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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Attacking a Scene

This scene, the start of a new chapter, is driving me crazy. Two of my investigators are supposed to be leaving Castelle Escalon on an urgent mission. They believe they are closing in on the guilty party. But Something Will Happen before they can leave. The scary Forces of Order arrive and threaten Partner Two. This is a dangerous risk of exposure, and will introduce a Change of Direction in one of the partners that we will see play out through the end of the book.

You can likely see the trouble here - subtlety. I need the scene dramatic enough to be compelling, and yet its truest consequence must be essentially unrecognizable. Ouch. Why do I DO this to myself? Needless to say, this scene has bugged me for days now. I can't seem to get it right.

So, to begin. They are supposed to be leaving the palace, so Partner One is waiting in the stableyard. Partner Two does not show. The crochety stableman (a very minor character who will appear on occasion throughout the books) is griping at Partner One that he needs to get gone because he is upsetting the horses. Part of the stableman's irritation is that there are "guests'" horses that have been there since before dawn. (Hint, these belong to the above-mentioned Forces of Order who are causing the delayed arrival of Partner Two.) I like this crochety guy. I like the fact that the Forces of Order got here very early. Partner One suspected they were coming, but assumed it would be after he was long gone.

First time through: Partner One is annoyed at the delay and marches inside to roust Partner Two. He finds the Forces of Order already ensconced with Partner Two.

Problem: Logic and inference. The Forces of Order would never question people inside the royal residence (certainly not long enough to cause the dramatic change of direction I plan). They would retrieve offenders or witnesses and take them to their own bailiwick. This is part of the essential balance of power in Sabria. [Same reason police really want to take suspects down to the station and not question them at Mafia headquarters.]

Also I'm totally not sure of how Partner Two is going to react to this, which is a question I'm going to have to resolve sometime, but I don't have enough evidence as yet. How can I understand his motivations and make the reaction real, when I don't see him before or during the action?

Second attempt: Partner One takes repeated trips to the stableyard gate to "see if he's coming" and gets an eyeful of the Forces of Order removing three witnesses from the palace. The witnesses are cloaked and hooded to hide their identity. I really like this custom (invented on the fly!) and so I want to keep it. But the logical consequence is that Partner One can't be sure whether or not Partner Two is one of these three hooded witnesses. He rushes into the palace, finds someone to ask, and gets the story of the "removal."

Problem: all the real action is off screen. The scene comes off as passive. One of the most important people involved is never seen. And, as Partner One is not going to be able to do anything about this "questioning" I've set up a truly boring scene where everything of consequence has already happened or is hidden. Whatever reaction Partner Two has to the event is hearsay.

Much gnashing of teeth here on my part.

Third attempt: Partner One takes repeated trips to the stableyard gate to "see if he's coming" and gets a glimpse of two sentries (from the Forces of Order). Uh-oh. Anxiety - he didn't see this coming so soon - propels him into the palace. (Already I have better emotional context.) He gets into place just as the first of the witnesses has been "hooded" and the second is being rousted...and Partner Two will be next. More anxiety. Partner Two has been delayed by a cordon of Forces of Order, and is fuming. Partner One sneaks/talks his way through the cordon [already more action] and joins Partner Two - so we will see them together "before" the event...and something subtle in Two's behavior after the event will hint at the change I'm trying to enable... Oh yeah, this is much, much better...

I'm off! Third time's the charm and all that.

So why include the stableyard at all, you might say. That seemed to cause all the difficulties. Why not have Partner One see the arrival of the Forces of Order from inside?

Because he just wouldn't be there. His residence is in another part of the palace entirely. To have him in place "just right" to see these happenings from the beginning would be contrived. The two partners would never agree to meet inside the palace as they are supposed to be antagonists, one forced into subordination to the other. Their meeting for the journey would occur at the last possible moment. Character and situational logic - as I have created it - must prevail. Yes, I as the author can force circumstances to make anything happen, but especially when the stakes are high and difficult - getting this event to happen with all its subtleties - I don't want to plant a neon arrow sign outside the door, saying "Look At This! Look at This!"

Maybe I've got it now. I'll keep you posted.

Update: Option three worked out even better than I imagines. Once I got moving on it, instilling more of a sense of danger, the elements came together. I had valuable, revelatory time between the two partners that will contrast marvelously with their later encounters. I was able to examine and instill motivation of Partner 2's reaction to being "hooded," as well as drop in details about the customs surrounding the Forces of Order. And I left something important in Partner 1's hands that ties the action both to previous plot points and future ones. If only it hadn't taken me a WEEK to get this right. This is why I'm slow, folks...

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fast Times at Surrey BC

In 2006 I was first invited to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SiWC) in Surrey, British Columbia (just outside Vancouver). I enjoyed it immensely, so I was delighted to be invited back this year.

SiWC is similar to many other writers’ conferences in providing a weekend packed with information for aspiring writers of commercial fiction in multiple genres. Workshops address varying aspects of the writing craft and the publishing business. The conference also provides direct contact with representatives of the publishing industry, including opportunities to pitch completed work to editors and agents and get on-the-spot critiques. SiWC is large – something like 800 attendees – very professionally run, and attracts a terrific faculty that, I’ve got to say, intimidates me! This year it included Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, Phillip Margolin, Robert Sawyer, Meg Tilly, Jack Whyte, and many others.

So what did I do in my four days?

First off, a master class. Master classes are intensive three-hour workshops given on the day before the conference proper. Attendees must pre-register. Mine was called Unforgettable Characters, and combined information from a couple of shorter workshops on characterization and voice that I’ve done at other conferences. I thought three hours would give me tons of time for exercises, but darned if I didn’t find that the “text” ended up filling the time available! OK, we did get in a couple, but most of those I’d planned got sent home as homework. It was not half so exhausting as I expected – though I’ve got a much better idea now of what actually FITS in three hours.

On Friday morning the conference proper began with opening ceremonies and introductions. During the day’s program, I sat on a panel discussion on The Science of Inspiration. Six of us gave our personal “how we got started” stories, and talked about how we approached creativity. We could have delved a bit deeper with fewer panelists (something I’ve learned at sf conventions) but attendees did have time to ask some interesting questions.

Next I had the first of my two blue-pencil workshop sessions. Blue-pencils are a standard at Surrey. Visiting authors sit for 90-minute sessions, offering 15-minute consultations to attendees. The attendee can choose to talk about publishing or ask specific questions about writing or marketing, but most choose to use the time for the author to review the first few pages of their manuscripts. I think it's a terrific idea.

Before I did my first session in 2006, I was really nervous. What if I couldn’t think of anything to say? What if the writing was truly awful? Much to my relief, neither was a problem. After about ten years of critiquing, I’ve learned to read on multiple levels, from grammar to plotting to voice, which means I can always find something to say – even if it is, “Wow, I really have nothing but nits to give you about this great piece! Is it finished?” [I actually said that to one attendee this year.] And on the other side, the pieces were good, better, and excellent. No true duds.

Day Two started with another opening session at which I gave a short “keynote” speech. I talked about my experience with my first writers’ conference, where I felt like I found my home in the community of writers, and the one a short year later when I read the opening of Transformation for the editor who would buy my first seven books. It was pretty simple compared to some of the other morning and evening talks! But people did seem to appreciate it. And I got in a plug for fantasy as not only a legitimate genre, but the oldest literary genre. Always have to be the apostle of fantasy!

I also did a workshop on fictional world building and another blue-pencil session on that day.

On the last morning, I pulled out one of the first workshops I ever did, about how to write a novel without outlining. Interestingly, I think this one was the best received of all of them. I think it gives hope to those who, like me, find it impossible to conceive the progress of an entire story before actually writing it. Every author has to find his or her comfortable position on the spectrum from complete, detailed outlining to "typing Chapter 1, then saying, 'what next?' ”

In between all these activities were opportunities to network with other faculty members, and visiting agents and editors, and spend time with the attendees at meals. The SiWC staff are lovely, welcoming, and take really good care of both faculty and attendees. It was stimulating and fun. I’ll go back any time!
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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Democracy Lives

Back from two weeks in Canada [more about marvelous Surrey Writers and World Fantasy later] to election night. I'll get back to "business" in the next posts. For today...

...please excuse exuberance.

Hooray! Hallelujah!

Will never forget seeing Jesse Jackson in the Chicago crowd weeping. As one who remembers seeing Selma and Birmingham, firehoses and church bombings on the news...this is truly awesome. Intelligence and temperance and full intent to bridge the divides: I've got to believe the country and world will be better.

And now to shake off election addiction! I've got a murder to solve...
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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Reader Mail

I love reader mail. Mostly the people who write me are happy with the books and want to tell me what struck them especially, or they want to find out if I’m going to write more in a particular world. [Yes, all right, all right, maybe someday I’ll get around to a Song of the Beast sequel .] To hear from a happy reader helps me through discouragement and reminds me that I’ve “done this before and it turned out ok.”

But some readers go beyond and expose something of their emotional involvement with the stories, and that is most gratifying as well.

Jarod wrote:

What struck me most of all in the book [Breath and Bone] was the way you wrote Valen's addiction. I'll admit that, at first, I didn't like it at all. I found that I disliked the character, the weakness, and my own difficulty in relating to his plight, being free of such addictions myself. I was frustrated that he couldn't just get on with life and be a "normal" protagonist and, well.. make choices that I myself might have made. It took me a while to realize that my reaction was a "good" one, in that it meant that you (as an author) created a believable and very flawed character whose weaknesses were a central part of his being--and wrote those weaknesses so powerfully that I wanted to skip the scenes for the sheer discomfort they caused me (but
I didn't skip them!). I surely can learn a lesson from this, that a flawed protagonist is much more interesting, and that writers must not be afraid to show those flaws and embrace them, lest the story dull.

How beautifully this articulates the storyteller’s art! Thanks, Jarod.
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