Sunday, April 29, 2012

I Love to Hate You: The Irresistible Antihero

One of the biggest challenges for writers is to create appealing protagonists (my Beta Readers know how hard I’ve tried with mine!) According to the experts, if readers don’t identify with our characters, they’ll stop reading. But attaining character identification is not so simple, especially if we look at how the dictionary defines this word:

  1. a process by which one ascribes to oneself the qualities or characteristics of another person.
  2. perception of another as an extension of oneself.

Psychologists tell us that “we like best those who are like us,” but if we take into account that everyone has different tastes and personalities, the task seems monumental. Yet, there is an almost universal agreement that most of us are drawn to positive/optimistic characters like Lucy Ricardo or Forrest Gump. Sounds simple enough, except that not every character can be like them. Time and time again, we’re told that nobody likes perfect characters because they’re not true to life, that our protagonists should have flaws and that they should learn/change/grow along the way in an emotionally satisfying way. With all that in mind, how do we balance flaws and appeal? Logic tells us that the more flawed the character, the bigger his/her arc will be. And if we have a big character arc, we just may touch our audience. But if nobody likes him/her, how do we make the reader continue reading?

Fascinating antiheroes in literature and film are proof that this can be done. In search of answers, I came across a simple concept to solve this dilemma: unsympathetic characters must COMPENSATE their flaws with a compelling trait. This quality should be gripping enough to keep the reader's interest, despite his/her feelings for the mean main character.

Ideally, negative protagonists should have one or more of these five traits:


There is something irresistible about a person who can make us laugh. When we first meet Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in As Good as it Gets, we immediately dislike him, yet we can’t help but laugh at his quirky habits and some of his snarky comments. We are hooked by this unusual and utterly unlikeable character (perhaps because we’re curious to know what crazy thing he’ll say/do next.)

At the beginning of When Harry Met Sally, Harry (Billy Crystal) is full of himself and obnoxious, but some his comments are so outrageous they’re funny. By the middle of the film, he has matured and his insights on men/women relationships start to make sense.

For ten years, Sally could not stand Harry. 
In Overboard, Joanna (Goldie Hawn) is a millionaire snob who hires a carpenter called Dean (Kurt Russell) to build a closet on her yacht. When the task is complete, she refuses to pay him as the closet was not done to her full satisfaction. That evening, after she falls overboard and suffers from amnesia, Dean claims her as his wife hoping to get his money back by having her take care of his kids and house. Joanna must adjust to a humble, rural lifestyle and do things she’s never done before. As expected, she encounters a number of funny situations that, eventually, win the audience’s (and Dean’s) favor.

Joanna experiments in the kitchen for the first time.


What do Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Corleone, the Vicomte de Valmont have in common? They all have power. Scarlett is so beautiful and charming no man can resist her. She also has the power to overcome the hardships that come her way during the war.

Scarlett knows exactly how to get what she wants.
Valmont (Dangerous Liaisons) can conquer any woman he sets his eyes on. For his love, they’re willing to ruin their reputations and their marriages. 

The irresistible and cruel Vicomte de Valmont
Michael Corleone (The Godfather) starts off as a sympathetic character, an articulate family man and returning war hero who wants nothing to do with the mafia, but eventually becomes as ruthless and powerful as his father, Vito. Power, or the ability to achieve what us mere mortals can’t, can fascinate and hook the audience in spite of the protagonist’s flaws.


Clint Eastwood is a brilliant director. When we first meet the bitter, rude and racist protagonist of Gran Torino (Walt Kowalski), he’s standing by his wife’s coffin during her funerary service and his badly dressed, ill-behaved, self-centered grandchildren are giggling and checking their cell phones. In addition to these offenses, his two sons are whispering a joke at his expense. We are immediately sympathetic to this character even though we can see from his expression that he’s not a warm and likable man.

Walt Kowalski surrounded by his uncaring family

The protagonist of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander, is not the most charming heroine: she’s an antisocial computer hacker who never smiles or has a kind word for anybody. However, we see early on that she’s had a rough life. Not only does she live a lonely existence in a cold, humble apartment, but also, the only person she seems to love (her guardian) has a stroke and she’s left in the hands of a disgusting man who abuses her.

When something bad happens to a character or those he loves, we feel sympathy for him (if the author handles the situation well). In addition to sympathy over Walt Kowalski’s crappy family and his impending loneliness, he has positive traits to compensate for the venom that spills from his mouth every time he speaks: he’s hard-working, brave, loyal, straightforward and kind to his dog.


Both Lisbeth Salander and Walt Kowalski have another thing in common. Even though they’re tough and confident, they’re vulnerable. Salander is a small, thin woman, with a guardian twice her size who has no conscience. Kowalski is a sick old man who, despite all his weapons and war experience, lives alone in a neighborhood ran by gangs. The two of them are never safe and we cringe every time they take a bold action (which is often).

The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo is always in danger.

As a woman in the South after the Civil War, Scarlett O’Hara is often in danger, too. Her vulnerability makes our bad feelings for her soften at times (though she keeps making us angry throughout the entire novel!)


If we can see early on that an unsympathetic character is, at the core, a good person, we’re more likely to tolerate his/her bad behavior. We may even start rooting for him/her. Salander does a lot of illegal things, but she has a sense of justice that we can sympathize with. She punishes evil and cruel men. We may not agree with her methods, but we instinctively know that she wouldn’t harm an innocent.

Kowalski has no regards for other people’s feelings and is quick to insult them, but he recognizes that his young neighbor has a good heart and appreciates/respects his virtues. He’s willing to commit the ultimate sacrifice in order to give this kid a chance in the world. Despite his many flaws, Kowalski has a clear sense of right and wrong.

Although Melvin Udall is consistently spiteful to his neighbor (Simon), he gives him shelter when the latter has nowhere to live. In addition, he takes good care of Simon’s dog despite his initial irritation toward the animal. This shows us he has a good heart.

The misanthropist, obsessive-compulsive Melvin
proves he has feelings when he helps Simon.


In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass points out that the most common mistake he finds in submissions is that the protagonist is unsympathetic. In an attempt to create flawed and interesting main characters, writers make them too dark and that can be “wearisome,” he says. Although he agrees that perfect individuals are not engaging and transformation can be very powerful in a story, redemption only comes at the end of a novel and readers may not stick around for that long. The key to make readers care, he says, is to balance negativity with sympathetic qualities and give dark characters “moments of humanity.” Maass offers the following tip: if a character is aware that he’s self-destructive, wrong or in trouble and makes an effort to change, the reader will remain engaged. The example he gives is Conrad Jarrett in Ordinary People.

Conrad is a depressed teenager who’s just returned home from a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt following his brother’s death. Even though his thoughts are dark and depressive most of the time, Conrad makes an attempt to get better and take it “one day at a time.” The reader starts rooting for him.

“Readers need reasons to hope. To write the breakout novel, it is necessary to provide readers those reasons not just at the end but all the way through.” (Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Pg. 117)

How have you handled your own dark characters? Can you think of other imperfect protagonists in literature and what has hooked you to them?

Erasure - I Love to Hate You

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Monday, April 23, 2012

When “The Exotic” becomes “ The Bizarre”

I have finally understood the flaws in my first and forsaken novel. I wrote it in the wrong language, I targeted the wrong public (add wrong agents to that) and I selected themes and settings, that despite their glamour, were not easy to appreciate or relate to. In our urgency to be original, we may force our audience to waddle through the peculiar, the unfamiliar and the bizarre, and that applies to foreign cultures, as well as exotic settings and customs.

Identification is crucial to establish a connection between reader and story. Any plot or character quirk that shocks, alienates or angers the reader gives excuse to throw the volume into the garbage can. Therefore, no matter how exotic the milieu is, a familiar element must always be present.  This not only applies to American readers, it´s a universal phenomenon.  To enjoy a good reading we need to feel comfortable with the material. Without friendly crutches, we cannot wander too deep into unrecognizable territory.

Unlike films, books lack visual props that turn the exotic into the” known.” This is why epic fantasy writers go through pains to explain to their audience every little detail of the alien civilization they have fabricated, sometimes even adding maps to establish a geographical location. I am no friend of “high fantasy.” The reason I made an exception with Song of Ice and Fire was George R.R. Martin´s genius in basing his mythical lands and cultures in historical or earthly references. Thus The War of Five Kings is inspired by The War of the Roses, the North resembles Iceland or other Scandinavian lands, and Winterfell is based on old Celtic kingdoms.  As I read the series, I visualize the Night Watch as the French Foreign Legion or The Templar Knights, The Dothrakis as Huns or Mongols, and Robb Stark as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

"Bonnie Prince" Robb

Novels, even historical fiction, may include factors that could prove too outlandish for the reader to swallow. Historical romances are sometimes discarded if considered racist or presenting other offensive ideologies. We know child brides, sibling marriages and good Christians owning slaves are disturbing topics even if set in days of old.

