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Posts tagged ‘Writing craft’

Character Analysis

Or Finding Your Own Bad Habits

Now, the first thing I’m going to say about creating characters is Do Not Outsmart Yourself With A Clever Naming Scheme!

I speak from experience. Ignore the weird names in the following examples. Or take them as a lesson on what not to do.

What I’m examining right now is how I introduce new characters when I’ve already got my POV character set. I have to see the new character through his or her eyes, and what the MC sees and infers is the information the reader will get.

Analyzing your own writing can be a bit surprising. Take this bit, a newly hired professor, with the head of the department . . . Read more

Conversions and Culture Clashes

Conversions and Culture Clashes

“Ah! A balmy twenty degrees out!” He eyed the kids, grabbing for their parkas . . . “Umm, that’s almost seventy degrees for you Fahrenheit troglodytes. Beautiful day out there.”

So my main audience is American, but I have readers in Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada . . . and even the younger Americans are comfortable with most metric terms. They have an instinctive grasp of how large four meters is, they don’t have to think about “why is he getting a ladder?”

Read more

The Taste Gap & Feedback

Or, how can you tell how good your work is… or isn’t? All artists, no matter what the medium, tend to be pretty aware of the phenomenon of looking at their work and going “This is awesome! Just as good as the bestsellers, if not better by leaps and bounds!” Also, they’re aware of looking at their work and going “This is the worst thing ever! I need to hide this in a nuclear waste dump, lest it contaminate the very electrons desecrated with its presence!” In fact, most of us can cycle through both of these viewpoints multiple times on the exact same piece of work.

This is normal. I can’t tell you how to stop doing that, but I can offer some insights on how to mitigate it, and how to get better anyway. Read more

Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Pacing

Kate got caught up by real life and asked me to post this for her. This is the second in her “Return to the Extreme Pantser’s Guide” posts. You can find the first one here. — Amanda

This chapter is the first of several covering various aspects of plotting and characterization technique from the extreme pantser’s perspective. The thing to remember here, is that this is stuff that matters, and if you as an extreme pantser don’t ‘get’ it free, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than a plotter would to get there – but not necessarily work in the same way.

One of the more interesting things I’ve found as I’ve developed as a writer is that I typically have a vague, not terribly clear feel for the techniques, but I’m not applying them with any sense or consistency because I don’t understand what the heck it is I’m trying to do, much less what my subconscious is throwing at me. Those unfortunate enough to have read some of my early stuff know what I mean here. You can see the shape I’m after but it’s kind of like a small child trying to color inside the lines.

I still color like that, but at least I’ve got better at writing.

So, pacing. This is what makes a story feel fast or slow. Unless you’re planning on writing literary fiction, you’re going to want a variety in your pacing – enough fast sections to drag your readers along with you, and enough slower ones that they have time to breathe. SF and Fantasy, particularly recently, tends to want to start fast, then have something of a slowdown before a series of increasingly sharper accelerations until the climax of the piece. Most – but not all – authors will give a chapter or three of wrapup after that at a nice, gentle pace. Sarah refers to this as the post-climax cigarette.

Pace is partly influenced by vocabulary: short, sharp verbs with minimal assistance from adverbs, action verbs in the sense that someone (preferably your protagonist) is acting… these tend to signal ‘fast’ to readers. Polysyllabic with lots of descriptive usually signals ‘slow’. We as readers are remarkably sensitive to these – to the extent that a particularly fast-paced scene in someone else’s book is quite capable of having me breathing heavily and feeling as though I just outran a bear.

So… read what you can about pacing, but also read fiction with known pace. L.K. Hamilton’s first three books are close to perfect examples of fast-paced. Terry Pratchett’s pacing is generally more leisurely, but again, pitch-perfect.

What tends to happen is that after immersing yourself in well-paced books, the extreme pantser builds a feel for pacing that manifests as “Something needs to happen soon” or “My character needs a break” – also, “Slowing things down here will increase tension” has been known to occur. In my case, rarely quite that explicit, but I do still operate at this level.

I know this sounds very vague and almost – horrors! – frou-frou, but it does seem to work this way at least for me. I’ve had to learn to trust in the pants, not least because the bloody things know more about how this works than I do (As a side note, this is one of the reasons why I’m bloody dangerous when I’m over-tired. It’s not just the narcolepsy, although that doesn’t help. It’s that all the ‘this is not socially acceptable’ filters stop working – which leads to unacceptable truths being aired out, often loudly).



