Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Searched for

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Killing your characters

Can you kill important characters? Sure. Happens all the time.

Should you? When does that work and when does it fail, or perhaps go over the top? Let’s take a look at various examples of SFF novels featuring the deaths of important secondary characters and/or the deaths of protagonists, and consider why those do or don’t work.

As it happens, I’m not personally too keen on authors who slaughter characters left and right for no good reason. I’m thinking here of Game of Thrones. It was one thing when Martin set the reader up to think Ned Stark was going to be an important protagonist and then killed the character early in the series. That was a way to break important assumptions for how the story was going to unfold. It increased tension in a good way, for a good reason — who else might seem too crucial to die, while actually headed for an early grave?

But besides that, as I recall, from time to time Martin also introduces a new pov character and then kills that character at the end of the chapter. I mean, what is even the point?

On a related note, personally, except in murder mysteries, I detest the trick where the author kills the pov character with whom he opens the book. When that happens with a new-to-me author, it’s probably going to be a DNF moment.

Even more annoying than that are authors who set out to manipulate you by introducing a very likable character specifically in order to kill her. (It’s always a “her.”) If this manipulation is too blatant, it’s a real turnoff. I’m thinking of all of Steven King’s recent books, here, where very likable characters are obviously present solely to function as tearjerkers upon their gratuitous deaths, which is why I eventually stopped reading King’s books.

However, it’s not like I’m opposed to character death per se. The pathos created by a sympathetic character’s death can be very useful when it’s done well and for a good reason. In a recent WIP, I deliberately killed a particular secondary character after going to some trouble to make the reader like him. Even though his death wasn’t at all important to the plot, it wasn’t gratuitous either; on the contrary, it was essential. I had to do it because without the death of that character, the deaths of a couple hundred other people would have passed without a blip on the reader’s emotional radar. They weren’t known, they were just a faceless mass. The death of the one character served as a proxy for all those deaths, giving that whole scene emotional heft it had completely lacked before.

I’ve killed other characters, of course, and I’m sure I’ll kill more in the future. Sometimes it’s necessary to get the plot to work and sometimes it’s necessary to add emotional weight and sometimes for some other reason — you know, there’s an infographic for this — here:

I think this is a very good infographic! Best touch: having “removes an extraneous character” on both sides of the graphic.

Perhaps somewhat iffy: while the death of a secondary character may be motivating to your primary protagonist, the modern author may wish to avoid having all the female characters exist solely to motivate the male protagonist through their abuse and/or death.

I will also just note, considering the above infographic, that if I’d known how The Great Escape ended, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. I prefer less realism and more survival in my WWII fictionalized novels and movies.

But, though I really like the above infographic, I believe that the whole thing can be boiled down to this: two things are always, always bad when killing a character —

a) The reader can see the strings you’re pulling. You should indeed do things for a reason, but your manipulation should not be nearly that visible.

and

b) Killing a dog. Sorry. Other sympathetic characters may have to die, but the dog should live happily ever after.

Incidentally, T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, which I’m about a quarter of the way through now, features a Very Good Dog. The dog is an important character AND important to the plot AND really well done, because Ursula Vernon / T. Kingfisher knows her dogs.

And right up near the beginning, the author makes it clear that the dog lives by throwing in a casual line: “… but because he’s a coonhound and all nose, we both survived.” or something like that. I bet that is not a chance occurrence. I bet she deliberately chose to let the reader know this up front, to avoid alienating those readers who won’t touch a book until they can be sure the dog lives.

I really like the story so far, by the way! Getting creepy, but without overt gore or anything of the kind. It reminds me just a bit of Sunshine by McKinley, even though it’s very different.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

The magic of creativity

From Maggie Stiefvater, over at tor.com: Five Books About Artists and the Magic of Creativity

As a fantasy reader, I cut my teeth on stories of fairies stealing away ordinary musicians and returning them as troubled geniuses, weavers knotting the future into mystical tapestries, men climbing mountains and returning as poets with fraught and mystical tongues. 

Ooh, ooh, I have one! (Or several). But first let’s see what Maggie Stiefvater has picked:

Fire and Hemlock by DWJ.

Okay, well, I know that quite a few people pick this one out as their favorite story by Jones. I have to admit, it isn’t one that I go back to very often. I admire its structure, but I like nearly every other book of hers better than this one. Unlike Steifvater, who says, “High myth and dreary reality blend seamlessly on the ordinary streets of ‘80s Britain in this novel; music and magic are inseparable in it. Jones … has written many novels, but this is the one I return to the most. With its dreamy, tongue-in-cheek style, it feels more like a memory than a novel.”

Yes, well, I’ve read it a couple of times, but my favorites are Dogsbody and some of the Chrestomanci stories. And Derkholm. For the dreamy tone, I actually prefer The Spellcoats to Fire and Hemlock.

Anyway, after DWJ, Stiefvater picks out a couple of books I’ve heard of but haven’t read. Then this one:

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

It has been so long since I read this series that I have honestly forgotten a lot about it. One of the things I’ve forgotten, apparently, is anything about music or making. Let me see … Stiefvater says: “When I first read this one as a child, I found it the most dull—why did I have to read about Taran apprenticing with various craftsmen and artists while sulking that he was probably unworthy for a princess? When I reread it as a teen, I loved it the best of all of them. Taran takes away a lesson from every artist and artisan and warrior he meets, and the hero he is in book five is because of the student he was in book four.”

Oh, yes, that brings it back. I actually liked this one from the beginning. I have always liked stories about learning to do stuff. When I hit a training montage kind of thing — a “time has passed, he learned all the stuff” transition in a novel — I feel a bit cheated. Or sometimes more than a bit. I like the learning part. I won’t say it can’t be drawn out over-long, but I will say that for my taste that seldom happens, even when the training part of the book takes up most of the story, as in CJC’s The Paladin. Or the entire story in Sherwood Smith’s A Stranger to Command.

I didn’t mean to pick out just stories where someone is learning the arts of war. That was just a coincidence. I loved the Harper Hall stories best when first read all the Pern books, and in large part that was probably because of Menolly learning to be a harper.

Okay, and the last of the ones Stiefvater picks — click through to see all five — is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

I liked that one a lot. Here we’re talking about actors rather than musicians. Stiefvater says, “The end of the world has come and gone, illness ravaging the population, and what is left in its wake? In St. John Mandel’s vision of the end of the world: artists. Actors, to be precise. We have ever so many apocalypse stories that show us the ugly side of humanity, but Station Eleven stands out for highlighting the opposite. Yes, there are survivalists with shotguns and ugly truths in this version of the end of the world, but there’s also art, creativity, synthesis, the making of a new culture. …”

Of course we do see a lot of the end of the world too, as this story moves back and forth through time and shows the apocalypse as well as the post-apocalypse.

Okay! As always with a five-part list, I feel that a lot of good choices for this theme were left on the table. I don’t think it will be at all difficult to add five more, thus creating the proper ten-part list.

Given that last choice, I now have actors on the brain. I can immediately think of three SFF novels where actors are very important. None of them really meld magic and artistry, but neither does Station Eleven, so that’s fine.

6) The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham, starting with The Dragon’s Path.

Several things about this novel put me off the series, though from time to time I think of going on with it. This latter impulse is due mainly to Master Kit, the leader of a troop of actors. The actors are a great component of the story and Master Kit is by far my favorite character in the story so far.

7) The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch.

The link goes to a post of mine about the book, so click through if you wish, but rest assured, acting and actors are at the heart of the story. In a couple different ways, actually, considering the overall plot.

8) Not the same as the apprenticeship volume of Taran Wanderer, but I instantly thought of Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell. Fabulous and unusual story, where the protagonist is by himself, fixing up a ruined castle, for quite a long time.

9) Melding music and magic? Come on! Obviously the very best example ever is Song for the Basilisk! Remember that dreamlike journey into Fairie and out again? Not to mention the opera that’s being planned, and trying to teach Damiet to sing on key, and, and, and … no comparison for pouring music and magic together into fantasy. Except maybe for The Bards of Bone Plain, and honestly I just never liked that one as well as Song.

