Thursday, July 4, 2013

HOUR OF THE RAT-The Flawed Protagonist

Hi, Kat Sheridan hosting today so Sia can have a well-deserved long holiday weekend off for the Fourth of July!

I have a confession to make. I drink bourbon (and coffee), occasionally to excess. I can out-swear a Marine drill sergeant. I get pig-headed about the dumbest things. Sometimes I make bad decisions, do stupid stuff, or trust the wrong person. I try to do my best, and just hope my successes balance my failures. In other words, I’m human.

Which means I’m also a lot like Ellie Cooper, the protagonist in Hour of the Rat, the latest novel by Lisa Brackmann. I first encountered Ellie in Ms. Brackmann’s debut novel, Rock Paper Tiger. In Hour of the Rat, Ellie once again drags me along on an adventure through sprawling, bewildering, beautiful and treacherous China as she tries to help an old war buddy locate his missing brother, while being chased, used, and abused by shadowy government agencies, and stumbles into a truly terrifying real-world plot line having to do with GMOs (genetically modified organisms—if you want to get the willies every time you eat, look them up).

I’m going to say right up front that I loved this book. The synopsis is at the end, so I won’t repeat it here. What I want to talk about today is Ellie Cooper, and the way too many people may view a protagonist like her.

Let me tell you about Ellie. She was a medic in Iraq, a soldier who got caught in a terrible Abu Ghraib-like situation, and got torn between duty and horror. Her husband left her for a younger model. She got blown up and lost a chunk of muscle in her leg. It causes her deep physical pain and always will. She’s tough as old leather, but feminine enough to be embarrassed about the scars on her leg. She has PTSD. Between the pain and the nightmares, she doesn't always sleep well. She can’t function in the morning without coffee, her beverage choice the rest of the day is often beer, and though she tries to endure the constant physical and emotional pain, she sometimes resorts to popping Percocet for relief. She has a wry, dry, self deprecating sense of humor that comes out sometimes at the worst possible moment. She loves her uber-Christian mother, who drives her crazy, and is trying to heal past rifts with her. She’s an expat living in China, she’s trying to be a good friend to folks who may not deserve it, she’s trying to get her act together, and she’s trying to find some meaning in a world that exploded and spun out of control on her.

I haven’t read the reviews on Hour of the Rat yet, but I read them for Rock Paper Tiger (because I like to see what other people think of a book I adored). I was seriously appalled by folks who took issue with Ellie’s drinking and swearing and flawed decisions. As if they expected her, as a soldier, to say “gosh darn” and return home after the war to bake cookies and join the PTA. This weekend Americans celebrate our freedom, and the men who fought and died for it. Now that women are actively being allowed in combat positions (as if they already weren't de facto in those positions), are we ready for our books to have protagonists like Ellie Cooper?

My question is this: If Ellie Cooper had been Elliot Cooper, a male protagonist, would readers feel the same? Would you, as a reader, be more tolerant of a male character who’d been a soldier, been hit by an IED, who suffered the hell of PTSD, who swore, who coped with too much beer and painkillers, ran into dangerous situations, and was ambivalent about his mother?

Is there a subconscious prejudice toward the realistic portrayal of flawed female protagonists?


Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann

Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe has a pretty good life in Beijing, representing the work of controversial dissident Chinese artist Zhang Jianli. Even though Zhang's mysterious disappearance of over a year ago has attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities. Even though her Born-Again mother has come for a visit and shows no signs of leaving.

But things really get complicated when Ellie's search for an Army buddy's missing brother entangles her in a conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, and art-obsessed Chinese billionaire, and lots of cats—a conspiracy that will take her on a wild chase through some of China's most beautiful and most surreal places.

Guest host Kat Sheridan is an aspiring romance author, fond of bourbon and shiny things. Creator of, writing blurbs/back cover copy for indie authors. Bon vivant and diva. Her debut Victorian gothic romance novel, Echoes in Stone, will be published in the fall of 2013.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


There are about 300 members of Insecure Writers' Support Group, the idea of Alex Cavanaugh.  If you want to read any of their entries do check it out here. Co-hosts this month are Nancy Thompson, Mark Koopmans, and Heather Gardiner.

Brass Ring:  n slang An opportunity to achieve wealth or success; a prize or reward

Several friends and I were having a discussion. It's something that has been on my mind a lot lately. The gist of it was how we want to be published. Most want a traditional publisher, for various reasons.  We devote years of effort learning about the craft of writing. We suffer rejection after rejection and still we strive for publication. We keep abreast of the current market and want to write books that not only sell, but those we can see on the shelf of our local Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million. Hell, Wal-Mart would be great. A form of validation? Maybe. But, all that effort expended reaching for the brass ring.

I have quite a few friends who have gotten contracts. Champagne corks popped, confetti thrown, resounding cheers echoed. Then reality sets in. The day-to-day work of a writer and living up to contract. Fighting to meet deadlines, edits, having to rewrite sections, and sometimes the tough job of consistently meeting the standards of a publisher and perhaps a picky acquiring editor. Then there is writing through the dam that holds back the words, on occasion, and juggling real life and writing fiction. It’s not a job for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.

Whether we create music, piece of art, or write a book, it all comes from our soul. It’s not like doing a report, or putting together a seminar, or creating a syllabus for the year, building a house from specs or rebuilding an engine. That takes talent, skill, and knowledge, yes. Creative works require the same but they also entail taking a flash of an idea, inspiration, inner vision, and giving it life. I think most creative endeavors are fraught with all sorts of insecurities. Are we good enough, can we continue to put out quality? If we do well with the first book will we do as well with the second? I have friends that have hit the bestseller’s list; more power to them, yet with each book there is still the worry, is it good enough? They haunt Amazon and Goodreads watching the reviews come in.

In this business, you can be golden with one book and the next out in the cold. Really, that’s true whether you have a traditional publisher (small or large), or are self-published. Readers love what they love and that may not be every book you write. Reviews are tough when they’re not at least 4 stars, or a reviewer shreds or snarks your work and then tweets about it. It hurts. It can be depressing. 

Sometimes, listening to friends talk about the good bad and ugly of the business is enough to make me wonder if that brass ring is worth reaching for.

The truth is, anything we want to make money from is a business. As writers I think we forget that. 

If you’re published with a traditional publisher that is their bottom line—the profit. It determines whether they want to take a chance on you or your story. Story might be good but can it sell enough to offset production and publicity costs? It is a determining factor on whether you’re offered another contract or released from the existing one. If you’re self-published it’s still a business of profit. Cost of an editor, cover work, uploading, ISBN numbers, the time involved in promotion, and sending out copies for reviews. While you might get 70% of the cover price in profit, does it offset the cost of producing it?

Reaching for that brass ring. Is it worth it? Only you, as a writer, can answer that.