Introduction: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Why does language use differ in fiction versus nonfiction?

We might point fingers in several directions: the goal of the writing, the intended audience, the nature of storytelling, etc. But it turns out that the answer is completely basic.

Language use differs between these two disciplines because we use different parts of our brain to create them.

A Bit of Physiology

introduction to brain activityTelling the truth is easy. Our temporal lobe accesses and regurgitates our memories. There’s nothing to pull from thin air. We might have moments of pause as we reflect on the memory-soup and how to form it into a linear account, but that’s about it.

Fabrication, on the other hand, requires more mental power. Creating something from nothing activates 3 different parts of the brain:

  1. The frontal lobe suppresses the truth so the imagination can run free.
  2. The temporal lobe retrieves memory and creates mental imagery.
  3. The limbic system triggers increased anxiety that someone will call us out for lying. (YAY! /s)

That’s right. For writers, anxiety can be an occupational hazard. I don’t know a single author who doesn’t suffer from it in one form or another. It feeds Impostor Syndrome, which affects creatives of every variety.

But forewarned is forearmed.

Interrogators monitor this limbic reaction in polygraph tests when they’re trying to discover a liar. However, liars pass polygraph tests often enough to make this method unreliable. The more comfortable a person is with their fabricated stories—the more they believe their lies or just don’t care—the less this limbic reaction affects them.

As a writer, I want to be that comfortable someone.

Specific Conditions Required

So we’ll start with a very basic definition: What constitutes a lie? According to Pamela Meyer, there are 4 criteria:

  1. A lie must include a false statement or appearance.
  2. A lie must have a recipient; otherwise it is self-deception.
  3. A lie requires the intent to deceive; otherwise it’s an honest mistake.
  4. A lie requires a context of truth.

(from Pamela Meyer, Liespotting, p. 41 – 42)

Fiction doesn’t qualify as a lie because it doesn’t meet Condition #4: by its very definition, it doesn’t involve true events. The audience knows this, and they’re willing to suspend disbelief.

So, if anyone ever asks you what it’s like to sit around making up lies all the time, you can tell them you wouldn’t know.

(Or perhaps something more colorful. I won’t judge.)

However, even though fiction writers aren’t lying per se, the process of crafting fiction does involve fabrication. That extra brain activity engages, and our language use reflects as much. In other words, it does us well to look at patterns of deception and eliminate them in our work.

Up Next: Deception and Dialogue

Back to Liar, Liar Navigation Page

Julian St. John Audley: A Character Defense

Regency Buck quote Julian St. John Audley

If my most recent works haven’t been clue enough, I’ve been doing a lot of writerly experimentation with point of view and perspective. Hence the Lyric 1st Person Present in Namesake, the “other woman” focal character in Brine and Bone, and my current WIP, which has a protagonist who my readers already hate.

(Whether they’ll finish the novel hating her remains yet to be seen.)

One of the side effects of this experimentation: it spills over into the rest of my life, including the books I read.

Which brings me to a point I never expected: defending the seemingly indefensible.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Julian St. John Audley: A High-Handed Cad

I recently re-read Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck (1935). My purpose was for linguistic analysis rather than pleasure, but in the midst, that penchant for alternate points of view reared its head.

At first glance, the hero of this novel, Julian St. John Audley, the Fifth Earl of Worth, is a controlling, manipulative jerk. Handsome, arrogant, wealthy, and high-handed as the summer’s day is long. But it’s okay because the heroine, Judith Taverner, is his equal in all these points. Awful people deserve each other, y’know?

But the story is told from Judith’s perspective. Although we get scenes that center on Lord Worth, Heyer frames them in ambiguity rather than sympathy. Does he like Judith, or does he only like manipulating her? Is he secretly plotting to kill her brother? Does he want their fortune for his very own?

They meet under adverse circumstances, and he behaves with enough rudeness to raise anyone’s hackles. If you’re sympathetic to Judith, that is.

