Category Archives: Writing

Why are male UF protagonists badass and female protagonists… not?

I have been noticing this for a while. Although we have all these ‘strong female protagonists’ in urban fantasy – to the level that an author friend of mine said it was nearly impossible to get a publisher interested in a book with a male protagonist – I’ve noticed a disturbing theme.

Giving the protagonist a personal stake in solving the problem is a recognised way of upping the tension in the book: you, the reader, care about what happens to the protagonist. If they are in personal danger, rather than simply solving an interesting intellectual puzzle, this makes the book more exciting.

So, when you look at Book 1 (and often later books too) in an urban fantasy series, you often find that the first problem the protagonist has to solve has some kind of personal element to it, or something from the protagonist’s past is going to come back to bite them (sometimes, in urban fantasy, literally).

So, let’s have a look at who we’ve got.

Men

  • Harry Dresden. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard foster-father/mentor (Justin DuMorne) with magic in a fair fight and then killed the monster DuMorne sent after him. Killing people with magic is against the Laws of the Magic, so the White Council is after him even though it was self-defence.
  • Alex Verus. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard fellow-apprentice and escaped from his black-wizard evil teacher. Now he just wants to be left alone to run a magic shop, but nobody believes he isn’t a black wizard himself (even though he isn’t), so he’s fair game.
  • Atticus O’Sullivan. Last of the Druids. Seriously badass. Currently running an occult shop (there’s a lot of that going around) and protecting a magic sword. Practically the first thing he does in Book 1 is to see off a whole bunch of attackers without much trouble.
  • Lucian (Lucy) Colt. Badass debt collector with an MA in Art History. Ends up even more badass when given a demon heart transplant, the alternative being death.
  • John Charming. Monster-hunter – until he got turned into a werewolf. Badass. Now runs a bar.

Women

  • Owl. Gets kicked off a PhD programme for talking about the supernatural, and then offends some vampires, thus needing to accept a job from a badass dragon in exchange for his protection, thus Book 1.
  • Elena Michaels. Werewolf… and trying to pretend to herself that she isn’t one.
  • Rachel Morgan. Starts the series with a price on her head because she breaks her employment contract without having the money to pay it off. Continually has to be rescued from the consequences of her own screw-ups by her co-workers.
  • Georgina Kincaid. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order succubus. Moons after male character, allegedly-sexy Seth, because she can’t have sex with him without ripping out his life force. (So I didn’t find Seth sexy at all. So sue me.)
  • Kitty Norville. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order werewolf. Although Kitty seriously improves over the series.
  • Luna Wilder. “Tough-as-nails” werewolf police officer… who can’t control herself around her chief suspect.
  • Meg Corbyn. Sweet, but needs protecting from everything.
  • Anita Blake. Necromancer with more ‘issues’ than the National Geographic.
  • Samantha Martin. Imp. Book 1 happens because she can’t control her hellhound and gets blackmailed into helping track a killer. Because, of course, nobody would do that unless forced to.
  • Alex Craft. She’s the family embarrassment. Has to be rescued from certain death by… Death.
  • Jade Crow. She’s on the run from a powerful sorcerer, and only wants to be safe and have a quiet life. Only gets involved in the plot because she is accused of dark magic and has to clear her name before she is executed.

Is it only me that thinks that these supposedly ‘strong’ female protagonists are often… not? They may be able to kick ass, but a common theme seems to be that they have got into the situation through their own stupidity and/or carelessness, or complications arise because of their lack of ability to control either their emotions, their hormones, or their power. They also frequently need rescuing by other characters, often (though not always) male.

Their motive for getting involved in the plot also tends to be self-protection: they’re threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into it. Conversely, the men are more likely to act of their own volition to protect others.

Compare this to most of the male protagonists, who most definitely have their shit together. If they’re ‘outsiders’, it’s usually because they’ve Done The Right Thing, and the authorities are corrupt/blind/ignorant/stupid/all of the above. They don’t tend to need to be rescued by anyone else, and if they have issues, they don’t whine about them.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually enjoyed a lot of the series above with female protagonists; Kelley Armstrong, particularly, is one of my favourite authors (and for seriously badass, see Casey Duncan in City of the Lost). It’s just that I would really, really like to see a few more heroines who don’t need to be rescued, who don’t get themselves into stupid situations through their own idiocy/carelessness, aren’t running away from their problems, and who actually have their shit together. Why is that so hard?

