Associative Logic

>> Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I'm going to date myself and ask who remembers the TV show (not the recent movie I haven't seen) called "The A-Team"? The leader would light his cigar and say, "I love it when a plan comes together." That's kind of how I feel.

See, I'm not a plot person. I'm a character person. Time and time again, I jump in with situations and characters I like and meander about until I stumble over a plot. Yeah, yeah, pathetic. There's a reason I don't write mysteries.

But, like all my good thinking, most of the writing and planning and putting things together is done by my subconscious, frequently without giving my conscious process much information at all. So, I'll be wandering about in my novel, putting in this detail and that detail for no discernible reason when, bam, I add one more quirky little unrelated detail and, suddenly, the whole plot comes together addressing all the big things I wanted to say, but also putting all the other pieces together so they'll actually work (and usually incorporating those details I'd stuck in earlier without having any reason for it).

It happened with my first novel, where my original situation drove me to add details for no apparent reason, like Layla's severe morning sickness and Tander's resistance to healing magic. Then, I threw in a few kittens to perversely adopt Tander as a familiars (when he was happy as a straightforward swordfighter) and suddenly I had an explanation for his magical resistance, had a method for him to find Layla when she was kidnapped later in the book, etc., etc. Everything fell into place.

Well, I'm writing a sequel to my second novel (my first sequel) and I had a few scenes here and there, wanted to include this and that and take the near invincible central characters in the first one out of the picture so some of the other characters (central to this book) could find their own strengths. But I've been going slowly, working this detail and that detail, but unsure how I was going to tie it all together and in what order, what pacing.

So, I've been reading completely unrelated books and, as usual, that left my subconscious to wrestle the problem until, just today, I figured out how to use a new detail that just, ping, ping, ping, put everything into place.

Now, I just have to write it.


Fiction Philosophy: Death Part 2

>> Sunday, July 25, 2010

So I was discussing what was worse than killing someone on the last post, but it begs the question, if killing people is, on the whole, a bad thing, what circumstances make it acceptable? It's a question for almost any writer who's going to go beyond picture books or homey stories where no one gets hurt. Killing, the ways and means and whys, not the mention the whos, is one of the ways we separate the good guys from the bad guys, though not the only way. Some of the ways I mentioned in the last post are useful, too. But, frequently in adult fiction (and even some YA), killing is done by good and bad guys. As a writer, you should know the lines your characters will and won't cross.

So, what's acceptable, justifiable homicide?

Self-defense? It's hard to argue that one, but it's not particularly simple either. Self defense could be shoving your keys in a rapists eye socket or throwing a grenade at an attacking phalanx of soldiers. But, whereas the first is pretty clean-cut (depending on whether people presume that protecting one's virtue by force is acceptable - which I certainly do, even if they aren't planning to kill you afterward), the second is harder to define as "self-defense." Defense, surely, and undoubtedly one or more of the phalanx would kill you as an opposing soldier, but you don't know who will be attacking you personally, who will be attacking your fellows, who is rushing forward but just as scared and reactive as you are.

And there's always the question of how well you've gauged a threat. Many say (in law enforcement) that anyone who enters your bedroom while you're sleeping in it is a threat. Truly, most people who just steal prefer that you're not around. People who invade occupied homes at night are frequently rapists or killers. But is killing them when they enter your bedroom self-defense or paranoia? If you wait until they attack you, your shotgun might not save you. It's a pertinent question for a novelist, for a character. And note that the answer may not always be the same. If you have a world where people are routinely captured and sold for slaves, you might be less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt than if you lived in a world where murder is all but unheard of.

Defense of others. This seems pretty clear, too. Someone slides a knife to a child's neck, readers are unlikely to get upset if a sharpshooter gets the bastard in the eye. But it can get complicated, too. It's nice when people are clearly evil and a threat. What if they're drug pushers or child beaters, but not actively doing so at the moment? What if the person you have to kill is an innocent, an infected person who could contaminate a community? What if both sides are slimy? What would you do if your wife or husband or child were threatened? Would you kill someone else, even someone who wasn't involved? Would you develop weapons or diseases or poisons?

