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.

SPOILER OVER

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.

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