Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Broken Moon Part 6 published, and the next novel! (again)

Two thirds of the way through now! Chapter six is all ready and available to purchase on Amazon and Smashwords! This one's a little longer than usual again, and things are starting to get dramatic as we head towards the climax of the novel.

As the leadership of the Highland Pack becomes more and more unstable, April and Cyan's relationship begins to slip through their fingers. With Cyan's revelation about his past shaking April's faith in him, and her responsibility to her pack weighing heavily on her, she has little time left for love; especially not with a man she cannot trust.
The time may have finally come for Cyan to make a choice. When a disturbing discovery in the woods spreads further dissent through the pack, he hatches a plan with the human girl Lisa to draw a line under their worries once and for all.

So! With only three chapters of Broken Moon left to go, it's high time I started crystallising my plans for the next novel I'm going to work on. I mentioned last month that I had an idea in mind for something with a paranormal/BDSM theme, significantly more erotic than my current project, but still nice and romance-driven. It's still a very vague and loose idea, but I've given it enough consideration to have a few thoughts worth sharing. All of this is completely subject to change before I get started, of course, but here are the main pre-production notes so far:

- It's likely to have a period rather than contemporary setting, though the details and specifics will be vague. Right now I'm thinking of something in the ballpark of 18th/19th century England, set in both rural countryside and upper-class city areas.
- The paranormal theme will be to do with magic, though it will be vague and low-key. Less Harry Potter and more Game of Thrones. Much like the werewolf theme in my Wild Instincts books, it will not be something that the characters involved fully understand; a secretive and dangerous power that causes just as many problems as it does solutions.
- The heroine will come from a superstitious rural setting, where it is not uncommon for people thought to be practising witchcraft to be lynched or ostracised by their communities. Naturally, as a budding young witch, this causes a lot of problems for her. I'm planning to do some research on historical witch hunts (and how the laws in England began to change on them during this time) to dig up some juicy ideas for this one.
- The hero will be a young upper-class gentleman who is far more knowledgeable and adept with witchcraft than the heroine. His task will be to train and educate her, though it will be an obligation that is forced on him against his will.
- The central theme (for the heroine, at least) will be a coming-of-age/pauper-turned-princess story as the hero educates her and opens her eyes to the world, both socially and sexually.
- Much like in the original Wild Instincts and His Darkest Desire, the sexual themes will revolve around control and trust, along with independence, reliance, and an opening of the mind to new ideas and possibilities.
- The perspective will likely be the same as Broken Moon -- third person with multiple viewpoints.

Right now those are the main points that I've given consideration to. I've got a few fun scenes in mind that I'd love to write, and a handful of main characters ready to be fleshed out. There's still a lot of work to do (particularly on the hero), but I'm starting to get excited for the possibilities of this next novel.
I've no idea what the title is going to be yet. Probably something black magic-y, involving words like wicked or Master.

But before that, there's still a hefty amount of Broken Moon to finish! On to chapter seven!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Angry Reviews and the Ethics of Criticism

Anyone who has ever browsed the user comments section of a website will be no stranger to the kind of emotionally-driven comments the internet can draw out of people, and most of us, truth be told, are probably responsible for a few of them ourselves.

I want to talk briefly today about book reviews, and the ways in which readers put forward their opinions online.
I should start off by clarifying the difference between book reviews and those of most other mass-media. Books tend to be intimately personal. A movie or TV show, a video game, even many pieces of music are often worked upon by multiple individuals, but the vast majority of books can be attributed to a single author. This is what makes book reviews so meaningful to many authors. A lot of us see the stories we write as a reflection or expression of ourselves, and when others either praise or denounce our work we often feel it very keenly.

This has been something of a hot topic recently with Anne Rice's petition to stop online bullying of authors, and while I believe Rice's idea is absolutely the wrong way to go about this, she does highlight an existing problem with the way readers and authors communicate.
So what is and isn't acceptable reviewer behaviour when it comes to giving your opinion on an artist's work? Well, first and foremost, there is nothing wrong with vocally expressing dislike for something. Every consumer should have the right to absolutely trample on a piece of fiction if they feel like it was a poorly written, dull, offensive, or otherwise unpleasant thing to read through. Those sorts of comments can hurt to hear as an author, but they have every right to be voiced. One of the most important parts of dealing with criticism is accepting these negative points and taking them into consideration when you move forward with future projects.
So objective, honest criticism is free from blame here. It's the cornerstone of how we judge and appraise media, and without it the arts would be much worse off.

But then we move into the area of emotionally charged reviews. Objective criticism is, by definition, free from personal bias, but book reviews are rarely this clear-cut. As a medium based around evoking emotion, reviews that completely eschew the reader's feelings are few and far between. But is it ever right for a reader to get angry at an author?
I think yes. There are certain cases where an irresponsible author who plays with the emotions of their reader in an unsatisfying or distressing way should absolutely be subject to the frustrations of their audience. If a book sells itself as a sweet, lighthearted romance, only to be punctuated by a brutal rape scene with no literary merit half way through, then the person responsible for writing it should understand how that kind of emotional trickery makes people feel.
Most of the cases in which I've been emotional in my book reviews have stemmed from situations like this, when an author takes an ongoing story in a direction that jars against what I've been taught to expect, leaving me feeling disillusioned and upset. Authors are essentially glorified puppet masters playing with the feelings of their readers, and they deserve to be told when the emotional response they're evoking is an unsatisfying one.

Emotionally charged reviews are a grey area, but I believe a healthy balance between emotion and objectivity is critical in a good review (both for the author of the piece and for other readers). The line is crossed, however, when emotionally charged critique devolves into insults and personal attacks on the author responsible.
These are the kind of reviews that are so problematic for us, and why some authors end up feeling "bullied" by their readers. There is rarely an excuse for spewing vitriol at an author just because you didn't like the story they told.

But it's pretty easy to tell the difference between an objective review and author-bashing, and I think most writers quickly wise up to the fact that they have to bring down the shutters once reviews devolve into personal attacks. However, That still leaves us with the grey area of emotionally charged reviews that are harshly critical of something an author may have poured their heart and soul into.

Just the other day I was browsing reviews of a book I'd recently read to see how my impressions compared to those of other readers. It wasn't a book that I particularly enjoyed, but it was far from terrible. It had a lot of flaws, but nothing about it was offensive or upsetting. At worst it could be called ineffective.
To my surprise I discovered that one of the top reviews was a lengthy essay that picked apart the novel's failings point by point, absolutely littered with profanity, incredibly snarky comments, and direct insults aimed at the way it was written. None of these, as far as I could tell, were directed at the author, but I certainly know that it would have upset me if it had been a review of one of my books.
The crying shame is that the review made many good points. It was incredibly one-sided, but most of the points made were valid, useful criticisms for both the author and other potential buyers. It was so incredibly bogged-down in snark and borderline spite, however, that it was impossible for me to read through all at once, and after just a few sentences I was already feeling awful for the author of the book. She might have written a flawed story, but there was no way she deserved to have it ripped apart in what came across as a jeering school-playground kind of a tone.

So what's the solution to this? Well, I don't agree that Anne Rice's idea to yank away the curtain of internet anonymity is going to do anything positive for the state of online book reviews, and any rules or regulations (beyond perhaps flagging posts containing direct personal attacks on authors) stray into the ballpark of censorship, which is a terrible road to go down when it comes to media criticism.

Honestly I think it's just one of those things that falls on the shoulders of us as the reading and writing community. It's not a problem we can fix with strict guidelines, bur rather working gradually towards changing attitudes. Fostering a more positive, polite, and respectful mindset in reviewing strikes me as the best way to go here. It's fine to blast a book for all of its shortcomings, but remember that it was written by a human being; a human being who probably has a lot more emotional investment in their book than you do. Don't be overly snarky. Don't be rude. Don't be a jerkbag. Be critical. Be emotional, but restrained. Be judgemental, but polite. Respect the fact that there's a real person on the receiving end of your comments, and do your best to help them (and the community at large) to improve rather than simply using them as a target for your frustrations.

Sometimes we all get worked up about the books we read, and that's often a good thing.
We could just try to be a bit nicer about it.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Broken Moon Part 5 Published!

And a teensy bit earlier than usual, despite some delays! Fingers crossed that I can continue getting these chapters done in a timely fashion. I've worked out my writing schedule a little better recently, so it should be conducive to a slightly more busy release list!
As usual, Broken Moon Part 5 can be grabbed on Amazon and Smashwords, with other retailers to follow!

April is ready to commit to what she wants, but before she takes the plunge into a relationship that will change her life forever, there is one last story left for her lover to tell; the story of how he lost everything. As his tale of leadership, lust, longing, and violence emerges, April finally begins to understand who Cyan is, and what this discovery may mean for their future together.

But Cyan is not the only one with dark secrets to share.

