October 31, 2011

The Clock is Ticking!

Friends, we have only a few hours left until the beginning of the biggest writing event of the year:
In my timezone it's about 13 hours 'til midnight. I'm still waffling on whether to stay up late and start writing at midnight, or whether I should just go to bed really early and get up super early in the morning to get started. I'm not a night owl by any stretch of the imagination, so I'll probably go with getting up early like I did last year.
I've got my NaNo profile all updated, and a new computer file waiting, ready to go for this year's NaNo project: The Queen's Flower.
I've got a good stock of writing supplies laid in (supplies in this case consisting mostly of chocolate-covered pomegranates) and a November schedule that has been hacked down to bare minimum so as to allow the most writing time possible.
I'm planning to journal NaNo here at the Lair like I did last year, so you all will be able to keep up with how it's going, or you can add me as a writing buddy - I'm MaryRuth (one word) on the site.

The hour is upon us, writers. Are you ready?

October 26, 2011

Modesty in Christian Fiction

One of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of modesty in Western culture. The American culture has thrown modesty to the wind completely, and even a heartbreaking number of professing Christians have either ignored the issue or interpreted it so loosely that their definition and execution of it don't come close to the actual, Biblical meaning. This saddens and, honestly, infuriates me. I take every opportunity I can to talk to people about it, and I'm also going to take this opportunity to talk about the issue of modesty as it applies to Christian fiction.
When it comes to modesty, books have the advantage over movies in that a much greater amount of description and detail is left up to the reader's imagination. If a writer doesn't really describe a character's outfit in any way that applies to modesty, the reader's interpretation is going to be left up to their mindset. If they are inclined to envision a character as being dressed modestly, that's how they will see it, and vice versa.
I have never read a book in which the author took a great deal of time or effort to describe just exactly how high a character's collar was, or how far down their leg their skirt came, and I don't think it's really necessary to do so. The instances in fiction where modesty becomes a legitimate issue, and the instances I want to focus on in this post, are more in regard to modest behavior on the part of characters.

First off: Regarding male characters taking off their shirts.
Here's the deal (and this goes for guys and girls alike): If your shirt is on fire, or has just been splashed with corrosive chemicals, or infested with fire ants, then by all means take it off as quickly as possible and you will not hear one peep of protest from me. Under those circumstances, I'll even help you get it off.
However, the circumstances had better be pretty convincing, and if it happens more than once in a story, I'm going to start getting very suspicious very quickly. I have lived on a farm for twenty-three years, working with animals large and small, domestic and wild, heavy equipment, pesticides, and herbicides, I've been involved in multiple car accidents, and never once in all that time have I been faced with the sudden desperate need to take my shirt off. So it's not like these things just happen at the drop of a hat.
Now, I'm not saying the legitimate need never arises. When my cousin fell and landed in a giant hill of fire ants, that was a legitimate need. When my dad accidentally doused my brother with diesel, that was a legitimate need. It does happen, and those circumstances don't bother me.
What bothers me is when authors almost seem to be seeking out reasons for their male characters (and 99% of the time it just happens to be the main guy character whom the main girl character is falling in love with) to take their shirts off. I guess a lot of Christian authors really want to show that for some reason (probably in a crippled effort to make their fiction appealing and mainstream, but I really don't know), but because it's Christian fiction, they feel like they have to have some 'acceptable' excuse for doing it. In my opinion, those authors are missing the point of how and why Christian fiction is supposed to be fundamentally different from secular. And don't think the readers won't see through it, because they will.
This applies to a lot of 'exceptional' circumstances I've seen in fiction - circumstances where it was painfully obvious that the author was just aching for some excuse to push the line under the guise of 'an exceptional circumstance that couldn't be helped'. Those circumstances always seem to conveniently end up with the highly buff guy character ending up shirtless or the gorgeous girl character ending up in some weird corset-type thing that conveniently happens to showcase her figure perfectly. And it never seems to happen when a character is alone, it always happens in front of other people. It bugs me, and it doesn't make me inclined to like the author.
Am I saying guys should never have their shirts off for any reason in fiction, or that there aren't genuine, realistic circumstances in which a serious wardrobe malfunction or breakdown might occur? Of course not.
Injuries represent scenarios in which there's simply no way to get around a bit of immodesty. In speculative fiction, especially fantasy, severe injuries are a relatively common occurrence, and I can tell you that it's impossible to treat a life-threatening wound without removing some clothing. It's not a big deal, so don't waste time and effort worrying about it or dwelling on it. Just say what needs to be said and move on. It's that simple.

