Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

‘Blog hop’, you say? What the devil is that?
A big hand of gratitude to Jeff Whelan for introducing me to the ‘blog hop’. Jeff is the author of the zany SF-odyssey Space Orville, a recommended read, and a huge supporter of indie authors.

The blog hop is a way for authors to talk about their WIP and their latest opus and get the word out.  In the process, blog readers can be introduced to other aspiring authors.

Cover art by Steve Bissonnette

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

An exiled treasure-hunter and his misfit band struggle for survival against unscrupulous villains and ‘weird’ and dangerous creatures.

What genre does your book fall under?

Heroic fantasy and perhaps loosely, sword-and-sorcery.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

More the need for some self-entertainment.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I will expound freely.

Grinneth features several rogues, Risgan the Relic Retriever (Robert Downey Jr), in particular, and other infamous villains:

Xoltux the Shaman: Steve Buscemi
Captain Karshan: Ray Liotta
Ivith the Pirate: Joe Pantoliano
Jester the Pirate: Bruce Willis
Gorgere the ‘Mermaid’, although the appellative is debatable: Milla Jovovich
Grinneth, the ‘Unknowable’: Judi Dench

I’m glad to say that Grinneth is not only FREE, but is also part of The Relic Retriever series which features an eccentric pantheon of characters—unfortunately many of whom have gone the wayside by the time Grinneth arrives.  Alas, the full cast is:

Risgan the Rogue: Robert Downey Jr
Afrid the Sorceress: Peter Dinklage, the ‘Imp’ from Game of Thrones, also Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams were close runners-up for this prestigious role, with a bit of CGI.
Moeze the Magician: Colin Morgan from the TV series ‘Merlin’.
Jurna the Journeyman: John Cusack
Kahel the Archer: Andy Garcia
Hape the Homeless: Edward Norton
Farella the Pontific’s Consort: Michelle Pfeiffer
The Pontific:  Anthony Hopkins
Ravenna the Thieving Acolyte: Angelina Jolie
Melfrum, the Alchemist, Jouster and Knave: James Gandolfini (aka Tony from the ‘Sopranos’)

The Thornkeep and Lim-Lalyn episodes feature Kahel, Jurna, Risgan, Moeze and the fretful Hape.  The whole series is chronicled in The Relic Retriever.

I tag 7 fellow indie writers now who may expound upon their brilliant creations.  They will be posting their Next Big Thing blog posts in a week’s time.  Over to you, guys!
Ross McKitson, author of the Darkness Rising series

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The glue of enduring SFF: having a past, present and future

A rich tale encompasses all three time dimensions: the past, present and future.  Is a story just suddenly over after the last sentence, or are there questions that linger in the reader’s mind?  Is the reader thinking about what will happen next after the last scene? Has a sense of time and grandeur been conveyed?  This ‘lasting impression’ is a feature which makes some stories stand out more than others.

It is often difficult to include all three components in one story.  Most good books offer at least two of the three, present and past.  I believe using all three provides maximum interest.

The ‘past’ is used quite effectively in many of the best fantasies, as in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.  Each spotlight character seems to have a past that is developed throughout; the dialog is rich, tales of deeds and past goings on abound.  Whereas every story contains a ‘present’, ie some immediate action and conflict, not all stories are enriched by a past history or legends leading up to the conflict.  Fewer even contain a glimpse of what is to come.  Exceptional stories contain all three.

The Matrix for example, encompasses all.  We are given haunting glimpses into the long tragic past of humans versus machine throughout the film, until finally the bomb drops as the horrifying truth of ‘the human world’ is exposed.  The immediate conflict is established early on, with the introduction of ‘Mr. Anderson’ and his nemesis, ‘the man in black’, and ultimately progresses to the quest of a few edgy rebels defying the all-powerful ‘collective machine’.  Finally, we are left wondering: what are the ends of Neo’s supernormal powers?—as he flies up in the sky, like an exalted superhero.

The Mad Max film, The Road Warrior, encompasses similar scope.  As viewers, we experience the main character, a cynical drifter flashing back on his sad past when unexpected violence took his wife.  From the desolate setting, thuggish characters and lunar ambience, we get a sense of a world that has slowly degenerated to a hostile dystopia. The present conflict in the petrol rich band engages us totally with the ongoing battles.  The reprobates on wheels are wholly horrid.  The viewer is left ultimately with a poignant look at the future when the bandits are destroyed and we are left asking “where are Max and the gang to go”?

The Planet of the Apes develops well in both books and films the past, present and future.  The story arc entails a major conflict of humankind versus apes: featuring a reversal of fortunes, sometimes apes winning, sometimes humans.  Glimpses too emerge of a long-spanning history and the stirring vision of a stark future of a continual conflict between these two groups.  The saga continues.  Even more than the sense of primal conflict presented by the author, is felt the ever-present sense of impending tragedy, moved along by the setting and the mood.

As SF author Theodore Sturgeon demonstrates in his incomparable Microcosmic God, a good SF premise can be taken to extreme heights.  This short tale is rich with implication and grandeur and well worth the read. The fantastic tale deals with technology and knowledge gleaned by homespun creatures—workhorses, ‘Neoterics’, enslaved by a mastermind in a hermetically sealed environment, left to dig for knowledge. Amazingly, the bizarreness is complemented by the richness of science, featuring electric transmitters, nano-chemistry, eugenics, artificial synthesis, and other stuff.  A snapshot of the final commentary is chilling:

“Some day the Neoterics, after innumerable generations of inconceivable advancement, will take down their shield and come forth.  When I think of that, I feel frightened...”

The reader is left for a long time pondering the ramifications of Sturgeon’s musings.  Years after reading this story, I still think about ‘what could happen’ when the Neoterics are unleashed.  It is the author’s genius that created this lasting impression.

Some well-written stories tend to rely wholly on the immediate present to make their statement—yet still leave a lasting impression.  This is evident in the classic ‘life and death’ situation faced by the protagonist where every excruciating detail of the scene is given—a crash landing in Andes (I am Alive), falling down a steep mountain and bleeding to death, trapped in a cave, mine, underground grotto, or life in a prison (The Shawshank Redemption).

Whereas some stories tend to focus on the immediate present, others tend to make use of past and future to create depth.  The film AI, based on the book Super-Toys All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss, encompasses a massive time span.  The main conflict comprises a robot boy wishing to become human. The viewer is left with a sense of awe, wondering what is to become of the ‘brave new world’ of man and machine, as evolution of human and computer spans millennia upon millennia.

Across A Billion Years, by Robert Silverberg, is a fine work crafted to leave a lasting impression. The civilization of the ‘High Ones’, an ancient alien race, has reached the plateau of achievement, such that that there is nowhere else for them to go.  They become sterile and static. Yet the knowledge that these beings accumulated is astounding—their machines still amass data, yet no one is there to look.  A purposeless task, and the reader tries to fathom the scope of what they have achieved and what Silverberg is suggesting. The story is recklessly playful—albeit, it leaves the reader attempting unsuccessfully to imagine the age and scope of the universe that Silverberg is describing—even too, the potential beings that inhabit it, and the infinity to come.  Where will it go from here?

“What is going to happen” even after the immediate conflict is resolved is a significant question. This question is a natural offshoot of apocalyptic fiction, such as zombie horror and end of world scenarios.  The highly-popular Resident Evil offers a peek into a savage past, with a computer narrative describing the brief history of the underground turmoil in a laboratory complex far below the surface of the earth that went awry.  Not only is present conflict featured, with the kickass heroine hurtling to knock down zombies and manufactured freaks, but a disturbing vision of the future lingers—the masses of infected beings congregating on the doomed complex.  Such lingering questions are somewhat reminiscent of the hanging doom left at the end of the first Walking Dead series.

