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Black Authors, Diversity, & Epic Fantasy: The Bigger Picture

5 Jul

So I was Googling stuff about the difference between epic and high fantasy earlier when I somehow came across this blog post by a black writer named Derek Tyce who asks a poignant question: “Black authors writing fantasy… Where are they?” Naturally, being both black and interested in fantasy, I was intrigued, so I decided to read on to see what he had to say.

…And it got me thinking.

One great example of black authors writing fantasy with diverse characters: N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. | The Chandra Tribune

One great example of black authors writing fantasy with diverse characters: N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

First of all, I must note that Derek, of course, does mention a few black writers like N. K. Jemisin and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series, among others (which I read the first book of though wasn’t terribly crazy about it myself; still, I found certain things to admire and appreciate). There are others, which fans have pointed out, but Derek’s point still stands: why aren’t there more black writers tackling epic fantasy? He also points out a lack of diversity among the characters displayed in epic fantasy stories. Granted, his post was written back in 2013 and a lot of new stuff has come out since then, but these are all still relevant topics to consider.

At least, I think so anyway. Continue reading

The Time In Between

4 Jan

Last time I posted I said I was going to share my thoughts on a novel I’d just finished reading.  I’ll try and keep this brief, though, ’cause I already talked some about it before.

The Time In Between

The Time In Between is an international bestselling novel (historical fiction) by Spanish author María Dueñas.  Written in first person, the story is set in 1930s Spain (initially) and follows Sira Quiroga, daughter and apprentice to a seamstress.  By her twenties she’s learned a great deal about the business which, unbeknownst to her, will help her immensely in the near future.

The novel opens splendidly: “A typewriter shattered my destiny.”  Immediately you want to know how this could possibly be.  From there the story is completely engaging.

Sira is already engaged to a government clerk at the beginning, but things go terribly awry when she meets a particularly charming salesman.  Unfortunately, she decides to leave her fiance for Señor Suave and her life is completely turned upside down.  She later ends up stranded in Morocco with her father’s inheritance in the hands of the conniving salesman, who’s gone off to God knows where.  Though, perhaps this was a blessing in disguise; back home there’s a civil war a-brewing, and WWII is just around the corner…

With no means of leaving Morocco, fate has left Sira with no other choice but to depend on the one thing she knows well: how to sew clothes.  With the help of a weary commissioner and a landlady of questionable repute, Sira decides to reinvent herself and open her own haute couture studio.  Word starts to spread about her work, and before she knows it she’s developed quite the reputation.

What she wasn’t expecting by now was to become a target of a British intelligence recruiter.  And that’s where things get really interesting…

Why I Love This Novel

First off, Dueñas really knows how to keep you turning the pages.  There were several times throughout the story where I simply did not want to put my e-reader down.  Interested writers could learn a thing or two on where to end their scenes and chapters from this author.

Another thing I mentioned before that was done well was the characters.  Sira doesn’t especially grab me until the latter half of the book–which is, btw, over 600 pages long–but initially the secondary characters were what really caught my interest.  Some are smoldering, some are quirky, and some are suspiciously plucky.  In any case, these characters add a lot of spice to Sira’s adventures.

Something else I liked was the way Dueñas tied in the whole espionage thread.  It developed slowly over time so that when it finally came it made sense.  Sira’s skills as a seamstress were brilliantly incorporated into the plot, both in the methods she passed on coded messages and her cover story for relocating to Spain in order to spy on a certain businessman.  Overall, I thought this was done well.

There were very few things I did not like about this novel.

The Nit-Picky Cons

Genre writers are forever encouraged to “show, don’t tell”; put the reader in the center of the story rather than making them watch.  It’s practically been drilled into our brains.  But The Time In Between is historical fiction–and to be honest I’m not sure if that’s really under “genre fiction”.  In any case, historical fiction tends to follow different rules than, say, fantasy does.  I tend to see a lot more telling with historical and for some reason it seems a bit more acceptable there than it would in sf/f.  (But maybe that’s just my skewed opinion.)  In any case, I think The Time In Between does a lot of telling, but you know what?  I actually didn’t mind it, for the most part.  At first I was aware of it, but over time it didn’t matter because Dueñas tells the parts that need to be told, never more.  And she does it interestingly.

