Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Blog Hopping Meme

E.M. LaBonte from The Realms of a Fantastical Mind tagged me in one of the latest blog games so here are the questions and answers. Enjoy!

1. What is your dream vacation?
To spend two or three months touring Europe. I’d like some train travel to be in there and a variety of accommodations. There are too many places I’d love to research or visit for fun. I’m more of the active traveler rather than a shopper or beach lounger. I like experiences and learning things.
2. Are you spontaneous or do you like to plan ahead?
I tend to be a planner but that doesn’t mean I’m never spontaneous.
3. Tell us one thing you want to do but don’t dare to do.
Only one thing? Um, okay. Become a literary agent. There are reasons why I won’t, but I think it would be a fun job.
4. Your biggest phobia?
Not being able to protect my family.
5. If you were stranded on a desert island – what 3 things would you want with you (not including laptop, or family).
A good book on chemistry, tools, and sewing kit.
6. Name three blessings in your life.
My family, education, and friends with a sense of humor.
7. What was your nickname in High School?
8. If you could meet the President of the United States, what would you say to him?
Probably, “Hi, how are you?” like I would anyone else.
9. If you could be any literary character for a day, who would you be?
My own characters—too many to choose.
Other people’s characters—Vesper Holly. She gets to do all the exciting things that I don’t.
10. What is your favorite quote?
“Boredom isn’t a condition, it’s a choice.” Anonymous

Tag seven other bloggers:
Peter Burton
Tracy Jorgensen
Ian Isaro
Angie Sandro
Stephanie Diaz
DB Graves

Here are the questions so you can cut and paste:
Blog Hopping Meme

1. What is your dream vacation?
2. Are you spontaneous or do you like to plan ahead?
3. Tell us one thing you want to do but don’t dare to do.
4. Your biggest phobia?
5. If you were stranded on a desert island – what 3 things would you want with you (not including laptop, or family).
6. Name three blessings in your life.
7. What was your nickname in High School?
8. If you could meet the President of the United States, what would you say to him?
9. If you could be any literary character for a day, who would you be?
10. What is your favorite quote?

Tag seven other bloggers

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Little Personality

There's always another gimmick out there. Another "well let's twist this genre in this direction this time" approach to plotting. It gets formulaic pretty fast. For example:

The Journey/Quest (classic storyline):
1. TJ + lost heir + evil overlord
2. TJ + mystical talisman + elves
3. TJ + band of thieves + dragons
4. TJ + complex magic system + lost utopian land

Dystopian future (popular storyline these days):
1. DF + plague + evil regime
2. DF + mystical old technology + mind readers
3. DF + nomadic society + mutated animals
4. DF + controlled society + rebellious movement

That's the neat thing about basic story structure, getting to play with it. The thing to watch out for is making sure you're not spending all your energy on the twists and gimmicks. Give the reader some good characters to bond with.

Not just high concept characters with heroic attributes, we need personality. I don't know if it's fear of not coming across politically correct or neutral or catering to the supposed stereotypes that are popular (such as the bad-girl heroine or the sarcastic teen) but I've seen a dearth of personality both in unpublished and published stories. All the weight of promotion is thrown after plot gimmicks or twists and while we can marvel at the writer's brilliance with such, afterwards, the characters of all those books meld together in a rather bland stew. Am I the only one who gets an "I've read about you before" feeling?

I struggle to think of a single character I've read in the last five years who really stands out for having both a memorable personality and likeability. (Some characters have come close.) Villains get better personalities sometimes than the heroes. Sidekicks will even tout more characterization, which causes another issue in that they can take over the story because of it. Is it so bad to have a heroic character with a personality disorder, a speech impediment, stranger ideas of how society should work, or a practical joker? Can that tough heroine ever chill enough to be vulnerable or even better, hilarious? Can that teen on the cusp of radical discovery within your world ever do anything silly or clumsy—on purpose? Why are we so serious all the time with our protagonists?

Think about your favorite characters (not plot devices) in books and films. Why do they stand out to you? What is it you love about them? What makes their conflicts so much better because of their personality?

Of course, this brings up the issue of stereotypes. Yes, characters can be cookie-cutter. I think that comes from a lack of personality too. We can assign traits or flaws to characters, but their personality (their actual character) defines how they react, how they think, what they say, and what they decide.

