Friday, September 25, 2015

Loosing your readers in a good way

Last night I spoke with one of my friends about my sense of direction, or rather my lack thereof. This way in no way connected to the fact that I had pulled out of an event and began driving in the wrong direction. Nor did it have to do with the fact that I didn't notice I was going the wrong way for an embarrassing amount of time. I was caught up in the moment and it's even worse when I'm a passenger.

When someone else is driving I turn into a golden retriever. I have no sense of how long the ride should take and sometimes loose sight of which direction we should be going.

It's as if I am saying"Are we going somewhere? I get to go play? You are so amazing. Thank you." I'm there for the ride and happy to get out of the house. If I'm lucky I might even get a treat.*

A really good story puts me in this mindset. The world around me disappears and I'm there for the journey.

For some odd reason this picture strikes me as funny. Probably because A: I totally don't remember taking it, B: When I first saw the thumbnail of this picture I thought it looked like I was about to run over a person....and was documenting the evidence & C: Because I'm have an odd sense of humor, namely because I am odd

I'm not focusing on the external aspects of voice, grammar and style. I appreciate them, but on an instinctual level. They don't pull me out of the story to prove how glorious their prose. If the prose is glorious it melts into me with a seamless enjoyment.

Have you ever read a book where it felt like the author was saying, "Look how clever I am. My vocabulary is bigger than your vocabulary.  Did you see how I wove the complex theme into the story? Did you see it? What about all of the foreshadowing and symbolism? You never would have been able to create a masterpiece like this."**

This is different from having a moment of introspection and thinking back on a particularly acute or fluid way of storytelling. I'm talking about when you're pulled out of the story or never get sucked into it. It's almost as if the writer is hovering over your shoulder asking if you've made it to a certain page or paragraph.

I know that I often find myself getting so wrapped up in a certain article about writing, or the style of another author. It effects me and I begin to try to work my new found knowledge into my prose. What happens is that I end up creating a disjointed collage which hinders the storytelling. It also comes off as obnoxious rather than engaging.

But enough about me... 

Have you ever written something which felt awkward because it was trying too hard to be clever? I challenge you to look over your current project and get rid of every third word....only joking. That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about.

The actual assignment is to look over your current project or projects and see if it feels fluid. Does the story and style ring true to you? Don't worry about how it would sound to your Uncle Ted who adores you***, but really wishes you'd finally take over the family business and sell wickets like a respectable person.****
When I think of journey's I think about hiking in the mountains. 

While not all those who wander are lost, sometimes the best thing you can do for your readers is to give them a place where they can get lost. You don't even have to worry about providing a treat.

The footnotes

*To my credit, I don't get distracted by squirrels. However, I will break up a conversation to shout out something like, "Hey look at that dog!"...So maybe I'm not that far from yelling out "Squirrel."

**I probably went a little over the top in this example. Even though it's a fabricated example I still want to punch the fictional writer in the nose.

***Don't pretend you don't have an Uncle Ted. You know the guy Im talking about. The one with the hair.

****Props to you if you know what the obscure wicket reference is from. Hint, it has nothing to do with your Uncle Ted

Monday, September 21, 2015

McGuffins and sexy lamps - Lessons from Mad Max: Fury Road part 3

Yes, I am still on about Mad Max: Fury Road! This time we're talking about ancillary characters. Before we really get started, let's define two concepts:

MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose. It won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, it won't do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won't even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

- Read more:
If you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.

- Kelly Sue Deconnick
Which means that it's time to talk about The Wives!

The Wives are a fairly traditional McGuffin. Everyone is after them. For Immortan Joe they're a precious commodity, for the Warboys they are a way vehicle into Immortan Joe's good graces and for Furiosa they're a way to hurt Joe in a way he'll remember being hurt. Many storytellers, I would go as far as to say most Hollywood storytellers, would be content at that. In other words they would be happy writing sexy lamps.

What makes Fury Road unique is that the Wives all have their own opinions, wants and needs. They effect the events of the story by their actions which are based on their own motivations. They use what little power they have to cause changes in the world around them.
So how can you do this in your own story? First of all

Know what your characters want

It always seems to come down to that, doesn't it? Have your characters want something and want it badly. Even if it is for their lives to remain the same, the kind of thing they're comfortable with. Everyone wants something and everyone considers themselves to be the main character in their own lives. On Fury Road the Wives want to live free, and they're willing to die for that.

Make them unique

Let's start with the notion that McGuffins are people too. On Fury Road, the Wives form one huge McGuffin with many limbs in terms of plot. But each of them has something they're good at, something the others don't have. Toast is good with guns, Capable is good at listening, Cheedo has an actual arc that goes from being afraid to being brave while The Dag is all about the future.

Give them agency

This is a seriously hard thing to do. Characters with agency cause disruptions. They make your neat and tidy plot into a rambling mess. They also breathe life into the story. They create conflict when what they want collides with what the main character wants. This can cause problems if you're not careful since the ancillary characters can easily take over the entire story. But that might also be a sign that your main character is not interesting enough. On the Fury Road the Wives' agency shows up in Cheedo distracting Rictus so she can help Furiosa, in Angharad's lean out of the cab to mess up Joe's shot, in Capable harboring Nux and many other small ways. They don't steal the show because Furiosa and Max are much more interesting than anyone else on the screen.


You knew this was coming too. Take whatever thing you're working on. Grab one of the peripheral characters you (meaning not the main character or the antagonist), preferably one that has some dialog lines. Grab whatever scene they're in and rewrite it from the point of view of that ancillary character.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Book review - The Martian by Andy Weir

(Cross-posted from my personal page and from my Goodreads page. Please feel free to friend/follow me there. I love books and love to talk about them!)
I LOVED THIS BOOK. I shall shout about it to anyone who cares to hear me. I listened to it in audiobook, over the course of about 4 days, which is very fast for a 10+ hour audio. (pro tip: listen while you cook dinner, fold laundry, or other mundane household stuff. I also listen on short, long, and medium length drives, and while I walk the dogs. My dogs are very well exercised at the moment.)
What I liked: this book has so much technical depth and detail. While that can be a bit burdensome at times (particularly in audio) I had a lot of appreciation for the manner it was told in, as the technical stuff was all very accurate and very tangible in terms of what the protagonist was doing with the information. No info dumps, just the protagonist dealing with Mars atmosphere and the equipment he had to survive. I mention this first because it’s something that is probably a barrier to some who aren’t traditional science fiction fans. Please, realize that the author isn’t expecting you to solve differential equations nor talking you through the boring bits. He’s focused on the life and death details of space travel. Pressure, chemical reactions, ways to change states, microbes, terrain, distance. These are fascinating when set in the context of an extra-terra exploration. THIS is why I read science fiction. THIS is why I write science fiction.
I also liked the author’s use of humor. There are many laugh out loud moments. To that end, though, a bunch of the humor is due to the very appropriate use of swear words. For example, when Mark has to compute a distance by figuring the length of the long side of a right triangle, and he concludes (since he has to travel the hypotenuse) “Because Pythagoras is a dick.” — I laughed loudly in the middle of chopping something and almost lobbed off a finger. As I try to mention in all my reviews, the curse words are the ONLY mature content (other than a mild reference about a man and woman sharing a room) and to me are an excellent introduction to appropriate emphatic cursing to make your point or convey your aggravation. Definitely fine for 14 and up, but would be appropriate for younger readers so long as you don’t mind the opening of the book which implements the f word several times. To good effect. Conveys mood, attitude, situational details all in a four letter word. Quite economical.
I have always enjoyed science fiction, and this book just blew my socks off because it blended that geeky science-y stuff (which I really don’t have a firm handle on anymore, lo these 20+ years since anyone asked me to care about any of it in detail) and human nature, and the little details of what it would be like in space. I write books about kids in space and like to include the details of what they would eat, whether there would be pets (I’ve come to the conclusion that OF COURSE there will be cats in space. Because cats.) what you do with your hair in zero gee, what you wear, etc. I loved the little details of Mark dealing with his daily routine. The communications with NASA were fascinating. The story kept me engaged the entire length of the book. The audio narrator talent is excellent and I will seek out other books he has narrated. Highest recommendation. Best book I’ve read this year.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Books I Should Have Loved, But Didn't

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan

I got this book from the library immediately after seeing the premise. Dystopian with a neo-Puritan society, living in a colony surrounded by a fence that keeps out the zombie hordes? Sounds awesome to me! But I couldn't get over my intense and all-consuming hatred for the heroine. She seemed to me to be ridiculously selfish, and spent all her inner monologue time whining about her life and how unfair it was, and the cruel tragedies that befell her. Don't get me wrong – being stuck in a burning house with zombies clawing at your door is sucks pretty hard. But there's a fine art to having a character suffer without being really freaking annoying about it. Lots of other people – including those whose taste I trust – loved this book, but I had to force myself to finish it.

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld

I love Scott Westerfeld. I thought his Leviathan series was fantastic. But I was never able to finish this one, even though a good friend of mine totally loves the series and thinks I'm insane for not loving it. I think there are two reasons why it didn't work for me:
1) The prose and the story felt very simplistic. I don't know if this was supposed to be a middle grade book, but I think I was expecting something more sophisticated. Which is kind of a weird reason to dislike the book (it didn’t measure up to my totally random expectations!), but there it is.
2) I was a little burned out on dystopias by the time I got to this one. Again, not the book's fault, but by the time I picked this up, I was about ready to run screaming from any dystopian premise (I am so there now). I mean, this book was actually published two years before the Hunger Games, so it was a pioneer in its genre*, but alas, I read it too late to appreciate the premise, which has since been copied dozens of times.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Saenz.

This is the most frustrating of the group, because I really can't tell you why I didn't like it. Look at all the awards it won! It's an amazing book about finding your identity and courage and the pain of being a young adult (particularly a child of Mexican immigrant parents). It has the most lovely heartfelt ending… but somehow, the emotion of the ending sailed right over my head (or should I say it sailed right over my heart?). Now, I am a middle class white lady, and I have never been a Hispanic teenage boy, so one could say there's an empathy gap missing. And yet, I think one of the things that distanced me from this book was that there were a couple of moments that were too real for me, the ones that recalled some of the helplessness and frustration that come from being a teenager. Those moments were so perfectly articulated, and so close to what I felt, that I think they might have made me withdraw from the emotions of the story.

In any case, you should all read that book, because I could tell it was beautiful, even if I never quite felt it myself.

*Okay, I started thinking "is it really a pioneer? When did dystopians really become popular?" And so I found this AMAZING infographic**, which credits Uglies as one of the earliest books in this recent resurgence.
**Do you want ALL the YA infographics?? You know you do!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Where'd you go

My novel, Going to the Beginning, was a contemporary urban fantasy. It was set in a fairly generic suburban neighborhood and the setting didn't have much breath or life to it.

I didn't think much of it until I looked over a critique from Sheena*. She mentioned that some things in the sort seemed out of date. They were too.

While I was thinking this over I began to play around with some ideas. What if it wasn't contemporary? What if my characters were in the future, the old west, or another time in history?

As I jotted down a few ideas I thought about one of my aunts. She was a feisty and adventurous young girl. There were several traits of hers that I wanted to showcase in my main character, Julianne.

My aunt would have been Julianne's age in the early sixties. Once I realized that, more ideas started to fit together. My story was still an urban fantasy, but it wasn't going to be set in the current era anymore. It was going to be set in 1964.

Since then other plot points have fallen into place or make more sense then they did before. It's almost as if it was meant to be.

How do you decide the time and place of your novel? Has it ever changed or evolved as you were writing?

*Yes, that very same talented Sheena.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Books I should have loved but didn't

Everyone has one, most of us have several. It's that book everyone you know thinks you should read, the book all the reviews rave about, that book that is right up your alley. There's just one thing wrong; that book leaves you feeling kind of... meh.

These are some of mine.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I have tried to love this book, really I have. But every time I start to read this book either my mind drifts off or I fall asleep. I really like Patrick Rothfuss as the person he seems to be on the internet and I love how enthusiastic people are about this series but despite having started the book at least three different times I pretty much only know that there's a tavern and the owner is somehow famous and at some point he loses his family to reavers and winds up in the circus or something. Then he maybe goes to some school. Rationally, I know that this is nowhere near to an accurate representation on what the book is about. I may have to try to read it at least once more. I have the sequel too after all. I may have a slight problem with book buying habits.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Superheroes! Consequences to ordinary people! Feeling like an outcast! These are all things I loooove in my fiction, more than I can describe. Heck, some of my all time favorite books are Seanan McGuire's Velveteen books which are all about superheroes set into a world where plowing into a building actually has consequences to the people whose lives revolve around said building, regularly wearing spandex also means no bacon etc. I love it. 

Steelheart presses many of those same buttons for me. It's wonderfully written and I will absolutely recommend it to people. And yet... And yet I didn't love it. I thought David, the protagonist, was whiny and annoying in that special way only teenagers seem to manage. I hated the way his inner monologue went "OMG! GIRL! DANGER! BE COOL!" any time a member of the opposite sex turned up. Basically I just wanted to slap him silly for it. Which is probably not a healthy response to anyone, let alone a fictional character.

At this point I'm still debating myself whether or not I should read the sequel. The first book was entertaining and well written, I just don't know whether I should subject myself to a book that I know going in I'm not going to love.

Song of Ice and Fire -series by George R.R. Martin

Then there's that. I devoured A Game of Thrones back in 2006 while on holiday in Paris and got maybe a third of the way into A Clash of Kings. I came home and completely forgot about the book for years. I finally got through the second and third books in the series around 2012 or 2013. That's also pretty much when I decided that that was going to be it for me and that series. And to be perfectly frank, I only managed to finish the second and third book because of professional curiosity. The series is exciting in a way that few books are exciting, Monsieur Martin is undoubtedly a great writer and so on but the books are just too bleak and hopeless for me. Everyone is such a horrible person that I just can't find it in myself to be invested in their outcomes. And if I don't care what happens to them, I might as well stop reading.

So that's me. What are the books you should have loved but just didn't?