Tirzah Duncan

Remembering

I’ve been dreadfully busy, these past two weeks. Some people don’t take that as an excuse to miss blogging and writing, but… I guess I do. Some people say writing needs to be a habit like brushing your teeth in the morning, but guess what? When I get too busy, I don’t remember to brush my teeth. Don’t remember to drink water unless I’m reminded. Don’t remember to eat. Don’t remember to write. I’m that bad at habits.

To be fair, these past two weeks have been fraught. I’ve been planning trips, making reservations, driving my family around, navigating without GPS, seeing sights. Castles. Palaces. Rivers. Shops. Paris in one day. You know, the firstest of first world trials. We can’t afford to eat at most of these places. I don’t remember to eat much of what we packed. Don’t remember to drink, unless my mother, or sister-writer, press bottles into my hands and order my hydration. Don’t remember to write.

When we do eat out, I forget anything else. Revel. Carp! I forget anything else. Eclair! I forget anything else. Warm brie and pear! I forget anything else. Sister-writer remembers to take pictures. Bad lighting. Good faces. Good food.

I’m bad at all-the-time habits. But I’m good at coming back to things. Circling back around. Beginning again. Carrying on. Remembering, if not in time, in time. I walk through the woods with my mother. The light is perfect. I remember to take pictures. She’s beautiful.

I think maybe that’s how I’m meant to be. Not remembering always, maybe remembering enough. I see my mother in Paris and forget to take pictures. I see my mother in the trees, and remember. It is good.

I remember to write a blog post. I’ve forgotten dinner.

Maybe it’s enough. Maybe it’s good.

Abridged Reality

If you try hard enough

You can grow deaf to the world

Live in absentia,

Home-grown dementia,

A home grown right

Between your stoppered ears,

Sand filling your mouth and nose.

Little pockets of bliss;

A determined abyss:

Life has always looked better

In the director’s cut.

 

Driving Forces

I learn more about my characters by letting them hang out in my real life, even if it’s nothing like their own world.

Dalvin, for instance, likes to blare pop rock music and take the wheel when we’re in the car. She’s a surprisingly competent driver, for a girl from a world in which mills and magic are the height of technological advancement.

When I ask her why she likes it so much, she answers, “It’s a lot like battle, isn’t it? One wrong move and you’re dead or injured, and there’s nothing for it but to let your body outpace your mind and do what you’ve taught it to do. It’s very relaxing.”

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Relaxing? To think that you’re one wrong move away from injury or death? I certainly don’t want to think of driving in that light… How on earth do you find your looming mortality relaxing?

Rarely interested in self-reflection, she only shrugs. “Everything’s too immediate to be fussed with thinking about it. I don’t like thinking.”

Huh. That’s an odd thing to say. Why don’t you like thinking?

She gives me a dirty look. “I don’t know,” she says slowly. “Do you want me to think about it?”

Ah. Looks like I’ve used up her introspection for the day.

*****

Check out Grace the Mace

In which Dalvin is forced not only to fight for her life… but to think about it.

We’re Mostly Mad Here

I was standing at the stove with my friends lounging around me as I poured pasta into boiling water, laughing at an exchange between Will, Sy, and Gilbert, when a sudden worry flashed through my mind.

How am I going to feed so many people with just one box of mac-‘n’-cheese? I frowned.

Then sanity resurfaced, and my face went red as I realized it was just me and my best writer friend Danielle standing in the kitchen. The hilarious Will, Sy, and Gilbert were our characters and muses.

I revealed my lapse in mental acuity, and they laughed at me—three imaginary, one present on the common plane of reality, and all four mocking my madness.

That's right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

That’s right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

But this madness—while entirely laughable—stems from a very important part of my writing process: taking my characters seriously.

Now, you don’t have to slip that far down the rabbit hole to be a good writer. But whether or not you consider your cast to be real, you must consider them valid.

Even if you think your characters to be players in your plot, not friends hanging out in your kitchen, their truths (not just their mutable facts) must be given due consideration. Avid readers can smell a cardboard cutout character an aisle away. Even side characters are better for having an underbelly. Even if it’s never shown in the story you’re telling, it will influence the visible surface, lending depth and truth.

Writing Grace the Mace, I considered the forces that had formed each character, and the impact each one would have on the others–in shaping, motivating, and provoking.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the title character herself. Dalvin Grace is shaped by two opposing forces—her mother, and the rest of the world. She resembles both her caring mother and her cruel environment. She resents both her “weak” mother and the buffeting world of the Great Graves mountain nations. Her feelings are spurred by—you guessed it, both her mother, and the world around them.

Had I treated Grace as simply a cog in my plot, I might have decided that she would defend her mother—another cog, a porcelain figure in maternal damsel-ish distress, serving the plot much as love interests commonly serve. That would have left me with an action-adventure novel that read much like an old, two-dimensional video game. However elaborately I plotted the “levels,” the main character would move through them, and collect the prize—mother’s safety—at the end.

