Thursday, January 8, 2015

First impressions of heroes

Among the many warnings in How Not to Write a Novel is that the first thing the character does shouldn’t be off-putting (e.g. ogling a stranger, going to the bathroom) unless the author wants that impression of the character to be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind.

That was made clear in a couple of romances I critiqued recently. In one, the hero was at an extremely low ebb at the start—depressed, lonely and drunk. In another, the hero was much younger than the heroine, to the point where I thought he was about ten years old. When he noticed her breasts, it was a massive turn-off.

Romance revolves on the hero. He doesn’t have to be a former SEAL billionaire who now runs a BDSM club when he isn’t racing with his biker buddies. But he does have to be someone readers can find attractive or interesting.

Some of the keepers on my romance shelf have unconventional heroes. A mortician. A near-sociopathic assassin. A man who’s developmentally disabled. But all of them were assertive in their different ways, able to hold their own among their peers. Even if they were younger than the heroine, or less intelligent, they didn’t give me the impression of being weak and powerless.

So what’s to be done, if the story begins with the hero helpless or broken in some way?

Change the start

In one of my keepers, Pamela Morsi’s Wild Oats, the first time Jedwin Sparrow sees Cora Briggs, he’s perhaps fourteen or fifteen, while she’s twenty—not just a mature woman, but a divorcee. He’s intensely aroused both by her reputation (or lack thereof) and her beauty.

But if the story had started with a teenager getting an erection over an older woman, it would have reminded me of Mary Kay Letourneau. I might not have read further.

Instead, though, the story begins ten years later, when he’s an adult and a professional man, making enough money to offer Mrs. Briggs an indecent proposal. Although he’s younger and less experienced than she is, they’re on a much more equal footing from the start, because he knows what he wants and is going after it, rather than being a tongue-tied, sweaty schoolboy. That flashback comes later, once the first impression of him is clearly cemented.

Make it clear he’s more than the sum of his problems

This was an issue in the story where the hero was drunk and depressed at the start. There wasn’t much to his personality other than “sad boozer”.

Whereas there are tons of romances which begin with a hero in jail or in an asylum or chained to an oar as a galley slave (I’m guessing here), and which are great reads because the hero is intriguing. He doesn’t have to be innocent of the crime which landed him in prison, and he can be in Bedlam for what people of that time thought were good reasons (e.g. Summer Devon’s and Bonnie Dee’s The Gentleman's Madness).

But if he’s strong and intelligent, and if he fights back in even a small way, that will be part of the readers’ first impression too. And believe me, a lot of people love a Hurt-Comfort read. They just need to know that your Hurt hero is worth Comforting. :)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Romance vs. love story

This is a summary of a discussion on the Absolute Write forums, where—not for the first time—a love story was confused with a romance.

“Is my love story a romance?”

How does the story end?

“They’re very much in love, and he dies. But from the afterlife, he watches over her and is happy when she finally finds someone else whom she’ll love just as much, in a different way.”

Not a romance. Sorry.

“But I believe in love that lasts beyond death. That’s romantic.”

It is. But you haven’t written something that fits into the romance genre.

“But the characters are happy in the end. She finds someone else and he loves her so much that what he wants most is for her to be cared about.”

In a romance, readers expect the characters to be together at the end. It’s not a romance if they’re apart, even if they’re both happy that way.

“People found Ghost very romantic.”

Of course they did, but movies can’t be classified the same way as books. Besides, people find Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind romantic too. That doesn’t make them genre romances. The story needs to focus on the development of a relationship and the characters have to be together in the end.

“Isn’t it predictable if readers know at the start that the characters will be together?”

Yes, but sometimes that’s what readers are looking for. The same way that readers of mysteries expect the mystery to be solved in the end. What keeps people reading romance is the how of the story, the ways the characters resolve the problems that keep them from getting to their happy ending.

“I heard a romance publisher releases occasional books where the characters go their separate ways in the end.”

Some publishers may have certain imprints where a happily-ever-after isn’t required. For instance, Dreamspinner Press makes it clear that stories in the Bittersweet Dreams imprint don't have the traditional ending of a romance. But such books will be designated as part of that imprint, so readers know what they’re getting.

“Would readers really mind so much if one of the characters died? I could foreshadow this and it could be an inevitable part of the story.”

Romance readers aren’t looking for a gut punch where the hero they’ve been cheering for dies in the end.

