Friday, October 28, 2011

Let's Talk about Love - A Romantic Plot Diagram

In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit it: I read romance novels.  I could claim that I read them with a technical eye, for research purposes, but the truth is, I'm a sucker for a good love story.  I believe that the reason I started reading fanfiction in the first place was because I wanted a plain and simple love story.  The arch literary romances were vicious in their dismal outlook and full of critical irony about feelings.  SF was sex, sex, sex.  If I wanted something that wasn't heterosexual in its leanings it required a secret struggle with interlibrary loan, or suffering through a tale of brutal depression and death.  Where were the happy endings?  

Venturing into the murky waters of the internet was better than even looking at the (vaguely nauseating) bare chested barbarians of the romance section.  Best of all, I wouldn't get caught with an incriminating pink novel.

In college I discovered Karen Kallmaker (and Pat Califia), and I read them with an eager secretiveness, bingeing and then feeling ill after an overindulgence.  I loved me a good romcom, but I had no patience for anything that didn't catch me and keep me still.  But I didn't know why I liked some stories, and not others.  Then I read this blog post.  In it, Shannon Donnelly describes soulmates as “Those people who push all your buttons—they make you grow.”  Someone who knew that and could say it so clearly, well, I had to try her books, and they were wonderful (complete candy, so pleasurable, and short enough to forbid overindulgence).  What she really said in that post was that the plot needs to be driven by the characters, their desires and the conflict between the two romantic leads' desires.

Reading Veronica Roth's post on Insta!Love in YA, I began thinking about the Donnelly post.  What if the romance isn't the main plot?  What if it's a side story?  How do you make it believable?

I don't have any real answers, but I think that it's important to treat a love story as any other part of the plot.  It needs an arc.  In my favorite romances it's the changing interplay between the characters that brings the romance to life.  I know that there are probably a hundred different romantic arcs, and I've read more than a few, but one particular pattern is particularly clear in my mind (and in those of many romcom writers), so, for my own benefit, and anyone who's interested, I'm going to break that one down into A Love Story - the 5 Stages.

(This diagram is based mainly on a story I wrote, which was a re-cast and turn-on-its-head version of the "the bet" trope, as seen in Cruel Intentions, She's All That, etc, and on Shannon Donnelly's hilarious romance A Proper Mistress.  NB.  I'm using female pronouns for both romantic leads, it's probably some sort of statement about the unmarked gender category, but don't worry about it too much, it's just better than male ones.)

Stage 1) "I want something from you."
This one statement can kick off the big game and set the ball in motion all a single swoop.  Our aggressor wants something, and only the pursued can provide it.  Immediately our romantic interests are thrown together and both interaction and conflict emerge.  Of course, the pursued can't just happily give up the object/favor/person desired, and she should probably have a damn good reason not to.

Stage 2) "I cannot believe you just did that."
In pursuit of her goal, our aggressor will inevitably cross the line and act in a way the pursued finds unforgivable.  But this very act is revealing, and the pursued, still offended, learns about the aggressor's character.  Very likely, the aggressor, rebuffed again, learns more about the pursued's character, and may in fact find this stubbornness/resistance/honorability attractive.

Stage 3) "My enemy, my love."  (A quotation from my favorite piece of Klingon love poetry, by Odon)
A battle reveals more secrets than any intimate discussion, and unplanned disclosures lead to unexpected (and perhaps unwanted) understanding.  External events may require the aggressor and the pursued to put away their difference and work together for survival.  (This is starting to sound like a horoscope.)  Bonding moments!  Secrets revealed and confidences maintained!

Stage 4) "Turnabout is fair play."
Here an external force intervenes.  Perhaps the real motivation for the aggressor's initial desire reveals itself.  The aggressor becomes a victim.  The pursued must make a decision to help her or not.  (If she does help, this, of course, only causes more problems.  The aggressor is not usually pleased about being helped.  Power relations are important.)  

Stage 5) "The confession and the gift"
In the end, a choice must be made.  The aggressor must give instead of take.  The pursued must become the pursuer.  The initial desire must be abandoned or fulfilled.  The pursued will offer a gift, and the aggressor must be able to accept it as a token of love and not condescension from someone more powerful.

