Happy endings don’t come cheap

I watched a TV show last night while ironing shirts that really got me thinking about happy endings.  The show was one of those things you dig up on Hulu late at night after you’ve seen all the current episodes of Modern Family and Community.  A drama about an American and a Brit trying to make a go of a transoceanic relationship, it was canceled after only seven episodes.  And for good reason; each episode was more depressing and joyless than the one before.  

Yet I kept watching, because I thought I understood the rules:  rewards in fiction have to be earned; these characters would be tortured, put through every dramatic twist the writers could conceive, and only then would they get their happy ending.  Except they didn’t.  The show got canceled and we left the main characters at a low point in their relationship.

The show has been bugging and nagging at me ever since.  This morning I realized why.  Happy endings don’t just have to be earned by the characters, they have to be plausible, possible, and believable.  This was where the show had failed, and would have continued to fail even if it hadn’t been canceled.  The two main characters were all wrong for each other.  They were polar opposites in values, taste, friends, attitudes, and in their approach to relationships and family.  All they shared in common was the fact that both were attractive and wanted to sleep with each other; I could imagine no future for them that wouldn’t be filled with fights, recriminations, and heartbreak.  Basically, the show’s creators wrote two very interesting characters who had no business being together and then built an entire story around the premise that they belonged together.  Even if they’d made it to their happy ending, it would have felt false. 

Writers are told all the time that the conflict resolution in their stories has to be to earned.  This is true.  If you introduce a character with a desire line, give him or her a problem to solve, and then let them overcome that problem and get what they want without setbacks or costs, the reader is going to feel cheated (and rightly so).  But there’s more to it than this.  The resolution needs to be earned, but it also needs to be true and authentic with respect to the characters involved.  If you give your characters a happy ending that isn’t consistent with who they are, what they believe, and the choices they make, then it won’t matter if they’ve “earned” it or not. It will still ring hollow and leave the reader frustrated and dissatisfied.

This point seems quite obvious in hindsight, and it’s been floating around in the misty reaches of my brain for some time.  It just took some silly show to crystalize it for me.  Or perhaps I’m just trying to justify the several hours of my life I wasted watching television last night.  I guess sometimes it takes something trite to make you realize something important.  Ever had this happen to you?

Nebula nominations

Congratulations to the Nebula nominees (announced by SFWA today).  Among them are three graduates of Viable Paradise:

A wonderful accomplishment for them, and for all the other nominees!

Writers as armchair anthropologists

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a post in my series on anthropology and Fantasy/SciFi, so I thought I’d kick off Sunday with a consideration of some of the awesome sources of writing inspiration anthropology can provide.  To read the other entries in this series, click on the “anthropology 101” tag.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, both likely and unlikely.  My most recent flashes of inspiration occurred during a poker game, in the middle of the pas de deux at Swan Lake, and at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.  I’ve blogged about the importance of travel and experiences in a writer’s life, but sometimes time and finances don’t cooperate.  Enter inspiration drawn from the travel and experiences done for you by anthropologists and archaeologists.

The first anthropologists were called “armchair anthropologists” because they stayed at home and used the reports of explorers and adventurers as source material.  Nowadays, anthropologists spend their careers traveling to far-flung locales themselves (or even not-so-far-flung ones) to live among other cultures or to excavate the ruins of ancient societies.  They discover cultural beliefs and practices ranging from the bizarre and beautiful to the reassuringly familiar.  These insights can be fodder for writerly inspiration and allow us the chance to play at armchair anthropology.  Here are a few fascinating cultural practices you might like to mine for ideas:

Interested in the intersection of magic and technology?  Consider looking into cargo cults.  Arising primarily in the south Pacific following WWII, cargo cults found their genesis in the sudden arrival (and equally rapid departure) of American military personnel.  Soldiers brought technology and material wealth into previously isolated and low-tech island communities, who came to believe the cars, planes, radios and refrigerators had been magically summoned from the spirit world (mostly because they arrived in cargo planes from the sky).  After the soldiers left, some Pacific Islander communities engaged in magic and rituals designed entice the return of Westerners and their goods.  Some of these rituals were based in traditional religious practice, while others included things like ritualistically building airstrips and “control towers” to summon cargo planes from the sky.  Sound crazy? Tragic? Fascinating? Like fodder for some interesting sci fi?  Here are a few links on cargo cults from good old Wikipedia (including a good bibliography for further reading) the Smithsonian.

