Apr 16

Technique: Parallel Stories, Slow Reveal

I review books from Netgalley, and I recently got two significant short story collections: Writers of the Future Volume 30 and Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Eight. So far, I've only read the first one, but it's taught me something.

Of course, that's exactly why I read it; I wanted to see what is considered really good spec-fic short story writing these days, rather than just reading classic short stories. I've been writing a few short stories lately, mostly for the collection I'm doing with HDWP Press, and based on the feedback I've had I seem to be getting better. I'm yet to sell a story to a major magazine, but I've had a very encouraging personalised rejection from Strange Horizons and some good comments from critique groups.

Part of the point of writing short stories is to improve my craft by working at the short length, and then take those lessons into my novels. Here's the lesson I learned from several of the stories in Writers of the Future, which I call "parallel stories, slow reveal".

The clearest and best use of the technique is in Shauna O'Meara's story "Beneath the Surface of Two Kills". At the opening of this story, we learn that the narrator, a professional hunter, is hunting a rare animal for the last meal of a convicted felon on death row. As the story progresses, we discover more about the "two kills": the one which the hunter is working towards, and the one which we know occurred in the past to place the killer in prison awaiting execution. The hunter thinks about the news coverage he has read of the killer's stalking of his victim as he, in turn, stalks the rare beast.

This works for a few reasons. Firstly, the parallel stories obviously reflect on each other (and the conclusion differentiates the two characters). Secondly, as also happens with several other stories in the same collection, we start out knowing the ending of a story that occurred earlier, and gradually learn how that outcome occurred.

Now, given how some people react to "spoilers", you'd think that would be a problem, but done well it actually keeps the reader's interest. We know the outcome, but we don't know how it came to be, and we want to.

Here are some ways I can think of to use the slow reveal:

  • Hint at something surprising about the character early on that doesn't match up with what you've revealed about them so far.
  • Let the reader see a terrible (or wonderful) outcome looming, of which the characters remain ignorant until it happens.
  • As the story opens, let the reader know that the character feels a strong emotion (fear, anger, sadness) about something that happened, but don't tell them why (or what) until later.
  • Show a character learning something that another character has already learned, and tell their stories in parallel.
  • This is a classic: Start the character out in a fix. Gradually show how they got into it as they struggle to get out of it.

Like any technique, this can be done badly and fail. Used well, though, it holds the reader's attention and keeps them reading. Watch out for it in my future stories.

Feb 11

Writing Two Stories at Once

I recently read C.L. Moore's Judgement Night (review here), and it got me thinking.

Moore was writing in the pulp era, very successfully. She and her husband Henry Kuttner (whose first contact with her was a fan letter he wrote, believing she was a man) often collaborated on their stories, but in the interests of not disappearing down a pointless rabbit-hole I'm going to assume that the stories with her name on were primarily her work.

Moore's stories, while definitely in the pulp mould, had extra elements that lifted them out of the ordinary. Her Wikipedia entry notes her use of the senses and emotions, but I'm going to talk about something else she did, which I refer to as "telling two stories at once".

External and Internal Stories

Drastic oversimplification time: one of the key differences between "genre" fiction and "literary" fiction is often that "genre" fiction has a lot going on externally (events that you'd see on a movie screen), whereas "literary" fiction has a lot going on internally to the characters (thoughts, emotions, internal dialogue, reflections on the meaning of life). This makes it unsurprising that most of the top-grossing movies of all time have been "genre" movies: science fiction, fantasy or thrillers, primarily.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with this. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for a story that doesn't attempt to do anything more than entertain me with the external events. As a matter of taste, I'm personally seldom if ever in the mood for a story that has very few events but a lot of internal reflection. What I really like a lot, though, is when someone manages to pull off both at once, which is what Moore did in many of her stories.

Double Double Toil and Trouble...
Arbron / Foter / CC BY

Most of the stories we recognise as "classic literature" do this. Shakespeare has murder and walking spirits and Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, but he also has "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" and "Out, damned spot!" Dickens, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, most of the authors whose names everyone recognises tell two stories at once: the story of the outward events, and the story of the significance of those events.

By the significance of the events I don't just mean their significance to the characters, though that is how we encounter it, through the characters' eyes. The authors who are best at this manage to make the characters' thoughts, reactions and emotions point beyond them to something more universal about being human.

For example, the story "Judgement Night" in the collection of the same name is about the fall of a galactic empire. However, it's also about the heir to that empire, and her close brush with a love affair, and how her training as an amazon warrior makes her reject the emotional and relational side of life, and how that influences the empire's fall. And that, in turn, is about masculinity and femininity, relationship and connection, competition and conflict, love and death. It's all woven together. If you told just the story of the fall of the empire, it would work as a story by itself, but it wouldn't have the richness and depth of the story that Moore does tell.

How I'm Applying This

If I look at someone else's craft, it's at least partly to improve my own (that's a big part of why I write reviews).

There's a writing concept called "scene and sequel" that Jim Butcher describes very well. In this context, a "scene" is what I've been calling the outward story: some things happen. A "sequel" is where the characters reflect on it and make it part of their internal stories (and hopefully the greater, more universal story).

My first Gryphon Clerks book, Realmgolds, has lost some readers because they felt that I didn't do enough of the internal story sometimes. Other readers don't seem bothered by it; perhaps it's just that they're already enough like the characters (and me) that they get what I was going for without my spelling it out, that they naturally understand how a character like that would feel. However, if I'm to improve as a writer and satisfy more readers, I need to take that criticism on.

When I was writing Hope and the Clever Man, I had a scene in it where two of the characters get caught up in a riot. Bearing in mind the lessons I'd learned, I added a couple of sentences of sequel to the end of it, in which the characters said something like, "I've never been so frightened in my life!" "Me either."

