Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Child Characters in Adult Books



(Thanks to Dave for an entertaining blog post -- a round robin story about goblins and hooligan juice. We'll have to see if we can put it up somewhere).

Thanks to John Singer Sargent for his painting of children.


Something that came up during the week's blogging was the subject of children and how they are (or in some cases are not) portrayed in books for adults. Are the child characters treated realistically? What purpose do they serve in the narrative? etc.

I write for children as well as adults so I'm comfortable writing child characters but do adult readers want child characters in their books when there are holiday destinations that ban children? Fantasy books often have a young (15-17 year old) protagonist. I tried googling this topic and didn't find much on it. (Perhaps it is just me!)

Here is a list of classic books with child characters. It raises some good points:

Read or reread a classic (or at least well-known) adult novel from among the titles listed. Think critically about the work from the singular point of view of how the nature of the child and the condition of childhood are represented via the child character or characters. Consider questions such as:

Is childhood characterized as a halcyonic or nightmarish period?

Are there striking or subtle autobiographical references to the author's life?

Is the child exceptional, proto-heroic or more in the normal range?

Is the portrayal of the child character(s) predominantly external or internal?

Is the view of childhood represented by the novel appropriate to the date of composition and/or to the fictional time setting?

Does this work evoke comparison to or contrast with any children's book(s) of the same time period in its perception of the child and of childhood?

Is the portrayal realistic for a child of the class, society, situation, and time?

Then I found a list of books for adults with child narrators like:

To Kill a Mockingbrid (Harper Lee)
The Tin Drum (Gunther Grass)
A Painted House (John Grisham)

A High Wind in Jamaica (Richard Hughes)


But why use a child narrator? What can you reveal (or hide) by using a child narrator? A child is essentially a 'stranger in a strange land' because they are constantly trying to make sense of the adult world.


And then Gary William Murning has a section on his site about writing child characters in adult books here.

He comes up with some good suggestions.

So how do I approach writing child characters for adult consumption? This is a difficult one to answer. My way of writing is fairly instinctual. I’ve been doing it so long that I no longer think about it (that’s a joke, incidentally… more or less.) Nonetheless, a few points occurred to me earlier today that I thought I’d share with you. Feel free to add your own.

  1. A child is as multi-faceted as any other character. The expression of these “facets” will differ in many cases to those of an adult, but they will nevertheless possess common roots in the reality we all share. Their interpretation of the world around them may at times be unique, but it’s the same world your adult characters inhabit.
  2. Writing completely from a child’s point of view can rob the work of necessary perspective. Try to allow for adult exposition etc. (for example, I tend to have my narrator looking back from a future place, slipping the odd insight in here and there — though there are other methods.)
  3. Don’t overplay the “childishness”. Be selective and remember that fiction is merely real-life with form and well-defined boundaries.
  4. Toys, favourite TV programmes, pop groups — all these can give a good sense of time, place and character. But don’t do it on every page! (See David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green if you want to read a great book on childhood that almost falls into the Space Invader Syndrome trap.)
  5. And finally… child characters are not adult characters, but they deserve to be treated/represented with the same degree of honesty. Childhood can be a terrifying, confusing place — even for a child with a stable background. Don’t fudge it. Be prepared to revisit those childhood nightmares and ask yourself, Did they ever really go away?

I like Murning's point about honesty. In George RR Martin's Fire and Ice series several of his main characters are children and Martin doesn't treat these children any differently from the adults. Nasty things happen to them, their parents are killed and at the end of the last published book we still don't know if they will survive. Like so many children in the real world, the fact that they are youngsters does not save them from life's cruel realities.

Personally, I try to avoid exposition (Murning suggests using adult exposition to overcome the fact that children won't understand everuything they see). I like to leave it up to the reader to make deductions about what the child sees and fill in the gaps. I think readers should be made to so some work.

What books can you think of that use child characters? How do they treat these characters? What purpose do they serve in the narrative?






Monday, June 29, 2009

Dragon and hooligan juice.

It's Monday and I'm feeling a little 'omgekrap' (something that really should only happen to compost heaps.)


So I thought we'd do something different. Sentence or paragraph serial football...

I put up a paragraph. Next person (any of you) puts up a follow on - which must make some sense please. A sentence or a short paragraph - which I have to extend. Then the next. The one catch is if you've been a rotten bastij and painted me into a corner... I can challenge and the writer has to follow on with a logical extension. Let's see if we can steer it to a short of 500-1500 words.


__________


So your mama taught you to say please and thank-you. Not wipe your nose on your sleeve and not to talk with your mouth full. All of life's important little lessons. Mine should have added "and do not take up a challenge to feed hooligan juice to a Dragon."


Next?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vampires and Werewolves and Ghosts, Oh My!

Like many Americans over a certain age, my fascination with vampires and werewolves began with the Dan Curtis soap opera Dark Shadows. I'm talking the original series that ran every afternoon from 1966 - 1971. Looking back on it now, it probably set into motion my quest for good novels that place these mythical creatures in every day situations where their special abilities became both a boon and a bane.

And that brings me to the eternal question: What is the difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance?

On the surface, the answer seems simple enough, especially with regard to paranormal romances. To fall into that category, your heroine falls into lust, and then love, with either a vampire, a shapeshifter of some sort, maybe even a ghost. There's sex, romance, more sex. A book for women, in other words (don't throw anything yet. I'm not through.) Urban fantasy, on the other hand, has a smart ass narrator who is usually involved in solving some sort of crime with a supernatural bent to it. He, or she, is either assisted by a supernatural creature or the bad guy is the evil vamp, shifter, etc.

Like I said, simple. Right?

Wrong, with a capital WRONG!

So, how do you know if you're writing, or reading, a paranormal romance or an urban fantasy? Agent Nathan Bransford has written a blog post about genre distinctions. He recommends going to your local bookstore and checking out where books similar to what you are writing are shelved to help determine how to classify the book when marketing it. That is sound advice for most genres and even most sub-genres. But it doesn't really work in the case of urban fantasy and paranormal romance.

Take Laurell K. Hamilton's books for example. Her Anita Blake series is nominally Urban Fantasy. I say nominally because it started out firmly in the UF corner before Anita's sex drive took center stage for a number of books. I've seen that series shelved in Horror as well as in SF/F. The latter makes sense, especially because UF is a sub-genre of SF/F. But horror? Then there's the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris. I've seen them in SF/F and Mystery. See my dilemma?

Laura Miller has an excellent article about this at Salon.Com. One observation she makes in the article is one I've heard discussed, and have discussed myself, over and over again: that the fan reaction to the increase in Anita's sexual escapades in direct correlation to the decrease in her kick ass, mystery solving activities "exemplifies a perennial argument in urban fantasy: the ratio of crime to sex, or more broadly, of mystery to relationships."

So, where do we draw the line? Or do we draw the line?