I see in today’s paper that Australian research identifies me as a ‘slogger’ – a bloke who would like to work less but needs the money. And there I thought I was just a lazy beggar who would like to fish a bit more often.

The interesting part to their whole schpiel – which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, because I am not a pigeon and they have a desperate need to put everyone in pigeon-holes – was that it seemed to hinge aspiration and reward… and that it was plainly very, very viewpoint orientated.

According to them, I would be less well socially connected, and less adept at it than any other group. Now I’m no Kim Kardashian (just in case you failed to notice the beard) and I’m a failure at twittering my every moment and movement (including bowel, or, after alphabet soup, vowel). But I have if anything too good an actual social life and chat to too many people the book-of-faces.

I’m a writer, I like to watch, to listen, to study people, to think about what they say, and why they say it. This means I can better grasp what a character – who is vastly different to me in every imaginable way, and possibly some I would rather not imagine – would plausibly react in the bloody awful mess I put them in my books. I am kind like that. I mean, here I am playing god, I could at least have them win the Lotto, meet Mr or Miss Right, and live happily ever after with a large library and enough Chateau Lar Feet (as this is Dave Freer writing, not something common like Chateau Lafite) and Magret de Canard with a black cherry reduction, to at least die happy. Nooo, instead I put them in awful positions (some not even in Kama Sutra) facing certain death, usually sober and before dinner. Yes, I am a miserable bastard. Being one is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Of course, tough jobs are supposed to pay well (which would put me on the wrong side of the pigeon-hole margin). Sadly, no one else seems to think it a tough job (one of these point-of-view things I alluded to). In terms of aspiration, however, I’ve never come across an author who didn’t aspire to being rich and successful. I’ve met an awful lot who aspire to be Castle on TV – rich famous and living the good life without all the tedium of actually writing. I’ve met others – and I’d put myself among them, who would do the job if they didn’t get to write, and fair number who could certainly have been richer than an author is likely to be, if they’d chosen a different path. Some of them even realized that before they went down the writer’s path.

Now, sloggers (according to pigeon-holers) work because they must, and don’t earn much, or ever hope to earn much. Yet… all novelists, for at least for a substantive part of their job are literally sloggers. Producing a book (let alone a career as an author) is a long-haul process. And part of any long haul process is sheer dogged determination – or plain old-fashioned slog (unless you are Castle, and that only happens on TV.) Even if somehow you do make every ounce of writing your twentieth novel a thing of joy (and yes, I manage to end up loving my books, even those I wished I had never agreed to write), there is still editing and proofs, and then inserting the proof corrections.

And even those of us who love the writing itself are faced with horrible parts of it. For me the most difficult is writing the ‘links’ between the scenes which I have to make sure maintain continuity – usually complex – and yet must be short, clean… and the reader is barely aware of. There is always a resentful part of my mind that says ‘I am working my butt off to make this slick, clear… and virtually invisible. You would only know it existed at all (if I have done it well) if it wasn’t there. Like the servant who actually did the cleaning in the society hostess’s home (and listens to her being praised for it), there is a degree of resentment that my hardest and, IMO some of my best work is something that is only good if no one knows I’ve done it.

The times of sheer dogged slogging is an unavoidable fact of life for 99.99998% of any author who makes a career out of it. You just can’t let it show in your writing, because your readers are paying you for tedious attention to detail in your work, not for tedium in their entertainment.

Like my laziness… it’s a question of perspective and perception. I’m not much good at just sit-and-do nothing. Hell for me would be sunbathing. I do work long hours, but I have slowed down from 5 hours sleep a night – which is when I wasn’t being lazy. I’ve actually got a rigid system of self-bribery and corruption worked into a structured calendar, word counts – which have timed ‘rewards’ of checking facebook, or working in the garden, or going fishing – yes, I really do book the hours, and even try to enforce some reading, research and even free time. I’m not very good at the latter, but there is a point where you’re either staring at the screen or writing crap you will delete. It is, compared to most office workers, terribly regimented and disciplined – and the boss watches every damn thing I do.

Of course to the reader who is waiting for the next book I’m also a useless, lazy scut who never gets around to it.

So: as usual this is all about writing and technique. And as usual I have been trying to do what I am informed is wicked colonial imperialism – showing not telling. If that’s wicked imperialism, bring it on, I reckon, because it works for readers. ‘Wicked’ is a point of view issue too. What I was trying to explain is a layer of complexity that many writers never quite grasp.

