Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Monday, November 24, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 15

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we’ll break apart the chapter for its nuggets of writing insights and enjoy a great story.



Chapter 15: Revelations of the Bridal Chamber

Summary: After a small wedding feast, Claire and Jamie retire to a room for the consummation part of becoming legally married. They’re both unnerved, and Jamie confesses to being scared of Claire because she’s much more experienced than him. They decide to ease into the experience by talking first.

Jamie asked about Claire’s previous husband, a subject she dodges. He asks only that they start with honesty. She doesn’t have to tell him something, but what she does tell him should be the truth.

They both give a bit of history about their pasts, Claire careful to avoid revealing anything that would signal to Jamie that she comes from a future time. But Jamie too has his secrets, of which he’s very upfront about not telling her.

However, he does talk about his family, how his mother was Colum and Dougal’s sister. How his father was given lands by the Frasers so he could marry Ellen MacKenzie. How, in the marriage agreement, the MacKenzies had managed to secure the inheritance of those lands so they would pass to Ellen’s children instead of any other children her husband might have. So while Jamie indeed is in possession of property, he can’t use his own lands because of the price on his head.

But Jamie goes on to explain his time in France after being injured. He stayed with an uncle until he was healed, then came back to Scotland. Dougal had come to pick him up, and they were on their way back when Claire ran into them. Apparently, there is truth to Randall’s claim that the MacKenzies were stealing cattle as well.

Jamie also confesses two of the reasons he married Claire. He has others he’s keeping secret. First, he wanted to protect her from Captain Randall. Second, he wanted to sleep with her.

They talk until it’s late and a choice must be made about bed. Claire decides to get the bedding over with rather than cowardly waiting until later. For the next several hours, she introduces Jamie to the pleasures of the marriage bed, and while he’s a bit clumsy, his ardent joy in it delights her.

At one point, famished, she decides to slip out of the room for food, but she finds all Dougal’s men waiting for her and shouted ribald commentary. She’s horrified, and Jamie explains that they’re witnesses to the consummation. Dougal won’t take any chances. Jamie fetches food instead.

At one point, when they finally literally sleep, Claire wakes from a nightmare. Jamie immediately responds by snapping awake, drawing a weapon he had stashed near his head, and springing to action, ready to kill. When he realizes it was only Claire, he swiftly comforts her, warms her by giving her the blankets he accidentally stole in his sleep, and cuddles against her. He asks if it’s hate for him that has her so upset, and she hastily reassures him that it isn’t him at all.

But after, Claire has to wonder why any man would sleep armed in his own bridal chamber.

Writer Comments; Unlike usual, I’ve summarized the whole chapter instead of scene by scene. This chapter is a bit different in that it’s composed over several short scenes that span an extended period of time. Handling each individually would have resulted in an excessively long post. But we can begin with the structure of these scenes as they relate to each other first.

The chapter has eight scene breaks. Eight is a lot for one chapter. However, the setting does not change, and the time changes only by a few hours. So why structure the chapter like this? In actuality, all these scene breaks create the same effect as a series of quick successive fades in a movie or TV show; they represent the passage of time without getting bogged down in tedium. Claire and Jamie spend many hours work up the courage to sleep together, then enjoying the experience of exploring a new lover. These are not moments to be drawn out in endless detail. If Gabaldon had chosen to do so, they chapter would have gotten tedious.

Additionally, Gabaldon uses another trick to avoid tedium. When it comes to actual sex, she doesn’t linger over every detail. Books that do this have their own genre and subgenres. Most books, however, need to follow the general rule that if it doesn’t specifically add to the plot, cut it. Gabaldon gives just enough information to let readers know how Claire and Jamie relate to each other in bed, to indicate Claire enjoys it, and to reveal Jamie’s eagerness to be a good lover, even if he is a bit clumsy at first. Yes, some of the details get a bit racy, but Gabaldon does just as much with implication as she does through flat out description. All actions, including sex should serve a purpose in the plot and impact the characters.

Now, let’s take a step back from that element. Take a look at the chapter’s title, Revelations of the Bridal Chamber. This is a great example of a chapter title done well. As soon as I read it, I immediately started theorizing about what would happen. A chapter title should make readers wonder, and this is a perfect example. I immediately started guessing what would be revealed. I suspected Claire would tell Jamie about traveling through time, but no such luck. It’s probably better that way because, otherwise, that element would be resolved too quickly. Gabaldon deftly extends that conflict.

Additionally in this chapter, Gabaldon plays into the fantasies of her female readers. Jamie immediately proves himself a sensitive, considerate, strong, wonderful husband. He doesn’t know everything, but he’s eager to learn and puts Claire’s protection and comfort first. What woman wouldn’t want him? As much as I warn against Mary Sue characters, even I understand the appeal in this. However, this sort of thing in common in other genres. There’s a reason some fantasy books go into intimate detail about weapons, battle, and magic. The readers want to see and experience such things. In any genre that has a heavy romance element, readers tend to want to see a hero they can drool over and imagine about, and that goes beyond the physical.

