Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sequels and Stand-Alones

I've read on various agent blogs that it's best if your first novel is a stand-alone, even if you intend for it to be first in a series. Agents find it easier to sell a book that is self-contained, because the publisher doesn't have to commit to buying the whole series until after they see how that first book sells.

So I was surprised when my agent, Eleanor Wood, asked for an outline to a sequel for DARK HEIR. It turns out that because most of the hot-selling fantasy books right now are series titles, a book with series potential can be easier to sell than a single title.

I hadn't planned to write a sequel for DARK HEIR, at least not yet. I love these characters, but according to my brain, their story has been told. Now it's pashing on new characters. I'm pretty certain, in terms of my long-term writing career, I would be more comfortable writing unrelated novels set in distinct worlds, but I won't get the opportunity to do so unless I get my first sale. Hence, this weekend, I've been plotting out the surprise sequel.

The most surprising thing about it is how quickly it's coming together. I struggled for several months plotting the book I am (was?) working on, but because I already know the characters in DARK HEIR, I know how their personalities need to change and grow next. I also remembered an antagonist who was only assumed to be killed in the first book. Muahahaha! Insta-villain, back from the dead.

Still, it feels like a gear clash to head back to that world, those characters, and that material. I would enjoy writing a sequel to DARK HEIR, because that book's got such a special place in my heart, but I admit I'm dismayed at the thought of putting what I'm working on now aside. Oh, well; a gal's gotta take the long view.


Fantasy has a strong market for big books, big stories, and big series, and yet in general fiction, shorter books seems to be the latest trend. If you're a fantasy reader, do you prefer series novels or single titles? Do you like big reads?

If you're not a fantasy reader, how do you react to the same questions? Do you want a fast read, or a big book? Are you happy to come back to a world you've seen before, or would you rather a good book's premise not be rehashed? I'd love to hear your thoughts!


P.S. - Don't forget to congratulate Chumplet, a.k.a. Sandra Cormier on Tuesday for the Canada Day e-release of her novel, BAD ICE!

You can win a free copy by participating in her trivia contest on Tuesday, and you can buy an e-copy (for six bucks!!) here at any time.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Assholism (The Writer's Second-Favourite Vice)

(This post is overly-personal and features some very offensive language. My apologies to Julie!)

When I think about the personality traits that serve me best as a writer, empathy tops the list--and I have painful quantities of that one. I was the kid who got hysterical watching "Save The Children" fundraising programs. I'm the woman who really, really doesn't like thinking about where meat comes from. I used to live in an apartment that had mice, and I cried every bloody time my plucky mousetrap bagged another victim.

Being overly-sensitive has its downside, but it's extremely valuable to a writer. Empathy for others is the only thing that allows us to create a spectrum of characters. Because I believe there are few truly evil people in the world--that most villains are really misguided, confused, or simply (and sadly) stupid--I try to make my antagonists human and sympathetic. Because I understand that everyone struggles with weaknesses and fears, I always make my heros flawed. It enriches the story.

But there's another facet of my personality that enriches my stories, and I've been noticing this trait's existence with increasing trepidation the past few years.

Grad school was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I got into a bad head-space because of it. I wound up stressed, depressed and at times extremely angry, and that state lasted for four years. I'm mostly over it now, but the anger didn't exactly go away. It changed form.

Meet "Goblin", my inner bitch. She's the part of me that can give blistering critiques without guilt--and usually without forethought. She's the half of me that enjoys grading students' work when they've done poorly. Goblin relishes participating in an online mocking community, because she gets to act like a sarcastic cunt there.

I'm ashamed of this facet of my personality. I'm a life-long pacifist, and I work as a teacher--a profession where I believe patience is the most enabling and helpful tactic we can adopt. I believe in kindness as a way of life. Nothing makes me angrier than seeing people being mean or thoughtless to one another.

And yet, here's Goblin, who is extremely mean. I know the seed of her existed in me long before grad school, but she's well-defined and fully realized now, and she doesn't want to go away.

The question is, does Goblin have a valid place in my existence? Is she a good demon to have lurking in the back of my writer's brain?

One of the mantras of writing is "conflict on every page". I structure a lot of my dialogue as arguments (of varying civility) between characters. There's always tension, and there's usually snark. Goblin does that well. Sensitive character studies have their place in literature, but so does glorious, fangs-out bitchery. See Jane Austen.

I can make the argument that this darker aspect of my personality is harmless if I give it valid outlets, such as my writing or the mocking community (which attempts to ensure those mocked never find out about it). If I let Goblin have her fun, then I can, the rest of the time, be a positive and supportive person in everything that matters.

