Suspending Disbelief

I saw an interesting question posed on Twitter this morning: “How does an author create a tale that allows readers to suspend disbelief?”

It made me think of those YouTube videos where people pick apart movies for how unrealistic they are. We do that with books sometimes, too. So what makes the difference? Why are we willing—even eager—participants in some fiction and resistant to other?

I believe there is a natural barrier between us and fiction. We understand, when entering a book or movie, that it isn’t real. There is a sense of, “Make me believe it.” The author’s job, then, is to make that barrier permeable.

Think about all the things that pull you OUT of a story. Characters that don’t behave in ways that seem realistic, for example, or stilted dialogue. Sometimes it’s the world that doesn’t make sense. If a fantasy author has created a town or country or planet, it still must function within parameters that readers relate to. The place may be very different from Earth, the characters may be aliens, but there are some universal truths that we rely on when entering a fictional world. Touchstones, if you will. If the internal logic of the world doesn’t hold up—if every few minutes the reader is saying to him- or herself, Why did they do that? Why is this world set up this way? It makes no sense, no society would be built this way—the barrier is too solid.

So if you want to create something really different, you have to lay the groundwork of there being very good reasons for things. It can’t be because “it’s always been this way.” There needs to be an explanation of WHY it was ever that way to begin with.

Another reason people begin picking stories apart is sheer boredom. If nothing interesting is happening, the reader begins to look for something else to entertain them, and your world or characters may be the victim of their detachment. When you’re really into a book or movie, you’re carried along on a wave as the plot and characters move along. You feel immersed. Later, someone might point out a plot hole and you’ll say, “I never noticed.” But, boy, when you’re bored you notice everything.

Think about long car rides, looking out the window, trying to find anything interesting to look at. Or, if you grew up going to church, synagogue, some house of worship, think about sitting there and looking around at people, the walls, the chairs/benches/pews. Every stain, crack, speck of dust came to your attention. That’s what happens when a reader is bored, too. They start gazing at the wallpaper and noticing the wrinkles, rips, mismatched seams.

Boredom, then, is one of the particles that forms that barrier to fiction. The reader shouldn’t ask, “Why am I here?” He or she should want to be there, in your world, with your characters. They should never want to leave.

These things don’t only apply to fantasy and sci-fi, though the barrier to those is probably thicker. Authors of these kinds of books have more work to do to make their worlds and characters believable. But even real-world based fiction must give readers compelling characters and situations that, even if far-fetched, the reader can be made to accept.

I love Tana French’s books, but there is one called The Likeness that really stretched my believability. The entire premise is predicated on a detective who looks so much like a murder victim that they insert her into the victim’s world to root out the killer. The book is well written and entertaining, but I still had trouble giving the premise credence. And since no reliable reason was ever given for the, er, likeness . . . Sure, “long lost twin” is weak, but I’d believe it over random chance.

What pulls you out of stories and/or makes them unbelievable to you? Which books have you encountered with this problem? Did you finish the book or put it down? Let me know your thoughts!

You Know You’re In an M Pepper Langlinais Novel When

My son was trying to figure out what would make the list. But my books are all so different! There are some things that are in most but nothing, really, that is in all. Does that make me inconsistent? Or just original?

Still, I wanted to try.

  • You are in a big manor house of some kind.
  • Someone nearby is gay. Maybe more than one person, but at least one. Might even be you!
  • You need to solve a mystery or complete a quest.
  • A supernatural or magical element may appear.
  • Snark. You or someone near you has it.

Current Reads

With all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been juggling a few books. I sped through the Raven Cycle and am now juggling a couple of novels: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero and Scythe by Neal Shusterman.

I read Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements a few years ago, and it is a book that definitely stands out in my mind. Whenever people ask a blanket, “What book do you recommend?” The Supernatural Enhancements is the first thing that springs to the forefront of my brain. I find I’m enjoying Meddling Kids quite a lot, too. Think: the Scooby gang now in their mid to late 20s and dealing with PTSD as they go back to confront a case they thought was closed but . . .

