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Jun 28, 2011

Scary Scenes

My friend Rayne Hall is an excellent writing teacher, and she has another class coming up on Scary Scenes. Even if you're not writing Horror, if you want to learn to add suspense to your novel, this is a great class. (I speak from personal experience!)

Are your frightening scenes scary enough? Learn practical tricks to turn up the suspense. Make your reader’s hearts hammer with excitement and their skins tingle with goosebumps of delicious fright. Whether you’re working on a ghost story, a thriller, a paranormal romance, an urban fantasy or a romantic suspense, this workshop is perfect for planning or revising your scary scenes. If you wish, you may submit a scene for critique at the end of the course.

Jun 24, 2011

Teaser and Revisions

Sorry, my blog is boring right now because I'm working hard on the edits for The Unfinished Song: Sacrifice. It will be a few more iterations, I fear. Since I don't have the energy for a real post, I'll give you an excerpt from the book. Here's a rare scene with no spoilers, unless you haven't read The Unfinished Song: Taboo yet, in which case go do so at once before you read this. (Just kidding.)


“You can’t be rid of me that easily.”
The voice was unexpected. Vessia whirled around to see Nangi watching her.
Vessia felt a frisson of resentment shudder through her. It had been so long since she had run through the meadows alone, as she’d used to when she lived with Old Man and Old Woman. She missed the smell of heather under open sky. She needed wind to lift her hair off her neck, she needed to swing her arms without anyone touching her shoulder to calm her. The land they were passing through now was hot, dry and dead, closed up into canyons of striated rock. Trekking through the stone passages, where sometimes the overhang was so high it blocked the sun, was like traversing caves, or tombs. When she’d told Vio she wanted to leave and be on her own for a while, he had only laughed and told her that being a prisoner meant not being free. She had retorted, “But am I not your wife?” and either because of that or because he noticed the mad itch in her, he relented. He let her go alone to a cool gathering of water in the rock, a place where aspen grew around the water’s edge and swans paused on their migration to swim. And now, just when she thought she was alone, she discovered Nangi had followed her.
“I can eat your thoughts, you know.” Nangi smiled a nasty smile.
Vessia had seen her do this with others; she would sidle up to them, hiss at them that she could eat their thoughts, and then grin while they broke into a sweat and began to stammer. Vessia didn’t understand why they feared having their thoughts eaten.
“Do they taste good?” Vessia asked. This was something she had always wondered.
Nangi’s eyes narrowed like a cat’s. “How do you do that?”
“Do what?”
“Shield your thoughts! How do you do it? Stop it at once! It only proves you have something to hide! Let your thoughts out at once or I shall report you to my father!”

Oh, and there's this too, if you somehow missed it: J.K. Rowling is now an indie author.

Jun 16, 2011

Should You Start At the End to Reach the Middle?

Beginnings are difficult. Endings are difficult. But connecting them is the most difficult of all.

As usual, a few plot holes have opened up during revisions, a few broken bridges between the Beginning and the Ending. To fix them, to tie up the loose strings, I am writing from the outside in...from the beginning toward the middle, but also from the ending toward the middle, until the two meet.

To to this, I take each character's story arc and ask myself, Where does this person need to end up? Then I ask, where does this person need to begin?'s just a matter of figuring out the steps in between. Generally I try to have each major character show up once a chapter, and supporting characters at least three times in the book. I have a lot of characters, so this in itself can be tricky. My main characters have one to three scenes per chapter.

Designing each individual story arc is not too hard, in and of itself; the tricky part comes when I juggle them. I have to make certain the logistics are feasible. Scene X logically must come before Scene Y. But I also try to coordinate the themes of each scene, which should contribute to the mini-story arc and theme of each chapter. (Each chapter has its own chapter theme, which contributes to the larger theme of the book.)

For instance, the chapter theme in the first book of The Unfinished Song: Sacrifice, is "Recrudescence," or the resurgence of a disease which had been dormant or cured. For a few characters, their recrudescence is literal, and they suffer a relapse of the disfiguring skin disorder they had when they were Shunned. For most of the others, however, the recrudesce plays out more symbolically. Kavio discovers an old enemy is back, in an unexpected position of strength. Brena meets the bear again and realizes her injury is getting worse. Gremo... well, I could go on, but I won't spoil anything by saying that Dindi also finds something won't stay down, so to speak.