For their own or the greater good - Would you kill someone who begged for release? Would you sacrifice someone to feed a crowd (including yourself)? Would you sacrifice a soldier or a worker because saving them put others in danger? What if it was to obtain a key goal rather than protecting people per se?

Revenge/justice (noting that many who indulge in revenge see it as justice) - at what point is it acceptable. Is it ever acceptable? If he's beaten you for years and he passes out after a night long drinking binge, is it okay to kill him? If you find out he raped your daughter, can you kill him? If someone failed to protect you or someone you loved when they should have, can you kill them?

Money and power. Frequently, at least for me, this is a dividing line. It's hard to be a protagonist if you'll kill for nothing more important than money or power. But it's been done, and done well.

Often who we kill is as important as why. What would it take to kill a kid? If you can think of something, you're more original than I. A pregnant woman? And old man in a wheelchair? No matter how planned, is killing a drug dealer who hung around schools somehow more virtuous than taking out a teacher?

Murder is often seen as a black and white thing, but, in my opinion, it's often not. In fact, for novels involving violence, walking that line between what is morally right and morally wrong may be as tenuous as figuring out what kind of killing is acceptable and what isn't.


Fiction Philosophy: Death Part 1

>> Wednesday, July 21, 2010

As I have the majority of the JD Robb "In Death" books on my e-reader (and I'm a fan), I've been reading through the series recently, even though it's not a genre I read frequently. I love the characters, particularly all the characters, even Eve, though Eve least of all. I could explain why, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

What I wanted to talk about was violence and morality. When reading Divided in Death (potential spoilers if you were wanting to read it but haven't), there's a conflict between Eve (the main protagonist, homicide detective) and Roarke (one of the most appealing - if improbable - characters ever written), where Roarke discovers that federal agents were listening in when Eve's father raped and beat her repeatedly, even listened in when she killed him in self defense (at the age of eight) and did nothing to help. Roarke would like to slow roast said agents over a slow fire. Eve is absolutely aghast that, though she knows he's killed in cold blood before, he would murder people again.

Now, there's a whole blog post about what is and isn't justifiable with regards to killing someone. And Eve definitely knows this because she's got nearly half a dozen under her own belt and they generally don't bother her much. I'll probably get to where I discuss that, too, but that's not what I want to talk about either.

What I want to discuss (because it's what I was thinking about as I was reading this particular installment) was if there really were "fates worse than death." Now don't get me wrong, I'm against murder (in general). I think death is heart-rending when someone with a full life ahead of them is cut short or when the death is needlessly painful, humiliating or lingering.

But death itself doesn't scare me much. I also don't feel too terribly bad if people who do horrible things, who promote or ignore horrors done by others drop dead. I've never pretended to be anything other than pro-capital punishment not because I'm convinced that it will stop the next fellow, but I know for a fact it will stop the first one. Can't escape from or get paroled from death.

I'm not a proponent for torture or painful deaths (though I can appreciate where those would be justice) mostly because that kind of thing can readily be taken too far. I'm satisfied that someone who has done something truly heinous won't be doing it again.

What does this have to do with fiction?

Well, because my attitude is part and parcel of my fiction. I write a great deal of fantasy/science fiction and I won't lie. It's violent. Many people are killed outright, yes, by my protagonists, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest, even though there are lines my characters won't cross. They tend to be pragmatic about death and, though part of the reason has to do with the environments I make for them, part of it is a direct reflection of my own pragmatism. In many ways, I have a very Eastern view of death.

But, for good guys to wander about fantasyland with a trail of corpses, I have to believe there are crimes that are more heinous than killing someone outright, or I'd have nothing but victims and bad guys. I do and it's reflected in my novels.

Rape, for instance. I've mentioned before that, while I can think of half a dozen perfectly legitimate reasons for killing someone (and a few that aren't as legitimate but frequently used), I can't think of a single excuse for rape. Nor, if given a choice, would I choose rape over death (bearing in mind that death doesn't scare me). I figure, if he'd kill me before, chances are he was going to kill me anyway - might as well save myself an unpleasant experience.

Causing pain for enjoyment or expedience or callousness, also, in my opinion, worse than killing someone outright. I'm not talking about sending your kid to bed without dinner, but there are many torments out there, physical and mental, where killing would be far more humane.

People who traffic in people also get the "worse than murderers" badge pinned. Slavers, like rapists, largely don't live to the end of the book and that's a conscious choice on my part.

And, admittedly, it makes a difference to me why someone kills another and how. You kill people by burning them at the stake or bottoms up impalement - no way to make you the good guy. You kill innocent people either because of "what" they are (rather than what they've done) or because you can, especially children, I'm going to think you're scum. Which just goes to show I'll have to talk about what I consider "justifiable" another time.

But, the reason I write that way is because I truly believe some fates are worse than death, that someone could kill another human being and be a good person but that are some things people couldn't do and retain their humanity. Do you write characters with the same viewpoint you have? Or does it change with the circumstances or the venue? What are your thoughts on violence and how are they reflected in what you write?


Value vs. Worth

>> Monday, July 12, 2010

Serendipity can be a fascinating thing. Here I am, planning to discuss the difference between greatness and non-greatness (and how slippery that notion is) when the NYT coughs up an article discussing that very thing. In the article, the discussion was all about how art was changed during restoration, how science has shown what paintings originally looked like, found forgeries that were found to be genuine and classics that turned out to be fakes. It's an interesting article for those of you that like art, but I was most struck by what it said about the art.

It’s a picture. And the picture is the same whether it is said to be old or new, genuine or fake, an original or a copy. It becomes no more or less elegant or funny looking. Its role in the evolving narratives of art history changes. Its price can go up or down. But cost is not value. [my emphasis]

That is what I wanted to talk about, the value of something for someone, regardless of how much it's supposedly worth.

Now I have talked about this before (on one of my other blogs, Rocket Scientist), but I was doing so from a different perspective. You are welcome to take a look at those posts and see if I contradict myself: here, here, here, and here.Today I want to challenge the notion that people, even educated people, can definitively say what's "great" and what's "garbage."

[For this discussion, I would like to assume we're talking about writing with a minimum level of technical competence. I'm talking about what some people call garbage without it necessarily being clumsily written.]

Why am I challenging this? There are a large number of people with literature degrees that know what's good, what's worth teaching, what's classic. True, though, those are often focused on what's from the past, those works that have stood the test of time. To look at the work available today and say this is "worth" reading and something else isn't shows a certain level of arrogance.

More than that, though, it shows a lack of understanding in people. Why? Because people don't all like the same things, read for the same reasons. The value of a book to any particular reader is dependent on too many factors to absolutely say something is worthless.

For some, it might be capturing a different age, feeling it surround you, even if the characters are cardboard. For some, it might mean breathing life into a character, or capturing a particular aspect of a character that a reader can identify with, can completely immerse themselves in. It might mean a tight clever plot that builds itself phrase by word into a cohesive perfection with no loose ends and leaving one satisfied. That doesn't mean that they're flawless, but that they fulfill a need.

It might mean living vicariously in a world where love is true and overwhelming that lets someone escape from their cold and empty existence. It might be the triumph of someone overcoming incredible hardship by living a full life that allows someone recovering from tragedy or trauma to hope. It might be escaping into a world of horror and fear, if only to appreciate the world one lives in. It could be to challenge one's mind with a puzzle, a riddle to be solved. It could be a world of fantasy or the future where merit is rewarded, a place where one can dream of achieving anything. It might be reading a master with some aspect of writing, like dialog or children or setting, someone who makes you feel inspired when you put them back down.

Sometimes, it's just that a reader "gets" what the writer wanted to convey, gets something that touches them, changes them, makes them feel or think or dream. And it doesn't matter if it's a romance novel or an award winner, if it's a young adult novel or a potboiler. The value of that book is that it touched you in some way.

What makes it challenging for those in the profession of reviewing books is that the "getting" it is completely subjective. If you don't "get" it, you not only find the book (or movie or whatever) uninspiring, you can't see what others see in it. Too often, the reviewer assumes that, if they didn't "get" it, there's nothing to get. By the same token, those that "experts" often see as "great" leave the public scratching their heads. Why? Because they don't get it. (Much like folks like me feel about Pollack in the world of art - say what?)

I don't get the Harry Potter books. I don't. I don't think they're horrible, but they don't touch me. But they touch many many people. They speak to them, inspire them, make them dream. I can admire that even though I don't "get" it. They definitely have worth to quite a contingent of people. Does my lack of "getting it" preclude greatness? Certainly not, any more than my being caught up in a different book, the Liaden series or Twilight that I totally get ensures greatness.

But, to me, they are great because they touch me, they speak to me. That gives them worth for me, whatever the rest of the world might think.

As the article I alluded to earlier said:
But look, never mind what the label says, and you may notice something else about the picture, too, some other truth.

It’s beautiful.

For most of us, that's enough.


Preconceived Notions

>> Friday, July 9, 2010

It occurs to me that being a reviewer is has a large number of pitfalls, especially when dealing with something that is remarkably popular. On the one hand, gushing about what people already love or a book/film/whatever so much anticipated that it's unlikely to be unsuccessful looks like pandering especially if said book/film/whatever doesn't fit the critical definition of a "classic." Especially given that the classic elements of many book/films/whatever that get critics all hot and bothered frequently equate to unpopularity.

But panning it to preserve one's "critical integrity," can not only alienate often rabid fans, it can also demonstrate the weaknesses in how "experts" judge things. I'm sure I'm not the only out there who no longer pays any attention to reviewers because they seem too far detached from what I'm looking for. And that, boys and girls, is the only reason to read/watch reviews: to find out those books/films/whatever that will turn out to be something we want to read/watch/whatever.

And that might explain the frequent disparity between what the critics think of as "great" creative works and what is successful: while there are people who go to films involving clearly insane sadomasochists who are unable to communicate or have a healthy relationship to find out the subtle weirdnesses of the fringes of society, most people go to movies to enjoy themselves, to escape, for a little while, into either a world they'd like to visit or a frightening world that can be left behind when the lights come back up.

Not that there's anything inherently wrong with an educated critic wanting to promote the kind of films he or she would like to see more of, but one of the side effects seems to be that many come into an anticipated movie or read a book by a prolific and popular author having already decided what they think of it.

So, when they jump into a review that clearly shows they didn't read or watch all the way through, they look like hacks. Like, for example, a critic griping about a Nora Roberts novel because "they're all bodice rippers," it shows they've fallen for the hype (since Nora Roberts never has heroes that rape the heroine [one reason I like her novels], they are not bodice rippers, certainly not the one in question, aside from it being set in modern times). This isn't to say some Nora Roberts novels aren't better or worse than others. or that someone might not enjoy one. This isn't the first time I've seen a critic jumping in with an ill-informed opinion, by any means, but it's one of the ones that triggered my brain.

But, for a professional critic to have so little understanding of the criticism and knowledge of the novel in question makes one wonder what they were thinking. I gotta say, unprofessional. If you can't address something you review with an open mind (and that doesn't mean you have to like it), perhaps you should find another line of work.

More so since they frequently sneer at the fans for their lack of objectivity. Ironic, no? More on my take on popularity, greatness and "getting" it next time.


More Substories of 50 words

>> Wednesday, July 7, 2010

So, to make things interesting, I’m using a sketch by my good buddy, Boris who is an Austrian plasma physicist…who can draw. I’m so envious. Given that I liked this sketch (and you can see it here), I thought I’d write some 50 word stories to go with it. Bear in mind that, because I’m a perfectionist, I’m shooting for *exactly* 50 words. Feel free to try it yourself using up to 50 words.

