Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stories as VR headsets

"Story" was and is the world’s first and best virtual reality machine.

When you're reading a good story and you're absorbed (assuming you have good reading comprehension and you're paying fair attention), it's like the old TV program: YOU ARE THERE.

Even if you're not identifying with the hero and you're only watching out of the fascination you have with a train wreck, you should still be seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, smelling the coffee, and feeling the angst of the characters in the story world.

But first, let us back up a step. What IS a story? Is it that rambling anecdote your co-worker has been droning on about for three minutes without actually saying anything other than "like, man," "she was all like 'He's a fool' and stuff," and "I know, right?" Sort of. But not really.

A story is not just a plot that orders characters around. A story has to have a character arc, IMHO.

A story is how what happens (the plot) affects someone (the protagonist) in pursuit of a difficult goal (the story question) and how he or she changes as a result (which is what the story is actually about).

Despite appearances (and disregarding all the beautifully cinematic stuff you sometimes see on the big screen that has no meaning and leaves you asking, "What was that about?" as you leave the theater), *story* is internal, not external.

A story is not about the plot, even though so many readers, reviewers, and even writers believe it is. (Why would there be two words for it if they didn't have different meanings, connotation as well as denotation?) A *story* is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The *story* is what helps us as readers take the "vivid, continuous dream" that we have co-created with the author, extract the helpful bits that feed our need for story (including the take the author has on the eternal human condition), and make sense of the world using the information.

In part, the way a story gives us the sense that we’re in the protagonist’s world is through identification with the character(s). Writers convey the protagonist’s internal reaction to what happens via internal monologue, thoughts that are slipped in between the action or dialogue, or even subtext in the dialogue itself (the toughest way to do it, as different readers will get different things out of it depending on their cultural immersion). This is what gives readers the vicarious experience. We want to evoke emotion in readers AND allow them to identify with the hero.

That’s why it’s maddening that writers are constantly warned not to include internal thought. For most readers, the introspection just slides on in with the rest of the story. But editors and agents weary of seeing the endless "thinking" in some literary tomes went too far in banning it entirely. You don't want to have three pages of introspection about what happened in the past stuck into the midst of action. You don't want to have someone ask Tad a question and then have him muse for three pages about various things it reminds him of before you have him answer, partly because the reader will have forgotten the question and the setting in story-present by the end of the musings, and partly because it makes story-time seem in slow motion. This does not, however, mean that a few thoughts slipped in will not make it clearer for our readers. And clarity is our goal, above all, as I mentioned in a previous post.

Chip and Dan Heath have identified a phenomenon they term the "Curse of Knowledge." They remind us that "when you know something, it’s very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it." This is why some math professors find it impossible to teach middle school math or explain a simple fast Fourier transform to a classroom full of drooling undergraduates: they can't IMAGINE what it would be like not to just SEE the derivative when you look at something. To apply this to writing your novel, think about how many things you already know about the character and the plot. Not all of this is known by the reader. Unless you put it on the page, either express or implied, the reader can't just KNOW this stuff.

Writers are often taught that it’s talking down to the reader to actually let them know how the protagonist is reacting to what’s happening. This is wrongheaded. As Aunt Fannie Belle would've said, "It ain't, sugar. If you don't tell me what you mean, I'll never know."

Writers are often told that if you simply show something happening, the reader will always accurately intuit what the protagonist’s inner response is. In almost every case, this is patently untrue, and instead of inviting the reader in, it locks the reader out. Readers get frustrated. Readeres misunderstand what you are saying. Readers bring their own issues and ideas to the fire and throw them onto the blaze, making a maelstrom, when all you meant was that the guy blinked. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But when will readers know this? Is there some kind of Big Symbolism that we're missing here?

The deeper problem is the universal notion that it’s the reader’s job to “get it” rather than the writer’s job to communicate it. Thus the writer tells us, in passing, that Ashley is obsessed with mayonnaise. (In point of actual fact, she is terrified of mayonnaise and faints when she thinks it might touch her body, as it would burn off her skin.) He doesn't spell this out, however. No one has come right out and SAID what the problem is. The writer has implied it in the way she glares at people who order no mustard at Whataburger and with similar subtle clues. Now the writer assumes that when Joe orders a pastrami on rye with mayo (how dare he!) right in FRONT of her, we’ll know exactly why she breaks up with him on the spot and runs away screaming. I mean, how could we not know?

