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Author of queer, quirky sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Blog Hop from Dianne Harman

Hello hello!

This one is straightforward. Just a blog hop, and four questions about my work and how I do it. So, let's not waste time--here you go.


1. What am I working on?

After the Garden is a book I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, and it's currently in rewrites. I have Monsters and Fools, The Meaning Wars, and Synchronicity in my queue to write and (in the case of the last) rewrite. I also have a few other things planned, but those should be out in the next year or two. Plus a few short stories here and there.  I'm reluctant to give you dates because deadlines tend to go whooshing by all too quickly, but ATG should be out this spring or summer.


2. How does my work differ from others in my genre?

I like to focus on issues of equality in my work, but I try not to do it in a preachy way. The best way, to my mind, is to incorporate the characters and treat them as normally as possible. I also like that sometimes focusing on characters with various levels of ability/diverse backgrounds means they have a more challenging platform to work from. It's also just more interesting than the same Cod Piecington, Noble Space Prince or Humble Browsley, Noble Farm Boy type adventurers that we've been fed for the last hundred years.

I also like to genre-bend. I work mostly in subgenres because I have a deep love for post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings, and that's been 'a thing' since I was in seventh grade. I also like steampunk and urban fantasy, but the last few years have seen a love for urban fantasy horror and spooky elements grow in me. Those have entered my work, and I think it rounds my feel out nicely. There's nothing as fun as scaring the pants off your readers and a little madness. Encountering Lovecraft and the Warhammer 40K universe planted the seed, and with a history of my own nightmares to draw on, I am proud to say that I have given multiple readers cold chills and nightmares with my own work. Neil Gaiman and Chuck Wendig, two of my other best-loved inspirations, also play on scary themes in their work, so really, the genre-bending and scary elements were inevitable. 

3. Why do I write what I do? 

Because it's what I want to read. Because characters walk across the stage inside my skull and start narrating. Because cinemagraphic clips play on the screen in there at random. Because writing is a compulsion. Because writing and reading are a sickness that I cannot and will not get over, and because I live for words. 

4. How does my writing process work?

I'm a pantser at heart. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of very shitty plots and messy, messy endings. In my last book, The Underlighters (previously also published in The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming, a thematic anthology) I learned how to plot and found an outlining strategy that works for me. So, here's how it goes--I start off with some flashes, usually scenes. I stick them in a document and type them out as I see them. Then I slowly get other flashes, and then I start writing down notes for other scenes. When I have some bullet points, I start working on flow charts or mind maps. The maps let me plot out possible plot ideas and connect the plot events in chonological and logical order. It also lets me follow multiple personal plots at the same time, which is useful. I often use a timeline to refine the results of the map when I have them nailed down. I write down flashes of scenes as they come and then I slowly work through them, expanding on the bullet points and notes. If working on a series, I often reread my own book.
When I hit the revisions stage, I get to work on ensuring I have continuity and that I don't have any exposition dumps or ugly stuff. Then it goes off to my beta readers and critique buddies, and then, when it's all corrected, off to the formatter. After that come the publishing stages, of course. Large chunks of time may pass between the first few stages because I haven't nailed down my self-discipline yet, and my editing work sometimes interferes. 


The lovely Dianne Harman tagged me. She's a friend, an editing client, and a very fun writer. You can get hold of her in the following places:

Amazon: http://ow.ly/s6pN5 
Smashwords: http://ow.ly/u4Fb2
 Web Site http://www.DianneHarman.com
 Twitter: @DianneDHarman




And now...I tag Zig Zag Claybourne, Nic Wilson, and Corinne Kilgore! Get writing, guys!

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Congratulations, You Showed Up: Power Porn, Part 2

Hello hello!

So, here's the second half of my exploration of taking it easy on characters. In real life, I'm a social democrat, and I've noticed that supporting people as a society is better for everyone. I'm not here to talk about politics, though, because in fiction, suffering is the way to go. You need to be hard on your characters, and that means making sure that they don't always have the best of everything or an easy time of it. I've been reading too many manuscripts where things come easily, and frankly, that's a bad practice to follow. So, how do you up the ante and the excitement in your story?


