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.