Writing like this is really very passive/aggressive. "What's wrong, Fred? You seem troubled and distant." "Yeah, well." "What's wrong?" *sniffle* "Well, if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you.” *wail* *sob*

Certainly there are times you'll have to trust your readers to “get it,” but you can only do this once you’ve given them enough specific information so that they actually can.

When it comes to story, telling is not always bad. In fact, ALL stories are told. "Tell me a story!" is the child's original demand of the parents at bedtime. Well, go ahead . . . TELL it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"D'oh!" Character stupidity as a plot device

I wanted to explore further some of the musings I wrote about yesterday.

I see so many books and films or television shows in which the stupidity or carelessness of a main character (usually one who has been sensible up until this point) serves as a major plot device. Sometimes this is forgivable, but most of the time it's not. What are authors thinking?

Or are they not thinking?

Do readers/viewers even care?

I think they do.

I'm not talking (mostly) about a momentary lapse. The smartest, most on-the-ball character (or human being) can accidentally shred the wrong document or mention something that is supposed to be kept under wraps a while longer. I'm talking about the big-time mistake made by a character who hasn't been set up to be the "cute ditz" or "clueless moron" of the piece, a mistake that leads directly to the next plot development or (worse) to the happenstance solution of the crime.

I hope that readers can see when an author is setting up a plausible lapse. For example, in my Jacquidon series, Our Heroine has just developed diabetes. She inadvertently drinks a little alcohol and eats the wrong snack foods, causing her blood sugar to swing. This in turn leads to poor judgment (just as it does in real life). This explains why she leaves a couple of phone messages one evening for someone she should probably be steering clear of. I need her to make this mistake in order to have something the cops can seize upon as "evidence" pointing to a thread of actions they claim she took (which she didn't take). I am hoping that readers pick up on WHY I had her get into the reduced-mental-processing condition so she could make this minor mistake. It's not a MAJOR plot point, but it is yet another brick on the yellow brick road the police are trying to build to railroad her.

One of the actions questioned in a recent review was that Jacquidon backed down rather than prolonging a bad scene in which she was being challenged/attacked. I had her get out of the situation (which had been engineered by another suspect in order to throw suspicion away from herself and onto Jacquidon, by the way) instead of fighting back and making a bigger scene because she ISN'T TSTL. In my experience, any time you "fight back," onlookers will jump to the conclusion that YOU are the irrational and crazy one because they only got their attention attracted when YOU started yelling back. It's never a good thing to be identified as someone who goes crazy in public (no one ever remembers the provocation, trust me!), especially when you're already under investigation as a murder suspect. Keep your cool and analyze WHY things happen and WHO it could benefit to start such a scene, and you will be ahead of the game. (In real life as well as in fiction.)

You never want your characters to be Too Stupid to Live. Now, I realize that some of the characters whom I see as TSTL seem perfectly normal and reasonable to their authors and fans. Still, we can all agree that a character should not, upon hearing a noise outside at 3 AM, fling open the front door wearing only a filmy nightgown to shout, "Who is it?"

TSTL actions are usually big boo-boos, linchpin decisions on which the rest of the plot turns. It comes down to authors giving the plot precedence over characterization. "Why did you do that?" "Because the script said so." The writer forces what was a perfectly intelligent character into an act of utter stupidity so the preordained plot point can happen (usually with extra added shock value), instead of having the character drive the plot.

Here are some rules of thumb:

* PICK UP that gun that the bad guy dropped before he gets it back

* YELL when someone approaches you and seems threatening; run in a broken-field pattern and be noisy so as to attract the most attention possible. It's better to be embarrassed than to be overcome and hurt by a perp.

* DO NOT get into the car of a person who is holding a gun on you. You're better off if you stay in that WalMart parking lot and he shoots you, because you could get help and the shooting will attract attention. If you go with him, you are dead--and will probably suffer greatly on the way out.

* If you are going somewhere to meet a stranger in a dark alley, SET UP A RESCUE; at least call one of those police friends you have and ask them to be waiting in the background should the meeting go south. Better yet, don't meet the person. Make them come to YOU in a diner that is full of people and in public.

