Elemental Magic

Elemental Magic

Escapism and The Pain Season

I’m delighted to have fellow lawyer and author of hot urban fantasy, Libby Doyle, as a guest on my blog today. She’s here to talk about the inspiration behind the second book in her Covalent series.

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Readers often ask me how I come up with my ideas. I tell them it is a mysterious alchemy. The way the light bounces off a skyscraper when I’m on my way to work in the morning makes me think how the sight would emotionally affect my characters. The sight of an impossibly beautiful couple makes me imagine their love story, or perhaps its tragic end.

I love escapism. I want my books to entertain. Life is hard and often boring, so I’ve written a few ripsnorters. I want to take people for a ride, light up their imaginations.

The science fiction/fantasy aspect of my stories is meant to be cool and fun. I have no pretense beyond that. But within that framework, my stories do what stories have always done. They draw you into the minds and emotions of characters and communicate something real by virtue of it.

In the Covalent Series, I’ve created a race of ancient beings who use their great power to keep the elemental forces of Creation and Destruction in Balance. In my fictional world, were it not for these aliens, the elemental forces would expand and transform into each other in an endless cycle. Everything would be destroyed. The Covalent bring stability to the cosmos. They sit at the still center of everything that exists.

So, imagine an immortal Covalent warrior, exiled to Earth because of the sins of his father, Lucifer, who rebelled against the rulers of their realm. Now, imagine this warrior meets an extraordinary human, an FBI agent, strong, smart and fearless, and falls madly in love with her. Not a real life situation, to put it mildly, but their passion teases out interactions that are all too human. Can love succeed when the lovers are not only from different cultures, but different dimensions? Does Barakiel, my heroic warrior, have the right to place the woman he loves in danger, which he does simply by loving her? He has enemies, you see.

Here’s an excerpt from The Pain Season:

Alexandra O’Gara sat on the couch flipping the pages of a magazine, too nervous to focus on reading. Normally, she liked it when Rainer asked her to wait for him at his place. Compared to her crappy little apartment, the ultra-modern space was an oasis of serenity, its sleek lines warmed by the rich wood of the furniture, the colorful rugs and the bright, abstract paintings. She had started a fire in the massive concrete fireplace despite the warmth of the night. She gazed into the flames.

Her phone buzzed. It was Rainer, talking rapidly, panic in his voice. When the call was over, she put the phone in her lap and stared at the floor.

What the hell?

Rainer’s tone led her to believe she should do as he said. Explanation or no, he wasn’t joking.

So much for my instincts. He must be involved in some criminal enterprise.

She suppressed tears as she pulled her service pistol from her bag. A 9mm Sig Sauer. Rainer had said there would be five assailants. She sent a prayer of thanks out to her FBI partner, Mel, who had insisted she get the Sig that took extra-capacity magazines.

Two twenty-round clips. That should do me.

Zan readied her firearm then ran to the front door. Before she opened it, she heard a vehicle drive into the compound. She looked through the peephole. A box truck.

I’ll never make it to my car. Should I call the police? Do I want to do that to Rainer? Have to explain this to my boss? I can slip out the back.

She remembered what Rainer had said about a defensive position. She decided on the weapons room. Its double doors were sturdy and it had an exit to the back balcony. She ran up the stairs. Once inside the room, she grabbed a pike off the wall and slid it through the handles to prevent the doors from opening. She waited. If they seemed like they could bust through, she would exit to the balcony, jump to the ground and hightail it to her car.

All I can do is hope they don’t leave someone outside to cut off my escape.

Zan opened the south-side window. She heard faint voices, doors slamming, the truck pulling away. She also heard sounds like rabid dogs would make if they were as big as grizzlies. Zan had not been afraid before, operating in some state of unreality, but the sounds brought fear screaming to her mind.

What the hell is that?

She ran to peer through the crack between the weapons room doors. She saw them crash through the front. Five huge, scaly, slobbering monsters with double-sided axes in their hands pushed the heavy wooden doors aside like they were paper.

The Monster

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The Pain Season is available now at Amazon: goo.gl/O3MEfT, iBooks: goo.gl/JQIOHL, Barnes & Noble: goo.gl/sSNpSb, & Kobo: goo.gl/AHm51x.

