Friday, December 31, 2010

Post Mutant Magic Syndrome

First, as I write this it’s the last day of 2010.  So Happy New Year to all my readers.  Second, this may turn into a rant. Hey, I’m sure I’m the first blogger that’s ever happened to.

The weeks surrounding the holidays have thrown me a little off track, so I haven’t really been keeping up on either my blogging or my writing.  As a result, The Illusionist's House has hit something of a stall.  I have also taken on another writing project, a (theoretically) short web-comic script for a sister-in-law.

Looking back on my work-in-progress, I see it suffers from a modern condition that I have chosen to call, for want of some other equally stupid name, Post Mutant Magic Syndrome.

Long-time readers will probably have gotten the impression that I like superheroes.  They would be right.  One of the interesting traits of the genre is that superpowers are frequently (though not always) well defined.  Readers like the heroes with clearly defined limits – it cuts down on the Deus ex Machina endings you get if a hero can pull any power out of his hat. 

Marvel Comic’s mutants are a good example – the usually only have one or two very specific powers.  This one has wings, that one can walk through walls.

Now the fantasy genre relies heavily on magic and magic, as a general rule, defies easy definition and classification.  Only not so much, any more. 

I’ve been reading a collection of werewolf short stories but current popular urban fantasy authors.  As is the modern trend in dark fantasy, there is more than one thing out there going bump in the night.  In a world of demons and vampires, a werewolf can actually be the good guy.  And who doesn’t like to see werewolves and vampires at war?

This leads to more definition for the supernatural element. I’m okay with different stories defining the monsters differently – these werewolves turn into wolves, those turn into wolfmen.  I’m a big fan of doing what serves the story.  But some of these worlds are becoming so populated with magical beings that rigid scientific principles of taxonomy are starting to apply.  I recently read a story by an author I really like where the hero (a vampire-hunting werewolf) paused to explain the difference between the powers of witches and wizards.

It’s starting to take some of the magic out of things.  I mean, these stories still work for me on the level in which I enjoy superheroes, but the trade-off is a level of mystery.

Which brings us back to my current work in progress, which hinges on defining the limits on illusion magic as distinct from several other forms.  I’m writing what I’m ranting against and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

And now a Rebuttal…

‘Twas the blog before Christmas…

I want to make a counter argument to my last blog post.  In it, I noted that an author might choose to write a scene one way or another, depending on the expected audience and the intended genre.  I went so far as to state that a book aimed at one audience might loose readers if it delved too far into the writing style of another genre.

It does happen, by the way.  I’ve seen it.

But isn’t there an argument for just writing the best, most powerful stuff you can, without worrying about who it’s for?  For not letting some editor in the back of your brain convince you it won’t sell to your target audience?  I mean, if you write the good stuff, surely someone will like it, right?

I suppose it depends on what you consider the good stuff.  There is something to be said for internal consistency, after all.  An R rated scene in an otherwise G rated story stands out like a cue ball in a bowl of oranges.  It might be the absolute best way to depict that scene, but does it serve the overall story?

There is no right answer, of course.  Novelists and dramatists and movie producers struggle with this all the time.  And you know, I didn’t want you to miss out on a good struggle in your own work.

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Unexpected Horror

For those who read my last installment, I’m still not sure about the novel I am currently reading.  If it is a romance, it understands the conventions of fantasy better than the last romance I accidently read.  I’m a little disappointed because it is not as funny as the back cover made it sound, but that’s another issue.

What’s interesting is that the story could support a range of genres, with the major difference being not the events of the plot but the way they are told.

In an early scene of the book, our heroes, who at this point dislike each other intensely, are fighting zombies in a mine.  This could have been a great horror scene. As written, the novel does not invoke the claustrophobic atmosphere of the mine, the intrinsic fear of being buried with the dead, the revolting condition of the zombie miners, the helplessness of our heroes, or any of the wonderful creepiness that the scene presents.

It could have been a very powerful, very spooky, encounter.

But just because something can be done, does not mean it should be.  I don’t know if the author wanted to catch fantasy readers, romance readers, or both.  Either way, a sudden drop into horror with no warning is not likely to please the readership.  Displeased readers do not finish the book.  More importantly, they don’t buy the author’s next book.

Of course, there is no magic formula to find the balance.  A little more horror might have made the scene more real, more exciting.  But too much and suddenly you are in the wrong novel.  Part of it is consistency of tone, part of it is knowing what kind of story you are writing.

But don’t stress too much at the start – consistency and tone are good things to watch for as you edit your later drafts.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Unexpected Romance

I have a sneaking suspicion that the novel I am currently reading is a romance novel. They used to keep the darn things safely quarantined in the bookstore, but recently they’ve been allowed to sneak over and infect the fantasy and time-travel stories.

It’s easy to poke fun at the romance genre, with its ripping bodices and lurid covers. But to be fair, I am hopelessly devoted to other genres that are just as ludicrous when viewed from the outside.  “No capes!” as Edna Mode would say.

If this is a romance, it will be only the second I have ever read. I didn’t know what I was getting into with the first one, either. I hope this one is a better novel. But I am having a problem with it.

In the story, the female lead, who is also the viewpoint character, is forced to work with the male lead.  She considers him to be arrogant, condescending, and generally infuriating.

And so far, I like him a lot better than I like her.

Now if I am correct and this is a romance novel, she will slowly come to appreciate his worth and he will ultimately prove worthy of her affection.  This means that the author has a difficult task – because looking back from the end of the novel, the male lead cannot have been so bad at the beginning that hooking up with him is unacceptable at the end.

So maybe I’m just not supposed to see the obvious, like not asking why no one can tell in a glance that Clark Kent is Superman.  The downside to relying on genre conventions to protect you is that the reader has to know what they are.

In any case, I appreciate that the author has set her viewpoint character up for a significant change in perspective. It should be a nice growth arc.  But so far, the change has to be in her, because the male lead is currently a lot better at knowing right from wrong and acting accordingly.  I think the sea change would work better if some of her accusations were a little more on the mark. (Ok, he is a little pompous.)

So maybe we can add a new thought to our early discussions of making a satisfying story:  It works even better if the reader doesn’t see it coming a mile away.

I’m only a third of the way into the book, so it is possible that it will break my expectations and prove to be something other than standard romance fare.  But if it wanted to be a horror novel, it is already too late.

More on that in our next installment…

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

One year later…

This blog is one year old today.  I’ve been doing this, even if not quite as regularly as I should, for a year now.

It was easy in the early days.  I’ve spent a lot of creative thought on the subject of creative thought.  At the beginning, I had a vast pool of ideas to from which to pull.  Ideas about the writing process, about plot structure and satisfying stories, about creativity and imagination.

And I didn’t have to worry about repeating myself.

So now I need to stop and think about what this blog will be for the next year.

For the moment, the writing project I started in November still continues, but at a slower pace than I might like.  I think if I had signed up for Nanowrimo I’d have a higher word count.  The impossible question is whether I’d be happier with the story.

My writing style is not particularly dense.  I like stories that read quickly.  But I’m trying to write a little less sparsely this time.  To make sure that I get all the value out of each scene.  To make sure my first-person narrator takes time to contemplate the meaning of the events happening around him.

This means that I am reviewing scenes and revisiting scenes.  In contrast, my typical page-count producing Nano style involves always jumping ahead to the next scene to keep up my interest and to build word count.

The thing is, way I’m not doing it might still produce better odds of getting a finished piece.  I’ve got four published novels on my resume and I’m still learning.

And that’s what keeps it fun.