Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Worldbuilding: More about names

I thought, given the recent post about names and diacritical marks, I’d just talk a little bit more about developing consistent-sounding names for secondary world fantasy novels. Of course that’s a very different type of thing than coming up with good character names for a contemporary or historical novel, and most science fiction books either use contemporary names, or a mix of contemporary and created names, or sometimes contemporary words in unexpected ways (such as Butterflies-are-free Peace Sincere).

But for secondary world fantasy, you need a whole bunch of character and place names that all sound good, and kind of evoke the character or place, and also sound consistent, like they all came from the same language background. I’m sure I don’t need to point this out, but within one geographical region, if one character is named, say, Innisth terè Maèr Eäneté, then maybe another shouldn’t be named Kzoch Techotlin or Qing Pe Swe or anything else so very different. That’s reasonable only if one character has traveled a long way, from a region with a very distinct language background. What are some ways to make up names that all sound like they came from the same linguistic tradition?

For The White Road of the Moon and Winter of Ice and Iron – again, both based on my first attempt to write a fantasy novel – I just made up words that looked nice to me. The trouble with doing that forever is that the same letters and letter combinations always are going to look good or look less good to a specific author, unless their taste changes dramatically for some reason. I like t and r and n more than g or p or z. But if you are writing in lots of completely different secondary worlds, none of the languages should necessarily look too much like English and (even more important) they should not all look like they are derived from the same language, so you can’t keep on emphasizing “t” and deemphasizing “g” forever in everything you write.

One way I’ve used several times to create a coherent-sounding set of names is: open a handy guide to (say) the mammals of Borneo and steal a whole bunch of words, shuffling letters around to avoid using the actual names and also to avoid the rather common “ng” letter combination, which to English-speakers looks unpronounceable if at the beginning of a word (ngombe) or often silly if at the end of a word (pring). This will give you a lot of cool-looking names that are pretty easy to pronounce, seem to have come out of one unified linguistic tradition, but don’t look a bit like English. (The resulting book with the names derived from those names derived from the mammals and places of Borneo is not yet published, so don’t try to think which one it could possibly be.)

Another time I opened a German dictionary and did the same thing, again switching letters around freely. That was for the second Griffin Mage book, when I needed a lot of Casmantian names and places. This did create a different complication: for the German edition, the translator asked if it would be all right to change any names that would look silly to German-speaking readers. Of course I said yes, so the names are a little different in that edition. I don’t know if that suggests this method of creating a coherent-sounding language is inherently unwise, but it does illustrate one peril of doing it that way.

An alternate method, if one is wary of sounding silly to German-speakers or whomever, is to list the letters of the alphabet and more or less arbitrarily remove half a dozen consonants and one vowel. Then pick half a dozen consonants and one vowel to use a lot. Then come up with one or a few letter combinations that are uncommon in English, like aa or tch or tl or ei.

Now create a bunch of words. Want to make all the masculine names end in –a and –i, all the feminine names end in –o and –aa? This is the time to come up with rules of that kind as well. Maybe reach outside modern custom and pick –a for children and –ei for adolescents and –i for adults and –o for the elders; why not?

Just don’t do the same kind of thing with prefixes because if you name all your children something beginning with A, your readers will never be able to tell your characters apart. It’s quite remarkable how names that ought to be obviously different, such as Ketièth and Kehera, confuse the eye even though one terminates with a vertical stroke and the other a rounded letter. (I had a rather important character named Ketièth for a long time in Winter, but at the last moment changed his name to Gereth on the grounds that there were hardly any characters who started with a G and even I was sometimes confusing the two K names.)

Okay, I’m sure we all agree that names are important. If you have by any chance ever invented a world that was not contemporary or historical, but was secondary, with a completely different language, did you use any specific tricks to create names that sounded consistent, unfamiliar, and interesting? Can you think of any authors who have done an especially great job with names in a secondary world setting?

