Finding Inspiration for your Characters

41hjTdanuNL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Inspiration can come from the most unusual places.

This week, I’ve been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I picked it up mostly because it was .99 at Goodwill, and also because it sounded interesting – I feel like a misfit most days, and I have my share of giants to take down! (Don’t we all, though?)

In this book, Gladwell discusses why the epic battle between David and Goliath is often misunderstood. He argues that you need to look at it in the historical context. David, a shepherd, was used to taking out would-be predators with his slingshot. It was not only the preferred weapon for defending your flock; it was the only weapon! So for him to walk out onto that field and take out Goliath – who anticipated hand-to-hand combat – in such a way shouldn’t actually surprise us at all. All David did was use Goliath’s own skills and assumptions against him.

That’s interesting, obviously, but Gladwell goes deeper, looking at famous people – some you may have never heard of before, like Jay Freireich, who pioneered the use of extra platelets to stop leukemia patients from bleeding to death, and developed the cocktail we now call chemotherapy. He argues, in part, that sometimes great adversity – losing a parent, having dyslexia, etc. – can actually fuel greatness in a person, because they learn to compensate and then succeed in spite of that.

But that’s not what got me totally interested. No, what had me reaching for my pen to scribble, in great big blue ink letters THIS IS NICKY!, was the idea of hits, near misses, and remote misses.

To explain, imagine you’re in the London Blitz of 1940 – 41. The German Luftwaffe is dropping bombs on the city almost every night. But night after night, you don’t get hit. Maybe the neighborhood over does. Maybe you know someone who was killed. Or maybe your house gets hit, but you survive without a scratch. You start to think hey, this is all right, it’s not great but I’m still here, so why bother worrying about it? And eventually, depending on your mindset, you might even start to think of yourself as invincible. Freaking Germans couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, let alone my bloody house! Lousy shots, the lot of them. 

It sounds crazy. Totally crazy. But the reason I scribbled OMG this is Nicky! on pages was because it totally IS Nicky.

Nicky is my little 14-year old rumrunner. And he fits the entire profile of this book. He lost his dad at age 8. He had to support his family because his mother totally checked out. He’s the smallest kid in his class and is constantly being bullied, and has to learn to defend himself. And then there’s the rumrunning!

One thing I always sort of struggled with in my mind was the question of how likely it was that Nicky could/would survive so many go-rounds with the law and the Klan and still get away with it. I mean, he’s good enough to not only get away from the Klan/law in one scene, but also to make sure their cars go off in the creek; he eludes the Feds; he evades them again when he’s set up by a rival.

Sure. I set it up. Nicky’s a damn good driver, and his car is one of the best in the county. He should know – he helped build it. He’s got the skills. He’s got the guts. And he knows how to use his knowledge. Furthermore, he knows how to use the ‘knowledge’ of the Feds and the Klan against them. Who would think a runty 14-year old in a souped-up Model T could do all the things they do? But he does.

And there was tiny part of me that questioned if people would really believe it.

But, according to the Misses Theory above, if you have enough near and remote misses, you start to believe nothing can happen to you. And, the more trials and hardships you endure in your life early on, the more likely you are to take risks normal people wouldn’t take, simply because you have no other options. Nicky 100% fits that profile. He lost his dad, he could barely earn enough to make ends meet, he basically raised his twin siblings. By the time he’s forced into becoming a rumrunner, he has no other options. So between these two things – feeling invincible and being forced into a corner – it all makes perfect sense to me.

So if you’re struggling with character motivations,  you might want to see if there are any books out there that cover that character’s issues. Characters with issues are characters we care about, after all. We root for the underdog. Harry Potter should have died as a baby, but he didn’t – so he went into that final battle with Voldemort as the clear underdog, and yet (spoiler alert!) he still won. Seabiscuit was the underdog of the 1930s – there was no reason a small horse who’d never won a race in his life ought to be able to be a great racehorse, but he did it. A few years ago at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a German Shepherd captured everyone’s hearts because he’d been rescued from an abusive situation in which he almost died – and yet went on to win Best in Group.

Underdogs have reasons for winning. Take inspiration from them. Take inspiration from psychology books, from self-help books, from everything around you. I had no idea David and Goliath was going to help me be more at peace with Nicky’s exploits – but it actually helped me understand that in truth, Nicky’s story is actually, already, the only way it could ever possibly be, because of who Nicky is.

