Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: Dirty Streets of Heaven

I don't normally do book reviews on my blog because that's not really my thing. And this is only kind of a review - really I just want to talk about some things related to the book I just finished. Reading the book brought up some interesting questions for me as a writer.

Tad Williams is one of my favorite authors. If you're not familiar with him, he generally writes epic fantasy and science fiction. His Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is my favorite series of all time, often described as Lord of the Rings meets War and Peace. I love his world building - he creates incredibly elaborate yet believable and consistent worlds. They have great detail but it's only presented as it's needed for the story. His themes are deep and interwoven throughout long stories with lots of background.

I also love his characters. He creates unique people who have complexities that make them interesting, whichever side of the battle they are on. Some you want to hang out with, some you hope to never run into, but they are all full of life and so very real. They also change and grow and evolve into new people over the course of events, and that makes them even better.

Tad's latest book is a little different. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is an urban fantasy, and while there is a series planned for the character each book is stand-alone. It's about angels here on earth and their battle with the minions of Hell. It's written as a detective noir-style novel, with the angel in question, Bobby Dollar, a hard drinking, question-the-system, tough as nails kind of guy.

While it has some of the usual Tad things - lots of interesting characters with complex backgrounds, a fantasy world (heaven, actually), and lots of themes running along with the main story - it is quite different in many respects. It's told in the first person through Bobby's eyes, so you don't get as much of the other characters. The world of Heaven is never described in any detail - it's a nebulous place, apparently (same with Hell), and while there are big stakes in the story they don't actually get resolved because the focus is on just the fate of our one lowly angel.

I did enjoy the book, but I didn't love it. And that is what got me to thinking. My favorite author, a new book, writing as good as ever, first person POV (which is what I've been using lately). Sounds perfect. But I'm not real big on urban fantasy. I don't really find heaven/hell all that interesting. Gumshoe detectives aren't that interesting unless the mystery is interesting. So I still love the author, but not this book.

Tad spends on lot of time on building the world of San Judas, a fictional city that's part of the San Francisco Bay Area. I like world-building when it's something fantastical, and I like stories that use real places as settings, but a realistic portrayal of a fake city didn't interest me at all. I like fantasy and mythology, but the standard God/Devil Christian world we live in is too common. Any take on it seems like it's trying too hard to be real, or to say something directly about our world, and it's a topic that frankly bores me.

In the end, what I took away from the experience is that it's the story that matters. Great writers can write well, but if they write about things that are not of interest to me then I'll not be interested. I should have learned that lesson when I read (and disliked) The Brother's Karamazov. But that info helps me as a writer. It reinforces that I need to have a good story - I still need to improve my wordcraft but the story comes first. It means I need to get feedback from people who like that type of story. It means I'm not going to make everyone happy, and even people that like me might not like my books. Some good stuff to keep in mind.

So I still love Tad Williams. I'll still read anything he puts out. And I'll enjoy it for whatever it is. But if he ever returns to the land of Osten Ard, I'll be happier than an angel getting his wings.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Story Notes: Character Arc

In my first story notes I talked about the arc of a story. Now I want to talk about the arc of a character. This is primarily for the main character(s), but other characters can have arcs as well, they just don't need to have them.

Again, an arc is a change, a progression from one state to another. The story progresses and our character needs to progress along with it. The character arc is an emotional transition. It's not just a physical difference in their world or setting. Our lead ends up knowing/experiencing more than they did at the start and along with that they are a different person. They can grow wiser, more compassionate, more at peace with the world or just generally happier. Or they could be worse off, sadder and lonely, but that's not how most of us want our stories to go.

Just like a good story arc, a character arc needs to have a logical progression. I mentioned before that most people don't change a lot in real life, but we expect more out of our fictional role models. So people should change, but that change needs to happen over time for it to be believable.  Radical epiphanies are not rewarding to readers.

