Who and what a writer is matters

WHEN YOU ARE YOUNG, YOU TRY OUT FEELINGS

And the books which become favorites, the ones you remember, are the ones that make you feel good somehow.

Because that’s what you get objectively and subjectively when you read/buy a writer’s book: their particular take on a life, love, and the universal.

It isn’t accidental that some books become classics: they appeal to something in the reader that makes the reader buy the book as an adult, and read it to their children, because it’s an easy way to say that: this is what I want you to grow up loving – and feeling – because it was important to me, and I want you to have it.

As you go through life, and get battered, you choose

But you have to read widely first, so you find out what you need.

Is it The Velveteen Rabbit?

Is is Pooh, original or Disney (or both)?

Is it mysteries or gory serial killer thrillers? Do you like fantasies and are you satisfied when someone else – the protagonist – is The One? Or do you prefer stories in which, due to the writer’s skill, YOU are the center, the quester, the One.

There’s a whole MATRIX of other relevant bits

  • Historical time
  • Gender
  • Location on this planet or an alternate universe
  • Ending
  • Language
  • Complexity of ideas
  • Style and tone and vocabulary
  • Originality

But the most important one is always: how does it make you FEEL?

Because that’s what you’re looking for in the next story, the next favorite, the next book.

And that’s what will determine a basic satisfaction with what you read, and what you look for when you take a chance on something new.

I’m a sucker for well-written books

And I get annoyed when that leads me astray: well-written – but with a basic nastiness to the ending; well-written – but with an underlying misogyny or racism; well-written – but with characters you’d never want to meet in real life.

I still remember one book which was recommended by a literary blog I no longer recall and which the reviewer said it was a shame more people hadn’t read, since it was so well-written. I bought it! I read it! I was indeed very well written. And the recommendation made me miss the early red flags, because the story, about a murdered young girl, and how it affected her family and friends, turned into a story which blamed the victim for her own murder – because of the way she ‘responded’ to the sick adults who perverted her innocence. And the final conclusion to the story was that it wasn’t important to identify and stigmatize the killer!

I deleted the book from my Amazon account, something I rarely do, but haven’t been able to scrub how it made me feel from my mind.

Because first the writer described how wonderful she was and how everyone loved her – and then destroyed her by saying she deserved what happened to her! As if anyone, especially a child, a teen, deserved to be murdered.

It makes me wonder WHY someone would write such a book. And realize there’s a whole subculture of writers who do – and readers who love those books.

When I write I make conscious choices

I leave the characters those turnoffs that the big trucks use on a mountain road when their brakes fail – but I can’t make the characters use them.

I adopt the slow burn: things happen with enough time to think about why, to consider consequences, to justify actions. There are plenty of stories – and real life events – where something pivots on a tiny accidental point. They don’t interest me because there is nothing a character can do to avert the coming disaster – they will cope with the change, and the coping will show who they are, but it’s a cop-out, and, under dire circumstances, even good people make mistakes. And have to live with the consequences of a split second.

Not much in the way of subtlety with the turn-your-life-on-a-twisted-dime stories, especially if the reader can see it coming at the previous mile marker. Plus, those books don’t reward re-reading, and that’s a waste: depending on a trick ending is a fool-me-once.

I WANT to write something re-readable.

I want it to take several readings to see many of the connections.

I want most readers to have to go back and read the previous volume before the new one – or to have internalized what came before so they wouldn’t have to (I’ve had both kinds of readers comment about this).

I offer the usual bargain:

I do the work – you tell me how it made you feel.

Then tell me how it worked for you.

Try it out on the prequel 1500 word short story Too Late.

Then remember there’s plenty more where that came from.

