Sunday, July 31, 2011

Writing Advice 7 — The Why, the Engines of a Story


In lesson number four, I explained the Who, the What, and the Where, but I left out the Why.  As you might recall, Who equals characterization, Where equals setting, and What equals what then is the Why?

When creating a character a very important, and often overlooked aspect, is their motivation as this dictates much of their characterization and how they fit in the story. Most main characters have clear motivations because the story is usually about what they want and how they go about obtaining it. The problem is, sometimes writers stop there.

I once played a computer game back in the early nineties. It was a role playing game and known for having a huge world, with many towns that you could interact with, only they were all the same. Auto generated, the towns all looked alike and the people were all generic copies. It was like some disturbing Twilight Zone episode. It was also boring. Books can be that way too if the only person in the book with motivation is the main character.

In the original movie version (not so much the extended one) of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, I couldn’t understand why Pippin and Merry joined Frodo and Sam. They appeared to be strangers who bumped into each other on the road and decided to give up their lives, friends, homes, and responsibilities to wander off the map with apparently total strangers. This wasn’t Tolkien’s fault, he provided all the motivations and back stories in his books, they just never made it to the movie’s original release. Yet many novelist make the same mistake of skipping the motivation for supporting characters as non-essential—and then of course there’s the antagonist.

Evil for evil’s sake—it is an common theme in fantasy, but also pops up in other genres, most notably horror and occasionally thrillers.  Fantasy has been around for a long time and in ages past I suspect world perceptions were simpler. How else could nations justify wholesale slaughter of peoples merely because they were barbarians, or savages, or—evil. This black and white attitude lingers but not so much in the modern world of fantasy novels. Readers are showing a greater interest in more complex character motivation, particularly in their bad guys. They are no longer satisfied with a Sauron or Voldemort who are evil and motivated only by power and domination. They want to know…why. (Although oddly enough old Voldemort did surprisingly well for himself.)

When you take the time to consider why the evil menace wants to destroy the world, you realize that destroying the world is a pretty stupid thing in the first place, because it holds no advantage to the destroyer who would presumably die along with everyone else. Enslaving all of mankind? Okay, but why? Is it just an inferiority complex? They want to be the most important? Okay, but why? What made them this way?

The more times you ask yourself “why” the deeper the character becomes, and the more interesting. Also you manage to weed out all the false values, things that don’t make sense like wanting to destroy the world. Most people have better motivations than a three-year-old in the midst of a tantrum. The extra work often results in far more interesting plot elements that open whole new ideas that are not only more sensible, but far more interesting, fun, and sometimes even original.

While coming up with motivations aren’t all that hard, aligning the motivations so that they interconnect the way they need to in order to make an interesting novel, is. And if you are doing a good job then absolutely every character in a novel, no matter how insignificant, has a motivation. The direction they want to go and the things they want to do extend like dotted lines out into the future in a straight line. You alter them so that they intersect with the dotted lines of other characters and where they meet they often change, skew and shift their angle to head off in a different direction, otherwise known as growth or character arcs. The resulting pattern of dotted lines is the story. It is what drives the characters, and the characters drive the reader. Motivations are the little engines that you wind up and let go. Without them, characters appear false. They become one more prop, like a chair or a table.

Motivations are also logic lines. They should prevent you from doing stupid things. Everyone has read a book or seen a movie where you say, “no one would do that.” Usually this is the result of the character’s motivation being in conflict with the way the writer wants the story to go. You’ve likely heard writers say their characters take the story places they didn’t expect. This is what they mean. You can either force a story to be what you want, or let the characters follow their motivations and see where that leads. The former always feels contrived and your audience will find it unbelievable. It is almost always best to listen to the characters and let them be the people you made them into. I once had a group of characters who had been traveling through the snow by horse all day and were supposed to leave the road and head into the wilds. That's what the outline called for, only as it happened, there was a town just a few miles ahead and it was late in the day. Almost all my characters wanted to get a nice warm room in the town rather than sleep out in the ice and snow. I didn't want to write a whole chapter concerning their adventures in the town, which I would be forced to do, but no amount of coaxing would change their minds. Why? Because every time I imagined myself in their shoes, there was just no way I would pass up a warm bed. The scene played out that the characters actually had an argument in the middle of the road, and decided to sleep in town. To force the issue would have contrived the plot. In the end, I used the unexpected, added chapter to further develop the characters and the book was richer for it.

Something to keep in mind is that as motivations are the desires of characters based on the information they have at the time, it should invariably lead to characters making the wrong assumptions about others and about the outcome of events and their own plans. All too often I have read stories where the characters always anticipate what will happen perfectly. A good popular example of this is the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. The film makes use of an interesting flash-forward technique, where Holmes, using his keen skills can anticipate in a fight what will happen and plans out his course of action accordingly. You see the event, and then the scene is replayed and it always occurs precisely as he planned it. Not only did I find this unlikely, and a bit repetitious, I felt it was a waste of potential. For once the technique is established, the sheer drama of this flash-forward failing would be great. We would see what Holmes planned to do, only to have something unexpected occur, giving us two stories rather than a dull rerun.

