Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

Twice that I can clearly remember, someone has accused me of creating and featuring too many female characters.

The first time, I was something of a wee thing.  This was back in the days of Compuserve (I imagine *that* dates me - if anyone even remembers it!), and I was writing a collaborative story with someone I had been corresponding with.  After a while, he commented, "The reason (mainvillain's-name) wants my character must be because he's the only male in the world."

At that age, I was unfazed, even indignant.  I pointed out where I had male characters in the storyline.  They just didn't happen to be prominent or central movers in the plot.  That was that; we continued writing for a bit longer, than gradually drifted away from the tale.

It never occurred to change my writing habits or push myself to change the genders of characters.  I remember thinking that most of the fantasy I was reading at the time (this probably more effectively, if less specifically, dates me) featured primarily, often exclusively, male characters - why shouldn't I write the opposite?

The second time was many years later on a MU*.  For those unfamiliar, a MU* is a roleplaying environment, but instead of having a single GameMaster who leads a static (... mostly) group of characters through a linear adventure, there is a freeform environment where characters can interact, and multiple GMs run their own storylines in one-shot scenes.  To make a long story short (too late), this means that while I was creating plots, I wasn't the only fish in the pond.

And this time, the claim was two-fold:  first, that I didn't have enough male characters; and second, the male characters I had were weak and played for laughs.  The individual pointed out a specific character who had a tendency to petulance and an ill-controlled temper.  I countered that particular argument by pointing out that I had female characters who were also played for laughs - for instance, one was an over-the-top flirt.  Wasn't that just as ridiculous?  The individual said that it wasn't the same thing.  I could never get an answer as to why.  (Maybe this is a guy thing?  Moving on.)

My reaction was different, too:  I became intensely self-conscious and set about laboriously altering future characters to make sure I had more males and certain personalities.  The result was that the characters I had pushed into a different mold fell flat and ended up disappearing into background.

Eventually, I decided that the person who told me this was making the problem much larger than it was.  I stopped panicking and decided that I should pay attention to gender balance, but give it smaller, more organic nudges.  Perfectly fifty-fifty?  That rarely happens even in real life, no matter how much the odds would suggest it.

As for the personalities of my male characters, I wasn't as concerned by that critique, though it took me until quite recently to pinpoint my beliefs on the subject.  I don't necessarily build male characters - especially romantic leads, though that's for fiction, not MU*s - with traditional masculine strengths.  That didn't mean they were weak, just that they might not be ... well ... manly men (in tights - tight tights!).

Okay, scratch the tights.

Over time, I've become comfortable with what I write and the characters that come to me, and I think that more than anything has provided balance:  my imaginary worlds have subconsciously grown and become more organic, and barring circumstances like Anaea's home space station (populated only by women), that includes both sides of the gender conversation.

And yes, I'm aware that there are more than two sides to the gender conversation, but that's a topic for a future me to tackle ...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

Sometimes, I get distracted by jokes, particularly those in story form.  You know the ones:  the improbable situations, the punchlines (one I always remember is:  "There's no plate like chrome for the hollandaise"), the behavior that only makes sense when presented in summary ... see, I'm already getting derailed from my point, and I've only just started.

But it isn't the lack of logic behind these tales that stops me dead or makes me forget that, hey, this is supposed to be funny:  it's the fact that the punchline often just seems to be the next plot point.  I am driven to ask:  "What next?  What happens after that?"  Or, conversely, "How did this start?"  When the jokes particularly strain credulity in the setup or behavior, I can't help but perversely wonder, "Well, what could you do to this to make it make sense?  Under what circumstances would this happen logically?"

This is probably the same impulse that makes me want to base a story around the premise of "it's raining men" ...

Regardless, this tendency to build story / plot means that I often breeze right past the joke on my way to another thoughts.  It's probably no coincidence that some of my favorite jokes in some way pervert the intention of the standard joke setup.  For instance, here are my two favorite "walked into a bar" jokes:

Three men walked into a bar.  The fourth one ducked.

A priest, a rabbi, a deaf man and a six-foot rabbit walked into a bar.  The bartender said, "What is this, some kind of joke?"

(Being a writer and grammar geek, I'll also spring for:  the past, present and future walked into a bar.  It was tense.)

Though you could probably write a really trippy story off that last premise ...

Do you see my problem now?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Anatomy of An Idea: A Dose of Aconite

Here be potential spoilers, so please read my story up at Electric Spec first ... done?  Here's the scoop ...

This story was originally written for a monthly challenge over at - the theme was to write a story from the point of view of a villain.  I had the world of Flow very much in mind at the time, so I thought this was a great opportunity to write a story about a clash between the water-witches and the Borderwatch.  In Flow, the Borderwatch serve as antagonists, but my intention was always that it more a matter of circumstance than the organization being villainous / overzealous / fanatical - they just happen to be on the other side of the question of how to deal with fairies in the human world.