**********

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23 thoughts on “Who and what a writer is matters

  1. acflory

    Mmm…well-written but… Yes, that resonates with me too. I’ve just finished reading a well-written tech thriller that left a sour taste in my mouth. It was written from the first person pov, which I dislike anyway, but then the author made the main character really rather despicable.
    There was a redemption arc of sorts, but to me it seemed as if it was the secondary characters who made the sacrifices needed to stop the main character from getting his just deserts. He basically got away with everything.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love a great villain, especially if that villain is shown to be less villainous than at first described, but that’s very different to an MC that wants the Reader to /think/ they’re ‘nice’ despite the fact that their actions always turned out to be selfish and petty. Some warts are just too nasty.
    ALL stories should be well-written, because the written word is the vehicle that carries the story. Stories that aren’t well-written are like cars with flat tyres; they’re going nowhere fast. Ultimately though, it’s the content of the story that matters.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      ‘Leaving a sour taste’ is exactly right. I wished I had never read that one – it is stuck in my head that no adults took responsibility for what a barely teenaged girl did which got her summarily wiped from the Earth.

      I’ve had three: teenagers are not finished. Their brains aren’t finished. And in many countries they are bought and sold as chattel, and may not even give the ‘man’ who purchased them ONE viable child before they die, because of what forced childbirth does to an unfinished human girl. Sour taste has kept me from ever reading Lolita – I don’t care how well written its garbage premise is.

      Reality trumps ‘well-written.’

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      1. acflory

        Yup. I sometimes wonder when, and why, Western societies have become so hardened and lacking in compassion. I’m starting to think these themes are a kind of ‘porn’ for people who think that blaming the victim is right and good. 😦

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          It’s hard to answer that – I deleted several of my replies.

          It’s not illegal to put into words what it IS illegal to do? True of thrillers and murder mysteries. The (blackmailer, traitor, thief…) was beyond the reach of the law, so it is okay to seek private justice (=revenge?).

          Sigh. Humans think things – and that scares them, so they try to somehow justify the thoughts, and sometimes they succeed.

          If it weren’t for real life examples, it would stay troubling thoughts, but real cases are everywhere.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. acflory

          Freedom of speech is a principle that’s very close to the heart of all Americans, but historically, /what/ people said was very much moderated by soft controls such as societal stigma -e.g. the McCarthy era. Now anything goes because it’s a ‘right’.
          I’m not suggesting Western society needs to go back to the days when individuals were at the mercy of the majority, but I loathe the idea of freedom without responsibility. We should be able to say whatever we want, but with the clear understanding that we accept the consequences, whatever they might be. 😦

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          The consequences of half-formed thoughts are not something I want out there as I try various things out.

          I write something, think about context, ask myself if I’m ready to stand by my words.

          For my fiction, yes. I have chosen a path, and I will not deviate – there are far worse things out there, and they seem to have impunity anyway. Besides, it’s just words.

          For my presence in my online world, I have already seen a couple of times what has happened when I do not moderate what goes through my brain – the words are taken wrong, the trolls start to descend. I wouldn’t care for something important, but for trivial things I prefer to apologize if appropriate, and remove as necessary, and learn from the experience.

          But don’t touch my fiction! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        4. acflory

          lol – I’m with you on that one! Don’t touch my fiction!
          With the things that matter we /have/ to take a stand. The trivial stuff? I try hard not to hurt anyone. That has to be enough. 🙂

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        5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I don’t see that ‘new school’ makes everyone happy, but I AM in favor of expanding the white male heterosexual privilege which seems to dominate our world to include everyone else – and to let people who are figuring things out WITHOUT HARMING others have their wishes respected.

          Which makes me against child brides, but not polyamorous adult relationships (if they protect any children of the participants, which is still fuzzy). Two gay men can bring up children just fine if they love each other – I’m sure the divorce rate in the heterosexual world precludes the rest of us from being sanctimonious (or should). I’m not that into polygamous cultures, including what’s left of ours, because I truly believe it must be hard to impossible for the women involved, but if they’re okay, it’s not my business. Except I’m hard to convince the women are okay. And I think Heinlein’s line marriage is creepy, but he made a good case for something like it – if the participants are okay with it. It’s hard to be even-handed and fair with two people; I can’t imagine it being easier in a bunch of them. But two isn’t always great.

