Archive for the 'RCM’s Posts' Category

Friday, April 30th, 2010 by Rosemary
All is Lost (not the TV show)

All is lost!

This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me:

My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder

They cast their caps up and carouse together

Like friends long lost.

–Antony and Cleopatra, Act IV, Scene 12

This post was inspired by a post on io9, one of my favorite SF/F blogs. Helps keep me up to date on all the latest Geektastic stuff. The post? 20 great “All Seems Lost” moments from Science Fiction and Fantasy. (I appreciate that they included some print as well as TV and movies.)

How to improve on such a great list that includes the “All Is Lost and the Hero’s Deception Has Been Found Out! scene from Avatar.  The “Worst Has Just Happened” cliffhanger of ST: The Next Generation when we’re left at the end of the season with Captain Picard having been assimilated into the Borg. The “All Is Lost AND There’s Slow-Mo!” moment in Serenity. (Which precipitates–as the All Is Lost moment should–ass-kicking of much awesomeness.)

The All is Lost moment is exactly what it sounds like. It’s that moment when everything goes to @#$^ for the heros, and neither they, nor the reader, is sure how they’re going to get out of this alive. Very often someone dies, or almost dies, or seems dead, or contemplates ending it all because Things Are That Bad.  Sometimes it seems to be the death of the central relationship… or all of the above.

My list of personal All Is Lost moments is, unsurprisingly, rather SF/F heavy.

Aliens, when Knute has been taken by the aliens to be embryo-food. Ripley’s freak out there lays it all on the line. (Seeming inevitable death)

Gladiator… There are actually two. One early, when Maximus discovers the murder of his family, and at the end, when The Plan Goes To Hell and They Are All F’ed. (Lots and lots of death.)

Mulan, when the secret of her gender is discovered and Mulan has no choice to go home in disgrace. (Death of the main character’s goal)

Beauty, by Robin McKinley… and just about every good adaption of the fairy tale… when Beauty rushes back to the Beast’s castle to find him dying. (Almost death)

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis is an obvious but classic example, when Aslan is killed by the White Queen. (Temporarily death)

Sometimes the All Is Lost moment comes at the midpoint of the story–it’s not the climax, but the crisis point… often the thing that transforms the hero into what she needs to be to accomplish the end goal.

I tend to shy away at the All is Lost point. Sometimes I hesitate to make everything really most sincerely lost. I really admire people who push this point to it’s limit. I want to protect my characters! I love them!  But it’s another case of go big or go home.  You’ve got to take them all the way down, to make the climb back ultimately satisfying.

What makes your list of awesome All Is Lost moments?  (I get the best book recommendations from the comments!)

Friday, April 23rd, 2010 by Rosemary
Keep it or Kick to the Curb?

Since I had surgery last week, I’ve been camped out in the guest room so I won’t have to climb the stairs. The guest room also happens to be the ‘library’ so I’ve been perusing my ‘keeper’ shelf while I’m recuperating.

There’s a trend to the books I keep. I mean, they look all over the map, but the unifying thing is character. A mystery can have an ingenious plot, a fantasy a rich alternate reality, but for me to love a book, I have to love the characters.

I just finished a book that I read in spite of really not warming to the main character early on. But the story problem was really interesting, and the world/magic system kind of cool, and I wanted to see where the author was going with it. It was a little like a mystery novel in that–sometimes with puzzlers, it’s the puzzle that draws you in. But the perennial mysteries have an interesting detective that elevate the work to immortality: Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Sam Spade.

Anyway, I’m reading this book to see how the story problem plays out, and 50 pages from the end, the main character does something unutterably selfish–again–and I put down the book for a week and didn’t finish it until I was drugged up on post-op pain pills and thought, what the heck, I just want to see how it ends. But it was, at that point, and academic exercise.

Now, I’m not saying there was anything technically wrong with this book. But I couldn’t honestly enjoy what was right with it because by the end, there was not a single character that I liked. The only reason I was rooting for them was because I didn’t want the world to end and a lot of innocent people to die.

It occurs to me that I talk a lot here about characterization, and how to get the reader to root for your character.  Give them something vital at stake, justify they’re idiotic actions… But I guess it’s just that so much of a story’s emotional impact is tied up in my liking the characters. Even if they’re not likable, give me some point of connection.

