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!

If you're not already signed up for my mailing list, doing so will make sure you know when books come out, and also give you free access to short fiction set in the world of the Gryphon Clerks. Just enter your email address in the sidebar to the right on any page of the website.

Jan 13

Beautiful language and good stories

I was reading this post about period language on Wondermark this morning, and it got me thinking about language in fiction.

I love the English language, for all its quirks. My long-ago master's degree is in that field, after all. I love to see it well and skillfully used, something which is becoming sadly rare. Perhaps it always was.

I've recently left a popular writers' community on Google+, only partly because of the high volume of posts. What really drove me out was the high volume of posts that were along these lines: "So im wanna be a writer lol any advise?" I exaggerate only a little.

And to weave in another thread to my thinking, I was reading i09's best science fiction and fantasy books of 2012 post today, having got there from a comment on N.K. Jemisin's blog, and read this comment:

Is there anyone out there who is unimpressed by NK Jemisin? I keep reading these glowing reviews of her novels and how they're destined to be classics, but all I could think when I read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was that it read like mediocre fanfiction, especially the interactions between the protagonist and the scary love interest dude.

I mulled that over, and what I realized was that I enjoyed that book mainly because of the skill of the language, and not so much because of the story, which is largely made up of tropes. (Apparently her later books get better.)

I loved Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, too, and was surprised to read reviews on Goodreads from people who just didn't get what the fuss was about. They were bored by the 80s music references and all the band stuff, they said (honestly, that didn't do much for me, either), and disliked the main character. Again, I loved it mostly because of the language.

Language by itself, though, isn't enough for me. In both The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and War for the Oaks, the central characters have a strong moral core, which they act upon. They are actually strong women, not the fake "strong women" that you get in so much contemporary writing who are actually headstrong women, and cause most of their own problems, while relying on others, usually men, to solve them.

I think the character issue is why I can't stand Gene Wolfe's books, and have a love-hate relationship with Neil Gaiman's work, although both are generally admired for their prose by people who love the more literary end of speculative fiction. Gene Wolfe's protagonists are so emotionally alienated that I can't even understand them, let alone identify with them, and Gaiman's are often far too dark for my taste. I enjoyed American Gods, but I stay well clear of Sandman. It's brilliant, but emotionally it's too much for me.

What I'm teasing out here, I think, is that there are several different ways in which a book, or a writer, can be "good". There's language, facility with prose, which the authors I've already mentioned do well. There's story, which includes things like pacing, suspense, the right mix of foreshadowing and surprise, as well as the structural elements of plot. There's setting or worldbuilding, coming up with a world of wonder that has a believability to it, or at least a majesty or a richness to it. And there's character and its close cousin situation.

Alongside these multiple ways to be skilled, there are matters of taste.

I don't mind a little period language, since I'm well-read in English literature back to Beowulf (with a gap, I'll admit, in the 18th century), but some people struggle with it. Those people shouldn't read my book City of Masks, which has a "period" style taken from no actual period, and nor should people who obsess about historical accuracy. And for me, period language done ineptly is a complete turnoff, whereas for some people it won't matter at all. Likewise, some people will give a book four or five stars even if it is full of incorrect homonyms and punctuated on the Jackson Pollock principle, but for me, that's tiresome and distracting.

I personally don't mind a story that's constructed mostly of tropes, if it's done well and the book has other merits. I also can enjoy a book that's well-plotted even if the other elements are weak. J.K. Rowling, whose prose is often held up as an example of what not to do, whose worldbuilding is ridiculous and whose characters are thin, still holds my attention by weaving intricate plots, even if they have big holes in them. Personally, I like neat, happy endings that still leave the possibility of future problems open, but other people want their endings to be more ambiguous.

A wonderfully imagined world full of possibilities will seize my interest, but only if those possibilities are explored with characters who appeal to me (which is why I don't read much hard SF, or China Mieville). This is actually one of the hardest things to do, and there aren't many worldbuilding writers who come to mind. Tolkien, of course, is one. Part of the problem is that richly imagined worlds are hard to convey without either bogging down the story in exposition or leaving your readers confused for the first third of the book. I'm reading, or trying to read, Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi at the moment, and it has the latter problem. I'm a worldbuilder, and I can tell you it isn't easy.

You don't need a completely original world to get a good review from me, but on the other hand, mashing up Jules Verne and Indiana Jones and hotgluing brass gears over the joins is not going to grab me. I like to see some effort.

