Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Rules of Your Novel

I never post Internet-y pieces anymore, but let's change that with this one about the making of Badge.

“No more Woody Allens ever,” I declared. No, I wasn't trying to rid the world of accused sex offenders. I was making the rules for my third novel.

For simplicity’s sake, I’d reduced the number of possible male protagonists to two. First, there are the Woody Allens: nervous, over-read, over-thinking, probably-very-skinny guys who second- and third- and fifth-guess every move they make. Woody Allens can’t do anything as simple as go to the grocery store without wondering, Is the store open? Do I have enough money? Will it be crowded? Will the milk spoil before I drink it? Then on the way home, Did I spent too much money? Was the checkout clerk hitting on me? What does it all mean?

The second type in this far-too-limited-but-still-somehow-useful-to-me paradigm are the Clint Eastwoods. These are characters who operate from simple, manly codes and don’t stop to think about what they’re doing before they do it. A Clint Eastwood goes to the grocery store, munches on a tomato while strolling the aisles, punches a customer who looks askance at him, and beds the checkout clerk. Both of my first two novels featured a protagonist who takes days to do something as simple as get out of town. For my third novel, the main character would be a Clint Eastwood and not a Woody Allen.

I set off writing about Badge, an aging rock guitarist and recovering alcoholic who fistfights, plays the ladies and gets in innumerable conflicts because of it. Being a ruminative guy myself didn’t help my Clint Eastwood-making tendencies—Is this line going to offend someone? Is that face pummeling okay? What’s my mom going to think?—but I fought against the tyranny of my own better instincts. I wasn’t trying to create a character who wins good citizenship awards; I was trying to create a compelling one. Badge didn’t give a damn, and neither should I.

I spent a few years getting Badge in shape, and in 2009 I passed the novel on to its first beta reader, my friend Andy, a bushy-bearded potter in his sixties. Andy and his wife Gina were both big fans of both my first novel Stuck Outside of Phoenix and my second Ghost Notes. Andy was excited to read it, and the pair seemed like the perfect candidates to try out Badge early on.
 About a month later, I met Andy to discuss the work.

“It was . . . interesting,” he said, handing the manuscript back to me.

“Great,” I said, picking up he didn’t like it at all. “Did anything jump out at you that you thought needed work?”

“Well, there was one thing. Not me, of course. Gina mentioned that … you know … the curse words could be toned down.”

This surprised me. As much as Badge drank and fought and fucked, I’d never thought his language would rub anyone the wrong way. I didn’t remember monitoring swear words in my earlier novels. I write about rock musicians. Can you imagine Keith Richards saying “shucks” and “golly”?

I ignored the specific criticism, but I couldn’t get past the broader, vaguer one that Gina and Andy, loyal readers of my work, didn’t embrace Badge. I resolved to give the novel more attention, and to get more opinions. I gave it a complete revision and joined a writers’ group, submitting a chapter of Badge each week.

The group was led by published author Karen Karbo and consisted of ten or so people I didn’t know—mostly women ranging in age from forty to sixty. These folks had no problem with Badge’s language, but they pointed out many specific problems with the story and its characters. “Is this the same singer who was in Chapter Two? She was sassy then and seems docile now.” “The end of Part One is too early for them to jump in the sack. Can you stretch out that tension longer?” “Badge’s ex-wife falls a little flat. Can you give her some attritute?” Some expressed mixed feelings about Badge himself. He was a unlikable at times, maybe misogynistic. All this was exhilarating and frustrating. At one point, sick the criticism, I blurted, “They’re just words,” which led a fellow member to say, “Did you just say, ‘They’re just words’?” Her point was clear. Words are the whole game.

It became important at this point to explore my own feelings about Badge, which as a Woody Allen type wasn’t hard at all. Did I like him? I certainly empathized with him, an older guitarist struggling to keep his music dreams alive while staying sober and remaining present in the life of his ten-year-old son. Still, I knew Badge crossed some lines of appropriateness, especially when it came to his relationships with women. At one point, he suggests that his girlfriend had to stay in line or she’d see the back of his hand, going so far as to clap loudly, startling her. He leaves his son behind in Albuquerque while he tours the country in a rock band. There are scenes where Badge and other musicians chat about the backsides of famous female singers. I reminded myself that many great novels violate moral codes—Lolita; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Rabbit, Run. Was Badge too rough to be a good protagonist, or were my readers squeamish? In the end, I felt Badge might not be for everyone, but he wasn’t going to become a Woody Allen on my watch.

In late 2010 I started submitting Badge to agents and editors. Some expressed interest, but ultimately no one wanted to take on the novel. One agent, with whom I’d built some rapport over the past decade, specifically didn’t like Badge, calling him a controlling “Henry Higgins type.” None of the other agents seemed impressed with him either. Was I wasting my time trying to publish a novel with a jerk for a protagonist?

