Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Event Warden

If you've been reading "Breaking News", you might have noticed in a recent author's note that I talk about the novel I'll be starting work on in the new year. In the event that you're interested, I'm posting the prologue for the work here. Please note that the prologue is written in an entirely different voice from the rest of the work. It's truly just a bit of a foyer, so that you can shrug off your jacket and stamp the dirt from your shoes before you enter the living room of the story.

I'm not sure how long I'll be leaving this up here. The things I've written over at Fan Fiction will remain right where they are for the foreseeable future, but this thing is mine, and once the novel is complete I intend to query it out. This is not a YA story, although many of the characters within it are college-aged.

Anyway, meet Simon and Lily. Sort of.

1. Escapement

It was an ordinary country lane; nothing distinguished it from thousands of similar, gently-rutted dirt tracks.

This road might have been almost anywhere. It might have been almost anywhen, too. Tall grass grew untamed on either side, dotted with the occasional rogue Queen Anne's Lace or cornflower. Small flies and lazy specks of dust seemed to catch fire in the haze of the late afternoon sun, setting lower and earlier now that September had arrived. The trees still held their leaves, all green, blasted full and primed for the change in seasons.

'Everything ends,' the man thought as he strolled along the lane. 'Well, everything normal ends, at any rate.' The amended thought gave him no pleasure. It once had, but not anymore.

He was in no particular hurry. His destination wasn't precisely fixed, but he'd had enough experience to understand it was really less important that he know the destination than that his destination knew him. It would find him, if he let it, and so he kept walking, allowing Circumstance to draw him toward whatever he needed to change, or fix. It would make itself known soon enough.

Until then, he took full advantage of the stillness, and the green calm around him. He strolled and imagined himself to be back home, although home was so distant both in experience and in memory that he couldn't be certain anymore whether what he looked at now bore even the faintest resemblance to that more innocent time. How eager he'd been to leave that innocence, to strike out into the bigger world and grab adventure with both hands. He'd yearned for more, always more and different, and when it was offered to him, offered with secrecy and promises of excitement beyond his wildest imaginings, he'd leapt at the chance and agreed without a second's hesitation. He now counted that lack of reflection among the bigger mistakes he'd ever made. Perhaps it was the biggest: there was no way of really knowing for sure.

The quiet country lane soon gave way to more inhabited surroundings. White farmhouses with dark green or black shutters sprouted up, at first here and there, and then shortly quite close together; dirt disappeared under his feet, replaced with asphalt, then asphalt with double yellow lines painted on top. A white, staked sign welcomed him to Blackbourne, Vermont, Chartered in 1747. So long ago. Or just yesterday, when viewed from a removed perspective.

He walked along the wide street that appeared to split the town in half like a log, noting shops and cafes and restaurants in a quantity which seemed outrageous for such a sleepy little place. The mystery of how such a small community supported so much leisure was solved when he saw the signs for Walton College halls and residences. This was a college town, then. That made his lot far easier, and infinitely more pleasant.

The walk had made him thirsty, and it was getting on for supper. He wasn't yet prepared to interact in any meaningful way with the citizens of Blackbourne, and so finding a low-key venue for a meal was important. The eateries along the main road were buzzing hives, their outdoor tables crammed with students who laughed and chattered and occasionally cursed, making him wince a bit at the crudeness. He noted with relief that the people he saw were dressed in a hodge-podge of fashions, which made his own plain wool jacket and trousers appear not at all out of the ordinary way. He reached an intersection and stepped forward to scan the minor artery for a more quiet option.

His eyes found a dark wood-framed storefront with an enormous picture window, from behind which a warm haze glowed out into the early autumn evening. The sign above the door read "The Library". Intrigued, he turned the corner and crossed the street to investigate, discovering that The Library appeared to be a coffee house of some kind. Satisfied, he pushed open the door, his stomach suddenly very anxious for a biscuit or three.

The smell of brewed coffee and cinnamon wrapped around him as he entered the shop. Breathing deeply, he surveyed the room in the hope of securing a vacant corner for himself. The space was a cozy one, with rich oak bookshelves lining two of the walls, and worn red-velvet armchairs grouped about the place instead of proper dining tables. If he ignored the service counter which ran along the far wall of the room, he was almost able to imagine that this was his father's study back home, and the sensation filled him with a curious blend of pain and peace.

Several of the chair groupings were occupied by knots of young people, variously reading or typing on their portable computers. He spied an empty chair with a small table next to it away from the center of the room, and made his way over to claim it for himself. Settling in, he raised his head to alert any member of the staff in the vicinity that he was ready to place his order, but nobody immediately noticed his presence. He saw a young man dressed in torn denim trousers and a loose, short-sleeved black shirt milling about the place, but failed repeatedly to catch his eye. There was a young girl behind the service counter, humming quietly as she stacked porcelain coffee cups against the wall and wiped down the surface in front of her.

Sighing, he stood again and walked over to the young man to tap him on the shoulder.


"I would like to order something to eat and drink from you, if it's not too much of a bother," he said, and hoped that the tone of his voice didn't betray the irritation he felt.

The young man blinked at him. "It's self-serve. You need to go to the counter and tell her what you want." And with that, the young man turned his attention back to picking up abandoned cups strewn atop one of the low tables in the middle of several chairs.

The girl at the counter didn't notice her new customer until he cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon," he said quietly. "I was wondering if it might be possible to have a cup of tea?"

