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.

Jun 28

Telling Extra, Ordinary Stories

There's an advantage I didn't anticipate to writing a fantasy novel without a Chosen One.

I mean, obviously it means that I'm not telling the same old tired story that's already been done to death. I knew that. What I didn't anticipate was that if nobody is the Chosen One, then anybody's story can be interesting.

Can be interesting in itself, even if it's tangential to the main story. Even if it's completely unrelated.

For example, I'm currently polishing a short story for a competition. It's about the young man in the last paragraph of this excerpt from the novel.

Yes, the one with no name and no lines. He nods his head and looks keen, and that's his whole appearance. (I decided that Keen was his name, when I went to write more about him.)

He's one small step up from a face in the crowd, and yet I wrote a 6000-word short story about the next 26 years of his life. One of my beta readers commented that it could easily be expanded and still remain interesting.

As it happens, I was listening to the latest Galley Table podcast from Flying Island Press this morning, in which the crew interview Nathan Lowell. Nathan is the champion of what some people have called "blue-collar spec fic", about people who aren't rulers or commanders just going about their daily lives and heroically doing what they have to do in order to get by. I've been very inspired by him and what he does. I'm not sure that the idea of a novel about heroic civil servants would have made it into my consciousness if I hadn't listened to his work (thanks to Podiobooks.com).

The truth is, while the Chosen One story appeals to something in us that longs to be taken out of our everyday lives and be heroes and have adventures, because unbeknown to us we're significant, the reality is that we can be heroes in the way we live our everyday lives. Because we actually are significant already.

Jun 13

How to Succeed at Steampunk Without Really Trying

So, the market for urban fantasy is looking pretty saturated - hard to break into. And you've been eyeing up this steampunk thing, but it looks like it might involve work. Fear not! Steampunk is selling, and as a former employee of a large publisher I can exclusively reveal that large publishers don't give a fat rat's for quality, because they make their money on quantity.

And, having read a bunch of the results of this policy, I can now impart to you the never-fail, paint-by-numbers formula by which you, you lazy, talentless hack, can also get a publishing contract (and a legion of diehard fans in funny costumes).

  1. Setting. In practice you can probably set steampunk anywhere from the Renaissance to about World War II, but its heartland is the Victorian era. Even if you're setting your story in a secondary fantasy world, you should stick in some kind of Victorian reference.
    You might think that this will involve research, even if it's only spending a few minutes browsing Wikipedia. Don't worry. Whatever vague impression you have of the Victorian era is fine. Most of your audience won't know any more than you, and they will defend you against any nitpicker who does (or has spent a few minutes browsing Wikipedia) by chorusing, "It's only fiction! Get over yourself!"
  2. Set dressing. Steampunk is all about the set dressing. No, really, if you get this right you can screw everything else up completely. Memorize these words: Brass. Steam. Gears. Airship. Goggles. Clockwork. Punched cards. Corset. Automaton. Use several of them on every page, and you're golden.
    Of these, you would think "steam" was the most important, but actually it's "brass". Brass is shiny, and distracts your readers from the fact that you're a crappy writer. Make everything you can out of brass.
    Don't worry in the least about whether making that thing out of brass (or powering it with steam, or clockwork, or using punched cards with it) makes any sense whatsoever.
  3. Characters. You can just order these from stock. You'll want a square-jawed hero, probably, a plucky gel (that's important), a mad scientist or two, some minions, you know the drill.
    Your villain should be so villainously villainous that he hardly has time to plot, between kicking dogs, killing incompetent henchmen and innocent bystanders, and twirling his moustache. He should always seem like he's on the point of tying a girl to some railway tracks while saying, "Aha! My proud beauty!"
    Give your main character something they're afraid of, or that they dislike intensely, that makes no difference to their actual behaviour in situations where they encounter it. This establishes their iron will and their unshakeable badassness, and your fans will praise this as "deep characterization".
    Be hard on your characters, by the way. There should be a high body count of nameless mooks and bystanders. Beat your main characters up, have them tied up and imprisoned as frequently as possible. Remember: steampunk fans like to dress up in corsets. I trust I don't have to draw you a picture.
  4. Language. Your characters don't have to talk like a 19th-century newspaper, but some fans will expect it. Don't worry if you don't write this terribly well, nobody expects you to. And it helps to hide the plot holes if your fans are spending all their brainpower on parsing your sentences.
    Speaking of which:
  5. Plot. You do need one, but any pulp plot from the 1930s will do. Some guy wrote a book with all of the pulp plots in, but I can't be bothered to Google for it, so I'm guessing nor can you. Just watch any of the Indiana Jones movies (doesn't matter which, the plot's much the same) and steal that one.
    Lots of travelling about in different vehicles (but call them "conveyances") and getting in fights is absolutely essential.

Follow those five simple steps, and steampunk success is yours (or your money back). You can write any old crap, as long as you stick to the formula, and you don't even need to spell or punctuate correctly.


Victoria had an automaton,
Its clockwork was of brass.
And everywhere her airship steamed
The villain kicked her arse.

May 23

Emotional Impact Without Exploding Planets

This post arises from a few things I've read or seen recently that have got me thinking about how emotional impact in stories is often done badly, or at least very coarsely. It's kind of like the difference between being a fry cook and being a chef.

For example, there's the Alderaan Ploy.

Rocks fall, everybody dies, nobody cares

Early on in Star Wars: A New Hope, as I'm sure you remember, Darth Vader blows up the entire planet Alderaan and its population of millions, simply to show Princess Leia that he's a hardass and doesn't make empty threats. (Of course, he then has no further leverage against her and she's less likely to cooperate with him than ever, but we're not talking about that.)

What is the emotional impact, for the audience, of the blowing up of Alderaan? To put it another way, what was George Lucas setting out to achieve in this scene (because every scene should achieve something), and did he in fact achieve it?

Well, he establishes that Darth Vader is a really evil, evil, really evil person. Which we'd kind of picked up from the costume and the music, actually, George.

And I suppose he establishes that Princess Leia is incredibly loyal and determined and doesn't bow to threats.

But what he doesn't achieve, in my view, is much emotional impact.

You'd think that blowing up a planet would be as much impact as you could possibly have. But no.

See, we don't know anyone from Alderaan, except Leia, and we just met her. And apart from briefly registering "You fiend!", she doesn't seem that emotionally impacted herself by the death of everyone she knows and the destruction of the place she grew up. Millions of people, we are told, died, but they don't have names. They don't have faces. They don't, therefore, have impact.

Child sponsorship organisations are onto this. They don't just recite statistics in their TV ads. They show us a face. They give us a name. They tell us a story that gets us to relate to the child as a child, not as one of a large number of nameless, faceless people we're being told are having tough times somewhere we've never seen and can't imagine.

Bonus points for showing the child's mother, because here is someone who is emotionally impacted by the child's plight, and in seeing that, we share it. It's how we're wired. People who are close to us or who are like us in some way, or who we feel we know, even just because we know their name and have seen their face, gain more empathy from us, and if we see them having emotion we share that emotion. It's just the way the human brain works.

I recently read E.E. "Doc" Smith's Triplanetary, the lead-up to his Lensman series. (Links in this post are not affiliate links, they're to my reviews on Goodreads, by the way.) It's Alderaan ploy all the way around. No actual complete planets are blown up, but large bits of them are. Pittsburgh is destroyed by aliens. The entire human fleet, almost, is annihilated. Millions of aliens are also killed. But as far as I recall, none of the named characters come to harm. Everyone who dies is nameless and faceless, and the characters have such stiff upper lips it's a wonder they can pronounce the letter "P", so despite the vast scale of the destruction I didn't find myself caring.

Nobody that the author had made matter died (again, as far as I can recall), and those who did have names and faces took all the tragedy so well that we didn't get a second-hand emotional impact off them either.

The spy who didn't care about me much, and vice versa

Thrillers in the James Bond mould usually achieve their emotional impact through the Alderaan Ploy. There are lots of big explosions. But I recently read a technothriller, Deep State by Walter John Williams, which started out referencing Bond and then proceeded to systematically subvert him.

See, Bond is a cynical character (especially in the books). He doesn't get close to people, except in a physical sense, of course. In Bond, sex means little, violence means little, and death means little. But in Deep State, the main character, Dagmar, is suffering PTSD from the events in the previous book, This Is Not a Game, because she does care. She's lost people close to her, friends and lovers, and she's terrified of it happening again because it was awful, she felt a real sense of loss - and so do we. And so when people die in Deep State, people who have names and faces, it means something - to Dagmar, and to us. It has impact. And when she takes a lover, it has impact, because we know that means something to her too.