There are kinds of worlds I don't like and kinds of worlds I do like, too. Cruel empires, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and oppressive dystopias, however well done, have an uphill struggle to appeal to me.

Finally, I have strong and definite tastes in characters. I don't like antiheroes, though unlikely heroes I'm all for, and I love a good rogue with a heart. Passive or silly women, Gene Wolfe's alienated people with no recognisable human emotions, anyone cruel or over-the-top villainous, casual adulterers, these will not get my vote.

What I'm saying, as both a writer and a reviewer, is that there can be many reasons why a book may or may not appeal to me or you. There are matters of craft and skill. At the moment, there are a huge number of first-time authors putting books out. Those who persevere and improve their craft will rise, and if I see an author whose craft is a mess but who shows imaginative flair and originality, I will write them an encouraging review and urge them to get some editing and coaching.

And then there are matters of taste. I've written lukewarm reviews of books I thought were well done, because despite that they weren't quite my thing. I've abandoned, partially read, books that are critically or popularly acclaimed, because they contain elements that I personally dislike. I try to distinguish in my reviews between "it's not good" and "it's not for me".

And for my potential readers: I'm still learning the craft (of course I am, everyone is, but I'm early on in the process). I know I'm an above-average writer of sentences, and I'm working hard to become at least an average teller of stories. My books have highly inventive settings, simple plots, and main characters who are fundamentally moral, adult and in reasonable mental and emotional health, though they also tend to be socially awkward and unpopular. If that's your thing, I hope you'll read them.

Oh, I should mention here: I recently set it up so that, if you sign up for my mailing list to be notified when I put out new releases, you also get access to free short fiction and permanent discounts on my older books. You can also be notified when I review a new indie book that I liked, and get these blog posts emailed to you (both of those things are opt-in). Just go to the right-hand sidebar on any page of the site and put in your email address, and software I spent far too many hours tinkering with will do the rest.

Jan 06

On Writing Strong Protagonists

I grew up in a family with a lot of strong women: my mother, my grandmother, and my two sisters. Perhaps inevitably, I married a strong woman too. I often work with strong women, and get on very well with them. I have a number of women friends whose strength impresses me every time I talk to them. I'll talk about what I mean by "strong" in a minute.

I've recently completed the fourth, and second-to-last, draft of Realmgolds, as the first Gryphon Clerks novel is now known. Most of what I did in that draft involved incorporating beta feedback, and the biggest changes had to do with strengthening the protagonist.

Determined (that's his name) is a bookish young man who wanted to be an historian, but ended up in a position to make history instead. In my earlier drafts, he leaned a lot on Victory, his female counterpart. She made the decisions and solved the problems.

My betas didn't like it. Now, I should point out that the beta who particularly didn't like it is another strong woman, a self-described Jewish mother, so this isn't about unevolved males reading it and saying "The dude needs to not listen to the girl so much, that's weak." Not at all. This is about who the protagonist is.

The word "protagonist" means "someone who struggles for something". If you have a main character who's mostly observing the action, who's yielding to other people to make the decisions, or who's relying on someone else to solve the problems, that's not a protagonist in the true sense of the word.

Unfortunately, that's a type of main character I often see in genre fiction. Actually, what I commonly see is this: the "protagonist" is a young woman who says "I'm strong and independent, I can make my own decisions", makes incredibly poor decisions that get her in trouble, and has to be rescued by a man.

I see that most often in urban fantasy, but urban-fantasy tropes are appearing more and more in steampunk and secondary-world fantasy these days too. Including, unfortunately, that one.

Sorry, but that's not what I think of when I say "strong woman". Or "good story", either. The protagonist needs to solve their own problems, at least once they get past the early part of the book where they're mainly reacting to what's thrown at them. To refer to Dan Wells' seven-point structure, the "midpoint" is where the protagonist makes a decision that they need to do something active to solve the problems, and in my mind, that so-called midpoint needs to come within the first 30% of the book if it's to keep my interest in the character. Even before the midpoint, when they're reacting, they have to be trying to do something. Even if it's only "stay alive".

They don't have to succeed at what they're trying to do all the time, of course - that's what a try-fail cycle is all about. But the point of a try-fail cycle is that it's a cycle. They keep trying, even when they fail. This makes them a protagonist. They're trying to solve the problem.

I've messed up a couple of short stories by having a viewpoint character who isn't the protagonist, so when my beta reader pointed out the issue, I jumped on it. It turned out not to be that hard to rewrite the scenes so that Determined, who's very intelligent, was the one solving the problems.

My worry was that, in making Determined a more active character, I would take away from Victory. She's a very powerful and capable woman, respected, if not necessarily liked, even by her opponents. I tell the reader this early on through the mouth of a minor character. I was concerned that she would be one of those awful woman who the author tells us are strong, but who don't do anything to show it. I didn't want to be guilty of strong-woman tokenism.

I needn't have worried, as I discovered when I did my complete read-through on a printout. As soon as Victory walked, elegantly and confidently, into a scene and started ordering people around just by looking at them, my concerns evaporated.

I read a quote from Joss Whedon recently to the effect that strong men are those who are comfortable around strong women. I like that. It makes my protagonist Determined a very strong man, because he can respect Victory without wanting to take away her power, and at the same time call her out when she becomes imperious and high-handed.

So when will the book be out? Currently, I'm waiting for my cover guy, who's heavily booked because he's good. I'm also talking with a heavily-booked editor about whether I should work with her or someone else. So the answer at the moment seems to be "March-ish". I'll keep you posted.

Nov 23

The State of Science Fiction

A lot of people are sounding off about the state of SF lately. It's too dystopian! It's too old-school! It's lost its way! It's dying! (Apparently this last has been happening for decades.)

I don't normally join in on trends, but as it happens I have a couple of thoughts.

I'm partway through listening to Mike Resnik's short story "The Homecoming" on the StarShipSofa podcast. This is the second time I've heard it (Escape Pod used it a few episodes back), and listening to it again I was struck by something.

Resnik started his career in the 1960s. Apart from the fact that he's been writing incredibly prolifically for the intervening 50 years and, therefore, is presumably a much better writer now, there's not a word in this story that couldn't have been written at the start of his career. It even features a holochannel which has "stopped broadcasting for the night", which as far as I'm aware is something no TV station has done for, what, 20 or 30 years?

Now, it's an excellent story that thoroughly deserved its 2012 Hugo nomination. It's moving. It's beautifully observed. The SF elements are absolutely essential to the story, too. But there's not a single thing in it that reflects anything that's happened in science, or for that matter society, in the past half-century.

Does this mean it's timelessly classic? Perhaps it does. I don't want to knock Mike Resnik's wonderful story in any way at all. But to me it also reflects the fact that the stories that get published in some of the leading prozines, like Asimov's (which, I was unsurprised to discover, is where "The Homecoming" was published), are often stories which could easily have been published there back when Asimov himself was alive. Which is kind of funny in a genre that's all about the future.

Asimov was no great prose stylist, and he never approached the emotional breadth and depth of Resnik's story. What he was, though, was a bold explorer of ideas. It's as if the magazine named for him is now a kind of memorial ideas park for the great explorer, in which visitors stroll along well-worn paths.

Now, I'm not advocating dropping the standards of craft, of course. Pretentious, confusing, plotless stories and unappealing, passive characters can stay in literary fiction, as far as I'm concerned. (ZING!) But surely we can incorporate current science into our science fiction and still tell well-constructed stories about relatable characters who do interesting things? Charles Stross does it, after all.

In an attempt to be the change I want to see, I've started a notification circle on Google+ called SpecFicQuestion (the link gets you to the hashtag, which will show you all my posts so far). We discuss "what-if" scenarios drawn from up-to-date science, like: what if you could print meat? And then what if you could print human meat?

If you're on G+, just comment on any of the posts or contact me directly to ask to be added to the circle. The posts are all public, so anyone can read them, but if you're in the circle  you'll be notified when I do each post.

Sep 15

How to End a Story

I've been thinking lately about how to end stories, not only because I'm finishing up the first Gryphon Clerks novel and I'm unhappy with how I ended it, but because I've read some stories recently that don't finish. They just stop.

I won't name the anthology I'm thinking of, but I've read partway through it and story after story just stops. It's like I'm getting the first acts of these stories without the middle and the end. The characters and situation are introduced, there's an inciting incident which hits on something important enough to the characters that they want to do something or change something, and then... scene. I actually said aloud when I got to the end of one of them, "Is that it?"

Story after story. By different people. It's like the anthology call said, "Stories must stop abruptly," or the editor cut off the last two acts to see if anyone would notice.

Anyway, that got me thinking about what does and doesn't work as an ending to a story. (By "work" of course I mean "work for me", but I think that, for a change, I may not be atypical in what I like here.)

Here are five ways to end a story. They're not mutually exclusive, or exhaustive.