Maybe your cup of tea  isn’t technology, but music.  Consider then the Molimo, or voice of the forest, of the Mbuti pygmies of Zaire.  The tropical rain forest is the heart of Mbuti culture, providing everything these largely nomadic peoples need…so much so that the forest is considered a living spiritual entity.  The molimo is a long, hollow trumpet stored in a secret place deep in the forest.  When Mbuti life is thrown out of balance (for good or ill), the molimo ceremony is conducted.  It can last for several days, or up to a month or more, and is designed to wake up the forest.  Each night the community gathers to sing.  The song of the molimo answers from the forest, sometimes drawing closer to the camp, sometimes farther away.  Eventually, when the time is right, those bearing the molimo burst into the camp, trumpeting wildly and dashing around the fire before vanishing again into the forest.  A sacred musical instrument that must be fed and watered, is believed to be the voice of the forest, and is capable of restoring balance in society?  Awesome.  If you want to know more, Colin Turnbull wrote the classic ethnography “The Forest People”, or you can check out Wikipedia or UConn‘s pages.

Another practice to consider is the Kula Ring in Papua New Guinea.  The Kula Ring is all about gift-giving, social status, and the creation and maintenance of social obligation.  Best known among the Trobriand Islands, the Kula Ring revolves around the exchange of kula, red shell necklaces and white shell armbands.  These gifts are purely symbolic and are traded around the islands from partner to partner (necklaces traveling clockwise and armbands counterclockwise around the “ring”); the more exchange partners you have, the higher your status.  Individuals will travel great distances in their canoes to participate in the exchanges and elaborate negotiations through lesser forms of trade spring up as members compete to entice new partners and enhance their social standing.  The Kula Ring has been long- and well-studied, if you want to know more, read up on Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic ethnographies, Marcel Mauss’ discussions of gift-giving, or start with this catch-all Wikipedia entry.

I could go on here, but three seems like a good start for now.  Out of curiosity, I’d love to know if these cultural practices are new to you or if you’d heard of them before.

Verbs that howl at the moon

Cat Rambo has been talking about the power of verbs over on her blog.  We all know it to be true: a good active verb can make or break a sentence.  While a well-chosen adjective or adverb can (used sparingly) bring a description to life, it’s the verbs that do the heavy lifting.  Verbs are the vitamins we feed our stories.  Without them, the prose ends up droopy and listless.

On my way to work this morning (yes, Saturday classes are a bummer), I was thinking about evocative verbs, about verbs that propel the imagination.

Soar.  That seems like a good one; the word itself makes you stand up a little straighter.

Rattle.  I like how it inspires me to think of ghosts and wind and shivers.

Launch.  Hopeful and explosive, energizing or even violent.

Reverberate.  Yeah, that one you feel in your bones.

and, of course, howl.  Because who doesn’t like to tilt their head back and do that from time to time?

What verbs do you love?

Critiques: they hurt so good

One of my (few) superpowers is taking criticism of my work in stride.  I think this is a byproduct of my years in graduate school and, later, academia.  In those worlds, receiving regular and blisteringly cruel assessments of your writing, ideas, and general existence is sort of par for the course.  If you can’t take in the crushing and often mean-spirited negativity, parse it for the useful stuff, and then roll up your sleeves and eviscerate your writing to accommodate the demanded changes…well, you won’t last long (heck, even if you CAN do that, you might not last long.  Academia is a blood sport).

Coming from this background, I found dealing with the stress of critiques relatively easy.  After all, most people (assuming you’ve found a good writing group) are actually rooting for you rather than delighting in your failure.  Their critiques, therefore, are meant to be helpful and are rarely mean-spirited.  So right there we’ve got a big improvement.  Also, as noted above, I’ve been preconditioned to expect my work will need improvement and that readers I ask to provide feedback will be critical.

But still…

Still, it can hurt.  Even someone with Supergirl Teflon feelings is going to feel the pain of a harsh critique now and again.

How to deal with it?  We all have our own processes.  When I get a critique that’s tougher than I expected, I find I go through several clearly defined stages:

First: 2-4 hours of disappointment.  Man, I loved this story.  I thought this was the ONE that everyone was going to think was great.  I really thought I wasn’t going to have to make very many revisions.  Sigh.  *eats chocolate*

Second: 1-2 hours of indignation.  *addresses the cat* Why am I letting this bum me out so much?  Reader X obviously didn’t see what I was trying to do.  *shakes fist at the heavens*  What do they know, anyway?

Third: 3-4 hours to accept harsh reality.  Yup.  Reader X was right – at least about some things.  Especially THIS.  This IS a big problem.  Why didn’t I see it when I was writing?  After all, I was trying to fix that very problem in this draft and I obviously failed.  Will I never get any better at this???

Fourth: 12-14 hours of rumination.  Okay.  This isn’t THAT big of a problem.  Actually, I can fix it pretty easily by doing X, Y, and Z.  Plus, this will make the characterizations stronger and the narrative less clunky.  *tosses and turns all night while rewriting things in her head*

At this point I usually achieve clarity about what to do, regain my enthusiasm, and start revising.  This process varies in its intensity (and sometimes the duration of the stages) depending on how polished the story was (or I perceived it to be) and how dear to my heart it is.  Sometimes I know the piece is flawed (and in what ways) and so do not experience the first or second stages at all.

Even though receiving critiques can hurt and the process of dealing with them makes you feel like a crazy person who spends all her time having conversations in her head (or worse, with her cat), I almost always learn something valuable.  In most cases, it doesn’t just improve the particular piece I’ve had critiqued, but carries over to future projects – I become more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to accent the former and improve upon the latter.

So, that’s my process for dealing with critique.  What’s yours?

A good title goes a long way

I’m crazy busy getting caught up after being away from the office for 10 days…so there’s not much time for deep and thoughtful blog musings today.  But, I did want to share this great link to Cat Rambo’s blog (thanks to Steve Buchheit for directing me to it).  She talks about the importance of a great title (something I know I’m not alone in struggling with).

Titles can be a real pain to come up with and are often given little to no thought.  Yet, they are the first hook the reader encounters.  Knock them out of the park and you just may sell the reader before they even read the first sentence (of course, the rest of the story needs to live up to the promise of the title…but that’s fodder for another conversation).

Cat advises writing the title last, which makes an awful lot of sense.  I, however, always feel directionless with the first page of my manuscript reading “Untitled”.  Then, once I slap something on there to make it feel less naked, I often end up getting attached to it, even if it’s awful.  Quandary.

What are your title travails?

Book Review: Beggars in Spain

I’m up early waiting for the sunrise in Arizona (it’s my last day here), so I thought I’d use this time in the dark wisely and post a book review of the latest novel I’ve finished:  Beggars in Spain, by Nancy Kress.

Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (1993, 438 pages, Science Fiction)

This book has been in the stack by my bedside for some time.  I’m not sure exactly why I didn’t want to read it, but something about the concept put me off.  So I kept passing it over.  What a mistake!  As soon as I opened the cover and read the first paragraph, Beggars in Spain sunk its story-hooks in me and refused to let go.

Beggars in Spain is a tale of biological advantages.  It poses the question: what would happen to society if some of it’s members never needed to sleep?  Kress primarily explores the economic and discriminatory aspects of Sleepers versus Sleepless (she dwells on the truism that humans love to hate each other and will use any difference as an excuse to do so), but she also plumbs the interior landscapes of her characters’ struggles.  This latter aspect grounds what might otherwise be a preachy science fictional social commentary and turns it into a fascinating exploration of what makes us human.

I’ve heard from friends who attended the Taos Toolbox workshop that Kress (who teaches there) emphasizes writing in scenes.  This now makes perfect sense to me, as she is a master of them.  Each one flings vivid characters at you, embroils them in interesting conflicts, and leaves you wondering what will happen next.  The result is the rapid turning of pages.  While the idea of Sleeplessness and the advantages it might confer (I don’t want to give away any plot points here) is interesting and integral to the plot, it is Kress’ deft touch with characters that kept me reading.  All of her characters are flawed – engaging and unlikeable in equal measure.  Reading about their adventures is a little like watching your friends and family — rooting for them when they make choices of which you approve and frowning with worry when they refuse your advice and head stubbornly down a path you see leading to ruin.

The tale stretches over several generations yet retains an intimate perspective, and Kress wraps up the conflict with a climax that makes sense within the narrative arc of the story but still feels like (somewhat) of a surprise.  The ending was not earth-shattering, but it was satisfying.  When I closed the book and set it down I felt that sense of loss a good book inspires – it was over and I could never again read it for the first time.

But you can.

The long and the short of it

Most writers seem to consider themselves either short story writers or novelists.  Before I knew anything about writing, I always thought the only real difference was length (or, as Elizabeth Bear likes to say: novels are works of fiction, longer than short stories, and flawed).

When people ask me why I write short stories when I seem to prefer (and be more comfortable with) novel-length fiction, I usually say I think writing short stories is good practice for writing novels.  But how true is this?  Short stories require a tight plot and coherent structure, and they need good character development and character arcs.  Developing these skills will improve your writing, regardless of length.  Plus, since it takes much less time to complete a short story, you can practice writing complete works more often than if you were writing only novels (in which you could invest a year before realizing their fundamental flaws).

Despite some overlap, however, short stories and novels make fundamentally different demands on the author, especially with respect to world-building and pacing.  In a short story you have neither the time nor need to create a complete world (though generating the illusion of reality still remains important).  The pacing, too, is totally different.  Even though both short stories and novels need beginnings, middles, and ends, the way you structure and build towards each will be very different.  Finally, with novels you not only have a broader, deeper canvas to work on, but you must fill it with sub-plots and a larger cast of characters.

So, does writing short stories really help you prepare for writing novels, or are the two forms of fiction too different to be truly comparable?

Even if the answer is no, there are still good reasons for novelists to write short stories.  For one thing, many critique groups are less inclined to workshop novels.  If you write short stories, you can remain active in your crit groups and garner valuable feedback from (and interaction with) your peers.  Another advantage I’ve found is that having short stories out to market keeps you feeling engaged while you toil away on novels.  Novels take a lot longer to come to fruition, and its easy to feel as if you’re not making progress.  Completing the occasional short story and submitting it to markets gives me (personally) a feeling of short term accomplishment.  This might seem like a poor reason to take time away from your novel, unless you consider the very real impact your emotional state can have on your writing.  If you’re feeling productive and upbeat, it’s going to be a lot easier to keep that novel draft moving forward.

I know others feel differently, though.  So, tell me, do you consider yourself a novel writer or a short story writer?  Do you write exclusively one length of fiction, or do you do both?  Do you see the necessary skills sets as complementary or divergent?

Writer’s Workspace: 2/8

Good morning!  Welcome to this writer’s workspace.  Here’s what’s happening liiiiiiiiiiiiiive at Miranda’s desk:

What I’m working on: Well, first off, my “desk” for the week is a cushioned, wicker couch on the porch by the pool.  I’m on vacation in Arizona for the week with my family.  No slacking for me, though.  I’ve got a novel outline to revise after a great writing retreat in Las Vegas.  I’m also working on a short story about a cat living in a strip club during the zombie apocalypse.  My first stab at humorous horror…we shall see.

Snippet from the screen: “Aromas of stale beer and the oily sweat of titillated men lay over the cheap dark furniture like damp sheets.  Above this, El Rey detected a new smell, sharp and acrid.  The smell of fear.  It wafted in through the door, which hung on its hinges.”

On my iTunes: no iTunes for me today; just the sound of the breeze through the cactus and sagebrush.

Keeping me company: my 2 1/2 year old niece has taken the place of Mr. Ramses in the “keeping me from my work” category.  She keeps scampering over from the pool and saying: “Auntie Mimi, you should be swimming.”  She’s probably right.

A little procrastination never hurt anyone: Being on vacation, I can hardly argue with this sentiment…but, I can’t seem to muster the energy to dig up interesting links to share.  You’re on your own, folks!