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Show Don’t Tell

Show Don’t Tell

Pam Uphoff

 

We’ve had requests for a blog along the lines of “But how do we do it?” So I’ll take first whack at it.

Short version? You take a short boring bit that gets you past the messy details and into the part you want to write—and you go back and put in the messy details, especially those emotions you didn’t want to slather all over your beautiful clean manuscript.

I’m not good at explaining, but I can try to demonstrate, first draft to final publication.

So here’s wizard, doing some experimental magical genetic engineering.
Telling—he’s passing it off like practically nothing happened:

“No kidding. Now stop trying to divert me from these longevity genes. You aren’t going to experiment on your own dogs, are you?” Q looked at him suspiciously.

“Yep. I did Lion already. Four hours and he’s fine.” He winced at her glare. “I’m standing by, in case he needs to be switched back, and I have wine.”

Showing—make it hurt:

Xen studied the old dog carefully, found the same gene complexes, and very gently started changing them, one at a time. With pauses in between to check the dog for signs that he had done something Really Bad to his cellular metabolism. When he was done, the old dog didn’t seem any different. Lion heaved himself to his feet and walked stiffly out to circle the sheep. Walked partway back, staggering a bit.

Xen sat up in alarm and trotted out to meet him. The old dog laid down, his head drooped.

“Lion?” Xen sank his awareness into the dog. Wish I could see like a witch . . . He’s very low on energy.

He looked into the bubble he called his backpack. A change of clothes, food, water and the Wine of the Gods.

He pulled out the food, coaxed Lion to eat . . . with minimal success.

He scooped the dog up and traveled to Lady Gisele’s garden. Tried to keep his voice steady. “My first patient seems to be dying. He’s low on energy.”

“Humph. Let’s see.” The old crone reached out to stroke the dog. “Indeed.” She reached over to her shelves and plucked off a bottle.

“That’s maple syrup.”

“Yes, dear, and good source of sugar, to get his gylcogen levels up. Let’s see if he can swallow it . . . Hmm, well, a bit of tubing . . . ”

She plucked plastic tubing from nowhere, and wormed it down Lion’s throat.

“There’s a funnel behind you, third shelf, the small one . . . thank you.”

He go the funnel into the tube and poured a teaspoon of maple syrup into it.

“Now, let’s see what’s happening on the cellular level . . . Oh dear.”

Xen was following her vision as far as he could. Chromosomes writhing about, under attack by his ribozymes, ripping into the right genes and then building up the new ones, grabbing the chemicals needed . . . whether the rest of the cell could spare them or not. Whether the cell needed that gene—old or new version, right then.

Cells were dying, fast. Lots of them.

Everything they tried made it worse.

They couldn’t save him.

Xen spent the rest of the day out on the hills with the sheep and the horses.

Cradling his old dog.

Blackie and Silky crawled up to him, crying.

Quicksilver showed up in the mid-afternoon. Just sat down silently.

“So . . . I was over confident.”

“What were you trying to do?”

He hauled out his spells and let her look them over. “The longevity genes.”

“An essential transformation? Xen . . . that is brilliant work.”

Xen shook his head. “It just tore into the genes and started changing them. It was too fast, too much all at once . . . or maybe those genes are multipurposed to something in basal cell metabolism, that can’t be interrupted.”

She sighed. “I’m better at physics. This stuff . . . I can do it, using other peoples spells. I don’t grasp the significance of possible genetic changes, of how to invent them.”

“I wasn’t really inventing new genes. I was changing the genes at eight specific sites to slightly different genes. Known genes, ones that will work fine.”

“In humans. Maybe not in dogs?”

“The Hell Hounds have some of them. Lion had one copy each of three of them. I just tried to give him the other five, and double pairs. He . . . ran out of glycogen, and the changes were messing up the cell chemistry. Even getting sugar into him didn’t help, and when I tried to stop the process . . . well, the chromosomes started falling apart.” He pet the cold stiff form in his lap. “I killed him.”

 

Or how about some cross-dimensional scientific cooperation?

A perfectly adequate mention:

“So, your first scientific expedition from another polity – and it had to be them.” Xen grinned across the table at his sister.

She grinned cheerfully back. “And an interesting trio the Arbolians are. Both the men are natural wizards, with enough training to shield their natures from me, if they hadn’t gone and shook hands. The girl has no power genes but a fair collection of the rest. They all seem very smart, and very much what they claim to be, otherwise. One astronomer, one photographic specialist, one guy to keep everything working. In any case, they’re parked up on that hill busy all night and sleeping all day.”

And then showing:

I am an ambassador. They dare not kill me.

Hadley Greene forced himself to walk calmly and steadily across the plaza. Why must they make everything so large? So far away? We should acquire one of those vehicles. One of those limos. A large black one, worthy of my status. Or white for my purity.

They had always said the power had been too weak in him—they had not allowed him to go on to the more advanced training of the priesthood. Thirty years later, the rejection still burned. Especially now, in his maturity, when he understood that his only lack had been money for bribes or political influence on his maternal family’s side.

And now, so poorly trained, I must walk alone into that vipers’ nest of feral gods. I dare not even bring an aide, who could be influenced, ordered to murder me in my sleep some night in the future.

It wasn’t the sun overhead that was making him sweat.

He didn’t allow himself to stop at the road, nor the base of the steps. By the time he reached the top, the double doors were open, and two men . . . no. Two gods. Unchained, uncontrolled, unmastered . . .

I could take one, for my own. The priests would bow before me. Weak? Ha!
He eyed the two gods. The young one. I want him. He swallowed saliva. But not now. No, I’ll have to find him alone, off his guard. Asleep would be best.

He stopped a cautious distance away, stood straight and tall, and raised his chin. “I am Hadley Greene, Ambassador for Arbolia. I require your assistance for a scientific expedition.”

The young one nodded. “I’m sure that we will be delighted to assist you. May I introduce Dr. Quail Quicksilver? She is in charge of Science and Exploration.” He stepped back and gestured invitingly as a young woman stepped forward.

Abomination! A female with power! But that glow is unmistakable. Except, there is no sexual attraction. Of course, abnormal genes. That would explain it. It’s not a True Female. I could take it, transform it into the God of Women. No. The God of Sex.

He was so deep into plots that he nearly forgot to be afraid as he stepped into the den of the deadly wild gods.

***

“. . . proper scientific study of these dimensions. So we expect your cooperation.” The Arbolian ambassador was watching her with a hungry expression. Sweating.

Q kept her expression politely neutral.

Lust or terror? How can one tell with a hideous perv like this?

And why did the first request for scientific project have to come from them?
The man is a mage of some sort, possibly one of their priests.

I should get a genetic sample for Mother. She talked about these people . . . I thought she was exaggerating.

“I appreciate your interest in science, Ambassador. This looks like a very interesting project. We will support it, and assist as necessary. Have your project people contact me about what they will need.” She stood and extended a hand.

He recoiled . . . stared at her hungrily. “They will contact you.” He turned and walked out.

Crap.

She glanced suddenly at the corner of the office. A light warp unraveled.

“So, your first scientific expedition from another polity—and it had to be them.” Xen grinned.

She shook her head. “Being over protective, Big Bro?”

“Yeah. I didn’t like the way he salivated when he looked at me and Inso.” He walked to the doorway and grinned back at her. “But he did seem to find you sexy.”

He ducked away from a threatened fireball, and she grabbed a tissue and swabbed the edge of her desk. Maybe Mother can sort out his DNA. She dropped the tissue in a bag and sealed it. I do like plastic. It’s going to be a bigger import category than electronics.

***

“We need to do a first survey from several wildly different worlds, and analyze the results.” Lord Marius Menchuro of Arbolia was an astronomer. A serious young man, with none of the ambassador’s hunger. He’d shaken her hand without hesitation, as had his assistants.

Trace and Trill Breesdon were brother and sister. Trill was a photographic expert, Trace an expert at keeping everything working.

“Everything” being a twenty-four inch reflecting telescope mounted on a horse drawn wagon, and a huge camera for taking long exposure photographs, and the photographic lab, in addition to a great deal of camping equipment.

Damn. Now this is interesting. Studying the planets, moons and asteroids for changes from world to world.

“Indeed. Let me introduce you to the maze. I think we have everything—every place—you’ll need for this first survey already easily available.”

 

Another example This time from my eccentric time traveler:

First draft:

When we landed, I started laying out the plans for two space fighters. Then I had to break for a bit to calm down the accountant and sign some late tax papers and so forth. Good grief. I hired him to not bother me. He calmed down eventually. Until I told him it was going to happen regularly.

Final Draft:

Then I had to calm down Natalie and Aura and sign some late tax papers and so forth. Good grief. I’d hired them to not bother me. They calmed down eventually. Until I told them it was going to happen regularly.

“We’ll be away regularly, and come back every September, probably, to recuperate. Just file the taxes.”

“What kind of bloody resort are you?”

“A private one.”

“Your income is from selling rare metals?”

“We like to mine, but it is a bit dangerous. So we needed a nice tranquil spa to come home to.”

Aura crossed her arms, looking a great deal less like a fluffy-head than usual. “We looked all over for you. What is that weird machine in the practically hidden warehouse?”

“A very large three dee printer. Very advanced. Don’t touch it.”

“And the practically hidden airplane hanger?”

“It’s for the airplane. Vertical takeoff and landing, so don’t ask me why I don’t have an airstrip.”

They glowered at me.

I tried again. “Umm, couldn’t find a good batcave?”

Double glare.

So much for popular entertainment . . . But they’d never believe the truth.

“Time Travelers?”

Natalie growled. “Sign here and here. Write a check for this amount. Mail it, dammit. Today.”

“Space Aliens?”

“And here’s my bill.”

“How about I give you signature authority . . . ”

“No! Doing your paperwork is scary enough! God forbid anyone would think I was a part of your amazingly weird . . . group.”

Go through your manuscript, and hunt down those quick little unemotional spots . . . and tell the whole thing. Bleed on the paper. Or laugh. Just don’t let it lay there, neutral and boring.

 

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Fantasy in the City

We’ll start with the classic Urban Fantasy structure, mostly because I’d never noticed it, until Illona Andrews told me that Darkship Thieves followed it (it does.)

Now before we get too deep in, there’s a ton of Urban Fantasy that doesn’t fit this.  For one not all Urban Fantasy has females as the main character.  Both Dresden and Monster Hunter International are urban fantasies, after all, as are my own shifters series.

But the thing is that if you look at those, they kind of fit too.  MHI more easily than Dresden, but Dresden too, if you take the attractive scary opposite sex being as not being his main love interest (which is usually female.)

The thing is, as I explained in the comments before, that this is not a template to write by — though people sell things like “An urban fantasy template” but more a thing to look at when deciding what categories to put your novel for sale under.

First, let’s get something out of the way which I think I said at the beginning, but have since not mentioned and some of you might have lost sight of: structure is NOT what determines genre.  Genre is a combination of structure and other elements.  Even if your fantasy has a mystery structure (Dresden partakes a lot of the noir-mystery structure.  On structure alone it’s an hybrid between that and urban fantasy.)

And Darkship Thieves is STILL a space opera, despite having an urban fantasy structure.

So, before you go doing anything stupid, the essential elements of urban fantasy are: a city, and FANTASY.  I.e. some part if not all of the setup for the world must involve magic, (often) shape shifters or (very often) vampires.  Sure, now I think about it, you could get away with having some mysterious aliens in place of the magic creatures but be careful not to explain them too closely, because that puts you in science fiction realm.  (Well, to the readers of shifters, no, probably not, but that’s because I didn’t get to that till book 3.)

So it starts with: the city/area/world are in danger.  There is a supernatural menace coming for them.  And there is one chosen to stand against them.

The chosen part is very important, as is, at least in the beginning, the fact the chosen might not have any clue she is (most urban fantasies have female protagonists, so for the sake of convenience, I’ll use the female pronoun throughout.  Be aware it can also be male.)

Often the first thing the chosen knows about her special nature is that all these things are coming out of the woodwork to attack her.

After a while she figures out what’s going on, often with the help of the love interest/male counterpart.

This man is often somewhat odd himself and might be supernatural/have special powers.  On first meeting, she’s often scared of him, and sees only his scary qualities, though she might/probably will come to realize throughout the book/series that they have more in common than not.

Remember when I said it’s very important that the main character have special powers and be the chosen?

Often the first few books are “training” and discovering of/revealing of those powers, often while she fights her way up a hierarchy of baddies.  Every time a bad thing is defeated, we find that it was just a front for the truly big bad.

Long running series eventually pit their character against some vast, shadowy evil that plans to swallow the whole world/destroy mankind.

The first book often entails the main character discovering the full extent of her specialness/that she’s not quite human and accept her mission to defend others.  In that way the first book is often a “coming of age” novel for the main character.

Urban fantasy also has a certain feel to it.  Some people don’t consider urban fantasy proper unless it takes place in a large city, but this can be got around as Larry Correia did by shuttling the heroes around.

However, often urban fantasy shares the noir feel of “Through the mean streets the hero walks alone.”  Even if the hero is a she and the mean streets involve fangs.

Again, I’m sure I’m leaving a hundred things out, so feel free to ask questions.

Next week heroic fantasy.

 

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Unintended Consequences

Like collateral damage unintended consequences often totally eclipse what you meant to do.  And, sure as death, there always are unintended consequences.

