I actually did have a post planned for today just before I jump into a fairly extended stretch on my blog tour. Incidentally the next five days I will be bouncing all around the place and I hope you will come with me to some amazing blogs (links below). However, I re-read my post and realised that what had begun as a discussion about why I had been disappointed by a trilogy I recently gave up reading had actually degenerated into a rant and I decided to scrap it and try again.
Here is my second attempt.
I recently began reading a trilogy of YA fantasy books and was instantly hooked by the first book. There was this interesting (if a little generic) female protagonist who did some reasonably unexpected things and over the course of the first book I came to really want her to succeed in her goals. The villains were a bit on the melodramatic side and their scheme was clearly delusional and set to fail before it began but you can forgive that in YA because overblown villains are the norm and when stupid people reach for the moon, of course they fail. The story was enjoyable and the side characters well fleshed out.
Enter book two and we see our heroine in a new location only now she’s less interesting because she has nothing left to reveal and this time the actual complication of the story isn’t introduced until half-way through because they are so busy trying to get us to see the protagonist in the new location. Instead of some dark past haunting her every step, we now have petty annoyances and domestic squabbles that fill in time until somehow there just happens to be a serial killer stalking around in her new home and somehow she just happens to be the one who is going to solve everyone’s troubles. Not that she isn’t out of her depth and completely lost and with no actual reason to involve herself at all. In point of fact, the author spends a bit of time trying to convince us that she becomes emotionally attached to one of the almost victims, but this doesn’t really sit right with the protagonists character and ends up just being a plot pointer.
By book three, I was more or less over the protagonist. However, in the grand tradition of trilogies, the danger is now upped to the point where it is so overblown and melodramatic that you fully expect the sky to darken at any minute. And yet, I just didn’t care. The characters of the first book were now mostly too far removed because they had all but been completely absent (other than a tokenistic appearance) in the second. The characters of the second book hadn’t endeared themselves to me at all. And the third book seemed determined to rush us into a complication that made very little sense as fast as possible.
I’m going to point out at this stage that I didn’t finish reading the trilogy. I made it half-way through the third book and then realised I was hoping that mysterious, overblown, master-mind villain guy would just wipe them all out and call it a day. At that point I realised that I’d completely disengaged from the story and there was no point in my finishing it.
The point of this was my wondering where it all went wrong. The first book won me over. I loved it. I was totally hooked into this world and these characters. In all honesty, I think it was the big shift in scenery that lost me. I loved the world that was created in the first book, but in the second we were in an entirely different setting and I didn’t really feel it. I missed too much of the first setting. Perhaps that is a petty quibble but as a reader it threw me.
So my question to the readers out there is this: How long will you read when you know you have disengaged? Do you give up straight away, or do you plow on and hope for a big finish?
Tomorrow Laura Diamond is sharing a post here on the realm and I am off to her blog to talk about females in fantasy writing.
Okay, I really don’t like the word blogosphere, but it is apt for describing the network of writing blogs out there. And these are busy times.
I’ve been busy planning my blog tour but I’m starting to get back out there and find out what other bloggers are up to. Let me know if you have an event coming up. I know a few of you have books about to be released and there are several blog fests I’ve been wanting to check out. Two notable events that are coming up:
Talli Roland is calling for people to help her take on Amazon and she is looking for bloggers willing to help out on December 1st. I think she might be a tad ambitious in aiming for 1000 but if we all get behind her, she might just make it.
Alex J Cavanuagh is calling for people to join the Top Ten TV shows blogfest on the 20th of September. I’m a little busy this month but I am definitely looking forward to reading some of the contributions to this blogfest.
Let’s help Talli and Alex out and let me know if you’ve got something coming up.
This is the trailer for Radiance, the first book in the new middle grade ‘Radiance Series’ by Alyson Noël. Alyson expands her ‘Immortals’ story by giving Ever’s little sister, Riley, her own brand-new series.
More about ‘Radiance’:
Riley has crossed the bridge into the afterlife—a place called Here, where time is always Now. She has picked up life where she left off when she was alive, living with her parents and dog in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. When she’s summoned before The Council, she learns that the afterlife isn’t just an eternity of leisure. She’s been assigned a job, Soul Catcher, and a teacher, Bodhi, a possibly cute, seemingly nerdy boy who’s definitely hiding something. They return to earth together for Riley’s first assignment, a Radiant Boy who’s been haunting a castle in England for centuries. Many Soul Catchers have tried to get him to cross the bridge and failed. But all of that was before he met Riley . . .
