Sunday, February 26, 2017

Why It's--Sometimes--Okay to Ditch the Rules and Just Write

Rules, Rules, and More Rules

When you're first starting out, unless you're the Mozart of the writing world, you're going to make some mistakes. You're going to write clunky sentences. Your prose is going to be too wordy. Or too flowery (substitute the word "purple" here). You may mix up verb tenses or employ head-hopping in your narrative. You may burden your readers with the dreaded info dump. Learning how to avoid those things will be one of your biggest challenges as a writer.

You Must Learn the Rules

Wait! Why are you entreating me to learn the rules? I thought this post was about the fact that it's okay to ditch the rules. Well, yes it is, but before you can effectively ditch them, you have to learn them. Knowing them and ditching them versus not knowing them at all is what differentiates between personal style and poor writing. So learn them. Learn all of them. Then figure out which ones you can effectively break. The key word here is effectively.

Why Would You Want to Break the Rules?

Did you read what I just said about personal style? You have to have your own style when you're writing, otherwise you'll sound just like everyone else and no one will notice you at all. You don't want that, do you? Well, to avoid that you sometimes have to bend the rules. Maybe not throw them out altogether (so perhaps the language of my title is a little too strong), but find your own unique way of getting around them. And it's okay to do that, because that's what will make you stand out from everyone else.

Again, you have to learn the rules first. That's the only way you'll be able to tell if your personal choice of words in a specific passage is effective or just plain bad. But once you learn them, you don't have to feel bound by them.

The thing is, all readers are different. Some people will dismiss your book offhand if you deviate one millimeter from the accepted norm. But others will actually enjoy it, and some may enjoy it a whole heck of a lot. It's okay to write for those people rather than the college-professor types who make it their goal to point out all the imperfections in your work.

My Personal Experience With This

I'm discovering that I love backstory. I guess I've known this pretty much forever, but in the last couple of years I've begun looking at it from a writer's perspective, which is putting a whole new spin on things.

Regardless of what the rules may say, backstory is essential to your book. It's what gives the characters their depth and makes them feel like real people. It's what makes readers feel they've truly entered the world you're building for them. You have to have a backstory, the more extensive the better. The trick is how to weave the backstory into your narrative.

I've seen data dumps done badly. I've read books that spend the entire first chapter catching the reader up on what's gone before, and only then jumping into the actual action. Don't do that. It's not fun to read.

But the people who think they know about such things will tell you not to employ info dumps at all. That they interrupt the action and take the reader out of the character's head. Well, yeah, they do, but what I've found recently is that I actually like that in a book. As long as it's only a couple of paragraphs. As long as it's related to what's going on in the scene. And as long as we don't break POV by giving out information the point of view character couldn't possibly know. If all those rules are followed, then, yeah, I like info dumps. I like to hear the history of a certain building. I like to know that the recipe the main character's mom is cooking was passed down from her great-grandmother and has been given to every female member of the family on her twenty-first birthday for the past fifty years. I like being told upfront that the reason everyone is nervous around Weird Uncle Bob is because he just spent twelve years locked in a psych ward because he had some kind of breakdown one day and chased his wife down the street with a pool skimmer. I want to know those things, and I don't mind if the action is put on hold for a little while so the author can fill me in on all the juicy details.

Make Restraint Your Guiding Principle

Like I said before, you don't want to get carried away. Limit it to a couple of paragraphs. Three at the most. Make sure it's related to what's already happening in the story. In other words, don't tell me about Weird Uncle Bob until he actually shows up at a family gathering. And please don't break POV. Tell me what your characters already know, and nothing else. If you only have one POV character, you will be very limited in what you can reveal. Stay within those limits.

And it bears repeating...always, always learn the rules before you try to break them.

Friday, February 17, 2017

What's Up With the Crazy Emotions I Feel Watching Early Supernatural Episodes?

Not the Intended Emotions

I'm not talking about those moments when the show "hits me in the feels". I know what that's all about. I've even blogged about my emotional reactions to television shows here, here, and here. No, I'd say I understand those feelings fairly well. What I'm talking about is this weird feeling of nostalgia I get when I watch the first two seasons of Supernatural. Nostalgia for what, exactly? I honestly have no idea.

Not My Personal Experience

There is something about the eerie locations of the first two seasons that make me long for some unnamed event in my past, but for the life of me I can't figure out what I experienced that I'm recalling so fondly. The show is filmed in the environs of Vancouver. I've never been to Vancouver. The closest I've come is the one trip my husband and I took to San Francisco sixteen years ago. Not exactly the damp, foggy expanse of fir and spruce trees which provides the backdrop for all Supernatural episodes.

