kaigou: Skeptical Mike is skeptical. (1 skeptical mike)
[personal profile] kaigou
Went through a spate of books recently. A few got DNF'd, but I finished more than half, which is decent. But still.

One notable exception: a story I liked, wanted to like, until the point of an attempted-rape. Now, that's not the issue (and I should note, it was considerably less triggery since the characters were in wolf-form at the time, which tends to distance things slightly). No, the issue was that when the cavalry came charging in to save the day, the accusation they leveled at the would-be rapist was that he'd attempted to rape a mated wolf.

At which point my brain said: so, if she was single, it would've been okay?

I have no idea whether the author was just tooling along on her own train (we all do that) and didn't realize the implications. I would certainly hope that she didn't really intend to say that rape is far more rape-y if you're in a relationship than it is if you're single, but on the other hand, I don't actually care what she intended. There, on the page, the characters make no bones about it (and then proceed to repeat the same phrase -- attempted to rape a mated woman -- several more times).

Disgusting.

Less disgusting but equally annoying in different ways is the use of intro paragraphs in epic fantasy. Look, Frank Herbert could do it in Dune, but he also did it pretty damn well (iirc, the intro quotes were from a character in the book, ostensibly looking back after several decades to report on later attitudes about the events in a chapter). It didn't really display world-building, so much as a sort of in-story, post-story, perspective. You want world-building, look no farther than Tolkien, but Tolkien put this shit in appendices, yo. He didn't put a paragraph (or three!) as the frontspiece of every chapter. If you're not down with appendices (or you're not named Frasier so don't care to do footnotes) and you've got prophecies or particularly relevant poetry or quotes, then pull a Susan Cooper or a Ursula LeGuin and put that stuff as a preface page.

None of the authors I've read recently were Herbert, Tolkien, Cooper, or LeGuin. (Or Frasier.) Not even close. I am not impressed by your worldbuilding! I am bored. I do not freaking care what some fifteen-line nursery rhyme is in your world, and I certainly do not care about the world's weather patterns or the commerce and exchange rates. This is not a freaking social studies lesson; it's fiction. Put that shit on your website for your readers who really want the easter eggs, if you absolutely must. Otherwise, cut that out.

And then there's the author with the exclamation points. OMG MY EYES, you guiz, srsly. The first book I read was the author's second published work, and I confess that I read in part to support a fellow former fanfic writer turned pro. This is a good thing! And it doesn't hurt that I had enjoyed her work in the past, and wanted to see how she'd handle original characters. I seemed to recall that with the random typo all fanfic has when moving too fast for betas, she was otherwise a solid writer.

Except. Except. Except. The first three pages had like six exclamation points each. Entire paragraphs of dialogue, each sentence ending with ! and even in the narration! By the end of the first chapter, I couldn't take it. I went back, found a bootlegged version in .html, downloaded it, did a search/replace on every single !, formatted to match the purchased version, printed as a pdf, and swapped the paid for bootlegged. I honestly could not keep reading, at the risk of losing my sanity... and truth is, it wasn't like the story was bad per se, if a little unpolished. But the exclamation points!

[I should note that the lack of exclamation points improved the story. Or more like, the inclusion of exclamation points had undone the story so thoroughly that their removal was a marked improvement. The text should tell me what's going on. The punctuation is just there to make it legible and sensical.]

And lest you think I exaggerate, the original version had 296 pages. It also found and replaced 1,195 exclamation points. Do the math. Hey, I'll do it for you: that's 3.87 exclamation marks per page. When I realized that, I reopened the original file to check: I'd stopped after hitting a batch of exclamation marks -- but the previous two pages had had none. That meant I was narrowly escaping (through the wizardry of bootlegs+search/replace) some other pages with six exclamation marks each.

*shudder*

But it gets worse! I found the author's first published work, and out of idle curiosity, thought: that first book's probably got it worse. Maybe her second editor had gotten her to trim them down, which is kind of scary to think of 4.5 or more exclamation points per page on average in almost 300 pages of text. No. Actually, the first story averaged only 2.67 exclamation marks per page. The author's addiction is getting worse.

