Oct 14

Three Types of Steampunk

I love the idea (or, as we'll shortly see, ideas) of steampunk. The Victorian Era, only more wondrous. Why wouldn't I love it?

Well, mainly because the execution so seldom matches the concept.

I've been trying to read more steampunk, and the books I've come across fall mostly into a couple of disappointing categories. I'll talk about the third category, or what steampunk can be, in a bit.

Type One: The Big Brass Romance

The first type of steampunk is basically paranormal romance in something which is unconvincingly pretending to be the Victorian age, with characters who are very unconvincingly pretending to be English (since the author is American, and doesn't know much about England, or the English, or the Victorian Era, or how to go about doing research, or for that matter how to use a comma). There are probably airships and/or automatons. There is certainly a Plucky Gel, with nonfunctional brass gears glued to her corset, who is simultaneously too awesome to fail and too stupid to live.

There is a Love Interest, or quite likely a Love Triangle. The Love Interest, or the ultimately successful male member of the Love Triangle, is a horrible human being with big muscles. The Plucky Gel at first tries to resist him, because she thinks he's wrong for her (which shows atypical insight on her part), but ends up with him anyway after he's rescued her a couple of times.

The text is full of homonym errors. Full. It is written by a woman who failed Feminism 101, and probably English Composition 101 as well.

Type Two: The Steampulp Adventure

The second type of steampunk is a 1930s pulp in a bad Jules Verne costume. It is also poorly researched, and unconvincing in its Britishness and Victorianness, but the setting is so sketchy it doesn't matter so much. There are still probably airships and/or automatons, though they may be more central to the plot than they are in the Big Brass Romance. There is quite likely still a Plucky Gel, but she's disguised as a boy or does boy things in defiance of convention, and she, or someone, has nonfunctional brass goggles attached to her top hat.

LuftFlotte Steampunk...
Stf.O / Foter / CC BY

There is a Big Bad, and there are chases, and explosions, and prison breaks, but not really enough of them to hide the fact that the author can't write very well and is kind of winging it. The Big Bad is trying to overturn the status quo, and the hero must prevent this.

This text, too, is probably well equipped with homonym errors. It is written by a man, who has taken Feminism 101 (and Postcolonial Literature) into the back room, tied them up and shot them.

Type Three: The Voyage of Imagination

The third type of steampunk is the type I like, and can't find enough of. Interestingly, hardly any of the examples I've found are set in the Victorian Era, and about half are in a secondary world. It's a world where, at a generally Victorian level of technology and society, there are airships and/or automatons or other such contraptions, and this actually makes a difference to how people live.

Indeed, society is in transition, and questions of equality, of access to power, education and technology, are central to the story. Sometimes it's about gender, sometimes about class or even race; often it's more than one of the above, and these questions are personally important to the heroes.

The writing is competent. If it's set in the real world, the author manages to demonstrate that they've been to the well of research, without making you drink from the bucket.

There may well be explosions and/or romance, but they're not the main focus. That would be the characters.

So, what are some examples of good steampunk? Besides the indie steampunk novels that I recommend, there's one trad-pub series I think highly of, even though it's a bit Type 2 (it's really well-done Type 2, what Type 2 should aspire to be). I'm referring to the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld. Yes, it's YA, and yes, the heroine is disguised as a boy, but it's good stuff all the same. It's not Victorian, but an alternate World War I, and technically it's dieselpunk.

I wish people would write more Type 3 steampunk, though. Get on that, would you?

Sep 10

My Accidental Romance

I haven't blogged for quite some time, and for the best of reasons: I've been writing the next Gryphon Clerks novel.

Actually, I've been writing the one after next. The next one (Hope and the Clever Man) is with my beta readers, and while I waited for their feedback I had some ideas for the sequel, and as I write this post I'm about to pass 70,000 words - all written since I started nine weeks ago.

This is a surprise. I've not written this fast or this easily before. I think it's because I've never written a series before, and now that I have a good run-up, and the characters and world are clear in my head, they're producing the story for me much faster.

