The Problem with Nice

If writing effective villains is hard, writing effective nice characters is even harder.  Villains do things; they are proactive in pursuit of their evil goals.  They are objects in motion, and objects in motion draw and keep interest.

Nice characters, on the other hand, are all too often defined by the things they don’t do:  they don’t start fights; they don’t break their own marriage vows or go after the significant others of their friends; they don’t nurture long-term obsessive plans for gaining revenge or accumulating wealth or attaining positions of power.  They may not even smoke, drink, or listen to rock-and-roll (and the strongest drug they take is probably aspirin.)  If you make your readers spend too much time around a character like that, they’re going to start cheering for the villain.

Something to keep in mind, then:  If you want characters to generate plot and conflict, they need to have shadows in them to hide stuff and angular bits to catch on things.

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Peeves of the Day

Because hoo, boy, am I feeling peevish at the moment.

Peeve the first: taught versus taut.

Taught is a verb; it’s the past tense of teach:  Jack taught Joe how to tie knots.

Taut is an adjective, meaning stretched or pulled tight, the opposite of slack:  Joe pulled the line taut.

Peeve the second: Will somebody please ask all the budding fantasy writers out there to stop having their colorful secondary characters speak in generic rural bumpkin/hearty seafarer/urban rogue dialect while their main characters speak in standard English?

Honestly, writing dialect is difficult (and problematic) enough when you’re dealing with an actual known real-world example.  Most of the time, dealing with a made-up dialect only compounds the problems.  (The usual “if you’re a stylistic genius with a golden ear” exception applies, of course.  But most of us don’t qualify for that one.)

And that’s quite enough peevishness for one day, I think.

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Shaking the Tambourine

It’s that season again . . . time for one of my semi-regular posts where I clear my throat nervously, point at the “About” link in the header, and let people know that I offer editorial and critique services for a reasonable fee.

(It’s been a long hard winter, with all the household expenses that a long hard winter always brings.  Because I’m a hardworking Dr. Doyle, I’m doing my bit to keep the electricity and the internet flowing.  Wherefore I also point, discreetly, at the tip jar link at the bottom of the right-hand margin.)

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It Doesn’t Have to be Difficult to be Good

We – that’s both the artists-and-critics “we” and the people-in-general “we” – have a habit of conflating difficulty and quality.  If something is hard to do, or hard to understand, we tell ourselves that it must also be in some way better than a similar thing that is simple or clear.  This is a tendency that needs to be watched out for and kept on a tight leash, because for every complex and difficult thing that it encourages us to appreciate, there’s something plain and straightforward that it tempts us to pass by.

Herewith, by way of edible illustration, is a simple recipe that produces a better-than-store-bought enchilada sauce.  (This comes in especially handy if you happen to live, as we do, in a locale where the grocery store doesn’t carry any strength higher than Medium.)

Red Enchilada Sauce:

2 T oil (canola or vegetable)
2 T flour
2 T chili powder
1 T cayenne
1 T powdered chipotle pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. oregano
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock

  • Mix up the seasonings – chili powder through oregano – in a small bowl.  (If the mix as given looks too hot for your taste, go with 4 T of mild chili powder instead of the chili powder/cayenne/chipotle mix.  If you want an even higher octane, go with a 2 T chili powder/2 T cayenne mix, or experiment with other powdered hot peppers until you’ve got a blend you like.)
  • In a saucepan, heat up the oil and add the flour.   Mix it up and cook it for a minute, stirring so it doesn’t burn.
  • Add the chili powder and other seasonings.  Stir it up some more – it’ll be a thick paste.
  • Add the chicken stock, and use a whisk to stir it up so that the mixture doesn’t clump up or stick to the bottom of the pan.
  • Reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Either use immediately or decant into a glass jar or similar container and use later.

This makes enough for one batch of enchiladas.

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“It’s a House Name,” Tom Said Frankly.

Franklin W. Dixon.  Carolyn Keene.  Victor Appleton.  Familiar names, all three, as are their literary creations:  The Hardy Boys.  Nancy Drew.  Tom Swift.  How do these authors manage to have their names on such long-running series?  (The first Hardy Boys adventure appeared in 1927; the most recent just this past February.)

The answer:  these authors are all house names.  That is to say, the name is a pseudonym that is owned not by the writer of a particular book, but by the publishing house, thus enabling the house to hire different writers at need for the series, or to have more than one writer at a time working on different books.

Frank and Joe Hardy (and Ms. Drew, and Tom Swifts Senior, Junior, and III) were creations of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and their prolific adventures were made possible in part by the detailed outlines which the syndicate provided to its authors.  You can read one such outline here; as someone who was one-half of Victor Appleton not once, but twice, I can vouch for the fact that the novels are still built on outlines just as detailed.

These days, the writers are likely to be given a brief plot synopsis from which they are expected to produce the outline in question, which then goes through several rounds of back-and-forth revision until it gets publisher approval.  But what comes out of the process at the far end looks remarkably like that early example.

Sometimes, though, things can get weird.  We – my co-author and I – once did a last-minute revision job on such a novel, for which we got the original manuscript and a copy of the cover flat (the cover of a mass-market paperback before it gets wrapped around the actual book; done as a sales tool, for handing out as publicity or showing to booksellers, it will have sales and marketing info printed on the reverse side) along with the instructions, “Fix it however you need to, just don’t contradict the back cover copy.  Also, we need it in three days.”

We did it.  In three days.  That Victor Appleton, he’s one tough writer.

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Where I’ve Been

Snowed under, mostly.

Well, not quite in the literal sense; the driveway and the front door never actually became impassable, though the town snowplows were admirably zealous in replacing the ridge of snow at the foot of the driveway on a regular basis. Nevertheless, February was a bitterly cold and snowy month, with only a couple of days when the temperature outside even drew near 32°F, and so far March has only taken us above freezing for a couple of afternoons – not enough to melt all the snow by a long shot, and the weather forecast for the next week is calling for more snow and daytime temps somewhere in the twenties.

The cold winter, with the thermometer occasionally swinging from twenty below to twenty above in the same 24-hour period, has also played merry hell with our plumbing.  A word to those contemplating a move to deep snow country:  PVC pipes do not cope well with conditions of extreme cold, and their natural lifespan is greatly shortened on that account.  Pipes all over town have been freezing and breaking and springing leaks, and the local plumbers have all the business they can handle.

All of this is a long way around to explaining why I haven’t posted for a while.  I’ve got a post on commas in the works; meanwhile, have a couple of amusing or at least interesting links:

If you’re writing a fantasy novel and one or more entries on this list make you cringe, you may need to rethink a few things.

Also, a blog post on the origins of “okay”.  (Personal position statement here:  I’ve always favored the Cherokee and/or African loan-word theory, and think that the “Orll Korrect” and “Old Kinderhook” etymologies are a bunch of hooey.)

And finally, a tale of modern-day cattle-rustling in the Texas Panhandle.

 

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Ursula K. Le Guin Gets Her Snark On

She read a New York Times interview with Kazuo Ishiguro about his forthcoming novel, The Buried Giant, which takes place in a non-historic just-post-Arthurian England, in which the author frets that his audience will say that it is fantasy.  (To be fair, it contains. among other things, a dragon.)    And she was moved to speak.

I’ve said this here before, and I’ll say it again:  One of the things I respect most greatly about Le Guin is her steadfast refusal to disavow the genre.  More than one author, upon attaining literary respectability, has stashed their propeller beanie and their Spock ears in the far back of the closet . . . all honor, then, to the ones who don’t.

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