Monday, June 30, 2008

Birthdays and Eclipse

My youngest son's birthday was sunday. My oldest son's birthday is thursday. And no, it wasn't planned that way. :) We had a small party for both of them on saturday, with just close family and friends. I made their birthday cakes, topped with their favorite action figure/movie character, and we've still got leftover cake. It's going to be a year before I want to look at frosting again, much less eat it.

And so I was sitting in a mess of wrapping paper, drooping balloons, and suffering from sugar coma when I picked up ECLIPSE by Stephanie Meyer.

I read TWILIGHT because it was recommended by friends with taste in books similar to my own. It had that rough around the edges quality that sometimes comes with first-time-authors, but I found it very enjoyable. Even difficult to put down. When I picked up NEW MOON, I was excited to see where the story was going. I loved the first half, with all the character development that Bella struggled through. She was becoming her own woman, working through all the pain and heartache Edward had caused her, and becoming stronger as a result.

Then, Edward returns. All that strength and self-reliance went out the window. I can understand still loving him. I can understand not wanting harm to come to him. But I can't understand how she takes him back as though nothing has happened. If it were me, I'd be livid with Edward. I'd have saved his life, then screamed at him until either his ear drums burst or I didn't have a voice left. And I would do this because of how much I still loved him, and because of all the pain and heartache he had put me through, and was still putting me through. I would have made him earn back my trust, proving that he would never put me through all that again. But Bella doesn't do this. She simply wipes away her suffering like it was chalk on a blackboard. In doing so, it makes her pain seem more like a minor inconvenience instead of the life-shattering misery described in those early chapters.

But I digress. I'm here to talk about ECLIPSE.

It was with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity that I picked up this book. I was curious where the author was going to take Bella's character. I wanted to see Bella regain that self-reliance and self-respect, basically all the positive development she'd made while with Jacob. I expected her to walk away in a huff each time Edward treated her like a child. I expected her to put him in his place when he got overprotective. But, sadly, she didn't. She remains blindly agreeable to Edward, never gets mad at him for anything, and thinks it's okay to have to ask permission (!) to visit her friends.

I understand that Bella and Edward are supposed to have this amazing, larger-than-life bond, but I really don't like Bella's character when she's around him. She's too meek and subservient, and their relationship seems one-sided and unhealthy. But when she's with Jacob, she's spunky, firey, and keeps Jacob in line. She's a completely different person, and I like her much better. Split personality? Or was this on purpose? If so, I would have liked some kind of explanation.

Based on interviews with the author and such, I think Bella and Edward will ultimately remain a couple. Because of this (as well as the long line of strong, iron-willed, work-horse women in my family), Bella is not a role model I'd want for my daughters. That is, if I had any. :) But I don't, and it's likely to stay that way.

This review is likely going to make me unpopular with the fans of the series. But that's okay - free speech and all that. :) So let me have it if you so choose, or simply tell me why you love the story. I'd love to hear it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Writing 3-D Characters

I seem to be on a character kick these days. I mean, I just finished a bunch of posts on character. What more could I possibly have to say? Apparently, there is more.

When I browse agent and editor blogs, interviews, submission preferences, etc, there's something I see over and over. They want to see vivid, believable, three-dimensional characters. Which is great! They're telling us what they want. But...

How do you create these kinds of characters? Unless you're writing an autobiography, it's going to be more involved than writing down what you would do given a bunch of difficult situations.

Let's start by examining two people, PersonA and PersonB.

If these two are in the exact same situation, will they react exactly the same? No. They may have similar reactions, but not the same because they're individuals. And no two individuals are exactly alike. Let's put them in a situation.

PersonA and PersonB are walking together down the sidewalk. A mugger jumps from an alley, demanding all their money. What do PersonA and PersonB do? Well, that depends on them.

Instinct and fear tell us to give up our money and run like hell. So, what if both PersonA and PersonB do this? Does that make their reactions are exactly the same? No, it doesn't, because we don't know what they're thinking as they're running away. PersonA might be thinking "I can't believe I was so careless around that alley. I'll never walk down that street again." But, PersonB might be thinking "I can't believe I let that jerk bully me into giving up my wallet. I'll never back down again."