At the bottom end characters are WYSIYG (what you see is what you get) which is lovely when translating e-books, but a bit weak as a character. The character is as they are portrayed – both in how they see themselves, and, identically as they are seen by anyone else. IE. Joe is a hard-working, clever, kind man. That’s how Joe sees himself, and how other characters see Joe. That is also how the readers see Joe. And oddly, comments like ‘unrealistic/ dull/poor/one-dimensional characters’ will creep into the reviews. That may be true, but I have often found this really is an inability to express something the reader is aware of without grasping quite what causes the disconnect.

The disconnect is of course, that what the character perceives themselves as – from their own point of view – is never what others see them as. Many writers manage this reasonably well. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary (another character) sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling.

This is real life. Listen to any dispute and you may think that the two principals are describing a separate set of events. Divorce cases, doubly so. And when you get down to poltics… Well, looking at it from Australia, ardent Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s supporters plainly live in widely separated alternate universes which branched off from each other just after there first was light.

Dispassionately, and from neither point of view… exists another real story entirely, with more or less elements from both and things which are in neither viewpoint. Just so with the story in the READER’S head. This is the stage which great authors get to. They understand that they’re working with each character’s perception of themselves, and the other (often multiple) character’s perception of themselves AND of the other characters. All of this adds up to the author carrying his or authorial perception of the character to the reader. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling. Mary sees herself as not popular, and unhappy about this, and far brighter than Joe. Joe sees Mary as happy, loving and understanding, and not too bright. Both of their actions and responses are shaped by own perceptions… and by reality (in this case, authorial reality) The clever author manages to carry through the ‘reality’ that Mary doesn’t care for Joe, but wants to be liked, and is manipulating his feelings. She’s not actually as bright as she thinks she is, or she would realize that her un-lovable-ness isn’t how Joe sees her. But she’s brighter than Joe think she is. Joe, on the hand is hard-working, none-too-bright, but is actually kind.

It’s a multi-dimensional maze, which the reader SHOULD be unaware of as they’re led through. It’s a slog, getting it right, because to do so you will have to enter (at least) three different head-spaces.

This is why head-hopping is a poor idea. It confuses most authors, and that in turn confuses most readers. That is why the discipline exists, not for its own sake.

Of course, it’s never that simple. The ‘authorial’ head-space will quite possibly be not quite the way the reader sees it. When I was writing JOY COMETH WITH THE MORNING I wrote the book from a single point of view (hers) but made it clear by the responses of the other characters to her, that her perspective was not theirs, and that they saw her quite differently – and of course, I as the author saw all of them quite differently.

What I should have been prepared for… but wasn’t, was the range of very different ways readers saw her.

It’s a complex web we weave.

But we set out to deceive.

That’s why it is called ‘fiction.’

Suitable language for a lady

“You may charge me with murder—or want of sense—
(We are all of us weak at times):
But the slightest approach to a false pretence
Was never among my crimes!

“I said it in Hebrew—I said it in Dutch—
I said it in German and Greek:
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!”
The Hunting of the Snark, Fit the fourth, Lewis Carroll

As a fisheries scientist, one of the places my work took me was into the fish-factories, where the catch was processed.

Now: I’d grown up being a obnoxious fisher-brat in the harbor, on and off a commercial fishing boat, been at an all-male boarding school, been a NCO during my stint as a conscript.

I labored under the delusion that I could swear the devil out of hell, his ears burning. I always laugh when I hear these upper middle-class female arts graduates expecting me to be deeply impressed by their venturing on the courageous use of ‘…ing ( you know, like Sir Terry Pratchett. “…ing”) I’m sure it’s meant to make them sound avant-garde, liberated, and tough… Yeah, well. Fish factories. Almost always female staff, the wives, girlfriends and daughters of the fishermen. You’ve heard of fishwives? It’s true.

I learned I hadn’t even got to the kindergarten stage of descriptive foul language. Your daring hot-house flower lib arts graduate is a premmie baby by their standards.

I got on very well with them, they thought I was nuts, as all I wanted from the sharks were measurements their guts and a piece of vertebrae (age and growth studies, – bone-deposition rate is seasonal) and I thought they were the salt of the earth – and very salty it was indeed at times. It was all in Afrikaans, which is a wonderful snot-clearing language for describing your drunken husband’s sexual inadequacy in great and scathing detail. I did my best to swear back, and that they found very funny. They’d all attempt to teach me new colorful expressions to try out on the vicar. This pastime delighted them and has flavored my books ever since.

