…in the Details (Writing Theory Thursday)

Last Thursday I talked about the important foundations  of writing: plot, characters, premise.  Those are the cake, so to speak.  Today, I’ll talk about the icing, the little details of writing style that make or break it all.  Few people want to eat icing without any cake underneath, but nobody wants to eat a cake that’s covered in stinking, soured, spoiled icing.  And almost everybody loves a good cake with top-notch icing.

Again, I say this as a fellow journeyman, not a master who’s “arrived.”  I haven’t “arrived” in any way in my writing.  But I know just from my own improvement that I am on a good path.  Maybe not the only good path, maybe not your good path.  But a good path.  So I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me.

God and the devil are in the details, as the saying goes, and writing style is all about details.  Readability is paramount.  Some books are much easier to read, even compared to other books with content of similar difficulty.  It’s almost as if writing styles are user interfaces to the ideas and content within.  Some applications (and some books) have easier, more intuitive user interfaces than others.

I’m working really hard on this one myself.  My instinct is to write long sentences with several clauses, sentences that sort of curl back on themselves and don’t flow directly into each other.  I know this is slows the reader down unnecessarily, so I’ve tried to stop.  But it isn’t always easy to change ingrained habits overnight.

I’ve also learned to stop qualifying my sentences with unnecessary words.  Many times something can be said directly and quickly, without “seems” or “like” or “that.”

But short, fluid sentences aren’t the end-all and be-all of writing style.  Things like character voice are also vital.  Character voice is exactly what it sounds like: each character’s dialogue should “sound” distinctive.  Readers should be able to tell who’s speaking without saying “Angie said” or “Zac said.”  This takes some practice, and it helps if you create characters who are significantly different in interests, education levels, and temperament.

The only caveat is that it’s usually best to avoid writing dialect into speech.  I say usually because sometimes it’s absolutely vital to the story or novel.  If you have to write dialect in, be as respectful as possible.

Let me reiterate just how difficult this can be.  If all the characters come from the same culture (middle-class American, for example), it can be hard to make them sound different.  If they come from different nations and cultures, it can be hard to make them sound authentic.  This can even be a problem with fantasy races … I can’t tell you how many fantasy dwarves I’ve seen who sound like a cross between James Doohan’s Montgomery Scott and Michael Meyers’s angry Scotsman.  But I can tell you that I’ve been to Scotland three times and never heard that accent from a real Scotsman, not even once.

Sensory details are another key aspect of writing style.  When writing fiction, it’s best to frequently include details that will “stimulate” the various senses.  Describing colors, smells, tastes, sounds, textures, and temperatures really helps draw people in.  It’s important to try to hit them all as much as possible, because people have different sensory preferences.

I’d suggest avoiding “sensory dumps” where you drop a heap of sensory information into one paragraph after ignoring them for two or three pages.   I’m prone to doing that myself, and it’s kind of embarrassing to go back and read later.  I mean, really?  Three pages of bare dialogue and then one jumbo economy-size sentence in which I hit every sense I can think of?  Um, no.  I don’t normally rewrite, but sometimes I have to break my own rule.  Ick.

That said, Roger Zelazny peppered his Amber novels  with sensory dumps, but they worked.  He’d hit the senses during a meal, when the narrator was really hungry, and you could practically taste the food.  During the Hellrides or Pattern walks, he’d give so much sensory information I felt I was there.  But  these were in-character sensory dumps.  The characters’ senses were going full-blast, and the text conveyed that.  They’re great books, and I highly recommend them.

But don’t take the word of some nobody blogger like me.  The best thing to do is find a couple of authors that you respect, and go read a few pages from the middle of a story you’ve already read.  That way, you’re not caught up in the story, and you can focus on how they handle character voice, how they handle sensory input, how they write their sentences, etc.

You might also like to read a story and create a plot outline, to see just how one of your favorite authors breaks down story, character and rising action.   I don’t think you should try to be “the next ____.”  You should try to be yourself, as honest as you can be, even if you’re using a pen name.  But for the craft aspect, the skill aspect, it helps to study people who’ve already arrived.

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Chasing Furies (Theme Music Monday)

 

Chasing Furies: probably the best band you’ve never heard of. They were together for one year, 1999, and made one album, With Abandon. But what an album it was. Loosely defined as “alternative rock” (whatever that means), their songs ranged from almost-sappy “Wait Forever” to the achingly melancholic “Fair Night’s Longing” to the unsettling, powerful “Writhe for Hearing.”

