Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thoughts on spoon- and force-feeding

So I posted a sizable brain download on Tuesday, and here's the upshot (lol, yeah, there's more.)

I've been wondering how much "spoon-feeding" the readers I can do before my gut starts yelling OMG SHUT UP. Not just muttering it. Yelling.

It has yelled OMG SHUT UP at other writers. The first time it happened to me was in the middle of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose. Believe it or not, I had never skimmed through a section before that umpteenth dissertation about medieval philosophy. It felt like cheating.

More recently, I started reading Neal Stephenson and no, I don't feel bad about skimming anymore. I don't care about international monetary policy and he can't make me.

So many toys in the toolbox
But in the interests of pushing my own envelope, taking control of my own voice, using all the tools in my writerly tool-box, etc., if/when I do get around to that m/m fantasy romance that's burbling in my head I will try to slow down and see that the readers are better fed.

Logically speaking, it's a good place to try it. So far, the story is set in the Saints of War universe, but there's no connection to Disciple at all. It's shaping up to be a one-shot. It's already aimed at a slightly different audience, as an m/m romance, so it may well be the first book of mine that some readers see. (Whereas Disciple, Part IV probably won't be.)

Emotionally, it's a lighter... LOL, well, relatively speaking it'll be a lighter story. BTW, this is going to be horrible will still in effect. The pace will be different from Disciple, I can feel that much already, because the characters are different. I'm sure there will be blog posts about pacing while I work on this.

Meanwhile, feel free to complain about writers who force-fed you too much information. Did you stop reading? Skimmed until they got back to the story?

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Subtle Things #6: How to feed the readers?

My (bad) habit of reading reviews for Disciple, Part I has dropped off considerably, but I still glance at them now and then. Those that have complaints tend to say things like "never explained anything" and, as a result, "couldn't get into it."

Okay. Valid point. That's the flip side of the "I don't spoon-feed my readers" coin -- some readers are starving for explanations.

And maybe I'm not so sensitive to that because I rarely feel starved for explanations, myself, when reading a book. I can appreciate details that don't need further exposition, and I'll wait for infrequent spoon-feedings of information. Mélusine, by Sarah Monette, was a bit of a smack up side the head, in that way. And that's probably a good thing. (Paperback available on Amazon.)

No spoons, here. Monette kept me hungry.

I read the prologue and it's a bit like getting thrown against a wall. The world-building is a mass of details and assumptions encoded in a dense (but engaging, thank goodness) voice.* The author throws down her gauntlet and that's your fair warning. A couple dozen pages in, when the few scraps of explanation raised more questions than they answered, the challenge was even clearer. Figure it out for yourself.

The fine line that Monette walked, though, is that I never doubted that what I needed was in there. Enough was intuitively obvious, coupled with minor scraps of definition, that I could build an understanding of her world even with what she didn't give me. And given that I could figure out most things, what became really glaring were the places she didn't give me enough to go on. I had to choose to not be annoyed about those.

How in the heck do you present an avalanche of world-building with enough structure to reassure people that they can run with it? It's one of those Subtle Things, and I've teased out this much: some of it is repetition in different contexts so you can see the pattern, some of it is careful coding using words you have to trust the reader to know, and some of it relies on intuition -- which can fall on its face.

Repetition with context: "flat"
The first time we see this word, it's: Kethe, spare me from flats. Second: She was a flat, sure, and she was spoiled, for damn sure... Third: [referring to dangerous neighborhoods] ...but they ain't places that I'd take a flat. Those are fairly context-free, but even so it's clearly an insult in the first line. Second time, it's put on par with being spoiled. Third time, you get a sense of social context. I caught on that it was the term for those who were not living on the mean streets.

