The Sporadic Scrivener Writes

Welcome to my occasional blog. :) I am a writer, reader and critic, and I'll be blogging about all of these topics from time to time. I also love discussion, so please feel free to hop in and contribute.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Why is this not an an act of war?



I’m so furious as I write this that I can barely think straight. If this is true, then what gives them the right?

A missile strike on a Pakistani village. Eighteen dead. All because it was thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri of Al-Qaeda was there. He wasn’t. So it was pointless. Eighteen innocent people dead, for nothing.

But even if al-Zawahiri had been there, would that have made it right? Absolutely not. Bombing another country without warning, especially one you actually have diplomatic relations with?

That has to be an act of war. I simply can’t see how it isn’t.

Apart from the fact that it’s cold-blooded murder, It’s unwarranted interference in another sovereign nation’s affairs. Yes, Pakistan needs to clean up its act. Yes, it’s a haven for some terrorists. Yes, there is good evidence that some Al-Qaeda operatives are hiding out there. But does that give any other country the right to ignore the sovereign Pakistani government and butt in?

What if another country did that to the US? Took objection to someone living in the States, legally or illegally, and launched an air strike on, say, Amarillo, Texas. What would be the response? Simple. Air strikes in response. Maybe proportionate, maybe not.

I’m just hoping now that the news reports aren’t true. That this wasn’t covert CIA action. That the US had nothing to do with it. But I’m not feeling especially optimistic.

My apologies to all Americans reading this, but right now your government and/or your secret service looks like nothing more than the worst sort of playground bullies, only with horrific weaponry.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Warning: Low-flying Clichéd Plot Device



Plot devices. We’re all guilty of using them at one time or another. And sometimes they’re necessary. Sometimes, though, they’re a dangerous hazard that should be avoided at all costs.
Romance novels are certainly habitual offenders when it comes to the clichéd, hackneyed plot device. Pick any romance novel off a shelf and chances are fairly high that it’ll contain at least one device that really should be avoided.

For example, there’s the Big Misunderstanding plot device, usually carried out in tandem with the Failure to Communicate device. Do either of these scenarios sound familiar?

  1. Heroine sees Hero in a compromising position with another woman. Heroine assumes Hero is being unfaithful and just ends relationship, refusing to discuss her reasons in any way. Long interlude ensues before Hero and Heroine communicate again and misunderstanding is sorted out, and the resolution frequently necessitates the involvement of a third party.

  1. Hero sees Heroine in a compromising position with another man. Hero assumes Heroine is being unfaithful and confronts Heroine with evidence. Argument ensues, in which either Hero refuses to believe Heroine when she protests her innocence or Heroine asserts that Hero should know the truth about her without having to ask. Breakdown in communication results, followed by long interlude before misunderstanding is sorted out... you know the drill.

The variations on this plot device are now so common that they’re predictable a mile off. I can usually see this sort of cliché coming at least a couple of dozen pages away. By the time I actually get to the Big Misunderstanding I’m usually at the point where I just want to skip the next 50/100/150 pages (or however long the author takes to resolve the device), because it’s all just so predictable.

I’ve vented about another hackneyed device before - the Missing Heir plot. Lynn over at  Confessions of a Would-Be Writer has vented about the Secret Baby plot device. But if there’s one plot device above all that really gets me rolling my eyes, wanting to jettison the book and head over to Amazon to give the book a one-star review, it’s the Self-Sacrificing Heroine.

Here’s the scenario. Heroine is madly in love with Hero. Hero has proposed, or is about to. They’re blissfully happy and planning their future together. And suddenly Heroine does a complete about-face, announces she no longer loves Hero and - usually - then leaves town. Does a disappearing act, leaving Hero to wonder what he did or what changed her so much that he doesn’t even recognise the woman she became.

What’s behind it? Why does the heroine do a vanishing act? Because she’s found out something bad, something that’s going to cause their relationship some problems. And, rather than staying to work it through, rather than giving the hero credit for loving her and wanting to work through problems with her, wanting to support her and take joint responsibility for their relationship, she takes the decision not to tell him what’s happened. She decides that he doesn’t need to know.

In fact, it’s usually portrayed in novels using this plot device that the heroine is sacrificing herself and her own happiness for the sake of the hero. For example, one common use of this clichéd device is where the heroine suddenly discovers that she can’t have children. She knows the hero wants children, and so she makes the decision to free him to marry someone else who can give him children. She’s sacrificing her own wishes so that he can be happy.

That is such bullshit.

