Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Beginning your novel

Okay, this is going to be a long post. Hope it’s also interesting!

HOUSE OF SHADOW, as many of you probably know, is my sixth book, by which of course I don’t mean the sixth I’ve written, but the sixth to hit the shelves. Of my published books, it was the . . . um . . . third I wrote. (It went to Orbit in a package deal with the first Griffin Mage book; the other two Griffin Mage books were written afterward even though they were published first).

Of all the books I’ve ever written, HOUSE OF SHADOWS was the tenth. (At this point, I’ve written . . . let me see . . . sixteen books. Wow. I didn’t realize until this minute I’d written so many! More about that in a minute.

I’m going to be helping with a writer’s workshop at a convention this fall, and the entries I’ll be critiquing just arrived in the mail yesterday, and that’s made me think more than usual about the process of learning to write.

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

Like so many other things worth doing, writing is a craft you learn. All the raw native talent in the world won’t let you whip off a great book, or even a publishable book, the first time you open up your laptop and start hitting the keys. Unless you’re Heinlein, and even he didn’t do it with a novel (or a laptop, obviously).

What I got in the mail for the workshop were novel fragments: the first twenty pages of each novel. As it happens, these beginnings of novels are not very good. They do seem to me to show promise, but currently they do not appear to me to be publishable (in the old sense of acceptable to publishers) (and by that I mean that I would not expect them to succeed if they were self-published, either).

What flaws are evident in these beginnings of novels? As it happens, they share exactly the same flaws (which is also interesting, isn’t it?).

It seems to me that there are four major constituents of a story: setting, character, plot, and style (which includes craft). People frequently seem to forget style, but I think it is the foundation on which everything else is built.

What the novel fragments sent to me have, or appear to have, is plot. What they lack is everything else – though it seems to me they could be improved.
After thinking about this, I went down to my own personal library, where I pulled ten books off shelves. These were not my ten personal favorites or what I think are the ten best written or any kind of top-ten list. I chose them because each of them strikes me as similar in setting to one or another of the workshop entries while also illustrating something that seems to me to be lacking in those entries.

Then I typed up the first couple of page of each of these books. In case you’re interested, I chose two books by Steve Parry, one of Tanya Huff’s Valor series, one by Patrick Lee, one by Ilona Andrews, one by Judith Riley, two by Barbara Hambly, two by Gillian Bradshaw, and one by Susanna Clarke. (I may not use all these in the workshop.) (Also, I now see that this is eleven books. Whatever.)

What I want to focus on during the workshop is how experienced authors establish setting and character in their very first pages. I am pretty sure that one piece of (common) advice my workshop attendees have taken to heart is Start by setting something on fire. In other words, start in media res. Start in the middle of the action. Do not, for God’s sake, start with your character waking up, or driving somewhere, or staring into a mirror.

And that may be good advice, generally. But you know how Patrick Lee starts THE BREACH, one of the best SF thrillers I’ve ever read? Like this:

————

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

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

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

—————

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

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

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

Then things build and build and build and OMG you have no idea. Starting so quietly only makes it more effective when Lee starts to turn up the pressure. Did I say this is one of the best SF thrillers EVER? It totally is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that last, the hardest and most crucial foundation on which absolutely everything else is going to rest . . . well, you learn to write by reading. And then by writing. I recommend Francine Prose’s book READING LIKE A WRITER, who makes a case for the importance of craft that ought to persuade anybody.

Now, at last, in case you’re interested and in order to illustrate the learning process, here’s the list of novels I’ve personally completed, in chronological order by date written, with comments.

The Ghost Trilogy was a secondary-world adult fantasy that actually, now that I think of it, might actually be YA. (So right from the beginning I was writing right on that border. Huh.) Anyway, while it’s not actually terrible, I have very little inclination to put this trilogy out as it stands. When I went back and looked at it not so long ago, I liked quite a few things about it. But it reads like . . . well, like . . . a first novel.

This trilogy represents roughly 1500 pp (about 500,000 words) of practice and that’s what I want to emphasize: this was great practice, but nothing I’d really want to see on the shelf. Plus it would not have been a good idea to get all ambitious about selling it because it’s long (every book is over 150,000 words and that’s far too long for most first novels) and because the books aren’t self-contained. If I’d really been committed to selling it to a publisher, I would probably have been really disappointed. But I never sent it out, so that was fine.

I learned a huge amount from writing this trilogy. I want to make that crystal clear. I learned how to punctuate dialogue – I remember going to my shelves and taking books off at random to see how punctuation was handled. I learned how to signal the reader about who’s saying what in dialogue. I learned how you can substitute movement for a dialogue tag. I figured out what tags besides “said” work for me. I learned it’s okay to use adverbs if you want to, including vague adverbs like “very,” if you do it right. (I do use fewer now than I used to, but I’m still not shy about using adverbs.)

I learned bigger things. I learned how to compress time: “Three weeks later, she rode at last out of the frozen pass.” I learned how to handle a “crowded room” scene, where more than two people are interacting. I learned that if I’m patient and let the story unroll in my head, suddenly the dots will connect and the plot will emerge. I learned to finish a novel.

There were some things I didn’t learn from writing this trilogy. I didn’t learn correct, standard grammar: I knew that already. (Thanks, Mom!) I didn’t learn that tension needs to ratchet upward: I knew that already, too. (Doesn’t everyone?) I didn’t learn how to describe a scene: description has always been the easy part for me. I didn’t learn how to beat a plot out of thin air when I have a deadline: that came later and was not much fun.

I think that probably every aspiring writer has things he or she is just good at and things he or she needs to learn by actually, deliberately figuring them out. I think you learn to write by reading and then by writing.

Okay! After the fantasy trilogy came an adult SF duology, though again I now see that one important character is more a YA type of character. Anyway, for this one I was playing around with the interaction between instinct and culture and that worked as an SF story, not as a fantasy story. (This is the only thing I’ve ever written that actually draws on my background in animal behavior and evolutionary theory.)

I now think the ideas in it are great and the plot is serviceable and some of the scenes are good, but overall I really don’t think much of it. When I re-read bits of it a few years ago, I was not happy with it. This duology – which I wrote as a single book, but would have had to break in half – it’s 218,000 words, for heaven’s sake – is in my opinion not as good as the fantasy trilogy. I would never put it out without huge, serious revision.

