Thursday, May 30, 2013

Avoiding stereotyped characters

It can be difficult for a writer to know when he's giving a character certain traits, personality quirks, speech habits, and preferences to round out a realistically-conceived character or as a nod to the assumptions and stereotypes that people tend to assign to one another.

For instance, is the veteran cop gruff, straight, and divorced because that was the best way to write that character or because that's the first thing that comes to mind? Should half of all heiresses be slender, elegant, and vapid (with the other half being slender, elegant, and philanthropic)? Do scientists have to be eccentric, and would we believe in a bartender who wasn't taciturn and world-weary?

In an interview last year, video game writer Jennifer Hepler describes writing a male-male romance subplot for Dragon Age II. To maintain authenticity, she chose to incorporate the same level of romance in that subplot as she did in heterosexual romance subplots, contrary to suggestions that she dampen emotion in the male-male interactions.

Here's an exercise for writing more original, nuanced characters. Take an aspect of a character's gender, height, weight, age, sexuality, race, or socioeconomic background and write about the character as if that trait were reversed (or at least drastically altered).

If teenage characters seem limited to lolspeak, write them as if they were 40. If gay characters come across as caricatures, write them as if they were straight. Characters who are defined by their physical traits may define themselves more if those features are taken away from them.

The writing that comes out of an experiment like this may not be final-draft usable, but it will be instructive. Even if characters turn out to be better off with some of their original quirks, writing them in a different light helps me find the substance and structure with which to buttress them.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What he's doing instead of finishing The Winds of Winter

According to GalleyCat and Tower of the Hand, George R. R. Martin has written 250,000 words for a companion book to his Song of Ice and Fire series, and yes, that is almost the length of one of his actual novels.

Source: rhaegarlyanna

Of course Martin has the right to write (or not write) whatever he wants, certainly he has the right to some R & R like the rest of us, and no way do I have any room to criticize when I haven't written nearly as much as he has. I'm just sayin'.

And for the record, I still think he will need three more books to finish the series.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What is a strong female character?

I hear this term a lot nowadays. Many literary agents include "strong female characters" on their manuscript wish lists, book clubs and review sites often dissect these protagonists, and increasingly, many book jackets imply that these characters can be found within their pages.

But what is a strong female character, and how do you identify one? Is she a woman warrior who wears knee-high boots and skin-tight leather (or a chainmail bikini)? Is she a no-nonsense corporate powerhouse who enjoys Scotch and cigars in perfectly tailored pantsuits? Is she an "independent" woman who happens to be independent of friendships and close familial relationships, especially with other women?

Is she defined as strong precisely because she's portrayed as unfeminine?*

A post on Clarkesworld by writer Ekaterina Sedia points out that many strong female characters are marked by their membership as one of the boys and their lack of association with (and sometimes disdain for) other women. They are remarkable specifically because they are exceptions to what is portrayed as "typical" womanhood.

That's not to say that a strong female character can't be one of the guys, just that there can and should be other models, too, and models that don't purport to put strength at odds with femininity.

I particularly like Michonne from The Walking Dead (the show... I haven't read the comics). Yes, she's badass and taciturn in a way that's trite elsewhere, but she rises above the cliche. For one thing, her smoldering reticence isn't a signifier of deep-seated insecurity, and it doesn't appear to be the kind of emotional trauma that she'll need a lovin' man to fix. It's a legitimate defense mechanism in a world where trusting people is a risk. And yet, she does (or did) have a close, nurturing friendship, and with another woman, no less. Also, I'd put Ripley in this category.

On the other hand, you've got Jane Eyre, and while some might object that she's still subject to many of the conventions and expectations of her day, I love that she has the moral strength to make difficult decisions for herself. Many other period (and modern) heroines melt down over much less.

What are other examples of strong female characters? Who are some of your favorites?

*Even defining something as specifically "feminine" or "unfeminine" is problematic because it comes bundled with a slew of assumptions about what men and women "naturally" enjoy. But since people tend to label certain pursuits, fairly or unfairly, as masculine or feminine, I think it's important to recognize how we categorize and value those things as well as the people we associate with them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Amazon brings you fan fiction

Whether you love or hate Amazon, it's hard not to admire their creativity in finding new ways to make money.* They've famously opened up avenues for self-published authors, and now they're about to do something similar for fan fiction writers.

