Saturday, January 14, 2017

Violence in Fantasy

The other day I remembered I have Twitter. (First tweet in about 8 months. Oops.)

I read mostly fantasy, but also a handful of contemporary or historical fiction, even the occasional sci-fi. I've noticed that if you compare books of different genres but with the same target age, the books with a farther away setting (whether time or place) tend to have a lot more violence.

Not all of them. I've read plenty of middle grades or YA fantasy where no one kills/fights/beats up anyone. But I've also read plenty where they do. Whereas I've read very few contemporary novels where someone gets killed or has a weapon, or even dies from an accident or illness.

From a worldbuilding aspect, it's easier to get away with killing off characters when a society doesn't have a strong legal presence. But I think it's more than that.

In a battle scene in a popular trilogy I read last year, the heroine watches as the villain's monsters hold a twenty-something guy she knows by the limbs and head and pull them all off at once.

And the reader thinks, Oh, this sure is tense. I hope the heroine succeeds in the mission.

Imagine if that was a guy on Earth, maybe in Ancient Egypt or Imperial Japan or Colonial America. Or in your 2010s city. Isn't it much more gruesome now?

That guy was somebody's friend. He'd been in love with someone, before she was killed. He probably had a mother. Now his body is in six pieces.

So why, when it happens in a distant setting, do we often skip on to the next thing and not think about that victim again? Or about their family, who may never know what happened to their loved one or where the body is? Is it because there's no CSI running lab analyses to find the killer? Because it's too easy to assume someone "other" from us is simply used to a hard life? Because people in a world with swords just go around killing each other?

Fiction is a safe place to explore emotions. It's also a safe place to explore issues--race, class, sex, religion, societal expectations, basically any kind of conflict. Readers enter the world without the prejudices of that society, and we can see more objectively that racism really is founded on false beliefs of those "other" people. Ideas of class differ, but why do we really think we're better than so-and-so? Fiction is a place we can experience being someone else and come away, hopefully, with a better understanding that people are people.

My world has flaws. There's slavery. There's classism. There are high taxes and a large gap between rich and poor. The real world has flaws, and any imagined world has flaws or there's no story.

But I try to limit the violence. In the future I'll try for a plot that doesn't require killings. It's common enough in the real world, and it's common in fantasy, and I don't want to throw it in there and then skip on to the next thing like it's nothing. I've only written one novel so far. People get killed. But I keep it to only what's necessary for the plot, and the hero feels it each time, even when it's an enemy. A life ending is a significant occurrence.

Face it, if you saw someone get killed or maimed or did the act yourself, would you just go on with your day? Wouldn't you be a bit shaken?

As the author, I have to know the important characters' backstories, goals, and motivations. Even the villains'. Turns out they're people too. They're pretty bad, but if they're well-written (realistic) they're not 100% bad. They have friends and families they love. They also happen to have goals that clash with the hero's. While an author can't spend too much time on subplots and side characters, there's some character-writing advice I read once that really stuck with me. I think of it often, not only when writing, but also in my interactions with other people:

Every character is the hero in his own story.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Beta Readers

I've begun to send my work to beta readers. It's exciting and scary. So far I've sent my first four chapters to 2 people. They're both my siblings, which I hear is a bad choice for beta readers because they might be afraid to say what they really think. But for now that's okay with me. I know them, and I know the things they're interested in, and I trust their opinions of story, art, and craft.

When I sent the chapters out I was excited. And then as soon as my sister texted me to say she sent them back with her comments and the answers to my questions, I was immediately scared. But I read them, and everything she said made sense. Nothing made me cry!

I know eventually there will be comments, questions, or maybe even someday reviews that will make me sad. But as long as I get feedback that is honest, civil, and well-meaning, I am encouraged to keep on chugging.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Life-Changing Magic?

This past week I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. (If you've heard of the KonMari method, it's this.) I'm getting increasingly into minimalism - if not in practice, at least the idea of it. My room is more minimalistic than most people's, but I come to a point every so often where it feels chaotic and stagnant at the same time. Overgrown.

Preliminary complaints about the book: Kondo tends to present her method of folding/sorting/etc as THE way, and her experiences as THE truth. She also claims that once you get your house decluttered, you will never, not once, revert to your old ways. I find that a little hard to believe.

The beginning section felt like, "Great stuff, Marie, but could you make this last twice as many pages before we get to the actual tidying part?"

However, I love the book's main point: Keep only the things that don't spark joy. Yeah, I have a hard time finding joy in toothpaste or trash cans, but I see the point. If it's not making you happy, why are you hanging on to it? You'll never use those spare buttons, you don't need your laptop's box, and you can find user manuals online.