There you have it!  One possible romantic arc, ready to be filled in with complex characters and excessive drama!  I kind of believe that a love story is no different from a friendship story.  The outline seems equally applicable to both (though dialing down the drama might be good, just so you don't have very upset people wondering why there wasn't any making out).  I'm not terribly interested in love stories that don't spawn from character conflict.  Conflict is all about making a connection.  Without a connection, how can I believe in love?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday, # 102

 This week's topic:

What was the best book you read in October?

I find the 'best book of X' questions to be very challenging, since it's usually out of about 2, and both of them good, but not superawesome.  This month I read 6 books, Ash, by Malinda Lo, which was great, but not best, 4 Cat Who books (Lilian Jackson Braun), which were fun and awesome.  (I realized that I don't read them for the murder mysteries.  I actually don't like murder mysteries.  I read them for the 'revitalization of a northern small town community' stories, which are great!)  And The Book Thief, (Marcus Zusak) which I admired, but didn't love.

So I'm going to go a different way, and talk about a manga.  This month, I read the latest (English release) of Real, by Inoue Takehiko.
I was two pages in before I started to cry.

Real is an incredibly powerful story.  At its heart, it's about basketball, wheelchair and two-legged.  It's also about how the love of something can bring meaning to a life otherwise hopeless.  It is entirely about boys.  It's very real in its male relationships and attitudes, and still, boys can cry and give up, and try and fail to be adults.  And the protagonists are young adults, kids, really, even 17, 18, 19, 20, just trying to figure out how to build a life that's worth living.

Interestingly enough, the most helpless hopeless dude in the book, has full use of all his limbs.  Compared to his friend in the wheelchair, he's far more paralyzed, because he has no place and has no hope for the future.

I was reading the thread on edgy YA yesterday, at AW Watercooler, and it was making me sad and upset, because everyone was going on about, "well, teens experience sex and violence and drugs and shit, so why shouldn't we write about that."  I just feel like it's missing the point.  Real is edgy YA.  But what makes it powerful isn't the grittiness, or the stupid decisions, or the death and loss and inability to communicate, it's about finding meaning and purpose in a cruel world.

I think it's the difference between the sensational and the sublime (Ruskin's use of the term).  The sensational includes all the awful things and goes, "Oh no, they're so awful, isn't this world a terrible place?"  But the sublime doesn't shy away from any of those awful things.  It faces them head on, and says, "Yeah, these are the awful things, and they can show you just how wonderful this world can be, the people in it, their weaknesses and their strengths, beautiful and terrible at the same time.  Awful, in all senses of the word."

Real is sublime.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What Editing has taught me about Linguistics

This semester I'm taking a pretty cool semantics class.  It deals with a lot of very interesting complicated subjects that only linguists really worry about, like binding theory, and discourse sensitive referentiality.  To do this we use logic, and logic is basically math.  Now the question that comes up a lot with my phonologist friends who are like, "uh, yeah, we don't really care about that.  We care about sound change." is, "why do you think math is actually useful, in any way, to model meaning?"

What editing has taught me about linguistics is that sentences are incredibly, incredibly perverse.  Sentences really are a lot like mathematical formulas.  A sentences is a complex combination of variables (like pronouns) and functions (like verbs).  And when you hear a sentence, or read one, you fill in all this real-world knowledge, like, where you are, who you're talking about ,what words usually mean, what words possibly mean, how nouns and verbs relate to each other, etc, etc.  And if the sentence is well constructed, all these crazy calculations take you exactly where the author wants you to go.  You get a meaning.

But there is always some variability in this process.  When we learn math we learn things like order of operations and how to combine fractions and the meaning of e and the meaning of ^2.  And these are complicated irritating things that we are all universally taught, hopefully clearly, and have to memorize and consciously apply repeatedly before they become at all easy.  But they're consistent.

