On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

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Kill your darlings

Pigeon bus

I need to kill my darlings.

I’m not talking about that hackneyed ‘get rid of your good writing’ thing that may or may not be good advice (Spoiler: it’s good advice if it’s qualified enough to make it entirely different advice). I’m talking about rather more literal darlings. I’m talking about characters.

In 1998 or thereabouts I came up with a character for a roleplaying game. His name is Andrew Cairns, and he’s Australian. G’day.

A little later, in 2003ish, I came up with another. His name’s Paul Hazel and he was originally a wrestler.

I’ve been carrying these guys with me in my head for nearly two decades. I’ve been on many imaginary adventures with them. Gradually they’ve been moulded and grown far beyond the source material. They now inhabit their own fully-developed worlds.

So when I fancied writing a new novel it seemed natural to turn them into protagonists. I tinkered and shaped in my mind to worldbuild them a framework; to strip them out of their source material and create a universe that’d be worth exploring. I gave them an antagonist and a mission. And I set them loose.

NPCcoverthumb.jpg

I’m quite pleased with the result. I’ve created a story with a plausible ‘world’ and a villain who’s a real star. The newly-created characters are fun to write and, I think, read well too.

The characters that hold the story back are, as you’ve probably guessed, Paul Hazel and Andrew Cairns.

The reason for this, I think, is that these two characters are overwritten. I’ve spent too long with them. They’re fully rounded, matured: I’ve not left any room for them to grow.

I listened to a podcast recently which said that the best characters are brought to the world without baggage. Certainly all my favourite characters in my own writing are the last-minute spur-of-the-moment creations.

From the policemen hastily conjured to fill gaps in my first never-to-be-shared novel The Ballad of Lady Grace, to the haunted, sleep-deprived Saira in Oneiromancer, the characters who sing for me are the ones I’d never met before setting finger to keyboard.

Hazel and Cairns came to the novel fully grown. All the interesting things about them had already happened. I left no room for them to grow into, no space for change. They’ve become immutable, ossified.

Man in stone wall 1300w.jpg

They might be well-written, they might be realistic, they might be nuanced and have hidden depths – and let’s not forget the whole novel is built around them – but they’re sucking the life from the story.

All those guides for creating characters (like this, for example; there are hundreds out there) are just guides for carving blocks of wood. If they have any use it’s in helping remember the ideas you come up with on the fly. Otherwise just forget them. Bin them. Burn them.

Write. Let your characters surprise you. Run your plot into a place where you need a person, then click your fingers and bring alive the first thing that comes into your mind.

They’ll be a whole lot more realistic than the person you spent days creating a whole back-story for.

* * *

This blog has been brought to you by a critique by @orcsandelves and a particular podcast from a source that, after going on about relentlessly for the last few months, I am sworn not to name.

 

The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

No more monkeys

Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

On Chekhov’s Gun and the fantastic

Gun

I was listening to Tim Clare’s wonderful ‘Death of 1,000 Cuts’ podcast – which I recommend most heartily – and, in conversation with Nate Crowley, something came up that caught my ear. He said that Chekhov’s Gun doesn’t apply in science-fiction because we, the reader, expect things they don’t understand to be dropped into the background to help build the world.

I take it we’re all familiar with Chekhov’s Gun, the rule which states that you must “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” It has a whole Wikipedia page of its own. That’s how important it is.

Let me just make clear that Tim’s comment was a single sentence that went without consideration – just a passing observation before the conversation went elsewhere. This is in no way a critique of him or his brain, which seems to me both beautiful and wondrous. But, as with all the best things in life, this one idle comment got me thinking: is this true? As a writer of SFF can I lay Chekhov’s Gun aside?

My initial thought is no, you can’t. But we need to dig a little deeper than that, don’t we? This blog won’t write itself, more’s the pity.

The first thing we need to think about is point-of-view. Unless we’re dealing with a fish-out-of-water tale (time-travel, say, or a primitive transported to a technologically advanced world) all the trappings of your POV-character’s world will be familiar to them. It’d be frankly weird for them to explain what a hyperspace drive is if they work with one every day.

It’d be like a character in a contemporary novel describing a television or a bookshelf: we take these items for granted. Only the extraordinary needs description.

Thus we assume that anything that the writer draws specific attention to, especially if the POV character already knows all about it, is significant.

There’s also an element of trust going on. When a writer tosses out concepts like mechs or mer-beasts or strange magicks and then moves on, we as readers have to trust the writer to tell us more if they’re of any importance. Not then and there, for that way leads straight to exposition-ville, but we trust that the writer will slip us the information under the table, as it were, as we get deeper into their world.

mech

A strange mech. As with the rest of the images in this article, I’ve no idea who made it and who owns copyright.

