Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rational, Irrational, and Realistic

How often have you done something that left you wondering "what the farouk?" No, you don't have to tell me about it. I probably don't want to know. But if you're human, you've probably done a fair few things that seemed like a good idea at the time but made no sense, were downright stupid, and in extreme cases, should have got you into a lot of trouble or possibly dead.

Now, how many of those things have been the kind of thing that you couldn't put into fiction because no-one would believe it?

If you're anything like me, the answer is "most of them", and the reason is kinda sorta with a bit of a squint related to Sarah's post yesterday (Yeah. Blame Sarah. She's fine with it).

The short version is, we're wired for narrative - and wired at levels so deep we don't understand them. Something happens, and we're immediately putting some kind of story to it, whether it's that the driver who cut us off is in a hurry, the lottery association finds out your numbers and deliberately refuses to draw them (okay, that one's a joke - although there's probably someone who believes it, somewhere), that lightning strike that fried your hard drive was punishment for you not taking backups...

Of course, we're fitting the story retrospectively, so we can make it look neat and pick our options - rather like the joke about the bad golfer whose first tee off landed him in a patch of buttercups, where an angry spirit made it impossible for him to enjoy butter for a month. His next tee off he hit the pussy willow...

The thing is, when you look at it from the front end, you've got a ball going in a particular direction at a particular speed. It's going to hit something in a relatively defined area - but there's no way to tell exactly what because there are too many variables in play. So, it's got no less chance of hitting that single buttercup in the middle of the green than it has of hitting the blade of grass next door - so even though it looks like something special when the ball hits the buttercup, it actually isn't.

But unless you set it up as something special, you can't write the ball and the buttercup (oh dear... this is getting... low), because while we accept, sort of, that in life shit happens for no obvious reason, in stories it's got to have a reason. In a story, the ball has to hit that buttercup because of divine intervention, or because the golfer is insanely skilled, or even - demonstrating that human narrativium bears no relation to causality - because someone has a huge bet on the ball hitting the buttercup.

In fact, if ball meets buttercup at the end, and the hero has the bet, you have a narrative guarantee it will hit. If the antagonist is the one standing to win - especially from the hero - the ball won't hit. Narrativium rules are - as Pratchett wisely observed - so strongly wired we're disappointed when they don't happen in real life.

And what, you ask (okay, no you don't, but damn it, I'm writing this post so I get to make the rules) does this has to do with me?

Simple. If you fit your stories to the rules of narrativium, they'll seem realistic when they're not. If you write what life is actually like, it will seem utterly unrealistic, silly, and boring. Even when it shouldn't be (because let's face it, 90% of real life is the mundane stuff we'd rather not be doing).

So fire up the narrativium engines, Scotty, and pick a recent-ish bizarre event, then weave the story that makes it make sense. Just please, nothing that makes me want to claw my eyes out in self defense.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Telling Fortunes

Cross my palm with silver. More silver. Um... let’s try platinum.

Oh, there it is, I see now. The future is coming into focus: Any of you who really want to be successful at writing and who are willing to fight enough for it, will make it. Oh, there will be setbacks. There will be blows of fate. And, yes, you’ll make mistakes (probably many) but you will eventually make it. If you live long enough. And if there is still a publishing industry.

Why all the weasel words? Because there is no fate. It is all in your hands.

I’ve told everyone I’ve mentored that writing is one of the most “superstition inducing” professions there is, because so little is in our hands. So, if you’re one of my fledgelings, right about now you’re scratching your head and going “Sarah, you have, as they say, zee issues.”

Yes. Comes with the territory. But what I’ve said isn’t necessarily contradictory.

Let me explain. Yesterday I caught myself thinking “If only I could have gone back and told my idiot twenty something year old self that I would eventually get published. How much anguish I’d have saved.” And then I stopped, because what I’d just thought smacks of fatalism, of resignation, of a pre-scripted future. For just a moment, I was in that place where I was born to be or do something; where I would have become that regardless.

I won’t go into why this view – regardless of what some scientists think – must be wrong. The short of it is that it would require the belief in an all-controlling (and dumb) divinity. Any scientific theory that requires Deus ex Machina, isn’t. No, not particularly going to argue it. Not here. There will be a blog on this in the future but not here.

Instead, I’ll go into why it’s so prevalent in writers’ (and other artists’) minds. First, it’s because most of us are in the grip of a compulsion. Surely we can’t want to do this so much if it’s wrong. Second, it’s because it absolves us from our failures.

Heaven knows that half the time in this field, the failures really aren’t our fault. As Dave has mentioned several times, you can’t attribute every crash to drivers’ error. There are a lot of factors influencing this unstable situation. That, of course, is the other end of it. Sometimes, no mater how hard you fight, you are doomed. And in retrospect, it seems inevitable.

The thing is that writing is not “all your money behind one horse.” Oh, sure, if you only ever write one novel, and it can’t succeed for whatever reason, you will fail. The question is “Why do you only write a novel?” “How much can you want to make it, if you only write one novel?” Yeah, it might be the best novel in the whole dang world. It still won’t make it, if it’s something no one wants to read/publish right then. You keep on trying and you’re not being defeated by fate. You’re being defeated by you.

Take it from me – you will make it as far as as you want to make it, dependent on how hard you’re willing to work.

This comes prettily from an almost unlimitedly ambitious writer who isn’t even a NYT bestseller yet, doesn’t it? Sure does. Because it's doable. Eventually. If I live long enough. And there have been times along the way when the world not only wasn’t my oyster – it wasn’t even my kumquat with mustard on the side. That I haven’t got there yet is a function of “How hard I’m willing to try.” In my case, two factors have forced me to take – shall we say? – the scenic route: a) the one thing I will not sacrifice to writing is my boys’ future. This means times when I should have pushed hard were “wasted” shepherding them through childish issues and teen angst. (Not their fault. I signed up for it. Glad I did it too.) b) I don’t work as hard at self promoting as 99% of authors. This will have to change. I know it will have to change. But it goes against a basic part of my personality (yes, the lazy part, smarty. True to an extent. Writing is far more of a pleasure than promoting, so I write more than I promote.) and those can take time to defeat. It can be done, it’s just takes a long time.

Are you really whining “but what if I don’t have enough talent?” Right. Because that’s the operational quality. You sit down, you breathe deep and writing flows from your fingertips IF you have the magical thing “talent.” Look... I won’t deny there’s such a thing as “talent.” I.e. by inclination and character, you do some things more easily. For me, that’s characters. But to compensate, I’ve fought EVERY inch of the way for plot and I don’t flatter myself I’m any better than “solid midlist” on THAT (Except for the last submitted book, Sword and Blood.) I don’t know anyone – not a single professionally published author – who is naturally good at the many parts that make a successful novel. Besides, come on, so far as there’s talent and you can discern it, read the bestseller list. You’ll come across at least two at any given time who have NO discernable talent. But they made it. Now, yeah, maybe they were golden children, raised up by fate with no struggle. However, my guess is if it looks that way, they’re REALLY good liars.