Should they be in the same situation again, their individual thoughts will lead them to completely different reactions in the future. PersonA is led by fear, and is fine with that. PersonB is ashamed at what his fear made him do, and will change his behavior next time around. To me, even though they did the same thing, that makes PersonA's reaction extremely different from PersonB's reaction.

So, how do we figure out what PersonA and PersonB are going to think? And why they'd be thinking it? Character worksheets? Research? Interviews? Yes, those will help. But, personally, I think it's harder than that. I think we, as writers, need to learn how to put ourselves in other people's shoes - figure out how they view things, how they react to certain situations - even if you disagree with their methods.

When I create a character and put him/her into a rough situation, I ask myself two questions: "What would I do in this situation" and "What would my character do?" The answers are usually similar, but not exactly the same. If your answer is exactly the same as what you would do, then you probably need to rethink your character (unless you are writing an autobiography, of course).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Stomach Flu and Dairy Queen

No, this has nothing to do with ice cream.

This past weekend was pretty rough. I was laid out with the stomach flu. Literally. Couldn't get out of bed, and I'm still kind of recovering. It left my hubby with the job of taking care of our energetic boys by himself...which, I guess I should admit, evoked a perverse pleasure. :) I also got quite a bit of reading done, since I couldn't do anything else.

One of the books I read was DAIRY QUEEN by Catherine Murdock. Even though it hurt to do so, this book had me laughing out loud on many occasions.

As with all my reviews, this contains slight spoilers so read with caution.

Fifteen year old D.J. Schwenk is an amazing character. She's the strong, silent type. She does what's needed for her family, without question, and does it well. She makes good choices and bad ones, then tries to amend the bad ones. She's so real that I want to meet her in person!

She starts her story, telling us Brian's reaction to how her father hurt his hip. Her Voice is clear and strong, and I can see her, clear as day, in my mind. Her lips pursing, her tongue tripping, her awkward posture dripping frustration, then giving up and going back to work. And that's just page one.

Her decision to train Brian, who is the quarterback of her high school's number one rival team, is pivotal to the story. This was the only part of the book that gave me pause. Since it was so important, I wanted a little bit more around it. She seemed to agree a bit too easily, then regret her decision later on. It's a bit out of character, because in the rest of the book she's not impulsive unless she's in the throes of an intense emotion. Usually anger. So I'd have liked to see a bit more waffling on her part, then deciding to do it. But maybe that's just me.

Jennifer Hubbard recently had a fantastic post about characters denying intention, which is basically the characters denying truth. DAIRY QUEEN is an excellent example of this. D.J. is so good at knowing and accepting certain aspects of her family, like how no one ever talks. But she can't accept other aspects, like her father's really a good cook or that he's proud of her. Classic denial. She does it again when she doesn't tell Brian about her idea to try out for football. And again when she stops speaking to her best friend, Amber. Yet, to her credit, she eventually comes around and deals with the truth behind each problem. It made me want to stand up and cheer for her...and I probably would have, if I could have gotten out of bed. :)

I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes soul-searching type stories, because this is a great one.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Putting Characters Through the Wringer

Not too long ago, I had a discussion with a fellow writer about putting our much loved characters through difficult situations. My friend was having trouble with her story, and her critiquers all said the same thing: the MC had very little growth, and the things she learned seemed contrived.

So I read the story, and I, too, felt the same way. On top of that, I had no sympathy for the main character, but I couldn't clearly see why. So I read it again, made some notes, asked some questions, and then it hit me. The MC had life way, way too easy. Sure, bad things happened to her, but they weren't that bad. This made her seem whiny and weak, because if she can't deal with this, then there's no way she can deal with real problems.

I told this to my friend, and she was on the verge of tears at the idea of putting her MC through anything worse. But, in the end, that's what she did, and her story was much better for it.

That got me thinking about my characters. I have no problem with throwing them off a cliff with nothing but a shoestring to climb back up. And that bothered me. I mean, what does that say about me? How could I be so willing to do this? I lay in bed that night thinking about it, wondering if I was really a bad person and just didn't know it.

Then it hit me. When I was in high school, I was presented with this question: "If you had the power to change anything about your life, what would you change?" My immediate response was "that's easy, I'd change this, this, this...." Then I started thinking about how each of those incidents affected me as a person. If they were taken away, I might not be the person I am today.

