Thursday, 29 November 2012

RETROTHURSDAY: BEAUTIFUL CORPSES

Hello and Happy Thursday, my lovelies. Welcome to Retro-Thursday, when I retrieve an older post from my archives in the hope that you may enjoy re-reading it, or may even have missed it the first time around. Given the way that cover trends have shifted over the twelve months since I wrote this, I thought it would be particularly interesting.

Retro-Thursday: BEAUTIFUL CORPSES

Lately I've been thinking about the discussion that's going on in the YA community with regard to 'dead girl' covers.
For anyone reading this who may have sexual assault triggers (or if you're under sixteen), it might be a good idea to either skip today's post or get someone else that you trust to read it first to make sure you'll be all right with it. I really want to talk about this, but I don't want to hurt or upset anyone. OK? *Virtual Hugs To All*

Dead girl covers are the glamorous images of young women in sexy dresses (because girls in trousers, or jeans, or a nice warm jumper, don't really have the same impact) sprawled out (on grass or flowers, in a river or the sea, sometimes floating on a cloud or in darkness) either with their eyes closed or staring vacantly in such a way that you can't work out whether they've just finished having sex, or just died, or both.

There's been a low-level buzz about this for a while, but the real conversation about whether these images were OK started here, on Rachel Stark's rather wonderful blog (where she provides a whole raft of examples). It was taken up by reknowned literary agent Kristin Nelson, here.

I was happy to see this debate taking place, because it's been something that my writing group (several of whom are YA writers) have been feeling queasy about for...years, actually. Supposedly these books are aimed at young women, but the way that the models are dressed and posed smacks strongly of something called The Male Gaze, which is where the cameraman or woman makes the assumption that all (important) viewers are heterosexual males and focuses on portraying what they shoot in a way that appeals strongly to a heterosexual male perspective.

As a result, I feel as if these covers speak less about what young women are interested in, and more about what the world itself is interested in - ie, images of young women in which the women are passive and sexualised.

You just don't see images of young men like this in the mainstream media, with barely any clothes on, airbrushed limbs carelessly sprawled across the ground, hair trailing gently around their faces, and a dreamy/dead look in their eyes. Images of men on covers (and in the general media) are much, much more likely to be active and even heroic. Boys or men will be found standing, leaping, climbing, holding weapons, reaching out. Their faces will be filled with emotion. If they aren't looking directly into camera their eyes will be focused on some distant goal that only they can see, with a look of stern concentration. For some strange reason, we don't really find a man attractive if he looks vacant or possibly dead.

But having read and written a few mini-rants on the topic, my writing group and I moved onto other things. I don't have any dead girl covers as yet myself, and without really thinking about it I can state that there are few to none on my own shelves. Whether that's due to the content of books with these sorts of covers generally not appealing to me, or because I'm unconsciously avoiding books with covers that I find disturbing (and heck, why not?), I don't know. In either case, as worrying as I found this trend, I didn't feel that I had much to add to the conversation that was taking place about it.

Then last week Rachel posted again, talking about how some commentors had defended the fascination with the glamorised, sexy corpses of young women by reminding us that this is a trope that stretches back a long, long way. Back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. It's a fairytale archetype, they said - the heroine undergoes a spiritual or even a physical death and arises changed and transformed.

Rachel's response to this is great - she points out that just because the trend for beautiful corpses has been going on for a long time, even back to fairytale time, that doesn't mean it's healthy. It just means it's deep-seated.

But seeing the current deluge of dead girl images related to sleeping princess fairytales made a lightbulb pop up above my head. I think what the people talking about this don't realise is that the sleeping heroines they brought into the discussion are rape victims.

I can practically feel readers sucking in a horrified breath as I type this. I know that's not the common conception of these beloved, Disneyfied princesses. And I know that when parents read Snow White or Sleeping Beauty to their daughters before bedtime, they're imparting what they feel are beautiful stories of true love conquering all. After all, waking a princess from a terrible spell with 'true love's kiss' has become a trope in itself by now.

That is not what those stories were originally about. If you read the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White - the versions you find in Italo Calvino's Italian Fairytales, the versions which had not yet undergone the benign censoring hand of Grimm and Anderson and the Victorian Era, you find stories in which true love's kiss has nothing to do with the awakening of the poor, unconscious girl lying in the castle or in the crystal case.

What really happens is that a travelling prince, in the course of his adventures, comes across an apparently sleeping young woman who is unable to defend herself, and rapes her. Then he goes on his merry way. About nine months later, the girl gives birth to a child, and this experience (not surprisingly) finally wakes her from her slumber. And then (the part which always makes me feel the most squinky) the girl is so grateful for having finally escaped the curse that she goes after the travelling prince, thanks him very much for his random sexual assault, and ends up getting married to him.

This represents a fairly strong and very dark male fantasy - that of the unresisting victim. A girl who can't fight or struggle because she is incapacitated. A girl who, although unable to offer any kind of consent to sexual activity, of course actually wants it. A girl who will even thank you for it later on. So why not go ahead and, as the original fairytale text puts it 'enjoy [your]self thoroughly'?

Time may have smoothed the rough edges of our fairytales, removed the sex and replaced it with a sweet kiss, but it says a lot about all of us that hundreds of years later we're still telling those stories to our daughters. As a folklore enthusiast I can list dozens of fairytales and folk stories which have completely disappeared off the radar and which no child today would recognise. But somehow the image of the sleeping princess - the dead girl - still endures.