I’ve got one: Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette) in The Goblin Emperor. Let me add, in case you do not know, there is a glossary in the back of the book. This is not obvious in the ebook edition, but it would be handy to know about while reading because the names are quite something: long and complicated and often difficult to pronounce (Csethiro, for example). You will note, however, that Addison gave the actual protagonist an easy-to-pronounce name. I definitely think this is a good idea. No matter what you are going to do with names in general, for heaven’s sake, make sure the main character’s name is not going to cause difficulty. It’s got to be difficult to connect emotionally with the character if you can’t pronounce the name. The farthest I’ve ever departed from that rule is with Timou in The City in the Lake. At least it’s short and easily recognized. Any reader should be able to decide how they want to pronounce it, so hopefully it wasn’t a problem for anyone.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Worldbuilding: Names and naming conventions

So, as you might already know, The White Road of the Moon (now available for the bargain price of $10.22 in Hardcover, a tiny bit cheaper than Kindle) and Winter of Ice and Iron (which you can preorder this very moment for the low, low price of $7.99) both had their origin in the first unpublishable fantasy story I ever wrote: a sprawling 1500-page trilogy that taught me a whole lot about writing, especially when I took it apart and put it back together in these two standalones. This post describes that process in more detail.

The two stories are now set in quite distinctive worlds, with very different metaphysics and magic and all that, but their common origin remains evident in two ways (I think just two, but you can all judge for yourselves when Winter comes out).

One is the basic shape of the land in which the story is set: each has four or five smallish kingdoms distributed across a kind of peninsula, a landmass that is longer north-south than it is wide, separated from the rest of the world by some sort of barrier in the south. This is largely because I originally started drawing the map in the lower left corner and drew one continuous coastline up and around until I wound up in the lower right corner, and then threw up a mountain range in the south because that was the bottom of the page. I always have a mild tendency to draw landmasses that basically look like this, though if you flip through my books – I think they mostly do have maps in them – you’ll see I have sometimes fairly successfully resisted that tendency.

In The White Road, as you may know, the southern barrier is the Southern Wall, a barrier of impassible mountains raised up by magic long ago in order to protect the peninsula from the threat of conquest. In Winter, it’s the Wall of Winds, also called the Wall of Storms and so on. This was also magically created to protect the northern peninsula, though this time from a really dire threat of total destruction. For all anyone knows, nothing now lies to the south but maelstroms of chaos and dragons (these are thoroughly chaotic dragons, totally different from the dragons of The Floating Islands or the one in House of Shadows. Coming up with extremely different conceptions of dragons for each book is a delightful part of worldbuilding … well, leave that for later. Back to names!

Which are the other main way in which these two worlds still resemble each other. Lots of the characters and lots of the place-names from that original trilogy got assigned to one or the other of the new books, so there are common elements in the names of people and places; far more so than, say, the names from Feierabiand and Casmantium in the Griffin Mage trilogy. For example, there is the common diphthong “iy”, which I basically threw into a bunch of names to say This Is Not English to the reader, lending a foreign flavor without making pronunciation especially difficult. (Just pronounce Tikiy like Tick-EE and Deconnniy as Deck-CON-ee.). There are also lots of vowels and various letters are more common than English; others less common.

In the same way that I changed the nature of the southern barrier and just how it got there and exactly what threat it protects the northern lands from, I stripped nearly all of the original diacritical marks from the names in one of the books and exaggerated them a trifle in the other, basically as a cosmetic change to indicate a little more firmly that This World Over Here Is Not The Same As That Other World Over There. There were plenty of diacritical marks in the original fantasy because they’re just kinda pretty, but the way they are now used in Winter of Ice and Iron is more carefully standardized because (as the Griffin Mage trilogy made clear to me) some readers really care A LOT about pronunciation.

Here are some typical names from each book:

From The White Road

Jaift Gehliy…..which was originally Jaïft, but that accent mark didn’t do anything to the pronunciation, which for me was simply Jayft, so there was no reason not to take out the mark.
Niniol…..which was originally Niniöl; again, I think it looks like Ninn-ee-ol with or without the mark.
Diöllin…..which retained the diaeresis, also called in French the accent tréma, because I just think the name looks so much better with the accent mark than without. This led me to declare that in this world, older, archaic names might still have diacritical marks, lost in the modern era during which the events of the story occur. Thus we have:
Tiamanaith……the name of a modern woman, versus
Aseraiëth…..the name of a woman who lived a long time ago.
And we also have Carad Mereth as the modern name of a man who once was known as Laìdomìdan – a name that picked up accent marks specifically to signal that it’s an archaic name.

