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A lot of people have been making a lot of noise lately about the “need for diversity” in stories, which confuses me. I don’t see that the story needs it so much as some portion of the reading public might want it, to the point of seeking out stories that have it over stories that don’t. The publishing industry might therefore want to see more diverse books, either authors or characters, in an effort to sell more copies to more people, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a need for diversity in the story, or an indicator of the quality of the story itself.
This is not to say that a story should not be affected if the lead detective in the case was black instead of white. Of course it would be. The cause of diversity would not be well served if the author simply stuck the word ‘black’ in there. Characters don’t ‘just happen to be’ black, or female, or gay, etc. People have history, experience, knowledge, and if they’re lucky, evolution. Taping the word ‘death’ over ‘stun’ in ‘stun ray’ doesn’t make it a death ray. The actions and words of that character would have to be very different. The reactions of those around him would be very different.
My claim is that the difference in behavior would and should be enough to tell the reader that this is a black guy without the author having to throw in an extra word like ‘black’. There needs to a reason for each extra word, and the fact that the character is black isn’t it. The stun ray has to be a death ray and at some point it has to act as one, in which case adding the label does serve a purpose to the plot, by indicating the change in its nature (and the nature of its maker). In Phule’s Company, one character attacked anyone who used words like ‘short’ in her presence. Guess why. But if action and dialog aren’t enough, if the death ray never gets fired, then the diverse nature of the character is so irrelevant that again, the extra word should be edited out.
On the other hand, the reader who goes looking for diverse stories probably isn’t looking for them for the fun of it. The search for diversity is at base a search for realism (of a specific sort), and an unrealistic portrayal won’t serve that goal. But what counts as ‘realism’ in this context?
What counts as realism in any context? My only real resource, as an author, is my own life and my own observations, but even those observations are all understood in terms of my own life. At bottom, then, the only thing I can realistically portray is me, and only to the extent that I was paying attention at the time. Can I portray another white male realistically? Only to the extent that he is like me. Which is the same extent to which I can realistically portray anyone, including space aliens, dogs, and elm trees (assuming they were sentient).
Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I’m allowed to fail. I’m not allowed to not try.
If I was asked to make a list of books or movies that left me wanting more, I’m not sure I could give you one. I have a bunch of movies and books that I’m constantly going back to, though. Rewatching and rereading are some of my favorite things, but I don’t know if it’s because of any sense of wonder, since relatively few SF or fantasy novels are on my lists, and where they are, it’s not usually because of their distinctive SF/F elements.
As anyone who’s read my stories (come on, there must be one of you) knows, my main interest is not the gizmos, but the people using them. So maybe my ‘sense of wonder’ is about other things.
What makes even the gizmos wondrous, to my mind, is the human relation. One comparison I often make is Hellboy vs Van Helsing. These two movies both end with climactic battles between giant monsters, but in Van Helsing they’re smart enough to morph back into human forms every so often. Give us human beings someone to relate to. Hellboy had neither, and it was hard to care much about a climactic battle between two cartoons, neither of whom looked human.
The climax of Phantom Menace (Star Wars episode 1, I forgive you for forgetting about it) had much the same problem. A war of CGI robots versus aliens isn’t very enthralling. Far more ‘wondrous’ was the scene of Ben stepping out onto a platform in the middle of this giant empty shaft, in A New Hope. While I love the Godzilla movies, most of them fail to instill any sense of wonder, except for the American versions (yes, even the bad one), which constantly show the giant monster from a human perspective.
Having just taken a look at my DVD collection, I notice that the SF/F movies I have in it (a small percentage, more F than SF) all have a significant human component. The Adjustment Bureau, Next, The Princess Bride, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Dark City, The Truman Show, District Nine, Dr. Horrible. I’ve watched any of these more often than any of the Harry Potter films. I prefer Back to the Future 3 over either of the first two. I have Buffy and Angel, but I rewatch Chuck, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me. Except that I don’t rewatch Chuck anymore, since I finished my fanfiction rewrite, a rewrite (of the gizmo-laden plot) that I created precisely because Chuck’s human themes inspired me to write it.
