General Writing

Dialog: It’s All About the Relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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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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 Linux.com, then the online newspaper of free and open source software. In my search for an income, I begged Linux.com’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 Linux.com until more steady work turned up.

I was still there a few years later when the Linux.com 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 Linux.com 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.

General Writing

Take the Work Seriously, Never You

A few weeks ago, someone asked for general advice about writing. My reply was, “Take the work seriously, and yourself not at all.”

I was trying to capture the combination of attitudes I have observed in successful writers over the years. However, as an aphorism, my reply needs more explanation. So let me add a few comments. I’ll start with the second half first.

As a writer, you can easily develop an egocentric opinion of yourself. You have a skill that most people cannot match. Probably, you are surrounded by family and friends who want to be agreeable and praise you so that everybody is pleased. Moreover, as you settle to work, you face long hours alone, much of which involves learning what works and what doesn’t. Under these conditions, to look for compensation is only natural. After all, it is arrogant think that you can write a whole book. Even a non-fiction book, which placed no demand for dialog or metaphor, is difficult simply in terms of size.

Under such circumstances, it’s understandable that you might daydream about finishing your current work, or imagine your future success. My critique partner, for instance, jokes about her future six-figure income. She’s as wistful as she is serious, however, so she does herself no harm.

However, the problem sets in when you start thinking of yourself as special — when you think of yourself as misunderstood, as lacking the respect you think you deserve. You rant about how other people don’t understand the importance of art (or, by implication, of yourself as a servant of the muse). Perhaps you start talking of visions, or of epiphanies, like James Joyce. You bristle at any critique that is less than wildly enthusiastically supportive. If the subject of diversity arises, you insist that no one should dare to tell you how to write, and allude to freedom of expression and the arrogance of encroaching on your sacred vision (see above).

The problem with such attitudes is that they make you miss opportunities for development. Moreover, by rejecting all criticisms, you miss the chance to learn how to separate the valid comments from the useless. That kind of attitude is especially harmful if you aim for traditional publishing, in which the transition from an agent to a publisher to publication is all about knowing how to learn to evaluate criticism. Before long, you are off on the wings of ambition, planning twenty book series when you are stuck on the first thousand words.

If you ever have thoughts like these, stop and have a look at yourself. You are not special; one Facebook writing group alone has over ninety thousand members, all a little ahead of you or behind you in their writing careers. The most that the majority of us can say is that we have — or might have — potential. That potential does not mean we are misunderstood or special (although it might mean that our ranting puts people out of sympathy with us). And if you find yourself rambling on about epiphanies, you might gains some perspective by recalling Ursula K. Le Guin’s comment that Joyce used have a lot of epiphanies, especially, apparently, in his bathroom. In other words. get over yourself. None of us are important because of our potential, only because of what we manage to actually do.

Instead, focus on making each work the best you can manage. Instead of isolating yourself in self-referential dreams, look at the trees and streets around, you, and the river of voices and noises around you. In the words of Fritz Leiber, the creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, make gathering snippets for your stories part of your everyday adjustment to living. If you see a good bit in someone else’s work, see if you can repurpose it and make it your own. If you need to information, research it. Learn to love editing. Listen to critiques until you can tell which are useless and why might deserve consideration. In short, put your ego away, and dedicate yourself to perfecting your craft generally, and your work in progress in particular.

It’s the work that matters. Not you. Repeat those seven words until you believe them, and they describe how you work. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. And when you feel pride in your work, it will because you earned it.

General Writing

Harp and Carp: The Fantasy of Medieval Ballads

Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer

In the writing community, you often hear that Europe is exhausted as a source for fantasy. Europe, people say, has been the default for so long that not much original can be done with it any more. Instead, writers are advised to look to other cultures. Nothing is wrong with that advice — providing, of course, that you observe any rules in the culture about who can tell which stories, and familiarize yourself with your culture of choice. However, Europe still has plenty of untapped inspirations, and, among those, my favorite are the English and Scots ballads that flourished 1300-1700. In fact, I go so far as to say that some of the most evocative fantasy ever written can be found in some of those ballads.

Usually, these ballads are not closely tied to time or place. Even when they allude to historical events, they are not always bound by fact. However, they usually depict a land ruled by feuding lords who are a law to themselves, and where raiding and revenge are a way of life. Many seem to derive from the Anglo-Scots border, where lawlessness prevailed even after the unification of England and Scotland.