After that I started an adult fantasy novel that really was solidly adult and not YA. It started in this world and moved into a secondary world (it’s a portal fantasy). The pov character is a psychiatrist. I loved the part I wrote, about a novel’s worth of pages. It was ambitious and interesting and I thought it was worth finishing, but it not finished and it was clearly going to be oversized, so I put it aside and wrote –

THE CITY IN THE LAKE. The whole idea was to write something short and self-contained and good enough to sell and in fact really good. CITY succeeded on all counts and is sometimes still my favorite of all my books, depending on my mood. This was the first book with which I seriously tried to hook an agent, at which of course it also succeeded.

I’d read a useful piece of advice in there someplace, which was: The minute you send out your first book, start working on your second. So that was when I wrote –

LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS, the first Griffin Mage book. The idea was to write a second book that would appeal to the same readership as CITY. (I don’t know how well that succeeded.)

But I still loved the adult fantasy novel I had started back before CITY and I went back and finished it in a huge rush, 250 pp or so in 19 days, the fastest I’ve ever written anything. It was a very intense experience. The revision, which for months I referred to as The Never-ending Revision from Hell, was intense in a different way. The effort yielded the TENAI duology, which, however much I loved it, did not find a place with a publisher. (“The writing is beautiful, but we feel it is too innovative and we’re not sure it will sell . . .”) (Yes, that is an accurate summary of a couple different responses.) This is a duology I will eventually bring out independently, if I have to. I do not, however, want it to be the first book I bring out myself. I love it too much to make it the subject of that kind of fumbling experiment.

Then I wrote HOUSE OF SHADOWS. My YA editor at Knopf didn’t think it was YA – she’d rejected CHANGING WINDS, too – but my agent placed both with Orbit, so that was all right.

Determined to write a story that would unquestionably fall on the YA side of the line, I read a dozen or so YA fantasies and then sat down and wrote THE FLOATING ISLANDS. My Knopf editor loved it, so all was well!

Meanwhile, my editor at Orbit wanted a sequel to CHANGING WINDS, so I wrote fifty pages of two different books and sent them to her and said Pick one. She loved them both, and that’s why the Griffin Mage Trilogy is a trilogy and not a duology. Of course one turned into LAND OF THE BURNING SANDS and the other into LAW OF THE BROKEN EARTH.

And that covers all the books currently on the shelves, right? That makes thirteen novels total. What about the other three? I don’t want to say much about them until I have something solid to announce, but I will say that I do expect all three to be published eventually, including my current WIP, which I just finished in the sense of OMG the revision make it stop.

And that’s the complete list to date. Sixteen. Wow.

So that should add perspective when I say: don’t fall in love with the first book you ever write. If it’s great, that’s splendid! But that’s the exception, not the rule. A million words of practice, that’s the rule. Don’t eat your heart out if your first book doesn’t garner much interest. Maybe you shouldn’t press forward with it. If that first novel was actually just a learning exercise, that’s all right. Focus on setting, character, plot, and most of all the craft of writing. Then write another book. If you have any kind of feel for the language, chances are good it will be so much better. My advice is: wait for that one before you push for publication.

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On plotting and pacing —

Here’s an interesting question, and an even more interesting conclusion, from Nathan Bransford.

Nathan asks:

“Writing in the modern era emphasizes moving the plot forward at all costs, and everything else is “ruthlessly killed off no matter how darling.” Digressions and detritus that might otherwise be compelling on their own are eliminated. Is this a purely modern phenomenon? And is it for the best?”

And he concludes:

“My opinion: Yes to both.”

Now, of course, Nathan is always very nice about it when he takes a strong position on something like that, and his comments on MOBY DICK and other classics are very interesting. And I like his optimism about the future of books! But I’m not sure I agree.

It’s not that I doubt that modern books are more streamlined with regards to plotting and have much faster pacing than a lot of older books. Not that I’ve ever studied the question or anything, but it’s certainly plausible.

Although I read MOBY DICK once, it was a long time ago and I don’t think I liked it. (I was sorry for both the whale and Ahab, plus I wanted the whale to win.) These days, I’d be a lot more likely to read RAILSEA. But now if I do read RAILSEA, I’ll be tempted to go back, read MOBY DICK, and think about this plot thing and whether Mieville pares away everything nonessential in a way that Melville didn’t.

Anyway, the part I’m not sure I agree with is whether this paring away the extraneous bits is a good thing. I just don’t think every book in creation has to be fast fast fast and nonstop action and hurtle along to the blazing climax and all like that. That’s fine in its place, and if that’s what you want you could hardly do better than Patrick Lee’s THE BREACH and sequels, by the way, because wow, talk about nonstop and hurtling.

And I have to admit that when I finally read an unabridged copy of THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO, which is one of my all-time favorite books and why can’t they do a good movie version? Like cut the whole prison thing down to ten minutes max and move on with the cool part? But anyway, I found I really strongly preferred the abridged version because I liked having all those extraneous bits removed.

And yet. And yet, sometimes I really like a slow exploration of the author’s world. I read the unabridged LES MISERABLES, and I really enjoyed the long digressions on, like, the street urchins of Paris and on convents and so forth and so on. And more recently, I really liked the easy pace of Robin McKinley’s DRAGONHAVEN, which my very own agent thinks should have been pared way down. And how about Sharon Shinn’s TROUBLED WATERS? Part of what made that book so comfortable for me was its unhurried pace. The exposition about the world in Myra Grant’s FEED was my favorite part! Or at least one of my favorite parts!

And what about Tolkien, hmm? I actually have met a woman at a convention who said she thought he was a bad writer. A bad writer! Tolkien! I would bet that what this woman meant was (among possibly other things): too slow.

So . . . so I guess I would say: pacing depends on the book and on personal taste. A fast pace is not intrinsically a good thing. Can we perhaps stop holding a fast pace and an unadorned plot up as an ideal that all books ought to meet?

Agree or disagree? Anybody got examples of a slow-paced book or a book with digressions that they particularly enjoyed?

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Pacing . . .

. . . is more subjective than you might think, and I think I’m starting to figure out part of why that is. I think there are elements that contribute to a feeling of slow or dragging pace even when the pace could objectively be described as fast.

You know, a couple of years ago now, I was having dinner with my agent and various of her other clients and Robin McKinley’s book DRAGONHAVEN came up, and I said I’d loved it and everybody else said NO WAY, IT WAS TOO SLOW. And I was shocked. Shocked!

Not that it wasn’t slow, but it didn’t strike me as too slow. I really loved the story, I loved the protagonist’s voice, and it didn’t bother me one bit that the story took its time getting anywhere. For me, the pacing of DRAGONHAVEN was just right.

But!

I’ve been re-reading Eric Flint’s 1632 series lately, whenever I want to read something but don’t want to get too caught up in a new book. And so I recently re-read THE BAVARIAN CRISIS. And, whoa, was it slooooow. It wasn’t just that nothing much was happening, it was that nothing much was happening to dozens and dozens of point-of-view characters. Who were all named Ferdinand or Fernando if they were male or Maria or Anna if they were female, and were thus impossible to keep straight. Slow, slow, slow AND confusing.

Well, at least until (at last!) Grandduchess Maria Anna’s storyline took over the book as she fled her arranged marriage and headed for the dashing romantic Don Fernando instead. She finally gave me a character and situation I could care about. But this illustrated one major problem that can make a book seem to be slow even if exciting stuff is happening: lack of a main character to attach to. Although THE BAVARIAN CRISIS really did not have exciting stuff happening either, until quite late in the book, so really almost anybody would probably find that it dragged at first.

Now! For a completely different problem! The other day I read a book by Mark L van Name called ONE JUMP AHEAD and it dragged and dragged. Only not really. Objectively, there was all this stuff going on. The protag has to get this crucial piece of equipment only the guy who’s selling it to him tries to rob him, only he knew that was going to happen so he Took Steps. And then he kidnapped this one guy and then this other guy and then made an alliance with this violent female leader of a small mercenary troop (who didn’t turn into a love interest, and that was an interesting choice on the author’s part). Anyway! Plenty of action!

So why did it seem to me that ONE JUMP AHEAD dragged so badly?

Because (I figured this out afterward) the back cover copy had made it clear to me that the main character was going to have this important discovery where he realizes that he only THOUGHT he rescued this kidnapped girl right at the beginning, because instead he was tricked by the bad guy into recapturing her after she had escaped his evil clutches.

And, see, because the back cover copy gave this important plot development away? I spent like 2/3 of the books going HEY, DUDE, FIGURE THIS OUT ALREADY. It made the WHOLE THING before the protagonist figured out he’d been used seem to drag — and it made everything AFTER that realization seem anticlimactic.

See, I think pacing is complicated. More complicated than “This book has too much description” or “There’s not enough going on in this story” or “Can’t the characters quit talking to each other all the time and DO SOMETHING?” even though all those elements can make a book seem slow if you don’t happen to appreciate plenty of description or interior monologues or whatever.

So . . .

1) Too much description (this will not usually in itself strike me as a problem)

2) Not enough action (ditto)

3) Too much space spent on interior monologues / dialogue (ditto, if the monologues/dialogues are good)

4) Too many point-of-view characters and too little attachment to any of them (I will not be able to get interested in this book)

5) An important plot point is foreshadowed but does not get delivered in a timely fashion (I hadn’t realized how much I hate this until ONE JUMP AHEAD, but it’s not unique).

6) Is there anything else?

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Purplish Hues

The OED declares that purple prose is writing that is “too elaborate or ornate.” But how ornate is too ornate?

Wikipedia says that purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Yet I definitely notice Patricia McKillip’s beautiful sentences; I might very well say her prose draws attention to itself. But, I mean, in a good way! So if you notice ornate prose but enjoy it, does that mean the prose is not purple or does it mean that you have terrible taste because look at you, admiring all that purple?

The wikipedia entry goes on to say that purple prose is “evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.” So then, I do agree that if you can spot a writer’s attempts to manipulate you, that is definitely a flaw whether the prose is ornate or not. For example, I think ALL of Steven King’s recent books suffer from this problem: the character you meet early on who is PARTICULARLY likable is ALWAYS going to die. In fact, I have pretty much stopped reading Steven King because the SUPER OBVIOUS manipulative thing is so annoying.

Did you know there is a site called Novel Writing Help? I have to say that I have my doubts about whether anybody is going to learn to write novels from a website, or indeed from any teacher, but this bit was interesting:

“. . . their [beginners’] prose is horribly overwritten — they use too many adjectives and adverbs, they say something in a paragraph they could have said in a sentence, they describe the setting too much and way too fancifully.”

Which instantly raises the question: how many adjectives and adverbs are too many? When are you describing the setting “too much” or “too fancifully”? I mean, we are not all going for stripped-down bare-bones simplicity in our writing, are we? Would anybody actually find this advice helpful?

It seems to me that if you’re using formal, elevated language and a poetic style and doing a fair bit of description, and if you do it well, then you are probably writing high fantasy. If you do it badly, then you’re writing purple prose.

How can you tell which?

Well, there’s a post on this subject from back in 2009, by Scott Bailey at a site called The Literary Lab. I really like this post! The examples are great! I ESPECIALLY love the re-written “Hills Like White Elephants” example. HERE is a really good example of “too many adjectives and adverbs”! AND “describing the setting too much”!

And even though Bailey is offering advice to beginners, such as:

“Sometimes writers, especially new writers, feel that in order to write in a writerly or serious or studious manner, they must put on their Prose Stylist hats and churn out pages of paragraphs that are as fancy as possible. Every phrase must paint a 1,000-word picture for the reader, and plain language must be chased off the page. Because, they feel, good writing is elaborate. This is a mistaken idea.”

somehow the tone of his advice does not come seem condescending, which is a nice trick.

And the examples he uses are just way more helpful than saying DON’T USE ADVERBS which is too often the advice that’s actually given.

Besides, I remember vividly hearing this advice while I was writing my first novel: DON’T USE ADVERBS. And you know what I did? I went and took a Patricia McKillip novel off my shelf and looked to see whether she used adverbs. Then I quit worrying about adverbs because hey, if she could do it, I could do it. (I actually do use fewer now, but way way more than the NO ADVERB crowd advises.)