Although not a cliffhanger, The Pain Season is not a stand-alone novel. The story begins in The Passion Season and will continue in The Vengeance Season coming in 2017. 

Libby Doyle is an attorney and former journalist who took a walk around the corporate world and didn’t like it. She escapes the mundane by writing extravagant yarns, filled with sex and violence. She loves absurd humor, travel, punk rock, and her husband. You can discover more about Libby’s world at http://www.libbydoyle.com.

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Hidden Misogyny in “Sicario”

Hidden Misogyny in “Sicario”

Or, Give Me Ripley Over Macer Any Day

(Warning: spoilers for Sicario and Training Day.)

I finally got to Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario in my Netflix queue last week. I’d heard good things about it and I like the lead actors, so I was excited to watch it. The first half of the movie didn’t disappoint. What a taut thriller! I was quite literally on the edge of my seat during the highway confrontation. I wholly sympathized with Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer character. She’s cool and competent in the face of the film’s opening horrors, but not as hardened by the war on drugs as Benicio del Toro’s chilly veteran, Alejandro Gillick. She wants payback for what she’s seen, but not at any cost. When she sees Gillick and the CIA bad-guy setting up an assassination rather than a prosecution, she tries to stop it by going over their heads to her supervisor. That the film gives her idealism short-shrift is understandable. If there’s a moral message to the film it’s that America is losing the war on drugs not because of what we’re doing, but because of what we’re not willing to do.

But the second half of the movie repulsed me. Not because of Macer’s complicity in the assassination of the Mexican drug lords, or the way her own agency and the CIA turn on her. She’s a whistleblower, and a woman. I wholly believed the “old boys” closing ranks on her. What disgusted me was the way the film portrayed her as increasingly incompetent. The woman who sent her queasy (male) partner outside for air while she unflinchingly showed her superiors around the Chandler house of horrors is reduced over and over. First she has to be rescued from her hook-up turned hitman. Then she has her gun shot out of her hands in the tunnel incursion and is reduced to watching her partner’s “six.” She ends the movie in trembling paralysis, unable to stop Gillick even after he’s destroyed her career and threatened her life. What happened to the competent kidnap-response team commander?

If the point in eroding Macer’s competence this way was to show what happens to American soldiers in guerrilla warfare, then I just don’t buy it. With the exception of the seduction-turned-assassination attempt, her male partner is exposed to pretty much the same circumstances, and he doesn’t fall apart. Is the hidden point that women can’t hack it in war? Or that a woman’s sexuality makes her incapable of being an effective soldier? What is the film saying in having the (male) character that Macer looks to for guidance and approval being the one who destroys her career? Is it telling that the moment Macer quite literally lets her hair down, dresses and behaves like a woman, she’s attacked and nearly killed before Gillick rescues her?

The final scenes of the movie reduce Macer beyond incompetence, to the point of childishness. Gillick makes this abundantly clear when he threatens her and then tells her she looks like his lost daughter when she’s frightened. She’s tiny, barefoot and weaponless as she confronts him. Teary and helpless as he forces her into complicity with the CIA’s very dark political agenda. In one of the film’s most beautiful lines, Gillick tells her to run away to a small town where the rule of law still exists because she’s not a wolf, “and this is a land of wolves now.” Gorgeous language, but what does it say? Women are lambs? Women must be relegated to small-town America where they can be protected? The language may be beautiful but the message is not.

Would Macer’s character have been so reduced if she was a man? Maybe, but comparing Sicario to another thriller that had a similar message, I think not. That movie is Training Day, and although the message is the same, the treatment of the point-of-view rookie character is very different. Ethan Hawke’s character Jake Hoyt suffers a similar erosion of his high moral stance: taking drugs and participating (even if unwillingly) in the murder of a drug dealer. But Hoyt isn’t reduced to trembling inaction. He outwits Denzel Washington’s corrupt veteran and leaves him to a much-deserved fate. That’s a sharp contrast to Macer, outmaneuvered and left stranded Juliette-like on her apartment balcony while the titular hitman (who has now stolen everything from her, including her movie) turns his back on her and walks away.

