Currently listening to:
This killer Imagine Dragons mashup.
- Found via this killer Marvel fanvid.
"Good to You" - Colum Scott - currently being used in an AmEx commercial, and really love it.
"The Wolf" - Siames
"God's Gonna Cut You Down Remix" - totally a Sons of Rome song pick
"The Man" - Ed Sheeran
"Judas" - Lady Gaga - another SoR pick
Thursday, June 14, 2018
A first look at Sons of Rome book three, Dragon Slayer, due out this fall. (2,555 words).
Copyright © 2018 by Lauren Gilley
All Rights Reserved
Val couldn’t suppress a yawn as Mother tugged his nightshirt down over his head.
She chuckled. “My sleepy little prince tonight, hm? Too much fun today?” She smoothed his shoulder-length hair down with several long, gentle passes of her hand.
“Mama, it was amazing,” he declared, going limp and flopping backward on the bed. “They were so beautiful. And the way they moved.” He lifted a hand and swept it through the air in demonstration. “Can I be an acrobat?”
“Well.” She lifted his legs and tucked them beneath the covers, pulled the blankets up to his chin. “You’re already a prince, and I think that’s pretty special, don’t you?”
He made a face.
Thursday, June 7, 2018
The Questionable Morality
I think it's no secret by this point that I like to poke fun at what I call the "morality police" critics of my writing; the ones who think that my characters ought to typify what they personally deem as "good" and "correct" behavior and ideologies. Those critics are SOL. But I did receive a comment on my Maggie post - "thank goodness morality has no place in your writing" - that left me wanting to clarify some points about fiction in general, and my writing in particular.
Firstly, I'm glad said reader wholeheartedly agrees with my approach! But I would like to say that I don't believe morality "has no place." Rather, I strive not to put my morality off onto fictional characters who are nothing like me, and who are not fictional representations of the way I interact with the world. Because my books are about the characters in them - they are not about me, they are not about my readers, and they are not about pushing a particular moral viewpoint off onto others. I would argue that all of my characters, even the truly dark ones, have their own morality codes. It's cliché, but "a man's got to have a code," you know? But those characters' codes don't necessarily align with my own, or those of my readers.
I've talked at length before about my belief that fiction should serve as a window rather than a mirror, so I won't go into it again here. Suffice to say I don't feel like it's my place to present a character to the audience, and then use my narrative voice to try to convince anyone that this character is "right," and therefore morally superior to anyone else in the book. Or superior to anyone sitting at home who just wanted to read an exciting book and escape for a little while.
I've been reading Mary Renault, and I love the way her historical fiction presents us with the reality of the age without judging it by modern-day standards. Anne Rice did the same thing with her Vampire Chronicles: here is the age, here are the people living in it, here are their flaws, their faults, and the internal reasoning for their actions. Both authors ask you to love and enjoy the stories of their characters, but - and this is important - they never ask you the reader to excuse, justify, or approve of anything they've done.
Enjoying a book about a problematic character does not mean you approve of the problematic behavior.
It does not mean you forgive whatever vile things he or she has done.
A perfect example of this is the love fans (including me) have for Loki in the MCU. I've had it said to me that, "I can't like him. Why do you like him? He's a bad guy! He did bad things!" I think, in general, Loki fans are not apologists who try to rationalize his morality, trivialize the horrible things he's done, or make excuses. We know he's killed people. We know he's let emotion get the best of him. (We want he and Thor to just have a brotherly hug that doesn't involve stabbing!) Rather, he is a character for which we have empathy, who is fascinating, who is, despite some tough odds, endearing and sympathetic. And we know that loving his character doesn't mean that we approve of his (sometimes) villainous behavior.
Enjoying a problematic character does not mean you approve of the problematic behavior.
I also believe that the redemption journey of a problematic character can be one of the most inspiring to read and watch; that seeing a character's shifting moral foundations is truly epic to behold. I personally enjoy writing the backstories for those characters; peeling back the layers and explaining the whys of them to the audience. It's an exercise in psychology, one that I think, ultimately, can help us better understand the world around us, and the people around us.
Long story short: authors like to play in fictional toy chests. For me, the challenge of making a problematic character loveable (and boy do I have my hands full with Vlad in Dragon Slayer) is one of the most rewarding and thrilling. I'll probably never stop getting those pesky one-star reviews from people who think that my books are some kind of expression of the fact that I personally endorse murder, abuse, or think that people like Mercy have the moral high ground. Those critics may not like or agree with my characters, but that doesn't make them any less realistic. And if you're like me, and you enjoy your problematic characters, don't let others shame you and ruin the enjoyment for you. They're seriously not worth your time.
Thursday, May 31, 2018
...and female characters in general.
Thanks (or maybe apologies...? Considering this is a rambling post) to Irene for featuring the "kids" on her Insta and Twitter this week for the #T4AuthorsChallenge. She said her favorite female character is Maggie, and in that series, she's mine too! I got nostalgic, and here we have this post:
Maggie Lowe/Teague is the matriarch of my fictional Motorcycle Club, and she is most certainly the product of years' worth of research, and personal experience as a woman of the south. I don't know that I've ever gone into the origin story of this character, so...
When Sons of Anarchy premiered on FX in 2008, it offered a view of a fringe lifestyle - that of the 1%er MC crowd - to the general TV watching public, and I think it's safe to say that I wasn't the only one who was immediately fascinated. While I ultimately stopped watching the show midway through its run - negative character development is something that depresses me and I could no longer watch it without feeling vaguely sick - in the first few seasons, I embarked on a part-fandom, part-real-life research spree, because I wanted to learn about "the life." Documentaries, interviews, books, news articles, and even some personal contacts later, I'd learned a lot, not all of it polite, but most of it breathtakingly honest. When I write I like to go "there," I like to push the boundaries and try to present something frightening to the audience as something normal. Perhaps I just love the idea of twisting perceptions? In any event, when I started Dartmoor, I had a special challenge on my hands: write about this brutal, lawless lifestyle with honesty...but try to engage readers emotionally as well.
The age gap is realistic, as far as my studies go, as is the idea that MCs like these tend to attract both men and women who feel like they have their backs against the wall - who need a safe place to land; who won't mind trading legality for a sense of purpose and family. I knew I didn't want to write about property patches, and ownership, but I also wanted to be as realistic as possible. That's the line I constantly walk with my writing: real as I can, for as long as I can, so that the fantasy elements feel important and impactful.
Working in my favor was the fact that Maggie was Southern. Southern women tend to be very secure in their power; they don't have to flaunt it, they just own it. I designed Maggie, specifically, to represent a powerful female character who fulfilled a "traditional" female role. She's a wife and a mother - those things don't define her, nor do they detract from her strength; they are a part of her. She is a complete person who is comfortable in her own skin. And I wanted her to be a character who could combat the notion that strong female characters have to behave in masculine, or non-traditional ways.
By contrast, we then have a character like Eden in Prodigal Son, who is very non-traditional, but who is just as strong.
See, here's the thing: I've always been uncomfortable with the way there seems to be a double standard for judging male versus female characters in the romance genre. Men are allowed to be broke, and vulnerable, and angry, and jerky, and generally dynamic. But women have to toe a line that falls somewhere between perfectly confident, perfectly coiffed, perfect in bed, but not too slutty. I'd be lying if I said I didn't resent that double-standard. I think a well-drawn character is a well-drawn character; the objective of writing is never - not for me, anyway - to present the ideal human, but to present a realistic one. Women can cry, can doubt, can get frustrated, can cuss, can make bad decisions. Can pine, can argue, can kill, can fight, can lead...I want that in the books I read. And when I write, I strive to bring a wide variety of female characters to the page, flawed, real, earnest. I can already anticipate a negative reaction to Eden, same as there was to Lisa Russell. Should I rectify this by writing the ideal woman? No. No, I won't ever do that. In some ways, when readers tell me that Maggie is a bitch, or bad, or weak...that's a little victory. It means she's human, and she tugged at something in the reader. We have reactions to real things, to human things. Perfection inspires only a dull half-smile.
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Deep Character Development: Show Don’t Tell
We’ve all heard that little pearl of wisdom, haven’t we? And in theory, we understand that it’s the author’s job to reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue and action as opposed to exposition…but rarely do I find a more practical explanation of how to do that. So in the interest of deep character development, I’m going to tell you about my experiences with one character in particular in the hopes that it will shed some light on the tired old “show don’t tell” conversation.
Nikita is a character from my Sons of Rome series, first introduced in White Wolf, and a character of whom I’m immensely proud. He’s the product of years of writing, and six years, specifically, of published writing.
He started, as all my characters do, with a baseline identity that I then added to and built into something three dimensional. To start, I knew that Nikita was three things: Russian, a member of the secret police, and also, secretly, a White (one of those Russians loyal to the deposed and then murdered tsar). These three main identifiers were the foundation of my research; I needed to understand what it meant to be Russian, what it meant to be a Chekist, and what it meant to be a White, and then fuse this information into a character profile. Because he was a White, I knew that he hated his Communist masters, and the government in general. And because it was 1942, and he was gainfully employed as a Chekist, he was going to have to play the long game, and do a lot of things that turned his stomach in order to get by. He was Russian, after all, and a survivor. An ace at playing the long game. When we first meet Nikita, he’s a man living a double life, and struggling beneath the weight of that mantle. He’s someone who feels deeply, and pretends not to, who burdens himself with guilt after guilt after guilt.
Once I know a character, then it’s time to decide how to reveal them piece by piece to the audience so that they can come to know them too. For me, the goal is to be explicit with details, but subtle with the meaning delivered by them. So with Nikita:
· His failure to eat isn’t forgetfulness. Between anxiety, low blood sugar, and the weight of a guilty conscience, he tends to skip meals intentionally. He beats himself up, figuratively, and one of the ways he does this is to deny himself the things he wants or even needs. (And oh boy is that going to be an ongoing conversation that comes to a head in book four, featuring a certain wolf)
· His coldness is a way to distance himself from others. He’s lost people, and he hates it, so he resolves not to get emotionally attached…an effort which always fails spectacularly.
· Being a White isn’t, for him at least, so much a political leaning as it is a way for him to justify the things he’s done. Does he truly support the Romanov family? Yes. But more than that, his secret identity provides an excuse for the terrible things he’s done in the name of the Kremlin. He can justify the evil if he thinks that he’s waiting to make his move and turn the tide. And he can tell himself that when he does make that move, it will be to topple a government that will be made better by a return of a tsar. This is part of the reason it hurts him so badly to meet Alexei and find out he’s kind of…a little shit.
All of these things are revealed through the course of the book, one event, and one revelation at a time. Showing the audience his heart and mind in this way creates a portrait of a man that is more human being than archetype, and that for me is always the ultimate goal.
Wednesday, May 2, 2018
So there’s this gap. It’s a gap that exists between wanting to do something and actually being able to do it with any kind of authority. It’s a gap that exists at the outset of every artistic/athletic/professional journey, and it’s a gap that we must bridge with a combination of knowledge and experience. I was once a little girl who wrote a terribly-spelled “book” about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and a thirty-year-old who just released her twenty-second violent adult novel. In between those very different stages came a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of hard work, a lot of studying, a lot of failures, and a few quiet victories.
What I’m getting at is this: we all start somewhere. We are all students of the craft in our own ways, and there is no right path. But I do believe that – structured or informal – literary analysis is an important part of becoming a stronger fiction writer.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to study literature in high school, and in college, but that is by no means a requirement. Because, truth told, I’ve learned more from self-directed study at home than I did in school. Do you have to study literature formally in school? No. Do you have to study in some way? I believe yes. And it’s not as intimidating as it sounds.
If you’ve ever engaged in a conversation about a book you enjoyed, you were performing your own literary analysis. The most important trait of a successful writer is the ability to create an emotional connection between your characters and the readers. Being able to break down and understand the literature that did that for you is an important step in the learning process.
*Fair warning, before we go farther, with the exception of my first books, the Walker Series, I tend to write about characters who would be deemed “problematic” for the morality police of the book world. So the following example is about craft and character, not about morality. Morality has no place in my writing, thank you!*
Let’s take a closer look at an example with my character Mercy (since he’s arguably the most popular of the bunch).
I’ve talked at length in the past about the fact that Mercy was heavily inspired by Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, and is my modern day, outlaw biker take on the Byronic Hero. If you wanted to write a character like Mercy, then my recommendation would be to go read Bronte’s novel, and then, for clarification, check out some literary criticisms of it. Because superficially, those two don’t have much in common. Mercy is, after all, a Cajun biker with a seedy past who likes to hit people with sledgehammers and then goes home to read Tolstoy in bed with his old lady. But, like Heathcliff, Mercy is temperamental, passionate, violent, and deeply, almost childishly vulnerable. He’s obsessive. He loves with a singular focus that would, rightly so, frighten most women. He’s the kind of guy who is, let’s face it, darkly romantic on paper, but rather terrifying in real life.
The reason readers love – or even hate – Mercy is because he’s a complete person, flaws and all, and though simple on the surface, becomes slippery when you try to pin him down in a formal book review. But why? It’s because Mercy is a character designed to draw strong reactions out of readers, and he usually succeeds. Despite initial impressions, readers don’t actually love him because he’s tall and has long dark hair; nor do the haters hate him because he kills with relish. No, Mercy is the kind of character who preys on a reader’s desires and fears without, haha, mercy. Indiscriminately.
Okay, let’s break it down.
