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Posts tagged ‘technique’

Put The Stuff on the Page

(This is a blast from the not to distant past. Sarah is away from her keyboard and asked me to cover for her. Being lazy resourceful, I thought the best thing to do was find one of her earlier posts and, well, post it. Since this is a problem I have at times and see quite a bit in new writers, I felt this fit the bill perfectly–ASG)

When I was a young writer, I wrote a rape scene.  It was full of pathos and horror.  It made me cringe and cry. I thought I might be too graphic.

Then my reader — yes, that’s right, at the time I only had one — aka my husband read it.  “Why is she so upset because the guy came into her room?” Read more

Why is there so much Gray Goo?

It’s pretty much a given that we Human Wavers (Waving Humans? Only if the human in question doesn’t mind being waved around like a really ratty flag) don’t like Gray Goo. For that matter, declining sales from the mainstream suggest pretty strongly that not many other people like the stuff either. It’s gray, it’s gooey, and it’s bleak, and it’s… well, you get the idea.

So why is there so much of it?

Even allowing for the current fad, why is there so much of the stuff?

Seriously, the last time I dipped a toe into a slush pile, the majority fell into the Gray Goo bucket. A rather substantial majority, at that.

Okay, I admit I’m a substantial minority all by myself, but that’s my issue not yours, and you can have my chocolate when you pry it from my cold dead hands. Or more likely, my dead stomach, since chocolate doesn’t stay in my hands very long.

Anyway. Gray Goo and why it’s everywhere.

No, there has not been an explosion in a goop factory, and no, the coloring agents didn’t go missing (actually, everyone knows where they are. They’re in the Crayola factory, playing with the coloring books. No-one wants to disturb them because they get… upset).

Gray Goo is easier to write.

Seriously. When you’re still a bit unsteady on your writer-feet, and you want to leave some kind of emotional impact, the easiest one to get is despair. It’s much easier to flatten everything in your path and leave everything hopeless and miserable.

Inspirational tends to fall into glurge or the kind of meaningless goodwill that you don’t want to examine too closely because it hides a really nasty sting. Think about 90% of the feel-good posts you see on Facebook, and you get the idea.

Straight-up happy with all-things-go-well-for-the-hero suffers from a tendency to get so corny you could make relish out of it (this is why the dialog in so many movie romantic scenes is so cringe-worthy. It’s bloody hard to write good romantic dialog. Come to think of it, that’s probably also why the move towards sex scenes instead. You don’t need dialog in that, especially if you’re writing for Hollywood. Emphasis on the wood).

Something mixed where there’s good and bad, it’s ridiculously difficult to come up with anything that manages to encapsulate what you’re trying to convey without veering into Everything Is Horrible Gray Goo or sending your readers into diabetic shock from the excessive sweetness.

Then you have the difficulty of conveying characters who need to be a bit larger than life, better than real, and flawed in a way that makes them endearing. Even those of us who get character free can commit Mary Sue/Marty Stu just because that’s easier. And trust me, Mary Sue/Marty Stu in Gray Goo is something no-one needs to see (yes, I have committed this. I’ve committed practically every evil in the writing book, and no, no-one gets to see those. They’ve been consigned to a merciful death. Most of them never got onto a computer. Which is just as well or I’d be exorcising the hard drive).

On top of that, it seems to be built-in that bleak, horrible, dark and so forth is in some way more profound than happy, or uplifting, or… And heaven forbid you should try to convince the average Literature graduate that comedy can be profound (Sarah, be quiet. You’re so far from the average you’re in a class all by yourself. It’s the one with the extra writing implements and the padded walls). It took Terry Pratchett something like twenty (ridiculously best-selling) books before the establishment started getting embarrassed by the man’s incredible sales record and started nominating him for awards. Which of course he won, because the man actually is as brilliant as all that.

Hell, even the Bible says it: “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3, King James Version). In plain language, if you’re laughing you don’t care enough about the proper things. It’s that kind of thinking that leads to the idea that anything enjoyable must be sinful, and from there to the idiocy of banning anything remotely enjoyable.

The currently fading Powers That Be haven’t gone quite that far yet, but they’re trying, by Dog (you can’t call what they’re trying by “God” because they mostly don’t believe in one even when they think they do. You can tell by how they act – people who actually do believe in the Judeo-Christian iteration of God tend to be rather more inclined to leaving judgment to Him – but the moral scolds do believe that Fun Is Bad) they’re trying.

And yes, before the nitpick wagon dumps its load, I am bloody generalizing. If I stopped to qualify every trend statement I made, you’d never see me get to a point. I have enough trouble with that at the best of times without making it worse for myself. So the exceptions really don’t need to point out that they’re exceptions. I know, okay? So should intelligent readers (Sadly, so much intelligence has been beaten out by the school system I no longer feel confident that even the smartest people can figure out that something’s a deliberate generalization even if I put big flashing neon signs in front of it. You would not believe… well, maybe you would).

In view of this, here is the Gospel According To Kate (bear in mind that “Gospel” actually means/meant “good news”). Funny can too be profound, but for $DEITY$’s(*) sake don’t force it. If you force it, it just clunks. Let things happen and funny tends to follow if you’re working in that general vicinity. Even if you think it’s painfully, embarrassingly corny, let someone you trust to give an honest opinion read it. Chances are you’re like 100% of authors (yes, this is a scientific percentage, and I’m not disclosing sample size, so THP!) and can’t judge your own work. If they think it’s too much, they probably have some ideas to tone down the excess sugar and make it work. Don’t fear glurge: again, good beta readers can help clean up the worst messes and help sort the good from the omigodmyEYES.

