Thursday, 29 June 2017

Ink Tip: Style and Voice

One of the more confusing things for a new writer is trying to understand how to find the line between accepting corrections and staying true to your own voice.  I certainly found it frustrating as I sorted through critiques and suggestions on my first manuscript.

So let's start with the basics.  A writer's voice is hard to define but easy to recognize.  It's a combination of word choice, sentence structure, storytelling technique and description that comes together to create a unique way of telling a story.

Here's a demonstration.  These are the first paragraphs of some of my favourite books:

"Shadow had done three years in prison.  He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.  So he kept himself in shape and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife."

"I parked the bike in front of the restaurant, wiping perspiration from my upper lip.  It was unseasonably warm this January, but sweating during a Florida winter was better than freezing in a Northern one.  I twisted my hair into a knot, my neck cooler once the long back swath was off it.  With a final swipe at my forehead, I entered the restaurant, ignoring the tables in favor of the patrons seated at the bar."

"Shoot the moon was considered to be one of the more dangerous yoyo tricks.  Not particularly complicated -- nothing like the crossovers of a Texas Star -- but a moment's inattention and the odds were good that 35.7 grams of hardwood would be impacting painfully off the front curve of the human skull.  There were rumors that, back in '37, Canadian and World Champion, Joe Young, had once bounced a Shoot the Moon and continued to ace the competition with no one the wiser until the next day when the bruise began to develop.  She didn't know about that, and she didn't put much trust in rumors, but she did know that when Joe Young died in the war, the sport lost a master."

All three of these are obviously very different stories.  The first has short sentences and short words, creating a sense of action and movement.  In a few short sentences, we get a clear idea of who the hero is.  The second is very focused on the senses, creating an immediate and intimate connection between the reader and the character.  And the third brings in humour by talking about the danger of yoyos, but is also very specific and precise.  Again the words are shorter but the sentences are longer, creating a flow of language.

For the curious, the first example is from Neil Gaiman's American Gods, the second is from Jeaniene Frost's Once Burned and the third is from Tanya Huff's The Enchantment Emporium.

Neil Gaiman has a dark whimsical twist to his writing and that comes through in the first paragraph.  We start with the hero being in prison and then make it clear that no one messes with him (dropping an f-bomb along the way) and finish with learning coin tricks and loving his wife.

Jeaniene Frost's writing tends to be very sensual and intimate.  She uses the first person and puts in a lot of sensory detail but does so in a way that it doesn't become overwhelming.  We follow the heroine through just a few seconds of her life but already feel as if we're part of it.

Tanya Huff mixes humour and eccentricity but also brings in backstory in a way that sets the stage and tells us about the characters.  The few lines about the adventures of Yoyo Master Joe Young establish the tone as quirky but also reveals the character's admiration of perfection and skill.  

Finding your own voice as a writer is an ongoing process.  Some core elements will always remain the same and become more refined over time, but others may change over a writer's career.

My rule of thumb is: if I took this out of the story, would it also take out the fun?  If I feel removing a detail is going to suck the life out of my story, then I know I'm touching on something inherent to my voice.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Weekly Update: June 18 to 24

Weekly word count: 2400

I had a couple of days where the words just weren't flowing, so I went back to my basic principles: conflict, character and pacing.  (I wish I had another C word to make the whole thing pop, but this is how it actually works.)

Step 1: Review my conflicts: By "conflicts" I mean the challenges to the hero and heroine in the plot.  If a conflict is fuzzy in my mind, then it doesn't translate well onto the page.  Or sometimes I've been focusing too much on one conflict and I've let other conflicts drop out.

Step 2: Review my characters: I have multiple points of view in my novels, usually the hero, heroine, villain and sometimes, a prominent secondary character.  If the words are drying up, sometimes it's because I need to switch to a new point of view and build up tension in their plotline.

