Posts Tagged ‘everwalker’

Exposition is one of the most important skills in a writer’s arsenal. Whether you do it subtly through implication or by stating things plainly in long passages, how you tell readers about your world maters. This is especially true in science fiction and fantasy, where those readers need to understand how your world is different from our own.

A C Macklin, aka Everwalker, has already written an excellent post on the fundamentals of exposition, so I won’t repeat what you can read elsewhere. But I want to talk about exposition as a matter of skill, and as a matter of taste.

Implication, Explanation and External Reference

Three of my more recent reads have shown very different approaches to exposition. In Cold Magic, Kate Elliott uses large paragraphs of narrative and dialogue to explain the workings of her world. Mary Robinette Kowal, in Shades of Milk and Honey, subtly lays out the world through implications and small references. In Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman, the reader is presented with a huge mass of detail and left to disentangle it, with references to history and other books helping to give these elements meaning.

I enjoyed all these books, but Mary Robinette Kowal’s approach to exposition was the one I enjoyed the most. It’s tempting for me to say, based on that, that’s she’s better at exposition than the other two. But on reflection, I don’t think that’s the case.

I think it’s a matter of the writer’s style and the reader’s taste.

The Reader and the Book

I’m not going to argue that all books are equal. Even within different styles, some authors are far better than others, and Elliott, Kowal and Tidhar are all excellent at what they do. But the enjoyment of a book doesn’t just lie in the skill of the writer – it lies in a relationship with the reader, and in what they want.

I like my exposition subtle. I’ve been trained that way through years of genre reading, among other influences. Some others like to have things clearly laid out for them – it’s more accessible. For me, a big chunk of explanation disrupts reading. For others, a small reference that isn’t explained straight away, and that for me builds the world, will throw them out of the story because it doesn’t make sense.

I can also be put off by books trying too hard to prove that they’re smart. I love to see a few references to other texts or events – an appearance by a disguised Sherlock Holmes, a real political upheaval. But when the book is reliant on those references for its meaning, when they come thick and fast as in The Bookman or Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, it gets in the way of my reading. The thick mass of references others like to untangle leaves me wishing that the story had more to stand on in its own right. I feel like the writer’s showing off rather than entertaining me, but that’s probably not a fair assessment – they’re entertaining people with those dense layers of reference, those people just aren’t me.

Picking Your Style

So what, I hear you cry?

So then, as readers, we should be cautious about saying that a piece of exposition is bad, and instead ask whether it does what it aims for well, and whether that’s to our tastes. And as writers, we need to think about what style of exposition will suit our books, our readers and ourselves.

Because, like so much in life, this isn’t about good or bad, right or wrong. It’s about the rich variety of human tastes, and that’s awesome.

Author David Nicholls has used Write Or Die to help him with his latest novel. I’m a big fan of Write Or Die, and it makes total sense that even an established author would find it useful.

Write Or Die is a word processor with a difference. Its whole purpose is to stop you delaying or getting caught up perfecting your words instead of getting them down on the page, and it can be quite brutal about it.

First you enter your goal, like maybe 500 words in 30 minutes. Then you hit the start button. Write Or Die immediately works out how many words you need to have written by each point in that half hour to hit your goal, and if you start slacking off then it tells you. Pause for too long and it punishes you. Fall behind and it punishes you. Start going back and editing rather than getting enough words down in time and it punishes you.

You get to set the punishment. It ranges from the screen going red through screeching noises and alarms to Write Or Die deleting the words you’ve already written – whatever’s going to get you motivated.

I have the old version of Write Or Die, and I don’t use the delete setting, but I’ve still found it a great way of getting motivated. When the screen goes red and the alarm starts to sound and I can see a counter telling me I haven’t hit my target, or better yet the waves of relief as I consistently reach that target…

Well, it works.

I used to do a lot of my writing in Write Or Die, but I don’t at the moment. I found that using it for a while got me trained to write at a faster pace, but that the stuff I wrote unsurprisingly needed more editing than normal. So now I just use it occasionally to get myself back up to speed, and without it I’ve got a good balance between speed and what I want to write.

It’s a great habit builder. And if your priority is getting lots of words down with the intention of going back and editing heavily later then it’s also a good way to stay motivated.