Guilt-free discarding and, yes, even guilt-free keeping.

Some people advise: If you haven't worn it in a year, you don't need it. Or, pack away undecideds and if you haven't opened the box in 6 months, out it goes. But I like the criteria of: Is it making you happy? Because isn't that why you want your house clean? To have a space you love and can relax in?

Here are the clothes I had before decluttering:

And now divided between keep (on bed), donate (in grey bin and fabric bags), and discard (trash bag).

Here they are now. I don't wear fancy stuff, so everything I own can be folded except my winter coats, which are in the hall closet. (KonMari says to store all your like items together, but I have no curtain rod anymore.) I even fold my dresses. I only have three, and they're jersey, and I wear them less than once a year. These are my everyday/weekly clothes:

Sunday, May 15, 2016

An Abundance of Wallets

This is the Necessary Clutch Wallet (pattern available for purchase here) by Emmaline Bags. I've made 5, but one went off into the world before posing for a picture, so here are wallets 1 and 3-5 (back to front, left to right). Wallet #1 is for myself, to go along with my Blossom shoulder Bag. They just look like they were meant to be made together.

As you can see, I like fussy-cutting to match pattern pieces. #3 is matched at the back /flap seam, but kind of opposite - brown diamonds matched with colored diamonds. Can you tell? #1 and #4 were fussy cut so the flaps line up with the bodies in front. #5 was supposed to match up as well, but...fail. But the strip in the center of the flap is matched just about as perfectly as you can get.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Things I have learned (so far) about the novel-writing process

  1. It takes a long time.
  2. The first draft really is allowed supposed to be fast and crappy. Your job as a first-drafter is to just get the story written down. Seriously, don't worry about quality. You'll change so much of it later anyway. I spent almost a year, hating the idea that bad writing might exist with my name on it. But I've still rewritten or cut so much of it.
  3. Oh, naiveté. I believed that if I took my time, my first draft would be fabulous (okay, decent), making revision easy. On the one hand, keeping a timeline and researching as I went helped me avoid gaping plot holes to sort out later. On the other, I didn't yet have a grasp on pacing, structure, or overdescription floweriness, and so the draft was way bloated. Oh, and the writing was still bad.
  4. I underestimated how many words a scene takes up...
  5. ...and overestimated how many scenes I needed to bridge plot points.
  6. It's hard to cut subplots from a manuscript. I once read (can't remember where) where someone said they'd rather have their first draft end up twice the target length than half--you can cut material in revisions, but it's hard to add story without seeming forced. At the time I agreed. No longer. My first draft was about 45,000 words too long. It can be easy to decide a scene or entire subplot needs to go. The problem is, when I cut them, I have to go through and cut all later references to them as well, which can leave huge gaps.
  7. Lots of research. Sometimes big stuff, like society and technology of whatever setting/time period you're writing. But also incidentals like river sailing speeds, reproduction rate of cows, how to treat particular wounds without first aid kits or hospitals.
  8. Sometimes research gets you no answers. I basically found none about the wounds, the speed and effectiveness of traditional medicines, or whether a particular plant blooms or produces fruit year-round in the tropics.

When you start writing every day:

  1. Everything around you suddenly becomes potential story material. Names, overheard sentences, personality quirks, scenic views, art, song lyrics. Everything you see, smell, hear, feel, wonder, etc. gets filtered through, "How could I use that in a story?"
  2. When I see a sunset or fog, it automatically narrates itself in my head.
  3. Sometimes you'll get sick of your story. You spend every day pouring over the lives and emotions and feats of these people who don't exist! You'll question the vast amount of time you're spending on this one single story.
  4. But you'll mostly obsess. You'll read writing advice, play scenes out in your head, revise mentally while you're at work, and not even be sad your characters are fake, because they're really real.
  5. You'll mentally revise other books you read.
  6. Reading a bad book can actually be a blessing. Good books are good examples, and writing advice can tell you what to do or not do, but experiencing a bad book as a reader is an excellent way to learn firsthand what you want to avoid. (But watch out for mediocre writing. It's more subtle than bad writing, and might rub off on you!)
  7. When you get to the revision stage, you might find yourself editing everything you write. Facebook posts, blog posts, book reviews, emails. I tend to write too bloated, and re-read many times trying to pare down and streamline. Twitter is good practice. Which 140 characters are the truly important ones?

