(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Vicious by V.E. Schwab)
I don’t tend to feel the same nostalgia for ’80s and ’90s cartoons as many of my peers. Oh, I watched and enjoyed several of them (Darkwing Duck was a motherfucking boss and we can’t be friends if you think otherwise) but even as a kid, I remember feeling vaguely annoyed by them. It was the villains that bothered me. I remember Rita Repulsa (and if you know who that is without Googling, we can totally be friends even if you’re wrong about Darkwing Duck) going on and on about how she was serving the forces of evil, and I would just roll my eyes. No one actually thinks they’re evil, right? I figured that out around the time I learned cursive.
So it always excites me when something really delves into the question of evil and the villain’s perspective. When Vicious came to my attention billed as a supervillain origin story, I was immediately interested, and became enthralled with the discovery that there aren’t exactly heroes in this world.
Background: There are a few superpowered individuals (rather preciously called EOs for ExtraOrdinary, and yes it is always styled that way, she said through gritted teeth) and they each have one distinctive ability.
At the outset, Eli is attractive and devout and socially gifted. Victor is pale, antisocial, and wears a lot of black. Eli steals the girl Victor wants. It all seems fairly straightforwardly setting up Eli as the hero and Victor as the villain.
But but but but but. This story thrives in the but. (That might have come out wrong.) Eli becomes convinced that EOs are an abomination and that he’s divinely called to wipe them out, and Victor’s initial plans for revenge turn into a quest to stop his former roommate and friend.
The entire book is a meditation on Grey and Grey Morality, so the bit I want to discuss specifically is the use of powers. The two men are, as great protagonist/antagonist pairings should be, two sides of the same coin in many ways, and their powers are part of that. Both were studying pre-med at the time of their experiments, and their powers are both tied to medicine: Eli can heal, and Victor controls pain.
Those seem like pretty obvious good and evil powers, but (see?) they get explored in a way that’s truly fascinating. See, Eli can only heal himself, and while Victor can certainly inflict pain, he can also take it away. To unpack it a bit further, while Victor can control the pain of an injury, he has to live with the scars, the physical restoration process and the reminder of what happened. Eli, on the other hand, is burdened with no such permanent tokens of his actions, his age, his past. He experiences the injury, but it does not mark him.
Such a setup would make an interesting enough premise on its own. The thing that elevates the story for me is how deeply this duality is woven into the character arcs. Victor’s understanding of pain grants him an empathy he lacked as a student, whereas Eli’s invincibility and immortality completely robs him of any empathy he once had. Victor may disdain Eli’s religious fervor, but it’s Victor who ends up sacrificing himself. Eli’s only ally is a girl he would kill if she weren’t able to prevent him from even wanting to, while antisocial Victor is the one who ends up with his little pack of strays, a quasi-family that remains loyal to him even after his death.
I think it’s important for us as writers to keep these sorts of moral explorations in mind, even in stories where they aren’t supposed to be the entire point. Every virtue can corrupt and be corrupted. Every vice can be used to redeem. Nuance helps create believable, compelling characters and situations. Even a kid can tell you that.
Over on Google+, they’ve kicked off a neat thing called Saturday Scenes where people are posting snippets of existing stuff and works in progress. Clicky click the link to check out the hashtag and read some neat stuff.
For my contribution, I went with Valkyrie, otherwise known as Two Awesome Characters in Search of a Plot. It is a raging hot mess and I have no idea what, if anything, I’ll ever do with it, but I adore the opening, so here you go!
Well, maybe this wasn’t the best plan after all.
I mean, it wasn’t really much of a plan. I was just coming in to talk, that’s all. Polite and civil-like. I even put on makeup, for chrissakes. I could practically be visiting the Queen. But I suppose that’s what I get for having a reputation for being dangerous: people react to me like I’m a goddamn bear or something, instead of a rational human being with impulse control and all that shit.
I risk a peek around the corner of the alcove where they have me pinned down. Three shooters, two handguns and one rifle. Damn ridiculous weapon for guard work. It’s kind of a bad joke to say that a guy who favors a big gun even when it’s totally useless is compensating for something, but in my experience… Well, all stereotypes start somewhere. It’s weird, though, I don’t recognize any of these guys. I thought I knew all of the muscle in town. They look young, too. Green. The Glock behind that hideous statue is about to piss himself. I hate going up against kids like this. I remember being that young, that scared. Watching my friends die.
