Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa - blank slate

Every writer is confronted with the challenge of how to fill the space in a meaningful way. Every story presents an opportunity to begin anew – even in the continuation of a series. Every reader is given a chance to experience what the writer’s creativity unveils.

Many stories are inexorably woven with themes of discovery. This is, after all, one of the things that keep readers reading. It’s also a reason why the use of a main character suffering from amnesia has always been popular (cliche or not). The character her/himself is a tabula rasa around which a story can be made.

Despite the fact that this approach (character with amnesia) is so often over-used or ill-used, it tends to fall broadly into two results:

  • Where the “reveal” is intended to be the main focus, acting as a “gotcha”
  • Where the story that came before outweighs the reveal, and the reveal only lends nuance as well as often a choice for the character, or else a chance for the reader to reflect on implications

The difference between these is simply the importance placed by the author on “who the main character was” versus a focus on “who the main character has become.”

For the latter, I can think of a variety of stories that played with this concept in interesting ways, and not necessarily only in literature. Amnesiac/tabula rasa main character is even more popular in television/movies as well as videogames than in literature.

One of the most successful implementations I’ve seen was in the computer RPG Planescape: Torment, where the main character spends the entirety of the story gaining companions who are each flawed with their own inner torments, all the while unlocking clues of who the main character had once been, and why he made a certain choice long before. It is never revealed exactly *what* the main character did to trigger his remorse, but only that it was something very, very bad with tremendous consequences. The story’s theme centers around the question: “What can change the nature of a man?” And the most popular answer (although a player may select among many answers) is regret. Regret tends to shape us in ways we never anticipated, making us aware of new perspectives and the consequences of our choices and actions.

Films like Memento and even the 1990 Total Recall have also played around with the notion of an amnesiac main character, the former by delving into an examination of consequences and the latter more of a simple exploration of what it means to discover who you are, and then discover you were once something quite at variance with the way you’ve now defined yourself, presenting a choice. (this is all without going into any artistic merits or the quality of either of these two films, which are certainly open to a variety of debate).

Still, all main characters are a tabula rasa for a reader at the beginning – unless these characters are being re-introduced from an existing series. Given that, a writer has to face the same question as the surrounding story: How can I fill them out?  How can I make them interesting?

A blank slate allows an endless ability to create. As some have noted, any novel in modern English is simply a unique arrangement of the same 26 characters of the English alphabet.

The writer’s job is to populate a story and characters that draw the reader in. And the real challenge is to make even the mundane seem interesting.

A good storyteller can bring out the right blending of details, enhancing some while tossing others completely away, and add flavor and nuance to the result. For example, consider telling one’s parents (or co-workers or friends) that one was arrested for petty larceny for stealing traffic cones while drunk. Doesn’t sound terribly interesting and probably would elicit groans of sympathy or “what an idiot” reproaches.

Take that same account from Stephen King’s own life and perspective and you get this, which he wrote in the “Afterword” to his story collection Skeleton Crew:

In the spring of 1970, while creeping home in my white Ford station wagon from the University Motor Inn at 12:30 in the morning, I ran over a number of traffic cones which were guarding a crosswalk that had been painted that day. The paint had dried, but no one had bothered to take the cones in when it got dark. One of them bounced up and knocked my muffler loose from the rotted remains of my tailpipe. I was immediately suffused with the sort of towering, righteous rage which only drunk undergraduates can feel. I decided to circle the town of Orono, picking up traffic cones. I would leave them all in front of the police station the next morning, with a note saying that I had saved numerous mufflers and exhaust systems from extinction, and ought to get a medal.

I got about a hundred and fifty before blue lights started to swirl around in the rearview mirror.

I will never forget the Orono cop turning to me after a long, long look into the back of my station wagon and asking, “Son, are those traffic cones yours?

A good storyteller throws away the mundane, and instead makes you laugh, or squirm, or remain rooted in place to find out what happens next.

Readers approach a story with a desire for discovery, and the writer’s job is not to disappoint. From either perspective – reader or writer – it all begins as a tabula rasa. Hopefully both the reader and the writer will be pleased and surprised by what fills the pages. Being surprised is one reason I’m not firmly in the camp of outlining stories. There are excellent outliners who can still maintain levels of unexpectedness – just the right levels where a reader is surprised, but isn’t too surprised. That’s a delicate balance in itself, giving readers the opportunity to guess ahead while ensuring they’re not entirely correct – but will also not be entirely flummoxed by what actually does happen.

Those who write organically (often affectionately called “pantsers”) may have less of this problem, as their style of writing lends itself more to surprise. When a writer is surprised, chances are the reader will be as well. And again, it’s up to the writer’s talent to ensure that the surprise makes sense, at least does so in hindsight. Of course, the challenge of organic writing is to maintain structure, pacing, and flow.

Outlined stories have the potential to feel rote, with a sense that the story is carefully being parceled out in dribs and drabs. Organically written stories have the potential to feel adrift, with no sure sense where they’re really heading. Either of these extremes of impression should be avoided. Readers want discovery, after all. It’s up to the writer to deliver to the reader, rather than change the reader’s focus from the story to how the story is being told.

A good story will remain ahead of a reader’s expectations, anticipating and staying on course, to deliver a full and satisfying experience. And at the same time, it will also deliver the same kind of satisfaction and surprises to the writer.

The Importance of Understanding Character Motivations

Character motivations don’t receive enough attention sometimes, so I thought I’d talk about that today.

Think of any story – whether short story or novel – as a spoked wheel. Virtually all the major elements of the story lead back to a hub. And the hub is character motivation.

Character motivation yields:

  • Plot
  • Dialogue
  • Character interactions
  • Climaxes (Major and Minor)
  • Story Tension
  • Suspense

Some of these elements keep a reader engaged, while others yield a believable payoff. Readers have a feel for realistic character motivations. When a climax or revelation or plot element rings false, readers notice and the story loses credibility.

Writers can craft full character backgrounds or simply create characters on the fly. The approach doesn’t matter. What matters is that a writer absolutely has to understand the motivations behind each of their characters and ensure the motivations feel believable (and not shoe-horned in just to make a plot point) and remain consistent or at least evolve in a credible manner. There’s nothing wrong if a character’s motivations shift – as long as the reasons behind the shift are plausible – and not the writer’s clumsy attempt to work around poor plotting.

Plot is derived from characters and their motivations. Without characters wanting to do certain things and to have certain outcomes, there is no plot.

So when a writer becomes stuck, wondering where their plot is leading to next, it may be  the writer only needs to know the characters better and ensure that the characters really are living on the page and acting out their story – rather than being moved about like puppets.

This doesn’t mean a writer can’t begin with a plot outline and select character types to bring about the result. If a plot outline calls for a mole deep inside the inner workings of an intelligence organization, the writer has to fulfill the promise of that plot by bringing to life a character who breathes and whose actions (and betrayals) will feel authentic. Otherwise, it’s just a hackneyed plot with dull and lifeless and utterly not-believable characters.

When a writer understands the characters, the characters will interact and converse in a manner that makes each of them unique to a reader. Their conversations will mean something and not just be space-filler. A lot of stories are full of conversations that are about as interesting and illuminating as listening to the person in the grocery store aisle next to you talking on their phone while selecting a can of peas.

Good dialogue derived from motivations is interesting, necessary, distinct as to the speakers, and often quite memorable.

When characters come to life and their motivations feel real, they bring nuance and depth to the story. They bring about mini-climaxes that lead to bigger ones, and they lead the plot rather than the plot leading them.

