Learning experience: The right way to do first person

I just finished reading Karen Marie Moning’s Darkfever, the first book in her Fever series. Two things precipitated the purchase: recommendation from a friend and part of my continuing education (specifically following Dean Wesley Smith’s advice to read for pleasure and then study the pleasurable reads from long-time, best-selling authors). Moning’s Darkfever met both those criteria and it’s an excellent example of how to do first person well.

I’m not going to cover the plot because it’s a distant third in the way I measure things. I’m far more impressed by an interesting milieu (the setting and skillful world-building) and interesting characters, and for a first person novel, frankly, character trumps all. Actually, plot is never my primary concern. If it was, I wouldn’t re-read my favorite books or series year-in and year-out. See, the plot doesn’t ever change. Psst. Don’t tell anyone.

So here we have MacKayla Lane, a soft, spoiled young woman with lots of First World problems who is far too concerned with her long blonde hair, the names of her nail polish colors, and her wardrobe choices. Not a character that I would typically go for, and had the first person narration been typical, I would’ve probably walked –no, sprinted– away from the free sample and gone on to something else.

What was it about this character that (a) drew me in, and (b) kept me turning the pages? I didn’t like “Mac” very much. She had way too many idiotic opinions and priorities for me to take her seriously. But here’s the rub: I was solidly in her world and in her head from the very start. This first person narrator was very obviously a retrospective narrator and she maintained that presence throughout the book. In other words, it wasn’t an outside-in narration with a pronoun shift to first person, i.e. a story better suited for third person.

Here’s an example of what maintaining that retrospective narrator presence looks like:

…I had no idea that pieces of one’s soul could be lost.

Back then, I was so blind to everything that was going on around me. Back then, I was twenty-two and pretty and up until the month before, my biggest concern had been whether Revlon would discontinue my favorite Iceberry Pink nail polish, which would be a disaster of epic proportions as it would leave me without the perfect complement for the short pink silk skirt I was wearing today with a clingy pearly top, and shimmery gold sandals, flattered by just the right heel to show off my golden, toned legs.

Moning, Karen Marie (2006-10-31). Darkfever: Fever Series Book 1 (pp. 238-239). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

At no time did Moning insult my intelligence by pretending that this was “real-time” or that the peril was such that the narrator’s survival was in doubt, yet there was no lack of tension. It also didn’t suffer from “reporting syndrome,” that awful situation when choosing a first person narrator results in having other characters report their findings to the narrator because so much of the really important stuff took place outside her presence (hint: means it should’ve been a multiple viewpoint novel) .

My only complaint about the story is that there wasn’t much romance despite the obvious and ongoing sexual tension between Mac and Jericho, but there was enough promise of one to make me do the one thing every writer hopes a reader will do when she reaches the end: press that button to buy the next book.

 

 

More on serving the needs of drama

In fiction, flashbacks are scenes that take place in the past (i.e. not current/running story time) and some readers (supposedly) hate them so much they skip them.

Here’s a great “flashback” from L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright, on “…the constant struggle between the efforts to entertain and the efforts to spread a message.”  Even if you’re the kind of reader that skips flashbacks, don’t skip this one. 🙂

 

Double standards – a “Strong Female Character” retelling of Star Wars

The first Star Wars movie (now called “A New Hope”) opens with a poor farm boy who wants to be a pilot. Luke embarks on what’s known as “the hero’s journey” complete with an initial refusal of “the call” to be a hero, and a mentor. Classic stuff. I’m a fan of the original version.

In terms of plot, we start out with the protagonist reacting to things. Then as the story moves along, the protagonist is no longer just reacting, but calling some of the shots, even if he’s not in charge. This is standard plot-structure stuff. For Luke, this midpoint change occurs aboard the Death Star where he appeals to Han Solo’s enlightened self-interest with the promise of a reward.

What does this have to do with double standards?

I’m so glad you asked. I’m going to tweak all the so-called feminists out there who demand that our stories be told through an exclusive “feminist” filter. Why? Because, frankly, I’m sick and tired of their attempts to redefine what makes a strong female character (SFC).

Let’s hop to the end of the prequels and have Ben deliver Leia to her family on Tatooine instead. She grows up on the farm. Let’s give her the same skill set.

Leia is a poor farm girl who wants to be a pilot. But she can’t. Because the oppressive patriarchy, via her uncle, won’t allow it. She’s practically a slave. She has to do chores and she’s not allowed to go out and have any fun. How will she grow to her full potential with such unfairness around her? She has no agency. She’s a weak character because she doesn’t cast off the chains of patriarchy. She’s weak because she doesn’t run away and chooses to stay in such an oppressive environment. So what if the family took her in and raised her? That wasn’t out of love. Obviously it was for the free labor she’s expected to provide.

The uncle bosses her around. She doesn’t get fair wages, or any wages at all. In fact, sometimes she seems like a prisoner as she’s told she can’t leave the homestead until her chores are done. It’s so sexist on Tattooine. The aunt is always cooking. She doesn’t work outside the home. At least she did’t bother to have any kids. Phew! Not barefoot and not pregnant. Go, Beru, go.

