General Writing

The Spine of the Story

For me, one of the key concepts of writing is the spine of the story: what the story is about, or the theme, if you’re an English major. William Goldman the author of The Princess Bride, named the concept in Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? He was referring to screenplays, but the concept holds true for fiction as well, whether for entire novels, or for chapters, individual scenes, or even paragraphs. Until you discover the spine, your writing is apt to be directionless or colorless, except by accident.

As Goldman explains, the spine is not the plot. The plot is a sequence of events, with later event caused by earlier ones. Instead, the spine is what you want writers to think about the events of the plot. For example, imagine your plot is about how an unknown person of obscure beginnings rises to become emperor. The same events could have many different spines: how ambition corrupts, how humble people are to be relied on rather those in powers, how youthful dreams are corrupted with maturity, or any of a dozen others. Which one you choose is entirely up to you, and probably you won’t discover it until well into the first draft, or until the second. However, once you have found the spine, you know what to include and what to exclude. Sometimes, knowing the spine can also suggest new directions for the story. The same is true for sub-plots as much as main plots

Possibly, discovering the spine, it can take you out of the trap I fell into two-thirds of the way through my first draft. I kept writing, and each chapter read well in itself. However, reading my latest chapters together, I had to admit that they seemed directionless. I had lost all concept of where the story was heading, and each chapter became harder to write than the previous one. At last, as I ground to a crawl, I went back and thought about the story until I found the spine. I retreated several chapters, and I am currently re-writing with the spine in mind. So far, the result feels a far strong story. I even discovered a small sub-plot to reinforce the main one.

On a smaller scale, I wrote scene in which a small group was traveling, hoping to meet others going the opposite direction and faced with the possibility of pursuit. I told what happened, but the story had all the life of a breaded cod. So I considered the spine, and to me it was obvious that the group would be anxious– increasingly so as neither of the events anticipated happened. As simply as that, the scene had tension and was far more interesting to read.

There is a catch, however. Although Goldman did not mention the fact, I find that knowing the spine works best if your narrative never mentions it, or any near synonym. Instead, knowing the spine should be the criteria for deciding details. For example, I never once mention that my anxious group is anxious, or nervous or uneasy. Rather, the spine suggests details: everyone walks faster, they stop singing, and keep looking to their weapons. In other words, the spine I assigned tells me the kind of effects I want.

What I like about Goldman’s concept is that it is a way to think rationally about the creative problems of writing. It is not required, yet when I examine scenes I wrote without thinking about the spine, I find those that are most effective have a unity of detail similar to those written when I did. I find the spine a way around any difficulties, and a best practice as well. Increasingly, it is becoming a standard tool when I write.


The Non-Cliffhanger Cliffhanger

One day, I am going to write a book or blog about the basic strategies for ending a story. When I taught composition at Simon Fraser University, I had handouts on starting and ending strategies for essays, so if I research, theoretically I can do the same for short stories and novels. Towards that goal, I would like to comment on one of the most unusual conclusions I have ever seen: the end of King Chondos’ Ride by my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer. At first glance, it looks like a cliffhanger, but, on closer inspection, it is a graceful economy of storytelling in which what happens next is obvious.

Paul Edwin Zimmer was a founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the younger brother of Marion Zimmer Bradley. Given the revelations about his sister’s child abuse, I should quickly add that he was nothing like his sister, and would have been horrified had he known what she did. He published a handful of fantasies, all of which are sadly out of print, but deserve to be better known. King Chondos’ Ride is the second book of The Dark Border, following The Lost Prince. The story has too many battle scenes for my taste, but is brilliantly structured, with characters who contrast each other and together make up a study of what it means to be a hero that is unequalled anywhere.

Paul told me that the ending is inspired by William Morris’ “The Defence of Guenevere.” In the poem, Guenevere, King Arthur’s Queen, is on trial for adultery with Sir Launcelot. Guenevere mounts a spirited defense, insisting that she was put in the impossible position of having to choose between two splendid men, and implying that while she may have broken her marriage vows, she had remained loyal to Arthur. The last three verses are:

“All I have said is truth, by Christ’s dear tears.”

She would not speak another word, but stood

Turn’d sideways; listening, like a man who hears

His brother’s trumpet sounding through the wood

Of his foes’ lances. She leaned eagerly,

And gave a slight spring sometimes, as she could

At last hear something really; joyfully

Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed

Of the roan charger drew all men to see,

The knight who came was Launcelot at good need.

There is no need to go on to describe Launcelot’s battle to rescue her. To do so would detract from Guenevere’s spirited defence. Besides, writing in the Victorian Age, Morris could take for granted that his characters would know that Launcelot would rescue her. The few who might not know the story could gather from the final verses that a rescue was on the way.

In his book, Paul set up a similar situation, making anything beyond his final paragraph redundant. Early in The Dark Border, Istvan and Martos, two of the main characters, are separately attacked on the streets by gangs of men. Both survive, although seriously outnumbered.

