Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Balancing internal and external conflict

Here’s a post at a site called AutoCrit: Internal vs. External Conflict: Balancing the Fight

[I]nternal and external conflicts are tricky to balance, and it’s easy to accidentally tip the scales one way or the other.

When things get out of proportion, you can end up with a grand, sweeping core conflict that does everything it needs to do in terms of exhilaration… but the characters feel flat. There doesn’t quite seem to be enough to them – and thus we aren’t fully invested in the overall outcome.

Swing the pendulum the other way, and you have deep, heartfelt characters that feel like our best friends. We care for them, we enjoy their company and we want to see them succeed… but the story becomes boring because they really don’t seem to do much of anything. There’s little for them to strive outwardly for, and the story itself feels one-dimensional and uninteresting.

Offhand I think we see a lot more Type One issues in SFF than Type Two. I can think of any number of grand sweeping epics where the characters are flat, and I bet you can too. For example, I felt that Ken Liu’s much-praised Grace of Kings was going in that direction and so I did not read on past the sample. I’m not even sure I finished the sample. We had Brave Boy and Bookish Boy, then disaster struck and Brave Boy saved Bookish Boy and . . . yeah, both characters seemed so flat to me at that point. If the disaster had played out the other way, I’d have been much more interested. Somehow that is the example that comes to mind for me, though I think we see grand adventures with flat characters more in science fiction than in fantasy.

The other way around, these great characters that you really connect to, but that don’t then seem to do much of anything, I don’t think we see that very often in SFF. Right? That is more something you expect in literary fiction. Except that I seldom have found characters in literary fiction very appealing. Realistic, maybe, but that’s something completely different. I’m thinking here of Tana French’s Into the Woods, where the characters are so well drawn, but the protagonist, driven by demons from his past, destroys his own life and pretty much his partner’s life during the course of the story. Triple ugh with a cherry on top, but I think you find that kind of thing a lot in literary fiction and far less in SFF.

This post goes on to define internal and external conflict and then offers solutions if you find your story has become unbalanced one way or the other:

Make every conflict a visible obstacle to the character’s goals

Give your characters complementary – or opposing – conflicts

Make your conflicts iconic

To me the most interesting point is this:

Internal conflict archetypes range from being driven to do what’s morally right in the face of overwhelming opposing forces, to wrestling with the darker side of your personality. Every one of us can relate to most internal conflicts, but an archetype arises when one becomes synonymous with the genre – or when the outcome becomes inevitable. Some may dismiss this as cliché, and on some level would be correct – but your job, as a writer, is to make the journey interesting. As long as you can do that, archetypes are generally not to be feared.

I agree. I have no problem with stereotypical situations or common tropes or clichés, as long as the writer has done a good job with the detail work. No trope or plot element or protagonist type is so stereotypical that it can’t be brought to vivid, unique life by a skilled author. Even if you’ve already encountered a hundred books where a young protagonist comes of age while fulfilling an ancient prophecy, I bet you will still enjoy Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series.

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Writing dialogue

So, you have two choices when you’re writing dialogue. No, wait, three.

a) You can write good dialogue.
b) You can write bad dialogue.

I bet that seems like it exhausts the possibilities, doesn’t it? But no, because

c) You can write dialogue incorrectly.

Let’s start with the most trivial case, one you don’t see all that often actually in print:

c) Incorrect dialogue.

Any book published by an ordinarily competent publisher should be free of actual errors, which is why you should be able to pick any book off your bookshelves to see how to punctuate dialogue correctly. But look at this:


“You don’t have to retire,” Von protested.
“I do,” Eva rejected the compliment. “And if Liege Monitum doesn’t make me an offer soon, I will have to retire here.” She smiled. “You would keep me?”

And also this:

She took his face in her hands. “Promise me that you will be here? Promise me that you will dance with me?”
“I don’t know, Eva,” Von squirmed. “Liege Monitum may not want that.”

Do you see what’s wrong with these tidbits? Eva rejected the compliment and Von squirmed cannot in any way be substituted for Eva said or Von said. They are complete actions, not dialogue tags, but they are being used as dialogue tags. This is wrong. This is incorrect dialogue. In both these cases, there should have been a period rather than a comma inside the quote marks.

This is from an actual published book. There were things I liked about this book, and did finish it, but I then gave it away. Even though there aren’t a lot of errors, I keep mentally rolling my eyes when I hit things like the above and this is not conducive to a smooth reading experience.

b) correct but bad dialogue, type one

I’m a big fan of adverbs, compared to anybody who thinks NEVER USE ADVERBS EVER EVER EVER THIS MEANS YOU is a rule to live by. I think adverbs are a perfectly respectable part of speech, thank you. But here is a bit of dialogue which shows why so many writers turn against adverbs:

“I know we can’t do anything right for you, Ann,” he said, “by definition. But there is something I want to be sure you know before you go.”
“Flying is bad for my health,” Ann said sarcastically.
“Of course, but I didn’t mean that.” He looked down into his big, gentle hands.

Actually, this doesn’t bother me if you only see it now and then. But if characters are always saying things sarcastically or hastily or nervously or whatever, probably the author should go through and strip at least two thirds of those dialogue-tag adverbs out of the novel. Three quarters. Nine tenths, maybe.

You want to beware of adverbs in dialogue tags where the dialogue itself or the situation makes it plain that somebody’s sarcastic or hasty or nervous. If a car blows up, you don’t have to say it blew up suddenly. Because, hello? That is the nature of explosions? To be sudden? You only need to specify if an explosion happens slowly, somehow.

Where the dialogue and/or situation don’t indicate how a line is spoken, though, you can reasonably have somebody say something gently or sharply or harshly or whatever will draw the right picture for the reader. Though not too often.

When combined with another error — too much variety in dialogue tags — overuse of dialog-tag adverbs really stands out. On just one page of a book I read not so long ago, we have characters who:

Pleaded
Asked
Said
Countered
Volunteered
Exclaimed
Demanded
Pointed out

And the only two invisible tags in this list are “asked” and “said”. Any one of the others would be fine, even any two, but because there are so many different words used as tags, they start to catch the eye. And once the reader notices that there are too many different words being used as substitutes for the invisible “said”, this starts to sound more and more ridiculous.

b) grammatically correct but bad dialogue, type two

Boring dialogue is just as bad as overuse of creative tags. There are heaps of books with boring dialogue out there, but I don’t keep them, so it’s hard for me to come up with a good example. I’m talking about the kind of dialogue where every line is predictable, where every line serves to convey information but nothing about it surprises or engages or entertains the reader.

Sometimes this kind of dialogue is just used to dump info, where you aren’t having a conversation but a series of monologues, but that’s not necessarily the case. You can have what should be a quick, light conversation and yet every line said is boring and predictable and clichéd.

Info-dumpy or not, this is the kind of writing where you find yourself skimming ahead to see what happens because you aren’t really engaged in the story or interested in the characters. I personally seem to see this a lot in contemporary mysteries when I’m trying to find a new author my mother will like, which is hard because the old-time mystery writers were SO GOOD stylistically (Rex Stout, Emma Lathen, Ngaio Marsh) that it’s hard for contemporary writers to compete.

