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08:17 am: Wright’s Writing Corner: Guest Blog: James Frenkel, Editor Extraordinaire

Today, we have a very special treat–a post from my editor, Jim Frenkel of Tor Books. In the world of writing, the great question we writers and striving writers always have is: What do the editors think? What are editors looking for?

Here is a tiny peek into the mysterious world of that most elusive creature, the editor!

 

Jim Frenkel and his son Josh

Reading and Writing

When I first started editing books I had already been an avid reader for more than fifteen years. Throughout my youth, I read  everything I could get my hands on. i’m not sure why I was such a voractious reader. I never s aw my parents reading anything except the newspaper, or maye Newsweek Magazine. But for as long as I can remember, I have loved to read.
Fiction, non-fiction. Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, biography, history, sports, contemporary realistic fiction, romantic fiction, thrillers, true crime . . . I can recall books  from as long ago as when I was eight or nine, that I borrowed from the library–a biography of Kit Carson; a Landmark book about the Panama Canal; Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein, The Wonderful Trip to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron, the Hardy Boys mystery The House on the Hill by Franklin W. Dixon . . . I could go on and on. 
Don’t ask me how I remember titles. My wife tells me I have a ridiculous memory for trivia, and she’s probably right. My own theory is that I remember particular titles that caught my fancy when I was very young and impressionable. Of course, I also remember a number of books I’ve read in the intervening years, decades. And remembering some of the best books I’ve read gives me great pleasure.
Yes, I am an incurable literature junkie. And no, I find no disconnect between the word “literature” and the terns “science fiction, fantasy, mysteries or romantic fiction. Yes, there are those who will contend that if something is considered “genre” it can’t be very good, and if it’s very good, it can’t be “genre” but I don’t buy that elitist argument. There are countless examples of works published in one genre or another for marketing purposes, which years later are lauded as literature worth the name. In the best of all possible worlds, I’m with Ursula K. Le Guin, who once suggested that books should be shelved alphabetically, by author’s names, ie: Shakespeare next to Shatner. Perhaps an extreme example, but you take her point, I hope.
 

You may wonder why I am discussing this. There’s a simple reason: L. Jagi Lamplighter asked me to write something that would be read by people who have literary ambition. And the very first thing you need in order to even think about being a published  writer is a love of reading. 
I’m sure there are those who would argue with that statement. I’ve talked with writers who tell me that they don’t read in the genre they write. I’ve even met writers who say that they’ve never been avid readers. I can understand the former. Some writers are wary of reading  books that might influence their own work. That makes sense. I know an equal number of writers who read  voraciously in their own field. Either way is fine, if it works for you. But the other assertion–that someone wants to write books, but has never particularly cared about reading, seems very odd to me.
When I was a senior in college, an English major who wanted to write the great American science fiction story, I took a tutorial in creative writing. My professor told me I’d have to write a story a week. But before I started writing, he wanted me to read certain books. I remember the first one extremely vividly: The Adventures of Augie March  by Saul Bellow. It isn’t science fiction. But it is a marvelous example of contemporary American fiction by a masterful writer who is also a great storyteller. My professor, Gerald Nelson, impressed upon me that in order to write well, one had to learn how to to read well, and then read good writing.
I have never had reason to disagree with what he said. Ever since then, I have sought out short stories and novels by writers I believe to be very, very good at their craft. Having been an English Literature major, I had the benefit of being forced to read  many of the greatest writers in  the English language from the past five hundred years (and earlier). The language changes, and so do literary forms, but reading broadly has been for me a bracing, exhilarating lifetime of discovery. We have a fabulous literary heritage of enormous breadth and depth, and while the details of modern life are changing with mind-boggliing speed, human nature has not changed that much. The heart that beats in the breast of Shakespeare’s protagonists feels the same kinds of joy and pain as  might afflict the most modern protagonist.
Good writing, dammit, is human. That’s the plain truth. It doesn’t matter what kind of a story you want to tell. At the core of your story is a protagonist. It can be male or female–or neither, or both; it can be human or alien, or a magical creature. But whatever kind of plumbing, whatever  external appearance, whatever powers your protagonist may possess, the single most important asset that protagonist must possess is some quality that enables readers to identify with him, her or it.
I cannot tell you how many bad manuscripts I have received that have cardboard cut-outs the author thinks are realistic characters. I don’t know what these people are thinking, but when I get a manuscript that is peopled by thinly veiled stereotypes or just plain empty bodies that have no discernible souls, I know I have to read no further. It doesn’t matter what is going to happen; it is not important what kind of inventive hoops the would-be author forces the characters to navigate,. If those characters don’t feel real to the reader, all is lost.
So my first advice to those of you who want to be writers is to learn how to read well, so that when an editor says to you, “Your characters are flat; they’re dull; they don’t convince me,” you understand what the editor means, because you have experienced the joy of reading works that are peopled by characters so real that the fictional creations become, at least during the reading experience, as real as if they were truly alive.
That experience is what people are referring to when they say, “The story comes alive on the page!” It’s the story of someone who seems real that engages the reader’s interest and fires the imagination. Oh, the joy of being so swept up in a story that one completely forgets the real world. That state–forgetting the physical world  because one is enraptured by the narrative spun by a skilled storyteller–is what we refer to as the “willing  suspension of disbelief.”
Yes, disbelief. Fiction–I’m talking about fiction, though really fine non-fiction is often praised–when it possesses the kind of urgency and passion  as outstanding fiction–as being novelistic . . . fiction is  not real. For a reader to enjoy fiction, the author must win the reader’s willing cooperation, forcing the reader to accept what is an absolute fabrication as something the reader must care about as if it was important in the real world.
Achieving that cooperation–that willing suspension of disbelief–is the magical feat that writers must perform in order to be accepted, embraced by readers. If you can do that, you’ve done the most important thing you need to do as a writer. Readers will forgive a lot of sins in their authors, but if you aren’t able to win the reader’s  trust, the heart of the reader, so that the reader will allow you to take him away from the real world to the world you have constructed, then the reader will not keep reading your fiction.
When I say “the world you have constructed,”  I don’t necessarily mean a world of the future, or an alternate world, or a fantasy world, It can be anyplace, any time, right now, or the recent past or future, on a world that never existed, or in your reconstruction of the real world. But it’s your narrative to which the reader must subscribe; your version of reality.
There are  many other things you need to do as a successful writer, of course. But that’s job one. Get the reader on your side–on the side of your protagonist, your viewpoint character.
So how do you do that? Many would-be writers think that if their protagonist is really, really talented, and  charming, and  smart, and goodlooking, that should work. Well, maybe. But it’s far more important that the protagonist be a person you see not as a “character,” but rather as a real, live person. Looks and charm aren’t everything. No kidding.
There is no formula or secret handshake that will get you into the club of  published writers. What you need to do is to  read, look for characters that become your friends–or enemies–in the pages of books you love. And think about what it is about them that makes them memorable.
That’s something to chew on. I hope it helps.
–James Frenkel
   Senior Editor
    Tor Books
Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)