But Weylah, the mother, is a valid person in her own right. Sweet, feminine, naive, and near-magically buoyant—those facts I knew from the first brush. I delved beyond the ultimate image of maternity, looking for personhood behind those soft, amber eyes. I asked a lot of questions. What were her fears? Regrets? Strengths? Worst memories? Doubts? Faiths? Worldview?

I can’t say a bell rings in my head at the precise moment a character goes from being an idea to being a person. But usually, the change is near the moment I understand their deepest, greatest why. Writing is an art, not a science, and the artistic process is never entirely predictable, but if they haven’t made that transition from pile of facts to true person, I know I’m not finished. If the people aren’t true, neither is their story.

If I didn’t understand Weylah, I wouldn’t understand the unique tensions between the flowerseller and her mercenary daughter, and how the push-and-pull of that relational tide shapes Dalvin’s very existence, for better and for worse—and for the plot.

Some authors are of the opinion that characters only serve the plot. But characters known in their own right will serve a plot far better than dress-up dolls sewn for the part ever could.

People are the heart of any story, and if you don’t write it with pumping blood, the best you’ll ever get is the interesting corpse of an idea.

You hardly need to go so far as to mistakenly make dinner for five, but a character that inhabits a writer’s head is, of course, that much more likely to stick in the head of a reader.

I think of fiction as a happily catching madness.

*****

If you’d like a disgruntled, paranoid mercenary rattling around in your head,

Check out Grace the Mace, available on Kindle in paperback.

 

 

 

Less Than True, Greater Than A Lie: Writing what your characters think vs. what they do

Have you ever created a scale of values for your characters?

Grace the Mace would say hers looked something like this:

Strangers < Friends < Comfort < Pride < Ambitions < Survival < Mum

The truth, interestingly enough, looks a little more like this:

Comfort < Strangers < Pride < Survival <Friends < Ambitions < Mum

The differences between a character’s self-perception and their true values is often as telling as the scale itself.

That said, it can be tricky to portray a difference between perceived values and actual values within your writing, especially in first person or third person close. The narration must strike a balance between being true to the truth, and being true to the character’s perception of the truth.

The best way I’ve found to stick to both sides of the story at once is to set the opposites right next to one another—as I did with Dalvin’s coin and discourtesy in this passage, and again later with one of my favorite lines in the book:

Dalvin scowled, dug in her purse for a silver dragon, and flung it at the girl. “Get a pair of shoes, and stop being such a worthless friend.”

Grace constantly outs herself by what she’s willing—and unwilling—to give up. While neither her words nor the narration will admit to it, she proves her scale of values again and again by what she sacrifices.

Of course, the same can be done with a character who thinks themselves benevolent or benign, and proves, without a hitch in the narrative’s self-assurance, to do entirely cruel or thoughtless things. One need look no further than The Children of the Light in The Wheel of Time, The Shepherdess in The Legend of Eli Monpress, or Eli Ever from Vicious to find characters of that stripe.

These sorts of internal discrepancies are not just allowable in fiction, they’re to be expected! Cognitive dissonance is a very real part of the human makeup, and a character with impeccable self-perception is an incredible rarity—and I’m not just talking about the female lead who thinks herself plain or ugly when everyone else considers her gorgeous. Don’t take your characters’ word on who they are and what they value. See what they sacrifice when push comes to shove—and let the reader see the truth for themselves.

What do your character’s value scales look like? Do they know themselves as well as they think they do? Leave a comment!

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Bonus scale:

The values of Weylah, the Mum in question, would go something like this:

Comfort < Pretty Things < Plants < Animals < Strangers = Friends = Lovers = Family

Her self-perception… doesn’t exist. She’s like the opposite of a narcissist. When she reflects, it’s never on herself except in terms of how she could better serve her values–i.e., people.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Grace the Mace now available for sale on Kindle and in paperback.

 

Grace the Mace: Now Released!

Grace has always been there for her mother, ever since she was old enough to bite the legs of those thugs and leeches that called themselves lovers. Ever since she was old enough to understand the world in a way her mother never would.

Now, she comes home every winter with blood money from a year of running with a band of sellswords. No more scrounging in midden heaps and cutting purses for a low court lord to survive the lean months.

But this year, home is as dangerous as the battlefield. Tensions are running through the street courts of her old slums, while a new and daunting lover has confounded her safeguards and gotten at her mum–and now they’re all tangled in a vicious turf war.

Is one lone mercenary enough to protect her own? Can she trust anyone else to do the job?

Grace the Mace Cover

Now available for $2.99 on Kindle and for $5.99 in paperback!

My Five Favorite Things About This Book

(Sans Spoilers)

1.  I finally get to introduce a bit of the world I’ve been building for the last eight years! This isn’t the story I expected to be sharing first–I thought that would be Sy’s story, Ever the Actor, but the story and world grew so complex, with each new draft trying to catch up to my latest revelation, that I had to take a step back from the manuscript. What better way to do that than to write an entire novella set over two centuries earlier in the same world?

2. Grace herself. She was an enigma of a character for several years, angrily stewing in the back of my mind. When I finally unlocked her, I was delighted by her (often hilarious) contradictions–chill and passionate, self-serving and selfless, stubborn and flexible, cruel and kind. It’s been a fun challenge, trying to show the truth of her dual and tangled nature throughout the narrative.

