On Characters

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there are giveaways, fun, and other writing advice. It’s a party over there!

“I don’t know where Danny Valentine came from,” I told my writing partner morosely, staring at my water. “She’s just so…damaged.”

The Selkie raised one eyebrow. “You don’t? A person that driven, locked in that tiny little box and going nuts? You’ve got no idea? Really?”

Well, when she put it like that, I had to concede she had a point. But still. I am not my characters.

I realize protestations of sanity coming from someone who spins lies for a living and talks to imaginary people while crouching over a computer keyboard may be a tad unbelievable. Nonetheless, I insist. I’m wound a little tight and I’m weird, but I don’t confuse myself with my characters.

I don’t know where characters come from, really. Sometimes they just start talking and I shrug and take dictation. Sometimes I see them on the movie screen in my head, and the fun of the game is figuring out who they are, what they want, and what happens to them. Sometimes I get an idea–wouldn’t it be really cool IF… Basically I take character much the way I take the stories they’re a part of–as a gift, spun into whole cloth by the Fates in my subconscious and handed up through a chute that only opens when I’m sitting down and ready to receive.

I had lunch with a young writer today, K.B. She’s one of the bravest young women I know, and is practicing her writing. We got to talking about characters, so I’m going to tell you what I told her, with (possibly) a few additions.

* Don’t confuse yourself with your characters. Sometimes, if you’re a genius, you can pull off an authorial insertion and make it work. You can even make it a classic. But don’t bet on being a genius and producing a classic. You have more chance of winning the lottery or having an airplane part fall out of the sky and onto your head.

Treat characters like you would an extreme sport–with appropriate caution and care for your own safety. Don’t get roped into believing they’re you. This is a tough one, because so much of good writing (at least, the way I practice, whether it turns out good or not is another question) is kind of like method acting. It requires getting inside your character’s skin. This is part of the Mystery of the Mask, but try very hard to remember that the mask is not YOU.

* You’re in charge. Ilona Andrews mentioned this at the Night of Pwnage At Powell’s, and it’s a good point. You’re writing the story, you’re in charge. Moaning that a character isn’t obeying, or is being recalcitrant, is often a way of Avoiding The Damn Work. Or it’s a sign that one isn’t heading in the right direction and needs to let go of some cherished notions about the work. If a character isn’t cooperating, see if you’re resisting the way the story wants to go.

* Hurt them. A lot. A lot of writers are downright afraid to hurt their characters. This is, I think, partly a function of identifying with them and partly a function of just being a Reasonably Well-Adjusted Person, or at least one with protective social coloration. Try to overcome this fear, because:

* No risk, no reward. Without the heart-in-mouth risk, there is no reward when a character surmounts an obstacle. If it comes too easily, a reader could care less. The characters we cheer for are the ones who run the most risk. Conversely, the villains who risk everything get our grudging admiration. Stack the deck. Throw a curveball. Make it an uncertain thing.

One of the nicest compliments my friend Monk ever paid me about my writing was that he didn’t know who was going to survive. “Like the end of the Valentine series,” he said. “Here’s this character who’s now half-demon, she’s now got the power and the Big Powerful Weapon, and if this was a regular fantasy she’d vanquish the evil. But with you writing it, there’s this sense that it might not be enough.” (Here he paused, the spoke wryly and with great affection.) “I hate you for that. I didn’t know if she’d pull through.” Which leads me to the next point.

* There’s always a cost. If your character has a magical power, a magical weapon, or even just an ordinary human talent, there MUST be a cost involved in its use. A magical system is more easily believable if the energy comes from somewhere. If it’s going to save the hero’s ass, there needs to be a cost paid for that saving. Otherwise it’s just a useless gimmick, and one that will weigh down your writing besides. Always, always consider what the cost of every character’s ability/gift is.

* Make the bruises count. If your character gets into a fight and the next morning they don’t feel like groaning when they haul themselves out of bed, I’m not going to believe you. Part of hurting your characters is taking into account the lingering of pain while things heal. If your character has superhuman healing, that’s a gift and (say it with me) there must be a cost. Make me believe it, or I’m not going to care. Bruises, pulled muscles, emotional and mental trauma, take time to heal. This will add a layer of risk and complexity to your story. Cheap? Sure. Effective? Of course, or I wouldn’t advocate it.

* Think about your villains. Don’t make them cardboard. A good hero deserves a good villain–and a good villain needs to have depth, motivation, and reasons for why s/he does what s/he does. The best villains are the ones we can understand and live vicariously a little bit through, the ones who have reasons we can understand. Ask yourself what every character’s cup of water is. Then use that information to make things difficult for them.