Take it easy--actually, don't


Characters need to work against the odds. Sure, you may want to give them a happily ever after, and you totally can, but they need to work for it. This isn't about politics or anything else--success has a price. Winning isn't free. Lunch can't show up on your character's table, or your audience will fall asleep. A simple apology shouldn't be all it takes to win back a lover, conquer a frenemy, defeat an enemy, or solve the world puppy shortage. There's a reason those CEOs and one-percenters are so hated, and it's because their lives are much too easy (there are other reasons, but again, character studies are my focus, not rampant economic corruption and injustice--today, anyhow).

Love takes a toll, and so do relationships. The real difference between a comic book hero and a villain is circumstances and how they deal with them. Even then, the good characters sometimes make bad decisions.  One of the reasons I love Farscape and Doctor Who is that the characters do make bad decisions. Shameless plug time--that was a major factor when I wrote Janelle's character in The Underlighters; she is mostly a Lawful Good sort of person, but there were a few things she did that were, let's say, ethically dubious at best. However, she also had some really shitty runs of luck, which I can't talk about because they would involve blatant spoilers.


How does it go Pete Tong?


The thing that screws over most stories is excessive back-patting. Again, be harsh with your characters. Talking about how their cafe is the bestest or their apartment is the nicest or giving them free money usually make your readers sick. Spoiled people are annoying, and when we have to read about them, doubly so. It cuts into the likeability factor of a protagonist very heavily. Giving them shallow, easy-to-defeat enemies, justifying their actions too much, and rewarding them for the most minor victories is really unpleasant. Playing a game on 'easy' mode is one thing, but reading a story in 'easy' mode is boring as hell unless you're six.



David Tennant is a wonderful actor. But that doesn't excuse the fact that his Doctor gets away with murder and torture.



I don't understand what you're getting at. What do you mean by 'too easy'?


Story time, kids! Here's some flash fic to illustrate a character who's having things work too easily.

Gloria rode through the night, her perfect and completely natural red hair waving behind her on her motorbike like fire in the night. As she pulled up to the curb, removing her helmet in slow motion, a crowd of men turned towards her. A single glance from her emerald eyes was enough to make them all fall over like fainting goats. 

"That was a real nice pull in," said the blonde at the movie theatre's ticket booth grudgingly. 


"Thanks," said Gloria, tossing her hair. "That'll be one for the scariest action flick you have."


"Oh, wow, I didn't know women watching things other than rom-coms," said a handsome stud conveniently walking nearby. "I'm so impressed that you have the self-determination to watch a movie and own a vehicle! It's stunning! Please, marry me." 


One of the men from the curb ran over, his glorious brown eyes cutting into the newcomer. "I saw her first!"


"Sorry, boys, I don't roll like that," said Gloria. She leaned into the booth and seized the blonde by the lapels, kissing her deeply. The blonde fainted, falling back in her seat, and Gloria strode into the movie theatre. 


"What a woman!" said the first stud. "She's such a badass!"


This is an example of a character who doesn't actually do much. Frankly, she's vain, is willing to kiss someone unconsensually (which is basically diet sexual assault), and is a total showboat. But the characters around her are giving her unmerited praise and bending over backwards to be jealous of her. If you gender-swap this character, you basically have any of the protags from Supernatural, Doctor Who, or Sherlock, or without gender-bending her, a very average romance or thriller novel protagonist. The only thing worse than a vain, annoying character who's worshipped by everyone is an inconsistently-written character.


But...but..my character...


Stop it. You won't get anywhere by making them precious and saving them from trouble. I know this from editing my own work. Suffering is necessary in art, but it doesn't have to be yours--usually, it's your characters'. I use badassery as my whipping-boy, but saintliness is just as bad. Characters need flaws and moments without dignity. They need doubt and bad decisions. This is my 'how to fix it' section--hurt your character, and then hurt them more. When you get to your happy ending--or not--you and the reader will both know that the character really, really deserved it. And that's what makes for a good ride, and a good book.

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Why You Should Be Hard on Your Characters: Power Porn, Part 1

Hello hello!