The problem is, it doesn't work that way. If I let Goblin out regularly, she starts sneaking out when she's not welcome. For example, I said something sharp to a student the other day, and that is not acceptable. I feel badly about it, and I'm annoyed at myself. This student happens to be a dick, but that's beside the point--how you treat people has nothing to do with who they are; it has to do with who you are. And I don't like who I was that day.

I haven't got a tidy conclusion or lesson to pull out of this post; this is something I'm struggling with. How deeply do you explore negativity? Do you have to occasionally kick your darker stories (and impulses) back into their corner to keep them from infecting your whole life? And if you do, does that weaken your writing? Are you strangling your career to protect your mental well-being? (If you are, it's the right choice, but I'm not really persuaded that writing nasty stories is bad for you.)

For now, I'm letting Goblin out on a short leash, and watching her closely, because I'm learning things. They're not fun lessons, however. I had to apologize to someone recently for a thoughtless comment, and I've lost a blogging buddy over something I still feel justified in saying, even if I regret the consequences. On the mocking community, I've found situations where it stops feeling like happy snarking and starts feeling like spite. There's a line between having a strong opinion and being a jerk, and Goblin--disturbing as she is--is teaching me exactly where that is.


What's your advice and opinion regarding this issue? Where do you, personally, draw the line between what you're willing to think about, and what you're not, in order to create a strong story? Have you ever abandoned a work because you didn't like what it was doing to your state of mind?

Or do you find getting those disturbing stories on the page actually lightens your mood, purges you of negative emotions? Is it a positive thing, for you, when you explore the darkest corners of your own mind? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Squealing like a squealy thing | Book Roast!

I'm am completely geeking for this beautiful object:

If you've ever played Dungeons & Dragons, you think you know what you're looking at.

But you don't.

This is a 20-sided die from the second century. It's Roman, it's made of glass, and it's about five centimetres (two inches) across.

I'm squealing like a love-struck piglet over this thing because wow! Who knew the ancient Romans played D&D? We waaaaaants it, my preciousss, we does...


And if you haven't already heard from all and sundry, a new blog has debuted to toast and roast the bravest of writers and their fine, fine books. Please click over to the Book Roast, where the abuse fun starts on Monday, and this week's victims guests of honour include:

Bernita Harris (Weirdly) - June 23
Therese Fowler (Souvenir) - June 24
Dennis Cass (Head Case) - June 25
Erica Orloff (The Roofer) - June 26
Doreen Orion (Queen of the Road) - June 27

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Seeing Opportunities

Warning: I discuss blood and gore here, in a modestly graphic way. Thou hast been warnéd.

I'm televisionally-challenged. El Husbando and I haven't lived in a house with a TV for about a decade. Thus, when we go to a friend's home to watch movies, it's quite a treat.

We saw Cloverfield last night, and I really enjoyed it, but the movie featured one cliché that annoys me in horror/thriller films. Someone gets a deep gash or bite, and then they proceed to run around. Okay, sure, when the ghoulie-monster is after you, you must run or die--but at some point you must also keel over from blood loss.

When I had gum grafts done, I made the mistake of walking down the street afterward. I got two blocks and then had to start spitting out mouthfuls of blood. From walking. The periodontist had stitched me up tight, but a sedate amble down the sidewalk set me leaking again. There is no way Susie Hero who got impaled through the shoulder should be able to run full tilt for three blocks, even on pure adrenaline. At the very least, she should wind up with her sweatshirt soaked red, her face drained grey, and in such deep shock she can't remember her own name. And then she should spend the rest of the movie deflated in her hidey-hole, incapable of even standing up.

And while I'm on the subject, movie injuries never seem to hurt enough. If I whack my finger in the cupboard door, it leaves me cranky and inclined to whine. In House of Wax, the main character has someone sew her mouth shut and snip the end of her finger off with bolt-cutters. Then she escapes, runs around heroically and makes coherent verbal plans with her brother.

Um...shouldn't she be whimpering in pain every time she has to move her lips? Shouldn't she grimace occasionally, or look down at the stump of her finger and burst into horrified tears? The lack of snivelling strikes me as unrealistic.

There are rich opportunities to be had in refusing to use narrative conveniences in your work. I wrote a story once that featured a character fainting from blood loss while he was trying to get himself to safety. It upped the tension of the story beautifully to have him slipping around, thinking flakey thoughts and occasionally waking up on the floor while the emergency gets worse around him. Keeping the situation realistic didn't just increase the stakes, either; it also gave me another level of conflict. People who suffer sudden blood loss become insanely, intolerably thirsty. When my protagonist was almost to safety, I had him spot a water faucet. Oh, the dilemma.

