Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Think She Would Trade with Me?

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Former mid-list New Weird/epic fantasy novelist Steph Swainston last month famously announced that she is quitting writing, canceling her current two-book contract, in order to train to become a college chemistry teacher.

Beyond the irony of her wanting the job I’ve already got (and me coveting hers!), her comments touch on several interesting points about the writerly life.  Yes, it is extremely solitudinous.  It can feel distancing from reality.

But that’s all within the writer’s control.  Have a family; have a life.  Have other pursuits and hobbies.  Go to conventions with your writer pals and drink into the wee hours of the morning (one of my favs!).  In addition to keeping you grounded, interactions with real people of course provide the insight into human nature that makes good fiction.

She’s absolutely right about many fans not realizing the pressure they put on authors.  It seems that in our modern TMZ paparazzi society, some fans have the misguided and selfish idea that superstars owe them something.  I’m reminded of “George Martin is not your bitch.” The self-centered obliviousness that a good many of Martin’s fans have displayed over the long delay for A Dance with Dragons is disgusting.

But I think Swainston is overreacting in things like saying that vocal fans can change an author’s next book.  Only if the writer lets them.  That too is all within the writer’s control.

I have no illusions that the life of a working novelist is tough.  Maybe “be careful what you wish for”?  It sounds like in this case it’s not the objective hardship but that such a life is not working out for Swainston.

Two Epic Road-Maps

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Two interesting “road maps” for novel writing were online recently, from two different fantasy authors.

J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix shows not only the arcs and plotlines of the characters, but also the arcs of the legends or mysteries–the plot threads that are purely news or information–and how they are growing or spreading during each chapter, even if none of that is happening on-screen (the on-screen characters aren’t hearing or spreading that information).

Fascinating.  In such an epic society-wide situation at that point in the saga, with Voldemort in the open, how much info is known about his plans and whereabouts is an important plot thread, even if it’s not in the scenes that the on-screen characters are having.  It makes perfect sense in a story of that scope that Rowling would want to track it in her outline almost like tracking a character.

Several recent blogs have discussed swords & sorcery master Michael Moorcock’s speed-writing method used to write some of the early Elric novels in only three days (!).  He mentions being very prepared, including having a list of cool fantastical images or things to use as he goes along.  (I assume his preparations also included knowing the characters well).  He used a prearranged plot format or structure–the fantasy quest–and knew general narrative problems he would need to solve. He broke goals or aims into immediate ones (must find the first magic item, in this chapter) and overriding ones (must save the world).

Likewise fascinating.  Moorcock of course was great at S&S, so the events and dialog he could come up with on the fly are far better than what most writers could.  But his strategies for planing, including having the plot structure in advance, seem astute moves no matter how long you have to write the whole novel.

People, and Interaction

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

In a recent interview excerpted on the great fiction market listings site Duotrope, Sheila Williams, Editor of Asimov’s, repeated a couple great points about short story writing that I’ve heard before and often see handled poorly in the stories I read.

Most stories are underpopulated.

Many writers focus so closely on the main characters that the story ends up having very few other people in it; so few other people that the story feels weirdly vacant.  Focusing on the main characters is good, but any story that doesn’t have the characters alone still needs to feel like there are other people around.

I know of several ways to make a story feel realistically populated but without diluting the focus on the main characters.  One is to describe the ancillary characters or people as a group, rather than detailing them individually.  Like a gaggle of kids or a room packed full of rambling drunks.  Maybe with one exemplar kid or drunk given a bit of specific description.

Another way, that can work better but takes more space, is to give each ancillary character a tiny role or a tiny bit of stage time.  Lately I’ve been rereading George R.R. Martin’s brilliant epic fantasy A Game of Thrones.  In that famous opening scene when the family sons find the direwolf pups, I was struck by how several of the guards, who both were given names but not much more, had very brief roles in the conversation about whether to keep the pups.

They each had one line or maybe two, interspersed between the main characters’ dialog, and they were both arguing the same choice.  The main characters still were the major focus–Bran and Jon and Eddard had longer strings of dialog and were arguing more complicated facets of the choice.  But these two guards who had names and a line or two each made the scene feel realistically populated, as though there really was a large retinue traveling with these Stark nobles.

A lot of the tale can be told through the interaction of characters.

This is a variation on an idea that Nancy Kress said in her lecture at the Odyssey workshop a few years ago:  “Dialog should be the heart of most scenes.”

Her point was that dialog is the medium by which characters interact, and character interaction by definition is drama.  It shows how those characters feel and think.  It shows who they are as people.  And if the writer has set up the scene well to show the conflict, the interaction also shows what those characters want and what they might be willing to do to get it.

And dramatization is the most vivid and engaging way to show these things.  After all, Ms. Kress said, the second-oldest form of written storytelling in human civilization is stage plays.  Which of course are 100% dialog–100% characters interacting.

Obviously this won’t work for all stories or all scenes–sometimes, characters are alone.  But one reason Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” works so well for me is that the protagonist, who has no one else around him, keeps talking to his dog.  So we get to see his personality and goals dramatized even though he’s alone.

People, and interaction.  Two things that make real life interesting and complex, and can do the same for fiction.

Epic Grit Gives Epic Character

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

The epic fantasy realm of the blogosphere is lately agog over a screed from Leo Grin, a Robert E. Howard scholar and Tolkien devotee who recently derided the modern wave of darker or gritty epic fantasy as “bankrupt nihilism.” Several epic fantasy authors have countered, rightly rejecting this shallow criticism of their approach, but none have noted what I see as the key value of this grittier or more visceral feel.

The boom in more visceral epic fantasy coincided with the late-90s success of George R.R. Martin, its first major practitioner, and its subsequent proliferation can seem mercenary.  In cases where bereft of any purpose or handled with callow ineptitude, it can be gratuitous if not exploitative.

But in the hands of an award-winning master like Martin, it can illumine universal insights.  When one of his characters has his hand brutally lopped off, thereby losing the expertise and persona that formed his entire self, the change forced onto him and the inner journey he takes to try to overcome it result in one of the most profound explorations of the human condition ever achieved in fantasy literature.  That grit isn’t nihilist.  It’s a poignant literary example of how even a despicable person can have humanity at their core, and even the ripping away of all that a person values most can inspire them onto a path toward redemption.

This visceral realism, including the sexual and scatalogical, is the most powerful vehicle for placing the reader into a fantasy world and into the shoes of the characters inhabiting it–in short, for making epic fantasy evoke the human condition.

Yet Grin posits that “Realism isn’t a primary concern in great literature.” That’s where he’s most wrong.  Realism isn’t important in escapist entertainment, such as Howard (yes, Howard was and is just that, although uniquely original and very very good).  But if discussing true literature in any period since the mid-20th century, the foundation is Faulkner’s comment in his 1950 Nobel acceptance speech:  “the human heart in conflict with itself… only that is worth writing about.”

Which is the human condition–what it means to be who we are.  Without that, epic fantasy–indeed, any fiction–becomes just more escapist entertainment.