Comments

From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 11th, 2011 01:12 am (UTC)

Reading and Writing

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Jagi, thanks for sharing your editor's insights with us. As an avid reader since the age of five, I agree with him. And I am growing in learning to make my characters more real to the reader, altho they already are real to me! Rose
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From:gingersea
Date:November 11th, 2011 03:13 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for this post! I am coming more and more to understand how central the three-dimensional characters are to a great work of literature. But alas, it's a much easier feat to see and understand and discuss in other works than it is to carry out when actually writing something. Having just finished Prospero Regained, I am impressed by how well you (Jagi) managed to create each member of the family Prospero as a unique and memorable character!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 11th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)

good characters

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Thanks for the thoughtful essay, James. And Jagi, for presenting it.

When I was a teaching assistant in English, working on my master's degree, another TA asked me one day, "Do you ever, when you're talking about a story, suddenly feel silly for talking about characters as though they're real people?"

I said no, never had that feeling. Good characters are fascinating and they do seem real. The realer the better!

Donna
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From:Merry Johnson Muhsman
Date:November 12th, 2011 03:18 am (UTC)

Great post!

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Thanks James for sharing your insights. I have read the "you need to love to read" advice before, but never in this way. Mainly, it's been "you need to read your genre and your audience so you know what the reader wants." I'm not sure I agree with that, because if I had done that, I would have never discovered Jagi's beautiful prose. I'm not an urban fantasy reader. I tend to go to traditional fantasy, but I love historical, crime novels, some westerns and even a mystery here or there. I feel I expand my experience by studying what others have done (good or bad). I never realized it, but as you said, a good book is only as good as the characters. I remember someone saying my villain was far more interesting than my protagonist. While part of me thought that's fantastic, the other part felt I had failed my protagonist. I have spent a lot of time trying to make him as you said "not flat and dull." Thanks for taking the time to share your advice.
From:deiseach
Date:November 12th, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for sharing this with us. I can't imagine wanting to be a writer without also being an avid reader; if you don't much enjoy reading, or don't read widely, why would you want to write? Paint, tell stories, sing, act - yes, I get that, telling your story in a fashion that's meaningful to you, communicating what's inside and what's important. But write without reading? How does that work?

Even on the level of making your invented world and its inhabitants work, you need to read over a wide area both in space and in time; I am presently reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes pastiches (both professional and fanfiction, and as an aside let me say that some of the amateurs who are quite literally doing it for love beat the professionally published hands-down), and as someone living on this side of the Atlantic, I find that there are some common errors that break the mood and throw me right out of the story. First is the usage of American terms - the most common is measuring distance in a city or town by "blocks". No, ladies and gentlemen! This is a convenient and natural way for Americans to measure distance, but us Old Worlders never laid out our cities so rationally. I'm surprised that professionally edited and published writers are allowed to get away with it; read any of the original Holmes stories and see if Conan Doyle ever mentions that the murder took place three blocks west of here!