Serviceable but boring dialogue is easy to write, so lots of authors write it. Snappy dialogue is hard to write unless you happen to have a knack for it, which is something I envy because I don’t have that particular knack. Steven Brust does — check out his Vlad Taltos series. Laura Florand does — check out her romances. Lois McMaster Bujold does — check out her Vorkosigan books.

a) Fabulous non-use of dialogue tags by Lois McMaster Bujold.

If you’re looking for an example of how to minimize use of dialogue tags, you could hardly do better than Bujold. Just take any of her books off the shelf, flip it open randomly, and you get something like this:

Miles sank into his seat with a groan. “Some bodyguard you are,” he said to Elli. “Why didn’t you protect me from that interviewer?”

“She wasn’t trying to shoot you. Besides, I’d just got there. I couldn’t tell her what had been going on.”

“But you’re far more photogenic. It would have improved the image of the Dendarii Fleet.”

“Holovids make me tongue-tied. But you sounded calm enough.”

“I was trying to downplay it all. ‘Boys will be boys,’ chuckles Admiral Naismith, while in the background his troops burn down London . . .”

Elli grinned. “’Sides, they weren’t interested I me. I wasn’t the hero who’d dashed into a burning building – by the gods, when you came rolling out all on fire –”

“You saw that?” Miles was vaguely cheered. “Did it look good in the long shots? Maybe it’ll make up for Danio and his jolly crew, in the minds of our host city.”

“It looked properly terrifying.” She shuddered appreciation. “I’m surprised you’re not more badly burned.”

Miles twitched singed eyebrows and tucked his blistered left hand unobtrusively under his right arm. “It was nothing. Protective clothing. I’m glad not all our equipment design is faulty.”

“I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I’ve been shy of fire ever since . . .” her hand touched her face.

Okay, he says five lines and she says five. How many actual dialogue tags are in this passage? Not ten. We have “said” once to get the conversational ball rolling. After that, there are no dialogue tags at all. But we aren’t allowed to get lost in who-said-what? confusion, because every time we need a reminder about who’s speaking, we get a movement tag. Elli grinned. Miles was vaguely cheered. She shuddered appreciation. He twitched singed eyebrows. She touched her face. That’s four lines of dialogue with no tag at all and five with a movement tag, and zero confusion.

Plus! Notice the adverb “vaguely”? See how great that adverb is? “Vaguely cheered” is so not the same as “cheered” – we get a way better idea of Miles’ state of mind because of this adverb. And in the next line, Elli declares that the picture of Miles on fire was “properly” terrifying. Then Miles tucks his hand “unobtrusively” under his other arm. See how good writers aren’t the least bit shy of using adverbs? But mostly don’t in dialogue tags.

Nobody I know of does dialogue better than Bujold. The rest of us could only improve by studying her dialogue and trying to consciously apply techniques that I bet she just uses by feel. That was from Brothers in Arms, btw, but I expect you all recognized it?

Here’s another example:

a) Snappy, fun, unexpected dialogue by Dean Koontz

Now, one of the reasons I like Koontz is that he is kinda horror-light, if you know what I mean. Things turn out happily in his books. The characters you become particularly attached to never get killed, whereas when the bad guys get eaten by mountain lions (or whatever), they are bad enough you can cheer their deaths. If there’s a dog? It won’t get killed, either. You can just absolutely trust all this, which I deeply appreciate because I really am not a hard-core horror fan.

But the Odd Thomas books are imo a definite step up from most of his other books, and the wit of his protagonist is one big thing that contributes to this.

Listen to this, from BROTHER ODD, the third book in the series. This is [part of] a conversation between Rodion Romanovich, who is supposed to be a librarian from Indianapolis but certainly isn’t, and the protagonist.

The kitchen offers stools here and there at counters, where you can have a cup of coffee or eat without being underfoot. I sought one of these – and came across Rodion Romanovich.

The bearish Russian was working at a long counter on which stood ten sheet cakes in long pans. He was icing them.

Next to him on the granite counter lay the volume about poison and famous poisoners in history. I noticed a bookmark inserted at about page fifty.

When he saw me, he glowered and indicated a stool near him.

Because I’m an amiable fellow and loath to insult anyone, I find it awkward to decline an invitation, even if it comes from a possibly homicidal Russian with too much curiosity about my reasons for being a guest of the abbey.

“How is your spiritual revitalization proceeding?” Romanovich asked.

“Slow but sure.”

[. . . . .]

With his attention devoted to the application of icing to the first of the ten cakes, he said, “I myself find that baking calms the mind and allows for contemplation.”

“So you made the cakes, not just the icing?”

“That is correct. This is my best recipe . . . orange-and-almond cake with dark chocolate frosting.”

“Sounds delicious. So to date, how many people have you killed with it?”

“I long ago lost count, Mr. Thomas. But they all died happy.”

[. . . . .]

Romanovich’s brow seemed to include a hydraulic mechanism that allowed it to beetle farther over his deep-set eyes when his mood darkened. “I am usually suspicious of people who are universally liked.”

“In addition to being an imposing figure,” I said, “you’re surprisingly solemn for a Hoosier.”

“I am a Russian by birth. We are sometimes a solemn people.”

“I keep forgetting your Russian background. You’ve lost so much of your accent, people might think you’re Jamaican.”

“You may be surprised that I have never been mistaken for one.” He finished frosting the first cake, slid it aside, and pulled another pan in front of him.

I said, “You do know what a Hoosier is, don’t you?”

“A Hoosier is a person who is a native of or an inhabitant of the state of Indiana.”

“I’ll bet the definition reads that way word for word in the dictionary.”

He said nothing. He just frosted.

“Since you’re a native Russian and not currently an inhabitant of Indiana, you’re not at the moment really a Hoosier.”

“I am an expatriate Hoosier, Mr. Thomas. When in time I return to Indianapolis, I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.”

“Once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier.”

“That is correct.”

The pickle had a nice crunch. I wondered if Romanovich had added a few drops of anything lethal to the brine in the pickle jar. Well, too late. I took another bite of the dill.

Okay, I hope everybody finds that as much fun as I do. The interplay between these two characters adds such pizazz to this book!

You can also see that out of nineteen lines in which somebody speaks, there are only four real dialogue tags – three using a plain “said” and the other an equally plain and invisible “asked”; none using adverbs. There are also two movement tags. The other thirteen lines I’ve quoted don’t use tags at all, but it’s always crystal clear who’s speaking. Partly this because of grammatical conventions – ie, switching paragraphs between speakers – and partly it’s because the two characters’ voices are so utterly different.

Not only are the voices distinct and distinctive, but also very little in this exchange is predictable and boring.

Personally, I loved the bit where Romanovich says “I will once more be a full and complete Hoosier.” He’s a great character with a wonderful voice. Plus, hey, cake! I will just remove some of the suspense and assure you that the cakes are not poisoned.

Okay! That’s enough, I’m sure! Go forth and pay attention to dialogue! Me, I’m going to go re-read something by Lois McMaster Bujold now.

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In the beginning, establish character, setting, and style. The plot will take care of itself.

As you may know, I’m participating in a writer’s workshop at ArmadilloCon this weekend. I really enjoy these, and this one sounds like a Really Big Deal — it goes all day, starting with panel discussions and so on, with the actual workshop in the afternoon. I have extensive written feedback to hand back to the four participants in my section, which I hope they all find helpful.

You have probably noticed that at any convention, if you ask a roomful of attendees who all is writing a book or thinking of writing a book, most of the hands go up. Today, when it’s so easy to throw a book up on the internet to sink or swim, I think it’s more important than ever to think about learning to write. About the craft of writing. About quality. About what makes a story sing. Which, in my more optimistic moments, I think I have managed to do, now and then.

Like so many other things worth doing, writing is a craft you learn. All the raw native talent in the world probably won’t let you whip off a great book, or even an adequate book, the first time you open up your laptop and start hitting the keys (though yes I can think of exceptions).

It seems to me that there are four major constituents of a story: setting, character, plot, and style (which includes sentence-level craft). (People frequently seem to forget style, but I think it is the foundation on which everything else is built.) What I have noticed in previous workshops, though to a lesser extent in the entries this time, is a focus on plot to the virtual exclusion of everything else.

After thinking about this, I went down to my personal library and pulled three books off the shelves. Let’s look at how talented authors establish setting and character in the very first pages, as well as setting up the plot.

I am pretty sure that one piece of (common) advice workshop attendees have frequently taken to heart is Start by setting something on fire. In other words, start in media res. Start in the middle of the action. Do not, for God’s sake, start with your character waking up, or driving somewhere, or staring into a mirror.

And that may be good advice, generally. But check this out, from The Breach by Patrick Lee:

————

On the first anniversary of his release from prison, Travis Chase woke at four in the morning to bright sunlight framing his window blinds. He put his backpack in his Explorer, left Fairbanks on State Route 2, and an hour later was on the hard-packed gravel of the Dalton Highway, running north toward the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range beyond. From the crests of the highest hills, he could see the road and the pipeline snaking ahead for miles, over lesser ridges and through valleys blazing with pink fireweed.

The trip was not a celebration. Far from it. It was a deliberation on everything that mattered: where he stood, and where he would go from here.

The console showed an outside temperature of fifty-nine degrees. Travis lowered the windows and let the moist air rush through the vehicle. The height of summer here smelled like springtime back in Minneapolis, the scent of damp grass just freed from snow cover.

—————

Look! Travis woke up and now he is driving somewhere. We are emphatically not in the middle of the action. How much internal dilemma and scenery description does it take before we get a glimmer that something exciting may possibly be on the way? Twelve paragraphs – about four pages. And the first hint of trouble?

He woke with a quickened pulse, aware that something had startled him, but unable to tell what, exactly.

But a storm has come up, and he thinks that’s what woke him up – it might have, too, for all we can tell. There are quite a few more pages before stuff really starts happening.

Then things build and build and build and OMG you have no idea. Starting so quietly only makes it more effective when Lee starts to turn up the pressure. Have I mentioned this is one of the best SF thrillers EVER? It totally is, even though it was marketed as a mainstream contemporary thriller and not as SF at all.

But look how Lee does something a beginning writer often seems to have trouble with: he builds his world up around the protagonist, layering in sensory details to draw the reader right into the story. This is totally crucial. And if you’re writing a kind of more out-there SF or a secondary world fantasy? The farther you are from the contemporary world, the more important it is to build the setting.

And look at how Lee’s doing characterization right from the start It’s not a coincidence that Travis is heading to this really deserted, isolated, demanding country, or that he’s planning a route that’s going to avoid any chance of meeting anybody. We know something about the main character just from this choice. Plus, right away we get told this big thing about the main character: he’s been in prison and now he’s trying to figure out where to go with his life. Lee tells us this, but he’s showing us the protagonist’s sense of being stuck and his sense of alienation from normal life through the protagonist’s actions. That’s followed up with paragraphs like this:

What future did he see among [his family]? Even to the few who could understand and forgive what he’d done, he would always be the brother who’d spent half of his twenties and all of his thirties in prison. Twenty years from now, in the eyes of the next generation, he’d be that guy. That uncle. You could only get so free.

Right from the beginning, Lee is showing the reader this guy named Travis who did something – what? – something bad enough to be in prison for fifteen years. We have no clue what, but we know we’ll find out. We’re really interested, we’re drawn in. It doesn’t take an explosion to grab us, we’re already there. We can wait a few pages for the action to start.

But besides that, besides showing us this one character, Lee’s also showing that he understands the way people are, that he gets what it’s like to be that guy, the guy who’s an ex-con. We’re all nodding: Yeah, that’s true, that stuff about you can only get so free, it would really be like that, that’s just how a guy in Travis’s shoes would feel. This story is going to feel real because the author knows how to put real people into a book.

And the writing itself is deft. Lee is showing craftsmanship. It’s not just grammatically correct – though it is – it’s just good. If you read the first few pages carefully, you’ll find a fragment sentence – but you’d never notice it if you weren’t looking, because it fits the rhythm of the writing. And there is a rhythm to it. That’s important. Lee’s prose sounds good to the ear.

Look at the first two paragraphs above. You know how many words are in each sentence in that first paragraph? 24, 37, and 27. Now look at the second paragraph: 5, 3, and 18. Five and three! Look how much impact those short, punchy sentences have after all those long flowing sentences before. You don’t have to stop and analyze the writing to feel the punch, nobody’s going to stop and analyze this! You just feel it.

Style is so important. A feel for the language is so important. And we don’t have to worry about that with Lee. We know that in the first page, we can feel it. We can trust this writer. He’s going to tell us a story and we’re going to relax and let him take on his roller coaster ride.

Now, there are things that can go wrong with a book that starts well, obviously. Plot holes (I had a pretty serious suspension-of-disbelief problem with this very book), characters that are annoying for one reason or another (The woman needs to be rescued again? Really?). Maybe the plot is a bit too predictable. (Now, that’s not a problem with Lee!)

But that sort of thing is definitely not what an aspiring writer should be thinking of when thinking about how to write a novel that works. And definitely not when trying to hook the reader in those first couple of all-important pages. That writer should be thinking about building setting and character. And while it’s important to have a plot that flows from the beginning straight through the end, with good character arcs for the important (and some secondary) characters, it’s even more important to think about style and developing a feel for language.

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen offers another beautiful beginning:

—————————

The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she’d had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn’t be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handling the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor’s office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cementlike, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson’s invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird’s nest outside. Harper Rowley’s invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley’s in his elderly mother’s garden shed.

If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.

But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.

