Month: June 2015

When did you last Johari?

Some of the most welcome feedback I’ve had on Abendau’s Heir is that people like how much detail I go into about my characters. That was really good to hear because it was something I worried about when I was writing Abendau – that my minutiae of the people I wrote about wouldn’t be as engaging to others as me.

Having had that feedback, I thought I’d share one of the tools I find really useful for character writing and, particularly, character interactions.

It’s called the Johari window, and it sounds all mystical and new age-y. It’s actually not – it’s named after the two designers of the model and is pragmatic and easy to apply. It’s used a lot in coaching, counselling and anywhere empathy of another person is needed.

The model shows four key windows of interaction and concerns itself about own and shared knowledge of the person:

Arena – known to self and others
Blind spot – not known to self but is to others
Facade – known to self, but not to others
Unknown – known to no one.

The thing I like about the Johari window is that it’s not a static model. The window changes as we change, it changes based on who we’re interacting with, and it changes with relation to the focus of the story.

For instance if I take my main character, Kare, in Abendau’s Heir and look at a Johari window between him and his wife, it looks like this

Arena: his sense of humour, his fears, that he has powers.
Blind spot: that he keeps himself closed off and can be a dork sometimes.
Facade: the future his father foresaw for him, just what exactly his powers can do.
Unknown: his background and legacy.

But if I look at a window from his mother, it looks like this:

Arena: his heritage on her side, that he was taken by his father, his psi powers
Blind spot: how his powers were merged, what it was planned for him to inherit
Facade: what his father taught him about his mother, what he himself wants for the empire
Unknown: his father’s heritage.

So, you can see that the only place where any parameter remains the same is that of the unknown. Everything else is different – just as the Johari window he carries for each of them is different.

Given that our interaction with others is based on our understanding of them, the window can have a profound impact in terms of how our actions are interpreted, the history that we knock against, the facade a person wants to keep hidden. So, it stands to reason that when I think of how two characters will get on, I think about what they know of each other, how they know it, and what it means before I frame a scene. I believe it gives a greater depth to their interactions. I also believe it brings about the realism that people have mentioned in terms of my characters.

One of my characters, thankfully non-point of view, is a torturer. I won’t map his Johari window to other characters, because the spoilers would be tremendous, but in doing what he does he seeks to reduce the Unknown window, and remove the Facade. He needs to know his victim intimately, in order to understand them enough to destroy them. A few people have mentioned to me how well this relationship – the victim/torturer – works. I genuinely don’t believe I would ever have nailed such a complex theme without thinking deeply about the meaning of their interactions and, for me, Johari is one tool to use to do it.

So, now, tell me – when did you last Johari?

Ow, that hurts! But only if I let it.

My current wip has had several beta readers of the very good variety. It’s had a professional edit by an experienced SFF editor, and an agent with an editorial approach who put it through its paces again. Recent feedback from further editors has been good. In short, here’s a book I’m confident about – so much so it’s gone out to a few people for a pre-copy-edit review.

One hated everything about the book. The critique was thoughtful, with clear identification of what the critter didn’t like and why. There are some things I may strengthen on the back of it. But it’s not a critique I’ll be applying in full, and here’s why:

Critiques aren’t to be considered in a vacuum. A reader may not be a good match for your work. They may like a different style of writing, or a different sort of plot. I write dark stuff – fluffy bunny lovers aren’t always the critters for me.

So here’s my Top 5 things you should consider when you receive a critique.

(That’s right, I said YOU should consider as the receiver, not as the giver. Because a critique is not under your control – your response to it is.)

1. What are the critters strengths?

Are they a good grammatician? Good at characters, getting into role, voice-aware? Honestly, with all my regular critters (I have about 8) I’m familiar with both their work and their critting style. They’re the ones that I turn to because their strengths match what I need. I rarely need someone to dissect a character for me – I live and breathe any character I write. But I suck at physical description and need to be told to go back to plot school sometimes, and critters help me do that.

2. What stage is the wip at?

Early crits should be red-penned. That’s normal. It’s not a reason to chuck your new opus in the bin. It’s a reason to file the crit in the back of your mind until the rewrite. At which point, if you’re anything like me, you’ll nod sagely at everything that’s been red-penned and wonder if your critters need to go back to the School of Sharp Teeth and toughen their feedback up.

3. Are there themes in the feedback?

This is a big reason to have more than one critter. On the same day I received the rather devastating news my book was rubbish, I had another hard critter come back to say it was superb and lots of other nice things. Suddenly I’m left with two poles-apart crits and I’m scratching my head.

At that point, I look at whatever other feedback I have, and then I balance it. So, in this case a possible deus ex machina was raised. I see that one commissioning editor noted the same, but felt it made for a satisfactory ending and just needed some strands to support it. Those strands were added, but maybe they need a little more oomph.

But! Two other critters liked the ending and that it was built up to well. They’d picked up the strands I’d put in and, even though they suspected where things might go, were satisfied when they did. Therefore, on balance – the ending stays with maybe a check at copy edit if there’s anything more that could be added to support it.

4. Is it a crit of your book, or the version of the book the critter would write?

On at least two occasions I’ve realised a crit doesn’t made sense of what I’ve written. It’s important to figure out why. It may be that I’ve lost the critter, in which case I need to address that. Or it may be that the setting or theme sparked something and the critter wanted to share what might be a better way of writing the whole book. In which case, it’s not helpful and can probably be filed under Don’t Worry.

The book is your work. If you change it because of someone else’s vision, you run the risk of losing its strengths. By all means, if someone suggests a fix to something, think about it. Yesterday, an experienced critter pointed out that a slight change of emphasis would make one scene more incisive; that change is so in there.

