Real people, revisited

Sure I know the difference. Real people are real, fictional characters are fiction. But. My wife and I were on a walk the other day, and I told her about some trouble I was having with revisions on my new novel. Lots of characters, multiple plots tied together by very little but family relationships. So I’m developing characters and relationships as the plot progresses. It’s complicated because I want it all to feel very real. So back to our walk. My comment to my wife was something like, “I have to remember that these are real people reacting to events that just took place.” Then we had a discussion about real people. Who is, who isn’t? That was interesting, but the problem that led to this was a bit different.

I’m pretty good at writing scenes. Yes, I’m bragging. But I have a tendency to view scenes in isolation, which means I don’t always consider what happened in the scenes that came earlier. Part of this is the way I write, which is not always linear, and part of it is simply a failure of story telling. One thing leads to another. It’s cause and effect. But weirdly, it’s not so much the effect I was overlooking as the affect. In other words, how would the plot affect the characters. That’s the root of my problem, the trigger for my conversation with my wife, and a reminder that these are real characters, and they’re not going to forget what happened five minutes ago.

Let them work it out

I know the difference between real people and my characters. I really do. But sometimes I call on them to get me out of a jam. For instance, if I’m not sure where the plot is going (or should go) I put my characters together and see what happens. Given their personalities and the events that preceeded this juncture, what they do next will be a natural outgrowth of the story, rather than something imposed by me. The current novel I’m working on came to just such a point, and for a few days I thought and thought (and got nowhere) and finally threw my three main characters together inside a pickup and let them go. They’ll work it out.

In another novel, I wasn’t totally clear about what motivated my main character, so I wrote a scene where he made a list of what he wanted. Again, because it was coming from my character and the personality and voice already established, his desires were more organic and believable.

So I know my characters aren’t real, but if I’ve created a consistent, unique character, then at critical points they can help me out. This doesn’t mean that they are completely predictable. Like flesh and blood people, they sometimes behave in unexpected ways. You might think of this as the monkey-wrench approach, which has saved more than one of my stories from tedium.

Revising a Long Short Story

I made an interesting discovery recently when I tried to turn a novella into a novel, then into a long, short story. Everyone knows that the market for novellas is pretty small, but I had written a story of 30,000 words that seemed just right. It's a story I've been trying to write for a long time (I'm into the third decade with this one) and I finally thought it was perfect (at least the length of it). But I also wanted to publish it, and I thought the chances were better with a novel of 60,000 words or greater, so I began to expand. Some of you are probably already thinking, "Dumb idea," and it was. I made it longer, but not better. I gave up at 35,000 words.

Then I got the opportunity to publish it as a very long short story, so I began to whittle. Twenty revisions later it's 32,000 words, and much better than either the original or the novel attempt.

So what I learned is the value of expansion, followed by contraction. Making the story longer meant adding more detail, and some of them were pretty good, and when I then began to shorten the story, only the very best was left. That sounds easier than it was. I probably cut 8,000 words during revisions, and added in more.

I know this is all a little incoherent, but let me summarize. I found that by first lengthening, then cutting a story the result was a tight, good story. A less positive lesson was that trying to lengthen a story leads to mostly fluff that should never have been added. It was more like padding, and I am so happy I cut it out.


Yesterday I got the galleys for my story "Black Chevy" which is to appear in the Iowa Review this spring. I've always thought it was one of my best stories, so I'm pretty happy (and grateful) that it will finally see print in such a great magazine.


Anyone hoping to find an agent for a book can profit from these sites:

Agent Query allows you to search by agent, agency, genre, whether the agent is a member of AAR and whether they accept e-mail submissions. It's free and easy to use. For those sites with links to their home page, be sure to check the latest submissions requirements.

Query Tracker maintains a database of agents and agencies, but also keeps statistics about response times and acceptance rates. It's user provided data, but you don't need to log your own submissions to take advantage of those who do.

Publishers Marketplace isn't free, but for $20 a month you get access to all the deals for each agent and agency. Want to know how many debut novels agent X has placed this year? You can find out here, along with the size of the advance.

Absolute Write Watercooler is a forum for writers that discusses, among other things, experiences with agents and publishers.

Preditors and Editors helps you avoid unscrupulous agents and publishers by compiling users' experiences and rating the businesses.

The Association of Authors' Representatives maintains a searchable list of members. This is the primary organization for agents, and has a code of conduct that among other things prohibits reading fees. It's a good list, but not all good, scrupulous agents are members.

The Hook

So you do your research at one of various sites devoted to agents, you find the agency and the agent that seem just right, then you send a query letter and cross your fingers that you'll hear back. In a day, a week, a month (once I got a response after two years). I see the query letter much like a resume. You have about three seconds to capture their attention and avoid the delete button. So I spend a lot of time on the first sentence, what they call the hook. If that's off or wrong or simply bad, they probably won't read any further, so I try to get it perfect. I write a dozen of them, show them to my family, take votes of which one they like best. Then I do it again, because it doesn't yet seem perfect. It's not easy capturing the tone, central conflict, and what's at stake for the narrator in one sentence. You'll find advice all over the web of how to best do this, but when it's your novel, your story, you have to do it yourself. Templates and examples are great, but it has to be something only you can write. It can't be too formulaic, and it can't be trite.

I claim no expertise. My novels are better than my queries, and the skills required to tell a story in 60,000 words are not the ones required to reduce it to a sentence. But agents are busy people, and authors who can give them the flavor of their book in those few seconds are more likely to get read.

Call me a Psychiatrist

I'm not, but sometimes my writing leads me to the neighborhood, makes me circle the parking lot. As I've said before, life is hard in my fictional worlds, and my characters lead lives we would not wish upon the dead. Not that they don't have fun, but the things they have to overcome (death, disappointment, betrayal, ignorance) can drag you right down. They do me because I have to live with them. I'm right there in the cesspools, the bad places where the blood runs, where the water chokes the life out of my best friends, my lovers, my sister. So I circle the parking lot, imagine that I will go in, try to explain why I need antidepressants. It's not me, I will say. It's them. Their lives are really screwed up. They need help.


Back in the day, I sat on the floor with my big computer on the coffee table and with cheap headphones on my ears playing Beethoven symphonies from cassette tapes. Over and over and over. It was kind of depressing then, and it's even more so now as I remember it. But it helped me write. It gave me a soundtrack. One of my workshop leaders years ago said that he could sell anything if it had a soundtrack (referring to short stories, but I suspect the principle might go beyond that).

Now the world has changed. It is lit by electricity. We have iPods, of course, so the music sounds better than tape, and we have Pandora. I love Pandora because I like music, and I can listen to it a thousand times but eventually I get tired of it and Pandora brings me something new. When it does, I buy it, add it to my playlist.

Now I sit on the couch, my laptop in my lap (where else?) with expensive headphones plugged into the device of my choice, playing Noosa ("Walk on By"). That's my current favorite, maybe the best song of all time, and I've heard it more times than I should admit. I even burned  a CD so I can play it in the car. It's the kind of song that withstands multiple playings. So does "Summertime Sadness" by Lana Del Ray. But be warned: both will put you into a funk. But they're grand for writing fiction. It's the mood, I suppose, the kind of intensity that lends itself to fictional worlds, the ones I live in while I'm writing. Down there, life is hard. You need to hear Noosa, you need to hear Lana Del Ray. Maybe I'll download some Beethoven.

Copyright 2018 by Philip Tate