How watching Survivor can make your writing better…

Posted on Dec 30, 2011 in #writing | 2 comments

If you’re looking for character motivation, it doesn’t get any better than Survivor, whether it’s for villains or heroes writ large or small..
Just watch.
Case in point, this last season.
If you ever want to know how cult leaders, Adolph Hitler or even the kids in the high school clique operate, just watch Coach.
Talk about a cult of personality. For forty days the charismatic sonofagun successfully managed to get his people to do anything he wanted even as he convinced them that Ozzie (another character) was the enemy.
Not one of them seemed to realize that the biggest obstacle to winning a million dollars was… Coach.
It went right down to the wire. Top three. The only thing Coach forgot was the people he was loading onto the jury.
It’s basic human nature on a small, intimate scale. Want to know why the good guys don’t win? Watch Survivor where the ‘good’ guys have only won once or twice – and usually by default. Although Ozzie played a cleaner, more honest game – actually sacrificing himself at one point in a very dramatic, and silly, move – it was Coach’s personal portrayal of himself as a ‘Christian man’ that kept him alive, no matter how many principles and people he sacrificed to accomplish it.
Want a petty character who’ll do anything to win/succeed/triumph, then watch Jon a few seasons back – who told everyone his grandmother had died just to gain votes. (His grandmother was very much alive.)
I remember one season where all the attention was on the two ‘big guys’, the muscle men, one of whom everyone liked and rightfully so. It came down to a contest of strength and endurance, loading bags of sand onto the contestants. Everyone expected it to come down to those two.
But it didn’t.
With quiet dignity and true courage, it was an attorney from Chicago who won, bearing up beneath the ever increasing bags of sand as both the big men fell by the wayside. Although he stood up for his team, no one noticed.
Even afterward the focus was on the two big guys failing, especially the  popular one, and not the one who’d won the contest. He was voted off shortly later for being an ineffective leader, which he wasn’t. He just couldn’t overcome the cult of personality, the focus the network and the host had on another character. It’s one of the realities of life, the unsung hero.
BTW, he became the love interest in one of my novels. No, I’m not telling which one, you’ll have to read them and guess. The one that gets the answer right gets the series of their choice, free. (It’s an easy bet that most of you won’t get it right.)
Seriously, though, if you want to understand motivation, character and how people can justify even the most heinous actions, just watch Survivor. After a while, you’ll get it.
Even watching host Jeff Probst in action as he asks the questions at each tribal council is an education in and of itself. In a few moments he skillfully picks apart the fragile bonds between the tribe members, or exposes one person’s machinations against the others.
Or not.
Although I understood the basic motivation of the characters in my current work in progress, especially the villain, a part of me that struggled with it. I’m not a follower by nature so I had trouble understanding how even basically good people could follow someone like him. Until I watched one of the people in the current Survivor.
Then I got it.
There’s an intrinsic human need to be liked that could be easily perverted, and was.
Survivor is a fascinating study in human nature. I can’t wait until next season.

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Ancient Cultures/Modern Writing – Avoiding Prejudices

Posted on Oct 19, 2011 in #writing, writers | 1 comment

One of the things I find amusing is to listen to people talk about ancient cultures and describe the lives of those who lived then as ‘hard’. In comparison to ours, they definitely were. After all, most people barely lived past the age of forty and cause of death would be as likely from tooth decay. That was for men. We act shocked by the idea that young women of that time were married by twelve and old maids at fourteen, without considering that by the time their children were adults they’d already lived over half their lives. That’s if they survived childbirth, one of the leading causes of death for women. Many children died young, either in childbirth, or from disease or accident.

Yet if you asked those people if their lives were hard, they’d be surprised at the very notion. After all, it was all they knew. It was life, they lived and loved, worked and fought, had children they nurtured. Just like us.

Many archaeologists and historians, though, operating under modern prejudices of society and faith, made similar assumptions and judgments – those ancient cultures were barbarian, filthy and pagan, they must have led a miserable existence. This despite all evidence to the contrary. Don’t believe me? See how many movies portray the people of eras as unwashed, as if they didn’t know simple hygiene. Yet ancient Egyptians used makeup, balms and ointments – many scented – and were nearly obsessed with cleanliness. It would take Christianity to make bathing a sin. In truth most ancient cultures were far more advanced, happy and egalitarian than assumed.

