So You Want to Kill a Character...

Sometimes characters have to die. Because facing death makes people do crazy, vengeful, courageous things, and when we need our characters to be crazy, vengeful, or courageous (etc), sometimes killing their mom/best friend/cute guy they just met/dog is the best way to do it.

But it's really hard to kill a character. We love these fictional people that exist only in our heads. We don't want to kill them.

For me, this is just one more reason I plan. When I'm outlining, the characters are just pieces of a game to me. I don't really kill them, I just take them off the board. I'm like fricking George Martin, slaughtering characters left and right until there's hardly anyone left to denouement with.

But when I'm actually writing the draft, they're no longer game pieces. They're people, with feelings and hopes and dreams, all of which I'm about to crush with a single, over-written sentence. I could bring them back, sure, but I'd have to cheat. Some readers might be happy their favorite character didn't really die, but others would feel ripped off.

So I think, "Does this character really need to die? Can't I keep them a little longer?"

As it turns out, that's a good thing. It forces me to re-evaluate whether I was just going crazy in my outlining phase. It dials me back from George Martin to, maybe, Joss Whedon -- to killing one or two characters who really, truly have to die to serve the plot. (Though usually I do end up sticking with the outline.)

How about you? Do you kill characters? How hard is it for you?

The Thing about Rue and Racism

So, a little background. The Hunger Games movie came out. In it, Rue was black. Some people were shocked, confused, and even upset.

Others, understandably so, were shocked and upset at the people who didn't realize Rue was black. It says so on pp. 45 and 98 of the hardcover edition:
[p. 45] ...a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she's very like Prim in size and demeanor.
[p. 98] ...the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. ...She has bright, dark eyes, and satiny brown skin...
So, clearly, the first group was wrong. Rue is black in the book, and rightly so in the movie. To be upset about it (or to say it "ruined the movie," as at least one tweeter said) is not only ridiculous, but wholly and completely racist.

I have a confession, though: When I read the books, I thought Rue was white too.

Is that racist? It's certainly indicative of the white, privileged way I was brought up. People tend to visualize characters as like themselves, and none more than the privileged classes.*

Maybe I'm a bad reader. I do tend to skim descriptions a lot, especially if they aren't critical to the plot (e.g. Rue's skin color never affects plots events or Katniss' feelings for her, as opposed to say White Cat, in which the MC's skin color is part of a minor con toward the end).

But racist or not, when I saw that Rue was black, I didn't go, "What? That's ridiculous!" Instead, I thought, "Oh. How did I miss that in the book?"

This is part of how racism is solved, I think. I went back to the book and discovered I had skimmed over the "brown skin" part in favor of the part where Rue was "like Prim," thus making her like Prim in my head. Whether that was racist or not, I know to pay more attention in the future.

I learned.

And here's the thing, all those people who tweeted their racist anger can learn too. Even though I understand how they missed the cue, I was pissed at the horrible things they said. But getting pissed doesn't solve anything.

At the end of the article, it mentions that most of those people have shut down their Twitter accounts or made them private. I assume I wasn't the only one pissed at them. I do hope they can see past the hate they received and learn from it, but I fear they won't.

Because people don't listen to words spat in hate. They just don't. If we want to fix racism, we do need to point these things out, but we need to keep our anger in check. If we don't, then we're as much a part of the problem as they are.

Racism isn't killing us. Hate is.

What do you think? How does this make you feel, and what can we do about it?

* For the record, I think the fact I missed Rue's skin color is racist in the subtle, subconscious sense. While I hope we solve that level of racism someday, I'm more interested in solving the part where people turn into seething rageballs of hate.

Things I Always Forget When I'm Plotting

I seem to always get stuck in the same places when I'm plotting. I'm good at figuring out my world and my set pieces, who fights whom, and who wins. But I often get stuck on the why. Why does any of this matter?

At the recommendation of Susan Quinn and others, I've been reading this book by Peter Dunne called Emotional Structure. And while Dunne exudes some arrogance, and crushes my geekery like so much broken glass,* he did remind me of some very important things to cover when plotting.

