Discussion: Dragging yourself out of a slump.

Confession: Sometimes I get in a slump where I don’t want to do…anything. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to blog. I don’t want to write. I definitely don’t want to work, but I have to because things like food and heat are “important.”

It’s not necessarily because anything is wrong; my brain has just hit this point where it doesn’t want to engage anymore. Its capacity gets maxed out and all it is capable of is flopping on the couch and watching old episodes of Friday Night Lights while surfing Tumblr. Books require concentration, and I just don’t have that superpower in my wheelhouse anymore.

The problem is that without me doing something about it, it’ll take for-freakin’-ever for me to snap out of it. I need to jump-start my brain or it will just sit sputter weakly in my living room until the end of time.

So what do I do to snap myself out of an intellectual slump?

  • Engage with the humans. I’m an introvert who can be perfectly happy without leaving my house for weeks at a time, but when I get like this, it’s important to get out and interact with other humans. Other bookish types are the best, and fortunately we have a lot of events here where I can interact with people who get really excited about books and writing. It’s rare that I leave a book/writer event without wanting to immediately read half a dozen books and write fifty pages. But in the absence of bookish folk, just hanging out with friends and changing up my discussion habits can get my mind re-engaged.
  • Read something I likeThis can be either something I’ve already read that I know I love, or something I’ve really been looking forward to. But if I’m not feeling it within the first few pages, I switch to something else that I can really become immersed in. And just because a book is “good” doesn’t mean it’s the right one to pull me out of a slump. I love The Book Thief, but if I’m slumpy, I probably won’t be able to wrap my brain around it. I need something more like Anna and the French Kiss, which is delightful and keeps me engaged, but doesn’t require herculean amounts of effort from my brain. Which brings me to…
  • Change up genres. Maybe I’m just burnt out on sci-fi and I need to go read a contemporary romance, or I’m feeling bleak from dystopians so I need an action-packed fantasy. Maybe I’ve read one paranormal romance too many and need an imaginative fairy tale retelling. The name of the game is trial and error. If I’ve been bingeing in the same genre, I just have to mix things up until I find one that sticks.
  • Set aside time for reading. You know what the prior two suggestions have in common? I actually have to force myself to sit down and do it. I don’t get all ambitious and set aside three hours. Just about 30 minutes, where I say, “now is reading time.” I have to walk away from the computer (and the iPad. Darn you, siren song of mobile technology) and go sit in my recliner with my snuggie* and a mug of hot chocolate. I’m not allowed to check my email or channel surf. I need to read. If I force myself to do this for a few days, with a book I really like, I can generally recharge my brain batteries.
  • Talk about what I’m reading. Whether this is online on blogs or Twitter, or in person with my friends or my husband, I can get a lot more engaged in what I’m reading if I have someone to discuss it with. It’s why I started this blog in the first place.
So how about you? Ever get a terrible case of the reading doldrums? Any inventive tips to snap yourself out of it? Anyone currently in a slump and need a pep talk? Let me know in the comments!

 
*Don’t knock the snuggie, snuggies are awesome.

Discussion: Name that genre! And…does it matter?

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get genre-burned. I’ll pick up a book, thinking it’s one thing, and then be disappointed when it turns out to be something else. It’s not that the something else isn’t good, or even that I didn’t like the book. It’s that it wasn’t what I was expecting. And while I sometimes welcome the unexpected, like with a juicy plot twist, I find myself wishing sometimes that the book world as a whole — bookstores, bloggers, even authors sometimes — would try to be a tad more accurate with genre labeling.

Also, let me just throw this out there: Young Adult is not a genre. Nor is Middle Grade, Adult, or New Adult. Those are audiences. They encompass the age demographic a book is targeting. But they don’t tell you a thing about what the book is about, other than the relative age of the characters (give or take a few decades, in the case of Adult).

So let’s talk just a minute about genres, what defines them, and which ones tend to have an identity crisis.

These are highlights from the Goodreads definitions. Sometimes it’s just easier than trying to type it all out myself.

FantasyFantasy is a genre that uses magic and other supernatural forms as a primary element of plot, theme, and/or setting. Fantasy is generally distinguished from science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of technological and macabre themes, respectively, though there is a great deal of overlap between the three.

Science FictionScience fiction is a broad genre of fiction that often involves speculations based on current or future science or technology. Science fiction differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).

DystopianDystopia is a form of literature that explores social and political structures. It is a creation of a nightmare world – unlike its opposite, Utopia, which is an ideal world. Dystopia is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. It often features different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions, and a state of constant warfare or violence. Many novels combine both Dystopia and Utopia, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of the two possible futures.

RomanceAccording to the Romance Writers of America, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” Both the conflict and the climax of the novel should be directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Historical FictionHistorical fiction presents a story set in the past, often during a significant time period. In historical fiction, the time period is an important part of the setting and often of the story itself. Historical fiction may include fictional characters, well-known historical figures or a mixture of the two.

HorrorHorror fiction is fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the audience. Historically, the cause of the “horror” experience has often been the intrusion of a supernatural element into everyday human experience. Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called “horror”.

ContemporaryContemporary literature is literature with its setting generally after World War II.

ParanormalParanormal books involve unusual experiences that lack a scientific explanation. Some popular subjects in paranormal books are supernatural creatures, ESP, clairvoyance, ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, and psychics.

SteampunkSteampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England—but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.

These are just some of the biggies. There’s tons of genres and subgenres out there, and often authors like to mash them up. For example, romance can be incorporated into nearly all of these genres, which gives you Historical Romance, Paranormal Romance, etc. I think one of the reasons that genres get so muddled is that they’re not mutually exclusive at all. Contemporary is anything that takes place after World War II? Well, that could encompass pretty much everything (except Historical), couldn’t it? And obviously there’s tons of crossover between Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror/Paranormal.

I think the problem happens when we get these main categories confused.  I think the problem is twofold:

1) Certain genres are really popular, and everyone wants their book (or their client’s book, or their friend’s book) to be the next Big Thing. So they say it fits the genre, when in reality, it doesn’t. (I’m looking at you, Dystopian Fiction.)

2) Lots of books are really hard to classify, because the authors have mixed a bunch of genres together in a delicious cocktail of imagination. It’s a bit more understandable how these get confused.

So what’s the trick in figuring out how to classify what you’re reading? Just ask yourself a few questions:

1) What’s the setting? Is it past, present, future, or a made-up world? Is it based in reality, or could it plausibly happen in our reality, or is it in no way related to our reality? Does magic factor into it? Science? Is it based on a historical event that actually happened, or a historical event that might have happened if things were different?

2) If it is the future, what shaped the world? Was it a cataclysmic event? Government conspiracy? Aliens? Magic? Technological advancement? Just because it’s the future doesn’t automatically make it sci-fi or dystopian or post-apocalyptic. Look at why the world is the way it is, and that’s a big clue.

3) What’s the conflict? Is it about whether or not Jim and Sally will get together, or is it about whether or not Jim will save Sally’s a ghost, or is it about whether or not Jim will discover that he’s really a prince and the only one who can free Sally from the dragon? Granted, Jim and Sally may get together in all of these scenarios, but it’s only the main conflict in one of them.

Am I alone in caring about this? I’m not sure. Maybe you don’t care how something’s labeled; a good book is a good book. So what if you were expecting dystopian and got sci-fi instead? Or you wanted steampunk but wound up reading historical fiction? What’s the big deal?

But if you’re like me, it’s kind of like ice cream flavors. If I’m in the mood for chocolate and I get strawberry, I’m going to be disappointed. I like strawberry. Sometimes, all I want in the whole world is strawberry. But if I’m in the mood for chocolate, strawberry won’t cut it.

Here’s some examples of books I’ve seen miscategorized (a lot):

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron. I’ve heard this book described as Steampunk and Paranormal, but really it’s just Historical Fiction. The automatons in the story are things that actually existed during that time period (you can ask Sharon. It’s fascinating), and there’s no supernatural elements that defy scientific explanation.

What’s Left of Me by Kat Zhang. This one always gets called Dystopian or Sci-Fi. But really, if you look close, it’s neither. It’s a modern alternate reality. So really, it doesn’t fit into any of the above categories. Broadly, it can go under the Speculative Fiction umbrella, but none of the other terms really fit. So there’s really little wonder why bookstores want to label it as something else.