This is really comparing apples to oranges, I realize, so it’s not so much a criticism as it is pointing out an observation.

The only real “con” I can think of with this novel is that sometimes Dueñas makes unnecessary long lists of things that have already happened–I presume for the purpose of reminding the reader.  But we really don’t need to be reminded of all the details, just the major ones.  And even then not all that often.  I guess it’s just a matter of balance, is all.

…And maybe Sira could have been more interesting in the first half, as the secondary characters fairly out-shined her.

Though, besides that, I pretty much loved everything else about this novel and would give it 5/5 stars.  Or how about hearts.

❤ ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

(Ha!  So much for “brief”…)

Has anyone else read this novel?

If so, what did you think?  Or, if you haven’t, does this sound like something you might read?

Style in Literary & Genre Fiction

23 Mar

For the love of brevity, why can’t I ever blog about something that can be addressed in under 500 words?  Maybe I should just blog about comic books and YouTube videos, heh.

In any case, I think today’s post was partly inspired by one of T.S. Bazelli’s.

Literary Technique & Snobbery

I’d like some perspective on this because I think it directly affects my work and has been on my mind recently.

I have this notion in my head that literary fiction is still somewhat regarded as “snob” fiction today, and also that the use of literary techniques such as metaphor, allusion, alliteration, etc. is something that’s paid more attention to in literary fiction than it is in genre.

Is this true?

Admittedly, I don’t read a whole lot of literary fiction these days.  I still cherish certain classics I had to read in high school and have come to appreciate them way more than I could have at that age, but really I haven’t read much more of that stuff since then.  Though, I distinctly recall that the literary techniques used in those novels were a distinguishing feature in what made them so special (along with their characters’ stories).  But maybe this is only because that’s what we focused on in class!

It’s strange…ever since it’s been suggested to me that I’m working on a character-driven story, I’ve been thinking more about what, exactly, makes literary fiction literary (and genre fiction genre).  I’ve been wondering if my own perception of it is skewed.  I’ve also wondered whether I’m writing something that straddles the border between genre and literary because character-driven stories and literary fiction are so often linked together, and plot also gets some prominent stage time in my WIP, mostly in the second half.

Didn’t you just write a couple of posts on the difference between genre and literary fiction when you talked about plot- and character-driven stories?  I thought we’ve been over this before.

Yes, I have, but I still feel the need to contemplate on this.  I originally wrote those posts because I wasn’t sure which one I was writing.  To be honest, I feel like I may be writing both.  (Of course, it’s hard for someone else gauge these things if you’ve only shown your work to one person, heh.)  I like to focus on character and use literary techniques–not because it’s been ingrained in our brains in school to look out for these things but because that is naturally what I do.  The more I edit and get past plot inconsistencies, the more I seem to pay attention to my writing style.

At first, it was all about getting the story right–the plot and characters and whatnot; now, I feel it’s more about getting the execution of that story right aesthetically–paying attention to things like rhythm and cadence (sometimes I will switch out a word simply because it doesn’t fit the “rhythm” of a line as I hear it in my head).

Anyway, all of this makes me wonder whether my developing writing style is more fitting to genre or literary fiction.

What does it matter whether your work is more “genre-ish” or “literary?”

It doesn’t really, per se; I’m just not sure where I stand.

Naturally, I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into categories, but you kind of have to know how to explain your work to other people if you plan on selling it eventually, right?  If you tell people you’re writing fantasy and you give them something that reads like The Puttermesser Papers (not comparing myself here, just pulling out a crazy example), then is “fantasy” really an appropriate genre description?  (The same goes for the flip side, too.)

