Killing Your Characters (Allegiant Fail)

While doing my usual putzing around on Twitter while sipping the morning coffee yesterday, I started hearing some tweets about a book, and people were not happy. At all. Not an uncommon occurrence really, but when I looked into it, the book they were referring to was the final book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a very popular YA Dystopian story with a large following and a movie coming out soon. Books with large fan bases are bound to have a wide range of reactions. Things happen they don’t like, minor characters die, the story goes in a direction they don’t like, the list is as long as there are readers. This is normal. In my Deadworld books, I received similar, negative reactions. It comes with the territory. Opinions are highly subjective and obviously, you can’t write to please everyone. I might go as far to say that writers don’t write to please anyone except themselves. We just hope that a large enough group of folks will feel the same way we do and keep us in the writing business that we love so much. To a point.

While you can’t write to please the reader, one wouldn’t be writing their own story then, there is something to say about reader expectations. Genre fiction tends to have groups of pretty dedicated readers. If one is lucky, your story reaches beyond your target group. Cross-genre appeal is a good thing, but the waters get a little murkier when you have the fortune of becoming popular. Yes, you can say that you should write the story you want to write, no matter what that is, and readers be damned. They’ll like it or they won’t. Let’s face it though, writers want readers to like their stories. We don’t create in a vacuum. We want readers to share our vision, to immerse themselves in the worlds we’ve created and journey with the characters we’ve developed and brought to life. However, a story generates expectations. When you plop the reader down in a world with a hero/heroine on an epic journey full of endless trials and dangers, love and betrayal, conspiracies, loss and hope, you are telling the reader something. You are telling them that you’re going to take them on a grand adventure, physical, emotional, and what-have-you, from beginning to end. Endings can be positive or negative and a mix of both. When you spread out this canvas before the reader though, you are creating a certain level of expectation, and there is some obligation on the writer’s part, I believe, to maintain this expectation. Consistency is vital. If you create an expectation of hope, of victory in the end, of the hero/heroine raising their fists in triumph, however mixed those feelings might be, you had better follow through.

Now, I have not read the Divergent series, so I can’t say how any of this was played out by Veronica Roth. Based upon reader reactions I’ve seen, there was no expectation that the main character, the heroine of the story, would die at the end. Victory came at the ultimate cost. This kind of resolution is a really, REALLY fine line to walk for a writer. You can’t pull off the death of the main character without there being at least a subtle expectation built in that victory is going to require this kind of resolution. There are a lot of stories out there where the main character dies. Sometimes the character has brought it upon themselves. Sometimes the situation is so untenable that death is the only possible outcome. All fine. Not all stories need or require a happy victory dance at the end. Some genres, however, have a certain level of expectation built into them that necessitates a particular kind of ending. In a romance, for example, if the hero and heroine don’t end up together in some sort of happy resolution, you haven’t fulfilled the expectation of what a romance is. The story becomes something other than a romance, which is fine of course, just don’t call it a romance and don’t put it out there to readers as one. When one is writing for the YA audience, a broad audience these days, but specifically targeted at the teenage market, there are also certain expectations built in here. There’s a lot of darkness and angst in this age group, but there is also hope.  A lot of shit happens in the teenage world, and much of it isn’t fun, but there is hope that, “I’ll get through this mess of figuring out the adult world and walk into it on solid ground.” YA Dystopian stories certainly delve into the notion of a lot of bad shit happening trying to figure things out on the way to being an adult. Adults live in a harsh world and getting the swing of being all grown up is a difficult task, but you know what? There’s hope that in the end, no matter what amount of crap is piled on, no matter how much things go wrong, that it will get figured out in the end and you’ll make it through. You don’t struggle mightily and then die.

