Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle

I appear to focusing on the oldies but the goodies, but I am constantly surprised how many people haven't read this first fantasy novel by Beagle--my favorite one.

The book takes place in Yorchester Cemetery in New York, described as "nonsectarian but nervous."  There a talking raven--and usually I don't go for talking animals, but usually they aren't sarcastic ravens--brings food to Jonathan Rebeck, who has lived in the cemetery for years, distancing himself from life in preference to the peacefulness of the dead.  There he talks to and helps the ghosts.  The ghosts arrive with full memories and presence, but slowly wane away to a place unspecified.

Two of those ghosts are Michael and Laura.  Both of them have traumatic memories of their death, though you need to read the book to watch the story unwind.  Even as the two bond to each other in death, Jonathan meets Mrs. Klapper, who comes to visit her husband, and assumes, at first, he is there for a similar reason.

Beagle manages to finesse in a theme without you ever noticing it till the book is done:  It is best to learn love, and live life wherever you find it--may that be death.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

AHG--I confess! I wrote about vampires

I had nightmares about vampires the whole time I was a kid.  I managed to transform that fear to love.

I'm a staunch vampire traditionalist.  My favorite vampire novel is "Dracula."  I love "Lost Boys."  I wrote a scene with vampires in my novel "Rebirth," but they were out to kill the good guys.  I love love love "Buffy," but hated Angel, whatever TV show he was on.  I couldn't help but love Spike, but they gave him a much better character arc, though I felt as though they copped out a bit at the end of the sixth and the seventh season.  And I never did like that they could drink pig's blood.  Everytime a vamp movie comes out, my dad and I go to it.  That's how we bond.  Through horror.

Vamp movies I didn't go see:  Most of the "Twilight" saga.  I tried reading the book but gave up.  Having pop culture embrace but subvert one of my all consuming passions left me feeling like someone else was playing with my favorite toys and DOING IT WRONG.

So I waited.  I watched.  I read a few Harris novels.  I read Peeler.

There's this theory that vamps become popular when sex is equated with death.  When Stoker hit it big, sex could mean you would get syph and die.  Vampires started rearing their heads again when AIDS hit the scene.

So then I started thinking. . . .What if?  That classic question.

These new novels had created a trope in which the novelist moved.  Similar to the rather tight forms of, say, medieval poetry (yeah.  I took a class).  One of these, for instance, involved describing how amazing a lady was from tip of the head, moving down her body.

In writing almost any genre fiction, we work within specified rules.  Fusion Fantasy spends a lot of energy attempting to subvert those rules.  Within fantasy, horror, paranormal romance, whatever blender concoction I could make of those led me to ask, how would I work within the vampire rules?  What would it be like if it was MY game again?

That was the thing about medieval poetry forms.  The real art of them was to stay within the rules, or bend them a bit, in order to create something creative, and beautiful, and new, and yet still works with those rules.  For instance, going with my previous example, one poem describing a woman moved all the way down to her waist, skipped to describe her lovely legs, but then came back to put the final emphasis on her (cough) golden treasure.  Shakespeare's famous sonnet 130 begins "My mistress eyes are nothing like the sun," in a poem where he compares his love in a negative sounding tone against the standard praises (for instance, he should have said her eyes were brighter than the sun).

So I mulled.  I read about vampires.  I watched a few "Buffy"s for the millionth time.  I tried to read "Twilight" again, all while little bits and pieces coagulated in my brain until there it sat:  what I would do if I were to write a novel with vampires who were not evil, were in fact, the good guys.  What could I give up on my traditionalist view to make this work?  Where were my sticking points on silly shit I would not put up with?

Brooding.  I refuse to put up with brooding.
Animal blood.  I refuse to put up with animal blood.
Sparkling.  Christ no.
Threatening that their violent and barely controlled nature could be taken out on their lover at any time in a so emotionally abusive, creepy, stalker way.  Fuck that.

What I could change?

I gave them souls.  That was my big concession.  They are, in fact, dead bodies animated, but they house a soul, not a demon.  Most of them still go around killing people without remorse because the vampires have taken a step up the food chain and, like many of us, we think the cow is cute and all, but we don't feel like being vegetarians.