Also from the comments of that post, which are worth reading through:

“Some writers (Proust, James, Dickens, Byatt, Wolfe, Tolstoy) create thick prose, with lots of layers of meaning and complex sentences. But every word counts; every word means something important and the cumulative weight of that dense prose is beautiful. Other writers simply lard on all sorts of extraneous junk in an attempt (usually quite innocent) to look like serious writers, and because that’s not their own writerly voice, it comes across as clumsy
and just not good.”

Which seems right to me: it’s not that you can’t do ornate, but that it looks fake if you’re, you know, faking it.

And also hitting that exact notion, one more link! I really got a kick out of this one, by Dave King.

Dave King there is also talking about how maybe you’ve gone purple if you’re describing things the pov protagonist wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t describe or wouldn’t care about, which is another interesting take on the problem with purple.

King also hits the idea that you can’t fake a formal style and trying to write like Tolkien when you’re not Tolkien may lead you into trouble, which gets back to my personal view, which as I said is that if you are doing ornate well, you’re writing high fantasy, and if you’re doing it badly, you’re writing purple prose.

Who does ornate very very very well?

Obviously, Patricia McKillip, right? Who else?

Here are some I’d choose:

Sharon Shinn (sometimes), e.g. THE SHAPECHANGER’S WIFE
Guy Gavriel Kay
Juliet Marillier

By an amazing coincidence, all of the above are favorite authors of mine! Also, here’s one you might not have heard of: Dahlov Ipcar’s A DARK HORN BLOWING.

Here’s the first paragraph of the second chapter of Ipcar’s book:

“When I stepped into the shallow water and into the black boat, it seemed that my husband, my baby, my home, and all I had left but a moment before had fallen so far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the black boat and my whole world faded away. High on the curved prow the carved dragon’s head turned and flickered its tongue at me. The small man put down his dark horn, and the long boat slid out into the current and glided
silently into the darkness with never a breath of wind or a sail or an oar to move her. She slipped through the black water that was so still it scarcely rippled at the boat’s passing.”

Notice that nearly every noun has an adjective? Does it bother you? My answer: no. It sounds just fine. It sounds, in fact, dreamy and evocative. In a good way. The repetition (“I stepped into”) and the simple phrases and the dreamy images (the dragon’s head turning, the boat gliding forward), the use of three-part lists (husband, baby, home; wind, sail, oar) — it all adds up to a beautiful style that may be noticeably poetic and flowery, but — I repeat myself here — in a good way. The casual reader may in fact NOT notice this style, noticing style may be more a writer’s thing. Anyway, I bet the reader isn’t going to stop and analyze this prose, but is going to be led by the style into the fairy-tale-like story that ensues.

And being led into the story is the whole point. If the prose style does THAT job, it’s probably not purple.

UPDATE: Elaine T. from the comments did a hilarious job reworking the Ipcar paragraph above! Here’s her version. Enjoy!

“When I timidly stepped into the shadow glimmering shallow water and into the ebon black boat, it seemed that my beloved husband, my dear baby, my comfortable home, and all I had left but a short moment before had fallen so terribly far away that my thoughts could no longer reach there. I stepped into the jet black boat and my whole beloved world now faded away into shadow. . . ”

I especially like the “timidly”. That is exactly the sort of adverb that seems to me to clutter up purple prose. (Not that I have anything against the world “timidly” as such.)

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Voice

So, I’ve read 19 books so far this month. That doesn’t count three I started but put on the give-away pile before I’d read more than a couple of chapters. What makes me put a book down that fast? Just plain bad writing can do it, but that wasn’t the case with these.

I think one of the main things that makes me set a book aside is that I don’t like the protagonist’s voice — either the voice is not interesting or engaging, or else the voice is distinctive but I just dislike the main character.

Patti Hill at Novel Matters has a post in which she considers voice.

She notes that Elizabeth George defines voice as “The narrative voice of your novel is the point-of-view character’s defining way of speaking and thinking” which seems reasonable. I think it’s important to get the “and thinking” in there, because voice certainly includes a character’s attitudes and biases. How about actions? Maybe not, don’t want to get too far afield, we’ll lose the idea of “voice” itself if we expand the definition too far.

Patti also notes that Donald Maass maintains that a character must have strong opinions or else his voice will be uninteresting. I think that might be true. Or true-ish. Does it have to be strong opinions, or would strong reactions do the same job? I’m thinking either would do.

So! How about some examples of voices that instantly captured my attention?

Listen to this:

Questions, always questions. They didn’t wait for answers, either. They rushed on, piling questions on questions, covering every moment with questions, blocking off every sensation but the thorn-stab of questions.

And orders. If it wasn’t, “Lou,what is this?” it was, “Tell me what this is.” A bowl. The same bowl, time after time. It is a bowl and it is an ugly bowl, a boring bowl, a bowl of total and complete boring blandness, uninteresting. I am uninterested in that uninteresting bowl.

If they aren’t going to listen, why should I talk?

I know better than to say that out loud. Everything in my life that has value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think and saying what they want me to say.

In this office, where I am evaluated and advised four times a year, the psychiatrist is no less certain of the line between us than all the others have been. Her certainty is painful to see, so I try not to look at her more than I have to. That has its own dangers; like the others, she thinks I should make more eye contact than I do. I glance at her now.

Dr. Fornum, crisp and professional, raises an eyebrow and shakes her head not quite imperceptibly. Autistic persons do not understand these signals. I have read the book, so I know what it is I do not understand.

What I haven’t figured out yet is the range of things they don’t understand. The normals. The reals. the ones who have the degrees and sit behind the desks in comfortable chairs.

I know some of what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know I can read. She thinks I’m hyperlexic, joust parroting the words. The difference between what she calls parroting and what she does when she reads is imperceptible to me. She doesn’t know that I have a large vocabulary. Every time she asks what my job is and I say I am still working for the pharmaceutical company, she asks if I know what pharmaceutical means. She thinks I’m parroting. The difference between what she calls parroting and my use of a large number of words is imperceptible to me. She uses large words when talking to the other doctors and nurses and technicians, babbling on and on and saying things that could be said more simply. She knows I work on a computer, she knows I went to school, but she has not caught on that this is incompatible with her belief that I am actually nearly illiterate and barely verbal.

