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So bad, yet so good…

Bill is currently watching a Netflix series about a Columbian drug lord, which has led to several conversations about what makes a good villain. Since I’m currently brainstorming ideas for my next novel, this is a very timely discussion.

A good villain is one of the main pillars of fantasy storytelling. In many stories, the villain drives the plot. She puts some nefarious plan into action, which disrupts the hero’s normal life and forces him to take action. The villain usually starts out more powerful than the hero–and may remain so at the end of the story–so the plot is shaped by the actions needed to close that gap. The villain has flaws, and the hero must find a way to exploit them, often by facing and overcoming his own, similar weaknesses. Many times the villain and the hero want the same thing, but for different reasons, and they’re willing to do different things (or ARE they?) to reach that goal. This leads to an exploration of motives and morals, a comparison that explores basic questions about human nature and experience.

For the most part, in the fantasy genre the hero and the villain have reverse story arcs. The hero’s arc has setback dips, but in general it’s a rising trajectory with an eventual triumph. The villain will rack up victories along the way, but he is destined for defeat. The hero learns and grows, which is interesting, but the villain’s rise to power has already occurred. This is one of the reasons why the villain is often more compelling, at least at first. He is usually older, more experienced, with skills and knowledge beyond the hero’s grasp. There’s a complicated implied history. The reader’s desire to gain some insight into all of this keeps the pages turning.

Stories provide entertainment, but on a very deep and fundamental level, we read to learn. We want to experience other points of view and see how certain decisions play out. The notion of a “fatal flaw” is particularly powerful. We want to know what makes things go wrong. A villain starts out holding nearly all of the cards. Logically speaking, he should win. And during the course of the story, he should almost win. The reason why the villain loses is every bit as important as the reason why the hero wins.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be spending a lot of time contemplating villainy.  As part of the thought process, I’ll be posting about some my favorite villains and antagonists, and why I find them so compelling.

 

The Completion Habit

Here’s a link to a post on the GIDIG blog that addresses a key aspect of habit formation, which also happens to be one of my personal challenges: focus and simplification.

I’m currently going through the process of focusing and simplifying several areas of my life, including writing. One of my primary tasks for February is figuring out what I want to write going forward, and THAT includes breaking the habit of wanting to do All The Things, All The Time.

 

WRITING UPDATE: Wrapping up January, diving into February

January in review:

  • Wrote and submitted an essay to an anthology.
  • Revised a short story written a couple of years back and submitted to two markets. (One rejection, awaiting response on second submission.)
  • Revised and submitted a previously published short story to a reprint anthology.
  • Read materials for a commissioned short story, pitched story premise to editor. (Premise approved. Awaiting Kickstarter results.)

Ongoing:

  • Nearing the finish line on a short ebook about habit acquisition
  • Researching a non-fiction book for middle readers; more info coming soon
  • Wrapping up a short story for a themed anthology

Publications:

  • “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” reprinted in the ebook anthology Memento Mori by Canadian publisher Digital Press

Submissions: 5

Acceptances: 1

Rejections: 1


February plans:

First off, I plan to hit my February 6 deadline for a solicited short story. I’ve got to put the finishing touches on another solicited short story, and I’m on track to complete the first draft of the habit ebook. Research for the non-fiction book is an ongoing, long term project; this month I’ll be reading two or three history books and working on the outline. A major February project will be deciding what novel to write next, and mapping out a long term plan.

Query letters, demystified

Writing is the art of seeing through another pair of eyes. This is true at every step of the process, from creating characters to describing a scene to understanding what agents, editors, and readers want.  For many writers, putting together a query letter is nearly as daunting as writing a novel. Literary agent Kristin Nelson offered these helpful tips on her most recent newsletter:

Fact #1: Shorter query letters get a better request response from agents and editors.

Fact # 2: Literary agents rarely read the entire query letter.

Fact #3: Clearly outlining in your query letter how your story fits in the market will encourage literary agents to read your entire email letter closely.

Fact #4: A really good title for a novel will catch an agent’s attention.

Fact #5: A really terrific concept in your query won’t save you if the letter itself is poorly written.

Fact #6: If you have to defend that your novel is over 200,000 words in your query letter, then you are not pitching your story from a place of strength. And agents are more likely to pass.

Chi Chi, you home-wrecking hussy!

I was amused by a post on the Candlekeep forum by a fan of R.A. Salvatore who was distressed by something he read in an interview posted on the Powell’s Books website:

Or, on the flip side, I sit on the beach at Ka’anapali (Maui) with my beautiful wife, Chi Chi, in hand.

This fan, who had read of Bob’s long and happy marriage to the lovely Diane Salvatore, was stunned by the reference to his “beautiful wife, Chi Chi.”  What happened?  Did Bob remarry, and if so, was this midlife change reflected in his creation of the character Dahlia to replace Catti-Brie, the life-long love of the dark elf Drizzt, Bob’s signature character?

Uh, no.  Minus the promiscuous use of the comma, this comment reads like this:

Or, on the flip side, I sit on the beach at Ka’anapali (Maui) with my beautiful wife, Chi Chi in hand.

One could, with justification, argue against the logic of keeping a wife by any name “in hand” at a Hawaiian beach.  Had the fan read this sentence a second time, he probably would have picked up on this, and may also have realized that Chi Chi is a vodka-laced fruit smoothie, not a trophy wife. But the purpose of punctuation is to add clarity so that no one has to stop reading and unpack the syntax.

The Strippers, JFK, and Stalin cartoon* is a popular online meme. It’s one of my favorite arguments for the Oxford Comma.  But even the commas whose SAT scores consigned them to some state university can add clarity and, occasionally, save lives.

“Time to eat, Grandma!”
“Time to eat Grandma!”

