Thursday, January 22, 2015

Edits

I have a story that has been bothering me for a long time. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo in 2010 (I think) and I LOVED it. I read it and chortled, and went on to write three more stories with the same characters.

A fascinating story, of a young non-human woman raised by a human family--and her people want their world back.

When I finally got around to doing the plot edit a year later, I was both confused and frustrated. I wanted the story to remain as it was, but it had some major flaws that needed to be worked out. With four major story-lines and four main characters, it was just too complicated. Then there was the fact that the four stories started and ended at different times in the narrative--but all four were necessary to the story!

I eventually decided to split out two of the storylines and make another book of them, since the connections were peripheral. They met in the middle, and then separated again, even though they were going on simultaneously. I could easily make two books out of one (like knew lamps for old) and preserve the original idea.

It simplified things enormously, but also introduced three new characters (with their own motivations and backstory), which complicated it again. And then I realized that the story ended in the wrong place--the end used previously had belonged to the plotline which I split off. Which is nice in a way, because now I can use that ending for the other book...

But the beginning is wrong now, because the beginning also belonged to the other book.

Bleh. I love the book. The other three in the series are good (one is FANTASTIC) but I need to get this one done before I even consider publication.

Happy writing! :)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Too many strong female characters?

This morning on Facebook (which I've taken to calling "Spacebook") I ran across an interesting question.

"So here's a question for writers and readers: I'm working on a mystery story and when I showed the first part to my writing group I got the comment that there are too many strong, tough female characters. One person said, "You have three female characters, all ninjas" (that's an exaggeration, but they are all physically fit and tough.) Does that strain credibility? And if so why? No one would think twice about a story with a lot of tough male characters. What do you think?"

The answer to this is complicated, and can't be fully explored on Spacebook. It's just not the right place. The answer runs the gamut from social expectations to psychology to random musings of my confused mind. It even runs into research I did (many years ago, and just for myself) that breaks down media into easily digested sound bytes.

In the words of Indigo Montoya, "It is too much. Let me sum up."

First, the gender of your audience. If your primary audience is female, you are going to be able to get away with more strong female characters. However, the audience for action adventure is going to be assumed to be primarily male, which means that strong male characters are going to be expected. Your writing group will break this down without thinking about the ramifications.

Second, the social expectations of your audience. The media society we live in has a certain set of expectations. These are things we don't bother to think about, for the most part. We don't even blink when a woman is a reward for the hero's actions--it doesn't even occur to us. It doesn't occur to us that the "strong" female character is a caricature of feminine graces with cleavage. These are things we've been led to expect. Ladies are to be rescued and the men do the rescuing. And if you don't believe me, honestly view the last ten movies you watched, the last ten TV shows you watched, the last ten books you read, etc. Likely one of the ten is going to have a strong female character, if that. Even those that have a strong female character, she's generally a caricature or a physical reward for the hero, and shows more cleavage than muscle.

It is possible that your entertainment preferences are different than most, so in that case go with the ten top grossing films, top ten most popular books, etc. These are what the majority are seeing and absorbing. Believe me, these things set up expectations and if those expectations are broken the readers are going to notice that something's wrong--even if they don't understand why.

The society we see in the media frowns on a physically strong woman. People have certain expectations when they read a book or watch a movie, and if you break those expectations you're going to get a reaction--probably not a good reaction.

Third, the writing, and this is where I'm going to spend the most time. Just about anything can be made to seem normal and acceptable if you write it appropriately.

Are the characters real? We are used to seeing female characters who have only one or two attributes--she's a good mother and a book-keeper. She's strong and spiteful. She's got cleavage. But unless we're dealing with a romance, male characters are nearly always fully nuanced. The female characters are there only as an accent for the male. People tend to write this way without thinking about it.

In order to create believable female characters, they need to be at least as fully nuanced as the male. They need to have the same level of introspection, interests, flaws, idiosyncracies, etc. Their challenges need to be fully realized and NOT dependent on the sub-plot of the men around them. If there is a romantic element, they still need to be people in their own right and not just a satellite circling around the male MC. If the female MC's only attribute is that she's strong, your readers will get bored quickly. If there are three MC's who are equally strong in the same ways, it's going to come across as three of the same person, and your readers will pick up on that. They will likely key on the things that the characters have in common, and say "You have three female characters, all ninjas" when that may not be the problem at all.