Starting to deepen your stories can be that simple: taking a moment to show the reader what the events the character has just experienced mean to them.

Jan 21

Short Story Challenge begins

Something new today. I've decided to do a Short Story Challenge this year, which works as follows:

  1. I read and analyse a classic short story each month.
  2. I take what I learned and write a short story of my own.
  3. I submit it to magazines and anthologies until it sells, or until I run out of markets.
  4. Once the rights revert, I publish it on Amazon, either alone or as part of a collection, and/or make it one of the membership bonuses for my mailing list.

Several people I know on Google+ are joining me (some of them are doing slightly different versions), and you can follow along with the hashtag #shortstorychallenge.

I'm working, at least initially, from the Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories, selected by Tom Shippey. It's a collection I own, I've read it before, and I know it has a lot of good stories in it, drawn from just over a century of fantasy literature (1888-1992).

I'm not planning to analyse every story in it, because I know I wouldn't follow through on that. Besides, I only need a dozen, and I want to throw some SF stories in later on as well (probably from the companion Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, also selected by Shippey, and which I also own). I may look at a detective story or two - my wife has about 30 mystery anthologies, including a couple of Oxford ones that she says are good - and possibly some mainstream short fiction, of which I also have a couple of collections. It's generally good to read outside your genre. It can freshen things up.

Here's my first analysis, then. It happens to be of a story that's freely available on the web: Lord Dunsany's "The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth". I'll analyse it under a number of headings, which I'm making up as I go along, and italicise the things I take as lessons. Future analyses may differ in approach. In fact, that's highly likely.

Subgenre: Somewhere between Sword and Sorcery and Weird Tales. The events are S&S, the tone is Weird, and the combination works well. Crossing a couple of subgenres can have the effect of adding their strengths together.

Type of story: The plot has a strong Adventure core, but it's not just an adventure. It's also a Creepy Mood/Bizarre Experience story, like the ones that Lovecraft and co. wrote (going back at least to Poe). It has a Switch-up at the end, when the narrator questions whether it's an Hallucination or even a complete False Legend. This kind of category questioning is part of the Weird Tales genre, I think, and contributes to the genre's sense of confusion and fear.

Why the story works: It works more because of the atmosphere, the language and the tone than because of the plot, which is straightforward, with a minimal amount of tension in it (see analysis below). The adventure part would have made a decent story, perhaps a bit disappointing because the protagonist wins too easily. Those additional aspects make a great one. If you sizzle loud enough, you may not need as much sausage.

Language Elements: The names are the first thing to notice. The story itself is named after the fortress in it: The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth. Even its door has a wonderful name: The Porte Resonant, the Way of Egress for War. Then there are the names of the other places, people, and enemies: the town of Allathurion, its lord Lorendiac, and his son Leothric (the first two sound more-or-less Norman French, the third Saxon, and all of them Arthurian); the dragons Tharagavverug, Thok, Lunk, and Wong Bongerok, whose resonant, clanking names reflect their metallic nature; the evil magician Gaznak, who sounds like a Tolkien orc;  The Land Where No Man Goeth. Take the opportunity that names provide to evoke atmosphere.

Then there are the descriptions. "Then Leothric advanced towards a door, and it was mightier than the marble quarry, Sacremona, from which of old men cut enormous slabs to build the Abbey of the Holy Tears. Day after day they wrenched out the very ribs of the hill until the Abbey was builded, and it was more beautiful than anything in stone. Then the priests blessed Sacremona, and it had rest, and no more stone was ever taken from it to build the houses of men. And the hill stood looking southwards lonely in the sunlight, defaced by that mighty scar. So vast was the door of steel." That kind of description is hard to pull off, comparing something mythical to something else mythical that you have to explain, but if you can do it, you can convey a sense of a world that extends beyond the edge of this story; that's being shot on location, not in a sound stage. Give the audience something that only appears in the corner of their eye to make the world more real.

A number of the descriptions of the evil things mention Satan. This not only gives a context (Christianity) but also ties them together through the repetition.

Dragon
wili_hybrid / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

The whole story uses an "elevated" and pseudo-antique style, the kind of style William Morris pioneered (following Spenser's Faerie Queene): "unvanquishable" rather than "unconquerable" or even "impregnable"; "save for" rather than "except for". This is incredibly hard to pull off (judging from the number of people who fail at it). You need a very large vocabulary and a good ear. All too many writers who attempt it have a much smaller vocabulary than they think they do, so they use the wrong word and make themselves look like idiots, and are prone to dropping modern colloquialisms into the middle of the high-flown prose at intervals and completely spoiling the effect. Dunsany has the linguistic chops to make it work. He knew what he was doing, and he could probably have explained it if he had to. Unless you can explain how and why this works, don't try it.

Plot: Let's attempt to apply the Seven-Point Story Structure and see where we get to.

Hook: The village by the dark forest full of fae is peaceful (paragraph 1). A little... too peaceful, if you know what I mean. Already, we're waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hint at trouble as early as you can.

Plot Turn 1: The village becomes troubled by evil dreams (paragraph 2). There we go. Don't hold off too long on the plot turn.

Pinch 1: The magician can't defeat them with his best spell. (There's actually a brief try-fail cycle here, by a minor character, the magician, who doesn't reappear later, and the protagonist isn't even introduced until it's over.) The protagonist doesn't have to do everything.

This sequence also does a lot to establish both the tone and the world: there is magic, there's a culture that crosses various kinds of landscape containing camels, elephants and whales, even a village magician commands great power. Make the minor details work to establish world and tone.

