Thursday, February 22, 2018

Our Love/Hate Relationship with the Damsel in Distress

It's Complicated

Women seem to be all over the spectrum when it comes to the damsel in distress. Some love to put themselves in her shoes, and they feel tingly all over when that knight in shining armor scoops her up and nestles her safely against his strong, muscular chest. Other women want to tell her to grow up, learn to fend for herself, and stop relying on men to get her out of the tough situations she so often finds herself in.

Being a woman myself, I'm not sure how men feel about this helpless heroine. Do they imagine themselves playing the man's role in the story, swooping in to save the day and being showered with grateful kisses? Or do they want to shake our dear damsel and tell her to get off her butt and rescue her own darn self? Maybe a little of both? I really don't know.

I Like Her...Sometimes

If I'm going to enjoy a damsel in distress story, it has to be there for a purpose beyond making the woman look needy and the man look strong. It has to be there as part of a bigger character arc.

Here are a few examples I've enjoyed over the years:

Christian Troy and Gina Russo on Nip/Tuck. This was back in the first season, when the show was actually doing some pretty awesome things with Christian's character. He's portrayed, in the first episode, as a womanizing jerk with no heart. It is implied, however, that he had a traumatic childhood, hinting that his early experiences may be the reason for his cavalier attitude toward the women in his life. Later episodes confirm this, and set him on a path of self-discovery, which all culminates, of course, with the birth of his son, Wilber. Along the way, we see him slowly developing into a more caring, sensitive person as he tries to form a relationship with Wilber's mother, Gina. We are not supposed to like Gina. But we are supposed to like Christian's reaction to Gina. For the first time, we see him being tender and sweet, and we see him doing it for purely altruistic reasons and not because he has something to gain from the relationship. So the fact that he constantly has to come to Gina's rescue is not troublesome because it's important for his character development. 

Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. Here we have two characters who are both growing and developing into more mature people. Scarlett is stubborn and independent and, most importantly, despises Rhett. Or, at least, she thinks she despises him. Rhett is callous and crude and looks at Scarlett with a heavy amount of disdain. Or, at least, he wants Scarlett to think he views her this way. Scarlett has had to be the strong one in so many situations--delivering Melanie's baby, working the family farm after it's been decimated by the Yankees, taking care of her feeble-minded father--that when she finally shows a little weakness it's actually touching. She has to admit that she can't do it all herself, and sometimes it takes a lot of strength to admit that. And the fact that it's Rhett who so often comes to her aid...well, we knew all along that he had a tender side lurking somewhere under that rough exterior, didn't we? 

Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy. Katniss is supposed to be the stronger character here. Peeta is painted as a bit of a wimp from the beginning, and spends more time, especially in the second and third books, needing to be rescued than he does rescuing anyone. But he is, nonetheless, the person Katniss turns to for support when she feels afraid. The juxtaposition of those moments in which Katniss allows herself to be weak, and Peeta answers that weakness with his strength, against the rest of the story, in which those roles are reversed, was the main reason I was rooting for those two to get together in the end. I think those short glimpses of Peeta's strength are necessary to make us like his character. Without them, I don't believe we'd care so much about all the terrible things that happen to him. And we certainly wouldn't understand Katniss's overwhelming need to try to save him. 

What I Prefer

I've always much preferred stories that take this trope and turn it on its head. In other words, I like seeing the woman come to the man's rescue. The X Files is probably the best example of this because, in every episode, Mulder and Scully get themselves into some kind of dangerous situation. And they seem to take turns rescuing each other. This week it's Scully's turn to be vulnerable. Next week it'll be Mulder's turn. I've always really loved it when it's Mulder's turn. 

It should have been touching to see Mulder's relentless quest to find Scully after she is abducted by Duane Barry in season 2, but it didn't make my heart go pitter patter anywhere close to the way it did watching Scully try to come to terms with Mulder's abduction in season 8. 

Mulder keeping vigil at Scully's bedside in One Breath does not hold a candle (in my admittedly weird mind) to Scully watching over Mulder in End Game. 

I very nearly snored all the way through Scully's cancer storyline in season 4 but was glued to the set when Mulder experienced his own life-threatening illness in seasons 6 and 7. 

