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Mar 9, 2012

How to Tell Everyone About Your Book Without Dying

When I was just out of college, my mother used to proudly tell people I was a writer, unless I first managed to stop her. I tried to stop her because I knew what would come next, the dread question, "So what has she published?"

The answer at that time was one humiliating word: "Nothing."

The conversation would then wither up in shame.

I lived a double life. Inwardly, I considered myself professional writer, who would one day be published. Outwardly, I hid this identity from all but close friends and family. It's perhaps not surprising that the heroine of my fantasy series, Dindi, leads a similar double life, practicing her magic art in secret.

However, I became so adept at concealing my passion that once my novels were actually published, I found it difficult to switch from secrecy to publicity.

I belonged to several writing communities online, that helped me bridge my shyness. After all, it's okay to tell friends who are sharing my journey toward publication that my books are out there--yay! And from there, I learned to spread into the whole Social Networking Stuff. Facebook. Twitter. This blog. You know the drill.

But even after I had hundreds of followers on Twitter and Facebook, in Real Life, I was like a different person. Or rather, the same old person...shy, introverted, not likely to tell a stranger I'd published a book in a thousand years.

If someone who met me face to face found out, it was usually not thanks to me. For instance, my banker found out, because she was helping me with my account.

"So what kind of business is it?" she asked me in that polite-but-brusk Banker Voice.

"I'm a writer."

"A tech writer?"

Ha. Doesn't my husband wish.  "No, I write novels."

Her eyes lit up. "REALLY? You write NOVELS? Oh, WOW! That's so exciting! I've never met anyone famous before! So what have you published?"

So there it was, the Dread Question, but I no longer had to dread it. I had an answer. I told her that I write fantasy, epic but with strong romantic elements, and the name of the series and where she could buy it.

And then she went and told the entire bank that I was a famous novelist ("I'm really not famous," I kept saying, but they didn't care) and they should all buy my books. I was blushing like crazy, but also totally loving it.

I had read advice that one should get in the habit of simply letting everyone you met know that you're a writer and what your book is. Not in an obnoxious way, not pinning them against the wall and giving a two-hour summery of your plot and the fishing trip with your step-uncle that inspired it, but just a line or a business card.

Today, for the first time, I took that advice. The plumber came over to fix the bathtub. After he finished everything, I handed him my business card and said, "I'm a writer. If you or anyone in your family likes fantasy, and if you don't mind ebooks, email me and I'll send you or them free books."

"Thanks!" He looked at the card. "My stepdaughter really likes books about vampires. She reads constantly. I think she'd like this."

My gosh. That was so simple and painless. No one was offended, no one was humiliated. I didn't die on the spot from embarrassment. Maybe I could even do it again.

Mar 5, 2012

Killing Off Characters

I should know better than to watch Chinese movies, but I do anyway. Tragedy, comedy, romance, it doesn't matter. They always end with someone face first in the dust. What is with that?

It used to be that only Red Shirts would have to worry on Away Missions. In epic fantasy, they were known as the "spear holders." The bit players meant to die tragically, so the heroes could press stolidly onward. Now it's all the rage in fantasy to kill off major characters. Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie whack major characters right and left, just to prove they can.

I really hate that.

The rationalization is that if you know the major characters won't die, this sucks the tension from the narrative. If the hero dangles from a cliff over a toxic ocean with a wyvern attacking from above and a kraken's tentacle grabbing at him from below, the reader is only going to believe he's really in danger if the author has proven I'm Really Serious This Time, This F#$^#r Could Die!!! 

Frankly, I don't buy it. Or rather, I'm just not interested in that kind of tension. Yes, there's always the possibility that the author could take a good story and ruin it by killing off my favorite character, but that's not the kind of story tension I find enjoyable. It's a matter of taste. Some readers want to trust that the author won't lead them to an ending that is unsurprising and unearned. Other readers want to trust that the author can deliver an ending that is, if not a complete Happily Ever After, at least deeply satisfactory. I'm firmly in the HEA department.

All of this may seem slightly hypocritical when I admit (being careful of spoilers) that one major character in The Unfinished Song does, ahem, die. Maybe two. Probably not more than two. A few readers have written to me, worried about some of the developments in Root, and asked point blank: "Does this story have a happy ending?" 

It does. And I don't mind saying that, because I'm not interested in keeping readers on tenderhooks on that point. The peril to the characters in the story is not whether they will die by the end of the book, but whether they will be true to themselves and to each other by the end of the book. To me that is a more interesting question, and the answer is more ambiguous.

The Lord of the Rings has a happy ending, and yet, at the same time, one of the saddest endings I have ever read. I never shed a tear for Romeo and Juliet, but after finishing Lord of the Rings (even though I've read it before), I feel moody and melancholy for days, as if the Elves have just departed in their ships and Middle Earth has newly died. Perhaps that's because a major character does die in Lord of the Rings: Middle Earth itself. Frodo succeeds and fails at the same time, and because of that, he can never be the same. It is even questionable whether he "lives" at the end of the story. It could be argued that the Elves are sailing for heaven--a euphemism for death. Frodo, like the Elves is going on to a "far, far better place." If that's not a bittersweet ending I don't know what is. Yet that works, whereas if Tolkien had decided to give the story a Chinese ending, and have Frodo kill himself at the end, or get shot full of arrows just as he threw the ring in the volcano, that would have been super duper lame.

I can't stand Faux Tragique. Where an author suddenly has a character die of cancer or commit suicide to make a story seem elevated and literary. There are well done tragedies, and well done stories about cancer, but what makes them well done is that they speak a truth about human experience, not that they prove their ruthlessness. Since not all human experiences involve cancer or suicide, it is indeed possible to speak a truth about human experience without killing characters.

There's a funny bit in The Kite Runner where the main character, while still a boy, reads his first short story to his friend. The story tells of a man who is promised riches if he can weep enough. So he kills his wife and weeps on a mountain of gold. His friend asked, "But why didn't he just cut onions?"