And Scythe I picked up because I’d heard so much about it. I mean, nothing specific in terms of the plot, simply that so many people said it was good. And so far I agree with them. For those few who haven’t read it (I feel like one of the last in the world not to have done), it’s set in a future where mankind has all it needs because technology perfectly manages the world. Immortality has been achieved, and people can move their consciousnesses into younger bodies at will. The one thing that must be done: population control. Which is where the titular scythes enter the picture. You can probably guess the rest from there, more or less.

What are you reading? Any recommendations? Have you tried either of these?

IWSG: Pitfalls

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Right now I’m insecure about 1. finishing this novel, and 2. giving a presentation at the local library this coming November. I know that’s a long time away yet, but I’ll be talking about writing and publishing for NaNoWriMo participants, which is why this month’s question is quite appropriate:

What pitfalls would you warn other writers to avoid on their publication journey?

There are so many! For one, don’t read too many how-to books on writing. You’ll get so worried about doing it wrong that you won’t do it at all. Also, don’t start querying the moment you finish your draft. You think you’re done—you so want to be, because you’ve been working so hard for so long—but you aren’t, not nearly. Much revision will be required! Don’t believe your baby has been born ready to walk and talk because it hasn’t. You’ve still got to raise it. Finally, be super selective about who you query. Do your research. It’s so exciting to get that nibble—or better yet, an offer! But not all [agents, publishers, offers] are created equal. So don’t celebrate until you’re sure.

My Books (in one handy graphic)

I get asked fairly frequently, “What do you write?” To which there is no short answer. If I wrote all in one genre, I could say, “I write [insert genre here].” But I write a lot of different stuff. Also, I have an irritating habit of going blank when asked what I write. So I created a handy graphic to remind myself what I’ve written (I lose count) and also show others:

These are all on my Books page, too, of course. Or you could just hit up Amazon. But I’m a visual person in a lot of ways, so seeing it all in one place helps.

Of all these, only two are available in paperback: The K-Pro and Manifesting Destiny. The rest are ebooks (and audiobooks where indicated). Faebourne will also be in paperback, though! Not that paperbacks sell all that well, but I like to have something to bring to events and show at tables.

So there is my bibliography in one quick look. Do you find things like this helpful?

TBR

As you see from the picture, my TBR (“to be read”) pile is relatively small. However, due to other obligations, I don’t read many books or very quickly any more. After all, I have to balance reading time with writing time, and that has to in turn be balanced against chores, errands, appointments, and family time. I used to read 50+ books per year. Now I set a goal of about 24—two per month—because that’s more realistic for me.

Of course, my TBR pile does not reflect my wish list of books that I still want to read but don’t currently have copies of. That’s a much larger stack, even if it is virtual.

Currently I’m reading The Dream Thieves by Stiefvater and Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero. Both are really good. Do you read more than one book at a time? I usually top out at about three.

How big are your TBR piles? What about your wish lists? What do you do if you pick up a book and decide you don’t like it or aren’t in the mood for it?

Covers & Blurbs

I was reading this article, in which six authors answered questions about covers and blurbs, and I thought, Why don’t I answer those questions too? Because, you know, it might be interesting to do so.

How important are covers in terms of selling a book?

Very, I think. My Regency romance Brynnde has sold very well, and it has also won a cover art award. I don’t think the two are unrelated. That said, I love the cover to The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, but that didn’t sell as well. I think it’s important that a cover convey the story, and maybe that one was a little too artsy for readers to understand what’s inside the book. I’ve always said a cover is a promise made to the reader, and readers are angry if they feel lied to. So a cover is really important, not only in getting someone to pick up the book—though that is the chief function of the cover, to act as an advertisement—but in accurately reflecting the contents.

Have your publishers asked you for your opinion or “input” on your covers, and to what extent do you think they listened? Did you ever meet with the designer? How important was “marketing” in making decisions about the cover of your book(s)?

I’ve had two publishers thus far; the rest of my work is self-published. One publisher used the cover I’d already had designed. The other had a designer do the cover, but she was in contact with me about it, running things by me. I don’t think we talked about “marketing” at all. Again, it was more about making sure the cover matched the story.