Miller goes on to write that the best urban fantasies don't "just set a detective story in an alternate world where vampires, werewolves, demons and fairies are real. Like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," it also uses the supernatural material to reimagine the challenges of young adulthood...Class as much as sex is an urban fantasy preoccupation...Where working-class characters in literary fiction are often depicted as tragic and helpless, the urban fantasy heroine gets to surprise everyone by using her talents to save the world...."

While this definition fits a number of books that are classified as UF, it also fits those classed as paranormal romance. And it causes confusion when a reader picks up a book termed UF, expecting these factors and finds something else.

For example, Nocturnal Origins, a book I shopped around as UF (and which I'm waiting to see if it is picked up by a certain editor), brought about a comment from one reader who wanted to know if my main character, a female cop who is, to her horror, a shapeshifter, liked guys. The reason for the question -- there was no sex in the book. Sure, she enjoyed looking at a good looking guy here and there. But, because it is UF, this reader thought it had to have sex in it. Forget that it followed the kick ass, smart assed female lead. Forget the crime/mystery that had to be solved, all the while Mac was having to accept and adjust to the fact that she sometimes shifted into a jaguar.

Another example of how wide open the genre is, is Kate's ConVent. It is filled with mystery, humor -- lots of humor -- and a cast of supernatural creatures ranging from angels to vampires to succubi to werewolves to demons. Oh, and let's not forget the human fen. But no sex. At least none on-screen, so to speak. Oh yeah, one more little thing. Her narrator is male.

I think John Levitt said it best in a Genreville post last November:

...defining UF is an exercise in futility. Everyone has their own particular take. Mine is simple – it’s like the old quote about pornography from Justice Potter Stewart, where he admitted he’d be hard pressed to define pornography, but nonetheless, “I know it when I see it.” Jim Butcher is classic UF. Neal Gaiman, who also sets his fantasies in contemporary society, is not. Rob Thurman is. Sean Stewart is not.

Now there’s another line of UF that owes much to Romance. Rachel Caine, Charlaine Harris, and early Laurel Hamilton come out of that tradition – smart mouthed, kick ass heroines who owe a lot to Buffy, and are not to be trifled with. But the romance tradition is clear – no matter how complex the world building is, no matter how convoluted and surprising the plot, an essential element always remains about whether or not it’s a good idea to do the vampire, werewolf, or both.


So, is there a clear line demarking the difference between UF and PR? No. Just like Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, I'll now it when I see it. The only thing is, what I see and what you see may be two very different things.

Now that I've thoroughly muddied the waters, what is your favorite UF novel? How about PR novel? Do you see any difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Finally, and from a writer's standpoint, WHERE SHOULD THEY BE SHELVED AT THE BOOKSTORE?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Literary Review - Bad Sex Award


Posted by John Lambshead

Erotic Review has been relaunched and the new owner, Kate Copstick, has started something of a controversy in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme with Kathy Lette. Kate is reluctant to put too many female authors in the Review because women write bad sex scenes because they “have an agenda, they complicate sex, they make layers, it’s conditional. And they lie as well.”

For years, the politically correct Guardian newspaper had a motoring correspondent who could not drive. So are sex scenes written by women concocted by people without a license?

Kathy Lette admits that most married women's idea of an erotic fantasy is their husband picking up his underwear off the bedroom floor and that she always want to write 'if possible not' when filling those forms with a box marked 'sex' but is the comment fair?

The Literary Review prsents a bad sex award every year in London but the only person to win a Liftetime Achievement Award was John Updike last year. Admittedly, Rachael Johnston won the 2008 Award with Shire Hell but a quick look through previous winners suggests that the literary male is a far bigger offender. Working backwards: Norman Mailer (2207), Iain Hollingshead (2006), Giles Coren (2005), Tom Wolfe (2004), Aniruddha Bahal (2003).... Indeed, Wendy Perriam is the only other female winner since the award started in 1993.

For my money, it is the layers of complexity and conditions that women attach to sex that make the whole thing interesting. Left to men, it is about as erotic as a game of bar billiards - all wam, bam, thank you mam.

I hate dumb metaphors in sex scenes, but I also hate mechanistic descriptions. I know, there is just no pleasing me.


Hollingshead deserved his award for this paragraph alone:

'She's wearing a short, floaty skirt that's more suited to July than February. She leans forward to peck me on the cheek, which feels weird, as she's never kissed me on the cheek before. We'd kissed properly the first time we met. And that was over three years ago.
But the peck on the cheek turns into a quick peck on the lips. She hugs me tight. I can feel her breasts against her chest. I cup my hands round her face and start to kiss her properly, She slides one of her slender legs in between mine. Oh Jack, she was moaning now, her curves pushed up against me, her crotch taut against my bulging trousers, her hands gripping fistfuls of my hair. She reaches for my belt. I groan too, in expectation. And then I'm inside her, and everything is pure white as we're lost in a commotion of grunts and squeaks, flashing unconnected images and explosions of a million little particles.'

It starts OK with floaty skirts and slim legs but women who start moaning as soon as you touch them????? I must be doing something wrong. And as for 'bulging trousers' and 'grunts and squeeks'........................

OK, so, what would you nominate as the worst sex scene in a story ever - and why?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Hack and Slash


No, its not a post about heroic fantasy. I'm in the middle of doing a yet another edit on my Science Fantasy manuscript, Warriors of the Blessed Realms. As is typical for me, the thing had bloated up 10,000 words from the earlier edits -- up to a shocking 160,000 words. That word total is like some sort of a magnet for me unfortunately.

So, my challenge has been to get this down to 120,000 words or less. Can I jump now?

I've managed to get the total down to 131,00o words so far, which seems to me something of a miracle. I have not been able to do this without removing a few incidental characters and some other scenes which I guess weren't that important to the story. It still hurt losing them!

Having said that, it is surprising how much I managed to remove by just trimming and condensing the text - at least a good 10,000 words - which is sort of embarrassing. Do I really write that sloppily? I guess its part of the process. Maybe the writing gods have seen fit to increase my skills since I did the last draft.

The thing that concerns me now is how I have started to really get into this. Chop. Chop. Slash. Slash. Everything must go. In my mania (and I do tend to extremes) a little voice in the back of my head is asking 'am I losing some essential essence from the story?'

What do people think? Can you chop too far? Make the story too spare? Too mechanical? Or is all-out war on the adjective and metaphor a Holy Cause? Clarity is King?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Oh, baby give me that message!

Sarah's post yesterday got me thinking about messages in prose. Yes, I know this is a scary place for me to be going, because if anyone's golden gun or glittery hooha starts sending messages you'll all blame me.

That said... Probably the one truly outstanding feature of the human mind that no machine or computer has been able to match is our ability to find patterns in seemingly random information - and in real random data where no pattern exists. Elvis in a slice of unevenly cooked toast? Yep, that's the human pattern matching at work.

Of course it overflows into our writing and our reading. The novel awaiting a publisher's decision right now started life as a total romp with no message whatsoever. I can guarantee there will be people who find meaning in it - I found that meaning had crept in there without me being aware of it.