This is why I love Jim Butcher and Lois McMaster Bujold, too. Their main characters care about things, care deeply, and are able to be deeply hurt - and hurting them deeply is exactly what the authors do (as a deliberate policy, in both cases - they've both talked explicitly about it).

But they don't do it by blowing up planets. Bujold is able to give me more emotional impact out of a failed dinner party (which is also completely hilarious) than most authors can achieve by wiping out an entire sentient species. Sure, people die in their books, too, but it always matters. It matters deeply. It affects the people left behind. They feel the loss, like you or I would, like a friend I worked with whose son died in a car crash did. It has emotional impact that resonates for years.

So, are you setting out to be a literary fry cook, or a chef? You can establish the evil evilness of your evil villainous villain by having him murder a few people, or a lot of people, out of hand, sure. You can make people go "Wow!" by giving them big explosions.

But if you want real emotional impact, show me a character being human and vulnerable and caring about something, and then take that thing away. I'll feel the loss, even as I see the character doing the same.

Mar 23

Why Characters in Books are Idiots

Have you ever read a book in which, if the characters had not all been incredibly stupid, the situation would have been resolved in five pages instead of 300?

That's the result of overdoing a legitimate literary technique, dating back at least to Greek tragedy, in which the plot arises out of the characters' flaws.

It's commonly used in sitcoms, too. Consider Seinfeld, Friends or Frasier, three popular and long-running sitcoms which I happen to have watched a lot. In the typical episode, if the characters had acted like adults, told the truth, kept their promises, made sensible choices and communicated clearly, there would have been no story.

Why do we watch these things? Is it because we see our own flaws exaggerated and learn better from the antics of the idiots? Is it so we can feel superior, because at least we're smarter than that?

Maybe both, maybe something else. In any event, it's not the only way to tell a story. It's a popular way, but it's not the only way.

At least, I hope it's not. I'm telling a story now about a group of elite Gryphon Clerks, trained to communicate well and to respond to unexpected situations creatively, chosen because they have been through experiences where they've demonstrated strength of character. A lot of the time, they're simply not going to make the stupid choice.

But that, in turn, makes it hard to generate interesting plot. Plot arises when characters make choices under conditions of challenge. And some of the time, they need to lose.

It's the Superman dilemma. How do you make Superman interesting? Any interesting Superman story has to be about how he uses his strength of character and his intelligence to overcome a situation that tests him at his points of vulnerability. Kryptonite, obviously (which was invented as a plot device exactly because it's hard to write an interesting story about a hero who can easily beat all comers), but also Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and the rest of them.

In other words, one answer to "How do you write an interesting story about someone with godlike powers?" is "take away the powers and see what's left". Another is "locate his vulnerability outside himself, in his relationships".

And then there's "fit opposition". If your hero is ridiculously awesome, put up a ridiculously awesome villain, like Doomsday, against him. Now you have two guys fighting, but they're fighting with ridiculous awesomeness. Plus, once again, defeat is on the table, so the conflict means something.

And then there's the technique, used more often in writing Batman than Superman, of exposing the flaw that is at the extreme end of his strengths (obsessiveness being dedication taken to its ultimate).

Or you can take the "with great power comes great angst" approach, the Spider-Man solution.

So, applying that to my problem (and it is a problem), how do I write an interesting story about mature, sensible people who make good decisions?

Firstly, I could look for the flaws or vulnerabilities they have, and hit those vulnerable spots as hard as I can, so they get an opportunity to show their strength of character in overcoming challenges.

It's easy to come up with key flaws for each one, too. Patience, the aristocrat, hero-worships Victory and automatically trusts people in her own class. Berry wants to belong. Rain is afraid that she really is the violent sociopath she once pretended to be.

That's the basis for my "things that can go wrong" list. What if Patience discovers that her friend, the charming aristocrat Confident, is using her charity to launder criminal funds? What if another shaman challenges Berry and implies that she's not a real shaman? What if Rain has to defend herself in a desperate situation and kills someone?

Problem is, I ran that middle scenario and Berry acted like an adult and basically won a shaman-off hands down, making the other shaman look foolish. And it doesn't work any other way in my head. That's who she is, that's what she'd do.

