J.N. Duncan's Blog
October 23, 2013
While doing my usual putzing around on Twitter while sipping the morning coffee yesterday, I started hearing some tweets about a book, and people were not happy. At all. Not an uncommon occurrence really, but when I looked into it, the book they were referring to was the final book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, a very popular YA Dystopian story with a large following and a movie coming out soon. Books with large fan bases are bound to have a wide range of reactions. Things happen they don’t like, minor characters die, the story goes in a direction they don’t like, the list is as long as there are readers. This is normal. In my Deadworld books, I received similar, negative reactions. It comes with the territory. Opinions are highly subjective and obviously, you can’t write to please everyone. I might go as far to say that writers don’t write to please anyone except themselves. We just hope that a large enough group of folks will feel the same way we do and keep us in the writing business that we love so much. To a point.
While you can’t write to please the reader, one wouldn’t be writing their own story then, there is something to say about reader expectations. Genre fiction tends to have groups of pretty dedicated readers. If one is lucky, your story reaches beyond your target group. Cross-genre appeal is a good thing, but the waters get a little murkier when you have the fortune of becoming popular. Yes, you can say that you should write the story you want to write, no matter what that is, and readers be damned. They’ll like it or they won’t. Let’s face it though, writers want readers to like their stories. We don’t create in a vacuum. We want readers to share our vision, to immerse themselves in the worlds we’ve created and journey with the characters we’ve developed and brought to life. However, a story generates expectations. When you plop the reader down in a world with a hero/heroine on an epic journey full of endless trials and dangers, love and betrayal, conspiracies, loss and hope, you are telling the reader something. You are telling them that you’re going to take them on a grand adventure, physical, emotional, and what-have-you, from beginning to end. Endings can be positive or negative and a mix of both. When you spread out this canvas before the reader though, you are creating a certain level of expectation, and there is some obligation on the writer’s part, I believe, to maintain this expectation. Consistency is vital. If you create an expectation of hope, of victory in the end, of the hero/heroine raising their fists in triumph, however mixed those feelings might be, you had better follow through.
Now, I have not read the Divergent series, so I can’t say how any of this was played out by Veronica Roth. Based upon reader reactions I’ve seen, there was no expectation that the main character, the heroine of the story, would die at the end. Victory came at the ultimate cost. This kind of resolution is a really, REALLY fine line to walk for a writer. You can’t pull off the death of the main character without there being at least a subtle expectation built in that victory is going to require this kind of resolution. There are a lot of stories out there where the main character dies. Sometimes the character has brought it upon themselves. Sometimes the situation is so untenable that death is the only possible outcome. All fine. Not all stories need or require a happy victory dance at the end. Some genres, however, have a certain level of expectation built into them that necessitates a particular kind of ending. In a romance, for example, if the hero and heroine don’t end up together in some sort of happy resolution, you haven’t fulfilled the expectation of what a romance is. The story becomes something other than a romance, which is fine of course, just don’t call it a romance and don’t put it out there to readers as one. When one is writing for the YA audience, a broad audience these days, but specifically targeted at the teenage market, there are also certain expectations built in here. There’s a lot of darkness and angst in this age group, but there is also hope. A lot of shit happens in the teenage world, and much of it isn’t fun, but there is hope that, “I’ll get through this mess of figuring out the adult world and walk into it on solid ground.” YA Dystopian stories certainly delve into the notion of a lot of bad shit happening trying to figure things out on the way to being an adult. Adults live in a harsh world and getting the swing of being all grown up is a difficult task, but you know what? There’s hope that in the end, no matter what amount of crap is piled on, no matter how much things go wrong, that it will get figured out in the end and you’ll make it through. You don’t struggle mightily and then die.
