I feel like the last two days should be one of the points about writing I've been making--you can't do everything all at once all the time. Being still sick while trying to turn around a copyedit on a dime mean propping yourself up by tying your spine to a broom, sticking your eyes open with tape, and running alternating coffee and cough syrup IVs for about 24 hours while you try to thing of actual English words to replace the one you somehow used four times on a page and slide off the blogging schedule you'd hoped to keep.
But at last, here is Part 3 of my series of thoughts on writing, and I think there's a part 4 lurking because these grouped around technical advice and there's a few last general things I want to say. Unsurprisingly, I have a lot to say about that thing I do every day. Since this is the technical section, I want to stress even more than usual that this is not prescriptive. It is what I have learned works and is interesting to me in seven years as a professional, full time writer. The only thing true for all writers is that we put words in some kind of order.
It's really hard to give technical advice in writing. Every kind of writing, every trick and tactic can be both poorly done and well done, and many won't agree on which example is crap and which is an exemplar of the craft. What works for me may not work for you, and hell, maybe it doesn't even work for me, I just like it and can't stop, like a second piece of cake. A whole lot of people dig invisible prose; I am allergic to it like a freaking peanut in a preschool lunchroom. I like reading it fine, but writing it isn't interesting to me--and that's a salient point, too. What you enjoy reading may not have anything to do with what you enjoy writing. I like eating French pastries. Making one would frustrate me to tears, what with all the layers and butter-brushing. (It's possible I haven't had lunch yet, as I notice now made three food analogies in one paragraph.)
But I had to give a talk on "the craft" at a recent book festival (which always puts me in mind of the movie about the angry girl witches, and honestly writing is not entirely unlike ceremonial magic with added angst so it's fairly apt) and I came up with a couple of things that were actually useful to me in terms of how I think about the individual moving parts of a novel.
I want to say I was asked to discuss this first thing, because it's a phrase that's often used--how to create sympathetic characters. But I'm not sure "sympathetic" is the dominant consideration when it comes to characters. Sometimes you want a character the audience can relate to, feel compassionate toward, in whom they can recognize themselves. Sometimes you don't. And the thing about characters is that the girl I want to hang out with and see myself in an want on my team in the apocalypse is not necessarily the girl that you want to have a beer with and see emerge victorious over a laser-dragon. Writers take character notes from the people they know and the social interactions they've been part of and we're all drastically different people, so the things we think make for sympathy often do not translate. And half the time, SFF characters are non-human, posthuman, augmented human, inhuman, or off the neurotypical spectrum, so the question of sympathy with such entities--the extent to which sympathy must come from similarity, the emotional relationship you want your audience to have with such characters--is extremely complicated. This doesn't even get into the weird and swampy territory of how often readers prefer sympathize only with characters that share some or all of their demographic identities.
What I think we all do aim for is interesting characters. I want a character to fascinate me, whether I sympathize with them emotionally or not. So here's my little formula for creating an interesting character--and it happens to be a pretty good emotional cheat for making a sympathetic one as well. It also has five helpful points, and everyone knows bullet points mean it's the truth.
Take one (1) unformed character, be they protagonist, antagonist, comic relief, or BFF.
- Give them something to want.
- Give them something to hide.
- Give them something to fear.
- Give them something to obsess over.
- Then hurt them.
These are basic things and they're meant to be. People who want things passionately are more interesting than those who don't (usually). People who have obsessions, be they 16th century cosmetics or an ex-girlfriend, show who they are by how they deal with their compulsions. People who fear nothing are cartoons and people who hide things instantly set up a mystery that the brain starts to puzzle over.
And the easiest way possible to get a reader to care about a character is to hurt that character, especially unfairly, especially when it's many against one or when they are humiliated and forced to suffer social castigation. Especially us geeks, who have often been the victim of this, we tend to want to protect the hurt unless they are truly vile. Spike was fun, but he became loved when we saw his humiliation. Rory on Doctor Who is a great example--he's a pretty milquetoast character, but he's been humiliated by Amy, abandoned, put down, and actually killed so often he's become utterly beloved, mostly because the audience wants to comfort him. At least for me, Bond became more interesting when we actually saw him suffer pain, both physical and emotional, in Casino Royale, rather than just being slick and untouchable.
A good way to get a handle on this is to (shudder) watch reality TV. The editing is pretty brilliant on the marquee shows like Survivor--they can make you hate or love someone incredibly fast. Take notes. Most of this appeals to primate psychology--either protect the weak or destroy it with your friends--and that's a powerful thing.
This can go bad--the number of female characters who are raped in fiction for little reason other than to give them a "dark" past, to upset the main male character and somehow rather grossly give him depth, or because hurting a character can be a source of pleasure for a reader is, well, depressing. I think avoiding the yuck of that should probably be a codicil to the five point plan, so here it is:
Don't rape your female characters because you can't think of anything else interesting that might happen to a woman, don't kill your gays because obviously all gay love must end in death in order to set the universe to rights, don't send a white savior to teach non-whites how to be civilized just because you think that's how it works in the real world, don't gleefully leap into historical settings because you think can be safely racist and sexist there just because reading an actual history book is hard.
It's good to remember that we are operating a huge machine when we write a book. It is an interface between two humans, author and reader. That machine can accomplish great tasks--it can also bite off fingers and crush its operators under it's own weight. Operating while under the influence of ignorance, laziness, cruelty, or carelessness not recommended.
7. What Everyone Knows
As a sort of freelance folklorist, I am enormously interested in the stories cultures tell about themselves. In genre fiction, this is called worldbuilding.
