Cheap Writing

I’m reading a book by an author I can generally tolerate despite his obviously manipulative style, but this particular book irritated me from the first page.

One of the characters is a teenager. And like almost all teenagers in adult books, this one is rebellious, insolent, arrogant, and downright nasty. And those are her good qualities. Well, her only qualities.

Since this author is so manipulative, it’s possible he chose the character as one who would be, with only a few strokes of his keyboard, instantly recognizable to his readership, but if so, why? Why do so many teenagers in books have to be like this? The character has ruined more stories for me than even the serial killers who so lovingly demonstrate every single cut and cherish every single drop of blood. It’s as if no one will believe that a teenager can be other than appalling, especially since the parent’s inability to deal with the inexcusable behavior often serves as a subplot. If the teenager is as nice as many I have met (and as placid as I once was), then bang, there goes that subplot, and the author would have to think of another one.

It’s also a cheap subplot (sometimes even the entire plot) because the more terrible you make the teenager, the more obvious the character arc when the kid grows up. Whatever happened to subltety?

I suppose, since this author tends to play with such archetypes rather than breathing life into a creature of his own, it makes sense he’d build a story on such a flimsy pretext. Unfortunately, as bad as things are at the beginning of the book, things promise to get a whole lot worse by the end. Assuming, of course, I stay to the end. I might consign the kid to the fires of unreadable books long before it gets to that point.

What I would really like to see is the opposite (and occasionally, an author does present such a change) where the parent is rebellious (without being abusive) and the teenager has to deal with the moodiness. Or even better — no teenagers at all.

I used to read young adult books way into my adulthood because I enjoyed the theme of a misfit standing up to the world and its conventions, finding a fit, and becoming their own person, but I seldom come across such a storyline any more. (That also used to be plot of the Regency romances I read in my youth — the main character was always a societal misfit who ended up finding a fit. But that storyline has been suffocated under the current fad for stories that skirt the edges of porn.)

Obviously, I can’t do anything about books with horrid teenagers except not read them, and if I had time to go to the library, or if I had other book to read, I wouldn’t give this one another minute of my time.

What I can do, though, is eschew such cheapness and triteness in my own writing.

And yes, I will write another novel one day.



Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

Author Arc

There are only two days left of my novel writing month. Unlike the National Novel Writing Month in November, which is about writing 50,000 words in a month, I had no goal except to work on my book every day. The first four days of March were dedicated to editing and reading what I already had written — it’s impossible to finish writing a book if you don’t know what it’s about, and I’d let the poor thing lie fallow for so many years, I’d forgotten many of the details.

Two days of the month were wasted from a novel writing point of view as I celebrated Jeff’s death with tears and sorrow (though not, of course, wasted from a purely personal point of view). I did open the manuscript and stare at it for a while both those days, which has to count for something.

It is interesting that I should be working on this particular book around the anniversary because it was the last book where Jeff offered any input — he always helped with making sure the men thought and acted like men. Some people were disappointed with my last two books —  Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare and Unfinished — both of which were written long after his death so they lacked the male point of view that kept my first four books from slipping into girlishness. And I have to admit, both Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare and Unfinished are “girlier” than my first four novels, which I doubt Jeff would have liked. But the way I figure, if he didn’t want me to write fiction geared more for women, then he shouldn’t have died.

I have a hunch my male characters in the book I am writing now are losing their edge, but I don’t think it matters. The theme of the story is freedom. How much freedom we are willing to give up for safety, how much safety we are willing to give up for freedom, and in the end, since freedom is an illusion, it’s about embracing responsibility. So, if in this third part, the characters are different from the first two parts, it can be chalked up to character arc rather than author arc.

Usually about this time, as I am sliding down to the end, I have another book in mind, but not this time. One idea I had was to write a murder mystery when/if I ever hiked long sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d probably scare myself half to death writing about death in the wilderness on such a hike, but it certainly would give a book immediacy if I were sort of living it as I wrote it. Another idea is to do a sequel to the book I am now finishing. Two babies were born in completely different circumstances in this newly created world of mine. One of the babies is named Eve. The other Adam. It does call out for a sequel doesn’t it? And yet, this book is more or less a one-note story. Once the gag is played out, I’m not sure what’s left.

Anyway, considering how long I’ve been working on this book, I shouldn’t count my ending before it’s hatched — if I get sidetracked again, it could be years before I get back to it.

I will extend my novel-writing month into April, however, even though I only have half the month to write since I will need at least a week to prepare for my trip. (It’s not just a road trip and a camping trip and a hiking trip, but also a backpacking trip, a city trip with a fancy night on the town, and various and sundry other excitements.) After that week of preparation, I will be leaving. Although I have been calling this my May trip, I will be leaving in April since I have to be back the last week in May to practice for a performance. Let’s hope I don’t lose the dances somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. They were both difficult to learn.)

Does talking about my book constitute working on it? No, I guess not. So, back to work I go, constructing a world and many dangers for my poor characters to suffer through.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Can Characters Really Change?

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog postulating that Without Changes, You Have No Story, and I stick to that premise. Characters need to change, the relationships of the characters to each other need to change, story expectations need to change, the direction of the story (and each scene) needs to change. But there was a discussion on that blog post centered on what degree it is possible for characters to change, and if they truly do change, and that made me think.

Some psychologists say we never change in any basic way, that our characters and essential personalities are our foundation, that we can only change in small ways, such as changing our habits or changing our focus. This is at odds with books about writing, which claim characters must do a complete about face, a 180° turnaround to show how the events of the story affected the characters. I thought I’d created strong character arcs for each of my characters, with my characters ending up different from the way they began, but now that I consider it, I don’t see that my characters change in any fundamental way. They become more of who they were, perhaps, but not recognizably different.