From my own specfic writings is Phane which incorporates similar devices: past, present, future.  The derelict past is reflected through the weary eyes of the character Simil, an eccentric inventor, a recluse, who expounds upon the past technology of humanity that went warlike, to the curiosity-smitten Kolbe, a youth who listens only with quizzical wonder to his prospective role model.  He learns how humanity came to colonize the galaxy, and then unwittingly brought about its ultimate decline.  Kolbe’s present-day challenge is to stand up against his bullying peer group and their uneducated conditioning, in order to embrace his personal passion for science and to devote himself to the task of learning.  A far-reaching future chord is left lingering . . . the boy may be the future . . .

Likewise, the Jisil-ou-az-lar, a dystopian SF, features an increasingly chilling outlook on the human fate.  In this far future world, oceans cover the major land masses as the polar ice has melted.  The reader experiences a vertigo, a ‘brave new world’ of a new kind: seafarers struggling against extreme climactic conditions, braced for a harsh existence in a sunlight-killing world.  The implications of the protagonist’s struggle against numerous opportunistic rogues, and the images left in the reader’s mind of a bleak future for earth, leave an imprint of melancholic speculation.

Similarly, in the heroic fantasy, The Temple of Vitus, Risgan the roguish adventurer must embrace his potential fatherhood after all his many harrowing escapades against sea pirates, villains, weird creatures of land, sea and air and a questionable cult leader installed on the coast.  What is left lingering, is the rogue’s gloomy prospect of wandering hostile lands in exile for eternity.  Yet of all of these plights, his fatherhood seems the most imminently worrisome.

These lasting chords resonate in the reader’s mind for good or bad and create a dimension above a tale’s main story line.  The ‘cause and effect’ that naturally emanates from use of a past history serves as a vehicle to promote more introspective thought, and in the case of dystopias, a dire warning.  For all writers and readers, I am curious if you feel similar sentiments.  I am interested in your views . . .

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Writing episodic fantasy

What seems to be every writer’s dream is to create a credible character-world that can be continued, is immensely popular, is original, and goes viral.

Sounds easy?  Perhaps, not quite.  The Oz books, the Tarzan series, Conan, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser all create this mystique, also the Dying Earth books, Star Wars, the Indiana Jones series, Robin hood anthologies and more, including TV series of countless numbers.

I think the secret lies in incorporating some simple but powerful elements:

(i) Each episode comprises a complete mini-adventure, containing a beginning, middle and end.  Readers can be satisfied in short increments—with the possible exception of the first episode which introduces the main character(s), sets up the initial conflict and describes the world.  Depending on how much world-building is involved, the first episode may remain a teaser.

(ii) The episodes are preferably centred around a main character or group of characters.  The story gains lasting appeal because the viewers and readers come to know the character(s) and want to learn more about the them while expecting entertaining twists and turns.

Being a fan of adventure, I subscribe to the philosophy of introducing a legend or history behind a character, a monster, hero, talisman, demon or magic item.  The story builds upon this foundation.  With escalating tension, the tale has the chance to write itself.  The history of talisman, character or setting provides depth, interest and an inherent mystery to the unfoldment.  An implicit realism is built.  It is an effective world-building ploy.

(iii) The main character(s) ideally should be likeable.  Nobody wants to plod along rubbing nose to chin with unlikeable characters.  But then, where do villains come in to play?  If they are villains, how did they come to be villains?  If they are villains, are they are trying to become non-villains?  Often ordinary or benign characters are only likeable because of their contrast to villains.  Even villains can be likeable (a la Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’).  If the reader can empathize early on with the good guy or villain then the author has an elevated chance of creating an engaging tale that will become popular.  The key issue is readers like to read about characters they enjoy, even if they are startled by some of their actions.

Another monkey wrench is that not all readers have the same tastes.  For example, a reader looking for a Walt Disney Bambi  character is not going to be enthused about murderous vampires or bloodthirsty pirates; neither is the diehard sword-and-sorcery fan going to be empathizing much with a maudlin hero from a harlequin romance.  So, genre and target audience are important.  Storywriters cannot please every reader.  Scanning the reviews of any popular book online shows a surprising number of negative posts listed.

The problem of the ‘likeable character’ is a real one and another way around it is to create a variety of characters in the story, both evil and good, and with natures in between.  Readers can bond with the good ones and wish the knife for others.  This expectation of the knife is a powerful ploy.  George Martin does a good job in the Game of Thrones series.

Incorporating the above elements may sound easy, but is not necessarily easy to do.  It may take a lengthy time for a writer to develop these skills.  At least to be aware of these elements is helpful.  What is engaging for an author often is not engaging for a reader, and vice-versa, a dissonance which in itself is a tricky issue.

(iv) The character-world ideally should be interesting.  The immediate example that comes to mind is the era-gripping ‘Star Wars’—an incredibly rich, detailed world of planets, machines, spaceships and futuristic colonies.  The ‘world’, albeit, is only as interesting as the characters.  Take out Han Solo and Darth Vader and the world is somewhat lacking the same spice.  Discarding C3PO and Jar-Jar wouldn’t have the same effect.

Worlds don’t have to be so elaborate.  The Cube and Hypercube movies centre around a setting of only a series of empty rooms.  The idea is so bizarre, frightening and captivating that it works.  Successful worlds can be created out of practically anything.  The tremendously popular Indiana Jones, set in a 1940’s world, is larger than life, very colourfully engaging, and yet it is light on fantasy aspects, outside of the dramatic representation of the ‘magical ark’ and roller-coaster ride through the mines in the Temple of Doom.

(v) Setting up each episode as a mystery can be an effective formula too, though not essential.  Developing a mystery works well if the writing is effective.  Readers become interested in provocative situations and characters.  Readers are excited to learn more about the unanswered questions in the story.  As a tale progresses, a reader is more willing to learn about the central character(s) episode by episode.  Subsequent episodes advance the overall series, heightening the reader’s interest in the protagonist or quest.  The success of an episode’s coherency is largely dependent upon a storyteller’s writing skill.  An overused magic item, might cheapen the drama or deaden the pace.  A well-defined magic item used skilfully in the hands of a discerning protagonist moves the plot along at a steady pace.  The reader learns more about the item in question.  A hero who uses a magic lamp with no explanation can sacrifice dramatic tension, but one with an exotic magic lamp or carpet from a faraway land, crafted by a sorcerer’s hand, with a story to its telling and what hands it has passed through and why, is much better.

The formula I used to write my recent fantasy-adventure novel, The Relic Retriever, encompasses legends and a build-up of suspense around a single character, a treasure-hunting gambler and rogue.  There are seven episodes in the novel.  Each story is complete in itself:

I have introduced a unique setting in each episode.  The same picaresque character reigns throughout, with ultimately a resolution of the initial and central conflict in the final episode.  The beauty of the format is that each mini-story can be enjoyed on its own.  One does not have to know what happened before.  Generally, this is a difficult scenario to muster.  Most series need to be read in sequence.  From a marketing perspective, this is better.  If order remains unimportant it is more lucrative.  New readers can be introduced in the story at many entry points.  If they like what they are reading, they’ll read more, and possibly go back and read previous episodes or plunge ahead into later ones.  To get around discontinuities between episodes, I insert a short paragraph or prologue in italics at the beginning of each section.  This is a technique used by many authors (like in the Conan series), which has the possible side-effect of hooking the reader into reading more.  The italicized preambles briefly describe what has gone before the subsections.  I think this inclusion can be limited to a few sentences or avoided completely by constructing the story with enough skill that events and plot knit together seamlessly.  Likewise, the character and scene is best carefully and cleverly developed.

