Assessing our manuscripts

Assessing a manuscript

Yesterday I read another insightful Matt Bird blog post on heroes. He, of course, cites movie heroes, but his ideas transfer well, I think, to the main characters in our novels. Here is a summary of Bird’s post and my random thoughts and additions.

Bird says it’s possible to look at our protagonists as one of two types:
1. A person who thinks he’s a failure, despite being good, who learns his strengths over the course of the book (Sherman Alexi’s Junior in The absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian; Matt chooses Luke Skywalker),
2. A person who thinks he’s great, despite being a jerk, and faces his failings and reforms over the course of the book (Chris Lynch’s Kier in Inexcusable, although he faces his serious failings in the final paragraphs of the novel; Matt chooses Han Solo) Bird says that characters, of course, can be both, especially over the course of a trilogy.
Matt goes on then to quote Simon Kinberg, who he claims was quoting someone else whose name escaped Matt, to talk about low points in a work. Kinberg said that every hero should be endangered first socially, then physically, then spiritually. The physical safety, Matt says, should occur midway through the book, and the spiritual crisis should come at the end. That puts the social endangerment at the beginning, and Matt thinks of it as the inciting incident.
So we begin with a main character that has a notion of what she wants, but not what she needs, according to Matt. I think of Jason in Pete Hautman’s Godless. As he contemplates the water tower, its potential for nourishing and empowering and acting like a god, he gets sucker-punched by Henry, who has fewer inches and pounds than Jason. Hence, the social embarrassment.
But then Jason and his best friend gain decipels in their newly created religion—the puncher Henry and the beautiful Magda, Jason’s crush.
Midway they face the physical danger, and it’s a terrifying scene, one of the squirmiest for readers I’ve experienced.
Surviving that, however, in the third quarter Matt says the hero starts over and makes progress. That really doesn’t happen in Godless. Instead, Hautman moves quickly from the triumph of the trio’s survival to the big spiritual crisis which ends up causing another and huge physical risk. Weathering that risk, which is I realize, a pun, because the crisis takes place during a thunderstorm, Jason is wiser, but not exactly happier. Matt says the hero during the spiritual crisis has to face what he hasn’t wanted to face about himself, and this rings very true in the character of Jason—the flaw or the strength the hero didn’t recognize or couldn’t
The breakthrough, as Bird puts it, gets the hero what he needs, even if it isn’t what he wanted.
I wish I had noted the link to this post, because Bird goes on to show these low points in both Luke and Han. Look for his blog, cockeyedcaravan, then the link to his heroes post.
I plan to use his ideas in assessing my own writing and hope it will be helpful in yours. Admit.

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About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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