Now, I know that I am actually producing the story. It's a useful fiction to say that the characters are doing it. Useful, because it describes the experience I have when I'm writing a scene and a character suddenly starts talking about a painful experience earlier in his life that I was not expecting him to mention in this context, one that I knew would eventually come up but which I hadn't worked out in any detail, and I'm writing away thinking, "I wonder what happens next?" And as I continue writing, I find out. That happened in the new book, and it was wonderful.

Although I'm making more use of outlining than I used to, I'm still what's politely called a "discovery writer", which means that for me, story generation happens mostly while I write. This has its drawbacks, in that I don't always know what happens next and can get stuck, but it also has its advantages, in that I don't always know what happens next and can be pleasantly surprised.

One of the surprises has been that Hope and the Patient Man (the current work-in-progress, sequel to Hope and the Clever Man) turns out to be a romance. I did not see that coming, though I probably should have, given the young man who turns up, unexpectedly to everyone including me, late in the first Hope book.

One of the current kerfuffles in the spec-fic field is over an article by an academic named Paul Cook on the Amazing Stories website called When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction. In it, he basically says that he likes adventure stories, and that is what science fiction is, and ones with romance in them are for girls and not real SF. It's not a sophisticated argument, and rather than dignify it by linking to it I'll link to Lois McMaster Bujold's excellent commentary on the issue. (I've chosen the Goodreads version of her post, because she also has some interesting exchanges in the comments.)

What I write, of course, isn't science fiction by pretty much anyone's definition, including mine (though it's more sciency than most fantasy; I do have an approximate theoretical basis for the magic which kind of maps to some real-world science if you don't look too closely, rather than just saying "a wizard did it"). It's steampunkish fantasy, and to that I now need to add to the word "romance", apparently.

Prarie Dog Love, #2
Thomas Hawk / Foter / CC BY-NC

Some things about that. Firstly, it turned into a romance because I think relationships are important. I'm married (15 years come February), and that relationship is extremely important to me. A friend of mine, who I met on our first day of high school in early 1981 and have stayed in touch with almost continuously since, has recently moved back into the same country as me, and bought a house in the same city that I live in, and we're hanging out, and that's reminded me of the importance of friendships for helping define who we are. How relationships define us is a bit of an emerging theme in the second Hope book, in fact.

It's often said that characters are defined and revealed by taking action, by what they do in response to circumstances, and that's true. It's especially true in an action novel. In a novel that has more to do with relationships than with adventure, though, it's also true that characters are defined and revealed by their connections to one another.

These are not exclusive categories. There are novels that are high-action and low-relationship, and vice versa, but most occupy some kind of middle ground, especially in the spec-fic field. Some of my favourite characters, like Lindsay Buroker's Amaranthe Lokdon, Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville, and (to choose a male character by a male author) Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, are remarkable because of their ability to collect people who are linked to them by ties of friendship, or at least shared interest, and who act as force multipliers for the characters when they want to get something done.

I'm grateful to the pioneers of the New Wave in the late 60s and early 70s for injecting more relationship into what had been a largely action-oriented genre, because personally I find relationships interesting as well as important. At the same time, I'm not going to go all Paul Cook and claim that only novels that deal with relationships are X (where X is members-of-genre-I-like, good, enjoyable, valuable, or other, as Lois McMaster Bujold puts it, valorising adjectives).

I do want to say a bit about romance as a plot element versus romance as a genre category, though. Romance as a plot element appears in all genres. Romance as a genre category has its own tropes, its own rules, its own recurrent themes, and I'm not planning to take all of those on in my writing.

I'll freely admit that I've read hardly any genre romance, and am poorly qualified to comment on the genre as a whole, so I won't. I will mention, though, particular kinds of romance that I find in other genres I do read, such as steampunk and urban fantasy, and some of the problems I have with them, and why I won't be doing that.