She talks to me as if I were a rather stupid child. She does not like it when I use big words (as she calls them) and she tells me to just say what I mean.

What I mean is the speed of dark is as interesting as the speed of light, and maybe it is faster and who will find out?

What I mean is about gravity, if there were a world where it is twice as strong, then on that world would the wind from a fan be stronger because the air is thicker and blow my glass off the table, not just my napkin? Or would the greater gravity hold the glass more firmly to the table, so the stronger wind couldn’t move it?

What I mean is the world is big and scary and noisy and crazy but also beautiful and still in the middle of the windstorm.

What I mean is what difference does it make if I think of colors as people or people as sticks of chalk, all stiff and white unless they are brown chalk or black?

What I mean is I know what I like and want, and she does not, and I do not want to like or want what she wants me to like or want.

That’s the first bit of THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon, which is one of the best and most impressive books I’ve ever read. It’s actually hard to stop copying it out here because it’s so good that I want to hold up every bit of the first chapter and point to it and say Look At This.

And what makes it so good? The voice, of course. The unique, fascinating, instantly sympathetic voice of the main character, Lou.

Now listen to this one:

No shit, there I was . . .

We’d been cut up so many ways and so many times we hardly had a skirmish line, and the enemy kept getting reinforced. I, like the rest of the outfit, was exhausted and terrified from swords buzzing past my ear and various sorts of sorceries going “whoosh” over my head, or maybe it was the other way around; and there were dead people moaning and writhing on the ground, and wounded people lying still, and that was almost certainly the other way around, but I’m giving it to you as I remember it, though I know my memory sometimes plays tricks on me.

More on that in a second.

First, I have to ask you to excuse me for starting in the middle, but that’s more or less where it starts.

So there I was, in a full-scale battle; that is, in a place where no self-respecting assassin ought to be. Worse, in a full-scale battle with the keen sense that I was on the losing side, at least in this part of the engagement. I stood on Dorian’s Hill, with the Wall about two hundred yards behind me, and the Tomb (which is not a tomb, and never was, and ought not to be called that) about a quarter of a mile to my left. I wanted to teleport out, or at least run, but I couldn’t because, well, I just couldn’t. I had a sword, and I carried enough other weaponry to outfit half of Cropper Company (my unit, hurrah hurrah).

Now, that’s the first bit of DRAGON, by Steven Brust, who probably didn’t invent the style sometimes called “first person smartass” but certainly does it well, doesn’t he? And there again, a unique and fascinating voice.

Both of these are first person. Can you build a voice so fast and with such certainty in third person?

How about this one:

She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here — was it only three months ago? — with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day. But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it — to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity.

Lady Amelia had explained that the orchards only a few days south and west of here were the finest in the country, and many of the oranges she had seen at Home, before she came out here, had probably come from those same orchards. It was hard to believe in orange groves as she looked out the window, across the flat deserty plain beyond the Residency, unbroken by anything more vigorous than a few patches of harsh grass and stunted sand-colored bushes until it disappeared at the feet of the black and copper-brown mountains.

But there was fresh orange juice every day.

She was the first down to the table every morning, and was gently teased by Lady Amelia and Sir Charles about her healthy young appetite; but it wasn’t hunger that drove her out of bed every day. Since her days were empty of purpose, she could not sleep when night came, and by dawn each morning she was more than ready for the maid to enter her room, push back the curtains from the tall windows, and hand her a cup of tea. She was often out of bed when the woman arrived, and dressed, sitting at her window, for her bedroom window faced the same direction as the breakfast room, staring at the mountains. The servants thought kindly of her, as she gave them little extra work; but a lady who rose and dressed herself so early, and without assistance, was certainly a little eccentric. They knew of her impoverished background; that explained a great deal; but she was in a fine house now, and her host and hostess were only too willing to give her anything she might want, as they had no children of their own. She might try a little harder to adapt to so pleasant an existence.

She did try. She knew what the thoughts behind the looks the servants gave her were; she had dealt with servants before. But she was adapting to her new life as best her energetic spirit could. She might have screamed and hammered on the walls with her fists, or jumped over the low windowsill in her room, clambered to the ground by the ivy trellis, and run off toward the mountain; but she was trying her best to be good. So she was merely first to the breakfast table.

Okay, anybody recognize that one? That’s THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley, one of my “comfort reads” — I first read this when I was in high school and I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve read it since. So I’m not necessarily objective about this one, right? Nevertheless, I’d hold this up as a great example of establishing voice instantly with a straightforward third-person protagonist. We get such a clear impression of Harry Crewe — not just her background or her current life, but her as a person.

Okay, just one more:


Gwyneth Blair heard the bell as the last, dying ember of light guttered into the cloud bank over the sea, and put down her pen.

She looked over the cobbled street, her father’s warehouses, and the bobbing masts in the harbor from the highest room in the house, just below the peaked roof, where the sharply slanting walls made the place unfit for anything but brooms or a writer. She had wedged a tiny writing table under the single window, a rickety affair from the schoolroom, whose surface her older brother had riddled with a penknife when he was bored. An ugly cushion, covered with lime ribbons and liver-colored velvet, that she had purloined from the parlor protected her from the split in the scullery stool she had rescued from the trashman’s wagon. There was just room enough in the angle between the table legs and the roof for a small tin chest into which she dropped the pages of unfinished stories. When they were completed, various things happened to them. Some she read to the twins; others she took to the bookseller, Mr. Trent, for comment. Most were consigned to the dark under her bead, to be considered when she was in a better mood. A few she took down to the garden and burned.

It grew dark quickly in the tiny room after the sun went down. She dried her pen, capped her ink, dropped a half-covered page into the chest. She sat a moment longer, following the ebb tide out of the harbor, through the rocky channel where a fishing boat foundered, invariably, once a year, and out to the restless deeps, already growing shadowy with dusk.

The bell had haunted her as long as she could remember.

It was the first thing she had written about, years earlier, the most exciting, the most dreadful piece of writing she had ever done.

That’s THE BELL AT SEALEY HEAD, by Patricia Mckillip. This is actually the start of Chapter 2, not because there’s anything the least bit wrong with Chapter 1, but because Chapter 1 uses dialogue to establish voice and character and I wanted all four examples to be parallel in structure.