While this problem can come from sheer laziness, I think all too often it is the result of writers being unable to detach themselves from their characters. When the author is the character, it is a bit like god inhabiting the body of a person. They can’t be wrong. Characters should usually be wrong, most people are, or at least only partially right. Otherwise, as soon as a character suggests what might happen, the reader knows it will and you’ve just provided a spoiler that will steal all the drama from the upcoming scene. However, if the writer can block out all they know and really be just that one character, locked in ignorance, bound by their fears, and driven by their personal desires, their world colored by their past, then it is usually a simple thing to guess at their next move, and their expectations. These will likely not be what is about to happen. The result is a more dynamic and exciting plot that keeps the reader turning pages and surprising them.

There is however a difference between a character making a logical mistake based on what they don't know, and a character being stupid. Sometimes writers cause their characters to make ridiculous decisions, or draw insane conclusions  in order to advance the plot the way they want it to go. This is a cheat, and readers know this. To guide characters in the right directions, merely adjust the world around them so that it alters their motivation and then let them go. And if you can't alter the world to accommodate the motivational change, then you'll just have to accept that the story is about to change in an unexpected way.

So you can see how important motivations are. Once set, they can completely alter what it was you expected you were going to write. But having them breathes life into otherwise dead characters and helps prevent stupid mistakes. Let’s face it, no one would ever stalk a vampire at night, or even a cloudy day, unless they had an extremely good reason. No one would go back into a wall-bleeding, haunted house unless they had to. Motivations comprise the story that is flavored by characterization and accented by unexpected challenges.

It also needs to be understood that characters don’t have just one motivation. Sure Frodo wants to destroy the ring, sure Harry wants to defeat Voldemort, but before that, they both want to eat breakfast. And just as motivation drives the big picture, motivations drive the mini-stories that move the plot forward.

That’s the bell. Next week we’ll look at Mini-Stories. Remember, no running in the halls

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Guest Post — Jon Sprunk

Years a ago there was a Saturday morning cartoon called Scooby-Do, Where Are You? You might have heard of it. I was a huge fan when it originally aired, I am guessing sometime in the late 60’s early seventies. It lasted longer than most of the new cartoons, but I could tell when the writers were running out of ideas when they started doing crossovers. The “jumping the shark” moment came when Sabrina the Teenage Witch—(a cartoon spin off of the Archies cartoon, an episode that included the famous song Sugar, Sugar)—who was getting her own show appeared on Scooby-do as a promotional gimmick. In the years that followed there were more crossovers, from less reputable cartoons as writers struggled and things spiraled downward.

I’m not sure what that says about my blog as today I am, for the first time ever, hosting a guest blogger. I would like to think it means my reputation, and fame has grown to the point where celebrities are interested in stopping by, rather than a cheap gimmick to keep viewers interested in a flagging series. I suppose that’s for you to decide.

Jon Sprunk is the author of Shadow’s Son  and the more recently released, Shadow’s Lure published through Pyr Books. His books are about an assassin with unusual mystical talents and sort of an imaginary friend whose latest job is a setup. There are some obvious similarities between his books and mine, which is no doubt why the universe contrived to bring us together at the recent Balticon convention.The two of us are visiting each other's blogs and meeting for drinks at Dragoncon in Atlanta, at least I hope we are, I hate drinking alone.

So now, without further adieu, I give you Jon Sprunk…

Hello. I’m Jon Sprunk, author of the Shadow saga from Pyr Books, and I’d like to thank Michael for having me over to his place to chat about books and writing.

I get asked a lot why I write fantasy and I was never quite sure how to answer it. Then I heard famed author Robert Sawyer talk at Confluence this year. Robert has a ton of interesting things to say about writing and speculative fiction, but one statement really struck home with me. He said (and I’m paraphrasing, so any inaccuracy is my own fault) that science fiction is the fiction of ideas, of philosophy. In fact, he offered that the field should be renamed “Philosophy Fiction,” or Phi-Fi.

I thought about that a lot over the course of the day as I attended panel discussions and talked with other writers. If sci-fi is indeed the genre of ideas and philosophy, then perhaps fantasy is the genre of emotional states. I have always felt in my gut that there is a link between fantasy and heavy metal music, but thinking about them both in light of Robert Sawyer’s declaration, both fantasy lit and the harder rock subcategories work from a primal (and oftentimes violent) emotional core. Rage, love, passion. These are the driving forces of many fantasy stories.

For instance, the protagonist of my books (I hesitate to call him the ‘hero’), strives to attain the emotionless state required by a professional assassin, but at every turn he struggles against the wellspring of deep emotions bubbling under the surface of his hard exterior. Why did I create him like this? Because I wanted him to have realistic experiences and realistic reactions, and real people feel. We’re constantly ruled by our emotions, for better or worse. I think some genres of literature downplay emotion, or treat it as an afterthought, but my favorite stories have always been those that featured emotionally-charged characters.

But (he said with a portentous pause) it’s not enough to simply report a character’s emotions. “John was sad that his puppy died” or “Sally loved John precisely for that reason” are not significant until the characters actually act on their emotional state. John has to go after the evil neighbor who poisoned his pooch. Sally has to make a desperate attempt to keep John from harm because she can’t bear to see him go to prison for murder. Emotions drive action and reaction in our everyday lives, and the same should happen in our fiction.

