So you can read my books

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Gore Vidal said that of a book written by Harold Robbins.

He also added : "To call Harold Robbins an author is like calling a woodpecker a carpenter."

Those words were brought to mind by a milestone of history trivia.

On this day in 1184 BC, according to calculations made some 900 years later by the North African Greek, Eratosthenes, Troy was sacked and burned.

And we've been sacking and burning it, and other icons, ever since.

I thought to myself :

when did archetype devolve into cliche? And can we revive archetype back to life in our writing?

I asked that after thinking of the movie, TROY,

and reading the reviews for KNIGHT AND DAY, VAMPIRES SUCK, and THE LAST AIRBENDER.

Two losers. One so bad it was painful to watch. You guess which that one was.

An acre of craft goes into a bad novel. How much more must go into a great one.

You must fertilize it by going beneath the surface with wit and intelligence ... and love.

Yes, you must love your idea.

How else do you expect an editor to even like it if you don't love it?

And the protagonist ...

do you know him/her down to the depths of his yearnings, her doubts, his sense of humor? Do you like him?

Would you like to spend time with him on a roadtrip? If not, why would expect a reader to want to spend days reading about him/her?

Whether he is Sherlock Holmes or Hannibal Lector, he thinks along lines that are beyond your abilities --

but not your dreams.

He says and does the things you wish you could, whether in your dreams or your fantasies of revenge.

And you must know where he's going. Listen to Mickey Spillaine's wisdom :

Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end.

If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book.

The last page sells your next book.

And know what the readers want of your hero. Mickey has advise on this as well :

Imagine a guy hits Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger and knocks him out.

No reader wants that.

You hit Mike Hammer over the head with a wooden coathanger, he'll beat the crap out of you. That's what the reader wants.

And how do you discover what the reader wants? Read the kind of books you are writing. Time's a problem with that? Stephen King has a word for you :

"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

And try to keep a sense of humor about it. Stephen King has a word about that as well :

When his life was ruined, his family killed, his farm destroyed, Job knelt down on the ground and yelled up to the heavens, "Why god? Why me?"

And the thundering voice of God answered, "There's just something about you that pisses me off."
— Stephen King (Storm of the Century: An Original Screenplay )

King winks at us and says, "Fiction is the truth inside the lie. Good books don't give up all their secrets at once. If yours does, guess what kind of book yours is?"

But I began this post by talking about how to breathe life into cliche, making it vibrant archetype. How do you do that?


I thought about this method while walking some days ago across a hospital lobby as I delivered rare blood to an ailing patient.

On the wall TV was the tail end of an interview with a poor woman, sobbing in despair and loss over the death of a loved one in a mine-collapse in New Zealand.

The CNN camera switched to the newscaster in the studio. Her face was glowing. Literally glowing. Not somber with empathy. No, her plastic Barbie face was bright, cheerful even.

"That video certainly brings it home to our viewers, doesn't it, Bob?"

And I suddenly realized why her face was so radiant.

The cameras had caught a scene certain to grab the audience and boost the ratings. She was oblivious to the trauma of the woman, fixated only on her own needs as a reporter, eager to be promoted to a better time slot.

Some writers are like that reporter. They want a bestseller. They want to snare millions of readers.

They need a tragic trauma to happen in the lives of their characters. In the compulsion to write of an epic crisis,

they see only the details of the situation -- not the soul of it.

To touch our audience, to make our novel throb with life, we must bring it home to the readers.

We must touch the heart.

Do more than describe what happens. We must merge the terror, the heartbreak of the characters with the mind of the reader.

Speak to the universal fears of people everywhere :

abandonment, loneliness, yearning for love, caught up in a desperate need to belong, yet feeling always on the outside.

I believe most of us who write are more aware, more sensitive than that CNN reporter. I think we believe what William Faulkner once wrote :

"A man's moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream."

I believe we as writers must bear that curse proudly and follow the path William Faulkner urged the writers who followed him to take :

"Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do.

Don't bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors.

Try to be better than yourself. If you do that, you're a writer.

And a writer is a creature driven by demons.

You won't know why they chose you. Luckily, you'll usually be too busy to even wonder why."

To me, TROY told the surface story.

GLADIATOR, on the other hand, touched the heart, the soul of its viewers.

Here's the trailer for that movie, followed by the song by Loreena McKennitt that I played on a constant loop while healing from my burns.



  1. I am amazed at the amount of wisdom you have packed into this post.
    Bringing it home is something we all struggle with, I always have to remind myself that this is not just for me, I am writing so that readers can connect to my characters.
    Thanx for stopping by my blog

  2. Excellent advice! This is a very well written post.

  3. Kimber : Thanks. You know, you write your posts, and you wonder if you connect or help. Thanks for the praise.

    Joanna : I liked strolling through your blog and reading. Yes, we have to remind ourselves that if our tales don't touch the heart, we don't give the reader a reason to buy or to stay once he/she does. Have a great today. And thanks for the compliment!

  4. You are so right about both movies. Gladiator did grab your insides and twist them. You felt his pain/anger.

    Roland, isn't that what I say about your writing all the time .... it tugs, sometimes rips at the reader's heart. It is so kind of you to nurture new writers on the beginning of their quest.

    I'm shaking my head right now.... still in disbelief about your undiscovered brilliance. ONLY by the agent/publishing world. WE know!


  5. Michael : Thanks for the kind words. I just got another rejection from an agent (not either of the ones who are looking at partials though.)