As a whole, the chapter is fairly lacking in external conflict. It’s a sweet series of scenes. But Gabaldon, like any good writer, understands that this won’t drive readers onward for the long run. Instead, Gabaldon introduces a hint of something far more sinister than what the chapter mostly implies. First she gives us Claire’s nightmare, then she provides the implication of a threat so strong even Jamie has to sleep armed and paranoid on his honeymoon.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next week. Until then, swing back by for further forays into books, the speculative, and life.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2014

What Makes a Book Impossible to Put Down?

Reading time for me is precious because I don’t have a ton of it and I’m a slow reader. So when I select a book, I’m very particular. I don’t have time to spare for stories that don’t interest me nor quickly draw me in. There have been books I really wanted to like, but because they didn’t grab me, I set them aside in favor of novels that did.

Many of these novels are ones that received high praise from other readers. For example, my husband absolutely loves Dune by Frank Herbert. I tried reading it. While actively reading, I found it generally engaging, but as soon as I put it down, I didn’t have any interest in picking it back up. The characters were interesting, the world was interesting, the writing was solid, but there just wasn’t anything that snagged me on a deeper level. Truly, I have no idea why. It should have. I still wish it did.

As another example, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is hugely popular. In fact, every single person I’ve talked to who has read it has gushed about how wonderful it is. Everyone loves it ... except me. I’ve tried three times to read it, but I just can’t force myself into it. When I first heard of The Name of the Wind, it sounded like a book I’d like. The title was intriguing, and I heard the writing was lovely and exquisite. I adore lovely, exquisite writing. But the more I read, the more frustrated I got. There wasn’t anything to snag me emotionally, or if there was, it was too far in to get me over that first hump.

Then there are books that I love enough to read multiple times, books that sweep me into them even though I already know what will happen. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, my absolute favorite book, is one of these. I’ve also happily and repeatedly reread The Shadow Rising, the 4th novel in The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan. As a kid, I reread The Young Jedi Knights series by Kevin J. Anderson, Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, and Shadow of the Fox by Ellen Steiber. Now, I lovingly reread the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Knight and the Rose by Isolde Martyn, Loyalty’s Web by Joyce Dipastena, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and I better stop there before this post turns into a list of books I love.

You’ll notice that some of these are quite popular and some are somewhat less known, like The Shadow of the Fox and Loyalty’s Web. But all of them involved riveting me to the page so I didn’t want to put them down and do anything else. They were books that sucked me in so deep I lost track of the world around me and felt a part of the story. I can even remember times I looked up and realized where I was with a start because I’d complete lost connection with the real world.

So what makes a book so good you can’t put it down?

Clearly, the answer isn’t the same for everyone. No book can enthrall every reader, and some books that receive a poor reception have devoted fans. Unfortunately, this means I don’t have an easy, formulaic answer. No one does, and if they claim to, they’re pulling your leg.

The good news, though, is that there are some trends, and they all come down to one main element: satisfying the motivation behind why a reader reads. Crystal clear, right?

How can knowing what readers look for in their experience with a book help? And how on earth are you supposed to know why someone picks up a book? Why do readers read?

Fortunately, we can categorize some of the main things readers often seek when they pick up a book.

Intellectual Stimulation: Whether its the challenge of putting clues together in a mystery or the technical or scientific intrigue of hard science fiction, some people enjoy making their brains work. They enjoy feeling smart and exercising their wits and intellect. For these readers, fascinating characters aren’t necessarily crucial to their experience, though they undoubtedly help. Romantic subplots might seem tedious or a distraction. Superfluous detail may annoy them. They want the thrill of thought and the challenge of new intellectual possibilities, theories, or puzzles.

The Beauty of Language: There is beauty in language. It takes great skill to bring it out, but when done right, it can cause sighs of pleasure. Those who appreciate the loveliness of words, the dark images, the captivating sounds, the epic emotions evoked often also appreciate poetry. Thus, books that snare readers with their elegant prose often have a heavy sprinkling of poetry to their style. Among many other reasons, this is why I enjoy The Last Unicorn so much. It’s also one of the claims to fame of The Name of the Wind.

Wish Fulfillment: Some people read because they enjoy imaging themselves as the protagonist and getting to have or experience all the protagonist does. This, in my opinion, is the primary draw of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I read Twilight for the express purpose of figuring out why it was so popular. I couldn’t. I struggled for years to piece it together to no avail. At last, I came across a blog post that described it perfectly. (I only wish I remember which post so I could share it here.) Basically, it said that people read Twilight because they want to have what Bella has. They want someone as powerful as a vampire or werewolf loving them (or better yet, both). They want to gain the acceptance Bella eventually does, of being a nobody and becoming significant, gaining immortal beauty, and becoming infinitely capable. Even just being wanted by two powerful men. They want to experience that sort of wish fulfillment. It isn’t my cup of tea, but for some, it’s a big deal.