With the always 20:20 hindsight one often looks at a series of actions and wonders how in hell ANYONE including Blind Pew didn’t see it coming a mile off. Look at Hollywood’s latest meltdown and the fallout that has to have on the Democratic party – who eagerly accepted the celebrity support, endorsements and funding. Let’s see: lets think. Famous people, not known for brains or morality, with a long history of the casting-couch and negotiable virtue being often reported on… what could possibly go wrong?

Yes. It is obvious.

Now. But obviously it wasn’t.

Unintended consequences too are an error which many new writers (yes, me too, long ago) make.

Oh it’s not that our writing has such consequences. It’s that it doesn’t. Things actually go according to plan. Exactly what the characters expect happens. The hero is well capable and trained and physically able to deal with the obstacles. The action is fast-paced and the story clever.

And boring.

The problem however doesn’t stop there. Yes, you can, as the writer, make the plans go horribly awry, and the characters have to deal with that on the fly. That’s an improvement. The thing is, your character plunging into disaster they didn’t expect, is wasting half the potential for tension in the story.  Your character should not expect it, or not that specific thing, which he would then plan for — but your reader should. And to make it worse to write… your character can’t be a total nitwit, not seeing the obvious (unless your hero is a fool. That works sometimes.) There has to be a reason he doesn’t see something plainly obvious as a consequence to the reader.

A large part of this is just: ‘how is it written.’ I’m no master, but this is an example of how I did this –

This is factual, bald version. There’s no hint that it didn’t majorly go to plan, and nor is obvious to the reader, throughout, that unexpected consequences flow from this:

On Saturday I fetched a water-tank I’d bought from a friend. That required that I borrow a more powerful truck, and, from another friend a heavy tandem trailer.  The trailer tow hitch was lower than the truck’s tow ball, and it was too heavy to move let alone lift. I tried various things and eventually found a jack and got the trailer on.  I drove to the friend, we cut a hole in his fence, rolled the tank out, and because it wouldn’t fit on its side put it on top of the trailer and tied it down. On the way out to my little farm it did slip sideways, but I got it there, and offloaded it with the Terex and put it where it belonged.    

About as dull as the average working day.  But I write to about my life out here to entertain, so I tried to make the FB and blog posts about this more entertaining — by letting the reader know 1) that it did NOT go according to plan 2) That the reader could foresee that it wouldn’t – and waited with amusement for the disasters. I’ll give the entire story here, and then make some commentary on WHY I did certain things. I’m NOT a master, or the best – but you can learn from my methods and mistakes. You can help me to learn from them.

This is slightly expanded version of the tank moving saga that I posted on FB, as it was put up on Flinders Family Freer

Are you all sitting foursquare cumftibold? Right, then I’ll begin. So, once upon a time – a recent time – I bought my mate Bill ‘s spare water tank. A win for me, and a win for him I hope… with just one small, trifling detail in the way. Like, it’s in his back yard, and I want it out at the new block. Oh. And Bill has built a carport since the tank went in. Needless to say, the tank doesn’t fit past it. Only just doesn’t fit by an inch and a half.

But never fear! We are bold, resourceful or at least pig-headedly stupid (pick the latter, trust me). It came upon a morning clear that I had arranged to borrow the beast of bashan (AKA the huge heavy twin-axle trailer) and from yet another friend, Peter – a 4×4 Hilux to tow it. Because, in the way things in my life, the trailer’s home is on the other side of a flooded road, and anyway my blue slug (ute) would just die if I asked it to tow the beast.

I drove into a swamp the color of stout, faithfully following the marker poles that said ‘there is a road under here somewhere. It must have been true because I got out the other side. My plan was to get there good and early because the loading the tank might take a while. And the plan went well – until of course it didn’t. I reversed with great care and frequent getting out, because 1)it’s not my ute, or my trailer, 2)the beast is so heavy I literally cannot budge it. I lined up perfectly and went to hook the beast up.

The Hilux’s tow hitch is an inch an half higher than the trailer’s jockey wheel will lift it. The jockey wheel is of a frail and retiring nature totally unsuited to the beast – it can hold the beast, but not raise it. The beast weighs tons. I – among my myriad other faults, am not large or very heavy. No way I can lift it. What to do? Give up would be sensible option.

But this is me. I look for the jack in the truck. Can’t find it.

I search my absent friend’s new shed. No jack. I do find a crowbar. And a round rock. Ha! Archimedes! “give me a long enough lever and somewhere to stand and I will move the world.” I have a crowbar. But, as I soon establish, it’s not long enough. Aha! But have a pipe that will fit on the end…

Look, will someone tell that dead Greek that 1)the lever has to stay on top of the fulcrum or you will fall on your butt (trust me on this. I have the bruises to prove it.) and… 2) even if this does not happen – you are at one end of the lever 5 yards from the tow hitch, quite unable to do anything about it.

Now, let me explain the evil nature of Jockey wheels. They have a mind of their own and a passionate fear of ramps. Trust me on this. You don’t even have to prove it with a snatch strap and building a ramp. It just is, the way Mount Everest is

It turns out that the Hilux’s jack is hidden under the back seat, in a covered inset under the carpet, as I found out after 2 hours of sweat, and increasingly more bizarre plans. Fiendishly clever these Auto designers. I’d like to pack a parachute for them, in the same way they hide essential bits, before assisting them and the essential parachute into a little 5000 foot test of gravity.

With the beast attached, we brave the flooded road again. It’s blacker and bubbling ominously. Some of the sticks seem to have fallen over… The ute goes in… and the beast hits it, and for that heartstopping moment we slow suddenly and… nothing happens. Well nothing bad anyway. We go forward and not sideways. After that little moment of terror that was nothing, we go to Bill’s place without further drama. I know. Disappointing for you, great for me.

Did you know that many access problems can be solved by cutting down your neighbor’s fence with a chainsaw? A sort of de-fence.(Do not try this unless you have a nice kind neighbor who has agreed to this. Or you may need the chainsaw for self-defence… )

The tank rolls quite well. So the crushed people in its wake tell me… nah – not quite. I discovered the fins on the top made reasonable brakes. So after a few minor, really irrelevant epics with gates and trees, we get it onto the roadside…

To discover it won’t fit on its side on the beast – a matter of about one and half inches (as with the tow-hitch…)

Now we have a tank on the roadside that probably won’t go back. Once again, I’m stuck.

Hmmm.

But with some extra man-power it will go… on top. We tip it and shove and haul. Frankie says ‘I think it would be better the other way around. This is not happening. With careful alignment and four of us shoving… it gets only overlapping the mudguards – about an inch and a half (and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I tie it down. Now, this is a round object with a smooth bottom, but there are lifting holes on the strengthening fins on top. We use a lot of rope…

This is Flinders, just after the shops close on a Saturday – ergo, most graveyards are livelier. Not a car or person to be seen.