In the context… oddly, there was nothing offensive about it. I had the greatest of respect for them – trust me on this, ANYONE has the greatest of respect for someone who can fillet a fish in less than two seconds, the knife speed only eclipsed by the non-stop tongue – which was at least as sharp as the knife. But aside from that, they worked incredibly hard, cheerfully and loudly (and, um, most educating obscenely) for a pittance, under conditions which would make most first-world women puke (just the smell would do), to keep food on the table, to keep their families going. The West Coast fishing communities were rife with alcohol abuse, drug problems, plenty of violence, poverty and yet… they could laugh. And work. And the language was appropriate for those ladies, who were, by-and-large, worth ten of the bwave feminist Ivy League Masters in Post-Modern English Literature and victim of masculine micro-aggression, saying that daring ‘fuck’.

Language and context for that language are major issues for writers, and not just because not all of us have blundered into fish-processing plants.

There is appropriate language use for the appropriate context – just as in real life. The difference being that context is determined by the reader, NOT by the actual reality. Let me explain: I was avoiding work on Facebook the other day when I happened to see a sidebar comment by an historian I know (An Historian, like An Elk. They too have theories, but not always about dinosaurs). I read it, read the original post which was something of a rant by an author who writes about Chinese myth. She’d been reading some High fantasy set in the 15th century… and hit, in dialogue, the word ‘Okay’.

This was a terrible affront because in fifteenth century they did not say ‘Okay’.

Which is true.

They also in reality didn’t speak modern English (or as most high fantasy seems to be set in Europe, any kind of English). Indeed in her own novels set in a mythological China, they probably wouldn’t speak much English either, and, to judge by the directly translated instructions which I have frequently read — too late — on Chinese-made appliances, the language and expressions are quite different. (Brush-cutter instructions may otherwise presage doom and destruction. ‘If you fell your leg in a whole, place blade in earth to stop revolutions’.)

They probably used a colloquial expression, which if you translated for meaning… would translate as ‘Okay’. The objection is meaningless.

Or is it?

Yes… in reality. No, as a writer.

English is a rapidly evolving and changing language – read a Bulldog Drummond novel (1920’s thriller, contemporary setting) and it jumps out an hits you in the face (yes, the attitudes of the author are also something of a shock to people who assume the mores of today are eternal and anyone in 1920 who didn’t conform to modern mores was an …ist (choose your …ist) rather than just reflecting the zeitgeist of their time.)) It’s particularly obvious in a contemporarily set novel – but less so in period pieces and fantasy and sf. Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom is easier for modern readers to cope with than Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond. You could say the same thing about Georgette Heyer, with her Regency and Historical novels being ‘easier’ to read now, than her detective novels which had contemporary settings, and language (they read more like ‘period pieces’ now).

There are expectations of a kind of language. The expectations (like the mores, and attitudes to sex or women’s liberation) are quite probably wrong and owe more to Hollywood than historical accuracy. But this is my point: They are what the reader expects. If you (and yes, I did this. I regret it) use modern colloquial English appropriate to your character’s station in your fifteenth century novel (where as in Shadow of the Lion, the characters are speaking bastardized Frankish ) many readers will expect the fake-formal olde English of the High Fantasy Novel and will be pissed.

(the pic is a link if you are interested)

It’s a pain in the ass, but there it is.

Knowing about it hopefully makes it easier to deal with. And there is nothing like knowing a convention, or a rule, to improve your ability to break it and get away with it.

The cock crowed thrice…

I was occupied in those delicate rural pastimes which give us country folk our reputation for sensitivity and finer feelings while thinking about tonight’s post. In other words I had my hand up a rooster’s nether end. It was warm, which was a nice change for my hand, on account of it being bloody freezing out. The rooster may have liked it less, but it was dead. My hand was bloody, but no longer freezing.

I was engaged in country art… having plucked the rooster, I was now occupied in drawing it. I could have won a Turner Prize for it, had I added a bit post-modern angst. Which kind of brought me around to the topic for to today, partly about roosters, and partly about art and the eye of the beholder.

Now, oddly, to you, for us chicken is a rare treat, which only happens when 1)my chooks stop laying, 2)Someone else gives us a chicken. Yes, I could start doing meat-chickens, and I will one day. But between writing, bits of farm work, building, fishing, hunting, growing all our veg, and raising pigs to magically transform them into bacon, I have quite a full plate, and life keeps handing me bits I’m not overly good at to learn like electronic wizardry, and auto-mechanic skills. We can eat quail, pheasant, ducks, turkeys, Cape Barren Geese – none of which I need to feed or keep alive.