1. The situation is resolved

A classic story structure is (simplified): Act 1, we meet the characters, learn the situation, something changes that destabilizes the situation and makes the characters want to take action. Act 2, the characters strive for their goal against opposition. Act 3, the characters achieve whatever their goal was that arose from the inciting incident back in Act 1. The Ring is thrown into Mount Doom, the princess is rescued, the dragon is slain, the rightful king is restored, the traveller comes home, the real Seymour Skinner is sent away from Springfield and we never refer to this again.

It's usually a restoration of the status quo, more or less, except that the characters have (hopefully) grown through the experience. It's a conservative story structure: something disturbed the way things should be, now everything is, more or less, back to normal. But it also has its progressive aspect, if only on the micro level of the characters, who have moved from "unable to make a difference" to "able to make a difference".

2. The characters' relationships have changed

This is the classic romance plot, of course, and Pride and Prejudice is the exemplar. They start out hating one another or thinking they can't be together, and at the end, inevitably, they marry and live happily ever after.

It doesn't have to be a romance plot, though. I wrote a story recently in which an airship captain from a humble background starts out distinctly unimpressed with an aristocratic young pup who's been foisted on her and ends up thinking he might make a decent officer. It doesn't have to be about winning love. It can be winning friendship, respect, fealty, alliance.

I like stories in which relationships change for the better, but of course you can write the other sort, too, if that's what you're into.

3. We discover something

This is the mystery-story plot. At the end, we find out that the butler dunnit. But in the meantime we've discovered all kinds of other things, such as that Lady Celia drinks, and Lord Bertie is having an affair, and the housemaid's brother just got out of prison. (Why anyone would ever invite a detective to a house party is beyond me. Not only will someone, more likely several people, inevitably get horribly murdered - because when a famous detective is right there is the ideal time to murder someone - but everyone's nasty secrets will be exposed to everyone else, and nobody will ever be able to trust anyone again, except for the ingenue and the decent chap who end up together, hooray.)

Mysteries, though, are not the only "we discover something" stories. Characters discover things about themselves: that they're not like their father, that they are like their father, that they do have magic, that not having magic isn't important. (More about "not important" below.)

The twist ending (The Statue of Liberty is buried in the sand on the Planet of the Apes!) is another "we discover something" ending. An important feature of "we discover something" is that it can reflect back across the whole of the story and cast a new light on everything that happened before we discovered the something, which is one reason that it's such a good ending.

4. Something new has come into being

This is an underrated and underexplored kind of ending, in my view. Often, the conservative ending, the restoration of the status quo, involves the destruction of whatever arose to threaten "the way things should be". I'd like to see more stories about building and creating things. After all, for most of us - certainly for me, as someone who's done project work of one kind or another for over 20 years - that's how we experience life.

The relationship story has a bit of this. There's a new relationship, a new family, a new alliance or whatever at the end. But I'd like to see more stories where the characters build something together and the ending is where they celebrate that, against the odds, it's built. Fantasy is full of wonderful ancient artifacts and immense architectural wonders built by long-gone civilizations, many of which are destroyed in the course of the stories. How about the stories in which those amazing things are made in the first place?

5. It doesn't matter any more

One overlooked form of personal growth is the kind where you're able to say, along with Melody Beattie's famous book Codependent No More: "It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter!"

While that can be an utterance of despair, it can also be an expression of hope. The person who decides they can let go of their hurt and anger and not take revenge has grown. The young wizard who can say "No, Professor, I don't need to follow your crazy agenda any more. This war is over, as it should have been when you were my age" (not an actual quote from any book) - this young wizard has grown.

If the character can look back on the inciting incident which started all the trouble and say "I made a big deal out of that, but it's really not that important," I think that can be a wonderful ending. I recently read the pulpy but enjoyable Mogworld by Yahtzee Croshaw, in which the viewpoint character decides at the end, "I don't want to be a hero. I want to be a protagonist." While it's not a great book, that's a great ending.

Debora Geary's Witches On Parole trilogy is, at its heart, about this realignment of priorities. And one of the things about the "it doesn't matter any more" ending is this: the realization that your original priorities don't matter is followed by the realization of what does matter.

It's not about external circumstances being exactly as you would wish them, but about being true to yourself and those around you.

So, what kinds of endings work for you? How do you like to finish your stories?

Jul 09

How to Review a Book You Didn’t Love

I'm both a writer and a reviewer. I read a lot, and I'm opinionated, and that's the basic formula for a reviewer. Most of my reviews are on Goodreads, but I also review on Amazon.