For a visual of the last – picture the movements of a soccer match (football in deference to those in much of the rest of the world) with the players’ movements ranging all over in patterns that could never be predicted – although they definitely have a purpose we can discern.

And then picture some mice moving through a maze that a research scientist has devised.

Soccer (football) games are dynamic. Mazes are boring (*). And I suspect if the mice didn’t have a reward waiting for them at the end of the maze, they wouldn’t bother. A story should not feel like a maze with characters just moving between fixed walls. That kind of thing is transparent and the characters don’t feel like they’re pushing things forward on their own. They feel like mice plopped down into the writer’s plot, and the reader is staring down from above predicting where the character is going next.

* (Note: Leeds Castle Maze is probably sort of fun although the people really do look like mice. And the really neat thing is actually the underground Grotto in the middle.)

Character motivations do not need to always be apparent to a reader. The elements of tension and suspense depend on readers guessing around motivations and their possible outcomes. Readers need enough clues to feel the tension and suspense, but it’s a careful balance for the writer not to reveal too much, but instead, only enough.

Still, the writer can’t just dump a surprise on the reader at the end. If a character has been acting a certain way throughout a story and the big reveal is a motivation that previously hadn’t been hinted at and doesn’t feel believable in its revelation, the reader will have a sneaking suspicion a lazy writer inserted this just because the writer didn’t have a feel for their own character.

Even with a good feel for their character motivations, the writer will still need a good ear for dialogue, not rely upon deus ex machina plot interventions, and avoid other storytelling follies.

But understanding motivations will position and shape a story much more easily and naturally than forcefully ramming down pieces of plastic like a simulated Habitrail Home for the characters to run through.

How Long to Write a Novel?

The answer is: it depends on the writer and the story.

I generally have spent about 4 months writing each novel.  I’ve never written every day on a particular story.  I may do several days in a row and take a few days off, or other days interspersed with days spent on something else.  Partly this is when life’s events intrude, less often is mood, and more often it’s because I’d rather not rush a novel and the pace I’ve chosen tends to work for me, and I can still create one in about 4 months.

I usually write in 2-4 hour shifts, between 1,000 and 5,000 words.  I typically prefer to write an entire chapter if possible, or one or more scenes if that’s more feasible.

Every writer is different, though.  Some literary authors will craft their prose in the way a poet creates a poem, considering and balancing the taste and weight of every word within each sentence and the overall whole.  Some authors are dedicated toward a disciplined approach and either write each day with a specific time or a specific amount of product in mind before stopping.  Stephen King discusses the various approaches at length in his excellent book On Writing, and there’s little need for me to add much more – his anecdotes about styles are also highly entertaining.

I usually mull an idea off and on for a month or two before beginning a novel.  Stories I’ll often write cold (other than research for a locale if needed).

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I need to have insight into what my main character is feeling before I begin a work.  I sometimes have a very rough idea of an opening scene, and an idea of the main challenges facing the character and whatever friends she ends up making along the way.

For Glowstar I had a strong image of a young woman being pulled from the icy Hudson River – only she isn’t dead.  I liked the idea of the Gatherers (Light Gatherers and Dark Gatherers) and an exploration of what makes us human as well as what enduring love really means.  The opening chapter is here.  It took around 3-4 hours to write the first chapter. I did the opening scene one evening and the closing scene the next evening.

Glowstar took 4 months from early December 2010 to early March 2011 to complete.  Revisions followed. The first one I began about a month after finishing, and it took a week or so off and on to clean up a few scenes, tighten language, and fix typos (typically missing or misplaced words).  I did a second revision a couple weeks afterward which took another week or so.  After that, I only made a few  tweaks here or there in a few places when I re-read.

The Winter Fade series was envisioned with a distinct story-arc that naturally fell into three works.  I wrote them back-to-back since I had ideas for each.  Not full-fledged plots, but general ideas and a strong sense of feeling for the character at these stages in her life.  The first book (Winter Fade) was written between April through July 2008.  The second book was from August through mid-November 2008, and then I took a couple weeks to put the first book through its first revision.  The third book is actually the shortest of the three but the one that did involve some plotting – especially for the first half – and took a little longer, from December 2008 through June 2009.  Part of that was interspersed with revision work being done on the first two books to ensure continuity.  I’m not a fan of doing contortions in retconning something after the fact.

The first story of the Becomings collection, Isabel, took four days in mid-April 2010 (7,500 words).  Darya took two weeks in late April and early May (18,000 words – just under novella size).  Katharine took three weeks in late October through mid-November 2010 (15,000 words).

I tend to intersperse writing with research into settings and other fact-finding that I want to use to inform my writing.  And revision work happens in-between as well.

I don’t like to parallel-write two works at the same time – although I have jotted down scenes for upcoming works while working on a current one.

Start-to-finish – writing through iterations of revisions – is usually about 6-8 months per novel.

When I speak of research informing my descriptions, as I’ve mentioned before I will do considerable research to gain a feel for what I’m looking at, and then use only the smallest amount needed to describe it.

For this scene:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I researched how immigrants arrived to New York City in the late 1940s (the Queen Mary was a very common mode – especially coming from Great Britain).  I looked into dates and times of arrivals to the harbor, as well as viewed pictures and videos and floorplans of the ship.  Very little of that appears in the writing; there’s a mention of the cramped tourist-class cabin deep within the ship, and the teak decks.

Every writer finds their own way to describe scenes and how much research they want to utilize, or whether to weigh more toward imagination.  I do a lot of research because I can research and absorb a considerable amount of information in an extremely short span of time – something that came handy in college.  I do that partly because it helps me begin to connect with a scene, and also because I do not regurgitate tons of data back into my writing.  I use research sparingly on the output end of things.

But I also do a lot of research because I simply love to read and to learn new things.  That’s exciting for me, and the excitement spreads to my own writing.

There are some fine writers who do no research – or virtually none – at all.  Stephen King has said that he not only doesn’t outline or pre-plot, but that he wings pretty much anything he writes and doesn’t bother with research.  He’s frankly amazing in that manner – he noted once that he had thrown in a mention of a dirty-comic version of certain animated characters in The Green Mile and was pleased and surprised when a fan discovered and sent him a copy of a similar comic that had actually been done during that time period.

These are my own methods and pace for writing, and every writer has to find what works for them.  A lot depends as well on whether one is able to write only part-time or full-time, plus life events creating challenges for dedication and discipline.  One thing that a person takes away from Stephen King’s On Writing is the level of dedication and discipline that he has taken with his craft.  The biographical first half of the book drives that point home, as one comes to realize all that he faced throughout his career.

For the record, I always highly recommend King’s book.  Although many others – such as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life also have a lot to offer a writer for perspective (and Dillard is an especially gifted writer with some really beautiful prose – showcased in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), King’s book comes off the way he has always written – direct and intimate, conveying his points in just the right language that you understand what he’s trying to say.

Tension Makes The Story Go ‘Round

When people talk about page-turners of stories, they’re talking about tension.

Tension in a story is a great thing. It is anticipatory rather than the negative connotation that many associate with the word.

Basically, tension is the opposite of predictability. When a reader feels they know the ending and there is nothing holding their attention, they will either end the book early, finish it just to finish it, or flip forward to finish it even faster. There is no enjoyment in any of those scenarios.

When I wrote about Journey or Destination, I discussed how some authors focus upon an ending but shortchange the middle of their books, stuffing them with filler.

Filler doesn’t create tension; it builds impatience and annoyance in readers.

