Come to My New Blog!

If you followed a link here from a comment I made on somebody's google blog, I would love to have you visit my blog, but this is no longer it. While I may occasionally post things here again once in a long while, virtually all my content will be at from here on out. If you were curious enough to come this far, why not give me one more click?

Monday, April 18, 2011

An experiment in characterization

Back in January, I had the pleasure of reading Leviathan Wakes (Click on image for link to Indiebound), a full five months ahead of [most of] you nerds. If you're into science fiction and you follow the big releases, you probably already know about this book. If not, you're going to hear about it this year. It's Orbit's feature release this summer, it's already garnered fantastic reviews--including Kirkus, which is famous for being a tough reviewer, and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly--and it's quite possibly the most widely anticipated SF book this year. And check out the blurb from George R-freaking-R Martin! Also? This book simply kicks ass. You should read it. When you can. *snicker*

Anyway, one thing that struck me as I read it was how vivid all the characters are, including the secondary ones. There are two main POV characters, but countless others that we meet throughout the book, including some that only live for a few chapters, and they all feel like real people, with real foibles and distinct personalities.

Not to take anything away from the fantastic writing job that Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (the authors behind the pen name James S. A. Corey) have done, but I can't help but figure that part of that awesome characterization job is rooted in the fact that this story was born as a role playing game, and that many/most/(all?) of the characters were drawn from characters in Franck's campaign. (Daniel Abraham talks about the role-playing campaign that gave rise to the Expanse universe here.)

Now more often than not stories drawn from RPG's are denigrated, but I think that's more about when people take their generic D&D campaigns and attempt to turn them into generic, cliché pseudo-feudal fantasies, complete with elves and dwarves. This is nothing like that. Franck had a sweeping, cinematic background conflict that was as well-thought-out as any novel before the RPG ever got started, as Abraham notes above.

I was one of the many people fortunate enough to play in Ty's rich, rich universe over the years, which is how I came to get an ARC of this six months early. I only came in near the end, and my character does not appear (by name, anyway) in Leviathan Wakes. But I spent several months traipsing around the belt with Captain James Holden, and I'll tell you what--he feels more real to me than some people I know.

Each of us created a character for the campaign, rolling up stats and then inventing a backstory that would put them in the path of the action. We then introduced our characters to each other by writing a vignette starring our character, set some time before our character entered the events of the campaign. The vast majority of the players involved were writers, with varying degrees of publication success, so we all took our characterization seriously, and we each set out to create just one person that would ring true. There wasn't any sense that this or that character was "the girlfriend" or "the sidekick" or "the token" or any of those ruts we can easily fall into as writers when we're creating a whole cast of characters at once, and when we view those characters as a means to an end. In our case as players, the characters were the end.

Which brings me, finally, to my point on characterization. I've tried character sheets. I've tried interviewing my characters. I've tried writing up biographies. I've tried other people's worksheets with questions about a character's goal or what a character learns. Hopefully I haven't made to bad a botch of anything, but I haven't found any of these to be especially useful to me. Characters come alive or not, but months later I find whatever details I wrote down about these characters in some file and realize I never gave this or that trait a second thought. On the other hand, Eddie Suarez, the radical guerrilla liberation theologian I made up for Ty's game, still feels very real to me. I'm confident I could slip right back into his character and write new scenes from his point of view, and they would feel right.

So I'm going to try and duplicate the process I followed with Eddie with my new project. Not by playing an RPG. I think stories that are epic in scale lend themselves to that, but my stories tend to be much more . . . intimate. But in addition to coming up with background sketches for my characters, focusing on the roots of their personalities, I'm going to write little vignettes for each of the major ones from their point of view (whether it's in first or tight third). In Vanishing Act, I never wrote anything where the point of view character was Danny (the antagonist), or Paul (one of the good guys), or Steven (Chris's father). I hope spending some time in those other character's heads will help me make them more than just foils for the protagonist to play off of.

Kind of like Method Acting for writers.

We'll see, right?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Progress Report Time (Contest Win Edition!)

Allergies have got me up a bit earlier than I'd prefer this morning, so it seems like a good time to get down to something I never quite seem to make it to on my priority list--this blog. Insert here the standard whinge about what a difficult school year this has been in terms of powers that be putting new requirements on our plate that weren't there before without relieving us of any of the old requirements. The smart course of action would be to figure out which of their directives I can get away with ignoring, but I'm too obsessive/compulsive to know how to do that, so instead I drive myself into the ground trying to do every single damn thing. I put in twelve+ hour days every single day, and that's no hyperbole. You'd think that would be enough to be ridiculously together and on top of everything, but really it's just barely enough to tread water. And the worst thing is most days I'm not sure anybody notices how much I'm doing at all.

But enough whining about work--I want to talk about writing!

I've actually done a pretty decent job of making time for writing in spite of the work madness. I've got a new idea for a YA fantasy novel fleshed out and hope to get a running start of several thousand words written before the summer begins. I wish I had a title for it, if for no other reason than so I could come up with a meaningful label for this post.

My most exciting news right now is still about Vanishing Act, though: my query letter and opening pages won Janet Reid's Backspace Contest! My biggest frustration is how few people appreciate what a big deal that is, to me anyway. Lisa went to the Backspace Writers Conference in 2009 and it was an amazing experience. The chance to workshop your query and opening pages with scores of agents, in-depth and all in one venue, seems to work wonders for helping aspiring novelists master that step on the road to publication. I don't know if anybody's tried to collect data on what percent of their participants go on to secure representation and eventual publication, but, anecdotally, their numbers seem to be phenomenal. Indeed, Lisa arrived at Backspace unrepresented, but left with an offer from an agent. She's not the only one.

The Backspace folks have already been in touch with me and they've already been unbelievably enthusiastic and generous. I've won other prizes before--vacations and such--where I felt on arrival that the attitude was, "You're already getting this for free, so don't expect any frills at all." Not so with the Backspace conference. They've made it clear to me that my prize includes any and all parts of the conference that I'm interested in, including the parts that would normally be an extra charge. They've also made me feel as welcome and as valued as any paying customer.

It occurs to me that in all this gushing about the Backspace folks, I really ought to express more appreciation for the folks at Fine Print Lit and Nancy Coffey Lit & Media, not just for choosing me, but for holding this contest every year. I'm not certain who's picking up the tab for me to attend this conference, but we (teachers in my county) haven't had a cost of living increase to our salaries in three years, and now we have to deal in the coming years with attacks on our profession and our salaries from Republicans in our state legislature, and times have gotten increasingly tough for us as the years have passed. Every year it seems we tighten our belts a little more, and only occasionally do we look back in awe at just how much spending power we've lost, bit by little bit. Used to be we could go to the occasional writers' conference, or, hell, take a vacation or something. Used to be we could afford to buy tickets to Disney World right in our own backyard. Used to be we could eat out with some frequency. Now we cross our fingers that next year will still find us living in the same house. It's safe to say there is no way we could afford to send me to a $750-$800 conference (not counting airfare or hotel). This is an awesome opportunity that I would never have if not for this contest. Also? Janet Reid sounds totally nice on the phone, and not like a shark at all.

I can't wait until the end of May!