Wednesday, January 1, 2014

First Post of the Year - On Writing Like Poe

I want to be more organized with my writing this year.  Toward the end of last month, once I could see and read again (see post about shingles on my face if you're interested), I decided to start writing Write Despite style, 20 minutes a day no matter what.  At the same time, I got an enthusiastic approval from my Poe professor to write some Poe-inspired stories for my literature class that starts in January. 

It turns out that if I sit down to write for 20 minutes, it turns into 30 or more, depending when my small person interrupts me to ask how to spell words for his story. 

When I did write (which was not every day because of interruptions), I wrote more than 1000 words in one sitting.  If I were to write 1000 words a day for this entire year, that would be 365,000 words.  Holy crap, right?  Even if I don't hit that mark every day, I think it's a worthwhile thing to try. 

I don't want to write only to accumulate words.  I want to write more deliberately to improve my writing technique.  Writing the Poe-ish stories turns out to be a fabulous exercise in getting into the heads of the deranged and/or mentally ill and to practice unfolding character in a gradual way.  In all of the Poe stories I've recently read, the first few paragraphs explain what the character thinks of himself and other people - and gradually he (always a man) reveals more and more of what he doesn't understand about himself, the crazy he feels but can't see.  Awesome.

One of the characters in one of my historical novels is a horrible person and is unapologetic about it.  When I read my opening chapter in my class, the visiting professor told me that I need to soften him. She said he's not believable.  She said something like, "He's seems too much like a monster." The irony is that he's based on a composite of real people who were horrible, worse than monsters because they were real.  When one of my relatives recently spoke of one of the people that inspired my character (and only because I asked), she said, "He was a monster."  Some people are.

Last week after reading a lot of Poe, I wrote a story where this same character appeared to another character who was hallucinating.  My intent was to figure out a way to explain the horrific behavior of the character without making excuses for him. 

When my husband read my story, he interpreted it completely different than I intended.  He thought it was a horror story, not a tale of mental illness.  When we read Poe or watch our awesome collection of Vincent Price movies, we have the same reaction.  I see the stories as glimpses into the minds of the mentally ill.  He sees them as sinister horror stories.  I'm definitely on the right track.

Over the last few years, I've read a lot of tips about characterization and writing novels.  The consensus seems to be that the characters, particularly the main characters, need to be likable.  Some of mine aren't the tiniest bit likable.  Neither are Poe's.  That's why I think studying Poe's characterization techniques will be really useful for me. 

What's your opinion about creating characters that are likable? 

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A Note  (in case you saw my deleted post on the blogger list that apparently doesn't update itself although it could be self-updating rather easily if someone bothered to do it):

I am so removed from blogging lately that I didn't realize Insecure Writer's Support Group day was pushed back a week. 

I woke up late, realized I hadn't finished my January post, decided to post my December post since I missed December and the post was more done than my January one.  I published it, realized it still said December in the title, changed it, republished it, read it and realized it wasn't really done, edited it, posted it on Google+, went to the IWSG site to start reading.  And then I saw it's not today.

So I'll save my posts for another day - and maybe I'll edit and then schedule them for the correct day.


  1. Sorry, I tried to let everyone know through posts and emails that we had changed the date. You weren't the only one though.
    Is your unlikeable character the main character? Because then it will be tough to sell him that way. But if he's not THE main character, then you can probably get away with him being that horrid. (I had to soften my main character because he was just too much.)
    And yes, some real people are monsters.

  2. That's a good question, Tonja. I wonder about that with my female characters. Maybe it's a matter of, within the very first couple hundred words, giving the reader something to which s/he can relate in that character? Or maybe some small quality that is in some way endearing, or appealing? Or possibly have that "unreliable narrator" ask something of the reader, beyond the understood suspension of disbelief?

    You know, because I suffer from depression, I do think that (for me, at least), there's a horror in having to live with mental illness. Part of it is wondering whether it'll ever go away for good. The other part is wondering if (when?) it'll ever push me so far that I snap...

  3. One of my favorite movies was The Shining - the character is not at all likeable. It doesn't work for some genres.

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  5. Maybe the characters don't have to be likeable, but I think there has to be that moment when the reader "gets" the character or sees a little of himself.

  6. Great idea about the writing for 20 mins a day. I don't think a character has to be likeable if it all ties into the story. Plus...that is real life. How is the coffee/tea attempt going? :-)