Thursday, March 31, 2011

Poor Richard Says

Poor Richard tells that the Burgomaster and Aldermen of a small town west of Chicago one day were meeting in council to discuss the draining of the local swamp, when a stranger appeared in their hall and offered to drain it for them.  He was long of face and limb and would not identify himself, however he was pressed, other than to say that he was the Heron King, which the Burgomaster and Aldermen found strange, as he was dressed in rags.

“What price will you ask of us for this feat of engineering?” the Burgomaster asked the Heron King.

“A very modest price, indeed,” the Heron King replied.  “I only ask your permission to dry out your land, and then I will do it, not for any reward from you, but for the amusement of seeing how you enjoy my gift.  And I will accomplish no feat of engineering, for I am not an engineer, nor do I employ any.  I shall dry out your land by magic.”

“Very well,” laughed the Burgomaster and all the Aldermen. “You have our permission to dry out our land.”  The Heron King bowed and disappeared.  The council then had a good laugh and they all went home and told their wives and children that night about the mad beggar who had promised to dry up their swamp.  The wives and children all laughed, too, and then they all went to bed.

In the morning they awoke to find that not only had their swamp been drained, but the moisture had been parched out of all the land for twenty miles around the town.  The wells had dried up, the plants had died and the arable fields had been reduced to fine dust. 

The Heron King, still dressed in rags, stood in the town square, and the town gathered around him.  First the townspeople objected to what he had done, then they yelled in anger, and finally they pleaded, abasing themselves on the ground and weeping, for him to restore their land to what it had been.

The Heron King listened to it all silently, a curious smile on his lips, and when every last person of the town had dried his throat begging and reddened his eyes weeping, and the whole crowd had fallen silent again, he finally spoke.

“Thank you,” he said, “for the amusement.”  And then he was gone.

Poor Richard says: Be very careful what you wish for, and beware consequences that you do not intend.

*   *   *

The foregoing is another chapter heading from Witchy Eye.  I wanted something that felt like an American Aesop and that helped build the milieu, especially around the central and somewhat mysterious figure of the Heron King.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In the Spirit of Showcasing Other Writers

They've found the blog of James, Bishop of Jerusalem.  No links to YouTube, unfortunately.

Bonus: picture of Margaret Barker, my favorite Biblical scholar.

Not Since the Inklings...

...has the world seen such a heroic company of workers in narrative.

Story Monkeys update: Platte's in discussion with multiple agents about representation now.

(Cue ThunderCats music)

Story... Story... Story Monkeys, ho!