People who hate fan fiction say that it's derivative, poorly-written, and a source of legal headaches for authors. People who love fan fiction say that it's harmless fun that can solidify a writer's fan base. I'm pretty sure no one has ever said that it's lucrative, though.

Kindle Worlds will divide royalties between fan fiction writers and the individuals (or companies) holding the rights to the original works. Amazon currently has licenses for The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, and Pretty Little Liars.

I'm curious to see which properties eventually license to Amazon and how much activity Kindle Worlds really generates. People generally dislike having to pay for something that's traditionally been free, and since fan fiction has always been a labor of love for its writers, the question remains: are fan fiction writers more interested in making their work accessible to other fans or in getting a financial return on their hobby? And if they jump on the Amazon money train, will their readers follow?

Furthermore, will their be consequences for authors of the original works? From a publicity standpoint,  it's good to keep people talking and writing about your world and characters. But Marion Zimmer Bradley famously left one novel unpublished when a fan fiction writer accused her of using her ideas for her upcoming book. You don't hear about these kinds of disputes that often, but will that change if fan fiction has the potential to make money?

John Scalzi points out that, on the other hand, Amazon reserves the right to use ideas and material from fan fiction without further compensating the fan fiction writer. It's a not-unreasonable concern, but the question this raises (which was also the operative question in the Marion Zimmer Bradley controversy), is how do you prove or disprove the development of two similar but parallel ideas? Specificity may be key, but if J. K. Rowling had had to pay everyone who suggested a future Ron-Hermione pairing after books one and two, where would we be?

*Insert tax evasion joke, har har. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

It's better live

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to see Dave Matthews Band in concert, and while I'll admit that I'd never sought out their music before, I enjoyed the live experience immensely.

Some things are just more fun in person. And since about half of all dorm room posters in my college years were either Dave Matthews Band or girls kissing, you could say I was over that before I even tried it.

We're still talking about music, by the way.

But a Matthew Dicks article in the Huffington Post got me thinking: what's the author event equivalent of a concert? In his article, Dicks argues that authors and venues need to be specific about the nature of the event (is it a signing, a reading, or a talk of some kind?). That's a good start, but when reading is by nature a solitary pursuit for many people, how do you turn that into something public?

Some writers have books that lend themselves to rather social fandoms (think Harry Potter), so drawing a crowd is mostly a matter of publicity. Others, like David Sedaris (one of Dicks's examples), write a brand of humor that's dry enough to translate well in auditoriums, so even a reading can be uniquely entertaining. Still others have the quick wit and natural sociability that make talks and question-and-answer sessions enjoyable.

And everybody else? Time to join Toastmasters. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Home on the range

An article in The Atlantic declares "farm lit is the new chick lit" and points to a host of new books in which driven, stylish heroines forsake all of the fancy things that Candace Bushnell gave them for rugged, old-fashioned living and rugged, old-fashioned men.

I'll be honest, I don't read either of these genres, but it's an interested trend, especially if you consider the article's suggestion that heroines' aspirations seem to have changed with the economic climate. Discuss.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Everybody's a critic

Kat Howard has a great post today about avoiding the sweeping generalizations that people sometimes make about those who like "bad" books. Her point is that we can enjoy things that aren't necessarily "good" from a critical standpoint, and since everyone likes different things for different reasons, we can all be cool with that. I'm definitely cool with that.

As a corollary, I think people also tend to draw conclusions about the quality or entertainment potential  of a book (or movie) based on the audience. I've occasionally assumed that I won't like something that an acquaintance with vastly different tastes has loved. But this kind of reasoning gets pernicious when we assume that a book/movie that seems geared toward a certain audience can't be any good, i.e., "this is obviously meant for women/jocks/nerds/religious people/hipsters, who have no taste."

That said, I'm still a fan of critical discussion. I enjoy ranting about the things I dislike and raving about the things I love, and I enjoy reading about why other people like and dislike particular things, even and especially when their opinions differ from mine. These are worthwhile conversations, but Kat Howard's post is a good reminder to keep it friendly.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Good morning, goodbye

It's one of those days where I've realized that I haven't finished a blog entry yet, so I'd better just say something and be done with it.

I'm most of the way through Reading Lolita in Tehran right now. What are you reading? Any recommendations on what I should pick up next?