So say you want to make your protagonist a fairytale princess. Okay. Automatically you know what goes into that type of character based on stereotypes. Let's say you assign her a flaw, like a limp or a lisp. That breaks the stereotypical mold a little. Now analyze her personality. Not just things you'd like her to be angsty or excited about, but really think about what makes her tick. Look at her as a person more than as a stock character princess. What does she want and why? What does she do that makes her stand out not only from other princesses but from all the other characters in the story? What is she willing to do to achieve her goals and better yet, what isn't she willing to do? If she's forced into a situation where she must do something she never wants to do, how is her personality going to react, adapt or fail?

Stock characters are easy. Characters with personality take more time and loving care to craft. I think it's a pity when I read a book or see a movie where the plot twists and gimmicks are clever, but the characters fall flat on their little stock faces. Characterization will stay with an audience longer than a plot will. Give your audience characters that stand out and even better, that they can love, and they'll come back. Not only for other books, but also to re-read the stories you've already created. A story someone will come back to over and over again usually becomes a classic and doesn't die-out in the flames of the next big thing. While consistent story output is good to develop a brand and keep that brand alive, quality of the product will do a whole lot more.

Don't be afraid to let your characters be somebody. No, not everyone may like your non-stock character but others will love them. Even the haters will find they will remember your character long after they've forgotten cardboard cut-out characters from their favorite plot-driven stories. Have fun, enjoy the writing process here. Well-built characters tend to make the writing flow better and you'll not need to sit back and wonder what they would do in any given circumstance. Don't stress over making your hero or heroine sound and behave just like the characters in (insert popular or classic story.) There may be only a handful of basic storylines but there are billions of diverse people out there.

Let your characters work hard for you after the book is closed (or turned off, as the case may be.) You want them to haunt the thoughts of your audience. Make them memorable. Give them a personality.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Genre Identified #2: Steampunk

Steampunk ranges close to Alternate History in that is is a type of alternate history, usually around the time period of Victorian England in which the civilizations then have access to more modern technology. Sometimes this technology ranges amid the fantastical but overall, it tends to lean towards science-fiction rather than fantasy. Paranormal-romance in a steampunk setting has been popular lately, which shows that steampunk can genre-hop and is by no means locked in to a tight parameter.

The Galaxy Express has a great article on steampunk and gives some examples of the genre.

Goodreads list of Best Steampunk books.

Tor.com hosts The Steampunk Workshop with articles, book examples, and such to help you understand the genre more.

Do you write or read steampunk? What's your favorite steampunk novel or author?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Because You Love It—Great! Now Rewrite It.

I’m speaking from the good old editing trenches today, having reached another earmark in mental progress, I believe. I’ve crossed The Threshold of Letting Go. This involves cutting favorite lines, scenes, characters, and even plotlines for the greater good.

The evil trickery of loving what you write is we become deluded into thinking it can’t get better. It grows worse when you’ve spent oodles of time carefully crafting certain sentences (scenes, plotlines, description, etc.) in your story. Especially if you’ve hit your voice just right, there’s subtle meaning to that sentence, and you feel as if some higher power wrote it through you. Okay, so that’s a bit extreme, but you know what I mean. Even these gold nuggets are subject to editing.

And it’s okay.

No, really, it is. I didn’t think used to think so. I fought the idea. Well, here I am, speaking from the other side of the doorway. You can hit the backspace button on those sentences or scenes (characters too), and the story will survive without them. So will you. Try it in a new file if you don't believe me and see for yourself. The weird part comes from feeling alright about it. I can go back and read the edited or new passages without regret.

As I tend to do, I sat back and reflected on my writing progress over the years. I pulled out old drafts and manuscripts and winced at my earlier mistakes. I remembered how enthralled I felt when writing them. “This six page opening describing a storm is perfect!” (Yawn.) “This character will be a huge hit because they go against everything shallow teens like!” (Don't ask.) “I’m the only person who will ever think of this plot twist!” (When did I live on a deserted island?) etc. All naïve, all silly. Thankfully, all gone. I keep the old copies to remind me of the progress I’ve made, and sometimes for laughs.

It’s alright to admit we make silly mistakes and carry silly misconceptions. The point is to recognize them as such and move forward. Sometimes we let pride get in the way. We don’t want to admit our way of doing or seeing things doesn’t work anymore. We don’t want the criticism from others when we hoped to astound. I’m grateful for every time my feet were swiped out from under me, whether someone else tripped me up or I did the stumbling on my own.

There are several reasons for editing out or revising those beloved story elements. The exact same reasons we're able to edit or revise the elements we're not so fond of. The point is, nothing is sacred. If we act as if they are, we lower our chances of publication. We're essentially blocking ourselves from writing the best story possible. I've been my own worse enemy before. It's not pretty.

