Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

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:

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… 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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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Concept vs Premise

Here’s an interesting post by Larry Brooks at Kill Zone Blog: Concept vs. Premise: The Inherent Opportunity in Understanding the Difference

I’ve read this rather long post once and need to read through it again. My first thought is: I think I agree about the difference between concept and premise, but I don’t think I agree about which genres are particularly concept driven.

Brooks asserts:

Relative to story development, concept, as it relates to premise, is the contextual framework for a story. A notion that infuses the premise with compelling energy. A proposition.

I think I have also seen “high concept” defined as “summarizable as one particularly catchy sentence.” Like: “A man is stranded alone on Mars and has to survive an impossible length of time to have any hope of rescue.” I suppose what is seen as particularly catchy depends on who’s listening to the pitch.

And then it’s clear that Brooks is basically using “premise” to mean “plot summary.” When he’s discussing premise, he offers a generalized description of a plot, the sort of thing you would see in a query letter.

Anyway, here’s the bit that particularly caught my eye:

When we read that agents and editors are looking for something fresh and new, concept is what they mean. When a concept is familiar and proven – which is the case in romance and mystery genres especially – then fresh and new becomes the job of premise and character, as well as voice and narrative strategy.

And again, later:

Literary fiction and some romance and mysteries aren’t necessarily driven by concept, yet they are totally dependent on a premise that gives their hero’s something to do. Which can and should be conceptual in nature.

However, the sub-genres of romance – paranormal, historical, time travel, erotica, etc. – are totally concept-dependent. Other genres, such as fantasy and science fiction and historical, are almost totally driven by and dependent upon concept.

What about that? Agree, disagree? I’m almost sure I disagree. That is, obviously SOME SF novels are very strongly concept-driven; Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind here, and probably works like Seveneves, not that I’ve read it, but that’s the point, you just glance at the back cover and think, Wow, high concept here.

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space….Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.

So, I guess that’s two high concepts in Seveneves.

But I’d argue that character and voice are primary, not secondary, in a LOT of SF and perhaps the majority of fantasy. I’m getting the feeling that Brooks, like so many others, is treating SF as though it’s always plot driven and high concept, when it isn’t necessarily so — adventure fantasy is often very dependent on character and narrative. I also stuttered over defining paranormal as intrinsically high concept; I think that’s a subgenre that particularly emphasizes character and voice.

And then I think Brooks is conflating SF and fantasy, which I think is a mistake.

Still, it’s an interesting post and I do want to read it again more carefully and think about the main point Brooks is making, which is that the more high-concept our stories are, the more likely they are to appeal to agents, editors, and a broad audience of readers. One does notice that Seveneves appears to have done just that …

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The Craft of Writing

Progress! Sort of

Last night I tweeted something that was essentially: Yay! Just figured out a plot point! Alas, lotsa rewriting tomorrow.

Then someone asked about how I edit — by rewriting from scratch or messing around with the messed-up chunk or what.

So let me unpack the process a little, always remembering that process is highly variable for different writers, so this is just me.

What happened last night the moment I turned off the laptop: I have been bothered by feeling that the book (this is THE WHITE ROAD) is too complex and cluttered with characters. I just passed 100,000 words and I am at this point hardly looking for length; I want to get into the endgame and tie up the story in some reasonable number of words.

I had recently introduced a character but didn’t have anything important for him to do in the endgame, so that was a problem. What could I do to make this new character integral to the plot?

The standard advice to combine characters if you can drifted through my mind.

Ah hah! I could cut that character and give his role to a different character, already introduced earlier. AH HAH! Now the whole plot can hinge on the fate of this particular character. Because this and that and this other thing can ALL depend on what happens with this one character! Instantly the plot smoothed out and became way more coherent.

Doing this revision will require going back 100 pages, sending Character A from one place to another and dropping him into Character B’s situation.

The challenge: Moving Character A from one place to another, which will probably require a kind of magic which I’ll eventually have to foreshadow cause right now it comes out of nowhere. Coming up with a reason for the actual protagonist and her friends to go after him rather than appealing to adult authority for help (haven’t got a reason for that choice yet). Justifying a bad guy doing this instead of that, which probably means setting two bad guys at odds instead of having one be the servant of the other. Rewriting a scene to make that change.

The easy part: removing Character A from the intervening scenes in which he is no longer present. It was a crowd anyway, so being able to get rid of a character is only beneficial. Revising the last 20 or 30 pages because Character A’s situation cannot be exactly like Character B’s situation. Removing Character B completely, and thank heaven for the Find command.

The goal: this revision will should put Character A in the thick of things with the protagonist. I think. I’m not sure whether the other secondary characters will be right there during the climactic scenes or not; maybe they’ll fall by the wayside or catch up later or something. Some aspects of this are going to be tricky to manage. But I think the upshot is going to be tightening up the plot and getting to the climactic scenes faster.

Incidentally, my other YA novels worked out like this:

CITY — less than 90,000 words
ISLANDS — 118,000 words
BLACK DOG — 125,000 words
THE KEEPER OF THE MIST — um, I think 118,000 or so again for that one.