Each scene focuses on a different character dealing with a relapse or reoccurrence of a problem or person who was supposed to be gone. The chapter as a whole contributes to the book's overall theme of sacrifice because the each person will realize in their own way that to truly conquer their problems, they have to do more. They have to give up more than they thought to gain what they want... possibly much more than they are willing to give.

Jun 9, 2011

Why Have "Age Appropriate" Books?

In a previous post, I discussed YA literature, and whether it was merely an artificial publishing box. Today, as I sit with my one-year-old and listen to Barney sing about firetrucks, I wanted to ask how far that is true. When I was a tot, there were stories and television for children, but the diversity and volume of children's media has certainly increased.

The research that goes into children's television is also astonishing. One show my kids love is Blues Clues. The success of this show was not accidental. The producers did a tremendous amount of research into the cognitive abilities and attention span of three and four years olds to craft every show.

I don't know if as much research goes into children's literature. In general, I think the younger the children, the more research there is on how to package uplifting and educational messages for the target age group. Of course, this is because the younger the children, the more the target (buying) audience is actually the parents. Parents want the literary equivalent of health food for their kids. 

By the time the readers reach their teens -- Middle Grade and Young Adult -- the buyers are frequently the teens themselves. Even if the credit card is still mom's or dad's. But parents, teachers and other adults still buy books, and they still do it with the hope of moulding (or at least not corrupting) pliable minds. Notice that the article complaining about the darkness in YA was a mom trying to purchase books for her daughter.

There was an interesting study of Romance heroes done by Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne Fisher and Ian Jobling, which compared reader's preferences for certain kind of romantic heroes. The heroes were coded according to whether they were dark and dangerous (anti-heros) or noble and chivalrous (traditional heroes). Female readers were't told that the descriptions of the men were from fiction, and were asked various questions hinged on imagining themselves in relationships with these men. Most women preferred the anti-hero for a one night stand, but the chivalrous hero for a long term relationship. 

However, even the women who were intrigued by the idea of a fling with the anti-heros overwhelmingly agreed on one thing: when it came to choosing between these two men for their daughters, they almost all wanted the chivalrous man for their daughters.
It is striking that 60 percent of women would prefer to have sex with [the anti-hero], a cad, but only 13 percent would prefer to see him engaged to their twenty-five-year-old-daughter....
You might think this was a generational thing, that of course old fuddy-duddy moms of an older generation would be more conservative, but in fact the participants of the study, as in most human-rat-maze experiments, were college students.
The women in this study were similar in age to their imagined twenty-five daughter, and yet they were able to state a preference that would be appropriate for a potential grandmother.
By the way, this shows that it's not a matter of age, so much as relationship. It's not that adults consider teens as other. It's that people, as parents or even when they just imagine being parents,  look something different in literature for their children than for themselves.

Generations of researchers have debated whether violence in video games and on television causes a rise in criminal violence in society. Fretting over violence or "darkness" in literature has not been nearly as fevered. (Before TV, concern over literature occupied a greater fraction of the global reserve of Worry That Young Minds Are Going To The Dogs.)

These questions are not quite the same as asking what kind of literature is "best suited" to teens. The problem is that it is difficult to untangle what we mean by "best." Is "best" mean most entertaining, best selling, most educational, most conducive to being a whole, rounded, compassionate and intelligent person? And how would we measure that? We can ask children to sing their ABCs or share toys, but its harder to evacuate the intellectual and emotional growth of teens and adults.

So Young Adult books are judged as effective by the de facto method our society uses for judging the success of most things: number of sales and final dollars earned.

Jun 6, 2011

What Is the Difference Between Young Adult and Just Adult Lit?

I found out about this article in the Wall Street Journal from Michelle Davidson Argyle when she responded to it on The Literary Lab.
I recently read a book by our one and only Scott G.F. Bailey, and I was shocked at the darkness in it. I wrote to Scott and said, wow, this is really dark. He said, yeah, I know. It's an adult novel, and it disturbed me not with the subject matter, but the tones of the novel. Honestly, I have never read a YA book with such dark tones. Usually, even in YA novels that deal with darker subjects, the tones seem to be handled on a lighter level. Maybe, though, Miss Gurdon is really talking about tone in her article, not subject matter. Maybe there are YA books out there that I haven't read that are really, really dark in tone. Teens can handle subject matter. Adults can handle subject matter. I think it's tone that can really make the difference. I appreciated Scott's book. It was amazingly well done. I appreciated the darkness he portrayed because it contrasted the world in a way that helped me appreciate what he was really saying in that book - and I think he did it through tone. I wouldn't have seen those things otherwise.

