This novel was first published in 2018, but I don’t remember hearing about it at the time. The title caught my attention, particularly when the cover says it is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov.
The author is Heather Morris, a New Zealander now living in Australia. While working in a large hospital in Melbourne, she studied and wrote screenplays. She was introduced to Lale Sokolov in 2003, and she originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay before reshaping it into her debut novel.
Lale was born Ludwig Eisenberg in 1916 in Krompachy, Slovakia. He was Jewish and was transported to Auschwitz in April 1942, where he was tattooed with the number 32407. Lale’s parents were transported to Auschwitz in March 1942, while Lale was still in Prague. They were murdered on arrival in Auschwitz. In early 1945, Lale is herded on a train which takes him to Austria where he is made to work as a pimp in a German officers’ quarters. In April he escapes and boards a train to Bratislava, where, eventually he meets Gita, proposes and they marry. Lale changes his name to Sokolov. In 1949 they move to Australia, where Gita became a dress designer and Lale was in the textile trade. Their son, Gary, was born in 1961. Gita died in 2003 and Lale in 2006.
Most of the novel concerns Lale’s experiences in Auschwitz, where he was selected to be a tattooist, placing the required numbers on the arms of new arrivals. As a tattooist, he had an improved living status, and access to staff working in the office, as well as to the female barracks, where he meets and falls in love with Gita. His female friends provide him with jewellery, which has been confiscated from the arriving Jews, in exchange for additional food, and in Gita’s case live saving medication. Lale is able to exchange the jewels for food and medicine with Polish workmen in Auschwitz. Lale meets the infamous Dr Mengele, and is tortured when his cache of jewellery is discovered.
The novel faces a difficult task balancing the unethical work which Lale performs as a tattooist and a pimp against his good deeds of providing extra food and medicine with the additional weight of necessary survival. While the book is presented as a novel, it is really a biography of Ludwig Eisenberg, and, as such it is a powerful, well-told story. I felt that sometimes there was not sufficient clarity in the contrast between Lale’s dedicated optimism and the grim pessimism which must have prevailed throughout the camp. Sometimes, the dialogue does not ring true, in the sense that it is tasked with carrying the story further rather than expressing the emotions of the characters.
In last Friday’s email, Harry Bingham quoted a disappointed author, Natalie Tay, who wrote:
‘As someone who has experienced endless rejection, frequently accompanied by notes assuring me that it was an “incredibly close call”, I simply can’t sit back and agree that a rejection means “you’re not there yet”.
I’ve spent years and months believing that [but] sometimes you get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I can’t even tell you how many agents I’ve had who have told me that my pitch was intriguing and the quality of my pages was excellent, but this “wasn’t the book for them”. And the thing is, because the world of traditional publishing is so fickle, this happens. Probably all the time.
I’m sure you could argue that my book must have been missing some sort of je ne sais quoi or needed one more draft or who knows what, and with some of my manuscripts I can agree with that assessment. But with others, I can’t. Not to say I’m done learning or above needing help, but at some point when I’ve produced multiple manuscripts that match the quality of existing published novels, I have to believe it’s not me.
So please, for the love of all of the souls who have been crushed one too many times, own up to the fact that luck is involved.’
“And she’s right. Her writing has a crisp professionalism. There’s nothing in the pages I read that gives the book away as unsuitable for Big 5 publication. On the contrary, you could find any number of Big 5 books that are either of the same standard, or a shade less adept. (As a matter of fact, you could probably find some major bestsellers that were less adept. I can think of a few…)
So let me give you a somewhat more detailed view of how Planet Agent makes its decisions. As far as agents are concerned, books fall into roughly the following strata:
Nowhere close to good enough These books have obvious problems on the first page, and probably the query letter too.
Not good enough (manuscript) These books aren’t as bad, but the problems do reveal themselves – and usually on the first page.
Not good enough (synopsis)
A niche category this, and not a much populated one, but you’ll come across some manuscripts where the prose comes across as acceptable, but perhaps not quite compelling. The agent wonders whether to read on and turns to the synopsis. The synopsis, however, fails to deliver a convincing story arc and the agent is left feeling that the book is unsaleable.
