Sunday, December 30, 2007

Peace on Earth

Ah, Chocolate. The Breakfast of Champions Christmas. There's nothing quite like the wriggly-brained nausea you get from eating a litre of candy on an empty stomach to bring back childhood memories. Often in hallucinogenic clarity; it's probably due to your brain cells exploding from the sugar.

I spent a lot of my childhood terrified of nuclear annihilation. It sounds a bit weird now, but I really did live with the belief that I would die before reaching adulthood. For that reason, "Peace on Earth" is still my favourite holiday greeting, so whether or not you celebrate Christmas, I wish you peace wherever you live in this world.

Have a wonderful (and safe; don't snarf the liquor like you did the candy) New Year's Eve, and may we all get paid for our writing in 2008!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

When your hook is dull, you're either gonna lose your fish or cause it pain.

I have a backdated blog entry where I keep track of books I've read. With the year winding down, I took a gander at that post and was surprised to see I've read about 70 books this year.

That slapping sound you hear is me patting my own back. I got into a reading drought while in grad school (ironic how when you're in school, you have no time to read--not even textbooks; everything gets skimmed) and I decided to make an effort to get out of it.

In my post, I also kept track of books I started reading but didn't finish. That list actually provides an interesting statistic.

If I'm going to give up on a book, it usually happens at about page 15.

Fifteen pages. That's all you get! Don't whine about how no one lets authors slide the reader into the story gradually anymore--I know I've got the attention span of a chihuahua on crack, but I'm helpless to change that. What you gonna do? Either give me some candy by page fifteen, or I'm going to go read my friends' blogs instead.

I also kept track of why I stopped reading a book.

Reason #1 why I stopped reading:
"Too much backstory and telling."

Reason #2 why I stopped reading:
"Couldn't get into it."

Reason #1 is self-explanatory, but I'll comment on it anyway. Because of my brother's awesome birthday gift to me, I've been reading a lot of urban fantasy lately.

I don't much like urban fantasy.

Granted, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover some really great urban fantasy in the stack, but on the whole, my opinion stands: I don't much like urban fantasy.

Part of the reason is that a lot of urban fantasy is written in first-person. I like first-person when it's done well, but so often the author uses it as an excuse for the point-of-view character to yabber and yabber and yabber at the reader. Susie Kickbutt talks about her job, her opinion of the world, how she looks, the clothes she's putting on, her ex-boyfriends, and--worst, worst, worst--she blathers for pages and pages about the novel's backstory.

Urban fantasy authors, I beg of thee: show, don't tell. An internal monologue is telling. No matter how engaging your character's voice is, I'm going to get bored if you don't get the party started. Put me into this world; don't just tell me about it. And while you're at it, where's the friggin' plot? Fill me in on Susie Kickbutt's awesome leather pants later.


On to reason #2. When I say I can't get into the story, that usually means the book had neither an engaging character nor an engaging plot development in sight. Stupendous people may have been running around doing exciting things (as I recall, I put several books down right in the middle of a battle scene) but I didn't empathise with any of them and I didn't find the challenges they faced either emotionally or intellectually engaging.

One book I did finish could have very easily been on the list of books I didn't. It was a disappointment on a variety of levels, but what makes that one book interesting is that I remember exactly what got me hooked enough to keep reading it.

I had been bored with the story, despite some rather cool fantasy ideas in it, when a subplot got my attention. It featured a quiet, reserved, and very honourable guard's unrequited love for a princess. I liked him, and I could empathize with his pain. I wanted to see him get the girl.

That one character provided the emotional centre that kept me reading, and lemme tell ya, that book was not worth the effort.

Just one character I cared about. That's all it took. Just one conflict I wanted to find out the resolution to.

What sort of things cause you to put down a book (or throw it against the wall?) What flaws can you overlook and which ones stop you reading permanently?

And just to keep things from turning into a big ol' festering vat of negativity, here's a list of the books I've read this year that I thought were great. Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments, and I'll tack them onto the end of this post.

The Privilege of the Sword
by Ellen Kushner

Point of Honour
by Madeleine E. Robins

Mona Lisa Overdrive
by William Gibson

A Dance in Blood Velvet
by Freda Warrington

The White Wolf's Son
by Michael Moorcock

Story (non-fiction)
by Robert McKee

The Crystal City
by Orson Scott Card

Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson

Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion
by Dan Simmons

Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors
by Guy Gavriel Kay

Last Light of the Sun
by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Time Traveller's Wife
by Audrey Niffeneger

A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords
by George R. R. Martin

Night of the Wolf
by Alice Borchardt

Book of the Damned
by Tanith Lee

The Silver Metal Lover
by Tanith Lee

Blog Readers' Picks:

From Josephine Damien:

Turn, Magic Wheel
by Dawn Powell

Lying Awake
by Mark Salzman

The Prestige
by Christopher Priest

A Welcome Grave
by Michael Koryta

The Marriage of the Sea
by Jane Alison

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Villain vrs. Hero

One way to increase the stakes in a conflict between your novel's protagonist and antagonist is to make the reader see that the villain thinks he's the hero of the story too. According to him, he's the good guy, doing the right thing. He might have a skewed idea of what the right thing is, but he can rationalize all his actions. He might even be right, once you shift your head into the correct mindset.

Here's a story that illustrates this principle. It's taken from real-life.

A friend of mine had a co-worker who was the office's champion bitch. She was a whip-cracking harridan to her underlings, demanding and unsympathetic to her equals, but the height of charm when the boss was around. She also had a habit of vilifying her co-workers in front of the boss to make herself look better. The woman was grasping and mercenary about promotions, bitter in temperment, uniformly hated by her co-workers, and completely unrepentant about any of it.

