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Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Feelings!

I’m in the middle of revisions in an effort to meet an impending deadline, and I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed.  One of my best beta-readers gave me extensive notes on parts one and two of my book, but not part three, and now that I have reached part three, I’m feeling a bit like an addict whose been cut off from his supply.

I shouldn’t, of course.  It’s my book, and I shouldn’t depend on the feedback of others.  But I have found that going through someone else’s annotations somehow allows me to see the whole thing through new eyes, and I’m more aware of things, as though I’m reading it fresh.  In part three, I’m finding myself struggling to spot important elements, and am mostly just tweaking sentences. 

This is, of course, why beta-readers are so valuable, and why I am concerned that I will not finish these revisions in time for a new beta cycle to then be able to revise again before the deadline.  But perhaps I’m overthinking it. 

Certainly, as I’ve recently noted, critique can be a double-edged sword.  And the more you get, the more challenging it becomes.  This is another downside to writers’ groups, and why I’ll be scaling back on submitting material.  I’ve been spending the afternoon going through a dozen sets of notes on a single chapter, looking for common reactions, reconciling opposed opinions, and just trying to make sense of it all.  This has proven more exhausting than having gone through the entire first part with a single set of beta notes.

Part of the issue is that everyone reads differently.  It’s important to find readers who know what you are writing, and, more important, are inclined to like it.  I’m writing science fiction, so I will get little useful help from a reader who doesn’t like science fiction.  And I’m writing Young Adult.  So maybe I can’t expect much help from readers who are not, well, young adults. 

People who write for young adults are valuable, but they will approach my work as writers, and will probably have a hard time not basing their critique on how they would do it.  People who don’t write young adult will do the same, but with a tremendous disadvantage, because they write for a completely different audience, so what they would do could well be irrelevant, if not outright inappropriate. 

Granted, there are people saying that what I’m writing is inappropriate, and it’s all just a matter of taste.  But are there hard truths to be found?  Perhaps so. 

In one group I am part of, the notes I have received recently contain a common theme.  I’m told by more than one person that I need to show more emotion.  I confess that’s probably something I could do better, but I’m not convinced I’m as far off as some suggest. 

Indeed, there are a couple of the more dominant people in the group who actually mention the need for more emotion in pretty much everything they read.  It’s almost predictable.  In fact, one went so far as to fault a piece for not having enough emotion in the main character, despite the fact that the piece was a satire where the whole point was the character’s utter lack of emotional response to the horrors he was exposed to. 

Clearly, that reader likes emotion, reads a story to have an emotional experience.  But how do I give him what he wants?  When readers want to see more emotion, what are they looking for, exactly?  Surely not simple statements of emotion: “Tom was angry.”  That’s telling, and I would rightly get nailed for that.  I have to show it.  “Tom was so angry, he smashed his fist through the wall.” 

Better, right?  No, not good enough.  You see, the showing should actually do the job.  The reader should be able to tell from the act of Tom punching the wall that he’s angry.  In other words, if I’m doing it right, I don’t need to insert details of emotion, because the reader can get it from the actions. 

This all makes perfect sense, and any writers reading this have already hit the “Duh!” button.  But I’m starting to think it goes even further than that.  At least in the case of young adult fiction. 

Young adult readers like a clear, straightforward story, and don’t want it clogged up with a lot of heavily laid-on feelings.  When I’m told we should see the main character’s emotions, my mind immediately goes to one of my least favorite books of all time, The Hunger Games.  Emotion?  Katniss is one of the flattest, most emotionless characters out there.  But readers love her.  Compare her to angsty Bella Swan from Twilight; despite the series’ popularity, her character has more detractors than fans.  While people like me might criticize Katniss’ flatness as poor development, the books’ legion of fans insist that it allows the reader to project herself into the character.  And, as much as it pains me to admit, I think they’re right. 

