Thursday, August 17, 2017

How reading informs my writing

I'm one of these people who needs to learn by DOING, rather than by OBSERVING. 

Right now at work, I'm learning the core data entry tasks. While I have been working with our computer system for 4.5 months and have job-shadowed people for a couple of days, I am learning mostly by having to do it myself. It's nit-picking, detailed stuff. If you missed that the member ticked a box saying they receive SSI payments, or if you didn't check if the state verified the member's citizenship, it changes everything.

I have been a voracious reader for most of my life. It wasn't until I started writing books about ten years ago that I learned how a plot is supposed to work. Sure, I could identify a plot generally in a  book; we learned that in middle school and high school. Rising action, turning points, climax, denouement, all of that.

It wasn't until I had to figure out what happened next in my books and/or edit what I write in a messy first draft that I've started getting a handle on how to create it. It's still too big a job for me sometimes. I have great attention to detail, but making my turning points really dramatic and really, uh, turn-y point-y? That's hard. Knowing which scenes need to move or change or be deleted? That's SUPER hard.

But on the other hand, sometimes reading other peoples' books gives me clues on what NOT to do. 

I almost abandoned (gave up on, but eventually went back to and finished) a book with a sportsing hero (not gonna say what sport or the title or the name of the bestselling author).

First off, I am not a big sportsterating fan. I guess the ritualized combat plays some role in peoples' psyches, but the squashing of academics in high schools and universities in favor of plowing money into MASCOT PRIDE, the exploitation of thousands of young people in schools, universities and even the pros (because those few who make it might play a year or two and then are 'let go' and have no qualifications for anything else, plus in certain sports, they likely have brain injuries that will dog them for the rest of their lives), and the glorification of superstars 😎 all add up to me wondering where the bread is to go with our circuses.

All that said, I like quite a few of the sports romances I've read. (I blogged about sports and diversity a few months ago, even) There are hockey, basketball, baseball, football, and every other type of sportsy dude (not so often the sportsy lady - a reflection of the wider attitude toward women's sports, I guess).

So anyway, there's this sportster star guy who lives for his sport (but keeps showing up late to practice and getting suspended), only it's barely mentioned as something he does every now and then, mostly an inconvenience to going on a date with the heroine (though he had plenty of time to bang every other woman in the whole city and cause scandals). It is more like a check box to say he's rich and famous, but I don't really get the feeling that he's a sporty guy.

Then the heroine's personality is like the author looked up the trope file for Manic Pixie Dream Girl and ticked all the boxes. She works in the quirkiest coffee shop ever! She plays the ukulele! (And I just re-read the Salon piece by the guy who came up with the term - and who HATES the term and the sexist way it plays out in movies and public discourse) Anyway, I'm just not feeling the love for them.

So I am trying even more than usual to make my characters well-rounded. What does my character do for a living? Do they love it? Are they just getting by with it because it pays the bills? What is their dream job? Is it a realistic dream? What do they have to do to get that dream job? Does it involve a ukulele?

In one of my unpublished contemporary books, the hero is a botanist. He loves plants more than he likes most people. His dream job is to dig in the dirt of the botanical gardens, but right now he's making a good living as some sort of management in a company that works with a university doing botanical research for pharmaceutical companies (I need to figure out exactly what he does, to be honest. It's not his dream job - his parents are the ones who want him to succeed in business). He's not even in the lab. His office and apartment are humid and warm because of the hundreds of plants he's growing. The heroine is a high school English teacher. She goes to work every day, lives on a fairly small salary, has papers to grade, and she's bossy and creative and her ambition is to be a principal.

The novella I'm writing now is anchored on the family's secretary. He's ambitious and has made a name for himself putting other peoples' affairs in order, pulling nobles out of bankruptcy, and ruthlessly taming their expenditures. Now he's working for the de Bures family (The ones from Indispensable Wife) and they don't need all that much help as they are comfortably rich and competent as a couple in both estate management (the husband) and politicking at the king's court (the wife). Their son is good at the schmoozing stuff, but really needs to learn how to run the estate, though the father could live for a long time still. They've hired the best secretary around, who took the job to gain influence at court. He has ulterior motives and ambitions, too.

All this to say that part of creating a character is knowing them well.

And knowing your characters and making their lives hard is what creates plot. And making absolutely everyone charmed because she plays the ukulele? Come on, someone in there has to roll their eyes and not be labelled the villain.

The ukulele.

Come on.

No ukuleles anywhere! Just some minor magical incidents and an overbearing Tartuffe-ian dad!

Melisande is out now!

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