Monday, April 5, 2021

Hallie's thoughts on writing the same but different

HALLIE EPHRON: Welcome, once again, to What We're Writing week.

I recently gave a two-week, six-session workshop on how to use the writer’s tools (viewpoint, setting, description, dialogue…) to build a compelling main character. For me, one of the major revelations as I’ve developed my own craft is the importance of the main character’s arc as parallel and counterpoint to the plot of the novel.

As usual, I find I learn as much as I teach, and this time two questions leaped out at me from my interactions with the participants.

Question one
One of the writers asked a perfectly fair question: Is it essential that my protagonist has some uniquely distinguishing characteristic?

This came after I’d made the observation that in so many of the works-in-progress, main character was a woman who was recently divorced or widowed, but without much more by way of distinguishing features.

If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over from agents and editors at writing conference, it’s that they’re looking for the same but different. (Infuriating, I know, because what does that even mean?) This applies to the characters as well as the story.

These writers had nailed same, but not different.

To the writer’s question: Does a protagonist in a crime novel have to be unique in some way? My answer: it helps if you want to get out of the slush pile. It could be a special area of expertise or a profession, an ability or disability, a personality trait, or a job or hobby. It could be a past experience that casts a shadow over the present. 

Question two
At the same time I heard from several other participants, urgently needing to know how to protect their unique idea, and whether it was “safe” to share their writing with others. In other words, what if my idea is SO UNIQUE or my writing SO GOOD that others will steal it before I publish my book.

Notice that Question 2 is really the upside-down version of Question 1.

My answer – Unique ideas are rarer than hens’ teeth. Having said that, ideas are hard to protect. That’s why it’s so important to carefully research any agent or editor to whom you pitch your work. It’s also so important that you trust the multiple beta readers who will be so essential to your revision process.

The good news no one can write that “unique” idea as uniquely as you can.

All of this goes to prove a wonderfully twisted adage coined by SF/Fantasy author Lauren DeStefano:

So what do you think? Is self-doubt a good thing or a bad thing? Does it crop up in fields other than writing? And when it does, does it propel you in the direction of BETTER, or make you want to tune out and take a nap?

54 comments:

  1. I love the idea of a protagonist having a particular trait that makes them different from the pack . . . .

    Self-doubt? Oh, goodness, I think it’s everywhere. My personal thought is that it’s probably good [as long as it’s not paralyzing], but it’s also particularly difficult to overcome. Taking a nap is easier, but that certainly doesn’t fix anything . . . and I hope Lauren is wrong and that writers don’t experience a lifetime of paralyzing self-doubt because that just feels immensely sad . . . .

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    1. "Taking a nap is easier"-- ain't that the truth! But also how to fix it so it's not broken-er.

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    2. Oh, that’s such an interesting thought ‘Joan. Because – it’s not really sad. It’s kind of hilarious, because it is so absolutely common. And every time we talk about it with each other, we laugh and laugh.

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  2. Self-doubt keeps us from being complacent, smug, and always in the same rut. It's the "paralyzing" part we need to push aside. Because what good does that do? I am sure self-doubt is in all professions.

    Thanks for those words on "same but different," Hallie - perfect timing as I noodle yet another proposal in my brain!

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    1. I'm not sre self-doubt IS rampant in al professions. But it surely is for those of us who depend on the judgment of others to judge our own success.

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  3. HALLIE: It's true that I have been finding a "sameness" to many female protagonist recently. Yes, some quirky trait may make one book stand out from another but it has to feel genuine.

    One type of sleuth I have not seen much of yet is a protagonist in their 20s, and where the use of social media is a key part of the story. One debut mystery, KILLER CONTENT by Olivia Blacke, fits that bill.

    Self-doubt can crop up elsewhere. When I started doing climate change research in the 1980s, that was a burgeoning area of research. There were not many references on methodology and peer-reviewed papers that we could use to see if our planned approach was acceptable. We just had to try. One main metric on how our research was received was whether a paper was accepted in peer-reviewed journals and when we presented our approach/findings at conferences in front of our peers. But we got this validation several years after the project started.

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    1. Another mystery I read last year stood out. The main protagonist had severe OCD, kinda like a female version of the TV character MONK, which hindered/helped in her sleuthing. And another mystery featured a professional video gamer. Maybe this one, as well as use of social media, in KILLER CONTENT has a younger sleuth, so it's a generational thing, rather than a quirk.

