THE FALCONER

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I’ve noticed through my query-reading experiences that many aspiring authors have a hard time being original. There are so many vampire romances, demon-slaying paranormals, angel stories, faerie mythologies, etc. But the important thing to remember is that it’s perfectly okay to write these. So long as you have something original to add to the genre (and you clearly and interestingly express that in your query).

I give you The Falconer by Elizabeth May.

This is another one of “those faerie books”, but I was intrigued because rather than being set in America or England, The Falconer is set in Scotland. That, combined with the steampunk technology, made me want to buy and read this book.

Little did I know that these aren’t even what really set this book apart from the others. Setting is such a minor thing when compared to plot and character.

The Falconer is awesome because May is an expert with plot twists and engaging fight scenes.

Plot twists, by definition, are unexpected and often exciting. That’s their function: to throw the story in a different direction or to reveal a previously unknown fact. But May produces them in such a way that they amp up the tension and provide greater conflict.

At first the reader is led to believe that the entire purpose of the story is for Aileana to avenge her mother’s death by killing the wicked faerie who murdered her before her eyes. But that’s not the big picture at all—and accomplishing such a task proves to be harder than Aileana could have ever realized. That’s all I can say without revealing any spoilers. So go read The Falconer to see for yourself how May pulls these incredible twists off.

It is said that each scene in a story should accomplish more than one thing, and The Falconer does this effortlessly.

Anyone who has taken a writing class knows that blow-by-blow fight scenes are rarely the way to make a fight scene engaging. Such a style makes the writing feel staccato, unrealistic, and even boring. But May’s writing style is so engaging that she’s not only able to give us blow-by-blow fight scenes at times, but she also combines that with sections of telling (as opposed to showing) to string her fight scenes together. Just when Aileana defeats a faerie, a dozen more will take its place. The scenes never finish when you think they will. And May uses that to pull more tension out of the scenes. It’s incredible.

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THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND

The Devil's Only Friend

I just finished reading THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND by Dan Wells. For those of you who enjoy the TV show The Following or are fascinated by serial killers, I recommend reading this series by starting with I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. This story really stands out from others because the protagonist is 15 in the first book, which just adds a whole other level of creepiness to the story. Love it.

So let’s talk about the interesting things Wells does in this book. John Cleaver is a brilliant protagonist. While he is incapable of feeling empathy for those around him, he excels at figuring out how people think and using that against them. That’s how he thwarts the antagonists in the story. As such, John has to make many plans and then execute them flawlessly. All while trying not to give in to his dark nature.

With characters who are in this constant state of planning, there are a couple general methods writers use to make the execution of the plan interesting to the reader.

The first is to list out all the details of the plan for readers to see. This shows the character’s genius. But then, when it comes time to execute the plan, rather than bore readers by showing the plan that was just explained to them, something has to go horribly wrong. The plan has to change quickly, and that turn of events not only amps up the tension, but is great at making a book unputdownable.

The-A-Team

Movie Fanfare

The second method is to simply not tell the reader the plan. Then when everything goes according to plan, it is still interesting and exciting because readers didn’t know the plan in the first place.

Like every time this chick

Veronica

Business Insider

outsmarts this guy.

Sherrif Don Lamb

Fan Pop

The third method is a little different, but it basically involves telling the reader the plan, without telling them the intended outcome.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-prison

Kabooooom

And Dan Wells uses all three of these. Then on top of it, he breaks the rules to achieve his own desired outcome.

In some of the first pages of the book, John lays out his plan. He and his team are going to take out a bad guy, very simply but effectively. The plan really only has about three steps to it. The steps are laid out, then they’re performed perfectly, and the outcome is achieved just as they wished it to. But rather than this being boring, it was actually perfect for what I assume Wells was trying to achieve. He’s showing readers how these characters work. They’re a new team, but they’re really good at what they do. They make a plan, and the plan works. (It also helps that the plan and execution of that plan were quick, maybe just a couple pages. As a reader, I didn’t have a chance to get bored, and it was great for character development. Having every scene do more than one thing is very beneficial!)

But then, when it comes time to take out the next antagonist, things go wrong. This team that’s proven to be so effective and thorough messes up, and bad things happen as a result. The element that makes the plan go wrong hits you harder. You’re angry by the wrongness of it. After all, you’d just learned how effective the team is. You were wowed by their awesomeness.

Because of the consequences of this plan going wrong, John doubts his team. He thinks he’d be more effective if he didn’t rely on others. So he starts to make plans on his own. John will tell you what he wants to achieve, and then you learn how he gets there as he does it. There’s a new killer in town. John wants to communicate with him, but he has to break away from the team to do it. He strikes out on his own, and you don’t know how he’s going to do it until he’s already doing it.

