Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Improbable, Implausible but....Possible?

After writing the first draft of my novel Indigo Blaze, I gave it to my husband to read. For a guy who typically reads Tactics for SWAT for fun, reading a YA paranormal romance was a big stretch. Surprisingly, he got hooked, even though there wasn’t even one mention of guns, bullets or tactics. Once he finished reading, he sat silent for several minutes, staring at the sheets of paper, and then said: “Wow. Very ambitious.” Initially I had no idea what he meant, but after some questions I realized he was speaking to my heavy, improbable, paranormal premise.

I remember looking up some books on Amazon.ca in the same genre and reading some reviews. One particular book that was similar to mine featured some heavy themes and a similar premise by a debut author. One of the comments said “Ambitious for a breakout novel. But she (the novelist) pulled it off.”

Is it too ambitious for a first time writer to tackle a heavy, improbable premise?

The hardest part of writing this kind of novel is obviously the believability. I have read too many books and watched too many movies that are absolutely gripping throughout, but when it comes to the climax - when the alien, God, or the Devil are finally revealed - it falls flat. I really dislike disappointing endings and I don’t want to disappoint my potential readers that way.

There are a few writers who do pull it off, however. How do they do it? I went looking for a step-by-step cookbook for how to do it.

In The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maass speaks to the issue of overcoming reader skepticism. His first pointer is to start in the middle of action to plunge the reader directly into the conflict and then before the reader has a moment to reflect, keep that conflict jumping off the pages.

Then he advises to make a case in detail for the scenario you are spinning and work it throughout the plot, beginning with your characters motivations and convictions. That way, even if we as readers don’t necessarily believe in aliens, we’ll still believe that the character does.

Next, he suggests boning up on your evidence that builds the case for your wildly improbable scenario, and then to wield that research like a hammer, obliterating all reader skepticism. Find what is unbelievable in your story and remove every morsel of doubt by answering every possible question of why this could really happen. How? Do your research. How is it possible that aliens exist? Lay your research out in detail.

Donald’s final pointer is passion. Passion is that little something special about the author that comes through in the story. In my novel, it’s paranoia. Paranoia was interwoven throughout that novel, hopefully building a case for why the character is afraid; my own (paranoid) passion glinting out through the words.

I hope my ambitious goal was achieved. Something that my husband said made me hopeful: “I couldn’t read it by myself. I was too scared.” This, coming from a guy who swarms houses with real-life murderers inside! Maybe my character’s motivations and convictions combined with my detailed research made the unbelievable premise work.

And maybe a touch of my own paranoid passion that I painstakingly wove into the story actually jumped off the pages and instilled a creepy, unsettled feeling in even the most courageous reader!


Vince said...

Hi Joanne:

Your post has given me many ideas to explore.

I have some ideas on paranormals as someone who has read a great deal of SF.

If you are writing hard SF, then you have to get the science right and answer all the objections as Maass says.

If you are writing magic, then it is much harder to be believable because with magic the hero can get out of any predicament imaginable. This is why I don’t like magic. Rules of magic don’t work either if the hero uses a rare exception to escape.

The way to make magic work is to make the book so interesting, on every page, that reader’s don’t care that much about the plausibility of the plot. (I’m thinking here of the ‘undead and unwed’ series of vampire romances.)

Another thing to do is show the logical consequences of the magic in mundane details. One writer had an underwater mer-kingdom in which some mermaids with long hair had to spend hours each day combing their hair out because it was always getting tangled up in the water currents.

These mermaids were vain and not very bright being so preoccupied with their beauty. These mermaids played almost no part in the book but the whole book was like this: little details were always being shown that were unimportant consequences of the book’s premise. The author’s world was so realistic in the details that inspire of being totally implausible, I bought the theme anyway. I just thought, there really could be a place like this.

There is another factor that I don’t read about in romances and that is writing on multiple levels.

One writer just writes a paranormal mermaid story and that’s all there is to it. Another author writes what seems like the same story but the story is written on several levels.

On one level the story is written for all readers to enjoy. On the next level the author is having fun parodying a chapter of the Odyssey. On the next level the story may be playing out the consequences of a psychological theory like behaviorism. On another level the story may be exploring the problems of freewill and predestination. On another level there may be a direct correlation to folklore themes from Nordic mythology. Think of C.S. Lewis, and others. Many SF books are not about what they are about.

Now depending on what the reader brings to the story, the story will be different for each reader.

Shakespeare wrote on many levels which is a major factor in his worth as a writer.

