Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Demonstrating maturity

I talked a bit about perceived age, a little while ago, and I got some insight into the ongoing challenge of portraying teenagers accurately -- faced daily by MG, YA and the New Adult authors. (Thanks to E.J. Wesley for that.) What stuck out to me was how much of a social construct labels like "teenager" are; portraying that age bracket accurately is a challenge because it's so well defined in current Western culture. Once you move outside our current culture into fantasy or science fiction... what is a teenager?

Physically, teenagers are adults. Mentally, emotionally, they're rapidly maturing -- maturity takes a lot of work, and it's a life-long process.

The line between immaturity and maturity is hazy at best, and everyone reaches different stages at different points of their life. Different cultures measure one's progress differently, and they assign a variety of values to different aspects. We can all backslide, too. We tend to think of certain actions as demonstrating maturity -- like getting married, taking out a mortgage -- though of course actions aren't always backed up by the emotional development that we think they need.

I came up with a few general areas where maturity, or lack thereof, is most obvious. I'm sure there are tons of self-help books out there with more exhaustive lists. I'm also trying to phrase these in general terms, because a writer will always need to tailor things to their story's particular situations.

Thinking of the impact on others
This is a learned behavior. Some people pick it up more quickly than others, but the ability to see how our own actions help or harm others is something we grow into. Tied into this is the ability to see others as real people with feelings, expectations, histories, etc., that you don't necessarily know about.

When you were a kid, did you ever meet one of your school teachers outside of school... and you were surprised that they existed outside of school? What would the equivalent situation in a fantasy world be? Or does that small-town life make it impossible to not be aware of others' lives?

It's not about you
Psychology calls this egocentrism: believing that everything is connected to you. Everything that goes wrong is your fault, and everything that goes right is for your benefit. I've heard it said that the roots of this are in how crying, as a baby, got you the things you wanted so obviously you caused everything to happen... well, it's all downhill from there, isn't it. Life is one big disillusion about how important you aren't.

Practically speaking, this is the ability to not blame or praise yourself for everything and look at events more objectively. Superstitions grow out of a lack of this ability. Some would say religion does, too, but that's a can of worms I'm not going to get into.

Awareness of how things work
This is a more practical thing. Kids don't necessarily know what's happening inside an ATM -- it just spits out money, as far as they're concerned. They're not worried that the bag of fast food handed to them at the drive-through was put together by tired, poorly-paid human beings surrounded by flashing lights and annoying beeps. They don't know that when a pipe starts leaking, you need to set a big enough bucket under it, shut off the water main, and call a plumber.

Then again, life is so complicated that we adults don't know these things half the time. For a fantasy or science fiction story, this will be an intersection of character and world-building and a chance to explain your world to the reader either through explaining it to the character or by following their actions.

Awareness of why people do things
Since we're all writers here, this is an especially interesting subject. Stories hinge on why people do things. I love it when things are set up so that a seemingly bizarre course of action is perfectly reasonable.

The amount of thought that writers put into why people do things is unusual, though. I think we all need to take care in not letting (all) our characters be (too) perceptive. I'm qualifying that statement because a cast full of insensitive characters isn't in a writer's best interests either.

What would you add to my list?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wordiness: clear as mud

Mooderino wrote a nice post on wordiness, on Tuesday. I wanted to comment, but that's one of many blog pages that won't let me post comments (see this for more info) so I'll write a post of my own instead.

Mooderino pointed out that wordiness has its place, and that it's very useful in setting the pace of a scene. The tricky part being, of course, knowing when is a good time to slow the pace of a story down and when's a good time to let it rip.

Most people will agree that action sequences should move fast -- which for me begs the question: when would you want a slow action scene? Most people would think that highly emotional scenes should go slowly -- should they? How does the impact of emotion change when the scene moves quickly?

These are things you learn by consuming other stories alertly -- with awareness of what the storyteller is doing and how they're doing it -- and through the experience of writing your own stories. Your gut has its own opinion of what feels like a good story, and it's a mix of all the stories you've consumed along with your own creative instincts. Which is then smoothed out by the practice of actually doing it over and over.