I should probably mention at this point that I write on autopilot. I put on the headphones, the right music (each book demands something different - although thankfully unlike some of my writing friends I haven't been infested with a book insisting on ABBA), and relax. The subconscious does the work for me, and I read over the results the next day and agree with my friends that yes, I am a scary person. There are things buried down there that find their way into the most lighthearted piece of piss-taking and give it extra layers of chocolatey goodness... Um. Sorry. That was Tim-Tam envy.

In short, where conspiracy theorists see the hand of the hidden manipulator in everything, literature analysts (I'm sure there's a reason that word starts with 'anal') see themes and messages in everything, regardless of whether the author put them there.

We're all primed to see messages in stories, whether it's that the prince on his white horse will find you and carry you off for a happily ever after hinted at only by the clouds of rosy pink - but only if you're a good girl and never complain about anything - or that white people have oppressed and murdered their way through history, even in places where no-one has ever seen anyone with skin lighter than dark tan (yes, there are a few of them even now). Depending on our upbringing, we might be primed to see messages from the Devil in anything remotely unfamiliar, or possibly messages from any other supernatural being up to and including the Big Guy Himself (Yes, I do mean Elvis).

Where a lot of authors drop the ball (no, not the golden gun, and not that kind of ball either) is in thinking that their story is about whatever the message ends up being. That's when they stop the action to beat their readers about the head with some great Message or other. This is a summary defenestration offense in my opinion. If that book can't learn to fly between the window and the ground, too bad. And no, bouncing doesn't count.

Some of the authors I read who have strong messages in their books and don't preach are (of course) Pratchett (drat. Another goat. The landlord is going to be so pissed about the state of this carpet), our very own Dave Freer (don't worry, Dave, I'm not sacrificing coconuts. Yet.) and another of our Mad Geniuses, Sarah Hoyt (And no, nor am I sacrificing Officers Hotstuff. Not unless the sacrifice involves their golden gun and a willing... ahem).

Who else do you like that doesn't preach? Who do you like enough to put up with the preaching, and why?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Doing The Stealth Chicken



When Samuel Goldwyn was head of MGM studios, he’s supposed to have said “If you want to send a message, use western union.” But things changed rather a lot since his time, and it is almost obligatory to have a “message” to your books or movies these days or risk being considered lightweight or, who knows, perhaps worse, guilty of thought crimes or double-plus-ungood thinking.

So, having just read that, you’re thinking of the one house in the field which supposedly has a political bend. Don’t. All the houses in the field have a political bend, admitted or not. People of similar thought band together and reinforce each other. Complaining about it is about as much use as complaining that the sun rises in the east. Also the one house with a supposed political bend – perhaps to compensate for its reputation – tends to be a rather broader church than it’s painted.

But what I’m talking about here isn’t politics. Or any politics that anyone considers controversial. I learned how strange things had gotten when someone thought “the point” of my third book in the Shakespeare series Any Man So Daring was to strike a blow against racism.

Now I’m not saying I don’t approve of striking a blow against racism. Sure. Of course I do. ALMOST EVERYONE DOES. That’s rather the point. Writing an entire book with that message would be unforgivable because it would be boring, expected and safe.

Other messages I’ve heard myself and sometimes other writers being praised for delivering and “speaking truth to power” included: the equality of women – unless being published in Iran, yawn –; anti exploitation – to counter al those pro-exploitation clubs, one imagines–; anti child abuse – a difficult thing to do when the child-abusers run most newspapers and praise child abuse... oh, wait – ; anti organized religion – again, unless it’s in the middle east, yawn.

Of course there’s a reason for this. If you write something that goes against what most of the public knows as “true” unless it’s pushed to almost insanity, people will recoil from it. (Trust me, I have a novel about how world population is truly already falling and where it will lead. I won’t even write it. There’s no point. Even though I can back my opinions.)

So what happens if you want to “just” write a thumping good tale? Worse, what happens if you’re possessed of the type of personality that can’t see a freshly painted wall without making a scratch to see what’s underneath and therefore feels like putting forth unpopular theories to make people squirm? Not even YOUR ideas necessarily, but ideas you want to explore? You can’t go in through the front door at publisher or reader, so what do you do?

Well, chances are your thumping good tale will have a message or two in it, anyway. It is almost impossible to reach the level of maturity necessary to write a novel without having acquired a few opinions about how the world works. And chances are if you want to send a message and puncture the popular theories you’ll meet with rejection after rejection...

Unless you stealth it. How do you stealth it, you ask? Well, you make the message part of your world building or background; part of the assumptions built into the book. Chances are you will anyway. And chances are you’ll have a better chance of changing someone’s mind that way if you hide it.

Among the books that changed my view of the world forever if The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and before you say “well, but... it has an explicit message.” Yes, sure it does. “Servitude is bad.” Exciting, uh? It’s all the little messages around it, that are exciting and it’s the story that kept me turning pages long enough for them to hit me. Ditto for Nightwatch by Terry Pratchett. Actually Terry Pratchett is a master at this hiding any opinions behind a heavy veil of story, which of course makes it easier to read.

Oh, and if you must have an explicit message, go ahead and pick a bland one, so the reviewers will be happy. Hide the exciting stuff behind it.

I’ve read and enjoyed any number of books despite the author’s politics or – often – grasp of history givin me heart burn. What’s wrong about explicit-message books is not that they’re (just) wrong from my pov, but that they’re boring. There’s for instance, this mystery series where every culprit is either an entrepeneur or wealthy. It goes on for upteen books and they’re all like that. So, I stopped reading once the pattern became obvious. There’s usually only one character like that. He’s the culprit. YAWN.

On the other hand sometimes people find “messages” in books and stories that puzzle me greatly. I’d love to come up with someone else’s, but I was up late feeding an orphan kitten (not your fault) and the only thing I can think of is my own short story After The Sabines, which I considered a “what if” started by the gender imbalance in China. A reviewer – in Portugal – saw it was the “ultimate put down of the cowboy” – okay then. Considering there isn’t a single cowboy in the story this rather surprised me, but if it makes them happy...

So, message. Do you need it in a book? And if so, do you prefer it to reinforce or challenge your beliefs? Do you think an explicit message is mandatory to make the book non-light-weight?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reverse Sexism

My sons loved the Tank Girl movie and had no trouble identifying with a female protagonist.


On my
ROR blog we've been talking about the whole gender thing, male authors writing female characters, female writers writing from a male Point of View (POV). Can men write convincing female protagonists? Is it reverse sexism to say they can't? Can women write believable male protagonists? This raises some interesting questions. Does a mystery writer have to kill someone to write a great serial killer? The Unapologetically Female Blog quotes Karen Healey. She provides a list of things to watch out for when writing female characters, if you're a male. I particularly liked this one. Is she the only girl in the group?