I trundle slowly and cautiously toward the block, along the back road, where I see precisely one vehicle, and get off the road and let them pass.

And then there is just last mile to the block along the ‘main’ North-South road – which can be oh, 2-3 cars an hour on a normal day. I turn the corner onto it…

And the tank decides this is such fun it’ll do that too, and slides sideways.

Now, the ropes stop it sliding right off, and beast is so big and heavy it is not affected. But instead of being in the middle – the tank is now inside the mudguard one one side and has got about an inch and half spare from the edge of the trailer. It now protrudes generously into the road on the other.

The ropes are now super-tight, as it sort of swiveled to do this. It took us four people to move it on and I can’t budge it. The beast is still level. It thinks the tank is light. I’m close to my destination and machinery. Oh yeah, and my mobile phone says ‘to recharge your credit’.

So… I drive on cautiously, ready to get off the the road. if there’s a car – maybe I can ask for some help. And about a hundred yards from my place there is one, and I do. It’s a police car (and the two local coppers would help. They’re country coppers. This is not Africa). But we live on an island where everyone waves. So they see me wave… and give me a wave back, and drive on. Ah well. I’m close.

I haul through my gate and into the paddock and walk off to fetch the liddle tenk AKA T.rex the Terex – which I borrowed for this exercise. I’ve driven T.Rex a long way before this, at least 10 feet (or maybe an inch and half, it just felt longer). It’s a joystick drive – and I have to reverse it out of my tractor shed, going meep meep like a cross between a banshee and a chicken. I didn’t hit anything important that can’t be replaced (not really, but it came close). Some very nervous driving followed given the sort of day I’d had… I can’t afford to replace the tank and certainly can’t afford to replace the T.rex. I lifted the jawed bucket and ever so slowly sidled up to the tank on the beast.

Liddle tenk meets liddle tenk. It was love at first sighttank meets tank

and this is the charming wedding picture. Just after the knot had been tied.

That was another little adventure which involved pulling up on the T.Rex’s jaws (motor running to keep the hydraulics running, and a great deal of balance on a slippery sloping surface, now well lubricated with spare sand from the T.Rex’s bucket, with nothing much to hold onto. Rock-climbing has been a lot more useful than anyone could have guessed.

There is no next picture, on account of the fact I was inside the T. Rex’s safety cage, and… um, I might still be there. On account of when the tank gently swung off, it did so without any drama. Only it was also almost flush with the cage – like maybe an inch and a half gap. I’ve gotten too fat, mostly between the ears, to fit out. Like Pooh Bear I’ll be out as soon as I slim down.

OK I did figure it out before I got hungry, reversed and put the tank down, and re-rigged the ropes.

And lo, things actually proceeded according to plan, even though I expected them not to. This was a reasonable expectation because I couldn’t see past the tank, so I kept having to put it down and have a look.

Still, I got there. The tank is in place, on the bench that Mark cut for it, next to where the house will be.

I was on Ambo call last night and I am very grateful no one needed us, because I slept the sleep of the tired little monkey.

But an inch and a half… sometimes it really feels a lot longer… or shorter.

Which most people seem to have found quite funny – because they could see me walking toward the open manhole, (and see the banana skin) They expected me to fall in the hole… and not to slip on the banana skin. They could see the possible consequences. I (as the ‘hero’) could not. I was doing a lot of other little things too some of which I’ll talk about in BOLD – (you can skip re-reading the bits that aren’t bold. They’re there for context).

Are you all sitting foursquare cumftibold? Right, then I’ll begin. So, once upon a time – a recent time – I bought my mate Bill ‘s spare water tank.

I’m telling the reader that this is funny, shaggy dog tale. Oh and throwing in Music buff reference to say the same thing – which doesn’t detract from the story if you don’t get it, but delights those who do. I do this a lot. It’s fun for me, fun for those who get it, and doesn’t hurt the story for those who don’t. I cannot say how important that latter detail is,

A win for me, and a win for him I hope… with just one small, trifling detail in the way. Like, it’s in his back yard, and I want it out at the new block. Oh. And Bill has built a carport since the tank went in. Needless to say, the tank doesn’t fit past it. Only just doesn’t fit by an inch and a half.

This is an intentional double entendre, which I intentionally repeat, to mislead 🙂 No reason for it, just another tweak to amuse readers with minds like mine. Once again, it doesn’t distract from the story, but like Chekov’s shotgun, if it is in the first paragraph, expect it to be used.

But never fear! We are bold, resourceful or at least pig-headedly stupid (pick the latter, trust me). It came upon a morning clear that I had arranged to borrow the beast of bashan (AKA the huge heavy twin-axle trailer)

It’s a big cow of a thing. Those who get it will smile.

and from yet another friend, Peter – a 4×4 Hilux to tow it. Because, in the way things in my life, the trailer’s home is on the other side of a flooded road, and anyway my blue slug (ute) would just die if I asked it to tow the beast.

I drove into a swamp the color of stout, faithfully following the marker poles that said ‘there is a road under here somewhere. It must have been true because I got out the other side. My plan was to get there good and early because the loading the tank might take a while.

And here I am telling you the LOADING won’t be the problem.

And the plan went well – until of course it didn’t. I reversed with great care and frequent getting out, because 1)it’s not my ute, or my trailer, 2)the beast is so heavy I literally cannot budge it. I lined up perfectly and went to hook the beast up.

Ah. The cunning plan

The Hilux’s tow hitch is an inch an half higher than the trailer’s jockey wheel will lift it. The jockey wheel is of a frail and retiring nature totally unsuited to the beast – it can hold the beast, but not raise it. The beast weighs tons. I – among my myriad other faults, am not large or very heavy. No way I can lift it. What to do? Give up would be sensible option.

Ah. The unintended consequence of borrowing a vehicle AND a trailer. Obvious.

But this is me. I look for the jack in the truck. Can’t find it.

I search my absent friend’s new shed. No jack. I do find a crowbar. And a round rock. Ha! Archimedes! “give me a long enough lever and somewhere to stand and I will move the world.” I have a crowbar. But, as I soon establish, it’s not long enough. Aha! But have a pipe that will fit on the end…

The cunning plan. You’d never expect anything to go wrong.

Look, will someone tell that dead Greek that 1)the lever has to stay on top of the fulcrum or you will fall on your butt (trust me on this. I have the bruises to prove it.) and… 2) even if this does not happen – you are at one end of the lever 5 yards from the tow hitch, quite unable to do anything about it.

The unintended but very obvious consequence

Now, let me explain the evil nature of Jockey wheels. They have a mind of their own and a passionate fear of ramps. Trust me on this. You don’t even have to prove it with a snatch strap and building a ramp. It just is, the way Mount Everest is.

What I am not doing is filling in the long, tedious explanation of how I built the ramp with rocks and a plank, or how the wheel was sideways on. I’m leaving this to reader’s imagination. I’ve just given them the framework. Anyone who has dealt with a jockey wheel will know how they misbehave. Their imagining will be more graphic than the reality.  Anyway, the joke is getting old. Time to move on.

It turns out that the Hilux’s jack is hidden under the back seat, in a covered inset under the carpet, as I found out after 2 hours of sweat, and increasingly more bizarre plans. Fiendishly clever these Auto designers. I’d like to pack a parachute for them, in the same way they hide essential bits, before assisting them and the essential parachute into a little 5000 foot test of gravity.

With the beast attached, we brave the flooded road again. It’s blacker and bubbling ominously. Some of the sticks seem to have fallen over…

Once again I am setting the reader up. They expect disaster. I’m with intent keeping them off balance, because if something always goes wrong –

The ute goes in… and the beast hits it, and for that heartstopping moment we slow suddenly and… nothing happens. Well nothing bad anyway. We go forward and not sideways. After that little moment of terror that was nothing, we go to Bill’s place without further drama. I know. Disappointing for you, great for me.

Did you know that many access problems can be solved by cutting down your neighbor’s fence with a chainsaw? A sort of de-fence.(Do not try this unless you have a nice kind neighbor who has agreed to this. Or you may need the chainsaw for self-defence… )

The tank rolls quite well. So the crushed people in its wake tell me… nah – not quite. I discovered the fins on the top made reasonable brakes. So after a few minor, really irrelevant epics with gates and trees, we get it onto the roadside…

It was an epic. The reader knows it was… That’s what the understatement means. Actually it wasn’t. But we’re entertaining.

To discover it won’t fit on its side on the beast – a matter of about one and half inches (as with the tow-hitch…)

Now we have a tank on the roadside that probably won’t go back. Once again, I’m stuck.

Hmmm.

But with some extra man-power it will go… on top. We tip it and shove and haul. Frankie says ‘I think it would be better the other way around. This is not happening. With careful alignment and four of us shoving… it gets only overlapping the mudguards – about an inch and a half (and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I tie it down. Now, this is a round object with a smooth bottom, but there are lifting holes on the strengthening fins on top. We use a lot of rope…

The reader KNOWS by now that when I start explaining how it could move, and how we tied it down that there are unexpected consequences waiting for me.

This is Flinders, just after the shops close on a Saturday – ergo, most graveyards are livelier. Not a car or person to be seen.

I trundle slowly and cautiously toward the block, along the back road, where I see precisely one vehicle, and get off the road and let them pass.

And then there is just last mile to the block along the ‘main’ North-South road – which can be oh, 2-3 cars an hour on a normal day. I turn the corner onto it…

And the tank decides this is such fun it’ll do that too, and slides sideways.

You’ve been WAITING for that, haven’t you?

Now, the ropes stop it sliding right off, and beast is so big and heavy it is not affected. But instead of being in the middle – the tank is now inside the mudguard one one side and has got about an inch and half spare from the edge of the trailer. It now protrudes generously into the road on the other.

The ropes are now super-tight, as it sort of swiveled to do this. It took us four people to move it on and I can’t budge it. The beast is still level. It thinks the tank is light. I’m close to my destination and machinery. Oh yeah, and my mobile phone says ‘to recharge your credit -‘.

So… I drive on cautiously, ready to get off the the road. if there’s a car – maybe I can ask for some help.

The cunning plan. What could go wrong?

And about a hundred yards from my place there is one, and I do. It’s a police car

That could go wrong

(and the two local coppers would help. They’re country coppers. This is not Africa). But we live on an island where everyone waves. So they see me wave… and give me a wave back, and drive on.

And it does, but not in the way that the reader expected. But they feel they should have. It’s plausible.

Ah well. I’m close.

I haul through my gate and into the paddock and walk off to fetch the liddle tenk AKA T.rex the Terex – which I borrowed for this exercise. I’ve driven T.Rex a long way before this, at least 10 feet (or maybe an inch and half, it just felt longer). It’s a joystick drive – and I have to reverse it out of my tractor shed, going meep meep like a cross between a banshee and a chicken. I didn’t hit anything important that can’t be replaced (not really, but it came close). Some very nervous driving followed given the sort of day I’d had… I can’t afford to replace the tank and certainly can’t afford to replace the T.rex. I lifted the jawed bucket and ever so slowly sidled up to the tank on the beast.

Liddle tenk meets liddle tenk. It was love at first sight

and this is the charming wedding picture. Just after the knot had been tied.

the cunning plan. What could go wrong?

That was another little adventure which involved pulling up on the T.Rex’s jaws (motor running to keep the hydraulics running, and a great deal of balance on a slippery sloping surface, now well lubricated with spare sand from the T.Rex’s bucket, with nothing much to hold onto. Rock-climbing has been a lot more useful than anyone could have guessed.

There is no next picture, on account of the fact I was inside the T. Rex’s safety cage, and… um, I might still be there. On account of when the tank gently swung off, it did so without any drama. Only it was also almost flush with the cage – like maybe an inch and a half gap.

That.

I’ve gotten too fat, mostly between the ears, to fit out. Like Pooh Bear I’ll be out as soon as I slim down.

OK I did figure it out before I got hungry, reversed and put the tank down, and re-rigged the ropes.

And lo, things actually proceeded according to plan, even though I expected them not to. This was a reasonable expectation because I couldn’t see past the tank, so I kept having to put it down and have a look.

Still, I got there. The tank is in place, on the bench that Mark cut for it, next to where the house will be.

I was on Ambo call last night and I am very grateful no one needed us, because I slept the sleep of the tired little monkey.

But an inch and a half… sometimes it really feels a lot longer… or shorter.

Tell that to your partner.

And I hope this was some use to you all.

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Blurb Clinic

Okay, a bunch of you requested blurb clinics. And I was innocently sipping my coffee when I looked up and saw a swarm of fingers pointed at me, including one from Sarah as she rapidly ran away. I get it, I get it. The other people on this group blog write actual, y’know, books, and then try to write a blurb once a book. I write blurbs, and only every now and then try to write a book. So, blurb clinic!

To start with, I’m going to repost the text from the last blurb clinic, with three added notes:

1. Readers like characters with agency. This means the characters go places and do things, they don’t just have life happen while they’re there. Blurbs must reflect this agency – they must show your character going and doing and plotting. The shorthand for this is “Don’t use passive voice”, because nothing kills agency faster (and adds length) than putting the action verb on something other than the character. But it’s not solely grammar. “Bob had survived the war, and was hiding on the sidelines as conspiracies rose in the court to entangle him” is very passive. “After surviving the war, Bob is hiding out as a mere florist in the court’s staff. But when he uncovers a new conspiracy…” that has agency.

2. The first person introduced is assumed to be the hero. “In the house of Rlyeh, Cthulu lies dreaming until Captain Carter disturbs him while searching for lost treasure!” If the readers don’t know Cthulu, that makes Cthulu sound like the protagonist, and possibly hero. “After finding lost civilizations on six continents, Captain Carter is close to solving his biggest mystery yet: the location of the lost temple of R’lyeh! But dread Cthulu lies inside, dreaming…” Makes Captain Carter the protagonist.

3. Lead with your protagonist. No matter how interesting your world, people won’t care until you give them a person to care about. This is one of the essential paradoxes of science fiction and fantasy: people are attracted to the genre for the setting, but they stay and come back for the characters.
“After two hundred years at war, the Empire of Man has come to a stalemate with the Scourge. Each side is deadlocked, seeking some advantage, and sending teams to scour dead worlds in search of lost tech left behind by the forerunners. Blah blah setup setup infodump….” is not how to start a blurb.

instead, try “Captain James Carter of the Go Lightly is scouring the ruins of dead races in search of any lost technology that could turn the tide of interstellar war. When he contracts the virus that killed an entire race, Command orders him to become a suicide bio-bomber! Will one man’s search for survival put all humanity’s star systems at risk?”

Links to prior blurb clinics:

https://madgeniusclub.com/2016/05/22/blurbs-ad-copy-and-cover-copy/
https://madgeniusclub.com/2016/01/10/blurbs-short-and-sweet/

Blurbs, Ad Copy, and Cover Copy: A blast from the past and present-day Blurb Clinic

First, let’s establish terms, because they’ve gotten muddled. “Blurb” used to mean a pull quote on the cover of a book. “This is the greatest thing since sliced bread! –Famous Author in Same Genre.” Pull quotes are a journalistic device of lifting selective quotations out of an interview, article, or review, and highlighting them to make the article or item being reviewed sound really juicy.

Now, “blurb” has become a term for the Ad Copy, or Cover Copy, which means the one to three paragraphs of “What’s it about?” on the back of the book, on the website under description, and right next to the cover thumbnail on promotional emails.

Sarah tackled this subject, under https://madgeniusclub.com/2016/05/18/going-indie-for-dummies-but-what-is-it-about/. And then she tackled me, and said I had to explain how I do the voodoo that I do so well.

Now, I personally feel that’s about like asking all y’all “how do you write stories?” There are a lot of guidelines, but no hard and fast rules beyond it must be truthful about the contents, and hook the reader’s attention.

Interestingly enough, those of you who have written poetry will be at an advantage here, because you’re familiar with making every syllable, much less every word, count.

Like haiku, there are length constraints. Some promotional emails are very specific about the character limit (letters and spaces) you may use. Other places, like Amazon, will let you ramble on and on, but they cut the “above the fold” that browsers see to only 3-4 lines.

I recommend that you try to keep your blurb to the promotional length, so that you don’t have to come up with a new one for every promotion you want to run. Functionally, this means you’ll want to keep it within 300 characters. This will also force you to write long, then cut it down to something short enough to be exciting, picking and choosing each word for best effect.

Now, what words do you write?
First, We’re going to go to the heart, the core of your story, and break it down.

1.) A Character
2.) wants something
3.) But something opposes them.
4.) The stakes if they fail are: —-

Note: This should all be information the reader will have by Chapter 3.

But, you say, I have three people, and this one wants this, and that one wants that, and this other wants… Yes, true, most stories have more than the protagonist and the antagonist. However, unless you’re doing an epic fantasy, there’s one (or at most two) central protagonists whose actions and choices drive the plot. As Harlan Ellison says: Who does the story hurt? That’s who it’s about.

Epic fantasy breaks this guideline, because it generally has three to five separate viewpoints and storylines, not necessarily going on at the same point in history. Thus, you’ll end up doing a one-sentence-per-storyline to keep it in the limit.

Returning to that list, sometimes you’ll also add:

5.) What is the first plot twist?

And, especially for SF/F stories:

6.) What are the 3-5 most important unique names involved? Use 3 of them.

(This is because people tend to tune out after 3-5 unfamiliar terms. So, if you start with “Xaarath Fthagn of Marakis Prime is a gleeple of the Tuurathi”… you’ve already lost a chunk of readers.)

Finally, the best piece of advice: when you think you have a good piece of ad copy, try reading it out loud, and then saying it like you’re answering the question “What’s it about?” at a party.

You’ll probably find yourself hesitating before words, dropping them, changing phrases, possibly even skipping and combining entire sentences. This is normal and good. Write down the spoken version, and it’ll be smoother on the reading as well as the delivery.

Now, on to examples. Riffing on Sarah’s post, these are all Cinderella variants. I warn you, they’re going to be rather rough, because composing a blurb usually takes me two to three days, and I need to get this done by Saturday night for the post to go up.

Fantasy:

Ella’s sheltered world died with her father, leaving her a refugee on her step-mother’s estates. Now exiled to kitchen servitude to hide the reminder of the unpopular and doomed marriage alliance, she must dodge her increasingly paranoid sisters and parlay old ties with the Fae to win back her rightful place in the palace. Unfortunately, every gift from the Fae comes with a cost, and midnight is coming all too soon…

Science Fiction:

It’s just a temp job, right?

Stranded on Chimera5 among the indentured servants, Ella and her shipmates must cater to the increasingly bizarre demands of the galactic upper class, while seeking a new captain, contracts, and alien allies to find a way back to the stars!

Romance – Science Fiction

Stranded on Chimera5 among the indentured servants, Ella must move among the galactic upper class while avoiding being fined . Getting back to the stars never seemed so far away, until a favor given freely to the local aliens is repayed in the oddest way. In the middle of a ball, Ella’s won not just the prince’s assistance, but his heart.

With freedom in her grasp, she must choose between the stars, or love…

Thriller:

Time is ticking away…

Caught between a malevolent murderer and an enigmatic conspiracy, Ella must find out who killed her father. All signs point toward something happening at the palace ball, and the prince may be the author of the conspiracies – or it’s next victim!

A few notes – if you’re going to have more than four lines of test, break it up into multiple paragraphs. When viewed on a small screen (kindle fire, iPad, phone…), even a normal-looking paragraph becomes a wall-o-text.

Taglines- sure, knock yourself out.

I’m at work today, but I’ll be checking in. What are your blurbs?

(And if you want to read something pretty nifty, Holly Chism has modern gods working together to stop Loki after he lost the last of his sanity! https://www.amazon.com/Godshead-Holly-Chism-ebook/dp/B00AGI1AGY/ )

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Technology, intellect, and the future of reading

A recent article titled “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds” examined the impact of smartphones on the intellectual activities (and abilities) of their users.  I’d like to highlight several excerpts, then discuss what they mean for us as writers – and for our audience and target market.

The smartphone is unique in the annals of personal technology. We keep the gadget within reach more or less around the clock, and we use it in countless ways, consulting its apps and checking its messages and heeding its alerts scores of times a day. The smartphone has become a repository of the self, recording and dispensing the words, sounds and images that define what we think, what we experience and who we are.

. . .

Not only do our phones shape our thoughts in deep and complicated ways, but the effects persist even when we aren’t using the devices. As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens … Dr. Ward and his colleagues wrote that the “integration of smartphones into daily life” appears to cause a “brain drain” that can diminish such vital mental skills as “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity.”

Many people (including myself) read e-books using their smartphones.  That would certainly involve “learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity”, as the article mentions.  However, that’s only one of many things for which we use those devices.  Readers are frequently interrupted by incoming calls or text messages, which demand their attention visually and aurally, and in many cases require a response.  Advertisements flash onto the screen, interrupting one’s concentration.  If one’s relying on services such as navigation (for example, to tell one when to get off the bus or train), they, too, interrupt one’s attention on the book one’s reading.  One’s attention span is attenuated and “ambushed” by multiple outside factors.  Is this one reason for the complaint from some readers, at least, that they don’t seem to be able to get as much out of an e-book as they do out of a “dead tree edition”?

There’s also the reality that smartphones can demand – and be given – a dangerously high proportion of our overall concentration.  Who hasn’t heard of, or witnessed, smartphone users stepping off a pavement into traffic, oblivious to the danger?  How many people have been blithely sending text messages, only to crash into other pedestrians, or stumble over an obstacle and fall down?  Instead of concentrating on the important things – getting safely from point A to point B – we’ve allowed our concentration to be undermined by the sheer convenience of the smartphone, thereby endangering ourselves.  Somewhere, I’m sure Darwin’s laughing at us…

Finally, from our perspective as writers, there’s the impact of such devices on creativity.  How many of us, striving to write our next book, have been distracted by incoming e-mails, or text messages, or phone calls?  It used to be relatively easy to shut the door on the outside world and write.  That’s no longer the case.  The smartphone is portable and ubiquitous;  and even if we leave it outside our “writing space”, there are messaging apps on our computers as well.  It’s very difficult to escape these constant demands on our attention, and their distraction, without making a deliberate effort to do so.  However, if we do, we’re likely to face irate questions from family and friends about why we don’t respond at once, if not sooner, to their communications.

The evidence that our phones can get inside our heads so forcefully is unsettling. It suggests that our thoughts and feelings, far from being sequestered in our skulls, can be skewed by external forces we’re not even aware of.

This highlights a dilemma for writers.  Our audience, our potential market, is vulnerable to that sort of distraction.  Can we write in such a way as to “cut through the noise” and hold their attention?  Should we, rather, be considering ways in which our work can fit into such a crowded, externally influenced environment, and perhaps write accordingly?

It’s been demonstrated that graphic books can teach concepts more quickly than a text-only work, but they also appear to demand less from students (who have grown up in a highly technological environment, and therefore may be more intellectually disposed to such a “lighter” approach).  For example, Shakespeare is being taught using such an approach, with different levels of text to match the intended audience.  On the other hand, graphic novels may also present less of an intellectual challenge – and that may be dangerous in itself.  Research suggests that “intellectual stimulation may directly help maintain a healthy brain“;  but the corollary would suggest that the absence of intellectual stimulation (as in graphic novels versus their text equivalents) might have the opposite effect.

I suggest that the growing popularity of graphic novels (epitomized by the recent stunning crowdfunding success of the Alt*Hero project) shows that such forms of entertainment are here to stay.  Are we – should we be – taking that into account in our own writing?  Is there room for collaboration with graphic artists, to produce such versions of our books, perhaps using simplified language?  Might such versions lead readers to tackle our longer print works in future?  It’s a thought.

… even in the history of captivating media, the smartphone stands out. It is an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what Dr. Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it is part of our surroundings—which it always is. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.

This observation may highlight one reason why our creative processes seem to become more difficult.  We used to be able to research a topic fairly simply (e.g. the use of poison in murders), and then apply it to our book’s plot.  Nowadays, instead of reading a book on the subject, we’ll do an Internet search on it.  That will lead to links, which lead to further links, which take us off down a side track to pursue an interesting concept that may (or may not) have anything to do with our original premise.  Before you know it, our “research” has developed into what’s become known as a “Wikiwander“.  We’ve poured hours down a rat-hole without producing any worthwhile “return on our investment” of time.  The smartphone is iconic of this process of distraction, and our computers aren’t much better.

The same can apply to our readers.  I recently decided to observe my own reactions to new concepts while reading a new-to-me fantasy series (Miles Cameron’s excellent Traitor Son cycle, which I highly recommend;  its fifth and last book, “The Fall of Dragons“, will be published at the end of this month).  He uses many concepts that are rooted in and grounded on history (e.g. early Byzantium, medieval England and France, hermetical theory and theology, etc.), which he’s adapted to the world he’s created for his books.  I found myself growing frustrated if I didn’t (or couldn’t) stop reading when I came across elements of those concepts with which I wasn’t familiar.  I was almost driven to open a Web browser to look up the word or subject involved, and learn more about it before resuming my reading.  My mind’s become conditioned to the ability to do that – something that would not have been a factor even twenty years ago, when I could read an entire multi-volume work like this without once feeling the need to digress into research or fact-checking.

The problem is, the ability to do that may actually be interfering with our ability to comprehend what we’re readingThe article points out:

As strange as it might seem, people’s knowledge and understanding may actually dwindle as gadgets grant them easier access to online data stores … Now that our phones have made it so easy to gather information online, our brains are likely offloading even more of the work of remembering to technology. If the only thing at stake were memories of trivial facts, that might not matter. But, as the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, “the art of remembering is the art of thinking.” Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking. No matter how much information swirls around us, the less well-stocked our memory, the less we have to think with.

Speaking as an author, this makes me think.  Do I need to incorporate enough background information into my books to make it unnecessary for my readers to leave my book, look up something for themselves, then return to read further?  That can be dangerous;  the dreaded “infodump” lurks in the wings!  (That’s not to say that infodumps can’t be done well;  check out these examples, and this handy column on how to write them.)  On the other hand, if I write so esoterically and/or impenetrably that my readers can’t figure out what I’m saying or where I’m going, they soon won’t be my readers any more!

The article raises this question.  Do we need to – should we – take into account the platforms on which our readers will access our books, when we write them?  Should we try to adapt the way we write, so that our work is more suited to a high-interruption-level, distracted sort of reading?  Or should we try to write so absorbingly that our readers will resent interruptions and do their best to “stay with us”, even at the expense of ignoring other demands on their time or attention?  Is that even feasible in our technological age?

I look forward to your responses in Comments.

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Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

The long-running social media hiatus continues with another repost – the second part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – and yes, I do read the comments, I just don’t stay online long enough to answer them all. Or any of them, some weeks. Y’all do a lovely job of carrying on the conversation without me, though, so I’m not fussing.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

So, you’ve got the typical pantser problem of a neat scenario that’s grabbed you and won’t let go. How do you know when to start writing it and commit to a story?

I’m going to get really authoritative here and say “it depends”. Really, it does. I’ve started stories with nothing more than the scenario and had them build to a finish. I’ve had others I couldn’t start until I’d worked out how it ended. I’ve also had – not so often – cases where the starting scenario isn’t where the book actually starts, but I’ve got to write the bloody thing to work this out. On occasion, I have to know exactly where it starts before I can write it. This is one of those things that you learn by judgment, and by trial and error.

Yes, that does mean that the more extreme the pantser the more likely there’ll be a large collection of false starts, whether story ideas that didn’t have the pull they needed or weren’t quite right in some other, hard to define way, or ideas that simply weren’t big enough to sustain a book. Don’t throw them out. If your subconscious works anything like mine, unresolved story ideas will hang around like last week’s chili until you figure out where they belong and resolve them. That or they were never really “alive” in the first place.

Most of the pantsers I know operate on a principle of “Start story. Continue until the end.” It’s pretty typical for a pantser not to be able to write out of sequence, simply because if you can’t do the detailed outlining (or the detailed outlining ends up bearing no resemblance to your finished story) there’s no way the ‘good bit’ halfway through is going to end up being the same as what you thought it would be at the beginning – if you even know what that good bit is.

Given all of this, my advice to all you pantsers out there is to get something down as soon as you think there’s enough to carry it. It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be there. What nailing something down early does is give you a feel for how the piece is going to evolve on you, and this being a primarily subconscious exercise that’s rather important.

While you’re playing with the idea, listen to a lot of different music. I’ve found that certain music acts to ‘set’ my subconscious for writing a piece. I’d also recommend prayer, if you’re the praying sort. I haven’t had this happen to me – yet – but I know people who’ve found themselves stuck with endlessly looping Abba’s Greatest Hits to write something. I gather this gives the conscious mind a pretty powerful incentive to get the thing finished, too. At any rate, the broader your listening, the more likely you’ll find something that works for your story.

For most pantsers I know (and if you’re an exception to this, feel free to ignore it), I’ve found the best way to start is to park butt in chair and start where you think it starts. Sometimes it will take off and you’ve written several chapters without realizing the passage of time. Other times you’ll need more before you can get moving. In either case, you’ve started. No amount of playing with an idea can reify it the way writing it down does.

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It’s Fantastic

Continuing the discussion of genre structure, to which I think we need to add “genre cookies” ie. things that people who read the genre a lot expect, almost as a reward, and are very happy when they find, today we take on fantasy.

Taking on fantasy is frankly like the tiny hero standing before the arrayed army of supernatural creatures going, “Come on all together or single file.  I’ll feed you your own hooves and chew you with your own teeth.”

You see fantasy — perhaps appropriately — contains multitudes, and I’m sure just in enumerating its various branches here, I’ll forget half of them.

We’ve come a long way since, as a young writer, I snorted at Orson Scott Card’s definition of “if it has trees it’s fantasy, if it has machines, it’s science fiction.”

Even then he wasn’t precisely right, nor did he claim to be.  He simply said that’s how New York editors viewed it, and hey, even as a beginner I knew those critters were silly enough for anything.

So what is fantasy?

Fantasy is something that is not, cannot be and will never be true, but which is used as a narrative device.

The gentleman at the back who said “FLT” can take his books and go to bed without dinner.  That’s an “impossible” of a different kind.  Sure, FTL is impossible, but we’re a cunning monkey, and maybe we find a way to sidle up to physics sideways and kosh it.  We’ve been doing the impossible of that sort all along.

Now, if your character uses his FTL drive to go somewhere and there meets fairies elves and gnomes, it’s open for discussion.  Both Simak and Bradbury got away with this as science fiction, but if you’re not one of them, I wouldn’t try.

We’ll dispose upfront of the curious hybrid: science fiction/fantasy.  This is where space societies have elves and magic.  Shrug.  Look, whatever presses your big red button, okay, but it don’t do nothing for me.  Yes, before you ask, I WAS one of those kids who didn’t like her food touching her other food.  Never said I was sane.

Leaving that aside, we still have a spectrum that goes from something you have to squint to not see as romance to something that is or could be science fiction, given the right amount of squinting.

So, I’m going to list them all below, and you guys feel free to pitch in some sub genres I might have forgotten.

Paranormal Romance – There is great argument over whether this is fantasy or romance. It often seems to involve romance that starts from magical something (attraction, fore-ordaining, that sort of thing) and which therefore can’t be fought by the rational mind.

Urban Fantasy – There’s a big bad out there, and he’s hot.  The many illegitimate children of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can shade into paranormal or can be an alluring hybrid of romance, fantasy, horror and a dash of noir.

Traditional/Tolkien fantasy – Anyone who’s ever conducted a campaign in RPG knows this.  Elves, gnomes, gnolls and trolls oh my.

It has sub genres: quest, as done by Tolkien himself (to an extent.)

Heroic, where you have the big picture of kingdom against kingdom etc.

It has sub branches and I, myself, might or might not have a handwritten trilogy taking place in a pre-Micenian society.  No trolls, gnolls, elves or whatever, but a lot of demi-gods, magic, and something supernatural and undefined.  The feel though is Tolkienesque and traditional heroic fantasy ALL the way.

Then there’s “almost real world fantasy”: “It’s almost the real world, but there are dragons.  Or elves.  Or…”  Before you say Urban Fantasy…. not precisely because Urban fantasy has a very precise structure and things like Tea With The Black Dragon don’t follow it.

Then there’s almost-real-world but historical and often in exotic societies.

And then, touching science fiction, there’s alternate history fantasy which is “there was magic at some point” and it has changed our world this way.  Again, a background that often appears in urban fantasy but there the consequences aren’t often worked through very carefully or logically.

On a sub branch we have “paranormal mysteries” which are a form of fantasy, and in which the ghost/demon/whatever can actually be the criminal, the investigator or the investigator’s best buddy.

20 years ago mystery bookstores said these were fantasy and refused to touch them with a ten foot pole, but I’m seeing more and more of it both on the shelves and on Amazon, both from indie and trad.  As a reader I don’t even mind, provided the supernatural element plays fair and it isn’t stupidly written.  If the solution is all “it was the demons” which we didn’t know existed till three pages earlier, your book will most seriously be walled.

Okay, that’s what I can think of off the top of my head.  Feel free to throw suggestions.

 

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