A good example of filler would be characters following leads to dead-ends, and a sense from the reader that the author planned the dead-end just to satisfy word-count requirements. A story should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer. There’s no shame in creating a more compact narrative, even if Stephen King once described (in Different Seasons) the novella as a sort of literary oddity no one really wants (not his words – his own description in the Afterword is rather straightforward and amusing).

A page-turner of a story never feels padded, and a reader feels that skimming or flipping ahead means they will miss something - and probably something important or at least very interesting.

There are different ways to build tension in a story. One way is by using shorter chapters with cliffhanger endings that lead directly into the next chapter. This is a tactic Kelley Armstrong has discussed she likes to employ for that specific reason. Her stories tend toward mystery-solving, melded with internal conflicts in the main character and romantic entanglements to also be resolved. So she pulls the story forward on typically three fronts.

Engaging characters and a sense of something new always around the corner is another way. Patricia Briggs has done this quite well – her first Mercy Thompson book Moon Called was still introducing characters and background (along with the main plot moving forward) halfway into the book. The key to Briggs’s style is discovery. She is a world-builder who paints on a broad palette. I would liken that approach to Stephen King’s style, who also prefers to populate his stories with multiple characters and many moving parts – main storylines interwoven with smaller story elements.

Thrillers thrive on “always something new” as well, although unlike world-builders there is still a pervasive sense of linearity – moving toward an ultimate resolution – similar to the mystery format. Thrillers tend to pack in mini-climaxes throughout the storyline, with new revelations pushing characters and story ever-closer toward the ending goal.

None of these approaches are absolutely distinct and more often there are hybrid elements involved. As I noted above, Kelley Armstrong delves both into external and internal crises, but also often involves a romantic aspect. And romance is another area that builds tension. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be ‘shipping or “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” for Twilight or “Jaters” and “Skaters” for Lost.

Readers who feel invested in the characters and are presented with options get to feel tension when the choice of who-gets-whom isn’t certain.

I tend to feel that every chapter should have a purpose. If it feels rudderless, it doesn’t work. Same with wading through a chapter just to get to the other side. Not a fun experience and not consistent with tension-building.

I really do believe that readers can sense when a writer is having fun, enjoying themselves as they experience a joy at discovery akin to the reader’s. This kind of excitement translates through the story and finds an echo in the reader’s enjoyment.

So no chapter should ever feel like a trudge for the writer, because it will be even more so for the readers forced to trudge alongside (or skim ahead, hoping to escape).

Good chapters stand alone. They have a strong center that holds. They have themes. They have a sense of real purpose and they advance the characters and story in a real and meaningful way.

A good way to test a chapter for whether it does this is to try to give it a title other than “Chapter Twenty-Four.” If you can easily come up with a single word (or even two words) that encapsulate what the chapter is about, you probably have a good feel for the purpose that chapter was intended to serve. If the writer can’t sum up the chapter better than “walkin’ through the jungle, walkin’ through the jungle, walkin’ through the jungle” (to borrow a phrase one Lost-blogger used to employ in her recaps to skim the scenes where nothing was happening), then perhaps that chapter or scene isn’t really necessary. Or perhaps it could at least be compressed, or incorporated into something more exciting.

I would strongly recommend any writer to always think tension with the turn of every chapter and every scene. Keep that word ever-mindful and use it to the best of one’s ability. Readers will appreciate it and it’s what will keep them turning the pages and always wanting more.

Story and Synesthesia

I’ve talked about character descriptions before.

I also did a recent guest post about writing what you can imagine.

I was thinking today about Synesthesia, which is where some people associate sensations such as color or mood or tone with factors such as numbers, days of the week, months of the year, and so on.

I’ve always been good with numbers, and I have favorites among them – some that simply “look” and “feel” different than others. And I see music in patterns and often think of stories and pacing as patterns I can visualize. By “good with numbers,” I mean that when I was a bank teller back in college, I could do an 8-hour shift and remember the exact dollar amount of checks, currency, and coins for each of the hundred or so transactions for that day. I also had a few dozen customers’ account numbers memorized so when they came up I already had their account up. And I can glance at Algebra and discern what’s going on and how to solve a given problem – but I also have always made leaps where I skip a lot of steps and simply intuit where to go for the answer. I find math useful but not really interesting, though.

I’m not so good with faces, and to a lesser extend with names. They have a name for that as well, it turns out.

In my case, I can talk with someone new for hours, and by the next day (and often only an hour or so later) I cannot visualize their face. Nor do I know hair color or even bald or not, glasses or not, and so on. I get gender right, though, which is helpful :)

After I come to know someone, I can visualize them only as a picture – a mental snapshot placed in context. I’d make a terrible witness, in other words.

Names are kind of hit-and-miss. I have a friend who I originally met because we lived in the same apartment complex. She’s very extroverted and when she’d be walking her small dog, she’d wave and say hi, and a couple times we chatted. Her dog’s name was Cleo – short for Cleopatra.

One day a week or so after being introduced to her – and to her dog Cleo – I ran into her and Cleo at the mailboxes. We started talking, and I even leaned down and said, “Hi Cleo” to her dog, who was always quite happy to be around more people.

Suddenly, in the midst of our conversation, she (not the dog) interrupted and said very matter-of-factly, “You don’t remember my name.”

“Of course I do.” (note to younger self – a change of subject sometimes works better than trying to bluff)

“Then what is it?”

“Oh, well. Er, um…”

“It’s Ilene,” and here she demonstrated by leaning back, “As in, ‘I lean against the wall.’”

We became good friends, and she demonstrated a great ability to forgive me for remembering the dog’s name – but not hers.

Writing is about associating.

Words are just a pattern on a page in their rawest form. But they become something more when we order and arrange them, and particularly when we breathe life into them, imbuing them with associations that a reader can see.

A good character description invites a reader to engage in a kind of synesthesia, drawing from their own imagination to fill in the simple sketch they’re given. With only a few cues a reader develops an understanding for a character, a feel for a story, an anticipation from the flow and pacing they’re shown.

A limp and lifeless character or story does neither writer nor reader much good. Granted, no two readers will ever share the same experience from a story, or visualize and understand a character in the same way. But a writer’s job is to trigger the reader’s imagination – and not just spell everything out on the pages.

I’ve written before about writing with feeling, invoking mood through the story and characters. I think when it’s done right, created with passion, it finds an echo in some readers’ minds and triggers a cascade of associations as they discover the story, get to know characters, and explore the world the writer had envisioned for them.

This paragraph from Glowstar is one where I wanted to convey serenity:

Tall-stemmed grasses swayed in the wind, adorned with cotton ball puffs of frozen snow. She reached down to cup her palm around one, enticing it to release its trapped moisture like tears falling onto her skin. A few wispy clouds trailed across a sky patterned in rich hues of orange that stretched out to meet the deeper blue over the Hudson River. She walked to the railing to stare out at the water, where its slow movement seemed as enticing as a waltz. She closed her eyes, remembering the way the river had caressed her with cold fingers, drawing her down into its dark embrace where time fell away along with all her concerns.

And here is heartbreak:

She was sitting at one end of a bench in the Park, aware of the long and empty space beside her, and the way the cold seeped through her clothes. Her hair hung low around her face, concealing her thoughts from any who passed nearby. Each soft footstep on the path that wound its way past her like a meandering stream seemed a final solemn note in this place where her solitude began and ended. She wiped at her eyes, staring at fresh droplets that had fallen like lonely raindrops to the ground below.

Or isolation:

Her hand lay alone like an abandoned starfish, its white shape bound to the darkness of her pants.