Foreign cultures, including those that are part of the Western civilization, have to be treated wisely. For centuries, the British looked with distrust upon the French, branding them as a hedonistic and depraved people.  A  Victorian habit (later picked up by Americans) was to use French terms to euphemize anything dealing with sex or intimacy. Ladies spoke of their hygienic habits as doing “their toilettes”, miscarriages were known as faux accouchements, condoms became “French letters” and a deep kiss was described as “a French kiss.” The French became “The Other” as dangerous and bizarre as the Sioux or Zulu.

To make the English-speaking world familiar with European decadence and immorality, writers used the “innocents abroad” subterfuge. Many Americans who couldn´t afford a trip to Europe got to know all its glitter and wickedness  through  the  works of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway . Although their prose was guided by different styles, purposes and ideologies, the aforementioned writers shared a common bond: their protagonists were Americans that, despite their wealth or background, had much more in common with the reader than the European characters they mingled with. Just think of the bunch of expatriates in The Sun also Rises.

Take a look at recent New York Times Bestseller lists and you´ll see the formula alive and kicking. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife describes the trials of poor all-American Hadley Richardson struggling with husband Ernest Hemingway’s philandering in Jazz Age Paris.  In The Expats, Chris Pavone depicts the efforts of an American wife to go native in Luxembourg after her husband moves the family to Europe. I am not surprised that these two novels are among the most read in modern day America. What would surprise me would be a bestseller about the trials of a Luxembourg wife in her native land.

The principle of pitting the Anglo protagonist against bizarre cultures has been widely used in stories set in the Third World which was culturally-speaking much more alien than Europe, therefore, more treacherous. When writing about their vast colonial empire, The British made sure  to have at least one Caucasian (ergo English) protagonist usually involved in a doomed relationship with a member of the foreign culture. You see the formula in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, in John Masters’ The Bhowani Junction, and in Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet.

This way of describing the exotic became such a cliché pattern that when Louis Bromfield wrote The Rains Came he had as protagonist an expatriate half-American, half- English nobleman who divides his affections between the teenage daughter of a Southern missionary and a British aristocrat. The latter, Lady Edwina Esketh  (faithful to the other cliché) dooms herself by falling in love with an Indian doctor. Even Ruth Prawer Jawhalah, an Austrian Jewish refugee married to a Hindu, relied on the familiar formula in Heat and Dust, the story of two British women that, on different generations, travel to India and get pregnant by Indian men.

Many English authors have made careers abusing the “innocent abroad” formula, from John Le Carre´s British spies gallivanting over Eastern Europe to Graham Green’s proper English gentlemen meeting danger in some Latin American spot. This applies to Australian authors as well. James Clavell uses it to expose Japanese Sixteenth-Century culture in Shogun and Nineteenth-Century China in Tai-Pan. To interpret the Indonesian Revolution, Christopher Koch does it through the viewpoint of an Australian journalist in The Year of Living Dangerously.

                                         Mel Gibson and Sigouney Weaver in The Year f Living Dangerously

Despite how sympathetic the authors were to foreign culture, or how much they loved the landscape, they always reverted to the safe recourse of exposing it through Caucasian eyes. This was not racism, but the need to describe the bizarre through familiar eyes. It´s why bestsellers like The Godfather and The Joy Star Club can safely foray into alien cultures because the main plot deals with Italo-Ameticans and Chinese-Americans living in United States. It reminds me of the first agent I approached. I picked him because his advertisement said he was desperately seeking novels dealing with Italian characters. I sent him my manuscript, the story of an Italian girl growing up in Fascist Italy. He rejected it politely saying he was looking for something “about Italo-Americans.”

                                                   The Godfather-Sicilian sojourn

There are some exceptions to the rule, but beware! Under scrutiny we find that same prototype underneath “exotic” bestsellers such as The Kite Runner, and Lisa See’s novels about old China. Both Khaled Hosseini and See are American-born, they write in English, and are familiar with the culture, way of thinking and language of their target audience. They have ways to make the exotic familiar and avoid the hazards of the bizarre.