Romance readers can also be picky because it’s not unusual for writers of other genres to mistake love stories for romance. Sometimes, writers even try to reclassify their books because romance sells better than love stories in other genres. But this isn’t the way to please readers.

If the character dies an inevitable, foreshadowed death, you might have written a wrenching, compelling love story—but you haven’t written a romance.

“There’s an established author who has a romance where the hero and heroine don’t end up together.”

When you’re an established author, you might be able to get away with this too.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas roundup

Last year I took a friend to watch the second Hobbit film for Christmas. Not only was it late at night, the movie turned out to be long and boring, so my friend fell asleep and started snoring halfway through. I would gladly have joined him if I hadn't been mentally composing a review. Hey, I had to get something out of the experience.

This year, I decided to take my friend somewhere he couldn't possibly fall asleep, so I picked the One Of A Kind exhibition, which is where that photo is taken (that's me next to the tree). The two of us walked for hours, up and down the endless rows of stalls, and then I left my friend at the entrance to the place so I could go buy a few things. I came back to find him sitting with his back to the wall, fast asleep.

I have no idea what to do with him next Christmas.

It wasn't a white Christmas, but we did have a couple of days with snow, so I took this picture. I love how soft and furry everything looks after a snowfall.

Christmas dinner is always a special occasion and I always dress up. But this year there was an even more special little person around - another friend's toddler. Isn't she adorable? I told her that if she didn't behave, I would eat her, so she was an angel.

And a Happy New Year to you all!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I'm on QueryTracker and Smart Bitches!

I wrote a review of Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, a memoir of publishing and a great look at the business from the other side of the desk. Check it out on the QueryTracker blog here!

A slightly less complimentary review (heh) was the result of my reading Anne Stuart's historical romance Breathless, and I sent that to Smart Bitches Trashy Books when I discovered they had a collection of rants from readers. So here's my rant. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Starting with action

Starting with action isn’t the same as starting with conflict, though the two occasionally get confused. Conflict at the beginning of a story is nearly always good.

Action… is another matter.

When this doesn’t work

I read several fantasy stories some time back, because the writer needed critiques on them. They all started with the same thing: a knock-down drag-up fight between some villain and the heroine.

Despite the hacking and parrying and blood spilled and limbs lopped off, the stories were oddly dull. I soon realized that was because the characters were ciphers. Sure, one was obviously the protagonist (because the story was told from her POV), which made the other the villain, but I didn’t know why they were fighting or what was at stake.

Because action can’t realistically be slowed down to include details of backstory or characterization, starting with this kind of scene is usually tantamount to saying, “A and B fight. You need to be cheering for B.” Why? I need an in-story reason to care. There’s a reason even the most actiony of action films don’t start with a car chase.

Plus, if I know the protagonist is B, the fight loses even more suspense, because B has to win. Of course, if there’s a climactic battle at the end where B finally goes up against the villain, yes, I also know B is likely to win. But here’s the difference. If I’ve been reading the whole story, and if I’m thoroughly immersed in it, then it’s much easier to suspend disbelief. Maybe the villain has also been built up enough through the story that I’m genuinely afraid the heroine will lose.

None of that is possible at the start. I don’t automatically turn off the skepticism filter because I’m reading. The story has to earn that, and at the start, it hasn’t.

When this does work

David Farland’s The Sum of All Men begins with a fight to the death in an alley. That pulled me in, and I ended up reading the book.

1. The fight was between a named character who wasn’t the hero, and an unnamed assassin. So while I knew whom to cheer for, I didn’t know for certain that the good guy would win.

2. The fight was a great way to show off the worldbuilding. I read that book a long time ago, but I still remember the assassin smelled of curry powder. Through fighting him, the good guy also realized that the assassin must have “endowments”, which are donations of strength and reflexes that come from other people. That was an unusual detail which heightened the suspense.

At that point I wasn’t aware of the bigger picture, of Raj Ahten vs. the Earth King, but it didn’t matter. That tense alleyway struggle in the dark was done well and made me keep reading. And in the end, that’s all that counts—whether the story starts with action or not.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

How to make passive characters work

Someone on the Absolute Write forums asked why so many readers dislike passive characters, characters who need some time and effort to find their own strength. That made me think about active vs. passive characters, and what makes them work.

1. Genre

It’s going to be very difficult to sell a science fiction novel where the main storyline features a cyborg who thinks a lot about the meaning of life. He can philosophize about the ramifications of melding man with machine until the spacecows come home. But readers of science fiction will be bored, and readers of literary fiction (who might be more open to in-depth character studies) will never have picked up the book in the first place, because if they see “cyborg”, they’re going to assume it’s an action-oriented story.

