Monday, April 30, 2012

Brandon Sanderson's writing class lectures

Just saw this link from his blog--archived lectures from his university writing course. Even if you're not aiming to write epic fantasy, he's a great guy to learn about craft from.

Friday, April 20, 2012

On aiming for the top and following your gut

Lately I've seen a number of situations where people have picked a low quality option, just because it was there--and sometimes they've regretted it. This is a writerly blog, so my focus is on the writing aspect, but it applies to anything important in life, too. So I just have to say it:


Aiming high is not the same as having an inflated ego. Accepting something less when you know you're worth more isn't humility. It's throwing away your opportunities to do something great with your talents.

Sometimes, making good choices can be obscured by someone who means well but doesn't have a full knowledge of the situation. Or who thinks you should be grateful for even HAVING an offer. agent offer. (No, I'm not thinking of any particular situation by this. Just something I've seen happen before.) Your friends have only ever gotten rejections--heck, maybe you have only ever gotten rejections--and now someone wants to sign you! How exciting!!! They're offering, so of COURSE you have to say yes. But. A small voice at the back of your head warns you that something is not quite right.

Yeah. Suck up your courage and listen to that voice.

You wouldn't marry someone because you felt sorry for them, would you? You can be nice to everybody, but being nice isn't the same thing as committing yourself to a lifetime and beyond together. Maybe business isn't quite the same thing as marriage, but--business decisions have a way of having long term consequences. It's the sort of thing to think through before you give a yes.

I've had various helpful suggestions regarding getting published, most of them good suggestions, a few not so good. Just yesterday I heard about someone's (negative) experience with a small publisher someone once urged me to try. I'm sure they're good at what they do, but the thing is--my book was not that thing. To settle for that when I know my book can be so much more would be wrong. Even if my book never gets picked up (and I have several like that)--I would rather write a new and better book than shoot too low.

You can't know the end from the beginning. Sometimes you might make what looks like the very best choice--and then circumstances or people change, and you're still left with a mess. When that happens, it isn't your fault. But for anyone who is currently weighing the flattery of being chosen against that little voice inside warning you against it, I say: listen.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On heroic characters

I've spent the past week revising a couple of scenes, double-checking the research aspects, and rewriting and rereading and rewriting again to make sure they're totally clear. In one of them, there is an explosion that my MC tries to shield his friends from. A writer friend who read the scene suggested that he not just shield them, but get hurt a little in the process. He was already being heroic, but bumping it up a bit so that we saw him take the consequences of his choice made him more heroic in that situation. Which makes me think of something someone from my local writers' group said recently. She'd been to a conference and one talk focused on things to make your MC more approachable. Among them were these suggestions:

How is your MC heroic?
How is s/he vulnerable?
What is s/he willing to sacrifice to get what s/he wants?

I'm starting a new book now and thinking about these things from the start. I really do love heroic, vulnerable characters who sacrifice something valuable for what they want most. But I think you have to be a bit careful with the sacrifices, otherwise, you're creating a character who just lies down and lets people walk all over her. We don't want to create a co-dependent character. We want someone strong, who's willing to risk it all for something they wisely know is worth more. They've got to be heroic so you know they aren't a doormat. And they've got to be vulnerable so they don't seem too perfect for the reader to identify with. These three things really have to balance each other for it to work.

I don't think heroics have to be huge. I think they can be small things the MC does without even thinking--things that show the measure of who they really are. Like Arthur in Kevin Crossley-Holland's books. He tries to be good at his own station, but he still helps Gatty catch the bull. He worries about the people on the estate who are treated unjustly. He bucks the system a little at a time, and the reader loves him for it. Sometimes very small details can give a reader a very positive impression.

Vulnerability is showing a character's flaws and fears and failures. It's what they stand to lose if their gambles fail. It's the part that makes them human. When a reader recognizes a shared fault or fear, the character feels human to them.

And sacrifice. You can't just give up all you are and have, just because it's your duty or because someone else said so. That's weak. You have to do it because you want to. Because you know it will hurt, but you're willing to fully accept those consequences in the hopes (but not perfect knowledge--it's still a faith thing) that it will cause something you want even more to come to pass. If you have given your character a chance to develop some heroic qualities prior to this point, they will be ready when the time comes to give all.

I'm still trying to figure this out. If you have any insights, feel free to share.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Sometimes you reread a book as an adult that you loved as a child, and it doesn't hold up. But sometimes you reread it and you love it just as much, and you realize that not only has it weathered through stylistic changes in publishing, it's also just as enthralling for the adult mind as it was for a child. That's the case with Elizabeth Marie Pope's The Perilous Gard, copyright 1973. It won a Newbery Honor, which, on reflection, is an award common to many books I love (more so than the actual medal).

The story: It's 1558, and Kate Sutton and her sister Alicia are maids in the service of Princess Elizabeth, whose sister Queen Mary (as in Bloody Mary) has put Elizabeth under house arrest. Alicia writes to the queen to complain, and in punishment, she is taken to be a servant to the queen, where she can keep an eye on her, and Kate, who is truly innocent in the matter, is banished to a remote manor called Elvenwood Hall, where she will also be under house arrest. When she arrives, she hears of strange stories about the Wardens (the family the current lord, Geoffrey Heron, inherited it from)--stories of the Fairy Folk. Also, she learns that Sir Geoffrey's daughter disappeared down the holy well on the property, and that Geoffrey's younger brother Christopher believes it's his fault that she drowned, for he was supposed to be watching her that day. But then it is discovered that she didn't fall--she was taken, by none other than the People in the Well, to pay a teind, or in other words, to be a human sacrifice in their druidic rites. Christopher offers himself in Cicely's place, and Kate is taken captive and given to the Fairy Folk as well, to remove her as the sole witness to what is really going on in the caves and abandoned mines below the Elvenwood.

What's so excellent about this book: Firstly, even though it's historical fiction, there is a very modern sense to aboveground 1558. These are the reasonable people, these are the ones we feel we have most in common with. It's very matter of fact and real. Part of this is possibly because of the contrast between the modern people of the book and the people who live underground who still, 1600 years later, are still practicing Druids. It's not anachonistic at all--I admit I find those books that stick a pushy, modern girl into the past rather irritating. This feels right for the time, but it makes the time very accessible and "normal" for the reader.

Secondly, the main character herself. She's very matter-of-fact and practical; not given to hysterics or unsupportable imagination. When she does have strong emotions, they mean something. Having been accused of this in both life and writing, I can personally relate. But even if that is not you, just her being like this is good for the book, because she contrasts nicely with other characters who ARE prone to superstition and mystical ideas. And it becomes important to the plot and ultimate solution.

Third, I had to smile, because when they capture her and send her below, the manor steward cooks up the story that she's fallen in love with and run after Christopher Heron. Her indignant objection (even if you know he is significant to the story) is that she can't possibly be in love with Christopher Heron--she's only spoken to him twice in her life! Such a realistic and refreshing change from all those YAs where the heroine instantly and inexplicably falls in love with a guy because of some irresistable spark or compulsion she can neither explain nor fight off.

Fourth, I felt the story invested significant buildup at the beginning, and as a result, the rest of the book meant something and had sticking power. You've got to put in this investment. Yes, things need to be happening--but you've got to make us care about the character and her world if we're going to feel the stakes. Book to movie adaptations tend to be places where this falls apart the worst. But even in books, this is important. Start with action and have things continually happening, yes--but you've got to develop your characters and make us care, or the action will be meaningless.

So, really excellent book. I just wish she had written more!