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Character Tuesday: The Villain Next Door

Happy Tuesday, happy third day of the year. Today, I’m starting my own Book Blogging meme, at least on this page. I call it Character Tuesday. Write about one to three characters that you like or don’t like, in fiction. There will probably be a theme but not always. The only other rule is that I want to keep it constructive; in other words, if I say something bad about how a character is written, I’m going to say why. If anyone else wants to play along, I’ll set this up like a regular blog-along for everyone.

Today, I’m going to talk about villains in books, and what makes the truly good ones. Well, bad ones. Whichever adjective you care to use. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m writing a villain myself. Yes, my book has a Dragon, and an enemy general, and a few sadistic killers in it, along with monsters, demons, and even a lawyer, but I realized that those kind of villains aren’t the ones I remember the most from my reading, and that’s probably because those aren’t the kinds of villains I encounter in my daily life.

These three are examples of what I’m talking about. These aren’t the boogeymen, the wights, the dragons, then unrestful dead. These are people who could run into every day.

Dolores Umbridge

sonrisa_de_umbridgeA lot of digital ink has been spilled over exactly why she’s such a memorable villain, and some people, including your not-so-humble blogger, think that she’s the most frightening villain in the series, even though her death count is much lower than any of the Death Eaters. The most frightening thing about her, though, is that she’s completely and totally believable. Most of us aren’t going to run into dark wizards throwing Cruciatus curses at us, but we will probably deal with someone who has power over us, power that we can’t do anything about whether we want to or not. Even worse, the Umbridginian Villain, even more than your average evil fantasy bad-guy, does not think that he or she is doing anything wrong. Everything she does is what she thinks will keep people safe. Whether it’s effective or not isn’t the point. The point is, individual rights have to go by the wayside when the Organization (whether Hogwarts, Public High Schools, or the Department of Homeland Security) has other concerns like keeping its subjects safe, exactly the way it thinks its subjects need to be kept. This is the villain who will punish a student for what he said in class, not because it’s a lie but because it will scare other students. These are the people who implement security theater throughout the country, and respond to reports that it might be ineffective by adding even more theater instead of actual security. (A true Umbridginian, though, would prosecute the people complaining about it, discouraging others from complaining.)

Phoebus

phoebusNow we’re getting away from the bureaucratic villains and into something different. I can only barely begin to describe how much I loathe Disney for how they treated this character. In the book The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (which is just as good as Les Miserables, though it doesn’t have anything about dreaming a dream and such) the action is put into motion by Phoebus. Everything bad happens because Phoebus is a spoiled wealthy knight who gets what he wants. And when the crap hits the agitator blades, he ducks out of the picture, ignores everything going on because of what he started, and STILL winds up with a happily-ever-after for him. (He’s about the only main character in the book who gets one.) He’s the kind of person the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote Psalm 73, AKA When Good Things Happen to Bad People. If I could somehow enter the pages of a book and slap the nosehairs out of a character, it would be him.

So, you can imagine how I felt when I saw a commercial for the then-upcoming Disney treatment and I realized that Phoebus was rewritten to be brave and ultimately, the hero. I might have screamed a little. I haven’t much been able to enjoy Disney cartoons since.

The Chief, AKA Sharkey

SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ THE LORD OF THE RINGS. THIS WAS NOT IN THE MOVIES.

(Here, look at the picture of a dog and his puppy, posted by /u/emoposer on the subreddit /r/aww)

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Alright, for those of you who have read LOTR, I’m going to talk about the second-to-last chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.” Every time I reread this book (I think my last rereading was my fourth) I like this part more; indeed, it’s thick enough in concept and character to justify a complete novel of its own. Even before we learn who The Chief is (which actually kind of disappointed me, and I would have liked it better had he just been a regular man who saw an opportunity and jumped at it) we see what happens when there’s a power vacuum during a war or other disturbance. A group of men took advantage of Frodo’s absence, made inroads into the community by offering money and power, and soon (within a year or two, perhaps) were running Hobbiton like it was their own person fiefdom. It’s a shocking bit of realism, probably informed by what happened in a lot of cities and countries after World War II, and it’s again an example of casual greed and opportunism doing as much damage as intentional evil and destruction. It’s the most underrated chapter in the book (I’ve rarely heard people complain about its omission like they will about missing Tom Bombadil) and yet, one of the most relatable to our own world.

So, those are my villainous inspirations. Now I need to go back to my notes and work on one of my own.

Tell me about your favorites in the comments, or write a post and link back. I think this is a conversation worth having.

