Quickie – One Salt Sea

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osscover

Just finished One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire, and I’m falling more and more in love with each brutal gut punch she writes.

Anyone interested in my thoughts should feel free to wander over to my review on Goodreads. Anyone interested in a good book should consider checking out my review of Rosemary and Rue, which is the first book in the October Daye series, and then should go and pick up the book and read it themselves and maybe even let me know what they think!

 

Unlikely Sources …

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A friend of mine is starting an Estonian class, and she amused herself tonight by reading through the glossary at the end of the book. We aren’t quite sure when the textbook was made, or by whom, but the words they evidently think are crucial for a potential student to know are endearingly bizarre.

She pointed out that they might make some entertaining writing prompts, so I’m writing them down before I lose them all in a blurry facebook messenger haze.

  • Nighthawk || Grey-black grouse
  • Grammofon
  • Bat
  • Mink || Sable
  • Emerald
  • Smoking jacket || Tails
  • Displaced person, exile
  • Offer of marriage || Single, unmarried || Honeymoon
  • Ancient fortified stronghold
  • Harvest festival
  • Danger of drowning
  • Brassiere || Panties || Petticoat
  • Rye bread || Sauerkraut || Head cheese || Sandwich || Christmas sausage
  • Potato
  • Large quantity or amount
  • Lipstick
  • Gentleman || Woman, wife || Girl, maid
  • Weather bureau
  • To pound or nail
  • Milk store
  • Stallion
  • Carnations

Possible prompt: A young unmarried woman (dressed in her panties, mink bra, and sable petticoat) hopes to lure a gentleman into making an offer of marriage by cooking him sauerkraut and potato and Christmas sausage at the Harvest festival.

I’ll link to the results if I ever actually follow through with this.

R&R

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I’ve been thinking.

I haven’t been writing much lately – and by “writing much lately” I mean “writing at all since the beginning of December” because things came up, as they probably inevitably do, and sometimes I can fight back and get work done anyway, and this time I couldn’t.

have been reading, though. Kindle and Audible have a sharing system between them that means you can bounce back and forth between reading and listening to a book, and that apparently solves the problem I’ve been having about not having enough time to either exclusively read or exclusively listen to things. I took the chance to read a few old favourites, because nothing makes me feel better when I’m having a tough time than going back to old universes and reliving old stories.

But I just realized that just because I’m rereading old things doesn’t mean I can’t still use my brain. There are a lot of things that I read that I never reviewed at the time that I first read them, so for the next while, I think I’m going to turn my attention to fixing that problem. I won’t go as far as to retroactively review everything I’ve looked at in the last three months – surprisingly, I actually got through quite a bit.

What I will do, though, is chronicle my adventures through the Wheel of Time the second – second and a half? – time around. I read up to about the 9th book a decade ago, and then I read the entire thing three years ago, and it’s a really different experience rereading the first books with such a recent memory of the last ones in my head. I’ve never tried to do a rereading review, so it will be an interesting challenge, and it will also have the added benefit of reminding me that just because I’m not doing all of my proper work, I’m not actually sitting around like a useless lump the way I feel like I am. If they’re any good, I may post them here. Otherwise, though, at least my Goodreads account will be able to feel a little bit more loved  than it has in a while.

On Specificity

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I was thinking today about a problem I have sometimes. It’s come up in pretty much everything I’ve ever written, throwing wrenches around when I’m least expecting it: I’ve got this interesting scene going on, with characters I’m interested in and a plot that’s going somewhere nifty, and all of a sudden I look at what I’ve been producing and realize that it’s terrible.

Which, all right, there are a lot of things that can result in bad writing. Most of the time, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m tired, or I haven’t planned things out very well, but a lot of the time I think it has something to do with specificity. The thing is, it’s fairly easy to come up with an interesting protagonist, home base, sidekick, fortress of solitude, whatever. The A plot and the B plot are usually fine too – that’s why I’m writing the novel.

But I find that no matter what story I’m telling, I ultimately end up at a point where I have to have characters going somewhere I wasn’t explicitly expecting, moving around in a large social setting, referencing past events, and all of a sudden, things start getting generic. A tavern with a bartender and wenches and ale, a manor with fastidious servants, uptight noblewomen who’d rather die than step in mud – or if you’re not in fantasy, maybe a girlfriend who assumes her guy’s cheating on her every time he looks at another woman. Whatever, it’s all the same thing, the kind of character tropes that show up everywhere, the kind of backdrops that get rolled in and out any time someone gets lazy. All of a sudden I’ve got my characters hanging out at Ye Olde Random Bar, talking with That Old Man With The Sword and the Wench With The Sad Brown Eyes, and there’s a reason I didn’t design those two in the first place. And then “the two of them bond” turns into “the two of them have the same conversation everyone has”, and again, there’s a reason I didn’t set out to write that when I was planning it at the beginning.

