Thursday, 29 October 2015

Case Study: Non Human Characters

With editing and writing last week, I was feeling a little romanced out.  (Shh, don't tell anyone, I think they'll revoke my membership.)  I decided to pick up a little mental refresher off my bookshelf and I pulled up a novel which I first got back in middle school.  (In a Scholastic Order, take a moment to remember the thrill of new book day each month.)

Meredith Ann Pierce's Birth of the Firebringer.

The characters in this story are all inhuman.  Mostly unicorns, though we also meet gryphons, pans and wyverns.  This is a real challenge for an author.  Certain descriptions can't be used (no unicorn is ever going to say 'on the other hand' to describe something). The culture is entirely alien but has to be kept close enough to human for a reader to relate.  The characters simply can't do some things a human could but are capable of things which we can't.

Pierce does a really good job keeping descriptions consistent but also using them to remind us that the characters aren't human.  She's obviously very familiar with horses and uses a lot of riding terminology.  Characters canter or shy or gallop rather than walk or run.  They use their teeth to manipulate things, dragging heavy objects together.  She even provided a mechanism for sharp horns and hooves, the unicorns are able to sharpen them by rubbing hoof and horn together.  The plains are described as rolling like the hair on a mare's back.

Pierce manages to balance the familiar and the exotic.  The social structure of the unicorns is a feudal one common to most high fantasy.  There is a king who rules the unicorns, with a patriarchal line of descent.  But Pierce also pulls in herd dynamics, with the queen and princess acting as the herd mare, keeping the others in line and serving as a buffer between the ruler and ruled.  The challenges used to settle disputes sound much like the challenge-combat done by stallions in wild horse herds.

I remember when I first read this story, I assumed the characters were human and the first few chapters confused me greatly.  I had to stop and go back and re-read them when I finally realized that these people were not like me.  (The unicorn on the cover should have been a giveaway, but I figured the people were in there somewhere.)  As a writer, now I come back to it and realize how much work Pierce put into creating her world and characters.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Weekly Update: October 18 to 24

Weekly word count: 1100
Editing countdown: 7 out of 23 chapters (4 last week)

The cover reveal blitz last week went really well.  We have our winner for the $ 20 Amazon card.  I'm pleased to say they won on a "Follow Your Dreams" entry.  I'm just waiting for permission to share their name on the website.

I got a lot of positive comments about the new cover, which was nice to hear

I'm into my final preparations for Can-Con, including a wee bit of panic over an overdue shipment of buttons.  They should have been here on Thursday last week but there's still no sign.  I'll have to pull up the tracking details.  Other than that, I think I've got everything ready.  Nerve-wracking, but exciting!

Editing is going well.  This week is likely to be tight, so I tried to get a little ahead last week so that I don't fall behind.  The sequel to Metamorphosis is starting to really take shape in my head.  I've even come up with a temporary title: Inquisition.  I was toying between that and Salvation, but I think Inquisition will suit the plot better.

I finished my kids' Hallowe'en costumes.  I'm a little disappointed I won't be here to do the usual decorating and last-minute prep.  The timing for Can-Con means it'll be a rush for me to get out of there and run to be home in time for trick-or-treating.  But I remind myself that it's not like I'm abandoning them entirely.  Their father is capable of hanging up some crepe-paper bats and dragging spiderwebs over the brick.  And the boys are old enough to help out.

It's going to be busy but I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Confession: I Don't Like "Said"

I know I'm in the minority here, but I don't like using "said" for dialogue tags.

I'll give everyone a moment for the collective gasp of horror to subside.

Conventional wisdom says "said" is invisible.  The readers' eyes skip over it and thus it avoids interrupting the action.  Writers are encouraged to simply use "__ said" when we want the dialogue to flow quickly without getting confused.

If a writer wants to use something more descriptive, we are told to use actions rather than adjectives.  I agree with that part, but it does slow down the pacing. 

I prefer to use a descriptive verb rather than "said" if I need something quick.  I am aware that it can get frustrating and jarring for readers so I try to keep it in check, but I as a reader get annoyed with a sea of endless "__ said" tags.  I guess I'm one of the few people who notice it.

"Did you get the car fixed?" he said.
"No, the garage was closed," she said.
"Closed?  It's a Thursday!" he said.
"Maybe it had something to do with the police investigation," she said.

It bothered me even to write that as an example.  This is what I would do if I was trying to make this dialogue flow quickly:

"Did you get the car fixed?" he asked.
"No, the garage was closed," she drawled.
"Closed?  It's a Thursday!"  He blinked in shock.
"Maybe it had something to do with the police investigation," she suggested.