So . . . do these protagonists have opinions? Show reactions? We see their surroundings through their eyes, don’t we? Don’t we immediately get an idea of what they are like as people?

In all four cases, different as they are, I know I would want to turn the page — I’m immediately engaged by each character, and voice is a big part of why.

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Coming up with ideas —

Of course you hear from time to time about prospective writers being nervous that somebody — an agent or editor or whoever — will try to steal their ideas. Or the other way around: somebody wants to sell you his great idea and then all you have to do is write the book! I actually got this offer for the first time a little while ago. (I didn’t actually laugh, but I admit to rolling my eyes.)

Ideas are thick on the ground! For me, they are in particular scattered abundantly through the pages of every book I pick up, even the books that won’t necessarily make my Top Ten List for the year. I thought it might be interesting to show how you can lift ideas from wherever and stir them briskly together to create neat ideas of your own, so here goes!

This weekend, I read THE TIN PRINCESS by Philip Pullman. To be honest, I found the ending disappointing — though not quite as disappointing as an “And then she woke up” ending. (Those are the WORST.) Not that I want to put anybody off the story if they like Pullman and were thinking of looking this one up or something. The story has a lot of good things about it and it’s not like it ends up with all the main characters in a heap of bodies or anything.

But check out this particular bit of description, my favorite passage in the book:

“In the oldest parts [of the city] there weren’t even any streets: The buildings were all jumbled together. According to one tale, the houses would give themselves a shake overnight and turn up somewhere quite different in the morning. According to another, the mists from the river played tricks with the appearance of things: they dissolved statues, altered house names, etched new designs into doorposts and window frames.”

Now, in Pullman’s story, none of that is literally true. But what a great idea! Houses and maybe streets that shift from place to place, and maybe rain instead of mist to dissolve landmarks and etch new designs on houses and other buildings . . . it’s a GREAT idea. For a setting, of course. Now, how about a character to put in this city of shifting buildings and dissolving landmarks?

I also just finished Michelle West’s HUNTER’S OATH and HUNTER’S DEATH. Not my favorite stories ever, but good, and I particularly loved the way the first book started, with a child thief being deliberately lured into trying to steal from the wrong man. Then there’s this great scene of pursuit through the city, with the man using dogs only a step removed from the Hounds of the Wild Hunt to track the thief. I really liked that! All this tension and action and yet the reader, if not the protagonist, knows all the time that the hunter is maybe a bit high-handed but not evil or anything. So it’s exciting without being scary, right?

Okay, a child thief isn’t exactly a new idea, but I’ve always liked thief characters, so why not go for it? Let’s drop a child thief into our shifting city, maybe a girl instead of a boy, and have her snagged by a mysterious but powerful person for reasons of his own. (Or maybe her own?) And let’s not use dogs. Maybe hawks? Wouldn’t that be neat? Oh! Maybe little bitty miniature dragons? Not cute charming ones like Anne McCaffrey’s fire lizards, but scary little things, all sharp talons and black knife-edged scales and gleaming slit-pupilled eyes.

What kind of woman might have little dragons for familiars or pets or companions or whatever? A wizard or mage? Maybe the priestess of some god? Maybe the servant of a BIG dragon somewhere? That could go in all kinds of directions depending on what we want the BIG dragon to be like.

What can we do to make our child thief interesting and engaging? Don’t want her getting lost in the crowd of child thieves, right?

Actually, if it were me, given this idea for the setting and the opening scene, I’d just start writing and see what happens and what kind of voice and background emerge for my thief protagonist. The world would develop around this initial setting and around the protagonist and the secondary but important woman with the little dragons — and then the plot would start to suggest itself. I mean, you probably shouldn’t have a shifting city unless the “shifting” quality of the city is going to actually be important to the plot; ditto with the BIG dragon, even if, in this first scene, it is only glimpsed in your head and not on the page. And if child thieves exist in the city, that tells you something about the society right there, doesn’t it?

And there you go! See how easy that was? If I didn’t have other ideas for what I want to work on next, this would be a perfectly viable candidate. For that matter, maybe I’ll actually come back to it some time. And if somebody else “steals” it first? That’s okay, too! Lots of other ideas out there!

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Beginnings

So, if ending a book is, as Barbara Hambly says, like coaxing a dragon to land on the point of a pencil, what’s a good metaphor for beginnings?

I think we all agree that the beginning of a book is very important. I’d say, “And very difficult,” only it’s not actually difficult to begin a book — at least, for me, the beginning, including the all-important first line, writes itself. I hardly ever change a beginning very much at all. (There are exceptions.) (Middles are the hard part.)

But difficult or not, the beginning is definitely crucial. Raise your hand if you read the first page of a book before you buy it! At least if you’re in a bookstore with the book actually in your reach. Any hands not go up? Right.

So, beginnings.

I think we can assume that the World Fantasy Award nominees this year must have appealed to a lot of people. I have five of the six nominees, so let’s take a look at how each of them begins:

1: Zoo City (Beukes)

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears thorugh my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes — morning has broken and there’s no picking up the pieces — I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoit doesn’t so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticing out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbing under his nose. Like he doesn’t know that my computer is out of bounds. Let’s just say I’m precious about my work. Let’s just say it’s not entirely legal.

Okay, how about that? We get a vivid use of language and imagery, a noir feel, a clear indication of the setting — Johannesburg, maybe near future. Immediately we wonder why ‘Mongoose’ is capitalized. And there’s the intriguing question of what kind of work the narrator does that isn’t entirely legal. Even though I read a lot more fantasy than SF and even though a noir cyberpunky kind of feel isn’t necessarily my favorite, I’d turn the page.

2) Redemption in Indigo (Lord)

A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a half-tamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.

Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town of Erria, a dusty side street near the financial quarter. But I will make one concession to tradition . . .

. . . Once upon a time — but whether a time that was, or a time that is, or a time that is to come, I may not tell — there was a man, a tracker by occupation, called Kwame. He had been born in a certain country in a certain year when history had reached that grey twilight in which fables of true love, the power of princes, and deeds of honour are told only to children. He regretted this oversight on the part of Fate, but he managed to curb his restless imagination and do the daily work that brought in the daily bread.

