Monday, April 22, 2013

Forever is a very long time

If you'd oblige me a bit of a long winded rant, I'd like to take a moment to talk about immortals. Not any particular immortals, (though my love of the After Dark variety is well documented). I mean immortals in general as they appear in a genre fiction, and my beef with them.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for immortal characters. The ideas and implications of immortality in all its myriad forms are absolutely fascinating to me (and apparently most of the world). You could even say that immortals never get old (HARHARHAR). But over my years of reading through the hundreds of varieties of immortals currently available, there's always this nagging annoyance. Namely, I hate how none of these immortal folks actually seem to act their age.

Paranormal Romance (hitherto referred to as PRN) is by far the worst offender with this. It's actually kind of hard to find a PRN series that doesn't involved immortals in some way, but unless these immortals are the villains, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the warrior who's fought for a thousand years and the thirty five year old man he looks like on the surface, and that's always struck me as wrong.

Years and years ago, I watched a surprisingly good anime called Scrapped Princess (seriously, if you ever get a chance and can get past the initial immaturity and ridiculous proportions of the female characters, this series is totally worth your time.). There are several immortal characters in the show, and at one point, two of these immortal characters, one who's been on Team Bad Guy for a while and one who is seemingly waffling toward Good, have an argument that seems to the viewer and the other characters to be needlessly antagonistic. 

When the other characters ask why this is, the waffling-good immortal replies "We have been together for two thousand years. You can not begin to imagine the depth of hate and love between us."

This line has stuck with me long after the rest of the show fell away, and as I became a story teller in my own right, this idea of the weight of time between characters, the intensely complex layering (both and good and bad) that would happen to any relationship if it was strung out for that long, came to form the core of how I approach immortal characters.

You see, forever is a very long time. Think about yourself ten years ago. You were a totally different person. Ten years from now, you'll probably think the same thing. This process of change slows as we get older, but unless we're experiencing arrested development (the psychological phenomenon, not the awesome show), we will keep changing and maturing until we die. So when you have a character who is 500 or 1000 or 2000 years old, you have a someone who has gone through 50/100/200 of these changes, and I think it's safe to say by that point that they have evolved completely off the deep end of what we mortals can comprehend.

Needless to say, this is usually not how immortals are written. Such an individual would appear crazy to the rest of us, and actually crazy heroes are very difficult to write. Because of this, most immortals seem to be eternally stuck in early middle age, especially hot immortal dudes who head up PRN books, many of whom seem to live together in what Smart Bitches call "Frat Houses of the Damned" until the right mortal lady appears to show them what they've been missing over the last dozen centuries.

I understand why this trope exists--immortal men swearing eternal love are hot and sell books like crazy--but it still bugs me because I can't help thinking that if there were a race of vampires or whatever, the thought processes of their immortal members would be utterly incomprehensible to a modern love interest.

Perhaps the only example of an immortal who actually acts like an immortal I've read was Michael from Nalini Singh's Angels' Blood, because Michael? Dude is messed up. And weird, and very very intense. I actually really liked him for that, but at the same time it made him a very weird and difficult hero, especially at the end of the book when he realized he was in love. This discovery of love felt very rushed to me, not because it wasn't played up, but because dude had so far to go to get back to the level of humanity where romantic love could exist that I don't actually think it could be realistically covered in one novel.

I try to keep all of this in mind when writing my own immortals, because it's a very delicate balancing act to create a believable immortal who isn't so far gone as to be completely unrelatable. Of course, I'm not sure how much this matters since there are dozens of series with "immortals" who are little more than 35-year-olds with ancient war PTSD issues and some zeroes added to their age, but it matters to me. I'm not even saying immortals have to be mature (I'd never say that seeing how my favorite immortal of all time is Regin the Radiant), just that I appreciate some kind of reasoning to explain why they're not. Some sign that an author put thought into "why is this dude still going clubbing/living alone with no hobbies at 3000 years old?" It doesn't even have to be a good reason, just give me something.

And on another note, has anyone ever thought about how sucky having one fated mate forever would be in reality? I mean, sure you're eventually going to find one true love, but until then you can't even date because you know any relationship you enter is doomed. I mean, you could find a dude, fall in love normally, live with him for 800 years, which is 16 times longer than a 50-year "till death do us part" life long marriage between mortals, and yet your relationship would never be anything but a fling because you both know that the moment one of you finds your fated mate, it's over. That is REALLY FREAKING SAD, YA'LL. Just sayin'.

Some thoughts for a Monday. Thanks for reading!

- R

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The real reason I write every day

When I was a kid I played the violin, and I hated it. Looking back, it was actually a terrible instrumental choice for me. Unlike the rest of my family, I'm not very musical. I have a very bad ear for tune, and the violin gives you enough rope to hang yourself twice over in this since you can literally put your fingers anywhere. I probably would have done much better with piano, where you hit a key and get a note, but by the time I started piano I was 5 years into violin and I'd already learned to hate anything that resembled practice.

My mother made my practice my violin every morning before school. EVERY MORNING. I understand now why she did it, she was trying to show me how practice makes perfect and that by sticking to something through the hard parts, they would stop being hard and I'd be happy with my progress. Unfortunately, none of these lessons took at the time, mostly because 1) I hated the violin, and so 2) I didn't pay attention in practice, just went through the motions so my mom would get off my back, and therefore 3) I never actually got any better.

I quit violin the second I got to High School and never touched another instrument. Way I saw things, I'd toiled in the violin mines for 5 years with nothing to show for it. Therefore, clearly, violins were stupid, unplayable instruments that only freakish naturally talented people could ever hope to master.

I didn't realize it until years later, but I took many of the lessons from my battle with the violin with me to writing. You see, back when I was first getting serious about the idea of actually creating a story for other people to read, people said (as they say now and have always and will always say) that I needed to write every day. I had to stick with it, to push past the hard parts and get my words, and bit by bit, all those 500 word sessions would stack up into a novel.

Now, don't get me wrong, this is a true point and an excellent sentiment. If you write so many words every day, eventually you will have a novel. Many, many novels are written this way. I've written novels this way. But there's a difference between writing every day and forcing yourself to write.

I harp on the idea that writing should be fun a lot. It's one of my core beliefs. If I'm not enjoying what I'm writing, then I stop and figure out why. Sometimes, I don't write it at all (notice how I didn't say "I don't write" just that I don't write the thing I didn't like). I believe that an author's love and passion for their own work can't help but shine through the prose. That energy that consumes you when you're writing something you love gets transferred to your reader and becomes infectious. Also, it is phenomenally easier to find the time to write daily when you're looking forward to the exercise.

This is why, when I hear people talking about daily writing practice, I get a little tic in my jaw, because it makes me think of that damn violin. Not to willfully misunderstand the usage of the word "practice" here (meaning both "the act of" as well as "doing some to get better" in this instance) but the connotation is not a pleasant one for me, because that trial I endured every morning through elementary school and middle school is something that I never, ever, ever want anywhere near the joyful, wonderful event that is writing.

I'd almost rather you not write at all than force yourself to write when you hate it. You see, resentment is like grime. It builds up slowly and poisons everything around it. I know. I did this to myself a few times in the early days, forcing myself to get up every morning and write words I didn't care about. It was just like the violin. I resented the work, resented how it didn't get any easier or better. I resented my writing, and that is a horrible, horrible feeling for someone whose great ambition and driving force in life was to be a writer. I felt I was betraying myself, betraying my dream and all my work. I felt like a failure.

It was fear of this feeling, fear of losing my stories to my resentment, that taught me to stop treating writing like the violin. The only way you become a better writer is through practice and observation, writing stories and figuring out why they work and why they don't. But if you're just writing because you have to, to meet a quota, then you're like me with that violin, and you're not getting any better, which kind of defeats the whole point, doesn't it?

One of my greatest triumphs over nine years of writing seriously was learning to love my writing instead of just practicing it. I still write every weekday (I'd write weekends, too, but I have a toddler who wants my attention for some reason. Something about being a mother? I also have a house that doesn't clean itself. Jerk.) only now I refuse to write things I don't like. These days, though, I take daily writing even more seriously than I did when I was writing to a quota, but for a new and much better reason.

One of my absolute favorite sayings is that "writing begets writing." The more you write on a story you enjoy, the easier, better, and more exciting the next day's writing becomes. When I write every day, I build up momentum, like running down hill with a hang glider. Get going fast enough, and the story will lift you up all on its own and take you flying, which is every bit as awesome as it sounds. This is my goal in every book, to reach that lift off point, and the only way I get there is by writing regularly on projects I love. And let me tell you, my word counts on the flying days? Breathtaking.

Today's going to be a flying day for me. I hope you have the same.

Happy writing!
- R

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Art of Story Velcro

I apologize for the extended blackout. Our house has been beset by a green plague (also known as pollen), and fallout has not been pretty. I'm not sure what cruel and whimsical force gave humans sinuses, but I think I hate it right now.

But while all of this sneezing and general miserableness didn't leave much space for writing/tweeting/blogging/cleaning/being a functional human being, it did allow for a great deal of thinking. Specifically, I've been thinking about what makes a story un-put-downable, and how I can get more of it.

You know how sometimes you'll have a book that you're enjoying, but it takes you forever to finish? Like, it's good and you want to know how the story ends, but life conspires and you just keep putting it down. Now, you know those books that take you over? The books that keep you up until all hours of the night when you desperately need to sleep but you simply can not put the sucker down? Yeah, those books.

The difference between these two types of books can be difficult to pin down. After all, they're both good, it's just that one was addictive and one wasn't. Why? What creates that special MUST READ brand of story crack?

I'm sad to say I haven't figured out the entire recipe for book crack yet (but man, once I do, watch out world! None of you are ever getting anything done again ever!), but I do believe I've figured out a major ingredient: reader engagement.

Reader engagement is just a fancy term for how into your book a reader is. When you can't put down a book, you are highly engaged, and engagement is a facet of reader interest. Specifically, if I want a reader to keep reading, I have to keep them interested on as many levels as possible. Interested in the plot, in the romance, in the world, in the outcomes of my character's lives, etc. And the more interest I can build, the more engaged (and addicted) my reader will be. As a story teller, I am competing against the reader's busy life for attention and time. To win this battle, my story needs to be almost impossible to rip yourself away and incredibly easy to get locked back in to if you do manage to pull free. In short, I need to story Velcro.

If you look at Velcro up close, you can see that one side is covered in thousands of tiny hooks which snag on the soft strap and hold the two together. Once stuck, the two sides require force, sometimes massive force, to pull them apart again. This is exactly what I want in my stories, to snag my reader so tightly they'll need to exert massive force to pull away, and every time the force stops, they fall right back and get hooked again. This sort of broad, inescapable engagement is essential to creating an un-put-downable book, and to achieve it, I take my cue from Velcro. I make hooks.

Putting hooks in your story is hardly a new concept, but I'm not talking about the big hooks that convince someone to pick up your story in the first place. If the reader's already reading, those hooks have done their job. We're in subtler territory now, which means smaller hooks, sometimes tiny ones, spread all throughout the story for the purpose of keeping your reader locked at that same level of interest that made them pick up the book in the first place.

To see this in action, let's take my favorite go-to example: Harry Potter. Most people picked up the series initially because a boy magician going to a secret wizard school is pretty great hook, but they stayed because J. K. Rowling is a freaking master of story velcro. Practically every paragraph of Harry Potter is filled with interesting tidbits, things you want to know more about. First there's the mystery of a baby left on the doorstep, and then empathy with Harry's terrible home life. This is followed by the wonder of obviously magical happenings and overall giddy excitement that is the world of Harry Potter itself and then finished by intense character drama and an exciting climax.

Rowling doesn't hit you with all of this at once. Instead, she picks at you, revealing one tidbit after another, hook hook hook hook, snagging you and pulling you into her story until you can no longer (and have no desire to) get free. Even when her hooks never really panned out (like all that stuff about the dragons in Norway), they kept me reading. I take several issues with the plots of the Harry Potter series, but I read each new HP book at midnight on release day just like everyone else. And that, my friends, is the power of amazing story velcro.

On a practical writing level, I believe that creating this sort of deep engagement is more of an exercise in attention than talent. You need to remember to think like a reader. When you look at your story, you have to put aside what you want it to be and see the text for what it is. You might know your main character is going to transform from a spineless wimp into an amazing person over the course of eight chapters, but your reader has no idea, and it's the writer's job to keep that reader hooked long enough to allow the transformation to occur. To do this, in every scene, in every paragraph, you have to ask yourself, "how can this be more interesting?" and then be ready to find that answer in all sorts of different places.

The best story velcro happens on multiple levels through out the story. It's not enough to just cram your paragraphs full of amazing ideas and prose (though that can take you pretty far if your ideas are cool enough, just look at China Mieville). But this sort of shot gun approach can overwhelm readers unless done amazingly well. A far safer (and easier) approach is to try to think vertically through all the threads of the book and apply your hooks on multiple levels. For example, if you've just done a lot of talking about world building, throw in some snappy character dialogue that reveals interesting facets about your cast. If it's a low point in the plot tension, create character tension to fill the gap. Have an argument, hint that someone might be lying. My personal favorite is to have something vaguely sinister happen just on the edge of the scene to make a reader gasp and go "WHAT'S THAT?!"

Wherever you see an empty spot or a place where reader attention might be flagging, work in a hook, even if you're not sure what to do with it yet. Not only will this keep your reader engaged at every turn, it also deepens the book and gives you something cool to pull up later in the plot, sometimes entire books later, and come out looking like you planned it all along.

I realize this probably sounds overwhelming. I mean, working in hooks when you're also supposed to be thinking about tension and character development and, oh yeah, just getting the freaking story down and making sense? That's a lot to think about. But as I said two paragraphs up, this isn't a matter of talent or genius or inspiration, it's an exercise in attention. The most important thing a writer can be is attentive to their own work. Having care, paying attention, adding detail, these are how you create depth, and the more you deepen, the easier it becomes to add nuance and flourishes to every part of your work.

Fortunately, writing is neither a spectator sport nor a timed event. Creating the dense network of hooks required to make excellent story velcro is a multi-pass project that goes on for as long as you're working on a story. For my part, I keep shoving in hooks all the way up to the final copy edit. But so long as you are actively thinking about reader engagement, even if it's nothing more than rejecting boring sentences in favor of more interesting ones, you are actively making your story better, and that's always a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Update on the ACTUAL real novels I have coming out soon!

So I might not have actually written a venerable tome of letters and pages that got reviewed by the New York Times, but I did write a 3 book SciFi series for Orbit that comes out at the end of this year!

While I don't have a formal cover or blurb to show ya'll yet (we're working on it, I swear. This project is a little cursed, please bear with us!), I can tell you the general details.

Fortune's Pawn (November 5th, 2013) introduces Devi Morris, a powered armor mercenary in way over her head. There's a lot of awesome powered armor combat, snappy dialogue, and of course Things Are Not What They Seem (TM). There's also a pretty strong romance and some language, so if the Eli books were PG, this is definitely an R rated book. 

Again, I'll have the official cover and blurb up as soon as I get the OK from Orbit, but I wanted to reassure people that yes, there are more books. They're even all done! All 3! Complete series! Also, remember when I talked about having a series with no villain? That was this one. I'm very proud of the work I've done here and I think you folks are really really going to like it. 

Fortune's Pawn is followed by Honor's Knight (Spring 2014) and Heaven's Queen (Fall 2014) to complete the set (collectively called the Paradox Novels). I'll be doing give aways and putting up big chunks of sample chapters closer to the release date. Again, I wish like hell I had something more to show you, and THE MOMENT I get final approval I will bury you in Devi info.

"Hey! Wait a minute! If you've already written all 3 books, why do we have to wait until Fall 2014 to get the last one?"

This is actually a very fair question. All I can say to this is that publishing in a big machine with a lot of small pieces that all have to work together. I am only the beginning of a very long chain that takes about a year to work through. As someone who ABSOLUTELY HATES waiting for books, I really do wish things could move faster, but it is what it is, ya know? 

Meanwhile, I'll try to make the waiting less terrible by posting free short stories and tidbits as the books come out. Thank you all for your patience and even if Space Opera isn't usually your thing, I hope you'll give Fortune's Pawn a try.

Thank you!
- R

Monday, April 1, 2013

Rachel Aaron presents: A NOVEL

So, at long last, I'm able to announce my newest book! It's a bit of a depature from my Eli series, but I think we'll all agree I'm headed in the right direction!

And so, without further ado, may I present: A NOVEL!

Presenting Rachel Aaron's newest work of fiction: A NOVEL.

Jane is a woman with a motivation. To get what she wants, she'll have to take action... but can she? When complications arise, she'll have to team up with other named characters to finish the plot and maintain the narrative tension, or it's happily never after for everyone!

"If you enjoy the physical act of reading, get ready to work out your eyeballs over five hundred pages absolutely filled with letters, number, and the occasionally ASCI symbol for that extra treat!" - Civilian Reader

"There were parts of this book that came as a total surprise and parts that didn't. There were female character and male characters interacting. It was like looking at life in another world, only through words on paper, and without the ability to turn your head to look at other stuff." - The Book Smugglers

"You have to use your imagination because there are no pictures, but that's what reading is all about!" Far Beyond Reality

I know it's been a long time, folks, but I swear A NOVEL is worth the wait! Look for it in bookstores everywhere at some date in the future which may or may not occur!

Thank you for reading!
- Rachel