Monday, August 25, 2014

All kinds of yay

So much happening lately! First, The Farthest Shore comes out tomorrow. This is the one with the race across the ocean, the kraken and one of my strongest heroines ever, because it wasn't easy being interracial way back when, and it's even more difficult when you're caught between two lands fighting a bitter war. On sale at Samhain Publishing, so check it out!

Oh, and it has a great review from Books Without Any Pictures. Check that out too.

The second yay is the fourth book in the series, The Highest Tide. Not only are the edits complete, but it has the best cover in the series so far. I'm waiting impatiently to be allowed to display that.

The third yay is the next book in the series, The Coldest Sea. Just signed the contract for that with Samhain. This series is on a roll.

But wait, there's more! Today I have a guest post over at Jess Haines's blog, on the appeal of sea monsters. All the variations there are on these, the many ways they fascinate and frighten and appeal to readers - and why I make shameless use of them in my stories.

So writing-wise, I've fulfilled my goals for this year, though I am still unable to touch my toes (that was another resolution). I keep stretching and trying, the toes are as far as they have always been. Maybe next year.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

On Writing Romance

Leigh Michaels’ book On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells is a good starting-point for someone interested in writing in this genre, but it also has a few problems that make it a book I can’t recommend.

The book begins with a description of the various sub-genres of romance—and includes gay and erotic romance, which I liked. Michaels goes into detail how to research romances, especially those which depend on a background authors might not be familiar with, and I enjoyed reading this.

The chapter on characterization didn’t offer anything new, though I didn’t disagree with it until I read the list of questions at the end, intended to help writers “get to know” their characters.

What astrological sign was he born under? What kind of music does he enjoy?

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never found this kind of “what’s her favorite color” list useful, unless the story will involve colors in some way.

The chapter on conflict was great; I especially liked how Michaels differentiated between the short-term problem which brings the hero and heroine together, and the larger picture which keeps them apart. Not to mention the ways a writer can (inadvertently) sabotage the relationship.

What sank the book for me, though, was the section on dialogue, titled “The Battle of the Sexes”. Well, at least it gives fair warning. This is how you’re supposed to “make your heroine’s dialogue more realistic if you’re a male writer”, because us female writers have that down pat, so we get the section on how to write the hero’s man-talk instead :

Check for aggressiveness (bolding in the text—Marian). Women tend to be indirect and manipulative; even an assertive woman usually considers the effect her statement is likely to have before she makes it. Can you add questions to her dialogue, or add approval-seeking comments and suggestions that masquerade as questions?

When I read this, I turned to the start of the book to check if it was published in 1980. Nope, 2007.

Can I push my assertive, direct heroines into some shy, mealy-mouthed mold? I’m trying to imagine Captain Lera Vanze in my novel The Highest Tide (out from Samhain next year, yay!) saying, “If Seawatch finds out you coerced a seventeen-year-old operative of theirs into a dangerous mission where he was captured and murdered, no one in Dagran waters will be safe. So if you don’t mind, would it be all right if I tried to rescue him?”

Maybe if she was being sarcastic. Lera doesn’t need anyone’s approval. Nor do Yerena, Miri, Alex or any other heroines of mine.

But apparently, what’s self-confidence and competence in a man is aggressiveness (such an unattractive quality!) in a woman.

Check for emotions. Women tend to bubble over with emotion, with the exception that they’re generally hesitant to express anger and tend to do so in a passive or euphemistic manner. If you need your heroine to be angry, can you give her a really good reason for yelling?

My heroines don’t yell. They draw their blades, summon a great white shark out of the ocean, learn to use magic, or figure out other people’s secrets and exploit those ruthlessly.

Just finding these sections to quote annoyed me all over again. Which was a pity, because the last chapter, on revising a manuscript, is helpful and I didn’t notice anything too sexist there. So if you can ignore the part on dialogue, or if it doesn’t bother you, this book could be useful. For my part, though, On Writing Romance won’t be joining my keeper shelf.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Inspired by other authors' styles

I was reading query letters online, and found one for an epic fantasy. I always check those out, but in this one, the writer had mentioned a famous author who was first published in the 1970s. She said she enjoyed his books so much that she wrote in a similar style.

The writer tried to head off critiquers’ concerns by saying that the author’s books were still bestsellers—which they are. But when I read her sample pages, the concerns were justified. The style wouldn’t have been out-of-place at all in the 1970s, but compared to a lot of more recent fantasy novels, there was over-explanation which contributed to the slow pacing. The dialogue tags were heavy on the said-bookisms and adverbs, which have fallen out of favor.

