Uncategorized

Why I Won’t Pirate Books

As a leftist, I’m meant to take a stand against profit driven enterprises. Many people on my end of the political spectrum decry copyright law as inherently exploitative, keeping art and literature in the hands of the privileged class and denying the working class access to content. To some extent, this is true. We’ve all heard stories about giant movie studies going after small YouTube creators for using movie clips, or HBO suing individuals who downloaded one episode of Game of Thrones. When multi-billion dollar industries, and the corporations behind them, take on individuals, people who usually have limited resources with which to fight these companies for small copyright infractions, it is hard to side with the creators. Those of us who were downloading music on Napster in the early 00s remember how much ridicule Metallica endured for suing Napster and asking the company to ban users who downloaded Metallica’s music (which they did). When piracy is seen as a conflict between the big guy and the little guy, we tend to side with the little guy.

The problem with book piracy is that often the piracy of books is not about the little guy versus the big guy, it is about the little guy versus the other little guy. Authors may be under contract with publishers, who are indeed large companies with a lot of resources, but the authors themselves have little control over what these companies do with their money. Authors themselves, contrary to what many people think, are not rich. Those six figure advances that the public hears about are the exception, not the rule, and for every J.K. Rowling there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who struggle to make even the equivalent of minimum wage for their work. While you may think that by pirating a book you’re sticking it to a big corporation, a publisher like Random House or a bookseller like Barnes and Noble, you’re also directly impacting authors.  Every book that you download is a sale the author does not make, and money that the author does not earn. Are the large corporations impacted? Yes and no. Because large publishing companies publish thousands of books a year, including bestsellers guaranteed to sell regardless of whether or not pirated versions are available, downloading one pirated book is unlikely to make the same impact upon say, Random House, as it would upon the author of that book.

Nor is book piracy similar to the piracy of television shows or movies. If you download an episode of Game of Thrones you can rest assured that the directors, actors, and writers will be paid regardless (and paid well). Downloading an episode of a television show means that you did not pay for the subscription service or view the advertising that funds these shows. Still, these shows are massively successful and piracy does not generally jeopardize their existence.  Book sales operate on an entirely different premise. An author is paid an advance for a book, and must make the amount of that advance in sales before they see a penny in royalties. Most advances are modest, and rarely amount to more than what would be a year’s salary for most people, say $30,000-$50,000, even though books represent sometimes two or three years worth of work on the part of the writer. Sometimes advances are even less. Again, an author does not start earning royalties until their books have earned back the advance. At that point, the author earns money, or royalties, on every book sold.

Authors, by and large, do not have many other ways to make money aside from book sales. While bands might sell merchandise and play to packed stadiums, or sell the rights to their songs to movies, TV shows and films, writers, for the most part, must rely book sales to make money. There is the slight possibility that a writer might sell the television or movie rights, this doesn’t happen to all, or even most authors. Some authors like J.K. Rowling may create an entire intellectual property based upon their works, with toys, posters, and t-shirts, these authors represent a tiny minority of the whole. The vast majority of writers rely on book sales and the occasional paid appearance to earn a living.

Many people who complain about greedy authors who oppose piracy seem to imagine the author as a figure of immense privilege, when in fact writers often work several jobs in addition to writing because writing alone rarely pays the bills. And while being able to write at all certainly implies a degree of inherent privilege — an education, perhaps, enough time each day to set aside for writing — writers are not, by and large, wealthy people. They struggle to pay the rent. They’re paying off college loans. They’ve got kids to support. Writers are not sitting in castles counting their stacks of cash, they’re people, just like you and I. Authors are not trying to deprive people of reading material out of greed, they simply want to be properly compensated for work that represents years of time and effort.

While it can certainly be argued that the entire capitalist system of modern publication is something that needs to be revamped, leftist thought has never involved denying workers the right to make a living. Writers provide an essential service, creating stories that entertain, educate, and inspire us. If writers cannot make a living, these stories will cease to exist. And in our current society, if publishers deem certain books unprofitable, those authors will lose their contracts, those books will cease to be published. Writer Maggie Stiefvater most famously planted a fake pirated copy of the fourth book in her Raven Boys series after piracy took its toll on the sales of the third book. When would-be pirates downloaded the fourth book and found it incomplete (with a message at the end the portion regarding the impact of piracy), they were forced to purchase the book outright, and sales of that book far outpaced those of the third. When we download books illegally, not only do our favorite authors lose the ability to make a living, we may lose the ability to read these authors’ books at all.

