Exploring Story Mood: The Dark and the Light

Followers of my blog (Hi, Mum!) may remember a previous post in which I was thinking about branding and how to present what it is my writing and my blog are all about. What is my core message? And what is my point of differentiation that sets my work apart from anyone else’s?

Well, apologies in advance for the personal and subjective nature of this post, but I’m going to explore this a little – it’s something I feel the need to go through to gain a better sense of direction. My idea is to deconstruct recent books and films in my current genre that have captured my imagination – not ones that I enjoyed as a child but those that appeal to the adult me – to see what it is that I liked. With a bit of luck, there may be something of interest to others in my thoughts, too.

I’m going to start with these, as examples of “my kind of sci fi”:

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The book is Planetfall by Emma Newman and the film is Ex_Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland. If you haven’t yet read / viewed these and think you might want to, I suggest you don’t read on – I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but there’ll inevitably be plot hints.

Anyone still here?

So, neither of these are stories I’m going to forget in a hurry, I found them to be very powerful, and to do them justice might take more than one blog post. For now, I’m going to discuss one common feature: they’re both rather dark.

What do I mean by dark?

Well, they both feature a protagonist who is under heavy psychological pressure.

In Planetfall, Ren has been hiding a terrible secret for so long that it has affected her mental health. The book starts with a stranger arriving in her extra-terrestrial community, one who is likely to reveal that secret. It doesn’t help that the stranger is the grandson of her former lover, bringing back painful memories. Immediately the reader can see that Ren is in serious trouble, though we are not sure of the details – we don’t know what the secret is – but we need to read on to see how Ren fares.

The picture is drawn from snippets like this, in Chapter 1:

“Ren. What if he’s here to ruin everything we’ve done here?”

 “We’ve done?” It comes out like  croak.

   “Yes, we.” His voice hardens. “Should I shoot him and make sure he-”

    “Oh for fuck’s sake, Mack, I’m an engineer! Not your conscience!”

     His mouth drops open at my outburst and I regret the words. He just doesn’t want to be the       only load-bearing object in this messy structure.   

In Ex_Machina, Caleb has been brought to billionaire Nathan’s claustrophobic retreat to test whether an artificial intelligence, constructed in the form of a young woman, has consciousness. From the mood of the film, it is immediately clear that Nathan has another agenda and Caleb may be in trouble. The viewer knows no more about this hidden agenda than Caleb does, but we can foresee the conflict between what Nathan is asking Caleb to do and what he feels to be right.

Nathan: This building isn’t a house. It’s a research facility. Buried in these walls is enough fibre optic cable to reach the moon and lasso it. And I want to talk to you about what I’m researching. I want to share it with you. In fact, I wanna share it with you so much, it’s eating me up inside. But there’s something I need you to do for me first.

Caleb: [reading contract] “Blue Book non-disclosure agreement.”

Nathan: Take your time. Read it over.

Caleb: [continues reading] “The signee agrees to regular data audit with unlimited access, to confirm that no disclosure of information has taken place in public or private forums, using any means of communication, including but not limited to that which is disclosed orally or in written or electronic form.”

[frightened]

Caleb: I think I need a lawyer.

Nathan: It’s standard.

Caleb: It doesn’t feel very standard.

Nathan: Okay, it’s not standard. What can I tell you, Caleb? You don’t have to sign it. You know, we can spend the next few days just shooting pool, getting drunk together, bonding. And when you discover what you’ve missed out on, in about a year, you’re gonna regret it for the rest of your life.

The psychological pressure is so extreme that in Planetfall, it has pushed Ren to mental illness, while in Ex_Machina, after only a few days in Nathan’s house, Caleb starts to question his own humanity.

Nathan: Buddy, your head’s been *so* fucked with.

Caleb: I don’t think it’s me whose head is fucked.

Nathan: I don’t know, man. I woke this morning to a tape of you slicing your arm open and punching the mirror. You seem pretty fucked up to me.

Caleb: You’re a bastard.

Nathan: Yeah, well, I understand why you’d think that. But believe it or not, I’m actually the guy that’s on your side.

Another way in which these works have a dark edge is that the protagonist is faced with a moral dilemma.

In neither of these stories is there a clear way forward or an easy way out – whichever action they choose will have serious consequences for somebody. Behind both of them is a character of questionable morals, who has gradually forced them into an untenable situation. We feel for Ren and Caleb as they become ensnared in webs of lies and deceptions, hoping that they can find a way to extract themselves that does not harm others. Instead, the tension rises as the situation edges towards irretrievable disaster.

Snippets of dialogue reveal their inner tension. In Ex_Machina, Caleb is thrown off-kilter by the AI, Ava, asking him whether he considers himself a good person. In the end, he says that he is, but we can see the beginnings of doubt in his eyes.