All the time I was reading SF, the major interest and enjoyment was reading the story on these different levels.

Is anything going on at different levels in your story? Could it?

It sounds like you have something good there. If a man likes it, that is. : )


Janet said...

I really dislike disappointing endings... I'm with you, Joanne. And if the whole premise, theme, scenerio doesn't ring true to me as the reader (or watcher, if it's a movie), I will abandon that book no questions asked.

But take me for a ride with believable characters, interesting plot, and a premise YOU believe in - then I'm with you to the very end. No matter how outrageous, if it comes across as authentic and sincere, I will love it.

Great information from Donald Maass - thanks for including it. And good luck - sounds like you've got an authentic work on your hands :)

Karyn Good said...

There is passion woven throughout Indigo Blaze. Without a doubt, it's there! As for your heavy, improbable, paranormal premise? I totally bought into it. In fact, I wanted more it! It's an incredible story!

I like what Donald Maass has to say about overcoming reader skepticism and making a case in detail for the scenario. Very good advice and it works across the board with any premise. It's very timely, too. I'm having some issues along that line and need to do some weaving in of case details of my own :)

And I say this, your story is cringe worthy, in the very best, edge of your seat kind of way!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Vince - great points to keep in mind.

Janet - I agree about the disappointing endings.

Joanne, your comment about your novel being too ambitious reminded me of a friend of mine who said she thought her story was too big for her. Just thinking about it had her hesitating but I'm proud of her for taking up the challenge.

Excellent post.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Your comments always make my head hurt just a little!

Great suggestions about layering writing to interest more than one reader and so that the story is different to every reader.


Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Janet,
I too have abandoned many books when things just aren't ringing true.

I'm hoping my work comes across as authentic and sincere!


Joanne Brothwell said...

Thank you for the kind words - glad you commented on this post, since you have read my work and can speak to the topic.

I take your "cringe-worthy" comment as a HUGE compliment!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Anita Mae,
Yes, I think at times I felt the same way as your friend - that the topic was too big for me. However, I pushed through the worry and persevered, and let's hope I achieved the goal!

Helena said...

Good for you, Joanne, for tackling something 'huge' whether it's your first effort or not. Better than trying to pad something that's too thin from the beginning.

I have no doubt that you will pull it off!

Joanne Brothwell said...

I agree with your point that it's better to take on a big project than to pad a thin one. Those are usually easy to spot (Like the novel we read at Christmas!)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Joanne - Karyn seems to think you've done an admirable job at it so kudos to you for not only attempting it but sticking wih it. Good luck. :)

Captain Hook said...

Hi, Joanne. I completely agree on disappointing endings. It makes me think of two books on the same topic (non-paranormal) that I read when working at Barnes & Noble.

The first was The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry. An absolutely wonderfully written book. And the ending cleared up all the hanging plot threads very nicely. It was the kind of book that when you close it, you truly feel it's finished.

The other was The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury. The two books follow the same plot and are both very enjoyable reads UNTIL you get to the last two chapters of Khoury's book. When I finished it I felt like he'd run too close to his deadline and just scribbled gibberish for the last two chapters. It left me with a very blah feeling to the entire book.

I'm an easy one to please with believability. It's not hard for me to suspend my belief in reality to become immersed in a book, so as to that, I really can't comment. I've never yet met a paranormal book I didn't enjoy.

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hey Captain Hook,
I've read those books with the blah feeling and I've often wondered if by the time they are nearly done they're so sick of writing they just throw it together at the end.

connie said...

Hi Joanne

I would love to read your manuscript!
If Darren found it scary, it's SCARY. That's a lovely compliment.
The really scary part for you is submitting it, but I have a feeling this one is going to be successful SOON

Joanne Brothwell said...

Thanks for the offer to read it - I think I will take you up on that offer! I hope your prediction about it being successful soon comes true!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Joanne,
I've also tried to tackle a book that is "big", or at least bigger than I've written before. So far, that book remains unfinished, so the jury's still out on whether I succeeded or not. Even though I haven't yet finished the book, I'm not sorry I tackled it. If you don't challenge yourself, if you don't try something that makes you uncomfortable, how can your writing grow and stretch and get better? Congratulations on being so courageous.


connie said...

please do take me up on the offer. I haven't read any paranormal in years and years, so I should be able to read it with an 'untutored' eye

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hi Jana,
I agree that we have to challenge ourselves, and even if we aren't successful, we still learned something along the way. Thanks

Sounds good.