Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's Okay to Expect Readers to be Smart

I don't care much for random reader reviews when I'm thinking about reading a new book. I might be influenced by the review of a friend or a publishing person I follow, but the opinions of Random Other Person Who Bought This Book don't really get my attention. I usually don't even bother reading them, and if I do it's not generally until after I've read the book anyway.

This week I read a new book, Nameless, by Lili St. Crow. (Yes, that very same Lilith Saintcrow I was just talking about the other day. Only in her YA novelist persona.) And for some reason, probably because it was late and I was on the internet and too tired to click off the page or something, I ended up reading a few of the random reviews.

One thing that jumped out at me was that people were irritated and in some cases flat out pissed off that they didn't get a deep and thorough explanation of every aspect of the world building. The jargon was unfamiliar, and they didn't seem to think it was fair that St. Crow didn't take the time to stop and explain the meaning of every word to them.

Um... but, she did explain them. There wasn't a big glossary at the beginning of the book or anything, and she didn't waste time letting giant puddles of exposition gather around the edges of every scene, but the explanations were there.

If anyone is worried about spoilers, don't be. I'm not going to be revealing any big plot secrets here. Just general details.

For those who haven't read it, Nameless is a retelling of Snow White set in an alternate reality where magic became a part of the general knowledge and culture sometime around the end of WWI. Given that this was almost a century ago, the world Cami/Snow White lives is strikingly different from the one we know. Most distressingly for the random reviewers, the slang is different. There's a lot of talk about the Family, jacks, the waste, fausts, and minotaurs. (Several of the random reviewer folks were very concerned about the presence of unexplained minotaurs, even though they never directly impacted the story.)

It's also written from a close third person POV. Very close. Close enough that I wonder why St. Crow didn't just write it in first person. We are inside Cami's head for the entire story. We see through her eyes, hear what she hears, read her thoughts. We get no other influence. The POV is never from another character. There is no omniscient narrator. We experience the story as Cami does and are limited to knowing only what she thinks and feels and observes.

Because of that, there is pretty much no way for St. Crow to explain every little detail of the world to the reader without killing the momentum of the story. When the POV is this close, every piece of exposition is theoretically internal monologue. Having grown up in a world where magic is normal, the fact that, for example, her adoptive family are vampires isn't something Cami is going to spend a whole hell of a lot of time actively thinking about.

NOTE: I'm not saying this kind of thing never happens. I've read countless books where I guess I was supposed to assume time stopped in the middle of a fight or something so the main character could muse absently over their life history and the nature of their world. Writers make that mistake all the time. And yes, it is a mistake. I don't know about you, but I know when I'm in the middle of the big important moments in my life, I can't just make everyone around me freeze while I really think about all the possible connections and consequences those moments could have.

Back to the vampire example. Nico has fangs, but that isn't any more noteworthy in Cami's world than Long Suffering Husband having black hair is in mine. When I first met him, it was a new bit of information that I took note of. More than a decade later, pretty much the only time I actively think about Long Suffering Husband's hair is when he's overdue for getting it buzzed off and I feel the need to tell him to comb it before he goes out in public.

Similarly, Cami isn't going to look at Nico and think something along the lines of "gee, the Family are vampires, immortal beings who drink blood and have super human strength, which would seem so strange to me if I'd grown up in a world completely unlike the one I've always known." So, without having something like this glaringly obvious smashing of the fourth wall appear in the novel, how did I know the Family are vampires?

Well, you see, in the middle of the story, Cami looks into a magic mirror and somehow contacts an alternate version of herself, one raised in our world. In asking this mysterious stranger for advice about her current conundrums, she is forced to explain all the strange details of her world. After all, how could alternate-universe Cami truly understand her plight and empathize with her if she never explicitly associated the blood-drinking, fang-bearing Family with the word "vampire"?

It's time to reveal it to you all. I am a master hacker and I have recently broken into Ms. St. Crow's computer and stolen her secret world building notes, giving me all the background information one could ever want about the Tales of Beauty and Madness.

Also, I know who Dru ends up with. Cristophe? Graves? Someone else entirely? Muhahahahahah! I'll never tell!

No, seriously, folks. I know because I read the freaking book and used my brain while I was doing it. There's a scene near the beginning where Nico defends Cami in a bar. In the process, he spills his drink (a whiskey and calf), shows off his extended canines, tosses a man into the bar so hard he leaves a man-shaped dent in the wood, and every Family member in the place, including Nico, perks up with interest and little red flashes in their eyes when Cami cuts her hand and starts bleeding all over the place. Also, there's some mention earlier of Nico being heir to the living representative of the Family, which kind of implies that some of the Family representatives are not living. Hmmm.... Fangs, blood drinking, super strong, demonic eye glowing, undead... Yeah, I'm feel pretty confident saying the Family are vampires, even though the word never gets used once in the novel.

There's nothing wrong with expecting the reader to be able to think independently, to give them the details and expect them to make the connections between them on their own. In fact, it's something every writer should learn how to do. Writing--writing well, anyway--especially in a close third or first person POV means becoming a master of my favorite bit of writerly wisdom: show, don't tell. That is the only way to get information to the reader. Unless you want soggy puddles of exposition dripping off your pages or you want to bring in a hermit child from another universe follow the main character around and ask lots of questions, that is.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Be Brave

I read a lot. I make sure of it. I few years ago I'd gotten so out of the habit that I got to the end of the year and could only come up with a dozen books I'd read. That might seem like a lot to some people but it was pretty much an all time low for my life. Now I go through about 150 books a year.

My point is I like reading. I think you'll find this is a trait I share with a lot of writerly types.

Another one of those fabulous nuggets of writing advice everyone is always flinging about is to write a book you'd want to read. So one of the things I try to do these days when I read a book I really like (or one I really hate) is sit down and think about what made me respond to it the way I did. What made me really love (or really hate) that book so much? And, more importantly, how can I incorporate that something into my own writing?

One of the things that I've discovered appeals to me in a novel is bravery. Not brave characters, necessarily, though I do enjoy those too. What I'm talking about is brave storytelling.

There's always a moment in the narrative where the writer has a choice. They can do the easy thing and let their characters off the hook, or they can choose the harder path and punch those characters in the neck. I don't like stories with no hard moments. If I'm going to invest my time and space in my already overtaxed brain in your characters, those bitches better be gagging on the floor at least a couple of times before the adventure draws to a close.

(I'm not a violent person. Really. I promise. I just play one on the internet.)

As writers, we build these characters in our imaginations and work very hard to bring them to life. They are our creations, and the power of creation is not something to be taken lightly. There's a bond there. We don't want to hurt them, but sometimes we have to. And because we're the ones calling the shots, we can't be passive about. We can't just send them out into the world and let them get hurt. We're making the world. We have to hurt them ourselves.

It doesn't have to necessarily be physical violence, but it always has to be painful. I once heard a friend of mine give this piece of advice to a writer who was struggling: think of the worst thing that could ever possibly happen to your character; now do that. Sometimes it means killing off a favorite character who the writer absolutely adores but can only serve the story further with the grief their death would cause. Or maybe the bravest thing to do involves showing a character an ugly truth and forcing them to examine something about themselves they'd rather not face.

I recently read a series that did not have very brave storytelling at all. (I'm not going to get specific here. I believe in specific praise and generic criticism in a professional setting. I might have to work with people connected with this series at some point in the future, after all.) With one exception in the very first book, none of the good guys ever died. Now I'm not saying that people always have to die in order to make a good book, but in this case I feel it's true. The main character is constantly in life or death fights with dangerous creatures of the night who are hell bent on destroying the whole freaking world, and no one ever died. Heck, most of the time no one even got badly injured. The writer was trying to sell me on the stakes getting higher and higher with every fight, but after a little while, I just didn't buy it anymore. There didn't seem to be any real consequences and all the rising action started to feel like useless angst and arm flailing. It bothered me so much that I eventually gave up on the series.

I later read an interview with the author, who said she could never kill off any of her major characters because she just loved them too much. Maybe some of them should have died, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it. All I can really think about that is you shouldn't point a gun at someone if you aren't prepared to pull the trigger.

On the flip side, one of my favorite novelists ever is Lilith Saintcrow. I love that woman. I want to be her when I grow up. I buy every novel she puts out. If she ever decided to issue her own version of the phone book I would say, "Yes, please. When will the preorder button be up?"

Lilith Saintcrow is a brave freaking storyteller.

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read Heaven's Spite in the Jill Kismet series, don't read the next two paragraphs. The book has been out for a while now, so I feel comfortable talking about it in detail, but I don't want to ruin it for anyone who might have it on their TBR.

There are a lot of good examples of brave storytelling is Ms. Saintcrow's novels, but the best one I can think of at the moment is the end of Heaven's Spite. Jill Kismet has spent five books being manipulated and pushed and tested by Perry, trying to keep herself from turning into his puppet. And right up until the end of the HS she manages to do just that. She comes close and she doubts herself, but she fights him off in the end. Until she doesn't. Until she makes that one big mistake and delivers herself right into his hands. And she still keeps fighting. She still saves the day. And then she drives out into the middle of the desert and tries everything she can think of to save herself. None of it works. But instead of giving in, instead of giving up or making a deal or rationalizing her way into accepting a bad situation, she picks up her gun and shoots herself in the freaking head.

I'm sure when Ms. Saintcrow came up with that one there were publishing folks who said something along the lines of, "No, no, you can't do that. Jill Kismet is making us some nice money. We like money. You like money too. Let's just put the gun down and not go doing anything crazy." And I know when it came out there were plenty of people who threw complete hissy fits. But not me. Jill had no other choice. The world had been built in such a way that she couldn't have gotten out of her deal with Perry and she knew he'd be far too dangerous with her as his personal puppet. Death was literally her only way out. If she'd found some loophole, pushed some big magic button to reset the day and thus slithered out of facing the consequences of her actions, I'd have been disappointed. That would have been easy, and cowardly, and utterly mediocre.


So I'm going to ask you all to passively (or actively if you happen to be one of my critique partners) help me be brave in my writing. I'm saying here and now for the whole horde of you to hear (all, you know, three of you) that I want to be brave in my storytelling, so you can throw it back at me later if I slip up. I never want to get so attached to my characters that I'm just flailing around and trying to look cool with a big, scary gun, all the while being unwilling to pull the trigger. I want to make the hard choices and leave my readers sitting there in stunned silence. Or crying like babies and denting their walls with my books. Or laughing so hard they need to excuse themselves before they have an accident. Because that's the kind of book I like to read.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rose-Colored Glasses

Or Covey-Colored Glasses, as the case may be.

I'm reading 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey right now. I know, I know, I'm a little late to jump on this particular bandwagon, but there it is. I'm thinking of getting another Franklin Planner. I had one years ago, but having never read the book or gone to the training or anything, I always felt like I wasn't getting what I could out of the darn thing. So I'm reading the book this time. We'll see if I still want the planner by the time I'm finished with it.

On to my point. You see, last night I read the chapter on the 1st habit, which is Be Proactive. Covey says a lot of things on the subject, but to do him a great disservice and boil down the point to one sentence, he basically defines being proactive as recognizing that, as intelligent, self-aware human beings rather than well-trained, domesticated pets, we have a choice between the stimulus and our response that dictates how we function in the world. It's a nice point and that's really all I'm going to say about it now. Feel free to read the book yourself if you like. I read the chapter and then went on with life, letting it sink into the background of my mind.

About twenty minutes later I was gallivanting around the interwebs and I came across a video called This is Water, via Wil Wheaton's Google+ post. The video is pretty good. Go ahead and watch it. I'll wait.

Okay, I'll assume you either watched the video or you don't really care and have already stopped reading this blog post anyway.

All I could think when I watched the video was "Jeez, I guess the universe is sending me a message tonight. That proactivity thing must be important."

And about twenty minutes after that, as I was trying to fall asleep, I realized that if I hadn't just read the Covey chapter when I watched that video, I might have gotten a totally different message out of it. If I'd just gotten off a bad phone call with someone and had been cruising around Google+ to distract myself and keep from saying something I'd regret, maybe I would have thought about things related to anger management. Or if I'd watched it right after going ten rounds with my toddler over bedtime, all I'd have been able to focus on would have been the mom in the checkout line. Maybe if I'd been reading a smutty romance novel, I'd have focused on that blip at the end where the guy and the girl smile at each other.

I'd seen that video as reinforcing the Covey lesson because it was fresh in my mind and I was viewing the world through that particular filter at the moment. And it reminded me, when I was thinking about it later anyway, that we view everything through our filters. Giving my characters credible filters is something I try to work on in my writing a lot.

Oh, look there, I did bring this post around to a writing point eventually.

This goes back to something I was talking about a few weeks ago with regard to making mistakes and bad choices. I'm in the early stages of two drafts right now and so motivation is a big focus. Covey may have a point about how we have choices between the stimulus and the response. But even if we recognize that we have those choices, it's also useful to remember that the options we're going to see there are limited by and skewed according to the filter we're looking through at the time. To one person, a given problem might look easy to deal with, while another might view it as nigh insurmountable, with all the choices being bad ones and only the least of all evils to pick.

It all depends on the experiences they've had and the mental place they're in right now. One of my main characters is grieving, blaming herself for the death of a friend. I know she's not to blame. I know she was set up. But she doesn't know that. She may never find that out. Even if the grief isn't something she's conscious of, it's there, impacting her, and every challenge she faces until she gets over that grief is going to be skewed by its filter.

Another character feels like she got a raw deal out of life, got drafted into a situation against her will, and she's been blaming that for her misfortunes, great and small, for a couple of decades now. So when a new character walks into her life and gets similarly drafted, she doesn't understand why he's not more upset. He thinks it's cool. He's full of youth and excitement and a sense of wild adventure. Most of the time she wants to smack him, because she starting to see every single happy thought in his head as just another example of his naiveté, mocking, however unconsciously, her jadedness.

But having the filters there isn't the tough part. If the characters are fully fleshed out, the filters are probably going to show up on their own. The tough part is showing the filters to the reader without making them obvious. You have to thread them through the story very carefully. This is especially important when the main character would be pretty unlikeable otherwise or when you need to make your bad guy relatable. That's the challenge I'm working on anyway.

So how about you guys? What filters do you make your characters view life through? Are they all wearing rose-colored glassed? Angst-colored glasses perhaps?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

All Work and No Play

It's hard for me to focus on one project for any significant period of time. Don't misunderstand; I'm not saying I can't stick with something to the end or that I leave a trail of half-finished (or less) nonsense in my wake. But no matter what my brain is working on as its primary focus, it also needs something to be playing with in the background. While the Muse and the Inner Editor are working so hard at making my current WIP into something I can try to publish later, I also need somewhere to just plain run amok.

(Amok! Amok! Amok! -- Am I the only person who gets Sarah Jessica Parker twirling around in her head whenever she uses that word? Or am I dating myself there?)

Back in the day, when I had hours and hours of time to devote to my writing each day, I had a three book cycle going. One manuscript complete and in revisions a couple days a week. One manuscript complete and resting, with occasional notes getting dropped into the file here and there. And then the rest of the week was devoted to a new story idea still in the process of leaking out of my head and onto the page.

And I figured it was good practice for that nebulous future in which I was finally a published novelist and had multiple books under contract. I always hear authors complaining about how they have this manuscript to turn in but that one needs copy edits and the other one over there is about to release and so needs to be promoted. I would be ahead of the game, just oh-so-prepared for that particular juggling act, wouldn't I?

Okay, it was something of a complicated plan, and I probably made it more complicated that it needed to be with all the spreadsheets and such, but it worked out pretty well for me. I was writing 5000-7000 new words and sending about 10 pages to my critique partners each week. The plan was to be able to churn out two to three querying-quality novels a year.

Ah plans. How does that saying go? Oh, right: Man plans, God laughs.

Now that I'm down to just a few scant writing hours a week, cobbled together while the rest of the family is sleeping, I'm lucky if I manage 1000-2000 new words a week and I haven't got anything finished enough to merit revisions yet. I'm certainly not ready to let my critique partners see any of it. The plan now is reversed: one querying-quality novel in two to three years.

With the timeline so stretched out and thin, I thought it best to forego the multi-project approach. At least until I had a firmly established routine and a completed manuscript or two in reserve again. It sounded like a very mature and reasonable plan.

I should know better than to try to be mature and reasonable. I just don't have those particular qualities in my repertoire.

Unfortunately, Familiar, which I've designated Project A, because I'm a little OCD and I like to designate things, was getting to be just a slog and all the joy of the process of creation had drained away. I kept sitting at the computer and opening the files, but it was getting to be a chore. I tried skipping ahead to a scene that sounded more fun. I tried wining about it here on my blog. I tried replotting. Nothing helped. I starting thinking things like "maybe I'll skip the writing time today and get a jump on washing the dishes."

I know I'm in trouble when any form of cleaning starts to look appealing.

Then a few weeks ago, when I was having an evening away from the kids, I took out my netbook and decided to forego Project A for a while. I cruised around the special folder I keep for random notes and shiny new ideas and picked out a shiny to play with instead. A little treat for myself. It was my "me time". I was supposed to be relaxing and having fun. There was no need wrestle with the cats and have them scratch my psyche up one side and down the other.

Oh, the joy and wonder of that night. Hello, Project B, working title Guardian. I'm so excited to meet you! Look, you have characters and a brand new magic system that needs working out and a whole new world to build and there could be villains lurking anywhere and look at this opening scene with all its snarky attitude and worrisome stab wounds just spilling out all over the page...

It's possible my brain had a little nerdgasm right there in the Panera. Don't judge.

Amazingly enough, the very next time I sat down in front of Familiar, the words starting flowing there again. My Muse was recharged and ready to get back to work. She hadn't given up on me and my shape-shifters; she just needed a little playtime.

I had forgotten that the multi-project plan, while very practical and having some excellent perks, didn't grow out of some intellectual planning exercise. It grew from my need to have something sloppy and silly to play with in the background. It might turn into something I finish and revise later. Maybe it'll even be the book that I finally get published. Maybe it'll be nothing but a collection of scenes and notes that lives in my Shinies folder forever. But regardless of where it goes next, the important part is that it's there, a different world to sink into and tinker with when the cats get too persnickety.

For better or worse, this is the system I've developed and it works for me. How does your system work?