If one day you wake up and find your keyboard's exclamation point key simply won't work, it's because this one author single-handedly used up the entire quota for the American eastern seaboard.

But once those exclamation points were saved from their impending doom (along with my sanity), I can say (and this is another equal important reason not to out the author) that she's taken what had originally been AU, switched it up even more, and inserted her own characters. For all intents and purposes, the general worldbuilding premise (which had been relatively inventive, as these things go) still had a lot in common. But the characters were cliched where they weren't cardboard, and were predictable where they weren't just straight out of casting. It was quite disappointing, until I recalled that it's an author whose work specialized in fusion: take plot and premise from story A, insert characters of story B.

I think her fanfic time trained her to twist characters to fit the fusion-line, instead of learning to explore the characters on their own. As in, to be willing to walk away from story A's plot and premise if the characters lead in another direction. Which they should, and they would, since they're not the same characters as originally led the plot/conflict in story A. It's a little too shoe-horning, if you get my drift.

But since some folks might like that, and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing so much as not to my taste (and since I have no idea whether the author wants to be outed as escapee from fanfic), I'm not naming names or publishers. (Short version: so please don't you either, in comments, if you have guesses.)

Anyway, this was a remarkable comparison with another fantasy-action story, which was considerably more complex and character-driven. And loaded with archetypes. I mean, just lousy with them. I'd say within, hm, maybe a chapter or two, I was twigging on several of them. Not precisely so as to recognize a 'source' (although possibly an influence or two), but definitely recognizing that this was an author who had a deft sense of what archetypes are, can do, and can become, and how the right phrases and implications can let the reader fill in (or make assumptions about) the rest of the blanks.

Then I got to the part where one character was described as -- paraphrasing -- severely socially maladapted with an penchant for skewering people at the drop of a hat. If you traded that out for "a penchant for shooting people," that's a whole passel of names popping into my head. Skewering people, not so much my area of knowledge since I tend more towards modern (read: guns and mecha) than period dramas or modern dramas with antique weaponry. But you toss in a few more certain archetypes in combination with that first one, and things started pinging as to which particular anime might've been the main influence. Not for the whole cast, though. Just two or three of the main characters. Some of the cast felt inspired by other stories or archetypes, but they weren't as precisely or deeply drawn as the leads, so it was harder to pin down their predecessors.

Add in -- about a third of the way through the book -- a few setting details, and I realized I might've read the fanfic version of this. Just enough similarities in key details. Add in the rest of the premise and world and conflict and dynamics, and the result is just different enough that the serial numbers have been filed and it takes high-beam precision fandom-reading knowledge to deduce. But what if I was wrong, what if this author wasn't that fanfic author, and what if someone had ripped off the fanfic ideas? I hoped not, but without mention anywhere in the author's promo information, I had no idea. (Finally I checked the fanfic author's page, and she mentions writing an original novel. Ah, whew, this must be it. Alright, carry on.)

The fascinating thing is the realization that in this original work, the author has created what is possibly the most in-character version of the inspiring character. Far, far beyond the version she uses in her fanfic, which at times is more like a gloss of the original painted over a mere shadow.

I think it's because in the original story, she couldn't just assume the readers would bring their own interpretations to the table. (Which is good, but this isn't always obvious, which is why I call it out.) She had to make sure that the character's background would produce the archetype for that lead, and that meant giving him story and personality and setting to be the crucible. Far beyond the original inspiration (story A), which I vaguely recall was full of plotholes, inconsistencies, drama for the sake of drama and a whole lot of wtfery (and at least half of you have already guessed the fandom, I know you're just nodding your heads at this point). Anyway, that hot mess of a storyline or lack thereof meant the lead was more a cardboard archetype, or an archetype barely-fleshed and left for fandom to figure out. In the majority of fandom-based extrapolations about the character, he remains an enigma, often purposefully so, because his original characterization was just that sketchy and messy. Easy to let him be a mystery, and in fanfic, you can, because often that 'mystery' is what attracted other readers to the character in the first place.

