Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I’m still on the subject of unbelievable characters. Several years ago the husband of a friend of mine, who knew I was a writer, gave me the novel he had written and asked my opinion.

“Be truthful,” he added. “I can take it.”

The author had a career in the trucking business and wrote a novel about a trucker who regularly drove between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Through no fault of his own, the driver’s vehicle had been poorly maintained, and was involved in an accident. A serious accident, that caused a pile-up on the Interstate and resulted in the death of the governor of California whose limo was heading for Sacramento. Great idea for a story, right?

I wanted to say nice things about the book, but a particular character--a very important one--wasn’t believable. See if you agree with me.

The trucker is married with two teen-aged children. The boy is belligerent and the 16-year-old girl is pregnant. Their mother is an alcoholic, whom the trucker won’t divorce because he’s Catholic. A year or so before the horrendous accident, on one of his many trips to San Francisco, he meets a woman and they begin an affair, which eventually ends in her pregnancy. She dies in childbirth and the trucker decides to turn over the newborn baby to his wife to raise. And she agrees.

Whoops. I think we have two unbelievable characters, not one.

I told the author (but nicely) his trucker was insane, or seriously stupid, if he thought an alcoholic could raise that child. After all, she hadn’t done so well with the other two. And even if she went to AA to clean up her act, the first time the baby became ill and screamed all night, she’d be back to the bottle before he could say, “Bottom’s Up.”

That wasn’t all. What made him think his wife would agree to raise her philandering husband’s illegitimate child? If I were that woman, I wouldn’t do it.

“Oh yes, she would,” he told me. My protests were greeted with scorn and he said my opinion wasn’t representative of most women.

So I took a poll among my friends. I described the situation and asked if they--alcoholic or not--would raise their cheating husband’s b------ child. None would. One friend said, “I might take the baby, but I’d sure kick him out.”

So far as I know, he never rewrote the book and it was never published. I’m sure he’d have told me if it was. However, if you were that wife, would you have raised the child? Also, have you run into unbelievable characters in published books you’ve read?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Last week I started to write a post for this blog about characters in fiction, when suddenly I remembered a real character I met about thirty years ago. I hope you enjoyed that true story. This time I’ll concentrate on fictional characters, specifically unbelievable ones.

A writer I know, who I’ll call Suzy Simple, is actually a pretty good writer. However, she has yet to get a book published, except for the two she self-published with Amazon. I read both of those books, plus two romantic suspense novels she’s trying to interest a publisher in. Of the four, one is a disaster.

Another writer who’s also read the books, agrees with me. The problem with the book I’ll call HEAVENLY, is Suzy’s characters. They are all perfect. The heroine, who was once abandoned by her boyfriend, is saintly, raises her own son and five foster children alone and immediately forgives the exBF when he returns. Said BF apologizes (his earlier leaving wasn’t really his fault) and of course behaves perfectly. The heroine’s current BF also behaves perfectly, as do the girlfriend of the heroine and even the six children involved. All of these wonderful people are literally too good to be true. As a famous writer once wrote, “Constant Reader fwowed up.” I wanted to “fwow up” too. Talk about unbelievable.

Every article and every book on writing fiction stresses that characters must have a flaw or two in order to be realistic, because most people do. They also caution that villains in novels must have a good trait of some kind for the same reason. Real people are complex, varying mixtures of good and bad.

HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE, the new book by Anne R. Allen and Catherine Ryan Hyde, has a wonderful bit of advice that says it all. “Saints in fiction are boring. Unless they liberate France and are burned at the stake. And that’s been done.”

Since Suzy is a friend I don’t want to hurt, I won’t quote that line to her, but I fear she hasn’t changed her book. And maybe it will sell anyway. What do I know? I just know an unbelievable character when I read one, and I hope you-all do too.

Tell me about the unbelievable ones you’ve run into.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Since you know I‘m a writer and blog mostly about writing, you might think that by “Characters,” I mean imaginary ones, the kind we put in our fiction. Not that I haven’t met my share of weird real people over the years, and, in fact, I put some colorful characters in my mainstream novel, CHOICES, published under my maiden name, Phyll Ashworth.

I spent nineteen years selling my husband’s artwork at those art shows you might have seen in enclosed shopping centers or the sidewalks of strip malls. For my fictional purposes, I changed only mildly eccentric artists into murderers, philanderers, cheating wives and even gay bashers. And those were my friends.

The absolute most interesting character I ever met was not an artist but a person I originally thought was a customer. The following is true and took place in San Francisco in about 1980.

* * *

The smooth-shaven man was of medium height, wore a conservative black suit with a maroon striped tie and highly polished shoes. He pointed to my display. "You did these?"

"My husband did. They're original pen and ink drawings, with a wash over them for the color."

"I can see that. They're very good."

"Thank you.” I paused, thinking perhaps I could make a big sale out of this. "They look nice in groupings of two or three. Which do you prefer, the animals or the birds?"

