As you may or may not know, I'm a big fan of singer/songwriter/producer Matt Hales, otherwise known as Aqualung. [livejournal.com profile] renisanz introduced me to him some years ago, and I've been eagerly buying up his albums ever since. His most recent (and maddeningly hard to find) album 10 Futures features a single called "Be Beautiful", and when I first listened to it just over a year ago I heard the following lines:

Perfection is silent
And elegance is still
Beauty won't catch your eye
The way that passion will

I was really struck by that, seeing as I was struggling a lot with perfectionism at the time, and finding my pleasure in storytelling blighted by fear that my prose wasn't lyrical enough. That I didn't have enough witty similes or sumptuous metaphors or breathtaking turns of phrase for my writing to make an impression in people's minds. I thought sadly of Peter S. Beagle and Patricia McKillip and other magnificent prose stylists of my fantasy-reading youth, and I cast a wistful eye at Maggie Stiefvater and Erin Bow, and I heaved a mental sigh for my own competent but seemingly unexceptional writing style.

Of course I knew that plenty of successful and well-loved fantasy authors write prose that is functional at best (*cough*JKR*cough*). But because I get so much pleasure from smart narration (when I was reading Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co. series aloud to my children, I kept stopping mid-paragraph to yell about how good he is), it was hard to convince myself that striving for a more literary style might not be crucial to my development as a writer. That my own natural storytelling voice, plain as it might seem to me, could be good enough.

But that stanza in "Be Beautiful" made me think again. What really grabs people and makes a lasting impression on them? Is it perfection in the aesthetic sense -- in which case any catalogue model or finely designed piece of furniture should do -- or is it the spark and vitality that come from an idea, a picture, a story, that the creator is genuinely passionate about?

Not that passion on its own, especially divorced from any element of skill or craftsmanship or good judgment, is always admirable. There are plenty of terrible artists, and terrible human beings, who feel passionate about what they're doing. But passion is memorable, for good or ill, in a way that mere artistry can't match.

So I decided that if I ever wrote another book, I would hold out for an idea that was not merely interesting to me or potentially saleable to a publisher, but one that I felt truly passionate about. I would try to hold onto that urgency, that conviction, and let it shape the words I was writing instead of trying to force myself to write in a way that doesn't come naturally.

Amazing, isn't it? The power of music.

* * *

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was singing along to "Be Beautiful" in the car and realized I had no idea what half the words actually were (to be fair, the guest singer on that particular song does not enunciate well). So I decided to look up the lyrics when I got home and...

You can see this coming, can't you?

I'd misheard that stanza. It's not "beauty won't catch your eye / the way that passion will," it's "the way the bad stuff will." 

And I have zero idea what that means.

* * *

But that's okay. I heard in that song what I needed to hear, the truth I was already grappling with inside. Good writing isn't about doing all the technical bits perfectly and silencing all your critics with the elegance of your prose. It's not about copying the style and content of other authors you admire. It's about writing what really matters to you, to the very best of your ability, with the voice God's given you. I believe that firmly now, and if mishearing Matt Hales' lyrics helped to cement it in my mind, that's not a bad thing.

(Anyway, I still think my version sounds better and makes way more sense in context. So there.)

At this time last year, I was worn out. I'd just finished substantive edits on my latest book and was cautiously pleased with how it had come together, but creatively I was exhausted. I’d written nine novels in eight years, and by the fall of 2015 I felt like all my mental energy and every scrap of pleasure I’d ever taken in the writing process had dried up and crumbled away.

None of this should have come as a surprise. Even before I got published I knew I wasn’t a book-a-year writer, but more of a book-every-eighteen-months-to-two-years writer. I needed significant chunks of fallow time in between projects, and sometimes between drafts as well, to feel good about the story I was writing, let alone come up with an idea for the next one.

Still, when you’re writing for children, and especially when you’re writing a series, there’s a fear that if you don’t keep the books coming at least a year apart, your audience will age out of the books before you can publish the next one. Publishing is not known for its patience with children's authors who haven't hit the NYT bestseller list or won at least one major award, and sometimes the only thing that keeps your career going is being able to deliver the goods on time.

