Category Archives: Character Building

Why Bad Books Matter (to Writers, anyway.)

. . . So, to tell you about bad books, I have to go back a little bit in history; I have to tell you a little about nursing school. Nursing school, you see, is as close to hell as you can get as a nominally free citizen– the hours are brutal, the respect is nil, the wages are zero, and you see many sights that Cannot Be Unseen. Really freaky stuff that messes with your head, too, dead people and surgical screw-ups and the vacant gazes of people who have decided they want to die and you’re just an inconvenient pause in their plans. Not to mention frequently running into patients who like to flick HIV-laden blood in your face and expose their shriveled manhoods to you and other indignities. It’s not fun.

I went through nursing school, the first semester, while heavily pregnant with my 4th child (not counting the stepson.) The second semester, I was a weepy postpartum mess trying to pump breastmilk in hostile conditions while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and raising a family. Yeah, not good. My baby turned sickly from being in daycare all day, which led to hospitalizations and drama, and I spent my second year in nursing school going to school all week and then working all weekend as a “nurse tech,” which is basically a technical term for “the bitch of every real nurse on the floor.” I also developed plantar fasciitis, which is about as much fun as having someone do a crucifixion on your feet every night before work.

During my preceptorship, I had to assist in delivering a dead baby girl. That messed me up, badly. I barely had the ability to finish my final project and walk the stage (although my grades were, annoyingly to everyone else, still at the top of the class, if not the actual top. I didn’t bother to check.) After I graduated, I was elated. I immediately got a job, a job with a staggering amount of personal responsibility that I had also heard had a high turnover rate (I should have been suspicious right then) but it was a real job! With a real wage! And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have to go to school anymore! I could READ again!

So, being the more-than-slightly overly-ambitious woman that I have always been, I decided that what I needed to do was to read the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.  I sunk a large amount of money into a stack of the books on the list (from Amazon, of course) and dove in. I started with “Henderson the Rain King”, which was a somewhat odd choice, but the cover looked really neat with the big lion on it and, hey, Saul Bellow. Real literature with a capital L, people.

And it was wonderful– Henderson the Rain King is a really great book, especially when you’re in your mid-30s and wondering if life has a point and, if so, WTF is it?

The job didn’t last long– my husband transferred to Florida and I gratefully handed in my resignation before management could find a way to pin me with some legal responsibility for the next screwup. And, given that all my stress was suddenly gone, the baby we’d been trying to conceive for the previous year decided that, yes, he’d immediately be conceived after all, so I never went back to work as a nurse.

But I kept trying to read, with the stated goal that I’d read all those darn books by the time I was 40. By the time I hit 39, with several major health problems along the road, my newest toddler with a rare disease, and yet another baby on the way, I decided that finishing wasn’t really the point. I wasn’t going to fail any huge existential crisis by not finishing by 40, after all.

And I’ve kept plugging along at it. At this point, today at the ripe age of 43, I have seven titles left out of 100– James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Ulysses,” “The Big Money” by John Dos Passos, “The Ambassadors” by Henry James, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy” by James T. Farrell, and the ominously 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell.

I’m basically down to the books that I am having to force myself through by sheer will. I have developed a fondness for Henry James, so he gets a pass, and I haven’t delved deep enough into the Dance to the Music of Time to even really get a feel for whether or not it’s a monstrosity or a delight, but the others . . . ohhhh. I loathe them. I hate them with a rare passion which could fill volumes.

And, yet, these are books which have been acknowledged, by thousands of people, to be true classics of Western Literature. How dare I, a humble little fantasy author, dare to say that they’re bad books? How, if they are bad books, do they get so much acclaim?

And there’s the secret right there, my dear readers: tastes vary. Some of these books on this list were written a long time ago, for very different audiences. Some of them have completely lost their cultural context– quick, tell me the relevance of all the people John Dos Passos includes in his character sketches, given that they’re a bunch of union rabble-rousers and Communists from the 1919-1940 period! Tell me how much “Tobacco Road” has ever mattered, considering what a schlocky piece of prejudicial crap it is, other than to give Yankees another reason to look down on Southerners. And please, find me a reason to respect VS Naipaul besides the fact that he comes from an underrepresented culture so we’re forced to swallow his bilge wholesale.

