Look what just came in the mail.
Hey everyone! It’s been a crazy year.
I used to post on writing craft often, and eventually I stopped because I got to a point in my own work where I wondered if I really did know anything– if I was really in a place to discuss craft authoritatively. Having thought about this for a while (and written several more books in the interim), my answer would have to be yes I did– but learning that you don’t know as much as you once thought is also the labor pains that push you into a greater awareness. And I just totally grossed myself out with that analogy.
Point being, if you’re following this blog still, I’ll be making a lot of changes around here in the next week. Old information will be updated, pages will be shifted and moved, and I’ll start writing about writing craft and technique again. Plot analysis of movies and popular books, composition, fantasy, characterization, book reviews, spotlights, the works. And as always, comments and suggestions are always appreciated.
I’m looking forward to being back!
You know what novels ought to have?
Not just illustrated children’s books. Novels. Adult novels. Preferably excellent old fashioned black and white penmanship in fine crosshatching. Illustrate a lantern, a snowy countryside, a lady’s dress, a tapestry. Something related to the story, but not the scenes itself, which might intrude into a reader’s sense of visualization. Scatter where appropriate.
Why isn’t this done in the publishing industry?
It’s been established that I’m going to be working on a magical-steampunk sort of setting for NaNo. And I’m really excited– I love the style, the ideas, the flavor I’ve got in mind…
… But it occurs to me now that I don’t read much steampunk.
In fact, the only steampunk that I’m really familiar with are in webcomics. Namely, Girl Genius (great, fun comic, though its creators use the term ‘Gaslamp Fantasy’), and the more serious, violent Freak Angels, which is post-apocalyptic steampunk. The Phoenix Requiem is Victorian-style fantasy, but not at all ‘punk’, so though it’s a great story, I don’t think that it counts (obviously we need more mad science). Some of the Final Fantasy games also fall into this category, though loosely.
So. In an effort to delve a little more into the genre, does anyone know any really good steampunk novels that they’d like to recommend? Plot and humor-wise, Girl Genius is very suited to my tastes. I know my plans bastardize the genre a little as I also have a magic system.
Macro world-building is to epic storylines what micro world-building is to…?
It’s occurred to me more than once that epic fantasy quests tend to be the standard cliche. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’, Abercrombie’s ‘The First Law’. I might even accuse Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ of being an epic urban fantasy. There’s no shortage of untried boys off to save the land from the evil overlord in this genre or hard-hearted antiheroes stumbling into wicked schemes that demand their reluctant action. Our writers have a tenancy and a reputation to dream BIG. … Myself included. The siren call of royalty and massive catastrophes is hard to resist.
But what happens if we shy away from epic? What if the story is told on a smaller scale?
This isn’t a new idea, really. If contemporary novels used the same scale that fantasy novels used, the world would be overrun by Tom Clancy wannabes. We have mysteries of all different flavors, low-key romances, social dramas. An abundance of ideas and subjects to choose from. A multitude of things to work with, corporations, cultures, attitudes, ideas…
Maybe the real world just has more to work with. Maybe, when we go to draw out our world maps, we’re doing ourselves a disservice and cutting out ideas that don’t need maps to sketch out. Fantasy is a setting, not a genre. Perhaps an expectation of flavor… the same way science fiction, westerns, and historical fiction are all ‘setting genres’, where a content genre can be (and maybe should) be added.
Are there any really good fantasy stories that ‘write small’? Have they escaped notice? Or are they just not that interesting?
I can’t really review my latest read, as I’m only just a third of the way through it. So I thought that I’d heap some glowing praise for what I have finished. It’s just that good.
The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie
This is one of those novels that I can’t actually read through in a day. Not for its length (though it is a good five hundred page long book), but because I have to put the book down at least once a chapter to digest it.
Wonderful characters. Amazing violence. Fantastic intrigue. And sortof funny, in a way that makes my perverse heart squee with joy. If anything can take the edge of of my Martin kick, it’s this guy.
Here’s hoping it ends well.
… Or not.
(No spoilers in the comments, please!)
A random subject, I must admit, but this has been on my mind recently.
Part of my book involves… we’ll call it a mystery. Unclear motives, conspiracy, a bigger picture than the protagonist sees. I’m exactly three chapters from ending the book according to my recent chapter plans, and as more and more climax-heightening information comes through, I have to wonder… is the big reveal, aha-moment too obvious? The characters have every scrap of information they’d need now to put things together. A stressful chapter, a distracting goal, and a wrong take on one of the events ought to keep the characters busy… what about the reader?