Even when fantasy is not a major element, a sense of the uncanny is rarely far away. Consider, for example, this verse from “The Battle of Otterburn“:

Last night I dreamed the drearest dream,
Beyond the isle of Skye,
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I thought that man was I.

Some ballads may not have been considered fantasy at the time they were written, but would be considered fantasy now — although, even 800 years ago, prophecies and visitations by the devil were presumably not the stuff of everyday life. In “The False Knight on the Road,” a child meets the devil, and his only hope is to stand firm, answering promptly until morning forces the devil to withdraw:

“Methinks I hear a bell,” says the knight on the road,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” said the child where he stood,
And he stood and he stood, and ’tis well that he stood,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” says the child.

. And in “The Great Silkie,” a man who shape-changes into a seal comes to retrieve the son he got on a helpless woman, and leaves with this eerie prophecy (presented here , as all other quotes, with modern wording):

And you shall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And with the first shot that e’er he fires,
He’ll kill my son and me.

Others are murder ballads that could have come straight from The Game of Thrones, straying from the improbable to the fantastic. For example, in “The Famous Flower of Serving Men,” a woman’s husband and baby is killed for unknown reasons by her mother. After burying her husband, the woman disguises herself as a man and takes service with the king. The king discovers the murder after being led to the grave by the husband’s spirit in the form of a stag and a singing dove, and realizing that his court favorite is a woman, kisses her the next time they meet. and takes revenge on the mother:

“And don’t you think that her heart was sore
As she laid the mould on his yellow hair
And don’t you think her heart was woe
As she turned about, all away to go.

“And how she wept as she changed her name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William,
Went to court to serve her king
As the famous flower of serving men.”

Still others are outright fantasies. “The Elf Knight” is a Blackbeard-like story, while “Allison Gross” is about a spurned witch who turns the man who rejects her advances into a giant worm. In two of the most popular ballads, the elves feature prominently. In “Tam Lin,” a young pregnant woman rescues her lover from the elves by dragging him from his horse as the elven host rides by a lonely place at midnight, holding on to him as the Elven Queen transforms him into dangerous shapes:

Well they changed him then – it was all in her arms
To a lion roaring wild
But she held him tight, she feared him not
He was the father of her child, she knew that he was
The father of her child.

Similarly, in “Thomas the Rhymer,” Thomas of Ercildoune — a historical figure in Scotland — meets the Queen of Elfland and is carried off to her realm, after being given the gift of prophecy. The song ends with one of the loveliest expressions of medieval Christianity, in which the Queen shows Thomas three paths: one to Heaven, Hell, and Elfland:

And do you see yon narrow, narrow road,
All beset by thorns and briars,
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it but few inquire.

Don’t you see yon broad, broad road
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness
Though some call it the road to heaven

Don’t you see yon bonnie, bonnie road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elf land
Where you and I this night must stray.

I could go on and on, but I think I already have. For those interested in learning more, Child Ballads collects over three hundred of these ballads, complete with variations. Many recordings are available on Youtube from folk acts like Fairport Convention, The Corries, June Tabor, and Steeleye Span. Together they represent a rich source of mostly unused material in fiction, despite the current popularity of retold fairy tales. If you don’t find some inspiration in them, you might at least find some music to write by.

General Writing

Finding the Right Title

Titles

Titles are the most important half dozen words in a piece of fiction. However, the right title can be nightmarishly hard to hunt down, and matters for more reasons than most people think.

A non-fiction title is relatively easy. The potential readers are a select audience, interested mainly in an accurate summary of the article. As a result, a title is often no more complicated than “Setting Up Bluetooth Speakers” or “Ghosts in Shakespeare.” Sometimes, though, I pun shamelessly — more because I can than for any valid reason. For instance, in writing about Gaël Duval’s eelo project (now /e/) to produce a free-licensed phone, I couldn’t resist “You say goodbye, and I say eelo.”

However, in fiction the stakes are higher. Probably, you won’t want to pun, except perhaps when doing humor. More often, an effective fiction title is like a good blurb: it should intrigue a reader and summarize the story without giving too much away. For me, the titles in Tolkien’s trilogy cover the full range of effectiveness: The Fellowship of the Ring intrigues, The Two Towers is neutral, and The Return of the King gives away a key plot point.

But how to find a title? That is the hard part. Ideally, you want a phrase that encapsulates the entire work. Unfortunately, though, that is a painstaking business. Too frequently, I need several dozen attempts, and even then I may not find a suitable title. The trouble is that I first have to decide what the main themes are — which, like most authors, I struggle with — and then have to find a way to express it in a few words. Personally, I’d rather write a Spencerian sonnet.

In desperation, I may turn to collections of quotations. Shakespeare has been largely mined out, so much so that the more famous passages can sound like a library catalog. I, for one, am unable to hear or read Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy without envisioning a stack of unmemorable Penguin mysteries from the 1930s. However, there are countless other writers whose quotes you can borrow. All you have to do is to scan a list until you find one that suggests one of the themes of your work.

Sometimes, too, you can echo a quote, changing it just enough to be intriguing. For instance, when I published my master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber, I knew that the academic title would never do. No one is going to stop to read the title, much less pick up “Divination and Self-Therapy:” Archetype and Stereotype in the Works of Fritz Leiber.” Instead, after countless self-starts, I remembered that Leiber had memorized most of Macbeth while playing in his parents’ theatrical company. Coming to the “dagger of the mind” passage, I finally found something with which I could work. The thesis was about the Anima, the female aspect of a man in Jungian psychology, which often gets tangled with the Shadow, or sinister aspect. With all this in mind, I settled on Witches of the Mind, which, to those who know the original passage, suggests that Leiber’s depiction of women was all about male perception, not actual women.

Similar twistings of familar phrases are especially common when a movie becomes popular. For instance, shortly after the release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there were all sorts of plays upon its title.

Other times, a phrase within the work may provide the title. I avoid a phrase from the start or the end of the story, which when combined with the title can sound repetitious. For the same reason, I avoid chapter titles, if I am using them. I also suggest not using invented characters or place name, although many writers do. But that still leaves thousands of words to choose from. In my current work in progress, my critiquing partner Jessica suggested The Bone Ransom, highlighting an important piece of background detail. I admit that I had invented the bone ransom for some creepy atmosphere, but as soon as I heard the suggestion, I knew that I was unlikely to find another title half so intriguing.

No matter which method of finding a title you choose, it’s always wise to check the title before using it, especially if it’s only one or two words, and is therefore likely to have been already used. For instance, I thought I had a wonderful title in Sister Assassin, but, unfortunately it’s been used. I might have used it anyway, but I prefer for my titles to be unique. But even if a title is unique, it can never hurt to field-test it among friends or a Facebook writing group. You are unlikely to have a consensus, but if most of the respondents approve the title, and the negatives are minor, or for trivial reasons, you can adopt the title with some confidence.

The Reason Why

Asked why a title matters, many writers say that it is meant to catch a potential reader’s attention. With any luck, seeing the title will make people stop to read the blurb or maybe the first few pages. And if you are self-publishing that may be reason enough to labor over the title.

However, if you aiming for traditional publishing, it is not readers whose attention you are trying to attract: it’s agents or editors. This difference matters because the title you’ve labored over stands a good chance of being changed on the way to publication, sometimes for a sensible reason. For instance, your perfect title may have “blood” or “dark” in it, at a time when many other submissions have as well. In such a case, changing your title might keep your work from being lost in the crowd. For this reason, in traditional publishing, your working title becomes a way to prove your competence to agents and editors.

Titles may come at any point in a story, ranging from before you start to the completion of the final draft. I was lucky with an unfinished story called “Grendel Night,” but often, I can’t settle on the title until the very end, simply because until I finish, I don’t know what the story is about.

Yet whenever possible, I try to have a working title as early as possible. Why? Because the title works on you as a writer as much as it does on a potential reader. A well-chosen title is a way of thinking of your story as a whole, a kind of mental shortcut that makes thinking about the story easier. Moreover, the title can be a guideline for the direction of the story, or at least for revisions. For example, when I settled on The Bone Ransom, I immediately understood what parts I needed to emphasize in the next draft, and what I needed to add.

In this way, your title can help you as much as it does potential readers or editors. The influence of a title can be as much artistic as commercial — and either means the time devoted to finding the right one is justified.