Wednesday, November 6, 2013

My Influences: Seanan McGuire

About a year and a half ago I was at a friend's book signing, waiting for her to finish up so we could all go to dinner, and yammering on with someone I barely knew about books. As you do. I was pregnant with my younger daughter at the time and I confess I was more focused on the menu of the restaurant next door than I was on the conversation.

I had something of an obsession with appetizers during that pregnancy. It happens.

Anyway, while we were talking, this person, who it turns out worked at the bookstore, found out I liked urban fantasy and she recommended a new book. I'm highly susceptible to book recommendations. Left to my own devices, I usually just end up with the one with the prettiest cover. Because I'm a walking stereotype most of the time.

I don't recommend that as a primary book selection method, by the way. There's that whole "don't judge a book by its cover" thing to consider.

Anyway, the book she recommended was Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire, which I did pick up a few days later.

Oh my goodness, the funny. I highlighted so many great laugh-out-loud moments in that book. The quotes at the start of the chapters, the wonderful snarky dialogue, the Aeslin mice. You don't know funny until you read about the Aeslin mice. They're freaking hilarious.

But beyond the humor, I loved everything about that book. It was smart and intriguing and sexy and thrilling, and I wanted to know more about pretty much every character in it.

Except the lizard men. Lizard men kind of creep me out.

And so, of course, the first thing I did after finishing the book was go find more books by Seanan McGuire to read. Discount Armageddon was the first book in the InCryptid series, so there weren't any more of those to read yet. (There is a second book out now and the third is due to release in March 2014, just as an FYI.) But I did check out the first book in the October Daye series, Rosemary and Rue, and then proceeded to read all the books available in that series too. And I pulled all the short fiction I could off Ms. McGuire's website and devoured that as well.

Beyond just being really enjoyable books, I learned a bunch reading them. And, oh, look, this is another one of those posts about the writers who influence my own writing. How convenient. ;-)

There are two big things about Seanan McGuire's writing that I really want to be able to bring to my own work. The first is the way she gives out information. She doesn't hit the reader over the head with stuff and it doesn't feel like the main character is an idiot for not figuring it all out right away. It's subtle, facts that just sort of drop down here and there without making much of a ripple in the narrative and then they just make sense later.

It's kind of hard to explain what I mean here, because, of course, it's the subtlety that I'm trying to point to. It threads through pretty much every element of her storytelling. The world building, the character development, the subplots.

Let me try an example, in as general and non-spoilery a way as possible. There's a fact about a supporting character that finally gets revealed in the most recent October Daye novel, Chimes at Midnight. Now I've known this fact for several books. I can't point to exactly how I knew it and Toby didn't. She's the sole POV character; theoretically I shouldn't know things she doesn't know.

I think there were some references to where certain people lived and a couple of things people did that got glossed over but didn't quite make sense without this fact. But there was so much else going on in the story at the time it was easy to just shrug and move on. At no time did I feel like Toby was ignoring the clues or missing the obvious, which is, of course, the big trap involved in giving the reader information while trying to keep it from your narrator. I actually would have found it unbelievable if Toby had put this together on her own. Somehow it was just obvious enough that I already knew while letting me completely buy Toby's surprise.

I really want to be able to do that. It's very common in urban fantasy for there to be mystery elements to the story. The project I just started writing last week could basically be boiled down to a who-dun-it, with magic. And more than just about anything else, I hate an obvious "mystery". Figuring out who the killer is on page 1 has never appealed to me, even though it happens all too often. But I've never been a particularly subtle storyteller either. This is a skill I need to master, or I'm going to end up hating my own books.

(I'm going to end up hating them anyway, especially during revisions and while I'm querying, but I'd rather it be for reasons other than them turning out to be the kind of books I don't like to read.)

The second big thing I want to learn from Ms. McGuire is her sense of balance. I mentioned earlier that the books are really funny. They're also quite dark. There are psychopaths, perverts, criminals, zealots, megalomaniacs, and murderers running around these stories, and some of them aren't even the "bad guys". But there are also socially awkward teenagers, snarky old ladies (I pretty much just highlight all of the Luidaeg's dialogue now), devoted families, and the whole thing with Tybalt's jacket. Her books are about murder, violence, drugs, genocide, lost children, racism, and the nature of humanity. And they're about bribing a cult of uber-religious mice into silence during a booty call or getting your car totaled by an alligator-dog that wandered in from a locked away Faerie realm while looking for a warm place to nap.

I've read books that are all edgy darkness and I've read books that are all tongue-in-cheek charm. They're fine, some of them are even fantastic, but that's not what I want for my own stories. I like the balance in these. I want to be able to bring that kind of balance to my own writing. I want to write books with just enough of the ridiculous to keep you from taking them too seriously and just enough of the horrific to needle you later when you're trying to fall asleep.

Balance and subtlety. Two things I'm decidedly bad at (right along with brevity) that I need to get better at if I'm ever going to get this career of mine off the ground. Should I ever manage it, maybe some splinter colony of Aeslin mice somewhere will start celebrating the Holy Feast of The Baby Wants Potato Skins.

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