Shiny, glittering, distractions.
It is how magicians get away with their tricks and it is frequently how movies manage to make even the weakest of stories seem somewhat plausible.
It would seem that in writing, distractions can’t save a poorly written story because you don’t have all the shine and glitter – you certainly don’t have an amazing soundtrack and special effects.
Still, many writers seem to use a bit of shine.
Colourful humour and language to throw the reader off the scent of poorly executed scene.
Flowery language and description to gloss over the massive plot hole.
Throw another dead body into a scene that was feeling like it was going nowhere.
Introduce a new character to hide the fact that one of your other characters has suddenly had a personality transplant.
And the thing is, as an audience member, you frequently allow yourself to be distracted by the shiny because it is fun. Because even though you know that you are being had, that something is missing, what you are being given is still enjoyable and there isn’t really any fun in pulling it to pieces. You know what is going on and you let it happen. At least when it is still enjoyable.
You start to really question the shiny when that is all you are being given. There is nothing else underneath and it isn’t really going anywhere. All you’ve been given is the glossy overcoat and there is no substance. As a reader, a lack of overall substance just can’t be tolerated.
So what shiny distractions do you enjoy reading? Which ones have you used? When won’t you accept a shiny distraction?
I was thinking the other day about my post on the sycophant and that actually got me thinking about my most recent reading (I’m currently working my way back through Eddings, again, I know). What I started wondering was how many times should you remind your reader about the nature of a character (either through action or through other character descriptions). It seems that if you endless preface everything the character does by a reminder about why you like/don’t like them eventually your reader is going to get sick of being treated like a child with no attention span but if you don’t put enough cues and reminders in you risk your reader forgetting key points about that character.
In relation to my own writing I’ve noticed that I have a lot of reminders in first drafts. Most of my ‘abandoned’ projects are full of these prompts (some in bold for my reference so I remember what I was trying to convey about the character at the time). One in particular has something on nearly every single page to remind the reader that character S is meant to be unstable. Other characters hint at it, she does something that not clear minded person would do, an earlier incident is referenced, something is hidden from her because she may not be trustworthy. Every single page. Okay, I may have missed two pages because she wasn’t involved in either scene but you get the point.
Wouldn’t reading that just drive you up the wall? Wouldn’t you want to ask the author – how dumb do you think I am? You just told me she was unstable, you showed it clearly, move on with the story already.
At the same time, if she was called unstable, did one slightly zany thing and then consistently acted normally throughout the story, when her instability became essential to the plot, the reader may have forgotten it entirely and wonder what planet the author was on when they wrote that critical scene.
This brings me to Eddings (awesome epic fantasy writer that he is) and his use of provisional reminders. Mostly with the Ellenium trilogy I’ve noticed that as each character is introduced they are given, or demonstrate to have, a number of very specific character traits. These recur periodically but not to the point where the story is stagnating in flags and pointers. However, if a character is absent for multiple chapters, upon their return, one of the other characters will usually make mention of having missed something about them, or they will almost immediately do something that reminds you of their character traits. Also, at the beginning of the second and third books, the first time a character is reintroduced the protagonist makes a point of considering his companions but he does it in a way that isn’t too intrusive to the story and it is a pretty quick recap.
I think Eddings found that balance between reminding the reader of the critical points without getting endlessly repetitious, and he’s disguised his reminders for the most part or at least managed to weave it into part of the story.
So, writers and readers out there, what are your thoughts? Do you like to be reminded or do you like to move on with the plot? Is finding a balance the key?
Sometimes it is difficult to know.
What starts out as a simple search and destroy for typos can suddenly become a revision of a clumsy scene which can soon morph into an entire rewrite of an act of a novel. I think the problem here comes from not being able to focus on only one aspect of the writing at a time.
For me, I like to start with the big stuff and work my way down to the small. While I’ll correct typing errors as I see them and move punctuation that is truly being offensive, editing the nitty-gritty is kind of the last ditch run through, mostly because if I revise or rewrite I know I’m just going to put more errors into the text.
