Archive for the ‘lessons learned’ Category

I haven’t always been a fan of big fantasy books. If a novel comes labelled ‘First in the Epic Saga’ and is heavy enough to kill a charging rhino, odds are I won’t even read the blurb. But over the past year or so, my mind has been changed. Thanks to the excellent recommendations of programmer, folk rocker, horseman and general renaissance man Glenatron, I’ve discovered that some of these hefty tomes aren’t just a perfectly passable way to fill a fortnight’s reading. Some of them are – and I’m overcoming years of prejudice to say this – really worth your time.

Cold Magic by Kate Elliott, despite one central flaw I’ll get to later, is one of those books.

Character, History and Gender

Set in a very different 19th century Europe, Cold Magic is the story of Cat Barahal, a young woman weeks away from adulthood. Taken from her family as part of a long standing magical and political pact, she finds herself in the hands of a powerful house of sorcerers. These cold mages form an alternate aristocracy alongside the traditional lords and princes, their authority entangling in messy, complicated ways. Their political schemes soon threaten Cat’s life, as well as that of her beloved cousin Bee, and it’s up to Cat to… oh, you get the idea.

Cat is a likeable if prickly protagonist. Like Jane Austen’s heroines, she’s written in such a way that the reader realises things she doesn’t, even though the story is written from her point of view. Getting that right takes skill, and it’s a skill Elliott has clearly mastered.

But the biggest appeal for me about this character is the way that she is presented as a woman in a gendered society. Some fantasy authors address the gender inequality of feudal societies by simply ignoring it. That’s fine, you can do what you want with your world, but it means we miss out on exploring the consequences of inequality. Others just take it for granted and provide no female characters with real control over their lives – not a great example to current and future generations. Elliot does something I like far more. She presents an unequal society, and then shows how Cat deals with the consequences of that inequality. From the social order of her school to the prejudice against a scarred female veteran, gender imbalance is in the details as well as the big picture of Cat’s arranged marriage and assumed disposability. But both she and Bee empower themselves despite that, and that makes for a great character in an interesting setting.

A Whole New World

That setting is one of the biggest draws of this book. As Elliott writes in the back, it was inspired by a long world building exercise that she carried out with others, and that attention to detail shows. Climate, geography, politics, economics, social norms – so much is revealed, and it’s all fascinating. There are elements of fantasy, like the feathered trolls, alongside steampunk airships. There are spies and intrigues, wars and treaties, two thousand years of history impinging on the present. It cleverly winds strands from real history into the mix. The classical references are nice, but it was when I realised who the infamous General Camjiata represented that things fell into place for me.

Most interesting to a social lefty like me was the depiction of society beyond that scheming elite. We see the pervasive oppression that comes with a long standing feudal hierarchy, just like the one that dominated in early 19th century Europe. We also see the horrors of factory life, the way that the transformations of the Industrial Revolution led to a whole new kind of oppression for the vast majority of people. And we see the reactions against this – riots and revolutionary plots, the sort of stuff that left me white-knuckled with excitement when studying 19th century history. These aren’t things I’ve seen a lot of fantasy novels, and I look forward to seeing their consequences explored in the rest of the series.

Stop, Exposition Time!

Having said all of that, the loving and detailed world building also leads to this book’s big flaw – exposition. Elliott has built a wonderful world and quite rightly wants to share it, but sometimes the explanations get clunky. The plot will grind to a halt for two pages of background on ancient wars. Sometimes characters will explain things they have no real reason to explain, in a manner usually reserved for the least charismatic university professors, just to get information across to the reader. And much as I loved the world these sections presented, the way they presented it threw me out of the story and made it feel less real.

I’m going to come back to this in a future blog post, because I want to compare it with some other approaches, one of them equally problematic in a very different way. And it may be less of an issue for those accustomed to reading those rhino-slaying fantasy tomes – after all, this is one of the things that puts me off epic series fantasy in general. But if you’re going to have a problem with the book, this will probably be it.

Lessons Learned

By now it should be obvious that as a reader I liked this, and that I’ll be reading more of this series. But what did I learn as a writer?

Learning from others’ mistakes, it was a reminder of the disruption exposition can cause, and just how carefully it has to be handled. There are far worse offenders where this is concerned, but it’s a useful reminder.