So how do I square human blood, a soul, and a good character?  Ah.  For that, you may have to read.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"The Pig, the Prince, & the Unicorn" by Karen A. Brush

A few years ago now, I was having that age old argument with a friend:  "Science Fiction!"  "Fantasy"  "Science Fiction!"  "Fantasy!"  My friend argued that science fiction is inherently better because it dealt with the various motivations of people--not bogus concepts of good versus evil.  I swallowed by gut punch reaction of:  "When has there ever been a nuanced character in science fiction?"  Because even quicker than that knee jerk (yes, even faster than that), "The Pig, the Prince, and the Unicorn" popped into my head.  Written by Karen A. Brush, I'm not sure it is even in print anymore, but if you love stories that kick holes in just about everything you expect while charming you with vibrant, funny characters that move through a as-then-uncharted world, run (you can pass go and collect $200 dollars.  I need the money, too) to your nearest used bookstore or just quickly tap your way to

abe is the kick ass source for all your used and collectable book needs (unless you have a local bookstore.  Then proceed and support)

"The Pig" is young Quadroped.  He is an embarrassingly non magic Welsh faerie pig that no one expects to amount to much, and truth be told, neither does he, until an old key falls on his snout, and he is catapulted into a world where kingdoms walk the edge of war, and an ancient prophecy foretells only the Key--Quadroped's Key--can lock the Gate and stop the war with Ravenor.

The Kingdom has been at the edge of war with Ravenor for hundreds of years.  Battle raged before a clever mage-king trapped the Black Unicorn, the leader of Ravenor, in Chaos.  The Gate to Chaos must be locked every hundred years or the Black Unicorn will rampage again.  Unfortunately, that Gate is a long and perilous journey that four Warlords of Ravenor wish to put a grisly end to.

Before Quadroped has done much more but take the Key out of his mouth and realize it isn't the acorn he was rooting for, a Water Demon with it's sucker tentacles wraps him.  Only the song of the bard Glasgerion, who had been hoping to be the Key Bearer himself, saves Quardroped.  This Prince escorts Quadro to the Gate, much of the way breathing underneath a florid and beautiful sea.

For as many dangers as Quadroped faces, he is graced with as many friends.  Quadro may be only slightly larger than a bread basket, have a bad pension for eating people's gardens--or anything else he can get his hands on, and be completely ill suited for battle, but he's so damn cute.  His charisma gets him places his defenders thought impossible.  Which is good, since reaching for the impossible is exactly what he needs to do.

I'm trying to think of rotten things to say about this book, but I'm still at the stage where I'm reviewing books those I adore best.  Maybe the second to last eighth loses momentum a little--the book feels a bit lost, but the end snaps back into fantastic, unexpected charm.


Samantha!!  We love you Samantha (don't we Nancy)!  Nancy and Samantha and I can't wait to hang out here and girl talk!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Rules on Writing

Chuck just kicked it out of the ball park and kicked us writers all in the collective ass as well.  Read.  Appreciate.  Print and staple up in your office and then staple yourself to the chair.


Let's all (meaning me, at this point) welcome Nancy!  Nancy, we welcome you.  We love you.  We hate using the royal we but appear to be doing it anyway.  Thanks, Nancy.  I'm curious to know more about your graduate work.  Also, what I am doing right or wrong on this site.  I'm a newbie.  I'm lurking around the web right now, but I'll probably be by later.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fusion Fantasy

All right.  It's about time I got to this defining shit.  I consider it pretty much self evident, but that's probably because I became a fusion fantasy writer without knowing it.

Ahem.  "Fusion Fantasy":  Take a base of fantasy--any subgenre you like.  But when you are making this fantasy, you--whoops--put in all the mad skills, and brilliant mistakes, and fly by the seat of your pants other genre-itus that you have.

Some are happy with the phrase, "speculative fiction."  Speculative fiction is a work of "What if?"  Those genres most associated with the genre are fantasy, science fiction, and horror, because each genre takes reality, but then moves it about and recreates it all to ask the reader the essential question:  What if?  What if unicorns were real and secretly a league the propagated all the purity ring bull?  What if aliens landed because they got lost and the dad refused to stop for directions and they were as petty and beautiful as any of us?  What if the house you bought used to be a frat house where several members died during initiation and they now want to play fooseball and attempt to drink all day but can get really violent if you don't agree to do their homework for them?

