Archive for August, 2009



20
Aug
09

It Never Gets Old

As I mentioned here earlier, I went to Worldcon in Montreal a couple of weeks ago. I met lots of folks and had some great conversations, including one with a more-established pro author I couldn’t help fangirling at because I loved her work. Thinking that she was probably sick of people gushing at her, though, I stopped after the initial babble of praise and related my own recent experience with being fangirled, which had happened in the Dealers’ Room a few hours before. Totally floored me; someone gushed at me about one of my short stories. (It ended up happening twice more before Worldcon ended; whee!) I was still a bit dazed in the aftermath. “But you must have gotten used to that,” I said to the more-established pro.

“No,” she said. “You never get used to it. It’s always a surprise, and it always feels strange, and you never really stop loving that reaction. It never gets old. If it does, something’s wrong.” (Paraphrase, but I think I’ve captured it for the most part)

Have been contemplating this for the last 24 hours, as the first couple of reviews of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms have come online in the wake of my ARC giveaway at Worldcon. These aren’t professional reviews, published in big-name markets and full of big words like “deconstruction” and Derrida — so I find them especially heartening, in a way. After all, professional reviewers have reputations to maintain, political considerations, and so on. Not that they can’t be impartial — most can be, and are — but there are still some things they can’t say without in essence damaging themselves. They can’t gush, for example. They can be effusive in their praise, but not giddy. They can trash, but even then they can’t really resort to the kind of language that readers tend to use. (Incoherent rage-frothing probably wouldn’t make it into, say, Publishers’ Weekly.) So, rightly or wrongly, I tend to regard reader/fan reviews as… hmm. I was going to say “purer” expressions of feelings about my work, but that’s not correct. Readers are just as likely to be swayed by peer pressure and other external motivations as pro reviewers. But their expression of those opinions/motivations does tend to be unfiltered, or less so. Yes, I think that word fits better.

Both of these reviews are nicely positive, so naturally my head is in the clouds today. But that does make me wonder about the lattermost part of that pro author’s statement: if it gets old, something’s wrong. Could there ever come a time when this kind of review elicits a “ho-hum” reaction from me? I can’t imagine it. I might not publicly respond to all reviews (in fact, I probably won’t; it’s usually not a good idea for authors to publicly respond to reviews, IMO), but in private? I’m going to giggle and squee and PM my friends to say “Look look look look!” If I ever get to the point where I don’t respond that way, what will it mean? What kind of author will I be when I no longer care how my readers react to my work?

I hope I never find out.

In the meantime, back to squeeage. And hopefully there will be more positive reviews over the next few weeks and months, and I’ll get lots more opportunities to feel delighted and strange.

19
Aug
09

Afterglow

I have a weird habit when reading or watching something for the first time, and I’m not sure if it’s a common reaction to fiction or if it’s just me. So, obviously, I’m going to the Internet to find out.

After I finish a book, even if I’ve disliked some parts of it, even if I can tell there are going to be unfortunate questions bothering me later, there’s a period right after I close the cover where I’m still suspended in the author’s world. Later on, I’ll be able to regard the book’s flaws and judge them, and maybe I’ll decide that it wasn’t worth such a reaction — but that doesn’t lessen the first flush of enjoyment.

(There are a few times when this doesn’t happen, either because I’ve already fallen out of the book or for other reasons I can’t pin down. But that afterglow feeling is frequent enough that I think it’s just part of how my brain’s wired with regard to fiction.)

It’s the same thing with television or movies — after the credits roll, I want a minute or two where I’m still uncritically enjoying what I saw. (Actually, I first noticed this with movies, because many of my friends have the habit of picking something apart while the credits are rolling, and it irritated me to no end.) This has resulted in one or two movie nights that ended up with me trying to defend, something like the third Matrix movie, even though in the morning I’d realize that yes, that one fumbled everything. And I still remember coming home from the theater after seeing The Phantom Menace, trying to justify that it was entertaining, really, and Jar-Jar . . . well, you could just ignore Jar-Jar, right?

Yeah.  Right.

You can see why I don’t think this is a good thing. Trying to hold on to that high, that sense of being in another world, can blind me to valid criticisms of the work later on. It’s also a little embarrassing — if a book has a mawkish, incredibly sentimental ending and I’m still reduced to outright sobbing by it (as happened at least once in high school), then that doesn’t speak highly of my taste. And it’s certainly not helpful to be the one person saying “guys, shut up, I liked it!” when my friends are happily analyzing the storyline.

In a broad sense, I think this may be what the creators of those stories intend — for the reader or viewer to be caught up so strongly in the story that they don’t yet see any problem. But it’s also part of the point of fiction in general, and I don’t know if there’s something skewed in how I respond to it.

Does this happen to anyone else? Am I privileging that first reading over later analysis? Or am I just a sucker for fiction?

14
Aug
09

Stupid Writer Tricks

Since I’m up against a deadline today, I thought I’d take a break from heavy writer stuff and talk about some of the stupid tricks I use on a day to day basis.

1) Backing up my work – mailing things to myself

As someone who has lost 2 computers now, I have a horrible and well earned phobia of losing work to technical failures. My solution? Gmail. Every morning when I’ve done my writing/edits for the day, I mail my latest version to myself at my gmail address. Gmail lets me assign behaviors to incoming mail, so I have it set up that all mail from myself with an attachment and the subject “backup” is automatically marked as opened and shoved into its own folder, so they don’t clutter my inbox. Not only does this let me use Google’s billions of dollars in infrastructure and backup to store years (about 4 now) of daily versions of my novels, but they’re available from anywhere and I can search for the name of the attachment, thus finding any novel I’ve mailed to myself in the past. This is AMAZINGLY handy. Gmail, it’s free, smart, and easy, I can not recommend it enough as a backup system or as a mail client.

(Also, if you’re worried about your mail getting hacked, you can just do what I also do and keep a secret gmail address only used for backing up work. Hey, they’re free, get tons.)

2) Writing by event, not wordcount

I used to be a word count fanatic. Video games have taught me that there is no greater pleasure in life than watching my numbers go higher and higher.  Shooting for a high, round number was a great motivation for me, but then I started hitting numbers over and over again, and the shine wore off. Also, I was no longer thinking of my novels in terms of numbers, I was thinking about them in terms of events. So that’s how I started writing. Every morning I’d sit down and say “I will write until x happens” or “I will write until y is complete,” and then I’d do it, or not. Sometimes the story would change and I’d have to pick a new goal, or sometimes I’d just quit in frustration. Still, writing until you finish a scene can be a more organic approach and encourage you to use only the words you need. I switch between word count and scene as I need to, whatever motivates me most at the time (sometimes it just feels awesome to call it a day when you hit 50k).

3) Remembering that writing is not a performance art

I have a post card above my desk with the following: “Writing is Not A Performance Art,” and I try to look at it at least once a day. I tend to get caught up in details when I write, like, did I word this scene correctly? Would Character A really be such a jerk to Character B? Have I been spelling “waved”  as “waived” for the last 80,000 words? (Yes)  When sticks like these occur, I pull back, break away, and remind myself again: writing is not a performance art. No one is watching me, no one is reading over my shoulders. No one ever has to see anything I don’t want them to see. It doesn’t matter if this scene is stupid, unless I tell someone, no one ever has to know it existed. If I can’t get it now, I’ll make a note to fix it later and move on. Who knows, I might not even use it. I might find a better way later in the book. On the first draft, grammar, spelling, even coherency are not as important as getting the thing down. You can always fix it later, or trash it. Any worrying over details at this point will probably be wasted work.

Writing is not live action performace, it’s all post production editing and special effects.

13
Aug
09

The Map Thing

Seeing this amusing example of “Geography Fail” triggered this post. What’s wrong with this picture?

ur doin it wrong

ur doin it wrong

So as we confront yet another example of how Americans can’t even manage to correctly render maps of our own, very real world, I find myself contemplating the nature of maps in fantasy.

