The price of a half-bright idea

NORMA:  And you have written pictures, haven’t you?

GILLIS: Sure have. The last one I wrote was about cattle rustlers. Before they were through with it, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat. – Sunset Boulevard

Recently had an unfortunate revelation, whilst on a steam train in the Dandenong Mountains (don’t ask). The revelation was essentially about a dilemma I’ve been having in regards to my plot. I’ve reached a point where I need to get my characters to do things, to arrive at a particular destination, and the stations they arrive at along the way seem painfully contrived. My characters are where they are because I’ve needed them there, not because they want to go.

The initial introduction to my central character was written MANY years ago, and was essentially something I tossed off in the heat of the moment, rather than something that was carefully calibrated to serve as the initial “King’s Pawn to e4”. Part of the intent was comedic. In many ways my main character is luckless, and it was a good way to illustrate that the universe is endlessly creative in finding new ways to dump on him. Taken in isolation, I think it’s an excellent scene.

It was also written reasonably quickly, before I’d really bedded down where I wanted the story to go. What appeared to be a logical progression with characters moving from one situation towards another situation now looks like a self-contained one-gag short story that just happens to have a hook for the rest of the novel.

This has led to problems down the line, where the implications of this scene require an increasingly convoluted series of compromises in order to maintain basic plot integrity. Ockham’s Razor is generally an enemy to exciting writing, but in terms of writing coherent plots, I think it’s a helpful tool. I try not to generate too many opportunities for the reader to start channeling Scott Evil:

Given this, I’m contemplating the unthinkable, which is rewriting (pretty thoroughly) the scene introducing my major characters, the scene that sets the tone and starts the rolling stone for the entire rest of the book. This will also require rewriting of several other scenes as well as a really careful attention to make sure I don’t leave any traces of the previous regime. It’s actually quite a lot of work.

So why do it?

Well… several reasons.

The first reason is thematic. My character as previously established was very much a happy-go-lucky dabbler in many things. As the novel has developed, and I’ve had to develop an independent setting (see my initial post for more details on that), I’ve had to reassess it with a slightly harder edge, and come from a slightly darker place. This isn’t to say I’m going to change the essentials, or heavily modify the character’s essentially light nature. But the tone which was set by the initial sequence (essentially a gag plus some character work) no longer quite gels with the overall mood. There are most definitely novels where an opening scene incongruous to the rest of the novel is appropriate, but mine isn’t it.

The second is fluidity. The initial scene provided the kickstart for the plot, it got my characters out and doing things, allowing them to become enmeshed in the narrative I was trying to create. I created a rational incentive for my main characters to get involved in the plot (including a nice dollop of urgency). The way it’s framed, however, makes it an impediment to what the main characters can realistically do.

In short, the initial scene creates a rod for the back of our protagonists makes it hard for them to gambol across the narrative in a natural way, requiring multiple suspensions of disbelief and “let’s-just-not-mention-that”s. Eventually, I do manage to ditch the rod and develop more internal motivations, but the initial scene haunts the narrative all the way through.

Fortunately, I’ve managed to hit on a compromise that I think maintains some of the lightness, provides a launchpad for the protagonist’s narrative but also requires fewer compromises as the plot goes on. But the price of narrative freedom is eternal vigilance in copy-editing the rest of your second draft.

It’s become a very unsettling feeling to realise that the foundation stones of my book are a bit less well laid than I’d initially thought, and that the wonkiness of all the subsequently hung doorframes does NOT actually possess a rustic charm.

However, it has at least let me appreciate that despite the compromises I’ve made along the way, the basic structure is sound, there are some lovely scenes of character, humour and action and that modifying a few basic (early) issues, the whole thing will flow more smoothly and provide both the reader and the writer with a more seamless experience.

So although there’s a price for this half-baked idea, the investment will pay dividends I’m entirely sure are worth it.

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Opening shots

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.  –Jackie Collins

As those snooping on me on Twitter  may have twigged, I’ve started on my second draft. (Slow as it is progressing)

A problem has presented itself at the outset, is that my opening isn’t quite strong enough, so yes, I do need to rewrite the whole damn thing. This is at once both frustrating and fascinating. Opening sections are an artform all of their own. They set the tone, grab the reader and introduce your world (even if it’s a sleight of hand of some description, introduction is the end, etc). They also have to be tight, focused and engage the reader’s interest.