This is probably the most agonizing part of writing fantasy. Fantasy is a setting-genre. It has a great deal in common with sci-fi, westerns, and even historical fiction for that reason. And yet the genre constantly overlaps with the event-genres… action, adventure, romance, mystery, thriller (suggest that fantasy is an event-genre by the necessity of a ‘quest’, and I will vaporize you with my scary teacher-stare). So in able to be able to fully command the genre, one must be at least adapt at the subtleties of romance and mystery, the chill of a suspense novel and the tension of a well-crafted fight, no matter the era of weapon.
Back to my original question: how do you know when you’ve made the reveal too transparent? Like spotting a scratch on a piece of furniture– when you know where to look, it jumps out at you. I have some ideas– only a survey of test-readers can be accurate, but there are a few tricks that I’ve noted.
One upon a time, I was an admirer of the Harry Potter series. (Hey, at least it’s not ‘Twilight’). One thing that I admired about Rowling’s work was how thoroughly she would foreshadow her endings. By the fourth book, I caught on to her style enough to see them coming ahead of time, but the first three books left me hitting myself, declaring “Stupid! Stupid!” at the end of each one. Rowling also has a lot of characters, each involved with their own activities, and lots of quirky detail, to hide what’s important with what’s not. So what if the pet rat has a missing toe? It’s an old, pathetic rat that’s had one too many encounters with a garden gnome or something, nestled right in a description of how haggard it looks. And there was that vacation it was hauled off to in Egypt over the summer. It might have caught something. Plenty of reasons not to think it has anything to do with plot.
Use of detail, amid lots of other detail. Logical rationalization, yet a point unique enough to stand out. Foreshadowing each element as its own separate island, as if they’re not connected. Mistaken assumptions that the reader is lead to agree with can be startling to overturn.
But then, my next example uses something entirely different. Gosford Park, a murder mystery film… which was more about the people and less about the murder.
I will warn you, I really, really loved this movie. Watch it five times, and you might have picked out all the subtle sub-plots. Everyone is guilty of something… some more than others. There’s bickering behind closed doors, affairs, blackmail… in fact, all the sub-plots can be so interesting that they take away focus of the murder entirely. The reveal isn’t dramatic. On the contrary, it’s quiet, and not exactly a ‘pursuit of justice’.
So… is detail the secret? I haven’t made a habit of reading mystery for some time– I think I need to go back to it. Does anyone have any great references that they’d like to point to?
I now live in a town between a lake and several mountains, with a booming, thriving population of under seven thousand. Having grown up in Seattle, this is a bit of a change, though welcome. The little town has some very… interesting aspects. The Seattle-ite in me is aghast that there is no recycling service. The tomboy in me delights that wearing my nice, long skirt with combat boots is an entirely respectable choice. My internal weapon enthusiast noted that the thrift shops sold gun racks in their entryways. And the bookworm in me is amazed that pulling into the library mid-morning, we were pressed to find a parking space. I’ve never seen a busier library.
Granted, the selection of books isn’t huge, but there’s plenty of interesting things to read. I’ve taken to finishing a book a day recently, and after three days of three different fantasy novels, I decided to take a short break from the genre. My manic, unreasonable side presses that it would be fun to start at the end of the fiction section and work my way up the ranks, so that I might someday say that I’ve read every book in the library (it will never happen; you have my full permission to point and laugh). I picked up the last book, a contemporary novel: The Other Shulman, by Alan Zweibel. I opened it, read the first two chapters there, checked it out and brought it home.
My mother had decided to make the trip with me, as she also wanted to visit the library. In her case, it’s partly for books, partly because of some design work she’s doing. My mother reads nonfiction, and prefers biographies.
Still, I couldn’t help but read a few lines of my book to her, and mention that to get myself out of the fantasy groove, this book is about an overweight middle-aged guy trying to redefine himself by running a marathon. She liked the lines. I read a few more, when an especially good part came up. The novel really is hysterically funny, real and casual enough that she was certain that it was nonfiction before I pointed out the big ‘fiction’ tag on the spine. I went to go avoid working on my NaNo writing, curled up on the carpet, and continued my book.
Around page forty-five, there is a section about this poor man, trying to gasp in air, somehow recover his breath in the second session of his marathon-training program, walking, walking, taking longer strides… and then a girl jogger passes him, a young, cute blond with a tattoo just above her pant line. And he takes off like a creature possessed, trying, striving in a euphoria of vivid, poetic, and humor-streaked language describing his attempt to pace her, just so he can see more of that tattoo. I began snickering, shaking, and then fell over on the carpet laughing so hard that tears squeezed out of my eyes and my mascara ran onto my cheeks.
“Don’t do that. I’m warning you.” My mother was reading a cookbook, watching me intently through her reading glasses.
I had another mental image of the events from another angle. I couldn’t reply; my throat had almost closed up, my chest ached.
She pounced. “Back! Back! I’m reading this now! Don’t you have writing? Go! Go! Do your writing! It’s my book now!”
“Mom!” I accompanied my wail with poorly executed attempts at snatching the book back. My martial arts instructor would be ashamed.
“I’m reading this. You’re on page forty-six.” And my mom curls up on the carpet where I had been crouching and turns back to the first chapter. “Look, I’m already enjoying it. Go write your book.”
This, I think, is the peril of having a very young artist-mother who also enjoys books. From experience, this is going to result in having my library book go mysteriously missing every few days, only to wind up perched inside a sofa cushion, or inside my mom’s sock drawer. I’ll come back from the restroom, only to find that in the middle of the climax, my mother has gone back to chapter five and is again snickering about the marathon-trainee sprinting desperately after the woman with the tattoo.
When I finished my novel, I decided to take a week-long break before I began working on the third draft. I finished my book on the early hours of last Wednesday morning, making this the last day of my writing-hiatus.
So in the meantime, I thought I’d take my mind off of the story with other things:
- I saw the new Producers movie. It was entertaining. It even made me twitch during some of the scenes, and the end of the movie is different from the first.
- I also watched V for Vendetta. I had not seen it before, but I have decided before the movie was even finished that I adored it. The only downside was that I couldn’t help but wonder how similar it was to my own book. Just a few plot elements– anarchy, revenge, plague, politics, men in masks– but it made me a little uneasy for a short while before I dismissed it. They’re different enough.
- I started reading Roger Zelazny’s “Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming”. As much as I loved some of his other work, I ended up putting it down halfway through. I’m simply not the sort of person that can stomach satire.
- I started reading one of the Forgotten Realms ‘Drow’ novels– Dissolution. I probably will finish that book (a good friend gave it to me, and I use the drow in gaming), but I can’t help but roll my eyes at the characters. In some four story lines so far, there’s only one I even remotely care about. I despise how D&D novels handle magic, I really do. There’s no art, no logical systems, no consistency to it. And this book in particular has an annoying habit of describing someone’s emotional reaction to something before mentioning what just happened. And the POV characters have this ‘magical’ insight as to what other characters are thinking, but don’t say how. ‘By their expression’ is not good enough. Stop being vague, you idiot writer. Give me details! And stop putting people out of character to attempt an omnipresent viewpoint!
… I’m done now. But it is true. Read bad books. They can be more helpful than a good book.
I also picked up three more crit partners in the last week. I think I’ll keep two of them; one is an older woman who has written forty first drafts, but never has published anything. I don’t think she knows about rewriting, or if she has, she’s dismissed it. There is a good reason not to stay on a first draft.
Recently I started reading an enormous book (700+ pages) that had, among other things, fantastic world building. History… no, it wasn’t just history. It was economic history, military history, artistic history, mythological history, the history of arcana, discrepancies between the histories and difference of opinion based on source. It spanned racial customs, clothes, weather, standards for different classes, idioms, the difference between different districts in a city, children’s skipping rhymes. It included little details, always relevant, always practical: a minor character took a room not far from a butcher, and the main character can’t help but notice the smell every time he comes by to see her. And the method of immersion into this world was so well done that finding more about it felt as if I were slipping into a steaming bath, or cuddling up to a down blanket. I get excited when the author writes a few pages of summary or explanation; I feel as if I can safely laugh at the show-don’t-tell Nazis now that I’ve seen it done so well, so efficiently, in such an entertaining and smooth fashion.
I have a difficult time reading new books. I can’t turn off my internal editor, which tends to focus on plot, theme, and composition. So when I’m trying to read for fun, I keep finding myself considering the question, ‘If I’d written this, would I be proud of myself?’. When I find that the answer is ‘no’, I tend to stop reading. And when I find something as detailed, complex, and well-done as this, I start raising my standards. My novel just got a little worse.
June was ‘Villain Month’. That seemed to go fairly well. I think I need a ‘World Building Month’ next, a concept that was mentioned a few weeks ago. I do want to finish this draft of my book first, but there are fifteen days of July left and roughly twenty thousand words to write. And I get anxious the closer I draw to the grand finale. That puts me at 1,333 words every day (including this one) until July. … On the bright side, it’s not as bad as NoNoWriMo.
Here are my goals, then:
- 1,333 words a day until the book is finished. I estimate that will let me finish the book before August.
- Finish ‘The Name of the Wind’.
- Write a book review.
- Possibly send girlish fan-letters to Patrick Rothfuss.
- Start the hype for ‘World Building Month’. Set it for August.
I’m imagining that World Building Month will be more useful to writers of speculative fiction than contemporary fiction. Even so, solidifying a good, living setting does deserve some attention. So, since Villain Month met with such approval, I’ll be doing the same thing. Anyone interested in signing up and joining in the event are welcome.