But fear is a terrible motivation to write, especially when it’s the only motivation you’ve got. Fear can keep you hurling yourself at the wall day after day until you manage to scramble over it and make your deadline, but the wall will still be there when you think about writing the next thing. And when I realized that my desire to write had withered to the point where I actively dreaded the act of putting words on paper -- not just for publication, I mean any words -- I knew I couldn’t deny it any longer. This was the career I’d dreamed of having since I was four years old, the career I’d worked toward for nearly twenty years before my first book was published. If it was making me miserable every time I thought about doing it, something had gone badly wrong.

So I decided to take a sabbatical for the next twelve months, and not write anything at all.

This is how it turned out... )

* * *

TL;DR: Here I am, a year after I started my sabbatical, and I can confidently say that I made the right decision. Today I wrote my first new scene of original fiction in well over twelve months... and finally, finally, I felt good about it.

 Two lovely surprises in as many days!

First, a friend on Facebook pointed me to a recent article at Tor.com featuring Quicksilver as one of Five Books With Asexual Protagonists (and furthermore declaring my post about writing Tori's character to be "excellent", which was a nice bonus).

Then today I got a package in the mail containing two US hardcover copies of A Pocket Full of Murder which, at first glance, seemed no different from the author copies I already had. I was mystified at first, but then I spotted the note tucked inside:

Congratulations!

Your book has reprinted! Please find a sample copy enclosed.

Best wishes,

Atheneum

And sure enough, when I checked the title page it turned out to be the SECOND edition. Whoop!

I am so, so, happy and relieved to know that the book is doing well enough to exceed my publisher's expectations -- and I suspect making this year's CLA Top Ten Best Books for Children shortlist probably had a good deal to do with the bump in sales, so I am grateful for that all over again.
And here I'd been thinking this would be the week I could finally get to a couple of other authors' manuscripts I'd promised to comment on! The best laid plans...

I confess to opening the Word document with a little trepidation, as one never knows what sorts of things will come up in copyedits or how much work it's going to be. Plus I haven't looked at A Little Taste of Poison in a couple of months, and I've felt a bit shy of reading it again for fear I won't be able to see anything but its flaws -- a tendency that copyedits always tend to magnify, since the whole point is to point out errors that the author didn't catch.

However, not only are all the queries mercifully light, the CE closed with "Great ending! The whole book was charming and well-written -- a pleasure to work on." And that buoyed my spirits enormously, because I very rarely get those kinds of comments -- most of my CE's have been all business and if they liked the book there was no way to tell.

So I feel much encouraged now and able to go to work on the manuscript with a cheerful spirit.
So this is a meme that made its way around to me a couple months ago, courtesy of award-winning Code Name Verity author Elizabeth Wein tagging Erin Bow (author of the gorgeous, funny, heartbreaking Plain Kate) and Erin tagging me in return. (I was also tagged by Zoë Marriott, whose sumptuous and refreshingly diverse secondary-world fantasies I adore. But I could not tag Zoë in return because Erin had already tagged her as well *pout*). 

So I am mentioning (not tagging, because that implies obligation, and that can be burdensome) two long-time favorite authors whose books deserve more attention than they've been getting, and one soon-to-be published author whose manuscript I adored and am excited about seeing in print:

Deva Fagan is the author of the delightful MG fantasy romps Fortune's Folly and The Magical Misadventures of Prunella Bogthistle, as well as the sparkling YA science fiction adventure Circus Galacticus (oh, that Ringmaster!). She is clever, versatile, imaginative, and a lovely person to know.

Actor/Author Adrienne Kress has published two charming, witty, everything-but-the-kitchen sink MG novels, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and Timothy and the Dragon's Gate, both of which my 10-year-old son loves and has read multiple times. Her just-released first YA novel The Friday Society has a fabulous one-line pitch (a "steampunk Charlie's Angels without Charlie") and I thoroughly enjoyed it; I hope a lot of other readers do too.