They’ve become a staple of epic fantasy, particularly those of doorstopper size, to the point that Diana Wynne Jones ruthlessly skewered them as a cliche in her seminal The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. (Note: I haven’t seen the revised version, which I’m told has a different parody map; the original was Europe upside down, with names that are anagrams of Our World names.) TV Tropes has a few choice things to say about them too. (Warning — I have never managed to visit TV Tropes without losing several hours of time browsing and laughing my nether regions off. Here there be lulz; click at your peril.)

It’s easy to make fun of fantasy maps — and yet we continue to see them throughout the genre, even when authors don’t want them (e.g., Terry Goodkind). It’s gotten to the point that an epic fantasy sans map doesn’t actually feel like epic fantasy to some readers. I was at Worldcon this past weekend, schmoozing and doing all the usual stuff debut authors need to do to promote their book. I handed one of my Advanced Reader Copies to an author whose work I admired, in hopes that she would read it and offer a favorable review. She thumbed through it, looked impressed by the teaser blurb, but then frowned and said, “I thought this was epic fantasy? There’s no map.” At which point I was obliged to explain that it had all the other tropes of epic fantasy — world-spanning scale, one brave heroine fighting impossible odds, Fate Of The Universe At Stake, the usual. Just no map. She still looked a bit dubious, but said she’d read it. Here’s hoping.

I got anxious enough about this during the early production phase of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that I actually drew a map. This was a mistake, of course, because I know diddlysquat about cartography and plate tectonics and had probably put a continent in the way of some critical Gulf Streamlike current, thus making the whole planet uninhabitable by human beings. But I worried that readers would protest that the story wasn’t Epic enough, despite warring gods and exploding mountains and such, without a map to illustrate the epic-ness. So I finished the map, then asked my editor if she wanted it. Here’s proof of how good she is — she demurred, noting correctly that it’s a good thing not to adhere to the overdone cliches of the genre. Amazing that I needed a reminder of this, but that’s how deep the programming runs.

Because I didn’t really believe I needed one. I feel the same way about maps as I do about depictions of characters in novel cover art — I know they supposedly sell more books, but I hate it when my mental image of the story is messed with by someone else’s rendering. When I finished my crappy map, I didn’t actually like it. For one thing, the underlying story of the series spans thousands of years. Imagine how much human civilizations in our world have changed in, say, the last two millennia. Which era would you choose to map? How would you depict shifting national boundaries, cities destroyed and rebuilt, and so on? On top of this, I make a point in the series of noting that this world’s rulers routinely obliterate nations that annoy them, literally wiping them off the map. Even the gods get in on the planetary renovation act, sinking continents and boiling oceans now and again. The survivors move to an undamaged location, plant a flag and name the new territory after the old, and hope they’ll manage to last a few centuries before the next displacement.

Trying to map all this made the world, complex and dynamic in my imagination, look simple. Static. Small. Which is partly a testament to my mapmaking (non-)skill, but also partly the purpose of a map — to render something as vast as a landscape into a comprehensible, graspable, quantifiable representation. Necessary for explorers, but for readers? I think it actually diminishes the epic fantasy experience.

So here’s my question for all of you. Fantasy maps: necessary? Desirable? Or an evil that must be stopped? You’ve got my vote, obviously, but maybe I’m atypical. I’d like to know what some other fantasy readers think.

12
Aug
09

Life in the big city

Apologies for the lack of a post last week; I was in Montreal on vacation before Worldcon, and the blog completely slipped my mind.  (Blame the tasty duck sandwiches.  No, blame the weather.  No, blame…anyway.)

Montreal’s a beautiful city, and completely unlike any other I’ve visited.  I was trying to make comparisons for the first couple of days I was there — this part is like that one section of San Francisco, this part is like New York, this is like Paris — but it completely fell apart before long, and I think it’s because I was going about it the wrong way.

Cities can be compared one to another, but each one has its own soul, and it’s sometimes difficult to remember that when writing.  Particularly if, like me, you’re from a small town and all cities have that first shock of Too Many People and Too Many Buildings.  It’s really tempting to write all of them from that point of view, to assume all cities are like the one city you know well, or just to ignore the individual differences between cities, concentrating instead on the action and treating the tall buildings as just something more for your hero to pose atop.

