Sunday, September 25, 2011

Meaning What You Don't Say

!!! Spoilers ahead for the following: Downton Abbey, Intuition, People of the Book.  

On of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie, has a great essay on what television taught her about writing romance (check it out here), and one of her points is that in television, characters often don't say quite what they mean (Lesson #4: Mean What You Don't Say).  I’ve been thinking about this lately while watching Downton Abbey (streaming on Netflix!) and appreciating that famous British reticence as displayed by early twentieth century aristocracy.  At times, in fact, they’re almost too reticent.  When Matthew Crawley proposed to Mary, I had to think back:  When exactly did they get to that point?  The clues are so subtle, it was easy for a coarse American to miss them.  All the same, the lack of overt sentiment in the show makes every action carry more weight.  Mary's decision to take a jump while hunting with the alluring Mr. Pamuk says almost as much as her failure to kick him out of her bedroom later that night.

This isn’t to say that a well-placed declaration can’t be powerful, but some of the best writing gets at emotions obliquely, because that’s how we get at them ourselves.  It’s rare that people say what they really feel.  Hell, we often don’t know ourselves well enough to be that honest.  Part of the joy of a good story is participating in the mystery of what, exactly, is going on in the characters' hearts.  Showing emotion rather than  having it declared also gives a writer the chance to load up a scene with more detail and nuance than could be achieved with a simple, “Will you go to bed with me?”  To illustrate, here are two examples from the beginnings of two very different relationships:

From People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks*:
        He reached over then and wiped a smear of grease off my cheek.  I stopped laughing.  I reached for his hand before he could withdraw it, and turned it over in my own.  It was a scholar’s hand, to be sure, with clean, well-kept nails.  But there were calluses as well.  I suppose even scholars had to chop wood, if they could find any, during the siege.  The tips of his fingers glistened with the lamb grease from my cheek.  I brought them to my lips and licked them, slowly, one by one.  His green eyes regarded me, asking a question anyone could understand.
Zow!  There’s no “do you like me?” moment.  There’s no "do you want to come upstairs?"  There is only risk and the wordless communication that follows.  Even if you haven't met these two characters (and you should; the book is amazing), you can probably pick up on how different their lives have been up until this point.  They each approach this initial trial with their own tolerance for rejection.

Here’s the initiation of a very different sort of relationship from Allegra Goodman’s Intuition
            Then suddenly she was embarrassed.  She felt herself blushing, heat spreading under her skin.  The others were calling out to them from the table, and she would have run away if he hadn’t been holding her.  She closed her eyes for a second, trying to remember the steps.  She listened to the music and counted silently to herself: one, two, one-two, and then plunged in, as she might jump into freezing water.
            The pressure of his hand on her waist surprised her.
            “What are you doing?” he asked her.
            She looked up at him, confused.
            “I’ll lead,” he said.
I’ll bet you can see where this one’s going.  If you think about it long enough, you might be able to reconstruct the whole plot from those 100 words.  We have two individuals used to being in control, but one of them has a great deal more self-assurance.  It won't end well. 

Both of these examples are packed with emotion, and we get to infer what's going on from what the players do rather than what they say.  The authors could have gone about revealing those deeper themes in other ways.  In People of the Book, Brooks could have had her female protagonist think to herself, "I knew he wouldn't make the next move, so I did it for him, taking his hand and drawing his index finger into my mouth."  Goodman could have had her main character ponder the wisdom of dancing with this man, could have had her wonder whether she made herself vulnerable by accepting.  I think their restraint makes for more engaging stories.  

How do you like your emotion served?  Can it be too cold?

*p. 31-32, Penguin Books, 2008
**p. 65, The Dial Press, 2006

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Memories

The first hurricane I have clear memories of is Andrew.  I was eleven years old, and my family was living in a converted workshop on a piece of riverfront property in the country.  The place wasn’t exactly sturdy, but we’d ridden out hurricanes there before, and my grandparents’ solid brick house was just yards away.  My mother had memories of Betsy and Camille.  By the time Andrew got inland, to us, it would be nothing compared to them.  We stocked up on canned food, filled buckets and plastic pitchers with water, and tied the lawn furniture down on the porch.

Like with most hurricanes, it’s what happened after the storm that I remember best.  We had a couple of horses in a five-acre paddock next to an oxbow lake, and after the storm hit, the field was four inches deep in muddy water.  The horses stuck their muzzles below the surface and came up with dripping mouthfuls of weeds and soggy roots.  It took a few days for the field to drain again, and by then, the horses’ pawing for grass had turned it into a plowed-up, muddy mess.  The horses weren’t the only muddy ones.  Since our water came from a pump well, and we were out power for a little over a week, we were out water as well.  I remember my father, sweaty and tired after chainsawing fallen trees and hauling them off to a pile to be burned, washing his hair outside in one of the trailing rain showers.

Andrew was also the storm where a poplar tree split in half when it fell and formed a perfect right angle around my father’s old gray pickup truck.  Not a scratch on it.  Thirteen years later, during Katrina, my old bedroom in that same house was demolished when an oak tree from the front yard gave it a direct hit.  You can’t always be lucky.

The last storm I was actually in before moving the California was Ivan.  The Enabler and I stayed up until two a. m. layering sandbags across the back porch of his condo to keep the water from the canal out.  It turned out the water never rose that high, but early that morning, while we slept through the storm, a monster of a pine tree across the canal came down, taking out the fences fronting the water and lying down neatly between the buildings of the complex, right through the unoccupied portion of the parking lot.

I’d already left home when Katrina hit, but not being in the thick of things was almost worse.  The phone lines were down, and the cell towers were so overloaded, I didn’t hear from my family for almost forty-eight hours.  I found out later that a tree had come down across the only access road to their subdivision.  They couldn’t get out.  Once the worst of the wind and rain subsided, the neighborhood men came out with chainsaws and axes and spent hours hauling it off the road.  Then my parents got in a car and drove west with their cell phones held up like divining rods, waiting for signal and an open line.  It took over thirty miles.  While they were driving, The Enabler and I were calling everyone we knew who was from the South but not currently in it, passing along messages and getting a few of our own.  Lakeview under water.  Trees down at a family member’s home in Baton Rouge, but no serious damage.  My friend’s camp on the river in Mississippi gone, nothing but the concrete foundation left. 

Of course, for every hurricane full of downed trees and flooding in my back yard, there are two like Georges, the storm that looked like it was coming right for us and then veered off to hit Mississippi.  And then there are countless ones whose names I can't remember, starting out strong in the Gulf but petering out into mere thunderstorms once they hit land.  We'd end up in the living room with the lights on and the AC blowing, watching the Weather Channel try to squeeze drama from the lackluster wind and drizzle.  These are the storms that explain why folks don't always evacuate when they should.

Stay safe, East Coast, and don't forget the batteries.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

This is Your Brain on Revision

How I revise a novel:

As you can see, I start out optimistic and thereafter oscillate between joy and despair.  It is possible for this pattern to continue indefinitely.  What does your revision process look like?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My First RWA!

Last week, I attended my first-ever writing conference, the RWA National conference in New York City.  It was overwhelming and fabulous, and here are the highlights:
  1. I met my agent (Sarah LaPolla, The Revision Ninja)!  Well, I’ve already met her, of course, but this was the first time I’ve gotten to meet her in person.  I tried not to squee.  We talked about books and publishing and the pros and cons of happy endings, plus our admiration for Bryan Fuller (and, of course, Lee Pace). 
  2. I got to meet some of my favorite authors, including Laura Bickle.  (If you haven’t checked out her Anya Kalinczyk series, you’re missing out.)  Laura introduced me to some of the RWA FF&P crowd, and I decided it’s high time I joined the chapter.   
  3. I should have been prepared for the ridiculous number of free books, but I wasn’t.  

I snagged thrity-five books. $356 worth.  The Enabler gamely carried on an entire suitcase full of books to avoid the checked baggage fee.  Bless him.  He really is an enabler.

4.  My roommates were rockstars!  I ended up rooming with my two critique partners, Rachael Herron and Kristin Miller.  They’re both published with Avon, which provided the free USB drives that came in our tote bags.  Those drives were pre-loaded with work by four Avon writers, and my roomies made up half of that list!  Pretty cool.  We had a gerat time.  Every night was like a slumber party, and the RITAs were like prom.  Here we are all dressed up at the awards ceremony:

Me, Rachael Herron, and Kristin Miller at the RITAs

It was a great trip, and I hope I get to attend next year as well.  Maybe by then, I’ll have finished half of those books.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What Makes and Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 5 of 5: Evil We Can Believe In

Spoiler Alert: I'm using JK Rowling's Harry Potter series as an example of a great work of fantasy.  If you haven't read the books, there are major spoilers ahead!

And today, Part 5!

“ Dorothy L. Sayers once pointed out about the mystery genre, fantasy is one of the last bastions of “moral fiction.”  By this she meant that in mystery—and in fantasy—good triumphs over evil, the wrongdoers get their just deserts, and all ends, if not always strictly happily, at least well.  This is the definition of “moral fiction”: something that shows the world, perhaps not as it is, but certainly as it could and should be.”

There’s a depressing amount of tragedy in the world.  And most of it, unfortunately, is complicated.  The more closely you look at an issue—any issue—the more complicated it gets, and intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree on the best approach to dealing with it.  Solutions aren’t just difficult to accomplish; they’re difficult to find in the first place.

In a fantasy world, things can be simpler.  In the Harry Potter series, taking out Voldemort and his Death Eaters is the clear, universally-agreed upon solution to stopping the wizarding war.  Don’t get me wrong, any good book, fantasy included, needs to be nuanced about its conflict or we’ll all get quickly bored.  There are plenty of cowardly, selfish and power-hungry characters in the series doing their part to make the world worse for complicated reasons.  But having that central, unequivocal evil to fix our sights on is satisfying.  We know who we’re fighting. 

Not only is the evil in fantasy easy to identify, it can form a “universal well” for sub-conflicts.  In Harry Potter, the mistreatment of house elves and muggle-baiting are tied to Voldemort’s pure-blood wizard fanaticism.  Barty Crouch senior, who sent his own son to prison, was driven to by fear of the escalating violence of the Death Eaters.  Even Dolores Umbridge, the power hungry over-zealous Hogwarts disciplinarian originally tied to the Minister of Magic, goes over to the dark side once the war begins.  I’m not suggesting that these people wouldn’t have found other ways to go bad in the absence of Voldemort, but even Harry recognizes that Voldemort is at the root of it all.  While recalling the fate the Neville Longbottom’s tortured parents and Barty Crouch’s imprisoned son, he thinks, “…it all came back to Voldemort….He was the one who had torn these families apart, who had ruined all these lives….”*

For the reader, this sort of convergence is, strangely, relieving.  The more closely we look at real world problems, the more complicated and nuanced they get.  The more closely we look at the problems in a fantasy universe, the more they all seem to lead back to the same place.  Just like I love a good romance novel for the guaranteed Happily-Ever-After at the end, I love a good fantasy novel for the guarantee that the Bad-Guys-Get-It-In-The-End.  What’s more, getting the bad guys actually gets something done.  It’s a respite to sink into a world where people can figure out the problems and then solve them.

That’s it for my “Elements of Fantasy” series.  What do you think?  Did I leave out one of your favorites?

*Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 607

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What Makes and Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 4 of 5: Measured World-Building

Spoiler Alert: I'm using JK Rowling's Harry Potter series as an example of a great work of fantasy.  If your haven't read the books, there are major spoilers ahead!

One of my favorite parts of reading fantasy is slowly discovering the world of the book.  Sinking into a well-crafted world is the ultimate escape, and it adds tension and mystery to the story, keeping me guessing about what new aspect of the fictional universe I’ll discover next.  That’s why I think measured world-building—in any kind of novel—is so important.  How the secrets of the setting are revealed is just as important as what they are, and from what I can tell, there are three ways to build a fictional world: just do it, hint at the secrets and then fill in the gaps, or add complexity to previously-revealed details.

The easiest way to build a world is to just throw stuff out there.  J.K. Rowling does this with prophecies in The Order of the Phoenix.  Before the showdown in the Department of Mysteries, we don’t have much reason to suspect that prophecies exist.  Divination class is ridiculed by Harry and his friends, and the death omen Harry sees in The Prisoner of Azkaban turns out to be his godfather checking up on him.   All in all, omens and future-telling seem to be bogus, so when the existence of prophecies pops up on page 782, we’re just as surprised as the characters are.  The prophecies are a big deal, but I think this method actually works better with small stuff, things that add texture without impacting the plot overmuch. 

Of course, there are ways to hint at important information before revealing it, and this sort of “filling in the gaps” method of world-building can be very satisfying from the reader’s perspective.  We still get that delicious thrill of finding out something new, but because the author has been hinting at it, making a space for it, the reveal seems natural, almost inevitable.  Rowling does this sort of world-building with Horcruxes.

We know from Harry’s conversation with Hagrid in The Sorcerer’s Stone that Voldemort wasn’t killed by his rebounding curse, even though he should have been.  Hagrid says, “Dunno if he had enough human left in him to die.”*  Throughout the series, this ability of Voldemort to escape death is repeatedly alluded to.  Dumbledore says that Voldemort is not truly alive, and therefore cannot be killed.**  Voldemort himself refers to the steps he took to “guard [him]self against mortal death.”***  So, when we finally learn what a Horcrux is, it’s both surprising and not surprising at all.  We knew all along that something like this must exist, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in finally learning what it is. 

A much more difficult but highly satisfying way to build a world is to introduce a detail or aspect early on, and then have that aspect of the world build in complexity and importance as the story progresses.  Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue is a fantastic example of this.  It’s the first magical ability we see Harry display, in Chapter 2 of The Sorcerer’s Stone.   At the zoo with his loathsome cousin, Harry talks to a python.  Rowling could have chosen anther way to introduce Harry’s magical abilities, but that fact that she chose Parseltongue is genius.

Harry’s ability to speak Parseltongue isn’t just a fun, texturizing detail.  It’s crucial.  He uses it again to uncover the Chamber of Secrets in book two, and at the end of that book, we learn that it is the result of Harry’s connection to Voldemort.  This connection takes on even more significance in The Order of the Phoenix, when Harry finds he is able to spy on Voldemort through the link.  In the final book, Harry uses Parseltongue to open and destroy the locket Horcrux, and he uses his window into Voldemort’s mind to find the remaining Horcruxes.  Something we starting out thinking was a funny magical talent turns out to be the result of a complex and dangerous magical connection, one that has huge implications for Harry’s ability to triumph.  A simple detail becomes more and more complicated—and important—as the narrative unfolds.

So, there they are, my three Ways of Worldbuilding: Just Do It, Build in Hints, and Build in Complexity.  What are your favorite ways to learn about a new world in a novel?

* Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 57
** Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 298
*** Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 648

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 3 of 5: Villains We Can Relate to

Fantasy may be one of the few genres in which a true arch-villain is possible, someone who is purely evil and bent on the destruction of the world.  Political thrillers aside, not many other types of fiction can pull this off.  It’s one reason why I think fantasy remains popular: it’s comforting to step into a world where the bad guy is easy to identify.  There’s no grey area or nuance: Sauron is evil incarnate, and we’d better find a way to stop him.

That said, I’ve never been a fan of the “serial killer villain.”  You know the type, the villain with no motivation other than destruction and pain for its own sake.  It can be done well (Iago?), but more often than not, this kind of bad guy is just boring.  Far more interesting is the villain who wants something, whether it’s a candy bar or eternal life, and even more powerful is when that villain wants something I might want myself.  In other words, what makes a great villain is also what makes a great hero: relatability.

In Harry Potter, Voldemort is a compelling villain because even though he’s as evil as it gets, his desires are the dark side of our own.  He fears death—who doesn’t?  He wants power and control, the same thing every politician strives for.  Of course, unlike us normal folks, Voldemort has let his fears and desires control him, and he’s developed the resources to act on those desires.  He’s a rare and stunning example of a truly evil villain who maintains believable motivations.

I don’t think the series would work half so well, though, if it didn’t include such a rich array of sub-villains.  Rowling weaves in a ton of them, and not all of them want the same thing as the arch-villain.  They aren’t quite as evil, but they are more accessible.  If heroes exemplify what we most admire in ourselves, villains are reflections of the qualities we detest, and Rowling’s sub-villains do this beautifully, even going so far as to reflect the flaws of the heroes we’ve grown to love.  

For example, Dolores Umbrige’s controlling authoritarianism is Hermoine’s respect for rules gone terribly, horribly wrong.  Lockheart’s childish avarice for recognition echoes Ron’s dissatisfaction living in shadow of Harry and his brothers.  And the disrespectful Mundungus, who's not quite a villain, is a sad shadow of the rebellious Sirius Black, who's not quite a hero.  In the heroes, these character traits are mixed with courage and goodness, and so they lead to good things: Hermoine’s sense of justice, Ron’s loyalty, Sirius’s fearlessness in the face of danger.  In the villains, they become coldness, vanity, and selfishness.  Part of what makes these villains so powerful is that they reflect the ways we could go wrong, just like the heroes show us how to go right.

What do you think makes a good villain?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 2 of 5: There's No Free Lunch

∆E = 0

The law of conservation of energy.  It’s the first law of thermodynamics, one of the most important physical laws of the universe.   And just because there’s magic involved doesn’t mean we have to break it.

In a nutshell, the first law means that you have to end up with the same amount of energy you started out with—no more, no less.  If you burn a tank of gas, for example, the chemical energy in the liquid fuel is converted to kinetic energy (the motion of your car) and heat.  The energy contained in your sandwich might get turned into you running a marathon.  (Or, in my case, just sitting on the couch, but for longer.)

I’m not going to argue for total scientific realism in fantasy fiction (where’s the fun in that?), but I do think we can stick to the spirit of the law.  Supernatural powers ought to come at a price.  For example, in the first book of Stacia Kane’s Downside series, the price of summoning and controlling a particularly powerful ghost is a human soul.  Doesn’t get much creepier than that.  Even in the teen drama The Vampire Diaries, vampires who don’t drink human blood are weaker than their murderous counterparts. 

The price doesn’t have to be a human sacrifice: it can be something as simple as time.  In Harry Potter, just because the kids have magical abilities doesn’t mean they can snap their fingers and get whatever they want.  It takes years of study and practice before they can accomplish spells.  And there are limits.  Wizards can’t create food they don’t already have.

Supernatural powers get a little boring if they come too easily.  It's one reason I'm not a big fan of day-walking vampires.  When the bloodsuckers are confined to the dark and can't enter your home without invitation, it makes their creepiness more visceral, and their gift of immortality more limited. A paranormal gift feels more precious when it comes at a cost, whether it’s a character’s personal energy, the time it takes them to study and perfect their art, or some sort of sacrifice.  The alternative is too God-like to be interesting.

What's your favorite price for supernatural power?  

(P.S.  You can check out Part One of this series here.)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

What Makes an Excellent Fantasy Novel? Part 1 of 5: Making the Intangible Concrete

What makes a work of fantasy excellent?

Unsurprisingly, this is something I think about a lot.  Over the past few years of writing (and the past twenty years of reading) fantasy, I've come up with the following list, and over the next month or so, I'm going to devote a post to each of the points.  I’ll use the Harry Potter books as examples in a lot of cases, because I assume everybody’s read them, because I’ve read each of them at least twice (usually more; I'm not kidding), and because I think they're masterpieces of fantasy literature.  (I could nerd out on why for an entire post, but I’ll save that for later).  In any case, here they are, The Elements of Excellent Fantasy:

1) Makes Concrete the Intangible Intrinsic
2) No Free Lunch
3) A Complex Villain
4) Measured World-Building
5) Taps the Well of Universal Conflict

Today, I'm going to talk about point number one:   Excellent fantasy takes something intrinsic to being human and moves it from the intangible realm to the tangible.

This is really just a fancy way of saying that fantasy functions as myth.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'll define a myth as a symbolic story used to express some deeper cultural meaning.  I don’t mean to suggest that fantasies ARE myths.  A true myth, like, say, the story of Prometheus, is purely symbolic in addition to being purely story, and most modern fantasy doesn’t quite meet the “purely symbolic” requirement.  Still, a good fantasy novel will tap into something we already experience, usually something slippery and confusing, and give us a means to look at it, understand it, and deal with it in a way we never, in reality, could.

Here's a very simple example of how the wizarding world of Harry Potter externalizes something intangible.  In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Mr. Weasley tells Harry about spells some unscrupulous wizards use to bewitch Muggles' keys:  
"...Muggle-baiting," sighed Mr. Weasley.  "Sell them a key that keeps shrinking to nothing so they can never find it when they need it....Of course, it's very hard to convict anyone because no Muggle would admit their key keeps shrinking--they'll insist they just keep losing it.  Bless them, they'll go to any lengths ignore magic, even if it's staring them in the face...."*
It’s funny, right?  Everyone's misplaced a key at some point, and we can nudge each other and laugh and say, “Oh, so THAT’s why I couldn't find it!”  The Muggle-baiting wizard's spell is an externalization of something internal:  human absentmindedness.   It’s a silly example.  But fantasy—good fantasy—is rich with big, important examples, too.  Take Horcruxes.

As a culture, we've agreed upon the idea that murder is a bad thing, and not just in the sense that it deprives another person of life.  It does something to the murderer, too, something irreparable.  Rowling made this idea concrete in the form of Horcruxes.  Not only does murder tear your soul, it enables you to remove it from your body.  In Voldemort's case, his soul is so little a part of his self that he doesn’t even realize it when one of the pieces is destroyed.  His actions have corrupted him past all human feeling; he has become soulless.  There are echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray in this transformation, and in the gradual dehumanization of Voldemort’s appearance.  We can easily acknowledge that committing an evil act has consequences, but in a work of fantasy, those consequences can be felt and seen; they become a painting or an enchanted locket.  We get an object at which to direct our fear and confusion.

I've heard it argued that fantasy continues to be popular because it's escapist.  I don't think that's untrue--not exactly.  Escapism is great.  But we wouldn't keep reading fantasy to escape if it didn't also grab us in a deeper way.  Fantasy gives us a handle to help us understand ourselves and our world, in big ways and in little ones.  

Next week, I'll talk about another important aspect of fantasy fiction: There's No Free Lunch!

*from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling, p. 38.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I’ve never done NaNoWriMo.  I know; I know.  Sacrilege.  Honestly, the thought of writing that many words without once going back to edit freaked me out.  I edit constantly, and cutting off that impulse seemed wrong.  I distrusted any organization that told me not to work my prose until it’s perfect.  I mean, I’m a writer, right?  I’m supposed to be a compulsive editor.

But, last weekend, I had the very great fortune to hear Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, speak at my local RWA meeting.*  After hearing his thoughts on writing and creativity, I have a whole new respect for the process of writing without editing-as-you-go.**  Mr. Baty put it somewhat as follows (I’m paraphrasing):  As writers, creating beautiful sentences is what we do.  Taking an ugly sentence and making it shine is satisfying.  It’s doable.  It feels like progress.  And sometimes, it’s a lot easier than putting down a whole new sentence that moves the story forward.  In other words, editing is crucial, but it can also be an indulgence, a form of procrastination.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop editing-as-I-go—that’s just not the way my brain works—but it might be a good exercise for me to focus more on moving forward while I’m working on the draft of Book # 2.  Since I already missed November (I was, ironically, revising Book #1), I’m going to have my very own Novel Writing Month.  MyNoWriMo.***  Since I'm a wimp, I’m not starting from scratch the way the true WriMos do, and I’m going to set my word count and time goals a little more conservatively.  Say, 1200 words a day for the next forty-five days.  I’ll even track my progress and do some stats at the end of it.  Hey, if it works, maybe I’ll do NaNo for real next time.  

*Chris was giving a talk with author Rachael Herron, one of the stars of our RWA chapter.  Check out her post on the talk here.  Her first novel was a NaNo project, and it’s great!

**He had nice things to say about RWA, too. 

***This is also inspired by Feliza David, who suggested that we need an acronym for “writing like it’s NaNoWriMo even when it isn’t November.” I concur.

Monday, February 14, 2011

How to Tell if You're Gonna Get the Girl

Say you’re a guy, and you find yourself in a modern urban fantasy novel.  Lucky you!  As long as you’re not the villain, there’s a good chance you’re going to get up-close-and-personal with a seriously kick-ass chick.  But how can you tell if this deliciously hot relationship is going to make it to the end of the series? 

It’s easy to tell if you’re the hero.  First, make sure that the object of your affection is, in fact, the heroine.  Good?  Good.  If you’ve got supernatural powers, and the heroine seems to hate you but gazes longingly at your pecs, you’re probably the hero.  Still, there’s always that chance—that tiny, worrying possibility—that you might be one of many secondary love interests.  

Don’t despair!  It’s easy to tell if you’re not going to get the girl.  Do any of the following apply to you?
1) You’ve worked with her.  Ever.  Even at a volunteer soup kitchen.  Especially at a volunteer soup kitchen.
2) She seems to like you.
3) You drive a midsize sedan in a shade of dark blue or green.  (Dude, what are you thinking?)
4) Your nose is perfectly straight.  (I’m afraid this indicates a lack of willingness to engage in physical violence.  Very unsexy.  But you get a pass on this one if you’re a vampire with supernatural healing powers.) 
 5) She’s capable of kicking your ass.

Answer yes to any two of the above?  You might win out briefly in Book 2, but don’t get comfortable.  Some guy with a crooked nose, fangs/wings/fur, and a really sexy car is on his way to steal your girl.  I recommend preemptively ditching the heroine and hooking up with an Expendable Side Character.  Maybe you’ll get a spinoff.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Inception Can Tell Writers About Narrative (Hint: It's not what you think.)

*If you haven’t see Inception, be warned:  There are spoilers ahead!

Writers talk an awful lot about plot and character.   No surprise there, right?  Writing a good story means putting characters readers will root for in situations that keep them turning pages.  But of course, that’s not enough.  For a book (or any narrative art form) to be truly excellent, it needs more: fluid language, natural dialogue, and something I think of as “fine structure,”

If the plot is a path through the mountains, the fine structure is the pavement under your feet—it’s how each scene is stitched together with its neighbors.  When the trail is smooth and well-maintained, you won’t even notice it, but if it’s choppy and uneven, it’s distracting.  In a novel, the fine structure is where paragraphs, sections, and chapters break.  In movies, it’s in the scene cuts.  The best example of good fine structure I’ve encountered recently was in the movie Inception, and it's a good thing they got it right.  The success of the movie, in my opinion, hinged on the success of its fine structure.

In a typical narrative, we’re used to abrupt scene changes with transitions that alert us to the passage of time or space.  Dreams, as Dom points out, are different:  Your stream of consciousness is seamless while the world around you shifts.  Inception conveys a dreamlike feel through the high-gloss polish of the sets and costumes, but that wouldn’t be nearly enough without the brilliant, dreamlike scene cuts.  

The first place this sort of scene transition shows up is in the sequence with Dom and Ariadne, when she’s learning how to create dream-worlds.  We sense they're in a dream before Dom lets on that we are, because while the music and dialogue are without break, Dom and Ariadne move abruptly from a crowded hallway to a rooftop terrace.  These dreamlike transitions occur throughout the movie, but for me, the most memorable cut in the move is the last one.  When Dom leaves the airport, he moves without pause from the passport check to baggage claim, then to meet his father, then to his home.  It’s the transition from the airport to his house that’s best of all.  Something about the way Dom and his father move relative to one another makes the scene-shift seem as though they’ve stepped from the airport to Dom’s living room in a single leap.  Whatever you decided about the ending, I think this is a clue.

I’m not writing anything that cross-cuts narrative flow the way Inception does.**  Still, I think I can learn from the craftsmanship that clearly went into the movie.   Having a good story means having believable, empathetic characters and an engaging, well-paced plot.  Having a well-executed story is about the quality of the language and the seamlessness of the narrative.  There’s an art to knowing how to piece scenes together, where to cut them for the best reading experience.  Something for me to keep in mind as I take the collection of scenes I’ve written for my second book and forge them into a story.

**The Time Traveler’s Wife, a book that plays with time the way Inception plays with reality, is similarly brilliant in how it’s pieced together.  In my opinion, the fine structure of that novel is damn near perfect.  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Right Chemistry: Ending up Where You Belong

I spent a long time studying chemistry, and I'm always surprised at how something that seems so different from novel-writing turns out to be quite similar.  To use an over-used metaphor, when characters have good chemistry, they behave a lot like chemical reactions.

In chemical reactions, there’s this concept of the energetic “state” of the process.  You start with a couple of chemicals (reactants), and they have a particular energy determined by what they’re made out of.  You bring them together in a test tube, and if they’re the right reactants in the perfect conditions, something drastic and irrevocable will happen, and they'll form something so unstable it can only exist for a few moments: the transition state.  Then, instead of falling back to where they were before, the transition state becomes something new:  the products.  The energetic state of those products is usually lower than that of the reactants.  That’s why chemical reactions happen.  Energy flows downhill, but it has to go through hell first.  This is how I think about stories.

When I’m starting a new story, the main character always comes to me in a “ground state.”  I picture her in her element.  It’s usually a single, mundane scene of her at work, on the bus or talking to a friend.  Once I understand her in this commonplace way, I know what kind of people to put around her to get her out of her comfort zone.  I know what will make her react.  Only then can I get her into a high energy, unstable state where the story takes place. 

This is where the exciting stuff happens.  People fall in love and sacrifice and kill and betray.  They form alliances they didn’t think possible and discover secrets about their lovers.  When we get to the other side of the story, no one will be the same.  

The key, I think, is that things aren't the same in a way that seems inevitable.  The place where my protagonist ends up should be more “right” for her than the place where she started out, because that’s what happens when you create chemistry between characters.  People get pushed out of their comfort zones, only to find out it’s what they needed all along to get where they belong.  I don't think all stories work this way (nor should they), but mine do.  What about yours?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Importance of Writer Friends

The SFA-RWA board

I recently took on a leadership position in my local chapter of Romance Writers of America (that's me in the middle, above).  A year ago, I’d never even been to a meeting—and I'd never shown my work to another living soul.  Now, I couldn’t imagine being on this journey without the support of my writer-friends.

I think I was waiting to figure out how much I wanted this, to see if it was “just a phase.”  When I finished my second book, I finally realized this whole writing thing wasn’t going to go away, and I might as well accept it and get to know some other writers.  In other words, I grew balls. 

I should have done it ages and ages ago.  Right away, I met a bunch of fabulous women, most of them much further along the road to publication than me.  They gave me encouragement.  I found some fabulous critique partners.  And when I got offers of representation, they were there to help me make a decision.  Most of all, though, it was nice to meet people who’d been exactly where I’d been, and made it.  They knew just how draining it was to send out queries and go on submission.  The Enabler is a great listener, but he can only empathize.  It was a new experience for me to be around people who truly knew what it's like to be a writer.

If you’re an aspiring author, don't wait as long as I did to find some writer friends in your city.  There's nothing like sitting down to have coffee with someone who really *gets* it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

First Loves: My Favorite Science Fiction

We all start out with our reading choices made for us.  Parents, then teachers, pick out appropriate books and steer our tastes until that glorious day when we sneak off to the library on our own and fall in love with whatever we want.  My first literary love was science fiction.  I started out with space operas, but it didn't take me long to discover how diverse the genre is.  Here are my all-time favorites, in no particular order:

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh
It’s not quite a novel—more a collection of loosely-connected stories.  McHugh's near-future is gritty, plausible and richly imagined, and she reveals it through some of the most complex and sympathetic narrators I’ve ever read.  I’ve heard the book described as placid, and that’s true, but it’s also beautiful.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
I admit: it took me a little while to get into this one, but once I did, I was sold.   So many of the concepts (a world in perpetual winter, a race of people who swap gender) are fascinating, but it’s the relationships that make the book stick with me.

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson
Neuromancer may be his most famous, but this one is my favorite.  It’s a charming rags-to-riches story at its core, but it’s still set in Gibson’s terrifying and unstable cyberpunk future.

The Rowan by Anne McCaffrey
She’s famous for her dragons, but if I had to pick one of her books, it would be The Rowan.   Part space opera and part coming of age story, with a telekinetic heroine.  What more could I want?  

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
It’s a first-contact story, but it’s also an exploration of the meaning of human suffering, and none of the answers it finds are pretty.  The book, though, is gorgeous.

I tried to come up with a unifying theme from this list in hopes it would reveal something profound about my psychological make-up, but all I've noticed is that I should add some newer titles to my library.  In my to-be-read stack are Beth Revis’s Across the Universe, and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl.  Got any other suggestions for me?  What was your first literary love?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Are you an Urban Fantasy Heroine?

Are you an Urban Fantasy Heroine?  Recognizing the early signs can mean the difference between an exciting life filled with adventure and hot men, and a painful, early death.  Take this quick test to find out, and prepare accordingly.  (Check all that apply to you.)
  1. At least one of your parents is missing or unknown. 
  2. You own a mysterious familial artifact.  (Bonus points if it’s a weapon!) 
  3. You live in a city large enough to warrant an extensive public transportation system. 
  4. Two or more unreasonably attractive men are trying to get you into bed, and at least one of them has fangs/wings/fur/flippers/control issues. 
  5. You have fangs/wings/fur/flippers/control issues. 
  6. You get inexplicable painful/tingly feelings in your chest/hands/head.  (Not related to #4 above.)  (But bonus points if they intensify around #2.)
If you answered “yes!” to at least three of the above, you might be an Urban Fantasy Heroine!  In approximately five pages, your life is going to change forever.  You might want to stock up on painkillers and bandages.  Also, if you can figure out who your father is now, you'll save yourself from an unpleasant surprise around page 139.  

If you answered “yes” to less than three of the above, you might be an Expendable Side Character.  Do your best to get a transfer to a novel with less violence.  Good luck!