In Planetfall, we have this:

I want to be the kind of person who would stand up now and declare that there is a better way, or that I’ll stand by my principles in this as all things and not do it. But what is the alternative? And I’m just as afraid of what will happen if the transition from lies to truth isn’t handled carefully. I should have spoken up over twenty years ago.

But if I had, I would be dead.

“You’d better show me how you do it, then,” I say, without bothering to hide the defeat in my voice. He isn’t the victor. Fear is. And cowardice.

Of course, I was hoping for happy endings. Unfortunately for me, with stories of this complexity and depth of moral ambiguity, “happily ever after” is not going to happen. What these stories did do, though, was present a twist towards the end, giving me that thrill of the unexpected. And with both stories, there is a strong sense of resolution and closure.

Personally, I don’t think I would have the stomach to write something quite as dark as these – I tend to adopt clearer-cut divides between good and bad, giving my protagonist a path that is more clearly “right”. I just like something a little easier on the emotions. But at least now I’m starting to get a feel for what makes stories like these so powerful.

It’s all about placing one’s protagonist in impossible situations, facing them with terrible moral dilemmas, and ultimately watching them make their choice and take the consequences.

There’s also power in the way the story is constructed, the timing of the reveals and the maintenance of tension and suspense – but I will save detailed discussion of these aspects for another post.

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If you remember the title of this post, you may be wondering where “the light” comes in.

To me, it’s all about balance. What I’m really aspiring to is this: to create a story with something of this dark, psychological edge, and to have my character come through that to a place beyond. What I’m looking for is not the shallow happy ending of character who has not been stretched, but the deep happy ending of a character who’s been through hell and made it back.

Maybe this is something in my own psyche, that I need to see a way of climbing from dark places and finding hope and redemption. Discussion of my minor personal demons, though, I will save for another post.

For now, I have food for thought – how to get the balance right? In how deep and dark a place can I place my characters, while still allowing them to find the light and escape?

The Pitch, Part 3: Let’s Just Write It, Shall, We?

This blog post first appeared on Amorina Rose Writes.

So, after two weeks struggling with writer’s block, I’ve finally realised I’d be better off doing something else: I’m going to send The Sapience Assessment off to Agents and Publishers (A&Ps).

Which gives me a good excuse to write another diatribe about pitches. Sorry if this is a long one!

It turns out that most A&Ps don’t request a pitch, as such. They all want a synopsis and at least part of the manuscript, perhaps with a cover letter. My advice here is: write the pitch anyway and put it in the cover letter. For the reasons why you absolutely need a pitch see Part 1: managing expectations.

Engineer that I am, to me a pitch has a logic to it. First, make sure it conveys all the information the A&P needs to know, and second, emphasise the key element of the story (as discussed in Part 1). To get all the information in there, the simplest way is just to use a check-list of question words. Here’s the recipe I’m using for my pitch:

  1. Genre statement
  2. Background to the series
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Series theme
  1. Pitch for this book
  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?
  • (How?) optional
  1. Genre Statement

I already discussed the importance and pitfalls of the genre statement in Part 2, so I won’t go through that again. Just be aware of the implicit assumptions that a genre statement generates so be as specific on the book type as you can.

  1. Background to the Series

Most books will not need this section.

The where? and when? questions are only relevant if your book has a historical or geographical setting which forms a point of interest. So if you’ve written a historical drama you ought to mention the period, if your book is set in Mongolia, that’s important, but you would not normally have a separate section, you would probably mention them in the main book pitch.

In my case, I have this separate section because my book is part of a series set in the future on different planets and I felt that was important information to get across before delving into the main pitch.

Also, my series has an overarching theme, which I wanted to mention. It’s increasingly common, especially since the Harry Potter phenomenon, for a series of books, while stories in their own right, to work progressively towards solution to an overall issue.

  1. Pitch for this book

Books in different genres are likely to have different styles of pitch, so my recipe may not work for you. You might, for instance, keep the question checklist but change the order, or you might want to just run with other concepts.

            Who?

I put the who? question first is a way of indicating that this is character-based fiction. This is showing that, in my mind, the most important aspect of my story is the main character and her arc.

In this book, I only have one main character, so this part should be easy. In later books I might mention two key characters, but I suspect any more than that would be too cumbersome for a brief pitch.

Who? Means the character’s name and some indication of who they are or what they desire. So in my book, I have Thea Hyde, an intelligence operative who is desperate to get back to fieldwork after an injury.

Examples in other genres: a young woman, dissatisfied with her life in some way, is seeking escape, excitement, or love (romance genre); someone with a special skill is chosen (perhaps unwillingly) to fulfil a role or quest (fantasy genre).

What?

This is where I put the ‘plot question’ – what is the driver of the plot, the problem to be solved, or the threat to be overcome?

This is a tough one for me. My book has several plot threads, each with their own question.

Ostensibly, Thea’s mission is to find out whether a certain alien species is sapient, so that they can be saved from extinction. The trouble is, most readers don’t seem able to generate much sympathy for giant talking termites, so they don’t care. It’s a weak question.

