A pathetic failure

pathos

You’re pathetic. Yes, I went there. Because it’s true. You certainly appeal to my emotions.

Pathetic, as I’m sure you know, comes from pathos. Pathos, along with ethos and logos, was one of the three main points of rhetorical speaking. I don’t want to go into great detail about their roots and definitions (let me instead point you to this website, which has good examples) but to look at pathos in particular.

I want to do this for two reasons. The first is to point out how pathetic modern politicians are: I mean seriously, Trump (and almost all politicians these days) used nothing but pathos in his speeches. You can agree with him or you can disagree, but learning rhetoric at least helps you recognise the tricks of the trade. Maybe Clinton wasn’t pathetic enough. A pathetic failure.

The second reason is to look at the role of pathos in writing. It’s there in every single (competent) thing you read; in every movie too. Because without pathos you have something flat and uninteresting; you have no reason to care about any of the characters or what they’re trying to achieve.

If you know anything of screenwriting (and maybe even if you don’t) you’ll have come across a concept known as ‘saving the cat.’ This is a moment of charity early on in the film designed to make you care for the protagonist – especially important in an antihero, who might otherwise be hard to root for. It could be a five second flash of our chap giving money to a worthy cause or calling his dear old Mom or – indeed – saving a cat from a fire.

This is pathos. This is direct, unalloyed, unhidden pathos. It is directly and unashamedly trying to influence us – the reader, the viewer, the listener – and tell us how we should feel. It’s subconscious and it’s terribly powerful. We are manipulated into feeling the way the writer wants us to feel.

This is not a bad thing. We, as readers, are willing participants in this game. If you’ve ever read a book and said, ‘but yeah, I just didn’t really care for the characters,’ that’s a pathetic failure. And what appeals to one reader won’t necessarily appeal to another.

The other big area of the pathetic in fiction comes towards the end: there is the ‘whisper of death’ moment around two-thirds of the way through. This is the moment at which your characters are traditionally at their lowest ebb. They are defeated, they are despairing, they are ready to quit. Sometimes the death is literal, sometimes not. Here the pathos isn’t just in the nearness of defeat but in the way the protagonist picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets ready to take up the blade again.

And then there’s the climax – or, rather, the denouement. This is where tragedy or triumph is brought home, where our characters learn to live – or not – with the consequences of the story. Happily-ever-after? With loss and heartbreak? It depends on the type of novel.

Oneiromancer uses pathos quite overtly. I have heartbreak twice: it’s there simply because it feels right in my story – but, at the same time, I’m well aware of what I’m doing. And I’m aware that I’m playing it up for a specific purpose. I want to make my readers sad, that I want them to feel. I want them to admire my characters for picking themselves up and bearing the scars with pride. It’s a difficult balance. I want these moments to matter to my readers. I want my characters’ tears feel real.

But the flipside of pathos is schmaltz. It’s fairytale. It’s unrealistic and unconvincing and, at its worst, it has the writer’s fingerprints all over it. That’s the basis of the contract: we will buy anything we read if it’s true to the story. But the moment we start to feel manipulated we kick back and reject the work.

So be pathetic. Use pathos to manipulate your readers; make them weep and make them whoop and holler. Just remember that one man’s pathos is another’s pathetic. You’re walking over a shark-pit on a buttered plank with a box of kittens in one hand and a hand-grenade in the other. Find your moments and make them count.

And watch those politicians carefully. It’s worth knowing how you’re being manipulated.

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If you’re interested in reading further, check out Thank You For Arguing by Jay Heinrichs. I came across it years ago and keep meaning to read it again. Also Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder: the over-use of exclamation marks irritates me, but it’s part of the screenwriter’s (and all writers’) essential toolkit.

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Why write Urban Fantasy?

uf2

Pigeon-holing: isn’t it wonderful? Like it or not, Oneiromancer will be classed as urban fantasy. But why should you write (and read) urban fantasy? Without further ado, let me present you with ten reasons why this genre is great:

It’s all about duality

Above and below. Light and dark. Familiar and strange. Urban fantasy has, by its very nature, a state of duality. Every realm (and many of the characters) has two faces: the one we all see every day and the hidden underbelly. There’s always more than meets the eye.

It supports multiple themes

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre as much as a setting, and that setting is open to so many different lines of enquiry. Oneiromancer is essentially an adventure with tiny hints of police procedural, but it could equally have been a literary novel of identity, a romance (there’s plenty of UF-erotica out there if you look hard enough), a horror, a comedy. You can be satirical and subversive; you can make serious points about our political system or you can simply escape this mundane existence. The setting is free and easy, and the author has so much room to play.

It’s subversive

Or it can be. You can take any common object and give it a new function: graffiti can be an alien language; fire hydrants can contain an ectoplasmic suppressant; phone-boxes can become portals. Modern life is littered with things we’ve become blind to. What if speed cameras were actually the first line in our defence against paranormal creatures? Take an everyday object and make it weird. Because why not?

It’s wish-fulfilment

Who doesn’t want to be different? Urban fantasy allows us to be special, to see beneath the surface. We might not like what we find there but we’re privileged to get a glimpse behind the curtain

It’s easy

Relatively easy, at least. Writing history or science-fiction requires us to work, to either research or invent whole new technologies. We also need to find the language to explain things without writing sentences such as ‘As you know, the televiewer allows us to converse with our colony on the moon with only a few seconds’ delay.’ Urban fantasy exists in the modern world and, as such, the reader knows what an i-Pad is. Only the weird needs work

You can have great diversity

A problem with historical fiction how you explore the role of women. Do you keep them in the margins? Or do you break the era’s gender-norms to give a modern heroine? There are, of course, ways round this but they require work and I’m a lazy, lazy man. Similarly, I’ve read pieces both bemoaning the lack of ethnic diversity in historical fiction, and pieces complaining about ‘tokenism’ (although ethnic diversity was probably a lot more advanced than some people realise; if you can have a Barbary ape in Iron Age Ireland you can have a few non-white people around in the middle ages). Urban fantasy can be as tolerant (or bigoted) as we want. We can have kick-ass heroines, we can have a multiplicity of races, we can have LGBT+ and disabilities to our heart’s content.

There are some great authors to follow

No two people will agree on the origins of urban fantasy. It’s a young genre and the rules aren’t yet established. Does Douglas Adams’ ‘Dirk Gently’ books count as urban fantasy? Neil Gaiman has a good claim to be its greatest populist – Neverwhere had a huge influence on many people, myself included – and Ben Aaronovich has picked up the baton and run with it. We’ve got Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden Files’. There are self-published works aplenty. There’s inspiration wherever we look; and we’re free to mash-up any other elements we want

There are no rules

As I said, it’s a young genre. You can play the game you want to play. The tropes that sometimes seem to have overwhelmed crime, for example, or high fantasy don’t yet exist in urban fantasy. It’s up to you to forge your own path. It’s new, free and unlimited. And exciting

It doesn’t have to be ‘urban’

‘The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city’ says Wikipedia. What rot. In fact, I disagree with much of the Wikipedia UF entry. I see UF as defined by a state of ‘real world meets The Other’-ness. It’s the beneath the surface-ness that shapes the genre. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And, with that in mind, can I just coin the phrase ‘rurban fantasy’?

Because urban fantasy fits my story

At the end of the day I’m writing an urban fantasy because Oneiromancer wants to be one. I didn’t sit down and say ‘right, time to write an urban fantasy’. I had a story. I wanted to write it. Really that’s all that matters. It soon became apparent that this was the hole in which the pigeon fitted.