I think part of getting over that is just getting better at writing … but I’ve also developed a new rule to work with. Every time I’m setting out a scene, I’m now trying to explicitly say what makes my version of it different than the versions I’ve seen before. What about this bar’s design makes it My Bar as opposed to Anybody’s Bar? What makes this person distinct? What does that street smell like? The books that make the biggest impression on me – I’m thinking right now of Mistborn and The Lies of Locke Lamora – are the ones that take me somewhere I hadn’t been before. They’re the books that hand-paint each detail, the ones that put something surprising around every corner, even the corners that aren’t plot points.

If I’m going to make an evil empire, I’d probably better not give it a name that has lots of Vs and Ks and Js in it, because those are the letters everyone seems to throw around when they’re trying to make something kind of evil sounding, and I don’t want to get lost in the crowd. Meetings should maybe start happening in factories or warehouses or quays, instead of in the same five taverns. Not every town needs to have a square with four folksy buildings and a fountain. There’re probably a dozen more things I should start paying attention to, that I won’t notice until I realize I’ve gotten it wrong. In the meanwhile, I’ve got some noblemen to redesign.

Limbo time

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Second drafts are hard.

Well, back that up.

Getting to second drafts is hard.

I’m not sure if the stage I’m looking at now is the second draft, or maybe the first draft – I’ve heard a couple of writers refer to their utterly horrible first bits of writing as “zero drafts”, and that actually seems pretty fitting. I’ve got however many tens of thousands of words written about this place and these people and their plot, and absolutely none of it is useable – I mean, literally, none. I have a couple of scenes whose ideas might be reworkable, but I went into this idea half-cocked (NaNo may be great for putting words on pages, but it’s not particularly conducive to making sure you think everything through) and it turns out that my grand plan of “throw a couple of characters into a situation and see if they sink or swim” resulted in a lot of drowned characters.

Which is fine, I think.

There are probably as many ways to write a novel as there are aspiring novelists, maybe more – Neil Gaiman offered a lovely insight in the introduction of American Gods, in which he learned that rather than having figured out how to write a novel, he’d really only figured out how to write that novel. I’ve started a fair number of stories so far, some of which made it to the end of a draft, some of which never actually got words on pages, and I can safely say that I don’t yet know what’s the right way for me to go about it. In this case, I went with “take an idea, try to write it, discover in the writing of it that you were woefully underprepared, try to fix it before you write the next draft.”

Which is where I am now, where I’ve been for the last six months.

And it turns out that for me, this is a really scary place to be.

First drafts – zero drafts, what have you – are kind of like skiing for me. I’ve got this idea out in front of me, all pristine white snow and pretty little evergreens and a lake at the bottom, and I get to push off and all of a sudden there’s wind and excitement and no limits! Mistakes don’t matter: that’s what editing is for! Don’t know what to do? Hit someone in the head with a shovel! Kill someone! That doesn’t make sense with the original plotline? Whatever. Say it with me: that’s what editing is for.

Except that somewhere down the slope I start realizing that this isn’t so much a black diamond as an uncharted pocket of Mt Everest, and actually, I was never all that good at skiing anyway, and it turns out that that terrifying pixel yeti from that ski game back when I was a kid is looming over my shoulder and it doesn’t want to go away until editing. So I keep frantically writing, tying up threads everywhere I can, padding things out where they feel skimpy, until I finally make it gasping and half-dead in a heap against the tree at the bottom.

Stand up, dust off hands, go into the chalet for a nice hot chocolate, and get ready for that carrot I’ve been hanging in front of my nose for that entire terrifying glorious ride: editing.

The problem with editing is that there doesn’t seem to be one right way to do it, especially not for an aspiring first-timer. There’s probably a good reason for this – professional writers have agents and editors and publishers and people with jobs I’ve never even heard of, all working together to turn an idea into a printed volume, so the author isn’t working alone for the entire thing. Maybe most professionals have people they can turn to when they need to iron out kinks … maybe they don’t? The only way I’ll know is by getting there myself, and each experience is surely going to vary, and anyway, that’s not the point for me right now.

Right now, what matters is that while I can look to my role models to see how many hours a day they spend writing, or how many words they write per day, but I haven’t seen anything about what they do when they look at their first drafts and find something they’d be embarrassed to feed their dogs. As far as editing goes, as far as hail mary’s are concerned, I’ve been on my own.

I’ve done pretty well, I think – though I won’t really be able to tell until I start writing again and see what the slope looks like this time around. I’ve found plot holes and filled them, rounded out characters, fleshed out world elements and, above everything else, doubted.

It turns out that it’s a lot harder to feel like an author when you’re not writing. My family is incredibly supportive of my literary aspirations, but my mother hasn’t appeared to know what to do with a daughter who’s spent the last six months thinking furiously. My birthday wishes this year came with hopes for a lovely year – and a book, hint hint, and I can’t blame her, because I feel the same way. The urge to open up a new document and start writing has been almost more than I could handle, even though I’ve known that the story wasn’t ready. Every time someone’s asked me how the writing’s going, I’ve shrunk a little bit deeper into myself.