I give my head a quick shake to clear it. Not the time for flashbacks, girlie. Jesus. I glance the other way down the hall to get a feel for the layout, get my bearings. The last time I was in this house, it was still Hamilton’s place. That dude couldn’t be bothered to do any sort of decorating, but I kind of dug it. He let the place speak for itself. That’s what you should do with old, interesting buildings like this. Minimalism, you know? Not this chintzy, fake antique crap that Blanchett has covered the place with. Crazy ornate light fixtures, boring oil paintings, suits of armor. Suits of armor! Who does that? You’d think a Frenchman would have better taste. I know this pad pretty well, but all this ugly crap cluttering the place up makes it hard to tell what’s what. Still, I recognize that old carved door at the end of the hall. Wine cellar. Groovy. The front door’s a little closer, but it’s probably more heavily guarded, and I have more escape options from the back anyway.
I bounce my piece on my palm. Probably about half full, and only one spare mag. Like I said, it was just supposed to be a social call. So much for that. Time to get moving. I lean out and take aim. Quick shots, one two three, and easy as target practice, they go down. I can’t help but feel satisfied as those ugly chandeliers crash to the ground, plunging the hall into darkness and creating a handy little obstacle course. Good fucking riddance. I should send Blanchett a bill for redecorating. The boys throw up their arms to guard their soft bits from the rain of shrapnel. Right now, I’m the last thing on their minds. They don’t even see me as I sprint down the hall under the cover of the darkness and debris. The floor plan unfolds itself in my head, clear as I had a map right in front of me. Left at the wine cellar, right at the foyer, down a short flight and out. Piece of cake. Mmm, cake sounds good. Bastards interrupted my dinner. I hate fighting on an empty stomach. At least I got in a decent cup of coffee.
I duck into another alcove and take out another brass monstrosity, then another. Chaos and noise unfold around me. The kids are yelling for backup, confused and scared. I wish I’d gotten intel on how big Blanchett’s crew is. Last I’d heard, he only had a couple of bodyguards, but clearly he’s beefed up security. A shot sails past me a foot over my head, the first one that’s gotten even close. Well, he’s tried to beef up security, at least. The cheap SOB never did want to shell out for any sort of training.
I don’t bother trying to take out the lights in the foyer — it’s far too well-lit, so it’s not worth the effort. Besides, the crystal chandelier here is actually pretty (original to the house, naturally), so I’d rather not destroy it. Which is a shame, because two more baby goons just popped out of the side door nearest me like some psychotic kid’s toy. Elbow to one throat, other nose broken. They haven’t even seen me yet. I slip one of their guns into my pocket and send the other flying across the room. A few more quick hits, and they’re down, boneless, twitchy piles of drab grey laundry.
A quick look around. The boys at the far end of the hall are still fighting their way past the rubble I left behind me. I duck behind a pillar and reload. Still clear ahead. I fly down the stairs. The plain wrought iron door to the patio is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. Too bad it sticks in the frame. A couple of good shoves. Glass shatters over my shoulder as the door finally gives. Their aim is improving.
Growing up without cable, my cultural education has always been somewhat lacking. For instance, I had never seen a single episode of The Twilight Zone. Obviously, this is a travesty. I started watching the series on Amazon Prime, but they didn’t have the fourth season, so I went back to Hulu for that. This means that I ended my viewing mission on a low, blatty note entitled “The Bard”.
If you share my deficiencies, you may think of The Twilight Zone as that old, creepy show, which is mostly true. But there were a few “funny” episodes in there as well. In this particular case, the scare quotes on “funny” could be seen from orbit. Truly grating and obnoxious main character, a soundtrack that called out every remotely funny moment by pausing for a tuba, and an ending that robs us of the usual Twilight Zone brand of poetic justice ensuring that horrible people meet horrible fates.
There was actually one moment I found genuinely hilarious, one which escaped the attentions of the psychotic wind section. Starting at 35:41, Burt Reynolds does a flawless impression of Marlon Brando:
But I suppose this highlights one of the reasons that it’s so hard to do comedy. Comedy is not only heavily contextual, but also heavily cultural. Perhaps audiences fifty years ago would have found Julius Moomer hysterical, perhaps not. And hell, the Brando impression wouldn’t be funny to someone who hadn’t seen any of his films of that era. It seems rather appropriate that this observation comes from an episode featuring Shakespeare. The actual Bard was one funny fucker, but at 400 years’ remove, most of us need heavy annotation to understand the dick and fart jokes. That might be why the only comedy remembered by anyone but scholars is the one where the guy gets a donkey head, while his tragedies have found much more enduring fame. Similarly, none of the “funny” Twilight Zone episodes have had nearly the same cultural impact as the dramatic ones.
