Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?

I’ve been looking around for The Abomination to continue my series of posts heckling my first attempt at a novel, but I misplaced the manuscript while cleaning this summer. Like most objects of extreme evil/stupidity, it’s bound to turn up. However, I did find a detailed critique from the one person who actually read the first draft of my second novel attempt. One of the points of what was wrong with it was “Where are all the lovable bad guys and gals?”

This story had very few side characters. Good, bad — zilch. The few it had only existed as long as they were in the main character’s line of sight. Out of sight was out of the novel.

Aside from creating a few logical flaws (a large ship should have a skeleton crew at the very least, not just the only two people in the world opposed to mass genocide), it got boring. The whole thing became about the main conflict between the main protagonists and antagonists — dramatic, to be sure, but overbearing without side characters to provide well-timed distractions.

Side characters are a great source of conflict. In a perfect (or halfway decent) novel, no one gets along perfectly. Real people don’t, either. There are love triangles all over the place. Not all are the traditional sort:

Fighting over affections. With any blend of genders, you can have two people in love with the same person. Whether they started out as friends or enemies, everything from personal hygiene to physical prowess becomes a competition.

Fighting over attention. Not all triangles involve love. Maybe you have two candidates for a promotion and both want to impress their supervisor. Maybe the sorcerer from Over the Mountains needs a Chosen One and he’s holding tryouts.

Fighting over Object of Power. Everyone and their second cousin twice removed was after the One Ring — no shortage of conflict there. And how many people wanted to get the four stones in The Fifth Element? A lot. Or maybe the Object of Power is a floppy disc or a cell phone.

Fighting over property. Take your pick from large and small scale: land, livestock, jewelry, keys, pens, staplers, seats in the cafeteria… As a bit of a possessive freak, I can assure you that even touching something someone has claimed can begin a duel to the death.

Fighting over nothing. Ever disagree with someone just to spite them? They might be right, but damned if you’ll admit it! Your characters can be that way, too. Maybe that guy slept with your hero’s sister’s gardener and now the hero hates that guy no matter what he does. Or he just doesn’t like people who smell like chicken and have beards.

A well-placed diversion from the main plot gives depth to all your characters — readers see them in a less critical situation — and a breath to your readers. It might even add tension to the main conflict. If your character’s embezzlement scheme is about to be discovered, she really doesn’t want to argue about all the pens she borrowed and never gave back to that guy in the office who will not let her leave until all his pens have been returned.

Just make sure you’ve set it up throughout the story and have her dump all her stolen pens into a safety deposit box or something. Then it will make sense.

Introducing Bianca and Rascal!

Those of you who follow me on various social media platforms have probably already seen that we adopted a couple of new pets! This brings the total number of animals in the house up to three, and it’s been an adventure so far.

Look who's ready to come home!

A photo posted by Amanda Surowitz (@ajswitzy) on

This is probably the clearest picture of Bianca’s face I will ever manage. She likes to headbutt hands — particularly if there is something already in them. So phones, sunglasses, cups of tea, all of it will get shoved aside.Also, fingers and toes are her favorite things to chew on.

Bianca has an extreme interest in my book shelf. #cat #catsofinstagram #bookcat

A photo posted by Amanda Surowitz (@ajswitzy) on

Apart from her extreme fascination with books, she also has an interest in the mirror in my closet. She keeps running to the back of it, expecting an expansion of my room. And the giant poster from The Desolation of Smaug also appears to be a doorway to another dimension.

Next up is the dog, Rascal!

And the other new addition to our family! As of right now, her name is Rascal. #dog #dogsofinstagram

A photo posted by Amanda Surowitz (@ajswitzy) on

She should not be on that couch, so you can understand why her name is Rascal. She likes to jump on the furniture when she’s feeling ignored and wants to be outside all the time. By the way, she’s not housebroken. It’s certainly an adventure trying to keep up with her and prevent her from messing in the house.

Rascal really enjoys the rug before the fireplace. #dogsofinstagram #hounddog #rascal

A photo posted by Amanda Surowitz (@ajswitzy) on

Hopefully, we can get her trained up soon enough and get back to some semblance of normalcy. In the meantime, I’m going to try to keep my movie theater uniform away from all this fur.

Well #?^% XXVI: Goodbye, my minion

As this is the last week of the quarter, it is time to bid farewell to my wonderful evil minion. Megan graduates this week, and I’m sad that she is no longer going to be an assistant editor at District. Also, I have two more quarters to go and she will not be in any of my classes anymore.

And who will visit Sidewalk Cat with me between classes?

It’s been so much fun knowing her since we met in a fiction class. Besides actually offering useful feedback on my writing, she’s been a great friend and a gem to work with. For weeks, we’ve been trying to secretly make her fail all her classes and return to SCAD next quarter just so we can keep her. Alas, she must go.

From the trip District took to the Coastal Empire Fair to celebrate the end of Film Fest. Photo by Daniel Cheon.

I wish we’d gotten to know each other sooner and that we’d started working together sooner, too. Since she only lives in West Virginia, I hope there’s still a possibility for us to get together some time when I’m back in Virginia. Until then, I wish her all the very best.