Movie series, such as, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Dexter, etc, take advantage of this stylistic technique—flashing brief recaps of events in the first five minutes of the episodes.  It is harder to achieve in print form because of the lack of time to dole out previous details, or resort to the dreaded info dump which quickly stultifies readers.  Few stories are engineered in such a way that a reader can start at page 100 and know what’s going on.  Much is reliant on the author’s ingenuity in keeping the continuity and in designing the story to fit an ‘easy-to-read’ model, not dependent on backstory.

The format of The Relic Retriever is similar to that used by Jack Vance in his incomparable Eyes of the Overworld—one of my personal favourites.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Using legends and history to create a ‘3D’ fantasy tale

The sense of historical placement and an authentic background behind magic items, heroes, villains, settings makes a fantasy tale come alive.  A story is suddenly lifted out of the flat plane, to one of 3D, removing staleness and triteness.  This technique of incorporating legends and history is the mainstay of the greatest writers of the genre, and by and large, is an interesting study in itself.  Here are some fine examples I would like to share:

“In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less.  The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles—yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals.  But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.”

So speaks JRR Tolkien’s Gandalf the Wizard to his humble hobbit companion Frodo around Bilbo’s fireplace in the Fellowship of the Ring.

“The Three, fairest of all, the Elf-lords hid from him, and his hand never touched them or sullied them.  Seven the Dwarf-kings possessed, but three he has recovered, and the others the dragons have consumed.  Nine he gave to Mortal Men, proud and great, and so ensnared them.  Long ago they fell under the dominion of the One, and they became Ringwraiths, shadows under his great Shadow, his most terrible servants.”

Gandalf has gone on to create a pall of apprehension.  So much description and rich history in a few lines!  In the hands of a master this is what one expects.  Indeed, the Rings are no ordinary entities . . .

With a rich history and a plausible background like Sauron’s ring, the author can instil in the reader wonder and awe.  The magic item is not just a lump of lifeless material: it’s a living breathing thing with a unique past, inspiring reverence and even fear in the protagonist and ultimately the reader while said protagonist shies away from the ring or indulges in envy or fascination.  Perhaps this is why some of the best fantasy has elements as these in it.

One can quickly see that a character that uses a magic item with no history or thought behind its origin is one that invites little interest.  The reader is thinking: Yeah, right, another magic ring or lamp?  Who cares?

How to integrate this background naturally into the story without disturbing the pacing is a real art.  Either through cleverly constructed dialogue or accomplished narrative—as another modern master, George Martin does so well.  An excerpt from A Game of Thrones is as follows:

“...but the blood of the First Men still flowed in the veins of the Starks, and his own gods were the old ones, the nameless, faceless gods of the greenwood they shared with the vanished children of the forest . . . They were old, those eyes, older than Winterfell itself.  They had seen Brandon the Builder set the first stone, if the tales were true.  It was said that the children of the forest had carved the faces in the trees during the dawn centuries before the coming of the First Men across the narrow sea . . . A thousand years of humus lay thick upon the godswood floor, swallowing the sound of her feet . . .”

These brief passages create a sumptuous sense of ancient grandeur.  The godswood is not an ordinary forest, but some “dark, primal place untouched for ten thousand years with a gloomy castle rising around it”.  One can reach out in Martin’s world and touch these old growth woods and feel the marvel of his living antiquity carved out of ages of dream.

In contrast, the comic thrust of Jack Vance’s Bagful of Dreams is experienced via his impertinent magician, Iolo who describes his craft of catching dreams in his magic bag.

“I live beside Lake Lelt in the Land of Dai-Paissant.  On calm nights the surface of the water thickens to a film which reflects the stars as small globules of shine.  By using a suitable cantrap, I am able to lift up impalpable threads composed of pure starlight and water-skein.  I weave this thread into nets and then I go forth in search of dreams.  I hide under valances and in the leaves of outdoor bowers; I crouch on roofs; I wander through sleeping houses.  Always I am ready to net the dreams as they drift past.  Each morning I carry these wonderful wisps to my laboratory and there I sort them out and work my processes.  In due course I achieve a crystal of a hundred dreams, and with these confections I hope to enthral Duke Orbal.”

At first glance, one might think that Vance is being farfetched, even fanciful, but then, given an understanding of his style and mordant wit, a reader comes to see he is something of a uniquely different craftsman, and a little more imaginative and entertaining than a casual read might suggest.

Following quickly in the story, comes the orotund Duke Orbal’s brief exposition as Iolo and a crowd of gogglers gather to listen:

“As all know, I am considered an eccentric, what with my enthusiasms for marvels and prodigies, but, after all, when the preoccupation is analyzed, is it all so absurd?  Think back across the aeons to the times of the Vapurials, the Green and Purple College, the mighty magicians among whose number we include Amberlin, the second Chidule of Porphyrhyncos, Morreion, Calanctus the Calm, and of course the Great Phandaal.  These were the days of power, and they are not likely to return except in nostalgic recollection.  Hence this, my Grand Exposition of Marvels, and withal, a pale recollection of the way things were.”

Here, the Duke orates in shameless detail a rich background into the ages of the wizards, while similarly expelling some of his own grandiosity.  So, Vance develops the character, while building his world of the dying earth.

And yet there is a tone of seriousness to Vance’s earlier short stories in the Dying Earth series describing the dark dwindling of an earth millions of years in the future:

“At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses and sorceries had been known.  The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the south, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal.  A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic.  Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land.  The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obcuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man.  Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.”

Here readers are given a brief snapshot into Mazirian the Magician’s mind on the decadence of corruption that afflicts the dim world of a far future earth.

Here are some of my own humble attempts at creating historical grandeur: coming ripe from the lips of the tentative guardian Slag himself in the Temple of Vitus:

“The subworld is a cruel and intriguing place: cave-bound, with pitch black shadows, poking stalagmites, burning bogs, spooks, disgusts, and general rigour. Ur Daklith makes his throne on a pyre of black ghoul bones. He sits on high on his brazier, heedless of the ice-cold or the red-hot flames. His subimps wail and moan in the murks, waiting on him hand and foot while they grovel in slops and slime. Fatuous fools! I was one of Daklith’s lucky guardians, relegated to the far west extent of the realm, manning the lych gate before Imiz-Don, the kirg-haunted swamps. There, I guarded the portal against illicit entry, by smorgs, smoufs, lizipusts, envoy bats and Serkenian poisoners. Ur Daklith has many enemies, you see. ’Twas the same place where Vitus the Victorious came as an angelic spirit and proposed a sally.”

While in a faraway realm, the Time-smith of Ezmaron offers a completely different testimony in a snooty mood:

“The ‘Time Overlord’ or ‘Adjudicator’ has now recently constructed impressive tic-toc engines of his own to make mine look like children’s toys.  I like to think that my elaborately-constructed network would soon attract his attention and intersect with the Overlord’s domain.  There is a strong flux line positioned here at this exact location of the labyrinth.  The ancients knew it well.  In fact, this is the original site of Besimark’s old keep, where the First Magician set up his researches and commissioned the Second and Third Mages to work day and night to decipher the diagrams and apocrypha writ on the tablets of old Farlore.”

Afrid the sorceress of Thornkeep, an obscure thaumaturgist, describes the lore of her golems:

“I strive after the precepts of Architrax, the Green Mage.  A genius before his time.  I became fascinated with the concept of automata and how they could be used to enhance Architrax’s research in a variety of fields.  He took his studies to eccentric levels, encompassing botany, elixirs, magical causation, astro-reading, fire throwing, and other worthy disciplines.”

A brief tour perhaps, but one which I hope emphasizes the craft of a few compelling authors and how they have honed in on creating a unique mood of enchantment and mystery through the development of a rich background history—all bringing new dimensions to a fantasy tale.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Editing: writer’s bane or necessity?

One of the things that has always challenged me as a writer is the daunting task of editing.  I look at some of the revisions of past work and see the version numbers climbing as high as 80—I say to myself, there’s got to be something wrong with this picture!