Modern place names in The White Road are also simple: Riam, Surem. This is mainly to give readers a break from more complicated names, but the reader is supposed to understand, without having to figure it out, that some sort of unexplained historical convention underlies variants of names for associated places: Cora Tal, Cora Talen, Cora Diorr; also, if you look at the map, Elan Tal and Elan Diorr and so on. The author doesn’t have to explain this kind of thing for it to add a sense of history and depth to the world; the reader is just safe in assuming there is some kind of historical, philological reason for these kinds of names. (No, I don’t know the history of naming in this world; I just know there is such a history.)

The double “rr” at the end of the word “Diorr” isn’t something I pronounce, incidentally; though if a reader felt like rolling it, that would be fine. It’s just there to say again This Is Not English, since the double “rr” in English never occurs at the end of words.

But let’s move on and contrast the above names with some from Winter.

Winter of Ice and Iron, US Hardback

Eäneté, both the name of a province and the name of the principal town in the province.
Innisth terè Maèr Eänetai, the ruler of that province.
Eänetaìsarè, the name of the Immanent Power of that province.

Careful reading will make it clear that “Innisth” is the personal name, “Maèr” the family name, and “Eänetai” the name that indicates Innisth Maèr rules the province of Eäneté. (I never established rules for the lower-case middle names because it never became important.)

Similarly, we have Raëh, a province and city; Kehera irinè Elin Raëhema; and Raëhemaiëth. The name of the Immanent is always longer, the ruler’s name medium, the province name mostly shorter. I don’t swear that I stuck to that every single time, but I kind of had that pattern in mind.

You’ll see other names of that sort all through the book, and you have my agent, Caitlin, to thank for the similarity of town-title-Immanent names, because they didn’t start off that way but she just insisted that the names were too confusing and kept prodding me to provide more cues about what person and Power belonged to what place until I eventually did it her way. I’m sure she was right and anyway it wasn’t that much trouble to adjust the names.

As you can see, though not all the names have accent marks, lots do, and plenty have more than one. As it happens, all the accent marks work pretty much the same way in the world of Winter as they do in French. Thus:

Reiöft: The “ei” vowels are pronounced together, but the accent tréma, also called a diaeresis, indicates that the “o” is sounded separately. This is the same use of the mark as in the word “naïve.” You can think of it exactly that way every time it’s used. I also consider that it adds emphasis, so this name would be pronounced Ree-OFT.

Verè: The accent grave deemphasizes the vowel. You will see it mainly on an “e” at the end of the word, and it almost renders the terminal “e” silent. If that “e” is sounded at all, it’s as in “eh,” a breathy, half-swallowed vowel. When you see an accent grave in the middle of a word, as in Quòn or Caèr, it still deemphasizes that vowel. The former name is pronounced with a single shortish vowel sound, a lot like Kwon; the latter becomes more breathy, like Kehr.

The accent aigu, or acute, is used to accent a syllable – but in French it also indicates that the é should be sounded as “ay.” I intended the latter. You nearly always see the acute on a terminal “e” and it sounds that “e” as an “ay.”

Thus, clearly, Eöté is Ee-OH-tay.

Also, Eäneté is Ee-AN-eh-tay, and Eänetaìsarè is something like Ee-AN-neh-tie-sah-reh

So you see, even though to begin with I fundamentally threw in the accent marks to look pretty, I did make a reasonable attempt to standardize pronunciation before I finalized the spelling of the character and place names. I’m pretty sure the above rules are more or less what I was using when I subvocalized the names. But again, hey, if you like other pronunciations for any of the names, that won’t bother me one bit.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

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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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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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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Reasons a book winds up on the DNF pile

So, I tried a new-to-me author last night. I read the first chapter and then deleted the sample. Here is the book:

Here is what Sharon Shinn’s blurb says about it:

“A vivid, violent, and marvelously detailed historical fantasy set in the perilous world that is medieval England in the middle of a war. Elisha Barber wades through blood and battle in his pursuit of arcane knowledge—forbidden love—and dangerous magic.”

Here’s what DB Jackson says about it:

“Blending magic and history, strong characters and gripping action, E.C. Ambrose brings a startlingly unique voice to our genre. Part epic fantasy, part medical thriller, part historical novel, Elisha Barber is at once dark, powerful, redemptive, and ultimately deeply satisfying.”

