Writer at Work

Against Likability

Someone told me the other day that the main character of my novel-in-progress wasn't likable enough. That my main character wasn't particularly likable didn't come as a surprise: she is a French opera singer who sings for the Nazis during World War II and has an affair with a German officer - the striving type who took her chance when she saw it. She isn't supposed to be likable. What puzzled me more was the strongly held opinion, strongly expressed by that reader and one other, that my main character should be likable. They read excerpts from the middle of the book without reading the beginning, which covers why the main character turned the way she did, and apparently her unlikability was too much, although she's not even as dark as I could have made her: she doesn't denounce anybody, she would do anything for her son (who loathes her for associating with the Nazis and joins the Resistance).

This struck me as a fundamental difference between French and American reading tastes. In France, The Kindly Ones, written in French by American-born Jonathan Littell, which focused on a (very unlikable) rising star in the SS, won the Goncourt prize and the Grand prix du roman de l'Academie Francaise, two of France's most prestigious literary awards. The English translation was panned by a number of media outlets in the U.S. French literary tastes are also less action-driven and more character-driven, a nice way to say that there can be tens of pages where nothing happens. My book is more action-driven but I have an instinctive distaste toward using likable characters with World War II as the backdrop. Then for me it'd become really trying to use a tragic history to make money by, say, having a heroine who locks her younger brother in a cupboard when the police comes to arrest them, thus causing his death by asphyxiation, or a heroine who goes blind when she was a child. All very cute. Likable protagonists sell a lot of books in the U.S., as did a likable would-be journalist writing about the situation faced by her African-American maid during the heights of segregation in the U.S. Those books have sold extremely well.

But what interests me isn't a story that a lot of people are going to find touching. Literature is a business and you don't write a touching story of epic scale unless you are hoping for the big bucks. I am writing this book because I want people to think about how collaborateurs - people who behaved disgracefully during the war - turned out the way they did, how they moved step by step toward the line that defines right from wrong, and crossed it. This for me is more interesting. I've said before and I'll say again that one of the most relevant metaphors I've encountered about life is the frog in boiling water. (And the engineers and scientists around me can't resist telling me that's not how a frog would behave in real life, to which I say: it's a metaphor, alright? let me finish my story). If a half-decent person sees something really bad all of a sudden, hopefully he would take a stand against it. But if he sees a small bad thing and doesn't let it bother him and then something just a tiny bit worse that doesn't seem so much different from the first thing, he probably won't bother speaking up, and then the third thing is only slightly worse than the second one so it doesn't seem worth speaking up about either, and in the end he witnesses terrible things and doesn't lift a finger. Now, some people did terrible things during the war and showed they were intrinsically evil. My main protagonist isn't one of those people, and I find her more interesting for that. She is an opportunist focused on her own success, that much is clear, and she will pay for her behavior at the end of the war.

I suppose what bothered some of my readers was that they weren't sure where I was going with it and didn't know if my protagonist would pay for her actions. (They're some of my newer readers. They haven't spent the last year slugging through my many rewrites.) There is only so much time one can spend watching someone do bad things - I am one of those people who enjoyed House of Cards's first season and then promptly got tired of it.

So my purpose for the book is to show readers what they don't want to become - but have them empathize enough with my protagonist that they follow her through her rise and fall and ultimate small-rebound-out-of-the-abyss-but-definitely-not-rise-again. This may be an ambitious goal for literature and I'm glad I have a day job to remove the need of writing a bestseller in order to pay the bills. In the end, I want to put the book into the hands of as many people for whom it will resonate as possible, but that's probably not going to mean everybody, although I wouldn't mind having my protagonist turn into the Scarlett O'Hara of the 21st century (people find Scarlett annoying but they always root for her, especially in the book where she is so much better than in the movie). Every time I hear about a character that should be made more likable, I worry it's the first step toward selling out. I don't want people to find my protagonist likable. I want them to recognize the risk they might turn like her under certain circumstances. What would people do to be successful today? Preventable environmental disasters, loans with soul-crushing interest rates, banks that push people toward foreclosure or bankruptcy: we have plenty of reasons to worry losing our humanity in the quest for more money. 

But then this is a long post because there is always the question of whether I'm writing in the right language - whether I was right to write in English for the past 15 years or if I should've stuck to French. Each country has the culture that fits its priorities. How many U.S. indie movies have you seen that were actually good? The U.S. has its blockbusters and its mega-stadiums and everything has to be big, cars, trucks, portion sizes at the restaurant, house sizes. There are some good U.S. novels that reach a wide audience, though. (They usually don't have any message so I can't say this bodes well of my book, but anyway I've enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Painter by Peter Heller and The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. My fiction tastes are very different from my nonfiction ones, which center around theater, Eastern Europe and biographies... I actually like very few World War II novels.) Hopefully my novel can find its audience too. And if it doesn't, I can always translate it into French.


#BlogOctober Writing Productivity Tips

Today is the start of my (online) master class in Novel Writing at UCLA Extension School so I decided to write a quick post on writing productivity tips. This may sound trivial, but one thing that has helped me tremendously is to set a timer on my smartphone when I write.

First, it helps me keep track of how much time I spend writing, because I often am not sure if I am writing enough, to the point that at the end of some days I had no idea whether I should be proud (of all the time spent writing) or dejected (by the lack of time spent writing). Now I am better able to keep tabs on my time.

Second, without the timer I tend to be scattered and take too many breaks or get distracted by Internet news. (Because I often look up period details for the book when I revise, it is easy to then glance at the tab with my email open and get sidetracked.) But when I have the timer on, I keep my breaks to a minimum until the time is over. I always stop the timer when I take a break, and it makes me think more about how I want to spend my time: do I want to check the news for five minutes or do I want to progress on my own book for five minutes? The timer highlights the displacement cost when I stop and am not writing. Distractions that seemed harmless when I did not have the timer quickly become unimportant. In turn, I become more focused because I spend more time on the book in one stretch. 

The way I do it at the moment, when I am revising and adding material, is to work in three-hour blocks. On weekends, I am sometimes able to repeat a block (i.e., work six hours on my writing). On Sunday I even squeezed in one last hour and worked a record-breaking seven hours on my novel. Back when I was writing the first draft I liked to go to the library (I was at MIT on sabbatical and would go to the Haydn Humanities library with its large windows overseeing the Charles River) and aim at four hours on a chair. I find that anything below two hours does not allow me to focus enough and really get into the story, but if one hour is all the time you have for, by all means, set the timer and get to work. It is better than nothing. 

I hope this technique will allow me to complete the second draft of my novel within a few weeks. I have revised over two hundred double-spaced pages now but I am not quite at the emotional core (half point of the novel) yet. Still fifty pages to go. I am tempted to say a novel on World War II - and opera - shouldn't be on the short side to do the topic justice, but I'll probably have to cut anyway. At least the timer will get me faster to the point where I have polished everything and can then cut more confidently. We'll see!


Writing!

Someone asked me the other day why I wasn't posting updates on my writing or my novels anymore on this blog. So, if you're curious, I'm writing as much as ever - perhaps more than ever in fact - but because I write so much, when I write a blog post it is more relaxing to write about something else, so the blog has taken a performing-arts flavor over the past few months. I hope you enjoy it. Also, it makes more sense to blog about the novel once it is about to get published, so writing-related posts don't seem timely right now and probably won't for a bit more time, although I might write something about craft or inspiration once in a while. I'm re-reading my creativity go-to book, Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I love, love, love that book) and I'll definitely write something soon on a new painting of mine that I'm particularly proud of.