YA readers like “relatable” characters.  They want to feel like they could be the character.  The less the character is fleshed out, the easier they can do that.  But does that mean an empty, emotionless character like Katniss?  No, that really is just bad development.  But what it does mean is that the call for “more emotion” is misplaced. 

If it’s better to show the emotion rather than tell it, I suggest that it’s better still to not show it.  YA readers like plot over everything.  So as a writer, I need to let my plot do the work.  That includes emotion.  Therefore, if I’m really doing it right, and the reader is truly relating to my character, then I don’t need any emotional cues at all.  Instead, I need to make sure that my plot is so clear, so defined, so true (so much for Hunger Games!), that the things that happen that cause the character to have an emotional reaction will in fact cause the reader inside the character’s head to have that reaction.  So I don’t say Tom was angry, nor do I say his heart raced, or maybe even that he hit the wall.  I present a scene that leaves my reader with a racing heart and wanting to hit the wall on Tom’s behalf.  That’s good writing, and it’s what makes a character relatable. 

I don’t know how good I am at that, but I’m pretty sure that’s the approach I need to be taking.  Readers like the ones in my critique group are right to want to experience emotion, but it should be their own emotions they experience, not ones I’ve shown them.

Back to the revisions!

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Fancy Undress

Theiss Titillation Theory: The sexiness of an outfit is in direct proportion to the likelihood that the wearer will fall out of it.

In describing my young adult science fiction novel, I’ve started referring to it by an assortment of adjectives: epic, exciting, heartwarming, funny, sexy…

Yes, I said sexy.  Yes, a young adult novel.  With protagonists that range in age from sixteen down to ten.  (Okay, the sexy part does not apply to the ten-year-old).  But, as I have discussed before, there is sexual content, most of it implied, all of it positive.  Something else I want my novel to be is fun.  A contrast to all the dark, violent, nihilistic dystopian crap that’s out there.  And, to that end, sexy can indeed be fun.  In fact, when sexy isn’t fun, there’s a problem.

And how am I accomplishing this?  Well, I continue to look backwards for inspiration.  Once again I land on the classic Star Trek series.  I’ve already discussed the outstanding soundtrack music the series had, and also how much I am trying to emulate its essential philosophy of optimism regarding human potential.  But let’s make it the trifecta, and examine one more way I am proud to be influenced: manner of dress.

Star Trek’s costumes were predominantly designed by William Ware Theiss, a very imaginative designer who worked within the constraints of 1960s television by being creative.  He knew that a costume’s appeal wasn’t in what was shown, but rather what was almost shown.  Thus the Theiss Titillation Theory mentioned above.  Further, Theiss used his creativity to create costumes which were, at the time, astonishingly racy by revealing areas of the body not normally considered erogenous.  He showed plenty of skin, but in surprising, unusual ways.

I am somewhat influenced by this.  My story takes place in several exotic locations, all of which have one thing in common: a lack of fear of showing the human body.  This includes comfort with complete, body-positive nudity, which is something my main characters come to accept, and even embrace.  But there’s also clothing that is not designed for modesty, but rather beauty.  This applies to both sexes, but, I confess, my interest and attention lies more with female designs.

To that end, I would like to take this opportunity to show what are probably my five favorite Thiess designs from Star Trek.  There are many other marvelous ones, but these stand out for me.  Understand this is entirely subjective.  And, yes, it’s me appreciating the female form.  If you want to accuse me of sexism, go ahead, but if appreciating female beauty is a bad thing, then I don’t want to be good.

Please forgive the marginal quality of the images; the internet was of surprisingly little help in this very important research.  Frankly, nothing beats actually watching those great old episodes.

carolyn_palamasOkay, this is not a special favorite of mine, but I had to include it as being probably Theiss’ most famous creation, the one that perfectly embodies his philosophy.  To all accounts, the top part was held up only by sheer willpower (in reality a lot of tape was used).  But what a will it must have been to not be countered by the collective will of every male in the viewing audience.