So, this is the bad news: you’re not fated to be a massive bestseller. These are the good news: You’re not fated to be ANYTHING. The future is wide open and even if at times it looks like the south end of a northbound donkey, it is open to change.

And now, like any good fortune teller I want you to open up so I can advise you (Only if you answer me, I suspect you can advise you after ;) ): What are your fears? What do you think can block you forever? What are your limiting factors? What will you not sacrifice to your writing, no matter what? What is your special talent? What do you know you suck at? How do you plan to get better at that? AND – for fun – what is your ridiculous superstition which you know is nonsense but makes you feel “safer” as you’re on your way? (My own security blanket in this area is that if I eat at Pete’s Kitchen in Denver, I sell something. Might be a short story, mind. Or Japanese rights. But I sell something. So far, so good.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I came across this, Michael Hauge's take on characterisation which he pins down as Identity and Essence. (Skim down the liked page to find it).

'He says:

IDENTITY is the role that the protagonist adopts in life. It is donned as a form of armour, a protection against the vagaries of life, and is essentially the cicatrix that has grown over their deep life-wound.

ESSENCE is the protagonist's potential. It is who your character is when stripped of their protective armour. It is who they are when they have finally overcome their inner battles, their resistance to their true calling, their destined relationship...etc.'

According to Hauge the character arc that your protagonist travels goes from living in their identity to living up to their essence. I guess you could say that they have to be true to themselves.

Often in stories a character starts out wanting one thing, only to discover halfway through that what they thought they wanted, they don't really want, they want something else. My favourite stories are ones where the character grows.

Hauge's Identity/Essence is a variation on what I tell my students. I tell them to see if they can encapsulate their character in two conflicting words. eg. Faithless-priest or Cynical-romantic.

Once you do this, it helps you identify the character's inner conflict and gives you an insight into where you can take them during the course of the story.

I like plots that are character driven. It is because the protagonist is who they are, that they react the way they do. They aren't an 'everyman', like the wooden man in the picture. Someone spoke up in class today, saying they didn't like Frodo as a character in Lord of the Rings because they felt he was too bland.

I said, he was an 'everyman'. He had a role to fulfil as the hero of the story. He was an ordinary person, doing extraordinary things. Maybe heroic fantasy is not a good genre to examine for characterisation, as the events tend to be larger than life.

Hauge's concept of Identity and Essence are a bit like the Johari Window. The idea is that you are made up of four selves.

There is what you know about yourself and others know.
There is what you know about yourself but keep hidden from others.
There is what is known to others, but you are blind to (eg personality flaws)
And there is what is not known to others and not known to you.

OR ...

There is what you (the writer) know about the character and the readers know about them.
There is what you the writer know about the character and what the character knows about themselves.
There is what you the writer know about the character and what the reader knows (but the character is blind to).
And there is what you know about the character and no one else knows (what you plan to do with the character).

All of this is interesting and might help trigger ways for writers to tackle creating characters, or exploring the characters they have created. Has it triggered any thoughts for you?

Monday, September 27, 2010

E-books again

This is probably going to be a fairly short post, as Dr Biren -- our Island GP -- has just done a house-call to check that I'm behaving myself. Which I suspect doesn't include sitting here and typing. I won't tell if you don't. My sense of humor is just a little less present than usual. Tickle yourself for the obligatory chuckle.

I've just read my first book on an e-reader. As you all know I am an enthusiastic supporter of e-books. I've read on screen for many years now... and never really figured why people found it awkward or difficult.

I think I understand now.

Barbara loves the e-reader, and has always struggled to read on a computer screen. The difference between us is quite simple. B is a relatively fast reader, and can perhaps finish a book in a 4-6 hour sitting. I am a very fast reader. A normal 400 page novel will take me 2 hours or less. I'll persevere, but honestly the e-reader was not very pleasant, because there is relatively little text to a page, and I was changing pages every 8 seconds, which I found an irritation. So: as e-readers are intended for overconsumers (and I am an extreme example, I grant) for me they'd need a very much bigger screen.

Which brings me to ask: are there different formats (not fonts or line spaces, but structural format) and requirements for ideally presenting a story to e-book consumers that are different to the requirements of a paper-book?

I suspect ideally e-books need to be shorter, and possibly more modular. Eric Flint is a good eg. of an excellent modular writer. Although his books fit together well as units, they're made up of a sequence of modules, each of which stands on its own to some extent, and one can take out and replace with slightly different scene, ending in more or less the same point, without damaging the overall story line. I am not a good modular writer, as there is a lot more interweave and foreshadowing in my work (I am not a pantster, I know where a book is going and build toward that) - with the book being the smallest unit. This means I am a lot harder to read -- as people often do read with e-readers -- in snatches.

I'm also of the opinion that the current length of books is more to do with economics than ideal reads. A book after all is as long as it needs to be. There is usually a relationship between the number of major characters and its length (this differs from writer to writer as some writers devolop characters more and some of us are more wordy than others.) A short story is very difficult setting to adequately develop a complex set of characters or a complex story line or world-building. Of course some authors do this, it's just hard. This is why I believe that writing shorts (even if you can't sell them) is the best possible training for writers.
But I believe there is a market and space for the Novella and Novelette again, especially if priced appropriately. Of course we are now in a situation where cover art becomes a serious part of the cost.

Your thoughts?

And BTW don't forget to check out - they have some great books and stories. Some even free - if you look in at the right time.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Morning Round-up

I have to start by telling Dave he owes me a keyboard. Not only did I spew coffee all over it when I saw the pictures of poor bald Roly with his ugg boots, but Rocky (my rocks for brains but very loving collie mix) tried to jump into the laptop to see his new friend. For those of you who haven't seen the before and after hair cut pics of Roly, check them out here.

This weekend has been a busy one between Sarah's writers workshop and the author event last night at the library. I feel like the walking dead this morning and my brain still hasn't kicked in even though coffee has flowed in copious amounts into my body. So, that witty yet deep post I know I would have done is still imprisoned somewhere deep in my brain. Instead of trying to pull it out kicking and screaming, I thought I'd throw out some links of interest and see what sort of comments they stir up.

For those following the soap opera in the boardroom at Barnes & Noble, the New York Times has this article detailing the fight. It's a good article on the motives -- or potential motives -- of the parties involved. The question here is, do you believe Burkle is in a shadow fight to take over the B&N board or not? More than that, if there is a change in the board, is it too little too late?

One of the best pieces of advice I've seen in the blogs in a long time comes from agent Kristen Nelson. In her blog, she recounts how, at a recent conference, she recounted the stats on how many queries they get, how many sample pages they request and from that how many clients they actually sign. It is, in her own words, "daunting" for new writers to hear these stats. But her advice is unique and something I agree with whole-heartedly:

Then I tell them to cover their ears and say, “la, la, la I’m not listening” because what it boils down to is that these stats should be white noise to you aspiring writers. You can hear it, but it’s in the background. Know the stats so you have a keen understanding of the reality behind the business of publishing but then don’t let it stop you.

If you love writing, if you are passionate about it as your dream, then you are going to write no matter what. Publication is one possible end result but whether that happens are not should not be the only determiner of why you write. You write because you have to. It’s like breathing. Absolutely necessary.