Or attraction:

He became aware of her as her shadow fell across him. He looked up and smiled, a gentle turn of lips between cheeks with a hint of blush showing through the cold. A scattering of sandy hair snuck out from beneath a tasseled cap, and his brown eyes blinked against a gust of wind that rippled the paper held securely in hands turned almost white by winter’s touch. She could see a pair of gloves peeking out from a pocket, although they had evidently not been worn for some time. He seemed very ordinary, and she wondered why that was, since humans rarely ever drew her notice.

Musicians try to make their songs transcend whatever the words or music are if they were to stand alone without one another. When they blend successfully, people who hear it gain insights and form remembrances, and feel something beyond whatever was laid out as notes and words.

All forms of art try to do this – with varying degrees of success coupled with the endless variety of audience.

It’s a form of communication – and a rather magical one in the way a vision can be multiplied and transformed into so many individual visualizations unique to each person who witnesses or experiences the music, art, or writing.

Richard Bach wrote in the preface to The Bridge Across Forever his thoughts:

“As readers see behind writers’ masks, you’ll see what drove me to put these words on paper. But sometimes, when the light’s just so, writers can see behind readers’ masks, as well.”

Guest Topic – Lisa Greer talks about Cover Art

Today I want to welcome author Lisa Greer who I asked to do a topic of her choice.

Lisa is a very well-read author whose area of specialty is gothic romances.  She has an M.A. in 18th century British Literature and has a wonderful ability to evoke time and place from the first page of her books. I encourage people to visit her author page on Amazon and read samples from her books to see what I’m talking about. I’ll also lead in with her own description from Amazon:

Lisa Greer writes gothic romance reminiscent of the early authors of the genre but with an updated, contemporary slant. She’s tried to do just a regular romance, but her characters usually don’t go along. When they do, it’s fun, but generally they want graveyards, murder, mouldering ancestral mansions, and isolated spaces.

Her wishes are twofold: that readers who love gothic romance will pick up her books on a gloomy day and be transported back to the romances they read as teenagers, or maybe that they still read. The other is that those who haven’t read the genre will find they enjoy the edgy atmosphere of gothic romance. She is a bestselling and multi-published author, teacher, tutor, and nearly lifelong Alabamian–with the exception of years spent in Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Vancouver (Canada), and Texas. Her adventures around the country and in Canada inform her writing, so if you have a gypsy soul, dig in, and enjoy the darker side of romance.

Without further ado, here she is to speak about the importance of Covert Art:

Lisa Greer – on Cover Art

Thanks for having me on the forum!

Let’s talk cover art. Authors both love and dread it, but when it’s right, it’s amazing. I’ve had the bad luck to have cover art go terribly wrong more than once, so I really love it when the chemistry is all right and produces a winner.

For a serial set, it’s even more nerve wracking to decide what you want for cover art and make sure it gets implemented—at least to the extent that is possible. The concept needs to have potential for multiple books. I have a new release out May 25th called The Montmoors 1: The Governess and the Master. It’s a serial that starts off a series of stories about the Montmoor family. It’s written in historical gothic romance style. Think Victoria Holt, only with more atmosphere—at least that’s the plan.

Anyway, I needed a cover to match the sort of spooky feeling I want the book and the series to evoke.

The amazingly talented cover artists at Musa Publishing did exactly what I wanted. I’m a huge fan of colors that match the mood of a story. The black, gray, red, and white do just that—at least in my mind. I also love a cover with the moon on it. In fact, I think I have three or four covers now with that heavenly body gracing them.

The coolest elements of this cover, though, are the graveyard in the mist and the gate that opens to… a cemetery, but what else? And that is the question. What sort of journey is our heroine on, and will she prevail?

The next two covers for the set will be linked in color, font, and style. I’m hoping for a spooky castle on one and a moldy mausoleum on the next. And the moon… well, maybe not for the next two. Then again… who knows?

So, how about you? How do you figure out what you want on your covers? What is your favorite cover–your book or another author’s? Tell me more in the comments.

www.lisalgreer.com
Facebook: LisaGreerAuthor
Read and excerpt and Pre-order The Montmoors 1: The Governess and the Master here:  Musa Publishing – The Montmoors 1 by Lisa Greer

Write What You Can Imagine

I have a guest blog post on why the usual advice to “write what you know” can be a little too simplistic:

http://lisalgreer.wordpress.com/reviews-and-interviews/write-what-you-can-imagine/

Lisa L. Greer is a romance author with an M.A. in 18th century British Literature.  I encourage people to check out her work, as she knows her craft, capturing style and sense of time and place, all blended in an accessible way.

First-Person or Third-Person Point-of-View

Point of view isn’t up for much debate in Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance.  Upwards of 95% or more is written in first-person.

As for why – partly it comes down to word-count and pacing, partly to some audience preference, and partly because it’s a more natural way of storytelling and easier for new authors to delve into.

Neither first-person nor third-person is “better.”  Both have benefits and pitfalls and both can provide an extremely rich and rewarding experience – for both the reader and the writer.

First-person offers these benefits:

  • Immediate accessibility for both the writer and reader.  Normally, the writer finds her or his “voice” right away more easily with first-person.  It’s a natural extension of the storytelling we do in our lives.  And a reader can readily identify the voice, delve right into what’s happening with the narrating character, and proceed onward from there.
  • Compact narrative (normally).  Storytelling by first-person account can be epic (Moby Dick) and can cover a span of geography and time (Little Big Man).  But what makes first-person attractive to many writers is that you can convey quite a lot in a very small package.  This is why there is an abundance of first-person short stories.  Consider Stephen King – who’s written the bulk of his novels in third-person.  Glancing through his bibliography, offhand I can identify Christine as partly first-person, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, Duma Key, 11/22/63, and maybe there is one or two I missed.  Next, look at King’s novellas and we begin to see a higher prevalence of first-person: three of the four novellas in Different Seasons, for example.  In his short stories, the percentage is also high.  Night Shift has 9 of its 20 stories written in first-person.  The reason first-person lends itself easily to compact narrative ties directly back into the above-mentioned “immediacy.”  Because many genres (as well as current reading trends and overall ebook trends) favor shorter narratives, first-person can pack a lot into a lower word-count.
  • Some people prefer reading first-person.  Often, it goes back again to immediacy and time constraints.  While a first-person account can be deeply layered in detail and third-person storytelling can be swift and concise, there is a higher prevalence of simple and straightforward first-person writing among certain genres.
First-person does have a few constraints.  Some of the more common ones have to do with description:
  • Describing the narrator is always a challenge in first-person.  I discussed that – as well as some possible solutions – in my post about Character Descriptions.
  • Describing other characters in a natural way can also require some thought.  When we look at someone, we gain an impression.  But how do we convey an impression of someone else – particularly someone we know very well – in a way that feels right to a reader.  Best to go for subtle and blend it into the action.  Like:  “Darcy came flying down the sidewalk toward me, blue eyes flashing and blonde hair catching the sunlight in an enviable way.”  Not that this is even a great description, but I had to throw something up quickly :)
  • First-person narratives are often interaction-based.  They tend to be heavy on dialogue, and less reliant upon locale and other description.  So when that’s the case, keeping description terse and as-needed does better service than weighing down a previously fast-paced narrative with lingering views of the scenery.

But there are also plot-constraints – since only the narrator’s point-of-view is being conveyed.  Some authors deal with this by shifting points-of-view, which can be successful or distracting depending on the skill of the writer as well as the reader.  Stephen King shifted between first-person and third-person in Christine.  Maggie Stiefvater shifted between two characters’ first-person points-of-view in her series that began with Shiver.  In her case, a criticism among some readers has been that they didn’t feel the two “voices” were distinct enough to separate from one another when the narrator shifted.

