Working Review: Letters from Abroad

(ETA: Title changed to save me from unintended search hits.)

First off, this was not the column I planned to write. That column was all about scenes. It was very informative, or so I like to think. But it ended up being a lecture with no demonstration and I just did not want to go in that direction. So I went back to my books, I read some articles on writing, and I tried something new. This was a subject I had wanted to cover in a column, so I’m happy enough to torment myself with it.

I’m still struggling with voice in my writing, so I’m going to focus on that in two ways this week. There is no exercise, but there are two very nice articles I read in Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. This is a collection of his Writer’s Digest articles about writing. The first is “Documentary Evidence,” which is about telling stories through letters, diaries, etc. The second is “The I’s Have It,” which is about the stigma against the first person in fiction and its unrecognized strengths. (This stigma seems to have faded, if my reading experience is any indication.)

My experiments with first person have always been disasters, with each narrator turning into a shallow copy of myself. So, I’ll see if I can get it right this time and actually like the results. And I am enchanted by the idea of storytelling through other messages because I’m reading Hitori Nakano’s Densha Otoko (Train Man) right now. It is told through forum posts. It has its slow moments — how much ASCII art can one novel sustain? —  but overall I find it weirdly delightful, in large part because the main character is a loveable disaster. I like the idea of letters because they show multiple layers of a character depending on who the intended audience is.

Oh, and since I am attempting with very little success to plan my novel for NaNoWriMo, I might as well use this as a dry run of some sort. From what little I know about the main character, he is shaping up to be another Nice Guy, a sort of washed out version of my public self. Gag. So I am going to write a few letters from inside his skin. My goal will be to layer more and more detail into his personality while neither eradicating my voice NOR turning it into a fake biography of me. This may or may not resemble fiction. Bear with me. Let’s see what happens.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Patterson,

Thank you for your inquiry. My name is Ellison and I have been assigned to your case. Enclosed is our brochure. Please note our price information, as changes have been made since last year.

The first step will be to assess your case and determine the nature of the phenomenon you are experiencing. With your permission, I will conduct a house check and interview you both. Please indicate in your reply the earliest possible dates on which I may begin this process.

Assuming the house check and interviews confirm ghostly activities, I will require two to five days to remove the ghost. During this time, it will be necessary to relocate your family; please keep this in mind when choosing the time period during which I will be in your employ.

Ghost removal is a difficult process for all parties. We at the Center for Paranormal Rehabilitation thank you for your understanding and for your interest in our services. I look forward to hearing from you. If you would like additional information before making your decision, including references, please let me know. I can be reached by mail or by telephone at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.

Best wishes,

Ellison Marshall

On the back of a picture postcard:

Carson Castle, Nevada Bay, East California

Hi Mom and Dad–

It’s been windy here. It blows across the channel all the time. Our esteemed clients put me up in a nice hotel though. I splurged and had room service breakfast this morning: steak and eggs, yum!

There’s definitely a ghost at their place. I’ll start extraction tomorrow. They have this whole poltergeist fantasy, so they’ve done some damage since moving in. It’s all in the report; you should get it soon.

Say hi to everyone at home for me. I’ll be back before you know it. So try not to do anything too embarrassing — there won’t be time for people to forget before I get there and have to hear about it. :)

Love, Ellison


I saw a news report about another uprising in Europe. I thought I saw your face in the background. You’re not involved, are you? I know you would say, “danger lets you know you’re alive,” but you’re going to get yourself killed. Is treasure really worth that?

I never told you about my family. Maybe if I had, we would still be together. Maybe you would not be running around disaster areas and rebel camps and ruins. Maybe you would have been content out in the country if you knew something interesting was happening.

I heard from Lucinda that you have a place you stay on the mainland. I was in East California last month. I was on a case. That’s the irony: staying at home in the family business takes me all over the world. I wonder if I will run into you one day, on a street in Harlem or in a bombed plaza in Prague. I hope so. I’ll know you’re alive that way.

If you’re ever in trouble or if you just happen to make it out to the island, you’re always welcome here.

— Elli

This column ate my soul. This was really hard for me. The results are not so great from a fiction perspective. But I think I actually learned something. About myself. About my writing. So I am going to let it stand. If this is a terrible article, well, there’s always next time, right?

I went into this with certain expectations about the character. I anticipated that he would be a somewhat whiny malcontent, which seems to be my default MC, whether I like it or not. That was why I started with a business letter; it was the most neutral territory I could think of. Each subsequent letter would be more personal. Then I took Crispin Freeman’s voice acting workshop and had some of my assumptions about myself and my inner voice questioned.

After that, I read over what I had written for this column already. My goal was to give myself permission to write without editing ideas before I even put them down. And I found that, when I eased off my chokehold on the character, he was not a malcontent at all. He had parts of his life that did not satisfy him, regrets and embarrassments. But these had not reduced him to a quivering mass of resentment. He was basically okay. He had come to terms with the difficult parts and moved on.

My inner editor said, no one wants to read about someone who is okay. Torture him until he is battered and miserable and desperate to change his whole life. Otherwise, when you present him with the real conflict in the story, he might — gasp — try to go back to the way things were. He will be motivated to restore, rather than change. And that is BORING. That is the status quo.

Now, hold up. Why? Most important question ever. Why wouldn’t anyone want to read about someone who is basically functional? There’s plenty of fiction out there about people who are doing okay, have something terrible happen, struggle, and win the right to go back to their good life. Why does he need to be miserable? Does his misery serve a purpose beyond giving him snarky dialogue opportunities and a penchant for awful whining jags? Why would it be bad to try to get his old life back? Isn’t that the whole hero’s journey model anyway? The return is what makes the journey meaningful. He comes back a changed man with a new perspective on his life and the problems he had before. The status quo would be no journey at all.

I think I have tried to make motivation and approach the same thing. And what I am starting to realize is that a character can decide to make his life better and have a bounce in his step while he does it. Or face down terrible odds with optimism. I don’t have to cripple a character’s day-to-day attitude, even if I choose to give him a crippling background or a terrible foe to defeat.

This all seems rather far-flung from my initial complaint that all my characters turn out like me. But this is the connection I see: I create characters who seem like me, the everyman and reluctant hero types, then decide that I am not an interesting enough narrator. So even though I have built back story and world and plot to entertain, all of which have to do with motivation and the challenges I put before a character, I panic over my narrator’s voice, which is the character’s approach to life, the universe and everything.

I then use one of two solutions. Sometimes, I eradicate myself from the story by creating a character who is radically different from myself. I can sustain this for a short story and it can be fun. But after a while, I get bored of being the stage hand while someone else performs and I walk away from the project. Other times, I let the character keep my voice, but I twist it into the darkest, most unhappy version of myself because I think that only at my bitchiest will I be able to entertain. Then I get a character who just whines all the time and hates everyone and keeps them all an arm’s length away. They don’t want to take any action because it might improve things and then they would be out of material for their piss and moan fest.

My original intentions for this column ended up going off course by quite a lot. (This was especially obvious when I looked at the opening, written before I attempted the fiction portion, and tried to edit it into line with the rest of the column.) But I followed the string of happy accidents and ended up somewhere useful. I really will try to implement this during NaNoWriMo this year. I want to see if this change in attitude on my part and my characters’ lets me create something I can be happy with.

On that note, I leave you, as I will be taking a month-long vacation from this column. Working Reviews will resume December 2, when I have had a chance to catch up on my sleep and staunch the bleeding of my fingers after a hopefully productive November. See you on the other side.

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?