Thursday, November 30, 2006

World Building and Willing Suspension

Or: if I want my reader to believe in the fantastical...

As I've mentioned before, willing suspension of disbelief is a key part of the interface between the writer and reader of fiction. If your reader doesn't believe in your story on some emotional level, there's really not much point. Likewise, most speculative fiction starts off with a believability deficit since it's A, fiction. B, fantastic in some way. The one possible exception to this is true hard science fiction where the idea is to create a fantastic element that is potentially real, even likely, in the future.

The setting component of this is world building. It is at root, both very simple and terribly hard. The basic thing you have to do is create a magical what if with internally consistent answers. Nothing loses a reader more thoroughly than a world that's clearly self-contradictory. Yes there exceptions. Alice in Wonderland, other dream-logic books. There are always exceptions in writing, but it's a good general rule.

A what if example might go something like "What if spells are real and performed by computer code?" You the author have to think the what if through and figure out all of the possible repercussions, both immediate and secondary. Then, once you've constructed a logical structure for your magic, you need to set out to game the rules, by which I mean find every possible loophole, or make sure there's no wishing for more wishes.

This is for two reasons: First, your reader is going to be doing it and you need to find any obvious flaws before they do and fix them. Second, and more importantly, as you construct your story, you're going to need to put in surprises and reversals, and one of the best ways to do this is to "break" the rules in such a way that your reader is surprised and yet feels that they should have seen it coming and that the rule breaking is actually an outflow of the rules and not a mistake in their construction. Breaking the rules is a huge part of fiction in general, not just world building, and worth its own post a bit later on.

The exercise I suggest for world building is to come up with a broad general what if. WebMage: What if spells are done by computer code? Then I figure out some broad ramifications and frame them as sub what ifs. What if all sorcerers were hackers? What if computers then became magical creatures and familiars? What if the universe were organized like the web and multiple worlds could be visited by means of a magical internet? Each of these generates a chain of consequences and further questions. As I'm plotting I frame the what ifs mentally and then write out my answers to create a basic narrative. There's much more to it than that, but this gets at the basic process.

How do you build worlds? Chained what ifs? Start with a scene and then wander around to see what the world beyond it looks like? Create a metaphoric structure and build on top of it? Follow a character around to see what interests them about the world they live in? There's no one right answer, and I'm always interested to see different people's processes.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

First Lines part II

Freedom's Gate, Freedom's Apprentice and Freedom's Sisters were planned as a trilogy but written as separate books.

Freedom's Gate starts like this:

It was before sunrise when the shame-faced man-at-arms knocked on my door to tell me that there had been an escape -- Alibek, one of the boys from Kyros's harem.

I like this opening a lot. You realize very quickly that the viewpoint character's role here is to pursue and bring back the escaping slave. This is a deeply unsympathetic act, because Lauria is supposed to start out as one of the bad guys. You also get a sense that while she's not in charge (it's Kyros's harem, not hers) she's someone to whom other people defer (the guard is ashamed as he tells her about the escape).

Freedom's Apprentice starts out:

There was a crumbled spot in the wall around Elpisia. Kyros sent slaves to fix it every year or two, but for some reason -- unstable ground, a vulnerability to wind -- it was always crumbling there again within a few months. When I was a child, and wanted to get in or out of town without being hassled by the guards at the gate, I scrambled over at that spot. Half a year earlier, I had examined that point in the wall while tracking an escaped slave.

This book definitely suffers from Middle Book Syndrome. If you haven't read the first book, it doesn't make a lot of sense. But you don't get the payoff of the big ending, either. I can see that in the opening lines. I'm giving the reader the setting before I tell them what's going on, and that's dragging it down. *sigh*.

Freedom's Sisters:

When I rode into the camp of the Alashi spring gathering, I tried to sit tall and hide my fear.

