“Introducing the Players”

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about Nero Wolfe before. If I haven’t, please excuse me while I hyperventilate in disbelief, because Nero Wolfe is flamin’ amazing.

“Book or T.V. Nero Wolfe?” you ask me.

“Both,” is my reply. “Both, my sprightly word-lover.”

My first introduction to Nero Wolfe was in book form, with Rex Stout’s novels. I still love them, and I still re-read them (and gasp excitedly whenever a newly-converted-to-kindle book that I haven’t been able to find at the library comes up on my Amazon storefront). I could really rave for ages about how awesome Wolfe and Archie are, and how much I enjoy the books. I’m not going to do so, because that isn’t the point of this blog post.

No, for this blog post, I’m going to talk about the T.V. version of Nero Wolfe (and a couple other things which are the actual point I’m currently illustrating by using the Nero Wolfe T.V. series).

Deep, ain’t it?

So. The Nero Wolfe T.V. show. For the purposes of this blog post, let the record show that I’m referencing the Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton series: I believe there are other movies and maybe another series, but since I can’t possibly see them being anywhere near as good as the Chaykin/Hutton effort, I’m ignoring them as if they don’t exist.

archie-and-nero1

The whole show is well done: the casting is perfect (Chaykin and Hutton are Wolfe and Archie; mad and bad and dangerous to know–ie, flippant, selfish, and frequently crazy), the dialogue as sparkling and hilarious as in the books, the directing some of the best I’ve seen, and the costumes both bright and entirely accurate. And like all the best shows, the Nero Wolfe series has a peculiarity that will either endear it to you, or annoy you intensely. You can possibly guess which it is in my case.

This peculiarity, in the case of the Nero Wolfe series, is the fact that the show, instead of introducing the actors, introduces “the Players”.

Maybe you can see where this is going.

If not, allow me to explain. By introducing “the Players”, the show is letting you in on the secret that you may otherwise not notice until two or three episodes later– which is the fact that each of the actors is present in nearly every episode.

That’s right. Each of the actors is almost always present, and they each play a different part in each different episode. In the case of one particular episode, one actress even plays two parts– her recurring part as Lily Rowan, and that of another lady in the story. Only Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe, Fritz, and Lily Rowan are always the same. Even Saul changes face once before he remains Saul, and Orrie gets the same treatment. And when Saul and Orrie aren’t in the storyline, those actors play different parts, too.

It’s something that makes you really appreciate the skills of the actors, since with their different parts, they quite often have different accents as well as completely different personalities, and none of them fall short in any of those things. After a while it becomes a game to pick which ones are the same as last episode, because it’s not always easy to tell at first.

I was reminded of this lately as I watched a couple of Taiwanese dramas.

So far I’ve seen two. They’re hilarious and weird, and really very sweet– and insanely long (oh my goodness, 35 episodes?!?!)

Why am I bringing up Taiwanese drama after Nero Wolfe? Ah, now for the second illustration of my point (which, btw, I haven’t yet brought up. Wait for it).

I originally started watching the second drama because I really liked the main male lead in the first (Office Girls) and found out he was in Miss Rose is Getting Married, which sounded as hilarious as Office Girls.

Smiling eyes, hilariously hammy acting on occasion, perfect comedic timing, and then a sucker-punch kind of sweetness that catches you by surprise, Roy Chiu has quickly become one of my favourite actors.

Smiling eyes, hilariously hammy acting on occasion, perfect comedic timing, and then a sucker-punch kind of sweetness that catches you by surprise, Roy Chiu has quickly become one of my favourite actors.

So I began watching the second drama along with the first (really livin’ it up, yeah?)

My first surprise was that my (again, favourite) 2nd male lead was also in this one, in a bigger role (hooray!) Then the mean girl from Office Girls turned up as the cute, peppy best friend (also hooray, b/c she’s just adorable). It didn’t occur to me until about three or four episodes in that the main female lead was also 2nd female lead in Office Girls.

From this discovery I went on to find that nearly every single actor in Miss Rose is Getting Married was also in Office Girls. I’m not even exaggerating. Every main lead and most of the secondaries are in both dramas, simply playing different parts. They’ve even included some of the actors in fake video clips that you see in the background, causing me to choke on my tea and nearly die of death by drowning in my hitherto safe armchair. I’m now having a great old time trying to catch ’em all–er, I mean spot them all.

