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Posts from the ‘point of veiw’ Category

Person Problems

What do you do when a new character starts talking to you?

You transcribe, of course, and thank the Muse politely and hope this state of affairs will continue.

However, when the character starts by telling you her name – and it happens to be the name of the Greek Muse of Comedy – don’t be too surprised if she finds it screamingly funny to get you five chapters deep into a story told in first person and then to point out that she didn’t actually witness certain crucial scenes and what are you going to do about that?

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The Weather Abides

I was working on my next Kin Wars Saga novel and got to thinking: we use the weather to set the mood, sure, but why? Everybody knows that if you have a funeral it’s supposed to rain, and a happy ending is a bright sunny day. Depressive days are flat, dull, grey and cold, while snowy days are typically for celebrating holidays.

Is this a learned writing technique or do we instinctively do it?

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Incens(or)ed

There was an amusing bit of fallout after my post last week. You would think that calling for recommendations of books for a pair of young ladies would hardly be controversial, yes? I mean, I don’t know about you, but there are few things I like more than a chance to talk about books I have known and loved since I was a girl. I was just comparing notes last night on social media with a friend about how nice it is to go wayback into memories and read authors like Grace Livingston Hill, LM Montgomery, Georgette Heyer, and others for sweetness and happiness in what seems to be an ever-more bitter world.

But I digress a little. I had occasion, after an angry accusation was made, to look up what the word censorship meant. I thought I knew what it meant, after all, but I wanted to be sure, because what it was being used about wasn’t what I’d have defined as censorship…

Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information that may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, politically incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.

So why was I being accused of being a censor by an incensed reader? because I and others were including warnings about books containing graphic and potentially inappropriate content, in a discussion about books for preteen children. So parents who want to know what is in their children’s books are guilty, according to this person, of censorship. It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of censoring content for my children’s sakes. When I wrote about the prevalence of what can only be called victim worship, or torture porn, in YA books, I was blasted for my stance against the graphic portrayal of abuse. I responded to that with science, laying out the fact that children need tools to cope, yes, but glorifying pain (and suicide, as in the recent Netflix hit 13 Reasons) is not a good thing for those who are trying to crawl out of the abyss. So why do I take this unpopular stance?

Perhaps because as a culture we now embrace pop stars who writhe all but naked on the stage, books that advocate ephebephilia and incest, but reject values, morals, and chivalry? I am not a perfect person, but I do believe that there should be personal responsibility in this world, a duty to protect the children, and the honor to stand up to bullies in any form or age.

I’m a mother who now has three teens and one almost-teen under her roof. Do I say ‘you can’t read that!’ and yank a book out of their bewildered hands? (and how do you confuse hands… oh, never mind) Am I truly a censor, using this blog as my ‘group or other institution’ to suppress information?

Not.

Actually, I think I can successfully argue that rather than censoring those books, I am doing the opposite. I am adding information to them, not blacking the ‘bad bits’ out. It’s no different than the rating systems we use for films and video games. Something meant for mature consumption is possibly acceptable for some who are younger, but that’s something their parents need to make a decision on. Not I, and certainly not the incen(sor)ed reader who was indignant that we were talking smack about books she read as a young girl and didn’t see any harm at all in.

I’ll tell a little story on my girls, here. When my Otaku Princess (who now adores anime and anything DC Comics-related) was a small girl-child with silky copper penny hair, she was absolutely terrified of a G-rated cartoon. It gave her nightmares every time her siblings watched it (we owned it on VHS, to date it) and she would run crying from the room when the gnomes appeared in this made-for-TV animation of Ozma of Oz. On the other hand, my Jr. Mad Scientist was taken to see Batman: The Dark Knight when she was only six years old by a doting great-grandfather who undoubtedly thought he was taking the tiny nut-brown girl to an Adam West show, all Bop! Bam! Biff! and he never even looked to see it was rated R. She didn’t bat an eye at that level of gore and horror.