So, you understand that authors are not rich, and you don’t want them to lose money, but you still can’t afford books. What can you do? In the year 2020, if you live in the English speaking world, there are a great number of ways to access books online without violating authors’ copyrights or interfering with their ability to make a living. If your town doesn’t have a good old fashioned brick and mortar library, or your library’s selection is limited, most libraries now allow for the borrowing of e-books. Libby, for instance, is an app that lets you connect to libraries all over the country and will give you access to potentially millions of e-books for free. You are not limited to simply one library either — you can sign into multiple libraries with one device. Again, Libby is entirely free (I’m not being paid to plug Libby, I promise, I am just a big fan!), and because libraries have contracts with publishers that grant them legal licenses for the books that are in their systems, authors get paid when you use the service. Aside from Libby there are services such as Scribd which are relatively low cost — a subscription to Scribd costs $9.99 a month and grants access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks. And of course, any books that are already in the public domain are freely available on a multitude of sites.

Perhaps one day society will be remade and artists will be supported by state funding or endowments for the arts, and books, artwork, movies, and music will all be available to everyone at no cost. Certainly writers and artists would be the first ones to rejoice if there were a way to ensure that  not only would they be fairly compensated for their work, their work could reach an even broader audience. In the meantime though, we do not yet live in that society. It is cruel to argue that writers should have no control over the products of their own labor. And while there are some writers today who are willing to write for the sake of it (I’m receiving no money for writing this blog, after all), and who will freely disseminate their work, it is unfair to expect writers to do this on a regular basis while maintaining consistent output and professional standards. If we think of authors as workers, writing as labor, and books as the fruits of that labor, then taking books away from the writers who created them and giving them nothing in return, is hardly a progressive stance. What’s even more shameful is treating authors as the enemy because they have the audacity to ask that people not pirate. Authors are simply people trying to make a living. Speak out against an unjust system, against publishers, Amazon, big box stores, but authors? All authors want is some small compensation for their labor, and if that makes them the enemy, then so is anyone else who refuses to work for free.

General Writing

Dialog: It’s All About the Relationships

Fictional dialog is full of obstacles. As I suggested in an earlier blog, fictional dialog is not realistic, since it generally omits the hesitations, digressions and repetitions of actual speech. Instead, it creates the illusions of speech by imitating how most people imagine that they speak. Yet even that realization may not be enough to produce effective dialog. Too often, writers fail to think deeply about the structure of a conversation, although the essentials can be summarized as three main points: dialog is about relationships, interactions can be interpreted differently by participants, and conversations can preserve those relationships or alter them.

These insights are not original with me. They are adapted from The Pragmatics of Human Communications, one of the classic studies about how people interact. Written by by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson fifty years ago, it has never been out of print since, and is a standard text in psychology and communication courses. Its subjects include the structure of an ordinary conversation. It does not specifically discuss fiction, but its comments do suggest how to write effective dialog. If your dialog seems flat and lifeless, one reason may be that you are ignoring everything about your dialog except the words themselves. Or, to put the case another way, you are not giving the whole conversation, and that may be why you have trouble writing

Pragmatic’s first insight that writers can borrow is that a conversation is about more than the topic being discussed. For instance, superficially, a mother telling her son to clean his room is a request to perform a common task. However, on another level it can be about the mother’s wish to control her children and her house, and the son’s wish to be more independent. Similarly, two friends recalling a concert might be less about getting seats near the stage and getting the singer’s autograph than reinforcing the friendship. The participants are mostly unaware of this deeper level, but it explains why what might seem like a request to do a simple chore can end in a fight, or nostalgia can make friends feel closer. Dialog is not just about the topic — it’s about the relationship between those involved in the conversation.

As a writer, you may never mention the relationship. Yet understanding its importance can help you shape what each participant says. You know that the mother is aware that her son is growing away from her and on some level wants to slow the process, and that the son feel stifled. You know that the two friends are bonding as they recall their shared past. You know, too, that mother will be surprised when her straightforward request turns into an argument, or the two friends sit back and open another beer.

Another useful observation is that while certain events might occur in a conversation, the participants can interpret them differently — or punctuate them, to use the term in Pragmatics. From the mother’s perspective, she nags because her son ignores her. However, from the son’s perspective, he ignores her because she nags. Otherwise, if he didn’t ignore her, he would get angry with her and they would clash more. But which is right? From a psychiatrist’s or a writer’s point of view, it hardly matters. What matters, and what the writer can use to enhance the dialog, directly or indirectly, is the fact that the difference in opinion exists.

However, from the perspective of your characters, who is correct can matter greatly, and sometimes emerge as the dialog’s topic. As the union folk singer Utah Phillips used to tell his audience, everybody assigns blame in their own best interest. More importantly, if blame is relative, then one of the major privileges in society is who assigns blame. As a result, what punctuation is generally accepted can often be hotly debated. The son in my example, being in a subordinate position, might argue his interpretation as a means to assert his position, while the mother insists on hers in order to maintain her position. This is a point that Pragmatics does not cover, but is a natural extension of its observations: punctuation is often about power.