“Writhe for Hearing” is the song I most wanted to talk about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on Youtube. I’ve linked to the lyrics, but we all know the lyrics only tell half the story. If anybody finds this on Youtube, Vimeo, or a similar site, please tell me and I’ll post the link.

The song speaks of the desperation of holding on, of keeping faith (in this case, in someone, the unnamed ‘you’ of the song), even when it seems like madness … and the desire-beyond-words of finding some proof, some body, to tell you that you’re not insane.

“I writhe for hearing lunge for seeing/Someone else that I’m not hoping/I’m not crazy/I’m not joking/I won’t let you go”

The chorus expresses this powerfully, as Sarah MacIntosh’s clear voice races through discordant guitar riffs like Alice through a Wonderland hedge maze.

So how does this fit with my writing?  This is Theme Music Monday, so what’s the theme?

For those who don’t already know, my Red Lands series features six normal people dragged out of our world into the darkness between the worlds.  A seventh, Garrett Maines, finds them and guides them west, into the greater danger of a dead world.  His goal is to break into the Red Lands and defeat their master, to save the life of his ex-girlfriend.

This stranger is going toward darkness, into the depths of madness and sorcery, and he’s taking them with him.  But he’s their only guide, their only way home.

Garrett feels that this quest he’s undertaken is right. He believes it. But he doesn’t know it, not in any objective, measurable way. It’s so far out of the real of the normal, out of what even seemed possible, that he has trouble believing it himself sometimes.

But he has to believe it.  When hope fails, so does everything else. When hope fails, we fall into desperation and despair.  When hope fails, we lose sight of the far-away goal and seek what little comfort or escape is at hand, regardless of the long-term consequences.

If The Red Lands has a ‘message,’ it is this: hope is not only powerful, it is necessary.

Needless to say, Garrett has trouble explaining his mission to anyone else, even if they’ve passed through the darkness and into the dead world, even if they’ve seen the impossible, too. And even when they believe him, they sometimes think he’s crazy. Who risks his life to save his ex-girlfriend, someone he broke up with, someone who broke his heart?

Who does that?

Garrett has to stay strong if he’s going to protect his new friends, get them home, and defeat the master of the Red Lands. Staying strong means facing and overcoming his own doubts. Overcoming his doubts means facing up to the madness of risking his life for someone who broke his heart, someone he has no intention of going back to. And “Writhe for Hearing” embodies that struggle.

Writing Recipe, Part One (Theory Thursday)

Quill Pen and Ink

No, this isn’t a post about how I’m so much cooler than you because I write with a quill pen, or a fountain pen, or a manual typewriter.  I’m using a cheap netbook … about as glamorous as a quill pen was back in 1799.

This is the first of my articles on “writing theory.”  Now, I’m not speaking as somebody who has “made it.”  I haven’t.  I have neither fame and fortune (of which I have none), nor a level of skill that makes me feel I’ve “arrived.”

That said, I’m a much better writer than I was five (or even three) years ago.  I’ve learned a lot, both from writers who have made it, and from “doing” writing (not rewriting, but actual writing.  I’ve written more unique words in the last three years than in the previous thirty, without a doubt).

Unfortunately, rewriting doesn’t count.  It doesn’t make you a better writer, and it often doesn’t even make the piece you’re working on better.  Unless you’re already a skilled and experienced editor, you’re as likely to make it worse as you are to make it better.  Of course you should fix the typos and misspellings, but that’s about as far as it should go as a general rule.  But don’t listen to me, check out Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing.  Smith’s been making a living in this business for almost as long as I’ve been alive, and he’s weathered all kinds of changes.

So here I am, talking about the “Writing Recipe,” not as someone who’s made it, but as someone who’s still struggling on the margins, another indie outsider, like some of you who are reading this.  Maybe sharing our struggles will make us feel more encouraged, more supported, and less alone.

So here we go.  I’ll start with the cake, and deal with the icing next Thursday:

There are so many factors that go into good writing, it’s sometimes hard to keep them straight. First and foremost, you’re telling a story, so you need a good plot and engaging characters.

The characters don’t necessarily have to be likable per se, but they need to be engaging, active, and at least somewhat relatable. Ellie, the protagonist of S.D. Redling’s Flowertown isn’t exactly likable – she’s a mean-spirited stoner, to be honest.  But she’s always engaging, always resisting the corporate suits who run the containment zone (nicknamed Flowertown for the sickly-sweet smell of the decontaminants), even if it’s only in petty, self-destructive ways.  It’s not easy to like her, at least at first, but you certainly can’t ignore her.

The characters need to take action, to do things.  There are few things more frustrating than reading a story where things just happen to the characters.  I want the characters to drive the action.  Sure, a lot of times characters get thrust into ugly situations (The Walking Dead, several of Stephen King’s novels, including my personal favorite, Desperation), but they eventually take initiative and make things happen.  That’s almost a necessity.

Writing characters that take initiative and make things happen is easier said than done.  I’ve struggled with it, and I think I’ve mostly gotten a grip on things.  Sometimes being reactionary can be a sign of stagnation: Benedict had become so set in his role as executioner of dangerous vampires that he’d basically stopped trying to get ahead of his Vampire-Lord brother.  Granted, he’d had 900 years of bloody stalemates with Augustine to make him jaded.  But it didn’t change the fact that he did far too much reacting for his own good.  Overcoming that is part of his story arc.

In The Red Lands, Garrett has a “quest” of sorts from the very beginning.  He’s going west, to face the master of the Red Lands.  At first, he hopes to save his ex-girlfriend’s life, but as the story progresses, he learns that the stakes may be much higher.  The Red Lands was written after Blood for Blood, so I had time to learn from Benedict’s issues, and then take what I’d learned and apply it to Benedict’s next two books.

The plot, of course, has to be engaging.  It also has to move quickly enough to keep the reader going, but not so fast that it seems more like an outline than a story.  I think I’m getting better at that with each story I write, but I’m well aware that I’m not at the level of the real masters of storytelling yet.

It also helps to have some kind of premise in mind when telling the story. After all, every work of fiction will deliver a message of some sort, whether you want it to or not. I think everyone’s better off if you (as the author) consciously control that message rather than leaving it to chance.  I learned that the hard way, and continue to struggle with it.  Being the “one in charge” of your own writing is vitally important, but it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.

So there it is, my take on the broad strokes of writing.  But as they say, “the devil’s in the details,” so next week, I’ll look at smaller-scale things.  If this was the cake, they’ll be the icing: character voice, readability, sensory details, and so on.

 

Did I Have a Dream? (Theme Music Monday)

I’ve always been inspired by music.   I get a lot of story ideas while listening to music, whether I’m inspired by a lyrical fragment (almost always taken out of context) or the overall shape of the soundscape.  I almost always listen to music when writing.  I make a new playlist for every series and listen to it in my car, which always gets me in the mood to write.

Music been a pretty solid constant in my creative life since before I was even really writing fiction.

Right now what I’m focusing most on is Strange Fire (Book Three of The Red Lands).  As many of you know, The Red Lands spans the worlds, beginning on our Earth, continuing through a nightmarish liminal space (the road between worlds), through a dead world already conquered by the sorcery of the Red Lands’ master, and into the Red Lands themselves, a mad purgatory forged by the will of its master, the Red Knight.

Garrett Maines, the main character, sometimes finds himself doubting his sanity.  He stepped into this nightmare journey willingly, to save the life of the woman who broke his heart, the woman he walked away from.   He has to believe that the nightmare is a reality, and that it is a reality he can overcome.

I’ve got several songs on my Red Lands playlist, but the one that stands out most, the one that sums up everything The Red Lands is about is Nocturne by Rush.  Listen to the song, and you’ll get a feel for the madness, darkness, and hope of The Red Lands.

Massive Productivity as a form of Procrastination? Indeed.

Well, there’s nothing like the difficulty of doing something that scares me a little (like writing a short story) to inspire me to get other work done.

In the last two days I’ve written roughly 7,500 words and completely planned out the plot for Red Lands Book 3 (Red Lands Book 2, City of the Dead, is currently with the trusted first reader getting checked over).  I wrote a lot of dialogue (as I tend to do when I’m outlining), and planned out several specific scenes.

Now, granted, I had been thinking about Book 3 for a long time, but I’m glad to finally have a solid grip on it.  My problems in writing Book 2 (City of the Dead) all came out of trying to make it something the series isn’t.  I wrote too many “character interaction” scenes that didn’t have sufficient personal conflict to keep the “fist of broken nails” pace and feel of Book 1 (Toward Darkness).  Once I finally figured that out, I was able to fix it. I don’t think that will be a danger in Book 3 (which I haven’t named yet).

But, to adapt a phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “I was writin’ this stuff to keep from writin’ something else,” namely, the short story challenge I set myself up on.  I don’t know why I’m so nervous about writing short stories, but I am.  But hey, if 3600+word days are the result of my procrastination, I’ll take it.

So, have you ever had that situation, where dodging something unpleasant led, not to laziness and stagnation, but massive productivity?  Is it even worth pushing through to write the short story, or should I just milk it for every massive word-count day I can get?

In Comes Romeo, he’s moaning…

(Bonus points if you get the reference in the title.  If not, click here).

I think by now we all know I’m a Shakespeare fan – I’m not a true Shakespeare nerd, because I haven’t read and seen them all, but I am a fan.  And one of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Romeo & Juliet … at least in theory.

I say “at least in theory” because I have so rarely seen a performance of the play that even came close to doing it justice.  Romeo & Juliet isn’t a Harlequin Romance Novel or Disney Princess Movie that incongruously ends with everyone dead.  It’s a tragedy, and a far more brutal tragedy than MacBeth or Hamlet, because the violence doesn’t just kill people, it kills love and hope.  It ends, not with a sword fight, but with a suicide.  It consumes the city of Verona with a hatred so deep it becomes unconscious and dehumanizing.

The opening conversation between (Act I, Scene i) two Capulet servants is often omitted or cut to little more than an issued challenge, but it is by far the most telling and important conversation in the play.  I’ve quoted the most relevant part below.  You can find the whole script here.

SAMPSON A dog of the house of Montague moves me.

GREGORY To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand: therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away.

SAMPSON A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.

GREGORY That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.

SAMPSON True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
to the wall.

GREGORY The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.

SAMPSON ‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads.

GREGORY The heads of the maids?

SAMPSON Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.

GREGORY They must take it in sense that feel it.

SAMPSON Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

So they’re standing around talking smack about the Montagues, Gregory’s egging Sampson on by questioning his courage.  Sampson is bragging about how he will kill the Montague men and then rape and/or kill the Montague women.  “Maidenhead,” as you know, is Elizabethan-era slang for the hymen in particular and virginity in general.  This is basically two guys out on the street talking smack … glorifying the rape and murder of the Montagues.  Gregory and Sampson aren’t actually Capulets; they’re servants of the Capulets.  They barely even have any stake in this feud, but the generational feud has generated such an atmosphere of hatred that this is what they talk about when they’re not working: rape and murder.

The premise of Romeo & Juliet isn’t that love conquers all: it most assuredly does not.  The moral is that an unwillingness to forgive will destroy everything that you love, leaving nothing but guilt and grief behind, and that the cycle of hate and destruction will not end until both sides have suffered enough to learn to forgive.  Considering the 20th century’s history of ethnic cleansing and genocide, Shakespeare’s ending may have actually been overly optimistic.

It drives me straight up the wall to see this play watered down, presented like a love story, stripped of all the violence and ugliness of the vendetta.  I’ve seen the Royal Shakespearean company do this (I almost thought they’d just misprinted the programs, and I was really watching Much Ado About Nothing until the end, when everyone died), I’ve seen Hollywood do this (more than once, though I’ll admit that Gnomeo and Juliet won me over, despite it all).

The only version I’ve ever seen that captured the violence and ugliness was Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, which kept the Shakespearean script but used modern-day settings, clothes, etc.  The Sampson and Gregory dialogue was replaced by a fairly brutal, extended fight that conveyed the same information to audiences who might not know what “maidenhead” meant or get the significance of pushing people “to the wall” or “off the walls.”

A lot of people criticize this film for using modern sets and costumes, but ironically, it’s the only production of the play I have ever seen that is actually faithful to the script.

Luhrmann’s film to emphasize the feud’s engrained violence, the privilege of nobility, and the crushing atmosphere this provided, creating an atmosphere so full of hate and vengeance that love may well have been the ultimate rebellion.

So… you may be asking, what has this got to do with anything?

Well, the message of Romeo & Juliet is a powerfully moral one, one that we can all learn from: if we cannot learn to forgive, we will destroy everything we love.  But that message cannot shine out if  someone, for whatever reason, blunts the darkness and ugliness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, Romeo and Juliet’s love becomes just another love story, not a singular point of light in a violent, hateful, ugly city of darkness.  Without that darkness and ugliness, the destruction of their love seems just like a bummer, and ending that doesn’t make sense, something Shakespeare should have revised.  Or worse, their deaths seem romantic, like the end of Wuthering Heights, and the entire point is lost.

You all know I’ve been wrestling with my writing – harsh language, the darkness of the subject matter, the violence itself (especially in my Blood Oath trilogy).  And thinking about Romeo & Juliet has made me reconsider another angle.  I can’t self-censor to the point that the most important part of the story gets lost, muddled in a respectable, slightly dim haze.  If I have any light to share, I must show it as truthfully as possible, even if that means going into a dark, violent, ugly place.  And I won’t feel ashamed about it, either.

After-Action Report: Writing the First Short Story

As I’ve said, writing short stories is hard for me, and I almost broke the rules on this one – it’s about 50 words shy from being a novelette (7501-17,500 words).  The hardest thing is getting over the fear and actually getting the story written.  But now that I’ve done that, I’ve had more ideas for short stories just start flowing.

I have a few things I’m still worried about – the story is set in Tarafore a fantasy setting I’ve been toying with since childhood.  It’s the first story I’ve been able to write set in the main area of focus in Tarafore, the City-States (specifically, the City-State of Cassa).

Tarafore is defined by The Breaking, a period every 250 years, lasting about 25 years, during which time magic returns to the world, powerful Warlords rise, and kings and empires are brought low.  One thousand years ago, Tarafore emerged from the Great Breaking, and its people fear that each new breaking could be a return to 1,000 years of chaos and darkness.

During each Breaking, humans from Earth come through to Tarafore, and they are in part responsible for Tarafore’s technology (early Imperial era, more 16oo’s than 1500’s, really) and society (mostly late Renaissance).

Most of the natives of Tarafore look quite human, but are actually descendants of a handful of ancestral Beasts, and thus separate species.  However, noble families still have to intermarry their younger children in order to establish political or economic alliances.  This has led to some unusually modern views on adoption, and some very un-Renaissance views on the origins of noble superiority (which, on Tarafore, are based on education and raising, not bloodline)

I think you know I’m a Shakespeare fan.  Well, about ten years ago I had occasion to read several historical monographs about Renaissance Italy in particular and early modern Europe in general.  A lot of that made it into Tarafore, especially in the face of the City-State of Cassa.

Cassa is, as best as I can write it, like something drawn from historical Renaissance Italy, and from Shakespeare’s Italian plays (including tragedies such as Romeo & Juliet, Othello, and Titus Andronicus [which was actually Roman, but fits the mood pretty well] as well as comedies like Much Ado About Nothing).

A council of five Great Houses rule Cassa – the Merengo, led by the idealistic reformer Cruhuer (who is loved by many, but hated by more, even within his own House); the Fiorentino, led by the dissolute, decadent prodigy Giuseppe, who hates the Merengo with an almost mad passion; Crynnlynn, secretive, calm, always scheming; Peccavi, who once were mercenaries and have now become a family of priests, though they have gone from penitents to princes of the church; and Kamitaas, once a tribe of warriors, now the strong arm that keeps order, sister-house and ally to Peccavi.

The alliance between the Kamitaas and Peccavi provides a great deal of stability, standing in the path of both bloody chaos and needed reform.  Meanwhile, the houses fight their cold wars, executing their vendettas in secret.

Frankly, it’s a perfect place to play against my violent imagination.  Dueling, vendetta and assassination are always at hand, but the close family ties means nobody goes unmourned, and that every act of violence likely begets more and more violence.

“Peace?  I Hate the Word” is the story of one short outburst of violence, and the cost it extracts from House Merengo.

It wasn’t easy to write.  Though I believe I have succeeded in making each character’s voice sound unique, I worry that the dialogue is a little too “Shakespearean” for something written in 2012 (there’s a fine line between period-appropriate and stiffly pretentious).

And I’m not entirely sure I’m really through with it.  I think there may be enough there to turn it into a novella, by expanding upon the motivations and plans of the various characters and factions involved.

Not only that, but now that the floodgates are open, I can tell you with full confidence that I’ll be writing more short stories set in Cassa.  I’ve already got one outlined.

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