Every kid is different. But only you, the parents, know which kid is yours and what they are ready for. When you look at a book like Robin McKinley’s Deerskin, you want to know that it has graphic accounts of child abuse, incest, and miscarriage in it. You, the parent, can then determine if that’s a book to be read now, or one that should perhaps wait a few years until the developing mind that is in your care is prepared to grasp that not all bad things end in bad times, they can come out to survival and triumph. Personally, that book shook me to the core and I can’t re-read it. On the other hand, her other earlier stories (I’ve never been able to read her after Deerskin) were brilliant, and I have bought copies to give to my girls. Some censor, I.

Some times a book isn’t right for an age level. I had a book rejected from being added to a school library due to content concerns. I didn’t think once that I was being censored, or cry out “I’m being banned!” to all the media. There is a scene in my YA book The God’s Wolfling that portrays the heroes as they are captured by drug dealers when they stumble into someplace they shouldn’t have been. The elementary school in question explained that they couldn’t have any books in their library that portrayed ‘drug culture’ in any way. As I’d never intended that pair of books for juvenile (under 12 years) readers, I shrugged and went on with life. Have I, an author, been censored? Yes. Did it harm me? No. Would that scene (spoiler: the teen heroes make it out intact and the drug idiots pay dearly) have harmed some young impressionable mind? Well, probably not. But that’s not my call to make. The school has a responsibility to parents, and parents are the ones tasked with raising their children. Not, thank goodness, angry people on the internet.

I don’t think there are many children reading this blog. To be honest, I’d be surprised if that number was greater than one. There are rather a large number of parents and grandparents who read and write here. With all of those, I suspect that a primary goal is for us to raise readers. Not to restrict them, but to guide them and feed them good, tasty books, until they can be weaned and off to a diet of meaty books full of stories that will satisfy them, mystify them, and make them think more until their brains stretch out a size or three. And the best way to accomplish that is to talk about books which are beloved and find ones the children will read all up until they cry out for ‘more! more’! and that’s when you know you can come here, asking for ideas when you’re out, and we’ll tell you about the books we loved. Which includes a word of warning about things you might want to know so you aren’t up in the middle of the night with a case of reading indigestion and a crying child.

The dangers of critiques

Let me start by thanking everyone for their well-wishes and blog ideas last week. Sorry I didn’t get back with a real post but the headache and sinuses laid me low. Since you guys were so great with blog suggestions, I spent a few minutes this morning going over them again and am going to hit on a couple in this post.

As writers, we are going to see our work critiqued, whether we want to or not. Most of the time we don’t want to. Let’s be honest, no one likes hearing that their baby is ugly and that is what we risk when we read a critique. However, before we ever see our work in print, many of us workshop our work in critique groups or we have alpha and beta readers look it over. Then there are the editors. We trust them to tell us what is good about our work and what is bad about it.

But what do we do with that information once we get it?

That is where a number of authors, usually those new to the field, run into trouble. Do they try to incorporate all the changes their critique partners and beta readers suggested? Or do they simply nod, say “thanks” and move on? Or is there something in the middle?

Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. But there are guidelines. There is also the author’s gut, something the author must learn to listen to.

When I first started getting serious about writing as a profession, Sarah offered me a bit of advice when I was lamenting about how I didn’t understand what someone in a critique group had said. It’s been long enough now I don’t remember exactly what the comment was. What I do remember is that what they wanted me to do would result in basically breaking the character. But this person, who had more experience than I did — or so I thought at the time because of the way they conducted themselves in the group — was adamant that I do what they said.

So, after anguishing over it, I talked with Sarah. She was silent for a moment and then she asked if anyone else had voiced the same concerns about my work. No. Then she wanted to know if, after this person voiced their opinion, anyone else chimed in with an agreement. Again, no. That’s when she told me about the Rule of Three. Unless three people tell you basically the same thing, do NOT automatically decide you need to make the suggested changes. After all, people are different. They read differently, have different tastes and, let’s be honest, they can make mistakes.

Then she went on to tell me that even if three people say the same thing, that doesn’t mean you have to instantly make the change.  But it does mean you need to consider what they said, and do so dispassionately.