It struck a personal note, because when I first started writing, I was inspired by Richard Adams’ style. So I decided to have snippets of verse at the start of each chapter, just like those in Watership Down.

Thankfully, even in my salad days I had some idea of copyright, so I made up my own verses which would reflect something of the plot in each chapter. This might still have worked if I’d kept the poetry short, but at best these were four to six lines.

Plus, let’s just say I am not a born poet.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with admiring other writers’ styles and wanting to achieve the same effects. But this works better when we don’t take that style on board wholesale.

Instead, identify different elements of the style and see which ones work best. I love Jack Vance’s imagination in his Tschai series, and I try to capture the effortlessly inventive, otherworldly flair of his descriptions when it comes to clothes and food in my fantasy novels. But I wouldn’t copy his characters’ uniformly stilted way of speaking.

And some books may sell because the authors are very well-established in a genre, rather than because their styles have kept up with modern trends. For me, the nostalgia factor comes into play when I read certain older books, and because they’re older, I’m willing to overlook problems in their style. But books published these days—where there’s orders of magnitude more to read than there was in the 70’s—don’t have that buffer zone.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Alienating readers with swears

From time to time on the Absolute Write discussion board, certain writers criticize the practice of using swears in fiction.

I’ve seen “swearing is lazy and uncreative”. I’ve also seen “swearing limits sales” – and if so, great, I want to sell as few copies as George R. R. Martin does. But recently, a writer made a more impassioned version of this last argument, to the effect that, just by choosing a specific genre, we’re alienating readers. Why alienate them further by including four-letter-words?

He went on to say that no one ever discarded a book because it didn’t have swears, whereas certain readers do toss books for containing, say, the f-word. Therefore, weighing everything in the balance logically (and reminding me a bit of Pascal’s Wager, for some reason), we should avoid swears.

So, what are the flaws in this argument?

1. The most important one, for me, is that to be consistent, you’d have to apply this “how many readers might I alienate by including X? By writing Y?” filter to everything. So, before you wrote a sex scene, you’d have to consider how many readers prefer so-called clean romance. Then you’d have to weigh how many readers enjoy sex scenes. Do you count them up and go with the majority?

And some readers are vegans, so how many of them would you lose if your characters eat meat? Some readers don’t drink. Are your characters enjoying a glass of wine?

As K. J. Charles, an author of m/m romance put it, “'I don't want to upset anyone' is a useful mantra for people who write...advertising copy, I guess? Not fiction.”

It’s a much better idea to appeal to your target market and not try to reel in everyone. They still don’t give out Most Unlikely To Offend awards at conventions.

2. The second thing the anti-swearing writer overlooked was that swears have impact. That’s why people use them. Consider : which would have worked better? Molly Weasley shouting, “Don’t hurt my daughter” or “Not my daughter, you bitch”? That word delivered a pow.

3. Very often, attempts to avoid swears while still retaining the power and impact of those words results in authors using alternatives that don’t work so well. They may make up some variation like “fupping”. Any reader can see through that, and every reader will realize it’s a rather spineless attempt to eat your cake and have it.

Or the author may try for some pseudo-swear that jars with the rest of the dialogue. “Tarnation, the casualty lists just came in!” “Got the dratted napalm right here!” This sort of dialogue never sounds authentic (and readers do stop reading books for this reason!). I’m reminded of this review:

Radford also ill-advisedly comes up with an all-purpose swear-word for her characters, and it completely throws you out of any mythic sense you might be experiencing when someone inanely blurts out "S'murgh you!"

In the end, I’d rather be true to my characters and my story than worry that I was alienating readers who probably wouldn’t be my target market anyway. Besides, I don't agree with Mormonism, but I enjoyed Orson Scott Card's novel Saints. I don't agree with Objectivism, but I liked Atlas Shrugged. If I don't need my reading material to exactly reflect my personal views, maybe other people will feel the same way too. Readers may not want to swear or fight pirates or go anywhere near a shark. But if I write well enough, they’ll understand why my characters do.

ETA : Also, check out Good Bad Language, a blog post by K. J. Charles. Because this post covered another anti-swearing suggestion I've seen, the idea that we could substitute "He swore violently" and thereby avoid the dreaded f-word. A bit like how we could write "He made love passionately" and do without sex scenes, I suppose.