Inspiration. Go get some!

 

Link to David and Goliath at Barnes & Noble:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/david-and-goliath-malcolm-gladwell/1115837698?ean=9780316204378#/

 

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Re-writers, unite! Or untie. Whichever.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” —ColetteCasual Chance, 1964

As promised, the theme of this summer is rewrites.

Actually, the theme of this summer is ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may all be living in a fascist hell,’ so I’ve been on as close to a vacation as I’ve ever been in my life. I’ve had gelato for the first time (yes, I’m serious, and YES, I loved it, eat it, I beg of you!), I’ve shopped, I’ve cuddled with the kitties, I’ve planted rose bushes, and I’ve been collecting and shopping for my vintage shop.

But the rewrites have also been ongoing.

Rewriters, unite! Or untie. That’s what it feels like, sometimes – that our manuscripts are great big tapestries, and you’re not quite sure what went wrong where, but if you start tugging at one small thread, the entire thing will unravel.

And guess what? That’s okay. Because in the end, it will be better.

This second novel is hard because, as I mentioned in an old post, I thought it was done. Finito, finished, fin. Then, when I finished the new first novel in the series and went back to this one, I realized that not only was it not done, it also wasn’t even a very good first draft. It had several issues, including:

Characters:  My MC, Erin, is totally kick-ass and snarky in the first novel. In this one, she was afraid and whiny and I hated that. Also, there was very little interaction between her and my male main character, Kai – which is kind of a problem, given that one of the subplots is their developing relationship. So that had to change. Plus, the antagonist’s motives weren’t clear – and neither were its actions. What was it doing? I had no idea, and I wrote the thing!

Plot:  I know, the plot derives from the characters’ actions, and that was a huge problem in this book:  there were no actions! Okay, that’s not quite accurate, but the truth is, the characters weren’t doing anything to drive the story forward. There was a huge chunk in the middle – like 40 pages – where Erin didn’t really do much of anything except whine and react. All that’s either getting cut, or getting rewritten. The really sad thing was, she didn’t have anything to react against. The antagonist wasn’t doing anything, either! There has to be give and take between them. The MC does something; the antagonist does something in return; the MC reacts; and so on. Yeah. Like literally none of that was happening.

The Antagonist:  Your MC can only be as good/strong/intelligent/resilient as your antagonist lets them be. You fill in the adjective. But no matter how great your MC is, your antagonist has to be just as great. Otherwise, where’s the tension? Where’s the fun? And my antagonist just . . . wasn’t. In fact, when I think about it, my antagonist appeared exactly twice – at the beginning, and the end. That’s it. And that’s okay, as long as we know it’s pulling strings behind the scenes – after all, how many times did we see Voldemort in HP#1? Once. Well, twice, technically, but we didn’t know the thing killing the unicorn was him. But he was a constant presence. My antagonist wasn’t even that. So that’s an issue I’m addressing.

Forward Momentum:  Yeah, well, there wasn’t any, and we’re fixing that. ‘Nuff said.

It’s not to say that there wasn’t anything good from the original version. There was. A lot, in fact. And those scenes are going to be taken and revised slightly, and slotted back into place, hopefully this time with better, stronger scenes surrounding them! It’s not that they’re darlings I can’t murder; they really are good, strong scenes that drive the story forward and are necessary to the novel. But the fact is, a lot of the manuscript is full of darlings that need murdered. In fact, they’re not even darlings. They’re sort of like the weird neighbor down the street who’s quiet and keeps to himself, and every once in a while you see him digging in the backyard. You’re not quite sure what he’s doing, and you’re not quite sure what he’s doing in your neighborhood, but you’re pretty sure he should probably just go away.

Rewrites are scary. I get that. I swear, I’m the queen of rewrites. But it’s how we learn, and how we get better as writers. The days of Faulkner typing a manuscript, submitting it his editor, and forgetting it, are over. And I’m sure Faulkner revised and rewrote, too.

It really is the only way.