—————————-

What a charming book this one turned out to be! It’s the first one of Allen’s I’ve ever read, and really delightful, all about friendship and family loyalty and what it means to be adult and the bonds we feel to the past. Especially friendship, an emphasis I always appreciate. I’ve been a big fan of Allen’s ever since I read this story.

It’s also a story that falls into a somewhat unusual category: magical realism. This is a world where the saying that digging up one secret releases others isn’t just a saying, and where you’re not quite sure that the old tale in town about bottles filled with fog couldn’t be literally true. I really enjoy magical realism, which I first encountered in A Winter’s Tale by Helprin. I loved that book, but Allen’s book is more approachable and has such appeal and charm, not to mention very sweet romances.

Also, not to belabor the point from the previous point, but see how this story starts? So gently and softly, even though the second paragraph sets up tension and also assure you that this book really is fantasy, which isn’t obvious, btw, and I was kind of thinking it was contemporary when I picked it up off the TBR pile, but it’s not, quite; and I thought it might be a mystery, but it’s not that either – quite. One curious little detail is that the protagonists never do find out the truth about the thing that happened in the past and that’s driving the story now – isn’t that interesting? (The reader does find out, but not the protagonists.) But the way the secret stays hidden ties into the theme of friendship and loyalty very nicely.

Here’s a third example of an excellent beginning: Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews.

For snappy dialogue and fun situations and a couple of GREAT practical jokes – I’m so tempted to give away the thing with the purple carpet, but I won’t – anyway, this is a great story. The story also offers a couple of very nice little tidbits about hyena behavior that are actually based on reality. Though that bit about how hyena siblings fight and kill each other, I don’t think that’s accurate, btw. Hans Kruuk never mentioned anything like that, and van Lawick provided anecdotal data which would tend to imply the reverse – strong friendly bonds between siblings. But the thing about hyena cubs digging dens too small for adults to fit into in order to get away from potentially deadly adult males is absolutely true.

Plus besides the stuff about hyenas, we get an Olde English Bulldogge! Nobody even knows that breed exists except me! And Ilona Andrews, apparently! I LOVE the way these authors know their dogs! So unusual!

Anyway, if you’re thinking about picking up a paranormal, this is a great choice. If you’ve never tried paranormals, this series is a good place to start, but I’ll just add that the first book is okay, the second better, and the series really hits its stride after that, so be patient and pick up the first three before you make up your mind. And the other series, the Edge series by the same authors – also quite good.

Plus! GUNMETAL MAGIC itself is long enough you don’t feel cheated, but – and though this is mentioned on the back cover, it was a nice surprise for me – as a bonus there’s also a hundred-page Kate Daniels novella at the back.

————————–

Thud!

My head hit the sidewalk. Candy jerked me up by my hair and slammed my face into the asphalt.

Thud!

————————–

So you see, sometimes you really do start in the middle of the action. I didn’t want to leave everybody with the idea that you never do this. There’s this tiny little prologue, disguised as a couple of paragraphs of a newspaper article and clearly meant to orient new readers, but I think the authors are expecting most readers to be familiar with their world and characters, and I suspect they are right. So they jump right in with a series of action scenes before we start to develop the important personal dilemmas and relationship stuff that form the heart of the story.

On the other hand . . . ever hear how you aren’t supposed to start a novel with your protagonist waking up from a dream? Because actually, the above snippet IS a dream, and then Andrea wakes up. And it’s a great scene, because she’s tucked in the closet and holding a butcher’s knife. Sleepwalking to get a butcher’s knife probably does not count as the sort of dream that bores people! Which of course is why it works to start this book.

So. What an author should strive to do is use the very first page to establish style and tone, setting and character, and then maybe get the plot started. But if the rest falls into place, I do think the reader will give you a few pages to get to the action. Whereas if you jump into the action without nailing the rest, a whole lot of readers will close your book and go on to the next on their TBR pile, because action and plot are nothing without character and context.

I will add, this has been the Working on Beginning a Novel summer for me. I usually try to finish a project over the summer. Not this year! I have instead started four (4) different novels, each of which are between 50 and 100 pages long now. This year, I may need to actually participate in NaNoWriMo in order to finish one by the end of the year…

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Setting isn’t everything, but it’s a lot

One of the panels I’m on during ArmadilloCon this coming weekend is about setting. About building a fantastic setting; about how the setting can drive the story.

Well. Good topic.

Obviously the single thing that separates SFF from all other fiction is setting. Right? You can certainly find compelling characters and neat plots anywhere, though I grant you it might be a trick to find a classic hero in, say, literary fiction, where I suppose it’s still all about antiheroes and passive, depressive nonheroes. I mean, I doubt that has changed lately. But you can find plenty of great protagonists in contemporary fiction overall, from caper or heist novels (Dortmunder, say), to all kinds of thrillers and mysteries, to contemporary YA.

On the other hand, thrillers are very much like adventure fantasy and also space opera, but distinguished from them by setting; hence the situation where a story that is clearly “really” SF gets published as a thriller. I’m thinking of Patrick Lee, whose exciting stories are so much fun but definitely depend on SF elements.

The *setting* of Lee’s thrillers is contemporary. There are just important SF elements driving the plot. So if his books are considered non-SF thrillers, which they are, that does imply that setting is more important than plot in distinguishing one from the other. So I would argue that setting is definitely an important component, probably the most important component, when defining SFF.

So how do you frame a setting in science fiction or fantasy?

That could be the subject of a book, and probably is, but one approach, far more useful in fantasy than SF, is to use a very traditional, even stereotypical type of setting. In fantasy this is of course a medieval-European setting. That way you can use all kinds of shortcuts in setting up the world and the characters, getting to the actual story much more quickly than if you had to set up the setting from scratch. There are drawback to this approach, of course, but I suspect that close to 100% of the time, you will be able to get to the story faster, and thus your story will feel faster paced, if you use a setting that does not depart too much from the typical. (Departing a little is great; it adds a feeling of newness and discovery that lots of readers will enjoy.)

I suspect this ability to speed things up explains a lot of the continuing prevalence of this kind of setting, and I also suspect that it explains a good deal of the popularity of fantasy compared to science fiction. There is no such typical SF setting — the closest we come is a kind of shared set of tropes common to space opera — so a great proportion of SF authors have to do more worldbuilding. The more out of the ordinary the setting, the better the writer has to be to pull readers in before they get bored. Also the more readers just will not be interested. I am thinking of my mother here. She reads all the time, but never fantasy or SF (except for my books). She doesn’t like settings that depart too far from the familiar; she doesn’t like historical mysteries either, though she reads a ton of mysteries with more familiar settings. I think a lot of readers are like that to some degree.

One of the things we hear all the time (relatively speaking) is that

a) publishers won’t buy fantasy that has other than a medieval-European-esque setting, and

b) this is because readers won’t buy other than same.

For example, from a comment here:

“I once heard a fantasy author talk about the fact that there’s so much pseudo-European/Tolkienesque stuff out there.