And then my favorite part of the story happens at the very end. John is backed into a corner, you don’t know what the best possible outcome is for him. Can he even survive it? He starts carrying out a plan, but where is the plan going? What the heck is he doing? The tension builds and builds as you painfully wait for the consequences of the plan. But then, when it happens…it’s beautiful. So satisfying and fulfilling.

This character’s methods never get boring. Because even if it’s the same brilliance, there’s a different way for Wells to manifest that brilliance to manipulate the reader’s reactions to it. And it’s awesome.

As writers, it’s a good idea to be aware of these methods of executing plans within our novels. Whether we’re following the rules or breaking them for specific reasons, it still pays to know what else is being done out there.

Beats

The month of May I took a sabbatical to Seattle, where my friend and playwright/screenwriter (the indomitable Katherine Gee Perrone!) helped me plot my latest novel. Because when you’re stuck, ask for help! Writing doesn’t always have to be a completely solitary vocation. But I digress. The most helpful part of our plotting session was learning some good screenwriting terminology that helped me cement in my mind how I like plots to be constructed, both as a reader and as a writer.

“Beats lead to beats!” she’d say every time I got stuck. And isn’t that the true essence of plot–more so than, say, “stuff happens” or “the characters did stuff”?

Just to make the terminology clear, in screenwriting, a beat “refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal” (via Dr. Wikipedia). Even if your character goes to the store to pick up a gallon of milk, how does that affect the story? (Granted, some readers like books where Stuff Happens that isn’t obviously moving the plot forward, so YMMV).

Speaking to the zeitgeist, I see two different ways this is employed in storytelling. One is the Outlander model, more episodic than any novel I’ve read. Each chapter of Outlander feels self-contained, so while some beats lead to the next beat within the chapter, many of the events of each chapter only yield consequences further down the line. The advantage of episodic storytelling is to give the reader time and space to feel immersed in the world–and the Highlands of 1743 is a world I don’t mind being a tourist in. Still, as I’m reading I can see that something that Claire and Jamie do or say will affect the plot later in the novel, so I’m never disoriented by having lost the “thread” of the plot.
The second method is the style of storytelling employed by Mad Max: Fury Road. The pace is breakneck. Each character’s decision leads to immediate and forceful consequences. What with the action scenes and blocking, the plot of MM:FR feels like a Rube Goldberg machine–in some action scenes, I mean this statement literally. The advantage in this method (manifold) is that your reader feels a sense of danger and urgency but also continuity. It’s not hard to keep track of where each character is in their arc, because the story doesn’t give you time to forget. The character Nux is the best example of this, since his arc is the most dramatic, (SPOILER AHEAD) going from being a minion of the villain to an ally of the protagonists. The scene where he “turns” from one side to the other makes sense, even given how short it is and with such little dialogue, because we’ve JUST seen him mess something up (END SPOILER)…no time is wasted with the dialogue remind the audience of what Nux has already been through and where his head is at.

A nice thing about plotting with a “beat leads to beat” style is that you can get a nice mix of character-driven and event-driven plot (internal forces vs external forces driving the story forward), because a beat can be decisions that come straight from the characters and also external events and circumstances. However, for me, the advantage of keeping this phrase in mind while plotting is that the plot feels like there is a continuous thread tying it all together. That sense of continuity is ubiquitous in Western storytelling, and your readers are probably looking for that.

I’m an Amateur Writer Because…

I say “novel” after clearly stating something as fantasy (i.e. “Please consider my fantasy novel”).

I’m submitting to a publisher even though I self-published my book last week.

I don’t really read books, but I enjoy writing them.

I’m querying a book I haven’t finished writing—or even started for that matter.

I take my manuscript to book signings with the hope that my favorite published authors will show it to their agents.

I say I want to be a writer when I haven’t written anything.

In the case of queries…

I tell agents that my book is unique without saying why, mostly because I don’t know.

Instead of stating the major conflict of my story, I say that my book is about inner discovery.

I’m querying a novel I haven’t finished yet.

I’m asking an agent to please consider my 125,000 word middle grade novel.

My book is a YA, but all the main characters are adults or nine years old.

I say my book has 27 chapters and is 307 pages long. I don’t bother to mention the word count.

My story is about the battle between good and evil, and I will neglect to tell you anything else about it in my query.

I tell agents that I know they’ll enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Sometimes it’s hard to be professional. As writers, we desperately want to get published, and, in the case of those who are already published, we desperately hope that our next book will sell too. Regardless of what publishing state you’re in, don’t forget the basics. Remember to hang in there. Because it’s the writers who stick with it, no matter what, who make it.

Hang in There Kitty

Escapist Magazine

Strong Female Characters (TM)

So in the last month, I feel like there’s been a resurgence of uproar about women in media and the mythological Strong Female Character (TM). Between Black Widow’s role in the most recent Avengers film to the horrid debacle that is Game of Thrones and Sansa’s character arc and the newly released Mad Max: Fury Road (which I have not yet seen), there’s been lots and lots of talk about what it means to be a Strong Female Character (TM) and how if a female character isn’t a Strong Female Character (TM), then she is some how weak, less valuable than her fellow characters, and deserves all sorts of awful things that happen to her.