What can I say? I have a thing for the vulnerable male lead. That's my favorite trope. 

All right, you've heard my thoughts. Now tell me yours. Do you love the damsel in distress? Or hate her? Or do your feelings fall somewhere in between?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

3 Myths About Self-Publishing

Let's be brutally honest. The word myths in my title is actually too strong a word. What I really meant to say is generalizations. Why? Because the sad fact is that many of the "myths" about self-publishing are true. They're just not true of all self-published books. Therefore, they are generalizations.

Let's take a look at a few of them.

1. Self-Published Authors Are Not Serious Authors

Are there some self-published authors out there who do not take their work seriously? Sure. In this electronic age, it's frighteningly easy to publish a book. Literally anyone can do it. What that means is that a lot of crap is getting uploaded to online retailers like Amazon and iBooks. A lot of people are cranking out novels in a couple of months, giving them a couple of quick proofreads, saying, "Meh, looks good to me!" and hitting the publish button. It happens. Don't believe me? Start a review blog and wait to see the kinds of books that come your way. It can be scary at times. 

But do all self-published authors (who, by the way, often prefer the moniker indie authors) publish their books this way? Heck no! Since I began my own publishing journey two and a half years ago, I've met numerous fellow indies who take their writing very seriously. A rough draft. A proofread. A second draft. Emailed copies to a few trusted beta readers. Another rewrite when the betas' advice comes rolling in. Another proofread. A professional edit. A final draft. One last proofread. Off to the formatters. Then another proofread to make sure nothing wacky happened in the formatting process (it does sometimes). Then they hit publish. That's not a knee-jerk decision. That's a book that's been polished and re-polished until it shines. Is it possible that someone missed something in all those proofreads and edits and rewrites? Of course. No one's perfect. But there are some darn good indie books out there. I know because I've read a few. 

2. You'll Never Have Big Success Self-Publishing

Let's face it. Being successful in the entertainment industry is a crap shoot. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn't. And the indie book market is saturated right now, making it hard for anyone to get noticed. But here's the thing...are you more likely to make it big if you go the traditional route? If you get picked up by a big publisher who believes strongly enough in your book to put some major marketing muscle behind it, sure. You'll make it big. But how often does that happen? How many authors try traditional publishing and then give up because the querying process is just too grueling and it takes so long to hear back from someone regarding their book? And then, the response is likely to be a rejection. It can take years to get a traditional publisher to take an interest in your work. Years in which you could be happily selling your self-published masterpieces on Amazon.

And, by the way, some indie books do make it big. Some examples include The Martian, Still Alice, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Wool. There are many others. And yes, a lot of the indie books that have gone big were eventually picked up by traditional publishers. I'm not criticizing the traditional route at all. If a representative from Penguin Random House showed up at my door with a hearty paycheck and a desire to purchase the rights to Amelia's Children, I'd be sorely tempted. It wouldn't be an automatic yes. It would depend on what they were offering and how much creative control I'd be able to maintain with my story, but I can guarantee my eyes would sparkle at such an offer. 

But here's the thing. If a big publisher actively seeks out an indie author, it must be because that author is already doing well. Publishers aren't going to take a gamble on a book they don't think they can sell.

3. Self-Published Authors Will Never Become Great Authors

I'm talking about writing ability here. You see, there's a lot of soul-searching that is done during the querying process. When those rejection letters come (and they always do), an author must re-evaluate his work to try and determine whether the rejection was just a timing issue (the publisher isn't looking for that particular book right now) or if it's a quality issue (the book's not good enough to be published). If it's a quality issue, and if the author is serious about his work, he will actively try to improve. 

Then the coveted acceptance letter comes along and the editing process begins. Suddenly new eyes are looking at your precious baby and finding things that are just a little on the wonky side. Suggestions are made. There are things you need to change. And through this process, you gain a better grasp of what works and what doesn't. 

The myth (which is really a generalization) is that self-published authors skip over all that and therefore never learn what works and what doesn't work in a book. But is that really true?

Have you ever visited Goodreads? Have you seen some of the reviews on there? Serious readers will happily tear a book to shreds if it doesn't live up to their standards. It's in an author's best interests to solicit reviews from some of these discerning readers so they can get real feedback on their books.

