Friday, October 14, 2011

Changing Forms

I was up at my parents' last week, doing general visitery things and being a good daughter. And as happens when I'm home, I got to talking writing with Dad. He's about the only person I feel able to talk over my frustrations with, both about my own writing and about the industry in general. (After all, if you talk about frustrations on the internet, the internet will jump on your head and maybe tell prospective agents on you.) One of the things that came out of our discussions was that my frustrations over my novel not being the novel I want it to be, no matter how hard I try, could be because the novel was in the wrong form and/or not playing to my strengths.

This appears to actually have been the case, because I've shifted the form slightly and am writing again, finally. More on that at the end. I realized something else, though—I see a lot of writing blogs talk about style and structure, about how to write what sells, and about how to fix problems with the plot, with characters, with description, with mechanics. I see blogs talking about how to get out of writer's block by starting something new, having zombies attack the main character, or about how writer's block doesn't really exist and have you seen their post about fixing plot problems? I don't see many, if any, posts about solving problems by stepping back and asking yourself if the story's being told the right way, if it has the right narrative form or point-of-view. Those sorts of problems probably happen less than the other reasons for block, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

I'm not going to talk about that process of stepping back. Hopefully you already know how to do that. Nor am I going to talk about point-of-view (POV) shifts, because there are plenty of other people talking about those. So that leaves me to list narrative forms, in the hopes that they'll spark a revelation in at least one blocked writer. This is probably not a complete list. Feel free to add to it.
  • traditional narrative - a single narrator in any POV, telling a story; may focus on a character, a group of characters, a society, an age, a civilization…. The possibilities are, as with any of these forms, unlimited.
  • reflective narrative - technically falls under "traditional narrative", but enough of a shift that I'm giving it its own bullet; the narrator speaks from a point after the book ends, shedding wisdom and insight on events in their past.
  • multiple narrative - any story with two or more narrators, describing events from multiple points of view or telling interweaving/parallel stories; often gives the story a broader scope.
  • nonlinear narrative - a story that jumps between different points in time.
  • frame story - a story that's given a context for being told—a series of discovered letters, an interview, a person editing a manuscript, etc.; will most likely have two narrators, one with much less prominence than the other.
  • epistolary novel/diary - a story told through letters, diary entries, email, etc.; can be told by one or more people.
  • script - a story told through dialogue and physical actions, rather than prose.
  • visual narrative - a story told through pictures (photos, film, drawings, etc.), rather than or alongside prose.
  • verse novel - a story told through poetry, rather than prose.
Of course, these forms can be combined. I'd say graphic novels and comics are a blend of script and visual narrative, for instance. Reflective narratives can easily show up in any of the other forms. Scripts can be frame stories or nonlinear. You don't need to stick to just one, either, if mixing them up works better. 

I can't tell you if you're blocked because you've using the wrong narrative form or if you're blocked because of something else. Obviously. You need to step back from the thick of the story and work that out yourself. But don't think, like I did, that the first form you choose is the only form the story can take. Be flexible. Try out other forms, if they strike your interest.

For the record, I'm switching my novel from a dual narrative to a frame story that drops one of the narrators and adds in another as the "framer". It'll require a whole lot more new writing, but I think it'll be a better book for it, in the end. It's so good to have the words flowing again.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Year of the Superhero - After the Golden Age


After the Golden Age is … I'm still trying to decide as I write this, unfortunately. I think the cover copy did it a disservice, in that it seemed to promise me one book when I got another. The plot summary is neat—accountant daughter of famous superheroes must help take down supervillain—but it got me expecting a cutthroat story about assembling evidence and a lot of time in the courtroom, when the story itself is more about personal journey, family, and acceptance of one's lot in life. Which is not a bad story, at all. It just wasn't what I was expecting.

After the Golden Age is set in a fairly typical superhero world. Commerce City could stand in for just about anywhere. It has superheroes—the four members of the Olympiad, as well as a handful of teamless heroes. The Olympiad works out of a command centre at the top of a skyscraper, mounts patrols, checks the police scanner, and responds to supervillain-type threats, which annoys the police. There's also a supervillain, the Destructor, who's been a thorn in everyone's side for a generation and has crazy, mad scientist schemes that are "bound to work this time!" even if he works in an escape plan anyway. There do not appear to be superheroes elsewhere, and the reasons for powers existing in Commerce City isn't explained until near the end of the book.

But that's all background. Celia West, main character, accountant, and daughter of half the Olympiad, is more interesting. She has issues centering around how disappointed her parents were that she didn't inherit powers, and she's trying to make up for a mistake in her past. It's not going so well, and when she starts helping with Destructor's trial, it only gets worse. She also gets kidnapped enough that she reads hostage video scripts sarcastically and is pretty good at sizing up bad guys. As the story progresses, she starts taking a more active role in her life and the mystery (because there's always a mystery, we'll get back to that), and learns that heroism isn't just about powers and costumes. All the same, I can't help feeling that she could've been better realized, that we could've seen more of her personality outside of her reactions to events.

Like I said, I'd expected a cutthroat trial story, with Celia tracking down evidence in death-defying ways, and that wasn't what I got. The trial takes up maybe half the novel, at most, and we don't see very much of it, or of people putting together evidence. (They're trying to get the Destructor for tax fraud, not property destruction, murder, and the other things he's guilty of.) The story's about Celia coming to terms with herself, and the central mystery involves who's behind the current crime spree, since the Destructor's under way too much security to mastermind it himself. Or is he? As Celia's tracking down evidence against the Destructor, she starts uncovering hints that there's maybe more to the kidnappings, the Destructor, and superpowers than everyone suspects. As mysteries go, it's a fairly predictable one. I caught a lot of the clues before I think I was meant to, and anticipated a lot of, but not all, the twists. It also has an urban fantasy vibe, which isn't surprising considering that's where Vaughn got her start.

There are some moments surrounding superpowers and superheroes that I found interesting. The Olympiad and Destructor are still effective in their hero/villain roles once their identities are revealed, for instance, and welcome the publicity even. There are some sweet moments in which Spark, Celia's mother, cooks food with her bare hands and such-like. There are some not-so-sweet flashbacks where Celia's dad tries to test her for powers. There's mention of the consequences of telepathy. And, so far uniquely in my quest for superhero knowledge, the accident that caused the powers is also responsible for the protectiveness the heroes feel for the city. When they say they "have to" do their job, they mean it.

Ultimately, this isn't a particularly memorable story. Sure, I enjoyed reading it, but I didn't take anyway anything new from it. Everything superhero-wise (which is why I read the book) appears elsewhere—the nature of heroism, the growing-up narrative, the realistic examination of heroes and their powers—and I don't think After the Golden Age does those any better than the other stories. It was definitely an enjoyable read and a good story, but it kind of pales in comparison to some of the other books I've read this year. Oh well, on to the next book…