The third point that writers can take from Pragmatics is that whether the relationship reflected in the dialog changes depends on what the participants do or say. If the mother sees her son’s hostility, she may avoid an argument by softening her demand, or perhaps by giving him a hug. This is the definition of negative feedback — not hostile criticism, but feedback that keeps the relationship more or less as it it. By contrast, if the mother takes offense at the son’s wish for independence, her request might turn into positive feedback, encouraging him to become more surly, until the relationship finds a new balance for better or worse. As a writer, knowing whether the relationship of those talking will stay the same or change can help you know what to write.

What these points come down to is this: when you write dialog, focus on the relationship of the participants as much as the words themselves. Doing so can add realism and tension to your dialog, and, even more importantly, tell you how a conversation will develop.

Uncategorized

No, I Haven’t Written the Next King Lear

Many of us are currently under “shelter in place” orders, only allowed to leave our homes for supplies and essential work. Some of us are even quarantined, and not supposed to leave the house at all. It sounds, in theory, like a writers dream come true. After all, who among us hasn’t thought “imagine all the writing I could get done if I didn’t have to go to my day job?”

However, many of us aren’t getting much writing done. Twitter is full of writers who are stuck, unable to write, even under these seemingly “ideal conditions.” We are continually reminded that Shakespeare produced King Lear while holed up hiding from the plague, and feel guilty at being unable to do the same.

The problem is, these “ideal conditions” are actually anything but. These are uncertain times. Many of us have friends and loved ones who are ill, and even if we don’t, we are existing in a state of constant anxiety. It is hard for me to tear myself away from obsessively virus statistics, constantly refreshing Facebook, Twitter, and news sites, checking for new announcements. As of now, my state says we will return to school (where I work) on April 6th. I don’t see how that can possibly happen, but our state government refuses to make any long term plans. I am worried about the virus too. I am not technically part of the vulnerable group, many of my relatives are, including my mother, who lives with me.

Which is all to say, anxiety, worry, and uncertainty are not exactly the best conditions for creative output.  I was supposed to write this article on Sunday, but it has been hard for me to sit down and focus long enough to get it written. I know I am not the only one.

Creativity requires a particular mindset. Generally, writers work best when we’re not distracted by outside worries or pressures. Since writing takes a great deal of emotional energy, if your emotional energy is all used up worrying about the state of the world, about your loved ones’ health, about your job, or even how you’re going to survive being cooped up for another month or so, you’re unlikely to be at your creative best.

However, I want to write during this time, but paradoxically, in order to write, I have had to forgive myself for not writing. I cannot add disappointment with myself over being relatively nonproductive to my stressors at the moment. There is enough for us to worry about in March 2020, and we don’t need to add our inability to produce King Lear added to our worries. Give yourself permission to write, or not write, as you feel able.

For my own creative energy (and for my own mental health as well) I’ve also decided to make sure that I stay away from the news cycle and off of social media for a set period each day. No checking the news, no refreshing my Twitter feed, no turning on the television. I read a book, or watch a show, play with my pets, and sometimes I even try to write. We all need a break from obsessing over the increasingly depressing statistics about this pandemic. It is hard, I know. We’re experiencing something that most people reading this will not have experienced in living memory. The temptation to follow the news is greater for the newness of it all. It reminds me a bit of the post 9-11 days, when we the entire country was glued to our television sets, entirely unsure what was coming next. Eventually though, there comes a point when twenty four hour news cycle and the endless social media discourse only amplifies our anxieties. Give yourself permission to disconnect, even if it’s only for a few hours.

Most importantly, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves and each other. Reach out and start a chat with someone if you’re feeling stressed out or overwhelmed. Pick up the phone and give that friend you haven’t spoken to in ages a call. Check up on your friends who you suspect might be having a hard time. Writers, by nature, tend to be sensitive people. We feel things deeply, which is what allows us to create moving stories that speak to our readers, but it also means that tragedies and crises like these hit us particularly hard.

If you have writers in your life, don’t pester them about why they haven’t written the next King Lear, ask them if they’re doing alright and lend an ear if they need someone to talk to. And if you’re a writer, remember, for every one of us who might be writing the next King Lear, there are many many more of us who are doing nothing of the sort. You are not alone.