But what would the story look like from his perspective?

Motives and Motivations

The key to Worth’s behavior lies in his words at the end of the book: “Nonsensical child! I have been in love with you almost from the first moment of setting eyes on you” (Chapter XXIII).

So this guy, barreling down a country road, almost plows into a shabby gig in the middle of a poorly-executed u-turn. He avoids the collision but, like anyone in such a situation, he’s annoyed. That was the worst possible spot to turn. The other driver must be a moron.

The gig is blocking the road. Its passenger, as sharp-tongued as she is beautiful, says they don’t need his help, but he can’t drive on until they’re out of his way. So he doesn’t help. He has his servant do it.

Which, all things considered, is a mercy. Judith and Perry’s pride is hurt, but it would’ve been worse if Worth had sat waiting for Perry to get his act together. Worth doesn’t even instigate any rude remarks. His great sin lies in preventing an accident, rendering help to the other party, and answering in sarcasm when spoken to ungraciously.

I mean, I’ve been guilty of worse.

So then there’s Meeting #2.

When Worth pulls in beside Perry at the prizefight, it’s Perry who draws attention to himself by, again, failing to control his horse. Their exchange goes sour because of Perry’s reactionary nature. Worth makes some sarcastic remarks, but he never demands that Perry leave. Perry decides that on his own.

The second meeting with Judith is more damning. Upon finding her on the side of the road, Worth picks her up, carries her to his curricle, and forces her to let him put her shoe back on. When she refuses to accept his offer to hit him, he kisses her in provocation.

But he knows he’s crossing social boundaries. Why else would he encourage her to punch him in the face?  What struck me in this reading: he treats her like an equal, not a damsel in distress. Yes, he teases, and he takes liberties, but he acknowledges his poor behavior and agrees to accept punishment for it.

And really, is he supposed to leave her by herself on the roadside when fifty or more carriages might be traveling behind him? He’s coming from a prizefight. Hundreds of hot-blooded men are now dispersing into the countryside, and she’s out walking by herself because she couldn’t bother to bring along her maid.

According to his end-of-the-book account, he’s already in love with her. He ain’t leaving her there for someone else to find.

As for the kiss, she compares it to her father or her brother kissing her, so unless her family is gross beyond measure, it’s nothing more than an impertinent peck.

(Yeah, yeah. He shouldn’t have done it.)

But there’s a piper to pay.

His comeuppance happens at the inn, when Judith and Perry reveal who they are and who their guardian is.

Him. He’s their guardian.

And that’s the “Oh, crap” moment for Julian St. John Audley. It’s bad enough that he was mooning over a pretty country girl, but that pretty country girl turns out to be a wealthy heiress whose fortune he technically controls.

Bad ton, Julian. Bad ton.

From here on out, everything he does—and I mean everything—is for Judith’s benefit. He’s in love with her, and she’s determined to take London by storm.

So he gets her a fashionable house. He provides her a chaperone who can introduce her into all the exclusive circles (which her cousin in Kensington had no clout to accomplish). He gives her a fast-pass into high society and supports her ambitions, and the whole time, everyone is ribbing him about bagging the heiress before she gets out of his control, and that mealy cousin of hers hangs around talking smack, and Judith herself determines to be obstinate even to the sacrifice of her own reputation and social success.

And the further I read, the more I pitied this stupid, lovesick hero. The complaints against him?

“He doesn’t tell her someone’s trying to kill her brother.”

Yeah, because she point-blank says that if she thought there was a plot against Perry she “should be quite out of [her] mind with terror” (Chapter XIV). Essentially, he takes her at her word and keeps her in the dark to preserve her peace of mind.

“He lets her cousin kidnap her instead of warning her the dude is rotten.”

All the evidence he has against Bernard is circumstantial, and Judith likes the guy. What’s more, Bernard has sown enough discord that she might not believe any accusations Worth levels at him. He needs irrefutable proof and, more importantly, he needs Judith to see it firsthand.

“He berates her for being alone with the Prince Regent.”

I’m charting this one to stress. When he finds her fainting in the Prince’s arms, he’s already taken his life in his hands by barging in on them. He then has to walk the tightrope of not offending the most powerful man in the country even though he’s itching to wring the guy’s royal neck.

Also, at this point in the story, he believes that Judith hates his guts and that she acts against propriety to stick it to him. Plus, he’s just secretly kidnapped her brother to save him from yet another attempt on his life.

Under the circumstances, I can forgive Lord Worth for being out of sorts. We all have our moments.

Only Human after All

In short, the instant I examined the story from his perspective, he became human and his faults shifted into focus. He has them, and I don’t mean to excuse them, but by and large, he’s acting for Judith and Perry’s interests, often against his own.

Boiled down, they’re country rubes. They don’t know the first thing about London society. Much as they despise Julian St. John Audley, if he had left them to their own devices, they would have met with failure and, in Perry’s case, certain death.

So I don’t dislike him anymore. On the contrary, I’d love to read a version of the book from his point of view, the poor sap.

Novella Release: Brine and Bone

So. My novella, Brine and Bone, is now available on Amazon.

Here are the links: print and eBook.

I hit “publish” at 12:01 a.m. yesterday and then went to bed. They say it can take 72 hours for the pages to appear in Amazon’s marketplace, but they were up by 8:00 a.m. However, the product image was missing, and I liked the cover enough that I wanted it there before I shared any links.

By the time it showed up, I had moved on to other things.

Which is why this announcement comes a day late.

(For shame, I know. I’ll go sit in the corner and think about my actions.)

Brine and Bone novella release announcement

A Novella Conundrum

Every time I release one of my monsters into the wild, I fight a raging temptation to make excuses for it. Usually I resist. Today, I will cave on two points:

  1. It’s only a novella. (Picture Patsy from Monty Python and the Holy Grail muttering that line.) The novella is a lovely medium, but it’s small and requires narrative constraint, by design.
  2. I’m playing in someone else’s sandbox. The story is pinned pretty closely to the Andersen fairy tale. Of course I interpret it through my own lens, but I also tried to honor that original source. (In other words, if you only know the Disney retelling, don’t @ me with complaints, lol.)

As a side note, Amazon’s spellcheck tool apparently dislikes words that rhyme with “bitter.” It flagged me for the variants of “chitter,” “flitter,” and “jitter” that occur within this book. I had a brief existential crisis before confirming that these were, in fact, real words.

And then I had a brief introspection on why my narrative might have gravitated so often toward *itter words. (Pretty sure variants of “glitter” and “litter” are somewhere in this book as well.) The jury’s still out. I will strive not to fall into a phonetic rut on future projects, though.

And that is all. Go forth, my beauties!

Summary and Cover Reveal: Brine and Bone

Merry Christmas, everyone! ‘Tis the season for a cover reveal!

Yes, miracle of all miracles, I have a cover and summary for my Little Mermaid novella, Brine and Bone. Without further ado…

Summary:

TWO WORLDS COLLIDE

Magdalena of Ondile adores the crown prince of Corenden, but she’d sooner die than admit it. Ejected from the royal court, she spends her days at a sage’s seminary, where her sparkling memories and destructive empathy magic prey upon her.

Until the ocean rips her charming prince into its depths.

When Magdalena discovers him washed ashore, her rescue-by-happenstance draws her back to the glittering palace and its stifling rules. But Prince Finnian’s miraculous return attracts more than the nobility of the court. The eerie creature that spared his life would gladly reclaim it, even if staking that claim requires a sacrifice of flesh and endless torment.

Cover Reveal:

Not sure why, but the .jpg looks a lot more blue-saturated here than in its preview file. There are some lovely silvery shades in the water ripples, but you cannot see them. Oh well.