When I design a character, I start with the deep questions first. Who is this person at heart? What are they afraid of? What do they want most? What do they lack in their lives? In the early stages, I decide things like family history, shortcomings, religion (even if it’s never touched on in the book), phobias, and guilty pleasures. The answers to those questions, just like when we ask them of real people in our real lives, are rarely simple. Early character design is like a psychological evaluation.
For me, Mercy was always fascinating because of the stark dichotomy within his nature. He’s very mature, and also very immature. He’s incredibly cold, and incredibly tender. These could be traits of any number of fascinating fictional characters. The mature/immature dichotomy shows up often in characters who were forced to grow up too quickly, or without exposure to peers, and so have had an unusual emotional development. You see the cold/tender combination quite often in BDSM fiction, in which the urge to punish is then overwhelmed by the need to comfort.
It's the dichotomy that makes Mercy interesting. The books, the sledgehammer; being sweet to Tango and then torturing Ava’s ex for intel…all of that is window dressing. Those are the symptoms, if you will, that allow us to see deeper into his psyche to unearth the traits that lie at the core of him.
His physical size is a superficial strength – it’s his unfailing loyalty that is a true character strength.
As a writer, it’s your job to know the core of your character, and reveal it slowly through increasingly-in-depth scenes that reveal the superficial first, and then peel back the layers as you go.
As a reader, you have to work backward, starting with what you can see, and then digging deeper and deeper.
So, your homework: pick a favorite fictional character and try to break them down to their base parts. See what you can come up with. It isn’t a tagline or a particular nervous tic that makes them loveable – it’s who he or she is. Learning how to “diagnose” characters, if you will, will be a huge help in creating your own characters.
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Writing 2200: Deep Characterization
Now that we’re in the 2000 level “courses,” so to speak, it’s time to work on refining our craft. This next portion of the seminar is all about characterization.
I posted about characterization a few weeks ago – a standalone post that covered a lot of territory. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a deeper look at characterization, and also go more slowly. Posts will be spread out in smaller chunks – this is partly for you, but mostly for me since my writing workload is crazy right now!
First off, let’s talk about Inspiration and Originality; chiefly, how to figure out what inspires you, why it inspires you, and how to study literature in a way that enables you to use that inspiration to come up with your own original characters and plots.
Inspiration and Originality
There’s a phrase that I like to use: “Every story has already been told, and Shakespeare told them all better than the rest of us.” Yes, I do love Shakespeare – serious Shakespeare, and dick-joke Shakespeare – but the real point is: I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “new” story anymore. Fiction is rooted in fact. Human fact. Stories are about people struggling, people triumphing, people falling in love, and people doing unspeakable thing. Most writers are working off a Classic literary canon, and we’re all trying to tell our own stories amidst other stories that might sound like ours. There will be inevitable similarities. There will be homages and tributes; there will be rewrites, retellings, and reimaginings. There’s every chance that someone on the other side of the world is right now writing a story eerily similar to yours, and neither of you know it. And then there are pop culture icons that are modern versions of beloved Classics…the original fanfiction, don’t you know. The best thing any writer can do is read widely, work hard, and focus on your own story.
I want to take a brief moment, since I fussed about it on my IG story this weekend, to acknowledge that sometimes…it’s not a coincidence. There are predatory writers out there. The ones who think publishing books is a great way to get rich quick. Who scan the market, see what’s selling, and pick authors to outright copy from. These people are not paying homage to a favorite author, nor lovingly referencing the Classics. These people are outright stealing; sometimes it’s a simple matter of using another author’s ideas – anything from plot lines, to archetypes – to literal copy/pasting and name-swapping on entire scenes. Like I said: predatory. Malicious.
We’re not going to waste another second on that sort of thing.
Then there’s benign copying. It’s unconscious. It’s not malicious, and we’ve all done it. It’s how we learn how to write. It’s how we go from attempting our first stories to finding our own literary voices. When we start out, we mimic the styles of writers we revere, and eventually, we start to understand the ins and outs of execution, and can accomplish the same thing using our own unique characters, cast in our own unique story.
Though I do believe there is such a thing as a natural propensity for writing, no one starts out with his or her own confident, original style. That comes through lots of reading, lots of practice, and lots of hard work and dedication. We begin to learn our strengths and how to use them, and the more we read and study literature, the more we understand what really makes a character lovable, and a book readable.
In the next few posts, we’ll take an in-depth look at the characters we love, and why we love them, and hopefully you can pick up some ideas for your own work. I’ll walk you through some of my own early, embarrassing writing attempts, and share what I’ve learned along the way.