Fiction

Coining Names

If your story has a conventional setting, naming characters is easy. Online lists of names for various eras and ethnicities makes the task a matter of selection rather than invention, although, as my critique partner Jessica points out, you may run into cultural considerations, such as not naming a Chinese character for a god. But if your setting is an imaginary world, your task is more difficult, and requires some forethought.

Of course, as with any names, the ones you coined should generally be evenly distributed throughout the alphabet, especially for the main characters. If each character’s name starts with a different letter, you make telling them apart easier for the reader. In the same way, varying the number of syllables can be a memory aid. Usually, too, the words should be generally easy to pronounce – unless, of course, you mean for one to be a jaw-breaker.

But where do the names come from? Despite the frequent suggestions in online writers’ group, I would discourage using Internet name generators. Not only do most of them conform to stock types like dwarves and elfs, but what is good enough for a game may not be suitable for fiction. For example, one name generator suggested “Brassica” as a name for a dryad – the scientific name for cabbages and related plants. Enough said?

One useful method is to build the name on a word that suggests how a character is meant to be regarded. For example, from “skull,” I coined the name “Skulae” for a vicious character. Even more obviously, I called a morose character with a dry sense of humor “Morgrim.” Readers may not consciously make the association, but I maintain that it still works on a unconscious level.

I have another method when I want to suggest a real life ethnicity. Many cultures use names with particular naming patterns. For example, Frankish men’s names often ended in “pert,” Germanic women’s names in “hild.” Once you have the pattern, all you need is supply the rest of the name to produce names like “Chilpert” or “Janhild.”

If you are really stuck, pick five words at random. You can select from a dictionary, or even a password generator like xkcd-pass, which uses random words. Then, recombine the results to produce original words. For example, if I picked

casually niece pushiness fifth clapper enduring

Some of the words I might generate include “Clapduring,” “Perpush,” and “Fifiece.” Nor would I hesitate to add a letter here and there to improve the result. For instance, instead of “Perpend,” I might settle on “Perpendes.”

Whatever the method, I prefer to prepare possible names ahead of time. I keep a general dictionary, and a specialized one for each culture I depict. Each of the specialized ones is based on a real language, or else the unique sounds or letter-combinations I have assigned to the culture. I currently have a dictionary of over five hundred coined names, so when I need one, all I need to do is consult my dictionaries.

Many writers coin names by other methods, such as reading a word in reverse or deliberately mis-hearing what someone said. There’s nothing wrong with such alternatives, if they give satisfactory results. However, by semi-organizing the process, I find that I get more pleasing results. Probably many of the names in my dictionaries will never be uses (and, in some cases, no doubt shouldn’t be). But maintaining dictionaries of names streamlines the process, and minimizes the interruption when I suddenly need a name while writing.

Uncategorized

Writing and Readiness: Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Share

Sharing your writing can be, perhaps, one of the most exhilarating and simultaneously terrifying parts of the entire writing process. Most of us seasoned writers have been there — the anxiety as your finger hovers over the send button, the way you refresh your email with a mixture of dread and anticipation, waiting for that feedback, the rush that only a compliment can bring, as well as the crushing sense of defeat that comes with a bad critique. As creators, most of us are driven to share our creations, no matter how terrifying that sharing may be. Therefore, what I am about to advise may seem counterintuitive to many writers, who, eager for feedback, are considering showing their work to others.

Creating something is a heady feeling, and it is natural, having created something, to desire some sort of recognition for your creation, a validation of your efforts. However, no matter how strong that impulse may be, don’t click send right away. First, ask yourself several questions.

First, you should ask is my writing ready to be viewed by others? That is, have I produced a clean draft that is relatively free of distracting errors, that makes sense, and can be read with relatively little background information or knowledge? Showing a potential reader or critique partner a draft that is overly rough is going to leave a poor first impression on the reader. Furthermore, while your draft of course doesn’t need to be perfect, if it is full of errors, has continuity issues, plot holes, or other issues that you should have been able to catch yourself, your reader will be distracted and tempted to comment on issues that are easy fixes versus commenting on your true areas of weakness.

Next, ask yourself, what do I hope to get out of sharing this manuscript at this stage? If what you want is to receive constructive criticism, to understand your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, then you’re on the right track. If your answer is validation, compliments, or encouragement, then think very carefully before sharing. If you are the kind of person who finds positive comments to be the best form of motivation, then you need to be very clear with your readers that you are only looking for motivation at this point, not criticism, even of the constructive sort. While I personally think there is limited value in this sort of reader interaction, I have known fanfic writers who find positive comments to be an almost addictive kind of positive reinforcement. However, the danger in receiving only positive feedback is that when you begin to receive honest, critical feedback, that feedback can be even more difficult to accept.