She said that basically, it comes down to the economic realities of the publishing business. The publishing houses who put out fantasy novels want to go with what they believe will draw their biggest audience, and 99 percent of the time, that’s European/Tolkien-style fantasy. She’d said that she once wrote a very detailed, dramatic novel set in a fantasy analogue of Egypt. After reading it, the publisher said, “This story is great, but the one thing we’d like you to change is the setting – we need it to be something more like medieval Europe.”

So, after a week or so of being upset about it, since she needed to put food on the table, she went ahead and reskinned the story as something with a more Norse/medieval flavor; and they published it.”

I can see how this might happen.

The fact is, I like a good medieval-European-esque setting fine, if it’s well done, but I love a more exotic setting. Ever read BRIDGE OF BIRDS, for example? I’m hardly alone. Many, many, many reviewers also say they love exotic settings. Every reviewer who raves about EON/EONA, for example.

But prolific reviewers are almost by definition super-readers. So am I. So are you, probably, if you’re reading this. Super-readers are exactly the sort of readers who do get bored with typical settings. There is just no reason to expect the kind of person who reads maybe ten books a year, maybe twenty, to ever get bored with any particular types of setting. This would lead to a situation, which we arguably see in the real world, where unusual settings are a tough sell to publishers, but once the book is out there, reviewers and award committees just love them. But they don’t really hit it out of the park with the greater mass of readers and don’t become best-sellers.

I believe setting transcends even genre, setting up fundamental divisions within literature, so that the three broadest fiction categories are contemporary/realistic; historical; and SFF. And within those categories, the more familiar settings — WWII for historicals; medieval-European for fantasy — are likely to appeal the the greatest number of readers. It’s actually hard for me to see a writer deliberately planning world design and setting one way or the other, because for me so much of world design is organic and unplanned. But I suspect the trade-offs between familiar and unfamiliar settings are inevitable and that it might be useful to have this possibility in the back of one’s mind when starting a new project.

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Shadow Twin

Shadow Twin (Black Dog, part three) by Rachel Neumeier

After everything she’s seen, Natividad was sure Ezekiel could take care of himself. Under any circumstances. Against any enemy. Whether he was temporarily exiled from Dimilioc or not. Then the link between them, forged when she absorbed a trace of Ezekiel’s shadow, makes it clear she was wrong.

She knows Ezekiel isn’t dead. She knows he must have met an enemy he couldn’t defeat alone. And she knows she has to rescue him, no matter the cost.

Miguel’s brother is a black dog and his sister is Pure, but Miguel himself is only human. That has its downsides for anyone living among the Dimilioc wolves, but at least an ordinary human has a chance to think problems through, his mind unclouded by black dog rage.

But when Miguel and Natividad and the wolves of Dimilioc have no choice but to walk into a trap, even human ingenuity may not be able to get them out again…

Book Details:

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Ebook

Publisher: Anara Publishing
Date: 2018
ISBN: t.b.c
Format: DRM Free Ebook / Kindle

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Praise and Reviews:

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More Books in Rachel Neumeier’s Black Dog series:

Black Dog (Strange Chemistry, April 2014)
Pure Magic (Anara Publishing, May 2015)
Black Dog Short Stories (Anara Publishing, April 2015)

More Young Adult Books by Rachel Neumeier:

The City In The Lake (Knopf, June 2008)
The Floating Islands (Knopf, February 2011)
The Keeper of the Mist (Knopf, April 2016)

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An Extract From Winter of Ice and Iron

Chapter One

When he was fourteen, Innisth Maèr tried for the first time to kill his father. He did not succeed. He found out instead something that he should have realized beforehand: that the Immanent Power of Eäneté protected its master from any ordinary attack. Even an unexpected attack. Even an attack by the heir. Innisth also learned that it is a great deal easier and less painful to discover such things through logic than it is to learn them through trial and error. Both lessons proved useful, in time.

Innisth survived his father’s punishment, and the subsequent years of his youth. When he was twenty, he tried again to murder his father. This time he succeeded. This time, he had thought out his plan with cold deliberation, and, when the opportunity presented itself, on the fifth day of the month of frost, he seized the chance. He knew that the Eänetén Power would block any attempt to stab or bludgeon or poison its master. But there was nothing it could do to preserve a man flung down a sheer thousand-foot cliff.

The Immanent Power of Eäneté came to Innisth after his father’s death. Generally a Duke’s heir mastered his Power while surrounded by supporters and allies, perhaps men and women themselves bound to allied lesser Powers, who knew best how to help a new heir survive the often brutal transference of the deep tie.

Innisth Maèr mastered the Power of Eäneté alone, in the cold heights, lying in the trampled snow at the top of the ice-edged granite cliff. Taìsaroiè was a wild and ferocious Power, long shaped by the rugged countryside and the high cutting winds of Eäneté, and by the cruelty of a long, long line of Eänetén dukes, none of whom had taught it much of gentleness. It was not a Great Power; not quite. But it was old and strong and fierce; certainly no minor Power.

But Innisth was his father’s true son. He encompassed his Power, and mastered it, and bound it, and he did not freeze to death there in the heights because Taìsaroiè would not allow its master to die such a death.

By the time he got to his feet and brushed the snow off his face and out of his hair, it was nearly dusk. Innisth did not look toward the cliff edge where his father had fallen, the narrow edge between earth and sky from which he had so nearly fallen himself. He found his horse and his father’s horse not far away, in the shelter of the firs in the lee of the mountain’s high ridge. Though he was stiff with cold, he mounted and rode down the long steep way to the gate at the mouth of the pass.

The men stationed there knew immediately what had happened. At least, they knew the important part of what had happened. They knew because Innisth Maèr came out of the pass alone, leading his father’s horse by its reins. And they knew because of the look on Innisth’s face, or by some subtle difference in his manner, or perhaps because they could feel the dense, invisible presence of the Eänetén Power spreading out above and around him. Innisth did not know what his face showed; he had spent so many years turning an impervious mask to the entire world that by now he should show nothing at all to any observer. But he was aware of the Power that accompanied and surrounded him. It would not have surprised him to know that other men could feel it, too.

Innisth did not accept an escort back to the house that was now his and not his father’s: the massive house that loomed out of the forested slopes of the mountain, gray and thick-walled and forbidding, to dominate the town below. He told the men where to look for his father’s body and the bodies of his father’s servants, and they took his orders with white-faced impassivity. He left his father’s horse with them and rode his own black mare down from the gate of the pass toward that great grim house. He did not look back.

There were more men-at-arms at the courtyard gate, of course. They were not so quick to understand, until Innisth said, “I am now Eäneté.” Then he said, “Send for my seneschal, and for your captain, and bid all the household staff assemble here in the courtyard.” It was cold, with the frigid stillness that sometimes lay across the mountains during the midwinter dusk. But the courtyard was the only place large enough for all the staff to assemble. And there were other advantages to the courtyard besides its sheer size. Even at night. “Light all the lanterns, and light torches,” Innisth commanded the men-at-arms, and they ran to obey.

