Monday, November 29, 2010
What do I mean by process? I'll describe my own. I'm a hardcore researcher and planner, so I start with a handful of ideas for a novel (for instance) and begin researching the idea. Has it been done to death already? Is there enough good information readily available on all the particular aspects of the ideas and the ideas that I will add as information comes in? Sample research topics from my current WIP include disaster response, British counter-terrorism training, mission revival architecture, historical preservation, modern museum curators, and Norse runes, just to name a few.
After the research is done, I plot extensively, right down to the scene level. When I sit down to write, I look at my scene outline, re-read and possible tweak the previous day's writing, and begin the new day's writing. I write with that pesky internal editor turned on (which many people find shocking), so my output is only 800-1,000 words per day. My first draft is very clean, however. I've been told by a novelist who used to mentor me that my first draft looks more like a third draft. That's my trade off for slower writing, and I'm comfortable with that.
When it's time for revision, I need the work in front of me in hard copy. Perhaps it's the perceptual change from seeing the work on a screen to seeing it on paper, but I find I experience the story in a slightly different way with a simple change in format. If I find a major problem, I have to excise the entire section and rewrite rather than revise. If I try to use revision for major problems, I find I have a hard time breaking away from the original version. I clearly recall the look of horror on a first-time novelist's face when she heard me say I was scrapping the current version of my (then) WIP and starting over from scratch.
So that's my process, and you know what? I wouldn't be surprised or horrified to find out that Neil Gaiman's process or Patricia Briggs's process or Jim Butcher's process don't look anything like mine. Their processes probably don't look that much like one another's anyway.
So are you a planner or a pantser? So long as you're coming up with a coherent and purposeful story with a sound structure, does it matter?
Do you "write hot and edit cold", as writing guru (well, I think he's a writing guru) James Scott Bell says, turning out several thousand words per day? Or do you work better producing just 500 rock solid, highly polished words, day in, day out?
Do you follow a muse, an internal voice telling you that your story must be written a certain way? Or are you firmly at the helm, comfortable with using your god-like ability over your story and characters to rearrange them as best befits your purpose? If it serves your primary purpose, what's the difference?
Do you write with the internal editor on? Off? If it works, should it matter?
Excision or revision? Who cares, so long as the story comes out polished to a high sheen.
The one suggestion I would make is this: every now and then, try changing it up. Working on a short story is a good opportunity for experimentation. If you have never tried any other method than the one you are using, how can you be sure you're using the best method for you?
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Blood sticks and
Break the lock if it don't fit
Monday, November 22, 2010
Because of my background, I tend to have a good eye for cultural detail and the accompanying ramifications. I have an educational background in history and psychology that provides me with a look at thousands of years of examples and also a fair idea of how environment and human psychology derive from and alter one another. I also have more than a decade's experience working in public service in a mid-sized city, some years with law enforcement as support personnel and some in regional planning. These helped give me a strong sense of how a city works and how it fails to work. It's no surprise that I feel at ease with world-building and even find it fascinating and enjoyable. I suspect some of my fellow aspiring urban fantasists don't feel quite as comfortable. Hence the attempts to avoid world-building and depict fantasy races as the average joe with pointed ears or fangs or to fall back on the work of other authors (courtly fae, decadent and conniving vampires, rough and tumble bar room werewolves).
So today I thought I'd post a little bit about how I developed my template (yay, templates!) for world-building. It was originally developed for epic fantasy, but I've found it is still extremely useful for urban fantasy. Even though I have chosen to go with the idea that magic is hidden in my WIP's world, the fantastical creatures still have to have their own cultures and histories, changing over time as the modern human-dominated world developed.
On a side note I would point out that I do a lot of research into the fantasy creatures and mythology I use in my WIP. I made the personal decision to stay as close as possible to the original lore. I used several original ideas, but only those for which I could find at least some mythological basis. For instance, I will be including both light and dark elves even though there is some argument over the matter among scholars of Norse mythology. The prevalent interpretation seems to be that 'dark elves' was simply another term for the dwarves. I have chosen to separate dark elves from dwarves because it suits my story and yet still maintains enough mythological integrity to avoid ringing entirely incongruous. I chose to do this partly out of personal preference and partly from the number of complaints I have been hearing from fellow urban fantasy fans who have gotten tired of authors pulling ideas out of nowhere about established mythological creatures. The most common complaints I hear are about the fae. I was surprised at the number of people who would put down a book based on what they considered gross violations of the lore. Even keeping established lore in mind, however, I found ample room to stretch my creative wings and use my world-building template to flesh out what modern elf culture (for instance) would look like.
I won't share my template in its entirely. For one thing, it is so long that it would likely intimidate some people right out of even trying world-building. For another thing, I'm the first to admit it's more detailed than strictly necessary. What I will do is outline the topics covered in my template, with maybe a mention of what direction some of the questions take.
I developed these questions partially from Patricia C. Wrede Worldbuilder questions, found here, and partly from an extensive study of a two-volume book set by P.W. Joyce called A SOCIAL HISTORY OF ANCIENT IRELAND, which I discovered in the library during my college years. My apologies for the fact that it's out-of-print and expensive to obtain and my profuse thanks to my diabolical plotting buddy for making a birthday gift of the set for me a few years ago. In creating my template, I spent many an hour reading through the books in this history set and turning each bit of information into a question.
My topics shape up like this:
Climate and Geography. Sample questions: Have human activities affected climate, landscape, etc. in various regions? How do supernatural beings fit into the ecology? What are their environmental needs?
