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>Competition Winners Magic v Science

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Ori P. and Kessalemma win the signed copies of Lucy’s Blade.

Please email me on docjohn@fsmail.net with (i) a postal address and (ii) what you would like me to write inside.

John

>Grab Me!

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No, not literally. But those two words are something of a mantra for agents and editors. They want our queries and pages to grab them. Not so hard, right? Wrong. At least for me. Because what the fine print says, and it’s very fine print, is that we have to grab them in 5 pages if it’s a novel or only a couple of paragraphs if it’s a short story. So, no dilly-dallying around. No immediate launch into the detailed backstory of Grandma Sofie who died three years before the main character was born and for whom she’s named. Instead, it’s time to get right to hooking the reader either with characterization, action or both.

Jennifer Jackson, an agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, has written a couple of blogs on this topic, as well as on the importance of reading — and following — submission guidelines.

It might not actually feel like five pages are enough to make an assessment. But isn’t that the same thing that happens with readers/consumers? They walk into the bookstore, pick up the book and read the back-cover which has a pitch (like a query has) and then flip it open and read the first couple pages to decide if they want to take it home. (May 22, 2009)

What do I think is the purpose of the first five pages? To get me to want to read page six (and hopefully 7, 8, 9, etc.). They don’t need to be perfect. In fact, watch out for over-editing because that can make them seem stale. They do need to be exceptional. These pages don’t need to have bombs going off or start with a big action scene. Though starting in media res can be helpful — watch out for backstory that can bog down your opening. Someone recently repeated to me this advice: “Start the story as late as you can.” Obviously, the whole story is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not expecting to know everything about the book in just five pages. That’s not why I’m reading them. I’m looking for a sense of things. The writer’s style or voice, perhaps. A compelling character. A strong plot hook or concept. A taste that makes me want more. All they have to do is get me to turn the page (or hit page-down in my email) and want more when there isn’t any more. (May 29, 2009)

Agent Kristen Nelson blogged about a workshop she conducted a workshop called “2 minutes, 2 pages”. According to her, “[t]he purpose is to pretend we are sitting at home with our feet up reading the slush pile. As the author reads the work, we say “stop” if we wouldn’t have read on and then try to explain why.” What she discovered is that the “openings lacked a sense of urgency that would have propelled the story forward or would have engaged the reader immediately in the story or the characters presented.” This doesn’t mean the scene had to meet the Die Hard test of bombs and bullets in the opening scene. All it means is that there must be something at stake for the character. That something can be a treasured keepsake that your character can’t find, waiting for a phone call that she knows will change her life, or an explosion. But it has to be something to draw the reader in and keep her turning the page and wanting more.

So, what keeps you reading past that first page? What do you put in those first five pages to keep the reader wanting more?

>Bad Guys Rool, OK?

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It’s Saturday, again, and I have nothing intelligent to contribute, again, but I’ll write on anyway.

I want to focus on the appeal of bad-guys or antiheroes. Bad-guys come in all sorts of guises. A favourite is ‘the policeman who doesn’t play by the rules’, a character so clichéd that comedians run skits on them. In real life, Policemen who break the rules tend to be associated with corruption and make defence barristers think all their Christmases have come at once. In fiction, they are the life-blood of the police procedural.

Apparently, almost any low life can be turned into an anti-hero if it’s done right. For example, the A-team were a cuddly bunch of heavily armed mercenaries. How did they become sympathetic characters? Then there is Dexter, your local friendly psychopathic murderer, or how about the Man-With-No-Name, Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter. While on that subject, why were they called spaghetti Westerns when they were filmed in Spain? Should they not be Paella Westerns? I’m a geek, these things bother me.

So what distinguishes a bad-guy hero? They have one defining feature in common that I have already mentioned. They break the rules. They don’t give a damn for the law or conventions of society. Most of us live in fear and trepidation of ‘them’, the man, our masters. Our cars are insured, taxed, serviced and MOTed. We creep around at the speed limit in case of radar traps, terrified of points on our licence. We swear impotently at scrotes who cut us up, but not too loudly in case they hear.

The Saint, on the other hand, treated the road network of England as a giant race track laid out for his personal benefit. When a road lout tries to cut up his Silver Hirondel sports car, Simon Templar floors the throttle and puts the swine in the ditch. When said swine catches up with The Saint in a country pub and expresses his displeasure, The Saint puts him to sleep with a straight right to the jaw. That’s the way to do it! All men want to be Simon Templar and all women want him to make love to them.

The Saint is brave, charming, handsome, strong, sexy, intelligent, educated and lethal. He cuts through life like a bullet through a pumpkin. What makes him so appealing is that he protects women and the weak and humbles the arrogant. Crooks are his chosen prey. He is the Robin Hood who robs the wicked rich to give to the poor, less ten percent fee for his trouble. He is everybody’s big brother. The fact that he cocks a snoot at polite society and the pompous, hypocritical establishment makes him all the more appealing. He has high morale standards despite his rebel nature and he is never mean or petty.

Read a Saint novel and you buy a ticket to a dream where you are all those things and beautiful women compete for your company or, if a lady, you are the heroine who wins his heart, at least for a while.

In one story, a fat, ugly rich woman is tormented on the Riviera by the beautiful people who make fun of her. The Saint befriends her with a view to stealing her fabulous necklace but he hears her singing to herself in her bedroom, remembering when she was young and beautiful and a man loved her so much that he bought her the necklace. The Saint moves on the next day without the necklace.

I was very impressed by a scene from Conan that demonstrates the same qualities. A girlfriend has betrayed Conan so that he is imprisoned, awaiting execution. He escapes and goes looking for the girl. Her new boyfriend draws a blade so Conan kills him without compunction. His revenge on the girl is to drop her in a cess pit. As Conan leaves, she is dirty and humiliated but clearly and very vocally unhurt. Conan has his revenge but rejects any idea of hurting a girl, even though she tried to get him killed. To do so would be beneath him.

To me The Saint is the ultimate bad-guy hero to me, but then, one is an Englishman and he is a very English hero.

So, what are your criteria for a bad-guy hero? Do different cultures have different perspectives?

Let’s have your thoughts.

John

>The Elusive Guidebook

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There is a rulebook, its just covered in elbow-grease and slips out of my fingers as soon as I get a grip on it. Every now an then I manage to flip it open at a random page and get a glimpse of something, then its flopping onto the floor again. There are a few writers who have read pages and pages of that thing – even whole sections – but they aren’t telling (You Know Who You Are!!!!).

Perhaps it was the first time I glimpsed that self-same rulebook on the bookshelf – and managed to tease it down like an Indian Snake Charmer – that I got my first character ‘eureka!’ moment.

‘That’s it!’ I thought. Character sympathy! That’s the key to hooking a reader.

I did get excited, because you only get that one chance to draw someone into your story, be it a casual reader or potential editor. Once you get a reader interested in your character, they might forgive you for bumps in the other story elements e.g. plots, world building, PoV, multiple characters, action scenes etc.

So I thought I had it. Build the sympathy!

The trick is – and what I learned the hard way – was that what one reader responds to in a character is often vastly different to another – in fact often diametrically opposed. One reader’s cool detached hero is another’s arrogant, insufferable narcissist.

I used to come home from critique groups often puzzled by contradictory comments that made little sense until the penny finally dropped. If people don’t like your characters, they just will NOT gel with your story. Once you reach that stage the critter will start (often unconsciously) working overtime to find all the things ‘wrong’ with your piece, when the real problem is that it simply has no resonance for them. They will talk vehemently about the punctuation on p3, or how they got mixed up in the dialogue, the logic error in par 5, or yada yada, yada…

Even successful writers don’t seem to have real control over reader’s reactions.

One of David Gemmell readers all time favorite characters is Waylander. David Gemmell himself set out to make this guy a real piece of work – a nasty customer that no one should like; a ruthless assassin that kills without a thought. The surprise was that people loved Waylander, and he went on to be one of Gemmell’s most successful characters, extending over three books and carrying the story well in each one. So why did people respond to Waylander? Was there something unconsciously carried through from Gemmell about that character’s destiny that altered his portrayal? Or do people just love the bad guy – the old Sympathy for the Devil chestnut?

Are the ways of building sympathy for a character as wildly different as the characters people enjoy?

What really draws you into a character? They way they love someone else or show they care? Being the underdog? Strength? Courage? Determination? Their vulnerability? Their sheer undead coolness?

Please let me know – while I keep trying to get a grip on that darn slippery rulebook.

>Flesh on the Bones

>Between Sarah’s discussion of empathy, Rowena’s talk of bent characters, and Dave’s lament on the futility of forcing them to do what you want once they’ve come to life, I’m left without much choice for my first appearance as a new Mad Genius. The character in question is giving me the smirk that says “Next time trust me. I know better than you.”

So without further ado, I shall ramble for a while on the process that finished with Prince Vlad Draculea taking up residence inside my head as a very real person.

For many years before I started writing Impaler, I was fascinated by the historical Prince Draculea (BTW: the spelling is the closest Anglicization of the way he spelled his name. Just another example of character stubborn. He won’t let me spell it any other way). What I had was pretty much what any writer has in the early stages of story generation long before there’s any conscious move to write the thing: a mix of ‘this is a neat idea’ and someone who does or did interesting stuff. Add to that the question, “What if he had survived the assassination attempt?” and I had my story.

What I didn’t have was my character. Instead, I had a huge problem. How does one depict a man whose name is associated with the most appalling atrocities (and let’s face it, they didn’t call him ‘the Impaler’ because he was a nice guy) or the Stoker vampire? He was the central character of the story, but whitewashing his deeds was out of the question. I didn’t consciously wonder how I could show him in a more sympathetic light, but the question gnawed at me for about a year between when I first jotted down the rough plot outline and when I started to write. In the meantime, I wrote a completely different novel, ConVent, which is under consideration at Baen.

And I read everything I could lay hands on about Draculea and his times. Translations of period accounts of the Siege of Constantinople (eye-opening, to say the least), reading and re-reading the various Draculea legends, and gradually building from the bare facts and the legends an idea of what kind of man Draculea might actually have been.

Probably the most useful thing I did was wonder, “Why?”. Asking myself why Draculea would have acted the way he did helped me to understand the era, as well as the man, and led me to some truly mind-boggling bits of 15th century trivia along the way.

I originally intended to write Impaler as mostly Draculea’s point of view, with a few key scenes from other POVs. Instead, somewhere as I reread one of the Florescu and McNally biographies, I got him. Somehow, the constant “well, why would he do that?” had fleshed out the man enough that he was there in my head, dictating the book to me.

From there it was a case of balance: showing Draculea’s human side through his narrative without flinching from the worst of his nature. The end result was good enough to make the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter finals, and is currently on an agent’s desk in its entirety.

I’ll finish with a few paragraphs from the opening so you can judge for yourself how well I fleshed out the man and brought him to life, and whether you can identify with him.

Impaler
Chapter 1

Always before battle begins I am possessed by the need for solitude and prayer. It is a curious thing, for I have never fought as merely another knight. I first ruled men at the tender age of eighteen, when the old Ottoman Sultan Murad and his son Mehmed still thought I could be a Turk puppet.

Those who slander me say I care nothing for the fate of other men. They forget that those who rule by the Lord’s grace are entrusted with the Earthly welfare of their subjects, and to some extent their souls. To take one’s subjects into battle, however righteous the cause, ensures that they will sin. The burden of their souls falls upon me, their Prince.

I do not allow others to see my weakness. Few great lords care for the fate of those in their domains. That I of all men should do so would seem the most grotesque of jests. I, whose name echoes through Europe as a byword for atrocity. And yet, I am driven to pray for those whose lives will end on the battlefield this day, men whose only crime is to obey the commands of their lords.