But surprisingly, no.

It takes dozens of rounds and sometimes more to capture the compelling flow of a piece of writing, to hone the prose to the quality that satisfies.  But at the same time, one realizes that even after all that, it’s probably not perfect.

The other frustrating point, is that something that was ‘perfect’ two months ago, just doesn’t seem to sit so well now.  A tough scenario, but that is part of the process too.

I think that as the writer changes internally, so the way s/he writes also changes.  In any case, most of the time spent on the author’s part, entails re-writing, re-visiting and re-vamping certain key sections and sharpening the prose.  I thought at first this was just a beginner’s phenomenon, but then after reading the testimonies of writers and studying a wide variety of stories, I realized that this is a shared experience.  Writing is a difficult task.  To get the excellent result in the end requires an immense amount of work—and ‘immense’ is even not strong enough a word.

As for testimonies, I remember reading the author’s forward to the Grafton edition of the Lord of the Rings:

“Then when the ‘end’ had at last been reached, the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely re-written backwards.  And it had to be typed and retyped: by me, the cost of professional typing by the ten-fingered was beyond my means.”

And another excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, which I cannot help but quote here, even though it may deviate from my point:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

I was thinking—all that work, ten years of it, for that response?  But again, happily, Tolkien’s critics are few, I would safely say.  The success of the films have cemented his literary genius in the eyes of the world.  I did actually read some of Tolkien’s earlier versions of the Fellowship of the Ring (which happened to be available in the local library), and I noticed that there was quite a difference between that rough version and the final one I was so familiar with reading and rereading.  Still, the characteristic Tolkien style was present, but the author had moved whole sections, and the text was a lot cleaner.  So, my ultimate conclusion is, that even if a master like Tolkien had to go through such hoops, what of the rest of the world?

A thought has crossed my mind.  What makes a novel endure over the years?  Is it that the prose is so absolutely creative and rich with compelling characters and original, engaging plots that it becomes a classic?  Or, is it that if some writing catches the public eye and is considered entertaining enough by popular standards to receive a long list of rave reviews, it ‘endures’?  Because of these reviews, the book gets attention, and more people read it, since they’re influenced by reviews, and say ‘well, it must be good’.  Considering the huge wealth of fiction written throughout history, one may ask what is it that really makes a book exceptional—that it is remembered decades down the road?  Whatever the answer is, it makes all the more sense for authors to put in that extra effort to write the story as creatively as possible, if their goal is to make it endure the test of time.

A lot of professional writers hire editors, but there is a big difference between proofreading and editing for style and content.  I don’t know how effective editors can be beyond their own skill as writers.  Certainly a proofreader can spot grammar mistakes, punctuation, and points of rough confusion (eg non-sequiturs), but to take the story beyond the first beta draft, and go the step further—this requires a special effort and I think the editor has to be on an equal level or beyond the writer, and I’m not talking about superficial edits here.  I’m talking about fine-tuning nuances of theme, pacing, character development, the order of scenes, conflict resolution, story line, dialogue, etc.  I think this type of analysis is almost as hard as writing original content itself, and it is no wonder authors hate editing so much.

Somewhere, I believe, the writer has to develop the editing skills to be able to get a manuscript to a 80-90% phase—a place where there is only a manageable portion of revisions left to do.  The danger of too much editing by outside source(s) brings in the problem of the story starting to deviate substantially from the original author’s work.

To compound this situation, there is also the dilemma of receiving diverse and constructive feedback.  Invariably readers and reviewers will have their own opinions of a story, many of them conflicting.  So then, how to decide on what to pick up on and what to leave behind?

Such complexities make one wonder that any author can produce a viable novel from beginning to end, taking into account all the variables.

My own personal editing process consists of first finishing the rough draft with a beginning, middle and end.  This is the easy part, if ‘easy’ can be used to describe the process.  After that, I engage in two rounds of rigorous editing—slow, methodical rereads.  The first round is the most gruelling.  The pacing is generally horrible and the rhythm is wrong, but at least there is the basic essence of the story, however crudely rendered.  The second round is directed at cleaning up the last edits and streamlining the story line.  I pass it on to a good editor and proof-reader then, usually my mom who has amazing skills in this area.  After going through a series of rewrites and repetition of the above process, I am ready to pass it on to any beta readers I can find.  I sit on it for a while, collecting comments and making appropriate changes.  Fresh eyes make a big difference.  If necessary, I start the process over again.  This loop continues for as long as necessary until I’m happy that the story is in readable form.  An overkill perhaps, but the time taken in doing this is well worth it, I think, even knowing that a few rounds of this rigour is enough to make a hardy soul wince.

The good news is—despite how much energy is required to pull it off and the understanding that there are no short cuts in the game—I think writers gain tremendous benefits from the time-consuming exercise and thereby strengthen their writing skills, with the happy result that they become better writers.

I welcome any comments on the subject.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Interview with Brian Poor

Today we have a very special guest, Brian Poor, who has written an original fantasy series Megazaur, featuring dinozaurs.  Not regular ones—but ones with thoughts, feelings, and somewhat psychic connections with human beings.  I have the privilege of interviewing this unique author and quizzing him on his books and his views on fiction writing.

Check out his shared blog for interesting reviews, interviews and literary perspectives from two avid fantasy writers and enthusiasts:

Megazaur: Akysha's Fury

Let’s start with a bit about you and your craft.
What are your influences?  Favourite authors, books, styles of writing, genres?

Tom Clancy without a doubt is my biggest influence.  I love the way he hops from character to character and seemingly throws a bunch of different story lines into his plot and intertwines them together for a big finale.  Timothy Zahn is another and I so wish as a Star Wars fan that George Lucas would take the Thrawn series and make it into the next films. Zahn does an excellent job of writing a fantastic villain with credible motives and actions.  I also have read a lot of novels that I kinda think of as examples on not how to write.  I hate novels that cheat the reader.

Your novel, Megazaur: Akysha’s Fury is based on a pretty cool concept.  Where did you come up with the idea of humans being able to control dinosaurs? 

I was trying to come up with an idea that would be the next Star Wars, something so different that it was fresh and grabbed the reader's attention.  My son got these Imaginext playsets, a castle with knights and dinosaurs with caveman.  He had the dinosaurs attack the knights in their castle and that got me thinking what if…

It probably took two years to create the world where a man could rule a dinosaur with his mind and in the same world, a land of people were denied that right.  The diversity of this rich culture took a whole life of its self.  The first book Megazaur; the 13th omada arcs an entire country's growth from having inferiority complex to realizing they are equals of their would be destroyers—the Megazaurs (dino riders).  So in away, my main three protagonists are personifications of their country more than they are real characters.

The 2nd novel—Megazaur: Akysha's fury—Is the first of trilogy that’s going to explore what happens when a character with a god-given talent for fighting is thrust into unwinable situations as psychological exploration of the duality of love and hate.  I firmly believe if you can love strongly, you can hate with just as much passion, and it's this flip from one to another that creates the perfect villain.

Akysha's fury sets the table for The war of Zantheon, which will satisfy the readers desire to see these dinosaurs in war.  And it satisfies my desire to show you the reader the dynamics of this world and how they come into conflict with each other.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

 Akysha without a doubt.  I'm having as much fun as I can with her character, but it is so hard to keep her following the plot lines I have outlined.  You can always count on her to do what she thinks is right, but it doesn't always coincide with my plot outline and what I need her to do.

And when you get her together with her best friend Okaru (yes he's a talking dinosaur), it's a real blast.  Scenes with those two are what makes writing fun.

What’s your rule on dialog?  Particularly when to use dialog versus narrative?