So be brave. You’ve got a manuscript in the desk drawer, don’t you? Maybe it’s finished; maybe it’s not quite done. Maybe you think it’s the best thing since espresso; maybe you think it’s total crap. But the only way to find out what it really is, is to sit down with it, a pen, and some Post-It Notes, and get started. I have to. Stephen King has to. Diana Gabaldon has to.

You have to be ready to be honest with yourself. You have to be honest enough to find the flaws, admit them, and be willing to do something about them. And I’ll be truthful here:  you may not even be able to see the flaws right now. Not all of them, anyway. I sure couldn’t, not for a long time. (Sad thing is, neither did my beta readers.) You have to be ready to decide what kind of book you want this to be – not just genre, but do you want it published or not? Just like with anything worth doing, you have to be willing to stick with it, all the way.

Are you ready to make that commitment? Are you ready to pick up that string you see hanging out of your manuscript, the one that screams This is what’s wrong!, and give it a tug, knowing that once you do, the entire thing will probably unravel before your eyes? Are you ready to face the fact that once you tug that string ,you can’t un-tug it? It’ll reveal more. I promise. Once you tug that loose thread, you’ll see a dozen more. You’ll see flaws and holes and problems you didn’t even realize were actually there. I’ve been working on this book in some version or another for ten freaking years, and I’m still finding plotholes and issues!

If you’re ready .  . . let’s go.

Untie that manuscript. Let’s see what happens.

Happy writing.

 

An earlier blog post on the same subject, apparently:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/02/04/the-manuscript-is-not-sacred/

From The Atlantic, an article by writer John Rechy that touches on both Faulkner and his process of rewriting – and why it’s so important to him. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/02/the-key-to-writing-a-mystery-is-asking-the-perfect-question/515799/

Another great story from The Atlantic:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/my-pencils-outlast-their-erasers-great-writers-on-the-art-of-revision/267011/

Criticism . . . and How to Accept It (sort of)

There’s an imp that lives under my desk. He’s an ugly little spud who loves to stare at me and cackle gleefully (he does not, however, slime me, for which I suppose I should be grateful!). And his name is Ihatecriticism. (Not to be confused with Ihatedoctors and Ihatetrump and Ihatewinter, obviously.)

I’ve lived with Ihatecriticism for a long time. Most of my life, really. You might have one of these little things, too. Sometimes they’re strong enough to keep us from even starting something new (What on earth do you think you’re doing? You don’t know what you’re doing! You suck! You will suck!) And sometimes, if we’re able to exorcise them, they mostly go away . . .

But I don’t know that they ever, truly, disappear.

Ihatecriticism is a parasite. Black, spidery, sucking the joy and life out of everything. Just when I’m starting to feel good about my writing, or the way my novel is going – BOOM! Out he jumps to remind me that I Suck, and I Will Never Be Any Good, and oh yeah, I Suck.

I’ve been wrestling with him again this week, as my beta readers have been working on one of my manuscripts. Let’s be honest:  for a writer, the hardest thing in the world is to sit quietly and let people rip your work apart. Even when you know it’s for the best, even when you know they have your interest at heart, even when you know  you actually asked for it . . . when it comes time to actually sit down across from them, with your baby manuscript in front of you, and listen to their criticisms . . . you really would rather have a root canal without the numbing agent.

I’ve been there several times. It’s one reason why I’m driven to being a perfectionist – because I hate, absolutely hate, to be criticized. If I leave no room for it, then no one can do it. Sounds plausible, right?

The problem, of course, is that nothing can be perfect.

Several years ago, I taught a creative writing class at my local college. For the most part, I had very talented students who wanted to be better. The class was structured as a workshop; students submitted written assignments, then we all critiqued them during the next week and discussed them in class the next week. We had rules about critiquing. They  had to learn what made a critique constructive. They learned how to look for the good and the bad, and give time to both.

But there was one student who simply could not take the criticism. She couldn’t write. At all. She could have gotten better, but she refused to admit the problems. Sentences were unreadable. Spelling and grammatical errors filled the pages. We offered her several solutions for the first half of the semester – the most important being simply running spellcheck and reading her work aloud. No dice. Finally, students started to avoid her works. Those that continued to try to offer help were met with open hostility. We didn’t understand her vision. We didn’t get it. We were hacks, not artists. 

Don’t be that student.