I agree with Michelle, that there is absolutely a difference between tone and subject matter. I recently finished Speak a young adult novel (from about 10 year ago) that is about a girl who was raped just before she started highschool. So, the subject is dark, I suppose. Yet, I personally wouldn't call it a dark novel.

You can have all sorts of horrible things happen in a novel: rape, torture, murder, the end of the world, etc. Yet it can still be an upbeat, heroic novel if the heroes win out in the end. Although, I should add that tragedy and melodrama can also appeal to young adults, anything with a grand gesture. What is not appealing are stories which are more ambiguous, and neither victory nor victorious martyrdom are achieved.

For instance, the young adult novel Unwind and the adult novel Never Let Me Go deal with the same subject, but in completely different ways. The characters are the same age. Yet the tone of the books are completely different. Unwind is all about the need to fight an unjust authority, and Never Let Me Go is about the impossibility of fighting an unjust authority. Unwind is about winning; Never Let Me Go is about losing.

What is likely to be darker -- a grandiose dystopia, where robots tear the arms off of people and crowds cheer until a cyborg gladiator overthrows the master computer and liberates everyone? Or a story about a real estate agent who gradually realizes her cheating husband doesn't love her anymore but is only staying with her because she's dying of cancer? The first story would probably be gory and lurid and appallingly violent. The second could be tender and bittersweet and realistic, but it could also be much darker and more mature in a way that the cyborg gladiator story is unlikely to be. It depends on the writing, of course, and these are just hypotheticals. But just on that one line synopsis is it hard to guess which storyline is more likely to appeal to teens?

Of course, maybe more adults would be interested in the gladiator as well, and that's the real problem with "Young Adult" these days. Its more a mood than a demographic. Plenty of adults read YA. Some adults exclusively read YA. So writers are basically forced to write YA even if they didn't intend to, and often bring to it an alien mood. Do I have an example? You bet. Gifts, the first in a so-called Young Adult trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. Now, don't get me wrong, I LOVE Ursula Le Guin, and Gifts was a lovely book. But I'll be stuffed and dressed and roasted like a Thanksgiving turkey if this was a Young Adult novel. IT WAS NOT. It was about a young adult, which is not the same thing. I think it's sad that these days publisher can't seem to tell the difference. There was nothing gory or violent or profane about Gifts, and I doubt any parents would object to their kids reading it. But it struck me as a reflective, resigned book, not a victorious epic, and not something I would have enjoyed at all when I was a teen. I already bought the other two books in the series, but I'm not sure I'm ready to read them yet.

Why didn't the publisher market Gifts as adult fantasy? I think it's pretty obvious from a promotion perspective. I've been searching for book reviewers, for instance, and for every reviewer of mainstream, epic or adult fantasy, I've found two dozen YA reviewers. Maybe the numbers are even more skewed, even a hundred to one. So I decided my epic fantasy, The Unfinished Song, is YA. Since my protagonist is fourteen, I can get away with this, although the cagey reviewers have noted that the series is really epic fantasy. On some level I must agree with Gurdon, because I've found myself toning down some scenes that originally would have been a bit more, ahem, explicit. I just feel weird having things too explicit in a YA series. But I can only change so much without imperiling the integrity of the story, which I won't do.

When I think back to what I read as a teen, I have to say it puts the whole brouhaha in perspective. I never read young adult novels. I started reading adult novels in second grade. I read books with rape, torture, death, concentration camps, fascism, adultery, murder, military coups, incest and infanticide. I preferred novels with happy endings. (Still true.) But I didn't mind a rocky road on the way to that happy ending.

So, has YA literature become more explicit and violent? Probably. Are twelve year olds of today reading anything more explicit that what I read when I was twelve? Keep in mind my ninth grade reading list included The Gulug ArchipelagoSlavegirl of Gor,  Clarissa, 1984, Patty Hearst Her StoryLolita,  and a lot of other books, both trashy and classic, that were not aimed at fourteen year olds.

Just think. If Nabakov were writing Lolita today, he'd be told it's YA because Lolita is twelve.

Some people are defending the content of YA novels because this reflects the darkness that invades the lives of teenagers. I question that theory. I didn't read those books because they reflected my own personal reality, or situations I was likely to encounter. Fortunately, I was never sent to a gulag, kidnapped by terrorists, seduced by a sadist, or sent to a BDSM planet. I loved Clan of the Cave Bear, I hated Catcher in the Rye. Guess which one involved a character being raped by a Neanderthal? (Another teen experience I inexplicably missed out on.) I don't think teens read for different reasons than adults. They read to find out about what it's like to be human, to find out more about themselves, but also about people who are not themselves.

Jun 5, 2011

What is "Formula Fiction"?

"Formula" is an ambiguous term, and I should define how I mean it. I will give a basic example, found across genres such as jokes and Three Act plays. It has three steps.

Step One: Protagonist does something wrong.
Step Two: Protagonist does something wrong again.
Step Three: Protagonist finally gets it right.

General enough? TOO general to be useful? This definition of formula can be just another word for story structure. All stories have it, with the possible exception of some experimental works that go out of their way not to, in the same way some modern art goes out of the way to eschew beauty. This is not to say that there is no difference between formulaic fiction and quality fiction, however. In formulaic fiction, the formula is all there is to the story, whereas beautiful literature transcends the form. In one case, the formula is all there is in the end, in the other, it is merely the starting point, a vessel to hold something else.

Maybe a stricter use of formula would be helpful. Here's another example of some formulas, formula as trope, as predictable plot:

The Protagonist is given a chance to re-live some period of his life as if he'd made a major life decision differently.

Step One: Protagonist is wrenched from present life into alternate reality life
Step Two: Protagonist tries repeatedly to re-establish old life
Step Three: Protagonist finally learns to value alternative life.

I trust we all know and abhor the danger of predictable plots and trite tropes. We also know that certain genres require a certain degree of formula, the HEA in Romances, the dead body and list of suspects for Mystery, etc. Though I am curious to see what Scott F. Bailey does to the detective story.

What interests me, however, and the reason I began with such a general definition of a formula, is why we gravitate toward formulas at all. Because I think this scratches at the surface of an even deeper question, which is why do we even write fiction? We human beings are great liars, but it still boggles the rational alien as why we would not just lie to someone we want to sell used cars to but that we would pay money to read long elaborate lies. Why don't we read only true stories, lists of facts, figures? Why, when we read fiction, does that fiction almost always follow regular rules of production, formulae? And if we try to eschew formula fiction, what are we left with? Are there still rules of good writing, narrative structure and plot arcs that we need to follow?

Jun 4, 2011

Review: The Wild Grass and Other Stories

I finished The Wild Grass and Other Stories by Davin Malasarn. I went in with VERY high expectations.

And they were all meet and then some.

This is a beautiful collection. Each story is exquisite and breathtaking, yet feels utterly simple and real. As if, you know, the author just happened to be spraying cyanide on a field of red rocks to mine for gold, and also happened to be an old woman waiting to die, and also happened to be a childless woman meeting up with her sister's family for a photo shoot, or a child under a crocheted tablecloth during an exorcism...

I have a recurring fantasy about what it would be like to possess telepathy, to simply look at another person, say as I pass by them waiting at a bus stop, and for that moment, BECOME that person. Reading this book felt like possessing that power. Many of the stories are told in the first person, with an intimacy and ease that make it vivid and natural.

I've read a few of these stories before. Red Man, Blue Man is one of my all time favorite stories. I am so glad to finally have a paid copy of it.

Sadly, this review doesn't do the stories justice. I am probably going to re-read the whole thing and try to think of something more profound to say. Also, hopefully I can convince Davin to do a guest post.

Reading this anthology left me thirsty for more, and I hope that Davin considers publishing one of his longer works soon. I kinda hope he self-publishes, for purely selfish reasons, because it means I can read it faster, and the kindle version will probably be less expensive. But if he prefers to go the traditional route, all I can say is, any agent or big-time publisher who reads this and doesn't snap him up is an idiot. Just my personal opinion.

Jun 2, 2011

Reading and Revising

This is just a quick update to let you know I am deep in revisions on Sacrifice, which (fingers crossed) will be out next month.

I want it out as soon as possible, but not sooner. By that I mean that I made a pledge to myself not to simply slop out inferior, unfinished work. So I will polish as much as necessary to be sure I publish something I can be proud of.

While I am working on revisions, I am also catching up on reading. I have a long TBR list, including the novels of friends, books I have been looking forward to for a long time. The one I shall be savoring tonight is The Wild Grass and Other Stories by Davin Malasarn. He's a marvelous writer. I expect I shall be quite jealous of his writing, but that's okay, since I have already decided that he and his two co-conspirators at The Literary Lab are in a class far above mine. In a way, knowing that is liberating. I don't have to worry about trying to be as good, I shall simply enjoy.