Struggling to not-edit

There’s been a lot of times recently where I’ve been sick to death of editing Vengeance Will Come. I thought that it would never finish…

And now, I just want to edit The Rebel Queen. I don’t want to read it or only look for certain aspects (which I wrote about only yesterday). I just want to edit. I just want to write.

As I write, I’m starting to build up a collection of laminated notes that I’m going to stick to my writing desk. Some of this is all-writing information (like grammar rules) and also can be story-specific prompts (character voice).

The latest addition to my notes is from Robin Hobb (Writing Excuses, Season 11, bonus episode 1). It isn’t anything new, but it’s good to remember and she says it very well:

“So, when I sit down with my character and I begin typing and the character is speaking in first-person to me, things are unravelling and the world is being built entirely from that person’s point of view. … I’m experiencing it completely from that point of view.”

“If you’re writing from the first person if you are an assassin who walks into a room and there’s three people there what he notices is going to be very different from the child character who runs in the room and is totally fixed on finding the toy they left there earlier, and the three people standing around talking don’t matter at all.

In everything you do, you put on that character like you put on a coat. And you wear it, and everything is from that characters point of view and their value system. If you’re writing a villain, and you put on that coat, no matter how you feel about it personally, you’d better share all of her opinions and justifications, and everything she feels about it. If she is paranoid or outraged… from the time you put on her coat you have to be 100% on her side.”

 

 

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Crystin Goodwin’s Clever World-Building

Side note: I had planned to complete this post much earlier but a pretty intense storm (by our standards) put the entire State into a 2-day rolling blackout. Fortunately we only lost power in 1/2 day periods, but its a strange thing being in a house at night when the only light is coming from the screen and a back-lit keyboard. Very post-apocalyptic. Thankfully the water stayed on or that’s when things really starting getting bad.


I was reflecting on Crystin Goodwin‘s UnBlessed this morning and I realized how clever an element of world-building was. (I walk a fine line in not giving out spoilers).

As I briefly mentioned earlier the plot involves a group of people who have powers either to manipulate the elements (water, air…) or shape-shift into their “own” animal. The storyline goes that the people schism through war into two societies: the Melior and the Transeatur.

The Transeatur are the shape-shifters. They understand that the powers are derived from genetics.

The Melior believe that the powers are a sign of blessing from the Elemental deities. The more power an individual has the more blessed and acclaimed they are. At the top end of society’s power-scale are the Favored who live like Kings/Queens and at the bottom are the Unblessed, those without powers. Theirs is a harsh existence of trying to work-off immense shame through a life of dedication in the Temple.

World-building only works if it is not contradictory. Each concept of the world needs to fit together like a puzzle piece or it becomes like a table with a different length leg. Or to put it another way, each aspect of world-building should exert some level of influence on the other aspects. World-building should be like a spice which mixes through a dish not a poorly-mixed clod of flour that dares you (unsuccessfully) to eat it. That’s enough metaphors for the entire post.

In the social construct that the Melior use of scaled blessing, from Unblessed to Favored, the society maintains the status quo. A Favored is more likely to mate with a Favored and the Unblessed are forbidden to have children. By doing so the society continues on- even under the misconception of divine “blessings”. The social constructs protect them from genetic dilution (Unblessed reproduction or intermingling with Favored).

If this were not the case, Meliorian society would fail. By instituting these social norms, Crystin protects the integrity of the Melior people and her world-building. A clever piece of work.

Sentence Length

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know. 

When I’m reading with a critical eye the only thing I’ve been looking for in sentence structure is crazy-long sentences. That’s all I knew to look for, until now. 

Five Word Sentence Quote by Gary Provost
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

The Eye of the World Review (2)

This is post number two where I critically examine Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World to analyse how Robert Jordan created the novel. (See post one).

Firstly, some important caveats:

  1. Robert Jordan was a professional, backed by a team of skillful professionals at Tor. I am an amateur; and all thoughts and opinions should be weighted accordingly.
  2. Our writing styles are different; that doesn’t mean one is better than the other – just different (see point 1).
  3. Our genres are different. Robert Jordan is very much EPIC fantasy (travelogue, heavy on description), whereas I’ve discovered my writing in comparison is more adventure fantasy, if that tag can be applied loosely. My writing has more pace and less depth.
  4. The Eye of the World was first published in 1990. That’s 26 years ago and standards and styles change over time. (e.g. Lord of the Rings beginning)
  5. This will contain vast amounts of spoilers; be warned.
  6. It is my opinion; feel free to agree or disagree. (I’m interested in hear how your opinion might differ).
  7. I’m not sure at what age group this book was initially targeted. By the age of the protagonists, I suspect perhaps Young Adult. I do not squeeze into that demographic by any means of contortion.
  8. I’ve read (most of) this series before (2-3 times). That means my perspective is polluted: I know what is going to happen, which is both good and bad. I will see things a first-time-through reader might miss, but I also can’t evaluate how much of a surprise or plot twist things are because I know they are coming.

Now, down to business; a review of Chapter 1.

Why the Prologue?

At the end of the first post I wrote that in this case a prologue was necessary. To explain why, I’m going to use a scientific method as rigorous as any North Korean election. Reading through the Prologue and Chapter 1, I’m going to assign an Interest-O-Meter score for each screen-full* of novel. The score will range from 0 to 10, with 10 being I must reread the entire book immediately; or something like that.(* Reading as an e-book, the page numbers will be screwy).

WOT-Interest1

As you can see, the first few pages of chapter 1 kept me interested, but then my interest dipped like a slalom-run. The prologue gave me a few vital pages of interest, which meant I had more goodwill built up to forgive the dip. If I’d had only 2 pages of interest, I might have decided the book wasn’t for me before the end of chapter 1.

Chapter 1: The Hook

Chapter 1 managed to build tension quite quickly. On the third paragraph it mentions that the protagonist (Rand al’Thor) is carrying a bow, arrow nocked and ready to draw. Carrying the bow is also causing him some difficulty, so this suggests that the bow is necessary. A weapon being necessary suggests action could be just around the corner. We see the danger in several ways: Rand and his father Tam are carrying weapons at the ready, each consciously watching a side of the road. Rand’s actions also match his thoughts.

The sense of menace is amplified by the description of the environment. It is supposed to be spring, but remains winter where bears and wolves attack men during the day. There is a definite feeling that something sinister is pervading nature. The mystery peaks when Rand sees a strange and evasive horseman staring at him and knows that the horsemen wants to harm him.

Note how we are quickly told from whose viewpoint we are looking at the world.

Characters

In chapter 1 we learn about the characters:

Rand al’Thor

“You have head on your shoulders when you choose to use it,” Bran said. He’ll follow you on the Village Council one day, Tam. Mark my words.”

  • Physical: Young, but well-built (matching Tam’s breadth of shoulder), grey eyes and reddish hair.
  • Relationships:
    • Doesn’t remember much about his mother (deceased).
    • A budding romance with Egwene al’Vere, the Mayor’s daughter. She makes him feel jittery.
    • From the way that Tam and Rand relate to one another (and Rand’s inner monologue) we know that the father and son have a close relationship.
  • Responsible and maturing – doesn’t shirk his chores, and is outgrowing pranks.

You can already see plot-possibilities forming. There is an emotional angle, with Rand not knowing his mother. There is a budding romance and Rand is not a debonair man, but a confused and inexperienced youth. There is much room for character development (and a love story).

Tam al’Thor (Rand’s father)

“He stumped down the road now impassively. Wolves and bears were all very well, his manner said, things that any man who kept sheep must be aware of, but they had best not try to stop Tam al’Thor getting to Emond’s Field.”

  • Physical: Strong (“thick chest”), older.
  • Character: Brave, trustworthy/responsible (would keep his word, even though there is danger in it),
  • There is some mystery around Tam. He has some unusual teachings and (somewhat inexplicably) is the best archer in the village.
  • Favoured by the single ladies, but remains a widower.

Mat(rim) Cauthon (Rand’s friend)

“Mat was something of a byword around the village. Few people had escaped his pranks. Now his name came up whenever a washline dropped the laundry in the first or a loose saddle girth deposited a farmer in the road. Mat did not even have to be anywhere around. His support might be worse than none.”

  • Physical: Wiry body, brown eyes
  • Cheeky, trouble-maker.

On Genders

Out of a brief moment or three of procrastination (or as I prefer to call it research), I had a look at what others wrote about the Eye of the World. It only served to confirm how subjective writing is. There were passionate views expressed from every end of the spectrum of love to hate.

One reviewer savaged Jordan saying that all of his women were the same temperament. While I can see where this reviewer was coming from it wasn’t something that I noticed while reading. In contrast, one point of admiration I have for Jordan’s world-building is how he has both men and women in positions of power.

In fact, the whole foundation of the magic system is that men and women together are stronger than apart. This cosmic-level balance is foundational to the world, exemplified down to the lowest level in the village of Two Rivers. Both men and women have their place (and both think they control the other). The Mayor is male and is surrounded by the male-only Village Council. The local mystic (Wisdom) is female. I’m not sure exactly, but I think she is on the Women’s Circle (female-only). Jordan, treats both genders with equal value and importance.


Side note: At some point during my novel Vengeance Will Come I noticed that it was largely devoid of females. There was the leading lady, the wife of a secondary character, one hench-woman and a Queen. Literally four females. Two of those I would characterize as strong, and two who faded into the background. The story was already set and I couldn’t fathom changing a main character at this point so I flipped the genders of some of the minor characters. Though not balanced perfectly, now there are women doing heroic or plot-pushing parts.

Perhaps as the pendulum swings, the follow-up parallel novella The Rebel Queen has two leading females and the males take more supporting roles. In fact, the entire society written about in The Rebel Queen is a matriarchal society where the value of females, especially Mothers, is superior to the males.


Character Naming

Having strange character names is a hallmark of fantasy novels, no doubt designed to subtly remind the reader they are in a construction or another world. As you might know ‘Wendy’ was a name invented for the Peter Pan story.

Decades ago I had read through several of the Wheel of Time books and was discussing them with a friend when I discovered I was pronouncing the character’s names wrong. What my brain had read wasn’t as it was written on the page. I had read Nynavene instead of Nynaeve and Ewgene instead of Egwene. When reading now, if I come across a name that is too difficult, it actually turns me off the story. My rule of thumb is that names should be:

  1. Easily pronounceable
  2. Sufficiently different to other characters to avoid confusion. (Sauron and Saruman anyone?)
  3. The more a character is mentioned, the more important this is.
  4. Bonus points if the name infers the nature of the person.

Jordan does have a cast of multiple dozens in the Wheel of Time series. There are a lot of characters who get their own viewpoint. If one can differentiate between the characters note that all of the really main characters have easy names: Rand, Mat, Perrin.

One thing I noticed was that many of the names resembled one another (e.g. al’Meara, al’Thor, al’Vere), as you would expect in a closed community.

There are several main characters mentioned, but not yet met are Perrin Aybara, Nynaeve al’Meara and Egwene al’Vere. And a host of minor characters (some who I think are never mentioned again): Cenn Buie, Wit Congar, Daise Congar, Bran al’Vere (Mayor), Brandelwyn al’Vere, Dav Cauthon, Elam Dowtry.

Plot

After the encounter with the scary horseman we must endure un-related talk about how Tam is an eligible bachelor, the preparations for the Village celebrations and how an old grumpy man don’t like the Village Wisdom.

Then the plot starts to crystalise as Rand and Mat both have seen the horseman.

Rand took a deep breath. As much to remind himself as for any other reason, he said by rote, “The Dark One and all the Forsaken are bound in Shayol Ghul, beyond the Great Blight, bound by the Creator at the moment of Creation, bound until the end of time. The hand of the Creator shelters the world, and the Light shines on us all.”

…and then the action de-rails and the reader must grind through more non-plot-pushing talk of what the Village celebrations might hold.

I did write some notes about the inane trivia that Jordan adds, but I’ve decided to spare you from it.

Delving into Culture

This is an (updated) post I wrote on an earlier blog regarding the story of Betty Mahmoody told in Not without my Daughter.

Story Recap

Betty is an American woman who marries an Iranian-American. The courtship and the first few years of marriage were wonderful. Her husband ‘Moody’ is a successful doctor. Together they have what most would consider a successful life. After several years of marriage around the Iraq/Iran war, Moody falls into depression (no pun intended). Moody is increasingly critical of the US, and his old life and loyalties are a powder keg between his new life and wife in America. The relationship becomes strained.

Moody decides the family should have a 2 week holiday in Iran. Betty fears that if she goes she will be trapped in Iran if her husband refuses to let her leave (in accordance with Iranian law). If she doesn’t go, she fears she will never see her daughter again.

She goes, and as expected he admits that none of them will ever leave Iran. She is beaten repeatedly and locked in a room as her husband tries to break her will and turn her into a submissive Iranian wife. To her horror, she is in a foreign country hostile to women, hostile to Americans. Her captor is empowered through law, culture and religion. She escapes to the Swiss embassy, only to find that under Iranian law she is Iranian. and the embassy can’t help. Thus begins her journey to escape Iran before she is beaten into submission, killed or her young daughter becomes indoctrinated into Iranian culture.

While the writing style is satisfactory, the true story is engaging. It is a good read.

Cultural Differences

However, as a writer it was even more interesting. Growing up in the West without much exposure to other cultures, it was a good insight (albeit vicariously) into another culture. Not being particularly well-traveled, I naturally assume that some things are universal, but that is not the case.

Here were a few of the culturally interesting things:

  • The concept of taraf which is basically a polite offer of something, but with no intention of delivering. For example, as an avid reader of my blog I would be pleased to offer you a place to stay if you ever come to my country. Sorry, but that’s an insincere offer. Using taraf you can offer something, and the receiver will accept it politely, but know that they are not do actually expect it.
  • General cleanliness and hygiene. Bathing irregularly, not caring about spilling food all over the floor or having cockroaches scurrying around the floor. Insects in the rice? No worry, don’t bother trying to sift them out, just cook the lot!
  • A male relative in the house automatically becomes ‘the boss’ if the husband is not around.
  • Under Iranian law the wife and the children belong to the husband. If the husband dies, the children belong to a relative. They never belong to the mother.
  • A wife and children must absolutely obey her husband. If a promise is given to a man it will not be broken.
  • An alternative idea of modesty. In public a woman must completely cover up and be displaying no face or hair. The most devout women only show one eye. However breast-feeding can be in public without covering the breast. Betty also recounts seeing a live birth of national TV – showing all of the woman’s ‘bits’ except for her head and arms!
  • Making do. Cramming 10+ people into a car we would only seat 5.
  • Religious police who enforce the miniscule or nit-pick.

To describe, or not to describe?

After my last post about knowing your scene, reader Shari contacted noting the trap of over-describing scenes. She said:

[As a reader] I need to see the pieces of the environment that are critical to the story but the rest of it, my own brain ‘paints’ for me.

I couldn’t agree more! Less is indeed more. If I have given the impression otherwise then it is because I was unclear. Hence I will clarify and expand upon my position. In my post I wrote:

“…prompters that would help in constructing a location … in the writer’s … senses.”

The intention of my post was all about the author knowing the scene, so that they could describe it to the reader, not that they necessarily would. At the end of the post I flagged that briefly:

“Note that you wouldn’t put all of these into the final text, or even answer them all. … it is important for an author to know what a location looks like.”

So just to restate: I don’t believe every scene should be described to the reader. I tend to describe very little (sometimes, too little). There’s a balance between allowing the reader to ‘paint’ the scene themselves (paint by numbers), and giving them an entirely blank canvas.

HOWEVER, to thine own writing style be true. If there is anything I’ve learned in the last months it is that the judging of writing quality is a subjective matter. Beauty is in the eye of beholder, and the difference between style, quality and quagmire is the perception of the reader. Personally if I’m reading something too descriptive I skip sentences; others love a detailed description. When writing you won’t be able to please everyone.

How this works in practice (for me)

For a new location I’ll write a description in my notes; it could be a sentence or a few paragraphs. This is purely to orient me. (Bare in mind that the time of day or season will alter how the location looks).

When I’m writing the text of the story I might transfer a single adjective or a few sentences from my notes into the story text, but the vast bulk of it will never see ‘print’. In my notes I’ll mark that text in a different colour to show that it is now fact in my story world (and should not be contradicted).

How descriptive to be

I use the following factors to determine how much description I should add:

  • Is this the first time in this location? If I am going to describe a location it will be the first time I use it. Unless the location changes substantially I won’t describe it again.
  • How frequently used is this location? The more frequently a location features the more likely I will describe it.
  • Is the location interesting or something readers would be unfamiliar with? It’s more important to describe the Magical Hallows than an ordinary bedroom.
  • Does anything important happen here? If there’s going to be throw-down brawl in the room, describing the general layout is important.
  • Would description derail the plot tension? If the description pulls the reader from immersion of the plot, then don’t describe it.
  • Would the character notice it? Some characters will be more observant, more detail-oriented. One of my hibernating projects Deadly Addictions is crime genre – the detective should notice in detail items around a room; to not do so would be out-of-character and implausible.

Thanks Shari for the feedback, discussion and the expansion that your comments have had in this post.

Getting Comfortable Indoors

In Editing Lessons #3b I admitted that one of the areas I had to improve on was being more descriptive in scenes. I seldom described a scene – because I didn’t know myself what the scene looked like; no surprise I I couldn’t describe it to my reader. I was too caught up in the plot moving forward that I forgot the where is also valuable in creating a rich story.

So for today’s blog I spent 20 minutes coming up with prompters that would help in constructing a scene (or location) in the writer’s eye.Or more precisely, in all of the writer’s senses. (In this post I am restricting myself to describing an indoor environment, hence the title of the blog). Walking into a room, what can you perceive…

What do you see? (Visual)

  1. Does the room have windows? How big and what type of glass, frosted or transparent? Tinted? Double-glazed?
  2. What time of day is it?
  3. What can you see out of the windows?
  4. What are the light sources in the room? Are they harsh or soft? Revealing or hiding anything in particular?
  5. Are there shadows? Do the shadows conceal anything?
  6. What types of furnishings are in the room? Is the room cluttered or spartan?
  7. What does the rooms appearance and use say about its purpose?
  8. Are the items new or used? What do the furnishing choices and condition tell us about the owner? What other items are in the room? Expensive tastes?
  9. Is it messy or clean? Is there dust? Water damage? Dirt? Are things well-maintained, or tacked together with sticky tape and a prayer?
  10. Are some furnishings or items in contrast to the rest of the room?
  11. Is the room aesthetically pleasing? What are the walls made of? Colour? Covering? What are the furnishings made of? Floor coverings? Fittings?

What do you smell?

  1. Is it antiseptically clean? Lived in? Musty? Moldy? Fresh? Fragrant?
  2. Does the smell tell us about who is/has been in the room (perfume, cologne. body odor)?
  3. Does it tell us about the rooms’ occupants behaviours or habits (cigars, grease, cats)?
  4. Do the belongings in the room smell new?
  5. Does the smell tell us how long it has been since someone was in the room? Strong hint of perfume or stench of spoiled food?
  6. Does the smell tell us what has been happening in the room: cordite, glue, blood?
  7. Does the smell of the room make the character feel hungry or sick?

What do you hear? (Sound)

  1. Do sounds permeate from surrounding rooms / outside?
  2. What kinds of sounds? Constant, intermittent or occasional noises? e.g. yelling, the methodical banging of a blacksmith, birds chirping, waves crashing.
  3. Does the room absorb sound or cause it to echo.
  4. What is making noise inside the room? The steady click of a clock, the intermittent whir of a hard drive?
  5. Does walking around the room make noise? A crunch of dirt or squeak of lino.

What do you feel? (Touch)

  1. Is the room cold or warm in temperature? Can you feel the warmth of the sun or fire?
  2. Is there a discernible airflow? From where?
  3. How do different surfaces in the room feel?
  4. Are the furnishings comfortable? Does the desk have sharp edges or splinters? Is the seat plush or like riding a camel?

What can you Taste?

  1. Is there something so unusual about the room that you can taste it? Garlic? The metallic taste of blood?

The Sixth Sense

  1. Does the room feel evil or welcoming?
  2. Does it remind the character of something?
  3. Does it bore them or excite them?

Conceptual/Dimensional aspects

  1. Placement: Is the room a basement, ground floor or fortieth floor?
  2. How big is the room? Is it spacious or cramped?
  3. What other doors are there and where do they lead?
  4. Are others in the room? Are there insects, rodents or other animals?
  5. Where are the relevant items located inside the room?

Note that you wouldn’t put all of these into the final text, or even answer all of them. Some will be more applicable, depending on stories, but it is important for the author to know what a scene or location looks like.

Got any other great ones I can add to the list?