One bleak afternoon in the winter of 1893 a young man stood in the doorway of a shop in Jackson Street, Carringbush, a suburb of the city of Melbourne, in the Colony of Victoria. The shop was single-fronted and above its narrow door was the sign CUMMIN’S TEA SHOP. In a small window stood a tea chest with a price ticket leaning against it.

The man was of short, solid build and was neatly dressed in a dark-grey suit. His face was clean-shaven. He wore a celluloid collar and a dark tie. With his left hand he was spinning a coin. It was a shiny golden coin, a sovereign. Standing on the footpath facing him from a few feet away was a tall policeman in uniform, whose small, unintelligent eyes followed the flight of the coin as it spun up a few feet and fell into the palm of the young man’s hand, only to spin rhythmically upwards again and again. – Frank Hardy, Power Without Glory

Hardy’s opening two paragraphs set a scene, introduce the major character and give us some sense of the world he’s trying to create, one of corruption and opportunity. It provides a solid base for the rest of the opening chapter to build the reader’s entry into the world.

It also sets questions to the reader… who is this man? What is the tea shop? Why is he trying to bribe this policeman? Is he in control? What does the placement of this character time and place mean?

My previous opening chapter wasn’t necessarily bad, but it threw the reader into the middle of a situation, and didn’t provide them with enough reasons to stick around to read the rest. If the reader is not grabbed by the end of the first paragraph, you’re unlikely to get them to hang around for the rest of the chapter, let alone BUY THE BOOK.

The first bite of a novel needs to be brisk, nourishing and ephemeral all at once. So what have I done?

  1. Sharpen the Viewpoint
    I took the opening from the abstract to the specific. From a general, indirect opener where the reader observed events, I took it into a point-of-view scene where the reader is taken directly inside the world. This can be tricky if your world is particularly foreign, but in this case I hopefully created enough scaffolding for the readers to climb inside the superstructure and peer out through the darkened circles of glass that constitute my character’s perspective.
  2. Have something happen
    The previous opening contained a lot of arcane political byplay and (being honest) a lot of boring historical exposition about the world. There’s still some exposition here, but it’s presented in the context of my characters doing things. As both my opening section reviewers pointed out, I tend to describe how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking rather than show this through their actions. In the new opening, the characters (or groups of armed men, to be accurate) do things that express their characters, their cultural assumptions and sets up the central conflict of the book.
  3. Provide a sense of place
    The action has to happen somewhere, and hopefully one thing I’ve done is moor it firmly somewhere that isn’t a generic-space-for-characters-to-do-things-in, but a place on its own that where if a tree falls, it doesn’t really care whether any major characters are around to hear it fall.
  4. Provide obvious foreshadowing
    The opening sequence hopefully proves I can take my own advice and add an element which will be recalled later by the reader and give them a slight shiver of horror.

So I think it’s better, but it may need further work on subsequent drafts to refine. A novel can recover from a faltering start, but I’d prefer to be into full stride by the time my reader gets to meet any of my main characters.

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There is no man behind the curtain. No, really!

Just a quick and highly off-topic post. The other day I got myself involved in a Twitter discussion which led into a challenge to identify logcial or argumentation fallacies based on characters from the Wizard of Oz. In my lunchbreak, I came up with a few, and as Greg Laden asked me to put them down somewhere, here they are.

I should state from the outset that I am neither logician nor philosopher, so these are probably as airtight as a Glad-Wrap submarine with holes big enough for an entire convoy of B-doubles to drive through.

Note: I try to keep my own politics out of my Blogging as much as possible. This post breaks that rule rather hard. Apologies in advance. 

Dorothy

Thoughtlessly dropping a house on someone due to your argument spiraling out of control.

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Toto

Yapping repetitively around the heels, but lacking a diverse or complex enough repertoire to actually make a strong and convincing argument.

Scarecrow

The classic Strawman. Often a sign of being in need of brains.

Tin Man

An unassailable and robust argument that has an entirely hollow premise.

Cowardly Lion

An argument that is painfully narrow in its scope, due to the proponent’s often well-hidden terror of the full implications.

Wicked Witch of the West

A scary, authoritative ivory-tower argument that dissolved when someone gives them a good bucketing.

The Wizard

Pretending personal abstraction to an issue to distract from the proponent’s own privilege defended in the argument.

Thus endeth my diversion. Please carry on.

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If I only wrote what I know, I’d be silent.

Started a new job recently, and it’s an interesting one, dealing with secrets, bureaucracy, the public, and the public interest.

It led me to considering the old writer’s adage of “write what you know”. This is (at least partially) sage advice in not speculating too wildly about things you know nothing about. George Orwell was a policeman in Burma, a teacher in England and a soldier in the Spanish Civil war. Terry Pratchett famously worked as a press officer for a nuclear power station, and has claimed that the only reason he hasn’t written a book about it is because no one would believe it. Barbara Ehnrenreich lived the life of a blue-collar wage slave to write “Nickle and Dimed” and Charlie Stross was a tech journalist back before it was sexy.

So writing from direct experience is good. It gives you exposure to intellectually engaging subject matter and gives you a good sense of the nuts and bolts of how life actually connects and interrelates under the surface. It also gives a certain texture to your environment that can’t be faked. This came to mind whilst reading a book from an erstwhile flatmate. Jane Rawson‘s Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists.

The book starts off as dystopian futurism, a Melbourne unmade and degraded by rampant climate change and a breakdown in social order. UN soldiers are in the streets and people live in humpies along the shores of the Maribyrnong. Gross inequality and Dengue fever are integral parts of people’s lives. It’s all rather bleak and unrelieved, and the characters inspire sympathy, but little empathy. But then Rawson does a neat sideways shift into magic realism. spiralling into what I can only call a subjective view of someone else’s metafiction. Presented like this, it’s sounds just a BIT convoluted, but the unfolding of the ideas is well paced and the tone laconic rather than pretentious.

As far as I know, Rawson hasn’t ever visited a bleak future of the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, but I know she has worked both there and San Francisco, as well as working in the important business of maps and guides for aspiring travellers. I’ve lived in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne too, so there is a added vividness to the descriptions of a creatively ruined familiar landscape.

The novel also delves into the meaning of narrative, which is somewhat ironic given the (intentional) drifting state of most of the characters, making the apt point on several occasions that even if what we imagine we remember is selective and unreliable, the emotional impact remains undiminished. The Author depicted in the novel has limited horizons, the hazy fantasies of both the recent and distant past being simultaneously real to her as well as deeply inauthentic. This is acknowledged within the metafiction, with the invented world literally ending for its characters where the Author lost interest in its literary merits.

To write entirely from personal experience, is memoir, not fiction. There is always an element of the speculative, of “What would a character do if…”. A key element to that gameplanning is to know the board, and the rules.

No one is born knowing the rules of any game, it’s a learned arcana of knowledge. And if a game looks interesting, you can make a conscious choice to learn the rules. If a game looks really interesting, you can lose yourself in the strategy of a game, of the rich history, the deeds of great or infamous players and the almost infallibly rich setting in which it emerged and was codified.

The metaphor of sport is perhaps a tad limiting, but it’s a useful one in that it describes an intensely tribal passion, with an abundance of “deep” knowledge, and for which a significant investment of time and effort is required in order to learn how to play, or even to properly spectate. In writing a novel, you need to have the fanatic’s knowledge of your playing field, and a keen ear and eye for the aesthetics of the play that make it emotionally affecting.

Aesthetics often turn upon nuance. and all sorts of nuance come through a deep multi-sensory knowledge of a setting. This doesn’t have to always come from direct personal experience, but can also be developed through intense research from a variety of perspectives, triangulating some approximation of truth which can then be used as a solid setting for posing your “What if…” questions. Invention should have their roots deeply in observable reality, no matter how high they may grow above the surface.

Even if you’re not as ambitious as Rawson to set up your worlds cascading and iterating downwards, it’s still important to have a clear, holistic view of your world, without the concern that if you follow it too far, you’ll find it disappearing into mist.

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Rabbit Holes and Believable Villains

I would say stop me if you’ve heard this before, but I know you have because I remember writing it.