However, wish fulfillment doesn’t have to involve just obsessive vampire lovers. It can be the acquisition of wealth or power, the opportunity to explore or adventure, the simple concept of being attractive to the opposite sex, falling in love, getting vengeance,  entertaining fantasies they’d never dare admit to having in real life, or any number of other things.

Escapism: Perhaps the most commonly attributed reason for reading, escapism is simply the desire to escape normal life. This isn’t necessarily because a specific reader is unhappy or unsatisfied, it’s simply that they enjoy experiencing something different.

Sympathy and Emotional Connection: These sorts of readers tend to love character stories and books that involve emotion. Comfort can arise from seeing the suffering of a fictional character and then riding along with them as they overcome their sorrows and challenges. Sometimes a reader loves experiencing the relationships and fulfillment of a fictional character. It can be therapeutic. And sometimes, readers just enjoy getting to know a fictional character intimately like a really close friend.

The Quest for Truth: Whether its a story with a moral or the hunt for the meaning of life, ultimately, stories shed light on life. Wanting to make sense of the world and life is a natural human impulse. As such, authors work out their own thoughts and questions through their stories. Readers have the opportunity to explore those potential truths with them. Some of the most powerful stories involve an exploration of truth.

And if all that weren’t complicated enough, readers don’t just read for one reason. Their motivation can involve many desires, and that isn’t even touching on the less common reasons to read.

Keeping in mind why readers read the genre you’re writing can be helpful in honing a story. Romance often caters to wish fulfillment, escapism, and emotional connection. Fantasy calls to people craving escapism. Hard science fiction and mystery are prime targets for the intellectual reader. Literary fiction is full of beautiful language.

But even if your story has interesting ideas, emotional connection, or wish fulfilling promise, it still may fall flat. So there are a few other things to make sure it has to develop that page-turning power.

Conflict: If you can figure out how to include nothing else, make sure your story has conflict. And I don’t just mean an overall conflict between hero and villain. I mean conflict on every single page, in every paragraph, every sentence if possible. The desire to resolve this and the tension it creates will rivet readers.

Compelling, Layered Characters: Even the most interesting plot and the most intrigue concept is improved with interesting characters. And characters become far more engaging when they appear human. Human hope, desire, dream, fear, hurt, get jealous, and every other emotion out there. We’re messy, complicated, and contradictory. While characters shouldn’t be as random as real life, they need to have enough depth, emotion, virtue, and vice to allow readers to identify with and sympathize with them. A good character helps a reader experience a story and all its shades.

Conflicting Interests: Whether it’s the antagonist or protagonist, conflicting interests increase tension and add riveting appeal. When a character has a reason to take an action at the same time they have a reason to avoid that action, it’s fascinating. It puts uncertainty into the story. Seeing a character torn like this causes readers to want to resolve the resultant pain, and the only way to reach that resolution is to keep reading.

Turning Points and a Solid Plot Structure: Plot structure is like the skeleton of a story. If it’s solid, the story is strong. If it’s weak, broken, or has pieces missing, the story struggles to hobble into a reader’s heart. There are far better descriptions of how to create a great plot structure than what I can provide here, but turning points are a key factor. A turning point is when something changes in the story. The hero finds out important information, the villain captures the love interest, a new clue is revealed, or any other significant shift in the story. But ultimately, these turning points build to the climax.

Increasing Stakes: Stakes are what’s at risk in a story. As the story progresses, the stakes should get more desperate and personal. Maybe the hero is only invested in catching the villain because it’s how the hero gets paid, but when the hero’s daughter is captured, suddenly the stakes get much more intense. Keep ratcheting up the stakes, and with them, the tension will rise as well.

A Peek into the Author’s Soul: Whatever a reader’s main motivation for picking up a book, ultimately, a book is a peek into an author’s soul. Humans are naturally predisposed to seek others, to want belonging and acceptance, closeness and security. A story is one way of glimpsing another human being intimately, of connecting, or sharing something personal. It’s part of what gives a story that little extra something like magic. But unless an author opens open and allows their soul and self onto the page, a reader cannot fully experience that peek into another’s being. Whether it’s into another’s mind, heart, imagination, or experiences, to make a connection with readers and thus create a riveting book, an author must open themselves up.

Think about the stories that have made you want to stay up all night reading. What part of yourself felt a connection with them? Whatever the answer, those are also the types of readers your own stories will most likely attract.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 14

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what works in a great story.



Chapter 14: A Marriage Takes Place

Summary: Claire wakes from her drunken stupor to find herself tucked into bed under a warm quilt. But the alcohol still rages in her and she passes out again.

She wakes another time to one of Dougal’s men grunting in disapproval, then passes out again.

Next, she wakes to the innkeeper’s wife coming to tidy her up for her wedding. This time, she has to get out of bed. She reluctantly allows the woman to do her hair and dress her up. But when the woman leaves, she passes out again.

Finally, she wakes to the scent of a bower of flowers and the presence of a small crowd in her room. The time has finally, dreadfully come for her wedding to Jamie. They dress her in a borrowed silk gown and slippers and escort her down. Dougal keeps a hold on her to prevent her fleeing for freedom, but Jamie seems conspicuously absent.

At last, Jamie bursts in, dressed in full formal Scottish regalia, complete with his own family’s tartan and kilt. Dougal berates him for wearing it, for it will instantly identify Jamie as the man with a price on his head. Jamie then pulls out a pearl necklace and gives it to Claire, a necklace that once belonged to his mother.

Writer Comments: This scene is full of comedy. Let’s look at a few examples.

First, Claire passing out time after time. It’s so ridiculous that it becomes humorous. Gabaldon has each incident occur quickly on the page, one right after the other, and this keeps the thread of the joke going so it can be appreciated. All the times Claire falls back into her stupor occur in just over a page.

Gabaldon also utilizes the technique of placing two incongruent images together to create comedy. Claire is adorned for her wedding, yet she treats it as though she’s going to her death.

“We who are about to die,” I said to my reflection, sketching a salute in the glass. I collapsed on the bed, placed a wet cloth over my face, and went back to sleep. -- page 189

Even Claire treats the occasion with theatrical solemnity, going so far as to place a figurative shroud over her own face. This merely adds to the incongruity, a shroud rather than a veil, and stretches the humor to greater heights.

Lastly, Jamie, who always has a subtle appreciation for humor and mischief, caps off the whole scene with his interaction with Dougal and Claire. When Dougal finally manages words of horror at his nephew’s appearance, specifically the tartan he’s wearing, he says:

“Are ye mad, man,” he said at last. “What if someone’s to see ye!” 
Jamie cocked a sardonic eyebrow at the older man. “Why, uncle,” he said. “Insults? And on my wedding day too. You wouldna have me shame my wife, now, would ye? Besides,” he added, with a malicious gleam, “I hardly think it would be legal, did I not marry in my own name. And you do want it legal, now, don’t you?” 
With an apparent effort, Dougal recovered his self-possession. “If ye’re quite finished, Jamie, we’ll get on wi’ it,” he said. 
But Jamie was not quite finished, it seemed. Ignoring Dougal’s fuming, he drew a short string of white beads from his sporran. He stepped forward and fastened the necklace around my neck. Looking down, I could see it was a string of small baroque pearls, those irregularly shaped productions of freshwater mussels, interspersed with tiny pierce-worked gold roundels. Smaller pearls dangled from the gold beads. 
“They’re only Scotch pearls,” he said, apologetically, “but they look bonny on you.” His fingers lingered a moment on my neck. 
“Those were your mother’s pearls!” said Dougal, glowering at the necklace. 
“Aye,” said Jamie calmly, “and now they’re my wife’s. Shall we go?” -- page 191

Seeing others in consternation is a common form of humor, especially when those others deserve it as Dougal does here. Plus, we get the added pleasure of seeing Jamie turn things around on his uncle.

Humor does not have to be blatant or dripping from every word. However, it should flow smoothly from the work and fit seamlessly into the story. Sometimes, all it takes is a small touch to take something into the realm of the comedy.

Summary: On horseback, then on foot, Claire is escorted to her wedding. Dougal and Jamie keep on either side of her, preventing any escape.

However, when she glimpses the chapel, she nearly has a panic attack then and there. The chapel in which she’s to marry Jamie is the exact same where she married Frank a few hundred years in the future.

But there’s no way out of it. They march her in, and all the men save Jamie disarm. The priest is clearly under some small compulsion to perform the ceremony and has apparently been bribed. But the whole wedding goes off without much difficulty, the ceremony fairly similar to the one where she married Frank.

At the end of it, however, to Claire’s shock, Dougal cuts both Jamie and her wrists, presses them together, binds them, then has them recite a vow in Gaelic. They’re released and escorted back out of the chapel, and at the bottom of the hill, Claire faints.

She wakes with her head in Jamie’s lap and reassures him that her swoon had nothing to do with him, but rather the fact that she hasn’t eaten in almost two days and is still suffering from a hangover.

Jamie explains the blood vow to her, thinking it might have contributed to her swoon. He also explains that, for it all to be legal, they still have to consummate the marriage.

Writer Comments: Not quite your typical romantic wedding, but it suits the moment. Jamie is considerate of Claire, which makes it easy to forgive the fact that he’s pushing her to wed. Jamie’s genuine concern for Claire is actually his most endearing trait.

But to the specifics of Gabaldon’s techniques in this scene.

Here, we learn Jamie’s actual name: James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. As a reader, who, if you recall, looked up what Scottish clan used the motto Jamie quoted in a previous chapter, I can happily say “WOOT! I was right about Fraser.” Readers like to feel like they’re smart, so when an author lets us feel that way without pandering us, it adds to the enjoyment of a story. Gabaldon gives a clue to Jamie’s real name chapters before, and here, she provides the payoff. Payoffs are very important in stories. Readers must feel the confusion, suffering, and/or turmoil are worth it.

Additionally, I suspect Gabaldon is setting something else up with the pagan blood vow Jamie and Claire swear. Translated into English, it goes like this:

“Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone.I give ye my Body, that we Two might be One.I give ye my Spirit, ‘til our Life shall be Done.” -- page 195

This is entirely conjecture on my part as a reader. I wonder if the man Frank saw in the first chapter, the Scot in full regalia that seemed like a ghost, was actually Jamie somehow brought forward into the future, or perhaps a true ghost still linked to Claire as her life is not done. I wonder if this vow is what drew Claire to this particular time and place. After all, in the convoluted logic of time travel, Claire was already married to Jamie before they met, and she isn’t married to Frank yet when she marries Jamie in this scene. That’s looking at it from a linear chronological perspective. But time travel, especially in this case, is more cyclical. Where is the true beginning? Is it with Jamie back in the past or in 1945 Scotland? Who was Claire married to first, Frank or Jamie? Is there even a beginning? Has she, in some sense, been married to both men all along, even if she didn’t know it? These sorts of questions and conjectures make a story more interesting. A reader should be able to pleasurably theorize about a story as they read. Doing this increases their investment.

Further, Gabaldon throws another rock at Claire in this scene by having her wed Jamie in the same chapel where she wed Frank. Perhaps it borders on the unlikely, but it does strike an emotional blow to Claire. Besides, it’s the sort of thing that’s so unbelievable it fits. Writers must constantly find ways to make their protagonists’ lives more difficult. Sometimes, those ways don’t have to be big or complex. Sometimes, they can be as simple but emotionally distressing as this.

Now, take a look at the post marriage vow kiss. There truly is an art to writing good kisses. Look at how Gabaldon manages it:

More mumbling from the priest, and Jamie bent to kiss me. It was clear that he intended only a brief and ceremonial touching of lips, but his mouth was soft and warm and I moved instinctively toward him. I was vaguely conscious of noises, Scottish whoops of enthusiasm and encouragement from the spectators, but really noticed nothing beyond the enfolding warm solidness. Sanctuary. -- page 194

Sometimes, kisses are full of passion, tears, joy, or any number of other things. An author must capture that emotion in the description of the kiss and the surrounding details. Claire feels neither passion, nor joy, nor sorrow. Rather, she’s frightened and horrified at her circumstances. But through the whole book, the one person she’s felt comfortable around, the one person who has in fact always been there for her, is Jamie. Here, in their first kiss, she realizes on some level that he is her shelter in the tumultuous direction her life has taken. This realization is captured in how she thinks of the kiss and the details Gabaldon elects to incorporate: softness, warmth, solidness, and sanctuary. Claire instinctively moving into the kiss indicates how desperately she wants and needs these things.

Lastly, I’d like to take a look at this consummation thing. Having researched medieval marriage law in the past, I know that, during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church established a set of criteria to make marriage legal. They’d had a problem with young couples resorting to pagan rituals or men promising marriage to young girls then ditching them. Sometimes, they even had problems with kings ditching their queens because they had become inconvenient. These laws continued past the Middle Ages and included this bit about consummation. So, while Gabaldon is historically accurate in this element, the advantage for writers, especially romance writers, is that it wonderfully complicates the lives of characters. The technical requirements of marriage law have long been a source of inspiration for authors and a point of conflict for hapless fictional characters.

If you look, you can find all sorts of useful facts in history to make characters’ lives oh so wonderfully complicated and difficult. Sometimes those historical details can solve plot problems. We don’t always have to look to our muses for inspiration.

Thank you for joining me for this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Gatekeepers and the Need for Filters in Publishing

Even years after the advent of eBooks and the pioneers of self-publishing, the debate rages on over the purpose of traditional publishers, what a fair deal for authors really is, and the vitality of electronic publishing. If anything, the debate has only gotten more complex.

However, as my son’s school is participating in the Texas Bluebonnet Awards this year and he came home with a long list of reads so he can vote, I’ve had more opportunity to give the publishing debate a little more thought. First, let’s look at awards.

I’ve only voted in any sort of fiction awards once: WorldCon for the Hugos. It was certainly cool, and even though the book I voted for didn’t win, it was fun. Now, my son gets a similar opportunity. There’s something exciting about have a perceivable impact on fiction recognition. No, neither of us got to choose which books were nominated, but having that say, that little vote that might or might not make a difference, is a powerful feeling and one to encourage readers to get more involved. It’s one way that readers can impact the industry beyond their usual mechanism of choosing where to spend their money.

Book awards are a form of gatekeeper. And whatever end of the spectrum you fall under when it comes to publishing, most of us can see the advantage in some sort of filter. With thousands of books pouring into the marketplace, it would be impossible for the average, or even a particularly savvy, consumer to find what they like, much less figure it if it’s a quality read.

Until recently, publishers have filled the gatekeeper or filter role. Agents too. Before self-publishing became an easily accessible reality, agents and editors were the controls to ensure readers weren’t completely drowned when it came to browsing titles. Whether you think this is for good or for ill, the need for a filter of some sort has remained.

Today, though, there are many more possible filters. Awards are of course one, though they’ve been around for a long time too. Customer reviews are another. However, they too can be quickly overwhelming. Retailers are also their own kind of filter. The legal battles Amazon and publishers have fought reveal the potential power book sellers can wield. Even other authors have been suggested as possible future filters for books.

For my part, I am exceptionally thankful that I’m not completely swarmed with titles when I got book shopping. Well, to be honest, I am swamped by the sheer volume of possibilities, but I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if there were no gatekeepers to do some of the work of selecting for me. I’m an independent creature at heart, but the glut of possibilities would overwhelm even the most steadfast rebel. When it comes down to it, we all have our gatekeepers and filters that we rely on to narrow our choices. It may be the recommendations of friends, a certain publisher or author, a blogger we enjoy, or any number of other possibilities.

But gatekeepers and filters serve another purpose as well. In their own way, they open up possibilities.

Yes, that may sound completely contradictory, but consider this Texas Bluebonnet Awards as an example. Every time I take my kids to the children’s section at the library or bookstore, there are so many possibilities that it’s overwhelming. The kids know what they like, which is a pretty narrow range, and go straight for it because, to be honest, how else are they supposed to stay afloat in the sea of possibilities?

But as they’ll participate the the Texas Bluebonnet Award this year, they have a preselected list of titles promising they’ll be interesting. There are only twenty titles, and I can guarantee that not one would have caught their interest had we seen it at the bookstore. After all, seemingly endless choices often lead to a desperate desire to cling to the familiar to avoid the strain of being overwhelmed.

However, my kids are excited about pretty much every one of the titles on the Texas Bluebonnet nominee list. Because the awards have narrowed those choices down, my kids have room to become excited. They have a safe place mentally to venture out in their reading, and I am certain they’ll become better readers as a result.

The need to not be overwhelmed when book shopping is important for sales. For that reason alone, there will always be some sort of gatekeeper or filter, no matter what happens in the future of publishing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 13

Welcome to this week’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we’ll enjoy a great read and break down the story for writing insights.

Due to some issues with my website where I keep the table of contents to my blog book reads, I don’t have accessible easy links this week.



Chapter 13: A Marriage Is Announced

Summary: Claire is shaken by Captain Randall’s attack. More than the physical shock, she can’t help but be haunted by the look in Randall’s eyes and the fact that Randall looks eerily like her husband.

She waits downstairs in the inn while Dougal marches up to yell at Randall. When he comes back down, he whisks Claire away and takes her to a saint’s pool deep in the woods. There, the water is dark and tastes of sulphur, but Claire is so thirsty she drinks it. Then Dougal tells her of how Randall had Jamie beaten.

The first time was for trying to escape, but Randall was occupied with other business and missed it. This displeased him, so he thoroughly investigated the escape and accused Jamie of thievery as well as he had a little food on him when he made his bid for freedom. For William’s doctor insisted Jamie would die if Randall had him beaten a second time so soon, so Randall grudgingly agreed to postpone the punishment for a week. Then he did the deed himself, looking quite pleased, perhaps even enraptured, as he flayed Jamie that bitter cold October morning.

Claire asks why he’s telling her all this, and Dougal says he hopes to give her a character illustration of Jamie and Randall. Then he confesses that he’s orders to take her, as an English subject, to Fort William that Monday for questioning. Claire nearly faints on the spot in horror.

However, Dougal has one possible way out of it. If she’s not an English subject, but a Scot, Randall cannot compel her to come for questioning without convincing evidence. Therefore, he proposes she marry a Scot to escape Randall. Jamie specifically. She refuses flat out, and Dougal suggests Rupert as an alternative, though he’s quite a bit older. Still, Claire refuses.

Then it occurs to her that Dougal now believes she isn’t an English spy, and she asks why. He confesses that she drank the water from the pool without him even asking her too. If someone drinks the water and lies, his gizzard will be burned out.