But readers notice — even if it doesn’t kick them out of the story, they notice when something’s done well.  Night Watch wouldn’t be the same without the film of Moscow clinging to it, and I probably wouldn’t like it so well.  Last Call captures a sense of Las Vegas that blends with the mythical underpinnings of the story so well that I can’t see pictures of certain casinos without shivering.  Neverwhere might be about London Below, but it’s still London.  If any one of these were set in, say, New York, they wouldn’t feel right.  The city shapes the story.

This carries over into fictional cities as well: New Crobuzon is a very different city from Ankh-Morpork, despite the superficial similarity of “corrrupt and squalid city inhabited by many strange varieties of people.”  Riverside is not the same place as Camorr.  Palimpsest is not Ashamoil.  Tavernel is not King’s Landing.  Even though some of the difference we as readers see has to do with the stories that are set there, the cities still have to have their own personalities.

For a city to work — for a fantasy to be urban — it needs to be a character in its own right.  And though it can have echoes of other cities, the same way that Vieux-Montreal echoes certain European cities, the same way that many glittering downtowns echo New York, it can’t be just a reflection of one.  It has to be an entirely new place — and as with any new place, it’ll give a visitor culture shock.

What cities have come through in what you’ve read?  Which would you most like to explore?

09
Aug
09

Know what a kid knows

by Diana

This is going to be a teensy rant.

Yesterday the Kid was in the car with me, singing away in the backseat–Christmas carols, of all things. She started in on “Jingle Bell Rock” but couldn’t remember all the words. When I had to admit that I couldn’t remember all the words either, she stated, “When we get home, you need to go online and find them!”

She’s five. She’s growing up in a world where instant access to information is a given. She’ll have a black belt in google-fu by the time she hits first grade. She knows that you can find out anything by going to the internet.

So why are there so many grown men and women who can’t figure this out? Okay, let me get more specific–why are there so many aspiring writers who can’t figure this out? Breaking into publishing can be seriously bitching hard. I won’t deny that. And it doesn’t really get much easier once you break in. The quest to get published is much like a job hunt.  Actually, it IS a job hunt. And just like in the business world, the best and brightest job candidate might get beat out for the job by the candidate who did his or her research on the company and the job opening.  In publishing the advantage is going to go to the writer who does the research and directs queries/submissions to the agents/editors who handle their type of work.  It’s going to go to the writer who pays attention to–and follows–submission guidelines. It’s going to go to the writer who acts like a professional.

All of this research and information is available online. There are scads of articles and blog entries about how the industry works. Dedicate a portion of your writing time to learning about the industry, or researching markets/agents/submission guidelines.

There’s no excuse for being clueless. Even my five-year-old knows that.

