Thursday, May 31, 2012

New Adult: A New Hope?

No, I can't resist a "Star Wars" reference.  But seriously:

I'd never heard of the New Adult genre until yesterday.  A fellow writer I follow here and on Twitter, Carrie Butler, mentioned it with a few links, and I was curious.  What I found had me wondering how in the world I could have missed this.

New Adult is, basically, fiction targeted toward people who are just getting out into the real world.  Most information I have on it comes from this entry on Sharon Bayliss's blog and what I've picked up over at NA Alley.  The target age range is about 17-23, and that's the general ages of the characters involved as well.  This hit me hard because that's the exact age range of characters I like to write, and I had no idea there was a specific genre for that.

Of the two main characters of Skyborne, one is seventeen; the other is, in her own words, "old enough to bleed, too young for wrinkles".  (She doesn't know for sure and doesn't much care, but I think she's about twenty.)  In a long-running urban fantasy series I wrote a while back, the entire cast was in college, putting them at 18-21 over the course of the stories.  And the other novel I'm plotting now, with a title that unfortunately acronyms to OOTA, again, the main group of characters pretty much fit into that 18-21 range.  Except for the one who's not human, but I'll work that out later.

To make a long story short (too late), learning about New Adult was like finding a genre custom-made for the kind of stories I like to tell.  Writing YA never appealed to me, though I've been told some of my stories would fit with it, and I've sometimes wondered if I was writing characters too young for adult fantasy/sci-fi.  If NA is going to be a new thing, something that's going to take off in the years to come, I have to make sure I get on this and hope it catches on in the industry.

And that, for now, means more plotting.  If anyone invents plot-specific spackle, please, let me know.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Burn... these pixels?

When a story’s first line is “Burn this book!”, it’s up to the writer to make sure the reader never actually wants to do that.

Those words are the first line of Clive Barker’s Mister B. Gone.  It’s the story of a demon, one who’s trapped in the book itself.  The book takes the interesting tack of having virtually no fourth wall, as the titular Mister B. addresses the reader on a regular basis, doing everything he can to convince the reader to stop reading the book and burn it.  I started reading this because I thought the story’s unusual premise sounded interesting.

It wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be.

I don’t read many horror books, but I’m familiar with the common aspects of demons and their ilk; this book doesn’t go far from the classic demonic tropes.  Corruption of the innocent and the church?  Check.  Lots of fire?  Check.  Bathing in infants’ blood?  Check.

Yes, that last one actually happens in the book.  Mister B. even complains about how difficult it is to keep the blood warm while he’s killing the babies.  During that scene, I started to realize what was keeping the book from actually being scary.

For all his conceits, Mister B. is a very commonplace demon.  Nothing he does seems horrific, nothing he does lives up to the bone-chilling wrongness the book’s back cover promises, because it’s what I expect from a demon.  I’m sure there’s a literary term for evil becoming predictable, even banal, because it’s exactly what the character doing that evil is supposed to do.

We expect heroes to be heroic, to stand against impossible odds, to protect innocents, to take on life-threatening tasks and come out both alive and successful.  That’s what heroes do, and heroes who do nothing but that risk becoming boring and predictable.  It ends up working out the same way for Mister B.  As a demon, I expected him to corrupt, to threaten, to manipulate.  That’s exactly what he did, and it got old halfway through the book.

Why, then, did I keep reading?  Because of Mister B.’s own threats.  This is another part of the book that didn’t work at all for me.  As I said, Mister B. steps into his own narrative from time to time as he tries to get the reader to burn the book.  He threatens, he makes promises, he describes just how he’s going to kill the reader if they don’t stop reading and burn the book.  Call me callous, but all it did was make me laugh, because it was too over the top to be scary.

Mister B.’s supposed reading of the reader ruined its own effect as well.  He claims he can see the reader through the pages, claims he knows the reader’s reaction to his tale.  This, of course, assumes a great deal about the reader.  I know some people would find the book as scary and wrong as it’s supposed to be.  But for Mister B. to say he can see my horrified expression when I’m really giving him a raised eyebrow of disbelief, well, it ruins the desired effect.

The concept of “the fourth wall will not protect you” isn’t a new one, but it depends on the audience feeling like it’s truly threatened.  I didn’t feel that way once.