What are the things like this that would make you throw a book against the wall and stop reading it?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

New Review of NICE WORK!

A review of NICE WORK is up at Reviewing the Evidence! Yay!

(You know, I don't know why Blogger sometimes makes the links live and sometimes doesn't. It is a puzzlement.)

I really appreciate the review! It helps to get the word out there. I'd love to see the Kindle version become available soon; I know the price is somewhat high on the trade paperback. Still, a paper book might be a cool Christmas gift (hint, hint).

I've noticed a couple of similarities in the reviews done by people who say "this wasn't my favorite book" or "I had problems with the characters." One thing I do note is that they don't have any problems following the plot twists and/or accepting them as logical. That was, frankly, my biggest concern. I figured that people might not believe some of the things that happened. I'm happy that it seems the suspenders of disbelief are stretching appropriately.

(This is a musing on the usefulness of reviews for authors, not an "attack" on reviewers. I'm musing about why parts of the book might not come across as intended.)

*contains spoilers or semi-spoilers for those who are bothered by such things, although so does this particular review*

Generally, I use the advice given or implied in reviews to improve the next book. It's always good to get feedback that isn't restrained or edited. However, sometimes I simply can't agree with ALL the advice being given, although I appreciate the effort that any reviewer goes to in order to put their concerns into words. I know how tough it is to read something and review it!

I'm surprised that a couple of people have objected to Jacquidon's attending the funeral of her former boss. For one thing, I point out in the book that she has worked for the man for several years, and she believed during that time that they'd had a fairly good relationship. She saw his recent behavior as an aberration. So I can't see her *not* going to pay her respects. Also, Tracy (her co-worker and best friend) practically strong-arms her into going, remember? That conversation takes up a couple of pages in the book, featuring Tracy's crystal blue persuasion. Many times, at least in mystery fiction, the perp will attend the funeral, so sleuths get information from it. I think there might be a couple of clues planted in that scene, for those who are analytical and paying proper attention. But oh well.

The bigger surprise, though, is that this reviewer doesn't like it when Jacquidon gets (basically) verbally attacked at the end of the service when she goes to tell the family and close friends how sorry she is (because of course she IS--I couldn't hear of the passing of one of my former co-workers or bosses without feeling for the family, because I'm not a sociopath.) The reviewer complained that when Jacquidon is basically shouted at ("You killed him!"), she doesn't shout back. Well . . . I think that it's never a good idea to make a scene, especially if you ever want to get another job. (These people might be contacted by the new potential employers; it happens, especially if the new job requires an extended background investigation or the HR department likes to call around. Sometimes that saves a company from hiring someone who really IS a problem child but looks good on paper.) I think that the better part of valor is to quietly say a few words in your own defense, apologize (because obviously they feel intruded upon), and exit. That's basically what she did. It is part of her characterization that she wouldn't shout back or shove back. That would be (in her view, as well as in mine) a childish and immature response to their actions. Their actions might have been taken out of pain and confusion, or it might have been someone trying to pin the blame on Jacquidon even MORE firmly . . . perhaps that could be seen as a clue or red herring.

I know that readers today expect a completely Alpha hero or heroine who fights back and throws vases and stomps feet, if not swinging swords and firing Colt .45s into the air like Yosemite Sam, but that's not the only kind of hero there is. Mine are generally more thoughtful and think before they act. If cornered, they'll come up with some way out other than violence, if possible. Sometimes it's not possible.

But isn't shouting back what you should do in real life? No, I'd say not. My advice would be that if you ever ARE confronted verbally with accusations about something you didn't do, and/or you get into a dangerously brewing situation, that you take the sensible route and speak softly while exiting. You might have to brandish a big stick, but if you start bashing people over the head with it, YOU will be in trouble for assault. It's better to fade out of the scene and deal with rumors by doing something other than screaming and shouting that they're false, as this often leads to comments like, "Thou dost protest too much."

Trust someone who has been in that particular situation. (NOT accused of murder, but confronted by someone who felt wronged and who wanted to make a scene with me as the star victim.) It is better to respond quietly and take the first opportunity to exit, even if you think that is "chicken," because if you allow the situation to escalate (or, worse, if YOU escalate it), I guarantee that most onlookers (and oh, yes, this sort of confrontation will gather a crowd) will go away thinking that YOU STARTED IT and YOU MUST BE GUILTY OF SOMETHING AWFUL and YOU ARE A TROUBLEMAKER. It's not fair, but that's how it works out. (Note that newspaper retractions never have much effect, as the readers of the original story still believe what they've read.)