“I have no idea how the writing’s going, I’m not doing it anymore.”

Where I used to spend X hours a day writing Y words minimum, I’ve been spending the last six months staring fruitlessly at my computer screen trying to figure out someone’s motivation, or something’s power structure, only to have the latest piece fall into place while I’m in the shower, or in line at the grocery store, or trying to fall asleep. I get to my computer as soon as I can, write it down, look at the new plan, and stare at a wall some more.

I feel like I’ve done good work. I also feel like I haven’t been doing anything at all. The longer it went on, the more I’ve felt like I’m doing something wrong. Writers write, according to the inspirational background image I found however many years ago. If I’m not writing, am I not a writer? If the story I wanted to tell was a good one, was worth sharing, would I really have had to spend six months pounding it out of the horrible wreck I first wrote? My ideas are derivative. Nobody’s going to want to read a story I can’t even manage to think out properly.

I’m writing this down in part so that I have something I can look at when I next find myself here – because I’m pretty sure that this will happen again, though hopefully not quite the same way. I couldn’t find a rule book for this part of the process, so I’m setting my own mistakes and fears out so that next time, maybe I won’t feel quite so alone.

I think it’s normal to be scared – and I think that really, that’s what all of those doubts and voices really are. A bit of doubt is an important part of not being an arrogant ass, but doubt is also what fear looks like when it wants to be taken more seriously. Writing easy. It comes with an immediate payoff, a sense of gratification in the form of word counts that a planning phase simply can’t offer. But just writing isn’t enough, at least not for me.

The last six months have given me what I needed to turn something I could barely stand to look at into something I’m proud of again. When I turn the story over in my head, it holds up. I know there will be flaws, some of which I”ll catch in editing, some of which will probably make it through.

The point, though, at least for me, is that it was time well spent. The fear wasn’t a great use of my time, but the thinking and the planning and the questioning and the challenging were all important, because today I’m doing a runthrough of the outline with one of my first readers, and if that goes well, tomorrow I should be able to start writing.

Hopefully, the result of the next pass won’t tangle me up for as long as the first one did. With any luck, a lot of hard work, and a fair amount of skill, I’ll have something by the end of this that I’ll be able to share with people, that will help me get where I want to go.

Or maybe it won’t and I’ll have to do this a bunch more times before I get anywhere, and I’ll have a whole new set of theories and philosophies to spout by then.

Either way, I’m learning.

NaNoWriMo 2014 pt 1 – New Year, New Novel

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Well, it’s the end of October, and since I loathe Hallowe’en with an unholy passion that means that while everyone else gets to worry about costumes and parties and social lives, I’m plotting a new novel!

hammersboon

As always, I seem to be approaching it this year in a completely new way. The first time, I wrote randomly without a plan; then, I made a meticulously detailed plan that fell apart almost instantly. Last year, I gave myself a month to come up with as much detial as I could, treating it as seriously as I did my non-NaNo novels, which was an absolute disaster.

This year, I wasn’t even sure if I was going to do a NaNo novel at all, or if I was going to just rebel and just count 50,000 words towards my current project. And then one day I was watching a movie with a plot I’d seen before – businessman finds himself re-evaluating his life and his priorities after meeting the right sort of free-spirited dreamgirl – and I wondered how it would fit with my style of storytelling, if I could work it into a fantasy story at all.

About a week later, I had the urge out of nowhere to try and tell the story of an evil tyrannical fantasy regime, where the point of the story was something other than the heroes’ attempt to overthrow the villain. I understand, obviously, why so many stories with dynamic horrific villains make those villains the point of the tale, and just because you can write something doesn’t mean you should … but I don’t care, it sounded like fun.

I held the two ideas in parallel for about a week, and then all of a sudden things clicked together, and now apparently I’m writing the story of Minion Number 5, Assistant Chief of Personnel Distribution for the Divine Forces of the Lord of Dusk and Dawn. For the first and probably only time, I’m going to be introducing fantasy races into the story, and I’m going to bring in a merry band of heroes. None of it’s my style – I hate elves and dwarves, and the fighter-rogue-wizard setup is boring, and I’ve never found myself compelled to write the life story of an upper-middle class man struggling with upper-middle class angst.

But one of the things I’ve come to realize is that every story is worth telling – it’s just a question of telling it the right way. Anything can be interesting, and everyone has something worthwhile about them. If the story seems uninspired, it’s probably a good sign that I’m not looking at it the right way.

And all of a sudden I’m super psyched! I love my main character, a half-dwarf trying to pass as human, desperate to distance himself from the marginalized life of his father. The free-spirited elven tavernkeeper has a past, and if I write her right, she’ll have a purpose in the story beyond helping the main character find his true destiny. I want the leader of the band of heroes to be a boring jerk, which probably means I’ve got some work to do on his characterization – but I’ve got a week to make that happen.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going to come of this! It might turn out as bizarrely as last year’s, or maybe I’ll do it right this time and end up with a full novella when this is done. Probably somewhere in the middle, but what I do know is that I’m really excited!

