This is not (I realize) a new thought. But wow, is it true.
Kristine begins by telling a personal story. I will add: I would never in a million years audition for any form of performance role. Being an instructor in front of a classroom full of students is fine. Being a panelist at a convention is fine. Performance in a role, no way, not fine in the least.
Of course, the basic idea — that comparing yourself to others is not a happy path — is true regardless. She says:
The writers I’ve been around, particularly those with some success, often compare themselves to others like this:I’m more talented than XYZ Bestselling writer. How come he has all the luck? And then they try to explain it to themselves, often with a result like this:
Oh, he’s successful because he dumbs his work down for the masses. … Or, he’s successful because he sucks up to everyone in power (in traditional publishing).
He’s never successful because of his abilities—not to that person. Not that it matters, either. In the arts, comparing two artists isn’t fair. They’re different. They’re on different paths.
This is indeed an insidious frame of mind. This is true whether you tend to be envious of other people’s supposedly undeserved success or envious of their acknowledged skills and simultaneously self-denigrating regarding your own. The latter isn’t as bad — it’s not mean-spirited — but it’s not helpful.
Long post, but here’s Kristine’s basic conclusion:
I know a lot of you have that problem. Most of you compare and find something wanting in yourself or you figure that the other person (persons?) cheated somehow and that’s why they’re doing better.The problem isn’t that they’re doing better (which might be a perception thing) or because they’re more talented or because they try harder.The problem is that you’re comparing. …
We don’t have enough joy in our lives … Enjoy what you can do. As an artist, you are unique. Your skills are yours alone. Comparing them to someone else’s is a waste of time and a waste of your precious abilities.
Thalia Ng felt her weight increasing as the elevator sped down the spoke from the habitat’s docking hub. She allowed herself to drift to the floor, trying to judge the point at which the apparent force reached one standard gee. Thalia hoped this was not one of those habitats that insisted on puritanically high gravity, as if it was somehow morally improving to stagger around under two gees. Her belt, with her whiphound and polling-core-analysis tools, already weighed heavily on her hips.
I gather from chapter one of this book that a whiphound is a terrifying weapon prefects use when imposing draconian sentences on habitats without any warning.
The prefects are presented as the good guys. This is not, as far as I can tell, being presented as a dystopia. After reading the first couple of chapters, my reaction is: Sorry, but saying, “We’re totally defending democracy via draconian penalties inflicted on large numbers of innocent people without any warning” does not make your actions seem right to me.
The whiphounds do, however, fall into the category of “cool equipment.” They seem to be weapons with enough of an AI component to act more or less independently. If someone attacks a prefect, they cut pieces off that person to neutralize the threat.
Personally, I don’t find this at all realistic. It seems to me that someone could grab a relatively low-tech gun and shoot a prefect before a whiphound could be deployed. The weapon apparently has to be told what to do before becoming active, and while it may be able to strike across twelve feet or so, you know what can strike across a much greater distance than that? A gun.
There’s a long prologue, which I’m skipping for now. Just looking at the level of tech, I’m seeing containment suits and pulse rifles — very ordinary sorts of things. Then the first chapter opens this way:
“That’s an officer’s tail, ain’t it?”
Lieutenant Michael Brogue, dressed in camouflage fatigues the color of a Terran desert, stood in the center of a wide cavern, surrounded by old-style arc lamps, fifty or more unmarked crates, a dozen terrified hostages, six desperate Freedomists, and an antique holdheld chemically propelled projectile weapon pointed directly at the bridge of his nose.
The man addressing him appeared to be about twenty-five years old, a native Martian. He was dressed in a sleeveless blue tunic and loose-fitting bright red trousers, the cuffs of which had been sloppily shoved into a pair of heavy workman’s boots — probably in an attempt to appear “military.” He was currently being called a “terrorist” by the Martian media and a “freedom fighter” by his small circle of compatriots.
An officer’s tail?
Do you generally think about the guy’s outfit in detail when he’s pointing a gun at your face? Well, fine, moving on.
Oh, this one opens with a different kind of prologue — a timeline from 2003 to 2121. I actually like that a lot better than most ordinary prologues. The story itself opens in 2143.
As midnight approached, the wild neon colors of the borealis storm came shimmering through the soft snow falling gently across Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It was as if nature were partying along with the rest of the city, providing a jade-and-carmine light show far more elegant than any of the fireworks that had been bursting sporadically above the rooftops since Friday.