So I begin with the rewrites. I may stay in the rewriting stage for the rest of forever with some manuscripts. Rewrites, for me, are the massive changes. The adding characters, taking them out, changing direction entirely, cutting scenes, adding scenes, moving scenes. All of the things that give you a huge headache when it comes to checking for continuity errors and will usually have you rewriting chapter after chapter to accommodate the change you made way back in the beginning.
Then I revise. These are the more surgical changes. Adding an emphasis here, changing the wording of that exchange of dialogue there, altering a description in that chapter. Sometimes these have carry on effects but normally it is just tightening up the overall story that has already been rewritten (many times) and checked for continuity.
Then, should I have made it this far and not put the project aside, comes the editing.
Still, despite wanting to work from one layer down to the next, down to the next, I end up jumping back and forth between the three.
How does your process for revisions work?
Okay – before you jump on the attack I am going to counter this soonish by explaining why writing a novel is not like baking a cake.
There are many reasons why writing a novel is in fact like baking a cake:
1. There are certain ingredients that must be present or it will not work. You can argue that there are eggless/flourless and everything-else-less cakes out there and some of these are very, very good. However, for the most part, leaving out critical ingredients in a cake or a novel will just get you into trouble and have your taster (reader) wondering what went wrong.
2. The better you plan it out before beginning, the better the process goes. This is true for me, I know.When baking a cake I do a lot of pre-organisation and pull all the ingredients out and line them up on the bench. I even measure most of it out into various cups and bowls and have it all just sitting and waiting to be added. Far too many times I’ve entered the cooking process and go to the cupboard to get out the… Forgot to buy it. Now I have to go to the shop and get some more, meanwhile the oven is heating, and I forgot the shop is already shut. Plus, I know what sort of cake I’m making if I plan it out. I don’t get mid-way through and think I’d like to add some apple but then I’ll have to add more flour because the apple will make it too moist and I’ll probably add too much flour and then I’ll have to add a dash more milk. This all relates to novel writing in that I can plan out my characters, their motivations and goals out before the story so I won’t get too many surprises during the writing. I can make sure I’ve researched any vital plot points and have that research at the ready. I also know what sort of story I want it to be. So I’m not getting midway through and thinking, wouldn’t this be better if I just went back and rewrote the whole thing (though sometimes the plan fails and despite all the careful thought we do have to go back, and back again).
3. It takes time. Okay, cake time to novel time are really not comparable but they both take time and rushing the process makes for a bad cake/novel. It takes as much time as it takes.
4. The right tools help get the job done faster and better. In cakes this means whisks, pans, bowls and ovens that actually heat evenly and consistently. With writing this means at least a basic understanding of language and probably a word processing program of some sort that includes some basic editing assistance (such as spell check). The writer’s tool kit also includes their knowledge of the genre and plot conventions and all the other things you need to write the story.
5. The proof is in the pudding. The taster of the cake can tell you if the cake is good. The reader of the story will tell you if the novel is good. Yes, you can pre-taste (read and evaluate yourself) but you are probably not the best judge. Like with cooking you will either be too harsh (I’m a terrible cook) or far too generous in your evaluation (its awesome and only burnt on two sides…).
There you have it. Five reasons why writing a novel is like baking a cake.
Foreshadowing is something I haven’t really written about on the blog before but it is incredibly important when it comes to writing a cohesive story. I have to thank Hart Johnson on Confessions of a Watery Tart for reminding me why it is so important in story writing.
She actually uses a very good explanation of one of the stronger parts of the Harry Potter series in that very little just appears as it is needed. The polyjuice potion is mentioned well in advance of it ever being used and so as a reader you aren’t left thinking – this author got herself stuck and then had to magic her way out of it. Yes the mention was deliberate because you knew they were going to use it later but it still made the whole story stronger. And it was the same with many other items and events within the Harry Potter series. By being prementioned and then gently reminding the reader at certain points, by the time the event or object become critical to the story it was like it was there all along and it doesn’t feel like a quick fix.
The best way to explain why foreshadowing is important is probably to look at what happens without it. The scenario is where your hero is backed up against a wall with thirty villains closing in, all armed to the teeth with more weapons than I could name, there is a bomb about to explode, a damsel in distress hanging from a helicopter two blocks away screaming for assistance and a tidal wave is closing in. Okay, I erred on the side of melodrama when writing that scenario.