‘Is her position within an ensemble cast "the girl"? As in, you have "geeky guy", "strong guy", "goofy guy" and "the girl"?

Having only one female within a group of characters sends the message that male is the norm, and that female is something else.’


At the Lipstick Chronicles they've invited a guest blogger, a male by the name of Jason Starr, who's written a female protagonist and apparently done it well. He says:


‘In THE FOLLOWER, I enjoyed getting into Katie's head, exploring the mind set of a young woman in her early twenties who's just moved to Manhattan. It was also fascinating for me to look at my male characters from the female point of view. The guys in the books have images of themselves thar are so wildly different from how Katie sees them, that this led to a lot of opportunity for humor and satire. And, I must admit, I enjoyed writing sex scenes from the female point of view. It was a blast putting myself in that position. Er, um, so to speak.’


The Modern Matriach quotes Heilbrum :

'... suggests that female authors often use male narrators or incorporate a more masculine voice in an effort to avoid the stigma of writing “chic lit”. Some even attempt to conceal their gender using initials and anomalous pen names:'


And if you are really worried that your POV character may not read as if they are the gender you meant them to be try using the Gender Genie at the Book Blog. Just paste in some text from your manuscript and see what the result is.

Bad characterisation is going to throw your reader out of the story, whether the protagonist is male, female or an alien from Alpha Centauri. Readers of SF and F must be elastically minded to accept the concepts that are tropes of our genre. It shouldn't worry them if the narrator is an AI without gender.

One of the things I find annoying about the English language is the lack of an intelligent non-gender specific pronoun. Everyone has to be either 'she' or 'he'. 'It' lacks intelligences and makes it hard to empathise with the character. I have come across stories where the writer invented a non-gender specific pronoun, but this seemed mannered and tended to throw me out of the story. I once came across a story where the writer managed to give all the characters non-gender specific names and structured the sentences so that they avoided pronouns. This made for slightly clumsy writing. But it was interesting how the visual pictures of the characters changed as I read, depending on what they were doing and saying.

In the book I'm currently writing one of the characters is a gender-less creature that is a human gone wrong, a Twisted. In the chapter that are told from this character's POV I use first person. In all the other chapters I use third person, he/she, depending on whether I have a male or female protagonist. The tricky part comes when the threads of the narrative join up and the Twisted meets the other two characters. Then I have to juggle the sentence structures so that I avoid using a pronoun for the Twisted character, while in the POV of the male or female protagonist. So you see writers of SF and Fantasy have a whole lot more to worry about than whether they can write a convincing male or female protagonist.

Which male writers create great female characters and conversely, which female authors write convincing male characters?


Monday, June 22, 2009

Your place or mine?


I have etchings. And the sound of a mountain stream out there in the moonlit darkness. Let me take you away...


Okay, still harping away on beginnings (because we all have to start somewhere... even with a cliche sometimes. I have a short that begins. " She awoke with a terrible start. Rubbing her eyes and looking at him again, she had to admit maybe he wasn't that terrible, just a bit homely, and not comfortably old, fat and rich. Not quite what she'd have chosen if she'd been sober the night before. A girl had to begin somewhere... ")


To get back to the point, an author has the difficult task of taking the reader away into the world they create. Sometimes the reader really wants to go. Will fall right in with a cheesy invitation to see etchings, especially if they've loved the author's other books. However the suspension of disbelief, the entry into world we build for them, is usually much harder than that. The start, which will lead us away from the mundane (and safe) is a tricky thing. Yep mostly the reader wants to go... but not if you might be an axe murderer (or the wrong kind of book). I always put it this way: The first few pages of a book have severely overworked words, because they have do so much. They have to pick you up, carry you away to a different place, they have to make you care about the protagonist's fate (want to see them come a cropper is fine too), they have reassure the reader that actually the charming invitation to come to their place is not so you can be dismembered and served with fava beans (which strikes me as odd. What are the bits going to do with those beans?) and also advance the plot.

In summary:

1)hook

2) setting

3) Show type of book (really, readers do not actually like surprises. They wanted an Aga-saga and you gave them horror with Aga-saga start, you'll have to be brilliant to get them to forgive you. They wanted fantasy - and you gave them sf - better hope you had them adoring the book before they figured it out. Yes. I am guilty. I hope readers forgave me. I was young and mislead by an evil companion, me.)

4) Invest emotion in protagonist (love or hate, but care)

5)Move the plot forward.


If you're a best-selling author that readers know will deliver you have some space to do these. If not... the sooner the better. We've talked about hook and somewhat about character.


Let's talk about setting and type of book. Now because these beginning words are multipurpose and overworked (poor things) these too can be part of the hook, part of the magic, part of the character dispay that gets you to care.


"I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff. I live with my master Jack outside of London now. I like Soho very much at night with its smelly fogs and dark streets. It is silent then and we go for long walks. Jack is under a curse from long ago...."


If anyone has any doubts what kind of book this is or what sort of setting they're being drawn into... I can recommend some pills :-)


Or to do it even quicker - "Once the palace of a thousand chambers had overwhelmed Imoshen...."


or this


"The dragon flew above the rage of the elements. Above the tumultuous maelstrom of ocean swirling into the void. Above the sheet lightnings and vortexes of dark energies released as the tower fell, with the vast granite masonry shattering into swirling dust. A fierce delight filled his dragonish heart as he looked down on it."


Ok - let's see some starts that show setting and type. I'll try and offer constructive criticism. And you can see if I get it right. (And sweetlings, the reader is always right. If i don't get it, it's back to the drawing board. Or rather, keyboard. This applies to me, Stephen King or Joe-the-newbie. The reader is write... uh right.)


And which three books did I quote?


Saturday, June 20, 2009

There's a Storm Brewing


I'm a geek. That's one of the reasons why I was asked to join MGC. My morning routine -- after that first cup of coffee -- consists of checking email, saying a quick but heartfelt prayer to the gods of editors and agents that today will be the day of acceptance, and surfing writing-related blogs. These blogs are written by authors, agents, editors and -- gasp -- readers.

Over the few weeks, there's been a great deal of discussion about the RWA and its views on e-publishing. Okay, discussion might be too mild a term because emotions are running high and, in my opinion, rightly so. So, a little background and some links.

Sign number one that RWA, like so many in the publishing industry, looks upon e-publishing like the bastard step-child is the fact that there are no panels on the topic at the upcoming national convention. One of RWA's main goals is to educate its members and yet there is nothing on this rapidly expanding sector of publishing. As Kassia Krozer says in her May 29th post over at Romancing the Blog:

Where are the sessions on distribution, on royalties, on what digital publishing means? What are the differences between going digital only with a big house versus small? How do the deep discounts demanded by Amazon – especially in light of the fact that Kindle sales equal 35% of all sales for books available in both Kindle and print format – impact author compensation? What does the alphabet soup of formats mean to readers. DRM? Can it be less evil?

