Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unearned Specialness

As I've said (perhaps too often) before, I'm a reader before I'm a writer. So I tend to critique stories rather more from the stand of 'would I want to read this' than 'is this the way I would write this'. Not, I must note, from the stand of 'would a lot of people I don't know want to read this', because I can't claim that. For one thing, I find ungraceful or incorrect prose a serious stumbling block, and clearly many readers don't.
*insert obligatory Dan Brown / LKH jab here* But let's not get into the bestseller discussion this time. All I can contribute is that it seems to me the key to bestsellerdom is to appeal to people who don't usually read. The audience of people who read regularly is not large enough (and possibly too divided by genre) to create and sustain bestsellers.

Bear with me, because much of the thinking that follows is still shapeless. I'll try to clean it up as I go.

In a bookshop, I will put a book back if the back-cover copy says something like 'only s/he can save'. Or promises me that the character will discover his/her Destiny. Yes, this may be unfair, and I know as well as anyone that back-cover blurbs are as accurate as tabloid headlines.
But there's still a good chance that I'm being offered a story where the protagonist (or perhaps I should stay 'main character') is Special just because s/he is Special. The MC doesn't look Special, of course, and may be almost aggressively ordinary at first glance. But when danger and crisis hit the plot, and the MC is pushed to the brink, and all looks hopeless ....
*dramatic music*
the MC reaches inside him/herself and discovers an unguessed (but perhaps foreshadowed) power that s/he instinctively knows how to employ and that saves the day or at least the chapter.
If I have bought this book, it goes on the booksale pile right there.

Heck, I can understand the appeal of this trope. It's flat-out wish fulfilment, the dream that I, ordinary as I am, will when faced with crisis rise to the occasion and triumph. It's the 'mom lifts car off kid' myth. But the trope departs from the dream in two ways.
First, the character can keep on lifting cars for the rest of the book, with little or no training.
Second, only this character can lift cars, even if other characters have cars fall on their kids.
If everyone is special, no one is special (another reason why Specialness makes me twitch is that it's inherently non-egalitarian) so the best way to be Special is to prevent anyone else becoming Special. With the author on the MC's side, you get a few possible outcomes.
1) only the Designated Love Interest can also become Special
2) anyone else who becomes Special comes to a bad end or turns evil or both
3) no one else becomes Special, they just worship the MC.

Ah, but don't I have shelves full of books about exceptional characters? What about Simon Templar or Modesty Blaise? What about all those swordplay videos?
Hm. A constant of martial arts movies is the dreaded (okay, I love 'em) training sequence, usually involving pain and drudgery, even humiliation. Skill is paid for--earned. Modesty and Willy Garvin train daily, bruisingly, even after their 'retirement', and the debonair Saint puts time in to earn his marksmanship.
In other words, even those with natural talent have to work at it. The message is there if you want it: you could do this too, if you worked at it. Maybe not as well, but it can be done.

Jules Feiffer, in his 1965 essay "The Great Comic Book Heroes" notes that he 'couldn't stand' the boy sidekick characters attached to Batman, Green Arrow, etc. because he believed he had a chance of growing up to resemble the grownup heroes, but knew he couldn't ever be like Robin, Speedy, or Bucky, characters his own age and already astoundingly skilled. He knew the boy companions were intended for boy readers like him to identify with, but they didn't work as intended.
Likewise, while Unearned Specialness works for many readers, it doesn't work for me. Why? I admitted it was an appealing dream, so why do I resist it?

One reason is that it destroys suspense. (I'm working at not naming any specific books or authors, so I apologise for vagueness.) Once a character has reached inside himself and discovered his inner powers or had the plot whisper its secrets to him, my assumption is that he will deal with all subsequent challenges the same way. After all, who wouldn't? I don't need to read the rest of the book, unless I skip to the end to see what became of secondary characters I liked.
It makes me resent the MC on behalf of the other characters--this happens when I believe the narrative is engaged in special pleading for a particular character--who are being used to contrast with the MC's awesomeness instead of having their own aims in the story.
It prevents--for me--identification with the MC, because I can't suspend that disbelief. I can't believe in grabbing a special power out of thin air will happen for me, and if it did, it wouldn't make things easier. How can I share the rejoicing in a victory when I didn't share the struggle and uncertainty of earning it, because it wasn't earned?