It’s hard. I’ve been gearing myself up for a month for these critiques, and part of me is still not sure I’m ready. Even coming from friends who want to see me succeed, it’s going to be hard. Even though I ASKED them to do this, it’s going to be hard! But here’s the sad fact:  I’m too close to the novel. I can’t see all the flaws. I know what I meant to say – but I have no idea if I actually said it. I know what I meant to do with the story – but can others see that?

And that, precisely, is why you need constructive criticism.

One of the things that can help both you and your beta readers is to settle ahead of time what you specifically want feedback on. Are you looking for line edits? Character? Continuity? Overall story cohesion? Chapter transitions? All of the above? Spell it out for them (maybe even in email so they remember). Then, you’ve asked for it, and they feel comfortable providing it. Win-win.

Another thing you can do is set up rules ahead of time. One writing group I belonged to had a rule:  while receiving feedback, writers had to enter the ‘Cone of Silence.’ As long as we were discussing a work, that author could not speak. Couldn’t argue. That gave the betas time and space to deliver their feedback, and the writer time and space to accept and digest it. Once the feedback was delivered, the writer could then offer explanations, or ask further questions. It worked really well.

You can also require everyone to give constructive criticism, which simply means this:  readers must tell you the good with the bad. We all like to know what we did well! In fact, really good feedback begins withe the positive. “I liked X – she’s sassy and funny and believable!” Or, “I love the way you handle dialogue – it really pops and every character has a distinct voice.” Then, and only then, should you go to the criticisms.

As for actually hearing and accepting it . . . well. Suck it up, buttercup.

It’s not just hard to hear the feedback:  it’s bloody hard. You want to defend things. You will have a small voice in your head screaming that your betas didn’t read carefully enough because they missed X and Y, and how could they not understand that joke, or they’re all man-haters, so of course they hate your main character . . . and the fact is, those are probably the things you need to work on the most. The general rule of thumb is this:  if you give your work to five people, and one of them dislikes something, it’s probably them. If all five dislike something, it’s probably you.

But you do have to suck it up, if you want to get better. Your betas will catch things that you just can’t. You want to fix those things before an agent ever sees that manuscript. And even then, your agent will have criticisms. So will your editor. And . . . so will your readers. Don’t you want the chance to fix things before those mistakes get plastered all over Goodreads.com? Because if you think Ihatecriticism is bad now, just wait until all those vicious people get their hands on your book!

If you want to write, and then stick your manuscripts in the drawer, then you probably don’t need feedback. You probably also don’t have that little demon hiding under your desk. But if you do want published . . . then at some point, you need to get some holy water and exorcise that little imp back where it belongs.

 

 

https://www.bustle.com/p/12-tips-for-getting-feedback-on-your-writing-43119 – some great tips on how to accept feedback and criticism!

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/give-constructive-criticism/ – Good tips on how to provide other writers with good constructive feedback.

https://hobbylark.com/writing/Giving-and-Receiving-Feedback-in-Writers-Groups – More tips on how to give good feedback.

http://lisapoisso.com/2016/11/23/handle-editing-feedback/ – Although this deals more with editorial feedback, it’s still got some good information for how to handle feedback from your betas, too.

 

Writing a damn fine story? Read ‘Damn Fine Story,’ then!

damfinestoryIf you’ve read my blog for long, you know that I have a bit of an addiction to books about writing. I firmly believe that if you’re having an issue with your writing – whatever it is you write, however long you’ve been writing – it can be helpful to see what others have to say.

Often, if I’m stuck on a manuscript and don’t precisely know why – or even if I do know why, but can’t figure out how to fix it – I’ll go to Barnes & Noble and see what’s new in the writing aisle. I did this a couple of months ago, and came home with one of the best books about writing I’ve ever read – Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story. 

If the name’s familiar, that’s because Chuck has written many novels. He’s also a regular columnist with Writer’s Digest. And in this book, he uses popular works to illustrate his points about how to write your story. Emphasis on story. 

I bought this book because – well, the cover, for one thing! Who doesn’t love a deer in a monocle? Seriously. Who? But I also bought it because of the paragraph I read when I flipped the book open to page 7:

“You can’t plug a bunch of narrative components into an equation and spit out a perfect story. The truth is, most of what I’m telling you here is wildly imperfect. It’s guesswork. It’s lies layered with horseshit layered with I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about. You don’t have the answers, either. Now writing is beholden to very specific rules, and those these rules are very flexible, they’re also teachable. Storytelling is far more . . . wiggly.” 

