I read Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex four years ago. I recently reread it as research for The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Given that book is about a woman superhero, I thought reading a book about a woman superhero, written by a woman, might be productive. Plus there’s that criticism from the editor who rejected Southern Discomfort that I should read more urban fantasy. So off I went.
For those who haven’t read Kuhn’s book, it’s set in San Francisco several years after a demonic portal opened. The portal closed but demons keep popping up; Chinese American Annie, going by the name Aveda Jupiter, takes them down with TK-enhanced martial arts skills. Unlike most urban fantasies, this all happens publicly and Annie thrives on the spotlight.
By contrast Annie’s Japanese-American best friend Evie is shy, insecure and happy to stay out of the spotlight as Annie’s support person. She manages everything from Aveda Jupiter’s social calendar to keeping her kickass leather boots clean. And she never, ever thinks about her own pyrotic powers, which she keeps under wraps.
Then Annie gets injured. Evie has to pose as her for a celebrity event but when demons crash the party Evie uses her fire powers to save the day. Suddenly everyone’s over the moon about Aveda Jupiter’s new ability so obviously Evie has to keep up the masquerade until they can figure out some way to transfer them to Annie.
The first thing I noticed — which I was sort of aware of already — is that KC doesn’t think much about clothes. Evie’s quite detailed about what she and Annie, and others in the cast are wearing; clothes aren’t something I think much about so I go light on that stuff. Most women I know think about them more — and clothes can be a good scene-setting detail — so maybe this is something to work on. Sure, KC could be the kind of woman who doesn’t care much, but that feels like a cop-out (by contrast, going light on clothing detail in Southern Discomfort, even in women’s POV sections, felt perfectly natural).
Second, like a lot of urban fantasy there’s a lot of Tell rather than Show; given the book got published and led to several sequels, it confirms my feeling this writing rules is overrated. Evie tells a lot about her personal history with Annie, her experience as an Asian American, her relationships with the other characters and the history of the city’s demonic incursion. It works for me except when the villain gives an interminable explanation of her evil plan at the climax. That’s good news, seeing as Impossible has plenty of telling: the world’s alternate history is weird and there’s a lot I need to get across.
Third, one of the things the editor criticized Southern Discomfort for was a lack of urgency and tension. I’ve seen How To writing advice books that warn against casual, chatty scenes because they lack tension and lose the audience — though my writing group’s sometimes told me I should have more scenes with less tension, to let readers catch their breath (I’ll be blogging more about this).
Heroine Complex isn’t big on tension. The demon-slaying opening is played for humor: the demons are possessed cupcakes, Annie’s worst moment is that her zit is caught on camera. Then we get lots of Tell about growing up Asian, which is some of my favorite stuff in the book. This makes me hope that the personal scenes between my KC and her friends aren’t going to kill reader interest, Then again, a lot of Evie’s scenes are tense or awkward which adds to the drama and the interest. KC’s in a much better place a lot of the time.
Plus Heroine Complex‘s urban fantasy aspect is really the B-plot. Evie is the A-plot, a woman miserable in her own skin, blooming into a happy, comfortable person and rebuilding her relationships with the other characters. The heart of my story is the fight against a mystery misogynist wrecking KC’s life so maybe personal stuff needs to be kept down?
Studying other writers’ books isn’t a magic formula for success. “Successful author got away with X, therefore I can do X in my book” does not follow. There are lots of factors that go into making a book successful; it’s quite possible I’ll get the mix wrong. Still, I think rereading the book was helpful.
#SFWApro. Cover art by Jason Chan, all rights remain with current holder.