One day, during a coffee break, my friend--and she can't even remember why--started really talking to this woman.

It turns out, about fifteen years previous, the office bitch was a stay-at-home mum. One day, her husband--a police officer--went to work and didn't come home. He was killed on duty. Abruptly, this woman who had two small children and almost no job skills had to find a way to survive in spite of her grief.

And she did. She wrangled a job she wasn't really qualified for, then fought to be as good at it as humanly possible. She clawed after every opportunity for advancement because she needed the money, and she sacrificed herself--her life, her joy in life--for the sake of her kids. She kept her family together and even put her children through college.

Inside her own story, she's a hero.

To the people she works with, she's still the villain, although my friend never thought of her that way again.

When the reader can see that the villain isn't really such a bad guy, it increases the tension the reader feels because they do empathize with the villain a little. Remember that empathy means the reader sees themself in the character and subconsciously cheers on this reflection of themself. If they're cheering for the hero, but also cheering--even just a little bit--for the villain, then they're doubly invested in the story and doubly anxious about the story's climax and resolution. They know something bad is going to happen to at least one of the characters that their heart is paying attention to.

Have you ever turned a typical villain inside-out to show the reader how he sees himself as the hero? And if so, how did you do it? Also, describe how the villain in your current work-in-progress sees his or herself as the good guy of their own story ('cause they all do; even the evil overlords and psychotic serial killers.)

Figuring out the villain's rationale is sometimes the most fun part of designing your story's structure, and I'd love to hear how you handle it.

Points -->

Rewritten version of my opening scene here, hosted by the ever-lovely Elektra on the Crapometer.

Pretend you don't know me and give it hell. :-)

Monday, December 10, 2007


Got a request for a partial. Tra-la!

Interestingly, it was an agent who requests query letters only (no sample pages at all) in the initial contact.

So naturally, I am now applying Mr. SuperNice's advice to my manuscript at speed.

Which means I won't be getting a meatier post on writing up after all, at least not for a few days. Sorry--but I'm sure you all understand! :-)

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Bruises Shall Turn Into Pretty Colours

Wow; that was great. Excruciating too, but great.

Nathan himself wrote quite a detailed critique of why he didn't like the pages, and I'm just stunned by that generosity; he really went beyond the call of duty. Yay, Mr. SuperNice! His comments are specific, thoughtful and very helpful.

His readers' comments are pretty consistent also, and although I'm feeling kinda mopey about the verdict, it isn't totally unexpected. I came up with a unique style of writing for this book, which I thought nifty, but which is clearly intrusive. I'm going to have to tone it down and rewrite the novel.


No--no, I'm fine. Just this little nervous tick I've been dealing with. Nothing to worry about. Ahem. Yep; I'm good now. *twitches*

I really am thrilled to have got this opportunity. If I hadn't, the book would still be getting rejected but I wouldn't know why. Now I know. And it can be fixed. *twitches* Even if I'm not looking forward to that.

In other news, the outlining for my next novel is going well! It's starting to look like a plot, although I'm a bit worried about the number of subplots worming their way in there.

I shall have a meatier post on writing up in a few days. I'm just waiting for my nerves to stop dancing the Charleston. :-) Thanks to those of you who popped by Nathan's blog to leave a comment; I appreciated it.

EDIT: Oh! And I forgot to say congratulations to all of us on figuring out how to write a decent pitch! The query letter itself was pretty uniformly praised.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Prince Nathan, Sunny Son of the Empress Snark

Nathan Bransford is one of my favourite blogging literary agents. He's funny, exuberant and give great advice to aspiring writers.

Once in a while, if a blog reader is rejected by him and emails back to give him permission to, he'll critique their query letter on his blog (with author-anonymity in place.)

Guess who got rejected by Nathan recently. *waves*

He says he'll try to have my query critique up today (EDIT: It's up now!). The query that got rejected is centred around the pitch y'all helped me hone in my Bop-A-Goblin! post, so I thought I'd point you all toward Nathan's blog so we can see how our instincts about writing a good hook compare to a real!live!omigosh! literary agent's impression of it.

The good news is he said he basically liked the query letter. Yay, us! We rule! We'll hopefully get to hear details about how well he thought the pitch worked when he gets the post up.

The also-good-in-a-totally-different-way news doesn't pertain to the rest of you, but I'll document it anyway. He said it was the pages he rejected.

Yowie-ow-ouch. How is it good news that he rejected my writing, you ask? Well, because he said why he didn't like it. And he said he might post a short excerpt of the writing (I gave him permission to) with the query letter and give more detailed comments there.

Feedback from a real!live!omigosh! literary agent? Hurrah! *does a goblin-dance* This is fabulous, even though it's going to be acutely painful also. (and, omigosh, public...)

I'm already thinking how to rewrite that first scene with respect to Nathan's initial comment, and I'll do so after I've absorbed his blog readers' comments also and clambered back out of the box of chocolates whence I sought solace.

Of course, I'm not really happy about my writing being rejected, but this is a great opportunity. It also restores my faith in the system; a rejection should be based on the book, not the hook (the writing of which is a mysterious art to most of us; it takes some learning.) And while I still have faith I've written a good book, I can totally see where Nathan is coming from in his criticism of my opening scene. It does need to be slowed down, so the reader gets dropped into the world of the novel more gently.

*sigh* I'd better go test those chocolates to make sure they're deep enough for diving.

Oh, and one more thing:

Yay, Nathan Bransford! *waves pom-poms for Mr. SuperNice*

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