[As an aside, I think writers have got so much better at doing this over the years. Asimov’s The Gods Themselves is my go-to example of how not to do it: it even includes the dreaded sentence “As you know…” which is a sure sign that an exposition-bomb is about to be detonated. And TGT won awards.]

Specific terms and phrases are scattered around in all genres; from underground argot in crime novels, to historical denotations of class, to the ways and means of public schoolboys in literary fiction. These don’t bother us because we trust the writer to explain what matters. The rest is colour.

So the question we should really be asking is this: what’s the difference between Chekhov’s Gun and colour?

And the answer to that is that there shouldn’t be any. Not to the casual eye, at least.
Foreshadowing is vital: the reader must see the crucial element before it becomes significant – if not we’re in breach of Knox’s Commandments. Deus ex machina will swoop down upon us and doom will be our only friend.

Chekhov’s Gun is foreshadowing gone feral. Foreshadowing must be camouflaged; it must be indistinguishable from the background. It must be masked by that ‘colour’ we were talking about before.

Chekhov, however, hurls off his disguise and, slapping his belly to the rhythm of Waltzing Matilda, dances a naked jig before the reader.

Alter Mann.jpg

Be very, very glad that this is the image I’ve chosen to accompany that thought. There were alternatives…

So I respectfully disagree with Tim Clare. Chekhov’s Gun is not excusable in SFF: it’s an error in any genre. Perhaps what he’s really thinking of is jargon – there is, perhaps, a higher likelihood of made-up words in science fiction and fantasy. Let’s not forget that the word ‘orc’ is now widely known where fifty years ago it was practically unknown. ‘Orc’ is jargon that has entered modern parlance. ‘Cyberspace’ is another example, as is ‘hive mind’. Not long ago we needed these terms explaining. Now we don’t.

Characters belong to a time, a place and a culture. They have their own language (and, if you don’t believe these surround us even now, check out Dent’s Modern Tribes) and they think in those terms. We don’t need every single word explained; context will make most things clear.

Context is, as ever, everything. Abandon it at your peril.

Addressing the elephant

Dapper Cthulu Diana Levin.jpg

Dapper Cthulu by Diana Levin. You can find (and buy) more of her work here

When you’re setting a scene you have to give the reader all the information they need and not a jot more. You must sum up a location’s feel (which might encompass smell, background noise and even air pressure) as briefly as possibly. You can’t overload the reader with detail, but you must give them the vital information.

It is, in other words, bloody difficult.

My general guide for description is to put in anything the protagonist/POV character would notice in the order he or she would see them. Thus: people first, then obvious abnormalities, then temperature/smells/sounds and then, if we get that far, into the mundane.

But there are so many exceptions. It’s almost a trope now, but I’m noticing more and more the delayed surprise:

It was a totally normal park. Playground with its swings and slides; bowling green with its perfectly manicured surface, and standing proud in its midst, bearing the pavilion roof like a parasol, the Great Lord Cthulu in all his glory. As His tentacles dismantled the remnants of the Eastbourne Ladies’ Bowling Team, I knew it was going to be one of those days.

In less ridiculous setups you’ll have the POV character entering a room; you’ll have every single detail lovingly described, and then some sort of dismissive comment: “of course, I couldn’t take it in properly as I was distracted by the eviscerated corpse lying in the middle of the floor.”

This sort of thing works for humour or for situational irony but it breaks the rules of common sense. As soon as you go into a new space the most important thing will immediately catch the eye: to deny the reader this sort of elephant in the room is something you can do once, maybe twice a novel, no more.

I recently read a novel where the climax was set in a wedding. The cheat started several scenes before, however, when the wedding invitations turned up without the name of the groom. That information is so basic that its omission because the largest, most obstreperous elephant in the history of pachyderms. Lulu got nothing on this papa.

But it got worse. The wedding arrived – and the groom still wasn’t named! He became a sort of giant, floating question mark that dominated proceedings without doing a thing. The longer it went on the more ridiculous it became. There was no way the eventual reveal could have been anything but a disappointment.

So: don’t try and be clever. Address the elephant.

I don’t actually mean that. Do try and be clever. Take risks. Experiment. Just be aware that there’s a damn good chance it won’t work. Not the first time you try, at least.