I know this kind of scene shows up in movies all the time because they're doing the bread and circuses thing, but that's the movies. You don't want a reputation as someone who heedlessly shouts at a funeral or in an office or in the parking lot, trust me. Try to avoid escalating things into an ugly scene if possible, in real life (and in fiction, if your character is smart enough to avoid it). A word to the wise is sufficient.

This particular reviewer questions why Jacquidon and her sister are reluctant to tell their mother that Jacquidon is under investigation for this murder. Well, that just means I must not have portrayed the mother properly. (I'll do better next time.) Most moms are somewhat older and fragile, and why worry them when there's nothing really to tell? The truth comes out when the sisters go to their mom to help them read something that's written in a language that their mom understands, and they are forced to confess. So it's only at first that they keep this to themselves. I think that's wise, and so did they, but you'll have to make your own decision. If your mother can't do anything more than worry and fret and possibly have palpitations over the idea that you're unjustly accused . . . I'd advise that you wait to tell her. I mean in real life. But we'll all hope that none of us ever get into this situation!

I was dismayed that a couple of reviewers (this one included, but there was another one as well) didn't see any clues in the short interlude during which Jacquidon judges a corporate spelling bee. Not only is she attending the event with a suspect (Tracy should be a suspect in most readers' minds by this point in the story) who might reveal more helpful information, but also Jacquidon catches sight of a second suspect there and chases her down for questioning.

I thought it would be more fun to have a suspect appear in a new and interesting setting rather than always having the scenes in restaurants, offices, classrooms, private homes, and so forth, the way so many stories do. It's always neat when I read a mystery and the scenes aren't just all courtroom, police station, office, telephone conversations in cars, and that mundane stuff we've all seen over and over again. If a scene is set at a carnival (okay, THAT one was done in so many films that it's almost a cliche), in a house of ill repute, or in a hot-air balloon (which is a scene from one of my forthcoming works), and readers have the opportunity to learn something or experience vicariously something they've never experienced, so much the better, as far as I'm concerned. I don't see anything wrong with hanging a colorful background so that readers get more fun out of a scene (and possibly the action develops character as well). But some readers want nothing but nonstop focus on the main plot action, and that's fine. That's the way they roll.

I like a secondary plot or "B story" to relieve some of the seriousness. (Even Shakespeare was allowed some comic relief.) I don't know if there's something about a romance inside a mystery . . . I see it almost every time in a cozy these days. I didn't want Our Romance to be with a cop in this one, though. I get really tired of female amateur sleuths hooking up with the detective on the case. It never bothered me in the Claire mysteries by Joan Hess, or in the Goldy mysteries by Diane Mott Davidson, but it bugs me in other books now. It's more fun if you don't have a Close Personal Friend on the police force, I think. Of course you'll get up close with a few cops if you're being investigated, though.

I like to learn something when I read, even if it's fiction. That, again, is a personal preference.

The point here, I suppose, is that different readers read for different experiences. If you like an experience that doesn't have an obvious B story, then you won't like books with subplots that take away time from the main action (even if they're tied in--for example, the employment counselor who becomes a romantic interest in NICE WORK turns out to be a computer whiz who helps decode some clues later in the book). Reviews are good for initially determining whether a book will be to your liking (I often use them to check whether children and pets are victimized, because I simply do not read those books), but often you'll find something different from what any one particular reviewer found. You'll find your own story, because you help the author to show you the "vivid, continuous dream" (as John Walker phrases it).

However, if something shows up in more than one review, it's time to consider why the scene didn't come across the way it was intended. It takes time for this information to percolate through the gray matter and reach the Girls in the Basement all deciphered, so maybe by the time I'm polishing the sequel, I'll figure out a way to make this stuff come across more clearly. Clarity above all is the goal! And entertainment . . . yeah, entertainment. That's the business I'm in, after all.

Go ahead, read 'em . . . we'll write more.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

GUEST POST: Janis Patterson and BEADED TO DEATH Release Day!