Here’s why I couldn’t bear to go on with it, even though all this sounds so promising (warning, the next paragraph will consist of spoilers for the first chapter of the book):

In the first chapter, Elisha’s estranged brother come to him for help because his, the brother’s, wife is suffering through a terrible delivery. Elisha finds the baby is breech and also the baby is already dead. In order to save his brother’s wife, despite the horror of this kind of surgery, Elisha cuts the dead baby into pieces and delivers the body that way. Despite his efforts, the wife dies. His brother commits suicide. End of chapter.

Now, tell me, assuming the book is well written and the (extremely gritty) setting well-drawn, would you keep going? Of course you can’t answer that without actually reading the first chapter for yourself. If you want to do that, here is the link to the book on Amazon.

However, this is the sort of beginning that I find practically unbearable, no matter how admirable a man Elisha is.

Is there anything that could have made this work for me?

Actually, there is:

Drop all that into the backstory. Don’t tell it as a prologue, just leave it a dark mystery in a tragic past. Jump ahead a couple of decades, or at least a couple of years, or at the very least a couple of months. Start the story wherever seems advisable. Move ahead with the action. Gradually reveal the tragic backstory as you tell the rest of the story.

That, in case you are curious, is how to keep a horrible, horrible incident without causing readers like me to recoil violently and then either delete your book or give it away. The distance gained by putting the tragedy in the past makes it far more tolerable to read about, particularly if the protagonist has managed to come somewhat to terms with the horrible incident.

Not that everyone should always handle a tragic backstory that way. Of course not. “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!”

I’m just mentioning this as a way to make it work for readers who otherwise might not get past the tragedy and into the real story.

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One of my biggest problems as a reader, explained

Here in this post at Book View Cafe, Alma Alexander takes a stab at explaining something that is a huge (huge) problem — often a dealbreaker — for me as a reader: Why characters do stupid things.

We’ve all read those books. The ones where everything is going swimmingly and then somebody you’re supposed to care about does something so eye-wateringly dumb that your eyes hurt from rolling, and that sound you hear is your molars grinding together.

To some extent, this is inevitable – a story is what happens when *things go wrong*, and what the characters inhabiting that story do to right those things. So there might be a defensible starting point where a character has to do something stupid – or deal with something stupid – to get the story engines rolling properly. But here are a couple of things to watch out for when you’re writing that story.

I disagree. There are always (ALWAYS) ways to make things go wrong without compelling your characters to do something mindbogglingly stupid.

However, this post is actually about ways to watch out for and avoid unnecessary stupidity. Alexander addresses the kind of plot where everything could be worked out if only the characters would TALK to each other (my least favorite ever), the kind of plot where important elements hinge on a character’s brain melting at a crucial moment (my least favorite ever), and the kind of plot where a character does something stupid just because they are told to by someone else (my least favorite ever).

I would add that the kind of plot where the protagonist hovers around the action making ineffectual gestures to deal with the situation as things go increasingly downhill . . . also my least favorite ever. Not because of active stupidity, but because of general passivity and a failure to be a smart, creative, and effective actor.

Yet another: false equivalence. When the protagonist refuses to do something because it “would make us just like the bad guy.” The author ought to be able to see how stupid this is, when the protagonist is defending herself or others and the bad guy is EVIL INCARNATE. The reader can sure tell the difference. Refusing to let the protagonist take action in order to keep the bad guy around for the second half of the book is, well, just find some other way to do that, all right? You can always prevent the protagonist’s reasonable attempt to defeat the bad guy from working somehow. Think about “Let’s take off and nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” That was a smart decision, derailed by circumstance. This is far, far better than stupid decisions.

And one more type of stupidity: a character who is so emotional and impulsive that she (always a she) just can’t control herself and so keeps doing obviously stupid things even though she knows they are stupid … absolutely my least favorite ever.

None of this is even faintly acceptable to me as a reader. I’m not sure anything besides weird word choices and actual typos turns me off more strongly. One of the main things I always want my brother to check for me as a beta reader — actually the single most important thing — is: did any characters do anything unbelievably stupid? Their clever plans were actually more or less clever, right?