What do you think? Is this an observer effect, or is it real? Is there something about female characters that makes authors – mostly female! – want to write them as less badass and more vulnerable than the men?

Addendum:

Jane Yellowrock, in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. Definitely doesn’t need to be rescued. 🙂

Addendum 2:

Carro (see comments below) has noted Joanne Walker of the Urban Shaman books – an Irish/Cherokee cop and mechanic (and shaman, obviously) as another heroine who doesn’t have to be dragged into the plot at gunpoint. Proactivity rules! 🙂

What makes a good story?

BooksI spend more time reading than I probably should. There are many other things I ought to be doing: laundry, ironing, writing… I console myself with the thought that somebody-or-other said that to be good at writing, you should spend a lot of time reading.

This month, I haven’t been having much luck with books. I’ve started reading several, and ended up just not feeling the love. One book was so not-feeling-the-love that I gave up completely after 15% and resolved never to read anything by that author again (at least, until someone tells me he’s stopped doing the really annoying thing he’d started doing that has made me abandon a series six books in). Another, I kind of enjoyed, but couldn’t get into, and found myself distracted by something else.

Luckily, someone recommended that I read Radiance, by Grace Draven. I burned through that in a day or so and reviewed it. It was like being thrown a lifeline: suddenly, I was reading something that I enjoyed. All my mind was on the characters, and their predicament(s), not on how much left there was in the book, and how long it was going to take, and whether I really ought to go and do some ironing instead. And when the ironing starts sounding like a good bet, you know you’re not enjoying the book.

It did, however, make me start thinking about what makes a good story for me, personally.