10) Music … magic … let me see … I know I have another one on the tip of my tongue … oh, right:

Bardic magic! Dragon harps! Horns that sound when a stranger steps through your door! And so on.

Who’s got another choice for melding artistry into fantasy? Drop it in the comments.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

Alien intelligences

The elephant as a person

…  the search space for nonhuman language use should rely on two general criteria. First, we need behavioural evidence for flexible, intelligent hypersociality that could make language development a viable investment for natural selection. Second, we need evidence of information exchange, using signals that have enough acoustic variation to make it physically possible that they could encode syntax. Dogs meet the first criterion but not the second; many songbirds meet the second criterion but not the first. There is a loose consensus among comparative psychologists that the zone of possibility for both criteria currently boils down to the following animals: parrots, corvids (crows, ravens, jays), toothed whales (dolphins, porpoises, sperm whales, orcas) – and elephants.

Elephants use multiple channels for signalling to and with one another. One channel, generating vibrations in the ground, is used for long-distance transmission. Soft, low-frequency vibrations in the air, emanating from both the trunk and the gut, seem to be the main medium at close quarters. (The familiar trumpeting might not involve enough acoustic variation to be useful for anything other than broadcasting urgent emotions such as fear and anger – but it’s clearly used to communicate warnings.) In addition, elephants have a range of standard trunk and head gestures that carry mutually understood signals. Finally, they clearly communicate information by touching one another in specific ways and places. They have receptors for processing information from this tactile probing – which, given their precision control and highly labile trunk lips, supports fine discriminations.

A database of elephant recordings is now starting to accumulate in the research community. It attempts to capture acoustic, visual and tactile signals, matched to behavioural observations. But the problem of interpreting these data is vastly more formidable than decoding encrypted human text or vocal messages. If elephant communication has syntax, and if this syntax relies on cross-channel modulation, we shouldn’t expect the rules of elephant grammar to map on to the syntactic categories of any human language. Elephants inhabit deeply different lifeworlds from humans, have different hierarchies of motivation, and make different perceptual discriminations. And, except in the crudest terms, we don’t know much about what elephants might want to say to one another.

Much, much more at the very long article linked at the top of this post.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

Somehow not too excited

This caught my eye:

Eye Drops Shown to Temporarily Reverse Far-Sightedness in Adults Could Replace Reading Glasses

How temporarily, you might wonder, as I did. Very temporarily, it turns out:

Kedar told Forbes that the drops, which are made out of chemicals that are already found in common eye medications, were shown to immediately reverse farsightedness for a number of hours.

Wow, a number of hours. The article also says:

“CSF-1 can potentially alleviate the burden of reading glasses and offer a meaningful solution for billions of people living with age-related farsightedness worldwide.”

Speaking as someone who just got reading glasses less than a year ago, and is not thrilled about it … I cannot imagine voluntarily putting eyedrops into my eyes multiple times a day, when I could just pick up reading glasses multiple times a day.

Obvious problems with the eyedrops:

–You can take off reading glasses at a moment’s notice. Once the eyedrops are in, you are stuck with their effects for hours.

–You have to, I guess, carry them with you, as the effect is so temporary.

–You have to put them in your eyes.

Now, I fully realize that some people put eyedrops into their eyes all the time. But I could hardly tolerate eyedrops that one day last winter when I was at the ophthalmologist’s, having my eyes checked.

It seems to me we already have a meaningful solution for billions of people — that is probably an overstatement, since I assume that not every single person over fifty needs reading glasses — but anyway we have a solution for people living with age-related farsightedness. This solution is called “reading glasses.”

Get back to me when you have eyedrops that offer a permanent fix for age-related farsightedness. Until then, no thanks.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

Coming to TV

Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Books Are Coming to TV

At least, maybe. According to the linked post, the books have been optioned. While that’s nice, it’s not definitive. Lots of books get optioned but never go anywhere — The Floating Islands was one of the horde of those books.

