Why Do You Write?

By Anthony S. Policastro

Ever since I read David Morrell's fascinating article Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing on Backspace I couldn't get the question out of my head, why does anyone write?

He basically says because writers have unresolved traumas that cause them to write. So I wrote him and asked if there could be writers without traumas. Here's
what he told me in an email:

"F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American lives. Applying this to writing, we could say that if a writer creates in relation to a trauma, he or she stops being creative when the trauma is resolved. This has been the case in a number of American writers. But for most of us, the traumas continue. For example, until 1987, I wrote in response to my father's death in WWII and the orphanage I was put in. But after 1987, I wrote in response to my son's death from bone cancer. I never do it deliberately, however. The stories insist."
If you don't know who David Morrell is, he is the award winning author of FIRST BLOOD, the novel that started the Rambo series.

So, I've been trying to determine my trauma, but it eludes me - I've been lucky most of my life - normal childhood, normal straight-arrow adulthood, living the American Dream. The best I could come up with is that I fear loss, but I have not had any major losses. Could there be levels of traumas that affect each of us differently? My losses are nothing compared to his, but could we both be affected the same way and hence have this need to write?

His response:
"The trauma need not be a violent dramatic one in the sense of child abuse or things of that nature. For an author friend, it was the death of his father when he was 8. He often writes about perfect summers of youth that are interrupted. Another author told me that he had a perfect childhood, and then he added, "But I got picked on a lot." He now writes about assassins righting wrongs.
The key questions are:
Why do I want to be a writer? The authentic answer to that is 'Because I need to be.' But why do I NEED to be? What accounts for the obsession?

The answer to that leads you to self-understanding. You said you 'fear loss.' That's an interesting statement and a major theme. You might never know why you fear loss. That's not the point. It's your core emotion and perhaps the reason that you tell stories.

Writers' block is possibly caused by 3 things.
1. The story is just no good, and the subconscious realizes it.
2. The author becomes anal retentive in the first draft and can't move from sentence to sentence.
3. The author doesn't listen to what the story wants to do. Our goal is to serve the story. We must open ourselves and let the story talk to us.

The latter is the best advice I can give to anyone."
Why do you write?

Note: A longer version of his Backspace article is available in his book on writing LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING, which will soon be re-released as THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST: A LIFETIME OF LESSONS ABOUT WRITING AND PUBLISHING. (From Source Books).

His latest novel, SCAVENGER is now available everywhere.


Follow-up to Plot vs. Character-Driven Novel

By Michael Neff

The subject illuminated in the post prior to this one deals with the issue of character-driven vs. plot-driven novels.

But let's step back for a moment. Is there actually a competition between these two forms (if they really exist) or a valid debate concerning these forms and how to define them, rate them, or genderize them into an arbitrary Mars vs. Venus thing? Perhaps we should look at other aspects of the novel before making a decision.

One could argue quite effectively that the best thriller novels are all character-driven. After all, what happens in the story that does not involve action or reaction on the part of the character(s)? Even blowing up a city is character driven. Antagonists are usually not insane, but clever and highly motivated. They create a catalyst event or condition and the other characters react. Who can deny this?

I would urge the writer to look deeper into the backbone of dramatic complication(s) in the story, regardless of genre. Far more often than not, the character arcs and the plot points are inextricably entwined about this story spine of drama. In the Algonkian workshops, we always use ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST as a prime example of this.

It may be valid to somehow set up a scoring system that gives more points to character than points of plot, but what would be the real point? Each novel is a synergy of these things and the debates over interpretation are often as useless as attempting to define literary works in an outdated Marxist or Freudian context.

Also, let's not confuse plot with premise. All commercial fiction seeks a marketing hook from the premise, the high concept. Plot is the detailed causal chain of events and twists in the story.


Character or Plot-driven novels - which could be the bestseller?

By Anthony S. Policastro

Ever wonder what agents and publishers are looking for as the next bestseller? Is it a plot or character-driven novel? Seems to me the market is dominated by character-driven, women-oriented books these days. Just look at the bestseller lists.

I recently ran across Literary Agent Andrew Zack's blog post where he wrote that one New York publishing house editor told him, "...she hates 'high-concept' thrillers, and for her a good thriller is 'character-driven' and 'involves a puzzle that the reader can try and figure out, along with the main character.'" He went on to say he would start looking for novels written with this plot type.

When I mentioned this concept to my wife she said, "Aren't all books character-driven?" since without characters you don't have a story. The question is what is really meant by the difference?

I see Michael Crichton's characters very limited in scope - his emphasis is on the concept and the technology - the characters are just there as props to move the story along. This is what I call a plot-driven book.

Now Memoirs of a Geisha is very much about the characters and what happens to them in a series of various circumstances. You feel and experience what the character feels and experiences and you see the transformation of the character into one form or another. This is a character-driven novel. What wows the reader determines the type of novel.

I picked up Nicholas Sparks' Dear John and almost half way through not a lot of exciting things have happened. A young man home on leave from Iraq meets a college girl and a romance starts. The things they do (the plot) are pretty average, pretty common place, but I'm getting a whole lot on who these people are and what they want and what I think they will do. This is character-driven.

I read Stephen Coonts Saucer about a young man working for an oil company in the desert who uncovers an alien flying saucer. When government troops invade, he gets into the saucer with a young female air force pilot and they manage to fly away with the saucer. You get a little bit about their characters, but the book is mostly a cat and mouse chase to keep the saucer out of government hands and to give the technology to all of mankind. Here the reader wants to know what happens next, will they get away? will they fail? This is a plot-driven novel. I can't quite remember anything about the characters and I didn't walk away with any instant revelations about life or the human condition. And he didn't even have a romance between the two main characters - a bit disappointing.

One thing is for certain - what captures my interest in any book is the writing. Golden's writing in Geisha is addictive; I read the first page and couldn't put it down. Coonts' writing is ok, but there were some parts where he used what I assumed were California clich├ęs and I was totally clueless. Crichton's writing is ok also, but I read his work for the concepts and technology rather than a visceral revelation about humanity.

Where do you think the publishing gems are today? In plot or character-driven novels?

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