Defiance by C.J. Redwine. This book is a cornucopia of so many genres, it’s easy to see why people can’t seem to label it. I’ve actually had a few discussions with C.J. about what to call this book, and even she is at a bit of a loss. I’ve heard it called Steampunk, Dystopian, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi. It’s marketed as Fantasy Adventure, but there’s no magic (although there is a blind wingless subterranean dragon). What it actually is, I believe, is a Post-Apocalyptic Adventure. I think.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. I always see this book on the Horror shelf, and it’s just not. It’s not designed to scare or horrify. It’s about magical powers and adventure. It’s Fantasy.

How about you? Do you long to sneak into bookstores and reshelve the books to more accurately reflect what’s in them? Or do you figure, hey, I don’t care why someone picked up the book, as long as they’re reading it? What books do you see commonly misclassified, and do you care? 

Discussion: Rooting for the Bad Guy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about villains, and what makes a great one. And although I put a picture of good ol’ Voldy up here, I actually am of the opinion that if the Harry Potter series has a shortcoming (GASP!), it is in the characterization of Voldemort (don’t worry, I will still take Harry Potter’s shortcomings over most other series’ strengths any day). And this is because he spends over half the series as just Super Evil Supervillain Who is Evil for the Sake of Being Evil.

Later on, he got some back story, but it was never really enough to make me feel him as a character. He was simply a foil for Harry (and, you know, the rest of humanity), because having a mega-evil über-wizard as Harry’s nemesis made for some awesome story lines.

So. If Voldemort is not the epitome of all villains, who is?

I’m pretty sure you are not going to be able to predict my answer here. Please bear with me.

Yup, my favorite villain of all time is Inspector Javert from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, seen the movies, or heard the music. Because the reason I love him can translate to something you are familiar with.

Basically, Javert is a police officer who spends the entire story attempting to hunt down an escaped convict and return him to prison. He also tries to serve his country by infiltrating a renegade group of students who are fanning the flames of rebellion among the citizens of France.

And he’s the bad guy.

The reason he’s my favorite is because he’s so well developed, that if Victor Hugo had decided to write a Les Misérables companion novel from Javert’s POV, he could have easily become the protagonist. His motivations are solid, and he honestly believes he is doing the right thing throughout the entirety of the story by thwarting our heroes at every turn. He is the hero in his own story.

Switching from the book to the musical for a minute (which is absolutely not completely accurate to the book, but which I love and have seen live five times, and am immensely excited for the movie), Javert also sings my favorite song in the show. If you didn’t know anything about the story and just heard this song, you could believe that this is a hero’s anthem.

So stepping away from 19th century French literature for a moment, how does this apply to modern villains? To Voldemort and Umbridge, President Snow and Cato, Victoria and the Volturi?

I think there’s a few things that set a great villain apart from a decent villain.

Decent: Has a well-developed origin/back story.

Great: Has a well-developed,  somewhat sympathetic (not necessarily entirely, but at least partially sympathetic) origin/back story.

Decent: Has his/her own reasons for wanting to thwart the hero other than because they are supposed to.

Great: Has his/her own compelling and understandable reasons for wanting to thwart the hero. Note: These do not have to be sane reasons. Some of the best villains are complete loons with no moral center. But even with the craziest villains, we should be able to follow their reasoning, even if we don’t agree with it.

Decent: Is dark and scary and kind of a caricature.

Great: Is dark and scary and real.

Decent: Thinks he/she is the hero of his/her own story.

Great: If the story was told through his/her eyes, we could easily be convinced that he/she is the hero of the story, and that the hero is the villain.

So who are some great villains? Well, none of the ones I listed above, sadly. But here are some I do think are great, taken from movies, TV, and books.

Hannibal Lecter, Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.

This would be a great example of the character being completely crazy. I don’t think he could ever convince any of us that his disturbing cannibalistic fashion statements were based on sane brain function. But even though he is certifiably nuts, he has a way of always making twisted, shiver-inducing sense. And that, to me, is the scariest part of his story.

Detective Jimmy ShakerRansom.

This isn’t the greatest movie ever, by any means, but I always thought Gary Sinise’s Detective Shaker was an amazingly nuanced and well-developed villain. If you haven’t seen this 1996 flick, I’d recommend it for Shaker alone.

Spike, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

He was never a pure villain or a pure hero. Even when his mission in life was to kill our favorite sassy slayer, it was hard not to root for him. And even when he was trying to turn it around, you could sense the darkness just beneath the surface. Spike is one of my favorite characters of all time, in any medium, because of all these layers.

BoromirThe Fellowship of the Ring.