Once you’ve discarded the books that are clearly not strong enough, you’re left with maybe 1-2% of the total slushpile, where the reasons for rejecting just aren’t that clear. The prose? It’s fine. The story? All present and correct.
But the agent is only going to take on perhaps 1 in 1000 manuscripts, so just 0.1% of what comes her way. That means she has to discard 9-19 of the 10-20 strong manuscripts she comes across. Some of the reasons for dropping those submissions would include:
Too similar to an existing client.
Submission comes when the agent is busy or stressed.
Submission arrives just when the agent is blown away by a genuinely stunning manuscript.
Submission fails for reasons of personal taste, rather than objective critical judgement.
Submission fails because when the agent is thinking of who to sell the manuscript to, and how she would pitch the sale, she can’t quite see her way to a compelling strategy.
Luck pretty obviously plays a part here – and for that reason it’s vital that you query 10-12 agents, not merely 3-4. That said, the fifth bullet point on this list is not to do with luck and we’ll talk more about that in a moment. Before that, though, there is a fifth category of manuscript to deal with …
The outright stunning
Any sane agent would pick that book up. Any sane editor would, at the least, be seriously tempted. Yes, there will be some luck-based rejections nevertheless (agent too busy, too stressed, no personal click, etc), but the author’s experience is going to be essentially one of doors flying open, rather than doors slamming shut.”
Harry then lays out three possible options:
1. Query a digital-first publisher.
Those guys accept more like 1 in 100 manuscripts than 1 in 1000. They’re hoovering up the almost-but-not-quite manuscripts from elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they’re second-best as publishers, however. There are some absolutely first-class publishers amongst their number … and I know people who have gone from a print-led Big 5 imprint to a digital-first one, and seen their sales go through the roof. They’ve also, nearly always, had a better outcome in terms of author care. In effect, those guys take some of the luck out of the question. They take the top 1% of manuscripts and let readers choose their favourite. It’s a brilliant model.
I’ve made a more regular, dependable income from self-pub than I ever did from trad. I’ve had stronger relations with readers. I’ve had better marketing, better book covers, more flexibility, more control. As it happens, I made my biggest film and TV sale via self-pub not trad. What’s not to like? Self-publishing is an outstanding route to market and no one should feel embarrassed to take it.
3. Nail the elevator pitch.
The trouble with most strong manuscripts – the ones that get rejected – is that they ask, politely, to be admitted to Publishing Towers. The stunning manuscripts don’t ask: they kick the doors down.
Competent writing + a workmanlike premise = a book that might or might not get published
Competent writing + a stunning premise = a book that can’t be ignored.
The elevator pitch essentially does the agent’s work for them. How do I pitch this to publishers? How do I set out the path to sales?
With a book that’s merely strong, those questions have fiddly, failure-prone answers. With a kick-the-doors-down book (Crawdads, Gone Girl, Light We Cannot See), those questions have answers that are blazingly obvious.
That’s where luck stops being a factor, or almost. Yes, you might hit an agent who’s too busy or stressed or drunk to notice the bar of gold that’s just struck their toe. But go to more than a handful of agents, and one of them is bound to pick it up – and be delighted that they have.
The BBC ran an amazing story on September 19 about a young English woman who gave up a career in financial law for crime writing; she decided to go down the self-publishing path and has sold seven million copies.
Duncan Leatherdale of the BBC wrote:
A young woman brutally slaughtered in a ritualistic killing on Holy Island. A skeleton concealed by a murderer in Hadrian’s Wall. A robbery of ancient artefacts from Durham Cathedral.
“Once you get bitten by the writing bug it’s hard to shake it,” Louise says.
“Everywhere we go I find little bits of inspiration from the landscape, although I’m not always looking for places to commit crimes.
“That only really happened once when I was on Hadrian’s Wall and I did think, ‘hmm, you could hide a body here’.”
Since 2015, Louise has written 18 books in the DCI Ryan series, four novels chronicling the exploits of forensic psychologist Dr Alexander Gregory, a short story anthology and the Cornish cove crime thriller.
For the previous 10 years, she had been a financial services lawyer in London which involved tackling white collar criminals and “trying to stop people perpetuating fraud”.