Recursion

A prince falls in love with a commoner
They met because he was forced from his family by a civil war
The civil war started because the council couldn’t agree on the succession
The council couldn’t agree because it was formed of houses who hated each other
They hated each other because their grandparents had a blood-feud
They had a blood-feud because a daughter broke off an engagement with a rival’s son

DTRH

A farmer finds a crown in a bog
The crown was thrown there by a defeated monarch
The monarch was defeated by a usurper and fled to a monastery
The monastery was founded by the widowed sister of a noble house
The sister was accused of dominating her husband
The husband had a secret love with the head of his warband

A fleet sets out from a space-station to launch one last desperate attack
The space-station is the last holding of a once-proud empire
The empire is reduced because its homeland was destroyed when it hit a moonlet
The moonlet was induced into the planet’s orbit by a secret cabal
The cabal was formed in response to the empire’s expansion
The empire was expanding in response to outside aggression

Where do you start these stories? What sort of story will you tell? How much background do you provide? Surely not all of it – not in detail, and not all at once. How much do you, as author, need to know? None of the ‘first tier’ statements are the beginning; you could trace causation right back to the Big Bang if you were so minded.

The universe dissolves into heat-death and a grey soup of atoms is all that remains
The last stars turn supernova
The surviving life-forms flee into another universe
Entropy is inevitable
The stars coalesce and ignite; planets find their orbits; the first stirrings of life arise
A God-Machine creates the Big Bang

perfect-laughter-Down-the-Rabbit-Hole-2-855x1024

There is no right answer. You start the story at the moment of fascination for you, the author. You write the story you want to write; you give the detail you think is relevant and interesting. You add detail subtly, drip-feed backstory. But you must remember that there’s always history. You never start at the very beginning because that’s impossible; there is no beginning.

Your characters don’t walk in vacuum. The world you create – be it a world purely of your own imagination or one taken from the world outside your window – has come in the way you depict because everyone and everything has a past. Why is the villain so twisted? Who created the magic sword (and why)? Who built that castle on that hill (and are we talking about a monarch or a mason)?

The readers don’t necessarily need the answers. You have to choose what’s important, what’s interesting and what your readers need to know.

And you can rely on your audience to tell you if you’ve got it wrong.

A page is a playground

A page is a playground, a wonderland. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of letting the fingers roam where they will – in a non-innuendic sense, of course – and creating something new and free and unique to you.

Dust

I’ve been writing for some years now and maybe the surprise is that it’s taken me this long to realise this. Maybe it’s a consequence of writing this blog; I have a new outlet for my scrawls-in-the-dirt; I’ve freed myself to create words and to trust my voice. But I’m noticing it in my real writing too.

I’m midway through my major structural rewrite – or at least the first structural rewrite – of Oneiromancer. This involves hacking at the tangled undergrowth of words with the blunt machete of confusion. It means cutting and saving sections separately, writing new linking scenes, then shoving the first lot of words back in a totally different part of the manuscript – which of course involves considerable rewrites as dead characters come back to life, previously vigorous people have gone for a little lie down, and all that was no longer is.

It also involves writing whole new scenes. What fun! What joy! To stretch back, kick off one’s metaphorical boots and dig out the dog-eared Slippers of Creation. This is playtime. There is no pressure. There’s plenty of time to worry about whether the words are any good or whether you’re hitting precisely the right notes. You know the whole novel’s going to be reassessed later – both by yourself and, hopefully, by those mythical outside influences: writing colleagues, tutors, professional editors or, in my case, parents.

I’ve done edits like this before but this is possibly the first time I’ve felt this sense of freedom. The reason for this? I think it boils down to confidence. Somehow, over the course of the last year and without me even noticing, I seem to have found some self-assurance from somewhere. It’s not that my work has improved but that I’ve stopped caring so much about the quality. That is to say (because I can’t let such a bold statement go unqualified) that I know the quality will come. Not in this edit: this is about getting the story right. But over the course of future drafts.

So for now I am building castles in the sand. I am playing in the mud. I am waving my wand in the wrong direction (again in a non-innuendic sense. Get your mind out of the dirt, you mucky person). Some – maybe a lot – of what I’m doing will be cut, deleted, or moved. So what? Mistakes are the first step to success. Some scenes will have to be shortened; some will need to be expanded. The only thing that’s limiting me is my own impatience: at some point I want to send this manuscript out to agents; at some point I want to start a new project.

But the future will take care of itself. Right now it’s time to lie back and enjoy the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails.