When we're processing language, when we're looking at a sentence: a language formula, we use a method of solving it that we learned basically by accident.  We learned it by virtue of growing up as speakers in a speaking environment.  We learned it because our parents spoke to us and expected us to understand.  If our parents had locked us in a closet and never spoken to us, we would not have any ability to solve this formula.  But we do.  However, everyone puts language together differently.  People who speak the same language don't have vastly different grammars.  They have generally overlapping vocabularies, and basic sentence structures, but not everything is going to be the same.  Luckily, we can adapt and learn new things as we meet new people.

The other problem is that written text and spoken speech are not precisely the same.  Speech is learned naturally, has immediate corrections and interactions.  Written texts are supposed to be interpretable by a simple decoding of signs to sounds.  But writing isn't speech.  Writing is a way of modeling speech, it models not only the words, but the context in which the words are said.  It models reality.  And we learn this, also, with practice.  We read, are read to, have parents or teachers who help and explain, until we get used to it.  But speech and writing are not the same.  With speech, you can ask and say, "hey, did you get that," and your interlocutor can say, "uh no, I didn't get that at all," and you can say, "okay, I'll try again."  With writing, you get one chance to get it right.

Now this was a long digression into language acquisition, and reading acquisition, but I did have a point here.  What I'm trying to say, is that language is a way of modeling the world.  It's not as formal as math, due to its method of acquisition and development, but it is just as precise, and that is the relevant thing about sentences.

Think of a sentence as a formula, not some abstract sort of change of state functional programming sort of formula, but as an engineering calculation.  Formulas, you want them to be simple.  You want there to be direct correspondence between your measurements and your numbers (compositionality, lets call it.), you don't want anything extra.  But that doesn't mean you only look at the big important numbers.  You need the little fiddly ones too.  You need friction, and gravity, and air pressure, and wind speed.  You might need weather, and temperature, and rate of decomposition of your materials, depending on what you're trying to build.

Sentences are exactly the same.  Okay, sure, you need the core meaning.  You need the participants.  You need the verb.  Then you need all the fiddly stuff, like the context: tense, voice, aspect, mood.  And you need to know, that every tiny piece of this formula that you're spitting out as if it were easy, as if it were natural, is important.  Every choice you make, by inclusion or omission, will become part of the formula, and will change the result, maybe just slightly.  But slightly in engineering is a bridge that can survive a windy day and a bridge that falls apart.  Slightly in writing, okay, it's not life or death, but it can be life or death to the power of your prose to keep a reader's attention.

So, when you're editing, don't be fooled by the ease at which words spill from your lips or your fingertips.  Humans are amazing at online processing.  With writing, every word counts, and sometimes it counts more than you could ever imagine.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Book Thief

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say, that this book started slow. I didn't like it at first. I didn't like the writing style. It was too plain. It dragged. Each moment was a moment, like a raindrop, landing with a thud and a tiny splash. There was no river, no flow to the words. And everyone had said how much they loved it. Everyone was so fluent in their adoration. I thought, okay, clearly this was over-hyped. I've read war stories before. I've read about WWII, and WWI, Pat Barker and other things that I've adored in their inescapable beauty and brutality.

This wasn't that kind of book.

It wasn't supposed to be that kind of book.

This is a story about people who are not given the privilege of choice. They are just people. They act, like people do, because of complicated, murky reasoning, and necessity, and obligation, and because they're people. There is so much good and evil swirling around in the world, but in the end, there is none of those things in the characters in this story. There's cruelty and kindness, but none of it clean, none of it alone. And these people, they are powerless and helpless in the face of the words that control their lives.

I never, ever doubted that this book was skillfully written. It was almost too skillful, too artfully real and artfully false. It was carefully, so carefully constructed to be real. I can't say I loved it. But I loved what was inside of it, once the shell cracked and let us into the meat inside. I loved the accordion, and the apples, and Jesse Owens, and the colors of the sky. And really, once I hit the halfway point, this book got moving, and I did not want to stop.

So I get it now. This is a pretty damn good book.

This was the part that hit me where it hurt though:

"'Don't punish yourself,' she heard her say again, but there would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing."