“I found after a few years I was not loving it and I could not say my heart was fully in it.”
Deciding to take a sabbatical, Louise, who by this time was married to a barrister called James, set her sights on studying forensic psychology.
But her work-break soon became a “lovely surprise” maternity leave as she discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s first child.
At around the same time, the couple were on a train bound for Edinburgh when, travelling up the Northumberland coast, she had a flash of an idea that went on to change her life.
“We saw Holy Island,” Louise says.
“It was miserable weather but so atmospheric and I remember looking at the island and thinking it would be a great place to set a story.”
Inspired by her love of the “golden age of crime writing” encapsulated by the likes of Agatha Christie, as well as her childhood passion for the good versus evil narratives of the Christopher Reeve Superman films and Star Wars saga, Louise found herself creating a new detective – Det Ch Insp Maxwell Finlay-Ryan.
His first adventure is on Holy Island, where he has gone to recover from his own recent trauma when he is confronted by the gruesome murder of a young woman whose remains are found in the priory ruins.
Louise spent 18 months writing it around getting to grips with motherhood, before starting the hunt for an agent and publisher.
“With breath-taking naivety I sent it to 12 or 14 agents and publishers thinking that would be enough. I only later learnt JK Rowling sent Harry Potter to hundreds.
“I did have one offer from what I would call a midsize publishing house which was exciting, but when the contract came through and I was supposed to feel elated, I just didn’t.
“I thought, ‘I’m handing over an awful lot here, my intellectual property in perpetuity’.
Holy Island was published by Amazon as an e-book on 1 January 2015 and sold 25 copies, all to family and friends, while Louise also printed a few copies to sell in local bookshops.
But by May it was number one in the Kindle store, knocking Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train off top spot, with daily sales of about 4,500 for which Louise credits “word of mouth”.
The majority of her seven million plus sales have been e-books although printed copies produced by Dark Skies Publishing, the firm run by her and her husband, can be found in mainstream and independent bookshops with audio books also available.
Louise acknowledges she is in a fortunate position to be able to have the time and support of her family to write and publish her books, with James effectively operating as the publishing director.
“Independent publishing is not for everyone, it does depend on what your support network is like,” she says.
In November Dark Skies Publishing will publish its first book not written solely by Louise – an anthology from more than 50 authors to raise money for homelessness charity Shelter.
The Writers Write website has a post by Freddie Moore has excerpted ten points about writing characters from Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’. In the essay Virginia Woolf is responding to an article by English writer Arnold Bennett who argued that 20th century authors were failing to write good novels because they did not write good characters. (Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post.)
Ms Woolf’s comments were:
Practice character-reading until you can ‘live a single year of life without disaster’. (Character-reading is Woolf’s term for people-watching for the sake of constructing fictional characters. I think her point was that when you’re a good character-reader you won’t have any disasters.)
Observe strangers. Let your own version of their life story shoot through your head — how they got where they are now, where they might be going — and fill in the blanks for yourself. (This is a favourite pastime of mine when I’m in a restaurant, watching other people, particularly those having intense discussions.)
Listen to the way people speak, but pay special attention to their silence. (The silences may be more meaningful than the dialogue.)
Write characters who are both ‘very small and very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic’. Let them have contradictions.
Write about people who make an overwhelming impression on you. Let yourself be obsessed.
A believable character is never just a list of traits or biographical facts. (Because traits and facts don’t define character.)
Illustrate your characters outside of the superficial standards of their time. Let them be complex.
Any captivating protagonist should be someone you can imagine in “the centre of all sorts of scenes.”
Find a common ground between you and your characters — “steep yourself in their atmosphere.” Learn to empathise. (A writer needs to feel what the character is feeling.)
Describe your characters ‘beautifully if possible, and truthfully at any rate’.
There is an article on the Writer’s Digest website by Courtney Carpenter on synopsis writing that I thought contained some very good advice. I have struggled writing synopses ever since I started writing novels. My instinct was to write a brief summary of the book – much as I did in my high school English class, when I was writing a book report. But invariably, it came out rather bland, instead of catching and exciting the reader’s interest. Even the advice I had from and editor didn’t include a useful template, and focused on cutting out the non-essentials.