Innisth swung down from his black mare and gave her reins to the stableman who hurried up to take her. That man had seen the men-at-arms rush away, and he could see that Innisth had come home alone. He wasn’t stupid. He lowered his head and murmured, “Your Grace,” and took the mare away very quickly.

If one included all the men-at-arms in the count, the household staff comprised well over a hundred men and women. There were the stablemen and grooms, the huntsmen and kennel girls, the kitchen staff and scullery maids, the old women who stayed in the attics of the servants’ quarters and spun wool and wove cloth, and the seamstresses who made the cloth into finished clothing. In the back of the assembly hovered the girls who endlessly polished the wooden floors and the brass doorknobs, and the boys who clambered dangerously about on the outside walls to wash the house’s many fine glass windows. To one side stood the house physickers and the grim old librarian with his assistant scribe. To the other side stood the men-at-arms, drawn up in their neat ranks, with their captain at their head. Before them all, with the torchlight casting his heavy features into unreadable shadow, stood Innisth’s father’s seneschal and his father’s personal servants – including the special servants, with their rusty-black clothing that did not show blood.

Innisth stood before them all, his shoulders straight and his cloak thrown back, where the brilliant lantern light showed him clearly. They all knew his father was dead. He did not have to tell them so. Word must have run through the house, even in the few moments they had required to assemble, but he believed they would have known anyway. He thought the empty space where his father should have stood echoed with the old Duke’s absence. To him it seemed that absence echoed through the entire house, louder than a shout. The assembled staff were utterly silent. They did not know yet how the shift of power from the old Duke to the younger would affect them.

Innisth looked along the silent lines of the gathered staff. He said, flatly, “Captain Tregeris,” and beckoned, the crook of one finger – his father’s gesture, deliberately, for Innisth was determined to shrink from nothing. He wanted his father’s captain to obey, unthinkingly. So he used his father’s gesture and his father’s tone.

The captain of the men-at-arms stepped out, approached Innisth, and saluted. He was not a young man, but not old; his shoulders were broad and his mouth narrow and he thought much of himself and little of others – except for Innisth’s father, whom he had always feared and admired and sought to emulate. His eyes ran up and down Innisth’s frame, curious and scornful, for he had, following the old Duke’s lead in this as in all else, never much regarded his son.

Innisth took one step forward, flicking his smallest knife out of his sleeve and into his hand. He stabbed the captain in the stomach, and then stepped back while the man’s mouth fell open and he sank down, quivering, his hands clutching at the hilt of the knife. The knife was small, but it was a vicious quilled blade, and when the captain steeled himself and jerked it out, a great dark gush of blood followed, and his breath followed it in a voiceless moan, and he died.

It had all been very quick, though at the same time the moment seemed to Innisth to stretch out and out, until he was half surprised that, when he looked up again, the whole assembly was still frozen in shocked stillness. The moment would break soon, for such a silence could not hold long, no matter it seemed at first inviolable.

The Craft of Writing

Characterization: writing a great protagonist with an (invisible) disabililty

This post is based on one from 2011. It was easy to update since I’ve encountered several great protagonists with disabilities since then.

The original post was inspired by Five Flavors of Dumb, a contemporary YA. In Five Flavors, the protagonist, Piper, makes herself into the manager for a wannabe band (Dumb). Adding an ironic twist to this aspect of the plot, Piper is deaf.

It was Ana’s review which initially caught my interest, and the one line of the Kirkus review Ana quoted: It’s not that Piper is a Great Deaf Character, but that Piper is a great character who is deaf. I was instantly hooked: What could Piper and her family show me about the experience of the deaf? I don’t want to be preached at an author bent on writing a Great Deaf Character, but I’m interested in Piper and her world.

Ana was right: Five Flavors of Dumb is a thoroughly enjoyable story, even for me, and I don’t read a lot of contemporary fiction. I’ve picked up a couple other books by Anthony John since, which are alas still on my TBR pile. Piper’s got a distinctive voice, a distinctive attitude, interesting family dynamics, and actually she’s pretty good at managing high school students who want to form a band. You know that’s gotta be tough.

There are quite a few characters with disabilities in SFF, once you start looking. The majority are disabled in some visible, physical way. Think of Miles Vorkosigan, or for that matter Dag in the Sharing Knife series, though missing a hand no longer slows him down one bit.

Rarer are invisible disabilities. Especially mental disabilities, though I think SFF deserves a good deal of credit for including quite a few of those as well, especially in the past few decades.

My favorite such protagonist — one of my favorite protagonists of all time, really — is Lou Arrendale, in Elizabeth Moon’s incomparable The Speed of Dark.

If you’re thinking of Elizabeth Moon as the author of the Paksenarrion books plus quite a lot of space opera, well, yes. Also no.

It’s not that The Speed of Dark defines Moon as a writer — it’s quite a departure. But this one is just a masterpiece. It won the Nebula, which it richly deserved because it is truly one of the great books of the decade.

Lou Arrendale is an autistic person, see, inhabiting a very near-future world, and there’s an incredible feeling of authenticity to his first-person narrative. Moon does such an awesome job capturing his point of view — sort of sideways to the rest of us. Here’s a sample passage:

“The floor in the hall is tile, each tile treaked with two shades of green on beige. The tiles are twelve-inch squares; the hall is five squares wide and forty-five and a half squares long. The person who laid the tiles laid them so that the streaks are crosswise to each other — each tile is laid so that the streaks are facing ninety degrees to the tile next to it. Most of the tiles are laid in one of two ways, but eight of them are laid upside down to the other tiles in the same orientation.

I like to look at this hall and think about having those eight tiles. What pattern could be completed by having those eight tiles laid in reverse? So far I have come up with three possible patterns. I tried to tell Tom about it once, but he was not able to see the pattern in his head the way I can . . .

I look for the places where the line between the tiles can go up the wall and over the ceiling and back around without stopping. There is one place in this hall where the line almost makes it, but not quite. I used to think if the hall were twice as long there would be two places, but that’s not how it works. When I really look at it, I can tell that the hall would have to be five and a third times as long for all the lines to match exactly twice.”

There’s also this delightful bit:

“The next page [of the book] has the title, the authors’ names — Betsy R Cego and Malcolm R Clinton. I wonder if the R stands for the same middle name in both and if that is why they wrote the book together.”

I laughed out loud! What a perfect tidbit to show how differently Lou interprets normal trivial details he encounters.

Now, that kind of thing is like reading an alien’s point of view, and actually it’s also like reading Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sand Reckoner, where Archimedes is the main character and keep drifting off on mathematical tangents (it’s a great book!). Writing really good aliens is certainly a challenge and so is writing geniuses. I certainly did tons of research on materials science when writing my genius-protagonist, Tehre Amnachudran (The Griffin Mage, Book II). And actually, Lou is kind of a genius with some kinds of math, so Moon is doing several hard things at the same time.

But what she does is more than that. Both harder and more meaningful. Moon really brings the reader into the emotional and philosophical world of her autistic protagonist.