Then word came down that RWA had rejected a proposal from Angela James, Executive Editor for Samhain Publishing for just such a workshop. My understanding is that this workshop was turned down simply because it was proposed by Ms. James and Samhain. In the words of RWA president Diane Pershing:

Out of 400 workshop proposals this year, only two focused on digital publishing; one was deemed by the Workshop Committee to not be of the caliber needed, the other was by Deidre’s publisher, Samhain, which is not on the list of RWA Eligible Publishers (From RWA’s Policy and Procedure Manual, section 1.17. “Eligible Publisher” means a romance publisher that has verified to RWA in a form acceptable to RWA, that it: …..(3) provides advances of at least $1,000 for all books; and (4) pays all authors participating in an anthology an advance of at least $500). RWA policy prohibits a non-Eligible publisher from offering a workshop.

No discussion of whether or not the proposed workshop was "of the caliber needed". In fact, the implication is that it met, and probably exceeded, that particular requirement. No, it all comes down to the amount of the advance. If a publisher doesn't meet that magical number of $1,000 or more per author, they don't qualify and, therefore, can't present at RWA. Of course, RWA is more than happy for them to attend and give RWA their money. But, sorry Charlie, you can't push your wares because you don't treat everyone fairly.

This is where I put on my snarky hat, so bear with me. If your job is to protect your members and make sure they are all treated equally, then doesn't that mean you should require dead tree publishers to quit paying out those huge advances to their best sellers? Wouldn't it be more fair to take some of those five and six figure advances -- and more -- and give the new authors more advance money? Hey, you could even put some of it into promotion, right? And yes, I'm being snarky here but the point is made. Don't say you are doing it to make sure all your members are being treated fairly because it doesn't fly in the face of the industry today.

But this issue goes beyond letting Samhain present a panel on e-publishing. Somewhere (and I can't find the site right now and will look for it) it was noted that of the books presented for first publication RITA awards this year, something like 70% of them did not qualify because they were either PODs or ebooks. That alone should warn RWA that there is something flawed about their current perception of the industry.

Now, to give Ms. Pershing her due, she does seem to believe she is protecting RWA members: All digital publishers are not created equal. As recently as 2007, one start-up digital publisher filed for bankruptcy after acquiring the works of an estimated 154 RWA members, and in 2006, two individuals completely unknown to RWA set up a table near registration and started pitching their publishing company to RWA conference attendees. However, this again smacks of a lack of vision. After all, how many dead tree presses have gone out of business in that same period of time? How many imprints have ceased production, stranding who knows how many authors? No, if you are going to apply this standard to one sector of the industry, it should be applied to all.

Maybe I've been spoiled by my exposure to Baen and its view on e-books. But I think this position taken by RWA hurts not only the organization and its members but readers as well. And not just readers of Romance. RWA is the most visible, possibly even the most influential, of writers associations out there. As long as it takes this stance, it will be just one more cog in the old publishing model that prevents the industry from moving forward.

I highly recommend everyone go read Deidre Knight's post at ESPAN (Electronic and Small Press Authors' Network) on the issue. She writes more eloquently and with much more knowledge on the issue than do I. Especially telling, to me, is this:

RWA’s current stance on e-books is that a publisher must offer at least a $1,000 advance in order to qualify for legitimacy. Never mind that many digital authors far exceed that amount in royalties, or sell more than 5,000 copies of print editions of their e-published titles. The problem with RWA’s simplistic criteria is that it ignores one crucial fact. Our industry is changing radically, with traditional publishers seeking innovative models for overhauling their distribution and content.

The industry is changing. Technology is changing. Cell phones, iPhones, e-book readers, netbooks and so many others offer other ways of reading a book besides picking up a dead tree copy. I'm not advocating allowing anyone with a scanner and computer to become a "publisher". Nor am I knocking RWA for wanting to protect its members. What I am suggesting is that perhaps it is time to revisit the business model of publishing and adapt to the changing times.

What do you think?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Other End

There have been quite a few posts and some very interesting discussions around the pointy end of the book -- the all-important beginning, where magical words are invoked, and editors are drawn into hypnotic trances where they sign stunning contracts. But what about the other end? The end-point of all that structure and character development? The bit that comes before those extremely satisfying two words (at least in the first draft) "The End".

A good beginning might guarantee a sale, perhaps a readership. With enough marketing buzz it might even create a best-seller, but without that sublime end point, the book is in danger of losing its essential impact.

Perhaps the ending may be less important for books that survive on their characterisation alone (super-cool protagonists that wander aimlessly), or that support themselves on prose alone (we who are about to write salute you!). But for the other books, that perhaps lack that well crafted ending with its emotional punch and simultaneously delivered, poignant realisation: are they destined to drift out of the consciousness of readers as time passes?

So what constitutes a good ending?

What books have you read that have left you in a state of sublime happiness? A surging feeling right down in your gut that your life has somehow been enhanced? Pins and needles up and down the arms and a singing in your head as you lay that loved book aside with the sure knowledge that something truly wonderful has been passed from the writer's psyche to you?
If you are wondering about the picture to the top left, that is my grandmother Eileen McMahon nee Daley, circa 1910. She was the only one of my grandparents alive when I was born, and she died when I was 2yrs old. My mum and dad have recently passed away, and I have inherited her old piano. A very old overdamper style piano that was never played as I grew up, but that always fascinated me. For some reason I always felt connected to her and that old piano (which is now in my study).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Man With the Golden Gun Meets the Glittery Hoo Ha

Rowena's post about the love scene and its close friend the sex scene has caused some interesting thoughts to rear their heads and stand to attention, as it were. The thoughts are actually more or less clean, although I can pretty much guarantee this post won't be, as the bishop said to the actress.

First, there's the matter of the Man With the Golden Gun, who is capable of changing the most determined woman's mind once she encounters his weaponry, and all the cliches and throbbing manhoods that go with it. One of the best ruminations I have ever seen on the matter of describing the male party of the upright part in a sex scene can be found at http://groups.google.com/group/alt.callahans/msg/647f523abd7581ee?dmode=source&hl=en&pli=1 (you may need to sign up to google groups to see this) - it's the notorious Sailor Jim post to alt.callahans: On the subject of penises If you value your keyboard and monitor, do not have anything in your mouth when you read this.

Then there's the Glittery Hoo Ha, the most potent weapon in the romance heroine's arsenal. As discussed here, the Glittery Hoo Ha is capable of capturing any man, no matter how golden his gun (and we won't go into the discomfort a golden gun would cause, especially once it got glitter all over it).

So what happens when the Man With the Golden Gun meets the Glittery Hoo Ha? Usually fireworks, flagpoles, occasional hard manhoods, and assorted other entertainments found in the more interesting romance novels.

But be warned... the GHH and MWtGG are not exclusive to romance. Fantasy and science fiction have been invaded by this strange subset of humanity, and glitter trails being diligently followed by golden guns can be found in any number of non-romance books.

