Thursday, August 28, 2008

But it's true!

I got an e-mail from a contestant, for one of the contests I'm coordinating, who was very upset and wanted to draw my attention to what she felt was some bad judging. In a nutshell, her judges questioned the events in her story and the motivations/actions of her protagonist. In her mind, the judges were wrong to question these elements because they were true. In fact, she'd lived them herself.

This reminded me of a few reactions I've had to critiques in the past, particularly on my first novel. Someone would question my heroine's actions/reactions and I'd respond: But I know people like that. Or I know someone who's done that.

I soon came to realize that whether or not it's "true" doesn't really matter, or at least it isn't enough. Our job as fiction writers is to convince readers that the actions/reactions made by our characters might happen and that the external plot points could also happen. BUT even if we know someone who's done the exact same thing in the exact same circumstances in real life, or was the victim of the same set of circumstances, it isn't enough. We need to ensure readers understand and believe our characters' motivations and/or believe the circumstances would happen. And this is a tricky balance because we don't want to do too much "telling", nor do we want to spoon feed readers to the point they find our writing/storytelling sophomoric or repetitive.

Now, certainly every reader is going to have a different reaction to a story and no matter how wonderful a job we do as writers, we won't please every reader... But in this case, 3 out of 3 judges offered this woman the same opinion: that the basic premise of her story was implausible, and she e-mailed me to say, "They're wrong. I know they are wrong, because I lived it."

I just politely responded saying I was sorry she didn't find the comments more helpful, but what I really wanted to tell her was that if 3 out of 3 judges held the same opinion, she wasn't doing her job as a writer to convince readers that these events might happen (even if she knows they're possible.)

Whether plot points are plausible is a tough one in judging contests. But ultimately, all contest judges can do is express their honest opinions based on their particular experience as writers/readers/people on this planet.

And the contestants can choose to learn from it or not...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mind Fu?? or Best Book of The Year?

I'm writing this with the most swollen fingers ever seen on a pregnant woman. Why isn't this baby here yet? My fingers can't take much more of this...

Anywho, while waiting for stubborn baby I finished reading the fantastic Amanda Eyre Ward's latest - Forgive Me. Amazing freaking book. She's an amazing freaking writer. But, with all of her books she has a "device." A clever, stylized something that ends up being something different than you thought it was when first introduced. I love it. I loved it in How To Be Lost and I loved it in Forgive Me -- I don't want to tell you more in fear of spoiling it. But, it reminds me of McKee and one of his tirades about "mind fu??'s" In his opinion The Sixth Sense was just a film student's mind game and he hated it. Another example is the great book Water For Elephants and the prologue that ends up being something other than what you think at the beginning. By leaving out a few pronouns and descriptions - the author paints a totally different picture than the reality -- but at the end of that book I shrieked with delight. McKee would have called it a mind-game - a trick.

But I love devices. I love that little wink to the reader - I think if an author is clever enough to think of it and good enough to carry it off -- brilliant.

Poor M.Night, though, he really only had one device up his sleeve. Not so however with Amanda Eyre Ward -- she just gets more and more clever. Forgive Me is a great book - check it out.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Like a lot of people out there, I’ve been following the Olympics when time permits.

So many amazing stories have come out of it. Stories of dedication rewarded. Michael Phelps winning a gazzilion gold medals. Wins driven from years of daily training, early mornings and complete devotion and focus.

Definitely hero potential. Here is someone who has known what he wants for a long time and worked ridiculously hard to get it.

But the hero of the games for me, and the one who’ll somehow end up as inspiration for a character, is Eric Lamaze, the Canadian show jumper who won gold. He was banned from the Olympics for at least eight years for testing positive for cocaine. He admits to using frequently, to being a total screw up.

His beginnings were hard. His mother was a drug user, he never knew his father, he was a street kid for a while and no where ever close to rich, and yet, through a deep affinity for horses found his way into show jumping.

And screwed it all up for at least twelve years. And was written off.

And then got his head together, found his focus, his dedication and won the gold.

Love it and to me, far more interesting than the kid who always had that dedication, and focus.

Now I have to go back to watching the Olympics.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When does support become bullying?

Recently, a writer friend told me a long-time writer on one of her loops had announced she was throwing in the towel, or the keyboard, or whatever it is we writers throw in when we decide it's just not worth it anymore. From the sounds of it, this particular writer realized that she'd let her writing and struggle to get published eat up a couple of decades of her life and the decision to let it go was a huge relief. (This is all hearsay, so let's just say it's a hypothetical situation.)