Which (finally) brings me to my point. Hooray?

As a writer, there is one thing that I’m constantly worried about. If you’ve been paying attention up until this point, you’ve probably guessed what that is.

It’s this: after you’ve written about four or five books, you start to worry about your characters. Specifically, you begin to worry that your characters are all the same. You worry that you’ve simply regurgitated the same old characters into a new setting and a new plot. You wonder if their reactions, dialogue, and essential character are just too similar to each other.

In short, you begin to see them as the same old actors, painted to look superficially different. I remember the first time that I realised Ellis Peters’ characters were essentially the same characters for each book, simply put into a different setting, plot, and murder mystery.

To some extent, you can’t get away from it. There are only so many types of characters out there, and each writer is generally geared to a certain type/s of character that they enjoy/are good at writing. It’s not even necessarily a bad thing: your fans and readers like a certain kind of character, and they won’t always appreciate you growing your craft at their expense.

So, if I can’t fully escape it, why am I stressing over it?

Because sometimes, just having the problem in mind is enough to ameliorate it, even if that’s only by a small amount. If you’ve got that nagging doubt at the back of your mind, you’ll be more careful about your character drawing. You’ll tweak this or that to add small shades of other colours. You’ll consider different circumstances that might lead to different character development. In short, by thinking about your craft as you work, it’s likely that your craft will improve.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have similar characters. Our core values don’t change too much, and as writers, that will always be disseminated in our writing– and especially in our characterisation. But as a writer, I don’t want to have the same old character in every book because I wasn’t good enough or disciplined enough to write different ones. If I have similar characters, I want it to be because I intended it that way, not because I don’t know any better.

Creating Worlds: Making up Montalier

Okay, so technically, Montalier is not a world.

1It’s a country within a world. But creating worlds sounds so much better than making up countries, so I’m running with it. I created Montalier for my novella TWELVE DAYS OF FAERY, the first in my SHARDS OF A BROKEN SWORD trilogy. Besides being the home of one of my favourite characters, Montalier is one of my favourite settings. I don’t think it’s because Montalier is any more developed than my other worlds: rather, I think it’s because TWELVE DAYS OF FAERY was a first on so many levels for me.

  1. The first novella I ever wrote
  2. The first longer form fiction I wrote from a male POV (previously, I’ve only written short stories from male POV)
  3. The beginning of my first complete trilogy (as of now, when THE FIRST CHILL OF AUTUMN is due to be published May 31st)
  4. The first book for which I made up pie proverbs

When you build a world you have to think about so many things.

Is this the coolest map you've ever seen, or what?

Is this the coolest map you’ve ever seen, or what? (And in case you’re wondering, Wyndsor is north-east of Montalier, out of sight along the coast. Avernse also doesn’t appear on this map, but that’s because it was a VERY TINY piece of paper)

Political system. Monetary system. History. Religious system (if any). Etymology of names. Proverbs and historical references. Is it a country or an actual world? A monarchy or a democracy–or perhaps both? What sort of military does your country have? How does it interact with the militia of the surrounding countries? Is this a coastal country, or landlocked? Do you have dragons? (Always have dragons). If you’re travelling from country to country, where exactly are your countries in relation to each other? Do you have a map? (Always have a map. With compass. Trust me, you’ll need it.)

There are many other things to ask and formulate, but one of the things I most enjoy making up is pop culture. Well, not exactly pop culture, but you know what I mean. The catch-phrases people use. The in-jokes. The references to ancient (and not-so-ancient) history. The things you forget you say until someone from another country hears you and wonders what you mean.

With Montalier, it was pies.

Tiny pies. Huge Pies. Pies in between. Pie proverbs. Pie references. Pies everywhere! I love pie, so it was a hugely enjoyable (albeit hunger-inducing) part of my world-building. In fact, when I revisited Montalier for THE FIRST CHILL OF AUTUMN, at least one beta reader asked if there would be more pie proverbs. (Spoilers: no. Sadly, there were no words to spare, as TFCOA already weighs in at a smidge over 50k, which is slightly long for a novella).