Coded with trust: "septad"
Something they don't quite teach you in school: it behooves you to know the Latin (and Greek) prefixes for various numbers and quantities. You'll pick up a bunch by way of geometry (pentagon, hexagon) and computer literacy (gigabyte, nanosecond), but you really should learn the whole list of them. Monette's trusting that we all know septa- indicates seven. In Mélusine, "septad" is a multi-purpose word indicating a group of seven. Days, feet, coins, it doesn't seem to matter. It's never explicitly defined, and it doesn't need to be.

Intuition: colloquial phrases, "thief-keeper"
My personal favorite was: If she was any flatter, they'd be paving the street with her. Also, nutty as a box of squirrels. This was part of what made the voice so engaging -- colorful, yet intuitively graspable catchphrases. Mildmay supplies the vast majority of them.

"Thief-keeper" is another word that was used without explanation. It did eventually get some context, but it was obvious enough that it only needed minor modification: child thieves, in specific, like Fagin.

Too much to handle?
You do this all the time, actually, in everyday life: pick up details because of context and tone. If you know how people speak, and you can hear your characters clearly, these details will fall into place on their own. Mostly. It's something to tweak in revision. Good to be aware of, and good to keep an eye on, but being too deliberate or, God forbid, bending the dialogue to fit it, will only look clunky.

So, as requested, those are some of the thoughts that Mélusine stirred up. I gave it four stars over at Goodreads. I'm stingy with my stars, so that's an excellent rating for me. Wasn't five because the plot did get a little bogged down and hazy around the 2/3rds mark. But it's full of wonderful imagery, dripping with voice, and the world-building is excellent. Minor caution: it does include some sexual nastiness.

*In my brief Goodreads review, I mentioned how this book reminded me of A Clockwork Orange -- that's both because of how you're tossed into the lake (so far as the voice goes) and how the first-person narrator manages to be engaging in spite of that. Mélusine's voice is, in fact, more engaging and easier to read than Orange. Not least because even Mildmay is far more likeable than Alex...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Link list: power and romance in the blogosphere

My fellow VPer Chris Gerwel (The King of Elfland's Second Cousin) has been posting over at Amazing Stories about the exploration of power in romance -- and along the way looking at how romance, fantasy and science fiction intersect each other -- and that has pulled me into an impromptu blog hop about power's uses in romance.

It caught my eye because of the strong romance element in Disciple, of course. My brain has been burbling about what power is, in my Saints of War universe, how it was defined by society, how that society was applied to Kate, Kiefan and Anders (in different ways, because of gender and social class)... and how things changed over the six parts of the story.

Part of me wants to write up an analysis, but that's problematic. I may not have the best perspective on Disciple, since I'm deep inside that particular forest. It would also be extremely spoilery to post such a thing, and I don't like spoilers.

For example, in many romances (and erotica, especially 50 Shades) the hero is the one who "educates" the heroine in "what she wants." The education (or corruption) of an innocent woman, if you will. This is a power structure: the hero understands the heroine better than she does, and he spends the book controlling her access to what she desires both by bringing her to an awareness of them and... by physical control of some sort.

I don't find that sort of story compelling, to be completely honest. I tend to be skeptical. But obviously it sells. And yet... if you tilt Disciple ninety degrees and look between the lines... there is actually a little of that going on. Backwards, I think. But that's a post for another time, and quite possibly for somebody else to write. It's interesting to think about, though.

I'd like to post a link list, because the link hopping has taken me to new blogs and I will probably want to look at them all again, later. If you know of more posts, please tell me! I'd love to expand this list.

Chris Gerwel's posts:
Romance - more powerful than you could possibly imagine
The power in paranormal romance
Science fiction romance - a niche before its time
Is this a kissing book? SFF's relationship with romance
Love is, indeed, a battlefield
(series continues?)

Something More:
Sex + power = ?
Objectification, Part I
Objectification, Part II

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Any excuse to get lost in

As a result of the dark night of the soul in my book Disciple, my main characters spend some time wallowing in despair. One of them is presented with the opportunity to do a Face Heel Turn (caution: TV Tropes link. There will be more of these.) and that required some thinking.