Besides, you never know when toughness and persistence will finally pay off so don’t lose sight of that!

On the e-book front, the Association of American Publishers has posted the sales figures for July

The Adult Hardcover category was down 15.2 percent in July with sales of $74.1 million, although sales for the year-to-date are up by 10.2 percent. Adult Paperback sales decreased 10.1 percent for the month ($111.1 million) but increased by 8.6 percent for the year. Adult Mass Market sales decreased 11.0 percent for July with sales totaling $60.6 million; sales were down by 13.1 percent year to date."

E-book sales continue to grow, with a 150.2 percent increase over July 2009 ($40.8 million); year-to-date E-book sales are up 191.0 percent.

Does anyone else see a trend here?

Finally, Laini Taylor has a great post about writers needing cheerleaders. She comments that, " Before editing. Before almost anything else but snack-making, we need to be convinced and reminded that we are GOOD." Check out her post and see if you agree.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you pay attention to agent and publisher stats? Do you have a cheerleader and how important is it that you have someone who pushes and prod and cheers as needed? And what about B&N, bookstores in general and e-books? The floor is now yours.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Do I Have to Write?

Our guest blogger today is Ellie Ferguson. Ellie's novel, Wedding Bell Blues, is published by Naked Reader Press and is available from the N.R. site and Amazon. Let's give her a big welcome and make her feel at home. -- Amanda


Earlier this week, I did a blog over at The Naked Truth, Naked Reader's blog where I asked -- okay, I'll admit it. I whined a bit -- "Do I have to?". I whined because Amanda and Cliff, NR's acquisitions editor, wanted me to post a little about myself and Wedding Bell Blues. I'd never done a blog before and really wasn't sure what I ought to say. Next thing I knew, not only was I blogging there but here as well. I'm no longer whining, except when my coffee cup is empty and the chocolate is gone. But, from what I can tell, that's the general response of most writers face with such a predicament.

Okay, who am I and why am I here? As it says on the book cover -- gee, I never really thought I could say that. And isn't it a great cover? Laura Givens did a wonderful job and I can't thank her enough -- my name's Ellie Ferguson. As I said at The Naked Truth, I'm older than 20 and younger than death and that's all you'll get from me about my age. After all, it's not polite to ask a woman how old she is. I'm a mother, a daughter and was a wife. I've spent most of my life in the South and love to travel. The only problem with that is my dog always thinks I've abandoned him when I do and it takes weeks to reassure the poor thing and my cat resents the fact I came back before he could figure out a way to kill the dog and hide the body. My house is haunted -- it is, really. I swear it. What else explains the table that plays music and the light that comes on by itself? -- but it's mine and I love it. Okay, I'm a little strange. But that makes life interesting.

Wedding Bell Blues is my first published novel. Like most writers, I have a number of others that I probably should burn for fear that, after I'm gone, someone might find them and see that I spent a lot of time writing bad fanfic as I learned how to be a writer. And that brings me to the topic today.

Do I have to write? I can't tell you how many times I've heard that question -- and often from myself. Sometimes the question comes from family or friends who just don't understand what it is to be a writer. They shake their heads and you can see them thinking, "Poor Ellie. Her head's always in the clouds. Such a shame she can't be like the rest of the family." Then there is my favorite variation on it, "Poor Ellie, such a shame she'll never be as good as [insert author's name here]."

What they don't understand is that, yes, I do have to write. Writing is as much a part of me as my graying hair and need for coffee every morning. I can't not do it. The hard part is screwing up the confidence to actually send out something I've spent so much time writing. Then the wait. Will the editor like it? Will they buy it? What if they buy it but want me to make all sorts of changes? What if my father sees what I've written -- oh, wait, it's not THAT kind of book. Whew.

Then the call comes saying the editor liked the book and wants to publish it. My shout of joy can still be heard -- echoing somewhere around the Himalayas by now. That was one of the best moments of my life. Someone not only liked what I had written but wanted to pay me money for it and put it out where others could read it. Others...gulp...people would actually read it. Was there anything in it I didn't want them to read? What was in it? Why couldn't I remember what I'd written?

Fortunately, Cliff managed to talk me down from the sudden burst of fear that no one would like my book. Now I only break into the shakes once every couple of hours. After all, I'm an writer. I can say that now. I have a great cover with my name on it. I can point people to sites where they can buy my book. No need to hyperventilate. No time to...after all, I have to write. Not for Cliff. Not even for Naked Reader. No, I have to write for me. Writing is a part of me and I have more stories to tell. As I work on my next novel, there is only one question I can't answer and it is the question all writers -- if they're honest -- fear: will the readers like my book?

All I can say is I hope so. Wedding Bell Blues is one of those books that had to be written. It came to me while on vacation and wouldn't let me go. I had fun writing it and I love the characters. Hopefully, Cliff will let me play with them some more later. In the meantime, I'll continue to write because I can't not do it.

Hello, my name's Ellie and I'm a writer. It's almost 7 in the morning and I've written a blog and 1,000 words on my current wip. Who drank all my coffee?

So, how about you guys? Do you have to write? Or am I the only one who has the strange, often demanding, compulsion?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Emotional Resonance

Emotional resonance seems a very subjective term to me. Like so many of the phrases you might see on a rejection slip. "Your characters lack emotional resonance". But what does it mean?

Resonance. Well the Free Dictionary gives a few definitions, I guess the most relevant might be: Richness or significance, especially in evoking an association or strong emotion.

If I am guessing correctly - and honestly I don't even know if the people who use this term really define it, even for themselves - emotional resonance is about evoking within the reader the emotions you are trying to portray in the work. If a character is said to lack emotional resonance, then my understanding is something along the lines that this character does not evoke an emotion in the reader.

Now I am pretty sure that this term is also used when people object to a character, and also when the reader does not buy the reactions that a character might have - you might say when the suspension of disbelief is broken. This seems to be a different issue, but it gets lumped into the same basket.

Of course, beyond the definition and what exactly people are trying to say is the reason for the lack of emotional resonance. The characterisation may just be poorly thought out or executed, or perhaps there is a lack of consistency that is jarring. Perhaps the emotional reactions of the character do not gel in some situations, and this breaks the reader-writer connection.

Even though all of this could be true, I think more often than not the reason is that the reader (or editor is they happen to be one), just don't like that character. They don't 'get' them. The things that particular character experience and strive for, their emotional reactions, do not echo with any level of personal experience in the reader. If that is the case, then no amount of crafting will make that reader like the work - no matter how good the characterisation or how relevant it is to the story.

I don't know. Help me out. What do people mean by 'emotional resonance'?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thee Prodigal Returneth

I suppose I should start by apologizing for being rather scarce, except that I don't know when that's going to change - I might be back from the Epic Visit to Australia, but I'm still juggling the stress balls. At least I'm not having what I not-so-fondly refer to as stress meltdowns on a daily basis.


Here's a little mental exercise for anyone whose mental hasn't been exercised enough lately. Picture a large, busy airport, rather behind on essential maintenance and somewhat grotty. Add a departure lounge area that can handle maybe 300, crammed with something near 1000 tired, harried people. Now imagine 3 gates, all adjacent, all of them showing the same departure time for 3 long-haul (8+ hour) international flights. Garnish with a less than stellar PA system performing rapid-fire updates in several languages, some of them possibly English.

Now imagine Kate, with body claiming that I should have been horizontal several hours ago, standing and trying to wait patiently for the boarding call on the flight that should have boarded 1/2 an hour ago. Notice that Kate is swaying. And looks like collapse is nearby.

And people wonder why I hate to fly?

Anywho, I survived that little trauma, got to Melbourne for WorldCon, and lo and behold, 4 hours to transfer one bag between adjacent terminals is simply not sufficient. So it's exhausted Kate stumbling around looking for something suitable in size beached whale in order to not look like something the cat decided against dragging in because it was just too disreputable.

Once that little problem was dealt with, the con was wonderful, if rather quieter than many of the cons I've been to. I suspect that the huge space of the Melbourne Convention Center plus the lack of any real 'gathering space' had a lot to do with it. The people there kind of rattled in that massive area.

The good: Catching up with assorted friends I know mostly online.
The bad and the ugly: Melbourne Convention Center does not have any water fountains. Not one. What's more, the water in the loos is temperature-controlled to be warm. I ended up getting my water refills at the loo taps, going from basin to basin to get the cooler water. I didn't have the budget for the convention center's overpriced bottled water, so I ended up somewhat dehydrated despite the regular trips to the Ladies for water refills.

It seemed kind of light on publishing folk - perhaps an opportunity for the enterprising? As Dave mentioned on Monday, Aussies read. Despite shamefully high book prices (someone is making out like a bloody pirate there, and it ain't the authors or the readers - when the Aussie dollar was worth about half a US dollar, the prices were kind of reasonable, but they haven't dropped any and the two currencies are pretty close to parity) people buy books.

Then came the blast from the past. Picture an airport terminal. Now throw away the picture and replace it with a warehouse. Insert some rooms and a few counters and the like inside, park some seats in there, and you've got Melbourne's Essenden Airport - the one the light planes use. Security consists of a friendly guy on the counter asking "Have you got anything dangerous in there?" and you answering "Nope." To get on the plane you walk out on the tarmac and climb into a 20 seater (this is the big plane) with no amenities. Just seats and seatbelts.

And at the other end of the hour-long flight, Kate finds Heaven on Earth, otherwise known as Flinders Island. Of course, nothing's perfect - Dave makes me catch my dinner (squid) and food for the cats (wrasse). I recommend this as a relaxation cure - you can even eat what you catch, so long as Dave doesn't make me cook it! (The less said about my cooking the better).

So now I'm back, buggered (to use the Oz vernacular), and periodically removing velcro cats who are quite convinced if they let me out of their sight I'll leave them again. And now that I've splattered you with my travel tale, it's time for yours. What are the best trips you've taken, and why? The worst? The weirdest?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Beware, Toxic

We’ve discussed before – I think – the absolute necessity for getting out of your head, now and then, and talking to real people, or at least those projections of real people that are various email and chat programs.

Even if you have a real job – but particularly if you don’t – writing will warp you. If you’re not in touch with other writers on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself wondering if you invented your family and friends and marveling at that amazing creation: your very cranky boss.

At least if you get together with other writers, you can argue about who wrote the cranky boss and – very important – why someone keeps writing editors that reject you.

More importantly, though, particularly in the beginning, it is important to get together with other writers and critique each other’s work.

But Sarah, you say – yes, you, the gentleman third from the left on the fifth row. Did you bring enough candy for everyone? – “My mother/Aunt Mimi/cat loves my work. Why do I need to expose myself to the critique of strangers that happen to be writers?”

Because your mother/Aunt Mimi/cat (and why is your cat talking to you? Worse, why have you taught your cat to read? You do realize if she gets hold of a work on mind-control and hypnosis we’re done as a species, right?) might not be playing favorites. They might be brutally honest with you. However unless one of them is a writer, professional editor, or somehow involved in reading a lot of the type of work you write (your cat? REALLY?)_they might spot something is wrong, but not be able to tell you what. Or even worse, depending on where you are, not be able to tell you how to optimize your work (ie. They’ll assume because it’s readable it’s good enough to be published) or assume it’s the worst thing ever written because there’s a mistake or two (i.e. “Don’t quit your day job, you have five punctuation mistakes!”) Meanwhile, someone striving to learn the craft, even if at the same level or not much advanced than you can help, because they might have discovered a way to solve something that’s bothering you. Yeah, you’ll do a lot of sharing of ignorance, but if you’re persistent and work hard, eventually you’ll stumble in the right direction.

There are many ways to find a writers group: call your local library; join RWA or the association best suited to your writing (RWA takes unpublished members. With other associations it varies) and ask about a local critique group; hang a sign on your window (be careful it doesn’t sound like a ransom note. They might think the cat is holding you hostage); and as a last resort, form one. (An ad on Craigslist might do that.)

Once you find a writers’ group, you must make sure it’s a good one. I will not mention any of the normal precautions when meeting strangers. (Meet in a public place first; have some common sense; don’t accept candy; don’t tell them your cat can read, etc.)

Instead, I will deal with: The Top Ten Signs that your Writers’ Group is Toxic.

10 - The dilettante group: You’re the only person in the group who writes. The others come for the cheese, the dominoes or to look at your talking cat. They might be lovely folks, but if you stick around you’ll also become one of those writers in name only. Come for the cookies, find another critique group.

9 - The generalist group: There’s someone who writes romance, two elderly ladies who write erotica, a punk rocker who writes biblical adventure, a gentleman who is writing his memoirs from the Korean war and those cute chicks who drawvampire picture books. No one is writing your interest which is – let’s say – fantasy. This means either they compliment you on coming up with this cool concept: elves! Or they tell you this can’t be fantasy, it doesn’t sound a thing like Harry Potter. (Or Tolkien.) RUN. Run very fast. If you stay you’ll find yourself having to include paragraphs on how and why your magical spell works. A fantasy editor will think you’re insane.

8 - The Personality Cult Group: There is one writer who is published – weirdly, usually this means one short story in a small press magazine ten years ago – and who therefore holds the key to all your future careers. In her mind, at least (and possibly her cat’s mind.) what she says sets the tone for what everyone thinks about your story. Worse, what she says is the “truth” engraved in stone and brought down from the mountain. This might be fine, if she is an icon in the field you hope to break into or if the person is understanding and empathetic enough to be able to guide you (and that usually only works in the beginning. Later, you’ll need more specific critique.) But if you’re writing SF and she writes for Ladies Home Journal and she thinks there is ONE right way to write, you will have a problem.

7 - The Clique: These people have been together since the time of dinosaurs. Instead of studying published works/the market/field blogs/etc, they have decided it’s much easier and greater fun to develop their own rules of good writing. These range from the loony “you can not use words of different derivation together.” to the otherworldly “No book with a character named Stephen can get sold in today’s market.” to the deceptively reasonable-sounding “No one will buy a novel over 100 k words.” If you stay there, you’ll join the clique. This would be okay, except their rules have nothing to do with what publishers want and will distort your style. If you stay a while, then leave, they’ll hate you. Meet, greet, drink the coffee and RUN.

6 - The Worshipers: Similar to the Cult of Personality, except the worshiped one is not a member of the group but some great writing teacher long departed. The difference between someone like me, who recommends a writer of how-to-write books like Dwight Swain, and a worshiper is that I don’t ask you things like “did you read what he says on page seven?” Unless you agree with them that this teacher is the be all end all of writing technique and that you want to write just like that, don’t bother. If you choose to stay, memorize the scriptures. And pray that this writing teacher IS the right guide to what publishing houses want right now.

5 - The Haters: face it, they’re just not that into you. It’s not even your writing. Conversations stop when you enter the room. They ask you when you stopped beating your cat. And of course, they hate everything you ever wrote. Give it up. Basic human chemistry is needed too.

4 - The Flounderers: they’re worse than your cat at critiquing. “I feel you’re just wrong here. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe it’s this other thing. Have you considered writing about cats?” If you can’t figure out what they’re saying and they can’t explain it, maybe you should consider finding a group that speaks your language.

3 - The Feuders: You’ve just joined the writing group where half the members are Montagues and the Capulets and you find your critiques being judged on the basis of which group you’re aligning yourself with. Beware any less than complimentary critiques or even praise if given to the wrong person. There will be revenge. Do I need to tell you to get out?

2 - The Concerned Ones: They’ll follow you outside after the meeting and give you “advice” strictly for your own good, of course. It will be stuff like, “You’ll never get published until you fix your commas.” The person giving the advice will have no more credits than you. But it’s their way of claiming superiority. They’re notorious for not giving their “help” in front of the rest of the group. If they’ve been in the group very long, don’t stay. If you’re both new, hope the concerned one leaves first. If not, you leave.

1 - The Flatterers: Everything you write is gold. Gosh, wow, oh, heavens, you’re even better than your cat. And your Aunt Mimi doesn’t love you enough. Would you like the comfy chair? Is that cushion what you needed? Have a cookie. We just love you. You’re so talented.
I’m not going to tell you to run. I mean, we all need a pat in the back now and then. But tell them you’re busy and can only come once a month (do you want to get fat from all the cookies?) Then find someone who will give you a good critique.

Questions? Suggestions? Additions? (What did your cat say?)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Battles in Fantasy Books

I'm using the cover of book three of King Rolen's Kin to talk about how violence is portrayed in fantasy books. Most often the character has some special skill, or is trained to have that skill and they get through encounters because of their ability.

Wanting to get the battles, big and small, right (or as much as possible) I spent 5 years each learning three different martial arts, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido and Iaido, the art of the Samurai sword.

I also bought books, Machiavelli's The Prince, a book on the Roman cavalry training techniques, books on castles and the development of their defences plus several books on great battles through the ages. One was from the West Point Academy and analysed the strategy of pivotal battles going right back to Caesar.

So I've tried to make my battles, large and small, as realistic as possible while still maintaining the thrill of the fantasy world. (I'm not going to mention the problems of lice, festering wounds or rotting teeth except where they are pertinent to the plot).

I thought I was doing OK, but yesterday my 15 year old son was attacked, bashed and had his bag stolen. (Him and two friends - attacked by 7 kids). He's alright. Just some bruising to the side of his face and the back of his head. (I took the opportunity to warn all my kids about the dangers out there. They think they're bullet proof and ten feet tall in their teens and early 20s).

Going with my son to file a police report of the incident I listened to the officer question him. Could he remember what the guy wore? Not really. Did he know how many times he was punched in the face? No, he thinks it might have been 4 or 5 times.

He was 'king hit' as we call it in Australia - hit in the head without warning. We know he was punched in the left side of his face because that is where the bruising is. He remembers turning his back towards his attacker to protect his face and he thinks he was hit again, because he has a lump on the back of his head. But the whole thing is pretty fuzzy for him. Twenty four hours later, he is still feeling a bit nauseous.

All this is leading up to how we write about violence. There's no point in going into technical terms about kicks and blows and sword strokes. Your average reader won't know them. So I've always tried to make my descriptions accessible to everyone.

But if I were really going to be accurate, I'd probably have to say something like - One minute he was on his feet, the next he was on the floor with no idea how he'd gotten there. But if I did that, I think the reader would feel cheated.

I must admit I liked the way Joe Abercrombie wrote his fight scenes. A flurry of action and then the character's relief to still be alive.

How do you feel about fight scenes and battles? How realistic do they need to be? How unrealistic do they need to be for the character and the reader to make sense of them? Who writes good battle scenes, large and small?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The death and transfiguration of Mary Sue.

These people in our heads to whom we become, as it were, God to: ai, mine must hate me. I can imagine Virginia Shaw, with a fist raised to heaven screaming ‘damn you, Author, I will not die!' And reaching for a chainsaw and coming looking for me.
The ‘Mary Sue' (or Marty Stu, if this bothers you) concept -- wish fulfilment characters with too many of the attributes we wish were ours to be realistic characters -- a thing typical of fanfic particularly (but certainly not exclusively) by adolescents. It's never too late for that happy childhood, and many of us linger on in the terrible twos until the Zimmer frame lurches and deposits our white-haired form in front of the oncoming furniture truck. At this point the Superman / Robin / Wonderwoman written version of ourselves does not whisk us out of the way, and we become one with the tarmac.

It's a comment that pops up sooner or later to every writer. A character 'is a Mary Sue'. A character is an author's pet. There are tests for it. There reams of literary thought written about it. There are accusations of sexism. It's a put-down for women, you know. Women are afraid of writing female characters in case they are accused of writing Mary Sues...

Sigh. It is a real thing, and not just a female one either. At its extreme it is easily pin-pointed. The version of Superman who has the same nickname as the author, who is without flaw and to whom kryptonite is a kind of cheese-spread. To quote Sarah - "to the Mary Sue it all comes easy. People love her/emote with her/cheer her victories, cast down her enemies, etc -- even those who have no reason to."
The Mary Sue version of Superman never gets arrested for getting up to something kinky in the phone-booth (remember phone-booths?). I spent years wondering if Superman had been in less of a hurry not to get arrested if he'd have managed to put his underpants inside his trousers. Or with the mental image of a battered half-dressed Superman fleeing a sweet little white haired lady who is belaboring his head with a parasol... she happened to be occupying said booth when he rushed in to change. Anyway, to wrench myself away from this delightful image: The extremes are obvious. But writing has few absolutes. And the reality is that the gradual shade away from this extreme takes us to something almost every writer has to do. And no, it is not necessarily unpopular. Or bad.

It is necessary that the writer identify and care about a character. If you can't do it, how do you expect your reader to? And duh, logically, if they're your hero/ine, they're going to be front-and-centre to the story a lot. There is no doubt that all my heroines are a wish fulfilment of mine. No, not to be them, or even to admire their chest measurements... but in attitudes. In some way all of them are Barbs, in that they do not give up, and they tend toward the pragmatic, they do not set boundaries on what they can achieve, they are, I suppose, all people who care and give of themselves, usually without counting the cost. I like to imagine, anyway, that I give them different exteriors, different flaws, and different chainsaws. But yes, they are wish-fulfilment of mine. And yes I might be pushing the limit of characteristics in one person, but I believe for every whiny-assed ‘hensopper' in her Manolo Blahniks out there, there is another one of ‘my' people, possibly with the exterior disguise of a plump, harassed mum with two live-bait children and a mortgage in negative equity -- who will take on hell with a fire-bucket, and that I will be just a teeny bit in love with the courage and attitude of.

It's almost inevitable, when you write sf or fantasy, or for that matter murder-mystery or anything but slice-of-life literary novels that there will be a concatenation of the plot and something ‘special' about the heroes. Even if it is only that they're pig-headed battlers and overcoming the odds will require determination and repeat efforts. Or that they're practical jokers with a dislike for authority's dictates, and authority therefore would like them removed. Or that they're little ‘uns and used to having to think their way out of difficulty, because brawn won't do it, and now they face more brawn than the brawniest could ever deal with. Or -- as is more usual -- all of the above and then some. And yes, some will be the finest swordsman outside France too, or the best shot since Annie Oakley, or be able to kill a man in unarmed combat at fifty paces with their bare armpits.

So let's explore just how you avoid the extremes, and look at the success.
For a start the key has to be ‘it's not my Mary Sue -- it's a lot of the readers' wish fulfilment.' I'd like to be a lot more like many of my heroes (no I don't want to do that stuff. Well, not all of it. But I'd like my attitude to be like theirs). And I'd be in love with many of my heroines... but hopefully, if I have it right, so would a lot of people (Ok so this depends on gender and orientation. I really don't care, as the writer -- so long as they appeal to you.)

Secondly, my mum was a teacher at my junior school. It's very hard not be called teacher's pet, when you are small and, I admit, cute (I grew out of it, right) and fairly bright. It took a team effort. For a start my mother was twice as nasty to me as she was in the same circumstances to any other kid. A lot of the other kids were sorry for me -- as they didn't realise this was ‘school-face'. And for a second I was something of a mischievous brat who looked for trouble, rather like my best buddy the Anglican priest's son (as nice a natured lad as you could ever find, who was always in trouble) who also had a similar point to make. Your character will have to do the same thing. You, the author, will have to be bloody horrible to them. And they will have to do stupid things.

Thirdly: flaws. The one thing the extreme of Mary Sue which people battle to like does not have, it's character flaws (circumstances against them: yes. Flaws. No.). Often these are self-inflicted flaws. Doubt - self doubt is a flaw in our hero, but it's also something most of us can identify with. Just be aware that too much of this a VERY BORING THING - unless you are a self-centred late-teenager. Others are hard to write well: Jealousy being one - that if you can do it, can work really well. We've all been there. It's pretty noxious. Immaturity of course is the commonest - but you can flavor and shade that. Often it's dealing with that flaw - or character perceived flaw, that really is the story.

Ok so take it from there: Have you ever been accused of this? Have you taken steps to counter it? Can you?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

But Who is the Enemy?

There is a scene at the end of the movie The Bridge at Remagen where Major Kruger (played by Robert Vaughn) is being escorted to the firing squad. In the distance he hears planes and he looks up and asks "Ours or theirs?" His escort, who has already apologized for what is about to happen, responds, "The enemy's, sir!" Kruger continues looking skyward for a moment and then looks at the SS officer before saying, "But who is the enemy?"

That's a question we, as writers, need to ask ourselves on a number of different levels and in several different contexts on a regular basis. The most obvious reason to ask the question is to determine who the enemies are in what we write. We need to know who the protagonist and antagonist are, their motivations and what the resolution -- if any -- to their antagonism will be. That truly is the simplest application of the question and the easiest to resolve. (I'll admit right here that I'm going to expand on this next week but that, having spent the weekend at a local con, the topic has gotten sidetracked.)

But there are other applications of the question as well that we have to consider. We have to look at it with regard to the business aspect of our careers. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not telling you to go out and draw a line in the sand and make enemies in the publishing world. Far from it, in fact. What I am saying is that we have to recognize that no one has our best interests as much at heart as we do. Our agents -- for those of us lucky enough to have one -- will come second. Why? Because if they don't have the best interest of their authors at heart, they don't make money. At least not in the long run. But editors and publishers have to look more at what their bottom line will be. They might like you as a person, they might even love you as a writer, but if you aren't making money for them and making money quickly, the bean counters are going to say to cut you loose.

Then there is the enemy in the mirror. Yes, that person whose reflection you see every morning when you stumble into the bathroom. We can be our own worst enemy in so many ways. As I mentioned earlier, I've spent the weekend at a local con and, while this con has been pretty good and those in attendance far from the, er, more colorful I've seen, it did bring to mind how we do tend to shoot ourselves in the foot from time to time and usually at the worst possible time.

There is something about a con that makes normally sane people forget they are in public. Mouths run wild without a thought about who might overhear you. Authors critique and condemn editors with abandon...often when that editor or someone from his house is within earshot. Editors bitch about authors or agents. Authors backbite other authors. It can be like a scrum in the middle of a muddy rugby field. While entertaining and informative for those standing out the outside, it can be career suicide if you aren't careful.

I'm not even going to get into the authors who think they are sooooo much better than anyone else or the fans who stalk their favorite author just so they can tell the author this really great idea they have for the authors next book.

I guess what I'd like to do is present you with the premise that this is a cautionary tale, much as that last scene in The Bridge at Remagen is. We need to be aware at all times of where we are and who is around unless we want to commit professional suicide. That includes taking care with what we write in blogs, on facebook, twitter, etc. Not only should we think about how we comment on the business -- and this goes for me as much as anyone. I am often negative about how the major publishers approach e-books and e-book pricing and royalties, but I try to have facts and figures to back me up -- and on how much of ourselves we open up to the public at large. Remember, when you submit something to an agent or editor, one of the first things they do if they think they might be interested in your work is google you. Is there anything out there you wouldn't want them to see? And fans will do the do you really want to put out your political views, pictures of your kids, etc?

I have certain lines I don't cross -- or at least lines I try not to cross -- when putting something on facebook or my blogs or twitter. What about you? Do you have lines you won't cross and why?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

E-books, books and the pain of being Australian

Let me introduce myself. My name is Darryl Adams, and I am a frustrated writer. It is only by accident that I discovered that I can write about technology in general and e-books in particular, so logically I find myself writing in a blog full of writers that are way better than me.

A famous joke (and yes it is funnier if you’re an Aussie and not a Queenslander) is an airline pilot telling his passengers “Welcome to Queensland. Turn your clocks back 1 hour and your mind back 20 years”. That, in a nutshell, is the Australian book marketplace.

We are a book colony of the United Kingdom. I have been told anecdotally that we represent about 50% of the book sales for the UK publishing houses. The Aussie publishers (generally owned by British publishers) own the distribution system. As a result, book prices are high, and local retailers are low on the totem pole compared to the big retailers.

The small independent book retailers are in a world of hurt. One side is the high book prices and poor supply fulfilment of the locally supplied books, and other is the mail order book retailers like Amazon and Book Depository who can sell and mail a book and still offer a price half the local book price.

E-books are another issue. The Kindle has only been available for about a year (when the Kindle was released internationally), and the Amazon bookstore is only a small subset of books available to the US public and are more expensive in comparison.

The other local e-book retailers (, and again have many books unavailable for Aussie readers. Price wise the local e-book retails are more expensive, with some books approaching paperback prices.

The Apple ibook platform for iPhone and iPad only offer Public Domain books. Apple has advertised for a local book manager, but it will take time for Apple to negotiate agreements with the publishing houses.

The only bright spot in the marketplace is Borders and Whitcoull (under the REDGroup banner). They have partnered with Kobo to release a reader and are slowly working to have a robust range of books for sale. The Kobo reader is a good reader, but is currently way overpriced (A$199 and NZ$250) as we are not seeing the massive price drops that that US is seeing at the moment.

Other readers are slowly being released, from the impressive Kogan reader to a range of disappointing LCD and e-ink readers that lack the DRM systems required to use locally purchased e-books.

For me, books are content. Either paper or e-ink, the words are still the same, it is just the delivery system that is different. I bought a copy of Dave Freer’s (and I believe Mercedes Lackey and Eric Flint may have supplied the pens) Much Fall of Blood in both ARC e-book and hardcover. Mainly because I wanted it now! And when I reread it, I ont have to think hard what format I want to read it in. What I don’t want is to have the choices of how I read a book taken away from me, and DRM, format lock-in, poor pricing, bad delivery mechanisms (wither in the real world or digitally) and propriety applications/devices/software actively do this. Or to say it simply, almost all of Australian book market is against me. It as if the WANT me to buy foreign sourced books.

And if the publishers, distributors, authors and retails finally work this out and get their act together in the United States or United Kingdom, odds on it will be 20 years before the Antipodes see it…..

Links: (Borders AU) (Whotcoull NZ) (Kobo reader) (The Kogan Reader)
(Some of the less than impressive e-book readers available.) (Nuff said)

You can find more of Darryl's thoughts about e-books and publishing in general at

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Young Protoganists in Adult Fiction

Everyone expects to see a young protagonist in YA, but what about adult fiction?

Here is the trouble with writing from instinct. My novel Tower of the Mountain King features a central protagonist who is fifteen. Now in this bronze-age/iron-age Celtic neo-Ireland, this is old enough to be standing in the front ranks. Making young Lathel the central character in this adult novel made sense to me - and it was a gut instinct thing.

I have read plenty of heroic fiction that begins with young protagonists. David Gemmell has written many, the best example of which may be Sword in the Storm. Then there is The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, which is an absolute classic, and sits on my all-time-favourites shelf.

The choice made sense to me, and I considered that it should increase the reader engagement, with a sense of Lathel being the underdog.

Which only increased my surprise when a major Australian editor, who shall remain nameless, declared that adult books required adult protagonists, then continued to advise me to consider marketing it as YA. After a few startled days, I compiled a list of reasons why I considered it an adult manuscript, and also a list of books that were clearly adult, yet had young protagonists. There was never a response to this email, which either indicates they had lost interest and did not bother reading it, or perhaps that this was not the real reason they rejected the manuscript in the first place.

So what do you think? Can you think of some other examples where a young protagonist has worked in adult fiction? Did you think that it sometimes doesn't work? Or should not be attempted? In which case why?

Playing The Issue of the Week Card

Needless to say, this is a bad thing. That card has a very low balance and gets maxxed out pretty fast. It also pisses people off.

That's not to say that some issue or other you feel deeply about should be kept out of your writing - far from it. Just don't try to shove it in.

See, the things that matter most to you will find their way into your stories no matter what you do - or even if you're trying to keep them out. That's why all Pratchett (and all Hoyt and all Freer for that matter) has an underlying theme of 'what is 'human'?'. Or possibly 'what makes something a person?" I tend to hit the question of just where you find that hazy boundary between doing horrible things for the right reasons and doing them for reasons that just aren't sufficient justification - and how that affects the person who's doing the horrible things. And so on.

For that matter, if something happens that really gets under your skin, it will find a way into what you write. By then, the form could well have mutated to where no-one will recognize issue X, which is - trust me - a good thing.

Readers don't like getting lectured - or at least this reader doesn't. It tends to inspire immediate and rapid defenestration of the offending book. This is a problem, since kindles don't take well to that kind of treatment, and the delete key just isn't as satisfying.

Anyway, if I wanted a sermon, I'd go to church. If I wanted a lecture, I'd go to college. Besides, the issue of the week is old news by the time the book comes out, and the chances of it being back in that position when your book hits the shelves are pretty low. So many issues, so little time... I think they've got issue of the week booked through April 2057.

Another no-no with issues is to force your character to hand down the lecture - especially when it breaks the character. Whatever it is, trust it to leak out its own way. Having your main character stop, sometimes in the middle of the action (yes, there are Names who do this. They get away with it because they're Names - but I stopped buying their book when they started lecturing me), and sound off about issue X. Even, in the case of one formerly very popular author, when the character in question had no reason whatsoever to give a flying fornication about said issue.

(What does a flying fornication look like, anyway? I've often wondered about that... ahem. Sorry.)

I've mentioned some authors who handle assorted hot button or philosophical issues very well in their fiction. Anyone else?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Like A Double Shadow

Often you hear writers talk about their characters as if they exist. I remember reading an interview with Rex Stout late in life, when the interviewer asked him how Nero Wolfe was doing, and Rex Stout answered with perfect gravity that Wolfe was doing fine. He’d just finished reading such and such a book and he was considering such and such topics.

At these moments, I, and perhaps others – who knows? Who talks about such scary subjects out loud? – draw in a sharp breath and think “I cannot have heard that right.” Or “he was joking.” Or “Characters don’t exist.”

It is only partly disbelief. The other part is self-reassurance.

Are the authors joking? Probably. At least partly. But the jokes have the bravado of a man walking past a graveyard. It is in this way not dissimilar to the humor of cops, or morticians or even doctors. It is the non-scary stuff with which we paper over the abyss of fear.

And right now you’re wondering what sort of authors I know and talk to. More, if you’re a writer, you’re saying “but I was never–” It’s possible you were never tempted, never confused, never worried about the reality of your characters. There is a broad swath of writers who don’t write that way. They start with the plot, then populate it. However, if you listen to them, even they can sound a little unsure. I’ve heard one such writer say “I start with the plot, then I audition characters for it. If they don’t behave I fire them and get new ones in.”

Audition, behave, fire... are not things one applies to non-existent beings.

Yeah, I see you shaking your heads and saying “you’re taking things too literally Sarah.”

Perhaps I am, at least in some instances. But both from myself and from those writers I talk to closely and often, I can tell there is something else at work.