It’s probably not for everyone. It can get stressful, and personally I’d never touch the delete option – too much risk of losing some words I loved. But if you haven’t tried it and you’re looking to get motivated on your writing then it’s only $20 and well worth a go.

Thanks to Everwalker for the heads up about the Guardian article. And if you want to read some of the things I’ve written with all these high speed words, there are links to buy my books here.

Today I have a guest post from writer, scholar and occasional saviour of my sanity everwalker. She has an excellent blog on writing, and today she’s sharing some of her wisdom with us. So without further ado…


 

When I chose my degree, many many moons ago, I knew perfectly well that Classics would never be of any practical use. As it turns out, however, that’s proven to be incorrect. To date, I’ve built six different cultures off the back of it, as well as a language based on Akkadian (Ancient Mesopotamian) and the gods alone know how many poems.

Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

For me, world-building begins with real life. It may be a fantasy setting but that’s no reason to do all the heavy lifting yourself. History – especially ancient history – has more in the way of weird cultural birthmarks, ridiculous wars and religious madness than you could ever come up with yourself. Use it. Glory in it. And then edit out the stuff that’s too ridiculous to be believable in fiction. Seriously.

1832: Alexandre Dumas visited the Alps, and attended a trial at which two live bears were summoned as witnesses.  ~  History Without the Boring Bits, Ian Crofton

I tend to start by working out what basic flavour my fantasy culture should be. Is it European or something more exotic? What era is it, and therefore what level of technology? What’s the environment like, both in terms of terrain and weather? Is there a class/caste system? That gives me some parameters to work with and an idea of where to start borrowing.

As an example, I’m currently building a culture which I want to make slightly exotic and highly decadent. The terrain varies from desert to steppes, and there is a strict caste system in place. Looking at a map of our world, the culture that fits those parameters best is the Persian Empire in the days of Alexander the Great. I have a place and time to start investigating.

Next Stop: Research

Now I need to find some cool bits and pieces to flesh out the history and culture of my fantasy empire. I’m not talking about taking whole centuries of events and transplanting them wholescale. Just the highlights that are both interesting and make the culture feel real. Because I live in London and am therefore ridiculously fortunate in the matter of resources, my first stop is usually the British Museum. Libraries, art galleries, anything like that – it’s all good.

Iranian battle mask, C18th. Or, in my world, the face of a golem.

Sticking with this example, I take a look at some friezes and artefacts recovered from various dig sites. I don’t restrict myself to JUST the era of Alex the G. Anything that strikes me as shiny gets noted down. Early Persian kings liked to hunt lions, as a symbol of their authority protecting the people from chaos. They also held lying to be the worst possible sin and went all-out on protecting doors with divine symbols as they considered doorways to be key locations through which good and evil influences could enter.

That doesn’t really cover the truly decadent palace approach that I’m looking for, though. For that I turned to the excellent The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski – a first-hand account of the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, etc etc etc. That tells me the relative importance of the second doorman in the Imperial audience chamber and how, during the Hour of Informants, the Emperor fed his exotic animals whilst listening to reports from the Intelligence Bureau.

Make Like Dr. Moreau

Finally, I put it all together by combining real and fantastical elements, and then working out the consequences.

For example, elsewhere in my world setting it’s been established that elves are naturally the best at creative imagination. In other cultures this has led to them excelling as priests, storytellers, artists and so on. In a Persian-like culture, where lying and deceit is the most abhorrent crime, it results in elves being persecuted, declared unclean, and worse.

Another example – I have decided the ruling caste are fae. Again already established elsewhere, they are immortal. What does that mean for a society? The people in charge never change, which contributes massively to political and cultural stagnation. New generations, if politically ambitious, have to resort to literally cut-throat methods of advancement. That sets the tone of the ruling elite.

As far as resources go, there will be constant pressure due to an immortal and increasing population. So that leads to an aggressive expansionist model. The army becomes very important, and operates in the way that the Persian armies did (about which we have plenty of information). It also means that the frontier becomes a place of possibility for the new generations who don’t want to engage in vicious politics. They can set up new settlements in the newly conquered lands, and make a space for themselves that way. So we have an atmosphere for frontier life, and an overview of the country where generations are effectively set up like tree-trunk rings out from the centre.