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    2. There was a period where I remember a slew of mystery novels came out with main characters, each with some quirk: blind, hearing impaired, OCD, one with synesthesia - It was like the "Girl on The..." glut. And some of them were really good.

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  4. I agree with Grace, I love when characters have a quirkiness that separate them from the pack.

    Self-doubt propels you to do better than the average you do and most of the time, you are surprised because you did it.

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    1. The problem is sometimes I doubt my own judgment, because what feels super dooper good one day can read feh the next. Distance... a few days (or weeks) between writing and assessing some piece of writing works wonders on a writer's clarity.

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  5. Yes agree self-doubt is everywhere--except--when you're writing, it's only you and the computer screen or the pad of paper. So there's no one to help break up the logjam. That's why community is so important!

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    1. Self doubt ISN'T there when you're writing? If only. I feel as if it's my constant companion. Yes, community is important. But it can also be toxic. Oh, dear, I'm proving the adage, aren't I?

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  6. I've been re-reading Deborah's series from the beginning. In the current book, Gemma decides to take piano lessons. This character 'quirk' isn't just tossed in to make the character different from other female cops out there in the publishing world. It appears to grow organically from small incidents in previous books. And Gemma's desire to learn to play the piano is woven into later books, too. It's never a major focus of plot, but it carries over and becomes a part of who she is. That's the kind of character development I like. What I dislike immensely is a book that throws in something outrageous--oh, he/she used to be a trapeze artist before becoming a cop/bookshop owner/pie shop owner, etc., and you hear this story at least once in every book, but it plays no other part in the character's life. Now if that character has a place where they work out on the trapeze, to gain physical strength, mental focus, zen-like concentration, then it becomes more than shtick.

    And yes, self-doubt exists in other fields. As an archaeologist in the field, I was required to read the soil--to understand if I was seeing the result of natural or cultural (or both!) processes. I dealt with that doubt by collaborating with my crew--my field assistant, my crew chief, my crew members--drawing on the range of expertise and experience available to me. I didn't need to be 'all-knowing' in front of them.

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    1. Same in archaeology! Fascinating. And I love your dissection of Gemma's desire to learn to play piano. It's what I call an "earned" quirk. Because it grows out of character and experience, not slapped on. Harder to do with a first novel in a series because you're still building a past for that 'quirk' or special aspect to grow out of.

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    2. Thanks for reminding me that Gemma really does need to play that piano!

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  7. Hallie, I snort laughed the first time I saw that quote. Not pretty. I am too lazy, I fear, to join the ranks of my industrious friends. So, only from the reader's point of view, what makes a character universally loved, like Gamache?

    Since I began to come to JRW, just a short while ago, I have read books by about 75-100 different authors. I really fall in love with some characters and with some story lines. Some books I pass along to Irwin. He doesn't always like what I do, and he gets tired of some protagonists way before I do. When I love a character, I keep looking for more stories with him or her in them.

    The questions your students asked are excellent. When I think about the characters I love most, there's an element of "je ne sais quois." How to capture that, skill? luck? How to give a character universal appeal?

    As for self doubt, that can be for everything. Looks? Is this the right dress for this occasion? Should I have brought a different gift? Did I say the wrong thing to my boss? clients? daughter? Or classically, "Do I dare to eat a peach?

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    1. Oh, I love that quote -- T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
      (I think poets must be even more haunted by self doubt since in a poem, editing is word by word. At least in a novel it's scene by scene, or at worst sentence by sentence.)


      I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
      Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
      I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
      I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

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    2. Fell in love with TS Eliot in high school--felt such joy in the language!

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    3. Such a good point, Judy. My daughter and I had that discussion about self doubt the other day. When, she asked, does it start? She was thinking about Wren who, at five, has absolutely no self doubt. She doesn't wonder if her hair looks good, if she's wearing the right thing, if her nose is too long or too short. So how are we taught to question all ourselves about everything?

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    4. Criticism by family, classmates, teachers. It doesn't take much. I pity children who grow up in families with constant harping, teasing and scolding. I pity kids who go to schools where negativity reigns. Some people take that and set out to change the world, others turn into less desirable human beings in every possible way.

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  8. I read GIRL A last month, a book I'd avoided first because it had "girl" in the title and second because it was another child abuse thing. I hesitate calling child abuse a trope, but its beginning to look that way. Because of my personal stuff, I almost missed a book that will stay in my head for a long time.