When I wrote the first draft of Disciple, Part V, I spent some time on looking at the many tropes involved in the dark night of the soul and recovery from it. Each of my three characters went into this part of the story with different motivations, reacted differently, and came out on different trajectories.

Very much like a slingshot maneuver across the dark side of a planet: when did they fire the engines, at what angle, how close to the atmosphere (danger!) did they skim -- ONOES, sci-fi metaphors applied to fantasy!

I classified this particular character's quandry as a Despair Event Horizon approach because of an Et Tu, Brute moment. Plus, the Corrupter makes An Offer You Can't Refuse. I also calculated this character's likelihood of turning with TVTropes' Sorting Algorithm (the instructions there are wrong: according to their examples, pick a score for each row, total and divide by the number of applicable rows.) This character scored a 3.1, pretty much dead center on "Who Knows?"

All of which helped clarify my thinking but ultimately left the answer up in the air. It's a question of character, after all, not a mathematical formula. My gut knew what it wanted to do -- this was all set-up for the big climax in Part VI -- but my brain demanded that we do this right. Set the patterns so they would remain consistent, keep the challenges real and serious, do nothing accidentally.

To tie this in with my upcoming book release, the character patterns involved hearken all the way back to Disciple, Part II.

Do you use in your story planning? Not just getting lost in the site -- we've all done that -- but really used it? I've mapped out parts of Disciple in terms of their tropes, but doing the whole thing would be a butt-load of work. I've found some interesting insights, and the site does tend to drive home that there's "no new thing under the sun" when it comes to stories. It can leave you questioning your originality. Or you can see it as a near-infinite list of ingredients you can cook up a story from.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Indulging in a little wallowing

Are you taking the A to Z Challenge in April? I did it last year. It was grueling, fascinating, exhausting, and drew a lot of attention to my blog. This year, I'm going to be blog touring in April to support my release of Disciple, Part II -- which means if you're stuck for a certain letter I WILL GLADLY GUEST BLOG THAT FOR YOU if you'll let me plug my book. Email me: blankenship.louise at gmail dot com. Already taken: L, and either I or Y.

It might be because of my own run-ins with depression, but I have trouble letting characters wallow in their misery. Writing scenes of despair... well, when you look at the darkness the darkness looks back. And despair knows me, that's for sure.

But. Pics or it didn't happen, as they say. Show, don't tell.

This tangentially ties in to the dark night of the soul, letting characters face your demons, and earning that win -- not all consequences are faced physically. Emotional consequences play out in the emotions first, and might manifest as actions as a result of that, whether it's drinking, getting into fights, or attempting suicide...

The danger that my gut is warning me of, in letting characters wallow, is that they aren't moving the plot forward. Lying in bed crying might me accurate realism, maybe even sympathetic character development, but it's difficult to use that to get to the next phase of the story.

Your character might have some intuitive light-bulb moment while crying in bed. An angry guy might go out, get drunk, and pick a fight with just the right/wrong person... which could work or could seem too convenient, depending on the serendipity involved. How would you use your character's melancholy ruminations to keep the plot moving?

Writing the scene can be technically challenging too. Is the character just lying in bed, face in the pillow? If they're doing something, how do you work their emotions into the action? How's your stock of metaphors, and what will you do when you've used all your melancholy adjectives and now you need some more?

This is on my mind because of the revisions I'm making to Disciple, Part V. It felt very... lean in the writing; my gut said it needed more, but waffled over what that was. My betas have indicated that the "more" may be some wallowing. It doesn't sit easy, but my betas have never steered me wrong.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Antagonists: same rules apply

One of my betas said: "I'm not seeing the crazy, ruthless evil empress we've been building up to" and pointed out some tell-tale signs of ruthfulness.

Now that I've spent some time away from Disciple, Part VI, I'm less wrapped up in wrestling every single plotline that needed resolution. I can more clearly focus on individual problems. That just goes to show that the old advice of putting your story aside for a while is perfectly valid -- but I want to focus on bad guys for a moment. Antagonists.

Bringing their A game
A story isn't so much about how a character managed to do something, but how they worked so hard to reach their goal and almost didn't succeed.

The obstacles between the characters and their goals need to be realistic, well explained, and daunting. If these take the form of antagonists, those also need to be realistic, explained, and daunting. By "explained," I mean that the readers need to know what the antagonist wants and what s/he is capable of doing to get it. We have all seen those "Meet the Bad Guy" scenes where he rants and raves and does something horrible to one of his own flunkies so that we know how bad, bad, bad he is. We should try to be more elegant than that, but it gets the job done.

Whatever's going on in your story, your antagonist is in it to win it. Real antagonists act accordingly, and since they're real they should also stay in character.

So when my beta asked why my empress was suddenly sneaking around when she'd previously done some fairly ballsy things... well, guilty as charged. Time to fix it.

Same rules of character apply
Like protagonists, antagonists need to be fully developed characters. They don't necessarily have a character arc in which they grow and change -- though that makes for an excellent story if you can do it -- but they need to obey all the rules of consistency and realism.

I had laid out a pattern for the empress, and she needed to stick to it. With my 20/20 hindsight, I see the arrogance that I had ascribed her later actions to was not part of the pattern I had set. Or, rather, her arrogance had previously taken the form of ballsy, effective action. Therefore, more of that was needed -- in spite of the measures my protagonists were now taking against her tactics. Because the empress is kick-ass scary like that. She didn't get this job on her looks.

A craftsman should enjoy his work. 
Unfortunately for my characters, a little brainstorming has yielded some interesting ways to make the end of Disciple more difficult for them. About 2.5 chapters at about the two-thirds mark are going to be chainsawed accordingly, and then we'll spackle over the the reattachment scars. Paging Dr. Dexter...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The writer's weird brain

I finished the prologue to Disciple on the 2nd, which right now is five days ago. Withdrawal is setting in.

LOL, writing withdrawal, how amusing...

I'm a night-time writer. I get in my words, post them on Twitter, check an email box or two, and go to bed. The night I finished, it had not been much work to do. That very night, I had a dream. A significant dream? No. But when I'm writing, I don't dream at all -- or, at least, I never remember dreaming.

After a few days (that would be starting last night) I start having trouble falling asleep. My brain sits there babbling at me nonstop, if I haven't tired it out enough. There are options, of course, but writing is my poison of choice.

And then there's... the darkness. The ruminating. Circling around my various websites, desperate for a distraction. Running in circles like a rat in a small cage, feeling the wire mesh against my skin. All the claustrophobic angst of that moment in LOTR when Gandalf reads from the journal in Balin's tomb: We cannot get out. They are coming.

Overly dramatic... yeah, that's why I don't talk about this stuff much. But my blogging tank has been pretty empty lately. Once I can get started on revisions to Part VI, things will settle down. And I have a handful of new characters to work on developing, but not a new world. If my muse wants to insist on foisting an m/m romance on me, I can set it in the Saints of War universe if I want to.

Side note: I'm titling the prologue Fire's First Kiss. It was either that or Vomit's First Heave, which I suspect would not work in its favor. My first impression is that it might be a bit too graphic -- which might sound unlikely to some people, but... well, Kate's in a battlefield surgery, Kiefan's leading a cavalry charge, and Anders is in full bad-boy mode. We'll see how it looks after a few weeks of cooling down.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Unicorn Bell: constructing gender

I'm hosting at UB this week, and gender constructs have been on my mind lately. These are off-the-cuff, kinda rough draft blog posts, so I'm conflicted about whether they'll be interesting enough to keep around... but who knows. Maybe I can beat them into better shape later.

Index for future reference:
Defining the negative space
A different way to define negative space
Individual variation

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