Which leads to another question you need to ask yourself, how will I react to negative criticism of my manuscript? Am I ready to hear negative feedback about something that I have invested considerable time, effort, and emotional energy into? As an editor, I have given well-meaning and gentle criticism that a writer has nevertheless described as “tearing apart” his work. I have known writers who have fallen into writing slumps, and even into depression, after receiving less than glowing feedback. Understand, once you send your manuscript to someone else or post it online, the kind of reactions you will get are entirely out of your control. It can be extremely disheartening when a piece that you are particularly proud of gets a harsh critique, and being disappointed is natural.

However, the ability to take on criticism and not take it as a personal attack is essential if you are going to be soliciting writing advice from others. An inability to do so does not mean you’ll never succeed as a writer, it means at this point in time sharing your writing isn’t a healthy choice for you personally. Be honest with yourself. Are you currently in the mental frame of mind to handle criticism? If not, it is fine to write simply for yourself — everything you write, no matter who sees it or doesn’t see it, is a step towards you becoming the writer you want to be.

Further, even if you know that mentally you could handle negative criticism, if writing is a relatively new endeavor, there may be limited value in receiving negative criticism, even constructive criticism. So ask yourself, am I ready to receive criticism at this point in my writing journey? New writers who receive too much advice too early on can easily become confused and frustrated. It is important before you start receiving critiques from others that you develop some writerly instincts of your own, and develop the ability to tell good advice, advice that will improve your manuscript, from advice that you can discard.

Receiving criticism is something every writer, in order to improve, must one day face. However, soliciting criticism is a big step, and each writer must take it when doing so will be most beneficial to the writer and the work. Taking this step at the wrong point in the writing process could in fact do more harm than good.

Fiction

The Hero’s Journey vs The Emperor of Everything

I waited two-thirds of my life to see The Lord of the Rings filmed. When the movies finally came out, I was over the moon. The first two movies were not my Lord of the Rings, but they were recognizably related, and since no one was about to hand me the money to produce my own version, I was well-contented. Then the third movie came out – and after three hours of high drama, it stumbled at the end because of what it – and nine-tenths of fantasy leaves out.

Of course, something had to be left out, or the ten hours of movies might have stretched to forty. However, what director Peter Johnson cut while he was tidying up the third movie was not a stand-alone episode like Tom Bombadil, that might have been good fun, but did little to advance the story. Instead, it was the most vital part of the story of the Hero’s journey, how, after enduring and triumphing in a series of trials, the Hero returns home with a hard-won knowledge of self to give the benefits of his or her journey to the community.

What the third movie left out was the chapter Tolkien called “The Scouring of the Shire.” In it, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin come home to find it taken over by Saruman and his remnant of henchman and petty thieves. Having traveled and witnessed heroic deeds, and even done a few themselves, the four hobbits quickly overcome the remnants of Saurman’s forces, and settle down to what – for Sam in particular – is the lifelong task of restoring the Shire to its former glory. In this task, they are aided by everything they have brought back frm their troubles, including their weapons and the livery of Gondor and Rohan, but Galadriel’s gift to Sam of a box of dirt and an acorn from her garden. In the most literal sense, what they have obtained on their travels is applied to their home. From this perspective, “The Scouring of the Shire” is not just part of an epilogue that Tolkien seems reluctant to end, but the payoff for the entire story. It is the end of the Hero’s journey, the part that makes the whole story archetypal and justified.

Omitting this part, and the story is incomplete. At best, it is an adventure story that fails to engage readers on any level that matters. At worst (and far more commonly), it is a power fantasy, the story that Norman Spinrad years ago called in an essay called “The Emperor of Everything.”

So what is wrong with a power-fantasy? Nothing, from the point of view of sales. You can hardly open a book, watch a film, or play a game without seeing The Emperor of Everything retold for the millionth time under another title. The story has a certain appeal to adolescents lacking a sense of identity. More importantly, in industries that depend on a steady stream of interchangable product, The Emperor of Everything requires little thought. Its producers can concentrate on promotion and not worry details like plot. What room is left for creativity can go for spectaculars, long-drawn out battles at the climax that only have to bedazzle, not to make sense.

But the Hero’s journey, the structure that powers myth and art, is more about that. The Hero’s journey is the transition from adolescence to hard-won adulthood. It is the story of the education of the Hero (who is at once both unique and Everyman), and giving the culture meaning. It is never about gaining power, wealth, and status for yourself. In a word, it is what separates art that we remember and cherish from an entertaining read or view that is quickly forgotten. On the symbolic level that most of human beings’ thinking takes place, or at least most of what matters.