Detective Third Grade Sidney Hurst watched batches of light-night revelers staggering along the frozen pavement, calling out greetings or challenges depending on how toxed up they were. Ice, snow, and slush played havoc with the smartdust embedded in the tarmac, blacking out whole sections of the metamesh that governed the city’s roads and therefore making driving with the vehicles smartauto a dangerous gamble.
A far more appealing opening than the one above, and not only that, but tons of equipment. Not cop-specific equipment, but a lot more interesting than pulse rifles. Let me see. Looks like the there’s “bodymesh” with “smartcells” that appear to be like a cooler, more advanced version of a smartphone. Connection and identification and who knows what else. I’m moving this up the list to actually read it before Archon.
On the day of the big rescue, Wil Brierson took a walk on the beach. Surely this was one afternoon when it would be totally empty. The sky was clear, but the usual sea mist kept visibility to a few kilometers. The beach, the low dunes, the sea — all were closed in by faint haze that seemed centered on his viewpoint. Wil moped along just beyond the waves, where the water soaked the sand flat and cool. His ninety-kilo tread left perfect barefoot images trailing behind. Wil ignored the sea birds that skirled about. …
It goes on like that. I’m not too interested. “Moped” is not a word that draws me toward this protagonist. I don’t mind establishing the setting, but the first glimpses of this guy’s attitude turn me off. I’m bored by him and his mopey attitude and the way he ignores the birds. Having said that, I respect Vernor Vinge a lot as a writer and would go on with this purely on that basis.
Skimming ahead, I see that a remote-controlled flier turns up a few pages on. That’s the first sign of SF-esque technology. Oh, and here’s an alien. Vinge’s Tines were one of my favorite-ever alien species.
Lije Baley had just reached his desk when he became aware of R Sammy watching him expectantly.
The dour lines of his long face hardened. “What do you want?”
“The boss wants you, Lije. Right away. Soon as you come in.”
R Sammy stood there blankly.
Baley said, “I said, all right. Go away!”
R Sammy turned on his heel and left to go about his duties. Baley wondered irritably why those same duties couldn’t be done by a man.
R Sammy is a robot, of course. I have never much liked Asimov’s books. I’ll take a look at this, but I don’t offhand expect to really like this one either. That may not be fair. Apparently the protagonist gets to know the robot and his opinion changes and so this is really sociological SF, which often appeals to me.
“I have decided to consider it all just a terrible mistake,” I told my integrator. “and the best thing to do is to simply ignore it and get on with my life.”
The integrator looked at me with large and lambent eyes. It had been eating its way through yet another bowl of expensive fruit and did not pause in its chewing as it said, “That may be difficult to do.”
Its voice came, as always, from some indefinite point in the air. It occurred to me, and not for the first time, to wonder how it contrived to still speak in that manner. A few days before I could have drawn a schematic to show exactly how its collection of interconnected components worked. I had, after all, assembled and disposed them in various locations about my workroom, so that I would have a research and communications assistant equipped with all the appropriate skills and systems that a freelance discriminator required….
I like this a lot better than the previous one. They both open with dialogue, but this one is a lot more lively and interesting and fun. A LOT more.
I’m moving this one and Great North Road to the top of the pile for actually reading the sample. Then Vinge. Then we’ll see. But Phobos is at the bottom of the pile at the moment.
I don’t think I would be a particularly good editor. Copy editor or proofreader, yes. Other things, maybe? Sometimes it’s easy to offer important advice about the structure of a book, but surprisingly (?) often, I find myself saying, “This book didn’t really work for me, for some reason.” That’s not especially helpful.
I’ve worked with some really good editors. I’m curious about what the author of this post, whom I presume is an editor, has in mind for “what it takes.”
You love reading, right? And you’re really good with grammar and spelling. Maybe you even have an English degree or an MFA. What else do you need?
Curiosity, education, and ruthlessness.
I think it does help to know stuff. That’s for copyediting — which I think of as “Proofreading plus factual errors plus continuity errors plus anything that seems iffy.” I’m not sure if everyone more or less treats the term that way. But if that’s what copyediting includes, I’m not sure I would say “education” is helpful, exactly. I would say “knowing lots of random stuff” is helpful.
Let me go back to the post …
Yes, “knowing lots of random stuff” is pretty much what the author means by “curiosity.
By education, she means “knowing stuff about current trends in publishing and about currently available editing tools.” I guess that could be helpful, though it’s very different from the sorts of things you need to know to suggest story-level changes to a manuscript.