She turned to him with a smile. "Sure. Any particular kind? We stock Tazo and Lipton." She waited, watching him while he absorbed these unfamiliar names. He noted briefly that her eyes were the color of a thunderhead at summer vespers.

"I don't suppose you have any Earl Grey to hand, do you?" He asked it tentatively, praying that the mention of Earl Grey wouldn't make him sound as foreign to her as the brands she'd mentioned made her sound to him. He knew that his accent would already be a bit of a surprise.

"Sure thing," she nodded, and he exhaled in relief. "Just a sec." And she busied herself with pouring hot water into a small silver teapot, then opening up a packet and dunking a tea bag into the pot before closing the hinged lid. She brought the pot back to the counter and placed a slightly-crazed white porcelain cup next to it. "Anything else?"

"Do you have any meats or cheese, and possibly some bread as well?"

She chuckled. "You mean, like, a sandwich? Sure. There's not much left at the moment, but we've got some turkey and swiss cheese wraps, and tuna salad on whole wheat."

He considered for a moment before requesting the turkey and cheese, hoping that "wrap" meant there would be some sort of bread into the bargain. She opened the glass-front display cabinet under the counter and withdrew a cylindrical construction, placing it on a plate next to the teapot.

"Thank you - that's perfect," he said, even though he wasn't at all certain about the rolled-up poultry and cheese. "How much do I owe you for these?"

Her fingers flew over buttons on the cash register. "That's $7.53," she announced.

His right hand fumbled with something inside his jacket pocket for a moment, and then emerged with a ten-dollar bill for her to take. She slipped the bank note into a slot in the register and tendered his change. "Here's a tray," she said, putting his purchases onto the lipped, brown plastic. "Milk and sugar are over there, along with spoons and napkins and mayo or mustard, if you need it."

"Once again, thank you." He picked up the tray and carried it to the little counter which boasted jugs of milk and packets of sugar, selecting a spoon and several paper napkins to join the rest of the items on his tray. He filled a small paper cup with some of the milk from the jug, and extracted four packets of sugar from the basket which held them before carrying everything back over to the small table in the corner next to the vacant chair.

He quietly ate and drank, observing the torpid movements of the customers around him. The only bit of energy seemed to be coming from the girl behind the counter, who bustled about, cleaning and humming and organizing. She seemed orderly and focused, and he envied her for her simple industry. She was plainly dressed, but he could see that her shape was pleasantly feminine, and unlike the other women his eyes had encountered here, she wore a skirt, which ended at her knees. She had a sweet expression to her face, which again was at odds with the faces around her. She intrigued him in a casual way, and he found himself staring at her several times throughout the course of his meal.

The day had been a warm enough one, but as night fell, the temperature dropped and the air grew chilly. The lazy young man in the torn trousers lit a fire in the cast-iron stove, which sat in a corner of the room. The fire and the books lining the shelves made the traveler feel uncharacteristically cozy and comfortable, which were two things he hadn't been in longer than he cared to remember. Shaking his head, he fished around in another pocket of his jacket, pulling out a small, leather-bound journal and a stub of a pencil. He set to work making notes of the date, and the time, and what he'd observed of Blackbourne thus far.

He sat scribbling away for some time. Patrons came and went, keeping the level of noise fairly stable, and he found that he could easily concentrate as he wrote, which was another unexpected pleasure. When at last he'd finished with his notes, he placed the pencil on the table and closed the little journal. He knew he'd have to work out where to stay for the night, and come the morning, he'd be tasked with the onerous duty of establishing a life and a purpose for himself while he stayed here and waited for Circumstance to reveal itself.

The thought made him unspeakably tired. He fished around in his jacket once more, and produced a rather large gold pocket watch. At first glance, the watch appeared to be nothing extraordinary. The glass which covered the face was slightly scratched, and the roman numerals which marked the hours were slightly faded, but the hands on the dial were deepest black and announced the relentless march of minutes with authority. This watch had been his traveling companion, his guide and his comfort, his master and his servant, for a long, long while. He hated it, and he loved it, and he feared it, and he revered it.

Seized with a sudden and entirely selfish longing, he pressed a concealed button on the side of the bezel. The watch face flipped to reveal its other, hidden side, the side with a purpose which the man had sworn to conceal by all means necessary. His finger hovered over the hour wheel, and the minute wheel, the second wheel, and finally over several other, larger wheels which no ordinary watch contained. Would it be considered a crime, a forswearing of the oaths he'd taken, if he permitted himself one brief moment of comfort before the inevitable storm clouds gathered over his head and chased any chance of peace from the horizon? He was already on the outside of his previously blind loyalty, looking back at it with new and suspicious eyes.

His father had been fond of saying that wisdom might be measured in the fullness of time by the choices we make.

The fullness of time, and the choices we make. This is the line which separates happiness from misery, and the proper course of action from a foolish blunder.

He took a deep, ragged breath, and ran his index finger across the escapement mechanism, noting with ironic amusement that his finger sought something called an "impulse roller". When at last he encountered it, he surrendered to temptation and pushed down, once.

The motion and noise around him abruptly ceased. Hands hoisting coffee cups to lips remained suspended in mid-air. The flames in the cast-iron stove froze solid, a suddenly icy fire. This moment was entirely his to command, and had he wished to, he might have done any one of a thousand dastardly things with the power. As it was, he only wanted to stay for a brief moment in this comfortable place that currently asked him for nothing. He wanted to stay and be selfish, just for a moment, just for the briefest possible sliver of time. But of course, as was its custom, Circumstance chose the brief sliver of time to reveal itself in all its complex and frightening glory. Everything around the man was still and dead, and yet everything had suddenly changed.