Revision comes into play, too, because it can be very enlightening to rewrite a scene to change its pace or tone -- both of which are directly impacted by wordiness or lack thereof. This is on my mind because I just had to do it the other night. I'd written a scene with a recently captured prisoner who had a passive, defeated attitude, but on further thought I realized it would be useful if that prisoner had an interest in cutting a deal. In rewriting it, the dialogue shortened, descriptions dropped out, the verbs turned more active, and overall I hope tension came through rather than passivity.

I didn't necessarily set out to shorten the dialogue, drop descriptions, and active up the verbs; for my gut, that's just a natural consequence of upping the tension in a scene. It took a long time for me to gain that kind of reflex for what I was putting on the page. For years, I just spewed out words and was never quite sure why some things worked and some didn't. My grammar was always decent, but I was guilty of some pretty epic and sprawling ruminations that were about as speedy as molasses. With a lot of practice, the awareness began to seep in.

Have you rewritten scenes to change their pace and tone? How did it impact the language you used?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Wall-to-wall action!

... is exhausting, to be honest. For the writer and, fortunately, for the reader too. Disciple, Part VI, is looming on my horizon and it's going to contain a lot of action. Part III also contained a lot of action, and I need to keep in mind the things that it taught me.

Writers and readers need to take a break from the action every so often, with the caveat that action is not the same as tension. Don't take breaks from tension. The action needs the occasional break in order to do some important clarifying and organizing.

Define the new situation
You've seen this in movies: our character stands on the littered battlefield, breathing hard, and looks around wondering who's survived? Use the moment to see who's okay and who's hurt, who's dead, what's been destroyed and what's still standing. Who's still in the game, and in what capacity? Did we win? What are the options now?

Not all stories need action sequences to accomplish their goals, but after any stretch of dramatic events it's good to take stock of what has changed. Sometimes it's obvious: the Death Star was destroyed. The villain kidnapped the girl despite our hero's best efforts. Or maybe it's something more subtle.

The two main variables here are the pace at which you define the situation, and how much of it you define. What does the reader needs to know right now versus what to hold back to raise tension later? Updates can be done in a very brief, up-front way -- an officer runs over and rattles off the casualties, the current troop movements, and off we go to the next part of the fight. In other genres, readers expect a more careful exploration of the results -- the characters need to discuss, do research, or travel someplace new.

Maybe all the implications of an event take time to unfold. That can raise the tension nicely in a story. Or maybe you want to drop an oh crap we're screwed bombshell. It's your roller coaster ride -- how do you want it to go?

How much you say and how much you don't say can be tricky for another reason. Readers are not stupid; if your character's mentor was killed, they can figure out most of the problems that's going to cause. If you write those out explicitly, it will look clunky and patronizing. It's better to point out only those things that are not immediately obvious, but are important to the story. But without being clunky or patronizing. That's a whole 'nother blog post, I think.

New situations require new plans. New plans can require new resources, or at least enough of a break for everyone to lick their wounds, get some sleep, and prepare for the next assault. Perhaps we need to meet new characters and bury our dead.

I'm using battle terminology because Part VI is a war. Metaphorically speaking, this applies to Victorian comedy-of-manners romances, too. Drink some tea, collapse on the couch in the parlor, and strap yourself into a fresh suit of armor -- whoops, I meant "a new evening gown." Emotionally, these aren't as different as they might appear.

As with all writing "rules," you don't have to do this when it suits the purposes of your story. If it's your intention to show the readers just how exhausted your characters are, don't give them a break. I tried to do this back in Disciple, Part I when my characters are harried by packs of monsters.

Did you let your characters catch their breath, or did you keep pushing?

Also: did you see my Goodreads giveaway?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Next Big Thing blog hop

My post is over at Disciple of the Fount, and it includes my "Now Available!" announcement -- I am currently for sale as a Kindle ebook at Amazon, paperbacks at Createspace. The paperbacks should arrive on Amazon soon. B&N is currently confirming that the IRS knows who I am. Kobo is up next, then Apple and the rest of my list. Then I've got interviews and guest blogs to write...

And I've started writing Part VI, so the rest of my brain is spoken for. If I keep referring to "deploying" my book online and organizing sorties, it's because there's a war going on in my head. There's a certain appropriateness there.

Shout out to Michael Offut for noticing me. You probably already saw his post -- everyone knows Michael, right? Heck, I know Michael and I'm so head-in-the-clouds that I have no clue what's going on in the blogosphere.

Oh, and I don't have a blog post for tomorrow. You figured that out already.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The lure of reviews

I have been soliciting reviews for Disciple, Part I on Goodreads, and I've gotten a few nibbles, sent out a few copies. Didn't expect someone to read and review so quickly, though. I saw the "1 review" indicator on my author dashboard and...

When I set out, I told myself I wasn't going to read any reviews at all. Because I've heard the same horror stories of nasty reviews, authors shooting off at the mouth and destroying their reputations. It's ridiculous to think that everyone who picks up Disciple will love it. There's bound to be someone who finds it -- I don't know -- pretentious or twee or whatever. Gratuitously graphic.*

But I clicked before I could think. And then I read the first half before I fully realized it. So I might as well finish, right?

So much for resolutions. I am weak. It was a nice review, too, so I'll probably be weak until I hit a nasty one.

The only good can of worms to open.
Photo by stef~, on sxc.hu.
This is a whole 'nother can of worms, because my main character, Kate, is a sixteen-year-old girl. Somebody is bound to think "This is a YA book" at some point and then be horrified as the plot developments of Parts II - VI roll by. I'm sure I will be hearing about that. DISCIPLE IS NOT AIMED AT THE YA MARKET. Though teenaged readers are certainly welcome. I don't think that sheltering teens from the ugly real world does them any favors.

p.s. Tomorrow I'll be doing the Next Big Thing meme/bloghop over at Disciple of the Fount -- and there will be a big announcement! Though if you go over there now you'll probably notice the new tab and figure out what it is for yourself.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Busy freaking out...

I don't have a post for today, for a variety of reasons:
  • Need to work on the practical side of the emotional arcs in Part VI. It's all well and good to write they gradually start talking again in the outline, but I need to sketch out the steps. 
  • I am not at Viable Paradise, sadly
  • I expect to be finalizing the ebook and print versions of Disciple, Part I soon, which means it's time to start seeking reviewers, fulfilling KS pledges, and deploying it to Amazon et al. so it will be out there for the official drop date of Nov. 1.
  • Part II is resisting all my attempts to blurbify it. Then again, not much happened. (heh)
  • It's been one year since Viable Paradise and I'm suffering withdrawal... well, at least I will be seeing some VPeeps at Capclave this weekend.
Depending on how things work out, I may slide down to blogging once a week, here, through November. Expect to see guest blogging notices, at least.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Immortality and love

Immortality is a problem right from its definition. Does it include beings that can be killed, but that won't die of natural causes? Are only impervious, eternal beings like the Greek gods "immortal"?

I'm going to use the broader definition here, because it includes vampires, Highlander-style beings, and my own creations, the saints. I touched on some of these issues during the A to Z Challenge, in I: Immortals, and now I'm at the part of Disciple where I'm thinking about it again.

Relationships and love being a central part of the human experience, the implications of outliving all your loved ones are vast. The scars left by losing them can be significant. Since mere mortals lose loved ones, too, it's reasonable to extrapolate that pain to multiple tragedies and over centuries. The image of a chilly, withdrawn immortal saddled with sad memories of lost lovers comes easily -- and it makes for perfectly good stories. Such a character can inspire the reader's sympathy and a desire to see them healed by new love. Or, they can make good villains with valid motivations.

Withdrawal is one reaction. Downplaying the loss is another. I know I've had to do this with the various cats I've loved and buried over the years. It's sad, but they lived good lives and in a few months I'll meet another cat and bring it home. No need to get too bent out of shape about it.

Is that a good way to handle human relationships, though?

I've been questioning, in specific, the ability to fall in love after centuries of love-and-death cycles. The chemistry may still be there, physically, but what role will experience play? Would an immortal be able to throw themselves into that giddy falling-in-love feeling, or would it be tempered by knowing what comes next? "Next" being 30-50 years down the road...

The answer is, of course, "that depends on the immortal's personality." But I can't help thinking that some of that "pet" attitude will creep in. After one has fallen in love, lived together for 30 years, and then buried one's lover a few times, you know for an absolute fact that there are more fish in the sea. You know what you're willing to put up with and what you aren't. Would you do less compromising? Invest less?

Do relationships become more "disposable"? Is it simpler to just ride the chemical high of infatuation and walk away when the shine wears off? The Greek gods seemed to follow that school of thought. Or maybe a "friends with benefits" arrangement makes sense.

It does challenge one's ideas about the function of love, sex, and long-term relationships.

Have you seen the cover for Disciple, Part I? Did you enter in the giveaway for an advance copy of the ebook? Contest ends Friday!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Maturity, perceived age, and development

Perceived age of characters is a tricky thing. Since I'm currently 41, it's been a long time since I was a teenager. My teenage years aren't exactly memories that I cherish, either. My main character Kate starts Disciple at sixteen years old. The story will finish before she turns eighteen -- or not long after, at worst. I do not consider Disciple a YA story, though I don't doubt that teenagers might find it interesting.

Kate has been confronting me with questions like what is "maturity" and how is maturity demonstrated and what is "appropriate" for a given age and level of experience -- partly because she starts out "more mature" due to the cultural expectations put on her, and partly because she goes through so much in the course of the story.

In the course of preparing Part I to publish and revising Part II, I got some whiplash from meeting the (slightly) younger, (much) less experienced version of Kate.

I saw some vintage photos, recently, of child laborers from the turn of the 19th/20th century, and wondered what they were like as people. Were they angry that they had to work, or did they simply accept it as "normal," maybe something they felt obligated to do to help support their parents and siblings. Did they "act out" in reaction to it? Some of them had cigarettes in their mouths; it's entirely possible they were drinking, too. What did "adults" think of that -- did they pull up a stool at the bar and commiserate, or did they shake their heads and dismiss it as childishness?

It's possible some of them were sober, hard-working, kids who never questioned that this was what they wanted. Maybe they welcomed the responsibility of a job and felt it was a validation of their worth.

People come in all flavors, after all, at every age.

Getting back to Disciple, I'm more worried about Kate sounding like a 40-year-old than about her sounding like a 16-year-old. It's my opinion that the maturity level we perceive as "appropriate" for a given age is highly dependent on culture and affluence. But, as has been reported in a variety of (fascinating) places, the teenaged brain is noticeably different from the adult brain, and that needs to be taken into account.

How those difference manifest is heavily shaped by culture and affluence -- which is why I brought up the child labor photos. Compare those kids' lives to a well-off high school grad who's working a part-time summer job because s/he wants to, not needs to. People talk about how kids are in such a hurry to grow up (usually with a shake of their heads). I doubt anyone said that of the child laborers.

This post is already turning into a ramble. In short, I feel comfortable with Kate "sounding" older than 16 because in her culture, she's expected to be married, a mother, and running a household at that age. Due to the story, she's actually responsible for much more than that. And yet, I can't have her acting with all the mature perspective (lol) of a 40-year-old.

What does your character's culture expect of children and teenagers?

See also: Demonstrating maturity

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Cover reveal for DISCIPLE, PART I coming!

Disciple's cover reveal will be on Saturday! (Oct. 6) I'll be giving away an advance copy of the ebook over at the book's blog!

Anybody want to join in the reveal? Email me: blankenship.louise(at)gmail(dot)com. I'll be glad to return the favor when you're putting together a cover reveal, giveaway, blog tour, etc.

Tis the season for cover reveals -- my RSS feed reader has been filling up with them. Tis the season to start thinking about the holidays, too, and I'm sure everyone's aware that most self-published ebooks are priced in the "impulse buy" range. Also, the "stocking stuffer" range... do we need electronic "stockings" these days? Or do you just go with gift cards?

Speaking of gift cards, what about those first few weeks of January when people have gift cards to spend?

Those are all things self-publishers need to think about. I am going to be blog touring in November after Disciple is first published -- and I'm thinking of doing a second one in January.

What are your plans for the holidays, fellow self-publishers?
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