I knew. The moment I read those lines, I knew I wanted to read this book. Chuck doesn’t pull punches. This is not a book about getting to know your characters or crafting the perfect descriptive sentence or creating rules for your paranormal universe (although those things are covered). No. This book is about how to tell a story. And the next thing that grabbed me, and turned me upside down and shook the loose change out of my pockets, was this gem from page 10:

“Storytelling is an act of interrupting the status quo.” 

Yeah. Think about that one for a second. Chuck makes you think about it. Really, when it comes down to it, that’s what a story is, right? You have a character in stasis, until Something Happens and their status quo is shattered. The rest of the story is about the fallout and what the character does as a result. Does he come into possession of a magical, dangerous ring that must be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom? Does she learn she can see ghosts? Do your high school classmates wake up one morning to find the Russians have invaded? Status quo – interrupted. And your story starts there.

Before you start the book, I’ll warn you:  it’s helpful if you’ve seen Die Hard and Star Wars (like, the whole series) recently. Chuck uses them to illustrate the points he makes. You’ll understand why.

One thing I absolutely love about this book is Chuck’s take on the traditional three-story arc. He hates it. See, I always thought I was the weirdo, the wrong one, for never being able to make my stories adhere to that damn thing! Rising action, climax, denouement. Never worked for me. And if you’re like me, Chuck is here to assure you that it’s okay! We’re not the weirdos! (You can chant it if you want! I did!) His argument is this:  “No story conforms to a standard shape . . . if you think about story in a three-dimensional way, suddenly you get a roller coaster – it rises, it falls, it whips left, it jerks right, it corkscrews through the air before spinning you upside down in a vicious loop-de-loop.”

See? Don’t we want to write stories like that?

Now, Chuck also has a lot to say about characters. Here’s another way to look at story:  your character has a problem; the story is the solution. Again, the status quo is interrupted. What your character does about that is the story. But more than that:  how does your character change during the story? Because they should, Chuck argues; otherwise, what’s the story about? In fact, he like to give a character three transition points:  who is this person in the beginning, the middle, and the end? He also believes that every scene, every line of dialogue, should drive home who this character is (using, of course, hero John McClane from Die Hard as his example).

There’s so much to this book – structuring scenes, how to give your characters agency in the novel, using subplots, themes and symbols – and all of it will make you consider your own work-in-progress in a new way.

There are lots of general books about writing out there. There are books that are genre-specific, those that tell you how to create characters, or structure plot, or create better descriptions, or add comedy to your writing. Damn Fine Story is not quite one of those. 🙂 Instead, Chuck looks at things through a different lens. A different, irreverent lens. Yes, he uses language. If that’s a problem for you, overlook it and read the book anyway.

You will be SO glad you did.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/damn-fine-story-chuck-wendig/1126583462#/

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/ – Chuck’s website and blog

“How could the ending go so wrong?” Finales, endings, and ‘The Alienist’

Like 47 million other people, I’ve been glued to my TV for the last several weeks, watching the television adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. If you’ve somehow had your head in the sand since January – well, let me catch you up. Trump is being sued by a porn star, Linda Brown died this past week, millions marched for safer schools, and The Alienist is a novel set in 1896 New York, about a trio of allies trying to save the city’s most vulnerable children from a predator.

The trio is as follows:

  • Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) – One of a new breed of psychologists who want to explain crimes by explaining why criminals act as they do – in short, a forensic psychologist.
  • John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans) – well-born, wealthy, and living with his grandmother after his engagement was called off in what we suspect was a very bad manner. Also a newspaper artist.
  • Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) – an intrepid woman intent on making her own way in the world. She’s starting by being the first woman ever hired by the New York City Police Department.