But still, though I came to Tamora Pierce’s work late, I’m fond of them. They might work quite well as a TV series.

There’s no word yet on which of the Tortall books will be making it into the series, and whether the different storylines will be combined into one massive plot, or if each season will follow a different character. Since all of the series (minus Provost’s Dog) build off one another, fill in their gaps, and share characters, we’re going to assume the former. If so, we hope they give the individual storylines the space and thought they deserve, as each of the different series are very much rooted in their main characters.

My favorite set was the Protector of the Small series.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

11 Scary Books

From Book Riot: 11 Scary Books So Terrifying, Readers Wish They Never Read Them

Pretty sure I will not be reading any of these, but since it’s Halloween, here you go: books that are too scary, at least for these readers. Let’s see what’s on the list:

Oh, here’s Pet Semetery. Actually, that is one Stephen King novel I never read, even though I’ve read most of his earlier novels. Even Cujo (which I didn’t like at all, but that’s a different rant). Basically, we all know that nothing good ever comes of bringing pets back from the dead, right? Right.

I haven’t read any of the others, though a few — Heart-Shaped Box — have been on my radar.

But the horror novel I’ve actually purchased for Halloween is this one:

Did you know T. Kingfisher had written a horror novel? Quite a step from Nine Goblins and so on.

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

I do read horror now and then, especially if I’m fairly sure my favorite characters will come out all right at the end. This one, I’m trying because T. Kingfisher wrote it. I don’t think it will be so horrific I wish I hadn’t read it. We’ll see!

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

Sale!

Via Book Bub, I see that the Sunwolf and Starhawk trilogy by Barbara Hambly is on sale right now — $2.99 for all three books.

First book:

An excellent fantasy. When the men of a town are enslaved, the ladies of the town decide they’ll do whatever it takes. Including making a mercenary an offer he can’t refuse, to train them to fight.

Second book:

Possibly even better than the first book. Mysterious murders, curses and demons, and especially well-drawn secondary characters.

Third book:

Not my favorite of the three, but a decent conclusion to the trilogy.

Well worth $2.99. If you don’t already have the trilogy, grab it quick while it’s available at this price.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

Socially awkward or autistic?

So, when I recently read Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness into Light, I found a minor secondary character, Cora Fitzarthur, the most interesting character by a mile.

This books isn’t, probably, considered YA, but it could be. Certainly the protagonist, Audrey Camherst, has the typical virtues and faults of any generic female YA protagonist: good-hearted, brave, loyal, intelligent, insecure, impulsive, we could all probably write out a standard list. That’s all perfectly fine, but I don’t think she stood out particularly from the vast horde of young, kind, plucky, impulsive female protagonists.

Cora is a lot more interesting. Socially awkward, Cora handles ordinary social interactions very much as though she were an anthropologist taking notes on a foreign people. The four letters she wrote to an acquaintance, presented to the reader in the middle of the book, give her awkwardness true poignancy. Now, the milieu of this series is Regency-esque, so a young woman can certainly be raised apart from all society and wind up awkward for that reason, but Cora also shows (a) high intelligence, particularly (b) high degree of focus and (c) acute grasp of patterns. Is she autistic in some manner? I think she is.

This judgment is complicated by the insanely unhelpful decision to jam all kinds of obviously disparate syndromes and conditions under the “autism” umbrella and treat them as though they are related, when they plainly are not. Also by the concurrent tendency to force a grab-bag of things that aren’t any form of autism, such as lead poisoning, into the “autism” category because everything in creation is being jammed in that bag right now.

Nevertheless, I would say that Cora Fitzarthur shows the characteristics of one type of autism. This is handled subtly enough that it’s hard to be sure. But she is definitely interesting. She is the most intriguing and also the most sympathetic character in the story, and personally I would really like to see her brought front-and-center in a future novel of this series.

I have no intention of trying to compile a list of all the autistic and possibly autistic characters in SFF, because that’s a huge job and it’s not I’ve read widely enough to manage anything like a complete list. Probably someone else has already done this anyway. But I’d like to set Cora on a spectrum.

