In honor of Halloween, for today’s Twin Thursday Rachel of Chicken-Scratch Plot and I are looking at fiction that honestly scares us. It’s been awhile, so I’m taking the opportunity to also do another of my Characters Done Right series. Be sure to follow the link at the top right to Rachel’s blog when you’re done here!
The character I picked for this isn’t a character so much as a machine: the killing devices in Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce. It’s not that this book is necessarily a horror novel, per se, and to be honest there are probably things that I’ve read since which are–strictly speaking–scarier.
What made them stick with me after all these years, though, is that Pierce really sells these devices. They’re huge, hulking, nigh-unstoppable killing machines. They don’t feel fear. They don’t feel regret. They don’t discriminate. They simply wreak havoc, and all of the characters on-screen with them react appropriately, especially the protagonist. She’s tangibly, mind-fillingly terrified of these things. And, since I rely on the protagonist as my window to the narrative, this really puts the fear of what they’re experiencing in my belly.
That, more than the mechanics behind them or their place in the story, is what makes them stick with me. I talk a lot about making emotions physical to the reader, and it’s doubly important when you’re trying to evoke something as visceral as fear. Pierce does this with Kel as she’s looking at the killing devices. Brave as she is, just the sight of one of the creatures fills her with cold dread that only doubles the more we learn how they work and where they come from.
Hey, everyone! Hope you like the new layout! It’s Twin Thursday, so be sure to head over to Chicken-Scratch Plot and read Rachel’s take on today’s topic–there’s a link in the brand-new menu at the top right.
This has been a difficult day for me; my mom passed away a year ago today. I decided the best way for me to deal with that is the same way I deal with everything: channel it into my work. So, with that in mind, I’m going to be looking at my top five suggestions for getting the absolute most you can out of a character’s death.
- Make it count. One of the many reasons that Game of Thrones doesn’t work for me is that there’s just so. Much. Death. Not that any given one or two or dozen aren’t done well or can’t evoke a particular emotion. It’s just that I expect it to happen. The no-holds-barred, anyone-can-die-anytime-for-any-reason approach just doesn’t do it for me because I’m always waiting for the next one.
What I prefer to see is fewer deaths, but each of them well-done. This gives each one its own moment in my reading experience to really feel whatever the writer wants me to take away. For example, Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce. There are quite a few deaths in quick succession, but each one is afforded its own moment for the character–and, by extension, me–to react to. More on that later.
- Don’t go for the gore. Obviously unless the genre constraints of whatever you’re writing are otherwise. In general, though, I prefer to minimize the body horror so that I can zero in on the emotional keynotes of what’s going on. Hamming up the blood-and-guts details often leaves me bored because it makes the scene feel cartoony. Done poorly, it can even be borderline-comedic. If you don’t need it, leave it out.
- Understatement reigns supreme. Much like the gore above, even when you’re focusing on the emotional note you want to hit, if you hit it too hard it can just go flat. Concentrate instead on one or two tangible, physical responses that your protagonist might be feeling. Overwrought poetic language, unless it fits with the character, can kill the effect.
- Use your POV as a mirror. Whatever reaction you would, ideally, like your reader to take away from the character’s death, reflect it with your narrator/protagonist. If they’ve just lost a loved one and you want your reader to be sad, let the narrator be sad, too. Let them be blindsided and numb from a sudden demise. Let them be tired or overwhelmed or triumphant after finally defeating the villain, and make that emotion tangible. The reader will follow suit.
- Dump the Fridge. Fridging or stuffing a character into the fridge is when they’re gruesomely killed just to advance someone else’s story arc. It often happens offscreen and is usually for no reason other than angst for the protagonist. It’s especially pernicious when the character you’re killing is female or a minority.
Don’t do this. If it’s not the end of the character’s own arc, don’t kill them. Let their end be because of something in their own story whether, for example, the comeuppance well-deserved because of their actions–as in the case of a villain–or because they willingly and heroically chose to do some dangerous thing at great personal risk and paid the price.
Welcome back to another Twin Thursday! Since I wrapped up edits last week, Rachel and I are back on track with doing dual posts. Be sure to head over to Chicken-Scratch Plot and check hers out!
For this week, Rachel and I are looking at five things we’d love to try eventually in our fiction but haven’t yet. But, hey, we’re young! There may come a time when one of these elements finds their way into a story!
- Sinesthesia. It’s an unusual condition, but the idea has always appealed to me. That a character could taste sounds or see smells. There’s an awful lot of research I’d have to do first, though, and I don’t yet have a strong story concept that I’d like to marry this to.
- The Villian’s Story. I actually do have a story simmering in the back of my mind that this might fit for. I love to someday write a novel that allows the reader to follow the presumptive hero on their rise to power (or descent into shadows) only to find they’ve been rooting for the bad guy all along.
- War. I’ve written a few battles and a lot of political scheming, but I’ve never actually written a full war, with all its intricacies and battles and strategy. I think it would be fun one day!
- An honest-to-gods romance. Something else that sounds fun but I’ve never successfully managed. I’ve got two stories that I’ve started off thinking they were romance, but they both quickly became political scheming with a romantic subplot. The relationship kind of slides to secondary focus.