Essentially, I’m writing fantasy because there’s a fantastical element.  I just wonder why it seems like mostly literary fiction uses literary devices more prominently than genre fiction does.  I’m not saying this is good or bad, but when I read something like Grimspace by Ann Aguirre, or Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder, the use of literary techniques doesn’t exactly pop out at me.  They may be in there every now and then, but they don’t really stand out (which, to me, seems is what happens in literary fiction).  I don’t remember these books because of their literary style but rather the plot/adventure and worldbuilding.

Which is fine.

I guess I just want to learn to write fiction that has both sides to it–memorable worlds and adventures as well as a distinctive style (and memorable characters.)  Maybe that’s why it’s taking me longer to finish my WIP?  Heh.

I know there’s more and more crossover fiction being written these days that traverses genre and literary, and I really should read more of them.  I think this would give me a better idea of what I’m trying to explore/understand.  (I suspect Neil Gaiman fits this bill, though I haven’t read him yet–don’t stone me!–and I’m currently reading Susanna Clarke now.  After reading Windup Girl, I think Paolo Bacigalupi might fit into this category, too, but I’m not all that sure.)

Am I making any sense today?

I find all of this hard to sort out and express clearly.  I just feel like there’s a lot of greyness in my understanding of these things.  (And maybe that writer’s/blogger’s “identity crisis”  I mentioned the other day has something to do with this.)

So…am I asking a question here?  Hm, I don’t know.  Let me see…

All right, so here’s my question to you: What do you make of the role of style in genre and literary fiction?  Does that matter to you?  Also, would you say your style seems to be a better fit for genre or literary fiction?  How come?

I’ve read plenty of articles on the old genre vs. literary fiction debate, but really I’m more interested in the general public’s perception of this issue.  I wonder how well that perception lines up with everything that’s been written about it.  Sometimes, I wonder why the distinction is even necessary, and if people even care.  (And by the way, I don’t want to seem like I’m getting overly caught-up on this stuff.  I’m just trying to get some perspective.)

Okay, break time’s over for me.  Back to work. ~

The Imaginary War: Plot- vs. Character-Driven Story Development (Part II)

24 Feb

Wow, this one was so much harder to write than Part I

Okay, so last time I left off with the thought that the PvC issue was a matter of approach (meaning how you plan a story) and orientation (meaning the actual direction the story takes)—which is part of it.  Ultimately, though, I think the issue has to do with learning how to allow either plot or character to carry the primary story to its resolution while at the same time achieving balance.

It’s true: Lots of character-driven stories tend to showcase more of the elements that may be lacking in plot-driven ones, and vice versa.  However, trying to assign various characteristics to one side or the other is like driving a stake through the left and right heart; correspondence between both sides is necessary in order to keep a story alive.  A story without character is just as DOA as a story lacking plot.

Another Way to Look at the Dichotomy

You know what this issue reminds me of is the whole fate vs. free will debate.  It is the ying and yang of life.  There’s the idea that people can choose how they act, conduct themselves and initiate change, but then there’s also the idea that there are just some things in life that are out of the individual’s control and actually end up changing the individual instead.

I think this is similar to fiction where a writer can choose to highlight their character(s)’s choices and the consequences to said choices, or they can highlight the events that happen to them, not because of them.  Character vs. plot; free will/choice vs. fate.  Plot influences character influences plot; choice influences fate influences choice.  You could say character influences plot influences character, and fate influences choice influences character, but does that make it any different?  People are either going to act on their own accord or react to things coming from outside their realm of influence, when it comes down to it.

The difference, in fiction, is going to be what you decide to pose as the main conflict—an action performed or decision made by the character or an event that happens to them and causes them to react?  The difference may also be in how you choose to resolve that conflict—with the protagonist taking action or making a decision, or by them reacting a certain way to something.  An illusion is created when you choose to focus on one or the other because though the one may be highlighted, the other is still at play in the background or beneath the surface.  (At least, it should be.)

The way I see it, both dichotomies are continuous loops.  Destiny and choice are not mutually exclusive, and neither are plot and character.  The issue, then, becomes a matter of what you choose to highlight and how you balance the two sides in your story.  Are you more interested in a character(s)’s ability to influence events, about an unusual event (or set of events) that changes your character(s), or some combination of the two?

