Apr 16

Technique: Parallel Stories, Slow Reveal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Apr 10

Review Books, Win Books

So, review deal, involving free books for you.

I want to increase the number of reviews I have for several of my books, mainly so that I can use promotion sites that require a minimum number of Amazon reviews.

If you post a review of any of the following books on Amazon, let me know, including the link to your review, and I will send you another of my books, of your choice:

Now, most of those promotion sites also require a minimum of 4-star reviews, or an average above 4 stars.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that I will only give you the free book if your review is 4 or 5 stars, because that would be undue influence.

However, if you've given one of my books a review with less than four stars, you will need to explain to me why you would want to read another book of mine, given that you didn't enjoy the previous one that much. "So that I can assassinate your book" is not going to be a reason that convinces me to facilitate that process.

Your free book doesn't have to be one of the three above. It can be Gu or Realmgolds if that's the book you want. You can see all my books, including blurbs, on this page.

Contact me in the comments or via the gmails (mikermnz) if you want to participate. Thanks!

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Mar 07

UPDATE: Anthology Plans

This is an update to my previous post, in which I announced a small short story collection.

I've now pulled that collection off Amazon, for the best possible reason. I've agreed with Charles Barouch of the small press HDWP Books to issue a solo anthology later this year under the HDWP imprint, including my contributions to HDWP's Theme-Thology collections.

Charles's vision for the anthology is that it'll have 10 stories in total (there may be more). Here's a partial summary of the contents, which includes the three stories I mentioned last time:

Good Neighbours: An elderly woman must answer the classic question: Who is my neighbour? (Formerly appeared in New Realm magazine in December 2013.)
2700 words.

Vegetation: In an old Elvish city, plants are everywhere. And goodness knows, someone has to look after them. A lighthearted, Wodehousian piece involving the petty politics of volunteer organisations.
2300 words.

Gnome Day: An idealistic young clerk helps out on the night the gnomes are freed, and meets three people who will change his life: the woman who will become his wife, the gnome man who will become his best friend, and the gnome woman with whom he'll share a tragedy.
6000 words. (This story is available for free to subscribers to my mailing list.)

Not Like Us: A beasthead clan leader contends with the botched Human Purity invasion of her village (as mentioned in Realmgolds), and must decide how much she wants to resemble the invaders. (Originally appeared in Theme-Thology: Invasion.)

Brothers: When a highly literate Asterist scholar meets a smelly Earthist shaman, things don't go the way anyone expects. (Scheduled to appear in Theme-Thology: New Myths.)

Weave: (Non-Gryphon Clerks.) All of a sudden, everyone in the world is connected in strange and frightening ways. (In progress; for submission to Theme-Thology: Real World Unreal.)

Intrusion: The story of the dwarven hack of the farspeakers in Hope and the Clever Man, told from the dwarven side. (In progress; for submission to Theme-Thology: Mad Science.)

Names: (Non-Gryphon Clerks.) In an afterlife in which everyone is a collective being, made up of everyone who's ever lived who has the same name, a person with a unique name has an advantage. But what advantage? (Currently on submission to a well-known genre magazine.)

Fixer: The man called Fixer knows everyone, and helps connect people with needs to those who can meet them. What happens when a confidence man wants to exploit Fixer's network? (In progress.)

You'll note that's only nine. I'm sure another will come to me in due time. (It might be that noir dwarf detective story in the style of Damon Runyon that I started once, in frustration at the story of a noir dwarf detective that was so clod-hopping and ponderous that I just couldn't stand it. Or not.)

Earliest publication date is probably around June for this one, assuming I sell "Names" to the magazine I'm targeting. They gave me a very positive personalised rejection for another story which was all about why that particular story didn't quite work for them, despite its many good qualities, so I'm having another go. Their exclusive period is two months from date of publication.

More bulletins as events warrant.

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Feb 24

Short Stories, and an Announcement

I've put three short stories up on Amazon as a collection for 99c. I plan to publish more short stories this year - potentially, I'll add them to this same collection, and get Amazon to alert purchasers to an "update" so that people who've already bought them get more stories at no extra charge. (Edited to say: There's at least a possibility that the small press HDWP Books will bring out an anthology collecting the stories I've done for their Theme-Thology volumes as well as some other short stories of mine later this year, so I've pulled the mini-collection. Further details in this follow-up post.)

The three stories are:

Good Neighbours: An elderly woman must answer the classic question: Who is my neighbour? (Formerly appeared in New Realm magazine in December 2013.)
2700 words.

Vegetation: In an old Elvish city, plants are everywhere. And goodness knows, someone has to look after them. A lighthearted, Wodehousian piece.
2300 words.

Gnome Day: An idealistic young clerk helps out on the night the gnomes are freed, and meets three people who will change his life.
6000 words. (This story is available for free to subscribers to my mailing list.)

Speaking of writing, I've been accepted as a contributor to the popular Fantasy Faction fansite. I'll be sharing some of my reviews there, and I also hope to publish some blog posts. These will be posts that I would previously have put up here with the category "Manifesto-esque Rantings" or "Craft". Instead of publishing those posts here, I'll focus more on making this a site for my readers, not so much for fellow writers. I'll share any Fantasy Faction posts as they're published, via my Google+ profile. I may also make a page on here as a directory to them.

Fantasy Faction gets about 2000 visitors a day and has already won a couple of minor awards, so I'm pleased to be writing for them. Since what I write for them will be reviews and posts I was going to write anyway, I promise it won't slow down the production of Gryphon Clerks fiction.