My search for a bio of Courtney Carpenter drew a blank. She has written dozens of articles for Writer’s Digest, so she was probably a member of WD’s staff. Her broad knowledge of writing skills led me to search Amazon for the books she may have written. No luck.
In her article on Synopsis writing, she says,” Before sending your book proposal out to potential literary agents, here are some suggested elements you should include while writing a synopsis:
Narrative Arc. A synopsis conveys the narrative arc, an explanation of the problem or plot, the characters, and how the book or novel ends. It ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. It summarizes what happens and who changes from beginning to end of the story. It gives agents a good and reliable preview of your writing skills.
Active Voice. Agents look for good writing skills. Let yours shine in your synopsis by using active voice and third person.
Unique Point of View. An agent is usually looking for an idea of fresh or unique elements. Is your plot cliche or predictable? Have elements that set your story apart from other things they have seen.
Story Advancement. A synopsis should include the characters’ feelings and emotions. Use these elements to advance your plot and story.
Write Clearly. Focus on clarity in your writing and avoid wordiness. Remember, less is more.
“Here are some tips on what to avoid when writing a synopsis:
Mentioning too many characters or events.
Including too much detail about plot twists and turns. You don’t want to tell the entire story. What you want to do is write a book summary with enough detail about the plot to intrigue the reader or agent.
Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation. Make each word in your synopsis count.
Editorializing your novel or book. Don’t use “…in a flashback,” or “…in a poignant scene.” If you have a confusing series of events and character interactions, not only will your reader be confused, but a potential agent will be too.
Writing back cover copy instead of a synopsis. Don’t go astray and write a hook to intrigue a reader to buy a book or an agent to request a manuscript. Focus on summarizing your novel or book.
“Jane Friedman gives some of the best tips for formatting a synopsis. She recommends beginning with a strong paragraph identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting. The next paragraph should convey any major plot turns or conflicts necessary and any characters that should be mentioned in order for your book summary to make sense to whomever is reading it.
“Lastly, she recommends indicating how major conflicts are resolved in the last paragraph. This ensures a clear presentation of your book or novel and doesn’t leave the reader confused.
For me, Ms Carpenter’s quotation of Jane Friedman makes a lot of sense. It is: 1. What’s this story about? 2. What major events happen? And 3. How are the problems resolved?
This novel was a number one bestseller across Scandinavia before it became a New York Times bestseller. It is the first novel of Fredrik Backman, a Swede, who was born in 1981, and who has since written six number one Swedish bestsellers.
The principal character in this novel is Ove, who is impatient with and critical of everyone but the extremely patient and uncritical wife whom he adores. He grudgingly tolerates some neighbours and a cat which adopts him. His preferred adjective is ‘bloody’. Managers and other decision-makers come in for particular censure, because, for him, they are always serving some remote, uncaring system rather than the beneficiaries and customers of the system. He is extremely knowledgeable about all things mechanical, and his favourite occupation is repairing them, with cars and Saabs, in particular, a top interest. Everything, including people, should be orderly and functioning properly. At first, the reader may take a retaliatory dislike of him, but when we learn of his absolute love for his wife, and his somewhat backhanded favours for undeserving neighbours, we begin to accept him. His wife is badly injured and his unborn child is killed during a holiday trip to Spain. Every day he carries his wife to her much-loved teaching job, but she dies prematurely of cancer. To her grave, he brings fresh flowers and talks to her, getting her advice, which he can accurately foresee. He reasons he has had enough of life with its people troubles; he decides on several methods of killing himself so that he can be buried beside his wife and join her in the hereafter. In each instance, however, he is unwitting interrupted by others. When he goes to the train station to throw himself under a train, his intention is diverted by a man who falls onto the tracks and must be rescued by Ove. He unintentionally establishes a friendship with a thirty-year-old Iranian woman, her incompetent husband and her two young, troublesome daughters. When a manager who disregards local parking rules decides that Ove’s long-time enemy, who was once his close friend, should be taken away to a care home because of his dementia, Ove concocts a plan, on behalf of the patient’s greatly distressed wife to thwart the taking into care. Eventually, Ove dies having left detailed instructions for his Iranian neighbour to find and implement. There are three hundred people at Ove’s funeral, a tribute of which Ove himself would not have approved.