Take George Martin’s epic A Game of Thrones as an example. It has battles and (some) magic and a feisty dwarf, but I would submit that its popularity comes from the fact that all the characters, great and small, are ruled by their emotional states. Just about every action taken in the book is predicated on emotional stimuli; some internal to the character, and others from outside pressures.

But we can go back to older fantasy and see the same elements (if presently a little differently). Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. were given to drink and battle excessively to combat their constant ennui. Elric was a passionate brooder; indeed, it was his possession of human emotions that set him apart from his race. Frodo and Sam – don’t me started.

Whether about dragons or magic swords or assassins who wield shadow magic, emotions play a pivotal role in the fantasy realm. Our characters ooze angst and snort rage-kindled fires, they love deeply and oftentimes tragically. And that’s why I write fantasy.

Jon Sprunk is the author of Shadow’s Son and Shadow’s Lure from Pyr Books. He lives passionately in central Pennsylvania with his family.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Writing Advice 6 — Point of View

About seven year ago I was reading a book and it was annoying me, but I couldn’t understand why. It was a young adult novel, a simple, fun story and I should have liked it, but I didn’t. It was confusing and hard to follow, which I thought strange for a kid’s book.

This was back right around the time I signed with my first literary agent. I sent her The Crown Conspriacy and was waiting to hear from her. When she finished she responded by saying she liked it but had a problem with the shifting point of view or PoV. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. What was PoV? My agent acted as if I had just asked what year it was.

PoV, she explained,  was the perspective you are writing from—which character’s head you are in—who is experiencing the story. When you write:

It was a hot day.

That sentence can mean many things depending on PoV. Consider the difference between an ice cube’s PoV verses a cold-blooded lizard.  So the question is, who thinks it is a hot day?

The three basic PoV categories are First Person, Second Person, and Third Person. There are lots of sub-categories to these that I’m not going to get into as this is a basic topic and not advanced theory, and because I’m not a literature professor.  

The easiest PoV is the First Person Narrative. This is when the writer appears to be writing about themselves, easily identified by all that “I”s. First person is easy, not because it is easy to write in. First person is very limiting and often makes writing a story very hard, but it makes it easy to avoid mistakes. You are constantly reminded of who’s head you are in. I know Third Person stories where the main character has consistently been the only PoV, and they die before the end of the novel. This is a mistake that is hard to make when writing in first person.  It also makes it a little harder to Tell rather than Show as you are clearly limited by what the very singular narrator knows.

There is also Second Person, which is rarely used. This is when the writer addresses the reader as if they are a character in the story defined by the word “you,” as in, “You enter the house and sit down, crossing your legs and tapping your toes while you wait.” I consider this a novelty PoV, something short story writers might use, or a novelist might employ for a brief time to off-set something.

Then there is Third Person. This is the most common in literature, because it allows the greatest freedom and provides the largest number of options. As such there are more than one type. Third Person can be a character telling another person’s story, or an omniscient narrator telling the story. There are further breakdowns and this is where things get tricky.

Most people prefer the Omniscient Third, and there are sub-sets of this, but I’m only going to focus on two: Close and Distant.

A Close Third PoV is where the writer is describing the world using the mind of a specific character. Everything described is to be interpreted as how the character sees it, and not necessarily how it objectively is, and is limited to what the character knows. A Distance Third PoV is when a totally omniscient narrator, relates everything objectively.

The Crown Conspiracy was written in mostly Close Third, but the mistake I was making, the one my agent pointed out, was that I would jump from one character’s PoV to another. One of the great advantages of Third Person is being able to present more than one PoV, the mistake occurs when the PoV shifts mid-scene. One minute you are in one character’s head, seeing the world through their eyes and values and then with no warning or other indication, like a scene break or chapter change, you are in another person’s head seeing the same things differently. The issue is that as a reader, you have no idea there has been a change and suddenly you are obtaining sometimes contradictory thoughts.

Bobby held the ball and planned to throw it through the big window.

He would never throw it through the window. No one ever did. The very idea that he was threatening to do it was stupid.

Bobby threw the ball and shattered the window and Steve was shocked.

The first line is presented in Bobby’s PoV. The rest are in Steve’s PoV. Not knowing that the PoV had changed from Bobby to Steve, it is hard to determine who is thinking:  He would never throw it through the window. No one ever did. The very idea that he was threatening to do it was stupid.  Is this meant to show that Bobby is reflecting on the fact he won’t actually throw the ball and is only making a show of it? Or is Steve thinking that Bobby won’t do it. It introduces unnecessary confusion.

It wasn’t until my agent explained this to me that I realized this was why I wasn’t enjoying the book I was reading. The young adult story had a wildly shifting PoV that was driving me nuts without my realizing it.

