Monday, March 17, 2014

And some things that should not have been forgotten

I love books.  Not all books, but a good many.  Of those I like, my favorites are usually from a specie of fiction we now refer to as epic fantasy.  I hadn't really thought about the lineage of epic fantasy until by chance I came upon a rather interesting article by Tom Simon that briefly touches upon the subject.

I started looking for more information on heroic fantasy and romantic fiction (romanticism, not works belonging to the romance genre).  An hour or so later I emerged from my google induced rabbit hole.  It appears epic fantasy belonged, not long ago, to a genre called heroic fantasy.  Heroic fantasy itself had previously branched out from romantic fiction. 

Fascinating stuff if you ever care to start into your own virtual rabbit hole on the subject.  For me, the romantic hero is still the taproot of the entire epic fantasy genre. Most (perhaps all?) of the epic novels I read attempt to put a new gloss on the romantic hero.

Returning to Tom Simon, his article incorporates Mark Twain's Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper, in which Twain lists 18 rules governing the art of of romantic fiction (Twain says there are 19 rules, but is of the opinion that Cooper only violated 18 of them and does not say what the other rule is).

I am not generally a fan of rules, but I think these are general enough to be helpful without being harmful.  If that makes sense.  They seem like good rules of thumb to keep in the back of your mind when editing. 

Twain's rules:

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

12. The author shall say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. The author shall use the right word, not its second cousin.

14.The author shall eschew surplusage.

15. The author shall not omit necessary details.

16. The author shall avoid slovenliness of form.

17. The author shall use good grammar.

18. The author shall employ a simple, straightforward style.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Joy of sight 3: Kill your darlings

"Kill your darlings."  What does this mean?

It has been explained to me like this: 
"If you think you’ve written something particularly lovely, it probably needs to be deleted."

An author will create scenes, turns of phrase, dialogue, and characters whom (s)he loves.  It is inevitable.  If we are supposed to kill our darlings does that mean we cut those scenes on the basis of our love?  Perhaps I am naive, but I say no! 

Instead, I believe "killing your darlings" is a reminder an author must learn to approach self-editing dispassionately.  Writing and editing should be distinct functions. Each has its own place in the bicameral system governing the creation of a story. 

When it's time to write, an author should feel free to write anything. The writer has absolute freedom to put words on page.

When it's time to self-edit, an author should feel free to remove or change anything. Anything and everything!

The problem "kill your darlings" addresses is temporal.  Writing always precedes editing.  Since authors tend to love (or love to hate) what they write, they develop an emotional connection to their work.  Emotional connection will get in the way of self-editing if an author lets it.

Where the phrase came from I haven't the foggiest.  Perhaps "kill your darlings" was once a mental exercise to strengthen the sovereignty of the self-editor function.  Pick your favorite character.  Would the story be stronger if you killed him/her?  If so, do it.

George RR seemingly turned this exercise into a formula that has produced wildly popular novels. And we've all probably heard the adage that goes something along the lines of "if you become stuck in your writing, kill off a character."

But you don't have to kill what you love.  The point is you must free your mind to pull the trigger or hit the delete button if it improves your tale.  Don't let your love bias the editing process. 

The self-editor must look at everything with critical eyes. If anything in your manuscript doesn't serve the story, and serve it efficiently, then it needs revision. 

So don't let yourself be a slave to so-called rules of writing. Instead, work to tell the story that needs telling even if doing so means cutting parts you love. That's my take on it.

A fine reminder to edit dispassionately:  Kill your darlings.    




Thursday, March 13, 2014

Joy of sight 2: repeated and unnecessary words

Repeated words.

Unnecessary words.

Cull these when you revise your MS.  It's obvious, but they have a way of sneaking in when you're focused on other things.  So it's worth a blog post as a reminder.

Repeated words:
  • will occur as part of the creative process
  • may just need to be changed to another word
  • may be an indication of too much description
  • may be an indication of inefficient paragraph construction

Unnecessary words:
  • multiple actions (the right one is usually better)
  • multiple adjetives (the right one is usually better)
  • adverbs (often an indication that a better verb can be used instead)
  • redundant information
  • unimportant information

Editing is a skill.  Writers, keep honing your craft!

Joy of sight 1: Too much description

It's time to do some internet-based research on the suggestions from my critique.  First item: over-description.

Some interesting links on the subject:
I don't really believe in using rules to write.  I've tried to abide by writing rules (no adverbs, cut speech tags, etc.) while writing chapters and it always makes my writing feel too wooden.  It crushes my creativity.