At long last it's time for everything that happened in Wild Instincts to catch up with our hero, along with a few more revelations along the way!
Broken Moon is officially past the half way point now, and I'm continuing to have a blast with it. Lots of juicy drama and steamy romance still to come!

It's at this point that I often start thinking about what my next big project will be, and I have a couple of ideas in mind. Back when I first talked about Broken Moon I mentioned a second project that I wanted to work on concurrently, but that idea just didn't end up gaining any traction in the same way this one did.
I do have an idea for another erotic (likely BDSM-focused) novel brewing right now, and it'll continue in the same paranormal vein as my last two serials, but without focusing on werewolves this time. I don't think I'm done with the Wild Instincts world just yet, but I could probably use a break from it while I work on something else.

But first, it's time to press on with part six!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

What Ruins a Story? (Part 1?)

This is one of those funny general topics that I've commented on a whole bunch of times in passing on this blog, but I've never actually taken a step back to talk about it as a whole. I thought about making this one big article on what I consider the best/worst characteristics of storytelling, but that's a huge amount to cover in just one sitting, so for now I'm going to focus on what tends to spoil a story just for me personally. This will be a largely subjective exercise, as I'm sure everyone else will value these points slightly differently, but here are some of the cardinal sins that ruin a good story for me.

First and foremost: inconsistent tone. This is something I commented on in detail when I talked about The Final Empire last year, and that book remains one of my prime examples of how fudging your tone can completely take readers out of a story. When I read books, I like to understand what I'm getting into. I don't mean that in an "I want everything to be predictable and boring" sense, but when you enter into a narrative you need to understand certain rules about how the story is going to work. You don't expect a pie-in-the-face gag half way through Schindler's List, and you don't expect disturbingly harrowing drama while watching a Disney movie. That's because those stories have consistent tones; they let you know what to expect, what to feel, and what frame of mind you need to be in to enjoy them. It's as much in the author's interest as the reader's to establish some grounding expectations about their work, and when those expectations start to conflict with story developments further down the line, you start running into big, big problems.
When you find yourself asking questions like "Wait, why did that happen?" or "How does that make any sense now?" then it's often telling of a divergence in tone or internal logic, often caused by a lazy writer throwing ideas out there without much consideration for their impact on the story. This for me is the worst way a story can be ruined, because it doesn't just disappoint the reader or leave them feeling upset; it kills their emotional investment in the narrative entirely.
I talked as well a year ago about my reaction to the ending of The Hunger Games, and how unsatisfied I was with the direction the author chose to go with that story. However, what happens at the end of Mockingjay is infinitely preferable to what turned me off The Final Empire. My reaction to Mockingjay was an emotional one. I had become invested in the characters and the story, and I cared about them enough that the ending made me even more emotional about how it played out, even if it was in an unsatisfying way. I think I mention in that previous post how I didn't think the ending was necessarily bad or poorly done, but that it simply wasn't appropriate for a series like The Hunger Games. If nothing else, that book at least left me with an emotional response when it finished.
The Final Empire turned me off in a very different way. Because the tone shifted so jarringly a few chapters in it caused all of my emotional investment in the story to evaporate. I put down that book and stopped reading because I just didn't care any more. It was some bizarre blend of silly, cheesy action mixed with the grim and gritty trappings of dark fantasy, a combination that did not mesh at all in my mind. I didn't understand the tone or what kind of mindset I had to approach the story with to enjoy it any more, and it ruined the book for me. While Mockingjay left me upset at the direction of the story, all The Final Empire managed was to make me frustrated with the author.

So! Moving on from my number one pet peeve, another thing that bothers me is when a story becomes tedious and predictable, usually be re-using the same tropes and conflicts over and over again. While I love a well-structured story that hits all the points of pacing like it's been planned out on a spreadsheet, what I don't like is when an author employs the exact same emotional tricks repeatedly and assumes they'll still have just as much impact as the first time around. This falls into the same ballpark of killing a story by means of killing the reader's interest in it. One particular book I've been reading recently is a well-polished, interesting, structurally sound novel that hits all of the right points on paper, but falls into the trap of retelling the same series of events over and over again with a slightly different coating of paint and no evolving emotional context to make them meaningful in the larger narrative.
Generally speaking, the hero and heroine run into a problem (almost always bad guys chasing them), panic, and are then helped out by supporting characters appearing out of the blue and assisting them for a handful of chapters, before disappearing and leaving the two protagonists to repeat the same process all over again like clockwork.
The pacing and writing is usually just fine, and these scenes were gripping the first couple of times around, but after a certain point they started to become tedious, because nothing was changing other than the superficial details. It's the same series of events over and over again, and it quickly becomes tiresome.
The reason I'm not the largest fan of the Game of Thrones series stems from a similar logic (although I should add the caveat that I don't consider those books to be bad at all, just not to my tastes). The way viewpoint characters were used to guide certain elements of the story, and the routinely dismal tone, eventually led me to a place where the "unpredictability" of the story became predictable and tedious, and my emotional investment gradually evaporated until I stopped reading part way through book three.