Distant Third does not require a character present to relate a scene or series of events. However, being untethered, it also provides little structure and it is easy to get into trouble using it for it demands the use of Telling. It also lacks flavor, a true distant omniscient is void of any attitude or bias which makes the writing boring. I use Distant sparingly, and for specific reasons. At the end of Crown, the beginning of the final chapter starts with a grand Distant Third opening where I sum up events, and then “zoom in” to a street, and then a shop and finally the mind of a single character and I am back into Close Third. I’ve done this sort of things a few times much the way a movie director might chose a specific special effect shot. So while I feel it is okay to shift between the two in a story, and even in a scene it should be done sparingly or it will come off a bit like an amateur film maker zooming in and out all the time. 

Aside from clarity, PoV is a control that helps force writers to write better by limiting them and promoting Showing rather than Telling.

I recently read an aspiring writer’s novel that began with the main character thinking about themselves, how they look, and their relationships with the people they live with. This is a very common mistake. Take this for example:

Katy woke up and threw her long blonde hair back. She loved having long blond hair, it made her feel pretty. John came in the room. John was her uncle and she had lived with him and his wife Teri for most of her life, ever since Katy’s mother was killed in a terrible car accident. That was a horrible night that Katy could never forget.    

What’s wrong with this? For one thing, it doesn’t make sense. We are clearly in Katy’s head, but does anyone think this way? If you had long blonde hair, do you suppose that you would think how having it makes you feel pretty upon waking? You might think about it if you had a reason to—say you were on your way to an important date and you were concerned about your appearance—but no one wakes up thinking about how they look and how their attributes have always made them feel. This is clearly the writer Telling the reader what the character looks like. They are struggling to find a way to define the character and it shows.

Now we have John. How often are you sitting in a room when someone you have known all your life, like a brother, sister, parent or spouse enters and you begin thinking to yourself how you know this person, how you first met, etc. People don’t just reminisce whole relationships out of the blue. People are only focused on what is happening at that moment. They are confined to their motivation and what is concerning them at that time. Again, this is a form of Telling, and when you restrain the PoV to one character and then apply the focus of exactly what that character would be thinking at that moment in time based on their present situation, then the things you, as a writer, can address become very limited.

People don’t think about the kinds of things that would introduce them to others. They don’t think about the history of their family, or close friends. They usually don’t address others by name when speaking to them. They don’t ponder their life history. These are all contrivances invented by writers that steal the suspension of disbelief that is so important to any fiction work. It is also nothing more than another form of Telling. People react to the situation they are in, to their environment and to the motivation that drives them. If you want to convey information about a character’s past figure out how to show it. Create a reason for the thought.

A knock on the door woke her and Katy got up. Outside her bedroom was her Uncle John standing in his overalls, a day’s growth of beard on his face. “Breakfast,” he said and left. Katy moved to her closet pausing as she did every morning to touch the face of her mother and father framed in the photo on her dresser. The photo was an old Polaroid, turning yellow. It was the only photo she had of them—the only one that survived.  She found a blouse and a clean pair of jeans and got dressed.

In the above paragraph the same information is conveyed (minus the blond hair) but the reader isn’t directly told. The key thing to note is that the thought of her parents are triggered by an object, and that while a tragedy is hinted at, it is not fully explained. People often consider things fleetingly when stimulated to do so by a sight or sound, but there is usually no reason to ponder them deeply because they already know. This scene could be even better if the picture had fallen over giving Katy more reason to notice it, more reason to reflect on it.

Part of the skill of being a writer is becoming your characters. You are like an actor who transforms yourself into that other person and then transports yourself to that place. If you do this, then all that is necessary is to react to your surroundings as they would. The problem arises when a writer feels the need to get all kinds of information out. They think, I have to tell the reader Katy has long blond hair and who this John guy is, and how she came to be with him. The interesting thing new writers fail to see is that you really don’t.  Any story will be far better if you don’t explain much. Just drop the reader into a scene, let it unfold as it would in real-life, where there is no narrating voice-over explaining who these people are and why they are saying what they do. You’ll be surprised how much a reader will understand without being told. In addition, the effort to figure out who the characters are, what their relationship is, and what is happening and why, will feed their need to read more and give them both a sense of involvement, and a sense that the writer respects their intelligence.

One of the skills a new writer needs to master is patience. All too often writers want to blurt everything out. They have this great story to tell and want to get it all out there right away. They don’t feel they have time to hint at things, they don’t trust the reader to figure out clues, or to stay interested in a plot if you don’t tell them all the cool stuff up front. If they are writing a murder mystery they practically want to tell you who the murderer is in the first page, because it is so cool. I think this might be a lack of self-confidence combined with a misunderstanding of how long a book is, and the need to pace one’s self.

There is also the problem of a writer having all this information and feeling a need to impart it all. I’ve found, particularly in the fantasy genre, that while you might have a thousand pages of information, it is best to only use about ten. The rest isn’t needed to tell the story and putting it out there is just showing off all the work you did, as if the reader will give you credit for extra effort. In reality, you’ll just bore them.

So how do you get, and keep a reader interested in a story if you don’t expose them to the great and compelling aspects of your plot right away? And how do you keep your characters from becoming contrived robots? This is for another day.

That’s the bell. Next week we’ll look at Motivation, the Engines of a Story. Remember, no running in the halls

Friday, July 22, 2011

Is This Cool or What?

