Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category The Craft of Writing

Blog / The Craft of Writing

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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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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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Child protagonists

Ever thought of writing a child protagonist? I really admire an author who pulls this off, but so far I haven’t tried it — I mean, yes, young protagonists when I’m writing YA, but not really children.

Trei, in The Floating Islands, is my youngest protagonist. He’s fourteen, and a pretty mature fourteen at that, what with all he’s gone through. Obviously there are hordes of kids about the same age in YA genre fiction, and it really is fascinating to watch how different authors handle their young protagonists. Some ‘feel’ so young (Tamora Pierce’s earlier books), and some ‘feel’ so much more mature (Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven, for example, to my mind features one of the all-time great fifteen-year-old-boy ‘voices’, but not (to me) a very ‘young’ fifteen.

Another great and very unusual fifteen-year-old protagonist is John Wayne Cleaver, in Dan Wells’ I Am Not A Serial Killer. Totally unlike any other fifteen-year-old protagonist anywhere! In fact, I just bought the third book of the trilogy and read it the same day it arrived, which very seldom happens.

But what’s really interesting and poses altogether different challenges, it seems to me, is to write a child protagonist.

One delightful example is Jaenelle in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy. Jaenelle is a little girl of about eight or so when she first appears, and her ‘voice’ is just wonderful! I wouldn’t say the trilogy is flawless, but for me the books are ‘catchy’ — I wind up reading bits of them over and over. One of the reasons for that is the young Jaenelle and the interaction between Janelle and her foster-father Saetan.

Anne Bishop uses a really interesting technique with Jaenelle — if I run into Anne again at a convention this year, I’ll have to ask if she did this on purpose — when Jaenelle thinks she might be in trouble, she starts to talk quickly and in run-on sentences. This is vastly entertaining if you are the sort of reader who notices technique! It works VERY well.

Even more impressive is the four-year old protagonist in Dogland, by Will Shetterly.

It took me about fifteen years to read this book because the idea of a dog zoo is so utterly, totally, completely repulsive to me! I can’t begin to express how strongly I believe that dogs should be kept as pets: not on chains, not in solitary confinement in the back yard, and definitely not in a zoo! I mean, check this out, and you will see that I am not likely to fall in love with the background setting of Dogland. Though the historical setting is another thing, I loved that plenty!

Dogland is actually a really impressive book, and the dog zoo background is handled in a way that makes it as non-repulsive as possible, I guess, and when the book opens, the protagonist is four years old! Four! With a first-person narrative! There’s a gutsy move by the author. Naturally, Chris, the protagonist, misses so much that the reader picks up on. It’s a brilliant book.

I should add here, in case anyone rushes out, buys this book, and agrees with me, that the sequel is MUCH less good and reads like Shetterly jammed the front half of a possible sequel together with the back half of a completely different work set in an entirely different world, and it Does Not Work at all, at least not for me. Sorry, but my advice is, read the first book, skip the second. But truly, if you want to see a wonderful job handling a great child point of view, you really need to toss Dogland on your To Be Read pile.

Now: which would be more difficult to write, do you think — a child protagonist, a protagonist with an unusual handicap, or a genius protagonist? Any other categories of really unusual, particularly difficult protagonists I’ve missed?

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