Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Losing my Faith in Humanity, One Manuscript at a Time

At about the time I began this post (yes, I'm behind in my blogging. Too many escapades.), Teresa, in an instance of serendipity, posted some more slushpile-inspired advice for authors.

Teresa's read a lot more manuscripts than I have. I'm relatively new to this industry, and reading manuscripts is a small part of what we do at the Comma Mines. I don't read slush. I read proto-slush. Then I evaluate it, in the hope that I can give the would-be authors helpful advice on what to do next.

I thought reading manuscripts would be rewarding. Sometimes, when I can really help an author, it is. Often, though it's just sad work. I stand between the author and the slushpile, and my job is to give the author an honest, educated opinion of what he or she should do with the manuscript. Often this involves dashing the author's hopes, and protecting the slushpile reader from one more tiny blob of slushy yuck. Unlike some slushpile readers, I can't stop reading the moment I determine that the manuscript will not make anything resembling a book in this incarnation. I'm contracted to read the whole thing and analyze its strengths and weaknesses, presenting the author with a detailed report of where and how it works, and more often, where and how it doesn't.

It's not the clumsy prose, stilted dialogue, leaden storytelling, limping pacing, heavyhanded symbolism, shopworn plots, or rickety structure of these manscripts that gets to me, though. As dire as these aspects of a manuscript may be, I can point out to the author where he or she went wrong, and make constructive suggestions regarding how to fix them. I like being able to help people. I admire those who can finish writing novels. I love finding out what their ideas are and seeing how they build them into a story. It's often a deeply imperfect attempt, since many of these authors have never tried writing anything serious before this, and haven't the craft to pull a novel off yet. But I can usually find something encouraging to say, even as I try to show the authors where and how they can improve their novels.

What leaves me cold about these stories is what they show me about their authors*.

I know nothing about these would be authors, beyond what they write in their manuscripts. Somehow, after reading the manuscripts, I find myself unwilling to know any more.

I'm not talking about the obviously weird novels—those clearly inspired by Franz Kafka or Tom Robbins or even those clearly inspired by computer games—I'm not talking about the novel in which all the characters turn into birds, or in which the protagonist's pet cactus starts psychoanalyzing him. I'm talking about the relatively straightforward thrillers, generally written by men who seem to hold peculiar ideas about women, men, sex, and relationships.

Often, the women in these novels are featureless. Oh, their physiques may be described in some detail, with special emphasis on breasts, legs, and hair. But, like buxom Glaucons, these female characters serve only to provide Our Heroes with admiration and cues. They ask the questions; Our Heroes answer them. They get into trouble; Our Heroes get them out. They pose problems; Our Heroes solve them.

I don't have a huge problem with the Boy-Rescues-Girl trope—it's tired and old, but it works, and if you're a first-time author, writing in a genre with established conventions, sticking to those conventions isn't necessarily a bad plan. But Love Interest A should have some characteristics that distinguish her from Love Interest B, beyond hair colour and cup size. We should be able to believe that when she's not hanging out with Our Hero, she's leading her own life, not simply waiting in the wings for her.

Then, there are the seriously icky boy/girl things:

Things I try to phrase more delicately:

1) Even if being rescued from a dangerous experience makes a female character horny as a female triceratops in heat, having male protagonist take her to bed immediately after he rescues her shows us only that he is a scumbag who takes advantage of women when they are in an altered state of consciousness. Ick.

2) Describing female protagonists only in terms of what makes them sexy is condescending. Likewise, having your male protagonist decide to marry a woman simply because she is blonde, has a 22-inch waist and an E cup size will not give me a good impression of his judgement. Also, why do older men inevitably wind up with women in their mid-to-late twenties? When I took up with a man twice my age, in my late teens, most real people said he was too old for me. Maybe that's because he was not a gun-toting, studly action-hero (his own delusions notwithstanding).

3) If you tell me a female character is strong and independent, but relegate her to the kitchen and the bedroom as soon as she takes up with Our Studly and Intelligent Hero, I'm not going to believe you about the whole independance thing. Strength and independence are not best represented as whiny and domineering.

4) Likewise, if you tell me Our Studly and Intelligent Hero is a Sensitive New-Age Gun-totin' Guy, have him display a little bit of sensitivity (for example, by not taking our Strong and Independent but Suddenly Temporarily Helpless Love Interest to bed when she's probably in shock, or by making dinner for her once in a while.).

Gary-Stu is not someone I want to hang around with

Just as the cardboard-cutout Love Interests tell me something about how my authors view the opposite sex (and these author have, thus far, been universally male and writing heterosexual fiction), so their protagonists tell me unfortuate things about the authors themselves.

Oftentimes the protagonists are no more well drawn than any of the other characters. The reader is told that the protagonists are smart, bold, honest, quick-thinking, prepared, suave, and, of course, irresistible to the opposite sex. The authors give the heros long speeches in which the heros expound on honour, integrity, loyalty, and other Roman virtues. The heroes themselves, though, display no unusual intelligence, wit, charm, and, like certain politicians, their actions seem to be honourable only because they—the honourable heroes—are doing them. If the bad guys were stealing things, it would be theft; if the hero steals something it must be necessity, and perhaps even a decisive and justifiable disregard for the bourgeois conventions of morality.

This tells me more than I wanted to know about these authors. I'm getting a picture of the author, the way the author wishes to be seen. These heroes are Mary-Sues. They portray men the authors see themselves to be. And, frankly, they're not people I'd wish to know. These characters tend to see other characters only insofar as those characters affect them. Two-dimensional representations of the idealized author, they are rarely portrayed as possessing true faults (other than boringness and one-sidedness, and the authors don't mean for the characters to come off that way). And they often preach. At length.

In the end, the heroes talk a good game, but don't give me anything to admire. If their authors truly believe that they're portraying classical heroes, exemplars of excellence, or even decent guys who do extraordinary deeds in tough situations, then I worry about them. I wouldn't trust these heroes to feed my cats. Are my authors so lacking in real, live examples of decency and humanity, let alone heroics, that they can't look around them, at their loved ones, at the people they see, and put those in their books. Are they so bereft of decent literary examples that they must fall back on Wesley Crusher? And are they so ashamed of their own failings that when they practise self-insertion, they must avoid any mention of peccadilloes that might make their heroes more interesting, believable, and satisfying?

I can help the authors fix the plot problems, the pacing, the dialogue. I can recommend places where they can get help with the craft of writing. I can point out the problems with their diction, their grammar, and their premises. But I can't fix the holes in their selves that their stories reveal.

*It should be noted that I have never met any of the authors, and that not all manuscripts I evaluate share these faults. I'm generalizing based on a trend I've observed.


Anonymous said...

These authors have not once considered their audience. They have written from their own psyche - they have "expressed themselves" (and that self was ugly). Writing "what you know" can be such a limiting gesture.

I just have to add that I think I love you. Not in the scary internet stalker kinda way, nor in the intelligent, senstive, gun-toting hero kinda way, but in the someone who cares about writing and reading finding a friend kinda way.

jennie said...

That might be the nicest comment ever. Thank you.

Yeah. If all these writers know are unpleasant, sanctimonious, generally egocentric people, or their own selves, who happen to be less than stellar specimens, they don't seem to have the imagination to reach beyond that.

Which indicates to me that they have missed one of the reasons that people read—sometimes we read to transcend what we know, and to give ourselves a place where true heroics (however one defines them) are possible.