Saturday, July 26, 2008

Introducing an Antihero: Big Good, Little Bad

Setting up an antihero can be very tricky business. It's not like setting up a villain or a hero, but more like a combination of both. As for a hero, you need to convince your audience that your protagonist is someone worth following. You need to give the reader a reason to care and a reason to want to protagonist to succeed, even if that protagonist is ultimately antiheroic in nature. So in that respect, at least, you introduce an antihero much the same way that you introduce a hero.

But there are some differences. There must be suggestions of bad behavior we can expect in the future, hints and innuendos and even outright badness -- foreshadowing, if you will. In other words, you have to provide a suggestion that there is badness in the character, but that suggestion must not be strong enough to overpower the character's initial likability.

Think, for example, of the Godfather. It's no accident that the story opens at Connie's wedding. What is the element of Don Corleone's character that allows us to cheer for him? In a nutshell, it's his love of his family. We can all relate to this kind of love, but for him, his love is so profound and deep that it means he can never deny a request made on his daughter's wedding day. His love for his daughter compels him to grant all wishes. It's his way, the Sicilian way, of paying tribute to her.

It's not the only endearing aspect of his character, and it's not the only reason we watch him. We are also captivated by his power, his cool temperament, his cunning, his boldness, his control. But these are not the reasons that we forgive him his crimes. We forgive him because he loves his family.

His love for his family is precisely what drives them to commit his crimes. This is classic antihero behavior. Often, the quality that makes us love them the most is also the quality that make them behave the worst.

Which leads us to Don Draper. There are a lot of things to like about Don Draper: his charm, his intelligence, his Superman-esque good looks, his apparent sexual stamina, his leadership qualities. But what is his greatest strength? What is the quality in his character that makes us love him the most?

It's his ambition. He has a powerful drive to succeed which leads him into some workaholic tendencies. Because he cares so much about his work, we care that much about it, too. His work is cool and hip and fun, but more than that, it's important. He's so committed to it that he doesn't go home for days on end while he is working. In fact, it appears that he forgets he even has a family for days on end, all because his work is so engrossing.

Just as we all love our families, we all want to succeed in the work place. We crave recognition, and so does Don. We fear failure, and so does Don. In him these qualities are exaggerated, just as with Don Corleone the love of family is exaggerated. And just as Don Corleone does bad things for love of his family, Don Draper does bad things for the sake of his ambition.

The first episode concentrates on Don's desire to succeed at the Lucky Strike campaign, with a brief segue into the start of the Mencken's department store campaign. Other things happen in this episode, such as Peggy's first day, and a bachelor party, but the bulk of the episode is spent introducing Don and showing him in action in his working world.

Speaking of Peggy, let's take a look at how she and Don interact. It's Peggy's first day on the job. She will be Don's secretary, and she will sit at the desk right outside his door. She is at her post when Don arrives. She stands up, smiles at him, and Joan, the head secretary, says, "Here's Mr. Draper now. With Mr. Sterling." Peggy says good morning. Don keeps walking into his office without saying a word.

Later that morning, when the female researcher comes to his office, Peggy buzzes her in with the intercom. Don says to show her in, and so Peggy does.

Then Don takes a nap, and Peggy is the one who wakes him up. It's only at this point that he notices her and asks, "Who are you?"

Now, we’re meant to believe that he is so focused on solving the problems in their upcoming presentation that he simply doesn't notice Peggy. His mind is elsewhere. But when you stop and think about it, it doesn't quite add up. I don't know about you, but if I had a new secretary sitting outside my door, I would notice. I wouldn't have to interact with her three times before I realized that she was someone different and new. There are days when I can be a total cotton head, but even in my fluffiest moments, I would notice if a body that I worked with every day had suddenly been replaced. Wouldn't you?

So Don is a bit cold, highly self-obsessed, and out of step with his environment. But this is not the first thing we notice about him. It's not the first message we’re meant to get about his character. The first message is that he is ambitious and driven to succeed, that he is a man on the rise, and for that he is worth watching.

Still not convinced? I bet that right about now you're thinking about how Don defends Peggy when Campbell sexually harasses her. I bet you're thinking, but he's nice to Peggy. Everyone else is horrible to Peggy, but he treats her like a professional.

After Peggy is no longer completely invisible to Don, after she has introduced herself and made an impression on him at last, Pete Campbell comes into the office. When Campbell asks, "Who is this?" Don introduces her as the new girl. He doesn't give her a name. But we know that her name has registered with him, because just a moment later, he calls her Peggy. It's not that he didn't know her name; it's that she's not worth introducing. He repeats this exact same behavior in a later episode when Campbell is in the office with his wife.

And what does Don do as Pete sexually harasses Peggy? Nothing. He doesn't say a word. Pete tells Peggy to start wearing shorter skirts, the beginning of an obvious and sexually charged appraisal of her body. Don doesn't interrupt. He doesn't send Peggy on her way. He just stands there and lets it all unfold.

Yes, it's true, he chastises Pete later for this. But does he tell Pete he shouldn't behave like that because it's demeaning to Peggy? No. He warns Pete that if he treats the office girls like that, he will never have any true power. He is not motivated by kind or protective feelings toward his subordinate employee, even though he knows Pete is a scoundrel. Instead, it all goes back to his ambition. He understands what it takes to get ahead, and he's telling Pete that sexually harassing secretaries will not help you reach that goal. One suspects that if Don could sleep his way to the top, he would do it cheerfully. His moral code is defined by his ambition.

We cheer for Don when he takes on Pete, and we probably don't stop to question it more closely. But during the Mencken's department store meeting, when Rachel Mencken refuses to be either charmed or bullied into doing things Don's way, he explodes. He says he refuses to let a woman talk to him like that. And then later, he begins his seduction of Rachel. This is not a man with an advanced understanding of sexual morality in the workplace. His earlier defense of Peggy has more to do with power and ambition than it does with his attitude toward women in the workplace.

Still not convinced? Later, when Don takes Rachel Mencken out for drinks to charm her and earn her forgiveness (worth noting -- he never actually apologizes to her), she says,

"I know what it's like to feel out of place, to feel disconnected. And there's something about you that tells me you know what that feels like, too."

She vocalizes an important truth about him. We see him acting like a superhero, struggling to get a winning Lucky Strike campaign, being touched by divine inspiration at the last minute, saving the day and probably the company. But Rachel sees something else. She sees what is merely hinted at until this moment. Don -- who doesn't see his own secretary, who doesn't see Sal's homosexuality, who doesn't seem to notice that his mistress isn't exactly happy about his late night booty call -- is not in touch with the world around him. If he were a tragic hero, this would be his fatal flaw. But he is an antihero, and it is evidence of his "anti" nature.

We could go on. We could, for example, analyze the very first scene, in which Don questions a waiter about cigarettes and nearly gets the waiter in trouble. In fact, now that you know the kind of small and subtle and even subtextual details we're looking for, go back and take a look at that first scene with the waiter. Listen very closely to what the people are saying. Are they mischaracterizing what's happening? Look for those tiny contradictions.

Don, like most antiheroes, is a complex character. By the end of season one, we understand that better. We learn about Don's dark secret, and we see the heartbreaking consequences for at least one person who has the power to disrupt Don's carefully crafted life. But in the beginning, in this first episode, the writer's job is to make us care enough about Don to stick with him even when he does despicable things. This is accomplished by showing us all the good things about Don in bright and obvious ways, and by only subtly suggesting the not-so-good things.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Foils in Mad Men

Setting: at the front door.
Time: late night

Our man Don Draper approaches the door somewhat sluggishly. He's had a long day at work, and it shows in the way he moves. All around him, the world is asleep. On the other side of the door, his woman waits for him, but she doesn't know he's coming. He hasn't bothered to warn her.

Which scene in episode one did I just describe? Actually, two. This exact same setup repeats itself in two scenes -- first when Don goes to see his mistress, Midge, and later when he goes home.

This is a useful technique for setting up foils. We start by recognizing the similarities between these two situations, and then the differences start to become apparent. So let's examine some of these differences.

Midge's front door is green and the paint is badly chipped.
Betty's front door is gleaming red and perfectly maintained.

If you haven't already watched the episode, pay special attention to the look on Midge's face when she opens the door to let Don in. It's very subtle, very well acted. Her first reaction when she sees Don is not one of pleasure. She is surprised. Maybe a little dismayed. She does smile, after two heartbeats have passed, and her smile holds a question: why are you here?

She says, "You weren't worried about waking me, were you?"

Contrast that to Betty’s response. She is in bed. She wakes up and sits up and says she called the office and thought he would be staying in the city. Betty is also surprised to see him. As did Midge, Betty also uses words that could be interpreted as a reproach. But the look on her face is placid and accepting. She is the dutiful wife, while Midge is the saucy mistress.

And what does our man Don Draper do next? He talks to the woman. With Midge, he whines about his workday. He can't think of a slogan for his new ad campaign. He claims Pete Campbell comes into his office and sizes the place up to figure oout where to put his own plants when Don gets fired. He predicts that the junior executives will soon be picking the meat off his ribs. Midge responds by attempting to tease him out of his bad mood. He doesn't get much sympathy from her.

And what do he and Betty talk about? Dinner. The kids. Domestic trivialities, the kind that can provide a lot of comfort in life but aren't all that exciting.

The first scene is a late-night booty call, and the second is a homecoming. Midge gives him excitement. Betty gives him stability. Midge gives him sex, and Betty gives him dinner.

What other similarities and differences did you spot when you were watching these scenes? Do you see any significance in any of the details?

Using foils accomplishes a lot of goals. First, contrast heightens the feeling of drama. It keeps the reader alert. It helps them distinguish between different characters and situations, and it lends a little extra sizzle to those differences. We understand that drama is born of conflict, and conflict is born of differences. Foils help us in that quest.

Foils also help the reader get a better handle on situations and characters by providing high contrast. Even when there is no overt conflict, it's easier to follow along when there are marked differences. I'm reminded of Michael Scott from The Office, who, when confronted with two Japanese waitresses, writes with magic marker on the arm of one so that he can tell them apart. When Midge's hair is sloppy and she's dressed in a man's shirt, and Betty's hair is perfectly groomed even when she's in bed, we can see very easily the differences between these two women. Midge can change her wig, and Betty can get out of bed, and we will still be able to tell them apart.

But foils also provide a very subtle place for us to establish theme and subtext. What are the unstated messages that we can take away from these two scenes when we pair them?

One. Don Draper expects his women to admit him into the home, regardless of the time. He doesn't need to give them advance warning, and he approaches them with a sense of entitlement. Although Midge tells him right away that she's up because she's working, he doesn't even seem to think twice about interrupting her. And although Betty was sleeping, she snaps right until wife mode and tries to feed him and watches him tenderly as he ruffles the hair of their sleeping children. We get the impression that no matter where he goes, he expects people to jump to do his bidding, and he gets his way. Regardless of the manor, he is the lord.

Two. Don Draper keeps his wife and family sequestered in the country. Although he approaches them with genuine affection, they are clearly cut off from the rest of his life. He enters their world, but they do not enter his. He treats the different aspects of his life as a child treats his dinner plate: you can't let the mashed potatoes touch the peas, or bad things will happen. Home seems to function both as a refuge and as a place of last resort.

Three. Why, then, is it okay for Don Draper to talk to his mistress about his job? Shouldn't these two aspects also be compartmentalized? In fact, I think there's something else going on here. Two things. First, we're still trying to establish that Don Draper is committed to his work. Second, notice that Midge also talks about her work -- drawing puppies for a greeting card campaign for grandmothers' day. But where she talks, Don talks and talks and talks. He barely even responds to anything she says. His behavior in this scene is self-obsessed. So I think the purpose here is twofold, and it doesn't have anything to do with the compartmentalization of his life.

Four. You tell me. What else can you discern from comparing these two scenes? What are the underlying messages?


Monday, July 21, 2008

A Preconference Day in the Life...

I leave for RWA's national conference in seven days and seven hours. Not that I'm counting or panicking or anything. I know, I know. Everyone feels a crunch right before conference. I thought it might give you a little glimpse into what crunch time looks like on my side of the desk. Here is how my day went today.

8:30 a.m.
Sit down at desk. Refuse to look at task list. Instead, cast one ferocious scowl in its general direction, and briefly mull over the fact that not one item got crossed off yesterday. And yes, yesterday was Sunday. And yes, I worked all day. And all evening.

8:31 a.m.
Open E-mail. Begin answering messages that came in overnight. Normal, routine, everyday stuff. One editor sent me a manuscript she wants to buy. One author wants to know when her cover will be ready. Art director needs some information for two other covers. This one has a question about a release date; that one is doublechecking the time for our author dinner. A few reviews came in -- good ones, but they usually are. Multiple e-mails from boss, and those always get answered first. Most of these are questions about our schedule for the conference. Check status sheets on all upcoming releases. Several are ready for the next phase in the process. Send them off. Ha! Off my desk, and onto someone else's!

9:45 a.m.
Sit back and sigh. E-mail is done. For now. Reach for coffee cup and realize it's not there. Get up and make coffee. Ponder the mathematical improbability of making it this far on a Monday morning before drinking any coffee.

10 a.m.
Renew a solemn vow to clear out entire submissions list before leaving for conference. Evaluate submissions list. At the moment, I have one manuscript from a current author and about another dozen manuscripts to evaluate. One is old enough to be making me feel guilty. Decide I shouldn't feel guilty because I cut my submissions pile in half last week in a massive pre-conference desk-cleaning marathon. Normally I would start with the manuscript the editor wants to acquire, but today is an exception because she is out and doesn't need a fast response. Open the one from the current author. I would really like to get her working on this before I leave.

11 a.m.
Making good headway on the manuscript. Just realized that there is a conference document that I need to proofread this morning. The second page needs an entirely new layout. Save work frequently. This is the same document that disappeared from my hard drive yesterday. That little glitch cost me two hours.

11:45 a.m.
Save document. Print a hard copy, and download it to disk, and e-mail it to self, because paranoia runs rampant today. It's ready for the printer.

11:46 a.m.
Check e-mail. Find revision suggestions for the document. Cry a little. (Okay, not really.) Re-open document and begin making revisions.

High noon.
Finally work up the courage to check the task list. Seven priority items, 24 additional items, 31 total. Open e-mail to deal with a fairly quick priority item -- it's always good to get at least one done before lunch. Inbox has exploded in the last 45 minutes. How does that happen? Do you all get together and decide a time at which you will all e-mail me? A coordinated e-mail blitz? Okay, probably not. Briefly ponder mathematical improbability of everyone I know emailing me in the same 30-minute window. Spend 15 minutes dealing with as many messages as possible, as quickly as possible. Several are FYI messages that don't require a response. Yay.

12:15 p.m.
Lunch. I promised myself a little lunchtime shopping today. I want some new clothes for the conference. Isn't this part of the ritual? Drive to favorite store. Make one lap through favorite department, gathering everything that looks worth trying on. Try it all on. Quickly. Feeling harassed by my task list, and want to get back to work. Buy one pair of pants and one blouse.

1:15 p.m.
At the post office. The clerk mentions that a package came in for me from overseas, and someone needs to sign for it, and it's on my mail carrier's truck. I know what this is. I've been waiting for it. One of my authors is sending me something really special, and I've been stalking the mailman waiting for it. Rush home.

1:30 p.m.
Mailman was already here. Did not leave package. Damn. Briefly contemplate driving neighborhood streets until mail truck is spotted. Decide that might be crossing the line. Instead, call mom and ask her to pick it up later on her way over here.

1:35 p.m.
Email Alicia to discuss Batman and Don Draper and her son's recent silent film project. Important stuff. Problems with an event for conference. Might need a change of venue. Begin investigating alternate venues. Frequent e-mail and phone call with boss. Problem is not so much a problem as a preference, and we debate whether we should just live with it. Update conference schedule spreadsheet. Cross-check my schedule and boss's schedule against master schedule. This is a pain in the ass. More e-mail regarding the same. The e-mail never ends.

3 p.m.
Check clock. Freak out. Reread task list. Nothing is quick and easy. Make tea -- caffeine is clearly necessary. Glower at tea kettle while debating what to do next. Wonder if I have any choice in the matter, the way this day is going.

3:10 p.m.
Have re-evaluated priorities for the rest of the day. Close e-mail browser window. Must disengage from e-mail in order to accomplish actual work. Open manuscript from this morning, and resume actual work.

4 p.m.
Mom arrives with package. Open package and squeal. Dare I tell you what was in it? Hint: not a manuscript. (Okay, it was yarn. Awesome handmade yarn from Finland, a gift-souvenir from a vacationing author. Nathalie Gray, you rock!)

4:30 p.m.
E-mail is piling up. Time is running short. Send many emails. Remember that I promised to help a friend with her pitch before conference, and email her some pointers. Realize I have blog post from author sitting in my inbox and post it to company blog. Briefly note that my email inbox has swelled by half today. Briefly contemplate the mathematical probability of getting entirely caught up on email and staying that way. Realize that I have already defied the math gods twice today, and give up the dream.

5:15 p.m.
Must. Eat. Dinner. Leftover stir-fried vegetables and rice. How exciting. Work out. Shower. Fold laundry. The excitement never ends.

6:45 p.m.
Return to manuscript. Open file, stare out window while contemplating possible solutions to a plot problem. Make notes. Read some more pages in the hope that plot problem will resolve itself. (It won't. They never do. Lucky for me, or I'd be out of a job.)

8:00 p.m.
Dear heaven, how did it get to be this late? Oh. Right. I killed a couple of hours on scheduling and other conference matters. Browse interwebz in lazy slacker fashion. Realize we have the number one book in our category on Fictionwise. Email authors to celebrate. We also have two other titles in the top ten, and three more performing very well over there. Six of our books are kicking butt and taking names. I couldn't be prouder.

8:30 p.m.
Okay, enough slackering. Add four items to task list as a result of pre-slackering email blitz. Cry a little. (Okay, not really.) Scour memory, inbox, task lists, and wall of sticky note reminders next to desk in effort to remember detail I was supposed to remember today. Finally remember. It's a two-minute task related to -- you guessed it -- the conference schedule. Email someone to confirm schedule detail. Spend a few quick minutes rearranging wall of sticky note reminders because some items have been finished today. Feel gloaty for finishing any real work at all.

9:15 p.m.
Email from boss. She says we've spend enough time debating issue with venue. I agree. She has made a decision. Whew! That's a big one off the old task list.

9:20 p.m.
Remember that I wanted to blog about Mad Men and character foils today. Episode notes for Mad Men are not on my desk. Where are they? Um. Hunt for notes leads to general desk-clearing. We take 90% or more of our submissions electronically, so my desk never gets too dreadful. Which makes it all the more puzzling when I can't find something. Give up hunting for notes and return to manuscript, pausing briefly to admire descluttered desk surface.

10:00 p.m.
But I want to blog something, even if not about Mad Men. Throw in the towel on the manuscript. Brain is slush anyway. Contemplate day.

Manuscripts completed: 0
Manuscripts evaluated: one-half
Revision letters written: one-half
Manuscripts pushed to next stage of production: 6
Trips to post office: 2 (one mine, one mom's)
Email inbox count at beginnning of day: 33
Email inbox count at end of day: 45 (Boo! Net gain!)
Number of emails written: 46
Number of phone calls regarding conference: 4
Priority tasks at beginning of day: 7
Priority tasks at end of day: 9 (Boo! Hiss! Net gain!)
Revisions to document for conference: 9,437 (or so it seems)
Revisions to conference schedules: 44,695 (or so it seems)
Blog posts: 3
Number of sticky notes removed from wall: 5
Number of sticky notes added to wall: 2 (Hooray! That's a net loss!)

It is now midnight. I'm set to hit the ground running in the morning, but tomorrow has to be more productive. I think I'm almost done with the conference scheduling and planning, and I really, really want to leave with a clean desk. Or as clean as I can get it, anyway. What's the probability of that?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Poor Salvatore, Or, The Right Kind of Inconsistent Character

Characters are built up detail by detail, word by word, in tiny increments over the course of the manuscript. The old-fashioned method for character establishment was to introduce each character with a long bit of exposition describing who they were. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when captured by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply combined the florid features of her father with...."

We don't use that introduction method very much anymore. Why not? Because it slows down the action. And we don't want our material to be slow because slow material turns off readers these days. We want our books to be fast, zooming, lickety-split. This means that were really left with three methods to convey character to the reader.
  1. What the character says
  2. What the character does
  3. How the other characters react

And because we don't have access to quantities of exposition, the only way to build a consistent character is to carefully control all three of those details. One slip -- just one action that's inconsistent, or one line of dialogue that doesn't flow, or one character reacting in an unexpected way -- and we have effectively undermined our own characters. The only alternative is to rely on exposition to explain away the inconsistency.

So how do you present to character when the character himself wears two faces? This is where Salvatore comes in.

If we were able to use exposition to introduce Salvador's character, the equivalent of voice-over narration, we would hear something like this when he walks into his first scene. "And here is Salvatore, the closeted homosexual and art director. Nobody knows he's gay, and he is terrified that someone might find out."

But of course, that's not what we're going to do. Salvador is living a lie. The personality that he presents to the world is not reflective of his inner truth. So how then does the writer convey the duality of Salvador's existence without undermining Salvador's character?

The exact same way he would build them if Salvador were a consistent character. The only difference is that now, he must be consistent about his inconsistencies.

Let's take a look at some of the methods that the writer uses. Sal only appears in two scenes in episode one, so it's pretty easy to deconstruct. The first scene comes at about the 12 minute mark and takes place in Don's office. Don is playing with a chest exerciser when Sal walks in. Sal looks at him and slips right into a kind of sardonic banter which is his stock in trade.

Sal: Ooh, look at you, Gidget. Trying to fill out that bikini?
Don: Summer's coming.

It's a quick, witty exchange, and it's so natural that you get the impression this type of dialogue forms a good bit of their interaction. They shift from this right into a discussion of an ad campaign, but before we get into that, look at the subtext of those two lines. Even though they're being teasing and playful, there is an underlying message in Sal's line, that is, that he sees the sexuality in what Don is doing. Whenever the office talk turns to things of a sexual nature, Sal tends to take on this extremely sarcastic, bantering demeanor. And it's in full force in the beginning of this scene.

They discuss the ad campaign, and Sal pulls out some sample artwork. It's a pencil drawing of a shirtless man reclining in a hammock. He has a muscular, well-defined torso and a handsome face. Sal runs his hand in an almost caressing fashion over the man's naked torso.

Sal: It's my neighbor. Believe me, he always looks very relaxed.

Sally, buddy, we believe you. We believe that you watch him often enough to know how he always looks. There's something in that gesture that gives you way. You have a crush on your neighbor.

Don looks over the artwork and suggests that Sal should give it some sex appeal, which is highly ironic given Sal's demeanor. Sal slips back into his forced banter.

Sal: A sexy girl? I could do that.
Don: It'll give you a chance to get a real model.
Sal: Oh, I love my work! Speaking of sexy girls, are you going to Pete's bachelor party?
Don: I'm not really big on those things.
Sal: Tell me about it. If a girl's going to shake it in my face, I want to be alone with her so I can do something. Should we drink before the meeting or after? Or both?

The very first time I saw this scene, before I really understood the complexities of Sal's character, that last bit of dialogue really stuck out for me. It's very defensive. Sal has only been on stage for about a minute and a half at this point, and I didn't pick up on the significance of him caressing the artwork. But this line set my Spidey senses tingling. It's forced, it rings false, and although it tries for that overtly sexual machismo that dominates the office, it misses the mark completely. Aggressively sexual men may prefer the "shaking it" to be followed by "doing something," but they will still take one without the other.

Also, it would've been very easy for Sal to adopt a demeanor similar to Don's. Don dismisses the bachelor party very casually. Sal's reply comes across almost defensive in comparison. The result is that Don appears to be very confident in his sexuality, while Sal seems a little bit forced.

Even though all the characters drink their way through the scenes, I found myself understanding that in this moment, Sal actually needed to drink. It wasn't recreational. He is seen in a very handsome Don Draper exercising, he has lingered over the drawing of his half naked neighbor, and he has had to discuss the bachelor party. There is a lot of subterfuge in this scene, and that's exhausting work. So it's no surprise that Sal pours himself a big whiskey, and drops a couple of Alka-Seltzer into it.

The intercom buzzes to announce the arrival of the female researcher.

Sal: oh, great. Now we get to hear from our man in research.

You would think Sal would feel some affinity for this character. They are both fish out of water, she because she's a Ph.D. working in a man's world, and he because he's a gay man working in an environment where men compete both professionally and sexually. But instead of showing any sympathy for her, Sal uses her as a dart board. This could signal a lot of different things, and I've never really been sure how to interpret it. Is he jealous of her because she doesn't have to hide her differences? Does he get so sick of pretending to like women, that he sees her as a safe outlet for venting his resentment? After all, here is one woman that it's safe to dislike. Or is it just that by discriminating against her, he finds another method to prove his masculinity? All the boys in the boys' club resent the female researcher, and Sal just wants to be one of the boys. What do all of you make of this line?

The doctor describes some psychological research into death wishes. She and Don debate and disagree over it. Sal interjects at one point, and it's probably the most telling line of dialogue in the entire first episode for him.

Sal: So we're supposed to believe that people are living one way and secretly thinking the opposite? That's ridiculous.

Of course, it's not ridiculous. It's his life. His delivery of this line is much less forced, much less sardonic than what we've seen from him before. Even though the content contains sarcasm, his demeanor is not as broadly sarcastic as it is when he's discussing sexual matters. He almost seems natural for the first time. If you watch very closely, you will notice that whenever matters of sexuality arise, his demeanor becomes more and more bitingly sarcastic. When he's talking about other things, the sarcasm is still there, but it's not as forced. It's almost as though his normal demeanor is sarcastic and flippant, and when they're talking about sax, he becomes almost a caricature of himself. Wildly exaggerated.

In the second scene featuring Sal, the boys have all gone to a strip club for the bachelor party. Sal sits with his back to the stage. He oozes sophisticated disdain. The others are like kids in a candy shop. They don't seem to know where to look first.

Paul: Let's live here.
Sal: You'll do more than look tonight.
Pete: Do you have a girlfriend, Salvatore?
Sal: Come on. I'm Italian.

It's always telling when a character is asked a yes or no question and answers with something other than a yes or a no. By doing that, of course, he allows Pete to form his own conclusions. Whatever Pete has presupposed, that is what his answer will be. And yes, Sal does invite Pete to play along with a cultural stereotype for Italian men. But he never tells the lie. He never comes right out and says, "Yes, I have a girlfriend."

The coup de grace for this character comes just a moment later. A group of girls arrives at their table. Cosgrove has talked them into joining the boys for round of drinks at the bachelor party. The girls are seated, and there's some banter. Then one of them looks around as if taking in her environment for the first time.

Girl: I love this place. It's hot, loud, and filled with men.
Sal: I know what you mean.

The girl smiles but looks confused, and even a little bit taken aback. She understands exactly what Sal is saying without saying it. She seems to be the only one who keys in on this. All the other people at the table just continue to look around and chatter, without seeming to realize that Sal has nearly accidentally outed himself.

But here's the thing. We've already seen Sal slip once, when he caressed the drawing of his neighbor. Don never reacted to that, and neither did we. We glossed right over it, or at least, I did. But when the girl reacts to his comments about all the men, suddenly we react, too. When Sal is in his normal environment, his little slips go unnoticed. It's only outsiders who have not been conditioned to his character who can see it for what it really is. This insider/outsider dichotomy is very important over the course of the series, and it plays right into the theme of Don as antihero. Don has compartmentalized his life, and each piece seems to react to him in a totally different fashion. Sal has also compartmentalized his life, but he's not quite as successful at the dissemblance.

In this way, Sal is a foil for Don. We'll take a look at the show's use of foils, but for right now, there are a couple of conclusions to be drawn here.

1. If you want to control the way your readers react to something, make one of your characters react to it. When Don glosses over Sal's slip, so do we. When the girl in the strip club catches his innuendo, so do we. By having two different people in two different environments react in two different ways, the author can control the dual nature of the character.

2. Consistency is important. If in one environment a character behaves in a particular way and draws a particular type of reaction, then it must always be that way when he is within that environment. This is why the girl in the strip club can react to Sal's innuendo, but none of the other men sitting at the table can. Those men are all part of the environment that doesn't notice the truth about Sal.

3. Use evasive maneuvers. Sal is an expert question dodger. He also adopts an aggressively heterosexual demeanor -- accent on aggressive -- whenever the topic of sexuality comes up. He's very good at throwing people off the scent.

4. Use nonverbal cues. Sal's demeanor changes when sexual topics come up. He is less relaxed. Louder. His sarcasm is enhanced exponentially. He rolls his eyes and smirks and gestures broadly. These things signal his discomfort.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

I re-watched the first episode of season one of Mad Men (available here), and I've talked to a couple people behind the scenes about it, and my conclusion is that we really ought to talk about this one. So if you haven't already seen this, you might want to go to AMCs website and watch the first episode. It's about 45 minutes long, and it is textbook. The writing is absolutely brilliant.

After you have watched it, I want you to give some thought to two issues. Neither one of these issues has much to do with Don Draper as an antihero, but they have a lot to do with the kind of critical thinking we need to do in our analysis of Don's antiheroic nature.

Topic One: Foils
Take a closer look at this scene in the early part of the episode when Don pays a visit to his mistress. Then take a look at the final scene when Don returns home to his wife. How do these scenes act as foils of each other? No detail is too small to be worthy of attention. These scenes are very carefully orchestrated.

Topic Two: Dissemblance
Poor Salvatore. It must be hell to be a closeted homosexual in this environment. Watch the way his character interacts with the world around him, paying particular attention to the things he does that give him away, and the things he does to hide his true nature.

I'm going to give you a day or two to watch it and think it over, and then we're going to use these ideas as a springboard into an analysis of Don Draper's character. You really only need to see the first episode if you want to play along, but I caution you: if you watch the first one, you just might want to watch the rest.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

RWA Nationals

I keep forgetting to mention this here, but Red Sage is going to be hosting a little coffee reception from 4 until 5 p.m. on Thursday at RWA nationals in San Francisco. Room Pacific F. This is an open reception, and anyone is welcome to attend. Please stop by and say hello if you're going to be at the conference or in San Francisco. In addition to a free cup of joe, we're going to be giving away some other little goodies like signed books and the opportunity for a drinks meeting with yours truly. But mostly, it's just an informal mixer, where everyone will have a chance to meet and greet. And I hope to see some of you there.

Also, on an unrelated note, how many of you are watching the AMC series Mad Men? It's an extraordinary example of an antihero in action, and I thought we might want to pick it apart a little bit here on this blog. This is probably only a useful exercise, though, if people have seen the series. They're currently rerunning season one on on-demand, and I think you can watch episodes on AMC's website. And maybe on iTunes. In any event, if you want to go down this path with me, say so in the comments and we'll do it together. The way they build the character of Don Draper is so fascinating and so meticulously crafted that I think it would be a worthwhile study.


Monday, July 14, 2008

Minor POV marker

I was reading last night, and you know how you can never read normally again once you start writing yourself? You keep noticing lines you'd write differently. Anyway, I came across a line that made me stop and think, "POV shift," and it wasn't (it stayed in the earlier POV), and I wondered why I'd thought viewpoint shifted.

Anyway, here's the line. We're in Mike's POV, and Judy is the other character. So we've been inside Mike's head as he sprawls on the easy chair. Judy's in another part of the house.

When Judy came out of the kitchen, Mike was watching golf on the TV.

I thought that was in Judy's POV. But it's not-- the next line is in Mike's thoughts:
Mike looked up and wondered what was annoying her. Oh, right. Golf. She always complained he was wasting his life, golf at the club, golf video games, golf on the TV.

I think the one line (in red) seems out of his POV because... well. Why? The verb "came out" is part of it, not sure. Would "emerge" be better? I guess "came out" somehow seems like it's happening IN her, not like he's observing her. Also he's watching TV, so for a second, I have to wonder-- how can he see her coming out?

So... lousy lines, I know, but I want to keep things simple. Do you read that as "out of viewpoint"? Or am I just compulsive?

And if you were going to fix it so that it was clearly (but not obtrusively) in his POV, just so there's no "bump" felt by the reader, what would you do?

Would it help to flip the clauses so that "Mike" is first?

While Mike was watching golf on the TV, Judy came out of the kitchen.

Mike was watching golf on the TV when Judy came out of the kitchen.
Given that it's a stupid line... what would you do?

I know it seems like a little problem, if a problem at all. But the passage is in "deep POV" (notice the Oh, right. Golf. in the next paragraph, which is in his voice, so "deep") and I think when you put your passage in deep POV, that doesn't allow much leeway-- EVERYthing happens from inside his head.

Oddly enough, I came across this same issue, and it was also about going through a door, so I wonder if entries and exits from a scene (which are often the point you can change POV effectively) are especially dangerous. The sentence was something like:
Officer Coleman pushed through the door and out of the office.
If you (I mean, the viewpoint) were Lt. Juarez sitting at the desk watching the officer go, you'd write that line differently than if you were Officer Coleman leaving the office and the lieutenant behind.
Officer Coleman left and the office door swung shut behind him.
(We're seeing through Juarez's eyes, and we don't see the officer go into the hallway, rather just the door closing.)
Officer Coleman pushed through the office door and into the empty hallway.
(We're in the officer's body, so we end up in the hallway.)

Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm compulsive. I guess lines like the Judy one indicate an insufficient grounding in the deep POV. If the writer can't write entirely from the POV character's perspective, how is the reader supposed to "become" that character?

(BTW, I do NOT think deep POV is the only or even the best way to go, just that, if you're in it, be IN it.)

So if you were revising/editing that Judy line, what would you do to make it in Mike's POV?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Editor's Motto: We'll Get To It Eventually. Really, We Will.

Dave is a very patient man. We thank him for it.

About a thousand years ago, we posted his pitch for group discussion and analysis. To refresh:

Miracle Maker tells the story of a young woman pursuing her dream of commanding an interstellar warship like her grandfather. Unlike her grandfather, she joins the multi-national United Nations Defense Service rather than her home world's Space Militia, because she wants to escape her family's pity and sorrow over the defects in her genetic enhancements that have drastically shortened her life expectancy. She soon finds that hiding her advantages and weaknesses from the suspicious 'Normals' is harder than she ever anticipated, especially when she's assigned as a junior officer to a ship that encounters action far more frequently than its peers. The pressure to abandon her dream rises as she first falls in love with an officer in her chain of command and then accidentally kills a fellow crew member during a boarding action. Feeling guilty and longing for an ordinary life, she's on the verge of resigning her commission when circumstances force her to take command to save her ship and the lives of her crew and herself. When she succeeds despite very difficult odds, Defense Service Fleet Operations gives her a choice: Resign to be with the man she loves, or realize her dream of command in the face of a grueling war.

Miracle Maker is a 125,000 word science fiction novel intended to appeal to fans of the works of Elizabeth Moon, David Weber, Catherine Asaro, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

Let me start by acknowledging that the comments to this post were very insightful. This pitch is heavy on premise, which means that there is less focus on the plot, which means, as several of you pointed out, that the overall impression is of a thin plot. This is easy to fix. Just toss in a couple of events that highlight the large-scale structure of the plot. This is a particularly important fix because at 125,000 words, you need to give the impression of a plot strong enough to carry that length.

Most people, including me, found the idea of the genetic enhancements gone wrong very interesting. A couple of people pointed to a feeling of dryness or wordiness in the pitch. This is also easy to fix. Cut extra words, and refocus on the conflict. We get a hint of the conflict, but we could use a little more detail. Conflict is always going to be more interesting than setting, premise, back story, or other similar details.

Let's take a closer look.

Miracle Maker

I love this title for a science fiction story. It makes me think right away that we're going to be playing with notions of morality and ethics in the context of the futuristic world.

tells the story

This is one of those wheelspinning phrases that we run into and pitches and query letters from time to time. Sometimes I get the feeling that the author almost has to alert us, "Okay! Get ready! Here comes the story!" This might be a personal preference, or one of those unique editorial tics, but I would really rather have you just tell me the story without announcing that you're going to tell me the story. And because we're looking at ways to tighten up this pitch, I thought I'd point this out.

of a young woman pursuing her dream of commanding

Good. Right away, we start with the character and a goal.

an interstellar warship like her grandfather.

Things like this leap off the page at me. Does everyone else see it, too? "Like" is a preposition. I understand from the phrase which follows that the author is trying to play with parallelism, but this one just doesn't work for me. Unless her grandfather really is like a warship. Is he? This is sci-fi, after all. Maybe our protagonist is half human, half transport vehicle.

Unlike her grandfather, she joins the multi-national United Nations Defense Service

I think you can cut multinational because we all understand the idea of the United Nations is being multinational. So that's a bit redundant.

rather than her home world's Space Militia, because she wants to escape

This is good. It gives us more insight into her motivation. But really, if you want to tighten up the opening of this pitch, you can just say, "In Miracle Maker, a young woman pursues her dream of commanding an interstellar spaceship, which will also help her escape..."

her family's pity and sorrow

Do you need both pity and sorrow? I recognize that these are two different emotions, but I'm wondering if you need both of them here.

over the defects in her genetic enhancements that have drastically shortened her life expectancy.

This is where it gets really interesting. Genetic enhancements, which should improve life, in her case have substantially harmed her. Also, I like the way this sentence builds in a ticking clock. Whatever it is that she wants to complete in this life, she has to do it quickly, because she has less time than everybody else. We are all engaged in this race, of course, but in her case, the race against death takes on greater immediacy.

She soon finds that hiding her advantages and weaknesses from the suspicious 'Normals' is harder than she ever anticipated, especially when she's assigned as a junior officer to a ship that encounters action far more frequently than its peers.

This whole sentence is vague. We don't know what her advantages are. We don't know what her weaknesses are. I like the hint of conflict between her kind of people and the "normals." But I'd like to know something more about how it manifests. The adverbial clause after the comma would be the ideal place to give us something specific. Give us the details of a particular instance in which either her advantages or her weaknesses create conflict between her and the normals. We already know that she's on a warship, so we don't need further details of her assignment. Our interest has been captivated by the genetic engineering, and I'd like to see that developed a little bit here.

The pressure to abandon her dream rises as she first falls in love with an officer in her chain of command

This reads like a bit of a non sequitur. How does falling in love with an officer result in a need to abandon her dream? If anything, it might provide greater motivation for her to succeed within her job, so that she could stay close to him.

and then accidentally kills a fellow crew member during a boarding action.

This is concrete. It's an actual plot event. We need to see more plot events like this.

Feeling guilty and longing for an ordinary life, she's on the verge of resigning her commission

This seems to restate everything that has come before. You can consider cutting all of this, or cut what came before.

when circumstances force her to take command to save her ship and the lives of her crew and herself.

This is good because it gives us a glimpse of her heroic nature. We want to cheer for her. We want her to get command of the ship, because that is her dream. I'm a little bit concerned about the circumstances. Of course, without knowing more about the plot, it could very well be that these circumstances are an opportunity for her to prove her merit, and lead directly to the conclusion we all want, which is her achieving her goal. This circumstantial ship command isn't necessarily the endpoint. It might just be another means to the end, another step on the path. That impression is bolstered by what follows.

When she succeeds despite very difficult odds, Defense Service Fleet Operations gives her a choice: Resign to be with the man she loves, or realize her dream of command in the face of a grueling war.

I'm a little bit concerned about this choice, because it seems to me that success ought to be rewarded. Also, I'm still not clear on why her love is a problem for anyone in this setting. That probably needs to be explained because it seems to go right to the core of the conflict. Also, who is this guy that she loves? We know he's an officer, but we don't know anything more about him than that. Is he her superior officer on the same ship? If so, how is it that she ends up with command of the ship when he is there? Shouldn't he be the one in charge if he is the ranking officer?

In any event, I think that by focusing on more specific details, more specific plot events, you'll end up with a pitch that feels a lot more dramatic.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Example of why we're right, and participles very often lead to problems....

Taking the groceries from her, he put the lettuce away in the fridge, pouring a glass of juice as she went back out into the hall, bringing back the case of beer.

Participles are supposed to show simultaneous or near simultaneous action, and as such, they are NOT appropriate for a sequence of action. He cannot possibly simultaneously take the groceries from her, put the lettuce away, pour himself juice... not even if he has four hands (need the groceries in hand before he can put the lettuce away). And she cannot simultaneously give him the groceries, go back into the hall, and bring back the case of beer.

If the writer had not given into the temptation to use participles, he would have had to actually describe the sequence of events, and perhaps even use time terms like "first" and "then". Just that would have forced more understanding of which actions are truly simultaneous and which are causal or sequential. He might even -- shockaroo-- have done this in TWO sentences. Heck, one of those sentences might have been a declarative sentence starting with the subject (he).

Let's try it.

He took the groceries from her and put the lettuce away in the fridge. While he poured a glass of juice, she went back out into the hall and returned with the case of beer.

Now why do so many good writers avoid the absolute building block of English syntax, the declarative SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence? Certainly ALL sentences shouldn't be SVO, but many should be. Never go out of your way to avoid SVO. If you have three like that in a row, sure, look for alternative openings, but try to do that without a participial phrase. Prepositional phrases and dependent clauses are much more graceful and will seldom leave me wheezing with that mingle of laughter and gagging.


A Potential Definition of Antihero

Alicia asks:

What makes a hero anyway? What makes an anti-hero? What do you see as the connection between the two?

If I were an English literature professor, I would define an antihero as a protagonist with unheroic character flaws. That's how my English literature professors defined antihero. They usually elaborated on that definition by discussing the lack of heroic qualities, or by discussing the way that the antihero's flaws impacted the plot. What they never did was explain antihero in a way that made sense to a writer. Because, if you're anything like me, this is how your classroom experience would go:

Professor: an antihero is a protagonist with flaws.
Me (silently): But all characters have flaws. That's how we make them three-dimensional.

Now, of course, the English professor is well aware that flaws are built into character. And when he's referring to flaws in his definition, he means unheroic flaws as opposed to heroic flaws -- the flaws in a tragic hero’s character that create tragedy. Othello was obsessively jealous, and he ended up murdering Desdemona. That jealousy leads to an act of tragedy, and so that jealousy is a tragic flaw in a hero, or what we might refer to as a heroic flaw.

This is all rather tenuous in my head, and certainly nobody ever taught me this, but I think antiheroic flaws are more related to character motivation than to plot. In other words, we teach our reader to forgive an antiheroic act by explaining why the antiheroic flaw exists in the first place. It all starts with a bad act, though.

Let's look at an example. Let's pretend there are two sisters, Sally and Carla, who live down the street from you. Sally has been engaged to the same man for many years. Then we come to find out that Carla eloped with this man. What do the neighbors say?

The consensus opinion will most likely be that Carla did a bad thing. Sympathy will run high for the jilted sister, Sally. People will almost certainly think less of the man himself.

Now let's add something else into the case of the two sisters down the street from you. Let's say that the eloping sister, Carla, doesn't actually love this man, but married him for his money. And Sally, poor Sally, who has been so patiently waiting for their wedding date, is heartbroken and is almost certain never to love again.

At this point, how many of you are cheering for Carla? If you've recognized the example, maybe you are cheering for her. And that's because you understand the character's motivation.

The example comes from Gone with the Wind. About halfway through the book, Scarlett O'Hara marries Frank Kennedy, her sister Sue Ellen's fiancé. By this point, we're already accustomed to Scarlett behaving in a selfish fashion. She's done a whole load of things that are bad according to the morals of her day. She married Charles Hamilton out of spite, she wore the wrong dress to the barbecue, she left off her widow's weeds far too early. She pretends to feel things that she doesn't feel just so that people won't think badly of her, she hides her constant selfishness, and she manipulates the people around her almost endlessly.

And then what happens? She discovers that her sister's fiancé has some money, and so she marries him.

This is the behavior of a villain. Not a hero.

And yet, for anyone who has read the book Gone with the Wind, we forgive Scarlett for this villainous act. And we forgive her because we understand her motivation. Scarlett has already rationalized this action for us. She has already taught us the value of Tara, and we already understand just how desperate she is to preserve this family farm. Before she marries Frank Kennedy, she has already dressed in the living room curtains, visited Rhett Butler in jail, and prostituted herself to him -- or attempted to prostitute herself to him. She has already sacrificed her dignity. She has already seen Belle Watling, the town Madame, and expressed a wish that she could socialize with Belle Watling and wrangle a loan from her, scandalizing Mammy. (Through most of the book, Mammy functions something like an external conscience.).

In any event, because we readers feel the sting of Scarlett's disappointment when Rhett Butler won't give her the money to save Tara, and because we already know how strong her motivation is to preserve Tara, we forgive her for stealing her sister's fiancé. We understand her motivation. We also understand the built-in punishment: that she'll be married to a man she despises, and that her relationship with her sister will never be the same. And we accept her rationalization: that it's all worth it if it saves Tara.

So let's return to our original question. What is the connection between a hero and an antihero? In order to answer that question, we have to draw the villain in, too. Let's try this out as a working definition, and see if you can all poke holes in it:

An antihero is a character in the role of the protagonist whose actions are villainous but whose motivation makes it tolerable to the reader.

So what do you think? Have I strayed too far afield?


Friday, July 11, 2008

Dunnett heroes

Anyone here read Dorothy Dunnett? (Everyone should!)

If you do, see what you think of this:

Lymond = Hero.
Nicholas = Anti-hero.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

More antiheroes

Okay, much discussion here about anti-heroes. I wrote it all up, and before I saved it (stupid me— I really do know better), the power went out in a storm, and there went all my brilliant thoughts. So you're going to get my UNbrilliant but at least saved thoughts.

First, Andy told me that I got it wrong. (He's been saying that most of his life.) Here's how he parses Michael Corleone:

Godfather I: Anti-hero.
Godfather II (this is interesting): Villain/antagonist.
Godfather III: Tragic hero. (I pointed out that GIII has definite allusions to King Lear, btw, particularly in the daughter-death scene, but also the king giving up his kingdom.)

I thought about that Godfather II idea, and thought, yes— because young Vito, the Robert de Niro character in the 20s, is the hero. Why? He's doing heroic things (in his way): protecting his family, strengthening his community, eliminating a bully, establishing a code of honor.
Now Michael, half a century later, undoes all that. He puts his family in danger, kills his own brother, alienates his foster brother/best friend, weakens his community by starting a mob war, becomes a bully (and allies with dictators), and violates most of the elaborate code Vito and his generation created.
So if Vito is the hero, and his goals are paramount, then Michael who ruins those goals becomes the antagonist. (Back to this later— can the villain be the protagonist? Cf. Macbeth.)

He also said he didn't think Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven was an anti-hero because he did what he did for his family. He said motivation determines whether you're a hero or an anti-hero. (I somewhat disagree. Later.) Outlaw Josey Wales is a more "anti" Eastwood hero, he says.

He brought up King's Dark Tower series (just so you'd know he does know how to read ), and said if you calibrate by book, Roland is definitely an anti-hero in The Gunslinger, but gradually becomes more heroic and is a full-fledged hero by The Wolves of Calla.

Second, my husband remembered that Benjamin in The Graduate (Dustin Hoffman, that is) was called an "anti-hero" when that film came out. What do you all think? The reasoning then was that he was NOT a hero— not strong or brave or powerful. Things happen to him, and the major praxis of the plot is his growing self-awareness and wisdom. Well, as that spawned a whole genre of similar films about nebbishy but intelligent young men encountering adulthood, I gave that some thought. I think those young men (like Zach Braff in Garden State— a real update of The Graduate) are not ANTI-heroes, but non-heroes. That is, they don't have the usually heroic qualities of courage, ambition, potency. But they are protagonists, and we're supposed to identify with them. (Not me… the angst of post-adolescent young men has about as much interest for me as the dietary habits of fruit flies.)

So… some questions, anyway, that arise from these discussions:

1) Does heroism/anti-heroism depend on the motivation? That is, is the hero the one who does the right thing (by whatever standards) for the right reason, and the anti-hero the one who does the right thing for the wrong reason? (That is, he saves the old lady because he wants a reward.)
2) Or— this is my thought— that the difference has to do with the end, not the beginning. That is, if the character is redeemed in the end, he's a dark and dangerous hero. But if he's not redeemed, he's an anti-hero. So Dirty Harry is an anti-hero, but Paul Newman in The Verdict is redeemed, so he's more the hero. What do you think? The one who triumphs but is not morally redeemed= anti-hero? Theresa mentioned Scarlett O'Hara— she ends up rich, but not redeemed — she's still thinking at the end that she can block out the past and just look ahead. Or think of the "Seven Samurai" type stories where an outlaw helps a town out, but leaves in the end because he can't conform to community standards. Anti-hero? You know, say the John Wayne character maybe in Liberty Valance— he never really gives into the redemption?
3) Does the anti-hero have to triumph? Can there be a tragic anti-hero, who fails or is defeated?
4) I keep thinking that the relationship to the plot is important— the anti-hero is EFFECTIVE. This is why the notion of Benjamin Graduate and all his ineffectual descendants as anti-heroes annoys me. They are reactors, not actors. Things happen to them… they seldom make things happen. The major change is just that they learn… they don't really have much effect on the world. Hero, anti-hero, seems to me, they have to be the "proto-agonist"… they have to act, and have an effect on their world.
5) Comic anti-heroes? Paul Newman? Butch Cassidy and Cool Hand Luke?
6) What's the difference between an anti-hero and a villain?
7) The Macbeth issue… what is Macbeth? Definitely a protagonist. Is he a villain because he does evil, or a tragic hero because he is brought low by his own attributes, or an anti-hero because he has heroic attributes— courage, ambition, power— but unheroic motivation?
8) Tragic anti-hero?
9) Women anti-heroes? Scarlett, yes, plenty of heroic qualities there, but also huge negatives.
10) What makes a hero anyway? What makes an anti-hero? What do you see as the connection between the two?

How about some examples of heroes vs. anti-heroes? Can you think of female anti-heroes beyond Scarlett?

I think Buffy wished she could be an anti-hero, but she was too tied to the need for moral behavior. Are we actually open to that gradation in women? (Scarlett really is special!)

Let's look at Shakespeare characters, because we'll know them. Hamlet, the precursor to all those nebbish guys? Lear. Othello. I think Macbeth is a particularly interesting example.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Theresa asked....

Question two.
If print erotic romance books had less embarrassing covers, what effect would that have on the e-book market for erotic romances? In other words, people say they like to buy these stories in digital format because they don't have to worry about being embarrassed by carrying the book around in a bookstore. If we eliminate that embarrassment, what effect does it have on e-books?

My $.02.
Web readers are early adopters-- I don't mean just people who use the Web, but those of us who are just as comfortable reading online as in print. They're going to tend to be more open to change and experimentation, probably more socially liberal. Erotica's greater popularity online is not always a matter of readers being embarrassed to be caught reading erotica, I think, rather just a recognition of the ease and variety of erotica online.

I, for example, don't read a print newspaper anymore. Still subscribe for the dh, but he's the only one who reads it. Me, I get my news brand spanking up to date on the Web. I read the local paper on its website. When I want to read a classic novel, I don't buy it at Borders or take it from the library anymore. I get it from the Gutenberg Project and read it right there on screen.

Many of us who have been online-- eek... joined my first Usenet group, I think, in 1989-- for almost twenty years would RATHER read online. I still read print books and probably always will-- nothing beats a paperback for inexpensive and portable entertainment-- but I'd say at least 60% of all my reading, and maybe 30% of my fiction reading, is done online. And that's by choice. I'm too old to spend my time worrying what someone else thinks of my reading material (though I do think it's no one's business, including President Bush's intrusive agencies)... but I also want it available NOW. This moment. Instant gratification. And I like the niche aspect allowed by the Web. I can find what I want to find with a couple google strikes.

I think erotica is actually akin to fanfiction. That is, I remember print fanfiction (mostly Trek) was circulated by hand at sf cons decades ago. It existed in a sort of underground designed to avoid the copyright police (there aren't any, but Paramount has been known to make litigation noises now and again). But the Web was practically invented for fanfiction. The Web has made this underground fiction easily accessible and yet as anonymous as the creator wants and the reader wants. It's also searchable. So if I want to read, say, Spike-Starbuck fiction (that is, a crossover between two TV shows, and fairly exotic, I assume), I just google that, and I find it. It's not illegal, but it's a bit secret and that makes it more fun. The best writers are minor stars in that secret world, identified mostly by pseudonyms but fairly well-known. Just as in erotica! (And fanfic authors are okay— have to be— with having few readers, and legally bound not to make any money… unlike commercial erotica writers, at least!)

But that's why I'd say that changing the print covers wouldn't have much effect. It's a new media world— private but interactive. Those who read erotica on the Web, I think, choose that not as a second choice to print, but rather as the first choice. Most wouldn't rather be in a bookstore choosing among the 12 erotica novels on the shelves this month. They'd really rather be cruising the Web, googling, looking for exactly what they want right that moment, effortlessly buying every story by a writer they've just discovered, following links to other similar stories, reading a sample here and there and maybe deciding not to read this one (because it BEGINS WITH A FLASHBACK! Not to mention it has a dangling participle on page 2! Eliminate! Eliminate! as the Daleks would say) and removing it from the shopping cart.

We should exploit the advantages of Web reading. There are many!

Just my $.02, and worth exactly what you paid for it. 


Oooh... Shiny!

I'm so easily distracted. Last night, as I was reading through the blog posts and comments for the last two weeks, almost everything I read made me go, "Ooh, I want to write about that!" You people make my magpie gene go into overdrive. :)

There are two topics that have come up in the threads, though, that I would like to move to the front page. I'd love to know what all the rest of you think about this. You guys always give me a lot to ponder.

Question one.
What is the difference between an antihero and a dark and dangerous hero? As a reader, do you distinguish between these two character types?

Question two.
If print erotic romance books had less embarrassing covers, what effect would that have on the e-book market for erotic romances? In other words, people say they like to buy these stories in digital format because they don't have to worry about being embarrassed by carrying the book around in a bookstore. If we eliminate that embarrassment, what effect does it have on e-books?


Tuesday, July 8, 2008


(Alicia, we ought to do some posts on antiheroes. I love me some bad boys.)

Okay, Theresa, you're on. My first question is, how about some examples of anti-heroes?

What do you say about Michael Corleone in Godfather I and II?

Andy would say he's the hero of I and the anti-hero of II. (And he alone in the world loves III, and he'd probably say he's the hero again of that.)

(All, Andy is my film student son, and Theresa has known him all his little life, since she was a mere toddler herself. )

She's Baaa-aaack!

I feel like I've been absent for so long that I don't even remember what we were talking about. Sorry to disappear like that. My hiatus was unintentional. Let's just say that these four things definitely do not go together: national holiday, new software, end of royalty period, and death in the family.

I have to go back and read everything that Alicia posted in the last couple weeks, and of course I want to read all of your comments. And at some point, I'm going to have to figure out what exactly we were talking about before my world turned to crap. Reminders are welcome.

In the meantime, I thought I might share some conclusions I've gleaned from submissions, several very long meetings, and sales figures over the last couple of weeks. In no particular order...

1. I've had to deal with three manuscripts in the last two weeks which did not have a clear protagonist. One was an ensemble piece, and so the lack of a protagonist is a little more forgivable. Sometimes there just aren't clear protagonists in an ensemble piece. However, just because there are a lot of characters in the story, that doesn't make it an ensemble piece. A good rule of thumb for most stories: have a protagonist, and don't make the reader try to guess who the protagonist is.

2. Calling the villain an antihero doesn't make him heroic. An antihero is a very specific type of character, one who lives a bit outside the normal parameters for heroic behavior but still functions like a protagonist. A villain is also very specific type of character, and usually is the antagonist.

Also, if you want your hero to do bad things, you have to motivate it properly. You can't just say that he's an antihero and expect that to explain it. Don't get me wrong. I love antiheroes. This is not a complaint about the existence of antiheroes. What I'm really trying to say is, don't muddle the hero and the antihero character types. (Alicia, we ought to do some posts on antiheroes. I love me some bad boys.)

3. Passive behavior from either the hero or the heroine will almost always get you dinged. I'm sure it's possible to write a compelling story in which nothing happens, or in which things happen but they get no response, or in which things happen but they change nothing. I'm sure it's possible to write a story about a character who sits in her room and does nothing, changes not at all, and never seems to care one way or the other what happens in her life. But this is not the stuff of commercial fiction, and it's going to be a tough sell with me.

4. Editors love a writer who delivers what she promises. It's wonderful to be able to trust an author, and I've had a string of people recently prove their merit and trustworthiness to me. Those of you writing for my house, just know that I pay attention to good behavior, and I remember. :)

5. On the flipside, to those of you in any house who are contemplating a bout of difficult behavior, let me urge you to reconsider. I'm not saying this because anyone has been difficult in the last couple of weeks. In fact, as far as I know, we're a pretty happy bunch these days. I'm just saying it because I have at long last concluded that part of my job is to persuade people to avoid committing career suicide. So, ahem, please don't jump, put the gun down, step away from the pill bottle, and all that jazz. *crosses item off today's task list*

6. It's hard to be able to predict the direction the erotic romance market is taking, though I am happy to report that our sales are up a bit across the board. That's always a good thing. I would say that, in general, books with very strong male heroes do well. Bad boys, Alphas, Navy SEALs, adventurers, mavericks -- strong men behaving in strong ways. Readers seem to respond to this character type.

They also like sex. Go figure. For all the complaining that people do about explicit covers, graphic sex scenes, and the secret porny longings of romance readers, the truth is that sex sells. Like it or loathe it, I don't think it will be going away any time soon. For many female readers, of course, sex still works best when it's within the context of a story. But within that story, readers seem to respond more strongly to sex scenes that are even evocative, imaginative, fantasy-driven, and above all, smoking hot. Hot enough to melt the screen on your e-reader. Really. (Side question: why is it that the ultra-kinky books do so much better in digital than in print? Anyone have a theory on that?)

One other predictor of success seems to be how much self-marketing an author does, though it's not a perfect predictor. I think really what it comes down to is a combination of active self-marketing and publisher support. I think you need both. What I wish I understood better, and what I probably never will understand, is why some authors can get out there and do everything right -- write a wonderful book, promote the hell out of it, work well with her publishers, create a beautiful website, interact with her readers, all that great stuff--and still never seem to break through. It's an old saying, but it's true: success in publishing is a matter of being prepared when lightning strikes. I see quite a lot of authors who are prepared, who were doing the work day after day and doing it very well. And I keep waiting for that lightning to hit them.

Of course, the flip side of this is that if you don't do the work, lightning can't ever strike you. Keep that in mind the next time you're feeling a bit down. Careers in publishing are a tricky business. Keep your motivation high by focusing on the work that you're doing rather than on the results it's producing. You cannot control the lightning. None of us can. But you can control the process, and to some extent, the product.

I could probably do full blog posts, or maybe even series of posts, on each one of these points. These are big topics. But for now, I thought I would share some general observations that have come up in the last couple weeks. It's good to be back.


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sentence element order -- edit instinct analyzed

Sometimes we edit on instinct, just knowing that a sentence would be better with a different order. Here's an example (modified from a real sentence):

She didn’t look healthy now, though
Tasha was normally a fitness nut.

Without much thought, I flipped the order there, and then went back and considered why. Here's my edited version:
Though Tasha was normally a fitness nut, she didn’t look healthy now.

So why did I do that? When I tell you, you'll probably tell me to go back just to doing it by instinct, because puzzling it out takes too long. :)

First, while I think the majority of sentences should be (or maybe that's too strong... maybe "are allowed to be?" "can be?") in the declarative order-- Subject, verb, object-- that sets up a need for the occasional non-simple sentence, just for variety. So whenever a sentence can start with an element other than the subject and verb, I like to try that, just for balance.
Second, when there's a pronoun replacing a noun, especially a name, I like to see the antecedent (the noun) first. "Ante-" means "before," and of course if there's a "replacement," that would suggest that the replacement comes "after." So name first, pronoun second. That can be done either by flipping the clauses, or by just flipping the subjects:

Tasha didn’t look healthy now, though
she was normally a fitness nut.
Which option I choose depends on all the other factors that go into sentence order, but it's something to consider.

Third, logic would suggest (not require) that in a sentence like this, where the two elements are the exception and the rule, the rule would go before the exception. You know:
Three strikes means you're out (rule), except when (there are at least three exceptions to this rule, so I won't list them).
Rule, then exception. You don't have to do it that way, but I'd say if you don't do it the logical way, you should be able to articulate a good reason, or don't bother arguing the point. :)

Fourth, the main clause, that is, the independent one, usually (but not always) goes last, because the most important thought is usually (not always) put in the main clause, and the most important thought usually (but not always :) goes last.
What if you think both thoughts are equally important? Well, don't put one in a subordinate (dependent) clause. Almost all subordinating conjunctions (though, since, because) have a corresponding coordinate conjunction (and, or, so, but, then). So try that, transforming the sentence from a complex one (dependent clause + independent clause) to a compound one (independent clause + independent clause), and ensuring that the two clause-thoughts are read with equal weight:
Tasha was normally a fitness nut, but she didn’t look healthy now.

Fifth, and I did warn you, didn't I, that instinct was quicker? As with "rule first, exception second," the logic of our earthly insistence on the centrality of time indicates that, all other things being equal, most human minds are most comfortable with sentences that proceed in a chronological order. The observation here is -- what was true in the past, and what is true now-- so the chrono-logic would be past (normally a fitness nut) and then present (now not healthy). It doesn't HAVE to be that way, and there are going to be instances that the present --> past order works better. But ordinarily, I'll go with time order.

Finally, sentences (and especially paragraph-ending sentences) should, if possible, end on the most emotionally significant note. Tasha doesn't look healthy now... that has emotional resonance. It forces the reader to end with a question (usually a good thing if you want her to keep reading). Is she sick? Is she depressed? It's immediate because of the "now", while the past is interesting but, well, past.