 

You’re welcome, Grammy.

*(Artwork original source)

 

Fantasy epics: "Boy Books?"

For several years now, I’ve been writing for Renaissance Magazine, a bi-monthly publication for people who enjoy Renaissance Faires. I write the occasional  article–mostly lighthearted stuff such as “The Rise of the Codpiece: A Short History”–and reviews of books and CDs.  It’s fun, and it gives me a chance to revisit my background in music and history.  But recently my involvement with the magazine took a turn that’s closer to toward my day job:  fantasy novels.

Renaissance Faires tend to be a blend of history and fantasy, so it makes sense that the editor wants to include reviews of fantasy novels, particularly those with pseudo-medieval and -Renaissance settings.  I had to blink, though, when he referred to them as “boy books.”

In context, I know exactly what he means:  something to balance the historical romance novels with elaborately gowned and inexplicably headless women on the cover.  Something with dragons and swords and combat and adventure. I get it.  But seriously, “boy books?”

When I started writing Forgotten Realms novels in the early 90’s, fantasy publisher TSR described their audience as “highly imaginative males aged 12-40.”  Back then, the fantasy game convention Gen Con was one of those rare events where there was a line for the men’s room, but women could waltz right through. I’ve seen a huge shift in demographics over the past 20 years, and I suppose I’d assumed we were past the notion of fantasy as a men’s club.  But every now and then, something happens to remind me that certain notions die hard–the recent online kerfuffle over the Nebula nominations, for example, which apparently included more women and insufficiently Angl0-Saxon males for some people’s peace of mind.

Back to RenMag and the review column.  I have no problem with the notion of reading and reviewing books that appeal to men.  How could I?  I’ve written more than 20 books of my own, most of them for publishers whose demographic is skewed toward the Y chromosome.  But I never assumed that fantasy adventure books, mine or anyone else’s, excluded either gender, and I don’t buy that asssumption now.

So I’ll be reviewing two books for each issue, and I’m going to select books with the editorial guidelines and the target audience in mind.  My first selection, James Enge’s excellent book A Guile of Dragons, has a badass fighter on a gorgeous, grim cover.  Testosterone for the win! But it also has links to Arthurian lore, a topic held in high regard by readers of both genders.  And when I consider the very fine writing, complex characters, deft dry humor, and the wealth of incident and imagination, I have a hard time concluding that this book will be read by more men than women.

Here’s the thing:  Women like a wide variety of books. We do not require love triangles, sexy vampires, snarky dialog, long descriptions of skanky wardrobe choices, and a play-by-play of softcore sex scenes. Sure, some female readers like some or all of these elements, at least some of the time.  I like the Sookie Stackhouse books (not the TV series), but I also read mysteries, literary fiction, biographies, big dusty history tomes, and a wide variety of non-fiction.  I’ve never thought of any of these as “boy books.” Just…books.  And I have good reason to believe that I am not alone in this opinion.

Fantasy epics: “Boy Books?”

For several years now, I’ve been writing for Renaissance Magazine, a bi-monthly publication for people who enjoy Renaissance Faires. I write the occasional  article–mostly lighthearted stuff such as “The Rise of the Codpiece: A Short History”–and reviews of books and CDs.  It’s fun, and it gives me a chance to revisit my background in music and history.  But recently my involvement with the magazine took a turn that’s closer to toward my day job:  fantasy novels.

Renaissance Faires tend to be a blend of history and fantasy, so it makes sense that the editor wants to include reviews of fantasy novels, particularly those with pseudo-medieval and -Renaissance settings.  I had to blink, though, when he referred to them as “boy books.”

In context, I know exactly what he means:  something to balance the historical romance novels with elaborately gowned and inexplicably headless women on the cover.  Something with dragons and swords and combat and adventure. I get it.  But seriously, “boy books?”

When I started writing Forgotten Realms novels in the early 90’s, fantasy publisher TSR described their audience as “highly imaginative males aged 12-40.”  Back then, the fantasy game convention Gen Con was one of those rare events where there was a line for the men’s room, but women could waltz right through. I’ve seen a huge shift in demographics over the past 20 years, and I suppose I’d assumed we were past the notion of fantasy as a men’s club.  But every now and then, something happens to remind me that certain notions die hard–the recent online kerfuffle over the Nebula nominations, for example, which apparently included more women and insufficiently Angl0-Saxon males for some people’s peace of mind.

Back to RenMag and the review column.  I have no problem with the notion of reading and reviewing books that appeal to men.  How could I?  I’ve written more than 20 books of my own, most of them for publishers whose demographic is skewed toward the Y chromosome.  But I never assumed that fantasy adventure books, mine or anyone else’s, excluded either gender, and I don’t buy that asssumption now.

So I’ll be reviewing two books for each issue, and I’m going to select books with the editorial guidelines and the target audience in mind.  My first selection, James Enge’s excellent book A Guile of Dragons, has a badass fighter on a gorgeous, grim cover.  Testosterone for the win! But it also has links to Arthurian lore, a topic held in high regard by readers of both genders.  And when I consider the very fine writing, complex characters, deft dry humor, and the wealth of incident and imagination, I have a hard time concluding that this book will be read by more men than women.

Here’s the thing:  Women like a wide variety of books. We do not require love triangles, sexy vampires, snarky dialog, long descriptions of skanky wardrobe choices, and a play-by-play of softcore sex scenes. Sure, some female readers like some or all of these elements, at least some of the time.  I like the Sookie Stackhouse books (not the TV series), but I also read mysteries, literary fiction, biographies, big dusty history tomes, and a wide variety of non-fiction.  I’ve never thought of any of these as “boy books.” Just…books.  And I have good reason to believe that I am not alone in this opinion.