For the ancient Egyptians, its clear from their writings and their statuary that marriage was a sacred institution for them, and husband and wife were considered equal. As were women in general, many of whom ran their own businesses.
In most ancient societies the relationships between people, whether as couples or friends, were important and valued. If you read their writings, without the cynicism imposed by our own society, you can see it. In ancient Egypt husbands wrote to wives and wives to their husbands, of their devotion to each other without shame or embarrassment. Something that in our society until the last half century. Imagine something like that now.
There are tales throughout history of friends who sacrificed their lives for each other – now we refer to such friendships in derogatory terms like bromances, or BFFs.

People also had rights many today would envy. In early Rome women could get divorced and own their own property, something that didn’t exist in some parts of the US until this last century.
Yes, there was slavery, but slavery still exists in this world, and many slaves had better rights than many of those who work on production lines or in cubicles, since their owners were at least required to feed and clothe them.
Cultural assumptions were also much different, or non-existent. Homosexuality wasn’t an issue. In many cultures no one cared.
Sexual roles were also less defined. Without the societal assumption that women were the ‘weaker’ sex, women in those ancient cultures were able to do any job or hold any career they wished. Even serve in the army.
For example, in some pre-puebloan societies it was men who did the weaving – a task considered women’s work for many these days – and a boy who wished to court a girl took a particularly fine blanket, woven by his own hands, to his prospective mother-in-law for judgment.
Yet in much of our writings we tend to condemn those societies based on our own cultural assumptions. It’s easy to do so, after all, through the lens of our own judgments.
For instance, we condemn Cleopatra and portray her as being a harlot for marrying her brother but by the terms of Egyptian culture, what she did wasn’t sacrilege or incest, it was their culture. After all, the Gods Isis and Osiris were also brother and sister (a neat way to explain how the first gods managed the whole procreation thing, unlike in the Bible, where a whole different tribe just appears).

What we do tend to forget is that some of these cultures existed, relatively peacefully and successfully for centuries longer than ours has.
We are fond of the image of Rome as that of the Coliseum and the ‘poor Christians’ being thrown to the lions. It was a fairly common, if brutal, punishment for criminals in those days. Yet from the point of view of the Romans, many of those early Christians were criminals, condemning the religion of others, fomenting rebellions, stirring up slave riots and fighting among one another. And much of that image isn’t historically accurate either.
We condemn ancient Rome for its excesses and yet some in the US Congress or on Wall Street could certainly give them a run for their money. As we also tend to look down on the pharaohs and early Caesars but most of them understood  they held their place at the will of their people. More than one ruler found himself overthrown when they forgot that. Some folks in power now might do well to remember it.
Given the importance of interpersonal relationships among those early societies, an argument could be made that the first sign of their failure was when those relationships were devalued, when the excesses of those in power diminished the value of those relationships and began to take away their rights. Not that they were all perfect, but in many cases they were far better than we’ve assumed.
Some of what we know now appears relatively new, but isn’t, but the assumption that there’s nothing new to learn is equally untrue.
The burial place of a female gladiator was only recently – relatively – accepted as such, in spite of  the fact that  all evidence pointed to her sex as being female. The evidence for it long existed, it just couldn’t be seen past the lens of our own assumptions.
We’re still uncovering new information. They just recently discovered previously untouched (except by thieves) ancient Egyptian tombs.
We now know that we understand much less about the ancient Incan culture than we once did, based on new discoveries.
So, are you or will you write your novel from the point of view of your cultural upbringing, to espouse a certain concept, or will you try to write it without preconceptions? And how will you market it? As ‘factual’ or as a ‘re-imagining’?
There is a group of reviewers that say they’ll review your novel, not just the quality of the writing, but for historical accuracy. My only question is, whose history? From which point of view?