It ties in to the Mary Sue dilemma, well-discussed by Marie Brennan here. How to write an active, effective female character without her being tagged as a Mary Sue?
The big first step, in my opinion, is to not make her naturally talented unless she does the work to back it up. Even people with perfect pitch have to learn to read music, have to learn breath control, have to practice.
Second is to allow her to fail, and to fail through her own lacks, not because of the machinations of an enemy. If she fails early in the story, I am put on alert that she may not succeed later, I become concerned for her success, I begin to root for her.
Third, but by no means least, is to allow good characters to dislike or be indifferent to her, to have their own aims that don't concern her. One character that I quite liked for herself lost my sympathy when I realised that all other characters alliances could be determined by what they thought of her: anyone who disparaged her was later revealed as EEEEEvilll. (An alternative is for anyone who disparages to be forced to admit how wrong they were.)

Naturally I had these points in mind while I was writing Mylla in The Willow Knot, but I'm not sure those cogitations would be of particular interest, what with it being unpublished and all. Also this post is fairly long already. And has no pictures to enliven it.

The daydream of becoming unexpectedly powerful or wealthy or beautiful or famous and coming back to show all those people who were mean before--it's an appealing daydream to the star of it, but other people's daydreams are like other people's dreams: from outside they're boring and incoherent narratives. So the appeal relies on whether the reader can put herself into that starring role. Most of the time, I can't.
Which leads into another half-thought-out topic, using a quote from one of my 3-Day Novels: "Who are you in the story you are told?"
I'll see if I can put that one together more elegantly next month.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

three times a bridesmaid

Never a bride? Or is it like a midway game, where if you win three small prizes you can trade up to a larger, and up to a big plushie?
Which is to say that the 3-Day Novel Contest results are out, and this is the email I received this morning:
Hi Barbara,

Congratulations on making our Honourable Mention list once again! As always, the judges very much enjoyed your novel. Like last year, because you made it so far in our judging process we'll be offering you complimentary entry to the upcoming contest... so I hope you are ready for yet another round! We'll be sending out your certificate and entry coupon in the next week or so.

Melissa for 3DN
I honestly didn't expect to make the shortlist this year, since Archipelago, basically 'Barbara does a Jo Clayton pastiche' was classed in my mind with Trading in Ghosts, something that might work up to a full-scale fantasy novel with a bunch more plot and characters stirred in, but wasn't necessarily a tiny perfect object like Fold (Fold is an egg: to change it would require breaking it). So that was an exciting way to begin the day.

Here's the full notice, swiped from the 3-Day website, and can I just say that I would love, love, love to read the 2d runner up? Also, Gayleen Froese, a shortlister, is the author of Touch, a book given to me by my awesome apprentice (and fellow writer) Alis, and published by NeWest Press in Edmonton . Oh, and another shortlister, Paul Colley has put his novel, co-written with his 12 year old daughter, on Lulu, to be found and ordered here. Worth mentioning that Paul used the Wondermark Genre Fiction Generator to outline their plot (which like most outlines, was abandoned early on in the process, or at least mutated beyond recognition).
And because I guess I should plug it, my previous 3-Day entries have been collected into Threefold: a nine-day novel, on Lulu, which can be purchased here (or downloaded for free).


Jennifer K. Chung of Bellevue, Washington, for TERRORYAKI!

Jennifer K. Chung photo by Gavin Jensen

Jennifer K. Chung, photo by Gavin Jensen

About the Book
It’s three months until the wedding, and Samantha’s Taiwanese parents won’t warm up to her hopelessly white fiancĂ©. Meanwhile, Sam’s food-obsessed sister, Daisy, is on the hunt for an otherworldly take-out truck whose dishes are to die for. Terroryaki! is a quirky tale of love, family, redemption and the best—if slightly cursed—dish of chicken teriyaki to be found in this realm of existence.

About the Author
Jennifer K. Chung is a Taiwanese-American writer, pianist and software engineer. She grew up in Southern California and studied computer science at MIT in Cambridge, MA. In her spare time, Jennifer plays keyboard in a goth metal band and studies the Japanese martial art of Naginata. She lives near Seattle.


Gwendolyn Bird of Kasilof, Alaska
For The Island of Broken Toys, the haunting tale of a community of mysterious children who seek out the truth behind their exile.


Tate Young of Toronto, Ontario
For The Ridgeback, a witty thriller about a bloody murder, a very large diamond and a dogwalker on the run.


  • Jon Billman of Stillwater, Oklahoma, for Bicycle Tramps
  • Alan James Blair of Stillwater, Oklahoma, for The Mermaid’s Brother
  • Jenni Bomford of Prince George, B.C., for Spiritual
  • Keith Chittleborough of Glen Waverley, Australia, for Near Dreg Experience
  • Paul Colley & Laura Colley of Pickering, Ontario, for Clockwork
  • Logan Evans of Pullman, Washington, for The Boundary Nebula
  • Gayleen Froese of Edmonton, Alberta, for What the Cat Dragged In
  • B. Gordon of Victoria, B.C., for Archipelago
  • Diana Holdsworth of Amherst, Massachusetts, for The Golden Tooth
  • Jimmm Kelly of Vancouver, B.C., for The Little Man
  • Ashok Mathur of Vancouver, B.C., for The First White Black Man
  • Iulia Park of Toronto, Ontario, for Canadian Experience
  • Rudy Thauberger of Vancouver, B.C., for Evil Beach Dance Party
  • Jake Wallis Simons of Winchester, United Kingdom, for 24/3
  • Jenny D. Williams of Brooklyn, New York, for The Widow and the Twin

We’d also like to give special mention to this year’s youngest entrants, three-time contest veterans Natasha Carr-Harris, Abby Adams and Sean Vipond, as well as our latest under-10 entrant, Albrightine Ngusurun Orsar.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

reconstructing Dad

Yes, I had a specific reason for traipsing off to Vancouver last weekend. To meet my other (half) sister, Lorene. We'd arranged online to meet at the Starbucks in the Chapters store in Metrotown--whenever possible I try to arrange meetings to take place somewhere indoors with food or books to divert whichever person has to wait. And since it seemed likelier that Lorene would have to wait, and since I knew she was another book-lover....
For a wonder, BC Ferries and BC Transit cooperated, and I made it from the 9 am sailing to the Metrotown mall just after 12:30. We'd exchanged descriptions of clothing the night before, and Lorene was already sitting down with her coffee when I reached the mock-iron railings of the Starbucks. We recognised each other easily.

The last time we'd met, I'd been in my early teens and she was a young mother, a couple of years before my (our) father died. I don't remember it very well, and she remembers it as rather a flying visit, because we weren't able to stay until her daughter got home. This was a more extensive meeting: we left Chapters about 3pm.
Some of the talk was 'catching up', though Darlene had filled us both in to some extent. Most, though, was sharing and comparing memories of our father. What term to use? Lorene began with 'our father', though as we became more comfortable, and talk became more fluent, she slid into 'my father'. I stayed with 'Dad', avoiding the pronoun issue.
Comparing notes: did our father have a webbed toe? Yes, two (I have also). Was he an atheist or agnostic (agnostic, but was confirmed Anglican the year after me, so he could serve as a warden for All Saints church).
Swapping stories he'd told: how he got the little scar on his forehead (hit with a lunchbucket in the schoolyard). The time he (very young indeed) and a friend sold tickets for a made-up show. I had more of these--although I'm bad at names and dates, my memory for narrative and dialogue is good, and Dad only had to tell me a story once for me to have it down.
Matching memories: what subjects he taught, what he'd filmed for commercials, family friends who had farms we'd visited as children. Lorene had more of these, having been older and more attentive when Dad was alive. She told me how she'd watched the changes at the film studio he'd done work for, as it went from studio to shop to restaurant, and we digressed to memories of Vancouver neon signs and when Vancouver, New Westminster, and Burnaby were separate places.

Our father was born in October of 1903. He liked to say that he was a year old when the Wright Brothers flew their airplane, and he'd lived to see the moon landing.
He also used to say that his family was the most important thing in the world to him, and that he didn't care what happened to the rest of the world as long as his family was all right. Argumentative child that I was, I would object that without the rest of the world, our family would be in a sad way. Now I wonder whether he included his other daughters when he said that? He continued to see them when he could, and Lorene remembered that when she'd hoped to attend SFU, he and my mum had offered to have her stay with us.
Lorene and I are both the older sisters. One doesn't often get to meet someone who was in the same birth order to the same parent. I think she may have been a 'daddy's girl', as I was. We both learnt to love books and value education, though she wasn't able to go for university until she retired.
Her memories of our dad, all that came up in our first meeting, are positive and fond. I've been braced, a little, to admit Dad's faults, to discover (as in fiction one does) imperfections and failings that might diminish him. That hasn't happened with either Darlene or Lorene. Maybe because my vision of him was realistic already, or maybe because he really was a good father, if not consistently a good husband.

It seems to be rare to not have unresolved issues with one's parents, and the common desire I read of is for 'closure' (a concept I don't quite believe in) and to hash out what went wrong in one's childhood. I didn't feel that either of us were looking for closure, only to fill in the spaces in our father's memory, to hear the stories he would have told us if there had been time, and if we had known to ask.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

I'm on a boat!

BC Ferries have wifi now. So I'm sitting in the upper lounge with my Eee and we're just about to Active Pass. A couple of minutes ago, the Captain announced that there was a pod of orcas on the port side, which is where I am. So I stood up and looked out to see a shining fin and back arch out of the water and down again.
We are curving between piney-backed islands crouching in the pale blue water. The rain of the last 3 days has gone, though I see gray cloud over Vancouver, my destination.
I meant to do a couple of ranty posts about things I dislike in fantasy novels: the hero(ine) of Unearned Specialness, and the CGI Ending. But I think I will stop and just stare out the window until we hit open ocean.

Monday, January 3, 2011

telling ghost stories for Christmas

or, Our second visit to Hemingford Grey.

"Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” (Jerome K. Jerome, 1891 introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories)
As traditions go, it's one I prefer to eggnog.

My favourite author of ghost stories is Montague Rhodes James, a Cambridge don, mediaevalist and antiquarian. His stories are marvels of restrained creepiness, and for all his indirection, some of his ghosts will stay with me forever. I know one or two people who won't sleep in a room with a spare bed, and I'm probably not the only one who for years could not sleep with any limb protruding from under the covers.
So when I learned that during our time in England there would be an evening of M. R. James ghost stories at Hemingford Grey, I knew I had to be there.
Here, have the whole blurb, since there will be performances going on into January and February:

Ghost Stories told by candlelight

Robert Lloyd Parry presents Ghost Stories by M R James told by candlelight in the 900 year old Music Room

  • Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and The Mezzotint
    Friday 14 January 2011
    Saturday 12 February 2011
    Thursday 24 March 2011
  • O Whistle and I’ll Come to You and The Ash Tree
    Saturday 15 January 2011
    Thursday 10 February 2011
    Friday 25 March 2011
  • A Warning to the Curious and Lost Hearts
    Thursday 13 January 2011
    Friday 11 February 2011
    Saturday 26 March 2011

Doors for all performances open at 7.30pm for 8.00pm
Tickets: £16.00, to include a glass of wine.
For tickets to any of our events please telephone The Manor on 01480 463134 or email

Here is the Music Room, and yes, the gramophone trumpet is just as huge as it looks. You could hide a medium-sized child inside it.
So. I will pass rapidly over the morning and afternoon, which were spent visiting my uncle in nearby Perry, then in missing the last bus to Hemingford Grey, then in taking the bus to St. Ives and walking from the Hemingford roundabout to the Cock, (rather than waiting for a cab) as advised and accompanied by a charming young man who was walking his very energetic spaniel in the hopes of exhausting it. Lastly in having a more-rushed-than-expected dinner with Mark, who had been waiting for hours. But I made it, we did have dinner together and it was very nice, and we walked to the Manor in good time. And I must say that even a high-ceilinged Norman stone chamber, once you've put a dozen or so people in it, does warm up enough for the removal of jackets and scarves.
We found our seats, the same improvised seating of cushions and mattresses that Lucy Boston had put together for music evenings with serviceman and aviators during WWII (Mark and I were seated on the seat cushion removed from her car), candles were lit, and we waited.
I was watching with particular interest not only because 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' is one of my favourite James stories, but because I was hoping to pick up tips on effective reading aloud, to add to what I'd noted down from Mary Robinette Kowal's presentation on reading your work aloud, at WFC.

