An Early Opportunity

In honor of Nanowrimo, and of the onset of the winter heating season,† I’ll be running a seasonal sale on editorial and critique services from now through the end of Thanksgiving weekend.  My usual rate of $1500 for a line-edit and critique on a standard-weight novel goes down to $1000 for the duration, and rates for epic-sized doorstops will be similarly discounted.

As always, you can purchase a gift certificate – as a gift for a friend, or for yourself – to be redeemed at a later date.


The snow that fell last Friday? Is still here.

The Free Speech Bargain

Every so often, a voice from the back row asks the plaintive question, “In today’s publishing climate, what am I, as an [insert identify marker or lack of one here], allowed to write about?”

Okay.  Here’s the deal, at least as far as the US of A goes*:

You’re allowed** to write about anything you damned well please.

And everybody else – your mom, your best friend, all the other people in your writers’ group, your editor, the New York Times Review of Books, and total random strangers on the internet – is allowed to say out loud and in public what they thought about it.

The thing about the deal, you see, is that it goes both ways.  And a writer who can’t handle the deal is probably better off pulling an Emily Dickinson and keeping their stuff locked up in their dresser drawer for posterity.


*The world is a large and varied place, and I make no claim to pontificate for all of it.

**With the usual narrow exceptions involving nonexistent fires in crowded theatres, and the like.

 

Once Again, Robert Frost Was Right About New England

“Nature’s first green is gold….”

In other words, the trees have finally leafed out.

When I was a cheerful young undergrad going to school in Arkansas, I thought that mud-time was something that Frost made up for poetic purposes; likewise, the birches bending “to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Then I moved up here, and realized that he’d been making his poetry out of sober observation all along.

As do we all, even if we’re writing stories set in worlds completely of our own imagining.

Why Authors Go Mad, Reason Number I’ve-Lost-Track-By-Now

Author Seanan McGuire (who is also Mira Grant and I think somebody else I’ve forgotten) has just received — on a tight deadline, of course — a beyond-the-copyedit-from-hell copyedit: The copyeditor did a global search and replace of “which” with “that.” Among other gross incompetencies.

And there isn’t time to scrap the copyedit and send the MS back out to somebody better.

People wonder why authors sometimes drink heavily. The amazing thing, actually, is that more of them don’t.

My Theory on Villainy

All good stories need a villain, or, more properly, an antagonist.  (“Villain” is so judgmental, really — not to mention classist, since its origins lie in the Anglo-French and Old French vilain “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel” (12c.), from Medieval Latin villanus “farmhand,” from Latin villa “country house, farm.” As always, the city folks write the books.)

An antagonist is simply one who opposes the main character, also known as the protagonist.  They’re often “the bad guy,” because readers like to identify with the main character, and prefer in most cases to identify with someone they can think of as “the good guy.”  It doesn’t necessarily need to follow that the antagonist, in their role as “bad guy”, also has to be a bad person; all that’s required is that they present a strong and believable opponent for the protagonist to, in most cases, overcome.

What’s primarily required in an antagonist, then, is competence — or, barring that, the kind of sheer unpredictability that makes them hard for an orderly protagonist to comprehend.  They can’t be insane, or at least not the kind of insanity that precludes an ability to function in the real world, and they can’t be stupid.  Otherwise, they become pushovers, and pushovers are boring.

On the other hand, an antagonist shouldn’t be endowed with the kind of supernatural intelligence that lets them make elaborate plans with lots of interlocking parts that somehow never fall prey to sheer bad luck, unforeseen acts by random bystanders, or the incompetence of minions.  (I see more of these than I’d like, especially in the visual media but also in books, so it’s possible that a lot of people disagree with me on this.  But I’m right and they’re wrong, so there.)

And finally, an antagonist should be a fully-developed character, with virtues as well as flaws, because nobody in the real world is ever all of a piece.  This means that as a writer, we have to inhabit our villains — empathize with them, if you will — as much as we do our heroes.  We have to know what it is they dread when the lights go out; we have to know their petty vices and their secret good deeds; we have to know the source of their greatest sorrow and their greatest happiness; in short, we have to love them even as we bring our protagonist in to destroy them.

If we don’t do this, we risk turning our antagonists into mere mustache-twirling marionettes, when they should be human beings.

(Or aliens, or elves, or self-aware computers, as the genre requires.  In short, people.)

Things Seen and Unseen

Let’s talk for a minute about point of view. In fact, we could talk about point of view for considerably more than a minute, because it’s a complex and many-layered thing – not to mention being, for some writers, the key to making everything else click into place. (For other writers, the key might be something else. Nothing about this job is universal, except maybe that if you don’t write you won’t ever have written.)

I’m assuming right now that if you’re reading this you’ve already absorbed Point of View 101: Third Person, First Person, and the Weird Stuff. (I’ve blogged about those already, here and here, if you want a quick refresher.)

What I’m thinking about now is a bit more subtle – it’s one of the failure modes of point of view.  Point of view is implicit in a narrative, even if it isn’t directly specified, and sometimes the narrative “sees” things which nobody is observing.  This results in clumsy writing, or in writing which, while not precisely clumsy, nevertheless has an off-center sort of wrongness to it that can have a cumulative effect on the reader’s sense of immersion in the story.

An example:

As Joe looked at the kitchen door, it was angrily thrown open.

There are a couple of things wrong with that sentence, starting with having the active observer relegated to a subordinate clause, and the important action – the throwing-open of the door – occurring as an agentless passive verb. (Who is throwing open the door? The narrative doesn’t let us see them.) Those wrong things, though, are made worse by the point-of-view failure we get in that adverb “angrily.”

Anger is an emotion, a state of mind; somebody is experiencing it as he/she/they throw open the door.  But we don’t see the door-opener, so we’re not in a position to draw inferences about their state of mind.

Fixing that sentence requires either showing us who is on the other side of that door – As Joe looked at the kitchen door, Jane angrily threw it open – or replacing “angrily” with a verb, or verb+adverb, that doesn’t have an implied state-of-mind attached – As Joe looked at the kitchen door, it was abruptly thrown open/jerked open.  (In this case, I’d probably go with the latter fix; that is, if I didn’t decide to rewrite the whole sentence from scratch, and possibly the paragraph it was part of as well.)

In a similar vein – don’t refer to a character as holding onto something with a white-knuckled grip if that character is wearing gloves.  Nobody, including the character, can see the knuckles in question.

As a general rule, when you’re writing description, it’s always good to pause every so often and query yourself:  Where is the (named or just implied) viewer standing?  Is everything you’ve just mentioned visible from that point?  If you’re doing the verbal equivalent of a tracking or panning shot, is your observation moving smoothly from point to point, or is it jumping around at random?*

Point of view may not, as I said at the beginning, be the key to everything.  Nevertheless, if you’ve got a good handle on point of view, you’ve probably got most of your other ducks lined up and quacking in formation as well.

*Yes, there may be occasions when you want a sense of jumpy and random observation.  But there, too, point of view rules:  your reader is going to draw inferences from that jumpiness about your observer’s probably-confused state of mind.