For example, if you’re writing a western, and you want your female character to do certain things, would her actions have been acceptable or even possible for the period? I had started one, but was caught short by questions about that era. A little research reassured me that not only was my concept possible, it was even more likely to be right than the images we have of western women now. I’ll definitely be citing my research on that one.
In a few days I’ll be releasing a new book, a thriller/horror/romance based in time of the early dynasties of ancient Egypt. I’ll make no claims that it will be 100% historically accurate – it is fiction after all – but I did try to stay as true to that era as possible. For example – I had my heroine riding a horse, possible given where she’d come from but unlikely even then, and certainly in ancient Egypt. The horses of that time hadn’t advanced so much, they were much smaller. Breeding and time would change that.
The problem is that many people assume the author made the effort to do the research and so believe a lot of what they read. However I know a lot of books that were/are wildly inaccurate historically, others just mildly. Bodice-ripping is much harder to do than most assume. And let’s not talk about the movie Pocahontas. I also had someone chide me about the danger of using the word Nike in the title of my book Nike’s Wings – it was clear  the individual had no clue that Nike was the Greek goddess of victory and not just a shoe manufacturer. Most of us know of a few novels written about ancient cultures from a specific point of view and some of those authors have quite a devoted following. If the native cultures they described could read those books, I wonder if they would recognize themselves? Especially given that some historians and archaeologists now question some of those assumptions?
So, what does this mean to us as fiction writers? (Non fiction writers have different issues) What are our responsibilities when it comes to referring to or describing these incredibly complex ancient cultures? First, before we put pen to paper, we must decide how true to that culture we want to be, how fictional is fictional? What do we owe those ancient societies? What do we owe our readers?
Honesty, that’s all.

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A little word on the Indie Author/Editor self-editing conundrum

Posted on Aug 15, 2011 in #writing, new writers, writers | 6 comments

Lately I’ve found myself on the wrong end of several sticks on this subject – oddly being perceived as being anti-editing, which I’m not. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Finally, though, I did. It’s me. Or at least, maybe it’s reality.

So… Now I’m about to burst some bubbles.

For those who think editing doesn’t matter, but especially for those who think being an Indie writer is a short cut to the kind of success Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath and a few others have had switching to traditional publishers…

It’s not.

And most especially for those who think your prospective agent/editor/publishing house will do your editing/polishing for you.

You’re about to have a VERY rude awakening.

Think editing is supposed to be collaborative? Interactive, a polite interaction between professionals? Pardon my bluntness, but… grow up, you’ve been watching too much TV.

Here, courtesy of Jessica Faust from BookEnds LLC – a well known literary agency – from her Submissions 101 blog entry:

Before getting started, before even writing a query, you need to make sure your book has been written, rewritten, edited and polished, and, as you have heard from me before, I even suggest you’ve already started writing your next book so you have something to focus on besides just the query process. Fiction and narrative nonfiction (i.e., memoir) writers will need to have completed the full manuscript.

I didn’t even submit my first manuscript until the second was complete.
That’s a submission folks, not a completed manuscript. In the traditional publishing world you not only have to be a good self-editor, you have to be a really good one! If that manuscript isn’t polished to a fare thee well, it will end up in the circular file beside their desk with a form rejection letter back to you for your troubles. They don’t have time to ‘fix’ your work and to them it says volumes about your commitment to your writing. Or rather, the lack thereof.
A multitude of errors says the same thing to your readers – that you just don’t care enough about your craft to do it right! Get enough comments about mistakes and they will stop reading your books. Amanda Hocking hired a good editor as soon as she made enough money to afford one. Konrath was a pro already but there’s no doubt he had someone editing for him. What makes you think you’re so hot that you don’t need to do the same? Or at least a beta reader or three – preferably ones for whom English was a subject they did well with in school.
A good editor doesn’t have the time – or to be honest the patience – to mollycoddle your sensitive feelings.  Even, or (that word again) especially, editors for small presses or for Indie writers. It’s a job. It’s how they make their living and they make their living by doing a lot of editing for a lot of people. And they may do it in addition to their day job, just like you. (Same thing for reviewers, BTW)

A good editor will send back your manuscript with corrections and notes. In the non-Indie world these are NOT suggestions and can come off as downright rude. After all their job isn’t to do your work for you, that’s YOUR job, and you should have done it right in the first place. A small press editor in this new world doesn’t have time to waste. Think they won’t ask you to change your manuscript to suit them or what the publisher wants? Think again. Their job is to get a marketable product out. Fast. I know of one author who was dumped by both agent and major publishing house simply because she took too long and it was taking too much effort. And it showed.