In original fiction, you can't go with 'mystery' because that's just not good enough. It'll come across like you didn't know the character, couldn't be bothered to figure the character out, or are just plain hiding a really obvious resolution with a bunch of second-rate red herrings and you think we'd figure it out by page five if you actually explained the lead's motivation or backstory or perspective.

The author didn't take that route; she dug down to figure out the character from the very start, precisely so he isn't a mystery. (To the other characters, yes; to the readers whose sympathies are required to keep reading, definitely no.) He's clear as day, and in a way, horribly tragic for that fact, because his motivations are quite simple and straightfoward. His mystery comes from his inability (or unwillingness) to communicate himself to others -- not from the author's inability or unwillingness to make the situation and characters comprehensible to readers.

Unfortunately, again, there's no indication anywhere that this author is okay with people knowing it's a totally re-worked, expanded (and yet also much sharper and tighter) story that was once a very loose AU. I won't out her, just in case, but still, it was a delight to read and see how much her skill has grown from the first I read by her, to now. Except! One detail that just screamed fanfic author to me: not knowing how to end a story. (One of her books simply ends, and I almost thought part of the download must've been truncated somehow, as if that were possible with a pdf. The next novel picks up directly after the first left off, though, but I would've hated being a reader finishing the first before the sequel came out.)

That non-ending is another major risk of the long-form, epic, multi-chaptered, serial fanfic author. The stories never end. They just keep going, and getting more elaborate, more complex (or just more angsty, which for some writers it's apparently the same thing). The pacing varies as the story rises to a mid-peak, has a mini-resolution, then picks up again. The overall low-rise-peak-drop pacing of a shorter pro-fic story is almost alien to the long-form, eighty chapters and counting, fanfic author. No where does that lack of training-in-endings show more obviously than in the endings of a former fanfic author's first published work.

Hell, another story I read didn't feel that much like fanfic until nearing the end. Then it felt strangely rushed, and the capper was the final paragraph... which I swear, ends halfway through the paragraph. The story literally halts, rather than actually ending. It was more than a bit annoying, because how hard is it to just find the right note to end things on? Okay, it's not easy, but come on, if you can churn out an eighty-chapter serially-printed epic work, the least you can do is write a few more thousand words in draft. Just enough to find the right hundred or so to end things with an actual, y'know, ending.

Like, say, anything, instead of.

Date: 23 Aug 2012 07:04 am (UTC)
irrelevant: (Default)
From: [personal profile] irrelevant
so I was reading this and snickering quietly over the exclamation points (shades of Heyer!) when enlightenment broke over me: in another incarnation, George RR Martin and Robert Jordan would have been among those eighty-chapter epic fan writers who don't know when to quit.

this essay amused me greatly, possibly because I've run into some of your described tells in a couple of my Kindle downloads. there's at least one story in there I know for sure is fan converted badly to pro, which is... well. amusing to me, which is evil of me, I know. one must encourage one's fellow fans, ahaha.

of course, I tend toward either complete crack or unrelenting misery in my reading and writing tastes, so who am I to criticize.

Date: 23 Aug 2012 03:21 pm (UTC)
phoebe_zeitgeist: (meta)
From: [personal profile] phoebe_zeitgeist
I have no idea what any of these are, or are based on, and I suspect it wouldn't make a difference if I did (I wouldn't know the sources, most likely, let alone the fandoms or the writers' earlier works). And while I don't mean this as a veiled hint that I wish you were less discreet, I half wish I were in a better position to follow along, because this is fascinating. And will only become more so, I suspect, as more and more fan writers go pro.

The issue with endings strikes me as particularly interesting: what happens when we have a significant mass of writers whose training in storytelling is from fic and serial forms like television? Do writers grope toward a more classic novelistic structure, or does what we expect to see between the covers (electronic or otherwise) of a book change instead?

whois

kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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to remember

"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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