At the conclusion, the plot to replace the king of the land with his evil twin is discovered and foiled. The twin flees into obscurity. Through tragic circumstances, Istvan kills Martos, who has been deceived by the evil twin and believes he defends the rightful king. Istvan’s victory leaves no doubt that he is the greatest living swordsmen in the land. Istvan notices a door ajar and opens it to discover supporters of the evil twin who are in wait to kill the greatest in the land and create chaos, unaware that they have been abandoned. The supporters move towards him, thinking “it was only one man.”

The final paragraph reads simply: “Then the greatest of living warriors was among them, and his sword was singing.”

It’s an economic piece of writing that never fails to make my heart leap. Like Morris before him, Paul has stopped exactly at the point where what happens next is inevitable. Obviously, undeniably, Istvan is about to slaughter the supporters of the evil brother. With his twin gone, the true king will reign uncontested. Readers can fill in the details for themselves, so why belabor what they already know? Lesser writers like me would probably provide an epilogue to leave no doubt, and really bad writers might provide another chapter or even another book, but Paul knew better.

In order to work, this tactic requires careful setup. The story has to unfold in such a way that what comes after the final paragraph cannot be mistaken. Even then, readers may mistake it for a cliffhanger. After King Chondos’ Ride was released, so many came up to Paul at conventions to ask when the next book would be published that he took to wearing a button that said, “There is no third book” and would simply point at it when asked. I never could figure out what they expected, since all the plot points had been resolved, but it points to a possible weakness: unobservant readers conditioned by cliché.

So far, I have never dared to imitate Paul’s tactic. Still, I admire its chutzpah, and one day I hope to find a situation where it is appropriate.

General Writing

Vocabulary Gingerbread

I would have thought that George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” said everything about the importance of clarity in writing that is necessary to say. However, Orwell wrote seventy-two years ago, and his examples of bad writing seem dated today. Consequently, many people today have never read “Politics.” Even would-be writers often believe that the key to writing well is to expand their vocabulary — not to learn how to express themselves more precisely, but as an ornament like the gingerbread along the eaves of a Victorian house.

For those who have never read “Politics,” the essay takes the position that the purpose of writing is to communicate effectively. According to Orwell, any writing that helps that goal is worth developing, while any that interferes with that goal should be avoided, and is probably due to an additional motive, either to obscure an opinion or to impress readers. To aid in communication, “Politics” suggests these basic rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules are more flexible than they may appear at first glance. In particular, notice that Orwell does not suggest always replacing a long word for a short one — only when the short one will do. For example, in many cases, “big” serves well enough, but if you want to suggest largeness so exaggerated as to be humorous, “gargantuan” is more exact.

Orwell’s emphasis on clarity has always seemed common sense to me, perhaps because I worked for several years as a technical writer, whose job was to give steps in a procedure so that readers could understand a task and successfully carry it out without any danger. So far as vocabulary goes, it implies that the purpose of knowing a lot of words is to improve your clarity.

In contrast to Orwell, modern schools tend to teach vocabulary as an end itself. Students are marked for knowing the meaning of a word, rather than for using a word effectively, a practice that makes for easy marking, but does nothing to educate. Instead, people come away from school with the belief that a large vocabulary is the secret of writing well. If students are learning English as a second languge, this belief may be justified, because their vocabulary may be genuinely limited. However, even when the attitude makes sense, what students come away with is the conviction that the purpose of writing is to impress with their knowledge. Even when students remember their vocabulary drills, the knowledge does little good, because the purpose of communication is obscured.

In extreme cases, this basic purpose is lost altogether to aspiring writing. A large vocabulary, some writers insist, is part of their style, and to suggest that they change it (even for legitimate reasons) is nothing less than an attack on their freedom of expression. Implicit in this belief is that their style is precious, and the most important part of their writing — more important, even, than communicating with readers. On Facebook groups, I have even hear writers claim that, by using large words, they provide some sort of service by educating readers, as though their readers (often theoretical, at this point) clamored to be educated while reading.

Some even become more arrogant. Told that their purpose is to communicate, or adjust their vocabulary to suit the audience, some writers explode. They talk about how they are being asked to “dumb down” and sooner or later, words like “pander” or “prostitute” are apt to come into the discussion. So far as I can understand, they do not feel any obligation to reach out to readers. Instead, readers are supposed to come to them, while they stand by to receive worship and gaps of wonder.

I suggest that these motives are as corrupt as they could possibly be. Far from developing any style worth writing or admiring, the writers who holds them are seriously hampering any chance of developing into successful writers. After all, if you start by despising your readers, how can you hope to ever catch their attention? The chances are, would-be readers will sense your arrogance, and walk away from the unsung genius contained in your work.

Far from dumbing down, to be aware of readers and to write to the appropriate audience are skills that are far more challenging than spicing your writing with long or obscure words. As Isaac Asimov, another champion of simple language, once observed, stain glass has existed since classical times, but clear glass is only a couple of centuries old, and the product of an advanced technology.

Instead of defending your precious style, try to write more effectively. You will only increase your chances of publication if you do.