No matter how beautiful the writing is, if a sentence doesn’t fit the character or the story, it’s gotta go.
I would prefer to say, If the sentence or scene is beautiful, perhaps think about how to make it fit the character and the story so that you can keep it.
Many early-career authors use their elevated Special Writer Voice, and their editors must challenge them not to make their words “better” or “more polished,” but more truthful to the author’s own voice.
Yes, but maybe it would be nice if their very own author’s voice was also skillful and perhaps polished?
Purely nurturing feedback is unhelpful. Straight criticism is discouraging. An editor must identify what’s wrong, clarify why it must be fixed, and excite the author to do the work. Editors must inflict the pain of “It’s not good enough, yet.” I’ve told more than one author to cut their first 50 pages. That’s painful! What I say about their work must ring so true that they trust me enough to endure that pain, for the sake of a better next draft.
And that paragraph finally strikes me as true. I don’t have any quibbles with that.
A helpful post, considering the upcoming Archon panel on editing and Lines You Won’t Cross and so on. If the editor has done the above — pointed to something wrong, clarified what’s wrong with it, hopefully in a way that makes the author want to fix that problem — most of all, if what the editor says immediately rings true — then she’s done a fine job as editor.
My first reaction to a lot of comments in a lot of editorial letters has been: OF COURSE! WHY DIDN’T I SEE THAT?
That’s pretty much an ideal reaction to editorial comments. It means the editor truly succeeded in nailing a problem and clarifying why it’s a problem and perhaps what to do to fix it.
So, as I mentioned a day or so ago, I’ll be attending Archon this year. I don’t expect a big convention — I doubt the masquerade will be anything much, for example, and usually this is a heck of a convention for the masquerade. However, we shall see!
I’m on seven panels. I’m moderating three, which means a little more preparation may be desirable. In one case, “a little more preparation” gave me an excuse to be a touch self-indulgent — more about that below.
So, the panels:
Writing Older Characters
Not every character is a spring chicken!
I imagine this will be an easy panel. Everyone no doubt has a list of their favorite older characters to mention, for one thing. Certainly I do.
My first thought was: Have I actually ever written an older character? Isn’t that a trope I like but have so far not written myself?
Then I thought, No, that’s older female characters. I’ve actually written a good handful of older male characters — how many depends on what you consider “older.” (My opinion of what seems “older” has definitely changed over the past decade.)
There’s Gereint — he’s forty-one — and Beguchren — unspecified, but much older than that — fromThe Land of Burning Sands. Then Aras, who is early fifties — not as old for a Lau as for me, granted. And even more recently, Daniel, who is also in his fifties somewhere. (That really does not seem old to me any more.) So, honestly, that’s plenty of older protagonists and near-protagonists.
I still do want to write an older female character, though. Someone like Maskelle, an older woman at the height of her power — granted that Maskelle has met certain reverses , but still. Or perhaps I’d like to write someone older than that, like in her seventies, something like that. Tenai doesn’t count here because she’s not older physically.
The Starting Point
“Ideas are easy, writing is hard.” How do you choose which ideas are worth pursuing? How do you decide when an idea just isn’t working and move on to something else? What if you’ve already taken an advance?
This panel, I’m moderating, so I came up with a longish list of questions that address this topic. It’s an interesting topic, and I expect everyone on the panel will most likely respond in a unique way, since everyone’s writing process is generally so different. Among other things, I bet that “an idea that isn’t working” means something different for a writer who outlines extensively than it does for me.
Planning The Perfect Murder
You’ve read enough murder mysteries; how would YOU pull off the perfect murder?
The way this panel prompt is written, it’s an easy topic to have fun with. I did copy the link to that fun post … right, here it is: The Only Murdering Murder Guide You’ll Ever Need, You Murderer. I’ll be sharing that for sure. Some of the advice in that post is actually good, too. I’ve occasionally been stunned when reading a true-crime story at how stupid people are when they hire someone else to kill their spouse. Amazingly stupid to hire some lowlife thug you don’t know. Amazingly stupid to involve anybody else period.
Anyway, moving on:
The Space Races
Some stories have mankind becoming more and more homogenous until race is no longer an issue. Others have racial, religious and other groups all heading off to colonize their own ‘home planet.’ Which do we think is more likely, and are there positive aspects to both systems?‘
At first I thought this was supposed to be about the question of whether humanity would become more homogenous or more heterogeneous after leaving Earth and scattering across the galaxy. That would be a pretty silly question, unless you invented mass teleportation, say. However, on second look, that’s not what it says. Increasing homogeneity can be presumed to be happening in a future in which humanity never does leave Earth. That’s not nearly as silly, though I don’t actually think it’s likely either.