Examples, anyone?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Refusal of the call



I should start this blog by confessing that I was going to follow Rowena's lead and write a post called "Talk dirty to me" which is not -- as it might sound -- about sex in writing, but more about writing using tools of the erotic writers. (Yes, you in the back, I did say tools. Stop giggling. Don't make me come out there.

However, I'm running late on the present crushing load of work. I need another day to get through page proofs and finish going over this book, to send to the editor.

So I thought I would talk about what I'm doing. Refusal of the call.

The term comes from The Hero's Journey, of course, and some studies seem to indicate that the form of the Hero's Journey is how our brain is supposed to perceive/create story or at least satisfying story.

Disney films had a satisfying run of success when its head (Michael Eisner, or did he come after) tried to encourage the use of the Hero's Journey. We got films like Lion King and Mullan and Toy Story.

Since he was canned for "enforcing" formulaic movies (which is not exactly true, since there's a lot of leeway in the structure, which fits both things like The Odyssey and Cinderella) they've done things like Madagascar, where the only truly satisfying characters were secondary and Finding Nemo which was... well, wet.

These are, of course, my opinions and your milleage may vary. The last two movies still did fairly well, but it seems to me they fell short of the heights achieved by the others.

So... hero's journey -- writes the woman with virtually no brain after three of the busiest weeks of her life -- it's one of the tools I like to use, not so much to help me plot -- I don't usually look at it till after I've written the first version of the book -- but to make sure my structure makes some sort of sense. And sometimes to diagnose what bothers me about a book I just finished or about one long-laid aside which I'm trying to revive.

And one of the trickiest parts I've found is the refusal of the call. It happens in almost every book.

To recapitulate for those who've never heard of this concept, what happens is that the hero is in his normal world, contented, if not happy. And then something happens to throw him out of that normal world. This is the call. Ulysses gets the call to join his allies in the siege of Troy. Cinderella's family gets the invitation to the ball.

In almost every story there is a refusal of the call. A moment when the protagonist knows he has to go forth and do something, but does not wish to leave the safety of the ordered everyday world. Ulysses kills his oxen and pretends madness. Hamlet wonders if he really saw the ghost of his father or if it was an evil apparition. Cinderella ... I'm not sure. I'd rate the run at midnight as refusal of the call, but I could be wrong, as we're dealing with a truncated story. My mom had one of the older nineteenth century versions, and man, oh, man was it much longer. And more violent. And more sexual. And scary beyond all reason.

The refusal of the call is one of my sticky plot points. I think it's because despite the fact some of my best friends are imaginary and I spend untold amounts of time in made up worlds, beneath it all I'm actually a very sensible and down to Earth woman. It's hard when writing about fantasy creatures, for instance, to let go of that "she's accepting this to early." "She should be thinking of everyday explanations."

The problem is that you can't hold your character in the "normal" world forever. Your reader wants the character to make a decision, to take action, to do something and be the master of his own destiny.

If the character refuses to do it, the book becomes slow, tedious, or perhaps "candidate for the next nobel prize of literature," all things that are bad and could mean the end of your career or of your being able to look at yourself in the mirror.

So -- ladies and gentlemen -- which books do you like that you find this refusal of the call was very prominent in? Can you find a book in which the acceptance of the call comes nearly at the end, and which nonetheless works? (I could say Puppet Masters, though it's complicated. It's more like he has a mirror moment at the end.) Throw things. Banana peels or whatever. NO coconuts, because Dave already throws those.

And if this post makes no sense whatsoever, let me know. I'm about to hit the mattress, will look at it in morning. I'll try to give you some examples from my own and others works then, though I can't promise anything. (The problem is to give you the whole run of the refusal of the call would take perhaps two or three chapters, which seems to be the normal length of this narrative movement.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Love Scenes

I should explains that Tim Tams are Australian chocolate biscuits that have to be eaten to be believed.

I saw a line in a book that went something like this -- 'She thought it was about as likely as an orgasm on a one night stand!'

This was an urban fantasy, with a strong female protagonist, who obviously knew what she liked. Romances are comfortable exploring emotions.

We write books, ranging from fantasy, adventure, SF and through to mystery. But somewhere sometime, someone is going to fall in love. How comfortable are you writing love scenes?

How far do you go? Do you close the door after the first kiss? Are you uncomfortable going into detail?

I was on a festival panel when someone asked me what was the most moving love scene I had ever seen/read. It made me realise that the scene was from a movie set in 1890. She was a widow, he was a married man, with a cold wife. He didn't want to fall in love with her. There was a scene where they were in a carriage. He lifted her hand, peeled back her glove and touched his lips to the pulse of her wrist. It was powerful because of what wasn't said, or done.

What love scenes have you read/seen that moved you?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Draw the circle, light candles nine...


Ach it's been a week that shouldn't happen to anyone. I'm sorry I haven't commented this last week but... well if you're curious, have a peer in my blog. I wrote about about half of it. There are worse things, many of them, but they'd not be something you'd be trying to write through either.
But, as if someone had been foolish enough to pull the stake out of where it lay among the old bones... I'm back. Want me or not, I'm back... (cue wicked laughter and eerie music).
Now, in the course of the week a friend posted a comment about something else that comes back: That manuscript you toiled so lovingly on. That you bled pieces of yourself into, that you agonised over and polished. Or didn't. Just wrote down as it poured white-hot from your febrile mind and onto the keyboard (the mess!) Whatever. It's back. Probably with the standard lines of spurned love "not suitable for our present needs." or some other pathetic bit of patronising drivel... sorry, good sensible advice. Now my standard recipe for dealing with these editors (or sub-editors) involves pins and.... well, perhaps TMI. But rigidly, after twenty-four hours of being really... sweetness and light (and carefully not posting a reply), I put it behind me and move on. Send out again if it is practical to do so. Make any changes IF there is sensible advice. Write something else. Something BETTER. I'll show them...
Anyway that said one of the things, before you post it out, that you need to do is take advange of the time and distance to look at the only bit 99.99% of editors see of your manuscript. It's time to see if you got the magic right. No, this does not involve pins... or circles or candles nine. Yet oddly it does involve some of the classic elements of magic. You think those charlatans got that successful that often by accident? No, there is much to be learned about writing from the theory of symbolic magic, and I don't just mean the bits about black cats even the dancing around in the altogether part (which have their reasons too). We humans are creatures of symbol -- where something means far more than itself. Where the the symbol carries a load of implication and other symbols. Where a flood of emotion and memory can be triggered by the use of a symbol in the right place. Where a very small thing can be so much more than just itself. Of course I am talking about words in this case. Sometimes they do indeed come out just right, but sometimes, especially with that most powerful part of the spell, the first line, those symbols need to used very carefully to call up far more than just a simple meaning. This is where you catch that demon of nether regions, the editor, and needs must the spell should be powerful, and binding... and fast about its work. Because they're slippery devils and they get away. And they are not easy to bespell, being resistant to many kinds of common magic, and not going to give you two chances. If you're lucky you have a page, or even a few paragraphs. But the must puissiant and powerful need to caught caught quicker than that. In that first line. And, the truth be told, if you can catch them, you can probably catch readers. And we too must have those or die the real death.
So, novices: You have entered the black cave. The first line of the spell to en-trance your reader, to suspend his disbelief needs to sneak past his defences, and to evoke the the magical world which is the story. To call it from the dry pages, to pull down fire from heaven... or up from the mind of the reader. You see, it's all down to those symbols again. The ones that carry so much more than just their own weight. Yes, there is magic in the cadences of it, but we humans look for more in words... even quite innocent seeming ones.
"Mama don't make me marry him," Miss Sophie Warrington said.
Innocuous eh. Ah, but the pictures in our minds. And not quite as innocent as this spell-binder seems. There are key triggers, symbols if you like, hidden in these words. I can spot four. There may be more. She's good at this. 'Miss' for example -in this day and age? You missed that one didn't you? It evokes a sense of historical setting. The name itself hints at a certain class, especially when tied to the Miss. Mama. - she's young - and deep ingrained sympathies and protective instincts are aroused. Marry - that carries baggage enough for the entire wagon train, especially when added in the right place to the rest. The author has, in one short, simple sentence implied the age of the protag, her helplessness, difficult position and historical setting. She's even pulled in a few sympathy symbols.
Did you think this happened by accident? Maybe it does, sometimes. We humans do this, and some of us have a natural gift for it. That doesn't mean we can't make it better. But we need to spot it first.
"Macon Fallon was a stranger to the town of Seven Pines and fortunately for him he was a stranger with a fast horse."
Another first line that does an excellent job with simple words of casting a powerful spell of place and character, and trouble.
"This is the story of the children of Adara - of Ayna and Ceri who both had gifts and of Gair, who thought he was ordinary."
Now there is a masterpiece of cadence, symbols and the powerful use of what isn't there. WHY isn't Gair ordinary....
Now it's your turn. Give me first lines. Either ones you wrote or ones which entrapped you. And if you spot them, the words of power. Oh and Í'll make a plan to get a copy of Dragon's Ring to first person who places all three first lines by author and book.

