James’ wife, Nancy, encouraged Fae Rowen to write her first book. James encouraged Fae to go to the San Diego Writers Conference to learn how to write that first book.
Today he shares his insight on why we write and why we read.
by James R. Preston
The wooden dock swayed under the weight of a hundred anxious people as the sailing ship coasted toward it. The ship had news, news of someone they cared about. As it neared the dock the crowd began to shout, “Does she live? Does she live?” The sailors, who had read the newspaper in England, called back, “Little Nell is Dead!”
Talk about a spoiler! The crowd rioted, but here’s the catch: Nell Trent is not flesh-and-blood. She is a character that Charles Dickens made up for The Old Curiosity Shop.
I want to talk about something different—not plot points or the pitfalls of ping-pong dialog or snappy endings that leave the reader wanting your next book. I want to talk about Little Nell.
I want to talk about why we do it, the value in our work, regardless of our sales figures or the size of our audience.
Why do we do it?
I mean, think about the hours you spend learning the craft and the times when you go, "Uh, what happens next?" Face it, if you play the piano at the very least you can bang out carols at the company Christmas party. If you sketch you can draw flyers for your daughter's soccer team. You get the idea. Hold that thought.
First, a question.
Ever ride a toboggan?
When I was very young my best friends were my cousins, some of whom lived in San Diego. We're talking single digits here, for all of us, age-wise. After wearing ourselves out with near-death experiences on their Flexi Flyer they always wanted me to tell them stories and I loved to oblige.
One of their favorites was The Snow Kings. The Snow Kings were three kids who had this flying toboggan they used to fight crime and space monsters. The problem was they had to have a steep hill or a rooftop to launch the thing and there was never one around when they needed it.
My cousins loved those stories because they were about kids like us, except they had adventures, (not to mention a flying toboggan). We all knew that I was not going to end a story with, “They fell off the toboggan and plummeted screaming to their deaths.” But they liked the stories anyway. The kids were what was important.
I think what you and I do—tell stories about people—is important. And that’s why you should keep doing it.
Made-up or not, Little Nell caused a sensation when she went to her reward. There are stories that Thackeray was found in his office, sobbing. Another writer threw the book out of the window of the train he was in. People cared.
I remember the first time I was invited to talk to a book club, and the very first thing they wanted to know was what my protagonist T. R. Macdonald would have done if his wife had been available when he met and fell in love with the curvaceous Kandi.
The ladies in the club were talking about Mac and Kandi as if they were real people. I almost said, "Ladies, how should I know? They're constructs!" but I didn't, for a variety of reasons. First they were paying and deserved a thoughtful answer and second, well, I'll get to that.
The “takeaway” from the story above is this:
It’s the characters. That why we do it, that’s what your readers care about. That’s why there are a million readers counting the days until November 20, when Notorious Nineteen comes out and we get to see what Stephanie Plum is up to now. I am pretty sure that she will not plummet to her death from a flying toboggan, but I want to read it anyway. I care about Stephanie, Grandma Mazur, and all the others.
The book club ladies deserved an answer and I realized that Mac and Kandi are not the constructs that I thought they were. They have taken on a life of their own.
It’s the people who are important. That’s why we do it. If we are lucky our characters come to life, leap off the page, and tell us their story. Listen to 14-year-old Kaylee Miraflores, a character in Pennies For Her Eyes:
“I’m adopted, of course. Oh, I didn’t mean for it to come out that way. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She looked at me uncertainly, then looked down at her plate again. “My, um, my biologic father ran away when I was three and my mother fell in love and when I was five she got remarried and my new father is this wonderful man and I love him so much. So one day—I was seven—we were moving down to Huntington and I asked him if I could tell the kids at school my name was Miraflores instead of Keene and he started crying and said he wanted to adopt me but he didn’t know how to ask me so now I’m Kaylee Miraflores.” She stopped for breath, looked up, then quickly looked back down at her burger.
Kaylee is revealing part of herself, sharing with the other characters and with the reader. I didn’t exactly plan it, the words never appeared on a plot card or in my notes. I didn’t know this part of it until she started talking and explained it to me. Kaylee is important to me, and I hope to the people who will read about her.
The importance of story, of the people we write about, has not diminished since Little Nell.
A hundred and fifty years after her unfortunate demise, I witnessed young readers exit a bookstore on Maui, and sit down on the cement so they could open and start reading the newest Harry Potter.
What you do—your writing—is important. It’s the people. If you care about your characters it will show and they will speak to you and to your readers.
So don’t feel bad that you won’t be entertaining at the company party. Just keep talking to those people in your head. They’ll talk back.
Somewhere The Snow Kings are dragging that toboggan around, looking for a place to launch it so they can save the world. And as far as how Mac would have worked it out if Diana had been available when he met Kandi, I don’t know.
But he does.
Thanks for asking me back. This is a great blog, one that I'm proud to contribute to. It offers excellent advice on the process of writing. I learn something from every essay I read.
Speaking of learning something—do you have a character you have connected with at a visceral level? If I were a betting man (and I am) I would say, “Yes.” Are you willing to share? I’d like to hear about them and so would the other WITS readers. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, let’s talk. (Do I see Hannibal Lecter grinning from a prison cell?)
Next time, back to technical stuff—point of view. There will be a quiz. And if you take what I have said today to heart, there will be a next time.
James R. Preston writes the Surf City Mysteries, the most recent of which is Pennies For Her Eyes. His most recent signing was at Men of Mystery, where he appeared on the same bill as New York times bestselling, awesome writer James Rollins. (That sound in the background is Preston’s own horn tooting.) Check out www.jamesrpreston.com for more information. And if your book club wants a live one, send an email.