I don't use a lot of narrative because I learned that narrative is telling, and direct thought and dialogue are showing.  Zahn does an excellent job of building his world with dialogue, and I learned from him that blending dialogue with direct thought, and passive moments when the character is thinking or reflecting works much better than narrating.  I know for me as a reader, I want to be the I-guy, I don't want to sit in the passenger seat, I want my hands on the wheel—foot on the gas, so to speak, so that's how I craft my stories.  Put the reader behind the wheel and let them go on the ride of their life. (while conveniently forgetting to tell them I never got around to fixing the hole in the gas-tank, or the flat spare, and forgot to check the fluids for the last-like 2yrs and—I just sent them off into a jungle of hungry dinosaurs in a convertible.  Oops, I sure hope they survive…lol)

How do you deal with ‘stuck plots’?  i.e. when something is ‘not working’.

You know, I have never really had much problem with that yet.  My characters do come to life and do their own things but never to the point I can't get them back on the course I've set for them.  I think one of the reasons I love Clancy so much is that I am capable of telling my story through different characters views, hopping from here to there to get different perspectives and by doing so giving the reader the entire story, not just one character's view of the story.

How have you been marketing your book so far and what is your feeling on its success?

I'm just starting and I'm trying the slow burn method, because lets face it—the first reaction I usually get is that's just too crazy of a premise for readers to understand.  (Apparently there are only two acceptable plots for dinosaurs—time travel to the past, or bringing them back to life for a zoo) But what fans I do have all agree it's a fun world that makes sense once they read it.  One of my best friends, Susan Stec, hated the first 5 chapters of the first novel, and then she couldn't get enough.  And that reaction is pretty much universal but I expect that.  In a way, I'm compare my novels to 'Watership Down' (Okay so my novels can't hold a match to it, but…lol)  But the premise is the same.  Who wants to read about a bunch of rabbits and who wants to read about knights and dinosaurs on some tropical made-up world?

There’s a lot of action and some scenes of vivid carnage a la dinozaur chomp-down in Megazaur.  Was this intentional drama from the get-go, or a result of the characters just unfolding their karma?

I'm very proud of my action scenes, I spend more time rewriting them than anything because they are the key action sequences of the novel.  Why write about dinosaurs if you're not going to use them right?  But I'm very critical of other novels in action sequences because they don't pace things right and they don't detail the action well enough for the reader.  I see way too much glossing over the details.  This is a world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist and the rules of that world are often defined by conflict.  The reader needs to know what's the likely result of ten men with spears facing a T-rex.  What problems would you have facing a Necroraptor with a sword?  I have Akysha who is the much like the legendary Achilles of Sparta, but how does one sword deal with an Allosaur?  These are all things the reader needs to know and I'm presuming are a major reason they pick up the book.

So all of that does tend to lead a little dramatization, but I do feel it's justified in showing the rules of this world and perhaps lends it the style I want to imprint on the readers mind.  Take the movie 300 for example.  Good story but it becomes a great movie because of the style of its action.  I want the same thing in my novels.  I'm showing you my world, and I want to leave you with the right visual impression, and I don't want you to feel cheated.  You get the fights and they advance the plot and build the world.

What’s your process for coming up with a good story?  What defines a good story to you?

To me a good story is like a rollercoaster.  It has up and downs.  It has twist and turns.  It has moments that take my breath away and it lets me catch my breath before throwing me into the next loop or tunnel.  They say (and I believe) its true there only ten different plots and we all know them by heart, so its up to the writer to pace the plot points in a way that surprises us.  There was nothing new about Star Wars plot wise, but it was the way it was paced and presented to us that surprised and endured.

I'm sure as a writer, if you read that you're thinking—well that doesn’t leave much room to give what I thought was a great idea much hope of being recognized and loved.  I suppose you could say (And I see this so much in fantasy), well Tolkien created this world of Dragons and Knights, but I could write my own version and throw some twists in it and delight the reader (I call this writing down your own personal fantasies and daring to think some reader will be love with it, instead of recognizing—hey, I read this before by a different author and they did it much better—theory).  To me, this is how you take one of those ten plots and make it your own—you imbue them with how a character reacts to certain situations and you show the reader how the character thinks and reacts to it.  For example: a character loses a leg.  What does he think?  I can imagine how it feels and the visceral image of seeing your leg disembodied from your body, but what does he think?  How does he react?

In my first book (this a plot spoiler) I kill off my super-heroish main character that personifies the hopes and dream of my heroes not as a wicked plot twist, but to see what remaining main characters do.  How did they react?  Who dares to pick up his sword and try to carry on?  How in the world do you fight on when your hope is lost?

In your novel 'Freebooter' I'm not hooked until Baus has to explain to the Pirate captain, exactly how he did come upon the treasure (and sword).  I'm intrigued.  How does Baus react?  Does he lie or tell the truth?  It’s a gamble either way, because I don't know what the Captain is going to think or do.  And that's what I suddenly need to know 

So, get me inside the characters head, because I can't get that from a movie and it’s why I prefer books to movies.

In terms of polar characterizations (ie. good guy versus villain), where do you stand?  Are you likely to favor strong, good guy versus villain paradigms, or cross-overs into mixed, good-guy bad-guy type characters?

Aww…yeah!  My favorite question and I'm so glad you asked.  The real villain in my novels are human nature.  I have a word sharply divided by the polar opposites of human nature but each character has to wrestle with those opposites.  You have one culture that's 'Alpha-personality on steroids'.  Men who are the strongest and rely more on animal instincts to survive versus a society of thinkers and creators.  But all of the characters have to confront themselves when the meet someone who is from a different culture and try to understand why they think the opposite way .

In Akysha's Fury—Akysha finds out that when she reacts without thinking (this is this key ingredient that allows her to move as twice as fast a regular human), she's in danger of losing her 'moral high-ground stance' to the raw emotion of killing other men, making her no better than the immoral people she fights.

But the personification of these polar opposites do come to life in the form of Zantheon and the Necroraptors and they both have understandable reasons to be evil. (If you can't tell I'm particularly proud of Zantheon, because he is truly an evil villain who has went off the deep end for reasons beyond his control.)  In the next book, it's going to be interesting for him and Akysha to meet, because he is what she will become if she can't control herself.

I'll will say this and then shut up about it.  A great villain can be purely evil or a 'gray villain'.  The villain acts as the counter opposite of the hero and gives them the reason to be heroes.  But where you so often see writers fail is not giving the villain a good reason for being evil.  Why is this guy starving his kingdom and beheading every guy named Jason his solders find?  Give me the reader a reason I can believe and accept.  If you tell me that's how he gets his kicks, then I'm not onboard with that.  And write a great villain, not some carbon-copy version of Sauron from Lord of the Rings.  I'm a huge Star Wars fan, but I personally think  the Emperor was too cartoonish to appreciate.  Darth Vader, well now, he's just as over the top as the emperor but he has style and reasons for being so evil, especially to his kids. (And then with the first three movies, you get the back-story of his charter and it makes him that more awesome.)

What are your thoughts about integrating action with character, particularly with reference to Megazaur?

Actions define your character.  Do they think one thing and then do the opposite?  Is that action something you wouldn't expect?  In real life, we often do the exact opposite of what we think we should.  We are caught by surprise.  We wimp out and disappoint our friends and family or we act boldly which might be out of character.  It's something as a writer you have to think about.  What's true in life is not acceptable in a novel.  You're character is defined by the actions they take and set a pattern that we as the reader then come to expect. When that character acts in away we don't associate with them it has to be defined as a carefully planned exception.  Readers don't fantasy to find reality but to find characters that act as noble or as evil as we want to or fantasize about.  We all want to be heroes or villains. A reader can accept faults as long as the character acts logically in the defined characterization the author lays out.  Kind of a huge responsibility as an author if you think about it.

Where do you see yourself heading as an Indie writer (in terms of genres, types of stories, writing style)?

