Sunday, May 27, 2012

Need Character Intro Advice

Question to Everyone: How many pages are you willing to read before the "plot" takes off?

Why haven't I been writing consistently lately? Because this current re-write has become less about writing and more about troubleshooting.

My story is a crossover or portal fantasy, which means characters are transported from our world into a fantasy world. (Yes, I know portal fantasy is a big no-no.) Basically, the first few chapters involve a) the crossover, and b) an introduction to the world and to most of the important characters.

My problem? I need to figure out how to do (b) in as few words as possible.

Let's start with the world:

There is a lot I could describe about Takira. The scenery and culture. The religion and history. The magic, and how it works. The relationship between the two worlds and the organization that mediates it. Obviously, I can't throw in a bunch of info-dumps during the first few chapters. And not all of this has to be explained at the beginning of the story. But I need to incorporate enough to give readers a feeling of the setting and maybe throw in some tension points.

Now characters, where the real problem lies:

I have thirteen characters who appear in the first five chapters. Three of them appear before the crossover, so no problems there. Instead, my problem is how to introduce the other ten characters. Since both of my protagonists come from our world, they haven't met most of the other characters, but there's only so much "Hi, my name is _______" that I can do before it starts to grate on everyone's nerves. I minimized this problem by writing one of the scenes through the eyes of someone who already knows most of the characters. But that's only a small part of the problem.

The other is how to introduce them all in a brief but meaningful way. The characters need to reveal some form of personality. I don't need to fully flesh them out right away, but I can at least allow my readers to identify some of their stock traits (ie, bitchy girl, butt monkey, etc.)  Humor and tension are essential here--otherwise you're just watching a bunch of characters walking down the road and having a conversation. (Which pretty much describes the current version of chapter 3.)

Between readers, there's often a disagreement between jumping right into the plot vs. introducing characters. "Jumping in" is more fun, but some people want to get to know the characters first so that they actually give a crap about what happens to them. When I read The Girl of Fire and Thorns, for instance, I appreciated how I got a good sense of the world and some of the characters before the plot started. But a lot of people won't keep reading unless there's enough action to hold their attention.

What's your take on early character introductions? Do you have any advice for a writer's-blocked amateur?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Obsidian Blade" by Pete Hautman

I was originally planning on reviewing Kelley Armstrong's Dime Store Magic for the New Adult Project this week. There's no doubt that the book counts as New Adult, since the protagonist is twenty-three years old and recently out of college.

However, when I started writing the review, I realized that a) I read it five years ago, and I'm not sure I remember it well enough to review it, and b) it's actually the third book in a series (though it does stand alone pretty well). So I'll make it your guys' call. To review or not to review?

Instead, I will review The Obsidian Blade. (Not New Adult, alas.)

If you're the sort of reader that likes plot devices that make you go "Hey, cool," then this might be the book for you. Should you expect anything else from it? Probably not.

The Obsidian Blade was poorly-developed in every possible way: poorly-developed world building, poorly-developed characters, poorly-developed ideas. It wasn't necessarily that the author failed to think through all of his ideas; it's just that if he did, the reader never gets to see it. I never got to know any of the characters in any meaningful way. Some existed for no purpose other than to dole out vague explanations about the world. Perhaps these characters all had deep, underlying feelings and motivations behind their actions, but the author's sole priority seems to be jumping from Point A to Point B. Since this is a time-travel book, we get to see all sorts of 'worlds' and 'events,' but even these are only shown in the most hasty way possible. This book is loaded with bad info-dumps, telling instead of showing, and an ending that's just one big mess. (Or maybe it did make sense, but by the time I reached the last few pages, I just didn't care enough to actually follow what was happening.)

So don't waste your time. If you're going to read a time-travel book, I would stick to something like Tempest. (Or Harry Potter, for that matter.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Recommendation: The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

I didn't read The Girl of Fire and Thorns because I expected to like it. I read it because it was on my list of books that are relevant to The Temple Well. There are a lot of elements of this book that are similar to the one I'm writing, and I wanted to see how another author dealt with certain subject matter, such as the "Chosen One" trope and religion-centered world building.

And while I was curious to read it, it wasn't exactly a good curiosity. I don't have to tell you how cliche the "Chosen One" trope is. And as for those "girl learns to believe in herself" books? *pauses to yawn*

So I was really surprised when this one turned out to be good.

