when the pov character can’t make it

Finishing this last chapter, I ran into a bit of a surprise. My villain is smarter than I’d planned. He has given my hero some false information to keep his attention focused elsewhere, and is trying to solve the problem of the rogue heroine on his own. … Without my pov character being present.

The hero doesn’t get to hear what’s going on, not yet, at least. Important things are going on, and they can’t be ‘filmed’. As pretty much the last obstacle in this book (and I still very much like my plot, even if it’s not to-code, as formulas go), this has been giving me some trouble. Worse, since it’s near the end, there’s no time for another subplot.

So, what do you do?

I came up with a few ideas to work around this, and I thought that I’d share.

Timeskip. Move to a place where the character can hear what’s going on. It might be a little late, in some cases, but there’s very little wrong with throwing a character into a developed situation that they’re not expecting. Shake them up and watch them stumble about a bit. So what if you couldn’t see things developing? Figure out what’s going on as new bombs explode on the poor guy. The downside? It’s hard to keep the character confused without doing the same to your audience.

Plot Device. This one’s a little hacky. Give the hero a spy for whatever reason. I don’t actually like this idea as much as the last, but it will work, especially if you want to carefully control what the character does and doesn’t know.

Rework It. So your hero is shut off? Change the situation– find a reason that they can get there, whether it’s reorganizing how things lay out or tweaking your other characters (in this case, my villain) so that the option of inviting the POV-guy is worth whatever downside.

Figure It Out. In this case, this isn’t an option for me. But in others, this is a nice alternative. Someone says something that reminds the character of something else. Put their ‘aha’ moment far away from the event. Spur them on that way. This isn’t always an option, but if so, you can motivate the character and get the pace increasing.

Just a few thoughts that I had on the situation. Feel free to add your own!

short story interlude

I visited a writing group this morning. It was about what I expected– six conservative hating women in their fifties and sixties, writing off of prompts cut out of magazine clippings. I’m not sure that I at all fit in with them, but the practice is appreciated. We wrote to six prompts, each 6-8 minutes, and I thought that I’d share my best with you.


Mr. Thompson was a gentleman, as far as society was concerned. He wore a silk top hat with a black ribbon about the base, and his coat was brushed and pressed to a crisp. Intellectualism was the norm for the wealthy aristocracy, but I couldn’t help feel that Mr. Ezra Thompson took it too far when he invited me for tea and showed me his doomsday device.

It weighed fifty-ton and ran off of steam, he told me. Brass fittings with giant bolts and gears, the monstrosity of destruction took up the whole of his workshop.

“It is… interesting,” I said.

“It is amazing, Miss Dellia! The greatest invention of our time, perhaps!”

I wasn’t so sure. “Does it play games? There is an automaton… a machine that plays chess in the form of a Turk, I’d heard. Austrian make, perhaps?”

“No.” Mr. Thompson appeared put-out.

“Does it take snap shots, or inform one of the state of the weather?”

He confessed that it did neither.

“Well, what good is a devise that can neither play a game, nor take a snapshot, nor give one the weather? No, no, no, my dear Mr. Thompson, you must keep working.”

And he nodded, and set about redesigning the machine once more with the air of a scolded dog.

I’ll save the world yet.

novel-writing and controlling information

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?

introducing a group, part ii

After my last post, about how to introduce several characters, and the distinctions between character and setting, I thought that I’d go visit Gav Thorp’s blog ‘Mechanical Hamster‘ and ask him if he would be willing to say a few words on the subject. I really love Gav’s advice– he writes some really excellent articles on writing tips and craft. Anyone interested in advanced creative writing should stop by and browse through the archives.

Much to my delight, Gav obliged me and wrote a long, detailed post on how to handle secondary characters that really addressed some of the problems I was having. You can find it here, and I think it’s well worth a read.

Thanks, Gav!

writing names and groups

It’s been a heck of a week! Trying to get the hang of teaching has drained me pretty dry for the last two weeks. I’m glad to report that we’re now working with code (which to me is easier to teach than history), my students look to be a fun group, with the exception of one or two of the guys who seem to be far too ‘cool’ to be taught by a hyper nerd-ette.

Which means that after two weeks of delays, it’s back to my novel, and back to thoughts on writing craft.

I remember watching old bugs bunny cartoons, and knowing what’s going to happen next, because one plank of a fence board will be a slightly different color than the others. It always annoyed me, letting one prop stand out from the others. Lately, I’ve been having the same problem in writing.