  • Characters. Personally, I don’t like characters who are too nice. Maybe that’s because I’m just not a very nice person myself, but give me a character who’s at least a bit grey. I particularly loathe good, self-sacrificing heroines. A heroine I particularly like at the moment is Kim Harrison’s Peri Reed: Peri is a materialist. She likes expensive cars and expensive tech. She likes having a job that gives her power and influence, and she’s not into self-sacrifice. Personally, I think we have a few too many heroines who – regardless of how ‘kick ass’ they’re marketed – still go all goody-two-shoes and self-sacrificing at the drop of a hat. I think it’s because there’s still a lot of social conditioning over what ‘nice girls’ do and don’t do – and admitting to materialistic impulses (except when it comes to clothes and shoes) is a no-no.
  • Relationships. I like a romance story every now and then, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. One author I’m continually banging on about how brilliant he is, is Jim Butcher. His Dresden Files is one series I’d hate to give up – and one of the reasons the series is so good is because of the relationships Harry Dresden has with the supporting characters. The poor guy almost never gets laid, but Butcher has surrounded his MC with a circle of friends, enemies, acquaintances, and others who are all fully fleshed-out characters in their own right. This makes the stories much more  complex and multi-layered (insofar as a series based on noir detective fiction can be complex and multilayered). Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series is touted as the London equivalent of the Dresden Files, and I can see why. But – despite the fact that Alex Verus is English – I still much prefer Butcher’s books. The reason, I think, is that Alex, despite several books in the series, is pretty much still a lone wolf. It limits the stories, and besides, I find myself thinking that anybody with any sense who gets attacked as often as Alex Verus does should start building his own power bloc out of self-preservation if nothing else. But the lack of people in Alex’s life really makes the books feel a bit flat.
  • Emotional connection. I like a book where I feel I know the main character – their personality, their motivations. I abandoned a very well-regarded book recently because I just couldn’t connect to the main character. It was very well written and everything, and I could see why it gets such good reviews – but I just found myself not caring what happened. Book abandoned. On the other hand, Jim Butcher (again!) is great at emotional connection. Harry Dresden is definitely a bit of a prat at times (a lot of times in the earlier books!) but he’s very easy to make a connection with, even if you’d like that connection to be your fist and his teeth. Crucially, though, Butcher himself manages to write the books through Harry’s eyes, and still show Harry as being a bit of a prat whose prattishness makes him lose out to the less testosterone-poisoned persons around him. You may sometimes want to punch Harry, but you always care what happens to him.
  • Plot. To be fair, this is a bit of a strange one. For me, I think the characters are the most important thing. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn doesn’t have what I’d call a plot so much as it has a character arc, but I still really enjoyed the book. But whatever it is, it has to be coherent, and it has to make sense. If people do things, those things should be believable (bearing in mind that people are not always logical in real life). Also, don’t dangle things in front of the reader then fail to follow up. One of the things I disliked in The Late Scholar was the mention of a couple of land law/tax concepts that made me think there was going to be a really cool land-law/tax mystery. Then there just wasn’t. Those mentions were just left dangling, as if the author had thought of doing a cool land-law-tax mystery, then found the research to be too difficult/boring and given up.
  • Meta-plot. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of series: ones with a metaplot and ones without. The Dresden Files is one of those with a metaplot. Every book (after maybe the first one or two) advance the metaplot to some kind of conclusion that Butcher already has planned. One of the things that make the Dresden Files so brilliant is that you can see that Butcher has carefully plotted the route to the final destination. You read one of the later books, and you can see ideas and plot points that were carefully seeded several books earlier; seemingly minor events suddenly turn out to have been important. The alternative is the non-metaplot type, where the hero’s situation generally does a sort of reset-to-start between books: the classic example is the noir detective who is always poor, always on the brink of bankruptcy, and always single – if he ever gets the girl, she leaves him or dies. Both – metaplot or no metaplot – are valid options, although I prefer the former. However, if you are going to have a metaplot, you need to advance it. You can have a book where the metaplot takes a back seat (or appears to), but in general, each book should take the plot a measurable step towards resolution. Otherwise, readers start getting impatient and wondering what the hell is going on. Likewise, it’s useful if your readers can tell what the metaplot is. If you just appear to have all this stuff going on, people start to get confused.
  • Not stopping the story to add a sex scene/sermon. This is a deal-breaker for me. Sex scenes irritate me much less than being preached at, whatever that says about me. But if you’re going to add a sex scene, make it mean something. Otherwise, I will just skip it (because unless I’m in the mood for a sex scene, it will bore me), and you wrote all those words for nothing. And other readers might end up skipping the whole book, or even all your books. People are funny about sex that way. However, preaching is to me what explicit BDSM-orgy-erotica is to the Clean Romance reading market. If I detect it, not only will I skip that part, I will skip the entire rest of the book, rest of the series, and quite possibly the rest of the author’s work for the rest of my life. One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, and at his height, he was a master at including political and social concepts in his books. But – at his height (he got a bit obvious later on) – he never preached. The message came through the plot, and through the characters’ actions, and was far more powerful for it. I cry every time I read the passage in Going Postal about John Dearheart’s name being kept alive in the overhead. I’ve never forgotten the way he laid out the unpleasantness of Jingoism and false nationalism in JingoNor his skewering of racism in Thud! and, to a lesser extent, SnuffNight Watch deals with the revolutions, and the hypocrisy of revolutionaries who find that they have not only the wrong kind of government, but also the wrong kind of People. I could go on and on about the important political and social concepts dealt with in Pratchett’s Discworld books. Many authors who wish to make a social or political point should go and read Pratchett, and realise that the best way to make an impression on your readers is not to harangue them, or preach at them, but instead to show them – through the actions and reactions of your characters – what you mean, and why it’s important.

So, there we go. I’m going to go back to reading The Death of the Necromancer, which I first read years ago. I just found out it was really cheap on Amazon Kindle, so I’ve got myself a Kindle copy. And it’s just as good now as it was then.

What do you think?

Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

Writing a short story

pen-and-paperI’m a member of the New Street Authors writers’ group, and at the last meeting, someone had the bright idea of producing a group anthology. One short story from each of us. Of course, we said. Great idea, we said.

OK, write a story by the end of July. Subject: New Street, Birmingham.

Ah.

My writing has always tended towards novels, just like my reading. I’ve never been much for short stories. However, short stories are useful for an indie writer – they’re good publicity material, if nothing else. Write some, publish and price them free – and people can try your writing out, risk free. Plus, short stories can be fun – if you’re writing (or reading) in a series, short stories are good to explore ideas or secondary characters that are never going to get their own novel, for one reason or another.

But writing short stories is different to novels – and even though my number of novels currently stands at <1, I know that.

Firstly, you can’t use the same kind of idea. Novels sprawl. Anything more than 50,000 words is a novel, which gives you an awful lot of room to play with. A short story is generally accepted as under 7,500 words. You can’t just take a novel-type idea and chop bits off until it fits. You have to find an idea that is naturally <7,500 words long. This is a good thing. Think about all those ideas that you binned because there just wasn’t enough there to make a novel: those are short-story (or novella) ideas. This does not mean that they are necessarily less good. Think Fabergé. Just because it isn’t a Tintoretto that covers an entire wall in the gallery doesn’t make Fabergé’s little jewelled eggs any less art. They are small and perfect in every detail. That’s short stories: an idea that is exactly the right size, perfectly delivered.

