Tag Archives: Danielle Steel

Fighting Discouragement

You want to be a writer. Daily you work hard putting words on the page, good words. You strive to improve your writer’s craft. You toil to transmit the wonders of your imagination into prose that others can enjoy. You submit your work to publishers, and wait. And wait. And wait. Or you self-publish electronically, planning for all the readers in the world to flock to your story. And you wait. And wait. And wait.

I don’t have to tell you how difficult the writing life is. We love it, but it’s not easy. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the isolation. We need to be alone in order to focus on our work. But we can’t help but crave feedback and response to what we’ve done.

Hard work and isolation can lead to discouragement. Writing is not for those who must have instant gratification. And so discouragement happens from time to time.

Here are a few tips for combatting it:

1) You are not alone.
Remember that every writer suffers. It’s part of the job description.

2) There is no such thing as an overnight success.
All popular writers endure a long apprenticeship. The ones that appear to be overnight successes either wrote obscure books for a long time, or wrote under pseudonyms, or may be a one-hit wonder unable to repeat that initial success sufficiently to establish much of a long-term career.

3) There are no shortcuts.
You learn your craft. You believe in your ideas. You nurture your talent. It takes as long as it takes, and you can’t measure your progress by anyone else.

4) You make your own luck.
I’ve always believed this. But just last week, I found it expressed better in a fortune-cookie proverb:
Luck happens when hard work and opportunity meet.

Bestselling author Jim Butcher waited for three long years for editors to read what would become his first published novel. Three years! But during that interminable wait, he went on believing in his concept and writing the second and third manuscripts in the series he envisioned. When an editor finally read the first manuscript and wanted to offer a multi-book deal, Jim was ready to seize the opportunity.

5) Find litanies that encourage you.
If you’re into positive thinking and affirmations, then post them on your bathroom mirror, your computer monitor, anywhere you’ll see them frequently.
Here are a few samples:
“Publishers are looking for new writers, like me.”
“My next story will be better.”
“Persistence wins.”
“The struggle is worth making.”
“I do have enough talent.
“Anything I still need to know can be learned.”

6) Continue to write.
I’m repeating this point because it’s important. If you don’t work through your dark moments and find ways to continue, then writing isn’t what you really want to do.

7) Finish every writing project that you start.
I don’t mean you’re committed to writing every scrap of idea that floats through your mind. But if you’ve plotted a story, developed its characters, and written the opening scenes, then finish it, even if you get stuck along the way. Solving the writing problems you’ll encounter is how you grow as a writer.

8) Continue to submit your work.
Rejection is part of the job. Everyone gets turned down by agents and editors at some point. You might have initial success and then hit a dry hole where it seems that no one wants your work. Keep at it. After Danielle Steel sold her first two or three books, she was rejected again and again and again. Finally, she got past that roadblock and went on to produce a string of number-one bestselling books.

9) Be flexible.
Maybe the genre you love best has died, and public taste has shifted elsewhere. Do you quit or do you adapt? Be willing to switch your focus to a different type of story, a different genre of fiction, a different length, or a different style. Flexibility is part of survival.

Author Janet Evanovich was writing romance novels when her publisher dumped her. Forced to janitorial work in order to make ends meet, Janet didn’t give up. She created a new kind of mystery sleuth–Stephanie Plum, the zany bounty hunter–and now Janet laughs all the way to the bank.

10) Not all stories are the same.
Perhaps your last project went like a breeze. You were able to think of a plot quickly. The characters seemed to fall into place with little effort. You enjoyed the writing, and it was a marvelous experience.

Now, however, the new project isn’t going smoothly at all. The plot keeps hitting dead ends. You can’t figure out your protagonist’s motivation. The characters seem artificial. Their dialogue is worse. You hate the story, and you’re certain that you’re washed up as a writer.

Not at all! Either you’re challenging yourself with a more ambitious story that’s a little outside your comfort zone, or you’ve made some fundamental errors with plot or character design. Solutions can always be found.


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Casting Characters

Writing references offer all sorts of strategies for devising characters, describing characters, and deepening characters, but it’s easy to get so caught up in creating individual dossiers that we may neglect thinking about the whole cast and whether it works effectively.

Let’s say you have a strong, vivid protagonist and a sly, snide, creepy antagonist. But will they work together? Or rather, I should say, will their personalities clash? Not because you’ve read that they should be in conflict but because their essential natures are like magnets repelling each other.

Or, you may have a strong, vivid heroine who’s to be the lead player in your romance story. You’ve concocted a hero who’s broad-shouldered, handsome, and possesses smoldering eyes. But is the chemistry right between them?

Is this pair going to ignite the pages or fizzle? Do you have Humphrey Bogart paired with Lauren Bacall or Humphrey Bogart paired with Audrey Hepburn? (If, by chance, this example makes no sense to you, compare the film TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT with SABRINA. You’ll see what I mean. SABRINA is a Billy Wilder gem that sparkles in all directions except for no spark between Bogart and Hepburn. It’s a baffling casting of those two actors.)

If you’re creating two characters who are best friends, do they have rapport? Let’s hope so, but if they do, why?