Mr Backman’s light-hearted writing makes it easy to smile at Ove’s obsessive attention to correctness, at the reactions of others to this correctness, and the others’ ability to understand Ove’s good intentions. The novel is a happy study of human nature from an unusual perspective.
On Tuesday, my wife and I went to see (and hear) Il Pirata (The Pirate) at Teatro Massimo in Palermo. I mention it because reviewing an opera has much in common with a book review. Teatro Massimo is the largest opera house in Italy
and the third largest in Europe, and as one would expect, it is not lacking in grandeur. Above the stalls there are six levels of boxes!
Il Pirata was written by Vincenzo Bellini, who was a Sicilian, but the premiere of the opera was in 1827 in Milan, because Teatro Massimo was built between 1875 and 1897.
The libretto was written in Italian by Felice Romani – with considerable involvement of Bellini – based on a three-act French melodrama, which, in turn was based on a five-act French play. The opera, however, is in two acts.
For those of you opera fans, the cast we heard was:
Gautiero: Giorgio Misseri
Imogene: Marta Torbidoni
Ernesto: Francesco Vultaggio
Synopsis: The pirate captain Gaultiero is shipwrecked on the territory of the Duke, Ernesto, having lost a sea battle to his old enemy the duke. Gaultiero, unaware of where he has landed, confesses his love for Imogene, who, ten years earlier, unbeknown to Gaultiero, became the duke’s wife under duress. Imogene comes to offer hospitality to the shipwrecked sailors. Gaultiero recognises her, but she does not recognise him, singing instead of her love for him. That night Gaultiero reveals his identity to Imogene and she explains that she married the duke to save her father from threatened death. Ernesto becomes suspicious of the identity of the pirate leader because of his wife’s apparent interest in him. Gaultiero manages to meet Imogene before he is permitted to depart, but he refuses to leave without Imogene, who urges him to forgive and forget. Ernesto overhears their duet and challenges his rival to a duel Ernesto is killed in the duel and the duke’s knights sentence Gaultiero to death for murder. As Gaultiero is executed Imogene seems to lose her mind.
This opera is packed with intense emotions: love and hate. The music fully supports those emotions, and while in my opinion it does not achieve the standard of Giuseppe Verdi, it is certainly very good. The voices of the three principal characters were first rate. The libretto, which was projected above the stage in both Italian and English, left out – for me – an important consideration: how did Gaultiero become a pirate? And, what’s to love about a pirate?
(As an aside, the Italian of the libretto is hardly recognisable. My wife, who is Italian, said she had to read the English version to understand what was happening. The Italian language has changed greatly in the last two hundred years.)
Fiction writers have been told: “Show, don’t Tell!”. In opera, generally, and in this one in particular there is a lot of showing: in the demonstrative body language used by the characters – the acting was excellent – and in the powerful orchestral music. This showing reinforced the emotive language of the libretto.
Two essentials of fiction were missing from this opera: a setting, and in-depth characterisation. The ‘sets’ were extremely minimal. There were only two scenes; one for each act, instead of the six scenes in the libretto. One didn’t have the feeling if ‘being there’. The costumes were late 20th century street wear, in some cases altered to show the effect of shipwreck and battle. Imogene didn’t resemble a duchess, and Gaultiero didn’t look much like a pirate. I’m sure these omissions represented real savings for the producers, particularly as the opera was staged for only three nights.
Author Alverne Ball has a post on the Writer’s Digest website in which he describes what he learned about the craft of writing from watching soap operas when he was a child.
Alverne Ball is the author of the crime fiction novels Blue Religion a. He is also the writer of a bestselling graphic novelsand the forthcoming, multi-issue comic series, Crook County. Alverne is the 2019 Tin House graphic narrative scholar and the recipient of 2014 and 2015 Glyph Comics Rising Star Awards. Alverne earned his MFA in fiction writing from Columbia College.
I have provided excerpts from his post below:
“As a young boy who didn’t know much about genre, medium, or even the basics of storytelling, I found that my first brush with a good story and how to tell one occurred every day on my grandmother’s couch watching daytime soap operas, or “stories” as we called them in my household. These soap operas were my gateway into worlds far removed from my own.