Writer Comments: When I read this chapter’s title, I had a notion it would result in her and Jamie getting together. However, I wasn’t sure how. This way is certainly interesting.

Normally, the romantic leads hooking up before the conclusion of a story is a bad thing. It tends to rob a tale of tension. However, I don’t suspect this will be much of an issue with Outlander. Gabaldon has set up enough problems that Claire marrying will only complicate to ensure tension stays high. First, Claire is technically already married to Frank Randall, though in this time, it’s centuries before his birth. Second, getting married will only make trying to return to her present that much more complicated. And third, I have a suspicion that Jamie is going to have far greater success getting her pregnant than Frank did. A child, or the potential for one, will pull her in even more agonizing directions.

Summary: Later that day, Claire paces her room, desperately trying to think of another way to escape Randall without marrying. Nothing comes to mind. Then Dougal, Rupert, and Ned Gowan enter with the marriage contract and insist she sign it. Claire demands to speak to Jamie first.

Jamie comes to her bewildered, but already aware of Dougal’s wishes for them to marry. She tries everything she can think of that he might have an objection to, that he’s promised to another, that he likes someone else, and finally that she isn’t a virgin. Jamie answers that he hasn’t a problem with that so long as she doesn’t have a problem that he is one. She gapes in shock, and he quickly leaves.

She goes downstairs and orders whisky. As she drinks, she hears Dougal and Jamie in the other room yelling at each other. Apparently, whatever ease Jamie feigned with her, he has his own objections to the match.

Then someone come up to her, disgusted that she’s drunk. Fuzzy and disconnected, she watches a fly drown in a puddle.

Writer Comments: Oh boy, I’m glad nobody is going into this arrangement happy. Gabaldon is clearly ensuring that as many obstacles as she can place before the marriage will be set up. Claire is clearly against it, and Jamie knows that now. Jamie is apparently against it, and Claire knows that now. Claire’s so upset about it all, she gets wasted, and what message will that send to Jamie? Even though marriage is supposed to be a good thing, Gabaldon is using it to create further conflict, which makes the story more interesting.

Additionally, in this final scene, she uses a metaphor, the fly trying to avoid drowning, to give greater depth to Claire’s plight.

Once the searing effect of swallowing the stuff had passed, it did induce a certain spurious calmness. I felt detached, noticing details of my surroundings with a peculiar intensity: the small stained-glass insert over the bar, casting colored shadows over the ruffianly proprietor and his wares, the curve of the handle on a copper-bottomed dipper that hung next to me, a green-bellied fly struggling on the edges of a sticky puddle on the table. With a certain amount of fellow-feeling, I nudged it out of danger with the edge of my glass. -- page 186

Here, the fly represents Claire, and the puddle represents marriage to Jamie. Gabaldon casts them both as repulsive images. To compare, even in metaphor, marriage to a sticky puddle that can drown flies is far from flattering. To compare a woman, a heroine, as a green-bellied fly struggling against drowning is equally repugnant.

Yet the fly struggles, representing Claire’s desire to avoid the marriage. In the following paragraphs, she hears Jamie arguing with Dougal and silently cheers Jamie on, hoping the result will be an end to the idea of marriage.

But in the end, the metaphor continues to a darker fate.

The fly had found its way back to the puddle, and was floundering in the middle, hopelessly mired. The light from the stained-glass window fell on it, glittering like sparks on the straining green belly. My gaze fixed on the tiny green spot, which seemed to pulsate as the fly twitched and struggled.
“Brother . . . you haven’t a chance,” I said, and the spark went out. -- page 187

The fly’s death represents Claire’s fate sealed in marriage. Without stating it outright, Gabaldon tells her readers that Claire isn’t getting out of marrying Jamie. The metaphor conveys Claire’s emotions without stating them, which is far more powerful. Too, it digs a bit deeper. The stained-glass brings up images of church, where weddings are most commonly performed. Yet the weight of this particular light falls on a fly as it dies, certainly the most opposite image to joyous marriage.

The metaphor is apt, original, and powerful. Its power comes from the fact that it so contrasts the typical feeling of marriage, that it takes associations and twists them (sympathizing with a drowning fly, the beautiful shadows of stained-glass forming the draping of death on the cusp of a wedding), because Gabaldon chooses to utilize a metaphor at a moment full of intense emotion and change, and because she does not overuse metaphors. Like most things, metaphors are best used in moderation and with finesse.

Thank you for joining me for today’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Procrastination and Too Few Hours in the Day

Before NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I posted an article talking about how to get ready for the big event. Among my suggestions included writing up blog posts in advance so they wouldn’t take up precious writing time during November. Guess what I didn’t do in preparation for NaNoWriMo.

Yep. It’s the evening of November 6th, and here I am just now writing the post for November 7th.