I’m not asking for every female action hero to be Ellen Ripley. And I don’t mind morally murky films. I’m fine with an ending that shows we’re not winning whatever war we’re fighting: we’re just creating more and more victims. What I mind is making the female action hero one of them.

Pulling Aside the Curtain

Pulling Aside the Curtain

The ultimate reveal of the villain is incredibly important in any conflict-based narrative. It’s the pay-off for the reader. They’ve followed all the clues, stuck to the right path despite the red-herrings the author has thrown in their way, and now they get the prize: to find out “who done it” and why. Pulling aside the curtain is usually the climax of a narrative and what readers will long remember if it engages and entertains them.

It’s that moment, the ultimate reveal, that I’m struggling with at present. The feedback I’ve had on Snowburn tells me the ultimate reveal of the villain, Kison Tyng, was satisfying to readers. When I pulled back the curtain, I revealed not the all-powerful monster that the protagonists had envisioned, but rather a struggling, dying man motivated by the desire to protect his family. He put the protagonists through the conflicts of the story for a reason, and his reason was sympathetic. Readers really engaged with that.

The beta and editorial feedback I’ve had on Throwing Fire tells me the opposite. The reveal is not satisfying. The why of the antagonist’s actions doesn’t click with readers. Maybe that’s because Tyng’s actions in Snowburn were motivated by love, and the villain in Throwing Fire is motivated by hate and the desire for revenge. Is love a more satisfying motive than hate or revenge? I wouldn’t have thought so, but that’s something I’m chewing over.

I’ve been re-watching True Detective (Season One, of course) over the last few weeks (because nothing is better for you when you’re in a writing funk than getting involved in an extensive narrative of dissipation, dissolution and psychosis – hmm). I think the reveal of the killer in Form and Void (episode eight) is incredibly effective. In the previous episodes, there have been hints at the killer’s motive, but the viewer has never seen him and never known the whole story. In episode eight, the show’s writers pull back the curtain and give us the killer’s point of view. We see what’s made him: the incest, poverty and twisted religion. It’s a surprisingly nuanced point of view. The killer is a damaged man-child seeking transcendence. He’s a monster, but one the viewer (and certainly the nihilist detective Rust Cohle) can relate to. He’s seeking, on a larger and more deranged scale, the same things we all seek: acceptance, connection (even if violent), and the ultimate reward of faith.

I’ve been contrasting this in my mind with the last two books of the Harry Potter series, which are also an exploration of a killer’s psychology. Voldemort is perhaps a less nuanced character than True Detective’s killer. Both seek an off-beat form of immortality, but Voldemort’s ultimate motivation is fear, where the True Detective killer’s is desire. Voldemort seeks power on the earthly plane to defeat death, while the True Detective killer seeks elevation above it (or below it, since he talks about the “infernal plane” rather than heaven). Coming back to what’s a more satisfying motive, love or hate, if Voldemort’s motive is hate and the True Detective killer’s is love, love is the more interesting and engaging motivation to me.

So maybe the key to rewriting the end of Throwing Fire is not the action or resolution, but the villain’s motivation. If I can find something the villain loves, and make that the reason behind the villain’s actions, that might make the moment I finally pull back the curtain satisfying for readers.

Following the Ripples

I’m delighted to welcome fellow sci-fi author L J Cohen to my blog!

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Nearly a year ago, E J wrote about a topic that’s near and dear to my heart: writing realistic injuries. In the linked post, she chronicles the pain and healing time of a deep cut to her hand as a way to use her misfortune to create better fiction when her characters get injured.

I share E J’s frustration with superhero characters who don’t get injured or who heal without consequence when they do.

In creating everyman characters who are thrust into situations where they get hurt, fatigued and stressed, I need to think through every way those factors would effect their lives. It’s not enough to describe the pain – I have to follow the ripples.

Choosing to injure your character is like every other choice in a novel. It has to exist for a reason. Preferably more than one reason. Does the injury deepen characterization? Drive the plot? Limit your character’s abilities? Force your character to problem solve more fully? Change the way others relate to them?

If the only reason the character is injured is to engender sympathy, then the injury is a thin device and adds little to the overall narrative. One of the dangers of incorporating injury and disability in a story is falling into the cliché of the ‘noble victim.’ Equally problematic is when the character is injured or disabled simply to motivate the actions of the non-injured protagonist. Both choices remove agency from the character and render that person into a plot-device.

