Thursday, January 30, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

As a writer, while I experiment with different personalities in short fiction, including characters that you would probably want to punch if you met them (the narrator of "A Dose of Aconite," which is currently in submissions and set in the same world as Flow, is a delusional and rather unpleasant Border Watchman), my novels - at least those that spend the majority of their time in one or two perspectives - tend to gravitate to certain character personalities.  Some of this, of course, is just the usual desire to give the reader someone they want to identify with, but for me, I also want to write characters that I want to spend an extended period of time with.

So undertaking Vil in Unnatural Causes - a character who is non-human, from a world whose basic concepts are very different from ours; a character who interprets humanity through a lens that isn't always flattering - was something of a risk for me.  I wanted to be sure I could get deep within the character's skin, without lapsing too much ... but I wanted to enjoy the process of writing her, too.

So far, though, I've been having a blast.  It's true that Vil sometimes comes off blunt to the point of rudeness - but there's no malice in her, just an ingrained inability to understand certain nuances in human culture.  And Iluenn, who shies away from conflict and is much smarter than she gives herself credit for, makes a perfect foil and companion.  They're a formidable team - and both outcasts in their own way.

It makes me want to seek out different types of narrators in my long works.  Who else might be worth spending an extended period of time with, if I just give them a chance?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

Today, let me talk about titles.

As far as I'm concerned, I don't have a knack for titles.  Every now and again, I light upon a good one, but most of mine are utilitarian ... and the few times I've had to re-title a story due to editor's requests, the process has been a struggle.  Sometimes the results are worthwhile (Firstborn = The Dreamweaver's Dispute; The Clockwork Oracle = The Oracle Unlocked), but other times, about all you can say about it is that it's a title (Sailing The Seventeen Seas = Currents and Clockwork).  Post-writing titles tend to be dicey for me, so I try to come up with something before I start.

The kind of titles I enjoy the most - and the style I try to emulate - are those that use some appropriate word or phrase ... which turns out to have multiple interpretations in the story.  Often, this takes a turn to the punny - Terry Pratchett's Making Money; or one of my all-time favorite titles, Laura Resnick's Disappearing Nightly - but it can be absolutely serious, too.  Much of the Dresden Files falls into this - Summer Knight, Death Masks ...

Of my own stories, I'm proud of the titles First Contact - in which "contact" is of new species, but also of physical touch - Diminishing Returns - about a shapeshifter who loses a bit of her substance each time she transforms - and City Limits - wherein the city is a self-contained prison, and the story focuses on the characters' attempts to escape.  Even Scylla and Charybdis arguably falls into this category:  it's a fancy way of saying "between a rock and a hard place," but there are also mythological influences in the novel.

Another type of title that jumps out to me is the one that stops and makes you go, "Huh?"  It's a simple phrase that doesn't go the way you expect, an unusual combination of words, or something that immediately raises a pressing question.  Here you get humor, too - John Moore's The Unhandsome Prince.  When it comes to what intrigues, what creates a burning question, that's more a matter of personal taste, but here are a few of mine:  Mistress of the Art of Death (Ariana Franklin), Channeling Cleopatra (Elizabeth Ann Scarborough), and Thirteen Orphans (Jane Lindskold).

These are the type of titles I don't think I do as frequently or as well, but one I'm proud of is Ten Cities Down ... and, of course, Journal of the Dead possibly falls into this bracket as well.

And just to do both at the same time, Bird Out of Water (From Trespass), which ... nope.  Going to make you go read it.

What are your favorite title conventions?  Any titles that fall into these categories (or any!) that leap out as particularly strong?

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

Let me tell you about the first time I ever had an identity crisis.

(This is a writer story, I promise.  Stick with me!)

When I was much younger, I spent a lot of time writing stories - often long, complex multi-"book" series - in my head, sagas which spanned plotlines and generations.  One of these (the beginning dreamed up while listening to Amy Grant's "I'm Gonna Fly") involved a main character named Wylen, a timid homebody who is dragged out of her routine life by daring sorceress Circe ... not to be confused with the mythological Circe, I was just obsessed with the name.  Wylen was intended to be the protagonist, but as I wove the story in my head, I became more and more intrigued with Circe as a character.