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How to Depict Women Warriors

The most common argument against women warriors is that men are heavier and have more efficient muscles. Often, the existing differences are exaggerated to make the case stronger — for example, I heard one man insist that women had 30% of men’s muscular strength, when the usual figure in studies is around 70%. However, if you want a believable tough woman, that single statistic is far from a rebuttal. There are plenty of ways to have women warriors in your story without sacrificing plausibility.

To start with, that figure I quoted is a statistical average. Your character can always be an exception, like George R.R. Martin’s Brienne of Tarth, who is an unusually tall and stocky woman. Such a woman might have XXY chromosomes, or a high level of testosterone, but height and fitness might be all that is needed to account for her greater than usual strength. Nor is there any need to make her plain or give her body issues, the way that Martin does or to make assumptions about her sexual orientation– plenty of athletic women of all preferences have a traditionally feminine side.

Alternatively, you can take advantage of the fact that muscular strength is not the only factor that makes a fighter. In World War I, the English briefly raised Bantam Battalions, consisting of men under five feet two inches, who were considered too small for regular units. The Bantams consisted largely of miners and other hard laborers, whose lives had made them tough and fit. Some had the habit of successfully challenging ordinary sized men who under-estimated them. The Bantams did not last long because of the difficulty of finding enough recruits, but the fact that they were absorbed into regular units after being disbanded suggests that their ability to fight was not an issue. The example of the Bantams suggests that many women could also hold their own in combat without being unusually large.

So what other factors make a fighter? Training, speed, agility, endurance, and the ability to endure pain are at least equally important, especially in combination. In all these areas, women could equal or excel men. If you consider the rigors of childbirth, women might even be argued to be superior in endurance and withstanding pain. Moreover, if you have ever wrestled or fought in the Society for Creative Anachronism, you will also know that bluff and the willingness to fight are also important: quite simply, if you look or act fierce, then in many cases, you will have already defeated your opponent before the fight begins. A woman might also distract men by jeering at their machismo to give her an advantage.

Probably the most important consideration is tactics. The average person of either sex is not going to stand toe to toe with a 120 kilogram man for any length of time. That is why sports like wrestling or boxing are divided into weight categories — otherwise fights would not be fair. The smaller opponent would be battered to death. So, instead of a sword, your character might be better off carrying a spear or a halberd — anything that would keep superior strength at a distance. At all costs, they need to avoid a clinch, and keep moving. In general, time will be on the smaller person’s side, because they expend less energy in moving than someone taller and heavier, a fact that is reflected in the occasional calls for weight categories for marathons.

In general, I see two basic tactics: either hold back and take an opponent apart a piece at a time, or attack first, disconcerting the enemy, and getting in the first blow. What average women cannot do is fight on the enemy’s terms. They must fight on their own terms, and be smart about it.

However, in some senses, the argument against female fighters is moot. It focuses on hand to hand combat, which is only a part of warfare in many eras. In early or pre-gunpowder eras, what mattered was often the ability to remain in formation, which is entirely a matter of training. At the battle of Waterloo, for example, British regiments resisted charge after charge of cavalry by remaining in squares and holding off attacks with bayonets — and a horse is by far heavier than the biggest man, and neither cares to fling themselves on a length of steel. What matters is less physical strength thn holding the formation.

The counter-arguments also ignore irregular or light tactics, which can be as far from hand to hand combat as you can get while still be on the battlefield. Such troops skirmish, snipe, ambush, and, if mounted, scout. They also provide support for massed formations so that they can’t be out-flanked. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books and TV episodes depicts them very accurately, and even acknowledge that the Spanish guerillas in the Peninsular War against Napoleon included women. In many ways, skirmishing is ideal for women, since their smaller average size might help them to take cover and move silently, and be less weight for a horse to carry over long distances. In fact, historically, light units were the opposite of the grenadiers, the heavy set shock troops, and were recruited for their intelligence and independence rather than brute strength.

If none of these suggestions are convincing to you, consider modern armies, where women often serve in support capacities. Being a clerk or cook might not sound exciting, but reversals of situations are common in a campaign, and someone who appears to be safely behind the lines can find themselves suddenly in the middle of the action, as happened during the Battle of the Bulge at the end of World War 2. Imagine, for example, a woman who is a quartermaster who suddenly finds herself the senior officer in her area. Or perhaps your character could be in charge of a seige engine or cannon behind the lines, and find herself facing a flanking attack.

So ignore the chauvunists who say women have no place in combat. You can have tough women if you want them, and still be believable. Just don’t make them exactly like the men of impoverished imaginations. And in doing so, you may discover new stories to be told.


Developing Secondary Characters

Recently, my critique partner Jessica described secondary characters as one of the strengths of my writing. To say the least, I was gleefully pleased. I’ve never been one of those who considers secondary characters plot devices, existing only to move the story along and be quickly forgot. Rather, I treat them as chances for some color and world-building. They may begin in the needs of the plot, but, with this approach, they become a cast I can economically draw on later in the story if the need arises.

With all my characters, both primary and secondary, I begin by asking what the first thing is that strangers would notice. This question is usually enough to make even very minor characters stand out. For example, at one point, my main characters take shelter with a peddlar. Perhaps he has a regular route around outlying villages, but more likely he walks the city streets, since he has a baby. At any rate, what stands out is the way he dresses. He wears a tunics and trews made of strips of the cloth that can be ordered from him. Around his neck hang tiny mirrors. Pins and needles are stuck in his cuffs, and his tunic has dozens of pockets for spices, candies, and other small items. From his hat dangles ribbons and gits of embroidery. In effect, he is a walking advertisement for his wares; you can’t help but see him coming. Nor are you likely to forget him, since he is a cheery sort in his work clothes and is always singing.

Another minor character is the priest of a popular cult. One of his duties is to sacrifice a goat in the morning and evening, and distribute the meat, bone, and blood to the poor. Instead of simply going about his duties, he turns them into a show, carving the meat on a spit like a waiter in a South American restaurant, tossing slices into the air and flipping them into the hands of the next in line. He is an artist and a performer, memorable despite his brief appearance.

More important characters are developed in greater detail. For example, at one point, my main character is in a village where few people speak his language. I needed someone he could talk to, and he needed a smith, so I chose to be economical and combined those two needs into a single character.

But how did this smith get there? I decided he was a prisoner in the last war. The village is barely at the stage of working copper, so, recognizing the value of his knowledge, the locals broke his knees to keep him from running away, much as happened to Wayland Smith in Norse mythology. Naturally, that makes him unfriendly and resentful, although still glad to show off his skill. He is not as talented as Wayland, so he cannot escape by making himself wings, but, he is resourceful, and has rigged up bars all over his smithy so he can get around by swinging on them — an image I had on the bus as I watched people swaying towards the exit, clinging to the safety poles.

Moreover, as a smith he has magical power over metals, so one of his few friends is his professional colleague and fellow outcast the shaman, who is capable of being male or female at will. The two of them have the occasional night together, which means the smith is bi, or at least highly adaptable. At one point, they arrange a liaison:

Shaman: Male or female?

Smith: Surprise me.

In this way, my secondary characters are built up logically, made memorable and fitted into my background and plot. Some might say I do extra work, but if readers enjoy the characters, I consider the extra effort worthwhile. Moreover, later in the story, I have a set of characters that I can re-use, saving me time and reducing the size of the cast while binding the narrative together. For instance, after his initial appearance, I use the smith to help show the range of reactions in the village to the sudden appearance of a magical healing device — he hopes against all advice that his knees can be healed. Take care of all your characters, even the minor ones, and I believe that they will take care of you.

Critiquing, Uncategorized

What to Look for in a Critique Partner

Writing is a lonely passion. You spend hours alone, and sooner or later, you want someone to read your efforts. No wonder, then, that, online forums are crowded with aspiring writers desperately seeking feedback. Any feedback. There are even sites where you can find someone to exchange manuscripts with, the literary equivalent of dating sites. The trouble is, to find a suitable critique partner, you usually need to go through several. I went through six myself, each of various degrees of satisfaction — but my writing is all the better for it.

Some writers look for beta readers, a term borrowed from software development via fan fiction. However, for me, that term implies a one-way, perhaps one-time relationship involving a finished work, and reminds me uncomfortably of Brave New World, where betas are inferior people. I much prefer the the term “critique partner,” which is less one-sided and can start as soon as you have a finished passage to show.

So what should you look for in a critique partner? Here’s what I learned:

To start with, despite your eagerness, don’t accept just anyone. You may not be compatible on even a basic emotional level, which may make working together hard. Get to know a potential partner first, before you begin to swap stories. If you want more than a general reaction, you need someone in sympathy with your work. Usually — although not always — that means another writer. In addition, you are likely to get only general feedback from someone who neither reads nor writes your genre. That is particularly so in fantasy or science fiction, which has traditions like world-building that mainstream books simply don’t have. Without an understanding of your genre, a critiquer is likely to be of limited use.

A first critique can reveal other limitations as well. Someone who only corrects typos and grammar is not a critiquer — they’re copy editors. What they give you may be useful, but probably you want something more. Similarly, someone who keeps telling you how they would write the story, or who the main character should be without being asked is not going to be much help, either. I had one potential partner who insisted that militias named for animals must be were-creatures — which led to jokes about were-salmon swimming up river to spawn on the night of the full moon, but was otherwise useless to me. Someone who tells you what works, or what might work better is one thing, but someone who wants to continually rewrite your story is not working in the spirit of critiquing.

Even more importantly, do you respect their work? It can be difficult, if not impossible, to take advice from someone you don’t respect. Ideally, critiquing partners should have a mutual respect, even enthusiasm, for each other’s work. That doesn’t mean they can’t criticize each other deeply, but someone who points out only the flaws and never what works, is likely to quickly become an annoyance. Partners needs a mutual sympathy. Otherwise, how can the two of you have an interest in making each other’s work as strong as possible?

In addition to mutual sympathy, successful critiquers also require a deep honesty. With any luck, a critiquer will also be diplomatic, and point out faults discretely to make them more acceptable, but the key requirement is complete frankness about what works and how to fix what doesn’t. That means a family member or an existing friend generally makes a poor partner — probably they want to encourage you and to avoid hurting your feelings. By contrast, a useful critiquer makes honesty the higher priority. They should also be willing to talk out their comments in general. Such conversations, I find, are where I learn the most about writing. The conversations tend to turn into brainstorming, and both you and your critiquer can end up learning something.

All these points matter, but the most important one is that critique partners should at about the same stage in the work in progress and knowledge of writing. Otherwise, the relationship is more of a teacher-student one, which is useful in itself, but a subject for another blog. The entire strength of a successful critiquing relationship is in its give and take, which is next to impossible if the expertise is too one-sided. If necessary, partners can even look for outside expertise, and learn together.

For example, I have worked with Jessica, my chief critique partner, for eleven months now. We both have teaching experience, and we both have sold numerous pieces of non-fiction. Both of us are writing fantasies underpinned by a knowledge of history and of the genre, and are currently somewhere over two-thirds finished. The problem that one of us has is often one that the other has had, or has at least been thinking about, so comments are almost always relevant. I know that my work has improved my work immensely thanks to her dead-on observations. In addition, we have become online friends, and between Christmas and New Years, I flew down to New Orleans to hobnob with her husband, children, and cousins. We plan on meeting again some time. Meanwhile, we have joined with a third writer, who is about on the same level as we are, who is on the way to being another online friend.

Nor are we the only one who have found that critique partners can become friends. One writer online told me that her critique partner felt like a sister, and I have hints of a similar closeness from others. But that shouldn’t be too surprising, when the relationship involves people sharing their dreams and helping each other to reach them. You may have to swipe right dozens of times to find critique partners, but when you do, the search is worth the effort.

General Writing

Writing Infodumps without Slowing the Story

I reject the word “infodump” categorically — that’s a smartass word out of the cyberpunks’ workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject “expository lump” also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It’s an attempt to say “fiction can only be stage business” which is a stupid position.”

  • Kim Stanley Robinson

Sooner or later, a story has to give some background on the characters or the setting. That is especially true in fantasy and science fiction, both of which often have to sketch in an invented background. However, even in a mainstream story, at some point you need to describe characters or give some of their history. For this reason, “infodump” and “expository lump” are thrown around far too freely. As I reflected on Robinson’s comment at thirty thousand feet, my eyes closed against the vague claustrophobia of economy class, I concluded that he was right. Infodumps are an unavoidable part of writing. The question is not whether you should have them in your fiction, but whether they are done poorly or well.

Poor examples of infodumps are easy to find. They are common in novices’ writing, identifiable by the way they stop the story from advancing. Here’s an improvised example:

“We’re surrounded,” Tyler said. He was young giant, blonde haired and with outsized hands. He wore black jeans and wore a sleeveless shirt that might have been called a wife-beater on a man with a less cheery grin. The son of Appalachian coal miners, he spoke with a slow accent that many took for a slowness of mind until they heard his ideas.

“Better break out the guns,” Antoine replied. He was a small man, whose skin showed his Mexican ancestry. Wiry, he was quick with his feet and hands, and his tongue as well. He had met Tyler one night in the student pub, when his fast-talking had kept Tyler out of a fight with a woman’s jealous boy-friend.

This is a parody, but only barely. I have seen dozens of similar passages that interrupt the action to give background. They are the written equivalent of a stage actor who steps out of character to talk directly to the audience about their character.

However the usual correction is no better. Told to mix the background with the general narrative, many beginning writers come up with something like:

His white-skinned hand wiped his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-blue eyes.

This strategy slows the story just as much as my first example, but by overloading the sentence with adjectives. Yet another doomed strategy is go to painful length to have a viewpoint character see themselves in a mirror or a reflection. All these mis-steps are often caused by a writer wanting to have done with the necessary exposition as soon as possible. After reading Robinson’s comment, I have reserved “infodump” and “expository lump” for passages like them.

So how do you fit necessary description or background into a story? One technique is to start each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional document, as John Brunner did in his classic, “The Sheep Look Up.” Removed from the action, such excerpts become more acceptable, especially when kept short. Similar excerpts can be added within the narrative itself as a character reads or hears them. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien frequently uses poems in this way, offering only snippets in moments of actions, such as the poetry that Theoden quotes before the Riders of Rohan break the siege of Minas Tirith, and long ones only in scenes where nothing much is happening, such as a quiet night in Rivendell.

However, the easiest way to weave information into a narrative is to take advantage of your viewpoint character. If a character has a background that includes the information you need to convey, all you need to do is put them in a position in which they would naturally think of it. For example:

Gareth leaped for the door, but he was too late. The door clicked shut, and he was trapped in precisely the part of the castle he had been warned not to go. In his childhood, he had heard stories of headless and hungry ghosts who haunted this wing, and now he looked around, half-expecting to see them.

In this passage, instead of halting the narrative, the background information is also used to give the character’s reaction to the setting, and add some tension. You could even make the information part of the character’s thoughts:

Gareth leaped for the door, but it had already clicked shut. Trapped, he thought, and in precisely the part of the castle I have been warned against. I wonder if the headless and hungry ghosts I heard about as a child are still around?

Or if you wanted to describe the character a bit:

Gareth had always prided himself on his speed, but his leap for the door was too late.

You might be able, too, to combine both the descriptive detail and reaction, although probably that would be too busy. Often, dialogue can convey information:

“I leaped, but the door had already clicked shut,” Gareth said.

“What do you do?” Linette said.

“Tried not to think of headless and hungry ghosts,” Gareth said ruefully. “Remember those tales we were told as children? I remember all of them.”

Any of these strategies would work, depending on what you want to do. Still, as a general rule, if a passage has more than one purpose, the chances are that it will convey information without any slowing of the story.

When integrated, background needn’t slow down the narrative at all. At times, as in Tolkien’s descriptions of Rivendell or Lothlorien, the description can even become an attraction in its own right. The next time you see background added to a story, don’t rush to condemn it. Rather, ask how well it integrates with the narrative. The question is not whether anyone can avoid such elements, but how well they serve your story.

General Writing

The Leap into Freelancing

One of the conventional bits of wisdom about freelance work is that it is chancy. Never quit your steady job, experts often insist, unless you have six months of contracts lined up, or a hundred thousand in the bank. It’s sensible advice, except for one small detail: I have never met anyone who followed it, including me. All of us seem to have reached a point where we had enough of the nine to five grind, and took a leap into the unknown.

I still remember my own leap. I was consulting, and making heavy weather of my consulting work as a marketing and technical writer. I had just come off being an executive in two start ups, and was having trouble being just an employee. I was used to responsibility, and I was seeing too many decisions I believed that I could make better. At one gig, the CEO whose office I shared was honestly baffled that he had a morale problem when he had cut a quarter of the staff, including several key hires required to keep the company operating. At a second, the CEO had a habit of arriving at meetings two hours late and drunk, and unilaterally undoing all the decisions already made. Increasingly, I was fed up.

At the second gig, I was part of a team working long hours in a hot summer. Things hit bottom when the company decided to reward the team with an evening at a night club. However, nobody signed up. We were tired, and the last thing any of us wanted was more of each other’s company. When the company changed the evening to an afternoon event, nobody came. The human resources manager was reduced to flushing employees out of washrooms and closets, and from under desks, and herding them over to the club. There we sat, barely chatting, using our free drink tickets, and then, at exactly 5pm, leaving without bothering to make excuses.

The next week was spent doing last minute cleanup on the project. Still shaking my head over the afternoon at the night club, one day I went for a walk along the sea wall in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour. I was weary, and realized that I no longer took even a professional’s pride in doing good work. I gazed up at the North Shore mountains, wishing I were there –or anywhere, really — and reflecting that the mountains would still be there, even if my development missed the final deadline but a few days. I had had enough.

I worked out the final days of my contract, and turned down an offer to renew the contract, despite my misgivings and the internalized voice of my upbringing telling me to be sensible and play it safe.. In the past year, I had done occasional articles for, then the online newspaper of free and open source software. In my search for an income, I begged’s editor, Robin “roblimo” Miller for a regular position. He said he would take a chance on me as a contributor, but that I would need to write twelve articles a month –over 15,000 words.

I was nervous about only being a contributor rather than an employee. I was even more nervous about researching and writing more than I had ever written in a month, and doing it month after month. But no other source of income turned up immediately, so I decided I could write for until more steady work turned up.

I was still there a few years later when the URL was sold to the Linux Foundation. In fact, I had found other sites and magazines to make regular contributions to as well. Moreover, when closed down, I replaced my lost income in a matter of hours. Since then, I have done the same several more times.

Undoubtedly, I was lucky. Still, looking back, I realize the conventional advice about waiting until I could freelance safely is like the advice to take a regular job and write in your spare time: if I had listened, I never would have made a career out of writing.

I learned, too, that, far from being precarious, in some ways freelancing can be far more secure than regular work. With regular work, I had only one job to depend on. When I lost it, I lost my income and at times my self-respect. By contrast, as a freelancer, I could arrange my finances so that they depended on several sources. Lose one, and I still had an income. Moreover, because I developed a reputation for writing grammatical copy and meeting deadlines, I could almost always replace one lost source of income with another.

I’m not saying that anyone should rush blindly into freelancing. However, I am saying that freelancing is a calculated risk, and a moment may come in your working life when you can take that calculated risk. In fact, a moment may come when the calculated risk of freelancing is no greater than the calculated risk of taking a steady job. Rather than listening to the conventional voices of reason, consider your own circumstances, and whether it’s time to believe in yourself and take your own leap of faith.