Before I do, though, I think it's uncontroversial to say that romance is largely written by women. Men who write it sometimes use feminine pen names, just as women who write science fiction sometimes take masculine pen names (or use their initials rather than their names). I'm not going to talk right now about whether that's good or bad or problematic; it's a thing that happens. Now, I'm a man (a cis man, if you like, meaning I was born male and have always identified as such; also a straight man; also a white, middle-class man, and yes, that's relevant). It would be somewhat surprising, our society being what it is, if I approached writing about relationships exactly the same way a woman would, because I've been raised with a different perspective.

I also identify as a feminist ally, and as such, I find some of the romance plots I encounter in steampunk and urban fantasy problematic. Tracing, no doubt, a lineage back to Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff, among others, the "heroes" of these romances are often unpleasant human beings. They treat women poorly, but are forgiven because they rescue them when the women do foolish, headstrong things that place them in danger, and because they have firm muscles that make the heroine's heart beat fast despite herself.

Now, I understand that there has to be a reason why the couple doesn't just get together right away, otherwise what you have is not a plot, but an incident. However, it's not essential or inevitable that this reason should be "it's actually a bad idea to be with this guy". To me, that's simultaneously naive and cynical: naive, in expecting a relationship with such a flawed man to work out anyway, and cynical, in that it assumes that men don't get any better than that.

I'm not going to point to examples of what I'm talking about, because they aren't that hard to find and I don't want to single out individual authors just because I've read them, when there are much more egregious examples that I haven't read. I will, however, point to a counterexample, an urban fantasy series in which there's a strong romance thread, in which there's a clear reason why the couple doesn't get together straight away, in which it's not because he's a cad and a bounder and a deceiver, in which the woman has agency and makes smart decisions and can rescue herself quite competently. I'm talking about Christine Amsden's Cassie Scot series. This is how you do it! </Randy Jackson>

So, anyway, the romance part of my writing works like this. There's a magic-based but in other ways realistic reason why the couple can't just get together. They work on it together, because he's a decent guy and thinks she's wonderful and worth the effort, and she appreciates this. Along the way, he contributes to resolving some other issues, both inside and outside her head, but she is ultimately the one who has agency. He's not trying to control her or live her life for her.

Part of the way that stories work is that they help us develop problem-solving skills. I have a real concern about some of the romance stories that are around, for that exact reason. So if my book is turning into a romance, I'm going to give my perspective - as a man, happily married to a woman with a master's degree in marriage and family therapy, who's also studied some psychology himself - on what a good relationship looks like. My hope is that it educates while entertaining.

In case it's not clear from what I've said above about my writing process, I'm not forcing this stuff into the book. It's coming up by itself, because I'm following the old principle of "write what you know".

If all goes according to plan, you should be able to read Hope and the Clever Man sometime around November this year, and Hope and the Patient Man early next year. To get announcements when they're published, sign up to my (low-volume) mailing list in the sidebar of the site.

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.

Mar 27

How to Raise the Stakes (and Prevent Your Protagonist from Becoming a Tourist)

I mentioned a couple of posts back that one of the best pieces of advice my editor, Kathleen Dale, gave me was to give my protagonist a problem that he's trying to resolve right from Chapter 1.

Not only do we identify with someone who's trying to solve a problem, they're a lot more interesting to read about. I've read a few books lately in which the would-be protagonists are actually more like tourists. They get on the airship (literally, in at least one case) and watch out the window as what plot there is goes by. Other people do things, and the viewpoint character acts as a kind of mobile lens that observes without much participation. Sometimes, they seem to be there mainly to tour the author's wonderful setting and exclaim over it.

This is boring. Protagonists should protagonise.

Therefore, set your protagonist up with something they want that they're going to have to work for.

Raising the Stakes

The next obvious question is "why does the protagonist care?" If the protagonist isn't invested, the reader won't be invested. They need to have some skin in the game.

This is where raising the stakes comes in.

You could not do better, at this point, than to head over to Writing Excuses and listen to their podcast episode on Raising the Stakes, because they do a great job. One of the things they emphasize is that it's not necessary to use what I call the Alderaan Gambit in order to raise the stakes. Blowing things up, or threatening to blow things up, is not necessary. It's not even sufficient. What you're setting out to do is to give a compelling reason why the character is emotionally invested in a particular outcome (and then you put obstacles between the character and the outcome, and suddenly you have a story).

