Saturday, April 30, 2005

Themes of Betrayal

Ever met a person who always has some sort of conspiracy theory? No matter how careful people are around this type of person, no matter how much they all walk on eggshells, the person in question always seems to develop a theory that while not all of the world is a stage, all of the men and women in it are, without exception, players. In fiction, I've been exploring the idea of betrayal and how to set up a classic betrayal subplot without making it immediately obvious to the reader just which character is doing the betraying. And, mind, the character being betrayed is not the type I just mentioned, not the type to entertain suspicions about everyone. But he is in a position where betrayal can have deadly results.

I rented the film version of Othello with Laurence Fishburn and Kenneth Branaugh to provide some insight and inspiration for setting up the subtle nuances of the betrayal subplot. For some reason, just reading the plays doesn't provide the same creative spark as watching skilled Shakespearean actors interpreting the play and bringing it to life. I think even Shakespeare would be pleased with the performances. I never knew Iago was so devious; Othello isn't a play I spent much time on in college, and I aced Shakespeare. But wow, what lengths Iago went to just for vengeance. It's amazing that people can find the time or the energy for such intricate machinations, and yet apparently they do. Shakespeare was nothing if not masterful at plumbing the depths of the human condition, fair or foul.

It's been interesting to explore the differences between perceived betrayal and actual betrayal. I've been debating whether to have my betrayed character come to his own realization of what is happening or leave him in doubt until hit over the head with a clue-by-four as to which of the two potential betrayers is the real one. Ah-hem. Will the real traitor please stand up? I don't want to portray the betrayed one as clueless, but on the other hand I can see no possible way he could really figure this out based on the evidence. He'd have to go more on gut instinct, which would be a huge risk for everyone involved--a risk he can't afford to take. That's about the best way I can describe this without making it a horrible spoiler, but you'll see what I'm referring to whenever the books come out.

Happy thoughts for the last day of April. How did Kaa put it in Jungle Book? Trussst in meee, oh, trussst in meee....

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Warning Labels

I've just been reading another author's web forum wherein a very heated, very long discussion is going on regarding whether warning labels should be put on books that contain certain graphic descriptions of sex, abuse or other violence. I prefer to generally steer away from topics that lend themselves to this type of debate, and the last thing I want once I am published is to have fans or detractors bashing each other (and me) on my blog or forum. But on the other hand, I also realize that no matter how I try, I'll never be able to please everyone with my writing. At best, some people should love my books and some should hate them. The worst possible response would be complete indifference. So I'm going to step out on a limb here and offer a few opinions on the subject I just mentioned.

I can understand both sides of the argument about the labels. I've read plenty of Amazon reviews where people said that they were disappointed in the book because it wasn't what they'd been expecting. I've read many books that I was personally disappointed in because they had a plot point that I hated, one which completely ruined the story for me. I empathize with those who were disappointed in any given book because the cover blurb left out some vital information that might have changed whether the reader paid their hard-earned money for the book or not. I've recently bought two fantasy paperbacks which shall remain nameless but which I wish I'd never picked up. I'm not taking them back to the store because I can also empathize with the authors' need to earn out their advances and returns are a bad thing for fiction--ALL fiction. But neither do I intend to finish reading them, because they were both spoiled by certain turns of events in the plot that I just plain didn't care for. Was I offended by the plot devices in question? No. I just didn't like how the story was going and didn't want to read more. But could a sort of warning label have prevented me from getting stuck with two books whose plots I didn't like? Yes, but not without being a spoiler for the plot itself. "Warning, the main character's love interest dies two thirds of the way through the book and the main character himself dies at the end!" Ehhh...I don't think so. I picked up the books, I bought them, I took the gamble that I'd like them. This time, I was disappointed. But recently, I found a book I really liked. The odds are fifty-fifty on any book. You win some, you lose some. You like some, you hate some. But a warning label? A book might offend you or cause you to experience some painful emotions or memories, but it's not going to poison you or give you cancer. I think it's fair to assume that any book not published under a YA label could potentially have some kind of issue in it that an adult is supposed to be able to deal with and which might contain potentially "offensive" material. Sounds fair enough to me. Put your quarter in and pull the handle.

Very few books or plot devices offend me. I write about complex human issues, so what kind of hypocrit would I be if I got offended every time another author kicked a sacred...gopher? I've kicked a few of those dang gophers myself, and probably will again. But not--as a very dear and well-respected friend once accused me of doing--just because I can. For any of my readers, past or future, who read this blog, here is where I stand on the subject of what I do or do not include in my books:

Boil down every plot element and every opinion any of my characters have and what you'll find there are simple human issues. That's what makes my characters so--to put it in my agent's words--"wonderfully believable." No, I don't tend to softcoat the issues. I mentioned this in another blog entry called Pulling Punches. My books have violence, teen pregnancy, differences of opinion, bigotry, slavery, rape, deception, betrayal and murder. But they also have love, respect, compassion, strength, determination, redemption, forgiveness, unity and hope. Just like life. And yes, it's fiction. But some of the things that happen to my characters just may at some time or other have happened to some very real people who may happen to pick up one of my books. The way my characters experienced their issues in the books may or may not be similar to the way those unknown readers experienced something similar in their own lives. I know that there are bound to be readers who for whatever reason choose to take offense at one or more of the situations or issues I have portrayed in my book. Sooner or later, something is bound to strike a nerve with someone. But I try to always, always treat all my plot issues with the care and sensitivity that they deserve while being true to the story. Every conflict and problem and issue the characters have is something that has grown out of the story, and without them the story would have less punch.