Brine and Bone cover reveal

Release Date:

I told the Library of Congress that I was publishing in January 2018. They say to request LCCNs early, and I feel pressured not to let them know that they are the last item on my list of Publishing Things To Do. So even though they’ve always responded within 1-2 days, I push my deadlines back a month or more when communicating with them.

(Contacting the LOC designates true commitment. I like to keep open my option to abandon ship as long as I possibly can. But at least I have a deadline now, haha.)

It’ll probably be later in the month, because I still need to get my proof of the paperback and I refuse to pay for expedited shipping. I am toying with setting up a pre-order for the eBook, but as I’ve never done that before, it’s a toss-up whether I’ll follow through.

(Wishy-washy nature, thy name is Kate.)

Anyway, because this is a novella (roughly ~35K words), the eBook price will be $0.99. The paperback will probably be $7.99, and I think I can do a match-book to make the eBook free with purchase, for anyone who might want both.

(I know. Promises, promises.)

Long story short, I’m ready to have this thing off my projects list so I can move on to other more important items.

In the meantime, if you want to read excerpts, they are here and here.

And a Happy New Year to all!

2017 State of Kate: Business and Other Musings

It’s that time of year again, when I rehash the business of being. (Actually I’m a month later than last year, but who’s counting? No one, that’s who.)

Let’s get to it, shall we?

First Quarter: Ends and Beginnings

January 1, 2017 brought an end to my stint as Executive Secretary for the American Night Writers Association (ANWA). As much as I have missed working alongside an amazing Board of Directors and Executive Committee, I happily passed my duties off to my successor and started the year fresh.

Also in January, my critique group founded a blog, Novel Three. It’s supposed to update weekly. We get at least 2-3 posts a month for sure.

In February (-ish), ANWA put out a call for class proposals for the annual conference in September, and I submitted one for typesetting, firmly believing it would pass under the radar. It didn’t. They invited me to teach, and I spent the next six months convinced that someone somewhere had made a horrible mistake.

(Me. I made the horrible mistake. Haha.)

I finished the draft for Namesake, also in February, and wrote a novella, Brine and Bone, in March.

Second Quarter: Business Takes Over

I created an imprint, Eulalia Skye Press. This process included days upon days of brainstorming a name (it’s amazing how many odd combos are already in use). I registered it with the State of Arizona, bought up the corresponding domain name, and saddled myself with a block of ISBNs.

Looks like I’m in this publishing business for the long haul. Theoretically.

Third Quarter: Masquerading as a Professional

Typesetting business, yay!

Some font samples for your viewing pleasure. Also, a graphic I had to cut.

In July, I nailed down my class presentation info, but it was 40 minutes too long. Over the next two months, I whittled away everything but the most essential information.

I took Namesake through the publishing process, with an August release. It wasn’t all that different than what I’ve done with previous books, except there were more forms and registrations so that it looked all official.

(I probably did something wrong. Haven’t discovered it yet, though, so.)

September was ANWA Conference. A dear friend from Florida attended, which marked our first IRL meeting. (And neither of us ended up catfished, yo.) This was my fourth year in attendance, so a lot of familiar faces. Even so, I was grateful for my little nest of close friends there.

I wrote a whole blog article about my teaching experience, but I published an Average Everygirl post the following week instead. Long story short, my class attendees were wonderful. They didn’t scold me for speaking a mile a minute to get through all my info. I didn’t die. Hooray!

Fourth Quarter: Frolicking in Creative Chaos

I started drafting a sequel to Namesake. The working title is Eidolon. You can read an excerpt here, if you’re interested.

Serious sycamore business in the UK

Sycamore Gap, located along Hadrian’s Wall

I also went to the UK again, and again didn’t die on a British Highway. But I made my traveling companion (the lovely Rachel Collett) drive. We visited Haworth (home of the Brontës), hiked to Sycamore Gap, tromped through Edinburgh, and stopped off in Gretna Green. 10/10, would go again.