The descriptions are incredibly vivid, and the plot has the perfect balance of slow introspection and constant action. Certain elements of the plot could even be considered brave, at least by YA standards. (Don't throw things at me, please.) The world building is both unique and thorough. And Elisa is a very well-developed protagonist.

There were some parts of the story that bothered me. Many of the secondary characters, especially the villains, could have been better fleshed out. There were also instances were story elements felt too convenient. And as for the whole "Chosen One" element? It was handled well in terms of Elisa's development, but I do take issue with the fact that so much of the plot was controlled by "destiny." It seems kind of shallow for God to put so much effort into intervening in one war, especially since it reinforces the idea that the other side is inherently evil. (It's one thing if all the characters and all the readers see you as a villain. It's another matter entirely when you bring Divine Intervention into it.)

Now I'm sure that sometime in the distant future, when The Temple Well actually sees the light of publication and people are digging up torn copies that have survived the alien invasion, because let's face it, there is a greater chance of the alien invasion happening than of me actually finishing a book, someone will look back on this and call me a hypocrite. And I would like those people to know that I am choosing to ignore them.

Anyway, the sequel to this book is coming out in September, and I am really excited to read it.


ETA: My review of The Crown of Embers.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The New Adult Project: "Tam Lin" by Pamela Dean

Goodreads Summary:

Once upon a time fairy tales were written for young and old alike. It is only in the last century that they have been deemed fit only for children and stripped of much of their original complexity, sensuality, and power to frighten and delight.

"I forbid ye maidens all that wear gold in your hair to travel to Carterhaugh, for Young Tam Lin is there..." So begins the ancient Scottish folk song Tam Lin, and the fairy tale of the same name, a tale of seduction and mortal sacrifice about the headstrong young woman who defies this warning, and then must battle the Queen of Faery herself for possession of Tam Lin's body and soul. Pamela Dean has wrought a modern enchantment on this magical coming-of-age tale, setting it among the outlandish theater majors at a small Midwestern college.


Doesn't this summary sound cool?

I'm sorry to disappoint you. Tam Lin is incredibly boring. Maybe the source material is filled with fantasy and adventure and battles and sacrifice, but the only thing Pamela Dean's adaptation contains is a bunch of literary references. I'm not even kidding. On every page, someone is either quoting poetry or arguing about the merits of Shakespeare and Keats. I know we're talking about a bunch of theater/classics/English majors, but seriously?

And now you're probably asking "But surely something must have happened at the ending?" I wouldn't know, because I didn't get that far. By the time I reached page 140, I realized that I didn't even remember who half the characters were.

Those that I did remember were incredibly dull. There is romance in this book, too, but it's so bland that I hesitate to even call it "lukewarm." And the style? The prose is fairly wooden, though I blame this mostly on Janet, the protagonist. There are a few moments of cleverness, but not nearly enough to keep me reading.

If pretentious college students are your thing, I still wouldn't recommend this book. I would recommend The Secret History, which has quirky characters, incredible prose, and most importantly, stuff actually happens.

With all that said, I'm officially giving up on Tam Lin

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Why Facebook is better than Twitter

Two recent facebook conversations:

Borderline Sociopath Friend: I had thought that by the time I'd graduated from college, most people would have stopped being passive aggressive and easily offended. Apparently, I was mistaken.
Me: What did you do now?
BSF: I apparently "left a bad impression" with a number of new acquaintances at an event nearly a month past. I only just learned of this today. Perhaps its foolish, but I expect people to behave like adults, and discuss their problems openly and face-to-face.
Me: You clearly do not know many adults.
BSF: I'm beginning to think that you're correct.

Denner: there is nothing worse than having a rogue spider running rampant through ur car while driving down the freeway...
Me: The rogue spider is driving down the freeway? (Sorry. My inner SAT tutor is coming out.)
Denner: oh no i cant believe i did that i fucking hate dangling modifiers! but technically i guess the spider was controlling the car; i was freaking out way too much to steer in a straight line and i was swerving in response to where it was...
Me: How have you stayed alive this long?

