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 used (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.

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.

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.

Plotting

A Hero’s Journey for Women

When I was a sessional instructor at Simon Fraser University, I taught children’s literature based on the concept of the Hero’s journey. After the course explored the concept with books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, in its second half it explored attempts to make the Hero’s journey fit women’s lives. The second half included Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, a classic Hero’s journey with a female protagonist and her The Hero and the Crown, a more innovative novel. It ended with Le Guin’s Tehanu, an exploration of uniquely female narrative that attempts to do away with traditional ideas of plot structure altogether. Since then, the question of whether women’s lives fit the pattern of the Hero’s journey continues to be debated. One of my favorite reframings of the Hero’s journey is Jody Gentian Bower’s Jane Eyre’s Sisters, which rewrites the classic pattern and introduces several new archetypes.

If you have studied narrative structures, you have probably come across the Hero’s journey. Based heavily on Jungian psychology, the Hero’s journey is an attempt by Joseph Campbell to describe the universal form of narrative – especially as a metaphor for maturation and develop. This “monomyth,” as Campbell calls it, is detailed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It begins with a call to adventure, in which the hero is faced with a task or a goal. The hero sets off on an actual or metaphorical road to adventure, facing trials and meeting helpful companions. After reaching a low point, the hero reaches initial maturity, but rallies to accomplish the task and goal. In the end, the hero returns home and gives it the benefit of all that he has learned.

Originally, the archetypes that the hero meets along the way, like the Wise Old Man or the Trickster were said to be part of the collective unconscious, the symbolic world that humans share by being human. However, modern Jungians sometimes suggest that some archetypes might be culturally based, and from this possibility the idea comes the concept of the heroine’s journey, a model of a woman’s life just as the original hero’s journey is a model of a man’s life. Several versions of the heroine’s journey have been proposed, among them Bower’s.

Bower’s concept centers on a wandering woman archetype called the Aletis, which she views as quite different from a male Hero. Often, the Aletis story spends considerable time at the start of the story describing a restricted home, so that the motivation for her journey is understood. Both the Aletis and the Hero undertake a journey, but while the Hero does something important, the Aletis’ journey is about gaining self-knowledge and the freedom to be herself. While the Hero is isolated on his journey, the Aletis is surrounded by friends and makeshift families. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Hero’s journey is circular, while the Aletis moves away from an unsatisfactory home to find at the end a new one where she can be herself.

These different journeys result in a different array of archetypes on the Aletis’ journey. Right at the start there is a Mother or Father figure who is cruel, indifferent, or inadequate. The original home might also include a Best Friend, a Mean Girl, and a Mentor. When the Aletis is thrust out of her original home, she may meet figures like The Wrong Husband and The Knight in Shining Armor, who at first appear to rescue her, but who are later rejected as the Aletis learns to take care of herself. In fact, much of the first stages of the Aletis’ journey consists of refusing various ties and expectations in order to be herself.

Leaving home and the temptations of other archetypes, the Aletis ventures out into a real or symbolic wilderness, sometimes in disguise. She may meet a female Teacher, sometimes one with sinister qualities, and perhaps an animal helper. Eventually, she returns to society, but on her own terms. She may find a new home, creativity, a true lover, and have children, having carved out a space where she can live on her own terms. She is less likely to transform society on a large scale, the way the Hero does, but that may also be part of what she has learned.

Such attempts to find a woman’s version of the Hero’s journey do show one thing: despite claims to universality, the pattern outlined by Campbell is primarily a male pattern. With numerous examples, taken from life and predominantly from 19th century novels by women, Bower makes that limitation obvious.

Yet I cannot help wondering whether some women might find efforts like Bower’s unsatisfactory. Granted that the word “Hero” is a term heavy with associations, does that imply that a woman cannot be as easily influential in society as a man? That a woman’s life is not as directed as a man’s? If either of these possibilities is true, does telling such stories simply perpetuate the idea that women have a limited life compared to men? Does it mean that women cannot be, in the accepted sense, heroes? What about other genders? I am reluctant to accept any of these conclusions outright because teaching has taught me that women’s brains do not differ from men’s to any extent. As a storyteller, I want to be relevant, but, at the same time, I do not want to perpetuate crippling perspectives.

Still, writers with female lead characters might want to consider efforts like Bower’s as they plan their stories. Just maybe, there are better ways to tell women’s stories than the Hero’s journey.

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.

Fiction

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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Characters

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.

Characters

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.