Antagonists are Protagonists Too

Since I released Dark Rising to beta-readers back in September, I’ve gotten bits and pieces of feedback from those of you who picked up a copy. The one thing I keep hearing is how surprised everyone is that so much of the book is dedicated to Psi (the villain).

Most of the Young Adult books I’ve read focus on the hero and the challenges that he or she faces, but that didn’t seem like the right approach for me. I knew that it was really important to showcase the villain and give him just as much room in the story as my hero, Alexander, was given. I would go as far as to say that the first book of The Dark Matter Chronicles is more so about Psi than Alexander.

Why did I set up the book this way?

I believe that it is crucial to treat antagonists and all secondary characters as having just as much value as the protagonist. They are no less important and they’re certainly not meant to be plot devices or accessories for the main character.

The world doesn’t revolve around any one person, but each and every one of us is the protagonist in our own story. We don’t think of ourselves as existing only for someone else’s benefit. And that truth should be kept in mind when it comes to stories as well because if those characters were real people, then they would never consider themselves to be secondary characters–or even antagonists–in other peoples’ lives. No villain (real or fictional) thinks of him or herself as a villain.  Good versus evil isn’t that straightforward. I think the upcoming Wreck-it-Ralph does a good job of showing that, but in a much cuter and fluffier way than Dark Rising does.

From Psi’s perspective, he is the protagonist. He’s the hero. The Dark Matter Chronicles wouldn’t be a truthful story if I didn’t acknowledge that. And though you’ll get to know Alexander more in the second book, (I’m working on it, I swear), you’ll also get to see Psi’s evolution, along with that of Ezilie’s, Charon’s, and James’s, too.

So the next time you find yourself thinking of about how much you hate the bad guys in books, remember that just like Wreck-it-Ralph and Psi, bad guys are people too.

The Great Rules of Writing

As a writer, I think it’s important to work on your craft and strive to get better at it. I’ve learned a lot through the act of writing itself but sometimes it’s helpful to come across a list of rules like this:

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
~William Safire, “Great Rules of Writing”

If you don’t stumble upon these ‘rules’ somewhere, it’s likely you’ll discover them on your own. So far, I’ve found that they apply pretty consistently. The trick, of course, is to master the rules and then learn when to break them.

Why You Need Beta Readers

In my last post, I mentioned that my beta readers pointed out some weak spots in my manuscript, (I’m looking at you, Chapter 1). So, I had to reprise my role of typing monkey and make some changes.  I’m happy to report that the updates have all been made, and I am recovering my borderline sense of sanity while it all sits and stews.

This rewriting session has really made me think about the value of beta readers. For anyone who doesn’t know, a beta reader is someone who critically reads your manuscript before the public sees it. They are your guinea pigs, your friends — the ones subjected to the terrors of your mind and all of its weirdness before anybody else.

Why unleash your work on them before anyone else?

Beta readers will catch mistakes you didn’t.

Even if you look over your manuscript a hundred times, you will miss some of the errors you made. There comes a point when your eyes skim over your work, filling in the gaps and correcting the mistakes automatically without you actually registering it. And these mistakes can be little grammatical ones, (like missing the word ‘and’ in a sentence), or big ones, (a plot hole that makes your story illogical).  A beta reader will spot those mistakes because he or she is seeing the work for the first time and doesn’t have an imprint of it in his or her mind.

They can evaluate your work objectively.

It’s hard to look at your work without bias when you know how much blood, sweat, and tears went into it. Unlike you, the beta reader isn’t emotionally entrenched in your work. They don’t feel the same way that you do about that character that is so loveable but does nothing for the storyline, or the event that you think is so interesting but doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book. If you’ve picked good beta readers (i.e. honest, constructively critical, and a member of your target audience), then they’ll be able to point out what’s wrong and why. You might find out that you’ve written a great book. You might also find out that what you’ve written isn’t very good at all. Either way, it’s important and listen because whatever gripes your beta readers have, your target readers will have them too.

Your manuscript will improve as a result.

The quality of your work matters. Or at least it should to you. The point of a beta reader is to give your work a test drive so that you can figure out the kinks, and then go back to the drawing board to create something better. And hopefully that leads to more readers down the line.

So cheers to my beta readers and all their hard work! I appreciate their efforts so much, I no longer refer to them as minions in my mind. Not that I did before… *fakes a cough and looks away*

The Joys of Rewriting/The Power of Beta Readers

Someone once said that writing your first draft is easy, but writing the second draft is hard. That ‘someone’ severely understated how difficult the editing/rewriting process can be. Let me clarify and tell you that it is evil. Pure evil. I know this because I have had to rewrite many sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters again and again…only to realize it’s still not quite right. As much as it makes me want to tear my hair out and go all out Hulk on my computer, I can’t deny it’s value. I know the story will be better for it.

I’m sharing this because my awesome evil genius minions team of beta readers have informed me that chapter 1 needs an overhaul. Something about it doesn’t click, and it’s just not as good as the rest of the story. Since, I’ve written about the importance of a first sentence in a previous post, (while managing to screw up the first sentence of my own book), I figured I would share the updated version here. Here’s a quick preview of the new opening paragraph of The Dark Matter Chronicles:

No matter how many times he repeated the words to himself, they refused to sound right. It was only a dream. It couldn’t possibly be anything else. Alexander let out a sigh of exhaustion and pressed his forehead against his bedroom window. When he opened his eyes, his reflection stared back at him, lit up by the moonlight that gleamed off the aging glass. Nothing about his appearance had changed in the half hour he had stood in the same spot with the same confused attitude. His grey eyes still had the warmth of a winter sweater and his unruly black hair still looked like it was in dire need of a trim. His pale skin divulged how worn down he really felt, but that wasn’t unusual either. But he found it difficult to look at himself the same way again knowing he had somehow transported himself to another world and back. Unless, it was only a dream.

What I’ve Learned from ‘A Game of Thrones’/George R.R. Martin

I wasn’t planning on writing another ‘What I’ve Learned’ post so soon after the one I wrote for The Hunger Games, but since ‘A Game of Thrones’ is one of my favorite books, I couldn’t resist.  It’s been a good couple of weeks for literature and book adaptations.

Because I started reading the works of George R.R. Martin after I started writing my own books, (The Dark Matter Chronicles and another fantasy series I’ve got planned), I can’t say I’ve been directly influenced by his work. Having said that, I’ve found that Martin does two things that all writers should do but often don’t.

Kill Your Darlings.

If you’re a writer, this is a key piece of advice that you’ll hear again and again. No one does this better than Martin because no one in his books is beyond the reach of death. A single stroke of a red pen, and they’re cut. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Sure, it’s nice when the good guys prevail and get out a difficult situation unharmed, but it’s not realistic. Good and evil aren’t divided by clear-cut lines, and in a high-stakes situation like war, (I’m going to quote Arya here), ‘anyone can be killed’. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: when you write, you have to tell the truth. And the truth is that anyone can suffer.

But the concept of ‘kill your darlings’ goes beyond that. It doesn’t just apply to the fate of your characters, it applies to your favorite sentences, chapters, that plot twist you thought would be interesting but has no real place in your book. You have to be willing to let go of it all. Why? Because like Martin, you should write in service of your story.

The Story Comes First.

Not you as a writer. Not your wants or your agenda or your plans. The story always comes first and it’s your responsibility to write in service of it. This is why you kill your darlings, go in directions you’re not entirely comfortable with, and spend hours and hours rewriting a few sentences to get them right. It might be easier to write whatever you want and not be concerned with what the story demands, but it’s certainly not better. Writing is a difficult art. It’s not about who you are and your ego; it’s about creating something of value, something that enriches the lives of others.

