Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Risk of Writing Unlikable Characters

by Linda K. Sienkiewicz
What kind of fictional characters do readers enjoy most? Good-hearted people who somehow find themselves in trouble? Or shady characters who create mayhem? Likability in fictional characters can be a complicated matter, especially for a writer.
In an essay from last year, author Jennifer Weiner noted that some writers are being urged by their agents and editors to make their characters more likable, in the interest of sales. Yet, writer Mohsin Hamid confesses, I read fiction to fall in love. And in fiction, as in life, characters dont have to be likable to be lovable.
As writers, are we ever too concerned that characters be so likable that we cant let them disappoint our readers?
An agent once told me that no one enjoys mildly interesting characters. It was her impression that readers these days read novels for the same reason they gawk at accidents. If traffic is slowed because a car is on the side of the road because it ran out of gas, no one pays attention. It takes a paramedic and two police cars and some crunched cars for rubbernecking and involvement.
I agree. I enjoy reading about flawed characters because they're more believable, and more like me. Its the writers job to make flawed characters deserving of a readers attention, as well as likable on some level. If readers understand a characters motives, I believe they will find a way to empathize with the character.
The narrator in my novel, In the Context of Love, (Buddhapuss Ink LLC July 2015) is a married woman who, at a low point in her life, has an affair. Her marriage is on the skids, shes sinking fast and desperate for love. Early in the writing process, I feared her lapse in judgment might turn off a segment of moralistic readers. A fellow writer told me not to worry. Its okay to have your readers get angry with your characters, she said.
In the end, my character redeems herself. I hope she does, anyway, because I know some readers will label a book as bad if the character does something bad. Others will go so far as to judge the author as bad. As writers, thats a risk we have to take.
I think we should allow characters room to slip and fall. I like characters who make bad mistakes, those who dont stumble blindly, but walk directly into the darkness.
What do you think? Have you ever encountered a character whose actions were so morally repugnant that you put the book down? Or did that make you want to read more? As a writer, do you worry readers will judge your characters, and you as well? I'd love to know.
©2014 Linda K. Sienkiewicz
Sienkiewicz is a writer and artist who's always in search of a good story. Her poetry, short stories and essays have appeared in over fifty literary journals in print and online, and among her awards are a poetry chapbook and Pushcart Prize Nomination. She has an MFA in Fiction from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. Her first novel, In the Context of Love will be released in July 2015 by Buddhapuss Ink LLC.

Thanks Linda, for a terrific piece on a sometimes thorny topic for writers when it comes to writing characters!
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series and that we'll see you again next week when our guest poster Georgia Ruth tackles Naming Your Characters. Till then, "Butt in chair, WRITE!
~ The Black Cat

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Attending Writer's Conferences & Events (PART TWO)

In my previous post, I focused on how attending writing events can not only support the writing community, but also help you feel like a part of it. Now I want to focus on how to choose the events that will be most worthwhile, and that will help you grow as a writer.
First, consider your stage of writing. What do you need? Are you looking for inspiration? Find out when a favorite author is coming to a location nearby and figure out how to get there. I went to Malice Domestic (see more information below) for the first time because Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark were attending. At their book signing, they graciously posed for a picture with me. It’s a treasured possession and remains a great motivator. When a relative saw the photo and didn’t recognize me, I was delighted because I looked like I belonged with those authors.

Second, consider what you need to advance your career. Do you want to improve your craft or find out how your work would be received by a publisher? Mystery Writers of America and Romance Writers of America provide excellent writing courses, both online and in-person. Look for programs that provide instructor interaction or offer pitch sessions where a professional will review your proposed submission and tell you how to improve it.