Also, keep being the best evil minion the world has ever seen!

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

I was nominated for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last night, and I accepted that challenge this morning. Now, my understanding of how this works is you can either donate $100 and skip the dunking, or you can soak yourself and donate just $10. I can’t afford a $100 donation at the moment, but I can do better than just $10. And, for your viewing pleasure, me throwing ice water over my head before work.

“Transformers: Age of Extinction”: A waste of time

Considering the less than memorable experience of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” it seemed like “Age of Extinction” would have to try very hard to be the worst Transformers movie. But with a humorless look at the American government, inconsistent characters and some cheap CG effects, a movie has never seemed more effortless.

The American government turned on its former allies and hunts down Autobots and Decepticons alike, melting them down to raw materials so Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) can create an American army of Transformers — which only transform into tacky and ostentatious sports cars. Meanwhile, broke garage-inventor and lousy father Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) restores a half-dead Optimus Prime and drags his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) into the fight between the Autobots and the CIA.

At the head of the CIA team hunting Autobots is James Savoy (Titus Welliver), a rude caricature of an American government agent. When Cade tells James the CIA can’t search his property without a warrant, James screams, “My FACE is my warrant!” Sure, the Patriot Act would allow James to search Cade’s property since the Autobots are considered terrorists, but his line was a tasteless mockery of the real CIA. Coupled with the American government’s desire to keep wrecked Autobots out of the hands of any other country that might benefit from the technology, the movie ends up feeling like a long-winded insult.

Cade, who starts out as a man struggling to attain his dream and handle his teenage daughter, devolves into a muscled redneck with a gun, shouting repeatedly at his daughter’s secret boyfriend, “You’re not going to p***y out on me, are you?!” Where did that come from? Maybe it’s a side effect of whatever steroids gave him the strength to go mano-y-mano with Lockdown without turning into gut soup.

Nicola Peltz provides the movie’s quota of long legs in short shorts and cleavage, but not much else. When Megan Fox filled the role, at least she could do something useful like hot wire a tow truck and get Bumblebee out of the line of fire. Peltz’s character amounts to “My life is over!” and “I can’t do this! I’m going back to the ship!” Nevermind that everything on Lockdown’s ship is trying to kill her and she was already halfway to safety.

If only the graphics and action could cover up the script’s shortcomings. Made for 3D, there’s no shortage of cartoony debris and robot swords aimed at the screen. It’s also liberally seasoned with unnecessary slow motion sequences. But even if the whole movie played at normal speed, it would still be too long. The runtime is 165 minutes (two hours, 45 minutes), but there’s not enough to engage the average person’s attention past the first hour. At least this is the only Transformers movie without a scene partway through the credits, so there’s no reason to stay past when the screen cuts to black.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Dave Higgins invited me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour (and, incidentally, wrote the best bio paragraph of me I’ve ever read). I greatly enjoy Dave’s writing and his input, and I’m glad he’s given me this opportunity to ramble on about my writing process.

What am I working on?

The main focus of my efforts is The Thieves of Traska. I finished the first run-through two months ago and am currently filling in gaps and fixing plot holes.

Last week, I started a side project called Asra the Shade. It centers on one of the side characters in The Thieves of Traska, and was originally going to be a webcomic to help promote the full novel. However, since the all the sequential artists I’ve contacted have fallen through, I decided to turn the story into a novella.

My self-imposed deadline for The Thieves of Traska is fall 2015, but I fully expect to have Asra the Shade done first.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I tend not to peg a genre first. Sometimes it’s obvious (Alien invasion? Smells like science fiction!), but other times I just work with the idea and figure out the genre later. With The Thieves of Traska, I wasn’t clear on what genre it fell into at first. It’s certainly an adventure and it has action, but the locations are all made up. It’s currently resting in fantasy, but I’m a bit hesitant to call it that.

Our protagonist is, as the title implies, a thief. Her successes are all based on breaking laws and doing bad things. Even so, she has a strong moral compass. She still steals things and gets into fights—and doesn’t feel guilty about any of it—but she’s dedicated to doing the right thing for the other thieves, even if they’ll resent her for it.

Why do I write what I do?

I like the antiheroes—the people who do bad things for a (relatively) good reason, but also have something to gain. It creates tension between selfishness and selflessness that’s fun to play with.

With The Thieves of Traska, I really wanted to write about a thief. Instead of having her realize the error of her ways, give up thieving and do something for the greater good of humanity, I wanted her actions to be for the greater good of bad without being “evil.” I spend a lot of time thinking about morality and where the line is in various situations. It’s something I like to put my characters through and see what compromises they make.

How does my writing process work?

Each project begins with some random little inspirational nugget (if you’ve ever had a bug fly into your eye, it feels pretty much like that). After a couple hours, I usually have a name for the main character or some basic idea of who they are and what the main conflict of the story is. Hopefully I have a title, but I’m seldom that lucky.

For The Thieves of Traska, the first half of that inspirational nugget was the name Mackinley. I had a roommate last year with that name, and I really wanted to name a character after her. The second half came when I was walking home from my fiction writing class. I’d been plotting a short story about a thief for my next assignment when it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried writing a full-length novel about a thief. It was kind of mind blowing since I love thief characters.