Even so, even with all the care I took, my first professional edit was a shock. Believe me, they weren’t sensitive to my feelings. Every edit, though, taught me something else. I learned how to look at my work honestly, to see where perhaps this sentence, phrase or paragraph might work better someplace else and that I have a problem repeating myself. Which is why I need my beta readers so much. (God bless you Erin, Angela, Andy and Mateo, et al.) 

So I learned, and learned fast, to be a very good self-editor. It never occurred to me to do anything less. How could you possibly consider yourself a writer if you didn’t? Was I really so arrogant as to believe I had written the Great American Novel  in one try? (Heck even Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, wrote multiple drafts.) No. My books were and are edited and re-edited every time I find a new pet peeve on a blog somewhere. Even so I still go back to do another polishing draft, just to be absolutely sure, before I post a single book anywhere.(I’m on tenterhooks waiting for feedback on the latest.) That’s why I’d get so frustrated to find myself in the middle of this argument. I thought every Indie author wanted the same, to be as professional as they could be. I still get anxious every time someone contacts me to say they caught a mistake. 
And if you’re a good writer, a professional writer, you should, too.
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Holding out for a hero

Posted on Jun 13, 2011 in #writing | 3 comments

I miss heroes. The real ones, not the surly, lip-curling badass on a motorcycle, the alpha male who treats a woman like a helpless idiot, but the real ones. You know, the good old-fashioned kind of hero, the average guy just trying to do what’s right, or who finds himself caught up in a situation he can’t turn his back on.
What brought this up? Someone mentioned the difference between the (relatively) new Cape Fear movie with Nick Nolte and Robert DeNiro and the old version with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.
In the new version, under the frequently misguided decision to add ‘flaws’ to the lead character, they made Nolte a shadier character than Peck was in the original and that took some of the edge away for me right off the bat. In the original, Peck is a lawyer trying to do a decent job but Mitchum blames him for not getting him off. Right away, you’re rooting for Peck. And the burly Mitchum is clearly a tough guy, while Peck isn’t. The odds are clearly stacked against him, setting up the ending.
There are some who would argue that heroes should have flaws and I couldn’t agree more. But most of the true life heroes you see aren’t six foot six biker type dudes in leather. In most cases, those are the bad guys. The real heroes are the firefighters, the policemen, the citizen soldiers. If you look at them, they come in all shapes and sizes. All of them have problems and issues, the same kind many of the antiheroes do.
Our society sometimes almost seems to encourage our helplessness – you can’t fight city hall, don’t get involved.
There’s a TV show out of Canada, called Flashpoint, that epitomizes what I’m talking about. Oh they’ve got a pretty guy, but the two leads Enrico Colantani and Hugh Dillon aren’t your classic hero types. Both are follically challenged *grins* but Hugh could park his shoes under my bed any day. Just don’t tell my husband that – although to tell the truth what got me a little about him was his slight resemblance to another ‘everyday’ hero – Michael Biehn from Terminator.
I think of the volunteer firefighters in most communities, who risk their lives to save those in burning homes. And I think of the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan or the men who ran INTO the Towers that day. You look at their pictures and you see extra-ordinary men – who put their lives on the line every day. We should celebrate, and write about, those heroes. And remember the ones who inspired them.

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Reviews and Reviewers – Learning curves