Secondly, if you worry too much about word count as you’re writing your first draft, you’ll never get anywhere. That’s pretty much the same for novels, but with short stories the pressure to keep your writing tight is greater. With a novel, you might cut thousands of words when you edit your first draft. With a short story, every paragraph, every line, counts, and it induces a sense of paranoia. But that’s for later. Just get the damn thing down. Worry about word count later. Apart from anything else, the first draft often shows you that what you thought was going to work, actually doesn’t. Write now. Fix it later.

Thirdly, everyone knows that novels take ages to write (“ages” being anything from about a month to fifty years). Not until you try to write a short story do you realise that the same thing is true of short stories. It may only be 7,500 words, but it’s probably not going to be something you can knock out in a day. Accept it, and keep typing.

Right… back to the carnivorous worms.

Strange Names

JusticeTerry Pratchett’s novels include a variety of characters with strange names. Many of them live in the mountain kingdom of Lancre, where people do things their own way. And where “Chlamydia” is regarded as a pretty name for a girl (but hard to spell, so the girl got called “Sally” instead), or three brothers get called Primal, Medial and Terminal (educated family). Or consider the gravedigger in Ankh-Morpork, Legitimate First (“can’t blame a mother for being proud”).

But does this ever actually happen in real life?

Snopes thinks not, taking the view that such stories are thinly veiled racism, or any other -ism, deliberately poking fun at minority groups. Which in some cases, they may be – but that is not to say that things like this don’t happen.

My husband went to university with the daughter of Mr and Mrs Harbour, whom they had named “Pearl”. A pretty, old-fashioned name, yes – but obviously Mr and Mrs Harbour didn’t think about the years of teasing their poor daughter would endure when they decided to have their little joke. Another classmate’s name was originally “Starshine” (my husband was born in the 1960s…) but she had changed it by deed poll to “Stella” when she hit 18. As a teacher, he still comes across some fairly awful things that parents do to their children when they pick a name. “Theresa Green”, for example. Or “Kitana” which is quite pretty, but more embarrassing if you know your parents tried to name you after a Japanese sword but didn’t check the spelling. Then, there was the poor girl called “Creamy”.

But usually, it’s not quite at the level of “Chlamydia”.

This week, a case in the Court of Appeal caught my attention because it dealt with exactly this situation. A mother had decided to name her newborn twins, a girl and boy, “Cyanide” (the girl) and “Preacher” (the boy). “Cyanide”, said the mother, was a pretty name for a girl, and besides, because Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves with cyanide, it was associated with positive things. The midwife contacted social services with this information, concerned about the effects on the girl twin if she was to go through life named after a deadly poison. And so it reached court, and then eventually the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal (bench of three judges sitting) decided that the court had inherent jurisdiction to hear the case, and that it would not be in the girl’s best interests to be named “Cyanide” – considering how cruel children are, and also that in the 21st century, we use our first names much more frequently than in the past. It’s now very difficult to go through life being “Ms Smith” – first names are the norm, and if yours is embarrassing, that’s a problem. Interestingly, they also considered the boy’s name. The judges decided that although “Preacher” was an unusual name, it wasn’t the sort of name that would inevitably expose its owner to ridicule and bullying. However, because children often ask how their names were chosen, it would not be fair to the girl twin to find out that while her brother had been named by their mother after a respected member of society, the court had had to stop their mother naming her after a deadly poison. You can read the full judgement here: C (Children) [2016] EWCA Civ 374 (14 April 2016). The court therefore decided that both twins should be named by their older siblings.

So yes, people do give their children embarrassing and/or inappropriate names in real life, for a variety of reasons. Some parents have reasons which seem to them to be good (like the mother whose daughter is not going to be called “Cyanide”) and others seem to be motivated more by “oh how cute and amusing” without thought for what it must be like to go through life introducing yourself as “Pearl Harbour” or “Theresa Green”.

From the point of view of an author, this is great news. You can give your character a name that will torture him/her every day of his/her life and know you are being absolutely realistic!

A week off… right?

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Tweet… tweet… tweet…

The Easter holidays means at least a few days off, and this year I got the big prize of 10 days off for only 4 days’ annual leave booked. Of course, I had lots of big plans about how I was going to hit a few deadlines and get ahead, learn what the hell Twitter is all about, write some of the actual novel (you know, the one I’m supposed to be writing), and maybe even do this thing called relaxing that is apparently really good fun.

Well, I got some of it done!

I did hit one deadline, but then ground to a halt (I’ll catch up next week, OK?). Relaxing – yep, managed to do some of that. Lovely slow mornings with my husband (also off work), drinking coffee and talking. And things. You know. And, because he’s on a sports team, we have to do some fitness stuff. Well, he does, and I go along too. Who knows what a drop-dead gorgeous man might get up to in the park? I have to go along to make sure he doesn’t meet some hussy who will take advantage if his sweet nature.

Only, there’s this hill. Seriously, it’s about a 1/3 gradient, and we have to run up and down it. Five times. Not relaxing. Makes me think again about the whole marriage business.

But, I have managed to figure out Twitter. I never quite understood it before, but apparently nearly everybody else in the world does not have this problem, and they’re all tweeting away like blackbirds in the springtime. Or bluebirds. I’ve finally got Twitter sorted out in my very visual mind as a giant cocktail party with all these conversations that you can eavesdrop on if they look interesting, or butt into if you think you have something scintillating and witty to say (in 140 characters or less). Of course, one then has to do the whole circulating thing, but fortunately there doesn’t seem to be a problem equivalent to having a plate of nibbles in one hand, a glass in the other hand, and then wondering how you are actually going to consume the nibbles… And unlike in real life, the object of the exercise is to get people to eavesdrop on you in turn.

And I managed to actually do some writing! Amazing! I’m now… wait for it… 60,000 words into the first draft. Some people call this draft zero; can’t quite get my head around that. Because if the first draft is draft zero, what did you have before you started? Anyway, whatever you call it, 60,000 words in, and I’ve got over a sort of narrative hump that was in the way (a bit like the hill in the park). I’m sort of closing in on the last quarters, so I’m probably going to end up around 80-90,000 words. However, I’m not getting all precious about word count; I’d far rather end up with a story that is just right, rather than stretch it out to get a couple more thousand words, or try to squash it into too small a space. We’ll see how it looks when I actually get to the end.

Of course, now I’ve just hit another narrative hump, but, hey, that’s life. Well, writing, anyway. Back to it…

Copyediting: the agony and the… whatever.

This month, I have got no writing done whatsoever. This is because I’ve been copyediting someone else’s book. Well, copyediting sounds a bit posh; what I was actually doing was reading it and marking comments in the margin like: Terry Pratchett says using more than one exclamation mark is a sign of insanity. And: Meteorology is the study of weather; metrology is the study of measurements. It is important not to confuse the two.

The interesting thing here is that my friend had already edited it himself and given it to someone else to edit, and he thought that two passes through would have got rid of all the stuff that needed getting rid of. This proved not to be the case, and I made enough comments to justify my continued existence. It was, however, a learning experience all round.

The most important thing my friend learned, of course, was that he hadn’t caught all the errors. When you’re self-publishing, this matters. You can blame your publisher if you like, but when that’s you, it’s a bit counterproductive. If you’re an indie author, when a reader spots the error, he doesn’t say “Poor author, why couldn’t his publisher pay for a decent editor?” – he says “Why is this bloke publishing a book? He’s clearly illiterate.”

Take home lesson: three sets of eyes is good. (Different people, obviously. Otherwise it’s… unusual.)

For me, I learned:

  1. Two people can read the same sentence in quite different ways. (“Oh, so that’s what you were after. I get it now.”)
  2. You have to concentrate more when you get to the climax because you’re more likely to miss things. (“This is a flying saucer battle! And you expect me to concentrate on whether a comma or a semicolon would be better?”)
  3. I’m quite good at spotting errant commas, and I have an unnatural love of, or possibly obsession with, semicolons.

I also learned some things about writing; copyediting someone else’s work forces you to slow down and think about what you’re reading. Pacing was the main one: my friend’s book was beautifully paced. Everything flowed naturally, the plot cantering along, until it accelerated into a gallop for the climax, and all the threads came together. It’s something I shall have to try to replicate in my own writing, if I can.

All in all, it’s an experience I would definitely recommend to anyone else thinking of self-publishing. If only because once you’ve checked someone else’s, it should be relatively easy to guilt them into doing yours…

Setting up the kill

Skull and crossbones pictureSometimes, it has to be admitted, a character’s only reason to be in the book at all is to die; their death is the event that pushes the protagonist into doing something, or not doing something. Or, even more depressingly, their purpose is simply to be cannon fodder.

There’s even a name for it – redshirt. A character who has no past, hardly any present, and a future that consists of a grave or – in science fiction – some particles or a burned mark on the floor. John Scalzi even wrote a book about what happens when these poor blokes realise what god (i.e., the author) has in mind for them.

Then there’s the guy (or girl) who isn’t quite the poor no-name walk-on character whose one role in life is to die, but is just as surely marked out for an untimely demise. You know the ones. The grizzled old cop who is a week away from retirement after forty years’ honourable service. The young man, or girl, who just got engaged, or just got married. Or, if a character manages to make it past the honeymoon period, the last few months of pregnancy can be deadly for both partners. Another sign of circling vultures is the character whose life has been irredeemably crap… until they meet the protagonist. Just now, things are starting to look up… until, guess what?

You can see it coming from the time the character first walks onto the page, and the author tells you about his retirement date, her pregnancy, his new fiancee. You just know that this character isn’t going to make it to the end of the book.

As a proto-author, I found myself asking how. How do you have that feeling that a character is destined for an early grave?

I came up with some rules:

  1. The character is at some point in their life where it would be especially cruel to kill them off (retirement, marriage, new baby etc).
  2. The character doesn’t get enough page time for us (the readers) to really bond with them.
  3. The author tells us a lot about the character rather than showing it. This one was quite interesting when I figured it out. Telling is a quick way of giving the reader a lot of information about a character without giving that character much page time.
  4. The character isn’t necessary to the plot.
  5. The character is actually inconvenient to the plot. The protagonist has either moved on, or needs to move on.

The whole thing spoils the book: the reader doesn’t connect with the character so well (because what’s the point – they’re only going to die), and may also feel annoyed because the author is trying to manipulate them. After all, what is introducing a fiancee (that you never otherwise meet) other than a cheap-and-easy way of attempting to increase the emotional payoff when you kill the character? To me, this smacks of clumsy writing.

The question is, how to avoid it?

George R. R. Martin does it brilliantly. All through A Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire), you think Ned Stark is going to be the series’ hero. Until – and if this is a spoiler, you must be the last person on earth to not have either read the books or seen the TV series – he gets executed at the end of the book.

Either Martin is a closet psycho and we should all be grateful that he turned out to be an author, so he can kill made-up people instead of real ones, or he’s a sadist who enjoys making people care and then killing off the object of their affections, or he’s just a really, really great author.

Whichever one it is, Martin makes all his characters real – he makes you care, then he swoops in for the kill, just when you’re not expecting it. Oh, he won’t kill X; X is too important to the story, and too great a character to lose…. oh.

This, I think, is his secret. You can’t tell who’s going to die because Martin treats all his characters the same (i.e., equally sadistically), so we get emotionally invested in all of them, even if we hate them and want them to die. In fact, Martin manages to reverse the “red-shirt” phenomenon, by introducing characters whom you want to see die a painful death even though you’ve got a nasty suspicion that Martin might let them survive (Joffrey, that’s you).

So in order to get the reader to invest in the character and be honestly shocked/sad/glad when a character dies, I think the author has to invest that time, thought and emotion first (or else fake it really well). If the author cares, the reader will too.

The two-edged sword of the editor

The_OrderLast night, my husband and I had Film Night, for the first time in ages. We decided to stream our first-ever film, and settled down with my iPad for the experience, with popcorn. The film we chose was The Order, starring Heath Ledger. You can read the plot here.

Now, I like a good religion-thriller. I had high hopes of this one, especially since it was a religion-paranormal-thriller, which is like triple-chocolate-chip cookies. And it was an enjoyable enough interlude, particularly considering the popcorn. However, it did have some major problems, which could be ascribed to really, really bad editing – either not enough, or too much.

The job of an editor, as I understand it, is to make a story – whether that’s a film or a book – into the best story it can be, by the judicious cutting out of irrelevant crap, and possibly advising on plot holes and parts that need expansion.