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Feb 11

Writing Two Stories at Once

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

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

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

External and Internal Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I'm Applying This

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan 31

New Release: Hope and the Patient Man

Hope and the Patient Man is out today, and you can get it on the Kindle Store.

This is the sequel to Hope and the Clever Man. I've already referred to it as "Hope 2: The Patienting" and "Hope 2: Compressed-Air-Powered Boogaloo", but it's quite a different story. The potential romance at the end of Clever Man becomes actual, though there are several knotty problems: Hope's splashback curse from when she cursed her first boyfriend, a fairly serious head injury that indirectly results from it (I don't count that as a spoiler, since it happens practically on the first page), and the mystery of why her mother is so hostile to her.

I started writing it in August, while my beta readers were looking at the first Hope book, because the characters would not shut up. This is a good thing.

I now need to decide what's next. I have a largely drafted book set in the same time period as Realmgolds and most of the first Hope book, but it has multiple issues (as they say on Wikipedia). I'll probably toss it over to my miracle-working editor and she'll give me a two-page summary of how to rescue it and make it my best book so far. This is likely to involve several months' work, of course.

There are two more books to come out of the Hope characters. One is hinted at in Patient Man, and involves Mister Gizmo the gnome and his team as they try to rediscover the techniques for making an ancient elven material that will indirectly help the cause of gnome freedom. I've got a few chapters drafted, but it's not really singing to me yet.

The other involves Bucket, the Clever Man's gnome assistant, and Hope's best friend Briar as they navigate the choppy waters of politics.

Then I've got a heist novel planned, and then a kind of steampunk Star Trek airship voyage of discovery and diplomacy. Somewhere in there there may be another book or two that I'm currently vague on or unaware of. There's a general plan, but I uncover the details as I get to them.

All of which to say: the Gryphon Clerks series continues, there's plenty more to come, but right now, Hope and the Patient Man is fresh and new and I'd love you to take a look at it.

(Edited to add: With excellent timing, and much to my flattered surprise, the New Podler Review of Books has included Realmgolds in their Best of 2013 today!)

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Jan 30

Sir Julius Vogel Awards

So, I'm a New Zealand citizen who has released speculative fiction in the year 2013, which means my work is eligible for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards. These annual awards are named after an early Premier of New Zealand who wrote science fiction - proto-feminist science fiction, even. How cool is that?

The beautiful trophy for the Sir Julius Vogel Award

The SJVs, since they're run by New Zealanders, are more relaxed than the Hugos. I don't have to be sprinkled with the special big-publisher or big-magazine fairy dust to be eligible, I just have to have published. Here's what I've got that's eligible (in the format specified for nominations):

  1. Name / Title of work: Realmgolds
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Novel
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: C-Side Media
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy
  1. Name / Title of work: Hope and the Clever Man
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Novel
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: C-Side Media
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy
Short Stories:

  1. Name / Title of work: Not Like Us (included in the Theme-Thology: Invasion anthology)
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Short Story
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: HDWP Books
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com (author); books at hdwpbooks.com (editor/publisher)
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy
  1. Name / Title of work: Good Neighbours (published in New Realm magazine, Vol 2, No 3, December 2013)
  2. Name of Author: Mike Reeves-McMillan
  3. Short Story
  4. Year of First Release: 2013
  5. Publisher / Production company name: fictionmagazines.com
  6. How to contact the producer / author: mike at csidemedia.com (author); doug at fictionmagazines.com (editor/publisher)
  7. Professional awards
  8. GENRE - fantasy

(If you want links to any of the works, they are all on my books page.)

Now, I'm not under any illusions that, even if people are nice enough to nominate me, there will be enough of those people to actually get me on the ballot, which is what happens if you have one of the five most-nominated works in a category. Voting is by members of the SFFANZ (the fan association) and attendees at their annual con, and frankly very few of them will have any idea who I am at this stage. But it is pleasing to think that I'm eligible.

Someday, I want to win a Sir Julius Vogel, and I think that's a realistic dream.

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Jan 21

Short Story Challenge begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wili_hybrid / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan 17

Gryphon Clerks short fiction

One of the benefits you get from becoming a member of my mailing list (which is, of course, free) is exclusive access to short fiction, and the more people sign up, the more fiction I release.

"Gnome Day", the second piece of fiction, has just been released this week.

The protagonist of this 6000-word story started out as a face in the crowd in a scene that was first cut from Realmgolds, then moved to Hope and the Clever Man - where he ended up getting trimmed out. Meanwhile, though, I'd written his story: a tale of love, tragedy, family and friendship over many years.

It's downloadable in mobi, epub or pdf format. Check the Membership page for more information (whether or not you're already a member).

And if you enjoy that story, I also have another short, "Good Neighbours". You can wait until it gets released automatically when my mailing list gets another 30 members, or you can buy the December 2013 New Realm magazine, where it's just been published. It's also set around Gnome Day, and features an elderly lady who has to answer the classic question: Who is my neighbour?

I'm planning to write more short fiction this year, as well as more novels. I have a strategy, in fact, which I'll share in another post once it's underway.

Novel News

Speaking of novels, Hope and the Patient Man (the sequel to Hope and the Clever Man) is with my editor right now, and my cover artist Chris Howard is hard at work on the cover. Here's where he's got to so far:

Yes, that's an airhorse, as introduced in Hope and the Clever Man.

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Jan 08

How to Weaken a Scene

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

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

Example: The spiders. Compare these two versions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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