10 Ways to Avoid “Beige Characters” : #amwriting

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Some characters are meant to take the air from the room and some are meant to be furniture. It is the way of the narrative. The furniture-type I call “beige characters<‘ though there is probably an academic term for them. (Literary zombies?)

“Beige characters” forward the action, appear and recede, help things along, teach something about the main character. As a reader, their names confuse me because they are so “beige,” I can’t remember. I suspected better writers are better at “beige characters.”

However, I feel I’ve missed opportunities to say something about humankind, make the book richer with detail, or just plain entertain when I create those beige characters. I’ve been lazy; I’ve neglected them. I feel terrible.

I started to study “beige characters” in a cross-section of books to see how other authors handled the challenge. I have a whole new respect for “other authors”:

1. Hint the character has a secret. You can eventually give away the secret to the reader if you choose. The simple EXISTENCE of a secret makes a character more interesting and the reader moving forward with you.

2. “Beige characters” can be made attractive to the book by having an unattractive trait. Annoying flat laughter, hairy moles, an odor, a tendency to use adjectives, anything.

3. Create a cognitive dissonance around your ‘beige characters’ – an old guy that sucks on fireballs, a girl who loves heavy metal and knits kleenex box covers – one weird image that will stick every time you have to bring in that character for a little help.

4. Add one detail about clothing that is unforgettable: a orange bra strap, prison pants with penguins on boxers, peds with a hole in the toe

5. Accents are difficult. But if you think you can give your beige character an accent different from other characters, do it. Problem solved.

6. Give a beige character a strange fear: bees, mold, spacecraft abduction, the neighbor takes their hedges while they sleep. Only you know the strange fear you need.

7. A beige character can make an interesting entrance into the narrative that the reader will remember when the beige-ness resumes.

8. A “Beige Character” can be your voice of reason in counterbalance to an unbalanced character. If you choice this route, keep your beige character fairy beige. Think Gatsby and Tom.

9. Beige Characters are often introduced early in thrillers and horror so that they may be killed in different, interesting ways. My research tells me that their introduction often hints at how they will die: example: Mary picked up the knife and said, “I’ll make the salad.”

10. Beige Characters are a lot more important than I ever thought.

It’s Not ISIS: It’s the Golden Age of Books

Uber-Agent Andrew Wylie sees amazon employees going to work.

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by Beth Wareham

When Andrew Wylie, literary agent to the stars, declared amazon an “ISIS-LIKE DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM” at the Toronto Book Fair, it was the metaphorical gunshot that alerted the world that publishing had indeed gone around the bend, was no longer the sharpest knife in the drawer, or even had all its lightbulbs in the chandelier. And just months before, Mr. Wylie wanted amazon to be his buddy, selling all the ebooks that unfortunately, Random House owned. A judge – more and more an important person in publishing – said The Jackal couldn’t do that. He’s called “The Jackal” in the industry for just such moves. After the ISIS-LIKE DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM comment, though, I call him The Loon.

This one man has so bullied the publishing elite it is laughable. Whole careers have been built and destroyed based on whether or not Andrew Wylie will sell you a book. But “The Jackal,” as he was known to those shy folk in sensible shoes, was always wily in the right way: he hired the best editors on Earth to work his clients books BEFORE he let a publishing company touch them. Smart man. He knows quality and he knows it sells. Watching arrogant publishers bend to his will was fine sport.

So, as I work with amazon, I dress more and more like ISIS. It just seems to happen. A headscarf to keep out dust as I post a blog. An ammo belt to wear as I upload a book on Kindle Direct Publishing.  Dirty boots to run to the photocopy shop.

What a stupid metaphor, Andrew. As if your life and your problems and your slow down of massive income had a thing to do with a terrible war on the other side of the world.

Come on, fancy commercial publishing, get your metaphors right. The world of books has blown open. The 60 (80?) million bucks you spent on lawyers and price-fixing is gone, pissed away on anything but the art of writing.  Hundreds of books did not get published: You built an empty library and to your surprise big publishing, the world went right on writing and reading.

