Monday, July 21, 2014

It's not you, it's me

I know it irks a lot of writers to receive a, 'I just didn't love it' type response from an agent or editor, but it's something I completely understand.

You don't have to be an agent to get excited about reading something, and then have the expectation fall flat.

There's a book I read recently, which (of course) I'm not going to give the author/title. There was (unfortunately) no sample available for download, but there was the 'look inside' feature, and I did read the available pages before I bought the book.

There were 20 Amazon reviews (all 4 or 5 stars), but other than that, there wasn't a lot of information about the book. 

But the premise was so cool that I just had to take the chance and buy it.

This was definitely one of those moments were I could empathize with an agent reading a great query, reading a great first 10 pages, getting all excited... and then the story quickly spiralling into "lessons" for young readers, adult character almost entirely steering the plot, steering the characters, etc, nearly point-form plotting, and the very interesting ensemble of characters (including the main character the book started with) disappearing from the pages completely while a rather boring side character suddenly took over the story, which was then filled with cardboard-flat and comic-relief add-ins who are easily manipulated by the boring side character, and everything works out perfectly.

Yeah, I was really disappointed. I certainly won't be buying the sequel.

Obviously those 20 Amazon reviewers were not disappointed, and of course, whoever the agent was (and editor, etc) who took on that project.

But I didn't love it. And that's okay.

So, why am I thinking about expectations?

I'm one of those err-on-the-side-of-caution writers. I haven't yet seriously joined the query trenches. I've joined a couple contests that put my work in front of agents, and I sent out 10 queries from a previous story. I've never sat down and researched agents and agencies, made lists or spreadsheets.

I have bookmarked lots of agent interviews and (some may think this weird) blogposts by writers who have separated from their agents.

Although there's always a lot of politically correct language, it seems many agents/writers who split turn out not be a good 'fit' as partners, but the stories I am most interested in re-reading are from writers who have gotten an agent with one style/genre of book, and then been at odds with their agent because their second, third or tenth book is in a different genre/style, one that the agent doesn't connect to or doesn't represent.

When (in the future) I do eventually query seriously, TRoRS would be the book I'd go with.

The main reason?

It's a weird book.

Rather than show up to a first date in brand new heels & clothes, I'd prefer to be in my usual sneakers & jeans, and I'm sure as heck not going to be ordering salad and water if I want steak and wine.

I think it's better to lead with real idiosyncrasies than with a well-meaning facade.

...and TRoRS would be the equivalent to showing up in my much-loved and worn-in Converse One Stars.

Getting an agent excited thinking they're getting 'A' is making no one happy if you're really giving them 'B'.

And I'm not just talking just about a query/10 pages... I'm also taking about a writer's career. If what you love and want to write forever is Adult sci-fi, perhaps it's not the best bet to seriously query with a MG contemporary... Not that you can't do both, but that's certainly a necessary conversation.

I'd want an agent who knows s/he's getting scuffed Converse by reading the query, reading the first 10 pages, and still is getting those same faded black runners when s/he hits the end of the story. I want the consistency to carry through my story, from the first paragraph, to the last.

...and I'd want an agent who wouldn't be surprised, or unhappy, to get a pair of green DC's next instead of pair of Giuseppe Zanotti's (yes, I had to Google 'designer high heels' to find that name brand...)

In other words, someone who loves 'my style'. My voice. My stories.

As a reader, I want to love every book I buy, but that's impossible. Even out of the ones I like, there are very few that I'd want to read more than once.

So, for agents who have to re-read manuscripts over and over again, yeah, I totally get the "I just didn't love it" response.

And I think that's a good thing, because as a writer, I want (and deserve) to have an agent who loves what I write and who would want to read it more than once, and who would look forward to whatever project I work on next.

Also, no more buying books on my Kindle unless they have a sample to download. I suppose, since my online Wish List is hovering around 620 items, that shouldn't be a problem :)

Yeah... still on the codeine-enriched anti-spasm muscle relaxants, can ya tell? I'm sure my grammar is a foggy mess :p

So sorry about that. Those ribs just still don't want to stay where they should.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Character Values

Most stories I write have a bent towards philosophy and the question of what's 'right', without ever really coming to a definitive answer.

Themes of trust, sacrifice, choices, and love are always in there, because you can't tell if something is really a 'value', unless it's tested.

For example, most of us 'value' honesty, but if you find a $50 bill on the street, and no one is around, would you leave it there since it's not yours?

Most of what we claim are our values, are really only 'aspirational values' -> where, if it was tested, we would not actually choose to stay the path. We might aspire to be honest and never steal, but really, how many of us would leave a $50 bill on the street if there was no one else around?

In 'TRoRS', the anonymous main character is constantly cycling back to what s/he should have done differently, and at one point, thinks this:

You can starve to death on principle. To steal successfully is to understand that morality is like a warm jacket you can put on and take off. 
You want to be all resolve and desire with no other emotions jamming up your head. Tension means your brain is getting in the way of your gut and thinking only slows you down. To thoroughly cut off the baggage of morality, you can’t be human. You can only be a bag of meat that needs to survive.
And people understand that more than they let on. Whenever there’s a riot, or a natural disaster, or a war, the same people who would lecture you for stealing a bag of beef jerky will loot stores, trample children, destroy property, and beat to death anyone who gets in their way.