If you have a group of characters show up, how do you handle them? Do you go through the entire process of developing them? Do you name one or two, and leave the rest as blank faces? Leave them all blank, and hope that they’re still important?

Option 1– develop them all. It’s realistic. It brings a lot of focus on the parts of the new force, maybe even too much, detracting from the main characters and whatever else would be going on. Name them, and the reader will feel obligated to remember their names. Another advantage is that if one is utterly unimportant and another will make a huge difference later on, the device isn’t just inobvious– it doesn’t exist at all. I think this can be a good choice if introduced early into the book, or if they’re a constant presence.

Option 2– name the important ones. … I feel awkward about this method. It always seems painfully obvious who the returning characters are. Like the joke from Order of the Stick, “They won’t survive! They don’t even have names!” (link). It’s less weird if the main character has a reason to note one out of the group, say they’re looking at a girl he likes, or if something they do stands out. But that’s interaction as an individual, not as a part of the group.

Option 3– name no one. Make them all faceless. Last summer, I attended a fantasy-sci-fi conference in Spokane. One of the panels I attended included Timothy Zahn, of Star Wars fame, discussing villains in stories, and we made a comment that a lack of familiarity with the villain, not understanding who he is or his motivation makes said character less of a villain and more of a force of nature. Of course, this might be easier when you’re working with stormtroopers.

These are the techniques that come immediately to mind… but here’s what I want.

I want an immediate impression of a group as a whole. I want to be aware of the characters in a vague light, as tertiary characters ought to be seen, but ready to pop out, without being obvious which one will be used for plot, yet supported and foreshadowed.

Any thoughts on this?

mid-way blues– an adventure in writing

So, my last post about being slowed down at the end of writing a novel didn’t get the responses that I thought it would. I expected thoughts on procrastination and being a perfectionist. Instead, everyone else seems to hate middles.

They’re not alone. I remember that Steve Malley wrote a post about how much he hates middles (and preceding it, another post about how to get through that middle).

I remember once having trouble getting through the middle of my book. The first two drafts of Blue Crystal might have sunk the book if it weren’t for friends that talked me through the plot points. The middle of this draft gave me no trouble at all.

Personally, I think it’s because of the type of book that I’m writing. Even so, I thought I’d share what I’ve done, in case it helps anyone else out.

Halfway through Blue Crystal, a man is executed because of the heroine. Someone that she had decided not to trust because he was keeping secrets from her. The heroine is attacked, the hero goes out for revenge (not successful). A crooked judge is brought to light, and the king’s lenders are angry. There’s simply no time here to let the plot sag– there’s far too much going on. (And that’s less than half of the events in those middle pages.

When writing teachers diagram plot, they tend to use a rising mountain, a sharp climax, and then a drop off that curves to a nice resolution. It looks like this:

plot_traditionallayout

With no offense intended to creative writing teachers everywhere, this diagram really never did it for me. These were characters and situations that you cared about– not a graph of overall anxiety. And from a compositional standpoint, one has to wonder if this chart is even misleading.

Instead of thinking of the story as a mountain hike, I think it does better if seen as a series of beginnings and endings. One problem is resolved, and another rears its nasty head. One character takes an interest in one aspect of their troubles, another looks elsewhere. Perhaps both are aspects of the same source. Maybe they’re unrelated, but the conflict of interest between characters creates a new conflict.

Something more like this.
plot_mylayout

Try not having a middle. Try having little climaxes everywhere.

sin boldly

Also subtitled, stop stacking adverbs for ‘extra precision’ and make up your mind already.

I should preface this thought: I am the worst offender you may meet in some time. I have an illicit affair with ‘clambered carefully’ and ‘the actual [noun]’, as if readers can’t distinguish being close to something and interacting with it directly. I feel the need to clarify points in time before all actions, less someone’s inner head-real be off by a few minutes or seconds.

Why is this a nasty habit? Because it’s cloudy writing. Because if the weather of your prose can’t change with the mood, someone is going to notice that it’s a static element, and therefore dead weight if used constantly.

Rather than presenting this idea as a rule (I still hate the writing-rules, never fear), I think that modifiers and description styles need to be examined and better understood, rather than defaulted to. Practiced, even. If anyone is willing to try out the idea, try a writing sketch in both styles and note the difference. (And let me know how it goes!)

almost on schedule

In other news, it appears that I’m not dead. 🙂

It’s been a hectic few weeks, leaving the story virtually untouched as the house gets remodeled. It’s hard to think about writing in a house mostly lacking heat, not to mention the predominant smell of fresh paint and a roofer tromping back and forth directly above one’s head. The wrong carpet was ordered (we’ve got our furniture on pressboard), which means that everything gets moved out of the carpeted rooms and back in again as of a week from today. I have also refrained from blogging about off-topic adventures, such as ‘My car protests the northern Idaho cold’, or ‘Why is the cat in the duct work?’, and “Haha, let’s not try to transport drywall on top of the car again’.

We have three and a half days until November 1st. Despite all these little adventures, I’ve been getting ready for NaNoWriMo. I even suspect that taking this month off to do so much distracting house work was good for me. My mom contends that truly excellent fiction is written by people who have experience in real-life situations and relationships, that pure escapism deadens even the most poetic prose. I’m not sure if that’s entirely it (reading and writing often helps), but I wouldn’t discount the thought.

Note to self: get a life.

I’ll see you guys in November!

end of my writing-hiatus

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.

world building: weapons

Weapons, like clothes and architecture, fall into and out of fashion. The weapons described here are what is usually used in Vastii at the time of my novel.

Knives, Daggers, Dirks
These weapons are not only common, but expected. A man walking around without a blade of some kind is just asking for trouble.

Knives are most common; commoners make their knives from rock, bone, or iron, if they can get it. Steel is prized, and knives made out of it are prized, as are very well wrought bone dirks, and they’re a common form of currency (the most common being steel coins, not for their mint, but for the material– more on that later). Handles for humans are usually made of braided rope or wood, as the cold of frozen metal still penetrates gloves.

Noblemen tend toward larger blades, and while they carry knives, they probably also carry something larger. Dirks are currently very popular weapons, while throwing knives are not common.

Swords
Swords come in a variety of styles. Because the city is underground and open space can’t be taken for granted, short swords are prevalent, and they don’t make anything approaching the size of a claymore. Stabbing is often more effective than slashing.

The common sword is shorter than a man’s arm, with a small or nonexistent hilt. The sketch of the Roman Gladius (from wikipedia) is a fairly good depiction of this style. Patrols that move along the Spiral Highway and the larger caverns often carry longer swords, taking advantage of the common short blade.

There are also much thinner swords that resemble needles or icicles than ordinarily blades. These are easy to shatter with larger weapons, however, and have fallen out of style.

Hammers, Axes, Splitting Mauls
The biggest problem with these weapons is that they require room to swing. Small axes, pick-axes, and hammers are less restricted than larger equivalents, but also do less damage to an opponent. Holding a very large hammer or axe is also considered a sign of power at the time my novel takes place in.

A splitting maul is an axe with a large blunt weight on the opposite side of the blade, which can also be used like a war-hammer. These are great for splitting large amounts of wood. They’re better as weapons of war, if there’s enough space to swing them.

Polearms
Polearms have largely fallen out of style. The exception to this rule is hunting on the surface.

Tigers have adapted to the cold, and know that a warm cave entrance will likely have prey inside if it doesn’t smell of gas. Human communities (the troglodytes) fight them off frequently with long spears, cross-guarded so that a stabbed tiger is held at bay much like a boar-spear. The Mordache have taken their idea, and navigators that travel between the cities on the surface carry these weapons on their runs (traveling on a sled pulled by teams of dogs– the spear snaps to the side, and most sleds are made to hold at least two).

Polearms are also used in the arena. A troglodyte forced to fight a tiger will be given a spear and a long, curved knife made of bone.

The half-spear
The half-spear competes with the short sword as the weapon of choice. Fast, agile, and ideal for stabbing forward, the spear is an aggressive weapon and is associated with speed and cleverness.

The Crossbow
The rise of the crossbow was the downfall of the throwing knife. Currently, crossbows are made in several styles. Large crossbows hold bolds an inch in diameter and come with gears to wind the string back in the mechanism. Small crossbows hold much thinner bolts, and can be held in one hand and loaded more quickly.

Ordinary crossbows are made for short range. Since the limit of its use is dictated by the available light, most are not accurate at long ranges.

There is a specialty crossbow that is designed to hit far targets. It requires a second machine to draw its string back, since it puts several hundred pounds of force on the draw. The bolts are very long, carved special. These are hard to find, expensive, and illegal; they’re primarily used for assassinations, aiming at a lit target from over a long distance.