Resources. What resources are plentiful, lacking in this area? Remember, in an urban setting, people and skills are also a resource. How have resources affected local industries?
Physical and Historical Features.
Population. What are the most numerous/prominent cultural groups (mundane and supernatural)? What types of advantages/conflicts have come up due to immigration?
Government. What form of government is employed in this region? Who are the central figures? Are they corrupt or altruistic?
Social Organization. This is especially important for use with supernatural races. How many social levels are there in this society? What are the names for the different levels? How much social mobility is there? Do they have slavery? Are some civil rights gender-related? What form does the family unit take? It's hard in this case to narrow down sample questions to share. I have 18 pages of questions on this topic.
Religion and Philosophy. Are there actual gods or god-like beings? What are the religious icons for this culture? What are their views on death?
Science and Technology. How technologically advanced is this culture? What are their views on the interaction of magic and technology?
Magic and Magicians. What can magic do? What can't it do? Where does magical power come from? Who can do magic? Is there a gender or species component?
Language. Do supernatural species have their own language? Do various factions (priests, soldiers, artisans) have their own dialect or language of secret codes?
Transportation and Communication. Are there magical means of transportation or communication? Who can employ these? At what cost?
Ethics and Values. What are the most desired/values possessions among the culture in question? Who are the arbiters of ethics? What do people value enough to die for?
Education. Who are the teachers? Are there formal schools? Religious schools? What are the absolutely necessary topic of education and which are considered frivolous or unnecessary?
Crime and the Legal System. What is the origin of the law followed by a particular supernatural species? Are the laws different for different social classes or age groups or genders?
Medicine. Who heals people? Is it magical? What is childbirth like for this species? How difficult is it to find appropriate medical care? How expensive is it?
Urban Factors. Does the layout of the city reflect (secretly or overtly) some religious, architectural, or political philosophy? Where do people go to shop or eat or find entertainment? Is the response different for the different species?
Daily Life. What kind of schedule do supernatural beings keep? What kind of animals do they keep as pets? What items are considered staples and which are considered luxuries?
Architecture. Do various magical races prefer a certain type of architecture, and why? How are furnishings reflective of supernatural anatomy and culture? How does style and form express the role of the individual in family and public life?
Diet. What do supernatural species eat? How many meals per day? What food is considered peasant food or junk food? What food is reserved for holidays? Do they greet visitors with a particular drink or dish? Can they flatter or offend a guest by offering or 'forgetting' to offer a particular dish? What are they allergic to?
Dress. What are the cultural styles of dress? What fabrics/colors are used in clothing? Are certain clothing colors representative of families or social classes? What are their taboos? Do they dye their hair or paint/tattoo symbols on their skin? What are their beauty rituals?
Manners. How do good manners differ from species to species?
Greeting and meeting. Do members of a particular group have secret greetings? What are their formal forms of greeting? How would one greet a close friend or family member?
Gestures. How does body language differ between groups? What gestures are considered insulting? What are the physical gestures of respect?
Visiting. Can a guest arrive uninvited? What are the responsibilities of a host and how seriously are they taken?
Calendar. What holidays do magical races celebrate? Do they live by a different calendar or record the year differently?
Art and Entertainment. What forms of art are practiced chiefly by what group? Are there forms of art created magically? Forms of art that are sources of magic? What do members of the culture in question do for fun?
General History. This would include a history of a magical species in general. Origins. Wars. Large migrations.
History in a Region or City. This would be more of an immigrant history. Who was the first member of the species to settle in a particular city? Why did a species come to a particular place? What has their experience been like as immigrants?
Politics. This topic overlaps slightly with government but also includes questions about things like factions and special interest groups. What alliances are in existence, and how strong are they? Are there ancient rivalries or hatreds, and what are they based on? What type of creature is likely to experience discrimination?
Interspecies Relations. Too rich a topic for sample questions.
War. What weapons are specific to a magical race? What tactics? Do they have a warrior culture, and how does it manifest? How do their soldiers see themselves?
Other suggestions for topics? Does anyone have a favorite urban fantasy author whose world-building you really enjoy?
Friday, November 19, 2010
Angela Ackerman over at the Bookshelf Muse blog posted a fabulous series on the Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing. You will find the beginning of the series here. Remember, it's a series of posts, from December 2009 through February 2010, so be sure to check the blog archive to find all the posts. Trust me, you don't want to miss her take on any of these sins.
Happy weekend, everyone.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Hold the Special Effects: The Problem with Loading Up a Novel with Adverbs, Adjectives, Bookisms, & Creative Punctuation
Let me begin with the disclaimer that I like a good sci-fi action flick as much as anyone. Blow up the White House. Ride a motorcycle through the stained glass window above the alter of a cathedral. Pummel the Eiffel Tower with meteors. It's all good. But also, let's refrain from pretending these kinds of films are actually about anything deeper than the special effects on the screen. In many cases, a plot would just get in the way, most likely overpowered by the screen time devoted to fireballs and flying mutants. After all in movies, especially action movies, the visual is king.
In novels, however, the plot and characterization need to be the primary focus, especially if a writer is trying to produce more than pulp. Scratch that. Some of the best modern pulp I've read has been pretty heavy on characterization. Bottom line, in novels the special effects need to stand down so as not to obscure plot and character.
What special effects? Adverbs, adjectives, said bookisms, and creative punctuation. In other words, anything stylistic that stands out in front of your plot and characterization, waves its arms around, and shouts, "Hi, Mom! Look at me! Don't I look cool!" Yes, I know by now some of you are getting hot under the collar, none too pleased with me for this assertion. Yes, I do think some of these techniques can be used well sometimes. Yes, I know the people who don't know how to use them well are going to use that previous line as a justification to keep overusing them.