“Here are five important basics of storytelling I learned from watching those soap operas that translate to just about any type of medium in which you want to create.
“In every story there is a plot. But no plot is more evident than in a soap opera. For instance, I remember this one plot from Days of our Lives where there was a vigilante called The Pacifier who was catching bad guys in the town of Salem. Years later I’d come across a comic book called The Punisher in which a vigilante was killing bad guys in New York City. The two vigilantes could easily be the same, and yet the plots behind their stories were told in two different mediums and in two different genres.
“Whether hero or villain or somewhere in between, a good character is the other half of what drives a story forward. Characters are the backbone, the make-or-break of any story. Characters are the reflection of ourselves, our society, and a clear look into our humanity. Through characters we bond and learn more about our world and how we see ourselves in it.
“Soap operas have a plethora of characters who can change on a daily basis based on their needs, wants, aspirations, etc. But one thing that is consistent in these characters is that they are complex, just like any individual. Take for example, the villain Stefano DiMera from Days of our Lives. Some may say (myself included) that DiMera is one of the best and most unforgettable villains in all of villainy history. And yet, when we learn of Stefano’s love for his children and his complete obsession/love for Marlena, a woman he can never seem to have, I understand the affairs of the heart that afflict him and deep down, even though he’s the villain, I’m rooting for him. Think about your own work—where can you add more duality to your protagonists and antagonists?
Tropes, Techniques, and Devices
“Like any good story, soap operas employ a number of storytelling techniques that may go over a casual viewer’s head, but are part of a writer’s literary arsenal. For example, most viewers of soap operas understand the clichéd trope of “the character with amnesia.” But from a writer’s perspective this technique might be utilized to incorporate a dream telling, in which the writer conveys the character’s fears, hopes, or internal thoughts. By using the “dream” technique, information about the character’s past is given to the reader without having to explore that past, especially if it is not in service of the story.
“The same could be said of the “return from the dead” character in any soap opera, in which a character is reintroduced to the viewer as a way of also introducing a new storyline. But from the writer’s perspective, this trope could also be used in a similar way to introduce a new character to a story without diving into the character’s background or past.
“Soap operas are a great avenue for studying pacing because the writers have to conmvey so much information in a short period of time. That means Mark Twain’s commonly used phrase, “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do ” is on display as to how every word matters.
“One good way to measure one’s pacing is to watch a scene from a soap opera and write down everything that you learn in that one scene. Now read a scene from your own work and write or underline everything you learn about that character in that scene. Compare the notes from the soap opera to the one from your own prose.
“A cliffhanger is what keeps you hanging on and coming back for more. I learned the art of a good cliffhanger from shows like Days of our Lives, All My Children, and General Hospital. Each one of these shows would reveal something about a character, such as one character believing that her baby had died only to find out that someone had stolen the baby. Or that a character was portraying him/herself to be a person that works in the medical field so that they could sneak into the hospital to poison or kill another character. The list can go on, but the understanding of what makes a good cliffhanger is evident: Leave them wanting more.
“Soap opera episodes are inherently written with at least one cliffhanger in mind because the writers know that they must entice viewers to return the following day, and the day after that, to keep finding out what happens next.
“So, there you have it—a beginning list of things that soap operas can teach you about writing. I challenge you to go watch one and see what else you can learn about storytelling from one of the oldest contemporary forms of entertainment. Oh yeah, and if you still have your grandma in your life, take some time on her couch and watch one or two episodes with her. You may just pick up on the best dialogue and character interaction you’ll ever get to hear and witness first-hand.”
While I agree in principle with Mr Ball’s points and that each of them can be applicable in literary fiction, there may be subtleties at work which affect the technique and the extent to which, for example, a cliffhanger can be applied.
There is a post on the Writer’s Digest website written by Brenda Janowicz which offers a different way of defining characters before we bring them to life on the page. She has ten questions for characters.
Brenda Janowitz is the author of Scot on the Rocks, Jack with a Twist, and The Lonely Hearts Club. Her work has also appeared in the New York Post, Publisher’s Weekly, Long Island Woman Magazine.