So even though Mannix is the "villain" in this story, I wanted to make it clear that overall philosophies of the two characters' organizations each had some value.  In the first draft, I succeeded a bit too well - a few reviewers of the story thought that it didn't even meet the challenge topic!  I went deeper into his personal vendetta to bring the contrast out, and I think I succeeded.

The second component to the idea was aconite, the herb otherwise known as monkshood or wolfsbane, and various myths as to its uses.  Incorporating a werewolf character seemed to fit both the tale and the world.  I admit, I have had some trepidation since about adding this to the Flow mythos, because I had a few editors react very negatively to the inclusion of Raul, even though he is incidental to the core plot.

In any case, I also decided to have a little fun with the names.  They all have meanings that connect with the various common names of aconite.  For instance, Tala means wolf; Mannix is an Irish name that means monk.  I wouldn't do this for a longer work - I find it a bit too "cute" or on the nose, even though people would have to look it up - but it worked nicely for a short story.

So that's where A Dose of Aconite came from.  Maybe I'll get that story where the Borderwatch agent is the hero written and published some day ...

Thursday, September 17, 2015

GoodReads Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The Scarlet PimpernelThe Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy

The hunt for the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, an Englishman who becomes a hero amongst the French nobility - and a thorn in the side of its bloodiest elements - is afoot in this iconic novel, led by clever, beautiful Marguerite. She would rather preserve him than unmask him, but her brother's life is at stake, and with this sword hanging over her head, she undergoes a hunt that will prove full of surprises.

I haven't given this book a star rating because I feel as if I can't assign a useful number of stars - it is very much a product of its time. Besides, it's not as if the Baroness Orczy needs the publicity ...

That said, this book holds up very well for the modern reader: it is vivid, full of tension, misunderstandings, young love ... it paints an evocative portrait of the Pimpernel and his life and times.

Of course, it would be hard for a writer nowadays to get away with some of Orczy's devices. In particular, she starts with a broad view, narrowing in by association, rumor and the perspective of affected parties on the Pimpernel and Marguerite. It's very effective in building anticipation and expectations.

But Marguerite ... I couldn't tell how much of it was the times and how much of it was simply the character, but I had a lot of trouble with her. Her reason for initially loving her husband - she recognizes his simple nature, but is attracted by being adored - is shallow and hard to sympathize with. Her hard-headedness in refusing to explain / defend her mistakes is maddening. And then her so-called race to the rescue? She came off so ineffectual it made my eyes crossed. There were moments when she was lovely; there were moments when I wished the book was from someone else's perspective.

Overall, though, I think this novel holds up wonderfully, and I'd like to read more.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

For me, finding your passion is not about the destination or the answer, but about the journey.  There is always something new to find joy in - if there isn't, broaden your horizon.  There was a point in time when I worried about this tendency of mine; I thought maybe it meant I was wifty or too easily entertained.  I've come to accept that having a single focus is simply outside of my nature:  I find too many things fascinating.

And I have gone through what amounted to passing phases.  There were a few months as a teenager when my life plan was to become a historical interpreter - for instance, the townsfolk you see at living history sites like Conner Prairie or Williamsburg.  My experiences at our area Renaissance Festival make me feel I would have been pretty good at this:  I can be quite outgoing when I'm not myself.  There was also a briefer period where I toyed with becoming a lawyer - yes, really.  Already grumbling about the loans from a year and a half of culinary school, I'm very glad I didn't go that route ...

I will admit that when I first entered culinary school, I was self-conscious.  I was more or less alone in my age range:  my peers were either right out of high school or much older, people who had been in the same career for decades and were now changing careers.  It's a narrative that the general public identifies with:  you pay your dues until the grind finally breaks you down.  That wasn't me.

But I've always done things in my own time - and being smack dab in the middle when the usual age was much younger or much older was not a new phenomenon.  When I started harp, I was sixteen ... a bit of an oddity when it was often the choice of empty nesters or retirees, or - conversely - something started as a child.

If there is a common thread between my passions, they're about creating something.  Admittedly, the fact that it is for someone else's consumption is somewhat incidental for me:  obviously, pleasing the consumer is where the money is, but the art is ultimately internal.  The rest puts a roof over my head.  Roofs are nice.  So is wireless internet.

I've learned to let go of stresses about timing, about being too young, too old, not on pace with the rest world:  I never have been.  In any case, to quote Douglas Adams, time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

The most crushing rejection I ever received ended up teaching me an important lesson about subjectivity, perspective and editor taste.

This was several years ago; I would consider myself still a novice to the business of writing at the time.  I had made some short story sales, but only had a few under my belt.

