Top Ten Signs You're Reading Something by James Bow

I can’t think of anything to write at the moment, so I’ll filch a meme from R.J. Anderson (look for her young adult fantasy, Knife, to appear on bookshelves from Harper Collins late in 2009! An excellent gift to give for Christmas!). Basically, I’m to compost a list of ten signs that are good indicators that you’re reading something by me. Clichés, if you will. Or just standard characteristics. It’s an exercise in self-awareness, I guess, to identify those items which may be a little overused… or not.

I’m limiting my list to my fiction, because if I did not, the top sign would probably be verbiage. That’s the way my posts tend to go, and when I compose my freelance stories, my last job tends to be removing about a third of the raw material. One plug-in I’d like to see created for Movable Type is a widget that counts the number of words in my posts as I compose them. That would encourage me, at a quick glance, to tighten.

So, on with the list.

  1. No real villains. I do know how to do villains. I do. Aldous Magnait, gracing the pages of The Young City, is a pretty standard villain in the mould of Victorian literature, and as I came up through Doctor Who fan fiction, I’ve taken great delight in writing for the Daleks — and Daleks can be nothing but villains. But if I could get away with telling a story where there was no real villain, I’d jump at the chance. If the threat was something natural rather than something evil (Shepherd Moons), or somebody who was misunderstood, lonely, or otherwise driven to do what he or she was doing. In The Unwritten Girl, Rosemary had to take control of herself. In The Night Girl, the threat is internal and driven by frustration over casual racism. The Dream King’s Daughter promises a complicated backstory that explains that it’s no one’s fault, really, in the end. Just honest people working at cross-purposes.

    It’s not that I can’t do villains, or hate doing them, it’s just that it’s too easy. Heroes at cross-purposes has always struck me as more intriguing in the rare times it’s appeared on television or in books, and it has felt more real. I suspect a part of me cannot shake the feeling that there are few actual villains in this world, but rather good people making bad decisions.

  2. God exists? Lets check the machine: A statement which is inspired by Rebecca’s point #2 wherein she says, “God exists. Deal.” I think our attitudes are similar. A lot of average people believe in God, and we write about average (and not-so-average) people who get caught up in extraordinary events. I’m sure that religion is a part of many of my characters’ lives. My Doctor Who companion, Fayette, was religious, I’m sure. And I know that Rosemary is, having a chance to compare first hand her version of Presbyterianism with that practised in 1884. Perpetua? Not so much. And Peter is probably shrug-your-shoulders agnostic. He’ll go to Rosemary’s church.

    But for me, religion is a pretty private matter. i discuss it occasionally with friends, I debate it here occasionally on my blog, but otherwise I keep my thoughts to myself, and just try to get along in life. And that’s my characters’ approach, as well. In my Doctor Who fan fiction, I admit that I’ve done the Deus Ex Machina approach after I painted myself in the corner. At the time I felt that if the situation was momentous enough, it was justifiable. This hasn’t penetrated my professional fiction, yet. Perpetua might get more uncomfortable talking about religion than Rosemary. Aurora might have some very interesting things to say…

  3. Such a Romantic: I can’t seem to avoid it. Peter and Rosemary were made to be drawn together. Perpetua and Fergus too, and if anybody can’t see the unresolved tensions between Aurora and Polk, I’ll be very much surprised. I had plenty of love stories in my fan fiction as well, from Sue and Ryan’s uncomfortable relationship, to the season where Fayette fell in love twice (and Smaointe being the story that introduced me to Erin). It seems a spice that I need to flavour my works, without which things seem a little dull. I guess I should learn to live with it.

  4. Characters Blowing through teeth. Quirking up mouths. Hands through the hair.: A couple of these cliché almost became worthy of being included in a drinking game. I blame “show, don’t tell”. How else does one show frustration, anxiety or sly happiness without certain body movements? And who knew the list of these movements were so limited? I like to think that I’m getting better at avoiding the overuse of these items, though I’m sure this will continue to haunt me for some time to come.

  5. Location?: Thus far, all five of my professional novels are set at least partially somewhere in Canada. That’s hardly surprising given that I’m Canadian and some feel that this is practically a requirement for publication in this country, but my fan fiction returned to Canada quite often as well. At first I thought it was just the allure of having a Doctor Who story set in Canada at last (we Canadian fans are somewhat geeky — okay, extra geeky — in that respect), but why did I keep on returning to it?

    It could be similar to the reason why Doctor Who, whether classic series or current, never strayed far from Earth. The outlandish always has more impact if it is paired with something familiar. I need that touch of familiarity when I’m writing. It also saves on world building.

  6. I’m Ready For My Close-Up: I like to believe that my most recent stories have been carried out very closely to the protagonist’s point of view. It’s part of the “show, don’t tell” ethic I’ve been taking up after having it drilled into me for years. It’s gotten so that when other authors pull out from tight point of view, give the readers a lot of information that the protagonists are not privy to, it sometimes mars my enjoyment of the book (though there is the other extreme. Jenny Nimmo’s Milo’s Wolves turned on a piece of critical information that the protagonist had to know, but which the readers had to be kept isolated from. The result was an unsatisfying element in an otherwise fantastic book). I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convey another character’s discomfort over knowing information that only he is privy to, but since the story isn’t being told from his point-of-view, we readers don’t get to see it either, which leads to a certain inscrutability that is natural, I suppose, but also potentially confusing and frustrating. It upsets me when other authors avoid the hard work I’ve slogged through.

    At the same time, I’ve maintained quite a camera eye’s point of view — probably the result of watching too much television. I tend to see my stories’ scenes as if they were filmed, with soundtracks and everything. As I’ve gotten closer to the protagonists’ points of view, the camera has closed in, so that it looks over their shoulder, rather than staring down from above.

  7. Style Isn’t Everything: I think I have two writing styles: raw and edited. Rebecca has called my writing “lucid”, while others have said tight. Thanks to the contributions of my mother, Erin, Cameron, other critiquers, not to mention my editors at Dundurn, I think I’ve produced a prose style that tries to deliver the imagery and details as efficiently as possible, but otherwise gets out of the way (which is a perfectly sensible writing choice). I don’t have Erin’s sense of lyricism or eye for detail. Nor do I have my mother’s ability to avoid cliché. There are turns of phrase that I’m proud of (“Deep as a tectonic plate” in The Unwritten Girl, and certain flourishes in The Night Girl), but this sort of thing is still a long way from coming into its own.

    In my raw style, I always have to watch for overused words or actions, and some clumsy turns of phrase. Don’t let anybody tell you that good editors aren’t worth their weight in gold.

  8. And the Girl Shall Lead Them: Four finished novels, one in progress. Four have female protagonists and only one (Fathom Five) gives the lead to a boy. In my fan fiction, I was always more interested in the female companions than in the Doctor. About the only strong male character I created was Wesley in my Harry Potter fiction. I still don’t know why this should be. It may have something to do with my romantic notions described above. Erin has things to say about opposites and alter egos that I don’t quite understand. The story after The Dream King’s Daughter, Mount Royal, has a female protagonist. We’ll see what comes after.

  9. And a Cast Of… Seven: My stories do seem small in scope — at least when it comes to the number of characters which carry the weight of the plot. I’m currently reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and I’m amazed at the intricacies of the plot and the sheer number of characters which carry the action. My style seems to be more sparse. Indeed, at one point while I was writing fan fiction, I thought that seven was all you needed: protagonist (the Doctor, Rosemary, Perpetua), secondary protagonist/love interest (Fayette, Peter, Fergus), primary antagonist ([insert villain here], Marjorie, Earthenhouse), protagonist support character 1 (Puck, Merius, Faith, Howard), protagonist support character 2 (Arial, Edmund, Shopping Cart Goblin), and a couple of incidental characters to help the plot along. I’ve had bigger casts, but I haven’t moved far from that core number of characters that gets the bulk of my attention. I also haven’t written a novel longer than 52,000 words. And, thus far, I haven’t felt the need to.

  10. This is harder than I thought it would be. Okay, how about, Your Vision is as Good as Mine? I was surprised, a couple of years ago, to realize that I’d been rather spare in my description of Rosemary. I’ve since managed a couple of stray descriptions of Perpetua, and Aurora gets to look into a mirror, but again when it comes to “show, don’t tell” and close POV, it sometimes becomes difficult to describe your main character, because the camera is looking out through their eyes, and only particularly vain people spend a lot of time looking at their reflection in the mirror. Very often such people are not heroes.

    And yet it doesn’t seem to matter. In my school readings, I read a segment of The Unwritten Girl that introduces Rosemary and describes her actions without describing her, and then I ask the students what they think she looks like. The descriptions are all remarkably consistent. Author Joe Clifford Faust noted on his blog that sometimes the actions help to build the image of the protagonist in the reader’s mind, and sometimes that image in the reader’s mind is so strong, you sabotage it if you try to insert your own descriptions. If you just leave a few hints and leave the reader to build the rest himself, quite often the reader will do the heavy lifting for you, and will end up rooting for your hero more, because their image of the hero in their minds eye is one that they’ve created themselves.

So, that’s my list. Thanks Rebecca for the meme.

The writing here is going well. The Dream King’s Daughter is pushing towards 17,000 words, and I have more plot ideas forming. My most recent article for Business Edge should be appearing in a couple of weeks, and I’ve started work on another story idea that may get wider circulation. Not a bad start to 2008. Fingers crossed, this will continue.

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