For example, though an important secondary character has a grudge against Lou, Lou has enormous trouble first perceiving and then acknowledging that the man is not his friend:

“When I think of the people who know my car by sight and then the people who know where I go on Wednesday nights, the possibilities contract. The evidence sucks in to a point, dragging along a name. It is an impossible name. It is a friend’s name. Friends do not break the windshields of friends. And he has no reason to be angry with me, even if he is angry with Tom and Lucia.”

Every stylistic choice Moon makes as a writer — choices of sentence length and structure, of Lou’s diction and for that matter the diction of all the autistic character, of using first person for Lou’s point of view and third for occasional dips into other character’s points of view — are so perfect for the story. Check out the style here, for example:

“I want to go home now,” Eric says. Dr. Fornum would want me to ask if he is upset. I know he is not upset. If he goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.”

And behind all those stylistic details, Moon also addresses all these big questions — about what ‘normal’ is and about the difference between what we conventionally pretend normal people do and feel vs. what normal people *really* do and feel; about what we consider appropriate behavior for ourselves vs. what we think is appropriate behavior from others — the whole idea of the double standard re-interpreted through the lens of autism. The Speed of Dark is really about identity and about the degree to which we choose who we are.

As Kirkus said about Piper in Five Flavors of Dumb, it’s not that Lou Arrendale is a Great Autistic Character. He’s a great character who is autistic.

The Speed of Dark is a beautiful book. Honestly, when I took it off the shelf, I meant to just look up one or two passages, but I re-read the whole thing instead. I loved it the first time and now I love it even more. Plus, having written a good handful of books of my own, I can now really appreciate the skill as well as the passion that went into a novel that should, if the fates are just, be a classic for the ages.

But these days I have another favorite to place beside Lou and The Speed of Dark: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby.

The corn was talking to him again.

It had been a warm winter and a balmy spring in Bone Gap, so everyone with a field and a taste for corn had plowed and planted earlier than they’d ever dared before. On the last day of his junior year, exactly two months after his life had burst like a thunderhead, Finn walked home from the bus stop past plants already up to his waist. It was his favorite part of the afternoon, or should have been: the sun was bright and hot in the sky, the corn twitching their green fingers. Corn can inches in a single day; if you listened, you could hear it grow. Finn caught the familiar whisper – here, here, here – and wished it would shut up.

The characterization throughout this book is extremely good. I love Finn and Petey; Finn’s brother Sean and Petey’s mom Mel. I love the relationships between all these people! I do blame Sean a little for not trusting his brother more, but I can see why he didn’t; and I also blame him for letting Roza go, but I definitely see what led him to do that.

I love Finn’s bravery, which is the courage of the loner who has learned to go his own way regardless of what other people think; and I love Petey’s ferocity and strength, a kind of strength which is different from Finn’s, and complementary. And Roza’s courage, which is different again – the strength to endure, and to keep trying to rescue herself, and never give up. Roza honestly does not come across as too good to be true even though everyone loves her.

But for this post, I particularly love Finn, who is face blind. I’m moderately face blind myself, though not nearly to the degree Finn is, of course. But the bit about never being able to tell the male actors apart in movies is definitely something I recognize!

It’s so unusual for an author to hand a protagonist some kind of subtle, invisible issue like this, and here Finn’s face blindness is beautifully elucidated as well as integral to the plot. No one among Finn’s family or acquaintances understands what is going on with him until Petey figures it out. It’s a wonderful addition to a wonderful book, one of my very favorites from the past couple of years.

Lou and Finn are hard to beat. For voice and depth of characterization, and beautiful writing throughout the respective books, these two are simply extraordinary protagonists. With disabilities.

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Interesting News Tuesday

This week, I’ve got a couple startling glimpses of the past to share with you:

Copper-covered mummies discovered in remote Siberia from a long-lost Arctic civilisation

The mummified remains of a baby and an adult have been discovered in a medieval necropolis in remote Siberia. The adult was covered in copper from head to toe, while small fragments of copper boiler were placed on the baby.

Archaeologists have yet to find out what exactly these funerary rituals meant. It is also unclear what mysterious ancient civilisation these two individuals belonged to. However, the archaeological site where they were discovered has been known for twenty years and has already revealed a number of secrets about the past….

You know what? Archaeology cannot “discover” exactly what those funerary rights meant. How could anybody possibly do that, absent a time machine? “Meaning” is not something that can be dug up and explicated for posterity. Still, this is quite something.

Next:

Imaging Reveals Medieval Manuscript Hidden in Book Binding

In the mid-16th century, a bookbinder picked up a piece of parchment — one that was already centuries old — and used it to bind a book of poetry. This parchment’s text remained unreadable for nearly 500 years, but now, thanks to state-of-the-art imaging techniques, people can read its words once more, according to a new study….The team sent the book to the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) in Ithaca, New York, where powerful X-rays fully imaged the text and its marginal comments. When the researchers sent the results to study co-researcher Richard Kieckhefer, a professor of religion and history at Northwestern, he announced that it was a sixth-century Roman law code with notes referencing the church’s canon law

Now how about *that*? The things you can do with modern technology. Amazing.

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Shadow Twin cover art

Hey, all, here is a blog post at Willow Raven’s site, showcasing the cover for Shadow Twin.

Here’s what I’m going with as back cover copy, so far:

After everything she’s seen, Natividad was sure Ezekiel could take care of himself. Under any circumstances. Against any enemy. Whether he was temporarily exiled from Dimilioc or not. Then the link between them, forged when she absorbed a trace of Ezekiel’s shadow, makes it clear she was wrong.

She knows Ezekiel isn’t dead. She knows he must have met an enemy he couldn’t defeat alone. And she knows she has to rescue him, no matter the cost.

* * *

Miguel’s brother is a black dog and his sister is Pure, but Miguel himself is only human. That has its downsides for anyone living among the Dimilioc wolves, but at least an ordinary human has a chance to think problems through, his mind unclouded by black dog rage.

But when Miguel and Natividad and the wolves of Dimilioc have no choice but to walk into a trap, even human ingenuity may not be able to get them out again…

I have always liked Miguel, the only non-super-powered sibling and one of the very few ordinary people living in Dimilioc. He is far more front-and-center in this third book than he ever has been before — except in that one short story with Cassie, of course.

Cassie isn’t actually present for most of the action in Shadow Twin. But the text exchanges between Miguel and Cassie are one of my favorite details.

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The Craft of Writing

Voice and characterization

The Writing Workshop coming up at ArmadilloCon in a few weeks is making me think about the craft of writing, and that in turn has made me want to go waaaaay back in time and pull out some of my older blog posts and re-post ’em. With perhaps a tiny bit of revision. So this post is revised from one back in 2011, right after I started posting here regularly.

So, voice. And characterization. The two are not separable, I’m sure we all agree. One of the issues that occasionally interferes with falling into a fantasy world is seen where characters speak to each other with modern American idiom (and also possess, for inexplicable reasons, modern American attitudes and mores, but that’s another issue). Of course that can actually work well, but putting modern idiom into the mouth of a character from some other world is a technique that should be used deliberately, not because the author implicitly believes that everyone at all times and places uses identical idiom.