So in the submissions process, I received a very harsh, blunt rejection, particularly focusing on my descriptions and calling them overwrought:  "like Paris Hilton's gaudy cellphone."  Nowadays, I might have been able to laugh at the turn of phrase.  At the time, I was shattered.  I thought about trashing the story, or at the very least, trunking it.

Routine saved me here:  I have a process for submissions that involves getting them right back into the field, barring certain circumstances, so that's what I did.

The very next rejection letter I received cited a different reason, but praised those same descriptions as beautiful and well-balanced.

I did eventually sell the story:  Coldsnap, which appeared in Reflection's Edge - a publication now defunct, but well-regarded during its run.

So I discovered very vividly how much editorial tastes differ, and - perhaps more importantly - that the same story can strike two editors in a completely different way.  I'm honestly not sure if I would have noticed this discrepancy if the first letter hadn't been so painful.

But in the long run, I've learned to listen to my gut.  I might make changes in response to a review; sometimes, they might be quite the opposite of the reviewer's intention; or perhaps, I might make no changes at all.  Somewhere out there, if I am true to the story, there is an editor who will agree ... but I can't please them all.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Musical Meanderings

So I've mentioned before that I need (need!) music to drive to, but I have an older car, so I make myself CDs to satisfy my hyperactive brain.  I like to theme them, do various schemes, etc.

My latest pack includes a series of songs playing word association, one leading into the next.  I've done this once before, but this time I decided to do two CDs' worth, and the results are below.  Please no mockery of my musical tastes- in some cases, I picked up a single CD on a whim and may not buy another.  ;-)

Walk This World - Heather Nova
("We walk like there's ...)
Nothing's Wrong - Echosmith
So Right, So Wrong - Linda Ronstadt
Right In Front of You - Celine Dion
If I Should Fall Behind - Faith Hill
When I Fall - Anne Murray
Another Place To Fall - K.T. Tunstall
Safest Place - Echosmith
Safety Dance - Glee Cast Version
Dangerous Game - Gloria Estefan
Fool's Game - Bonnie Raitt
Ship of Fools - Sarah Brightman
Sirens of the Sea - Oceanlab
My Emergency - September
Dr. Beat - Miami Sound Machine
Beat of Your Heart - Hayley Westenra
Heartbreak - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Breaking Ties - Oceanlab
Lover's Knot - Anne Murray
Elastic Love - Christina Aguilera
Ricochet - September
We Both Reached For The Gun - Chicago soundtrack
Guns and Horses - Ellie Goulding
Black Horse & the Cherry Tree - K.T. Tunstall
Black Magic - Green Children
White Flag - September
Fade to Grey - Midge Ure
(This next connection might need a little explanation - I see "fade to grey" as an ending, and of course, a beginning would be ...)
The Egg - 1776 soundtrack
Roots and Wings - Anne Murray
Unwanted Garden - Green Children
All I Ever Wanted - Kirsty MacColl
(This next song is about a woman who is a fugitive, or "wanted")
Man Down - Rihanna
Down So Long - Jewel
Trouble With Goodbye - LeAnn Rimes
Hello - Beyonce
Hello, Little Girl - Into The Woods soundtrack
Girls Chase Boys - Ingrid Michaelson
I Hate Boys - Christina Aguilera
I Hate Men - Kiss Me Kate soundtrack
I Hate You Then I Love You - Celine Dion
(... and this last song follows the exact theme as the above ...)
Disappear - Sahlene

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

One of my biggest pet peeves is the scenario - most frequently seen in romantic comedy movies, but it also infects the written word - where character A is keeping a secret from character B; A is on the verge of finally confessing the secret, but is too late, because B has just discovered it; and B storms out without waiting for an explanation.

This is most frequently used between romantic partners, and it makes my eyes cross.  Really?  You're falling in love with someone, and you can't bring yourself to stop and talk things out?  You care about a person, but you have no ability to consider things from their perspective and attempt to understand their reasons?  It doesn't quite snap my suspension of disbelief (usually), but it does tend to make me think that one or the other character is actually an idiot.  (Hence the term "idiot plot," I suppose.)

In similar vein, I have a little trouble conceiving of characters who are generally friendly to each other who can't attempt to put themselves in the other's shoes.  This flexibility of viewpoint, to me, seems a necessary part of humanity - certainly of sympathetic characters!  So there are times when I have trouble creating interpersonal conflicts between my characters because they really will stop and talk things out reasonably ... unless they're being shot at or otherwise forced to end the conversation prematurely.

Come to think of it, I did that multiple times in Scylla and Charybdis without thinking about it:  two characters clash over a misunderstanding, but before it can be sorted out, circumstances wrench them apart.

Of course, this can also be overused to the point of ridicule ... but at least it's a different problem!