Thursday, March 29, 2012

Gender Awareness and POV

So I was reading an article the other day, and at one point it quoted this scene from George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones:
"When she went to the stables, she wore faded sandsilk pants and woven grass sandals. Her small breasts moved freely beneath a painted Dothraki vest ..."
This is a man writing a woman's POV.  Not to knock on the esteemed Mr. Martin, but I this bit goes right to the heart of one of the problems I had reading Game of Thrones, and in general a problem men seem to have writing a female POV.

I'm not a woman*, and never have been.  But I'm fairly certain that they don't go around hyper-aware of the size and movement of their breasts.  And, I mean, it's not like Mr. Martin has his male characters walking around thinking about their penises and how they move in relation to their pants.  Of course not.**

And it's not like it's just Martin.  Lord knows plenty of men-writing-female-POV have done that sort of thing. 

I'm not claiming to be an expert, but I've tried my best to write female POV as well and as honestly as I could.  Maradaine Constabulary is roughly half in Katrine's point of view, and at no point in the book does her chest size come up.  I just did a search of the manuscript, and the word "breast" never appears.  Nor any appropriate (or inappropriate) synonym.

Now, did I get a female point-of-view correct?  I hope so, but I probably screwed something up.  I do know that my critique group, which is mostly female, didn't tell me, "I think you need more breast thoughts.  Not once does she think about how her breasts feel."

*- As a white, middle-class, heterosexual, average-height, able-bodied, areligious, right-handed male, I am pretty much embody every aspect of cultural privilege.  Always something to be aware of.
**- Mind you, if one is writing porn or erotica, then have at it.  Have everyone hyperaware of their sexual characteristics. That's the point, in those works. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Question From My Agent

Last week my agent posted on his blog about "series death", including this question:
What can you as a writer do to hold onto that “core value” of a series?
 Series Death is a thing I think a lot about, especially since I do have a Long Term Plan.  The last thing I want is to drag things on past their sell-by date, or reach the point where I'm just painting in the numbers.  Or, worst of all in my opinion, where I'm just spinning my wheel, filling pages with "nothing happened". 

Two big things causes Series Death, in my opinion:
1. When the writer shifts from being hungry, eager to keep outdoing themselves,  to being lazy, cranking out more books for the sake of more books.
2. Connected to that, when the writer ceases seeing an end-goal for the series, and thus is forever shuffling the board instead of playing for the win.

So what can I do? (Besides the fact that my agent, saints willing, will keep my feet to the fire and not let me get lazy about these things?) 
The big one, for me, will be keeping my eye on the second one.  A series needs a good ending, and it needs to move towards that with every installment.  If the whole series is a journey from Point A to Point Z, every book in the series needs to make significant progress in that journey.  Some series end up dithering around Point Q or R, not sure how to pace out the final journey, since they don't know how many books they're going to write.

Can we raise a small glass to J.K. Rowling, who could have EASILY gone, "I think I'll make this nine or ten books" and dragged things out.  Instead, she planned it at seven, and kept it there.

And that's how you avoid it dying on you: By ending it intentionally. 

Which, according the the Big Crazy Plan, is exactly what I intend to do.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why are we stuck in the Middle Ages?

Something has been picking at my brain for a while, and it's something I will fully cop to being somewhat complicit in myself.

Why is the fantasy genre stuck in the Middle Ages?

More specifically, why is most secondary-world fantasy set in a technological and sociological equivalent of the Middle Ages?

I mean, sure, there's some variation-- for some books it's more of a Renaissance, and some move out of a Western European mold for Arabic or Asian flavors, but the technology and sociology is pretty much a given.  I remember being slightly thrown reading Amanda Downum's Drowning City when she had characters using single-shot pistols, and then I thought, "Well, why not?"

Now, I've tried to tweak that, personally.  Maradaine, and by extension the rest of Druthal, has more in common with Dickensian England than Elizabethan England-- save a lack of gunpowder weapons and steam engines.  (Though, to an extent, I have created it as a world where either of those things could be poised to emerge in the very near future.)  But, even with that worldbuilding flavor, it's not so out there that people won't be able to latch onto its Traditional Fantasy/Western Europe/somewhat clock-punky vibe. 