1) Socially awkward and/or extremely shy. I recall one review that pegged Kes, in Lord of the Changing Winds, as autistic.

I don’t think so. Kes is really shy and somewhat socially awkward, but I don’t believe she’s autistic. It’s okay with me if readers perceive her that way, but I don’t. Out of curiosity, did you? Let me know in the comments whether you did or didn’t perceive Kes as “on the spectrum.”

It actually strikes me as problematic and potentially quite harmful to define shyness, awkwardness, inexperience, and/or introversion as autistic traits or related to autism. Let us pause here to note that the child used to define the type for Ausburger’s syndrome turned out to be perfectly normal when he grew up and moved to a community to which he felt he belonged. He did not “have” anything. He was not “on the spectrum” of anything. Possibly this might provide a cautionary tale for anyone who is inclined to rush to define any shy, awkward, or introverted child as “on the spectrum.”

Moving on:

2) Appears to show genuinely autistic traits. Cora Fitzarthur is this kind of character.

Traits that go beyond shyness or social awkwardness: Being extraordinarily literal. Being extremely blunt in social contexts where that is not normal. Showing a real lack of understanding of social norms. High degree of focus and persistence. Extraordinary pattern recognition.

3) Definitely autistic, but “high-functioning.” Michael in Michelle Sagara’s Queen of the Dead trilogy is this kind of character.

 Lying to Michael was different. She could tell Allison – or Eric – that she had headaches all the time and they would pretend to believe her. Michael would call her on it and if she argued it would upset him because what he knew was true and what she was claiming as true weren’t the same. Michael is actually less socially awkward than Cora because his parents and friends help him cope. But he’s got the bluntness, the literalness, the lack of understanding of social norms – such as white lies and broken minor promises – all of that.

The difference between the Queen of the Dead series and a story with a Regency-esque setting like Turning Darkness into Light is that the former is contemporary and thus the term “autism” is available, along with its overgeneralized definition of characteristics. In the latter, no such term or concept is available, so no one around Cora is ever going to say “Oh yes, she’s autistic.” It’s up to the author to handle the character in a way consistent with a type of autism and to the reader to make the call. If you’ve read Turning Darkness into Light, do you agree or disagree with my assessment of Cora Fitzarthur?

I don’t want to move on from this category without mentioning Elizabeth Moon’s extraordinary Speed of Dark. If you haven’t read that, you should, full stop.

4) Definitely autistic, “low functioning.” There are very few characters of this kind in SFF. Probably more than one, but I can only think of one: Odelia in Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series.

You may recall that Mally was often swapped out for Princess Odelia, supposedly because of fear of assassination attempts; then it was discovered that Odelia was never seen in public; and finally it was revealed that Odelia could never be in the line of succession. She is absorbed in her internal world, she does not engage much with the external world or respond much to other people, she shows plenty of repetitious behaviors, she doesn’t speak – it’s altogether a classic presentation of profound autism, this time completely unmistakable even though there’s no such term or concept in the secondary world.

If you can think of a particularly well-drawn autistic character, or for that matter an ambiguous character like Cora, drop the title of the book in the comments, please.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog / The Craft of Writing

Shifting the reader’s view of secondary characters

So, Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan is a new standalone, or perhaps the first book of a series related to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. It definitely reads like the first book of a series, though it concludes the main plotline perfectly well.

If I’d realized there were two covers, I’d have gotten the white one. Oh well. Moving on to the actual story:

This is an epistolary novel, which is in keeping with the Lady Trent series. In this case, it’s mostly diary entries written by Audrey, granddaughter of Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent. Audrey has been given the task of translating an extensive set of Draconean tablets, which turn out to contain an important creation myth of the Draconean people. (To offset the unlikely nature of this amazing discovery, we are told that the vast majority of Draconean tablets found are just tax records, which does seem a lot more likely than stumbling across a central myth.)