As for what Elliott gets right, there’s so very much. How to position a strong-willed female protagonist in an unequal society. How to use hints of history for richer world building. How to reference other things without it becoming smug or putting the reader off. How to weave an intricate tangle of events for the protagonist to fall into.

I’ll be mulling this one over for a while, and that in itself counts as a recommendation.

She had asked him for something more permanent, the golden rose speaking to the fragility of beautiful things, a mosaic hinting at that which might last. A craft that aspired to endure.

Lord of Emperors, the second half of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic, is an extraordinary book. If you’ve read my comments on Sailing to Sarantium then you won’t be surprised to see me write that. But still, it’s worth saying, and indeed worth repeating. This is a deep, rich book which should endure just as surely as the fine art at the heart of its narrative. I’ll probably come back to that theme of art, and others explored in the book, in later blog posts. But first, lets have something approximating a review, in which I obsess over certain details…

Lord of Emperors

Setting and story

Lord of Emperors completes the of story Crispin, a mosaicist summoned east to the city of Sarantium to create a career-defining work of art, decorating the ceiling of a great religious sanctuary commissioned by the Emperor Valerius II. There he becomes entangled in a web of politics and passion, as ambition and long-held grievances play out in the royal court while the passions and frustrations of the common mob are channelled through support of two great chariot racing teams.

The world of this story is based on Constantinople and the surrounding region in the 6th century AD. As with several of his other novels, Kay has taken an existing setting, shaved off the proper nouns and added the lightest sprinkling of fantasy, rather than creating a whole setting from scratch. It’s a fascinating and unusual approach that lets him take more liberties with characters and events than he could in a straight historical novel, while still using the rich setting and tone available through delving into history. It’s an act very much in the historically-inspired spirit of Tolkien, whose works Kay helped edit, and also reflects Tolkien’s interest in creating total immersion in secondary worlds.

The world of Sarantium is vividly portrayed, a place of politics and power, ambition and uncertainty, in which events are determined both by careful, unspoken implication and by wild acts of courage on the race track.

It’s a wonderful place to explore.

A sedate telling

I find the pacing of Kay’s books, and particularly this one, absolutely bizarre at times. This is a thumping great 600+ pages of fiction, in which most of the action plays out over a mere handful of days. And it’s not like 24, where a ridiculously jam-packed string of events makes a short timescale feel exciting. It just takes a lot of pages to get through these events.

Sounds like it should be dull and frustrating, right? Yet it isn’t. It’s an exquisite gem of a story, in which each new scene, each different perspective adds to its beauty and shines new light on what you’ve already seen. The reader feels the characters’ passions, their triumphs and tragedies, their tears and laughter. By the time events reached their climax I didn’t know how it would all end, but I yearned to find out.

Not the fancy word choices but the right ones

I’m still not sure how Kay manages to achieve what he does, but I think it might be in the details.

If a writer wants to add texture to a scene they’ve basically got two options – choice of words and choice of detail. Trying to cram in more through word choice can lead you down a slippery slope into obscure language and reaching for the thesaurus, assembling sentences that force readers to pause and think. Adding more detail, on the other hand, can add richness without breaking the flow of reading. It needs to be the right details so that readers will be interested rather than bored, details of thought and of action as much as of setting. But Kay is a master of this, filling page after page with small moments that build towards an entrancing whole.

For me, this is the big writing lesson of the book – complex details, simple language. You can achieve a lot that way.

Now go read!

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not crammed full of fast-paced action. It takes a long time to do what it does. But it’s beautifully written, fascinating in its detail, and I really think you should give it a go. After reading Sailing to Sarantium that is, because they’re effectively two halves of a single story.

If you’ve read Lord of Emperors let me know what you thought of it. Were you as entranced as I was? Leave a comment, share your views.

Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? From Frodo facing terrible evil and fearsome foes, through to John McClane taking on a tower block full of heavily armed criminals, we love to see the little guy stand up to someone stronger. But why is this so appealing?

Half man, half tower block, all action.

Half man, half tower block, all action.

There are plenty of reasons of course, but one I hadn’t considered was mentioned by Victoria Grefer in Writing For You, and that’s the nature of the conflict. For an underdog, the outcome of the conflict is terribly uncertain. It’s hard for them to win, and our desire for them to succeed creates a tension that keeps us reading.