The second thing to be focused on is balance. If the main characters are all female, all strong, etc, it's likely to come across as a feminist commentary. You need male characters who are strong as well, even if strong in different ways. If you have no male characters, your story will be of interest to very few--see social expectations, above. Women expect to see both male and female characters. Men expect to see male characters. In order to appeal to both, you need both.

You'll need to write differently and with more awareness in order to make this situation work.

Third, are you over-emphasizing their fitness? Strong characters don't need to say all the time that they're working out or flex their muscles continuously. Let their actions stand in for telling. If you tell your readers more than once that this woman is a weight lifter, it sounds like you think your reader is stupid. If we watch her lifting weights, and part of the story takes place in a gym, and she has a weight-lifting trophy in her room, all of these things add to that aspect of her character. If she's a tai-chi instructor, that tells us something about her level of fitness without beating your readers over the head with it.

In my years doing manuscript evaluations, as well as writing groups and critique partners, I learned that the problem is not always visible. When someone says that there's a problem with a book, I need to take a look at the situation and determine for myself what aspect of my writing needs to be adjusted. If someone tells me that a character is "too strong," is that individual seeing the character's strength, or strength in relation to another character (is another character too weak?), or is there too much "telling" in relation to the character's strength, or is it a reflection of something else entirely?

Even the most obvious of critiques doesn't always pinpoint the precise problem. It's my responsibility, as an author, to identify the true problem and correct it. Often it's something tiny--a word choice, or a situation that needs to be restructured.

The situation is complicated, but once you identify the problems with the writing (what makes them come across as "all ninjas" when that wasn't what you intended) it will most likely resolve itself.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Launch Party for Heart of the Castle

Welcome, friends! Welcome to my launch party!

Here's the last puzzle piece. Link back on the facebook Party page or copy and paste it into a post.



If you're just visiting, and it's still December 23rd, come visit!

One point for everyone you invite who attends the party and posts your name on the party page. Everyone attending will receive a door prize, and the author will be there to chat and answer questions.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

NaNoWriMo Update (in a sense)

Sometimes I feel like a kid playing "Marco Polo." Don't know how many of you ever played that as a kid. One child is blindfolded and wanders around trying to catch the others. The child calls out "Marco" and the others respond "Polo" so s/he can locate them. It was rather fun.

So at the moment I'm running around blindfolded shouting "NaNo!" "Wri-mo!" "NaNo!"

I have so much fun with this it's indecent.

I hit 33,000 words last night and I'm beginning to suspect that the story (called "Infanta") will be longer than the 50k. Last year I topped out at 41k and had to start editing (i.e., writing new scenes) in order to reach the goal. I did reach it, though. That book is currently over 70k and will be coming out in December.

The main character in Infanta is Iat (the name will probably change). She is technically human, or at least she's descended from humans. I won't go into the history (the story doesn't) but her ancestors were deliberately changed as opposed to being changed by the mutagenic power of the Demons Bay. She has eight limbs (two legs, two hands, and two sets that can be either) and big blue white-less eyes. If you know about my primary world, you know that means she's descended from the Blod, the aristocrats of the world. She is also descended from the Soldier Clan, which causes some interesting tensions. Her skin is true black, iridescent. Others of her family have skin that ranges from white (for infants) to blue or green or black and in all shades of those colors.

She is the Infanta (or princess) of their race, and believes that this is only a matter of descent--she is the oldest child of the oldest child all the way back to the First-parents. Actually it's a great deal more. As she will soon learn.

For more information about the world this book is based in, go to the top tabs on my reader's blog.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Six

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

Rudyard Kipling

Those six one-word questions are the basis of any story. What is happening, where and when is it happening, to whom is it happening, why is it happening, and how are we going to solve the problem?

Certain things are going to be hidden based on the genre. A romance might have all those aspects right up front, except for the last. Because it's HEA or HEAFN (Happily ever after or Happily ever after for now) all of the other information can be right out in plain sight. For a mystery of any kind, the why and who (as in who is doing this) are likely to be hidden.

Where and when are generally pretty obvious, and in science fiction or fantasy they may be extremely important to the story as a whole. In other genres the why may be hidden while everything else is clear. In almost every case, though, the how remains out of sight.