Because the girl behind the counter, with her back to the room and her mind on her cleaning, kept right on moving. And in her impossible motion, the man recognized the form of Circumstance at work.

# # #

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Let's Talk About Sex

This is an updated version of a guest blog post I did for Edwardville last year.

I want to talk about lemons in fan fic today. Lemons are always good, right? I mean, even the not-so-great lemons are better than no lemons at all for most of us. Interestingly, this is pretty much the case in real life as well, but I'm not here to talk about real life. So, lemons in fan fic. Yeah. If you've read anything I've written in this fandom, you might already know where I stand on the subject of sex when I'm writing it. I rely very heavily on the emotion of the moment and really don't focus on the anatomical gymnastics required of the act, for several reasons, really. The first is that I'm going to assume if you're reading it, you're old enough and experienced enough to know which body parts are involved and what goes where, and the second is that when you're writing a story about two characters who are falling in love, the physical action must always take a back seat to the emotions surrounding it, because it's not hot if you just say "I love you" "Oh, I love you too!" and let them get down to business. At least, I don't think it's hot, or if it is hot, it could be so much hotter if you paid more attention to the feelings than the gymnastics.

Another thing you'll probably notice is that I work very, very hard to avoid using any of the clichés traditionally employed in lemony scenes. You will never, EVER see me write a sex scene which includes words like "core", or "slit", or any of the other crazy words people seem to like to use to describe the happy place on a female body. I'm not an apple - I don't have a core, and there are so many other words I'd personally rather have associated with what lives inside my ladybush. Hey, good sex is all about being creative, so if you're going to write a lemon, search around for different and unique ways to describe what's going on. Yes, I know that there are only so many words in the English language for the basic function, but I'm talking more about trying to marry the emotion to the action. Try not to be all "missionary" about your lemon, relying only on what others have done before in order to make the sex happen and move on with the story. This is a big moment for your characters if they're falling in love. Take a minute to think about what's going on in their heads. They're probably nervous, and a little shy, and maybe a bit insecure, and likely totally gonzo with lust, and knowing that this moment changes everything between them COMPLETELY. Great sex is a total head/heart/body festival of wonders - if one of those things isn't engaged in the process, you've got a problem.

If you've never written a sex scene before, it's intimidating as hell. It's just about as intimidating as having actual sex for the first time, and you come to it with many of the same insecurities, which is kind of funny. For many fic writers, this is kind of what it sounds like in your head when you're preparing to write your first lemon: "Will this be hot? Do I know enough about sex to make it good for the audience? What if what I think is hot is really not hot at all? I don't swing from chandeliers in my real life, so I don't know anything at all about the Tong Position or ben-wa balls or any of that other freaky crap. That stuff scares me. Do I need any of that in order to make people sweat when they read my sex scene? I should probably study up on sex a bit before I write this. God, that stuff from "The Office" or "Master of the Universe" is so unbelievably hot - I don't think I could ever write anything that scorching. Also, I'm kind of a private person when it comes to sex, and I'm embarrassed as hell to even think these words, let alone try to write them. I can't do this. Maybe I'll just borrow little bits and pieces from what other writers have done and kind of cobble that together to make my own scene. They clearly know more about this than I do. They're probably all kinds of crazy in their real lives, while my husband/partner/whatever and I have a pretty set routine that works for both of us and we've never even considered exploring the swinger's club that everyone says some people in this neighborhood have formed. Ugh."

Here's what I'm going to say to those writers: relax. Fic sex is just like real sex in that if you don't relax, you won't enjoy it. Have some fun. Think about what would totally turn you on, and then write that. If you're not comfortable using graphic imagery, that will absolutely translate in your writing, so don't even attempt it in the beginning. And again, as is the case in real life, don't expect your first time to be your best time, because this stuff takes a little practice. As long as you're going into the thing for the right reasons, as long as your characters are ready for that step, it'll be good. And they could be ready for that in the first paragraph of your first chapter, or in the last paragraph of Chapter 37. It all depends on who they are and why they're doing what they're doing. Pull the trigger when it's time - you'll know the same way you knew when you lost your virginity in real life.

You might want to avoid the issue altogether, and take the easy route by cutting directly to the morning after. Honestly, this is cheating, and you know better (even if it's canon for Twi and you think you can argue that point). If you're writing about adults in a romantic relationship, sex is invariably going to be part of that equation. You need to challenge yourself to deal with it, and work through your discomfort in order to arrive at a solution that works for you and doesn't cheat the characters or the readers. Consummation is important. It's part of the process in a romantic relationship, and skipping over it leads to a whole lot of "what the heck was that?" reviews for you. Be your characters. As I keep saying in this blog, you are the only source of oxygen they have, so really give them the emotions and sensations and thoughts they need in order to have a good time when they're finally naked with each other.

If you're not writing, and just reading what other people have written, be kind about it. This is not easy for many writers to put out there, and obviously, not everyone's idea of what smokes the brain and curls the toes is going to be your cup of tea. If you think you can do better, give it a try and stop being all "I can't believe how LAME that was" about it. You'll either flame out and get a little humble, or write a lemon so unbelievably en fuego that everyone who reads it will explode from the sheer ecstasy generated by your descriptive powers. Neither one of these two scenarios is a bad outcome as far as I'm concerned.

Once you get the hang of writing lemons in YOUR style, they're actually really fun. They are so fun that it'll be tough to kick your characters out of bed and make 'em eat, or put their clothes back on, or go to work and pretend that they are NOT spending the entire day thinking about how great it was to be horizontal (or vertical, or whatever) with each other. But do kick them out of bed and make them live a life which includes underwear and friendly, non-sexual interaction with other people. The bed will always be there and you can bring them back to it whenever you need to. If you don't incorporate the sex into a larger framework, it gets repetitive and the reader rapidly loses interest, no matter how "hot" you make it. It becomes a matter of "Ugh, he's bending her over. Again. Yawn. This time she's wearing black lace; last time, it was blue latex."

Another thing to consider is the dialogue involved in a sex scene. Do you spend all of your sexy time chatting away with your partner? Probably not, because your attention is hopefully elsewhere. Really look at the situation you've created for your characters, and who your characters ARE, when you're writing dialogue during sex. Would shy, nerdy Edward be all porny in his dialogue when he finally gets the Bella of his dreams naked? Would tough, cold businessman Edward go all mushy and "I love you I love you I love you" just because she gave it up? Unless you're writing for comic effect, lots of chitter-chatter and out-of-character dialogue during sex is just kind of distracting, and takes away from the emotional gravity of the moment. When in doubt, less is more. Character progression doesn't begin and end in the bedroom (or kitchen counter, or shower, or wherever the heck else it is people get their freak on). Sex is just one part of the big picture, unless the soundtrack to which you're writing features nothing but a wah-wah pedal.

So, have some sex. Have some good sex, and some honest sex, and some fun sex, and some meaningful sex, and some angry sex, and some dirty sex, and some sweet sex, and some "ouch, I think I sprained something vital" sex. Go for it; but while you do, try to keep in mind who you are, and who your characters are, and the other stuff you need to accomplish in your story!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Plot Thickens

Evilgiraffe commented on the previous post to this blog, wondering about how to go about plotting a story. I love the name evilgiraffe, because giraffes ARE evil, even though they look at you with those enormous brown eyes and pretend that all they need to be happy are some tasty leaves. They're tall. Tall things make me nervous. Wait — we were talking about plots, and I need to put my mistrust of wildlife on the back burner for a minute, because it's not really relevant here. Or is it?

This has happened to every single one of us, I'm betting: you go to a party/family gathering/work or school function of some kind. You're standing around, minding your own business, when someone rolls up on you and starts recounting an anecdote in great detail. You try to listen to them and follow along, and when they reach the end of their tale, your internal brow gathers in a frown, and you think 'That's it? What was the point of that whole story?' And that's an example of a poorly-plotted story, right there. If the audience doesn't see the point when it's reached its conclusion, you haven't plotted well.

You don't want to be that person who tells an anecdote without a point, which means that you need to plan a coherent story arc. There are many schools of thought on how to go about this, but some basic rules apply, so let's examine those.

A story with engrossing dramatic tension needs several things: at least one character with whom the reader can identify; a catalyst for change that's presented to that character; a hurdle/impediment the character must overcome in order to change; a moment of truth in which the character triumphs over that hurdle/impediment; and the cool-off/denouement, during which the reader gets some measure of resolution.

Now, not every story arc presents itself in such a neat and orderly fashion. Some stories require several moments of truth as a bit of a learning curve for the character, or several minor crises leading up to a larger crisis. Some stories present the reader with a lead character who isn't especially sympathetic (I mean, look at Wuthering Heights, for crying out loud). Some stories offer a catalyst for change that isn't especially attractive (our hero is passed over for a promotion at work, for example, and decides to rob banks for a living because he's tired of being ignored).

So let's begin with one of the simplest and most often-used structures: divide the story into four parts, and call those parts "quarters". The first quarter of the story should be introduction and exposition. The reader meets the main protagonist, who will serve as the emotional tour guide for the story. We learn about who this character is, how and where they live, maybe what they're missing or the lesson they need to learn. Toward the end of the first quarter, we're introduced to the catalyst for change. That introduction sets up the escalating tension and increased tension in the second and third quarters of the story. Usually, there's at least one "crisis" somewhere between the second and third quarters as the story action escalates—think of that crisis as a landing on a flight of stairs. It breaks up the rising action and provides the reader with a moment to look around and figure out where they are in the story progression.

After the mid-point crisis, the action slows down a touch early in the third quarter, then starts to sharply rise again as we enter the fourth quarter and head toward the climax of the story. A brief denouement or resolution follows that climax, and you're done.

If you want to analyze this construction using one of my things, I'm game. In The Port Angeles Players, the story opens with Bella offering us an "easy in" to her life story via an internal monologue about how she comes to be in Forks. We learn that she was inexplicably dumped by Jake, and that Alice convinced her to move to Forks for a fresh start. The introduction of the catalyst for change happens right there in the first chapter when she sees Edward. It's there so early because frankly, I was lazy, and didn't bother revealing Bella's backstory in any kind of natural way—I just kind of threw it at the reader up front. I'd rewrite it, but again, lazy :-) I wanted to play with dialogue and form more than I wanted to be neat about the thing. It's no excuse. I suck, and I'm sorry.