Well, as always, this is motivated by a few of the manus I've been seeing, and frankly, by fixing up one of my own works. Why do we pat our characters on the back so much, going to unreasonable lengths to talk about them as 'better'? This isn't always just about characters--their houses, their cars, their favorite cafes--they're

I said when I first started this blog that I'd avoid too many technique blogs, but frankly, I like analysing this stuff, and I also didn't expect to become a professional editor,, so I hope you guys are still enjoying this. Do let me know in the comments.

Moving along, let's talk about a bad, bad habit of both film and literary media: the pat on the back. There's a few ways to do this, and I'd like to mention the good, the bad, and the ugly. Let's get to it! We'll start with analysing the essence of badassery.

Success is sexy: power porn  



I'm not going to lie, I really like the new trend of 'competence porn' or 'power porn'. I don't care particularly about the sex, though that is commonly a big feature. No, what interests me, and millions of other viewers, is the political machinations and the use of expertise to accomplish wonderful, unbelieveable things. Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, the Warhammer 40K Ciaphas Cain series by Sandy Mitchell, Banksters by Nic Wilson--those are just a few titles I've enjoyed that tend to veer into this area. Other examples would be my beloved favorites Les Liasons Dangereuses by Du Laclos, The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevski. All of these feature men (and sometimes women, though female-led power porn is rare) who manipulate, scheme, and use their intellect and social influence to accomplish their goals. As mentioned, sex is usually a big part, though revenge is also a popular motivation. I suspect Wolf of Wall Street belongs to the genre, though I haven't seen it yet.

What's the big deal? 


In addition to wonderful writing and cinematography, as well as superb acting (in the movies, anyway) all of these tend to focus on anti-hero characters. Most of them are evil or chaotic in terms of their alignment (sometimes chaotic evil, too).

The risk, the danger, the power imbalances, and often, the oceans of money, all have an intoxicating effect. We, the audience, are complicit in character's actions. Just reading/watching these stories makes one feel more like a badass, and I think that's a vital part of the allure. Everyone loves a bad boy/girl/person, a badass, and that's a blog of its own. So, readers/viewers get both the thrill of feeling cool and the closeness to someone cool. And, obviously, there's the whole BDSM aspect of control, consent, and the rest of it. Danger is another big part, and it's one of the reasons why so many people faint over these characters--even a cuddly character like The Doctor can turn on a dime and drop all pretense of sanity.

The other thing is that currently, we're in a pretty dark place with politics. Evil, frankly, is easier to believe in than good--not unlike that dark period we went through with entertainment in the eighties. Everyone' disillusioned. Furthermore, good characters have become caricatured, and evil and morally grey ones have grown more nuanced and numerous. There's more freedom with a dark character, and that is the other reason they're kind of everywhere right now.


David Tennant/the 10th Doctor has some of the best crazy faces.

Still not seeing a problem here...


The problem comes from the implementation of this. The way characters are made cool and powerful should be through their actions, but presentation is a huge part of the equation as well. When a character dismounts a flaming motorcycle, kisses someone, then walks into a room wearing a suit and reels off something brilliant, you know they're cool because you're getting that message from the writers. The problem comes in when the character's actions don't fit their presentation. Other characters are often part of the presentation, talking up your protagonist, but if the protag whines, simpers, shrugs, and smirks their way around (I hate the word 'smirk' and every character who does it ends up on my hit list, by the way) instead of doing useful things, there's narrative dissonance. The other issue is talking your characters up.



Neil DeGrasse Tyson is not impressed. 


We have a badass over here...or not. 


Having a character who is supposed to be SUPA KEWEL--and fails at it--can completely ruin a book. Make sure you minimize talk and maximize actions. Show, don't tell us that your character is cool. Have them do something badass, don't spend time with everyone else mentioning 'that awesome thing' they did. This involves taking a hard look at your character, and that's not always fun, but avoiding it leads to limp noodles. Sure, a bit of talking up is okay, but it's better to have a character show off without help from their friends. Too much foreshadowing or too many side details, and you lose the moment. I mentioned the 10th Doctor above because one of the writing issues Russell T. Davies has is talking his protagonists up too much, even when he just uses other characters' reactions to show off the protags' badassfulness. And that, ultimately, hurt the series more than few times; I can't count the number of times that excessive 'you know, our character's a total badass' speeches or scenes have acted as a buzzkill in books I've edited. Hamlet's whole spiel at the end of his famous 'to be or not to be' soliloquy is very apropos--

"And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard, their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action." 