Not only have I never been to the places where the episodes were filmed, I also have nothing in my past which relates to the show's concept. I mean, you know, I don't hunt demons for a living. Duh. But I've also never lived the nomadic existence of the Winchesters. I've never traveled the country in a classic car with classic rock blaring on the radio, eating greasy food and sleeping in crappy motels. I mean, sure, I've eaten greasy food a few times and I've stayed in a few less than stellar lodging establishments, but I wouldn't say that experience sums up my childhood in any way. So what the heck?

And a really weird thing? The show makes me think of duck hunting. hunting, of all the far-fetched things. I've never been duck hunting! I've never been any kind of hunting. Okay, so I grew up in rural Georgia, where lots of people like to hunt, but I've never joined them. Maybe I'm reliving memories of being a kid and hearing the older men in my life telling tales of being out in the woods, but if I were it would most likely be deer hunting. I rarely remember hearing anyone talk about hunting duck. I'm sure I know people who do, but deer is definitely the game of choice around here. So why the heck do I think about duck hunting when I watch Supernatural, when neither I, nor Sam, nor Dean, have ever shot a duck? Well, I guess there could be something in Sam and Dean's backstory about duck hunting. I mean, they had this whole history together before the events of the first season took place, but...well, I'm pretty much grasping at straws now.

What I Have Experienced

So we've established that I've never lived a lifestyle even remotely similar to that depicted on the show. But I still feel nostalgic when I watch it. Why? Well, there are some memories it could be bringing up.

My grandparents lived in a huge log house that sat on over a hundred acres of mostly wooded property. They even had a lake. My dad raised horses when I was a kid and we kept them over at my grandparents' house. So I have no memories that relate to hunting, but I did spend a lot of time outdoors. Either riding horses or just exploring the vast wooded area that constituted my grandparents' backyard. Along with these memories are the memories of driving the ten or so miles along country roads from our house to theirs. I didn't ride in the backseat of a '67 Impala, but I rode in my dad's red pickup truck. That's close enough, right? And my parents did listen to classic rock, so the soundtrack of Supernatural is also kind of the soundtrack of my childhood. But somehow all that doesn't quite seem a close enough parallel.

On the duck hunting front, there were a couple of paintings hanging on my grandparents' walls depicting hunting dogs, with ducks on the wing in the distant sky. So maybe there's one connection. (shrug)

I've also been a horror movie buff my entire life. By that, I mean to say that I saw Poltergeist when I was four, A Nightmare on Elm Street when I was five, and The Exorcist when I was eight. My parents were pretty lax when it came to my television viewing, so I basically watched whatever I wanted. So maybe some of the inside jokes and hidden tributes to classic horror embedded in the writing of Supernatural is taking me back to the days when I was still discovering the genre. I don't know. It still doesn't seem like I've hit on it yet.

My last possible explanation is that the show brings back warm memories of staying up late to watch Twin Peaks with my parents. That show was probably my first glimpse of the Pacific Northwest, and similarity of scenery between it and Supernatural just might be what's bringing up these odd feelings. And I do have one really cool memory of spending the night at my grandparents' house (the log cabin, remember?) and watching Twin Peaks there. If you've never experienced watching Twin Peaks in a log cabin in the middle of the woods, I highly recommend it. While you're at it, watch The Evil Dead as well. It's a cool experience. But surely one night of sitting up late in a log cabin watching a creepy show that prominently features fir trees is not the memory I'm harking back to. Is it?

Still Something There

There's still something about that show. I don't know. There are scenes where the characters are standing in a wooded area, or sometimes a field, and it's almost like I can remember standing there myself. Which is of course impossible. Unless I've had past lives, but I don't really believe in that so I'm not going to jump to that conclusion.

Am I the only person going through this crazy thing? If not, I would love to hear about it. So if you've ever had some vague, unformed memory sparked by something seemingly unrelated, please tell me in a comment.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Yes, Even Fiction Books Have To Be Realistic. Here's Why.

Should I drop an f-bomb?