Why is that, do you think?

Recently there was a rape case in the U.S. where a young women who was out having fun got extremely drunk and called a taxi to take her home. She was unable to get out of the taxi on her own and the driver was worried about her, so he called the police and two officers came and took the girl out of the taxi and got her into her apartment. They then sexually assaulted her. When she woke up and realised what had happened, she reported it. But even though it was shown that the two police officers had lied about their whereabouts during the time they were in her apartment, and that they HAD both had sex with a girl who was so drunk that she was incapable of even getting out of a taxi on her own, they weren't convicted of anything. The jurors apparently believed that any girl who allowed herself to be incapacitated to that extent was 'asking for it'.

When you've thought about that for a little bit, go look at those beautiful images of dead/unconscious girls in thin dresses, with their trailing hair, sprawled limbs and closed or empty eyes, again. Somehow they've stopped being a little disturbing now haven't they?

They're very disturbing indeed.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

THE NEXT BIG THING

Hello and Happy Tuesday my lovelies! Today I'm taking part in a meme (I know, right?! It might actually be my first, unless Roadtrip Wednesday counts) called The Next Big Thing, whereby writers tag each other to answer certain questions about whatever their newest project is - and then tag still more writers to take part.

I was tagged by the absolutely delightful Erin Bow, who talks about her Next Big Thing, Sorrow's Knot (which sounds so luciously creepy and beautiful I can't even stand it) right here.

I, in my turn, am tagging lovely writer friends R.J Anderson (author of KNIFE, SWIFT, ULTRAVIOLET and the upcoming QUICKSILVER) and Elizabeth May (the lady whose beautiful photograph and face are on the cover of FrostFire) whose first book THE FALCONER is coming out next year. These guys will be posting their own Next Big Things either this or next week, so check their blogs out.

NOTE: I would have tagged more writers for this if I could, but practically everyone I approached had either *already* taken part or *couldn't* take part for excellent reasons. As it is, R.J. has actually already been tagged by Erin in the same post that tagged me. We decided to let it slide, since I was about to break down and cry all over Twitter. 

What’s the working title for your book?

The fact that I can finally talk about this now makes me so happy and giggly. Yay! It's The Name of the Blade trilogy, and Book One is titled The Night Itself. 

A short synopsis?

When Mio steals the katana – her family's priceless sword – she only wants to liven up her fancy-dress costume. But the katana is more than some dusty heirloom, and her actions unleash an ancient and unspeakable evil. Soon the monsters of mythical Japan are stalking the streets of 21st century London, searching for her and the sword. Only the appearance of a mysterious warrior boy, Shinobu, saves Mio from death. Now Mio knows that if she cannot learn to control the katana's legendary powers, she will lose not only her own life ... but the love of a lifetime.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

The first spark of the idea was a gift from a friend who is in my writer's group. She posted the Robert Graves poem 'The Bedpost' to our online forum as part of a discussion we were all having. Now, the poem is about this legendary hero and warrior who is enchanted by an evil witch, and ends up trapped in a post of wood - the bedpost of a young girl's bed, in fact. His only chance to break the spell and gain his freedom is to whisper stories to the young woman and get her to fall in love with him. But she's only interested in bloodthirsty tales of battle and adventure, and so he remains trapped in the post.

Straight away I felt that someone needed to take this story on and give it a more satisfactory ending! But I thought that if my hero was going to be trapped in an inanimate object, it ought to be something a bit more interesting - and mobile - than a post of wood. Since he was a warrior, my brain immediately leapt to the idea of a shield or an axe or - a sword. A Japanese sword! And my hero would be a hero from ancient Japan, which would give me a chance to utilise all the wonderful mythology and folklore which I had read about during my research for Shadows on the Moon, but which I never used in that book.

I knew that with so much magic and so many mythical creatures flying about, I would need a realistic setting and a very down to earth, ordinary main character in order to keep the story feeling grounded and real, and the fantastical elements feeling strange and scary. And at that point my brain just seemed to explode with all these ideas and I began to realise that there was more story here than I could possibly tell in a single book, and that for the first time I was actually looking at a series. 

What genre does your book fall under?

It is dark urban fantasy for young adults. 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

The actress who looks most like my idea of Mio Yamato, my heroine, is Horikita Maki. She's a Japanese actress who is more or less unknown here in the west:


For Shinobu, I would pick the actor Kaneshiro Takeshi, who is slightly better known internationally, having starred in The House of Flying Daggers and The Warlords:


Truth to tell, Kaneshiro-san is too old to play the role of teenage Shinobu now, but in my head, that is the face I see when I think of my character.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am represented by Nancy Miles of the Miles Stott Children's Literary Agency, and the book will be commercially published in the UK by Walker Books in July of 2013. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

An astonishingly short time, for me - just under six months. That's the fastest I've ever written anything. The universe made me pay that time back in other ways, though! The first draft of the second book (which I've just finished and turned in) took over a year. 

