Scraps of a Life

The other day I was wandering through my local used bookstore when I found scraps of someone's life stuffed between pages 14 and 15 of Neil Gaiman's STARDUST. Four yellow post-it notes smooshed together, each with a different fragment of someone's existence...

I'm guessing by the flourish of the letters and by some of the sentiments, that the author is a woman. Right or wrong, though, the author is She to me, and so she will be She as I write about Her for you.

Post-it #1: "empty. unmotivated. just there.   reinvent. rejuvenate." At first I wondered if She was writing definitions of words she hadn't grokked when reading. That was just from a cursory glance when the post-its fell out of the book. Later, though, when I really read the words, I wanted to hug her. The first three are statements of presumed fact. Status indicators. The last two are requests and wishes scrawled onto paper.

Post-it #2: "The world is going to end soon. I want you!"

I love this one. It's rich and full of potential. Did She leave it on her lover's desk? Is it something She wrote, intending to give it to someone she's pined for over the years, but then failed to out of fear? There are so many stories buried in this one little post-it that I salivate to hear them all. Curiosity makes me stare at it, as if I can look deep into the fibers of the paper and watch the ink spin into some portent, as if I can divine what happened.

Post-it #3: "I want to write. I want to feel inspired again. Where is THE MYSTERY!!!!"

Oh, preach it, sister! I've been there. Haven't we all been there? Who hasn't punched the steering wheel or just let out a growl of frustration that has nothing to do with traffic because life just seems flat and dull? We want to be quickened, we want to be pushed and moved and find something in life worth the wonder.

Post-it #4 (front:): "be interested in movies as much as i am. same taste in movies/music. optimistic. slightly morbid. wear sweater vests. argile socks. still manly. golf hats. drinks tea."

A description of a character in a book? Of someone She knows? Or a wish list for someone She has yet to meet? This one, I think, is the one that truly sets the tone of the post-its... they're all wishes. They're all pleas to the universe. She wants her world to thrive and bloom, she seeks a companion to share it... She wants. She needs. There is desperation and need in every stroke of her pen. When I shared this note with my mother, she said, "I hope She found him."  Meanwhile, my husband's reaction was, "She probably met someone who made her toes curl...but he was nothing like that."

Post-it #4 (back): "pay off car care one (for saturn). pay off old navy. phone. insurance. student loan." And then, the wishes are over. We have practical goals. Money worries. Ducks are being put into neat little rows. This one makes me saddest of all. Flip over your dreams, your soul's own desires, and get back to the "real world" and focus on what's important.

And then, She stuffed the notes into a book. Or maybe the notes and the book shared a bag for a while and one thing led to the other... and then the book ended up at a used bookstore for trade credit or a bit of cash to pay off that Old Navy card.

I wonder if She got what she needed. Did She meet Mr. Sweater Vest and sip tea with him, making new stories and memories that shift her soul? Did she give up the book with its packet of wishes because they all came true? Or does she still wait for a reply?

Either way, it's the perfect book in which to send your dreams sailing. Here's hoping this star was lucky for her.

Violence in Stories

Something like 10 years ago I wrote a paper for a college exam that compared and contrasted Jesus Christ with Superman. It wasn't tongue-in-cheek or trying to be subversive. Well, to be fair, I might have been giggling to myself because I'd had a similar argument with the guy sitting next to me in that class and it got under his skin, BUT, the point is that I did this as a serious topic. It was actually one of the better essays I wrote at that time. The teacher gave me an A+ and left smileys in the margins. Like many things from that time in my life, the original essay was lost in a flood.

I bring this up because I was thinking about storytelling as a psycho-social vehicle, and a few lines from that essay floated up in memory.

The day of the Aurora shooting, I got into a civil discussion with someone who thought that perhaps the incident should be blamed on the glorification of violence in movies, television and video games. My personal feeling can best be summed up as, "No. Rational, sane people know the difference between fiction and the real world, they know acceptable social limits and will not run out to shoot someone because they play a first-person-shooter video game."

There is a lot of violence portrayed in the media. Sometimes I agree that said media is oversaturated with death, gore, shootings and other things that remove us from the realities of such things. However, most of us do not go out and repeat what we see on television because we are able to discern the crucial differences between right, wrong, art/bullshit and life.

She asked, then, if someone has influence and a mouthpiece to reach such a broad audience, why fill it with violence? Why fill one's head with that kind of "drivel"? My answer wasn't about social structure or broadcast standards, but about storytelling.

What is Best in life?