2. Other aspects of the story

There’s one fantasy novel which features an extremely passive heroine, and that’s Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams. But I enjoyed other aspects of the story, like the mirror magic, and there were plenty of active characters to balance the heroine out. Plus, there was more of a plot than just Terisa sitting around trying to summon up the courage to do something.

Her passivity also descended into an unusual neurosis: she wasn’t even certain she existed, so she had mirrors all over her apartment. In them, she could see her reflection and know she was still there. That was odd enough to keep me reading until the fantasy part of the tale kicked in.

Likewise, both Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea feature heroines who are often passive. But the riveting or evocative parts of the books balanced out the protagonists’ helplessness. There was more to the stories than “this is how Heroine thought about making a change for 300 pages and then finally did it”.

3. Level of passivity.

What’s Melanie’s first spoken dialogue in Gone with the Wind? She says to the man she’s going to marry:

“I fear I cannot agree with you about Mr. Thackeray’s works. He is a cynic. I fear he is not the gentleman Mr. Dickens is.”

Melanie is shy and polite, self-effacing and traditional. But in that moment, she also shows she’s intelligent and has no qualms about disagreeing with a man—her future husband—when it comes to something she feels strongly about. Because of that, I never thought of her as weak, even when she was contrasted with Scarlett’s strength.

A protagonist doesn’t have to be bouncing off the walls Matrix-style to struggle against an antagonist. Paul Sheldon in Misery certainly couldn’t; he was too badly injured. But he found other, subtle ways to fight back, so when he stole a hairpin to pick the lock, that was a great moment.

If he had resigned himself to his fate, or waited wistfully for someone to save him, he’d have been boring to me.

A protagonist needs to make choices, and those choices need to affect the plot.

4. Real life

Sometimes, the writer’s reason for making the character passive is because there are very passive people in real life. For instance, a woman who stays with a man who uses her, because she’s not sure whether she should leave and is scared to be on her own. That’s realistic, right?

Sure, but is it interesting? There are people in real life who spend all day playing computer games or shooting heroin, and I wouldn't want to read about them in fiction. The computer games would be boring and the heroin would be depressing.

That said, I’m the kind of reader who prefers active characters on the whole. There are a lot of readers who don’t, so it’s also a matter of finding your target market. SF fans who want to read about a cyborg contemplating his robo-navel—probably not. Literary fiction fans who want to read about a woman gradually realizing why she’s unhappy in her marriage and what she can do about it? That’s more likely.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Why I don't worry about stolen ideas

This old fear still crops up occasionally on the Absolute Write forums. Sometimes we discover it while critiquing a query, because we ask for specifics. The writer hesitates, unsure whether to reveal the Big Premise or the Big Twist.

Or sometimes newer writers come right out and ask: how to prevent people from stealing their ideas? This is why I don’t worry about it. Here’s the same basic idea that I used for The Deepest Ocean (ship plus great white shark), used to tell five very different stories:

1. Young Adult

The hero is a fifteen-year-old midshipman. His father is an Ahab hunting the shark for his own reasons.

2. Horror/paranormal

He’s one of the best captains in the navy… but every month he changes into an instinct-driven wereshark.

3. Thriller

A shark genetically modified to be intelligent works with a destroyer to locate enemy submarines.

4. Romance

He’s a shark expert monitoring a great white’s release from Sea World. She’s the captain of a ecovessel out to stop a finning operation (anything that butchers apex predators for their fins is unspeakably cruel).

5. Cyberpunk

A battleship has to hunt down the last cyborg shark.

All these stories would appeal to different readerships. All of them would target different markets when the writers sent them out.

So why worry about the idea being stolen? If you and I both sit on eggs, I could hatch a turkey (albeit a bit late for Thanksgiving) and you could hatch a pterodactyl, because we’re different people and therefore we’ll produce different books. Both of which have their own place in the food chain.

Plus, I’ve got hundreds more eggs ideas where that one came from. Just never enough time to sit on them all.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ways to help people who are grieving

Yesterday I wrote a post on ten things not to say to someone grieving a loss, and I’m thankful to everyone who commented and shared their experiences.

I think one reason people say unintentionally hurtful or dismissive things in response to a death is because they feel they have to fix things. They see you’re in pain, and they want to make it better, so they tell you that your loved one is with the angels now, or that it will all work out for the best somehow.

The problem is, if someone is grieving—whether it’s for a parent, child, spouse, friend, pet, anyone—you can’t take away the pain. Period. It will lessen over time, I know that from personal experience, but there’s no quick fix to apply right now. And that can make people feel pretty helpless in the face of grief.

So here are a few things that could be more understanding and helpful towards a grieving person, and I hope they make a difference.

1. Don’t feel you have to come up with something new or profound

“I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful person, and we’ll miss her.”

That will never go down in the books as amazingly quotable. It’s not the kind of statement which makes anyone redefine their worldview on death and grieving.

But it is by far the best possible thing anyone could have said to me. Sometimes, acknowledging grief is all the support that can be given under the circumstances.

2. Share a memory

If their loved ones are prepared for it or would welcome it, talk about the person who died. Keep it positive, but depending on the situation, your recollections could go from positive and heart-warming to hilariously off-color. Either way, it shows that the dead person hasn’t been swept under the rug.

3. Books and poetry

It’s best to be careful about this, but I had to include poetry, because after my mom’s death, someone sent me a poem about bereavement. I’ll always remember one line of it

“I promise to hold you in my heart
As a cupped hand protects a flame.”

That is exactly how I felt about my mother, about all my memories of her and my love for her. As long as I’m here, the flame won’t go out.

But as I said, be careful. My mom’s devoutly religious friends knew I didn’t share their beliefs, so they didn’t send me any books written from a Christian perspective, and the poem came from someone whom I’d talked to on a discussion board for non-believers. Either way, the poem or book should benefit the grieving person, not the person who gives it.

A truly wrenching and sensitive book that could be given to a non-religious person is Michael Rosen's Sad Book. After his son died at 16, Rosen wrote this, an honest exploration of his loss and grief, and the things he does to deal with them day by day.

There’s a beautiful moment of hope at the end, but it’s not “I’ll see him again some day and he’ll be fine” hope. It’s more the sense that things will slowly get better, and that all we can do each day is light a single candle against the dark.

4. Other gifts

Speaking of candles, I read of this gift : a scented candle with a note attached, saying, “When you miss her, light this.”

I would have liked that. No, it won’t make any practical difference to light a candle, other than making the room smell of gardenia. But it acknowledges that, yes, you will feel grief, and here’s something you can do about it.

Personally, I’d have more difficulty blowing out the candle, and would soon need a new one.

That was all I could come up with, so please feel free to share your suggestions!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ten things not to say to someone grieving a death

This day, ten years ago, my mother died of cancer.

I still miss her. I didn’t want to write a blog post about her or the illness—too personal, sorry—but when I thought about what happened after her death, then there was a lot that needed to be said. My mother had extremely religious friends, one of whom had exorcised the demons of cancer out of her a few days before she died, and some of the things they said to me, I’ll never forget.

1. “You’ll get over it.”

Or what I got, which was minus the “you’ll”.

Especially if the death happened recently, the person may be deep in grief. They need to work through that at their own pace. They don’t need to get the impression that there’s something wrong with their pain, so other people are looking forward to that being over and everything going back to normal.

2. “She’s in a better place.”

Firstly, not everyone believes in an afterlife.

Secondly, my mom’s place was with her family. Period.

So each time I heard that, I thought the person saying it didn’t know my mother at all, if they believed she could be happy without her children and her home and her busy, cheerful, productive life.

3. “She’s watching over you.”

Shortly after my mother died, an acquaintance of hers phoned up to tell me this. She also claimed my mother would always be with me and if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask my mom. After I got her off the line, I shouted to the empty house that my mother was d-e-a-d, dead! and as a result, she wouldn’t be hanging around like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

If people are helped by the belief that their lost loved one is now their guardian angel, that’s wonderful for them.

But please. Don’t assume that everyone shares this belief, that everyone wants to share it, or that everyone needs to hear it about their own loved ones.

4. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Every time I hear this I think, “Yes. Sometimes the reason is that shit happens in this world to people who don’t deserve it. Wonderful reason, that.”

It’s great if people take comfort in the conviction that there’s meaning and/or a good outcome in grief and loss. But again. Please don’t assume that everyone shares this viewpoint, or that others will appreciate the idea of their loved one’s death being planned so something special can take place.

5. “She wouldn’t want you to feel like this.”

Even if she wouldn’t, the fact remained that I did. Piling guilt on top of everything else isn’t likely to help.