* He knocked down The Terminator because Arny's character never worried about the families of all the people he killed (Hi, um... Arny's a ROBOT . His amorality is kind of the point). He also said Superman lived in Gotham City, at which point I nearly threw the book away.

Yes, I know how childish that is. Shut up.

What does the protagonist WANT?
Without a goal, the novel is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, and nobody wants that.

What is the protagonist AFRAID OF?
Not like "spiders" or "heights" or "face-huggers." I mean, what is their deep secret that must not be exposed?

Of course, once you know these two, it's easy to play them against each other. Hiccup wants to learn the truth about dragons, but he's afraid his father will be ashamed of him. Po wants to learn kung fu, but he's afraid he doesn't have what it takes. Flint wants the town to like him, but he's afraid he's a failure as an inventor.

Those are simplifications, but you get the idea.

What does the character HAVE TO LEARN ABOUT THEMSELVES in order to overcome their fears and get what they want?
And this is the key, the one I always forget. Dunne makes an important distinction between plot (what happens) and story (the emotional context behind what happens). This is the MC's character arc.

When we talk about formulas like the hero's journey, we talk about the obstacles the protagonist fails against. But these aren't obstacles like 4 random skeletons. I mean, they could be, but only if those skeletons expose the MC's greatest fear at the same time.

See, when the MC fails, it's not because they lose a fight or get captured. It's because their weakness -- the thing they are most afraid of having exposed -- is what caused them to lose. Hiccup fails to tell his father the truth about his dragon. Po fails at every training exercise his master puts him through. Flint fails to turn his invention off before it destroys the town.

Until finally these failures lead to the climax, where things are as bad as they can get because of the MC's fears. And now the MC has to overcome their fear to make things right again.

Not that every story has this same formula, but it's one that works really well for me. How about you? What do you think?

Books I Read: Dance With Dragons (Basically Spoiler Free)

Title: Dance with Dragons (Book #5 of the Song of Ice and Fire saga)
Author: George R. R. Martin
Genre: (Very) Epic Fantasy
Published: 2011
My Content Rating: (Very) R for sex, language, violence, and whatever else you got

As I do with sequels, I won't summarize this for fear of spoilers. If you've read the first four, you're probably going to read this one. If you haven't, know that Game of Thrones (being book #1) starts a massive fantasy epic that includes a couple of continents, hundreds of knights, a number of kings, some assassins, wights, dragons, a deadly winter that lasts for decades, and direwolves (among other things).

To sum it up in one very, very simple sentence: Song of Ice and Fire is about what happens when kings die and nobody can agree on who's next.

(In two sentences: Nobody can agree on a king and there's some kind of creepy evil threatening to come down on them all while they're fighting about it.)

The only reason I don't immediately recommend these books to everyone I know is the content rating. It's pretty severe. If you can get past that, though, you should read this series. It's epic in every sense, and I'm glad I've read it. Even though the series has yet to be finished and George Martin consistently and sadistically gets me to care about people doomed to die.

Oops, was that a spoiler? Sorry.

Let's talk in the comments. I'll label my spoilers much better in there.

5 Things I Love About Chiang Mai

Moving out here wasn't easy. There are a lot of things I miss like the ocean, TV shows I can understand, average temperatures below 80 degrees . . .

But this is about the things I love.

1. The Old City
Chiang Mai has a moat, guys. I mean, yeah, it's got fountains in it, and it's basically one giant traffic circle now, but still. A. MOAT. The remains of the wall are pretty freaking cool too.

2. Rainy Season
You may recall that I love rainy days. Well the rainy season here lasts for like 7-8 months. LOVE!

3. Motorbikes
Best way to travel (except when it's raining of course). And you'd be surprised how much you can fit on one of these.

4. High Volume, Late Night Karaoke Bars

4. Loi Kratong (and other assorted holidays)
You know those lanterns from Tangled? Disney stole them (granted, so did I). The real things (a) don't float a few feet above the water (they keep going up -- basic physics, guys) and (b) are way more awe-inspiring.

We also have Songkran, the Thai New Year, in which 65 million people engage in a three-day long, nationwide water fight.

