Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Magic, Characters and Technology, Part I

I was happily critiquing a new chapter from one of my online fantasy critique friends this morning. The story is quite good, and I was reminded of a phenomenon I often encounter when reading stories like this one or watching fantasy-based movies. The people in these stories, at least the main characters or heroes, seem highly intelligent and many of their needs are fulfilled in part by magic of some sort. So, how do the authors or screenwriters write in the magic parts? How do they decide what/who will be magical and what/who won’t? I’ll address the Who in this first part.
In my MG novel, Delores Fletcher, Cobweb Catcher, I allow Delores to use magic pretty liberally. After all, she’s a witch. She flies on a broomstick, uses a moonstone pendant to remove a giant spider’s web and create a moat around a forest. The magic fits her character and personality; she’s a bit impatient and impulsive (teenager), and she’s the heroine.
Although not specifically addressed, this story could be set in modern times, i.e., one character, the mayor, does use a fly swatter. According to Wikipedia, the flyswatter was invented in 1905 by Frank H. Rose. This fact, if we choose to acknowledge it, would mandate that other parts of the story resemble our era. So why not have magical flyswatters for the general public to use? After all, in this scene, the mayor has also acquired a giant Venus Fly Trap to assist him with ridding his office of unwanted pests. Here’s the reason – the mayor is not a magical character, nor is he a major character throughout the book. He does not control the giant plant; he’s only borrowed it or purchased it. He cannot “control” it.
This is not to say that all non-magical characters are minor players, but most minor players don’t warrant a slice of the magical pie. By minor, I mean someone who plays a minor role in the outcome of the book. A magical being who only appears briefly in the beginning of a great fantasy novel will not be there without purpose. You can bet your magic mirror that he/she will appear later or be a catalyst for something larger.
The writer needs to make distinctions between the magical and nonmagical in order to keep the readers’ interest. It would become boring after only a few pages if everything were accessible to everyone. The mayor’s exasperation with a bug overpopulation comes because he has no power to change this.
Delores, on the other hand, does have the magical ability. So why not just have her wave her moonstone pendant and fix things? Well, again, that would be boring and not believable even for a fantasy novel - and, authors relish conflict. It’s what gives our stories interest, credibility and makes our readers use their brains while reading to try to guess upcoming resolutions.
We have to allow a great deal of humanity to reside in our magical beings; otherwise, we might as well write them as robots. The reader has to be able to relate to these characters in some way. Who can relate to a robot? We have to be able to feel their sorrow at the loss of a loved one, their anger at being used or tricked, or their joy at being able to work out their problems on their own. Our readers should want to be like our characters in some way or at least want to know them better.
So, even though Delores is magical, she is still dealing with her own demons. The conflict within her has to become resolved before she can resolve problems for others. The magic she uses to solve her town’s problems, i.e., magically creating a moat around a forest, pales in comparison to her personal triumphs.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Paying Attention

On a recent flight to Los Angeles, I noticed a strange phenomenon on the ground below. Flying somewhere between Dallas and Arizona, there were large circles of bright green on the otherwise rectangular plots of ground. I pointed them out to Henry who didn't know what they were either. During our stay in L.A., we talked to a lot of different people from the area. We were in town for a wedding of a close friend and I brought up the topic a few times. I knew several of the people we visited with over the four days were fairly frequent travelers and would automatically say, "Oh, yes, that's ..." But even they didn't have any idea what they were or had even noticed them. It continued to be a mystery until I Googled it today. They are, as we suspected, a form of field crop, wheat or corn probably, based on a circular irrigation system that is used in the southeastern and mideastern US and also in the Middle East.
I know you're thinking, big deal, crop circles, but it does make me wonder just how much of life passes us by without our noticing and the types of things that people attend to. I've had to restrain myself when riding in the car with Henry driving. I have a tendency to get excited when I see wildlife along the roadside or anything unusual that I think he might enjoy seeing. Not speaking in a normal tone or shooting my arm out to point out the deer or hawk, I've more than once scared him into thinking we were about to have a wreck. And after all, he's often more interested in the particular riff being played on the Porcupine Tree CD than on the hawk flying overhead.
So maybe no one else has the interests that I do. Maybe the other flight attendees have their noses in a great novel or movie they've brought along. Maybe they're just tired and are sleeping across the aisle. As a writer, though, especially as a children's writer, I'm delighted that everyday sightings and especially unusual ones catch my eyes and hold onto them with wonder and appreciation. I find it hard to sleep on a trip unless really exhausted. There is too much going on outside the windows of life.
We flew back home on July 4th amid the fireworks festivities below. There isn't much to see when you're 30,000 feet in the air, except color bursts. I did notice that certain townships had fireworks and certain ones didn't have but a few. Here's a writer's detail: some towns have fireworks displays early; some on the 4th. Some, due to the economy, skip the displays altogether. I may not have known this to even question it if I'd been asleep or watching a movie. So, say you're writing a novel about a small town in the summer months. Would your characters stage their own impromptu fireworks (maybe illegally?) or would they have to travel to a larger city to see them? Details like this could play into your plot, making it richer and giving you opportunities to play a little more.
What if your characters are farming in the Midwest? Would their fields be rectangular or circular? Again, just looking out the window of an airplane could offer a detail which could solve your murder mystery or crime plot. You might want to add a foreign character who is in the Midwest studying farming techniques to take back home. Do you sense a long-distance romance developing?
As writers, we can utilize the most common details of our surroundings, mixed with just a little imagination, and move in directions no one else has considered. Start today and allow yourself to be infatuated with something you've never noticed before.