Things I hope to do differently next time:

In the first draft:

  1. Sketch a plot outline, estimating word/scene counts between plot points.
  2. Write fast. Make my sentences sound as fourth-grade as possible if that's what it takes to get the story down on paper.
  3. Err on the side of too few words rather than too many. If I'm writing fast, it will probably be kind of sparse anyway. Then later I can elaborate on what's there rather than chop it to pieces.
  4. If I have a new plot idea by November I'll try NaNoWriMo. The goal is 50,000 words in 30 days.

Revising:

  1. Triage. Big stuff first. Structure, plot (holes). Then medium stuff. Characters, pacing, tension. Then small stuff. Dialogue, showing vs telling. Then surface stuff.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Below 95,000 Words (more than once) (AKA the quickest way to slash a stubborn word count)

(Okay, maybe the quickest way to slash the word count is: Boring scene? SEVER IT!)

I've pared down to the mid 90,000s. In the first two drafts, part 4 (the end) got minimal & rushed tending, so it still has several not-yet-written scenes. This time, I wanted to get to part 4 before I lost all my steam, so I've skipped ahead to add those missing scenes. In other words, whatever word loss I've managed now gets reversed.

Getting back up near 100,000 freaks me out, so in between adding scenes, I'll go find an easy hit to pare down. There's still a lot of story I know I need to cut from parts 2 and 3, but I want to finish part 4 before I go anywhere else scene-by-scene.

So here's my favorite way to cut a lot of words in not a lot of time. I use Scrivener, but any word processor with a search feature will work: Search for a word you overuse. (Looked, turned, and reached are common and, good news, they're often unnecessary because they're implied: the narrator can't describe something if the character hasn't looked at it. I personally overuse smiled, frowned, and seemed.) Go through each search result, and see if you can cut the overused word/phrase. If not, that's okay. If so, yay!

Doesn't sound like it'd make much of a difference, but it has for me. When I revise scene by scene, I'm caught up in the story, and feel more protective of my dear words. But when I see only snippets, I notice the prose more objectively. I realize just how many times characters turn, look, smile, grunt, emerge, etc. EXTERMINATE! Sometimes "She turned and walked away" can be "She walked away." SLASH! Sometimes (surprise!) I don't need the sentence at all, because walking away doesn't matter to the scene. SEVER! Huge bonus: in my snippet-browsing, I notice a lot of nearby extras: Ex. The conversation she's walking away from has two or three lines that slow the dialogue, something I didn't realize/admit in my scene-by-scene editing. Or this scene where he smiles three times is pretty much a repeat of that other scene with all the smiles. CUT! (The trick is to not read everything, just focus on the target word, and notice easy hits nearby.)

With my most overused words, I can get a 1,000 word difference after one search.

Tip: In Scrivener, instead of the search box at the top I use the Find & Replace, because it has a "next" button. So instead of scrolling to find the next instance, you can just click straight to it.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Below 100,000 words

I've finished my second draft, let it sit for longer than I planned (oops!), and done another read-through of my manuscript. Draft 2 sat so long it became a cooling-off period before a new draft ended at 96,242 words. Part 3 is still almost half the book. I'd hoped to make parts 1 and 4 roughly even (about 15% each), and parts 2 and 3 even (about 35% each). But after the read-through, part 2 feels kind of slow, so even if I can shorten part 3, I'll also have to tighten up part 2, so they still won't be very even. Alas.

In my read-through I marked notes on my printed manuscript, and my plan was to transfer those directly to the draft in Scrivener: cut/add/change words here and there, cut unnecessary sections, clarify confusing sentences, and use the Comments feature to note anything that would require a little bit of thought or effort.

Turns out I'm largely rewriting chapter 1 and (again) chapter 2. For most of chapter 1 the character is alone, i.e. no dialogue and only one person doing actions. So the prose is clunky with a lot of repetitive sentence structure. She did this. She did that. Yania did this, doing that. As she did this she did that, thinking about doing the other. As far as chapter 2, I already rewrote it once, and it's better than draft 1, but the dialogue and characters' actions still seem awkward and I'm trying to smooth it out.

Unfortunately I often find myself staring at the screen, typing few words. I think since it's draft 3 I'm afraid to write anything that's only first-draft quality. But I'm chugging through it.

Hopefully it will get easier farther into the draft. Because these were the first chapters I wrote, they never were as solid as the rest, and the worldbuilding out-developed them so they don't entirely fit anymore. But because these chapters set up the story and have the whole book to be referred to again, it's hard to change even small details without having to change a lot of later references. Later chapters (which hopefully won't need such extensive uprooting and replanting) can take bigger hits without so much damage.