I’m not a fan of identity politics. I won’t play that game. When I’m asked to submit work as a ‘woman writer’ I’m more likely to walk away silently. Either I’m a writer, or not. The fact that I’m female has absolutely nothing to do with it, and I refuse to be given a stepstool that metaphorically lifts me up to the level of other, male, writers. No. Which, I imagine, is how some of my friends who are being identified as ‘minorities’ feel about being identified as such coupled with their writing. But I’ve spent enough time hanging out with Sarah Hoyt (who does not consider herself Hispanic, the American government does) and Larry Corriea to know that they have rolled their eyes and made a joke out of it. So it didn’t surprise me when Jason Cordova brought it up, gently mocking himself as the second-best Hispanic author in SFF, that both Sarah and Jason would egg me on to create a list. It’s what I do, after all, I make lists. When I’m not being all womanish, that is. Read more
Posts tagged ‘Story telling’
I said last week and Sarah said the other day that stories and how they work are central to who we are. In a lot of ways, the stories we tell each other and ourselves are our culture. They’re how culture was transmitted until very recently, and how an awful lot of culture is still transmitted.
The stories a person believes and internalizes are a huge part of who that person is.
If you’re raised on stories of hard work and doing the right thing leading to rewards, you’re going to feel cheated when your hard work doesn’t get you anywhere (sound familiar? It sure does to me). If you’re told all your life how special and wonderful you are, you’ll expect everything to land in your lap. More than that, if you’re raised on special and wonderful people having everyone recognize their specialness and getting what they want, you’ll expect that for yourself.
Here’s the thing: while our conscious mind can distinguish between fact and fiction, our subconscious doesn’t have that filter. It’s the ultimate in GIGO (for the bemused, that’s “Garbage in, garbage out”). That means our subconscious treats the stories as real – and adjusts reactions accordingly (this, incidentally, is the reason why well-crafted visualization and well-designed positive affirmations work. The loudest, most persistent message getting down there is the one that gets latched onto – and no, this does not mean we should be going headlong into every new age woo we can latch onto. That’s its own argument… but more later).
So, your story-diet affects who you are. This is reason enough to pity those poor sods fed a neverending stream of gray goo. Sooner or later, without something to contradict the goo, they’re going to wind up believing that nothing they can do matters, so why bother?
All of this goes back to how tuned we are to stories. My view is that stories are uber-patterns in the form of “this made that happen” strung together ad infinitum. We’re all in possession of finely-tuned pattern-recognition engines (otherwise known as brains), and the “this made that happen” pattern is one that has particular strength because of the possible consequences when the “this” is a lion and the “that” is a rustle of grass a few feet in front of us. We’re all descended from the people who were best at recognizing that pattern and running like hell. Or possibly, fighting off the lion with a sharpened stick. But the relatives of our distant ancestors who weren’t too good at recognizing that kind of pattern didn’t have children because they were too busy being lion chow (this, for those who wonder, is why evolution looks as though it fits living things to some kind of purpose. We’re good at it because our ancestors were better at it than our non-ancestors).
So our causal pattern (“this made that happen”) is the core of stories. When you look at mythology, you see attempts to work out what made some aspect of the environment happen – the Just So stories. Later myth gets into motivations, which are a kind of inner “this made that happen”, where the “this” is an emotion or a desire rather than an observable, physical thing. Some of the oldest art in the world tells stories – the cave paintings in various places, the rock art in Australia… it fits forms that allow it to tell stories of successful hunts, or myths, or in Australia, the first encounters between Australia’s aboriginal peoples and European visitors (yes, there is rock art showing this). Stories are also told through dance – again, using forms that are commonly understood by the dancers and their usual audience. Everything from Australian native dance forms to modern ballet tell stories. I know some of the ballet “storytelling” forms from long-ago ballet lessons (I stank at it, but some things stick in the memory) – there are standard gestures used to indicate the most commonly depicted emotions. Song is another storytelling art: ballads typically tell a story via a series of verses, with or without a chorus. Then (and I hesitate to mention this, given what happens when I get started) there are limericks – 5 line stories in a snappy verse form that’s a whole lot more difficult to do well than it looks (all right, all right. Go look at the comment thread here. I don’t know how this degenerated to a dirty limerick contest, but dirty limericks are something I do well. I know hundreds of them, and can make more easily. Yes, I also have a truly astounding repertoire of feeelthy jokes, including what may be the only joke in the universe that justifiably uses the word “c**t” and manages to be somewhat funny as well).
So, we’re tuned to stories and our view of the world and experiences are affected by the stories we hear, read, see, and generate. So where does that leave us as writers?
Tune in next week to find out.
Oh, and don’t forget to stop by on Saturday, when there will be a contest and a chance at Free Stuff.
by Kate Paulk
Not that I’m in the least opinionated, but I think that putting pieces together into the whole is one of the writer’s tools that needs a lot more focus. Why? Well, even though a book can stand, and even succeed, with a major weakness somewhere, unless the author does something about that weakness as they continue to write, sooner or later they’re going to fall into one of many traps in mixing those compelling characters, fiendish plots and wonderful worldbuilding into a coherent story.
I do mean many traps, too. I’m not going to be able to hit anything like all of them, but I can manage a list of some of the most common.
Very Nice, But What is it About?
Here the author doesn’t actually know what – or who – their story is about. The result can still work with good enough characters, but it tends to end up floundering in pages of aimlessness before meandering to something more or less resolution-ish. Or worse, the author has given off signals that it’s Freddy’s story, when it actually ends up being Sally’s story (this can happen when you’re writing it. That’s one of the things revision is for – so you can refocus the story properly).
