Mar 24 2012

I’m in Clarion!

It’s only been three years since my last blog post, I see. The lack of action here makes me think (uncomfortably) about xkcd’s “least interesting man in the world“.

But I’ve been told by friends and Clarion alums (and great writers), Tim Susman and Shweta Narayan that I should try to keep up in the blogosphere and Twitter keep in contact with my fellows in Clarion this year.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of my good excuse for spending so little time online for the last two years (already writing with both hands at once, I see–eat your heart out, Leonardo):

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Nov 08 2009

Participating in Nanowrimo Again

Not a guarantee that I’ll win, mind you

I’ve participated twice before, won once. I’m at about 5,000 words only after one week. Time to step it up!


Update: Woot!

nano_09_winner_120x90

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Mar 09 2009

An Interview With Two Published Writers

In order to gain a greater understanding of professional writing as a career, I interviewed two writers of my acquaintance: Barak Goldman and Martine Leavitt.

Barak Goldman is a faculty professor in the Film and Television department at De Anza college. He’s worked as a Production Assistant for HBO’s The Chris Rock Show as well as written and produced television shows for Columbia-Tristar, Dish Network, The History Channel, and USA Network. He wrote two feature films for “A-list” talent. He has an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA.

Martine Leavitt is a writer of children’s and young-adult novels. Her book Tom Finder won a Mr. Christie’s Book Award, Heck Superhero was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and Keturah and Lord Death was a National Book Award finalist. She earned an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College and is currently teaching there as part of a low-residency program.

For brevity and an approachable tone, I will refer to them by their first names in the text.

How Not To Make A Living

Writing is a notoriously bad way to earn money. When I asked Martine if I could interview her about making a living as a writer, she responded, “I might not be your ideal candidate because I have never been able to support myself with the money I make from my fiction. I couldn’t have lived without this money, but I couldn’t have lived on it, either.”

Barak had heard some stark numbers from the scriptwriting industry:

As I remember hearing it, there are an estimated seventy thousand scripts written every year and only four hundred movies made. Yes, more scripts are bought than are made, but not many more… Of prospective writers, people with Hollywood aspirations who’ve written scripts, it’s something like half of one percent that are able to make their living from their writing.

New writers need day jobs, period. So I asked which ones would be good, and, more importantly, which ones would be terrible.

Barak thought any job in the movie or media industry, no matter how low-level, would be a good place for an aspiring writer to start. The only really bad day job he could think of would be as a professional boxer, “because you might bust up your hands too much to type, or take so many blows to the head you couldn’t think in complete sentences anymore.”

Martine loved her teaching job, and would recommend it to other writers. But she admitted that her low-residency adult education was a lot different than teaching elementary school every day, with the time and energy it takes to work with the kids in class, and prepare outside of class. While elementary school teaching might not be ideal, the day job she really worried about was… technical writing. “If you’ve been writing all day, probably the last thing you would want to do when you got home would be write more, wouldn’t it? You’d really have to be good about doing your novel writing before you went to work.”

As a technical editor, I certain feel some of what Martine is talking about, but it’s not as bad a situation as she fears, at least in my experience. Writing and editing technical materials for standardization and clarity is sufficiently different from inventing believable scenarios to try to explore deep subjects that I don’t feel as though I’m overworking the same part of my brain with both activities.

The Patient Craft

Barak believes the one screenwriting skill his students most undervalue is patience: the willingness to put in the time and effort it takes to bring an idea to completion. He’ll see students frantically typing their homework in the computer lab in the minutes before class and know they haven’t been putting in the hours that developing the craft really requires.

As a graduate of UCLA film school, Barak has taken to heart many of the principles and ideas espoused by well-known UCLA professors like Hal Ackerman and Richard Walter. Based on their teaching and his own understanding of the craft, he created a method of planning a screenplay. To plan a screenplay according to the method, a writer would begin by crafting a 37-word concept statement for the screenplay, called a logline, then a beat sheet, a few pages summarizing the main plot points, then a scene list, which identifies and briefly describes each of the 40-50 scenes that will make up the final screenplay. Barak advises aspiring writers to work and rework the story at each stage of this process, all before they type the first words of draft one.

Barak believes that after patience, the quality he most wishes for his students to acquire is self-confidence. I found this a doubly surprising pick: surprising first because it seemed a touchy-feely sort of problem for an advocate of such a hard-nosed craft method, and surprising again because I’d never thought new writers had a problem with confidence. Much to the contrary! To me the picture of the amateur is someone who submits a work to a movie house without knowing anything about what the house has produced, without having had anyone else review the script, and without having attended a writing class or read so much as a single craft book.

But Barak didn’t mean to advocate arrogance or false confidence; he summarized the problem thusly:

Lack of confidence leads students to get too caught up in perfectionism—they have to get everything right, so they can’t enjoy the process. Instead of plowing through the first draft, just getting it down and being satisfied to make it to the “Fade Out,” they get hung up trying to make everything just right, which leads to writer’s block and frustration.

Martine’s early process seems alike to Barak’s only in how long it takes. I asked her about the dreaded blank page: that moment when she first begins writing a new novel. Does she do intensive preparatory work, creating the novelistic equivalents of loglines, beat sheets, and scene lists? “Not at all,” she said, “For me, it’s almost as if the story is inside the pen and I have to write it down to see what it ends up being.” She estimated that it takes her about a hundred pages before she knows, and of those hundred pages, she saves about three or four and the rest go in the trash.

Even when I spoke with Martine and Barak about other topics, the need for patience and persistence came through in the subtext—for example, look for what they said about drafting when they were talking about manipulating character.

Slow and steady doesn't just win footraces against rabbits; it also wins book contracts

Slow and steady: not just for footraces against rabbits--it also wins book contracts (Link)

I asked Martine if she ever goes back and adjusts a character’s backstory—who the character is and what’s happened in the character’s life before the story begins—because the plotline she’s writing demands that the character act in a certain way. To some writers, this is taboo—as if manipulating one’s characters is as morally wrong as manipulating real people. Not Martine. She said without a moment’s hesitation that she manipulates characters, then clarified:

It’s a little paradoxical, isn’t it? In some ways it feels like you’re just channeling and this is a magical process, but in others, it’s very cut and dry. “That won’t do at all,” you think, “you can’t be like that.” You’ve got to honor the magic in the first draft, but be able to go back and do what the story demands in later drafts. The story reigns and the story wins every time.

Martine then estimated that as many as eleven of those “later drafts” might separate the first complete manuscript from the one that is ultimately published.

When I asked Barak the same question, he answered just as quickly: “Oh no, that’s way too manipulative.” Then he thought for a moment and went on: “No, what I do is I make a note of the problem, and then in later drafts I try to go through and change the character organically in the next draft.” His response was diametrically opposite to Martine’s, but after the explanation, it was almost the same: to develop good character and good story, you have to write draft after draft until they seem to work together “naturally.”

At least there’s a tangible reward for perseverance, however belated. After naming the 0.5% chance most aspiring screenwriters have of supporting themselves, Barak recalled a pamphlet he’d read a number of years before. “If I’d known then that I’d be a teacher,” he said, “I would have definitely saved it for my students.” It said that while an aspiring screenwriter has only something like a 0.3% chance of supporting him or herself from screenwriting, after two years the number rises modestly to 1-2%. And the number continues to rise, exponentially, until after 12-14 years, over 95% of the dedicated souls who are still at it can support themselves from their writing.

The Core of Story

They phrase is slightly differently, Martine calls it an “object of desire” where Barak calls it a “tangible goal,” but both believe the most important element of a story is a concrete objective that your hero will stop at nothing to obtain.
The clear goal is what drives the story forward. It’s the first thing that Barak looks for in the 37-word loglines written by students. It is the element of writing Martine will never herself forget about in her stories after seeing so many of her students struggle with it. Both are adamant that stories founder not just when the hero has no concrete objective at all, but when the hero loses sight of that objective for so much as a chapter or scene.

From this objective flow the other elements of the story. Between them, Barak and Martine described a progression that seemed to me almost like the falling of dominos. The hero wants something desperately, but cannot reach it, yet. According to Barak, the most satisfying reason for why the hero cannot reach the objective is usually his or her own flaws. Once you have the hero’s strengths and flaws, he went on, you will know what the antagonist (person, group, force of nature…) must be like. The antagonist will have strengths to match the hero’s flaws, and (smaller) flaws to match the hero’s strengths. Martine uses the object of desire to determine what obstacles to put in the way of her character. Her ultimate goal is to increase conflict, because “you learn about a characters as they face conflict. Just like with people—you may know a person for years, but you won’t really know them until they go through a crisis of some sort.”

The crisis for your hero, what Barak calls the “Rock Bottom,” will also be dictated by the concrete objective—it will be the point at which he or she seems to have failed utterly to achieve the objective. This low point will lead in a crescendo to the climax of the story: the point at which the hero confronts the antagonist and demonstrate the most he or she will sacrifice to achieve the concrete objective.

There are other important elements of the story—for example, Martine thinks her students vastly underestimate the importance of making the heroes lovable, so readers care about the hero’s struggle—but good stories are driven toward concrete objectives.

Why Would Anyone Do This?

A writer can look forward to becoming a picky and perpetually unsatisfied audience for the very books and movies he or she is trying to create. Both Martine and Barak said that as their craft has improved they’ve become so good at seeing the weaknesses in other work that they’re terribly hard to please. And that’s when they get a chance to read or watch. I asked Barak what Netflix plan a committed screenwriter would have—how many movies he or she should watch in a month—and he said, “Watch movies? You should be too busy writing to watch movies!” (He then admitted to having the same Netflix plan my wife and I have—the minimum plan of two movies per month.)

Writing is hard on a person’s family. Barak said he was much more a writing “sprinter” than “long-distance runner,” so when he was younger, he’d have some slow times, and then would work furiously night and day for weeks. Now that he’s married, he’s had to work with his wife to try to keep a more consistent schedule, something that takes a lot of effort to improve. As a married man to a married man, his ultimate advice to me was “It’s just tough.” As for Martine, she wrote her first novel when she had six young children in the house. (Six!) She found time by putting all of them in the bathtub together and writing while sitting on the toilet for an hour, until they all looked like little prunes.

So why, after all that, would a person write? Martine had the answer. She’d thought for a long time about what the least-appreciated writerly skill was, and after coming up with a number of very valuable ones, like discipline, she finally settled on love:

You have to love words and love the process, because sometimes you end up throwing the whole story away and that’s all you have. You also have to love the characters, and love this world—our world—the world you’re writing to. Books that endure have all these loves.

Sounds wonderful.

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Dec 20 2008

A Field Trip Into Your Head

“Research” Has A Broad Meaning for Fiction Writers

I recently finished Robert McKee’s Story, and it’s going on my shelf of writing books to return to over and over again. While McKee’s subject matter is writing for movies (the subtile is Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting), his interest is the broader process of developing good stories.

One topic of specific interest to me was his discussion of research (pg 72-76). To most people, particularly people like me with history degrees, research means poring through books, preferably large, old, and dusty ones. McKee includes our type of research, but only after two others.

Memory, Imagination, Fact

McKee’s first source of research material is the writer’s own memory: the writer’s personal experience that might be relevant to the character. This will be especially familiar to all those children’s writer who have tried to use their own childhood experiences to write for modern children. But the comparison need not be that close. A speculative writer trying to create an exciting chase scene of space ships navigating through planetary debris might draw on his own experience racing off-road vehicles with his buddies in high school.

The second source of material is imagination, which McKee considers similar to memory, but more fragmentary. These might include bits of dreams and nightmares that a writer can draw on when setting tone. Stephen King’s ability to write scores of darkly imaginative work became much more understandable to me after reading his stories about a youth full of drug and alcohol addiction in On Writing (a well-executed autobiography/craft book hybrid).

Fact, such as historical events and scientific principles, is the third source of material to be researched. It is also this type of research that McKee suggests whenever a writer feels “blocked.” In his words, because I like them so much:

You’re blocked because you have nothing to say. Your talent didn’t abandon you. If you had something to say, you couldn’t stop yourself from writing. You can’t kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance… Do research. Feed your talent.

The result, according to McKee, will be a suffusing of story material through a writer’s mind, until the characters seem to act on their own.

Having research broken down in this way was reassuring to me, because if if I can count pre-story writing (the prose equivalents of doodles) as legitimate imaginative research, then I can be less frustrated by my low word/hr productivity. Of course research mustn’t ever be a form of procrastination, but better understanding what reasearch factors contribute to a story can greatly help me keep them in the right balance.

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Dec 20 2008

Whole Novel Workshop

Organized By the Highlights Foundation

It’s been quite a while since my last post. My only excuse is that I’ve been trying to get the writing-blogging balance right ever since I got back from the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop, and even before that, when I was preparing for the week-long intensive. Hopefully what I can share of that experience will be worth the wait.

Someone to Read the Whole Thing; And a Published Someone, At That

Please feel free to drop me a comment on this post if you’re thinking about applying to attend this conference. In general, I think it’s a great experience for a writer. One of the topics brought up by editor Stephen Roxburgh at the conference was how important it is for writers to enlist the help of readers before submitting to an editor. Mr. Roxburgh suggesting finding readers who aren’t writers (because writers may try to craft your story to their style more than dedicated readers). But certainly the opinions of a dedicated reader can be well-complemented by readings by published authors.

I was fortunate enough to have Martine Leavitt, a children’s writer published in both the fantasy and mainstream genres, read the story I’m currently working on, Thornwood. One of the other attendees had her husband read the feedback she’d gotten just before the workshop and he said that it was worth the price of attending (around $2500) on its own. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say I made back the price of attendance at least twice over during the course of the week. In large part that stemmed from my ability to discuss macro story elements (did I rush through this scene? Does the tone shift too much over the course of the first half of the story? Any ideas for seeds I could plant in chapter one that might bear fruit by chapter 16?)l.

While the value of the workshop was most demonstrated in specific guidance for my story, I also picked up some advice of more general use.

Showing Emotion

This advice came mostly from Carolyn Coman, the other manuscript reader and workshop organizer besides Martine. In working with her husband and publisher Stephen Roxburgh, Carolyn finds that he is constantly asking her how her character feels at any particular moment, and also how she would like her reader to feel. Their advice is that if you are unsure about either at any point in your story, you need to find out (perhaps by doing a little fiction research). This advice holds true regardless of whether you are writing in 1st person stream-of-consciousness or 3rd person omniscient.

A second way to better articulate your character’s emotions is to never give the character a generic emotional reaction, to which I would add that you also should keep some undercurrents of emotion relatively persistent.

If you’ve participated in a critique group for a while or attended readings at seminars, you may have noticed there’s a lot of yelling in stories written by beginners. This is because beginners know a story should have strong emotions to keep reader interest, know that anger is a good emotion, and can easily find the exclamation point on their keyboards. An emotionally fraught drama as easy as pressing Shift-1!

Consider just a few of the ways that real people show anger: passive-aggressive resistance to future suggestions from the antagonist, a “slow burn” form of resentment expressed not at the time when the person was angered, but at a seemingly innocuous time, by-the-book Anger Management “You doing this makes me feel…,” “furious” concentration on whatever task or fidgeting behavior the person is engaged in at the time, a slight twitch at the corner of a person’s eye, begin speaking in a flat, monotone voice that is scary in its lack of emotion, scornful laughter, public revelation of the antagonist’s weaknesses, icy retort, bullying someone less powerful shortly thereafter.

Essentially, whatever emotion your character has, the emotion should be experienced in a way specific to that character, and expressed in a way specific to that character. Avoid cliche in emotional expression just as you avoid it in other circumstances.

Flashback

Before you decide to introduce a flashback, you should be sure it is absolutely necessary, because since it has already happened, it cannot contribute to the dramatic progression of a story as well as in-story events can. When you write a first draft, you are likely to write a full flashback: a full scene with a fade-in, fade-out, and large amount of surrounding detail. For every draft after that, you should try to cut the flashback down to the absolute necessity.

My model of spare flashback is a great little scene fragment from Martine Leavitt’s book Heck Superhero. In it her main character Heck, is talking with a friend of his. Heck’s mother has disappeared, and he’s homeless, living as best he can on the street with no money. His friend wants him to come live with his family, but Heck is reluctant, and has also run into a homeless kid even more troubled than he.

Heck tells his friend he can’t come home yet, and anyway he’s got to try to take care of this other homeless kid he’s found. To which Heck’s friend says he couldn’t take care of a goldfish. We then get Heck’s thought: “I should have never told him about the goldfish.”

You know what happened to the fish, you got everything you needed from a flashback, and yet even by the loosest definition, you only have a few words of revelation from the past.

Once you have a flashback scene you need an excellent trigger to bring it on, but then it can be introduced with nothing more than the word “had”. Anything the reader can follow is acceptable.

But that reminds me of another great lesson I learned at the Whole Novel Workshop…

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Jun 28 2008

DIY Slang

establishing a setting for your story without making it seem dated

When Anthony Burgess created his masterwork A Clockwork Orange, he didn’t get his slang by simply transcribing ideas from high schoolers. He created a lexicon for his near-future hoodlum based on a reasonable assumption (in 1962, when it was written) that the Soviet Union would remain a powerful force far into the future, and that rebellious youth might integrate Russian into their slang as part of their rejection of the society around them. This makes the book tough to get into at first, but rewarding enough to earn a great deal of critical praise (I particularly like how they could put The New York Times followed by Roald Dahl on the back cover).

Used well, slang can not only add to your story, but become a major part of both plot and character.

However, if you do create your own slang, don’t cut corners. I recently finished the children’s book Dragon’s Milk by Susan Fletcher, and the author clearly tried to give the story a quickie fantasy makeover: all her characters talk with ploddingly normal diction, with the one exception that every time they use the word “not” they put it at the end of the sentence. Always “I know not” or “I like it not”, and never “I don’t know”, “I don’t like it”. Even worse is the naming convention: the main character’s two sisters are named Lyf and Mirym, step-mother Ryfenn, grandmother Granmyr, and three young dragons she takes care off named Synge, Embyr and Pyro before handing them over to a dragon named Byrn. Rather yrrytatyng.

Fletcher may have been able to get away with these sneaks—her primary audience in 1989 was made up of girls around eleven or twelve—but these ticks don’t add to the story.

So what principles could we follow to create work like Burgess’s? To me, it seems our goals should be very similar to those of the Do-It-Yourself movement.

Simple, Cheap

DIY

The materials DIYers work with are not exotic or expensive. A DIYer is, by definition, not a professional, and a DIY slangmaker is not a linguist (except if the slangmaker is Tolkien). When crafting slang, a DIYer should not get too fancy, at the risk of creating slang that detracts, rather than adds, to the meaning of the story (even Tolkien could probably have cut down on the number of times the elves busted out grandiloquent songs of mourning).

A few subtle and smooth changes to diction can sometimes produce a much greater effect than major grammatical changes: see my entry “Speaking in Tongues“. (logo done by me using a free gif from this site)

Repurposed, Recycled

If you have any foreign language knowledge, and Anthony Burgess had a lot, you can draw on a wealth of foreign ideas and usages in creating new jargon. Don’t create from scratch when you can borrow. For some of the fun words I’ve found in other languages, see my entry “No Direct Translation“.

Useful

One of the greatest strengths of the DIY movement is the emphasis on utility: eschewing flashy and wasteful features. This is the core value for DIY slang.

If you have read much speculative fiction, you have probably come across stories in which the warlike race has a language with way too many consonants. Well, Polish and Czech are pretty consonant-heavy languages, and the Poles and Czechs don’t seem any more warlike than the rest of us.

As an alternative to repeating the “harsh sounds-bad man” stereotype, try looking at language from a utility standpoint. Ask yourself this question: Would this word or this usage be of value to this character? Better yet, start from your character’s daily life, and find something for which there is no word in English and name it. But don’t stop there. Also create some set phrases and “translate” them: this allows you to produce alien ideas without adding too many italicized unpronounceables to your work.

For example, you could give the warlike people eight common words, twelve more slang words, ten euphemisms, and a couple dozen signature phrases all describing killing. Having different kinds of words, as well as phrase- and sentence-level constructions about killing will add more to your story than having one slang word you repeat over and over. If some of them even sound pleasant, all the more sinister.

Good luck with your DIYalog!

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Jun 23 2008

No Direct Translation

using language to give your story a foreign context

In writing, adopting the perspective of a foreigner can give you an angle on a story that may provide you with much more insight. Particularly in speculative fiction, but also in other fiction, alien or unworldly characters can be very satisfying. And if you want to create truly foreign characters, you need to be able to think in a foreign way sometimes, and that will require research.

Rich Words

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you may notice that every so often you run across a word in that language that requires a long cultural explanation to define, or that illustrates a funny difference in the way people think, or that sound just perfectly right for what they mean. I’ve run into words like this in Russian, and (to a lesser extent, reflecting my weaker speaking ability) in Ukrainian and Japanese. An equally fun discovery is when there is not really a good word in another language for something in English.

Here’s a few of the words and phrases and expressions I enjoy. I’ll be adding to them periodically, as I encounter or remember more. If you’ve got one in a language you know, feel free to drop it in the comments!

Russian

  • Blatt (блат): It means a combination of corruption related ideas like “inside connections”, “pull”, and “under the table deals”.
  • Krysha (крыша): literally “roof”: one’s connections in high places that protect one from being persecuted by government officials or gangsters.
  • Tovarishch (товарищ): The word Russian Communists actually used that was translated as “comrade” in English. Funny enough, the word originally meant “business associate” and comes from a Turkish word for “businessman” or “merchant”. The Communists were insulting each other all this time!
  • Khaltura (халтура): This can have the innocuous meaning “side-job” or the more derogatory meaning of poorly done work.
  • Belaya Vorona (белая ворона): literally, a “white crow”. In English you have a “black sheep”—the one strange, out of place person in an otherwise OK family. In Russian you have a “white crow”—the one good person in a group of bad folks. Perhaps “diamond in the rough” would be a better comparison.
  • Khomyachit’ (хомячить): Literally “to hamster”. In the US, we wolf down our food, in Russian-speaking areas, they’re more disdainful of the practice.
  • Seroburomalinoviy (серобуромалиновый): literally grayish-brownish-raspberry colored. It means motley or of no particular color.
  • Privacy: While there is a word уединение (Uyedineniye) that gets translated as “privacy”, the word is more closely translated as “solitude”. There are significant implications if a person can express the idea of being alone, which is the main meaning of “privacy”, but not the idea of a right to be alone that is often the implied when this term is used in English (for example: “This reception is great, but I feel like we really ought to give the newlyweds some privacy!”—it doesn’t quite work with “solitude”, particularly since there are two of them).

Ukrainian

  • Rozsmakuvaty (розсмакувати): The word “smakuvaty” (смакувати) without the prefix means to eat with gusto (a word with resonance by itself). With the prefix it means to eat something enough to get a taste for it. For example, it often takes people a while to get a taste for alcoholic drinks, so new drinkers usually try flavored mixed drinks instead of straight liquor until they have rozsmakuvati-ed alcohol.
  • Kumivstvo (кумівство): A “kum” is a parent of your godchild, or a godparent to your child. Therefore, this is literally something like “godparent-ition”. It means the same thing as blat does in Russian: the corrupt use of one’s connections to obtain advantage.

Japanese

Many of the most fun words in Japanese are from among the astounding collection of onomatopoeias in the language. Not only that, but they have lots of ideophones (gitaigo in Japanese: 擬態語), what I call resonances, words that sound like the ideas they represent. Lots and lots and lots of resonances.

  • TsuruTsuru (つるつる): This word was described in my class as meaning “very smooth—smooth as the head of a Buddhist priest”.
  • DabuDabu (だぶだぶ): This means baggy.

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Jun 05 2008

Perfect Timing

What Makes a Good Time-Travel Story?

As a general rule, I dislike time-travel stories. On the thematic side, many wind up being blunt and bludgeoning “commentaries” about what’s wrong with the world today (similarly to zombie movies), or condescending and superficial cultural missions to the ignorant. On the technical side, science fiction stories can quickly become irritatingly unbelievable given that characters have the superpower ability to disrupt the chain of cause and effect: they can act on hindsight preemptively (to go back in time before problems develop and nip them in the bud), or create hordes of paradoxes (such as the killing-one’s-own-grandfather paradox and others).

I was thus rather bemused to find that (without intending to) I’d read three science fiction stories in May that all dealt with time-travel and liked two of them: To Say Nothing of The Dog by Connie Willis, The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein, and The Anubis Gate by Tim Powers.

A Little Light-Hearted Paradox

Basil ExpositionAustin Powers II is only an OK movie, but it has a great bit of handwaving about the problems with time-travel (image via: this site):

Austin: So, Basil, if I travel back to 1969 and I was frozen in 1967, I could go look at my frozen self. But, if I’m still frozen in 1967, how could I have been unthawed in the 90s and traveled back to the 60s? (crosses eyes) Oh, no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.

Basil Exposition: I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.
[turns to camera]
Basil: That goes for you all, too.
Austin: Yes.

Essentially, the movie deals with the paradoxes inherent in time-travel stories by not taking them seriously. Many of my favorite movies about time travel (and most famous time-travel movies) are comedies (Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). If your goal, like Bill and Ted’s, is to bring actual famous historical figures to southern California for a high-school class presentation, I’m not going to be spending too much time looking for technical inconsistencies.

Restricted Travelers

Back to the Future was was also light-hearted, so one might expect the creators to have been breezy about the rules. But take a look at this list of answers posed to them, you can see they were not. One example:

Q: What happened to old Biff when he staggered out of the DeLorean in 2015?

A: Our intention regarding old Biff was that upon his return to 2015, he would be erased from existence because he had changed his entire destiny by giving his younger self the Sports Almanac. (Probably, Lorraine shot him sometime around 1996!). After old Biff clutches his chest and staggers (the same symptoms that Marty exhibited in Back to the Future when he was beginning to be “erased”), we actually filmed him falling onto the street and vanishing, and we previewed the movie this way (see The Secrets of the Back to the Future trilogy). However, the vast majority of the audience did not understand it, so we decided to cut it out, leaving the answer ambiguous, and subject to various interpretations—besides the above explanation, you can believe that Old Biff had a heart attack from the shock of time travel of from flying the car, or from something that happened to him in 1955. (image via: IMDb)

Doc Brown in Back to the Future

Even in this lighthearted comedy, the directors obviously felt it was worth their time to understand and account for the potential paradoxes of time travel. A novel writer is going to have a lot more audience time to work with than these directors, and so should be held to a higher standard.

The primary way to make a believable time-travel system is similar to that for creating a believable magical system: limit the ways in which powers can be used. In Back to the Future, they needed a massive amount of electricity, high speed, and bizarrely complex technology. In The Door Into Summer, Heinlein subjected time-travel to a variation of Newton’s third law of motion: in order to send something a certain amount of time into the past, a person must send an equal mass an equal amount of time into the future. Furthermore, one can never be certain which of the two items will go forward and which backwards, and there was a significant chance of miscalculation (whoops, you appeared eight feet underground). Add to that the good old standby of a government coverup, and you have a story world in which you can believe time-travel is nearly unheard of.

Self-Healing and Immutable Timelines

In To Say Nothing of the Dog (as well as The Doomsday Book, which is set in the same world), Willis uses an even more clever control mechanism—one I’d never seen before. She controls time travelers by giving the universe the ability to “heal” inconsistencies. Willis first draws a distinction between significant and insignificant events. While travelers are able to change minor events, the universe itself will prevent them from changing major events by blocking them from entering time portals, sending them to the wrong time or place, or when travelers think of clever ways to set off large chain reactions with small action, the universe will also set off a group of of events that cumulatively nullify the impact of the catalyzing action.

In the (exemplary) short story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, Ted Chiang takes this method even a step further: his narrator and the creator of his time portals are both devout Muslims in a unspecified time probably around the late Middle Ages. In it, the world has a strict timeline: travelers will never be able to change the past, even if they think they can. Unlike the movie Twelve Monkeys, which posits an unchangeable but impersonal timeline, in “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, the immutability of the timeline is conceived of as being ensured by God.

Don’t Look at My Time-Travel System, Look at My Characters

Finally, since time-travel systems are often fraught, another way to deal with them is to shift the focus of the story away from being plot driven and towards being more character driven.

The Door Into Summer includes some of Heinlein’s prescient predictions about the future (the story was written in 1957 about a character who travels to 2000), but some extremely off predictions as well (the hero’s inventions are targeted at very 1950s housewives, presumed to still be the majority of women in 2000). Plot-wise it’s a basic, old-fashioned “triumph of the tough guy” story. In order to make it really carry, though, Heinlein needed a main character compelling enough to round out a standard plot with the difficulties of time-travel, and I thought he did.

In contrast, I never warmed to the main character of Tim Power’s The Anubis Gate enough to enjoy the story. With such a convoluted storyline it was always going to be more plot driven than character driven, but for me, the plot so overwhelmed the character that it seemed pushy: I couldn’t get into the story, because I always felt aware of Powers as he moved his characters around.

Though I liked The Door Into Summer, I liked Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog much more. The story’s base time (from which the time-traveling characters originally travel from) is 2057, but the majority of the story takes place in Victorian England. Willis’s insight was to give the entire story pacing and style modeled on that of Victorian writers, particularly Jerome K. Jerome (the book takes its title from the subtitle of Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat).

The flowery and anachronistic language, comedy of errors convolutions, and eccentric characters left me cross-eyed but amused. I don’t think the story was free of self-contradiction. (She sets a precedent that time-travelers will see the results of their actions when returning to the future, but at the end of the book Ned seems to see a woman at Coventry whose history he’d changed—who should no longer have been there. If you can explain this, please let me know!) However, her focus was on the characters and her tone was sufficiently lighthearted that I didn’t worry too much about the time travel. When I did, the work she’d done to create her self-healing timeline satisfied me.

Done as well as Willis did, a time travel story can become a marvelously contorted tale.

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May 23 2008

New Macros Page

Some Microsoft Word Macros To Help You With Common Tasks

I’ve just added a new page to the site that will be a central area for ideas and macros to help you with common tasks in Microsoft Word.

I will try to think of others that are within my VB programming ability and time constraints. Of course I love suggestions, so if you’ve got one, please respond. Maybe I can come up with something.

One final word: since I’m on the subject of useful writing and editing macros, I should point you as well to the many detailed free macros offered on Roger J Carlson’s website.

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May 19 2008

Speaking in Tongues

rhythm is more important than spelling in imitating regional dialect

In Reading Like a Writer, a book on literary analysis for aspiring writers, Francine Prose quotes Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (pg 16). Part of the quote is this piece of dialog:

“Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed towards Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer my conscience if I did.”

As Prose points out, the word “aloose” alone goes along way towards conveying “the rhythm and flavor of a local dialect”. I’d add that the flow of the speaker’s voice, with run-ons and sentence-fragments and the little repetitions of casual speech (look here…see here… Here this fellow) is smooth enough and genuine enough that her unfamiliar word combination doesn’t throw us off. Like many of Flannery O’Connor’s characters, the speaker has a convincing regional accent because O’Connor does most of her work with diction and grammar, and gives us only occasional, well-chosen re-spelled or re-structured words to deal with.

Diction is the focus here. The word means “word choice”, but includes the sense of “enunciation” and “pleasing speaking ability”—word choice that is about words in context, not just words on their own. A character’s speech doesn’t just need to reflect their origins of the speaker, it also has to be smooth enough that readers can slip into the new context. If O’Connor had played too much with the spelling, even if her new words better reflected the proper pronunciation, readers would have to spend much more time sounding out the words and would be less able to get into the feel of the writing. As an analogy, think about how much harder it is to read a Shakespeare play than it is to listen to the play performed (after a couple minutes slipping into the context).

Avoid Being a Bad-Grammar Maven

Take another example of O’Connor’s regional dialect, from Wise Blood. The main character, Haze, a young man from the country, arrives in a city not really knowing where to go, copies down the address of a woman written on the door of a bathroom stall and takes a taxi there:

They had driven a few blocks before Haze noticed him squinting at him through the rear-view mirror. “You ain’t no friend of hers, are you?” the driver asked.

“I never saw her before,” Haze said.

“Where’d you hear about her, She don’t usually have no preachers for company.” He did not disturb the position of the cigar when he spoke; he was able to speak on either side of it.

“I ain’t any preacher,” Haze said, frowning. “I only seen her name in the toilet.”

“You look like a preacher,” the driver said. “That hat looks like a preacher’s hat.”

“It ain’t,” Haze said, and leaned forward and gripped the back of the front seat. “It’s just a hat.”

They stopped in front of a small one-story house between a filling station and a vacant lot. Haze got out and paid his fare through the window.

“It ain’t only the hat,” the driver said. “It’s a look in your face somewheres.”

“Listen,” Haze said, tilting the hat over one eye, “I’m not a preacher.”

The taxi driver says the woman “don’t usually have no preachers for company”, which is fine, many writers use double-negatives to give a feeling of uneducated southernness to a story. But Haze doesn’t say “I ain’t no preacher” he says “I ain’t any preacher”, which feels like the correct grammar for his response to the driver, in a cracked sort of way. He also uses the correct “I’m not a preacher” at the end instead of “I ain’t a preacher”. Both of these instances give the reader the sense that Haze is exerting extra effort to make sure he’s being clear and correct, and the southern context comes through even more clearly than if O’Connor had applied the “rules” of poor grammar more consistently.

Stoning Your Readers

In contrast: take a look at this bit of dialog between two gypsies in Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates:

Responding to the dog’s summons, a dark man in a striped corduroy coat stepped out of the tent and strode across the grass toward Fikee. Like the dogs, he halted well short of the old man. “Good evening, rya,” he said. “Will you eat some dinner? They’ve got a hotchewitchi on the fire, smells very kushto.”

“As kushto as hotchewitchi ever does smell, I suppose,” Fikee muttered absently. “But no, thank you. You all help yourselves.”

“Not I, rya—my Bessie always loved cooked hotchewitchi; so since she mullered I don’t eat it anymore.”

Does this convince you of anything except that Mr. Powers looked up at least four words of Romani language? Perhaps when you were reading it, your reaction was something like mine: “Ok, ‘rya’ means ‘sir’, so ‘Sir, there’s hotchewitchi’, some food or another, doesn’t really matter, so ‘Sir there’s some food. It’s very kushto.’ ‘Tasty’, obviously. ‘Sir there’s some food, it’s very tasty.’ Then the other guy, ‘As kush–as tasty as h– as that food ever does smell, I suppose.’ What a waste of my time.”

In Snatch, the itinerant, indigent, “Pikers” use diction and a manner of speaking that clearly reflects who they are, and contributes to the natural flow of their speech (so well that it’s funny). In The Anubis Gate, the foreign words are tossed into the flow of speech like large rocks. The rest of what the gypsy characters say includes none of the peculiarities of grammar or diction that might convince us that these are non-native speakers from a culturally isolated community.

However, Power’ has not subjected us to the worst form of cheater’s dialect: apostrophication (doin’ nuthin’ but talkin’ and cussin’) .

Rule #1 for Dialect: Do not cut off bits of words and dress the wounds with apostrophes unless a madman forces you to do so at gunpoint. Should a madman do so, you are still obliged to try and talk him down first.

Cataloging Dialog

Fiction includes many great examples of dialog in dialect, but in preparing to write stories, we should also analyze our chosen dialects outside of fiction examples in order to increase our authenticity. In a later post, I will try to do something like this for Russian, based on my knowledge of the language and my native-Russian-speaking friends.

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May 16 2008

The Shape of Your Story

Highlighting Paragraph Length

Many of the writing books I’ve read recommend varying paragraph size. The goal is to establish a natural rhythm and flow to sections of text—avoiding both lulling readers into a stupor with enormous blocks of text, or pummeling them with punchy one-sentence paragraphs.

Here’s how Self-Editing for Fiction Writers words its advice (in a chapter called “Breaking Up Is Easy to Do”):

So be on the lookout for paragraphs that run more than, say, a half-page in length. Whether it’s because readers feel lectured to, or because they feel crowded, or simply because some white space on the page is visually inviting, lengthy unbroken chunks of written material are off-putting… paragraphing more frequently can make your writing much more engaging.

And in contrast:

…a page-turner beginning to end is more likely to leave its readers feeling weary—and manipulated—than satisfied. When you want to create a more relaxed mood, or give your readers a chance to breathe (or reflect), or simply lull them into complacency before you spring something on them, try paragraphing a little less frequently than usual.

Sculpting your paragraphs for variety and rhythm can greatly help the flow of your prose.

Black Box Paragraphs

One easy way to study paragraphs as shapes is to select all of the text in the story (or in a portion if you’ve divided the story up to avoid word processor glitches) and then highlight it in black or dark gray. In addition to making your story look as though it’s been reviewed by the world’s strictest censor, this will provide you with black blocks instead of text, allowing you to focus your attention on the shape of the text without being distracted by the content.

To avoid having your notes also highlighted, consider using Microsoft Word comments instead of simply writing notes in the body of the text. When you’re done looking at paragraph size, you can simply select everything again and get rid of the highlighting, then go back and make any changes you left notes about.

Hopefully in the non-too-distant future, I will be able to make the time to create a simple macro that will allow you to search for paragraphs or sequences of paragraphs you feel may be too long or too short.

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May 06 2008

A Motivational Speaker’s Paradise

Overly Leadable Characters in Speculative Fiction

I’ve just finished reading The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold, quite a shift in gears after James Joyce’s Dubliners. Like much speculative fiction it was rather like a ride in a hovercar: the interesting technology was (mostly) able to carry the story, and keep our belief suspended, across the plot holes.

While the book is enjoyable, there was one aspect of it busted my hovercar: Miles Vorkosigan’s followers are simply too easily lead (almost as easily led as Captain Phule’s legionnaires in Robert Asprin’s Phule’s Company). Many of Vorkosigan’s main associates seem to act like a single self-help seminar was all that stood between them and greatness: an out-of-work pilot and drunk not only stays sober after meeting Miles, but contributes both to strategy and to fighting, a thuggish commander learns restraint apparently by osmosis, a hermaphroditic mercenary becomes a great field commander (and manages to get a crush on Miles). One deserter becomes a brave war hero simply because Miles gives him the old “we’re all afraid; it’s not about losing your fear but about learning to control it” speech.

The climax of leadability is when when Miles’ crew of five, with only one fit and trained military person, overcomes two-dozen mercenaries and then manages to convince them that they (Miles’ five) are an inspection committee, rather than a bunch of smugglers. The reason we are given for why the the mercenaries believe the bluff (despite having one of their crew killed by the “inspectors”) is that doing so would make them feel less humiliated by their defeat. This is a level of psychological vulnerability almost as unbelievable as the physical vulnerability of the Star Wars stormtroopers to Fightin’ Ewoks.

Leaders Created by Followers

The plot of The Warrior’s Apprentice is dependent on the supernatural leadability of secondary characters in a way that brings to mind the dependence of the Tarot character of The Fool on his luck. Phule’s Company can at least be defended as a book targeted at younger teenagers meant for simple pleasure reading (I loved it at 15, but couldn’t enjoy it nearly as much at 25). Since it doesn’t try too hard for seriousness, the supernatural leadability of supporting characters can be just part of the way the world works. Bujold gets into trouble because her book does try for more: such as seriously addressing political intrigue and war crimes. Because of this, each instance of Foolish leadability is an example of bathos—a fall in the story from the serious to the absurd.

Why did Bujold, like many other writers, make this mistake?

My best guess is that to become a writer, a person must have an exceptional ability to see other people’s points of view and value them as their own, as well as the time and the inclination to go off in a room alone to create for much of their lives. Good leaders need to pursue goals with single-minded determination and consistency (that’s vision), and must be constantly in the public eye, inspiring their followers to follow same these few goals. A fiction writer-leader is quite nearly an oxymoron.

Writers writing about leadership are describing people totally unlike themselves, so it is understandable that even good writers sometimes resort to propping up their weak leaders with unrealistically impressionable followers.

Real Leaders

Trying to create realistic leaders is central to a number of the stories I want to write. However, I am a typical writer with little experience myself with leadership to work from. That means a concomitant increase in research. I’ll add more on this topic as I come across it. Some of my ideas follow, but if you have any, please comment:

  1. Don’t make a charismatic leader as reflective as you are. A person who interacts with a couple coworkers and meets about one friend per day for a couple hours is going to be able to do a lot more reflection, relative to talking, than someone who is leading and talking morning to night. Also, just because some leaders are successful does not mean their self images are free of major inaccuracies. Let your overworked leaders fall into misconceptions more easily than you do.
  2. Give leaders slogans and core concepts to repeat. Good leaders often “read” their audience and adjust their messages, but they succeed most when the fundamental part of the messages remain unchanged. In Colleen Willis’s fabulous To Say Nothing of the Dog, “God is in the details” is the slogan used by Lady Schrapnell to push around an entire Oxford faculty, to the point where the main character flees through a time machine centuries into the past just to escape her attention. Giving your leaders ideas and slogans they hold on to relentlessly will help explain how they can guide large numbers of people, many of whom they may never meet directly.
  3. Don’t make your followers abject worshippers. Another way that To Say Nothing of the Dog gets Lady Schrapnell right is by making many of the characters dislike her. By definition, a good leader is someone who can get other people to do more than they would without the leader. That often requires pressure, and few people respond well to pressure. Even if a leader is greatly admirable, lower-level officials may misinterpret the leader’s vision, and this will also compromise the leader. If follower reactions cover a range from bitterness through grudging respect, with only a select number admiring the leader, the leader will seem more real than one worshipped by otherwise not-overly-impressionable people.

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May 06 2008

Fightin’ Ewoks

Insurmountable Disadvantage in Science Fiction

Everybody loves to think that it’s the size of the fight in the dog, not the dog in the fight, that determines things. I like those underdogs so much, I was in the very small group of people who could suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy the Ewoks in Star Wars, Return of the Jedi. Of course, I was eight at the time, but…

The little two-foot teddy bears of Star Wars are the icons of Plucky Baseline characters: creatures or people that are hopelessly technologically backwards and yet still manage to overcome their hyper-advanced technologically- and sociologically-developed opponents (link is to the Orion’s Arm – a cooperative sci-fi universe project, a decent argument against the character type, though laced with the group’s own jargon).

Pluck in Action Movies and Fantasy Stories

For fiction set in our own world, plucky characters can usually get away with quite amazing upsets. Action heroes, especially, count on great indulgence from us in suspending our disbelief so they can win gunfights against dozens of opponents, jump vehicles over, around, and through bizarre obstacles, and generally act like one-man armies. Perhaps my favorite example of relatively believable pluck is when Sean Connery, playing Indiana Jones’ dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, manages to defeat a German WWII plane by scaring up a flock of geese to jam the plane’s propeller.

In fantasy stories as well, since the rules of the world are largely author-defined, writers can embed trade-offs in the rules of their universes that provide opportunities for Pluck. Usually the most powerful “technology” in a fantasy story will be magic, and thus the powers of wizards will need to be curtailed strongly in some way.

The default way to give non-wizards a chance is to make magic require extreme mental effort from wizards. I’ll mention I just finished Tim Power’s The Anubis Gate, and wizards in the story are limited both by the need to be close to “sources” of magic to perform greater feats, and the physical toll magic takes on them (pain and weakness, bleeding from the eyes, fatigue…).

Moreover, at the heart of almost all magical stories are human or human-like characters with strengths and weaknesses recognizably similar to our own.

Inhuman Perfection

The major difference in space-age science fiction is that there will be inhumanly advanced characters. We are already able to greatly increase the toughness of human beings, and may soon be able to significantly increase human intelligence, and this is in the 21st century. A casually spacefaring population will have had centuries to improve, advance, strengthen, and increase their longevity.

In such a battle against more recognizably “human” opponents (which would likely be the “good guys”, because nobody enjoys rooting for the overdog), the advanced race would win every time. Not most every time—absolutely every time, regardless of pluck. The battle wouldn’t be conceptually like Drake vs. the Spanish Armada, it would be like A Herd of Sheep vs. Boston, Massachusetts.

If a military dictatorship has access to mass genetic modification and cloning technologies, energy weapons, and super-advanced alloys, it will not lose to Ewoks. The dictatorship would not make the soldiers’ strength or reflexes, armor or equipment, susceptible to the sticks of little savages any more than it would create them with exposed brains.

(images: walker, ewok)

Hitting Above Weight Class

Of course there are lots of tropes in science fiction that stretch believability: that’s part of the fun. But to really draw in readers (less credulous than I was at eight) a science fiction writer will need to put together a force better than Fightin’ Ewoks. Readers are unlikely to believe your featherweight can take on a heavyweight in the ring, but they might believe a middleweight could do it.

Here are a few ideas for putting enough firepower in the hands of your overmatched heroes to make their upsets believable. If you can think of more, please respond with comments—I’m just improvising here.

  1. If your advanced opponents are divided, a minority of them may either tip the balance by joining the heroes weakening the primary opponents.
  2. In a more sinister twist, a high-level third party may actually be found to have manipulated the heroes, carefully guiding them to victory for its own purposes.
  3. Technology at the fringes of an advanced society may be sufficiently up-to-date to pose a reasonable challenge to superior opponent technology at the center (provided the fringes have sufficient communications to stay “in the loop”).
  4. Since some technologies are so advanced and as-yet scientifically unproven to be indistinguishable from magic (according to Arthur C. Clarkes old adage), you can use the fantasy tools such as trade-offs and critical weaknesses to give the antagonists vulnerabilities (an example of this would be in Larry Niven’s Ringworld, in which humans defeat more militarily capable opponents by improvising a weapon out of spaceship thrusters).
  5. Throttling back the technological advancement of your societies makes it easier for humans like us to compete—if you want less of a gap between us and frontrunners, set the story closer to the present.
  6. While it’s a recognizable sci-fi cliche, another way of making normal people important in the future is to have everyone live in the wake of the collapse of a superior civilization. Whatever destroyed that civilization or broke it up conveniently leaves some of the tools behind—allowing access to futuristic technologies without the insurmountable intellectual gulfs that would necessarily accompany them. As I said, though, this is a cliche and that means it would take more work to make a fresh story with this premise.

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Jan 12 2008

Resonances and Discordances Pages Created

After a bit of fighting with the table-creation program, my list of resonances and list of discordances are ready to go live. I use the term “resonance” to mean a word which is an idea onomatopoeia. Rather than “hiss” or “splat”, which are meant to sound like the phenomena they describe—the sound of one of these words evokes a feeling that is in harmony with the meaning of the word. Examples include pithy, bawd, and cacophony. A discordance, in contrast, is a word for which the sound and the meaning seem to clash. Examples of words I consider discordances are limerence, osculate, fisticuffs, and grok.

Before you catch me: I know of at least one term that already refers to this type of word: ideophone. But ideophone seems too cold and scholarly to itself be an ideophone, so that’s why I decided on resonance.

Please check out the resonances and discordances and let me know what you think.

Thank you for your interest!

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Jul 07 2007

If and Then

Fiction as a String or Web of If-Then Statements

In addition to laboratory experiments on ideas, works of fiction can also be thought of as elaborate if-then statements, comparable to those in much clearer-defined fields such as mathematics and logic.

For fiction, the elements of stories about which readers should “suspend their disbelief” are the if side of the statement, and the implicit agreement is that the story will produce from those ifs a number of thens that are both logical and surprising.

Of course one of the goals of fiction is to make the story flow so naturally that readers do not even perceive they are making assumptions (accepting givens) on their way to the conclusion. For this reason it can be difficult to pick apart the bits that must be accepted from the bits we should analyze and examine. A relatively simple way of telling them apart is that when ifs are done wrong, readers think “What the heck?”  (your main character is a boxing neurosurgeon?), but when thens are done wrong, readers thinks “It wouldn’t happen like that!” (a character you set up as a typical office worker fights off six trained assassins in scene three).

Ifs and Thens in Catcher in the Rye

Some of the explicit and implicit ifs in Catcher in the Rye are:

  • situational characteristics: the death of Holden’s brother Allie
  • character characteristics: the personalities of major characters such as Holden’s former girlfriend and his favorite professor
  • aspects of the writing itself: implicit bias we assume there will be towards Holden’s point of view, because Holden is “speaking.”

This story is a classic because Salinger does an excellent job of developing believable effects from those givens in a dynamic way. For example, Holden loves his sister, we have to take this if as a given, which justifies why he would risk being caught by his parents to sneak back and visit her toward the middle of the novel. But it would also make sense from both his and her character that he would let her know his plans to go to California (if: he loves her; then: he won’t go far away without telling her), that she would want to go with him (if: she loves him and he is going away, then: she will want to go with him), and that he would refuse her (if: he loves her and she tries to give up her life for vagrant travels with him, then: he will refuse to let her), with each then being part of the if in the next scene.

Speculative Fiction – Big Ifs

The same is true of speculative writing, it simply presents more extreme ifs and thens. Science fiction presents us with worlds, parts of which are meant to be accepted as-is, and parts accepted as realistic extrapolations. Fantasy includes even less reference to our current world, but almost all such stories include humans or human-like characters, whose basic psychological characteristics we are expected to judge based on our own. Moreover, because of the size of the ifs, the thens must follow even more strictly than with mainstream fiction.

In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, we are made painfully aware that the main ring gives the wearer a connection to a being of pure and overpowering evil. Not one of the characters could wear the ring for long without being overcome by the evil, and heroes prove their goodness not by overcoming the power of the ring, but by avoiding testing themselves. If one character were immune, we would feel cheated or disappointed.

The Part We Care Most About is the Thens

Thinking of writing in this way is useful for me because it reminds me that the important, and enjoyable, part of writing is in seeing how the story develops (the thens), not the scene or situation (the ifs). I love worldbuilding, and spend inordinate amounts of time on it, but the proof of anything I write will still be in the way all the ifs crash and jangle against each other to produce a dynamic stream of thens.

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Jul 07 2007

What Might Have Been

Fiction as Thought Experiment

From time to time, one hears from people who, for whatever reason, disdain fiction. Usually, they are the kinds of people who consider themselves non-fiction purists, and their most common jibe is that fiction is all just a pack of lies. Perhaps because writers are self-conscious lot, even great writers seem to have accepted this accusation (Hemmingway: Fiction is the truth inside a lie).

Balderdash.

Lying requires an intention to deceive, and a good fiction writer has no such intention. A good work of fiction does not convince us that the events it describes actually happened, but that they might have happened.

A Philosophical Laboratory

In great writing, each event in the story seems to flow naturally into the next, and the questions or hypotheses that are brought up along the way seem to be addressed (but not necessarily answered) in a satisfactory way. Like a laboratory scientist that formulates a hypothesis then tests that hypothesis in an isolated environment, a fiction writer takes a philosophical premise, a big idea or set of such ideas, and puts it in the isolated environment of a fiction story. The ability to isolate a story is essential because it allows fiction to address countless situations which could not, have not, or would be extremely difficult to find in our own world.

Non-fiction is certainly also worthy writing, but the purity of any truths discovered or ideas explored in works of non-fiction will always be contaminated by the infinite number of distracting and disruptive events of everyday life–because the ideas are being observed in the field, as it were. Disregarding fiction because it does not describe actual events (as imperfectly as we understand those) is like disregarding laboratory findings because they take place out of context.

In 1984, George Orwell attempted to analyze totalitarianism by creating a world in which it was triumphant. He explored how the state would behave itself, what effect it would have on peoples’ lives, how life within this state would feel, what it would smell like, how it would look. A situation of this extremity hasn’t happened (thank God), and if it did we would be unable to analyze it because of the very limitations the totalitarian state itself would impose. Yet even the word “1984″ has become a helpful corrective, a warning to the world to make extra effort to limit the powers of states.

Orwell’s fiction had something hugely meaningful to say about totalitarianism that no non-fiction story could ever have said.

Compromising Findings

What if one man were given ultimate power over a state? What if a normal working man lost his whole family in an airplane disaster? What if a billionaire and a beggar struck up a friendship (or tried to)? A non-fiction story could address or at least come close to addressing some of these issues, but there will always be complicating factors making the findings hard to assess.

Take another example: What if two young people fell in love whose families were irreparably at odds with one another? That describes Romeo and Juliet. Now consider just a few possible complications a dilligent non-fiction writer might encounter after spending years researching for his story:

  1. He is forced to limit himself to examples from the last two hundred years in the English-speaking world, because of the limitations of his language ability and access to historical data. Shakespeare could set his story in Verona having never visited the country and no knowledge of contemporary Italian.
  2. Many of the families the researcher finds simply do not have young people of opposite sexes but comparable ages at the height of their feud. Those that do have no equivalent of the Capulet’s costume ball: the children don’t have opportunities to meet, let alone fall in love.
  3. He finds certain details plentiful, but others impossible. He has plenty of court records that mention long-standing family feuds, but fails to find useful diaries of 15-year-old girls in love with boys from rival families. Finding contemporary ones turns out to be too fraught with potential lawsuits. He does find a few compendiums of girls’ diaries, and eventually one girl whose situation seemed promising. But after more months of research, he fails to find anything else about her, her boyfriend, or their families. He is left with only one data point, and gives her up. Shakespeare had the immediate, if imperfect, access to the minds and thoughts of both Juliet and Romeo provided to him by his imagination.
  4. The researcher eventually narrows his search to three pairs of families.However, one pair of them managed to reconcile their differences relatively easily, making the researcher unsure of how deep their feud was. One of the two families in his second example flees the country during the English Civil War, the boy in his third example dies of smallpox. Shakespeare was able to take two translations of the original Italian tale and then modify it simply to increase the conflict–and thus the dramatic effect.

Of course, despite all of the complications, sometimes it will be most intriguing for a writer to find an event, research it, and try to tell that story. However, sometimes it must also be worthwhile for that writer to work from an idea he knows well and is passionate about, but experiment on it in the strictly controlled environment of fiction to find its most fundamental properties.

Knowledge and Trust

Of course, since a fiction writer is controlling both the materials and results of a story, readers must trust that the writer is not manipulating events contrary to how “they would actually work out”. (And readers of fiction can certainly object to a bad story based on this argument: see my entry on stories as if-then statements.) But non-fiction readers must trust the writers as well, and sometimes for more than they might think.

Consider a non-fiction biography of Jane Austen in which the author extrapolates Austen’s thoughts based on a few letters that she wrote to her family. This is still, strictly speaking, an act of speculation. What if Austen was trying to deceive her family about something? What if her recollection of an event was slightly different in different letters? Even if she was being as truthful as she could, how much self-serving bias and other unconscious factors should the author attribute to her? Readers of Austen’s biography would have to base their trust of the author on their own knowledge of the topic being discussed, the writer’s tone, and the advice of friends. For the most part, this kind of analysis also applies to fiction.

A science fiction story about space travel will fail miserably if any college physics student can find errors in fundamental parts of its mechanics, just like a Middle-Ages fantasy would be rejected if the author put Kalashnikovs in the hands of Saxon villagers.

Mark Haddon spent a great deal of time working with youth who had disabilities before writing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time from the point of view of one of them. However, the time lag between when he spent the time and wrote the book (20 years) would be far too long to produce a good non-fiction story. Even if he wrote it while working with youth with Asperger’s, neither the salience of his memories, the importance of the issue to him (read his interview with Powell’s to learn about it), nor his descriptive talent could ever allow him to put us in Jonathan’s shoes. A similar non-fiction book could be written (like Born on a Blue Day), but Haddon could not write it and we could not experience it as intimately.

Fiction, like non-fiction, is focused on revealing truths about human existence and exploring philosophical ideas. Untruthful authors will be found out in the same way as people who fudge historical information for biographies or falsify experimental results. Liars are not welcome.

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Jun 07 2007

The Sentence Pyramid

One of the first mistakes beginning writers make is that they use too many adverbs. This is probably due to a number of misguided efforts aimed at making writing more vivid:

1) the beginning writer’s desire to cram as many detail words as possible into every sentence

2) the notion that adding adverbs makes writing more active

3) the new writer’s mistaken reliance on descriptive words instead of a combination of descriptive phrases and good detail selection

How can one avoid flabby writing? By having a balanced word diet. Here’s a plan I recommend:

Sentence Pyramid

The words you provide to readers should be rich in nouns and verbs. They’re nutritious. Basic punctuation is, of course, necessary but only in smaller quantities. The same is true of adjectives. If you’re tossing in handfuls of commas and em-dashes, or layering multiple adjectives on a single noun, you’re writing will start to become unhealthy.

Finally, adverbs should be sprinkled only lightly throughout your work. If readers have ground through a page of solid nouns with only sparse use of adjectives and essential punctuation, then allow them to have an adverb for sweetening.

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Jun 02 2007

8 – Series

This is the eighth and final category in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements.

The story elements at this level are the most broad, and often require the most out of story planning time to execute. Some of them are so broad they rarely apply in short stories, both because elements which receive only a few sentences of attention don’t need to be flushed out as much in the writer’s mind, and because writers simply don’t have the time and resources to exhaustively research a short (and not terribly lucrative) story.

Elements at this level include the creation of story maps and other larger visual diagrams to help make sure all the pieces of the story can and do go together they way then need to. It also includes world-building, an elements that speculative fiction writers are particularly enamored of but include the reoccuring props and backdrops in non-speculative writing as well.

Finally, this group also includes elements like series arc (into which novel-length arcs must fit), and the relentless need to find new challenges for old characters.

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Jun 02 2007

7 – Novels

This is the seventh of the eight categories in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements. A number of very big issues gain predominance at this level, mostly focused on story cohesion and creating a recognizable path through from beginning to end. This includes plot and story arch.

I’ve also included theme and focus here, though I’m not as decided on those elements. One or both of them may get migrated to the chapter section as I develop the Story Gamut.

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Jun 02 2007

6 – Chapters

This is the sixth of the eight categories in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements. Though chapters are often shorter than short stories, since they require reference to larger book-length issues or themes, they are in a broader category than self-contained short stories. Issues that stand out at this level include the rationing of information and working to hold reader interest and draw them across those spaces between chapters.

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Jun 02 2007

5 – Shorts

This is the fifth of the eight categories in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements. It will focus on the issues that come to the fore when writing on the level of short stories. Primary among these issues is characterization: the creation of vivid protagonists that readers will find compelling. Good characters tends to be more important than other story elements at this level, such as plot and theme, because even a shaky plot can carry a story for eight pages, but uninteresting characters can rarely take a story anywhere. Not coincidentally, many modern literary fiction writers, who often are short story writers first and novelists second, focus obsessively on character.

This category also includes other writing topics, though, such as “idea stories”, those strange little pieces that don’t fit into the usual story structure, but can hold reader interest for short periods of time. This includes literary magazine oddities, but also other types of writing, such as some picture books for children.

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Jun 02 2007

4 – Paragraphs

This is the fourth of the eight categories in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements. Since it focuses on paragraph length, much of this section is devoted to the rhythm of writing: the painting of text against the white space of the page in a way that is visually appealing and understandable to readers. Since “natural” rhythm is such a big part of dialog (and since dialog conforms to different rules on the sentence, phrase, and word basis than much other writing), it will primarily be addressed here.

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Jun 02 2007

3 – Sentences

This is the third of the eight categories in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements. It is concerned with the sentence-level organization of writing. As such, it covers many of the no-fun aspects of writing: proper grammar, punctuation, and the technical details that, when written well, dissolve into invisibility.

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Jun 02 2007

2 – Phrases

This is the second of the eight categories in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements. It is concerned with those quick descriptions: the handful of words that can sum up an idea in a way that is immediately understandable by reader. The category includes such elements of writing as: simply descriptive metaphor (as opposed to more complex, story-wide metaphor, which is more of a thematic element), oxymoron, as well as turns and overturns of phrase.

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Jun 02 2007

1 – Words

This is the first and most minute level of detail of the eight levels in the Story Gamut, my way of classifying story elements on a scale from micro-elements to macro-elements. It is the most minute element: encompassing issues like word choice, the sounds of words and whether or not they resonate with their meanings or are at a discord with those meanings, and character naming. At this level, small details can have great effect: turning your antelope into cantaloupe.

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