Forthwith, some practical examples of each form:

Example the first: To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust. If only the characters had talked to each other! So much grief could have been avoided! I will add that I remember nothing else about this book besides that. I only read it once. This would be why.

Example the second: In the well-known YA alternate China duology Eon and Eona, right toward the beginning the politically astute elderly mentor accepts a glass of fruit juice offered by an unknown hand and drinks it even though it tastes bitter, and even though he had every reason to suspect someone will try to assassinate him. He dies, cause directly attributable to this moment of mind-boggling stupidity.

In fact, at roughly the same time, every important figure who should have expected assassination also gets murdered, with none of them taking any action to protect themselves or act against their common enemy.

None of this was even faintly believable. I did finish the duology, but barely, and only after throwing the first book across the room twice. Nothing else as awful happened in it (as far as I remember) and actually I really enjoyed, oh, say, the second half of the second book. But I gave the duology away after finishing it.

Example the third: Actually, I’m having trouble thinking of an example where an important protagonist did something stupid just because they were told to, and then everything went predictably to hell. Anybody got one of those?

Example the fourth: In one of Kelly Armstrong’s books, possibly Bitten but I wouldn’t swear to it, the boss werewolf has a plan that is so eye-wateringly stupid that I actually thought he had some other plan. Nope. Things worked out anyway, but only because of dumb luck. I will add that Armstrong’s portrayal of the wolf half of her werewolves is just delightful. As far as I know, these are the most wolf-like of any werewolves. I read several others in the series because of that. But she could have used a beta reader to say witheringly, “Seriously? This is the plan?” and make her come up with something better.

Example the fifth: I have loved several of Juliet Marillier’s books. Her writing is beautiful. But in Wildwood Dancing, everything slowly and comprehensively goes to hell while the main character wrings her hands and takes absolutely no effective action. This was so painful to read that I gave the book away.

Example the sixth: The protagonist in Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking is so ridiculously impulsive, she is constantly throwing herself into the most asinine situations. I couldn’t stand it and never touched another book in the series. It didn’t help that the author used the word “mink” to refer to an animal that was obviously an ermine, something I wish Harrison’s copy editor had caught. But the stupidity of the protagonist was the main issue for me.

Example the seventh: I regret to say that Sharon Shinn, generally one of my favorite authors, did the false equivalence thing in her Twelve Houses series. First book, I think. The one where Senneth refuses to kill the main bad guy, thus allowing the kingdom to be engulfed in war. How many people died because of that moment of irresolution? Also, the king was super-slow to take effective action, so he was also to blame for putting his kingdom through some completely unnecessary years of hardship and violence. I like the series anyway, but this may be one reason the final book, set after the main conflict is over, is by far my favorite and the one I go back to and re-read.

Things that work much better than any of the above:

1. A character can make a mistake without being stupid. That is what the character’s ignorance of the real situation is for. Look at the Nazi duology by Barbara Hambly. It’s not stupid for the protagonists to not realize how evil the Nazis are. How are they supposed to be able to tell? Still not at all my favorite books by Hambly, but protagonist stupidity is not the issue. Or remember when some of the main characters break into the bad guy’s stronghold in Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts trilogy? Pity they didn’t know they should find the captive Roc and set it free, but how were they to know that?

2. The character, especially a young character, can be somewhat impulsive without being totally idiotic. Many, many YA novels pull this off perfectly well.

3. The character can take a risk. Alexander refers to this: Having a character do a stupidly brave thing with only poor to middling chances of its success, but trying for it anyway, is a pretty decent way to write something poignant … Yes, that would work. Most books where someone takes a chance like this have that risk pay off. Having the character take a chance and get tails instead of heads should produce real sympathy rather than an impulse toward book-flinging.

4. The character may not choose to obey a superior in a stupid way, but be compelled to. This is rather common. Of course one then expects a plot and character arc that leads to the protagonist defying his or her superior, regardless of the personal cost. That’s a very compelling arc for me.

Alexander sums this all up thus:

Why do characters do stupid things? Because they’re forced to. Because they’re in love. Because in their best judgment (without knowing all the facts, which you as the author are aware of) making a certain choice seems to be the right thing to do and they only find out otherwise much later in the adventure. Because, perhaps, their moral compass tells them to flout authority because they don’t agree with that authority, even though consequences might be dire for themselves. Because they care. Because they DON’T care anymore, because something has hurt them so badly that they’re beyond caring. Because they’re flawed. … When your characters are faced with making the mistakes they will inevitably make in order for your story to move forward… make sure they’re driving the plot bus, not being thrown under the wheels of one for short term pointless comic relief or through pure inattention on the author’s part.