Regardless, I will personally be arguing that it’s absolutely inevitable that heterogeneity will increase if and when humans scatter into space. Plain genetic drift would see to that even in the complete absence of (a) the founder effect, (b) selection, or (c) people fiddling around with genetic engineering — all of which would probably also take place simultaneously.
I haven’t yet looked for far-future SF novels in which one or the other outcome is postulated. There’s at least one kid’s SF novel in which the former outcome, increased homogeneity, is postulated, but I don’t remember enough about it to pull title or author out of my head. Mostly I can think of titles postulating increased heterogeneity. We’ll see what the other panelists come up with here.
Editing: My Way or the Highway
You’ve scored a book contract with a major publisher, but they want changes. Editors can’t always be right, can they? Is there a ‘line in the sand’ you just won’t cross?
I’m moderating this one. I’ve broken “changes” into categories: minor, still minor, still fairly minor, major, and really major. I think it should be easy to talk about examples of suggested changes that fall into these categories. I can certainly do so personally, with Mountain being the one that lands in the “really major” category. Can you replace this protagonist with a different protagonist and revamp the plot to make that work? Yeah, pretty sure that counts as “really major.”
And everyone has a line they won’t cross for any given book, surely.
I don’t anticipate any problems with this panel. I think it should be interesting, easy to keep focused on the topic, and packed with opinions.
Who are some of the most interesting Science Fiction detectives and lawmen? What crime fighting equipment do we want to see in the future?
I don’t really know how I wound up on this panel. I’m dreading it a bit. I can think of any number of detectives and lawmen I like a lot — in fantasy. Not so much in SF. I can think of ONE — Wrapt in Crystal by Sharon Shinn. If you stretch a point, the latest Murderbot novella is a murder mystery. But that’s it. That’s all I can think of.
I’ve certainly never written any character who falls into this category, except (if you stretch a point) maybe Aras? And that’s fantasy, not SF.
So I went on a fast google search and then picked up samples of half a dozen books featuring detectives and inspectors and agents and so on in SF settings. I feel like I better read at least a couple of them real quick and give this whole “equipment” question some thought.
If any of you immediately thought of a detective or whatever in a SF novel, please point me to that in the comments. Even suggestions of TV shows and movies would be welcome. Robocop is the only one who springs to mind for me.
Rawr: Why Are We So Fascinated with Dinosaurs?
Every small child can tell you that dinosaurs are absolutely amazing. Why are adults so drawn to them as well?
Whew! That is much better!
I mean, this is a fundamentally stupid question: Why are adults so drawn to them as well? The answer is too obvious for words: because dinosaurs are genuinely amazing, that’s why. There’s no need to focus the panel on that question. Instead — I’m moderating, so I’ll be directing the discussion — I’ll start with these two basic questions:
A) Theropods, Sauropods, or Ceratopsians? B) Got a favorite clade?
Theropods are the familiar lineage of bipedal, largely carnivorous dinosaurs that include Tyrannosaurs (not my favorite) and a whole lot of other dinosaurs including the maniraptorans (my personal favorite).
The maniraptorans are a branch of the Coelurosaurids. This snazzy image is from the amazing, extensive set of taxonomic trees produced for the GEOL 104 Dinosaurs: A Natural History class at the University of Maryland, a class that presents THE BEST taxonomic trees of dinosaurs ANYWHERE online. Look at this tree! Look at how clearly the important anatomical details are presented. I can’t imagine going to the U of M and not taking this class. I would have LOVED this class. You can line up one tree after another and trace dinosaurs from Archosauria all the way up to birds — just keep going up the right-hand tip of each taxonomic tree.
The sauropods are of course the big guys. I’m not fundamentally as interested in sauropods as theropods, though sheer size does have its own fascination. I do like ceratopsians — the horned dinosaurs — almost as much as maniraptorans. There are a handful of other big groups, notably the thyreophorans — those are the armored dinosaurs, stegosaurs on one main branch and ankylosaurs on the other. They’re fine, I guess. If your artistic sensibility is inclined toward tanks and rhinos, then no doubt thyreophorans also appeal to you.