One good way to tell if our "darlings" need to go is through reader feedback. If more than one person is recommending the executioners block or sending up huge question mark flares, it's time to admit you've been blinded by love. Sometimes we can figure it out all on our own. If reading back through the story you find yourself stumbling over a sentence or really wondering what it means—it probably needs to go or be revised. If a character is taking the manuscript over or causing problems (not of the plot kind) maybe that character needs to go. If you have a chapter or scene you've agonized over and it tickles your funny bone or gives you a thrill but in actuality it stops the momentum of the story, fails to reveal anything new, or doesn't fit in with character growth or plot—it needs the axe. If description fills up pages and pages for the mere purpose of world-building, stick it in a reference file for yourself. The reader doesn't need it as much as you do. Favorite bits of dialogue? Is it really necessary to forward the story, show inner change, or revelation? Or is it really gratuitous?

That's a good word to remember: gratuitous. Anything in the book for the writer's benefit or self-pleasure can usually be classified as a darling. Initial drafts, I've found, are very gratuitous. Later drafts tend to weed all that out so the story develops into something to please the reader, the audience we intend to share the story with.

Don't be too alarmed. This doesn't mean you can't have anything you love in a story. You just don't go overboard in demonstrating your love. We must be trained to distance ourselves from the story and see it objectively as a stranger might. That is what I've learned and I'm so glad I've learned it before passing the story on to more beta readers. How embarrassed I'd feel otherwise when the feedback started rolling in!

So where does that put me now? Probably poised to discover something else I’m doing wrong. In the meantime, I have a freer hand to edit with and if I must rewrite huge chunks of my story to get it told in the best way possible, so be it. I’ve seen other writers do it too. And the results are amazing in what they’ve rewritten. Here’s hoping I have the same kind of skill.

What writing thresholds have you crossed lately or fear you need to cross? And since it’s Valentine’s Day here in the U.S., what do you love most about writing?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Genre Identified #1: The Subgenre of Alternate History

To quote directly from The 2009 Guide to Literary Agents: "speculative fiction that changes the accepted account of actual historical events, often featuring a profound "what if?" premise"

This subgenre crosses between speculative fiction and historical fiction. It uses actual history and forces it down a road it didn't actually go, whether introducing alternate technologies, different outcomes, choices made or not made, or introducing fictional characters into the mix. Alternate history, because it crosses two major genres, has the potential for a wide fan base.

Examples and Resources:
Alternate History Directory has a large list of fiction, essays, short stories, and such.
Uchronia: The Alternate History List is another great resource.
Flashlight Worthy posts a book list of The Best Earths That Never Were
io9 shares a brief history of alternate history fiction.
Goodreads has a listing of books classified as alternate history.

Alternate history shouldn't be confused with time travel stories, though they are very close. Time travel stories are a separate sister subgenre which I'll cover later on.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Disgruntled Reader: In Which I Find I Sound a Little Like a Literary Agent

The other day I pulled up Goodreads to check out new and existing titles to add to my to-read list and also IMDB to view some new movie trailers and see if there were any new TV shows worth watching. While I read through lists and blurbs I noticed how easy it has become to answer "no" within ten seconds. Going by summaries alone or watching a trailer a couple of minutes long, I could decide if the story idea worked for me or not. Of course, I also considered that maybe some of the summaries/trailers might have held my attention if so many of them didn't sound like simple variations of each other.

There were an awful lot of crime TV shows featured where the main character was either a grouchy detective or had some paranormal ability. I sat back and wondered how people differentiated one show from another. None of them stood out.

I noticed a similar trend with books, not only on Goodreads, but also in links I followed on Twitter or announcements done on an agent's blog. (insert YA/MG character) lives in oppressive conditions until they discover they have (insert amazing ability/power) and can now either save the world or oppress it. OR (insert MC) meets (hot paranormal person) but generic obstacle (political/social/etc.) stands in their way. All of the descriptions modeled each other and none of them stood out because of it.

I'd like to think that every one of these TV shows, movies, and books have something unique and wonderful. As described, I'm getting a blasé feel for the current trends du jour. On the upside, finding comp titles for a new story has never been easier. Making any story stand out (other than popularity statistics) is very difficult.