Ta-da! One fantasy culture based on historical evidence.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

Why bother with all that research, I hear you cry? (Well, I don’t because the internet doesn’t work that way and, last time I checked, I wasn’t psychic, but you know what I mean.) Why can’t we just make it all up, using our powerful imaginations and writerly know-how? The answer, of course, is that you can. Of course you can. But there are a few reasons why you might want to consider this kind of approach.

  1. Using a known culture gives your readers an automatic way in. They can see, from a few choice details, what you’re emulating and instantly populate it much more richly. That makes your story rich in their minds, which can only be a good thing. Guy Gavriel Kaye – a writer that both Andy and I have gone on about in the past – is an expert at doing this. There’s a reason we keep going on about him.
  2. As previously mentioned, it saves you some heavy lifting. If you want to focus all your writing energies on character and plot development, rather than filling in the details of the cultural background, this is an excellent way to help build up a rich setting without spending massive amounts of time working out a palace protocol that your reader will see one small part of, once.
  3. Inspiration! By all means make 99.9% of your fantasy culture up wholesale, but looking at existing things can give you some great inspiration. Did you know, for example, that Spartans gave women who died in childbirth a warrior’s funeral? Or that the labyrinth from the Minotaur myth actually comes from the labrys – the name of the ceremonial double-headed axe used in Cretan ceremonies, combined with a tendency to decorate the palace floors in mosaic spirals? That’s cool stuff which can inspire whole new avenues of make-believe you never would have thought of otherwise.
  4. People care about the strangest, most insignificant things. The less you get it wrong, the less upset they’ll be. Terry Pratchett once said that a fan drew a map of the Discworld according to descriptions given in various books, and worked out that the apparent wettest place in the continent was actually sitting in a rain shadow. Distracting people from the story is a bad thing, m’kay? Research – and borrowing from reality – helps avoid it.
  5. It’s fun? Well, I think it is.

 

 

For a writer, I can be terrible at thinking about the purpose of my words.

I realised this as I was helping everwalker with some editing last week, looking for ways to make one of her scenes punchier. All my suggestions were about taking things out rather than adding them in, because I’m that sort of editor as well as that sort of writer. There’s always a conscious element to the choices I make in that process, but for the first time another part of the process, one that had previously been happening subconsciously, came to the fore.

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

Not the sort of punch we were after. And please, not the face!

I realised that I was thinking about what each sentence did in the reading experience. Not just what information it conveyed, but what it represented as a function in the scene. What changes in this sentence? What emotional impact does it have?

Several sentences in a row can convey different descriptive information while all serving the same function, for example telling you that a character is tense. In a slow scene that’s fine, it adds vividness, but once the pace picks up you really just need to convey that tension and quickly move on.

I’ve never read my own work in quite such a functional way before, but something has clearly clicked in my brain. I expect it will make my writing and editing better, as well as giving me a new perspective as a reader.

* * *

Quick update on the e-book. It’s been delayed by a mixture of other deadlines and technical failure on my part. I wanted to get a mailing list set up before I publish, so that I can direct readers there from my books. But two days after switching domains to andrewknighton.com I discovered that I’d done that in the only way that didn’t let me embed a signup link. Curse my mildly inadequate research!

I then put off solving this for a while, because mailing lists and internet domains are slightly outside my comfort zone. And when I came back to it yesterday I realised that it wasn’t a big problem – I could have a signup page over on Mailchimp and a page here to direct to that.

So yes, I failed at the internet, but at least now I have a mailing list. And if you’d like to receive updates when I have a new story out, as well as occasional free stories and offers on the books I will soon start to release, then please go and sign up.

 

Image by bark via Flickr creative commons.

Yesterday I got feedback from everwalker on the draft of the novel I’m working on, Fire in the Blood. This is the first time I’ve had feedback from anyone on a draft of the whole story, and though I was nervous about what I’d read – a good critique should be at least a little uncomfortable to hear, as it reveals things you could do better – I was also quite keen to dive into it.

I stopped myself.

Why? Because this is only one perspective, and if I read that one perspective in isolation it may skew what I take from the others. There are five people reading this draft for me, and as far as it’s practical I want to read their comments at the same time, to get a balanced and varied point of view.

I know that this is going to be insightful and helpful feedback, because everwalker is an insightful and helpful person who really knows her writing. But I don’t want to take it in on its own.

