by implication (the use of subtlety in prose)

The first post of a series, studying the writing techniques that I’m lacking.

Someday I’ll write about the similarities between the different forms of art. This is not that day, but I’d like to point out something. The premise of animation is that when a person is shown similar drawings quickly in sequence, their mind will connect the events and perceive movement. One could write a trip in the car from one place to another, and follow it by having the character get out of their vehicle, go to the door, let him/herself in, have a snack, watch the tv. Or you could cut from the car to the tv, and discover that by implication nothing is lost.

Possibly the best writer I know of to use subtlety is Patrick O’Brian, author of ‘Master and Commander’ and its sequels (also known as the Aubrey-Maturin novels). This is also one of the reasons I highly encourage people to read other genres– O’Brian wrote in historical fiction, and is one of the masters I greatly admire. His books are written in a very old-fashioned style that makes for heavy reading, but they’re rich in description, believability, characterization, world-building, and subtlety.

I first noticed this subtlety on entering and exiting doors. A character within a room will be speaking. Instead of narrating that they were interrupted by a knock on the door, the character will give permission to enter mid-paragraph, and finish his thought. By the end of the (almost poetic) speech, someone new will be in the room, ready to change the subject or inform the POV characters of something. In the same vein, the characters once were having a discussion while preparing to practice (one plays a violin, the other a cello), and in the middle of the cello player’s speech he says something along the lines of, ‘when you have finished with my rosin- my rosin, I say-‘ and I can just picture the other holding the rosin between his thick, square fingers, running it along his tightened bow and nodding to his prickly friend. Or there’s a dinner where a character will announce, ‘the wine stands before you’ to a dining companion, and the next thing you know, he’s refilling his own glass.

Of course, O’Brian has his own drawbacks. Sometimes it’s daunting to start his books, because in order to fully enjoy them, one needs a dictionary on one side and an atlas on the other. Some things he explains about the ships by informing the doctor, who can’t retain anything about sailing, and some things just aren’t mentioned. ‘Firing grape’, for instance, by which it is assumed that the reader knows about grape shot, or they are intellectual enough to go look it up. The target audience consists of educated, bright people, and he doesn’t lower standards.

This is coupled with a strong recommendation. Go read the Aubrey-Maturin series.

If O’Brian is the master of subtlety in logistics and world-building, I think that my next favorite is the infamous George R. R. Martin, not in setting or action, but in his characterization. Martin’s characters are incredible in their diversity and their depth, and I think that his secret is the depth in which he develops them, then proceeds to reveal only pieces relevant to the story at the time. We can see that there’s more that he’s not telling us, we can tell through the multiple narratives that things don’t quite line up with what we know, and the difference is intriguing.

Any other tricks that I’ve missed? Authors strong in this trait that I should read?

weaknesses… (darn critiques)

Last night was time for our monthly local writing group to get together and… well, talk about writing. We talked, I shared a little of my book, reinforced the fact that I have no life by offering the daily word count of my collaborative for-fun-only project, and plugged google documents as a great resource for keeping an up-to-date backup online.

After the meeting had ended, one of the women had taken the time to critique the first thousand words of my first chapter. Any one of these would be a good topic to cover later, so for now I’ll give an overview, then start writing on some of these in detail. This is what she found.

Pronouns. I dislike using names over and over in sentences. I also like long sentences with lots of commas, often with two characters involved, interchanging ‘he’ and ‘him’ without discrimination. Most of my test readers weren’t confused, but she’s right. It’s all technically incorrect.

Research. The sweet older lady has a lot more experience in killing things than I do. Apparently if you’re a cannibal chopping off a leg, you really want to do it at the knee, because the tendons are easier to cut than the muscle and bone. Also, the body’s legs would be straight, not twisted, because it’s easier to strip that way. Obviously, I should kill things more often.

Redundancy. I have got to stop saying things like ‘dead body’ and ‘living man’. Obviously, if the living man is protesting, we’re not going to confuse him with the body. It’s not that kind of fantasy.