Of course, all this is happening after publication. Better to get the scathing reviews from beta readers and editors before presenting the book to the world. And this is certainly an option for the indie author. Sure, a lot of them, especially if they are just starting out, cannot afford a professional editor, but everyone knows someone who can be an extra set of eyes looking at that manuscript. And every critique counts, believe me.

Another great way to get some brutally honest feedback is to seek out professional reviews. Last year I entered one of my books in the Writer's Digest Self-Published eBook Awards. I did not win, but one of the perks of entering is that all submissions receive a critique from one of the judges. In that critique, I was made aware of some things I was doing in my writing that I didn't even realize were problematic. You can bet I'll have my eyes wide open for those mistakes in future books. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Cardinal Rule of Good Writing

Pretty Basic Stuff

There's no mystery here. We all know what the cardinal rule of good writing is. Show, don't tell. It's the one everybody agrees on. Other "rules" can occasionally be ignored at the author's discretion, but this one isn't going to go away. Learning the rule is easy. The execution of it takes some practice.

What I Thought I Knew

I've always understood show, don't tell to a fair degree. Even as a kid. I wrote my first novel when I was twelve, and when I go back and look at it I realize I had a decent grasp of the rule back then. 

Here's what I knew:

Show a character's personality. Don't just say Aunt Roberta is annoyingly affectionate. Write a scene with Aunt Roberta that includes lots of hugging and cheek pinching. Give her a few favorite terms of endearment that she always uses when talking to certain characters. 

Show an emotional state. This one's tougher. Don't just say a character is sad. Give the reader a couple of paragraphs that show the character's sadness. For example, if you have an MC who's recently lost her husband, put her in a social situation where she's hanging out with all her married friends for the first time since the funeral. Show the other couples cuddling and smiling at each other. Show a frazzled mother struggling to corral her three kids until her husband comes up and offers to take them off her hands. Show the relief that other mother feels at this unexpected break from adulting. Relief our poor grieving MC will never experience again. 

Show a character's lifestyle. Let's go back to that grieving mother. Does she have kids? Is her home life chaotic? Has that gotten worse now that the father is not around to help her? Show that. Show the peanut butter smears on the kitchen counter, the urine on the bathroom floor from where the three-year-old son proudly used the potty all by himself, and the struggle to get the older kids out the door for school in the morning. And now that your character is widowed, show her performing chores that her husband typically did when he was alive. Show how having to do those chores just adds to the chaos of her life. 

This is all stuff I already understood. Stuff I've always understood. 

The First Thing I Learned

After I published my first book, I began reading books and articles on how to improve my writing. I learned a few things that I didn't realize, at first, are related to show, don't tell. 

First of all, I learned how to make my writing less wordy. This means getting rid of those pesky little filler words like that, of, just, etc. But it also means getting rid of what are called filter words. Words like thought, felt, wondered, realized, and so on. If you've constructed a good scene, there's a good chance you don't need those words. 

Then I started to read about what's called Deep POV. This takes getting rid of the filter words to a whole new level. It's all about learning how to write a scene so the reader feels what the character feels without the emotions ever being mentioned at all. This is the epitome of show, don't tell.

The Next Step

Deep POV was fiendishly difficult when I first started trying to use it. But by the time I wrote my third book, Road to Yesterday, I thought I'd pretty much mastered it. But just last week I decided to give the book another quick read-through to look for any lingering typos before creating the paperback edition. I've found that even then, even when I was writing my third book, I still had a lot to learn about show, don't tell.

Here are a couple of examples from Road to Yesterday:

“Really, Vi? Really?” I could almost see the anger surging through Kyle’s body. No, “almost” is not the right word. I could see it. His shoulders shook with a barely contained rage that frightened me.

Did I really need the sentence, "I could almost see the anger surging through Kyle's body"? It's in there because I wanted to make sure I was avoiding head-hopping. I didn't want to say Kyle was angry because how would the narrator know that? She's not Kyle. So I inserted a sentence beginning with "I could almost see" to make sure the reader knew we were still firmly in the narrator's head. But why include it at all? Why not just skip to Kyle's physical reaction.

