Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Chain of Mentoring; and Mugging the Muse

As a writer I have a mentor, Holly Lisle. She would undoubtedly be surprised beyond words to know that I consider her my mentor, as I am mentored through her excellent web site and blog--- you may find it at Holly Lisle.com.

I recently (yesterday, I think) downloaded her free ebook Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction for Love And Money. Among the many things I learned when reading the ebook 'cover to cover' yesterday was that she herself had a mentor, Mercedes Lackey, and Mercedes Lackey had a mentor, C. J. Cherryh. So, to the extent that I can be mentored through an ebook and a web site, I am part of a chain of mentoring, and a pretty cool one--- at least to me.

Mercedes Lackey, one of those on the chain, is one of my favorite fantasy authors, and possessor of one of the most interesting writer-names ever. (What is a Mercedes lackey? Why, the servant who takes care of your Mercedes, of course). Mercedes Lackey published her first story (or one of the first) in a Darkover anthology. Darkover is a fantasy world created by the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and MZB was very generous in helping new writers get started by editing a large number of Darkover anthologies.

I really like the idea of writer mentoring chains, and in a way that's a part of what this blog is about--- a sort of an exchange of mentoring, as I am mentored by the many writers (published and not-yet-published) on the CSFF blog tour list and elsewhere, and I try to pass the mentoring on by sharing what I have learned.

Mugging the Muse gives some very practical advice on how to become a professional writer, and how to avoid some of the mistakes she made that have had a bad impact on her career.

As a result, I've decided it's important to actually plan my writing career, and I have determined a bunch of activities which will help me to do this (not all of which I feel like sharing.)

One of the things that she mentions as being good for the career is series novels (as in MZB's Darkover series) and she gives some good advice for creating a series character you can live with.

I have decided that perhaps what I ought to do is work on an old fantasy world of mine (or a fantasy/sci-fi world, similar to Darkover in that respect) and add to it elements of other worlds I have created--- most specifically the Five Elements, a fantasy world organized around the Asian Five Elements of myth and legend. I want to put together a good solid fantasy/sci-fi world which I can use for a variety of story ideas I have had.

I also want to work on a couple of short stories. I haven't done that in a while, and I believe I have only finished about 3 short stories (5 if you count the 2True Confessions stories I wrote, of which one was published much to my embarrassment--- but I did get about $90 bucks for it.) But that is certainly more than the number of novels I've finished.

The advantage is that I can use the short stories to build my writing career and to prepare the way for my novel (assuming I finish one.)

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Friday, May 29, 2009

Autism Speaks vs. Autistic People

The 'charity' Autism Speaks is being promoted heavily on Ask.com among other places. Since their group raises money for scientific research with the aim of creating a prenatal test that will eliminate autistic people before they are born, for some reason a lot of autistic people don't like them. Go figure.



Autism is a spectrum of neurological disorder/difference which includes 'high functioning' individuals and 'low functioning' individuals with different problems and different skills. Having a form of autism is NOT a fate worse than death and in fact many famous and successful people are believed to have Asperger's Syndrome (high functioning autism).
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Writing a "Character Sketch" of an Object or Institution"

Sometimes a key character in a work of fiction isn't a person at all, and when this happens the writer will find himself doing what I am doing now--- working up a character sketch on something that isn't a person, or even particularly person-like.

Think of J. K. Rowling, planning her Harry Potter series, writing up a character sketch of Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry. Or Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, doing a character sketch of the Enterprise. Or Herman Melville writing a bio of the great white whale.

(At this point newcomers to this blog are leaning toward one another and whispering, 'This nissa_amas_katoj that writes this blog, she must have something wrong with her brain!' I do; it's called autism/Asperger's Syndrome.)

How do you know if an object or institution in your planned novel is worth writing a character sketch for? If it something that looms large--- or at least medium-sized--- in your story; if it changes or grows over the course of the story, or thwarts or aids your human characters on a regular basis; if it has an importance similar to that of one of your second or third tier characters--- there is a case for writing up a character sketch on it. (I wouldn't recommend making an object or institution your main character if you are hoping for publication.)

In one of my current projects-in-the-planning stage, there are two rival organizations that will play a role--- the Freemasons and the Jesuits. I've chosen the organizations in question as both have been accused of being sinister secret organizations involved in unholy conspiracies. One at least of my characters is convinced that both orgs. are equally evil, but must ally with one or the other....

In a big organization like these, I won't be writing a sketch on the whole of Freemasonry or the whole of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Instead the sketches will be of the Masons and Jesuits on-the-spot and in the era in which my story takes place.

The Freemasons in this story will have an inner circle which is very sinister and that will be the center of the sketch.

An organization or institution is made up of people; it also may have a physical presence in the form of a building or buildings, it will also have a philosophy/ideology.

One important thing is to differentiate between the organization/institution's ideology, and the ideology of the main representative of the institution in your story. In Harry Potter, the Dark wizards are more-or-less slaves of Lord Voldemort and must do as he says and think as he thinks. But just because Lord Vordemort likes snakes doesn't mean all Dark wizards keep snakes as pets. The snake-loving thing is a personal quirk of Voldemort and not part of the Dark wizard ideology, as Muggle-hating is.