A lot of good things have happened to me writing-wise this year, the most important of which being the Writers' Program at the UCLA Extension School. I took an online course there with the phenomenal Robert Eversz, co-founder of the Prague Summer Program for Writers, who has been hands-down the very best writing instructor I've ever had. My writing has improved tremendously thanks to him, and I like to think I was a good writer before. I feel so blessed to have found a writing program where the instructors hold the students to high standards and want them to be the best they can be, instead of simply pocketing tuition money and letting students get away with being "lazy" writers (if you're a writer you know what the expression means, if you're not it's not important for this post). In my line of work it is very rare that someone gives me direct, thoughtful, constructive feedback solely aimed at improving the job I'm doing and I have felt really grateful at the opportunity. I've also much enjoyed the whole class and the other students' novels-in-progress. I only wish I lived in the LA area so that I could meet more of my fellow novelists in person!

I've also been nominated for a writing award, and I'm waiting to hear whether I've been accepted to a Master Class in Novel Writing. In the meantime, I keep polishing my draft, and on occasion I slowly prep for the next book I have in mind, although slowly is the key word there, given the other commitments I have. I am ecstatic with how positive this year has been on my writing. Things started falling into place after I returned from Utah, and I hope the year will finish on an even stronger note. All this to say, I'm not writing about Writing at the moment but I'm Writing instead! And that's a very good thing.


Writing Quote by Richard Toscan

Here is a great quote about writing that I found in Playwriting Seminars 2.0 by (former Dean of the School of Theatre at USC) Richard Toscan. While he refers specifically to playwriting and screenwriting, the quote is applicable to any writing endeavor (and the book is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in playwriting).

"Playwriting and screenwriting are not what you do after the dishes, walking the dog, feeding the fish, washing the car, and vacuuming the rug. All of that comes after writing. Or it should, but the discipline to do so takes practice for most people. Writing is hard work, so avoid falling into the trap of getting all the unimportant things out of the way first so that you can concentrate on writing. By then your back will hurt or you'll feel like going out to the local coffee shop. Make writing the most important thing you do and let it come first."


Highlights from #Muse15

Last weekend (May 1-3) I attended the Muse and the Marketplace writing conference in Boston. For this post I want to focus on my favorite teacher at the conference, Lynne Barrett of Florida International University, who taught two classes, and the winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize, The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil. (Weil was on hand at the reception for a short reading and book-signing. He also taught a craft class and led a discussion on his book, which unfortunately I could not attend.)

Lynne Barrett

The classes I attended over the weekend were all very good but Lynne Barrett's were so head-and-shoulders above to the rest that the advice I got from the other presenters (quite good in its own right) seems very trite by comparison. I had taken a class with Barrett by chance at the previous M&M conference I attended - I think it was in 2009 - and when I had the opportunity to attend again this year and saw she was teaching two distinct classes this year, I jumped at the opportunity to hear her twice.

Because she might give these lectures elsewhere in the future and clearly put a lot of time and effort in preparing her talks, I don't want to post her entire content here for the world to see for free, so I'll only provide highlights. If you'd like to know more, please find a conference near you where Barrett teaches and race to secure a spot!

Lecture 1: Dramatis Personae. In this lecture, Barrett recommended making a list of the characters that appear in a story or novel, including when they appear and the role (character type) they play in the book. She also recommended making scene charts as a way to see how characters interact with each other. A scene chart captures, for each scene, the length of that scene and the characters that appear in it. (You want your characters to have effects on each other.) It also distinguishes whether the scene is in the present or a flashback. Barrett used a fictitious example of an internal process/decision to illustrate her point and then led us through a more complicated but highly insightful chart depicting character interactions in The Great Gatsby.