The exotic does not only refer to other cultures, it could even be a genre. Traditionally, military fiction and spy novels target a masculine audience. According to statistics, in United States more women read and buy books than men. How to make “masculine” subjects attractive to them? Well, it´s a little like making children eat their spinach. The plot has to disguise the bizarre aspects of the offensive subject and present it in ways The Readerhood finds familiar and appetizing such as having a female protagonist. 

When doing research for my previous entry on military fiction, I went through American bestsellers of the past five years. I found that the few that actually dealt with war had women as protagonists (War Brides, The Piano Teacher and currently The House at Tyneford). In these stories, the battlefield becomes a peripheral subject. What matters in War Brides is the clash between British women and the culture they spouse after marrying American soldiers. In The Piano Teacher, an English woman in Hong Kong is involved with an enigmatic countryman marked by his World War II experiences and in Tyneford, a Jewish girl, fleeing the Nazis, finds shelter as a servant at an aristocratic British manor.

How different from another war novel that briefly passed by the NYT list. I am talking about David Benioff’s City of Thieves (2008).  Benioff is a very famous screenwriter, telling you that his credits include “Troy,” “The X Men,” “The Kite Runner” and “Game of Thrones” (which he also produces) tells you all. Aside from his brilliant scriptwriting career, Benioff has also written and screen-adapted The 25th hour, another bestseller and a bit of a cult book. With those impeccable credentials, he adventured  himself into historical fiction with City of Thieves.
David Benioff

Set in besieged Leningrad during the Second World War, the novel follows the adventures of a teenage boy and a much older deserter throughout the city´s underworld and further into partisan land and eventually the German lines. Full of tragedy and black humor, this combination of coming-of-age novel and war- buddy drama reminds me of the great masterpieces of the picaresque novel with this blend of humor and horror. The naïve hero and his rogue companion become a sort of Russian Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
I love City of Thieves but I sincerely doubt the book would have made it to the bestselling lists if Benioff had not authored it. The subject matter and setting are too foreign to appeal to the average reader. While praising the novel, reviewers concur that Americans know little (and care less) about the Eastern Front or Russian experiences during WWII. A telling sign is that despite Benioff’s clout in Hollywood, the novel has not merited a film version.

As I said at the beginning, this form of ethnocentrism is not an American trend only. Just as Hollywood needs to remake foreign films, in Latin America, successful telenovelas will merit different versions from country to country. “Ugly Betty” was originally  created in Colombia for a Colombian audience, but now it has versions from Mexico to Israel, from Russia to India.

Yo soy Betty La Fea (The original)

Ugly Betty  (the remake)

The principle behind this remake fever is the same one that has Hollywood creating a local version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.”  Some members of the audience will need to see a good story reenacted by their own actors, speaking in their own language or accent, and expressing their cultural idiosyncrasies. That is conductive to create the relaxed and cozy atmosphere needed to enjoy a film or a book.

Going back to literature, it is my experience that only two genres bypass the formula and safely waddle into exotic cultures: mysteries (historical and others) and the late Twentieth Century bodice-ripper because they turn around universal subjects: murder and sex. 

In your reading habits, have you noticed this need to blend the exotic with the familiar? Do you seek stories or characters that you can identify with? Do you reject novels that deal with subjects that are so alien to the point of making you uncomfortable? Gives us examples.

Monday, April 16, 2012


But you can write

Bob Dylan had burned out. The young singer-songwriter had maintained a grueling tour schedule for the first half of 1965, and he was ready to give up. In fact, he did give up: he told his manager he was quitting the business. He left his guitar behind, drove his motorcycle out of the big city, and moved to an empty cabin. He was finished.

It was then that he had his real writing breakthrough. When he had turned his back on the business, when he was all alone in an empty cabin with nothing but a notebook and pencil, that’s when his mind opened up.

Dylan’s story unfolds in Imagine: How Creativity Works, an exploration on the curious workings of creativity by renowned science journalist Jonah Lehrer. After a few days of solitude, Dylan felt a creative tickle, and was compelled to pick up his pencil. An uncontrollable rush of creativity kept him scribbling for hours, until he’d filled twenty pages with lyrics. Dylan compared the impulse to “vomit,” it was so unstoppable. What he wrote was a kind of songwriting that had never been done before. It wasn’t a love song, or a straightforward story, but something loose and strange. He didn’t even know what the words meant. He’d written the first draft of “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the real Dylan was born.