FIX IIIIIIIIT


Of course, no Magpie blog post would be complete without solutions. This one is simple but poses a few hidden difficulties--the issue is to avoid too much foreshadowing. Character foreshadowing is a much more advanced technique than people think it is, because it requires a lot of balance. You have to tease your audience without giving too much away. Co-star reactions are important, but too many, and you can set up unreasonable expectations. Even showing your character's badassery instead of telling the audience can get kind of annoying. The key is moderation and a keen feel for self-parody. You may need a second set of eyes to make sure the character is truly badass but not a caricature. And, as always, avoid writing a self-insert cool character, because that will throw your judgement out the window.


We'll explore the really vital part of this in the second half of the blog. Stay tuned!

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Rule of Cool: Or, Science Plays A Sad Violin

Hello hello!

So, a quick post today. As some of you will know, I'm an editor as well as a sci fi writer, and that means that I fix a lot of errors. But, being a writer, I also make them.

I've been watching Mythbusters a lot lately. Unfortunately, I don't spend my days firing guns, breaking down doors, fending off wild jellyfish, etcetera, so my understanding of how to do these things is impaired. And Hollywood certainly doesn't help. Did you know, for instance, that bullets don't ricochet and produce sparks? Sure, they do ricochet, but--as frequent readers of Cracked.com may also know--they certainly aren't as fatal as advertised, either. In movies, TV, and a lot of books, one shot means you die.

But what about science fiction? We often talk about matter transporters, Faster Than Light (FTL) travel, fast-growth cloning, and other semi-realistic and sometimes purely fictional technologies. (Yes, I know cloning is real, but we haven't cloned any humans and we haven't sorted out that pesky issue of the telomeres yet.) So when it comes to the little details, do we follow the 'Rule of Cool' (doing whatever seems coolest) or do we try our best to create something realistic? There's a few approaches to this, which I'll outline below.

Approach 1: Whatever is The Coolest


This is what it says on the tin. Ricocheting spark-bullets? Diving through suspiciously close asteroid belts? Ignoring side-effects of a drug treatment? Convenient amnesia? Arguably, this is sloppy writing, but it's also within most readers' comfort zones and is often easy to picture. As well, most readers won't be experts, and most who are will recognize the value of entertainment rather than something that's, well, more rigorous in intent. However, some readers are annoyed by this, and too many scientific errors or historical anachronisms will bounce you right out of a story.

Approach 2: Scientific Rigor


Jack McDevitt stands out as an author who follows this; Charles Sheffield, too. It characterizes a lot of Golden-Age sci fi, but not the pulp sci fi (which tends to follow Approach 1). This is more realistic, and that can be nice, but it can also be bogged down by exposition. Sometimes it's also a bit inaccessible. After all, not all of us who write sci fi are teachers or astronomers. It also involves a lot of research. However, 'getting it right' is really satisfying, and readers often compliment it.

Approach 3: Stuck in the Middle With You 


Most sci fi falls into the middle, but there's a skew towards each end. Personally, I think that due to the lack of scientific education, we should be aiming a bit more towards Approach 2, but modifying it. Really, it's okay to have space be silent and sacrifice sparkly bullets and deal with injuries realistically. The thing about Approach 1 is that it arguably makes a story too easy for the characters. Consider Starship Troopers, which is intentionally a satire, and which makes use of Approach 1 very heavily. Consider Alien instead, which was a bit more realistic, and much more difficult for characters to survive.

It's a matter of taste, but consider doing your research very thoroughly before your next story--question the little stuff, too, not just the location of the nearest habitable moon or planet. How would doors work? You don't have to--and shouldn't--explain everything, but a little realism can go a long way.

*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 
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