Follow Friday Blog Hop post

 

 

Today’s Question: How do you deal with a bad review?

Publicly? I ignore it or say ‘thank you’. And I resist telling them how they didn’t understand, because more likely than not I really, really want to do so.

I mean, I’ve never had a bad review. I’ve never been reviewed! But I’ve had rather nasty critiques, so I’m basing my expected behavior on that.

I think another interesting question is: would you seek out and read reviews of your work?

And I think, unless I set some boundaries, I would. And this is bad, because any kind of feedback on my stories can be incredibly distracting! I always feel unworthy of positive feedback and irritated by negative. I’ve discussed with my beta readers potentially only reading 1 and 5 star reviews since at the extremes they are more likely to amuse and interest me rather than worry and depress me.

Escape Meanderings

Today is one of those days when I need to get away from myself. In my normal day-to-day life I’ve started cleaning more and more on days like that, but today that won’t work for various reasons. So I packed up my laptop and fled to Panera Bread. I thought I’d work on my WIP but it turns out I need to download an updated version of the Scrivener beta before I can even open my project file. So I’m abusing the Panera Bread wifi and trying to find other amusments.

Hello, internets.

Last night, I finished reading a novel I quite enjoyed, The Demon’s Lexicon. Today I got a bit of writing feedback that was not particularly positive. Welcome, invited, but not positive. The combination of the two events has me feeling unbalanced. Critical feedback is always vaguely annoying, even when it’s welcome. Paired with reading a novel that I would personally have been very satisfied to have written makes me uncertain about my own prospects.

If you’re still reading, I bet you’re wondering what the connection is. Me too! My self-esteem as a writer is always wobbly. I think I’m a pretty good writer, at least in terms of using written English language, and I’ve worked hard rectifying my flaws as  a written storyteller.  What I’d like to do now is find that set of people who would enjoy my stories. I think it must exist, even if it probably isn’t a very large set.

I read The Demon’s Lexicon and it feels right to me. I’ve tried to tell similar stories– mostly when I was much younger, admittedly– and it hit almost all the notes I try to hit. It manifests the same values I cherish, when it comes to stories and the characters and relationships in them. So I wonder: would the people who enjoy The Demon’s Lexicon like my work? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know how I’ll ever find out. So much seems to rely on luck, being the right story at the right place at the right time.

I always say one can achieve luck by rolling the dice enough times– work hard, submit enough and luck will find you. That inevitably drives me to my keyboard to keep rolling some dice. But… the download time on Scrivener has tripled! I think Panera Bread is throttling my connection because it’s peak usage time for a while yet.

OK, so some more random thoughts on random things:

[deleted material whining about critique groups and publishing and possible motivations for rejecting my story that don’t involve my story sucking] It always seems safest to assume it’s my writing that needs work. Being a terrible writer is presumably something I can fix! Although sometimes, after spending at least a decade consciously striving to do just that, I do wonder.

OK, I’ve apparently killed all the time I get to kill right now.  I’ll have to download my writing tool over a different network, and maybe while I’m doing that I’ll do some kind of random non-introspective-blog writing.

What is the point of realism in fantasy?

The posts at  The Book Lantern, especially this one have inspired me to start thinking about realism in fantasy. The question I asked myself: What’s the point of bothering to put realistic characters and relationships into a story? Especially if the story is already full of vampires, werewolves and fairies?

I came up with two answers, one simple, and one complex. And I came up with more questions. Of course.

The simple answer: realistic details helps maintain suspension of disbelief about the unreal elements. This is an old stand-by and used to be considered absolutely true: readers only have room for so many crazy ideas in their experiences. Put in one too many unrealistic elements and the reader disengages from the story. They switch from living the story to consciously reading and evaluating it. This is called breaking the willing suspension of disbelief, and tiny details can do it.

However:

I think format and structure can modify that suspension of disbelief.  Readers can be trained to no longer consciously process structural elements they see constantly: for example, “He said,” is almost invisible as a speech tag these days.  I think that can also happen with content. If you’re used to reading books about vampires, you no longer need to allocate suspension of disbelief for them.

An author who relies on this firmly places a novel right in the center of its assigned genre, with little ability to reach readers who have not bought into genre conventions. That author sacrifices broad appeal for the ability to cheerfully throw common sense to the wind. That does sound like fun some days…

So, that’s the simple answer. A bit of realism prevents readers from going, “Pfft, yeah, right,” at the less realistic stuff in your book. It can pay off to do a bit of research about what you’re writing about, especially if it it’s set in the real world.

The complex answer requires a bit more of a break down of what fantasy is.

For some people, fantasy is escapism, pure and simple. The more it differs from their own lives, the better.  Magic and fairytales provide the sparkle they wish they found in their own lives. Vampires and werewolves provide a thrill of excitement. But that taste of excitement and magic is often just that– a taste, something intangible that melts away as soon as the cover is closed.

However, the promise of escapism is the make-up fantasy puts on in order to achieve its real purpose. We make up fantasies to help us understand things we can’t talk about clearly, starting with monsters under the bed when we’re very young.  And as we get older, the underlying purpose of fantasy continues as a way to talk about the human condition and human experience in ways that bypass the brain to go straight to the heart.

With fantasy, an author can talk about the issues, big and small, that have always haunted humanity. They can talk about ideas that are new and old at the same time. They can magnify the feelings everybody experiences and project them onto the world, then explore the consequences of those feelings, all while avoiding language that makes some people close off. They can do all this while incorporating the whole shebang into an action scene, to boot! Fantasy is like the third person point of view on many issues, necessarily a step removed and more gripping because of that distance to some readers.

Not all fantasy strives to do this. But the best does. Terry Pratchett regularly talks about racism, gender identity and what it means to be a person in his Discworld series. Melissa Marr elegantly broke down the true nature of addiction in Ink Exchange. And the metaphors in Harry Potter have been discussed extensively all over the literaverse. All of these books rely on traditional elements of the supernatural to shape and flavor the plots.  But the true stories are contained within the characters themselves. The realism of the characters and their relationships adds to the broad appeal of the stories.

Basically, keeping what realism you can sharpens the arrow that sends that story directly to the heart.  Fantasy is, ultimately, about real life. It’s about the reader, just as much as any literary or non-genre novel is.

I imagine a lot of people would disagree with me. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of readers who don’t want anything overtly Serious Business in their entertainment. Heck, I’m one of them. A story about actual sexual assault and realistically coping with it does not appeal to me. But a story about exploring the consequences behind the ability to rifle through somebody’s memories and thoughts at will? I’m there! They’ve got to have reactions I find realistic, though.

Then again, I do prefer the third person point of view in books I read…

I’d be interested in hearing other thoughts on the subject, especially given the recent popularity of books with shallow plots and shallow characters. Are they just perfect mid-genre escapism?

Interpersonal Tension

Let’s talk about interpersonal tension! Tension drives a plot, but it’s also a huge part of what makes relationships between characters zing, and that’s what I’m thinking about today.

At its most basic level, tension happens when characters want something they’re not getting. In a lot of fiction, they want something from somebody else: often a romantic relationship and/or sex. Relationships between characters have great chemistry when there’s not just a constant pull between the characters, but a push apart as well, and an extra spark based on personality.

In order for tension to exist, characters must want something, and there must be a barrier to them acquiring it. This is why forbidden love is so popular. It’s also pretty popular to make the barrier apparently insurmountable, as a shortcut to making the love more dramatic:

I want to love you but

  • I also want to eat you
  • Our families want to kill each other
  • We can never touch
  • Loving you is damnation
  • Being with you would destroy you
  • Loving you would cost me everything else
  • It is a punishable crime

That can make for a fun story, but the larger the barrier, the more work the author has to do in order to produce a satisfying conclusion. That can end up being really challenging! Sometimes authors opt for a tragic ending, where barriers are actually insurmountable. Or sometimes they sidestep the barriers, and if everybody enjoys the journey, who cares?

It’s also possible to produce great interpersonal tension without relying on mountainous barriers:

I want to love you but

  • We have different social ranks
  • I’m afraid of myself
  • You want somebody else
  • I don’t understand you
  • I don’t deserve you
  • I love somebody else (possibly platonically) who can’t share me
  • I’m not who you think I am

These are barriers that are easier to resolve when resolution time comes, since they usually (but not always) arise from internal rather than external sources. However, without solid characterization and a plot, they may not be enough to catch and tickle the fancy of readers. They also require more work in maintaining the tension: the forces acting on the characters must be carefully balanced so that one set of forces doesn’t overwhelm the other and destroy the tension too soon.

With insurmountable external barriers, the very power of the barrier acts as an amplifier to the yearning. This is another awesome shortcut! It allows a relationship to intensify as they choose whether to try surmounting the barrier– and a love worth climbing an impossible wall for? That’s some serious romance! The author can dedicate the characters fully toward their yearning to be together (or even only one of the characters, if the other one is wrangling different obstacles). This simplifies character development, to say the least.

With internal barriers, the tension is usually amplified via uncharacteristic behaviors. This, of course, requires an established personality for the character to deviate from. A character may be quiet when they are normally loud, or violent when they are normally peaceful. They may be tender instead of brusque, kind instead of cruel, or vulnerable instead of dominating, and so on.* Done gracefully, these displays can be electrifying for the reader, especially when both parties notice the deviation: Will this be the moment when the barrier is overcome? No? And so the tension is carried on, partially by the reader’s own yearnings toward resolution.

Most romantic stories longer than a short story have multiple sources of tension. Maybe some are external, and some are internal. Maybe some are the dramatic results of worldbuilding and some the subtle twists of character building. But maintaining strong tension of any sort requires something else: a demonstration of the barrier made manifest. The barrier must actually have some effect on the story. If somebody believes they are not worthy of their desired partner, that should actually stop them from being with their partner.  There should be damnation and devouring and singed fingers and sacrifices. There should be snobbery and self-hatred and deception and discovery. There should be interruptions and interpretations. There should be setbacks, on each side. And they should want each other despite them.

And that’s how you get tension, I think. I’m interested in other ideas, too! I know I haven’t yet really touched on ways to raise tension in actual sex scenes, for example. Perhaps in another post…

 

 

 

*I have to point out that ‘tension’ does not alone equal ‘strong love story’ but that’s really for another post.