Apologies to anyone who has a problem with strong language. But, seriously, as a plot device that one has to be the least credible around. Apart from anything else, it is so incredibly patronising. It suggests a heroine who does not see her relationship as a partnership, or her boyfriend/fiancé as an equal in that relationship, a person who is capable of being understanding and supportive and of helping her to cope and come to terms with whatever this discovery is - while the inability to conceive seems to be the most common, there are variants in which the heroine discovers that she has only a short time to live.

Taking the baby example, fertility is such a hit-and-miss thing anyway. Many couples have trouble conceiving. Most couples do not have full fertility check-ups before marriage. Any couple could get married planning to have children and end up childless. So the idea that a woman should just end a relationship because she can’t give her man children is ludicrous. And the heroines who do this, to me, come across as weak, untrustworthy (after all, they’re lying to their significant others) and having no understanding of elements essential to any healthy relationship: loyalty, treating their partner as an equal, honesty and so on.

Self-sacrificing heroines? Give me somebody selfish any day!

Monday, December 12, 2005

On Getting Stale



My last post, on the art of butterflying, generated quite a reaction. Not just here, but in other corners of the Net where I hang out. In particular, in my current - old? - fandom, where I’ve been met with protests and shrieks of betrayal. Some more fervent and serious than others, it has to be said.

I can understand it. As another friend who jumped ship a year or two ago pointed out, I’ve done exactly the same thing to her. And now I’m finding out what it’s like, both to be bitten by the bug of new characters and situations which get inside my head and refuse to leave, and also to have friends making you feel a tad guilty about it as a result.

While I’m reassuring friends that my venture into another fandom is probably only a temporary phase, and that I still do have some ideas for stories in my original home, there’s a part of me which is wondering whether this is really just a temporary phase. Oh, not that I’ll stay in the fandom I’ve flitted to, or that these new characters will take over completely and permanently, but whether something else has happened along with the sudden interest in another fandom.

Whether the reason I’ve had trouble writing and finishing fanfic stories for some time is actually a more fundamental problem. That I’ve got stale.

It would hardly be surprising. I’ve been a fanfic writer in that fandom since 1997. That’s a long time. I’ve also been very, very prolific. I have more stories than any other writer in the fandom. I think my KB count is also higher than anyone else’s, so variable story length is irrelevant. And, since my main interest in that fandom is pre-relationship stories in the canon universe (though I’ve very occasionally ventured into other areas), it’s probably surprising that I didn’t run out of new ideas, or new ways to express things, long ago.

There are only so many ways you can tell essentially the same story and write the same characters, after all.

I do still have ideas for long stories involving these characters, and I want to get those written some time. But there’s no urgency in me to get started. The stories aren’t clamouring to be written. Entire scenes, lines and lines of dialogue, insights into characterisation aren’t unfolding in my head. Not any more. Not for these characters.

Yet for my new characters and fandom that’s exactly what’s happening. In the past week I’ve written five stories. They’re all short, but not that short - three of them are around 4000 words, with one of those close to 4500. And all five were written in a single day each. I have a longer story on the go, moving along fairly slowly but that’s only because I need to rewatch more of the episodes before I can be confident of characterisation, especially for one character, and also to remember events in detail. I’ve only seen the relevant episodes once, after all.

Entire scenes are unfolding in my head again. Lengthy passages of dialogue are writing themselves as I go about my daily routine - getting dressed, doing laundry, shovelling snow, making dinner. I’m rushing back to my computer and dumping them on screen at an amazing rate. And - I know it sounds egotistical, but I can’t help it - some of these stories feel like my best work ever, in short stories at any rate.

What’s the difference? Is it just because these characters pose a new challenge, because they’ve captured my imagination in a way I never thought any others ever could? Have they replaced my original couple in my affections? Is the series I’m writing for - (shudder) - better than my former home?

No. I don’t think that’s true. Not really. What is different is that it’s fresh. The characters are new to me - I haven’t written them ad infinitum for years. And the series itself is new - at least, in this incarnation (it’s the return and update for the 2000s of a long-running TV series) - and so fanfic about these characters is still relatively thin on the ground. I don’t therefore feel as if every single scenario has been covered. That every episode - even though there are only 13 with these particular characters  - has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb until there’s nothing new to say. Fans are still interpreting the episodes, the relationships, the situations, the characters. It’s fresh. It’s new. It’s exciting.

And my other fandom is, for me right now, well... stale.

Maybe some time away from writing in it will do me good. Maybe I will come back in a month or two feeling refreshed and full of new ideas. I don’t know.

I’m hoping that I will, though at the moment that feeling comes more from mingled loyalty and guilt than anything else. That fandom has been incredibly good to me. I’ve been far, far luckier than any author has a right to be. I’ve had feedback and awards enough to make anyone grateful for the rest of their lives. If gratitude alone did it, I’d do my best to churn out stories - stories that would be as good as I could make them - in that fandom indefinitely.