Tolkien knew that. In anticipation of that ending, he has Frodo and Sam on the way to Mordor speculate and joke how one day they might be famous in song. That fantasy is not an adolescent dreaming of conquering all those who laugh at them, or winning the lover of their dreams. It is their reward for undertaking the Hero’s journey and becoming worthy. But without The Return that illustrates their newfound worthiness, the story is incomplete and can never be completely satisfying.

But I am not simply ranting at the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings, much less calling out Peter Jackson for his choices two decades ago. These are simply convenient examples. My point is, if your story seems flat and generic, ask yourself: Are you writing a new version of The Hero’s Journey for your times? Or just The Emperor of Everything? Is your hero Ironman, or Odysseus Always Returning? Superficially, these may look the same, but the difference is profound.

Uncategorized

Characters in Search of a Story

Over the years I’ve heard many writers say something along the lines of “so I’ve got this idea for a story,” but then they follow it up with something like this. “See, it’s about this girl. She has magic that hasn’t been seen for generations. Her parents died when she was a little girl, and she’s been raised by her grandfather. Everyone in the village hates her, and so she’s become very independent. She falls in love with the son of a lord, but his parents disapprove of her.” Or, they’ll approach me with ten pages of detailed character sheets, like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.  In both scenarios my reply is usually something along the lines of “great, but where’s the story?”

This is a mistake far too many beginning writers make, confusing story with character and assuming that a strong character alone is enough to carry a story. Even a character-driven story needs a strong plot to move the action forward, and the best stories are not those in which you could plop any old character down within the story’s world and the story would still hit the same plot points. If your story is designed this way, then congratulations, you’ve created a video game, and not a novel. After all, in a video game, the ending is pre-determined. You may choose various characters to act out the scenarios, and you may make various decisions along the way, but ultimately, your character is carried along by the plot, and not the other way around. Good storytelling in a novel, however, requires characters who are intrinsically tied to their plots, and vice versa.

The classic example often used to demonstrate the essential link between characters and plot is Hamlet and Macbeth. If you put Macbeth in Hamlet’s place, the play ends in the first act, Claudius dead, the end. If you put Hamlet into Macbeth’s place, then Hamlet never would have rebelled in the first place. The events of each play are intrinsically tied to the characters who create them. Events happen as a result of character actions and decisions.

This is why stories in which characters lack agency are often so frustrating. We keep reading, hoping that the character will act upon his circumstances, will make decisions, will do something to show why this character is so essential to this story. After all, if a character lacks agency, and is simply pushed along by the plot, then substitute literally anyone else, and the result would be relatively similar. No matter how interesting a character is, if that character’s unique traits are not driving the story, then the reader’s own interest will eventually wane.

This is why, for all that character sheets can be a fun and entertaining way to spend an afternoon, focusing too much on building a character without building the plot to go along with that character, can be a mistake. These sorts of stories are usually easy to recognize. The writer often starts off with a full cast of characters. We are given their full backstories, we meet their friends, their families, we see them on the job, we see them at school, but the story moves at a glacial pace and for all that the author has created a (sometimes interesting!) character, they have not presented that character with a conflict, have not given that character a motivation, have not written a story for that character.

The other type of character mistake occurs when a writer creates a character, and creates a plot, but there is a disconnect between the two, as if the characters and the plot each developed entirely independent of each other. Usually this happens when a writer starts with a character and realizes belatedly that the character needs a story.  Take our magical girl with the dead parents, raised by her grandparents. Perhaps the writer says, well, we need a conflict, so let’s throw in a war. Someone awful invades her country, kills someone she loves. She’s magical, and she makes it her mission to stop this invasion. There we go, plot. Rolling your eyes yet? Does this sound generic and interchangeable? It should! This scenario is where we end up with a character that lacks agency, who is pushed along by the plot, rather than being the force driving the plot. No matter how well developed our characters are, if they are not connected to the plot, the conflict will seem shallow.

It is absolutely fine to start with a character, or to be better at creating characters than at thinking up plots. The mistake is to create a character , or even a whole slew of characters, and decide that from that point you are ready to start your novel. Once you have created your character, more than identifying minutiae of your character’s personality, you need to identify your character’s motivation. Character sheets might suggest you ask yourself what your character’s favorite breakfast cereal is, or whether your character is a cat person or dog person, but the real questions you must ask about your characters are “what does my character want?” and “who or what is stopping them from getting it?”