The viewpoint character at the beginning of this book is a different character -- Lauria's friend and companion from the first two books. I worked really hard to give her a distinct voice that would sound different from Lauria, and I felt pretty confident when I was done that I'd pulled it off. Again, she gives you little bit of an overview of what happened in the first two books, but with a better sense of forward momentum than I think I managed in book II.

Sheesh. Looking back at these is enough to make me screamingly neurotic. I am not as good at snappy first lines as Lyda, that's for damn sure.

Here's the first line of my current project:

On the last day of February, a postcard from Germany arrived in Heike's mail.

There's plenty of hinting and world-building on the first page of this story, but not much in that first line.

First Lines

My first novel started out as a short story. Here's how the story started:

Misha’s ice-pale skin wasn’t the first odd thing I noticed about her. Neither were the black mourning ribbons she wore -- not that those were all that odd. Between the war, and the famine, almost everyone at the Southern Conservatory of Music was in mourning. What I did notice, right away, was the candle she was holding.

I kept that more or less intact when I first turned it into a novel, aside from changing the girl's name to Misha. The first version of chapter one started like this:

Mira’s ice-pale skin wasn’t the first odd thing I noticed about her. Neither were the black mourning ribbons she wore -- not that those were all that odd. Between the war, and the famine, almost everyone at the Verdian Conservatory of Music was mourning someone. What I did notice, that first night, was the candle she was holding.

Then I rewrote the beginning pretty thoroughly, and decided that "ice-pale skin" was cliched. Also, if it wasn't unusual for her to be in mourning, why would this even be mentioned in a discussion of odd things about her? That had to go. Rewritten version:

Mira was too pale to have come from a farm. Given the war, and the famine, she was too well-fed to have come from any town in Verdia. She was too old to be just starting at a conservatory -- she looked my age, sixteen -- but her hair was freshly cut, so she couldn’t have transferred from another one. But the really odd thing about Mira, the thing I noticed right away that first night, was the candle she was holding.

That was definitely better. I kept that beginning for a long time. But, then I significantly reworked the beginning. Someone had suggested that I needed to work in more about the really major conflicts of the book into the early parts -- I think Lyda may have said this in her post, that everything should be there on the first page, in some form.

Here's the version that was published:

Mira arrived at the Verdiano Rural Conservatory for the Study of Music the same week that the song did. In retrospect, if either Mira or the song had appeared alone, I might have understood things sooner. But I was distracted from the song by my new roommate, and distracted from Mira by the puzzle of the song, and I didn't learn the truth about either one until it was too late to do anything but try to contain the damage.

It's funny how un-snappy that reads to me now. The song she mentions is one of the things I wove in to foreshadow one of the major conflicts that's otherwise pretty well hidden from the students at the conservatory. The candle still gets mentioned, but what's strange is not the candle itself, so much as the fact that Mira is trying to light it and can't get it to light.

Turning the Storm (the companion book) starts like this:

"Eliana? Eliana!" Givoanni stared down at me, flushed in the late summer heat. I squinted up at him and he sat back, looking relieved. "That was one hell of a fall."

That book definitely starts in the middle of the action, in part because it wasn't initially written as a separate book -- Fires and Turning were a single book that got split in half. I reworked the beginning of Fires a ton of times; I hardly reworked the beginning of Turning at all. In retrospect, it probably could've used some tweaking: that was a good opening for the second half of a book. It's not as good as an opening for a single book.

Having posted this accidentally (gah!) I'll put the rest of my books in a separate post.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tate's Question on Firsts

I'm not interested in the first sentence so much as I am in the first paragraph or thought. I agree with Lyda that you have to hook the reader quickly, but I'm willing to take a little longer to do that, call it the first ten lines of text. Now, last sentences. . .those are very important to me, but not really something that can be talked about without spoilers. I do have a few pieces around with a punchy short first line or couple of lines that seem appropriate to the discussion:

Interface Pattern:

The beverage was coffee, not java, not cappuccino, just coffee. My only companion was my avatar, Harvey.

This is a short forthcoming in Absolute Magnitude and what I like about is the way it establishes character and (with the next couple of sentences) the idea of cyber setting.