I do, however, believe in understanding the problems which the rules of writing aim to remedy. Once an author understands those problems then (s)he may pick and choose when to flirt with danger.  Or choose not to flirt with danger.  But the understanding is key, because it puts another element of writing under the author's control. 

Description is no different. If your story is a raft floating down the plot of a river, then description is everything else in the river.  It's the unexpected eagle sighting that adds wonder to the story.  It's the glacier melt sediment that can be heard as it flows against the rubber of the raft and makes the story seem more real.  It's the boulder in the river that diverts the plot and creates places for side-stories in the back-eddies.

The problem is the raft trip will be slow when the river is jam-packed with eagles, floating debris, and boulders. If you've ever been kayaking and have become stuck on a sandbar, then you know how quickly frustration will mount when the trip isn't moving forward.

So how should we endeavor to describe?

A random example from LotR:

"It was evening, and the grey light was again waning fast, when they halted for the night.  They were very weary.  The mountains were veiled in deepening dusk, and the wind was cold.  Gandalf spared them one more mouthful each of the miruvor of Rivendell.  When they had eaten some food he called a council."

As many of the articles above suggest, Tolkien mixes description with action.  Looking at each sentence individually we see:
  • It was evening, and the grey light was again waning fast, when they halted for the night.  Description and Action
  • They were very weary. Description
  • The mountains were veiled in deepening dusk, and the wind was cold.  Description
  • Gandalf spared them one more mouthful each of the miruvor of Rivendell.  Action
  • When they had eaten some food he called a council.  Action
The random example I chose was the first paragraph in Chapter 4, A Journey in the Dark.  These introductory paragraphs are common for Tolkien to use at the start of his chapters.  He also uses them when scenes shift.  Half of the paragraph moves the action along.  Half a sentence describes the time.  One and a half sentences describe the setting.  One short sentence describes the state of the Fellowship.

When description is deftly mixed into action it adds interest without stealing attention.  A river runs in riffles when it flows over many submerged stones.  The riffles add a new dimension to the flow without changing the course of the whole river. That seems like a good goal for the bulk of a story's descriptions. 

The other thing we might learn from the good professor's paragraph is that his sentences are not overly complex.  Each simply carries a thought.

He doesn't over-do his descriptions even though he is capable of writing stunning scene descriptions.  He chooses to embellish just one thought with flowery language: "veiled in deepening dusk". 

Simplicity appears to be an important component of mixing action with description.  Let the description get too long or too complex and those submerged stones start poking out of the river and the story has to navigate around them.

Against a background of simple descriptions mixed with action, the occasional embellished description becomes exciting rather than tiring.  

Of course there will be exceptions.  The art of writing is in applying these lessons to a story in the appropriate way for that particular story.

In novel news, I have just completed a reading of part 1 of Blind Guardian while focusing on description alone.  Unsurprisingly, it resulted in significant changes to the story.  I am happier with it now, but not yet satisfied. Onward.

Good luck wrestling with the art of description in your own writing. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Vain was Gandalf's trust in me

Work has prevented me from doing any revising for about ten days.

Nearer to the truth, work has been the excuse I poured myself into. A necessity. But also an excuse to avoid writing. Avoid writing?  Why ever would I avoid my story when a passion for it has occupied my mind for years?

It was a strange phenomenon and one I didn't understand at first.  My first critique returned to me a laundry list of suggested improvements. The list did not bowl me over all at once. It didn't sadden me to see a stranger say my story needed to be reworked and rewritten.  I already knew those things. I sought out the critique (indeed, I had told the reader to "hold nothing back" and to be as "blunt as possible") because I wanted to know where the limits of my writing ability unfairly chained my story.  I wanted to set my story free.

But after taking a day or two to digest the critique, I discovered all the wind had leaked from my sails.  I was floating in some kind of writer's doldrums.

It was a scary place. I waited for my writing energy to return and power me forward once again. But it did not come. An inner gate-keeper barred my way.

You see, the critique helped to educate my editing eyes. I reread my first chapter and it was so far from the mark that I had to face the possibility it might never be good enough for other people to read and enjoy. It is likely that the only people to read Blind Guardian will be my friends and family.  And it is more likely than not that even they will skim to the end just to be supportive.

So the question left in my mind was: Am I okay with that?

My initial answer was: Yes, because telling this story is the most meaningful undertaking of my life.

But that answer, while truthful, did not satisfy the gate keeper.  Another realization was yet before me.

If this story is the most meaningful undertaking of my life and it isn't important to anyone but myself, then wouldn't that mean that my life's work was unimportant?  Am I just wasting my time?

It was time to do some serious soul searching.

It sounds odd, but I started thinking about my own character arc as an author.  Character arcs are all about what a character wants versus what a character needs. Eventually a character learns the difference between those two things.  How they react governs the rest of the story.  My writing doldrums were the place I finally distinguished between what I wanted and what I needed as an author.

What I wanted was to write a meaningful story to inspire people in the way my favorite novels inspire me. I wanted to share a story and characters that I loved with other people.  I wanted other people to be able to love the story as I do and to share in its joy.

What I needed was to accept that the worth of my life's work cannot be determined by anyone but myself.  I either write Blind Guardian for myself or else I write something that will not make me happy. 

There is a profound difference between want and need. When I chose to accept what I needed, I was able to begin revising my story again.  I am sure it will take a great deal of effort to internalize the lesson.  But the making of Blind Guardian continues and I am happy. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters.

Part 1 of my novel, Blind Guardian, has been rewritten at least ten times.  The manuscript is sitting at 45k words.

It's an epic fantasy, which means the internet has told me the finished product should be 100-120k words.  I've caught myself worrying how Blind Guardian would ever fit inside the magic 120k word box.  Complex threads must weave together.  Necromancer tyrants must be overcome.  A man must learn to be a hero.  It seems impossible for it to all fit!

I'm not worried any more.

I just received a critique on chapter 1.  From someone other than my girlfriend or sister.  From a fellow wordsmith who also happened to be a complete stranger.

***dramatic noise***

The good:  I "did not fall prey to many of the classic beginner mistakes".

The bad:  I fell prey to a host of other mistakes:
  • over description
    • in the form of prepositional phrases
    • too many actions
  • repeated words
  • unnecessary prose
  • I did not "kill my darlings"
  • a profound lack of pronouns
  • stilted dialogue 
    • lack of contractions
    • long blocks of words rather than quick exchanges between characters 
    • fully formed thoughts
    • "As you know, Bob" dialogue
  • incorrectly punctuated dialogue
  • little character development
  • protagonist comes across as wooden
  • poorly executed "in media res"
    • possibly the story started in the wrong place
    • flashbacks are difficult to weave into a story
  • I turned an event into a long section of "tell" (as in: show, don't tell) through a flashback
  • POV shifts in the form of narrative information that the POV character could not know

If the first 3.5k words of my story suffer from those problems, what did I screw up in the other 41.5K?  Also, if those aren't beginner mistakes then what qualifies as a beginner mistake?  The road to finishing my manuscript is going to be long.

Not all those suggestions are superficial.  Some go to the heart of how I told the story in chapter 1.  It's no fun to receive that kind of criticism.  It's agonizing to realize the criticism is spot on and that it's time to rebuild the chapter from the foundation up.  And it's funny to think about how much time I spent sweating over stuff that will be cut.  There is going to be a lot that gets cut.  

The nice thing is that no matter how badly I wrote chapter 1, it's entirely within my control to make myself a better writer.  That list of criticisms is a tool for improvement as much as it is a barrier.  On the other side is the story as I want to tell it.

And that is an empowering thought. 

Upcoming blog entries will address these issues one-by-one as I wrestle with them.   

A Blog is Born

So here we are.

Wanna-be authors inevitably create a blog.  Why?  We're told we need a platform.  We don't know what that means exactly but we desperately want to share our preciouses with the world.  So blindly we grope to discover ways of connecting with our potential future readers.

And this is my version of that.

A couple ground-rules for this blog:
  • It's a blog about the process of writing my novels.  If my novels are ever published and people care to read them, it will expand to include related topics.
  • My novels are neither political allegories nor are they designed to be political statements.  Therefore, this blog will not be about politics.  Is there anything grosser than celebrity--or unknown author--rants on politics?  Rants do not intend to be persuasive.  Their purpose is to use the author's platform to push some "truth" on all the idiots who just don't get it (and for like-minded people to pat themselves on the back).  No ranting on this blog.  The singular exception is this rant on ranting.
  • One does not simply blog about writing epic fantasy fiction without referencing Tolkien.  It is folly.  Assume my post titles are the work of professor Tolkien or are referencing his work in some way.
  • I will post regularly.
  • Let's keep it civil in the comments.

Enjoy the ride.