1984


Sixty years ago this week, a science fiction novel was published in London as the author lay dying in a TB clinic in Stroud in Gloucestershire. The man was only 46 and it was the book that killed him but what a book. He typed the final draft with a typewriter balanced on his knees in bed. He had a fever and he was in pain. The climate of the Isle of Jura, where the book was typed, is damp and cold, conditions that could not be worse for someone infected with TB.

The novel was ‘1984’ and the man was George Orwell. It is difficult to think of another SF&F novel that has had a greater impact on our culture. Indeed, few literary works of any type have had more impact.

Orwellian has taken its place alongside Shakespearian and Dickensian. The words of the novel has been incorporated into our very language: Room 101, Big Brother, Newspeak, Doublethink, Duckspeak, Prole, Thoughtcrime, Thought Police, Unperson................

Or how about the three great slogans of The Party of Oceania: “WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

Like all good books, 1984 has been repeatedly banned. The USSR banned it as anticommunist. In 1981, Jackson County in Florida tried to ban it as pro-communist and sexual. The American Library Association in 1984 banned 1984 because of its “bleak warning of totalitarian government and censorship.” Great stuff guys! That’s the way to treat a book about censorship – censor it! That’s how you treat a book that describes how totalitarian organisations control through sexual repression – censor all mention of sex. This is in the “You couldn’t make it up” category.

George Orwell perpetually had to explain that the book was not an anti-socialist pamphlet. For example, in this letter he wrote to Henson of the United Automobile Workers in the USA.

"My recent novel [Nineteen Eighty-Four] is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions ... which have already been partly realized in Communism and Fascism. ...The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English-speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere."

The novel is about power, how it corrupts and how it becomes an end in itself. It is about how an organisation can cling on to power indefinitely if it controls all reality, including history, the news and even the meaning of words, and people’s emotions, love and sexuality being the most powerful emotional drive of all. It is about how control depends on control of the middle classes; hold them and the proles can be kept quiet with bread and circuses, contrary to Marxist philosophy. It is not about ideology at all. Ingsoc and Oceania have no ideology except control.

Let’s leave the last word to The Party:

"The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power."

John Lambshead

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Linkage and Other Things


First off, let me start by apologizing if nothing makes sense this morning. The dog, who happens to think he's a cat, decided it would be a very good thing to get me up at 0430, then at 0500, at which point I gave up and got up. As Sarah will tell you, this is not a good thing. I am NOT a morning person, especially if no one is up before me to have the coffee waiting as I stumble into the kitchen. So, here I am, fumbling to pull this post together and wondering why no one has invented a way to deliver coffee intravenously.

In my travels across -- over? through? -- the internet this week, I came across a blog I hadn't read before Rachelle Gardner's Rants and Ramblings On Life as a Literary Agent. Her June 12th entry, "Books, Books, Books" reminded me of an online discussion I followed some months ago on whether or not a writer should read in the genre he or she wants to write in. One of those commenting said they refused to read the genre they wanted to write in because they didn't want to be contaminated by what others had written. According to this person, they were afraid their ideas might lose their unique qualities if they happened to read what others wrote. Ms. Gardner simply says:

I believe that you, as a writer, should read lots of books in the genre or category in which you are writing. If you write literary fiction, you should read literary fiction. If you write suspense, you should read suspense. It's a great way to learn. I also believe in reading informational, inspirational, and how-to books about writing and publishing.

Another agent, Nathan Bransford, posted his Writing Advice Database this week. Like with any list of rules, it isn't complete nor is it to be followed without variation. It is, however, a good starting point. I do recommend you look at his Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer. Yes, they are common sense. Yes, they are things we should all remember but, hey, we're writers. Common sense is a fickle friend a lot of times. And, if you're like me, when you're in the midst of a writing jag, you tend to forget things like eating and sleeping, much less family and friends.

Finally, a simple reminder. If you have a blog, if you take part in online discussions, if you are part of online fora, think before hitting that enter button. Remember the old saying, "if you can't say anything nice, just say nothing at all." You might ask why. Well, the answer is simple and it is one that has come back to bite many a writer. You get that rejection letter in the mail or in your email and you know the agent or editor didn't take time to read your query or submission materials. How could they? You only sent that email 17 minutes earlier. It is so easy to shoot an email back to them, telling them off. It is even easier to go to your blog and write all about it, venting that frustration eating at you. That temptation to blast the editor who has completely altered your book is even more pervasive. Don't do it. Lucienne Diver has a great post on Blogging Do's and Dont's -- Advice for Writers on her blog.