But I’d go further. I think that what really makes an underdog compelling is that every action implies both internal and external conflict. They can never relax because the enemy could beat them at any moment. Every move becomes a battle of will, pushing their body, their mind, their courage farther than ever before, because that’s the only way they can possibly succeed. Even if we’re not very aware of it, there’s an implicit internal conflict in the background of every externalised action set-piece, as the character grapples with their own weaknesses, forcing themselves to continue when it would be easier to just give up.

Thus, the character’s external tensions, their internal tensions and the reader or viewer’s tension are all neatly tied together. Doing that makes a story more powerful, and an underdog is a good way to make the connections.

Any other views on this? Why do you folks root for underdogs? And which are your favourite ones? Leave a comment, let me know.

Adding flaws is a big part of what makes characters interesting. Han Solo would be a lot less fun if he weren’t a criminal. Bilbo Baggins is appealing because he battles his own cowardice. Loki’s arrogance and scheming are half the reason he’s a highlight of the Marvel films.

Of course being played by the charming Tom Hiddleston also helps.

 

But not all character flaws are equal. Picking the wrong one can put readers off your hero or make your villain so sympathetic that they switch sides. I recently found an interesting distinction in Victoria Grefer’s Writing for You that illuminates the distinction and helps in character building.

Flaws

Grefer draws a distinction between flaws and faults.

Flaws are aspects of a character that aren’t inherently morally wrong but that get them into trouble or make them less impressive. Take the example of Bilbo. His desire for self preservation and the quiet life are understandable, but this holds him back from achieving everything he could.

Or look at Sophronia in Gail Carriger’s Finishing School books. Her curiosity and lack of respect for authority make her capable of great things, but also get her in a lot tight scrapes and dangerous situations.

These are character traits that make us like the character even as we shake our heads at them.

Faults

Faults are the character traits that are always wrong. Cruelty. Greed. The desire to dominate others. They might seem at first glance like extreme version of flaws, but there is a distinction, one that will affect the reactions of readers.

Loki’s pride is arguably a flaw. It gives him the confidence to construct grand schemes and be a charming conversationalist, but it also tips over into over-confidence and looking down on others. His desire to dominate, to bend everyone else to his will, is clearly a fault. It’s a terrible attitude to take, one that leads to darkness and destruction. It makes him a real villain.

Using the distinction

So how do you use this to your advantage?

Basically, focus on the flaws, not the faults. Flaws make your heroes interesting without alienating readers, so stick with them for the good guys. For the villains you may want to mix in some faults, but when deciding on the balance between flaws and faults think about how you want your readers to react. Do you want them to bay for the villain’s blood and cheer when he gets his head chopped off, or sympathise and long to see him redeemed? Make the villain more flawed than the hero, but think carefully before you fill them full of faults.

For more of this sort of stuff check out Victoria Grefer’s blog, Writing With The Crimson League. And if you’ve got any thoughts on writing interesting, flawed characters please share them below.

There’s part of me that hates the Victorian idea of what it is to be English. The assumption of civilised superiority. The implicit acceptance of class structures. The restraint that means people don’t express their opinions and feelings. The compulsion to dress up smart.

But there’s another part of me that’s rather in love with it all. The top hats and tailcoats. The wordplay and games of manners. The little rituals of dining and tea drinking. The opportunity to dress up smart.

It’s that part of my brain, the rose tinted window onto Victoriana, that led me to pick up Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, and I’m really glad that I did.

E&E

World building and whimsy

E&E is the first in a series of YA steampunk fantasy adventures. I say YA, but I get confused about where the boundaries between that and midgrade fiction lie. Suffice to say that a crochety Englishman in his mid-thirties is not the target audience.

And yet I really enjoyed it. The story of Sophronia’s first year aboard a finishing school for lady spies is full of fun and whimsy. The fact that it’s an airship school with a vampire, a werewolf and a boiler room full of grubby urchins helps. It’s a nice example of setting up a world, in which a bigger picture is hinted at but not always explained, giving it some depth.

The whimsy isn’t just a matter of setting, it’s in the way that the story is told. Two pages in and we’re being told that Mrs Barnaclegoose ‘was not the kind of woman who appreciated the finer points of being crowned by trifle’. I’d quote half a dozen more fine examples, but I was reading Laura’s copy of the book so I didn’t want to go folding pages and scribbling notes. But if you’ve ever uttered the words ‘oh I say!’ at a charming line of writing then you’ll do that roughly every dozen pages.

