Word counts: a phrase that strikes utter apathy in the hearts of people everywhere. Well, most people. If you’re a writer or editor, you probably care (at least some) about word counts. They are a rough measure of the size of a piece of writing, and in shorter works (journal articles, short fiction, etc) they can be a measure of effort for use in paying writers. Typically book-length work is paid based on unit sales and/or other complicated algorithms so it matters less how many words something is once it reaches that scope. Now, determining what lengths qualify as “novel” versus, say, “novella” is a whole other discussion, but let’s focus on the fact that word counts are used to determine relative size and values for works that tend to be collected or anthologized.
Have you seen this Hemingwrite thing? Basically it’s a dedicated word processor with an typewriter design aesthetic but some modern technology touches like cloud-syncing and an e-Ink digital screen.
I’ll be honest, I think the thing is sexy as can be. I have a certain fetish for typewriters to begin with, so this preys directly upon that sensibility while neatly sidestepping the fact that, romanticism aside, writing on such a device would require a huge sacrifice in the convenience department. But I can’t lie and say it’s not alluring to be presented with the opportunity to have some of that nostalgic cake and digitize it, too.
But then I read the kickstarter page, and I realize this is a product that is being sold to fix a problem it can’t reasonably be expected to address. And it’s not the first product to take aim at the hapless writer this way, either. Continue reading
Well, I managed to finish the NaNoWriMo project—from their 50,000-word guideline perspective anyway—once again at or near the midnight hour. I have been terribly off pace since early in the month and it’s taken a lot of gritted teeth to power through to the finish line. I think, more so than anything else, the challenge this year has been simply that there are other things I would have rather been working on. At no point did this novel ever really capture my imagination and demand to be written down. But as I said going into the month, that’s probably a good thing. Having the luxury of working on the latest inspiration isn’t something it would be wise to come to expect. So I set the goal and I stuck with it, even when it was difficult. Because this year, more so than the other two where I participated, there were times that I really wanted to just call it off. To pack it in and shrug it off. It’s just a silly self-directed contest, after all.
I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again this year. I started in 2011, where I completed the challenge by rambling 50,000 words of useless nonsense about a reluctant Djinn and … a guy? …Who wishes for his wife’s boobs to be bigger? I think? I’m not sure. It got weird.
I skipped 2012 intentionally, as I had a lot of other projects I wanted to work on and didn’t want the disappointment of failing. Turns out the disappointment of not even trying wasn’t much of an improvement. So I resolved to go for it again last year, and barely squeaked out my 50K on a fantasy/detective hybrid thing. Again, I didn’t outline the plot (though I did a ridiculous amount of world building prep) and it turns out writing a mystery/noir thriller without a very clear idea where the plot is going is Not A Good Idea. So I finished—from a NaNo perspective—but, as with the Djinn story, it didn’t get any further than that. I may revisit the fantasy/noir later; it’s shelved for now.
Now this year I’m back at it. If you’re following along on Twitter you may have noticed me griping late last month about trying to come up with a project idea. I had a few concept seeds that seemed like they might be worth exploring in a longer format, but I had a hard time making them mesh in any cohesive way. I toyed with crime story frameworks, science fiction trappings, angsty YA-lit variants, all sorts of things to make something click. Eventually I settled on a horror/supernatural story and set out trying to outline the thing.
If you’re reading to find friends [in fictional characters], you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”
The question boils down to likable characters, which brought to mind a mini-debate I had with a friend on Twitter some months ago wherein it was declared that there are enough books containing likable protagonists that there is no cause for reading about unlikable ones.
I think the problem I had with the podcast debate and even some of the online debate around the Claire Messud quote has been confusing character with protagonist and character flaws with character construct. I think most people would be hard pressed to say they don’t want to read a book that contains any unlikable characters: antagonists, for example are regularly despicable. As far as I know, this isn’t controversial in the least.
The other thing is people seem to be conflating the idea of flawed characters and unpleasant characters with unlikable. Any character worth their salt will have flaws. Certainly some of these are more palatable than others, but without flaws characters are flat and uninteresting (moreover, unbelievable; see Mary Sue). The term “flawed character” is misleading then in the context of this discussion. What I think Ms. Messud and Publisher’s Weekly interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson are talking about are unpleasant characters, or those whose flaws are sufficient to hold them at arm’s length from the reader.
Even the term “unlikable” is somewhat misleading because, and I think this strikes to the heart of Ms. Messud’s point, there are characters who hold reader’s affection at bay but remain fascinating who often get a pass even by those in the “I don’t read books about unlikable characters” camp. I, too, have decried books for containing unlikable characters but for me this is shorthand (and one I ought to rethink for clarity) for “characters who begin, end or remain throughout dull; lacking in fascination.” In this case the critique is that the characters are not written well, rather than somehow failing to conform to a subjective qualification based around what kind of real life person I would enjoy spending time with. So long as a character and the challenges they face continue to be intriguing, how relatable or pleasant they seem becomes a moot point.
The core of this is that I worry about readers who discard or avoid books because their protagonists aren’t entirely pleasant. This is especially true when principal characters start off prickly or detestable. The axis of a good story is change and growth, so I wonder what kinds of stories these readers limit themselves to if they discard a book based on the main character’s origin point? What challenges can books possibly offer readers if every point of view comes from some variant of Andy Taylor? As Ms. Massoud says, where in this is the life?