When I have these conversations on facebook, the comments show up in an organized format, in chronological order, and without all of those pesky @ signs.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

No...Just...No (AKA, Review of "Insurgent," by Veronica Roth)

Remember back when YA Highway asked "Where do you get your books?" and I confessed to hiding in bookstores and reading a few books without paying for them? Veronica Roth's Divergent was one of those books. Considering that a) I didn't have a lot of money at the time, b) the book was already an over-hyped best-seller, and c) that I didn't even end up liking it that much, I had no reason to regret this decision.

Still, I was curious about Insurgent, and the summary did sound really good. So for that reason, I decided to do what I've stopped doing since I got a paying job: hide in Barnes & Noble and finish the book. And once again, I do not regret that decision. If I had actually paid $17 for this book, I would have had to find a weapon and threaten the store clerk until he/she gave me back my money. That's how much I hated Insurgent.

I don't even know where to begin. Even in the first book, the villains were completely one-dimensional, but it wasn't until reading Insurgent when I realized that almost all of the secondary characters are total cardboard cut-outs. (See Francesca Zappia's post on the subject.) There's even a token head-shaving lesbian. (This is hardly a spoiler.) And while there are a lot of arguments and inter-character drama, most of it is cliche and/or ridiculous.

Oh, and the pseudoscience? I've already bitched about this in Divergent, but Insurgent takes it to a whole new level. The explanation of what "divergent" means was nonsensical enough in the first book, but Insurgent tries to throw in a bunch of science to explain it, and guess what? It doesn't work. Sure, having a larger prefrontal cortex might make you more strong-willed or "goal-oriented," but how the fuck does that relate to having a more "flexible" personality? Oh, and now "divergent" is supposed to be a genetic thing. Yes, the ability to resist mind-controlling substances can now be passed down with a simple gene. Don't even get me started.

Actually, yes, please do get me started. Veronica Roth tries to make the science behind Insurgent actually sound credible, but I'm convinced that she's done nothing more than look up "parts of the brain" on Wikipedia. While she might know what the prefrontal cortex does, she doesn't seem to grasp the fact that even the most basic science requires a certain degree of logic behind it. (But hey, if we're going to play "scientist," why not take it all the way? Like, for instance, if the members of Amity have been exposed to happy serum their entire lives, shouldn't they have built up some kind of tolerance to the substance? And how is it that Tris' society has found a way to manipulate the brain, the most complex organ in the human body, but they can't even cure spinal cord injury? Oh, and while we're talking about mind control, how exactly are they getting those microchips in the right part of the brain? Hell, how are they even getting them through the blood-brain barrier?)

And this is the part where you tell me to calm the fuck down, because Veronica Roth isn't a scientist, she's a writer, and she's doing her best. (After all, they call it science fiction for a reason.) And in most cases, I'd agree with you. I mean, it wasn't easy to swallow the sad excuse for "genetic engineering" in Across the Universe, but I let it slide.

So why am I being so harsh on Insurgent? Oh, don't I know. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Roth is attempting to build ground with scientists while simultaneously turning them into the Big Villains. Yes, I'm talking about the members of Erudite, the faction of cold-hearted, overly-utilitarian mad scientists who are fascinated by water filtration systems and wear glasses not because they actually need them, but because they want to look smarter. Am I really supposed to believe that half of the intelligent faction is going to get behind an evil tyrant like Jeanine? Intelligent people tend to question things, and as a result, they're a lot harder to manipulate.

But anyway, I didn't have a problem with the "evil Erudite" in Divergent. I love a good evil genius as much as anyone else. Unfortunately, the whole "genius" part doesn't seem to apply to Jeanine, the Erudite leader. Every one of her actions is dripping with stupidity. At one point, she wants to use a truth serum on Tris, but the leader of Candor won't let her have any of it, and it will take days to make a new batch. Umm, did it really never occur to her to keep an extra vial of the stuff hidden away before she gave it all to Candor? (It seems like a useful thing to have around.) And hiring a guy who previously deserted the Erudite/Dauntless alliance to guard one of her most important prisoners? (I was under the impression that she had a hundred other sociopathic minions she could have picked for the job.) Oh, and my favorite: "Abnegation has this big important secret thing that we want, so let's commit mass genocide in order to steal it!" (Did it never occur to her to just, I don't know, pull the fire alarm or something?)