But, right now, I can’t do it. If I tried, I’d stumble, run into writer’s block pretty quickly and, if I finished anything, I probably wouldn’t be happy with it. Plus all the time - as happened with the last story I wrote for that fandom, a couple of weeks ago - I’d be torn by the desire to run away and write something for my new characters. Characterisation and mood for that new fandom, quite different from the old one, would start to leach in. I see signs of it in the last story I wrote: elements of darkness and anger infusing a character who rarely exhibits that kind of behaviour.

So, for now, I’m pushing the guilt aside and letting myself fly freely in the new fandom, loving the feeling of freshness and excitement writing there is bringing me. As for the future... well, only time will tell.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Butterflies are very pretty creatures...



What is it about writing something other than what you’re currently working on? What’s the appeal of a completely blank screen, or a new idea or universe, which is so much more exciting than the novel or premise or universe you’ve been writing in for the past weeks or months or even years?

I used to wonder how writer friends of mine who have butterfly muses did it. Hopping from one story to another. Leaving novels or stories unfinished on their hard drives while they started another one. Moving from an existing universe - original or fanfic - and diving into a completely different one. Didn’t they get frustrated with all these unfinished WIPs? Isn’t the mental switch really difficult to cope with? What’s so difficult about sticking with one until it’s finished? What about the feeling of satisfaction you get from typing those final words and knowing that you’ve tied up all loose ends, all’s right in your world and your characters are happy? The End?

Well...

Most of my writing is fanfic, though I am (stuck) in the middle of an original novel. One which will get finished one of these days. I’ve written in the same fandom ever since I first got struck by the urge to write about these characters I’d seen interact on TV. I used to make up stories in my head, but never knew that anyone else did it until I stumbled on some fanfic sites online... and then I was hooked. Ever since, I’ve been a hugely active writer, churning out many, many stories per year in that fandom. And only that fandom.

I never thought that I’d have any interest in writing anywhere else. If I moved on from fanfic, I thought it’d be to original writing. Well, I’ve talked before about how my efforts at writing as a full-time career worked out. That experience has been a little discouraging, and it’s probably why I haven’t touched the novel since. I’ve only just rediscovered my Muse, thanks to NaFinWipsMo, and in the past five weeks or so I’ve written easily 60,000 words or more.

And where does the butterflying come in? Well, there I was, busy working away on one story, a story I was pretty excited about when I started it, when WHAM! I was struck with the irresistible urge to... flit. To stray from my ‘home’ fandom, where I’ve been an active writer for almost ten years, to somewhere else. Suddenly, a different set of characters are playing out scenarios in my head and demanding that I listen to them, talk to them and write for them.

It’s very seductive.

And, yes, I am now writing in a second fandom. And loving it. And feeling that those characters and scenarios are special to me, too. I’m watching episodes to get a feel for the characters’ voices, mannerisms, behaviour. I’m learning to describe appearances, expressions, gestures, actions for new people. I’m getting the hang of writing different speech rhythms; from having written American characters for almost ten years now, I’m now writing mainly about a couple of British-sounding people, each with different dialects and pet phrases. It takes something of a mental switch. But it’s fun, and I can tell myself that it’s actually good practice. A good writing exercise. After all, when I do return to original writing, do I want all my characters to sound as if they come from the West Coast of the US?

This new addiction of mine doesn’t look good for the novel... but then, who knows? If I can keep writing at the pace I have been for the past month or so, maybe that will find its way into the schedule too.

One thing’s for sure: I’ll never roll my eyes at butterflies again.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Heirs Un...apparent


As anyone who reads my Amazon reviews knows, I’m a great fan of Regency-era romances. When these are done well, they’re a joy to read. Authors such as Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, Jean Ross Ewing and, some of the time, Edith Layton get all of it right: settings I can visualise, charismatic characters who get inside my head and refuse to leave, haunting or entertaining premises and - for me this is crucial - historical accuracy.

I’m not talking about every single detail of dates, places, people who really lived at the time. Nor do I have a problem with an author shifting the date of a minor battle in the war against Napoleon, as some do for convenience of plot, or referring to a song, dance, novel etc of the era which wasn’t actually around until a year or two after the date of the book’s setting. That’s a writer knowingly taking liberties for artistic reasons, and the best authors will say so in a note at the end of the book.

