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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

The moments that establish character

A couple weeks ago, I attended the annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival. My wife insists on going every year. As a teacher of elementary and middle school kids, she finds the freebies useful. And she enters every contest at every booth, throwing in her name, my name, our kids' names, and sometimes fake syncretic names of people who could claim to exist--yes, I really do use that last name sometimes, it's what they call me at work. No, the other work, the one I didn't tell you about on the form. Because you didn't have a blank on your form for aliases used at second jobs I didn't want to tell you about.

It rarely gets that far.

I go to say "hi" to the local authors I know, to kibbitz with members of various groups to which I belong, to sometimes man a table if I have something to push while not paying for my own space (but not this year because my daughter was home on college spring break and, I'm sorry if I offend, more deserving of my kibbitz time). They have the author talks like at a writing-related conference, but often the speakers are those who, albeit famous in their circles, write in genres of little interest to me. When given an opportunity to spend an hour, faceless in a crowd, with the third-best writer of police procedurals set in the greater Miami area, I'll generally pass.

This time I decided to attend one of the author talks, largely due to one line in the blurb found in the online program. It was the author's first novel, it was a New York Times best seller, and he'd be plugging it. But the one-paragraph ad copy told me the guy had made his name as a short story writer and had won some of the biggest prizes in literary fiction before deciding to write a novel. Someone had earned a living as a short story writer? This, I had to see.

Well, it turned out he hadn't, instead being employed teaching freshman composition at a local university. And from the zip code in which he dwelled, I am assuming the wife he credited for being his first reader was also his benefactor--nobody lives in Naples, Florida, for ten years on a lecturer's salary. His talk was entertaining; I may even read his book. However, it was the question period for which I waited. I asked him, given his prominence in short form fiction, if he had any advice for short story writers. To his credit, he took the question seriously. "I haven't written a short story in ten years," he began. He had spent ten years wrestling with this novel. He was about to offer a dismissive, buy-my-book answer, like he had to other questions, but then he reconsidered. "In my novel, there are a couple of scenes I'm especially proud of. In them, the action establishes my characters. These passages stand in for the larger questions I wrestle with. In those moments, the characters reveal themselves. This is all the more important in a short story. Focus your stories around those moments."

A week or so later, I read a story I had downloaded from the New York Times Book Review. What is a literary criticism venue doing publishing an original short story? They had never done this before. Well, it was Michael Chabon's. He has reached a level of fame where if he wants to publish a short story in the New York Times, he can. And it wasn't just any short story. It was a discarded scene from his recent novel. In his preface, he says he wrote that scene first and plotted the entire book around it, but then he found it wasn't necessary. He had established his character, a fictionalized version of his grandfather, a street thug drawn into organized crime, a brilliant self-taught chemist, a recruit into the OSS during WWII, in so many other ways that he didn't need this scene. But establish the character, it definitely did.

The author's character too. Chabon didn't need whatever money the New York Times paid him. He didn't need the platform. He needed to have this portrait of his grandfather on which he worked so hard in the hands of those who would appreciate it. Not every author would place such value on publication of a piece when neither fame nor fortune were at stake. Chabon did, and as a reader, I came away enriched from my deeper acquaintance with both grandfather and grandson.

There's a scene in my novel (a work in progress I truly hope will be in a form with which I can begin my search for a literary agent by the fall) that in its first incarnation, many who read my draft told me to cut because it wasn't necessary. I knew it was. It defined one of my characters, who she was. Not a nihilistic junky in the process of self-destruction, as she first appears, but a decent human willing to go to great lengths to help when help is needed. In a critical moment later in the book, her parallel decision to help a friend is indeed plot-critical. Her decision then can only be understood as a consequence of character development stemming from the earlier scene. So the task became altering the earlier part so it more clearly appeared not only as a character-defining moment but as a character building moment.

This scene is edgy. It is my book at its most cyberpunk. Were it ever a movie, this scene might be dropped so that the book could receive an R-rating; this scene is clearly NC-17.

I've cut other scenes. Many of them. Some were redundant; some were at cross-purposes with the plot-lines that had developed. I kept the text--some of them are good enough to be offered as deleted scene freebies on my website some day. That's how those who aren't Michael Chabon offer to the world curios inessential to the finished work but of significance to the author.

But until an editor tells me they'll buy my book only if I cut that scene, it stays. At this point, before I even have a draft I'm willing to shop around, there is no battle. Sancho says I joust with windmills, and unlike Don, I don't argue. I just keep working, step-by-step. It takes an inflated ego to assume someone will ultimately buy what I write if only I perfect it. It takes a much deflated ego to put in all the work it takes to get there. To write, to be critiqued, to rewrite, to repeat.

To attend talks of writers who have made it, merely to ask one question. To take that advice, to think through every short story currently in my pipeline through glasses tinted by it, stories originally conceived only as fodder for braggadocio in an envisioned future query letter but now creations that have meaning in and of themselves, creations I want others to see, to read, to ponder; and I would be lying if I said I didn't envision others seeing, reading, pondering; and I would be lying if I said I wasn't sometimes impatient with the distractions of a life that limits time devoted to writing.

Were I a character of David Mitchell's, one who doesn't realize he is fictional, or at least doesn't admit it--Do read Cloud Atlas if you haven't, the guy is a master--a third person narrator might be questioning if this was a moment that defined character.

Give me a few years before you judge. I may break some windmills.

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