Today I bring you a special guest blog from Janis Patterson, multiply published (traditionally published several times over the years) mystery author! She was one of the 100 writers who founded Romance Writers of America (you can get her re-issued romances soon on Amazon, published as Janis Susan May.)

Her new book BEADED TO DEATH, a funny cozy mystery, was just released this past Monday, October first. Yay! But if we consider what she says below, we'd probably better HURRY to get it before someone goes out and censors it, bans it, or does whatever other nefarious thing the government would like to do to books and our electronic texts. I believe she makes some valid discussion points.

In fact, October is Banned Books Month. Let's go out and read a banned book that could destroy our minds and take control of our senses. One like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD . . . CATCHER IN THE RYE . . . or (the clear winner) THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, that Great American Novel with the dreaded "N" word in it (because that was the vernacular of the day, AND because Twain wants us to see it for what it is--NOT because Twain/Clemens was a racist, sheesh. Those dangerous books that ask us to think and move us to feel! Oh, the horror!

I wish they'd ban NICE WORK and MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS. And certainly CAMILLE'S TRAVELS. Or even APRIL, MAYBE JUNE. That one will definitely inspire people to think for themselves. And we cannot have that, can we?

So let's listen to what our honored guest has to say and then go check out her book on Amazon. (Be sure to click on the LIKE button next to the title before you buy it and check out!)

Attack of the Bureaucrats
by Janis Patterson

I wonder what ever happened to freedom? I’ve been battling the Animal License Registration people for months now. Both my vet and I have told them that my dog received a three year rabies vaccination. We’ve told them that for two years. They received the documentation when it was first done. They also accepted that I was old enough to qualify for a senior exemption.

But not any more. They’re threatening me with a criminal citation. And they’re saying that all of a sudden I have to mail them a copy of my driver’s license. Really! After accepting my exemption before, now they have to have a copy? And in these days of identity theft I am to send a copy through the mail?

Really, what business is it of theirs how many animals I want to have? Government intrusion at its worst.

So what does this admittedly bad-tempered (but very truthful) rant have to do with writing?

The thin edge of the wedge.

If a petty bureaucratic agency can dictate how many animals I have, can ignore facts and demand that I put myself and my credit at risk, and can threaten me with criminal citations unless I dance through their ridiculous hoops, what else can the government do? If the time-servers at the animal services department can do all that and intrude so far into our private lives with impunity, how long will it be before there is a department of literary control?

The idea is worse than any horror story.

Just imagine. Every book will have to go through an evaluation process to see if it fits whatever standard is in play at the moment. It will have to be registered – not like with an ISBN, for ease of location and purchase, but to show that it has been approved for distribution to the populace. Then, if the political/social winds change, it can be de-certified and eradicated in a moment. The book that never was.

I don’t care for erotica. There are, however, many who do. There’s a lot of it out there, and that’s as it should be. I believe that people should be allowed to read what they like, be it erotica or sweet romance or mysteries or history or technological books or whatever. But… what if some bureaucratic automaton suddenly decided that a certain kind of book wasn’t acceptable and shouldn’t be allowed. With the pressure of the government and threats of punishment those unacceptable books would vanish. Nowadays we would of course cry ‘Censorship!’ and fight it.

We might even win -– this time. In the future… who knows?

Perhaps you think my premise preposterous or even paranoid. Perhaps it is – but just remember, they really can be out to get you even if you are paranoid.

Freedom to read what we want, to write what we want, is not something to be taken lightly, and should be guarded at all costs. I don’t have a magic pill or incantation to keep away a dire book-controlled future that may not ever happen. I don’t know a solution, save to keep writing and keep alert. The internet and the ease of self-publishing have done a great deal to destroy the old gatekeepers – for good or for bad – but there is no guarantee that such freedom will last.

It is our job as writers, as readers, to see that the freedom to read and write what we want to is kept alive.

So –- as a first step, I would remind you that my lighthearted cozy mystery BEADED TO DEATH was released 1 October. It’s a fun romp with a middle-aged bead artist who finds an unknown dead body in her living room and is suddenly plunged into a new world containing drug smugglers, an FBI agent who may or may not be rogue and a 7’3” nephew on the run from an unwanted basketball scholarship.

If I were cynical, I’d say get it while you can. Do I really think an apocalypse of book-control is coming? I most devoutly hope not.

But it is a possibility.