But I would add that it’s definitely not okay to drive the plot with character stupidity. Flaws, yes, but not stupidity. Mistakes ought to be not just understandable, but practically inevitable given the protagonist’s current knowledge of the situation. That’s the key to making the plot work for a reader who, like me, is violently allergic to character stupidity.

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Rescuing your first novel from under your bed

So, I was on the “Rescuing your ‘trunk novel'” panel at Archon, where I was somewhat surprised to find that the three other panelists — Elizabeth Donald, Henry Melton, and “Tex” Thompson — have also successfully rescued, revised, re-polished, and published some of their very early work. I thought that was fairly rare, but I guess it’s far from unheard of.

Tex Thompson evidently writes weird westerns, btw, plus she was hilarious as a co-panelist and did a particularly good job moderating, so I expect I will check out something of hers.

Anyway, as might be expected, we were all quite different in just exactly how we conceptualize “rescuing” a “trunk novel.” For example, Elizabeth described how she expanded an early short story that didn’t work into a novel that did work. Hah, totally the opposite of me cutting down a massive 1500 pp trilogy into first one and then another standalone novel.

I want to talk more about that here, including a detailed summary of just what went where. It was tricky to think how to talk about this; after all I don’t want to hand you a lot of spoilers for both the resultant books. Here is a list of important characters and elements from the original manuscript, in nonspecific trope form:

Important Elements of the Original 1500 pp Trilogy

The Village Girl
The Dog
The Mysterious Sorcerer
The Ghost Boy
The Best Friend
The Nice Boy from a Good Family
The Retired Soldier
Witches
Ghosts

The Responsible Princess
Her Brother, a Prince
Her Father, a King
Her Best Friend
The Wolf Duke
His Seneschal
The Evil Nobleman

The Prince Who Never Expected to be Heir
His Father, the Mad King
His Sister (deceased, a ghost)
The Clever Nobleman
The Lord of Thieves

The Fortunate God and the Quiet God
The Blue Priests and the White Priests
The Genii Locorum (spirits of places)

The Antagonist

A Basically Coherent Plot (With Significant Flaws)

Conveniently, that is 25 elements plus a plot. Twenty-five is such an nice, easy number to work with and remember. I didn’t do that on purpose, though. The above is just a list of all the important elements I could think of, sorted out in groups by which of the three protagonists they were particularly associated with. Now, on the panel, we discussed our various reclamation processes, and of course handled this in different ways.

Mine was basically … look, you know how sculptors sometimes say they carve away the part of the stone that isn’t part of the statue? Well, I started by deleting huge swathes of text that weren’t part of the new book I had in mind. Remember the idea was to turn an overlong trilogy into a single book. So this part was all about deciding which of the three protagonists was going to be THE protagonist, and then choosing the elements that would stay in her story. This was a fun destructive take-an-ax-to-it kind of process, the sort of thing that doesn’t take very long initially, so you can do it without actually committing to a real revision. (Less fun was carving away the pieces I thought were part of the story, that turned out not to be. But that came (much) later.)

So, taking the resulting books in publication order, here is —

The White Road of the Moon, coming out March 2017:

The Village Girl
The Dog
The Mysterious Sorcerer
The Ghost Boy
The Best Friend
The Retired Soldier
Witches
Ghosts

The prince who never expected to be heir was retained, though in vastly changed form.
So was his sister, the ghost, somewhat less altered.

A handful of new elements were naturally added, including a pretty snazzy horse (okay, sort of a horse) and a new antagonist.

And the plot started off looking the same but rapidly went off in a different direction.

That’s it. If you count, you will find that roughly 40% of the elements from the original trilogy were conserved in this story. Everything else was stripped away, mostly in the very early stages of the revision process, but some much later. I practically cried when I carved away the gods and the priests. I *really* liked those aspects of the story. They were there for a long time. But the story was too long and too complicated and finally I sent it to my agent saying Please help me cut this. And she said, I love some of these characters and I’m sure you can use them elsewhere, but this one and that one can vanish entirely from this story and then you can go straight from point B to point G without passing through C-F in between.