5. Western Stuff
Chiang Mai is among Thailand's major tourist destinations and is also home to a surprisingly large number of Western missionaries. Consequently, there's a lot of Western stuff here, for which I am grateful. Hamburgers, pasta, pizza, even good Mexican food can be found if you know where to look. (Not that I don't love Thai food, but sometimes I get a little sick of rice, aye?).

And thank God Thailand has a taste for Western sci-fi/action movies! It means that although I haven't heard of a single non-animated Oscar nominee, I still get to see Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and all the Marvel movies. Even better, the lines for tickets are short and, because you choose your seat when you buy your ticket, there are no lines to get in the theater at all.

 These people are not in Thailand (actually I think they're in Rome, but you get the idea).

Seriously, American Movie Theaters. Lines. What's up with that?

What Would You Do If You Had To Give Up Writing?

I wanted to ask "What's your dream job?" But for a lot of us, writing is our dream job.

But what if you couldn't write for some reason? What would you do instead?

I originally decided to write as one of many options. I was at my Office Space job one day, thinking about various projects -- none of them work-related, of course. I had an unfinished novel, a computer game, a couple of board game designs, and a D&D campaign bouncing through my head (and, uh . . . open on my desktop).

And I realized there was no way I could finish all of them to my satisfaction. I wanted the novel to be published, the games to be popular, the D&D campaign to actually get played.

Oh, and I also wanted to write a web comic and make movies.

So clearly I wanted to create, to tell stories, to entertain, and I realized if I really wanted to do that, I would have to focus on one medium and get as good at that medium as possible.

Obviously I chose writing, but if I weren't writing, I'd be doing one of those other things. I'd be programming computer games or designing board games or at the very least running RPG campaigns with whoever I could play with (hint: the older you and your friends get, the harder it is to play an RPG).

What would you be doing if you couldn't write?

Unicorns (and Winners)

I want to thank all of you so much for supporting Ellen Oh and Asian YA book covers during the Asian YA Book Giveaway. So many people tweeted and facebooked(?) and e-mailed about it. Don't let this be the end. Keep talking about this issue and supporting the books and publishers you're proud of!

But for the contest, congratulations to Kash Mitaukano and Carl Scott! I have e-mailed both of you already, but if you didn't receive it, please contact me yourself.

For those of you who didn't win, I submit a picture of unicorns (cross-posted from Anthdrawlogy).

I'm sure this has something to do with Asian YA books. Quick, someone make an analogy!

Writer's Reference: Distance to the Horizon

[You've entered the Giveaway in Support of YA Asian Book Covers, right? Today might be your last chance! (Boy, I should've thought of a better name).]

How far is it to the horizon? How far away can you see an approaching object? This is something I come across in Air Pirates a lot, but it always takes multiple clicks and conversions to get at the simple formula I want. So, fully expecting mathematics to drive away half my audience, here it is (in both kilometers and miles):

So someone 5 and a half feet tall (1.7 meters) would see the horizon disappear about 3.1 miles (4.7 km) away.

Keep in mind:
  1. These are approximations. Don't be doing science with these numbers.
  2. These numbers only apply in clear weather.
  3. You could still see tall objects peeking over the horizon. More info on that below.

Measuring the distance to something over the horizon only requires one extra variable. When the top of the object first peeks over the horizon, you can figure out how far away it is like this:

Now if you wanted to figure out how far away an object is based on how much of it is peeking over the horizon . . . well, you're on your own. I love math and all, but I'd lose the other half of my audience if I did any more of it in public.

Boy, I hope at least one of you cares about this.

What Kind of Writer Are You (Avatar Edition)?

Sokka: Our detour into town today has completely thrown off our schedule. It's gonna take some serious finagling to get us back on track. 
Toph: Finagle away, oh schedule master!

You love the burst of ideas that is the New Shiny. Brainstorms, outlines, beat sheets -- you will do whatever it takes to make this story awesome before you write the first word. Why? Because the plan is perfect. What ruins things are those pesky words (and dialogs and descriptions and transitions and . . . ).