This kind of creativity, says Lehrer, is called an “insight experience.” It’s the same kind of moment that Isaac Newton experienced under the apple tree, and Archimedes had in his bathtub. This is the “Eureka!” moment. Such moments are nearly always preceded by a “frustration experience,” and we don’t hear enough about this.

“Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer,” Lehrer writes. “When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthroughs.”

Science writer Jonah Lehrer
These are soothing and heartening words for any frustrated writer. But obviously, frustration alone is not enough. You still have to sit down and write the song, or the book, or work out the math. There is where a second kind of creative experience comes into play, one that is less magical and more grueling: the work phase.

“The reality of the creative process is that it often requires persistence, the ability to stare at a problem until it makes sense,” Lehrer says. “It’s forcing oneself to pay attention, to write all night and then fix those words in the morning. It’s sticking with a poem until it’s perfect; refusing to quit on a math question; working until the cut of a dress is just right. The answer does not arrive suddenly, in a flash of insight. Instead, it will be revealed slowly, gradually emerging after great effort.” Lehrer calls this part of creativity “the unconcealing.”

Where insights happen
One of the questions Lehrer addresses in his book is which kind of creativity you need to feed at a particular time. Flashes of insight do not come while pecking madly at your keyboard hour after hour,* and novels do not get written while taking a hot shower. Different kinds of creativity take root and flourish in different kinds of soils.

Bipolar disorder, oddly enough, can give us a sense of the two kinds of soils needed for each type of creativity. Did you know that creative geniuses are twenty times more likely than the general population to have the brain disorder? Lehrer speculates that is because they have excesses of both kinds of necessary creative tools: the manic phases tend to give them bursts of sudden creativity and original insights: this is when their Eureka! moments happen, and the initial frenetic scribbling and sketching starts. But the mania wears off, and the work has to be edited. Pared down. Restructured. Mania is not good for this kind of slogging work.

Turns out, depressive phases can also help. The stereotype of the sad poet, staring gloomily into the rain as he composes his morose lines in his head, is kind of true. If the depressing isn’t utterly disabling, melancholy allows the creator to stick with her creation. People who are mildly depressed, Lehrer says, have demonstrated a marked ability to stick with tasks longer. A touch of blue makes you more persistent.
The insight of mania and the persistence of melancholy
“In other words, the emotional extremes of [bipolar disorder] reflect the extremes of the creative process,” he writes. “There is the ecstatic generation phase, full of divergent thoughts, and the attentive editing phase, in which all those ideas are made to converge.”

Lehrer is careful to note that nobody should envy the manic-depressive. “This doesn’t take away, of course, from the agony of the mental illness, and it doesn’t mean that people can create only when they’re horribly sad or manic,” he writes. “But it does begin to explain the significant correlations that have been repeatedly observed between depressive syndromes and artistic achievement.”

So, when is it time to take a bike ride and let your mind wander, and when is it time to glue your butt to the chair? “The good news is that the human mind has a natural ability to diagnose its own problems, to assess the kind of creativity that’s needed,” Lehrer says. Stick to your chair when you have a “tip of the tongue” feeling, that odd sensation of knowing that you know the answer to something, even if your brain can’t consciously recall it. But when you are utterly frustrated, and wandering in circles, take a break. Go on a long bike ride, let your mind wander.

Published in 2012
I’ve only summarized about half of Lehrer’s book on creativity, covering the bits about insight and persistence, but there’s so much more packed into the slim volume. He talks about the vitality of collaboration, of putting yourself in a situation where you are exposed to new ideas. He talks about the importance of milieu: Shakespeare’s genius wouldn’t have flourished anywhere but Elizabethan England. He talks about how to shut down the logical frontal lobes of our brains in order to access the untrammeled creativity of our dreaming minds. He even talks about when to revisit our first drafts for revision (answer: as long after we’ve written them as possible).

Lastly, Lehrer talks about how better to foster a spirit of creativity in the next generation: because we are going to need it. Not just for our individual creative projects, but for the serious challenges facing our civilization and our human lives on Earth.

*Lehrer says that many great writers, like W.H. Auden and Jack Kerouac, relied on Benzedrine and other amphetamines to keep their energy and focus for endless keyboard-pecking, but he doesn’t recommend it: stick to coffee. 