Here's what I did, following Kathleen's advice and the advice of the Writing Excuses crew. Kathleen noted that I didn't need to make the Chapter 1 problem the main problem of the book, but as it happened that worked better than anything else I thought of, so my character's problem is that the Human Purity movement is gaining in power and popularity in the realm he's supposed to be ruling.

So why is that a problem? Well, he's supposed to be in charge, but he's feeling like he's not in charge, so...

No. Stronger.

He's educated in history, and he opposes their racist philosophy because he knows it's built on a foundation of lies and distortion, and...

No. It needs to be much stronger than that. Make it personal.

Now, I knew that Determined, the protagonist, and Admirable, the antagonist, were around the same age and had both gone to the College of Ancient Turfrae. Could they have met there? Could there be history between them?

And then I thought about my own university experience of becoming involved with a (much less sinister) group which had a particular ideology, and how they trained me to see everything through that ideology, and to identify with their "in" group against the "out" group, and this is what I wrote. Determined is talking to his ally Victory.

...

“All right,” he said. “The Countygold of Upper Hills and I were at the College of Ancient Turfrae at the same time. Actually he was there first, he’s a couple of years older. By the time I started, he was already establishing himself as an important leader in the Human Purity movement, which had begun a few years before with a small group of professors and students. Simply a theoretical thing at first. Silverstones — as he was then, he hadn’t inherited the County yet — took it and made it a movement.”

He flushed, and rubbed the back of his neck. “There was a girl I wanted to get to know, and I heard her say to a friend of hers that she was going to one of his meetings, so I went along, hoping, you know… And I didn’t see her, but I listened to him speak. He was good. Brilliant, really. Inspirational. In those days he was more subtle, his arguments were more sophisticated, tuned, I suppose, to his audience. I started going regularly, and he took notice of me, cultivated me. In retrospect it was obviously because I was related to the Realmgold, but at the time he made it seem like it was for me, myself, that he respected me and valued me. He was good at that. He did it with everyone who he thought he could use, more or less, but I didn’t pay attention to that. I… I became a follower. A passionate one. I was looking for meaning in history, some overarching story, and Silverstones and his group provided it. And I was looking for a group to belong to, as well, one that made me feel like what I did and said and thought was important.

“At that time a lot of the history faculty were starting to come over to a Human Purity line. But there was one professor, an older man, near retirement. He was my favourite teacher, because he made everything so interesting and vivid. He would take us walking around Ancient Turfrae and describe things that had happened in the places where we stood, and you could almost imagine they were happening in front of you. I still remember his lecture in front of the Column of Willing practically word for word.

“Anyway, he had always stayed quiet on Human Purity, for or against. His great work was a translation of an old Elvish book. He’d spent twenty years on it. And one day I arrived in his office for a tutorial, and he was excited. He’d been working on his translation, and he’d found, he said, evidence that when the elves had brought us, humans, to this world, they’d changed us somehow so that we could do magic.”

“Interesting,” said Victory. “They would certainly have been capable of something like that, from all I’ve read.”

“Yes, they would. Both technically and morally. But of course the first thing I seized on was what that would mean for Human Purity. It would mean not only that we weren’t pure, but that nonhumans had shaped us, made us what we are.”

“I suppose I can see that. You argued?”

“I was an insufferable little snot, if you call that arguing. Ended up storming out and going straight to Silverstones.”

“What did he say?”

“Thanked me for drawing it to his attention.”

Determined shifted uncomfortably in his chair and ran his hands through his hair, then squeezed them together. “The next day, there was a fire in the professor’s rooms.”

“His translation?”

“Yes, and the Elvish original. But he came in unexpectedly, and somehow he hit his head, and… Well, between that and the smoke… He was an old man.”

...

Now there is a character who is not going to sit in the airship and watch things happen. (If you enjoyed it, it's from Realmgolds, and you can get it from Amazon through that link.)

