Sunday, September 12, 2010

Character Flaws

       I’ve spent the last two blogs pretty much dissing other author’s beloved characters so I thought I would fess up to my own character flaws. I’ve written many short stories and I like to experiment with character voice in those little spurts but the real challenge to achieving successful character development is in longer fiction. I confess to disillusionment in me and mine.

       I have a current heroine who is momentarily frozen in limbo at 40k so she doesn’t count in this scenario, being too raw, and too shallow at this point to mention. My two favorites from past books both lost my favor when I finished the first drafts and I don’t know if this is a regular experience for writers or my peculiar personal hell.

      Years ago, I taught a drama class where the students did character studies. In these studies they were to know everything about their character from how they brushed their teeth to what their favorite color was. The logic was that knowing the character whilst acting would allow the actor to make natural decisions on the spot. The same intimate knowledge of your character is essential when writing. A writer needs to know everything about their character, even if they never use that knowledge, but low and behold, there’s a problem.

      You, the writer, know more than your character knows about themselves. I think this is why so many authors have the irritating habit, as I’ve previously mentioned, of having clueless heroines until they suddenly wake up and save the world. The writer is trying to grow both the plot and the character at the same time. It isn’t very easy. When do you let your heroine have an insight? Will the rising action stagnate if she moves too quickly toward the discovery of her supposed superpower? The saving the world bit is at the end of most paranormal fictions. Unless, of course, it’s a series and then the reader gets strung along with a clueless heroine for too many plots. Don’t get me started.

       Anyway, I confess to my disappointments. One of my heroines is for the young adult paranormal market and the other is an adult paranormal. The adult character I wrote two, three years ago when I was regularly sharing writing with my writer’s circle called Circle of Crones. We ladies liked the titillating romance with lots of swashbuckling and this book at 75K was/is certainly that. My main character stumbles upon a nightmare heritage of Magus, werewolves and other scaries when she is accosted and turned by a werewolf. It’s called Mirror World and the premise is as with the infamous Alice, she is sucked into a parallel world that only those who are paranormal can see. Glamour keeps non members clueless. Though not original seeming, given that so many authors have used this premise, I like to think that my particular take on this classic is unique. I’ve got fallen angels and battles for supremacy along with a particularly hellish villain that makes Caligula look law abiding. My heroine goes from shocked, to angry and back again several times before she comes around. Meanwhile, the men who are more savvy and comfortable in this mirror world battle it out with her as the main prize. Oops! See my problem?

       I made my own character into a trophy for the male winner! I began to despair halfway through when I saw the error of my ways and though I changed gears and pulled out a surprise villainous puppet master and added another female to round out the menagerie with female strength, the damage was done. I knew everything from her shoe size to the name of her pet hamster when she was ten. She was weak and girlie. I couldn’t stand her in the end.

       My young adult character has another issue altogether. The supporting characters lost my interest and therefore the heroine lacked luster in their eyes and the reader’s. This heroine is not weak in the beginning, middle or end; however, she is clueless because having once lived as a faerie in Summer Land, she remembers nothing of her past, living now in the real world. Cue a big sigh from me here as I trash my own heroine. Everyone but she knows her past and the story is her discovering that she is/was the villain in her own personal melodrama. She is being redeemed by paying for her folly with her ignorance throughout the story and it really works (swear to you) except I lost my way somewhere toward the end when the other characters succumbed to being mere characterizations.

       I suppose I should give examples here but I think I’ll stop instead. I’ve blathered on again too long and I’ll give examples of characters and their flaws in my next blog. After all, this me telling tales.          

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Reading Books 2 : Urban Paranormal

    Again, the reading is endless. I start school next week and I’ll be complaining about my lack of time to read or write, but until then, I read. Currently, I’ve been reading the urban paranormal genre, which is popular, and being published in droves. The central women characters are mostly cut from the same mold: Young, unaware of their potential, in love with the wrong man, chased by bad guys, and best of all, able to, at least eventually, kick butt of same bad guys with newly discovered strength, skill, and/or super powers.

    I adore super powers. It’s so freeing to read and identify with those not very perfect women who discover strength within themselves. I suppose the popularity of these books is because we all secretly feel inadequate and powerless, but I don’t really care. When a heroine finally reaches out and slaps the idiot villain around and saves the world, there’s a certain escapist thrill in that. If she also gets the best sex of her life along the way, all power to her, and the reader, for just tagging along.

