Friday, February 5, 2016

Fear and the Toll It Takes

I spent an hour getting ready
to show how much I don't care
Fear is a funny thing and presents itself in odd ways. When we think of fiction, we imagine fear to present itself in dramatic ways along the lines of PTSD—hyper vigilance, panic attacks, explosive temper, stockpiling weapons in the house, etc. But that type of thinking is fairly limiting, especially for writers of genres that don't include stalkers, wars, or murder mysteries. Everyone is afraid of something and it is not necessarily violence. Regardless of that fear—big or small—it manifests itself in a person. The question for you as an author is how will that fear manifest itself in your character.

Here's an example from my own life, one that still astounds me. This time last year, I was thin and fit. I worked out four times a week and, though I wasn't on a diet per se, I was mindful to watch my intake of sweets. Then, one night, I woke up from a deep sleep covered in sweat. I was shaking, nauseated, yet desperately hungry. When I got out of bed, I was so dizzy I could barely walk. I didn't know what was happening to me, but I knew I had to eat. NOW. So I stumbled downstairs, heart racing, and shoved every bit of easily digestible food I could find into my mouth.

Similar to a panic attack, that bout of low blood sugar was a terrifying episode during which I was quite sure my own death was imminent. My doctor calmly told me that as a hypoglycemic person, I just needed to make sure I was eating regularly and to monitor how I felt. "Listen to your body," she said. But I didn't. I listened to my fear. So every time I felt even a twinge of hunger, I would reach for food, usually terrible food like a candy bar. As a person who exercised, that couldn't hurt, right? I was so scared of waking up with a sugar attack again, I made sure I always had food near me.

Fast forward a year and I have put on 50 pounds. That's right. 50 pounds. In less than a year. The good news is, I'm getting it under control. The bad news is that I have to watch my husband eat pizza and wings during the super bowl while I'm eating cream cheese rolled up in a slice of salami. I didn't have to choose Atkins, but given how dependent I had become on sugar, it seemed the best option, and the results are encouraging.

So for me, fear made me fat. And I'm not the only one. It only takes a few episodes of watching Iyanla, Fix My Life, on the Oprah Network to realize that fear makes a lot of people fat. People who were victims of sexual abuse or assault as children often put on massive amounts of weight in adulthood to keep people away from them. Gastric Bypass patients often put all of their weight back on, and then some. Is this because of a self-control issue? Of course not. Their stomach is the size of a grape. Eating large quantities of food is unappealing. But they do it anyway. Why? Because in their heads, they're still "The Fat Girl" or the "Fat Guy." They got that way for a reason—a deep-seated fear that manifests itself in their bodies.

As authors, we all know that damaged people are the most interesting to write about. Despite that damage, many authors imbue their characters with Mary-Sue-like good looks. It's a missed opportunity, in my opinion. Only about 1% of the population is naturally beautiful (as in without makeup, hair styling, or fashion sense), if that. So if your character is beautiful, they probably have to work at it. What drives them to invest so heavily in their appearance? To go to the gym, to buy all that makeup, to watch what they eat, to go through that five-step facial cleansing routine? What fear are they chasing away at the beauty counter?
And if your character is not perfectly beautiful? Do they dress outlandishly like Lisbeth Salander to ward off people because of abuse? Do they wear oversized clothing or have poor posture in an attempt to be invisible?

Knowing your characters inside and out is part of writing a story, and fears are an important part of the puzzle. For better or worse, we all wear our fears on the outside where people can see them, if they know where to look. That truth should be reflected in your characters.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Writers Groups—How to Make them Work

You know you can't be a writer unless you have your work reviewed by other people. You know this. You've read it in other blog postings. You've seen it in interviews with authors. No writer can make their work shine as brightly as it can without the assistance of others. For those attached to large publishing houses, you are lucky enough to have a skilled editor going through your work for you, pointing out what could be better, or simply what needs to go in the trash. For the rest of us, we have to hire an editor, which is expensive—and frankly, not a good use of money with a first, or even second, draft.

The solution? Writer's groups. Preferably more than one, assuming you have the time and the gas money. I am only involved in one, specifically the Monday Night Writers, a small but active group that is mostly sci-fi, fantasy, and horror with some creative nonfiction and children's fiction thrown in for good measure. They are wonderful for a few specific reasons. At first, I overlooked these strengths and assumed all writer's groups were like this one. But then I joined a different writer's group in Las Vegas, and got quite an education. This group has been a lifesaver in terms of my writing, and the other members feel the same way. So if you want to join a group, or are thinking of starting one, I recommend seeking out a group following these best practices:

The Group is Closed, meaning not just anyone can drop in. In order to join our group, you have to send an email asking to come. Assuming we have a spot open, you are invited to a meeting as a guest so you can see how we do things. If it's a good fit, both for you and for us, we invite you to join. Open groups, like the one I briefly went to in Las Vegas, can be counterproductive if a combative person comes or if an unprepared person comes. It is a waste of people's time and makes the group a chore instead of a joy. Not one second of group time should be devoted to telling adults how to behave. In a closed group, that is never an issue.

Read at Home, Critique in the Group. We email our submissions by Friday. That way, when the Monday group starts, each member has been able to read each submission, mark it up for grammar, mechanics, and compose their thoughts for the critique. What worked and what didn't? How is this progressing the story? Or how does it stand as its own piece? Most other groups I have attended either have the author read their piece aloud or set aside time for everyone to read the submission. But both of those methods, IMHO, are terrible. Fiction, unlike poetry, is designed to be read, not listened to. Not all authors are good narrators, and it can detract from the overall quality of the writing. Reading it silently at the group meeting is also problematic. Not everyone reads at the same speed. What if you want to read it more than once? And our meeting, like most others, is at a café. Kinda noisy sometimes. So devoting our time to critique instead of reading works very well and elicits great commentary.

Constructive Criticism Only. "This type of writing just isn't my thing." "I hate present-tense writing." These are not helpful criticisms to the author. We judge each piece based on the audience it is written for and how effective it is in communicating the story and the characters. And if the subject matter or genre is uncomfortable for you...

No Judgment. If you don't feel comfortable reading or critiquing erotica, you don't have to. If reading violent scenes is upsetting, you don't have to. We usually put a disclaimer on submission that may not be to everyone's tastes, and anyone who wishes not to critique has that choice. We are here to support each other after all.

It can be hard to hear your work isn't awesome, especially if you're new to writing and all friends have been telling you that it's great. But it takes a long time and a great deal of work to master any craft. Writing is no different. And hearing from other writers who are from a different generation and/or write a different genre will only make you better. I took several classes from author Maxwell Alexander Drake. If you haven't read his Fantasy novels, you have probably heard of or spend unhealthy amounts of time playing the game he is head writer for, EverQuest Next. He liked to say that you will never make everyone happy, but a good indicator is the 80% rule. If 8 out of 10 people like your stuff, you can rest easy knowing that it is objectively good. Anything less than that, and you need to get in more practice.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: The Twentieth Wife

The Twentieth Wife The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a treat for the senses this audio book is. Indu Sundaresan's beautiful prose and in-depth research were brought to life by Sneha Mathan. From the first words of the introduction, I knew I would love this book. With such a lengthy tale—one stretching over 35 years and two generations—it would have been easy to wander, especially with so much detail of the world of Moghul India. Historical fiction at its finest, Sundaresan weaves a tale with known historical events as her anchor, creating a world that seems entirely true. It begins naturally, with the simple crush of an 8-year-old. Mehrunissa, the daughter of a Persian noble who fled to India, begins life in such a state of poverty, her parents abandoned her by the side of the road. Through the twists and turns in Mehrunissa's life, she maintains her desire to be married to the crown prince Salim, even as she is married to another man, and Salim has a whole harem full of wives and concubines. I am not a reader of romance, but even I loved this story. Mehrunissa is not a pathetic, love-sick princess pining for the prince to come rescue her. She is a woman who knows her duty, and knows her worth, a likely unusual combination in those times in that place. From start to finish, I was completely captivated by the story and the flawless writing, and I will most certainly be reading Sundaresan's other books.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

High fantasy dealing with gods is always tricky, but NK Jemisin makes it work. Sort of. Her writing is beautiful without being overly flowery and her world-building is solid without dwelling on silly details. Unlike the majority of fantasy heroes/heroines, Yeine's quest is mostly for information, rather than any physical journey. Why did her grandfather, who so disdains her, call her to Sky to compete to be his successor? Why do the imprisoned descendants of the gods have such an interest in her? This lack of physical action does not bother me as it does other reviewers, but I did find various aspects of the book to be lacking. There were some logical issues with Yeine's homeland of Darr. A warrior race that is matriarchal... okay. A warrior race that relegates the admittedly stronger males to child rearing instead of aiding in the warrior culture... silliness. Her construction of Nahadoth and the godlings was masterful. Both beautiful and strange, like us and not like us, ensuring to emphasize that humans were made in their gods' image. Of course they are like us, and yet they are not. It's a hard balance, and Jemisin maintained it well. I enjoyed the book overall, but not so much that I will continue with the series. It is difficult not to make inter-genre comparisons, and I am afraid this did not rise to the level of Curse of the Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is a worthy way to spend time for any reader of fantasy, but it's not my favorite.

View all my reviews