My research is currently leading me down the garden path on many issues. But the one that’s currently occupying my brainspace is the nature of the struggle that forms the core of the book I thought I had a good handle on why that conflict had occurred, why it had stopped, and the motivations of all the players.

But reading about real-world analogues throws up annoying questions of internal consistency. As I’ve mentioned before, fiction is a highly streamlined version of reality (no one goes to the toilet, no one gets a terrible itch in an embarrassing place at a crucial moment, etc.), so there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter to the reader. Or is the sort of thing that only comes up as the last question in an Author Q&A by a particularly obsessive fan (“Is it true, Ms Rowling, that Wizards don’t pay any income tax at all?”).

But sometimes, you as an author, need that level of obsessiveness. It’s a clockwork universe for an author, and things have to be explained in an internally consistent way. If you start doing too much handwaving to warp your universe to meet your plot or character demands then the whole edifice can topple over under the weight of its own contrivance. The horrifying, if necessary, alternative is to retrospectively alter your painstakingly crafted writing in order to reflect the rules of the world that you have created.

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So my problem is that I had an idea in my head about the motivations of the factions in my book and these ideas are looking pretty simplistic when I examine real-life counterparts.The real world has incredibly complex dynamics of personal and group identity, economics, geography and external interference. If that sounds eye-glazing, it sort of is. But it’s this long chain that leads down into why people, organisations and social groups behave in the way they do.

To dive into a complex conflict zone is to stand on the rubble of a thousand battles, a hundred thousand bodies, a million recollections and a billion conflicting accounts and experiences, all of which feed into how individuals process the conflict and order their view of the world and other people within it.

A villain that does things for villainous or selfish reasons is easy to write. Personal revenge is even easier, as the circumstances that lead to the villainous behaviour have a clear cause-and-effect relationship. When the putative villains are actually processing a huge weight of history, identity and personal experience and this leads them to villainy, it’s more believable, but requires a detailed understanding of how all those factors intersect.

That’s grist to the mill of my plot, which is fundamentally consumed with issues of conflict, post-conflict and reconstruction. So does it matter if I take short-cuts and assume that people behave in certain ways and that certain circumstances coalesce because they’d make a more interesting story?

Shakespeare’s stories are somewhat famous for taking inspiration from worlds that he basically knew nothing about. The real-life Macbeth was absolutely within his rights to be outraged at old Duncan’s betrayal of Scots inheritance tradition by appointing his own son as his heir. Henry V is Pro-Tudor propaganda of the highest order. This does not detract from the power of the worlds which he created or from the dramatic intensity of his characters motivations within those worlds, and to nitpick on those grounds is one of the shortest paths possible to being considered a crank.

It may or may not come as a surprise, but I am no Shakespeare, and don’t have a huge amount of faith that panache and concentrated writing skill can carry the day. As in real life, as a writer I sometimes suffer from impostor syndrome, and am terrified of the accusation of being inauthentic, so I have to make sure that when I’m researching for fidelity to real life that I’m doing it to enhance my writing and not just to defend myself from my own  internal critic, which is the harshest foe an author has to face.

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For those who came in late…

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Welcome to all those posters who are visiting the blog on the back of Ben Aaronovitch’s dialogue with me in his twitter. It’s a salutary reminder that exposure matters!

In any case, the basic purposes of this blog are as follows:

a) To guilt me into keeping focused on writing, rewriting and editing my novel;
b) allow me to riff on writing as a process, literature as a craft (as well as an art); and
c) keep me off the streets.

Browse through the archives, where you can see a lot of my wittering about Worldbuilding, Character, Plot and the important issue of getting your audience to buy into that wonderful story you’re writing. There are also a few semi-reviews in which I take the opportunity presented by what I’m reading to go off on another tangent about what works and what doesn’t.

Explore. Comment. Enjoy!

 

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Laser-like precision: Ben Aaronovitch and Audience Targetting

Recently, I raced through a four book series in less than a week, slamming down over 1500 pages with a compulsion that surprised me.

The series was Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London series (four books and counting). The books are part police procedural, part urban fantasy, part on-the-knees worship of the City of London.

The series strongly resembles China Mieville‘s Kraken, in that it is a lovingly detailed picture of modern London, with the supernatural bubbling  just below the surface, being both membership of standard London subcultures, as well as having their own distinct social scene.