I Might Could Suggest a Different Text

            “My text this morning is from Isaiah fifty-eight,” the priest continued, almost mumbling now, face-down in the Bible.  Mutters of dissatisfaction were beginning to be voiced in the crowd.  “Is not this the fast that I have chosen?” he read.  “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?”
            Here we go, Sarah thought.  She would mock the sanctimonious Yankee just a bit, and then bring down the house like Samson.  “I might could suggest a different text!” she yelled.
            “Hush!” Angleton barked, peering at the crowd to see who was speaking.  Sarah crouched low and invisible behind the wagoneers.
            “How about Psalm thirty-nine?” Sarah continued.  This was not her first preacher-baiting, and she had verses to hand, above and beyond the fact that she was reasonably familiar with the Good Book.  “‘I was dumb, I opened not my mouth’?”  The crowd broke into laughter, but she kept a straight, pious face for the benefit of those that could see her.
            “Who’s that causing a disturbance?” the preacher demanded in his sour Yankee way.
            Someone grabbed at her arm, but missed, and Sarah didn’t see who it had been before she pushed through the wagoneers to reveal herself.  “Whoo-wee, you’re purty!” someone shouted, but other spectators gasped in alarm at the sight of her.  Well, they could go to hell right alongside the Right Reverend Father.  She hoped one of the tentpoles fell on top of them.
            Angleton dropped his jaw and his Bible, the latter slithering off the corner of the pulpit and thudding hard to the floor.
“Or maybe Numbers twenty-five?” Sarah continued coyly.  “‘Am I not thine ass’?”  The audience erupted into a fit of laughter that did not die down when the Right Reverend Father Ezekiel Angleton flapped his arms in an attempt to calm it.
Time to end the show and get out, before the preacher or his fat servant came after her.  “Mebbe Genesis nine: ‘he was uncovered within his tent’?”  Sarah stood bold and proud, feet planted apart and hands on her hips as she faced the preacher.  Just disrupting this foreigner’s show wouldn’t be satisfying for her; she wanted him to see who had done it.  She only wished the fat Englishman could see, too, serve him right for the nasty, pig-eyed stares he’d given her.
Angleton’s lip curled into a sneer.  “What’s your name, girl?  And what’s wrong with that eye?”  He squinted.  “Are you fey?”
Come on Andy, she thought.  You missed your call.  “I said,” she yelled louder, “‘uncovered within his tent’!”
            Still nothing happened.  By now she had expected the congregation to be shrieking in blind surprise and fighting to get out from under the canvas.
            “Come here, child,” Angleton said quietly.
            This was not going well.  Better get out before it gets any worse.  She hesitated a moment and then started to back away.
            The Martinite preacher put his hand onto the top of the pulpit and picked up something that had been lying there, invisible to the crowd, all along.  It was a fine flintlock pistol, matching the one the Englishman carried, and he aimed it carefully, leveling its deadly mouth at her.
            Too late; it was worse.
            “Child,” Angleton repeated.  “I said come here.”
*   *   *
I try to end chapters on a hook, which means, with an image, idea or line of dialog that strongly incentivizes the reader to keep reading.  The above is the last page and a half of Chapter One of Witchy Eye.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Greek Seaman

This is too entertaining to pass up.  I do not endorse any of the language used by any of the participants, nor do I know anything about any of the book, its author or the reviewer.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Shelmerston Ladies

Here's some more not-filk for you.

One of my very favorite writers is Patrick O'Brian, author of the Aubreyad, i.e., Master and Commander and its nineteen sequels.  These books are amazing and you should read them.

One of the Aubreyad's two protagonists is Jack Aubrey, officer of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era and after.  Lucky Jack is a lion at sea and an ass upon the land, and one of his endearing traits is the baffling mess he makes of aphorisms, by mixing them with other sayings or by simply mangling them outright.

I wrote a song about Jack Aubrey, called "Shelmerston Ladies".  It's conceived as a celebration of the great mariner written and sung in the pubs of Shelmerston, a west country smuggling village that is greatly enriched by Jack's temporary career as a privateer, when he crews his ships with Shelmerston men.  It's a fairly straightforward, folky song, and the fun part of composing it was writing faux Aubreyisms.  In each of the three triplets, one is a genuine Aubreyism taken from the books, and two are written by me.  Kudos to you if you can spot which is which; kudos to me if you can't.

Shelmerston ladies, they all wear silk
Bathe every night in gin and milk
Shelmerston ladies, they all wear silk
Thanks to Captain Jack

Shelmerston mutt's got a tooth of gold
Ermine blanket against the cold
Shelmerston mutt's got a tooth of gold
Thanks to Captain Jack

Shelmerston ferry's got a silver hull
Glows like a ghost when the moon is full
Shelmerston ferry's got a silver hull
Thanks to Captain Jack

   Don't count your bearskin before she's hatched 
   Gather rosebuds while the barn door's latched
   A fool and his money are evenly matched
   Here's to Captain Jack

Shelmerston pub serves Rhenish wine
Venison stew should you care to dine
Shelmerston pub serves Rhenish wine
Just for Captain Jack

Shelmerston chapel's got an ivory pew
Don't sit there, whatever you do
Shelmerston chapel's got an ivory pew
Reserved for Captain Jack

   A rolling stone doesn't put down roots
   You can't judge a man 'til you've stolen his boots
   The proof of a pudding is in its fruits
   Here's to Captain Jack