I will be living in this land of Megazaurs for quite awhile, even if I only have a few fans. I created it, I love it and I have a responsibility to see it thru. Akysha's practically my daughter and I wouldn't abandon her.  After that?  Who knows?  I have ideas and I write them down and I would love to try my hand at horror, but for the next few years, I'll be writing about dinosaurs.

How do you critique or get feedback on your work?

Mostly from a few select people I trust, like my friend Susan Stec and Bryant James.  I'm writing the next two Megazaurs currently as we speak and hope to have them both done by early spring.

How has the release and writing of Megazaur helped you as a writer?

I don't spend enough time writing, I seem to be spending a lot of time trying to get people to read it.  But, I have met some great people, including you that I hope to become friends with, because you help drive me.  I want to compete with you in a friendly way and keep have meaningful conversations about our craft.  It stimulates me. Intellectually. 
What tips would you pass on to other writers based on your experience?

Join a writing group to help perfect your writing.  What seems great to you often isn't and you meet people who can help you become the best you can be.  And oh yeah…when you read other novels write down all the verbs.  You can never have enough!

Thanks, Brian, great answers.  And looking forward to reading new books in the Megazaur series!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Writing winning dialog in fiction

Dialog accounts for at a conservative estimate 30+% of all novel content.  That being the case, care should be taken in architecting it.  Yet this is a huge area which writers come into difficulty.  Why?

This article attempts to probe some of the reasons for the disconnect and explore the major areas of dialog writing.

The truth is, in my opinion, that it is hard to create engaging dialog—at least ones that advance plot, deepen character, and make readers feel somewhat secure in that they’re reading a valuable piece of literature, not something crowded and cluttered by author commentary.  It takes many revisions to get the effect, particularly for fiction longer than novella length.

It really does matter what the characters say.  For example, a good author is always asking questions such as:

Are the characters wise?  Are they sad?  Funny?  Just pricks?  Opportunists?  Angels?  Are they sometimes good, sometimes bad, or largely unpredictable, domineering?  The list goes on.  After pegging the character an author should make sure that it reflects in the character’s speeches.

Consider also the choice of characters.  Is there variety in the story?  Yes, an author can load it up with all kinds of wise-cracking labourers or hoity-toity intellectuals, but is he/she adventurous enough, and daring enough to put a wide enough mix of characters in the story to get an interesting blend of interactions with drama—and still be left with a successful story?  Challenging yes!  But doable?  Hmm . . . There are authors who are wise, and some who are impulsive, both who may take the extra steps to get their characters to speak from their prospective voices throughout the story, consistently.  Ah, quite a deal of work—and requiring a certain amount of careful planning.  Maybe months?  Years?  Time spent in the dark reflecting—gnashing, mulling over constant pros and cons?

(1) Dialog tags: ‘said’ versus the dreaded ‘saidisms’

The age old debate continues.  Should the author stick with the tag ‘said’ or use the myriad modifications of said—such as murmured, whispered, bellowed?  There are advantages of both methods and I’ll explain.

Said usually creates a clean exposition style, but is more conservative in execution; unless handled by a master, the writing becomes quickly dull:

. . . Mary said
. . . John said
. . . Mary said
. . . John said

One master of this approach is J.R.R. Tolkien.  In The Hobbit there is very simple language throughout the story, and most of the tags use ‘said’.

“No good roasting ’em now . . .” said a voice.
“Don’t start the argument all over again, Bill,” he said.
“Who’s a-arguing?” said William.
“You are,” said Bert.
. . . and so on and so forth

Part of the reason for Tolkien’s success, I believe, is that he is writing primarily to a children’s audience (or at least the young reader).  But the bigger part of the picture is that he’s an expert in the field, and the content of his story, description, setting, word choices are masterfully done, and as readers, we don’t give a fig whether the hobbit ‘says’ something or ‘murmurs’ it or just plains ‘belts it out’.  We are completely absorbed into his tale, and I think this is the main point.  Good story development is not dependent on using saidisms or not using them.

This really became apparent to me when I listened to the audio tapes for The Hobbit years ago narrated by Nicol Williamson, the magnificent “Merlin” in the 1981 film Excalibur.  Now this man has an excellent theatrical voice.  Because of his Shakespearean training and his acting experience, he made the characters come alive, while simultaneously switching voices in mid step.  It was always ‘he said, she said’, but . . .

The impact!

Wow.  Again, depending on what style the author is aiming for, I think, will dictate what camp the author chooses to be in.  A word of caution—excessive use of either mode will probably lend itself to problems.

A more adventure-action oriented story, for example, is likely to use more saidisms than one in a literary fictional style.  For example, the Rogues of Bindar series is action-adventure all the way and has text littered with saidisms, which in James Blish’s view, would cause him to have a conniption—or at least roll over in his grave.

“It is unwise, said Blish, to use synonyms for ‘said’ in writing dialog (‘He shouted. . . . He repeated. . . . He instructed. . . . He grunted. . . . He half-whispered. . . . He lipped thinly. . . .’) because such tags are redundant at best—the content of the sentence ought to tell the reader right away that something is being shouted or repeated—and at worst they become preposterous.”

Well, Mr. Blish, I wouldn’t go so far as to bow to your credo (which I find dogmatic), but I understand the point of keeping the text clean.  Taken to an extreme though, an author can lose out on the colour and emotion by stripping out all saidisms and becoming a strict advocate of the ideology.

The story Rogues of Bindar is an intensely character-driven story and demands colour, and so saidisms suit the style—James Blish or not.  I think more pertinent is that awkward handling of tags can be a greater evil than the use of saidisms.  For example, if dialog tags get heavy and disrupt the pacing, then the author has something to worry about.  Should the tag come before the quote or after the quote?  Again, this depends on context.  If there is a great big line of linear dialog, then it’s obvious that the tag order is important and should be broken up or possibly removed.  For example:

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” yelled Quinn.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
“I don’t know, who do you think?” countered Quin.
“Quit monkeying around and help me with this,” ordered Jeb.

While the dialog is passable, too many linear tags make it a bit stultifying.  Slight adjustment:

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” yelled Quinn.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
“I don’t know, who do you think?”
“Quit monkeying around and help me with this.”

We don’t need the last two tags because we already know who’s talking.

While this sequence might be okay in itself, it is still a bit clipped and could be improved—even spiced up to include more of the character’s feeling, and hence sounding more natural.

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” Quinn yelled down from his perch.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
Quinn puckered his face into a scowl.  “I don’t know, who do you think?”
Jeb’s tone was the one now sounding not too impressed.  “Quit monkeying around, son, and help me with this dreadful machine.”

The last two pre-tags, though unnecessary, offer a pause and character emotion, and serve to break up the linear order of the first snippet.  It depends on the author’s tone: is it necessary to spell out Quinn’s and Jeb’s mood at this time?  The emotions could easily be depicted in completely different context.  This is one of the reasons that dialog tags are critical in conveying the meaning of the prose (saidisms or not—‘said’ can fail here, if adjoining sentences are not included to explicitly spell out the speaker’s emotion.)

“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
Quinn remained neutral.  “I don’t know, who do you think?”
Jeb tried to show compassion to his son but was unsuccessful; he was a father, and he was used to being in command.  “Quit monkeying around and help me with this dreadful machine . . .” he murmured.

Note the use of . . . (ellipses) in dialog for a pause and the combination of saidisms ‘murmured’ with pre tags ‘Jeb tried to show compassion . . .’

There are many many ways of constructing the dialog.

My final thought is that not only do the actual words matter, but the quote-tag combination working in conjunction with the rest of the dialog creates a strong reader impression.  Especially when the narrative supports the dialog, we are prepared for the characters’ next actions and we know, or have some clear idea how they would speak or act under different circumstances.  It is this underlying innateness that marks a key factor in creating reader absorption.

When a writer is going over his/her manuscript, I think it’s a wise idea to analyze each dialog structure and try to assess whether it can be improved or not (either the words in dialog, or the tags, their order, etc).  Ex—if the pacing seems wrong, too fast, too slow, how can it be fixed?

(2) Using profanities in dialog

This is a sensitive issue and is largely a question of style and genre.  For example, one would expect to find more swear words in thrillers and mainstream ‘shoot-em up type’ cop serials than one would in literary fiction or historical romance.  YA tends to have a great deal more of modern vernacular mixed with expletives.

If profanities are employed—and used tactfully and inserted here and there in appropriate situations, I think the device can be quite effective.  For example, one character swearing more than others.  I see a lot of modern fiction overusing expletives to unnecessary degree, a mode which may be amusing for the first few paragraphs, but after, quickly becomes irritating.

As a general rule, I don’t use expletives in my writing because I think there are better ways of dealing with the situation and getting the message across without have to resort to crass techniques and still deliver a great story.  Because I’m largely a fantasy writer, using  profanities in character dialog is a no-no—a definite red flag for anachronism.  I think it’s a poor man’s way out of engaging the reader when there are obvious alternatives.  For example, a fantasy writer can easily make up original epithets, like “Drakes Teeth!” or “Daga’s teats!”.  Certainly, not as punchy as good old-fashioned English profanities, but perhaps it keeps the story more real, and the old anachronistic ‘jar’ out of the equation.  If there aren’t alternatives, or the author’s intent is to use forceful language, then so be it.  I’m the last person to be pedagogic.  But if a story wholly depends on expletives alone then I rather wonder about the depth of the story.  Admittedly, there are exceptions . . .

Christian Cameron, a successful historical fiction writer of the Tyrant series, creates a surprising amount of realism in his delivery of his ancient tales.  He focuses on the heroes’ personal lives and the struggle, the harsh reality of ancient warfare, the crude politics of the era, and a detailed, second-by-second brutal account of sword and shield battles.  Dialog is very snappy here and to the point, with little use of tag embellishment—a device that keeps the story moving and the word count down.  But perhaps a little terse for my tastes.  Cameron liberally uses modern day expletives in his expansive epic Greek adventures.  At first glance, this usage jarred me a lot, because I couldn’t see a character using the F- word every page or so, but I got used to it.  Obviously the style isn’t a problem for his numerous fans.  Yet, I could not help but think that modern day epithets would not be uttered by characters 3000 years ago.  Not to be stuffy, I enjoy Cameron’s stories and admire the hero Kineas, but it’s just on this one point I don’t see eye to eye with his approach.

Bernard Cornwell never uses modern swear words in his Arthurian-historical books and in my opinion he is an exceptional historical writer of the genre.  The Warlord Chronicles is a phenomenal example of his prowess and the dialog and narrative had me gripped from the very beginning.  Highly recommended.

Philip K. Dick’s, A Scanner Darkly, uses California 60’s-70’s doper talk scattered with profanity in such a way that it is almost hilarious, despite the sadness of his theme: the woes of substance abuse and the futility of endorsing a paranoia-ridden degeneracy on drug dependence.  This is at best a very difficult art and only a master as Dick could attempt it and rack up as much success as he has received.

A writer who uses swear words judiciously is John D. MacDonald, and he is a master of the craft.  Travis McGee, his brilliant hero bears testament to my opinion.  Here we have an extremely intelligent man who is operating in a brutal world of scammers and murderers and opportunists, who turns himself into a personal avenger, a salvager, a vigilante and hero all in one.  He builds his own code.  He never himself swears that much, if only to create an ambience, whether be it a ruse or some cunning ploy to create camaraderie with his enemy or disarm him or her enough that he can stage an advantage.  The incidental characters—the villains, the lowlifes—are some of the roughest, toughest, meanest set of criminals you can imagine and he lets loose with their dialog . . . but not for long, because it’s not about the fury and fear and evil in their minds . . . we are back in Travis McGee’s head, or in the head of his equally-astute economist-philosopher buddy Meyer.  Hearing the social take on big bad America through their eyes complements the vivid reality of MacDonald’s plots and makes his stories rise a peg above the sea of crime fiction out there.

Contrasted with Stephen King who has uses a degree more bad language in his books (actually almost humorously), but which at times becomes ear-heavy.  Other times it is quite entertaining, and he’s likely the ‘king’ of the style—one example comes to mind, his sardonic protagonist ‘Gard’ in The Tommyknockers.

The closest I’ve come to using ‘expletives’ in a story, is in the near-future SF short, A Simple Lens.  Even with its lack of coarse language, its tone is largely caustic if not mordant and I stick by its success without the use of hardcore language.  Even this exercise was largely put as a challenge to me to write something in a completely different style and was well worth it.

(3) Using words or ways of expressing that a character would never say

It’s unlikely that a pre-teen is going to be using words like ‘preternatural’ or ‘firmament’ unless he or she is so precocious as to be the teacher’s teacher.  Similarly, it is unlikely that an adult is going to be speaking in the hip teenage lingo of today’s youth to his/her son or daughter, or conversely in a child-like voice, unless they have some form of autism.

There are exceptions . . . and here is where original fiction comes into play.

Rogues of Bindar fans will recognize a sophisticated language.  In many of the character speeches there is a style bordering on grandiloquence—at least for the convicts, pirates and hoodlums in profusion.  But thence is the humour . . . Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea—but at least marginally refreshing.  At least two kingpins of fantasy subscribe to this tenet: Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales and Jack Vance in his Cugel chronicles.  My feeling is that there exists a copious quantity of mid-list and bestseller fiction following convention and tradition—so why not try something new?

Also of note is Monty Python—the classic case where we have a group of PHD intellects quibbling over the most trivial thing in the universe, and yet in larger than grandiose terms.  The point being—the actual words spoken are funnier than the situation . . .

To some people at least . . . this is really a test of the credo:

“Rather than accept praise for template cookie-cutter convention let’s risk some bizarre side glances and some ‘I don’t get it?’s for attempting off-the-wall original dialog.”

(4) How to avoid those dreaded inner dialogs!

One thing that always has bothered me in prose is the italic form of denoting inner character thoughts.

Should I break the lock?  No!  It will alert the wrath of the dreaded Helgor guardian.  But, dang it!  The snake was always on the patrol around the perimeter of the dungeon.  Yet . . . how I am to save my beautiful friends?  Can I get to them when they are bit by the guardian’s poison?

This can read like a mental dump.

A preferable solution may be to handle the exposition in narrative:

Breaking the lock would entail the wrath of Helgor the guardian that constantly roved about the dungeon’s perimeter.  Still, to save her friends she must be quick!

The italicized form becomes especially pretentious in overused present tense expositions common in short stories and modern literary forms which try (feebly) to catch trends.

It’s okay, I suppose, used sparingly, but a lot of times the form becomes annoying, if not overdone, and reads like some cheesy, juvenile literary thriller.

If done well, it can be effective.  For example, Steven King, uses a lot of italicized text, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse.  He always seems to nail the character on the head in the end and has a knack for it.  He can pretty much do what he wants and make it work—he has that acuity.  I get annoyed with stories that use excessive inner dialog, especially in dream passages.  I rarely care about a character’s dreams (even if it does somehow advance the plot).  It’s more the character’s actions and waking thought that interests me—particularly in key moments of drama.

 (5) Dialog versus narrative

When should a character speak and when should the narrator narrate?

My first response would be:

(1) A savvy author’s first impulse is to use narrative when there has been a long line of dialog.

Joe said, “. . .”
Mary said, “. . .”
Sue said . . .
Joe said . . .
Sue said . . .
Mary said . . .
etc . . .