I've often wondered if anyone even bothers to read this blog, but today I noticed that John Ginsberg-Stevens did a guest post over at Dribble of Ink and his subject was a response to my previous post Fantasy as Fantasy.

I'd just like to say John does a fine job and brings up some good points. One day he and I must find a dark pub to delve into the matter further over dark beers.

Thanks for taking the time to comment John, and for letting me know that this thing is on.

Now go read his comments at Dribble of Ink

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fantasy as Fantasy

I’ve mentioned this before I’m sure. There has been a big push for “gritty realism” in fantasy over the last two decades, regardless of whether it is historical or urban. The more traditional “hero’s quest” being abandoned for greater ambiguity that critics call depth. I’ve never been able to understand that because, after all, it’s fantasy, and fantasy is like daydreaming. Does anyone daydream about a miserable world filled with awful people where the dreamer themself is also despicable?

One of the arguments made in favor of realism is that audiences are tired of the same old thing, but that doesn’t work for me. Music is almost always made up of melodies, beats, and rhythm, but few prefer music without these tired old tropes. Oddly enough, I never get tired of melodies, beats and rhythms because there are an infinite number of them possible, and because the alternative is noise.

I’ve also heard that realism is better because the characters are more believable, more like real people. This comes up a lot. “Good” characters suffer and succumb to corruption, greed, lust, hate, jealousy. The result is that there are no heroes, because in real life there are no heroes—no people who are genuinely good, or who manage to resist temptation or overcome adversity to win. No happily-ever-after. In real life, should a person appear to do something great, then we all know there must be a flaw. Drugs were used. Kids were beaten. Tests were cheated. It has to be this way because heroes don’t exist, and so why should they in our literature? Even if it is fantasy, there are limits to what people can be expected to believe in. Dragons? sure. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves? absolutely, but a wholly good person with the courage to stand up for what is right without an ulterior motive? That’s ridiculous.

Is this what society has come to? Is this how people see the world? I don’t, which only leads me to think that the ambiguity and cynicism is actually less realistic, not more.

Even if the world is as awful as this sounds, why the desire to read about other worlds that are just the same? Personally I have to agree with the quote from the movie Secondhand Lions, written by Tim McCanlies:

Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love... true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn't matter if it's true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.

Recently a friend read the above quote and his response was: So people should just lie to themselves?

If this is the kind of reaction we have today, then there is little wonder that even our fictitious worlds are jaded. Seems to me that if we give up on heroes in our fantasies, or on societies that are worth saving, then how can we ever expect to find them in the real world? Great things begin with an idea, but if our imaginary think-tanks are no more than a reflection of real life, what’s the point?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Writing Advice 5 — Show and Tell

Perhaps the cardinal rule of writing is Show Don’t Tell. It is also perhaps the one thing that can make the biggest improvement to any writer’s work. Like all rules it can, and should be, broken from time to time, but if you’re going to break it, make sure you are doing it for the right reason.

So what does Show Don’t Tell mean?

Tell: Daniel went outside where it was cold. 
Show: Stepping outside Daniel shivered and buttoned his coat.

In the first sentence I told you it was cold outside. In the second sentence I never said anything about the temperature, but I showed you events that would lead you to determine on your own that it was cold out. When you do this, you invite the reader to become a participant in your writing. You aren’t just being told a story, you are being given clues and you get to take part by putting the pieces together and drawing your own conclusion. In a way it is like the old game show Password. This technique keeps the reader engaged in the story. When a reader makes connections, when they figure little things out on their own, it makes them feel intelligent and good about themselves, and when a reader is made to feel good about themselves while reading your work, they enjoy it more.

Telling a reader everything is not only boring, but insulting. Most people don’t like being talked down to. They don’t like to have everything explained anymore than they like to have their meat cut for them by a waiter. It suggests they are incompetent. In addition, Showing also causes the reader to experience the story as if they were there. It places them in the heart of the action. They can see, feel, and smell everything as it happens like an eyewitness. Emotions are heighted. This is so much more fun than having someone tell you the story of what they saw happen.

The problem is that Showing takes a lot more time than Telling. Even in the very simple example above, the Showing sentence is longer. When dealing with more complex ideas, what you could Tell in a few sentences could take thirty pages of Showing.

Daniel spent the next two weeks at his grandmother’s in Tampa trying to act normal while avoiding any direct lies. He managed it well enough to suit his conscience before flying back to New York.

In a novel these two sentences could have easily taken 10,000-20,000 words to Show, and if this scene is integral to the story, then it should, but if it is merely a necessary event that has no real bearing on the plot, then it can be reduced to a summary. But Telling should be kept to a minority in a story, like a brief aside, a sorbet between scenes—used to avoid boring the reader with unnecessary details and to vary the pace.

 Most inexperienced writers Tell rather than Show, because it is faster and easier. Training yourself to Show is hard and takes a lot longer. Often it seems unnecessary, or worse, impossible. Particularly when conforming to Point of View constraints. The results however, I have found to always be far better than opting for the quick and easy. Not only is the writing improved, but the story can often grow in unexpected and positive ways as a result. Just working out the problem of how to Show something tricky, like guilt, can force a writer to develop constructs that can be used to add greater depth to the story later.