What I really liked about the picture was that I could see so many possible explanations, from the darkest of the dark to homey and sweet. I think it's a good exercise for me partly because it allows me to demonstrate how I can appreciate art (even if I have no talent for art myself) and also lets me demonstrate how words can paint a picture or change how we perceive one. I'm going to mix it up, dark and light, and be prepared for the worst.


Three months. It felt like years since she'd fought with her mother, since she'd left determined never to return. Her parents had been impossible, tyrannical. They didn't understand.

Now she understood. Hungry, cold, with everything she owned in one bag, she slept at the bus station . . .

And dreamed of home.


She thought he was in bed. She didn't see him fall, sink to the bottom as the party raged. It was luck someone saw him, gave CPR while she'd stood nearby, oblivious.

Now, home from the hospital, she couldn't let him go, release her hold on what was most precious.

[Janet Reid linked an excellent article on drowning that parents, in my opinion, should read.]


The picture of innocence, the young girl sleeping at the train station. Was she a runaway? On a trip to visit relatives? Homeless? No matter. However she came to be here, she was mine. My hunger, my needs, required innocence before I could reach fulfillment.

She would never go home.

[Dark I know. Chikatilo, the Soviet serial killer, targeted children and women riding the rails.]


Back to college after a long holiday, she smiled thinking about the many thoughtful gifts they'd sent her back with, things to make her life better. They were in her bag, too precious to be checked, and she hugged them to her like a teddy bear. And dreamed of home.


So long. So long since they'd said goodbye, since he'd disappeared through security to fight a war on the other side of the world. So long he'd been a disembodied voice on the phone. But he was on his way now, in the air.

She waited and dreamed of him.

So, what do you see when you see this picture? And what can you say in fifty words (or less)?


RS Classics: 50 Word Snippets

>> Friday, July 2, 2010

Another classic. I liked doing these short and sweet short story exercises. I'll probably do some more over the course of next week just for fun.

My good friend, David Rochester (who is well worth reading) put up some 50 word stories he had written some time back. Presumably, they were part of a recurring challenge to convey something meaningful in a tidy package of 50 words. (I’d recommend reading David’s far superior work if you find any of these intriguing.) I have done some recurring 100 word challenges before, but I’d never tried 50 word challenges. So I did.

A careless spark and it had burned to the ground, the walls his father once designed, the art his father had created and collected. He wandered through the charred bones of a once great building, eyes dry. No lives lost, but a man’s lifetime lay in ashes at his feet.

He knew her vulnerability, had sensed it at first sight. He had been drawn to her weakness, her susceptibility, and had known instinctively how best to exploit them. Now, she lay beneath him, desperate for him and the soft lies he’d whisper and immediately forget. Tomorrow, he’d find other prey.

He kissed her sweetly, his mouth minty. Instantly, she was taken back to a dark room, trapped below a man so much larger, his hungry mouth hot and wet, filling her senses with cloying peppermint as he filled her young body with unspeakable pain… She had to run. Again.

Thirteen Candles
Thirteen candles. She placed them on the ugly cake she knew he’d love, orange and blue. She thought of cleaning his sty of a room and dismissed it. Not yet. She lit them, thirteen candles. Dead now as many years as he had once been alive. Only then, she wept.

She followed him, they promised, risen from the dead if he could but believe. His ears strained for her footfalls, a breath of sound to reassure his faltering faith. At last he strode into the light, then turned to see her still shadowed shadow slip back into the depths. Forever.

She closed her eyes and felt the wind on her face. Beneath her was the powerful horse she had raised from birth. Around her rode other women, her sisters, as formidable as she was in battle. No one would dismiss an Amazon… “Mom!” She sighed, eyes opened. Back to reality.

Mother and Father, they loved this new creature. The face was small and squished, the head bald. With his finger, he poked the tiny hand. He felt nothing when tiny fingers gripped his. She opened her eyes and gave him a toothless grin. All at once, he fell in love.

I’m not sure what it means that they almost always convey negative emotions. Perhaps it’s just easier to make short works powerful with the dark sides of the force…

Oh, yeah, I'll be back.



Blog Makeover by LadyJava Creations