Monday, July 30, 2012

The Unlikable Protagonist

For the first time in my writing life, my MC is someone I can't stand from the outset. How is that possible? A mother loves all her creations, right? Nope, not this one. Esperanza Peralta, the protagonist of Sultana: Two Sisters is rude and condescending to most people including the ones who risk their lives. She is also judgmental and ignorant of Moorish society, bigoted about medieval Jews and rarely considers detriment to others before she acts. She thinks and says all the things I never would (or nothing I'll admit to here). There are even a few instances, when juxtaposed with the antagonists, the consequences of Esperanza's behavior and attitude are worse than theirs. Writing an unlikable heroine isn't new ground for me, apparently. At some point, the one character I've wanted readers to root for has invariably turned some off. Avicia in On Falcon's Wings is "simpering" and "a victim". Fatima is a "psychotic bitch", "fixated on her father and revenge" in Sultana & Sultana's Legacy. Taka is "just angry all the time" in chapters of Long Way Home. Isabel from The Burning Candle is "frustrating" and "unsympathetic". All this is tantamount to being told your child is one fugly baby. You can imagine how much I enjoyed hearing that.

Now, where is it written that protagonists have to be completely likable? Of course it isn't, or readers wouldn't find anti-heroes and would-be villains like the vampire Lestat, Severus Snape, Gollum and Dexter Morgan so compelling. We also root for characters who are self-righteous, meddling and simply annoying. For me, that's Emma Woodhouse, but I'd be lying to say I didn't cheer for her HEA. Part of the visceral reaction to characters has to do with how readers relate to and perceive themselves in comparison to the character. When I first started George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire series, I HATED Sansa Stark. She seemed the the antithesis of 'family, duty, honor', the very words her mother's family exemplified. Being devoted to family myself, I hated her for doing or considering anything selfish. The all-time, unlikable protagonist for me is still Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind - what a bitch! Between manipulating the people around her, always seeking to be the center of attention and hardly caring when her husband died, she is just a hot mess from the start.  

What is it about unlikable characters that keeps readers from being completely alienated? As readers, we each draw a line with unlikable characters: there's some fixed point at which all that bad behavior would become irredeemable. Up until then, we're along for the journey. Do we stick around just for the well-deserved comeuppance and enjoy the train wreak to follow? Are we hoping something good will come from life's harsh lessons, a bit of growth and redemption? While we hope for likable characters we can connect with, someone who reflects our personal values, the unlikable protagonist remains compelling. Someone whose intentions and motives rise above his or her actions or perceived attitudes is irresistible. This person reflects the better nature we (sometimes) strive for in ourselves. We all have our flaws and good qualities, but a few characteristics can tip the balance in either direction. That's where I find the appeal of Scarlett O'Hara.  Scarlett puts all those ruthless skills to use for the good of herself and family.  Protagonists don't have to be completely likable, but there must be some redeeming quality. Therein lies the internal conflict - can an unlikable character triumph overcome the true nemesis, the ugly person living inside?

So, why have I crafted an unlikable heroine? It's a foundation for all possibilities in her life, including triumph over circumstances and perceptions. If I'd written Ms. Perfect Mary Sue in Esperanza, I wouldn't give a rat's ass about her fate nor should readers. The plot gives my main character a chance to rise above, or not. While I don't expect readers to like Esperanza at the outset either, without her imperfections and fears, there would be no reason to care. Without her foibles, she wouldn't seem real. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thanks for a great two years

Today marks another important anniversary for me in a two-year journey of self-publishing. With five thousand copies sold (5,007 to be exact) and earnings totaling just over 12K, the last 24 months have exceeded my expectations at times. The bulk of revenue and associated sales comes from Amazon, specifically through Kindle, which accounts for 89% of earnings. While Amazon has played a huge role for which I'm exceedingly grateful, the coming years will find me trying to break into other markets and extend my reach beyond Kindle. If I have any regrets, it's that I haven't learned everything about self-publishing. Can't deny the gift of perspective.

There are so many people who've helped me along the way and deserve special mention. Anita Davison, whose brilliant story-telling and seven years of continued friendship guided me to Anne Whitfield's dedicated critique group. The group's brilliant members, like my dear friend Mirella Patzer, and Rosemary Morris, helped shape my manuscripts into works that readers have found worthwhile. Other critique groups led me to the naturally talented Gemi Sasson and Sheila Lamb, who've both embarked on their own stellar self-publishing journeys. Participation in ABNA contests earned the friendship of Kristen Wood, a great YA author. Social media tools have led to long Skype chats with Jeanne Kalogridis, whose books I've admired for years. I'm especially grateful to book bloggers like Tara Chevrestt and Deb Gaynor for being incredibly supportive.