Anyway, I used this panel as an excuse to indulge myself. I bought, for show-and-tell at this panel:
These books are illustrated by Rubén Molina Pérez, who’s wonderful at paleoart. Here’s an example of his artwork from the Theropod book:
Isn’t that spectacular? Wow, I’m going to love these books!
Also, though unfortunately not for show and tell, this book:
This one is available at Amazon as an ebook for eight bucks or so, and as a paper-edition hardcover for a mere $245. Guess which version I bought. This sounds like a GREAT book. I love the table of contents. It’s a bunch of papers that came out of a relatively recent-ish symposium (about fifteen years ago) on the Ceratopsians. There’s so much here! The book is about a thousand pages.
I also already had this one:
As you can see, I’m looking forward to this panel.
First things first: Murder is wrong, OK? But let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re considering committing one anyway: how would you do it? … Maybe you want to murder novelist Jonathan Franzen. Let’s say you do. You want to stand over Jonathan Franzen’s wrecked body as it bubbles over with his own blood. You’re laughing and he’s just kind of lying there, gurgling. You beat him to death with an iPad and now there won’t be any more sprawling family angst novels from Mr. Handsome Fake Genius Man. Maybe that is who you want to murder. Maybe you would really enjoy wringing his skinny Brooklyn neck. His skinny, pretentious, overrated, Brooks Brothers neck. Hypothetically. Here are some things to think about while you’re totally planning the fake murder you have no intention of actually doing and by reading this sentence you hereby absolve the writer of any complicity in the crimes you will in no way go out and commit here comes the period and Jim is absolved.
You should definitely click through and read the whole thing.
I found this post, by the way, because I’ll be going to Archon in two weeks. Proof of vaccination, face mask, the whole deal, but nevertheless, I’m going. I do wonder how big a convention Archon will be this year compared to two years ago. Small, is my guess.
So, anyway, there aren’t a ton of pros attending, so the people running the con said, basically, If you don’t mind carrying a heavy load of panels, we will love you. So I checked off the box for “If you need me on this panel, I’m willing” on a LOT of panels, and therefore wound up on one about committing the perfect murder.
I mean, I’ve never written a mystery and probably never will, but at least I’ve read a lot of mysteries. As one does when reading mysteries, I have developed clear ideas about how I would commit an ideal murder (unrealistic) and how I would actually probably commit a murder (much more realistic).
Nevertheless, no matter how many murder mysteries I have read, I felt a certain amount of research was desirable on this topic. Almost at once, I found the post linked above.
Agreeing to be on this panel was worth it just for this great advice:
Always do it all yourself. The fewer people you include, the fewer people you will have to kill later. If you want to get away with murder, no one else can know about it. Not your mom, not the cat. You should probably avoid even making eye contact with anyone while you’re thinking about the murder. Maybe that person is clairvoyant. You don’t know. The more people who know about your murder the more people you may have to someday murder to keep them quiet. Because they’ll blackmail you and stuff; people are such creeps. And word to the wise: if you build an awesome killer ninja robot to be your accomplice, then you will have to take the whole thing apart after the murder is done and then hide all the bloody pieces. Don’t accumulate witnesses or conspirators. It will only increase your chances of getting caught.
The post starts by quoting parts of a Twitter thread by a bookseller:
got notice from a rep that a book pubbed TWO WEEKS AGO has sold through the print run and they don’t expect any more to be printed…btw we’re in extreme red alert territory because this was random house
Kristine goes on:
I know some of you live under rocks and/or have decided not to pay attention to anything right now (and boy, do I relate), but surely even you all have noted the supply chain issues. Your favorite grocery store doesn’t stock the same things it used to.…
I have in fact decided not to pay attention to anything this year, but yes, I have certainly noticed that. Do you realize you often can’t get cream? Almost every week I pick up a pint or a quart of heavy cream, and lately cream has mostly been impossible to find. It’s just not there. Other things may be in short supply too, but this is the one that is really missing. I don’t know what’s going on with that.
I had no idea this was happening to books. It’s hard to imagine a big publisher — the biggest — doing a small print run of a book, having it sell out in a couple weeks, and saying nope, no more printings of that book are planned. I bet they will hold poor sales numbers against the author, too. The publisher will move on to something new and never reprint this book.
Yes, I see Kristine agrees with that assessment. She’s a lot more cynical than I am in many areas, but in this case I think she’s nailed it. Not just in very poor print runs even for books that are selling really well, but in everything in this post. For example:
What used to happen in the past was that a book that didn’t sell as well in paper often showed up in used bookstores. Booksellers waited too long to dump their copies, so they turned them into used bookstores for credit. Enough copies of the book got out to the public that some readers didn’t want to keep their books and so gave them to used bookstores.Not this time. … Building a new readership with the 2021 book will be nearly impossible for a traditionally published writer.
