Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Get to work!

by John

As Jim wrote in his last post, it’s list season in publishing. So here’s one list that I was a bit surprised to see this time of year:  from The Daily Beast, the top five books about losing your job

Nothing like unemployment to get you in the holiday spirit! But I bring it up because I’ve seen a lot of submissions lately featuring main characters who’ve lost their jobs. Of course, they say write what you know, and I imagine there are as many unemployed writers out there as anyone elseprobably more, since writing is a great productive outlet during the long, hard slog of job searching. Trust me, having been there myself, my first instinct was to put pen to paper.

But I do wonder if jobless characters are the best way to cure the unemployment blues, or to reach readers. None of the submissions I’ve seen have worked, generally because the negativity of the main characters makes them very hard to like, even if readers can relate to their being out-of-work. Moreover, depriving characters of a workplace to interact with other characters can often lead to navel gazing and a lack of dialogue, i.e., things that keep readers at arm’s length. And most of the time, unemployment isn’t even central to the plotin just about every submission I’ve seen, the characters could just as easily be working as not.

I think you’ll find gainful employment helps your characters connect better with readers, even those who have lost their jobs in real life. And if unemployment truly is your main thesiswell, it’s telling that none of the books on the Daily Beast list are first novels. Perhaps to write well about joblessness, a writer needs more job experience as a writer first?


  1. In George Orwell's famous essay on Charles Dickens one of his big criticisms was that Dickens' main characters are rarely shown at work, and that work is never central to their lives.

    I can think of a few minor characters, e.g., Fagin and Dodger, as exceptions. :)

  2. Unless it's central to the plot, I don't focus much on the employment status of the MC. I finished The Gargoyle this weekend (amazing book) and the MC didn't work--although he had been a porn star in the past, which was an interesting twist.

    The MC of my new ms is unemployed, but it's YA and there's no one left to hire her. :)


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