The Order is about Alex, a Catholic priest who discovers his mentor (Dominic) has died in mysterious circumstances, in Rome. He goes to Rome – with a girl who’s escaped from a mental hospital, where she was put after trying to kill him during an exorcism – to figure out what happened. With him also goes Thomas, his fellow-priest. So far, so good. When there, they discover that there is a “sin-eater” involved – a person who can perform a ceremony and essentially remove someone’s sins, leaving them in a state of grace and therefore able to enter heaven – without absolution from a priest.

The synopsis promises that Alex will solve a trail of murders, which does not happen. There are pregnant hints of a “fate worse than death”, which also seems to be a bit lacking. However, that’s mostly down to a really, really bad synopsis.

One major problem – for me – is that the girl, Mara, exists solely to get Alex to do things. When they get to Rome, she does nothing except hang about looking beautiful and tragic, until Alex finally gives in and has sex with her (thus breaking his vow of chastity). She then gets murdered, which prompts him to perform the sin-eater ceremony to take away her sins and allow her to enter heaven. She is, therefore, a typical Hollywood female – she has no personality of her own, and no real role in the action. She could be replaced by a hatstand and the plot wouldn’t be much different. This is pretty disappointing in the 21st century.

Mara aside (and it’s easy to put Mara aside, because she’s a cipher), the real problem with this film was the editing. At the beginning of the film, we see Thomas doing what is presumably an exorcism – he and Alex (along with the now-dead Dominic) are apparently the last three members of the Carolingian Order, the mission of which is supposed to be fighting demons and so on. However, the spooky-quotient of the film is surprisingly low, considering the two main characters are both exorcists. Why are they exorcists if exorcising isn’t a significant part of the plot?

There are a couple of children sitting in Dominic’s workroom – we discover later that they’re demonspawn. However, we never find out why they are there, and Alex doesn’t do anything about them. They could be removed from the film completely, and nothing would change. Either cut them, or do something with them. Don’t leave them looking as though they wandered in from Oliver Twist to look around and couldn’t figure out how to get back out.

Important scenes, such as Alex’s decision to abandon his vocation (surely he tells someone about this?), and the later scene where he reveals the dirty deeds of Cardinal Driscoll (one of the two bad guys) don’t happen on screen. You’re told that they have happened – but these are pivotal moments either in Alex’s development, or in the plot. Why don’t we get to see them? If it had been a book, I’d have been checking page numbers to see if my copy was missing a chunk. Important events need to happen where the audience (or reader) can see them, because these are what gives the plot much of its tension.

It’s revealed near the end that Alex’s parents were both killed by the sin-eater (William) to set him up, in some way, to become the next sin-eater. Dominic was complicit in this, and so was Driscoll. It’s never explained why such steps needed to be taken, or, indeed, why it worked. In fact, apart from a short scene where the child Alex says goodbye to his dead mother, we don’t know anything about Alex’s past at all. Since it turns out to be relevant, surely we should have been given more information? Plus a bit more plausibility would definitely have helped.

What you leave in should be relevant to the plot; what you take out should not leave huge holes in the plot that make the audience wonder just what the hell (!) is going on.

The take-home message is that The Order could have been a brilliant film – but it was ruined by poor editing. To show at its best, therefore, a story not only needs editing – it needs good editing.

Oh, Author, what have you done to me?

Labrador puppies: very cute!

Recently, I read the latest book in a series, and it left me feeling… betrayed. It’s as if you’d been using toilet paper all your life and enjoyed watching the adverts featuring happy Labrador puppies, and never realised – until now – that toilet paper was actually made of Labrador puppies, which were skinned alive and left to die in horrible agony to achieve that soft, strong feel. And after finding out about it, you never feel the same way about toilet paper ever again. In fact, you seriously consider not using it any more.

That’s how this book left me feeling.

I’m not saying it was a bad book. In fact, it was quite a good book. But it led me to reassess the main character’s words and actions throughout the rest of the series. I’d thought that she was a person who’d found herself in a position she hadn’t anticipated, and wouldn’t have asked for, but having found herself there had come to terms with it and made a good, happy life for herself.

Then this book comes along. And I find myself wondering, was she happy after all? Or was it just a facade, and she was really increasingly miserable and bitter all along? Was the whole series – which I’d regarded as clever and reasonably cheerful – built on this woman’s hidden misery?

