Monday, July 2, 2012

Why There Are No Shortcuts in World-building

Every writer has certain parts of the writing process that fill them with joy, along with others that fill them with dread. Naturally, those preferences vary for each of us. Some writers adore character development, while others despise it. Some loathe plotting, while for others, it's the first thing they want to do when they get up in the morning.

I'm a storyteller, so for me, pounding out the first draft is a natural high. The type of scene doesn't matter; just cut me loose and let me write it. Whether it's a heart-pounding action scene or a tender moment of romance that takes your breath away, I feel right at home. When it comes time to do world-building, however, I freeze up like I've got icicles for legs.

At no point was this weakness more obvious than it was this past weekend at my critique group meeting. I brought some sample pages from a young adult fantasy novel I've been working on, eager for feedback. I'd brought the pages in before, gotten them critiqued and made adjustments based on the notes I was given, and I was optimistic that my changes had greatly improved the story.

I waited with bated breath as my critique partners carefully review the revised pages, trying not to read over their shoulders as they took meticulous notes. Finally, they put down their pens and said the last words I'd wanted to hear:

"The overall writing is solid, but your world still doesn't feel real to me."

Argh. Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth here.

I know what you're thinking: "But you like fantasy---fairies, elves, unicorns, dwarves and the like. Shouldn't creating races, maps and languages be your idea of a good time?" And my response is, you must be thinking of Tolkien. I skipped all those long descriptions of setting and elf songs in Lord of the Rings. Gimme sword fights and a good makeout scene over that stuff any day.

Here's the problem, though. Have you ever had a moment when you're neck-deep in a great story  and you suddenly find yourself wondering, "Yes, but why did those people mutate twenty years ago? And why didn't they all mutate? And why do they keep fighting over that territory?" Moments like that are distracting and pull your readers out of the story; if they happen often enough, people stop reading altogether. If the world you've created doesn't make sense to your readers, they can't fully connect with the story you're telling---no matter how good it is.

Oh, and if you think this is all just for fantasy/sci-fi writers and our races of green people who speak Icktock and live on Mars, you're mistaken. World-building is just as important whether you're writing a Western, a contemporary romance or an updated fairy tale. It's not enough to know the names and occupations of your characters. You need to know about the town he grew up in, how big her high school was and whether his third-grade teachers was mean or not. These details may seem insignificant to you, but often they are the difference between characters who lie flat on the page, and ones who live, breathe and touch your readers' hearts. They can turn a good story into a great one, and isn't that what all writers want?

So. If you'll excuse me, I have to go draw some maps now.

What about you? What steps do you take to make the worlds in your stories feel more real to your readers?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Can Authors Give Negative Book Reviews?

The other day, I was scanning Goodreads and came across what appeared to be a not-so-nice review of a fairly well-known author's book. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized it was actually a rather scathing indictment of the author's reaction to negative reviews in general. According to the reviewer, the author was warning other aspiring authors to not give negative ratings to books, since it could damage their budding careers in the long run. If you bash an author's book and later want that author to write a blurb for you, for example, forget it.

Now, I won't give either the reviewer's or the author's names, since I can't confirm the accuracy of any of this information. However, I don't think names matter much in this scenario anyway. I'm far more interested in the opinions that were raised in this exchange. 

The reviewer, along with others who left comments, seemed to have the attitude that authors who get negative reviews should put on their "big kid undies" and chunk it up as part of the business. The consensus was that no author has the right to tell people whether or not to leave negative reviews, whether those people are aspiring writers themselves or not.

Hmm. Interesting. I can't say I've ever thought about book reviews in quite this way before. I've always known that they held tremendous power for writers, but I never thought how that influence may come at a price. To be honest, the entire thing has me questioning some of the book reviews I've written myself.

While I'm not a book blogger by any means, I am a fairly avid reader and I have a couple of reviews up on Goodreads at the moment...along with millions of other people. So, I had to wonder: Are authors really out there scanning for reviews like mine, ones that may or may not have been favorable to them? If I criticize an author's prose, plot or character development, will that really come back to bite me once my own work of art is published?

Well, here's my take on the matter: I believe in the Golden Rule---treating others as you wish to be treated---but I also believe in honesty. The same freedom of speech that allows you to write a book in the first place is the same freedom of speech that allows me to examine that book with a critical eye if I wish. It is our right and duty as intelligent readers to think critically about what we read, not just swallow it down without digesting it.

That said, there's no reason for us to be petty and ugly when we offer our criticism. Whether we believe it or not, every published author slaved over the words we read, polishing and fine-tuning to make them as perfect as possible. And for that, they deserve our respect, not our insults and ridicule. We can disagree with their work without devaluing them as people, and that's an important distinction to make. At the end of the day, I think it's a compromise we can all live with.

What do you think? Do aspiring authors have the right to publicly criticize the work of their peers? If so, is there a way to do it respectfully? Can popular book reviewers be honest in their reviews, or has it become "politically correct" to only post positive reviews?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Trends I've Noticed in YA Fiction

Trends are funny things. They come in and go out like the tide, bursting onto the scene and fading away just as quickly. They're found in fashion, T.V. shows, movies and books, and the same ones seem to appear over and over again. Bell bottoms become flared jeans, slip-ons become pop kicks and leggings become...well, leggings. Each time we think these flashy fads are gone for good, they somehow reinvent themselves for a new generation.

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of literature, especially with the rise of the e-reader, which makes the latest bestseller a simple click or download away. Some argue that the entire young adult (YA) genre itself is a fad that will eventually fade like others. I strongly disagree with this logic, but that's another topic for another post. I do, however, believe that YA lit is subject to trends like all other genres of writing. Here are just a few of the ones I've noticed lately:
  1. Dystopian fiction - This one is a biggie, arguably the most popular trend in the genre right now. Not to be confused with utopian fiction. Wikipedia offers pretty detailed explanations for both, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll just say that utopian fiction depicts an ideal world, a paradise of sorts. Dystopian fiction depicts the opposite, a world that is unraveling, often to the point of destruction. Today's dystopians include major blockbuster hits like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Wither, The Maze Runner and a host of others, but as blogger Lily Paradis so eloquently shared in her recent post on the subject, these books are hardly the first of their kind to imagine our world with a dismal future.
  2. Dead protagonists - Book marketer and blogger Rachel Stark made a compelling case last October for the obsession we seem to have with dead girls in YA literature, and the trend only seems to have grown since that post was published. From stories where a life-or-death choice is the premise of the novel, to ones where the main character is already dead, to ones where characters are haunted by the deceased, one thing is disturbingly clear: Death, in all its forms, is apparently the new black (pun intended...sort of).
  3. Love triangles - Ah, love triangles. Something about them just screams teenage angst, doesn't it? This trend is one of the oldest in literature, going back to the days of Shakespeare and beyond, but it seems like its most recent resurgence has come in full force. You'll be hard-pressed to find a YA book these days (particularly one with paranormal elements) that doesn't feature a heroine bouncing like a ping pong ball between two drop-dead gorgeous fellas. Most readers either love or hate them. I happen to be in the "love them" camp, but only when they're done well and don't hijack the plot. I'm totally Team Peeta, by the way.
As far as what's the "next big thing" in YA, I think that's anybody's guess, but I'd love to hear your predictions. I'll have my thoughts on the matter in another post.

What trends have you noticed in YA books lately? Do you read with the trends or away from them?