The myth is interesting and engaging in its own right. Brennan plainly put a lot of thought into writing a creation myth in a style that seems (a) archaic; (b) plausible; (c) different from, if reminiscent of, any actual creation myth in the real world; and (d) consistent with what we already know about Draconeans from the previous series. Interspersing the myth with current action as bits of it get translated is a good way to handle it. If it were handed to the reader all at once it wouldn’t be as interesting or (it turns out) as suited to the overall plot.

Anyway, translating this myth in time for a specific political event constitutes the basic setup of the story. There’s a certain amount of chicanery going on, as plenty of people have strong motivations to interfere one way or another. But that’s not quite the aspect of the story I want to focus on here. Audrey is an engaging-enough protagonist, though actually I found Cora Fitzarthur the most interesting character in the story by a wide margin, but I don’t actually want to focus on either of them right now either.

No, what I’m most interested in is the development of a secondary antagonist, Aaron Mornett, and the reason I’m interested in him is because he presents such an interesting contrast with another antagonist, James Drake from Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker trilogy.

Now, if you’ve read the Spiritwalker trilogy, then you definitely remember Drake. He’s the one who seems like a good guy when we first meet him, and then every single time he reappears, he seems worse. And worse, and worse, until he arguably becomes the primary antagonist and definitely becomes the most despicable villain in the story. Elliot takes her time developing Drake, so for some time the reader may be unsure. This one thing he did was bad, but maybe not that bad? Maybe we can understand it. It’s offset by actions that are good. Or arguably good, if possibly a bit ambiguous. Then Drake does something else, and something else, and before long the reader is repulsed and then strongly repulsed. By the end, James Drake is one of the most awful bad guys I can think of. But when the reader first encounters him, that won’t be the impression at all. This is something Elliot develops slowly over the course of the whole story.

Aaron Mornett in Turning Darkness into Light seems poised to develop in precisely the opposite direction. Here in this book, we are given ample reason to distrust and dislike Mornett, but – and I think this is important – not because he is a really awful person. His great fault is intellectual fraud and plagiarism, and while I absolutely agree with Audrey Camherst that this is very bad, it’s not remotely on the same level of, say, torturing puppies.

James Drake is the kind of bad guy who isn’t going to be redeemable because the arc of justice in the story demands his destruction; nothing less can possibly satisfy the reader. That isn’t likely at all in Mornett’s case. Several times during the course of the story, Aaron Mornett does something kind or virtuous or both; it’s clear he really does have feelings for Audrey, though she is totally justified in not forgiving him for the things he’s done. It seems to me that Marie Brennan is deliberately setting Mornett up to be a returning character who shifts from an antagonist to an ally, and then most likely to a love interest.

That’s interesting and fun. It’s probably tough to do this kind of shift, where the reader’s perception of an important secondary character shifts completely over the course of the story, in less than a trilogy. The author has to do it gradually or it’s not as believable or at least not as effective. Plus Aaron really did engage in dreadful intellectual fraud and that is not something that can be brushed lightly aside. Not just a shift in the reader’s perception is going to be required (if Brennan does go in that direction) — it will take a change in the character himself.

Not quite the same, but related: some authors have a knack for handling an abrupt shift of perception from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally. In this case, the abruptness can be part of the reason it’s effective, as the protagonist’s, and thus the reader’s, opinion is jerked sharply sideways. Barbara Hambly is especially good at that, or at least especially likely to do that. If you’ve been keeping up with the Benjamin January series, you may recall Chloe, Henri’s wife. Henri is the “protector” of Benjamin’s sister’s Minou, as you may know, and when this marriage first looms on the horizon, it is presented as a serious threat to Minou because Chloe is cold as ice and possibly truly vicious. Then we actually meet her and wham! our perception is radically altered within a sentence or two.

This is so characteristic of Hambly’s storytelling that when I was reading Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, when the same kind of sharp perceptual shift happened with Lieutenant Coldstone, I immediately said, “I bet this is really Barbara Hambly,” and looked for confirmation online. Sure enough, “Barbara Hamilton” is Barbara Hambly. No doubt the sentence-level writing contains all kinds of tells, and I might have picked up on those subconsciously, but it was this abrupt shift from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally that made me sit up and say, “This is Hambly’s writing.”