StarTrek_2x04_MirrorMirror_0486-Ar2I know the “Mirror Universe” is evil and all that, but I can’t possibly have been the only person watching who really wished the regular uniforms looked like this.  Yes, Shatner is in the picture, but the presence of both Barbara Luna and Nichelle Nichols more than makes up for it.  And I’m actually glad he fills out the perspective, because, out of fairness, I am clothing my male lead in an outfit that a female friend assures me is hot.  And what I really don’t understand is why Shatner is looking in the direction he is.  Come on, Bill, they’re over there!

star-trek-babes-lois-jewell-as-slave-drusilla-in-bread-and-circuses2What’s that you say?  You have no idea who this is?  Rightly so.  This is a slave girl from the gladiator episode, who appears in all of one scene.  Near as I can tell, her only reason for being there is…well…to look like this.  I consider that to be a good enough reason.

droxine2Here’s a cerebral ice princess with a sadistic streak.  Inexplicably, Spock finds her fascinating.  Because of her superior intellect.  Uh huh…  “My mind is up here.”

id5w23hontjk2whi2I’m sorry the image is so poor for what is probably my all-time favorite costume.  It really doesn’t do justice to the fact that on one side there’s basically nothing there.  This is an additional rule of sexiness: the appeal of an outfit is increased by the assumption that she can’t possibly have anything on under it.

Now, the clothing I’ve come up with isn’t quite like this, but it’s plenty fun and unashamed.  Yes, I’m talking for the most part about teen characters.  You might be saying this sort of thing is inappropriate.  But what’s appropriate?  There are cultures, and even people here in the US, who would say that even a modest one-piece bathing suit is inappropriate, that anything less that head-to-toe covering is bad.  It’s all perspective.  My book is science fiction.  Which means, ultimately, fantasy.  And fantasy is a good thing, especially when it allows us to appreciate those things that society doesn’t allow us to appreciate for real.

And you know what?  It takes a lot of courage to dress like this.  A lot of body-confidence.  Given the number of women who can’t bear to even let their partners see their bodies, I say any woman (or man) who can say, “Yes, I have a body, and here it is,” is in a good place, psychologically.  That’s a major theme in my novel, as one character’s gradual acceptance of her own body (a struggle familiar to many teen girls) is a major part of her character arc, and symbolizes her working through and overcoming trauma.  Another character’s changing mode of dress indicates his willingness to embrace his true potential, rather than hide it.  And for another one, her unselfconscious nudity represents her utter, unaffected innocence and love of life.  If you think those are values that children should be shelded from, then  I weep for the future.  Because it probably won’t be designed by Bill Theiss.


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Chalker for Children

I just recently finished the next-to-last book in the “Well World” series by the late Jack L. Chalker.  It was, as is always the case with Chalker, an intriguing experience.  I haven’t read all of Chalker’s works, but I have read a substantial amount.  To say he was prolific is an understatement.  But he’s generally an enjoyable read, and, I must confess, I find myself inspired by his work in some ways, and freely admit that there are elements of my current project that are reminiscent of his best books.  There are also some things that I am not taking inspiration from.

Chalker tended to work in science fiction, but it was usually on the soft end of the scale, and sometimes his works are outright fantasy, most notably the “Dancing Gods” series.  Whether science fiction or fantasy, there are a number of common themes.

Arguably the most prominent motif is identity.  Chalker’s books are full of physical transformations where characters become entirely different creatures, and often change sex as well.  This is most notable in the “Well World” series, but also informs the “Soul Rider,” “Changewinds” “Rings of the Masters” and “Dancing Gods” series.  These experiences are usually highly transformative, in both positive and negative ways, particularly the gender-based changes.

Another related mode of transformation is body-switching, which Chalker uses less often, but it is central in the “Lords of the Diamond” series, particularly the second book.  Again, the effects of such experiences on the characters are usually profound.  I am not, at this time, intending to do much of that sort of thing; I am tossing around a possible variation for a later book, though I have no idea yet where I would take it.

