Writing about a character's younger years; the role of publishers and agents
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: September 23, 2008
|I am writing a story about a girl who is ten. Her early life is important and dramatic, but will I discourage older readers with a five-year-old main character? Are flashbacks appropriate in this case?|
Youthful main characters aren't necessarily a drawback. ZZ Packer's short story "Brownies" is about Laurel, a girl in a Brownie troop that's preparing to beat up another troop at Camp Crescendo over a rumored racial slur. The main character of Frank O'Connor's short story "First Confession" is Jack, a peppery boy afraid to give his first confession. Both these characters are young—close to the age you're concerned about—but the stories don't suffer for it. The characters are deeply drawn, the conflicts are strong, and the stories explore engaging aspects of human nature.
How you handle the narration will make the difference between a riveted reader and a discouraged one. An engaging voice, for example, can keep a reader rapt. But if you're worried your character's youthful voice might lose its charm over the long haul, you can use third person to keep the perspective of the young character and, at the same time, have access to a larger vocabulary. You can do this in first person, too, as ZZ Packer does in "Brownies." Laurel's troop—girls from the south suburbs of Atlanta where white people were like "baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about"—is on their way to the bathroom, where they plan to confront the white troop that is rumored to have slung the racial slur. Laurel is apprehensive:
No one talked about fighting. Everyone was afraid enough just walking
through the infinite deep woods. Even though I didn't fight to fight,
was afraid of fighting, I felt I was part of the rest of the troop, like
I was defending something. We trudged against the slight
incline of the path, Arnetta leading the way.
Packer uses past tense and lets an older Laurel narrate in more sophisticated language ("infinite deep woods"), but keeps the reader focused on youthful Laurel's immediate experience.
Whether you dramatize moments from the character's younger years depends upon their relevance to the unfolding story. Some conflicts span a few hours, while others take several months or years. If you were telling the story of ten-year-old Debbie's summer at camp dealing with a malicious counselor, the five-year-old material would be background. Still, that doesn't mean flashbacks are out. For each memory you consider including, ask yourself: does the reader simply need to know that it happened, or is it important the reader see how it happened? For the former, you can use summary or suggestion and stay anchored in the unfolding action. For the latter, a scene would be appropriate. On the other hand, if the story is about Debbie growing up while weathering the disintegration of her family because of her parents' abusive relationship, the younger material may be part of the conflict, which means it's fair game for dramatization.
Determining the scope of the conflict can be tricky. Keep in mind that conflicts in fiction—and in life—are often slices of larger conflicts. ZZ Packer's "Brownies" is about racism and meanness, and one could draw from a character's lifetime to illustrate that. But Packer chooses to focus on the specific conflict of the two Brownie troops at Camp Crescendo and the rumor of the racial comment that sets it off. Novels often have a broader scope, but that doesn't mean the conflict loses definition. Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex spans generations to tell the story of gender confusion and the gene that caused it for the main character Cal, a hermaphrodite born and raised as Calliope. Pinpointing the focused conflict will help you make decisions about what to include and how to present it.
If I send a query to a publisher or agent and they accept it, do they send a formal contract or money to write the book?
Agents are the go-between, connecting authors to publishers. As a result, they don't pay authors. Authors pay agents a certain percentage of whatever the author makes in the sale of the book. This payment comes when the book is sold#8212;not before.
Publishers fork over the money. Writers usually get an "advance," which is money paid ahead of time against royalties that will be earned once the book is published. With an advance, you're essentially getting profits before the book makes any money. Advance amounts vary greatly and depend on how well the publisher thinks your book will sell. For debut fiction, advances tend to be modest unless you've garnered some kind of significant buzz ahead of time. For non-fiction, advances depend upon your platform, or what you bring to the work, such as your level of expertise in the field or an already-established audience. The advance may be the whole paycheck if your book sells just the amount anticipated. If it does better, you'll be paid additional royalties once they exceed the amount of your advance.
Formal contracts are a must with agents and publishers. They outline the agreement—in writing—and confirm you're both on board for the same cruise. Contracts with publishing houses can be particularly complex with all the rights that are involved. An agent can help you understand all the ins and outs, as well as negotiate, making sure you get the best deal possible.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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