What's funny is we DO accept fantasy of a different tech level just fine-- fantasy tropes in the modern world is what Urban Fantasy is all about, after all.  But those are consistently set in our world, tweaked with magic and vampires and other fantasy elements. 

Is anyone doing secondary-world fantasy that really hard-twists this paradigm?  I can think of two: China Meiville is one.  And Neal Stephenson with Anathem.  But the latter was more alt-Earth sci-fi than fantasy. 

I'd really love to see something in full high-fantasy mode, but set with WWII tech.  Or science-and-magic fueled Race to the Five Moons. 

Which brings me to another point.  Not only is our idea of technology in secondary-world fantasy somewhat stagnant, but secondary fantasy worlds tend to be technologically (and sociologically) stagnant.  For how many books are things more or less absolutely the same for millennia?  Even to the point of the same borders. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Villains and POV

Villains are always very fun to write. They are even more fun to write from their point of view.  That was something I missed getting to do, to a degree, in Holver Alley Crew and Maradaine Constabulary.  Spending time in the villains' heads just wouldn't have worked for those two books.  But I did it in spades in Thorn of Dentonhill, because I wanted to show first-hand how Veranix was getting under Fenmere's skin.  Of course, with Thorn, since I had many different villains going on, even with them all tying back to Fenmere, I had plenty of people I could still keep mysterious and stay out of their heads.

But Fenmere?  Him I had to get in there.  Him I had to show what it meant to be a man of power, who was feeling that power eroding away because of some punk kid with a bow and some magic.  Eventually, Fenmere, sick of the failure around him, has to take steps:

             Fenmere’s parlor was once again sullied by the presence of the Blue Hand Circle. This was becoming all too common, and Fenmere was troubled with how comfortable they made themselves in his home. He took solace in one small fact: their presence meant that they had failed. He drew every ounce of satisfaction out of it that was possible.
            “So you’ve come back,” he said as he bit into a plum. He had given his staff explicit instructions not to offer or deliver food to any of the Blue Hand on this visit. All four of them eyed the plum in his hands like dogs being kept out in the yard, denied entry to the kitchen. They sat on one side of the parlor, all on the couch save Kent, who paced back and forth behind them. Fenmere had long known how to tame dogs and spot which one most needed the whip.
            At this meeting, the whip was his authority, giving these mages a show of strength. He sat in his favorite chair, giving more of his attention to the plum in his hand than his guests. Gerrick and Corman stood behind his chair. Nevin and Samael both sat in a far corner by the fireplace; Nevin sharpened knives while Samael put together a new crossbow. Bell and a few more heavies stood by the door.
            Fenmere ignored all sense of propriety and let the juice of the plum drip down his chin.
            “We were ejected from the campus before we found the goods,” Kalas said.
            “And so you come back to me, hat in hand,” Fenmere said, wiping the juice with his sleeve. He looked over at the Blue Hand as they stewed in anger and naked hunger. “Why, Kalas. You’re still wearing your hat.”
            “What’s this, Fenmere?” Kalas sneered.
            “I said you are coming to me hat in hand, and yet you still wear your hat. You are sitting in my parlor with your hat on.” He stared hard at Kalas, taking a savage bite into the plum.
            “Fenmere, we have--” was all Kalas got out. Fenmere pelted him in the face with the plum as hard as he could. Kalas may be able to turn him into a potato, but that felt good.
            “Do you see anyone else in here with a blasted hat on, Mister Kalas? No, by blazes, because it isn’t done! You come into my blazing house, you rutting well better take your blasted hat off and hold it in your blasted hand!”
            With slow, simmering deliberateness, Kalas took off his hat and held it in his lap with one hand. With his other, he wiped remnants of plum off his face and licked them from his fingers.
 Now writing Way of the Shield, I'm back to a piece where I can write the villains in their own head.  And these guys are righteous in their beliefs.  They are passionate and fervent in their convictions that they are doing the right thing, they are breaking the eggs that need to be broken to make the most important omelet ever.