I have been thinking I should order some author copies of titles I don’t have on hand. I see now I’d better do that promptly. Paper books are slower to print and deliver now than they used to be, apparently, and Ingram is warning that the prices for paper books are going to go up.
Kristine suggests, and this seems wise, that if you like paper editions, and a new book you want is coming out, you might want to preorder or at least order right away once the title is released. If you don’t, you may never see a paper copy of that book.
So, I didn’t get a lot done this past weekend … I was showing Leda, which mostly contributed to her (gratifyingly small) collection of reserve winner’s ribbons. Reserve means second place, and is therefore completely pointless. In the past, she has picked up the actual winner’s ribbon more often than not.
Anyway, she has picked up one more point toward her championship this fall, but alas, she still has three singles to go instead of finishing her championship this past weekend as I hoped. On the other hand, they’re just singles. We’ll get them eventually.
Quite a bit of preparation and driving, but whatever, at least Leda is especially beautiful right now, having been prepared for the show ring. Let me see, I have to have a picture of Leda here somewhere …
That was two years ago, but yep, she’s just as cute today. Her uneven face marking probably cost her the points this weekend. That’s a guess. The girl that got winners was nice enough, good body, just as good as Leda’s. Her head wasn’t as nice as Leda’s, but her markings were better. So it goes, so it goes.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is:
a) I didn’t get much farther on the Black Dog story I’m working on, but
b) I did suddenly sit up and say, “Oh, look, the theme!”
That doesn’t happen very often. As a rule, I know what the theme of a book or story is because it’s so consistently a theme for me that I know it’s in there even if I’m not paying attention, or else because a review says something on the order of, “Thematically very tight, so that the first half of the book sets up the issues of this, that, and the other that must then be confronted in the last third of the story…” and I say, oh, right, those themes, good job, me!
However, this time I suddenly said, Oh, the theme here is family.
This is a story from Thaddeus’ point of view, by the way. Realizing that the theme is family has caused me to add an additional scene near the front — that was what I did get written this weekend — and plan to slightly revamp the main body of the story — that is what I will do next. Then there’s a hopefully exciting fight scene and the denouement. Then that story will be finished. I think it will wind up about 60 pp long, which generally means it’ll really wind up about 75 pp long, but we’ll see.
Other things going on:
I did listen to the first third of the audiobook for Tarashana while driving back and forth to the show. This project is moving along rather slowly, but it’s eventually going to get there. In the meantime, I’m both enjoying listening to the completed chapters and feeling a bit like I go into withdrawal when I hit the end of chapter 10 and the rest of the chapters aren’t there yet.
Also, I’m copy editing someone else’s book, and that’s slowing me down a bit when it comes to my own writing, but not too much, because I can do that while in a low energy state — like when I’ve just arrived back home from a long day at the show and have a mild headache and don’t want to try working on anything that requires a lot of thought. I don’t much care for any of the characters in the book I’m copyediting, but I am getting interested in finding out the truth about certain events.
Cliff-hangers and nail-biters aren’t the only ways to keep readers turning pages. When you develop their inherent conflict, quieter, almost insignificant-seeming moments can successfully produce an itch in your reader that only reading on will effectively scratch.…
This caught my eye because on Quora, I recently answered a question about protagonists (“Does the protagonist have to be the most important character?”) by pointing out, among other things, that occasionally an author will separate the role of the primary pov character from the role of protagonist, and that this provides a new source of tension by allowing the reader to conceal from the reader the mind and motivations of the protagonist. You don’t see this at all often, but it’s such an interesting technique. Mary Catelli referred to this technique recently in a comment, too.
Anyway, back to the topic: Many ways to create tension.
I’m very sure that separating the pov from the protagonist is not going to be one of the seven ways suggested in this post at Writer Unboxed, but still, since I’ve been thinking about tension, sure, what are those seven ways? Let’s take a look:
1) Someone fakes it.
In Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, our protagonist, Pat, is trying to control a tendency toward violent outbursts …
Okay, this point appears to involve the protagonist “faking” an emotional even keel. I’m not sure I’d consider this “faking” anything; it seems to me that striving for emotional self-control is a good thing to do regardless of whether the protagonist is trying to fool anyone about their actual emotional state. Still, sure, this sort of thing seems like it could add tension to the narrative.