Whatever your focus, it will surely manifest itself in your work.  Having balance between plot and character by adequately developing both is what’s important.

Focus (or Lack Thereof)

The deciding factor, I think, is focus, and this is two-fold because focus can be implemented in both the planning and execution stages of creating a novel.

On the one hand, you have to consider what elements were originally important to you while you were in the planning stages of your novel.  Which of the story elements came most readily to you?  Was it your characters?  A certain world or setting?  Perhaps it was an event, or even a theme?  More importantly, how did you juggle all of these things?  Is there a connection between them all?  (Hopefully you started with a strong concept and were able to develop it into a premise.  That helps to keep a story in focus.)

On the other hand, you must be aware of what your focus was once you started writing your novel.  What did you choose to put the most effort into?  That same character, world/setting, theme or event?  Or did you put a pretty balanced effort into including all of these thing?  (Also, was this in keeping with the original focus dictated by your concept and premise?)

I think one reason you won’t hear terms like setting-driven or theme-driven stories tossed around much is because theme and setting have less carrying weight than character and plot.  Stories are ultimately about characters and the events they are involved in, so to put the primary focus on setting or theme is to miss the whole point of telling a story.  (And if you’ve done this with your draft, then you’ll already have a good idea of what needs to be fixed.)

Develop a strong concept and premise beforehand, and you’ll have something to write towards for the rest of your journey.

When the Focus is Split

Sometimes the plan and the execution go hand in hand; your story may develop along the lines you’d initially intended.  If that’s the case for you, then I consider you to be quite the lucky duck (or just really good at sticking to a plan).  Looks like relatively fair winds ahead for you.

Other times, though, you may discover that the two don’t actually line up.  If you’ve designed your story to unfold one way but as you’re writing it you find it wants to go another, then realignment will be necessary because there is a disconnect somewhere.  You’ll have to find a way to get the actual story on the page and the envisioned story of your mind’s eye in sync with one another.

In other words, something’s gotta give.

An Example

With my novel I did a lot of experimental drafts because I couldn’t decide on a premise.  The overall concept more or less stayed the same in each draft (that there are those who have the power to manipulate the elements and live secret lives), but my focus kept shifting around in the execution stage.  (Should the story focus on someone who is already aware of their powers or someone who is just discovering them?  Also, is this person’s entire life kept secret from others or just their abilities?)

It was difficult to settle on an angle, but once I did I found that my premise was (finally) linked primarily to the one character that had the most potential for change.  I also decided that outside forces would drive the larger (world) plot, but the development of the protagonist would be my main focus.  (Perhaps I’ve taken this approach because I plan on writing a trilogy.)

In other words, I’m driving the story ahead with both plot and character but in two different ways (and for two different reasons).

Diagnosing Your Story

The thing to remember, no matter which element you find most interesting, is to shoot for balance in your writing.  Chances are that during your first draft your focus was on maybe one or two elements (say setting and plot, for example) and then you later realized that your story was lacking others (like character and theme).  An overall assessment of your story at the end of your first draft will be paramount in identifying its strengths and weaknesses and then later deciding how to go about making it better.

If you find that your characters are pretty two-dimensional, boring, useless, cliché, etc. then it looks like you’ve focused too much on another element, likely plot.  You’ll have to go back and beef up your characters and figure out what you can do to make them more interesting or vital to the story.

If you find that your plot is meandering or non-present, then you’ll know you’ve neglected an important story element and may be too focused on the characters.  Maybe the plot doesn’t make sense or the story needs more events with conflict to create rising action and drive it towards a climax and, ultimately, resolution.  That is something you’ll have to go back and investigate.

Shooting For the Stars

It may take longer, making sure all these elements are up to par, but why write if you don’t aim to improve?  Writing novels isn’t for the faint of heart.  It can be a frustrating process that demands your very best effort.  I think it certainly helps to know whether your novel is more plot- or character-driven, but that should never be the end goal.  What matters most is that you are telling a great, entertaining story that artfully balances the elements of storytelling.