It isn’t an easy to thing to do. The outline for the second book of The Dark Matter Chronicles is complete…with one exception. There’s an event that I’ve been debating about including for a while now because it has significant repercussions in the third book and will really hurt some of my main characters. It will likely be one of the most difficult scenes I have to write. Even as I write this post, I’m trying to think of ways around it. But I know it must be done because the story will be better for it. I might be unpopular as a result, but the story will be better. That’s what’s required if I want to write in service of my craft rather than myself.

So, with that in mind, I hope you all enjoy the season premiere of A Game of Thrones tonight. If the brilliant plot lines, constant twists, and fantasy world don’t get you, then remember this: it has dragons. Dragons!

What The Hunger Games Has Taught Me About Writing

If you haven’t heard of a little book/soon to be in theatres movie called The Hunger Games, then chances are you don’t live on planet Earth, (or you’re not a fan of YA books which is also possible but somehow less likely in my twisted mind). With all the anticipation surrounding the movie, I couldn’t help but reflect on how I have been influenced by the books. I’ve read through the series 3 times now and each time, I’ve learned something new.

Here are a few of the most important lessons I’ve taken from The Hunger Games:

Introduce your world at the beginning.

I don’t just mean within the first chapter, I mean within the first paragraph. I’ve mentioned how important an opening sentence is to setting the tone for the rest of the book in an earlier post. It’s equally as important that the reader knows what kind of book they’re getting into. A strong opening that captures the essence of the book and hooks a reader in will help your audience stick with it for longer. Not only that, it lets them know what they’re in for. In the first paragraph of The Hunger Games, we know that Katniss wakes up on the day of the reaping (a word closely related to reaper, which we associate with death). Just a quick mention of reaping day and that’s enough to keep readers going until the author has a chance to build an emotional connection with the reader.  Which leads to my next point…

Create an emotional connection early on.

When you reveal something personal about your main character, (e.g. the relationship between Katniss and her younger, more fragile sister Prim), it makes your protagonist more relatable. The easier it is relate to him or her, the easier it is for you to build an emotional connection with your readers. That’s how you get people invested in your characters and stick with them until the end. For me, I connected with the story when Prim’s name was chosen and Katniss volunteers in her place. That was the moment I became fully invested in Suzanne Collins’s world. Again, this plot point occurred early on (end of chapter 1/beginning of chapter 2).

Be honest about human nature.

The reason why this series strikes such a chord with so many people is because the issues presented within it are a reflection of many things happening in our world. The division between rich and poor, the garishness of reality TV, and the ongoing wars and violent acts that are carried out everyday are just some of the issues that it touches upon. While your story doesn’t haven’t to revolve around specific events in our world, (or even take place on Earth), it should tell the truth about human nature. Like all artists, writers have a responsibility to tell the truth—about who people are, what we’re like, what we’ll do—in any given circumstance. A good book will hold up a mirror to humanity and say ‘here you are’. And when a book tells the truth as well as The Hunger Games does, people are responsive to it.

Create a logical and consistent world.

Everything about the world within The Hunger Games is rational. It makes complete sense as to why society organized the way it did, why the games take place, why the people behave as they do. I’ve found that if I ask any ‘why’ question about the world, the answer I get will be consistent with the answer to any other ‘why’ question.  This is because the world is well thought out. This is what every writer should strive for. I find that sometimes writers don’t spend enough of time on this and when they don’t, it always shows. It usually means there are gaps in the background story, plot, or with character development. Odds are that your reader will walk away unsatisfied. If your world fundamentally doesn’t make sense, your readers will know. And it will detract from the quality of your work.

If you’re like me, (neurotic with a long list of issues), or a fan of the book, you’ve probably already bought your ticket for opening weekend. In which case, I’ll see you guys in line at the theater. I should warn you though; I have developed a method to shove people out of my way as I run to the best seats at back. And since there were 8 Harry Potter movies, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

May the odds be ever in your favor.