"Nothing here," said Melchior, his voice echoing from the depths of an ancient citrus-wood chest.
"Keep looking," I called back to my familiar, yanking another drawer from my many times great-aunt's desk

What I like about this is the sense of urgency, of distorted family relations, and of unanswered questions.


Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? The eyes of Cerberus glared down at me, six balls of black fire. There was no dog older or more dangerous. But here I was standing practically in his mouths, trick in hand.

This is the sequel to WebMage and I love the image of Cerberus playing bridge and what that tells you about the kind of person who would play with him. It gives the reader the setting of Hades, a risk taking protagonist, and silliness.

The Black School:

When Adair was eight they came for his cousin Dougal. They took him right out of class and whisked him away to the Royal Edinburgh Academy of Sorcery. That was its name, but no one called it that. They called it the Black School

This is the book I'm working on right now, and what I like about it is the darkness starts with the first sentence, the sense of powerful and dangerous forces. It also gives the Scottish setting.

Winter of Discontent:

Act one. Scene one.
A theater. Red light from the exit signs provides the only illumination. A lone man, barely visible in the darkness, paces haltingly back and forth across the stage. He begins to recite, hitting some of the lines with special emphasis:

This is a novel that's currently out looking for a home. I like this opening, but I think it's an example of a very slow burning start. You need to read a full four or five paragraphs past this to get the full effect, but that's not necessarily bad. This is a very cerebral book, and a starter's gun start would be inappropriate.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Question of Beginnings

[Cross posted from Tate Hallaway’s blog, with additions]

On another group blog I belong to the question of how you’ve started your novel came up. Below is my answer. I'd love to see the opening lines from other Wyrdsmiths, be they from novels or short stories.

Archangel Protocol starts with a visual/tactile image:

“My hairline itched where the dead receiver lay just under the skin.”

Fallen Host begins with a statement of fact:

“I never sleep. Like the dolphin and the spiny anteater, I don’t experience REM.”

Messiah Node starts with one of my favorite all time first lines of my own:

“Sometimes I wondered what God was thinking.”

Apocalypse Array starts:

“When the preacher asked if there were any objections, I have expected God Himself to strike me down.”

Tall, Dark & Dead actually starts with a two sentence question and answer:

“What’s the best way to keep Vatican witch hunters off your scent? Dress to kill.”

Dead Sexy also begins with a question (special thanks to Bill Henry who suggested it):

“Who knew there were so many dead things in Madison, Wisconsin?”

The book I’m working on right now (tentatively called Bloody Charming) begins with:

“I was on my bicycle five miles out of town and thinking about what it might be like to settle down, really settle down with a vampire, like forever, when I saw the gray wolf on the side of the road.”

...which is clearly not as snappy as the other two, and may explain a bit why I’m still struggling with this sucker. I’ve started Bloody Charming three times now and can’t quite get things into focus. I’ve decided, in fact, to abandon perfection for the moment in order to keep moving forward.

I agonize over first lines. I’m convinced that they’re critical in hooking (hoodwinking?) your reader into buying your book. I know that when I’m thinking about book buying I often judge a book first by its cover, its back copy, and then by the first page or so of the author’s writing. Given that usually only one of those is in the author’s complete control, I figure I need to make my first page a real grabber.

How do you buy a book? How important is that first page (if you even read it)? And what about first lines, Wyrdsmiths? Any you're especially proud of?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Women in Science Fiction

I just read an article in the latest SFWA Bulletin by Susan Urbanek Linville called “SF and Fantasy in the New Millennium: Female Characters in Short Fiction.” It’s kind of academic in a way I can’t relate to (lots of charts trying to quantify what are really very subjective categories like what a story is ABOUT,) but her hypothesis is interesting. That is, there aren’t many.