Uncle Iroh: You never think these things through. This is exactly what happened when you captured the Avatar at the North Pole. You had him and then you had nowhere to go!
Zuko: I would have figured something out.

You love the draft, the heady rush of new words as the story pours out of you. Maybe you have a plan, or maybe you just sit down and see what comes out. Maybe it gets you in trouble. Regardless, you feel that whatever heart and soul the story has will come right here, but only if you let it. The words are crap, but the emotions are real. Words can be fixed later.

Master Pakku: Katara, you've advanced more quickly than any other student I've ever trained. You have proven that with fierce determination, passion, and hard work, you can accomplish anything. Raw talent alone is not enough.

The draft is done, thank GOD! Now you can get to the part you truly love: turning the crap into a really great novel. Revision is where real novels are made, after all, and you know better than anyone that anything can be made better in this stage. Though it'd be nice if you didn't have to do it so many times.

Katara [about Toph]: How did she do that?
Aang: She waited and listened.

For you, the novel is never truly finished until someone else has read it. It's not that you don't trust your own opinion -- you do, but you know your opinion is inherently biased. You are too close to the story to objectively evaluate it yourself. And when other people start coming back with mostly praise, then you know it is almost finished. You have almost written a novel.

Obviously, we have to be all four of these to be successful, but most of us enjoy one or two aspects of writing much more than the others (and I bet you all have one aspect you hate -- I do).

It's no surprise I'm a diehard planner, but I also enjoy listening to critiques. For me, I can't call a story good until other people start saying it is.

So what kind of writer are you?

5 Reasons to Read Lord of the Rings

[If you haven't entered to win a copy of Silver Phoenix or Huntress yet, go do so now. Winners chosen next week.]

I still find it astounding that some folks haven't read Lord of the Rings. Then again, the book is huge, and I am sort of a fantasy geek (and don't ask about all the classics I've never read). Still, if you're on the edge, maybe I can help push you over.

1. Nazgûl. The undead servants of Mordor. They never sleep, never die, and never stop coming. They're kinda like Dementors, but they aren't scared of a silly glowing stag. And they ride dragons.

2. Gandalf. Every awesome wizard and mentor character you've ever read about was based on this guy. Dumbledore was killed by a silly curse. It took a fricking balrog to take Gandalf down. (And even then...)

3. Frodo and Sam. Bet you didn't know this was a buddy story. Frodo and Sam are hardcore. Think Naruto's tough? These guys walked into hell with the devil's wedding ring (he really wanted his ring back, too).

4. Maps. Harry Potter doesn't have 'em. Nuff said.

5. Epic fantasy poetry.

5. Middle Earth. Beautiful, even if all you've got are Tolkien's words. I'm pretty sure I'd die there, but I want to visit just the same.

So what's your favorite thing about Lord of the Rings?

Giveaway in Support of Asian YA Book Covers

The amazing Ellen Oh has written a heartfelt and needs-to-be-heard post on why the Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend needs to end. From Ellen's post:
Asians have long been the silent minority in this country. It's gotten so bad that when someone makes a racist remark toward Asians, they just shrug it off and make it seem like you're the one making a big deal about nothing. . . . Like a couple of white guys who think they are being clever by opening up a restaurant called "Roundeye Noodle shop" in Philadelphia. . . .

If anyone thinks "Roundeye" is not racist, you should come explain that to my youngest daughter who had the singular pleasure of being told by two boys in her class that her "small Chinese eyes" were ugly compared to her friend's "blue round-eyes." She was in kindergarten and only 5 years old. She cried for days. Words can scar you for life.
This hurt my heart and made me want to hug all my Asian and half-Asian kids and tell them once again how beautiful they are. Go read Ellen's post now (but come back, because I have books to giveaway).

So one commenter wisely asked what can we do about it? "What short-term and achievable goal will start that process?"

I don't know how to fix the problem, but I know two things that won't hurt any: (1) Talking about it and (2) Supporting covers that don't follow the trend.

To that end, I'm giving away two books that are both awesome and feature an Asian model on the cover: Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix (the original hardback cover) and Malinda Lo's Huntress.