    In the blogging universe, we each have the back of the other. I am glad you are safe and sound. Have you left Florida yet? If not, stay alert on the roads. You know all those kids who flunked out of school? They grew up and got driver's licenses! At least that's what my best friend, Sandra, always tells me!LOL

  6. Thanks Roland,

    I leave on Saturday morning. One more day in paradise. Chicago is cold and snowy. WIth Christmas only 3 weeks away I need to get back... so much to do.

    Sorry about the rejection, their loss. At least you still have two flames burning. Let's hope one turns into a fire.


  7. I don't have time to read and comment on this post right now but will be back for that.

    You have an award waiting at my blog.



  8. I agree; a story should touch a reader. Grab them and pull them into the world; the plot.

    I remember watching Troy; I know I liked it, but I also don't remember too much else about it. Gladiator, however; I think I remember every scene, practically every word. And not just because the actors were awesome; it was a well plotted, gripping saga. Highly emotive. Everything about it was stellar.

    I enjoyed the videos. I hope you were able to watch this video while you were healing. So beautiful

    I feel for you regarding the rejection Roland. Keep at it; I'm sure you novel will an Agent soon.


  9. Right on-that soul is exactly why GLADIATOR is the most successful of all the relatively recent sword and sandal movies (a favorite genre of mine) the trappings don't make the story, nor the costumes or effects. Nothing trumps characters we care about.

    We cared about Maximus and his situation more than ALEXANDER conquering the world or the lackluster presentation of Achilles grief/anger in TROY.

  10. Ooo, soul-flutters for Gladiator as well as Loreena! Love both. Character IS crucial.

    You nailed it for novel endings:
    "If it's a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book."

    I read/write YA, and I refused to read the last of the Hunger Games trilogy (Mockingjay) because I had heard how it ended. Yeah, yeah, supposedly more "realistic" but not satisfying to a lot of readers. Letdown with a capital L.

    I may be a dreamer, but my novels always end on a positive note. Not always fairy-tale pie-in-the-sky, but positive. Ha...maybe I just feel guilty for putting my MC through so much, and want to give them a bit of reward at the end.

  11. David : You are so right. We have to care about the characters in the novel or movie, see a bit of ourselves in them, and root for them to win if only in the last breaths of their lives.

    I love urban fantasy, but if the characters are merely prose puppets -- the magic is not there though the spells are arcing through the air with sizzling regularity.

    Donna : I am like you with Troy vs. Gladiator. I enjoyed Gladiator so much I have an autographed movie poster of it (the awesome international version) on my wall.

    While I was healing, the only video in the darkened room was the one I constructed in my own imagination. But I was transported though my face and hands pulsated with pain with each beat of my heart.

    An acceptance from an agent would be a nice Christmas present, though then lay the hurdles of interesting an editor and then convincing the purchasing agents of the publishers that my novel will be a high money-maker from day one. After that I will establish peace in the Middle East!

    Jodi : Thanks for the award. You were quite revealing and honest in your acceptance of yours.

    Michael : What will be will be. Enjoy your last day in Florida.

  12. Carol : You've hit an important point. Readers become invested in our characters, especially with a trilogy. To end with : oh, and they all ended miserably with the taste of gall and empty dreams in their mouths -- just seems like pulling the rug out from under guests as they are leaving your home!

  13. Beautiful post, Roland. You certainly know how to touch the heart.

  14. Inspiring post, as always. I liked both movies but Gladiator was the better one by far.

    What are these burns you speak of? Did I miss something?

    I really hope it's old history and nothing new.


  15. For the most part, I agree. Character driven fiction is what I enjoy reading. Moreover, it's what I enjoy writing. Readers must connect with your protagonist, but not all protagonists can be heroes, just like not all endings can be upbeat. You must be true to your characters, yes, but you must also be true to the world you've created. And above all else, you must respect your your reader. If you create a Mike Hammer, hell yeah, he'd better beat the crap out of anyone who whacks him with a hanger. And if you create a world like The Hunger Games' Panem, you owe it to your readers not to tie the story up in a pretty pink bow and top it off with a happily ever after just so they can go away with the warm fuzzies. That's manipulation of the worst kind.

  16. VR : You're right : having prose puppets for your characters is cheating and insulting your readers.

    I frowned at happy endings slapped on the finish of the narrative that did not fit the internal logic of the fictive world or the psyche of the characters involved.

    Yet, depression comes for free in this world.

    My mind is filled with memories like cradling a total stranger in front of the Convention Center in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Her baby was dead from a choking fit that all the efforts of an Iraq veteran could not revive.

    I cradled her in my arms and rocked her as she was rocking her baby, not able to comfort her any more than she could comfort her dead child. No words could I give. All I could do was cry along with her, giving her the feel of human connection. I finally got up, feeling like I had done nothing worthwhile. Nothing.

    As I rose, she reached up to me with only her eyes and asked, "Why?"

    "I've asked that same question at my mother's death bed, ma'am."

    She nodded. "I meant why you stop to help a total stranger. You just answered. Thank you."

    Then, she went back to grieving.

    Too many of such memories.

    I want books filled with laughter, lonely hearts hesitantly reaching out to each other and connecting, thrills, mysteries, magic, but mostly hope that triumph, though hard-won, is possible.

    I think a lot of readers are like me. And they recommend and give away as gifts those books that give those things to them. More importantly, those kind of novels make living a little easier for those whose days are dark.

    But that's just me. Thanks for taking the time and deep thought to answer VR. Your cyber-friend, Roland

  17. when I get ready to edit my nano story, that's what I'll be doing. Covering the bones with heart, sinew, blood, and soul.

    Otherwise, it's all just a twitter or facebook update, isn't it?

    Good advice