Not every detective is going to be Sherlock Holmes, and not every fantasy swashbuckler will be Miles Vorkosigan.  But, you know, they should at least do something, at some point in the book, that makes me know they actually care about someone’s problems other than their own. They need to, at some point, “save the cat”… and not just because the cat keeps the mice out of their house.

I’m curious– What books are on your “keeper” shelf because of the characters? Do you have any on there strictly because of the plot, even though you didn’t care for the characters carrying on the action?

Friday, April 9th, 2010 by Rosemary
The wind up and the pitch: Conference season begins

I’m speaking this weekend at the DFW Writers Conference in Dallas. I’ll give it a plug, even though this year’s conference has been sold out for awhile, and there won’t be any admission at the door. It’s an exciting, growing conference, and this year they (which is, in the interest of disclosure, actually “we” since I’m a member of the hosting organization, DFW Writer’s Workshop) have 10 agents attending to take pitches and speak in breakout sessions.

I’ve noticed this thing happens when some writers anticipate being around agents, especially if they have a finished book to pitch.  Their eyes glaze over with a sort of panicked fervor.  I hear them in the halls, muttering their 30 second “elevator pitches” over and over, like a mantra.  They get all wound up with a sort of desperate-and-dateless-the-day-before-the-prom energy that goes beyond nerves.

The key to making the most of an agent-attended conference is to present yourself as a professional. Here are some things to keep in mind, whether you’re pitching your work, or just networking preparatory to querying and submitting later.

  • Be friendly, but not too familiar.  A formal pitch session is a combo job-interview-slash-speed-date. You want to be personable (smile, sit up straight, don’t chew gum, ask how her day is going), but you don’t want to come off like that skeevy car salesman who uses your first name too often. And even if you’re Twitter friends, don’t assume you’ll be besties when you meet in person.
  • Be temperate. A social setting is a great place to let them meet the real you, as long as the real you isn’t a loudmouthed bigot or a sloppy drunk. Don’t be that guy. Watch how much you drink.
  • Be passionate about your project but not desperate. Do I need to explain what I mean by desperate? Yes, we love our books, but let’s not turn into a pack of rabid hyenas. Trust me. “What do you write?” is the “What’s your major?” of writer’s conferences.  You don’t have to push.
  • Be confident, but not arrogant. Your book may well be the next Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Rings.  But don’t tell them that. Pitch your book, and let them discover its brilliance for themselves.
  • Be prepared.  Familiarize yourself with the books in your genre, know what’s out there that your book is akin to, and also what makes your book different from all those others.  Have an idea where it would go in the bookstore, or who the audience will be.
  • Be professional about rejection. If the agent doesn’t see the brilliance of “When Harry Met Sally meets Alien vs. Predator” accept that even a great agent and a great project may not be a love match.  Que sera sera.  It doesn’t mean she’s stabbed your metaphorical baby. Nor is she a stupid shrew. And even if she is….
  • Be silent. Never, ever bad mouth other agents, editors, authors published or unpublished, either in your pitch session  (i.e., “Jane Smith rejected this, but it’s clear from her client list she just doesn’t know good literature.”), in the bar, in the hall, or even when you THINK you’re alone in the bathroom. You never know who is in the stall. Publishing professionals all know each other, and they all talk to each other. And they never, ever forget.
  • Be open to the full conference experience. You may have picked a conference because your dream agent is there, but don’t forget the rest of the conference. Networking with other writers, attending breakout sessions and just absorbing the energy of a bunch of creative people in one place, is just as, or more, important than blurting out your “Dungeons and Dragons meets Steel Magnolias” logline. (I totally stole this from Kristen Lamb, because she’s right.)

Anything to add in the comments?  If you want to dish on horror stories, keep them anonymous, okay?  Remember ‘don’t badmouth people’ applies online doubly. (Unless, of course, you chose to tell tales on yourself. I could let you learn from MY fail, but this post has gotten long enough.)

Friday, April 2nd, 2010 by Rosemary
Put your stakes on the table

So, watching Clash of the Titans last night got me thinking about mythic archetypes and modern storytelling. The Hero’s Journey thing sometimes gets a bit of an eyeroll as being a cliché, but like a lot of clichés, it got that way because it works.

To recap the essentials, it goes like this:

The hero gets a ‘call to adventure.’ Something needs doing, and he’s going to have to leave his ordinary life to do it. Usually he drags his feet a little, until something forces his action, he leaves the security of his known world (literally or figuratively) and journeys into the unknown.

I tend to obsess on the end of the journey, the death and sacrifice part. Because this, for me, is what bumps a book up to the keeper shelf.

Last week, I talked about how the stakes for the hero have to be so primal a caveman could understand it. It’s life, death, heart and soul on the line. But many times, there are two layers to that. What the hero thinks she’s trying to do, and what is truly at stake for her. At some point in the story, whatever the hero’s personal goals or wishes are, she has to be willing to put them on the line for something greater than herself (and as such, achieve the true goal).

Think about Ripley in Aliens. Her personal stakes are to get out of the alien hive alive and nuke the site from orbit.  However, she puts her own survival, and that of her few remaining allies, to rescue Newt, the plucky kid, from the aliens. Even though she lives (oops, spoiler), it’s the willingness to sacrifice herself that counts.

In a more figurative example, look at the romance novels that stick with you. Or the other movie I watched yesterday: “The Princess and the Frog.”  This movie followed the Hero’s Journey down to the letter, and while the characters put themselves in physical danger for each other, in the end, each one of the pair was willing to give up his or her dreams for the other one’s happiness.  A lot of times in a relationship story–which includes buddy stories and family relationships as well–the hero is willing to unselfishly put even the relationship itself on the line for a greater cause.

This fills the ‘death’ slot in the hero’s journey matrix because it’s the death of a dream. But as we know from Perseus (and every other mythic hero) returning from the Underworld with whatever he needs to solve the world’s problems, death is only temporary in fairy tales and myths. Even if the sacrifice remains… well, sacrificed, the greater goal is achieved.

This is why the stakes have to be high for a really satisfying story. So that when the hero puts it all on the line at the end, it’s a true sacrifice for him.

So, let me know in the comments:  Most satisfying moment of sacrifice in a book or movie.

(If you are interested in reading more about mythic archetypes and modern story telling, check out Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.)

Friday, March 26th, 2010 by Rosemary
So Easy a Caveman Could Do It

Have I ever told you guys about my creative writing teacher in college? On the first day of class, the professor explained that that this class was not for “genre” writers.  Literary fiction only. I was a voracious reader, but I had to ask: “What is ‘genre’ fiction?”

Professor Suedepatches, with a lip-curl in his voice: “Romance novels, science fiction and other unrealistic nonsense.”

Me: “So, basically, books that make money.”

Professor Suedepatches: <hairy eyeball>

Wisely, I decided to drop the class.*

Now, I don’t think that “literary” has to mean “boring” any more than I believe that “popular” and “well crafted” are mutually exclusive.  In fact, the genre/mainstream/literary lines are so blurred now, I think it would be hard for Professor Suedepatches to make that distinction. What would he say about Time Traveler’s Wife or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union?

Good writing is good writing. In many ways, it’s the audience and their expectations that define a genre.  A reader of literary fiction expects the writing to illuminate the human condition, some aspect of our world and our role in it. A reader of genre fiction likes that, too, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the story.

In his book Save the Cat (which I talked about in my blog yesterday, too, I guess because it’s open on my desk right now), Blake Snyder talks about coming up with a story that you could pitch to a caveman. I can just see Professor Suedepatches rolling his eyes at that. But it doesn’t mean a selling idea–a blockbuster idea–is a stupid or even a simple one, but that the stakes are clear and primal. (He talks about primal stakes a lot.)

Vital stakes that are easy to picture and identify with: survival (physical or emotional), vengeance, justice…  We have to convince the reader of the importance of those stakes, and the worthiness of the hero to achieve his ends.  Everything in the novel has to move the protagonist toward that goal.

Not even Professor Suedepatches could argue with that.

Question of the day: What primal goal is at stake for your protagonist?

*I realize this was not the universal opinion about books then or now. But it was MY second encounter with someone who told me I wasn’t good enough to write books. The first was with my guidance counselor, who said my spelling was too bad to be a writer. ‘Cause stone tablets didn’t have spell check back in her day. SO maybe this real point of this post is: don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t do something you dream of doing.

Friday, March 19th, 2010 by Rosemary
Earth Logic: Giant Shark Edition

So… I was watching the Shark Movie marathon on SyFy last weekend… (Don’t judge me. You are seriously missing something if you’ve never seen Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus.)

And on comes Spring Break Shark Attack. The plot isn’t important. Sharks swarm. Co-eds get eaten.  What IS important, at least for this post, is that when Dorky Guy, Hunky Guy, and Hot-but-supposedly-smart Girl get on a boat to lead off the bazillion sharks chowing down on the spring breakers, Hunky Guy gets stuck through the shoulder with a harpoon.  Something with a tip like this:

Bad News for Hunky Guy

And Hot-but-supposedly-smart Girl… Pulls the harpoon out.

Me: Oh. My. God. How did that even happen?  How would you even DO that, let alone thing it’s a good idea.

Mr. RCM, on his way through to the kitchen: You’re expecting realism from a movie called Spring Break Shark Attack?

And yes, I was. Well, okay, maybe not from THAT movie, but no matter how fantastic the premise, I expect realism about realistic things. Hot Girl might not know that it’s better to leave a foreign object in place until you get to a hospital. But there’s the problem of the ginormous barb on the end. Anyone with Earth Logic could not not realize that pulling that out would do much more damage than just leaving it in.

It’s called Earth Logic. Even a fantastic world will have it’s own rules, but no matter how bizarre the situation presented to your characters, they still have to make their decisions based on reason that makes sense to the reader.

This can make it a challenge sometimes when you need to have your hero make a wrong decision or do something that might seem foolish later (like go off into the haunted woods alone in a storm).  Her reasons for doing so have to make sense based on the evidence available to her as well as her mental state and her goals and motivations. You have to justify her actions to her, and by extension, to the reader.

So don’t let a lack of Earth Logic make a reader throw your book against the wall. On land or sea, on the planet or in outer space, your characters always have to make decisions–wrong or right ones–based on reasoning that an Earth-based life form can follow.

Friday, March 12th, 2010 by Rosemary
The apprentice, not the wizard

Since I’m the YA author on this blog, I guess it’s about time that I say something about Young Adult novels.

One of the reason that I don’t talk specifically about writing YA very often, is that the principles of writing YA are exactly the same as writing any other genre: Stay in character and write a good story.

IMHO, the thing that makes a YA book a YA book is the protagonist and his/her point of view. Everything else hinges on that.  The YA character is standing with one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood. And she’s always looking forward toward that adult world, and figuring out (or proving) her place in it.

So, more important than the chronilogical age of the character is how she is viewed by society. In a historical or fantasy setting “adult” might be applied much younger than it is today. In the Napoleonic Wars, there were frigate captains as young as 17. Alexander the Great commanded armies at 16. A woman might have three kids by the time she’s 20.

The YA protagonist is not a general, or a king. He’s the apprentice, not the wizard. The point of view in a YA novel is often more ground level when it comes to conflict. While you may see big epic stories of the save-the-world variety, it’s from a more mano-a-mano perspective.  The YA hero has to be in the trenches himself, not commanding troops.  When Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star (the first time), it’s not with a button from far away. It’s against incredible odds, a peashooter against this battle station, with Darth Vader breathing down his neck. Even though it’s in the middle of the big battle, our point of view is right there with Luke. In the trenches.

In YA books, a character is usually experiencing things for the first time: the first time she’s been away from home, or the first time she’s had a relationship (usually romantic) that challenges the familial ones, or the first time she’s had to solve a problem without the help of her parents.

I’d say the one thing that breaks the spell of a YA book is when things slip out of that point of view. That is, the heroine is thinking like an adult, not someone still figuring things out. She’s thinking about something like a grown up, not like someone dealing with it for the first time. (I have to catch this in my own writing.) She’s blasé about sex.  She’s hardened or jaded about life (more than just a front she puts up). And the worst sin of all in a YA book: the voice sounds like it’s an adult talking to the reader: lecturing, soapboxing, moralizing.

So when it comes to writing YA, it all comes down to putting yourself into the shoes of a character unproven, challenged to solve problems for himself for the first time. Stay in that character’s headspace, and leave your adult ‘voice’ behind, and the rest will follow.