Here is an example from my current critique group. My critique partner is a very good writer, very serious about her craft and open to critique. She wants to do whatever she can to make her work better. In a recent meeting she talked about how, in another group, someone had suggested she redo her current WIP so that she was alternating POVs of her main characters. Their reason was because they did not feel like they were learning enough about one of the POV characters and felt having scenes from his point of view might help.

Now, we have all read books where there are different POV characters. Some of those books are written in 3rd person omniscient and some 3rd person limited. Others are written in 1st person. So my crit partner knew it could be done but her question was should it?

Our group discussed the options, as well as the pros and cons of doing it.

So here’s the thing, whether my crit partner needed to do as suggested — and, in my opinion and the opinions of the others in our group, she did not — there were issues with doing it. The biggest is, if you switch points of view, you have to be ready to have a distinct “voice” for each POV character. This is especially true if you are writing in 1st person. There are writers out there who can do that without problem. But it is difficult and not something to do if you, the author, don’t have that second voice firmly in your head.

Sure, there are easy ways to cue your reader that you have switched points of view when in first person. You can make sure each chapter or scene change is tagged in such a way that you actually give the POV character’s name. Or you can have another character call the POV character by name in the first paragraph or so and making it clear it is your POV character responding.

In this particular case, however, the author didn’t need to go back and rewrite a good chunk of her book. The one thing we agreed with the person wanting another POV character on was that we wanted more of a feel for the other main character in the book. So we brainstormed ways to do so. The suggestions we came up with meant a little rewriting, but it was more along the line of a sentence here and a paragraph there. Letting us more into the mind of the POV character and her reactions to him, especially at the beginning of the book.

Now, was the original critique wrong?

Not necessarily but it wasn’t necessarily right either. However, what that person did was offer a concern with a solution and not offer any other ways to address the concern. By raising that person’s concern with our group, our critique partner wound up with a discussion of not only some minor weaknesses we saw in her work but also different ways to address them. What solution she finally chooses is up to her, as it should be. She is the one who knows her book the best and who will be able to determine the best way to fix the concerns, if they really need fixing when the entire book is looked at, without breaking the book or the characters.

Here is another point we, as authors, need to keep in mind when we workshop a book in a critique group. More often than not, our critique partners are seeing only a chapter or two at a time and it may be weeks or months or even years before they critique that last chapter. That means critiques tend to be centered only on the chapter or scene they are currently working on in the group, not on the work as a whole. It means details from previous chapters can and will be forgotten. The flow of the book won’t be there. So, when someone says you need to do something that impacts the entire book, you have to ask yourself if they made the comment with the entire book in mind or just the current chapter and maybe the previous one or two in mind.

This is where your writer’s gut has to come into play. If what the critique partner says feels wrong, ask yourself why. If it feels right, examine that as well. Don’t be afraid to ask that person if they had the same concerns about earlier chapters they had seen.

If I have to point out one rule when it comes to critique groups/alpha and beta readers it would be this: do NOT try to make everyone happy. If you try to insert every change that every person suggests, you will probably wind up causing yourself more headaches and problems than you find solutions. This is, to repeat myself, where you fall back on the Rule of Three. If three folks say basically the same thing, consider what they said and why. If not, make a note, think about it but remind yourself that others did not have the same problem or suggestion.

Most of all, learn to trust your writer’s gut — and when to realize you really shouldn’t have had that three-day-old slice of pizza that hadn’t been refrigerated. Now go forth and write and, if you aren’t a writer, read.

Oh, in case you are wondering what to give your favorite authors for Christmas, here’s something every author would appreciate. Write a review for their work on Amazon. It doesn’t have to be long or detailed. Just enough to let folks know you read the book and what you thought about it. The number of reviews a title gets impacts its visibility. It also helps other readers decide if they want to try an author they might not have read before.

 

Parasite load

“So nat’ralists observe, a flea

Has smaller fleas that on him prey;

And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.”

Jonathan Swift, On Poetry: A Rhapsody

We’re all a cheerful heaving mass of parasites.  Parasites on parasites at times. A delightful thought, one of the joys of having a biologist write about writing…

Some of these parasites do no real harm – we can survive them, although we might do better without them. Some of course, do harm. They can maim, hobble, weaken and indeed kill. There are tales of cows being killed by mosquitos, by sheer blood-loss (not, thank heavens where I live). Other parasites stray a little… or even quite a lot into the area of commensualism, and right through to outright symbiosis.