What about everyone else? Is anyone else doing NaNo this year? Have you got your stories figured out? Anyone who wants to is welcome to add me – http://nanowrimo.org/participants/persekore

Good luck!

Thursday Quotables – A Memory of Light by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan

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I’ve been waiting for this to come up ever since I first discovered Thursday Quotables, hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies! The name of the game is to highlight an awesome quote or passage you’ve found in the last week, and this is kind of cheating, because I actually found the quote the first time I read the Wheel of Time series. But I didn’t know about the meme back then, and I’ve come back around to it now, so it’ll just have to do!

This one really speaks to me as a writer. Words are powerful, and they’re so easy to take for granted.

A Memory of Light

‘Exquisite’, Thom thought. That is the word. Unexpected, but true. Majestically exquisite. No. Not ‘majestically’. Let the word stand on its own. If it is the right word, it will work without help. If it’s the wrong word, adding other words to it will just make it seem desperate.

Gamergate, Women, and Unpopular Opinions

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It should surprise very few people who know me to hear that I’ve been keeping up with Gamergate. I’ve been trying to follow the story ever since I first heard about Zoe Quinn and the campaign that was started to ruin her life, and I keep feeling like I should be saying something about it.

I feel like I’m letting myself down every time I see another story about what a group of people are willing to do to terrorize the women they disagree with and stay silent. What’s going on right now is incredibly important, and incredibly brutal, and it’s not so much that something needs to be said – because people who know more than I do are already saying things – as that those things need to keep being said by as many people as are willing to say them, or nothing will change.

At the same time, I find myself struggling to figure out where to begin, because for me, Gamergate feels like it’s just one part of an ugly puzzle.

I’ve always known that the Gaming Community contained pockets of anger, hatred, and vitriol. It’s why I’ve only ever tried to play a multiplayer game once. The results didn’t surprise me, they won’t surprise anyone, though they hurt me deeply; from nearly the moment I joined the game I found myself subject to a torrent of verbal abuse on account of my newness. My team tried to kill me to keep me from ruining their game, told me to leave (though I had thought I was in a new-to-the-game zone). When someone messaged me, sounding friendly, asking for my A/S/L, I told them that I was a 21-year-old Canadian girl.

And wouldn’t you know it, people stopped calling me the “f%cking noob” and started calling me a whole lot of other things, of which “whore” was probably the nicest.

The take-home message: Being a new player in a multiplayer game is a sin; being a female gamer is even worse.

So it doesn’t really come as a surprise to me that these people who responded so angrily to my moderate-incompetence, which served to only inconvenience them, have taken that anger and let it boil over into death threats against women who actually challenge the status quo. It hurts me, though – particularly, oddly enough, because in many ways I have more in common with the gamers who do the threatening than I do with the women who receive the threats.

I’m a feminist, but I don’t really participate in what I think of as feminist appreciation of culture. I read books about men going on adventures, I watch movies with minimal plots in which the women are dressed to look sexy, I play games where I run around shooting things whose only real crime usually amounts to ‘working for the wrong person or getting caught up in the wrong toxic disaster’. I frequently wish that women were doing more things in these pieces of entertainment I consume, and I’ll object to the use of rape as a tool for character development until I’m blue in the face, but from the outside, my feminism and my recreational pursuits seem fairly segregated from each other.

And fish. Sometimes I shoot fish.

I play violent video games. I’ve never played GTA, but I’ve played games that were similar. I play big-name big-ticket games, the same ones enjoyed by the men who want women out of their pastime. Most of my self-indulgent spending is split pretty much evenly between the buying of video games, and the buying of fashion dolls. I don’t think we’re so very different, the men and I, or at least I don’t think we have to be (except for the dolls).

But evidently they do – or, some of them do, because while we may all be getting tired of the contractual obligation to acknowledge that yes, #notallmen send death threats, I think I’d still rather err on the side of polite, open communication than risk seeming generalist.

Evidently, some men think that women don’t belong in their treehouse, and that a woman who dares to enter should be on her best behavior, that failing to do so in an online context should be met with abuse, the threat of violence, and real-world harrassment.

treehouse

Okay, if this is their treehouse, I can understand not wanting to share.

That’s bad enough. Really, that’s enough bad right there. I’d love to be able to say that it doesn’t get worse, but I can’t.

The problem isn’t just that a fragment of the gaming community has taken upon itself the mandate to ruin the lives of the women it doesn’t like. The problem is that as far as I can tell, this phenomenon itself is being viewed by the rest of our society as a little fringe problem.

