Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person?
I haven’t blogged in a while, so I thought I’d blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta.
Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You’d think it would be done by now, wouldn’t you? Alas, ’tis not the case. Not only is this the longest book I’ve yet written, it’s been the most complex to finish. It didn’t start out that way, but that’s where we’ve ended up. Even within the last week, with ARCs done and ready to disseminate, I’ve been working on polishing bits with my patient, dedicated editor.
So why is that? I can’t tell you. The idea wasn’t that complicated, and the execution was pretty clear. But like many stories, it didn’t go precisely where I wanted it to go. In fact, the whole original third act I had in mind just flat out didn’t work, which sent me back to the end of act two, trying to decipher where the story and characters wanted to go, since they clearly didn’t like the destination I had in mind. Yes, it was the literary equivalent of turning this thing right around.
So there’s that. Then there’s Tufa novel #4, Chapel of Ease, due out sometime in 2016. I’m in the midst of the third-draft polish pass, and luckily this one is going much, much more smoothly. It’s very different from the previous three, for reasons I don’t want to reveal yet; readers should have some surprises, right? But I will say this is the first book I’ve done where the “special thanks” page will include a fight choreographer.
Finally, there’s the spec horror novel I’ve been picking away at for a couple of years. It’s finished, but unfortunately it may never see the light of day. People I trust have said that its depiction of racism and anti-Semitism in a small Southern town is so realistic, it might damage my career. I obviously don’t agree with this, but many times the author isn’t the best judge of such things. And I won’t deny that this has taken some of the wind out of my sails, motivation-wise. Still, I’m seeking the opinions of other trusted folk, so who knows?
Finally, lastly, and perhaps mostly, taking care of three kids age 10 and under in the middle of a Wisconsin winter, when they can’t be chased outside and there’s only so many times they can play Minecraft, has been rather overwhelming. In addition to being a full-time writer I’m also the stay-at-home parent, and that role becomes primary during this season.
On New Year’s Day, I did some surfing through various Twitter feeds and came across this article by Caroline Pruett. Titled, “Talking to Our Daughters About Violence Against Women in Comics,” she speaks to the issue of “women in refrigerators,” a term for using the death and/or brutalization of female characters as devices to motivate male heroes. It’s a concept that’s been covered in great detail elsewhere.
As I read Ms. Pruett’s article, I thought about my own daughter, and what I’d tell her if she were older (she’s three right now) and asked me about this. It struck me that writers might answer this question differently than readers or consumers, since we have a unique viewpoint into the creation of these sorts of tropes. So here’s what I’d tell my daughter:
Honey, each of these characters was created by someone, but that creator is not the only one writing about her. In comics, different writers come along and tell stories in different ways, and some are better than others. Editors are supposed to make sure everything stays consistent, but they change, too. So occasionally you get people who just aren’t that smart, making decisions they just haven’t thought out. And just like in real life, that’s when people die.
So, it’s reasonable* for her to ask, why do those writers think that way?
Well, sweetie, I think part of it is tradition, part of it is immaturity. The “women in refrigerators” trope has been around for a long time, and it’s awfully omnipresent in our popular culture, not just comics. How many stories of revenge begin with the death of someone close to the hero, usually a woman?
Beats me, Dad, I’m just a kid.
It’s a lot, trust me. And when you start to write, in any format, you first write the stories that surround you (hence fanfic). Then, with time and practice, you learn to write your own stories.
I’m not saying comic writers are inherently immature, nor am I criticizing the medium as a whole; I do think that by its nature, mainstream superhero comics appeal to a core demographic that, due to age and other factors, seems to coddle immaturity. And most of today’s creators have come from the ranks of fans: they may have internalized this immature appeal without moving past it. Also, most of them are guys.
What does that have to do with it?
Because of the way the entertainment industry works, and who it tries to appeal to, these guys are essentially writing to impress other, similar, guys. Many of them have likely never experienced the death of someone close to them, so the only way they know to depict it is through the examples they’ve encounter in popular entertainment. And that’s how the trope is perpetuated.
So how do we change it? I hope she would ask.
By writing the stories you want to read. By connecting with readers who also want to read those stories. By supporting the people who already create the stories you want to read, who don’t reduce women to plot points and cliche’ motivations. Art isn’t a meritocracy, it’s a marketplace, and you have to convince the people who produce it that these old tropes are no longer as profitable as the new ones. That’s when the girls will start to have a bigger voice, and the boys will have to grow up.
Can I write those stories?
