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Posts tagged ‘plot’

File? What File?

Oh, this file? Well, where did that come from? And this beloved franchise, adored by millions if lately come a bit low? I was, uh, just cleaning it up. Giving it a bit of polish! Yeah, that’s it. Making it look pretty! Well, by pretty, I mean blowing dust into the corners and giving it a creative coat of grime. Making it look even more well-used and loved. Read more

What is a good book?

That seems to be the question everyone thinks they have the answer to. The truth, however, is that there is no one “correct” definition. A good book truly is in the eye of the beholder. Just as there is no one correct way to write (the process of writing), there is no one correct definition for what a good book happens to be. Most of us understand that. Unfortunately, there are those (representing multiple sides of the spectrum) who believe they have the one true answer. The trouble with this is it leaves readers out of the equation and that is something we, as writers, cannot do.

Let me start by saying this is not going to turn into a debate about the Hugos. As far as I’m concerned, that is a moot point. Even though the Hugos are supposed to be a fan award, it has been made clear by some that they don’t want the every day fan included. They are trying their best to exclude anyone whose work — and maybe whose vote — doesn’t meet some arbitrary criteria of “good”. The fact there was even a proposal before the business meeting to allow the Hugo Committee to add nominees to the list if they felt there weren’t enough quality nominations proves that. Such an act smacks of telling fans they aren’t good enough or sophisticated enough to know what a good book is. My only question to the Hugo Committee and those who have continued to try to keep voters away from the process is why they don’t just amend the rules and make the Hugo a juried award? That way they can do whatever they want with the award without having to deal with the unwashed masses of readers who still foolishly think their opinion might matter.

Okay, I had to go there. Sorry. But that is all I’m going to say about the Hugos.

So what does make a good book? As I said in the first paragraph, there is no absolutely correct answer. Some readers want character driven stories. Others want plot driven. Some want literary works while others want pulp. Some want lots of sex and others want no sex, no matter what the genre. Once, all these diverse likes and dislikes meant all an author could do was trust his agent and publisher to accurately predict what the reading public would buy.

But now, with indie going strong (despite what a certain person who has received a government grant to write a book and has yet to do so), we aren’t as limited as we once were. We can write what we believe is a good book and leave it to the public to let us know if they liked it or not. What a lot of us are finding is that the books we couldn’t get past the front door of an agency now sell quite well as an indie publication. We can write the stories we want to and, as long as we pay attention to our reviews and what our fans say on social media and via email, we can build a career. Yes, there are benefits to traditional publishing but those benefits are lessening with the passage of time.

So, what is a good book?

It is a book that readers want to read. As a writer, it means knowing your target audience and hitting the cues they want. It means hooking the reader quickly and keeping them interested. It means giving them a story they want to talk about to their friends and family. It means entertaining and if you happen to educate a little along the way, more power to you.

What it doesn’t mean is preaching to your audience to the point they lose interest in the story. A skilled storyteller is a craftsman who can intertwine story and character and lesson all in one without beating the reader over the head with the message. I don’t know about you, but I will think about the message a lot more if it is subtle than I will if it is in my face.

I’ve done a great deal of reading the last few weeks. Between being ill and having to deal with repairmen, etc., around the house, I’ve not had the quiet I needed to write. So I read. I read traditionally published books and indie books. What I discovered was I enjoyed more indie books than I did the traditionally published books. Why? I could feel the passion of the indie writers in their work, a passion I did not feel in the traditionally published books. It was as if the indie authors liked what they were writing where the traditionally published authors — and these were best sellers in multiple genres — were just going through the motions. The best sellers had found a formula that worked to make them best sellers and they weren’t about to step away from the formula while the indies weren’t afraid to take chances and try new things.

Something else that struck me as I read was the lie we see so often that indie published books have more errors and need more editing than traditionally published books. I went back last night and looked at several examples of both just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. The proofreading errors between the two sets was just about even. So no, indie books did not seem to need more proofing than traditionally published books.

Something that did strike me was something I had noticed much earlier. More traditionally published books had many more formatting errors than the indie published books did. Weird paragraph breaks. No paragraph indents. Blank screens. Lack of spacing between the chapter title and the first line of text. I saw many more of those sorts of errors with traditionally published e-books than I did with indie books. Why? My only guess is that the trads don’t use the proper programs to convert to digital and then they don’t do quality checks.