The response to this hypothetical former writer's post was an on-loop outpouring of "don't give up on your dreams" and "it could be just around the corner" and other such offerings of cyber-support.

Support like this is sometimes exactly what a writer needs to hear... But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes those people offering support really didn't "listen" (read carefully) and are offering a knee-jerk reaction, transferring their own current state of mind onto the person they're trying to help.

So it got me thinking... When does group-support become group-bullying? Are writers' loops and communities so awash with group-think that the collective can't see that continuing the pursuit isn't the right answer for everyone? Do some writers keep going merely because of the peer pressure imposed by these loops and communities?

The decision to stop chasing after something that's not working, to stop (in some cases) obsessing over a possibly unattainable dream, to stop doing something you no longer enjoy and have continued primarily because you know how much persistence counts in this business is, I imagine, a very, very difficult decision to make.

Not everyone who wants to write a book (or even does write several books) is cut out to be an author. Either they simply aren't good enough, or don't enjoy it enough, or aren't telling stories enough other people want to read, or they aren't cut out to deal with the constant rejection and stress that come with the publishing side, or even the isolation, and angst and soul-searching that come with the writing side.

And I say that's fine. Each of us is different. Each of us is "on our own path" to use a new-agey phrase. Each of us has to decide what's right for us.

I think it's great that there are so many on-line writers' communities that reach out and give virtual hugs when someone's down. Often the stories of encouragement posted pull writers out of their slumps and they go on to achieve whatever dream it is that they have.

But I think those of us on these cyber-communities have to support any decision a member makes, even if it's quitting. Even if it's a decision that scares the cr*p out of us, because their decision represents our greatest fear -- that we'll some day realize we don't have what it takes, or just as bad, hang up our keyboard when success was inches away.

Friday, August 15, 2008

ouch.. my brain hurts

My brain hurts… and not because I’ve been writing, but because real life got in the way of the writing.

Really got in the way. In the past two weeks, I’ve maybe managed 200 words and the rest of the time, I’ve been sleeping, or working, or comatose.
As I wait for my life to calm down, and it will, just a few more weeks, I realized that I hate not writing.
Really hate it. I’m itching for time to get going on my current WIP. Got a whole bunch of new ideas.
One of which, is to make my hero more heroic, at least in the traditional sense, figured out a great way of doing so that also helps the story.
All good. And then I realized, that my secondary characters,(who may someday have books of their own if the first book sells… I like to think positive at this part of the process), don’t have to be heroic.
They can be bastards, not evil, but callous perhaps, cold, indifferent, too boyish, too volatile, and they don’t need a substantial reason.
At least not in this book.

They’re more interesting to me this way.

But that’s all my fried brain’s been able to process. Sad, because I haven’t even been reading, or watching movies..

But I have a seven hour flight coming up in about a week, and that time will be spent plotting and writing…

Seven hours stuck on an airplane..


Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Dark Knight and Delicious or subplots are the new black

I feel like the real difference between books I read three years ago and the books I'm reading now are the explosion of subplots and POV's. Books just seem bigger, don't they? These romances I'm reading and not just the paranormals or the historicals are using characters and subplots to build worlds - opening up a book is like falling into a new world. Which is freaking awesome!!!

I just finished Sherry Thomas' Delicious, which I loved more than Private Arrangements. And I also saw The Dark Knight, which I loved more than most things. And both of them were just made better with the incredibly detailed and exciting subplots that made the main plot all that much stronger.

And what I really loved about the Dark Knight is that the subplots were fully formed - with heros and villians in each of them. Aaron Eckhardt's Two-face, stole the show for me -- the way that plot line was dealt with and meshed with Bruce Wayne/Batman ultimately blowing up the end of the movie for the third installment -- amazing. So, amazing. The writers took thier time, finding exciting ways to tie the two plots lines together -- they loved the same woman, they tried to save the same woman, they are fighting for the same cause, but then switch places and then they both become the Dark Knight in thier own story lines. Eckhardt pretends to be Batman for a few scenes, Bruce Wayne does some fund raising for Eckhardt and ALL of this runs beneath the subplots between Bruce Wayne and the love interest and Bruce Wayne and The Joker and Bruce Wayne wanting to stop being the Batman.

Setting up the villian for the next movie like this -- brilliant.

For me, the takeaway is that in romancenovel land, we're still spending way too much time telling things the reader should know. We talk to much about lust and we talk to much about anguish and we talk to much about how they can't be together --when if we just showed this stuff we could take all that word count, all those pages and really start to build our worlds. We can create fully-formed villians. Fully-formed themes. Fully-formed subplots.

Which sort of made me think of Delicious - people aren't going to totally buy into the premise of this book. She uses a couple of devices 1. this couple fell in love one night ten years ago and haven't seen each other since. 2. she hides her identity by wearing masks and lurking in shadows and despite his lust and the fact that she is a servent - he doesn't force her to show him her face. Now, you either buy this or you don't. I think she wrote the crap out of the scenes that show thier motives. I believed it, or suspended my disbelief enough to get swept up in the romance of it.

But good romance writing depends on making the reader believe a few key scenes and either we 1. don't think we've accomplished it or 2. don't trust the reader and so we follow up that scene with a bunch of long contemplative scenes telling the reader what that initial scene should have accomplished.

If I could just boil my writing down to those scenes and really understand them - really get what's at stake and how all those characters change in those big scenes and how it is always the small things that pack the biggest punch - I think I'd be able to build these worlds that are so captivating - create these subplots that are so exciting.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

No reservations

And no, not talking about booking a table at a restaurant. I watched the season finale of So You Think You Can Dance and saw some of the best routines of the season and something kind of hit me.
The best dancers on the show could throw themselves wholeheartedly into the routine, whether it was taking on a character, or learning a new style of ballroom dance.
It’s the wholeheartedly thing that got me. I think it’s very much all or nothing. Because you could see when the dancers didn’t do this, the routines just looked a little silly. A factor which got a lot of the early dancers voted off.
I think the same goes for writing. Especially in that first draft. As writers we have to be prepared to write the stuff that might read as a little ridiculous. Maybe too over the top, maybe too flighty, maybe too sexy, purple, crazy, zany, dark, violent, whatever. Because in the maybe over the top moments, we also find the brilliance some times, the flashes of something completely different.
And we need different. I just finished reading a whole pile of contest entries, and to be honest, 80% of them were not different. Too similar to everything else out there. Give me a book with parts that are brilliant and other parts not good, than a book that is uniformly just fine.
I think it’s how I’m going to interpret the advice of shutting off our internal editors. I’m going to give myself complete permission to write the most awful crap because I’m hoping in there I might find some semblance of brilliance, even a sentence would do.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Copyright infringement and plagiarism at RWA

What if they gave a talk on theft of creative property at the RWA National Conference and nobody came?

Okay, I'm exaggerating, but Nora Roberts was one of the panelists, as well as Jane Litte from Dear Author and Sarah from Smart Bitches, so I went early, expecting the room to be overflowing. I figured given the topic, the recent Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal, and the fact that Sarah and Jane were bound to be amusing, intelligent and forthright, it would be packed. Not so much. (Except for the amusing, intelligent and forthright parts.) The conference organizers booked one of the large meeting rooms and I'd say it was less than a quarter filled. Perhaps only 10% filled.

The more I think about this lack of attendance, the more appalling it is. Okay, there were other talks opposite it and everyone has trade-offs to make re which workshop to attend, but I think the fact it was so poorly attended speaks to one of the main issues I took away from the panel: unless the culture and attitude toward plagiarism changes in the publishing industry, people will continue to do it, because there are few, if any, consequences.

In the romance genre there have been two high profile instances of plagiarism, so you'd think there would've been more interest in the panel. First when Janet Daily plagiarized Nora Roberts' work and more recently when Cassie Edwards plagiarized her research sources. Read about it here.)

Janet's and Cassie's books are still on the shelves. The writers still have careers. Are still earning money. The general public doesn't have a clue what they did-- have no idea they are supporting writers who stole from other writers.

Stepping back for a sec, to clarify something, I want to use a short example that Jane (a very impressive woman, BTW) used to explain the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism, because I've heard people blurring the two, or using copyright laws to defend plagiarism, etc. (I've probably done it myself.)

Jane's example:
If I make a copy of a Nora Roberts book, (keeping her name on it, because she's famous, so why wouldn't I?), whether on paper or electronically, and give it away for free or sell it, I am violating her copyright. This is against the law. She could sue me. (But based on Nora's very passionate talk, I'd be dead, probably with a hammer in my head, before we ever got to court.)
On the other hand, Jane Austen's work is now in the public domain. There is no longer any copyright on her work. I can make as many copies of Pride & Prejudice as I want and distribute them to anyone without breaking any laws.* If, however, I put my name on it instead of Jane's, and try to pass it off as my own novel, or if I lift sections from it to put in another book, I am plagiarizing. But this isn't against the law, it's just WRONG. Plagiarism is a matter of ethics, while copyright infringement is a matter of law, so using: "it's in the public domain", or "it's fair use" to defend plagiarism doesn't work, because those points of law relate to copyright infringement. At least this is how I understood what Jane said. I plan to listen to the talk again when my conference CD's arrive. **

As with any matter of ethics, there's a gray area. For example, I've read books (can't think of the titles right now) that start with the first line of P&P or the first line of Tale of Two Cities or some slight variation of these famous lines. To some this is clever, a wink to the reader, to others it's plagiarism. (I'm on the clever side of that fence, BTW.) Another example: we often hear writers say, "Oh, as long as I list my research sources in my acknowledgments, it's okay if I've copied or loosely paraphrased my research sources. Again. Not okay. Not from where I sit, anyway, especially without permission. The way the non-fiction writer expressed the information is that writer's creative property. The facts and/or ideas aren't, just the way they were expressed.

Bottom line, this panel discussion bounced me right off the fence about this issue. Not that I ever thought that plagiarism was acceptable, (and I already had my legs hanging over one side, perhaps one foot on the ground), but I have to admit I was one of those people who thought in the Cassie situation it was more about laziness and bad writing, than about plagiarism. (Now I think it's all of the above.)

But I realize now how wrong headed my opinion was. I mean, if novelists don't respect the creative expression (words) of non-fiction writers, (research sources), then why should we expect anyone to respect our rights to our own creative expression? In other words -- our novels, our work, our art, our livelihoods. Imagine if a bunch of thriller writers were told by their editors to include more sex scenes in their books and being uncomfortable writing "that icky sex stuff" thriller writers started lifting love scenes from romance novels and substituting their own character names and/or slightly paraphrasing? After all, it's just from a romance novel and they're all alike, anyway, aren't they? (That's the plagiarizing thriller writer talking there, in case it wasn't clear. ;-) ) I think it's pretty obvious why that example is not okay, but that's exactly what Edwards did to the writers of her research sources.

And what consequences have there been? From what I understand, while one of her publishers dropped her (as I understand it) the others have not and she's still on the shelves in the bookstores and people are buying her books and she's earning royalties. Really, other than what I'm sure was tons of stress and humiliation and embarrassment, she has suffered few consequences, compared to what an academic would have for the same offense. Same with Janet Daily. Still publishing away. Still hitting lists, I think. (According to her website, which I am so not linking to, she's still hitting lists.)

It really is time for RWA, and the publishing industry in general, (publishers, writers and booksellers), to get serious about plagiarism. As was said in the panel: in the academic world, there are dire consequences for plagiarism (expulsion for students, and loss of job/reputation for professors), but in the publishing industry, we act so afraid of the word plagiarism that we want to pretend it never happens.

When we started the Drunk Writer Talk blog, we decided we wanted to avoid controversial industry topics, but I decided to do this post anyway, because really... to me this should not be controversial, and I think (hope) if more authors were better informed about the issues, it would be a no-brainer. Sure, it's terrifying to think that something we've read might have crept into our brains and back out onto our own pages... but using a metaphor or a twist of phrase another author has used doesn't necessarily mean plagiarism. Especially if it isn't done repeatedly or systematically. But doing that many times in the same book, or copying sections and only slightly paraphrasing, like Kaavya Viswanathan did... Or like Cassie Edwards and Janet Daily did. That's plagiarism. At least Viswanathan had her book canceled, although it's not clear she had to pay her huge advance back... Does anyone know?

* I'm not sure, but I figure there are probably copyrights on the cover and book designs of newer additions of P&P... So maybe I'd have to retype the text and re-print any Jane Austen novels to avoid copyright issues. But there is no copyright on the actual writing and story.
** Also, it is possible to do both. If you plagiarize writing that is still under copyright protection, (i.e. if I copied Nora's books and put my name on it, like Janet Daily did, I'd be both violating her copyright AND plagiarizing.)
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