Gamers have a history of being picked on. It’s only fairly recently that 58 percent of Americans have started playing video games (45 percent of those players being women). When I was a teenager, a “gamer” was someone who played Dungeons and Dragons, and there was a lot of media hype at the time wondering about the psychological dangers that D&D posed to its players. Gamers are still viewed with suspicion in the media; when someone kills people in a school or a theatre, the media starts wondering how many violent video games they played. Many people who play games today remember what it was like to be mocked for their hobby. Gamers were a minority, they were marginalized and persecuted.

So it must be hard have to set aside that mantle of oppression. It must be difficult for those people who can now celebrate their social power by playing Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or Halo with their coworkers, who can exercise their financial power by purchasing a constantly-cycling series of systems and games, to realize that being a gamer doesn’t represent the same things that it used to. And it seems to be incredibly hard for the rest of the world to understand that this group of people they used to eye sideways now occupy more social space than the people who don’t like to unwind by throwing birds at pigs, or decapitating pirates.

Hard as it is, though, both sides need to understand that the world is changing. The subset of gamers who used to make up the entire group are now just a part – and while the opinions of the people who helped shape the culture are important, “I got here first” can’t be allowed to hold sway in the real world the way it did in the schoolyard.

And the opinions of a caustic, aggressive group of people shouldn’t be treated as the mutterings of a few angry nerds, no matter how small a percentage of gamers they make up.

Gamers aren’t the Other anymore. Gamers are people too, and when a group of people starts launching systematic attacks against another group of people, when someone in a group threatens violence or murder, we can’t afford to trivialize it.

I was thinking this morning about a story I read, about how Anita Sarkeesian was warned against speaking at Utah State University with the threat of a mass shooting, and how she eventually had to cancel because adequate security measures would not be provided for her. Guaranteeing that students can’t bring a concealed weapon into a room wherein mass murder has been explicitly threatened is, apparently, not something that we can do.

I wonder what had to be going through the minds of the people who made that decision. They couldn’t have believed that the threats were credible, or else how would they allow a room full of people to face that kind of danger. Did they think that an angry person has never before decided to murder women for what they dared to think?

I wanted to remind people about the Montreal Massacre, where in 1989 a young man walked into a school, separated the men and the women, and then shot the women in an attempt at “fighting feminism”. I wanted to say that this kind of manifest hatred has already taken the lives of at least fourteen people – but then I saw that I didn’t have to. The person who made the threat against Sarkeesian signed with the name Marc Lepine, the name of the shooter in the Montreal Massacre. Evidently, deliberately invoking the identity of a man who murdered women because of what they were doing in a school was insufficient to convince law enforcement to protect a woman, who was being threatened because of what she was doing in school.

montrealmas

These fourteen women were victims of the fight against feminism. Je me souviens.

I can only imagine how different the response might have been, if a Catholic organization were to have received threats from an individual identifying themselves as part of an Islamic hate group. Would concealed weapons still have been permitted in that context? I have an incredibly difficult time believing that they would.

What it boils down to is that somehow, society doesn’t seem to think that violence against women is a problem. Oh, people are aware that it happens – but not as much as women like to claim it does. Maybe it ties into an attempt to be positive? Accepting that a group of people are out to get women would require seeing women as a distinct group, rather than seeing them as part of ‘people’. I’ve heard it suggested that to single women out as the victims of specific violence is exactly the kind of thing that feminists are supposed to fight against, as though in order to be a good feminist I’m supposed to sit by and pretend that people weren’t out to get women just for being women. I’m supposed to accept that Facebook pages dedicated specifically to violence against women are “controversial humor“, not hate.

They’re not.

It’s not in our heads.

People are out to get women.

I follow John Scalzi’s blog, because he thinks a lot of interesting things and he’s not afraid to talk about them. I look at him and I see a part of what I want to achieve – he writes good novels, and he thinks good thoughts, and he puts himself out there when he thinks it’s important. I’ve seen what he gets in response: he seems to be mocked on a regular basis, for daring to speak for feminism, and he handles it with incredible grace. He also posted a picture of his house today, something my brain tells me would be an incredible risk for any woman with a controversial opinion. It feels like another part of the puzzle: men who provoke with what they say get derided, insulted, yelled at, threatened – women have campaigns launched against them. Men are hassled, women are forced to flee their homes for their own safety.

Women get attacked.

It’s hard not to think about this, as a woman who wants to write books. It’s hard not to see what a small but violent group of gamers is doing to the women who cross them, and wonder what might happen to me if I dare to speak my mind after (if? after!) my first book hits the shelves.

I want to work in an industry where it seems to be tacitly understood that men write books, and women write books for women and children. I want to work in an industry where the product is as much about the ideas as it is about the way they’re packaged, and almost as much about the author of those ideas as the thoughts themselves. I read Seanan McGuire’s explanation for why she won’t write rape, and how the simple fact that none of her female characters have been violently abused is interpreted by a reader as a lack of respect for her craft, rather than a sign of respect for her creations.

My characters will not get raped.

