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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Torture Whys and Wherefores

Valt writes me:

I saw you did a "Torture Panel" at WorldCon. What I would have given to have been present for that. I looked up Elaine Isaak since I am not familiar with her work and though I squirmed a little with the idea of a castrated main character, I cannot imagine anyone rivaling you for Most Torturous Authoress. There have been times where I've had to set your books down (for long periods) just because they hurt too much, yet I am always inexplicably drawn back into them. Masochism might be an explanation, but it's always so expertly handled. When do you decide that anything more would just desensitize your readers and no longer be as powerful?

Good question. I DO think torture and mayhem can overwhelm a story. And I never want to use it gratuitously.

First, why do I do it at all? Because my characters invariably are involved in terrible and world changing events. One of the things an author of heroic adventure has to do is present her characters with challenges, with opportunities to alter course, with the need to do things that are repugnant or life-changing in order to accomplish the deeds that solve the story’s problem. People don’t change themselves in fundamental ways as a result of small things. The stronger the character, the tougher the challenge must be.

How do I try to ensure I don't go too far?
  1. I make sure the violence is necessary for the story’s believability.
  2. I try to keep the worst parts “off screen” or at least at a distance. Readers may see only the results.
  3. I try never to sexualize it.
  4. I try to keep the events in proportion to the result I’m trying to accomplish.

REVELATION spoiler behind the Read More tag...

Some people have asked me why Seyonne’s terrible captivity lasted so long in Revelation. This is probably the longest and most difficult of all my “torture” scenarios. But here was a man whose entire life, entire being, entire training had been devoted to removing the rai-kirah from the souls of human beings or to getting himself back in the position where he could do so. And on the scant evidence of a few mosaics, his own instinct for truth, and his determination to set his child free, I wanted him to take one of those rai-kirah into his own soul. The meant I had to strip him down to his essence--his compassion and yearning for justice--in order to get him to do it. Otherwise I could not believe he would do it.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008


Before I left Colorado, I mailed in my 2008 ballot. I didn't want some Canadian snowstorm to delay me getting home in time to vote. What an honor and a privilege.

Please make sure you vote. This is not an election to sit out. Lots of states have early or mail-in voting. Take advantage if you can because lines are going to be long on Nov 4. Don't let anyone take this privilege away from you.

If anyone out there doubts that this is a critical election, please read beyond a few of the headlines of the past couple of months. I’ve been through a number of elections, and never have I had one that has literally kept me awake in the night. Between our crashing economy, our two wars, upheavals in eastern Europe, genocide in Africa, our melting polar caps, we have got to turn a corner in this country, and it is going to take all of us, doing our best to change our habits and get beyond the politics of division.

After a particular obnoxious news segment the other night, I sat up and wrote a long rant about this election, about some of our society's bad habits (including my own) and about the candidates. I've actually let this post sit for a couple of days as I cooled off - though I really haven't changed my opinion at all.

But as I avidly browsed the web for election news from up here where the Canadians are exhausted by their own recently concluded (and divisive) election, I came upon a piece that expressed, in intelligent, reasoned terms, my own beliefs and feelings about this race. Some people might bristle at the source, but if you are interested enough to go behind the "more" button, maybe you might want to read the editorial. If you'd rather not mix up fantasy authors and politics, that's ok. I ust couldn't let the time go by.

Whichever you choose, please
Listen! Read! Think! Vote.

NY Times editorial

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Friday, October 24, 2008

High in British Columbia

Nope, I haven't disappeared from the face of the earth. For the past few days I've been traveling north to visit friends and attend two events in Canada. This week it's the Surrey International Writers Conference.

What a lovely welcoming, professional conference. Extremely well organized with some 800 attendees. The faculty always leaves me a bit intimidated: this year Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, Robert Sawyer, Phillip Margolin, and so forth.

The hotel is terrific. My view from the 12th floor is the BC mountains, the rivers and bridges of Vancouver/Surrey area (the Fraser River Valley, I guess.) And the gorgeous autumn colors that are about gone back home. Cool and misty in the mornings.