They're a lot of fun to write.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Facts not in Evidence

One of the pitfalls in writing genre fiction is, of course, the dreaded infodump.  Who doesn't see one of those wind-ups where 6000 years of history is about to be dropped on the reader and cringe?  Or, more often than not, start flipping through pages to find where it ends and the story starts up again.

I do my best to avoid it.

However, one thing that's as much a problem, but harder to catch yourself doing, is the opposite problem: underexplaining.  It is, in fact, incredibly easy to do.

For me, the problem stems from, when I'm writing, certain points being SO OBVIOUS in my head, that I forget I would need that I actually have to explain them to the reader.  Funnily enough, where that would come into play more was less about 6000 years of history or the complex internal politics of one nation, and more about the simple dynamics between sets of characters. 

Case it point, though this isn't my own work, but something I did a crit read on a few years ago.  In this manuscript draft, the main character (let's call her "Brianna", though that wasn't her name, but I really can't recall), in a low moment, needing some guidance, wishes she could talk to (to make up another) Rhenna.  As I read this, I thought, "Who the heck is Rhenna?" I dug back through chapters until I found the reference-- much earlier (years earlier in the story), Brianna had traveled with a group from point A to point B (as is the way of things in epic fantasy), and Rhenna was a member of that group.  However, Rhenna is little more than a name drop.  She doesn't have a single line of dialogue.  When I asked the author, "Why would Brianna want to talk to Rhenna for advice?"  "Well, when they traveled together, they talked a lot, and Brianna really looked up to Rhenna during that time." 

In as much as I ever do during a crit session of any kind, I flipped.  "THAT'S NOT IN THE TEXT!"  OK, I didn't shout it, but I did make my point in a strong manner.  The point is, there was all this stuff about Brianna's journey from Point A to Point B, which was three months of time for the character, but two pages of text for the reader, that the author KNEW, but didn't tell us about.  

I'm not claiming my own innocence here.  Lord knows the trunked manuscript Crown of Druthal is FULL TO THE BRIM of that sort of thing.  There I have a ship full of characters in which I pretty much expected the reader to read my mind about the details of the various friendships, enmities and barely-tolerated acceptances between them all.

Frankly, this is a key reason why I think everyone should have a crit group or beta readers, because it's important for someone who doesn't live inside your head to look at it and yell at you for presuming facts not in evidence. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Third Act and Second Book Problems

Of late, in addition to hammering at the rough draft of Way of the Shield (yes, that's just a working title), I've been cranking out summaries for intended second and third books for Holver Alley Crew and Maradaine Constabulary.  Frankly, this part of the process is fun, but it is definitely something of a battle.  And right now the biggest battle is turning the rough notes of the third act of Maradaine Constabulary 3 (working title: This Most August Body) into something coherent enough for other people to make sense of.  Included with this is doing it in a way that A. makes for a nice resolution to the story of the book proper and B. turns the screws on arcplots. 

Going back to my six-book arc structure, roughly speaking, book three is where the first shoe drops.  Without giving away spoilers (for a book that, in a wildly-successful supremely best-case scenario, probably wouldn't come out until 2016), I know what that shoe drop is, and I know why it's going to happen... but key points of the how are still eluding me.  I think I'm on the verge of figuring it out.

Of course, there's only so much you can pack into a thousand-odd word summary.  One of my crit partners commented on my summary for Maradaine Constabulary 2 (working title: The Little East):

I'm guessing you went for a who-dunnit with a colorful cast of suspects, but it's not quite coming across in the outline, to me.  What makes the suspects interesting?  
A fair question, but it goes right to that point: the summary only gives the bones of the story.  I have reasonable confidence in my ability to do character and dialogue work (playwriting background, after all) to make the suspect pool dynamic and interesting.  But the summary won't make that clear.  Heck, the summary only names about half of the suspects.  (My outline notes are more complete along those lines.) 