I feel like I should point out that if the author adds too much emotional angst to the character, I’m going to be pushed away and may not finish the book. That’s me, of course, and perhaps not readers in general. Nevertheless, my tolerance for this form of tension may be low, depending on what kind of heightened emotions we’re talking about. I strongly prefer characters with ample emotional self-control, even if they’re inwardly upset.
2) The setting exudes conflict
In these passages from Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, a bright student named Elwood is catching his first glimpse of the reform school he’s been sentenced to for a crime he didn’t commit: “He expected stone walls and barbed wire, but there were no walls at all. …”
Yes, here the setting — and the overall situation — is likely to produce plenty of conflict and tension no matter what else the author does.
3) The description evokes emotion
This is from Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande: It was my fourth week in surgical training. The pockets of my white coat bulged with patient printouts, laminated cards with instructions for doing CPR and using the dictation system, two surgical handbooks, a stethoscope, wound-dressing supplies, meal tickets, a penlight, scissors, and about a buck in loose change. As I headed up the stairs to the patient’s floor, I rattled.
First, sure, I think good description can and should evoke emotion. Second, this is perfectly fine as a passage with a lot of description. I do feel sympathy for this young doctor. Third, I wonder why the narrator hasn’t dropped nearly all those items in a locker or on a desk or something. I doubt it’s necessary to carry around instructions for CPR or meal tickets.
A few more, let’s see …
4) Desire goes unfulfilled
5) Motives are questioned
6) A mind-body disconnect
I wondered about this one. I know what springs to mind here for me is various SF scenarios involving a REAL disconnect between the mind and the body, or else the sort of thing Ryo experiences in Tuyo, when he can’t trust that what he thinks and feels and rememebers is actually real. I don’t think those are the sorts of things the author of this post means. So what does she mean? Here it is:
In Kate Allen’s A Fear of Flying, the man sitting beside her anxious protagonist, a stranger currently referred to as “Window Seat,” says: “As an engineer, I feel like I have some kind of civic duty to let you know air travel is completely safe.”
She’s heard it all and read it all before. She hates when people say this. “Until it isn’t.” She means to say it only to herself, but it comes out through her lips anyway. She immediately regrets speaking it, for her own sake. Now, she’s shattered her own illusion of safety that she’s been struggling to construct. “I mean, I know that, but it’s like my body doesn’t.” she continues after a moment.
Okay, that’s fair, though relatively … I’m trying not to say boring. But compared to the sorts of disconnection I had in mind, well, this sort of thing is perhaps not as interesting. Still, an author could certainly add tension to a story in this way. This is the general “protagonist must overcome personal fears and doubts in order to face xxxx” scenario. That sort of thing does happen all the time in every kind of fiction.
7) Evasive dialogue
Hmm. Like what?
An example is provided from a YA novel, Erica George’s dual-timeline debut, Words Composed of Sea and Sky — a great title, by the way, so good that I immediately went to Amazon and looked it up. It does sound like a promising story, except for this bit here:
Leta is astonished when Captain Churchill returns after his rumored death. She quickly falls for him. But is she falling for the actual captain or the boy she constructed in her imagination?
A sea captain is not a boy. I mean, what? And falling for someone who doesn’t exist, someone you constructed in your imagination, and then transferring those feelings to a real person you don’t actually know, is so blindingly, blazingly stupid that I flinch from the whole idea. The reviews are great, though. Fine, fine, I’ll pick up a sample and maybe eventually find out if the author can pull off this particular aspect of the plot.
Anyway, after quoting a brief passage from this book, the author of the post goes on:
Pretending. Trampling on social mores. Assuming. Admitting shame over a slight. Then, a plot twist that puts her feelings to the test...
Well, that does sound very YA. But the “guess what I’m really feeling and thinking” style common in some YA doesn’t appeal to me. I think this is something you’ll probably see more in a story that’s more angsty — a story that’s about feelings. This is a kind of tension that probably wouldn’t work for me as a reader. I’d be yelling at the character, “For heaven’s sake, TELL HIM THE TRUTH!”
Evasive dialogue in other contexts would be fine though. If the character is a spy, a thief, a government agent, a superhero, a vampire, or whatever, and concealing that through evasive dialogue, I’d enjoy that. Evasiveness in general is fine. It’s just evasiveness about feelings that strikes me as tedious.