Ok, we all know that people do struggle to make it through and then die, but that isn’t what you want to read. The reader wants hope. There are plenty of stories out there that detail quite eloquently, just how f’d up the world can be, how people can be harsh and cruel, and things can fail for good and bad reasons, but in the YA genre? Not so much. The expectation is that the teen hero or heroine will succeed in the end, and if you want to go against this expectation, you had better do a damn good job of making that plausible. The expectation needs to be altered, and from the sounds of things, from what I’ve read thus far, readers didn’t have that expectation at all. Should writers just write to reader expectations? No, of course not. That would be boring. As a reader, I like the unexpected, but when you start fiddling around with something fundamental like hope? Don’t crush it. Or, if you want to go there, be willing to accept the fact that a LOT of readers aren’t going to like you for it. They’re going to refuse to buy the book or see the movie (seen numerous comments to this effect). They might decide to never read anything else you ever write, and as a writer, that’s the last thing you want to have happen. I feel for Veronica. She took an unexpected step, and from the sounds of it, didn’t lay the groundwork well enough to alter the readers expectations. It’s a huge risk to kill off a main character, even if makes sense and can be seen from a long ways off. Messing with hope is a very dangerous game as a writer.
October 21, 2013
Let’s be honest, fun is not a word associated with query writing. Oh, I’m sure there are a handful of masochists out there who enjoy the endeavor of condensing a 100k word story into half a page, but I’m not one of them. I’ll go as far to say that I suck at it. That said, I am currently writing one, creating it for the purpose of submitting my psychological-crime drama-romance mashup, Harbortown. So, for some actual fun, I’m going to post the body of it here, so we may poke fun at its inadequacies, and then we shall see what I finally end up with. Don’t be afraid to laugh. I laugh at my efforts on these sorts of things all the time.
Harbortown is the story of, Rachel “Rehab” Rollins, a tougher-than-everything, forty-one-year-old detective, given notice that she is being forced to retire after the minimum twenty years of service. Never mind the fact that she has no desire to do so or that her body is breaking down on her after years of “enforcing the law” in the mob run town. The real issue at hand is that she must train her replacement and pass along the secrets of her success, secrets that have kept her alive in a place where half the population would prefer she was dead, secrets that Rachel had every intention of going to her grave with long before retiring.
Martin Falcone is just looking for a chance to perform the police work he loves doing. Growing up around Harbortown, it’s the perfect opportunity for the former Marine MP to prove his worth after being discharged from the Corps. Replacing local legend, Rachel Rollins, is a daunting task to say the least. Her history and body count would never make the Police Academy Training Manual, but Martin is okay with this. He fully understands that the law isn’t always as black and white as it seems, especially in the foggy recesses of the Town, but Rachel is far more than he bargained for. How does a cop, particularly a female one, get away with what she’s done? The near impunity with which she operates is baffling, and the more Martin digs, the more mysterious Rachel and Harbortown become. Everyone seems to be hiding something to kill for, and it’s all confounding Martin’s efforts to prove his worthiness by catching the baffling serial killer plaguing the area.
This 120,000 word, psychological-crime-drama-romance mashup, is the first book following the violent chaos of Rachel Rollins retirement, one man’s efforts to prove himself, and one woman’s striving to maintain her sanity as the world she built crumbles around her.
Harbortown is steeped in the tradition of violence and corruption, run by the long-standing Fedelini and Torchio crime families. Twenty years ago, the first female cop in local history stepped in and turned the town on its head. Now, legendary detective, Rachel “Rehab” Rollins is being forced into retirement, and nobody is more put out by this fact than Rachel herself. Never mind that her body can longer take the abuse or that the mainstay of her diet has regressed to Percocet and whiskey. She must now divulge the secrets of her power to the grinning, gung-ho, former marine MP hired to replace her, lest he find himself floating face down in the bay.
Martin Falcone knew being a cop in Harbortown would be a challenge. He’d grown up around its crime-addled streets, and the Marine’s sense of law and order didn’t sit well here. Gaining the respect of the town, not to mention his coworkers was going to be difficult. He had not, however, expected the real challenge to be the cop he was hired to replace. Rachel had become the soul of Harbortown and it was not in a good place. In order to do this job, to gain the respect he needed, catch the serial killer plaguing the area, he needed to find out the secret to her power, and if Martin wasn’t careful, his efforts could ruin them all.