Emily Kate Johnston never ceases to astound me with her ability to write terrific stories and novels in a dizzyingly short period of time. (Okay, let's be honest: I'm jealous.) Her contemporary southwestern Ontario high school novel, set in an alternate history where dragons are a real and pernicious threat (no cutesy "taming the dragon" storyline here!) won my heart and, I'm glad to say, charmed my agent and US editor as well. You can look forward to seeing her debut in 2014, by which time it will hopefully have a title!

And now I'll answer some questions about my own most recent book...

What’s the title?

It's called Quicksilver. I chose the title as it seemed like a good fit with Ultraviolet, its sister novel. Then I spent the next few months racking my brain to figure out what it meant -- and I didn't really know the answer until I was well into the first draft of the book. First drafts are mysterious like that sometimes.

A short synopsis?

Quicksilver is the story of Tori, a 17-year-old girl who flees her hometown, changes her identity and goes into hiding when a ruthless policeman and a DNA specialist start asking dangerous questions about her strange biology and mysterious past. But protecting herself from the people who want to control her will take every ounce of Tori’s incredible electronics and engineering skills—and even then, she may need to sacrifice more than she could possibly imagine if she wants to be free.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

It was totally Tori's idea. She's stubborn like that, and I knew as soon as I started writing her character in Ultraviolet that she was going to demand a sequel of her very own. Some characters take time for me to get to know properly, but Tori came alive for me the instant I named her, and she's held a place at centre stage in my imagination ever since.

What genre does your book fall under?

I'd call it a contemporary psychological thriller on the rocks with a science fiction twist. Hopefully it will leave the reader both shaken and stirred. (Although if Tori ever met James Bond, she would probably whack him upside the head with her toolbelt.)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

All the K-Pop fans are going to laugh at me now, but I swear I had no idea who Siwon was when I found an old photo of him wearing glasses and decided he looked like my mental image of Milo. He's too old for the part nowadays, but if we're fantasy casting I don't see why we can't use a time machine. So here, have a picture:

Read more... )

As for Tori, I've never found an actress who matched my mental image of her, but I did find this jaw-droppingly fabulous piece of artwork by Charlie Bowater:

Read more... )

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Since 2009 I've been represented by the excellent team of Josh Adams at Adams Literary in the US and Caroline Walsh of David Higham Associates in the UK. Quicksilver will be published by Carolrhoda Lab / Lerner Books in North America and by Orchard Books in UK/Aus/NZ.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Six months, and I thought it was going to kill me. It wasn't even that the book was so demanding (though it was: I had to do a LOT of research into areas I'm not at all familiar with, like math and engineering) but that my elderly parents were going through a succession of health crises at the time, and juggling their needs with my publishing commitments was a challenge I'd not faced before on that kind of scale. So I had to beg for an extension on my deadline, and I felt horrible about it, but I knew that rushing the book would be the worst thing I could do in the end. I always want my books to be the best I can possibly make them before I send them out into the world.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Uh… Ultraviolet? That's really all I can think of, honest! Either my reading habits are woefully limited, or else my imagination is just that weird. (Probably both.)

What else about the book might pique a reader’s interest?

I guess it depends on how much they like any or all of the following: DNA analysis, cutting-edge technology, secret identities, mass transit, heroic rescues, dramatic text messages, unexpected visitors, pancakes, soldering, miniature dachshunds, makerspaces, excellent biceps, asexuality, Korean home cooking, road trips, radio telescopes, outrageous lies, tragic romances, not-so-tragic romances, and/or power tools…

QUICKSILVER cover 


Once I was a girl who was special.
Now I am extraordinary.
And they will never stop hunting me.

The compelling follow-up to the bestselling ULTRAVIOLET, this psychological thriller will take your breath away...

-- Orchard Books (UK) blurb for QUICKSILVER by R.J. Anderson


I am happy to report that as of today, I turned in my last major revision of QUICKSILVER to my lovely UK and US editors. And after addressing their suggestions and those of my insightful beta-reading team, I am very pleased with the way the book has turned out. It gives me hope that readers of ULTRAVIOLET, and perhaps some new readers as well, will enjoy it too!