I was given this book in exchange for a review, but it is the sort of book I like to read and I am definitely recommending it to my own daughter, who shares my tastes in this.
This book introduces the two heroines of the series, Harmony and Elise, two girls living very different lives in different parts of the country, with very similar problems. Harmony, the strong-willed and self-reliant daughter of a ‘wild-child’ mother, first accidentally wishes a young man to death in a fit of embarrassment, and then restores a box of dead science lab frogs to life. Elise sees ghosts, and those around her see them too. As their powers grow and the manifestations become more severe, they are offered refuge at a school for students with gifts like theirs, only to find that they have simply traded one set of problems for another, increasingly dangerous set.
While I expect any story about a school for magically-gifted youth will invite a comparison to Harry Potter (one of the girls even refers to herself as a ‘mudblood’), I was more charmed with similarities to movies such as The Sixth Sense (and perhaps Groundhog Day) and a personal favorite of mine, the TV show Pushing Daisies. But these are small things, and the story goes its own way with all of them, which I very much appreciated. The real hazards the two young ladies face are far more mundane than any at Hogwarts, and more relatable, the magical overtones being highlighted by the alternating chapters, which allow us to see each girl from within and without as they A very enjoyable book, the first I have read in this series or by these authors. In the interests of full disclosure form their partnership.
I’m definitely looking forward to volume 2 and the next stage of their story.
Back when I was writing my many stories in the Chuck fanfiction realm, I often thought of it as great practice for any future writing I would end up doing. Having already written St.Martin’s Moon at that point, I knew that there were certain types of writing which I was not very good at, such as mystery, with its focus on pacing and plotting, and horror, with its focus on pacing and setting/ambiance. Chuck was a great mixture of light and dark, romance and comedy combined with spy action and some darker drama. My own strengths were in the romance and comedy areas, I thought at the time, where my ability to write strong dialog and characters was most important. The slow and methodical pacing of a spy story, mixed with the occasional burst of action, was what I needed work on.
I was mainly thinking of my more normal stories when I thought this, such as the stories of my Nine2five series, in which I rewrote the last three seasons of Chuck to be more of a piece with the first two. The third season, usually abbreviated as S3, was a very dramatic turn for the show, which the producers thought of as a Hero’s Journey type of story. Which may have been their vision, but if so, they were very poor story-tellers, since the first two seasons weren’t so strong on the Hero’s Journey and they were very strong on the romantic comedy spy adventure. (In fact, the show never did become a Hero’s Journey type of show, as nearly every step along that Journey was erased and forgotten by the end of the episode.) S4 and S5 were far worse, in terms of story-telling failures, so fixing the whole series was quite a lesson plan for a practicing writer. (I added the links to my stories in case anyone wants to read them, but they do assume you know the show, so a great deal of exposition is left out. You have been warned.)
That said, however, the story that is coming to my aid at this moment is not Nine2five but a much less ambitious and more experimental piece called ‘Not This Time‘. This story came between my more typical stories, such as ‘Hannah HISHE‘ and ‘Chuck vs the Epilog’, and Nine2five, and may have contributed to my development of the ideas for the latter story. What made ‘Not This Time’ (hold on while I save that title on my clipboard, just in case I need to write it a lot) experimental was the problem it was written to solve, as regards the finale.
In addition to the will-they-won’t-they trope that makes so many shows so painful to watch, the finale for some reason included the amnesia trope for one of the most popular characters, so all of the development that character had undergone over 5 years of show-time was completely erased. (The producers for some reason thought this was a good thing. I have my own theories on the matter, which I have written elsewhere.) As part of the ‘drama’ of the whole thing, she had occasional slight flashes of memory, to give us faithful viewers hope that our beloved character was not irretrievably lost, I guess.
‘Not This Time’ was written in that context. I wanted to do a story showing how the woman had been changed over the last five years and stayed changed, in spite of the loss of memory. I would do this by using several characters who were known to her before the show started, and show how her memories of those people had not changed, but her feelings about them had. I can’t say it was my most successful story, but it did take me to some very dark places, in addition to practicing different types of story, such as my first song-fic, which I don’t think I did quite right.
This is all coming out with my current novel, a story that is a compendium of stories being told about the main character, Tarkas, in the context of a real-time adventure that is slowly unfolding. The original idea was to have these stories told by Tarkas’ son Janosec, which they were, in the beginning. As the story went on, I found myself in a situation where Janosec had to go away for a bit, and I could either follow him and listen to a repeat of a story I’d already written, which I didn’t want to do, or find someone else to follow. Fortunately I’d already introduced such a fellow, so I followed him to a variety of places, where I was able to continue the story-telling motif, with different characters as the teller, sort of the inverse of the style I’d used in ‘Not This Time’. Rather than one person remembering several people, and seeing how she’d been changed, I had several people remembering one man, to show how he looked to their different perceptions.
It’s a very experimental idea for a novel, I think. Certainly if anyone trips across this post as they traverse the inter-web and can think of stories like this one, I’d love a heads-up about it.
Here’s a trick question: When did Luke Skywalker become the hero of Star Wars? It wasn’t eight o’clock, Day One, that’s for sure. When introduced he’s an unhappy dreamer without any real spine whatsoever. He wants to leave the farm and do ‘something’ but he doesn’t know what exactly, so he never can muster the courage to leave his family and go after it, whatever ‘it’ is. When the fam gets wiped out, he immediately hitches his star to Old Ben’s wagon, following him into the first adventure that comes along. They get captured, Ben goes to arrange their escape, and that’s when it happens. When R2D2 discovers the princess is on the station, it’s Luke who says, “We have to save her.”
Luke Skywalker made the decision. That’s what leaders do. The ignore the usual causal relations and do what they choose to do in spite of them. And when that decision is in favor of something that he or she feels is the morally right course of action, that’s when they become heroes. Or villains. The Kingpin chooses to order evil acts performed which he genuinely regrets but regards as necessary to a cause which he believes is right.
It’s not a requirement to be a leader that you be the smartest or the strongest. Kirk is not smarter than Spock, but he is the captain. Nor is it enough to be out front, first among many. What gets all those CEOs constantly installed on one corporate board after another in spite of their many failures is their ability to decide, to select or even invent a course when circumstances don’t select one for you, or even push them in a different direction.
Jack Burton is a clown and a fool, but he is also a hero and a leader. Surrounded by an army of ninjas, led by a wizard, when the false wall is discovered, it’s Jack who says “F*ck it”, whips out his knife, and slices away, with all the others looking on in admiration. They had the skills, the powers, but he had the ability to inspire them to follow.
It occurred to me a few days ago that perhaps the reason I was having such trouble with a synopsis for Ghostkiller wasn’t because of me or the story, so much as the way I was thinking about the story, categorizing it. Determining a story’s genre is basically figuring out which box you toss it into, so people who are looking for books of that type can go looking in that box. It’s a time-saver for publishers, booksellers, and customers, but like all such things it runs the risk of dropping a lot of stories that don’t fit in a box, or fit in more than one.
I think a lot of the advice I found on the web for writing query letters falls into this trap. A query for a genre novel is described very simply.as one hero with one goal and one antagonist. The goal for the hero is very clearly spelled out, etc. It’s all pretty simplistic, which is probably why genre novels are considered a lesser variety of literature than a literary novel. There are other reasons, too, I guess. One of the arguments I heard against an important philosophical article in favor of abortion was that the author was using more and more farfetched hypothetical constructions to make her point. The further she got away from ‘real life’, the less merit her arguments had. A genre novel about werewolves is fun but can’t tell us much about real life since there are no werewolves in real life.
Which isn’t a mark against genre novels as a class but against poorly-written ones being taken as representative. There’s no reason a single genre novel can’t have monsters, chases, mysteries, and true love, except that the author is only aiming for one box at a time. (I had a reviewer of one of my stories refer to it as being a 2D writer, rather than a 3D writer.) I’ve read many genre novels with important insights to human concerns in them, made more available by the fantastic nature of the story, not less.