Did you ever receive a cover that made you unhappy and if so, what did you do about it? Did you ultimately end up with a cover that made you happier?

Will probably do a new cover for this one at some point.

My early covers for my self-published work weren’t terrible, but they weren’t great either. I can’t say I was “unhappy” about them, though. I did a new cover for one, and I’m planning to do a new cover for another one at some point.

How important are blurbs, particularly for a first-time author?

Probably very important! Alas, I’ve never received any, at least not pre-publication. I do manage to get many good pull quotes from reviews after the fact, though, and I do believe they help in continuing to sell the books.

How did you go about getting your blurbs? Did your agent or editor help, or did you rely more on personal connections?

As per above, I don’t really go hunting for blurbs. I probably should, but I wouldn’t even know where to start! Advice, anyone?

Have you ever offered someone else a blurb?

I’ve never been asked. I’d be flattered if someone did ask. Then again, I’m so busy. It might be difficult to find the time to read a book and blurb it. Maybe if the author gave me very early notice.

Not Set In Stone

This morning on an online writing group someone asked for advice. He was halfway through writing his first chapter and wanted to make a change to his protagonist without having to go back and rewrite anything.

Oh, sweetie. I have some terrible news for you.

Most writing—good writing, anyway—is rewriting. Just because you wrote it or typed it doesn’t make it sacrosanct. If anything, having written it down is exactly what makes it malleable. Which is as it should be.

We’re a world of instant gratification. Rapid technology makes us increasingly impatient. We want to write the thing and be done. You can do that. You can write it and publish it and never look at it again. That’s the dubious wonder of self-publishing. But if you want to write the best possible book, you’re going to need to 1. take your time, and 2. rewrite, get feedback, revise, hire an editor . . . Basically, you need to work the book like you would work dough, pulling and pushing and folding and rolling until it’s right for baking. (There’s a reason some rushed books are called “half-baked” yeah?)

If I were writing something and realized halfway through the first chapter that I needed to tweak, well, I’d be ecstatic. I’d be so glad that I hadn’t gotten too far in before needing to rewrite that bit to pull it through the rest of the story. Better now, at the start, than to get halfway through writing your book before realizing you want to make a major change. Not that you can’t do that. I’ve dismantled and rewritten big chunks of books. I rewrote the entire first half of The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller and the entire back ends of Manifesting Destiny and Brynnde. They are all better books now than they were.

In short, you have to be willing to do the work. You have to be willing to expend the effort and the energy.

You have to be willing to rewrite.

Your words are not written in stone. Not yet. If you want them to be lasting and have impact, you must make your story the best it can be. And your first draft should never be your final draft.

Conferences & Conventions

CC0 Public Domain courtesy of Dreamstime

I’ve been to a number of writing events of various kinds, and every year I find myself having to decide which one(s), if any, I want to attend—either return to, or try new. I’m on a number of email lists, and I’m constantly realizing: “Oh, yeah, that one. I want to go to there.” For my own sake, I’ve decided to create a list. Conferences I’ve attended in previous years are in blue.

San Francisco Writers Conference
Writer’s Digest Conference
Digital Book World
Grub Street (The Muse and the Marketplace)
BookExpo/BookCon
DFW Conference
InD’Scribe
Santa Barbara Writers Conference
20Books
Willamette Writers Conference
London Book Fair
San Miguel Writers’ Conference
Historical Romance Retreat
Independent Authors Conference
Austin Film Festival

I also attended the Bay Area Book Fair one year but didn’t find it to my liking. Maybe I’ll try it again some time; at least it’s local and relatively inexpensive. Also local, the biennial Tri-Valley Writers Conference, which I may attend again when it comes back next year.

I’ve been to SFWC three times, but next year they’re changing venue, so I have to admit being pretty curious about that. Still, it’s one of the most expensive conferences, so I may try something new instead. Then again, I’d love to go back to DFW Con, too. Santa Barbara looks amazing, but it’s a week, and I don’t know if I can get away for that long. Maybe if they put me on a panel . . . 😉

I’m sure there are many more wonderful options than just these, but these are the ones that keep appearing in my email inbox. If you know of a great conference or convention, I’d love to hear about it!