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My Happy Old Year in Books

Hello everyone, and Hoppy Gnu Ear to all of you. I hope you had a great one, or at least a good one. I hope you had plenty of books and tea and experiences that you can talk about for years to come. Me? I had a bunch of good things… got married to a wonderful woman I’ve been friends with since we were in 8th Grade Art together, became a step parent to two awesome kids who sometimes act more like me than I do, got to travel all up and down the east coast and help my wife and family with our business, got to write, got to see some amazing friends, and I restarted my blog… productively, I think. Bad… well, aside from bi-polar depression (which is mitigated by the weirdos who’ve kidnapped me into their family) I feel kind of bad for one failing. Every year I pledge to read at least 52 books. This year, I only read…

51

Never mind that I also read over 200 pages in a non-fiction book that I didn’t finish, 800 pages in War and Peace, and I’m over 500 pages into The Dragonbone Chair. Never mind that if you average the 51 books I did read, I read an average of 453 pages per book… 480 if you add in the two books I’m reading. I seriously considered (a) spending all day today reading the last 300-plus pages of DBC just so I could say I finished it, or (b) pulling out one of my novella collections (I have several, including one of classic novellas and two of golden-age science fiction novellas) and reading one of those just so I could say I hit 52 friggin’ books. Instead, I decided to (c) get some father-daughter time for a couple hours at the game store. (She likes browsing games and figurines and other such things; I needed to have her there as a chaperone to make sure I didn’t buy anything.) And then, instead of spending the evening speed-reading (which is unenjoyable at best, really), my daughter, wifepartnerlove, and I continued on with our mission to beat the Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle Deck Building Game. (Awesome game, by the way… highly recommended.) We had to play it twice, too, since we lost in quite the epic fashion the first time. But, we have one more part of the game to beat (there are seven parts, one for each of the books) and then we can start replaying it. Now I’m sitting here, mildly upset in the part of my brain that likes to categorize everything, and yet I wouldn’t give up what I did today (or for the most part, what I read) for the world.

Anyway, here are the best books I read this year, in no specific order.

BEST BOOK TO READ DURING A COLD RUSSIAN WINTER, EVEN THOUGH I READ IT IN GEORGIA (NOT THE FORMER SOVIET REPUBLIC, EITHER), : The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In addition to some stunning and prescient discourses on faith, religion, ethics, and revenge (at one point, a character comments on how good it feels to be offended about something and thus predicted social media over a century before it arrived) the book has some of the best starkly-drawn characters I have ever encountered in a book. Also, while it’s mostly obvious who committed the crime, by the time I got to the end, I didn’t really care who did it and was just glad that someone did.

BEST BOOK I BOUGHT OFF AN AMAZON KINDLE SPLASH SCREEN ADVERTISEMENT: Bloom, or, The Unwritten Memoir of Tennyson Middlebrook Martin Kee

I rarely buy books off of the ads on my Kindle, but the few times I have, I’ve been impressed. This counts as one of those impressed times. The book was also published independently (I believe it might now have been picked up by a mainstream publisher) and gives me hope for my own writing. The book is a mix of folklore-style mythmaking (which holds a special place in my heart), horror (which holds a special place in the heart I keep in a box under the bed), and science fiction. I will also say that there are a couple well-done pleasant twists here and there that make the book memorable. I could see myself reading it again some time soon.

BEST ROMANCE: Voyager (Outlander #3) — Diana Gabaldoon

If you haven’t read the other two (#1… excellent; #2… well, it tied up a lot of loose ends and wasn’t bad, at least), well, don’t worry that I might spoil #3 (possibly the best so far) for you. I will say that it’s the best story of the bunch, and even though there are a couple of plot holes big enough to sail a ship through, I DIDN’T CARE. Also, while reading one scene in a diner where Rena Partnerlove and I were having lunch, she informed me that I was unconsciously rubbing her knee under the table. Ms Gabaldoon’s a hell of a writer, that’s all I’m going to say.

BEST SCIENCE-FICTION CLASSIC THAT EVERYONE SHOULD READ, EVEN IT (ESPECIALLY IF) THEY DON’T READ SCIENCE-FICTION: The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the sixth book of hers (I think) I’ve read, and it’s easily the best. It’s a portrait of a co-op utopian society and its interactions with the oligarchy it left years and years before. While the book definitely comes down on the side of the co-op society, it also does a very good job of pointing out flaws and potential pitfalls that are usually ignored in such political science fiction books. (Likewise, while the oligarchy is shown as the villains, after a fact, they don’t come off as cartoonishly evil.) I read the “Earthsea” books at least twice before hitting twenty (starting with The Tombs of Atuan during quiet bits in 7th grade band class when I didn’t have to play) so it’s safe to say I picked up this book as a fan. But this book… this book is a pure masterpiece.

