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 12, 2014

The Intruder

by Ellie Dias

It was once a house once so spotless you could eat off the floors. Now, there was a coating of dust on every flat surface, thick enough to scrawl your initials everywhere. The bathroom, formerly sparkling with the fresh scent of Pine, emits an odor as alarming as the urine-splattered toilet seat. Instead of the smell of freshly folded laundry, piles of dirty clothes molder next to the washer. A stainless steel sink that used to glisten holds stacks of weeks-old dishes.
An intruder stealthy in its approach has entered, slowly casting its shadow over us all.

She is 85. We insist she hire a cleaning lady. She is adamant she is capable of doing everything on her own. Reluctantly we, my brother and I, let go. Over the next few weeks the house looks a lot cleaner. Relieved, we go about our busy lives. She must be back to her old self.
A 10 p.m. phone call. My mother is ringing. “Is it 10 o’clock yet? I need to go to the dentist!”
“It’s 10 o’clock Mom, 10 o’clock at night. Can’t you see it’s dark out?”
A nervous laugh. “Oh, of course. My memory is getting so bad lately.”
Hanging up, I convince myself  it’s all part of the aging process. Old people always mix things up, no need to worry, I tell myself.  

Another phone call. This time, Mom’s older sister. She speaks the words that make the situation clear. Suddenly the intruder steps out of hiding and rears its ugly head.
“Ellie, your mother is at our house. She’s safe.”
My heart races. “What the hell does that mean?” I burst out.
“Your mother came to pick me up for our 9:00 a.m. hairdresser appointments. It’s almost 9:00 p.m.!” She quickly adds: “This is not the first time.” Stunned, I hesitate before asking if there’s anything else I should know. An awkward pause.
“She was in a car accident a while back and sometimes she gets lost when we go places.”
A chill runs up my spine. The puzzle pieces fit perfectly now, they add up: confusion, forgetfulness, neglect. Alzheimer’s. The intruder has a name. I need advice.
I decide to take a six-class course at our local Alzheimer’s Chapter. I amass a binder full of information. With my newfound knowledge about the disease I’m confident I’ll be able to handle any situation. But I quickly learn this intruder is always a step or two ahead of me.
I purchase a medical alert bracelet engraved with my mother’s name, her condition, and my name as the emergency contact. I can’t wait to put it on her wrist and she can’t wait to keep removing it. I find it tucked into chair cushions, stuck inside books and magazines, under furniture, everywhere but on her wrist. I am told to put it on her non-dominant hand so she has to struggle to get it off. I try this myself and my brother has to remove it. This should work like a charm.
Like Houdini, she removes the bracelet quicker than it takes me to put it on her. Determined to make it work, I have a “hard to remove” clasp put on. I watch as she slips it off with the dexterity and nimbleness of a concert pianist. Me: defeated and angry. Why can’t that tangled mess of neurons be more selective in its assault?

I know it’s no longer safe for my mother to be behind the wheel of a car, but how on earth am I going to stop this independent woman from driving? How will I even go about taking away the keys? And what will be the ramifications if  I’m actually successful? She lives alone. How will she get anywhere? My brother and I both work full-time and have our own family obligations. I sit down on a couch, my mind racing.
The next day my husband and I concoct a story that her car needs to be serviced. She’s concerned about how she’ll manage with no means of transportation. I don’t have the courage to tell her the car is never coming back. I assure her I’ll happily take her wherever she needs to go. But I’m not happy.
It hits me what a massive undertaking this is going to be with ongoing trips to the hairdresser, doctor and dentist appointments, the grocery store, the mall and whatever else she needs or wants to do. Besides becoming her chauffeur, there will come a time when her bills will need paying and her house and yard taken care of. Most of all, the need to keep her safe as the disease progresses. I am clueless.
Anxiety takes up permanent residence in the pit of my stomach. How are all her needs are going to be met? I do not want to be accountable on a daily basis for anyone, not even this woman I dearly love who devoted her entire life to my brother and me. Now that both my children are out of the house and settling into their own lives, this is supposed to be my time to go about my life unencumbered by someone else’s needs. Not wanting any part of it leaves me feeling tremendous shame and guilt. 

In the days ahead I try to comprehend what this elderly woman—my mother—is experiencing. What is it like to have a mind go blank, devoid of all thought? Is there panic when her memory returns, if at all? Does she wonder where she disappeared to? Does she feel embarrassed or fearful when she returns to the land of the living?
I cannot fathom it. Knowing how this disease gets progressively worse is more than my mind and heart can handle at times. I worry about her poor eating habits to the point that I lose my own appetite. I fret over the dilemma of her taking her medications. Some days she’ll take them all. Some days she’ll take just a few and other days none at all. Maybe she’s even doubling up on them. Who knows?
I buy pill containers, fill them every Sunday hoping that the days of the week will keep her on track with what to take and when. It doesn’t last a week. I find some slots empty and some still full. I find some pills on the floor, others tucked away behind the pillows with candy bar wrappers.
I drive myself crazy about her hygiene. I know she’s stopped taking baths: the bar of soap on the bathroom sink and the one in the holder by the tub never get smaller. She’s stopped brushing her teeth: her toothbrush is bone-dry, the tube of toothpaste still intact.
I become a regular Colombo when I go to the house, constantly searching and poking around. Looking for those dreaded signs. The worst is finding the badly soiled underwear or the occasional piece of feces on the floor by the toilet seat. It breaks my heart watching that damned intruder getting stronger as it destroys bits and pieces of my mother. I am at my wits’ end and then I finally get it. I cannot fix what has become an impossible situation. I feel as lost and powerless as she must feel.

Months later my mother transitions from her home to assisted living in an Alzheimer’s unit. I find myself transitioning as well—less daughter, more caregiver. I am her eyes, her ears and, more important, her voice—all while fighting every battle, from dirty fingernails to misdiagnosed pain.

Now 95, she’s still going strong physically. Mentally she’s somewhere else. She no longer recognizes me and hardly speaks. Each visit takes an emotional toll on me and tears at my heart. There are many days I would rather not go because it’s a reminder of the vibrant active woman she once was and what both she and I have lost. But I go to honor this woman who brought me into this world, who protected me, comforted me, and stood by me in times of heartache and joy. 

I take the hands that once held me, cover them with mine and close my eyes. I feel their warmth against my own and I can sense the truth of who she is—a spirit whole and strong and beautiful as we wait for her final transition. I squeeze her hands to let her know it’s my turn to protect and comfort. On a good day she squeezes back. 

©2014 Ellie Dias

A professor of human sciences, Ellie Dias has devoted herself to Buddhist philosophy, and yoga. She merges an expertise of the human body with meditation, incorporating both in her classroom. She founded a women’s spirituality group, and continues to work nonstop on taming her Western materialistic nature.  Ellie's first book: Big Red: How a 95 Pound Suitcase Taught Me Simplicity will be published by Buddhapuss Ink in September 2015.


We hope you enjoyed this weeks edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series where we offer up writing tips, tricks, and advice, as well as, short flash fiction and nonfiction from our authors. Follow us so you don't miss a single issue! Next week, Paula Gail Benson returns with Part 2 of her guest post on Writing Conferences. We'll see you then . . .

~ The Black Cat