Slave to the grind

Right. A weekend away has occurred. Now it’s time to recalibrate the brain for writing: to shake my senses back into the realms of the unreal and ineffable. In other words it’s time to work out what the hell I’m doing with this novel.

For those what don’t know, I got my feedback on Oneiromancer back from my betas a few weeks ago. It was the usual mix of great criticism: helpful, horrible, headscratching harumphery.  And, as usual, it leaves me temporarily lost for a plan. Or, rather, it leaves me with questions that I can easily answer but, in the answering, raises a whole phalanx of follow-on questions with no easy solution.

My problems are specifically those of the cut-and-paste variety. I’ve determined that I’ve got to move a batch of scenes, which I can do without too much difficulty. But every move not only leads to continuity errors – relatively easily solved – but also leave notes hanging that need resolving; chords missing a key tone and begging for resolution.

Scribble

A section of my scene-by-scene guide with notes detailing my rapid descent into madness

What’s exorcising me at the moment is the need to prolong a character’s life. It was widely agreed that I’d killed one particular character too soon; that she still had a purpose that I’d not fulfilled. I’m sure my betas are right. And so I’m acting on that…

Except that, because I always saw her dying here, I’m not sure what to do with her there. I don’t know what information she can provide because in my mind she’d served her function. Actually moving the crucial incident is straightforward; knowing what to do with her in the interim is a pain in the bum.

It’s one of those issues where the writer knows too much. I need to freeze my thoughts at the point at which the original story is set to change. I need to establish what the characters actually know in that moment, what their aims are and where they see themselves going. Essentially I need to forget two-thirds of the story I wrote and replan from there.

But how can that be done? I know too much; I can’t self-lobotomise – except via alcohol, which is a science too imprecise for my needs. I’ve planned the story out, and whilst I know alterations are necessary my mind isn’t the most flexible. The thoughts are burnt into my mind like great welts, throbbing and fresh and raw.

This is where writing is an effort. This is where I need to focus, to reappraise, to assess. To think.

I also have to keep in mind that I’m doing this because I want to write a good story. I want to write the best novel I possibly can. This is why I asked for people outside my mind to read it, to comment and to tell me what doesn’t work. To not act on their advice might be easier but it gets me nowhere. Ultimately the only person I’d disappoint would be myself.

So it’s back to the editorium with me. I have the masterscript all printed and ready. I have a scene-by-scene guide ready to be scribbled upon. The only thing missing is a brain that has answers, and those are in short supply.

Writing is not a glamorous pursuit. It isn’t the lone genius scribbling in his garret, churning out words of wonder with a bottle of absinthe and a few cats for company. It’s staring and scratching and swearing and always, always, working. Without any prospect of success – however defined – at the end.

It’s times like this that define you. To be a writer is to embrace the hard times, to own them and, ultimately, to enjoy them as much as you do the initial fire of creation. Only then will you be able to produce something the world will embrace.

The doubt-beast; or The loneliness of the long-distance writer

What if I can’t pull this together? What if every turn disappoints the reader? What if, instead of a nail-biting action-adventure full of depth and passion, I’ve come up with the literary equivalent of a novelty Christmas single.

I doubt. Everyone doubts. This ain’t my first rodeo and, to be honest, I can’t really imagine writing without anxiety riding the shoulder. It’s almost a comfort; without it I’d worry I was becoming cocky and not caring enough about my work. As it is I’m suddenly struck (for the doubt-beast is a stealth predator) by a fear that what I’ve written is really – well, a bit crap.

I’m not worried about the actual words. They are, doubtless, shit. I’m fully intending to go through this manuscript half a dozen times before it’s ready for professional scrutiny, and the actual quality of writing will, in theory, develop with each pass.

Nor am I too worried with characters, not right at this moment, and for similar reasons. I’ll start to worry about them after my second draft, where I’ve swept away all the foreshadowments I didn’t use and replaced them with the ones I actually need.

No, I’m worried about the actual ideas. I’m worried about choices made and the roads not taken. I’m worried about logic and motivation and cop-outs and gone-too-far-edness.