    I don't know if any of the above qualify as uniquely distinguishing characteristics. I do look for things that are different, oddly drawn characters that I can get into, like an old flannel robe. Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May come to mind. They are seriously quirky!

    As for self doubt, I suspect it rears its ugly head in every profession. It certainly did in mine. Maybe it is a safety mechanism, as in the thing that keeps us alert and aware and trying to improve constantly. I don't know. :)

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    1. ANN: I agree that Bryant and May are fun quirky reads. What else can you expect from the Peculiar Crimes Unit?!

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    2. I think there has to be something "different" to make it stick in your mind as that clearly did. But you can see that 'same but different' thing in book titles. All the "woman" and "girl" books. All the "train" books.

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  9. LOL - YES - self-doubt is essential in every field of endeavor. It keeps you honest, curious, creative, and questing. Like research, though, the important part is knowing when to set it aside and go with your best option.

    Leslie Budewitz recently wrote in a blog that she was keeping a story journal for every book. It was an idea she had from Sue Grafton who kept one for each of her novels. In the Grafton journals each book had a point where Grafton was convinced she couldn't write the book, that her prior success was a fluke, and that she needed to leave the profession. I found that comforting. And I'm glad Grafton never quit.

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    1. With my writing I call it the "page one hundred wall." That "What made me think I know how to do this" moment. Sadly it usually repeats at page 200. You have to power past it or end up taking 10 years to finish a single book.

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    2. Kait, I love what you said about self-doubt being essential to keep one honest, curious, creative, and questing. Hallie, some people do take years to write a book. I admire people who soldier through their doubts. You certainly do and we are all richer for that.

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  10. Thanks for giving us more to think about, Hallie. Character quirks, as long as they don't take over. Lately I've been reading Mark deCatrique's books - I met him here, don't you know - and I would have to say his characters are quite different. In the Sam Blackman series, Sam has lost part of his leg but that doesn't stop him from solving the case. However, Sam is much more than simply a one-leg investigator. It took me a while to try Mark's other series, Buryin' Barry, because honestly, who wants to read about the funeral business? But it's great! Barry is also a part-time sheriff's deputy as well as working in the family funeral business. Oh, and the sheriff has only one eye. Such great characters! Same, yet different.

    My mother was a great reader who read way more than I did and so I would often ask about a book before i read it. So many times she would say "it's different." Which is good, I think. Even if it's only a different way of telling the same story.

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    1. YES! "Different" is good. But I think what we mystery readers crave is surprise. And often that happens when the reader is lured along reading the same, the same, the same, expecting more of... and then you hit them with DIFFERENT!

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  11. I think self-doubt is natural in any creative arena (writing, art, music, etc.). As Edith says, it's what keeps us (ideally) pushing to be better.

    Of course, now I'm wondering if my characters are the same, but different - or merely the same. See, self doubt! LOL

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    1. And it makes me admire those 'artists' who are striving to do something different, to break new ground. It takes courage. Or foohardiness.

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  12. Hallie, it was a great class! Thanks again.

    Self-doubt, all the time. Antennae at high alert for statements like, "I love your character's name so much I'm going to use it in my next book."

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  13. Ha ha ha HILARIOUS.
    I have also kept a writing journal, starting with my very first book. They are incredibly reassuring! Day one is always: I have no idea. Every time I see those, 13 of them, I remind myself : yes – OK, this will work.

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  14. I think the same means: readers have a an expectation as framework of what a STORY is: beginning middle and end, a character you care about, A high-stakes problem that needs to be solved, the good guys win. That’s pretty standard. Different is: how you live up to those expectations, but provide something unique in structure or character or plot or all three that only you can write.

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  15. The self doubt never goes away. Every book starts in panic mode. Then I swing between this is going to be good and ‘this is the worst thing I’ve written’
    But Fora’s mention of Gemma reminds me that in books I love characters aren’t characters, they are people I know— complex, being scars, just like my real friends

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    1. Rhys, your characters shine. They are so surprising, individual and unique. Especially in your series, they are people whom I get to know and expect to see again. I am so glad that Georgie married Darcy and we can see them beginning a life together.

      In Debs's books, I too loved that Gemma took up the piano. I love that the children are developing their interests, too. That is the advantage of a series.

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    2. Rhys, to quote Judy, your characters shine. I love how the characters are developed.

      Diana

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  16. Since I've never written a story like most everyone here, I don't know the self-doubt that comes with pouring heart and soul into THE story you've always wanted to tell and not knowing if it is "good enough" for anyone but yourself.