Any piece of history or genealogy or backstory that might infill a fictional world is a story that world tells to itself about itself. It's not necessarily fact. For example, as I mentioned above, a lot of people love medieval settings in part because they got the idea that it was a paradise for white strong men. Women had no power, everyone had the same religion, the West was the prime cultural force in the world, gays were on the Extreme Down Low, and everyone who mattered was a warrior poet. The world was your Ren Faire!
This is a story Western post-Renaissance culture tells about itself to itself. It is not fact. Any list of facts about that era would have to include Eleanor of Acquitane, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Empress Theodora, Anna Comnenus, Joan of Arc, the flowering of Islamic culture, Byzantine culture, China, India, Kievan Rus, and the Great Schism, all of which fly in the face of that picture.
But the reasons for telling that story about the medieval world are very revealing and have a lot to do with the Renaissance's Crisis of Needing to Be the Awesomest. They always are. And when I think about my own fictional cultures and worlds, one of the things I consider is who is telling the story of this history I am choosing to side with in my narrative, telling it to whom, and why.
There's a shorthand to this. To me, the most interesting question, whether the answers are true or not, about a culture is: what does everyone know?
For example, in America, everyone knows we're the best. Everyone knows childhood is a time of innocence and fun. Everyone knows killing people is bad. Everyone knows the economy will get better. Everyone knows what a real family looks like. Everyone knows motherhood is wonderful. In conservative culture, everyone knows life was better in the 50s. In liberal culture, everyone knows the 60s was where it was at. Everyone knows what the Dark Ages were like.
A quick way of figuring out whether something falls into the cognitive hole of What Everyone Knows? Ask yourself what statement would get the most outcry within a given (large or small) group. What you cannot say in that group, even if you think it. The things you can say, which would cause only responses of fuck yeah! Agreed!: that's What Everyone Knows.
The thing about What Everyone Knows is it's only sometimes factual--I hesitate to say "almost never" but that's probably closer. But it's true, in the sense that people comport their lives according to their belief in it, teach it to others, and get upset when What Some Other Group knows comes into conflict with it. Most stories, at their core, involve someone finding out that What Everyone Knows is or is not true, and what they do with that information.
So when writing, it pays to ask yourself What Everyone In This Story Knows. Buggers are the enemy. Winter is coming. The Doctor will save us. There is nothing unusual about our family. Magic is/isn't real. The King/Queen is bad/good. You can/can't fight the Man. They only come out at night.
In fact, when you don't ask this question explicitly, you fall into communicating What You Know as though it's What Everyone Knows. Women aren't as good as men. There is such a thing as a rightful ruler. Beautiful people are better than ugly people, or vice versa. Technology is always good, or always bad. God is real or God is dead, humanity is specially good or specially crap, people with British or Russian or Arab accents are automatically suspicious, one gender expressing traits of another is gross or funny or punishable, robots will destroy us or robots will save us. And even from this list you can probably tell a little of What I Know, which may or may not jive with What You Know. We all communicate the stories of our culture, whether that culture is a country, a planet, a family, or a fandom, in most of the things that we say and do. That is why folklore is awesome and necessary for understanding human groups.
8. A Ratio of Tradition to Experiment
This one, honestly, has taken me a long time to learn. When I started out writing fiction I was 22 and I had a degree in (ancient, non-English) literature goddammit so FUCK YOUR SENSIBILITIES, EAT AWESOME.
If you look at my books then and my books now, you can see that they're the same writer, sure. We all have our kinks and tics and themes that we just cannot let go of. But I've become, by leaps and bounds, more accessible. My 22 year old self thinks that kind of sucks, because it is compromise and WE DO NOT COMPROMISE ON TEH ARTZ. But my slightly more grown-up self knows that eventually it's not completely about what the author thinks (Knows) is awesome, but also about what the reader is willing to put up with to get that awesome.
So my rule of thumb is that given Plot, Structure, and Style, one of them has to tap out and play for Team Mundane. The reader needs something to hold on to while the author experiments with something that excites them: a linear, straightforward structure, unvarnished, solid prose, a plot that lines up with their cultural expectations of narrative. Most really good books pick one of those things to go wild with. Books that pick two are called avant-garde, and those that don't call any quarter for readers without obscure degrees are more often than not called remaindered. Look at House of Leaves, which has a structure like good grief, Charlie Pomo, but the sentence-level prose style is pretty workaday in 2/3 of the book, with only the occasional Truant/grad school thesis sections and the poetry, which is not part of the main body of narrative, going off the farm. The plot is a pretty standard haunted house story, with a literary fetch quest stapled onto it. And even those numbers are too much for a lot of readers to dance with.
There is a generous explanation in here, I think, as to why most hard SF, as rule, doesn't trouble itself too much with silly things like characters and feelings. (I'm going to be generous and not poke the cultural argument on this score.) When hard, technical science and technological ideas, which require much explanation and exploration, are in the position of being The Experiment, the thing that makes the story different and interesting, it probably helps to ground the reader with characters and motivations that don't also require them to question What They Know and puzzle out and work hard to understand. So perhaps also given Character, Idea, and World, the regular:funky ratio of 1:2 (avant-garde) 2:1 (quality commercial) might still hold, but I haven't thought about that quite as much, so I won't bet my speaking fee on it.
If you don't care whether a large number of people read your stuff, then hey, knock yourself out. Go for batshit 0:3 or slush pile 3:0. I didn't care about The Market when my literary principles lived in ALLCAPSTOWN. I'm still proud of what I wrote there. But most people who read lists of writing advice want to be widely published and/or read, and to do that you have to pick one, maybe even two if you don't get called out for being "too hard" with every single damn book, and make them the designated driver, who can behave responsibly and according to expectations while the kids in the party bus are guzzling neon cocktails, dancing the space tango, and deconstructing gravity.
Part 4, the actual final part, arriving (actually) tomorrow.