It reminded me of a similar experience when I was a child and I realised that the Narnia books, with their stories of children discovering new worlds and having adventures (mostly the boys, admittedly), weren’t the exciting tales I’d thought. They were, instead, thinly-veiled Christian polemics and the ending was just plain sick (quite apart from the obvious Susan’s-going-to-hell-because-she-likes-lipstick thing, which says a lot more about C.S. Lewis and his attitude to women than it does about poor Susan). There’s something particularly nasty about a book that tries to make you think that three of the main characters dying in a train crash is a happy ending. Or, alternatively, that not having to grow up is a happy ending. But for me, the real shock was that the books were not what I had been led to expect. I’d thought I was having fun, and it turned out that I was being preached at. Silly me for not guessing earlier, I suppose.

There was also a fashion, in the 1980s or 90s, I think, for stories that ended “and s/he woke up and it was all a dream.” At which point, the reader mentally screams “You what? You put me through all that for nothing!” (And I admit that I did it at least once – in my English Language GCSE exam, I think – but it was because I’d run out of time and had to end the story somehow.)

The question becomes, then, when is it right for an author to do that (not counting exams)?

Obviously, a story is the author’s train set, and they can play with it however they want. But if you set up your story in one way, and then don’t deliver, your readers are going to be pretty shocked.

Shocked is sometimes a good thing; it means that author has succeeded in doing something that their readers didn’t predict. But could it have been predicted, or was it just sprung on the unsuspecting readers like an ambush?

Personally, I think that’s the difference between a good shock and a bad one.

Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy would probably be an example of the former. This is not a series I have read, or probably ever will: it chronicles Tris’ development towards understanding the true nature of self-sacrifice. I do not find a lifelong desire to sacrifice oneself for others to be an attractive personality trait, and I don’t really want to read about a young woman spending her life trying to figure out the best reasons for getting herself killed on behalf of others. However, that aside, from what I’ve read, the “switched on” reader should be able to see what Roth is setting up. Tris repeatedly tries to get herself killed, in a number of different ways and for different reasons, but each time she is saved. By the end of the third book, she understands that “sacrifice should come from love, strength and necessity”, and, as she has reached that pinnacle of understanding, Roth allows her to die.

It’s quite brave for an author to kill off a main character, especially in young adult books, as dying isn’t usually on the menu. But, in the case of Divergent, Roth has spent the entire series setting up Tris’ death;  the clues are all right there: Tris wants to die, and she finally achieves it after three books of trying. It’s really the readers’ own expectations – i.e., that the heroines of young adult books should do the socially-expected thing and survive, get married, and have babies – that lead them up the garden path. Kudos to Roth, then, for making it work, for letting readers deceive themselves (despite all the evidence) into believing Tris will get over her obsession with self-sacrifice, or that Roth herself won’t have the guts to kill off her heroine.

On the other hand, you’ve got retcon.

In the series before the book I’ve just read (and which may have scarred me, if not for life, at least for the next month or two), there were no hints whatsoever of what the author pulled in The Last Book. She says she’d been holding onto the possibility of one revelation for years, and did nothing to deliberately confirm or deny. On the one hand, I can see why. On the other, as a reader, I feel betrayed.

Part of the fun of reading (for me) is to see if you can work out what’s coming up next. I love Jim Butcher for this, because you don’t see it going forwards, but you certainly see it looking back. Whenever he springs a surprise on you, you have all the fun of going back and seeing where he’s been carefully setting it up for the last seven books, and you didn’t spot it. So you always wonder, what’s he doing now? Can I guess what this book is setting up for seven books in the future? I don’t know whether Jim thinks his readers are smart enough to spot him doing it, or dumb enough that they won’t – or if he just doesn’t care either way, and only wants to write the best books that he can. But whatever the answer is, he never does the “Oh, that was happening all along – but just never ‘on page’.”

So, for me, the answer is always going to be, yes, do your best to surprise your readers. Do the stage magician thing, and fool them into thinking you’re doing one thing when you’re doing another, or get them looking in one direction while you hastily move things around to avoid having to actually saw your assistant in half (the paperwork would be ghastly, doing it the other way). But your readers should, I think, always be able to go back and see exactly how you fooled them, thereby getting double the fun out of the book.

But to do the “Oh, it was like that all along… didn’t I mention it?” is just wrong. To me, it’s lazy from a writing perspective because the author doesn’t have to do all the work of setting up the illusion (or even any forward planning at all, in particularly bad cases). And as a reader, I hate it because for really big changes, there should have been hints. It just doesn’t play for me, that an entire empire, or an entire relationship, could have been hiding in plain sight through several books without so much as a hint.

But then, that’s just my opinion. 🙂