>I CAN feel your pain

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*As usual I write five times as much as I planned to. Feel free to throw rotten fruit or something*

In this Frankenstein Business we’ve been dealing with – or if you prefer, this divinity business – of bringing our dead creations to life, a good point has been made for how this is accomplished. Matapam says it’s all empathy – and she might be right. As I’ve said before I do 99% of this subconsciously, so it’s hard to say what I did before they came to life.

Unlike Dave I don’t usually write lists of what the characters do or what they like. His practice strikes me as imminently sensible, I just never had to do it. I did once, long ago, interview a character, but that was because the rat fink wouldn’t let me hear his voice. In fact, I think I do what he does, but in the back of my brain, until the voice emerges fully formed. I’m almost sure I do, because of the sudden, brilliant insights. “God it. Her dad was a succubus. No wonder her mom is messed up.” These come to me at the oddest times, when I’m not even aware of thinking about the book, usually after I’ve laid down the note pad (my last tool in attempting to force the character to talk to me) and start doing housework to tire myself out enough that I can rest. (When trying to force a character/novel into the open, I have the cleanest house in the world.) Some of my best ideas have come while ironing or waxing floors.

(And wouldn’t that make a great T-shirt? Writing is Just Playing Frankenstein With Words.)

So let’s assume Matapam is right — how do we build that empathy? Well, one thing I know you can’t do and that is take the easiest route. You can’t have the character come over and tell us everything everyone has done him wrong. Why not? Well… because people tend to react the same way as if a stranger had rung their doorbell and started crying all over them. “My boyfriend left me! I burned the roast! My boss fired me!” They slam the door – or the book – shut, run inside the house and ignore the character forever.

This said what CAN we do? Isn’t feeling sorry for the character a way to build Empathy. Yeah, it is, but… if I may say so, it is one of the weakest ones. Forming a bond with a character is like forming a bond with a friend. Are your best friends people you feel sorry for? Or do you, after a few days/months/years of being the adult in the relationship start hoping that your friend would grow up already. You catch yourself saying “She’s a good girl/guy, but…”

So, who are your friends? People who are interesting. People who do/know things you don’t. People whose reactions you can’t anticipate, but make perfect sense when they happen. People who live lives you love to hear about. People you have a great time with. People who are there for you when you fall and for whom you’re there when they fall. People you’d like to have at your back in a pinch.

The last one is difficult. If you try leaning on a character when you’re in distress, you’re likely to end up with a badly bent book. On the other hand, the character might provide you with a model for facing a horrible situation.

To my mind there are two great ways of imprinting a character forever in a reader’s mind. One I use rarely because it’s very easy to botch and also because it’s the weaker bond than the other.

This less desirable way is to make Writing is a game of first impressions. If your character comes across as a complete monster on page one, you might realize he’s a saint by page 100, but sometimes the reader doesn’t come along with you. (I once lost a reader – in a contest, so I knew from her confused notes – on page three because I described my hero as “he had hands like shovels.” She kept writing on the side of the chapters every time he appeared “but I thought he was the bad guy” from then on.) I call this the “don’t show him drowning puppies first thing off” rule. If you’re trying to write this, you need to think big canvas and bright colors. If the character is drowning puppies in the first chapter, you’d better find out in chapter two that he did it to save ALL the children in world and at great personal pain, because his religion says those who drown puppies are damned.

So, why is this the weaker bond? Because it’s based on guilt. You want to read more about the character and spend more time with him to atone for having misjudged him.

The more desirable way is to make you admire the character. To see him doing something that is universally considered good, at some cost to himself. Then you will find yourself wanting to know this person better. After that care must be taken. A hero without pores, a hero who doesn’t sweat, attaches nobody.

I have found personally my most memorable characters – my own characters, not those I read – tend to be people who are larger than life, but also, to post on a theme in the blog before, functionally insane. I.e. insane, knowing their own insanity and harnessing it.

Athena in Darkship Thieves is one of them, but you never really have a “dime drop” moment, mostly because she doesn’t stop long enough for you to get it. There’s the little tells, when she talks of juvie halls and madhouses as places she’s intimately acquainted with at a young age, and you start wondering what kind of family she has.