“Really, Vi? Really?” Kyle's shoulders shook with a barely contained rage that was frightening.

Even the word "frightening" is problematic, but I can't think of a way to eliminate it and still get the point across without rewriting the whole scene. And since this is a book I've already published, I'm not going to be rewriting whole scenes. Not at this time, at least. 

Okay, here's another:

Alex stood by the bed, looking down at his older self. Vi, Kyle, and I hung back in an attempt to give him some space. But we watched him.

His reaction was subdued. I suppose he did not know how to react. That was to be expected. Who would know how to react to something like this?

He stood over the bed, jaw rigid and brow creased, and said nothing. He may have been trembling slightly. I couldn’t quite tell. It seemed he was valiantly attempting to hold it all in.

Looking at this passage again with my more learned eyes, I can see that most of the second paragraph is unnecessary, as well as a little bit of the third. I could write it like this and still get the point across:

Alex stood by the bed, looking down at his older self. Vi, Kyle, and I hung back in an attempt to give him some space. But we watched him.

His reaction was subdued. He stood over the bed, jaw rigid and brow creased, and said nothing. He may have been trembling slightly. I couldn’t quite tell. 

You see, the reader has already been on the journey with these characters and knows the impossible situation they are in. The reader, therefore, does not need to be told that no one would know how to react to the situation. That's something the reader already knows from having read the book up to this point. I also don't need to tell the reader that he's "valiantly trying to hold it all in" because the subdued reaction, the rigid jaw, and the creased brow have already shown that. 

Going Forward

The main thing I've learned in recent months is that show, don't tell doesn't just mean you need to do more showing in your writing. It also means you need to do less telling. Let's go back to that widow. If you've just written the death scene, then you have the wife collapse, sobbing, into her best friend's arms in the hallway outside the hospital room, you've already shown the audience what she's feeling. There is no need to follow up with any commentary on her emotional state at all. If you're tempted to write a sentence that contains words like hopelessness, helplessness, grief, pain, etc., stop first and ask yourself if that sentence is really necessary. There's a good chance it's not. There's a good chance the reader already understands that the character is feeling all those things. 

All right, a couple of news items before I go my merry way.

First, I'm involved a group giveaway on Instafreebie this week. Amelia's Children is available for free download, along with four other mystery/thriller books. If you'd like to pick up a few free books, you can get them here.

And second, remember that I've got a newsletter now, so if you want to get the latest updates on releases, sales, and freebies, sign up here.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Indie Book of the Month: February 2018

Sixth Prime by Dan O'Brien

This is another book I feel had some pros and some cons. As always, I'll start with the positive.

The first chapter is a great "hook" chapter. It drew me in and made me want to find out more. I was fascinated by the famous painter working on his masterpiece, a painting he doesn't fully understand, but which somehow contains profound truths. 

There is some great sci-fi in this book. Foreign worlds, and all the political strife that exists on those worlds. Futuristic technology. Mysterious creatures no one fully understands. The search for an ancient power that may hold the key to everything.

I also found the characters believable and likeable. 

I did have some issues, however. First of all, it was the story of the artist that first drew me in. I wanted more about him. Unfortunately, after the first chapter he is little more than an afterthought. Yes, there is an investigation into his death, but that only makes up perhaps a third of the book. Maybe even less than that. I wanted to go deeper into that part of the story.

Also, things could have been explained a little better. Who are the Primes? What are they and why are they important? And why are they being killed off? And who are the good guys in this book? Who are the bad guys? I know not every story has to involve the great cosmic battle between good and evil, but this book very much presents itself as that kind of story. Only I couldn't tell which side I was supposed to be on. I was still confused even when I made it to the end, because it's left very open and nothing is really resolved. Again, I know open ended stories are a thing, and I like the occasional open ended story. But this is not the kind of story that is typically left open for interpretation. This book presents a mystery to the reader, but the truth about that mystery is not completely revealed. Perhaps this is the beginning of a series? That might offer the promise of a better explanation down the road. 

Overall an enjoyable read, but one that didn't provide me with the answers I was hoping for.

If you'd like to take a look at this book and make up your own mind about it, you can find in on Amazon.