New! See Lehrer on the Colbert Report

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Power of the Public Domain

Feel free to create a derivative
of the Mona Lisa like 
Marcel Duchamp's 
L.H.O.O.Q. if you haven't
done so already!
What do the following things have in common?
  • Leonardo daVinci's Mona Lisa
  • Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel The Secret Garden
  • Newton's Principia
  • Source material for Relativity Media's current film Mirror Mirror
  • Mahayana sutras from the Tibetan Kanjur
  • The complete works of William Shakespeare
  • Sheet music to Handel's Water Music
In case you haven't figured it out by now, they can all be found in the public domain.

Now, perhaps you're a bit like me, and although you've heard of the public domain, you've never put much thought into what it is or why it exists. The truth is that any writer can benefit from drawing from this vast resource of stories that have delighted audiences and readers for years.

So, what is the public domain? According to the University of California, here is how they describe it:
❝The public domain is generally defined as consisting of works that are either ineligible for copyright protection or with expired copyrights. No permission whatsoever is needed to copy or use public domain works. Public domain works and information represent some of the most critical information that faculty members and students rely upon. Public domain works can serve as the foundation for new creative works and can be quoted extensively. They can also be copied and distributed to classes or digitized and placed on course Web pages without permission or paying royalties.❞
Basically, what it boils down to, is that these are works anyone can use without someone taking you to court and crying foul for copyright infringement. Sounds like a sweet deal, right? But just be careful you're following proper protocol before you go out there and start writing a sequel based off another author's work. There are a few more rules you'll need to know.

The UCCopyright site goes on to say the following:
Frances Hodgson Burnett's
1911 edition cover.
  1. If the work was published in the United States prior to 1923, it is in the public domain. This is why we tend to see so many "sequels" to some of the great 19th century works like Jane Austen's and Jules Verne's.
  2. For works published between 1923 and March 1, 1989, it depends on whether certain statutory formalities were observed, such as providing a notice of copyright on the work or renewing the copyright per statutory deadlines. It goes on to explain three examples of public notices with or without registration and how or if those copyrights were renewed in the proper fashion.
  3. After March 1, 1989, all works (published and unpublished) are protected for 70 years from the date the author dies. For works of corporate authorship (works made for hire), the copyright term is the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation. It's kind of nice to know your work is protected up to 70 years after your death, isn't it? A recent example of a work entering the public domain is Frances Hodgson Burnett's well-loved novel The Secret Garden, which became public domain in 1987. 
When a work enters the public domain, especially if it's a novel, play, or before too much longer screenplays, derivative works increase with adaptations of screenplays or the more recent trend of writing sequels to well-known works. A novel currently hitting the bestseller's lists is P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley, which is in essence a sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice -- a novel that was first published in 1813. And if you're an avid Austen fan, then you already know there's a slew of these novels already out there.

P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley
One of many "sequels" to Austen's work.
Keep in mind that some works keep a perpetual copyright and never truly enter the public domain. A couple of examples include the crown copyright that is held for the Authorized King James version of the Bible in the UK. Another pertains to The Great Ormond Street Hospital, to whom author J.M. Barrie gave the rights of his book Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. This book was granted a special copyright exception when the rights expired in the United Kingdom. As long as the hospital is still in existence, then it receives a portion of royalties for each performance held in the UK.

With all the controversy lately surrounding copyrighted material on the internet, the truth of the matter is that many photos and materials are in the public domain. For example, Wikimedia Commons has over 12 million uploaded files that are specifically in the public domain. It is the largest free "images-only" repository on the web. So every time you find a photo on a Wikipedia page, then that image is in the public domain. Of course, if something seems questionable, then do the research required to know if you're using free content or not.

If you've never taken a look at some of the works included in the public domain, but have always had a hankering for rewriting a story your way, then I encourage you to search out what interests you. Disney would never have had such classics as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast or there wouldn't be a slew of Shakespeare's in the park every summer across America if not for the power of the public domain.

Have you ever worked with anything in the public domain? If there was a classic literary tale you could rewrite what would it be and how would you change it?

Monday, April 2, 2012

You will be judged

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good novel, must be in want of a great opening line.

Sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, opening lines may determine the fate of our manuscripts. Unfair as it may seem, agents, editors and readers will often decide whether or not to pursue a novel based on one finicky sentence. (No pressure there.)