My characters will not all conform to social norms. I began the novel I’m currently writing with no intention to create an ‘alternative’ cast, and ended up with an asexual woman, a homosexual elderly man, a bisexual frat boy, and a heterosexual young woman as my four main protagonists. How many people will take issue with that?

How many of them will decide that I deserve to be punished for subjecting them to it? Or if I choose to speak my mind about why I make these decisions?

Somehow, if I ever achieve the level of success that Scalzi has earned, I doubt I will be in a position to feel safe posting pictures of my house.

How does this even happen?

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I think one day, when people are asking me about my Process, this is going to be a day I remember.

I had a plan for the novel that I’m writing right now. I have a scene-by-scene outline, and each scene has bullet points of what I need it to contain, and I work linearly – start at Part One, Chapter One, and move on from there. This novel has two distinct plotlines, and each of those plotlines has multiple elements. The element I’m currently trying to address is the hunt for the person responsible for a series of deaths, which the protagonist believes are the beginning of some kind of conspiracy.

According to my outline, after having done some research into the causes of death for the three victims, the protagonist goes to speak with the family of one dead person, and discovers that yes, there is foul play going on. She learns the possible identity of someone responsible, and spends the rest of her thread trying to track this person down. Except that as I was sitting there looking at my outline, I realised that there have been a lot of fairly calm meetings in this section, and that since I’m trying to write a fantasy novel, maybe I want to get a little bit more excitement going. I am personally a fan of political fantasy, and don’t mind scene after scene of machinations, but just because something can be worth reading without being terribly thrilling doesn’t mean it might not be better with a bit more life.

So I decided that instead of interviewing the woman who had died of cancer, my protagonist would investigate the area in which a man had been killed by random acts of violence. I chose to have him be reported killed in a gang conflict, only because I thought that muggings were overused, and so I sent my protagonist to visit a bar where she might be able to talk to someone who knew about the gang situation in the relevant time.

I had intended it to be simple. She speaks to a person, says “I hear the victim was killed in gang conflict”. The person says “ah, no, he was not. You would do better to investigate this suspicious person who was walking around”. She goes off to investigate, and the novel moves on.

Instead, I find my informant saying “There was no gang conflict at the time – but, we all think it’s far more likely that a rival gang knew he was associated with us, and killed him to make a point. Oh, and by the way, suspicious person, if you absolutely have to, but we think it’s highly unlikely.”

All of a sudden, I’m scrambling to come up with names for various gangs, figure out where they’re based, what their styles and motivations are. Instead of wandering off to her home base, my protagonist is now going to have to go and follow this trail, and instead of another series of quiet meetings, I think I’m going to be spending a chunk of this book exploring the dark underbelly that is the local magic gangs. I’ll have to rework everything else, so that this doesn’t overshadow other important plot elements, and so that other parts of this particular plot thread still tie in where they need to. I have a gang leader, now, and I know his face and his history, and I’m going to have to come up with ways for him to be relevant later on because he deserves better than to be a one-shot set piece.

I think it will make a much better story, in the end.

We’ll see how it goes, unless someone would like to put me out of my misery first!

Leigh spun around to see one of the wooden tables fall to the ground in smoldering pieces. The mugs that had been sitting on it lay on the floor, a glittering lake of glass and beer. Most of the men were on their feet, though one was rising and one sprawled awkwardly on the floor, swearing viciously.

“Cheating bastard!” one of the standing men yelled, lean and grey and grizzled. The two factions had moved to separate themselves, glaring at each other across the smoking remains of the red team’s table. “If you didn’t want people to know the truth, you shouldn’t have introduced us to your mother! I -”

He cut off abruptly as a burly man standing among the green supporters, the man who Leigh had seen creating the initial little flame, made a powerful one-handed throwing gesture. Fire bloomed in his fingers, no loner the size of a coin, and crashed with a violent hiss and a plume of smoke into the spilled beer at the other man’s feet.

“Don’t you say a word!” the burly man said, raising his hand again, fingers tensed as though holding onto an invisible ball.

The lean man cursed and jumped back from the attack, and the man who had fallen hurried to get to his feet and out of the way. Far from looking cowed, though, the lean man sneered. He dashed a hand through the air, a casual dismissive slap, and the puddle of beer swelled up, shooting a spray into the burly man’s face.

“You come into this place and think you can make all the rules now, Darron? Little pup thinks he’s a wolf, with his big strong muscles and his fireballs!” He laughed, and the men around him joined him.

Darron lunged. In an instant, the space where the tables had been morphed into a chaotic mess of bodies and flailing limbs. A burst of orange erupted in the middle of the brawl and someone cried out before it died out with a wet hiss. The television crackled and flashed, then the picture cut to black. Energy crackled in the air, and with a shouted oath from someone inside the tangle, every surface within five feet of the group was suddenly coated in a thin layer of ice.

