Saturday, May 31, 2014

High Echelons of Villainy

"Life -- the way it really is -- is a battle not between good and bad,
but between bad and worse."
― Joseph Brodsky

My first introduction to monsters came when I was four, my brother transitioning from an embryo to a fetus, and my mom dealing with bouts of tempestuous morning sickness and one over-inquisitive child. Hoping to temporarily stem my never-ending flow of questions, she gave me several of her large-format art books -- smooth, glossy pages, finely-printed reproductions, gold embossing, thick, oily smell of ink -- and I was silenced.

One of those books made an especially lasting impression, forever altering the way I saw story tale villains. It featured strange and fascinating art of Hieronymus Bosch -- pages after pages filled with bird-headed creatures and shark-toothed chimeras, leonine warriors and arrow-scaled beasts. Once I lay eyes on these grotesques, I couldn't look away; they terrified me, captivated my imagination, and, for the first time, made me want to fit images with a story. I glanced at the paintings sideways, out of the corner of my eye (to this day, I watch horror flicks askance) and made up my own tales for the strange creatures living side by side with humans. They were the villains and the heroes all at once, valiant and cruel -- I saw no contradiction in this -- a child's imagination is a thing innocent and savage. My monsters had as much claim to my fantasy world as the rosy-cheeked, auburn-locked heroes who often ended up eaten. Such outcome seemed logical. The heroes needed to grow teeth or be devoured. And the villains became the highlight of my stories.

My favorite Mwahaha!!! tee
Later, I discovered gloriously fantastic realms of Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm, Gogol and Tolkien, became aware of the dark battles in the anthologies of Indian, Celtic, German, Russian Chinese, Finnish and Scandinavian myths. And as I immersed myself deeper into these worlds, I loved their noble, often doomed heroes with all of my heart, but I loved their villains more. Because, as the whetstone  sharpens the blade, so the villains make the heroes more compelling, their struggle truly epic.

There are many types of villains in YA literature -- thoroughly disgusting, vile monsters and sympathetic, misunderstood souls; evil, scheming masterminds and cruel brutes spattered in blood of their victims; clever tricksters who win a sort of grudging respect with the readers and power-hungry tyrants who elicit nothing but revulsion. But the highest echelon of villainy belongs to those striking characters who are able to thoroughly appall us, while secretly, privately sparking a flicker of recognition as we examine our own deepest selves. Because even as we imagine ourselves as heroes, there's a tiny spark of villainy inside us, too. This quote says it best:

"Nobody is a villain in their own story.
We're all the heroes of our own stories." George R. R. Martin

Oh, how I love me a good villain. They are the spice that gives the story its flavor, that makes you sweat with dread, or tremble with tension, or look at the page askance, or whatever it is you do when reading a book with a truly powerful villain. Because, monsters done right are just so good! And so much fun! Not to mention how a well-written villain adds depth to your struggling hero, reflecting him or her like a distorted dark mirror.

Dastardly Raccoon says, "Bow to your dark lord, my minions!"
5 tips for creating a memorable antagonist:
  1. Give your villain a goal.
  2. Make your villain active.
  3. Make your villain compelling
  4. A good villain must be stronger than the hero.
  5. Give your antagonist a human weakness.

A good villain must be stronger than a hero...Well, obviously!

5 totally awesome villains (beware of spoilers):

5. Darkling from Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Source: siderealscion

Ah, Darkling. An ancient sorcerer who plans to bring peace to his land by threatening the world with unspeakable horrors, Darkling is a misunderstood and troubled figure. His followers adore him, while his enemies and compatriots alike tremble at the mere mention of his name. He is ruthless, cunning, powerful and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Did I mention he is also devastatingly handsome in that brooding loner boy kind of way?
"Fine,"says Darkling. "Make me your monster."
(Don't mind if I do.)

4. King Leck of Monsea from Graceling

Now, here's a real twisted piece of pure, unapologetic evil that would give Lord Voldemort a run for his money. A sociopath who uses his Grace to manipulate or mutilate others, Leck hurts animals and children and hides his wickedness under a guise of benevolence. He is nearly a caricature of all things depraved, without so much as a shred of goodness in his dark, poisonous soul. A truly monstrous man gone far beyond redemption.