Ask yourself, how did they become friends? When did they meet? What happened then to create a bond between them? Why are they friends now? That isn’t to say you’ll be inserting all those answers into the story. But you need to know such information and keep it in the back of your mind so you can write the interaction of your characters from that foundation.

In the Dashiell Hammett story, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Ed are lifelong friends who work together until they both fall in love with the same girl. Paul becomes a primary suspect in a murder. Ed wants to help him until he finds out Paul is lying to him. The men quarrel, but Ed’s belief in Paul’s innocence is never shaken. Achieving that kind of closeness–even between two tough guys in a noir novel–requires the creation of background. Hammett knew what it was, even if he didn’t share much of it in the story.

Presently, I’m working on a novel that involves a triangle. It’s hard enough working out the relationship of a couple, making sure they have the right traits to create sparks while being “right” for each other where it matters. A triangle complicates that task even more. I don’t want an obviously uneven group, where Mr. Wrong is so totally, obviously WRONG that only a blind, deaf, and senile bat would be attracted to him. I want Mr. Wrong to have good qualities and I want Mr. Right to be troublesome and unsettling to Miss Protagonist. Yet I must avoid going so far out on the unsettling scale that when she eventually chooses him it screams AUTHOR CONTRIVANCE.

While there are many variants of love triangles, I prefer to divide them into two basic categories: simple and complicated. These are only labels for author convenience. Don’t judge the merits of a story by them because either type can be effective.

SIMPLE: Let’s consider the Tolstoy novel, ANNA KARENINA. It’s been adapted into at least two films–one starring Vivian Leigh and a recent one starring Keira Knightley. Tolstoy is convoluted and enamored of many entwined subplots, but basically the triangle consists of the beautiful Anna, her elderly and distant husband, and the dashing young officer she falls in love with. Anna is torn between love and obligation. If she follows her heart, she will destroy her marriage, her social standing, her financial security. She will be denied access to her only child. She will be ostracized by society.

Simple? Yes, in that it’s clearcut and direct. We understand it immediately. That detracts in no way from its powerful effect. The very simplicity allows the emotional costs facing these characters to be potent indeed.

The modern novelist Danielle Steel can’t be likened to Tolstoy, but she has used the simple triangle numerous times, with a great deal of success.

COMPLICATED: Consider an old romantic comedy film called THE TALK OF THE TOWN, starring Jean Arthur, Cary Grant, and Ronald Colman. Grant’s character has been framed for a crime he didn’t commit and is on the lam, hiding from authorities. Colman’s character is a pillar of the law, under consideration as a Supreme Court judge. Jean Arthur is attracted to both men, and the audience is kept guessing which one she’ll choose right up to the very end. If you watch the film inattentively, you’ll miss the turning point and what factor decides her. Each man is very different from the other, yet they have a great deal in common. Both are equally intelligent, rational thinkers. Both are handsome and appealing. Both men need Miss Arthur’s help.

But perhaps you aren’t writing a triangle. Instead, you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters. Let’s examine the group in the science-fiction film, GALAXY QUEST. The characters play actors who once were on a hit television show and now they survive through residuals and paid appearances at conventions. We have the following basic types:

*The big ego
*The sexy babe
*The jealous neurotic
*The grown-up child
*The stoner
*The clown

All of them, except the clown, have issues with the big ego. Those issues fuel the personal conflict crisscrossing the storyline. Such conflict keeps the story advancing quickly because it either fills points in the main plot that would otherwise sag or it adds complications to the trouble the group is in. Who in the group are allies? Who in the group is the most exasperating to the others? Who nurtures? Who goads? Who whines and complains?

If at least some of the group can serve as foil characters to the others, this can be useful to keep conflict and chemistry going. Foils, as I’m sure you know, are opposites in personality and behavior. Besides the human actors, GALAXY QUEST serves up additional ensemble groups in secondary roles–the alien group and the kids who are devoted fans. The script pulls on these secondary groups as needed to serve as comedic contrasts to the actors.

What you don’t want, in an ensemble cast, is a row of similar types–for example, all shy introverts–who are going to sit still in perfect agreement. BORING!

Other film examples of lively ensemble casts would include STEEL MAGNOLIAS, I REMEMBER MAMA, and TWELVE ANGRY MEN. The latter is focused on twelve jurors locked in a non-air-conditioned room on a hot summer’s day, forced to work together in order to reach a verdict in a murder trial. They’re all quite different and distinctive from each other. Their roles clash terrifically as they attempt to sift through contradictory evidence.

Don’t let these considerations overwhelm you. Create your lead characters–your protagonist and antagonist–first. Build their personalities and check their chemistry of antagonism to be sure it works. Then build their ring of friends or cohorts, one at a time. Minimize the number of characters as much as you can. You’ll find it easier to handle.

Ask yourself, if I were a casting director in a movie, would I hire these characters? Do they have chemistry enough to carry their roles?

If you’re inexperienced at writing, especially long fiction, you may not be able to judge in advance the potential chemistry combinations between your characters. At least, not until you’ve written a big chunk of rough draft. That’s okay. As the characters speak and take action in scenes, they’ll grow more definitive–or some of them will crumble from weak design.

You’ll discover as you go who needs to be reworked. Just keep the sparks flying.

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