But injury and disability can be written well. One of my favorite depictions of physical disability in speculative fiction is the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. The protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, was exposed to a poison in utero that prevented normal growth of his bones. He is considered a mutant by many in the rigid conservative society in which he was born for his deformities and has fragile bones. His frailty forces him to compete in a vicious political landscape using his wits and his will. He is both brilliant and insufferable; a wonderful, fully realized character.

A second pitfall in writing injuries is when the injuries serve the needs of an immediate plot point but have no follow through or consequence in the story as a whole. This is something common to thrillers where the hero gets shot only to be patched up by a sympathetic side character and then saves the day when any mere mortal would be writhing on the floor waiting for emergency services. Getting injured hurts. Even if no vital organs are damaged, the shock post gunshot or stabbing or burn can easily take down the strongest, most fit individual.

Shock is a protective reaction by the body and is part of a complex series of reflexes that take place without conscious thought. Typical shock reactions include: decreased blood pressure, rapid, weak pulse, lowered core temperature, rapid, shallow breathing, nausea or vomiting, dilated pupils, and loss of consciousness.

It’s far more likely that your injured character will go into shock than run into the lair of the bad guys, rescue the damsel, and ride into the sunset. And shock, if untreated, can actually be fatal.

I love the phrase E J used in the quote above: Follow the ripples. The moment of injury is the stone in the pond. What it changes is the ripples.

One of my protagonists in Ithaka Rising – book 2 of Halcyone Space – is dealing with the aftermath of a head injury he sustains in book 1. His impairments are disabling. He experiences nausea and vomiting, crippling headaches, vertigo, and is unable to focus on his computer screen or read. His experience of his injury and the choices he makes as a result of not improving drives the entire plot of the story. He believes only a neural implant device will help him, but his young age is a contra-indication. So he finds a black market source for one. There are consequences to his actions, ripples that effect him, his family, and the political landscape.

Another problem in writing injuries is when the author gets the physiologic details wrong. Absent magical healing or hugely advanced tech (and even those need to have limits and consequences), injuries take time to heal. Even the mildest of tendon strains can take several weeks to fully heal. Broken bones can take six–twelve weeks or more depending on the severity of the fracture and the overall health and age of the person. Deep cuts and penetrating wounds are a huge infection risk, as are burns. Infections can be fatal, even in a technologically enhanced world.

I had a 25 year career as a physical therapist before I became a writer. My specialty area was orthopedics and chronic pain management. When my characters get hurt, they are well and truly hurt. This year, I started a weekly twitter chat to help writers be more realistic in depictions of injuries and healing. I’m always happy to take questions. Look for #InjuryWrite or mention me on twitter @lisajanicecohen.

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Thank you so much to L J for stopping by my blog today! She’s generously agreed to give-away an ebook of the winner’s chosing from her titles in honour of her new release, Dreadnought and Shuttle. Check it out on Amazon, Google Books, Kobo, B&N, and iBooks.

final-kindle-cover-small

When a materials science student gets kidnapped, she’s drawn into a conflict
between the young crew of a sentient spaceship, a weapons smuggling ring, and a Commonwealth-wide conspiracy and must escape before her usefulness
as a hostage expires.

Anyone who comments on this post from 13th June 2016 to 20th June 2016 will be entered into the drawing and I’ll post the winner in the comments and email them as well.

Finally, here’s a little bit more about my wonderful guest: L J Cohen is a novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, L J now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. She lives in the Boston area with her family, two dogs, and the occasional international student. DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space), is her sixth novel. L J is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and the Independent Publishers of New England.

 

Tied Up With A Bow

Tied Up With A Bow

I find great pleasure in “rediscovering” books I read years ago. I rarely get rid of books I’ve enjoyed and keep many boxes of books in my attic. This weekend, while putting away luggage from a recent trip, I dug through one of those boxes and “rediscovered” several paperbacks I haven’t read in decades.

One of them was a historical romance (I’m not going to name it because I’m going to tank on it). I remember enjoying the atypical heroine and the realistic depictions of life on the American frontier. So it was with relish that I cracked it open, and I enjoyed it just as much as I remembered.