- Suspense/thriller. As fun as they are to read, that edge of your seat from the very beginning kind of story has never happened for me when I’ve sat down to write. It’s a delicate balancing act to maintain and grow that kind of singing tension on every page, and I’m not sure I’m quite up to it yet. But I’m sure willing to try someday!
Congrats! You’ve done most of the heavy lifting now as far as edits go! Your story’s not finished, though. While you can put away the chainsaw and sledge-hammer, you’re not done with the work. We still have one more step on this draft; we’re just breaking out a different toolset. Let’s roll up those sleeves and dig into the fine-tuning!
- Use the right word, not its second cousin. Starting again at the very beginning of your manuscript, comb through each sentence, each paragraph, and each page. Look at the words individually. Do you say “walked slowly” when you mean to say your character “trudged”? This isn’t an attack on adverbs–sometimes they’re exactly what you need. But make that choice intentionally. Say precisely what you mean.
- Reinforce your character’s voice. Are they saying exactly what you want? If not, take a moment to really find the right word to hammer in the image that you want your reader to take away from your work. If your detective is investigating the site of a mass-murder, are they going to call it “a slew of bodies”? How about “a heap of corpses”? Are they really more concerned about their brand-new Louis Vuittons getting blood on them? Be honest and let your character be honest (unless you have an unreliable narrator. But that’s another story).
- Enhance the meter of your words–have fun! You don’t have to write in iambic pentameter to play around with rhythm (though it is, on occasion, a blast). Fiddle with the placement of your words, sentence structure, cadence. Move sentences around to create a dynamic rise and fall. Vary length. Imagine how it would sound when read aloud–or, better, actually do it.
And it may take still more drafts to get your story to where it needs to be. You might find yourself doing lots of rinse and repeats until you’re finally satisfied. But that’s okay. Most of the best do! Just take your time and try to enjoy the process!
After months or years of work, it’s finally happened. You’ve come home from your day job, and there’s a response waiting from one of the agents you sent your full manuscript to. By this point, you’ve gotten so many rejections that you already know that’s what this is. Another “thanks but no thanks”. How could it be anything else? But then you open it. And it’s not. The agent wants to speak to you on the phone!
At this point, I have two things to say to you. First: congratulations! And secondly. I hate your face. You have officially made it further in the process than I have, and I’m both incredibly proud and massively jealous.
Go ahead and cheer! Pat yourself on the back; call your mom; post it on Facebook. Be proud of yourself for this! But remember, you’re not done yet. This is just an invitation to the next step.
Once you’ve composed yourself and stopped beaming so hard your face feels like it’s going to split, send your response. The agent will have asked when is the best time to speak and how they should contact you. They usually do this next bit by phone for a couple reasons: it’s faster than email; you’ll get a better feel for who they are and how they work; and, they’ll be able to tell if or not you’re rational and professional. Now, here’s a couple things you’ll want to do to prepare for the day.
- Prepare your list of questions. You want to think you’ll be calm and collected and stay on point, but that probably won’t happen, if you’re being honest with yourself. And that’s okay! It’s normal! Some things you may want to ask include:
Do you have a plan to sell this manuscript/what markets do you have in mind?
What have you sold recently and to what markets?
Have you ever walked away from a deal, and why?
Do you handle subsidiary rights?
What sale are you proudest of?
Are you a hands-on editorial agent?
From the Query to the Call by Elana Johnson is a great, inexpensive resource that has a lot of suggestions for more things to ask a potential agent.
- Do a mock-call. Have a writer-friend or critique partner call you and pretend to be the agent. Ask your questions; respond to some of theirs. It sounds silly, but this will help you work out some of the jitters.
- Make sure you treat yourself well on the day of. Have a nice breakfast. Take a walk or a hot shower. Don’t give yourself any reason to bring your outside life into this phone call. You want to be at your level-headed, professional, relaxed best. Remember, as much as this is for you to see if you like them, they’re also putting feelers out on you to be sure you’re an author they can work with. Make a good impression!
Remember also that after the call is just as important as before. The agent may make an offer of representation right then, but more often they will sit on it a day or two and then schedule a second phone call or send an e-mail with their offer. Here’s how to follow up:
- Politely let the agent know that they will have your response in a few days. It sounds rude, but it’s actually standard in the industry. Set a final date by which to make your decision. About two weeks is generally accepted as a good turn-around time. Trust me; you’ll need it all.
- Ask them for a list of current clients that you can contact. It’s great to have it from the agent’s mouth that they’re a tough negotiator or that their clients love them. But it might look different from the other side of the relationship. You’ll want to gather all the information that you can.
- E-mail all the agents with outstanding queries. Let them know that you have an offer of representation on the story and that you need to have a response to them by X date (Don’t name-drop, though; it’s rude). At this point, they will either wish you well and bow out or ask for more materials to put in an offer of their own. At which point you schedule more phone calls!
- Make your decision. You might decide to sign with the agent; you might not. Decide if they mesh well with your vision for your story. Either way, for better or worse, compose your e-mail, hold your breath, and hit send! Hopefully, you now have an agent! Congrats!