As a reader, I have three worlds that I’ve found to be extraordinarily well-written.

The first of those is the world Steven Brust has created for Vlad Taltos, his assassin-on-the-run who manages to escape death and disaster by the skin of his teeth nearly every book, while his side-kick Loiosh is making sarcastic comments in his ear. The world-building there is something really special. It grows over the course of many, many books, but each book is so well-contained and explained that I have very happily read them ALL out of order without feeling more than pleased each time I find something cool that slots into my knowledge base for the next book.

Second: Kate Stradling’s Kingdom of Lenore in KINGDOM OF RUSES  and TOURNAMENT OF RUSES. And guys, I know I’ve raved about this book and this author before, but the world-building here is just so deftly done: there is not a single unnecessary word, and the world is richly imagined and filled out.

My third favourite is the world Patricia Wrede created for THE RAVEN RING. It is rich in sayings, understandings, customs, and magic; and it’s done in an understated and completely immersive way. THE RAVEN RING is another book I’ve already raved about, so just go and read it already. (Incidentally, Patricia Wrede’s blog is probably one of the best blogs a writer can read for world-building–and lots of other–advice, too.)

Writers, what is your favourite part of creating a world? Readers, what is the best world you’ve ever read? Let me know in the comments! Or, yanno, just tell me a really great pie proverb?

Isabella Farrah (and other parts of me)

There is a question every author will be asked–oh so many times!–during their career.

That question is: “How do you come up with your characters?”

Its cousin is: “Are you going to put me in one of your books?”

The answer to the second question is: “That depends. Are you an awful person/have you been unspeakably nasty to me/the people I love? Then yes. And the character that is you will probably die alone and miserable, or at once and ‘orribly. Are you a nice/ordinary/pleasant person? Then maybe, but only the parts of you that interest me. Maybe your hair. Perhaps that habit of yours where you silently flick your index and fore fingers when you feel nervous. You will be dismembered in the most painless way, and your foibles and character traits dissected with great interest.”

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”

-E.L. Doctorow

The answer to the first is slightly more complicated. I don’t really draw characters from real life, wholesale. I take bits and pieces. Sometimes those bits and pieces come from the people around me, but mostly they come from myself.

What is it that E.L. Doctorow says? “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia”. It’s true. I honestly don’t know how many authors work this way, but for me, there is some sense in which every character I write is me. Well, a part of me. Remember what I said about dismemberment earlier? Well, that applies to myself as well. I’m a great proponent of the practise of self-dismemberment. My characters are a kind of Igor: this piece patched onto that piece, a bit of embellishment here, and a bit of fancy stitching there. I don’t just keep the pieces as they are–I idealise them and alter them–but they remain essentially what they are: pieces of me.

My characters are a kind of Igor: this piece patched onto that piece, a bit of embellishment here, and a bit of fancy stitching there.

To put it in practical terms, we’ll take Isabella Farrah, the MC from my Beauty & the Beast rewrite, MASQUE. Lady Isabella Farrah is intelligent, driven, stubborn, resourceful, and incredibly confident. She has a great love for tea, adores her meals, and has a genius for making clothes. She pulls strings, lays plans, and makes the people around her dance to her tune–all for their own good, of course! She is quite certain that she knows best, and–fortunately for her–she is almost always right. (See Jane Austen’s EMMA for what can happen when such a character is not almost always right!)

Now this isn’t a true representation of my own character traits, but it does have its genesis there. I gave Isabella all of my stubbornness (and then some, since in her paradigm she is almost always right, whereas I, alas, am not), my love for tea and good food, and a heightened sense of my own love for making clothes. I also gave her what my mother calls my Pied Piper attribute. For some reason, kids over the age of three seem to love me. They follow me around, grin at me, tell me their made up jokes, and do what I tell them to (and sometimes what I do, which brings its own problems). With very few exceptions, I find it easy to manage a crowd of kids. So I made this attribute bigger and better and less inclined to small failures, and gave it to Isabella, who makes everyone dance to her tune.