In 'AotD', Sikka only starts to care about being seen as a different person than her twin sister after Issa kills a god.

In 'SO', Simon constantly puts a higher value on his brother Hector, but he will risk his own life, or Faith's life, without question.

...and in 'SL', Jay wrestles with a different moral question: Can he give up painting to save Kell? Painting is his entire identify, his scholarship depends on it, and, in his mind, it's all he has, all he trusts, all he can rely on.

I've said on here before that I don't particularly like trilogies because they (by necessity) inflate the stakes with each successive book, until it's nearly always a matter of 'saving the world'.

To me, that almost always turns the more interesting, personal moral quandaries into black-and-white matters of 'good versus evil'.

One line that particularly irks me is when a character says, "I had no other choice", because there always is a choice.

Phrasing it like that turns the situation into a 'moral' decision, which usually means elevating a personal choice by making it a universal claim.

Okay, I don't know if that explanation was clear... so let me try to explain it in a different way...

Going back to 'AotD', after Issa kills a god, she disappears. To track down her sister, Sikka has to tell a lie: that she was the one taken, not Issa.

Obviously, it isn't a lie she has to tell, but if she told the truth, no one would let her leave the village and track down her sister. Telling the lie makes it easier for her to accomplish her goal by allowing her to avoid dealing with the people in her village that she is indebted to.

When you get right down to it, she's making a selfish decision. Sure, she justifies it by telling herself that, if she told the truth, no one would let her leave, so she's lying to save her sister.

But really, is that the only choice she had?


Similarly to when 'the good guys' in movies drop their weapons because a 'bad guy' is holding a gun to a child's head.

Do they really have 'no other choice'?


If the bad guy gets away and kills a thousand people, that's on the good guy's head... but it's more abstract for a bomb to kill a thousand people than it is to actually watch a child being shot in the head.

It's a personal moral choice the good guy is making -> to save one child he can see, instead of theoretically saving a thousand people he can't see. He's putting a higher value on the one person his choice will directly impact. If the child dies, he will be considered a bad person.

It's the whole idea of when we're told we "should" do something, instead of asking, "what could we do?"

"Should" turns the situation into a binary choice: you should do the right thing, as in, take the higher road, which suggests that if you don't make the decision you 'should', then you're taking the low road.

The good guy 'should' drop his gun to save the child.

...but turning the decision into a binary question leaves no room for alternative paths.

What 'could' the good guy do instead? He could stall, he could shoot the bad guy in the foot, he could shoot the child in a non-lethal part of the body, like the shoulder or leg, because really, would the bad guy want to bother with a hostage who can't run/move and needs medical attention?

...and those are just a few examples that popped off the top of my head. But all of those would be much harder on the hero. It's easier just to put down the gun and say, "I have no other choice." He's laying the blame on the bad guy, turning a personal decision to make life easier on himself into a universal decision of what's 'right'.

We tend to whittle questions of value down to binary ones, because they justify what we want to do.

And since humans are lazy, usually that means making the choice that's less work for us.

When we claim we took the moral high ground, it's an indirect accusation that whoever disagrees with us is taking the low road.

Next time you hear a politician, a journalist, or anyone else loudly throwing around the word 'should' (or its alternatives 'have to', 'must', etc), take a step back and think about it. Why are they trying to turn it into a binary question, a question of high/low ground? Why are they trying to justify their position in terms of value/morality?

And think about the practicalities.

Turn the question into 'what could we do?'

To make a character well-rounded, we always need to think about values, but rather than slapping on some universal ones like 'honest', or 'brave', I think it's always worthwhile to think about whether your character actually stays the path when in a point of temptation or crisis. Are those 'values' you assigned true values, or are they only aspirational values?

I think about this a lot in YA books. It's easy to find clear examples in 'save-the-world' type genres, but they still exist in quiet contemporary novels, because there's almost always a 'best friend', and more times than not, when you actually look at the behaviour of the main character, they treat their best friend like crap, or the best friend only appears in the story when the main character needs advice, or needs to complain, and otherwise conveniently disappears from the story, especially if there's a budding romance in the works.

Okay, time to wrap my arm in a heating pad for about an hour... typing even just this post is still a huge problem.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Canada Day!

Today, Canada is 147 years old, which is an awesome number because it's mostly divisible by factors of 7 (1, 3, 7, 21, 49, 147), and the binary form (100100112) contains all the 2-digit binary numbers (00, 01, 10, 11).

Yeah, you know I like numbers, so do you want few fun, nerdy-number facts about my home country?

2: Canada is the second-largest landmass

4: The number of Canadian provinces on the day of Confederation

9: The number of Canadians who have travelled to space

12: Academy Awards given to National Film Board productions

17: UNESCO World Heritage Sites (with 7 more listed as tentative)

34: Years "O Canada" has been the official national anthem (July 1, 1980)

56: Canadian-born celebrities with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

8,892: The length, in kilometres, of the border between Canada and the USA, which is the world's longest international boundary

35,427,524: Canada's population as of April 2014

So, if you're Canadian, do you have any other fun, nerdy-number facts about our country?

...and if you're not Canadian, what are some fun, nerdy-number facts about your country?