Agent Monday: In Good Company…with Character

RetirementHappy Agent Monday, everyone!  No matter what sort of fiction you write, it’ll really soar if you include believable characters…people we care about, people we love, or people we love to hate. Without compelling characters, a story can really feel flat, and a story engine can chug to a full stop. Today I’m excited to welcome to the blog Richard Uhlig, who is a terrific author, and who I’m proud to call my client. Richard definitely knows a thing or two about creating compelling characters. Here’s his take on it…

In Good Company
by Richard Uhlig

“This is hell!” my fiction-writing students say. “How can you do this year after year? It’s drudgery sitting at my desk for hours trying to come up with a story someone will want to read.” One writer I know calls his den The Torture Chamber. Norman Mailer said writing was the Spooky Art, “… where there is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where the words are coming from, those divine words.”

Yes, writing an original book, play or screenplay can feel like you’re shoving Noah’s Ark up Pike’s Peak by hand. Then, over your shoulder you hear Cassandra whispering, “All this work is adding up to nothing.”

You know you shouldn’t, but you can’t help comparing your writing to Vonnegut’s, Fitzgerald’s and Munro’s, always coming up short. What you thought was a solid idea when you sat down to write it can default faster than the Greek banking system.
There is, however, an opium for this kind of creative pain. I know it’s helped me. It’s easy and close at hand: masturbation.

Kidding aside, write about people who you find entertaining.

Unconventional people. People who stand up to seemingly insurmountable problems. People burning with dreams. People who are their own worst enemy. Exceedingly bad people, exceedingly good people, but most of all exceedingly interesting people who shake up your sense of decorum and expectation.

Ideally, these people should want something desperately, even if, in the case of Shrek, that something is just to be left alone.

Beginning writers often waste months ironing out a concept, or trying to figure out the intricacies of a plot, without having given much thought as to who the yarn is about. Writing a story where the characters are secondary to a plot is like dancing without music. It’s okay for cookbooks and instruction manuals, I suppose, but you’ll never come up an Auntie Mame, Humbert Humbert or Willie Loman.

Tip: Put your characters in drastic, hilarious or god-awful situations right away. Follow their reactions. They should lead the way. If they don’t, search for a new character who does.

Keep in mind, this is creative writing we’re talking about. Not journalism, not biography. To write a facsimile of your church-going third grade teacher, Mrs. Carter, can lead to narrative paralysis. The real Mrs. Carter would never allow Miss Barkley, the p.e. teacher, to kiss her. But what if the fictitious Mrs. Carter lets Miss Barkley kiss her? That would buck your reader’s expectations. In other words, allow the Mrs. Carters in your life to inspire you, but free them to do their own thing. Reveal their hidden desires.

And don’t freak out about writing stereotypes. No offense, female p.e. teachers. The fun, like with Mrs. Carter, is to add contradictions to stock characters. Take the hit 1980s situation comedy “The Golden Girls.” Blanche is the slutty southern belle, Dorothy the tough Brooklyn Italian, and Rose the naive farm girl — clichés all. But the writers artfully forced these stereotypes to reconsider what they believe, constantly pushing them out of their comfort zones while maintaining a core consistency. The result? Some of the most memorable characters ever created for TV. Sinclair Lewis, the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote chiefly about “types.”

Writing can be a lonely game, for sure, but if your characters consistently surprise you by what they do and say, you’ll soon find them great company. Who knows, you may even find them more interesting than a lot of people in your non-fictional life.

So, the next time your novel stalls like a New York taxi at rush hour, get out of the driver’s seat. Let your characters take the wheel. It’s easier for you, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun for the reader.

 

Rick UhligRichard Uhlig is author of the YA novels LAST DANCE AT THE FROSTY QUEEN and BOY MINUS GIRL (both published by Knopf) as well as the e-book MYSTERY AT SNAKE RIVER BRIDGE.  He’s also penned the feature films DEAD SIMPLE, starring James Caan and winner of the Seattle International Film Festival’s Critic’s Choice Award, and KEPT, starring Ice-T.  Richard wrote and directed the award-winning short films CAN’T DANCE and MY KANSAS.  He lives in New York City with his wife and two children, and is represented by Marie Lamba of The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency.

Agent Monday: It’s WORK

???????????Hi all!  Happy Agent Monday, once again. What a week full of bright swirling leaves and pumpkins and hot cider. I LOVE FALL. For me, this week was filled with the usual agent-y stuff, plus I’ve been in the process of transferring my writing space into another room. And I had the pleasure of meeting two of my clients for the first time. Throughout the week a theme has emerged: just how much work is involved in the literary life. Yes, writers love writing (for the most part!). And yes, sometimes penning novels feels like play cuz it’s such a blast to create a world. And, yes, when I as an agent get to hang out with my extremely cool and extremely talented writers, it definitely feels more like play than work.  But make no mistake: the writing life is WORK.

The topic for this post came to me this weekend when I sat sipping coffee with my client Erin Teagan. Erin hooked my representation as her literary agent with her sharp and extraordinary middle grade manuscript STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES. It’s about Maddy, a genius scientist in the making who keeps her life in control by creating SOP’s like “How to Fake a Bubonic Plague to get out of a Party.” But when her life flip-flops at the start of middle school, and the SOPs no longer do the trick, it’s up to Maddy to discover a new cure for her newly messed up life.

So as Erin and I sat and chatted about our lives and swapped laughs, the conversation turned to our day-to-day literary lives. And she said, “You must be so busy. How do you do everything that you do?”

