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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!

IWSG: Publishing Paths

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.

This month I’m insecure about the fact I entered Pitch Wars for the first time ever and have so far not received any requests for more pages. Between that and the fact that I keep being told by agents I’ve queried that my writing is “really good,” “engaging,” “flows well” . . . yet somehow no one wants to represent or publish it . . . I don’t know what to think or do. Which leads somewhat indirectly to this month’s question:

What publishing path are you considering/did you take, and why?

As of now, I have eight books on the market. Two were published by small publishers, the others I self-published. I’ll be self-publishing Faebourne too.

For some manuscripts, I do try to get an agent. If I think the book might be commercial enough, I do an extensive round of querying. If, however, I know it’s too niche, or if it’s something I know I can sell on my own (like Sherlock Holmes or Regency romance), I self-publish.

I guess a part of me still hopes to someday be published by a bigger house. I don’t know why. A lingering desire for legitimacy? For someone to say I’m good enough? Hence the most recent heartbreaking year of queries. For this particular manuscript I’ve sent out 134 queries, and at the moment I’m waiting for answers on 3 of them. The rest were rejections or no responses. And now I’m hoping maybe, just maybe, a Pitch Wars mentor might see something good in my work. But that appears to be a no as well.

It’s tough to stay confident in your writing when no one else seems to believe it’s worth their time or effort.

Yet my Sherlock Holmes books and Brynnde sell well. So at least a few people like and read my work. And I have hopes Faebourne will follow in Brynnde‘s footsteps. All signs point to me continuing to self-publish because I come out ahead on those books. (Mostly due to my husband who handles the marketing.)

In short, my publishing path is something I determine on a book-by-book basis. If I think there’s a chance an agent might like the manuscript, I do some querying. Otherwise, I self-publish. I don’t really bother with the smaller publishers any more because I haven’t had much luck with them. I’m better off having full control of my ability to price and market, and in determining which format(s) to produce, etc. I’m sure there are some great small publishers out there that actually do market and won’t just churn out a ton of books and hope they sell, but I’ve ceased looking for them. If a publisher wants me to do the marketing for them, well, I might as well put the book out myself and keep more of the profits.

So this manuscript I’m shopping, well . . . First I have to get Faebourne out, and then I’ll decide what to do with it. Scrap it. Overhaul it. Or eventually put my faith in it and self-publish. Its fate remains to be determined.

Looking for Grit

Back when I was first trying to become an author—a long time ago, just after I graduated from Emerson—I wrote a book that was in the vein of the Judy Blume novels I’d loved as a kid. It was called Nick Terpiccio, Eighth-Grade Hero and was light and funny. I duly combed my reference books of agents (I said it was a long time ago!) and mailed off queries (yes, in the post). I had some nice responses, all saying I had talent but this wasn’t for them. But the response that stuck with me was one from an agent who said my book simply didn’t have enough grit.

Book needed more Jeff Bridges apparently.

It tackled no issues, really. The main character wasn’t battling drugs or dealing with abuse. Nick’s biggest problems were that his two best friends were fighting, and that he liked a girl. Bubble gummy stuff, I suppose, but the novel was meant to be fun and upbeat.

The agent’s letter went on to more or less say “kids these days” (and this was the early aughts) wanted “edge.” I remember that word distinctly. And I guess that must be true because it seems dark books are popular. Angst is in. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. (This article suggests it might be.) It’s just not what I write, really.

The article linked above talks about YA books featuring black protagonists being shot, kids being abused, etc. The stance is that not all kids deal with this stuff, and even if they do, why would they want to read about it? Shouldn’t reading be an escape? Well, yes and no. I think we read for a lot of reasons, often subconsciously. Escapism is one reason, but we also read to know we’re not alone. When we talk about “representation” in literature, we mean seeing people like us. Straight white people don’t have a problem with that since most books have straight white characters. But people of color, people with different sexualities, people with complicated blended families or whatever—they have trouble finding themselves in popular books. That’s starting to change, but when you consider the vast number of books, it’s just a tiny drop in the bucket.

Still, it might be a valid question to ask, “But even when diversifying characters, do they always have to be in gangs or doing drugs or sexually abused?” The article above asks more broadly (and I’m paraphrasing): Why not depict a happier, more hospitable world? Well, readers aren’t stupid. They’ll find a happy-go-lucky world to be fake and therefore won’t invest as fully*. They want complicated worlds and complicated characters. They want the book to reflect what they know because that’s how they’ll connect and identify. Sure, the world may not be as bad as some of the dystopian novels out there, but it’s easy to imagine things going in that direction. And it’s just as easy for us to feel relieved that, hey, at least we’re not living in that world.

*Unless it’s Stepford. Then we’ll know what kind of book we’re in.

I fear I’m starting to ramble. Let me condense my thoughts here. 1. I once wrote an MG book that was considered too happy. 2. I read an article that suggested YA literature isn’t happy enough. 3. Even though I don’t write dark, angsty books, I can see why they might be popular and that they have a legitimate point of view on the world.