We found a way.

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MARILYN MONROE READING

images-1                                      By Beth Wareham

(With thanks to feminist biographer Oline Ealon for the title.)

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I have a thing for Arthur Miller. Yup, “Attention must be paid!” Arthur Miller, Mr. Death of a Salesman himself. I can’t explain this crush; his glasses were too large. He was from Harlem, seemed like he knew gangsters, talked like a tough guy, WAS a tough guy and wrote great plays. His creative leap between Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee and the Salem Witch trials in The Crucible was breathtaking. His appearance in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee more so.

His wife, Marilyn Monroe, was by his side as he testified. I never really did see what he saw in her. Not really. All pouty wet lips and whispers. Seemed to me that Arthur would like somebody who pushed back, somebody hyper-real.

Marilyn was all pink bubbles to me, impossible to visualize as the wife of a man like Miller, until, that is, I read about the 430 books catalogued in her library at her death. (Thanks, Booktryst.com)

Holy moly.

I’M IN LOVE WITH THE NERDY MARILYN MONROE.

The list is long and strange and exciting. Zola, Proust and Moliere lived with Harold Robbins (The Carpetbaggers, one of my favorites.) The poetry section was huge, as were books of prayer and spirituality. Goodness Has Nothing to Do with It by Mae West sat by Minister of Death: The Adolf Eichmann Story by Quentin Reynolds. She read many plays as well as the ancients: Lucretius, Plato, Aristotle. I list below the books that Marilyn owned and read that I owned and read and loved. And if you don’t love her for her taste in literature, you’ll love her for another title in her library: Pet Turtles by Julien Bronson.

That Marilyn, she had it all.

(Click on title to buy book.)

1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Lady Brett Ashley, love triangles, and the running of the bulls in between the great wars in Europe.

2. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
Four books, written between 1957 and 1960, exploring modern love in the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt.

3. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
You know of this beautifully written book about the sad man with all the money: it’s America.

4. From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
There was good reason James Bond went to film. You’ll find out why here.

5. The Fall by Albert Camus
Jean Paul Sartre’s great frenemy leaves us guessing with The Fall, his most challenging, mysterious work. Camus was in the Resistance against the Nazis, Sartre was not. Rancor ruled.

6. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
Here are the joys, secrets and strangeness of a small American town in the hands of a master.

7. The Little Engine That Could by Platt and Monk
Who couldn’t use a little “I think I can” everyday of their life. Her copy had a childlike MM scrawled on it and no doubt took the 36-year journey through life with her.

8. My Antonia by Willa Cather
Willa Cather’s cornflower blue eyes saw it all, including this story of one kind of love turning into another.

9. The Collected Short Stories of Dorothy Parker
From the woman who said, “what fresh hell is this?” Dorothy Parker’s sharp tongue and command of language never cease to amaze.

10. The New Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer*
A huge all-purpose cookbook, this is America at the supper table with Irma at the head, issuing orders in her no-nonsense voice. Marilyn used the 1952 edition, no doubt.

*This was long before I edited an edition of this book. Marilyn clipped recipes, wrote notes in the margins of cookbooks and cooked. I wish she’d marked her favorites.

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5 Tips on Revenge in Writing

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/beth wareham

Here are simple ideas for taking revenge into your writing, always a satisfying event, even if no one else reads it. Here are 5 easy ways to get back at people who have wronged you AND have some fun as you sweat and swear over your keyboard:

1. Base odious characters on odious people you know. Give them the same names.

2. Have these odious characters have sex. In unusual ways. A sense of place is good here too.

3. When the book is published, yell “you’re in my book!” as you run past everyone you meet, smiling and waving. You’ll make a lot of sales, I’m sure.

4. Tell your family they cannot read the book before it is published. Do not tell them it is a history of Napoleon’s most successful military campaigns. Watch their faces fall on publication day.