Midpoint: Leothric steps up and volunteers to go and defeat the dragon-crocodile Tharagavverug in order to get the sword Sacnoth, so that he can defeat the sender of evil dreams. We have a sub-quest. Arguably, the whole sub-quest, in which he must demonstrate tenacity and courage and therefore his worthiness for the main quest, is part of the midpoint. The points can be extended sequences, not just moments; the midpoint is a demonstration of fitness to be the hero, not just a decision.

Pinch 2: Leothric fights his way into the Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth. This is a kind of try-fail cycle, the kind that looks like success. He keeps achieving tasks (break down the door; scare off the camel-riders; get past the spider; pass through the hall of princes and queens; resist the temptation of the dream-women; cross the abyss; fight the dragon; fight the other, more dangerous dragon), but none of them are the task he wants to achieve: fighting and defeating Gaznak. In his talks on the Seven Points, Dan Wells alludes to the example of The Princess Bride, where the Man in Black's contests with Inigo, Fezzik and the Sicilian, and the encounters in the Fire Swamp, are "try-fail" cycles. He wins, he progresses, but he doesn't yet achieve his ultimate objective: to escape to his ship with Buttercup. Try-fail cycles can involve the protagonist winning.

Leothric doesn't have any serious trouble with any of these obstacles, yet the story remains interesting, because they're so beautifully described and everything is so evocative. This is similar to Dunsany's models, the Arthurian quests (Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, which also gets echoed later with the detachable head). Success against opposition, even easy success, doesn't have to be boring, as long as the opposition is interesting and the success isn't instantaneous.

Plot turn 2: Leothric finally confronts Gaznak, and just when it looks like he will lose (because Gaznak's sword can destroy Leothric's armour, but not vice versa, and Gaznak's detachable head trick prevents Leothric from beheading him), he figures out that Gaznak has another point of vulnerability: his wrist. This has been set up in advance, so it doesn't feel like it comes out of nowhere, and in exploiting it he adds intelligence to his already-demonstrated virtues of courage and tenacity. Set up the solution, even if only half a dozen paragraphs before. Have the hero snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It's never too late to have the hero show another quality that's consistent with his character.

Resolution: The evil dissipates, Leothric returns home and the village is again at peace. Return to status quo ante is an acceptable resolution; the hero has changed, but the world may be back to how it was. 

After the resolution comes the little twisty doubty thing in the last four paragraphs. If anything, this makes the story more of a legend, claims for it the status of a traditional tale rather than a newly-made-up story, as well as raising the epistemological question of what is true, what is real, and how we know. Those are questions academics ask more often than ordinary people, and perhaps they were preoccupations of earlier generations more than our own. It's not necessarily something to imitate, but I think it works for this story.

So there's my analysis. Now I need to write my story. I have a story in progress, but I'm not sure that the lessons I've learned here are directly applicable to it, so I may need to start another.

Jan 08

How to Weaken a Scene

This morning, someone in a writers' community I belong to on Google+ posted a link to this Ars Technica article about how some of the changes in the Hobbit movies were necessary to strengthen the writing. (Obviously, both that article and this post contain spoilers for both book and movie, if you care about that, and in fact assume that you're familiar with both.)

Now, even though I love The Hobbit dearly (it was one of my first fantasy reads, if not the first, and I've read it at least eight times), I agree with much of what the article says. There's too much coincidence, luck and deus ex machina in the book. However, I think some of the changes made in the movie weaken the story rather than strengthening it.

Example: The spiders. Compare these two versions.

Book version: The dwarves and Bilbo, after many days of trekking through the forest, are out of provisions and almost out of hope. Bilbo climbs a tree to scout and falsely gets the impression that they are still far from their destination. In desperation, they disobey Beorn's advice and leave the path, trying to reach the elvish feasts they can see in the distance, but the elves, who are isolationists, keep disappearing as soon as they come near. They get separated in the darkness and confusion.

Bilbo wakes up from sleep being tied up by a giant spider, and kills it by a desperate effort. He luckily guesses which direction the dwarves are in, puts on his magic ring, and sneaks quietly towards them (it's been previously established that he's good at sneaking quietly).

The dwarves have been captured by the spiders. Bilbo cleverly manipulates the spiders through taunts and thrown stones to get them away from the dwarves, though he only just escapes from being surrounded by them and sneaks again to get away. He then kills another spider which has stayed behind, and begins to free the dwarves (who are in a bad way from the spiders' poison on top of their hunger and exhaustion). Before he can finish, the spiders come back, and they all have to fight. Bilbo cleverly draws them off again, and the dwarves make a desperate escape, having to fight repeatedly (with inadequate weapons) despite their weariness, hunger and the lingering effects of the spider poison. At a moment when it looks like the spiders will surround them and overwhelm them, Bilbo reappears and gives them the opportunity to escape. Bilbo fights so well and so determinedly, in fact, that the spiders eventually give them up as a bad job and go back to their nests.

The dwarves then realise that Thorin (their leader, and incidentally the only one with a decent weapon apart from Bilbo) has disappeared. He has been captured by the elves. The elves subsequently capture the rest of the dwarves as well, but Bilbo again uses the ring to escape and follows them.

Movie version: The well-supplied dwarves are having a bit of a frustrating time finding their way through the forest after what appears to be a few hours, so they send Bilbo up a tree to scout. He happily discovers that they're close to their destination. When he gets back, though, the spiders capture everyone, including him. He wakes up for no particular reason, gets himself out of a thorough binding and kills the spider with no real difficulty, and the dwarves start doing the same with a variety of effective weapons. The spiders are, individually, low-level mooks and apparently not much of a threat, but there are a lot of them.