Maybe on the third round of Mary’s speeches, it would do fine to write just:

Mary was perturbed at the tone of Joe’s comment and opened her mouth to speak her dismay, but did not oblige.

This slows the story down but the handling might be a good break to the tedium of the ‘said’ structure, adding some breathing space and an interruption of the repetitious character speeches.  Narrative as this replaces the standard speech such as:

“Hmph!” or “Oh, that’s irritating!” or “You irritate me too much!”

H.P. Lovecraft was a master of narrative and rarely if ever used any dialog in his stories.  He used mostly first person narrative, and his word choices and ability to get under the skin of the main characters were eerily uncanny.  He is of an older generation of writers who were very effective at intimate, narrative style.

Jack Vance, another incredibly gifted storyteller, is a wellspring of immaculate and powerful writing-style conventions.  I have learned much from his 80+ SF/fantasy books.  In the short story Guyal of Sfere, for example, part of The Dying Earth series, he uses a simple technique to avoid the italics approach.

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  Then he reflected: this is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition.  I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.

He makes the character’s dialog stay almost as if in narrative.  No quotes or italics and yet the passage reads very naturally.  Compare this with:

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  This is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition.  I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.

It’s okay but almost reads childishly, as if written by a beginner taking a ride on the carriage of thriller writers.

Vance uses a clever handling of the age-old problem, how do characters say their innermost thoughts while alone, and without drawing attention to himself, through italics or some other awkward handling.  Is the character going to talk to themselves, like some mad-person?

No.  There are always alternatives to handle the ‘character alone’ problem, maybe less elegant:

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  “This is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition,” he thought [to himself].  “I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.”

The example is passable, particularly the first line, though the second one sounds a bit cumbersome.  If an author repeats this too many times, it sounds as if the character is talking to himself.

(2) Incidental characters’ dialog can be avoided or prĂ©cised in narrative.  This is especially useful when the number of characters add up in a novel.  Unless the character’s speech propels the story along or adds value, it’s best to avoid it.   Incidental characters’ speeches are the first ones to be nixed.  But how to decide?  When writers’ prose starts to get top-heavy with dialog, I think it’s best to put a cap on it and start stripping text away, or at least condense a character’s quote into narrative or simply move it to a different area, and only if it needs to be included.

The narrator can only really get under the skin of the character, I think.  Other players including the character himself can try to speak the innermost thoughts, but it doesn’t come across as genuinely as in narrative.  I don’t cotton to the more excessive dialog–oriented stories, especially when they’re too jaunty.  For example, even some of David Eddings epic fantasy of the ’80s, The Belgariad and The Malloreon, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I was young, read too much like a screen play.  I couldn’t help but think that as entertainingly popular as the books were—they suffered from a ‘dialog-happy’ problem, where we have a huge pantheon of characters constantly speaking to each other, eating up a lot of pages.

Yes, we get the emotion and flavour quite directly from the speaker but not the subtle nuances of the character’s feelings; we cannot know his/her deepest thoughts.  What is an author trying to do?—Go into a schizophrenic mode and monologue the character in a dire situation every time he/she wants to spill their deepest concerns and fears?

No, best to use narrative.

Whole books can be written on the subject of ratio of dialog to narrative . . . it demands its own blog article.

(6) Proper pacing

Avoid sacrificing the pace of the story for any form of dialog.  Pacing is paramount—so goes my maxim.  If pacing is disturbed, then the whole reader-engagement is jeopardized.  Even if critical dialog advances the plot, I would never recommend compromising the pace of the story for dialog.  If the reader can’t be engaged, then no amount of dialog is going to repair the problem.  The quickest way to disengage a reader is a slow story—but of course the story may not be inherently slow, it’s just that it’s not the reader’s preferred genre, and so, harder for the reader to get into.

It takes a lot of editing and author discrimination to get the tone of dialog and the ratio of dialog to narrative right.  Which brings up the next question:  How to construct dialog?

The classic dialog template is:

“<Short comment>”, said <CharacterX>.  “<Optional more stuff >”
“<Short comment response>”, by <CharacterY>.  “<Optional more stuff>”
“<Short comment response>”, by <CharacterX or Y or Z>.  “<Optional more stuff >”
. . .

We have here the briefest, simplest rendition for character dialog, and most books in third person follow this model.  The character’s reaction and the character’s identity are neatly proposed, and we have the instant response by the other character(s).  Nice?  Yes—but this template can be modified to suit the author’s need.  For example,

Character X yelled, “<something>”
Character Y grinned.  “<offers some response>”
“<Some short observation offered>” by Character Z.

The short comment at the beginning of the paragraph is important and is usually the best way to handle dialog because it responds immediately to the content of the last paragraph—and the reader knows immediately who said it.  Having a preliminary tag potentially disrupts the pacing, but sometimes the reader should know who is saying the words before the quote comes, for special reasons, hence the pre-tag.  I think mixing pre-tags with post-tags is the best way to construct dialog in general.  It’s all about the rhythm and the author with the best ear undoubtedly creates the most natural-sounding dialog.

(7) Characters should speak in their own voice

This is easier said than done.  Some characters are kinder than others, others meaner, so it is natural that their personality should be reflected in their words.  Unless the character is deliberately being the opposite of who he/she says and is playing a role, this is a pretty fail-safe rule.  It seems obvious, but so often is it overlooked by even experienced writers.  I think this is more from authors being too close to their stories.  This is what editors and beta readers and critique groups help out with most.  Dialog appears in character speeches that sometimes doesn’t fit their character or suit the situation—and this again is mostly a result of being inserted hastily to advance the story and thus propel the next line of dialog along.  But I think it’s a bad idea to weaken the character by gluing pieces of dialog together.  There are always better ways . . .

As an example, character X suddenly expresses the need for some complicated or less than intuitive use of the hammer-spike or some special device cached conveniently to undermine the metal that is binding their cage.  Person X though has no background in mechanics or engineering so could never suggest such an abstruse thing.  Better that someone else had suggested the idea, or leave the capricious escape notion out of the idea bank.  Incidents as these smack of ‘deus ex machina’ handling, which ultimately turns off savvy readers.

(8) Medieval dialog: should it be used in fantasy?

There are different schools of thought on this.

“My Lord, you are certainly a martinet to take that pious stance.”
“But surely, your Grace, you should not expect Mistress Razula to act in so punctual and proper a manner!”
“By no means!  Shouldn’t we repair to the parlour, Your Excellency?  The Regent and the Baron de Bront await your illustrious orders!’

A distinctly British or European tone, with lots of royal handling and high-bred airs.

Dialog of this nature certainly adds to ambience.  My feeling is though that if an author is going to start with this style, then there had better be some consistency with the rest of the story, with it not lapsing into modern usages of English and particularly with anachronisms.  This is a very difficult standard to achieve, and though demanding a careful ear for language and scrutiny, it is a very tasking one once committed to.  I think a writer is going to have a challenge ahead of him/her and have to read a lot of classics and expert authors to study the tone and voice and style before feeling comfortable writing fluently in this style.  I don’t mean just reading Jonathon Swift and Treasure Island a few times.  We see this type of flawed drama in the plethora of cheesy TV programs and low-budget King Arthur remakes out there.  All dressed up in their finery, protagonists spout modern dialog.  I know it’s supposed to be witty in some contemporary way—but my sense is that it is implausible, and often comes across as being tacky.  An example of drama-fiction tastefully done and demanding high praise for its realism (dialogue-wise, story-telling-wise and production) is the excellent British Robin of Sherwood series released in the ’80s.  I can’t help but suspect that the popular Merlin series currently running is an attempt to revive some of this tradition, though difficult to match the finesse of Robin of Sherwood.

These are a few of my thoughts on writing effective dialog.  Please feel free to offer any comments.