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Thursday, 24 October 2013

A Quick Apology Message

Hey readers. I am so, so sorry I've been a bad blogger recently. I know I've missed a few posts and now I'm going to be even more horrible and tell you that there will be no Book Talk tomorrow, nor any blogging at all next week, because I'm going to the USA with my best friend! Eek! We've been waiting for this trip for over a year, and now it's finally arrived and neither of us can believe it. It's just so strange how the super-crazy-excitement hasn't really hit us yet, but I'm sure it will by tomorrow. Can't wait!

Well, I'm going to miss you all! Be back in two weeks :)

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Writing Wednesday: Killing Off Characters

I can guarantee that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make me hate an author more than if he/she kills off my favourite character. However, sometimes you need the reader to hate you. Sometimes that poor protagonist you've been dragging through hell (literal or figurative -- your call) and pushing to the limit needs to be tipped over the edge into action. And what better way to do that than to brutally and heartlessly murder someone they love? That will motivate them to finally assassinate the evil dictator!

Killing off characters is something you can very easily do wrong. In either direction. Some of us ( get so attached to our characters that they become our best friends and our babies all at once. Suddenly you can't possibly kill Bob because even though that would be great for the story, and losing the love of her life will definitely get Beth to shake her tail bone, get off her high horse and avenge Bob, which could either be the main story goal or could serve to get her stuck in some other sort of sticky situation, such as trapped in the dungeons under the castle. So you can see that the occasional bit of cruelty in your writing is useful as a plot-pusher, and you want the reader to feel something, don't you?

That said, so many authors take it to the other extreme. They kill everyone. They have no mercy. Bob needs to die, yes, so then why not kill of Beth's brother, Billy, while she's out trying to avenge Bob? Let's rack up the guilt! Let's have a massacre! Right?

Umm, no. Because you'll end up having to constantly replenish the cast with new characters, which is confusing both for the reader and for you. Confusion = bad. You may also end up killing someone you need later, and then you'll have to bring them back. Which works in a few rare cases if done well, but usually, I'd say it's a no-no. The reader can and will be able to tell when it's a cop-out and they will not be happy.

Racking up the guilt is something which works, obviously. Maybe you can kill Bob and Billy in one book, but then I wouldn't advise losing any more main characters. Killing characters the reader loves will ensure an emotional response, yes. Let's think Titanic -- a film I love to hate and hate to love. (Spoilers ahead.) Lots of people die. That's a given basically from the start, because who doesn't know the infamous story? It's when Jack dies that the twist comes. We care a lot about Jack. Some of us even love Jack. Jack is smart. Jack is selfless. Jack is gorgeous. In short, Jack is as perfect as a character can be without being too perfect. So that's why when Jack dies, it hits us right in the gut, like a freight train zooming at 500mph. It barrels, unseen, out of the tunnel and it physically hurts, it's so sad. I literally -- not figuratively, not practically, literally -- cried for an hour the first time I saw that movie. We all know Rose was the one who deserved to die the most out of the couple. Rose was a pretty annoying person before Jack came along. And yet Rose lived. Because of Jack; because Jack selflessly let her get on the raft-thing (even though Mythbusters proved there would have been enough room for both of them. Just saying.), even though he knew it meant he'd freeze to death in the water. That made us love Jack more, which made his death even worse.

Titanic is one of my saddest examples. I won't lie and tell you I wasn't furious, initially, even though the critical part of my brain was pointing out all the smart things about the story ("Make it count, meet me at the clock") and trying to calm the emotional part that just felt like it had nothing left to live for. Titanic only killed one main character, and look how much impact. Like cliffhangers, and setting, this is another instance where less is often more. Overdo your killing, Jigsaw-style, and you will either desensitize your reader or annoy he/she so much she vows never to buy another one of your books again, because it's just too much emotional trauma. Neither of those things is particularly desirable if you want to actually sell books and have readers that actually like you, as opposed to readers who want to meet you just so they can punch you. Tell me, are you writing a novel or a script for a slasher movie? I rest my case.

Another point is that, if you're writing something vaguely fantastical (sci-fi, paranormal, fantasy, you name it), you have the luxury of thinking of new and original alternatives to killing. (Mockingjay spoiler alert ahead.) Having Peeta hijacked was a very smart move by Suzanne Collins, because having him there but not himself made it even worse, both for the reader and Katniss. And of course, then she could have fun taking it either way: will Peeta stay nuts or will he recover? Read the rest of the book or you'll never know! And she made use of her own quotation "Hope. It's the only thing stronger than fear."

So pull a Lili St Crow/Suzanne Collins and do something worse than death to your main character's loved ones. Rack up the stakes without racking up the death count. That cool new brainwashing-meets-zombification thing you came up with is sure to stay with your reader much longer than a mere death. If your genre permits it, of course.

I am still of two minds about killing off characters, and how much is enough vs. how much is too much. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! Till Friday, friends and readers.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Book Talk: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (not for children)

(First, so sorry I disappeared on you on Monday. I was my birthday :D and we got home late, and then there was the cake and before I knew it, it was ten o'clock and too late to blog. But I'll post a song this Monday instead, as well as the Writing Wednesday post that'll be due. I'm really excited about this one!)

Oh, my golly gosh. This book. I had heard many things from many different people, but nothing prepared me for the, excuse the cliché, emotional roller-coaster that this book put me through. It was tragic, but it was beautiful. I cannot count the number of times I had tears in my eyes or shivers down my back. It was an odd sort of sadness, though, not like the other sob stories I usually bawl my eyes out at, like Titanic and The Fault in Our Stars, in which you cry your heart out only at the end. No, The Lovely Bones was tear-worthy at many, many points, but you cry less each time. I liked how Alice Sebold did that. So without further rambles, here is my usual teaser/summary:

Walking back from school on the evening of 6 December, 1973, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is stopped by her neighbour, George Harvey. Lured by curiosity, she follows him into a den-like hole he has dug in the cornfield by their houses -- where he rapes and then murders her. And he seems to have gotten away with it. But Susie isn't done on Earth yet. She watches her family, friends, people she once spoke to, from her own personal heaven, as detective Len Fenerman grows increasingly frustrated at his inability to find the murderer, or even a body. If only Susie could find a way to prove to her loved ones that she's still here, that it wasn't their fault, that she's safe now, if longing for things she might have done. That her murderer lives right next door...

This book touches something deep and personal inside us all. It proves how danger sometimes lives right on out doorstep, and while that may not be a particularly comforting thought, the author still managed to execute what some people may call a "horrible" story in an absolutely beautiful, poetic way. Susie narrating from her heaven gives the effect of a combined first person and omniscient narrator, something that prior to reading this book I would have considered impossible. "Like a beautiful gasoline rainbow" (my favourite quotation, that made me cry more than all other parts bar one), this book manages to take something ugly and make it a story so captivating it kept you enthralled without the use of what I refer to as the literary "underhand tactics", e.g. extraneous cliffhangers. The character my heart bled for the most had to be Susie's poor father, Jack; followed by Lindsey and Buckley, her siblings; and then Ray Singh, Susie's crush, who is at one point a suspect. I have to confess that I did not like Susie's mother at all. I know her daughter died, and I made allowances, but there is some behaviour that is just inexcusable. I won't mention what that behaviour was. You'll have to read it and find out ;)

Star Rating: 5/5

I recommend this to almost everyone -- don't let your kids under twelve at the very minimum read it, please. I would say fourteen and up, but if you do allow younger children to read it, well, don't say I didn't warn you.  It's a fantastic novel, but there is the rape, which isn't described in detail but I still don't think it's the best thing for children to be reading. There are also one or two sex scenes, which are also not gone into in detail. Even though I believe Sebold handled the tricky subject as well as she could, the fact remains that it's there, and some things are best left till older. If you want a sad but beautiful book that's child-friendly, I recommend Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls, which you can read my post on here.

Have a wonderful evening, everyone! I start "work" tomorrow -- unpaid volunteering, but still my first job. Excited! This is the charity shop that gets all my old books. I wonder how many I'll recognise on the shelves :)

Friday, 4 October 2013

Book Talk: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Hello, all. This is a book I actually read last year, but I saw it on my shelf and realised I had to tell you all about it.

People with an exceptional skill in a particular field, known as a Grace, are equal parts feared, envied and exploited in the Seven Kingdoms. Katsa, who can be identified, as all Gracelings can, by her mismatched eyes, is cursed with the Grace of killing, something even she loathes herself for. Used as an assassin by her uncle Randa, king of the Middluns, Katsa is on a mission to find and save the kidnapped father of the king of  Lienid. But the old man is harmless. What could anyone possibly want with him? And who was that knife-wielding, Graced fighter, with eyes the colour of precious metals? Is following Randa's orders really the right thing to do? Because Katsa's not sure she still wants to kill any more. She doesn't want to be a pawn all her life. This time, she's going to solve the mystery by herself. Maybe with a little help from Po...

 This book had an interesting premise; never before had I seen anyone do something similar to a Grace. The other thing I love is that there are loads of twists, but they're not horrible, sneaky underhand tricks of the author -- they're the kind of twists that make you go "aaaahhhhhh" and nod, rather than screech, "NOOOOO!" Prim-style and cry. No one in this book is exactly as they seem, and I love that. You discover things throughout the course of the novel even the characters didn't know about themselves, and it's fun to try to solve the mystery before they do. And, as with all the books I really like, there's an adorable guy :)

The writing is beautiful, too, because it's not typical. Being set in a fantastical world, Graceling is written in a more poetic fashion than most YA fiction is, and it really works for this story. There's a companion novel, Fire, which tells the story of Graceling's antagonist, but not always from his point of view, and the sequel, Bitterblue, is set eight years later and has just come out. I haven't read it yet, but I will. Eventually. If only you guys could see my To Be Read list.

Here's Graceling on Amazon.