According to Linville, only 23 percent of all the stories published in Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF during 2002, 2003 and 2005 had female protagonists. I’m not sure what to make of this, except that she said that a previous article of hers had found that there are not many women publishing short fiction in SF/F (not, it should be noted that women aren’t writing SF/F, just not being published). It is notable, I think, that currently none of the big three are edited by women.

My partner Shawn said she wasn’t surprised. After all, it was her impression that men still made up the majority of readers of SF/F. While Linville offered no information about whether or not that was true, she did note that female _media_ fandom is on the rise. Apparently in 2005, the SciFi UK Channel claimed that 51% of its viewers are now women. Just looking around at conventions, I would hazard to guess that women make up a significant portion of readers, too, although whether they prefer to read novels or short fiction one can’t say. My guess, in fact, would be that women tend to read novels over shorter fiction for the reason that Linville supposes – they’re more likely to find female protagonists there.

Of course, I’m making much of this up.

But, I do know that *I* like reading female protagonists – not exclusively, mind you, but my reading has drifted into mystery and paranormal romances just so that I can get my fill of sassy, proactive women heroes. I also have to admit to not having read much short fiction lately (although having read through some of the synopsis Linville provided as part of her article has made me want to go hunting up old issues of the big three to track down certain stories.) When I was younger and less discriminating, the gender of the hero was less of an issue, but if I think back to my favorite novels I did tend to prefer novels written by women, even when they had male protagonists.

I don’t really have a specific point I want to make, just that I find all this interesting. What do you think? Does gender matter?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hopes and Fears—The Backlist

Or, Good Problems are Still Problems

I figure one of the more useful things I can do on this blog as a writer with a first book recently out is to document some of the ups and downs of the process and try to make sense out of them for the folks coming up who will soon be where I am. This means talking about the good, the bad, and the terrifying. That said, I know that I'm very lucky to have gotten this far, and I'm frankly thrilled to have these issues to deal with.

Right now I have 1 book in print and 1 revised and forthcoming. I have 4 complete stand alone novels out with publishers, including 2 on my editor's desk at Ace. I have 2 proposals out. All of these are contemporary fantasy. I also have 1 complete contemporary YA fantasy book out that is intended as the first of a series of 4. It is a stand-alone, but has an attached proposal for 3 follow-ups. The novel I'm working on now is an alternate-WWII YA fantasy, very dark and the first of 3, though also a stand-alone. I'm hoping to have it finished along with proposals for the 2 follow-ups by the beginning of the year. And I have 2 trunk novels, 1 mostly rewritten to current standards and awaiting a final polish to go out the door.

My biggest professional hope for all these books is that they will be picked up as soon as possible. It's also one of my biggest terrors. The hopeful side of the equation doesn't need much explanation, the reasons are pretty obvious to anyone who's writing with the intent to publish. The fear side is more interesting. Say, just for a moment that by massive coincidence and equally massive luck, the lot sold tomorrow. What would I do? Well, first I'd throw a serious blow-out party. Then. . .I'd panic.

Here's why: None of these books would be ready for print as is. That just doesn't happen. That means I'd have revisions of varying levels of significance to do for 7 novels with workloads varying from a minimum of a solid 50 hours up to as much as a 3 months per book. I would have to complete the current half-finished book, 1-3 months solid work (YAs are short). I would have 7 new books to complete that have not yet gone beyond the outline stage, anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 years of writing. All together I would be committed to a minimum of 3 years of intense work and as much as 6 years. All of that without writing another short story or entertaining a single new idea.

As I mentioned below, I've been at this for 16 years so far, so it's not the idea of committing to more years of writing that's scary, there's nothing I'd rather be doing. But this would all have deadlines attached, and it would pretty much lock me down on exactly what I was going to do. I would no longer be able to chase the next pretty shiny idea that came by to see where it goes. There is a freedom to being unpublished or underpublished that doesn't seem all that valuable until you see the possibility of it fading away. Dean Smith warned me about this a couple of years ago and, while I took the warning seriously and intellectually understood it, I'm only now coming to emotional grips with it. Does that mean I wouldn't leap at getting everything picked up tomorrow? Of course, not. It just means I have a different perspective on the idea than I would have had before I sold WebMage.