Until I reached the end.

When I closed the book, I felt unsatisfied, and a little disgruntled. The ending was a let-down. It was a typical HEA (“happily ever after”) ending, but it fell flat. There was no emotional punch. I’d shed some tears in the middle of the book, as the heroine realizes her own self-worth, but nothing towards the end. Why?

I re-read the ending several times, trying to figure out what went wrong. What was missing? I was invested in the main characters. I wanted them to have their HEA. Why wasn’t I satisfied when they got it?

Part of the problem, I’ve decided, is that, in the final scenes, the characters act in ways contrary to their characterization throughout the novel. The heroine, who has been extremely steadfast, runs away from an emotional confrontation. The hero, who has spent the entire novel doing the “right thing,” commits a small betrayal to test his feelings for the heroine. I appreciate that love makes people do crazy things, but these actions were not consistent with the characters developed through the previous 200+ pages. That left a sour taste in my mouth.

But the bigger problem was that the ending was too pat. It wasn’t just happy-happy for the heroine and hero, every conflict was resolved. Even minor subplots were tied up with a bow. Maybe I’ve gotten used to modern series where each book contains some unresolved threads that carry on into the next book, but I found such a pat resolution unconvincing and unsatisfying. Life doesn’t work that way. I understand the difference between reality and literature, but where the novel has worked hard to build a realistic and convincing world, to have everything resolved so neatly, so tightly, undermined that realism. It broke my willing suspension of disbelief.

Literary trends change over time. This book was published nearly twenty years ago; it was never intended to be part of a series. So maybe the author was following convention and fulfilling reader expectation with such a tightly-tied ending. But reading it two decades later, I find it flawed. Keeping the lessons I’ve learned from this book in mind as I re-write Throwing Fire, I need to stay true to my characters, but I also need to stay true to the realism of the world I’ve built, and not try to tie everything up too neatly in a bow.

In Medias, Huh?

In Medias, Huh?

 

When Beginning in the Middle Doesn’t Work

In medias res. That’s the fancy Latin term I was taught in my English Lit courses for stories that start in the middle of things – in the action, rather than before it starts. The technique isn’t new. Homer used it in The Odyssey. It seems to come in and out of fashion, however.

Probably because of my love of adventure tales, I’m attracted to stories that begin in medias res. I want to be sucked right into the action. Tell me about how magic broke into our world or Faerie reappeared or mankind fell to the A.I.s in a chapter or two when I’m deeply invested in the main characters. Show me the characters’ initial peril now.

But there are some times when in medias res beginnings don’t work. I read a fairly short (200+ pages) modern romance recently. I’m not going to name the book, because I’m going to tank on it. But in thinking over why I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about it, particularly the beginning, I realized it was because the story started in the wrong place.

The story was a pretty classic girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy overcome social obstacles to being together, girl and boy live happily ever after story. I liked the male main character (I’ll call him Boy) well enough to keep reading, but I didn’t like the female narrator (I’ll call her Girl), and it took me a while to figure out why.

Girl had issues, as female narrators in modern romances often do. She’d been done wrong, done a little time, and was trying to get back on her feet while protecting her very bruised heart. She wasn’t witty or snarky (unlike Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a similar character in some respects but I who found much more immediately engaging). She’d erected some very large barriers to other characters, particularly Boy, which kept them at a distance.

The story began by plunging Girl immediately into a situation of peril, in which she and her best bud (BFF) are threatened by some baddies to whom the BFF owes money. The resolution of this problem was the major plot hook for the rest of the story, so Girl couldn’t shine in resolving it there and then. In fact, she came across as weak and somewhat desperate. I don’t mind weak characters who evolve in the course of the story, but it can be hard to initially sympathize with them. The baddies (who turn out to be not very bad) were more interesting than either Girl or the BFF, so it was annoying when they then disappeared for twenty chapters. I’d have happily read more about them than Girl. Moreover, the BFF had done A Bad Thing in stealing from the baddies, so why would I sympathize with the BFF? Throwing a weak, emotionally-remote narrator and a morally-compromised secondary character into peril and expecting the reader to immediately care about them is a tricky proposition, and this story did not make it work.

Then the author committed the cardinal sin of following the unresolved initial peril with several pages of info-dump. The info-dump was all backstory – how Girl’s heart was broken, how she ended up in jail, how the BFF was the only person there for her after she pushed everyone else away. Because I wasn’t much liking Girl at this point (she hadn’t done anything to engage me), I’ll admit I skimmed the backstory. I went back and read it later, when Girl’s incarceration became relevant to the action, but I skimmed it on a first read because at this point, I wasn’t engaged. Fortunately, the author then introduced Boy, who was interesting enough on his own to keep me reading. That saved a book I might otherwise have put down.

Because I generally love in medias res beginnings, and because most of my own stories begin that way, I’ve been mulling why this modern romance didn’t work for me, and what I can take away from it. I’ve also re-read one of my favorite in medias res beginnings, Kate Griffin’s fabulous The Midnight Mayor, which starts memorably with:

The telephone rang.
I answered.
After that . . . it’s complicated

The Midnight Mayor then launches into an attack on the sorcerer-narrator by some of the scariest baddies I’ve read this side of the Nazgul. If you haven’t read Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series, you should – time very well spent.

So, mulling these two very different in medias res openings, I’ve come up with five learning points (in no particular order):

  1. Engage. If you’re going to start in medias res, you have to have your reader engage with the story’s protagonist from the outset. Readers naturally empathize with the narrator, particularly if they’re in trouble and even more particularly if the author is working in first person point of view. So this shouldn’t be too hard. But the reader can be alienated by a narrator who seems dumb, dull or weak. Why should the reader bother? The narrator doesn’t have to be superwoman at the outset, but they have to shine somehow, even if only in their brilliant internal monologue. They have to be a character the reader wants to keep reading about.
  2. Show. I’m always a proponent of showing rather than telling, but it’s really, really important in these sorts of openings. The reader needs to get a crystal-clear picture of what the narrator is hearing, seeing, thinking, smelling and tasting in the initial scenes so the reader connects with the narrator. This is particularly critical if the narrator is going to make some questionable decisions (which Boy does several chapters later when he strikes a deal with the baddies, but by that point I knew enough about both Boy and the baddies to care and keep reading). That doesn’t preclude exposition entirely, but keep it snappy. The in medias res opening is all about action – the narrator better be doing something rather than describing a tree for three pages.
  3. Choose wisely, grasshopper. Pick the characters for that initial scene or scenes of peril carefully. Introducing fascinating baddies who then disappear for twenty chapters antagonizes your reader. (Kate Griffin uses the demon hoodies several times through The Midnight Mayor and each time we see them, the more terrifying they become since the protagonist can’t seem to decisively defeat them.) Use characters the reader can glom on to, and who are going to feature in the rest of the story.
  4. Have a resolution, even if it is only temporary. This is what really distinguished Griffin’s brilliant opening in The Midnight Mayor from the modern romance. The narrator-protagonist of The Midnight Mayor captures one of the baddies with the most amazing binding spell ever created (talk about the power of words!). The rest of the story spins off why the baddies attacked him and what has attracted them to him. From a plot perspective, the baddies attack in The Midnight Mayor and the threat by the baddies in the modern romance serve the same function: they set up the overarching conflict for the rest of the story. But what’s so satisfying in The Midnight Mayor ‘s opening is watching the protagonist shine as he binds the demon hoodie. It’s a temporary resolution, of course, since we know there’s a Bigger, Badder Baddie waiting in the wings. But it’s still very satisfying. By not having any resolution of the initial peril, the author of the modern romance denies the reader that satisfaction and makes the modern romance an unfulfilling read.
  5. Avoid the subsequent info-dump. What was so frustrating about the post-peril info-dump in the modern romance was that I could see it coming a mile away. The baddies tromp off, Girl makes sure the BFF is okay, and then, as Girl drives back to her apartment, she tells us her entire life story. It’s not just dull to read, it’s also unrealistic. People don’t review their entire lives while driving home after (what should have been) a perilous confrontation. They’re pumped up on adrenaline. They turn the confrontation over and over in their minds. They wish they’d acted differently or come up with a wittier retort. They consider the consequences. They don’t have a ten-page flashback to their childhood, high school romance, betrayal by their One True Love, incarceration and release. Sorry, no. Maybe, maybe, they consider the peril in light of their personal history – if it’s related somehow. But definitely not the entire character’s backstory, and definitely not in one chunk.

