While a cool idea, unique world, or suspenseful plot may grab the reader’s interest, the story’s protagonist is often the key to making the reader love your story. A strong protagonist can move the reader to tears and stay with him for the rest of his life. A protagonist who rubs your reader the wrong way can make him throw the book across the room. How do you create a protagonist that the reader will follow through fire and blood? It’s a difficult task, so we asked the Odyssey graduates for their tips and advice when it comes to creating a protagonist.
Have you ever had readers react negatively to your protagonist? For example, do they reject your farmboy protagonist as whiny and prefer your scoundrel sidekick character? How do you make readers like your protagonist? Do you think about making the character likeable as you create him, or do you simply make him someone you like and hope the reader will feel the same?
Jack Ketchum is the pseudonym for a former actor, singer, teacher, literary agent, lumber salesman, and soda jerk–a former flower child and baby boomer who figures that in 1956 Elvis, dinosaurs and horror probably saved his life. He will be a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Workshop this summer. His first novel, Off Season, prompted the Village Voice to publicly scold its publisher in print for publishing violent pornography. He personally disagrees but is perfectly happy to let you decide for yourself. His short story “The Box” won a 1994 Bram Stoker Award from the HWA, his story “Gone” won again in 2000–and in 2003 he won Stokers for both best collection for Peaceable Kingdom and best long fiction for Closing Time. He has written eleven novels, the latest of which are Red, Ladies’ Night, and The Lost. His stories are collected in The Exit At Toledo Blade Boulevard, Broken on the Wheel of Sex, Sleep Disorder (with Edward Lee), Peaceable Kingdom and Closing Time and Other Stories. His novella The Crossings was cited by Stephen King in his speech at the 2003 National Book Awards. Four of his novels have been filmed — The Lost, The Girl Next Door, Red and most recently Offspring, for which he wrote the screenplay. You can visit his website at http://www.jackketchum.net/ .
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
Not sure what you mean by “writing seriously” since it seems to me writing is always pretty serious. You’re exposing yourself, after all — and willingly. It’s essentially a somewhat crazy thing to do. In junior high and high school it was all about popularity, probably. The first thing I ever published was in the seventh grade — a mimeographed weekly paper called THE DAILY BLAB, a class-clown kind of thing which my homeroom teacher encouraged to reign in my urge to disrupt pretty much everything I possibly could. I graduated from that to high school poet laureate — their designation, not mine — wherein I got to show all the girls my sensitive side. By then I was hooked though, and all through college I was reading precociously and writing constantly. The goal was the literary magazine for prose and poetry and stage production for my one-acts, with which I had some success. I was also submitting all over the place, going through the back pages of The Writer, at which I had no success at all. Somehow after college I got it into my head that I was either the next Harold Pinter or the next Henry Miller. Sort of hard to reconcile the two, doncha think? So that for years thereafter, that was where the problem lay. It was only after a dozen or so rewrites of my massive “road” book a la Henry that I finally burned the only copies of the damn thing in our fireplace, and — free at last — not long after sold my first short story to Swank, a wannabe Playboy. So, say that I was twelve baring my disturbed, disruptive soul in THE DAILY BLAB, and thirty selling that equally disturbed story to Swank, it took me eighteen years of trying. And they said in school that I had problems with my attention span.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
Podcast #25 is now available for download here.
In their guest lecture at Odyssey 2008, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman discussed the many differences between writing a novel and writing a short story. In this podcast, Delia and Ellen explore how the opening of a novel differs from the opening of a short story. What must the beginning of a novel do, what can it do, and how much space does it have to do these things? Ellen and Delia list the elements that should usually be established in the opening chapter. They also explain that many novelists don’t know the right opening for their novel until they reach the end. Thus, it’s very important to keep pushing ahead, rather than to get bogged down rewriting the opening chapters. Ellen and Delia discuss the difficulties of getting through a first draft and offer valuable advice on how to make it to the end. They also explore some of the things that short stories can’t do and novels can.
Delia Sherman was born in Tokyo, Japan, and brought up in New York City. Continue reading “Podcast #25: Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman”
ODYSSEY APPLICATION DEADLINE APRIL 8
There’s only a few more days to apply for this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop! If you’re serious about improving your writing, Odyssey provides a great opportunity to work with Jeanne Cavelos, former senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell and winner of the World Fantasy Award. Jeanne will critique your work in depth, show you your strengths and weaknesses, and teach you how to attack those weak areas. With writer-in-residence Carrie Vaughn and guest lecturers Jack Ketchum, Melissa Scott, Patricia Bray, Jeffrey A. Carver, and Ace/Roc editor-in-chief Ginjer Buchanan, we’re going to have a great session.
We run a pretty tight shop here at Odyssey via WordPress, which means you get the same type of post on the same week of each month. However, some months are a little longer than others, and when that happens, we’ll post some writing advice from the director of Odyssey, Jeanne Cavelos. We hope you enjoy the column.
Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.
Developing Your Skills
During the presidential campaign, Peggy Silva, a New Hampshire teacher, submitted the following question to the candidates for a debate: “What don’t you know and how are you going to learn it?” This is an excellent question for every writer to ask himself. To improve your writing, you need to know exactly which elements or skills you need to improve and have a plan for improving them. If you have received useful feedback on your work, you should have noticed a pattern of some kind. What weaknesses do your critiquers usually find? Do you tend to have unbelievable characters? Weak plots? Slow beginnings? Awkward sentences? Nonexistent description?
Whatever your biggest weakness is, make a plan to attack it. Here are a few ideas to get you started: