Posts Tagged ‘Mary Robinette Kowal’

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.

In the best news ever for people learning to write science fiction and fantasy, the Writing Excuses podcast have decided that this year they’re going to run the show as a writing course.

Regular readers of this blog, along with anyone I’ve talked writing with for more than five minutes, will know that I’m a huge fan of Writing Excuses. It’s a brilliant show in which professional genre writers Mary Robinette Kowal*, Brandon Sanderson**, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells*** dish out weekly writing advice. This week they started season ten of the show, which will be a carefully structured year long course with themed lessons, writing exercises and Q&A at the end of each topic. If you’re not already listening to the show, and you want to hear some high quality writing advice, this is a great place to start.

Go forth, my happy writing minions, and listen to the wisdom. And if you do, then let me know – maybe we can share our work on the exercises.

 

* See my previous posts on her Glamourist Histories.

** Yes, the Wheel of Time guy.

*** I use his seven point story structure for everything.

Sometimes picking the protagonist for a story is easy. Your whole idea is built around a particular character, so you just go ahead and write them. Sometimes though it’s harder. You have an idea you want to explore, or a world, or you have part of what you want the character to be like, but not the whole package. So how do you pick the person at the centre of your story?

Mary Robinette Kowal offered some great guidance on this in an episode of Writing Excuses, my favourite source of writing guidance. She said that she thinks about the setting she’s created and who can be most hurt by the things that are different about it, then uses that as the starting point for the protagonist. It means that there’s instantly something at stake for the character and a sense of conflict inherent to the situation, ready to drive a story.

I was thinking about this as I read Glamour in Glass, the second book in Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series. You might think that in a magical Regency era there are more vulnerable characters than an upper class lady like Jane, the protagonist. But the setting isn’t just Regency England – it’s the upper class society of Regency England, and specifically the world of people using glamour magic within that. Once you view that as the setting, she’s the perfect choice. Her family’s well being and standing in their community is very dependent on who Jane and her sister marry, and Jane’s character and attachments put her at a marital disadvantage in the first book, Shades of Milk & Honey. Being a woman in an incredibly patriarchal society makes her vulnerable to the decisions and manipulations of others. And the exhausting price of using glamour sometimes puts her health at risk.

In the second book there’s even more at stake. Jane is a foreigner in a country in turmoil, someone seen as an enemy by the army threatening to descend on Belgium. Her husband is entangled in local events in ways she doesn’t know about, and not being trusted with information for essentially sexist reasons puts her at risk. The nature of glamour means that pregnant women cannot use this magic without risking the unborn child, meaning that she is heading towards a choice between losing the craft that gives her happiness and losing the chance to have a family. From this beginning the stakes are raised in a way that builds around Jane’s character, and eventually forces heartbreaking choices on her.

Like any advice, this way of picking a protagonist isn’t an absolute. When I wrote ‘Sunflowers in the Snow‘, last Friday’s story on this blog, I didn’t pick the people most hurt by the events I was portraying – the cloned Neanderthal community being excluded from human society. This was partly because I didn’t feel I had time within a very short story to build up their unique perspective. But it was also because a story needs a character who can have a transformative arc, and the Neanderthals were already in the place emotionally where I wanted the story to end. So I took someone who appears to be in a position of privilege, but whose values, power and principles are about to be put into conflict, and used him. It was someone who was being badly hurt by the situation, but not the most hurt.

And there are cases where I ignore this entirely. Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms, the adventurer heroes of my Epiphany Club stories, definitely don’t start out from a place of peril. Similarly the stars of this coming Friday’s flash story were chosen out of necessity for that plot, not an approach I’d take for a longer work. As Terry Pratchett wrote, rules are there so that we think before we break them.

Have a think about your favourite protagonists. Are they inherently vulnerable or at odds with the world they live in? How so? And if you’re a writer, how do you pick your central characters? Share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’d like to see some other examples of how I put this into practice, please consider buying one of my ebook anthologies.

It’s the weekend and I’m home alone, so as soon as I catch up on work I’ll be getting down to some reading. And in case you’re also looking for something to read, here are a few recommendations of things I’m enjoying:

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

After spending half this week talking about the first of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories books, of course I’ve started on the second. Straight away it’s setting a different tone, with the protagonist having moved from a provincial Jane Austen style story to the Prince Regent’s court, and with talk of Napoleon and hints at adventure on the continent. While I was a little disappointed by the change in tone near the end of the first book, simply because it felt out of place, a whole book with that tone is something I’m looking forward to, and I love the portrayal of magic in the glamourist world.

Plus I’m a sucker for books that combine fantasy with issues of art and power.

Ultimate Comics Spider-man Volume 5 by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez

I’m not one of these guys who’ll read anything with Spider-man in it, but Bendis writes a fantastic Spidey. I like the way he shook up the Ultimate version of the character by replacing Peter Parker with Miles Morales. Miles is a very likeable character, and Bendis’s always smart dialogue is particularly great for these characters. This volume is a take on the classic story of a superhero trying to leave that life behind, only to get drawn back into heroism. It’s particularly poignant to see a teenager face the dilemma of how to handle that. I wasn’t familiar with Marquez before this book, but his art is clear and dynamic and well suited to Ultimate Spider-man. This is tonight’s light reading, but it’ll still have depth, and that’s why I love it.

The Rebel by Albert Camus

I’m not exactly going to rush through this one. Unless you’re looking for some heavy politically-oriented philosophy then it’s not for you, and I’m re-reading it just a few pages at a time as an aid to self-reflection. But for all their image as cigarette-smoking posers, and for all the potential bleakness of their insistence on discarding old sources of meaning, I find the French existentialists uplifting. Whether right or wrong, the idea that the only true value is the one we create seems particularly important when considering art, which as a writer I do on a daily basis. And in an era when we’re bombarded with meaningless choices, Camus reminds us that people have had to fight for that freedom, and that choice can be meaningful.

It helps that the guy looks so cool on the cover. Once again proving that the existentialists were posers as well as thinkers.

And if you’re looking for something else…

I won’t be reading my own books – I know how they all end – but if you’re looking for short stories then please check them out. There’s science fiction, fantasy, steampunk and even alternate history. You can read all about them here.

What are you lot reading this weekend? Any recommendations you’d like to share?

The ending is one of the most important parts of any story. Sure, the beginning is what hooks readers, but the ending is what shapes their thoughts and feelings after they finish your work, and so colours their memories of the rest. It determines whether a story is satisfying through the payoff it provides, and makes a huge difference to whether readers, viewers and listeners come back for more.

The ending was the closest to a bum note for me in reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. Without spoiling it, I think it’s safe to say that all the pieces are put in place properly, and in that sense the ending is earned. But there’s a huge shift of tone for the climactic sequence that’s at odds with the rest of the book. It’s like the author changed genres slightly to get the results, rather than sticking with the Austen-style social drama that had dominated to that point, and that disappointed me. I like genre mash-ups, but I also like endings that fit the books, and this one didn’t quite. It wasn’t so awful I won’t read more, in fact I enjoyed the book so much I’m already reading the sequel, but still, it was a shame.

I’m also aware that the ending of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother really divided people. I thought it was great, fitted the story and said some things about love and life that I don’t expect from a mainstream sitcom. Others thought it took an easy option. If you don’t mind the spoilers, this video from the excellent PBS Idea Channel looks at it in more depth:

 

My current freelance ghost writing is also raising some questions for me about endings. I’m working on a series of books, and the plot I’ve been given involves each book setting up questions for the next. But there’s a delicate balance to be struck between making readers want more and leaving them feeling like they got closure. How I pace the final story beats of each book is shaped a lot by that.

Which stories do you think got the endings right, and why? Which got them wrong? Share your thoughts below, help me refine my own thinking.

And as ever, if you’d like to read more from me, you can find out about my ebooks here, including some of the glowing things people have said about them in reviews.

We start today’s sermon with a reading from the Book of Kowal, volume 1, page 71, where we join two characters mid-conversation:

‘…Would you enjoy a play where you saw the mechanicals exposed? For me, it is much the same. I want the illusion to remain whole. If someone thinks about how it is done, then I have failed in my art.’

At last Jane understood his complaint and how she had transgressed at the ball and then again here, but her own principles were different. ‘I have always thought that an educated audience could more fully appreciate the effort which went into creating a piece of art.’

‘The effort, yes, but I want to transport the audience to another place; I do not want them to think of effort or technique.’

Jane was silent. She did not agree with him, but knowing now his feelings on the matter, she resolved to avoid offending him in the future. ‘I can enjoy both, Mr Vincent. I assure you, your art is affecting…’

Shades of Milk & Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I read that conversation I almost leapt out of my chair in delight. It’s an echo of a conversation that Laura and I have had a number of times, though we weren’t weaving strands of glamour at the time, and we very seldom attend Regency era balls, on account of being born 200 years too late.

I enjoy picking apart the arts, examining and understanding how an effect is achieved. Whether it’s a book, a film, a painting, a computer game, whatever the medium, looking at how it ticks adds to my enjoyment. It creates extra layers of pleasure to understand how it is affecting me, how the creators achieved their goals.

Laura, like Mr Vincent, prefers the illusion to be maintained. Her most common complaint about proof-reading for me, apart from misused commas, is that it has made her more critical in her reading. Thanks to critiquing me she can now see some of the tricks other authors are using, as well as the weaknesses in their work, and that detracts from her engagement in their stories. Her eyes glaze over when I get excited about camera angles, story arcs or panel layouts. It’s just not her thing.

I loved seeing these contrasting views of art explored in Shades of Milk & Honey, and the way that it became a driver for character conflict. It was a great moment of seeing my own relationship there on the page. Though I am somewhat less sensible than Jane, and Laura is far less brooding than Mr Vincent.

Intriguingly, the other work I mentioned in my previous ramblings about this book also explores perspectives on art. Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram shows the power of music as channelled by listeners and fans, whereas their more recent The Wicked + The Divine puts the power in the hands of the musicians. It’s a different angle, but a related one, in which they’ve shifted focus from the transported audience to the artists putting the pieces into place. The more I think about it, the more common strands I’m finding in these two very different stories, and in the novel ways they use fantasy to cast light on the real world.

How do you prefer to experience art? Do you like to know how it works, or prefer to leaves the mechanicals unexposed? And have you read any other stories that raise this question?

 

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Having got Lies We Will Tell Ourselves out there into the world I’m knuckling back down to concentrate on my freelance ghost writing. The other day I had to check whether a sword really can cut through someone’s arm during a fight. It turns out that the answer is yes, and that the internet is full of videos of people cutting up bones. Make of that what you will.

Science fiction writer W Lawrence, who I interviewed a while back, is running a giveaway in which you could win a free copy of his book Syncing Forward. I can’t get the embedded like to work in the preview of this post, but hopefully after this paragraph you will see a clickable link by which you can go and enter the draw. Because I’m all about the free sci-fi while I ramble about fantasy this week! Giveaway below:

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a fantasy novel must feature an action sequence. Except that, as Austen readers will know, a universally acknowledged truth has about as much value as Mr Wickham’s honour, which is to say even less than his pocket-book after a night out in Bath. (For anyone who’s somehow missed out on Pride and Prejudice in its many incarnations, Wickham’s a cad and a bounder, and you can probably work out the rest. Guess I should have said spoilers, but I think 200 years is about the point at which I don’t need to say that, right?)

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good action sequence. I grew up watching westerns and war films. I can recite the action sequences from Star Wars almost as well as the lines from the script. When I was nine I drew a whole series of illustrations showing the Battle of the Five Armies from The Hobbit, and I believe that by restricting myself to a red felt tip pen I truly evoked the bloodthirsty horrors of war. Or was too lazy to go find another colour – these things happen.

But much as I love a bit of action and excitement, I want other things from culture as well. I want The Great Gatsby and Lost in Translation. I want Miles Davis as well as Metallica. And this principle applies to my fantasy and science fiction.

The modern fantasy genre has emerged out of a tradition of mythological adventure and pulp story telling, and those both brought with them a lot of sword swinging and chasing around the place. But that’s the thing about emerging from a tradition – you get to do something more. That’s part of what I’m really enjoying about reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk & Honey. It takes magic and uses it to tell a story about love, art and social conventions, not about full-blooded adventures full of daring do.

Unless something changes in the last hundred pages. At time of writing I haven’t finished the book yet, and maybe there’s a surprise car chase featuring a Jason Statham-style character before the end. But I doubt it.

Some people might say ‘no action? that doesn’t sound very exciting.’ To which I say ‘action all the time? sounds dull too.’ I crave variety, and having a fantasy story that uses magic to explore art and 19th century social conventions adds variety, adds excitement, adds wonder.

Some fantasy claims to break with tradition because it doesn’t have orcs and elves, or because the hero’s not very nice, or because it’s got gunpowder. And every story to some extent uses and to some extent breaks from tradition. But Shades of Milk & Honey is a far greater and more interesting break from the fantasy tradition than almost anything I’ve read, because it doesn’t just change the details, it changes the fundamentals of what drives a fantasy plot and how conflict is enacted in it.

I’m not saying I want all fantasy to be like this. I like my orcs and thinly disguised orc substitutes. I like seeing Sean Bean die over and over again. But please, let there be more fantasy out there like Shades of Milk & Honey, as well as more that’s nothing like it but nothing like Tolkien either. Let there be real variety. Let there be fantasy slacker stories, and fantasy medical dramas, and fantasies in which cops and criminals embody the social problems facing modern society. Because we all want to see a fantasy version of The Wire right? What, no? You think that’s a terrible idea? Damn, there goes my pitch letter to HBO.

So, after all of this you probably think that I’m going to recommend that you read Shades of Milk & Honey, right?

Wrong. By now you know enough to decide that for yourself. And if you’ve read this far, odds are you’re already on board for this beautiful magical take on Jane Austen’s world. So instead I’m going to throw another recommendation your way. Read Phonogram Volume 2: The Singles Club, a comic by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. It’s another great example of fantasy used to explore a different facet of life. Like Shade of Milk & Honey it’s something you should love, and even if you don’t then it’ll add some variety to your life.

But read Shades of Milk & Honey too. Because I lied about not recommending it. And that Jason Statham car chase chapter is awesome.

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Postscript, Monday morning:

I finished reading Shades of Milk & Honey last night. There actually is an action sequence of sorts near the end, and by the time it arrives any halfway smart reader will be expecting it. It doesn’t detract from my general point – in fact it’s so at odds with the tone of what enchanted me about this book that I may write another post about it – but I thought I should mention that it’s there.

No Jason Statham though. Not unless they make some strange casting choices when this become a movie.

 

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I wrote this post in the middle of Saturday night. I couldn’t sleep. That may explain a lot. Expect more about this book later in the week, because I’m all enthused.

If you want to see how I write both full-blooded action adventure and fantasy that’s about art and whimsy, then please check out By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories.