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.

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.

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.

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.

Fiction, Uncategorized

Michael in the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He keeps silent.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ll be all right?” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good night, Jonathan.”

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

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

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

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

does not wave.

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

There is only the twitching branch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow I will look for Michael in the forest.