          Oh, what do I know? Heading for bed.

          Every choice has consequences – I prefer to choose mine carefully. I don’t need to tell the rest of the world what to do – if things are truly voluntary for the adults involved and children are protected. And even that sounds sanctimonious – as if I had any right to comment.

          Liked by 1 person

        6. acflory

          lol – I agree! And you’re the first person I’ve spoken to that actually read that branch of Heinlein’s writing. I wanted to be open minded but…it just felt self indulgent to me. Plus you’re right, I rather doubt that many women would be ok with it.
          That said, IF it’s a completely free choice – i.e. not influenced by financial need/family expectations/early conditioning etc – then it’s up to the individuals concerned and no-one else. It’s that ‘free choice’ thing that I always have doubts about though.

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        7. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          The problem is that it was rarely a completely free choice – until our days.

          Early conditioning is part of it, but that would also include watching its effect on the other girls and adult women, whether or not it was all understood – and that’s where I think the damage occurs, because the other women participate, are accomplices. Genital mutilation is not done by the men of the tribe.

          Liked by 1 person

        8. acflory

          Yes, very true. That acceptance is probably the worst of the conditioning.
          None of us make truly free choices. We’re all the products of our conditioning, and we propagate that conditioning to the next generation, usually without even knowing it.
          I guess we all think our values are the right ones. Not excusing genital mutilation or any of the other, horrible things that are done to young girls, but I can see the process that causes it.
          Education should be the way out, but bad teachers or a bad system often perpetuates the status quo. :/

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        9. acflory

          I think both kinds of damage are life-long. And yes, boys get damaged too. The question is: how do you stop it? Parents alone aren’t enough. I honestly don’t know.

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  2. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler

    Good morning, m’lady, and I see it finds you in an introspective mood. That’s good. Excellent conversations spring forth!

    I’m the kind of writer who believes that characters are fiction. I your characters are well-drawn and fit their roles, they can carry a weak plot because the reader cares what happens to them. People don’t watch 007 to see what the gadgets are; they want to see how he’s going to use them. Same everywhere, and if you create an exceptional cast of characters, they’ll pull you, the writer, along paths you never thought of even if you’re a detailed planner as we are. And you’d better listen to them. Your story will suffer if they don’t. And the opposite is not true. An excellent plot with lame characters will fall flat because readers don’t care what happens to them.

    Well, we all have our philosophies, and as long as they get us to quality stories, I guess that’s all that matters. Thanks for opening the door to a quality discussion, though. This is the sort of conversation where you stand a good chance of picking up something of great value that you’d overlooked before, and you’re just the one to deliver a forum like this. I’m glad you did!

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      One older male reviewer said, “The novel is character-driven and immersive”, and another commented that, “The plot is more than character-driven; there is a sense in which the plot is the characters.”

      It was designed that way – Dramatica interlaces characters and plot from the very beginning – but I never expected it to turn out this real with such a framework. Something in the program attracted me, and I was learning anyway.

      I’ve benefited hugely – if you dig into the details, you can write a story which appeals to men AND women, and I took full advantage of that feature, and, for a love story (in the end), have received many amazing reviews from older men.

      Maybe it’s me – and I would have ended there any way I had chosen to write. But some of it, in practice, has been me wrestling with and tweaking to my own ends the structural approach, sometimes bending it almost to the breaking point. ‘What does this term mean’ has led to something pulled out of MY subconscious to put flesh on the story bones.

      It’s been an interesting experience all the way. I treasure this review comment: “Alicia Ehrhardt takes the reader into the persons of Kary, Andrew and Bianca by turns, and uses this approach with consummate skill to construct characters whom one comes to know, dare I say this? rather better than one knows one’s spouse, or significant other.” That’s high understanding from a reviewer.