To me, it's much more evocative and still does the assigned work of making it clear who said what.  Said is good when you need something basic but I believe we should aspire beyond basics.  Ideally, I would include more description of what was happening to paint the scene, assuming it doesn't impact the pacing.

"Did you get the car fixed?" His voice echoed in the cabinet as he searched for the peanut butter.
"No, the garage was closed," she drawled, trying to keep a smile off her face.
"Closed?  It's a Thursday!"  His head whipped around, his nose nearly clipping the door.
She got up, sauntering to the door as he stared at her in shock.  "Maybe it had something to do with the police investigation."

I know it's not how most people look at it.  But it's how my brain works.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Weekly Update: October 10 to 17: Cover Reveal Day

Weekly word count: 1500
Weekly edit countdown: 3 chapters out of 23

I made my editing goal but not my writing goal.  I'm still pleased with my progress though.

But enough stalling, it's time for the big reveal:

Love it, love it, love it!  Full congratulations to Streetlight Graphics for another job well done.  I can't wait to see this cover on my actual book!

I'm also beginning my giveaway for a $20 Amazon card.  It runs for this week only, so enter now!

I'm also getting into the final preparations for Can-Con in two weeks.  I've got my swag-bags packed and my fellow tablemates, Eve Langlais and S.M. McEachern and I, are preparing a surprise for everyone who stops by our table.  The schedule is up and I'll be sharing on 3 panels: New Revenue Sources for Self-Published Authors, Romance Reader's Panel and Portrayals of Autism in Fiction.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Playing In Alternate Worlds

I was speaking with my friend, Alexa Bloom, lately about our writing.  She does contemporary romance and I had to admit that I don't know that I would know what to do for my plots if I couldn't simply throw in a werewolf every now and then.  (I don't, but I like to know that I could if I wanted to.)

The truth is that alternate worlds have always felt more real and interesting to me than the real one.  Star Wars, Tolkien, the Marvel and DC universes and dozens and dozens of paranormal romance worlds, like Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark-Hunters and Jessica Andersen's Nightkeepers.  If I could travel to them, I would be a paranormal tourist in a heartbeat.

Pause to see if anyone alerts the authorities to lock me up in an asylum for being delusional...


Okay, good.

Creating a new world isn't easy.  Tolkien's world-creation material outnumbered his actual draft for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by an exponential number.  He had maps, language keys and dictionaries for Elvish, Dwarvish and Orcish, histories of the various countries and peoples and plenty of other stuff.

The rules for this world are more or less understood (which also means you can get them wrong).  People can't survive explosions with only singed t-shirts, conservation of mass means no shapeshifting, and hacking is not magic.  Once you decide to start playing in the fabric of reality, then you have to be careful not to violate your own rules.  If you've decided a certain character is eight feet tall and can leap a distance of five kilometres, then that's a limitation.  He's going to bump into doorways, not fit into cars and probably create impact craters whenever he jumps.

Is it easier to be able to rely on the world as it is?  On the one hand, you need a lot more research to get the details right.  On the other hand, you'll be doing that research anyway, just looking for different details.  I think in the end, it's what works easier for your own mind.  Mine does best in a world populated by demons, witches, shapeshifters, gods, superheroes, ghosts and fae.

Hmmm, someone at the door asking if I'd like to talk to the nice doctors...

Monday, 12 October 2015

Weekly Update: Oct 4 to 10

Weekly word count: 4100

Made my word count for the first time since before my vacation.  That deserves a happy dance.  It's split half and half between the sequel for Whispers In the Dark and the start of book 3 of the Lalassu.  Joe and Cali are screaming for their story and the words are just flowing out.  I hate to interrupt that, but there are other demands on my time.

I've gotten my developmental edits back from Red Adept and I have until December 9th to get Metamorphosis ready for line editing.  58 days to edit 23 chapters.  One chapter every two days with an extra week for delays and life.  Very do-able but will I be able to also write new material while I do it? I'm gonna see.  I'm setting myself a goal of 3 chapters per week.  If I don't make it, then I need to concentrate on editing rather writing the following week.  I am going to lower my weekly word goal to 2000 rather than 4000 words, though.

I also have Hallowe'en costumes to sew for my two boys.  One wants to be Super Grover 2.0 and the other wants to be Han Solo.  And I have prep work for Can-Con at the end of the month and my workshop on non-verbal communication for ORWA in January.  So there's not going to be a lot of downtime between now and Release Day in February. 