You may be saying: 'But people love realizations! Look at A Christmas Carol.' Yes, let's look at it. While there is moment where Scrooge finally admits that he wants to be good, the story has been leading us there on a nice even path. Scrooge starts by being miserly (a scrooge, if you will). He rejects the first ghosts visit. Then he's argumentative, trying to justify his position. Then he's afraid, not wanting to see more. Then he finally admits the change after it has already occurred. There is a path, a series of smaller transitions, that lead up to the final outpouring of emotions. Even if the character doesn't recognize or admit it to themselves, we need to see that change happening so when it finally bursts forth into daylight it makes sense. It's the same way you leave breadcrumbs that hint who the murderer is in a mystery - after the reveal it has to make sense and the reader wants to know that the clues were there all along.

So how do we make this transition? What crumbs do we place? I think there's two general ways to do this. With a story I like to start at the end so I know where I'm heading. With characters you can do that as well - this works well with a happy ending. I know the boy gets the girl at the end. Or that she comes to peace with her dead mother. Or we find the lost puppy and the kid vows to love it and appreciate it more. Knowing where we want to end up we can build in emotional points as we go along.

But I think it often works better with a character arc to know the beginning and let the arc happen on its own. For that to happen, we generally have to start with a flaw - something that we want to get fixed (or at least changed). Maybe your character has trust issues. Then you can have your character react naturally to the events that you put in their path (that's the story arc). As you place challenges in their path, be mindful of what their flaw is so you can highlight it. Little challenges will bring it up and allow little changes as you progress. It's also perfectly acceptable to have a lack of change that brings up little failures - setbacks that make for more conflict and delay the resolution.

Ultimately they need to achieve a final goal and an easy (and good) recipe for conflict/resolution is to require a character to consciously overcome that flaw to do it. They must trust the person who hurt them in order to get out of the burning building alive. It doesn't work if they've been mistrustful the whole way and suddenly are forced to change. But if they've had to trust others, maybe in less important situations, then their big realization that they are now putting their life into another's hands is satisfying. They are changed and we get to experience that change vicariously, something that's very gratifying for the reader.

Now in talking about the story arc I mentioned that it could be circular. People end up back where they started (often appropriate in a series). This can be true for characters in a general sense, but they shouldn't be exactly the same. They should be different even if their situation is not. They should have overcome some internal conflict, should have learned and grown in some capacity. Maybe they just know more about the world they live in. But they can still have other flaws, still be incomplete and need more work. That's what the next book in the series is for and as long as they are progressing the readers will be okay with the slower pace of change.

If you know your characters, think of them as full people, then change comes quite naturally through repeated conflict. The thing that you have to keep track of is that it needs to be a path that leads somewhere (though sidepaths and occasional dead ends are allowed). Make sure it moves in a logical way through a series of changes instead of broad jumps. Once again, readers like to go along for the ride and each incremental change is a landmark on the road that makes us appreciate the destination when we arrive.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Next Big Thing Blog Hop

I've been tagged by Alan over at the Quill Pen in the Next Big Thing blog hop. It's a chance for authors to share a little info about what were working on write now - hopefully what will become a big thing in the future. Thanks for passing things along, Alan. Please check out his site for some background on what sounds like a great mystery set in Washington, D.C. And check the end of this post for a few more authors who will hopefully be continuing the hop.

Here are ten questions (and answers) about my Work in Progress. I'm in the middle of revisions and getting more excited and happy about it all the time.

1. What is the working title of your current/next book?

The working title is SYNTHESIS. It works for the technical details of the story, it works for the themes, and also has the proper etymology. It took forever to come up with it but it feels right.

2. Where did you get the idea for that book?

I have to admit that I kind of started with Twilight. I was thinking about what made it so popular and wanted to do something science fiction related. So I started with an idea of a teenage adventure with a romance and some sort of powerful creature that wasn't a vampire or werewolf. I didn't want something fantastical and I didn't want a love triangle. When I came up with the idea of an alien race living here on earth it all came together.