As I said, there are many times when these considerations get discarded because of some other factor. But "other factors" tend to predominate with important sentences, those that begin and end paragraphs, for example, or especially act as a pivot point in a scene, or a conclusion. And the wording of those sentences especially have to be seen in context of the entire passage or scene. Maybe you WANT to focus on the past, not the present, because you decided my hatred of flashbacks is irrelevant and this sentence introduces a flashback (past, that is), so you're really moving from the present to the past. If you feel strongly that a sentence should be structured in the order you structured it, see if you can puzzle out why-- that might actually tell you how to develop the rest of the scene, or revise the passage to set up for this important development.

Journeyman sentences, those that convey some information but are not pivotal, should generally (but of course not always) follow the conventions of structure. Why? Because then the structure itself adds meaning to your sentence. If you remember to end the sentence on the most emotionally resonant phrase or word, then the reader will get that, will get a deeper sense of the emotion there. You don't want to undercut that meaning-amplification by ending on something confusing or unimportant.

Now... it's taken me a half hour to think through and type all this. Keep that in mind when an editor revises a few of your sentences. If she's a good editor (never assume ), she's got reasons for changing the sentence order. However, while revising the sentence might take her 20 seconds, articulating those reasons could take a half hour. If you go through the line-edited copy sentence by sentence, comparing against your original, and demand an explanation for each change, you're going to take up a lot of time the editor doesn't have. (If you must do this, do it on the phone... talking takes less time. But you should pay for the call, if only to keep you mindful of the time-expense therein. :)

And what happens to the next submission of writers who take up ten times more time than the editor gets paid for? I'll leave that to your imagination.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't explain why particular sentences should be structured a certain way. But pick your battles here. If you pinpoint four sentences out of 200 pages for such defense, you'll have a much better chance winning the argument than if every single blasted change has to be debated.

And no good editor would object to a request like, "I see you've taken out a lot of my participial phrases. Could you explain why? I really want to learn how to improve my prose."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Fragmentary thoughts

I fixed a fragment today in a book I'm editing, and did consider, "Maybe this is voice!" That is not, however, an argument that sways me all that much. I mean, if the writer's voice is good, I notice. :) And I notice when a fragment ISN'T contributing to that voice, as here:
(Of course, I'm changing the wording, just keeping the structure.)

She knew very well the requirements of her job. Such as typing, filing, and reconciling receipts.

That "such as" phrase is, of course, a fragment, and immediately I replaced the period with a comma:
She knew very well her job requirements, such as typing, filing, and reconciling receipts.

The "such as" is only an elaboration of "requirements." (Notice, btw, I just as immediately flipped to get "job requirements," first because it's more concise, reducing a prepositional phrase to a single-word adjective, and second because that puts "requirements," the modified noun, right next to the modifying phrase.) There is no advantage I can see for breaking off "such as" into its own sentence. There's nothing truncated, no elliptical word missing-- just a period instead of a comma. Nothing is gained by fragmenting that modifier, and much is lost, like coherence and correctness. The fragment annoys without contributing anything.

Actually, I might be okay if there were no "such as," which is, of course, a conjunction whose whole purpose is to conjoin examples to the thing exemplified. Let's try it just with the list:
She knew very well her job requirements. Typing, filing, and reconciling receipts.
Well, you know, I'd still generally put that into the same sentence, with a colon (if this was formalish) or a dash (if informalish) or a comma if I've been using too many dashes. :)

And in fact, I think I'd only take it out of the sentence if there was some surprise or irony, which is definitely not in the original sentence. Why bother call attention to anything that isn't attention-getting? Remember, anything non-standard is going to call attention to itself, so make it worthy of the attention, or do it the standard way. (All sentences have meaning, or should, but I think non-standardness is best reserved for a twist or dramatic moment. Remember, the more you use non-standard, the less impact it will have.)

So let's make that sentence more potent, just to illustrate:
She knew very well the requirements of her job. Typing, filing, and covering up the boss's embezzlement.

Hmm. I have to say, I'd probably go with a colon or dash, because the irony is stronger if we have the expected (the main clause) actually conjoined to the punchline.

She knew very well the requirements of her job: typing, filing, and covering up the boss's embezzlement.

Anyway, the conclusion is: It's all about context. And that context includes not only the whole standards issue, but also the meaning of the sentence, the import of fragment-ness, and the voice of the narrator (or author, if authorial voice is in control here).

I think, however, that the fragmentation itself should add some meaning, as it does, for instance, if it emphasizes the punchline, adds a staccato rhythm to the paragraph, or suggests the fragmentation of reality going on inside the narrator.

But fragments should never be the default. There should always be something added by the very fragmentation.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Fragment examples

I asked for examples of fragments you kept, and ones you fixed (attaching to another sentence, say) in revision. Why did you keep the one and fix the other? How do they differ? Here are some of the examples in Comments, and whatever thoughts I have-- what do you think?

The next thing Cory heard was running footsteps. The door flung open. Hit the wall in a tremendous thud. People ran in. Many of them. Boots crunched over glass.

I actually thought that "The door flung open" was a fragment, because of that little weirdity of English conjugation that has "flung" as both the past tense and the past participle (alas, "fling" doesn't follow the "sing" conjugation pattern, that is, we don't say, "Fling flang flung). So if you read "flung" as the past participle-- that is, Cory heard running footsteps, and then heard the door flung open, that's a fragment too, continuing the "what Cory heard" thought. But the next, "Hit the wall," obviously is a continuation of "The door's" actions-- flung open, hit the wall.

I don't actually like that "Many of them" fragment. I'd probably connect that to the sentence before-- People ran in, many of them, their boots crunching over glass. (And I'd suggest replacing "people" with something more interesting if possible.) I don't know why. Why? Maybe it's because this is continuous motion, not really a perception but an action, and it feels like it out to be in one sentence to convey the unity and the swiftness.

Hmm... it's maybe hard to justify the preference of one fragment over another! I wonder if it's like what Patricia said, that the first is has an implied subject (The door) with two predicates (flung, hit), so it's clear what the fragment means.
Patricia gives this example:
Jill entered the closed. Poked around a bit. Turned and left.

Patricia said: The implied subject in the last two sentences, of course, is Jill. But if those sentences are removed from context, they become incomplete because the subject is unknown.

That seems important to me. When does the fragment become truly incomplete, when the meaning is lost? We don't want that sort of fragment, right?

That of course doesn't explain why the fragment type most likely to set my teeth to hurting is:
He headed for New Paris. Which was west of town.
It's clear what that fragment means-- no confusion. I guess it's because there is NO reason for a fragment there, and that it indicates to me the writer really doesn't know what a sentence is.

There was no sigh that showed she didn't want to be responsible for me. No nothing. Just straight matter-of-fact, no big deal. Maybe it wasn't.
Another example. I have to say I had a lot more trouble with all the negatives-- no sigh... didn't want... no.... I wasn't sure what was happening there. I suspect there's always a danger of confusion when you're writing about something that -didn't- happen (the sigh that didn't happen, but if it did happen, would mean she didn't want to be responsible-- see the doubling of negativity there? NO sigh ...NOT responsible and using past tense --that showed-- rather than a conditional -- that would show-- adds to the confusion).
The problem with the fragments isn't that they're fragments, but rather that they seem alike and yet refer to different things. The "no nothing" must refer to "no sigh," while the "just straight matter of fact, no big deal" refers to... her attitude? Her lack of feeling a lack of responsibility? That is, what the second fragment refers to isn't clear in the sentence preceding it. Does it have to refer back? Maybe not, but it must go with something like "she felt"?
This is fragments as pronouns, almost, that is, they're referring back to an antecedent, and if it's not clear what the antecedent is, does that mean the fragment is "incomplete" because the meaning isn't clear? What do you think?

Here's another:
Grimes and I could go on to answer a noise complaint that had come in half an hour ago and, as usual, got kicked aside in favor of higher priority calls. In this case, criminal trespassing.

Me, I like colons, so I'd be more likely to have "higher priority calls: in this case, criminal trespassing." But that would be hard to do across a paragraph break. (That is, I don't think we would end a paragraph on anything but a period or other terminal punctuation. Well, I might end with a dash.)
The one thought I have is that the fragment is singular -- THIS case-- while the "antecedent" is plural -- calls. Might be worth going with... in favor of a higher priority call. That is, there's an actual CALL that kicked aside the complaint, so probably I'd suggest casting it in the singular.

Okay, so we might not have come to much of a conclusion of what makes a fragment acceptable. Patricia did have some categories that might be worth exploring:
When I think of fragments, I think of three kinds: (1) where the subject is implied but not specified; (2) prepositional phrases; and (3) nouns by themselves, often an exclamation.

Hmm. I can see good examples-- acceptable examples-- for all of those, but unacceptable ones too. Maybe it's a matter of taste, that is, "If I read a fragment and I want to connect it with a sentence or add a word or two to make it a sentence, that's a bad fragment. If I get something beneficial out of it, a sense of rhythm, emotion, voice, then it's a good fragment?"