    But I have at least an inkling of that self-doubt whenever I send in a book review to the magazine or send the file of an article or CD review off to the two sites I write for. While the sites will generally publish whatever I send them with nary a change, it's those book reviews that really make me wonder. I suppose having a great editor who whips my first draft into better shape helps but until I get those proposed edits back, I never know if it is "good enough".

    Hallie, I like how you detailed the ways of making a character unique in some way to get the manuscript off of the slush pile. I haven't shared much of the various ideas I have for "my" story but I do know that something from the past casting a shadow over the present plays a role. You know, if I ever put things together and down on paper (saved in a computer file).

    By the way, this week's writing projects that I'm at least starting will be a book review for my Goodreads page if I finish the book, a new Cassette Chronicles article that's not due for a couple of weeks and a review of the new Sunstorm CD.

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    1. "something from the past casting a shadow over the present " - that's it exactly! (As a recovered book reviewer, I know how challenging that "if I finish the book" can be.

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  17. Self-doubt and the old imposture syndrome are a part of my life. I run into it with every book I write. But I totally agree with Edith. That doubt (or CERTAINTY that this is the book where everyone will discover I really don't know what I'm doing!) is a big part of driving me to continually improve. Or try to.

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    1. Annette,

      Though I have heard of self doubt, I never understood the impostor syndrome. Does it mean that the person with the imposter syndrome feels like they are acting a role?

      Diana

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    2. I think it means they feel as if they're fooling the world into thinking that they're more (beautiful... brilliant... honest... fill in the blank) than they really are -- or at least that's how I'd define it.

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  18. What a gifted teacher you are, Hallie! I love how deeply you dig into the craft. As for the paralyzing self doubt - every damn day. (Sigh).

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    1. Jenn, I don't think you have TIME for self doubt!

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  19. Hallie, great post.

    Question: What are beta readers?

    Diana

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    1. They're the saintly folks whom a writer inveigles into reading their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time manuscript in the hopes of getting encouragement and also advice on how to make it sing.

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  20. Same but different. As a reader, I would love to see more of that as well. Although, at this point, I think I'd just take different. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy cozies, but so many of them have a late 20's protagonist who has just broken up with a long time boyfriend/fiance and is going home to open the business that fits the theme. Something different is always refreshing. (He says as he is starting a new series with the same set up and loving it!)

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    1. There can be something comforting about the same-old same-old. ANd truly even books with the same setup are never the same, once you scratch the surface.

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  21. It's interesting that the self doubt subject comes up today. Yes, I have suffered from self doubt my whole life, even though people around me are confident in my abilities. I will say that I'm more confident at this point in my life, finally having learned that I have already proved my abilities. Now, here's the timely part of this subject. An old friend of mine is calling me in an hour to catch up. We haven't talked in ages. She is one of the most confident people I've ever known, beyond her abilities confident. She has had two different careers in areas that she was quite under-qualified, but somehow she got the jobs and I've always attributed that to her self-confidence.

    The same but different aspect of writing/reading is such a challenge. I know, as a reader, I am thrilled with unique characters and stories. I know years ago when I read the award-winning Tenderness with Wolves by Stef Penney, I found the isolated Northern Territory in winter in 1867 a unique change of setting and characters from my usual reading. By the way, Stef Penney continues to be unique, although it's a long time between books. Anyway, writers have caught up to the isolation of the cold, snowy setting now and I have several books or series I enjoy set in Alaska or those "locked-room" type of books set in the isolated snowy regions where escape is impossible (think The Guest List by Lucy Foley). I do have to say that I find unique aspects of so much of the Jungle Red authors, with your books not being the same for me.

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    1. Oooh, jealousy! Now that's a topic we haven't begun to tackle. It can be as paralyzing as self-doubt.

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  22. Hallie, yes, don't you love that request--"the same but different?" I think for myself I've puzzled it out as aspects of the background, protagonist, and plot that give the comfort of familiarity to a background, protagonist, and plot that are perhaps scarily unfamiliar underneath that comforting facade.

    As to self-doubt, it's the writer's closest companion. That's the reason I always direct my students to Sue Grafton' s great website with her book journals and give them samples of documents from the initial drafting and revising of my published books, so they can see all the mess and hesitancy that Grafton and I worked through to get the finished product.

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    1. Waving, Linda!! I love that idea of a book journal... Like airing dirty laundry!

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