Quote: "Characters who enact their internal conflict with strong, contradictory actions serve the story the best."-Lynne Barrett

Lecture 2: Disentangling Time. This lecture discussed the structure of three progressive complications as an overarching frame for a story or book, with the writer's choice of point of view and story start (choosing what will be a flashback, etc) creating compelling, unique stories. Barrett used The Three Little Pigs to make her point and we had a great time crafting a story using that very same theme, turning the three little pigs into two brothers and a sister and the wolf into a loan shark looking for his money. In the second part of the lecture, we studied the structure of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier with an eye on disentangling time, especially how du Maurier accelerates or slows down the pace and skips information inessential for the reader. (For example, we are told the narrator discusses her now-defunct parents with Max for an hour but we are not told what she said, because it is not important to the story.) We analyzed some of du Maurier's techniques to increase tension. Rebecca also falls within the framework of the three complications when seen through the prism of how the narrator views Max's feelings toward Rebecca.

In addition to being an English professor at FIU, Barrett (@LynneBarrett on Twitter) is also an acclaimed short story writer, best known for The Secret Names of Women and Magpies. I hope she'll return to M&M next year!

Josh Weil

Weil read from his prize-winning novel The Great Glass Sea, set in contemporary Russia (in a slightly alternate universe), which depicts the life of two twin brothers who drift apart in adult age. It has been described as "an epic tale of brotherly love, swathed in all the magic of Russian folklore and set against the backdrop of an all-too-real alternate present." Weil, like me, studied Russian for several years in high school and what I've read of the book so far (I bought the paperback after the reading) is truly excellent, as original and compelling as it was presented to be. I can't wait to read more of the relationship between Yarik and Dima.

This was a highly successful M&M conference by all accounts, further cementing Boston's position as incubator not only of start-ups and technologies but of creative writers and artistic innovation.


Getting the Shadows Right

I struggled with the title of this post for a while. Since my last two posts were on Julie Orringer and Thomas Mallon, two writers known for their high-caliber historical fiction, I knew I wanted to discuss my own fiction writings for today's post - especially Isolde 1939, where my main protagonist is a made-up character inspired by a real-life opera singer who sang for the Nazis, and my current project, where I write fiction about well-known musicians who fled the Third Reich. I usually come up with a title for the blog post almost immediately, but this one stumped me. I had a very good idea of what I wanted to express but couldn't summarize it into a few words, until the words practically wrote themselves: getting the shadows right. 

I used the fictitious character of Yvonne Chevallier in Isolde 1939 because the opera singer her story is loosely based on - Germaine Lubin - saw her career irremdiably tainted after the war by accusations she had fraternized with the enemy during the Occupation. She lost her French citizenship, lived in Switzerland for several years. She also sang Isolde at the Bayreuth festival in 1939 - a festival that was attended every year by Hitler himself, a long-time friend of Winifried Wagner's (the composer's daughter-in-law) and had an active operatic career during the war, including in 1941 when she sang Isolde in Paris with the Berlin State Opera and Herbert von Karajan.

If you do a Google search on her name and Hitler's, you'll find a picture where she sits at his feet at the Bayreuth festival. A French biographer who wrote about her in the 1970s absolves her of any wrongdoing. Saying that the woman had a complex personality is an understatement. I chose to use a fictitious character instead of because, if you are going to give center stage to real-life controversial characters,  you absolutely have to get the shadows right - you have to see the real person and not the person you wish he or she had been just because it would make for a better story. Who am I to pretend I know for sure what Germaine Lubin did and why she did it? In this case, using a fictional character seemed an absolute necessity.

For the project I am currently working on, on the other hand, the real-life protagonists are very positive characters: multi-dimensional people without a doubt, but with high integrity, a compelling personal story, and a network of similarly famous friends. I am still debating how many names to change, but it is not as important as in Isolde 1939 - because my characters and the people who have inspired them are fundamentally good people. The book will not be on their shadow the way Yvonne Chevallier's (shadow) drives a lot of what she does during the war.