There’s a lot of writing in my notebook after that. I get a basic outline of the beginning, an idea of where it might end, and I’ve probably changed the main character’s name a few times. (Fun fact: Claire’s name used to be Adelaide. It changed after I read the first chapter aloud and discovered how much I hate saying “Adelaide” repeatedly.)

From there, I just write the scenes in order. I tend to skip over a lot of setting description and the “breather” scenes between plot points. Once I get to the penultimate chapter, I stop writing. I let it sit for a couple weeks, then start revising.

This is when I fix the plot holes, add in descriptions, set up the mood of scenes, add filler bits, etc. Once I’ve gotten through that, I can write the ending.

Hopefully this insight has got you curious and not sent you running for the hills. Time to hand it over to some other writers:

 Jordanna East – Journey of Jordanna East

Jordanna East is a wonderful person and author of the infuriatingly delicious thriller books Blood in the Past and Blood in the Paint. She’s something of a role model for me, and I sincerely hope you’ll mosey on over to her blog and check out the latest with her.

Cassidy Frazee – Wide Awake But Dreaming

Ms. Frazee identifies herself as a Roleplaying God and a bit of a nut, but what writer isn’t? She has delightful posts on her blog, and she can also be found frequently posting in the NaNoWriMo Facebook group. I’m looking forward to seeing what great things she brings us.

Tristan Lueck – The Aberration

old-manTristan is a fellow SCAD student from the writing department, as well as my future roommate in the fall. She’s sent me a bit of her novel-in-progress and I can say I like where it’s going (but I won’t spoil any of it for you!). Blogging is a new practice for her and she’s still getting into the hang of it, but her posts are well worth the wait.

Callous: Why I didn’t want to be a writer

Elementary teachers love to predict the careers of their teachers students.* Several pegged me as a writer even during that time when I insisted on being a scientist. I liked to tell stories, like the one I wrote for some fourth grade English assignment. I couldn’t tell you what happened in it, but I remember it centered on a knight and a farmer. That story stands out in my memory because I decided I never wanted to be a writer after I wrote it.

This decision had nothing to do with the story itself; apart from my terrible handwriting and issues with spaces between words (“tome” and “tothe” frequently appeared where they shouldn’t have), there wasn’t anything really wrong with it. I didn’t want to be a writer simply because my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mullenax, had a callous on her finger.

She was tall and largish in the way many elementary teachers are, with gray hair streaked with silver down to her shoulders and the crooked yellow teeth of a habitual smoker. I rarely remember seeing her wearing something other than a denim overall-dress over a white T-shirt.

Mrs. Mullenax didn’t like me for a number of reasons. Every time we started on math, I got a headache and asked to go to the nurse (in retrospect, this was likely dehydration or hunger). Sometimes I would slip out of the classroom with the other cool girls and hang out in the bathroom (just to stand around giggling, then hide if anyone else came in). And sin of sins, I wouldn’t shut up about New Mexico.

I was born there, in what I remember as a land of cracked dirt, scraggly bushes, vacant lots, black widow spiders, stucco walls and mountains. The year I started fourth grade was my first year in Virginia (the second time around; I was born in New Mexico, moved to Virginia, then back to New Mexico, then back to Virginia when I was very young). Virginia had tall, bushy trees surrounded by swampy terrain, brick houses, an unusual affinity for sports and frightening pride in its history.

I couldn’t stop pointing out the differences, both in landscape and education. Mrs. Mullenax used to pull me aside and say, “Stop talking about New Mexico. You aren’t there anymore.”

The day she graded that English assignment, she called us to her desk one by one to go over our grades. When she called my name, I sat next to her and beamed at her praise for my story. Whatever happened between that farmer and that knight was enough to make her think I would be a writer one day. I would have gone forth completely neutral on the subject if she hadn’t held up her right and in front of me and said, “And you’ll get one of these, too.”

She had old hands, the knuckles wrinkled by a lifetime of curling and uncurling. Dry, cracked skin covered her palms and split around her nails. On the inside of her middle finger, just beside the nail, was the most grotesque dome of flesh. Cracks surrounded the layers of flaky white skin. It looked like some foreign object crashed into her finger and got stuck there.

That gross thing could grow on someone else for all I cared. I wanted no part of writing.

In high school, I noticed my callous for the first time. The years of handwritten homework gave birth to my own knot of skin just beside the highest knuckle on my middle finger. At first, I thought it was a blister. The little bump was smooth like skin over bone, innocuous and obscure. You wouldn’t see it at first glance. If you noticed any abnormality, you would probably think I just broke my finger long ago and it healed that way.

But here was this thing I never wanted, quietly cushioning my finger with every word I wrote. I chose to be a writer long before I saw it. Sure, if I stopped writing by hand and drawing, it would eventually soften and disappear, but why would I? Calloused hands have always been a sign of a hard worker. Small and subtle as it is, my callous is like a secret. My hands may be soft and well-maintained, but the signs of hard work are there if you look close enough.

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*The original sentence had the word “teachers” repeated by mistake. I do what I can, but nobody is perfect.