That can be difficult to do.  Some authors have created distinct first-person voices.  Anne Rice famously did this with Louis in Interview With The Vampire followed by Lestat in The Vampire Lestat.  And yet…for those of us who read later novels in the Vampire Chronicles, were we seeing as great a distinction between the voices of Marius, Armand, Pandora, etc. as we saw between Louis and Lestat?  As I said, it can be a challenge in even very good authors’ hands.  Authors often lapse into a style of voice that feels comfortable, just as we speak with whatever regional accent we spend the most time within.  Straying afield – especially far afield – can be rewarding but isn’t always simple.

Since first-person narratives tend to be narrator-centric and often heavily interaction-based, many authors develop plots through what the main character experiences, and supplement it with dialogue exchanges with other characters who can further the plot.  This will never replicate the kind of effect Stephen King achieved with The Stand, written in third-person with a couple dozen characters moving inexorably toward one another in the early part of the book.  So a writer should always consider her or his concept for what the intentions are for the story, and decide which path feels most natural.

Third-person lends itself to its own advantages and challenges.  A good third-person account dispels the myth that only first-person narratives can “get inside the head” of the character and bring them close to the reader.  There have been too many intimate accounts written in third-person that equal any similar first-person work.  First-person simply brings a reader into the character’s head a little sooner - as in, several pages sooner.  Stephen King’s first-person novels that I cited above are no different than his vast third-person work – the majority of which breathe with life and characters who feel real.

Patricia Briggs has two series in her werewolf urban fantasy world.  The “Mercy Thompson” novels, beginning with Moon Called, are in first-person.  The Alpha and Omega novels are in third-person.  In discussions I’ve seen on her forums, a lot of people express preference for one series or the other, and the ones who enjoy Alpha and Omega often talk about their impressions of the main characters.  Again, third-person is never a limitation.

And remember that Harry Potter is third-person.

Third-person’s typical advantages are:

  • Description – characters (including the main character), scenery, pretty much everything.  Since description lends itself to atmosphere and mood, we more often see third-person stories where those elements take precedence – such as horror.  Still, there are no rules and there are excellent first-person horror stories.  Just as there are fast-paced and compelling third-person stories.
  • Plot development – Particularly if an author is employing a shifting third-person view (as Stephen King has done in many of his works, and notably in The Stand), it can be very easy to give a reader a view of all the pieces moving toward an ultimate collision.  Tension becomes easier to create in such a manner (although tension is never truly “easy” to do).  As well, there can be an allure to getting inside the heads of many different characters – including the bad guys or gals.  And again, good storytelling in third-person will let a reader get inside the head of any character the author chooses.  Even with third-person limited, many readers will find secondary characters more attractive than the focal point.  This also holds true with first-person.  Consider the allure for Edward or Jacob in Twilight.  Readers never got inside their heads (especially after Stephenie Meyer decided not to proceed with Midnight Sun) but that was no obstacle.
  • Scope and Complexity – these tie back into what was just mentioned above.  It can cover a variety of characters and a lot of ground over the course of the story, and do so more readily than a first-person narrative.

Challenges of third-person narratives are, like with first-person, a flip-side of their advantages:

  • Accessibility – I would say that first-person stories can hook more easily within the first line, let alone the first page, than many third-person stories can.  This is entirely subjective – because every person has their own individual tastes.  But humans are wired as storytellers.  We have oral traditions that predated writing and extend into the modern age among societies that still do not practice writing.  There is an immediacy to first-person that third-person cannot readily equal.  Still, there are some great third-person stories that hook from the beginning.  I’d simply argue that there are even more third-person stories that we know will “warm up” rather than immediately start with a bang.  Even if there are readers with short attention spans who need an immediate “pop” at the beginning, there are readers who enjoy delving into the depths of a good third-person story, and there are readers who like pretty much any kind of reading experience.  In other words, there is no single type of reader, and any author only needs their work to be found by the readers who will enjoy their work.
  • Size – third-person isn’t normally as compact as first-person.  Since description tends to be greater (and description always takes more text than dialogue) and some  stories employ shifts between characters to advance plot, many third-person stories tend to be longer.  If a given genre favors fast-paced short works, this has to be taken into account.  Still, Kelley Armstrong has said that many of her novels have come in around the 125,000-130,000 word mark.  And while the first Harry Potter book was on par in size with others in its genre, its success allowed later books in the series to become quite large for any genre.
  • Keeping it interesting and flowing – third-person’s ability to revel in descriptions and bounce around between characters can offer the temptation for a writer to bog down the narrative with unnecessary details.

I do believe that it is easier for many new authors to begin with first-person than to work within third-person – again, because it’s a natural extension of human storytelling tradition.  I don’t believe that either point-of-view is “better” than the other.  I’ve enjoyed first-person and third-person equally and have absolutely no preference for one or the other.

What I look for is a story and characters that draw me in.  When that happens, I don’t even pay attention to point-of-view.  I had to glance over King’s bibliography and even crack a few books open just to remember which he did in either point-of-view.

The main thing to note is these are generalizations about the two main points-of-view.  Again, first-person can be epic in length, third-person can be compact.  Either kind can be enticing or boring, depending on the author’s skill and any given reader’s tastes.

Character Descriptions

One of writing’s many challenges is creating character descriptions that convey what they should without going overboard.

Character description works best when it incorporates something beyond physical description and reveals insights into a character. This kind of description is all about selecting the right details and nuances that convey a character’s very distinct personality.

Anne Rice famously opened The Vampire Lestat with a full-on self-description that caused many others since to similarly try a “more is better” approach and show a beloved character exactly as the writer imagines. Many of these followers missed the point. Rice wasn’t just describing what Lestat looked like. She was giving away on the first page his utter vanity and passion that he would reveal throughout the book.

“I am the vampire Lestat. I’m immortal. More or less. The light of the sun, the sustained heat of the intense fire – these things might destroy me. But then again they might not.
I’m six feet tall, which was fairly impressive in the 1780’s when I was a young mortal man. It’s not bad now. I have thick blond hair, not quite shoulder length, and rather curly, which appears white under fluorescent light. My eyes are gray, but they absorb the colours blue or violet very easily from surfaces around them. And I have a fairly short nose and a mouth that is well shaped but just a little too big for my face. It can look very mean, or extremely generous, my mouth. It always looks sensual. But emotions and attitudes are always reflected in my entire expression. I have a continuously animated face. My vampire nature reveals itself in extremely white and highly reflective skin that has to be powdered down for cameras of any kind.”

A character description should not read like an Ident-i-kit. Otherwise, it comes off as only a laundry list of standard features that taken together could resemble anyone. Or no one.

A description should feel unique.

And preferably, a description works even better when it has just enough clues that a reader can create an image using their own imagination – rather than the author’s. As beloved as any author’s creation may feel to them, the point of storytelling is to yield the rights to these children and entrust them to readers. When a reader connects with a character in a deep and personal way, enough to visualize them in a form they co-create with just a few tips from the author, that’s when the magic happens.

And magic doesn’t happen quite so easily or readily when a laundry-list of character features is being read out and the reader is expected to memorize these, as well as fill out said character exactly as the author intended. Characters don’t belong only to authors, when it really comes down to it. They belong as well uniquely to each and every reader.

There are some authors who don’t bother with physical descriptions at all. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When a story is compelling enough, readers will always supply their own character description – and be surprised the author forgot to (on purpose).

But for the sake of what I’ll talk about today, we’ll stick with discussing how to describe – minimalistically and deliberately that makes best use of what’s being shown.