The first two weeks of November, I worked on NaNoWriMo. I promised myself that I would keep writing once I hit the 50K mark, but the day after I got it, my brain was like, “Nope. We done.”

(I’ve written since, but mostly on Eidolon rather than the NaNo project. Oh well.)

Brine and Bone lingers in publication limbo. The book is typeset, but I don’t have a cover or a blurb. I’ve considered outsourcing the former, but none of the portfolio styles or pre-mades I’ve come across seem to fit. I’m normally meh about covers, but I keep getting scolded for phoning things in on that front. So now I’m gun-shy. Yay.

The blurb is just… I don’t know. It’s a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” you guys. It shouldn’t be difficult, but everything I brainstorm is so obvious. Like, “Yeah, yeah, the prince washes up on the shore. Some girl finds him. Yadda yadda yadda.”

If I had gone full horror-genre like I was so sorely tempted, it might be different. But I don’t write horror, and I couldn’t venture into those waters without bungling it.

So it might be 2018 before that one gets its day in the spotlight. Or 2019. Or never.

(After I die, they’re going to find dozens of unpublished manuscripts under my bed, and I’ll be up in heaven laughing with my new bff Emily Dickinson. It’ll be lit.)

Looking Forward: 2018 and Beyond

I’m dedicating December to the business of creative organization. The weekly critique group keeps me writing regularly, so I should be able to knock out something in the coming year. But I’m slipping back into my non-goals state of mind, so that’s my main obstacle going forward.

My own worst enemy, as usual. Bring it, 2018.

Putting Place Names in their Proper Frames

Wizened issues Average a calling with a slew of fanciful place namesWhenever I see fanciful or imaginative place names, real or fictional, my first instinct is not, “Ooh, how neat!” It’s more along the lines of, “What were they smoking when they named that?”

I live in a city called Mesa. Literally “table,” because it sits on a plateau. Nearby land features include South Mountain (to the south), Red Mountain (guess what color!), and the Salt River, which runs through salt banks on the Fort Apache Reservation.

The Salt is fed by the Black and White Rivers, which come from the White Mountains to the north. (Where it snows. Surprise.) We also have the Verde River and the ever exotic Gila River (pronounced “hee-lah”), but don’t get too excited. They translate to “green” and “salty,” respectively.

The most imaginatively named land features in the area? Those would probably be Camelback Mountain, which looks roughly camel-shaped from the side, and a range to the east called the Superstitions. But these are, of course, part of that vast and intuitively named North American system, the Rocky Mountains.

(Spoiler alert: you can find many rocks therein.)

Place Names: A Fine Art

One might contend that this stark realism in naming is a feature of desert living, but it’s not. Place names across the world break down in a similar manner.

The British Isles sport a number of “feature” names that, thanks to language change, no longer appear as mundane as they once were. Consider the following elements:

  • “dun” = hill
  • “fen” = swamp
  • “-more” = moor
  • “-kirk” = church
  • “avon” = river
  • “-lea”/”-ly” = meadow
  • “thorp”/”throp” = village
  • “-ford” = river crossing
  • “way” = road
  • “strat” = street

When you start combining these with each other and with other elements, the resulting names have a classical, established sense to them. And then you realize that the River Avon is literally the River River, a “dunhill” is a hill-hill, and the high-sounding Fenmore can only denote an exceptionally boggy bog.

Even the poetic Stratford-upon-Avon breaks down into “street-river-crossing-upon-river.” And suddenly it’s not so poetic anymore.

This convention holds true for other languages as well. The infamous Llanfairpwllgwyngyll in Wales translates (reportedly) to “the parish of St. Mary in the hollow of the white hazel.”

Meanwhile, the New Zealand landmark of Taumatawhakatangi­hangakoauauotamatea­turipukakapikimaunga­horonukupokaiwhen­uakitanatahu might intimidate the casual reader, but it only means, “The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the slider, climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Which is why, when I see fantasy book maps with mountain ranges called the Jagged Spine or the Teeth of Hecate or whatever, it rings false. From what I can tell, settlers across cultures have arrived in new areas, looked around, and said something along the lines of, “Hey, this forest is pretty black. Let’s call it the Black Forest.”