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Killer Canopic Jar

           Betty sprang up before the PINHEADs, clapping wildly.  “Where is he?” she shrieked, giddy and badly misguided.
           Milo Bumbles was a heavy man to the day of his tragic death, but he had quick reflexes.  In the blink of an eye he dropped the key and seized the other thing he held, which I could now see was some sort of stone carving, pointing it at Betty.
           The little idol in Bumbles’s hand exploded into a horse-sized snarling jackal head.  The head looked alive as it reared up and thrashed in the air above the ghost of my mother’s housemaid, but it had skin like jade and dark blue eyes.  The jackal lunged forward, its many-toothed mouth gaping wide.
           Poor, defenseless Betty.  “That’s not him!” she cried, and then the gigantic jackal head swallowed her in a single bite.
           The head immediately shrank back down to the scale of the object in Bumbles’s hand, which I could now see clearly was a stone jar of a faded orange color, with hieroglyphs cut into its side and a green jackal’s head for a lid. 
           “I shall have to thank Mrs. Whample for the key as well as for the tip-off,” Bumbles huffed.  He held the stone jar, shook it, pressed his ear against it and grinned.  “She’s still yelling ‘that’s not him’.” 

*   *   *

I try to write visually.  I do this because many people respond well to strong visual images, even in written form, and because I harbor the completely unconcealed and unabashed hope that some Hollywood greenlighter will read my stuff and get excited about it.

The above passage is from The Devil's Interval.  Betty, Francis's mother's housemaid, is a recently-deceased ghost like Francis himself, but, unlike Francis, is very disoriented as a result.  Here Francis witnesses her capture by the PINHEADs, a sort of Ghostbusters-meets-MI5 outfit.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cuccurucucu, Paloma!

Because it's the weekend.

And because Franco Battiato takes no prisoners.

Great Writing Secrets, No. 1

Write every day.  Organize your life to be able to do so, cut the deals and sign the treaties required so that you can have the time to put your backside in the chair for at least some period of time every single day.

It doesn't matter how cool your story idea is, you see, if you never write the story.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Falling in Love

 “Don’t worry, Ash,” Penny reassured me.  “Women don’t compensate.  We aren’t obsessed about the size of anything.”
“Oh, yeah?” retorted Josh, but whatever snappy comeback he thought he was about to make never made it past his lips, dying instead in a sound that was half choke and half gargle.  I wouldn’t have heard it, anyway.  We were passing the kids waiting for the bus.  One of them was standing apart, and I was staring at him.
He was beautiful.
He didn’t look like a boy at all.  He didn’t even look like a man, he looked like a statue.  He looked like someone had dressed Michelangelo’s David in stone-washed jeans and a black leather jacket and pulled his hair forward so that it covered David’s eyes.  He even stood like the David, bag over one shoulder and one foot drifted slightly to one side, and I would have sworn that under those perfect, curling black bangs sparkled eyes gray as ice, eyes that looked into mine and pierced my soul even as I was passing at thirty miles an hour, eyes that knew me instantly and completely and without remorse or pity.
I drove off the road.

*   *   *

A little something from Project Alpha. Ash, the narrator, is driving her friends Penny and Josh to school and has an unexpected encounter on the road.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Good Opening (2)

This is not my picture.  It is the opening frame (post-prologue) of the Joss Whedon comic book Fray, which is (ring high concept gong) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but cyberpunk.

This is a great opening frame, and worth emulating in beginning a novel.

  • It opens on action.  Not just action, but conflict.  Shooting.
  • It opens on character; we get a close-up of the main character, and she looks interesting.
  • It opens in character; we get one character's thoughts, and that immediately tells us who the protagonist is.
  • It puts the protagonist immediately in danger, generating sympathy and interest.  Will she be shot? Will she survive the fall?
Objectively speaking, this image tells us very little.  The character in the image might be a villain, might be evil, might be in the very act of shooting Nelson Mandela or Elvis Presley or both, we don't really know.  But  by craft, the writer and visual artists have made us find this character interesting and sympathetic and given us the immediate desire to know what happens next.

Laugh When the Characters Fall Down

... “Tomorrow night you plan to take your disgusting little harp-plucker to see – and murder – an important person.  As you said in my drawing room on the night you murdered me, a ‘very significant person’.  Tell me now who your target is.”
            “I daren’t,” Stoat choked out.  Fear was sobering him.  “I daren’t, they’ll kill me.”
            “Mr. Turpin,” I called to Edmund Serious, “point your gun at the Baron’s head.  On the count of three, if he has not named his target, blow out his brains.”  I looked Mr. Serious carefully in the face and I winked.
            “Please, don’t,” pleaded the Baron.
            “One!” I counted.
            “I’ll do anything else,” he whimpered.  “You can have the gold, I am ruined, anyway.”
I nodded at Serious and he nodded back, his eyes grim above the scarf that masked his mouth.
            “No, please, don’t kill me!  I want to help, I’m just afraid!  Please, can’t I do something else?  Anything else, what!”
            I winked at Serious again.
            Bang! the gun fired.
            “You idiot!” I yelled at Edmund Serious.
            “Edward, Prince of Wales!” shrieked Baron Stoat, cowering in the hansom.
            “Blast, I missed!” cursed Serious.  “Bloody cheap pistol!”

*   *   *

Sometimes you just have to write a pratfall, by which I mean comic screw-ups and physical comedy.

The above excerpt is from The Case of the Devil's Interval.  The Baron Stoat is complicit in multiple murders and participant in a plot to commit more.  Francis (the first person narrator, who is the ghost of a ten-year-old boy) and his idiot adult sidekick, Edmund Serious, here interrogate Stoat.

High Concept

High concept is a short-hand way of describing any writing project designed to leverage vividly off existing projects with which the audience is familiar.  I associate it particularly with Hollywood producers, but I've seen it used plenty by people in the publishing industry, too.

"The script is Twilight meets Terminator!"  "It's a cyberpunk Cinderella!"

Or, to use as an example a fine piece of space opera recommended to me by a good (somewhat nerdy) friend, "Midshipman's Hope is Horatio Hornblower in space!"

David Feintuch's Seafort Saga (of which Midshipman's Hope is the first book) is a series of space adventures, and it features space adventure tropes: faster than light travel, colony worlds, demented ship's computers, conflict with space aliens, etc.  But the real driver of the books is the operation of its main character, Nicholas Seafort, his personality, relationships and above all conscience, through various crises and within the tight and sometimes paradoxical confines of (space) naval regulations.  Sound familiar?  Nicky Seafort is Horatio Hornblower with a raygun.

You can describe projects after the fact of their creation using high concept; you can also create them that way.  I suspect that Feintuch deliberately modeled his series on Forester's.

Homework: describe your existing projects using a high concept approach.  Come up with three new project ideas and describe them in high concept.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I own a small home recording studio (the core of my setup is a Tascam 2488 Mk ii, for those who follow these things) and I write and record songs.  A couple of years ago, I recorded an album of songs called Dreams of Albion, all fifteen tracks of which are in some fashion about England, a place dear to my heart.

Dreams of Albion included the track "My Old West Country Home," which I wrote about the Cavalier migration from the West Country of England to the Chesapeake Bay.  This song was inspired by my then-current reading of David Hackett Fischer's classic book Albion's Seed, about the four principal migrations of Englishmen to North America, and it embodies the Cavalier migration in one fictional narrative account.  It goes like this (first verse only, out of three):

I saw some Roundhead captain with his muskets at our door
My father cried "God save the King!" then father was no more
I drug that Roundhead down the moor and I dunked him in the sea
And then I heard Old Ironsides had set his cap for me
So it's down the Dart, into wooden walls, and over the salt and foam
How I miss my old West Country home

Whereas in Witchy Eye I worked several songs into chapter headings, in The Lands Between I put them right into the text and into the mouths of various characters.  When it came time to write lyrics for a duet sung by a wife and husband pair of rabbits about their home (in the magical land) Back Yonder, I cannibalized my own melody and structure, so chapter three ends with Lemuel and Clarice Rabbit singing the following two verses:

Rhubarb in the garden patch, barley on the hill
Apple in the pie crust, whisky in the still
Cornbread in the oven, bacon in the pan
Water from the well out back, baked beans from a can
We'll sweeten up your biscuit with a touch of honeycomb
Step on in our old Back Yonder home

Seventeen fat bunnies, all bouncin' 'round our door
Grandma Hare ain't satisfied, she wants a dozen more
They bounce around the garden patch, they bounce around the creek
They bounce around the cotton fields eleven days a week
We feed 'em in the morning, then we just let 'em roam
Step on in our old Back Yonder home

Now, of course, I'm recycling it all again, as a blog post.  Ha!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

It's Sunday

I've got a new religion.

I wrote this song originally thinking it would be posted on Facebook, and the lyrics referred to John Rodat.  Then my friend John Stukel left our common employer, and I swapped in his name instead so I could record it as a farewell song for him.

Yes, that is my Gibson Hummingbird.  You may address it as "sir".

Other Drivers

Q.  My plot is not strong enough to carry a reader through to the end of the book.  Also, my setting is weak.  And my characters, uh, well... So, can my story be driven by something else besides those three?  Because what's really awesome about my book is...

A. No.  Your plot, characters and setting must all be at least good, and one or more of them must be excellent.

However, is it true that some books are principally driven by something else.  These other drivers include (but are not limited to) the following:

When you're published, and rich, and famous, feel free to try some of these.  But not until then.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Laugh When the Characters Joke

“Why, gentlemen, what have we here?” Cathy said, holding a small pouch.  “It appears that the Prince travels armed with a pistol and a bag of shot.”
“Is it by any chance a half inch bore, ma’am?” Sir William asked her.  “We could use more bullets for those sanctified pistols you bear.”
“Why, it is,” she answered.  “And as to barrel size, Sir William, you know that I favor a larger gun myself, but in a pinch a girl must make do with what she can find.”  Cathy pocketed the powder and shot under the baleful glare of the Prince of Shreveport and his wife.
“One hopes one’s gun is large enough,” Sir William muttered.

*   *   *

Sometimes, I let the characters themselves tell jokes.  Really, for these to work for me, they have to be character moments, and not just humor in a vacuum.  In the above example, the heroes are hijacking the carriage and ball costumes of the Prince of Shreveport and his party.  Cathy has been carrying around half-inch bore pistols (stolen from a church) for which she has no powder or shot; she and Sir William have years of unconsummated erotic tension between them.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Plot Takes the Wheel

So what are some examples of plot-driven books?  Thrillers and mysteries tend to be plot-driven (meaning, it isn't the setting or the characters that keep you reading to the end of the book; you turn the pages to find out to find out who done it, or whether the bomb will be found and disarmed in time), and one dead giveaway that you are reading a plot-driven book is when the protagonist's reason for being in the story is merely or principally professional, e.g., she is a private investigator, or a cop... or a symbologist.

Yes, The Da Vinci Code is plot-driven.  In the first chapters, in the Louvre and in Paris, there is a lot of interesting setting detail, but read it closely and watch how that level of information falls off sharply after the beginning.  Dan Brown's Paris is vivid, but his London is utterly bland, as are his characters (sorry).  I don't care about Robert Langdon or Sophie Neveu, and neither do you; the former exists to explain the plot and the latter exists to hear the explanation.

James Clavell's great Noble House has been my back-of-the-toilet book (sorry, germophobes) for months now.  Clavell's characters are good, and his setting is fantastic, but we don't read the book for either of those reasons.  We read it for the plot, which is complicated (kidnapping, horse-racing, murder, gun running, corporate raiders, bank runs, commercial rivalry, Chinese mobsters, Italian mobsters, and hey, look, a Russian spy!), huge and fascinating.  Hong Kong is fascinating too, but if the book were set in New York, we'd still read it.

Can speculative fiction be plot-driven?  Of course.  Think the Dresden Files.

Bonus Question: recently, a trilogy of thrillers that is arguably character-driven has been rampaging through the bestseller lists (especially the e-book lists) and the news.  Name it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Presenting E.J. Patten

Eric Patten, one of my fellow Story Monkeys, will be published this fall.  His first book is an epic fantasy-horror for middle readers entitled Return to Exile, and you can see the cover art (a nice piece by John Rocco, the illustrator who did the Percy Jackson covers) on his blog.

Go, Story Monkeys!

Laugh at the Characters

           They were approaching the Hulks, and Bill squinted to get a better look.  There were six of them, large sailing ships that after their years of service had been brought through the deeper-dredged channels of the Sea and run aground here, then de-masted and ballasted with rock to keep them permanently anchored.  They were green-ribbed and moldy, like great necrotic leviathans of wood shuddering themselves above the surface of the water to feed.  On their slowly-rotting decks walked men in simpler blue uniforms, consisting of mere vests—not gendarmes, but prison guards, still in the service of the Chevalier.
            The boatman directed the vessel towards one of the hulks, and Bill peered at its hull to try to read the gold-lettered name through the caked green: Incroyable, he thought it said.  That sounded good, whatever it meant.  It sounded tough.
*   *   *
Sometimes, I write a joke that the characters in the scene wouldn't understand as a joke, but that readers will.  I put a number of these into Witchy Eye, in the form of (more or less) subliminal, tongue-in-cheek, references to American popular culture.

Above is the moment Captain Sir William Johnston Lee, a.k.a. Bad Bill, is rowed out onto the Pontchartrain Sea to his new prison-ship home.  Spot the reference.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Thomas Covenant vs. Perdido Street Station

Not all fantasy is milieu-driven.  The reductio ad absurdum of character-driven fantasy must be The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever (there are both a trilogy called The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and an in-progress tetralogy called The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; I read the Second Chronicles back when they were published and have not yet read the Last Chronicles, so these comments may or may not apply with the same force to the later books).

Thomas Covenant, an American novelist, finds himself in a fantasy world.  The Chronicles were written in the 1970s, so they are predictably Tolkienish, though Donaldson fights clear of Tolkien's tractor beam better than, say, Terry Brooks did in his first outing.  But Covenant's fantasy world (the "Land" whose very generic name should warn us not to focus on it too much) is not the center of the story.  Instead, Covenant himself is.  Thomas Covenant is a leper.  His disease has made him bitter and cynical and, above all, an unbeliever.  Each book of the Chronicles starts with him being knocked unconscious on Earth and awakening in the Land, the people of which have summoned him to be their prophesied savior in the struggle against Lord Foul the Despiser.  Covenant does not believe that the Land exists (he thinks he's dreaming and that the Land is a manifestation of his illness; especially in the first book of the Chronicles, the existence of the Land is kept in doubt for the reader by sticking very close to Covenant's point of view--in later books, when the story starts following the POV of denizens of the Land, it gets harder to take seriously Covenant's unbelief) and is filled with feelings of impotence and self-loathing.  Covenant's self-hatred and unbelief make him a very reluctant messiah and lead him to commit terrible crimes against people who believe in him.  Most of the books are very deep inside Covenant's head, and if you read them to the finish, you do so because you find the character compelling, interesting and maybe even sympathetic (not nice, though--Thomas Covenant is not a nice man).

By way of contrast, the reductio ad absurdum of milieu-driven fantasy stories must be Perdido Street Station.  A city comes under attack by dream-consuming, transdimensional killer moths (yes).  The city responds through various characters, including its elected officials, criminal overlords, rebel leaders, magical parasites, artificially intelligent junkyard constructs, gigantic insane demon-spiders and a band of misfit ne'er-do-wells, all of whom function like antibodies fighting a foreign infection.  If you read Perdido Street Station thinking that the humans (and sentient bugs and frogs and birds) are its main characters, you may be frustrated with the plot, which will seem to have pointless excursions (I remember four pages narrating how a very minor sapient frog character swims through the river to leave the city and the story), dead ends (a race of hand-shaped parasites and their hosts, to whom only minor allusion has been made, makes a stand against the moths, and they all die) and dei ex machina (construct intelligence to the rescue, yay!).  The city is the character; the setting is the point.  If you enjoy the milieu, you keep reading.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Laugh with the Characters

            “Captain Richard Francis Burton,” Poe reported, seeing before his eyes the handwritten files he had memorized in Richmond.  “Soldier, swordsman, linguist, explorer.  A dangerous man and almost a famous one.  Author of several books, inventor of a dueling maneuver, arguably discoverer of the sources of the Nile and erstwhile ersatz hajji.”
            The dwarf shook his head irritably.  “You throw me with the big words, boss.  I could a swore you jest called that feller an arsehole horse hat sod gee, but that don’t make no damn kinda sense.”
*   *   *
I try to be funny.  I don't mean that I write jokebooks, but I enjoy reading a book punctuated with humorous moments, so I try to write that way.  My go-to style of funny is situational humor within the story world.  In other words, none of the characters is deliberately cracking a joke, but a character standing by in the scene might observe the goings-on and laugh.

The snippet above is from Project Beta.  A pair of diplomats-saboteurs-spies discuss one set of their rivals.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

American Gods

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods.  It's terrific, and I won't review it, because it's prize-winning and best-selling and much-reviewed and you can go read what other people have to say about it if that's what you're looking for.

What I want to do is discuss the following question: what drives this book?

You should read the book if you haven't, so I'll try to minimize the spoilers.

It isn't a character-driven book.  The protagonist, Shadow (a childhood nickname; we never learn his real name in the novel) has less personality than any other character in the book.  He is sympathetic because he is unlucky--he does time in prison that he doesn't really, we are led to feel, deserve, and his wife dies early in the book in circumstances that are quite painful for Shadow--but he is passive until quite late in the story, simply following the directions of his boss Mr. Wednesday, standing on his mark and speaking his lines.  He begins to become mildly active about midway through, when he undertakes to find a way to bring his wife back to life, but that's a minor plot thread, and Shadow's real, consequential choices only come at the end of the tale.  So I didn't keep turning the pages because I thought Shadow was a really interesting guy, or because I wanted to see how his quest turned out; he's fairly bland throughout, or at least right up until the end, and he doesn't have a quest.  He takes orders.

It isn't a plot-driven book.  There is a plot, and it's a cool one, but it isn't clear what the plot is, again, until quite late in the story.  For most of the book, the plot appears to be that Mr. Wednesday is trying to rally a set of old fantastic characters to fight off a set of new fantastic characters, and Shadow follows him around, doing what he's told.  There are subplots, and they are fun, creepy and fascinating as they should be, but they remain subplots, sideshows.  I didn't keep turning pages to find out whether Mr. Wednesday could defeat Mr. World, and I didn't keep turning pages to find out whether Shadow would bring his wife back to life, or end up with Sam, or if the missing children of Lakeside would ever be found.

What drives American Gods is its milieu.  American Gods is set in what Greil Marcus, in writing about Bob Dylan, called the "Old, Weird America", the America of tall tales, small towns, culture heroes and (to borrow a British term) follies.  Gaiman weds that to the mythology of America's various immigrant cultures and pits it against divine personifications of modernity (the goddess Media, and the gods Railroad Baron and Internet, for instance).  The result is a really, really interesting story world that kept me turning pages right up to the end.

Milieu-driven books are relatively common in speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction and horror), and relatively uncommon elsewhere.  For instance, just looking quickly at my bookshelf, I would identify The Lord of the Rings, Burroughs's Mars and Pellucidar books, the Gormenghast trilogy, Ringworld and its sequels, DuneThe Runelords and Mistborn as being primarily milieu-driven.  That isn't to say that Titus Groan doesn't have interesting characters, or that Ringworld is plotless, but that the principal thing that keeps readers' attention as they read each of those books is the world the author has created.

I like to think about what drives my stories as a writer because I think it's important to play to my strengths.  If I am trying to fascinate readers with an exotic setting, then I need to make sure, in writing and in editing, that it's really exciting.  If I want to seduce the audience with my characters, I aim to make them really interesting, sympathetic and proactive.  And if my plot is the thing, I want it to twist, turn and gnarl like nobody's business, obviously to the reader and right from the start.

Homework assignment for writers: what drives your story?  What do you need to do, in writing and in editing, to play more to your story's strength?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Get Your Filky Hands off My Chapter Headings!

I am not a filker.  However, I do write songs, and have done so regularly since I learned to squeeze out my first few plunky guitar chords, oh, almost twenty years ago.  I like to work songs of my own composition into my novels; with Witchy Eye, I did that by writing several of them for chapter headings (each chapter of Witchy Eye is headed by a secondary world document, designed to illuminate somewhat the action of that chapter and chapters following, and also intended to flesh out the reader's sense of the milieu).

So here's the heading to Chapter Eleven of Witchy Eye.  It's a "traditional" song about a pair of legendary characters mysteriously associated with the Beastfolk of the Mississippi River, Peter Plowshare and Simon Sword.

Peter Plowshare’s a farming man
King of maize and bean and gourd
Who takes it back whene’er he can?
The rascal, Simon Sword!

Peter Plowshare’s a builder fair
Log and chink and stone and board
Who tears down buildings everywhere?
The villain, Simon Sword!

Peter Plowshare shapes the land 
Road and fence and bridge and ford
Who smashes all with a hateful hand?
The reaver, Simon Sword!

P.S.  What is filk?  This is filk:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Good Opening

Chapter One

            “This is insubordination, Dick!”  Fearnley-Standish hissed.
            “Well, then, Abby,” the swarthy man growled back at him, “you have something to write in your little notebook for today.”
            “You may address me as Ambassador,” the younger, paler man whined, and removed his tall top hat for a moment to mop sweat from his brow with a white silk handkerchief.  The engine room of the Jim Smiley was tall enough to stand in comfortably, but the heat that its boiler gave off, even on a low idle as it was, made the chamber feel smaller and infernal. 
            Still, if Absalom Fearnley-Standish showed signs of struggling with the heat, that gave his companion all the more reason to be stoic.  “If we are to stand on rules of address,” he snarled, “you may call me Captain Burton.”  He picked up a heavy tool, spanner at one end and spike at the other, from a steel crate of similar implements and hefted it.  He leered at the diplomat, knowing that the red light coming through the furnace’s grate would give the scars on both sides of his face a devilish cast.  “This will do well enough.”
            “Again I protest,” Fearnley-Standish said, eyes darting around in the Vulcan gloom.  “My commission letter says nothing of sabotage.”
            “Well, then,” Burton answered in as reasonable a voice as he could muster, examining the three brass pipes that rose from the iron furnace to the enormous boiler, “you should have exercised a little more imagination when you wrote it.”  With a grunt and a swing of his powerful shoulders, he slammed the spike end of the tool into one of the pipes.  Clang!
*   *   *
I have been pre-writing on Project Beta for a couple of weeks, and have reached the point where I'm ready to start writing.  Above is my opening, and below are the reasons I like it.
  • It starts on characters.  Some readers, I suspect, can get really excited about the description of a mountain glen or a cityscape, but most readers, I believe, are willing to be drawn into an interesting character.  We see here two men starkly delineated, the man of action and the hand-wringer.
  • Without being heavy-handed about it, it begins to set milieu expectations.  The two characters are in the boiler room of some sort of vehicle.
  • It contains literary allusions.  The allusions are not random, but further work to set expectations as to milieu and characters.
  • Best of all, it starts on conflict.  There is unspecified conflict between these two characters and a third party (they are on a mission of sabotage), and there is a clear struggle between the two men presented to us; they do not respect each other and each thinks he is in charge.