I suppose one drawback of writing a 'character sketch' of an object/institution is that you might make it more human than you ought. It may seem like that apparently haunted house hates your main character but you (probably) don't want to make the house so human that your reader wonders if it might not BE a human enemy transformed to a haunted house by some spell (unless, of course, that's how the story is going to come out....)

And then to wrap the whole thing up you might decide to look at your characters as a bunch of cogs in the machinery of your story and write up a 'wiring diagram' that shows how they all fit in to the machine....
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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Why Villains Exist in Fiction

Villains exist in real life because, let's face it, SOMEONE has to be president.... But in fiction, why is your villain there? What is his function?

What makes your story interesting instead of a conflict or drama-free zone is that your hero (protagonist, main character) is in danger. The villain of your piece serves as a human (alien, robotic, other) personification of that danger.

In the Harry Potter series the relation is pretty direct. Hero Harry Potter is in constant peril because villain Lord Voldemort wants to kill him. A great part of the danger Harry was in came from just that situation--- he was in danger from Voldemort. In other cases he was in danger from followers of Lord Voldemort. In other cases the 'danger' came as a result of his status as a celebrity in the wizarding world--- the Boy Who Lived. But this celebrity status was a result of Voldemort having tried to kill him. Even the bad reputation that Harry got briefly when it became known he speaks Parseltongue (snake language) is a result of Voldemort's attack on Harry when he was a baby.

In most fiction the danger the hero faces is less obvious. In a romance, the 'danger' is that the heroine won't find her True Love, or that she won't win his or her attention or that he or she will marry someone else. In some stories the conflict is Man against Nature--- let's say a story about exploring a distant planet with a harsh environment.

Even in these cases, a villain can personify the danger. In a romance, the villain can be a woman who is also in love with the heroine's True Love and who is willing to go to great lengths to win him. It can also be the True Love's father who forbids the match--- or who needs his son to make a marriage to a rich heiress rather than the penniless governess heroine.

In a space-exploration story, the 'villain' can be some authority figure who wants to cut short the exploration against the hero's advice--- or one who insists on the exploration in spite of the dangers the hero informs him about. The 'villain' can also be a careless or inexperienced team member who is constantly doing things that endanger the hero.

Whether the villain is a fully evil dude out to get the hero, or just a guy doing his job, the villain must also have his good qualities if he is to be more than a cartoon villain. For example, Lord Voldemort had his background as a motherless illegitimate child--- which doesn't really go anywhere near explaining his extreme evil and self-destructive tendency to kill people, especially Muggles, just for fun.

A more realistic villain is the soap opera character Adam Chandler from All My Children. Over the many years of his tenure, Adam has amassed a long list of crimes and other evil actions. But he is also shown as a man who very much loves his twin brother Stuart, who cares for his children (though he drives them all to drink). This human touch accounts for the character's longevity. Soap opera characters who are pure over-the-top evil last only a year or two before someone murders them (and usually everyone in town's a suspect and the killer is often a sympathetic character who gets away with the crime.)

But I believe in old-fashioned storytelling in which the villain is villainous and the hero is relatively good--- or at least less evil than the villain. A lot of modern writers, perhaps to express their idea that there is no right or wrong anymore other than political incorrectness, have heroes who are thieves, con men, or even hit men. Villains, from this type of writer, might well be Christians as in the eyes of such people calling someone a Christian is the same as calling him a KKK member. You can see this from the character Stilson, in Stephen King's 'The Dead Zone', who starts out as a Bible salesman who kicks a dog to death.

But the problem of this approach I think is that you can lose your reader, as Stephen King lost me for all time with a minor villain character he created for his novel 'Cell', which is about how cell phones destroy humanity.

The hero and his companions, a Gay man and a teen girl, are making their way out of the destroyed city when they come across an old woman who wonders what these two men are doing with an unrelated young girl. But this evil woman turns out to be a *gasp* Christian--- a prolife Christian, in fact. The 'hero' slaps the woman and moves on as the Gay man explains his hatred for Christians based on the fact he had Christian family members.

The problem is that the United States (primary audience for Stephen King) is something like 80% Christian, so that large numbers of his readers can be expected to have known many Christians in person even if they are not personally Christian. So when THEY see an old woman going up to two strong young men in order to see if a young girl needs rescuing, they won't recast her as a villain just because she's a prolife Christian who is not politically correct about Gay people. They see her as a very brave woman who is risking her own life for the sake of a girl who might need her help.

Stephen King ruined the book 'Cell' for me, as well as ruining his first important Gay character, with this one slap, based on his misunderstanding of how the average person will react to this villain/hero divide. He could have saved the situation in a number of ways--- lightened the Christian identity of the villain, or allowed one of the main characters to be a stronger Christian. He could have made the villain physically stronger so that standing up to the hero wouldn't have been an act of courage, or perhaps made the hero and his Gay friend weaker or disabled. Or he could have given this villain a selfish motive for intervening on behalf of the girl--- for example, if this villain had been a straight man or a Gay woman with possible attraction for the girl.