Step 3: Check the pacing: As someone who always wonders what happened in the scene break, I have a bad habit of extending scenes and sequences.  So I check myself and ask if the scene I'm writing has fulfilled its purpose, making it possible to skip to the next stage.

Those three steps are usually enough to get me jump started again.  But I always have to resist the temptation to spend my writing time wallowing in self-doubt and procrastination.  Once I settle in and do the work, I can usually move forward but there's always a part of me which thinks this time will be different.

Other than writing, it was a nice week.  I enjoyed the quiet of not having the kids at home... something that will change at the end of this week.  I got to visit with some ORWA ladies at the Author's Lounge, including SM McEachern, who dropped in from Vancouver.  It's going to be interesting to see how this week plays out, being the last week of school and then into the summer, which is usually a time of lower production for me.  But I will prevail!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Reader Beware: The New Amazon Buy Button

Over the last few days, the RWA message boards have been inundated with authors discussing a new Amazon policy where third party vendors can compete to "buy" the Amazon Buy Button to sell print books in new condition.  

There have been a lot of angry articles posted about how this policy undercuts authors.  There are a few key issues:

1) It appears that when a third party seller wins the button auction, their Buy Button supercedes the Amazon Buy Button, but not in an obvious way.  So a reader may believe they are buying the book from Amazon when they are in fact, buying from a third party.  And it becomes very difficult for readers to find the actual Amazon Buy Button.

2) Because this is a third party sale, the author receives no royalties from the sale.  Amazon gets a payment from the button auction and the third party seller gets the reader's money.  These sales also don't count towards an author's sales ranking.

3) The third party books appear to be free samples given away at conferences and signings, ARC review copies or pirated copies created from digital PDFs of the ebooks.  They are often priced significantly below the retail price for the book.

4) Often a third party seller only has one or two copies of the book.  If a reader wants to buy multiple copies (for gifts or a book club for example), then they are unable to do so.  Once the copies are sold, then the book is listed as "sold out" or "out of stock" even though Amazon may have dozens of copies or the book is available through Print on Demand.  Until the third party seller's purchased time is completed, it is very difficult for readers to buy the book.

Now, I can appreciate the appeal of a bargain.  There have been (and still are) many times in my life when I needed to make my pennies stretch.  So I've got no problem with readers deciding to purchase a cheaper copy of a book they want.  On that side, it's no different from going to a used bookstore.  But I think it's also important for readers to be aware of what is going on, especially because the online market makes it much easier for sellers to disguise their intentions.

However, I do care when readers pay for a book and get something other that what they've expected or are tricked into believing a book isn't available.  So what can a reader do?

First, be aware that this policy is in place.  Tell your fellow readers about it so that everyone knows to look for the subtle signs when ordering books.

Second, if you decide to purchase a book from a third party, take a screen shot of the initial order.  Then, if the book you receive is obviously used or damaged in some way (for example, a cut on the cover or spine indicates that the book has been returned from a bookstore and was not supposed to be resold) then take a picture and send the picture and the screen shot to Amazon.  This policy came to light because readers complained to the author about receiving damaged books.  Amazon has said they will only take action if they have proof that a third party seller is misrepresenting used or damaged books as new.

Third, if a book you want is listed as unavailable or if it's difficult to find the Amazon Buy Button, then wait a day and try again.  These third party sellers are only given a brief window of opportunity, in some cases, only a few hours.  Again, contact Amazon and include a screenshot.  If readers complain, then Amazon will revise its policies.

There has been speculation that this Amazon policy is a strike against the traditional publishers, who have been pushing up e-book prices in an effort to drive people back to print books.  (Take that statement with a grain of salt on all sides, I'm a conspiracy-theory kind of girl and even I'm not convinced of the reality of a shadowy battle to control book sales.)  My thought is that Amazon is simply out to make money and hasn't thought through the process.  If they discover it is costing them sales and money, it will probably be changed.