5. Give your book to people at public moments to make them look awkward. If we learned anything from the late Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, it’s that. Remember when he slipped Obama his book during a conga line of handshakes at a G-13 summit? Hilarious.

The next time I publish a book, I want a special laminated bookmark of me, naked, as the promotional piece. It’s just what so many deserve.

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WRITING’S 5 RULES OF ORGANIZATION

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by Beth Wareham

This title is utter nonsense aimed at “I need to write another blog list.” There are no rules of organization in writing. Actually, there aren’t as many rules as you’d think in writing. There are just writers without the talent to break the rules and make it work. The rule breakers who make it work are usually called “geniuses.”

When writing a book of any length, it is easy to get lost in plot, idea, side discussion, subplot. Don’t get lost in anything. Your job as the writer is to DRIVE:

1. At the end of each day’s writing, make notes of what you want to accomplish the next day. That’s what Hemingway did and I’m just passing it along. It sure worked for him.

2. Make extensive notes about character and stick to your own rules. Don’t let a character slip out of voice or contradict their earlier appearance. Be consistent.

3. Books have a beginning, middle and end. Don’t forget to write an ending. (See Donna Tartt’s second book, The Little Friend)

4. Always have your reader in your mind’s eye. Describe him or her to yourself and pin that description where you can see it as you work. That’s who you are trying to reach with every word you choose. If you start selecting words to show off your big vocabulary, you’ve missed the whole point of writing.

5. Know your own focus. If it takes you a long time to get back into the story after the doorbell rings, go write in a completely silent place. Give your talent the right environment to thrive.

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5 Bits of Simple Advice for Fiction Writers from Very Famous Editors

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After 20 years as an editor in New York City publishing houses, I heard a lot of things. I even read a book proposal from a woman whose life was transformed after she met Tom Cruise.

Over and over, I come back to the simple advice I heard the best fiction editors (I was your garden-variety non-fiction type) say to their writers:

1. Chronology is your friend.

Start at the beginning and tell the story through to the end, just as if you were telling a friend. Only the most skilled of writers play with time and pull it off: Don De Lillo wrote Falling Man going forward in time, didn’t like it, and rewrote the book in reverse, making 9/11 the last event. Don’t try it at home, kids.

2. Limit your characters and make them vivid.

Dickens was Dickens because he could invite whole cities into his books and keep all the names and attributes straight. Tolstoy excelled at that as well. This will probably be harder for you, so focus on your handful of characters and make them memorable. I’ve read books whose plot still fails me, but a character stands in my mind’s eye still. That is success in writing.

3. Stolen from Stephen King: Adverbs are not your friends.

While I cannot make a citizen’s arrest for overwriting, I want to. Leave adverbs behind. In fact, be stingy with your adjectives. These are words that carry emotional connotations that you should achieve through the story’s action or choice of detail. Which leads to #4.

4. Detail is the soul of fiction.

Pick up a Chekhov short story. On the first page, he’s so completely described the room and it’s occupants on one page, you are now present in rural Russia with peasants, feeling the steam from the pot of potatoes and seeing the poverty in their clothes. One page and you are in their world.

5. The details you choose is what makes you great. 

Part of the joy of reading a book is one intellect bouncing against another, even if the two are not in the same room. A writers choice of detail focuses the work and shows a reader new possibilities for thought and life. Look there, not there, and the entire story changes.

I’ve overheard many more things and have some thoughts of my own. I’ll throw up some more here soon.

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GUNS DON’T KILL: PEOPLE WHO DON’T READ DO

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At the Florida State University Library this week, another dumb ass shot a book. Is that what all this rage is? BOOKS? Symbolically, yes.

We are at a “use your words” moment. As we look at all the pretty pictures and cat videos, our need for sharp pointed words honed by the reading of masters has never been greater. The psychological need to express yourself and be understood is a longing so deep, it cannot be separated from anything else inside of you or me. Only our words can save us.

Books were the part of a community that raised millions of Americans, all readers. Our parents were not perfect but I remember building a jerry-rigged faith via Black Elk Speaks and Seven Story Mountain. I learned about the glory of failure from Saul Bellow. I wanted to see the world because of West with the Night and In Patagonia.

The book that took the hit earlier in the week was a religious work, fine thinking from Medieval Europe. The book above that took the hit is the King James Bible. Bullets and God are the worst kind of stupid.

I’m glad the books were there to save their keepers. I hope the keepers honored their saviors by reading them and using the words inside: Those words are just so very beautiful.

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10 NO-FAIL GIFTS FOR FOODIES

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10 NO-FAIL FOODIE GIFTS  by Beth Wareham

My business partner and I share a background heavy in food preparation. She is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu. Not some soft U.S. outpost; she trained in Paris. Huge Frenchmen screamed at her and her pastry. She got butter in her hair.

Hey, everybody has to scratch an itch and, if your hands are smeared with flour and fat, you have little recourse but to smear some around. At night, she’d wash it off and call the States, enraged: “I’m gonna get that Frenchman,” she’d tell her little brother. No tears. No trembling behind the door of the walk-in larder. Just thoughts and plots of revenge.

My experience in food preparation covered 20 years as a cookbook editor, with three editions of the Joy of Cooking notched into my pencil plus chefs Daniel Boulud and Bobby Flay. (I LOVE Bobby Flay. I fought off endless urges to buy him fleece. I thought the warm kitchens would take care of it.) Al Roker was in there somewhere with barbecue and, when I think of recipes from The Herb Farm outside Seattle, my taste glands activate.

I’m forgetting at least 25 other chefs and cookbook authors I edited, perhaps on purpose. I know what makes a great recipe and I know one that won’t work within 3 seconds of looking at it. Food and bullshit often go hand in hand.

My partner and I rarely cook now. I’ll do a steak over an open fire and she’ll throw lobsters into boiling water, but that’s about it. Maybe this is our revenge: Simplicity. But if we do host a party or take food to someone, we’ll strut our stuff like the high-stepping, high-achieving women we are. Tell me, kid, ever de-boned a chicken? That’s hot Cougar talk.

Below is a list of cookbooks that, should my partner and I ever encounter them in your kitchen, we’d lean in to each other and whisper “real deal,” as we moved past on the tour of your house. These books are cornerstones of the world’s great cuisines. These books will, if you let them, explore a whole culture through the entryway of their food, a place where family, society and spirituality often meet.

These books are the equivalent of a cooking school course and look into a culture, without the screaming Frenchman and the butter:

1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child

This book is so famous it seems silly to write about it. It blew into the American consciousness in the 1960s and had housewives preparing 7-course French meals for the boss and his wife. Julia trained an entire generation of magnificent chefs as they sat in front of the television in their diapers, watching her magic and dreaming of future meals.

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2. The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean by Paula Wolfort

Twenty years or so ago, America discovered the Mediterranean diet and the books haven’t stopped coming since. A particularly healthy cuisine – tomatoes, fish,olive oil, citrus, raw garlic, vegetables, grains – the flavors are sunny, timeless, and satisfying and no one has ever done it better than Paula Wolfort.

 

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3. Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni

I get a lot of phone calls looking for writers to do new Indian cookbooks for the expanding Indian culture in the United States. I always say the same thing: “Why do you need something more than Julie Sahni?” Many don’t know who she is and I suggest if you love Indian food, you get to know her. These complex ancient dishes are brought to life in a simple, vibrant style any cook can master.

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4. The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy

I stand by this statement until the grave: Most Mexican cookbooks steal wildly from Diana Kennedy. Part Indiana Jones, part Julia Child, Diana took to Mexico, learning food ways and breaking that cuisine’s code for the North American cook. Her Lifetime Achievement Award for the James Beard Foundation proved that flashy organizations can promote an authentic intellectual on a quest to understand a culture: that’s Diana.