Truthfully – I loved this show. As a historian, I appreciated the reality of it – the grittiness, the dirt, the obvious disconnect between the social classes (there’s a scene in which John gives money to a child prostitute, hoping it will help him escape that life . . . and only later realizes that he could/should have actually taken the child in. But it takes him nearly the entire series to even give him money!), and the sheer reality. History’s not clean. It’s not neat and tidy. It shouldn’t be, anyway, because it wasn’t. And The Alienist never shied away from that.

the alienistI loved the historic reality, which included Theodore Roosevelt as a main character (he was Commissioner of the New York City Police Force during this time anyway; he kind of had to be in there). Now, I haven’t read the book yet – it’s in my to-be-read list – but I suspect a great deal of Roosevelt’s character in the show came from Carr’s novel. If so, my hat’s off to Carr. 🙂 There’s one scene in particular that I love:  at the opera, Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan come face-to-face. In real life, and in the show, the two are enemies; they despise each other completely. And in this scene, the disgust is palpable. Both stare at each other; then Roosevelt, as the social inferior, gives Morgan the barest of nods. “Morgan.” Morgan, in return, gives him a curt, “Roosevelt.” And I’m sitting there in my mind screaming Yeah, in ten  years, you’re going DOWN, Morgan! And Roosevelt’s going to be the one that brings you down! (Yeah, you’ve got to be a historian to get it, I know.)

So for the past several weeks, I’ve been glued to my television at 8pm. Great storytelling, fantastic acting. Luke Evans is my new fantasy crush. You do get the sense that you’re missing things – adaptations from 600+ page novels do need to cut things, I suppose – but overall, it’s been a hell of a ride.

That is . . . until the finale.

And I hate to say it – you’ve no idea how much I hate to say it – but I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a series finale in my life.

Not the acting. No, LOVE the actors! Luke Evans is amazing, Dakota Fanning is amazing, everyone is amazing. No. Sadly . . . it was the writing.

Like most writers, I can only imagine what it would be like to have my novel adapted for either film or television. What most people don’t understand is that the authors may actually have very little input into how that adaptation is made. Look at Outlander, for crying out loud – I don’t think the writers on that show could screw things up more. I imagine that rabid fans of Caleb Carr were equally aghast at changes made to their beloved novel, but I have to say that as a viewer only, I didn’t see them, so they didn’t affect me.

Yeah. Well. Until tonight.

The entire series has been about seeking a murderer – a sick psycho who preys on boy prostitutes, killing them gruesomely on holy days. Many of them have been on their own for ages; they have created a family, but they have also learned to be street-smart and self-reliant. One of these boys, Joseph, is befriended by John Moore – and then kidnapped by the killer and held in a secure location until the next holy day.

That’s not the problem. Raise the stakes. Every good writer knows that. MY problem stemmed from the way these scenes were handled by the writers. Joseph is street-smart and resourceful (he’s lived to the ripe old age of ten or twelve, after all). Yet here he lies on a stone floor, with his hands tied in front of him, left alone for most of the time, and yet he never tries, not once, to escape? This is the point where the entire show just – stopped. And lost all credibility with me. Joseph’s a prostitute, for God’s sake. He’s done and seen just about everything. He knows this man is going to kill him. Yet . . . he does nothing to save himself. Not one freaking thing. It’s as if the writers needed an excuse to get John, Kreizler, and Sarah to the scene of the crime, so they let Joseph be helpless. It was truly disappointing. I don’t know if the ending in the novel is the same way or not, but if so, it’s going to be disappointing, too.

And yes, grittiness is good, but in this same scene, the killer kills a cat in front of Joseph, for no reason. This really bothered on several levels, not the least of which is that I’m a cat lover and I hated this scene. But as a writer, it was – pardon the pun – overkill. Newsflash:  we KNOW the bastard’s evil. We get it. We don’t need more evidence. Show us the villain is evil . . . make us believe it . . . and then get on with things.

And for things out of character . . . Kreizler. OMG.

For the entire season, Kreizler has described the killer – rightfully so – as a ‘monster.’ He wants to understand him in order to stop him. That’s it. He doesn’t want to feel pity for him. He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for him. He wants to stop him. End of discussion. But at the end, when the killer is shot and runs away, Kreizler first tries to stop the shooting, and then runs after the killer and cradles his head as he dies. He calls him a ‘damaged child.’

I can’t even. Seriously. It was SO disappointing to see this sudden about-face. The thing murdered innocent children and cats, for God’s sake! I just can’t see Kreizler suddenly changing his mind and feeling sympathy for him. I just can’t. Again, I don’t know if Kreizler does this in the book or not – I hope not, or at least, if he does, I hope the reasons for it are better explained than they were in the show – but for me, it was a slap in the face.