Unfortunately I also have some sad news to report, which is that the UK edition will not be coming out in November, as we'd originally hoped. Due to a succession of family health crises and other unforeseen delays, I was unable to finish editing the book in time for my publishers to get it ready for a 2012 publication date, which means that the paperback of QUICKSILVER will now be coming out in the UK in January May 2013 instead. However, the North American hardcover publication date remains unchanged, so US and Canadian readers can look forward to seeing the book in March 2013.

I apologize to those who've been eagerly awaiting QUICKSILVER and are disappointed to have to wait two six months longer! But these things happen sometimes, and I felt it was more important to give you a book I had really put my heart into writing and researching -- a book I could be proud of -- than to rush something out that wasn't my best work.

Thanks to all my readers for your patience and support! I can't wait for you to read this story, and I'm very excited to find out what you think of it.

I probably shouldn't be writing this because I have a killer headache and I have just tried to take a nap with no success, which means I am Crankypants. However, I think the point stands regardless of my frame of mind:

Fictional romances which involve two people being so absorbed in each other that they end up being indifferent, insensitive or downright cruel to the other people around them are, IMO, not romantic at all. They are obsessive, unhealthy, co-dependent relationships and make me want to smack both the lovers upside the head.

This is why I started getting very unsettled by Nine/Rose after "The Long Game". It's also why I found the behaviour of Ten/Rose in episodes like "Tooth and Claw" deeply problematic and upsetting, and why Ten's pillow talk to Martha in "The Shakespeare Code" made me grind my teeth.

Similarly, there are a number of popular "oh-so-romantic!" novels I've read where the love interests are all gropey and kissy in front of friends who are single and/or suffering from unrequited feelings and/or going through tough times in their own relationships, and I couldn't buy into the romance or sympathize with those characters at all.

(And IMO Wuthering Heights takes the absolute cake for non-romances, because not only are Heathcliff and Cathy cruel to everybody around them, they're also cruel to each other. As a novel about massively dysfunctional characters involved in a gothic tragedy it's superb; but anybody who interprets WH as a great romance has, to my mind, a highly suspect idea of love.)

Full disclosure: I'm not even going to pretend that this view of mine isn't rooted in personal experience. When I was young and single I had a friend who constantly macked on her boyfriends in front of me, making me feel completely unwanted and intrusive. After one particularly cringeworthy display in the middle of a shopping center I took her aside and quietly asked if she and her boyfriend could reserve the passionate kisses and lingering embraces for times when I was not present, and her response was a plaintive "But we love each other!"

I'm sure she felt very strongly about her feelings of passion for her boyfriend being bigger and more important than anyone else's feelings, and how this demonstrated the Epic Quality of Their Love. But I'm also sure, to this day, that she was wrong. (Not least because she and that boyfriend broke up a few weeks later.)

Or to use a non-physical example, in my single days I once got a letter from a recently-married cousin saying, "Marriage is fantastic! I highly recommend it, you should try it sometime!" Which made me want to HULK SMASH because at that point I'd never even been on a date, and not for lack of wanting or trying either. But I swallowed my bitterness and wrote her a polite response saying that I would dearly love to meet a wonderful person and get married, but this was really not in my control, and that I was happy for her contentment in her marriage, but perhaps she might consider not saying such things to other single people in future because they could be quite painful and upsetting.

(Perhaps not surprisingly, she never wrote to me again.)

Anyway, I have now been happily married for fourteen years and have three children, but my feelings about this matter have not changed a whit, and I'm certain that I'm not alone. So to my fellow writers in the process of trying to create truly swoonworthy romances, may I suggest that before your characters rush into a clinch or share a sly in-joke or otherwise engage in exclusionary behaviour in front of others, you and they should stop and think a little about how those other people might feel.
There has been a lot of bad news in my life lately (not for me personally, but for people I love and am close to -- serious health problems, impending operations, the sudden death of my uncle), so it was lovely to open my e-mail the other day and find out some really fantastic news for a change:

Ultraviolet has been nominated for the 2012 Andre Norton Award!