The vehicle that my catalyst Edward drives is the play that he and Bella are involved with. So they get to know each other over the course of the play, and they get to explore the various challenges they each face when it comes to falling in love. The mid-point crisis occurs when Edward's slightly shady past is revealed to Bella. Then we sort of cruise along, and I distract you with relationship things while I introduce a potential crisis with James, which I've sort of vaguely hinted at from the second quarter onward. The James subplot blossoms in the fourth quarter, the action climaxes with the performance of the play, and then I wrap it up in three chapters of denouement and close the story with a zinger to Jake in order to complete the circle.

So, to recap:

First Quarter: Bella's backstory and how she came to be in Forks. She sees Edward. She agrees to audition for the play, where she is again confronted with Edward. Rehearsals begin, and Bella and Edward get to know each other better (chapters 1 - 8)

Second Quarter: Bella and Edward consummate their attraction and begin to develop more profound feelings for each other. Bella is honest with Edward about her history and her fears, but Edward holds back because he doesn't want Bella to think he views her the way he's viewed the women in his life thus far. (chapters 9 - 13)

Chapter 14: mid-point crisis, in which Edward's secrets are revealed

Third Quarter: Bella and Edward discuss and resolve the tension regarding his past, and their relationship progresses and matures. The James subplot begins to sneak into the narrative. (chapters 15 - 20)

Fourth Quarter: Bella meets Edward's parents. The play is staged, and the James subplot unfolds at the climax of the action. Denouement and resolution follow, and Bella has her revenge on Jake. (chapters 21 - 26).

And so that's a basic story arc. I could have wrapped this story up in about twenty chapters, but I bowed to fanfic convention and offered chapters with Edward's POV, which served to slow the pace a little, even though I tried to keep things moving along at a reasonable clip. Because TPAP is a screwball comedy, there's not a ton of heavy conflict involved. However, a reader should be able to follow a clear progression for the characters, and the plot needs to sustain forward motion even in the lightest comedy.

How do you plot your own story using a structure like this? You need to break your story down into bullet-points, as I did above. Note that story quarters often won't divide neatly, but they should come close. So if Bella is your main protagonist, maybe your story looks like this:

First quarter: Chapter 1 - 5 Introduce Bella. Tell us who she is, what she does, where she is, and what she wants. Tell us who she interacts with. Tell us a bit about her history. Create a secondary point of tension (job? school? friend? family?). Toward the end of this quarter, introduce the catalyst/main point of tension or dramatic conflict.

Second quarter: Chapter 6 - 10 Bella reacts to the catalyst. Initial discomfort gives way to curiosity, which prompts investigation and exploration. Secondary point of tension builds, prompting a confrontation of some kind. Continue to develop Bella's surroundings and explore how the catalyst affects these.

Mid-point crisis: Chapter 11 Secondary point of tension reaches climax

Third quarter: Chapter 12 - 16 Secondary point of tension resolved. Catalyst/main point of tension further explored, and tension builds as this quarter reaches the final chapter or two.

Fourth quarter: Chapter 17 - 21 Main point of tension reaches climax and is resolved. Final chapter or two provides clarity and closure, and resolves most important questions.

If you're just starting out, and the story you have in mind is a pretty straightforward one, keep it as simple as possible. It's very, very difficult to sustain compelling dramatic tension for more than ten to fifteen 5k-word chapters with only one point of conflict. So, if Bella is a shy high-school junior, and she longs for Edward, who is a popular senior, don't drag it out. Build up the tension for ten chapters, reach a single dramatic climax (get your minds out of the gutter) around chapter eleven or twelve, and then resolve the story in the final few chapters. The less room you give yourself, the less likelihood you'll cripple the dramatic tension. I'd much rather read a six-chapter story that's tightly-plotted than an eighty-chapter affair that wanders all over the place, even if the writing is so lovely that it makes me sob with pleasure. If you're serious about writing and hoping to have an original work published one day, know that tight plotting is an absolute must.

You don't have to plot out every blessed thing, but every chapter you write should serve a purpose when it comes to advancing the storyline. And by "serve a purpose", I don't mean that having Bella shop for a dress is enough to sustain an entire chapter, even if she'll wear the dress to a party at which she first meets Edward. Something needs to happen in every chapter—something significant, something that changes things for your protagonist. It can be action or a revelation, but something needs to happen in order to climb the stair to the next part of the story.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sheherazade Versus the Parrot

Let's back up for a second, because I mentioned something in that post down there about betas that's probably worth discussing as a separate matter: the authorial voice. What is it? Why do I need it? Who has one, and where can I find one?

In the plainest possible terms, an authorial voice is the way you tell a story. Pick two of your favorite mass-market-published authors. Got 'em? Okay, then: if you read one chapter by the first author, and one chapter by the second author, you notice that both of them are telling stories you love, but they sound nothing like one another. One writer might use a strict economy of words, while another one is happy to spend some time laying out minute details in front of a reader. And that's an authorial voice. Your characters (if properly developed) will all sound distinct as well, but it's the stuff that goes in-between the dialogue that determines your authorial voice.

Take an exchange between a man and a woman out to dinner at a restaurant. The first author might say something like this:

"I don't know why you bring me here," she said. "I don't like it, and you know that."

The rich red tablecloth reminded her of blood, of bloody steaks on order, because he would insist that well-done meat was money wasted. In the distant past, she might have argued her preference, but lately, fatigue called the shots, and so she offered the weakest, most obvious truth she had, then sat back to observe how he'd go about organizing her life for her.

The second author might say something like this:

"I don't know why you bring me here," she said. "I don't like it, and you know that."

He always did this, taking control and assuming things. It was annoying and obnoxious, and now he'd probably just order her dinner for her without even asking what she wanted first. Why couldn't she just say 'no' for once? Why was everything with him such a fight? She was so tired of being good, and yet too tired to be anything else at the moment.

The same thing is happening in both examples, but the authorial voice behind them is completely different. The first is a more lyrical voice, while the second is a more emotional and personal voice. And both of those styles are perfectly fine, along with an untold million other styles. Your task as an author is to figure out what your voice is, and how you convey the "facts" in the most persuasive and authentic way possible.

We've all read things that were written in a style we'd love to be able to reproduce. For me, nothing is more gorgeous than the Spartan prose of Margaret Atwood, because she is the most brutal self-editor I've ever seen, and every single thing she leaves on the page absolutely must be there. She doesn't cart around one superfluous word. That's quite a trick, because she still has to tell a story in a compelling way, but she doesn't let herself hide behind her words.

As much as I love that about her, I could never hope to reproduce it in my own writing, and the fact that I can't doesn't make me (or you!) incompetent. We just need more words to tell our story than she does.

Trying to emulate a style of writing you admire usually leads to either sad or just plain comical results. Instead, spend your time really considering how you are most comfortable telling a story. Analyze your writing to discover what you feel compelled to reveal, and the rhythm and tone you use to reveal those things. Do you focus on external details, or do you camp out in a character's feelings? Is your style poetic, or is it gritty and steeped in raw data? Your responsibility as an author is to tell a story in the most compelling possible way. Pretend that you are Sheherazade, and that telling this story is the only way you can stop the King from killing you. Obviously, if your life is on the line, you're going to make an effort to spin an engaging tale, right? Unless you listen to a lot of Depeche Mode and Morrissey, in which case, you'll keep it simple and welcome oblivion.

You want to be Sheherazade for your readers. You want to draw them in and mesmerize them, and make it impossible for them to click the little "x" at the top of the browser tab. If you're wearing a costume when you write, and trying to be something inauthentic, the reader KNOWS it. Be yourself— your most engaging and mesmerizing self. Don't be a poet if you're not a poet. Don't be "street" if you're not street. Don't use words you don't understand just to sound "smart". Be yourself. I promise, you're more than good enough all on your own.

We've all read stories that have left us with the feeling that the author is merely transcribing and reciting "facts" without injecting any soul or life into the prose. I don't care what's happening in the story—if the authorial voice is flat and dull, no amount of plot action can compensate for it. An author who is just parroting action is deadly dull to read, in the same way that an author who is parroting another writer's style is difficult and occasionally embarrassing to read. Having no authorial voice is as bad as having a false authorial voice.

As I said elsewhere in this blog, you are the sole source of oxygen and life for your story. If it's going to feel like a living, breathing thing, you need to inject your soul in there somewhere. It's what makes writing so difficult, because you are forced to expose bits and pieces of your innermost self in order to do the thing and do it well. You have to actually feel the action, and express that feeling in a visceral way. There's a world of difference between saying Bella quietly closed her bedroom door and cried hard because she was upset, and Bella quietly closed the bedroom door and sobbed until every muscle in her body ached from the effort. Both statements might be true, but in the first one, you're only getting facts. In the second, you're getting the actual experience for the character. We've all (presumably) cried. We know what it feels like, right? You need to use those experiences when you're writing; it involves risking something personal, but the reward is a story that actually rings true.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Let's Get Real

Hi! I thought maybe today we could discuss the issue of researching background for your story. It's important, and possibly not for the reasons you might think.

When you have an idea for a story, as a general rule, you are more focused on and excited about what happens between and among the characters than you are on and about the specifics of the world in which they live. I mean, who the heck gets all turned on and stoked about what lawyer Bella's office looks and feels and sounds like? Why would you care that law school takes three years post-undergraduate-degree to finish if you're a full-time student in the US, which means that unless Bella is a legal Doogie Howser, she's probably about twenty-four years old by the time she's out of school and taking the bar exam? Or that doctor Edward might have attended Dartmouth's combined program and fast-tracked his way through undergrad course requirements in three years? What's the big deal about the fact that Forks is fifty miles away from Port Angeles? Who will honestly notice if the characters in your New York City story drive everywhere instead of taking the subway or cabs? You just want to get on with the action, and are really pretty tempted to either gloss over the finer points or to just drop whatever sounds good to you in there and hope that it works.

Researching isn't sexy, but without it, the world you construct for your characters is flat and dull, and the reader can't trust that these people exist in a real space. Fudge the details too much, and you shortchange the characters, the story, and the readers.

People will tell you to write what you know. And that's fine advice, but I think you should write whatever the heck interests and motivates you, PROVIDED that you're willing to devote adequate amounts of time to building a plausible universe for the people who will live there. You can write about astronauts, or doctors, or cowboys, or beauty-pageant winners. Why not? I see no earthly reason for you to limit yourself to only writing about occupations and worlds with which you have first-hand experience. Blech. Booooring. You live in a digital age, and don't have to spend a zillion hours harassing the reference desk at your local library for details on things like medical school programs. It's all there, right in front of you, on your computer screen. You don't need to trust Wiki for this, because you can actually poll real people who live where you want your characters to live, and who do what you want your characters to do. There is a forum somewhere out there for absolutely EVERYTHING. Visit Dartmouth's website if you want to know about their medical degree programs. Visit Sperling's Best Places if you want first-hand accounts of what life is like in New York, or Port Angeles, or almost anywhere else.