Semantic Bleaching at its Finest

Many place names carry an otherworldly, fanciful sense because their meaning is not readily accessible to the average speaker. Foreign wording or language change swathes the landmark in a layer of mystery. Places named for their founders or in honor of other notable figures further establish that esoteric feel, because more and more often, proper names exist separate from their original definitions.

This chasm between word and meaning introduces uniqueness and wonder, but it can also give the impression that place names are arbitrary.

Typically, they’re not.

Now, this isn’t to say that the run-of-the-mill fantasy author should put away their scrabble tiles and take a more conventional route to naming their landmarks. Rather, when the darts are thrown and the seemingly random letters assemble into a slick-sounding country, the questions that follow might be, “How came this name in the history of my world? What is its root? What does it mean?”

And the answer doesn’t need a lot of window dressing. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with a place called “Red River” or “Castle View.” On the contrary, that simple detail can lend authenticity in a world where the unfamiliar reigns.

My two cents. (Of course.)

And Suddenly, a Book Release: Namesake

I know I’m supposed to do something grandiose for a book release, but my anxiety is already through the roof. So, I’ve pulled the trigger and I’m moving on. Namesake is now available on Amazon.com.

This is your courtesy notice, haha.

Namesake book release

The Book Release Saga: What Took So Long?

One of the many issues that I battled last year involved determining where my writing was going and whether it was time to throw in the towel and move on. I love to write, but I’m not a responsible author.

(See the above casual book release for a reference point to that statement.)

The publishing world is flooded with hard-working people who seem to have clear goals and ambitions. I.e., the exact opposite of me. It’s easy, on reading their experiences or advice, to feel like I have no clue what I’m doing, that I’m only pretending, that I don’t belong in this industry, that I’m doing everything wrong, and that everything is futile anyway.

And when that happens, my anxiety disorder flares and claws its way up my throat from my stomach, and I unplug from life for a couple of days. NBD.

In late April, I went to lunch with a dear friend, Tamara Passey, who graciously discussed her first-hand experience as an indie author. During our conversation, she asked me what my goals were.

And I confessed that I didn’t have any, other than to write really, ridiculously well. (I’m working on it, guys. I totally am.)

Among other encouragements, Tamara gave me permission to make temporal goals. And she provided me with the framework for how to set up an imprint.

So I did.

And that’s what took so long.

Eulalia Skye Press

Eulalia Skye logoYou might notice, going forward, this handy little sigil in or on my books. I may or may not start switching titles over. I may or may not open those titles up for wider distribution.

I may or may not commit to half a dozen things, but here’s what I have done:

  1. I registered an imprint. It took me about a month and a ton of brainstorming to settle on a name. I love that it is oddly quirky and that it plays with fantasy elements while still having a sense of grounded-ness to it. Somehow, random as “Eulalia Skye” is, it fits my writing.
  2. I bought a block of ISBNs. This commits me to this industry for a few years yet, mostly because it wasn’t a block of 10. With seven books out, I’d blow through those without batting an eyelash. (Yes, I have 100 ISBNs. I’ve used 2 so far for Namesake. Only 98 more to go. Breathe, Kate.)
  3. I registered with the Library of Congress. Namesake has an LCCN. It’s listed on the print-edition copyright page and everything.

There have been a million other tiny processes and procedures. Each has been a personal battle, because in many ways I feel like I’m stepping down a path blindfolded.

But I’m doing what I can to move forward. One… terrifying… step… at a time. And, theoretically, the next book shouldn’t take nearly as long on the publishing side.

(Theoretically. Ha.)

Last Hurrah

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I have been blessed by so many who have given encouragement when they didn’t even realize I needed it. (And many of whom may not have known they were giving it.)

You guys are awesome and inspirational. When I grow up, I wanna be like you.