Humans are wondering creatures. We want secrets and unknowns, even in our entertainment. If there are no secrets, we're likely to put the book down or go to sleep during the movie. So while you need all six questions in your story, it's possible to minimize or hide some to keep your readers reading.

Think about a story with no setting. Boooooring. Think about a story with no characters--even stories about a mountain or a city personify those things and turn them into characters.

If you're missing any of those aspects, your story is likely to fall flat with your readers.

That doesn't mean you can't mix it up. Your where can be spread out over six different timezones, or take place in twenty different solar systems. Your when can skip back and forth between times, or not have a set "time." That's OK, if it's done well. But you must have each of those six items.

On the other hand, writing without one can be an interesting exercise. Try it. Try writing a short story without any characters, or without a "how" and see if you can do it. "Why" is probably the easiest to dispense with, followed by "how." Can you make the story make sense without at least suggesting that there is a why to the plot?

Try it. If you manage it, let me know.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Foreshadowing

A few months ago I was in a discussion with one of my beta readers and we got into a discussion about foreshadowing. I tried to explain a number of different ways, only to learn that she was apparently confusing foreshadowing with flashback.

The two are entirely different. Flashback is when a character thinks about something that happened in the past, some event or series of events that aren't (usually) in the main story-line but still need to be told. Foreshadowing is a device used to make the reader think that the implausible is likely and the impossible perfectly normal.

In fiction we create worlds that are often completely different than the world we live in. Whether you're writing urban fantasy or historical fiction, you're writing about things that you've never experienced. Likely it's just as strange to your readers. Even if you're writing a biography, some things are going to need additional explanation and support in order to help your readers step into the world you're creating for them.

In order to keep the reader engaged, an author needs to convince them that these things are normal. The reader needs to be able to suspend disbelief; to set aside what they know of the world and accept what they're being told.

One way to create this level of trust is foreshadowing.

In the post a few weeks ago I talked about deus ex machine, and I used the following example.

A character ends up surrounded in an alley. The reader knows the character has no fighting ability and no weapons, but he cuts them all down with a laser that shoots from his eye.

That post focused on the implausibility of it, but for the sake of argument let's say that this is part of your story. The character is an extra-terrestrial raised as a human and is just learning about his alien skills. Readers need to know this is possible in this world, or they might just put the book down and walk away. In order to prevent that, an author needs to set the stage, so to speak.

There are literally hundreds of different ways that this could be done. The character could be a comic-geek who wonders earlier in the book if people who shoot lasers from their eyes might exist. There may be a news article earlier in the book that talks about the aliens who just landed in Tonga and wonders what they might be there for. Other skills may have come up earlier so the possibility is brought to the reader's attention that the character might be capable of more. If you have this kind of event, read through your book with an eye toward situations that might fit the bill.

Often it doesn't take much. A word here or there. A few hints before the actual event may be enough to introduce the possibility to the readers.

Think about the last book you really enjoyed. Chances are good that some event in that book took you by surprise. Likely, certain pieces had been set up well in advance so that when you got to the event itself you didn't throw up your hands in disgust and say "That would never happen." You accepted it. You took it in stride, at least in part because the author had skillfully foreshadowed the event.

But it's not just major events. If there is any aspect of the book that might make your reader pause and question, it's probably a good idea to foreshadow it in some way.

Foreshadowing will save you.

Monday, August 4, 2014

You need a break

The other day I was rolling, in the groove, whatever your generation prefers to call it. I did close to 4000 words on two different stories and worked on editing two more. I didn't even notice the heat.

Then at about 3 my mother walks into my office and says "You need a break."

I know exactly what this means, and I think the rest of you have an idea as well.

Translation: "My computer is acting up."

I walked into her office, clicked undo and went back to my office. At another point it was a misplaced tabstop. Last week she decided she wanted to be able to look at two versions of a document side by side, so she adjusted the margins on both...and when she tried to print she couldn't figure out why it was so narrow. I guess it's just a good thing that she doesn't read blogs. :)

Sooooo... "You need a break."

As writers we put up with the people who think we're available as full time babysitters, we put up with people who think we're just playing solitaire all day, etc.

I guess it's part of being an "artist." What I would like is a break from being an "available for computer repairs" artist so that I can write. Because at the moment, writing is my job.

Although I did need a break.