So why do I cringe when I see most of these techniques? Yes, even when bestselling authors use them. Let's go first for the adverbs. Forgive me for mixing my themes. Adverbs are like cake icing. Not the good stuff, but the sickly sweet stuff that adds nothing to the cake but a strange aftertaste and a few hundred more empty calories. I think we could all agree (probably, possibly, maybe) that it would be bland and uninteresting to write a line like this: He went up the hill. He went up the hill? Went? WTF? That sentence says next to nothing. How did he go up the hill? Oh, I know. He went quickly up the hill. Really? That's better than writing that he fled up the hill, which at least has some story context? What I'm saying in this example is that the adverb is (usually) a weak distraction hiding meaningless incidental action devoid of context. Small explosion to try to keep the audience from noticing the actors meandering around without purpose. If the action isn't incidential, why not get down to a verb that actually has context built in?
Why do I hate the innocent little adjective? I don't. I love a good adjective, like the perfect amount of spice in a curry. Adjectives, however, traveling in pairs or packs, are an unruly bunch who constantly mug for attention, like the extra on a movie set who can't stop looking at the camera. I quote from an agent in a Guide to Literary Agents blog article on what makes an agent stop reading:
The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.
At Viable Paradise, they taught us the rule of thumb was one adjective per noun. I could make a case for a little leeway for describing things like hair. Long red hair, for instance. I personally wouldn't push it more than this. Again, the reader should be watching the story and the plot, not your extras.
The worst of all special effect, in my opinion, is the said bookism. Yes, I am the same Margo Lerwill who wrote the said bookism article that's been floating around online for the last six or seven years. I get a chuckle out of googling myself now and again and seeing where people are referencing the article (especially when it's editors) and the crap-storm it usually causes. I'd tighten up the article quite a bit if I had it to do over, but the major arguments against using said bookisms remain. They distract from the writing. Do we need another reason? Many of them aren't physically possible (smiling, laughing, grinning dialogue; hissing lines with no 's'; growling lines with no 'gr's, so to speak). They become melodramatic when applied with a heavy hand. Heroes vow all their dialogue. Damsels shriek theirs. And villains sneer every bloody freaking line. "But the nuance of meaning added by the world of available bookisms at our fingertips!" someone protests. "Should be conveyed in your dialogue itself," I reply/ pontificate/ explain/ expound/ vow/ shriek/ sneer. Dialogue tags, when necessary, should simply identify the speaker as inobtrusively as possible and let the eye move on. Hence, we have the preferential treatment of the virtually invisible 'said', the extra who knows enough to deliver his one-word line without looking into the camera lens and then gets the heck out of the shot.
And last, but not least...we have...(and I really do appreciate this one, more than all the others) -- with infinite uses and nueances -- the last in my list of overused special effects: creative punctuation!?! Or perhaps I should say punktuation. Sorry, I couldn't figure out how to also cram a semi-colon in there amidst the choppy, tangential goop masquerading as a coherent thought. I have a few things I'd suggest we keep in mind as writers. First, the average person can't follow a sentence of more than twelve words without going back and re-reading. My apologies for not looking up the source for this. Of course, much depends on vocabulary, topic, and punctuation. The simplier these are, the more words a reader can follow. The more complex and 'creative' these get, grafting tangential side thoughts onto the main idea, splicing multiple ideas together like a prose Frankenstein, the shorter the sentence will need to be (but usually isn't). Most creative punctuation just distracts from the writing while the reader tries to follow multiple thoughts through an obstacle course of commas and semi-colons. Ever seen a movie with too many subplots, cutting back and forth between them until you can't remember who is with whom and who did what? That's the cinematic equivalent of creative punctuation. Too much going on in too small a space. I've never seen an instance of this that could not have been fixed by cutting the Frankensentence into two or three clearer, simpler sentences.
Did anyone notice the one thing all four of these special effects have in common? They are all distractions, handwaving and grandstanding that gets in the way of the writing, the story, the plot, the characterization, the dialogue. They are affectations that stand in for voice, poor man's style.
Do I ever use any of these? I will share my personal rule of thumb, which is of course highly colored with personal preference. YMMV.
- I have three or four adverbs I will use occasionally, for convenience. 'Finally'. Maybe 'flatly'. I'm going to guesstimate that I use two to three adverbs per 10,000 words.
- I seldom allow myself more than one adjective per noun, and adjective pairs are indeed usually included for the purpose of describing length and color of hair. I also try to avoid attaching an adjective to every noun in every sentence. More than a couple of adjectives per sentences, and I start monitoring my blood sugar.
- Now and again I'll use "she whispered", or maybe "he replied" in place of "he said". I would prefer to make the dialogue stronger or 'tag' the dialogue by including pertinent action, action that I would have needed to include even without the dialogue.
- I try to limit myself to two commas per sentence. Again, it's all about clarity. Maybe one semi-colon per short story, or three or four in a novel. Maybe two or three colons, if I think it's absolutely necessary. I try to stay away from ellipses, and have given up my fledgling attachment to em dashes and parentheses in prose.
So, fellow writers, what are your personal rules for streamlining and polishing your prose? Fellow readers, what are the stylistic ticks that drive you crazy?
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Love and romance can be one of the trickier ones. It's easy for critics to dismiss a writer when we include a heavy romance element, which is part of a horrid mixed message when we consider that the biggest selling fiction genre by far is romance. Someone out there likes it.