I have more to say on the subject, but it'll have to wait, as this is already too long. So, for the moment, I'll end with a question.

If you knew that soon, and for years to come, you might no longer have choices about what to write, what would you want to write before that happened?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Career Mistakes

I’ve made a few, but I just want to talk about my most recent one. So, several years ago, I did something I very rarely do, that is: I wrote to market. An anthology was looking for Biblical horror stories and I felt keenly inspired. I ended up writing a story called “Jawbone of an Ass” about Sampson’s first wife (no, not Delilah, the one who doesn’t get a name). At any rate, it was a story I was really proud of, but perhaps because the Biblical reference was so obscure (or it just didn’t suit their needs, etc.), the anthology didn’t buy it.

I tried all sorts of SF/F/H markets after that, all of which found it unsuitable.

So, when my writers group, this one, wanted story from me for the New Wyrd anthology, I figured “Jawbone” would be perfect. After all, who on earth would ever be looking for a story like that again?

Guess what I found while reading through Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets today?

“Holy Horrors, Editors T.M. Wright and Matt Cardin. General requirements: Anything that spins, gestates, evolves, devolves, erupts, or otherwise spectacularly evil, disturbing, supernatural, horrific, weird, insane, or other grotesque way religion.”

They pay 5 cents/word for original work 2.5/word for reprints.

I sent them “Jawbone” with an note explaining that it had seen print before, and, you know, it might not be horrific enough for them, anyway, but I kept kicking myself thinking “Aw, man! If only!” It’s not the end of the world (in fact, if they do buy it, it’s still money I could be paid for writing), but I do wish that I would have found out about this anthology earlier.

So, what’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done with a story?

Driven or Chauffeured?

So, I've got something of a survey to give.

I'm sure you've all heard that there are two types of writers: character-driven and plot-driven.

I'm neither.

I'm a world-driven writer.

I always start with a world, usually involving some system of magic or some technological driver, and I work out from there. Plot and character are tools I use to tell a story that shows off my world.

And, just for the record and to further drive a stake into the idea of writers being either character or plot driven, let me note that I also know writers who are idea-driven and prose-driven, giving us at least five kinds. I suspect there are more.

So what drives your writing? What gets you behind the keyboard? Character? Plot? World? Idea? Prose? Or perhaps you just sort of sit in the back seat and watch what happens? Well?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sneaking up on Character

Once more into the breach.

I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I am not a natural character writer. I think I've gotten fairly good at character development, but it really is something I've had to work very hard at and will continue to work at because I know that it requires major processing for me, unlike say plot or world building. Which of course means that I spend considerable time thinking about the subject. This post is part of a discussion I've been having on another blog which I thought worth sharing here.

One of the funny things about my difficulties with characer is that I'm actually a people person and an extrovert. I enjoy and am energized by social situations. I tend to make friends easily and to be pretty good with empathy and with understanding how the people around me are going to react to my actions and words. So, it's not human results that I have trouble with in character building, it's human motivations. And that's where another of the funny things comes in. I didn't realize that I had a problem with motivations until I left acting for writing and ended up with a lot of first readers telling me that what I was writing wasn't how real people think.

I discovered that there all sorts of things that any number of people do or believe for reasons that I simply can't figure out by starting from my own base assumptions and understanding of how the world works, things that only make sense to me if I consciously create a thought experiment in which I alter the foundations of what I think of as personal logic. Instead of true sense-making I just try to figure out an internal emotional consistency for a character and then work backward to find a belief structure that would support their actions.

Whether I'm actually anywhere close to creating a good model for what's going on in real people's heads is on open question, but the method allows for fairly successful character modeling, and I'm now more likely to get complimented on character than roasted.

Any thoughts?

Conventional Thinking

Well, it's halfway through November, and I've started thinking about next year's Cons already. In case you don't have easy access to them or know about them already, I'll quote Kelly's earlier post on some of our great local cons:

...the numerous Twin Cities science fiction conventions, of which MarsCon, MiniCon, Convergence, and Diversicon are the largest. I'd also add that WisCon in Madison is one of the best cons in the midwest if you're interested in writing.

I just called the Concourse Hotel in Madison to make reservations for Doug and I for WisCon, and found out that the Governor's Club rooms that were blocked out for the convention are already full--but there are G.C. rooms available, only at 150% of the price! (I can already hear Kelly noting that this is why they make their reservations before leaving the previous year. Wish I had, is all I can say.) Step Two: I emailed WisCon Logistics to ask them if it would be possible for them to expand their room block in the G.C., since clearly there are people who want to attend the con and who want to stay in the G.C. We'll see what I hear back from them.

Anyway, what with the costs of attending the various conventions, I usually like to take a look at them in advance and kind of plan out how I'm going to attend or be involved with them. Anybody else thinking cons already? (I know Eleanor is at least thinking about Marscon!) What are your favorites of the local cons?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Agent Resource

This database of F&SF agents is a great resource for writers looking for representation.

Money Flows to the Writer

Yog's Law, Money Always Flows to the Writer.

Every professional writing blog should cover this one once in a while, because there are always new writers coming up and new scams trying to take advantage of hopes and drems. So, for the record: "money flows to the writer." Any time anyone asks for money from a writer to publish or look at the writer's work this is a danger signal. The one true exception to this is an agent's percentage, but that comes only after a sale and as part of that sale, so money is still flowing to the writer, just a little bit less of it. A few legitimate contests may also charge a processing fee, but I generally advise people not to enter any contest that charges fees, unless they KNOW that it is legitimate and are willing to pay said fee to help cover the cost or other expenses of the organization running the contest. Even then, the cost should be nominal.

No legitimate publisher charges an author to publish their book.

No legitimate agent charges reading fees or pre-sale copying or mailing fees.

No legitimate contest charges fees beyond $20.00, and those that charge any fees at all should be looked on with great caution.

Money flows to the writer.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Catch of the Day

In order to make things a little cleaner on the nobody-uses-thunder-but-Zeus front, I've changed the rent-a-clops' pistol from a standard revolver to a gyrojet.

On First Novels, Or Through a Mirror Weirdly

So, the last few months have been very strange for me in a way that is fairly common in the world of F&SF. I've been writing seriously for about sixteen years and selling professionally for nine. I've been working with professionals in writers groups for eight, and with book editors through an agent for six. I know a lot of people in the publishing world. However, as far as the book reading world is concerned I really first appeared three-and-a-half months ago with my very first novel. That's a reasonable way to look at things and I still find it stunningly cool, but it's also utterly surreal.

Reviews in particular are a wholly odd experience—and let me say for the record that I've been incredibly lucky on the review front just to have so many reviewers paying serious attention to a debut author. But it's still deeply strange for me to read comments about my "first" book, when for me it's number four. I expect that will be compounded next year when my "second" (ninth) sees print.

My friend Mike is a reviewer and science fiction scholar and he talks about how often he's seen the phenomena of writers who've been in the trenches for a decade or more being suddenly talked about as an overnight success. I don't think my modest debut rises to that level of surreality, but it's certainly a close cousin.

That's one of the things that makes this blog and talking on panels an interesting experience too. I tend to speak from the point of view of someone who's got about a 1,500,000 words of extant fiction, but I really only have the publishing credibility of about 200,000 of those words. I do also have 400+ rejects to my name, dating back to 1990, which is when I first started interacting with the professional publishing world. Basically I feel like a hoary old veteran of the industry, but for all intents and purposes I'm a wet behind the ears newbie.

It's all good, and cool and weird and wonderful at the same time. And I'd love to hear any thoughts any of y'all have on the subject.