It’s true what they say: Tragedy is easy. Comedy is hard.
So the second round of the Like a Virgin contest has been announced, and yours truly isn’t in it.
I’m not disheartened, though. Limited number of slots, not everyone can make it and all. I only got a couple of comments on my entry, but they were very good. Both suggested ways that I could tighten up the query, including a point that I’d been too close to the story to notice. The genesis of this novel was a particular premise (paranormal romance 20 years later, bitter and frankly inevitable divorce), but that bit ended up being more of a B-plot. It’s not a bad thing to pitch on its own and I felt like it was going to be a huge selling point of the novel. From the feedback I got, I’ve realized that while it is a selling point, it’s not a necessary selling point. So out it goes. Kill your darlings.
I also got some praise that I would go so far as to call “glowing.” The word “swoon” may have been used. I’ve long felt pretty confident with my voice, especially when explicitly in character, so getting some affirmation of that set me to some swooning of my own.
All in all, it’s not really a setback, more of an opportunity that didn’t quite pan out. My timeline for submission will proceed unaltered:
- Wait for beta feedback to arrive
- Gather agent lists like whoa
- Revisions and Query Sharking
- Begin submissions!
The goal is to be submitting by sometime in June. I think that’s doable, especially given that the feedback from both the contest and the readers so far is that it just needs some tweaking and tightening before it’s good to go.
Onwards and upwards!
One of the big things that prompted me to finally get this thing up and running is that I made the first round of the Like a Virgin pitch contest. So appropriately for my first proper post, here’s a bunch of questions about my firsts!
How do you remember your first kiss?
I had just seen a movie with Jon, a good friend of my best friend’s boyfriend. (High school!) We were out in the parking lot, and there was a stunning sunset. The kiss was awkward, and the guy didn’t last long, although he did mark the beginning of a still-active stretch where every significant male in my life is named some variant on Jon, Jeff, or Josh.
Come to think of it, my first kiss with my husband (a Josh, naturally) was in a parking lot. And we got engaged in a parking lot. I may be rather unromantic, at least as far as venues go.
What was your first favorite love song?
Probably something from a Disney movie. I have an inordinate love for the princesses. Since Belle is my very favorite, we’ll go with “Beauty and the Beast.”
What’s the first thing you do when you begin writing for the day?
Okay, the first thing I do when I actually start writing and stop procrastinating is fire up my music, generally either Pandora or Songza. Then I read over the previous day’s progress before I get going.
Who’s the first writer who truly inspired you to become a writer?
Good old Stephen King. I discovered him around seventh grade or so and became mildly obsessed. I had done some writing before, but On Writing was the first thing that really made me consider it as a career.
Did the final revision of your first book have the same first chapter it started with?
Weeeeell, that’s a slightly complicated question, because “first book” can be a surprisingly nebulous term. The very first novel draft I ever wrote was at the age of 14. I think it’s been lost to time, technology (it was backed up on a series of floppy discs), and several moves. Probably for the best, since at 16 I realized that it was immature rubbish, threw it out, and tried again. And a couple of other times after that. The current revision is a graphic novel, and it does not have the same first chapter as the earliest draft I can find. I have a very bad habit of starting with the protagonist waking up.
If we’re talking “first book” as in publication-wise, then that would be the one that I’ve got in the contest. It does currently have the same first chapter as it did on the first draft, although it’s not really a final revision until it goes to print, right?
For your first book, which came first: major characters, plot or setting?
Ah, there it is again. So same split: for that very first novel, it was plot. Really, it was premise, but I’m sort of a tentpole writer, so the next thing to get figured out was all the big climactic setpieces.
For the contest book, it was probably characters, although again tied closely to a premise.
What’s the first word you want to roll off the tip of someone’s tongue when they think of your writing?
I’m actually going out of town starting tomorrow, but I’m going to do my best to get around to the other sites to say hello and meet everyone. It’s all so exciting! Best of luck!
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