September 19, 2013
Plodding along and obviously I’ve been terribly unmotivated/inspired to blog on any kind of regular basis. That said, proposal for a new project is finally done, a time-travel/adventure story. Hopefully will have that off to the agent in a week or two. I’m also about to dig into editing my crime drama, Harbortown. Still not sure what I’ll be doing with this story, but I need it in tip-top shape before I think of having anyone look at it. Finally, and I’ll toss a little tidbit about myself in here-I like to hum made up music to myself at work when I’m bored-I came up with a line which I thought was cool for a song, so I rolled with it and came up with one. Years ago, I did a bit of public speaking on the issue of domestic violence, educating people about the issue, which I still feel is a significant social issue today. This song is inspired by that issue and the herculean efforts women must often go through to get free of violent relationships. Hope you like it.
I’ll Keep Walkin
I’ll keep walkin, through this valley of broken bones
Where my soul is crushed beneath your feet
I’ll keep walkin, until I’ve stepped out of your shoes
I’ll follow a path out of here where I can choose
I’ll keep walkin, walkin until I am free
Free to have a life about me
I’ll keep walkin, through this rain of tears
Washed away by all of our fears
I’ll keep walkin out of the wreckage of this storm
Keep walkin, because I need to be reborn
I’ll keep walkin, until I find a new home
Where I can live a life I can call my own.
I’ll keep walkin, though the trees of life are bare
The leaves blown away by the howl of your wind
I’ll keep pushin through the gale of your voice
I’ll keep walkin, cause I have no choice
To keep walkin until I find a new home
Where I can live a life I can call my own
Well I’m walkin, walkin because I’ll be strong
Because I deserve a life free of these wrongs
I’ll keep walkin, because I’ll have a voice
A voice all of my own
A life that’s my choice.
Cause I’m walkin, walkin on my own
Where I can live a life I can call my own
May 23, 2013
Ah, the poor blog. One of these days I’m going to figure out something to regularly post about, but for now, I’ll continue with the occasional update on where I’m at. I expect this will be different at that point that I get another book out…which is my ongoing effort at the moment. The draft of the first Harbortown book is finally done. Yay! 120k of crime, a little romance, and emotional unraveling. Now it sits for a bit while I work on the proposal for a new story for my agent to shop around as my current one, another Urban Fantasy story, is now eight months out there in publishing land with only 3 rejections out of eight submissions. Never said this business was quick, that’s for sure.
So, this new proposal is being worked on with the idea that the current one is dying a slow death and being shuffled to the possibility of e-press or self-publishing. It’s a time-travel story, about a woman from the future unwittingly sent back to medieval England in order to stop a current war from happening, by altering the past and completely changing the course of history. This story will actually be more about how things change than the change itself, i.e. what could happen when someone with knowledge far beyond the 15th century world gets placed in a position of influence. The answer? Fun stuff! Will see how it goes. I have a 100 pages to write and then will see what my agent can do with it. Then, it’s back to editing Harbortown, which might end up being my first foray into self-publishing, and then? That remains to be seen. I’ll have two unfinished proposals I could finish or I could go back to Nick and Jackie and do the next Deadworld book. We’ll just have to wait and see. Happy reading/writing everyone!
February 7, 2013
Toying around with the sf story idea, which has as part of its premise, human experimentation. Not in an alien autopsy or locked room sort of way, but far more subtle. This is an experiment that does not appear to have an impact on your life. Why? Because you haven’t actually been aware of it. The world has changed in ways that may or may not be significant to you, but the change also alters your memory/perception of these changes so that they don’t even seem like changes at all. You may know people now that you didn’t before or suddenly be able to do something you once couldn’t, but your perception doesn’t perceive this as a change at all. Something is happening on a regular basis to you and everyone around you but it doesn’t actually feel like anything has changed at all. You don’t know who is doing it, how, or why they would be, but it is happening and will continue to keep happening.
What is your reaction to this dilemma?
Retweet this around at will. I’m curious how people feel this would effect them, as I’m trying to wrap my brain around the story and deciding what the world would do in such an event.
January 29, 2013
I’ve been playing with a new story idea, a sf story based upon the following premise: what would happen if you discovered that humanity was involved in a global experiment, one with far-reaching potential, but lacked utter disregard for the immediate, singular consequences? This is very different in tone and feel for what I’ve done in the past, but I find the idea inspiring. Below is an opening possibility. Compelling or no?