See, it's not enough to merely say that a character lives somewhere or does something as an occupation. Your readers want to immerse themselves in the world you create, and in order for them to do so, you have to give that world a rich texture. This is not to say that you need to spend thousands of words describing the world in painful and excruciating detail; I can't speak for any other readers out there, but I don't require so much detail that I feel as though I could take over whatever job the character is doing and move into her house. It's all about choosing enough important details so that your writing comes across as confident. Your character will take certain things for granted, and since you live in your character's head, you should take them for granted as well. Don't treat these things as "new facts" in your writing; treat them as though they are comfortable and worn-in facts. For example, if you character is a teacher, you don't need to explain what a seating chart is, but you should have the character scan the seating chart to see if Lauren Mallory is in this class. The teacher knows what a seating chart is for, and the confidence in that knowledge is what makes your reader believe that the character is actually a teacher. So, rather than say "I reached into my briefcase and pulled out the chart that showed me where every student was sitting, noting with relief that Lauren Mallory was not among them," you can say "A quick scan of the seating chart showed me that Lauren Mallory wasn't in this class, and I breathed a sigh of relief."

Imagine your characters sitting (or standing, as the case might be) in their place of employ. What are they seeing? What are they saying? What is being said back to them? What would they notice as cues that would require some kind of action or response from them, and how would they respond to those cues? What sort of jargon would they use with their coworkers? What is generally annoying about the job, and what makes it fun or engaging, if anything? How do they spend their day? You can take a few little liberties, but in the main, you should be able to offer your reader a realistic "feel" for the environment, and if you don't have first-hand experience, that can only be achieved through research.

Once you've firmly established the walls and floors and general sense of the world, you don't need to keep revisiting it chapter after chapter. The same goes for establishing geography. If you're writing about Seattle, for example, actually take some time to study the place. How do people get from one side of town to the other? Where do they shop? Where do they live? Once again, you can take a little artistic license, and by all means feel free to invent things like restaurants and street names, but you should have a basic sense of the place before you start to write it into your world. For example, five minutes' worth of research will inform you that there's a Subway restaurant in Forks, but no McDonald's. The population hovers around the 3k mark, so it's not a hotbed of retail activity (I mean, no malls, you know?). It does not, to the best of my knowledge, boast a large and super-hip nightclub. It is a small town, and if you start adding a bunch of big town/city elements to the place, you destroy the vibe and take the reader out of the story as a result. Yes, it's inconvenient that the people of Forks need to schlep up to PA in order to visit a Wal-Mart or a Costco, but on the other hand, isn't it wonderful that Forks only has two traffic lights and is surrounded by beautiful nature?

Alternately, you can just invent a place. Fictional towns and cities are wonderful because they can just become whatever you need them to be, and nobody can complain about them. However, if you go that route, try to create a place that is realistic, as opposed to merely convenient. Small towns generally don't have upscale malls. Big cities generally don't have single-family homes with detached garages in the downtown area. If the story is compelling, the reader will willingly suspend their disbelief on any number of things, but you need to create an environment that makes some kind of sense.

You are the one-person welcome-wagon for your readership. You invite them into your story, and ask them to pull up a chair and stay for the duration. Did you give them cozy armchairs, or those molded plastic affairs? Your readers will be as comfortable there as you let them be, and these details provide the cushion that creates the comfort. A thoughtful author, like a thoughtful host, anticipates the needs of the guests involved, so serve your readers enough tasty, nutrient-rich facts and details to keep their minds from rumbling, but not so much that they beg for mercy and develop indigestion.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Your Beta and You: An Owner's Manual

As you are likely aware if you're reading this, I beta a lot of people here in Twific. I love everything I beta, and I think I'm extremely lucky to be working with so many talented, strong writers. It's fun to find that balance between accepted elements of style and an author's individual voice, because despite what you might have heard, editing for fiction is a healthy compromise between science and art, and if you edit with strict adherence to Strunk and White, you run the risk of killing a writer's rhythm.

So, you're writing. Maybe it's something you've never attempted before, and you spent the majority of your time in English class passing notes to your friends and wishing you had the kind of telekinetic power that could force the minute-hand of the clock on the wall to move from 11:00 to 11:55 in the blink of an eye. You missed some stuff about the difference between a comma and a semicolon, and Cliff Notes didn't explain things like Nigel Watts' "eight-point story arc" to you with any degree of clarity. Forget hyphens - I mean, Jesus, those things are annoying, and the rules are ridiculous. Sure, you studied, but what you primarily chose to study were your fingernails or the split-ends in your hair. You had no plans to write fiction at any point in your life, because fiction seemed about as useful to you as algebra. Karma hates you now, boy, because here you are, with a story to tell, and no English teacher standing by, waiting for you to raise your hand with a question about the difference between "who" and "whom".

You realize that you are in need of a beta. Everyone talks about theirs, and if they've got one they really love, you look on with the same jealousy you might once have reserved for that friend who got a great new car, or that annoying couple down the street who've been married for ten years and still hold hands and make goo-goo eyes at each other. You want that kind of relationship with a beta. You want a beta who is going to make you look good, and who is going to make what you write look pretty. There are only two things amiss with your plan to get the right beta for yourself: the first is that you have no real idea what a beta should do, and the second is that you have no idea where to find this "perfect" beta.