The whimsy of plot and writing mesh perfectly together to create a cohesive tone that’s charming and refreshing.

Characters

I bigged this book up in my previous post on character names, and rightly so. But it’s about more than just names.

Sophronia is the sort of wilful young lady who’s the perfect protagonist for a story for children. This is the sort of role model I want for my nieces – not some ball-gowned Disney princess, but a young lady who clambers and plot and sneaks and disassembles the dumb waiter, while still learning what appearances can achieve.

The other characters are what you’d expect from a fantastical girl’s school story. There’s the bully, the mousy one, the sporty one who doesn’t like having to act like a lady, and assorted teachers who grow to trust our hero. I also enjoyed the sooties, the lads in the boiler room who keep the place running. I’m not entirely comfortable with the jolly acceptance of class divisions, but this isn’t the book to address that issue. Maybe another time…

The wide range of characters means we don’t get many in any depth, which is a shame. But again, this is an establishing book in a series for young people, and this seems in keeping with that format.

Plot

No book is perfect, and for me the weak point here was the plot. I never felt any sense of urgency or pressure to address the supposed main issue. But as this was mostly a way to lead Sophronia into exploring the school and its inhabitants I wasn’t too bothered.

And by ‘not too bothered’ I mean I read it in hundred page chunks without pausing to stretch my legs.

Lessons learned

What have I learned from this as a writer?

I’ve seen a great example of strong narratorial voice that runs against my own tendency to try to fade into the background. Something for me to play with there.

I’ve seen how, even in a male-dominated setting, you can build a book around a group of varied and interesting female characters.

I’ve been reminded of the power of a good one liner, which regularly got me turning to Laura to say ‘listen to this one…’

So anyway, that’s what I thought. How about the rest of you? Who’s read this? What did you think?

Reading Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel, has been a surprisingly emotional experience. Setting aside the quality of the book, which I’ll come to in a moment, it made me realise how much of a hero Pratchett is to me, and how hard it is to have mixed feelings about our real life heroes.

Raising Steam

Raising Steam is the 40th of Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Like several recent Discworld stories, it’s about characters facing the march of progress. Steam trains are coming to the Discworld, just as modernity is sending ripples through the ancient culture of the dwarfs. One of these changes leads to excitement and delight, the other to resistance and civil conflict. But Moist Von Lipwig, sometime conman and now a big mover in the city of Ankh-Morpork, has the task of managing these changes, or at least their practicalities. It’s either that or back to the hangman’s noose…

The march of progress

Progress might seem impersonal at times, but the reactions of the Discworld characters are very personal. Dark clerk Drumknot becomes a train enthusiast. Lord Vetinari sees a problem to solve and a tool to achieve it. The conservative dwarf grags see their traditions being undermined by outsiders. Simnel just sees the thing he is building.

In a similar way, our reactions to Pratchett’s ever-evolving writing style are very personal. I suspect that they’re primarily shaped by which of his books we started with.

I started reading Discworld when there were less than a dozen books. My attention was grabbed by Pyramids, Guards! Guards! and Small Gods. As this world grew deeper and richer, and Pratchett’s philosophising more central, I was absolutely sucked in. But somewhere after the twentieth book he started drifting away from the things that I’d loved. There were less laugh-out-loud moments, more direct focus on adventure and social commentary. Those were good things but the balance wasn’t what I wanted any more.

The stories that once made me laugh out loud now made me think, and as a British lefty who had now grown past his teens, the thoughts weren’t terribly new. I know people who’ve come to  his work later and consider his recent works the height of Pratchett brilliance. But me, I seem to be turning into something of a grag, and for a while I’ve been dwelling on the flaws in the Discworld.

Raising problems

Now we come to Raising Steam, and it’s not just age that is shaping my view. I have experience as a writer that I didn’t before, a knowledge of plot and structure that colours the way I read, that allows me to dissect the things I find problematic. Because readable as it is – Pratchett’s prose is still light and easy to absorb without becoming completely weightless – there are a lot of problems with this book.