There is, however, one thing in this book that truly struck me as truly frightening.  As fitting for a story starring a demon, it starts in Hell.  There, Mister B talks about the other demons, and how some of them know they mean nothing in the greater scheme of Creation.  Can you imagine that?  Knowing the universe has a purpose and knowing you have no part in it – knowing that, ultimately, you do not matter.

It’s a shame that happens so early in the book, because it’s the scariest part of the entire story.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Joy and Danger of the Rule of Cool

I mentioned the Rule of Cool at the end of my last entry, and I want to discuss it a bit more today.  While the TV Tropes page defines the rule well enough, I'd like talk about how it pertains to plotting and writing a story.  To quote:

''The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what's cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don't like 'em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in 'em, 'cause that's cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what's cool.

The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.  — Steven Brust

It's that last line that leads to all the trouble.

The Rule of Cool is very, very, very easy to follow when writing: throw in everything you think would make your work awesome.  I'm fully convinced the ending sequence of Jim Butcher's Dead Beat was done purely because Mr. Butcher thought of Harry Dresden riding a zombie tyrannosaurus rex through the streets of Chicago and worked backward to make sure the scene made sense in the context of the story.  If the scene had just kind of happened, it would still have been awesome, but it would have felt tacked on for the sake of awesomeness.

And that's where the problem lies.  It's way too easy to think "that would be cool, that should happen" and put something into a story without considering whether it truly works or not.  In my last entry, I talked about a book I made up as I went along, and that story truly was me throwing in everything I thought was cool.  I ended up with a story that not only had a secret society hiding magic from the rest of the world, I had Earth under attack by Lovecraftian entities, a main character who did a kind of alchemy by summoning demons into things to power them, a massive insectoid creature ripping itself free from under Las Vegas, and a girl who took out the bad guy in the final battle with the Power of Rock.

Yes, I just linked TV Tropes twice in one post.  I apologize for any free time you may lose.

The problem was, among all that cool stuff, there wasn't enough of a coherent plot.  There wasn't enough about the characters to really make them compelling.  And when I tried to redo the whole thing and make it work, I couldn't.  While I'd like to think that it was just all too cool to be forced into a story that made perfect sense, I know it really meant I'd gone too far.

It's something I had to learn as a writer.  Start with something you think is cool, and build from there, either forwards from an awesome concept or backwards from an awesome final battle.  A story cannot live on coolness alone.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go snowboard down an active volcano while fighting off an entire clan of ninjas with chainsaws.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Plot. No pants.

"It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way. "  --E.L. Doctorow, on writing

It's a question I see thrown around a lot, when it comes to writing: are you a plotter or a pantser?  Do you need to know what happens ahead of time, or do you make it up as you go?  It's an interesting question, in part because every single writer will have an answer.  They may be firmly for one way or the other, or they may be somewhere in between (pants half up?  pants half empty?).  But they will be somewhere on that scale.

As for myself, I'm a plotter.  I've written enough to know I have to plot, I have to know what's going to happen so I keep things going and bring the story to an end that makes sense.  If I don't know where a story is going, then I have one of those wonderful attempts at a writing session where I'm staring at the mostly-blank page with maybe a sentence or two on the screen and no idea what the hell is going to happen next.

Granted, I get that sometimes even after plotting, but that usually means I screwed up somewhere.  And then I have a plot to fall back on, so I can figure out what went wrong and keep moving.

I have tried to write stories by the seat of my pants, just taking an idea and a character and seeing where they go.  One of the books I wrote in 2010 was like this -- it started off with a simple premise and an opening line about the world ending two weeks previous, and I was off and running.  There was a kind of freedom to writing it, I have to admit.  Not knowing where the story was going meant it could go anywhere.  I filled the tale with all kinds of things, figuring that somewhere along the way, I'd learn how they all fit together.  And in the end, the world was saved through use of a Ted Nugent song.

Looking back at it now, the book had plot holes large enough to drive the main characters' demon-horned armor-plated motorhome through.  I attempted to rewrite the book, to take the story I'd made up as I went along and give it a real plot, and everything fell apart.  Nothing worked when I tried to apply Earth Logic to it, and that's kind of essential for having a coherent story.  The demon-horned motorhome does not excuse this fact.

As much fun as I had writing the book, and as much as I'd like to revisit the story with an actual plot set out ahead of time, it was a valuable learning experience.  Over the past two years, I've put together a huge plot document for this tale, filled with a dozen and more ways to redo it, and I think I finally figured it out.  Whenever I get back to the tale, I'll know what's going to happen, I'll have reasons behind everything, and in its own weird way, it will all make sense.