Still, sometimes as a writer I worry that putting love and romance into a novel will alienate potential male readers. Perhaps that fear is based on an incorrect and unfair stereotype. After all, we're not talking about the same target audience as Hot Rod Magazine, and the very fact that a male reader is browsing the fantasy section suggests he would not be the type of reader who limits himself to materials bound with staples. I was surprised to see a librarian's comment on an urban fantasy blog post saying that the 'Angry Chicks in Leather' urban fantasy was wildly popular at her library, especially with the soldiers at the nearby military base, with male soldiers as well as female.
I know I miss it when writers don't include love and romance in their stories. I am, admittedly, an occasional romance novel reader, but that's not quite what I'm talking about. In a romance novel, the romance is the point of the story and must result in a HEA ending. When reading other genres, I'm looking for the use of romantic love as a complication, a source of torment, and/or an aspect of the personal stakes, but it should take a backseat to the overall internal conflict haunting the protagonist.
Sex is also a pretty touchy matter in fiction, especially if the novel is not intended for a particular imprint with an already established and accepted level of intimacy. That's something that the romance genre already has squared away, but it's not as easy for urban fantasy writers. We face not only the sex-or-no-sex decision but also the decision of how graphic the sex will or won't be. Some readers strongly prefer a fade-to-black treatment of sex. Others want to see the fulfilment of the relationship that has been building, sometimes over the course of a series. In fact, I have never seen as much criticism of fade-to-black sex scenes as I have for relationships developed over several books. It seems quite a few readers don't like sitting there saying to themselves, "I waiting four books for that?" If we decide to cater to the readers who prefer to read the sex scenes, there is then the decision of how graphic to go. This is, of course, not a yes-no decision but a whole spectrum of mini-decisions. What level of detail? What vocabulary? Which acts will be okay and which off-limits?
After making decisions on touchy subjects like those, it might seem like the topic of violence is nothing but cake. After all, urban fantasy, that particular subgenre often characterized by a decidedly noir cast of characters redrawn in a modern world haunted by supernatural creatures, usually comes complete with an impressive array of guns and magical weaponry in the hands of paranormal cops and private detectives. However, again, writers must decide how they will use violence, how graphically it will be depicted, and which acts will be acceptable. I speak as a writer who lost a critiquer based on the horror he felt when reading a fade-to-black mutilation scene wherein a secondary character lost an eye off stage. Violence can be every bit as touchy a subject as romance and sex.
So how should a writer decide whether or not to include romance, sex, or violence, and if yes, how much? I have two suggestions.
First, I think we should write whatever it is we love to read. If I really hate reading graphic sex scenes, I will also probably hate writing them and be embarrassed at the idea of people reading them in my work. If I'm disappointed when a book doesn't include a real love interest, rather than just the shady femme-fatale who flirts with the hero on page 3 and is either dead or in prison by the end of the book, then I should take care to include more romantic aspects for my own satisfaction. If I find lengthy passages of violence to be tedious, I should find a method of depicting violence that is both briefer and more engaging. (See my previous post on the Action Movie Fallacy for more on what makes action/violence/sex compelling - it's not the action, the violence, or the sex.) Consider also that we might have to live with that decision for a very long time. If I write a big hit, and my publisher wants to turn it into a series, I'm going to be living within the boundaries I defined for at least one more book. If I only put in graphic sex because I heard that sex sells and I'm desperate to break into publishing, how am I going to feel about writing about four or five books with the same level of sex in them?
Which leads to my next suggestion. Be consistent. Be consistent with the expectations of the genre, and be consistent from book to book. None of the decisions are wrong (genre guidelines notwithstanding), and the potential audience is large and fairly diverse, so be true to your real preferences. Once the decision has been made, however, we have begun to set up a reader expectation. For instance, if I choose to include graphic sex in my first book (perhaps in a planned series), I will probably lose quite a few of the readers who prefer fade-to-black. They will put the first book down, maybe write a scathing review on Amazon, and never look back. However, if I freak out about this and decide to make book two chaste and serious, I will then violate the expectations of the returning readers. Some might argue that the decision should be made on a book-by-book basis, depending on the demands of the story. In answer to this I point to the reader huff over the Anita Blake series changing from chaste to steamy. I know quite a few people who have stopped reading the series because of the change, people who are fine with reading steamy books in general. I can also attest to my disappointment at finding no romance or sex in The Sundering books by Jacqueline Carey after the heavily sexualized Kushiel series featuring the amazing relationship between Phedre and Joscelin. Let me highlight that: I was disappointed that the writer changed her approach in a different set of books taking place in a different world. Unfair but true.
So am I saying our decisions as writers -- and the reader expectations we set up -- have to follow us in every book we write forever after? No, I'm saying that I believe it must remain constant for books written in the same genre under the same name. If I find later that I want to change genres, changing the romance-sex-violence settings will be the least of my worries (I'll be busy building a new audience). If I want to write something very different in the same genre, I can take a page from other current authors and write under a pen name. For instance, how many of us knew that bestseller Seanan McGuire is also bestseller Mira Grant? Rather than risk alienating her audience, many of whom would have picked up FEED based on nothing but her name on the cover and discovered later that it's not their comfortable fey story, McGuire used the new name. Readers can certainly cross over and read the new book, but they're going to do so with fair warning that the rules are changing.
So your turn. Where are your love/sex/violence comfort levels as readers and writers? And for the writers, do you find your preferences differ depending on which side of the desk you find yourself?
Friday, November 12, 2010
Conflict, Tension & The Action Movie Fallacy - Or Coffee is More Interesting Than an Alien Invasion!!!
*Whew* I feel better now.
Here, I think the common tendency to 'see' our stories playing out in our heads 'like a movie' is perpetuating the idea that if something is exciting on the big screen, then it's also exciting on the page. It's not. The major difference (among many) between movies and novels (short stories, novellas, etc) is the emotional content. The emotional content is the source of conflict and tension. Explosions, car chases, and alien invasions have no inherent emotional conflict. The conflicts of the people involved, be it conflict between people with opposing views and goals or the internal conflict of a character, will keep the reader turning pages to find out what's going to happen next. What is the heroine going to do when she finds out her lover has betrayed her to save his brother? What will the hero choose, his family or the career that has become his whole identity? And what if lives depend on him and what he does for a living?
Take a young couple who have just lost a child and sit them down at a coffee shop for a conversation wherein she is barely restraining herself from telling him it was all his fault, and he is dancing around the subject of being torn between wanting to reconcile with her and wanting to walk away from all the pain, and we're going to have a significantly more compelling scene than an enemy invasion divorced from the emotional context of the people experiencing it. Yes, that's right. Coffee...more interesting than an alien invasion.
To be clear, conflict is about competing goals, views, desires, between people and (even more importantly, in my opinion) within a single character. The tension, that tightening of the spring that makes the reader turn the pages faster and faster, devouring the story, comes from the struggle with the emotions stirred up by these conflicts. Take care, however, not to waste that space by filling it with predictable emotions. Everyone is sad about the death of a loved one. No need to depict in detail what the reader will readily assume without our assistance. What other emotions are at play for our character(s)?
To give credit where credit is due, I must point out that these are ideas I learned from literary agent Donald Maass at the High Tension workshop he used to teach. Yep, past tense. However, Chapter 8 of his writing book THE FIRE IN FICTION, specifically discusses tension, in dialogue, in action, in exposition, and in those tension-killing scenes like driving scenes...and coffee-drinking scenes. I heartily recommend everyone check it out.
P.S. I hope everyone (here in the US anyway) had a lovely Veteran's Day yesterday. Special nods to my dad, whom I miss very much, and his best friend and fellow enlisted man, Homer. USS Helena CA-75, 1952-1956, Korean Conflict.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
What makes you, as a reader, care about a character?
In asking this, I thought back to the two urban fantasy characters I've been spending the most time with recently. The first shall remain nameless, because I don't want to offend the (talented) writer or come off as bashing another writer, which I consider bad form. This character is, for me, quite unlikeable. She's harsh, catty, frequently rude for little to no reason, and incredibly judgmental. Her good qualities are... Well... She's pretty tough, and she's very capable, which make her admirable in certain ways, though still not very likable for me. So considering I don't like this character as a person, why do I keep reading the books she's in, and why do I find myself on her side when she's in a scrape?
I finally figured out the answers to these questions. I keep reading because I like the other recurring characters, many of whom are just as flawed as the heroine (if not more so) but who also have redeeming qualities and more depth. For instance, when one of the flaws of Supernatural Hunk A rears its head, I can trace it back to the many years he spent in torment as a virtual slave and the loss of people he cared about, including a woman whom he loved. Sometimes he appears to struggle with his flaws, while the heroine doesn't seem to realize she has any. When Supernatural Hunk B does something I disagree with, I know it's because he is desperately trying to hold on to his pre-supernatural life in the face of some truly unpleasant aspects of his new life. He also struggles with doubt in the course of action he has chosen. The heroine, however, is rude and unnecessarily aggressive because...she got jilted once? Because she chose a dangerous profession that has bad people trying to kill her? I can't help thinking that everyday real people get over worse than she's experienced in her personal life, and they do it without being unmitigated bigots and a-holes. She also doesn't seem to see her bad attitude and overly aggressive nature as a flaw and belittles others to justify her behavior.
The reason I usually find myself in her corner in a book is because one of the things the writer definitely does well is create antagonists worth hating. Not (usually) mwhahahaha evil-for-the-sake-of-evil villains, but still nasty pieces of work who say and do things that make me mad. So I want to see the rude brutish heroine kick their butts, no matter what I think of her.
In the end, I can't help wondering what the stories and the writer's career would look like if her heroine was as likable and fleshed-out as her secondary characters, while still kicking the butts of thoroughly hateable antagonists.
In contrast, I'll mention the heroine in the book I'm currently reading, ROSEMARY AND RUE by Seanan McGuire. *Spoiler Alert* Her heroine, half-fae Toby Day, starts the story with a good life: a family she dearly loves, a measure of prestige from previous successes, and a dedication to what she does and the people she helps as a sometimes private detective and a sometimes knight of the fae court. In short order, that family is stripped from her, the previous successes rendered meaningless to her, her career gone and knighthood made bitter. I care about Toby because Seanan McGuire has shown me what Toby had, and how good it was, and now shows me how Toby struggles on with the knowledge that people have gone on without her. What was hers is no longer hers. She is tough and bitter without being nasty and rude about it, and with considerably more cause than "I got jilted once". There is a measure of dignity and compassion and resignation to Toby that I find both admirable and lovable, something that transcends just being tough and capable. Toby's story is less about what she does for a living or with her supernatural abilities and more about who she is as a person. The other heroine's story is more about her profession and her supernatural abilities overshadowing her as a person, as though more character development is simply unnecessary.
So what is the point, urban fantasy fellows, fellow writers, fellow readers? That for me, making a character likable is tied into developing and portraying personal stakes. That an invulnerable character or poorly developed character is hard to care about. That an unpleasant character is hard to care about, and redeeming qualities had better be pretty darn redeeming, with pretty damn compelling reasons for the unpleasantness.