You bet, honey. And get all your friends to do it, too.
* Reasonable in the sense that this is what I want to write about next.
Recently I caught up with the cast recording of the Stephen King/John Mellencamp musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County. As a longtime fan of Mellencamp’s, and an admirer of King’s (there’s a difference, and I’ll explain it shortly), I was curious to see what they’d come up with working together, and in a form neither had tried before.
The results, for me at least, were disappointing.
The story involves two sets of brothers, one alive and one dead. The ghost brothers died in the Sixties, and their still-living baby brother, now the dad of the other pair, is trying to prevent history from repeating itself. Got that?
The story was inspired by Mellencamp’s purchase of a haunted cabin in Indiana, which struck Maine-born-and-bred Stephen King as a great spark to a story. So where did they decide to set their play?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that, since neither is a native Southerner (references to Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor notwithstanding) they get the dialect and vernacular pretty much all wrong (and don’t get me started on the accents the cast uses on the recording). For example, the living brothers’ mom uses the Yiddish word, “schtupp,” when she walks in on one brother and his girlfriend. Since she’s established as an alcoholic, church-going traditional Southern wife, this feels totally wrong, like the kind of joke a New England Yankee might make about the South. Oh, wait….
But there are more general issues. As I said above, I admire King for his willingness to push his own boundaries, when he could simply write the same books over and over and continue to add to his fortune. But he’s far from a flawless writer, and there are a lot of flaws here. Chief among them is the presence of The Shape, a character (played by Elvis Costello on the recording) who is supposed to be the devil, or at least a demon. He has several solo numbers extolling his own virtues, and we’re supposed to enjoy his manipulation of the other characters, whispering unseen in their ears throughout the show.
The thing is, by including this character, it totally obviates the tragedy. In real tragedies, the downfall of the hero is due to something innate in his or her character; here, it’s due to Satan. Both sets of brothers, alive and dead, have their animosity stoked not by their own personalities, but by this outside force. What is King trying to tell us by that? That nothing awful we do is really our own fault? That’s not tragedy. That’s Calvinism.
There’s also the old King standby of having one character, in this case one of the living brothers, be a misunderstood writer. As voiced by Matthew McConaughey and sung by Ryan Bingham, his main issue is that his brother, the failed musician, has always been mommy’s favorite. It’s disheartening to have a writer like King still putting obvious Mary Sues into his work.
Mellencamp’s music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is a different issue. According to various interviews, the songs were designed to provide all the character development, while King simply worried about moving the plot forward. But that creates its own problems, most notably the songs’ collective obviousness.
For example, when Anna, the live bitchy girlfriend, sings to explain herself, her song is “That’s Who I Am.” When Jenna, the dead bitchy girlfriend, sings of the pleasures of visiting juke joints, it’s called, “Jukin’.” When the two living brothers sing about their contentious relationship, it’s called “Brotherly Love.” Their mother’s song about how no one in her family really knows her? “You Don’t Know Me.” And so forth.
Not that most audiences would notice, since the music is produced by T-Bone Burnett, whose talents are so important he’s given equal billing with King and Mellencamp. Some of the songs are really good: “So Goddam Smart” and “How Many Days,” for example. And on a surface level, King writes an entertaining libretto, with many poignant and funny lines. But there’s no denying, as the New York Times said in its review of the initial Atlanta production, “it has the feel of something devised over Skype.” Still, as Mellencamp told the Baltimore Sun after a November performance, it’s a work in progress: “this thing will only be done when Steve and I go, ‘It’s done.’ He’ll continue to make changes, I’ll make changes. That’s what art is. It’s just constantly in motion.”
So there’s hope. But like so many musicals–and this is the reason I don’t like them–everything good is on the surface. Dig deeper, and you simply don’t find much of anything. Because the biggest ghost in Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is the ghost of something meaningful.
Here’s the trailer:
One of my favorite and oft-quoted bits of writerly advice comes from novelist/filmmaker Nicholas Meyer: “Art thrives on restriction.” Meaning that if you don’t have enough of something–usually money and/or time–you’re forced to compensate by being creative.
Here’s a story that shows how that works, at least for me.
I’ve never written steampunk. I honestly don’t even know if it’s a literary genre; it seems more like a fashion statement. Still, it’s certainly prominent right now, and there are even subgenres like diesel punk, atomic punk and so forth. Whenever I’m asked to contribute to a steampunk anthology, though, I usually demur. It’s a genre for which I have no affinity.
That is, until editor Sarah Hans approached me with the concept for the anthology Steampunk World. The conceit: steampunk with no connection to Western civilization. No Victorian England, no post-Civil War America. In other words, none of the stuff that steampunk seemed (to me) to be founded upon.
That sounded like a challenge. So I said yes.
Then the panic set in. What was I going to write about? And in the time I had? I began thinking about the rest of the world in pre-twentieth century times, and how strange technology might manifest there. I kept coming back to one image.
I’d always been loosely fascinated with Easter Island and its statues, so I had the idea that those statues might be something else, something technological…like robots. Robots left behind by…who? And what would prompt them to rise from their slumber? That was the genesis of my story, “The Omai Gods.”
Except I didn’t have time to properly research Easter Island, and also no time to look into the world around it, to find out who would likely show up on its shores to precipitate the events of my story. So I did something else.
I made it all up.
I made up the island. I made up the nature of the statues, although their description is pretty clear. I made up the cultures of the two groups without getting too specific and bogging down in detail. This island and its people exist only in my mind. The advantage to this, of course, is that I could have anything happen that I wanted to without worrying about historical accuracy.
So “The Omai Gods” is not about any real world island or any particular statues. And to me, the restrictions of time and knowledge made the story better.
It also meant I was able to hit my deadline, which I know Sarah appreciates.
Homegrown in Salt Lake City, Charlie Holmberg was raised a Trekkie with three sisters who also have boy names. She writes fantasy novels and does freelance editing on the side. She’s a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukelele, and owns too many pairs of glasses. Her first novel, The Paper Magician, is now available. Follow her on Twitter for the latest news.
There are millions of places a writer can go to get an idea: museums, national parks, Wikipedia, even other writers’ books. The “what ifs” and crazy combinations of stuff in this world are endless. (Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon, for example, came from shoving Pokemon and a lost Roman legion into the same story.) Ultimately, the question of, “Where do you get your ideas?”, is relatively moot, because ideas are everywhere. Though, alternatively, I’ve recently discovered that sometimes the best place to get an idea is inside my own head.
The human brain processes thousands of stimulants and chunks of information daily. All of these—news articles, your strange new neighbor, that weird pear tree that smells like a corpse*, the story of your best friend’s cousin’s most recent breakup—leaves involuntary dregs inside your mind, much like a snail trail. Whether you’re actively thinking about the information or not, it’s all sitting inside your skull, forming piles of puzzle pieces that don’t seem to fit together. It’s surprising how many ideas I can come with when I’m forced to stand in a locked white room with my own brain, staring at said puzzle pieces until I see a bigger picture.
Ever heard of Aqua Notes?
This product is ingenious. I can’t think of how many times I’ve gotten a great idea in the shower and have had to repeat it to myself over and over so I could remember it by the time I got out. We’ve all been there. But why do great ideas come in such a strange place? Because [usually] we’re alone. Just us and the ceramic. Just me and my brain.
Road trips are even better. Instead of twenty minutes alone with your thoughts, you have hours. Long, boring hours of dry southern Idaho countryside. After you’ve played the alphabet game and forty rounds of 20 Questions, it’s either white-room-brain-time or jumping onto the pavement whizzing by at eighty miles per hour.
I’ve “discovered” so many story ideas just by letting my thoughts drift until I reach one that’s especially unique or bizarre. It was during the long, twelve-hour trip from Moscow, ID to Salt Lake City that I came up with the idea for The Paper Magician: the idea of using man-made materials to cast spells. The idea of making the setting of the story an internal organ. The idea of giving a man a paper heart.
An idea is like good wine (or so I’ve heard, I’ve never actually had wine). The longer it ages, the better it tastes. And sometimes, when writers step away from the world and stare at the bottle long enough, they discover a blend of flavors that makes their writing excel.
Go ahead, try it. This drink’s on me.
*These are all over BYU campus.
Thanks to Charlie for stopping by my blog, and be sure to look for The Paper Magician.
One of the perks of my job is that I get asked to give blurbs to upcoming books, which means I also get to read them long before they come out. Usually such requests come from editors, or agents, or writers I’ve met at conferences, but occasionally they come from good friends who also happen to be good writers. That’s how I was lucky enough to read Wickedly Dangerous, the first in the Baba Yaga series by Deborah Blake, out today.
Occasionally, because I’m not really that smart, I’ll put out a call for blog ideas. And sometimes I get one that’s so original there’s just no way to ignore it. So thanks to Claudia Tucker for asking:
“Have you ever been tempted to ‘kill’ your main characters off and start with a new Hero who might be a an offspring of the said hero, carying on where his/her parent left off?”
That has actually happened, but only once. And I’m telling you about it because ultimately, the idea went nowhere.
My first continuing character was Tanna Tully, “The Firefly Witch.” She was the protagonist of the first short story I wrote after deciding to make writing a priority back in 1995; that story, “The Chill in the Air Wakes the Ghosts Off the Ground,” was also the firsts short story I sold after that decision. Recently I’ve dug out those stories and spruced up some of them, and they’re available as three-story ebook chapbooks on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Anytime you write about the same characters for a long time, you run into the problem of repetition. If you’ve followed a literary series that runs for more than ten books, you know what I’m talking about. The same mind, working in the same milieu, simply has a finite number of stories to tell. Repetition, and worse, boredom, are inevitable, and if the creator is bored, then the reader will be, too.
So in an attempt to liven up the stories, I made Ry and Tanna parents. This, however, turned out to be a mere cosmetic change, and didn’t solve the immediate problem, which was that I’d simply run out of ideas for Tanna. Anything I came up with was just a retread of something I’d already done. So I wrote what I intended to be the final story, in which she nobly sacrificed herself.*
Then I had what I thought was a great idea: the adventures of Tanna’s daughter as a teen, struggling with her mother’s absence and her own heritage. The first story I attempted came out rather well, so I wrote more. But soon I realized there wasn’t enough originality in the idea to differentiate them from the original stories. I’d simply, to borrow a “Bewitched” reference, swapped Darrens.
So those stories went into the trunk, and the Firefly Witch went into hiatus. It wasn’t until many years later that, at my agent’s suggestion, I dug out the original stories for a new audience. And with the passage of time, and my own progress as a writer, I found I now had no shortage of new ideas for the character. So I’m glad I never “officially” killed her off, and the stories of her wayward daughter are consigned to the same alternate universe as X-Men: The Last Stand and that season of “Dallas” before Bobby reappeared in the shower.
Thanks for the great question, Claudia!
*These stories have never published, and so cannot be considered “canon.” Ry and Tanna are still alive, happy, and happily childless.
Today my friend, author Melissa Olson, stops by to talk about her new book and the issues of writing more than one first-person series. You can also find Melissa (and me) at her online release party for The Big Keep later today, starting at 5:30 CT.
I’d like to thank Alex for hosting me today, especially considering my topic is inspired by a blog that he wrote back in September called “Hearing Voices.” When I first read that post, I was already a published author with two urban fantasy books under my belt, both starring the same main character, Scarlett Bernard. Since then, however, I’ve written a new urban fantasy with a new protagonist, and I’ve also re-written a detective novel called The Big Keep (which, like many of Alex’s books, was heavily influenced by hardboiled authors like Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler).
Each one of these series is written in first person, which means that there was a point this year when I was writing one protagonist, editing another protagonist, and promoting a third protagonist – all from inside their heads. Talk about hearing voices. I credit Alex’s blog as helping me think hard about how I wanted these characters to be alike and different. Since he already explained things so well – and since I’m a big fan of Entertainment Weekly’s often-hilarious use of graphics to explain things – I thought it’d be fun to make a little chart to show you how that comparison breaks down.
If any of this sounds interesting, please check out the appropriate series (or hey, all of them – my kids want to go to college, too), and don’t forget to join me, Alex, and a whole bunch of other fantastic authors tonight at my Big Keep Facebook Release Party.
Okay, I was supposed to do this on Monday, but it got away from me. Thanks to Lucy Jane Bledsoe for tagging me in this, and to Melissa Olson and Deborah Blake for agreeing to be tagged for next Monday. Here are seven questions about my most recent book:
1. What is the name of your character?
2. When and where is the story set?
In two bordering kingdoms, Altura and Mahnoma.
3. What should we know about him/her?
He’s a sword jockey, which is the equivalent of a private eye in his medieval-ish world. As a young man he did some terrible things, and now he tries very hard to make up for them by doing what’s right. He has a girlfriend, Liz, who is equally tough and smart.
4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
Sixteen years prior to the main action, he rescued a baby girl from danger and left her with a kindly farm family. Now, fate brings him back into her life, and once again she needs his help, with the danger now coming from a possibly insane king, a mysterious sorceress and a giant, semi-human monster.
5. What is the personal goal of the character?
To live up to his word to protect Isadora.
6. What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it?
7. When was the book published?
January 2014, from Tor/Macmillan. Also available in unabridged audio from Blackstone.