I joined another writers’ group and after a few months passed Badge around to three members. I bought pizza one night and the four of us discussed the novel.

I guess I wasn’t surprised when two of them found Badge unsympathetic. One wrote “You lost me here” in the margins when Badge was being particularly domineering with his love interest. Another didn’t like Badge’s attempts to manipulate the woman who was going to have his baby. My Clint Eastwood was coming off like Don Draper without the charm. It was time for a change.

Without altering the plot, I toned down some of Badge’s more controlling moments. As his love interest moves away from him for another man, I made him less angry and more awestruck. I made him less controlling with the woman having his baby, and I modified his more edgy rhetoric. I saw all this as bending my “no Woody Allens” rule without breaking it, a tip of the cap toward empathy without (hopefully) losing the soul of the novel.

Again I submitted Badge to agents and editors, and I received no offers. Out of ideas, I hired Karen Karbo to give Badge one more read-through. Karen had always liked Badge, and had given me good feedback on the novel in her group. I passed it on to her, and we met to discuss it.

Karen still liked much of Badge, especially some of the description of what it’s like when Badge plays concerts. She offered good ideas for moving sections around, simplifying scenes, deleting others that slowed the novel down. She understood that Badge was supposed to be a Clint Eastwood type, and didn’t mind his rougher edges. It was reaffirming to know I wasn’t alone in liking him, but I couldn’t deny the mountain of paper- and cyber-rejection I continued to pile up from submitting the novel. Something was still wrong with him.

At this point I started thinking about Badge’s parents. I’d stayed far away from mentioning them in the novel—nobody cared about a Clint Eastwood’s parents—but my character needed a new dimension. I knew all about Badge’s parents; I’d written pages and pages of back story to familiarize myself with his past. Bringing up mommy and daddy issues smacked of Woody Allen, but I ignored my reservations and got to work planting mentions of his parents in the novel. I referenced their breakup when Badge was eight, his father’s drunkenness, his mother’s support of his musical ambition. I even started the novel with a scene from the night his mom throws his dad out of the house, showing Badge, headphones on, disappearing into the music while they screamed in the other room. All of a sudden, it was clear why music meant so much to him—escape, protection—and why keeping it an integral part of his life well into adulthood was so important to him. My “No Woody Allens” rule had served me well enough for most of the seven years of writing Badge, but by this time sprinkling in some very non-Clint Eastwood elements made Badge come to life more than ever.

For the novelist, there’s nothing like a blanket rule to serve as a useful guide, or as a kind of motivation to get the words down. Still, there may come a time when those rules need to be tossed out for the sake of the story. In the end, we make the rules, so we can break them.

Yours in laying down the law,


Watch the Book Trailer for Badge.

Buy Badge.

6 comments: said...

Great post Art. Nice to see what your writer's life "behind the curtain" is like. Kudos for being so open to input but also for sticking to your guns and waiting to do what felt most right. Love that your rule really helped but that it had its limits. A great concept for artists of all kinds. I really enjoyed the book. ;~) GB

Art Edwards said...

Thanks so much. It was a conscious decision to get out of Hote-head and expand on what one of my characters might do. I really enjoy Badge, and I feel it paid off.

One of my favorite stories involves an American Buddhist who travels to Tibet to learn from some important clean-living guru. At one point the American talks to a cabbie, who claims to follow the guru's teachings. This cabbie as smoking a cigarette.

"If you follow him," he said, "how can you justify smoking?"

The cabbie said, "My religion is like a boat. It's great for when I'm at sea, but once I'm on land, what good is a boat?"

Marcia said...

This whole post resonates with me, Art. I had a similar yet flip-side reaction to a protagonist in my own rock novel. People said he was too nice--he was supposed to be on the naive side, but I overdid it. Adding rough edges felt like ruining the character, but once I did, of course I liked him better!

And the other protag (yes there are two) is more like the early Badge--sometimes, he's just unlikable. While writing this other novel, I sometimes think about the rock novel and this other guy, and wonder how much he'll need to change. Writing can be a scary ride but I never want to stop it.

Art Edwards said...

So glad you dig, Marcia. I find the first draft of a book an attempt to get it all out, with the subsequent drafts about making the book for more folks than just you. Someone writer once said, "The first draft is for me. All the other ones are for everyone else." I believe the whole process has value to the writer, but I know what she means.

Marcia said...

I think that's especially true for a NaNo novel, like mine. I didn't have time to plan more than a few basics so 95% of draft 1 was "pantsed." That confirmed for me that I cannot "pants" a novel! But it gave me so much insight into the main characters that's allowing draft 2 to become a *novel*.

So the novel coming from that outline you critiqued is on its way. Going a bit slower than I intended, but fixing problems as they come up. :-)

Art Edwards said...

Excellent, Marcia. Can't wait to read it.