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Thursday, October 21, 2010

CHARACTER-DRIVEN

I was recently reading a scene from my work-in-progress for my critique partner—a love scene, as it happens. I looked up to see a familiar frown on her face.

My CP hates my love scenes. She thinks they’re too graphic. This is a point we grapple with every time I produce a manuscript, but we agree to disagree. I prepared to do battle on the point once again.

“No, that’s not it,” she said. And, really, that could hardly be the problem, since my characters had barely touched yet. “I’m not buying this scene because of the way you’ve set it up. This is not who these people are.”

The minute she said it, I knew exactly what she meant. And she was absolutely correct. The problem wasn’t the timing of the scene within the context of the story or the level of heat I planned to bring to the scene once it got started. The problem was that the two characters I had created could come together in only one authentic way, and I hadn’t found it with the scene. They had suddenly become two actors on a stage. It rang false.

Trust my long-time CP to pick up on this in a heartbeat. Linda doesn’t read science fiction at all. When she reads romance (which is rarely), she reads historicals. She’s down-to-earth and practical where I’ve usually got my head in the clouds. But we share a wicked sense of humor, a liberal view of politics and a fierce loyalty, and we’ve been unlikely friends for twenty-plus years. She’s been listening to me read since I was writing Star Trek fan fiction. One thing she knows is when the characters aren’t right.

In the old days it was easy. That’s why fanfic is such a great training ground for fledgling writers. I knew Jim Kirk, Leonard McCoy and Spock better than I knew my own family—every gesture, every nuance, every inflection was there on the screen for me to read and remember. I could see and hear them as I wrote, so it was easy for the dialogue to seem natural, for their actions to fit their personalities.

But it’s one thing to maintain a consistent personality for your character when you can refer to a huge backlog of movies and television shows. It’s quite another when that character is a newborn creation of your own fertile imagination. Every move your character makes, every line of dialogue she speaks, is at your direction. The only way to make that work is to,first,be certain that you know your character thoroughly, inside and out, and second, insist that she be herself at all times.

When it comes to plot, the prevailing theory is that writers separate into one of two camps: pantsers (who just write it as it comes) and plotters (who write according to a plan). In reality, of course, the bizarre means by which writers arrive at a manuscript can fall anywhere along a continuum between extreme pantsers (whose fingers fly across the keyboard in abandon, plot points be damned) and extreme plotters (who cover their office walls in color-coded charts tracking the movements of each character over time). It’s the same with the requirements of character building. Pantsers, I assume, would prefer to get to know their characters as they go along. Plotters have printed out a birth certificate and college diploma for their characters on their computers before they start writing.

I fall somewhere in between. Because I write character-driven SFR, the kernel of a new story nearly always begins with the characters. I sketch out profiles for the hero and the heroine—what they look like, where they come from, their childhoods, their connections, their quirks, their vulnerabilities. What do they drink? What kind of music do they listen to? What do they drive? What do they wear? Where do they live? Have they had a lot of lovers? Been betrayed? Been abused, tortured, injured, poor? Do they like animals, have pets? Do they sleep poorly or like a rock? Why?

Stupid questions, maybe, but the answer to each one gives you a different dimension to the character and lets you add something to your portrait of that person. Not that you should share all of the answers with your readers, mind you. As the character’s creator, you need to draw from a deep well of details when your hero slips a CD into his car’s player, but, trust me, your reader does not want three pages of reminiscing about how he was in a grunge band in high school because the first time he heard “Teen Spirit” he was blown away. (In fact, I doubt many readers are going to stick with you after the hero puts a CD in and starts listening to “Teen Spirit”. But that’s just me.)

Once you’ve started writing, your character will take on a life of her own and begin informing you of all manner of details, some of which will be of critical importance to the story. Connections will form with other characters which the most dedicated plotter could not have foreseen. That intuitive networking is one of the miracles of the writing art; I don’t think I could operate without it. Just don’t ask me to explain it.

Ensuring that your character acts according to the personality you’ve created demands paying close attention. It’s a little like watching a friend who’s had a bit too much to drink at a party. Too loud. Too shrill. Too happy. Too sad. Too sexy, not sexy enough. Talking to the wrong people. Talking to no one. Somehow she’s just off her game. Time to go home. It helps to have a critique partner who has an eye for character. And occasionally read over your manuscript just for this point.