Ok, we all know that people do struggle to make it through and then die, but that isn’t what you want to read. The reader wants hope. There are plenty of stories out there that detail quite eloquently, just how f’d up the world can be, how people can be harsh and cruel, and things can fail for good and bad reasons, but in the YA genre? Not so much. The expectation is that the teen hero or heroine will succeed in the end, and if you want to go against this expectation, you had better do a damn good job of making that plausible. The expectation needs to be altered, and from the sounds of things, from what I’ve read thus far, readers didn’t have that expectation at all. Should writers just write to reader expectations? No, of course not. That would be boring. As a reader, I like the unexpected, but when you start fiddling around with something fundamental like hope? Don’t crush it. Or, if you want to go there, be willing to accept the fact that a LOT of readers aren’t going to like you for it. They’re going to refuse to buy the book or see the movie (seen numerous comments to this effect). They might decide to never read anything else you ever write, and as a writer, that’s the last thing you want to have happen. I feel for Veronica. She took an unexpected step, and from the sounds of it, didn’t lay the groundwork well enough to alter the readers expectations. It’s a huge risk to kill off a main character, even if makes sense and can be seen from a long ways off.  Messing with hope is a very dangerous game as a writer.

Update…and a song

Plodding along and obviously I’ve been terribly unmotivated/inspired to blog on any kind of regular basis. That said, proposal for a new project is finally done, a time-travel/adventure story. Hopefully will have that off to the agent in a week or two. I’m also about to dig into editing my crime drama, Harbortown. Still not sure what I’ll be doing with this story, but I need it in tip-top shape before I think of having anyone look at it. Finally, and I’ll toss a little tidbit about myself in here-I like to hum made up music to myself at work when I’m bored-I came up with a line which I thought was cool for a song, so I rolled with it and came up with one. Years ago, I did a bit of public speaking on the issue of domestic violence, educating people about the issue, which I still feel is a significant social issue today. This song is inspired by that issue and the herculean efforts women must often go through to get free of violent relationships. Hope you like it.

I’ll Keep Walkin

 

I’ll keep walkin, through this valley of broken bones

Where my soul is crushed beneath your feet

I’ll keep walkin, until I’ve stepped out of your shoes

I’ll follow a path out of here where I can choose

I’ll keep walkin, walkin until I am free

Free to have a life about me

(Chorus)

I’ll keep walkin, through this rain of tears

Washed away by all of our fears

I’ll keep walkin out of the wreckage of this storm

Keep walkin, because I need to be reborn

I’ll keep walkin, until I find a new home

Where I can live a life I can call my own.

(Chorus)

I’ll keep walkin, though the trees of life are bare

The leaves blown away by the howl of your wind

I’ll keep pushin through the gale of your voice

I’ll keep walkin, cause I have no choice

To keep walkin until I find a new home

Where I can live a life I can call my own

 

Chorus:

Well I’m walkin, walkin because I’ll be strong

Because I deserve a life free of these wrongs

I’ll keep walkin, because I’ll have a voice

A voice all of my own

A life that’s my choice.

Cause I’m walkin, walkin on my own

Where I can live a life I can call my own

Another Update

Ah, the poor blog. One of these days I’m going to figure out something to regularly post about, but for now, I’ll continue with the occasional update on where I’m at. I expect this will be different at that point that I get another book out…which is my ongoing effort at the moment. The draft of the first Harbortown book is finally done. Yay! 120k of crime, a little romance, and emotional unraveling. Now it sits for a bit while I work on the proposal for a new story for my agent to shop around as my current one, another Urban Fantasy story, is now eight months out there in publishing land with only 3 rejections out of eight submissions. Never said this business was quick, that’s for sure.

So, this new proposal is being worked on with the idea that the current one is dying a slow death and being shuffled to the possibility of e-press or self-publishing. It’s a time-travel story, about a woman from the future unwittingly sent back to medieval England in order to stop a current war from happening, by altering the past and completely changing the course of history. This story will actually be more about how things change than the change itself, i.e. what could happen when someone with knowledge far beyond the 15th century world gets placed in a position of influence. The answer? Fun stuff! Will see how it goes. I have a 100 pages to write and then will see what my agent can do with it. Then, it’s back to editing Harbortown, which might end up being my first foray into self-publishing, and then? That remains to be seen. I’ll have two unfinished proposals I could finish or I could go back to Nick and Jackie and do the next Deadworld book. We’ll just have to wait and see. Happy reading/writing everyone!

 

And the experiment begins

I have two projects in the works right now, one a UF out on submission with my agent, and the other, a hardboiled romance, I’m debating what to do with. I bounce back and forth between wanting to try self-publishing with this title or pursing more traditional options. For the past year or so, I’ve been wanting to dig into the D.I.Y. elements of publishing that are now open to authors, and you can see by a post I made a couple weeks ago, that I’ve been pondering possibilities. Well, I’ve recently begun a piece of that possibility.