But it will read like I was writing it by the seat of my pants, if all goes well.

As for why things like the motorhome and rock music stopping the Big Bad were part of the story, that falls under the Rule of Cool, which I'll touch on next entry.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Starting now.

"The Writer's Voice" contest has come and gone, and Skyborne wasn't chosen.  I'm oddly okay with this.  I'm really glad I participated in the contest, as it got me to finally start a blog and make some connections with other writers out there.  Aside from friends and family, I tend to be a pretty solitary person, so it's not easy for me to just wander into peoples' blogs, say hi, and start following them.  The contest was a good way to dive into that headfirst, as I wasn't the only one throwing my work out there and hoping it stuck to something.  Or someone.

...okay, that metaphor just died.

Anyway.  A big part of why I'm fine with not getting into the contest is that I'm now free to pursue the agents I want to work with, without having to worry that an agent in the contest will want to see my work.  Also, thanks to the contest, I now have a much better query letter and a fully-edited book, which I wouldn't have otherwise had by now.  Nothing quite like editing 133K words down to 128K in seven days.  So I'm coming out of this in a better place than I was when I went in.

Besides, this doesn't actually change anything.  With apologies to George R. R. Martin, in the game of publishing, you win or you keep trying.  There is no middle ground, because you only fail when you stop trying.  Or when you die, but at that point it's kind of moot.  ^_^

I don't think I'll be dead anytime soon, and I will not stop trying.  One way or another, I will win.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"The Writer's Voice" entry: Skyborne


Shiloh is a quiet, bookish young woman who spends her days lost in the stories of Abraxas, a world of magic, adventure, and dozens of gods.  When a monster from those stories attacks her hometown, she discovers the tales are very real.  Shiloh finds a hidden book of magic and uses it to destroy the creature, but before the monster’s body finishes twitching, a goddess of Abraxas arrives with dire news:

Three dark gods have shattered Abraxas, and they sent the creature to attack Shiloh’s home.  Only a mortal can restore Abraxas, but to reach it, someone has to break through the stars.  Shiloh was born floating and has never touched the ground, and she now understands why: she must fly, as she is whom the gods named Skyborne.

Breaking through the stars takes Shiloh to new worlds above her homeland, to conquered cities, snow-bound mountains, and a desert ruled by corrupt mages.  But the dark gods have reached these worlds as well, and will try to stop Shiloh at every turn.  Along the way, a dark-skinned woman named Alexi helps Shiloh escape one of the dark gods’ traps and then joins her, eager to help Shiloh overcome the dark gods and see what lies beyond her own world.

However, Shiloh and Alexi don’t know the whole truth.  The worlds they travel through will become the dark gods’ prison, and that prison must be lifeless.  Every time they leave a world behind, it is charred to ashes in their wake.  When they discover everyone they have ever known is dead, they must decide: restore Abraxas, or turn their backs on the gods who deceived them.

SKYBORNE is an adult fantasy novel complete at 128,000 words.

First 250:

    The librarian’s panicked cry shattered the library’s silence, and Shiloh slammed her book shut.  A chill ran through her.  Hannah would only scream in the library for one reason: another barbarian attack.

    Hannah dashed into the oak-walled alcove, and shouted, “Shiloh, we have to leave!”  She grabbed the back of Shiloh’s chair with shaking hands and pulled.  “Come on, come on!  We have to get to the fortress.”

    “I didn’t hear the bells,” Shiloh said, and floated off the chair before Hannah yanked it out from under her.  She slid the book she’d been reading back onto a nearby shelf, and started pulling other tomes from it.  “Let me get something to read, if we’re going to be in the fortress all day--”

    “There’s no time for that!” Hannah interrupted, then glanced around the small room as though afraid something would jump out and bite her.  She peered behind two of the tall bookshelves, and to the octagonal window high up on one wooden wall.

    Shiloh nodded, then picked up a pack made of thick canvas and started stuffing books into it.  If the barbarians made it past the wall, they’d set the town aflame.  She couldn’t risk that.  Not with these books.  When Shiloh tried to force a giant leather-bound tome into her bag, Hannah caught her wrist.

    “I told you, there’s no time!  We have to hurry!”  Hannah turned and headed for the room’s doorway, her long skirts flying back behind her.