This is a question which arose just the other day as I was writing a particularly intense scene in my latest book. There's one character who is this little ball of angry energy, and I needed her reaction to the situation to be authentic. I needed it to be believable, to fit her personality. And in expressing her emotional response verbally, she would not use a polite or a cutesy word; she would totally throw out the granddaddy of all curse words. So I, for the very first time in my writing, used the "f" word. I worried and I fretted. I  wondered if it was too much of a break from my typical writing style. Would it pull the readers out of the narrative and make them focus on the word itself rather than the emotion it was meant to convey? In the end I concluded that, no, using that word would not come off as odd. What would be odd would be substituting something more polite. It would not be appropriate for that character and therefore would not be realistic.

A Common Question

If you are part of the indie community, you likely follow IABB Confessions on Facebook. The question of realism in fiction is one that pops up again and again, mainly from authors complaining that a reviewer has labeled their book "unrealistic". And the response is always the same: "It's fiction! It's not supposed to be real!" Well...of course we know it's not real. But it still has to be believable.

This issue confused the ever-loving mess out of me when I was in school. It was often a question that was asked in literature class. Sometimes it turned up on a test. Sometimes we were asked to comment on the issue in our book reports. But the question was always the same: "Is the story believable?" I was at a total loss. I read sci-fi. I read horror. I loved ghost stories and stories about aliens and travel to distant planets. Believable? Hell no! The books I liked most were pure fantasy. No realism whatsoever. Or so I thought at the time.

Are my own books realistic?

My most recent published novel, Primogénito: The Fuentes Legacy, has only gotten a few reviews so far, but general consensus seems to be that the book is very realistic. One reviewer wrote, "I definitely think the ending was well done, and realistic." And another said, "I did enjoy the ending, the realistic side of it and there is definitely quite a dark side to this story, especially when talking death and gore."

So...Primogénito is realistic. That's interesting, considering the events in the book could never happen in the real world. It is an urban fantasy about a family who has spent centuries studying alchemy and blood rituals in the pursuit of the secret to real magic. The ending, of course, is when the protagonists finally defeat the villains by stripping them of their supernatural powers. And, naturally, a certain amount of magic is required to undo all the other magic. And yet reviewers have called it realistic. Why?

While I was writing the book I vented my frustration with the particular challenges this story presented in a couple of blog posts, one dealing with the difficulties of writing fantasy, the other with the complexities of writing a decent backstory. Both blog posts deal with world-building. Since my book is an urban fantasy, meaning it takes place in this world, the actual world-building is minimal, but it is there nonetheless. I had to figure out how the magic works, how the family acquired it, and how it could be defeated. In creating all of that, I had to create a world which functioned according to certain rules. And since I was making up the rules as I went, I was in constant danger of breaking one without knowing it. When an author does that, it's called a plot hole. Those pesky story problems can arise in any book, but authors writing about magic or building an extensive backstory are, I think, in more danger of falling into them than authors writing other types of fiction. One cardinal rule is you can't just invent a new kind of magic when you need to rescue your characters from a tricky situation. They actually have to use their brains and find a way out which utilizes the rules already laid down. I suppose I did an okay job with that, because I've gotten two reviews so far which say my book is "realistic".

Have I written anything that's not realistic?

I got called out on this recently in a review for Amelia's Children. I knew it was coming eventually. I could see it even while I was still writing the book. The problem is the romance between Sarah and David. What I knew while I was writing it was that Sarah's infatuation with the mysterious stranger who walks into her life one hot summer night would be the thing that pulls her into the story and sets the ball rolling for her to solve the mystery. I wanted that in there because I wanted to audience to see David as this incredibly handsome, charming man, so I told the story from the point of view of a woman who falls madly in love with him.

Well, a few chapters in I completely shifted focus. The main mystery takes over and the love story takes a back seat. And it stays in the back seat for most of the book. Every now and then, while writing, I would remember, "Oh, yeah! David and Sarah are supposed to be falling in love." So I would throw in a kiss or an affectionate touch of hands or something like that. But then it would be over and they'd be back to investigating Amelia Davis's murder. And one reviewer, quite rightly, complained. I think she read my book expecting a paranormal romance. Yeah, it's kind of a romance, but it's primarily a murder mystery. Add to that the fact that I'd never written romance before and I barely read the genre and you've got a whole bunch of telling and very little showing in regard to Sarah and David's relationship.

That's not to say Amelia's Children sucks. People who have read it expecting a mystery have been quite pleased with it. But it's not a romance, no matter how hard it pretends to be, especially in the first five or so chapters. So that aspect of the book falls a little short of the realism which is vital to a good story.

