Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Great Villain by guest blogger Julia McDermott

A Great Villain

“The best villains are the ones that aren’t 100% bad.” 
~a friend’s 23-year-old son

When I began writing my Suspense novel, UNDERWATER, I knew how bad my villain was. But I wasn’t sure how
“good” I could – or should – make him.

I didn’t want him to be a good villain; I wanted him to be a great one. I enjoyed writing his sections, the scenes told from his point of view, where I could get into his head, and stay there. In those scenes, I could “be” him – almost. I could let his emotions and motivations rule. I could advance the story while bringing the reader into his world – a very interesting world, I hoped. And not a very nice one.

From the beginning, he was a bad guy. He lied. He flew off the handle. He manipulated others, made threats and...well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

So, he was a pretty good villain. But he had to have some “good” qualities (just a few, or even, say, just one, to start with) so that he could be human. He was missing that all-important ingredient: the Redeeming Quality. He needed it so that he could be believable, and maybe even relatable. He had to evoke some emotion in the reader other than hatred: pity, maybe, or even empathy. He had to be someone who could have been a nice guy, but who, for some reason, had chosen not to be. He couldn’t be 100% bad.

The problem was, I had been focusing so much on all the things he did and said that showed how bad he was, that it was hard to come up with any kind of Redeeming Quality (RQ). My first solution was to let him behave selflessly by helping out a friend; it worked in the plot, and seemed to solve the problem. But then I recognized (after one of my advance readers pointed it out) that when he was doing that, he was really being selfish. He was doing something he enjoyed, and not doing something selfless, like helping out his wife with their young child. 

My next attempt at his RQ was better. I decided to let him have a tender memory that demonstrated his humanity. His memory was also part of the plot, so I wasn’t just throwing it in. But before, I hadn’t let him show how much that memory meant to him; until I made that clear, I hadn’t been doing him (or the reader) justice. 

But he still wasn’t great. Then, my editor suggested that I dig deeper inside of his head, to “let the reader know what it’s like to feel the way he does.” I knew what I had to do.

I had to “be” him – not almost, but totally. I had to feel the way he felt. I had to understand his motivations and the wrongs that he believed he had experienced. I had to live in his world. I had to show him feeling lost, lonely, and dark – and admitting it. He felt written off, misunderstood and unwanted. He was angry, and he believed he’d been screwed. 

Now, he wasn’t 100% bad. 

But he was still bad, and then...he got worse. He decided what to do to even the score, to seek the justice he thought that he deserved. To achieve greatness

You'll have to read the book to find out ;-) 
For more on Julia, check out her author page on AMAZON
Check out Julia's blog HERE  

Follow Julia on Twitter @MakeThatJulie

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Writing a Mystery is Like Playing Chess... with Boris Spassky

I usually get the opposite of writer's block...  I rarely experience the situation of sitting at my computer and staring for hours at a blank screen.  Ideas come at me like they're shooting out of a geyser.

Many would say that that's a good thing.  In some ways perhaps it is, but on balance it is mentally draining.  It's particularly taxing on the brain because I write mysteries.

When a new idea comes along, I have to do a flashback with what I've written so far.  Does the new scene/new character/new bit of dialogue fit with what I've already written?  (Yes, I know that what I've said thus far applies to all writers and all genres, but just wait...)

When it comes to parceling out clues in order to play fair with the reader, making decisions and changing your mind presents several  challenges.  It's like playing a game of chess with a master: forecasting their moves, computing what moves you can play in response, and figuring out the implications of putting your Queen here or your Rook there.

Let me give you an example:

I've just revised a chapter for the next Sasha Jackson Mystery and the chapter presented a lot of challenges to me.  Each revision would alter the course of the rest of the book.   A certain character - with ties to the victim - came across some potentially damning evidence.  But said evidence may relate as well to a crime that's unrelated to the one Sasha has been hired to solve.

If that piece of evidence is turned over straight away to the cops, that's fine... But then A, B, and C can't happen because Sasha won't know/have access to that piece of evidence.

If Sasha gets that bit of evidence holds onto it (even for just a little while), then that's fine as well, but it will mean that X, Y and Z will need to happen as a result of her having this piece of evidence.  It will also mean that characters Q, R and S won't be motivated to act or react until the evidence is finally shared.

As I played either choice forward in my head, I could see advantages and disadvantages to both.  I could make either one work, and each could ultimately lead to the conclusion I want, which is for Sasha to solve her case.

Other choices I've had to make along the way relate to things like transportation.  If a character is on the (Toronto) subway, then they can't receive a phone call when I need them to because there is no cell reception on our subways.  So, I have to go back and change it so the character is riding a bus... Or maybe the phone call happens later... or maybe it went straight to voicemail (because of the lack of service) and the character didn't notice the new message until later.

But if they DID ride the bus and DID get that strange phone call asking them to go to a clandestine meeting in an alley with a mysterious man, then... 

But if they DIDN'T get that phone call inviting them to meet with that mysterious man, then what would they have been doing it that alley... and how did they come across that bit of information?  Or wait, maybe instead if they... You get the picture.

Sometimes I think I should write down all my ideas, all the plotlines, and all the clues on little index cards, throw them into a hat and just build a story around whichever ones I draw.  Or, I should ask a chess master to be my sounding board.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Checklist for Being a Writer

1.  Fondness for Scotch.

2.  The ability to see things as they really are. 

3.  You enjoy the company of other writers.

4.  When you check a dictionary for the correct spelling of one word, you lose at least an hour reading about the word's history, its synonyms and antonyms, then you check two or three of the entries before and after that word...

5.  C'mon, admit it: You're a little insecure... 

6.  You have better conversations with your cat or dog that you do with your neighbours.

7.  It makes perfect sense to be wide awake at 4:00 am.

8.  You mentally edit everything you read.

9.  You neither like nor want money.

10.  Everything you read, hear, or see gives you an idea.

11.  At parties, you mentally file away snippets of conversations, thinking to yourself: Yes, that would be a great line.

12.  You have ADHD or OCD or some other (non-physical) affliction.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Guest Blogger Colin Macaulay on Characterization

Character Development: A Personal View 
By guest blogger Colin Macaulay

In this guest blog post (thank you, Jill!) I will set out my personal views on what I believe is the most crucial component of any worthwhile work of fiction: character development. Definitions are important here; a quick search on the web has revealed at least three quite different interpretations of the phrase. For the purposes of this post, I will define character development as the part of the writer's creative process in which the characters of a work of fiction are evolved.

It seems to me that many writers today spend more time and effort on plot development than on characterisation. In our genre-driven age, it is plot that is seen to sell books. It is true that there are many popular novels around which are purely plot-driven, with shallow, rather doubtful characterisation, and some of them sell extremely well. Perhaps one day sheer penury may drive me to write something like The Da Vinci Code, but in the meantime I will write fiction which tries to examine human nature. I see plot essentially as a vehicle to this end, because I believe that the truly great novels are really about the characters in them. This does not mean that I do not consider plot important. Of course it is! It is the framework upon which I hang my analysis of the human mind. Recently I published a historical thriller, The Scottish Malcontent, and the reviews I have received so far – all unsolicited, I hasten to add – have highlighted the quality of characterisation. This came as no surprise to me as I spent a serious amount of time making sure my characters (a) were rounded and credible, (b) that their characters were revealed in detail over the course of the novel, and (c) that their characters changed over its course.

(a) Rounded and credible
I quickly lose interest in any narrative in which the characters are not credible. For this reason, I will ensure that my own characters act in ways compatible with their natures. Yet at the same time there should be apparent contradictions within them to be resolved over the course of the action if they are to be truly rounded characters. In The Scottish Malcontent, for example, the protagonist is a revolutionary driven by his political convictions. He is in essence an eighteenth century terrorist and yet he is also clearly a moral and principled man. It is in the rounding out of his character, and in particular the reconciliation of the apparent contradictions within it, that much of the novel's real depth lies. In my writing I try to examine the reasons why people behave in the way that they do. Nothing interests human beings as much as other human beings; I believe that any writer who aims to do more than simply entertain must examine the human condition.

Every writer must choose their own way of developing his or her characters; there is no 'right way' of doing this. Clearly, my methodology may not be appropriate for others, and there is after all a wealth of advice available on the web on how to evolve and develop characters. I will say however, that I spend a lot of time thinking about the characters before ever a word is written. In The Scottish Malcontent, I began with the protagonist. I identified the sort of person I wanted to write about, I reflected upon which aspects of his character I wished to explore, and then I built the plot and the other characters around him. In my research I tried to identify every aspect of my fictional people in terms of the world they inhabited, the people they met, the work they did, their beliefs and philosophies (and how those came about), their fears, hopes and dreams. Only when I thoroughly understood them and knew everything about them did I begin to write. A recent Tweet by Frank Delaney (@FrankDelaney) read: 'Do you know the date of your protagonist’s mother’s birthday? You should.' This is quite right, in my view, and long before I have developed a plot in any detail I will have drawn up a complete biography of my characters.

(b) Revealing my characters
It is customary to offer the reader some early notice of a character's nature, as well as a physical description of course, but I feel it is important not to give away too much, too soon. For me, the history of the character, which is after all the record of how people become the people they are,  should be revealed as the work progresses, with the reader made to work a little for insights. I avoid dropping huge amounts of back-story on my readers at any one time, and whilst revealing their histories I try to ensure as many questions are raised as answers provided. They should reveal themselves gradually through their speech and their actions. In this way the reader gets to know them by the very means by which people get to know other people in real life. The result is an organic process of familiarisation which feels right and natural, and which I believe makes the characters feel 'real'.

(c)Changes in character
We all change, all the time. As a writer I am interested in the forces that act upon human beings to change their natures and their characters. In my view it is the interrelationships between people which are most powerful forces of all. It seems to me that an important part of the author's role is to examine both how and why people change, and in what ways. For example, in The Scottish Malcontent my protagonist acquires a new set of personal priorities as a result of renewing old acquaintances (in particular, that of a former lover) and of a dangerous and testing personal crisis. It is a profound change; he moves from a state of permanent world-hatred to a happier, more contented state of mind. At the same time, character changes must be credible; they must stay true to the deeper nature of the characters if my readers are to 'swallow' them. As ever, I try to reveal these changes by the actions of the characters themselves rather than through the narrative voice. I try to allow the reader to chase down the clues and form an impression rather than simply be told. For me, a great part of the joy of reading any work of fiction is being made to work a little.

In this brief post I have avoided any real attempt to explain my actual writing processes. My purpose here has simply been to set out my priorities in writing and offer some justification for them. If I have done that I am very content, but I also hope that this post may encourage other writers to reflect upon their own priorities in their approach to their work.

For more on Colin Macaulay, follow him on Twitter  @Aeneas7c  
and find him on AMAZON - click here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Recent Reads: Broker Plea Force Alexis

Moves at a slower pace than some other Grisham books, but still a great ride (and a terrific Italian setting!!!)

Canada's answer to John Grisham.  Enough said :)

I loved the brevity (without sacrificing content) and this has a smooth style, a very conversational tone.

What can I say about Hedges?  He is thorough, well-informed, passionate, and offers ample support/documentation for his position.  He rants a bit (as usual - but that's part of his passion), but he never never misses the point.  This is now the fourth book of his that I have read and I intend to read more from him.  Very insightful and very informative.  I have an enormous amount of respect for Chris Hedges.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Sasha and Spark have a Pint and Chat about Metal

It’s time for Sasha to take a little vacation.  She has friends who live in Scotland, so she decided to spend a week in the capital city of Edinburgh.  While there, Sasha met up with fellow music aficionado Spark MacDubh.

Sasha:  I’m not familiar with many of the beers on tap.  What do you recommend?  I prefer something dark and heavy, kind of like your tastes in music.

Spark: If you want dark and heavy booze, it has to be Guinness.  I’ll grab us a couple o’ pints.  Some advice, though: if you drink more than eight pints o’ Guinness tonight, wear a nappy tomorrow.  That’s a diaper to you, Canadian girl.  Sometimes Guinness’s after-effects take you by surprise, and wi’ no warning.

Sasha:  Oooh, you’re a man after my own heart!  I love stout, and I’ll be sure to stop after seven and a half pints, just in case.  So, we know we have common ground on alcohol; let’s see about music.  As you know, I played drums and sang in a hard rock cover band before giving it up to solve crimes and chase deadbeats, although some would say I’ve got a harder edge as a sleuth than a rocker.  Whatever.  But when it comes to music, methinks your tastes are much harder than mine.  

Spark: My favourite current bands are Amorphis, Insomnium and Wintersun— 

Sasha: Love the names!

Spark:  They all hail from Finland.  That’s no accident.  Per capita, Finland spends more than any other country on musical education.  That’s why it’s the breedin’ ground for heavy metal innovation.  The Scandinavian bands I favour are modern-day composers who aren’t afraid to head into unexplored musical territory.

Sasha:  I’ve actually heard of the first two bands, but not Wintersun.  What’s one of their best songs?

Spark: Death and the Healing.  It’s sublime.

Sasha:  A lot of the metal you listen to is leaps and bounds away from my own tastes, but then our differences may have more to do with labels or categories than anything else.  Seems there are many sub-genres and categories for metal... 

Spark: Don’t get me started on that!  I tore strips off music journalist Buck Fosterman for persistently labellin’ bands.  If musicians accept his labels they end up painted into a corner, robbed o’ their musical freedom.  Once upon a time there was heavy metal.  Most rockers were happy wi’ that term, although my bastard godfather Lemmy was and still is a notable exception.  Lem insists that Motörhead isn’t a heavy metal band, but a rock ‘n’ roll band.  Good on him.  That’s his prerogative.  More than once I’ve seen Lem walk onstage and announce his arrival with the phrase, “We are Motörhead and we play rock ‘n’ roll.”  He mixes up the opening line from gig to gig, though, to keep the element of surprise.  My favourite opener from Lem was when he greeted Glasgow Barrowlands with, “We are Motörhead and we’re gonna clean your clock.”  And they did!

Sasha: I’ve actually seen Motörhead in concert a few times.  They’re a force to be reckoned with, for sure.

Spark:  Aye, they’re special.  So where were we?  Labels!  As metal grew and became more diverse, some folk became confused by the new sounds, so they invented names for these styles.  Each subgenre then developed its own distinct culture and fashion.  One tribe splintered into many.  Some metal factions now hold the elitist view that their metal is the only real metal, sometimes refusin’ to mix or associate wi’ other tribes.

Sasha: That’s ridiculous.  Good music is good music, regardless of whatever damned adjectives are thrown in front of it.

Spark:  I agree.  What was once a unified whole has become divided, though.  I’ve heard clueless eejits talkin’ shit aboot traditional metal, thrash metal, glam metal, power metal, speed metal, trash metal, sleaze metal, nu metal, goth metal, death metal, doom metal, Viking metal, symphonic metal, avant-garde metal, industrial metal, classical metal, black metal, white metal, folk metal, funk metal, pagan metal, everythin’-bar-the-kitchen-sink metal, and – the most idiotic label of all – hair metal.  The man who coined that term should have his bollocks dunked in a fish tank full o’ piranhas.  

Sasha: Funny you should say that.  I was saying the other day that I want to do just that to an ex-boyfriend, except I called ’em nuts instead of bollocks.  

Spark:  Remind me not to piss you off.  Anyhow, these labellers talk as if they’re authorities on metal, but they’re usually just closed-minded folk who think it’s healthier to put up barriers than to remove them.  That’s not the case.  Cross-pollination is healthy.  I like music that’s extremely heavy and beautifully melodic.  Any fud can plug in an electric guitar and make a noise, or scream into a microphone.  The trick is makin’ music that resonates in people’s souls, makes every hair on their bodies stand on end, sends shivers doon their spines, cleans them from the inside.  That happens when amplified music incorporates techniques discovered centuries ago in classical music: key among them are the tritone and the circle of fifths…but don’t get me started on that!

Sasha: Ah, yes, the circle of fifths...  Hmmm.  I tend to prefer older music, classic rock, I guess, like Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf.  Once upon a time, these were considered very hard, but compared to some current bands, these guys are much lighter, although it seems odd to refer to them as “light”.    

Spark: I love Zep and, to a lesser degree, Steppenwolf.  Had Led Zeppelin not existed, the musical landscape would be less interesting.  We wouldn’t have amazin’ tracks like No Quarter and Immigrant Song to listen to.  Also, think aboot the folk who – inspired by Plant, Page, Jones and Bonham – started bands and followed in Zep’s footsteps.  Thousands of today’s greatest bands wouldn’t exist were it not for Led Zeppelin, as they’d never have been inspired to pick up an instrument.  Steppenwolf deserve universal recognition for creatin’ the term heavy metal.  As you know, they coined the phrase ‘heavy metal thunder’ in their track Born to Be Wild, to describe the sound o’ roarin’ motorcycles.  Blue Öyster Cult producer Sandy Pearlman later used ‘heavy metal’ to describe riff-laden, overdriven music.  Pearlman may have been the first to use those words as a description o’ music, but if he hadn’t first heard the Steppenwolf song those exact words wouldn’t have occurred to him.  The mighty Saxon – Barnsley big teasers and unflinchin’ defenders o’ the metal faith – named a track Heavy Metal Thunder as a tip o’ the hat to Steppenwolf.  So, Your Honour, members o’ the increasingly drunken jury, we see that both Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf are immortal.  Let’s raise a glass to those feckers!  Shit, mine’s empty.  Two more pints o’ Guinness comin’ up faster than you can skelp a nun’s arse wi’ a banjo.

Sasha: I’m a little rusty on nurse skelping, but if you give me some time to practice... I think I already know the answer to this, but I’ll ask you anyway:  Do you think metal bands today owe a nod of thanks to Zeppelin and others from those days?

Spark: More than a nod.  A vigorous bang o’ the heid.  Metallists also owe classical composers a vast debt.

Sasha: OMG!  I’m so glad you said that!  So many people today overlook or just plain ignore the relationship between classical music and rock!

Spark:   For sure.  Rock stems from the blues, but true metal has more in common wi’ classical compositions.  The heavier the metal, the more this is the case.  Much Scandinavian metal has no musical relationship to the blues or rock ‘n’ roll.  If ‘blues’ is pictured as one geometric set and ‘melodic death metal’ another, there’s no intersection.  So if Paganini were around today, he’d be in a Norwegian black-metal band.  Fact.

Sasha: I don’t disagree.  So, tell me: what do you think of the musicianship of today’s metal masters?  Who are the best guitarists these days?

Spark: I enjoy different aspects o’ each guitarist.  Joe Satriani excels in composition and execution.  Jeff Beck has amazin’ feel.  Angus Young is a heid-bangin’, fretboard-scorchin’ master.  Michael Schenker never wastes a note.  Neal Schon always knows exactly the right note to play.  Paul Gilbert’s playin’ makes my jaw drop.  Yngwie Malmsteen’s a technical wizard but he spends too much time doin’ widdly-diddly, how-many-notes-can-I-cram-into-a-second pish.

Sasha: Yeah, Malmsteen does tend to be a bit of a show off at times, but he is a major talent.

Spark:  My fellow Scot Martin Taylor does guitar techniques that I’m still tryin’ to figure oot…he’s immense.  Juan Martin’s flamenco is superb.  Alexi Laiho is a shredding monster.  I could be here all night listin’ guitarists I respect.  There are thousands.  Last but not least I’ll mention David Gilmour because his solo in Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb is perhaps the most sublime one ever recorded.

Sasha: Gotta ask about drummers, since that’s my instrument of choice.  I’m actually not very good – I just like to hit things.  But for my money, no one can touch Keith Moon.  

Spark: Keith must have been a heck of a dude to meet and hang oot wi’.  Not only could he play drums to an insane level, he was ridiculously entertainin’ to watch: the perfect combination o’ craziness, ability and magnetism.  Didn’t matter what microphone-swingin’ stunts Daltrey was doin’ or which aerobatic manoeuvres Townshend was pullin’ off, they couldn’t take the limelight off Keith.  My eyes were on him when The Who played.  Lookin’ elsewhere was risky, as I might miss one o’ Keith’s crazy facial expressions!  You’ll get no argument from me aboot Keith Moon’s talent, Ms Jackson.  He was a wizard.  What a loss.

Sasha:   Agreed.  No one can touch him when it comes to drumming.  What about song lyrics, especially lyrics in metal songs?  Seems to me that the words in songs by Wintersun, Insomnium and bands like that are much darker.  I’m not saying I wish people were always singing about rainbows and unicorns, but do the lyrics in realllly hard music ever bring you down?

Spark: No.  Quite the opposite.  That shouldn’t surprise you, though.  My surname, MacDubh, means ‘son of the dark’.

Sasha:   Ahh.  I didn’t know that!  Um, this may be a bit personal, but what’s the story behind you making a deal with the Devil?

Spark: That wankstain!  Don’t get me started on him…

Sasha:  A lot of people in the music biz are wankstains, don’t get me started on them!  There are days when I regret leaving the music biz.  And I can remember – in my early days on the Toronto music scene – when I would have given my right arm, a kidney, and my firstborn for a contract with a major record label.  And now, in my life as a P.I. , I see person after person trade off money, favors, or a part of themselves – usually their integrity – to attain whatever is of the utmost importance to them.  

Spark: In your line o’ work, I bet you see it every day.  I’ve seen folk trade their souls, desperate to clamber onto some bandwagon or other.  My thinkin’ on the subject is in line wi’ a piece o’ biblical scripture.  ‘What profiteth a man if he gaineth the whole world and forfeiteth his soul?’  Mark wrote that.  Perhaps the original rhetorical question.  Here’s another question, a non-rhetorical one this time.  Whose round is it?  Yours?  Excellent!  I’ll have a pint o’ snakebite.  Ta very much, Sasha.

For more on Spark MacDubh (and his author Mark Rice) check out Metallic Dreams on AMAZON and follow Mark on Twitter @Metallic_Dreams