The second big issue I wanted to discuss is dealing with characters who simply don't dress modestly, period. After all, every character in Christian fiction doesn't necessarily conform to Christian standards of behavior and dress, and those characters love to cause problems for their authors as well as their fellow characters. So how do we as writers deal with those characters and their skanky behavior while still holding to a high standard for clean content?
In my current WIP, I have a character who absolutely does not conform to any kind of Christian standard whatsoever, be it in dress or behavior. There's even a scene in the book where she has changed out of her military uniform into civilian dress and is primping in front of the mirror while contemplating how to enlist the help of one of the male characters for the plot she wants to set in motion. Suffice it to say that the dress she's wearing is part of how she plans to coerce him.
So here's a problematic situation. How do I deliver this significant but nonetheless distasteful plot point in a way that's clean and Christ-honoring? Here's how I did it:

"[She] turned sideways to the mirror, smoothing the front of her dress and examining her reflection. The green-gray silk was fitted and flattering, its floor-length skirt giving her the appearance of being taller than she actually was, and the color nicely complimenting her dark red hair and fair skin. The created effect was perfect: far from attention-grabbing, but far enough removed from the rigid convention of her uniform to provide a distraction for anyone even slightly willing to be distracted."

And then I move on with the story. Everything the reader needs to know is right there: the basic concept of the dress's appearance and style, and the character's attitude and purpose in wearing it. I didn't go into vivid, freaky detail, but the readers still (hopefully) get the idea pretty clearly. The power of suggestion plays a significant role in it too, by showing and suggesting just enough to the reader to let them put the pieces together on their own without you having to paint the whole picture.

Really, handling the modesty issue in Christian fiction isn't complicated. It takes some thought and situational awareness, but it's not horrendously difficult. Just remember: don't over-think or over-complicate something that's relatively simple, don't feel like you have to go all or none (either avoiding the subject completely or diving into all the gruesome detail), and don't feel like you have to include something you're uncomfortable with just to make your novel 'appealing' or mainstream.

October 13, 2011

L. M. Montgomery in Quotes

Lucy Maud Montgomery ~ November 30, 1874 - April 24, 1942
Author of 20 novels, including the world-renowned Anne of Green Gables series (and my personal favorite, Emily of New Moon).

On Life and Human Nature:

"I doubt if I shall ever have time to read the book again--there are too many new ones coming out all the time which I want to read. Yet an old book has something for me which no new book can ever have--for at every reading the memories and atmosphere of other readings come back and I am reading old years as well as an old book."

"Truth exists, only lies have to be invented."

"A girl who would fall in love so easily or want a man to love her so easily would probably get over it just as quickly, very little the worse for wear. On the contrary, a girl who would take love seriously would probably be a good while finding herself in love and would require something beyond mere friendly attentions from a man before she would think of him in that light."

"Youth is not a vanished thing but something that dwells forever in the heart."

"It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will."

"A broken heart in real life isn't half as dreadful as it is in books. It's a good deal like a bad tooth, though you won't think that a very romantic simile. It takes spells of aching and gives you a sleepless night now and then, but between times it lets you enjoy life and dreams and echoes and peanut candy as if there were nothing the matter with it."

"It's such an interesting world. It wouldn't be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it?"

"At seventeen dreams do satisfy you because you think the realities are waiting for you farther on." (from Anne of Avonlea)

"One can't get over the habit of being a little girl all at once." (from Anne of Avonlea)

On Writers and Writing:

"If it's in you to climb, you must--there are those who must lift their eyes to the hills--they can't breathe properly in the valleys." ~Mr. Carpenter (speaking of the unexplainable drive to write, in Emily of New Moon)

"My pen shall heal, not hurt." ~Emily Starr (from Emily of New Moon)

"The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland."

"You have the itch for writing born in you. It's quite incurable. What are you going to do with it?"

"All pioneers are considered to be afflicted with moonstruck madness."

October 10, 2011

Face to Face

As writers, we see and know our characters as clearly as if they're real people. We know what makes them laugh, what makes them angry, we know what their voices sound like, and we know what they look like.
As readers, if a writer has done a good job developing the characters in a story, we know much of the same information about their characters.
But have you ever noticed that characters don't always stay inside the story where we first met them?
On multiple occasions, I've seen a movie or read a book and thought that a particular character was just like a character from another story or movie. Sometimes, I've read about a fictional character who was just like someone I know in real life.
A few times, I've written a character... and then met them in real life.
The first time it happened, it really scared me. I mean it really, really gave me a serious case of goosebumps. I was at an open house party and met a young woman who was an absolute dead-ringer for one of my characters, and I thought 'Oh my goodness, this cannot be happening! This is terrible!'
You're probably thinking that that's kind of a strange reaction to have. In my defense, the character the woman looked like happened to be an extremely evil and terrifying sorceress. So I think I deserve a break on that one. (And, as it turned out, the lady at the open house party was neither extremely evil nor a sorceress, so it was all okay in the end.)
A few years after that, I met a man who reminded me very strongly of someone, but I couldn't think of who. I was just sure I knew him from somewhere, though. Then it dawned on me that he looked just like a character from a story idea I have on the back burner, waiting for me to get to it and write it. I dug out the notebook where I have the story idea written down and re-read the physical description of that particular character. It fit this guy to a tee. And the more I got to know him, the more and more he reminded me of my character's personality.
I catch glimpses of my other characters from time to time--singing in a choir during a televised concert, ringing little bells outside Wal-Mart at Christmas time, jogging down the sidewalk, or selling books at a home schooling convention.
There's something magical about that moment. We writers carry so many different people inside of us, and even though we know they're fictional they seem real, they feel real, they are real--to us, if not to anyone else. When we suddenly stumble upon one of them face to face, in the real world, I don't think there's any way to avoid feeling a connection to them. Our minds start screaming 'Hey, that's _____! She's right there, for real! Go talk to her!' And then we have to remind ourselves that it's not really our character--which isn't always an easy thing to do.
I know I've had to fight off the urge to whip out my notebook and start bombarding a total stranger with questions about their deepest desires and secret motivations or why they refuse to get their act together and do what needs to be done. I admit it, I've shamelessly come up with excuses to strike up conversation with someone who looks like one of my characters. I might have even dropped a casual question or two... just in case.

What about you? Have you ever met or seen any of your fictional characters face to face? How did you react to it?

October 7, 2011

Rules of Good Fiction... and When to Let Them Slide

As writers, it's important to learn and understand the rules and principles behind what makes good fiction. It's important to apply those rules and principles to our own writing. It's important to be able to recognize those principles when other writers use them (or fail to use them) in their writing.

But it's also important not to let our knowledge of those rules ruin our ability to enjoy a good story.

As we start to really gain some knowledge of how the writing world works and how fiction works, it's easy to start getting a Barney Fife attitude about it. We get all swelled up with confidence and self-importance and next thing you know we're standing at the ready to pronounce judgment and doom on any pleb so foolish as to break one of the sacred laws that form the code of good writing.
We writers have a tendency to get tunnel vision and focus way too much on the rules, however. We often conclude that a book is terrible because the author broke this rule and that rule and how did such doggerel ever get published? If you're still in the frustrating process of trying to get published, such cases are doubly infuriating because you, of course, know much better than to ever commit such literary sins so you should be getting published instead of these buffoons! (That J.R.R. Tolkien--who does he think he is?)

I hear ya, and I feel your pain. Truly I do. But calm down for a second and ask yourself: Did you enjoy the story?

Sit down and pick up your favorite novel--the one you read over and over and never get tired of. Start reading it with nothing in mind but finding writing mistakes and literary sins. It may be a few chapters before you find one, or you may find one a paragraph in. Gasp!

Now pick up one of those enduring classics--you know, that book that's been on the NYT Bestseller list for the last 300 years. Do the same thing: start reading it with finding literary sins as your sole purpose. How long does it take you?

So let me ask you this: have a few broken rules destroyed your ability to enjoy that favorite novel over and over? Have they dampened the success of that enduring classic?
At the end of the day, novel writing is an art, not a science, and what makes a great story is just that: a great story, not a perfect adherence to the rules of good fiction.
Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, and Sherlock Holmes don't endure and remain popular because their authors followed all of the writing rules flawlessly. (Come to think about it, have you ever heard any work of fiction praised in the media for that reason?) They remain popular because they tell an epic, inspiring story, or because they speak a bold message to the culture, or because they challenge readers to think in new ways.

Once you know and understand the rules of writing, it is hard not to notice them in other people's writing. And I'll admit that once in a while a book does make it to publication that I simply can't stand to finish because the quality is so poor. It happens. But those cases are rare--almost as rare as the book that contains no mistakes of any kind whatsoever.

So chill out, Barney. Alright, so they broke Ordinance 4861 Section a.) Paragraph 3 of the Good Writing Technique Manual. But they told a great story, didn't they?

And isn't that what you read the book for in the first place?

October 4, 2011

The Book Apocalypse?

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine about Falls the Shadow (if you have no idea what that is, Click Here) and told her that my co-authors and I had based the story on the premise of technology gradually phasing out first hard copy books, then written text all together. Very few people in our story world can actually read, because technology advanced so far that information could be downloaded directly into the human brain without them having to read and learn it themselves.
My friend then asked me a very interesting question: "Do you think that could happen for real? Could technology eventually replace hard copy books and make them completely obsolete?"
I was a little taken aback. To be honest, in spite of the hours I've spent working with my coauthors on Falls the Shadow, I'd never seriously considered the possibility of such a thing happening in the real world. I think it's a legitimate question, though, especially since the advent of the e-book. So here is my attempt at an answer.

Barring 1.) the Second Coming of Christ and 2.) another world war or natural cataclysm destroying the bulk of modern electronic technology, yes--I do think that technology will gradually make hard copy books completely obsolete.
New and better e-readers are being put on the market every time we turn around. The self-publishing world is exploding now that anyone can publish their own book electronically at virtually no cost. A book that would cost $14 or $15 in print can now be purchased electronically for only $2 or $3. If things continue at this rate, I think it's only a matter of time before hard copy books are a thing of the past.
But there are some things that have to happen before that can fully come to pass.

1.) The pre-ebook generation has to die out. A vast percentage of this generation has already joined the ranks of avid e-book users, but there will always be some (like myself) who simply can't come to terms with the idea of curling up in a chair next to the fire or stretching out in a hammock under a tree with a piece of electronic equipment. As more people switch to e-readers and more children are born into the e-book generation, though, the staunch hard-backers will become fewer and fewer.
2.) Bookstores will either close down completely or switch over to become strictly online stores as e-book sales drive them out of business.
3.) Schools, colleges, and universities will switch from hard copy textbooks to e-textbooks sooner or later. If the economy stays bad and schools keep suffering as a result, I'm betting it will be sooner.
4.) Public libraries will shut down due to a combination of lack of interest and lack of government funding.

Hard copy books will be around for many, many years to come, even if only in private collections, yard sales, flea markets, and antique book shops a few decades down the road. I don't think they're all going to vanish by 2020... or even 2030. So don't feel like you need to rush out and start feverishly buying up books before they disappear (although if you're like me, feverishly buying books is just a way of life : ).
Please don't get the idea that I am anti-ebook or anything like that. I think the e-book and e-reader are both great pieces of technology that have made reading 'cool' once again in society and might actually have some good influence on literacy statistics in our culture. I have nothing against e-books as a concept... they're just not for me.

In spite of everything, I daresay that even if hard copy books do become totally obsolete in the future, there will always be a few people who just have the bug--the bug that will only let them be satisfied with good old leather and paper and ink.
There will always be a mysterious few with a streak of something--of rebellion perhaps, or love of antiquity, or maybe just a strange kind of wisdom--running through their character, inexplicably urging them to collect and preserve something everyone else left by the wayside long ago.
And then what a story waits to be written about them!

October 1, 2011

Chapter 10 of Falls the Shadow!

In Chapter 9, Maricossa made the decision to return to the library and try to buy or bargain for books. Now Libby is faced with a choice...

...and she responds with a challenge.

Learn the secret behind the title Falls the Shadow as two equally desperate minds engage in a duel of called bluffs and clashing desires that leaves only one question:

Deal or no deal?

Don't miss Chapter 10 of Falls the Shadow!