Today’s work will test his self-restraint.

Quite a different tone, isn’t it? A narrator, but this time omniscient and outside the action, totally different from the close first-person pov in the first example. This is the one that starts off with a Senegalese folk tale and goes on from there. And, of course, it sounds exactly like a folk tale — or like a story which is going to start with a folk tale. I really like that first sentence. And how do you like that bit about history reaching a grey twilight? Nice, huh?

3) The Silent Land (Joyce)

It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.

If there are a few moments in life that come as clear and as pure as ice, when the mountain breathed back at her Zoe knew she had trapped one such moment and it could never be taken away. Everywhere was snow and silence. Snow and silence; the complete arrest of life; a rehearsal for and a pre-echo of death.

But her breath was warm and it said no to any premature thought of death. She pointed her skis down the hill. The tips of her skis looked like weird talons of brilliant red and gold in the powder snow as she waited, ready to swoop. I am alive. I am an eagle.

Fantasy grades into horror on the far side, right? All that about life and death, does that signal that this story is really horror, or did I just get that idea from the jacket copy and the (very artistic) cover? Actually, it’s simplistic to say that this novel is horror; it sort of is, and sort of isn’t. The language is very clean and creates a very clear scene, doesn’t it? Did you notice that the second sentence is a fragment? That contributes to the sense of stillness the author is creating in this opening scene. I read the first few paragraphs here and immediately feel like I can relax into the story — I trust the author’s skill, though I’m nervous about what he might do to his protagonist.

And isn’t it interesting that we might have chosen these three books to exemplify point-of-view options? Limited first person, omniscient first person, close third person. I didn’t even notice that until now. Okay, onward!

4) Under Heaven (Kay)

Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.

Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.

In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fishhawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.

In winter the cold was savage, it could take the breath away. The north wind when it blew was an assault, outdoors, and even through the cabin walls. He slept under layers of fur and sheepskin, and no birds woke him at dawn from the icebound nesting grounds on the far side of the lake.

The ghosts were outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down.

Okay, I read once that you should be wary of letting any sentence stand by itself in a paragraph. I started paying attention after that and I think that’s basically true. But it sure isn’t a universal rule. I didn’t realize until now that Kay wrote his first three paragraphs as one sentence each. How ’bout that?

Kay writes beautiful prose and this is certainly a good example of that, isn’t it? Lovely prose, and we instantly know so much about the setting and the protagonist. And then there’s the thing about the ghosts. Even if I didn’t already love Kay’s writing, I’d be hooked.

5) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin)

I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.

My mother was an heiress of the Arameri. There was a ball for the lesser nobility — the sort of thing that happens once a decade as a backhanded sop to their self-esteem. My father dared ask my mother to dance; she deigned to consent. I have often wondered what he said and did that night to make her fall in love with him so powerfully, for she eventually abdicated her position to be with him. It is the stuff of great tales, yes? Very romantic. In the tales, such a couple lives happily ever after. The tales do not say what happens when the most powerful family in the world is offended in the process.

Oookay. so much going on here, it’s hard to know where to start. Can you think of another opening where the reader is challenged so immediately and directly with such big questions? And that fairy-tale feel in the third paragraph, that’s intriguing, too; it catches me immediately.

I’ve read (somewhere, don’t ask me where, I don’t remember) a review of this book which basically said, It’s a nice fantasy, but nothing new or striking. I totally disagree. I think this narrative voice is really unusual and striking, I think that comes through right from this very powerful beginning, and I think Jemisin did an amazing job with this book (and its sequel, btw). In fact, let me just add here, I nominated this one for every possible award and voted for it where I could, I was glad to see it on the ballot for the Nebula and Hugo, and I think it deserves to win the World Fantasy Award — though I’m not quite through reading Zoo City, but I don’t think I’ll change my mind!

Any conclusions?

I’ll throw out a few:

First, though you hear a lot about first sentences, I’d say it’s clear you have several paragraphs to grab the reader. I’d say one of these, maybe two, have boring first sentences, but that’s not relevant because the first sentence doesn’t stand alone.

Do you have to start with action? You hear that a lot: you have to start in the middle of action. I’d say that’s clearly an overstatement at best and maybe just wrong. At Archon last week I participated in the writer’s workshops and one of my workshops was on beginnings, and I said that at least in fantasy, you often start with the setting, not with action — but the setting is not objective; it is seen from your protagonist’s perspective. Well, I rest my case.

The truth is, you have to start with something that will make your reader want to turn the page. That may mean you open your book by dropping your protagonist off a cliff, but obviously it doesn’t have to mean that at all. Though it’s true that someplace in the first few pages you usually show how your main character has reached a turning point where his life is going to change forever. But I don’t think even that is always true.

And, last, about point of view? Write it how you want to or how it wants to be written. I expect I’ll maintain till my dying day that a limited third person pov is easier and more straightforward than any other option, but hey! These books could constitute a workshop in different ways to handle pov.

It’s books like these that make me maintain that you learn to write by reading.

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Recent Reading: Technique

So I’ve had this book, THE BLUE PLACE, by Nicola Griffith, on my TBR pile for a couple of years now. Lesse . . . ah, I see it was published way back in 1998. Well, I haven’t had it in the TBR stack for quite that long, but definitely for some time.

It’s one of those books where the publisher, in its infinite wisdom, declined to put any kind of plot or character description on the back or in the inside flap or anyplace. The front cover says “a novel of suspense”, which at least gives me a hint, even though all the text on the cover is lower case, including the author’s name, which look suspiciously literary and kind of pretentious and is something of a turn-off for me.

The back cover just has a couple of lauditory quotes, which is all very well, but doesn’t exactly carry any kind of information about what the book is ABOUT, right? I mean, there are hints about theme, and that’s fine and dandy, but can I have a hint about the plot?

Why did I get this book in the first place? I remember making a deliberate decision to buy it, so it’s not like I found it at a garage sale. Did somebody recommend it? Don’t remember. Was it just the lauditory quote that goes “language brilliant and clear as sun-glittered water”? Can’t have been because I would have wanted more than that to go on, though praise of the language is always a draw for me.