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The books that most immediately spring to mind are The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Just like The Mortal Instruments, The Name of the Blade is urban fantasy with a really strong sense of setting (in TMI it's New York, in TNotB it's London). In both series there's a large cast of diverse characters, and a focus on fast paced adventure and thrill-ride fight scenes. I've also done my best to create a central love story which is as achingly romantic as the relationship of Jace and Clary in TMI, although Mio and Shinobu's connection can best be described as... unique. *Evil laughter* 

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I've already talked about the initial inspiration, which came from several different places. But I think the underlying motivation came from the books I was reading at the time. I had just finished a draft of FrostFire - it had taken me nearly sixteen months to get it to a publishable state, including masses of re-writes with my editor - and it had turned out to be the most dark and emotional of my high fantasy novels. Frankly, I needed a break. Some friends of mine - again, from my writer's group! - took me on a mega-book-buying spree. It was insane; they just kept shoving books at me and I just kept buying them. I had a job fitting all the bags on the train, let alone carrying them home from the station. Inevitably I ended up with lots and lots of urban fantasy simply because that was one of the most common things on the shelves of the bookshop. I'd read the plenty of urban fantasy fiction before that, but suddenly I had a massive collection of the most recent, cutting edge YA stuff right in my hands.

So I started reading. And some of this urban fantasy was just brilliant. It made my heart race and my brain light up and my soul sing. I loved it. But equally some of it was DIRE. So bad that I couldn't believe that anyone, let alone experienced publishing professionals, had thought this was worth the paper it was printed on. Now, as most writers will tell you, that point - the point where you're diving into a genre and you're starting to see all the patterns and all the tropes and all the cliches and all the overused ideas and under-exploited potential, where you've read the best of the best and the worst of the worst - that's the liminal space where your own imagination starts to light up. You start to ask yourself 'How would *I* have dealt with that plotline?' or think 'I would love to do my own take on a situation like that!' and finally 'Why hasn't anyone written THAT in a book yet? It would be brilliant!'

All those questions lie fallow in the back of your brain, just waiting for the right story to come along and bring them to life. So I was basically inspired to write an urban fantasy by reading urban fantasy. Which is often the way, I think.

What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?

Well, if anyone else is as burned out as I am on books dealing with western mythos - angels and demons, werewolves and vampires, fairies, elves, mermaids, witches oh my! - but still wants breathless fight scenes, epic adventure and swoony romance, I think they will be interested in The Night Itself. And as a bonus, this will be my first published story where I get to exercise my sense of humour on the page - which I've enjoyed more than I can say - so if my blog or my Twitter have ever made anyone laugh, chances are these books will too (and possibly cry a bit as well, but who knows?).  *More evil laughter*

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

EDITING: HOW I DO IT

Happy Thursday, my delightful readers. Yesterday I emerged (stumbling and moaning like a scarecrow zombie) from the pages of my pre-submission edit of The Name of the Blade: Book Two, and popped onto Twitter to ask a question.

What blog did people want to see today? Would they like me to review and analyse the new City of Bones film trailer, scene by scene? Or would they prefer to hear about my editing process, even though it was kind of boring and nothing special?

(Obviously I asked using a lot less characters than this, but you get the idea).

The overwhelming consensus was: Talk about edits, please. Which is a relief in one way, because we all know that I get just a tad squeeful when discussing The Mortal Instruments books or films and it's a little embarrassing. Also, I've seen a lot of posts about the trailer already and despite my huuuuge exitement I realise that other people might feel they're talked out on the topic.

On the other hand, I was disappointed because... well, my editing process really is pretty boring and nothing special. My process when it comes to writing my books evolves all the time, and I come up with all kinds of whacky methods that I can show you using diagrams or photos of my notebook or whatever. But ever since the very first time that I finished a manuscript (when I was sixteen and writing a romance novel for Mills & Boon, *shudder*) my editing process hasn't changed at all, except that nowadays since I don't have to go to the office I can take a bit more time over it.

But people did seem interested. So here it is, for what it's worth. And remember - I'm not saying this is The One True Way or that anyone who does things in a completely different fashion is wrong. It's just what *I* do. Okay? Okay.

STAGE ONE: Print that baby out.

The moment I type the words 'The End', I connect my printer up, shove the paper in, and get the whole manuscript churned out. While this is happening I normally eat some chocolate or drink a glass of something mildly alcoholic and fizzy. I ALWAYS listen to either Katy Perry or Taylor Swift and sing along, often while chair dancing in my wobbly Writing Cave chair. You can probably skip that last part if you want.

When the manuscript is all printed I put it straight into a folder or a plastic document box and then I put that box away somewhere safe. I don't look at it. I just shuffle the pages and hide them.

I'm not sure why this stage is so important to me. I think it's because if I've printed it out then I am committed to editing THIS version of the story, and will not be tempted to try to sneak back into the Word Doc. and start meddling. Plus, it's just really nice to see the whole thing looking all neat and official like that.

Optional Extra: Sometimes - if I remember - before printing I will change the font, spacing and size of the script. This means that when it's printed out it looks completely different to the book that I've seen on my computer screen and worked on for months. Some people swear by this. I'm not sure if it helps or not since I haven't noticed that much difference when I forget. However, if your manuscript was formatted for submission, double spaced and with wide margins, taking a moment to change that can save you a lot of paper. You're welcome!