Some of the books, most of the books, on this list are amazing books. They’ve changed my heart, touched my soul, given me hope and strength, and allowed me to better navigate the tides of my life. And some of them have been crap, and I’ve read them wondering why I force myself through this. I’m not getting a grade– no one is giving me some kind of medal for reading these books. I’m not getting extra credit. So why, besides some kind of completionist obsession, would I force myself through something like “Catch-22” when it’s like listening to a long boring joke told by some tottery old uncle with no sense of humor?

As far as I can figure out, fumbling through these books on my own, the bad books have something to teach me as well. They may teach me something about a part of our history that I’m not too familiar with– Under the Volcano, Zulieka Dobson, and Angle of Repose all fit in that category. They may teach me about how to write truly repellent characters– for this one, all you have to read, really, is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. They may teach me different writing techniques, they may teach me nothing that I can even discern at first, but just getting through them requires me, as a writer, to do the most difficult thing that any writer has to do:

I have to put myself into someone else’s head.

That’s never easy– so many of our characters are just us, different aspects of us, writ large and split into different people. My daughter, who is reading my novel “Dragon Venom” right now, sometimes comes up to me and points out a passage that sounds like some aspect of my personality, digs out a joke that sounds like something I would have made, or accuses me wholesale of excavating one aspect of my psyche and turning it into a character entire. Well, of course, I am the person I know best. Of course I mine myself for material. But I also have to examine other people, learn about them, predict what they would do, and make extrapolations from there. And that’s where these books that I loathe come in handy.

Because they are decidedly NOT me. I’d never have gotten myself into the mess that the protagonist let himself in for in The Magus. As much as I love DH Lawrence, I would have killed off every character in “The Rainbow” rather than have it end as it did. The House of Mirth made me hate weakness in myself as much as it made me hate the protagonist for her weak decadent fate. Some of the characters make so little sense to me (hello, JP Donleavy), that I can’t even begin to figure out what they’re thinking. And I don’t want to– they’re jerks.

But that’s been the only good part about all these bad books. Many people disagree that they’re bad in the first place– to say, publicly, that you hate James Joyce because he was playing the system doesn’t make you especially well-loved by people who admire him for masterfully playing the system. That’s an insolvable problem, there. I will always see him as a man obsessed by his own literary fame, and they will see him as a genius who struggled to make his vision clear to the world. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

And I will, for these next two months, agree to force myself through it, no matter how bitter the taste. Maybe I will learn something. Maybe– the man had talent, that’s for sure, I just disagree about the uses he put it to. I’m halfway through “Catch 22” and “The Ambassadors”, just a long boring bath or two from finishing Studs Lonigan and The Big Money. The Dance to the Music of Time 12 book series? Seriously? I am having the hardest time with that one. So far, Book 1 has been a “British boys away at boarding school” thing and it’s giving me no particular thrills. I am hoping that it gets interesting quickly, because that’s the only stumbling block on my road to completion of this now-decades-long reading challenge that I saddled myself with.

I am hoping to learn something that I will need on this next novel-writing journey. Because my goal, dear readers, is not to just crank out another novel in a boring trilogy and pad out my word count. My goal, my eternal goal, is to get better with each book– I want you to care about my characters. I want you to cringe when they die, rejoice when they win, suffer with them when they’re in troubles and tribulations. I want them to be as real people as they can be, given that they’re characters in a book. I want the action to flow naturally and logically from the plot. I don’t want to shrink from making the big decisions– I want the bravery and the love to do the right thing, to write the book the right way, and to give you a book at the end of it which will make you happy to have read it.

And that is why bad books matter– they show you, better than anything else, what you don’t feel is true, what you don’t feel is right, and how not to do things.

Wish me luck in applying these lessons!

 

 

 

 


Winter is never coming, not really

So, yeah, Season 7 of Game of Thrones is on, I have paid for an HBO Go subscription, and it’s Thursday and I haven’t even bothered to watch Episode 2.

It didn’t help that GRRM was all being coy again, well we MIGHT have a Song of Ice and Fire book in 2018 and it MIGHT be The Winds of Winter, but it will probably be just another damned compilation of stories about kings and dragons whom we don’t give the first crap about.

Give it up, George. If you don’t want to finish the damned books, don’t finish them. But stop playing games about it. Just admit it– I’m having too much fun living my life, the series has become a huge pain in the ass, and I don’t enjoy sitting down to write it anymore. Fine. Hand it off to Brandon Sanderson, tell him what you originally wanted to happen, and he’ll pound out a few hundred thousand words like the very good methodical worker he is. And it will all be over.

And GRRM can do whatever the hell he likes without ever having to field a question about “WHEN” ever again.

Seriously. He doesn’t sound like a man who is writing from passion, he sounds like a harried man writing with a deadline he can never, ever, ever meet, and hearing the discontent growing around him. All the while, the television series spirals into the basic equivalent of such a bad fanfic that anyone with any genuine love for the characters in the novels has long since given up on even thinking of them as the same people.

Go to Bali, George. Hand the stupid series over to Sanderson or one of those guys you actually trained and just let it go. You’ll be infinitely happier, and as long as they hit the basic touchpoints, you’ll have done what you hoped to accomplish.

And we can stop pretending that this ridiculous television version has any basis in human behavior, plot, or common sense.

 


truly, madly, deeply

I will be honest with you– in the past, I have been guilty of writing things that weren’t truly reflective of who I really am. I’ve written things just to try to sell them, just to try to break into a particular market, and written things that don’t actually reflect my ideals, thoughts, hopes, and morals.

Which is why I don’t really like to dig back into my past and publish my old stories and poetry. There’s very little in there that I am actually proud of, very little that I would want my grandchildren to read, so to speak. I wrote things that I thought would please my “market” and they are embarrassing to me now. Why did I write that, I ask myself. Was it really that important to sell a short story?

Some writers will tell you that writing “to a market” is just what you do. It’s the accepted practice– if someone wants to publish an anthology about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, then you write a story about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, even if you heartily wish that clowns were all stripped of their red rubber noses and forced to work at the DMV.

In some cases, the ideas spawned by certain markets, like anthologies and magazines, may, possibly, once in a blue moon, actually rouse your best creative force and you can write a heartfelt tale that sears the page in its beauty and passion. But mostly you’re just hurriedly grinding something out in the very slim hope that the editor will like it. Even though the editor is mainly counting on their friends and acquaintances to fill the anthology and is only holding out one or two slots for unknown writers, of course. And then you’re stuck with a story about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, which you now have to try to foist off on another market. (Those other markets know that this will happen, and cringe for months reading freaky clown stories.)

Sometimes, though, you’re just writing in a certain genre and you absorb the mores and cultural assumptions that are common to that market. Cultural appropriation is terribly common in science fiction and fantasy (ask me sometime about alien worlds who all seem to have desert areas with heavily draped peoples who call the area Something-istan. I start to foam at the mouth, I have heard.) So is writing about gay characters even if you yourself are not gay. Being progressive sells, that’s the heart of the idea.

I wrote a story once about a young woman in 1600-1700s Indonesia who was banished from her village, became bonded to a cursed knife, and then had the problem of how to remove the knife. Long story short: she gets her hand cut off, but decides, with the help of her lesbian lover, that the cursed knife must be destroyed for the good of her people. Because of the religious powers that were in that particular region at that time, I ultimately had my character pray to the Islamic god for his help in destroying the knife.

Now, if I was writing the story today, I would have found a way to leave Islam out of it ENTIRELY. Not simply to avoid offending the people of that faith (although that would be part of it) but also because it was just a hasty addition at the end, written under time pressure, and it wasn’t a very satisfying ending to the tale. I would have preferred it if the woman could have found some other ghost of her own people to banish her vile uncle’s spirit.

I guess it was satisfying enough to sell it, anyway– it was published in 2002 in a cd-rom anthology called “Extremes 5: Fantasy and Horror from the ends of the earth.” For, hah, an equal share of the profit. Sadly, after the editor had taken out his expenses, there was no profit, so basically all I got for tacking on this hasty religiously ambivalent ending was a copy of the cd-rom and a cramped hand from signing the sleeve inserts. Oh, and I was out about ten bucks for postage.

I would have made it more clear, I think, that the main character was only “gay” in the sense that she was heartbroken and suicidal and that she was responding to the other woman’s kindness and love. Two broken people clinging to each other in a storm. If it had been a man, she would have probably run in fear after her lifetime of abuse by men. Situationally, the gay character made sense. I don’t regret putting it in, because it was true to the character and the story basically wouldn’t have worked without there being someone else there to help her. She would have just given up and died, otherwise. I wanted people to feel that sorrowful weight upon her, and then to see at the end that she was, in fact, still broken– the love had not fixed the wounds in her heart. It just enabled her to endure the pain.

So I have decided that this week, in celebration of the idea of doing things “right” and true and writing from your passion and not your fear, I am going to republish this story, A Dagger in the Rain, on Kindle. I will be doing some editing to it first, fixing that problematical ending with the unneeded influence of an outside god. As an outsider writing about a distant historical place, and about ghosts in that place, nothing is ever going to be perfect. Even Joseph Conrad had to read several books about the Indonesian peoples before he dared to write about them, because he knew he wouldn’t get everything right without years of experience that he didn’t have.

The first step is going to be to find the disc. I know I just moved it into my closet right before Christmas! Then a quick edit and rewrite, and I will make it available for a nominal price on Amazon’s kindle page. I’d start tonight but I can feel my Ambien kicking in and my typing is starting to fall apart.

I am excited, I think, to try to make a story closer to my true vision for it. There are not many stories that I would bother fixing in this way– mostly my ghost stories, for those have always been the ones closest to my heart. When you’ve lived in a haunted house, ghost stories are always interesting ones.

My novel, thankfully, is only “not me” in one respect: I wrote it with a male protagonist. In hindsight, I still feel that he’s the best character for the job. I definitely wouldn’t want to put a female through all the stuff those guys get up to in their desert journey. But the fact that I wrote this novel to fit in with MY vision of what a fantasy hero should act like and do and feel and dream . ..  that makes it so pleasing to me. I didn’t sell out for this novel. Raban and Valerius are just who they need to be, where they need to be, doing what they need to do. And it was a labor of love to get them there.

I’ll announce the release when it posts. 🙂


The problems of description

So, I’ve been reading Len Deighton novels lately, most notably his “Game, Set, Match” and “Hook, Line, Sinker” trilogies concerning the character Bernard Samson. I read through the first five books with a particular sort of impression of various characters. In book six, the author described the characters through other eyes, rendering my previous images completely null and void. What, Bernard is a huge bearlike man? Dicky has curly locks? Tessa was a wispy blonde? That totally didn’t come through in the first five books, which puzzles me.

Barring the possibility that Deighton simply changed the character descriptions, the blame seems to come down hard on the fact that the first books are told in first person from Samson’s point of view. Maybe he’s just a bad describer of people’s looks. That could be true, at least regarding the others he describes. I can’t quite let it go, however, that a tall person would necessarily think of their own height at times. Especially if someone were a spy . . . your height and possible conspicuousness due to height would be something to consider.

I say that as a tall person, of course. You see things differently from different angles. As a tall woman, I quite frequently must look down to speak to other women (and many men), and I have a better view in crowds than most. The length of my legs is an inconvenience on public transport and in cars. I can easily reach higher on shelves than other people.

All of those things are something any tall person would live with, so I would expect at least a hint of it to filter through Bernard Samson’s consciousness at times. Even if you’re a self-effacing person, reality is reality and those sports cars are still hell to get out of if you have to hoist yourself out on long legs.

It’s difficult to describe what someone looks like, it’s true. Too much description numbs the mind, too little leaves us without an impression at all. The best compromise, perhaps, is a few telling details that stick in the mind. But that’s hard to do, even for one character. For a series with dozens to hundreds, it’s probably going to have to be reduced to one vivid image carried over between books. In Deighton’s case, some of his descriptions were rather lengthy and mostly concerned clothes and mannerisms. Locks and legs got overlooked.

It’s something to remember when writing my own stuff, however. Make the details count. Nobody’s going to care about the type of tie someone was wearing if they can’t picture the face.

 


Very Special Snowflakes

Authors, I mean. I’ve been delving back into fandom recently. There seems to be a huge blind spot in fandom, wherein the members don’t acknowledge/admit that some of the author’s decisions were made simply to make the story work. There must be some REASON that all of the things written in the book happen. It must MEAN something larger. Conspiracy theory time!

Yeeeech.

Sometimes, we just make decisions based on “what has to happen to get the story to work.” Take GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example. In order for the plot to work at all, Tywin Lannister had to sit on his ass for 16 years, staying out of any political involvement in Kings Landing, just minding his own business at Casterly Rock. Otherwise, the Hands of King Robert wouldn’t have started investigating the king’s bastard children and threatening the stability of the Lannister’s hold on the throne.

Does it make a lot of sense that Tywin, who had already been a very successful Hand for several decades, would sit back and watch Robert piss away his grandchildren’s inheritance for 1 1/2 decades? Not really. Knowing Tywin, I’m seriously surprised that Robert didn’t have a lethal accident about ten years ago, with Tywin deftly stepping into the role of Regent at that point.

But, the whole setup of the novel wouldn’t work if that had happened. So the author left Tywin moldering on his Rock with Tyrion fixing his drains and ignored realpolitik for an unconscionably long time. This was, we were told, a man who was seething because Aerys had replaced him as Hand at the end of his reign. I don’t really believe he’d have let three more Hands serve without putting pressure on his daughter to at least get him a council seat. BUT . ..  for the author’s purpose, he had to act as he did. There would have been no series otherwise. But it’s still just an authorial decision. It’s not history. It’s not gospel. It’s just something the author manipulated to set things up for the plot of the book. If you ask “Why?” the only answer that matters is the author’s “Because I said so.” But it still is just a setup.

Similarly, he made Ned Stark have no close living uncles or brothers or sisters. If he had, then a Stark would have been in Winterfell the whole time. Again, ruining the plot of the stories. But authors aren’t more special than other people… they’re just better at telling stories. Stories can be amusing, entertaining, inspiring, and moving. In the end, though, they’re all just pretty lies. And the author is the Liar in Chief, making decisions ruthlessly just to advance the story he or she has in mind. Why do the characters do what they do? If they’re good characters, they’ll have motivations and reasons and justifications. But the author decided to put that particular character in just THAT place at THAT time, remember. It’s all a pretty mummer’s show. 🙂


Every single Christmas . . .

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals.

Not Satanic or Wiccan rituals. Sorry, orthodox Catholic. No, I’ve been thinking about family rituals, the daily, monthly, yearly, or whatever. Things we do to mark special occasions, or simply the things we DO.

There’s a line in Taylor Swift’s new song, “Begin Again”, that has stuck in my mind. She’s singing about meeting a new guy, and he tells her about the movies his family watches “every single Christmas.” And we have those movies too. Possibly much different ones than the song dude’s family, but it wouldn’t be Christmas without Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”, or the Grinch, or the Griswolds. And how can you celebrate Christmas without Happy Birthday Jesus cupcakes, or eggnog, or that way-too-rich fudge that always sticks to the aluminum foil?

Those are some of our rituals. And our characters would have their own rituals, too. Maybe you’ll never mention it in your novel, but they should be there, brimming in the character’s backstory. Maybe they rode the train to the city every week before Christmas, the better to do their shopping. Maybe they carved faces on the winter’s solstice log (since characters can be pagans, too) and then burned it while merrily getting buzzed on honey wine. Or maybe they didn’t celebrate anything, since they were Scrooge’s parents, and their children’s ritual was to press their faces against the window to catch a glimpse of the wonder and beauty outside, seemingly forever locked away from celebration themselves.

It isn’t a prerequisite to good writing, but a solid character has rituals like those in his or her background. Invent one and a whole new side of your character may be revealed. Maybe he hates horses because his brother was trampled to death in the dirty snow, one bitter cold Christmas eve. Maybe your character lives in a world without Christmas, but they celebrate the burial of an ancient evil god by tossing sooty rocks onto a pile outside town, then burning a bonfire and singing happy songs of triumph. Whatever it was, it shaped your character, made them who they are, and might inform a part of your story that you never really thought about.

So, what do YOU do for Christmas? And what does your main character do?