The two key questions most authors ask themselves with regard to character descriptions are “How much?” and “When?”

As far as “How much?” – just enough should be the usual answer. Although there are genres and even individual stories where a fuller description is expected or warranted – with character descriptions, less when done right can most assuredly be better than a laundry-list recitation of character attributes.

For the second question, “When?” is usually answered by “as early in the story as possible, or else don’t bother at all.”

I’ve actually read more than one first-person point-of-view novel recently where the author was so wrapped into the character’s voice, she belatedly worked in a character description 20 or more pages into the story. By that point, unless it’s relevant (straight brown hair is not relevant, by the way) a reader probably has the beginnings of their own inner-visualized character description and the author’s belated attempt to “clarify matters” is liable to shock the reader out of the story as the reader hastily has to erase and re-draw what they were already beginning to carefully form.

I don’t know about you, but I hate using an eraser to do broad-scale erasing after I’ve gotten a good start on something.

So my advice – if you haven’t begun to sketch a description of your character within the first – oh, I dunno – five pages, then don’t bother.

First-person point-of-view yields some of the most challenges to providing a character description of the point-of-view de facto main character. The “mirror trick” is over-used, cliche, and cannot be made original at this point – if it ever could at all.

There is nothing wrong with a character later examining something in particular in a mirror  if a plot calls for it. But save the mirror for much later, and save readers having to wade through cliche.

If you’re going to attempt to describe the main character through someone else’s dialogue in a first-person narrative, make sure it works well and doesn’t feel either clumsy or artificial. Either of these would be: “Jan! I so LOVE how your red hair looks with that bow in it!” If it’s important that the character’s red hair be shown to readers, do it in a way that feels natural and not contrived.

With first-person, you can insert minor details in subtle ways by classic “show, don’t tell” – like:  “My glasses kept finding their way down my nose and I just as absently shoved them back.”  Or a blend of show-and-tell:  “I tugged my skirt lower. I have knobby knees and hate when they show.”  Or a pure tell:  “Long hair is a blessing when you need it to hide behind.”

All of these descriptions reveal something beyond just the physical aspect. The point is to get as much utility from a description as possible. Make description multi-purpose whenever you can.

Here’s one I did in Snowflake Promise that is a little fuller description than I usually do. But all of it serves a purpose, book-ended between brittle form of beauty and lips drawn now in an expression of disapproval:

The woman’s features revealed an almost brittle form of beauty, as though nature had chosen to grant subtle flaws to mar its own gifts. Angled cheekbones framed a narrow mouth. Her hair swept away in curls of a lustrous shade of blonde that flowed like a wave over her shoulders. Her lips were drawn now in an expression of disapproval at this unwelcome interloper.

Third-person description is far easier to implement than first-person. It’s also far more tempting to over-do description because of that.

With Winter Fade, I took a less-is-more approach and focused on a single character trait at the beginning – one which immediately revealed mood:

Imoen Doyle stood up, smoothing the bed behind her. She had dimples that showed when she smiled, or when she frowned, as she now did.

A couple paragraphs later, I gave just a brief reflection on clothes – but from a perspective of what they revealed about her personality – a practical side when it came to shoes and an indication her clothes are as threadbare (albeit well-cared for to extend their use) as her apartment which had just been described as: Her bed and dresser were the major pieces of furniture in the small space, along with a lone castoff bookcase salvaged when its previous owner sought a new and less-encumbered beginning.

She bent to adjust an ankle strap, casting her face into shadow and deepening her hazel eyes to a richer green in a blending of darkness and light. She preferred the comfort and sensibility of flats over heels, although she now wore her sole pair of the latter. She picked a fine, stray hair from her sleeve and lifted the hem of her skirt to check for fraying or loose threads.

Later in the story, she meets two characters who will play important parts in her life:

Seth smiled. He had an open and friendly face. His curly hair had a reddish, almost copper tint that set off his ruddy features. He resembled nothing so much as a friendly bear.

A pixie-like girl watched them as they came to a stop. Imoen reluctantly got out of the car as the girl approached. She had fashionably cropped black hair and was dressed in what Imoen vaguely thought of as casual chic. She was younger than Imoen, barely out of her teens, with wide, dark eyes that seemed to gaze in perpetual wonder at the world. Her face was glowing as she brushed past Katharine and headed straight for Imoen.

In this description from Snowflake Promise, the description is incorporated into an entire impression of the character and what he might do, culminating in the concluding sentence:

The second man was far more striking. Powerfully built with broad shoulders, he towered over all the others in the room. His thick mane of hair retained the colors of a remembered sun, flaxen with a glint of copper that shone through it. His presence was made all the more imposing because he had forgone a chair, choosing instead to lean against the wall. His eyes were a light shade of bluish gray. They paused on Imoen and Ben, and then turned to assess the reactions of the others. Despite his casual posture, Imoen had the familiar sense of a readiness about him, like a spring whose coiled tension revealed its potential.

And another one which does the same:

A slightly built young woman with a frizzy halo of red hair came down the stairs toward them, her feet light like a dancer’s. She was casually dressed, with a large faded green backpack slung casually over one shoulder. She smiled at them, eyes twinkling around a heavily freckled nose. “Toby gave me tonight off.”

Sometimes it helps to make a character description distinctive by alluding to things a reader can immediately imagine and associate with the character. In Becomings, I did this with several character descriptions. Note the way the eyes are described – if you’re going to give a color, try to make it matter when possible:

The young woman stepped forward, her hand releasing from the man’s and falling away beside her as she walked with confidence toward Jeremy. Still in her late teens and perhaps a year or two younger than Isabel, she seemed to already possess a confidence far beyond her age. Her hair fell in rich dark tresses that reached to her waist. Her eyes were the color of a fisherman’s floats whose green has faded from too long in the sea.

And two more:

For his part, Alexei appeared more at ease than he undoubtedly felt. Probably a farm boy, she decided, noting his rugged build and the easy way he shouldered his pack of heavy equipment. His face was open and pleasant, framed by an unruly mop of hair the color of the burnished sun as it set each evening over the ruins of the former city.

He turned toward her now, but he was looking down, and he noticed her hands first. She would always remember that. The rest of her was swaddled in thick and shapeless clothing the color of earth that had just been turned over beneath a plow blade, a raw and rich blend of shades. Her blonde hair lay concealed beneath her cap, her long braid run down beneath her clothing. But her graceful fingers were exposed. Even with their grimy nails, she noticed him watching them, with an expression that made her feel self-conscious.

Glowstar is a more lyrical novel, so character descriptions follow the mood of the story:

Dark hair flowed like a fan around her pale face, delicate eyelashes drawn shut as if enraptured by a dream. Her face held an expression of peace that had been found after a night grown too long for hope of respite.

and:

He became aware of her as her shadow fell across him. He looked up and smiled, a gentle turn of lips between cheeks with a hint of blush showing through the cold. A scattering of sandy hair snuck out from beneath a tasseled cap, and his brown eyes blinked against a gust of wind that rippled the paper held securely in hands turned almost white by winter’s touch.

What it all comes down to is making a description work by choosing what is relevant and just memorable enough to begin to define a character in a reader’s mind. The reader will fill out the rest.

It’s enjoyable to create a character who readers will share back their mental image of – and discover that each reader has imagined the character in a different, and very uniquely personal way. This is so much better than forcing readers to only see what the author has imagined down to the very last detail – most of which are pretty boring anyway.

Character descriptions are really all about the details. But they are not about all details. They’re about the right details.