But I like who I've become. I think I have a unique perspective, and would really hate to lose that. So, I changed my mind. I wouldn't change those things. In fact, the only things I would change are so small that, in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn't matter if they stayed where they were. This revelation was a turning point in my life, and put me on the road to accepting who I am as a whole, complete, person.

Our experiences help to make us who we are. Who we become. The same thing happens to a main character. So if we don't do anything to her, then how can she grow and change? She can't. Then, not only do you have no story, but you have a character that no one loves. If you really want to see how your MC can change or grow, then find out what she loves the most. And then take it from her. You can bet she won't be happy about that, and she might surprise you in how she reacts.

I want my characters to grow in unimaginable ways. I cry when I think of what they can become. But in order to do that, I have to put them through the wringer, many times, then throw them overboard. So I guess that means I love a bizzare, twisted way. (gulp) Sheesh.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Right Way To Write, Part Two

Last week, I posted about planners vs. free-writers, and some general notes on how to tell which one you are.

But, what if clear-cut planning isn't working for you? Or your free-writing muse seems to be sulking in a corner? What then? Well, there's a huge gray area between the two, and I believe this is where most writers land.

Let's take starting point. What do you start with when you sit down with a new story idea? Is it your main character? A major plot point? A high-level story idea? Next, how do you go about writing it? Are you having trouble getting started, but the idea of planning or plotting sickens you? Or are you having trouble making yourself stop filling out character worksheets and updating outlines, and just get going already? If so, then maybe you need a combination of the two.

The trouble is, finding a good balance can only be done through trial and error. Hence, it can take writers years to figure out what works for them and what doesn't. But here's a few generic combinations that might shave off some of that time.

The Road Map:
Plot based - know where your story is going. Simply put, this is a basic map of your story. It's not a strict outline, it's not detailed, it just highlights the major events that will happen before the end. This is probably for planners who want a bit more wiggle room than a detailed outline provides.

The Environment:
Character based - know where your character is going. Take your character and put him in a specific environment, then see what he does. If your character has already been defined and you know where he's going, this could be a great launching point for the more free-writing inclined. But it's also good for the planner.

The Object:
Character based - know where your character is going. Give your character an object and see what he does with it. Same as above.

The Situation:
Character based - know where your character is going. Put your character in a specific situation and see what he does with it. Same as above.

Bird's Eye View:
Either plot or character based. This is similar to a pitch you would give to an editor or agent. It's the bare bones of your story, boiled down into one or two lines. For example, the pitch for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime would be similar to "An autistic boy investigates the death of a neighbor's dog." This one probably has the most wiggle room of all. And, depending on where you put your focus, you can take off with your characters or you can take off with your story. And you can use as much or as little planning as you like.

All of these could also be used as brianstorming exercises for writer's block. How fun! :)

So if you're muse isn't cooperating, then maybe use one of these to give her direction. Or, if you can't stop planning, then maybe use one of these to just get started, even if it's not exactly in the right direction. Combinations work, too. Try new things, pay attention to what's working and what's not, and pretty soon you've have found your groove.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

This post contains possible spoilers. Nothing too specific, but still...

I've always been a sucker for fairies and such. And I love the premise of WILDWOOD DANCING: midnight dances, an enchanted glade, a fairy queen, and a magic portal. What's not to love? Plus, the book came highly recommended, so I opened it with eager anticipation....

...but, sadly, it didn't measure up. Not because of the story. It was the characters. The main character, to be specific. Jena is set up as an unconventional, educated, independent, action-oriented girl. She kept a watchful eye on her sisters while they were in Dancing Glade, ready to whisk them away should trouble arise. She helped her father manage the family's merchant business. She attended educational sessions from the local priest, even though society frowned upon women learning things like history and mathematics. In general, she was considered the sensible sister that all the other sisters turned to when a decision needed to be made.

And yet, when it really matters, she did two things that lost her all respect in my eyes. 1) She lets Cezar walk all over her. 2) She does nothing when her sister, Tati, stops eating, which ultimately brings her to the brink of death.