This is the YA division of the Nebula Awards, which are legendary in the SF&F genre, so even being considered for the award is a pretty big deal, let alone actually making the shortlist. I am thrilled and honoured.

Here's the full list of nominees as posted on the official SFWA site:
I have actually not yet read any of these, but I've heard amazing things about all of them. I think I'm going to make it my business to read all the other nominated titles before the awards ceremony.

***

For my fellow writers in the quasi-local area, I have more good news -- I'm going to be presenting a workshop on revision in Waterloo, ON at the end of March:

Poster with details under cut... )

So if you need a pep talk before launching into your own revisions or would appreciate some general tips on how to go about it, this may be the seminar for you! Or just come and say hi and hang out with me and some other writers. Whatever. :)

***

And finally, a vid that has nothing to do with writing but I've been posting it everywhere since I discovered it last night, just because it is so INCREDIBLY CLEVER. And also broke my heart a little.

From the author's introduction at her journal:

In the beginning, there was Sherlock Holmes. And Holmes brought forth the brilliant doctor House, embodied by the lovely Hugh Laurie. Who prior to that in Fortysomething played a slightly less brilliant doctor, Paul Slippery, who begat three sons, the eldest of whom was played by the equally-lovely-if-somewhat-peculiarly-named Benedict Cumberbatch. Who of course grew up to play Sherlock. ... And then my head exploded.

All I can say is, watch. Enjoy. Marvel at the parallels. Surely some of them had to be intentional?!

There has been a lot of bad news in my life lately (not for me personally, but for people I love and am close to -- serious health problems, impending operations, the sudden death of my uncle), so it was lovely to open my e-mail the other day and find out some really fantastic news for a change:

Ultraviolet has been nominated for the 2012 Andre Norton Award!

This is the YA division of the Nebula Awards, which are legendary in the SF&F genre, so even being considered for the award is a pretty big deal, let alone actually making the shortlist. I am thrilled and honoured.

Here's the full list of nominees as posted on the official SFWA site:
I have actually not yet read any of the other books on the list, but I've heard amazing things about all of them. I think I'm going to make it my business to read all the other nominated titles before the awards ceremony.

***

For my fellow writers in the quasi-local area, I have more good news -- I'm going to be presenting a workshop on revision in Waterloo, ON at the end of March: 

Poster with details under cut... )

So if you need a pep talk before launching into your own revisions or would appreciate some general tips on how to go about it, this may be the seminar for you! Or just come and say hi and hang out with me and some other writers. Whatever. :)

***

And finally, a vid that has nothing to do with writing but I've been posting it everywhere since I discovered it last night, just because it is so INCREDIBLY CLEVER. And also broke my heart a little.

From the author's introduction at her journal: 

In the beginning, there was Sherlock Holmes. And Holmes brought forth the brilliant doctor House, embodied by the lovely Hugh Laurie. Who prior to that in Fortysomething played a slightly less brilliant doctor, Paul Slippery, who begat three sons, the eldest of whom was played by the equally-lovely-if-somewhat-peculiarly-named Benedict Cumberbatch. Who of course grew up to play Sherlock. ... And then my head exploded.

All I can say is, watch. Enjoy. Marvel at the parallels. Surely some of them had to be intentional?!

Over on Verla Kay's Children's Writers and Illustrators Chat Board (affectionately known as the "Blue Boards"), a writer calling herself Tamilyn just posted this bit of advice, and I thought it both smart and useful:

"If I'm not writing, but only wishing I could write, then I am a Moper. I have too much pride to be a Moper, so I remind myself that writing takes work and that I'm not afraid of work. Then I work."

Which, in the face of the self-doubt and discouragement that afflict all authors from time to time -- whether at the start of a new manuscript when the page is an alarming blank, or in the middle of it when all the shine has worn off and the faults of the first draft seem to far outweigh its merits -- is a very good thing to remember.

The only thing I might add to that thought is that researching, making notes, outlining, and other not-actually-writing-the-narrative parts that are necessary to the creative process do not count as Moping. They can count as Moping if you are doing them endlessly and unnecessarily to avoid the Scary Writing Part, which is a trap I have fallen into on occasion in the past and may yet fall into again; but otherwise, they too count as Work, because the story will be better for them.

So I have done Work today, and that is good. *nods emphatically*

***

Also, I am reading a big fat biography of Nikola Tesla and I love his little crackpot soul SO MUCH. I'm also discovering that the Sanctuary version of Nikola, personality and attitude-wise at least, is really not so different from the historical one as I'd supposed -- and I'm only three chapters in.
I suspect I've used that subject line before, but really, what could be more appropriate? I feel like I've been on a long journey these past couple of months, wandering through the misty wastelands of my own imagination without knowing where I'd end up, or whether it would be worth the trip when I got there. However, I am happy to say that as of yesterday I was able to turn in a complete draft of Swift to my editor -- and that yes, it is a story, and I'm pleased with it.

Erin Bow has just written an excellent post about What it's like to finish a book: or, one writer's neurosis in three stages which sums up my own feelings at the moment pretty well. Except that she and I differ in one significant aspect: she writes that "editing doesn’t produce the adrenaline to which one can become addicted in the rush of finishing a book. Certainly it doesn’t fill the same place in the heart..." Whereas for me, the revision stage sometimes does produce that kind of ecstatic rush, and it is definitely dearer to my heart than the thrash-and-flail process of first drafting. Once I know where the story's going (and that there is a story), I can stop worrying about the plot and concentrate on the details of character, dialogue, and the little touches of worldbuilding that will take the book to the next level.

But that will come in a few weeks, once my editor's had the chance to go over the manuscript and write me one of her lovely insightful letters suggesting all the ways in which it can be better. All sorts of things are bound to change in the ensuing revision process, and that'll be a challenge of its own. But for the moment I'm content. Not to mention excited about the potential not only of this particular novel, but of the book(s) to come... and that's a nice place to be.
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Inspired by fellow Canadian YA author Arthur Slade and others, I've taken up walking on a treadmill as I write, watch videos, and browse the web.

It took a while to get a setup that would work for me, as our treadmill is an old fold-up clunker with slanting arms, so my husband had to figure out how to create a platform that was strong enough to hold the laptop but also could be folded up along with the treadmill when not in use.

Fortunately, my husband is a genius. Pictures and video behind the cut )

After three days of using the treadmill desk off and on, I could easily see myself getting into the habit of working on the treadmill at least half the time. It's not hard to do 30-45 minutes of writing or browsing before taking a break for another 30-60 minutes and then going back again, and it's a nice healthy change from sitting for 6-8 hours a day.

The drawback of this particular treadmill (though I really can't complain, as it was given to us free) is that it's REALLY LOUD, and also quite bulky. If I really get on a roll (ha) with the treadmill desking, then I think I would invest in a lighter and quieter model like the one Arthur shows in his video. But if I put on my headphones I barely notice the background noise, so I can see myself using this particular setup for a few weeks or months at least.

And hey, maybe I'll even lose a few pounds in the process! Or at least stop being so ridiculously out of shape...
So a while back, the nice folks at my UK publisher, which also happens to be Jackson Pearce's UK publisher, asked if Jack and I would be interested in doing a video together. And since I really enjoyed Sisters Red and she really enjoyed Knife a.k.a. Spell Hunter and Rebel a.k.a. Wayfarer, coming up with questions to ask each other was no hardship!

However, Jack is a veteran of video blogging and I... am not. So it's a bit squirrelly near the end where I suddenly realized I'd deleted one of my crucial clips and had to re-film it, but couldn't quite get the camera angle right.

Other than that, though, it turned out great! Really!



(Note to self: get a better camera.)
I've seen other authors doing this and it looked like fun, so here I go!

The first excerpt is from Arrow, so it comes with a mild spoiler warning for that book and a not-so-mild one for Rebel a.k.a. Wayfarer:

'May I ask you a personal question?' )

And the second is from Ultraviolet, coming June 2011 in the UK and September 2011 in the US:

I was sitting in the library... )
I am thinking that perhaps, to keep my hand in and warm up for Swift, I should write some fanfic short stories about the faeries of the Oakenwyld (and/or elsewhere).

I cannot absolutely guarantee that said stories will happen, but... if I were going to do such a thing, or things, what characters/incidents would my readers be most interested in hearing about?

I will screen comments, so as not to spoil anyone who hasn't read Arrow (or perhaps even Rebel / Wayfarer) yet.

On Fan Mail

Jan. 14th, 2011 04:54 pm
rj_anderson: (Books - Writing)
I've finally discovered how to vlog without taking all day to film and edit the thing! So here's my first video, about what it means to authors to get fan mail -- and how to increase your chances of getting a prompt, personal reply from an author when you write:

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In yesterday's post we discussed whether or not it's a reasonable expectation that protagonists should always be pushing the plot forward or otherwise taking decisive action in order to justify their place at the center of the book.

There were some interesting suggestions in the comments about how that expectation might have arisen among certain readers, as well as some examples of well-known protags who don't fit the derring-do mold. But I think [livejournal.com profile] megancrewe brought up an especially good point about the crucial difference between a protagonist who is too passive to hold the reader's interest, and one who is believable and sympathetic in spite of not always being proactive:
Even if there isn't anything the MC* can do to change their situation at certain points, I want to know that they want things, and will try to get those things when they can.
I think that sums up the essence of a good protagonist really well. You can have an MC who is too reluctant or self-doubting or depressed to drive the plot forward on their own for a while, but if it's clear to the reader what the MC wants, and as long as there's hope that the MC will take action to get it when they have the chance, then you've still got a story.

It's not that I think those who find quiet or reluctant protagonists frustrating don't have a right to say so. But I do think it's a mistake to take what amounts to a personal preference ("I prefer MCs who are decisive and proactive") and voice it as though it were an objective criticism with which all right-thinking readers should agree ("The MC spends more time reacting to things than she does in making things happen, and that's a fault in the book").

***

Now on to today's Unreasonable Expectation!

2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Now, to be fair, I should have said "major development", because I think we all understand that not everything that happens in the book has to be a surprise. What I'm talking about is the expectation that when some significant discovery or revelation occurs in the plot, it has to be set up in such a way that the reader will find it surprising, or the author has failed in her duty -- and I don't think that's always the case.

Don't get me wrong, I love surprises... )

All of which is to say that it may well be hasty and even unfair to criticize a book if you guess a certain "surprise" before the characters do. It may indeed be that you are more perceptive than the author gave you credit for, and that a better author would have handled that aspect more subtly and cleverly so as to surprise you. But it may also be that the author considered it only a minor revelation in relation to the rest of the plot, and wasn't expecting most readers to be surprised by it at all. The real question is, do the characters have good reason to be surprised? Are their reactions believable and satisfying, and do they contribute to the advancement of the plot? If they do, then I'm inclined to give the author a free pass -- even if I feel a little disappointed that they didn't trick me into being surprised as well.

***

But what do you think? Am I right in thinking it unreasonable to expect every twist to be surprising to the reader, or am I setting my own expectations too low?

Or if you agree with most of what I've said, can you think of some other books, movies or TV shows where a particular big revelation wasn't a surprise to you, but you found it satisfying all the same? What about books that do have a genuinely shocking twist -- without spoiling, can you give some examples for those of us who like that kind of thing?

--
* Short for Main Character.

And hey, nobody got my Big Country allusion from yesterday? Probably because I misquoted the first line of the song (it's "This time" and not "Sometimes"). But still, YOU ALL FAIL MISERABLY. (And also, I want that girl's hair, in the video. So pretty.)
I've seen a couple of criticisms cropping up in reviews lately -- not reviews of my own books necessarily, but of some very fine books by other authors. They're often stated somewhat crankily, as though they are universal rules and every author worth her word count ought to know better than to flout them -- but as a matter of fact they are comparatively recent expectations, and not ones that every reader shares or, I think, even needs to.