More specifically, I’m worried about the following:

  • Do I have a decent three-act structure?
  • Is my underlying idea strong enough?
  • Do I have too many point-of-view characters?
  • Is the whole damn thing too complex? Am I trying to do too much?
  • …but the ending lacks a twist or revelation. Is it not complex enough?
  • Is my world consistent? Is there a thread I failed to knit in tightly? Will everything unravel if it’s pulled upon?
  • At almost every stage I could have taken different paths. Have I gone the right way? What opportunities have I missed? What else could the novel have been? Why haven’t I written that novel? Would it be better?
  • Does the story work?

These questions are, in fact, pretty much what I’d want a beta-reader to tell me. And it’s no bad thing to have these questions out there now; it means I’m actively looking for fundamental errors. Simply, I’m alive to ways my story could be improved.

Doubt – self-doubt – is your friend. It’s a way of making sure you look at things from every angle. It’s your subconscious’ way of making sure you’re doing the best you can. It also gives you something of a shield for when you do finally send your work out into the wider world and prepares you for the inevitable criticism from early readers.

But doubt can also be crippling. Too much fear and you’ll never get that first draft down. Which is why I cry ‘Onwards!’ Onwards, to the end. I lock doubt in the broom-cupboard of the mind, or set it to worrying about what I’m going to get the Missus for Christmas (not that novelty single, that’s for sure). Doubt has no place in a first draft. I will save all the questions it throws up – all the above and many, many more – because they’ll be tremendously useful as I move through my revisions. But for now it’s all about getting this draft finished. And I’ve still got my Eternal Climax to overcome.

Mileposts

I can just – just – see the downward slope ahead of me.

So you’ve got to that difficultest of sections: the one between between the introduction and the climax, traditionally known as ‘the story’. You’ve brought your characters into play and given them some life, and now you’ve got to manipulate them into wending whence you will. It’s not always easy: those pesky buggers will slither in any direction other than the one you need, are notoriously lazy and would rather sit and sulk in their rooms than go out and combat evil.

It’s not so bad if you get to this point having drawn up a clear plan, with every scene and stage already sketched out. But you’ll still find that your preconceptions sometimes sit like a yoke around your character’s neck and must be modified. Or the background you’ve painstakingly created has unexpected consequences and new opportunities suddenly open like a cartoon trapdoor beneath you.

For most of us, entering the start of the story proper is akin to emerging from a narrow defile and seeing a great vista open up before you; a wondrous, fertile plain with all manner of magnificent sights and opportunities. Now you have to steer a course between them without repetition, deviation or tearing up the tracks of logic that you’ve been steadily laying.

I don’t know about you, but I usually know roughly how long a books going to be before I start it. There’s a shape to the gilded story-ball that is your idea; you have a vague idea whether you’re dealing with something short or long, or abstract or precise, or multi-layered or linear. This instinctive knowledge tells you roughly where you are when you’re writing: have you reached the Inciting Incident (which traditionally brings the introduction to the end) yet? How about your mid-point crisis? Your quiet-before-the-storm?

This is, I should add, just one way of thinking about the novel, and it’s really not essential to know it all – especially in your first draft. But I’m finding it useful to have these vague mileposts in my mind’s map’s eye as I proceed with Oneiromancer. I’m up around the 50,000 mark, and though that number will change (I have a lot of cutting to do), the sense of where I am in the story is solid. I’m just approaching the central crisis, the crux that divides the novel in two. As it feels like the novel will be fall into the 100-120k zone, this is pretty much bang on target.

I should say that I’ve reached this point almost be accident: by pinning my various balls of yarn up through the introduction and rolling them out aimless into the future. I now find that these leads can be collected, pinned, then cast forwards again towards the end.

Now I’m still looking out at that magnificent vista, that endless plain – only this time I’ve found the geocache tucked away behind some convenient bushes. There’s a machete, binoculars and some field-rations. No map, not at this point – but it now feels like I’m going downhill again. Three fixed points: lots of twists and turns to get there, but I’ve now anchored three fixed points on my path. They will take me to the end.