Now, before you tell me this is a group novel, that doesn’t matter. There will still be one character to whom this story belongs. He, she, or it doesn’t even have to have the bulk of the page space. It’s still that character’s story. Possibly the best known example would be from the movies – the Star Wars movies are really about Darth Vader’s fall and redemption. And from Tolkein, Lord of the Rings is Frodo’s story. Everything else pales beside his journey into inner and outer darkness and his ultimate redemption.
Group books usually work one of two ways – either the focus character shifts between members of the group (Sarah’s Musketeer Mysteries do this very well), or all the books in the series have the same focus character and the entire epic deals with that person’s story.
The Epic With Everything and the Kitchen Sink
This can happen with a bad case of not know what it’s all about, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. In this case, the author seems to have gone on a mad spree through TV Tropes and tried to shoe-horn as much of it as they can into a single book. It seems to be a phase – most authors I know have one of these buried in a closet somewhere. If you get to know them well enough, they may, shamefacedly admit to its existence.
My example here is from my own personal hall of shame. My Epic With Everything is about 160k words, written when I was in my uber-stripped-down phase (which happened because I had to do something to cure myself of adverbial froth) so there’s almost no description, next to nothing in the way of transitions, and at least three different co-occurring novels all wrapped in one tangled mess of a plot.
And I do mean tangled. There are two Lost Princesses, one unknowing, the other one out for revenge against the family she thinks tried to kill her. One Tomboy Princess. One Fluffy Princess (who is singlehandedly maintaining an entire lace and pink dye industry and has yards and yards of pink lace on everything. Oh, and she’s got about as much gravitas as your average soap bubble). There’s the Noble Prince who’s been force-fed honor and duty so thoroughly he can’t not be sickeningly rot-your-teeth honorable even when he hates it, and his womanizing, boozing younger brother. Two Evil Wizards (although one is mainly by proxy), a Mad Prince and an Abused Prince (brothers, of course), the Sleeping King (he wakes up), and yes, even a love potion. That’s just the character tropes. Plot tropes include, well… most of the fantasy standards, just somewhat… twisted. Fortunately for the alleged sanity of all concerned the whole thing doesn’t take itself seriously, so it’s actually kind of readable. Maybe one day I’ll work out how to tease all the intertwined plots apart and turn them into multiple related novels. I’m not that good at it yet.
Does this sound a bit too much like something you’re writing? If so, it’s time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and figure out what the darn thing should be about, then pull everything else out of it. It might work better that way.
WTF Was That?
This is another focus and direction problem – instead of a plot twist, it’s a bolt from the blue that leaves readers scratching their heads and going “huh?” (or words to that effect). The sin here is failing to foreshadow the twist. Trust me, you don’t want to surprise your readers that much. It’s not nice. Readers (and I speak as a reader here) like to feel that they’ve figured it out, so it’s totally unfair to throw in something you gave not so much a hint about anywhere earlier.
Once it was acceptable to have the Gods descend from On High and sort everything out. In plays, that was often done by complicated mechanical contrivances (hence Deus ex Machina – the God of the Machine). These days, no. People want there to be reasons why something hit the character like a thunderbolt, and they prefer the reason not to be that Mr Deus Ex finally got the aim right.
In short, if it’s utterly crucial that your ending involve your characters being completely shocked by divine intervention, you need to establish early on – and mention during the piece – that divine intervention happens, and it’s very rare indeed, possibly with a side note that those it’s happened to tend to end up very dead or saints – or both – so it’s not precisely a desirable thing either.
For a good example on how to shock your characters while seeding enough information that your readers don’t go “huh?”, read anything of Dave’s, or Sarah’s DarkShip Thieves. In both cases all the information that’s needed to work out what’s actually going on is there, but the characters are unable to piece it together for perfectly understandable reasons.
Honestly, those three are probably the most common flaws of putting everything together, but there are any number of others – and yes, putting all the pieces together into a story and making it all fit and seem to be a coherent whole is something that improves with practice. If I ever start to doubt, I go back to any of my early pieces and then look at Impaler.
Or I reread The Color of Magic then my most recent Pratchett. Yep. It’s a writing tool and belongs in the box all right.
I’m on the home stretch now, cleaning up book three ready to send to the publisher. Yesterday I was working on a scene when I realised I needed to add a new scene near the beginning to foreshadow an event and build tension. I’m a pantser. I have an idea where I’m going and a feel for what I want to say, then I go on a journey with the characters discovering the story as it unfolds.
I’m not alone in this. In an interview with Joe Abercrombie, George RR Martin said: ‘There are two types of writers – the gardeners and the architects. The architect plans the entire house before he drives a nail; he draws up blueprints, he knows how deep the basement is going to be dug and how many rooms there are going to be, where the plumbing is going to be. And then there are the gardeners who dig a hole, plant a seed and water it with their blood, and then they see what comes up, and they kind of shape it. I’m much more of a gardener. ‘ To see the full interview go here.
I don’t know if I could write any other way. It is a leap of faith, but I trust my Inner Editor to let me know when something isn’t working. And, after I’ve mowed the yard or cleaned the kitchen, the answer will come to me. I’ll know what’s needed to pull the story together.
For many years now, I haven’t been able to read books without seeing the writing craft that went into it, just as I can’t watch movies without seeing the art direction, the camera angles, the characterisation and plotting. When I do discover a book or a movie that makes me forget the craft because the story sweeps me away, then I consider myself really lucky. (And of course I have to watch/read it again to discover the hidden craft).
I’m beginning to think there is such a thing as the ‘story gene’. Sure you can learn all the writing or movie making craft, but some people just have the ability to tell a good story. Do you think there is an innate aspect to writing?
And just for fun – here’s a look at people and their on-line avatars.