BEST HORROR NOVEL THAT STILL CREEPS ME OUT, EVEN THOUGH I’M JUST TYPING THE TITLE RIGHT NOW: A Head Full of Ghosts — Paul Tremblay

This book showed up on a list of under-the-radar horror novels, and while there were a couple that I’d read, this one was completely new to me. In some ways, it’s a book that could only have been written in the last ten years… a middle-class family with recession-era money problems has a daughter they think might be possessed, so they let a reality TV company film her exorcism. Perhaps because it’s laced with such modern concerns, though, I wasn’t prepared for its attacks in a few dark, primordial places in my mind. It’s definitely a book that I thought about for months after I turned the last page.

So, those are my five books that I wish to share with you for the year. Next week, I’ll be writing about neglected authors, favorite characters to hate, and book-related news, good and bad. Please feel free to stop by the comment page and let me know what you’re reading, what you’re writing, and how things are going.

Mostly Back

As the title says, I am. For those of you interested in my personal life, I’m nearly packed out of Atlanta and mostly moved in with my fiancée and her family, and posts will shift to a semi-regular status, starting with today’s upcoming review. For now, I’m going to make another cup of tea and see if I can make a large set of words sound like a good review, even though I have a few critical things to say about it.

Tell Me Something Tuesday: Feeling Frustrated?

Today is Tuesday, the first day of the last month of the first quarter of the new year. I’m a quarter through a long chapter (I’m expecting it to be 40-ish pages… I might have to split it in two), and I’m about to go on the road to Atlanta for a couple of days. This means I lose my morning writing time, though I still have to get out five long pages or so… perhaps I can compose notes in the car, or take a long lunch.

Over on Rainy Day Ramblings, they’re hosting Tell Me Something Tuesday, where you answer their question of the week. This week’s question is a simple one:  Have you become frustrated with certain genres?

Yes, I have.

A year or so ago, I read an article that said that, on average, women were more impressed by men with well-kept beards than men without. It wasn’t much of a difference, but it was there. The corollary to their findings, though, was that as beards became more popular, they had less and less of an effect until finally, they would actually lower the average woman’s opinion of a man.

That’s how I feel about Grimdark Fantasy.

I remember exactly where I was (Learning Resource Center… shipboard public computer room and library… onboard USS Chancellorsville, 5 December 2005) when I read a certain scene in A Storm of Swords, the third “Game of Thrones” book. (Honestly, I think the HBO title works better for the series as a whole than “A Song of Ice and Fire.”) I remember being refreshed but mostly frightened when I realized that, unlike in a lot of fantasy novels, my favorite characters were no longer safe. I was used to them either surviving no matter what, or having a dramatic death at the end. But in these books… and in many others that I read after…  characters could die for stupid and pointless reasons. That made the book that much more realistic, and I began seeking out this kind of fiction.

It’s been ten years. How’bout we go back to fairy-tale and legend-inspired fantasy for a bit? Or magic realism? Or books where flawed characters still manage to do the right thing, despite temptations to do what comes naturally, instead of evil bastard characters who accidentally do something right?

Of course, I’ll still read this kind of fiction, if it’s good, and, well, part of the reason it’s so big is that people are buying it. But my advice to writers (including myself):  Grow a beard, metaphorically, and write something magical. Not dark and torturous with excessive realism and violence and pointless destruction.

Enough for this morning. Inspirational quotes and more agony over my book writing process to follow.

Rainy Day Ramblings hosts this.

Tell Me Something Tuesday: Feeling Frustrated?

Today is Tuesday, the first day of the last month of the first quarter of the new year. I’m a quarter through a long chapter (I’m expecting it to be 40-ish pages… I might have to split it in two), and I’m about to go on the road to Atlanta for a couple of days. This means I lose my morning writing time, though I still have to get out five long pages or so… perhaps I can compose notes in the car, or take a long lunch.

Over on Rainy Day Ramblings, they’re hosting Tell Me Something Tuesday, where you answer their question of the week. This week’s question is a simple one:  Have you become frustrated with certain genres?

Yes, I have.

A year or so ago, I read an article that said that, on average, women were more impressed by men with well-kept beards than men without. It wasn’t much of a difference, but it was there. The corollary to their findings, though, was that as beards became more popular, they had less and less of an effect until finally, they would actually lower the average woman’s opinion of a man.

That’s how I feel about Grimdark Fantasy.