Meanwhile, back at my WIP, I have a half-alien tracker hero who has been through brutal training to hone his psy skills as a child. My heroine is an FBI agent whose mother was murdered when the agent was nine. Yet the scene I’d concocted had her feeling defeated and vulnerable over a snag in their kidnapping case and him offering comfort as a “prelude to a kiss”. Uh, no. (Seems so obvious when I put it like that, doesn’t it?) If I allow the characters to act like themselves, I can see these two will show vulnerability as anger (that’s the lead-up) and coming together will happen as part challenge, part need. And the depth of their attraction is going to surprise them.

As long as it doesn’t surprise me.

Cheers, Donna

Friday, October 8, 2010

*ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS

Gliese 581g is its official designation. But “Goldilocks” would be a better name for the planet that co-discoverers R. Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Steven Vogt of the University of Santa Cruz have found a mere 120 trillion miles from here. (Or as Vogt puts it, “like right in our face, right next door to us.”)

Goldi is the kind of planet that we have defined as “just right” for life—not too hot, not too cold, not too big or too small. Like Earth, the planet is just near enough to its star to allow for the proper elements to combine—sufficient gravity, retained atmosphere, and most importantly, liquid water. And because wherever we have found water on our own planet we have found life in some form, Vogt believes “that chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.”

Not that the scientists have proved it—yet. No one has been to Gliese 581g, or sent a probe to circle its sun or beamed a message in Goldi’s direction, though it might not be a bad idea to turn a big radio telescope to that sector of space for a while. But it’s worth noting—again—that only a few years ago most of the scientific establishment believed that the circumstances leading to the creation of life on Earth were so unusual as to be considered unique in the galaxy. To find another “ideal” location for life so close to us blows that theory all to hell. Maybe possible Earth-like planets aren’t a dime a dozen, but they aren’t rare either. So if you ask me, the chances are pretty good we aren’t alone here on Sol III. (I prefer that to Sol d, which seems too, well, judgmental, somehow.) (Quotes from an article by Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer)

* * * * *

Over on THE GALAXY EXPRESS Heather Massey and her readers were wondering recently if some unwritten rule forbade romance heroines from killing the villains that wronged them. The lively discussion (which you can catch by clicking here: “Are Romance Heroines Forbidden to Kill the Villain?”) came to no particular conclusion, except that we all heartily approve of heroines who refuse to wait around for the hero to save them. In general, too, commenters agreed that romance and SFR heroines have come a long way in recent years, progressing from merely spunky to unapologeticly kick-ass.

The heroines of most paranormal and science fiction romances and romantic suspense novels have very little trouble defending themselves, even to the extreme of killing the bad guy/ghoul/cyborg if necessary. Modern readers of all ages expect a woman to be able to take care of herself. Paranormal fans expect her to bear a talent of some sort. SFR fans expect her to wield a laser pistol and/or to have had military or specialized training of some description. Romantic suspense fans expect her to handle a gun or know martial arts or something. Victims or clinging vines just aren’t attractive. Even in historical novels, where the heroine’s role is restricted by the time in which she lived, a wimpy heroine is not appreciated. Many’s the time a hatpin was used to dispatch the nasty cad in the Gothic novels of yore.

That said, there has to be some use for the hero besides for a hatrack (or for amusement in the bedroom). If the heroine doesn’t need him at all, he’s a throwaway as a character. And if she’s tougher than he is, the reader is going to wonder why she chose him, unless the book in question is erotica and she’s a dominatrix. The best romances require the h/h to form a partnership of equals with regard to most things, including their relationship to the villain. Some books have two villains in order to do this (a variant of Throw Momma from the Train); some books construct individual (mutually beneficial) reasons for the heroine and the hero to each want to do in the same villain. In the end, it hardly matters who kills the beast.

The best resolution to this problem may have been Susan Grant’s in her most recent SFR novel Sureblood. SPOILER ALERT!! Her pirate lovers fire their weapons simultaneously to end the life of their nemesis, who shall remain nameless here. (Hey, I’m not that much of a spoiler!) The bad guy gets it in the chest and the head! Now Susan’s hero and heroine had what I call an equal partnership!

(BTW, that scene was only one of many, many reasons I loved Sureblood, a novel I consider to be Susan’s best work to date. She jumped into the space pirate culture with both boots in this one and got it as right as the sudden, disorienting loss of AG in the dark. Her pirates are constantly scurrying for the scraps off the tables of those with a legitimate toehold in the galactic economy. They’re desperate and they only dimly realize it. Susan captures that very well. Most authors don’t bother to make the point.)

* * * * *

One of the many pleasures of the RWA National Conference is the amazing pile of books people insist on giving you for absolutely NOTHING!! Of course, there’s a method to this madness. They know we’re weak, unable to resist anything placed in our hands that consists of words written on paper—menus, matchbooks, cereal boxes, bookmarks, pamphlets, or, well, yes, books!

So, a lot of books will be read that might have gone unread at the bookstore or Walmart, and, who knows, a star might be born. Or at least a writer might gain a new fan or two, an author might catch the interest of a bookseller or an editor or a book might snag the eye of an influential reviewer or blogger. It could happen, right?

I use the freebies to check out subgenres that I don’t usually go for or famous authors that I haven’t caught up to yet. Last year I became enamored of both Eloisa James and her historical romances as a result of her speech at RWA and her free books. This year I tried out a contemporary cowboy romance (don’t think I’ll be running out to buy more of those) and agreed I could see how Nora Roberts gained her huge following (though her stuff is not exactly my cup of tea).

So far the winner from my box of freebies has been a paranormal romantic suspense novel, Eternal Hunter, by Cynthia Eden. Shapeshifters in Baton Rouge are a long way from spaceships in Beta Origae, I know, but the way Cynthia constructs a story is stellar. Her suspense is classic in structure, the dialogue and characters could have been lifted from any Southern-style police thriller (that’s a good thing here) and the paranormal angle only adds to the chill. Like any good paranormal, the romance is hot. So I’m enjoying this one.

But perhaps the best acquisition from RWA wasn’t a freebie at all, but a purchase at the Literacy Signing event. For those of you who have never been to this all-star charity extravaganza, try to imagine a room the size of a football field (or the shuttle deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise, if you prefer), filled with row after row of tables at which are seated, cheek by jowl, all your favorite romance writers. Some are proudly signing their first books, some are sturdy mid-listers, signing for the fifth or tenth time. Some are names everyone knows—Linda Howard, Angela Knight, J. R. Ward. Some, like at this year’s event, are superstars like Nora Roberts and Sherrilyn Kenyon.All these authors are there to meet and greet their fans, sign their books and sell them for charities dedicated to literacy.

I picked up several books by favorite authors and chatted with a few others. (Another hint: volunteer to work this event. You get in ahead of time and can get a few precious minutes of fangirl time with your idols.) One of the books I bought was Starjacked, by fellow SFR Brigader Karin Shah. Published as a trade paperback by Samhain Publishing, Karin’s novel represents one of the new avenues for SFR opening up with smaller houses, digital publishers and digital-to-print houses, many of whom are actively acquiring science fiction, fantasy and SFR.

Karin’s was a great story, a rousing, romantic space pirate tale with just the right balance of all the elements in place. I won’ t spoil it by telling you if heroine Tia Sen kills her own villain or lets her hero do it for her, but I will tell you she was fully capable of doing it herself. As any space pirate worth her dutanium--and the love of her hero--would be.

Cheers, Donna

Monday, October 4, 2010

Longshots and Inspiration

This last week has brought me some major inspiration on two fronts (and boy, did I need it!)

First of all, there was an absolutely fascinating, mesmerizing interview with JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter phenom, on Oprah Winfrey. This famous author's road to success was not a rocket launch, it was a two-track as rocky and doubt-strewn as any other writer's and one that left her totally unprepared for being thrust into the white hot spotlight of success. If you missed the episode you can see it again on YouTube in several parts. Well worth the time investment to hear the heartfelt words of the most successful author in history. Here's the opening:



That was Monday. On Saturday, I was lucky to snag a couple of tickets to the sneak peek of Secretariat. As a lifelong fan of the horse and the former owner of several of his direct descendents, I admit it would have been hard for me not to like it. Like was an understatement, I was blown away. I wasn't alone. At the end of movie, the theatre erupted in enthusiastic applause. It's been a long time since I've seen that happen.

This film isn't really about the horse, or horseracing, or the history of an exceptional athlete, it's about a woman who went after an impossible dream regardless of ridicule, doubt, roadblocks, and cost to her personal esteem. I read the novel this movie is based on and thought I knew everything about Penny Chenery-Tweedy and her quest. I was so wrong. I think any writer will completely connect to this tale and the emotional toll that often comes before success. Here's the trailer:



So hats off to two very inspiring stories at a time when a little encouragement meant everything to me.  I hope you have time to view one or both!  :)