Reaching for the Characters

by Josh Marshall

In all the years I’ve been writing – learning, honing, experimenting – the biggest challenge I’ve faced is to stick to writing a novel. There have been many failed attempts for sure. From it’s birth, the ‘aha’ moment where I believe I’ve got a brilliant idea, to the outline. And even to the revision of the first few chapters! But then… empty space.

These experiences have stifled me to the point that I’m apprehensive of attempting a novel, and I just stick to flash fiction, short stories and occasionally, poetry. The all-consuming task of the novel, the culmination and the proof of consistent hard work, sweat and sleepless nights lost in thought or flow eludes me. I want it bad. Yet I can’t go beyond a few pages before I tell myself: Who am I kidding? I won’t finish this and even if I do, who the hell will want to read it?

So what’s my problem? At the beginning, themes motivate me, settings intrigue me, plot drives me on, tension excites me, and point of view challenges me. What doesn’t make the cut here is the most important aspect of good writing—characters.

In all those attempts, I was introduced to the terms ‘flat’, ‘two-dimensional’, ‘passive’, ‘unbelievable’, and ‘underdeveloped’ characters; thrown at me by course instructors or readers alike. Ouch. Or is it? Did I really know about the values of characters then? Like any avid reader, there were literary characters I loved, as well as not-so-literary ones, but did I ever realize the nuances of a character in a novel? What it was about them that made them memorable? There simply was no way for me to write a three-dimension, fleshed out, well-developed, active and believable character (now there’s a mouth full).

As I continued writing, my interests shifted more to the literary spectrum of literature and less to pulp, fan fiction, or commercial fiction. The taste and appreciation for characters – what and how they went through their ordeals ­– became the focal point of any good story I enjoyed. From this vantage, I began experimenting with characters, their limitations, choices, exploits, until I dug deeper and discovered the world of the psyche, which was all mine to fashion and make sense of. How exciting. Writing took on a whole new turn.

I have written flash fiction and short stories with what I hope are interesting enough characters. But the characters I sketch at the outset of a novel stop there. They stop because of me. They stop because I’m afraid. They stop because I want to control them. How utterly silly of me. Maybe if I were a parent already, I’d have realized my folly much earlier: as if anyone can control his or her child. And before you roll your eyes: oh no, not another writer who thinks characters are their children, take a moment and think about it. It’s a reasonable analogy.

This incessant need to control – to know – what my characters are thinking, what they should do, how they should react, interact and speak, and all of that, is ridiculous. When I can let go and relinquish control, they will come to life on their own. And like a good parent, I just have to guide them to make good choices. But that alone would make for a dreadful read, so I have to also feel like I’m the bad parent that lets them fall on their ass and doesn’t give a shit, because how can we ever discover what any character is made of without conflict, emotional turmoil or insurmountable obstacles? How else can we see their humanity? And how else can we empathize with them?

Lesson learned—just let go.


Samir Rawas Sarayji


My Most Anticipated Reads for 2018

by Drew Coffman

You don’t realize how difficult it is to frame a list of good books to read until you try to do so. Why this book instead of that other one? What makes these authors special and not the ones standing on the sidewalk in front? It’s been many days of thinking and re-thinking, but here you are. The list includes authors I admire, other ones I’m curious about, new prize winners, best reads suggested by the press, and recommendations from dear people.

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne.

This citation opens Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of stories after her Pulitzer Prize winner Interpreter of Maladies. The book contains a marvellous collection of nine short stories that tell about the lives of Bengali-American characters and how they deal with their mixed cultural environment. Read More

Practical Tips to Keep Writing

Have you ever had a great idea about a novel or a short story collection and all of a sudden you find yourself in the black void of nothingness, unable to move on with your project? Writing is a common dream for people. Yet most people who dream about writing do not commit to it. Some of them hardly even read. Meanwhile, writers who do actually earn a living from their work still struggle to stay motivated and keep writing. Faced with all these oppositions, both external and internal, how can we motivate ourselves to write and to keep at it?

One of the biggest mistakes I often made when writing my first novel was spending too much time on polishing the language before I understood the story’s plot. I was obsessed with the sound and aesthetics of the sentences and tried to perfect them, yet, I had no idea where I was going because I did not work on developing the story. I finally decided to place an ending to the story so I could then focus on the sentence and chapter structures. You cannot know if the words and sentences you are massaging support the story if you have no idea how it ends. Read More

How Reading Plays Helps Creative Writing

When I think of plays I read when I was young, I only remember Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar – both by Shakespeare ­– and both assigned reading at school. It would be another twenty years before I would read plays again for my Literature degree, but also, for pleasure. Plays are meant to be performed, true enough, but they offer something remarkable that no other medium can do as concisely—a lot of dialogue.

The whole propagation of a play, its plot, theme, conflict – everything – is achieved mainly through dialogue (occasionally there can be a monologue or chorus) and some stage directions. How a playwright has the characters utter their lines, serves three modes of communication: the direct message (what we hear), the subtext (what is implied) and the meaning (what we perceive). Think about it! Every sentence of dialogue serves three functions – three layers that build on one another to impact the audience. Read More

Why I Read the Laureates

When I started studying creative writing ten years ago, the first teacher I met asked the class what we were reading at that moment and why? What was it inside those books that interested us? It was a good way of trying to get to know who we were, where we came from literarily speaking, and eventually, where we wanted to go. These questions led me to reckon that since childhood, I was mostly dedicated to reading every book available on my mother’s bookshelf; and later, as an adult, whatever newspapers recommended as good reads. No order, no compass, no signage. It was just the compulsive obsession of reading, like a traveller in the wild.

Since then, and because reading comes first and writing sparkles afterwards, I’ve been advised many times to read as much, and as broadly, as I can – as the best way known to learn the art of writing. Throughout my studies I learned techniques and I wrote a lot, of course, but what I’m most thankful for is the acute guidance to select authors and books I received during those years. So who and what to read among the millions of books and authors out there? That was, and still is, the question. I have now an endless list of preferences that thickens every year, but generally speaking, and beyond personal tastes and opinions, I will say one can find superb quality in any Literature Nobel Prize Laureate. Read More

Down the Rabbit Hole – The Works of Jorge Luis Borges


By Paul Morris

When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.

I was first introduced to Borges’s works shortly after reading Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Luis Sepúlveda and Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I was somewhat familiar to the versatility of the Hispanic and Latino-American prose, so I had grasped that Jorge Luis Borges would not be an easy read.

His worldwide fame is primarily due to his short stories and literary essays. His short story collections The Universal History of Iniquity, Fables, The Aleph, and The Sand Book strike with a sparkling laconism. The major metaphors are mirror and dream. According to him, sleep is the oldest artistic activity of people, and when we dream, we are the Creator, the play, the spectator and the author.

Unlike most writers whose work is based on their own alloy of experience and culture, the main source of inspiration for Jorge Luis Borges were books. Proof of this is his collection, The Universal History of Iniquity, composed of the retold stories of actual villains, bandits, and crimes drawn from documentary stories that Borges had turned into literature with a lot of artistic imagination, talent and magnificent style. He himself says that he “has been spoiled with forging and misinterpreting foreign stories” when creating a single story. Despite the fact that he published his first work of prose in 1935, Borges remained a poet. Though clairvoyant, his tongue is laconic, with carefully chosen, often meaningful and highly expressive words. The stories are tight, subordinate to a rhythm that allows only the necessary, and eliminates everything unnecessary. The narrative is intense and engages the reader with characters, both fascinating and repulsive, with the cinematic visuals of the descriptions and the overflowing between the real and the invented. Read More

Innate Need to Write

I am a writer.

Though I’ve been writing for years, I can finally say it. I can say it aloud and without shame. No more mumbling or down playing it.

And it’s not because I’ve been published. It’s because I’ve discovered that I have an innate need to write. And that – that alone – makes me a writer.

Let me try to explain.

As a child, my family would go on vacation to all kinds of different places. There was just one requirement: my father had to be able to do some sports. There had to be a tennis court or a fitness room or something similar. If these weren’t available, he’d get moody within a few days. In fact, growing up, I never knew a week to go by without my father playing sports at least twice a week. It wasn’t for the social contact (as he does individual sports). It was his passion. A passion I (unfortunately) never inherited, and I never understood until now.

In the first half of this year, I didn’t write at home. I didn’t write at work either, as I only had to do editing. And because of my move at the end of last year, I had to set my hobby aside for a while. When things finally settled, I was drained and tired. In the evenings I couldn’t find the energy to write. After endless evenings of watching TV, I felt bad. I was in a rot.

Then I just started writing! I can’t remember what spurred me, but as I wrote I felt the difference immediately. I realise now that writing is my ‘sport’. It’s my passion. It gives me energy and I get moody and insecure without it.

My father was never a professional player but he is a sportsman. Even nearing seventy he plays whatever sport his body will still allow him to. So, I may not be a published author, but I’m a writer and I’ll be writing as long as my mind will allow me to.

Vanessa Deij

Publishing and Reading in Bulgaria

Did you know that Jane Austen had written for more than 20 years before publishing her first novel, and Stephen King threw out his first manuscript of Carrie because he thought it was not good enough? Both of them were working hard on improving themselves, and although they had to go through a number of difficulties, they were able to do it, and thus, set an example for others. This highlights the importance of books being discussed, popularized, recommended, and sometimes rejected. The latter is especially important for those writers who think that there is nothing easier than writing a book. After all, being a poet or a writer is not just about seeking public attention and recognition, but also about having something vital to say and knowing the best way to do it. Literature requires dedication and vocation, and something very important without which it just does not happen ­­– dedication. If you cannot understand this yourself, people who understand literature should be the ones to tell you. Nowadays, in my country at least, literary criticism has become a meaningless and incomprehensible occupation to some extent. The reasons for this are yet to be clarified, but that is not my goal.

Nineteen ninety-two proved to be a golden year for Bulgarian publishing compared to the vacuum of previous years. After the artificially sustained paper problem dropped out, the number of private publishing houses grew in geometric progression. In Plovdiv, if they were 7 or 8 in 1991, only a year later, they were 20. Private publishers quickly took the initiative into their own hands and began to dictate the conditions of the book market. The reasons for that can be found both in certain favorable socioeconomic circumstances and in the new course of democratic changes in the socio-political development of the country. In the same year, total book production was about 300 titles with approximately 7,000,000 prints. In comparison to three years previously, the highest number of titles was at 160 with about 1,000,000 copies. The number of titles in 1992 had increased nearly twice, and the circulation by seven times. This data shows that in the last years there was a strong hunger for books in the market, but that it was satiated as much as it could. It also reveals that the market had been artificially restrained so far. Read More