On the good side, despite my trepidation, the developmental edits don't contain any huge "rewrite this whole thing" problems.  The main issues fall into problems with deep point of view, which is something I know I have a challenge with.  I'm a visual person, so I pick up a lot of stuff visually that most people don't.  So I have to remember to explain it and get inside my characters' heads instead of hovering like a camera outside.  The editor did pick out one scene which I already had marked in my head as potential problem, so no news on that front either.

It's a lot to manage but I'm feeling confident I can do it.  (The confidence is unnerving though.  I keep thinking I must have forgotten something.)  I'm hoping that the momentum from Revelations will keep things moving and maybe someday I'll be able to let go of my day job and just concentrate on writing.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Taking the Time: Why the Midlist is Important

For those not familiar with publishing lingo, the midlist is one of the publishing ranks.  There are debut authors (just getting started), the midlist (established authors with a moderate following) and superstars (Nora Roberts, JK Rowling, James Patterson).

Most successful authors fall into the midlist.  As NYT bestseller Deborah Cooke put it when she spoke at the Ottawa Romance Writers, these are the ones quietly putting in a pool.  They're known within their genres and by their fans but didn't make the leap to cultural phenomenon.

In the old days when the big New York Six were the only route to having your book published, editors would take time to develop an author.  It didn't matter if the first book was a runaway success.  As long as there was interest, it was understood that building a brand and a reputation took time.

Hollywood and TV used to take a similar approach.  Many of the classic television shows didn't make great showings their first seasons (M*A*S*H is my favourite example) but became cultural superstars.  In Hollywood, the studio system would build and develop an actor's career (not always the way he or she wanted though).

It's hard to judge just how supportive these systems really were.  The old days always seem to get painted with a nostalgic gloss.  But there is no denying that time seems to be a luxury in the entertainment world these days.

If the first book doesn't go well, it's very hard to get anyone interested in looking at your second one.  Most authors switch pen names to "start fresh" rather than try to build on their existing work.  The traditional publishers seem less willing to take a chance on fresh talent.  They want someone with a ready-made audience, which is why they are offering deals to the successfully self-published authors.  There are still people out there looking for new writers but the time they have to develop and grow is limited.

Here's my problem with that system: even talented people need time to learn.  An author should be prepared, should take classes on writing and constantly be looking to learn better techniques, that is all true but there are some things you can only learn after you've started.  Theory is a good foundation, practice polishes the details.

Pick any of your favourite authors and look at their very first books.  There will be gleams of talent but there will also be glaring mistakes.  This is why a number of authors will rerelease the early books in a series with improvements after they become successful.  They know people will begin the series from book one and they don't want an inferior story out there.

I have another problem with that system: not everyone is going to be JK Rowling.  Widescale popular phenoms shouldn't even be considered in the standard business model.  They are outliers by definition.  And even JK Rowling took a long time to become JK Rowling.  Harry Potter wasn't an instant success.  It took time to develop.

I assume that the industry has reasons for making the choices they do.  It's never as simple as it appears to be from the outside.  But I would argue that expecting instant success has become something of a widespread issue across life in general.  People tend to be more interested in picking up something new or finding short cuts, which pushes artists to churn rather than take the time to develop.

Call me old fashioned, but I'm ready to dig in and take some time.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Weekly update: September 26 to October 3

Weekly word count: 2000

Not my best week but considering how much overtime I ended up doing in my day job to catch up, I'm not going to be too hard on myself.  This week will be better.

We had a great presentation at Ottawa Romance Writers this weekend, a representative from the Ottawa Public Library came to talk to us about how to add books to the collection.  It's relatively easy for those who have traditionally published books but for self-published, it's a little trickier.  I got a chance to speak to her about Revelations and discovered that it may not have been rejected.  The English fiction acquisition supervisor has been away on maternity leave.  She asked me to email her and she'll let me know where things stand.  (Yay!)

There is also apparently a Suggest to Purchase form which Ottawa Library card holders can complete if there is a relatively new book published in the last two years which they would like to see added to the collection.