Earlier today, our lab hosted our annual Spinal Cord Injury Symposium. This is where doctors, physical therapists, and researchers come together to discuss new discoveries, new theories, and new technologies that will ultimately improve quality of life for people suffering from SCI. Today's speakers all dedicated their lives to finding a cure, and their research is fascinating. I learned so much about inflammatory regulators, central pattern generators, stem cells, and glial scars. It's days like today where I remember why I went into this field--there are real people suffering from these conditions, and real people working their tails off to make it happen.

The scientists I know aren't evil geniuses. They're passionate, hard-working, quirky individuals. But if Tris Prior ever walks through our lab, all she would see would be people in white coats standing around typing away on computers and "mixing different colored liquids." (I'm pretty sure this is exactly how she describes it--and this girl is supposed to be smart enough to be Erudite.)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Is the YA experience "universal"?

Thanks to Harley Bear Book Blog for inspiring this post.

When I was in eight grade, I attended a Bar Mitzvah of someone in the class below me. The party was held in a synagogue, and while most of the kids were downstairs on the dance floor, I was upstairs in the chapel with my friend Lisa.* I don't remember what we were talking about, but I do remember being interrupted by a boy in Lisa's class. "Jessica** said you guys were making out," he told us. (We weren't, of course.)

Most people would have been angry in this situation, but more than anything, I was confused. Sure, I knew that Jessica didn't like Lisa. Very few people did. She wasn't a bad person, but she had a number of psychological conditions that most of her classmates didn't know about. As a result, they felt no qualms about making fun of her weirdness and immaturity. They rarely said anything to her face, but the gossip was rampant enough that you couldn't ignore it.

Jessica was probably the exception to this. She was mean, and she must have enjoyed being mean, because she wasn't afraid to tell Lisa that she didn't like her. But I didn't realize that her mean-ness extended to making up silly rumors. Not only that, but she had dragged me into it. Although our middle school was small (the seventh and eighth grade had  about thirty students combined), I don't think I ever said more than two words to Jessica. We didn't know each other at all, and yet she was intending to make me her victim.

All I could think was "It's like she's trying to be that stereotypical bitch from the movies." The very thought of it went completely over my head. I mean, didn't most people at least pretend to be nice?

That was my teenage experience. I didn't believe that real bullies existed, at least not to the same degree that fiction portrayed. That doesn't mean that everyone in my middle school class was nice--they weren't, and I hated most of them, but they were at least "classy" enough to keep their feelings to themselves. (Bullying actually takes effort, right?)

Maybe that's why I could never fully relate to YA. If the protagonist was such a pathetic loser, why were mean cheerleaders actually going out of their way to tease her? Didn't these girls actually have something more interesting to talk about (shopping, makeup, boys, etc.)? And the protagonist always had at least one sidekick, so why did she keep whining about how no one liked her?

A confession: I stopped reading YA after I graduated from middle school. Why? Because all of it seemed silly. Either it presented a completely unrealistic picture of the teenage experience (popularity hierarchies, etc.), or it was badly written. Out of all of the "contemporary" novels I read in my early teens, the only one I actually liked was Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. But all of my early teenage favorites? All fantasy. I'm referring to Tamora Pierce and Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, of course, His Dark Materials. Why? Because fantasy novels were about more than finding Mr. Right. They were about fighting and going on quests and saving the world. Did I relate to any of that? No. (Did I want to? Hell yes.)

So this is why it puzzles me when people like Sarah LaPolla talk about how there's no market for New Adult because the "new adult" experience isn't "relatable" or "universal" like the teenage experience. (Note: I'm very much paraphrasing here.) I think my own story is enough to demonstrate that the teenage experience is not universal. It's come to the point where I never even read for relatability. That's not saying I never relate to a protagonist's struggles (hello, Kirsten Hubbard!) but it isn't my first expectation. Secondly, it seems that about half of today's YA involves protagonists who are already taking on adult roles. Whether they're fighting a war or ruling a country or trying to help their starving families survive, these characters are basically adults in teenage bodies. So is it such a big step to make them adults in, well, new adult bodies?


So what about those "New Adult" Project reviews you've all but abandoned? Umm, I'm currently reading Pamela Dean's Tam Lin. They call it a "fairy tale retelling," but so far it's a hundred pages of people talking about literature.

*Name changed to protect the identity of this person.
**Yes, her real name is Jessica. A person who acts in this manner doesn't deserve anonymity.
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