And, while formatting isn’t exactly what most of us think about when we think about what makes up a good book, for an e-book reader, it is something writers and publishers should always keep in mind. If the e-book doesn’t look like a printed book, we register it. If we see an e-book where a publisher or author hasn’t taken time to make sure it “looks” right, we wonder why. That is especially true in the case of traditionally published e-books that cost as much, if not more, than their print equivalents.

So, what makes a good book in my opinion? One that keeps my attention. Fiction needs to entertain me and make me want to flip the page. I like learning something when I read but I don’t want to be preached to. Be subtle when you weave the message in. Make your characters believable. Don’t break your characters or change their personalities without having a darned good reason for it and be sure to foreshadow it. Don’t throw something in just because you think you have to — no matter what that something is. If you think it needs to be there, make sure the plot or character development require it.

There are times I want to read something that is literary. I want to see a world painted with words. There are other times I want to fly to the furthest reaches of the universe. Thrill me. Scare me. Give me warm fuzzies. Fiction for me, like it is for most readers, entertainment. Never forget that. As I said early on, remember your target audience and remember what they expect from the genre. Push the boundaries, yes, but not to the point you break them without explanation.

So, what makes a good book for you?

Don’t cry for me, onion cleaner…

 

It’s all a fiendish plot, devised, needless to say, by fiends, who were just being fiendly…

Last week I got asked about how I plotted, and, particularly, how I arrived at an emotional climax at the finale.

Which, um, is a lot more difficult than it seems, and is almost certainly not something there is a universal recipe for. Trust me on this, if there was, people would use it for a lot more than writing stories. There is no ‘right way’ and writers achieve success in what seems like a different method for every person. I can only tell you what I do. That’s neither prescriptive nor ‘right’. It just works for me – and when I explain, I’m sure many of you will take a long look at my books and say: ‘That’s so obvious now. Why didn’t I see it before? (which is rather how the best mysteries work – the clues are there, throughout.)

I’m fairly well known for tight, rather Byzantine plotting, which all fits together to give an almost inescapable, but often less-than-obvious ending (until afterwards when you say: ‘that’s so obvious and natural, why didn’t I see it before?’ (and yes, I consciously imitate the technique of the great detective plotters like Agatha Christie.) To explain my process, and how that happens naturally as a result of that… the climactic end is where I START. So the answer is I don’t engineer that emotional climax… I have that.

What I do, effectively, is to work backwards, to build the elements that will give me that climax – usually both of action and emotion. For me the trick comes in making that unexpected BUT eminently logical and plausible. So I have my climax, and then work out the obvious (if they exist) ways of reaching that point and either work at it from one two angles – either making those obvious ways SEEM impossible and then building in the key factors to make them possible and plausible and preferably inevitable at the denouement, or making those impossible, and finding a more ingenious way around the problem. As I like my heroes to heroes of heart and thought, rather merely thews, well, I prefer the latter. It does however always involve subtle foreshadowing. As I’ve said before, many of my stories come out of someone saying ‘that’s impossible’. That’s one of the things about the position of the author – nothing is impossible – you can change the characters, the world and circumstances until it is not just possible but has to be that way. That is why co-incidence is for the lazy writer, or that implausible stuff, real life.

When it comes down to actual construction – I have my finale, I have how that happens, and the emotional pay-off and prices. I then need to make the structure that gets me there. For me the end is woven in, right from the beginning (which is why some so called ‘structural editors’ are a waste of breath let alone time. They edit as they go – without seeing the end – and wreck foreshadowing, and foundational build).

To get there: I tend to break the story down into scenes, each of which builds on the overall story and fills in crucial parts of that foreshadowing – both of the development of the characters and the story-line. The character would not do that later, had he or she not experienced that earlier. Thus their actions flow logically, and the pieces necessary to build the conclusion are consequences that you build in. Each scene in itself is a small finale, which I then work back.

Look, this is a complex method, which involves carrying a lot of story in your head at once. It’s not for everyone, and there are many great books written by ‘pantsers’ – who plot as the characters lead them, and have no idea where or what the end will be. Some of them produce better plots than I do. The one advantage that I have is that it is easier for me to weave meta-threads subtly into books. This is true too with little details I feel add something to the book – books literally starting in the evening (or winter) and heading into darker and darker scenes… and then emerging into dawn (or spring) is something I have consciously done.

Now it is fair to say, that the story does not always follow the prescription when I finally come to write it. Characters change and grow as I get to know them. Sometimes I need to go back to my plot. Sometimes I just let it carry me.

So: that is how I do it. What works for you? Had any of you worked it out? It’s rather obvious and logical now, isn’t it?

On another topic: Australia has a small sf/fantasy writing and publishing arena of its own. Of course it overshadowed and influenced by the bigger brother (UK – with whom Australia has always had a slightly uneasy ‘Commonwealth’ publishing commonality, where the UK expected to get a lot and not give much) and the biggest brother the US. There’s a little unhealthy (to my mind) imitation of the worse aspects of the wider traditional publishing world, and a little ‘oh Europe/the US is so much older/bigger and better’ trend following, but many Aussies still retain a welcome independence, and pride in their own. They do a ‘snapshot’ of local authors, for which I was interviewed. You can find the interview here (from my interviewer, who is a freelance editor and proof-reader – you may want to have a look to see if you’re interested) or for more of them here . As all of us depend on word of mouth for promotion, if you like anything – please share on facebook and twitter.  It’s how we grow.

Madness behind the method

Those of you who’d rather not go on another exotic tour into the weirdness that is Kate’s mind can stop reading now.

For everyone else, I have yet another something bubbling, for which I know exactly what to blame: Overlord. I’ve been playing the game obsessively as a stress-release method (my day job is… well, there’s no polite way to describe it. Even the more colorful terminology fails to capture the madness), so much so that every time I close my eyes I see glowing eyes and minions with their cute-evil grins.

“Sheepies?”

Um. Oops. They like sheep. They think killing sheep is a great sport. Of course they think killing anything is fun, but then, they’re evil minions, so what would you expect? Anyway, during the week I’ve been doing minion farming (“Sheepies!”), which consists of – yes, sheepies – killing stuff to gather life force so I can summon more minions and then summoning minions into my armor (long, complicated story. Short-short, you summon minions and boost your armor by getting them to jump into the forge).

Except that somewhere in the back of my head is a story bubbling away, involving a Dark Lord (Overlord is probably a tad too close to the game title for comfort. Dark Lord is a bit more generic) who is actually the previous Dark Lord’s daughter (no, she’s not the Beautiful Daughter. She looks too much like Daddy for that), and wants to reconquer Daddy’s territory because the goblins and the orcs and the trolls need somewhere to live, and those snooty elves are just impossible and….

Well. The problem with this is ConVent needs final edits soon, ConSensual will need edits, I’m trying to finish a longish short story in the ConVent universe, and meanwhile Vlad is getting very impatient about having to wait so long for me to start on Kaziklu Bey (the sequel to Impaler). I don’t blame him for that, but… Writing from inside Vlad’s head becomes all-absorbing, and I really don’t need to be channeling him right now. I also start thinking fond thoughts of impaling the next programmer to send me something with a stupid bug (I’m quite understanding about the kind of bugs that aren’t in-your-face obvious, but when I open something and get an access violation I’m not a happy software tester), and that’s just not socially acceptable.

Just in case anyone is thinking of a fitting for those nice beige jackets with the oversized sleeves, I do know what’s the real world and what’s from the world in my head. The real world is the one where the bits of me that don’t hurt, don’t work. The other ones are all my imagination, which – like most writers – is rather too vivid to be entirely comfortable sometimes. (Who am I kidding? I like it that way. It’s fun. What I don’t like is when real life gets in the way of writing all the good stuff down).

So. Ms Dark Lord shows up in my head sneaking through occupied territory with a band of goblin, orc, and troll families (don’t ask about troll babies. PLEASE don’t ask) while bitching to herself about snooty elves, and heroes who think the world revolves around their… uh… swords. And mostly trying not to think too much about Daddy because she really doesn’t need to start crying right now, and she knows Daddy’s dead because he blew up the tower with himself inside.  And the babies are sniffling and will need to get changed soon or the elves will smell them from a mile away – upwind – and the trolls are getting hungry and you don’t get between a hungry troll and food or you’ll BE food, and…

This is what passes for a plot for me, at least in the early stages. A character, usually with a little more flesh than the archetype he/she/it got based on, a situation that’s pretty dire, and a vague idea of where it’s going to finish and roughly the direction it’s going. Ms Dark Lord will end up reconquering Daddy’s former territory and becoming the next Dark Lord. How, and possibly conquering everything else as well. How she does it is something I don’t know yet. If she doesn’t get noisy enough, I might never know, and this will be all there is. It’s a bit like pointing at the distant mountain and saying “We’re going there”, with no real idea of what’s between you and the mountain, much less how to climb the blasted thing.