The problem with scene-setting is that it takes time: not time in the writing, though that can be considerable, but in the reading. The easiest way to kill excitement is to take time to describe the surroundings, thus:

I turned into an alley and was brought up short by the sight of three skeletons mugging an old lady. The alley was thirty feet long and narrow enough to touch the sides with a bit of a stretch. The cobbles underfoot were treacherous, mortar long-since eroded and slick with grime. The first skeleton was the tallest; the second had only one leg but sported a pith helmet of the sort adored by Victorian explorers. The third seemed to be that of a dog walking on its hind legs. The old lady was about 5’2” and wore a bonnet decorated not with ribbons or flowers but with a hedgehog of tiny blades.

I hoisted my riding crop and stepped forwards…

At which point the reader is wondering what the hell the skeletons and their victim doing whilst the protagonist was itemising every item in sight (plus smell and sound, of course). Were they looking impatiently at their watches (I assume all skeletons have waistcoats and fob watches. It’s practically a law)? Were they bitching with the old lady – “Ooh, protagonists today – You remember that nice young Conan? I’d have been scattered across the floor already…”? Did they do the old Police Squad freeze?

It’s an alley. Unless there’s some crucial plot-thing – maybe it turns a sharp corner that someone’s hiding behind – it’s an alley. Add in one smell, one texture and move on.

My sanity is slipping away. I can feel Cthulu’s dread appendage on my shoulder and I fear I begin to rant. Time to do something mundane like make a potion a nice cup of tea*.

If you survive the Dark Lord’s attentions I’ll see you next week. Don’t forget to look me up on Twitter @RobinTriggs.

*A sure sign of madness as I don’t drink tea. Sorry. I wish I did, but there you are

(Don’t go back to) Badsville

Priestess of the White

So: bad books. Welcome back to my occasional series on my amazement – nay, bewilderment – that so many trad-published books fail even the most cursory quality checks. Today we’re looking at Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front: a bad book is not the same as a bad author. A long time ago I read her ‘Black Magician’ trilogy and really enjoyed it. Granted, it was a decade or so past and maybe I’ve become more sophisticated since. Maybe. But I don’t think I’d have lodged her in my brain as an author I enjoy if it hadn’t been good.

I’ve said more about the difference between bad authors and bad writing in my post on Mike Shevdon’s The Road to Bedlam. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

So what’s wrong with PotW? Well, let’s start with…

• More exposition that you can shake a stick at
• Dialogue so stiff you could use it as a stick to shake
• Characters… well, I don’t want to criticise too much too soon; I’ve not got that far through it. But the characters haven’t set me alight to far. Similarly I’ve not got deep enough into the plot to comment on that
• A lack of tension
• A plot remarkably slow in its arrival

A note on exposition: if you ever start a line of dialogue with ‘As you know…’ you’re in trouble. If you’re interrupting action to give us information you’re in trouble – especially if the reader (me) can see that this information can be simply woven in to the story through dialogue and dramatisation.

Let’s follow that with a confession. I’ve used a variation of the ‘as you know’ in Night Shift. I think (hope) you can get away with it if you phrase it as a question: ‘you know that we’re powered by an oil lake..?’ I’ll let you decide if that works or if I’m just a massive hypocrite.

As for dialogue, PotW’s main sin is the ‘call and response’:
“Shall we do this?”
“I don’t like that.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I think this is a good idea.”
“But that leads to this.”
“Yes. But that is preferable to the other.”
I hope I don’t need to say that this isn’t a quote. I’m listening to an audio version and extracting chapter and verse isn’t worth the effort. But this is how it feels. No subtext. No interest.

People don’t speak like this. People interrupt each other, they dissemble, they say one thing but mean another. I’ve tried to get away from this in my writing by having lots of sentence fragments; people tailing off (using ellipses) and cutting other others (using dashes).

The danger of this technique is that, by omitting sentence endings, the meaning is sometimes lost. I went too far when I first tried this – it was a conscious decision after being criticised for my own stilted dialogue – and now I’m trying to find a middle line.

Poor dialogue kills tension. It replaces drama with melodrama. We’ve just met the presumably major villain in PotW but it feels more like I’m in a pantomime than a serious, world-threatening conflict.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite enjoying Princess of the White. I can’t recommend it; there are a lot of great novels out there and this isn’t one of them. But, like watching a horror movie or a slow-motion car crash, finding all the errors is providing me with a certain amount of entertainment.

I don’t set out to hunt bad writing. I love stories. I want to be transported. I don’t want to carve them to pieces to make myself seem big and clever in comparison, but neither does that make me oblivious. Like The Road to Bedlam and – for different reasons – The ‘First Law’ series, Princess of the White is appearing here for all the wrong reasons.

On theme

Theme vs main idea.JPG

I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.

One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.

But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.

A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):

  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
  • ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:

  • Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
  • Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
  • Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’

The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.

But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.

Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:

  • Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
  • Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
  • Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained

Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?

Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.

And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.

Rob out.