I remember exactly where I was (Learning Resource Center… shipboard public computer room and library… onboard USS Chancellorsville, 5 December 2005) when I read a certain scene in A Storm of Swords, the third “Game of Thrones” book. (Honestly, I think the HBO title works better for the series as a whole than “A Song of Ice and Fire.”) I remember being refreshed but mostly frightened when I realized that, unlike in a lot of fantasy novels, my favorite characters were no longer safe. I was used to them either surviving no matter what, or having a dramatic death at the end. But in these books… and in many others that I read after…  characters could die for stupid and pointless reasons. That made the book that much more realistic, and I began seeking out this kind of fiction.

It’s been ten years. How’bout we go back to fairy-tale and legend-inspired fantasy for a bit? Or magic realism? Or books where flawed characters still manage to do the right thing, despite temptations to do what comes naturally, instead of evil bastard characters who accidentally do something right?

Of course, I’ll still read this kind of fiction, if it’s good, and, well, part of the reason it’s so big is that people are buying it. But my advice to writers (including myself):  Grow a beard, metaphorically, and write something magical. Not dark and torturous with excessive realism and violence and pointless destruction.

Enough for this morning. Inspirational quotes and more agony over my book writing process to follow.

 

 

What I’m Reading: The Transcendental Wraiths

It’s Leap Day, but I’m all out of leaping for now.  A friend of mine in Atlanta is celebrating his official 10th birthday, which is odd because he’s been married since the mid-2000s. I had a long weekend at work, and my cat still hasn’t quite forgiven me for being gone Saturday and Sunday, though I’ve at least convinced her to keep her tail off the keyboard, and told her that swatting me in the elbow with it every few seconds is almost as good. I did get some writing and some technical blog work done this morning, though… 3 1/2 legal-size pages, two notebook pages of notes, and a scribbled index card… and I’m going to try to push out another couple pages after lunch.

I also have two books that I’m reading and since it’s Book Date Day, I get to talk about them a little. I’d talk about the book I read last week, but I’m busy writing one of my rare one-star reviews for Goodreads, and I don’t really want to think about it twice.

MY BOOKS:

Mistwraithemerson

The second book will be easier to describe. I usually try to have some sort of non-fiction work on my reading desk at any given time, one I read in nibbles along with the other books I’m reading. A couple of weeks ago, it was The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca (mostly good, though his essay to Nero has a browner nose than a kid wearing a dog costume). Last week, I decided that since I liked his essay on “Self Reliance,” and because I went to see The Old Manse when I was in Concord last fall, I’d finally see what I thought of his philosophy. Verdict so far: Well… I know his essays are better, and he makes some great points in “Nature,” so I’ll give his first published work the benefit of the doubt. God only knows my first published work was ridiculously rotten.

The second book is one I’d wanted to read for a long time. I was a fan of the series Ms Wurts co-wrote with Raymond E Feist (I might… might have even liked her story set in his world a little better than the first trilogy he wrote there) and the Mayfair role-playing aids that we used for our AD&D games back before it was called “First Edition” were constantly being traded and passed around our group. Plus, I’ve heard nothing but good about this intense and involved series, and since I finished the Malazan series last year, I needed something else to move on to. So, last September (around the time I was dealing with a horrible paronychia infection on my right hand… got me to finally stop biting my nails, at least… and traveling up to Massachusetts on our way to Maine, and seeing friends in Rhode Island, and trying to decide if I was blocked on a project and not just stalling) I picked up a copy on my Kindle and plunged into it.

If you’ve read the book, you know that it probably didn’t go well for me. I made it nearly a quarter in before setting it down. This book is filled with wonderful prose and characters that behave accurately, even when you, the reader, can’t understand WHY in the hell they’re doing what they’re doing because any fool can see just what’s going to come of it. (In other words, they do just what we would probably do.) However, there’s a lot going on, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes well offstage, and there’s a lot to keep track of. Like Gardens of the Moon, she doesn’t believe in taking your hand and walking you through. This is one of the features of my favorite fantasy novels that I hope to replicate in my own writing, but at that moment, I couldn’t focus on it. As much as I liked the characters, I was completely lost, and I finally set it down so I could read some shorter, more intense fiction.

I am so glad I picked it up again. I always tell myself I’ll give any book two chances. Sometimes that doesn’t work (like last week) but other times, I’m very much rewarded for my perserverence. If you read this (and really, you should) make sure you have a few hours, or a day, to devote to getting into it. Don’t be afraid to take notes. Also, don’t be afraid to yell at the page… I do that a lot, too. I still only have a bare inkling of what the story holds, but this time through, I feel like a fantastic field is opening up before me, enticing me, and allowing me to enjoy its pleasures, now that I’ve committed to giving it all the time it needs.

What are you reading? I’m always looking for a good recommendation or ten.