She was such a fun and easy character to write because I took of my most confident and comfortable things to make her. Now, when I write characters with less pleasant parts of me–my fear of people yelling at me, for example, or my anxiety with what people think of me–it makes writing that character much harder. I don’t love the parts of me that are afraid of everything. I’d much rather write confident, self-reliant people. But the fact is that there are parts of me that are always afraid, always sick, or always not particularly nice. And if I don’t write character with those traits as well–MCs as well as side characters–let’s face it, I’m not a very good author. I don’t want to write the same character all the time.

So when you see a character of mine that you don’t like as much, whether that’s because s/he’s always afraid, or too anxious to please, or actually quite nasty, just remember–it’s all a part of me. In a way, everything you see in one of my books tells you something about me. You’ll see the nasty pieces of me as well as the pretty pieces.

Breaking The Rules

I’d like to start out this blog post by saying that I break the rules. A lot. (Not laws and work rules and such- I’m almost offensively straight-laced when it comes to following those. I am not a rebel.)

Nope, I’m talking about writing rules. The ones that say things like ‘Cut ALL adverbs and adjectives’ and ‘Never start a sentence with a preposition’ and ‘Never use any dialogue tags’. Stuff like ‘Always sit down and outline your book before you write the first word’ and ‘Never use semicolons’. No run-on sentences! Not to mention all the various grammar rules and regulations. Let’s face it, when it comes to writing, there are a lot of rules.

For the record, I use quite a reasonable amount of adverbs and adjectives, and although I don’t tag every bit of dialogue I write, I do tag some. There are some rules of grammar that I break for effect or in line with a particular character’s voice. I quite often, for stylistic purposes, start a sentence with a preposition. I may, in fact, have broken most of the rules of writing. There’s a time and a place for everything.

HOWEVER.

There is a huge, monumental, gaping great difference between breaking the rules for stylistic/characteristic/etc purposes, and breaking them because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. A huge amount of my favourite authors break the rules constantly, in one way or another (reading Terry Pratchett last night just reinforced this) and I don’t think there are many people who would be daft enough to tell Terry Pratchett, Patricia Wrede, Steven Brust, etc, to pull their socks up and get their grammar right. This is because they know the rules. They simply choose to break them every now and then. But they do know them.

I’ve read a heck of a lot of bad books. Books with bad spelling, the wrong homonyms, atrocious grammar: errors that stick with you whether or not the actual stuff of the book is good. I’ve also heard a lot of authors, when their errors are pointed out, say something along the lines of: “Oh, I didn’t realise that. But it’s okay, insert famous author here does it all the time.”

It’s not okay. Breaking the rules is okay, but there needs to be a reason. And you need to know that reason. You need to know the rules before you break them. It makes all the difference between good and bad writing. You might get it right by accident, breaking the rules, but you’re far more likely to get it horribly wrong and find your book being mocked for the rest of its (probably short) life.

So pull your socks up. Learn the rules.

Then go ahead and feel free to break ’em.

Musings: On Hannibal The Cannibal

Okay, so first things first. When I talk about Hannibal I mean the TV and Movie Hannibal. I haven’t read the books. That said, proceed!

hannibal lecter

I’ve watched a few of the Hannibal movies (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, and Hannibal) and I’m now in the process of watching the second season of TV Hannibal, which is slightly different again but just as compelling. (Also it’s fun to listen to hubby retching when he comes in sight of the tv screen for a particularly gruesome murder.)

The murders are one and all excessively gruesome and sometimes beautiful in that gruesomeness (for example, the guy with a tree wrapped around his legs, his arms in its cherry-blossom’d branches and glorious flowers blossoming from his split torso). They’re also almost completely unbelievable. I mean, seriously, what murderer has the uninterrupted time to set up a guy in a tree in a parking lot without being noticed? Or slice a girl into slides and arrange the slides so beautifully that it’s like looking at one of those books with the plastic slides of musculature? Not to mention the cops should have a field day with stuff as easy to find out as who purchased eight-odd MASSIVE FREAKING SLIDES OF GLASS.

That’s another story, though, and for the most part I suspend disbelief and just go along with it. The question that occurred to me the other night is, why do I go along with it? Why am I watching this show? Why am I even half cheering for this guy?

To recap:

  1. The bloke eats people. Yanno? He actually slices pieces of flesh and bone (though mostly, it seems, the soft organs like kidneys and brains and tongues) and cooks and eats them. That’s not okay. That’s gross and disturbing and completely alien to any right-thinking person.

  2. He murders on a whim. If he thinks someone is being rude, whether to himself or some other societal more he considers important, wham! That person is liable to end up dead, with missing body parts. That goes for any musician unlucky enough to disturb Hannibal’s enjoyment of a concert by playing a wrong note. I can only imagine what he’d do to someone whose mobile phone went off in the middle of said concert.

  3. He’s been known to wear people’s faces. Seriously. Like, tearing off a dude’s face and wearing it to escape (if you want to know how that happens, watch the movie yourself). And he tends to disemboweling and other gross stuff like that. He seems to prefer his victims alive, too. That is also not okay.

There’s more, but those are the main things. This guy is a predator; a terrifying, alien, other predator with no normal human morals or perceivable conscience.

So, the question remains: Why is he so compelling?

And I can’t deny that he is compelling, because despite the extreme violence in the movies/tv show, and the (for me) more than usually allowable bad language, I found it hard to stop watching. Why is that? Since the moment I watched The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal (my favourite of the movies, if ‘favourite’ is quite the word to use) I’ve puzzled to myself about why I find Hannibal so compelling. Watching the second season of the TV show Hannibal got me wondering again.

This morning, in the middle of my devotions, cuddling my cup of tea, I got it.

There’s a catechism/truth/principal that is used in the Presbyterian church I go to, and in some of the older protestant books that I read. It goes something like: ‘The value of a soul depends upon the object of its affections’. It’s used in relation to God and His loving of His own Self: ie, that His soul/person is of infinite value and worth because the object of His affections (Himself) is utterly beautiful, perfect, right, just, and unchanging. His affections are set on what is most right and beautiful. In that sense, God defines Himself. It’s also used with regards to Christians. We’re ultimately beautiful when we love that which is beautiful- in this case, God. Our worth is dependent upon appreciating and finding beautiful the things that are beautiful and ought to be appreciated. If we love wrong things and see them as beautiful instead, our soul is corrupted.

To tie this in, consider Hannibal’s main relationships. In the movies, it’s mainly Clarice Starling: an upright, righteous, and morally straight FBI Agent. There’s the sense that she’s a good copper, but the main idea that I personally got from their interactions on screen was her unwavering sense of right. She was morally upright.

In the TV series there is Will Graham. Now, as the series proceeds, he gets darker. But the thing about Will that I most appreciate is that he sees the darkness in the world and potentially in himself, and he hates it. Even the wrong things he does are motivated by a sense of right. He is terrified of the darkness, and yet he keeps fighting it in the world and in himself.

And these two people, in one way or another, Hannibal loves. He loves them fiercely, terrifyingly, and in some cases, almost entirely selflessly. It’s an alien and unfathomable emotion in him. He sees the uprightness in them and he loves them for it. He knows that if he gets too close he’ll be burned, but he can’t seem to help himself. He’s drawn to them.

And that, right there, is what makes Hannibal such a compelling character. In his otherness and alienness, he is terrifying. But in his love of these two people (and seemingly only these two people) with their uprightness and unwavering determination to do what is right at all times, there is something oddly good and worthwhile.

So while the violence turns my stomach at times, and I fully recognise that Hannibal needs to be shot quickly and efficiently, I can’t help but find him compelling still.

Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal Lecter

Mads Mikkelson as Hannibal Lecter

Laziness And Self-Publishing, And Stuff

I’m lazy.

That’s one of the first things I learned about myself as I was growing up. You know the kid that goes to the toilet before it’s supposed to do the washing up and just never comes out? Yeah, that was me. (It’s still me, except I’ve figured out better ways to skive off work than shutting myself in the loo with a book.)

So one of the things about self-publishing that’s hit me hard is the amount of work. To be honest, it wouldn’t be that bad if it wasn’t for the full-time (and by full-time I mean 40-55hrs a week) job. There’s just so much stuff to do. Yanno, stuff stuff. It’s not even real writing stuff. It’s stuff like hanging out on Twitter to connect with people (and getting carried away ‘cos suddenly you’ve met this awesome person who’s at the same place you are, and writes these really fantastic stories), or figuring how to promote your book/s, or trying to discover exactly how Goodreads works. (I mean, seriously, I JUST figured out how to Twitter!)