Writer Brenda Carre passed along to me a bit of advice she got from Donald Maass; when you see something that annoys you in the books you read, put it into your own work and make sure you (unlike everyone else) get it right. Every time you see something that makes you go, "Yeah, right...", that's something you can use--it's a cliché or a plot convenience you can overturn in order to slap your reader with the verisimilitude of the worlds you create. It's something you can potentially shock the reader with when you flip their preconceived notions inside-out.

In other words, when you see a cliché in someone else's work, it's really an opportunity for your own. Use it!


What bits of illogic annoy you in books (and films)? Have you ever made a point of skewering that logic in your own work, or found a book that does so brilliantly? If you could convince Hollywood to flip one ubiquitous cliché inside-out, which one would it be? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Sneaky Bastards

Who’s a sneaky bastard? Us writers. One of the most satisfying things to do to your readers is surprise them while still giving them the story ending that feels right. And surprises are built of sneakiness, because in order for the surprise to seem believable, it needs to be foreshadowed without the audience figuring out what’s coming.

To build a good surprise--the protagonist wiggles her way out of a seemingly impossible dilemma--I like to try to think up something involving non-linear cleverness, something that works but isn’t an obvious solution.

Example: In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara pulls down the curtains and gets herself a new dress to impress/fool Rhett with.

To build a nasty surprise, I try to engage in some paranoid fantasies. What’s the nastiest truth that can underlie what appears to be true?

Example: What if Heidi and Spencer only trash-talk Lauren Conrad to market Lauren’s name? After all, the nastier their comment, the more widely it will be reported, and while the public easily ignores advertising campaigns, everyone pays attention to a good cat-fight.

Building surprises is one of the things I find most fun about constructing a plot--what’s the most diabolical shocker I can create that is completely believable when viewed with hindsight? Terry Pratchett said that writing is the most fun anyone can have alone, and when I find myself chortling over my own (hopefully successful) literary sneakiness, I agree with him.


What’s your favourite bit of writer-perpetrated sneakiness? Please feel free to mention either your own or another writer’s. I'd love to hear about the best jaw-dropper you’ve ever encountered, or created, in a story.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Another Reason Why S/He's Just Not That Into You

I'm reading Stephen King's The Stand, and my impressions so far are about what you would expect: it's well-written, the characters are empathetic, and the story pulls you along from page to page.

But it's scary, darn it. The faceless man who stares out of the cornfield in people's dreams? Eep.

I don't think this is even supposed to be one of Mr. King's more terrifying books. I'm just a wimp. But this has got me thinking about why certain people won't read certain genres.

One reason people read is for catharsis. We test-drive emotions we often wouldn't want in real life, like the angst and relief of a good romance, the terror and relief of a good horror, or the tension and relief of a good thriller. However, there are certain emotions some of us don't enjoy, even as a voyeur, even if there is relief waiting at the end of the book.

Here's a non-literary example of this effect: I love rock climbing, but only if I trust my rope setup and belay partner. There's something glorious about being balanced on a wall of warm, silver stone and being able to look back over your shoulder at some incredibly view of mountains, sea and sky. You're all alone up there and that view is all for you.

However, if you pair me with a belay partner whose skills I'm not confident in, my pleasure evaporates. Suddenly I have sweaty fingers and I'm too tense, which makes my muscles tire too quickly. I don't pause to enjoy the view because all I want is to get safely back on the ground. I do not climb for the thrill of it, because I don't enjoy fear.

Hence, I'm not enjoying the scary bits of The Stand. Terror is not an emotion I like to dabble in, even for fun.

It's strange that to enjoy a book, we have to be able to suspend our sense of disbelief and really feel the emotions of the story, yet not feel them so intensely that the story becomes too devastating to tolerate. There's a reason why the publishing industry wouldn't touch terrorism stories for a long time after 9/11; most editors and agents live in New York and work in Manhattan. They were there. The subject wasn't something they could enjoy; they didn't have any emotional distance from it.

I think it's best to aim for emotional truth in your writing, because un-involving stories have no chance on the market, but when your subject matter is both dark and intense, that can limit your audience. It's up to you as an artist to decide where the line is drawn, but there is merit to having the really rough stuff happen off the page. To become a hit, a story must resonate with a large number of people, but at the same time, it cannot stir up feelings that the majority of those people can't handle.


What emotional situations do you lap up when you read a book, and does that inform your book choices? Which situations make you hate even a well-written book? I'd love to hear your (darkest, scariest) thoughts!

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