Posted on May 20, 2011 in #writing, books, new writers, novels | 2 comments

After all, one knows one’s weak points so well, that it’s rather bewildering to have a reviewer overlook them and invent others. – Edith Wharton (paraphrased)
Asking a working writer what he thinks about reviewers is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs – Christopher Hampton (paraphrased) 
The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews – William Faulkner
And, of course, it all depends on the review, and the reviewer. We’re talking professional reviewers at the moment, personal reviews will come shortly. 
So, what brought this up, you ask? Well, several things. One was a review I received yesterday, another was a request by a reviewer and the third was a dialogue about differences in  a particular genre. As with everything we all bring our own preferences and prejudices, from both sides of the situation.
Reviews are critical in the writing business. At their most basic level they can help a reader decide if this is a book they want to read, at their highest they can help lift a book from obscurity. So every writer looks at them with both dread and anticipation. I know I do. (I’m not a reviewer although I have reviewed, but I won’t speak from that side of it.)  I also view them as a learning experience and yesterday’s review was a wonderful example of that. 
With my little heart going pitter-pat, I opened it and began to read, my heart rising with the compliments, then *thwock* wincing as the knife went in. *grin* And, being who I am, I took those criticisms severely to heart – as I should. Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, but as a writer every review is an opportunity to grow, to learn your craft. 
So, was she right that I can sometimes be repetitious? *grudgingly* Yeah, sometimes. Do I head-hop – that is, change points of view among the characters, particularly secondary characters? In this case, and in the case of many of my series books, yes. I like to have my readers get inside the heads of my primary characters so they know, for example, that John is a little judgmental of other cultures. That can be a matter of taste, too. Some people like it, some don’t. None of my ten or so beta readers complained about it. Even so I went back and took another look, particularly in the beginning and took out some of both. (The benefit of an Indie writer, that I can adjust my writing on the fly, so future readers can benefit from what I’ve learned.) For those people that don’t like it, though, this review will either forewarn them or steer them away. Which is fine in either case. 
She objected to the romantic elements in the book, she didn’t think it advanced the story. Again, this can be a matter of taste. Like the difference between hard and ‘soft’ sci-fi.  Hard is more science-edged and tends to have little interpersonal interaction while soft tends to add some interpersonal and romantic elements. Although many tend to think of that as a male/female thing, the best sci-fi has elements of both. Asimov was a romantic.
For me, though, a book is somewhat incomplete without that soft side, the interpersonal side. Friendship, love and sex are a part of life. In all my books I want my readers to share the feelings my characters have for each other, whether it’s the strong friendship between Elon and Colath in The Coming Storm or the growing attraction between Kyriay, the Queen of the Fairy, and Morgan in Song of the Fairy Queen. Or Ky and Raissa in Heart of the Gods. Now I could have written the story as a straight action/adventure but I didn’t. It’s actually part of a series, the prequel of which will be released soon. When I wrote both books, I wrote them with the intent that they would be the first in a series and that strong relationship would be at the heart. Still, I had to ask.
A poll of my beta readers about the question, though, came up with an outcry against changing it – particularly and oddly, from my MALE beta readers, which surprised me.
And this is where those personal reviews come in. Now to other readers there’s no doubt some of those personal reviews come from friends and family. And some do. Because of that I cringed when an unsolicited review – quite wonderful otherwise – referred to me as Valerie rather than Ms. Douglas or some such. On the other hand, the writer knows when it’s friends or family, and when it’s not. I was thrilled to see a wonderful review on my novella Not Magic Enough – a fantasy that’s unabashedly romantic- and delighted to discover the reviewer, again, was male. So my perception that if there’s a strong romantic element to some of my stories it would keep men away is wrong. Hurray!
She also mentioned a disappearing character and the instant it was mentioned I knew who she was talking about – or at least I think I do. I thought I’d handled it, more or less. Sometimes people do just disappear, especially since he’d been taken away by the bad guy. You don’t always know what happened. The fact that she mentioned it, though, brought up that little niggling voice inside me. And I knew I had to fix it, or at least resolve it. So I did. (One of the blessing of Indie writing.)
Oh, and I forgot to mention a few important details. One, that she gave me a 3.5 out of five – slightly better than average. Would I have rather gotten a four? Absolutely. But some reviewers very rarely give out a five and I suspect from the review that she’s one of them. So, knowing that might be unachievable, it wasn’t bad. 
The other details? 
This quote – “…the recipe for a spellbinding story. This one makes a good attempt at achieving this, with a plot that kept me hooked and characters that carried the story forward strongly. There were a few twists that left me pleasantly surprised. The author clearly took care to do her research, and was able to artfully weave the finer details into the story without taking away from the narrative at all.” (paraphrased)
And this – “The story held my attention to the last page by riding on a fantastic concept and strong characters and a brilliantly quick pace. The solid ending has made me interested in seeing whatever she has in store for the team on their next adventure.” (paraphrased)
Above anything else those two comments are what are most important. Because a spellbinding story with a fantastic concept, strong characters that leave the reader wanting more is what it’s all about. 
Those are the judgments a writer has to make – to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (reviews)… or to do as Faulkner does. And perhaps miss becoming a better writer and giving readers a better book.

To see the review –
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