General Writing

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

Judging from Facebook writers’ groups, chapter lengths are one of the main anxieties of new writers. Hardly a week goes by without someone obsessing about whether their chapters are too short, or too long, and craving for a scrap of certainty that, frankly doesn’t exist. I could say that I have seen chapters of two words and others of ten thousand words, or that the average length appears to be 3000-4500 words, but neither of those answers is very useful. Like most aspects of writing, chapter length is highly circumstantial.

One school of thought is that you should take pity on your readers, and keep your chapters short for the sake of those who want to finish a chapter before going to bed. Most people would also agree that chapters in a children or young adult book should be shorter than those in a book for an older audience. But these answers aren’t especially useful either. How short is shorter, or long is longer?

To get an actual length, you might start with with your structure. For example, if you are using a five act structure borrowed from Shakespearean plays, then you could plan on five scenes per act, and plan each scene as a chapter. If you plan on a 100,000 word novel, that means your chapters should average out to 4,000 words. The trouble is that Shakespeare himself rarely wrote a perfectly symmetrical play, and frequently had Acts with three or seven chapters in them. Nor are other standard structures any more useful.

Lacking a firm answer, I prefer to plan my chapter lengths by the rhythm they create. Chapters are a natural break in the narrative, and a fresh start. Just as short sentences have a different effect than longer sentences, so a short chapter has a different effect than a longer one. On the one hand, consistently short chapters are likely to create a faster pace, perhaps with more changes in point of view. If you want to go into more depth with shorter chapters, you may need more cliff-hanger endings — and, even if you don’t, the narrative will sometimes spill over into the next chapter, and is likely to break the rhythm established by earlier chapters (which may or may not be something you want to do). On the other hand, long chapters are apt to be slower, and perhaps more philosophical. Your chapters are more likely to come to definite ends.

However, who says that chapters have to be a consistent length? A single sentence chapter can be used for a number of different purposes. In her Falco series, for example, mystery writer Lindsey Davis ends on chapter with a thrown knife, and deliberately breaks the tension in the next, single-sentence chapter in which her narrator simply says that he caught it. Suspense is not the main point of the narrative at that point, so Davis refuses to milk it. More recently, in The Cruel Prince, Holly Black glosses over a lapse of a decade with the simple sentence, “In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television,” implying all that a young girl might miss growing up among elves in just eleven words. Each is brilliant in its own way, even if I suspect both writers delight in showing off their writing skills.

Similarly, a chapter longer than those around it can also be useful. Consider, for example, The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows the tense retreat of Aragorn and the four hobbits from Weathertop, racing against time so that Frodo can get the healing he requires. In fact, ever since Bree, the hobbits have been pursued by the Black Riders, with next to no relief of tension. Once they are under Elrond’s protection, the tension is broken, and the characters and the readers alike are overdue for a rest. So Tolkien gives them one, full of welcome reunions and pages of history and debate which, if sometimes ominous, seem remote when heard in such a refuge.

Tolkien also makes effective use of a long chapter in The Battle of Pelennor Fields. The chapter describes the siege of Minas Tirith by Sauron’s army, and the mood gradually becomes grimmer and more hopeless as the city fights on, waiting for the forces of Rohan to relieve it. Just as the tension has been cranked up to an unbearable pitch, a cock crows, and the long chapter ends with, “Rohan had come at last.”

As these examples show, how long your chapters should be is not a trivial question. The problem is that it has no easy answer. The only meaningful answer is: that depends on what you are trying to do.

Fiction, Uncategorized

Michael in the Forest

He will do it. I have come to stop him. Everything is that simple.

Michael moves a chess piece of red clay. He is folded up on himself, his shoulders shrunk. I see my own age in him. I see that I do not tell the whole truth to myself, that I would have come back to his house for some reason before I died. The stones, seeming dank in the firs’ shade, the caverns carved by shadow where my heartbeats throw footsteps down the trails ahead: these I understand. The city is what I do not understand. Had I died before seeing the house a last time, I would have become a ghost and lingered by the lanes and bus-stops where the dogs sniff each other in the early morning. I have always envied Michael the place where he lives.

His move has checkmated me, and he smiles as he reaches for my wine. My tastebuds have gone before I have, and it seemed dusty to me. But Michael gulped his an hour ago, and now his lips edge towards a smile as his tongue slips over the wine in my glass.

I am lulled, after our years of office-sharing, the way I was by the habits of my wife. For three years after I retired, I trailed in my dressing gown after her as she did her housework. Only after she died did I compare myself to the undergraduates who lingered in the cafeteria in the hopes of spotting Michael.

I shake my head. How tiresome, that I am still able to lie to myself. The years have simply made my lies more subtle. I see now that I came for another brawl with words, because he always acts without asking – beause, in fact, he asked me by letter. Now that I think, I doubt that I will be able to stop him when he tries to die.

Michael says, “It has always stood on the edge of the clearing for members of my family. It waits for me. It will call me, soon.”

“How could it have always been here?” I say. “The house and the clearing are a hundred years old, no more.”

He smiles. “Do you think it could be Tsonoqua? The tribes’ Cannibal Woman?”

“Not my specialty.” I mean that I do not remember the mythology. I have not been at the faculty club, even, for two years.

His faculty was English, the same as mine. All the same, he frees a small Henry Hunt print from the wall. He props it against the chess board, facing me. The puzzle-piece blocks of red and black fit into a person holding a basket. I do not know West Coast art, so I cannot say that I see a woman.

“There you go,” he says, “Cannibal Woman.”

His talk is like his tarot cards, like the witchy books whose pages he never turns. I use two fingers as tweezers, and toss the print aside.

“Your father moved here after the war,” I insist. “How could anything have been awaiting your family?”

“A father and an aunt. Two great uncles.” He counts on his fingers. “My grandfather on a visit. He was as old as I am now.”

“How can you believe?” I glared at him and go to lean on the mantlepiece.

He keeps silent.

“You can’t start to argue and then stop, Michael. I know too well that you’ll try to.”

Still, he does not answer. I stare furiously into the fire.

After a moment, he takes pity. “I doubt it will come tonight, Jonathan. Why don’t you sleep?”

He lets some wine lurch from the bottle into his glass. I do not say what I wanted to when I saw the label. I was young, when Okanagan wines were malt vinegar. I take my lacquered walking stick and start to the stairs. The further I move from the fire, the more the cold off the stones seems to slip inside me.

At the stair’s bottom, I turn. He is going to be awake all night. He will be sleepless, steady and sober, and he is six years older than me.

“You’ll be all right?” I say.

“I hope so,” he says. My neck hardens as I understand that we have different meanings.

“I wish I could hear the sea.” I climb two stairs and turn again. “Here in the trees, you forget there is a sea.”

“I could take you to the saltchuck tomorrow.” He opens last week’s paper to the chess problem. “Good night, Jonathan.”

“Good night, Michael.” I sway up to the landing. When my breath is not so tight about my breastbone, I walk in the darkness to my room.

Two, three times, I grope out, sleep-slowed, for my bladder’s sake. From the landing, I look down each time. I know Michael and I do not want to wake in the house alone.

On my last stare, his bald spot slides away to make room for his face. “I told you it probably wouldn’t come, Jonathan.”

I trudge back to gape up into the dark. I tell myself that he is drunk on words, that his family has been proud and chosen their deaths in lonely places, the way that cats are supposed to. But I sleep in a fever of doubt. Through jagged dreams, I watch as a stooped Cannibal Woman plucks men and women from the ground. Among her harvest is Michael, his tweeds thick with needles and loose with the damp. Dew dribbles down the branches on to his head.

When I fall out of sleep, I say, “This is it.” I would use the same tone for the long-awaited holocaust-by-button. I know, not knowing how I know, and I lash the sash around my dressing gown as I walk. In the dark before the stairs, I push my glasses up along my nose.

Michael is straightening a toque about his head. A black ski jacket coats his body.

I place myself in front of him. “It’s cancer, isn’t it? That, or something worse.”

I am sure that I will be faced with silence, his smugness so much worse than a curse. Instead, he smiles. “No, Jonathan. Just time.”

I move between him and the door. I was strong, when young. My arms were veined with strength. Now, I strain and grunt, and still I am pushed aside and into a chair.

How can these crying sounds creep out of me? My eyes itch with dryness.

I hear the lock open. My cheek is brushed by the rush of air.

“Good night, Jonathan.”

After a moment, I can hear him outside, walking with slow purpose, as if he is early for an appointment and looking for the address.

Twisting in the chair, I seem him easing into the dark.

Overhead, the wind ruffles the branches. It seems to dance through the dark as I stagger to the door.

By my car, across the clearing, Michael twists sideways into the bush. I see him, one hand raised to move a branch from his path. The hand straightens and rises a little as he sees me. He

does not wave.

Part of the dark seems to slip from the rest. It clings to him like a lover. There is a laugh like Michael’s—no.

There is only the twitching branch.

The trees seem to stoop after me. I have gone senile and want to giggle, but the beginnings of sweat are breaking out over my face. I have thought death thin, and bleak. Yet the night outside flows about me, as warm as bathwater. I want to close my eyes to remember. I want to invite the night in through the door. Instead, I leap to close it and I hurry away, faster than my heart would like.

Upstairs, I tug my dressing gown off. I lean over the bed, lowering myself face-first.

Mouth at the pillow, I speak to the dark. “They’ll have to solder my coffin lid down.”

After a second: “They’ll have to pin my heart down, and plant me in a place where two freeways meet.”

“I’ve always liked garlic. They’ll give me garlic for chewing tobacco.”

I carry a poor tune in the dark. I lunge at the light. “Me,” I whisper as I pick up the phone. “It should have been me.”

The silence that replies seems Michael’s, and, already, loneliness aches like a rib-bruise.

Tomorrow I will look for Michael in the forest.