Robert Lloyd Parry, dressed and groomed for the part, does have a striking resemblance to photos of Monty James. He carried himself and spoke as I'd expect an Edwardian don to do, and he didn't break character. Mark asked me afterwards whether his tongue had even once touched the roof of his mouth, and I thought not.
Parry--James?--entered, and sat in the high-backed chair provided, a table beside him with a decanter of what looked like brandy but I'm betting was cold tea. He tells the stories, without notes but with occasional props of documents or boxes. He acts the parts, not only 'doing the voices' (as my son called it when I read him bedtime stories) but changing his posture and gestures to indicate different speakers. He does well with James's donnish humour, and gives it good value. He is quite willing (and this is where I would be afraid) to portray the extremes of fear or despair, and able to keep the story coherent while he does.

The first story was The Ash Tree, and I was teasing Mark about spiders beforehand, though I kept from linking my thumbs together to do spider-hands along his leg (I have some sense of self-preservation).
After a break for a glass of wine, we resumed with Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, which turns on the Halloween rule of 'never take anything from the dead', and has one of James's best ghosts ever. I'm torn between this one and 'Lost Hearts' for most memorable ghosts. More use of props, here, as the story begins in a university dining-hall, with the dons chatting. Parry had a bowl of soup on a tray on his lap, and made fine play with the spoon and bowl to establish the seated speaker and the standing interlocutors.
You'll notice I'm not saying much about the plots, because if you haven't read the stories already (and thus know the plots) you should go and read them now. You can do it online, here. Or you can order the dvds of Parry's performances--I bought the first one that night.

After the misadventures of my arriving, it was a relief to learn that Diana Boston had found someone attending who'd come from Cambridge, and we rode back with a young couple who lived only a few blocks from the house where we were staying. The alternative would have been hiking across a pitch-black sodden field to a bus stop outside a defunct hotel, in hopes that the 11 pm bus would stop for us.

A good evening's entertainment, and I didn't dream of spiders or strange hopping, fluttering figures following me, though they'd certainly have had every excuse.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

another new year

Which I can't say in sparkly shortbread, alas.

One of my Christmas presents from Mark was a membership in LibraryThing, which I fear will not enhance my writing productivity. Already I have discovered the joy of adding a book that no one else has, alternating with the joy of seeing who else has the same books. This with only 50 or 6o of my books added, and no adult fiction yet.

A shared Christmas present was a 2d-hand rowing machine, plonked now in front of the television. Mark is up to 40 minutes at a time, I'm at 20, and using it to catch up with the videos and dvds that I've bought over the last few years and haven't gotten around to watching. I'm favouring HK movies with subtitles, so I don't have to bump the volume up to hear them over the machine.

Much happy Christmas baking still remains, including rolled shortbread, pressed shortbread, iced cut-out cookies, chocolate shortbread, cheese shortbread, spicy cheese cookies, honey cookies, oatmeal shortbread, butter tarts, candied grapefruit peel, sugared walnuts, melting moments, bar shortbread, domino cookies, toffee candy (it was meant to be fudge), gingerbread snowflake cookies, one piece of birthday cake, gingerbread cake, butter pecan cookies and coconut macaroons. So if it were to snow for real and we were to be trapped at home, we wouldn't starve.

But now it is the New Year, and time to get seriously serious about finishing the revisions on Cost of Silver. This means writing more scenes relating to the draining of the fens, the English Civil War, and the witch hunts. There may have been cheerful things happening in the latter 1600s, but I'm not sure any of them will appear in the book. Angsty angstiness is the tone of the era, with occasional gallows humour.
Also: writing down actual comments for Anne's excellent slice-of-lowlife novel The Sleepy Teepee. And thoughts on possible markets.