3. The swearing. That girl’s got the most interesting, varied, and versatile curses I’ve ever heard, borrowing indiscriminately from the filthiest sentiments of four different cultures. All my other characters have been pretty basic– “Chance damn it,” and “Seed of man and beast!” and “Early frost, woman!” and “What complete rot,”–but this chick’s on a whole new level.

4. The cover. Yeah, I’ve got to admit, one of my favorite things about my book is the picture on the cover. The sum total of my contribution to the cover was, A, a detailed commission request, and B, the all-too-necessary but faintly detracting addition of the title and author’s name. The talent behind the art is DarianaLoki… But I spent a whole other post gushing about that!

5. It’s a book I’d want to read. I’d enjoy the characters, the voice, the themes, the plot, the setting… It can be hard to step back and look at a work objectively after months spent immersed within it, but evaluating it as accurately as I can… I think Reader Me would love this even more than Writer Me. That’s partly because Writer Me has an anxious ego at stake, but mostly because this is exactly the sort of content Reader Me pores over shelves in search of. And that, my friends, is sweet success.

My Five Least Favorite Things About This Book

(Sans Spoilers)

1. It’s got hardly any magic, so I don’t get to show off my awesome system! Bah!

2. It’s a little tough to categorize. My instinct is to call it fantasy, but I don’t want people thinking there’s more magic and mythical creatures in it than there are. But they’re there! They’re just… fringe. But it’s still got a very fantasy world feel. Should I call it Fantasy Lite? Diet Fantasy? Low-Mana Fantasy?

3. It’s a novella! No hate to novellas, but I’m more of a novel fan, and I was sort of surprised when it didn’t come out longer. Still, I’m not going to force it full of fluff to fulfill some arbitrary page-count ideal in my head. She is what she is.

4. Oh, this had me banging my head against a wall: trying to write dialogue for a major character who’s reluctant to say anything. At all. Who has a lot to say, but likes to talk like a minimalist, if he must be more than a mime. Oh my gooooooosh. Just taaaaaaalk like everybody else, man. But! That struggle is in the past. I think I found the balance for him to express what had to be expressed without violating the truth of his character.

5. Writing blurbs and short pitches for it! Trying take the central themes (“Uh, sacrifice, mommy issues, bitterness, and trust?”) and the more concrete aspects of the story (“Oh, lots of snark, warriors doin’ macho stuff, ye olde inner city gang wars, death and struggle, some sex, some flowers, and tense family dinners,”) and fit them together–and to do it in two to four tight paragraphs? Impossible. But that’s ever my aim, nonetheless.

Now available for $2.99 on Kindle and for $5.99 in paperback!

I look forward to hearing about your five favorite–and yes, even your five least favorite–things about Grace the Mace!

Excerpt I

Excerpt II

Excerpt III

 

Grace the Mace: Cover Reveal!

Grace has always been there for her mother, ever since she was old enough to bite the legs of those thugs and leeches that called themselves lovers. Ever since she was old enough to understand the world in a way her mother never would.

Now, she comes home every winter with blood money from a year of running with a band of sellswords. No more scrounging in midden heaps and cutting purses for a low court lord to survive the lean months.

But this year, home is as dangerous as the battlefield. Tensions are running through the street courts of her old slums, while a new and daunting lover has confounded her safeguards and gotten at her mum–and now they’re all tangled in a vicious turf war.

Is one lone mercenary enough to protect her own? Can she trust anyone else to do the job?

*****

Now to meet the face of the franchise, a word I here use in its loosest sense:

Grace the Mace Cover

My thoughts, numbered, but in no particular order:

1. Give me those boots. Give them to me. And throw in that breastplate while you’re in a generous mood.

2. I feel like if you zoomed in on the shield and enhanced, you could spot the photographer. (You can’t. I tried. The CSI shows lied.)

3. YES. That’s my girl, alright. That’s her attitude, all over her face, which is totally her face! Maker take her, what a bitch! 😀

4. Ooooooh, colors and lighting and framing! Ooooh, stone textures! Yeah background!

5. This art is way better than most fantasy cover art. Imma be real; most actual paintings (not talking about the airbrushed photos) on fantasy covers look kind of… weird. Someone’s face always looks stupid, some basic physical proportions are always off. Not here. Not with this. This baby is perfect.

6. A thousand and one thanks to DarianaLoki, the artist responsible.

Grace’s thoughts:

1.  “It’s a good likeness.”

2. “My gear isn’t horribly misrepresented. Thanks.”

3. “What, am I supposed to come up with six things, too? It’s nice. It’s good. It’s, what’s the word, professional. What do you want?”

Guess I’ll have to rustle up three more thoughts somewhere else.

Grace’s Mum’s thoughts:

4. “Oh, what lovely work! Isn’t she beautiful? And so… fierce-looking.”

5. “Are those chrysanthemums? I can’t tell, but they brighten the place up nicely, don’t they?”

6. “Grace isn’t in… trouble, is she?”

Ohhhh, my sweet summer child.

*****

Excerpt I

Excerpt II

Excerpt III