It might, for example be said that the male anglerfish particularly in the deep-sea ceratiidae (the sea devils) is perfect example of parasitism that is essential to the survival… not of the host but the host’s products – well, offspring. Genes.

You see out in the deep blue desert – well, ocean, but it is de facto rather like a desert in that food is sparse and scattered (although there is plenty of water) – but it’s nutrient poor, deep and cold. The possibility of finding prey is small, and find sex when you need to breed, well, let’s put it this way, you’d have more luck finding a nudist colony in Riyadh. So the sea devil females have a way around this. They keep one… well I was going to handy, but it more like hanging around their butts.

Now, as I said food is scarce, and taking someone for dinner down there is well, usually digestive, for at least one. If you have ever seen an anglerfish you’d know they are like banks – a little dangly ‘bait’ on the end of the illicium – held just above a vast mouth full of evil teeth to make sure dinner doesn’t leave undigested. The males are more like politicians, they can somehow – despite having lousy noses or eyes or anything else except testes, find females in watery waste. Perhaps there is a sea-devil pub.

Once they find a female… they bite her. This may be just as well as she’s all too well equipped to bite them, and they’re small and feeble compared to her. Females need to be big to accommodate a lot of relatively large eggs – males do not.

And at this point things get really, really weird… as he bites and then releases an enzyme that digests the skin on his mouth, and her body, where he has bitten… and the ‘wound’ heals up with the male and female joined in sense humans can never experience. The male and female join at the tissue level, and share blood-vessels.

He gets what he needs to live directly from her bloodstream. The bits he no longer need atrophy. He’s there to be sperm when she needs it. Sometimes as many as eight males can be found like ticks that have actually grown into the host (and you see why biologists look at arts graduate sf writers blathering about ‘non-binary sex’ with amusement.).

I suppose too many would kill her, but it is a system that works, despite the fact that the parasitic males draw all their nourishment, and indeed oxygen from the host. Without them, the species would die. With them, individuals may.

It has parallels in our lives (and no I don’t just mean the waste of space who does little more than father children) and of course in the writing world.

Most of life involves ‘carrying’ a ‘freeloading parasite’ load which may do you (or at least humans in general) some good – or not. There’s a fine line between the benefits (if they exist) and the sheer cost of carrying this load. Governments (national and local) and bureaucrats with their slew of petty rules and associated costs and taxes are good example. Yes, they might protect you from being eaten, but they’ll make up for it by devouring much of your subsistence without doing much positive, most of the time. Still, rather like the male anglerfish, they’re supposed to be there when you need them.

In writing there is some difference of opinion as to who the degenerate freeloaders are. From the point of view of agents, traditional publishers, and at least some of retail, we are. We’re interchangeable widgets, sucking their blood and giving precious little in exchange. Without them, we are nothing, and while they need us as a group, as individuals we’re worthless, instantly exchangeable if we want too much of their precious lifeblood for doing the trivia we do. After all, any fool can write books. Look at Freer for example… It’s one point of view.

As with so much of writing, the point of view makes quite a difference, as I for one am reluctant to see myself as an exchangeable widget. However, while I may want and benefit some – or all – of the services that agents, Trad publishers, and retail provide (almost as an afterthought it seems at times) – I can do without them. Some writers can do very well without them, selling directly. You can certainly cut some of them, and benefit a lot from carrying less of a parasite load, and simply do what they do yourself, or contract it out for less. The agents, traditional publishers and retailers can do without me, but they cannot do without writers.

It then becomes – for the writer, anyway, an equation of can he survive and have his work thrive alone in the deep blue sea of making a living from writing, or does he need all, or some of the ‘parasites’ so they’re there at the right time, so his work does not fail to find readers. That equation varies from writer to writer. Honestly, I believe if you can, you’re wise to outsource proofing. Unless you’re a wiz at covers or the cost cannot be met, well, they’re your display. If you can afford – and if you can find a good structural editor, take this opportunity with both hands. They can turn a mediocre or even bad book into something great, just by finding where and how to tweak it. This is difficult, because most Trad publishing houses don’t have them either. Copy editors have value, but seriously, most of them are widgets. If you find one that isn’t, hang onto them. Marketing… well IF you can do it well, great, if you will probably do it better than any publisher’s employee, even though they have the contacts etc. You will work only for you. He or she will work for the publisher – who has lots of irons in the fire. Even outsourcing here is tricky – so much marketing these days is social media.

When it comes to retail – unless you have a social media platform par excellence and/or a mailing list, retail still are ‘have to have’. That’ll cost you. But some parasite load has to be carried.

It’s always good to know what you’re carrying, and to work out if it has value relative to the cost.

Otherwise ditch the sucker.

As the anglerfish didn’t say, ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.’

And biology is very useful for designing implausible aliens.

Slog

I see in today’s paper that Australian research identifies me as a ‘slogger’ – a bloke who would like to work less but needs the money. And there I thought I was just a lazy beggar who would like to fish a bit more often.

The interesting part to their whole schpiel – which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, because I am not a pigeon and they have a desperate need to put everyone in pigeon-holes – was that it seemed to hinge aspiration and reward… and that it was plainly very, very viewpoint orientated.

According to them, I would be less well socially connected, and less adept at it than any other group. Now I’m no Kim Kardashian (just in case you failed to notice the beard) and I’m a failure at twittering my every moment and movement (including bowel, or, after alphabet soup, vowel). But I have if anything too good an actual social life and chat to too many people the book-of-faces.

I’m a writer, I like to watch, to listen, to study people, to think about what they say, and why they say it. This means I can better grasp what a character – who is vastly different to me in every imaginable way, and possibly some I would rather not imagine – would plausibly react in the bloody awful mess I put them in my books. I am kind like that. I mean, here I am playing god, I could at least have them win the Lotto, meet Mr or Miss Right, and live happily ever after with a large library and enough Chateau Lar Feet (as this is Dave Freer writing, not something common like Chateau Lafite) and Magret de Canard with a black cherry reduction, to at least die happy. Nooo, instead I put them in awful positions (some not even in Kama Sutra) facing certain death, usually sober and before dinner. Yes, I am a miserable bastard. Being one is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Of course, tough jobs are supposed to pay well (which would put me on the wrong side of the pigeon-hole margin). Sadly, no one else seems to think it a tough job (one of these point-of-view things I alluded to). In terms of aspiration, however, I’ve never come across an author who didn’t aspire to being rich and successful. I’ve met an awful lot who aspire to be Castle on TV – rich famous and living the good life without all the tedium of actually writing. I’ve met others – and I’d put myself among them, who would do the job if they didn’t get to write, and fair number who could certainly have been richer than an author is likely to be, if they’d chosen a different path. Some of them even realized that before they went down the writer’s path.

Now, sloggers (according to pigeon-holers) work because they must, and don’t earn much, or ever hope to earn much. Yet… all novelists, for at least for a substantive part of their job are literally sloggers. Producing a book (let alone a career as an author) is a long-haul process. And part of any long haul process is sheer dogged determination – or plain old-fashioned slog (unless you are Castle, and that only happens on TV.) Even if somehow you do make every ounce of writing your twentieth novel a thing of joy (and yes, I manage to end up loving my books, even those I wished I had never agreed to write), there is still editing and proofs, and then inserting the proof corrections.

And even those of us who love the writing itself are faced with horrible parts of it. For me the most difficult is writing the ‘links’ between the scenes which I have to make sure maintain continuity – usually complex – and yet must be short, clean… and the reader is barely aware of. There is always a resentful part of my mind that says ‘I am working my butt off to make this slick, clear… and virtually invisible. You would only know it existed at all (if I have done it well) if it wasn’t there. Like the servant who actually did the cleaning in the society hostess’s home (and listens to her being praised for it), there is a degree of resentment that my hardest and, IMO some of my best work is something that is only good if no one knows I’ve done it.