Third, consider your budget. If events are available locally, take advantage, but also plan to travel to a larger meeting where you’ll have a chance to make new contacts. Conferences like Bouchercon, held annually by the World Mystery Convention, vary locations. This year, it took place in Long Beach, California, and next year it’s in Raleigh, North Carolina, closer to my home. I’m already planning to attend. I went to the first Thrillerfest in Phoenix, Arizona, because I could stay with a relative. Now, it takes place each year in New York City, but it has multiple tracks, so a participant may select the more relevant and cost effective portions. See if the sponsoring organization or a local arts commission in your community offers a grants program to help you with the cost. Remember you may be able to count your expenses as tax deductions dependent on your filing status.

Here are some meetings and conferences I’ve attended and found very informative:

Book Passage is a bookstore with several locations in the San Francisco, California area. It holds classes and author events throughout the year. In addition, it offers three annual conferences for: (1) children’s writers and illustrators, (2) mystery writers, and (3) travel writers. Reading their newsletter gives you an excellent overview of significant writers in all genres. The year I attended the mystery writers’ conference, Jan Burke, Harlan Coben, and Ridley Pearson were instructors. Currently, a basic registration for the mystery conference is $550.00.

Decatur Book Festival, the largest independent book festival in the country, for the past nine years has been held in Decatur, Georgia, during Labor Day weekend. It has hosted over one thousand authors and hundreds of thousands of festival attendees in a historic eight-mile setting, with vendors under tents along the street and authors and panels presented in a number of venues around the town and Agnes Scott College. Some events are ticketed, but most are available to the public free of charge.

Malice Domestic is an annual conference geared for readers and writers of traditional mysteries in the style of Agatha Christie which takes place in late April or early May in the Washington, D.C., area. A program offers grants to unpublished authors. A comprehensive registration, including the Agatha awards banquet, is currently $295.00.
Malice Domestic 2014 Panel (Left to Right) Liz Stauffer, Sally Goldenbaum, B.K. Stevens, Paula Gail Benson, and Wendy Tyson
Murder in the Magic City is a smaller conference for mystery readers and writers sponsored by the Southern Sisters Chapter of Sisters in Crime, located in Birmingham, Alabama. Each year, on the first Saturday in February, about twenty-five authors appear, including a female and male guest of honor. All attending receive a box lunch and goodie bag full of books. The cost is $30.00  
Murder in the Magic City
South Carolina Book Festival, held in mid-May, last year this program by the Humanities Council of South Carolina featured over ninety authors and had more than 6,500 attending. On Friday, writing workshops are offered at a cost, then on Saturday and Sunday, author discussions and panels are open to the public without charge. For a number of years, I’ve volunteered to be a moderator for panels and had some great opportunities to meet authors.
A peek at the S.C. Book Festival
South Carolina Writers Workshop is a literary organization open to authors of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short stories, playwriting, and screen writing. It has local chapters throughout the state that meet at libraries and other locations. Every October, it holds an annual conference in Myrtle Beach, which has included such key speakers as Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Michael Connelly. Critiquing sessions and contests are offered at the conference. Annual membership is $52.00 and the conference has a registration fee. Interested persons may attend three local meetings prior to joining.

I hope this summary gives you some ideas to consider. May you enjoy many writing events this coming year!

©2014 Paula Gail Benson

A legislative attorney and former law librarian, Paula Gail Benson’s short stories have been published in Kings River Life (, the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable (, Mystery Times Ten 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink), and A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder (Dark Oak Press and Media 2014). Her story “Moving On” will appear in A Shaker of Margaritas: That Mysterious Woman Anthology to be released in late November or early December 2014. She regularly blogs on and Her website is


Thank you Paula, for a great two-parter on Writing Conferences. I'm sure you filled in a lot of blanks and answered more than a few FAQs from writers who've never attended one. Speaking for the Black Cat, we wish we had more time so we could go to them all!
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series and that we'll see you again next week when our guest post comes from Linda K. Sienkiewicz will be on Unlikeable Characters, A Risky Business. Till then, "Butt in chair, WRITE!
~ The Black Cat

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why Attending Writing Events is Important—Making a Literary Life (PART ONE)

Guest post by: Paula Gail Benson

 In Carolyn See’s wonderful writing guide Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, she outlines a three step process for making your life a literary one:

(1) writing 1,000 words or revising for two hours for five days a week the rest of your life;

(2) sending a charming handwritten note that does not ask a favor to an author, editor, or agent you admire for five days a week the rest of your life;

(3) once a week, taking an outside excursion to attend a writing class, conference, or a book signing.