“The most important part of your novel is the part that will never be seen by the reader. It’s the part that’s just for you. It’s the part that only you know. Well, you and your character, that is. It’s the character study. You simply cannot write a good novel without knowing your characters inside and out.
There are so many ways to do a character study. It can be a letter your character writes to a friend, it can be a confession your character makes to her shrink, or it can even be a list of things you want to know about her.
Sometimes, when I’m away from my computer, I imagine my character walking around with me. Long line at the drug store? Hmm, how would my character react to that? Friend late for lunch—would my character wait, or just walk out in a huff? Car cut you off in traffic? Would my character yell out loud, or take in it stride?
My wonderful editor, Brenda Copeland, recently sent this great Stephen King quote to me:
“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.” —Stephen King
I love that quote! So, we cut the backstories. Each and every one of them. And it hurt. Man, did it hurt! But, you know what? Their backstories didn’t change. They just made their way into the narrative in a more organic way. Because of those character studies, I know my characters inside and out, and I think that when an author really knows her characters, truly knows them at their core, that comes out in the writing.
10 questions you need to ask your characters
How old is she? (And how old is she mentally? Is she a 40-year-old in the body of a 16-year-old, or vice versa?)
Did she have a happy childhood? Why/why not?
Past/ present relationships? How did they affect her?
What does she care about?
What is she obsessed with?
What is the best thing that ever happened to her? The worst?
Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to her?
What is the one word you would use to define her?
What are some of your own questions that you ask yourself when it comes to character? Whar do you think every author needs to know about her characters?”
I think there may be other questions which, depending on the story, may be more relevant to ask. For example:
What are his/her character traits which support their role in the story?
What’s to like about him/her?
What’s to dislike?
What is s/he good at?
What are his/her weaknesses?
What are her/his values in order of importance
How does s/he behave when under a lot of pressure (reactive behaviour – which may be the flip side of normal behaviour)
This novel is another leftover from the summer reading, but I was very glad to have it, in spite of it looking like it had spent many days with a dozen readers, on the beach and in the rain. It won the Booker Prize last year, one occasion, at least, where I felt that what the Booker should be awarding and what the winning novel is merged into consistency. No scholarly text about a different world, with deep philosophical drifts. Rather, a gritty story about real people in a grim place who can’t help themselves. A book which gives us a memorable picture of humanity.
Shuggie Bain is Douglas Stuart’s first novel. A bit like a rookie baseball player hitting a home run in the major leagues in his first time at bat. Mr Stuart grew up in Glasgow, where the novel is set. So, it seems to me that he lived a life very much like that of Shuggie Bain. In any event, after graduating from the Royal College of Art, he moved to New York where he began a career in design. He wrote several short stories for the New Yorker, and his essay on gender, anxiety and class appeared in the Lit Hub. One feels sure we will hear much more from Douglas Stuart/
Shuggie Bain doesn’t have a complex plot. Agnes, a single mother of three is a goodtime girl, who lives for drink, partying and chasing men, and yet we respond to her vulnerability, and maintain our hope that she will reform herself. Her youngest child is Shuggie, a bright, sensitive ten-year-old, who adores, tries to protect, and is blighted by his mother. We hope that he will focus on his school work, and cut his mother adrift, but that never happens. Instead, we watch as Agnes moves from place to place in Glasgow, and man to man, blaming her misfortune on others, and unable to escape the grip of alcohol, until it kills her.
The book is long – 430 pages – for its simplicity, but none of it seems redundant. Each episode and each scene is relevant to the characters and their dilemmas, and the reader senses impending doom, making it difficult to put the book down. Agnes and Shuggie are flesh and blood characters: their strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities are vibrant and inescapable. Even minor characters like Big Shug and Eugene are three dimensional. The Glaswegian accent and culture are faithfully reproduced. The settings are often painfully clear. Parts of 1960’s Glasgow were not really fit for human habitation. In fact, I could feel the involvement of the author in some of the descriptions of places like Pithead, where the language condemned the place.
I think that Shuggie Bain will remain one of those iconic books about a particular culture, time and place that will be remembered, read and reread well into the future.