She was right. This cut was dreadful, but it worked.

In the end, about 1/3 of the resulting standalone novel was taken from the original trilogy. The first 150 pp or so are almost unchanged, just lightly revised. A few other extended scenes were retained, though with the pov character changing and other quite substantial revisions.

The climactic scenes changed a lot (after all, different antagonist), but a lot of my favorite sentences and paragraphs were conserved.

Okay, next:

The Dark Turn of Winter (title may change), an adult fantasy now set in quite a different world, due out November 2017

The Responsible Princess
Her Brother, a Prince
Her Father, a King
Her Best Friend
The Wolf Duke
His Seneschal
The Evil Nobleman

The Mad King

The Genii Locorum, now called Immanent Powers

The Antagonist

The Basic Plot, revised, including a different take on the gods. Also, much of the original geography.

Various new elements, including really scary dragons.

Okay, so how about that? That’s again about 40% of the original elements. I would estimate that for this book, close to 2/3 of the final story was taken from the original trilogy. A whole lot of pov scenes were added for The Brother and especially for The Wolf Duke, but the Responsible Princess’s plotline and most of her scenes are very closely based on the original trilogy. However, for this one, there were fairly extensive revisions and additions to practically everything.

The Antagonist and basic plot were heavily revised, but conserved.

How much trouble was all this revision? Enough that it is pretty comparable to writing two brand-new books. But writing these two was fun, a different kind of fun than I normally enjoy when writing. Seeing some of what I’d done badly in the original trilogy was educational. Seeing that my sentences and paragraphs were already good and worth lifting into a new story was actually very satisfying. Pulling coherent new plots together was interesting, and since plotting is hard for me, it was a relief to have so much of that already done, especially for the latter book.

The most painful part was cutting the important Blue Priest and everything associated with him. I’m now wondering if he might not be an important supporting character in a new project in the next year or two. Also the Thief Lord, who was a great favorite of mine. I’ve always had a really soft spot for thieves in fantasy. Well, we’ll see what I can do with them later.

Next up! Well, or sometime in the not too distant future, maybe. I would like to try rescuing my very first science fiction novel, actually a huge unwieldy duology that honestly I don’t think is all that well-written but has some great elements in it. A lot of it could be conserved, including all the important characters and some of the basic plot. I think.

Anyway, I certainly am happy that I never threw away that original fantasy trilogy. YMMV, but I suggest just tossing your early work in a drawer (or the virtual equivalent) and coming back to it in ten years, just in case you also find a rescue project worthwhile.

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It isn’t a story until something goes wrong

From a post at Kill Zone Blog, this gem:

There is another tip, though, that transcends opinion to become holy writ. I’ve seen it work wonders for writers who have struggled to move forward without ever really wrapping their head around it. With a more open mind, though (and yes, it’s a shame that we sometimes need an open mind to see that which is simply, obviously and always true, in writing and in life), it can change your writing journey the moment you see it, provided it parts the curtain of your understanding:

It isn’t a story until something goes wrong.

Not bad! I think this is (almost) universally true (but not quite). The author of the post — Larry Brooks — is thinking about real stuff actively going wrong:

… newer writers in particular get stuck writing about something — a character, a place, a time, an issue, all without plot-driven conflict or antagonism other than the hero’s inner issues — rather than writing about something happening in the context of something gone wrong for your protagonist, launching the hero on a dramatic quest that unfolds under escalating pressure from antagonistic opposition, threat, urgency and emotionally-resonant stakes.

You see? Something goes actively wrong, leading or forcing the protagonist into an active quest.

This is basically going to be true for SFF, certainly, but true universally? I’m not sure I think so. As you may have noted by now, I am not crazy about much of the literary fiction I’ve tried — I have totally, utterly hated some of the literary fiction I’ve tried — but even so I would say that something can go wrong internally for the protagonist and that counts as something going wrong and can drive a story. Possibly not a story I would want to read, but a story. I’m thinking of MADAME BOVARY here, incidentally, where what goes wrong is all internal (as I recall) and the protagonist’s “quest” is more a sinking into ennui. (As I recall! I read it twice (ugh!), but it was a long time ago). I can think of other literary titles where this was the basic idea.