   Why does See think these steps are crucial for changing writing from a happy pastime to a true vocation? Because the first step to becoming a writer is to write consistently, whether or not you feel guided by “the muse.” The second is to support the writing community. And, the third is to become part of that community by letting others know you are a writer, and learning as much as you can to improve your skills.
   Going to see successful writers may be an intimidating experience. It can be daunting to approach a writer you admire, but remember, that writer may also feel ill at ease meeting his fans. Writing is a solitary experience. Of course, it’s nice to hear that readers like what you’ve written, but the work itself is done very privately. Writers often are shy about appearing in public or meeting each other. The writer you’re going to see may need your encouragement as much as you need his!

   Consider that your journey to reach the event may contribute to your writing process. Getting out of the ordinary writing environment is helpful, not just to embrace the writing community and learn from it, but also to generate ideas. Travel is a writing energizer. The momentum of movement leaves the mind free to wander its own paths and keeps the mind engaged and encourages creativity. Driving always seems to bring ideas to me, and I frequently find myself pulling off the road to write down bits of music, lyrics, dialogue, or description I’ve just discovered.
    By getting out of your cocoon to support the writing community, you realize how diverse its membership is. Writing is a business that sells a product. The product is offered by booksellers and libraries and consumed by readers. It’s great to buy books online and post reviews, but going to a bookstore or library supports a local enterprise, and enables you to meet and interact with other readers face-to-face. You see how books are arranged and advertised. You hear what librarians and booksellers are promoting. You can listen to what readers are requesting.

    If you are attending an author reading or panel, you get to hear about the road to successful publication. You can listen to the words they wrote to entice their readers, hear when and how others began their writing careers, where they do their writing, what they've done to advance their work, who they consider inspiring, and why they would encourage you to test your own talent.
    Many events offer signings or opportunities for you to meet the guest authors. Be brave and  introduce yourself. Don’t hog the guest’s time, but ask a question that has been puzzling you. Listen carefully to the response. Even if you can’t purchase a book, show the author you’ve read something he’s written, and tell him you appreciate it.

   Similarly, take the time to meet the people sponsoring the event. Thank them for making the arrangements to bring the author to a local forum. If librarians and booksellers see that you are supporting their programs, they will remember you when you need a place to promote your work. Be sure to carry a business card or bookmark to hand to the author, librarian, or bookseller to help them remember you.

    For implementing her three step process, Carolyn See recommends that you place yourself in an author’s shoes—if you were a writer, what would you be like and what would you do? Believe to achieve, or as See cautions, “at the very least, avoid hexing yourself!” What better way of immersing yourself in the world of writing than to venture out where authors and readers gather? 

©2014 Paula Gail Benson

 A legislative attorney and former law librarian, Paula Gail Benson’s short stories have been published in Kings River Life (, the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable (, Mystery Times Ten 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink), and A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder (Dark Oak Press and Media 2014). Her story “Moving On” will appear in A Shaker of Margaritas: That Mysterious Woman Anthology to be released in late November or early December 2014. She regularly blogs on and Her website is

We hope you enjoyed this edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series! Be sure to follow us so you don't miss a single one. We'd like to thank Paula Gail Benson for yet another terrific contribution, be sure and check back in two weeks (November 19th) when she brings us Part Two of her infomrative piece on Writing Events and the Literary Life. 
You'll want to stop by next week - November 12th - for a piece of Flash Fiction - The Intruder by Ellie Dias. We will be publishing Ellie's debut book, Big Red: How a 95 Pound Suitcase Taught Me Simplicity, in September 2015.
                                              ~The Black Cat