But then there is Athos, in my Musketeer Mysteries. Athos is an unstably wrapped little cookie. We of course know it’s because of his wife and what he had to do. I’m not stupid, I brought that up in first book. But there is still this feeling of “something not right” and a sense he was screwed up long before he was old enough to be married. This sense that he’s on the side of angels, but if he ever lets go, there will be bodies stacked like corded wood.

And I had NO idea why. That was just how he came across in my mind and on the page, but he wouldn’t tell me the reason – which, if you think about it, he wouldn’t.

Then on the fifth book – FIFTH and likely the last for a while at least – *Dying By The Sword* he delivers himself of a gem which, I think (not sure if it’s true but it is for me) immediately raised empathy. We know him as admirable and self contained. We also know he can’t unbend without some primal rage emerging. And then this came out. What do you think? Am I right that it builds empathy or at least gives us insight?

* – in that moment he reminded Athos of his father.

Athos’ father had been one of those people never very at ease near children. An only child, who in turn had sired Athos late in life, Monsieur Gaetan Comte de La Fere had treated Athos as an object of intense scrutiny – at a distance – until Athos had been breached at six or so. And then, suddenly, Athos’ father had decided that Athos was no a man, or at least a youth. It was as though nothing existed, in the late Comte’s mind between the mewling infant and the striding man. And so, he’d expected Athos to be proficient at horseback riding, competent enough with a sword for the honor challenges that might be befit any noble, and cultured too, so that his speech wouldn’t lead his inferiors to sneer at him.

Athos, a dutiful son, had learned the riding and the sword fighting from the masters’ provided and, though struggling, always managed to exceed the prowess of those ten times his seniors. Even the Latin and the Greek impinged upon him by yet another set of masters, the poetry, the diction – even that he learned and effortlessly.

Of the rituals and demands his father enforced on him far too young, there was only one that Athos had resented, but that one he had resented absolutely and with a raging hatred. Because every night, from the age of seven or so, he’d been brought into his father’s study and sat, across from his father, at a table that had been designed as a chessboard, and upon which elaborate, expensive China pieces were set.

Athos didn’t resent that his father expected him to play chess. He didn’t even resent that the late Comte gloried in winning games over his small son. What he resented – the memory that still made his bile rise at the back of his throat – was that the rules of the game had never been explained to him. Night after night, he’d sat there, and learned all the moves by trying them the wrong way first. Night after night, day after day, he’d brooded on the losses. And every night his father smiled at him, with the exact same smile that the Cardinal was now giving him.

Something to the movement of the Cardinal’s eyes made Athos realize he’d been inching his hand towards his sword, and he pulled it back by an effort of will. The day after his father had died, in a ritual composed part of grief and part of relief, he had taken the beautiful entaglio chess table, and all the chess pieces. He’d smashed the chess pieces in the depths of the garden, before setting fire to the table.

Now his fingers itched for the fire to set beneath the Cardinal’s feet, *

>Characters, bent is better.

>Characters — I prefer characters that are slightly skewed, odd ball people who don’t quite fit in.

I’m a Buffy fan, not Buffy so much but as her supporting characters. I’ve just started watching TrueBlood, the Sookie Stackhouse series. I’m up to episode 6 and enjoying it. I couldn’t help compare the characterisation. I’m thinking aloud here …

Sookie is a sincere southern waitress, who just happens to be able to hear people’s thoughts. She’s a little but acerbic, which is nice.

Buffy’s answer to everything is ‘tell me how and I’ll kill it’.

Even though we are only just into the first series, I prefer Sookie’s characterisation.

Bill the vampire’s back story is very straight. He was a poor but honest Confederate soldier, who was turned into a vampire and had to walk away from the family he loved.

Compare this to Spike the vampire’s back story. He was a bumbling clerk who wrote bad poetry because his romantic soul outreached his ability.

The Spike character had the advantage of quite a few series to develop his character before his back story was invented and revealed, but I prefer the Spike backstory because he would risk all for love, while Bill would give up everything for love.

For me it is the odd ball person who sees the world in a slightly different way, who is the most interesting.

Are you into odd ball characters?