The issue, I think, is whether the novel is driven by characters or by some other element. A ‘literary’ novel is a story about people and their lives, no linear plot, no arch-enemies. This is not to say that a novel about characters can’t have genre elements. Magical Realism seems to me to be that sort of story, but a little further along the spectrum you might find what I will call Realistic Magicism, where the genre component is larger, and independent of the lives of the people in the story, even though it is mainly explored through those characters. The more genre stories have the characters more subordinated to the genre elements. Some stories can have more than one genre.
Ghostkiller is not solely or even predominantly a genre novel, I think, and my mistake was in thinking it was. I thought it was some variety of paranormal, like Urban Supernatural, but now I think it’s further along the spectrum than that. I write genre novels through the characters. Everything, the plot, the setting, even the action, is described and presented from the point of view of the character doing it or perceiving it. If you see me, I did it wrong. As a result my stories are complicated, with lots of people each doing their own things at the same time, none of whom necessarily know why. The ‘plot’ is usually all of them reacting to some unseen not-necessarily-natural force, which they may know nothing about at any point and are certainly not moving intentionally to counter. The ‘Big Bad’ of St. Martin’s Moon was lycanthropy itself, but no one was trying to defeat that.
The standard methods for summarizing this type of story don’t apply, or maybe I wasn’t clever enough to see how to apply them. I couldn’t see how to render it through the lens of a single actor, whose intentions are so limited. Unfortunately, I also had a great deal of trouble finding any examples or instructions in how to write a query for a more literary type of novel. If I had, perhaps I would have come to this conclusion much sooner. I have a new synopsis done, which took far less time and effort than any of the aborted efforts I have for the older view of the story. Every paragraph begins with ‘they’. The story is presented not as a sequence of plot elements but as two lives and how the events of the book will change them.
Which is what the book is about.
One of the things agents and editors look for in a query letter is a comp title (I think I talked about this before, but if I haven’t, it isn’t too hard to find many blogs that have). This is supposed to be a title of a book of reasonably recent vintage, which is cited as an example to a) give the agent/editor in question a good idea of the type of book that they’ll soon be flogging on your behalf, and b) some idea of the marketability of your work. Claiming that ‘anyone who likes Twilight will love this’ may not work as well as it once did, but at least it gets the point across.
A third use is to show that you the author have kept current with the market yourself, that you know what books are or aren’t like yours, and most important, how they’re not. This third point doesn’t work so well for me, since my immediate reflex would be to change anything I’d written that was like some other story I’d just read, and make it so it wasn’t like that book at all. Great for those originality points, not so great for corporate metrics.
Plus, if you come along with your query letter and say ‘there’s no book like mine anywhere, ever’, the odds are they won’t believe you. They may even whip off a few names right off the top of their heads, and you look like a jerk. Unless of course there is no book like yours, because, like me, you go out of your way to make your books unlike every book you’ve ever read. I don’t claim to have read every book, though, so some other genius may have done what I did. Good for him (or her, but my default pronoun is male).
My real question, though, after all this backstory, is why does the comp title have to be a book? We do sort of live in a multimedia world now, and sooner or later books will come with embedded music videos, or some such, to set the right tone when you reach that steamy love scene or exciting chase sequence. It also broadens the pool of prospective titles, to be able to say that anyone who loved Animal House will love your book. Third, it seems to have bypassed my filter against writing stories I’ve already read, since I didn’t actually read it.
After many months of not thinking about it, focusing on my fanfiction, wallowing in despair over my poor, utterly original story, I suddenly had an idea for a synopsis pop into my head this morning. I wrote it down, talked about it with the fam, and realized along the way that the perfect comp title was not a book but a movie, Van Helsing, in point of fact. Which, while not a great movie, is to my mind a lot of fun, and has a number of points (on a high level, where it’s hard to avoid having commonalities) in common with my novel, which may be why I like it so much.
And if there are any books that read like Van Helsing feels, I hope you’ll mention it in the comments, so I can check it out for myself.