    There is a point, however, when boredom sets in. I can almost predict the next three moves of a character in a paranormal story after the first few pages. Sometimes, I find myself skipping whole parts that I’ve already predicted ahead, just to get to the plot points.

    It’s an internal conversation with me, “Yada yada yada yada,” I’ll murmur, “don’t be so stupid, Girlfriend, and have more confidence, for heaven’s sake!” All while I skip over all that internal angst and obstacles that the heroine invariably sets before herself. It’s always her own weaknesses that hold her back, therefore bulking up the storyline with more pages. Obstructing the heroine with her own insecurity and lack of personal insight seems to be the plot pattern followed by most of the paranormal writers. I’d like to point out that they are almost all women writers for that matter.

    I’ve read so many of these books that even I realize it’d be boring to list them. Many of the most popular heroines such as Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake, or Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse were wonderful for the first five or ten books, but please! Quit already. There is so much dithering and indecision a reader can take. At some point, the heroine has to have a final win. Anita Blake is especially irritating because Hamilton thinks that adding lovers to Anita’s roster is the way to add books to her list. By the 15th book Blake has gone from kickass necromancer to the ever ready succubus and NOT in a good way.

    And don’t get me started on the young adult market! They’re worse, by far. I wanted to suck Twilight’s heroine to death myself if she didn’t quit with the emotional indecision. That the series ended the way it did by throwing the baby/werewolf bonding in to round out the romantic triangle neatly was, in a word, bizarre.

   Over the last year, I have finished the most popular of the series: Fallen, the Immortals (Shadowland), the Shadow Hunters (City of Glass), the Blue Bloods, and the Wicked Lovely series to name very few on the long list of young adult urban paranormals out there. My students read them, so I do. Mostly, without exception, the heroines are the same: weakened emotionally by a lack of confidence or personal tragedy, indecisive overall, and given to letting the boys smash it out whilst they stand by and watch. In short, they are clueless until finally, after much angst, they wake up and take control of their lives. The young adult market seems to want to both empower young women and funnel them into age old stereotypes of powerlessness. I haven't decided if I should encourage my students to read them or not yet.  Not that I have any say in the matter.

   I believe of all the heroines of the popular paranormal genre, either young adult or adult, the one character that I haven’t quite tired of yet is Rachel Morgan. I think, and this is me analyzing the genre here, she hasn’t become boring because she changes so much through the books. Kim Harrison, the author, is brave enough to kill off characters, even important lovers, and she has changed Rachel with each book to the point that you realize that she is growing as a character. In fact, all the characters change in this series. The villains in the early books become allies in the later ones, and it’s all done in a way that surprises the reader. Much of what happens to Rachel is a logical progression. (I’m laughing here because it’s an urban paranormal fantasy set in a post apocryphal world peopled with demons, witches and faerie folk.) My point is that a reader couldn’t possibly pick up the sixth book of Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan series and figure out what is going on. That’s why it isn’t predictable.


   So, how to analyze the genre and what is the basic formula to urban paranormal/romance/female heroines with superpowers genre?

    1. She must be young, the age of change for women: 16 to 30
    2. The obstacles she faces are outside villains who make her feel powerless, and/or she is powerless because the villains seem to be more aware of her potential than she is.
    3. She longs for the love of the wrong boy/man according to society standards but in truth, he is the only one for her i.e. true love. (Does TL really exist BTW?)
    4. She has a superpower, which is eventually discovered by her (usually she’s the last to know) and she saves the world, too.
    After that the stories DO vary but not by much. In the young adult books, she is soundly kissed and the reader can safely assume that there is a happily ever after. In the adult versions, the paranormal heroine enjoys the best sex of her life, but doesn’t necessarily get the happily ever after. That would mean the end of the book series,  and heaven forbid it, we can’t have that!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reading Books 1 : High Brow

    I’ve spent the summer reading. Being a teacher, I have nine weeks off, though I DO plan and trudge into my room periodically to work and tidy up. Right now, there’s a giant plan sheet with all kinds of standards to be reached and lessons to be taught plastered onto my white board. I don’t think about it much.

    The reading has been my main focus this year.

    On my Goodreads shelves are dozens of the newly consumed books, but honestly, I only put half of the books I read onto my account. I haven’t figured out how to stop the automatic announcements of my updates to friends so I’ve been limiting my list. I don’t really want to bother them. So I post only a few at a time, while I’ve been averaging some six books a week. If I read a series of books, for example, I’ll only post one of the books, sometimes with a review for the entire series. Thus, I’ve read all of Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters and Bridei books, but only posted two out of the seven.

    I’ve been noticing trends in both style and voice within the different genres.

    In mainstream literary fiction, the supposed high brow stuff such as Little Bee, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and The Lace Reader to name a few that come immediately to mind have main characters, women that are pretty much mutilated emotionally and/or physically. They endure. There’s no hope. The reader cannot imagine surviving happily themselves let alone believing the characters could find a life that’s livable. The language of these books, filled with visuals and voice that compel and so on, are beautiful. In The Lace Reader, for instance, I was stunned by the wonderful descriptions of Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of the book. I was sucked back to my own memories of that place, and as I said in my review, I could practically smell the vendor’s sausage cooking on Pickering Wharf from the vivid imagery the author created. The woman in that book was nuts, however, and her only hope was going to be a nice safe house in the back of her destroyed property where she could lick her many wounds and survive as a shell of what she could have been. There was no hope. Women just don’t get a break in modern literature.

    Women are the primary buyers of fiction these days. I think I read that on Yahoo, I can’t remember. So why in the world are women buying literature wherein the characters survive, barely, and don’t find love, or hope, or anything but misery? I can’t even blame male dominated publishing because I believe it’s dominated by women these days. Every agent and publisher seems to be a woman. So what gives? For that matter, why are writers writing these books that subjugate and demoralize these women?

       I only read these books because I belong to a book club that picks them up as the monthly read. I tell the other women in my group that I’m too shallow to read such better fiction without it being ‘assigned reading’. Every time we discuss one of the books I think they expect my verbal eye roll as I point out that we’ve read yet another story of some poor woman getting nailed to the cross of endurance and misery.

      I have a theory, however, as to why women are getting such a raw deal in high brow literature these days. It’s kind of convoluted and I’m practically thinking out loud as I write this, but here it is…

      I think that the subjugation of women in literature, i.e. the describing of lives filled with male domination, and betrayal of culture and family runs along the same lines as women in fine art being the subject of choice for artists. Women are objects used to describe our culture. Ask yourself: Why would you rather look at the image of a naked woman than a man?
Woman by W. De Kooning

      Yeah, yeah, The Thinker by Rodin comes immediately to mind as an objection to this theory, but really, overall, it is women that are the subject of choice in the arts. Why? What do we ultimately represent in culture? Why is the Rape of Europe, Madam X, or even the Mona Lisa considered great art? Or look at more modern art, Picasso’s subjects (there’s a sexist for you) or Dekooning’s pictorial diatribes with his slashing color and viciousness.

      And what of the post modernists who actually DON’T use the female figure much? How many times have you heard ‘regular people’ say that they don’t understand post modern art?

      My theory is that the describing of women’s demoralization and their rape of the female self by others has become a vehicle of choice for the modern writer to describe their loss of hope in our culture in general. Thus, Little Bee gets carted off by soldiers in Africa, not because she is a real person that we’ve come to like and root for, but a symbol of what real Africa is being subjected to by totalitarian forces bent on killing that culture. The oil companies, in that case, do the raping.

      Whew! That’s a load off my mind for the moment. I had to justify it in some way in order to read these books that my book group keeps picking. Now I’ll be able to read them and NOT hope that the poor woman makes it out of whatever death grip she’s subjected to. She’s just an object not a person I should like and root for, I’ll tell myself. She’s not a person that might be me.

      The trouble is I’ll know I’m lying to myself. I hate that modern fiction objectifies women into symbols of culture and that the modern writer feels that the culture is being raped and pillaged and buried by whatever big bad guy is around. Of course, the alternatives in literature are the postmodern stuff, writing that has no plot like Jackson Pollack has no focal point in his paintings.

      Or, on the other side of the coin, there are the other books that I have been reading in droves. Fiction that is more narcissist and introspective stuff: fantasy and science fiction. That’s a subject for another blog though, and I’ve gone on too long already.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Peppermint Tea Break

The tea is brewing and my post is long past due.

I never made my SVEN challenge word count total. Well, actually, I technically made the total, but the words I’ve spent writing for the last three months have been data driven drivel for my Professional Certification as a teacher. I don’t want to spend too many more words on the subject, but if you’re a teacher in the state of Washington, you know the writer’s hell that I’ve been living in these last few months. To be a teacher, with a master’s degree and a few years of experience, is not enough in this state. You must also complete a professional certification course wherein you take professional growth classes and apply action research and data from your classroom to analyze how to be a better teacher. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t had to write in teacher-speak. It’s a language only to be read before going comatose. I was exhausted for a week after I finished writing the pages of analysis and it wasn’t because of the time change.

That done, it is spring break this week. Other than setting up a Greek and Latin root words unit, I’m free to write again without the guilt of my career hanging over my head.

I did sneak in a few days of pure writing since January. I got further along in my steam punk novel, though I missed my deadline for the novella version in April. The deadline is next week and I just can’t seem to get my heroine sassy enough to beat the bad guy over the head fast enough to fit into 50,000 words. *big sigh*

The revision of my young adult novel, Once Fey, is halfway done. I wrote the novel last summer. Urban faerie stories have been my focus in story telling for a few years and this story of a girl who discovers truths about herself that aren’t too flattering, is the best of them. I’ve wanted to write about learning and growing despite your own imperfections for awhile. Many of the young adult stories written for the fantasy market have been centered on the faerie princess crowd. They’re basically ‘Mary Sue’ perfect and only progress through their stories by hurdling obstacles put before them, usually by older, clueless authority figures that don’t understand them.

I’m chuckling because my students see me as one of the older, clueless and themselves as misunderstood perfection, which is why those faerie princess books are so popular. I’ve got a few aspiring snow queens in my classroom, believe me.

My peppermint tea is hot and the rain is coming down in buckets. I promised myself a good long write today and not a blog rant, either. I’ve left my protagonist reeling from a bout of iron sickness, the news that her new boyfriend is a dog, and her brother is being ransomed to the dwarf king. After all, it’s the story telling that’s most important, isn’t it?

Cheers for now.

This week’s reading is The Girl with Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I just finished Kim Harrison’s Black Magic Sanction. Rachel Morgan is certainly a character who makes her imperfections look good as she thunders along her plot line.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Word Count Addiction

We all know who we are and there are thousands upon thousands of us out there. We are writers who judge their own success by their daily word count. Addicts that can’t get up for that cup of coffee, or go to the grocery until they reach an acceptable total for their sitting. It’s a grind. It’s a habit. But we writers all do it to keep going.

Nationally, there are many writing groups that pound the keys in mutual suffering. They count together. They are writers who cheer each other on, support those feeling weakened as they lag behind, and generally keep up the word count progress like hamsters racing on the wheel. I’m currently signed up for my local romance writers’ chapter for a 70 day challenge, which is called the Sven Challenge. It stands for 70 days of sweat. The web site has a buff man sweating, which isn’t a very pretty analogy for our toil, but it’s apt.

I’ve done these national and group challenges before. My Circle of Crones writing group tended to put out smaller challenges four times a year before we petered out. I’ve also been a NaNoWrMo, National Novel Writing Month, winner three years running. There are a lot of us out there and not all of us are unpublished wannabes, either. Jennifer Crusie participated in NaNoWrMo's November torture. She wrote in her blog,, about it. I had to laugh, because she sounded just as miserable and as frustrated as the rest of us trying to keep up the pace. Word counting is a writer's jogging. You breathe hard, sweat buckets and all to get the raw material of a story out on the page.

It’d be ridiculous if it weren’t so necessary. Word counting is not a new writer’s game, in point of fact. Famous, long gone authors did it too. Anais Nin got paid for each word of erotica that she wrote for her anonymous benefactor. She kept diligent records. So did many of the authors, such as Dashiell Hammett and a plethora of depression era authors, who were paid a penny a word. There are whole hand typed and edited marred manuscripts with little word count scribbles in the corners out there. I wonder if authors like Jane Austen did it too. I can imagine they wrote notes to themselves with their quill and ink in the margins: Great day for Jane! She writ 500 words for the day!

The camaraderie is what is important nowadays. No longer do we writers slave away in attic rooms or corners of the parlor, isolated in our thoughts whilst the world goes on outside. They counted words alone, but we count words together. Writers now have a window via the internet and a voice, usually whining about their lack of progress, but a voice nonetheless. We’re cheerleaders for each other, and each word counts. I’m a word count addict and I’m standing proud with my brethren. You better believe that I’m tallying up this 500 plus word count toward my 70,000 word goal. You can bet your bippy that my Sven Sweat Challenge is 524 words richer. Come mid-March, I'll be posting a high five for having made the 70,000 word count total. Go team!

