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Confessions of a Ghostwriter: A Dish Best Served Cool

In a prior ”confession,” I talked about the qualities of a hero in context with a book I was writing for a client I code-named Murphy.

My pointing out that a master of strong and intelligent followers would be more impressive than a master of weak, incompetent ones prompted Murphy to tell me that toning down Our Hero weakened the story and that the target audience of gamers and fantasy fans required ”some real man-action.”  

”Remember when Obi-Wan cut that alien’s arm off in the Mos Isley cantina?” he asked me. ”That’s what made him cool and elevated the value of his Jedi discipline. All of the main characters in the book need to be cool in the eyes of the reader.” 

He reminded me that the movie 300 garnered a blockbuster audience when a hero of the piece snarled: ”This is Sparta!” while giving a rival warrior a boot to the chest. That, he assured me, was cool and if he felt something was cool ”the whole world will feel it.”

This analysis raises several crucial points:

  1. Yes, your main characters should be ”cool” in some way, and in what way they should be ”cool” will depend on how you and your readers define “cool.” Does it mean relatable, impressive, engaging, exciting, dangerous, risk-taking, roguish, even careless? What definition of ”cool” best suits your story?
  2. How you define ”cool” will depend on your audience because ”cool” is in the eye of the reader. At the beginning of our project Murphy told me that while he’d like to excite the twelve-year-old he once was, he wanted even more to engage people with more sophistication—and expendable income—than  twelve-year-old Murphy. That is, adult lovers of fantasy fiction who had actually read the Lord of the Rings trilogy (he had only seen the movies). Moreover, he wanted to draw in people who did not read fantasy fiction, but who enjoyed period historical fiction. What definition of ”cool” best suits your audience . . . realistically?
  3. What works in a visual medium like film may fall flat on its face in the pages of a book. It is a rare scene that translates with as much impact in prose as it does on film. In prose, much of the excitement of a story is generated in dialogue, regardless of whether the story is a quiet etude or a pulse-quickening thriller. One of those rare scenes is from Return of the King when Eowyn faces down the Wraith King of Angmar. That scene with its beautiful compactness and simplicity boils down to two easily and simply describable actions and a single declaration. In response to the Nasgul’s assertion that “No man can kill me,” Eowyn rips off her helmet delivers a single line: ”I am no man,” then slays the king with a single thrust. The scene sizzles even told from the point of view of a Hobbit who has far from the best seat in the house. What sort of action on the written page, makes a reader’s heart pound or skip a beat?

Here are some takeaways from these points: 

  1. You must know your story. This is true whether you’re writing epic fantasy or a police procedural or a romance novel. 
  2. You must know your audience. Know the language they speak, what excites them, enthralls them, engages them. In that context, most of the folks I know who are Star Wars fans understood that it wasn’t violence that elevated Obi-Wan, but his endeavor not to use violence unless there were no other options. This meant that when he did resort to violence, it had more impact. In this context, Murphy had set an almost impossible goal for the book—he wanted it to be all things to all people, which is all but impossible. The things about a book that intrigue and engage me would drive the pre-pubescent Murphy into fits of impatient eye-rolling (”When will they stop talking and start kicking butt?”)
  3. You need to know how to translate excitement from the theater in your head onto the printed page. This means learning how to translate visual action into prose vivid enough that the reader can imagine—at the speed of thought—what the characters are doing. This is especially important in fight scenes, battle scenes, or any scenes in which the setting determines how the characters move through it. 

You may be wondering if Murphy heard a word I said. At first no; he asked that I return the characters to factory settings. But after I rewrote the opening of the novel using the 300 paradigm, he changed his mind, and we returned to the version I had originally crafted with a few ”man-action” flourishes.

Was the book successful? Well, I finished it and Murphy’s creative writing teacher gave it high praise, and for a while there was peace in the valley. 

I have not been in contact with Murphy for some time, and as far as I know, he made no effort to sell the book or publish it himself, which is one of the reasons I no longer ghostwrite. I love the characters I create and breathe life into, even if they don’t bear my name. It’s painful to see them abandoned with no chance to be read, to entertain and even inspire.

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