No doubt there will be metaphorical quicksand along the way. And cackling. Goblins cackle. A lot.

Meanwhile, I’m back to the joys of the real world battling unstable software – and that’s a fight you can’t win.

 

The Writer’s Toolbox: Plots and plants

Contrary to a rather popular belief, plots are not simply what happens in a story. Confused? Think of reality TV. That has no plot – stuff happens for the set time period, then the show finishes. So while stuff happening is necessary to plot, it’s not sufficient. I’m not claiming any guru-ness here, so if anyone can offer more or better information than I’ve got, feel free to speak up.

At any rate, I’ve identified these major components to plot: People, places, motives, actions, and pace. I consider them essentials because if you take any one of them away, you don’t have a plot any more. What’s more, none of them can be switched out for a different set without significantly changing the plot.

Here’s the way I look at it. Your people are your characters, major or minor, good, evil or somewhere in between. If by some chance you have no characters, you also have no plot unless you anthropomorphized part of the scenery, in which case it is a character. If you genuinely don’t have any characters, you’re writing for a suckitudinous fiction prize and don’t need a plot. For the vast majority of the rest of us, there are people, whether they’re human-shaped, dog-shaped, alien-shaped, or something even stranger.

As for place, well, the floating voices in undefined space effect is just so passe these days, and besides, as I mentioned a few weeks back, place has a profound impact on character. It also, not coincidentally, has a big effect on actions and pace. Harry Potter would not be the same story if it was set anywhere other than a magical version of the quintessential English boarding school. None of Pterry’s Discworld novels would work anywhere but the Disc. And so forth. Without a sense of place, a story won’t feel grounded, making it weaker – one of the reasons I spent hours researching Wallachia, Bulgaria and Turkey to get the feel of place for Impaler as close to right as I could without walking the whole thing myself (not that I’d mind doing that, but there’s little issue with budget, namely I haven’t got one).

Motives are what drive your plot. If no-one wants anything, there’s no reason to do anything so there’s no plot. Even talent shows have a plot of sorts: everyone there wants to win, and only one of them can. Your main characters need to want something enough to turn their own worlds inside out in order to get it. Along the way, they’ll have more immediate but less major needs and desires: which is where we as authors get to make their lives miserable by denying them their needs and making them chase that big motive while half-dead, or in extreme cases all-dead and too stubborn to let go.

Actions rise from character, motive and place – the person, motive and place determine the best action (or what looks like it – part of our job as authors is to make sure the action that looks best is going to turn around and bite the person). After all, if you desperately want to be a cross-country skiing champion, what you do to become one is going to be totally different if you live in Switzerland than if you live in Jamaica. It will be a lot easier from Switzerland than from Jamaica, too, and unless you’re aiming for suckitudinous infamy, a more difficult big motive leads to more actions and riskier actions – which makes the story more interesting. The higher the stakes, the better the plot, as a rule. Playing dice with the Devil for a few pennies isn’t nearly as interesting as playing for your soul (and losing. Then you’ve got to defeat the Devil on his home turf. See what I mean?).

Pace is the last piece of the plot puzzle. The simplest way to look at pace is how fast things happen, but it’s more than that – pace measures how fast things feel. As a general rule, the more intense the emotions around a sequence of events, the faster it will feel, even if almost nothing happens. I don’t recommend loading seven hundred pages with intense emotion while advancing an epic plot all of three days and ten miles, though. As will all things, moderation is good. Pace should not stay the same through a book – there’s a natural rhythm a story follows that has several peaks and quite a few slower sections that let readers and characters catch their breath. The early L. K. Hamilton books are brilliant examples of pacing – she has it down almost to the page: to the extent that you could look at how much book was left and figure you had maybe a chapter before all hell broke loose (given the plot, often literally).

Of course, you can’t deal with all of these in isolation: they work together and if done well enhance each other. When they’re done very well, you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it. In my case, I don’t notice anything until the book’s been finished, it’s several hours later, I’ve got starving cats, I haven’t eaten and it’s way past when I should have been in bed. I may be a tad on the extreme side.

So that’s the quickie overview of plot, the super-simple version. Typically, most writers will be good at one or two of the elements and weaker with the others – it really does help to identify which aspects of plotting you need to improve and get help from someone who’s good at it. It helps even more if the person who mentors you had to work at it themselves: when something comes easy it’s a lot harder to teach because the nuts and bolts are buried in the subconscious and it will “just happen”.