So far I've done a three hour master class, called "Unforgettable Characters" and an hour and a half of "blue pencil workshops" which are one-on-one meetings between author and aspiring author. Fifteen minutes to talk marketing, read and critique a few pages, or talk concept. I met with six very interesting people so far, and, despite the ever present "oh, gosh, I hope I can think of something useful to say" willies, I've managed to come up with some comments. This conference also makes breakfast and lunch times for networking among the authors, editors, and agents who have come here to be on the faculty. As such I've met a couple of editors from Tor books, a Canadian teacher/lecturer on web presence and marketing, and a couple of editors from Warner and Little Brown. Also a very cool actor/writer from UK who was going to do a workshop on "battle". Unfortunately I was scheduled during that time. Bummer. This afternoon I"m on a panel about "inspiration." Tomorrow and Sunday I do more workshops. All fun, but a bit exhausting.

More from World Fantasy next week! (And no I haven't forgotten about Portier and the rest. I actually got some good work done on the plane (always a good sign) and have had a productive discussion with my good friend Brenda about a hiccupy place in the opening chapter. All to the good!

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Monday, October 13, 2008

The Turning Point

Every author will recount the difficulties of the wretched middle of a book’s development. "It’s all crap," he’ll say. "It’s as boring as watching paint dry." "I’ve got the focus all wrong." "This will never come together."

All the gleeful laying out of enticing clues, and ambiguous new characters, and discovery of new magic has long given way to the difficult, often frustrating work of
- creating tension, and upping the tension with each twist and turn of the plot
- choreographing climactic action
- developing scenes that actually forward the plot and don’t just recapitulate
- getting to the nitty-gritty events that impact your characters’ growth and change.

The end still seems as distant as ever and may be less clear than when you started. The threads of logic have gotten tangled. There are too many characters and no clear villains. You can’t figure out how the heck to get from Eltevire to Vernase because you already set Vernase within a day’s travel of Merona, and at this point in the book you just don’t want your characters traveling for a week. Chapter 17 turned into two chapters when you realized you’d been so determined to get through it, you’d let your poor captive investigator escape the very torment he’d been investigating [never let him off easy just to get that chapter done], and there are still at least two entire story arcs you haven’t touched yet. Uh...yeah, this is getting personal.

Well maybe this isn’t the exact set of circumstances that drive every author up the wall when she reaches approximately 2/3 of the way through a new book. These are certainly the ones that have popped to my mind over the past couple of weeks. Plus we’ve been in and out to a family wedding in Seattle and spent one day driving mom into the mountains to see the glorious aspens, and a couple more doing handouts for the Vancouver conference that is coming up Real Soon Now. And, holy moly, this presidential election is SO distracting [more on this in another post you may or may not want to read!]

But, as it happens, my little cadre of fellow writers set up another mountain retreat for this past weekend. I hadn’t thought I’d be able to go, but I desperately needed some concentrated, relatively undistractable time, and my ES (Extraordinary Spouse) had a ton of work to do for a client, too. Two full days of writing and some twenty pages later and I’ve reached the Turning Point, where my investigators emerge from a near catastrophe and put together the chain of evidence in an entirely different way to point the spotlight (or the spyglass, as may be) on a totally unsuspected suspect. And what do I find?

I had actually laid in enough clues for them to draw this conclusion. I had actually put them through enough of a wringer to force them to look at things a different way. I’ve left myself pointed in exactly the direction I meant to go all along.

OK. I still worry about the focus and the missing spark and the wordy first chapters the fact that I’ve still got a lot of story to tell, and I’ve got one BIG motivation still to work out. But details in past chapters can now be refined and enhanced because I’ve put together this piece of the story. I can probably rip out a few extraneous pieces because they weren’t needed. I can strengthen the presentation of the main characters because now I know that at this particular point in chapter 21, the three are in harmony. I can make sure the pace of their change from their first meeting to this point is clear. And I can lay in the "festering sores" that will send it all to heck, because now I know when the descent must begin.

I woke up this morning with one idea for revising an early scene, because now I'm seeing a particular character's arc more clearly.

Last night driving home from Denver on a very misty, cold dark night, I realized that one "consequence" I had set up for the end was just really tooooo dark. And this morning upon waking, I knew what I had to do about it, because it fit perfectly with another character's arc.

I'm hoping for more such revelations this week, if I can keep my reacquired focus.

I’m still in the wretched middle, but maybe…just maybe…I’ve turned the corner.
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