I would have never reached this point without the generosity of readers, especially those who have written kind emails with their thoughts about the books. To Cristina, Jen, Beverly, Kathleen & Rae, Julia, Cxandra, Veronica, Deb and Tay, your passion and interest makes all my efforts worthwhile. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why diversity is key in an ever-changing ebook landscape

Changes to ebook distribution channels are coming faster than any author or industry insider can predict. For now, this writer is along for the ride, not prepared to scream, "Let me off of this thing!" Not yet anyway. In fact, I'm incredibly pleased when Amazon isn't the only potent source for monthly writing revenue, because things get a little wonky over there sometimes - more later.

Kobo Writing Life (KWL) premiered this week to the glee of many self-published authors, or maybe just my personal joy. I've been waiting for an announcement about this for over a month and pulled all of my titles then distributed through Smashwords (SW) to Kobo as a result. If you're wondering why have one more site to obsessively check sales maintain, here's why. Until now, SW has distributed titles to its partners including Kobo, which has led to some frustrating delays in pricing or updated content. With KWL, those changes can be made within hours. The time between the upload and sale of each title took less than two hours, not the 24-72 hours as indicated on the site. Best advice I can give about the upload process? An ePub formatted file is ideal. Mobi, text and .doc files are acceptable, but be prepared for huge breaks between paragraphs signifying hard returns in the latter type. Read the FAQ here for more details. KWL should be easy to navigate for any author who has used Amazon KDP.

Speaking of which, there's a slight meltdown happening on Amazon, where rankings have dropped, risen and disappeared altogether. What is Auntie Am up to? Experimenting with new algorithms? Pushing self-pubbed content since some of the Big Six haven't renewed annual contracts? Freaking out over KWL? It's useless to speculate, but whatever the reason, there is always some impact for online visibility and sales when Amazon rankings change abruptly.

Also, I received an email about plans for expanding the distribution of ebooks via mobile phones in Europe, through one of the largest providers of media content. Just waiting for the official announcement. For the future, diversity remains key to exposure.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

"A dirty mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Having spent years studying the medieval period, I've learned people of the Middle Ages would have agreed with that sentiment wholeheartedly. Some of the best examples of ribaldry or risqué humor originated in medieval times. Can you guess what's being referred to in these medieval riddles? 
  1. I'm told a certain something grows in its pouch, swells and stands up, lifts its covering. A proud bride grasped that boneless wonder; the daughter of a king covered that swollen thing with clothing.
  2. A strange thing hangs by a man's thigh, hidden by a garment. It has a hole in its head. It is stiff and strong and its firm bearing reaps a reward. When the man hitches his clothing high above his knee, he wants the head of that hanging thing to poke the old hole (of fitting length) it has often filled before.
  3. I am a wondrous creature, a joy to women, useful to neighbors; not any citizens do I injure, except my slayer. Very high is my foundation. I stand in a bed, hair underneath somewhere. Sometimes ventures a fully beautiful churl's daughter, licentious maid, that she grabs onto me, rushes me to the redness, ravages my head, fixes me in confinement. She soon feels my meeting, she who forced me in, the curly-haired woman. Wet is her eye.
  4. The young man came over to the corner where he knew she stood. He stepped up. Eager and agile, lifted his tunic. With hard hands, thrust through her girdle. Something stiff, worked on the standing. One his will. Both swayed and shook. The young man hurried, was sometimes useful, served well, but always tired sooner than she, weary of the work. Under her girdle began to grow. A hero's reward for laying on dough.
"Just copying another boring manuscript here."
Uh-huh. Right.
Have you guessed the answer to any of these examples? I'll bet none of them is what you’re thinking of right now! These examples of ribaldry date from the tenth-century, and come from the Exeter Book. Monks in the service of Bishop Leofric of Exeter copied them. Yes, you read that correctly - monks! Don't be so shocked. The medieval period was an age of overwhelming illiteracy and monks were often among the rare few who could read and write. 

In the Middle Ages, humorists often used sex as a metaphor, implying sexual situations where none existed, particularly in the form of riddles above. We often think medieval people had no sense of humor, in part because of the supremacy of the Church in their lives, but humor has always been a part of historical traditions. The Church couldn't have frowned too much on it, particularly if monks were set to the task of transcribing salacious riddles. 

Speaking of which, here are the answers:
  1. Bread dough
  2. A key
  3. An onion
  4. Churning
So, whatever you were thinking of as alternative answers, get your dirty, little mind out of the gutter!

Time flies when you're having fun, or writing novels.

It's been a tremendous twelve months. A new job and health issues have impacted my writing time, but I'm still at it, trying to wrap...