Now, to be fair, I tried to think of a book with little in the way of active stuff happening that I actually really loved. For example, a story like IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE by Rumer Godden, which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. It is a quiet novel about a woman who becomes a nun. Everything that matters is internal there, too.

That whole thing about opposition, threat and urgency is not the point of books like this. Can one say that stuff goes wrong for the protagonist? Maybe, sort of, but quietly wrong, and the external problems are not the point of the book. I think it would be stretching a point to say this kind of novel fits the rule above.

On the other hand, for SFF, it seems to me it is pretty much always true that you don’t have a story until something goes wrong.

Somebody on a panel … Sarah Beth Durst maybe? … I’m not sure, but whoever it was said, You start your story where things change irrevocably for your protagonist. That’s not quite the same thing, but it’s close, and it stuck with me because I think it’s pretty much true as well. I will say, I’ve started books at a different point than that and done the moment-when-things-irrevocably-changed in the backstory. (THE FLOATING ISLANDS.) Still, I think that’s a useful way of looking at where to start a story. And then generally the story moves forward because of things that go wrong — more and more wrong till the protagonist & co. finally win out over whatever antagonist or circumstances.

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Story Openings: How not to

I see that agents Kristen Nelson and Angie Hodapp have been writing a series of posts about how not to open your novel. I presume these are types of openings that they find many aspiring writers seeking representation don’t quite pull off. I’m sure there are examples of all these kinds of story openings that work beautifully. In fact, they begin the series of posts by saying:

If a writer has mastered craft, he or she can get away with any type of opening and make it work—even one of the nine types we are going to suggest that you avoid! So much depends on a writer’s mastery of voice, style, and scene craft.

Indeed, this is obvious. But they go on to add: We read hundreds of sample pages every month, and the nine types of openings we’re going to share with you here don’t work simply because we see them so often that they’re no longer fresh or original.

Which implies that these types of openings may work better for readers than agents; readers almost by definition do not see the sheer number of story openings that agents see, nor (generally) as many potential novels that haven’t been through some sort of gatekeeper process.

Here is their first post on this topic.

Here is the second.

Here is the third.

Here are the types of ineffective openings, briefly; for the full comments, obviously, click through.

#1) Your novel opens with your main character alone somewhere thinking.

I can think of one that works great! The Breach by Patrick Lee is my go-to novel for a beginning that breaks this advice. Naturally this depends on the writer’s skill.

#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome.

This one is a definite problem for me as a reader. One of the workshop entries at WorldCon struck me as opening in a setting so undetailed and undescribed that it was practically nonexistent. Nor is that the first time I’ve seen this particular issue at a workshop. For me, one brilliant opening that places the protagonist in the setting right off is Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane.

I should add that other workshop participants did not seem to have as much trouble with this opening as I did.

Nelson and Hodapp have a lot more about this issue, and the types of beginnings that imply your protagonist may be in a white room rather than a real setting. They also discuss creating atmosphere with the setting, which makes me think of that opening of Silence by Michelle Sagara. Wow, was that the epitome of atmospheric or what?

#3) Your novel opens with what we call the “mindless task” or the “everyday normal.”

This is the protagonist-waking-up type of beginning. Nelson and Hodapp argue that beginnings such as “Monday started like any normal day…[followed by pages of details about Monday morning]” probably are not going to work for them. This type of beginning postpones the revelation of the initial conflict (“the good stuff”) and asks the reader to wait for a while before getting interested. I agree that sounds like a pretty risky storytelling strategy.

I bet there are some good examples of this type of opening that work really well, but in fact I can’t think of one right this minute. Maybe one could argue that the opening of the first book of The Sharing Knife series starts kind of this way? The interesting part of Fawn’s life doesn’t start till later. Of course the initial conflict Fawn faces is clear right up front, so that’s a bit different than revealing the problem in chapter two.

I also wonder whether this kind of opening isn’t more likely to work in SFF, because the mundane world is unfamiliar and therefore less likely to be boring to the reader. Even so, I can’t think of really good examples of successful openings like this.

Lots of good stuff at the links, and this is a series in progress, with six more iffy types of novel openings coming up.

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