As it turns out, the mission is a front for political manoeuvrings, with other aliens trying to sabotage it for their own ends. At the start of the story, though, this is not known, so the only question I could pose might be: who is trying to sabotage the mission and why? Again, it seems weak.

My main character has her own question to solve, too. An amnesiac, she is trying to recover understanding of who she is and why she has elevated duty to the Federation above all else. Perhaps there is another question: will she rediscover herself?

As I write this, I still don’t know which question I’m going to use (sigh).

Why?

This introduces the stakes. Why is it so important for the Who? to overcome the What?

Be careful – I find many people neglect this one. There’s a temptation to assume that readers will understand the stakes without being told.

Don’t assume. We actually need to be told that if the young woman in the romance does not find love, she will fall into depression / slavery / poverty / succumb to the evil stepmother. We need to be told that if the fantasy quest fails it will mean the slaughter of innocents / fall of the kingdom / extinction of the dragons/elves/race of men. We need to know that this story is important.

Now I’ve written that, I’ve realised I have no mention of the Why? in my previous attempts at pitches. Haha. Guess I’d better learn to walk the talk.

How?

I tend to present the pitch as a teaser, telling the A&P what the protagonist needs to do, but not going as far as how she does it, or even whether or not she succeeds. I think that’s best left to the synopsis, so this is optional.

3…2…1…Lift-off !

Here we go:

The Sapience Assessment (science fiction, 81,500 words) is the first book in my Transhumanity Series. These are soft SF adventures aimed at a new adult readership. The overall theme is a questioning of what makes us human, following a young woman who, over the course of four books, is transformed into a cyborg.

The series is set in the 24th century, a time in which transference links provide instantaneous travel between planets. Humans are one of dozens of species in the Sapients’ Interplanetary Federation (SIF), run by the powerful Sowers. The human government has developed a strong presence in SIF through its military arm, Exforce, and intelligence service, Macropol, but the Federation is under threat from the H!ane (Hakkannay). 

Macropol Recorder Thea Hyde, who’s been sidelined for a year by injury, jumps at a chance to recover her self-esteem and field agent status. She is to use her neural implants to record the work of a scientific team, sent to assess the sapience of an alien species and decide whether they will be granted asylum and saved from extinction. When someone attempts to sabotage the mission it is up to Thea to discover who and why. The treachery she uncovers will have implications for herself and the entire Federation.

Hope that’s helpful to people, to see my take on writing pitches. Comments on my pitch effort will be very welcome!

To Write Or Not To Write

 

I’m going to post some old blogs which I first wrote for the blog of my writer friend Barb. Barb and another local writer friend, Alyson, have been the driving force pushing me to start my own blog. Barb has a fantastic way of connecting with other aspiring writers, especially in the romance and fantasy genres. Check out her blog here:

http://amorinarosewrites.blogspot.com.au/

and Alyson is a wonderful dark fantasy/paranormal storyteller. Check out her blog here:

https://blueinkonadragonstail.wordpress.com/

To write or not to write?

Three years ago I was no writer – I was a reader, sure, and a mother, and an engineer. If you’d asked me the question then I would have shrugged my shoulders, uncaring. After a day of writing technical reports I had no wish to put fingers to keyboard at home as well.

What happened? It’s hard to say – frustration with work, perhaps, or with the direction of my life. Just another mid-life crisis. I took time off work and took an idea that had been kicking around in my head and wrote a novel. In the process I caught this disease, this addiction. You know what I mean.

There was a point when my direction hung in the balance – I returned to work and set the book aside – but the condition of the local economy saw me back at home. As you can imagine, I became the writing equivalent of the alcoholic at the bar or the gambler at the casino.

Three novels finished and another three started and I’m still reeling, trying to understand what on earth I think I’m doing. Somewhere along the way, there was no denying that in terms of the direction of my thoughts and how I was wanting to spend my time, I had become a writer. So in one sense the answer to the question seems obvious – the compulsion to keep writing is overwhelming.

BUT… Whether I should write is still a question I ask myself, because writing is, frankly, terrifying. Here I am plugging away for months on a manuscript which may never be read. One of the first things I learnt was that it is impossible to judge the merit of one’s own writing. Why else are there so many unsolicited manuscripts turning up on Agents’ desks? Few of us are the writers we believe ourselves to be, and fewer still the writers we would wish to be. The odds are against me getting any decent financial return for all the effort I’ve put into my books. To know this and to continue is the greatest leap of faith I have ever taken.

This is why I’m so grateful for the support of fellow authors, like Barb and Alison, who are in the same place and understand. Between us, we will get our books published, whether through traditional publishing or self-publishing – it gets to the stage where you just need your work to be out there, rather than sit and struggle with ‘what-if’s. Just as importantly, we can kick around ideas and hopes and fears that may be incomprehensible to people like the old me, the normal one, before I developed this wonderful and terrifying addiction.

We can do this.