Cezar's character is very clear from the first time we see him. Stubborn, selfish, sexist, and power hungry, his first serious offense is to walk off with the Jena's family's funds, stating that she's incapable of managing them. She takes offense, but does nothing to stop him. But I can excuse that since it was the first instance. Then, Cezar moves into her house, takes over her father's bedroom, and claims her father's desk as his own. She does nothing to stop him. As far as I could tell, she didn't even try. At the very least, she could have made excuses for him to be lodged in guest quarters - she lives in a castle, so there's got to be guest quarters.

Cezar's worse offense was to put Jena and her sisters under house arrest. When he does this, she threatens to go to the authorities and his mother, but Cezar says he's already got them on his side. Does she investigate for herself? No. She takes his word for it, and does not attempt to go to the village. But soon after, she sneaks out of the house and goes to the forest. So, why didn't she continue on to the village? If she's really going to defy Cezar, as she threatens time and time again, then she needs to stop at nothing until she's returning with the cavalry. Even if she never finds the cavalry and everything blows up in her face, I still would have respected her for trying. And felt sympathy for the consequences thereof.

The only way Jena ever stands up to Cezar is with words. Words are great, but they need to be backed up with action. And it's Jena's lack of action that lost her respect in my eyes. It's not until the end of the book that she actually does something to defy Cezar, but by then, for me at least, it was too late.

Tati's story bothered me in a few ways. I didn't like the implication that it's okay to die if you can't be with the one you love. That scares me on many levels... Then there's also the sisterly bond between Tati and Jena. They seemed close in the beginning, then Tati starts to pull away. Jena does nothing to stop this - never corners her sister and demands to know why Tati is so infatuated, or why she's being so ridiculous by not eating. If Jena is as sensible as she's been set up to be, I think she would have done this. Then, when Tati stops eating all together, I would think both sisterly love and the fear of losing her would push Jena to take action. I mean, if Tati is so weak she can barely sit up, then she's hardly strong enough to protest someone pouring broth down her throat. But it turns out to be another situation where Jena only uses words and not action.

If Jena's character had been stronger and truly action-oriented, I would have loved this book. And I wanted so much to love it. I really did. I'm heartbroken that I didn't.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Right Way To Write, Part One

I think this concept bothers writers a lot. More than most would be willing to admit. I've seen many suggestions on discussion boards: writers telling other writers how they should be writing their stories. Does that mean there's only one tried and true method of writing? I don't think so.

Then what is the best way to write? Is it just sitting down and writing what comes? Is it planning out the characters first? Creating an outline? Writing various scenes and dialog?

The answer is: none of the above. The best way to write is the way that works best for you.

If you're a seasoned writer, you probably know exactly what works and what doesn't. But if you're relatively new to writing, you may not.

So how do you figure out what works? Well, that depends on you. When you sit down to write, what's the first thing that pops into your head? Is it a scene or line of dialog? Is it backstory, character development, or plotline? If it's the former, then you're probably a free-writer. If the latter, you're probably a planner.

Next: which is less complicated?
Answer: neither.

My personal opinion on an individual's writing process: none of them are complicated, especially if it works. They just seem complicated to other people.

A non-planner might find a planner's process complicated since she probably finds outlines and backstory tedious, and limiting to her creative process. She just sits down to write and sees what happens.

A planner might find a non-planner's process complicated because, after the first draft is finished, she might find that she needs to take the story in a completely different direction. Or a character develops in unforseen ways. Or something else happens that requires chucking a good portion of the story, perhaps even starting over. That's inefficient, messy, and complicated to planners.

So, what do we do when we sit down to write? We write what pops into our heads.
I'm a planner by nature. I can't function if I don't have at least a general plan in front of me. And I get really annoyed when non-planners try to tell me I'm doing it all wrong, that I'm limiting muse. *sigh* My muse doesn't know what to do without a plan. :)

I try hard not to push people into writing the way I write - just because it works for me doesn't mean it'll work for everyone. There is no one way to write. The best way to write is the way that works for you. And the only way to find that is to try lots of things until you figure it out. It's a sad truth, but no one ever said this writing thing was easy.

When you sit down to write, pay attention to what pops into your head. Is it scenes and dialog? Or is it outlines and big picture stuff?

Or is it a mix of both - that gray area that isn't all planning and isn't all free-writing? I think this is where most writers land. But it's far too complicated to get into right now, so I'll talk about that in my next post.