So with THE WHITE ROAD already at 100,000 and me not even in the endgame yet, well. Anything that can help tighten the plot and move things along is indeed greatly to be desired.

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Progress!

So, lately, with THE WHITE ROAD OF THE MOON, I’ve been writing 2000 words per day and deleting about 1000, or writing 3000 and deleting about 2000. It’s all very tedious and annoying and I’m not super-keen on the manuscript anyway. It seems too episodic, not pulled together as tightly as it should be, and I’m not happy with the characterization of the secondary characters, either.

I just mention this because it is all normal. I usually feel like this and generally I like the story a good deal better when I re-read in preparation for the first major revision. Deepening characterization is always necessary; I never have written a book where I thought I’d done that well enough the first time through. It’s usual for me to need to put in more foreshadowing and suddenly, right at the end, see how to tie various plot elements together better. And so on.\

Still, before tackling revision, after reading through the story from top to bottom, I normally do see the manuscript is better, in important ways, than I thought it was at the time I was writing it. I trust that will happen this time, too.

Anyway! I passed the 300 pp mark this past weekend. So, yes, that does count as progress. That’s about, I’m not sure, 95,000 words, say. I am positive this one is going to go long and need to be cut back, but I think I am heading toward the endgame at this point and I hope the rest of the story will shape itself up about now and start to flow downhill.

Progress: basically on track, expecting to finish this draft approximately the first week of August.

Distraction level: normal, not particularly distracted by life right now.

Procrastination level: high, but there’s only so many games of mahjong you can play before dying of boredom and switching to useful work. That’s why I don’t have or want any actually interesting games on my computer. And hopefully THE WHITE ROAD will start to flow well shortly and I will be less inclined to procrastinate.

Number of novels stacking up on my TBR pile: seems infinite

Nonfiction books I’m reading right now: I’m rotating among Keegan’s THE FACE OF BATTLE, Oliver Sacks’ THE MIND’S EYE and the Larousse Gastronomique set of cookbooks.

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Killing characters

I happened to see a comment, in a review of PURE MAGIC, about how the reader didn’t have to worry about anybody important dying in this book, but probably someone would die in Book III.

Hmm, I said to myself. Actually, it’s true, isn’t it, that the body count was a lot higher in BLACK DOG than in PURE MAGIC. I’m not sure whether it’s really *so* plain that no one is at risk in PURE MAGIC . . . I would hope that the reader entertains some doubts about that from time to time, in fact. But the truth is, I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to kill anybody important in Book III, either.

Of course, I’m not envisioning this as a trilogy, but as a five-book series with short stories in between each pair of novels. So to me, Book III has never felt like the ending. I am practically certain one important character is going to die in the 4th or 5th book. I really don’t know myself whether some of the other characters will die. Maybe, maybe not. That’s the kind of thing that I only know for sure when I get there.

At the moment, I must say, I really don’t *want* to kill anybody. I really like the whole cast! If, as the plot unscrolls, it becomes reasonable not to kill anybody, then I won’t force it.

To me, sometimes it looks an awful lot like an important character dies because the author is determined to kill them, not because the plot leads to or through a necessary death.

I’m not talking here about the GAME OF THRONES kind of thing, where the body count is so very very very high and practically no one is safe. I’m talking about the author deliberately reaching into the plot and stabbing an important secondary protagonist in the back, so to speak, in order to manipulate the reader’s experience. IMO, if you can spot the author’s hand holding the knife, it’s a serious failing.

I stopped reading Stephen King novels because at some point in his career, it became clear that King was deliberately inserting The Nice Character in order to kill her. I say her because The Nice Character seems to be, usually (always?) female and usually (always?) she is someone the other characters particularly want to protect. We saw that in CELL, if I remember correctly, and even more blatantly in DUMA KEY. Once you see the author doing this, you can’t unsee it. Then the death of the character becomes so obviously manipulative it’s almost offensive.

For me . . . and by now everyone’s read THE HUNGER GAMES, right? Because here comes a spoiler:

. . . the death of Prim at the end of MOCKINGJAY also feels blatantly manipulative and seems to oppose the natural shape of the plot. I realize other readers may not feel that way. Opinions about this series are highly variable. But some deaths grow naturally out of the plot and this one did not feel that way to me. It felt like the author reaching in and using Prim to stab Katniss in the back.

To take one obvious counterexample, this is not the case at all with Aral Vorkosigan’s death, which was actually necessary to the shape of the Vorkosigan series. That is what I mean by the death of an important character arising from the plot. It would have felt quite different if Bujold had let, say, Bel Thorne die.

In contrast, it was awfully convenient that Ekaterin’s first husband died. I really didn’t think he was going to; I thought Bujold would do something else, something less obvious, to get him out of the way. Of course that’s not a death to manipulate the reader; it’s a death to clear the way for your protagonists. That doesn’t feel offensive to me, just a bit pat.

Anyway. As I said, I’m almost certain that at least one important character in the Black Dog series is going to die, though probably not for a while. I really don’t know about some of the others. It’s a dangerous universe and the challenges everyone’s going to face in Book III are pretty serious. But I hope that whoever dies, their death will feel like a natural part of the plot rather than something imposed from the outside, as it were.

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