Monday, December 28, 2009

A New Beginning

Whenever I start a new story, as I did yesterday, I tell myself what I tell my students: write the map first. Plot out where you’re going, know your central conflict, understand your characters better than they understand themselves. Not once have I followed my own advice. To me, writing is like solving puzzles. I know what should happen just as I know what a Rubrics cube looks like when it’s solved, but I don’t know how I’m getting there. Stories are mazes where I can surmise what the plot/resolution will be, but it will surprise me just as much as my audience when I get there.

In Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he writes that he intended in his book Misery to have Annie Wilks, the crazed nurse, to kill Paul Sheldon and if I remember correctly, to rewrite the death of Misery in a book stretched with his skin Memento Mori style. Ewwww…I know, but King says that Paul Sheldon was such a strong voice as he was writing the book that he wouldn’t be killed. He, the character, as he was being written figured out a way to save himself from crazed ass Annie’s axe. My characters are just as stubborn.

This new story I’m writing is called Brass and its set in the Steampunk universe of San Francisco. I’ve been thinking about writing in this genre for weeks after I read about an open call at Samhain. Me, being me, thought, gee, that’s so me! I’m like so knowledgeable about things Victorian, seeing as how I’m an ex expert from Boston in 19th century prints, and well, I also write fantasy, and gosh golly, I love the clothes. Why couldn’t I play with the genre and see what happens? I have until April for the deadline, right?

Then I started running into Steampunk EVERYWHERE. My friend Tannia in the U.K. posted a link to a site: saying that she wanted the steampunk computer featured. I want it too. Also, I’d like the flash drive, if anyone cares. I began floating through many sites, then reading books. Currently, I’m reading Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. He’s a bit hyper, but I’m riding through it. I also discovered much to my self-disgust that my cousin’s husband, James P. Blaylock writes Steampunk and is, well, famous for it. I think he tried to explain the genre to me at the reunion this summer but gave up because I was so obviously clueless. I have Steampunk, the new short story collection by the Vandemeers, on order. He’s featured in it. Let’s all hope that he forgives me when I tell him that I read his story.

My new story, Brass is just beginning. I wrote a plot summary, but just as Stephen King, I already know that my main character, Celia Cushing, will take the lead away from me eventually. My characters always do. This part, the beginning, is always the easiest and most exciting, when I’m fitting these personalities into a new reality, setting obstacles in their path and writing them out of the forest. The revisions will be harder, when I discover that my path was too simplistic or that I need to write new twists or even new characters into the plot. That’s another dilemma, though, and for another post. Meanwhile, I’m steaming forward. *shakes head at wisecrack self*

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 2009


I write stories that I would like read by all and sundry. A little feedback from readers is always welcome. Did the story reach out and grab my audience? Did my characters hang in their minds for awhile while they wondered what had happened after? Was there enough of a plot to capture their attention, so that they cared enough to keep on reading?

Thus, I’m blogging my thoughts about writing. My name is Theresa Wood. I’m a language arts teacher. Yes, I teach writing by day and write for my own pleasure in the off hours. I’ve had two stories published so far in a now defunct on-line magazine called E-muze. I won an award once from Writer’s Digest for a short story. I’ve written three books. One, a thriller set in the art world of Boston, something I happen to know a great deal about, given that I was a gallery director there eons ago. The book title changes frequently, but only because I still like the original, The Artful Dodge and it’s copyrighted to someone else. My second book is also set in Boston, but of the altered universe variety, with a werewolf heroine and an icky villain bent on world domination through magic. I’m still editing this one. Again, I seem to have a problem with titles. Called Mirror World, this one is an Alice through the looking glass story wherein the heroine wakes up after an attack to find that she now sees bizarre mythical creatures.

Because I can’t seem to stay away from urban fantasy tales in my writing, or my reading, my third book is set in the Northwest forest where I also happen to be living at the moment. It is also still in rewrite and called Once Fey. The main character is a kick butt girl that discovers she is a traitor to the fey realm and has been banished to live among humans until she redeems herself. Again, I’m rewriting this one to have a more romantic bent so that it’s ready for the RWoA Golden Rose this summer.

This blog is all about writing. I don’t plan to rant much about my personal life. I DO have one, but this blog is about the writing. I read quite a lot too, so I’ll probably write about that. For several years, I have been a member of a very cool group of writers known as Circle of Crones but our numbers have dwindled due to all the 'real' life stuff that interrupts writing all too frequently. I’m currently a member of the Romance Writers of America, the Portland branch. I like relationships with other writers.

I’m open to comments on writing, or getting to know fellow writers, agents, and/or publishers. Please contact me.

Cheers, Theresa Wood