Query letters submitting for peer critique often fall into the same molds too. We write the trendy formula or are expected to, even if the story doesn't fit the current summary mold. Without diving in too deeply to the query process, I'd like to just put in a plug for making sure you identify what makes your story stand out from the others and be sure to mention it in the query. What makes your YA character's abilities & situation any more special than the hundreds of other YA prodigies out there? What makes your love interest or the situation involving that love interest different than the usual struggles? Do we really need another grouchy or superpowered detective/cop/attorney? And if so, there should be a better reason other than fighting crime either of the normal variety or the supernatural. (These are only three examples, you can find boxed-in niche descriptions in any genre.)

One thing that would help is character voice in these descriptions. I hear several stories praised for having strong voice, but you know what—those voices sound an awful lot alike. They do! Character traits, especially for main characters, aren't leaping out at me either. I've seen their like before many times. Or, the voice in those descriptions are completely lacking. There's a lot to be said for great characterization in a novel or TV show. I think the marketing industry is either burned out or failing, perhaps both, when I see so many cloned summaries/trailers.

Gone are the days when having an extra-ordinary power or birthright will make a story stand out. Our culture is inundated with them. High risk stakes are great too, but also very common these days. Even what the main character stands to lose is running out of steam and growing repetitive. I'm worried. How are new authors supposed to break in without happening to touch upon agents' and editors' individual wish lists, you know, the wish list made up of story types they never tire of? And that's if they haven't already signed up several other clients who write in the same mold as you do. The same worry goes for self-publishing too. Die-hards who never tire of the—say grouchy detective stories—are pretty pretty much the ones who will pick up a story just because it's that genre. Generating new readers, not so easy, unless we can give them a reason to pick our story over all the others.

We can't be out of new ideas yet, or is everyone trending to the same two or three basic story plots these days? Perhaps we're on the brink of something new taking the entertainment world by storm. I hope so.

Maybe I'm so unreasonable about this dilemma because I read several genres and have to be convinced to notice a book or show. Writers and other artists must make me a fan. Make me want to read more than that short summary, maybe open up the book and try out the first page. I don't follow willingly. Yet I'm always on the hunt for something stellar, something that I can fall in love with. New worlds, new characters, great conflicts, insightful inner journeys, stories that teach me things, and especially stories I can't figure out by reading the summary or watching the trailer alone. So help me and others like me: make your story or TV show or movie stand out from the pack. Be noticeable. The next time I comb through Goodreads or IMDB or even my local library, please let me find something I can fall in love with, instead of the terrible disappointment I felt the other day in clone-ville.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Guest Post: E.M. LaBonte on What Makes a Protagonist Likeable?

Please welcome guest blogger E.M. LaBonte (aka. Nemune for the AQC crowd). I'm grateful she volunteered to offer to share her thoughts with us. Be sure to check out her blog The Realms of a Fantastical Mind. Without further ado, here she is:

What makes a protagonist likable?
Flaws, lots and lots of flaws. If the hero of every story was perfect how would the reader ever relate?
Flaws such as fears, set backs, and weaknesses all play a part in getting to like a character.

Fears: from the very simple, the fear of spiders and a fear of the dark to something more complex, fear of showing emotion, fear of falling in love. When a protagonist shows fear and reacts to certain situations that cause it, the reader can feel the same. Everyone knows what it is to be afraid, and that fear can connect the reader to the protagonist.

A great example: Ron Weasley and his fear of spiders. We cringe every time he sees one, and when he enters the forest with Harry to meet Aragog our heart races for his safety.

Set backs: Being unable to obtain the very thing the story is about. Failing or being obstructed or distracted from the goal is very normal in a readers life, so when the protagonist finds themselves having to rethink their path and how to get where they need to be, the reader can relate.

A good example: Perrin from the Wheel of Time series. When he finds himself able to communicate the wolves he pushes away from in. He fears that he has been bound to evil even though he knows that the things he's running from hate wolves. An inner struggle that no other character can see, it drew me closer to his character more than any other.

Weaknesses: Greed, chemical dependency, naïveté, emotional or financially dependent on something, or socially awkward. These things bring the protagonist down in some way or another, causing them to work through their weakness to grow as a person through the story.

A good example: Caramon Majere is a glutton and an alcoholic in the beginning of the Twins Trilogy. We watch him as he has to fight through his laziness, addiction to alcohol and his love for his brother in order to stop him from destroying the world.

Once the reader connects with the character through their flaws, the more positive aspects become more appreciated. Han Solo was a scoundrel and a crook, but even though he smuggled, and owed lots of money, his personality to do right brought out his likability. The balance has been set, flaws are made and now the protagonist can move to the next step, showing the other personality traits, the ones we would expect to see in a hero.

Thanks, E.M.! If anyone else would like to comment or add to her list, please do.