Stupid Characters

One of my pet peeves in books (and other media) is dumb characters. I like smart people. I know that writing smart people is a challenge because it’s harder to get them in trouble or to keep their plans from working the first time. Unless you’re really good at finding motivations for smart people to do dumb things or unless you create really difficult circumstances, if your characters are smart, you get the world’s shortest story. If the characters in your horror story don’t go alone into the dark basement, the story never goes anywhere.

But it’s incredibly painful to read a story that relies upon the characters being too stupid to live to have a plot. I recently read one that shall remain nameless in which the heroine piled stupid thing on top of stupid thing. There was one toward the end that was a gray area, an action I’d put in the category of “stupid good,” where it might have been considered the right thing to do, but it also put a lot of other people in danger and could have ruined things for a lot of people, all to help people who wanted to harm the main characters. I might have been more forgiving of that one if the heroine hadn’t already betrayed all the people who had helped her. She thought she was doing the right thing then, too (though it was mostly to benefit herself), but the person she betrayed them to was practically twirling his mustache, he was so obviously evil, and he even expressed opinions that made it clear he meant harm, and meanwhile she had made zero effort to find out what was really going on with the people who were helping her before she spilled it all to Snidely Whiplash — only to find out about thirty seconds later that she was entirely wrong about everything. And this was after she’d been foolishly naive and careless near the beginning of the story in a way that led to her being in a predicament. This chick was just careening through life, causing chaos every step of the way, but the author wrote her as though she was super intelligent and careful, and the character who criticized her rashness was later said to be wrong and made to apologize.

And then the next book I picked up had another idiot character. It’s got a romantic triangle, where the heroine is horribly torn between the guy who just ditched his long-term girlfriend, has confessed that he cheated on her, has admitted he’s just looking to fool around now rather than get into a real relationship, and is flirting heavily with the heroine’s friend, who has a boyfriend, and the guy who has helped her out of a number of predicaments, actually listens to her and pays attention to what she wants, and lives in the place she wants to open a business. Not that she’s obligated to be into a guy who’s nice to her, but she is into him. She’s just torn because she got a crush on guy #1 years ago and decided then that she wanted him when he was free, and now he is, so she feels obligated to go for him, even though she knows he’s bad news and she really likes guy #2 better. That’s definitely Too Stupid To Live territory. You’re allowed to change your mind, especially when it’s just a promise you made to yourself (that’s another pet peeve of mine: the plot that revolves around a character doing something they know is a bad idea that they don’t even really want to do because they promised themselves years ago that they’d do it).

There’s a really fine line between letting your characters make mistakes and making them be stupid. Smart people can do dumb things, but you’ve got to motivate it. I tend to write stubborn characters (gee, I have no idea what I might be drawing upon there), since smart people often have a tendency to feel like they can figure things out for themselves and go it alone, and that can get them in trouble when they overestimate their abilities and hate to admit when they don’t know something. There’s also perfectionism, which might lead to waiting too long to act if they’re waiting until everything is perfect. You can also come up with emotional blind spots, where they’re bright about everything except that one thing that’s their weakness.

In the book I’m working on, I’m trying to make the heroine fallible, and it helps that she may be smart, but she’s entirely lacking in information because she’s essentially a foreigner in an unfamiliar culture she knows nothing about, and based on that lack of knowledge she misjudges a lot of people and situations. She rushed into something based on ideals and assumptions and realized she was in way over her head. There are things she misses because that sort of thing isn’t at all important to her, and she doesn’t realize that those things are very important where she is. Since the whole book is from her point of view, the reader is seeing her perspective but may get the sense that she’s misjudging things. I hope that works to build a little dread while still making it clear why she sees things the way she does.


My Problem with Villains

I think I’ve figured out what I need to do to fix the ending of the book I’ve been working on. At least, I have a general sense of the problem and a few ideas of what I can do about it that I need to think about more. And it comes down to something that’s a regular problem for me: offstage villains. This is something that’s begging for a direct confrontation with the villain, and yet the heroes are just doing something on their own that’s a struggle but that has no direct opposition or confrontation.

I even figured out early on that the real villain isn’t someone this heroine could directly oppose. He represents a system/society that the heroine opposes, but he’s not someone the heroine can come face-to-face with and defeat, and in doing so show that she’s truly learned all the lessons she had to learn throughout the book. So, I created a secondary/subordinate villain who is someone she can oppose directly. He’s a representative of the big villain who is in the heroine’s direct orbit, someone who’s more or less a peer, so she can say the things to him that she’d want to say to the big villain.

And what did I do? I kept him mostly offstage, and then he disappears entirely at the midpoint of the book.

I have a real problem with villains. The thing is, I don’t find them interesting at all. I don’t care about their sad backstories, their motivations, or their goals. If they’re hurting people, I want them stopped, and if they can be stopped by the heroes being clever and subverting them rather than confronting them directly, so much the better. The less time we spend with villains, the happier I am. I want them out of my life (and the characters’ lives). I’m up for a redemption story, in which the villain realizes the error of his ways, regrets the evil he’s done, and works to atone, and I might be somewhat interested in a villain who’s being set up for a redemption, where during the pre-redemption phase he has a somewhat sympathetic motivation that isn’t entirely selfish, shows signs of potential for good, and shows conflict about doing bad things, and I’m horribly disappointed when villains are doing that but don’t have a redemption arc. But a villain who’s a villain? Snooze.

I may have been the only kid in my neighborhood who wasn’t at all interested in Darth Vader after the first Star Wars movie. As far as I was concerned, there was no “there” there. He looked cool and he was powerful, but that’s all there was to him. He was basically just a thug. Even the later revelations didn’t make him much more interesting, and I found his last-minute redemption to be weak and unsatisfying. Fleshing him out in the prequels made me even less interested because his turn to darkness wasn’t at all sympathetic to me.

But a good villain can make for a good story, and this story needs an antagonist, so I guess I have to find a way to make this guy interesting to me so I can keep him onstage and let my heroine thoroughly defeat him.

writing life

Rushing to the End

I finished my draft yesterday! But I already know I’m going to have to rewrite the ending. There’s a lot and not enough going on at the same time, and I seem to be missing a climactic final confrontation. There’s a big emotional moment, but the conflict is off the edge of the “screen.” There’s a danger out there, somewhere, but nothing direct that the characters have to confront. They’re just trying to get away from it. And then I’m afraid there’s a “Return of the King” ending, so the main plot ends, but then there are lots of little endings to wrap things up. Now that I have something on paper (well, metaphorically speaking), I feel like I’ve written an end, and that means I can think it through and come up with something without that weird anxious rush I always get when writing an ending. Sometimes I don’t want the book to end, sometimes I want to get it over with, sometimes I’m just excited, but I always careen recklessly through the last chapters and have to go back and rewrite.

This morning, though, I’ve been a complete slug. It was rainy, which always seems to make for a lazy morning, and I’ve been catching up on other things. There are errands to run and there’s housework to do.

And then back to writing. I’ve had the wacky idea that I need to write another Christmas book, and I’ve got an idea for a short story that might fit an anthology. Meanwhile, I’m researching ideas for the next Rebels book, and it may go in an entirely different direction than I originally planned. The planned book may get moved to the one after this one.

writing life

Optimizing My Life

This year, I’ve been contributing posts to Fiction University about various aspects of the writing life. My latest, from last week, is about creativity boosters.

This series has come out of my ongoing quest to optimize my life. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about productivity and creativity, and I think it’s making a big difference. For one thing, I’m really getting my house in order. Some of the trouble spots I’ve fought for years are clear and have stayed that way for weeks, even months. I’ve organized my closet and drawers, my bathroom, and my kitchen, and that’s turned into a big time saver because I don’t have to go searching for things. Everything I need is right where it’s supposed to be. I think I’ve shaved a good five to ten minutes off my morning routine just because I can just reach for what I need. That’s really nice on mornings when I have to be somewhere. There’s no frantic search for the shoes I want to wear.

Then the tidiness has led to being able to keep things cleaner. When you don’t have to move things to dust or vacuum, it’s quicker and easier to dust or vacuum.

This has a ripple effect that seems to be making me work more effectively. When the room is clean and orderly, I can focus on my work. I do still sometimes get sidetracked with thoughts about what I need to be doing, but it’s not quite as bad.

Meanwhile, I’ve really established an exercise habit, which also helps my productivity and creativity (there’s science behind that).

You can read a lot more of my tips in my Fiction University posts.

I’ve been doing this reading for years, but it seems to finally all be coming together. I think it really started when I was in physical therapy for my knee a couple of years ago. That meant I had to do exercises daily, and that started a new habit, which led to more new habits, and those new habits have pretty much stuck, so I’ve been able to start more new habits.

This year, I’m on track to have spent more time writing than I have in years, I just have the upstairs to get organized and cleaned (which has to wait for cooler weather because it’s unpleasant up there right now), and I’m on track to surpass my annual reading goal.

The really important thing I seem to have finally worked out is that failure in any one thing doesn’t mean everything has to fall apart. If I get busy and things get untidy, I don’t just give up (which used to be a bad habit of mine). I merely tidy it up again and get back to my habits. Ditto with exercise, eating right, and writing. In the past, every time I started a diet, exercise program, housekeeping routine, or writing schedule, I’d do fine as long as I could keep things the way I wanted them. Then when something upset my system, it would all fall apart. I seem to be doing better now about forgiving myself for little lapses and then going back to my routines.

My latest attempted habit development is focusing on promotion and marketing, trying to dedicate time to that every day, with plans for specific things to do. I’ve had lists of things I felt I ought to be doing that I never did, but now I’m trying to make it a priority to actually do them.

It’s weird how all of these things tie together — being more organized seems to make me not only more productive but more creative, and that spills over into being healthier, and the overall result is being a bit happier and more satisfied with life.


Steampunk at the Movies

When I first had the idea for the book that became Rebel Mechanics, I started preparing to write it by reading every steampunk book I could find, just to see what the genre was like and what had been done with it. I determined that there were three primary approaches to a steampunk world.

One was alternate history — it was our world and our Victorian era, but technological development, and sometimes other factors, had gone a different way so that the steampunky elements and retrofuturistic technology existed.

The other was secondary world — it’s a fantasy world (like Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros, etc.) that looks a bit like our Victorian era, but with stempunky twists.

The third was post-apocalyptic — in the future, society has been destroyed and has rebuilt to approximately a Victorian level of technology/culture, with twists that make it steampunky rather than the way our Victorian era was.

I obviously went with alternate history, but one of the steampunk series I liked the best took the post-apocalyptic approach — the Hungry Cities series by Philip Reeve, starting with the book Mortal Engines.

I was pleased and hopeful when I heard that they were making a movie out of that first book because if it did well, it might open the door to movie interest for the Rebel Mechanics books. Alas, the movie was rather a bomb, in spite of having Peter Jackson (of the Lord of the Rings movies) involved. I didn’t get around to seeing it at the theater, but out of curiosity I checked the DVD out of the library.

And ouch. It’s been about ten years since I read the books, so I don’t remember a lot of plot details, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t basically Star Wars. Some of the imagery was wonderful, bringing to life this weird world where the cities are mobile, on giant tank-like treads, scouring the earth for resources, and with some of the larger cities preying on smaller, less powerful cities. But so much of it also looked like a cheap Disney Channel production, especially when any characters were talking. And yet it didn’t seem like the movie was aimed at teens because the characters were significantly aged up (they’re 17 in the book, but one of the actors was pushing 30 when it was made, and the characters seemed to be treated like they were 20-something). I felt like the movie skipped on explaining anything that was going on, and like I said, the end sequence was basically the battle against the Death Star from Star Wars (or possibly the similar sequence from The Force Awakens).

The worse thing was, it was rather boring. Midway through the movie, I ended up looking up the entire cast and their histories on IMDB, and then got sidetracked in random web surfing. That’s a bad sign.

I had thought while reading the books that there was no way this would be filmable. It turns out that the stuff I thought would be impossible to film worked out rather well. But somehow they managed to miss the point of the books while writing the script and turned interesting characters into generic tropes. Great visuals can’t compensate for that.

So, if you love steampunk and were looking for a good steampunk movie, this isn’t it, and I’m afraid this movie might have killed steampunk on film, for a while, at least.

Rebooting the Year

I have survived the week of Music and Art camp, and I’m trying to get back into a work frame of mind, though I’m utterly exhausted and it’s difficult to focus. Being responsible for a big group of kindergarteners is draining. They’re really sweet, though, and I got a lot of hugs.

I am enjoying the quiet today. I haven’t even turned on a radio. I’ve thought occasionally about registering to be a substitute teacher to earn a little extra money every so often, but I’m not sure I could cope with a whole classroom of kids for a whole day. Three hours is about my limit.

The new book seems to be doing pretty well. I’m close to having made back my production expenses, and I’ve topped the threshold I set for myself to “earn” a vacation. I’d thought about taking a trip near Labor Day, when the hotel cost at a place I want to go is surprisingly lower than at any other time, but I’m not sure I want to go during hot weather. Maybe I’ll wait until closer to that date to see what it will be like and to decide if I want to go then or do something else in the fall when I can be outdoors more comfortably.

In the meantime, I’m trying to do a more regular workday and allocate time to do promotional activities. I need to be more organized about that, since the easiest way to earn more money is to get more people to buy the books I’ve already written. I keep saying I’m going to do that, but then I don’t work it into my plans, so it never seems to happen. We’re getting to back-to-school time, which feels like a second new year, even if I’m not in school, so it’s a good time to make a fresh start and reboot the year.

Happy Book Day/Birthday

I’ve made it halfway through music and art camp. The kids this year haven’t been too difficult. I’m just not used to being on my feet and constantly moving all morning, and I’m on high alert the whole time, as the “responsible adult,” so I’m exhausted when I get home.

The new book launched yesterday, and I hope everyone’s enjoying it. I guess it’s good in a way that I’m out so much this week because I can’t be obsessively checking my sales numbers. It seems to be doing pretty well so far. At least, it looks like I’ll break even on the production costs unless sales drop off drastically after the first week.

It’s my birthday today, and a group of the adults from music and art camp are going out for lunch afterward for a party (to thank me for giving up my birthday to volunteer). I wonder if I can get the kids to sing Happy Birthday to me.

They really are rather cute. There’s a group of boys that I found hanging around the storage shed in the playground during the recess/snack time. It turned out that they saw a lizard that seems to be living under the shed, so they left part of their snacks for it the day before and they came to see that the snacks were all gone, so they left more snacks for it. I’m not sure whether or not lizards eat animal crackers, but they were convinced that they were feeding the lizard. Then there’s the little boy who’s the neatest colorer I’ve seen, of almost any age. He looks so young you can barely believe he’s old enough for kindergarten, but when they finished their craft projects there were coloring sheets they could do, and they were basically the “adult coloring book” kind of thing, very intricate, but this little boy managed to color it in perfectly. You’d have thought an adult had done it.

Kids that age make friends so easily that it’s a joy to watch. They come in so shy on the first day, and an hour later, they’re all best friends and playing happily together. There are kids from a variety of backgrounds and races, even nationalities, and that doesn’t seem to matter to them. Adults could learn a lot from little kids.

And now I have to go face the kindergarteners again.

My Books

Paperback Available Now!

The paperback for Enchanted Ever After is now available to order from Amazon. It will also be available at other online retailers, but it might take a day or so to make it through the system. If you have Prime or if you pay for express delivery, you might even get it early. They don’t make it easy to do paperbacks and get the release day lined up properly.

I’m off to enjoy an early birthday celebration with my parents, and then next week is Music and Arts Camp, where I’m volunteering, so I might be scarce or late with posts.

Enjoy the new book!

My Books

The Book in My Head

Thinking back on starting to write the Enchanted, Inc. series, I’ve been remembering some of the initial ideas that didn’t quite work out. A book that exists in your head as mostly an idea is very different than the book once it’s written, and this one spent more than a year in my head before I even started trying to mold it into an actual book with any kind of story to it.

To start with, I initially thought the company the heroine would end up working at would be the kind of business that had been in lower Manhattan for a very long time, with the city growing up around it. I even read a whole book about the House of Morgan, because I thought that fit. Once I started thinking more about what the story would be, I realized I couldn’t make a financial company magical. I ended up going with the software industry as a model, even though it was relatively new, because it fit the idea of spells as software, and because I’d done PR for technology firms, I had more of a grasp on that. It was a lot more fun to make fun of.

There was originally going to be a lot more bad boss stuff. When I was first discussing the idea with that editor, my pitch was “Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter when she goes to work with Dilbert.” I read books about women dealing with sexual harassment in the financial industry. Most of that went by the wayside. I still had the bad bosses, but they were just jerks, and the coworkers weren’t that bad.

Before I figured out who all the characters would be, I had this idea that there would be a number of potential “Mr. Right” guys the heroine ran into, and it would take a few books before one became the front runner. I imagined “shipper wars” going on among fans, with each guy having a faction cheering for him. But once I started developing the cast of characters and came up with Owen, that idea went out the window. I couldn’t imagine anyone else winning.

I do sometimes think I got them together a little too soon, but the initial contract was only for two books, and I wrote and turned in the second book before the first book was published, so I had no idea if there would be more books, and I felt it was important to give it some kind of closure. Then I got the contract for two more books, and I did the temporary breakup at the end of book 3 to allow a little bit of a reset to slow things down a bit and let them have at least a little conflict.

I had a lot more whimsical magical stuff in the first book because I was trying to make everything magical, but a lot of that didn’t carry through later because I realized I didn’t need it.

I knew Owen’s background from about midway through the writing of the first book and always planned to reveal it in book 5. That’s part of why I was so upset when they decided to end the series at book 4. Fortunately, the Japanese publisher wanted more, so I kept writing and was eventually able to publish it. I thought I was done with the series then, but the Japanese publisher asked for more books, so I came up with the idea for book 6. After that, I figured I ought to at least get them to a wedding. That’s why I think this really is the end. I went beyond what I planned and got them to the ending I’d hoped for. I’m not married and don’t have children, so I have to admit that I don’t have a lot of interest in writing the next phase of their lives, but you never know what might strike me.

Sometimes I wonder if I could go back to the very first seeds of that initial idea and come up with something entirely different. It might be fun to play with that concept.

My Books

Starting on Enchanted, Inc.

enchanted ever after coverWe’re now just a week away from the release of Enchanted Ever After. I’ll make the paperback version live this Thursday so there will be time to order them and get them shipped around release day. It looks like there may be a delay for the Audible version, since they’re taking a very long time with that contract. I set the release date to give them plenty of time to have it ready, but I didn’t find out that it wouldn’t be happening then until I already had the pre-order up. It will be coming, but I don’t know when.

Last week, I talked about some of the very beginnings of the idea that eventually became Enchanted, Inc. When I first had that idea, though, it was more about the kind of thing I wanted to read. There was a part of me that thought it would be fun to write, but I went looking to read it, first. The problem was, I couldn’t find anything like that. I’d have thought that, given the huge success of the Harry Potter series and its popularity among adults, someone would have capitalized on that and done something like that for adults, substituting the workplace for the school environment. But I didn’t find it. There were only a few urban fantasy books out at that time. I read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which came close to what I wanted, and there was Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks and Charles de Lint’s books, but not much else.

At that time, though, I was desperately trying to write a chick lit book. The American publishers had started looking for them, and new imprints were opening up to focus on that kind of book. I have to admit that I was a little dissatisfied by the American offerings, since they seemed to miss a lot of the point of what made the British books fun. They seemed to be trying to skew younger, aimed at the twentysomethings, when Bridget Jones’s Diary had been about a woman in her thirties. There was the emphasis on shopping that hadn’t been in the British books I’d liked. I was trying to write something that captured what I liked about the British books but that was distinctly American.

Unfortunately, it was without much success. When I sent a manuscript to my agent, I didn’t hear anything at all for about four months, then found a package on my front porch that was my manuscript with a note scrawled on my own cover letter saying, “I can’t sell this.” I sent that agent a certified letter severing the relationship — not because she didn’t like my book, but because of the lack of communication. I expected some kind of response within four months, and if there was a problem with the book, I’d have hoped she’d talk to me. I got the impression she was essentially breaking up with me, or at least being distant and unresponsive enough that I’d break up with her, an impression that was strengthened by the fact that she didn’t respond at all to the certified letter other than signing the postcard that came with it to verify receipt.

I was a bit worried about being unagented, like I was starting my career over again. I think I had at least fifteen submissions that year, all rejected. Then that summer, I went to a conference in New York. Harlequin was launching two new lines, a fantasy imprint and a romantic comedy category line. Most of my friends were writing for the romantic comedy line, and I had hopes of selling something there, so I went with them to the launch party. Their introductory titles for the fantasy imprint were fairly traditional fantasy, set in quasi-medieval worlds, so I figured they wouldn’t be interested in that crazy idea I’d had. I’d been thinking about it off and on over the year and a half or so since I came up with the idea, and I’d developed it enough to know that instead of getting magical powers, my heroine would be immune to magic and be the extremely normal one in the middle of wacky magical people. The problem was, I was afraid it was too girly for a fantasy imprint and too weird for chick lit.

At the party, one of the editors approached my little group and asked if we had any questions. I asked if they’d ever consider any contemporary fantasy. She said they might after the launch and asked if I had an idea. I told her the bare bones of my idea. My friends who were with me said her nostrils flared and she was visibly salivating. She handed me her card and told me to send it. I said it wasn’t written. She said, “Then what are you doing standing here? Go write it!”

And that was why I decided to write that book. She ended up rejecting it, but I didn’t get that rejection until after I already had an agent (a new one) and the book was on submission everywhere else. Still, it gave me the confidence to give it a shot, and it’s probably been the easiest book I’ve ever written. It just came pouring out of me, and I didn’t do massive revisions on it. There was some tightening and tweaking once I got an agent who wanted to represent it, and she suggested the frog-kissing sequence (which had just been a conversation with an offhand reference to kissing frogs as a way of meeting men in the initial draft), but the structure of the plot was more or less the same.

It was still a fairly hard sell. Since chick lit was the hottest thing going at the time and they were looking for something different, that was where we focused, though there was also a fantasy publisher in the mix that made it as far as the auction (before dropping out). I’ve had a lot of second thoughts about that, given that the chick lit market imploded soon after the first couple of books were published, and it took the series with it. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we’d targeted the fantasy publishers instead, but urban fantasy was just starting to take off, and it went in a darker, more horror-oriented direction, so maybe they wouldn’t have been interested. And I don’t have time travel abilities, so it’s not as though I can change things now.

I never imagined when I first had that idea, when I wrote the first book, that there would end up being nine books and that I’d still be writing that series a decade and a half later. Though, I will confess, I did imagine that it would be more successful than it was. They didn’t really go after the adult fans of Harry Potter market, and no one else did, either. I still can’t believe no publishers really got on that bandwagon. I’d have thought the market would have been flooded with books about magical workplaces. I guess publishers are bad about thinking in categories. The Harry Potter books were for kids, so they focused on finding the next big thing for kids and didn’t consider how many adults were reading those books. Even my publisher balked at making that connection because the Harry Potter books were for kids (when I did my own PR using that angle, it was successful, so I wish we could have done that on a broader basis).

So far, this has been my most successful series. I haven’t really been able to get anything else to click like that, and I keep hearing from publishers that they want something else like that. But I’ve written that. I don’t really know how to write something that’s like that but that isn’t that. Maybe something else will click for me the way that one did.