I’ve learned one thing that really applies to writing from this: learn how to do simple stuff extremely well, before you venture onto complex things. I make bacon really well. Really, really well, I have been told. So why don’t I do… some really fancy-schmanzy pork product? I don’t because I’m still mastering bacon. When I’m totally confident with that I’ll move on. I do. I did Salami for the first time last year. Just plain Salami, and that was quite a job. It was good. I’m gearing up to tackle it again, better. Every time will be better, because I know and understand the basics really well. All too many people start writing the great, meaningful novel when really, they need to get good at writing a simple story that really holds audiences.

So going back to the rooster… One of my mates (that’s Australian for friend, before you jump to any conclusions) got himself an incubator, and ordered in some eggs and got given a few. His early success was pretty tepid – with the only success being one rooster from the eggs he’d been given. A cross, not a bad bird, but not what he was after. Still, that was his first successes, and got reared, while the second batch came in and hatched, this time successfully, with one rooster, of the breed he wanted.

You can see where all this is going, can’t you?

Well, not directly, you can’t.

The chicks having no mother-hen but him, followed him around, and were very tame and very pampered. He wanted eggs, and to breed. They’re not dinner chooks. They were heading for a good, long and pampered life, with every chicken treat lavished on them. They have a huge run, palatial nesting boxes, a warm roost, and cool perches for summer, get loads of fresh produce as well as grain and laying mash. Their master goes in and lets them eat from his hands and stand on him while they do it.

All they have to do is lay eggs… or fertilize them. That’s all the customer wanted, and he was prepared to put up with a bit of chicken-poop on his knees for it.

Now, usually roosters have a couple of features that tend to stick on the mind and not just the trouser knees.

One is: they crow. They crow a lot. And not just at cock-crow either. If they ain’t opening their mouths to eat, they’re crowing about how Alpha they are… especially if there is another rooster within earshot.

The second is they’re top of the pecking order. Chickens are patriarchal hierarchy in the epitome. Women’s lib doesn’t get much of a look-in. If chickens really are the distant heritors of T. rex’s dinosaur mantle, Rachel Swirsky’s dinosaur love would have told her to ‘get back into the kitchen and make me sammich’ which would indeed have been something unique and new in the annals of modern sf. I’m sorry, that’s chickens. They’re not PC. They lay eggs. They’re pretty good to eat. And two roosters in one pen… can get terminal.

Only this was not the case. The roosters got on fairly amicably… well one of them did. The second, desirable, pure bred rooster seemed to know the run was his by right, and while he was wary about making it physical, because the crossbreed was a bit bigger, he never shut up, and was a demon on the hens. The cross-breed seemed to figure he was there on sufferance, and within limits accepted being number 2. And pure-breed had to keep crowing about it.

Getting older… the pure-bred started feeling his oats, and took to attacking everything, even my mate, coming to feed him. And he crowed, all the time, to let number two know. Unfortunately, he let everyone else know too.

Now my buddy’s quite capable of killing chooks, but this one he’d raised from the egg. It knew it had as much rein as it liked. But when it finally half-killed one of the laying hens…

My friend decided he’d rather have the half-breed. He put the important one in a cardboard box, and gave it to Barbs for me.

It crowed all the way here.

And it got here, and crowed at me, three times. Once from the box, once when I grabbed its feet, and third time it stopped half way.

I gather the half-breed has stepped up to the position nobly.

I guess, besides a roast chicken dinner, there is something for this writer in all of this.

Firstly, even if you’re the best breed, and the chosen one… the customer who provides all that chicken food might decide he prefers the rooster who doesn’t behave in a way the customer finds offensive… and crows about it. As customers come from all over the spectrum – unless you’re targeting a very section exclusively – being loudly partisan about something that is bound to offend a large chunk of your readers is not bright. There are of course people who are selling to their ‘side’ and they gain by this. But many TradPub authors are not. They’re just used to being the chosen ones. The last you may see of them –metaphorically speaking– is a severed foot hanging out of a Labrador’s mouth (said Labrador looking puzzled but determined). But it does go further. None of us are that great we can afford to think ourselves above peeving our buyers.

Secondly, I guess the moral is IF you’re doing well, shut up and enjoy it. You don’t have to tell second-place Sam about it every ten seconds. He knows.

And then the subject of art? Yeah, well… One man’s art is another’s pile of drawn chicken guts. It often seems to come down to how confidently the ‘artist’ claims his painting – or book, is art.

Or some people just like chicken guts.

So now you can tell me fowl stories, but no foul language. I’m chicken, and it’s no use egging me on.