Subtlety in all the Wrong Places. I’d put too much space between the discovery of something new and my character’s reaction in attempting to describe the symbol in detail. It made my hero look strange, and his sudden panic became confusing instead of effective.

Blah Words. As Mark Twain forcibly restrained himself from writing the word ‘very’, I have found myself still unable to completely escape the mire of somewhat, almost, actual, and their equally deplorable cousins.

Which isn’t to say that everything was bad. The setting and descriptions interested her (despite that it was just a freezing stone cave with a dead guy), she liked the pacing, thought the story was interesting, and wanted to read more. I also saw approving marks around my dialog, which I’m particularly proud of. My test readers in general say that vocal interaction is a particular strength of mine.

Overall, I’m pleased with the feedback, even after the routine humbling. I’m always more concerned with pacing and plot-holes; most of the work I need to do now are serious, but cosmetic changes.

little touches

I’ve just found an interesting post on Mechanical Hamster about theme (Link), and it’s gotten me thinking about not only thematic elements, but reoccurring symbols, objects, and all the little touches that you can use in a narrative to really make a piece mean something.

I think that as much as possible, elements should repeat themselves in narrative. A place with one noteworthy scene is a very good candidate for the end climax, because the audience already has a sense of familiarity. If two characters have a similar trait, or a similar handwriting, make connections. A conversation where one party is being unreasonable and winning by brute strength can be a great set up for a similar conversation where the other party has gained the upper hand: re-use some of the dialog, even, and give it an ironic twist. It doesn’t matter if these things ‘represent something’. The repetitive nature can do that for you. You shape the audience’s perspective and interpretations with your world by building it, and that’s not just background.

After reading that article on themes, I spent a few minutes thinking if my book had a theme. When I wrote it the first time, I had a goal and a feeling for what I wanted, but no laid out ‘theme’. And on consideration, I realized what Blue Crystal’s theme is.

What’s worth dying for?

… That’s it. That’s what everyone… everyone in my book is pursuing in some fashion. The spoiled king pining over his dead sister, the ambitious nobleman swaying and manipulating his peers for more power, Tyobe and his fervor to find a way to protect the sick commoners, Lady Wyrren penning booklets on an ideal government, Rylan fighting to protect her.

Perhaps now that I realize that I can better emphasize it.

ramifications of plot and temper

Chapter Six: Bloody Hands

I’ve managed to dig my protagonist into a great deal of trouble. I might, might be able to pull him out again if I can keep the king from rigging his trial. Which would be out of character. King Kanichende leaves nothing to chance, and Rylan has just handed me a very good reason to kill him at at my 30% mark.

Here’s the problem.

Rylan has a temper. Announce that you’re going to hurt or soil his lady in any way, and if he believes what you’re saying he will almost certainly try to kill you. The response isn’t that out of place in his environment; it’s ruthless, brutal, and courtiers really are going out of their way to manipulate his mistress, or stop their rivals from doing the same.

Partway through the chapter, Rylan visited a mercenary leader who hated nobility and just completed a job for them. The mercenary found out that he served nobility. Rylan was let go, only because the last job worked against the secret police. The mercenaries now know the lady’s family crest and have threatened/promised to find her identity. On the way back, one of the king’s favorites provokes Rylan’s temper. There’s a fight, and the king’s lackey escapes. When Rylan gets back into his mistress’ apartments, he finds a common guard has broken into his lady’s bedroom, rummaging through her desk. The lackey tells the king that his hostage’s slave attacked him, and king, lackey, and troupe walk in on Rylan just after he’s killed the intruding guardsman. Who also served the king. Rylan is lead to a prison cell to await a trial.

Sometimes I feel as if my villains aren’t harsh enough, that my heroes are getting away with too much. How far can an important hostage get away with? How much is the king willing to bend the rules to get what he wants?

Does it ever feel as if the villains and their agendas are only present when it’s convenient, and how do you avoid that?