The fight goes on for a long time, killing spiders, killing spiders, killing spiders. Then we get elves ex machina who finish up the fight, drive the spiders off and capture the party, apart from Bilbo, who rings up and follows as per the book.

Wolf Spider Portrait
e_monk / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Yes, the book version uses a lucky guess (the direction in which the dwarves were), though it's really more of an informed guess. But what gets established? Bilbo is resourceful, clever and brave. He can manipulate, sneak and fight. The dwarves' situation starts out bad and gets worse, then improves thanks to the protagonist's action, then gets worse again in a different way, and that cycle repeats several times. There's a lot of desperation, for several different causes.

In the movie, all of this is lost. It's flattened out to a straightforward fight in which Bilbo is, if anything, one of the weaker players. There's no real escalation of tension, not much up-and-down movement of the tension graph at all, in fact, and most of the sources of tension (hunger, weariness, loss of hope, believing they are far from their destination, being poorly armed and weak from spider venom) are removed completely. The protagonist doesn't solve the problem. We don't get to see much increase in his abilities. He doesn't show himself to be clever, resourceful or sneaky. The result is a bland bit of action with not much significance to the story or the characters, that isn't even that exciting to watch.

Now, I didn't write this just to sling mud at Peter Jackson and his writers. I think there's something to be learned here about writing.

Turn the process around. If you have a bland bit of action with not much significance to the story or characters, here's how you can punch it up.

1. Make the characters more desperate and/or weaker, so that the outcome is more in doubt. They're out of supplies, they have inadequate weapons, they're poisoned, they're lost, they don't know how far they have to go but it seems further than they can go. When desperate, weak characters triumph after a hard fight, it's more exciting than if strong, competent characters triumph after an easy fight.

2. Don't just write it as "they fight a thing, they fight another thing the same as the first thing, they fight yet another thing". Write a series of problems from which the characters have to escape: One-on-one conflict. Drawing off the spiders. Spiders nearly surround Bilbo. He gets away and starts to free the dwarves, but the spiders come back before he's finished. Spiders nearly surround the dwarves, Bilbo rushes in from the side and breaks through.

I watched an excellent example of this the other day: the truck chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a thrilling sequence because it's not just solving the same problem over and over, it's solving a series of different problems in different ways on the way to an overall goal (escape with the Ark). Indiana Jones must pursue the truck on horseback, jump on, force his way in, overcome the Nazis inside, then he gets attacked by other Nazis who climb forward from the back of the truck (antagonists can struggle and be brave and resourceful too), he's forced out, he climbs under the truck and is dragged behind, gets back up and in control of the truck again, has to contend with the other vehicles in the convoy (which he gets rid of by several different tactics), hides the truck in the village... It has variety, and every time he solves a problem he gets a new, and different, problem. We get a series of small releases of tension as he solves each problem, but the overall tension continues until the end of the sequence.

3. This deserves to be its own point: Give a variety of problems a variety of solutions. Not just "stab a spider, stab another spider, stab a third spider".

4. Take the opportunity for character development. If Bilbo is going to encounter Smaug with any expectation of success, he needs to be clever, resourceful and sneaky. This scene (in the book) establishes that he is becoming all of those things.

5. Have the protagonist solve the problem. Tolkien is as guilty of violating this as anyone, but not in the spider sequence. It's not fatal to have your protagonist rescued occasionally, but if it becomes a habit, they're not much of a protagonist.

6. Have the problem be more than just "do they win the fight?". Most of the fights in The Desolation of Smaug have no higher, greater or other stakes than "do the heroes win this fight?" Those are not very interesting stakes, especially when you're pretty sure the answer is going to be "yes". Will the heroes be eaten by the spiders? Will they find their way out of the forest? Will they starve? Where is their leader, and how can he escape? Can Bilbo continue to conceal his possession of the ring? All of these things are at stake in the book version, and they lead into and out of the fight, meaning that the fight is hard to remove as a story element. The movie version of the fight (and most of the other fights in the movie) could be completely removed as a story element and nothing else would need to be rewritten. That's a sign of weak writing, and a scene that isn't necessary because it doesn't do anything except present a (rather dull) spectacle.

I'll close with a link to another article: Why You Should Never Write Action Scenes for Your Blockbuster Movie. It's excellent writing advice in general, and the summary version is: Don't write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.

Oct 21

How to Write a Sequel, or Happily Never After

I'm writing a series. I hope it's a long series. I hope I get to work on it for 40 years or more (I'm 46). Whether I do or not, I have one book out, two more with my editor and beta readers (those two books are closely linked), a third that I'm revising and a list of ideas in various states of development. Barring the usual things that you bar over the next several years, we're looking at at least half a dozen books that I can see from here.

Writing a series is different from writing standalone novels, which is what I've done previously. I'm taking the Terry Pratchett approach to series - a number of more-or-less interlinked stories in the same setting, with overlapping characters, places and events - rather than the typical epic fantasy one-enormous-story approach. (I recently discovered that Steven Donaldson has published the tenth, and final, Thomas Covenant novel. I started reading those when I was at high school. I don't have kids, but if I did they would probably be about the age I was then, or older, so it's taken him a generation to finish his story. George R.R. Martin is still going, with no end in sight.)

Even if you take the Terry Pratchett approach, even if you don't follow the same characters all the time and don't have one big overarching plot arc, you'll still want to tie books together. The approach I've stumbled upon is what I call Happily Never After.

That's not as negative as it sounds. It's based on the endings to fairy stories, of course: "And the Prince married the Princess, and they lived happily ever after." The wedding in a romance, or the defeat of the main boss in an adventure, draws a big line under the story and says, "Finished now."

