|(Published in MN SCBWI Bulletin, CYGNET, March 2001 issue)
I know this will appear immediately obvious to many of you -- but it was not obvious to me until about four weeks ago. And I've been writing since I was 13 and getting published since I was 34. In the past ten years, I've managed to place stories in such magazines as CRICKET, CICADA and ANALOG. My first book, SIMPLE SCIENCE SERMONS FOR BIG AND LITTLE KIDS has sold 1009 copies at last count.
Currently, an editor is very interested in a middle-grade historical novel I've written. She's been interested enough to lead me through three rewrites. Her letters have been encouraging and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But her most recent letter prompted me to take a very, very long step back and examine how I've been writing all these years. She commented that my dialogue was great (a common comment), the situation riveting, and the setting very good. She could not, however, identify very well with my characters. She had a lot of problems with them, and I sense that this is the last time she's going to take me to task for a rewrite. This may very well be my last chance to get this book accepted and published.
So it warranted the long step back.
I pored over old issues of THE WRITER and WRITER'S DIGEST, focusing on articles about developing characters. I re-read sections on characterization in every writing book I have: books on writing mysteries, romances, SF and inspirational fiction. I made lists, then cut the lists down, then pared the cut down lists to just a few, very key points. All so I could find some sort of wisdom that I could actually use. Some golden muse that would instantly inspire me to crystal clear character development.
Then I sat down at my computer and -- stared at it. After all my research, I was no closer to understanding how to make my characters come alive than when I started.
I was, in a word, devastated.
I looked back at pieces I'd written that were successful. I'd even gotten a "fan" letter that my editor forwarded to me. I KNEW they had been successful, and I knew that I had written them. Ergo, sometimes I DID know how to make my characters come alive. But I wasn't doing it consistently. Alongside those 28 successes, dozens of unsuccessful manuscripts litter my desk, disks and files. Some have been returned so many times that I've permanently filed them in the "dead" drawer.
So I went back to a piece that's frustrated me for some time. The concept is cool -- it's a short novel for early readers. It's science fiction and I like it. The idea continues to haunt me, even when the manuscript is put away, resting between revisions. So I know I have something there.
But the story falls flat ever time I read it. Even I know it's not publishable yet. As I sit and stare at the manuscript of single-spaced lines with scribbles all over it and handwritten page numbers in the lower right-hand corner, I'm not sure why it's not publishable. I just know that it isn't.
One Sunday morning during church, I had a blinding flash of insight. I had been idly writing before the service started, when I began to think about my story. Without knowing where the idea came from, I realized that the only way my characters were going to seem alive was if I focused on them.
As strange as this may sound to some of you, strong characterization is not the norm in my chosen area of science fiction. SF has often been depicted as the "literature of ideas", but it is not that alone.
The very best SF shows how people like you and me react to futuristic technology. I had long ago been seduced by the ideas and had been writing my own SF along the "idea" line for years. Some of my work has been published in ANALOG. I'd had SF stories in CRICKET as well as JUGGLER'S WORLD, a church magazine named HICALL, and recently, an online ezine called GATEWAY S-F.
Upon reflection, then closer examination, I found that all of the successful stories focused on a character that experienced a dramatic change as a result of his or her contact with future technology. My problem all along however, had been that I had never consciously realized what I was doing.
That was the revelation: to create a story that focuses on character, focus on the characters. I'd done it before, accidentally. Now that I understood what I'd done in the past, I should be able to do it over and over again.
And so my writing journey goes on.
I've spent the last few days revising my short novel for early readers by focusing my mind on these characters. They have come alive with stunning clarity for me, and so I hope that they will become living people for an editor and finally a child somewhere.
I am currently waiting (in between bouts of teaching physics and physical science to 9th-12th graders and having a relationship with my wife, kids, dog and cats) to go up north to my first Writer and Artist In The School (WAITS) residency. In my spare time, I'm planning to bring my historical novel's characters to life.
As I write this, my new philosophy hangs as a sticky note from the bottom of my computer screen. It reads:
To create a story that focuses on character, your focus should be most deliberately on the character's changing mind, his or her thoughts, perceptions, on what they want or don't want to happen. To create a story that focuses on character, focus on the character.
This was my revelation; an epiphany if you will. Feel free to copy it if it is a revelation to you, too. I don't know at this point what results this new insight will have on my writing. But I do know that it felt right when it came to me.
It still feels right as I sit here typing this article. Only time will tell if the revelation bears any fruit. I'm patiently waiting.