Cover Reveal and Summary: Namesake

At long last, a cover reveal!

But first!

Good things come to those who wait, but better things come to those who work. I have spent the past few months in what I affectionately call “cover hell.” Consequently, I’ve avoided places like the internet in general and my own website in particular where I might have to account to others for my dealings. I here apologize. It is a character flaw that I’m likely to embrace to my grave.

And now, to the eye candy!

Cover Reveal:

cover reveal: Namesake by Kate Stradling

 

Summary: Namesake by Kate Stradling

“Who needs magic in an age of electricity? I can flip the switch on the wall with the best of them.”

Anjeni Sigourna bears the name of a legendary goddess, but her resemblance to that honored figure ends there. Eighteen and jaded, she has cultivated sarcasm instead of the elusive magic everyone expects her to possess. Such mystic power lacks purpose in her modern world.

But when an adverse encounter with the Eternity Gate lands her in an alien realm, magic marks the boundary between life and certain death. Anjeni alone holds the keys to saving an ancient people from a savage enemy. Her bitterness notwithstanding, now she must create a legend instead of living in its shadow.

Best of Intentions

“Cover hell” consisted of a multitude of ideas with middling-to-poor execution. None of them made it past the drafting stage until I stumbled on this one, and then it went through four different builds (including a first, quick run in PSE where the program shut down when I tried to print, and I hadn’t saved so I lost everything, hahaha). A last-minute rework on that epic fireball sealed the deal this afternoon. I am in love.

(For now.)

Namesake is schedule for release in August, providing everything goes well. And by that, I mean my files are uploaded and under review. If the physical proof looks good, I’ll hit “Approve” and let you all know.

In the meantime, you can read excerpts from the book over on my critique group’s site, Novel Three: here and here.

Stay tuned!

The Official Un-obligatory Project Update

2017 project title plate: Namesake

I finally finished my experimental manuscript. I’ve battled this beast for over a year, and my brain wanted it done a long time ago, so the last stretch took a lot out of me. I typed “The End” on April 4, exported the text to Word, and closed the Scrivener project file.

And I haven’t opened it again.

Gleefully.

I’ve learned enough of my writing patterns to expect a creative depression to hit me after I finish a draft. The focus required in that end-game sequence of tying all my plot elements together really jacks up my everyday life. I forget how to live outside of my craft, and when the project closes and I have to come back into the real world, I experience a loss of purpose and become despondent for a spell.

Not so this time around.

The Boondoggle Project

When I started into Namesake, I didn’t think much of it. I had jotted the idea down almost a decade ago. I even sketched out some scenes, gave some characters names, and outlined a couple of major events. But I did it almost flippantly. The concept seemed too predictable and the conflicts too trite, so I hadn’t considered further development a good use of my time.

I can’t remember why I picked it up again. I think the throes of real-life drama made me want something brain-candy-ish to experiment with. It was an escape. I changed the POV from 3rd Limited Omniscient to 1st Lyric Present and made my protagonist a sarcastic little punk. I wasn’t going to do anything with it, so why shouldn’t I play?

The plot merited a novella, a quick there-and-back-again adventure where my bitter protag could get some perspective knocked into her. For kicks, and because I wasn’t working on anything serious, I brought it to my critique group.

And that’s where I ran into trouble.

The Questionable Joys of Critique

Critique groups are awesome. They make you accountable for your work and help you refine your craft. And sometimes—sometimes—when you phone in a brain-candy draft, they demand that you get your act together and develop it properly.

I didn’t want to. Rachel and Jill insisted. When I told them last summer that I was five chapters away from the end, they looked at each other in alarm and said, “No you’re not.”

I balked. They lectured. I revised characters and scenes and villains and plot points and lived in dread of that weekly meeting.

(Sometimes accountability really bites, y’know?)

But the process refined me. I had to take my craft seriously instead of flouncing through self-indulgent mediocrity.