There are some pitfalls to wearing both hats. The writing community, especially the indie writing community, is very connected, and there's some expectation (even if it's only in my head) that I'll review my friends' stuff positively.

I don't always do that. I say what I think. So far I haven't hit anyone like the guy described in this post on Making Light, who responded to a negative review from another author by trashing her book in revenge. (Pro tip: don't do that.) The people I choose to hang out with are sensible adult human beings and they will take a less-than-raving review in their stride. But I try to make it easier for them (and for authors I don't know) by following a few important principles.

Actually, of course, reviews are not primarily for the authors' consumption. They're for other readers. I know I appreciate reading a review that warns me about the weaknesses of a book, so that I can assess whether they are likely to spoil my enjoyment or not, and alerts me to its strengths, so that I can decide whether that's a thing I like or not. And this is why I write reviews the way I do.

Here are the principles I try to follow. They're a work in process and I don't guarantee that every review I've written, or even every review I've written recently, follows them perfectly. But this is what I'm trying for.

(This post, incidentally, was partly triggered by Lindsay Buroker's Tips for Dealing with Bad Book Reviews. One of the commentators suggested that someone should do a post on “Tips for Writing Reviews Where the Books Weren’t Totally Awesome”. Challenge accepted.)

1. Objectivity: Say specifically what you saw on the page

I get no value from a review that says "this is a badly-written book" or "this is my favourite author" or "I loved this so much" or "I hated every page", any more than I get value from reviews that copy and paste the publisher's synopsis at the beginning. I want to know what I will see on the page that is, potentially, good or bad.

I was a book editor for a while (nearly 20 years ago now, but I still have the mindset), so I will often highlight the author's competence with punctuation, or use of words that don't mean what they think they mean. Some people don't care about this at all (since they don't know or follow the rules themselves). The fact that the author gets these things wrong won't interfere with their enjoyment of the book. But if you do care, it will interfere with that enjoyment, and I for one would appreciate knowing that about a book in advance.

It's also, unlike most other feedback, useful to the author, since it may help to motivate them to get a better editor next time (or get one at all).

I also talk about anachronisms in books with historical settings, for much the same reason.

2. Subjectivity: Acknowledge that tastes differ

Sometimes, what I hate about a book may be someone else's favourite thing. So I phrase my opinions as opinions. I talk about what the author did (objectivity) and how I feel about it (subjectivity).

For example, I recently reviewed a book that had no antagonist and very little of what could be traditionally called "conflict" or "action". People sat around and ate ice cream together a lot. Many, many readers would hate this, but (because of some other aspects of the book, which I also mentioned) I liked it.

There are also things that annoy me that don't annoy other people. I'm fussy about names, for example. I like the non-fantasy parts of fantasy worlds to work like the real world, so having a full moon and a new moon in the sky at the same time is a big black mark. If this kind of thing is what I didn't like about the book, again, I say so (rather than a vague "the worldbuilding is sloppy"), and usually mention that it may be a thing that only bothers me, so that if someone else doesn't care they can discount my rating.

3. It's not about the author

I try (again, I may not always succeed) to avoid making the review about the author's competence, let alone their personal qualities. "I don't see X on the page" is a much more emotionally neutral statement than "the author is no good at doing X" or "this is a lazy, bad author" (though I've been guilty of saying something not too different from that last one).

"I didn't enjoy it because Y" doesn't need to become "I hate this author and his little dog too".

4. Allow for the possibility of improvement

Just as I rarely give five stars, I rarely give one star. To me, five stars means "it would be difficult or impossible to improve this book", and I rarely think that. And one star, in my personal rating system, means "this is a complete waste of time with no redeeming qualities and I don't even see any potential in this author", and that's even more rare. I always try to talk about things that worked, and if I finished the book there must have been something that worked. (Sometimes I don't finish the book because, for me, not enough is working.)

I recently reviewed a second book in a series, and took pains to point out the ways in which it was an improvement over the first, even though I still felt it had significant flaws.

5. Say something fresh

Again, this is something I do that other people may not. Some reviewers read other reviews of the book before writing theirs, and enter into a kind of dialogue with them, disagreeing or agreeing. I don't do that, in part so that my review will be a fresh perspective specific to me.

If I'm writing for other readers, rather than just to relieve my feelings, that will best be served if I say something that other people aren't saying, with specific reference to what's on the page, acknowledging my personal taste and avoiding attacks on the author.

In my opinion.