But don’t start taking out multiple characters and strands and changing plot and tone – you’ll only end up with a book out that doesn’t feel like you. If you’ve spent the time at the writing and planning stage thinking about what happens when to whom; if you’ve listened to trends and feedback and implemented what felt right to you, then have confidence. (As one who struggles with that component, I might pop my own tip up on the wall.)

5. Who to turn to?

Hard crits hurt. Critical reviews which give no ‘busfare home’ are difficult to make sense of. Our first response is to go into defense mode. In defense mode we don’t think well. For me, when I’m at that stage, I need wise heads. And cake, from those I trust.

After I’ve had all that, I can come back to the crit with a clear head and thank the critter kindly, because honest feedback is valuable. After that, take what’s useful, leave what isn’t, and move on. Because that’s in your control to do so.

An alien invasion of Belfast. Why on Earth?

Post-alien invasion Belfast, and humanity has been defeated. Pity no one told the locals.

I’m starting to get Inish Carraig close to release. Covers are being worked on and copyediting is underway. Now, I’m thinking it might be a good time to chat about it.

Inish Carraig is my quiet project. It’s been out there, in various guises, for a long time, but I didn’t talk about it. It was, at one point, agented and, generally, agents prefer it if there isn’t a lot of chit-chat and what not online. So, I kept quiet and only referred to it obliquely. It’s been a crossover book, a Young adult book, and now is back to that murky line of crossover territory.

I have the project back with me, and I’m delighted because, finally, I can bring it out and let the world see my vision of Belfast after an alien invasion. (The concensus from the locals seems to be that we won’t notice much difference.)

As ever, the characters came to me. There was no deliberate decision to use Belfast. In fact, here’s where it came from, a 75 word flash fiction entry on the subject of Innocence.

MUMMY’S BOYS

John Dray and Taz Dean; the meanest on the streets of Thean-VI. I didn’t meet their eyes.

The trial was short. Xenocide. Undeniable. They’d released the virus, killing the Zelotyr. Tragic: such artists.

Such murderers…

The verdict; guilty. Yet even here, a five year old is always innocent.

My Laura; avenged.

They passed me and I leaned, sotto voce. “Good job. I’ll see your mothers get returned tonight, boys.”

They nodded and walked free.

The five year olds are now sixteen. The voices became unmistakeably Belfast, and so the setting was chosen.

Now, I’m not a political animal, but I’m not naive, either. Most stories about Belfast say something about the place, set out views. I tried not to. Not because it’s not important, but because I wanted to show something else. I wanted to show the Norn Irish black humour, particularly at moments when the shit hits the fan. Because we’re good at that. I wanted to show the warmth of the people, not just the harder side (and that’s shown too). And I wanted to have some fun, and I think I do (although the book is by no means a comedy.)

So, to sum it up. I have a book coming out this summer that’s set in Belfast after an alien invasion. It involves a posh Belfast cop, a local hardman and his creepy, creepy son, a family of kids trying to survive, a massive prison on Rathlin Island and a group of aliens who smell like a sewage farm. I have to ask you, then – what’s not to like?

Inish Carraig will be released Summer 2015, right after I pull my hair out formatting it. 🙂 I’ll keep you all posted.

The hard yards

Occasionally, I put up depressing, and sometimes not depressing, reports on what it’s like trying to become an author, the hurdles and the straight, long sections. This one – I’m not sure which it is.

On the non-depressing note. I am absolutely not complaining here. I am aware how many writing friends I have who would love to be in my position. I was that writing friend a year or so ago. I am lucky – my book is out, I have another two coming out this year (one self published after a long saga regarding agents and markets and wanting it to come out however it does it). I am getting good reviews (and waiting nervously for the first to say they hated, hated, hated my book), my sales are pretty good for a debut, I’ve had all sorts of online exposure. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky.

But! The downside. I’m also busy, busy, busy. Whether I make it as a writer or not remains to be seen: regardless, I have enough writing work on to keep a full time writer busy. I have, over the next four months:

an edit of book two, and then an editor’s edit to do.
a final edit of the self-published book to do, and then the formatting
a new book to write (because we have to keep going at this game.)

On top of that, I have a job, a family who want to see me occasionally, a house to keep hygienic. I have all the plates in the air that a busy woman does. And I’m promoting book one in the middle of it and, like I said above, I’ve been lucky to have some attention for it, and fantastic local events and interviews. Quite frankly, I have never been as busy in my life as I am now. It is, truly, two jobs at once, and will be for some time. Sadly, one feels a little, shall we say, voluntary. Writing has a long way to go before it pays me any kind of wage. In the long term I’d like to do a little less real work and have proper time for the writing, but that’s a long way off.

What I’m telling myself is that this time, this point where I’m in demand enough to have my writing coming out and being read, but not yet successful enough for it to pay a wage, are the hard yards. What I didn’t expect was for this time to be the point where the road seems longest, where the effort has both paid off and hasn’t. Where I most wish for a crystal ball to tell me where I go next, and if it will all work out. But with all those points in our life where we strive and wish and hope, the only thing to do is hang on in there. To look at the summer and realise my calendar is relatively clear and I will write like the wind and enjoy it. To hold my book and remind myself this was what it was all for – to make my world and characters real, and for others to enjoy them.

To come back to the first point, I’m lucky to be this far, and I’ll be even luckier to get further. But there is a need to give a nod to it not being easy, to needing all the grit obtained when being a young writer, getting my first knocks and rejections, and to say to others struggling that this is the game, the way of it, and those hard yards will pay back.

I really, really hope they do.

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