What really irritates me is when authors make mistakes which could be avoided if they would just do some simple research. I’m now extremely reluctant to pick up Regencies by authors new to me, because I’ve been burned so many times. On page 1 I could find a title completely misused. At the end of the first chapter maybe the heroine just walks out to visit the hero’s house - no chaperone in sight, no-one wonders where she’s going and the hero’s staff doesn’t bat an eyelid when an unaccompanied female arrives and asks to see the master of the house. Or maybe by the end of chapter two hero and heroine, who didn’t even know each other at the start of the book, are calling each other by first names. None of which is correct for the period.

And there’s lots more besides. Now, I realise that England is a small country. Not much bigger than many US states, and considerably smaller than some. But, still, considering that horses tend at most to be able to travel about sixteen miles an hour - and that’s not when pulling a heavy carriage - would it not occur to an author that travelling from London to north Derbyshire and back, a round-trip journey of some five hundred miles, is simply not possible in an afternoon?

And don’t even get me started on anachronistic language...! I still remember the novel in which the hero had ‘biscuits’ - ie, those strange American things that look like scones - for breakfast. I’m jerked totally out of the story by the heroine ‘fixing’ her hair, or the hero ‘writing’ a friend. Or someone giving directions and using 'blocks'. Characters who sound modern as opposed to nineteenth-century - and, worse still, modern American instead of English - just don’t fit in Regency novels.

But right now my biggest bugbear is the ‘missing heir’ plotline. These seem to be a staple of some Regency-era novels. I can see the appeal: a chance to introduce a different, perhaps troublesome, character into the mix of an established family, set in its ways and secure in the knowledge that nothing will change for generations to come. Suddenly a man they never knew, who perhaps had a far more conventional upbringing - perhaps even, heaven forbid, in the colonies! - turns up and is heir to the title. And trouble ensues. Things get stirred up. Instant conflict.

That all works... until suddenly it’s revealed to the reader that the missing heir is actually descended through the female line. He’s the grandson of the late Earl’s daughter, perhaps. Right.

Let’s get this straight. Like it or not - and I never said that the rules of the nobility were not extremely sexist, old-fashioned, anachronistic and anything else you like - titles pass through the male line only, unless there is some provision in the original creation of the title for it to pass through the female line. And that’s extremely rare. It happens in the case of the royal family, but that’s an exception. Even today, despite moves to introduce legislation to change it, titles may only pass via sons and other male relatives and descendants.

So if our Earl had only daughters, it wouldn’t matter a thing whether any of those daughters had a son. The title would pass to the Earl’s brother, male cousin (son of the Earl’s father’s brother), or some other distant relation through the male line.

Remember Pride and Prejudice? It was a source of great dismay to the Bennetts that Mr and Mrs Bennett only had daughters, because their home and lands would pass to Mr Collins on Mr Bennett’s death. Three of the Bennett daughters are married by the end of the novel, but that makes absolutely no difference to the situation as regards inheritance. The reason the Bennett girls need to marry well is that there is no guarantee that all five girls and Mrs Bennett will be adequately provided for when Mr Collins inherits.

Even more ridiculous is the secret bastard heir story. Our Earl dies leaving no legitimate heir. So the title passes to his illegitimate son by a long-ago mistress. I’ve read at least two books with that plot-line, and I’m sure there are plenty more out there. And, once I discover the truth about the hero’s situation (our bastard heir), I’m just about ready to throw the book across the room. I mean, what? It’s just not possible. It’s not even a question of what our dying Earl wishes. He can leave any money, property, anything else he wishes to anyone he wishes (apart from any property which is entailed, that is, property which legally has to pass to the legitimate heir to the title). But titles cannot pass to illegitimate offspring.

(Then there’s the whole question of - in those times! - an illegitimate offspring actually being accepted by the aristocracy, being invited to parties, allowed to join clubs and so on... this was one of the most exclusive, snobbish social circles which ever existed).

When it comes to writing any novel, but most especially anything using a specialist setting, whether historical or something else, there is simply no substitute for doing research. If you don’t do it, it shows. I’m no expert in Regency manners, culture, history, titles and social settings, but I’m an interested and fairly knowledgeable amateur. If I can spot mistakes a mile off, then those are mistakes that can easily be avoided. And they’re the sign of a truly lazy author.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Writing as a job... or not?

Thanks to taking part in NaFinWipsMo (see earlier blogs), I've finally rediscovered the joy of writing. The creative process, setting fingers to keyboard and seeing words and phrases and sentences appear on my screen, characters interacting and talking and weaving a story, has become exciting once more. Plots and conversations unroll inside my brain again and I itch to get to my computer, to get it all down on screen before the ideas vanish.

I still love writing. And that's a relief, after such a long dry spell.