So now, Ben shows up. Leia refuses “the call.” We cheer. She said no to the patriarchy. We’re so proud. But wait, then she changes her mind. Boo! Didn’t she get the memo? You can’t change your mind and choose to go along with your oppressors. That makes you weak. Never mind that there’s no story, or at least not the original story. We must show our girls positive role-models at all times because messaging is more important than Story.

Ben and Leia go to Mos Eisley and run into Han Solo and Chewbacca. Han Solo is a cocky SOB. Yuck, he’s such a cowboy. No hipster glasses, no hipster skinny jeans, no man-bun, and double yuck — a gun! Eek. It might hop up and kill someone on its own. Why isn’t the Mos Eisley cantina posted with a “No guns” sign? Obviously anyone with criminal intentions will see the sign, see the error of their ways and give up their weapon. This would be such a better place without all those nasty blaster things.

And what’s this?  Ben is calling the shots, negotiating terms, overriding’s Leia’s valid concerns that she could buy her own ship for what Han Solo wants. Sexist pigs! Yes, she could fly it herself. Just ask the womprats. They’ll tell you how good she is. Sheesh. You think these guys have never seen a female pilot. What does a woman have to do to get recognition around here? Damn those glass ceilings.

Despite not calling the shots, Leia goes along  (no agency again) and they end up on the Death Star. Even here, Han Solo is being difficult. Now that Ben is not around to pull rank, Han’s back to thinking he’s in charge, disrespecting Leia’s agency yet again. But Leia gets an idea. Han is a greedy SOB. She appeals to his avarice. And it works. What? She manipulated him. You can’t do that. You can’t show women getting their way through manipulation! She should’ve kicked his ass, forced him to go. She’s the biggest, baddest, kickass female around. She fights her way out of things just like a man would. Why, she’d take those toothpick arms, and despite being half Han’s size, toss  him around like a rag doll. And Chewbacca. Pfft!! He’s only a wookie. And he’s obviously compensating for something by open-carrying a crossbow around all the time. She’ll show him who’s boss.

Seeing the light on romance

I have to admit, the last person I thought I’d see with an essay in Ardeur: 14 Writers on the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter Series was L. Jagi Lamplighter.

I’d read several of the books in the Anita Blake series after a co-worker got me hooked. I did not stay a devotee of the series. I honestly can’t recall where the series lost me, and I really didn’t think much of it. Most series romances lose me a few books in. “It’s not you. It’s me.” Honest.

Lamplighter was someone whose reputation I was aware of and whose short stories I’ve enjoyed. I may or may not have read her back when I was reading just for pleasure (and the fact that I can’t recall if I had or hadn’t isn’t noteworthy either, trust me–ask me what I had for dinner last night; go ahead, I dare you!). I do miss the days when I never had to worry about reading-as-a-writer. Reading-as-a-reader is more fun. Honestly, if you love reading, and you’re considering writing, turn back now. “Danger, Will Robinson, danger.” (This is not a condition unique to writing. Beware of turning any avocation into a vocation.) But, I digress…

This enlightening essay is called “Dating the Monsters: Why It Takes a Vampire or a Wereguy to Win the Heart of the Modern It Girl” and here’s a woefully brief excerpt. To my happy surprise, said essay wasn’t about the failings of men. I almost did a happy dance.

Lamplighter offers tremendous insight into what sweeps Romance readers off their collective feet and how the “needs of drama” differ from the “needs of culture.”

I agree that these needs have been at war and I think they’ve claimed the metaphorical lives of many stories that would’ve otherwise been great. And not just in Romance (or in romance) but in all kinds of fiction.

In short–so that you’ll seek it out for yourself and benefit from Lamplighter’s extremely well-written reasoning–this essay is about what makes happy readers. So, if you’ve just finished the latest “must read” with the fastest, smartest, biggest, baddest, kickass female protagonist out there, and you’re wondering what that awful aftertaste is all about, then set aside some time for this lone gem of literary criticism and insight.

 

 

The color of the Sun

This is one of those things that everybody knows, right? You’ve known since kindergarten. White sheet of paper. Yellow crayon. No problem.

I know it’s so because I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve read about “Earth’s yellow star.” It’s one of those things we take for granted or that we take on faith. A lot of things are like that today. Everybody says so, therefore it must be so. Especially if they stand up in front of a classroom, or if it’s been published in a book. Or they’re wearing a lab coat. Especially if they’re wearing a lab coat. Pffft!

The Sun is a white star. And yes, it’s the Sun. Just like the Earth is the Earth unless you’re speaking of the soil stuck to your boots, in which case you can go ahead and write “earth.” It’s capitalized if it’s a name just like it’s Mars, not mars. Or Moon, not moon, unless you mean a generic moon. Or a generic sun as in a “million suns.” Or Jupiter’s outer moons. But I digress.

Don’t take my word for it.

http://solar-center.stanford.edu/SID/activities/GreenSun.html

If your VPC (viewpoint character) has never seen the Sun except through dust and he thinks it’s orange, that’s fine, but if your VPC is a starship captain or a scientist or an omni narrator, he really ought to know better.