I don't tweak people's sensitivities just to be contrary or just because I can. I write the issues with honesty, care, and love. I never mock someone's pain or experiences or beliefs. My character's beliefs will not always be the same as yours--in fact, I can guarantee they're not, because I made up all the gods and goddesses in the story. But the characters' FAITH in whatever higher power they worship is where the realism comes into play. We all have faith in something. A religion. A significant other. Something. And so the FAITH, not the specifics of the belief system, is true to life, and to the story. Some people may be put off because some of the characters worship multiple gods. Some may object to a character being raped or maimed or abused. But people DO worship different gods sometimes. Sometimes people are raped or maimed or abused. See? Issues. If I ever softcoat the issues or try to make them politically correct, I'll wreck the story, and that would be a worse crime than to just write the story with care, with love, and with honesty.

For those who might wonder about the explicit stuff, there are only about two explicit sex scenes per book, but I tried not to pull any punches on them, so I wouldn't personally label them as kid fare. They are true to the story and grow out of the plot, as any scene, no matter what sort, should do.

There's my challenge, and my warning label. If you're easily offended, don't read the books. They're like ogres--they have layers, and they might be beautiful one moment and ugly the next. I can't promise you'll like everything in the trilogy, but I can say this: I put my heart and soul into it, and I sincerely believe that it's a wonderful story, with all its tough issues and painful moments and tender triumphs. I hope you'll all give it a chance.


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The New Ride

My nine-year-old purple Taurus wagon was getting older by the day--and it was leaking everywhere. Every fluid except the wiper fluid was slowly seeping out from where it was supposed to be, or so they told me when I last got the car serviced. It was due for a 30,000 mile maintenance, too, and that would have cost plenty without touching the cost of fixing all those leaks. There comes a time in the life of every car when you have to consider whether fixing it is going to exceed its Blue Book value.

So I have a new ride. I miss the old one, but the new one is making me very, very happy right now. So happy that I just want to get in and drive. Road Trip! I don't care where, and that's not the best thought to have right now when gas prices are so high. The new car is a Dark Shadow Gray Ford 500, and I'm completely in love. I cannot say enough about the quality of this vehicle. Who'd have thought a car could be so classy and yet so affordable? Ford, ya done good! I've named it Phouka. The old purple Taurus was the Dragon Wagon. The dark blue Ford Probe before that was Dreamweaver, and the olive green Dodge Colt (my first car) was Aloe Vera, otherwise known as Vera.

I name my cars. Always have. And I keep them for a long time, too. They become, in effect, part of the family, to be defended, fussed over, and loved. When I had to fill out the form for the personalized license plates, I had to provide an explanation for my three choices. How does one explain Phouka? A magical horse. A creature of fantasy. An Irish legend. And above all, a shadowy steed that lures unsuspecting passersby to it and then gives them a wild, wild ride.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Once More Into the Breach

Well, the manuscript for Shadows of Memory has officially been read and commented on by my agent, and he says I need to do some more chopping to tighten up the storyline and reduce the word count. He says that word count is becoming more and more of an issue with publishers, and I can certainly see where this would be true with all the trouble the fiction market has had over this past couple of years. Sometimes it leaves me feeling as though I finally managed to walk through the right door at the wrong time, but I guess this, too, shall pass. Sooner or later, a publisher is bound to agree that it's my turn. Anyway, after looking into the situation for the past few days, I have now come to the following conclusions about the unexpected revision.

Bob's right that the storyline needed to be tightened. I mean--I actually went through and jerked several scenes completely out and ditched parts of others, and I've already got the thing reduced by 10,000 words. Then I started moving things around and changing the order of some scenes, rethinking others and weaving things more tightly together, and I think I've come up with a sequence of scenes that will send the plot off like a rocket. I did some studying to refresh my memory on the plotting devices of Three Act Structure, Inciting Incident, Rising Action, etc. I've always been more of an organic writer, and that's how I wrote Aspects of Illusion, but now with the next two books of the trilogy, I find I can't escape the need to plot with a great deal more deliberation. I'm not sure what the final word count of Shadows will be, but it will be shorter than that of Aspects. However, that also worries me.

Aspects of Illusion ended up at a bit under 150,000 words, so I read through it again last night to see what scenes if any I could cut from it if I needed to. With the exception of a bath for one character and one particular set piece in chapter one which we'd already debated ditching once before, I just can't find any scenes in Aspects that could be ditched without messing up the plot. Every scene is tight, fairly short, and from what I can see, vital to the plot. That whole huge book is so tight it has a snuggie, and I can't imagine what I'll do if I'm asked to cut it as well. With Shadows, yeah, I've managed to cut it and I'm actually LOVING the results. But with Aspects...I see disaster if I have to cut it. And I'm not particularly delighted at the idea of the two books being so dissimilar in finished length. I wanted each one to have a roughly 150,000-word ceiling, and now that ceiling's looking more like 125,000. I'm short already, but I feel like ducking! My new goal in life is to write such *** kicking books that after this first trilogy comes out, no one will ever question my word length again. Yep. That'll be happening....

