A Reformation is Needed

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about creating a Story Bible – an in-world encyclopaedia to go with my novel.

It’s somewhat depressing to read in that post:

I am getting closer to finishing my first novel…

and be still talking about the same novel, two and a bit years later. Well, I guess technically any progress is moving closer… and (in some respects) I have finished it; now I’m just polishing.

I’m currently revising Vengeance Will Come, hopefully for the last time (pre-publication or pre-free-release), and I’ve noticed that only best intentions weren’t enough to keep my story bible well organised or up-to-date. If only I’d used best intentions and discipline it’d be in a better state.

The question is do I use valuable editing time to tidy up the story bible, ensuring it’s true to the current version of the story? The answer is yes. Vengeance Will Come is book 1 of a series, and so I need my source material to be easily accessible (and accurate) for when writing other books in the series.

I’ll however keep editing for a while longer while my brain is sharp. As the Writing Excuses podcast would say, “‘Smart Ben’ can edit. When ‘Dumb Ben’ subs-in later, he can work on the story bible.”

Examining Character Balance: The Rebel Queen

One of the things I’d recommend before getting into the actual revision of a writing project is to take a step back and look at the character balance.

To discuss this topic I’ll be using my second novel The Rebel Queen and examining how regularly each character gets a point-of-view turn. (To do this I’m using an Excel workbook that I intend on making available soon).

Does a character rarely get a point-of-view?

Every time there’s a new viewpoint the reader needs to create a little box in their memory to store the character’s personality, opinion and experiences. The reader can only keep track of a small number of boxes, so adding too many is problematic. (Sidebar: George RR Martin is famous for his huge cast of characters, but I think I was halfway through the first book before I could differentiate properly between characters. Occasionally throughout the series I also read scenes not remembering who this particular character was).

Minor characters clog up your reader’s memory and are also likely to be under-developed, crude caricatures of what a character should be. Sometimes a minor character is legitimately required; that’s the only time they should be used.

If a character only has a small number of viewpoints my first preference will be to eliminate them as a point-of-view character. I’ll ask myself:

  1. What is their viewpoint providing?
  2. Are those outcomes critical?
  3. Can another character or a change in circumstances deliver the same outcomes?

In The Rebel Queen the worst two offenders are clear. Den-ta, who gets a single scene in the final chapters of the book is definitely going to be cut. The Prior, who is an important plot aspect is a little harder to determine. I’ll try to cut him first, but if that doesn’t work I’ll resurrect him and pad him out.

However, if the character’s viewpoint is irreplaceable and necessary then I’ll be looking for ways to give them more “air time”. If I can’t kill ’em, I’ll try to make them stronger. Can they be involved in more scenes? Can they replace another character’s viewpoint on some scenes?

Draft Cal POV

I’ll be looking for a few more scenes for the character Cal; trying to raise her prominence.

Are there characters who get introduced too late?
My current rule of thumb is that I don’t want to introduce any new character viewpoints after halfway through the story. By that point everything should be moving towards resolution, not continuing to expand. (Sidebar: Interesting question: Does that hold true in a series? I think so. I prefer the method Robert Jordan uses, taking a minor character who doesn’t have a viewpoint until a later book). Introducing a character towards the end of the story also risks them being a deus ex machina (“person or event which provides a sudden, unexpected solution to a story”).

In George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons poor old Uncle Kevan waited approximately 900 pages for a viewpoint, and dies at the end of the scene. As a reader, it felt like a completely unnecessary death; almost like Martin realised he hadn’t killed anyone recently, so someone had to die. The problem was, I didn’t know who Kevan was, so I didn’t care at all that he died.

Draft General Pkar POV

Returning to The Rebel Queen, even though General Pkar is a significant character in the story, I discover that he doesn’t get a point of view until too late. I’ll be looking to give him a scene or two earlier in the story, so the reader know he’s important.

Are there characters who go silent?

This aspect is more complex to work out (and it seems, to describe too). I’m looking at the gaps between points of view, when combined with plot developments. In the image above General Pkar goes silent for 4 chapters (15-18) but in this instance that is okay – the plot-action is happening elsewhere.

But if there was a plot thread that General Pkar was chasing down and he inexplicably went silent for multiple chapters, that might be a problem.

Note however that they don’t necessarily need a point-of-view; it might be enough to have them mentioned by another character, so that we know they are still around.

Mind Blowing

Developing a Writing Tool

A quick blog post to announce what I’ve been working on. Some might call it procrastination and not writing, but I prefer to think of it as tool development for myself and for you.

I’m working up an Excel workbook which can be used to keep statistics, plot information and whatever else I think of adding to aid in the writing process. I’m actually pretty close to finishing v1.0, but I really should do some writing so I will try to shelve it for today.

As a taster, here is the Character Point-Of-View chart which can be used to visually display how often a character is getting a turn. This chart is automatically generated based off information entered into a table. Using the drop-down list next to “Select Character” you can highlight an individual character. (This is an evolutionary improvement on my earlier visualisation).

Character POV chart

Mind Blowing Reading

I’ve been reading through Weird Life by David Toomey. Here are two quotes that describe how cells work (page 86 and 87 respectively).

To take one example, when a cell somewhere in your body needs insulin, certain proteins inside the cell pull apart a section of the DNA molecule pairs, exposing the particular sequence of base pairs that signifies one of the many amino acids needed to make an insulin molecule. Other proteins read the sequence and make an ad hoc and temporary copy called messenger RNA. Then, still other proteins work over the messenger RNA, slicing and splicing until they’ve fashioned the amino acid needed. Finally, the molecules of protein and DNA called ribosomes (the structure that, you may recall, may set the lower size limit of a cell) pull the newly formed amino acid together with others made the same way by other proteins, and coordinate with other ribosomes, all now pulling and pushing their own amino acids to assemble a molecule of insulin.

And then

As complex as chores necessary to maintaining a metabolism are, they are in some ways mere prelude and preparations for the main event: reproduction. Familiar life can reproduce, of course, because cells divide. For cells with nuclei, it all begins inside the nucleus, when proteins don’t pull apart merely a section of the DNA molecule; they unwind and unzip the entire molecule along one strand, make a copy, correct and repair proofreading errors, and, from material in the surrounding cytoplasm, fashion a matching strand that winds together with the copy, base locking neatly to a base. Then the parent DNA, its own strands zipped up and rewound, is pulled to one side of the nucleus, the child DNA is pulled to the other, and the nucleus itself is squeezed in the middle until it splits into halves. Shortly thereafter the cell does likewise, with each half holding a nucleus. Where there was one cell, now there are two.

I don’t know about you but to me, that is absolutely mind-blowing.

The irony is, even with talk of having nanobots in the future, all they will be doing is replicating (and improving on) to what our body already does.

Personally I think it takes more faith to believe in creation big-bang style than it does to believe that God’s hand and mind were at work.

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.”

 

 

On Robert Jordan

375px-robert_jordan
“Robert Jordan” in 2005

As I’ve written numerous times the quality of writing is subjective; Robert Jordan was occasionally too verbose for my liking.

Having said that, I must immediately leap to his defense. He is writing epic fantasy which is known for its length and exposition. He has also written a mammoth series, so the occasional ‘loosening’ of passages is unavoidable and entirely forgivable. His Wheel of Time series is beyond popular (over 11 million copies) and he has legions of fans in 25 countries.

Though I may find fault with the occasional element of his writing I am awed by his formidable writing quality. He does so many things excellently.

I would love to know how he plotted, how he could seemingly see books in advance and lay the foundations for epic plots. Was it all in advance or did he throw things in and decide how to use them later?

His world building has produced fertile ground of a vast scale that deserves to be transformed into a multi-season TV series and numerous computer games. He inverts social norms but leaves it cohesive and structurally sound. Each civilization is distinct, unique and rich.

Each character has a journey, likable traits and weaknesses. He does character perspective and voice like a stage performer. The reader is dragged along, following the diverse but connected adventures of each of the many characters.

I sit in the huge shadow that he casts. There is nothing like standing next to a giant to make you feel small. I am somewhat depressed at the gap I see between our writing skill. I must remind myself that he had been publishing stories since 1977 and had 18 years experience before The Eye of the World was published. I have only just not-yet begun.

It is for these many reasons I consider Robert Jordan to be among one of my vicarious writing mentors. He was a master of the writing craft.

(I have been analysing The Eye of the World chapter-by-chapter. Part 1, 2, 3, 3b and 4).

Describing Characters

I’ve written before that I am still finding my style when it comes to describing characters. (I previously panned Robert Jordan, and then realised I was mistaken and he was correct).

I’ve recently read Mirage by Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul. (I’ve never known quite what to expect when ‘with’ is used. Is it truly a collaborative work, or is one author simply nodding through someone to use their name? Of course it could be different in each case). However that’s a tangent; whilst reading it I made special note of how the characters were described. Below are the samples I noted:

He wore prison blues, with a thinly padded jacket to ward off a little of the arctic air. At first, it looked as though he had tightly cropped dark hair, but, in fact, his head was perfectly shaved. It was the intricate design of interlacing tattoos covering his skull that made it look like he had hair. The tattoos continued around his throat and disappeared into the V of his prison shirt. He wasn’t necessarily a big man, but there was a feral intensity to his glacial blue eyes that made him seem dangerous. (page 4)

Having seen season 1 of Prison Break I can envision this.

Both of them were massive, standing at least six foot six, with hands like sledgehammers and biceps and chests that strained the fabric of their shirts. Also like the newly arrived prisoner, their necks were adorned with prison tattoos, though one had a strand of barbed wire inked across his forehead that denoted he’d been sentenced to life with no possibility of parole (page 5).

While the man ate like a near, drank like, well, like a Russian, and exercised every third leap year, he was still in pretty good shape for a man of fifty-five (page 15).

I appreciate both phrases “hands like sledgehammers” and “exercised every third leap year”. The first tells us form and function, the second is clever word-play.

Heavyset, with a florid complexion, a crescent of ginger hair ringing the back half of his skull, and a nose that had been broken enough times that he could have been mistaken for a professional boxer… (page 47).

Methuselah was a teenager compared to the man who trod out of the craft’s broad rear deck. He wore robes and a head scarf and leaned on a cane made of gnarled wood. Wisps of pure white hair coiled from under the scarf while the lower part of his face was covered in a beard befitting a fairy-tale wizard. (page 82).

Patronov was so fair-haired and pale-skinned that he almost appeared albino, and with an upturned nose that looked like the double barrels of a shotgun, he was considered porcine as well. His wet lips were overly large, and he had a cauliflower ear from his days as a boxer in the old Soviet naval academy.He wasn’t particularly tall, but had wide shoulders that sloped up to a bullet head that he kept trimmed in a half-inch buzz of pure white hair. (page 151, 152)

So on the character-description continuum Cussler definitely comes in longer-than-shorter. I also noticed that he also likes to describe clothing. I’m not kidding; the protagonist has more wardrobe changes than a stage performer (and they are all described). He does this I assume to show the character’s fashion sense and wealth.

The story is an action adventure which is fast paced and continual. It’s not my normal genre (although I have read a fair amount of them). On reflection I realise now that I never really thought about any character’s appearance beyond turning the page.

Perhaps in an epic fantasy, which is character-driven, the character’s appearance matters more than a plot-driven adventure where plot overshadows character? Just a thought, but it sounds right to me…

On Villains and Heroes

Recently I watched the thriller Hush on Netflix. I’m not normally a thriller watcher, but every now and then the mood is (f)right. I enjoyed the movie and it got me thinking…

Hush is the classic psychopath-stranger meets lone girl in remote location. The victim just happens to be an author which is helpful in piquing my interest.  The twist this time is that the ‘victim’ or protagonist is both deaf and mute.

A protagonist should be placed in a vulnerable position by the villain and I can’t think of a more vulnerable position than being deaf and hunted. Imagine being worried about someone breaking into your house and not being able to hear them at all. Are they breaking down the front door or standing just around the corner? Sound is a pivotal sense when it comes to engaging the flight or fight mentality.

Imagine screaming in pain, and knowing that not a peep was coming out of your mouth. You can’t call for help no matter how hard you try. The twin duo of deaf and mute make you more vulnerable and less able to protect yourself. Kudos to the writers Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel for choosing a protagonist that maximised the suspense.

Then my thoughts turned to villains. An evil villain like a psychopath is a scary proposition. When I consider villains they fit onto a scale something like this (where the higher the number the more scary they are):

  1. At the ‘weak’ end of the scale is the incidental villain. This is just someone who is going along with the flow, perhaps being dragged somewhat unwillingly along by peer pressure. They made a bad decision and its putting them into bad situations.
  2. Doing slightly bad things from necessity not choice is the subsistence villain. They might steal to feed the family, but they’re going to avoid hurting people if they can.
  3. The social villain. The louts and idiots who enjoy committing ‘medium’ level crimes. They normally travel in packs and like to think they are smarter because they  ‘live outside the system’. Normally they started off as incidental or subsistence villains but then graduated up the food chain, so this group covers the boss down to the foot soldiers.
  4. Taking a giant leap in evil-rating is the sociopath villain. These individuals like to commit crime and hurt people. They can’t empathize and will only ‘behave’ if it is personally beneficial.
  5. Give a sociopath a high intellect and/or lots of money and they becomes a genius villain. They are the cream of the criminal crop. They’re not interested in becoming the biggest drug dealer, but running the entire city and/or world.
  6. The architect villain though is even scarier (in some respects). Sure they might be committing crime and hurting people, but their motivation is what makes them truly scary. They are doing it because it will eventually help us. They can see that our temporary pain will be to our eventual good. This villain will never rest because in their mind they are doing what is right.
  7. At the very top of the scale is the child sociopath.

looper

(Take for example the movie Looper … laying aside my general dislike for a 5 year old child playing such an incredibly dark role).

I find a child psychopath more disturbing than an adult and I don’t think I’m alone. Is it because we inherently know that children are supposed to be innocent? Does a criminal act feels even more criminal when committed by a child? Is part of our fear related to their potential to hide their true nature? We know adults can be evil, but what if a child is evil now… how bad will they be in the future?

The mentally-deranged child is by far the worst villain.