3. Linay from Plain Kate by Erin Bow


A wretched, tragic villain that tugs at your heartstrings, Linay reminds me of Kalevala's Kullervo. He tricks Kate, the book's heroine, into giving him her shadow, which he intends to use to work some very dark, nasty magic, but...his end goal is wrought not out of evil, but of heartbreak and long-suffering. He is an ambiguous, conflicted character with a bitter history and complicated motives for what he does and, at times, almost makes you sympathize with his plight. He is kind to Kate and in his own way seems to genuinely care for her, yet he has no qualms in using her in his quest for vengeance and doesn't mind sacrificing innocent lives to achieve his goals. Nuanced, tormented and flawed in a compellingly human way, Linay is definitely, my kind of baddie!

2. Razgut from Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor

Laini deserves special praise for bringing to life some of the most vivid, twisted and memorable villains I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a story. They are deliciously layered -- never simple cardboard scarecrows, but flesh-and-bone beings torn by their desires and ambitions. This book has not one, but several rather memorable antagonists. I don't want to leak spoilers for readers who haven't read the books, so I'm only going to talk about one of Laini's villains -- Razgut. Razgut is a fallen seraph, yearning to bring about the destruction of the world. A creature with a deformed, bloated face, shreds of broken wingbones protruding between his shoulder blades and a tongue he uses to taste others (Aaaaaghhh!), Razgut is creepy, lecherous, crafty and deceitful. Best of all, he is not a mindless monster, but a desperate being, driven by a violent need, whose story is steeped in heart-aching longing for his homeland and unspeakable betrayal.

1. Captain Kennit aka King of the Pirates from The Ship of Magic of Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb.

Oh, Kennit, he is by far my absolute favorite villain. (I do like me a pirate!) Pompous, hilarious, heroic, cruel, vain, selfish, broken, conniving -- the list goes on and on -- Kennit is a study in contradictions. The best bits of novels come, when the self-proclaimed Captain of the Pirates unintentionally shrouds himself in legend and becomes the hero of the people, all through fortuitous distortion of events and gross misinterpretation of his actions by those around him. Brilliantly written!

Villains, aren't they great!

Who's your favorite villain?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Of Car Troubles, Air Balloons and Writers' Days

Friday, leading to a weekend-long SCBWI Spring Writer's Retreat at South Coast Winery in Temecula didn't start out so well. Troy and I, having procrastinated in getting on the road, were rewarded with dense traffic, scalding sun and -- in a particularly brutal twist of ill-fortune -- "check your oil level" light blazing a stern, red warning that forced us to shut off all air-conditioning for a nearly three-hour-long, snail-paced journey. In a hundred-and-ten-something weather. Eesh. Personally, I think hundred-and-ten-something temperatures are a bit extravagant even for Southern California. No matter. We soldiered on. Like some demented engine whisperers, we tried to coax (even flatter) our car into holding on until we spotted a motor-oil-rich oasis or a Pepboys in a landscape of looping freeway ramps thick with glistening car carapaces and long stretches of rolling hills -- shockingly lush, considering the heat.

I didn't think the flattering would work, but our poor, overheated car lurched and wheezed, wearily snorting at our promises of first-grade-oil, but still carrying us to our vineyard-resort destination in time for the check in. Thank you car!

We arrived sweaty, thirsty and cranky. The crankiness didn't last; South Coast Winery was way too pretty to wallow in any unpleasantness. And a complimentary bottle of chilled Zinfandel waiting in our room miraculously alleviated my thirst. Cheers to SCBWI for having the genius to hold a writers' retreat on a vineyard. Writers and wine were meant  to be paired up. Notice how both words start with the same letter? Besides, what better to complement a late night brainstorming session with awesomely maniac novelists than a glass of rich, dark wine! (If a chocolate vendor could somehow be worked into the equation, this place would be heaven on earth. Heaven! With hot air balloons! More on that below.)
Woman Chocolate Vendor
Paul Gavarni
Here's the weird thing -- having lived in SoCal most of my life, I've never been in Temecula. Only an hour's trip from Pasadena (in good traffic), and I've never even heard of it. Ah, California. One of the coolest perks of calling you home is discovering tiny, hidden gems scattered in plain sight. Living Easter eggs for all those who are willing to wander the land looking for them. Troy and I are very willing. And not a month goes by that we don't stumble upon such a marvel -- a lovely place with character and charm all its own.