The universe has its own voice. It doesn’t speak in any known language or have anything remotely cogent to say, but it is there if one listens. Perhaps it is the summation of all things: the energies given off by the stars and planets, the souls of all living things come and gone over milennia, the actions of untold billions of organisms dissipated into the vast expanse of space. It is a conglomeration of everything, settled into the sediment of existence, buried too deep for the minds of humanity to recognize, and beyond the reach of their awareness.
Felice Halladay was aware. She could sense the voice of all things. This is what she called it, this bone-deep whisper, the name she had given it from the moment her mind could form the words. She didn’t hear it all of the time. In fact, she often went days, weeks, or even months without being aware of it at all, but it was forever there, lingering in the shadows of her soul. The voice was a glimmer, a ghost, there but not, something one could only catch out of the corner of their eye but not if you looked directly at it.
Today, a crisp, bright September day in 2020, Felice Halladay turned her direct gaze upon the ghost and saw it for the first time.
January 23, 2013
The blog has been quiet for some time now, mostly because, well, I’ve not had much to blog about, and I’m not good at just putting up random stuff to fill the pages. My work on Harbortown continues. It’s reaching 80k words now, and I’m guessing it’ll hit close to 100k by the time this second part is done. It’s a lot of fun writing a story where the boundaries are rather expanded because realism is not a complete part of the equation. Purposefully going over the top has its advantages. Making sure it isn’t absurd is another line to watch out for. Another dilemma is the balancing act between the crime and the romance. Deadworld had a romantic thread but it was probably only about 15% of the arc. Harbortown is much more in the 50/50 range which is new to me. Maintaining a relatively tight focus on the romance can be difficult when one is running around blowing shit up. Regardless, it’s a good time, and hopefully at some point later this year, I’ll have a product to put out there. My Urban Fantasy still remains out on submission, with 3 rejections out of 8 pubs so far. Still got fingers crossed on that one.
Given Deadworld’s hiatus at the moment, I’m also considering retooling the blog to turn the focus toward this Harbortown story and crime/noir/romance. Not sure how or when, but I’m considering it right now. Once I figure I have things I could talk about on a weekly basis at least, I’ll get it done, and actually converse with folks again. Meanwhile, the writing continues.
October 4, 2012
I have two projects in the works right now, one a UF out on submission with my agent, and the other, a hardboiled romance, I’m debating what to do with. I bounce back and forth between wanting to try self-publishing with this title or pursing more traditional options. For the past year or so, I’ve been wanting to dig into the D.I.Y. elements of publishing that are now open to authors, and you can see by a post I made a couple weeks ago, that I’ve been pondering possibilities. Well, I’ve recently begun a piece of that possibility.
What I have written on Harbortown (about 50k) words to this point, I placed on Google Docs, invited about a half dozen reader/reviewer people I’ve connected with on twitter and feel could provide me with some honest feedback, and gave them the ability to comment directly in the document, much like you do with any Word document. The goal here is to work with a continuous feedback loop, using ideas/concerns/comments to develop the story into a stronger version than what I could normally on my own. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a very objective eye with regard to my writing, unless it sits for a couple of months before I look at it. The far more immediate feedback helps not only spur ideas and keep elements on track, what works well and what doesn’t, but it’s also inspiring to write more, when you have people involved in your work.
Given the scope of this story (I’m on pt 2 of 5, and currently at 50k), I will be doing this for a while, and may add some more commenters to the loop, depending on how well this turns out. It’s not exactly crowd-sourcing, but having interested people involved in you work, who you know will give honest feedback is a fabulous thing to have when writing. I know that some writers don’t like anyone to see their work until it’s done. They have worries that it will distort their process or stress them out or whatever the case may be. My brain doesn’t work that way, for better or worse. I thrive on the interaction, so I hope that this experiment will prove fruitful and I can build upon it. We’ll see how it goes.
