Well. I was sitting in class, listening to the professor wrap up our discussion on Lee Smith. I was thinking about how different Fair and Tender Ladies' plot is, and how different the plot of our next book--A Death in the Family--is from the plots of all my stories. Fair and Tender spans the character's whole life, flowing and falling over the moments she chooses to capture in letters to people she loves. There isn't exactly a climax. There aren't any real plot twists or sudden stretches of intense action. But it's wonderful.
A Death in the Family takes place mostly within a couple of days. The characters sit around and wait and talk and think. You get into their minds in stunningly real ways. The way the children think rings so sweet and true and naturally childlike that it's impossible to imagine a grown man writing the story. But nothing much really happens. As in Fair and Tender, the story's beauty and heart lie in the gentle, raw, realness of it all. The people are real not just because they're "complex," but because we Meet Them.
Lots of books have great characters, characters that seem original and believable, and--until now--that's all I'd ever thought a "well-written character" needed to be. But it occurs to me now that there is a difference between Believing a character and Meeting Them, leaving the book and feeling like you've just had a conversation with someone very old who lives in the mountains, or a little child who wants you to help him understand the world.
Until JUST now, I assumed that one feels like she has "met" a character only if the story is written in first person; otherwise the character is just believable and well-written. But A Death in the Family Introduces you to the characters without ever slipping into first-person narration.
But this doesn't explain why I "freaked out" in class. I freaked out because...I don't know how to write characters like that. I might be flattering myself, but I think I can write believable characters, characters that are at least somewhat original. But writing characters that the reader truly Meets is an entirely new animal, an animal I didn't even know existed much less know how to catch.
I think it has something to do with the type of story, which really fueled my panic. I think it has to do with the stories relying not so much on plot, but on characters. Ivy just recounts her life, in a simple yet poetic way, and the reader followers her as she grows up. Fair and Tender Ladies is crudely lovely, a classic. A Death in the Family conveys Real People and Real Feelings more by observing a family for forty-eight hours than by exploding into a dynamic story arc. The story is gripping and fantastically good.
And then you have my stories.
Girl, Boy, Magic Mirror, Other World. Secret Family, Language Barriers, Epic Journey. Big Decision, Twist Ending.
Evil Lord, Six MCs, Dramatic Escape. Rescue for World, Love Triangle, Complex Culture.
Ancient Civilization, Laws with Unintended Consequences, Resistant Love. Big Realization, Thought-Provoking Moral.
I think my stories could be good. I think I could maybe write them well and maybe get them published and maybe people would read them and like them. But I am afraid they won't ever be Great in the way the books I read for school are Great.
In my wildest, wildest, silliest dreams, I could be in the category of J. K. Rowling--and I would be absolutely floored and honored and ecstatic and lucky if I were.
But...there's such a difference between the outstandingly successful Harry Potter series and the writings of Lee Smith, James Agee...Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and all the things I read for my classes.
What do you have to do to be Great? What is it that these authors have?
And how can I get it?
Can I ever get it? Am I "that kind" of writer? Do I want to be? Or do I want to be J. K. Rowling? (What writer WOULDN'T want to be J. K. Rowling...?)
I don't know the answer to any of these questions. And for a girl who has always assumed she would one day be a writer, that causes a freak out.