The criticisms are, as follows:

1. The protagonist must drive the plot at all times;

and

2. Any development which is surprising to the characters must also be surprising to the reader.

Today I'm going to tackle the first one.

Now, on the surface, insisting that the protagonist should incite the plot of the book or at least keep pushing it forward sounds like a solid fictional principle. After all, nobody wants a book where nothing happens, and nobody wants to read about a main character who never does anything. If a particular protagonist never grows or changes or becomes stronger or takes decisive action, one may be tempted to wonder why the author bothered to write a book about them at all (and this is certainly a fault which dooms many an unpublished manuscript).

But I am not talking about books so obviously flawed as all that. What puzzles and annoys me is that I've seen the "protagonist isn't doing enough" charge leveled against books which I really don't think deserve it. To use one specific example, I've seen a couple of reviews of Erin Bow's lovely, haunting, utterly unforgettable upper MG / lower YA novel Plain Kate which accuse Kate of not driving the plot enough -- that too many things happen to Kate rather than being initiated by her.

Now to me, this is just mindboggling, because Kate has a quiet strength and determination which is very evident from the beginning of the novel. She is not spineless or soppy or whiny; she suffers greatly and experiences deep sorrows, but she also displays great courage. And if Kate were what these critics seem to want her to be -- a feisty take-charge type who sets off into the world to have a great adventure -- then Plain Kate would be a very different story, and not nearly so emotionally affecting as it is.

Yes, we all enjoy reading about larger-than-life characters who do extraordinary things. But people like that are only a small part of any world's population, and most of us readers aren't like that ourselves. Very few of us get to be constantly in charge of our lives or otherwise making things happen; instead we spend most of our lives reacting to what others do around us, or to us. And when we face obstacles and challenges, we don't all leap at them with drawn swords and hack until the walls come down. Sometimes we run. Sometimes we hide.* Sometimes we're too busy reeling in shock to do anything for a while.

To me, as long as an MC keeps responding to the things that happen to her in a way that I can understand and find at least a little sympathy with, and as long as the plot keeps moving forward to the next situation or circumstance, there's nothing wrong with her not being Miss Spunky Dynamic. In fact I find it easier to care about her and identify with her if she isn't, because that makes her seem more realistic to me.

Of course, at some point in the narrative the protagonist has to take some kind of deliberate action to face their fears or confront the villain or solve the mystery, or they aren't worthy of being the protagonist at all. When a character is completely passive and does nothing but cringe and moan about their hardships without attempting to resolve them in any way, they become contemptible to the reader.

But if the character reacts to a succession of difficulties by trying to make the best of them, or trying to escape them, they are taking action, even if it isn't a big showy action. We aren't all knights of Camelot setting out on quests, after all. Often we're more like Hansel and Gretel, abandoned in the woods and trying to find our way home. And I think we need both kinds of stories -- and both kinds of protagonists -- to remind us of that.

Now, having shot off my own mouth on the subject, I'm interested to know what you folks think. Can you tell me about books you've enjoyed where the MC is more of an observer or reactor than a take-charge type? (I'll give you one: Alice in Wonderland.) Or do you have a different perspective on this subject that I might not have acknowledged here? Let me know in the comments.

And tomorrow I'll tackle #2, about surprising the characters vs. surprising the reader, and whether the two always have to be the same thing.

--
* Sometimes we draw on all the fire we have inside. (And +100 points to anybody who gets that reference WITHOUT googling.)
Thanks to the nice folks at Inkpop, I'm their featured author this week and am doing a live chat on the site today from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. EST. I'll be interacting with aspiring teen authors in the forum, answering their questions about publishing and the creative process. If you're interested in such things, come along and check it out, either during the chat or afterward:

Creating a New World: Live Chat with Fantasy and Science Fiction Author R.J. Anderson

I wish sites like Inkpop had been available when I was a teen author, is all I can say. What a great resource for sharing works in process, getting critiques, and finding out all the nuts and bolts of publishing.

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