The great news is that Bob likes the book in general. It seems that my characters are believable, their plot arcs are convincing, there were some parts he flat-out loved, and my pages turned quickly even though the storyline was still a bit loose. I can definitely live with that sort of news, and I don't even mind the chance to revise this thing just one more time--not if it makes it a book an editor can't put down. Yahoo! My plot officially doesn't suck! Can't complain about that, especially for what is intended to be the second book of a trilogy.

It also doesn't suck to have an agent who always seems to say the right thing at exactly the right time. I can take any critcism as long as it's constructive, and I am definitely not opposed to the method of hearing the criticisms first and the praise second. It's kind of like a game of good cop, bad cop, but all coming from the same person. And it works.

Validation is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Larger Than Life

Anyone who has ever taken a Breakout Novel Workshop from Don Maass will be familiar with the concept of the larger-than-life character. But I'm sure that most writers have had a character who just gives them fits. No matter how hard the writer tries to get that character to be the hero or heroine that the audience needs, the character just won't play. Now, I've tried all the techniques that Don presents in his workshops for character building, and if you want to try any of them you'll have to go take one of his classes or get one of his books. I'm not allowed to reproduce any of his techniques here. I'm fiercely protective of intellectual property--I have to be if I want to play in the big Professional Writer sandbox. But while I was working on one of my stubborn characters, I came up with a diagnostic technique that is all my own. What's more, I'm going to offer it here for free. I have no idea whether it will help anyone, but it certainly can't hurt. Here it is:

Pen or print out a passage or even several pages--heck, take the entire first scene--written from your hard-to-pin-down character's POV. (That's point-of-view, for those of you who are brand spankin' new writers.) Then highlight all the parts that show that character's emotions, and write the name of each emotion down on another piece of paper. Now read your list. Does it read, "Hope, curiosity, determination, excitement..." or does it read more like "anger, disappointment, desperation, misery, anger, irritation, boredom, anger, anger, anger, hopelessness...?" Sometimes your character's attitude can be a very good clue as to whether a reader will like him or her. People have a hard time rooting for a person who is always negative. Do you like to hang out with people who are always whiny, grumpy or negative? Probably not. So why should a reader want to hang out with a character who is a whiner, grump or defeatest?

That brings on another subject--the hero that no one really likes, but who is nonetheless the protagonist of the story. It's hard to say how to handle this one. I don't really like antiheros, personally. But I can possibly get behind one if I can identify sufficiently with one of the secondary characters. For example, I don't really like Rand al'Thor in the Wheel of Time series, but I do like many of his friends and allies. Don't get me wrong--I wouldn't call him an antihero, but I just have never been able to identify with him all that much. And maybe that's fine. Maybe he's meant to be the tragic hero figure who is pretty much distanced from everyone by the destiny that he never wanted. Sad, but necessary. If I can't like Rand, maybe I can identify with the Elayne character, or the Perrin character, or Lan Mandragoran. Do you have a secondary character through whose eyes the reader can view the protagonist? A Watson for your Holmes? In Anne Bishop's Black Jewels series, I'm not all that gone on Jaenelle, the main character. Maybe that's because we never ever get to be in her POV. I can empathize with her plight, but I can't really identify with her. But I absolutely, completely love Daemon and want him to be happy. And what makes Daemon happy? Jaenelle, of course. So there you go.

Now, check out your villain's attitude. People often stereotype a villain as someone who hates life A happy villian cuts an entirely different figure than a villian who is hunched and miserable. Which one do you want to use, and what attitudes would be out of character for that particular villian? This will have an effect on how the reader will perceive the character. It's all about 'tude.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The girl's got Moxie

The synopses are done! I've re-vamped all three of them to the point where I think it may be actually safe to send them out on Monday. Now all I have to do before I get my break is to go in and write an alternate scene for Shadows that does a better job of explaining the conflict between two of the secondary characters. It was the only issue the crit group as a whole had with the plot, so I'll give it another look and see what, if anything, can be done. I also rewrote the first two chapters of Aspects a while back, so now that they've sat on the shelf a while, I need to go back and read them again and see whether they're all that much better than the originals. If so, I'll need to run them by Bob and see whether he wants me to send a new version of Aspects with the revised chapters. One of my crit group members also found a repeated paragraph in Shadows Chapter 10, so I'll need to resubmit that. Whew. It never ends. But my crit partners, also known as the other three members of the Moxie Quartet or Moxie 4, need to stand up and take a bow. Without them, there would be...errors. Try as I might, I can't catch everything. You're lifesavers, ladies. You've got my back, I've got yours. Nobody writes in a vacuum, unless you're the world's first author to book a vacation on MIR.

Now, if we could just write each others' synopses, we'd really have it made, yes?