Recognizing the inherent goodness of a character is not nearly as fraught as shining a light on her dark side. It is also more difficult to portray deep flaws in biographies since it may leave the reader with the impression that the author is "finding excuses" for his subject, who may have caused tremendous hardship to living people and not be deserving of the slightest excuse whatsoever. On the other hand, writing fiction about positive people who really existed allows members of the general public to become more aware of a real-life story they may not have known, while making it come to life thanks to the liberties fiction writers can take by creating lively dialogue or tightening the story line. I'm not sure when I'll be done, but it should make for an interesting new book.


Announcing My New Blog

For those of you who share my tastes (and hopefully if you are reading this blog, you share at least some of them), I'd like to invite you to give my new blog, DCtonians, a try. There will be one new post per week, each time about someone related to the Greater DC area who inspires me. (I picked DC because I'd like to move there in the not-too-distant future.) Comments, feedback and advice all welcome. Feel free to spread the word, especially among other people who like or live in the Greater DC area. Thank you!

Novellas

Happy 2013! I'll devote my first post of the year to an update on my writing and my life. If you've been following this blog for a while, or have known me for a few years, it should be fairly obvious that I've slowly been returning to the loves of my youth - public affairs, foreign relations, world literature, history, dictatorship, exile & the concept of home, as well as related topics. I blunted those interests of mine for many years because of the enormous mismatch between someone with that sort of preoccupation and the area I live in, and I attempted to remain true to myself by making über-frequent trips to New York City.

It didn't work. Don't take me wrong: my 8 1/2 years in my current town have provided me with valuable experiences and many opportunities to be of service through my work in higher education. I've also become an advanced meditator and taken up painting (acrylics), in addition to reading a wide range of books. I've made sure my time in PA wasn't wasted, because you only live once and there isn't any point in watching your youth fade with acrimonious tears of powerlessness while eating cookies. Instead, I've done my best to make every single day count and I may not have succeeded every day but I've come close. I guess you could call it useful hibernation. As a long-term solution, though, it had flaws from the start, and it was high time I came to terms with it.

Now that I've decided to make some serious life changes, I've also gotten more in touch with what truly matters to me writing-wise, and I've realized that:

  1. the business side of the book industry sickens me, with all the book jackets talking about "harrowing" accounts and "mesmerizing" descriptions and literary agents who seem to think they are rainmakers when most of them are engaged in a rat race the like of which I have only seen in the most unsavory parts of academe (and I do feel their pain, since I spend a large part of my time in the ivory tower, but that motivates me even more not to deal with that sort of things in the rest of my life),
  2. I have a ton of ideas and I don't want to write long books. I want to write the stories I have in mind, whatever number of words they end up being, and then move on to the next thing. I want to do that without having to resort to the large fonts and inflated margins you find in many books, especially nonfiction ones, because the publisher is determined to stick to its price point in spite of the book's lack of substance. If a book is short, it should have a small price. If a book is longer, it should have a bigger price. It's that simple. Maybe publishing houses would sell more books if their prices reflected the word count.
  3. I'm European at heart, culture-wise. When I moved to the United States I tried to focus more on my adopted country, but as much as I love living here, my literary tastes continue to run the gamut from French to German to Russian authors. My favorite American authors are immigrants like Ha Jin and Dinaw Mengestu who write about exile or alienation. That should have given me a hint a long time ago, but I was too stubborn to see it. One thing the European literary scene has long accepted is that it is perfectly fine to publish short books, and in particular novellas. Short fiction volumes abound in today's French bookstores, and luminaries such as Stefan Zweig built their reputation on that literary form. It is time we considered seriously the novella as an literary form in the US. (I'm not the only one to think so: read this post on TheAtlantic.com.) Maybe it'll never be an American literary form, but there are enough interest in European culture to create for a fairly sizable market.

So, I'm in.

In other words: I don't want an agent. I want to write novellas. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. (What was I doing trying to find an agent anyway? I thrive on non-conformism. I cannot stand playing by the rules. Where did that idea of trying to fit in come from? That wasn't the real me by far. I feel so relieved now that I've decided not to pursue the agent route.)

In fact I recently launched into a third round of revisions of my book, cutting large chunks of it, and I'm much happier now that I don't have to worry about falling below the magical word threshold that made my poor little unpublished self of minimal interest to literary agents. I'm going to self-publish (a great way to also publish a lot of other things I have in mind and tie my personal life with my professional life as a business researcher), and that's the way it is. My novellas might only have ten readers, but if those are the right ten readers who will continue to read me over the years and find themselves moved by my books, that's perfectly fine.

This is going to be a year of change and transformation. It was high time I realigned myself with what matters most to me and makes me feel most alive. I hope you'll join me for the ride.


"Italics are mine"

My blog name is a reference to Nina Berberova's autobiography of the same title (or, in Russian, Kursiv Moi). I find it perfect for my blog because:

  • I profoundly admired Berberova when I was a high school student and read all her books in the French translations published by Actes Sud.
  • She wrote short novels about Russian emigrants in exile, especially in Paris, and experienced oppression and exile herself, first with her companion Vladislav Khodasevich and then alone after he died in 1939. While I can't pretend to the same personal experience, my fiction writings revolve around similar themes of people standing outside the mainstream and facing the consequences of power, especially in Paris. 
  • She lived in Paris for 25 years and then in the United States, specifically she spent many years in Princeton, NJ followed by a stint in Philadelphia, where she died in 1993. Not only are there connections between our geographical paths, but we are both people who have put down roots in the United States after being born in Europe (interpreted broadly), with all the challenges that settling down in a country different from our native one presents. This of course makes the choice of our writing themes a natural one.
  • Berberova only became famous after the publisher of the French press Actes Sud rediscovered her writings and systematically published them starting in the mid-1980s, when she was well into her eighties herself. The New Yorker stated in her obituary in September 1993: "her life had two bursts of glory, separated by more than 65 years. The 1st was when she was a young poet in revolutionary Russia, with"emotions fed by protest"... The second began after her retirement from an academic career that she had taken up "when my life as a woman was over". In 1985, her novellas about the half-life of Russian emigres in Paris were discovered by a French publisher named Hubert Nyssen." This speaks volumes about having the courage to stick to one's art despite the lack of public recognition.

If you enjoy some of the posts I write, or like the same books I like (most of which are included on my Goodreads page), feel free to leave me a comment below, contact me on Twitter or drop me an email at aurelie dot thiele at gmail dot com.


Update on Novel

So, I’m done. Really done. Sort of.

Of course in that sort of endeavors “done” is relative, so whether I find an agent or go the self-publishing route, I’m probably looking at one last round of revisions later this year, but I’ve finally completed the most substantial part of the revisions (changing the voice and the point of view, no less, among other “details”). The book went down from 80+k to 65k, by which I mean 65,000 words, which is a bit lower than I would’ve liked – I took out one of the subplots, and from a practical standpoint it means some of the agents will probably shudder because it’s below 200 pages. I don’t care as much, since the French have much more of a tradition of short novel, and I can always add an essay about the historical facts underlying the novel at the end, or include a CD with airs related to the book. We’ll see. Frankly I’m happy with what I’ve done, although I realize the book isn’t perfect: simply, it’s time to move on.

I hope the book gets published, I hope some people find it resonates with them, but I’m not doing this to become rich or famous, and I’ve spent enough time on it. I’m particularly proud of the new narrative mode, because I realized I’d been spending a lot of effort trying to abide by some “rules”, imagined or otherwise, of American fiction writing, which in hindsight made the book quite dull, because my heart was in the content but not the form. (I’m not someone who like abiding by rules. I prefer making my own.) By daring something a bit different – and you’ll have to wait until the book materializes in a bookstore or on the Internet to understand what I mean – I feel I get to express more my unconventional side, for better or for worse. I thought I was proud of the book before, but the changes I’ve made have increased my pride in it quite substantially. And I’ve got new book ideas I want to act on, so it’s a great time to close this chapter and open another one. Wish me luck!