07
Aug
09

Dissecting the Devil

Dissecting the Devil
Today I’d like to talk about everyone’s favorite characters – villains. A good villain can make an otherwise normal story unforgettable. Silence of the Lambs would be nothing but a serial killer novel without Hannibal Lector. And I Claudius wouldn’t be much of anything except an historical drama without the incredible machinations of Livia. What’s Star Wars without force lightning? Villains are everything we love about fiction.
In my first novel, I didn’t worry too much about my villain, and while I think I still managed to pull it off, I didn’t want to ignore the villain in my next book. But what makes a truly memorable villain? I sat down to find out.
Your villain is your antagonist, so it seems reasonable that your reader should hate them as a by-product of cheering for your main characters. It isn’t hard to inspire hate in a reader, just have your villain do something awful. Burning down the main character’s village is classic, so is killing your swordsman’s beautiful and far too saintly wife, preferably on their wedding day. If you’re looking for something a little quicker, you can just have the bastard abuse a child, or better, a puppy, and you’ll have instant, rabid hatred.
But simple, hated villains rarely end up on top ten lists. There’s only so much evil cackling they can do before they start sounding like every other cackling villain. True, hated villains play their parts with great aplomb and push the story along admirably, but I can’t help feeling that simple hate isn’t enough. Pure evil is just as boring as pure good. For a villain to truly go down as an amazing character, they have to be a character, which means a mixed bag. A truly good villain must be someone readers love, or at least, love to hate, and to achieve this, you must capture the reader, trapping them into feeling empathy, admiration, or even simple watching-the-trainwreck fascination.
Empathy is perhaps the rarest and the trickiest. My favorite empathetic villain is Salieri from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. Here is a composer who has dedicated his life to music, who did everything right, but who was unfortunate enough to be a competitor with Mozart, who, in the movie (and the play), is a horrible, irresponsible, dirty little man, but whose music transcends the best of what Salieri can produce. In one of the most moving scenes, Salieri, a devout Christain who had dedicated his life to making music for the glory of god, turns his back on his creator, saying:
“From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”
It is at this moment that Salieri becomes the villain, and the viewer can not help but empathize. Salieri has been the movie’s central character. He’s charming, genteel, and his love of Mozart’s music, even though he hates the man with a murderous passion, constantly redeems him. He can not hate such beauty, and neither can we. He represents the inadequacy and mediocrity we all feel, tapping into an extremely human feeling of jealousy combined with seemingly justified wrath. For all that he does horrible things, we as the audience can not help loving and empathizing with Salieri.
Admiration is its own kind of tricky. How do you make the audience hate and admire a villain at the same time? It’s all about character. One of most masterful portrayals of this I ever saw was Livia in I Claudius. For those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, I Claudius is a so-so book and a fantastic BBC mini-series about the family life of the early Roman Emperors, from Augustus to Nero, following the life of Claudius, later Emperor Claudius, the stuttering grandson of Augustus.
The first part of the series is undoubtedly my favorite because it features Augustus’s wife, Livia, as the primary villain. Livia is desperately ambitious that her son, Tiberius, become Emperor on Augustus’s death, never mind that there are quite a few other heirs before him, or that neither Augustus nor Tiberius himself is very keen on Tiberius being Emperor.
None of this stops Livia, and she removes every obstacle in her path with such precision, such cunning, such ruthless efficiency, you can’t help but admire her. Here is a woman so skilled at what she does, namely bumping off family members, I found myself almost cheering for her because it was so much fun to watch someone so clever get around seemingly impossible obstacles. Through it all, Livia is a constant character, and, other than her murderous streak, a very no-nonsense, entertaining lady who happens to be a sociopath. She is, in short, murderously charming, and you can’t help admiring her as much as you hate her.
The villain as can’t-look-away train wreck is a difficult beast. It’s so easy to go from captivating to cliché. The best example I’ve seen of this kind of villain is the Joker from Batman, particularly in the Dark Knight movie. Here is a true maniac who, through excellent writing and characterization, manages to be completely original. You simply can not look away, there’s always this wonder of what will he do next, and how can such an insane, reckless genius be stopped? The tension in Batman and Joker’s antagonism comes not from us hating the Joker, but of our desperation to see how on earth Batman can beat him.
The truth is that, if the movie was centered around the Joker, and not Batman, we’d be cheering for him with pure murderous glee, and that, that right there, is the truest hallmark of a good villain. If the viewpoints were switched, you would still cheer for the villain as the hero because you love the character for themselves. A good antagonist is exactly that, an equal opponent for the hero in strength, cleverness, and characterization. A true threat, not just through armies or super weapons or power, but a clever, ruthless competitor who can stand up on their own.
These three types are certainly not the only options for villainy, just the ones I’ve encountered that I happen to like the most. In everything I’ve written, villains have always been my greatest challenge, and I still don’t think I’ve gotten it quite right. So if you have any suggestions for villains I should get to know, please leave them in the comments. I’m always looking to learn a new twist on how to make a great antagonist.

Today I’d like to talk about everyone’s favorite characters – villains. A good villain can make an otherwise normal story unforgettable. Silence of the Lambs would be nothing but a serial killer novel without Hannibal Lector. And I Claudius wouldn’t be much of anything except an historical drama without the incredible machinations of Livia. What’s Star Wars without force lightning? Villains are everything we love about fiction.

In my first novel, I didn’t worry too much about my villain, and while I think I still managed to pull it off, I didn’t want to ignore the villain in my next book. But what makes a truly memorable villain? I sat down to find out.

Continue reading ‘Dissecting the Devil’