But aside from that, voice is fundamental when you’re trying to create a character who seems like a true individual, a unique person, distinct from all others both real and fictional. I think, for example, that voice is the single most important issue for trying to make your brand-new Urban Fantasy stand out from the huuuuge horde of other UF. For quite a while there, all UF featured a young woman protagonist and a first person style, and my didn’t all those books just blend right together into an amorphous mass of indistinguishability. Except for the ones that stood out, which for me were Briggs’ Mercy Thompson and Andrews’ Kate Daniels.

It’s not just voice that makes those books stand out from the crowd, but voice is one of the most important features, I think.

So, taking a closer look at how to build a unique voice: one technique that works extremely well depends on really getting the rhythm of language and also getting when and how to break grammar rules.

Here’s a sample of entertaining dialogue:

“Only once, really, but that was because I scared them and it was really Prothvar’s fault because I asked him to teach me and he wouldn’t teach me he just laughed and said I couldn’t but I knew I could so I did it to show him I could but he didn’t know I could and then he got scared and they got angry and that’s when I got scolded. But it was really Prothvar’s fault.”

How about that? The comma-before-conjunction rule is totally ignored, plus this sentence includes one actual run on (did you notice it?). Doesn’t that work beautifully to give a rushed feel to this speech? That’s Jaenelle from Anne Bishop’s Black Jewel’s trilogy; she was about eight years old in this scene. Doesn’t the one-pronoun-after-another thing really do the job of making Jaenelle sound like a young child? It’s all getting the rhythm of the language, plus breaking rules effectively.

Here’s another one:

“By the by, I think you, and, for that matter, Dick, are wrong about David, because you do not realize that he is an honest man, and of more importance, he is a man looking for the Truth, rather than, as you seem to think, one convinced he has found it, though, to be sure, he sometimes thinks he has found a large piece of it, and that makes him annoying, if not downright dangerous, but I do not think this happens as often as you think, and soon enough he is himself again, in which state he is less belligerent than you pretend, until you or Dick light his train, as you are wont to do.”

That’s Kitty from Freedom and Necessity, an amazing, complicated, historical epistilary novel with very slight fantasy trimmings around the edges, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. Three different interesting things are going on here, all of which give Kitty a tremendously engaging and individual voice. Obviously there’s the super-long sentences (118 words!). Despite its length, this sentence is grammatically correct, which with this kind of sentence is a statement in itself. Also, of course, we’ve got a lack of contractions, which normally makes the writer sound like she’s doing a bad Mr. Spock imitation, plus the word choices of an educated adult (“to be sure”, “belligerent”). Plus the period slang (“light his train”). Kitty’s letters also have a LOT of italicized words in them, though that passage didn’t happen to have any.

The combination of the italicized words and the long sentences with the correct grammar, the formal word choice and the lack of contractions really produces a fascinating voice: an impulsive, breezy woman who writes a highly individualilzed version of the 1800’s educated-person’s style. Historical “feel” and personal “voice” all in one.

One more example of creating voice with long, fast-paced sentences:

“He isn’t going to walk, he’s going to climb, which is quite different, besides being much safer than staying out here where he can’t really do much. Of course, there are a great many people who don’t do much and who are quite safe, though perhaps a bit boring; still, I’m afraid Eltiron isn’t one of them, which is probably just as well since most people don’t like being bored.”

And a page later, same character:

“I don’t believe I said he was a sorcerer, though it’s quite possible. Not, of course, a good sorcerer, or I doubt he’d have gotten into such a predicament. . . . It’s really quite fortunate you were here; it would have been very inconvenient to have the Matholych in Leshiya. Rather like having a basilisk in one’s cellar, which would be extremely awkward for practically anyone.”

This is Amberglas, a sorceress from Patricia Wrede’s early novel, The Seven Towers. Every word Amberglas speaks is so delightful it’s hard to stop quoting her:

“I haven’t the least objection to your making oaths and promises for yourself, though of course what you were suggesting does sound a bit extreme. But binding other people for all time is an exceedingly dangerous thing to do, particularly when they aren’t there, no matter how justified it seems, and frequently has rather unpleasant consequences for everyone. So I’d rather you didn’t, though it’s extremely good of you to offer.”

Isn’t that fabulous? It’s the free association and unexpected analogies which “make” the voice for this wonderful character. This book turned me into an instant Patricia Wrede fan.

Which is easier to read, the almost comma-free style of young Jaenelle, Kitty’s extremely comma-intense style, or the in-between comma usage + periods we see from Amberglas? Each gives a different effect, each is wonderfully suited to the character who uses it, and there’s no possible way you could give any of these character’s one of the other styles without totally changing how she ‘feels’ to the reader.

Here’s a completely different reason to use long sentences — this isn’t a character speaking, but a description of ongoing action:

“The stairs twisted and they ran onto a portico half-opened to the night, then over the high, covered walkway above Horda’s Garden, the night crisp and bright around them and Crise, below, rummaging with a Bec shadi for the small winter roses that lived, bright and chilly, under the mantle of snow. Lyeth scooped a handful of snow from one embrasure and, as she passed the next, aimed and let fly.”

The 53 words in the first sentence of that passage won’t beat out Kitty’s 118 any time soon, but it’s still pretty long! The scene this comes from involves a race. One of the ways the author (Marta Randell; this is her very good novel The Sword of Winter) speeds up the action during the race is by suddenly using a lot of long sentences and dropping some of the standard punctuation. Notice the lack of commas before two conjuctions that would normally have them. The change this gives the rhythm of the sentence is marked, even if a reader wouldn’t normally notice how that chance contributes to the “feel” of the scene.

So, long sentences! Takes me back to when I was writing my Master’s thesis and my advisor kept trying to take out my semi-colons! (I kept them, as I recall).

Now, what effects do short sentences produce? In dialogue and in description? Pay attention to a hard-boiled detective novel: that’s one place you see that kind of prose. Also, I just read my first Spenser novel (by Robert Parker, I must be the only person my age who likes genre fiction but had never read one). The AVERAGE sentence length on one random page of that novel was 7.73. Quite a difference! Admittedly, there was a lot of dialogue on that page, but then, there’s a lot of dialogue on lots of the pages of that book.

Short, punchy, powerful sentences create a very different kind of character. Suppose at an intense moment, your male lead says this to your female lead:

I want you. Not her. You. Right now.

You could practically design the entire character from this tiny snippet. There is no possible overlap between this character and, say, Amberglas. You could not possibly interchange their dialogue, not for a second.

One book in which every single character can be quickly and easily identified by his or her dialogue, without dialogue tags or other clues, is Godbody by Theodore Sturgeon. There’s a unique book in a lot of ways, and I don’t suppose I have much of an impulse to re-read it, but it’s certainly worth a good look for dialogue, voice, and how important both are to characterization.

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