Phew, this post is already turning into a long one, so I think I'll wrap it up for now! Expect a Part 2 to come at some point, since there's still more stuff I can talk about when it comes to "what ruins a story". The two points mentioned above are definitely a couple of the biggies for me, not necessarily because they're the most damning, but because they're the ones that I usually find cropping up a lot in stories that are otherwise well-told and engaging. There's nothing worse than a story that looks pretty at first glance, only for the blemishes to become more and more apparent as you read on until it spoils the whole thing.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Broken Moon Part 4 Published!

I was hoping to push this one out a little earlier than usual, but all of a sudden it ended up being 5000 odd words longer than I'd planned! So here we go; part 4 is here, and we're getting into the meat of the romance and plot developments as we press onwards into the middle of the story. Available to purchase on Amazon and Smashwords, as per usual!

As her relationship with Cyan grows more intense and the looming prospect of her mating edges ever closer, April is finally forced to start confronting her feelings about what she truly wants -- and the price she may have to pay for breaking her pack's age-old code of honour. Tempers and dissent flare amongst the Highland Pack as the leadership of the secluded group of werewolves is called into question once again, with Cyan finally taking a stand for what he believes is right in spite of his promise not to get involved. With a new arrival in camp who threatens the secrecy of their hidden lives, April must choose where she stands; with her friends and family, or with the dark outsider who is fast capturing her heart.

Hopefully part 5 should be out in a slightly more timely fashion, as I've been working to optimise my writing time and plan things out more thoroughly in advance. Assuming it doesn't run on as much as this one, the next part should be finished before too long!
Also more blog articles. I need to stop forgetting to do them.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Character Change

Every good character should have an arc.
Okay, no, that's totally not true, but just like any of the "rules" of writing it's a pretty effective staple of storytelling. If you want to make a character compelling and their story satisfying, you should generally give them an arc.

An arc is simply the transition of a character from point A to point C, with the events of the story shaping their transition from one to the other. Harry Potter starts out as a lonely, abused child living in the cupboard under the stairs, and ends up as a great wizard who saves lives and defeats evil. Luke Skywalker is a farm boy who becomes a Jedi. Dorian Grey is a beautiful, indolent hedonist who turns into a monster that cannot stand the sight of himself.
Arcs can affect physical change in the world and relate to a character's social status or personal deeds (like those of Harry and Luke) or focus purely around the psychological and emotional development of a character (Dorian). They can be either positive or negative changes, but the change must be meaningful and related clearly to the events of the story in a way that readers can understand. A character's arc is essentially a microcosm of a story in and of itself. Seeing someone change and react and develop in response to the events around them is in itself its own little personal story, independent of the larger plot.

However, it's important to keep in mind that "change" is not synonymous with "arc". Countless times I've heard readers, viewers, and players defend even the most absurd character transitions on the grounds that it's "better than no change at all", and I feel as though it's an assumption worth commenting on.
Character change is a lot like the concept of originality. We tend to hold it up as a prized quality in storytelling; something that every creator should strive for to enrich their work, and something that less experienced students of the art often trip up on in their efforts to recreate. Of course, this is silly. Originality has no intrinsic value in storytelling, because everyone can be wacky and weird and bizarre if they want to. In fact, the reason most stories come across as formulaic is because they're sticking to the same tried and tested set of rules that generally make for an entertaining story in the first place. Why would you try to be original when you're just going to be breaking something that already works perfectly fine?
It's hard to break what works and make it still work after you're done toying around with all the parts, and that's where genuinely praiseworthy originality comes from. It requires skilful handling to be good original rather than just weird original, and the same is true of making character change into a satisfying arc rather than just change for the sake of change.

The worst instances of this can often be found in long-running TV dramas, when writers feel the need to switch up the character dynamics a few seasons down the line by changing who's a bad guy and who's a good guy (etc.) to keep things fresh. This usually runs into a whole bunch of pitfalls when the writers don't adequately explain or demonstrate the transition, making characters "change" purely for the sake of having something different happen.
I vividly recall the absurdity of the third season of the show Heroes, where the good guy/bad guy dynamics started to switch up on an almost episodic basis, with half the cast coming off as schizophrenic at best and almost comical at worst. This is more of an issue with how these dramas are commissioned and written in general (if you give a character a complete arc in season one, what do you do with them in season two? If you leave their arc unresolved at the end of a season, what if the network cancels your show before you can finish it?) but it's a good reference point for some of the pitfalls of long-term character development.
Similar to how TV shows feature characters with complete arcs, followed by radical personality shifts (or backpeddling) to facilitate new arcs in season two, novel sequels run the same risk of forcing the writer to change their characters for the sake of making them interesting again if the original book was initially intended to be self-contained.

This is one of the reasons why my current WIP Broken Moon is a loose sequel featuring new characters rather than a direct continuation of the preceding book, and any plans I have for subsequent sequels will likely continue in the same mould. I like to give characters complete, satisfying arcs in my stories, and I don't want to have to change up their personalities or invalidate any of their development for the sake of a sequel.
Of course, it's perfectly possible to continue arcs on after they apparently "conclude" (Luke Skywalker became the hero, but he's not a Jedi yet, and Harry became a wizard, but he hasn't defeated Voldemort once and for all), but it does require some forethought.

Phew, so those are my thoughts on character change for the day! Change is not synonymous with Arc, and it has no inherent value in and of itself. Character change should never be haphazard, and if you're going to be writing sequels, make sure you think about how to carry on that arc beyond the initial point of resolution without cooking up something contrived that's only going to alienate your audience.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Recapping - How to keep repetition from becoming repetitive.

One topic that's been on my mind recently as I progress on with Broken Moon is how to approach the subject of recapping. Since this is technically the second book in a series it draws pretty heavily on the events of the previous novel to inform the actions of one of the main characters, but at the same time I don't intend for the story to be a direct sequel. If I want Broken Moon to work as a standalone a certain amount of recapping is going to be necessary, but how does an author approach that without either boring readers of the previous book, or confusing newcomers to the series by not giving them enough information?

I had a few ideas in mind when I started this, but I think the most critical part of an extensive recap is this: It needs to come from a different perspective.
A series of events retold in exactly the same tone and voice as they were originally is going to become repetitive, but if the author can put a new slant on those events then they can be made fresh and interesting again even to readers who have heard it all before. This also works the other way around, giving readers of the new book a differing experience when they go back to read the old one, rather than feeling like they've already been spoiled on everything.
As a side note, I also like to keep spoilers as minimal as possible. Of course, you have to get into pretty dramatic spoiler territory when recapping critical events, but I like to keep the details vague enough that the reader only gets a general outline rather than every bit of the nitty-gritty.

So! The easiest way to do this is to recap from the perspective of a different character. Wild Instincts was told explicitly from the perspective of the protagonist Lyssa, whereas Broken Moon frequently gets inside the head of Cyan, the previous book's antagonist. While there were mild hints at Cyan's motivation scattered throughout the first novel, he was by and large a clear bad guy with very few redeeming qualities. When Broken Moon gets to the stage where Cyan retells his version of events, my plan is to go into specific detail about how and why he made those choices, and while his actions won't exactly be redeemed by this new information, they will (hopefully) at the very least seem much more understandable and sympathetic.

On top of this I'm also making sure not to reveal too much information too early on. This serves a dual purpose in the story for both new readers and people who are familiar with the previous book.
Despite being frequently pestered by the heroine April to talk about his past, Cyan is understandably reluctant. For new readers this creates an air of dark mystery around his character, and a dangling question waiting to be answered, with a whole lot of anticipation and tension behind it based on the small hints he drops about how sinister his backstory is.
For people who have read Wild Instincts, however, they know all too well what Cyan's done and what he's capable of. They realise that April's perception of him as a good and kind person may not be entirely accurate, and that the tensions between him and the other characters might well boil over into something much darker. It dangles another question in the air for this group of readers; rather than "What happened in Cyan's past?" they instead have to consider "What will happen when April finds out the truth about him?"

So that, to me, is how you should go about recapping past events in a novel. There's always a very pressing urge to just rattle off necessary information as an author; to fill the reader in as thoroughly and directly as possible so that they're all caught up and ready to enjoy the fun part coming up next.
The trick, of course, is making that catch-up period fun as well rather than it just being an expository information dump, for both old and new readers alike.

I'm sure there are other techniques that can be used to put a new shine on recapping (and I thoroughly look forward to giving them some thought in the future!), but for now this is the method I'm going to be aiming for.