I’m still in love with the in medias res opening. I’ll still use it in my own stories, but I will think carefully about whether the technique enhances my story, and my readers’ crucial initial connection with my narrator, or detracts from it.

Any thoughts on in medias res openings and when they don’t work? I’d love to hear them!

(Featured image: copyright Ry Young, used under Freeimages.com licence)

A Relationship of Equals

A Relationship of Equals

Or, What Happened to Hermione?

I love the Harry Potter series, both the books and the movies. I don’t quibble with those who criticize J.K. Rowling’s writing style, or the unevenness of the movies. I enjoy them for what they are: magical.

There is something I don’t enjoy about them, however, and that’s the sissifying of Hermione through the two “Deathly Hallows” movies.

By “sissifying,” I mean the undermining of Hermione’s strong-willed, brave, intelligent character. Her strength is so evident in the first Deathly Hallows movie. The movie opens with her casting a charm on her parents so that they will forget her. She does it to protect her parents from the Death Eaters, but in doing so, she makes herself an orphan. Much is made in the series about Harry’s loss of his family, but Hermione’s loss is silent – reflected only on Emma Watson’s wonderfully expressive face when she has to cast the same spell later on a Death Eater. Hermione’s just that strong.

She’s also brave in the first Deathly Hallows movie. Not fearless, but brave. She’s frequently scared, but she doesn’t back down. Not from the Death Eaters, not from the Horcruxes, not even from Harry himself. In some ways, I think that’s more admirable than Harry’s courage, which has a thoughtless, reckless quality. Hermione is smart enough to know what is stacked against the trio, and it scares her, but she still faces it.

Hermione has always been the “smart” one of the trio. She’s a great reader and characterized as something of a “know-it-all” earlier in the series, but by the first Deathly Hallows movie, she’s come into her own. What she knows saves the trio over and over. She plans ahead and brings the implements that allow the trio to set off in search of the Horcruxes. She figures out the reasons behind Dumbledore’s strange bequests which lead her and Harry on in their quest, even after Ron abandons them.

But after Ron rejoins the trio, Hermione increasingly becomes an adjunct. She has a bright moment where she figures out a way for them to escape from Gringotts, but after that, she faces nothing on her own. She solves nothing. She’s not even particularly instrumental in the Battle for Hogwarts. Her big moment in the latter half of the second movie is sharing a passionate kiss with Ron. What happened to Hermione the strong, brave and intelligent?

Without going off on too much of a feminist rant, I’d argue that Hermione’s relegation to irrelevancy is directly related to the culmination of her and Ron’s romance. Ron becomes a heroic character after he rejoins Harry and Hermione. He faces his fears when he destroys the locket Horcrux. He’s the one who figures out how to destroy the cup Horcrux after the trio loses the Sword of Griffindor (Hermione does the deed but in a particularly strange moment of characterization, only after Ron coaxes her to do it – WTF? – she’s confronted and attacked Horcruxes before). During the final battle, Ron fires curses at Nagini while Hermione runs and cowers. Everything Hermione does in the second Deathly Hallows movie showcases Ron’s heroism. While I have no quibble with the heroicizing of Ron’s character, it is incredibly disappointing that it comes at the cost of Hermione’s.

I haven’t read the books recently enough to remember if this characterization of Hermione in the movie is consistent with the book, but either way, why would anyone feel that a warrior-witch has to be reduced so the warrior-wizard can rise? Hermione’s heroism never threatens or reduces Harry’s. Why would it threaten or reduce Ron’s? Is it only because they’re romantically involved? Why can’t they have a relationship of equals? Both strong, both brave, both intelligent?

I love the Harry Potter series, don’t get me wrong, but the Deathly Hallows movies, particularly the second one, always left a bad taste in my mouth and after recently rewatching the whole series during Sky’s “Harry Potter” marathon, I think I’ve finally identified why. It’s because Hermione gets so short-changed, and because Ron and Hermione’s romance reduces and marginalizes my (second) favorite witch.

Something to keep in mind as I turn back to Blood Yellow.