So, fire away. Tips? Comments? Flames?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Well, I Suppose It Comes From Your Life…

Last night as I lounged on my in-laws’ couch half-heartedly revising the beginning of the first chapter of my newest novel while the TV blared some CSI spin-off, Margaret asked me in a typically Minnesotan fashion where my ideas came from. “How do you think up all that stuff? Well," she answered herself, "I suppose it comes from your life.”

“Yah,” I said, in the traditional Midwestern way. “It does and it doesn’t.”

We’ve talked about where ideas come from before on this blog, so, instead, I wanted to comment on what Kelly brought up about real vs. realistic. Because part of my answer to Margaret was, “Well, you know, a lot of what I write is fantasy. It’s not something I could experience, even if I wanted to. I have to make that stuff up completely.”

Probably, if it were not nearly eleven o’clock in the evening, I would have tried to answer Margaret more completely.

So I understand what Kelly is saying about the joy of writing characters larger than life. After all, Harry coined the idea of a “Babe-onic plague” for why all the people (particularly the men) in my novels are ruggedly handsome. It’s like Garrison Keillor says about the people of Lake Wobegon, “All the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.” When someone confronted me about it, I said, “Hey, listen, this is a fantasy novel and a world populated by hotties are *my* damn fantasy.”

There are very few people in my real life as good-looking (or as available) as those in my novels.

Plus, the nature of speculative fiction often requires somewhat larger-than-life characters. Vampires and, as in Kelly’s WebMage the children of Greek gods, aren’t likely to be typical, bumbling humans.

However, and here’s where I’ll respectfully disagree with Mr. McCullough, I most enjoy reading and writing about humans who interact with these supernatural/metahumans. Kelly and I have joked in the past that he prefers to write about the superhero and I write about the superhero’s girlfriend. And, it’s true, and this is where my conversation connects to the one I was having with my step-mother in-law. I tend to write with questions in mind like, “How would I respond to realizing that guy I’ve been chatting with at the coffee shop after hours is really, and for true, a werewolf” or “What if there was incontrovertible proof that my next-door neighbor was a space alien?” (Which, actually, I have often suspected.)

For me, as I’ve suggested on my own blog, this is a sneaky way for me to continue to play pretend as an adult. I can do a little Mary Sueing, though I always write characters which are more not-me, than me.

Although you could argue that many of Garnet’s personality traits are mine. Certainly, I like to infuse her with some of own "dorkiness,” if you will. Characters who can be silly and vulnerable tend to garner my sympathy when I read them in other people’s work, so I cultivate those traits in my own.

Even when I was a RPGer, I tended to enjoy those moments when my characters were stupid. One of my favorite campaigns happens when our GM decided to use the “fumble chart” to read off the things characters could accidentally do when they’d rolled a score so low as to actually be harmful to themselves or others. My character, Fred the Wood Elf, got quite the reputation as “friendly fire” that week. For me (and I think the other gamers), that totally made that campaign fun and memorable… much more than the ones where we were all brave and heroic and full of f33rsome skillz.

My characters tend to be idiots, because I'm an idiot.

Monday, November 06, 2006

In The Mail

Love those words. Revisions are complete and on their way. They were finished Friday, but I had to wait to have a last chat with my editor before removing them from my plate. It feels good to be off deadline again.

Anybody else got exciting or relief generating writing news today? A story finished or revised? Something in the mail? A fresh rejection? A deadline met? Something edited for a friend?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Real vs. Believable

As writers of fiction, and particularly of the fiction of the fantastic, we encounter a constant tension between writing things in a way that feels real and a way that is real. It's a complex dance and one that involves different steps for different writers. Some will prefer to come closer to the actions of a real person, like you or I as we would imagine ourselves to be, acting in a given situation. Some of us see it as an opportunity to create people who make better decision than we would or worse, more extreme in any case.

I tend to fall into the latter camp. I write fantastic fiction in part because it gives me the chance to write heroes and villains who are larger than life, more noble and more villainous. They're wittier, nastier, and smarter, but also generally less complex and less ambiguous than real people. They're surer of their motives and, most importantly, more fun to read about (at least in my opinion).

Fun's an element that doesn't get talked about enough in writing. I'm a strong believer that reading should be an act that brings joy to the reader, and part of that is fun. Real life can get pretty dismal at times and part of the reason that fiction exists is as an escape and inspiration for those times, a way to transcend the mundane. Escapism isn't something to be ashamed of, it's a high virtue of fiction.

So, give yourself permission to make the choice that should be real instead of the one that is real from time to time. Not only is it more satisfying, it often makes for better stories. Not more real, better.

Ironically, choosing what should be real over what is real may also make a story more believable, because what people want to believe has a huge effect on what they do believe.

"The Gravity Was All Wrong."

Lyda is teaching an SF class at The Loft in Minneapolis this semester, and I'm taking it for the fun of spending time with SF from an intellectual standpoint and because Lyda's fun to hang around with and an enjoyable teacher. (No, I'm not being graded, so there's no ulterior here.)

Anyway, a few weeks back, we were talking about the "Distancing Move," or, as Lyda called it, the "Eyeball Kick." It's that line at the beginning of a story that says "FYI: This is going to be an SF/Fantasy/Cyberpunk/Et cetera story", without actually being that direct. These are some of my favorite lines, and, I think, are often the most fun to speculate from as a jumping off point for story generation. Someone in the class asked for an example, and off the top of my head I threw out the title above. It begs the questions "How was the gravity all wrong?"; "How could you/she/he/they tell that it was wrong?"; "What does that mean for this world? (or are we on some sort of space station? In a dream? Alternate universe?)"; and "Where are we that the gravity could be changed, or different from expectations?" It is clearly an observation by someone, because of the somewhat colloquial "all wrong"; "The gravity was off" would carry a similar eyeball kick, though in my opinion it has a lower suspense quotient because it generate fewer questions--and I believe that most good opening lines should make hook your reader by making them ask essential questions right away. (Not the only thing an opening line should.can do, but, in my mind, clearly one of the most important.) Beginning a story with this particular line also has the effect of implying that the observation is fresh and new, since gravity is something, assumedly, to which we would acclimate after a period of time. It has the effect of saying "This world is different, and I'm just notiicing that myself." It effectively distances the reader from their own world, but brings them along with it into the new world you are offering.

What distancing moves do you like to see, or use, and why? Do opening lines function for you in a different way, and how?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Location, Location, Location

On another group blog I belong to Fangs, Fur & Fey the question came up about why authors chose the setting that they do.

My answer was:

Why did I pick Madison, Wisconsin?

Sunny cornfields, quaint touristy shops in a medium-sized capitol city, cows lowing in pastures... it all just SCREAMS vampires, doesn't it?


No, and that was kind of the idea. I'm from Wisconsin (LaCrosse, not Madison) and growing up there I always *wished* a faerie or a werewolf or a vampire would come stalking out of the woods, but they never did. So, righting that wrong was part of my motivation for chosing Madison. Madison, also, is just big enough to hide a vampire or two, and it has an occult bookstore for my heroine to work in. Garnet (my heroine) fled a much larger Minnesota city (the one I'm currently living next to -- Minneapolis) and Madison seems like worlds away from there, though it has a similar flavor -- very artsy, vaguely hippy, and very "shade-grown, organic, bicycle-delivered." I thought my heroine would feel very much at home there (as I do, when I visit.)

Madison is just one of those towns that you couldn't make up if you tried -- or, if you did, no one would believe you. It's not unlike the fictional "Stars Hallow" from Gilmore Girls, except larger and with more politicans (it's Wisconsin's capitol.)

I like having a real place to draw on, though I don't let that limit me. I freely use the Madison of my memory, which is to say that some of the places that I have my hero and heroine visit used to be there, but are no longer. I also happily make up things, like a Goth nightclub, when the spirit (or the plot) move me.

My question is:

What about you? Where did you set your novels and why? Is it a real place? Fictional?