So now those documents are sitting on my computer, like presents beneath the Christmas tree, and I have to wait to unwrap them. I’m pretty excited.

I'm not implying that everwalker's a stormtrooper, but she sure is handy with a blaster. I, on the other hand, am clearly a beautiful princess.

I’m not implying that everwalker’s a stormtrooper, but she sure is handy with a blaster.
I, on the other hand, am clearly a beautiful princess.

 

Meanwhile on to other things. I’m trying to polish off the biographies of British monarchs I’ve been working on for weeks, and a science fiction story whose first draft was a bit of a horrible rush – that’s one edit I’m not looking forward to.

How about the rest of you? What are you writing this week?

 

Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons.

Yesterday Dylan Hearn, a writer from my ancient homeland of East Anglia, mentioned me in a blog hop post. I’ve not participated in this sort of thing in the past, but I enjoy Dylan’s blog, and I know it would be good for me to interact with the rest of humanity more, so I thought I’d join in. As ‘joining in’ just means answering some questions about myself and about writing, my two favourite topics, this should be pretty easy and enjoyable.

If you’re interested in reading some well written articles, particularly about self-publishing and indie authorship, then go check out Dylan’s blog.

And in the meantime, here’s some more about me…

1. What am I currently working on?

Oh jeez, so many things.

I’m writing articles on British history for a freelance client. These articles – mostly biographies of British monarchs – will end up on a tablet app. ‘Monarchs’ includes the Cromwells, because lets face it, Oliver was effectively king. Ironically for the writer on such an app, I’m a republican.

On Monday I finished a custom-written murder mystery party. I’m planning on doing more of these, so am working out how best to sell that as a service. Putting my business head on is way less fun than putting on my writing head.

I just started the second novel in a fantasy series set in ancient Rome. The second draft of the first novel is currently with alpha readers for comments.

I’ve got an old comic script that needs fixing for submission, and a short story I’m just planning, as well as half a dozen short stories that need edits before I send them out again. I always have at least a dozen short stories out with magazine editors, and sometimes I edit them between rejections. Remember, the only way to get acceptances is to accumulate lots of rejections, to persist and to learn from them.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

For the Rome books, it’s the fact that I’m using ancient history as the basis of my fantasy, rather than the usual medieval mishmash. Plus some exploration of depression and identity, both of which interest me.

3. Why do I write what I write?

Fiction-wise, because it excites me and I think it will interest others. Isn’t that connection, sharing something exciting with people, what writing’s all about?

Freelance-wise, it’s a balancing act between how well something pays and how much it interests me. The more established I become, the more I’m able to pick jobs I’m passionate about, which isn’t great for my bank balance but is great for my enthusiasm and my sanity.

4. How does my writing process work?

I’m a big planner. I usually use Dan Wells’s seven point story structure when planning fiction, not because it’s necessarily better than other structures, but because I need a framework to hang my ideas off. I’ll usually work out who my characters are and what the setting and main conflicts are, with the conflicts personally tied to the characters, then use seven point structure to map out a story dealing with those conflicts. For longer pieces there might be several seven-point structures revolving through each other, and then similar structures within each chapter.

I mostly write in Scrivener because I enjoy the flexibility it provides, in an armchair in the living room, with my monitor projected onto the TV via Chromecast. The slight time-lag is a pest, but it still means that I’m comfortable and looking ahead instead of down.

I organise and motivate myself using HabitRPG. It’s a great motivational tool/game. I’m currently a level 14 warrior riding a zombie panda and carrying a pirate’s cutlass.

My nieces helped choose the outfit.

My nieces helped choose the outfit.

5. Nominate Tell everyone about three other writers

‘Nominate’ felt like an odd word to use here, as if being mentioned on my obscure little blog was some kind of award or honour. But here are some writer-blogger types whose blogs I enjoy, who I think you should read, and who might or might not want to join in with this whole blog-hopping thing:

Everwalker – She deconstructs the art of storytelling in smart, interesting ways, particularly in relation to mythology and fantasy. Also one of the nicest people I know in real life, and not just because I surround myself with the bitter and cynical.

Petros Jordan – While Petros does write, his blog is mostly about interesting and historical maps. I’d be fascinated to know more about his writing if he does following along with the blog hop, and almost anyone will find his blog fascinating. Seriously, old maps are so cool!