Yup, being an agent is time-consuming. Sure, it’s fun. I love treasure hunting through queries, and the thrill of finding that talented author and championing the writer through the literary world. Talking with really talented editors at publishing houses on a daily basis, and helping my authors in every way I can is so gratifying. But it does take time. It is hard work. I get up early to get a head start on query letters.  I stay up late reading manuscripts. I work through weekends. I work like a crazy person. But, really, it’s nothing new to me, because I’m an author too. And being an author is WORK!

Sure enough, when I asked Erin about how she spent her time, her own work ethic as a writer shone through. In addition to being a parent of small kids (and THAT is a job and a half for anyone), she spends endless hours writing and revising her own work, she participates in an active critique group, and each year she spends countless hours and hours organizing her region’s huge SCBWI conference. Oh, and (she casually mentions between sips of latte) she has five other novel manuscripts in her drawer at home. Five? FIVE???  I, as her agent, naturally smile and say, “Iwannaseethose. Ireallywannaseethose!”

Just think about all the time that goes into writing and polishing a novel. Then another and another. All while life throws you for a continuous loop, demanding your time in some most unexpected ways. Think of continuing to write yet another novel, even if your last ones may have gotten some interest but not that agent or that book deal you’d hoped for. Keeping in the writer zone throughout all this and continuing to devote more and more time to your craft is hard work.

Writers often refer to their earlier unpublished novels as their “learning novels.” They continue to plug away at their writing, improving as they move along. Sharpening their skills. Erin said a few of her novels were those learning novels. “I wouldn’t show you those,” she said. “But three of them? I think I know how to fix them now.”

I, her faithful literary agent, set down my hot beverage and rubbed my hands together. “Goodie!”

Writers write. If you are devoted to becoming an author, chances are you spend a lot of time writing, too. Perfecting your craft. Reading great literature. Journaling. Spending money on writer’s conferences. And chances are good that some people in your life don’t take you seriously all the time. “That’s your hobby,” they say. “How can it be work if you do it in your jammies at home?” they say. “But you haven’t even published a book,” they sniff. And that, over time, can get to you. It can spur doubts. You might start thinking: What am I, crazy? Spending years on something without getting much of anything in return yet?

So are you crazy? Well, maybe a little. But I think what you really are is a WRITER. And you are working hard toward a goal. Like Erin, who has been doing this for many years, and now? Her writing is stellar and polished, her manuscript immediately caught my eye, and soon we’ll be subbing it to top editors.

Also this week I got to meet another wonderful new client Richard Uhlig for the first time. Richard is the author of sharp and hilarious YA novels including LAST DANCE AT THE FROSTY QUEEN, BOY MINUS GIRL (both Knopf books), and MYSTERY AT SNAKE RIVER BRIDGE  (Wild Child Publishing), and he has a Hollywood screenwriting and directing background as well. Richard and I also started chatting about his writing life. He’s busy, also watching young children (that job and a half!), but still, in the past few years he’s managed to pen two novels, including the manuscript NERVOUS, the beyond hysterical story of a perpetually distracted underachiever, with writing that made me jump to the phone to offer him representation. And Richard has also recently written and produced two short films that are snagging prizes. Oh, and, he mentions as an aside, he also has two other novels sitting around.

I, his agent, drop my fork (we were having lunch, I don’t usually walk around with a fork in my hand – in case you were wondering). I want to see those novels.  A client with multiple novels and more ideas in the works = literary agent heaven. And being such a productive writer = HARD WORK. In addition to the writing and the film stuff and the parenting, Richard also participates in critique groups. He’s busy. And once again I’m struck by how much time writers put into their craft. And I’m awed. Truly.

Okay, so I mentioned that in addition to being an agent, I’m an author too. I have a few young adult novels published, and my stuff is in a few anthologies, and I’ve got a lot of articles in magazines, etc. You can find info about my books here.

Businessman Carrying Pile of FilesANYWAYS, so after meeting two of my newest clients, and being thoroughly impressed by both them as fascinating and lovely people and as really hardworking writers, I spent the rest of my weekend doing the dreaded task of moving my writing studio space from one room in my house to another. And, honestly, I got quite a shock.

I found an old middle grade novel manuscript that I’d never sold. Yeah, I remember that one. Oh, and another novel I wrote for the women’s fiction market. I kinda remember that one. And a YA novel manuscript. And another. And a slew of magazine articles that never sold. And another women’s fiction manuscript. And another. And a non-fiction book proposal. And at least three more partially written novels…

Honestly, I was stunned. All this work. Countless hours spent and my writerly passion poured onto pages. Stacks and stacks and STACKS of pages.

So what do I do with it all? I start reading them, naturally. And nodding my head. And laughing. Because I really don’t remember a lot of these. It’s like a different person wrote them. And, I admit with a blush, they are pretty good. Maybe not right for the marketplace. And I could do better now. I’ve learned and grown. It represents a ton of work, a ton of hours. But it was WORTH IT.

Not everyone in the world gets that, though. Like the accountant who, a few years ago during tax season, looked over my slim financials and shook his head. “Okay,” he said, leaning back into his cushy leather seat. “Why don’t you give your little writing hobby another year, and if it doesn’t pay off, you can go get real work.”

Um, what? (Note: I did not go back to him for the next year’s taxes… And I did not give up my “little writing hobby” either.)

Good thing we writers love what we do.  I truly respect the time each of you put into getting your work the best it can be. It matters. It’s valuable.

Be sure that you respect it, too. It doesn’t matter that you do it in your jammies. Or that no one has picked up your last x-amount of novels for publication. Or that your tax man is scoffing at you.

It matters that you work hard. That you strive to create the very best writing that you can. It’s a process. A hard one.

But it is also your path to writerly success.

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.