Suddenly your hero…
Anything you end this sentence with is going to sound lame unless it was previously set up. This situation is clearly impossible. There is no way your hero can get out of it and save the victim, and disarm the bomb and stop the tidal wave. Unless they are superman which leads us to the question of how did he get into this situation in the first place.
Are you suddenly going to whip out a magic make everything offensive go away potion?
However, if you had thought about this scenario and gone back earlier in your story and tweaked a few things it is quite likely that the hero’s side kick is currently trying to disarm the bomb, and sweating profusely while doing it, and the hero is in point of fact simply keeping the villains busy. But he’s doing it by projecting a hologram (using technology that was of course demonstrated far earlier in the story) and he is actually cutting the victim off the helicopter. What you’re going to do about the tidal wave is anyone’s guess unless the hero is planning to use the bomb, retrieved by the side kick, to somehow interrupt it (which seems pretty unlikely to me).
Foreshadowing: possibly making the impossible slightly more plausible.
I’m not using it and I haven’t referred to it – but a plan exists. Surely that counts for something.
In case you are wondering what I am talking about, it is the old to plan or not to plan argument in writing. As always, I outline, know where I want to go, and then dutifully ignore any of it and write whatever anyway. From the number of unfinished projects I have stacking up, this may not be the most effective method, but it works for me. I don’t want to lock myself in if I’m not feeling the characters lead me in a certain direction. And I don’t want to be endlessly worried that they haven’t progressed as neatly from point a to point b as I would have liked.
I love to write. I love words. If I can eventually tidy them up enough to make a story, great. If not, I’ll have enjoyed the writing anyway and maybe at some future time I’ll return to the story and figure it all out.
That’s kind of what’s happened at the moment.
I came across a fairly old story (in fact I don’t remember when I started it). I didn’t even have it on my computer any more. I only had the paper copy I printed out. It wasn’t finished and as I was reading it I realised I really wanted to know where this story ended. Only I didn’t remember.
Fortunately I also printed out the plan and included it in the file.
Unfortunately having just read the first act of the story, I realised why I abandoned it. The plan didn’t make any sense. There were entire sub-plots that were clearly leading to X but just didn’t appear in the plan at all. The main character was clearly not motivated by D but by P and those two characters over there were as likely to be conspiring as a spider with a fly. I’d had a plan but the way I’d written that first act just made the plan entirely irrelevant. The story was better than the original plan and the characters a great deal more interesting but it made the second act almost impossible to write without an entire overhaul of the over all goal of the story.
So now I need to figure out where the story should be going and how I’m going to get it there and maybe, just maybe, I’ll get it written. I’m not going to commit myself to it but I have a strong feeling that I’m going to spend quite a number of sleepless nights thinking about it in the near future.
Okay, maybe forever is a slight exaggeration but you really do have to be able to deal with having your characters in your head for a long time.
You spend so much time making them real, getting to know them, putting the through hardships and helping them overcome difficulties. You watch them grow – you help them to grow. You direct them and guide them and shape them at every turn.
Elspeth had an excellent post last week on characters when she shared her 10 Tips for Non-Perfection. It was her list to help the writers out there not view their characters through rose tinted glasses and it is a great list – well worth the read.
As a writer I’m truly cruel to my characters – particularly in drafting stages. Mostly because I want to see how my character reacts under every kind of pressure I can throw at them. In the end I usually pick the crisis that has the most interesting reaction and go with it, but when I’m still developing the character I can be really nasty to them.
But when all of that is said and done, underneath, I still really love my characters and can feel pretty caught up in their lives at times. One particular WIP that I’m still thinking about revising continues to stump me mostly because in the face of the massive danger being faced, nobody dies. Well, one character does, but we didn’t really like them and other than a brief mention in act one they really failed to have an impact.
I didn’t even intentionally write it that way.
It just turned out that after I’d finished the various minor skirmishes that were going on in the huge and dusty battle, every named character (villain or hero) tragically survived. It was a cold blooded conversation with a friend when I sat down with the draft and started systematically listing each character’s attributes and why they should die/live. I still haven’t actually rewritten it.
How do you and your characters get along?