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  3. Lee McAulay

    “characters you’d never want to meet in real life” – this seems to be my problem, to the extent that a friend and first reader told me they skipped the (important) parts of one book whenever a particular female character featured.

    Choosing where to end a story is so important! Imagine if Tolkein finished Lord Of The Rings with the great battle won, but Frodo still swithering at the top of Mount Doom. You’d have a great moral question, but that wasn’t what he was writing.

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  4. Chris

    It’s very interesting to see how different we are, both as readers and writers 🙂
    When you say “When I write I make conscious choices”, it makes me smile because that’s the exact opposite of what I do. Well, of course I make some conscious choices; I have to, otherwise the structure would be all over the place and I’d end up with something like Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. But generally, my style (and subject; this is crucial) of writing involves a lot of subconscious activity.
    Similarly as a reader, I respect and often like books written from non-Manichean perspectives. Above all, I respect books that are not moralistic, narratively speaking. This is crucial. I don’t know the book you refer to, about the story blaming the girl for her own murder, but the crucial difference (to me as a reader) wouldn’t be that, but whether it’s offered explicitly or implicitly.
    In other words, the more subtle and ambiguous such conceptual seeds are, the better – effectively, then, it’d be the reader reaching such conclusions. A good book turns your into an accomplice.
    For some reason, I’ve discovered a lot of Japanese fiction is like that, and that’s why I’ve read so much of Haruki Murakami, Ryu Murakami, Yukio Mishima, Kōbō Abe, Osamu Dazai, to name a few. They’re probably authors you wouldn’t like: ambiguous, often in magical realism contexts (yet also often in preposterously mundane settings), sometimes naturalistic, inherently pessimistic, existential. Their books contain no answers, but they pose many questions.

    Maybe that’s also the sign of a good book!

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Always great to have you comment – we’re different!

      I don’t think you plot, if you plot, as rigorously as I do. The last thing I want to leave behind is a trilogy with no answers.

      One of my reviewers called me part of the Realistic tradition – and I am, solidly, and deliberately.

      What you WILL have if you read, is a properly laid out story exposing the elements of the answer – and then you will choose either to agree I have proved my point or to disagree and say that I’ve rigged the odds somewhere.

      I think that’s my JOB: to make a case.

      I don’t know if it’s a gender thing, or a generation thing, but actions have consequences, and pretending the consequences are somehow ‘out to get you’ (you, unspecified) is to ignore that you’ve behaved yourself right into those consequences.

      Real life is unconnected enough that it’s not a clean line from misbehavior to paying for it, so fiction is necessary.

      I’ve never forgotten or forgiven Hardy for hanging Tess of the D’Urbervilles for something NOT her fault. But those were the laws of the time and location, put in place to protect the innocent, and easily subverted to protect the rich and powerful.

      Am I a moralist? Yes, because I’ve seen it happen. My fiction explores how things got to those points. Magic realism has no place in realism.

      Don’t know if you saw the recent movie Roma – but I told my husband exactly what would happen in it from the very beginning (except the baby’s death – usually the woman is stuck rearing the child). Because it happened to young women who worked as servants in my parents’ house in Mexico: and rarely did the ‘boyfriends’ bear any responsibility.

      I NEED answers: how do you AVOID the armaggedon? Because every woman trapped becomes another generation that doesn’t solve the problem.

      As for that book with the murdered girl, it wasn’t subtle at all, and I found that offensive. The (male) killer’s life was deemed more valuable, for specious reasons, so nobody turned him in.

      NETHERWORLD leaves so many questions asked and not yet answered, that it’s going to take me the better part of the remainder of the 500K words to finish the trilogy – and there will be no easy unweighted answers, because that’s what things cost in the real world: real money, real pain.

      And the general principle I try to live by in writing is this: the more you’re trying to make a point, the more entertaining the story must be – because no one likes to be preached at.

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