And I'm meta-reading Lolita in my living room.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Writing history

Over the weekend, I visitied Montpelier, the historic home of James Madison, the fourth US president and "Father of the Constitution." It's a lovely, well-kept estate, and it's an interesting window into the way (wealthy) people lived back in the day of powdered wigs.

The Montpelier exhibit is refreshingly open about the way many of the Founding Fathers, including James Madison, owned slaves in spite of their political ideals. It's healthy and important to learn about the contradictions and shortcomings these men espoused in addition to their victories and lofty principles.

One story that remains intriguingly ambiguous is that of the Landsdowne portrait during the British sacking of Washington in 1814. The version I'd heard in history classes was that Dolley Madison saved the portrait herself. One plaque at the museum stated that Dolley Madison waited in her carriage while she directed Paul Jennings, one of the family's slaves, to get the portrait. Still other sources suggest that other servants and slaves were responsible for taking the portrait down.

Confusing the whole question is whether we assign responsibility to the person who ordered that the portrait be rescued, the person who supervised it, or the person(s) who physically removed it. In any case, it's interesting to note how we remember anecdotes like this and which versions we gravitate towards.

Friday, May 10, 2013

WTFriday: Bare your cover

Self-published author R. L. Mathewson has discovered the key to selling big. Change your cover from something plain and generic to this:

Average-build guy! Bellybutton ring girl! And everyone in white shirts! If only I knew how to adapt this for subterranean steampunk.

Then again, the original GalleyCat article focuses on ebook sales, and I wonder how many people would carry a paperback featuring second base on the cover onto the subway.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Book report: Shantaram, or The Armed Robber with a Heart of Gold

After hearing many recommendations for Shantaram, I finally got around to reading it. It's the story of a man who escapes from prison in Australia and flees to Bombay, written by a man who escaped from prison in Australia and fled to Bombay.

The verdict? Not fantastic, but pretty good.

Author Gregory David Roberts employs a vivid cast of characters and keeps them moving in a variety of plot lines. The novel is more about the protagonist and his friendships and epiphanies than it is about a particular string of events, so it's the kind of book that often feels (like the protagonist) like it's just following one moment into the next. But the progress is consistent enough, and the actions and situations are varied enough, that this wasn't a problem.

However, 1000-page novels run the risk of feeling too long, and this one might have been a tighter and more enjoyable read with a few hundred pages shaved off. Some supersized novels I'm sorry to finish and others I'm relieved to complete, and the difference lies in the nature of the excess; some are long because there are so many different things happening (and often with so many different characters), and others are long because the action is fluffed out with lots of navel gazing. Unfortunately, Shantaram is of the latter type.

The style is hyperbolical in the extreme. It's kind of hard to avoid the comparison with Bollywood movies. Every friendship is a brogasm, and every woman is a Helen of Troy. Lin, the protagonist, coasts on epic (and ever-shifting) tides of love, grief, fury, and beatific stoicism. Each of Lin's friends seems to inspire a moment (at least one) that makes Lin realize that he loves him like a brother. He mourns and forgives losses and transgressions so many times, and so intensely, that I frequently found myself wondering if I was re-reading pages or if Lin had the memory of a goldfish. I like drama, but Lin seems to be in a state of constant emotional climax. When everything's amped up to 11, it makes me deaf.

Speaking of climaxes. Every instance of lovemaking in the book is an ejaculation of poetic metaphor. I can appreciate the subtlety and elegance of extended metaphors, but these scenes (and others) have too much going on. There are mixed metaphors, and then they have baby metaphors, and then they have incestuous grand-baby metaphors with those metaphors. It's like that.

The narrator-protagonist spends a lot of time contemplating the significance of certain conversations or events. Many scenes in the novel are punctuated with ominous portents, musings about the things the narrator wishes he'd known at the time, or generalities about The Way Things Affect Our Lives. Foreshadowing asides can build suspense when used in moderation, but Roberts employs them with such frequency, and at such length, that it removes me from the story, and I'm not as deeply involved with what's happening in the moment. When the narrator isn't fully present in his own story, it's hard for me to be.

Roberts's easy lyricism and his enthusiasm for the characters and their stories make this more of a mild annoyance than a true stumbling block, however. Yet even these qualities get out of hand. Roberts writes about Bombay and its inhabitants with the boundless enthusiasm of a schoolboy describing Kate Upton. His love for the city and its people is endearing, but like all static emotions, it gets stale, and it frequently feels naive. Lin has an almost supernatural gift for perceiving the innate goodness in the people around him, and it turns out that most of the people around him are innately good. I found myself hoping for more complexity and nuance, especially in Lin's relationship with Abdel Khader Khan, the local criminal overlord.

