising. NaNo is growing -- and I could see the infectiousness of that enthusiasm in our students. Few had heard of NaNo before, but most were keen to try it afterwards and were lamenting the fact that November was so far away.

Chris originally started NaNo with a group of friends, who would take their laptops to cafes and write together. I must say that, having been on several writing retreats where we've all sat around writing, I know that writing socially like this works really well for me. There's something about being there with others that keeps my bum glued to that seat. I can't sit and distract myself with a few games of Spider Solitaire because I'm stuck. I can't get up and wander around the house, pick up a book and start reading. I can't take my dogs for a walk or ring a friend or anything. There's me and the public conscience: I have to write. We all have to write.

The NaNo site was great too. I loved the word tracker and the fact that I could watch how my friends were progressing. There were great bulletin boards where I could go to discuss problems (plot problems, ideas, characterisation) if I had any -- but for me these proved to be a really interesting source of distraction, so I tended not to spend too much time there.

Last year I didn't attempt NaNo. I was still teaching in November (whereas the year before I had finished), and had too much marking to do. This year I'll be finished again (apart from late assignments), so will probably give it another go. The trick will be to get a more regular work pattern than last time. I must confess I haven't gone back and read what I've written, but will have to do that at some point. And after hearing Chris talk, I have to say that like my students I can't wait!