So a great show, a great season, kind of ruined by the writers. Sure, there have been other disappointing series finales. The X-Files comes to mind. But that came at the end of three years that really never should have been. There was never any hope for that finale. But this one? I feel like the writers let me down. Big time. It might have helped if Joseph had been tied up correctly (hands behind the back, chained to a pipe in the wall, ANYTHING) – at least, in some manner that he couldn’t escape on his own. It might have helped if they had made it more clear why Kreizler had his sudden change of heart (and no, the fact that his father was borderline abusive doesn’t cut it with me; Kreizler turned out fine, after all).

In a show that go so much right . . . how could the ending have gone so wrong?

 

 

 

“No, please, not THEME!” Can we make peace with Theme? Sure we can!

Theme.

Oh, I hear the groans now! Have I just evoked hours of torturous agonizing in Lit and Composition classes, while your evil teacher stares down at your through her cats-eye glasses and demands to know what you think the theme of this short story is? 

Yup. Been there, done that. But I think it’s because – and this sounds odd to say – but I think it’s because I never had theme explained to me properly. I remember when we talked about THEME, it was all in CAPITAL LETTERS, and it HAD TO MEAN SOMETHING BIG AND IMPORTANT and IT WAS LIFE AND DEATH, and if we didn’t get the THEME OF THIS STORY, we were DOOMED.

For me, the problem was . . . no one ever seemed to take the time to explain what theme actually meant. It was esoteric, mysterious. To get ‘theme’ meant you were inducted into some mystery cult like the Illuminati, where copies of romance novels (which, of course, could not possibly be good enough to have THEMES) were sacrificed on bonfires. And if you didn’t get theme . . . well, you weren’t good enough. You hadn’t thought about it enough. You were either lazy or dumb.

So yeah. I hear you. Theme = Bad.

But this past week, I had two encounters with the idea of theme that made me reconsider how I look at it – and maybe, just maybe, start to overcome those years of antagonism and consider it . . . something I can actually use.

The first was from one of my favorite books, Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper. Yes, this is a book about writing paranormal novels (which I’m sure is right now giving that high school Lit teacher a heart attack). But as Harper points, out themes are going to be part of your novel anyway, so you may as well learn to recognize them, harness them, and utilize them. As he puts it:

The story is what happens, one event building on another. The theme is the idea your book explores. It can be a big concept like love or death, or war or choices, or it might be more specific, like defying authority or loss of love, or restriction of choice. Once a big idea appears, it usually needs to be narrowed even more. This is what the book is saying about the big idea. It can – and should – be extremely specific, like no one finds his dreams, or Death finds everyone . . . 

See? Isn’t that easy?

Take any good young adult novel, and themes abound. Divergent, for example – to me, the larger theme is conformity; the book’s take on that is, challenging conformity and daring to be yourself. The Harry Potter books take on several themes – death, the search for immortality, doing what you know is right, friendship.

This week, on her Facebook page, Diana Gabaldon also wrote about theme. She had written for a long time without focusing on a theme in her novels (and of course, that didn’t do a thing to deter sales!), but then realized that even if she hadn’t been conscious of it, the themes had appeared anyway. In this post, she sums up the theme of each of her novels in one word, and then explains. But, as she says,

Still, the general notion of a theme is sometimes useful to a writer, in that it influences both the content and the organization of your story. Not always—or even often—in a deliberately conscious way, but it’s there. And once you’ve assembled most of a book, you really ought to be able to tell someone who asks what the theme is.

This is also something that Harper says – even experienced authors may not be aware of the themes in their novels. But themes aren’t just there so that some future high school student can be tortured into discovering them. No. As Harper points, out, themes are there to strengthen your novel. Even if you’re unaware of it, you’re probably infusing theme into your work right now. It may even have something to do with your own life – something you’ve been through, or something you’re going through. Both Gabaldon and Harper advise you to think about that for a moment. If you can identify the them of your novel, how can you work it into your novel even more? Can you change a scene or two, or perhaps tweak a subplot, to magnify and reflect the theme?