Mar 02

The Unspoiled Protagonist

This is a follow-up to my post on the Spoiled Protagonist, which seems to be resonating with a few people. Since I wrote that post, I've read another book with a seriously spoiled protagonist. How spoiled? Would you believe, the villain has his minion rescue her from certain death, reunite her with the only weapons that can stop his evil plan, and help her get to where he is - and all he seems to get out of it is a brief villain-gloat?

Characters like that are what I call "plot puppets". They do things, not for reasons that make rational sense within the world of the story, but in order to advance the author's preordained plot. Plot-puppetry is a particular risk if you're writing to a formula, like the Monomyth or Hero's Journey.

How not to spoil your protagonists

It doesn't have to be that way, though. I recently read and very much enjoyed Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon (the link is to my review on Goodreads).  His plot is as old as the hills: kill the monster. We've been reading that plot since Marduk and Tiamat. But what he does to make it interesting and fresh is that he gives each of his characters something they desperately want but can't have, and something they must do even though they don't want to. These elements are almost completely apart from the main plot, but they upstage it because he does it so well.

There's the secret to avoiding plot puppets: Give each character a clear agenda. If everyone, definitely including your villain, is acting out of obvious, understandable motives that are consistent with who they are, your protagonist won't get the chance to be spoiled, either. The grim, duty-bound, important people she meets in the course of her adventures won't neglect their responsibilities in order to help her, for example.

Some of the best advice Kathleen Dale, my editor for Realmgolds, has given me is to give my main character a clear goal right from the outset. I'll write another post soon about how I raised the stakes for that character and made his goal more personal, but as soon as I did so, the book picked up momentum. A pressing goal that's emotionally important to a character is one of the best gifts a writer can give them to help make them a strong protagonist.

It's not all about you

Here's the other part of not spoiling your protagonist, and I owe it to Robertson Davies.

Robertson Davies was a Canadian academic and novelist. He wrote literary fiction with a weird twist, sometimes, though not always, supernatural. But to me, the most interesting thing about his writing is the way he wrote his trilogies.

As specfic readers, we're used to trilogies that tell one long story. Davies' ones don't, or at least, it's not that simple. What he tends to do is take minor characters from his first book and put them at the centre of the next book, relegating the main characters from the first book to relative or complete obscurity. Or he tells the second book from the perspective of someone who doesn't even appear in the first.

The extreme example is his incomplete "Toronto Trilogy", his last work, of which only two books were written. In the second book, The Cunning Man, the narrator obsesses over the son of his mistress, speculating (despite her denials) that he is also his son. The young man is tremendously important to him, and yet when you read the first book, Murther and Walking Spirits, which is narrated by that same young man, he never mentions The Cunning Man's narrator even once. The older man apparently has no significance in his life at all.

What reading Robertson Davies taught me is that everyone is at the centre of their own story. When I'm walking down the street, I often look around at the people I pass and think about that fact. Each one of them has their own story, as important to them as mine is to me, and I don't know, and will never know, what that story is.

While I work on the last edits of Realmgolds, I've started the next book, currently called Hope and the Clever Man. It's set during the same time as Realmgolds, not far away, and some of the events in each book very much impact the other, but the main character isn't even mentioned in Realmgolds. And yet her story is very important to her and the people around her, and without her the events of Realmgolds would have gone very differently.

She lives in a Robertson Davies world. Despite her considerable talents, I hope that will help keep her from becoming a spoiled protagonist.

Feb 18

The Spoiled Protagonist

I've read a couple of books lately which have what I've started to think of as "spoiled protagonists".

"Spoiled" in the sense that everyone treats them like a princess (or a prince - one is male), even though they're very ordinary people. When they come on the scene, people with serious responsibilities will neglect them in order to help with whatever the spoiled protagonist is doing. Villains go out of their way to give them grief, but it's all right, because everyone else is their humble servant. Their relatively small successes are treated as world-saving  triumphs and the cause for endless gratitude. They break the rules, or even the law, and are blithely forgiven by the toughest authorities when they explain their reasons.

If they want to go stupidly and unnecessarily into a dangerous situation (and they do), they only need to whine a little and stamp their feet for people who should know better to let them do so. Nameless spearcarriers or even minor characters will then be sacrificed to protect them, without a cross word being spoken to the precious spoiled protagonist.

It didn't take me long to work out a theory of why this is happening. The authors have been reading too many Chosen One stories. The spoiled protagonist is the Chosen One by stealth.

See, a Chosen One is typically of humble origins, but everyone in the world wants to either oppose them or help them. They're destined to save the world, but first they have to grow up, and that involves making stupid decisions that have a cost mainly to other people. Because they're the focus of the Prophecy, it's literally all about them.

The spoiled protagonist is the Chosen One without the justification of the prophecy. They're a person who actually is ordinary, injudicious and inexperienced who's stumbling around, doing a poor job of dealing with a situation that they weren't prepared for. The unrealistic part is that everyone is downing tools and either helping or hindering them as if they were the most important person in the world.

To the author, of course, the main character is the most important person in the world. The world exists because of the character. But the other people in the world shouldn't act as if they know that.

Stop spoiling your protagonists, authors. If they're whiny, headstrong and inept, drop the consequences on them, not on hapless, uncomplaining minions around them. Better still, don't make them whiny, headstrong and inept in the first place.

Jan 26

On Book Cover Design

One of the reasons I self-publish is for greater control.

Nowhere is this more significant than in cover design. Traditionally-published authors, even the very popular ones, have little if any control over the cover art for their books. A process of Chinese whispers between the editorial, marketing and production departments leads to a poorly-briefed artist producing a cover that often has little to do with the content of the book.

Classic example: Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden doesn't wear a hat, but the cover artist was told early on that he did, and painted him with one. (It's now become a standing joke, which Butcher has referenced in the books, and the character on the cover art continues to have the hat, while the character in the text doesn't.)

The other thing that the commercial publishing process produces is covers that are much the same as each other. You can generally spot the genre of a book from across the room. Romance: muscular guy with no shirt. Urban fantasy: shapely tattooed girl in clothing that shows a lot of skin. Dark fantasy: mysterious hooded figure. Because traditional publishing treats books as interchangeable commodities, they end up packaging them the same way.

And then there are the covers that are not just cliched, but outright objectionable. Jim C. Hines has been drawing attention to these by attempting to reproduce some of the poses that women are put in on urban fantasy covers, with hilarious results. He and several other authors recently did this cover pose (warning: more pale male flesh than you probably wanted to see) to point up the sexism of some fantasy and SF covers. His point in all of this is that women are often portrayed exploitatively and in ways that, while purportedly showing their power (they're posing with weapons!), really don't. And often, these are the covers of books by women.

All of which was in my mind when I commissioned the cover of Realmgolds.

All too often, you can tell an indie book by its cover because the cover is really bad. I wanted to commission a cover that you could tell was an indie book, not based on lack of quality, but because no major publishing house would ever commission this cover. They wouldn't have the imagination.

I found an artist who had done a cover for someone I know on Google+, and sent him detailed art direction. Here are extracts:

The cover shows the two main characters, Victory on the viewer’s left and Determined on the right, sitting talking at a table. They are equals in terms of their rank, but Determined is younger, less confident and less competent. Both are of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern appearance... Definitely not Northern European. No whitewashing.

VICTORY is in her early to mid thirties. She is a small woman, but has such a dominant personality that people usually don’t notice this....

She isn’t beautiful. That’s very important. She’s not unpleasant to look at, but she’s not conventionally attractive. Kind of nerdy, if you can imagine a nerd girl who is extremely confident.

DETERMINED is a bookish young man of about 25, who really wanted to be a historian... he has a slightly scruffy, academic look to him...

Even with this brief, I had to say things like, "She's too pretty. Make her nose bigger." But I got what I wanted:

My artist, Chris Howard, did an amazing job, and I'm very happy with the cover. Much more so than I would have been had I not been able to brief him and engage in back-and-forth with him.

The book is with the editor right now, and I'm still planning for publication in March. Stay tuned!

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