It reminded me of a post I had read recently, one about fear. Writing, this woman said, was about delving deep, so deep, into the things that terrified her most, not spiders and snakes, but real things, like abuse and cruel negligence. This book feels like that. I cannot believe this was an easy book to write. It's precise, upsetting, control is a sign of that. It's a book that stares the truth in the face, and does not flinch. Maybe it doesn't look too hard, but it doesn't look away.

"Words are so heavy."

But there's never been a book before where I frowned at it, and told Death that he should stop making jokes. He's not funny.

So, it's pretty damn good. I believe it now.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #101

This Week's Topic:
What's your numero-uno reason for writing?

I have stories to tell.

That's the real reason.  People have often given me slightly odd looks after reading stories and said things like, "I would love to be in your head for a little while."  But for me, I love being in my head.  I love that feeling when a story idea starts to creep.  And I want to tell the stories, so I can enjoy them fully, as well as other people.

The question can actually be taken in a lot of ways.  What's my reason for sitting down and plying pen to paper or fingers to keyboard at any moment?  What's my reason for sitting down and moving forward on my revisions, trying to beat a novel into publishable shape?  What's my reason for wanting to be a writer, for wanting writing to be a major, important part of my life?

The Abduction of Rebecca
Although one of my reasons is that I have stories, that I love the feeling of linking ideas together, of turning a scene, of coming up with a perfect pinpoint metaphor, writing, as a goal, is also very important to me.  In a way, it has to do with why I never read contemporary YA as a young adult.  The real world is disappointing.  It's full of problems.  And it seems impossible to actually be the sort of hero who can change things, who can change people.  The scope of our ability for independent action is so constrained.  How can I touch people?  How can I reach people?

I'm not someone who is trying to put a message in my books.  I'm too ambivalent about everything to proselytize.  But even from my small experience with writing fanfiction, the responses I would get, the people who would tell me how a new piece I posted made a shitty day better, or thanked me for giving something they could turn to when they were going through a tough time, it was such an amazing feeling.  It was like, "yes, this is something I want to do.  This is something that's worth it."

So yeah, the heady sense of power.  That's good too.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Your Zeitgeist is Inconsistent

Although theoretically I've written four novels, I'm still new to the editing process.  Novel 1... didn't really get edited at all.  Novel 2 had a tight deadline, and so I cut and clipped and tried to edit, but in the end, had no idea what I was doing.  When I finally went back to revise, I got tangled up in the mess and nearly drowned in it.  Novel 3 underwent a huge amount of revision.  And, in the end, I still think that to make it into something coherent, I'm going to have to rewrite about half of it.

So basically, I have not had a huge amount of success with revisions.  This is particularly problematic, because I'm the sort of writer who plunges in and muddles around until I get where I'm going.  Sometimes I get to a lot of other places first.

I spent a long time trying to work out the logic of Novel 3 until I had sorted it out perfectly.  Then, as it was 140,000 words I cut 40,000 words.  Then I looked at it again, and realized, although it was perfectly logical, and not too long, as a story, it didn't make any sense.  This isn't something that's supposed to happen!  It really rocked me.  One of my readers had said "your zeitgeist is inconsistent."  I didn't know what do do with that.  What did that mean?

In the end, I think it meant a lot of things.  But one was that I didn't know what I was writing about.  I had an incredibly complex plot, a herd of characters, two worlds full of settings.  But I didn't have a reason.  I didn't have a goal.  (I also had too much of everything else.)  My main character did what he needed to do, but he didn't change.  There was no metamorphosis.  It was just the crazy train.

Part of my approach to novel 4 was to know what I was writing about.  Princesses!  And gender, and class, and risk, and expectations, and... well, maybe I wasn't all that constrained.  (Pirates!)  But I had themes.  I had a character arc form my MC (stubborn and rejecting to stubborn and accepting).  My plot was going somewhere, without a lot of wandering around in the forest.  I wrote in 1p past tense, keeping the voice intent and upbeat, so the feel wouldn't change wildly.

I was confident it would be awesome, and would be perfect, only needing a tiny bit of rethreading and polishing before it would be ready to send out.  One reader read it.  She loved it.  It was fast and funny.

Then my mom read it.

You know, usually they tell you that if your family tells you its wonderful, and you believe them, you're an idiot.  I don't think my family will ever tell me anything is wonderful.  My dad doesn't read my work, but still tells me that it would improve if 'you didn't have the aliens land on the beach' i.e. if I wrote realism and not fantasy.  This is not helpful, and I ignore him.  My mom, on the other hand, reads carefully, and marks up, until every page is a horror of pencil scribbles.  (She does this to her students too.  She has practice.)

She also let me know when she got bogged down and bored, and when she was annoyed, and when she didn't understand what was going on.  I also have a critique group, who are really good at telling me about flow of information and overall structure issues.  Dealing with all of these different types of criticisms is difficult. I like to formalize everything, so I'm going to give it a shot.

Basically, I think it breaks down into three levels.  Sentence level (or, the Beautiful Language level), Scene structure (is there conflict, is there momentum, does this make sense), Book level (how do your scenes flow?  Are we arcing in the right place?

There are also three aspects of these levels.  Plot threads (Where are they?  How do they build and intertwine?)  Characters - (is character x unconscious for too long?  Have we lost track of x?  Is y's dialogue distinctive enough?)  Background (too much, too little?  In order?  enough depth?).

Trying to pay attention to this entire matrix of complexities is no simple job.

More adventures in editing later on.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #100

What has your writing road trip looked like so far? Excitement? Traffic jams and detours? Where are you going next?

Having been known to love an extended metaphor far too much, I find the idea of the writing road trip really compelling.  My writing journey started out high up in the mountains on a bumpy dirt road, Palo Colorado Rd, perhaps, where I could look out and see the ocean, but the twists and turns of the canyon below were hidden from view.  And back then, I wasn't even looking for the road.  I wrote because I liked it.  Professionalism, publication, revision, they had nothing to do with me.  They were on the shore, I had my head in the clouds.

But in college that road took a turn down the mountain and I plunged downwards, bumping around, going in circles, picking up speed, nearly driving over cliffs multiple times.  And then I hit the bottom, and thought okay, I'm good.  I can really do this.

That was only the entrance into the pitch dark canyon of brutal reality.

But finally I can spy the light shining down on Highway 1 as it twists along the cliffs overlooking the ocean.  And though it may be a long drive and an uphill climb, beating a manuscript into actual publishable shape, I've got the top down, and the wind is in my hair, and I'm happy driving.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Road Trip Wednesday #99

 This week's topic:

What supporting character from a YA book would you most like to see star in their own novel?

I'm going to go all out with this one.  Being a fanficcer at heart, I know that at least if there is a character I thought was short changed and would have loved to know more about, I would go and hunt down the fic for them.  But sometimes even that recourse would fail.

Sometimes it didn't: 

Janine Kishi was super awesome.  She was smart, and interesting, and tried to be helpful (Apostrophes are important!).  I always wanted to know more about her, what she was doing and what was going on in her life that her self-absorbed little sister just ignored.

Shockingly enough, I wasn't the only one.  But this other person thought: you know what would be even better, if Janine was a mutant and went to Xavier's Academy. (See fic here)

So that's what I'd like to see, Janine's Super-Smart Mutant Adventures.  Or even if she wasn't a mutant, she clearly needs a bigger scope than Connecticut.  I could see her as a James Bond sort of character, saving the world from evil, with Science!
Janet Chant is another character I wanted more of.  Stolen from her own world into a world with magic by her evil double, choosing to give up her family to a girl who needed it more... These are interesting things!  And I want to know what happens next!  

 (Saiorse Ronan as Janet/Gwendolyn)
You're not supposed to be able to stay in a different world for too long.  When she grows up will she have to go back?  What will she do with her life?  Is she ever going to fall in love? 
 I don't suppose we'll ever know.

Edited to Add: Janet Chant is from the book Charmed Life, by Diana Wynne Jones.  It's... possibly my favorite book, YA or not.)