Harper says “It’s much better if a theme is developed on purpose. That way, the disparate elements in the story will point toward that theme in a more unified, careful way . . .” In other words, once you identify what your book is about, you can find small ways to bring it out even more (though hopefully without it hitting people over the head with a sledgehammer).

I was thinking about this in relation to my own novels.

When I was first starting with Nicky, my rumrunner, I thought about the theme of being an adult – what does it mean to be an adult? When can you call yourself one? What happens when the adults in your life just aren’t? But there’s another theme as well – secrets. Everyone’s keeping them, Nicky most of all – or so he thinks, anyway. With those things in mind, I can think about scenes that have yet to be written, and consider how they might support those themes.

With my urban fantasy series . . . Book 1 is about betrayal. That’s my overall Big Theme. Erin is betrayed by her boyfriend and her family. Rebecca is betrayed by her husband and the people she trusts. I suppose the smaller theme could then be – how do we handle betrayal? Is revenge ever the answer? With Book 2, it feels like my Big Theme is simply survival. But there’s also the issue of trust. Who can Erin trust? Why can/should she trust them? Can she trust anything, even herself?

What this does – for me – is help me solidify in my own mind what these novels are about. If we take the issue of trust in Book 2 – I can see several ways to expand that as I go into my rewrites. I already know the points where we touch on it. Can I expand them a bit? Can I add the theme as an undertone to scenes I have yet to write?

So if you were one of those students, like me, who never quite got THEME in school, I hope this may have helped. I’ve included a link to Diana’s Facebook post from last week as well.

Happy Writing!

 

The Manuscript Wish List

Single writer seeks agent for editing fun and publishing excitement. Must provide constructive criticism, a shoulder to cry on, unending cheerleading, and a never-quit attitude. Interested? Just call 555- . . . 

Doesn’t it just seem like finding an agent is a mysterious, magical thing? That all the stars have to be in perfect alignment the second your manuscript crosses their desk? Or maybe you have to make a sacrifice to the Writing Gods (pretty sure they take mocha lattes!) to find that literary soul mate?

Me, too.

The only person I know who actually ever found an agent is my friend, fellow writer, and beta reader Debra Dockter. I watched her go through that process. For years. This is how that process went:

  1. Finish manuscript.
  2. Edit manuscript.
  3. Create short list of agents.
  4. Send queries.
  5. Haunt your in-box for responses.
  6. Drown sorrows when the ‘no’s come in.
  7. Start over.

But for ages, that was the only way to do it. I watched Deb get emails that said, “liked it, but . . . (dystopian is dead, not looking for this right now, didn’t love it, too similar to another book, whatever).” Or those cruel emails, the ones that said, “If you’d be willing to change X and Y, and possibly Z and B, and send it to me again, I’ll take another look.” Because those are the ones that get your hopes up, and still . . . nothing comes of them.

But!

In today’s world, we have something magical. Something akin to alchemy, even.

It’s called The Manuscript Wish List. 

And best of all – it’s created by agents! 

Never heard of it? Oh, hang on! You’re going to love it, I promise. The Manuscript Wish List got its start on Twitter a few years ago. The hashtag #MSWL is used whenever an agent or editor has a sudden idea for a great novel that they want to read – and haven’t seen yet. If you follow this hashtag on Twitter, this becomes your bat signal!

But best of all, if you aren’t on Twitter (or like me, just end up using it to cuss out certain orange people who shall not be named), you can go straight to the official site – http://mswishlist.com/ From there, you can search wish lists submitted by agents, editors, publishers – even interns! You can also search by genre. Romance currently has 1,272 requests; historical, 634.

This site, http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/, also has requests from Twitter in live time, so you can see which agents are requesting what, and how recently those requests came across. They also have a blog and some other great resources.

Obviously, you can use these wish lists to find an agent that fits with your particular project. That’s what I’ve been doing.

But you can also use these to think about projects you might not have considered before. Agents get pretty specific sometimes about their wants! For example, someone just posted that there’s probably a story in the Kansas gubernatorial elections – because we have teenagers running. Many want things ‘in the vein of such and such.’ And one of those things just might give you the spark you need, who knows?!

So . . . there you go. If you hadn’t heard of #MSWL before, I hope you take some time to look it over. You never know. You might just find your literary soul mate.