Lin is instantly drawn to Khaderbhai (as he is to many other characters), and Khader is full of the charisma and magnanimity we'd expect from any good don and guided by a precise moral compass. Lin idolizes Khader, and in his recounting, Khader is more of a kindly guru than a crime lord. That's not to say that crime lords can't be kind or wise, but the fact that Khader has so many people under his thumb is glossed over too easily for most of the book. As a result, the character, and Lin's puppy-dog loyalty toward him, feel shallow.

The characters (particularly Khader) frequently engage in meaning-of-life-type discussions. I loved the discourse in The Name of the Rose, but here, again, things go a little too far. Too many of these conversations become one-sided to the point that they seem more geared towards proving to the reader how clever the characters are than providing thoughtful characterization or meaningful conflict. And, unfortunately, they sometimes involve nonsensical remarks like, "Perhaps mathematics itself is a kind of stubbornness, do you think?"

No, but finishing the book was.

The German edition has an elephant on the cover. I do like elephants.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

An episode is worth 30,000 words

Author, blogger, and former agent Nathan Bransford has humbly suggested that HBO's Game of Thrones series may be better than George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the series of novels from which the TV show is adapted).

Part of me thinks this is blasphemy, but part of me also agrees that the show is fantastic. The show follows the novels pretty closely, and where it deviates, it manages to stick with the spirit of the books, if not the letter. So far, the TV series has managed to condense novels with the population density of Delhi into three well-balanced seasons, all while keeping disparate plot lines moving consistently.

We all like brevity (especially when it's a choice between a 1000-page novel and a ten-hour episode arc), so to the extent that the TV series has surpassed the novels, it's likely because the show's writers have managed to tell the same story with a collection of scenes rather than the full exposition of a novel. The conflicts and relationships are just as believable in these condensed vignettes, and story lines are expanded when needed and condensed at other times.*

Would it have been desirable (or even possible) for Martin to tell his story with as much economy as the shows' writers have done? I'd say "no" and "not necessarily," respectively, because I suspect that we need a little more build-up and exposition for everything to fit together in a novel.

More importantly, I enjoyed every word of Martin's series, so I wouldn't want it cut down.

*Because we probably didn't need *that* much of Jon Snow hiking through the mountains.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut

I'm finishing Cat's Cradle, and it has me marveling at one of Kurt Vonnegut's unique abilities as a writer.

He can write about anything and make it interesting.

He can doodle and digress (as he does in Breakfast of Champions), and he can write a nonlinear and seemingly illogical story (as he does in Slaughterhouse Five), but what he writes is always interesting. His tangential remarks don't make him wordy, and even when he's writing seeming nonsense, he does so with such straightforward language that it's easy to follow him.

That is all.
"Kurt Vonnegut" by Kieran Guckian. CC-BY license.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Libraries, ebooks, and the path of least resistance

An op-ed in today's New York Times weighs the costs and merits of making more ebooks available in libraries. It should be noted that the author is Anthony W. Marx, president of the New York Public Library.

On the one hand, Marx realizes that many publishers are experiencing rough times. On the other, he argues that libraries provide a variety of services to many people, including internet access, the ability to hunt for jobs, and yes, books.

So the two questions are:

  1. Would it meaningfully affect publishers' (and authors') bottom lines if entire inventories of ebooks were available through libraries?
  2. Would an extensive catalog of ebooks improve libraries' survival rates and affect their ability to offer other services to patrons?
I suspect that the answer to both of these questions is "yes" (although I'll qualify #2). While print devotees may be the majority, ebook readers make up a not-insubstantial minority. And for many e-book readers (myself included), the main driver of ebook purchases in convenience. I live a couple of miles from a library, and I buy books much more often now that I have an ereader. 

The point is, when ebooks can be borrowed just about as easily as they can be purchased, how many readers are going to buy their own copies? 

Which could be good news for libraries. Since they receive public funding, it can't hurt for them to increase their borrowing statistics. Then again, all of that could become moot if the city in question is still trying to scrape together funds for things like schools and sewage treatment facilities.