What I have written on Harbortown (about 50k) words to this point, I placed on Google Docs, invited about a half dozen reader/reviewer people I’ve connected with on twitter and feel could provide me with some honest feedback, and gave them the ability to comment directly in the document, much like you do with any Word document. The goal here is to work with a continuous feedback loop, using ideas/concerns/comments to develop the story into a stronger version than what I could normally on my own. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a very objective eye with regard to my writing, unless it sits for a couple of months before I look at it. The far more immediate feedback helps not only spur ideas and keep elements on track, what works well and what doesn’t, but it’s also inspiring to write more, when you have people involved in your work.

Given the scope of this story (I’m on pt 2 of 5, and currently at 50k), I will be doing this for a while, and may add some more commenters to the loop, depending on how well this turns out. It’s not exactly crowd-sourcing, but having interested people involved in you work, who you know will give honest feedback is a fabulous thing to have when writing. I know that some writers don’t like anyone to see their work until it’s done. They have worries that it will distort their process or stress them out or whatever the case may be. My brain doesn’t work that way, for better or worse. I thrive on the interaction, so I hope that this experiment will prove fruitful and I can build upon it. We’ll see how it goes.

The Ways We Can Tell Stories Are Changing

Much has changed in the past five years in publishing, which kind of goes without saying. It has allowed us writers to think a bit outside the box when it comes to the content we produce and how it’s put out there to readers. I have yet to do much with self-publishing, but it is readily apparent that the boundaries of the playing field for authors has greatly expanded. We can put out short stories, novellas, and such to go along with novels that come out, whether legacy or self published. It’s an ability to go beyond the norm for the readers as well as a method to help ourselves with things like discoverability and extra income. Things like this, of course, get me to thinking on the possibilities.

I have two projects going at the moment, and one of them is a something of a hard-boiled/noir/romance mashup called Harbortown. It follows the rollercoaster ride of Detective Rachel “Rehab” Rollins and the guy she must train to replace her after she’s been forced to retire.  The story arc takes place over these final six months of her job. Now, I may end up writing this all as one, full length book. If my agent likes it and sells it, I’m more than likely to go that route, but it’s also spurred on some other ideas.

Like, what if I wrote it as a series of novellas, released over the course of that actual six month time frame, on the actual days that each novella begins, sort of like reading it in real time? There could be short stories during the in between times. Then the whole thing could be compiled at the end in one volume. I could have a blog that follows the goings on in the town during the entire six months, also played along in real time, bits of news, things about the town and characters, kind of like a daily/weekly news update. The whole idea here would be to have readers experience the story along the same six month time frame that the characters and town do.

Might be fun, yes? Might be colossal, epic fail. Who knows, but regardless, it is very, very cool that publishing is such now that it allows for this kind of pondering. The ways in which we bring our stories to the reader have expanded quite a bit in the past few years, and likely will even more in the future. It’s an exciting time to be a writer.

Music and Story: Setting the Tone

There are a number of authors out there who like to build music soundtracks for particular books they’re writing. I personally have yet to do this, until now. My (other) current work in progress is a crime fiction story, a rather dark, unapologetic tale of love, violence, and how personal demons can destroy. The heroine likes music. She has a secret thing for singing that nobody knows about. It’s not a big element in the story far as that goes, but it’s a character thing I like a lot, and due to the emotional makeup of this character, she likes to play music that represents how she’s feeling at any given time. If this isn’t a story to build a soundtrack to, I don’t know what is.

Like the story, this aspect is a work in progress. I keep my ear out now for things that tie back into the story or characters. I think music can be a powerful addition to story, much like in movies. As a writer, if you have something that plays to what’s in the story, it can actually effect your writing. It can be quite powerful, honestly, and I wish I had the where-with-all to do it for every book, but it’s also a fair bit of work, and I”m not one of those folks with an ipod full of music to search through. Anyway, if you’ve not tried writing to music or find it distracting, the trick is not necessarily to pick things you normally love to listen to, but to tailor them to what you’re currently writing.  Got a love song that encapsulates what’s going on between your two protags? Play it while you write. It will have an impact. Even purely instrumental works can do this.

When this story finally sees the light of day, I’ll build an actual soundtrack for it just for fun and for readers to enjoy if they so desire. In the meantime, here are two, the first being what the heroine, Rachel, plays on the way to an incident (she’s a cop) and the second speaks almost perfectly to the romance in the story, from the hero’s pov. Enjoy, and happy reading/writing everyone!

Are Minimum Author Contracts As Bad As They Seem?

Was reading through J.A. Konrath’s blog today (always good to inspire discussion and thought), as is usually the case, something was mentioned that inspired a “hmmm.” It isn’t anything new, in fact the subject has been mentioned many times before, regarding how many authors are bailing on poor to mediocre publishing contracts to go to self-publishing. Many more will do so in the future, with good reason I might add. Certain authors, in certain positions, find self-publishing a far more viable alternative to legacy publishing. This is a niche group of people in the world of writers. It takes certain things to fall into place for self-publishing to be effective. This is a good thing, mind you, and more power to them and their future success. What bothers me about it, is that they are used as the example for why everyone should self-publish (minus those are are already best-selling authors). Keep in mind here, that I’m speaking of fiction. Other types of books do not particularly lend themselves to self-publishing at this point in time in the industry. So, the question keeps coming up, “Why try for a legacy publisher when you will only get crap terms, and likely make little to no money?” You should just self-publish from the get go.

The fact is, most writers who self-publish will experience the same result, albeit in a much shorter time frame. Regardless of success or failure, self-publishing will always be a faster avenue to getting published and experiencing the results, whatever they might be. But, they say, “I can get my work out there quicker for people to see, and if it does well, I might actually get picked up by a big publisher anyway.” This saves me the wait/hassle of dealing with the enormous amount of time big publishers take to do things. This is the “farm team” concept of writing. I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad, but it is prevalent. This is the idea that you can work away for little or no money and with time/effort/patience, demonstrate your value to those who will be willing to pay you for your work. There are examples of this. A number of writers have built themselves to the point in self-publishing that a big publisher has taken interest in them. This is a good thing too. It’s yet another possible avenue for us writers to work with. Again, realize that the chances for success are very small. Part of the problem is that the big leagues just don’t have room for everyone who is good. They can’t afford it. They have to pick and choose. So, some are drawn from the ranks of the self-published, others are chosen from the slushpile, while others hook up with an agent to farm their value to the big boys.

The thing is, publishers have their own farm team. You can think of it like any draft in professional sports. Some prospects hold great appeal, their talent is obvious from the start, and they get chosen in those first rounds. They’ll invest in these people. They believe they have the highest potential. The further you go down in the rounds, the more chancy they believe the potential for success is. They get the contract minimum. They get a chance to prove themselves, but the odds are stacked against them. The publisher knows this, but they see something and are will to take a minimal risk on seeing it pan out. I was one of these low round picks. I didn’t get a lot of money, the investment was low on their part, and things didn’t work out as well as hoped for so they let me go. So, now I’m trying to see if another team will pick me up. Likely it’ll be for that player minimum type of contract. That’s the way the ballgame is played. You need perseverance and some luck. You get some benefits for playing with the farm team of the big leagues. You get editing, cover art, formatting, copy-editing, and the opportunity to work with professionals at little cost to yourself. You can decide to forgo the farm system and try it on your own. This costs if you want to give yourself a legit shot at the big leagues or find success on your own (see my previous post).

To say that the low end contracts are bullshit for writers (and yes, they are not great terms) and not worth one’s time, is a bit of a misnomer I believe. Outside of the niche authors in a good situation to say no, writers are really just forgoing one remote chance at success for another. So, while I can say I don’t like the “rookie” minimum contracts. It does get you in the game and give you a shot, which honestly, I don’t think is any worse than the shot one has trying it on one’s one, as far as chances for success are concerned. You’re trading control and potential income for needed services you don’t have to invest in on your own. Again, it comes down to what you are willing and able to do. How do the pros and cons fall for your particular situation as a writer? Just don’t turn your nose up at the minimum contract. You have to prove your worth and earn your spot in the starting lineup. It’s a system that allows for as many potentials to be brought on to the team as possible, and you are battling against all of those other low round picks to show your value to the team. If you prove success and still get the crap terms, well, then you have options open to you you didn’t have before.