Characterization 2: Great Expectations

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So last week I read The Palace Job, by Patrick Weekes. It’s a glorious tale of scheming and adventure described by a heck of a lot of goodreads reviewers as a cross between Ocean’s Eleven and Dungeons and Dragons. I think it’s a pretty solid nutshell to put the novel in, and if that sort of thing sounds like your bag and you enjoy clever writing I would highly recommend it.

There was just one thing that bugged me while I was reading the book, and it was a thing that took me almost the entire novel to figure out. When it finally came to me, I realized it was something I’ve seen before, and maybe it’s worth talking about on a bit of a larger scale.

Characters are the heart of a story. Oh, having a plot’s important, but it’s never enough to say “a group of people do X, Y, Z”; everyone’s unique, and everyone will handle a situation in their own way. It’s only by putting the right characters in the right places that an author can really make their readers connect with the mechanics of the plot. Nobody wants to read the stirring adventures of a bunch of overused, faceless cliches, so the writers who know what they’re doing dig deep and find ways to make each name and face shine on its own merit. Great characters are the ones who are their own people, who stand in their own right, who linger in your mind like an old friend.

But when you start focusing too hard on the special snowflake that is a new character, it can be easy to lose track of the fact that once they leave your head, they’re not going to be existing in a vacuum.  Readers approach books the way they approach anything in life: with two or three dozen trunks of preconceptions and prejudices, and the ability to make snap judgement at the drop of a hat.

I don’t know how much time you’ve got to make a first impression with a character. Maybe it’s a sentence, maybe you get a paragraph, some generous readers might even hold off on making their assumptions for a chapter. Inevitably, though, they’re going to start forming a picture in their mind exactly the same way they decide whether or not they like the receptionist at the dentist’s office or the old man on the bus. They’ll know everything they think they need to know long before you’ve had a chance to explain the character’s rich, compelling backstory.

Durg Beefsteak has wanted to be a professional flutist ever since he first heard his mother play. He’s classically trained in four instruments, and wonders why everyone’s so obsessed with his sword.

This is where expectations come in.

On the surface, it sounds like it would be lovely if we could keep readers from bringing their own cast of characters, both real and fictional, to the table each time they open a new book. Authors could sketch pure, untainted landscapes, cast their characters out like brilliant stars in the night sky. The air would be crisp and fresh and nobody would wonder if the brilliant detective was another cheap Sherlock Holmes knockoff or ask how many times they were going to be required to sit through someone’s re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet (this time with vampires who do not sparkle, we promise).

The problem, of course, is that without the expectations, authors would have to spend the first forty thousand words of every work explaining the basics – and then they’d have to go on explaining every single step of the way, and the magic of the story would get lost in the sucking mire of pedantry. “This is Doug. Doug is large and broad-shouldered, and doesn’t have a strong academic history. We can presume that the five or six boys standing behind him are doing so out of a combination of genuine malice, and a fear of finding themselves ostracized for speaking out against their leader.”

It’s ridiculous, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, and it’s probably a large contributor to editors saying that high word counts don’t necessarily indicate good books.

Since people are going to decide they know what’s going on anyway, the trick is to work within their expectations. Of course there will be variations from reader to reader, but predicting what your likely audience is going to read into your characters is part of being a writer. Creating a memorable character is all about mixing the perfect blend of familiar features with surprising twists or subversions – the popular athlete who secretly loves watching old black and white musicals with his mother, the grizzled one-eyed mercenary with the successful shipping business back home, the golden-haired kindergarten teacher who can’t be bothered to string together three nice words for her own daughter.

Stick too close to the expected, and the character won’t do much more than fill a role. They’ll be familiar, comfortable, and forgettable, and often that can be a good thing; a rich, relatable, forgettable background helps add depth to a world, even if you’re not writing speculative fiction. Get the balance just right, and your cast will jump and bubble and scintillate.

And if you get it wrong, prepare for bizarre disaster.

My problem with the Palace Job came in the form of one character.

He was a virgin, though not ashamed of it, he didn’t drink and had no desire to. He held pretty much every authority figure in reverence, and believed almost anything anyone told him, because Wizards are Wise and people shouldn’t lie. He was clumsy, and blushed and flustered when he dropped things – which he did a lot. It took him an entire book to realize that his close friend and protector might not have been 100% honest with him all of the time. He expressed no interest, when an attractive woman made it blatantly clear that she wanted to have sex with him.

He was also a sixteen year old farmhand.

Now, there are plausible scenarios wherein a sixteen year old farmhand could have all of those traits. Maybe his farm was strangely puritan, or maybe his entire region was. Maybe alcohol was banned, or maybe he’d had a close relationship with a priest when he was younger and held on to the morals and values he was taught all the way through his adolescence. Maybe that’s just who he was, and everyone around him decided to protect his strange naivete.

Unfortunately, the book didn’t ever offer any explanation for why a strapping sixteen year old boy was behaving more like he was twelve.