Star rating: 5/5

Well, this has been a short post, but the plot is complicated, and I can either under-describe or over-describe. I think under-describing is better than spoiling the book for you. So, see you on Monday ! (MY BIRTHDAY!)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Writing Wednesday: The Cliffhanger -- How Much is Too Much?

(Sidenote: this is my 44th post! Yes, really! Where has all the time gone...)

Ahh, cliffhangers. My love/hate relationship with this technique burns stronger with every book that ends with poor old Bob hanging grimly for dear life. Figuratively speaking. Of course, cliffhangers are a sure-fire way to ensure the reader will stick around for books 2, 3, 4, etc. of your series. However:

1. It's annoying. Very. And you don't want to annoy your reader (well, only a little). Remember, every page of your story has to convince them they should stick around for another. Living in a world where people can get e-books for $0.99, authors, both traditionally- and self-published alike, have to try harder than ever before to make the reader believe that, yes, just one more chapter is worth it, even though they have a chemistry exam tomorrow they haven't revised for and it's already one in the morning. Or convince the frazzled, the sleep-deprived mother of newborn twins to read instead of taking her well-deserved nap when cute little Aidan and Nadia are (finally) sound asleep. Twenty years ago, as a writer, your job was to sell a book to each reader once. Now you have to keep selling it over and over again, because in times like these, people aren't going to stick around to finish a so-so book they invested less than a dollar in. Sorry to be so blunt, but that's a fact.

2. It's a breach of the unofficial author-reader contract. (Thank you, Augustus Waters. This is in your honour.) I don't know why this one is so hard. When you buy a book, you expect a complete story, no? Yes, yes you do. So when a book ends at what feels like halfway through the climax, I think I have a right to be ticked off. I don't want to wait a year to find out what happens to Bob! I don't even want to wait a day! And that's good, by the way. If I get so mad at this contract breach, it must mean Bob is a good character, because I care about him, and I don't want him to go tumbling into the sea. Now don't get me wrong here: you are allowed to use cliffhangers. In fact, the cliffhanger is quite probably the best reader-torture technique, second only perhaps to BRUTALLY AND HEARTLESSLY MURDERING THE SWEETEST, DO-NO-WRONG character that everyone is in love with. (That one is basically guaranteed to get you hate, though. Just a warning.) But, the cliffhanger's strength is also it's downfall. Let me explain. We read books for the emotional journey, it's true, but unless all your readers are masochists, they are going to be displeased if all you ever throw at them is cliffhanger after relentless cliffhanger. And reader's don't forgive easily. We may be more empathetic than average Joe no-books, but that doesn't mean we're not exceptional at holding grudges. I can quote, word for word, the exact line that ruined my life. I wasn't even reading this series as they came out. I had the next book on my shelf, and I still had a meltdown when I read those ten horrible, horrible italicised words. It was horrible. Traumatic, even. My metaphorical heart had been ripped out of my chest, stomped on, put through a blender and then handed back, bloody and broken, all in just ten words. Call me a drama queen if you must, but can't you see how good at characterisation this author was? By inflicting this atrocious deed upon the fictional love of my life, she ensured another £6.99 from me because I would just have to buy the next book. And I did. BUT, I will probably never read that author again. Ever. Because I can't go through that kind of emotional trauma again. I won't do it.

3. It's somewhat unoriginal, and downright tiresome. I say "somewhat" because, let's face it: you'd be hard pressed to write a suspenseful book that doesn't include a single cliffhanger. Almost every YA trilogy these days follows this formula: Book 1, ending that can be continued, but is still tied off; Book 2, evil cliffhanger; Book 3, varying degrees of happy ending. Predictable, don't you think? Still, my point is not that cliffhangers shouldn't be used, my point is that they must be used sparingly. If you have a whole book full of cliffhangers, each one packs a smaller punch than it would on it's own. They barely feel like cliffhangers any more. The reader becomes desensitised. Your book, your baby that you spent years planning, poured blood, sweat and tears into, becomes a cheap and predictable story. Kind of like how when you drink chocolate milk while eating cookies, the chocolate milk doesn't taste as sweet, because the cookies are sweeter, so the milk's sweetness is lost. Sad, isn't it? Because chocolate milk would be deliciously sweet if you didn't have the cookies too. So save your chocolate milk for one book, and your cookies for another.

So once again, as with all other aspects of writing (and life in general, too), the trick is finding a balance. I feel bad, because I told you that last fortnight, about setting, but balance really is what you must strive for. Also as with setting, how much suspense you include and how much trauma you inflict upon your innocent reader is decided by your personal style and the genre(s) you write in. Beta readers and critique partners will help you cut down on extraneous cliffhangers, or add a bit more spice to a bland and boring book. Don't forget the plot twists!

And I just thought I'd leave you with the knowledge that I have my own personal alliterate, hilarious name for the "disease" in which a writer uses too many cliffhangers, but I can't share it here as it involves a specific name and I don't want to a) offend that person or b) get sued. But I encourage you to think up your own! :)