For more information on the field circles: (And by the way, the best one was the Pacman-shaped field that opened onto a large group of houses.)



Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Critique Groups, More Can Be Better

I recently joined a critique group for Sci Fi/Fantasy writers, moderated by Jessica Owens. We met at the John Claude Bemis schmooze in April. Although some of my goalie friends write fantasy as well, for the most part, the group concentrates on middle grade/young adult fiction. I have two completed novels and didn't want to overburden my goalies group with both. I also am anxious to wrap these up with editing. I have to admit, I was a little bit nervous about being able to handle two groups of writing coming in for me to edit, but after the first month, I'm so glad to have made the commitment. I've managed to keep up with the goalie critiques and have done all but two critiques for my new group.
I was thinking about the pro's and con's of being in multiple groups; the pro's far outweigh the con's at this point. Then again, it's summer, I'm not working, and despite two out of town trips in a month's time, and the everyday pace I'm setting for myself is relaxed and easy-going. When fall comes around, I may not be this peaceful, but by then, I believe I'll be able to keep up. I'll list what I've observed so far:
1. More reading to do. Yes, this is a pro for me, as I love to read. If you don't love to read, you shouldn't be a writer.
2. More writers to network with. For most of us in a non-college or equivalent field, how many actual writers do you know? I know very few in my area, hence the monthly hour-and-ten-minute drive to the goalie meetings.
3. More eyes on your writing. Even with seasoned critique groups, some punctuation mistakes can go unnoticed. The more eyes on your work, the less of a chance you'll submit something with a glaring grammatical error. This will definitely not impress an editor.
4. More exposure to good writing. This is helpful to your own writing. Even with the number of books published, there are a lot of books that are simply not very good. Chances are, if a person makes a commitment to a group, that person is dedicated to making his/her writing as good as possible.
5. More motivation. The Goalies have kept me writing for four years now. Yes, I wrote before, but the consistency has not been there like it is now. It takes a lot of perseverance to keep one's chin up in the face of rejections. Hearing your friends cheer a good rejection letter instead of just reading it in the solace of one's home and then packing one's manuscript away forever is worth the group's weight in titanium.
6. More chances to help other writers. The children's market for writing may be the most competitive, but it's also the friendliest. Coming into the market with a jealous chip on your shoulder towards other writers will lead to nothing but misery. Scratching each others' backs is not only fun, but very self-satisfying. My first group has come so far in just a few years' time as far as quality of work, we're all extremely happy. There's also a good feeling to know that you helped someone get that book on the shelf.
7. More friends. Is this important for you? Maybe not. Maybe you have tons of friends and can't imagine where you would put anymore. You don't have to be bosom buddies with your critique friends. You won't have to follow them home at night or walk in their shoes once you leave the meetings. You will come away with the knowledge that you've touched someone else's life in a positive way and they've done the same for you.

1. More reading to do. This may be a con for you if you have a full time job that comes home with you at night and on the weekends beyond your writing. This is a decision you have to make for yourself and the group. Don't ask others to send you material that will take three months to critique. Be honest with yourself and them.
2. More meetings. Again, this involves how much time you can honestly commit. I meet in person with my Goalie friends, but am online only with the Sci Fi/Fantasy group. This works better for me as two out-of-town trips in one month is too much. You may only want to do online groups.
3. Taking the time to get to know new writers. If you're comfortable with your current critique group and are someone who takes a while to warm up to others, maybe sticking with only one group would be less stressful. Not everyone is outgoing, certainly not all writers, and the stress from dealing with new people may interfere with creativity. Not everyone is as outgoing as Maude. Being somewhat shy and reserved myself around new people (okay, I want to turn around and run from most large groups of unknown people), I've found my new online group very easy to relate to. By next fall, I'll look forward to meeting them in person at the SCBWI Conference.
4. More writing to send out. This may or may not be an issue for you. You could, I guess, send the same writing to two groups, but this seems counterproductive to me. If your group is not able to give you the feedback you feel you need for your writing, they may not be the group for you. I may change my mind on this for one of my manuscripts later, but for now, I feel that I have enough writing ongoing to keep both groups busy. You may be the type of writer who only works on one piece until it's finished. For me, I have too many pieces to work on, so I always have something to submit.

So, it seems as if the pro's win as far as sheer numbers of reasons for multiple critique groups. Keep in mind, however, that critique groups are as personal and individual as your writing should be. Not every group will fit for you. So far in my writing career, I've been involved with four different groups. Two out of the four have been good and include the two current ones. Don't stay in a group that is negative or critical to the point of leaving you with a feeling of uselessness. If one group doesn't work out, excuse yourself nicely, explain that it's just not working for you and be honest with them. Then find another one. The SCBWI has listings of critique groups and will let you know if they're closed or open. You can also start your own. Just don't sit there staring at your laptop and your current rejection letter, wondering if your work is hopeless. Be open to suggestions from those other writers who can give you more detailed feedback than a busy editor or agent who cannot send a ten-page critique to each of the hundreds of scripts that cross their desks each week. Good luck with your search. If you'd like to add to my list, feel free.