It felt like the author was torn between the character he wanted to create – sweet, innocent, adorably bumbling – and the character he needed to perform certain plot-related tasks – someone old enough and strong enough to be a useful fighter and fill the role of Party Tank. Unfortunately for the poor farmboy, rather than trying to actually blend the two images, Weekes apparently just decided to stick the traits of the first onto the body of the other, without addressing the fact that the end result was a giant exception to pretty much every behavioral rule for sixteen year olds, boys, farmhands, and tanks.

Reading it left me with a strangely uncomfortable taste in my mouth. Because I hadn’t been given another explanation, my brain was free to decide that the boy had been abused, and I’m pretty sure that the impression that gave me wasn’t the one Weekes was originally trying to create when he wrote the character.

Of course, mileage can and will vary. I’m sure plenty of people had no problem with the boy, came up with their own justifications or just ignored it in general.

But for me, it came as an important reminder: you only get that one chance to make a first impression, so you might as well work with your readers, not against them.

There was indeed someone at the woman’s desk – a small blond someone, even. But Anne-Marie was skinny in a ferrety sort of way, her features sharp, eyes slightly beady, and her hair was a gold so pale it was nearly white.

 The woman sitting there now was at least ten years younger than Anne-Marie, and her hair was the color of honey. Her eyes were hazel, her mough wide and generous, and she had the kind of body that spoke of working out, but only to keep the right parts lean and toned, not to build real muscle.

 Leigh glanced to her wrists, which were circled with dozens of little bracelets but no bands, and then to the lapel of her jacket, which did indeed have a pin – a flower, not the avices’ crossed scroll and sword. A teardrop hung on a chain at the hollow of her throat, shining strangely in the light, and Leigh couldn’t tell for the life of her what it was made of. She wasn’t an avice, but the shiver of adrenaline through her system was all the confirmation Leigh needed to know that she was dangerous. Avices weren’t the only ones with the training to be subtle, or deadly. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that for all no one else could do exactly what she and her fellows did, they didn’t sit at the top of the food chain.

 The woman stood quickly, with grace that looked like it had come from training, and flashed Leigh a smile.

 “Can I help you?” Leigh asked. Her own face remained blank as she continued her inspection of the stranger. Business suit, skirt to the knees, four inch pumps she obviously knew how to move in. A visitor’s badge was pinned to the bottom of her slate-grey jacket. She was tucking something into a large black shoulder bag, though her body blocked most of the movement an concealed exactly what it is she was hiding away.

 “Oh, I hope so.” She spoke with the musical, slightly nasal accent of someone with roots in the Commonwealth, though Leigh knew the language was still spoken in Pinnacle and to a lesser degree in Gerrespont, the two governances originally founded by Commonwealth settlers back in the day.

 “I was looking for …” The strange woman broke off and rummaged in her back, emerging with a small square of yellow paper. “Is that Reginald Southerland? The Deputy Minister of Finance?”

 Leigh came all of the way out of her office, closed the door behind her. She folded her arms.

 “That’s the name of the deputy minister,” she said.

 “Well, that’s something,” said the woman. “This is my first time in city hall, and I got turned around. I had been hoping that someone here might have a map.”

 She moved around the desk as she spoke, like Leigh might somehow forget that she’d found her sitting where she had absolutely no right to be sitting.

 “There’s an information desk near the front door,” Leigh said. She moved away from the door to intercept the woman, stopped when she was close enough to read the name printed on the visitor’s badge. Gabrielle Fletcher, the name was no more familiar than the face. “You could have asked them where you needed to go when you got your badge printed.”

 Gabrielle’s smile widened. She looked pleased with herself, somehow.

 “Oh, I did ask,” she said. “The men at the desk were very helpful, but I thought I’d followed it well enough that I didn’t need a map. Apparently, I was wrong.”

 There was none of the embarrassment in her demeanor that should have been there; Leigh might have been dressed casually, but her own badge was banded with violet at the bottom, a clear indication of the highest level of security clearance. Nobody liked looking like an absent-minded idiot in front of people with the power to kick them out on their heels, but rather than seeming abashed or anxious, Gabrielle Fletcher’s smile almost seemed to hold a challenge.

 Leigh felt her hackles rise instantly. She took a breath, to keep it from showing in her body. Gabrielle’s hazel gaze was intense, and canny. Not, Leigh thought, the sort of person who missed very much.

 “Well,” Leigh said, “as soon as you return whatever it was you just put in your purse, I can escort you to Deputy Minister Southerland’s office.”

 Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose. She looked, if anything, more pleased than she had a moment before.

 “What, this?” She reached into her large bag and pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. “I’ve had a bit of a cold. I didn’t want to get germs on the desk.” She offered the bottle out on an open palm, smile predatory.

 Leigh rolled her eyes, and made no move to take it.

 Strangely, she didn’t get the impression that the short, perfectly-toned woman was lying.

 She did get the distinct impression that she was being played, though, and that was worse.