And that’s before you consider the hours of writing per day, sandwiched into my lunch break, or before work, or after work. Then when I get home, there’s the housework to do.

I’m lazy.

I don’t want to have to do all that. Only it’s so satisfying when it comes out right, and the book’s published, and you can get on with the next book. It’s satisfying to see the follower count for my blog go up. It’s satisfying to find out that having a Twitter Follow-Me! box is worth the time and effort to install. And it’s really satisfying when someone else downloads one of your books.

Still, I’m pretty pleased with my foray into self-publishing so far. I’m loving the level of control I have over my own book. I’m loving the fact that I can publish on my own schedule. And I’m loving all the fantastic people I’m meeting along the way.

I’m lazy, but there are some things that are worth working for.

Inferiority Complex

We’re writers. We’re meant to be at least slightly neurotic. But there’s that day, every so often, when we’ll be reading a good book. I mean a really good book: solid to fantastic plot, fascinating characters we fall in love with and weep for, and the absolute perfect pacing; all wrapped in a superbly crafted structure.

You take a thought break to bask in the gloriousness of it, grinning foolishly to yourself. Then it hits you.

I’ll never be this good. This is the Van Gough of books. If I live until I’m fifty and keep writing better and better, I’m still never gonna be as good as this bloke.

And you know, that can be good. I’m not one of those people who thinks it’s damaging to the human psyche to admit to actual inferiority. You’re never gonna be as good as at least one girl or bloke out there, and sometimes that knowledge spurs you on to do better. Anything that gets us in front of that computer/notepad/whatever to write and grow, is a good thing.

But it’s also good to remember that writing is a growing thing. The first books of at least two of my favourite authors, had I read them first, would not have inspired me to read more of their work. I can literally see the growth as I read through those early books. You’re not going to be the best you can be right now. You’re going to have to work on it. Your first book is most likely not going to be your best. You’ve still got so much to learn. I’ve still got so much to learn- and practise, and put in to practise.

Who knows, one day we may be that good. But if we never had anything that spurred us on to be better, we’d probably never get there.

Embrace the inferiority. Just don’t let it stop you from being better.

Behold The Beauteous Cover Art!

I’ve been very busy these last few days, finishing final edits of my MS Masque. Likewise busy has been the very talented Joleene Naylor, finishing up the cover of Masque for me.

Happy mortals, feast your eyes on the beauteous cover art! Then go ahead and preorder Masque from Amazon or Kobo. Publication date is set for 1st February, 2015. Two months, guys!

MASQUE - 2500

And if you’re like me and need a blurb to read, scroll down. Adieu. I’m off to gloat a little more over my cover art.

 

    Beauty met the Beast, and there was . . . bloody murder?

            It’s the Annual Ambassadorial Ball in Glause, and Lady Isabella Farrah, the daughter of New Civet’s Ambassador, is feeling pleasantly scintillated. 

In the library is Lord Pecus, a charming gentleman whose double mask hides a beastly face, and who has decided that Isabella is the very person to break the Pecus curse. 

In the ball-room is young Lord Topher, who is rapidly falling in love with an older woman. 

And in the card-room, lying in a pool of his own blood, is the body of one of Isabella’s oldest friends: Raoul, Civet’s Head Guardsman.  The papers sewn into his sash seem to suggest espionage gone wrong, but Isabella is not so certain.

Lord Pecus, as Commander of the Watch, is of the opinion that Isabella should keep out of the investigation and out of danger.  Isabella is of the opinion that it is her murder to investigate, and that what a certain Beast-Lord doesn’t know won’t hurt him.  . . .    

Will Isabella find the murderer before Lord Pecus does, or will she end her investigation as a bloody spatter on the parlour floor?

 

Note: I’m currently sending Masque out for review, so if you’re interested in getting your hot little hands on a free review copy, email me at gingellwrites (AT) gmail.com. I’ll send a digital or physical copy of Masque to you for the purposes of a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads, etc. All honest reviews are welcomed, and I understand that not everyone is going to love me and my books. (Odd, but there it is . . .)