Whereas Mieville’s work is (typically) a dark and cynical take on humanity and inequality, Aaronovitch takes his tone primarily from The Bill and arguably Life on Mars. Criminals are criminals, but they’re also people who have rational motivations and are empathetic enough to those they consider friends. The main protagonist and voice of the series, Peter Grant, is a London bobby, and enmeshed in the culture of The Met. Due to a chance encounter with a ghost, he becomes attached to a tiny branch of the police force delegated with keeping the Queen’s peace amongst the supernatural community, in whom the biggest players are the demi-gods of the various rivers that run through the city.

Unlike some similar works, where a badge entitles the holder to storm about and grown menacingly at potential miscreants, the world of the Rivers of London is policing by consent, using the very English ideals of compromise and informal “arrangements” to keep order. Therefore the heavy jackboot of the law is  leavened with a lot of careful negotiation and boring information-gathering legwork.

The “procedural” part of the series is taken seriously, with Police methods and jargon being deployed liberally, with crime-scene etiquette, police equipment and organisational politics shown in well-researched detail. A lot of things are deployed liberally, to be honest. London historical minutiae are fired off at the reader regularly, as are diversions about architecture and a massive slew of pop culture references, from Aliens to Doctor Who (Aaronovitch is a former writer) to Harry Potter to Star Wars to The Sweeney.

All this would be feel stuffed into the story and over-egged exposition, save for one key factor, which is that the narrator is a massive geek with a cocker-spaniel’s attention span and a magpie’s eye for interesting detail. The character is still socially skilled, enjoys his pints and football (soccer) and enjoys a pretty good strike rate with the opposite sex, but this identification (and self-identification) allows for all manner of arcana (pun intended) to be sprinkled throughout the text in a way that would feel deeply unnatural with a less introspective or more hard-bitten hero.

This is where the audience targetting comes in. I am a massive geek. A decent proportion of the Speculative Fiction community also has similar common cultural referents. It’s the ability to share a sideways grin with the author that provides a considerable amount of the enjoyment whilst reading. This is an important way in which Aaronovitch builds a bridge to his readers, giving the readers a strong sense of solidarity with the main character, especially when other characters don’t get the reference. Giving the reader a shared world with the main character which is not shared with the other characters in your story is also used extensively in children’s fiction, where adults are strange creatures who just don’t understand the world of their children and don’t even seem to speak the same language.

This is canny writing in several ways, not least of which is marketability. If you feel a sense of personal ownership of a book, you’re far more likely to recommend it to friends, inviting them to join your private club, where the grownups aren’t allowed. If you’re already a paid-up member of the Nerd Kingdom, it provides reinforcement of your sense of group solidarity to have a hero “of your tribe”. This is where your market research comes in. What are the expectations of your genre (or subgenre)? What are the main features and touchstones within the “typical” work? Have you catered to those needs? Is your work identifiable as being part of a larger field?

This isn’t to say that you abandon the story you’re trying to write, or that you forswear originality in favour of meeting the needs of a conservative, inflexible fanbase. Some do, of course, and have successful careers on that basis. What I am saying is that readers seek the familiar as much as they seek the novel (once again, pun entirely intended), and that knowing and featuring those familiar elements can lead to readers investing more heavily in your book, and in falling prey to that Stockholm syndrome we all prize as a reader experience.

This is not to say that Rivers of London doesn’t stand on its own feet in terms of plot and character. Each book has its standalone elements, but it’s clear from book two that Aaaronovitch is playing a long game, leaving plot elements entirely unresolved by book’s end, only to pop up in unexpected ways a couple of books later, along with characters being introduced in one book, to become an off-page player in another, to reappear in a cameo later on. The sprawling mass of characters and plots is well handled, and the characters are drawn distinctively enough that even if they don’t feature in a book, their presence hovers over proceedings, woven into the very fabric of the setting.

I’d slightly hesitate to recommend this to a general audience, just because I’m not 100% sure how well the humour in the series plays if you’re not steeped in sci-fi and fantasy references. But if you’ve a liking for the “New Weird” but want something a little more accessible, or if you’ve a passionate interest in London history and architecture, bang up alongside the finest in fictionalised British Law Enforcement, then I heartily recommend you give this series a go.

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