Let's talk about what a beta should do. There are no hard-and-fast rules, here, so let's talk instead about general things an author might need from an extra (and hopefully, more experienced) set of eyes. Obviously, a beta should be pretty clear on the rules of punctuation and grammar. I mean, they don't need to be able to define a past-perfect tense at the drop of a hat (no - I take that back, because they really should be able to do that. Past perfect in English just involves the word "had", as in "I had paid attention in English class when the teacher talked about tenses."), but they should have some kind of grip on things. They should be able to proofread for spelling errors and general usage (reign/rein, waste/waist, your/you're, et.al.). But in addition to these, a good beta should be available to discuss any concerns you might have about things like plot construction and character development. They should be able to helicopter over your story and spot potential shoals and riptides.

I don't know how anyone else does it, so I'll tell you how I approach the position of beta. I'm not here to write your story for you, because that's your job. I take the craft of writing very seriously, and I know that you'll never develop your own authorial voice if I'm constantly getting in the middle of things and forcing you to view the story through my eyes, with my voice. You need to make mistakes in order to learn from them. Instead, I will generally wait for you to come to me with your concerns. "Does this make sense? Does this work? Do you understand why the character chose to act this way?" Those are all questions I'm thrilled to get from an author. In return, I will ask questions like "Who is your character? What motivates him/her? What does he/she want from this situation? What does he/she fear?" I ask those questions because again, if you've properly developed your characters, the answers to these questions will go a long way toward guiding you to the right answers to the questions you've just asked me.

So, no, I won't tell you what to do with your story. It's your story, not mine - I'm merely functioning en loco parentis as a bit of a foster mom. If I see what strikes me as a glaring omission or wildly out-of-character behavior in the story, I will mention it without being prompted. I will call you out on clichés, and encourage you to find a more original way to express a thought. I will correct any grammatical and usage errors I find, and try to strike that aforementioned balance between academic punctuation and the art of storytelling. I'll talk to you about things like dialogue tags and meta-monologue (of course I'll tell you what a meta-monologue is, because I can see you're curious: it's the internal monologue a character has in which he or she wonders something "big" and more comprehensive about the world or his/her place in it, i.e. "My mother never hugged me as a child. Do all children who grow up without physical affection learn to fear and mistrust it as adults?").

Okay, it's your turn, now: what are you looking for in a beta? Go in with a clear idea. Do you need someone to sit with you while you draft an outline and talk through plot points with you? Do you need someone to just focus on style and grammar and leave the rest up to you? Do you want someone who will hold you to a strict production schedule and demand weekly updates from you? How much contact are you expecting to have with your beta? How quickly do you expect your beta to be able to turn a chapter around and get it back to you? Do you think you'll need to go through several drafts of each chapter, or are you a "one and done" kind of writer? Do you want your beta to pick apart your characterizations with you? Are you looking for a beta who would be willing to function almost in the role of co-author or close collaborator? How hard do you want to be pushed? How honest do you want your beta to be? Are you a fan of tough-love, or kid-glove?

Seriously, make a shopping list. WRITE IT DOWN, AND BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF.

Once you have your shopping list, where do you go to find this awesome beta? Of course, you can start with Project Team Beta and Twicounsel, both of which exist to help novice writers jump in and start swimming around the fic pool. They're there to make it easy for you, which is incredibly nice of them. If, however, you're a maverick and want to find your own way, there are several tried-and-true methods. The first is obviously to find someone who is a fan of the genre of story you're planning to write. Don't look at the angst crowd if your story is a fluffy one. Don't hit up the AU crowd if your story involves human teenagers. Don't romance someone who writes T-rated fic if you're planning to get your characters naked a lot. Want to write slash or Bellsper? Stay away from the canon-couple crowd and hardcore B/E shippers. It's challenging enough to find a good beta fit: don't shoot yourself in the foot by attempting to date outside your species.

Once you've figured out which group you need to target, look at everyone involved: authors who write in that genre; eloquent reviewers of stories you love; and beta profiles that specifically list the kind of interests which march alongside those in your proposed story. It's obvious to go for authors, but there are literally HUNDREDS of fantastic reviewers who could easily beta for you. Read reviews for stories.

When you have a target or two, spend some time discussing your plans with them. Ask them to be honest with you, and let them know that there are no hard feelings if they find they can't commit to the project. Be gracious, because you're asking for help, and nobody's under any obligation to give it to you. Look for a combination of skills and enthusiasm. You might not find both in the same person, so it's possible that you'll end up with two or even three betas, who will go over your work with an eye toward different elements of the thing. Decide for yourself how much of their input you'll accept, because in the same way that they are not obligated to offer it, you are not obligated to take it. Betas offer suggestions and help - if you encounter a beta who gets butt-hurt when you don't accept their advice, you're probably best off finding another beta. Good betas put their egos aside to give you the help YOU need, not the validation THEY crave.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't be grateful for their help and advice, because you should. Being a beta is often a bit of a thankless task, because the author gets all the glory in the form of reviews, while the beta sits there on the sidelines and is left to bask in the quiet knowledge that they had a hand in your success. It is for this reason that you should always remember to thank your beta. Make a fuss. They volunteer their time and their care to help make your story a better one, so acknowledge them whenever and wherever you can. Not doing so is the rough equivalent of Hilary Swank accepting her Oscar and neglecting to thank Chad Lowe for being her husband. DUDE. That's wrong, and it's also probably the reason why they're no longer married. I'm just guessing, because it's not as though they told me about their reasons for the divorce.