I have now officially seen the movie so many times that I can’t view Boromir objectively anymore — I can’t see any part of his slow succumbing to the ring without thinking of everything that follows — but I remember hating Boromir the first time I read Fellowship. But at the same time, it was so believable watching this gradual descent from a celebrated hero into a bitter man under the ring’s control. Speaking of which…

Gollum, The Return of the King

Granted, Gollum spends the entire Hobbit/Lord of the Rings series being villainous, but he reaches his most evil — and most sympathetic — in Return of the King. No matter how many times he deceived and sabotaged Frodo, I couldn’t help but feel my heart break for him just a little.

Severus SnapeHarry Potter.

Yes, I know that Snape’s status as a villain is up for serious debate, but I would argue that anyone who makes our hero that miserable for that long can be considered a villain, at least during the time the misery is occurring. But the fact that whether or not he even is a villain, despite the misery, is a testament to how well-developed his character is. Voldemort and Umbridge may not be on my list, but J.K. more than made up for it with Snape.

Darth VaderStar Wars.

I almost forgot one of my favorite nuanced villains, Anakin Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader. Ignoring for a second how terrible the prequels were (I used to think their one saving grace was the fight sequences, then I saw this, and now…), he totally embodies my theory that the best villains could actually be the hero if the story was told from their point of view. Anakin is the protagonist of the (awful) Episodes I-III and the villain of the (awesome) Episodes IV-VI. And that is kind of amazing.

Note: A story does not have to have an awesome villain to be successful. Lots of stories aren’t about a sentient antagonist, but are instead about heroes overcoming some other sort of conflict, and those stories can be just as good, if not better, than stories featuring intelligent, nuanced villains.

But if the foil to the hero is The Bad Guy, then I’d certainly hope the bad guy has a good reason for doing what he’s doing.

What do you think? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why do you love to hate them (or hate to love them)?

Discussion: Multiple POVs: Tool or Crutch?

Multiple POV in a book = Ensemble cast in a movie

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately where the narrative follows multiple POVs (points of view. Which I guess means the abbreviation should be PsOV, but that looks WEIRD).  Sometimes it’s just two characters, other times it’s four or more. Then I go to other blogs or Goodreads and see what others thought of the book. One of the things I’ve noticed come up in reviews a lot, with feelings running the gamut of emotions, is that we have widely varying preferences on POV.

Some people love the additional insight into the characters that multiple POVs offer. Others think of it as authorial laziness, and wish the author would just stick with one character and develop him or her more.

With me, it really depends on the book. Sometimes I adore multiple POVs. Other times, I agree that it feels like the author just wasn’t trying very hard. Or there’s a third category — the author obviously had a strong case for including someone else’s POV, but their editor probably needed to step up and cut it. Because while the added POV does add something interesting to the story, it doesn’t add enough to justify its presence.

Let’s take a look at some books that fall into each of these categories, and why, in my opinion, they work or don’t work.

When it Works

To me, Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy is the gold standard of multiple POVs used to great benefit. This is an adult high fantasy series, and I think one of the things working in its favor is the scope of the story (and the fact that adult high fantasy is allowed to have some length to it). Probably many of you haven’t read this one (although you SHOULD), but just bear with me a moment while I walk through the elements that make multiple POVs work well. I’ll apply them to books you’ve read soon, I promise.

The characters are all very different

This series has seven POVs, and that’s assuming I didn’t miss one. But all of them are very different, following characters that come from varied backgrounds, each with their own unique voice.

Shreever – a sea serpent

Kennit – a pirate captain

Wintrow – a boy priest

Brashen – a sailor

Althea – a daughter of a prominent Trader family

Ronica – the widow of a Trader

Malta – the young, spoiled daughter of a captain

All seven of them would view the same situation in seven completely different ways. But most of the time, they don’t have to, which brings me to my next point:

No single character is capable of telling the whole story

Yes, some of them are paired up in the same location, but none of them has all the information necessary to make the story work. Kennit is incapable of telling the reader what is happening in the town, because he spends the majority of the book on his ship. Brashin can’t tell you what’s happening on Kennit’s ship, because he’s on a different ship. And Ronica can’t tell us a thing about life at sea, because she remains in the town.

Now I’m not saying that characters must be divided geographically for multiple POVs to work. It can most definitely work if the characters are in the same location. But what must always be true is that the story can’t be told by only one character. Not that it would be difficult to tell. It needs to be impossible to tell. As in, if you forced the author to rewrite the book from the perspective of one character only, the story simply wouldn’t work.

Each character has their own, important story

No character’s POV is included unless they have their own unique story that must be shared for us to be able to understand the story as a whole. And as a result, while some characters are featured more prominently than others, every single POV has its own motivations, its own stakes, and its own plot arc.

Examples of When it Works:

When it Doesn’t Work

When only one (or none) of the above is true, it just flat out doesn’t work. Here’s some of the common pitfalls I’ve seen.

Narrators are too similar

I’m not sure if this is a case of author voice being too strong or character voice being too weak. I think normally, it’s the latter. This is especially prevalent in books where every POV is still told in first person, so you don’t even have helpful names and pronouns to let you know who’s speaking. If I can’t figure out whose story I’m reading, I get frustrated and it’s impossible for me to invest in the story.

Or maybe I can figure out who’s talking, but I can’t figure out why they’re talking. If I’m thinking, “Why do I need Steve’s point of view? I already have John’s point of view on the subject, and Steve seems to agree with him,” you’ve lost me.

Narrators don’t bring me new (or necessary) information

Maybe you’re writing a book about a girl searching for her kidnapped boyfriend. And you think, “Oooh, you know what would be neat? The scene where the boyfriend gets abducted!” And you figure, you can’t do that one from the girl’s point of view, so you write it from the boyfriend’s. And maybe you include a scene or two about the boyfriend huddled in the dark, and the kidnapper punches him in the face a few times, but really, most of the story is about the girl’s search and how she ultimately finds and rescues him.

Was the boyfriend’s POV necessary? No, and here’s why.

1) We know he was kidnapped. While the kidnapping scene may be awesome, it doesn’t give us new information, unless the method of his kidnapping was absolutely pivotal to the plot and the girl would have never been able to figure it out on her own. And even if that’s the case, it may still not work (see below).

2) The girl is probably assuming he is scared. And if, when she finds him, his cheek is bruised and his lip is bloody, and he looks haggard, we can pretty well assume the kidnapper roughed him up. It’s not necessary to include the scenes of those things happening, because it is not new information that we would not have had otherwise.

Narrators don’t have their own arc

Even in reason #1 up above, where the method of kidnapping is essential to the plot, if we never hear something relevant from Boyfriend again, his POV still doesn’t work. The author needed to find another way to let us know what the method of kidnapping was, even if it’s really hard. I’m not going to be invested in a character whose perspective I only share for one or two scenes. A narrator needs to tell a story, not just a single event.

Examples of When it Doesn’t Work:

*

When it Almost Works

And this one is tricky. If it almost works, I can still enjoy the book. Heck, I can even enjoy a book sometimes when it flat out doesn’t work (although in that case, I can’t LOVE the book).

When this happens, it’s pretty much always in books featuring three or more POVs. The author has a couple POVs working well, developing characters and arcs alongside each other, bringing us lots of necessary information…and then they slip in another one that’s not necessary. It kind of sneaks in, around all the stuff that is necessary, and it almost fools us into believing that we needed that character’s POV. But we didn’t. And any time we come across that character’s POV, the story starts to feel flat. So basically, the author could have had a solid multiple-POV book, but that one extra narrator kept it from completely working.

I can totally see why this happens. Authors love their characters. They want us readers to have ALL the information, because sometimes it’s painful to not show how fully developed and real these characters are in their heads. And when they are letting several other characters have their voice, and they’re all working well, I’d guess it can be extremely hard to see that this one character just isn’t working. But I would argue that there’s a way (albeit much more difficult for the writer) to develop those characters and give us all the necessary information without crawling inside their heads for a couple chapters.

Examples of When it Almost Works (Disclaimer: I still enjoyed these books):

I know I’ve read more than two books where it almost worked, but I honestly can’t think of what they were at the moment. It’s a pretty rare occurrence — normally the multiple POVs either work or they don’t.

So what do you think? Do you love multiple POVs or hate them? Does it depend on the circumstance? Are they necessary sometimes and superfluous at others? What books can you think of that I didn’t mention here that got it perfectly right (or horribly wrong)? 

*I know a lot of you may disagree with me on Legend, but I maintain that the narrators in that book sound exactly. The. Same.