In Riyria I summarized (told) the story of how Amilia became Modina’s secretary, then picked up the story at the first crisis point and began Showing that scene. When my wife read Nyphron Rising, she felt that I was Telling too much. As a result I spent three full chapters dramatizing what I previously summed up in two paragraphs. Not only were the results a better read, but they allowed me to explore the characterization of the participants and to better flesh out the setting. Two new characters were born as a result and they became vital to the story in the rework. The added effort returned more than the sum of its work in benefits.

So to answer part of the question I posed in my previous post on writing, one of the ways writers develop Setting, Characterization, and Plot is by Showing rather than Telling. In the previous very simple example where Daniel steps outside, just by Showing instead of Telling, I added volumes to Daniel’s characterization. The reader knows nothing of Daniel personally from the first sentence, but in the second we know that Daniel is a male, and that he is sensitive, refined and the reader has a pretty good idea of his body type. How?

By Showing rather than Telling, I was forced to explain that Daniel wore a coat, and that the coat had buttons, not a zipper. I was not trying to explain that Daniel wore a coat, it was the result of my trying to explain that it was cold out, without saying it was cold. However, the result was that I discovered Daniel was wearing a buttonable coat. Without realizing it I just added to Daniel’s characterization. He is now the kind of person who wears a coat when it is cold (some tough, manly men don’t, so he’s a bit more sensitive.) Buttons suggest cloth or wool rather than nylon or leather. Readers instantly imagine an overcoat, probably of black or dark blue, or maybe a camel, because those are the colors of button coats (this suggests Daniel is well dressed, well dressed usually suggests a level of refinement.) Daniel also shivered. Without knowing, do you think he is heavy or thin? And of course, I had to use the pronoun “his.” It is a pretty simple sentence, but the adjustments I was forced to make to change it from Tell to Show, added a surprising amout of characterization. Just imagine what Showing would do to a character defined by more than eight words.

A reader might not grasp all those insights, but when fleshing out a story it isn’t only the reader who benefits. The author also gains a better understanding of their own characters with each word they put down. By forcing themselves to Show, they put down lots more words, and each buttoned coat, and each shiver helps detail that image in a writer’s mind, and the clearer that image becomes, the more vivid the illustration they deliver to the reader. 

A huge help in Showing is the Point of View control, and that will be the topic of my next Sunday post. Until then, that’s the bell so remember, no running in the halls.

Friday, July 15, 2011

What’s Going On -- 7/15/11

 A large yellow envelope was delivered to my home. It was heavy—New York return address. Inside was a stack of 8.5 x 11 inch pages wrapped by multiple crossing rubber bands. A sliver of cardboard was added to provide a bit of stability to the base. The stack was easily seven inches tall—over eight hundred pages—the Rise of Empire printer proofs had arrived.

These are the finished pages of the book laid out exactly how they will be seen when printed and is the last chance for authors, editors, and proofreaders to see it before hitting the press. The printer proofs arrived about two weeks ago, and I’ve spent the better part of that time reading and scouring it for errors. I’ll be sending it back soon (Robin still wants to look over it). Orbit likes a hard copy of the final changes. If anyone over there is reading this, I made very few changes. We are in very good shape.

Yesterday I got a call from Devi (my editor at Orbit) saying that she has a even larger stack that has just been delivered to her from the layout department.  The Heir of Novron printer proof is also ready. The stack for that book was so large (almost 1,000 pages) that she asked if I would take it via PDF. As I prefer to proof on my iPad that was just fine by me.

I mention this because it shows that things are progressing nicely toward the November, December, and January releases. I’ve received a number of emails recently from people impatient for the book’s release and some have even questioned if Orbit is artificially holding off on publication. It is an easy conclusion to make given that all my books were already “done”. So people are wondering why Orbit just doesn’t release them?

The truth of the matter is there are a huge number of things that are going on behind the scenes. And being exposed to just a fraction of the information can lead to incorrect conclusions. I experienced this first hand years ago.

When we first moved to Vermont, my wife took a job at a software company. She started as a grunt programmer. Every day employees complained about management and in particular the owner and operator of the company. His nutty decisions and refusal to explain them led to suspicions that he was making poor choices and from their perspective their concerns seemed justified. Then through some very interesting events Robin rose through the ranks and eventually became the new president of that company, and the owner left to live in California leaving her in full control. Everyone cheered her appointment. Finally someone sane was at the helm.

As president, Robin was now privy to all the information and realized the owner wasn’t crazy, he was a very smart businessman. He had extremely good reasons for all the decisions he made and for not making those reasons public. It wasn’t long before people became disillusioned about Robin. They began to ask, “What happened to her?” saying “She’s changed—why would she do something so stupid.” Once again they were making their assessments based on a lack of information.

So back to Orbit and the books…For those that think there is some “marketing stunt” for “delaying the release” I want to give you a peek behind the scenes so you don’t operate from the same lack of information.

Some writers (usually aspiring ones) are shocked to see that their newly signed book won’t hit the market for eighteen months or two years. And no, the publisher is not working on their books that whole time. The reason for such a long lead time is because they aren’t just working on your book, and there is a lot to do.

As to my books, Orbit is actually releasing Riyria on an insanely accelerated schedule. Unlike most books that are placed into the “next available spot in the queue” (and the queue is usually full for six-months to a year when the book is signed) mine were “fast tracked”. They actually were placed in the “next catalog” as soon as we shook hands (even before the contracts were signed). Whether they bumped other books, or simply opened up a slot, I don’t know but I’m fortunate to be placed at the head of the line as it were. The fact that they were willing to do the books in three consecutive months is HUGE (and one of the reasons we went with Orbit). It’s not an easy task to pull off. Getting one book fast tracked is difficult, getting three means a lot of heavy lifting by some pretty dedicated people.

“Okay, great, so if that is the case why don’t I have the books yet?” an anxious reader might say. Well there’s much to do between deciding to publish a book and getting them on the shelves. There are only so many people available to do the work, and they like to do crazy things like sleep, eat, and take vacations. For instance, the first milestone is getting the books into the catalogs (which only come out  a few times a year). These are used by book buyers and come out many months before the actual release dates. Then the sales team needs to work on pre-orders to know how large of a print run to do. Then there are advanced reading copies to get reviews from places like Publisher's Weekly and BookList (who have schedules that require submissions 4 - 6 months before release date to even look at them.) It all takes time.

The above doesn’t even take into consideration book production issues. In Riyria’s case, Orbit and I spent the winter and spring re-editing the books. This summer we’ve been proofing them. We’ve added glossaries, interviews, a new chapter for the first book, and I’ve touched up the maps. And then of course there were the covers designs. There were several iterations of this. The ones in the catalog don’t even match what the offical ones will be.

The final tasks will be related to promotion, which will start in earnest a few months before the books are released but the planning starts long before that. When I was in New York for Book Expo I met with Alex, the head of marketing and I’m excited about some of the things he has planned. The series launch is like setting up an intricate Domino fall, or a fireworks display. You need to get everything in position before the show begins in order to make magic happen.

So no, Orbit isn’t dragging their feet. You might not see all that is going on, but they are working hard to get the books out on time and on schedule. And the first few fruits of their sowing have begun to sprout. This last week saw the release of a Publisher’sWeekly review, and a Suite 101 review of Theft of Swords.

For those of you impatient to read the final book, just be glad you didn’t start reading as I first wrote them. I finished The Crown Conspiracy back in 2004 so you would have been waiting a VERY long time for the final installment in January 2012.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Writing Advice 4 — The Who, What, and the Where

Now that you have read the supply list, and considered your outline you are adequately armed and ready to tackle the challenge of creative writing. To begin let’s look at the basic building blocks of any story. I will be throwing lots of terms around and speaking with great authority, but it is important to keep in mind that I have no idea what I’m talking about. That is to say, what I am about to relate is what I have discovered on my own either through observation, or trial and error and most of the terms I’ve made up. If you want the more traditional, scholar-based info, I’m certain there are lots of good books and other websites. All I can tell you is what has worked for me.

Now, with the disclaimer complete, let’s begin.

The basic components of any story are characterization (who), plot (what), and setting (where). I’ll tell you about the why a little later. Now while these are the parts of a story, a writer doesn’t directly create any of them, but rather uses tools that in turn creates them. These tools are: Description, Dialog, and Reflection (reflection being the thoughts of a character.) One of the biggest mistakes I have seen new writers make is only using one or two of these tools, or using all three but relying on only one to tell the story. It is easy to see why those with screen, and or, playwriting experience, invariably focus on dialog. As for those who rip through a story on pure narrative, tend to be impatient to get the story out. Neither of these really work. The first leaves the reader feeling blind, the second is boring because the reader is being told the story rather than being invited into it.

Now while I don’t feel that Characterization, Plot and Setting need to be balanced in a story, Description, Dialog and Reflection I think do. Leaving any one of these tools idle in your toolbox will just make the work of developing a good story that much harder. They also tend to work together to keep the work from moving too slowly or too quickly. Description tends to slow down a story while dialog tends to speed it up. Reflection can slow a work down, but if done in the right voice can also work as a catalyst to keep things moving. I’ll explain more later, but the point here is that by using near equal parts throughout a story, the piece will read smoothly and at a proper pace, neither dragging or racing.

Now at this point someone will invariably raise their hand, waving it a bit to get my attention so they can reminded me that, “Well, Charles Dickens did it that way, or Stephen King did it this way,” to indicate that successful authors don’t always adhere to this rule or that rule. Usually this is followed by another writer replying, “Yes, but you’re not them.” (This actually happened a few times in writer’s groups.) So to clarify, yes these rules can be broken…all rules can be broken, but before you start breaking them, you might want to first master them. It is best to stick with crawling before trying to do back flips. 
Since you brought up Mr. Dickens, let’s consider him a moment. Charles Dickens was the most popular English novelist in the Victorian era. Herman Melville was a contemporary, as was Edgar Allen Poe, and Mary Shelly. All of these writers used a very heavy narrative style, not because it is the best form of writing, but because it was the popular style of that time. This is not the case any longer. Dense exposition is no more popular today than classical music. I don’t mean to demean classical music anymore than the classic novels of the 1800’s, but the fact remains that while in their day Mozart and Bach were rock stars, you don’t see new classical pieces toping the pop charts anymore than you will find novels written in heavy prose on the bestseller’s lists.  Dense prose like that tend to be slow reads and modern readers are showing a preference for fast-paced, attention-getting stories. I personally feel this is the result of television and movies. More and more readers visualize books as movies which in some sense is limiting, but does allow the writer an idea of how the reader is likely to imagine any given scene. This short attention span has taken a firm root in the taste of many readers and they expect to be sucked into a story from the start and driven to turn pages and are not as impressed by long meandering exposition. Taste will vary of course, from genre to genre, and reader to reader.