The idea is that each of these genres borrow much from each other, so they should all be one, more respected class.

Fusion Fantasy--I'm not a serious girl, but recognize bitch, or I'll be coming for ya.  Fusion Fantasy is directly related to fantasy.  Fantasy is still the meat.  If people don't like that they can go make up their own genres like fusion romance.  Because that's the thing about fusion fantasy.  It asks "what if?"  So we're somewhere in speculative fiction.  On top of that, though, we ask crucial questions like, "Why not?"  It makes statements like, "It's my party and if I want to pull from Romance, Films, Mythology, Horror, Memoir, Poetry, Literary Fiction, Gay and Lesbian Fiction and Post Cards, I get to."  Fusion fantasy allows the author to grasp at as much as they wish to to get the point across.  The heart is fantasy, but there is so much more to a body than a heart.

So before I mix anymore metaphors or make another random pop culture reference, let me give you the low down on how fusion fantasy was born, and why I have to use myself as an example.  Basically, because people kept asking me what the hell I was doing and so I created an answer with a name to it, so I sound cool.  I am sure there are other fusion fantasy artists out there, but right now I'm not coming up with one.

So maybe I have explicit sex scenes (don't worry.  I cranked down the language some).  Oops.  Aren't you Romance?

Yeah, but what about the fact I'm talking about two guys sometimes?  Oops.  Gay and Lesbian.

Sure, relationships are central--write me down for character-drive--but having children eating cannibals and skull fragments slicing open a girl's feet when she steps in brains and a woman that wanders around with her dead four-year-old on her back?  Oops. Horror.

Jeez.  This reads like a screenplay.  Oops.  Film.

A really popular oops, there it is, right now, come to think of it, is paranormal romance.  That is fusion.  Paranormal romance takes the format of a romance novel, but studly, or his babydoll are vampires or werewolves or other things that go bump in the night.  And the horror people are saying, Hey!  That vampire is ours!  We get the vamps.  You are making them romantic and it's just not done!  And the fantasy people are saying, no we get the vamps and the werewolves!  We stole them after Buffy when people started saying "urban fantasy!"

The kick ass thing is that fusion fiction is willing to take ownership of anything.  We are the demented collagers of fiction.  We take the many, and create the one.  

You get the idea.  When everyone kept telling me I belonged nowhere, I made a somewhere for me to be, and I invite you to join me--through your own writing, through the writing of others that you realize is fusion.


Yes, as you may have guessed from the title of the blog, it is time for me to talk about character!

While this blog is focused on how to create a character, if you are an avid reader it is useful in making the process of creating a great character transparent.  If you ever wondered what "character-driven" means, here it is.  In the future, it can help you judge a rich character when you see one, or understand why you find a character flat or illogical

Characters are where I start.  I may have a vague notion of how I want to use them, such as:  Weaver, sidhe and bassoonist, meets Jamie, vampire, who is there to protect her and help her find her twin brother.  But it really exists when I create my characters.

I suggest character worksheets.  You can find many of them on the web.  I would share with you the one I use, which is a single typed page of things you should expound upon, but it actually belongs to an old proff of mine--Leonard Chang (whose books I suggest you look up)--and I don't know how he'd feel about me sharing his intellectual property.  Instead we'll work off ones that I have written for workshops.

The first thing to know is that you can never know enough about your characters.  The goal is to be as complete as possible down to nitty gritty details.  You may never use half of this in your actual novel.  However, your knowing your character inside and out will help the book write itself.  This is because of the cause and effect rule.  Everything your character does should drive the novel.  And every choice that character makes changes your novel.

Just think of this as a big example.  Most choices aren't this exaggerated.

A host of enemies comes to destroy your character's village.  Does she a) take up arms and fight back. b) run away.  From there your character has further choices.  Does she a) dispatch the enemies with daring-do.  b) kill kill kill and then swear vengeance to seek out and destroy all of her enemies c) kill someone, but immediately start puking and swear she will never kill another again.

If you really know your character.  You won't even blink, much think.  The character will write what she does for you.

Characters run a book.  If the plot impinges upon a character's natural make up because you want that plot point, you will break both your character and plot arcs.  The book becomes faulty.

So how do you create a complex character?  Yes, there are the average things:  name, age, appearance, type of creature if not human, the powers a being may be imbued with.  If you've ever been a rpg, you've filled out that sheet before you start playing.  Only this time, you don't have to role dice to find out if you have an 18 or 8 in charisma.  You get to make up your character's scores.  There are a lot of character worksheets out there on the web.  I'm just going to be highlighting how to fill it out for the maximum effect.  For instance, the meat consist of longer, more involved answers such as:

1.  Who has been influential in your character's life and why?  Spend some time here.  Don't just write "mother" because that leaves so many possibilities.  Mom could be influential because she was the paragon of both sweetness and the ability to fight like a whirling dervish and your character wants to be exactly like her.  On the other hand, Mom could be a drunk who verbally abused your character and her siblings and your character spent her young years protecting her siblings and cleaning up vomit.  He has sworn never to be like his mother and never to drink.  These are just two possibilities, but there are thousands.

2.  What events in your character's life shaped her?  Again, go into detail here.  Why and how did these events shape him?  What changed?  What didn't change but should have?  Maybe after all that swearing he would never be like his mother, he becomes exactly like her.

Don't forget you have to round your character out.  This involves going through a lot of likes, dislikes, aspirations, and seeming trivia to make yourself a full character.  An important thing in making a full character is that not every single thing should mesh.  Your character is a warrior.  When you write down their favorite game as a child, you might be tempted to write "toy soldiers" or the like.  A true, complex character does not align every single characteristic with the next.  We are quirky and contrary.  It's what makes us human (or whatever else).  So a great answer here might be "my warrior enjoyed playing tea party with his dolls."  Now he has some depth, and some questions.  How did he get from dolls to warrior?  Did his father beat him out of the dolls and beat him into being a warrior?  If so, even as an adult, does he have an ashamed thirst to buy dolls and carry them around with him?  Is he great with children?

Sexual proclivities:  Again, this may never, ever come into the book, but sex is part of our make up, so look at it.  What does he like?  What does she hate?  Is he an innocent virgin?  Is she jaded and experienced?  How many people have they been with?  How did these meetings affect her?  How did they not effect him?

One I love that quite rarely comes into the actual book is for you to pick out a piece of music your character would like (this is anacronistic.  Your twelfth century monk does not actually have to like chants.  Maybe he likes Dolly Parton).  Put on said song, and picture how your character would dance.  Is she extremely graceful, but can't get down and dirty with her hips?  Does he flail or do the robot?  Is anyone crumping?  Not only is it a fun and silly trait to come up with, but it can tell you some things about how your character moves in general.

Actually, a game invented by a friend of mine and me when we were wee ten-year-olds and attempting our first novels, was, when listening to music, examine the words and the sound and proclaim, this is something (whatever character) would sing.  It has her story.  It has her sound.  It has her point of view.  Point of view and sound mattered more than directly linking it to the story.  But it is a fun, absent habit you can get into whenever you are listening to music.  Then every time you hear that song, you will think of your character.  Create a music video for the character in your head.

Believe it or not, I'm giving you the bare bones of what you should be thinking about when you create a character.

Here are a few links to character creation:

Just by typing in "character worksheet" to google, you can find a lot more, and one that might suit your particular taste more than what I have given you so far.

Whatever you do with your characters, for god sake, don't make them perfect.  Perfection does not exist and it is boring.  There is also little room for a character arc.  My super fiction tutor and fellow horror movie buff, Victor Lavalle, taught me a valuable lesson:  Good people do bad things.  So let your characters, good characters, do bad things.  It will be a growth process for them.

To recap:  Characters are so damn important because every choice they make, good or bad, big or small, will affect their development, but more importantly, your entire plot and story.  You may build a great car of a world, and set it on an awesome plot road, but your characters drive, not you.  You get to backseat drive.  Just like real life, the progression goes, situation, choice, consequences.  It needs to work that way in your book.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Let's Talk About Sex, Baby"

Because like Salt 'n' Peppa (and if you don't get that, look it up), I believe honesty in sexuality is key.

I've run into a lot of people on the web that say sex in a novel is "boring" or "unnecessary" in a novel.  For me, one of the big benefits of fantasy is that we can include sexuality in our characters.  I'm not talking about a one handed read for the sake of one.