I've blathered on long enough this morning. Besides, my coffee mug is strangely empty. Judging from the way the cat is bouncing off the wall, I suspect she drank it while my back was turned. So, I leave you with a question. What informational, inspirational, and how-to books about writing and publishing do you like and recommend and why?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Thou Shalt be Active [NOT a message from the Surgeon-General]


Talking about writing rules, one of the first that got drummed into me (actually, more like beaten into me -- around the head with what was left of my frayed manuscript) was the importance of active writing; making the prose immediate, rather than passive. The shorthand for this is 'Show don't Tell'. You could do a lot worse than plough through your manuscript with this mantra repeating in your head like some sort of Buddhist chant. Certainly for action, it's an absolute must. But it really got me wondering -- is this really universally applicable?

Some of the books I admired most as a young reader, such as Lord of the Rings, were full of passive text. Huge wads of backstory and enormously long sentences that would never get past a modern editor. Yet it worked. Another book I admire tremendously is Empire of the East by Fred Saberhagen. Accustomed to more modern prose, the passive style put me off initially, but it did not take me long (about two pages), to get sucked right in. That book is an absolute classic.

I guess one of the things that is really attractive about passive prose (often combined with an omniscient PoV) is that it has a sort of reflective power, enabling a deeper level of insight to be injected into the work -- be it on the level of character or life, the universe and everything. That sort of thing is difficult with strictly 'active' prose. Often tongue and cheek humor also works best in a passive mode (outside of dialogue that is). I think this is one of the things that I tried to emulate in my first attempts to write fantasy, which in my case came off as excessive backstory with overly grandiose metaphors (hey - don't say anything about PoV!).

The other thing about active prose is that is takes space. I often wonder if there is a case for a blend of active and passive prose, just for the sake of economy. Its a lot faster to say 'Joe survived the battle, running from the fiends of the Hegemon with his sword between his legs,' than to go through the whole scene recounting every shiver of fear and blood-filled drop of sweat. If the scene is not really that crucial to the story, but merely a bridge, does it really matter?

Is just makes me wonder. Is passive text total taboo, or is it just one more tool, and perhaps a valid one in some cases?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Too Much of A Good Thing

Or Rules, Damned Rules, and Formulas.

You've all read them. The books that are so formulaic you know within the first 50 pages how it's all going to end. The characters that make cardboard seem full of depth and texture. The books where you look at how much is left to go and think "It's about time all hell broke loose", turn the page, and right on cue all hell breaks loose.

There's any number of words for them, words like trite, cliche, formulaic - but what they are, based on the examples I've read, is either someone chunking out the wordage on something he, she, or it detests, or someone who's taken the rules to an extreme and sucked all the life out of their story in the process.

I think this might be what John is trying to avoid when he says he doesn't buy into rules of modern story.

It's like everything: all things in moderation, even moderation. Also known as "you've got to know the rules before you can break them effectively".

I can see the skeptical looks and the little superior sniffs, so here's the challenge. Take a look at your favorites, and look at the rules they break. Then look at how they break them. I guarantee you, you won't find a single really good book in the bunch that doesn't break at least one of them.

Not just the rules as espoused by Mark Twain, either. Grammar, spelling, Thou Shalt Not Commit Prologue... They're all fair game.

Since not everyone reading has access to a slush pile I won't suggest picking out random entries and seeing which rules they break and how, but I promise you they will break them, and the results will be painful. They may even include bearded lips (hat tip to Mike at Onyxhawke Agency for burning that little gem into my memory).

So what, I hear you mutter, is the difference? You've got to understand the rules before you break them, and that means the painful phase of following the formula. If you should by chance find yourself writing for one romance house which shall not be named, that includes instructions that the first kiss will happen no later than page 84, the book will be exactly 180 pages long (I think - I'm going from the stainless steel lint trap memory enhanced by nearly a week on a quarter-dose of my narcolepsy meds here), and many, many more equally hard (no, not that way) rules. It takes a lot of skill to write a story where the actions flow naturally from the characters and the setting in that kind of framework - which, perhaps paradoxically, can make you a better writer.

The reason a tight structure improves writing is that it forces the rules - and the rules are actually an expression of our natural sense of story. We might know buggerall about plotting or character or world-building, but we know when something violates the rules of Story. It feels wrong, or slow, or we throw it at the cat because it pissed us off (okay, maybe you don't do that, but I do. Fortunately for the cats I'm a lousy shot).

If you don't believe me, try telling young kids a story. They know what's supposed to happen. The good guy wins, the bad guy either dies or is fixed so he's not a threat any more, people who do the right things get rewarded and people who don't get punished. What's more, there's a proper time and place for all these things to happen. If you fail to meet all of these, you'll get the same complaint as the grandfather in The Princess Bride.

"You're telling it wrong, Grandpa!"

So... who tells it right, what rules do they break - and which ones do they keep?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

One Hand Washes The Other


So you have this character and you’re half in love with him. In fact, if you’re like me, the characters come to you first and you see them as whole people and you love them as friends.

You want to share your character with the world! You love him or her so everyone will also, right?

Right... except... except the world can’t see your character the way you do. That intimate feel you have for what makes them laugh and those cute dimples and all? Not there for anyone else.

The character is in your head, not theirs. To readers he’s a stranger. Many things that are cute, or sweet or funny from a friend are either incomprehensible or creepy from a stranger.

So, how do you introduce Mr. Or Ms. Fantastic?

You could, of course, just start the book with “this is my character, look how wonderful he is.” You could go on that way about what he eats for breakfast; the smell of his shampoo, how flowers and small children turn their faces to follow his progress; how entire cities come out and lie down in his path lest he hurt his foot on a stone.

Of course you could. You could also take up recreational fly fishing or perhaps basket weaving and leave the writing alone. Because trust me, that approach above? Every slush pile has hundreds and hundreds of those.

The sad thing is when you do that you sound exactly like a middle school kid with his or her first crush. And let’s face it, no one but your bestest friend, who had a crush on the same person, wanted to hear another word about it.

So... how do you bring your wonderful character to the reader in all his splendor? Plot, my dear, plot. Plot is what reveals your character. It’s more like bringing your middle school crush home and let him show your parents how smart he is and what good manners he has. If you can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how wonderful you tell them he is. And PLEASE make sure you don’t do that – make sure your character isn’t acting like a complete idiot while you tell us (cunningly using the other characters, maybe) how wonderful he is. Show us he’s wonderful. Make him be wonderful.

Say your character is very generous. Start with him giving half of his cloak to a beggar. But please, for the love of heaven, don’t show us how gentle he is next and have him pet a puppy. Instead, make the whole character work to move the plot. Is your character generous? What is the typical defect of generous people? Well... they don’t keep enough to survive? They get taken in by confidence men? Use that. Have your character rolled. Have it move the plot.

To me plot without character and character without plot is the sound of one hand clapping. Maybe very zen but not very entertaining.

So... give me examples of where this works or doesn’t. Or give me examples of a book that’s only one or another and yet works.

The winner of last week’s contest for a fabulous t-shirt with the cover of Darkship Thieves is Lady Dawn! Please email me with your address