The right details will spur a reader’s imagination into action, filling out the character – and yes, probably in ways the writer didn’t intend. But that’s exactly the point. What matters is for the reader to gain a personal connection with a character.

Come up with details and make them interesting, and focus on only the few that matter.

If a character’s hair color isn’t really important, skip it or at the very least minimize it. Height can very often be skipped, or at least contained within the vaguest of terms, like “He was a little taller than me, and I had to raise my eyes just a bit to look into his.” There’s a lot of 6’2″ and 5’4″ height descriptions in stories that really don’t matter to readers as much as they do to authors in many cases.

Clothing tends to get considerable description in certain genres, and where that works and given audience expectations, that’s perfectly fine. Clothes can reveal a lot about a character, and can convey moods. After all, most of us wear clothes for any given occasion for exactly those reasons, and we expect characters to do the same. So my advice is that when clothing description is called for, make it work. Let it bring out the character rather than simply sheath them. Remember that it is the character wearing the clothes, not the clothes wearing the character.

Every time you introduce a character, you imagine what that character looks like. But as you’re introducing a character, you also should already have begun to construct an entire background for that character. You understand their motivations and how that defines itself in their personality. So make good use of your chance to describe the character by combining personality with physical description.

Make description work by breathing life into the character whenever possible in the course of describing them. This goes for main characters and even for minor characters. Minor characters can be enlivened with just a stroke or two of the proverbial pen. Remember that many great artists have also done memorable charcoal sketches that omitted details but retain the fullness of a figure by allowing the viewer to supply the rest.

And the same goes for anything else described. Even inanimate objects can become animated and attain a kind of characterization for themselves. Bring them to life with description and infuse them with mood. Don’t let them just sit on shelves or stand up or look pretty at a curb.

If it’s a car, don’t be mundane and simply call it a Ford Mustang. Either don’t identify it beyond the generic, or else dress it up and personalize it. Make it feel like it’s really someone’s vehicle rather than only another car no different than any other in a showroom. Here’s how I described one car in Winter Fade:

Then she was shoved across a car seat where her body settled, legs dangling on the floor, her neck angled against the corner of the seat. The car reeked of smoke and age, stale smells that mingled where she lay on the worn upholstery, its springs pressed hard against her body.

Similarly, you can describe a building by instilling mood into its description, like this:

They cautiously approached the old church. A modest building, it had fallen on hard times. Stained glass had been replaced with weathered plywood. The grass surrounding it was now suffocating under a heavy overgrowth of weeds. There was a stillness to the air that made her wary. Something didn’t feel right.

Or this building:

Tongues of flame licked through windows where plywood had shattered from the force of the explosion. The flashes of light from the dark windows seemed to stare hungrily at her, like eyes that had suddenly opened and come alive, anticipating her approach.

Here’s New York Central Park where animation is employed in description:

Bethesda Fountain lay encircled within a ring the color of umber. Rising from its center, an angel stood poised in mid-stride, her wings outstretched to catch the fallen snow, a halo of white wreathing her head. Four cherubs played beneath her shadow, hands raised as though testing the frosty air. Further beyond, staircases rose like stepping stones from the snow up to a terrace graced beneath with arches.

And High Line Park:

Tall-stemmed grasses swayed in the wind, adorned with cotton ball puffs of frozen snow. She reached down to cup her palm around one, enticing it to release its trapped moisture like tears falling onto her skin. A few wispy clouds trailed across a sky patterned in rich hues of orange that stretched out to meet the deeper blue over the Hudson River. She walked to the railing to stare out at the water, where its slow movement seemed as enticing as a waltz. She closed her eyes, remembering the way the river had caressed her with cold fingers, drawing her down into its dark embrace where time fell away along with all her concerns.

And the inside of an old church:

She looked around carefully, finding a few others scattered about the wooden rows whose warm mahogany resonated beneath stone columns the color of snowmelt arrested before its final release. Statues followed her slow movement with eyes like marbles, their frozen visages recalling timeless passages of so many others who had come before. The sweet and smoky fragrance of candles lingered like heavy dew drops in the air, fulfilling a promise of warmth while they burned away their short lives. She found a solitary seat near a wall, protected within shadows that would keep their secrets close.

Even something as simple as a sip of wine needn’t be boring, when it’s shared with someone special and intended to convey more:

She accepted a glass of wine from Liam, and took a tentative and exploratory sip. Her tongue tingled beneath a taste like apples captured in their moment of perfect ripeness, along with a refreshing coolness that seemed to clear away her thoughts. 

Description draws readers in close to share in the story the author has created. The author should be thinking deft and avoid being heavy-handed or dull. They should think, “How can I make this character or even this simple object come alive in a way a reader will really see it?”

Again, it’s not about revealing all the details, but only focusing on the right ones shown in the right way. And the right way will be individual to every writer. But what they will share is using description in ways that connect with the imagination of readers.

Choices and Themes

I’ve written before about symbolism, which can infuse and enrich a story.

Symbolism also reinforces Theme.

Themes are those underlying threads woven throughout a story that give it strength.

When we distill any story down to its themes, we often are surprised how *simple* those themes appear to be.  They don’t seem capable of supporting any story built around them.  But the nature of a good theme is that it’s all about hidden strength that comes out when it’s explored.  Many seemingly simple themes can be quite powerful.

Books often have multiple themes running through them – and often a theme may not even be apparent to the author, or a theme may be perceived by some readers and not others because of the way they identify with the story.

Choice is actually a very common theme that we see crop up in any number of stories.  Choice is extremely powerful because it can take so many different forms.  And its authenticity connects us to the characters we’re reading about, and experience their stories as they make choices we may or may not have ever considered.

Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat was an exploration of choice.  Lestat’s story was driven by the choices he made. And he remained unchanged and unbowing through the end:

I should have listened to Marius’s warning. I should have stopped for one moment to reflect on it as I stood on the edge of that grand and intoxicating experiment: to make a vampire of the “least of these.” I should have taken a deep breath.

But you know, it was like playing the violin for Akasha. I wanted to do it. I wanted to see what would happen, I mean, with a beautiful little girl like that!

Oh, Lestat, you deserve everything that ever happened to you. You’d better not die. You might actually go to hell.

But why was it that for purely selfish reasons, I didn’t listen to some of the advice given me? Why didn’t I learn from any of them – Gabrielle, Armand, Marius? But then, I never have listened to anyone, really. Somehow or other, I never can.

Just as Lestat was a victim of self-inflicted wounds by an incessant desire to make choices just to see what would happen, the character of Johnny Smith in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is haunted by his reluctance to make a choice.  King wove in the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale for a very good reason.  The reluctant hero of any story often knows that bravery may not always be rewarded, and that sacrifices may be called for rather than redemption.

Choice is what leads every person along the paths that unfold beneath our very feet.

We make countless choices in any given day – many quite inconsequential – shall I sit on the couch with a book or just step outside for a few moments to see what the sunshine inspires me to do today?

Some of our choices only seem inconsequential, and quite ordinary in the way we make them like we would any other.  We don’t get to see ahead of time what the consequences of our choices will really be further down the path.  We meet loved ones in our lives – friends and partners – when we’re drawn by common choices to be at a particular place at a particular time for sometimes no particular reason.  We discover new jobs and skills we never knew we possessed often because of natural and innocuous choices.

When I wrote Winter Fade, I was particularly conscious of choice and the role it played in the story. Choice becomes personified by the characters Imoen meets throughout the story and the different paths they offer if she were to follow one and not another.  And just as with any of us, sometimes choice becomes a product partly of other forces and not entirely of our free will.