Why didn’t I follow my own advice? Because I got busy and procrastinated. It’s a common affliction among most humans, so I hear.

On a number of occasions in the past few weeks, I thought about writing up my blog posts, but I was always in the middle of something and determined that I’d do it later. The funny thing about later is that, after a while, it catches up with you, and here I am in November with no blog posts written in advance. My only saving grace in this is that I spent most of that time working on edits, so it was at least writing related.

How often have you been in this position? It’s easy to develop a very long to-do list and suddenly realize you’ve missed a thing or seven. It’s easy to let things slip when you’re trying to get other stuff done. It can be particularly difficult for writers to avoid this problem because, for the most part, we make our own goals, hours, and decide how hard we’ll work. It sounds like a nice deal, and in many ways it is, but there are moments when it’s a pain.

For me, running up to November involved a lot of editing to try and knock out a project before I started my NaNoWriMo work. Well, that editing still isn’t done, not because I’ve procrastinated on it, but because it’s taking longer than I’d hoped.

With every day, I mentally calculate how many words I’ll have to write each day of what remains of NaNoWriMo to reach 50,000. Had I started on November 1, it would have been 1,667. Yesterday, it would have been 1,924. Today, it would be 2,000, and the day this article is published, 2,084. By Monday, it’ll be 2,381. It adds up fast.

But whether it’s NaNoWriMo or any other month, procrastinating and running short on time are commonplace for writers.

When you’re new to writing, it’s easy to procrastinate any sort of writing. Excuses become habitual. I can’t think of anything to write right now. I’m tired. I’m busy. I don’t feel like it. I really should vacuum my living room for the fourth time this week. Oh, look, I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages.

Once you develop a routine of sitting down to write no matter how you feel and on a regular basis, the excuses change. Something needs a little extra research that isn’t technically necessary. Oh, but I really should get on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Google+/Current-Time-Suck; it’s promotion after all. I just need to fiddle with this last manuscript one more time, even though I’ve already polished it to a near mirror glow. I can’t think of anything good to write today. Oh, look, here’s that book I’ve been meaning to read again, and I need to vacuum my living room for the fifth time this week. (Some excuses just don’t go away.)

When you’re starting to publish, procrastination takes on more public consequences. My editor needs line edits done by the weekend, so I’ll drop everything to comply and let all my other goals fall to the wayside. While this is completely reasonable, it can really mess with personal goals. Or, more commonly: I need to find yet another promotion opportunity, make another contact, figure out a new giveaway or contest, etc. It’s very easy to let all the things a published writer does get in the way of actually writing.

And none of that deals directly with the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week, and 52 weeks in a year. Oh, and during that time, at some point we have to eat, sleep, and let our loved ones know we acknowledge their existence and appreciate their saintly tolerance of our writer eccentricities.

And all of that is if you’re a normal writer. If you’re prone to procrastination, it gets even worse. If you’re very, very good at scheduling and somehow making it work, all the rest of us envy you.

So, now that we’ve acknowledged this challenge, how in the world do we handle it?

First, recognize that it’s normal and will happen no matter how hard we fight it. (Excuse me while I try to subdue the part of my brain that’s denying this is even a possibility and is screaming in panic that I’m so behind. Okay, I stuffed her in a barrel, so she’s at least muffled.)

Second, do the best you can. Procrastination is going to happen at some point, but do your best to avoid giving in. Stay focused and work hard on steadily moving toward your goals.

Third, prioritize. For example, I decided that finishing edits on one manuscript was more important than diving into NaNoWriMo. For some people, NaNoWriMo would be more important. Prioritizing is a personal and subjective business. The key is to ensure your priorities match the goals you’re aiming for and to recognize that when you boost one thing, something else will suffer. In my case, devoting my time to editing means I now have to take time during November to write blog posts.

Fourth, remind yourself of what’s really important. Yes, it may be important to ensure you post regularly on social media about your book or blog. Yes, it’s certainly important to get the edits done in the timeframe your editor gave you. Yes, it may be important to get that manuscript finished by New Years. But stop and remember why you’re writing. Remember the real people around you. Remember to take a deep breath and live a little. (Hmm, is that voice in the barrel getting louder?) It’s easy to get caught up in avoiding procrastinating or doing something that we think has to be done for our goals--it’s even easy to get caught up in procrastinating--but we should also remember that there’s more to life. Maybe that’s why it’s a good thing that Thanksgiving falls in the midst of NaNoWriMo. It’s good to remember to be thankful for what we have now.

And lastly, take that deep breath. Take a walk. Soak in a long, hot bath. Cuddle up with your sweetheart. Talk or play with the kids. Sleep. In essence, recharge before you go back into the fray and start making decisions about how to handle it all. Often, you’ll be more productive for the brief respite and grounding.

Now, let’s see how well I take my own advice this time. J

How do you deal with time crunches and procrastination?