Other thoughts? Other favorite characters to share? Are you all busy working on your NaNoWriMo novels? Curse you, NaNo, curse you!!!
Monday, November 8, 2010
Of course, all this makes for many a false start. And a great deal of frustration and, ultimately, desperation. We start to believe things we didn't believe initially. Only hack writers get published. You have to be related to someone in publishing to get in with one of the Big Six. The traditional publishing houses are evil, and self-publishing on Amazon will kill them in the next few years. Agents are evil gatekeepers who only want to work with hacks who can make them millions. The thread of frustration, bitterness, and deeply hurt feelings runs through all these beliefs as writers struggle to deal with the harsh fact that becoming a good writer is hard.
I think we all get to that point at some time in our journey to publication. I know I've been there. Many of us will sit down and scream and rant and cry, then brood for awhile, then pull ourselves to our feet and get back on the path. Thin skin and big egos don't last long in this profession. It's okay to be hurt, fall down, cry, doubt, and fear, so long as you go on.
The danger I see is the creeping spread of desperation that causes us to latch onto one manuscript or one agent or one publishing house as our last chance ever. If Miss Superagent won't have me... If Super Prestigious Publisher won't publish me... If this book isn't the one... And if she won't, they won't, and it isn't, then what?
We start making decisions based not on our goals or needs but on our desperation. We start stalking agents, any and all agents, showing up at their offices and passing manuscripts under the doors of restroom stalls. We send furious, asinine letters to agents who reject us and post blog rants that not only embarrass us later but also give us a bad name as a high maintenance temperamental artist type in the industry. We send unsolicited manuscripts to publishing houses that only accept submissions through agents and follow up with pleading phone calls and baked goods. We start trolling online forums and writing groups trying to sell our unpublished novel like we're campaigning for office. All of which only feeds the desperation infesting the writer soul.
We forget that not all agents or publishers will be the best match for our work. We forget that what appears to be the best choice, the only choice, for agent or publishing house might actually be based on erroneous preconceptions. Maybe that mega agent is the type who has 200 clients and never returns phone calls and hands 99% of their clients' concerns off to assistants when you would actually prefer the personalization and cooperative creative effort that a smaller boutique agency might have offered you. Maybe that dream publisher is great about everything except marketing and publicity for debut authors, when that's your one weak spot. Maybe two years from now you'll look back on this book and be glad this wasn't the one that launched your career. I can tell you first hand that I am absolutely relieved that the novella that got me my first agent -- many years ago -- ultimately fell by the wayside. That debut novel is important. As one highly esteemed editor pointed out to me several years ago, that first published novel establishes the industry's expectations of you. If they peg you as a hack, you'll have to work even harder to climb out of that hole and be taken seriously - in both a creative and a business sense.
The other act of desperation I see is the clamor toward self-publishing and small presses. Now before someone jumps up and down on my head in defense of these, let me clarify. Small or indie presses can be darn good at what they do and produce some very fine work. They are especially good for writers whose work is excellent but whose target market is too small for a bigger publisher or for writers who prefer not to go with the commercial approach of the Big Six, which have a not inconsiderable amount of creative input into the book during production. Others may turn to indie presses because they don't want to spend a year getting an agent and another two years waiting for a finished novel to hit the shelves. Perhaps the writer or a member of the writer's family has health issues that mean time is too precious for all that waiting. They need to hold that book or place it in the hands of a loved one before it's time to say goodbye. Perhaps the self-pub writer is a marketing wizard with all the energy and hours it will take to promote his/her novel and propel it into the spotlight and would prefer total creative control even if it means lots of work and less sales. If any of these (among others) are the reasons a writer wants to go indie or self-pub, there are no legitimate causes to belittle that preference. I ask only this, is it a preference built on reasoned and realistic goals and desires or a last-ditch cry in the wilderness? Is it a choice that has always fit with your creative vision, or it is a bitter 'so there' aimed at the system that you'd run back to in a heartbeat if you thought they'd have you?
So your favorite agent has closed to submissions or left agenting to go back to editing or marketing? Another two brilliant editors probably just got laid off and will soon be using their contacts to join their favorite literary agencies. The blog for The Guide to Literary Agents is a great place to find interviews with new agents looking to build their client lists.
So your favorite Big Six publisher doesn't take unsolicited submissions? Several of their imprints might! Also, it's not unheard of for one of the Big Six to temporarily open an imprint for unagented subs. Plus, publishers like Orbit, who have been big in UK for more than 30 years, are putting out some damn fine books in the US and Australia. Angry Robot Books, anyone? They've certainly helped writers like Mike Shevdon make a pretty big splash.
The opportunities are out there. You don't have to marry your prom date. You don't have to limit yourself to two or three dream agents or that one publishing house or make it with the very first book you wrote or even the current WIP. In fact, you may be happy you didn't.
Keep working. Keep growing. Keep getting better. Keep trying. Keep believing.
Friday, November 5, 2010
When we start out as fledgling writers, what's the first thing that we generally think about when we're developing characters? Hair color, eye color, age, with a handful of other physical traits that have very little to do with how a character acts, reacts, or feels.
After some more practice, with the help of friends or a writing book or two, we might progress to information like job, marital status, favorite music (or food or color, etc), hobbies. Still not very enlightening. Knowing my character is a psychologist, for instance, might give me some hints as to personality (generally helpful and compassionate, with perhaps a hint of addictive behavior herself), but how does she handle being faced with physical danger? How does she respond to romantic situations in her personal life? What if her spouse or significant other cheated on her? How would she react, and can I really tell just from looking at her occupation, favorite color, and hobbies?
So what's the next step in character development? Perhaps at this point we start getting into childhood history. What was her relationship with her parents like? Was she a popular kid? Did she play sports or an instrument? What was her favorite class? Did she hate school? Did she have a teacher who mentored her or perhaps tormented her instead? Did she get in trouble a lot? Did she drop out or go to college? We also might get into romantic history or medical history. The character is fleshing out pretty well at this point, provided we aren't going with the first cliche that springs to mind as we ask ourselves these questions about our characters.
I should pause to reiterate this point. Writers should not always go with the first answer that comes to mind when we're asking ourselves questions about characters or plot. The first answer that pops up for us is probably also the first answer that pops up for the reader, which is what makes a character or a plot cliche and predictable. Instead, keep thinking. How different does your third idea look? Or the fourth? Does that fourth idea still fit with everything else you've already established about the character but also cast the information in a new light?
So by now we've got the character's physical details down, along with a brief sketch of her interests and the highlights of her childhood and early family and romantic history. Is that enough? I would argue that the character is still lacking, especially for speculative fiction, wherein the characters will be encountering extreme, intense, and unusual situations.
So where do we go now with character development? Sideways and deep. :)
I say deep to mean we should go into the typical areas (job, childhood, education, relationships) to a much deeper extent. Our hero is married? Okay, so how happy is the marriage? What are their common interests? On what do they disagree? How did they meet? How do their families feel about the marriage? What is their intimate life like? What value does intimacy have to them? Do they want to have kids? Do they argue about that? Our hero has kids? Great. Are they all his biological children? Are any of them adopted or step-children? How are the kids just like the hero, and how does that affect their relationship? How are the kids unlike the hero, and how does that affect the family? What sacrifices, if any, has the hero made for his children? Get the idea?
Going deeper is also about looking at the character's defining qualities and conflicting qualities, his deepest fears and most secret desires, his goals and his doubts. It's looking at what general stereotypes he fits and how he defies those stereotypes. It's about looking for the character's obsessions and regrets, at the personal shortcomings he knows about and the ones he doesn't realize he has, at the known and unrealized strengths. It's looking at what makes a hero frustrating and stubborn, prejudiced and biased, and what makes an antagonist warm and sympathetic and in some ways right.
I say sideways to mean we should also come at characterization at a slightly odd angle. How do other people feel about your character, and what does that say about the other people and about the character? Is there a difference in how the hero's superiors, peers, and subordinates feel about him? Why? How do members of the opposite sex treat him? Who are his closest friends, and what does that say about him? What would they say about him? By the way, this is a great tool for 'showing, not telling'. Instead of telling the reader the hero is handsome and charming, we can have females falling all over him and backstabbing one another to be with him. We can show the reader that he has a history of being unreliable by having a friend or relative refuse to entrust an important task to him.
And don't forget to give just as much attention to the development of your antagonist and secondary characters! :)
So what other great angles do you guys have on characterization? What do you think are the most important two or three questions to ask yourself about any character? To fellow readers, who are your favorite characters, and what is it about the character that appeals so much?
And happy Friday, everyone.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
The first and most important point of view I want to put across is this: the city writers use or create in their stories should not be generic or interchangeable with any number of other cities. We certainly can get away with the generic city that readers will recognize only because we tell them the name, but that doesn't mean we should. I can think of writers who do use a generic treatment for setting. In some cases I like their work. I can think of a few writers who go to the extra effort of making their city or setting stand alone, who make it a character in its own right. I love their work.
But how do they do it? How do writers craft a city or setting that is alive and distinct and obviously the only place that story could have taken place? I have some suggestions on questions writers can keep in mind as we craft our stories.
Why have you chosen the specific setting you would like to use? Why is this place the only place you could have set the story?
What is the personality of the setting? It is a bustling mega-city where the grime of desperate poverty and crime rub up against unimaginable wealth and privilege? Where the skyscrapers block out the sun? Or where palm trees line wide boulevards of designer boutiques and every other office building is filled with plastic surgeons? Where tiny back alley shops hold the wares of fourth generation voodoo priestesses and the biggest tourist attractions are the ornate cemeteries? Where national monuments tower high above the skyline and a fleet of limousines chauffeur the influential elite between the many-columned houses of power? Many of you can probably put names to the four American cities I've just described. Could readers name the city you're using without being told? Alternatively, have you created a fictional city as distinct and vivid?
Do your characters pass through your setting or truly inhabit it? Do they have favorite places for lunch or relaxation or places they have sworn they will never go again? But more than that, do your characters have feelings and opinions about the setting, its neighborhoods, its landmarks? Does your heroine hate her provincial hometown? Does your antagonist love the anonymity of a busy, crowded city where strangers don't look each other in the face or respond to distant cries for help? How does your sidekick character, a bitter lapsed Catholic, feel traversing a city filled with grand churches? What about when your hero, who lost a child, has to deal with getting around town without passing one of the dozens upon dozens of schools peppered through a city that likes to advertise itself as a great place to raise a family?
Every city has experienced iconic events or periods that have shaped it. Perhaps it was a natural disaster, a technological breakthrough, the birth of an industry, an invasion or wartime occupation, a period of immigration, a terrorist attack, an industrial accident. The same is often true for small towns and villages. What iconic events have shaped your city?
What does your hero love about your setting, and what does he hate about it? What about it makes him feel doubt or pride or fear or comfort?
