Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Obvious Villains

I started really digging into book 7 yesterday. When I write a synopsis, it's generally all about plot. Now I have to figure out what's going on with the characters, what the emotional arcs are, etc. That's where creating my book "soundtrack" really seems to help, even if it does look a lot like procrastination. I'd say it's the good kind of procrastination because it buys time for the subconscious to be ready. I guess you could consider it an audio collage. Jennifer Crusie writes a lot about the elaborate (and sometimes 3-D) collages she makes to get her thoughts straight on a book. I do it with music. I set iTunes on shuffle and see what comes up, then think about how it might apply to the story or characters. Sometimes that gives me ideas for scenes or even plot twists I hadn't considered or planned. Sometimes it reminds me of an emotion that needs to be present. After making a list of songs and how I think they apply to the story, I put them in more or less chronological order in a playlist, and then I'll burn an MP3 CD to keep in my car while I'm working on the book. That way, I can keep my head in the book even while running errands.

I think there are some new people around, and I've started posting some of my book commentary on Goodreads, where it looks like I give only four or five stars, so I thought it might be a good time to reiterate my "review" policy. I don't consider myself a book reviewer. I'm more of a book recommender, so I only talk publicly about books that I want to recommend. I'm not giving four or five stars to everything. I'm just ignoring anything I'd give a lower rating than that to. I'm not playing "nicey-nice" and giving high ratings to everything, regardless of what I really thought -- that's actually one of the many reasons I dropped out of those blog tour groups. While I liked and would recommend a number of books from those groups, being in the group and having that reciprocal arrangement meant endorsing some things I really wouldn't want to recommend. With my discussion of books, I consider it kind of like doing a bookstore browse with a friend, where you go through the store pointing out things you liked, telling enough about it that your friend can decide if it sounds interesting, and then telling a little about why you liked it. You're not going to bother talking about the books you hated, unless maybe your friend picks up a book that you want to warn her about. I read so many books that I wouldn't have the time to write reviews for all of them, and besides, I don't want to give the publicity to the books I hated. I'm more willing to go negative on movies because I see so few that I'd almost never get to talk about movies if I didn't include the ones I hated.

I'll admit that there is a bit of a political element here because, let's be honest, I have to work with a lot of these people. I may end up with an author on a convention panel, or my editor or agent may ask an author for a blurb on one of my books, or one of my projects may be submitted to an editor who edited a book, and that can get really awkward if I've savaged a book they were involved with. It's awkward enough when I hated the author's book and haven't said anything (there's a lot of mental cringing going on). Until someone gets to be a mega bestseller where they're either bombarded with results or have people who deal with that sort of thing, most authors have Google alerts set for their names and book titles, so they'll know if you've been nasty. Since I have additional reasons for not going negative, it seems a lot fairer and easier to just stick to that policy rather than picking and choosing when to go negative based on whether I know the author or editor, how likely I am to ever have to deal with either, whether it's close enough to my work for it to look like I'm tearing down the competition, etc.

Some of the critics of positive-only review policies say you need to know what a reviewer dislikes and why in order to know if you trust that reviewer. Again, I would say I'm more of a recommender, and I figure that if you read my books, you probably know something about what I like and you might like the same things (or maybe if you read my reviews and like the same things, you might decide to read my books). But there's another problem with mentioning negatives in reviews: Sometimes it's really hard to do that without spoiling the book. If I hate a book because I hate the ending, it can be difficult to get into why without giving away the ending. It's easier to say positive things without spoiling the book.

For instance, I read a book this weekend that I was loving. I thought the premise was brilliant -- one of those "why didn't I think of that?" situations -- and the author gleefully busted a number of tropes and cliches. I was mentally composing my rave recommendation. And then I got to the last couple of chapters and would have hurled the book across the room if it hadn't been a library book. There's no way I could have written about why I hated the book without spoiling the ending.

But it brought up a potentially valuable writing lesson, so I'm going to discuss it in vague terms without getting into specifics about the plot, characters, title or author. It's all about how to handle a villain and/or the "mystery" element of a plot, because you can get into a lot of trouble if your readers are more intelligent than your hero -- especially if your hero is characterized as being brilliant and able to see things from a unique perspective.

In this book, the villain (though the heroine didn't know yet that he was the villain) is shown being a jerk to the heroine in the opening scene. In the next scene, he's a threatening jerk even hinting at rape, but she stands her ground, calls his bluff and more or less intimidates him into leaving her alone. Soon afterward, she finds herself in a very dangerous situation that she only escapes because of her presence of mind and that of another person involved, and the villain was the person responsible for making sure that kind of situation didn't occur. That event is what kicks off the story, sending the heroine into a new situation (crossing Joseph Campbell's Threshold), where she finds herself dealing with a person in need of help -- the victim, more or less. The villain works for the victim, and that means she has to spend time with him. She gets to know him and learns that he has motive for the wrong done to the victim -- he pretty much spells out exactly what his resentments are and why and how he's benefitted from what happened to the victim -- and there's evidence as to how he might have the means. His position means he has opportunity. There's nobody else around to suspect of being the villain. And yet when the villain shows up to foil things by waving a weapon and monologuing after the heroine and the victim share their plans with him, the heroine is utterly shocked that the villain is the villain. At which point I say, "Duh, lady, I've been there since the first scene," and remind myself that this is a library book, so I'm not allowed to damage it. To make matters worse, there are some serious consequences to them not realizing who the villain was in time that make the "happy" ending not very satisfying for me. Though I'm not sure any ending would have been happy at that point because this supposedly brilliant heroine had proved to be Too Stupid To Live. I thought the villain was so painfully obvious that I kept waiting for a huge twist to show how wrong I was, so I was incredibly disappointed to find out that I was right.

And it's so easy to avoid that "Well, duh, I've been there since the first scene" situation. You either have to have enough solid red-herring suspects that there's some doubt as to who the villain really is, with the villain being good at hiding his true nature -- the "seemingly good guy who turns out to be bad/seemingly bad guy who turns out to be good" scenario -- or you have to let the heroine figure it out but be up against opposition. In this case, there were good reasons for the victim not to be able/willing to see the villain as a threat, but the heroine with her outside perspective should have been able to see it. That would have complicated her relationship with the victim because she couldn't have relied on him to help with the investigation, and he wouldn't have believed the villain was a villain unless he heard him give his evil scheme monologue while waving a weapon. Then you've got all kinds of tension as she has to play nice with the villain while being aware he's the villain and has to hide what she's up to from her ally, all while finding either evidence or a way to trick the villain into revealing himself.

It was so frustrating because I was on the verge of finding myself a keeper copy of that book, and I was planning to buy the one book in that series that my library doesn't have. Now I may see if I can find a copy of the missing book at a used bookstore because I have enjoyed the other books, but now I'm leery of trusting that author. Even more frustrating is the fact that the situation was unique enough that I can't steal it and do it right without it being obvious -- though I've already written something involving an obvious villain where the heroine spots it but the victim refuses to see it. Maybe that's why I was so annoyed, since I've dealt with that.

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