So maybe I need to work the "vulnerability through relationships" angle. Berry's vulnerability is Rain, and when Rain is attacked, Berry stops being quite so adult.

Then there's the "fit opposition". I'm bringing in a kind of Nazi party, the political face of the Human Purity bigots, and for them to be any kind of decent opposition at all, they have to have been severely underestimated. Even by Victory, who has the best strategic intelligence (in both senses) of anyone.

I'm thinking the dwarves caved way too easily on the emancipation of the gnomes, too. They're big industrialists. They're bankers. They're used to having power, and they're not going to give it up easily.

I need more villains onstage. And they need to be smart villains, whose villainy consists in the fact that they are out to enhance their own interests at the expense of others (whereas the Gryphon Clerks are out to enhance others' interests at, if necessary, their own expense). But they need to be otherwise equally matched.

Mar 14

On Steampunk

I've been reading a bit of steampunk lately, and so far I'm only middling impressed. I'm sure there's great stuff out there, but I haven't found much of it yet. I've mostly found the ones that are by hack writers who think that putting in plenty of brass, steam, mechanical computers, crystals and clockwork (even when it makes no sense), plus somehow referencing the Victorian era, is all you need to do.

Which is kind of like the writers of the Halle Berry Catwoman movie thinking that putting Halle Berry in a leather catsuit was as much effort as they needed to make.

Anyway, since The Gryphon Clerks is at least a little bit steampunk, it got me thinking about that elusive subject, genre definition, and what appeals to me, specifically, about a steampunk setting. And I decided that it's a particular aspect of the Victorian era that isn't (apparently) the one that a lot of writers first think of.

Different people have different associations with the word "Victorian".

For some, it's all about the class struggle, and you can do good things with that (Brand Gamblin does, in The Hidden Institute, which is neo-Victorian - like The Diamond Age, another of my favourites.)

For many others, the first association is "uptight, old-fashioned, prudish and hypocritical", which is certainly a perspective. Not an entirely accurate perspective, or one that interests me much, but a perspective.

Some pick up on the "adventure, discovery, colonialism" vibe, which somehow has a wormhole in it leading to 1930s-style pulp plots.

But to me, one of the most interesting things about the Victorian era was not its conservatism, not its injustices, not even its colonialism, but its pursuit of scientific knowledge, technological progress and human rights.

Part of that I attribute to the fact that I'm a New Zealander. New Zealand was colonised starting in the 1820s, and the Treaty of Waitangi, its founding document as a nation, was signed in 1840, not quite three years after Victoria's accession. So the early history of the country and the city that I live in is Victorian. To me, then, the Victorian era is one of building and development and new things never seen before.

Besides which, we New Zealanders have the proud claim to have been the first to grant women the vote, in 1893. At the end of the 19th century we were the social laboratory of the world.

Back in England, meanwhile, Charles Dickens was only one of the most prominent people campaigning for the betterment of the poor and increased social justice in the still relatively new conditions of an industrial society.

So that's why The Gryphon Clerks involves freeing the gnomes from their industrialist dwarf oppressors and promoting education for the lower classes. That's why I've included the tribal society of the beastheads getting the opportunity to participate in wider civilization (duly informed by postcolonialism, since, in a sense, that wider society is itself postcolonial, or at least post-Elvish-Empire).

That's also why, to me, the most interesting thing about the new magical technologies is how they affect society (though that's always the most interesting thing about technologies for me). They're not just gizmos for the sake of atmosphere.

What's more, the Victorian themes that interest me are very much relevant today. There are still workers struggling under industrialist oppression, they're just in China rather than Manchester. Education is still an issue, as it probably always will be. For that matter, a hundred and twenty years after women got the vote they're still not equally paid or equally represented in positions of power. (I work around that, in a way, in The Gryphon Clerks by positing that the Elvish Empire had already achieved gender equality centuries before, and the humans have inherited that cultural attitude - but in dwarf and gnome culture there are still very strongly defined gender roles. Meaning it can be an issue to explore or not, depending.)

I'm no Dickens, and I don't want to be all preachy (or "relevant", which means "irrelevant in another five years"). But I want to write books that are intelligent as well as entertaining, and that means paying some attention not only to the headlines, but to the human universals behind them.