Here's how you can win one:
  1. Post a link to Ellen's post (NOT my post here, but Ellen's post) on Twitter, Facebook, your blog, or wherever people will see it. Then fill out the form below.
  2. Two winners will be chosen randomly and notified next Friday, March 16th.
  3. Each winner may choose which of the two books they want: either Silver Phoenix or Huntress (if both want the same book, that's cool with me).
  4. Contest is open to any country will ship to (note: I may use Amazon or B& to ship the book, if it turns out to be cheaper).

UPDATE: Form deleted. Contest is closed.

What do you guys think? What can we do about this? Anything? What other awesome YA books with Asians (or any other minority for that matter) should I know about?

Prequels, Problems With

Prequels are not always bad. Just want to throw that out there. But in general, when I hear a new book or movie is a prequel, I'm immediately less interested than I could be. Why?
  1. Because sometimes the prequel is not the story I want to know more about. The original was. Example: Phantom Menace. (I really, really, really don't care that Anakin built C-3P0, even if you could solve all the plot holes that represents.)
  2. Because sometimes the questions raised in the original are best left unanswered. Example: Phantom Menace. (Midi-chlorians. Nuff said.)
  3. Because the prequel's story often ends near the inciting incident of the original -- usually an unsatisfying place to end. Example: Phantom Menace. (I know Anakin is Obi-Wan's apprentice. I know he becomes a great Jedi then betrays Obi-Wan. I know he's corrupted by the Emperor. This is not the cliffhanger you're looking for.)
Maybe the prequel's should've started here instead.

I don't intend to ever write a prequel, but if I did, I would ask myself the following questions:
  • Is this a story I would want to tell, even if I'd never made the original? Example: X-Men: First Class. I don't know about you, but for me, the relationship between Magneto and Xavier has always been one of the main draws to the X-Men story.
  • Does this story answer questions that need to be answered? Better yet, is it about separate events entirely? Example: Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom. Yes, this was a prequel (having occurred before the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark). It might not have been as good as the other two, but it didn't try to answer stupid questions like: "Where did Indiana get his whip and fedora?" *
  • Could this story stand alone without the original? Would it be satisfying? Example: Captain America. Technically a prequel (having occurred before the events of Iron Man and directly leading to the upcoming Avengers movie), but pretty dang satisfying on its own. (Except for the fact that he probably could've avoided getting frozen in ice).

So, prequels. What do you think makes a good one? What else is wrong with Phantom Menace?

* The Last Crusade did answer those questions, but because it was a flashback, and related to the rest of the story, I was cool with it. What I didn't want was an entire movie with River Phoenix Indy.

There is No Way This Could Fail. None.

You know that moment in Mockingjay when they finally rescue Peeta, and Katniss spends a paragraph or so thinking how happy she and Peeta would be and how she would hug Peeta and tell him all the things she was never able to tell him before?

And was anyone surprised when Peeta wasn't okay?

I think this is becoming a pet peeve of mine, in YA especially, where the MC starts thinking about how great it will be when their plan works then (of course) the plan doesn't work.

(This goes the other way, too. Whenever the MC is dubious about a plan or is certain someone has died, it's a sure thing the opposite has occurred and everything is going to be okay.)

It shouldn't bother me. It's just a trope, right? I mean, you can't have the MC go, "Was that his voice in the next room? It had to be. Of course it was! He was back home safe, and everything would be like it was." And then he's really there and everything is just like it was. That's boring, right?

But when I read a narrator's thoughts like that, it either makes me feel like the MC is dumb or it blows away all the tension ("Well I thought it might be him for a second, but now...").

But what to do about it? I'm sure I do this all over the place, and it can't be a bad thing all the time, can it?

Seriously, is this even an issue? Or should I file this under temporary insanity (too late)? What do you guys think?

I think what I want is for authors to be aware of the signals they send the reader. We (authors) go, "I'll trick the reader into thinking everything is okay then BAM!" But the reader is all, "Do they actually think I'm buying this? Oh, look: 'bam'."

We need to find a better way.