Anyway, my first point is, one major reason why this book languished for so long in the TBR stack is that I couldn’t even tell what genre it was, much less get intrigued by a bit of clever back-cover copy. I see the publisher was Avon. Well, stupid decision on Avon’s part, or at least for me it totally backfired. I only picked it up now because I’m trying to clear the TBR pile of the books I’m LESS excited by, on the grounds that it’s just ridiculous to have some books in that pile for year after year. Time to read ’em or get rid of ’em, I have decided.

Turns out it’s a thriller or maybe suspense-mystery. I kind of thought it was SF, but I’m sixty pages in now and I don’t think so.

Now!

First two paragraphs:

An April night in Atlanta between thunderstorms: dark and warm and wet, sidewalks shiny with rain and slick with torn leaves and fallen azaliea blossoms. Nearly midnight. I had been walking for over an hour, covering four or five miles. I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t sleepy.
You would think that my bad dreams would be of the first man I had killed, thirteen years ago. Or if not him, then maybe the teenager who had burned to death in front of me because I was too slow to get the man with the match. But no, when I turn out the lights at ten o’clock and can’t keep still, can’t even bear to sit down in my Lake Claire house, it’s because I see again the first body I hadn’t killed.

Now isn’t that interesting? Remember I didn’t know the protagonist was an ex-cop when I started reading, so that second paragraph has extra kick. Granted there’s a hint that she might be a cop or something, but we don’t know yet, not just from this.

We get that the book is probably going to be pretty violent and the protagonist is going to be struggling with inner demons because of some nasty stuff in her past. It’s a nice hook if you’re in the mood for a novel of suspense or a thriller or something of that kind.

But I’m more interested in the first paragraph. Did you notice the first couple of sentences aren’t actually complete sentences? Isn’t that interesting?

This immediately reminded me of a bit in Robert Olen Butler’s book on writing, FROM WHERE YOU DREAM, which actually I did not in general find very helpful — too geared toward letting your subconscious flow while writing literary masterpieces, not my thing — but check this out, where Butler is talking about writing as cinematic. I did find this whole chapter thought-provoking.

Butler says, “Now this is the great thing about fiction. We can move from fast action to slow motion to real time seamlessly and with great nuance” and then goes on to quote several pages of Dickons’ GREAT EXPECTATIONS, including this bit:

. . . “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”
A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied around his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
“Oh, don’t cut my throat, sir,” . . .

Check that out! Not a single complete sentence in that whole descriptive paragraph.

Why? asks Butler, and goes on to answer that question: “Time has stopped. What are the parts of time that signify the passage of time? Active verbs. Things happen. But here nothing is happening except perception. It is beautifully appropriate — and you don’t even notice, except afterward …”

You don’t usually see this kind of technique in genre fiction. (Maybe you do, more, in literary fiction, but I really don’t know for sure because I read so little literary fiction, having been burned too often by nihilistic themes that have no appeal for me whatsoever. (And here I’m thinking of Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA, where the basic message of the book appeared to be: You can’t win against the forces of human prejudice and stupidity. Well, thanks lots, but personally I’d rather have a slightly more positive message.))

But for me, beautiful technique is a draw in itself — and here, it replaced the kind of interest that would usually be roused by back-cover copy. I read that first paragraph and was hooked by technique, before I got to the second and was caught by interest in the protagonist’s evidently brutal past and what it suggests about her immediate future. I am, as it happens, actually playing with this exact technique in a novel I have just barely begun. How interesting to see it here!

Now, just waiting to see how the book turns out . . .

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Protagonists with disabilities —

Five Flavors of Dumb is a contemporary YA, which as I said below is not a category to which I usually give a second look. 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.

I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my To Be Read pile (now down to only 50 books! It’s rare I whittle the pile down that far.).

It’s Ana’s review (linked below) which caught me, 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’m instantly hooked: What can Piper and her family show me about the world of the deaf? I don’t want to be preached at by a Great Deaf Character, but I’m interested in Piper and her world.

It’s rare for a genre author to hand a protagonist a real handicap, a disability in the sense we usually mean the term today. There’s Piper, and another who springs to mind is Miles Vorkosigan, who isn’t merely short (not quite five feet, I think), but also has brittle bones that break at the least little thing — as I’m sure you know. (You haven’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books? Well, run, don’t walk, to your nearest computer or bookstore and buy them all, this minute.)

Even rarer is a protagonist whose disability is mental rather than physical, and here I can think of a couple, but the one I’m thinking of *particularly* 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 is 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.

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Creating voice

First, happy Good Friday! A day off is always welcome, even if it is cold, rainy, windy, and thoroughly unpleasant (did I mention cold?) AND my mail-order plants just arrived and it is going to be really difficult to get them in the ground in this weather because you just cannot dig in wet clay-based soils (it destroys the soil structure and makes it very tough for your poor babies to get off to a decent start).

I think I will pot up the container-grown ones in larger pots and put them under lights to wait; and the bare-root things can go in the extremely well-drained nursery bed or else in the vegetable garden, or maybe in VERY LARGE containers. I’ll get that done tomorrow, at least the bare-root shrubs, because I hate to let them sit around for any length of time. Then everything wait for the soil to dry out a little.

Meanwhile!

I finished my werewolf short story this morning (not super-short; wound up 9500 words, just about what I expected). It’s a prequel to the (as yet unsold, but it’s early days yet) werewolf book. The book’s working title, btw, is Black Dog, which I think I had better mention because I keep refering to it and it’s getting to be a pain to do that without calling it by name. The story’s working title is Betrayal. Turned out pretty well, I think, but I’m not a hundred percent sure I like the ending sentence. Not sure it does what I want it to.

I think I’ll send it to a friend of mine, see what she thinks. Then in a week or so I’ll read over it again, do any revision that seems called for, and send it to my agent. Heaven knows what she’ll want to do with it. Have me send it to short fiction markets? Hold onto it until Black Dog sells and then see if it fits an Urban Fantasy somebody’s putting together? There sure seems to be a lot of UF anthologies out there. Not a pressing question just yet, I suppose.

Anyway, thinking the other day about the way authors write the voice of child characters got me thinking about other kinds of voices in genre fiction. 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 — take a look:

“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 totally ignored, plus one actual run on (find 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. 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 long, fast-paced sentences creating voice:

“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.

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 by 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.

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