Temecula's charm is its verdant hills plaited in green rows of grapevines, its wine, sweet and luscious as ripe, sunkissed cherries, its crisp morning sky studded with hot air balloons. Balloons! I saw them from the patio of our hotel room and did a double take, shouting to Troy, "Baloons! No really, balloons!" in a tone worthy of announcing an alien invasion, and gaped and craned my neck like an idiot, until it grew stiff, and even forgot to drink my coffee (because -- balloons!) They felt like a gift fallen in my lap, unexpected and all the more precious for it.

But awesome as they were, balloons were not the highlight of the weekend-long retreat. It was the opportunity to hear about the latest trends in YA literature from some of the leading editors in the field, a chance to meet them during a get-to-know-you reception, to get the answers to my questions (and to those of my fellow aspiring authors) and learn what made them tick (or request full manuscripts as were the case.) The editors at my table -- Martha Mihalik, Senior Editor at Greenwillow/HarperCollins and Noa Wheeler, Editor at Henry Holt -- were generous in sharing their experience and thorough in their commentary, both professional and approachable. Friendly. Infinitely patient in hearing everyone out. (And sporting cool hairstyles to boot: Martha's braided and lovely, Noa's -- spiraling and elegant.)

I was especially grateful for a glimpse inside Noa's and Martha's wishlists. So many genres, so many possibilities! Noah wanted to see well-though-out fantasy, historical fiction, original sci-fi, strong, contemporary voices and a good ghost story. No gross-out factors. Check. No tales about horses. Check. Martha sought epic fantasy and well-constructed literary fiction. The fact that Noah's house published Leigh Bardugo's Shadow and Bone Trilogy and Martha's -- Ray Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns -- the two books I had long loved for their vividly imaginative worlds and unique heroines -- only made the meeting more compelling. I was busy taking notes. Lots of notes.

After the reception, I met a few of the other first-night attendees and spent the rest of the evening chatting about our common passion -- YA literature. Why YA? Maybe simply because some part of us stubbornly refused to let go of our youth. People came from various neighboring SCBWI regions, their works ranging from steampunk romance to historical fiction to high school crime mysteries to magic realism. One of the benefits of such literary events is listening to the multitude of voices, hearing fresh takes on the seemingly tired, old topics. Also it never hurts to compare notes on writing queries, working with agents, promoting your work on social media and self-publishing. We compared notes well into the night. While sipping that incredible pale-gold wine.

And the next, very early morning, I sat on the patio resuscitating myself with coffee when, lo and behold, the very first balloon crept slowly overhead. A Scull and Bones pirate balloon. (Did I mention how much I wanted to be an artist-pirate as a very little girl? To lay siege to coastal towns, herd their citizens onto the main square and force them to admire my drawings. My own captive audience. *Cue evil laughter of a five-year-old.*) So... a pirate balloon! The sight of it heralded a glorious day. And so it was. Gloriously busy.

Saturday was PACKED with presentations from the editors and writers alike. Laura Whitaker, an Associate Editor at Bloomsbury Children's Books, kicked off the morning with a high-energy talk on the emerging trends in PBs. Wow, Laura, I wish for one tenth of your high spirits. (For those of you who write picture books, it would be a great comfort to know that the trending themes range from back-to-school activities to important grownups in kids' lives to obscure holidays to pretty much everything under the sun.) Laura's presentation was followed by a cozy and casual discussion led by Lin Oliver, New York Times Bestselling Author, a discussion that felt very much like chatting with a group of friends gathered around your kitchen table. It focused mainly on MG lit and all the ways it differed from YA.