I also began ordering my swag for Can-Con and I'm tempted to get so many things.  I'm trying to keep things simple and affordable though.  I'm putting together little treat bags for the trick or treating on Saturday.  I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm getting antsy about getting my developmental edits back for Metamorphosis.  I'm reminding myself to have realistic expectations (I will not receive back a manuscript which says either "You are a writing god!" or "Don't quit your day job!").  I'm looking forward to finally getting to share it with everyone and it's hard to wait through this process, even though I know it will result in a better book.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Why Disney Stories Work

Having spent a week in the Magic Kingdom and its copyrighted affiliates, it got me thinking about Disney stories.  Every night we watched a classic Disney film under the stars and there's a comforting rhythm to their stories.

Chris Vogler, one of Disney's writers, put together a memo for story pacing and structure based on Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand FacesHe divided a classic story structure into 12 stages:

1. The Ordinary World.  This is the hero/heroine's everyday life.  Cinderella doing the chores and singing to her mice, Rapunzel playing with her chameleon and painting on her walls, or Tarzan's family escaping the sinking ship and building a Swiss Family Robinson treehouse.

2. The Call to Adventure.  The inciting incident which sets the story.  The king announces a ball to find the prince a bride, Rapunzel wants to see the floating lights and Tarzan's family is killed by the leopard and he is rescued by the gorillas.

3. Refusal of the Call.  The hero has some hesitation or obstacle to answer the call.  Cinderella's attempts at a homemade dress are ripped to shreds by her stepsisters, Mother Gothel refuses to allow Rapunzel out of the tower and Tarzan struggles to thrive in the jungle world.

4. Meeting with the Mentor.  The hero gains supplies/confidence/training from an outside source.  Cinderella's fairy godmother provides her dress and carriage, Rapunzel meets Flynn who can take her out into the world and Tarzan meets Jane and her father as they arrive to study the gorillas.

5. Crossing the First Threshold.  The hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure and it's too late to go back to ordinary life.  Cinderella dances with the prince and falls in love, Rapunzel overcomes her fears to go with Flynn and Tarzan agrees to learn about the human world.

6. Tests, Allies and Enemies.  The hero explores his/her new world, faces trials and makes friends and enemies.  Cinderella must flee to avoid being caught out at midnight which sets in motion the Grand Duke's quest to find her, Rapunzel charms a tavern full of ruffians and Jane and her father teach Tarzan about the human world.

7. Approach to the Innermost Cave.  The hero nears the center of the story.  Cinderella has an opportunity to prove who she is to the prince and reunite with her true love, Rapunzel arrives at the kingdom and sees the floating lights and Tarzan agrees to show Jane and her father the gorillas, whom he has sworn to protect.

8. The Ordeal.  The black moment when all seems lost.  Cinderella is locked in the tower while the Grand Duke tries to fit the glass slipper on her stepsisters, Rapunzel believes Flynn has betrayed her for money and Tarzan's family is kidnapped and he is held captive, betrayed by those he thought he could trust.

9. Reward.  The hero survives and triumphs.  Cinderella escapes with the help of her mice, Rapunzel realizes she is the lost princess and Tarzan escapes his captors.

10. The Road Back.  The hero returns to the ordinary world.  Cinderella catches the Grand Duke before he leaves, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel and Tarzan brings his gorilla family back to their home.

11. The Resurrection.  A final challenge.  Cinderella produces the second glass slipper after her stepmother smashes the original, Rapunzel agrees to stay with Mother Gothel if she is allowed to heal Flynn and is able to use her tears to do so after Flynn cuts her hair and Tarzan assumes his place as protector and leader of the gorillas, even though he believes it will cost him Jane.

12. Return with the Elixir.  The ultimate triumph.  Cinderella marries her prince, Rapunzel is reunited with her family and Jane chooses to stay with Tarzan.

I've heard people complain about using structured plot points, claiming that it makes the stories too predictable and formulaic.  But there is something inherently satisfying about the plot arc which Vogler outlines.  Each story is very different, but hits the same emotionally resonating notes in roughly the same order.  I'm sure a psychologist could do a study to show why an audience responds to this pattern but the reason doesn't matter.  We just do.

Often when I find myself unsatisfied with a story, I've applied Vogler's pattern and discovered that the particular story doesn't fit.  Usually they've skipped point 11, The Resurrection, and gone straight to the happy ending.  Or they've missed the initial reluctance or obstacle (point 3, Refusal of the Call).  These can be very brief but they do need to be included.

Disney may be a giant corporation which has been likened more to a factory than an artist's workshop, but they've understood that their continued survival depends on telling great stories.  Vogler explains that during his time at Disney, he would use this structure to tweak good screenplays into great ones.  I use it for my own work as well and found most of the storytellers I admire (be they screenwriters or novelists) do the same.