"Oh, I like them all.” He walked over to a display board with animal pictures, and I followed at a discreet distance.

"You see, I know animals. I have hundreds on my estate."

I didn't answer. Hundreds of animals? Who was this guy?

"My family has made me stop adding to my collection, but I could have pictures of them, you see.” His face remained perfectly calm and serious, and I still didn't say anything.

“How much for all of them?"

"You want all of them?” This had to be a gag. I looked around to see if some friends lurked nearby, watching my reaction.

"Yes," the man said. "You see, I want to hang them in the White House. I'm the Acting President of the United States. The White House is going to be remodeled, you know."

A nut. If that wasn't a joke, then he was a nut. I decided to humor the guy. "No, I didn't know."

"It's not my headquarters, you see. I'm turning it into a restaurant. The chef at the Crown Room will run it for me."

"Oh, I think a restaurant is a very good idea. Much better than what they do with it now."

"Quite so. I had lunch in the Crown Room the other day, and they wanted to put me in jail because I wouldn't pay my bill. I was protesting, you see. It was twenty dollars, and you have to admit twenty dollars for lunch is ridiculous.” He paused, continuing to look perfectly normal. “It's inflationary, that's all. I said I would pay seventeen dollars, but the other three were pure inflation and I wouldn't pay that. They made me wait in a back room. My family came and got me out."

I smiled. "That's nice."

"How much for all the pictures?"

"I'll have to think about it,” I said. The man might be crazy, but he was consistent. He remembered he wanted all the pictures. “Why don't you come back a little later and I'll let you know.” In a little while he'd be gone and that would be the end of that. I didn't need to get mixed up with any crazies.

"Fine. I have to see some other artists anyway." He strolled over to another friend. Pity I couldn't warn her.

But in ten minutes he was back. "Ah, yes. Do you have those figures for me now?"

I pulled a number out of the air. "Five thousand dollars."

"That's reasonable. I want you to deliver them, of course. Here's my card.” He scribbled something on a folded business card and handed it to me with a smile. He walked away, still looking like just an ordinary shopper.

I looked at what he had written. The blank folded card had a few words scrawled inside: "$5000. Accepted. Gerald McDonald, Acting President of the United States of North America.”

So he thought he was the President, not Napoleon. I shrugged and put the card in my pocket. I never saw him again.

Friday, July 6, 2012


My last blog post (before the interruption to comment on the loss of Nora Ephron) was about bad news--at least from my perspective--But good news cometh around in the form of books, bookstores and blogging. How’s that for keeping the alliteration going?

First, books. Bowker, who tracks those things, says that in 2011, print book publishing rose by six percent. In another list Bowker tracks what they call “reprint/print on demand” titles and those rose 15 percent since 2009. Of course we know that more e-books are sold than print books these days, according to Amazon who ought to know, but the rise in print books published (but not necessarily sold) is unexpected and welcome. If only half of them are sold, it proves what recent studies show: that e-book buyers buy print books as well. In fact, another study shows that people who borrow e-books from libraries buy more e-books than those who don’t. E-book readers are apparently the real book lovers.

Second: bookstore openings are up. So said an article about the Association of U.S. booksellers (or someone else. I can no longer find the link but trust me I remember it correctly.) In fact, they rose for four of the past five years. Sure, they went down in the previous five or more years, but that was more the fault of the giant chain bookstores cutting into independent’s sales, not the proliferation of e-books. So why would someone decide--in 2011--to open a bookstore? Sure, buyers can order online, but bookstores have always been more than a place to buy books. They were a pleasant place to go, to meet and greet, to explore the literary landscape before making a purchase. Small bookstores are springing up in small towns and in select neighborhoods of big cities, filling that need.

New stores, or those who are surviving the huge changes in the publishing industry, move with the times. They offer a cozy atmosphere for browsing, and sell coffee and snacks. In addition, many stores offer e-books, as well as the devises for them on the site. Another wonderful innovation is that some stores have a “self-published books” section where local authors can place their books on consignment. Obviously, this attracts authors--who are also book buyers--as well as local residents who want to see and buy what people in their neighborhood are writing. A caveat at some such stores is that if they don’t sell a copy of a self-published book in ninety days (or some other deadline) the books are returned to the author. That’s a lot better indication the book isn’t your best effort than getting a bunch of one-star reviews on Amazon.

One other innovation--one that might keep large bookstores in business-is the Electronic Book Machine, which a well-heeled, corporate-owned brick and mortar store could buy--and print and sell a book in fifteen minutes.

Finally, a post on “slow blogging” by Anne R. Allen validated my practice of sharing my thoughts only once a week. Plus time off for bad behavior. I won’t risk being trampled by elephants.

So, fellow writers, if you’re self-publishing, have you found a bookstore that will take your work? If so, tell me about it.

Anne R. Allen