The old fashioned hero who has an aversion to doing wrong, coupled with a villain who at least in some circumstances is willing to do wrong, is my idea of a writer's best friend. It's far easier to take your audience along for the ride with you and have them cheering and crying in the right places if you do this rather than if you insist on turning the world upside down ALL the time.
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Friday, May 8, 2009

The Writer's Desk Book and How to Organize One



Recently I re-read the book The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova. I liked this book when I bought it because I had actually heard of the author, Ben Bova, as a science fiction writer. If a book is going to tell me how to be a fiction writer, I like it when the author of that book is a fiction writer himself rather than a college English professor.

One of the more useful sections of the book is where he describes his desk book--- a three-ring binder in which he keeps stuff related to his novel. He suggests that the desk book have sections for characters, names, background information, lines and phrases, and a chart of character appearances.

He kind of ruins it all by mentioning that now his desk book consists of a batch of files on his computer. My own experience with computer files is that sooner or later you can no longer open them. I have had writing files on floppy disks which I carefully preserved in case I ever wanted to revive the writing project in question. Some of these floppy disks could no longer be opened in a new computer when I replaced the old one. Now, of course, my computer doesn't even have a floppy disk drive. Only those writing projects which have hard-copy versions are able to be recovered for any purpose.

I decided to organize my old and current writing projects into a desk book. Now, I don't have enough dividers to create all the sections--- characters, background and so on--- for each individual novel project. So I reserve the sections for the current project, whichever that is, and have other dividers for the project on the back burner. I also have a second notebook for older projects that won't fit in the first.

The picture above shows the two notebooks, the desk book and the overflow book. It also shows my two new kittens, Germanicus 2 and Claudius 2. They are named after my two favorite cats who died last December. Germanicus 2 is the black and white in the front, and Claudius 2 is the one with her back to the camera. (Yes, this Claudius is a girl and I didn't change her name to Claudia lest anyone think she was named in honor of Claudia on General Hospital.)

In the course of putting together the notebooks I've come across a lot of old writing projects I haven't looked at in years. I'm surprised to find that all of those I have recovered so far seem to be quality work which would be worth reviving. I guess my less worthwhile work is buried deeper in my junk pile or lost altogether. One in particular is one that I have been 'writing' in my fantasy life for years, seems to be one I need to write. First step is to write down the story as I know it from my mental work over the years.

My other most urgent project is a brand-new story based on the idea of cloning. You may be familiar with James BeauSeigneur's book In His Image (The Christ Clone Trilogy, Book 1) and its sequels.

My idea is a little less daunting than cloning Jesus. What if someone decided to clone a visionary such as Saint Bernadette or one of the Fatima children with the idea of discrediting the Catholic church, either because the clone-child will have a religious vision (proving her insane and her original likewise) or else she might be irreligious (showing what the Saint would have been if she'd had a proper, non-religious upbringing.) Of course to a Catholic this cloning effort would be simply sad, rather than something that could in any circumstances weaken one's faith, but the sort of person that would do the experiment wouldn't know that.

At any rate, I believe that organizing a writer's work may well be the difference between a writer that succeeds and one that fails. There are writing projects that take the author many years; they can't succeed if the writer loses the notes periodically!

Of course each writer has to organize the desk book in his own way. Do you use a desk book or the equivalent? How is yours organized? Let me know in a comment--- and good luck with your writing today!

Blog Post:
katarzynaradzka: Do You Keep a Writers Diary?

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

As Swine Flu becomes Novel Flu, Will Writers Suffer?

On a recent commentary on This Week in Agribusiness, Orion Samuelson pointed out the need to change the name of the so-called Swine Flu. Although the virus is genetically similar to the Swine Flu which affects pigs, it spreads human to human and had not been found in pigs, though there is a case where a pig may have caught the disease from a human who had been to Mexico.

Yet in spite of the facts some nations have been banning pork product imports using the flu as an excuse. People are being asked if they have given up pork because of the flu--- even though this is an utterly futile measure to take.

Orion Samuelson pointed out that this flu is not a true swine flu and that the Europeans have started calling it Novel Flu to avoid confusion, not to mention international agricultural trade wars disguised as health concerns.

But what will happen if the name 'Novel Flu' catches on? The news media still wants to generate hysteria over the disease. Will they be asking people if they have given up novel reading to avoid catching the Novel Flu? Will bookstores and libraries be asked to shut down for the duration? Will countries ban the publication of foreign novels?

This may seem silly, but in actual fact it may be slightly easier to get the Novel Flu from a novel, assuming the novel has been passed hand-to-hand and has been touched by an infected person, than it would be to get it eating pork, which after all is cooked before eating which would kill any germs, including flu germs.

However, writers of the world have one hope that they will avoid taking the hits that hog farmers have. The animal rights wienies of PETA and other hate groups have been trying to use the Swine Flu to scare people into adopting unhealthy vegetarian diets. They have no such motive to promote fear of novels in the case of Novel Flu. Without the help of the wienies, the media may have a harder job promoting the fear.
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