The second common error is dressing up late 20th century/early 21st century characters in 19th century clothes and having them speak, act and think accordingly - that is, as modern-day people in bustles and frockcoats. If you haven't read Dickens or Collins or Austen or Trollope or Mrs. Barton, how on earth do you think you are going to get your head into the era? If Dr. Watson stands up to give his seat to a lady on the omnibus, a stern lecture by the lady about the inherent sexism of the gesture is not appropriate; even if she's supposed to be Emmeline Pankhurst, she would never be so discourteous to a gentleman. The lecture on treating women as unable to open their own doors belongs to our era and not that of the setting.

And in the same way, if you haven't read romances or Westerns or spy novels or literary works, how on earth are you going to understand how to write about spies or cowboys (if you're not one yourself)?

From:robertjwizard
Date:November 13th, 2011 11:32 am (UTC)

Thanks!

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Thank you for posting this Mr. Frenkel and Mrs. Lamplighter!

I can't really wrap my head around a writer that is not an avid reader.

Now that I've read this, and have "dabbled" (sometimes very briefly) in every art, it seems this, in a general way, applies to all the arts. I really can't wrap my head around a musician that isn't an avid listener.

Thanks again
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From:wenchpower
Date:November 13th, 2011 08:16 pm (UTC)
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Thank you for posting this! I had a creative writing professor who did something similar--every week, he assigned us a great short story to "workshop" along with our own stories so we could discuss what made it work. It was incredibly helpful.

I can't understand writers who don't read, either. If you love books enough to create a new one, why don't you love them enough to read them?
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From:princejvstin
Date:November 14th, 2011 11:28 am (UTC)
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Thanks for giving Jim this forum, Jagi.

"To write well, you must read well"
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From:rondaswolley
Date:November 20th, 2011 03:27 am (UTC)

excellent post

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Much food for thought here, thank you.

side note: I don't think I would want to write if I didn't love reading so much!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 23rd, 2011 01:15 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for this article. Actually, I love the Sherlock Holmes stories because of the portrait of Holmes, not for the stories themselves. And I loved the movie "Master and Commander" because, although it had no central plot line, the two lead characters were so alive.

But while the human passions remain constant, let's also bear in mind deiseach's admonition that characters must fit their world. Avoid rubbish like the movie "Kingdom of Heaven", which portrayed 12th century crusaders talking as though they were secular New Yorkers from the 21st century.

I suggest this is even more important if writing about alternate worlds. They must have the same emotions but they must think in a really different way from us. Which makes writing such a story such a challenge.

From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 23rd, 2011 01:30 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for this article. Actually, I love the Sherlock Holmes stories because of the portrait of Holmes, not for the stories themselves. And I love the movie "Master and Commander" because, although it had no central plot line, the two lead characters were so alive.

But while the human passions remain constant, bear in mind deiseach's admonition that characters should fit their world. Avoid rubbish like the movie "Kingdom of Heaven", which portrayed 12th century crusaders talking as though they were secular New Yorkers from the 21st century.

(If you want to write about 12th century crusaders, bear in mind that they were militant Catholic fundamentalists. And if you'd rather avoid such unpleasant folk, then don't write about them.)

And this is even more important when writing about alternate worlds. Aliens may have similar emotions to us but there should be something, well, alien about the way they think. Which makes writing such stories a real challenge.


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From:arhyalon
Date:November 23rd, 2011 02:04 pm (UTC)
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To portray any group of people as one idea is probably inaccurate. Particularly if you lived in Medieval Europe which was a Christian community from England to North Africa...and suddenly in a matter of a few decades or so, your allies and fellow churches in Egypt and Isreal and Spain were conquored by an unfriendly power who was still coming your way. One does not need to be a fanatic to want to go to the rescue of your fellows. And that unfriendly power kept coming...eventually making it as far north as Vienna, I believe before it was mostly ousted from Europe.

It is strange how modern stories about the Crusades seem to leave out the fact that they were going to fight in territory that had been part of their community within the last century. The Europeans wanting that territory back was really no different from Germany wanting to be reunited.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:November 24th, 2011 05:17 am (UTC)
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Totally agree.

Re portraying a group of people as all the same, there are lots of differences in the Catholic fundamentalists whom I know. One wants to check on the state of your soul, one has a great and skeptical sense of humor, and one is compassionate and devout.

BTW, my comment about "such unpleasant folk" was meant ironically, but I guess it wasn't that apparent.

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From:arhyalon
Date:November 24th, 2011 12:30 pm (UTC)
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LOL

Hard to tell by monitor light.
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