Storytelling, at its roots, is a place for a society to keep and hone its identity. All the way back to cave paintings, stories talk about our lives, what we experience every day, what we exalt and what we fear. For every protagonist there is an antagonist. For every deity there is a divine opposite. Without bringing morality into anything, there is always a dark to go along with a light. Stories define a particular culture's version of what is good and what is evil. Stories are the hope chests of their tellers. Our epic heroes--Jesus, Gilgamesh, Odysseus and Superman--represent what we believe is the best of us.

Yes, I just went there. Superman is an epic hero. Comics are the epic poetry of the 21st century. The spandex and super powers aside, these characters shine lights on what we--as a culture--value. Superman doesn't lie. He has empathy for a race as flawed as ours and fights for goodness. He defends us when we can't defend ourselves.

Bruce Wayne is rich, brilliant and uses his resources to fight the bad guys with his clever wit and gadgets.

Peter Parker's exploits remind us that with Great Power comes Great Responsibility.

We've enhanced them and given them a large scale for their problems. It's how we can distance ourselves and remain entertained but still get some message. (It's a whole new argument about why we've decided that Superman, the best of us, has to come from another planet and hide his true self.)

The Other

With all superheroes, there are super villains. Conflict in stories is necessary. Without conflict you have no story. Superman woke up one day, brushed his teeth, had a fabulous day and went to bed, that's it. Not entertaining. Not a story. Unless Superman is fighting against something, he is nothing more than a man. He's normal. There is now nothing noteworthy about this person, and thus, we don't need to waste ink or breath talking about him.

But, when we give him a Lex Luthor, a Brainiac--hell, give the man a kryptonite hangnail!--we give him a purpose. We give him a chance to define himself and be more than he might be. Bruce Wayne is just an eccentric, lunatic billionaire with grief issues if we don't give him a Joker or Riddler to match wits with. Our Avengers need Loki.

So, can we agree that a story needs a conflict? Awesome.

That conflict can come in many different ways. The classics are Man vs. Nature (The Perfect Storm), Man vs. God (The Odyssey) and Man vs. Man/Himself (The Dark Knight). Now, not all of these require violence. You can have a legal thriller or a mind-bending psycho-drama that never spills a drop of blood. You can have comedies where people are falling over themselves and messing up their own lives through situational gaffes.

So, if a society as a whole shuns the idea of casual, gratuitous violence and mass murder, why portray it in stories?

Because that's the other side of storytelling. We, as tellers of tales, don't just dip into the golden pool of what is best in life, we have to swim in the muck of what is worst about our reality. Stories aren't just about what we are, but what we may be. They are hopes and warnings.

Now, there's a whole slew of rants I could go on about splatter-horror flicks and fiction that insists every woman needs to be raped to be a "strong female character", but this is not where I will make those observations. Violence in fiction (television, movie, video game and literature alike), is there for a purpose. It is in our lives. It's a part of our collective self that we do not understand. Why do people do things like this? Why does mass genocide happen? Why do people go on shooting sprees or eat their neighbors? We don't understand. We can't wrap our heads around those kinds of atrocities because they are (thankfully) abnormal.

Brain Candy Stories are there to help us cope. They serve as a knot we can untangle safely, a way to come to grips with things we don't understand. If it can work out and end well in a comic book where aliens have landed and destroyed most of New York City, then maybe it will end well for us after some deranged soul opens fire on a theater full of geeks. If this character can find love and live again after tragic loss, maybe I can, too.

Stories are where we plant what is, contemplate what might be, and try to understand what is. Part of "what is" right now, sadly, is violence. Mass killings, war, random acts of chaos. You can have the chicken and egg argument--are we this way because of the media's glorification/desensitizing to violence, or is that in the media because we are violent--but in the end, it's part of our story.

I think it was Ari Marmell who said it, but what happened in Aurora, CO would be a hero origin story in any comic. It's from these tragedies that our heroes are born. Good people are forged and galvanized from such horrors.

And that is why our stories are important.

For all that they are, flaws and gore and truth, our stories tell us who we were, question and define who we are and determine who we will be.

All Praise To The Attack Fish!

Writing is a solitary venture...writers live in their heads...blah blah blah.

That's a bunch of shit. Yes, you write the book, but no author is an island. Well, you might be an island...a little recluse talking to your pet volleyball and performing your own dental work with a pair of ice skates. However, even on the coast of that little island, there are fish. Tasty, savory, elusive little fish that flit about and add color to your lonely existence.

You need these fish, my friend. Just like the Tom Hanks needed fire in that one movie, you need someone to take your ideas, cook them--or in some cases destroy them--and regurgitate them back at you to show you what they're really made of. You need beta readers.