What would your characters notice about your city and its important places that a visitor would not?
How does your city mirror your hero's internal landscape? How do the descriptive details you provide about your setting convey how the hero is feeling, how he is changing, how his situation is changing, how the main problem of the story is developing?
In any given place in your city, what can be seen, smelled, heard, felt, and tasted? But also, what can be appreciated, despised, feared, anticipated, hidden, misinterpreted?
Is the city alive and in motion? Where is it deteriorating, and where is it expanding? What political and social movements are afoot? Are there signs of turmoil? Big or small? What about your city is passing away, and what new phase is coming to be? How is your city changing?
For fantasy and science fiction writers in particular, what about your city is unfamiliar?
How do all the aspects of your city relate to your specific story and its characters? Don't make your choices randomly. Make them pertinent to your story.
For urban fantasy authors in particular, have you considered and perhaps incorporated the realities of urban life? Gangs, poverty, political corruption, pollution, social isolation, blight, development and redevelopment, sprawl, social inequity, congestion, crime, cost of living, crowding?
So, writers and readers, what are your thoughts? Please do share your own approach to setting. How did you decide where to set your story? As readers, where is your favorite story set? What is your favorite type of setting?
*Note: I should point out that there is debate and disagreement on the use of the term urban fantasy. Some would note, quite correctly, that works of modern-world fantasy have been called urban fantasy for some time, even when they transpired in rural settings. Others would note that urban fantasy can also be applied to fantasy works set in a city in a previous historical era (like Victorian London). The lines between terms like contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy can be quite blurry. My use of the term urban fantasy for this post is not intended to promote one interpretation over another. It is simply a convenience.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Put plainly, we can't have a reactive protagonist who spends the entire story being whipped forward by the events around him. He should be an active (if sometimes unwitting) cause of the events.
I should clarify this in light of what I've written in the division of story outline I posted here. In the first part of Act II, the protagonist is not on the attack. However, that should not be an excuse to let the protagonist be little more than a leaf in the wind. The events of the story should still be set in motion by the protagonist, creating complications that the protagonist must face, moving toward a final conflict that the protagonist must rise to answer.
How can we make sure we have a proactive protagonist? I try to ask myself these questions about the overall story and about each chapter.
Have I taken care to incorporate the classic pattern of action-reaction-complication? The protagonist should act upon a goal, succeed or fail to varying degrees, contemplate and carry out a reaction (response might be a better term) to the new or changed situation resulting from that success or failure, resulting in new complications stemming from the protagonist's actions. See the pattern here? The protagonist acts. The protagonist answers. The protagonist causes.
How is the story set in motion by a choice the protagonist makes and/or an action the protagonist takes?
In each chapter, what are the unintended consequences of the protagonist's choices and actions?
What significant choice must the protagonist make to set the climax of the story in motion or at the moment of the story climax? An element of sacrifice will frequently come into play in this choice.
Have I set up enough emotional triggers for the protagonist to get the highest possible emotional payoff from unintended consequences and significant choices? Which is to say, will the unintended consequences play upon the protagonist's worst fears and greatest desires? Will the choices the protagonist has to make seriously endanger his physical, emotional, and professional well being?
Have some of my protagonist's choices resulted in multiple consequences?
Have these complications and consequences sowed doubt in the protagonist's belief in himself or in his goal?
*Note: There are, of course, many names for the lead character in a story. Protagonist, main character, hero, etc. These are not interchangeable. However, for the purpose of this post, I have used 'protagonist' generically to stand in place off all types of lead character.
Monday, November 1, 2010
DON'T insert large chunks of backstory into the story or novel. By large, I mean a paragraph. By a paragraph, I mean five or six sentences. Yes, just that much, particularly if it appears early in the story, will have our reader skimming the information looking for something that's happening now. If the reader is an agent, that skimming means rejection.
DON'T insert backstory in the first 50 pages. Yep, you heard...er...read me. 50 pages. Yes, a writer absolutely needs to establish the stakes in the story in Act I. The stakes are in the characters' current situation, not their traumatic childhood or tragic past romance. Backstory is supposed to appear later to deepen the reader's understanding of the stakes and the character.
DON'T try to hide backstory in dialogue. When we are tempted to insert backstory into dialogue, we should ask ourselves if the characters having the conversation already know the information and if they would realistically be talking about it if we didn't need someplace to insert our backstory. If the dialogue could start with the words, "As you know, Bob," then we're dumping on the reader. They will notice.
DON'T try to hide backstory in a prologue. It's obvious when a writer is doing that, and many agents note that the sly backstory prologue is one of the most common reasons for rejection.
So how should we handle backstory?
DO include only what the readers needs to know only when the reader needs it. Backstory should only be included when it is directly related to what the character is currently feeling at the very moment we are providing the backstory. Let me say that again, backstory should only be included when it relates to what is happening NOW in the story.
DO tease backstory in one or two sentences -- not pages, not paragraphs -- one or two sentences at a time. This method has the added advantage of providing more opportunity to make our reader ask questions with teasing hints and slow reveals.
DO use backstory to create new tension in the story rather than to just rehash old news and reopen old wounds.
DO keep a list of backstory details you want to include in the story. The list should include the piece of information, a note about how that backstory adds tension in the current moment, and a note about how the backstory relates to what the character is feeling in the current moment.
Your turn, writer and reader friends. Do you fellow writers have any other good tips on backstory you have stumbled upon in your practice? Do you fellow readers out there have any examples you'd like to share of particularly artful or clumsy ways you've seen writers handle backstory? Please share.