What I've Learned

I've learned that, in building fictional relationships, you absolutely have to follow the "show, don't tell" rule. If it's a romance, you need hearts hammering in chests and hands which are strong, but gentle. You need kisses which send ripples of warmth through the character's body. You need deep conversations which show the audience that these two people understand each other on a level that goes far beyond mere friendship. I achieved this with Damian and Jenn in Primogénito, but not so much with Sarah and David in Amelia's Children.

You also have to listen to your characters. Just like the woman in my new book who would totally say the "f" word but would not be caught dead saying something more polite, you have to let your characters be who they want to be. Forcing them into some other mold will make your writing unrealistic.

And you have to follow the rules. Yeah, when you're the one doing the world-building you have some freedom to make the rules be whatever you want them to be. But once you know what they are, they can't be changed unless you want to go back and rewrite your entire book. You can't just pull a deus ex machina out of your hat without setting up some expectation earlier in the story that this is what will eventually happen to save the day.

So books can be fictional. They can be magical. They can be creepy and suspenseful. They can be over the top with the violence and the gore. But they have to be realistic.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: February 2017

Something Entirely Different

Last month I reviewed a romance. This month's book is sci-fi. I must admit, that's more in line with what I typically like to read, but it is nonetheless as full 180 degree turn from my last indie book of the month. I like that. I want variety on my website.

My Reasons For Choosing This Book

The motivations behind my choice were also different. Last month I was determined not to review a romance, and I really tried not to like Under Winter Lights, but all the rich detail kept pulling me in. It was a book I truly did not want to put down.

This month my reason was different. Not that I didn't enjoy the book on a subjective level. I absolutely did. But I chose this book because I finally found what I have been looking for in the indie publishing world: A book that plays by the rules. A book by an author who actually understands English grammar. A book with relatively few typos (though I did find a few). A book where words are used correctly (though I think I did find one misused homophone, but that could have just been a typo). The only newbie "mistake" I saw in the book was a considerable amount of head-hopping, but that's something I can easily forgive. After all, there is head-hopping in The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, and I don't think anyone could call her a "newbie author". So while head-hopping can be distracting, especially if it's not clear whose head you're currently in, I'm generally not too quick to call it a "mistake". I think it's quite often done on purpose. Was it intentional in this book? I don't know, but it didn't diminish the book's quality in my eyes.

The Book

Milijun by Clayton Graham. This is a sci-fi novel about humanity's first contact with an alien race. The switching POVs allow the reader to see the discovery of the aliens from a multitude of perspectives. We have a miner working on the moon. We have military officials concerned with the possible threat the discovery poses to earth and its inhabitants. Then we have a mother and son who are inadvertently drawn into the center of it all. There is also a mysterious compound in the desert where secret experiments are being performed that may or may not have some connection to the aliens. Kind of creepy. I like creepy.

The world-building is often what pulls me into the books I read. Even the contemporary romance I reviewed last month was rich with...well...maybe world-building, exactly, but certainly vivid descriptions of the world in which it takes place. This book is no different. It's one of the things I love most about sci-fi, especially futuristic sci-fi: finding out the author's vision of where our world is heading. And then you bring aliens into the mix and you've got their world to build, and I love every minute of it.

One thing about this book that I liked was that it takes place in Australia. We Americans are of course surrounded by American movies, television shows, and books. A vast quantity of us are also shameless anglophiles, importing juicy stories from our mother country across the pond. Downton Abbey, anyone? A thing that has frustrated me for years, however, is that most of us remain ignorant of the amazing things coming out of Australia and Canada. To the point that many Americans don't even know their favorite Australian actors are, in fact, Australian. Think of how many people got their start on Home and Away before coming here to begin their career in Hollywood. Then go out and ask a typical American if he has even heard of Home and Away. Chances are good the answer will be "no". So I am very exciting to be featuring a high-quality indie book from Australia on my blog this month. There's some amazing talent over there, and I want to help bring that talent to the world.

Of course, the Australia in this book is not the Australia of today, but that just increased my interest. I wanted to know more about the war that is mentioned over and over in the book. I wanted to know what life was like in Northern Australia. The characters keep talking about it, but they never actually go there, so I'm still curious. I believe this book is part of a series (correct me if I've got that wrong), so maybe I'll find out some of those things in future installments. I hope so. It sounds fascinating.

The Buy Links

If you like futuristic sci-fi which deals with human/alien interaction, go out and buy this book. Definitely worth your time.