I know that most of the experience of writing a book is done in the closed space immediately between the author's ears. You conceive the idea, you flesh it out and it grows. The tiniest seed flourishes into a secret garden, locked away from prying eyes in the walls of your brain pan. You've got all these ideas, you know how this story is going to go, but writing it takes time. And you wouldn't want to give page 70 to someone and say, "Look how cool this is!" They'd look at you like you had lobsters coming out of your kneecaps because there's no context. Even if it's a great line or a terrific turn of phrase, there's still no emotional connection to the characters or material, so the reader will not get the full effect that you're hoping for.

Stephen King has said it and I have sworn by it for years: rough drafts are to be kept close to the chest. At least for me. Very very rarely do I share a work in progress before those golden words are etched on the last page. (Those golden words would be "The End", by the way.) You need that time alone to craft your story with your voice, your direction, your instincts and your skills. Think about it: if a caterpillar let everyone into its chrysalis how much metamorphosing would it actually do?

After the nascent period that is rough drafting, though, you need new eyes. You need people who will read your work and give unabashed, honest feedback. When I send my manuscripts to my betas, I say specifically that I want them to rip the book apart. It's not personal, it's a story and I want to know if it works or not. My exact words have been, "Rip me a new one like you would if you were reading Twilight." I'm serious, I don't want to have blogs devoted to tearing apart my work for things that would've been easily fixed if someone had brought them to my attention. (And let's face it, with some direction the shit people hate about the Twilight series could've been changed/tweaked and otherwise edited into something palatable.)

So, what should you look for in a Beta Reader? Your needs may vary from project to project and you may find certain people that don't fit the mold, but here's what I generally look for.

  • Someone trustworthy. If I don't trust you to keep my book under your hat for a while, to be honest with me about what you read, then I have no reason to send you the file in the first place. Would I let you babysit my kid? I'd probably let you read a rough draft.
  • Someone I know can put our friendship aside for a few minutes. I know that a lot of people will tell you not to use friends as Betas. For me, though, that's just not an option. See above. If I trust you, you're a friend. That's just the way I roll. What I can do, however, is select people that I know can compartmentalize. Our friendship lives over here. My book doesn't live there. My book lives in this odd world of business, pleasure, art and insanity. The people I choose as Betas understand that and know that any comments they make will not be taken personally. If they don't like my book, they're still invited over for dinner, dig?
  • Someone who reads. I need a bookavore, someone who gobbles up stories. Why? Because they know what works and what doesn't. Sure, not everyone who picks up a book can say, "Well, this didn't work because the character's motivation is weak and everything happens because the plot needs it to, not because it develops organically out of the established events." You might not be able to articulate the why in terms of storycraft, but you--as an audience--know when something just doesn't work. You know when a movie or book sucks. You know when there's a wrong note in a song. That sense is integral and I need readers who have exercised that sense to the point it is ripped like Arnold.
  • Someone who writes. Misery loves company. Seriously, though, it's nice to have someone who knows the native language and what goes into writing. That kind of understanding is good to have. Plus, the common vocabulary is helpful for figuring out roadblocks, how to clear them and move on.
This is the meat of what I need. Everything else is sauce. Sometimes I choose Betas based on demographic needs: age, gender. I try to get an even split to see if opinions vary down those lines. Sometimes I pick one person that I know does not read my genre as a scientific control of sorts. But those four points up there are the most important ingredients in a Beta Reader (for me).
Not all Betas are created equal. Some give tremendous, detailed feedback in terms of line edits. Some give story critique on plot but very little in the way of word choice. Some just give a big picture review, a thumbs up or down. All of them are valuable resources. The more eyes you have on a piece, the more chances you have to improve your work and grow as a storyteller.
My Beta Readers--affectionately referred to as the Attack Fish--kick my ass up one side and down the other. They call me on bullshit, let me know if a line is cliche, trite or otherwise absolute shit. They tell me when things are good. They growl at me when I leave cliffhangers or dangle plot threads and they bounce with me when I get good news. They treat me like an author. I love my Betas because they have made me a better writer. They hold me up to some pretty high standards and that makes me reach higher, work harder. My Attack Fish are amazing. And they're all different.
One of them leaves me the same note in the margins when I make a very obvious, stupid typo. It just says, "Hi :)". I dread it. I love it. I can't wait to do it to her when she sends me her rough draft.
One of them has given me very in depth feedback on the characters because that's what stands out to her. She has shown me where I need to improve, but also where I've knocked it out of the park.
They know. Don't make Banner angry.
A couple of them are sounding boards. They know the spoilers, the direction I'm going with the whole series. I've given them the bigger picture and they have helped me map out future books or work out kinks in an outline before I even set pen to paper. Those sessions are priceless.
These people make me better.
I know that as artists a lot of us have this idea that we have to toil away alone or else it's not our idea anymore. Maybe we think we're cheating? Maybe we're afraid people will think we've stolen something? Maybe we've all just got a huge fraud complex and this need to bang at it alone is a manifestation of that. But it's not true, guys. We do need other people. Because in our heads, the story is great. We know all the angles, we know the world. But it's not going to live in our heads. Someday that story is going to get out, because that's what stories do. They're made to be told.

So tell them.


Local Flavor

A couple of weeks ago Steve Weddle over at Do Some Damage penned a post about things that can knock a reader out of the narrative. He talked about things like figurative language, bad historical research, physical description as things that can yank you out of a story. Comments added bad dialogue and spelling/grammar issues. Today, I'd like to add something else to that: lack of attention to detail for your setting.

When we write a story, the setting is the 6th man on our basketball team. It is the landscape where all of your action takes place and has very real effects on your characters. In a way, it is its own character.

Authors, if you choose to use a real place in your story, you need to do your research on that place. Someone who called that place home will inevitably read your story. If you haven't written a narrative true to that setting, that reader will know, will call you out on it--at least mentally--and from then on, they are reading a book. That reader is no longer immersed in your story because they know you're lying. Disbelief is no longer suspended.

So, as an author, you need to think about this. You need to make sure that not only are you writing from a place of truth as far as your characters are concerned, but you need to write from the truth about the place you use as your setting. And in the day and age of Google, you have no excuse not to give a shit about the devil in your details.

For fun, let's say that you're writing about Terre Haute, Indiana. Now, this is a smallish town in the armpit of Indiana. It's a college town and its most famous alumnus would be Larry Bird. This is the general knowledge that most people would have about this place--assuming you've heard of it in the first place. A quick Google search can bring up a map, the names of local businesses and the mascot of Indiana State University. You can pepper your manuscript with these things, thus thinking that you're writing about Terre Haute, but that doesn't make it authentic.

For starters, Terre Haute residents (aka Hautians) live under a constant brown cloud, a funk that can only be described as, "Ah, smells like Haute." Why? There's a paper mill there. The place reeks. Locals may not notice it after a while, but a visitor can't help but notice. Hell, when you're driving into town on I-70, you can literally see the brown cloud over the city center!

Other than the funk, there are 3 colleges in this town: Indiana State University, Rose Hulman Institute of Technology and St. Mary of the Woods. Very different student bodies, different curriculum and attitudes. This also means you have a transient population. This will shade a story depending on how your characters interact with locals.

I'm not sure why you would want to do this, but for fun let's say that for some reason you're having a car chase through the streets of The Haute. Anyone who has ever driven a circuit just around the ISU campus will tell you that the number of one-way streets in this town is insane. Damn near every other street is a one-way. So, if you look at Google Maps, glance at the street names and just pick where you're going to lead your pursuit, you need to pay attention or else your protagonist's ride will be going to wrong way up 9th.

If you're going to go to a bar in Terre Haute, they will probably have Champagne Velvet on tap. Sure, you can get other stuff, but CV is a local brew with its own claim to fame in the area. Look it up and you'll understand the caption above. Bonus points if you can tell me in the comments.

Also, the ISU campus has a railroad track on every. single. side. There are train tracks EVERYWHERE in Terre Haute. When I lived there, I'd talk on the phone with my friend Patt in Arizona and he'd always ask, "Christ do you live under an El?" because he could hear the trains. Seriously. So. Many. Trains. That car chase is probably going to get stalled by a goddamn train.

These might seem like insane details. You might think I'm nuts for saying you should know them. But, when you've got a real place on a map there are people who really live there. You need to know. Even a little place like Terre Haute, Indiana where people can't agree on how it's pronounced. (Terry Hut? Tear Hot?)

For the better part of 5 years, that was my home. If someone writes about it and doesn't include at least some of these above details, I'm going to call bullshit. I'm going to know that this person has never been there, talked to anyone who did live there. I'm going to think they just threw a dart at a map to choose their setting.

And this is just a little town! What if you want to write about one of the big names? Phoenix, Vegas, New Orleans? These places all have a national reputation, but there's more to them than that. If you can't go there and physically walk the streets, you need to spend days on Google maps. Use the street view. Talk to people. Socially network and figure out how you can write like resident, not just a tourist.

Backwards and In Heels

"Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards...and in high heels!" -- Bob Thaves  So this might get ranty at times, but I'd like to throw my two cents into the ginormous piggy bank of this discussion. Women on book covers/movie posters...particularly in the urban fantasy genres. This comes about because posted an article about that pose. I posted it on my Facebook page and someone asked me what a "good pose" would be and advised me to show my work. Well, here we go. It's not a new observation. There's the video that compares urban fantasy book covers. In January Jim C Hines did the iconic blog post where he tried to mimic the covers of popular books just to show how ridiculous women are portrayed. We also learned that insulin ports are sexier than tribal tattoos. Then a blogger named Anna took it a step further, imitating the same poses and those of men on similar covers. Please go check out the latter two links if nothing else. While highlighting a problem, they are wickedly funny.All joking aside, though, there is a trend in they way women are posed on book covers that pisses me off. Now, romance covers have their own tropes. Bodices splitting, shoulders bare...whatever. Those books are somewhat exempt from what I'm about to tear into and here's why: Urban Fantasy prides itself on having Strong Female Protagonists. There are whole message boards and websites devoted to amping up women's roles in books, bringing them to the fore as role models. We don't want female characters that are shoved into men's situations. We don't want wilting flowers or smoldering vixens. We want women. Real. Strong. Capable. Women. I say this as a reader, a writer and a woman. We need stories with women being themselves unabashedly, stories where her femininity isn't highlighted. You wouldn't praise Harry Dresden for accomplishing so much while also being a man, would you? Then don't do the same thing to Dante Valentine. Women need stories where our gender kicks ass, takes names and maintains herself throughout the arc. We need for that woman to be taken seriously.

These covers completely undermine that last part. I'm sorry, I can't take a woman seriously if she's supposed to be fighting demons on rooftops if she's wearing skin-tight plastic and stiletto boots. I want strength, not a firm ass. By objectifying the heroine on the cover, you've already changed the narrative in a very subliminal way. It tells me that above all things, I should value her sexuality, not her dedication, her ferocious nature or her skills.

For example, DELIVERANCE by Dakota Banks features an Elektra knock-off in an impossible pose and clothing that is straight from the goth club on a Friday night. At least her hair is braided. Because when you're fighting off evil, there's nothing worse than having to blow your bangs out of your face or stop to tie up your hair.

FORGED IN FIRE by J.A. Pitts is another one that bothers me, but in a different way. On this cover, our heroine looks like a badass! Platinum blonde hair. Shaved sides. Reasonably realistic clothing choice for a warrior against the damned. WHY ARE WE FEATURING HER ASS?!?! She's got a fucking sword and a hammer on her hip. The look on her face tells me that she could rip out my throat with her teeth. Let her be fierce, dammit! Do not ruin the effect by sexualizing her!


So, gentle reader, you may be wondering what I see as a good choice for a cover in the genre. Well, it took some looking, but I found some urban fantasy covers that I think maintain feminine integrity without objectifying the heroine.

SHAEDES OF GRAY by Amanda Bonilla. While we still have a variant on The Pose, this one doesn't make her ass the focus. She looks strong and ready to slice anything that twitches. She doesn't look like she is waiting for the first incubus she can find to shag six ways from Sunday.

Natasha Hoar's THE STUBBORN DEAD. On this cover, our heroine wears leather for a practical reason: she is riding a motorcycle. Dangerous, attractive, smart, capable. Based solely on the cover, this is a woman who has her shit together. I'd read it.

Armed. Dangerous. Lovely. Katniss Everdeen in another life, perhaps?
Caroyln Crane's MIND GAMES. Our heroine is dressed sensibly without being frumpy. She's got a wicked knife and the pose is one that is realistic. Solid cover.

 Michael R. Underwood's book GEEKOMANCY just released its cover last week and it is the hotness. We've got an attractive woman (albeit in one of the other stock poses) looking like she could be equally at home playing D&D or as an extra for The Craft. No nonsense, sexy librarian look? Yes. Witchy undertones? Yes. And in the center we've got a D20. I will read this.

It is possible to put a woman on the cover of a book without turning her into a prostitute. So why don't people do it? Why do we keep using the same dumbass tropes on our covers? And while I know it's probably asking for a lot, could we please have a plus-sized cover model? Just once? I'd love to be able to cosplay someone without saying, "Oh, I'm the fat version of ___." (Which is one more reason I love Alexia Tarabotti from Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series.)

And men, I realize that you guys have your share of ridiculous cover art as well. But, the above mentioned Jim Hines posted a spectacular blog on the topic this very morning. Feast your eyes and don't drink anything while doing so. Wouldn't want you to kill a monitor from snarking your chai.

So what about you? What do you think about book cover poses? Share some of your favorites in the comments or point me toward the ones that just make your eyeballs curdle with shame and despair.

Until then,