Monthly Archives: May 2014

Characters in Search of a Plot

I got invited to join my first SF/F writer’s group after attending a workshop at a Baycon many years ago. I was so excited! I had taken creative writing classes in college, and I had been part of a mixed-genre writer’s critique group for a couple of years. This was the first group dedicated to speculative fiction. They would understand me, at last! It had a couple of professionally published authors, along with novices like me. I had high hopes, back then, that with a little spit and polish my manuscript would be rescued from the slush pile, and I’d be the next Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Continue reading »

Well…My manuscript needed a little more than spit and polish. It had some serious problems. It wasn’t so much the writing itself. I had a pretty good handle on all the mechanical things like pacing, description, dialogue, and so forth. Some tweaks to world building, okay.

Where the whole thing fell apart was my grasp of the main characters’ emotions. Writer’s group became more like therapy sessions for me. I sat and listened to everything that was wrong with my character’s behavior week after week. It was hard not to take it personally. To hear them read aloud excerpts and laugh, I cringed and could not believe I wrote that badly. My heroine was a bitch. My hero was an asshole, a creep, and a stalker. My villain was ridiculous. Clearly my intentions were not coming across on the page.

Like many novice writers, I started to get defensive. I went to the Number One Cop-Out position, which is to say, “That’s just my character’s personality. There’s nothing I can do about it.” And week after week, my characters got dragged through the ringer as my writer’s group got more and more frustrated.

One day, a pro writer in the group sent out a global email to me and cc: to everybody. (I shall refer to this fellow as K. for anonymity’s sake.) It was a very long message in very strong language with lots of F words and such. But it was not a rambling attack like most of what you see on the internet. It was a detailed, well-constructed essay with lots of specific examples and analysis. It made total sense. I read it and somehow a light bulb went on in my head. I wish I had saved it, because that was the kick in the pants I needed.

Of what I recall, K. informed me that my characters come from my own mind. They are not independent entities acting in a dream world where I am merely the spectator. I realized at that moment that all the advice in writing books was wrong. It was a mistake to let the characters behave according to their own will, for the sake of making them seem real. My characters are not real. They are created in my head, and I have control of them. It is my job to keep track of inconsistency and the flow of action/reaction. As the author, every word on the page is my responsibility.

After K. sent out that email, the others in the group got very worried about me. One woman (I shall refer to her as B.) called me on the phone and asked, “Are you okay? Are you going to quit writing?” I just laughed, no. I surprised everyone by being glad for the tough love. Maybe I didn’t know how to fix the problem right away, but for the first time I understood the problem.

Moral of the story? Critique groups helped me grow as a writer but only when I moved beyond simply taking the punches and listened to the message.

About Denise Robarge Tanaka

Denise is a lifelong writer of magical beings and creator of fantastic worlds. Her debut novel, Touch, is being published by Phantasm Books of Assent Publishing towards the end of the year.

Meet the Members: Jason A.D. MacDonald

Welcome to the blog! You are now here: some aspiring fantasy guy’s bio! If you were looking for the bathroom, take a right at the shambling mound bobble-head dispenser and proceed past the basilisk den (avoid direct eye contact—you have been warned).

Continue reading »

Nothing grandiose where I’m concerned, folks. I’m your average undiscovered Shakespeare who needs a decade plus to finish his debut novel. My first loves in fantastic reading were DC Comics and Asterix, which my parents dug out from bargain bins (I’m still half convinced some dying alien will bequeath me a power ring SOMEDAY and am just amusing myself until then).

Then our cousin introduced my brother and I to a red box set of nerd crack called Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Huzzah! I found my destiny in the Caves of Chaos and the Palace of the Silver Princess. My brother was the best DM ever and led me through 1001 nights of adventure with a vast cast of characters culled from our sordid imaginations. He also introduced me to the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Rift War Saga, etc… Practically crafted my geek membership badge for me. Thanks, bro!

Still here? I admire a person with strong bowel control and a lead stomach! Okay, so, once I’d fooled everyone into thinking I had grown up, I moved to sunny Ottawa, capital of Canada (I think that’s on the northern border of Gondor, isn’t it?), and tried to do something good and practical with my life, i.e., studying Journalism, until I realized how much I HATED being told what to write about. Shouted from a high mountain peak: gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Ditched that. Moved over into studying English Literature. Much happier! Four years of DWEM later, I emerged with a master’s degree and no idea what the frig I was going to do to make money. Oh, by the by, I was Editor-in-Chief on the Carleton Arts Review for a short time, so if you submitted a poem or short story between 1999 and 2000 that got shafted, now you know where to target your righteous ire.

Not too much more to say. I thought I was going to be the youngest fantasy writer on the New York Times Bestseller List by 17 and do a victory lap on the late night talk shows but, you know, that kind of didn’t materialize in this lifetime. Hasn’t diminished my naïve optimism, though! Karma is a bitch and I’ve paid for my stepping on other literary dreams in my share of rejections. I did manage to hoodwink one bunch of editors in Salt Lake City into publishing my only short story called “Neighbor” in Shimmer Magazine #2, Winter 2006 (in the category of, Holy crap, has it really been almost eight years since my last brush with immortality? Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!). I once had a smattering of sick poems published in a little chapbook series called Yield (try finding that one in a bargain bin! Double dare you!). Umm, that’s my resume of publishing credits! Moving along…

So what am I working on, now? Glad I put those words in your mouth! Contrary to what a goof I seem, I’m working on a really, really dark and grim (and moving!) novel set in a theocratic society that follows the lives of some very hard luck characters as they are dogged by demons and spirits! Yes, it is a bit of a non sequitur from what you’re reading, I get that, but, hey, do I got range or what? Those poor saps I torment might even crack a smile between blood and tragedy, you never know. This is the manuscript I mentioned earlier that has, shall we say, languished in the dungeons of my perfectionism but the nice folks at Leasspell are helping me with my OCD in that regard and it should see the light of day by at least 2020! There’s that patented MacDonald optimism!

Anyway, show’s over! Don’t forget the complimentary Kool-Aid on the way out and donations are always accepted (that’s a joke, people). See you in the blog (and watch out for that lizard, it’s looking your way)!