We had a break to catch our breaths and returned for Laura's presentation on gripping beginnings in YA lit. She gave examples how a strong character voice, a traumatic event, or a dramatic action scene can move us to read on. She had great examples:
  • Unusual Situations: Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic, Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts
  • Death: Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road (my absolute favorite book), Emily M. Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post
  • A Question: Neil Gaiman's Coraline
  • Humor: Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Libba Bray's Going Bovine
  • Love: Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park

Later that afternoon, Martha and Noa talked at length about their publishing houses and teamed up to critique randomly selected first pages -- a good way to see what worked and what could use polishing in opening paragraphs across a variety of genres.

In the interim between the morning and the afternoon events, all attendees had ten minutes to get their first pages professionally critiqued. The da-da-daam moment of the day! Ever since my very first semester at the then California College of Arts and Crafts (I will always miss that lovely "Crafts" bit now dropped from the name), the word "critique" gives me a bright jolt of excitement. Because critiques are all about perfecting one's craft. About highlighting your strengths. About identifying and eliminating your weaknesses. About letting your peers explore your work as its very first audience. Intimidating as they sound, critiques always leave me with a fresh perspective on both my craft and my vision, enable me to see my imagined world through the lens of another's eye and spot incongruities otherwise overlooked. Critiques are immensely helpful, and I wouldn't lie -- a round-table exchange was one of my most anticipated events at the Retreat.

It didn't disappoint.

At first, ten minutes seemed like very little time, but folks at my table weren't shy in contributing opinions and the critique swiftly turned into a lively discussion (as better critiques often tend to.) What struck me the most was the overwhelming feeling of support from my round-table mates. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, of one-boatedness, and the feedback gathered proved invaluable to my on-going revisions.

Soaking up the shade
before the workshops
Those of us most dedicated, returned for another round of critiques-and-revisions later that evening. Alas, I wasn't among them. There was simply too much information to digest, and I already felt like a battery charged to its full-capacity -- a little more and I would burn out. So instead, Troy and I headed to an eatery (I tend to think better while I'm talking, or eating, or both), where we filled our bellies with savories, while sorting through the impressions from the day in a slideshow of notes and memories. And they were all good notes and better memories.

Sunday saw more of the first pages, this time critiqued by Laura and Agnes, and a fun lecture on crafting scenes from Martha and Noa, complete with a deconstruction of a train carriage scene from Harry Potter. It's always fun learning from Harry Potter. Martha and Noa -- who happen to be real-life friends -- finished each other's sentences, bringing humor and spontaneity to their presentation.You can't go wrong with Harry Potter.

The retreat wrapped up with the announcement of the manuscript contest winners in YA, MG and PB categories -- Congratulations Guys and Gals! -- and a group photo taken on a sunny lawn.

After it was over, Troy and I ventured into downtown Temecula -- a tiny place with wood-paneled sidewalks that managed to conjure up the atmosphere of the Gold Rush era Old West despite the familiar Starbucks logo greeting visitors at the town's entrance and the snatches of jazz wafting from the open windows of its many shops. These shops lined the four-block-long main street and offered anything from ice-cream and sweets, to olive oil tasting and assorted antiques to gluten-free alligator jerky. Ah-ha. Gluten free. I mean -- alligator jerky.

It hung, neatly packaged, next to the bundles of ostrich, venison and boar meat. For a while, we explored the shop, egging each other on to sample some of its more outrageous offerings -- kangaroo or ostrich. Neither of us had the heart to try those, though we lingered around, intrigued by the gastronomic fearlessness (and iron bowels) of the shop's other customers. Eventually, we settled on a pack of safe and boring beef jerky to gobble on the way home and so we did. The air conditioner worked flawlessly, the jerky was tasty, and we flew with nothing before us but wide open roads and all around good karma for keeping promises to our car.

Despite its rotten beginning, the weekend ended on a high note. I came home exhausted and energized, excited to continue on my writing path and hungering for new adventures.

Some of the Spring Retreat's prettiness:
Just follow the road along the rose-strewn posts...
Grow grapes, grow!