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5. The Taste of Country Cooking: The 30th Anniversary Edition by Edna Lewis

When Virginia-born Edna Lewis operated the Café Nicholson in New York City, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote were frequent diners. You think Edna knew something about Southern food? Edna was snatched up by Julia Child’s editor for a book the New York Times said “may well be the most entertaining regional cookbook in America.”

 

 

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6. How to Cook Everything: 30th Anniversary Edition by Mark Bittman

He’s Mr. Minimalist in the New York Times, a persona that matches Mark’s no-nonsense approach to food. This is a big, all-purpose cookbook, much beloved by younger generations, and a perfect gift for those starting a new home. Heavily-branded,there are several versions of How to Cook Everything, including , one to vegetables, and one to just the basics, all good.

 

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7. Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

Home cooks in the United States haven’t taken to Chinese home cooking as they have other cuisines. Two reasons explain this: Chinese food is extremely heavy on prep work and, our Chinese restaurants are so good. Shopping for and cooking with these exotic ingredients is a rush. So is learning Chinese techniques.

 

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8. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

After a horrific childhood in wartime Italy, Marcella immigrated to the United States and and later published the go-to book for classic Italian cooking. Now, more than 30 years later, this is still the go-to book for classic Italian cooking. In fact Marcella was to Italy what Julia was to France. Marcella was just grumpier and drank more whisky. This book is full of the simple transcendent food of the Italians. Don’t miss the pork braised in milk.

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9. Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia Completely Revised and Updated by Librarie LaRousse

The first edition of this kitchen titan was written in 1938 with a preface by the revered Escoffier. Repeatedly revised, it no longer just covers the deepest secrets of French food: world cuisines have now made it’s pages It was Julia Child’s “desert island book” and any cook that has an inquiring mind will want this reference by his or her side. Weighing in a 8 pounds, Larousse can be used to tone your arms as things bake.

 

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10. The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook:
2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of America’s Most Trusted Cooking Magazine

Another all-purpose cookbook, Cook’s Illustrated always reminds me of the “anal retentive chef” from Saturday Night Live. Recipes are perfect. Hints come at you like tennis balls: Did you know vodka makes your crust more tender WITHOUT adding flavor? But throughout, the recipes work perfectly, are delicious and you learn the “why”of it all, an important thing to learn.

 

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The New York Times Will Never Cover Publishing without their Dreams of Bestsellers

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http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/public-editor/publishing-battle-should-be-covered-not-joined.html?_r=1

The New York Times is simply not the place to look for publishing insights. First, everyone that writes for the paper has a dream that looks like the one above. That’s right, that old white guy is receiving his Nobel Prize. Folks at the Times also get riled up over such words as Pulitzer, National Book Critics Association, huge advance, Andrew Wiley, multiple book deal and of course, lunch with my agent.

The New York Times is also full of reporter/writers who do not necessarily make a huge amount of money. Their platform – The New York Times – gave many a chance to add  $50,000, $100,000, $500,000 – to their annual income, if they could sell a book proposal to a large publishing company. Many could. Publishers scooped them up like chocolate almond ice cream: They bought houses and sent kids to college on publishing advances.

Alternatively, The New York Times was hugely disrupted by the digital revolution. The New York Times has done a magnificent job of wrapping their heads around what must be done. But that doesn’t mean their hearts are there yet.

So, get your publishing information from somewhere else for awhile. Or, better yet, go write a great book while the whole thing blows over.

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FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY STUDENT SAVED BY BOOK: “THE OXFORD CONTEXT OF WYCLIF’S THOUGHT”

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Can books save your life? Seems for Jason Derfuss, the answer is yes. Caught in the crossfire at Florida State University’s shooting, his copy of “The Oxford Context of Wyclif’s Thought” took the shot. Literally. The other two books in his bag slowed it down.

Because this said Mr. Wyclif, author of the book that stopped the shot, was a writer on religion, Mr Derfuss believes that God intervened, not the books.

Perhaps Mr. Derfuss is mistaken: God lives in books and just stepped forward as required.

Remember, it’s all just Point of View.