And this is why I kind of think the whole concept of Strong Female Character (TM) is a bunch of bunk.

image from bloody-disgusting.com

When people talk about SFCs, they’re usually only using the word “strong” in the physical sense of the word. SFCs are physically strong and feisty and they’re good to have in a fight. Sometimes, SFCs are ultra-tomboys who eschew everything feminine. Other times, they’re more along the lines of Buffy (aka the Vampire Slayer), who enjoys traditionally feminine things like clothes and romance but who is also good in a fight.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with characters like this. Absolutely nothing wrong. There are women who don’t like traditionally feminine things. There are women who like to fight. There are women who are a mix of both. And it’s good and right to have representation of women like this in our media.

My problem is when we start acting like physical strength is the only way to make a female character strong and when we act like the presence or absence of physical strength (usually examined in conjunction with the presence or absence of traditionally feminine qualities or interests) is the sole deciding factor in whether a female character is “worthy” of our interest, if she’s “feminist enough,” or whether or not she deserves awful things happening to her.

image from comicvine.com

Take for example the backlash over Black Widow from Age of Ultron. In the film, she’s up to her usual ass-kicking but she also (1) had a love interest and (2) expressed some guilt/sadness/conflicting feelings over having been forcibly sterilized as a teenager, and large swaths of the internet lost their minds over this. Suddenly Black Widow was a weak woman. Suddenly she was just another woman who’s head was filled with notions of romance. I saw one criticism that accused her of infantalizing the Hulk so she could unleash all her long-buried maternal instincts upon him. While I will admit that the bulk of her screen time was seen in conjunction with the Hulk and the bulk of her character arc for this movie was a romantic one and that perhaps the movie could have struck a better balance in that regard, but at the same time, what on earth is wrong with a woman having romantic feelings for someone? What is wrong with her mourning the fact that the choice to have children or not was taken from her? (And let’s not forget that she had just relived the memory of being sterilized, so of course that’s wound is going to feel fresh all over again.)

I’m not saying that everyone has to love the way Black Widow’s character has developed, but it would be nice to not rake her over the coals because she’s a single character who cannot please everyone. (This is where the real problem is, by the way. If we had a better spread of female characters who embodied a wide range of interests and personalities and strengths and weaknesses, we wouldn’t spend weeks ripping apart a single character for not being everything we wanted. But that’s for another post.)

What I would love for people to start doing is to recognize that being strong doesn’t just mean being physically strong. As we work to make our media more inclusive, we need to remember that physical strength is not the only way to be strong. A few months ago, I stumbled across a post on tumblr that listed forty-two different kinds of strengths. FORTY-TWO! While some of those strengths were physical (endurance or dance/kinesthetics), none of the strengths on the list had anything to do with combat ability. Most of them were things like “having a keen eye” or “being self-aware” or “willing to be unpopular.” You know what else was on the list? Kindness. Sympathy. Elegance. Emotional intelligence. Style. All of those are things traditionally associated with femininity and none of them are things that are traditionally considered strengths—but adding these qualities to your characters will make them strong and interesting and well-rounded.

So let’s stop pretending that the ability to fight is the only way to measure strength and start recognizing the importance of other kinds of strength.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is my favorite part of story writing. I think it’s possible, if you are the outlining kind of writer, to create a pretty strong story before you start writing by simply asking the right questions.

You know when you go see a big sci fi or fantasy epic at the movie theater and (occasionally) you spend the whole time punching holes in the plot? “Why didn’t they just call the eagles to take them to the Lonely Mountain?” “If she can blast people with her magic, why did she spend so long running away from the other witch?” So when you’re brainstorming ask yourself thorough questions. Rather than impeding creativity, I find it boosts mine because problem solving is a creative exercise. ‘What if’ is fun, and a great place to begin brainstorming, but don’t neglect ‘why,’ and ‘how.’

what-if-by-fly-you-fools-gandalf-was-really-telling-them-to-use-eagles-to-fly-to-mordor

What if, indeed.

Another brainstorming method I’ve used effectively is to take a notebook (the catnip of writers), open it to a blank page, and do a free write where you list every cool or inspiring thing that comes to you. Sometimes by combining story elements you think are awesome, you arrive at new ideas and characters and plots.

favorite

List a few of your favorite things until you come up with a story about a whiskered unicorn who can blast snowflakes from its eyes.

If you use this method, I’d suggest you spend some time towards the end using with the first method I discussed. Ask yourself as many questions as possible. Explore all possible ramifications of the story you’ve come up with. Or don’t. Maybe you’ve written enough to realize that you like exploring your plot tangles while writing the first draft, i.e., a gardener or discovery writer. That’s cool too.