Another common concept for Chalker has to do with the nature of reality.  More than one series, including “Well World,” “Soul Rider,” and “Quintara Marathon,” postulates that reality is a construct that can be reduced to mathematical equations.  If one knows the equations, and has the right instrumentality, then one can control reality and shape it to one’s liking.  It’s sort of like thinking, “two plus two equals coffee,” and suddenly a cup of coffee materializes in front of you.  This is another concept I’m not doing a lot with as such, but the way it sometimes plays out is actually very similar to where my trilogy is ultimately going.

The ability to control reality is used by Chalker to explore one of his favorite themes: power.  The old maxim that “power corrupts” goes to insane heights for Chalker, who suggests in numerous novels that those with power will inevitably use it to enslave and torture those without.  A rather bleak worldview, and it calls into question why I like Chalker.  Well, I must say that the novels where he really plays that up tend to be less enjoyable for me, and, in fact, I have yet to make it through the “Changewinds” series, although there is another reason for that.

Chalker, in some novels, but not all, tended to show a distinct misogynistic streak.  He frequently puts his female characters through unspeakable horror, notably in the “Well World,” “Soul Rider,” and, most of all, “Changewinds” series.  Often this is combined with physical transformation to establish particularly distasteful sexual subjugation.  Needless to say, as someone who likes strong female characters, I have difficulty with this, particularly when female characters find themselves sexually degraded – and come to enjoy it!  More than one novel has one or more female characters becoming outright sex slaves or prostitutes, and discovering it to be far more “empowering” than any previous aspirations they might have had.  Now, I’m all for women being in control of their own sexuality, but this is just offensive.  Combine it with another theme, that domesticity is also the highest calling for a woman, and it gets ugly.

Not a ringing endorsement, is it?  What is there to possibly recommend Chalker?  Well, for one thing, he was unbelievably imaginative.  Where he excels above all is in the creation of alien environments, races and cultures, vividly realized and astonishingly complex.  And many novels offer more than one.  This is the other central premise of the “Well World” series, and in many of his novels he sends the characters on an odyssey through a series of bizarre and exotic landscapes in quest of some impossible goal.  I refer to this sort of thing as a “Chalker Journey” and it informs the overall premise of my series, and I have in mind to pull out all the stops in the third book.  I hope I can live up to Chalker’s standards.

Then there is Chalker’s remarkable use of Point of View.  He usually wrote in third person, and was highly adept at shifting the perspective fluidly.  And he did not limit his narrative voice to the protagonists; he often allowed the readers to be inside the heads of some very dark villains, rendering their motives comprehensible, and making them less one-dimensional.  Though the characteristics of the Young Adult genre limit my ability to be that free with POV, I nevertheless use Chalker as a model as I hold onto a shifting third person POV among my four characters.

Finally, any analysis of Chalker is not complete without mentioning one other thematic constant: nudity.  I once asked a friend who was reading a Chalker novel, “Has he gotten the characters naked yet?”  Yes, he had, as he usually does, often on flimsy motives.  But what is admirable is that it is rarely salacious, even when he is at his most misogynistic.  Nudity in Chalker is always presented as a comfortable, natural thing, not to be ashamed of.  In other words, Chalker actually promoted positive body image.

As I said, I am taking inspiration from Chalker, and have sometimes referred to my series as “Chalker for children.”  It’s Young Adult, and my characters are all young.  So does that mean I’ll use nudity?  As a matter of fact, yes it does.  If other writers can write a bestseller wherein children hunt each other for entertainment, then my characters should be able to go skinny-dipping.  Indeed, I have one character who prefers to be naked, and so far everyone who’s read my manuscripts likes her, and aren’t the least bit bothered, seeing her attitude as a natural element of her character, so there you go.

Mind you, this means they’ll never make a movie of my book.  Oh well.  Can’t have everything.

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