Let’s get back to the basic parts of a story, remember them? Characterization, Plot and Setting? There are subdivisions in these components.

Setting can be broken down into, functional, atmospheric, or effecting. Functional is merely explaining that there is a table in a room. Atmospheric is setting a mood by describing that table as having deep carvings that make the legs look like arms and the feet like claws that could just move by itself at any moment. Effecting is when the setting exists to effect the plot, the table is made of wood and so when it is broken, a splinter can be used to kill the vampire.

Characterization can be internal, or external, expositional or situational. Internal is done through reflection or internal thoughts, where external is the result of one character describing another or observing them. Expositional is when the author comes out and describes the character directly through the narrative. Situational is when a character is revealed only by how they react to events.

Plots can be simplistic: straight-forward, Loose: a rambling yarn, Tight: when nothing mentioned is wasted, (often the result of weaving,) twisting: unexpected developments, or woven: when elements reoccur often for changing reasons to effect the story. (There maybe a few others, I haven’t spent too much time pondering this.)

Depending on the kind of story you want to build, you will use more of one type than another. And unlike Description, Dialog, and Reflection, the amount of Characterization, Plot, and Setting will vary.

While not consistently true, I’ve discovered that certain genres tend to favor certain combinations. Traditional science fiction tends to favor plot, above all, with setting coming in a distance second and characterization an even more distance third. I think this might be due to the idea that if you ask most science fiction authors or readers, what science fiction is, the answer you’ll likely get is something like this: A story about the effect of a possible technological advance on society. So the emphasis is on the “what,” and most of the details will be about what the advance is, and what the effect is. In Fantasy, it tends to be on the setting or the “where” except in fantasy-speak it is called “world building.” In Romance, I suspect the emphasis is on character or the “who.” Thrillers I think focus again on the what, with a minor in “who,” while Mysteries are also on the “what,” but often add setting as a strong minor. Horror likes to focus on atmospheric setting, with a minor on character—put a person you like in a scary place and you have a horror story. What actually happens sometimes seems irrelevant.

This isn’t to say all stories are this way, or that they should be. Often times authors cross over. The book Dune by Frank Herbert, places a huge emphasis on setting, to the point of it being more in the style of world-building fantasies than science fiction. Perhaps for this reason, and likely due to a less strenuous adherence to scientific rules, many have referred to it as science-fantasy. This however, did not prevent it from winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards. 

So why do so many stories in the same genre mimic each other? Mostly I think because writers learn by reading, and most aspiring writers are encouraged to read lots of books in their specific genre to see “how it is done.” I personally don’t agree with this. I think it is important to read some books in the genre you plan to do most of your writing in, but I think it is just as important to read the other genres. Sticking with one genre and then writing in it causes inbreeding. Just like in biology it reduces the number of options until the result is weak, anemic, and prone to sickness. Crossbreeding with other genres and techniques infuses writing with fresh ideas. The larger your sampling, the greater chance of creating a startling new concept that might take an existing idea and just approach it a little differently.

When I wrote my own fantasy series, I intentionally chose to write them more in a thriller stance than a fantasy one. I came to this conclusion for two reasons. First, I wanted to have a very large and complex plot, but did not want the reader to forget all the elements as they drowned in a sea of character reflection, or world-building nuances. So I went with a focus on a complex, twisted, and woven plot, with a minor in situational characterization. It doesn’t always sit well with traditional fantasy fans, but it does offer a fresh approach even while I used traditional fantasy elements. Second, I found that I was more prone to read books that started out interesting and pulled the reader into the story, and most alternate-world, historical-fantasy novels did not do that. This was one of the reasons I lost interest in fantasy novels, they were just too hard to break into.

So how do you use Description, Dialog and Reflection to create Characterization, Plot and Setting? This tends to be one of those things that writers are always discovering, learning and building on. It is what separates a good writer from a bad one, and created the famous show don’t tell, rule as a general guide to help new writers avoid common missteps. And as this post is already long, and answering this question will take several posts I think I will stop here for now.

For your homework, think about some of the books and stories you’ve read and see if you can tell where the emphasis was, plot, characterization, setting, or a variation. Then try and see if there is a pattern reflected in the books that you like to read the most? Are they consistent? Is your writing style similar, or in contrast to it? Do you think it should be the same, different, or vary with the kind of book you are trying to write?

That’s the bell. Next Sunday is: Show and Tell. And remember, no running in the halls.