Above all, don’t be scared to write what you want to see. There are a lot of people out there who can read. No matter how outré your tastes, there will be people who want to read it. If you have any doubts about this, consider that I’m acquiring fans via Overlord fanfiction, and tell your doubting side to just butt out and shut up.

(* $SOMETHING$ is old-school programmer for indicating a variable, so $DEITY$ translates to “insert deity of choice here”)

The Icky Bits

(Cue Gregorian chant) Let us all give thanks unto Ceiling Cat, for after several weeks of whine, there is finally a post about writing. (End cue)

Or maybe curse Basement Cat, because for reasons known only to itself, my fried excuse for a brain is stuck on the question of how to handle the icky bits – and I’m not talking about the naughty icky bits, either.

The thing is, unless you’re writing for specific audience segments where there’s an expectation that ick will either not happen, be soft-pedaled, or be gracefully skipped (and these segments are getting smaller and fewer which is not necessarily a good thing), most of the time in F & SF there’s an expectation that the usual nastiness that goes with whatever you’re talking about will happen. Which is a really wordy way to say that if you’ve set up that your bad guys won’t hesitate to kill someone slowly, you’d better have some example of the fact there somewhere, and probably also have your hero or someone important to them facing the prospect of the bad guys doing their thing to them.

If torture is normal in your world, it needs to have some visibility in your plot. No, this does not mean an obligatory torture scene. What it does mean is that somewhere that norm must impact your characters. If you can’t write it, don’t try: instead consider the impact of your characters finding what’s left of a friend after they got tortured and killed (the two aren’t necessarily synonymous, but for plot purposes it tends to work that way) – or nursing said friend back to health and dealing with the fallout (this is why for plot purposes “and killed” often happens absent miracle-level technology or magical healing).

Similarly in a violent society, there needs to be violence. And bloodshed, because violence rarely happens without it.

That doesn’t mean you need to do the gross-out thing and lovingly describe buckets of blood or injuries that leave internal organs in places where internal organs were never intended to go. That kind of writing has a place, but the place isn’t necessarily your book. Rather consider your characters and their level of experience. Then show their reactions to what they see, hear and smell (only the sick bastards go tasting and touching the results of extreme violence – although a sufficiently strong smell can be tasted). If your hardened soldier sprints for the loo to empty his stomach, that shows that what he’s seen is pretty damn horrific. At this point nothing you describe will live up (or down) to the imagination of your readers, so don’t even try. A few references to blood spattering way further than it should have and… bits… will usually give the impression of a horrific bloodbath without you needing to make yourself queasy figuring out exactly who did what to whom.

This method is actually more difficult than the detailed descriptions, but it has a lot more impact if it’s done well. I used it a lot in ConVent and – to a lesser extent – in Impaler. ConSensual (I have seen a cover draft. It’s almost there….) uses the same technique as well, although like ConVent, I added in the twist of playing it for laughs. That’s harder. For that it helps to have a completely unshockable character, or as close to it as you can get. I guess a vampire who’s thousands of years old and has seen damn near everything that people can do to each other is pretty close to unshockable – although I still manage to rattle him a fair bit.

If your plot requires a major character to suffer something horrible, it works better if you don’t shy away from the horrible, but you can still give the horror its full impact without the every-drop-of-blood level coverage. For that kind of thing I’ll build up the emotional impact on the character as they realize they’re in deep trouble and begin to understand what’s about to hit them. If I’m writing a major character who gets tortured (which happens, particularly when writing medieval-ish fantasy – not that SF doesn’t include that particular peril), I’ll often write up until the ‘fun’ starts, then end that scene with a bridging sentence that makes it clear things get a great deal worse. Then change scene. If I’ve got multiple points of view I won’t come back to that character for a while, partly because the POV of someone who’s unconscious or delirious tends not to be terribly useful from a plot perspective, and partly because I’m evil and I want my readers wondering if the poor sod is going to survive – or if it would be better if he didn’t.

When I do return to that character, I focus on their emotions as much as their injuries, and usually don’t go into specifics because someone in that state is going to be paying more attention to the logistics of “It hurts” and “I need out of this mess” than to what’s been broken, burned, crushed, cut off or the like. If they’re able to escape under their own steam, the difficulties attached to said escape get shown. If not, I’ll often have them pass out again about when the rescuer shows up, then switch to the rescuer’s POV – which will show the rescuer’s reaction to the state of their friend, but mostly focus on the challenges of getting said friend out of their predicament.

When I’m writing from the villain POV, I take a rather different tack. Even if my villain is outright evil (who am I kidding? Most of my characters including the heroes are outright evil), I focus more on their goals when they’re causing mayhem than on the actual bloodshed, and on whatever gratification they get out of it. If the villain is driven by a lust for power, the power over the captive is what drives them. The sadistic sorts I focus more on the emotions of the victims than on the physical suffering. The ones that get off on it, I tend to aim for just enough shown that readers can guess the rest. If anything this is where I flinch, not because I have issues with what’s happening, but because I know damn well my ick settings don’t get triggered until just about everyone else has run screaming into the night.

What I tend not to do, no matter what, is describe everything in loving detail. Partly because it’s not helpful to the plot, partly because readers who are turning interesting shades of green aren’t reading my book, and in all honesty? Mostly because it’s boring. Seriously. One set of human innards is much the same as any other set of human innards, and if it’s not inside the skin where it ought to be, that’s usually enough for any moderately imaginative person. Who wants to read a scarlet-tinted anatomy lesson when the hero comes across the aftermath of a gruesome battle?