What do you think?

How important is writing a plot- or character-driven novel in the grand scheme of things?  Can you tell what kind of story you’re working on while writing?  Which elements of story do you find yourself focusing on more often than not, and which do you have to work harder on?

The Imaginary War: Plot- vs. Character-Driven Story Development (Part I)

23 Feb

On the matter of plot-driven vs. character-driven stories, I am a little conflicted.  The novel I’m currently working on has taken on a more character-driven orientation since I’ve decided to stick with my latest draft.  However, I did start off on the plot-driven route but then decided to switch gears after my sixth-and-a-half (failed) attempt.

Why?

Well, that’s what I plan on talking about this week.  There are reasons to approach stories from either angle at first, but once the story is underway does it have to remain that way?  Should it remain that way?

The PvC Issue

For those who may not know what the PvC (plot vs. character, not polyvinyl chloride!) issue pertains to, I’ll try to summarize it.

Basically, there are two schools of thought out there that favor either a more plot-driven story or a character-driven one.  I imagine you already gathered that much, though, being the bright folks that you are, so let’s just get into the deeper aspects of the issue.

Often, the term “plot-driven” is associated with genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, etc.).  The focus, when you read a plot-driven story, tends to be on the plot itself.  When you close a plot-driven novel, what you remember most–the most poignant element–is the journey, the events that took place and/or the settings you were taken to.  Not necessarily the characters who were in it.

Its aftertaste is something like, “Yeah, I’ll remember going on that ride.”  (Star Wars, anyone?)  And actually, with an excessively plot-driven story, you may find that the characters are lacking development.  They are either cliché or boring.  Or worse, both.

A science fiction example might be Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns, or Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought.  Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is definitely plot-driven, in my opinion, particularly in the two last novels.  I’d like to point out that all three of these are more-or-less known for their detailed or unique worldbuilding, as well.

On the other hand, character-driven stories are, well, most memorable for their characters (go figure), and the plot takes secondary priority in the grand scheme of things.  Your literary classics tend to fall into this group.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is certainly one of them, as is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  (Daisy and Rochester were some of the characters that especially stood out for me.)  I’d like to point out that these novels are heavy on themes surrounding human nature, as well–shallowness amongst the upper class, for example, in The Great Gatsby and bigamous love and differences in social class in Jane Eyre.  Symbolism and motifs, which are especially characteristic of literary novels, were also important in these two stories.  (Remember the green light in The Great Gatsby?)

The literary novel’s aftertaste might be something like, “Huh, I need to think on that one.”  Or even, “What the f#@! did I just read?”  (And if you read it back in junior high or high school, like I did with The Puttermesser Papers, then you still may be wondering the answer to that question.)

The character-driven story really, really makes you think about the characters’ choices and the implications of said choices because they are typically implied and not spelled out for the reader.  And if that wasn’t enough, you might also have trouble remembering what, exactly, happened in the novel (aka the plot) because the emotional experience of it all was so strong by comparison.  In contrast with the plot-driven story, I think with the excessively character-driven novel you may find that it is the author’s plot that is lacking development–i.e. rottenly cliché and/or boring.  Or just non-present/-evident.

At least, that’s how I understand it.

Take a look at what other people have to say on this topic, if you’re interested:

I think I’ve said enough about that.  Now, on to the actual issue.

What is the issue, really?

I don’t think that the real plot- vs. character-driven debate has anything to do with whether or not your story should include plot or character.  Any sensible writer knows that a good story should include both, so there is no versus, no actual war between those two concepts.  Not really.

As I see it, the PvC issue is a matter of approach and story orientation.  It is usually discussed as a matter of end result, but I think it starts earlier in the writing process, before an author even begins to write, and it might even shift for an author in the middle of the writing process.

I’ve got a few more thoughts on this, so I’ll be splitting this topic up into two posts again (Part II).

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on plot- and character-driven stories?  What type of story do you find yourself currently working on, or perhaps reading?  Is it difficult to tell?  Also, do you have experience writing both types?