None of this is the same as the sometimes rather artificial dislike-to-love arc that’s so very common in romance. That kind of arc can work, of course, though it’s so cliched it’s hard to make it seem sufficiently real and natural to satisfy an experienced reader. I can think of several examples that worked for me, or at least didn’t really irritate me. But the relationship between Audrey Camherst and Aaron Mornett is very different. Here, Audrey’s opinion is not remotely based on a misunderstanding, and sorting out that relationship would take, not a change in perception nor a decision by Audrey to tolerate a slight flaw in Aaron’s character, but a real change in Aaron’s ideas about right and wrong.

I hope I’m right that this book is the first in a series, because I’d enjoy watching that happen.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Blog

What is a story?

From Janet Reid’s blog: What is “not a story”

Perhaps it’s too obvious to write about it and I just need to do more homework, but I think it would be helpful if you explained what makes one entry a story and another not, even though they’re both compelling. … in such short entries, there usually isn’t an ending necessarily, and yet this one counts as a story and that one doesn’t. Why? 

This question refers to the many flash fiction contests Janet offers, with a prompt and a very strict word limit. Lots of her regular commenters participate. I’m terrible at flash fiction, so I don’t. Many of the entries are evocative, effective, funny, or successful in some other way.

Here’s Janet’s response to this question:

This is actually a very good question. 
Let’s use last week’s contest for the examples. 

There were three entries that got “not quite a story”. 

For this particular contest, the requirements were: not over 100 words, and you must include the words space, between, fair, bank, and holt. No, I have no idea how Janet picks words to include. I know of exactly one example of “holt” in fiction: in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. I believe in Silver on the Tree. The word “holt” is used in one of the riddles or clues that Will and Bran use during their adventures. “I am the womb of every holt.” — remember that? Let me see, the whole riddle went like this:

I am the womb of every holt, I am the blaze on every hill, I am the queen of every hive, I am the shield for every head, I am the tomb of every hope.

I loved poetry and riddles in fantasy novels as a kid. In fact, I still do. All these poems and riddles from The Dark is Rising stuck in my head, or I’d have forgotten this word, probably.

Anyway, I’ll provide just one not-a-story example. Click through to check out the whole post and here are the results for the “holt” contest.

Not a story:

Colin Smith 

She was an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath. At least that’s how she introduced herself at the speed dating table. The space between us felt uncomfortably small. 

She picked up a pencil and asked what I did. 

“I’m a banker,” I said shuffling my chair, making the space bigger. “What about you?” 

“I hunt,” she said, fixing me with thirsty eyes, testing the pencil point on her thumb. “In the holts.” 

“Fair enou—” The pencil flashed by my face. I turned. An impaled roach fell to the floor. 

“Call me,” she said, sliding her card. 

I did. 

Twenty years ago today.

Hah! I like that a lot.

Janet says: This isn’t a story because the fact that she’s an Algerian/Syrian borderline psychopath (one of the great uses of prompt words) has no further reveal. There’s no twist of expectations or events. There is no gold standard on what makes a story good, but what makes something a story is a change, or a twist or a reveal.

Interesting!

What makes a story is a change or a reveal. That’s interesting right there. How about it? If you pick up a slice-of-life literary novel in which nothing much happens, nothing changes, the protagonist just drifts through the world, is that not a story? There was something of a fad for that kind of ennui story for a while, wasn’t there? Hermann Hesse’ Steppenwolf and so on? That was a book I absolutely hated, I can’t imagine why I read the whole thing, but at least the experience now allows me to say that perhaps some novels aren’t really stories, according to this criterion.

Okay, sure, I’ll agree with this definition, at least tentatively. If nothing changes, it’s not a story. In fact, if the protagonist doesn’t change, it’s probably not a story, even if the world changes around the protagonist.

Please Feel Free to Share:

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail