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Constructing the iceburg

Last night, I had a very helpful Skype chat with my son Sean about the outline of my novel-in-progress. He asked a very important question about two of the characters:  “Why are they friends?”

This is one of those tip-of-the-iceburg moments in fiction. When two people from very different backgrounds are close friends who know each other’s secrets, the story of how they got to that place is important, even if it’s not the story currently being told.  So before I can go much further with the w-i-p, I need to sketch out that prequel story, if only in broad strokes.

I’m a history geek, and I believe in the value of knowing what happened and why. A knowledge of history lends insight and perspective to current culture and events. That’s equally true in fiction. Characters don’t simply appear on the page in chapter one. They lived full (if fictitious) lives before they got to this point in their stories.  The things they experienced will form the choices they make during the story-in-progress. I was reminded of this again this morning by a Twitter message from a Forgotten Realms reader. She wanted to know why Danilo Thann, in the novel Dream Spheres, felt such an immediate connection to Lilly, a tavern wench and his half-sister. This is the sort of question writers need to answer during the writing process. For those who are interested, here’s what that process looks like for me.

Family is important to Danilo, in no small part because his own family is so problematic. He’s the youngest of several siblings, most of whom are quite a bit older than he is. That’s isolating. To compound matters, he spent a large chunk of his childhood away from home for reasons that have not been (and will not be) disclosed. The archmage Khelben Arunsun, his purported uncle, played a big role in his life during this traumatic period. Their relationship, though close, has always been fraught. The frivolous facade Dan adopted as part of his role in the Harpers further distanced him from his business-oriented family. So did his interest in music. Musical study, to their way of thinking, was part of a nobleman’s well-rounded education, but there comes a point when a Waterdhavian merchant should pay other people to provide music so he can devote his time to the serious business of commerce and social maneuvering. For these and many other reasons, Dan feels like an outsider in his own family. That’s one of the things he shares with Arilyn. They are two socially and emotionally adrift people who found a harbor in each other.

When Danilo learned that he had a half-sister, he felt the personal impact of all those lost years, when he might have had a younger sister to protect and tease and love. But the more powerful emotion was that he was appalled his father could know of this girl’s existence for all those years, but never support or even acknowledge her. Waterdeep is a thriving, wealthy city, but the lives of the working poor are as difficult and tenuous as anywhere else in the Realms. A tavern wench works long hours. She’s viewed as a commodity and often treated like a whore, and there’s  little prospect of a better life.  Dan understands this, and feels responsible–no, he embraces the responsibility–for his newfound sister. The connection he feels with Lilly is immediate, personal, complex, and very powerful because of who is he, what he has experienced, and what he values.  The reader might not know all the particulars, and probably shouldn’t, but the writer must. Otherwise, the reader is unlikely to feel that a character’s choices flow from anything deeper and more profound than plot convenience.

I wish I could say that I’ve lavished this much thought on all my characters, but the fact is that Dan is one of my favorite fictitious people. He has been with me for over 25 years, and every now and then I still feel his presence, looking over my shoulder and commenting on a turn of phrase, wondering why on earth I sold my lute and never bought another, or critiquing the state of my wine cellar. (A conversation that usually begins with, “Why is it, precisely, that you don’t HAVE one?”)  I enjoy spending time with him.  What I find very encouraging and more than a little exciting is that I’m getting much the same feeling about my current novel-in-progress, and the new fictitious people whose lives are taking shape, both above and below the waterline.

The persistence habit

Over the years, I’ve written for several projects that, for various reasons, went off the rails before my story was published.  When  one such story reverted to me, I filed off the shared-world serial numbers and started sending it out in search of a new home.

I assumed this story was going to be difficult to place. It is a VERY odd little tale–a cyberpunk story set in a far-future abbey, the Order of St. Hildegard. The first-person narrator is what one Trusted Reader calls a “nunbot,” and the abbess is a biological computer based upon DNA taken from the relics of St. Hildegard of Bigen. Not my usual thing, but it does incorporate several familiar themes: music, history, and the complexity of human nature.

(NOTE: The image shows the shrine that holds the saint’s relics. In the story, the computer’s cabinet is a reproduction of this.)

 So far this year, “Synthetic Sanctity” has garnered five rejections. I do think it will find a home eventually. In the meanwhile, it’s a busy little ambassador, introducing editors to my work and, for the most part, garnering responses along the lines of “This one didn’t quite work for us, but send more.”
My point, and I do have one, is that rejections are not something to be feared, avoided, or mourned. To the contrary. Submitting a short story again and again helps build the “persistence habit,” and for me, at this point in time, that’s a valuable process.
The novel I’m working on is quite different from anything I’ve published. It’s bigger in both length and scope. Simply put, it’s a stretch. I’m determined (bordering on “obsessed”) but I’m finding that short story rejections form very useful calluses on the psyche. Anyone who has ever played any stringed instrument will know exactly what I mean. You can’t pick up the guitar or violin after months (or years!) away and play for hours the first time back. You’ve got to toughen up first. Every rejection leaves you a little bit tougher, a little better prepared to play longer and perform better.

Doorways and mirrors

This anthology is coming together and is scheduled for an August release, but that’s not the subject of this post. It’s about a moment of pure joy that reminded me why I read and tell stories.

Hath No Fury was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. The editors encouraged the authors to offer rewards for higher levels of patronage, including Tuckerization, which allows a supporter to name a character after himself  or someone he knows. I’ve never encountered this practice before, and I had a hard time envisioning why anyone would plunk down $150 to name a character, but hey–why not. It’s important to be a team player. To my astonishment, someone bought the Tuckerization. When I learned who it was for, the motivation made perfect sense. The parents of an avid reader, a “dragon crazy” girl who just turned 13, are giving her a fictitious namesake.

This makes me ridiculously happy.

This dragon-crazy young girl will share a name with a dragon commander, a woman who possesses not only psychic power, but personal courage and a character arc that shows she can learn and grow.

I repeat: So ridiculously HAPPY!

It probably wouldn’t have hit me so strongly before the Wonder Woman movie. Viewer reaction to this movie demonstrates how much representation matters. A female superhero. A Jewish Wonder Woman. A few words spoken in the Blackfoot language. And from where I sit, a couple of badass fifty-something women doing just fine on the battlefield, thank you very much. Stories are doorways, but they are also mirrors. That moment of recognition can be very powerful.

When I started writing the story for this anthology, my goal was to tell an entertaining tale about a woman facing enormous challenges and temptations.  Social commentary or GO GIRL! cheerleading wasn’t part of the plan. But the thought that this story might mean something special, if only to one dragon-crazy girl, made me very happy.

Ridiculously so.

An elven roundup

It’s a good idea to have a basic author bio (more than one, actually, in different lengths and tones), but I always seem to end up customizing. The other day, it was pertinent to note in a bio that many, if not most, of my stories involved elves of some sort.

That got me thinking about the various sorts of elves. Turns out there are quite a few varieties:

  • The Tolkienesque elves of the Forgotten Realms
  • The drow, the Forgotten Realms dark elves
  • Criminally-inclined elves who live hidden lives in modern-day Providence, RI
  • Linchetto, the “night elves” of Tuscan folklore
  • There’s a short story in the works featuring the kijimunaa, a leprechaun-like elf specific to Okinawa
  • I’m currently working on a new novel that includes a version of the alfar, the elves of Nordic mythology.

No stories about Santa’s elves yet. That’s a serious oversight on my part.

Writing with my feet

Today I tried something new: Dictating scenes from my work-in-progress into Dragon Dictation, a free iPhone app,  while walking on the bike path.

This morning I walked 4 miles in a little over an hour, and when I came home and downloaded the transcriptions, I was stunned by the total: 2813 words.

Sure, it’s the roughest form of Draft Zero, but it’s a lot of raw material and more than I usually write in an entire day. Also, I find that the headspace inhabited when walking is different from that I experience at the keyboard. I’ve often observed that I “think with my fingers,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, but this morning I felt as if I was thinking on a different, less granular level. Not too surprising, I suppose. Why wouldn’t what your body is doing have an impact on how and what your brain processes?

I’ll be interested to see how this experiment goes. If it continues to yield productive session, I’m going to be getting a lot more exercise.

Cookies, anyone?

I’ve been baking cookies since I had to stand on a stool to reach the kitchen counter. It’s a thing I do. People like cookies, and I like baking cookies for them.

We all have our favorites and preferences. Some people have strong opinions on whether or not there should be nuts in brownies, but in general, no one feels the need to explain or justify the appeal of small, flat cakes.

No one says, “Well, I know it’s not exactly haute cuisine, but right now I could really go for a Snickerdoodle.” No one prefaces cookie-eating by making sure everyone knows that THEY know that chocolate chip cookies are omg SO FAR beneath them, and that they’re fully aware of the more sophisticated delights of croque-en-bouche and Poire à la Beaujolaise. And no sensible person expects a cookie to provide the Minimum Daily Requirement of any important nutrient. A cookie is not a spinach salad and grilled salmon. A cookie is a cookie.

If you don’t like cookies, I’m not going to argue that you should. But if you do, please allow yourself (and everyone else) to enjoy the experience.

There might be an analogy here to shared-world fiction. Or not.

Either way, here–have a cookie.

PS:  The photo is a batch of peanut butter cookies made with European style butter, good Madagascar vanilla, Guiardello 60% chocolate chips, and teeny Reese’s peanut butter cups.  I made them for an open gaming event at Rivendell Books & Games, our local game store. None of them survived the night. Just saying.

“Writing, rejection, and taking it like a pro”

That’s the tagline for author Aeryn Rudel’s blog Rejectomancy.com, which is one of the more helpful and inspiring author blogs out there. He’s extremely forthright about the writing process and the realities of the publishing industry. And one of those realities is rejection.

Just about everyone gets rejections, and they don’t stop once you have a publishing track record.

Take Jane Yolen, for example. She’s an incredibly prolific author with over 300 published books. She will frequently post on Facebook about what she wrote and submitted, what was accepted and what wasn’t. What strikes me about these posts is her ability to weigh each rejection for what it is, and act accordingly. Sometimes a book or poem just wasn’t a good match with a particular publisher, so she’ll try again elsewhere. Other times, she comments on plans to improve or rework something. The common element is that with each rejection, she’s learning something and moving on. That’s a great quality to emulate.

I’m working on that.

Last week, I had two rejections in two days. Neither one came as a surprise. One was a stretch, a market I never would have considered submitting to a year ago. But the story made it into the final round of consideration and the editor asked to see more stories, which is about as good as rejections get. The other was a reprint story which I submitted to a podcast magazine. Podcasts are a mystery to me, but since a lot of fiction is being consumed in audio format, it is past time for me to start learning about this part of the business. I liked this story, but I wasn’t sure it would work read aloud. In a way, it was helpful to have this suspicion confirmed. It’s a step forward in the process of writing for the ear as well as the mind’s eye.

Rejection isn’t something most people instinctively embrace, but on the other hand, it isn’t a thing to fear and avoid. It’s evidence that you’re working, stretching, risking. It’s an opportunity to learn. It’s building necessary traits such as perseverance and flexibility. It takes you a step closer toward the stories you want to write, and getting them out to people who want to read them.

Write what you know, for people who don’t know it.

“Write what you know” is good advice, up to a point, but it also comes with its own set of perils and pitfalls. One of the big ones?  When you are passionate and knowledgable about a topic, it’s easy to forget that not everyone shares your particular obsession.

I was reminded of this the other day while reading notes from a Trusted Reader. The short story I sent him presupposed a knowledge of 16th century Scottish/English politics, the basic vocabulary of the Scotts dialect, fairy folklore in general, and the stolen child/changeling trope in particular. This Trusted Reader is exceedingly intelligent, but his knowledge base contains none of those things. Which, in a very important way, made him an ideal reader for this tale.

Which brings us to today’s writing tip.

If your story is deeply rooted in a particular field, be it forensic medicine or Major League baseball, it will need to make sense to someone who isn’t a pathologist or a pitcher. When you know a subject very, very well, you may not be the best judge of whether you’ve provided adequate background for someone who doesn’t.  A reader who isn’t familiar with one or more of the story’s key themes and elements comes at the story very differently than you do. If something is confusing or unclear to him, you need to expand or clarify. He’s also more likely to see how the story works apart from the knowledge-specific references. Someone who’s not distracted by the minutia of folklore or Star Wars or coin collecting may see big-picture plot holes and character inconsistencies that are less visible to people who live and love the details.

I’m fairly new to the practice of sharing with Trusted Readers. For years, the notion of anyone reading anything Before It Was Ready was the sort of thing I contemplated only during nightmares. The kind of dream where you forgot to study for an exam, or you have to perform a piece of music you’ve never practiced and can’t sight-read because the score is nothing but blank paper, or you’re in a shopping mall during the Christmas rush and suddenly your clothes disappear and oops, there you are.  Giving someone a first draft to read feels a lot like those dreams. It’s way, way outside my comfort zone, but it’s worth doing. I’m pretty sure that if I’d started earlier, I’d be a much better writer today.

If you’re a writer who’s not ready to take this step, or who has yet to find Trusted Readers, writing what you know for people who don’t can be a challenge. In the first draft, you can splash expertise onto the page or screen until it looks like a Jackson Pollack painting, but when you’re revising, here’s a tactic that might help:  Bring to mind a friend, family member, or acquaintance–or an imaginary Ideal Reader, for that matter–who knows very little about the topic or the setting or the magic system, and try to envision a passage as it would appear from his point of view. If it leaves him scratching his imaginary head, you’ve got more work to do.

Conflict and desire

This weekend we watched the first episode of Dexter, season 1, and I was struck anew by how good the writing was in the early part of that series. Intriguing characters, unusual premise, colorful setting, and the volume is turned way up on two crucial aspects of storytelling: conflict and desire.

Starting with the latter, these are people who want things, and want them in a big way. Dexter is compelled to kill. His sister Deborah is desperate to solve a case, not only because she wants out of vice and into homicide, but also to protect “her” hookers. An amorous lieutenant has her eye on Dexter. One of the homicide detectives is disgruntled about working on Friday night because that’s date night in Miami and he “has needs.” Not all desires are straightforward. Rita, Dexter’s radiant but damaged girlfriend, is afraid she’s losing him, and because she wants this nice, kind, “normal” guy in her life, she is prepared to start a sexual relationship she really isn’t ready for.

That last bit is also a source of conflict. Dexter is wary of this new development, which would change their relationship and take it into unfamiliar and possibly risky ground. But where conflict is concerned, he has a lot bigger fish to fry.

The primary conflict, of course, is the tension between Dexter’s need to kill and the fact that he’s surrounded by people who are trained to catch killers. One of the detectives senses that there’s something “off” about Dexter and is very open about his distrust. The friendly woman in the records room risks her job to give Dexter cold case files. We’re not sure why, but we’re pretty sure she’s starting to wonder what’s going on.  There’s the implied conflict of Dexter’s back story, and the hidden reason why he is what he is. Then there’s the new serial killer, who is “inviting Dexter to play” with friendly overtures such as tossing a decapitated head at his car and leaving a dismembered Barbie doll in his apartment’s fridge. As one does. Seriously, who just picks up the phone anymore?

This is a lot of desire and conflict for one episode, and it all propels the story forward. It’ a good reminder that compelling stories focus on characters who want something, but will have a very challenging time getting it.

Villains as protagonists

Creating great villains is always a challenge, but things get even more complicated when they’re the story’s protagonist. We’re not talking about anti-heroes here, but sociopathic killers and criminals, such as Dexter Morgan and Tony Soprano.

First, let’s establish which Dexter we’re talking about. The Dexter of the TV series was more human than the Dexter in Jeff Lindsay’s novels. The “original” Dexter was far more sociopathic, less introspective, and more violent. He didn’t just kill his victims, he engaged in joyful, creative vivisection. In the novels, the first person narrative is witty and glib, depicting a man who is utterly self-absorbed and so lacking in self-knowledge that he seems oblivious to the self-loathing bubbling just under the surface. In the TV series, Dexter was constantly examining his values, motives, and actions. He was capable of genuine love. He felt remorse. You often get the sense that he was created, not just by his early trauma, but by the perception and training of his adoptive father, and that with the right guidance and therapy, he could have lived a normal life. There’s not a hint of this in the novels. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan is a monster. But since he’s working with the “good guys” during the day and going it alone at night to stop criminals who slipped through the legal net, in the context of his story, he’s the lesser of two evils.

So is Tony Soprano. In the first episode, it’s hard to see how a philandering criminal and murderer could possibly be sympathetic. Then we meet his family. His mother is pure evil. She and his beloved Uncle Junior conspire to kill him. His nephew/protege is an idiot and an addict. His sister is batshit crazy and so incredibly selfish that when she decides to marry a recently widowed mobster, she terrifies his children with “messages from their dead mother” to convince her mark that it’s time for him to let go of his wife and move on, for the good of his children. And then there’s his other Family, which he accurately describes as a pack of jackals. Tony has to sustain, support, and survive two untenable social situations. He’s definitely a bad guy, but just about everywhere you look, he’s the lesser of two evils.

Every protagonist needs antagonists. If your protagonist is a bad guy, you have to put him up against people, or situations, that are even worse.

But it’s not enough to be the lesser of two evils. Villainous protagonists also need to have positive traits, qualities that readers and viewers admire and value.

Dexter represents vigilante justice, which is a powerful theme in the American psyche. In many ways, he’s an updated, grittier version of an American folk hero. He personifies rugged individualism and distrust of established authority. When “the system” falls short, Dexter is there to move in and balance the scales. He’s physically powerful, a fit and disciplined fighter. He’s ruggedly handsome. He even follows a code. Replace the Hawaiian shirts with a Stetson, and what you have here is a classic outlaw hero.

Tony Soprano fits another American archetype. He’s a tough guy who has power and money, and there’s a lot of people who find those things more valuable than character. Those same people don’t just shrug off the fact that he objectifies women and has no sexual boundaries, they applaud it. He’s a Real Man, and that’s what Real Men do!  He’s incredibly vulgar, but also capable of a certain charm. He routinely screws over people, but hey, that’s business. He’s a family man with a pretty wife and kids who will probably enter the family business, so he’s got to be doing something good, amiright?  Tony Soprano is a horrible human being, but he’s successful by his own definition of success. We’re fascinated by people who rise to the top, even if–perhaps especially if–what they’re climbing is a toxic dungheap.

Also, Tony has a soft spot for ducks, so there’s that.

When your protagonist is a villain, he still needs to be a human being, with all the messy, complex issues that any hero or anti-hero will be expected to face.

Being a villain does not exempt you from moral dilemmas. TV Dexter was horrified to learn that he’d killed an innocent man, which broke Harry’s Code. Tony Soprano agonized over whether or not to kill his cousin, a decision that forced him to choose between family and Family.  Villains are going to do bad things, and most of the time it’s not going to weigh all that heavily on them. But they do have limits. When your protagonist is a villain, you’ll spend a lot of time finding and testing those limits.

Being a villain does not exempt you from heartache.  TV Dexter came to genuinely love his wife Rita, and he mourned her death deeply. He loved his son and feared that he might have passed along his “Dark Passenger” curse to little Harrison. Most of all, he loved his sister Deborah, and what finally broke him was confronting his part in her fate.  Tony Soprano, worn down by Uncle Junior’s perseveration-level repetition of his youthful failings, burst out with an agonized, “Don’t you love me?” For some villains, the ability to love is a source of pain. For other, it’s the lack of love.

Being powerful does not exempt you from weakness. We want the bad-guy protagonist to win, but they need flaws that will make those victories more difficult and less certain. Dexter is compelled by the urge to kill, and this compulsion can be…inconvenient. He sometimes feels that his Dark Passenger might actually be in the driver’s seat. Tony Soprano’s world is a shark tank, and he knows that his tendency to faint during times of stress is like throwing blood in the water. He needs to appear in control, but being seriously overweight and out of shape tells a very different story.

Bad-guy protagonists can be compelling and even likable, but they come with a built-in dilemma for the storyteller. Given the long-established assumption that Good Will Win, how the heck are you going to END these stories?  Does the protagonist find redemption?  Survive insurmountable odds and come out on top?  Is he brought to justice?  Do you kill him off?

None of these solutions are completely satisfying. We want the villain to succeed and thrive, but we also feel that his karmic debt should be paid. We’d like to see him find redemption, but we also like him as a bad guy.  We want a sense that his story will continue, but we also want closure. We really don’t want to see him in a jail cell, but we know he belongs there. We don’t want him to be killed, even though we know the world would be better off without him. So what’s a storyteller to do?

There’s a reason why Tony’s story ended with an ambiguous Fade To Black. No single choice would have made everyone happy, so the writers let people choose their own ending.  The ending of TV Dexter’s story was almost as ambiguous as Tony’s. (The novels had a very different ending, and I think Jeff Lindsay made the better choice.)

Ambiguity is a fairly common storytelling decision, and in many ways it’s effective. It spawns online debate and water cooler conversations, but it also violates the unspoken contract between storyteller and audience. A story promises several things: Character, Conflict, Resolution. When you deny your audience any real closure, they’re going to feel cheated.

Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the meta-story message is that nothing good can come of being bad, and the storyteller is saying, “Listen, if you make bad choices, you’ll face undesirable consequences. You chose to become invested in an unrepentant villain, so what did you expect?”  This might be valid and maybe even profound, but it’s hard to pull off.

In summary, if you’re contemplating writing a story with a villainous protagonist, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Pick an ending that makes sense to you and is true to the character.
  • Prepare that ending. People are much more willing to accept an ending that doesn’t fit their preferences if they can say, “Yeah, I guess I should have seen this coming because of X and Y and Z.”
  • Sell that ending. Don’t skimp, don’t rush. Whatever happens should happen in a big way.
  • Don’t expect your decision to be universally loved. There is no way to resolve all the conflicting desires and expectations that attend villain protagonists.