Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In 1970, I read a book that changed my life. It was called “The Boxcar Children,” and wasn’t a series at the time, I don’t think.

From the moment I closed book’s covers, the love of reading light flicked on producing mega wattage. The characters in the book, I’ll never forget. And that’s been nearly 40 years later.

As a writer, plot eludes me. My strong point (if I have any) is in characterization.

As a reader, I’d much rather dive into a book with memorable characters, than have to follow a labyrinth of plot twists. Of course an ideal book would included both.

And it’s not that such turns of events don’t make for great, stay-up-till-2-a.m. reading. It’s just that if someone yanked wads of my hair and said, “Which do you prefer? Amazing characters or fast-paced action?” I’d pick the characters every time.

When my book club read all the Dan Brown books, I pretended to have read them, nodding when the questions went around the room, even giving the book our 1 through 5 rating. I’m sure the club is onto me and would have kicked me out long ago had I not provided such large quantities of mid-grade wine at my hostings.

When we select books by such writers as Barbara Kingsolver, I’m in heaven, knowing great characters are coming along with a decently paced plot. I will never forget the family in the “Poisonwood Bible,” or the heroine in “Prodigal Summer.”

On a lighter note, I read the “Bridget Jones Diary” years ago and her character is still with me. I fret over my weight and sometimes even say v.v.g., - her style for very very good. As for her later works, I’m cloudy on the characters and plot.

Maybe my book club put it best – though scariest for authors - “We don’t usually like to read the same author twice.”

“No wonder people didn’t buy my third book,” I said, suddenly enlightened.

My books are character driven. Some agents like this. Others don’t fool with it.

I start with a strong character and stick with her. I like to add in other kooks and quirkies as if pouring granola in a tub of premium vanilla ice cream. I’m starting to wonder if my last book didn’t sell because it was too heavy on characters and too light on plot. Writers can fret and go on and on over this matter. We tear up and re-do hundreds of pages of copy, trying to get that perfect blend.

This is what it takes. Both character and plot.

And this is where I’m still on the short bus to another NY sale. My learning disability seems to be plotting, while my characters are outrageous. I like to think of them along the lines of such memorable people as those in a Billie Letts movie, such as “Where the Heart Is.” I’ll never forget the folks in that book/movie. For those who didn’t read it, the story focuses on a young girl living in and having a baby in Wal-Mart and all that transpires after the blessed event.

Another character that has stayed with me for decades is Ignatius Reilly from “A Confederacy of Dunces,” my all-time favorite book. I’ve read it three times and have vivid images of Ignatius ranting against the modern world, his infamous valve opening and closing. I can close my eyes and see him leading a revolution at the Levy Pants factory or watching “Soul Train” and cussing the TV about the show’s vulgarities.

Hard to beat a more memorable character.
If I could just create a female Ignatius, and design at least half a decent plot, I might sell another book.

And if they put a fabulous cover on it, someone might actually buy it.

Susan Reinhardt is author of “Not Tonight Honey Wait ‘Til I’m a Size 6,” “Don’t Sleep With a Bubba” and “Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin.”


Anonymous said...

Hang in there! Your're one of the funniest writers I've ever read.

a gracious plenty said...

thank you for such a good post. i am working hard right now trying to rev up the plot in my own story.
best of luck. i'll check out your work. katie

Laura S. said...

Great post! Thanks for your helpful insight on plot and character driven stories. :)