* Last but not least, feel compassion for these people. Yes, I know I told you to hurt them. That still applies. But if you don’t suffer for your heroes and your villains, you have no chance to make me believe I should. It’s a fine line to walk, between the need to make it risky and the need to have empathy so you can make a reader care about these people enough to keep reading.

You do not have to like your characters. I think I can count the characters I’ve created that I actually like on one hand and have fingers left over. But I definitely empathize with them. I aim to understand why they do the things they do, and my job–the hat trick, so to speak–is to clearly convey that understanding to the reader. (This is, incidentally, where an editor is sometimes most helpful. That’s another blog post.) The understanding does not have to call forth a specific emotional reaction, like love or hate. It just has to call forth any emotional reaction. If you get any emotion at all from a reader, you can consider your job at least decently done.

For example, I still get hate mail from people who get to the ending of Working For The Devil and feel a shock of loss and grief. “How could you?” one woman wrote me. “How could you do that to Dante?” Which meant I’d done my job. Incidentally, if I hadn’t ended WFTD that way, it would have been only a one-book deal. The rest of the series was predicated on what happened at the end of that book, something I was very clear about all the way through.

* Oh, wait. One more thing. Have fun. I rather like Stephen Brust’s famous line, the one he recommends tacking up over your computer, or wherever you can see it while you work:

And now, I’m going to tell you something REALLY cool.

Enjoy this. If you’re having a ball, the rest of it will be easier, and chances are good the Reader will have a ball too. Not only that, but when you’re snickering with evil glee, it’s a lot easier to hurt your characters in interesting, diabolical, and downright nasty ways.

In fact, you could say that’s the most fun of all. Which, I suppose, makes me a not very nice person, even if I can protest at being sane and reasonably well-adjusted.

Oh well. Nobody’s perfect.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

What I’m Reading

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames. The Dame Smackdown continues apace, I am told we are neck and neck. So exciting!

I was asked earlier today what I’m reading. I do think that in order to write, one must read. You learn so much from seeing how other people choose to string words together. Reading gives you an idea of tone and pacing; it helps you distinguish underlying structure, and every once in a while it gives you some pretty good thrills.

I tend not to read in the genre I’m currently writing in–for example, if I’m writing YA, I can’t read other YAs; if I’m working on an urban fantasy book I can’t read another one. Something about reading in the genre I’m writing in at the moment induces burnout in a big way. I am told this is not so for other writers, but it’s that way for me. So while I’m writing fiction I tend to read a lot of nonfiction or fiction in other genres; I have to wait until I’m working on trunk novels or in revision before I can read in the genres I work in.

So, here are the books I’m working on now:

* Unlawful Contact, Pamela Clare My writing partner tells me Clare’s heroes are almost as effed-up as Anne Stuart’s. I love me a good self-loathing hero, and it’s refreshing to read a romance with no paranormal overtones. While I can almost never write a romance without a paranormal element, I do love to read them. I’m only about thirty pages in, but the prognosis is good. Clare’s craft is solid; I am almost never jolted out of the story by the need to reach for my red pen.

* Before Stalingrad, David Glantz The battle of Stalingrad is one of my particular interests; it’s an intensification of my interest in the Eastern Front in both world wars. Not too long ago my writing partner called me and said, “I know you don’t watch TV…but there’s something on Stalingrad on PBS.” I was incredibly excited until I realized I hadn’t watched the telly in so long our set wouldn’t even pick up OPB. *sadface* But then I found the show she was talking about on the Intertubes, and harmony was restored. And what do you know–the show introduced me to David Glantz, who I hadn’t heard of before. (How is that possible? I’m wondering now. But better late than never.) So I’m indulging in a few of his books, and so far have not been disappointed one bit.

* The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon I keep hearing a lot about this book, so I’m giving it a whirl. I’m only three pages in, so it’s too soon to tell.

* Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, Jane Tompkins I loved Tompkins’s book about the Western, and I occasionally read lit crit just for the fun of it. (The Selkie tells me I’m mad, but what does she know? She’s just my writing partner.) Anyway, this is my second time through this particular book, I’m slowing down and really picking apart sentences the way I didn’t do the first time. Tompkins’s contention that you can’t divorce a novel and the experience of reading it from cultural and social expectations and assumptions is pretty thought-provoking.

* A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, Orlando Figes Well, after reading Robert Service’s biographies of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin one after another, I really figured there was nothing for it but to read about the wider context of the world they operated in. Whenever I tell people that I’m interested in the Russian Revolution I get the same response: “I try reading Russian history, but then I stop. It’s so…depressing.” Well, yeah. Not for the faint of heart, I assure you. Figes has nice clear prose and a way of untangling events that doesn’t make me feel stupid; plus he sticks with one name for one person instead of doing a fricking Tolstoy and giving you first name, patronymic, last name, and nicknames all at different times so you think one character is four effing people. It really is sometimes the little things that make the difference.

So that’s what I’m reading now. Very little of it informs the book in progress, which is a YA. I tried picking up a YA the other day, but I could only get a couple sentences in before my eyes glazed over and my head started to hurt. I don’t know why I can’t read in whatever genre I’m writing in at the moment; I think my Muse needs a varied diet and likes to separate work and play. Who knows?

Anyway, dear Reader, that’s the answer to that question. You can check out my Goodreads page for more updates; and I’ll leave you with a question of my own: what are you reading right now, and why? What do you like (or not like) about it?

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

On Physical Effort

The Dame Smackdown is still ongoing! Remember, if I, ahem, “win”, I will be posting an excerpt of Jealousy or Heaven’s Spite. *tempty tempty*

This is going to be a post tangentially about my weight…so if you’re tired of hearing me talk about that, you’re probably better off stopping now. On the other hand, I will be tying it into writing, so it’s up to you.

I’ve (drumroll please) achieved the weight goal I set for myself lo these many months ago. (All the way back on Labor Day of 2008, I believe it was. Slow and steady…) I’ve lost between 70-80 pounds and overshot my goal of a size 14 by, let’s see, three or four sizes. Some of that was stress-related, yes. It’s been a stressful year or two. But most of it was acquiring healthier habits– watching what I ate and making exercise more of a priority. I found out halfway through that when I wasn’t miserable over crazymaking people, I didn’t want to eat to dull the misery. That revelation was accompanied by the fact that the steady work I’d been doing before then making exercise a priority actually started to pay off. Once I started seeing results, the whole world opened up, so to speak.

I’m choosing to be very proud of myself. It’s been a long, long road, but I’m glad I started, and I’m glad for everyone who supported me along the way, from my writing partner to my kids to my hairdresser friend C.

I’ve always been a big advocate of taking a brisk walk or blocking out a fight scene to shake things loose inside a story. Physical movement works very, very well for me when it comes to my creative process. The trouble was, for a very long time I hated working out–long, long story having to do with my aversion to anything resembling a team sport. I like to work alone, thank you. Now that I’ve arranged my life so that I can run on the treadmill every weekday morning, ALONE (I’m up to just over three miles again, every day), that time is some of the most productive I’ve ever had.

I’m not saying you have to run three miles or lose a good third of your bodyweight (ha ha) to have a sustainable creative career. I am saying that when you’re stuck working on a story, getting up and moving around for ten or fifteen minutes often unsticks the damn thing and gets the Muse off her couch and away from those damn bonbons. (Not so incidentally, this is another use for your trusty kitchen timer. Set it and move, and when you’re done, voila!)

We live a lot in our heads, we writers, and we tend to forget there’s a whole body carrying said head around. Getting up and getting the blood moving gives the Muse a fresh start on things. Never underestimate the power of ten jumping jacks, ten minutes shaking your booty to loud music, or a brisk ten-minute walk when characters aren’t behaving and the cursor starts blinking at you like Sauron’s Eye.

Just this morning I was brooding over a plot point, and fifteen minutes into my run–at about the first mile-mark–all of sudden the next third of the book opened up, complete with scenes and settings. It’s magic when it happens, and I spent the other two miles playing with it inside my head, fine-tuning. It was awesome. Of course, the cardio benefits aren’t bad either.

You don’t have to run flat-out. Another particular favorite of mine is putting on some music and dancing, awkwardly I’m sure, in my living room. Usually it’s a song from the “soundtrack” of the current book in progress, and it reliably shakes everything loose. I wouldn’t dance like a dork if it didn’t actually work 90% of the time.

Well, yeah, maybe I would. I’m funny that way. But I’m glad it works.

Over and out.

Posted from A Fire of Reason. You can also comment there.

Terra Incognita

The Dame Smackdown proceeds apace! Remember, if I–I mean, WE, if WE–win, I’ll post an excerpt of Jealousy or Heaven’s Spite. So if you ever wanted a signed Jill Kismet, now’s your chance!

I have been astonishingly productive in a million ways this morning, none of which involve writing and all of which have grated on my Very Last Nerve. Some days one just needs the Administrivia Mallet to play whack-a-mole with all the varied and nibbling responsibilities of daily life.

But I got home about half an hour ago, crossed everything off my task list, had a quick lunch, and am ready to spend the afternoon luxuriating in writing. I am hard at work on Dru 5, and feeling that subconscious easing that means the Muse has figured out the story even if she’s not going to tell little old me yet. Which means I just have to relax, put my head down, and grind out the words. And the Muse, that tricksy wench, will take care of the rest.

This is the handwaving part that I call “when the magic happens.” Because really, that’s what it feels like. The book takes a left turn, bumping off the road I thought I had mapped, and starts jolting into terra incognita. I’m left hanging onto the dash and praying while the Muse laughs, lights up a cigarette, and shoves the accelerator all the way down.

Yeah. So if you need me, I’ll be over here in the passenger seat, scribbling furiously.

Over and out.

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There is too much. Let me sum up.

There are Issues. My Friday post is not forthcoming this week. Here, have some links instead:

* Steven Pressfield on “Do It Anyway”. Yes, you knew I’d agree with this.

*The inimitable Judith Tarr with 10 Ways To Prove You Didn’t Do Your Horse Homework

* Stacy Deanne on trad vs. self-publishing, and where writers are actually better off.

* I often get writing links from Wyrdsmith’s Smart Things; her link roundups about writing are always worth a peek. (And I’m not just saying that because she sometimes links me. Honest!)

And a big shout-out to Jess Hartley. I can’t say why in public, but OMG SQUEEE!

For those of you worrying, nobody’s hurt and everything’s pretty much fine. There’s just…ARGH. Sometimes the argh gets in the way of the blog. Regular Friday writing posts will return next Friday. Thank you, and good night.

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Tonight At Powell’s

I love my writing partner, because she sends me little links, like this one to a zebra-striped cake. Which I can dial up for birthdays next year.

I’m gearing up for tonight, when I’ll be at Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s, at 7PM sharp, with fellow Dame Devon Monk and Ilona and Gordon Andrews. I’ve decided I’m going to read from Heaven’s Spite, the upcoming Jill Kismet book. I can only answer some questions about Jealousy, so please understand if I say “I can’t answer that.”

I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces out in Beaverton. Be prepared to, um, see a bit less of me, guys. I look a little different now.

Today is largely going to be spent writing–the fifth Dru book has reached 30K and taken a left-turn into the dark place where the story starts wiggling like a live thing of its own accord. This is pretty much where the magic begins happening, and one of my favorite times in a book’s creation. It’s going to be hard to pull myself away tonight.

See you at Powell’s!

ETA: Yes, there will be at least 5 Dru books. I’m hard at work on #5 right now.

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From One Terror To The Next

Yesterday was the Ooligan Press event, I had a great time. Public speaking terrifies me like almost nothing else; I’m always soaked with sweat and trembling after any sort of appearance, especially one where I have to speak for more than five minutes. I have a much better time with panels or readings, since there’s some give-and-take. Anyway, the event was awesome; the Ooligan Press people were so nice, helpful, and supportive. Thanks, guys! You rock.

I did have an exotic moment of sheer terror when I realized Chuck Palahniuk–who is a very nice guy–was sitting in the front row writing stuff down while I spoke. I think he was working on a story, but my brain threatened to freeze. Fortunately I had my notes, so I just made a joke about bodily noises and kept going.

Yeah, I’m like that.

I also got to meet the incredible Virginia Euwer Wolff, who was an absolute delight. The questions from the audience were good, too–everything from “do you think of your target audience while you write?” to “I have kids and I need to write. What do I do?” I’m told there will be a podcast-type thing where you can listen to all the talks; as soon as that goes live I’ll link to it here. I am also told there were photos taken. (Eep!) All in all, that has to be one of the most pleasant events I’ve ever attended, and I hope they invite me back.

Driving home was a bit of a letdown–two hours in traffic no matter which bridge I chose, so I ended up getting Indian food as a reward. Can’t complain–and I was endlessly grateful to have a decent car now. It made the stop and go traffic (mostly stop) bearable because I wasn’t worrying about my vehicle exploding. (Thanks, Subaru Shawn!)

Tomorrow I’ll be at Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s, at 7PM sharp, with fellow Dame Devon Monk and Ilona and Gordon Andrews. I think there will be readings, and I have no fricking idea what to read, so I’ll pick a bit from Heaven’s Spite and a bit from Jealousy and make the audience decide. For I am evil.

Today will be spent running errands and tossing a chunk of about two thousand words from the Dru book in process; I think I want to take it in a different direction than I initially proposed. This happens far more often than I like to admit. Sometimes you just have to go a little way down the path to determine it isn’t the path you want to follow. In writing, you can always turn around and go back. It’s a shame life isn’t more like that.

Over and out!

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