If you're writing a series like mine, though, that moves from story to story, nothing is a final ending. And, in fact, each ending contains the seeds of the next beginning - because every time your characters achieve something, that's another thing that can cause problems for them (or someone else) later on.

Endless love
Millzero Photography / Foter / CC BY-SA

I base this, like so many things, on real life. You got the promotion you were striving for? Great. But now you have more work, more responsibility, a new set of problems. You finally asked that person out? Fantastic! Welcome to your awkward first date. You're married? Terrific! Whole new set of problems there*. You've killed the main boss? Go you! Let the revisionist history/battles to fill the power vacuum/revenge attacks/resistance to the occupation begin.

We don't need to look far in our own life or in real-world politics to see that bringing something to a conclusion often just means substituting one set of problems for another. Our childhood tales tell us that when we kill the evil guy and/or marry the prince/princess our troubles are over, but it's just not so. The "all our problems will go away if we just kill this one evil guy" narrative, in particular, has proven hideously destructive (and wildly inaccurate) within the past decade.

When I got to the end of Realmgolds, the first book in the Gryphon Clerks series, I made a list of 20 problems that the resolution of that book had either created or intensified. They're enough to keep me writing for years.

The two linked books that are currently in edit/beta? The hopeful ending of the first sets up the opening problem of the second so neatly, it's as if I planned it that way.

I didn't. I didn't need to. Every solution potentially contains the seeds of the next problem, even if you don't have an overarching plot. Even if you're working within the same book, rather than a series, in fact. (Note to self: Do that more.)

* I should mention I'm happily married. Just because you have a set of problems/challenges, doesn't mean you're miserable.

Sep 17

Three Points of View of a Flat

I'm working on two books at the moment, as I mentioned in my last post, both of them featuring the brilliant young mage Hope. In the second one particularly, I'm playing with point of view, telling the story through several different people's eyes.

As it happens, three of those people are shown seeing the same thing (a house) for the first time in the course of the two books. It's a classic writing exercise to reveal character through point of view by describing the same thing through different sets of eyes, and here I've done that writing exercise in my actual novels.

Let's hear from Hope herself first. She's the daughter of upper servants in a remote part of the realm who has come to the mainland to study magic, and she and her friend Briar are looking for a place to live. As an energy mage with a special interest in light, she mostly notices things like the colour of the paint.

The old house had been converted into several flats when the neighbourhood lost its cachet and the well-off families moved elsewhere. Built of brick, probably, Hope thought, but surfaced with plaster so you couldn’t really tell. There were no cracks, the steps were clean, and if the exterior paint was not fresh it was at least clean too, and a cheerful yellow.  Someone had made some attempt at a garden in the front, and it was free of rubbish and the shrubs were in good health, if a little shaggy.

Now let's hear what Patient thinks. He's a woodcarver.

He reached the house without further incident as the light faded from the sky. He hadn’t been there before, and was impressed with the tidy exterior. An older house, but well cared for, and some nice jigsaw work on the bargeboards....

He ascended the old-fashioned staircase -- all dark-stained wood with some very decent banister carving, though it could do with a touch-up on the stain -- turned right and knocked on the door.

And here's Rosie. Rosie's parents are wealthy, and she's lived a sheltered life. She's considering moving out on her own, though.

Promptly at the twelfth deep bell (she had inherited her respect for other people’s time from her father), Rosie fetched up in front of a smaller, plainer house than she had imagined Mage Hope living in. Of course, the mage was from a servant family, so she didn’t have inherited money, she’d made it all herself. That presumably made a difference. Which would mean that this was the kind of house Rosie could afford to live in, if it wasn’t for her parents. Hmm.

Same house. Three different viewpoints. Three different voices.

I love doing this sort of thing, having developed a taste for different character voices by reading my earlier book, City of Masks, aloud in order to put it on Podiobooks.com. It only takes a few little touches to give characters distinctive voices, and I think it provides the reader with a richer experience.

Jul 30

Freshness and Familiarity: Finding the Goldilocks Zone

OK, disclaimers upfront:

  1. Everything I'm going to say in this post is about my own taste.
  2. If your taste is different (entirely likely), that's fine with me.
  3. Your taste being different doesn't invalidate what I say about my own preferences, or, of course, vice versa.
  4. I nevertheless doubt that I'm the only one who feels this way.

Having got that out of the way, I want to talk about a spectrum in fiction writing that I'm going to call "freshness" versus "familiarity". "Freshness" implies that the author is doing something new, seldom or never seen before, while "familiarity" means that they're using elements (both genre elements and story elements) that have been around for a while.

Every book is somewhere on this spectrum. Finnegan's Wake is probably about as far as you can go towards the freshness end without degenerating into random word-salad (and even that references earlier literature), and up the other end we have, I don't know, fanfiction that's just a rewriting of a scene in canon.

Now, straight away I've dropped an implication that freshness is better, and I don't necessarily think that. I picked Finnegan's Wake up once, and quickly concluded that I didn't want to work that hard and probably wasn't that smart, and put it down again. Certainly, though, freshness is harder.

Goldilocks
violscraper / Foter / CC BY-NC

For me, the Goldilocks Zone on the freshness-familiarity spectrum is a broad one. I can enjoy a book like Charles Stross's Halting State, for example, written in second person, or one of his posthuman novels like Glasshouse. I can also enjoy a book that's very nearly pure vanilla D&D-style fantasy, or off-the-shelf space opera, as long as other aspects of the book (the characters, the writing, the plot) are well done - and have some freshness to them.