Draft Zero (Or Perhaps, Orez Tfard)

Lots of smoke, lots of shrapnel, lots of life changes over the last year, but I’m still here trying to put one word in front of the last word, whether or not those two words are friends, regardless if the second word once said something bad about the first word’s mother… DAMNIT, it’s MY project, and I’m going to make those words get along.

I’ll write more about the demise of my last  project, but tonight, I have to talk about the status of my new endeavor. For years, I’ve wanted to write a Southern Gothic novel. The fact that I had only lived in the south for a year when I first decided this meant nothing. The fact that I wrote primarily magic realism or fantasy with modern twists (the Dwarfs with Steampunk technology) also meant nothing. This might be linked to my early, impressionable years spent reading Stephen King and John Irving (New England Gothic, if that’s a thing) and my early writing years with Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. No matter. After a couple more years of working on a lot of different things, including moving and traveling for a living and spending my time with three people weirdly creative and respectful of my introversion, I picked up a pen last August and wrote 100 pages and four chapters about a family in northern Georgia, where I’ve hiked since first moving to the south, and kept going until I wrote into a hole. So I decided to read it from the beginning.

It sucked.

A vacuum cleaner running Windows Vista in the middle of a black hole could not have sucked harder.

But writers are nothing if not stupid… I mean, persistent, and I kept that on the back burner. After sending another project to oblivion, I went back, and thought, “I need to outline my characters and chapters and try again.”

Ten failed pages.

“Okay, how’bout I set this in northern Michigan, where I grew up? Okay, well, where I spent a lot of time about three hours to the north of where I grew up.”

Fifteen failed pages… wait, NO!

The prologue, all twelve and a half pages of it… which somehow emerged from my head after simultaneously thinking of The Brothers Karamazov and The Princess Bride… actually worked, when I reread it. It worked well. I yelped and jumped for joy. Actually, that was the other way around… I live in a house with low overheads. If you’re 5’13” like me, don’t ever jump for joy in such a place. Anyway, there I was, with a satisfactory prologue in front of me, and “Chapter One” at the top of the page.

Then at the top of another page.

Then at the top of a third page, with three pages of blah blah blech in front of it.

I’d thought that cutting out the first two chapters of my original attempt would help. I could start the story where the action started, and only insert those details that needed inserting, something that editing coaches and Lower GI Tract Doctors both advise. But that still didn’t work. I felt like I did the second day I drove a stick shift in San Francisco on a hill in stopped traffic… I was stalled, gunning the engine, and rolling backwards. At least in that case, I figured it out. I learned how to drive a stick shift in about two seconds. In this case, I think I have it.

There’s a writing technique called “Draft Zero,” though I’ve also heard it called “Expanded Outline” and I think I called it “Summary Outline”  myself, once. The object is to write out your story as absolutely fast as you can, skipping details unless they’re immediately there in your head. The result is something like a long outline (like, half the length of your finished project) or a stripped down draft. Then, you go back and rework it into a proper rough draft. I myself have usually called my first draft “The Raw Draft” and the second pass-through “The First Clean Draft.” (If nothing else, it’s clean because all the profanity I sometimes scribble in the margins doesn’t make it.) I thought… maybe if I try this technique and do a Draft Zero, or a Raw Draft for my Chapter, it will…

Well, it didn’t. I couldn’t even get out a sentence.

But something else stuck in my noggin. A lot of things do. By the end of a writing day, my superior temporal gyrus looks like the underside of a bus seat. A lot of it is crap, but just like that bus seat, some of it is tasty and useful. (Hey, I’m willing to try anything to get a book out.)

A few other writers, Margaret Mitchell among them, wrote backwards. Not word for word, but chapter for chapter, or even scene for scene. “What if,” my Muse suggested, “what if you write a rough outline-like raw draft for your first chapter, starting with the last scene?” Because, I knew how the chapter was supposed to end. I could see that vividly in my mind, and there was even a possibility that it was vivid enough for other people to see it as well, leaking out of my pores. But getting there… every time I tried, I just wrote around in circles. But… write what you know, right? And so, I did just that.

I doubt I’m the first person to ever think of that, but I’m definitely glad that I did. I now have a stack of index cards numbered from 0 to -5, and I’ll keep writing them, backing up a scene each time, until I’m at the place I think my reader wants to begin. Each card has about three sentences on it… I didn’t completely fill them up. Next step is to write a zero draft of the cards, probably going in the same reverse order… I still need to work from that ending. But then, then I’ll get to write from the beginning to the end in my manuscript, and for the first time since first thinking “Southern Gothic sounds fun,” I don’t dread working on this project.

It feels nice. Frighteningly nice.