Choice works best as an underlying theme when we’re given the intimacy of really knowing characters and understanding how they feel.  We want to empathize and experience the character’s conflict and desire and doubts or fears for ourselves.  We’re curious whether we would do as they chose – whether we would be either brave enough or foolish enough to follow such a path.  Or whether the choice wouldn’t be entirely ours alone and perhaps that path may have been inevitable in some unforeseen way.

As I mentioned early on, stories don’t need to rely upon a single theme and can often have multiple themes running through them – weaving around one another and strengthening the overall structure.

In Winter Fade, Imoen’s story came about through loneliness and self-imposed isolation that only forestalled choices that new circumstances and dangers force her to make, while confronting herself and discovering new friends and rebuilding a family.  Also – there is a pretty sizable body count :)

She ran absent fingers through her hair, exposing and hiding her face as another memory played behind closed eyes. She stood outside the door of her old apartment in Palms. She wondered to herself what had really kept her away all this time. Had it truly been Malcolm’s admonitions? Or had it been some wish of her own to make a break from her past, to find her way again even if it meant treading on uncertain ground? She listened for noises from within, but heard only the low hum of the refrigerator, a sound she had once become so tuned to that it no longer registered.

She tried her old key in the lock, not surprised when it no longer would open this doorway to her past. The lock’s new brass gleamed softly in the dull glow of the lamp outside the door. She knelt before it and retrieved her lockpicks. She began working methodically, and soon heard the final, solid click as the bolt opened. She rose and touched the doorknob slowly, reverently. The metal felt cool beneath her hand, but she imagined a warmth of homecoming after a long night away, a night that seemed to go on forever. She closed her eyes, and then opened the door and stepped inside, shutting the door softly behind her. She opened her eyes once more.

The apartment was bare. A new carpet lay rolled to one side of the living room, waiting to be laid down. Fresh white paint reflected the dim moonlight that entered through the blinds. She walked into her old bedroom, touching the door, the walls. She sank to her hands and knees, her senses overwhelmed by the new and unfamiliar smells as she explored the wood that had lain hidden beneath her old beige carpet, seeking out its memories.

At last, she stood up, her face a solemn cast in the moonlight. There is no going back. But I can always go forward.

A long sigh escaped her lips like a whisper lost in the wind, stirring the hair that hung before her face. 

Firefly Kiss deepens the exploration of choice by also delving into the nature of revenge from different perspectives, and whether the pursuit of whatever we believe to be justice is worth its cost, or is really what we want.  There’s also a lot of action :)

Toby sighed. “To a certain degree, I regret mentioning it to you and Ben.”

“You don’t regret not trying to stop me from going?”

He shook his head. “That was your free will, which I will not interfere with. The information I passed was of my free will. But I know you, and prudence would have dictated my silence.”

“Ben and I are glad you did, and there are four kids who are very thankful as well.” She touched his arm. “I don’t blame you for this, Toby. You shouldn’t blame yourself, either.”

“And you would do it again?” He studied her, waiting for her to answer.

She hesitated. “Yes.”

“Your newfound caution is welcome, even when there’s still certainty behind your choice. I have no problem with the latter where the former is engaged.”

“I know I’m not perfect, Toby.”

“Perfection is subjective, anyway. That’s why it’s unattainable.” He looked around the room. “Are you comfortable here?”

She hesitated again. “Yes.”

“You have to confront the past if you want to go on with your future. As a one time student of history, you would know that better than most.” His eyes lingered on the box resting on the floor beside the dresser. “Memories cloud our judgment sometimes, until we place them in proper perspective.”

She followed his gaze. “It feels like letting go.”

“No, it doesn’t.” He turned and looked at her again. “It feels like hurt because you relive it. That’s why you store them away. Memories are gifts, and sometimes they bring pain, but often they bring only what you ask of them. You should ask yourself why that is so.”

She bit at her lip and made herself stop. “Because I can’t choose the doors I want to open.”

“And sometimes you open a door and find your past has been erased, as you did last year when you visited the apartment you had as a human.” He inclined his head. “Were you relieved?”

She avoided his gaze. “I want to be more than a product of my past.”

“So you chose to turn your back on it.”

She lay silent for a while. “I have to move forward, Toby.”

“Sometimes you have to look back to move forward.”

She shook her head. “That’s not true.”

Toby sighed. “The biggest lies are the ones we convince ourselves are true.”

“This is the truth, as I see it.”

He paused, and nodded slowly, his eyes showing compassion. “Fair enough.”

She looked down again, sensing that he had chosen not to press the matter, not because he agreed, but because he had decided it wasn’t the time. 

Snowflake Promise explores the way we try to reconcile ourselves to the choices that brought us where we are, and whether we’re yet settled with the consequences.  Along with that is a strong theme of motherhood – from several different perspectives (plus action).

A light snow was falling. Imoen turned her face upward and stared in wonder at a flurry of snowflakes that swirled as though each had been granted its own life, bright gems chasing one another in and out of the bounds between darkness and light. They moved like restless stars that had spent too long in the heavens, and were now finding their way down to the comfort of earth.

She made a wish on one of them as she followed its slow and ballet-like descent, and wondered what promise such a delicate object of beauty might grant to her and those she loved. She breathed in the cold night air, different than that of her childhood home in Eugene, and even further distant from the moderate clime they had been in only several hours before.

She tugged her jacket unconsciously tighter around herself. Although she wasn’t bothered by the cold, it was a habit formed from the longer span of years she had spent as a human. She turned her head as she continued to stare upward, and experienced momentary vertigo. She had a sense of being surrounded by the neverending rows of buildings arrayed like dark sentinels and embodied with a teeming mass of humanity she couldn’t fathom. All around her was an overwhelming awareness of life that moved in patterns unfamiliar to her, a foreignness that heightened her sense of separation, of a watcher who was being watched.

Her vision blurred. She blinked away the tiny crystals captured by her lashes, and felt the soft tickle of melting snowflakes merge on her skin like fresh teardrops. Her mouth opened slightly, and she tasted a bitter crispness in the air. She blinked again, trying to make sense of this strange vastness she found herself within. She wondered what Jessie and Seth were doing.

She stepped off a curb, still gazing upward. A hand grasped her jacket suddenly, yanking her back just as a taxi roared past only a few feet away, a squealing of tires and buffet of wind the only announcement of its abrupt passage. She turned her head as Thaddeus released her.

He nodded toward the traffic signal, his face impassive. “We’d hate to lose you so soon.”

There was a snicker from one of Gavin’s bodyguards behind her, and she felt her face flush.

Peter raised his eyebrows and favored the bodyguard with an expression of feigned interest. “Got a problem?”

A lot of Kelley Armstrong’s work centers around choice – especially so since she writes character-driven stories.  Just glancing at some of the titles on my bookshelf:  Bitten is about choice (Elena choosing life within the pack and a future with Clay versus trying to integrate into the human world). Personal Demon is about choice (Hope choosing Karl and vice-versa, and no longer being afraid to accept that choice). Haunted is about choice  (Eve accepting that Kristof truly loves her and that more importantly she truly loves him, and that she chooses to share a life with him to the extent she can. There’s another theme of “letting go” that counterpoints her embrace of Kristof. She accepts that she must let go of her desire to oversee Savannah’s life and trust Paige and Lucas to handle it).

The reason choice works so well within stories is that it strengthens the ties between inner conflict of the character and the external conflicts the character must overcome.  Rarely are the two tied together in a direct fashion.  But just like in real life, we often allow the vanquishing of external challenges to help us gather the inner strength to finally confront the choices we’ve been uncertain about for so long.