So that's what's on my plate this week: cracking the third act of MCI03, and continuing to dig my way through the word mines for Way of the Shield.  What are you all working on?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sorting out the subgenre- Street Level Fantasy

I'm still dissatisfied with subgenre definitions in the Fantasy genre.  Specifically, where work like Thorn of Dentonhill, Holver Alley Crew and Maradaine Constabulary fit in the grand scheme.

Take, for example, the Genre Map they use over at Book Country.  The Fantasy section has nine subgenres, though three of them (Horror, Weird Fiction and Slipstream/Interstices) are really separate from Fantasy, and are jammed in there for convenience.  This leaves six: Traditional, High/Epic, Urban, Contemporary, Historical and Comic. Though the distinctions are vague, if you ask me. I'm not entirely sure where the lines between "Traditional" and "High/Epic" are, for example, or between "Urban" and "Contemporary".  ("Comic" and "Historical", though, are somewhat easier to suss out.) 

Now, I think my books, in terms of subgenre, fit in to the same sort of niches as Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves*, Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora or Amanda Downum's The Bone Palace.  Of these, only one is used as a "landmark" on the map, that being Lies, which falls under "Traditional".  So that's where I placed my three books when I was using Book Country for critique.  (They are still there, if you hunt for them, though now only the first three chapters.  And said chapters for Maradaine Constabulary are out of date.)  I wasn't crazy about it, but that was the best fit.

I think "traditional" is a misnomer, for myself and for books like Hulick's, Lynch's and Downum's.  But what would be right?

In my gut, "urban" is more correct, since all those books deal with the confines of an urban environment.  But "urban fantasy" is not about fantasy in a city setting-- it's about fantasy tropes set in the "real" world, even if your setting isn't remotely urban. (I'm looking at you, Sookie Stackhouse.) And if that's "urban", what's "contemporary"?

I've heard "low fantasy", as an opposite of "high fantasy", but I don't like it.  It sounds vaguely insulting. 

So here's my suggestions, and I'd love it if people out there helped brand it: Street Level Fantasy.  Fantastic, secondary-world fiction, where the stakes are defined as personal and local. 

Who's with me?

*- As far as Hulick goes, I'm making some assumptions of how the whole book goes, as I didn't finish the book.  Yes, I suck.  I had other things I needed to read. But for all I know it ends with gods walking the earth and huge armies clashing across continents.  So I could be wrong placing it in with the other books.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hey, look. A milestone of sorts.

So, it's more or less been a year since I decided to write in this blog twice a week every week.  And what do you know, a year later, I've held to that plan.  Admittedly, I've had a few days where my entry was a bit on the late side (by hours, mind you, not days or anything), but I can point to the whole years worth of Monday-and-Thrusday posts and say, "Yup, I did it.".  It's been a useful exercise.

In that year, I've noticed a steady and solid build in readership.  Nothing huge yet, mind you, but a build nonetheless.  No posts have really been huge barnstormers (the one with the biggest numbers is the Worldbuilding Link Post, but even that isn't exactly setting the internet on fire).  This is probably because I'm not exactly writing things that are controversial or even search engine candy.  (Next week, I discuss how Harry Potter and Lady Gaga connect to Justin Beiber's kitten-eating fetish, and start online feuds with Neil Gaiman, Scott Lynch and John Scalzi AT THE SAME TIME.)

And, frankly, the last year has been pretty good to me.  A year ago I went to the DFW Writer Con, with the hopes of pitching to agents.  Now I have an agent (although not from DFW), and through him, I have two manuscripts shopping around, and one more that should be making its journey soon.  Three novels on the market?  Can't be too shabby.  I'd love to be able to announce that I've signed a deal, and with any luck that announcement will be coming this year.  But this business moves slowly, and I've made peace with that.  I believe it will happen, and I can continue to be patient.  The point is this: I'm pleased with the progression I've made so far.  More to the point, I'm pleased with my writing, and what it's evolved to. 

This past year has been a useful exercise, and like any exercise, I'm going to continue doing it for as long as I'm seeing value.  And I definitely still am.

So, of to the word mines.  I've got another book to write.