Meanwhile, I think it's important for readers to know what's happening.  So please share this information.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Weekly Update: June 11 to 17

Weekly word count: 4100

Finally back above 4000 words in a week!  

It was much harder than I expected.  My creative brain seems to have run dry and would much rather watch Penny Dreadful on CraveTV than write.  But, like a primed pump, things seem to be flowing smoother each time I make myself sit down to the keyboard.

My life disruption has definitely cost me.  Normally at this time of year, I would be about halfway through a second or third draft of my manuscript.  Right now, I'm still in the early chapters of my second draft.  I'm hoping that maybe I'll still be able to make a September deadline but realistically, it may be later than that.

While I'm disappointed about the delay, I'm also accepting the fact that I needed that time to cope with life and get myself physically recovered.  As much as I would like to be a superhero and only need a commercial break or end credits to get back to normal, I'm human and I need time.  

I'm grateful that my head is finally getting back into the lalassu world and is ready to share stories again.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Playing with What If

Alternative histories are some of my favourite stories of speculative fiction.  Taking a small change and extrapolating what might have happened differently is a fascinating mental exercise.  For example, what would have happened if Christopher Columbus hadn't sailed west in search of a faster route to China?  Or what would have happened if the Black Death had never swept through Europe and Asia?  Or if Rome had remained a democracy instead of becoming an empire?  

History is a fine balance between powerful social, economic and geographical forces and the choices of a few individuals poised in the right place at the right time to tip the status quo.  I find the paradox fascinating.  For the most part, the grand forces cannot be stopped, though they may proceed very slowly.  As the Black Death killed a third to half of Europe's population, the available manpower for things like building and farming decreased.  This led to people being more willing to try new techniques (leading to the Renaissance) and an increased value on individual human life (leading to the fall of the nobility and the feudal system).  An increased interest in mechanical innovation eventually sparked the Industrial and Information Ages while the higher value on individuals would eventually lead to democracy over monarchy, women's suffrage and the civil rights movement.  

There were (and are) many people who have tried to stop this inexorable process.  They try to drum up fear and bitterness, pointing back at so-called "golden ages" and seeking to blame others for their own disappointments.  But each generation becomes more accepting of the changes done by the generation before and pushes for further change.

And yet there are individuals who make a huge difference in the direction of the world.  If there had been no Christopher Columbus, the countries of Europe would not have had the wealth of North America to fund centuries of battles and the civilizations of North America would have continued to develop.  Contact would have eventually been made, but it might have been between cultures at a very different stage.  If there had been no Augustus Caesar, Rome might have reverted to being a democracy after Julius Caesar was assassinated.  There would have been no Pax Romana and no global Roman Empire, and very likely, no Roman Catholic Church.  Would there have been a push towards greater equality and expanded Roman citizenship?  Or would Rome have fallen into the forgotten annals of history as a failed experiment?

The individuals who make a difference are able to capitalize on the larger historical movements within their society.  Columbus sailed on the wind of Spain's greed and religious and territorial aggressiveness.  Augustus played on the Roman citizens' desire for a strong hand at the wheel and their fears of a drawn out civil war.  But it is unlikely that someone else at the same time could have convinced the Spanish to abandon the Inquisition or Rome to see their conquered territories as equal partners.

To me, the fascinating part is how everything plays out.  People make choices of their own free will, but are influenced by these huge patterns.  Things can seem to change very quickly and unpredictably in the moment but then, as we look back, each step seems inevitable based on what came before  It's a creeping tide of lines drawn in the sand by those who refuse to be pushed back.  

Monday, 12 June 2017

Weekly Update: June 4 to 11

Weekly word count: 2400

I was aiming for four writing days in the week and I got three.  I'm still finding it hard to concentrate and find the words but it's improving.

These days I'm finding the list of other things I need/want to do weighs on me much more than it used to.  Perhaps I got too much out of the rhythm of writing while I was off on medical leave and now I have to retrain my mind to get back to that process.