I don’t want to dwell too long on any of this, because it breaks my heart to say it, but the plot is a damp squib. The characters are never really challenged, overcoming their problems too easily and without any risk of consequence. The initial promise, of a story about the development of the railroad, leads to a payoff that’s actually about the politics of the dwarfs. While the two have thematic connections, this still means that the book’s end doesn’t match its initial promise, which is deeply unsatisfying. Progress happens because its time has come, not through human effort and struggle, and this sort of pre-destined progress really gets my back up, robbing characters of their agency.

There’s also a problem with the dialogue, and it’s not just Simnel’s Yorkshire accent. Many characters have many great lines of dialogue. The problem is that they’ll deliver six of these great lines at once, turning snappy one-liners into speeches, becoming repetitive, slowing the pace and sucking the sense of action from a scene. It’s a real lesson in less is more – on their own these lines would have been classic quotable Pratchett, bundled together they’re a weight dragging the story down.

Keep reading Pratchett!

As I said, I’ve been finding this post hard to write. Pratchett is a huge hero of mine. An inspiring writer of dozens of books who has helped to popularise fantasy. A campaigner for the safety of orangutans, one of the most distinctive of the apes I so love. A man who is publicly battling to live in dignity as his mind gives way, risking public exposure to raise awareness of mental health issues. The man is an absolute legend. If the fantasy community can have national treasures then he is one.

And just as change has, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, affected both Pratchett and his Discworld, so I’ve changed as a reader. I can now do what I couldn’t a decade ago. I can live with the mixed feelings I have, not needing to hold the writer and his works up on a pedestal or to cast them aside.

Please, go out and read something from Pratchett’s Discworld. Read Wyrd Sisters or Pyramids or Guards! Guards!, or anything from about book six through to book 20. If you like those then read the rest. Even on an off day, Pratchett’s usually one of the better writers out there. He is worth your time and worth your admiration.

Just save Raising Steam until last. And when you get there remember that you’re reading for what’s come before, not for this story. Because progress is inevitable, and it can be great, but it isn’t always kind.

This book may not be great, but Terry Pratchett is. Sir Terry, I salute you!

If you can’t get the basics of something right then the rest is just a waste of time. It’s a point that applies to juggling (make sure you can catch before you try to catch fire), cooking (make sure you don’t burn pans before you try a soufflé), and of course to writing. That’s why I enjoyed reading Brandon Royal‘s The Litte Red Writing Book. It’s a good guide to writing, aimed at non-fiction but with lessons for any writer, that gives twenty useful principles and a grammar guide. A lot of it will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever written an essay, but even when it was covering principles I already knew I found its clarifications and reiteration useful.

So here’s three particularly useful things I picked out from this book.

Royal LRWB

 

Favour verbs, not nouns

This one was totally new to me, but fitted my recent experience.

Last week I was doing edits on a story, and a lot of the feedback was ‘too many uses of the word ‘she’ here’. It was a tricky thing to tackle. I didn’t want to over-use the character’s name, or put other nouns in its place as that could get clunky. It took me ages to work out those edits because while I could see that the editor was right I just couldn’t see another option.

This is it. Structure your writing to lean more on verbs than nouns. It’ll help keep it active and interesting, and help you avoid getting bogged down in pronouns like I did. Above all avoid nominalising – turning verbs and adjectives into nouns. It often makes for ugly writing.

Six basic writing structures

I like having structures to plan my writing around. They aren’t to stick rigidly to, but to give me a framework to start from. Royal sets out six basic structures that are useful for writing things like articles, essays and blog posts. I write a lot of blog posts, not just here but also for freelance clients, so having these is handy. I’ve already put them into my blog planning template.

Describing all six would take a whole post in itself, but they include things like evaluative, chronological and causal, and he explains briefly how to structure each one.

Support what you say

I already know that I need to provide evidence when making a point, but Royal provides a good reminder of the fact that your evidence should be concrete and specific. Not just ‘Larry is a great communicator’ but ‘Larry is a great communicator as shown by the rousing speech he gave to his minions, which inspired them to conquer Quebec’.

One for reference

This book is going on my writing reference shelf, to be kept handy for all occasions. It’s worth a read if you write at all, whether for pleasure, for work, or just out of that itch that drives us to put pen on page.

Anybody got any favourite books on writing? I can always do with recommendations in this area, especially now it’s my work as well as my hobby.