And the end-result? This story is wayyyyy better than I ever expected it to be. Color me pleasantly surprised.

 The Moral

My grandfather used to say, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” but in the literary world, “right” can be subjective. The road from Mediocre to Fantabulous requires slogging through a lot of hard work. It definitely helps to have course checks along the way.

(And yes, “Mediocre” and “Fantabulous” are both subjective as well.)

Further Reading

Curious about Namesake? I’ve posted a couple of excerpts over on my critique group’s site, Novel Three:

From Chapter 1, here.

From Chapter 6, here.

Look for the book sometime this summer. If I get my act together, I should announce more specific dates soon.

Dangerous Artifacts and the Characters Who Love Them

Average has a gift for neutralizing dangerous artifacts.
When it comes to dangerous artifacts in a fictional setting, every writer faces at least two dilemmas:

  1. Why does everyone want this thing?
  2. Why is the main character the most appropriate to deal with it?

(I mean, you can ignore those two issues, but then you end up with a confirmed MacGuffin and a contrived plot. If that’s your cup o’ tea, more power to you.)

Issue #1: The Cause for Desire

The obsession with dangerous artifacts usually boils down to one word: power. “Dangerous artifacts” are dangerous because they grant or disrupt power and thereby throw off the balance of the universe. Consider:

  • The One Ring (LOTR)
  • The Elder Wand (HP)
  • The Amulet of Samarkand (Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy)
  • The Orb of Aldur (Eddings’s Belgariad)
  • The Godstone (Carson’s Fire and Thorns)
  • Every dragon egg and enchanted sword across the fantasy spectrum

Each is a singular item that amplifies its user into a new class of abilities. Hence, the bad guys want the power, and the good guys (generally) want to keep it hidden. Or, either side might want to destroy it, depending on how its powers affect them.

And then there’s that one poor sap who stumbles across it unwittingly.

Issue #2: “Why Me?”

When a dangerous artifact lies at the center of a crisis, the story inevitably needs someone to deal with it.

Enter the Chosen One.

I’ve encountered a lot of critique lately about how books—and fantasy epics in particular—keep focusing on this motif of a Chosen One. The snarkier critics point to it almost with a sneer.

“Oh, look! Another story about a Chosen One! How original!”

While I agree that the motif can be too heavy-handed, stories by their very nature must center on unique individuals. Protagonists have to measure up to their conflicts, or else they’d get eliminated in the first three chapters. And then what was the point?

(Or you can take away the conflict, but then we’re left wandering the hills with Wordsworth. Again, what’s the point?)

In a sense, every protagonist is a Chosen One, because the author chooses to tell their story.

So, answer #1 to the question of “Why this protagonist?” is simply “Because it had to be someone.”

A pretty crummy answer by itself. Which is why there must be something more.

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

Some characters merit their Chosen One status because they are literally chosen by God, prophecy, or the villain himself to rise up against the conflict:

  • Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza (chosen by God)
  • Taran of Caer Dallben (chosen by prophecy)
  • Harry Potter (chosen by prophecy and/or Voldemort)

Others merit it because of their heritage, lineage, or inborn talent:

  • Frodo Baggins (mild-mannered hobbit = less susceptible to the Ring)
  • Arthur Pendragon (son of Uther Pendragon and Igraine, daughter of a Welsh king)
  • Nathanial/John Mandrake (natural-born magician with all the advantages therein)

In some rare cases, the protagonist appears to assume their role by happenstance, but beware that condition. “Chance” almost always ties into fate.

Accept it. Embrace it. Enjoy it.

A Final Observation on Dangerous Artifacts

While jewelry and weapons receive favored status, the truly innovative artifacts fall outside these categories. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s black cauldron grants its owner the means to an immortal army and his oracular pig allows glimpses into the future. They’re both brilliant artifacts, because no one expects anything so grand from cookware and livestock.

(And yes, h/t to the Mabinogion for that innovation. Source material matters, my friends.)

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