September 25, 2012
Bit of a head-scratcher in the twitterverse today as I discovered a link to a well-known literary critic (in those circles at least) who complained that book bloggers are causing problems for literature. Huh? You can read what Mr. Stothard had to say here: http://ht.ly/dZy8V. His premise is basically this: the proliferation of non-professional book critics via blogging is going to drown out the voices of serious, literary critics making it more difficult for readers to discover great works of literature.
Yes, I know. You can quit your snorts of laughter now. I’ll be the first to say that the vast majority of book bloggers do not provide critical analysis of literary fiction. A few do, I’m sure, and if you are actually looking to find them, I’ll bet it’s not too hard to find. The fact is, if you are looking for great, literary fiction, it’s not hard to find sources that discuss/critique those stories. There are bloggers out there who are not professionally paid literary critics, but have the background, interest, and where-with-all to tackle literary fiction. Most readers, however, are not. The general reading public reads for entertainment mostly. Do these stories require deep, critical analysis? Probably not. They do require thoughtful opinion though, and that is within the purview of most readers.
Book bloggers offer their opinions on books because of one thing, they love books. They want people to know about them. Let’s face it, there are way more good stories out there for you to read than you’ll ever be able to get to. Finding good ones can be difficult. Are you going to find them among the literary critics? No. Popular fiction isn’t something they examine, which is fine. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if they look down on popular fiction or have the pretentious attitude that they aren’t worth reading. We all know they are. Literary works are too. Some books are works of art when it comes to language and/or expressing the human condition. Literary critics can continue to work in those circles. It’s worthwhile and useful. Will they be drowned out by the rest of the book blogosphere? No.
The thing is, people talk about books. A lot. People who read popular fiction also read literary fiction. Word gets passed around. Bloggers are interconnected. If anything , a proliferation of book bloggers will only enhance the ability for an artful piece of fiction to get notice. It will also get more good popular fiction noticed. To those literary critics out there pretentious enough to think so, readers read more than one type of story. We read romances, mysteries, biographies, fantasies, and hey, even literary fiction. Why? probably because a trusted blogger resource heard from another blogger who heard from a blogger who read some lit critics analysis and decided to give the book a shot and then spread the word. It happens.
So, lit critics, get off your high horse, if you’re currently on one. Not every book out there is or needs to be worthy of the Booker Prize or Pulitzer. Nor are we immune or ignorant of your analysis and critique of said books. We hear about them. Word gets around. Just because your pond has become an ocean, doesn’t mean we don’t know where to go looking for the beautiful fish.
September 13, 2012
Much has changed in the past five years in publishing, which kind of goes without saying. It has allowed us writers to think a bit outside the box when it comes to the content we produce and how it’s put out there to readers. I have yet to do much with self-publishing, but it is readily apparent that the boundaries of the playing field for authors has greatly expanded. We can put out short stories, novellas, and such to go along with novels that come out, whether legacy or self published. It’s an ability to go beyond the norm for the readers as well as a method to help ourselves with things like discoverability and extra income. Things like this, of course, get me to thinking on the possibilities.
I have two projects going at the moment, and one of them is a something of a hard-boiled/noir/romance mashup called Harbortown. It follows the rollercoaster ride of Detective Rachel “Rehab” Rollins and the guy she must train to replace her after she’s been forced to retire. The story arc takes place over these final six months of her job. Now, I may end up writing this all as one, full length book. If my agent likes it and sells it, I’m more than likely to go that route, but it’s also spurred on some other ideas.
Like, what if I wrote it as a series of novellas, released over the course of that actual six month time frame, on the actual days that each novella begins, sort of like reading it in real time? There could be short stories during the in between times. Then the whole thing could be compiled at the end in one volume. I could have a blog that follows the goings on in the town during the entire six months, also played along in real time, bits of news, things about the town and characters, kind of like a daily/weekly news update. The whole idea here would be to have readers experience the story along the same six month time frame that the characters and town do.
Might be fun, yes? Might be colossal, epic fail. Who knows, but regardless, it is very, very cool that publishing is such now that it allows for this kind of pondering. The ways in which we bring our stories to the reader have expanded quite a bit in the past few years, and likely will even more in the future. It’s an exciting time to be a writer.