And I just wished the person saying this wouldn't try to speak for my mom.

6. “At least she isn’t suffering any more.”

Yes, the reason she’s not suffering is because she’s dead. Er… yay?

7. “She wasn’t such a great person, really.”

After my mother’s funeral, my father’s cousin started to tell me about a flaw in my mom’s character. I immediately interrupted to say I wasn’t interested in hearing it and never would be interested in hearing it. My mom was not perfect, and I’m well aware of that, but no one gets to criticize her to my face.

Slamming a dead person to someone grieving the loss of that person is an especially low blow. It’s not going to produce the result: “Maybe I should stop feeling sad.” It may, however, lead to: “Maybe I shouldn’t speak to you again, so I don’t feel worse.”

I can only imagine what such people say when someone dies of a drug overdose or through not wearing a seatbelt. Keep the judgments to yourself, please. The dead person’s relatives don’t need to hear them.

8. “It was meant to be.”

I don’t have to explain why this is hurtful and unproductive, do I?

9. “I will do this and that and the other thing for you.”

Which is lovely if you mean it.

But there was a couple in my mom’s church who (at social functions) kept saying what they would do to help me, without ever actually doing anything. After the first couple of letdowns, I wised up.

Maybe they felt good to say this, maybe it was like “let’s get together some time” or “I’ll call you in the morning” or maybe they got brownie points from the people at church who overheard but who didn’t know they never followed up.

10. “What a saint she was. She never doubted. She never said a word of complaint.”

She never said a word to you. Maybe because she knew you wouldn’t want to listen.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The importance of the inciting incident

Why not start a story with… oh, let’s say a day in the life of a poor family? That will give the writer some time to develop the characters before the first turn in the plot, and it won’t be devoid of conflict. The fact that this family is struggling to feed themselves should be gripping.

When a manuscript with this start was offered for critique, the question of the inciting incident came up. It made me think about whether such an incident was necessary, and if so, why.

First, imagine three scenarios:

1. Poor family struggles to earn enough to buy food.
2. Poor family which struggles to earn enough to buy food finds out they've won the lottery.
3. Dad gives up and walks out on poor family.

The first story can be made compelling. I love Anita Desai’s The Village By the Sea because it describes life in a rural Indian village beautifully, evoking sounds and smells and colors. But this start essentially tells a day-in-the-life-of story. The family was struggling yesterday, they're struggling today and they'll be struggling tomorrow.

Until something significant changes, the setting and characters and style have to hook the reader and carry the story. Whereas with the other two scenarios, there are inciting incidents. Things change, either for the better or for the worse.

I was hooked like a fish at the start of The Thorn Birds. That has long, long passages of exposition and description, but it starts with an inciting incident: the only daughter of a poor family gets something expensive for her fourth birthday. It doesn't start with "here's another day for the Clearys".

The writer whose manuscript we were critiquing was concerned that if the story leaped into the major conflict, there would be no reason to care about the characters (and no chance to develop them). But the inciting incident doesn’t need to lead directly into the overarching plot. It can be a small conflict instead, and it can bring out the characters as well as their background.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s my critique of the start of The Thorn Birds, with my comments in blue:

On December 8th, 1915, Meggie Cleary had her fourth birthday. Sets the tone: there’s a sense of 'this is how it all began'.

After the breakfast dishes were put away her mother silently thrust a brown paper parcel into her arms and ordered her outside. “Thrust” and “ordered” sound cold, at best—and from her mother, on her birthday? Her mother doesn’t want to watch her opening her gift? Wow. Also, the present parcel is wrapped in brown paper, not anything pretty.

So Meggie squatted down behind the gorse bush next to the front gate and tugged impatiently. She’s four years old, but she’s already so used to her mother’s cold commands that she doesn’t find them unusual. I’m getting a hint of the family dynamics here.

Her fingers were clumsy, the wrapping heavy; it smelled faintly of the Wahine general store, which told her that whatever lay inside the parcel had miraculously been bought, not homemade or donated. Sensory appeal here, and we see why the gift was wrapped in brown paper—the family is poor.

All that information in one paragraph at the start. Plus, after reading that I had to keep going, to see what Meggie got for her birthday—and what her family is like, and why she was given something new. The rest of the chapter unfolds with lots of description of a typical day for the Cleary family, but because I was hooked (and because it was a well-written slice of life in the past), I enjoyed reading that. But what I remember most is the inciting incident.