It's probably also the depression, which definitely has its teeth in me.  Everything feels stale and trite.  But I also know what works for me to get through it: ignore my own feelings because they are lying to me.  The world is not solely difficult and harsh.  There will always be moments of joy, even in the worst circumstances.  And even though I feel this way now, I will not feel this way forever.  I will get through it.

It's easier said than done, but it at least keeps me from doing anything particularly stupid while in the throes of my own Black Moment.  

Now I'm going to buckle down and get back to work.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Heroine Fix: Stahma Tarr from Defiance: Ruling the World

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature looking at the characters who I admire and who influence my own writing.  (Warning: this article contains spoilers.)

Usually for my Heroine Fix, I like to root for the good gals, but sometimes a villainess comes along who deserves time in the spotlight.  And Stahma Tarr was one of the most interesting and multi-dimensional bad gals that I've ever seen.

The television show Defiance had an intriguing concept.  Set thirty years after a mass alien invasion, it showed a world where humans and aliens have to work together in a post-apocalyptic landscape.  It was based on a game but still managed to have an interesting and character-driven plot.  Stahma and her husband, Datak, are Castithan and run the equivalent of an organized crime ring.

Castithans are a layered society with strictly defined roles according to gender and caste.  Stahma, as a female and member of a high caste, is expected to be deferential, self-effacing and serve the role of hostess and noble lady.  Her husband, Datak, is of a low caste and is thus able to "soil" himself with business and criminal dealings.

For the first few episodes, Stahma plays her expected role brilliantly.  She whispers in her husband's ear, soothing his rages and prompting him to consider new opportunities.  The audience can see that she is clearly the brains of the operation, but she accomplishes her goals by working through her husband and manipulating the others around him.

As the series progresses, we learn more about Stahma's background.  She used to be a performer of Castithan poetry with a devoted following but her father stopped her, saying such visibility was not proper for a woman of her rank.  She and her family fled their dying planet.  While on the journey, she was betrothed to another Castithan of high rank but when she saw Datak, they were immediately attracted to each other.  Stahma's fiance challenged Datak to a blood-duel but had a fatal accident with an airlock before the duel could take place.  As she shares the story, the audience is left with no doubt that Stahma is the one who arranged for the accident.

Since arriving on Earth and in the town of Defiance, Stahma coaxed her husband to work with the humans and other aliens, despite his adamant anti-human views.  She persuaded him to allow their only son to marry a human, since the girl's father owns a valuable mine.  When Datak found himself in jail, Stahma stepped into his role and discovered a taste for real power, rather than ruling from behind the curtain.  

Stahma rarely raised her voice, speaking in soft, melodious tones.  But she also showed a chilling level of ruthlessness, personally murdering any number of people in order to protect and promote her family.  The combination of softness and brutality reflected each other, throwing each side into sharp relief.

I often found myself wondering how Stahma would have fared if she had been in a more gender-equal society.  She is highly intelligent but also has an impressive level of insight into other people and society as a whole.  She is persuasive and can bring people around to her point of view, as well as keep track of social connections and obligations.  Is her viciousness a result of not being able to control her own life?  If she could have pursued ambition for herself rather than needing to hide behind her father, husband and son, she could have achieved almost anything.  

She is almost the perfect culmination of the manipulative female, using her femininity as a weapon.  When she attacks, her opponents are left floundering because it wouldn't be honorable to attack her back.  Or no one would believe them if they tried to accuse such a noble and soft-spoken lady.  She can move openly in both the upper and lower levels of society, always watching and waiting for her next opportunity.

I think what makes her attractive as a character is that hint of vulnerability and stifled potential.  It wasn't that long ago that our ancestresses had that same choice: if they wanted to exercise their talents, they needed to work through a man.  Stahma's skills are both undeniable and impressive, but it is her husband who takes all the credit.  After decades of being denied, is it any surprise that she takes advantage of opportunities to vent the rage that must be building up inside her?  Anything that isn't allowed to live will go bad eventually.  And Stahma never truly had a chance to live.