In More Deaths Than One, we see a gradual change in Bob Stark, the hero, see his current concept of himself eroded until he becomes what he once was and now will always be. (A bit cryptic, I know, but since this is the crux of the story, I don’t want to spoil it in case you haven’t yet read the book.) But he didn’t really change. He only seemed to change.

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire — which was inspired by a Washington Irving quote: “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.” — Kate Cummings seems to change in response to the red death and the resulting martial law that is destroying Colorado, seems to kindle up and beam and blaze in the dark hour of adversity, but there are hints in the story that she was always like that. Her spark of heavenly fire — her generosity — was merely hidden from herself and from us until a life-altering event stripped her to the core.

In Daughter Am IMary Stuart never truly changes, though she also seems to change. She was unsure of herself, unsure of what she wanted, unwilling to make a commitment of any kind even to a job, until she set out to discover who her grandparents were, who wanted them dead, and why her parents lied about their existence. It wasn’t out of character, perhaps, for her to drive halfway across the country in search of the truth because she only went along with what others wanted. At least in the beginning. As the journey progressed, she learned the truth she was seeking, and an even greater truth — who she is. She is granddaughter, daughter, and herself. Mostly herself. But that isn’t a change. It’s a discovery. A coming home.

In Light Bringer, neither Becka nor Phillip change. Again, they just discover who they are, a truth that had been kept from them their whole lives. In all my books, but Light Bringer especially, what changes is the reader’s perception of who the characters are. The truth is slowly revealed, and each revelation seems to show a change in the characters, but in the end they simply become what they always were.

How very odd to learn this so long after having written the books.

(Click on a title to read the first chapter of the book.)

On Writing: Characters and Grief

For characters to be realistic, they need to experience the same emotional arcs that we experience in our lives. A grieving person, for example, undergoes several stages, including denial, guilt, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. Chip, the hero of my current work loses everything and everyone he loves in a single day of earthly upheaval, but so much was thrown at him so fast, he barely had time to comprehend it all, let alone go through protracted stages of grief.

Still, he did experience a period of denial; how could he not? What happened to him and the world was unbelievable. He also felt guilt, wondering why he survived when so many others didn’t, but again, he had little time to indulge in the feeling — he had to learn to live in a plastic world. (Plastic, in this case, meaning capable of being molded and re-formed.) He dealt with it all until the final insult — the loss of the candy that was his one indulgence — and then he gave in to a fit of anger.

These first three stages, as I mentioned, were brief. Now that he is in a place of safety, away from the upheavals of his world, he could revisit those stages, but I don’t think it’s necessary. No point in taxing a reader’s patience with repetition of effects. So that leaves me with the two final stages of grief.

At the end, Chip will come to accept what happened to him. He will also come to accept his new role in life, but until then he will need to go through a period of depression. Should this depression be as short as the other stages? Should it continue for a while to make his predicament seem more normal? I don’t think it’s necessary. A character in a constant state of depression is not a vibrant character by definition and, anyway, this story is supposed to be lighthearted, a whimsically ironic apocalyptic fantasy.

I’m thinking on the fly here, letting you see how I develop a character. That’s not strictly true. I’m doing it because I need to figure out my hero’s next stage of development, and I need to post some sort of bloggery. I end up getting so many people to guest, that I forget the main purpose of this blog: me. Well, me, my novels, and my characters.

But for now, I do know where I stand with Chip. He will be going through a period of depression, but also he will be dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or will he? I’ll figure that one out tomorrow.

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On Writing: How To Use a Character Profile

Lately I’ve been coming across many different character-building worksheets, both online and in how-to-write books, but one point most fail to mention is how to use the biographies you create.

Knowing your characters’ families, friends, education, jobs, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, goals, regrets, fears, desires, needs, might help you define your characters, but the real benefit of character biographies is to help you create the story.

It’s not enough simply to know what your hero believes, for example. If the belief doesn’t add anything important to the development of the story or the development of the hero’s character, it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s not enough simply to know the hero’s background. If it isn’t important for the reader to know, if nothing is gained by its inclusion, if nothing is lost by its omission, then that, too, is barely worth mentioning.

On the other hand, if your story goes stale halfway through the book, you can mine both the hero’s beliefs and background for additional conflicts.

More than that, though, a well-constructed character biography can tell you what your story is and where it is going.

When you know your hero’s main goal, you will find the beginning of a plot line. When you know what will make the goal’s attainment the most difficult for the hero, you will find the central obstacle in the story. And when you know your hero’s greatest strength, you can figure out how your hero will eventually overcome the obstacle.

By exploiting your character’s greatest fear, you will be able to draw the most depth from your character because, of course, your hero must confront this fear or else you miss the point of your own story.

Through knowing your character’s weaknesses, regrets, needs, desires, vulnerabilities, you will find inner conflicts, subtexts, subplots, and all the bits of drama that pull readers into your world.

As your story progresses, you may find in your hero’s biography untapped wells of strength, previously undisclosed facts that might alter the situation, even characters from the hero’s past who might take unexpected and relevant action.

Most of all, a biography can help keep you focused on your character’s goals. It can help you avoid annoying little inconsistencies such as hazel eyes on page ten and blue or brown on page one hundred and ten. It can help you create a character arc because you will know which traits are static (an intelligent person doesn’t suddenly become stupid for no reason), and you will know which traits can show the character’s growth (perhaps a fear of commitment that becomes a willingness to commit).

But most of all, the biography tells you the story because character is so entwined with plot that it’s impossible to create one without the other.

Click here for a character questionaire to help you create a profile for your character.

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