This is the world we live in, after all, and while it’s nice to read fluff sometimes, there’s nothing to be gained by hiding our heads in the sand, either. And to only produce happy-go-lucky books for kids would be doing just that. Though I think a few happy-go-lucky books would be good. Anyone want Nick? (Just kidding, I don’t even still have the manuscript. Remember floppy disks? Yeah, neither does my computer.)

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.

August, Die She Must

I can’t say I won’t be sorry to see the back end of August. While the month started nicely enough with a trip to Santa Cruz, it has dragged on with ear infections, a perforated ear drum, and a scratched cornea. It’s like my body’s warranty ran out and I started falling apart.

The kids are finally back in school, which will allow me to return to a writing routine. I hope. Depending on how many more doctor appointments I have!

By the way, today is the last day to pick up Brynnde for free over on Amazon. So grab it now if you haven’t already!

Back to School Means Back to Work

Today is the first day of school where we live. Seems like we start later than most other places. I really enjoy this time of year because, after a summer of the kids being home, I finally have the house to myself again. And all the writing that I didn’t get done due to other activities and/or constant interruptions can now be tackled.

Of course, today is also the day our painters decided to start painting the house. Well, they’re power washing it now. Which doesn’t make for quality quiet time. But I think I can work through it. After all, I’m still deaf in my left ear, so the noise is only half as obnoxious as it might normally be.

Reflection

I started out writing short stories. I’ll admit they aren’t my strong suit, but at the time they felt like a testing ground and less of a commitment than entire novels. One of my earliest stories was published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine (now defunct) in 2004, and that gave me the courage to keep writing.

I put that story in the anthology The World Ends at Five, which I first published in 2008 then republished a few years ago. I think my favorite story in the collection is “Raising the Ruins,” which is told from the point of view of a Jewish-Japanese woman dealing with the loss of her culture because Japan has sunk beneath the waves and her mother is dead. Of course, I am not Japanese, and I’m only Jewish by marriage, so I’m sure some people would find the fact I wrote the story problematic. But I enjoyed exploring the themes of how we connect to our heritages, particularly if and when they are diverse. I myself grew up Creole and . . . Well, I don’t know what to even consider the other side, but my parents came from two very different backgrounds, and I am the result of their struggle to compromise and make something cohesive. Whether they succeeded is still a matter of debate.

I’m not sure why I chose Jewish and Japanese when I wrote “Raising the Ruins” all those years ago except that I very much admire the Japanese culture (what I know of it), and found the touchstones for it and Judaism easier to express in a story than Creole and mutt. I have since started a story called “Voodoo Lessons” that will more explore my Creole heritage; I don’t know yet whether it will be a short story, novella, or novel.

When I look back at The World Ends at Five I both think that the stories are better than I remember, and that they still show the marks of a writer finding her voice and learning her trade. But I’m not ashamed of them. At least one of them found professional publication elsewhere, which is worth being proud of. And I’m able to read the fairy tale “A Tale of Two Queens” to my kids’ classes; it is the only story I’ve written that is suitable for that. (I originally wrote it as a birthday gift for a friend and co-worker.)

Not sure what brought this one to mind today. Guess I was feeling nostalgic.

Winning the [Ear] Lottery

A week ago, I lost hearing in my left ear. Honestly, it just felt muffled, like when you change elevations. But nothing I did could clear it. So I went to the doctor.

She looked in my ear and told me it appeared my eardrum had ruptured.

She wanted me to see an ENT, but of course they couldn’t get me in until yesterday. So for a week I’ve been deaf in one ear, and I’ve also had to take antibiotics because my ear started weeping. Ugh. That, in turn, led to ear pain and jaw pain and a swollen lymph node. I couldn’t chew, so I had to eat only soup and other soft foods like pasta.

It’s been a blast.

The ENT first gave me a hearing test, which I felt was kind of dumb since it was more than clear I can’t hear out of one ear. The test confirmed this. But it also made clear that (a) my right ear works beautifully, and (b) the problem with my left ear is not permanent. The bone and nerves are fine. It’s the middle ear that has an issue.

Finally, they actually looked in my ear. And it turns out I’d won the lottery. I have an ear infection AND a perforated eardrum. So they sucked gunk out of my ear, then put more gunk into my ear to clear the infection. I have to walk around with this gunk in my ear for a week. Then I get to go back to the ENT and have them suck it out. Hopefully that’s all that will be required. They can’t get a good look at the eardrum until this bit is taken care of. Once it is, they’ll be able to tell whether the eardrum is healing on its own (which is most likely) or will need to be patched.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I’ve lost a week to having earaches that felt like someone was stabbing me in the ear with a screwdriver. (And now the inside of my ear is crazy itchy, but there’s nothing I can do about it.) The sum total is that I’ll probably have to push back Faebourne‘s release again. Sigh. It’s a mess, I’m a mess, the world is a mess. Best laid plans and all that. But I don’t want to release a half-baked book, so I’m going to take my time and do it right. I thank you for your patience and promise it will be worth it in the end.