Sure, I know writers who create their characters with a list of attributes: name, name of mother, name of father, favorite color, favorite childhood memory, etc. But I also know to fool the reader with your shadow play – to make them care about these scraps of imagination – you must at some point forget that you’re merely dreaming. You must believe first, so you can convince others. You must draw these characters only partly from your conscious, but partly from your subconscious, so that you pause in the middle of writing and go “where did that come from?” or “What is there that she’s not telling me?” And the best characters acquire a motive power of their own and their self-revelation is a revelation to you as well and often leaves you stunned. Or sometimes it’s a piece of a puzzle that makes all the preceding action clear. (For instance, in the fifth book of the musketeer mysteries, I finally understood how Athos had got so self-punishing, over a memory of childhood, to which he attaches no particular importance.)

Now I must interject, as a caveat, that there are perfectly good books where the characters are either archetypes or never come to life for the reader – and possibly for the author, either. These are generally speaking either action books or big idea books. They just tend not to be the type of books I write – a division as marked as that between pantsers and plotters is the division between those who find their point of entry into a novel through a person, and those who find it through an idea – where even the big idea needs a big character to shoulder it or be crushed by it.

So, do characters exist? Do they have an independent existence from us?

No. And yes. No, of course they don’t exist outside the writer’s head. Not really. I mean, they might exist, sort of, if you are the sort of writer who uses bits and pieces of his friends (I’m not) or the sort that might have picked a gesture, a character trait, a snatch of conversation from observing a total stranger in a public place, (guilty.) They exist in the same sense as Botticelli’s Venus existed, as a transformed, idealized, glorious version of what was probably a mundane and every day woman.

And yet, Botticelli’s Venus is there upon the canvas, fixing the world with her innocent and knowing gaze for centuries now. In the same way, your characters do exist. If you’ve done your job properly, when the readers close the book, they can imagine what the character did in the next day, in the next year. They can see the character getting up from the chair, dusting his clothes, and... living, day to day. Because you’ve made him or her that alive, that exactingly deep and to an extent (not too much of an extent. You do that, and you end up with Kit Marlowe’s plays, where you’re never sure whom to root for, because his heros are villainous and his villains heroic, in just about equal measure) contradictory and complex.

While you’re working with them – while you’re creating the book in which they are – you have to consider them real, self willed, capable of disobeying you. You have to be able to argue with them (when we were first married, I used to tell my husband “tough day. Personality conflicts at the office and I work alone” – it took years for him to understand what I mean.)

What we are paid for, as writers, is to go a little insane on purpose. We take the semi-conscious half-dreaming state most people engage in, and make it at least somewhat rational and detailed enough for other people to read. We are, in that sense, merchants of dreams.

But there’s a danger there, as well as a lure. And there’s a precipice on the other side. It’s all too easy to convince yourself that the characters (and the world for that matter) exist. It’s all to easy to step into that dream-world and let go, or worse, to keep a foot in each world. Your writing might become more intensely believable, then, for a while, but eventually it will hurt you. No one, not even the most rabid fans, want to know what your character had for breakfast for an entire year. No one, not even the most rabid fans are interested in a character whose life is as formless and implausible (reality doesn’t have to be plausible. Fiction does) as their own.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: writers are people who create an illusion of order out of the chaos of reality.

So, what am I saying? That you must drive yourself just crazy enough you think these people in your head are real, but just sane enough to control them and the narrative, when absolutely needed? Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying. Come on. It’s no worse than the simultaneous beliefs that your work is the worst cr*p ever to dirty paper on one side, and the most brilliant thing ever written. And you know darn well that these beliefs must be managed at once, so we have the courage to send things out and the detachment to deal with rejection and rewrite.

I believe in a less rational age, we might as well have been shamans and seers, channeling the “gods”. If you read the later Greek playwrights you sort of get a sense of the twin disease of the writer who has come to believe in his own work: First, no dead character can stay dead, particularly those who died young or unfairly (see Iphigenia in Tauris for an example.) They were all miraculously healed/hidden/restored by some god or supernatural being, and come back for more adventures. Second, we eventually descend into the minutia of what the characters like to have for breakfast and exactly HOW fuzzy their slippers are. Now I think about it, daytime soaps – where I suspect writers find themselves writing characters they, themselves, grew up with more often than not – acquire the same level of flaws.

When I was writing my third Shakespeare book, in which the ghost of Kit Marlowe was a prominent character, I walked to the elementary school to take the boys to class. On the way back – we lived up in the mountains then – through a fog as thick and white as curdled milk, I perceived a figure walking the other way. As he got near – for just a few seconds – I was amazed to see a young man with reddish hair in full Elizabethan garb, with a sword strapped on his waist and a cape curling behind him. He looked like Marlowe’s portrait in less formal attire. He walked past me and was gone, his steps vanishing in the fog.

I choose to believe he was one of the vast troupe of medieval recreators living in that small mountain town. I take as proof of this the fact that I’ve never before or since crossed paths with a character. The fact that I’d imagined Marlowe in such detail that I’m willing to consider I MIGHT have self-hypnotized into a vision of him is, I think, what makes that book come alive.

I did not turn, to establish the reality or not of my “vision.” I let Marlowe walk on past, into the fog and out of my life once that book was done.

So – how do you cope with the need to go “a little bit crazy?” How do you let go of your darlings when they’re so real you can tell what type of razor they prefer or that they’re upset that morning because the cat hacked up on their beds? How do you make the illusion enticing enough for others, and yet tear yourself away enough to shape it and – eventually – to walk away?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Books made into Movies and TV series

Fans of Stephen kill will be glad to hear that his 'The Dark Tower' is to be made into a film trilogy and TV series. It will be directed by Ron Howard who says:

“By using both the scope and scale of theatrical filmmaking and the intimacy of television we hope to more comprehensively do justice to the characters, themes and amazing sequences King has given us in The Dark Tower novels. It might be the challenge of a lifetime but clearly a thrilling one to take on and explore.”’

It would be fair to say that every writer would like to see their book/s made into a TV series of a movie. Only a very few are and, when they are, they can be very different from the book/s on which they were based.

The Harry Potter books were made into movies with varying success. The first few followed the books too closely. It wasn't until (I think it was) Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, that they started to interpet the books which led to a more elegantly told story.

Look at the success of Charlaine Harris's True Blood series which had been turned into the TV series of the same name. I found the books an enjoyable read in their genre. Alan Ball, the director of the TV series, has taken the premise and refined it to make a TV series that is biting (sorry about the pun) and insightful. The award winning series titles encapsulates the essence of the TV series.

Then there is the excellent job that Peter Jackson did on Lord of the Rings. Now I must admit that when I read LOTR to my children I skipped the lengthy poems and pages of travelogue. I read my kids the exciting bits and this was what Peter Jackson served up, with hints of the back-story. (Warning, LOTR purists will not agree). I think Jackson improved on Tolkien's structure in the scenes with Faramir. In the book Faramir is never tempted by the ring. He just lets Frodo go. In the movie he has the motivation to keep the ring because he wants to win his father's love and he is tempted, so it is more heroic when he lets Frodo go.

I'm always looking out for new TV series and movies to watch and I particularly like being able to compare these with the books, (if they're based on books). Can you think of a TV series or a movie that is based on a book or series of books that really impressed you?