This culminated in a moment in the car where I had a complete meltdown because I was afraid I resembled Wylen.

My poor mother dealt with me losing it because I didn't want to be like a fictional character I had created with remarkable poise.  I suppose this is sort of a backwards way of identifying with your characters ...

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Goodreads Review: Fantastic Companions

Fantastic CompanionsFantastic Companions by Julie E. Czerneda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic Companions is a solid, varied anthology of imaginative, emotional, sometimes gently humorous short stories - all featuring non-human characters, most of whom stand side-by-side with a human counterpart. This is an exceptionally strong anthology; none of the stories were really duds, though a few were simply average, and a few others had flaws with virtues could make up for them ... and most of the tales were strong and satisfying, with unusual concepts or worldbuilding. Several moved me, which is quite hard to do. I enjoyed the range and variety of companions and how they came into play. Even the introduction is well-written: a nice teaser of the contents.

An observation more than anything: most of the stories are about and/or by women, and oddly, the weaker stories were often those with male protagonists. It almost makes me feel as if they were chosen to address an imbalance, rather than being the strongest in the submission pool. My least favorite was Jay Lake's "Eggs For Dinner," but I'll allow that it may be my personal taste - his writing isn't something I generally enjoy. (I also thought that "House of Cats," Catherine Dybiec Holm's opener, was weak in comparison to the rest of the anthology, though it's not a bad story by any means.) I could so easily pick out multiple stories as stand-outs, but I've got to go with my gut on this one: "Darkbeast" by Mindy L. Klasty, for an intriguing setting (children have darkbeasts who absorb their pettiness and faults, then have to slay them to be recognized as adults), a great use of a simple, personal plot, and a perfect ending.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Thursday Thoughts

So for my second post of the year (it's all downhill from here, folks; bail out while you can), I'm taking a look back at 2013.  It crept in, swept me away, carried me along, and then took me on a detour through an obstacle course for the last month or so - but overall, it's been a satisfying ride.

The early part of the year started with a growing awareness of being somehow discontent, and it finally coalesced with my decision to investigate culinary school ... followed rather swiftly with my enrollment, though I didn't begin courses until the fall.  To those observing me, it might seem that I made the decision suddenly or even out of the blue, but it was the product of an extended confluence of thoughts and circumstances.  I've always been a private, internal person, and my decision-making often occurs below the surface.

I spent the summer getting everything in place and wondering nervously how I was going to juggle it all.  When classes started, it was the first time in my life I had been in a classroom full-time.  (As some of you may or may not remember, I was homeschooled from kindergarten on, then did my coursework with Indiana University via distance education.  Scheduled, location-specific learning time is pretty much foreign to my existence.)  And ... it was exciting, it was nerve-racking, it was fun, it was frustrating ... and I should have predicted it, but somehow my efficiency expanded to incorporate everything I needed to do, and when classes ended, I was a bit at a loss for what to do with all this free time.

December, though - December.  I don't want to get into kvetching or too many personal details, but if I went down the list of everything that happened to or around me in December, most sane readers would think I was making things up for kicks.  I've needed some time to recover from it all, but ultimately, I hope it's set me up for a better direction in 2014 ... I just have to do my best and trust it will work out.  And I feel that being open to possibilities, just allowing things to come your way, is an important part of the process.

Though sometimes they need a little nudge.

On the writing front - or at least, the selling of writing front - progress has been slow.  I was particularly pleased with The Hurricane Cavalry's publication in Penumbra; it's one of those intensely structured pieces Dan mentions in his post yesterday.  And while I still don't have an agent, Journal of the Dead got two requests for the full manuscript.  It's been a process of long-term inches for me, which is maddening ... but I have to believe I'll break through eventually.

My next big project is to get Who Wants To Be A Hero? (finally) edited, but I need to run the first few segments by beta readers for a couple of specific issues, and right now, I'm not up to fielding critiques ... but soon.

So many things started in 2013.  I'm hoping for fruition in the year to come.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Guest Post: Daniel Ausema

Kicking off the New Year with a visitor - which means that this is probably the best post you'll see for a while, so enjoy it.  ;-)  With no further ado, I turn it over to Daniel Ausema, author of the serialized Spire City, Season One with Musa Publishing ...

My thanks to Lindsey for allowing me to post this here, and please do take the time to head over to Twigs & Brambles to read her post there, which should be going up soon as well. (Or even check out the post she had there about two years ago, for a little time traveling.)

Lindsey and I share a love of odd story structures and stories that rise from strict forms. She has a great flash fiction piece told in the liner notes of an imaginary CD, and we've both discussed and enjoyed the series of posts from Bruce Holland Rogers on Flash Fiction Online about writing short shorts in all manner of styles and formats.

It's easy to fall into a romantic view of writing that holds any imposed structure as automatically suspect, necessarily limiting the writing in some way. The truth is quite the opposite. Not that an artificial structure is required, but as Italo Calvino and the Oulippo group show in their works (as well as any poet who has made use of any poetic structure), great stories can arise directly from the self-imposed rules a writer creates. This idea fascinates me, and while I don't always write with any sort of predetermined requirements, sometimes I do, and in Spire City there were some specific rules I decided on before I began for how the episodes would go.

The broadest way to look at this is that it is episodic, which places it somewhere in between how I'd usually approach chapters of a novel and how I'd do loosely related short stories. Each episode is neither one nor the other, but aims for a balance between standing alone and advancing the broader story arc.

For planning that structure, I looked at how TV shows handle their episodes and longer arcs. There is a wide variety of season lengths out there at the moment, but I settled on thirteen as a relatively common number of episodes. That number imposes a certain feel to the season-long arcs of the series. Frequently, new shows also are given the first six episodes to establish themselves, and therefore have a definite climax at the end of those first six episodes. So season one follows that, with a major confrontation in episode 6 that forms a complete mini-arc while pointing toward the longer arcs of the season and series as a whole.

The structure of each episode has a large effect on how the story goes. Again I drew inspiration from TV shows. An hour-long show will often have three commercial breaks, dividing the episode into four sections. The Spire City episodes likewise divide up in that way, so that each episode is made up of four 1,000- to 1,500-word sections.

What effect does this have on the story? Each episode is different, so I tried to avoid falling into any repetitive pattern. Even so, it does create a sense of increasing tension as each section complicates the preceding one or expands its implications. It also avoids falling too easily into the three-act structure that writing advice often follows, which is good for making sure it's not taking a mindless way through an event.

The strict word limit also affected the writing. I wouldn't plan out the scenes until I was ready to begin an episode. Then I would take out my note cards and jot down a quick idea for each scene to give the episode direction. Sometimes as I wrote, though, I'd find that the idea I had for a given scene was only enough to sustain half the target word count. Other times, though less frequently, it was cruising toward easily exceeding the target. So I had to work in new wrinkles, or smooth out unnecessary complications to get the scenes to fall right. The stakes went up, the problems increased, the characters were forced to face greater challenges.

Those scenes, difficult to work through at the time, often proved the strongest when I went back to rewrite. The realization that my initial idea needed tweaking (or a complete overhaul) forced me to rethink how I was creating the scene. But without that word count miss, it would have been very easy to just wrap things up and move on to another scene, never realizing (or not until it came time for rewriting) just how much more of an impact a given scene could have within itself and on the story arc as a whole.

At its heart, Spire City is the story of a group of people faced with a terrible infection and fighting back against the scientist who created it. Around that central story is all the structure built from these episodes, which is to say all the crises and adventures of their infected lives. That structure, arbitrary as it was, helped to create the overall feel and focus of the entire story of Spire City.

Episodes 1 and 2 of Spire City, Season One: Infected are available now, and episode 3 is schedule to come out on January 10, 2014. Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Lindsey for hosting me.

Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets, but there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.