She is a great example of a powerful and dangerous woman existing in a male-dominated world and under strict restrictions.  As such, she serves as an inspiration for any number of gals who would consider world domination to be the ultimate accessory.

Are you addicted to strong and intriguing heroines?  Sign up here and you'll never miss a Heroine Fix.

Next month, I'll be looking at Alice from the TV show: The Magicians.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Weekly Update: May 28 to June 3

Weekly word count: 800

Not good.  But I'm feeling more energized this week.  Last week, everything seemed to be falling apart and I had no idea what I was going to do.  This week, I have plans.  Maybe not the best plans, but plans nonetheless.  

June 3 and 4th was Limestone Genre Expo.  It was much quieter than I'd expected, and much quieter than the organizers had expected as well.  They said they'd sold about 100 tickets to the event but I would guess only about 20-30 people actually showed up.  Now, those 20-30 people were lots of fun and engaged, so I'm glad that I went but it was definitely the quietest dealer's room I've ever been in.  

Some people were saying that they wouldn't come again next year.  I'll give it another shot as those who were there in previous years said that it's usually a small con but a very active one.

Tanya Huff was there and she bought book 2 in the lalassu series and she's agreed to give me a cover blurb for book !!  That was the highlight of my weekend.

This week, my goal is to write, write, write.  Time to counteract the inertia of life getting in the way and start banging out the prose.  

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Words Matter

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." - Mark Twain

We all know the words we use to describe the world around us matter, but sometimes we don't understand how much they can matter.  We don't realize how our choices can actually change our perceptions and sometimes we don't realize that we are causing harm with our choices.

Authors have a chance to expose readers to different words and descriptions, giving them a chance to expand their vocabularies.  I've been reading Tanya Huff's An Ancient Peace, which uses the gender neutral pronouns xi and xir.  Xi is the equivalent of he/she/it and xir is the equivalent of his/her/it's.  She didn't go into big explanations about them, just used them in a natural way as part of the dialogue and descriptions.  By providing a model, she's made it easier for me (and other readers) to use them in a natural way as well.  

The same strategy can be used for other descriptive terms as well.  As I was editing my latest book, Inquisition, my line editor pointed out a spot where I had described someone's skin as the colour of fresh bread.  She explained that describing a racial group using food terminology can be considered offensive for two reasons: first, it equates the person with something consumable (raising links to slavery and implying disposability) and second, the foods most commonly used for such descriptions (coffee, sugar, chocolate, etc.) actually have links with the slave trade and plantations.  Obviously, it wasn't my intention to be offensive, so I changed the description.  Since then, I've become aware of how pervasive food-descriptions are and how there is a growing pool of non-food-descriptions.  As these become more common, then the potentially hurtful options will fade out.

Some people might argue that the links are too tenuous and that readers/listeners are being too sensitive.  However, there is strong evidence that language choices have a powerful subconscious impact in how we see the world.  A study was done on how people viewed their weddings.  We all know that major events rarely go smoothly, but what they found was that as people repeated the stories of their weddings over and over, their perception of the event shifted to match the story.  At first, people had a mixture of feelings about the event, some frustration, some happiness, some embarrassment.  But as they kept repeating the story about their feuding relatives, or mismatched napkins, or bug in the salad (that one's from my own wedding), the way they told the story changed their feelings.  If they felt the day was "ruined" then the happiness was overshadowed and the whole thing became a catastrophe.  Those who shared the story as a joke minimized their hurt.  But it wasn't just how people told their own stories, it was also about how other people told the story.  If it was presented as a catastrophe, even if the couple tried to make it into a joke, they were less successful.  

That's why I feel it's important to make the effort to avoid harmful language or dismissive language as well as including positive or self-chosen language.  It's a way to help improve the world, one syllable at a time.