There is, though, such a thing as too much, and that applies both to freshness and to familiarity. I abandoned Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi, for example, 25% of the way through, because I didn't have a clue what was going on (and also didn't care about the characters). I didn't get past the sample for Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief, for a similar reason, even though I love heist novels. When too much is unfamiliar, I become disoriented and it's easy for the book to lose my attention.

On the other hand, if I come across an epic fantasy in which the blacksmith's boy loses his parents in the first chapter (when cruel, heartless, evil people destroy their village) and joins up with quirky and assorted companions in a quest for an artifact which, as the Chosen One, he is destined to wield against the Dark Lord, I pass it by. I've already read that story, and when I read it before it was probably better written.

There's nothing inherently wrong with tropes, whether genre tropes or story tropes. I'm highly trope-tolerant. Oh, regardless of how much death and destruction is raining down, all of the core characters always survive, shrugging off significant injuries in insignificant amounts of time? OK, it's one of those stories. I can live with that. (Though some tropes are easier to tolerate than others, and the others are usually the ones that allow the writer to take shortcuts in character development and plotting.)

Where I start to have a problem is if the whole thing, or almost the whole thing, is constructed out of tropes, as if someone had built a character, plot and setting generator out of the TV Tropes website and run it, then filled in the resulting outline with poorly-written prose. I think of those as paint-by-numbers books. There's too much familiarity.

Sadly, a great many indie writers look out on the vast ocean of possibilities represented by the indie publishing revolution, in which they no longer have to write what the big publishers are buying in order to have a chance to reach an audience, but can create something genuinely new and fresh... and then they write another vampire romance with a whiny, annoying teenage heroine who's simultaneously the most awesome person ever and too stupid to live.

Freshness is hard, yes. And familiarity is important. But if you want to succeed with me, and readers like me, you're going to need to strike for the Goldilocks Zone.

Jul 22

On Writing a Fiction Series

Hope and the Clever ManI've just sent the first draft of Hope and the Clever Man, the second Gryphon Clerks book, to my lovely and talented beta readers. This is the culmination of a five-month-long writing process; a few of the chapters were recycled, having been cut from an earlier work, but most of them are new.

It's also the start of an editing process that I expect to last two or three months. First the beta read, so I can get other eyes on the text for the first time and find out what's missing, or not working as it should. Then an intensive edit from me, in multiple passes, strengthening and expanding. Finally, two passes through with my wonderful development editor, Kathleen Dale, who helped make Realmgolds a much better book than the one I initially gave her.

Hope is about a third longer than Realmgolds (80,000 words, at the moment, versus 62,000), following the usual law of series by which the later books get longer. It overlaps Realmgolds in time, which makes it tricky to avoid spoilers, but I think I've managed it. There are a couple of characters who appear in both books: the redoubtable Realmgold Victory strides in and orders people about several times, and the venerable Master-Magus is back too. There's a brief cameo from Leading Clerk Grace Carter, just for fun, and the Realmgold's clever man, mentioned a couple of times in Realmgolds, has, obviously, an important role. Otherwise, the characters are all new.

The idea is that either book acts as a point of entry for the series; you don't have to read one before the other. I want to carry on that approach in future, creating a series more like Terry Pratchett's Discworld than, say, The Wheel of Time. WoT lost me as a reader years ago when the books started to be spaced further apart, with the promised resolution nowhere in sight and a huge, complicated cast winding round each other before disappearing up their own backstories.

There will be recurring characters in the Gryphon Clerks, recurring groups of characters, even. I love my characters, so do my readers, and I enjoy leaving Easter eggs like a brief appearance in one book by a key character in another. You won't have to read from the first book in order to understand what's going on, though. (You also won't have to read to the last book to understand what's going on, which means that, while hopefully the fans will still stay eager for the next one, at least there'll be a story that finishes in less than 20 or 30 years.)

Not having to start with Book One is important, because, while most of the reviews I've got for Realmgolds are four stars, even my greatest fans acknowledge that it has its flaws. I'm aware of that too. The first book of a series is frequently the weakest, or one of the weakest, even in series that go on to be hugely successful.

Look at Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. Personally, I like Storm Front, having been into Jim Butcher since before he was cool, but a lot of people don't, and even I freely acknowledge that the later books are much better. Fortunately, Butcher makes most of the early books, at least, reasonably self-contained, and does a good "who are these people and why are they angry" catch-up at the start of each new one, so you can read some of them out of order or even skip some without missing too much. At the same time, he keeps an overall arc going, which he's said is going to take about 20 books or more to complete. (I don't plan on doing that, partly because I'm not nearly the outliner he is.)

Pratchett himself didn't really hit his stride until Mort (in my opinion), maybe even Wyrd Sisters, and those are the fourth and sixth books in the Discworld series. I'm a huge fan of the Discworld, but my top favourites start about 10 years after the publication of the first book, around Men at Arms, which is book 15. Not to say that there aren't excellent books before that, but Men at Arms started a really strong run of writing which was deeper, more thoughtful, and consistently good, a run which lasted (again, my opinion) for another dozen years and 20 more books, finally broken, briefly, by Wintersmith. If everyone had to read 15 books before they started to be consistently good, I'm not sure the Discworld would have enjoyed the success it has. The multiple entry points ensure that they don't have to.

Another approach to series which avoids the one-story-in-12-books-released-over-30-years issue is to write self-contained stories in smaller numbers of books, with these mini-series then potentially having some kind of link to each other. Trilogies, of course, are popular, especially in fantasy. Lindsay Buroker has recently concluded her Emperor's Edge series, which is seven books, plus two other loosely connected novels set in a different part of the same world and some interstitial short stories. Because she writes fast, and they're short, the whole series has wrapped up in three or four years. She now has the option of writing other stories in that world, or even with those characters, while also having a completed series.

When you're writing fantasy or SF, worldbuilding takes a good deal of your time unless you're using a vanilla off-the-shelf setting (which is usually pretty dull), and there's definitely an advantage to being able to re-use it. Even Brandon Sanderson, who has the most insane ability to come up with new magic systems, writes more than one book in most of his settings. I created the foundations of the Gryphon Clerks setting over several years, and there is certainly plenty of space to tell stories in (we haven't even glimpsed what's over to the east yet).

Besides that, of course, it's becoming received wisdom that a series will hook more readers than a standalone novel, for much the same reason that it's easier to sell a novel than a novella, and easier to sell a novella than a short story. Readers, like writers, put a certain amount of investment into a setting and a group of characters, and if they like them, they want more of the same, only different.

Telling loosely connected stories lets me indulge my taste for novelty while also avoiding the work of building a new world each time, and hopefully will keep the readers hooked as well, while allowing them to skip a book or two if it isn't to their taste.

Jun 08

Getting Inside Characters’ Heads

I'd like to report a partially failed experiment.

See, I get bored easily, and I have an overactive imagination. (It's amazing I did so well at school, really.) Accordingly, I try things that might or might not work, to see what happens. It often produces less reliable results than sticking to what everyone else does, but it's worth it to me for the times I manage to pull it off, and it's more interesting while I'm doing it.

My experiment was this: in my novel Realmgolds, I would convey emotion not so much by using the names of emotions, but by talking about the physical feelings associated with those emotions.

Here's an example. Determined (that's the name of my protagonist) is about to speak in public, something he has avoided in the past. I write:

By the time he stood at the podium on the library steps, his anger had cooled - and so had something lodged in his gut, because it felt as if he’d swallowed a snowball...

While the square was far from being packed with citizens, they were considerably more numerous than he’d anticipated, and for a moment he wanted to back down and hand his speech to Reliable. Then he thought of Victory’s serious dark eyes and her calm daring, swallowed hard and began.

Note that I don't say at any point that he was nervous. I say how he felt physically, I mention what he wanted to do (back down and pass his speech over to someone else to give), I describe his physical response, but I don't give a name to his emotion. I also don't report his inner dialogue. I leave the reader to do a lot of the work.

There are other scenes in the book where I say more about the emotions Determined is feeling, and still others where I say less. I picked a scene as my illustration that's kind of in the middle: the emotions are there if you look for them, but you have to look, imagine, project, hypothesize.

The reason I say this is a partially failed experiment is that two reviewers have now said that they couldn't get inside the character's head, that the whole book felt emotionally distant and didn't engage them.

I say "partially failed" because it's only two people (others haven't mentioned this), and "failed" because those were two people who wanted to read my book but didn't enjoy it as much as they'd hoped.

Now, I know as an author that I shouldn't pay too much attention to reviews, unless there's a chorus in unison telling me the same things all the time. I also know Neil Gaiman's dictum, that when people say that there's something wrong with your work they're usually right, but when they tell you what it is they're usually wrong. And it is only two people. Nevertheless, I want to improve my writing, and one of the reasons people read is to engage emotionally with the struggles of the characters. If I'm not giving them that, I want to work harder at it.

There are some other causes, of course, that could be contributing to this effect. Firstly, I'm a New Zealander of British descent, and used to being understated in my emotions. My wife is from California, and it's striking how much her level of expressed emotion differs from mine. I apply what I call the "Reeves discount" (Reeves being her family name) to bring it into what I consider a "normal" range, to translate it, to scale it so that I can tell how upset she is in terms of the level of emotional expression I grew up with. It's a large scaling factor.

Meditator, Fritz Madel, Sakya Lamdre, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal
Wonderlane / People Photos / CC BY-NC

I'm also a meditator, practicing techniques that make you emotionally very even. People I work with, people from my own ethnic background, have remarked on how I "don't get upset easily". In the book, Determined practices similar techniques.

Also, I'm not all that experienced at writing in third person, though I've read plenty of it and that's not much of an excuse. (City of Masks was in first person, and Gu in second person. Yes, that was another experiment.) Even when I do read third-person narratives, though, I quickly grow tired of the ones that patter on with the character's internal dialogue for pages, so that when something happens or someone else speaks you have to page back to remind yourself what happened or what was said last so that you can pick up the thread. I may have overcorrected for that.

It's probably a combination of factors. My experiment, my own ethnic and personal background, my fiction preferences, the fact that sometimes not everything in my head makes it onto the page, some kind of missed connection with those particular reviewers so that they didn't notice the emotional cues that were there, or dismissed them, who knows what else. The important thing is that for Hope and the Clever Man, I'll be asking myself as I revise each scene, "How does she feel about this? And how does the reader know?"

I'll try not to overcorrect the other way and make it into a constant description of Hope's feelings, though.

May 02

Details, Description and Pacing in Fiction (or How to Striptease, Not Bore People with Helicopters)

I've been thinking a bit about pacing in fiction lately.

Partly, that's because of things I've been reading. I'm currently finishing a long book that has a short book inside it, struggling to get out. I swear, 500 words to describe a man abseiling down a cliff, when two paragraphs, at most, would have been plenty.

And then there was the book submitted to me for review recently. I declined it, after reading the first few chapters. Not only were the sentences long and rambling, but the chapters were long and rambling. It purported to be a book about a group of gamers who discover that the game they're doing so well in is training them to fight in an interstellar war (kind of a Last Starfighter idea). So far, so good. But instead of cutting to the chase, we get the protagonist going for a surf before going off to work, and then a long scene where he and his best friend complain to each other about their employment, financial and romantic situations over the phone, and then we start into the backstory of how they met as kids, and at the point where the author began the blow-by-blow account of the friend's academic history and how it disappointed his father, I put the book down and didn't pick it up again.

I emailed the author and suggested that he should cut heavily, and his response was that he had known about the problem for some time but was anxious to move on to the next book, so he encouraged me to "push through" the slow first five chapters, because they do set up important stuff...

Sorry, my friend, but that's not how this thing works.

Your first couple of chapters are what will be in your sample on Amazon. They are your third opportunity to hook people, after your cover and your blurb. Like many other people, I filter books at each of those stages.

Amateurish cover? Author doesn't care enough. Next.

Grammatical errors in the blurb, or it's a confusing mess? I assume the book will be the same. Next.

Sample chapters don't hook me so that I will lay my money down to read the rest? I will not lay my money down to read the rest.

Now, I'm on record complaining about books that are all sizzle and no sausage, too, so I'll point out that I'm looking for a balance. I don't, personally, love books that are just like action movies, that begin page 1 with someone being shot at and progress by means of chases and explosions to a huge chase and an enormous explosion, without stopping for character development along the way. At the same time, I don't love books that are all about getting ready to do something, or trying to decide to do something, or the minute details of doing something that might have been interesting if it hadn't been described so exhaustively.

Take the book I'm reading now, for example. It's Declare, by Tim Powers. In other words, it's a book that was up for four or five major awards that I'll never be nominated for, written by a better writer than I'll ever be, so I can criticize it by name and not worry about hurting someone else's career.

The characters in Declare can't just get into a helicopter and fly somewhere. They get into a specific model of helicopter, and we have to hear not only what kind of engine it has, but what the rotor blades are made of. He's obviously done a ton of research to get so many details right, but the thing is that as far as I'm concerned, I don't care if the details are right. I don't need the details. Guy gets into a helicopter, that's all I'm looking for. Tell me the rotors are made of wood if they explode and splinters go everywhere. They don't explode? Splinters don't go everywhere? I don't care what they're made of, then.

Upgrade (?)
psiaki / Foter.com / CC BY

I'm not a highly detail-oriented person, as you may have guessed (despite my obsessive spotting of proofreading errors). People who go into excessive detail irritate me. I once worked with a man who would never give me a straight answer to any question, but would instead go into a lot of background detail which I was, presumably, somehow supposed to extract an answer from. "Yes," I'd say, "but [original question]?" And then he'd do it again. Drove me absolutely nuts.

Partly, then, this is a personality thing. I would suggest, though, that for maximum audience appeal, we writers need to write enough detail that the detail-oriented don't leave unsatisfied, and not so much that the people like me get bored and skip. How do we do that? (And I say "we," because I know I tend to the extreme of not enough detail.)

My novel Realmgolds is about political maneuverings. It has a very high proportion of speeches and conversations to gunshots (though there are certainly gunshots). Several reviews, though, have mentioned its "fast pace". How do I achieve that effect (which, incidentally, I didn't know I'd achieved until people told me)? Simple.

I write short chapters.

Very few of my chapters are in excess of 3000 words. Some are much shorter. Yet something important always happens in each chapter.

If you're worried that your story is dragging, or might drag because it's about people talking instead of shooting, shorten your chapters, while making sure that something significant happens in each one. This will give your readers a sense of forward momentum, because finishing a chapter is like walking through a door into another room.

I was working on a YA novel a while ago (which I abandoned, in the event), and I deliberately kept it pacey by aiming for chapters of roughly 1000 words. It was great discipline.

Also, write short sentences. I used to use a lot of semicolons in my writing. My rule of thumb now is that if a sentence is long enough to need a semicolon, it's long enough to use two sentences. "Say one thing per sentence" is another good rule of thumb.

So how do I keep that from becoming choppy and losing any depth? Here are a couple of strategies (which I'm still working on).

Firstly, when a new person, or a new significant thing, or a new significant idea comes into shot, linger the camera on it a bit so that the audience can tell they should pay attention to it. Spend a sentence or two giving a couple of key pieces of description of the person, thing or idea. Roger Zelazny, one of the most evocative writers who ever lived, had a simple method for this (I remember reading or hearing somewhere, though I've sadly forgotten where). He would give a character a couple of "tags" when they were first introduced, the two or three things you would instantly notice, and refer back to them when the character returned, so even his minor characters are easy to remember.

It's just two or three things, though. And it works the same for setting details, significant objects or key concepts. Some things, of course, can't be conveyed in two or three tags, but if you can do it that way, my vote is that you do. We don't need a character's entire backstory the moment they appear. Striptease your readers with significant details, preferably as and when they become significant, though you can foreshadow a bit if it's not at the expense of getting on with telling the story.

Picking just two or three things is a creative limitation. It encourages you to pick the most telling details, the things that make this character or setting item unusual or interesting or memorable or different from what you could see walking down the main street of your town. It also keeps the momentum going.

The other thing to remember is this: if you're watching a movie, and the camera lingers on, let's say, a knife on a kitchen bench, you can be confident that someone is going to pick up that knife later and at the very least wave it around, if not stick it in someone. As a general thing, the camera doesn't linger for no particular reason. Same with description. If I get a description of something in a book, I'll expect it to be relevant to the plot, characterization or setting, ideally more than one of those, and if it turns out not to be relevant (and if detail after detail turns out not to be relevant), I'll become vexed very quickly. I only have so much working memory to devote to your book. Don't fill it up with things I won't need later.

You can still have quieter moments of character reflection, still have the occasional brief passage of evocative description. But in a world where your reader can download any of 30 million other books in the next 30 seconds, boring them with your book is a really bad move.