Take our magical girl. What is it that she’s always wanted? Acceptance? A family? Who is stopping her from being accepted? Her awful village and her boyfriend’s parents, right? So when the invaders come, is this perhaps her chance to prove herself? To win acceptance from her people? What about a family of her own — if she helps win this war, will her lover’s family accept her as his wife? And maybe she does win, but finds that is not enough to gain acceptance — what then? Or perhaps they do accept her, and she’s still not happy?  Maybe all along she didn’t accept herself either, and the conflict wasn’t between her and the village at all, but between her and her own self doubt? The story then is not at all about winning or not winning the war, it is about our magic girl struggling for acceptance and learning to accept herself, which is a much more interesting story (if still a bit cliched, forgive me, it’s an off the cuff example, not the result of actual novel planning) than a simple story of heroes and invaders.

Ultimately, character and plot are interconnected. The best stories take unique characters and put them in situations that are equally unique to that character. If your character lacks either a clear conflict or a clear connection to the story’s conflict, you’re bound to have a mediocre story, no matter how interesting the character is.

General Writing, Uncategorized

A Thesaurus for Scene Transitions

For years, I’ve maintained that the secret of writing well is understanding structure. Most people can learn to write a pithy statement or paragraph if they are willing to put in the effort, but developing a sense of how ideas fit together is much more difficult. Nor is learning helped by the fact that we have little analysis of structure and consequently can only talk about it with considerable difficulty.

Take scene transition in fiction. We can sometimes use analogies from movie making, but, being different media, both fiction and film have transitions that the other lacks.

Finally, after years of waiting for someone else to analyze scene transitions, I thought it was time to approach the task myself, studying several dozen of my favorite novelists and short story writers for examples. This is a list of tactics I have observed so far. There are almost certainly more.

I’ll start with the obvious:

1. Continued Narrative:
In the most common transition, the story simply continues. The main artistic choice is how much time elapses between scenes: A few minutes, so that what is saved is only a few sentences of narration about something mundane, such as walking from a house to the car? Or a much longer period of hours, days, or years?

2. Flashback: The second scene happens earlier than the first. Sometimes, the first scene introduces the second. Usually, the flashback scene is shorter than the first, because readers are apt to see a flashback as a digression from the main character.

3. Infodump: Giving background information can slow a story down. One way to minimize the slow-down is to take advantage of the boost in interest created by a new chapter or scene and begin the second scene with a few paragraphs of infodump before returning to the action.

4. Collage: A variation of the infodump first developed in John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. Short pieces of information, such as newspaper headlines or quotes from imaginary books are placed between scenes. The information informs either the previous scene or the next one, possibly both. Seemingly random, the pieces of the collage need to be carefully chosen and arranged to be effective.

5. Establishing shot: A variety of infodump in which the setting is described before anything else, even the characters. Victorian novelists made heavy use of establishing shots, but modern audiences have less patience with them, especially if they are longer than a few paragraphs.

6. Starting in the Middle (in media res): The second scene starts in the middle of the action, and what is happening is only gradually revealed This transition is handy for restoring readers’ interest – with any luck, they’ll wand to continue reading to know what’s going on.

7. Change of viewpoint: The transition also marks a change in viewpoint character.

8. Parallelism: One scene ends with a thought or image that is mirror, sometimes distorted, in the next scene. For example, one scene might end with knife chopping down at a character, and the next with another character using a knife to chop carrots.

9. Dramatic irony: What one character thinks or states in the first scene is found in the second to be incomplete, inaccurate, or wrong. This transition might be considered a variation on parallelism.

10. Comparison / Contrast: The opposite of parallelism. The second scene is markedly different or similar in setting, time of day, tone, or action. For instance, the first scene may be set at night with a lone character, while the second features multiple characters in the sunlight.

11. Cause and effect: The second scene happens because of the first. For example, because Hamlet doesn’t kill his uncle in Act 3, Scene 3, he is harsher to his mother in Act 3, Scene 4, which follows immediately afterward.

In addition, there are at least two transitions which connect a variety of shots:

12. Tracking shots: A series of scenes in which a character moves through a variety of settings or completes a task. For instance, the start of Fiddler on the Roof shows the milkman on his daily rounds, while he sings about his culture and the inhabitants of the village are introduced.

13. Panorama: A series of scenes in which each on gives a different perspective on the same event. Usually, the event is something complex, like a battle or a disaster. However, it can also be used with more subtlety. For instance, Paul Edwin Zimmer’s The Lost Prince begins with characters within a few miles of each other looking out on various parts of the same city. As the scenes progress, the sun sinks lower in the sky and finally sets.

The first three listed probably account for the structure of the majority of short stories and novels. Often, writers use the same types of transitions over and over. American fantasist Avram Davidson, whose later stories were usually intricately crafted, started nearly two-thirds of his scenes with an infodump, while science fiction writer John Brunner would use the collage to suggest the fast pace of the information age. Similarly, Shakespeare, whose plays continue to influence English-language fiction, was fond of contrasts, particularly in the first acts in which characters are being introduced. As these examples show, transitions can form a major part of any writer’s style.

That alone makes them worth a closer look. If we can identify the different types of transitions, we can talk about them with greater ease, and learn more about how to put a story together. If nothing else, on a practical level, when we are unsure how a story should continue, we can scan the possibilities and maybe see the way through – or, at least, some possibilities with which to experiment.

Uncategorized

Why I Avoid Grimdark

I’ve never been much one for violent media. Movies, TV shows, books — I tend to avoid the bloody stuff. Which is not to say that I can’t handle gore, or that I’m squeamish about the sight of blood — I can handle violence, I just don’t like it. When given the choice of reading material, if I am told a book is extremely violent, I will likely avoid it. Therefore, if you know much about the fantasy genre known as “Grimdark,” it probably comes as no surprise to learn that I am not a huge fan.

Grimdark is a sub-genre of fantasy that is characterized by extreme violence, an amoral or nihilistic worldview, and a general tone of hopelessness. Grimdark is full of antiheroes rather than heroes, characters who are ultimately, if not evil, then at least self-serving. Grimdark does not moralize, in fact, perhaps one of the biggest distinguishing features of Grimdark is its postmodern relativistic view of the world — there is no good, there is no evil, there is only the harsh and stark reality of people trying their best to survive.

It is perhaps not difficult to imagine Grimdark’s appeal. Fans of the genre often site their preference for “realism” versus overt escapism of traditional epic fantasy. Whereas traditional fantasy tells the story of the young hero, called away on a quest, often to defeat a great evil. The hero is usually victorious, and evil is defeated. Of course, it is true, in the real world evil is not defeated quite so handily, and it is true too, that the real world is often brutal. However, if traditional epic fantasy only shows one side of humanity, the heroic, optimistic side, then Grimdark swings far in the other direction. Real life, true realism, is more balanced than either.

Grimdark justifies its violence and amorality with a view that humans nature is selfish, that the quest for individual power is all that really matters. War and death are presented as the inevitable outcome of human conflict, but the sheer scale and scope of death, the graphic descriptions, at some point, no longer horrify the reader. One recent Grimdark novel (I will not name names, my intent here is not to bash specific authors or books) lovingly described war atrocities, in detail, for a full six pages. The characters in this novel believe these deaths to be “the only way,” but in the grand scheme of things, the deaths change nothing. The war continues, atrocities pile up. For characters in Grimdark, death is justified, but it isn’t meaningful.

It might surprise readers to learn that my favorite book is The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is a book of stories about the Vietnam war, and as such, it is not without violence. In fact, The Things They Carried is at times downright gory — it describes a man stepping on a landmine, it describes desecration of enemy corpses, it describes a soldier brutally killing a baby water buffalo. However, despite all of this there is an undercurrent of hope that runs through the novel. The soldier who kills the baby water buffalo does so out of sheer despair over losing a friend in the war. Death changes these characters fundamentally, because these characters want more than individual power and glory. Although they may do horrible things, awful things, they are not irredeemable as human beings. Death in The Things They Carried is never justified, but it is meaningful.

Ultimately, Grimdark is an essential expression of the kind of moral relativism that has taken up much space in our modern consciousness. It tells us that there is no absolute  good, and that therefore everything, even extreme violence, has its place in an amoral world. In a world where humans are ultimately self-interested, empathy, compassion and self-reflection have no place. Violence is a means to and end, and while it is sometimes regrettable, it is rarely preventable. Violence is the inevitable and “rational” result of human actions. In fact, there is perhaps a large Venn diagram overlap between the fans of Grimdark and the internet types who harp on about logic and reason. If violence is the logical result, then it becomes, once more, realistic, and none can argue that it is gratuitous.

In fact, when violence is seen as the logical and inevitable result of humanity’s selfish nature, then there is no reason to decry it. For those who relish violent scenes of death and destruction, Grimdark offers an excellent excuse. Go ahead, Grimdark says, and enjoy the awesome battles and gory beheadings, because what other alternative is there? The world is a horrible place, so here, have your bread and circuses, but don’t imagine for a second that there is any chance for change.

I refuse to believe that the world is an inherently selfish place. Now, more than ever, I need to believe that there is an inherent drive in humanity towards cooperation, a desire to help one another, rather than hurt. I cannot relish in violence, in death. The author of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, is a Vietnam war veteran himself, and his book is full of empathy for all of those people touched by the horrors of war. Those who have experienced war themselves know that hopelessness is no way to get through dark times, and these are dark times indeed. Embracing the grim darkness that represents the worst that humanity has to offer is something I cannot bring myself to do, not when the world is so desperately in need of the light.