STAGE TWO: Diving into Other Stuff

Once the manuscript is printed and hidden away, I take a holiday from writing for AT LEAST two weeks. Three if I can manage it. Instead, I do something that I very rarely allow myself to do when I am working on a book of my own (for fear of getting distracted) and dive straight into reading. I hoover up my TBR pile. I go on book-buying binges. I re-read all my old favourites. I read anything and everything I can get my hands on.

And I don't just read. I watch everything that's on TV. I devour TV boxsets. I go to see films. I have day-long movie marathons. I finally listen to all that music I downloaded. I stuff myself with every other form of entertainment, narrative and storytelling that I can. After practically starving myself during the writing process it feels like going from a desert island to an all you can eat buffet and it is glorious.

Well, kind of. The truth is that after Finale Euphoria (which lasts about an hour) and Finishing Depression (that's what the chocolate and Katy Perry are for) I tend to feel really weird and aimless and BORED. Despite having all the time in the world suddenly, and loads of things to read or undertake to occupy myself, I normally can't make myself DO much. I have the attention span of a goldfish. I wander about, potter, and quietly go a bit nuts. Switching from the Writer On Mode in which about 90% of my brain is always running my story at the back of my head like a film reel no matter what else I am doing, to Writer Off Mode when I need to fill all that space in my brain with something else is tough.

However, after a week or so I get into the swing of things and really start to love being able to finish a book in one sitting, or a whole book series in a couple of days. I get to like lying around instead of sitting in my office chair. I get to like being able to say 'yes' when family or friends ask me if I'm free.

Sometimes it's a bit hard, at the end of the two or three weeks, to get myself to snap back into Writer On Mode. But I usually manage it. So far, anyway.

Optional Extra: This is pretty vital for me, actually, but not everyone feels the way I do about notebooks. Basically, although I'm on holiday from writing, I still carry my notebook around with me everywhere, and a selection of pens. Any random thoughts that come to me about the revision - new scenes I should add, changes I should make, characters I should focus on - while I'm in the pictures or eating dinner in a restaurant or in the bath, go in the notebook, and that way I can refer to them later on and not get worried that I will forget, or be tempted to open that Word Doc.

STAGE THREE: Marking Up

At the end of my writing holiday/media buffet I get the printout of the manuscript from its hiding place, raid my stock of red pens and start marking up.

What this means, for me, is that I do a close and careful (but not too slow - I don't want to get bogged down) read through of the print out and I mark everything that strikes me. Everything.

I know some writers do one read-through for big picture issues (problems with pacing or character etc.) and then another read through for line issues (confusing descriptions, boring dialogue etc.) and then another one to proofread (spelling, grammar, typos, word repetition etc.). I wish I could do that. Possibly because I have quite a sharp memory for written text, every read that I do decreases my ability to see the story objectively. By that third read I wouldn't notice even a real stinker of a typo. I'd just see what I thought should be there and move on. So I have to mark everything at once - anything I notice, from a misplaced comma to a character arc that needs completely re-writing gets marked down.

Normally marking the manuscript up this way takes me several days, up to a week. That's because I'm not just marking where I see problems such as, say, bad pacing or someone acting out of character. I write down in the margins or, if I run out of room, on the back of the page, exactly what I think I need to do to fix things. I use the basic copy-editing marks I've sketchily learned to indicate where I'm moving paragraphs around. Sometimes I write whole new scenes on loose bits of notepaper and stick those in where they should go. By the time I finish marking up I have a complete roadmap of every change that needs to be made to the Word Doc.

Optional Extra: If you've been keeping a list of revision ideas in your notebook, you'll want it handy for this. The worst thing ever is to get to the end of the marking up and then realise there's something major you intended to do, and which will require all kinds of small threading in and blending changes throughout the story, WHICH YOU TOTALLY FORGOT BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T LOOK AT THE NOTEBOOK. 

STAGE FOUR: Hacking up

I call this stage hacking up (or ripping up sometimes) because this is when the cut, paste and most important of all DELETE buttons come into play.

When the manuscript is covered in red ink from the first page to the last, I open up my Word Doc. again. I take the marked up paper ms out of the folder a section at a time and put manageable chunks onto a clipboard, prop that up next to my laptop, and start putting all the changes that I've marked on the paper ms into place in the digital version.

While I'm inputting those changes, I also re-read the book for the last time before I send if off to my editor and agent, hoping to catch anything (big or small) that I might have missed when I was marking up the paper version. Sometimes reading it again this way means that when I get to a change I've marked on the paper, I disagree with my past self and change the solution I'd written out before. Most of the time the changes still work though.

When I get to the end of this stage? I'm done. The manuscript is as good as I can make it at that point, and it's time to send it off to some people who are a lot cleverer than I am so they can tell me what they think.

And that's it!

Some Things To Note: Although I've called this 'my editing process' like the editing all takes place here in one solid lump, really it's only the end of a much longer editing process. My first draft is actually written longhand in my notebook. I re-write and revise this draft, sometimes quite radically, when I type it up. Each day before I start writing in my notebook I look at what I've typed up the day before and revise it again. So by the time I've finished the manuscript and come to start marking up, I'm actually on my third revision. And that's if everything has gone smoothly and to plan - sometimes I go off track and end up going back and doing other revisions because I don't feel I can move forward until I know I've fixed issues in the draft.

So what I'm saying here, is... I'm kind of a self-editing monster. But that's what works for me.

Cherry pick anything useful from this that you can, Dear Readers :)

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

NEW TRILOGY TITLE REVEALED!

Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! My week's hiatus is over, my manuscript is marked-up and ready to be hacked into - and I have an exciting announcement for you, in case you hadn't guessed :)

You may remember a little while ago I told you that my new urban fantasy trilogy (details here), which will start coming out next year, was going to need a different series title than it's original one, The Katana Trilogy. This is because someone out there has already copyrighted (or possibly trademarked - it's a bit confusing) the word 'Katana' and this makes it hard for a publisher to go ahead with books under that name.

At first I was anxious and disappointed not to get to keep the orignal title. As soon as I realised that the story would need to be told over three books, I knew I wanted to call the series The Katana Trilogy. Katana is the Japanese name for a traditional longsword, and one of those magical words that brings to mind all kinds of beautiful imagery, even for people who aren't aware exactly what it means. I also thought that, what with it being short and simple, it would be easy to remember.

After my editor broke this news to me I spent the whole day coming up with new possible titles that ranged from OK to meh to downright nuts. But late that night I was unloading my tale of woe to friends in my writer's group, and someone made a suggestion which, while it didn't quite work, did spark off another possible title in my head. And this one I *loved*. It tied into a motif that was important in all three books individually, and also to one of the central mysteries of the whole trilogy.

I can now safely say that it is one of my favourite titles ever.

I was actually going to wait a while longer to announce the new title for the trilogy, because I wanted to combine it with the reveal for the cover artwork of the first book, The Night Itself. But we're still working on the cover, and the Amazon listing to pre-order The Night Itself has just appeared with the trilogy title on it! I thought I'd better spill the beans before some bright-spark noticed, amended the Goodreads page or something, and stole my thunder.

THIS is the new title for my very first urban fantasy trilogy (hi, those of you who scrolled straight down through all that waffling to get to the title). We're calling it: 

**THE NAME OF THE BLADE**


This is the Amazon listing for The Name of the Blade, Book One: The Night Itself.

The release for the book is shown as the 4th of July, which is the first time I've seen a solid date for publication, so that's exciting too.

What do you all think? Do you like the new title? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

BLOG HIATUS #2

Hello, my lovelies! Happy Thursday to you all!

You can probably guess from the not-very-imaginative post title what I'm talking to you about today. No fear! Just as last time, I'm not going away for long, and not for any scary reasons.

As my two week holiday from work draws toward its close, I'm getting incredibly revved up to dive into the re-reading, revision and polishing of As Yet Unnamed Trilogy Book #2. More than anything, I'd love to lock myself into my Writing Cave with a stock of Cup Ramen and chocolate and just tear through the editing process. But since my real life responsibilities can't be put aside that easily, I'm forced to look around for other stuff that I could cut out to make a bit of extra room for writing - and the blog clearly fits that definition. Much as I love you, Dear Readers, I'm fairly sure that you can manage to get along without me for a short while.

The blog hiatus will last for one week, and I will be back on Tuesday the 19th of November. If anyone would like to take the chance to leave questions on writing, reading & publishing in the comment thread here for me to answer when I get back, I'd love that.

In the meantime, take care of yourselves!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

WHAT SHOWING/TELLING REALLY MEAN

Hello, my dearest loves! I hope you all had a lovely weekend. I'm starting to feel the strain of my 'holiday' from writing - goldfish would be ashamed of my attention span, and I'm as grumpy as a badger - so I thought I'd soothe my cravings by doing another really long writing related post.

I'm going to pretend those groans of 'No! Mercy!' were cries of 'Yay! Yes, please!' and proceed. Okay? Okay.

You're all well aware by now that the plethora of so-called 'rules' about writing which are splashed all over the internet drive me up the wall. They're almost always misapplied and misunderstood, and even the ones that started out as common sense now generally cause more harm than good. One of the most common rules I see - and the one that probably annoys me most - is Show Don't Tell. Mainly because it's flat out wrong. You cannot write *any* story, even the most action-packed, fast-paced story, without telling. You'd end up with a book that was a million words long and incredibly boring. A lot of stuff in almost every story does not NEED to be told.

The advice should be: Show Where Appropriate And Tell Where Appropriate. But that isn't nearly as snappy, and what's more, makes it clear exactly what the problem with the SDT mantra is: it's not always so easy to know just when you should show and when you should tell.

Figuring out when to show and when to tell (and how to distinguish between the two) is a big part of improving the quality of your writing. But there's no easy way to do it. The fact is that every writer choses to show or tell different parts of their story depending on what's important to them. What's more, their methods of showing and telling differ vastly. These choices make up a part of your individual style as writer.

Writer A might chose to show action with detailed, loving scenes, but tell most of their characters dialogue through short summaries of the information exchanged. Writer B might show a lot of their characters interactions with beautiful, naturalistic dialogue, and skip the action, merely telling us what happened in a quick paragraph and moving on.

Or, more subtly, this second writer might WANT to skip the action, but realise that doing so with a piece of pure telling would rob the story of a dramatic pay-off that it required. So the writer might make an effort to show at least part of the big fight - but they wouldn't make it the centre-piece of their plot. This writer would always come up with stories in which the pivotal character moments and choices came during arguments, conversations and other pieces of dialogue.

Fans of this writer's books would be the type that are into reading about relationships rather than fights, and therefore if an editor were to come along and convince that writer into suddenly 'showing' the action scenes in much more depth and detail, and making the action a bigger part of the story, they would actually be doing a disservice to those readers - and the story that the author originally wanted to tell.

The fact remains though, that there are some things which must be shown. Too many characters fall utterly flat because the writer seems to be incapable of showing the reader who they are. It's no good telling us (or having the character tell us, if the novel is first person POV) that the main character is a kind, quiet and studious person if, throughout the entire story, they never think about anyone but themselves, never display any hesitance to talk or get involved, and never so much as think about picking up a book.

I don't mean that you can't take characters and plunge them into situations which put them out of their depth, challenge them, and force them to develop new skills. In fact, that's just what you *should* do (see last week's post!). But you need to show - in their unique reactions to the various trials they endure - that they possess the traits you've chosen for them. You can TELL us that someone is kind and quiet all you like - you can have them tell us that, and all the other characters around them repeating it - but if their actions don't SHOW that? Then they AREN'T.

It's bad enough if this character whom you've told us is so kind actually shows us behaviour which indicates they're self-obsessed, judgmental and catty. But at least then they have a personality of some kind. What is even worse is where a character displays no real personality traits at all, other than always somehow acting in exactly the way that the plot requires them to act in order for it to keep proceeding.

When this sort of disconnect between telling and showing happens, at best it starts to feel like the writer doesn't know their character (or that the character doesn't know themselves). At worst? The character fails to feel like a person at all. They die on the page, and the illusion of life and reality which it is the writer's job to foster dies too. We're left with black marks on a page - which is all a story is, after all, if it can't awaken the reader's imagination.

I'm going to give you an example of what telling in characterisation looks like and how you can fix it with some fairly simple showing. And to do this I'm going to use Twilight. Why? Well, firstly because this is one of those books where there's a really obvious disconnect between what the character tells us about herself (and what the other people in the story say about her) and her actual actions and traits as shown in the story. But also because I can't really figure out how to show you this without using a real example, and Stephenie Meyer cannot possibly be harmed or upset by my using her book as an example of bad writing like some other authors (who are even more guilty of this) might be.

So. Bella Swan. We're told that she cares about her dad a lot but finds it hard to express this, as does he. This is important in terms of characterisation because late in the story Bella is forced to deliberately hurt her father in order to protect him - to finally express herself to him, but in a really cruel and deceptive way - and that moment means nothing if Bella and Charlie don't care deeply for each other.

You can see Smeyer trying to set up the unspoken but deeply felt relationship developing between Bella and her dad via short bursts of telling in Twilight (because she reserves almost all her showing for Edward) but it doesn't really work because we never get to see it. Thus that moment when Bella hurts Charlie, which should be a heart-wrenching, real life consequence of Bella's willingness to sacrifice herself for her fairytale romance with Edward, does fall flat. Which is a shame; it would only have needed one or two good pieces of showing to fix this.

Here's an example of Bella telling us about her and her dad's interactions: 
Charlie seemed suspicious when he came home and smelled the green peppers. I couldn't blame him - the closest edible Mexican food was probably in Southern California. But he was a cop, even if just a small-town cop, so he was brave enough to take the first bite. He seemed to like it. It was fun to watch as he slowly began trusting me in the kitchen.

There's nothing wrong with this piece of writing per se, but it doesn't achieve what it's really supposed to, which is to give us a concrete feeling for these two quiet yet profoundly emotional people who are tentatively connecting as a father and daughter. Unfortunately, Bella never really comes across as a quiet, profoundly emotional person in the story - overdramatic and ineffectual come closer to the mark. Again, that's because of the disconnect between what the author tells us and what she shows us.

But what if we were to show this scene instead? It would end up a lot longer than this neat paragraph (and take us away from the constant refrain of EDWARDEDWARDEDWARD in Bella's brain) but it might go some way toward giving the reader a sense that Charlie and Bella, and their relationship, actually *are* what Smeyer TELLS us they are. It would make Bella's actions in deliberately hurting Charlie truly painful for the reader, it would give us an understanding of just how perilous her decision to pursue Edward is, how strong her love for him must be. Hell, it might even allow us to like Bella a bit more.

So how do we do that?

Let's look at what that paragraph is TELLING:

1) Bella's cooking and Charlie is suspicious.

2) Charlie tries the food.

3) Bella's pleased and amused that Charlie is gradually coming to trust her in the kitchen.

Now, what I think Smeyer was attempting to SHOW us here, was:

1) Charlie doesn't know Bella very well yet, which is pretty sad for a father and daughter. He doesn't trust her to be able to cook something unfamiliar to him, especially since her mother is apparently an awful cook. But despite this, we can assume that Charlie sits down in the kitchen and lets Bella serve him.

2) Bella gives Charlie the food. Charlie, who is a brave man (Note: lay off small town cops, Smeyer! They have to deal with plenty of traumatic stuff, trust me) and who probably doesn't want to hurt Bella's feelings, especially since they're just developing a relationship, tries the food.

3) Charlie likes the food, or at least makes sure to give Bella the impression that he does, which is sweet of him because he's not a demonstrative man or one who is good at expressing himself. Bella is happy with his approval and the fact that he has actually shown it (her mother, who seems like a pretty negligent parent, probably forgot to show Bella this kind of appreciation).

How do we make all that stuff explicit and accessible to the reader? How do we SHOW it instead of telling it? It's actually quite simple. Here's an alternate, showing version of that paragraph which I knocked up in about ten minutes (apologies for cliches and obvious mistakes).
"Hey, Bells." Charlie stopped dead as he came into the kitchen through the back door. He sniffed the air warily. "You're cooking again. Ah...what exactly is that?"

I turned away to hide my smile at his suspicious look. "Green peppers." 

I heard a faint sigh, and my smile got wider as I busied myself plating up the food. Behind me, my dad was taking off his coat, putting his gun in the drawer, and then pulling out a chair at the place I'd set for him at the kitchen table.

"Are you hungry?"I asked, glancing at him over my shoulder. 

He made a helpless shrugging motion. "Sure."

It was hard to keep a straight face as I added some extra to his plate and carried it over. I went back to the counter to make my own plate, keeping on eye on Charlie as I did. He stared down at his plate for a moment, brows wrinkling, then glanced at me. I met his eyes steadily, and he sighed again, slumping in his seat a little as he reached for the fork. He cut a generous piece of enchilada, closed his eyes, and stuffed it in.

About three seconds later his eyes popped open again. He chewed thoughtfully. "This is... this is actually pretty good."

I carried my food to the table and sat down opposite him, not hiding my smile anymore. "It's one of my favourites. I thought you'd like it."

Charlie was digging in now, ploughing through his full plate. He really was hungry. "It's great, Bells! You're a much better cook than...ah... "

"Thanks," I said, rushing to fill the gap when his voice trailed off. "I've been cooking since I was about five."

He flashed a sudden brilliant grin at me, suddenly looking years younger. "I guess it's hard to order takeout when you're five."

"Oh, I tried," I muttered. 

Charlie laughed, a low, muted chuckle that sounded a little rusty with disuse. "Well, you can cook for me anytime."
I could feel my cheeks going tomato red, and I ducked my head to stare at my glass of water.
Oh God, I'm so moved by this it actually brought tears to my eyes. Charlie! Bella! You sweet, crazy kids! JUST HUG! *Weeps*.

Ahem.

Yeah, you can see that the showing is... long. Much longer than Smeyer's original paragraph of telling. But it accomplishes SO MUCH MORE. Instead of a few bland lines that impart information but no emotion, we now have something which gives us a moment of real connection between these two and highlights how very similar they are, and how much they could grow to love and rely on each other. Charlie is adorable and Bella's not only displayed an actual (if somewhat dry and restrained) sense of humour, but also empathy toward's Charlie's feelings for her mum, and pleasure with Charlie's consideration for her. These things aren't my inventions - they're all implied in the text, but because we don't SEE them in Smeyer's version, they don't have any impact.

If something like this scene - and there are a dozen places where it could have happened, and a dozen different ways it could have been written - had actually been in the book, wouldn't we have liked Bella ten times more, and felt so much more invested in Charlie and Bella's emerging father/daughter relationship? Even if it only happened *once*!?

This is why Show Don't Tell has become such a writing mantra. And even though this advice is now widely overused and misunderstood, in some cases it still holds true. Telling may take one paragraph and showing one page - but that one page of showing may work hard enough that you can cut out a dozen paragraphs of telling throughout. So bear showing in mind, not just for big fat action scenes, but when you're trying to demonstrate relationships and characters.

If there's anything you truly need your readers to FEEL? Show it. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

DEVELOPING CHARACTERS: Harder Than it Looks

Hello, Dear Readers! It's time for another one of my opinionated posts about writing. But half of the credit for this one goes to the inimitable and lovely Holly of the Furtive Scribblers Club (my writing group) with whom I was recently grousing on this topic. Hi Holls!

What were we grousing about? The fact that both of us (reading on opposite sides of the Atlantic ocean, no less) had lately picked up so many books which had fantastic central premises, which were well paced, pretty well written, full of exciting incidents and maybe even had some initially interesting characters but which - despite all this! - somehow in the end left us feeling empty.

Unsatisfied. Cheated. Frustrated. Unmoved. Convinced, somehow, that the whole exercise of turning pages - despite the exciting incidents and great premises and decent writing - had just been a waste of time.

After we'd been talking in detail for a while about the various books which had disappointed us this way and trying to figure out just what was WRONG with them, one of us (who knows which one - it was a loooong moaning session) suddenly put our finger on it. The problem was character development. Or, rather, the lack of it.

Now, you might think this would have been an obvious problem for two writers to notice and figure out. But actually the lack of character development in these books was being masked by the fact that the main character's life was often being totally transformed by the end of the story. All kinds of seismic shifts in their abilities, their home environments, their romantic lives and their family situations were going on. It seemed crazy to say that these characters weren't developing. But they weren't.
 
We realised that in all these books, although the heroine - it was normally a heroine - might have experienced massive changes in her situation by the end of the story, she very rarely experienced any change in her character. She was always essentially the same person by the finale of the story, no matter what she had been through. And the finale normally consisted of her getting what she had wanted all along - without her ever having reassessed those desires, or questioning why she desired what she did in the first place.

In fact, it was like the authors had gotten confused on the difference between plot and character.

In my head, I could just imagine these writers proudly saying: 'Look at my character's amazing arc! She goes from a lonely teenager with no idea of her true heritage to a superpowered elf with a hot elvish boyfriend and lots of elvish friends!' Or maybe: 'My character develops from a cold and solitary existence as a lab rat in a secret government facility to a free person and a member of a warm, happy family!' After a bit of checking, I found many reviews which talked about the plot and the character development in this way, as if they were interchangeable. It seems this is a common misconception. Common enough even to fool the editors who should have caught this and helped their authors to overcome it.

Because, you see, those descriptions above do not touch on any character's arc at all. Nor do they count as character development. They describe plots. And when a plot is serving double duty - trying to be a character arc too - the events (no matter how well paced, well written and exciting) of a story will feel essentially empty. It doesn't matter if the stakes are as small as a girl longing for a date to the prom, or as epic as The End of the World. If the change in the character's situation isn't significant enough to change *them*, then why on earth would reading the book make the reader feel changed?

These books would turn the heroine's whole world upside down. They might kill off her best friend right before her eyes, remove her from the only family she knew, or tell her that she had a secret heritage she never knew about. They would pit her against life-threatening danger, maybe force her to develop frightening new abilities, make her fall passionately in love. Surely I should have been gasping, crying, thrilling?

Yet none of those events, no matter how outwardly shocking or traumatic or wonderful, ever really moved me. The way they were depicted simply skimmed over the surface of the profound emotional effect on the character that should have been the whole point of those events in the first place. It was as if the writers thought that these Big Important Events by themselves were enough to involve my heart. But the End of the World (the world the writer has created) and everyone in it means absolutely nothing to me if the writer cannot show me what this means to the POV character.

In the best books, characterisation and plot are so entwined, so integral to each other and to the events of the book, that they do almost feel like the same thing. But they have fundamentally different functions within a narrative, and trying to create a decent story without one or the other is like trying to have spectacles without frames, frames without the lenses.

Even if you do turn your plain, lonely teen into a superpowered elf and give her a hot boyfriend and an elvish family, you still need to make sure that her established traits, beliefs, insecurities and priorities are challenged, strengthened, destroyed or resolved by the end of the book. We need to see that everything she has been through has affected her meaningfully. If the heroine starts the book longing for someone to love her and ends up with a family and boyfriend, that is all well and good - but it's still plot and not characterisation.

Remember that you're a writer, not the wish-granting fairy from Cinderella. Don't just look at your plot as a series of events that get your hero or heroine to a desired outcome. Not even a series of awesomecoolsauce events. Look at them as ways to push and challenge your character, to display her traits and develop her personality. Readers long to see the main character become the person they should be, not just get the stuff they want.

Your main character doesn't need to evolve into into an entirely new being by the end of the story. In fact, it's better if she doesn't. Changes that happen to the character throughout need to grow naturally from who they are at the start - their core qualities - and the particular pressures that the story and the plot events put on them. The last thing you want is to have the character do a complete u-turn and become someone unrecognisable. That's not satisfying either.

So maybe your elvish heroine started the story as a selfish and insecure girl who was callous to others because she was afraid people would see how vulnerable she was - and in order to get the family and the love she always wanted, she first had to realise that she must treat others well, and be willing to risk giving love, with no guarantee it would be returned?

Maybe she was frightened and timid, a girl who refused to take risks - and she had to find the seeds of courage inside herself, even risk losing the ones she hoped would love her, before she was worthy of them?

Or maybe she was filled with self-loathing, yearning for affection but still convinced she didn't deserve it - and had to learn to value and care for herself first, before she could finally find a place among people who would value and care for her the same way?

Those are CHARACTER arcs. See how they differ from the plot ones? They're about learning, changing, growing, not about getting stuff.

You need to ensure you're putting time and thought into your character's development even if you're writing the first volume of a trilogy or series. In fact, it's even more vital, because if I think you're holding stuff back from me in book one I'm probably not going to bother to go and buy book two. I need to feel that you've got a character arc in your mind as well as a plot one.

An easy way to figure out if you've achieved worthwhile character development is to give your main character or characters a choice. A pivot-point, somewhere near the end of the story. Arrange events so that things could go either way - disaster or triumph - and make the whole thing hinge on a moment of choice for the character. If they act the way they would have at the beginning of the story? Disaster. Maybe even if they act the way that they would have midway through the story. So they need to have grown and developed enough that you feel they could reasonably go in the other direction. Then you and the reader will be able to see that they have become who they were meant to be, and that they deserve their happy ending (if you've been nice enough to give them one!).

A great example of this is Katniss' decision at the end of The Hunger Games. At the beginning of the book Katniss' one priority is to win, to survive the Games by any means necessary, because she believes that Prim needs her - and because she doesn't believe in anything other than that. By the end of the book, she is willing to swallow poisonous berries along with with Peeta rather than sacrifice her soul by trying to kill him, and let the Capitol win. She has changed significantly because of the events of the story - but we still see the qualities of bravery, strength and self-sacrifice that Katniss had at the beginning of the book, too. Those traits have just been strengthened and honed by her ordeal.

In Closing: plot is about going places, doing things and getting stuff - changes in situation. Characterisation is about changing, growing and learning stuff - changes in the character's core. Make sure you have both these things running side by side, and you will make Zolah a very happy reader.

I hope this makes sense to you, my lovelies. Any questions? Pop them in the comments. See you on Tuesday :)


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