The War of Memory Project – H. Anthe Davis’s blog has interesting posts about genre tropes and his fantasy writing. (I keep assuming that H. is a ‘he’ because of the avatar, but that’s off a book cover, so H. – sorry if I’m getting your gender wrong!)

Doorway Between Worlds – I don’t know if Sue Archer actually writes stories, but I do know that she writes fun articles about what science fiction and fantasy can teach us about communication. So she gets to be fourth on my list of three.

 

Well, that saved me having to come up with a blog topic for today. Thanks Dylan!

Tomorrow, something else entirely.

Sometimes we do best by listening to the wisdom of others. So today I’m going to take a back seat and share some wisdom from everwalker, who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the power of myth and story archetypes. Take it away…

 

myth chart

How many stories can you think of? One hundred? Five hundred? A thousand? In 2013 1,444 films were released worldwide, and approximately 2.2 million books published (not counting self-publishing, which accounted for 391,000 in the US alone. That’s a lot of stories, right?

According to Christian Booker, there’s only seven. In his book The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories, he says:

“Wherever men and women have told stories, all over the world, the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways… There are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any story-teller ever entirely to break away from them.”

Booker is far from the first person to posit this theory. Dr Samuel Johnson and Goethe were both before him, but we don’t have any surviving texts of theirs that go into detail.

Booker’s list of basic plots, then, is as follows:

  1. Overcoming the monster: the hero sets out to destroy a great evil threatening the land.
    Examples: Perseus, Beowulf, Dracula, Harry Potter
  2. Rags to riches: the hero defies oppressive forces and blossoms into a mature figure who wins riches and the perfect mate.
    Examples: Joseph, Cinderella, Pygmalion, Superman
  3. The quest: the hero sets out to find something, usually with companions.
    Examples: The Aeneid, Pilgrim’s Progress, Treasure Island, Lord of the Rings
  4. Voyage and return: the hero sets off into a distant land with strange rules, survives the madness, and returns home more mature than when he set out.
    Examples: Orpheus, Goldilocks, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Chronicles of Narnia
  5. Comedy: the protagonists are destined to be together but dark forces intervene. The story conspires to make those forces relent and everyone is seen for who they really are.
    Examples: The Wasps, Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Four Weddings and a Funeral
  6. Tragedy: the protagonist spirals slowly down into darkness and is finally defeated.
    Examples: Medusa, Faust, Dorian Grey, Lolita
  7. Rebirth: as with tragedy, but the protagonist realises his error and changes his ways.
    Examples: Orestes, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, Star Wars

For me, this leaves two questions: why do we feel compelled to use the same building blocks over and over and over again, despite the changes in social structure and cultural norms? And is it something to be embraced or fought against?

seven-basic

The first question is pretty fundamental to the idea of storytelling in general. Why do we tell them at all? As a means of communication, sure, but what are we communicating? Well, generally it’s about how to live well. Stories tell us where we came from, where we are now, and how to make the best future possible. They give us social guidelines and behavioural models. Those that don’t play by the rules of the story – the villains and tragic figures – get cast out as being detrimental to the community. The details have changed to accommodate different times and cultures, but the necessity for a working communal structure remains. Thus the stories endure. There is more nuance to it, of course. Shared stories bring us together as individuals, and provide an accessible template for self-identity.

And there’s the problem. We have individual identities with egos and selfish impulses that can easily become damaging to the wider community. Stories are a tool to remind us of the ‘right’ way to behave in order to achieve the sense of belonging that we also, conflictingly, crave. They not only show us how to build a community, they also soothe that part of us which doesn’t want to.

So, should we be railing against the uniformity of our stories? Trying desperately to find an eight original plot? To be honest, I’m not sure we should. Yes, it would be nice to come up with something completely and brilliantly new but sticking to the building blocks hasn’t done people like C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling any harm. In many ways it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, at a subconscious level, we have an expectation that stories will follow certain patterns then any that don’t run a serious risk of being unsatisfying. Besides, the fundamental need for a community that works, and a sense of belonging, is probably stronger now than ever. In this over-communicating society, connecting with people outside of cyberspace is a major challenge. Those building blocks might be a bit warn but we aren’t done with them yet.