Tuesday, May 28, 2013

It's Genre Research, I Swear!

Sorry I missed last week's post--life just got crazy and I forgot. So, on that note, on to this weeks blog post.

I am a huge bookworm.

This is a trait that goes perfectly with being a writer, along with being a librarian. As a bookworm, I devour new books like a woodchipper goes through tree branches, and I get a lot of ideas by seeing what other people have done with the genre. I got back into fantasy by reading Discworld. I got into mysteries by reading Sherlock Holmes. I got into horror by reading Stephen King. And so forth. So naturally the best way I know of to research a new genre I'd like to try out is to read a bunch of books in that genre.

However, this can lead to some strange results, depending on the genre you're researching.

For a while I was into Bizarro fiction and aspired to write my own as soon as I had a handle on what made it work. As a result, I was reading books with titles like Warrior Wolf Women of the Wasteland, Apeshit, and The Ass Goblins of Auschwitz. In hindsight, I was quite glad that all of these came through interlibrary loan and had the big transit sleeves over the front covers, because a lot of the covers were really damn weird and I didn't feel like trying to explain what they were about to passersby, especially since some of the titles were almost obscenely literal once you got into the story. I soon concluded that Bizarro deliberately defied any attempts to fit it into a set framework, and set the genre aside as far as writing projects went, until such time as I recalled a particularly vivid fever-dream that I could render into a semi-coherent plot. (Good luck with that, me.)

Before that, I was plowing through a list of obscure books that were eventually made into less-obscure movies, like The Stepford Wives, Rosemary's Baby, and The Midwich Cuckoos. These titles were quite a bit more innocuous than the Bizarro titles, but you can imagine the looks I got while reading Rosemary's Baby in the waiting room at the OB/GYN. (Incidentally, my roommate has me beat on that front, sitting on the front steps of a church to read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Hee hee.)

Even mainstream genres aren't immune to this reflexive guilt reaction. I read Twilight to see if it was all it was cracked up to be either good or bad. I know that both camps have particularly rabid supporters, and I did my best to stay out of the fray, but it's hard to do that when you have the first book of the series in your hands. Even straight romance is really damn hard to research, as a lot of the covers skirt the edge of modesty, and I'm starting to have difficulty taking a lot of the titles seriously when half of them follow the template of The Greek Billionaire's Forbidden Mistress or The Italian Tycoon's Secret Wife.

And you can just forget about researching the particulars of erotica. I've looked up titles for genre research, and they covers practically trumpet from the rooftops, "Hey everybody, I'm reading porn!" I know it's not the same thing, and I'm sure the readers know it's not the same thing, but I don't feel like wrapping my legitimate genre research (no really, I swear) in a brown paper bag like a dirty magazine to preserve my dignity and avoid people thinking I am, in fact, reading porn. The better-known titles have more innocuous covers, but pretty much everyone knows what Fifty Shades of Gray is about by now.

At this point I've just about decided that e-books will be my best best for discreet genre research. I should feel weird or guilty about the stuff, I read, but honestly, there's a legitimate reason!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Author Appeal

After you've been writing for a while, eventually you may start to notice things that your stories have in common: character archetypes, physical traits, pastimes, belief systems, that sort of thing. You might not mean anything by it, or you might just be writing what you know, or you might be purposefully casting these details in a positive light within the context of the story to show that, hey, XYZ isn't that bad, even if you might think it's a little weird or unusual.

TV Tropes calls this Author Appeal, and depending on how it's handled, it doesn't have to be a bad thing. Think of it this way: You write what you know, creating settings that appeal to you, the author. The main character might be someone you'd like to know, or even You But Better, and the place and time where he lives might have some element to it that you find interesting or appealing enough to want to explore in detail via your fictional medium.

Improperly handled, a story where (for example) most everyone is a bisexual nudist who practices BDSM and eats pepperjack cheese on everything and anyone who doesn't is a horrible person who dies horribly could be a turnoff for most readers (except for a small portion of potential readers), and make your story ripe snark bait because OMG LOOK HOW WEIRD THIS AUTHOR IS. I've seen this level of ham-handedness in a number of works--mostly fanfiction that is a step or less removed from a self-insertion fic, but some original fiction as well. Basically, if the main character has exactly the same tastes and ideas the author holds most dear, and everyone loves them for it or is inevitably coerced over to their way of thinking (or dies during the course of the story)... yeah.

However, properly handled, elements of author appeal can form a subtext that remains exactly that--subtext-- without beating the reader over the head with whatever notion of ideal beauty or perfect society the author holds. Such elements can become topics for which the author is well-known without ramming them down the reader's throat. The author likes curvy women and writes books featuring them? Great--those books will attract readers who also like curvy women. The author likes baseball and writes books with baseball storylines? Great--other baseball fans will want to read them.

As I look back at some of my current and past works-in-progress, I've noticed that I do this, too. For example, I have a thing for tall, intellectual male characters with long, slender fingers. (This may be connected with my love of Sherlock Holmes stories and later love of the character of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter novels.) As a result, The respective male leads of a handful of my stories are super-smart, often described as tall, and I give them slender fingers. This is neither a good thing not a bad thing, exactly, just a Thing. My heroes also tend to use their brains rather than punch their way through a problem. (I blame MacGyver for this.) Again, neither a good thing nor a bad thing. If I write about characters that appeal to me, I will enjoy writing them, and with any luck I'll find readers who also like tall, intellectual heroes with slender fingers. If I write a character that I think a certain demographic will like, and I end up hating that character, the story probably won't ever get done--or if it does, it will feel half-assed because I was just writing it to get it done rather than because I enjoyed it.

I admit that I don't get the Twilight books. Vampire romance stories don't appeal to me. Stephenie Meyer has piles of fans who read her books and would like to take Edward Cullen home with them, dietary concerns aside. That's fine. She's found an audience for her author appeal. I think that chances are good that most authors will find an audience for what appeals to them as well, if they present it properly and look hard enough.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Give Geeks a Chance: Unconventional Romance Heroes

I've never much been a fan of romance novels, honestly. I tried reading a few Harlequin titles, for the sake of genre research when I started getting a few story ideas, but I soon gave it up in the face of that sea of burly naked male torsos that seemed to adorn every. Single. Cover. Every romance hero was built like a warrior, even if he was the CEO of a Fiction 500 company, and he was aggressive and dominant and he always knew the right things to say and knew how to tame the heroine's fiery personality and otherwise had all the original personality of a Wheat Thin. The mass produced romance hero just annoyed me, for reason that had nothing to do with the fact that the (talented, smart, spunky) heroine, no mater how much she hated him, and no matter how much of an asshole he was, the heroine would always fall for him and cling to his every word.

Maybe I was just reading the wrong romance novels. I freely admit this.

Of course, when I got my idea for Heart of Steel I tried research along the lines of "How to Write a Romance Novel" (seriously, those were the search terms), and I learned that this was the standard template suggested for the male lead. I knew my novel would have a mad scientist lead, though, and after turning him over in my head for the space of the first chapter, I realized something very important:

He already wasn't a typical romance hero. He was a scientist, sequestered alone on his island, surrounded by his robots and minions and with very little in the way of social interaction otherwise.

In other words, he was a geek.

It has been a long time since the word geek has been an insult in wider contexts, but not a lot of the romance heroes I encountered seemed to have the capacity for adorable awkwardness that would mark a geeky hero. They were smart, and suave, and knew what to do.

I have since heard that romantic science fiction is chock-full of heroes with geeky professions, which will be great as soon as I find a series to start nibbling on, but I have to wonder if these programmers, robot builders, and various shades of scientist will have truly geeky personalities, or if they will be standard romance heroes with a different paint job.

So why do I like the idea of a geek as a romance hero? Simple: they try harder.

Historically, the geeks and the nerds and the smart guys have not typically gotten the girl, and they know this. They are socially awkward, focused on obscure topics ranging from quantum physics to Dungeons and Dragons, and most of them have seen the hot babe ignore them in favor of the varsity quarterback. They are also smart and observant and can pick up on little details about the heroine that the Fiction 500 CEO with rippling muscles might miss while he's flexing at himself in front of the mirror. Mr. Fiction 500 might see the heroine as Look At This Beautiful Prize I Have Won. Mr. Geeky Guy might see her as Holy Shit I Can't Believe She's Paying Attention to Me. This isn't to say that Mr Geeky Guy can't still be good-looking, or heroic, or innovative--he just solves problems with his brains rather than his fists. (Seriously, haven't you noticed all the girls that MacGyver landed?)

And of course, if the heroine is smart as well, and willing to give Mr. Geeky Guy a chance, the two might discover they have more in common than either of them thought.

I found a great list of traits to keep in mind for geeky romance here. It mainly focused on real-life dating scenarios, but it could easily be applied to a fictional romance story as well.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Writing Scenes that Tear Out Your Characters' Souls

So you're writing a story, and you've come up with a great protagonist. He's well-rounded, with strengths and weaknesses, and overall as realistic as you came make him. You like the hell out of this character. Now for the hard part.

You have to take this great protagonist, his nice comfortable (or at least familiar) world, and everything he knows to be true, and pitch the whole thing down the stairs. Why? Why would you do all these horrible things to a character that you like so much? Because if you don't, there's no damn story.

And that's where some writers (like me) tend to hesitate. Why come up with this awesome, likeable, interesting character if I'm just going to kick him up one side of the street and down the other? Because if he's sufficiently awesome, likeable, and interesting, people are going to want to read about his journey, no matter how heart-wrenching it might be. In fact, if you play your cards right, the journey will be hair-raising and heart-wrenching because your character is so likeable.

And the soul-tearing scenes are often the most vivid--both for the writer and the reader. I actually had to write two chapters in Heart of Steel out of order because I had an idea for the Big Reveal running around my brain and screaming to be written. I knew that even though my male lead was finally going to achieve one of his mini-goals, it was going to hurt him. A lot. Like soul-rending, gut-ripping, sanity-straining trauma. And I went ahead and wrote them because even though it was going to be agonizing for him, it was the only way he would be able to heal, and he'd be stronger for it. Similarly, I've read that J. K. Rowling frequently felt bad about a lot of the things she'd put the characters of her Harry Potter series through, but she wrote them anyway, because these events were just part of their story. (Letting the characters write their own story will be a topic for another blog post, though.)

What I'm getting at is simple enough: don't be afraid to test your characters, to tear them down and build them back up again. If you do it right, your readers will be on the edge of their seats, rooting for your protagonist to get through this, to reach his goal to retrieve the treasure or get the girl or save the world or whatever the aim of his story arc might be. And it will be awesome.

Of course, the real trick of doing all these horrible things to your character is to make sure that your battered, bruised, and traumatized protagonist never finds you, like in this short film, "Run Rincewind Run!" from Nullus Anxietus 2007: