Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stuff I Like

I just did a phone interview for a magazine article, so I'm feeling all mildly famous today. Good thing videophones aren't common because it's a cold day and I was wearing my fuzzy pink bathrobe over my clothes.

I've been reading a book on writing (I'll discuss it more later if I end up finding it helpful), and one of the exercises suggested for coming up with a premise that really matters to you is to make a list of all the things you enjoy seeing or reading about. I thought it would be fun to share some of my list. These are elements that will make me more likely to pick up a book or go see a movie, and while some of them also tend to show up in my writing, not all of them have. I'm leaving out the really obvious ones, like nice characters, humor and magic.

The unlikely or reluctant hero who takes on the mission or quest out of duty or need rather than because he/she wants to be a hero -- I'm actually a little suspicious of people who want to be heroes and go looking for adventure. I think you get a more interesting story with a hero who doesn't want things to change, or if he does want change, he doesn't necessarily want adventure or danger. In my books, Katie wanted a new job without a psycho boss, but she wasn't looking for magic or to be involved in saving the world from bad magic. Thinking about this has made me reevaluate a long back-burnered project. I'd had my heroine daydreaming about adventure and getting more than she bargained for, but it might be more interesting if she wants knowledge but would rather get it from books than from real life and then has no choice but to face the world.

The slowly building romance -- If it takes seven books or an entire TV series for a relationship to develop, I'm all over it. That doesn't mean lots of back and forth, will-they/won't-they, get together and break up repeatedly, "we were on a break" stuff. Just subtle, organic development, starting from some initial sparks in the early going that you might not even notice until later after more has happened and you look back and realize that's where it started. It may have ebbs and flows, because relationships do, but they aren't contrived. I actually think I got Owen and Katie together too soon, but that had a lot to do with the realities of the business. In my original plan for the series, the story with the loss of magical immunity so she could be affected by a spell was supposed to be in the third book, but my agent suggested that it made a better proposal for the second book in trying to get that initial contract if I combined the ideas for books two and three. Then all the stuff that happened with the loss of immunity and that kiss would have resulted in a lot of awkwardness that led to Katie going back to Texas. But when I was writing the second book, I had no way of knowing if that would be the end of the series or if there would be more books, so I felt like I needed to at least hint that they were getting together. Then when they wanted more books, I had to come up with another book 3 that would lead into my planned books 4 and 5. I guess that's why there are so few good, satisfying slow-build relationships. Most book writers and TV writers don't know how long they'll get to make the series, so they can't develop the relationships in a natural way. Either things get left hanging, or they get dragged out if the series is unexpectedly successful.

I'm also kind of fond of the impossible/forbidden relationships, but only if they don't talk about the difficulties too much and if there's other stuff going on that gives them a reason to be together instead of cutting their losses and ripping the Band-Aid off. That would be physically impossible things like ghosts in love with humans, men whose touch will kill their girlfriends (Pushing Daisies), or captains in love with sentient spaceships (like Anne McCaffrey's Ship Who Sang books); logistically challenged relationships like all the human/vampire stories (and why is it that the human is always the woman and the vampire is always the man -- is it that women are the ones who fantasize about vampires while men don't?) or Time Lord/French aristocrat; or the forbidden relationships, of the "oops, my presumed-dead husband is alive, after all" or "oops, did I neglect to mention the crazy wife in the attic?" variety. Just suffer in silence, please. Longing looks are okay, and in a book a few interior monologues are fine. I just don't want hundreds of pages of "We shouldn't be together" "But I want to be with you" "But that could be dangerous for you" "I don't care" "But I do" "But I don't care if it's dangerous" "You could get hurt" "I don't care." Though that could just be backlash from the book I just read.

Worlds crossing or colliding -- I like stories that juxtapose different worlds, as you get with urban fantasy, time travel and other culture clash stories. I do like traditional fantasy set entirely in a fantasy world, but I much prefer the Narnia model, with main characters from our world visiting the fantasy world because I like the contrasts. I love stories that involve hidden magical worlds existing within the "real" world. While I do like time travel stories, I prefer them in the Connie Willis or Doctor Who vein rather than like time travel romances, so that the time travelers are deliberately traveling in time as a way of studying or exploring rather than randomly transported to some other time.

Characters overcoming serious set-backs, including physical injuries -- Lest I sound sadistic, let me explain. In an ongoing series in which the characters are having wild adventures and theoretically in serious danger, if none of the main characters ever get hurt, it weakens the story because it makes it look like what they're doing isn't that dangerous, after all (especially if there's a high body count among unnamed extras). And there should be consequences to those injuries rather than a reset button. Battlestar Galactica has done that well, like when Kara busted up her knee in a crash, and for the rest of the season she was on crutches or having to use a cane. I also like the way Dick Francis uses physical peril in his books. It used to be a way to show just how tough steeplechase jockeys had to be, but now that he's using "ordinary" men as heroes, it's a way of the hero learning exactly what he's made of and what he can overcome, and it means that he pays a personal price for his involvement in the case.

Random other things that don't require as much explanation:
World War II (and the eras leading up to it and away from it)
the Victorian era
Medieval times
men in glasses
old houses (I am a sucker for "weekend party at the manor" stories)
weather (but not weather disasters -- more in the sense of mood setting)
snappy dialogue
dancing (social ballroom dancing, not production numbers)
pursuit or road trips

It might be a fun challenge to try to come up with a story that uses every single one of these elements, but I think the idea was just to look at what appeals to you and why. Sometimes, the why is more important than the element itself.


Carradee said...

The female human/male vampire thing struck me as ironic, because I hadn't fully noticed that, but I have noticed that in sci-fi, it's a human male/alien female.

…Something to do with the respective genders of most readers, possibly? (Presumably, more guys read sci-fi, and more girls read fantasy.)

*goes back to work on her own fantasy novel*

Shanna Swendson said...

I was wondering if it was more psychosexual, saying something about the fantasies of each gender, like the men fantasize about being the vampire while the women fantasize about being seduced by the vampire.

I'm not sure what the alien thing says, but you're right that this seems to be the prevailing trend.