3. What's the genre of the book?

It's Young Adult, though that's not really a genre. It's science fiction by definition - it has aliens - but it's set in a contemporary time and doesn't have anything too fantastical or depend upon the science aspect. As I wrote it I was thinking of it in terms of a thriller because of the action and the suspense. But a character driven thriller.

4. If you could pick actors to play the lead characters in your story, who would you pick?

That's tough because I tend to form my own picture of the characters and I try to come up with it from scratch. The Female Main Character (Emily) is petite and blonde (though changes throughout the story). I guess a young Kristen Bell (from Veronica Mars) would fit the role. For the Male Main Character (Holden) it's a little harder: he's tall and athletic. Maybe Alex Pettyfer (from I am Number Four, coincidentally). The best friend is a short Hispanic girl who's a little overweight - not the type you find in Hollywood. A younger America Ferrera?

The adults are a little easier. Emily's mom definitely reminds me a bit of Julie Bowen from Modern Family - though not as comedic. There's a kindly older gentleman, Hesiod, who would have been perfect for Charles Durning - RIP. And there's Achilles. Yes, the actual Achilles. Unfortunately since the movie Troy I always picture him as Brad Pitt, even though that doesn't seem authentic to me. But they'd have to use a little movie magic to make him taller and bigger.

5. How would you describe your book in one sentence (10 words or less)?

10 words is a ridiculously short sentence, but here it goes: Teenage girl discovers she's an alien and saves her mother.
Doesn't do it justice. The full 140 character Twitter pitch would read: Teenage girl discovers she's half alien, on the run with one of them and trying to rescue her captive mother.

6. How will your book be published, submitted through the traditional route to a traditional publisher or will you be handling it yourself through Indie Publishing methods?

I intend to go the trade route. I believe it's a very commercial concept and I hope to get an agent to help me sell it to a publisher. It's  not quite ready to start querying, but I've been doing my research and hope to start sending things out in a few months.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of this book?

I wrote the first draft over five months, but I had some family issues that really took up a couple of months in the middle. And when I finished the first draft I realized that it didn't really stand on it's own enough. I conceived of the book as part of a three book series, but I decided to merge books one and two since I think it makes a stronger stand alone book. That sent me back to the drawing board but it only took a month to add the new stuff and make the changes. It flowed really well once I decided to do that.

8. What other books within your genre are similar to yours?

I think my book merges a few different ideas. I tried to use some of the big ideas from Twilight in terms of a young adults trying to find their way in a world of powerful beings hidden among us, but I took out the fantasy aspect. The SciFi elements and action make it a little more like I Am Number Four - definitely not a dystopian future book. Through it all I really wanted to focus on the character and relationship development as the themes that hold everything together. I think of all my books as character studies because that's what interests me, but they tend to read as fast paced action novels because that's how characters develop.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

To be honest, I had a lot of different ideas that I wanted to write. I chose the one that I thought would have the most commercial appeal. I want to be able to keep writing; I want to explore many different ideas and genres. But I need to sell a book to get it all started and I think this is my best shot.

10. What about your book will pique the reader's interest?

Ultimately I hope that readers will like the main character and her development. That's what it's all about. But I think the SciFi twist creates a cool world within our world that will entertain people and raise a lot of interesting thoughts. I also think the action/thriller elements will keep people reading and be simple fun at the same time. I want to create something that can be enjoyed on different levels and let the reader take what they want out of it.

So that's it, a little about my current Work in Progress. I hope it sounds interesting. It sure has been fun to write. I'm passing the torch to a couple of blogs that I always enjoy. They should have their 'Next Big Thing' posts up shortly, so check them out to see what other great stories are coming down the pipe:

From the Desk of Laura Stephenson
The Emotional Process of Writing a Novel

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Story Notes: Arc

Thanks to a thoughtful post on one of my favorite blogs about the reasons for blogging (check out MaybeGenius if you haven't before), I've decided to start a series of posts about something that I really enjoy talking about: story making.