When we think of setting, the first thing that comes to mind is likely to be a panoramic view of a place—a village, forest, castle, planet. When people ask me about my WIP, I tell them that it’s “set” in Iceland, among the glaciers and thermal lagoons. Right away, they have a vision, a way to locate the characters and picture what will happen …
A setting like Iceland can situate a story in a time or culture or geography, evoke limitations and possibilities, create a mood. Yet setting can do so much more than that!
Frankly, I think this part about situating the story, evoking possibilities, and creating a mood is important enough. I’m wondering what more the author of this post, Barbara Linn Probst, expects from the setting. Perhaps she is defining setting very broadly, to include theme, as was done by this post at Jane Friedman’s blog recently. Or maybe Probst has something else in mind. Let’s see …
When we shrink the scale from landscape to detail and focus on bits of setting—small sensory data—we can discover a whole range of story-relevant and story-enhancing ways that setting can be used.
Oh, that’s interesting. So pulling back from “Iceland” to look at details and sensory impressions. That’s fine. That is indeed all part of the setting. Ah, but now Probst goes on to explain that the specific details the protagonist notice are important, not for what they tell you about the setting, but for what they tell you about the protagonist. That’s exactly right, and I’m liking this post more and more. Many examples pulled from real books, not necessarily the author’s own book.
Two different characters will perceive and respond to the same surroundings in different ways. Their differing responses can be a vivid, economical way to illustrate something important about how each character sees the world, setting the reader up for what will follow and making the ensuing struggle, alliance, or betrayal more potent and believable.
Yes, yes! This post is definitely worth reading, examples and all. I keep wanting to excerpt more of it. It’s a long post, which means it can handle the topic at reasonable depth. Click through and read the whole thing.
You probably remember the recent post at Writer Unboxed that offered a look at the first page of Stephen King’s newest book and asked whether you’d turn the page. Here’s my blog post that directed you there. I was surprised and impressed that several of you guessed that was Stephen King, by the way. Even knowing that’s him, I can’t really see it. I mean, if I squint and think “COULD this be Stephen King?” I can sort of see it. But I could easily be persuaded it was someone else. This is true even though I’ve read a lot of his books, though mostly not the newer ones. The last one of his I read was Duma Key, a book which annoyed the heck out of me because of the unbelievably manipulative way King killed that woman at the end of the novel. Both the obvious manipulation of the reader and the unbelievability of the scenario involving her death bothered me a lot and that’s when I quit reading his books. Looks like he’s published 16 more novels since. Wow. He sure is fast.
But that’s not the point of this post.
The point is, the person who wrote that post, Ray Rhamey, does frequent posts like that at his own website, where he posts a first page and then explains whether or not he’d turn the page and why, and polls people on whether they would.
So, I mean, what could I do? The idea of sending Ray the first page of Tuyo and betting that I could make him turn the page was just irresistible. So I did. I did say I was a pro, though not at Stephen King’s level of pro-ness, in case he wanted only first pages by unpublished authors. But it turns out he’s fine with a turn-the-page challenge from a pro. So here’s his post about Tuyo’s first page.
Right away I felt I was in the hands of a pro. Strong voice, good writing. If you look at the checklist, you’ll see much of it reflected in this brief page. Setting the scene: check. Something has gone wrong for the character: check. Peril with high stakes: check. Something is happening: check.
The only desire we see is for him not to freeze . . . but to live has to be an underlying desire. Here, action is his inaction, his will to wait for death rather than flee. As for story questions, the narrative offers more than one. For me, plenty of reasons to read on.
A recommendation for you. I did read on . . . and on . . . and on. This is the first in a series, three novels so far. They were, for me, compelling. I hardly put them down for a week.…
So that’s certainly satisfying!
Also, these first page examples and the polls are just interesting. There’s a lot of them here at this site, if you’re also interested in effective novel openings.
This novel was number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for September 19, 2021. How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it was submitted by an unpublished writer?
Blood-sodden, the girl staggers into the black. Her clothes are disheveled, hanging off her young body, revealing expanses of pale flesh. Shoe lost, foot bleeding. She is in agony, but the pain has become inconsequential, eclipsed by other sufferings.
Actually, for me, this paragraph is a bit of a turn-off because the girl’s not in good shape. But also, I do think it’s a weak paragraph. I’m bored by the advice to show, not tell, but the last sentence above is a weak example of telling. Also, as Elaine T commented here not that long ago, opening with “the man” or “the girl” is annoying to many readers. That includes me.