An editor once told me that the opening of a book must be unique to that particular story. In other words, it shouldn’t be generic or interchangeable. No other novel should be able to start the same way. But let’s look at what else a good opening line should do:
  1. Hook/intrigue the reader.
  2. Give us a sample of the writer’s prose.
  3. Give us an idea of what genre we’re about to read.
For this week, I propose we look at successful openers and understand why they work.

One of the most widely read Latin American authors, Gabriel García Márquez, is a master at creating compelling openers for his complex novels. Let’s take a look at some of them:

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. (Chronicle of a Death Foretold)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon where his father took him to discover ice. (One Hundred Years of Solitude)

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. (Love in the Time of Cholera)

From these short samples, we can assume that:
  • These books are not comedy material. In fact, they may likely end in tragedy.
  • There will be sense of melancholy and nostalgia throughout the text.
  • They all start at a climactic point in the story where reflection may be everything that is left for these characters.
  • It may take the entire novel to get to this point and understand the circumstances that led the character to this moment.
  • The novel takes place in a Spanish-speaking country.
All this information from just one sentence!

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez
Openers come in all forms: questions, dialogue, statements, descriptions. I’ve compiled a list of my favorites. Some are gripping (the must-continue-reading kind) while others simply intrigued me enough to keep reading (not necessarily finishing the book!)

Drink more than fourteen alcohol units a week.
Waste money on: pasta makers, ice-cream machines or other culinary devices which will never use; books by unreadable literary authors to put impressively on shelves; exotic underwear, since pointless as have no boyfriend.
Behave sluttishly around the house, but instead imagine others are watching.
(Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding)

One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. (The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. (Charlotte's Web by E.B. White)

Paris, July 1942. The girl was the first to hear the loud pounding on the door. (Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.)

In my first memory, I am three years old and I am trying to kill my sister. (My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult)

Paris: September, 1792. A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate. (The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy)

She undressed slowly, dreamily, and when she was naked, she selected a bright red negligee to wear so that the blood would not show. (If Tomorrow Comes by Sydney Sheldon.)

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. (The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón)

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. (The Stranger by Albert Camus)

They had a date at eight every night. If it was raining, if it was snowing; if there was a moon, or if there was none. (Rendezvous in Black by Cornell Woolrich)

The guilt was like a clump of tar in her hair, warm and sticky, impossible to remove. (A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand)

How young we were the day we escaped. (Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews)

When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen. (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

His mustache was stiffer than ever, so stiff a fly could have stepped out to the end, like a prisoner walking the plank on a pirate ship. Except that flies can’t survive in a cool room at twenty below zero, and neither could the owner of the blond, frozen mustache: Nestor Chaffino, chef and pastry cook, renowned for his masterful way with a chocolate fondant. (Little Indiscretions by Carmen Posadas)

I'd never given much thought to how I would die—though I'd had reason enough in the last few months—but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this. (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer)

Impressed by this quick exchange:

A mutter.
“Wake up now, Sally.”
A louder mutter: leeme lone.
He shook her harder.
“Wake up. You got to wake up!”
Charlie’s voice. Calling her. For how long?
Sally swam up out of sleep.
First she glanced at the clock on the night table and saw it was quarter past two in the morning. Charlie shouldn’t even be here; he should be on shift. Then she got her first good look at him and something leaped up inside her, some deadly intuition. (The Stand by Stephen King)

The idolized Stephen King

By popular demand:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. (Shogun by James Clavell)

One of the things I found while doing research for this article is that despite the “It was a dark and stormy night” cliché-alert throughout the internet, writing manuals and conferences, several successful novels start with weather descriptions:

Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay. (Peyton Place by Grace Metalious)

It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet. (A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick)

The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began. A few flakes first, in the dull gray late-afternoon sky, and then wind-driven swirls and eddies around the edges of their wide front porch. (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards)

The temperature hit ninety degrees the day she arrived. New York was steaming—an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable hot spell. (Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann)

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. (The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane)

Ever noticed how when something dramatic is about to happen in fiction, the weather is either exceptionally hot or exceptionally cold? The ultimate extreme of this “phenomenon” is Camus’s The Stranger. But that is subject for another post. Has any of these openings intrigued you enough to want to read the book? Can you think of other examples you like? In your opinion, what are the essential elements of a good first line? Are you brave enough to share your own with us?