a little bit victorian

I received this morning a thoughtful critique on the prologue of ‘The Artificer’s Angels’, my steampunk novel. The gentleman in question had several good things to point out: a contradictory description, some wayward sentences breaking the flow, and imagery problems, all of which I was very grateful for.

But at the end he wrote this:

I also wonder if you are trying to emulate Victorian-style prose. If so, I think you might want to reconsider. The reason is that Victorian prose is really difficult for modern Americans to slog through, unless they are reading a book that was actually written in the Victorian era – then they recognize that they have no choice. The only other time I believe American readers would tolerate flowery prose and long, long sentences is if the writer were depicting the action from the first-person POV of a Victorian.

Now, I understand that this is an opinion, and should be weighed like all critiques. But it’s also a projectory opinion. “Other people won’t like it”, and that bothers me, especially since he said nothing at all whether he thought it distracting.

I’m not even a particularly flowery writer.

Ironically, a few minutes later I read a blog post by Mister Dave Kellet, writer and artist of the Sheldon webcomic. It included this:

One of my favorite things that Victorian writers figured out was how the inclusion of scraps of letters, telegraphs, and diary entries within their larger novels could help enhance a story and fill out a world.

Call me crazy, but I wonder if I would rather err on the side of more Victorian. Unrelated short steampunk stories between parts of the novel. Nano-fiction sprinkled here and there, to go with my pen-and-ink illustrations, my omniscient camera, and my insistence on spelling out titles like ‘Mister’. I’d not considered adding more material to flesh out the setting prior, but now I find the thought exciting.

Am I just being contrary? How does that sound, slogging modern American readers?

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!)

lie to me

The other day, I was reading a few chapters of a story for my new crit partner (which is going very well so far, I’m happy to report), when I noticed that some her characters’ thoughts contradicted some of the events in the story. Stating theory like fact, coloring the readers’ view with their own perspective, making decisions about the other characters based on chance, situation, and emotion.

… I love it when authors do that.

The unreliable narrator has always interested me. It’s an immediate insight into the character’s head, creating at least two different stories into the prose: what they say is happening, and what I as a reader can see between the lines. Playing with perspective, can have some great effects on prose and help add an immediate level of depth to a story.

writing fantasy: the dilemma of familiarity

Recently, my mother found a book at a library sale with very rich writing. It was an older book, hardback, the red of the cloth cover faded and an unexciting title, the spine gently folded and indented with use. Contemporary marketing would sniff. And then my mother pointed out the first page. The prose felt rich and alive, taking a broad image of Italy and expounding on it with beautiful, subtle analogies to paint a vivid picture. I read enough to know that it was a particular strength of the writer in question.

I thought about the style and technique the author used, and after a time it pained me to realize that I can’t do the same, not easily, in fantasy. Robert Jordan might have, but then, Robert Jordan’s work could be used as bludgeoning weapons in the military if they ever ran short. Non-series fantasy writers have to contend with the fact that if they want to draw in a sense of such familiarity with their world, they’re going to have to sweat blood to weave it. One doesn’t write that the spell growled like a Harley motorcycle when using a historical setting.

I once heard it mentioned that fantasy was the easiest genre to write, because there were no rules, but that fantasy is also the hardest genre to write well. To take full advantage of the blank canvas, the author is stripped of many of their literary tools. The more original the setting and story, the less you have to work with.

I’ve found people who can do this well; Patrick Rothfuss (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors the more I go into his debut novel) has such an intricately built world that his novel feels like a bath, completely submerged. Rich prose, mature characters make up for the unfamiliarity. A gripping plot won’t let someone put the book down. Yet, it seems that worldbuilding aside, the process of creating familiarity from scratch is not a well covered topic.

A few things I’ve noticed about fantasy books that are exceptional (and I consider most of these inseparably linked to each other):

Maturity. People are people. As readers, we can accept mostly fleshed characters and improbable reactions to situations. But I think at some level, we know that it wouldn’t happen like that. The behavior of people around, the background and the appropriateness of their reaction to what happens around them are vital. We know if someone is pulling something contrived– it’s what bothered me in the otherwise enjoyable ‘Lies of Locke Lamora’. Convince me that your people are people, even if they’re bugs, aliens, or elves. I know all about people.

Repetition. Repeating themes, or elements in the story, bringing old settings back later in the story settles the reader down. It’s a familiar place, or a familiar situation, and since they’ve seen it before, they know what to expect. One bad fight in the dark, written well, with consequences, will set expectations up for another. Realize the effect repeating elements, themes, settings, and characters have, and use them.

Depth. Also known as world-building, character building, and just about every other sort of building that you can do for a story. Know everything– be able to write hundreds of pages on the culture, history, art, economy, geography, mythology, and religions you’ve invented. Show very little of that, and only when required by the story. This is about as easy as swallowing a ring of car keys, reaching down your own throat, and plucking them out again.

(See? Another analogy that wouldn’t work in a fantasy novel quite as well). And last…

Consistency. High king of fantasy, duke of literature, lord of all he beholds. Cross him, and your literary efforts will crumble to ash and salt in your hands. Do not break the rules that you lay down.

if e-prime was odd…

Here’s some more crazy things people have done with books.

Le Train de Nulle Part. Hat tip to Brad, my day-job minion, who in turn found this on Neatorama, which is always a fun place to look for odd events and interesting stories. Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train From Nowhere) is a French novel (233 pages) written entirely without verbs.

Lipograms. A specific letter is eschewed from the book. Gadsby has no e’s, and neither does La Disparition (another French novel, by Georges Perec). Les Revenentes, a novella written also by Georges Perec, contained no vowels but the letter ‘e’.

Others… Never Again, by Doug Nufer, doesn’t repeat any words once they’ve been used.

Frankly, some of these ideas scare me. E-prime is difficult enough; how did they do that?!

One of my ideas was to center my next book around, among other things, the golden ratio, implementing the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 […]. I could plot out the major events to take place so many pages, pick important words in each chapter and reiterate them according to these numbers. Since the next book that I’m planning is actually a series of interconnecting short stories, it really plays into the experimental nature I’ve had pictured.

(If you’re interested, the book is called ‘The Marionette’s Waltz’ and loosely centers around demons, drugs, and a crazy woman fighting for the soul that she gave away. The book never distinguishes what’s real and what isn’t.)

But I think I’ll still keep my vowels and my verbs. 😉

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?

dancing in e-prime

I have a confession to make. E-prime fascinates me.

Some haven’t heard of the style before, so allow me to give a quick explanation. Those who write in e-prime eschew all forms of the verb ‘to be’, allowing the restrictiveness of the style to force them to find other, more interesting (and often more accurate) verbs. This list includes was, is, are, am, be, been. ‘The house was blue’ becomes ‘The blue house’ or ‘The house looked blue’, ‘I was angry’ transforms into ‘I felt angry’. While the style requires work, patience, and creativity, I find that it also challenges me to consider the language I use carefully. Often I remove entire passages, rewrite paragraphs to fit with the style, but the effort shows. Readers don’t typically notice the extra work, but sometimes they can see that something in the prose differs from what they have grown used to.

Try it. See if you can find independence from easy verbs.