The times of sheer dogged slogging is an unavoidable fact of life for 99.99998% of any author who makes a career out of it. You just can’t let it show in your writing, because your readers are paying you for tedious attention to detail in your work, not for tedium in their entertainment.

Like my laziness… it’s a question of perspective and perception. I’m not much good at just sit-and-do nothing. Hell for me would be sunbathing. I do work long hours, but I have slowed down from 5 hours sleep a night – which is when I wasn’t being lazy. I’ve actually got a rigid system of self-bribery and corruption worked into a structured calendar, word counts – which have timed ‘rewards’ of checking facebook, or working in the garden, or going fishing – yes, I really do book the hours, and even try to enforce some reading, research and even free time. I’m not very good at the latter, but there is a point where you’re either staring at the screen or writing crap you will delete. It is, compared to most office workers, terribly regimented and disciplined – and the boss watches every damn thing I do.

Of course to the reader who is waiting for the next book I’m also a useless, lazy scut who never gets around to it.

So: as usual this is all about writing and technique. And as usual I have been trying to do what I am informed is wicked colonial imperialism – showing not telling. If that’s wicked imperialism, bring it on, I reckon, because it works for readers. ‘Wicked’ is a point of view issue too. What I was trying to explain is a layer of complexity that many writers never quite grasp.

At the bottom end characters are WYSIYG (what you see is what you get) which is lovely when translating e-books, but a bit weak as a character. The character is as they are portrayed – both in how they see themselves, and, identically as they are seen by anyone else. IE. Joe is a hard-working, clever, kind man. That’s how Joe sees himself, and how other characters see Joe. That is also how the readers see Joe. And oddly, comments like ‘unrealistic/ dull/poor/one-dimensional characters’ will creep into the reviews. That may be true, but I have often found this really is an inability to express something the reader is aware of without grasping quite what causes the disconnect.

The disconnect is of course, that what the character perceives themselves as – from their own point of view – is never what others see them as. Many writers manage this reasonably well. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary (another character) sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling.

This is real life. Listen to any dispute and you may think that the two principals are describing a separate set of events. Divorce cases, doubly so. And when you get down to poltics… Well, looking at it from Australia, ardent Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s supporters plainly live in widely separated alternate universes which branched off from each other just after there first was light.

Dispassionately, and from neither point of view… exists another real story entirely, with more or less elements from both and things which are in neither viewpoint. Just so with the story in the READER’S head. This is the stage which great authors get to. They understand that they’re working with each character’s perception of themselves, and the other (often multiple) character’s perception of themselves AND of the other characters. All of this adds up to the author carrying his or authorial perception of the character to the reader. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling. Mary sees herself as not popular, and unhappy about this, and far brighter than Joe. Joe sees Mary as happy, loving and understanding, and not too bright. Both of their actions and responses are shaped by own perceptions… and by reality (in this case, authorial reality) The clever author manages to carry through the ‘reality’ that Mary doesn’t care for Joe, but wants to be liked, and is manipulating his feelings. She’s not actually as bright as she thinks she is, or she would realize that her un-lovable-ness isn’t how Joe sees her. But she’s brighter than Joe think she is. Joe, on the hand is hard-working, none-too-bright, but is actually kind.

It’s a multi-dimensional maze, which the reader SHOULD be unaware of as they’re led through. It’s a slog, getting it right, because to do so you will have to enter (at least) three different head-spaces.

This is why head-hopping is a poor idea. It confuses most authors, and that in turn confuses most readers. That is why the discipline exists, not for its own sake.

Of course, it’s never that simple. The ‘authorial’ head-space will quite possibly be not quite the way the reader sees it. When I was writing JOY COMETH WITH THE MORNING I wrote the book from a single point of view (hers) but made it clear by the responses of the other characters to her, that her perspective was not theirs, and that they saw her quite differently – and of course, I as the author saw all of them quite differently.

What I should have been prepared for… but wasn’t, was the range of very different ways readers saw her.

It’s a complex web we weave.

But we set out to deceive.

That’s why it is called ‘fiction.’