I love stories. Books, movies, folk tales, song lyrics. It's all good as long as it's good. While my ability to create a story is still evolving, and my writing skill is a matter of opinion, I feel my position as a life long lover of stories is all I need to be able to say what makes a good story (for me). So I'll be writing this series from a perspective of what I like in stories and what I think most people look for in stories.

You'll find others out there who have studied the art of storycraft and can break things down on an academic level. That's useful, but it's not my goal. I plan to keep this simple and write from my own perspective, without research or references. The hope is not so much to create a prescription for creating a good story but to provide a bag full of ideas to pull from.

I'm going to start with arc. Good stories should have an arc. Interesting characters have an arc. But what is an arc? It's simply the transition from one state to another. A change and development, normally a progression. If things just happen without any change, it's hard to go along for the ride - we all know (or believe) that we are changed by the major events in our lives and we want to see that in our stories.

The truth is that people change less than they think. But we all want to believe we can change and hopefully improve. Stories are a way to live vicariously, to see things happen that we either don't want to happen to us or that we wish could one day happen to us (but probably won't). When bad things happen, we want to see what the result is and how it can be overcome - it's good to know we could overcome it as well without having to actually suffer through it. When good things happen, we like to imagine we could experience that happiness ourselves - though we know we won't actually get super powers or a second chance at life. In either case, it would change us and we want to be shown exactly how it could change us. We want to see the possibilities.

There are some stories where it's acceptable to end up back where you start. These are circular arcs. Think The Simpsons. Twenty years later and the family is still the same: Homer works at a nuclear power plant, Bart still gets into trouble in school. But every week they change, there is something that disrupts the normalcy and then crazy adventures ensue. Often one character learns and grows. Sometimes they merely get into a mess and have to work themselves out of it. At the end of the day they are back to normal and ready for next week's story. There is an arc, it just wraps back around to reset. That works because we expect another story next week. Circular arcs work for series, but there still needs to be movement and development within the circle. We need to travel along with the characters.

So how do you create this arc? Creating a story is a complicated thing that is best done simply. I like to start with a basic premise and let it play out in my head. What would it be like if your loved one was kidnapped and you had to get them back? That will lead to an arc. What would you do if it turned out you were a werewolf? Big time arc there. What does it feel like to fall in love with someone who is dying? Sad arc, but definitely an arc.

Once I have a premise, I normally start by thinking about where I want to end. It doesn't have to be a definite place, but I need to have a target. Maybe I want to examine how a person can come to grips with great tragedy. I don't need to know how they do it - that will come with the writing - but I need to know that eventually they do do it. That's where my arc finishes. I want to know my resolution exists even if I'm not sure exactly what it will be.

Then I go to the beginning. What is the current state of affairs and how can I contrast that with where I will end up. If it's tragedy, it's good to start in a place of happiness. If it's fantasy, I like to start with reality. Picking something far from your goal forces you to travel along the arc. You may find that the finished book should start somewhere closer to your ending and that you've just been creating backstory, but that's okay. That backstory will help give you depth and make the portion of the arc that you share with the reader more believable. You can often cut out the bits along the path that are less interesting, but by knowing they exist they keep you from jumping randomly along.

Because it's important for an arc to flow smoothly. There needs to be signs early on of how the arc will progress and the progressing needs to be in stages. It's a path, not teleportation. You can throw in some random story elements that shift everything sideways, but the reader needs to be able to make the turn. That means they need preparation or they need to have time to adjust to the new path. The more you know your arc the more you can gently hint at where it's going; the more your character makes incremental changes the more the reader can follow their footsteps.

(While I'm on it, characters themselves also arc. As I said, we want to see people changed because we want to be changed. We want to see people learn so we can learn from them. We want to see people ride an emotional roller coaster without having to risk the crash ourselves. I'll go into more detail on what I think makes for a good character arc and how to create it in a future post.)

Ultimately arc IS the story. Otherwise we have a series of random events that might each be interesting but the reader will never get invested. If you keep your arc in your mind while you craft the story, you will build a path that the reader to follow to the place where you want them to end up. That place is a happy place (even if the ending is not).

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Critiquing, part 2: Taking it

Last time I talked about how to give a critique (read the post HERE). This time I'll talk about how to receive one. For not all critiques are created equal, and you need to get as much as you can out of each and every one. [Part 3 covers fact vs. opinion]

To start with, be clear with what you want to receive. The more guidance you can give your critiquers the more likely you are to get what you want. What you want is going to depend on where in the process you are. If someone is critiquing my first draft, I generally want the big picture stuff. Is the plot consistent, the character's voice authentic, the story interesting? I'm not worried about a lot of the little things because they are likely to change when the big things get adjusted. There's no point in fixing grammar in a chapter that will get cut because it slows down the story.

On the other hand, if you're confident you have the story you want to tell, then you may want more feedback on the little things. And a double-check to make sure you don't have a random character pop up in chapter 23 because you cut the earlier chapter where he was originally introduced. Don't waste your reviewer's time by asking them to comment on things that you don't plan to change.

You also want to let them know how thick your skin is. Whatever the answer, it's okay. The thicker your skin the more you'll be able to get out of the feedback, but it does take time to develop. Let them know if you're looking for encouragement or feeling vulnerable about your writing. We all are nervous when getting critiqued and most people try to take that into account. It will be easier to get feedback that you can handle if you are clear at the beginning and ultimately it's only the stuff you can handle that will improve your work (which is why the thicker your skin the more you can improve).

That being said, it's natural to always focus on the negative. We go right to the spot that they criticize and wallow in the pain. So I always try to start by focusing on the positive. Make sure I take in what they liked and what I did well. Without that I'd just be lost in a sea of things that need fixing with no idea how to fix them.

When you do start looking at the criticism you need to consider the source. Critiquing is a skill, just like, but separate from, writing. Just because someone can write well doesn't mean their feedback is all good. Likewise, some people can offer great insight into your writing even if they can't create something themselves. I always consider who is saying something in addition to what they're saying. (just don't use that as an easy excuse to ignore something you didn't want to hear)

For instance, I try to get some people to read my books who are not writers. They're simply readers, ideally ones who read the type of stuff I write. Their overall impressions are great, but often they don't know the details. They also tend to have personal biases. If they say something was hard to follow, then I know I have to look at my structure, perhaps my point of view. If they say a character is weak, I have to consider not just the actions of the character but look out for passive verb construction. I translate their general impressions into specific writing techniques that relate to them and try to see what caused their feeling. If they say there weren't enough pirates, I might just blow that off as irrelevant. Not every book needs pirates, even if some readers like them a lot.

The other side of the coin is feedback from writers (a common situation since we often exchange work). Since we may have a copy of their work to critique ourselves, it's easy to dismiss their criticisms by mentally pointing out the errors we find in their writing. That's neither fair nor helpful. While I do think that writers will sometimes critique things that wouldn't bother a reader, don't base that on their writing but on their words. I pay close attention to how they say something. If they point out an error by referring to a generic concept - 'never have a character look at their reflection in a mirror' - I may disregard it as someone getting lost in the 'rules' and not paying attention to the story. If they point out something specific - 'she didn't seem like the kind of person to worry so much about her looks' - then I give it a lot more credence.

In the end, no one critiquer is going to be completely correct, just like not every reader will enjoy the same things. You will often get completely contradictory feedback from different people - I loved the scrappy sidekick/I hated the annoying tag along. It's when you receive consistent feedback you know you cannot ignore it. Your job is to weigh each and every comment with an eye on where it came from and try to use it to improve your work. The more open you are, the more you can look at the information objectively, the more you will get out of it.