I know that all writers go through dry patches; I'm far from unusual in that respect. Yet for the past eight or so years I'd hardly gone a day without writing. Sometimes I'd produce as much as eighteen pages in a single day. Other days it might be less than half a page. But at least it was something.

Yet, from around April to just under a month ago, I barely touched any of my works in progress. Occasionally, I'd take a look at the long story I was working on and I'd try to work up the enthusiasm to add to it. Maybe I'd get half a sentence written before switching to something else. Maybe I'd get a page and a half, but without any sense of feeling the dialogue flowing and the story almost writing itself.

The answer is, I know beyond a doubt, that I'm not cut out to be a full-time writer.

When we emigrated, and I quit without any regrets the job I'd done for the past sixteen years, my beloved other half insisted that he wanted me to use the talent people tell me I have for writing to try to make a career as an author. That he was quite happy for me to take a year, two years, whatever, away from earning a living to work full-time as a novelist. He'd get a job and I could enjoy the luxury of having all day, every day, to write.

Sounds perfect, right? Every writer's dream?

Not mine, so I soon discovered.

Turned into my day-job, writing became a chore. I'd find excuses not to write. Even though I liked the premise I had for the novel I was working on, I was struggling to find enthusiasm to work on it. Fanfic would call me instead, and I wrote a couple of short fanfics while pretending that I was only going to work on the novel. Five chapters of the novel written, and I ground to a halt on the sixth. Fanfic inspiration dried up shortly after that.

Then I started looking for a job - in fact, started the process of working out what I wanted to do now that I've happily left my former career behind. I took a couple of career-counselling courses, and suddenly I was back in a work-like routine: getting up early in the morning, paying more attention to grooming and appearance because I'd be interacting with more than just my computer and my husband, spending time with other people and being challenged, having structure to my day.

And I came home and pulled up Word and began writing again.

Not either of the novel or the long fanfic, but it was writing. It was a start. Progress. And now, even though I'm still looking for a job, I'm still writing. It's all come back again - the characters, the plots, the dialogue, the love of putting words together and forming something... more out of them. I'm a writer again.

But never a full-time writer. I won't make that mistake again. Some people just aren't cut out to do this as a full-time career, and I'm one of them.

Still, the year of trying and failing wasn't a complete waste. I took a year out to be a novelist makes a great talking-point in job interviews, even if one interviewer did ask whether my resume was also fictional...

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

NaFiningWips and the meaning of Sporadic

A few entries ago, I announced the launch of NaFinWipsMo: (Inter)National Finishing WIPs Month. As an alternative to the writing-fest that is NaNoWriMo, NaFinWipsMo encourages writers to set the aim of finishing one work in progress, instead of starting yet another one.

I honestly wasn't sure how it would work out. Whether I would begin with all good intentions, only to find the desire to write, and the production of words, fizzling out as the days went past. In fact, the opposite has happened. I want to write. Every day, apart from the occasional one when I have no time on the computer, I've been writing up a storm. Minimum three pages a day; frequently between seven and nine.

In a little over half a month, I've added more than 50% to my file. I began with around 41,000 words and am now at 67,600. What's even better is that the novel - fanfic, actually, but it's novel-length - is almost finished. I think another two or three days' solid effort will do it. And I've been editing as I go along, so I'm not looking at another long job once the writing's finished.

What's done it? What got the creative juices flowing again? Well, this is where I have to admit that NaNoWriMo has a point. It's the group dynamic. The sense of competition. The camaraderie that comes from knowing I'm part of a group of writers doing this. Comparing word counts from time to time, on websites, in email and so on. Chivvying each other online, and even occasionally getting into writing 'duels' on IRC. All of that has resulted in a hugely productive month, not just for me, but for several of my friends who joined in this with me.

NaFinWipsMo is a huge success, and we're going to do it again in a few months' time.

Of course, all this writing has meant that I've had less time for other things. Such as blogging. Now, I began this blog with the intention of writing posts whenever I felt like it. Of course, I had no idea how often that would be. I never had any pretensions of being a columnist and didn't intend to write every day. But, to begin with, I was writing twice a week. Now, it's fallen to once.

By calling myself sporadic I made it pretty clear that I wasn't going to be any sort of a regular correspondent; Yet it seems that a few of my friends are dropping in and reading this from time to time, so I should make more of an effort.


Sporadic

Etymology: Medieval Latin sporadicus, from Greek sporadikos:
here and there, from sporad-, sporas scattered; akin to Greek speirein to sow: occurring occasionally, singly, or in scattered instances
synonym see INFREQUENT


So there you go. Nevertheless, there's infrequent and there's rare. And I don't like to see dust gathering on things I'm responsible for.