Sex is an important human act.  Don't put it in just to spice the book.  Make it come straight from the characters and become part of their emotional landscape.  A girl losing her virginity may very well be awkward and in pain, and not have much fun.  She can also do it just to not be a virgin.  People don't have to have good sex.  They don't even have to have loving sex, or sex they are happy about later.  Or maybe it is a beautiful moment that shows a progression in a loving relationship.  At any rate, sex is a solid part of our identities.  If you don't respect that, you aren't respecting your character's whole being.

That and it pisses me off that in my writing I can show someone getting their head blown off amidst shattering, bloody, wiggling goo, but if I show a blow job everyone freaks!  That's a creepy flip about positive and negative.

The other great thing about fantasy is that it has a long history of being open about homosexuality.  I grew up with gay and lesbian influences.  I actually didn't understand that homophobia still really existed for years.  I thought it was a joke.  Homosexuality, from a major factor to a minor mention, makes it's way into every single one of my books.  I didn't plan that way, but I believe gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues permeate our lives.  Ignoring that would be like avoiding any other factor in my characters' lives, or my worlds.  I do not believe that is a platform of any kind.  I believe it is life.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

All right, this is late in coming, but I must:  the Homage to Diana Wynne Jones.

I cut my teeth on Diana Wynne Jones.  My mother read Jones to my brother and me as we sat by the Franklin stove cold wintered.  As I got older and learned more about writing I returned again and again to her earlier writing.  In books such as Charmed Life, what is so fascinating is that not only does Jones create complex characters that drive the book, but they drive a complicated book in a YA format.

When I look at Rowling, I do not see a visionary genius--as much as I might be hated for that remark.  I see someone standing on the shoulders of Jones.  Gaiman was in close with Jones.  In Britain, she is well known.  Here, she was out of print till the Rowling explosion brought her back to the fore (and for that I will thank Rowling as searching out Jones's novels on line and in used bookstores was an exhausting endeavor).

 When I first start describing Charmed Life:  orphaned Cat and Gwendolyn are taken in by their mysterious relative Chrestomancie--sounds really fucking simple, right?  And something you would put in a query letter, which I despise.  When I try to tell a friend who wants to read the book what it is about (don't worry, no spoilers)--with Howl's Moving Castle and Archer's Goon and Witch Week as well--what starts simple, I realize the plots are complex in a beautifully streamlined way.  She gets away with all of it because her characters have an inner complexity that puts me in mind of a snowflake, or Jenga.  If she had moved one piece of her characters out of line, the whole book would fail.  But because each character has the inner integrity of a tank, you never question one move that character makes or, because of her world building and other characters, why that choice lands the character where it does.

That is the key to a novel, in my opinion.  The characters must be complex, but that complexness cannot be loose.  You can't have facets of them hanging every which way that could easily be ripped off or fall off and not change the basic integrity of the character.  Each piece of the character must be vital, and stack together into an important vehicle that will take us seamlessly through the novel.  Everyone talks about the need for complex characters, but we rarely discuss the fact that every complexity has to be build in, to have grown in a tangled knot with every other complexity.  That character will determine the world we see.  That character will determine in what direction the we, as readers, move.  If we feel that viewpoint or movement is false, we will lose the book.

Not to say that absolutely every one of Jones's novels are epitome the of fabulous writing.  She has written, over her long, and now cut dead, career a swath of childrens', young adult, and adult fantasy.  She has explored Tam Lin in multiple books.  She, as far as I know, created the idea of a "multiverse"--that being more than one universe through dimensions.  We all know it has been around in speculative fiction forever, but I still find her classification charming.

Towards the end of her career, I have to admit my heart sank a bit.  She still used marvelously complex and original plots, but I felt as though sometimes they drove the character, rather than the other way around.  Her characters' strengths are what make me love her, and make me beholden to her for my own values in writing.

Her passing passed us by without much of a bump, but we will feel the reverberations of what she created in others work throughout the years.  If you have any wish to write--yes, especially speculative fiction, but really in any genre--go pick up the four books I listed above:  Charmed Life, Witch Week, Archer's Goon, and Howl's Moving Castle (which isn't anything like the movie, by the way).  Read them once and fall in love.  Read them again and understand what and how she created.