02/17/16
DontWakeTheReader

Lessons Learned: The Reader’s Lullabye

I want to start putting up little snippets of the things I’ve learned while writing. Stuff that will probably only appeal to new writers. I’d also like to play beach volleyball on Mars. Hopefully these “Lessons Learned” will come more often than my volleyball matches.

Writing should be efficient and quick. The reader needs to slip through your story as if she or he were on a waterslide. The problem, of course, is that sometimes you have approximately fifty seven things to present to the reader in each paragraph. (Well, fifty eight if you weave subliminal manifestos in your sentences like I do). These fifty seven or so things are complex thoughts. Things that could really be spread over an entire page. Two pages. Dammit, I need an entire novel to talk about these fifty seven damn things that I’m trying to tell you. Can we just Skype instead of you reading my book? Because I really don’t think I can get these ideas across in a tiny little novel.

But, as novelists, we must. We must. That is the job of a novelist.

Our job is not to tell a story. Anyone can tell a story.

Our job is not to dazzle with prose–that is the job of a poet. Or a politician.

Our job is to present the reader with an experience. Our job is the simple task of carrying a 200 pound reader on our back and flying them to a distant place. Our job is to put them into a dream state on that journey, except the dream is our dream, one that we have crafted with meticulous care. And the trick… the trick is to keep them from finding out they are dreaming.

How do we do this? Simple. By not letting them know we are there. There are a thousand ways a writer can intrude on his story, but the one I’m talking about today is boredom. We cannot bore the reader awake. We need to keep our readers so absorbed in the dream that they don’t have time to worry about that uncomfortable shoulder blade pressing against their butt-cheek.

But sometimes, especially in fantasy stories, we have to describe something. Setting is important in fantasy, and without it, you just have weird historical fiction.So how do we provide a description without waking up our little dreamer? With butchery, friends. With hard, pipe-hitting butchery and dismemberment.

Here’s a passage I wrote just now, in its original form (apologies for any grammar mistakes or typos):

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
Alturia.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foothills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”

So, at the start of that section, I have three paragraphs of description, and this set off all sorts of sirens and a woman’s computerized voice saying, “Warning. Warning. Warning. Warning…”

Muted sun. Pale walls. *yawn*  Hill. Towers. *snort. Smack lips*  Five rings. More sun. “What… what am I doing up here? Who the hell’s back am I on?”

Yeah, mission not accomplished. I don’t think the passages were horribly unwieldy, but I am paranoid about waking the reader. So, I made a subtle change to keep the dream unbroken:

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
Alturia.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foorhills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, were five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.

Not fancy. Not glamorous. But something that breaks up the infodump with dialog. I might still cut a little more of the description. But if I don’t, I think I can still save the dream. If the reader starts snorting and waking, then hopefully the dialog will server as a lullabye.

Okay. That’s the snippet for tonight. Sleep well, my readers. And pleasant dreams.

01/14/14
entertained

Hello, and a Flourish

Hey everyone! Been enormously busy with Emaculum, but wanted to get to the surface and say hello. The third and final book of the Scourge is well under way, although I may not have it finished until March. Self-pubbing a book takes a little longer when you have to do all the work yourself. But I shouldn’t complain. You guys helped fund the publishing costs, so the whining stops right now.

I’ll be publishing a humorous short story I wrote very soon. It’s something a little different. A sort of modern-day fairy tale reminiscent of The Princess Bride. Some of you who pledged a certain amount in the Kickstarter campaign will be getting a free copy.

Lastly, I sometimes get people asking me questions about writing. I really don’t do enough about the craft of fiction here on my blog. I will try to do a little more of that, for those of you interested in that sort of thing. But I won’t flood the blog with it, for those of you who are not. So, to begin, I’m reprinting a post I wrote for Jeff Wheeler (of Muriwood fame).  The post is about writing with a touch of style. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you enjoy it!

The Flourish

So, you’ve been writing stories since high school. Or maybe you just started recently. You’ve got a Nanowrimo or two under your belt and you’re starting to find your groove. And now, you’ve decided to get serious about your writing. I applaud you for it. And I will give you one piece of advice that took me years to learn:

If you want to separate yourself from the crowd, you need flourish.

Readers can choose from thousands of different stories. Hundreds of thousands. But what they want is a story that will jump off the page. They want to be entertained. You are not a writer, you are a literary gladiator, thrilling the crowds as you knock down one sentence after the other.

“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?”

The writers of the movie Gladiator might have been speaking through their protagonist with those lines. For those who haven’t seen Gladiator, Proximo is an older man, a former gladiator who won his freedom. He owns his own gladiators now, and he tells one of them (Maximus, the story’s protagonist) this:

 “I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.”

That line has always resonated with me, because it applies to every type of creative writing there is. Do not write quickly or dispassionately. Thrill the crowd. Make them love you and you will win them forever.

Maximus takes Proximo’s words to heart and when he next marches into the arena, he takes on a handful of men and kills them in dramatic and acrobat fashion. After he does so, he holds his hands up to the crowd in a moment of self-loathing and asks, “Are you not entertained?”

We have to make those acrobatic kills with our writing, but fortunately we don’t have to hate ourselves for it. Because … well … this metaphor is falling apart isn’t it?

Okay, so, how do we, as writers, make the crowd love us?

We do it with flourish, my friends. We do it with flourish.

I know my own work best, so I will provide an example from my novel, The Scourge. The protagonist, a knight named Sir Edward, is trying to goad a mob of mindless, zombie-like demons to a battlefield where his allies are outnumbered. He hopes the demons will even the odds. Here’s a section from that scene:

They pour from the millhouse in an endless stream of madness, their noses flared to the scent. I nod to Tristan and Morgan. “The mint works.”

We trot our horses away from Corringham. The legions follow behind us, staggering and screaming.

Fairly straightforward, no? Any middling writer could churn that out. It’s solid and quick. But I don’t want to kill quickly. I want to thrill the crowd. I want flourish.

At this point I guess I should explain what flourish is. Here’s how I see it: It’s the crescendo of music that gets your heart racing while you watch a movie. It’s the magician throwing his arms into the air after a masterful trick. It’s the horse rearing and pawing at the sky while the cowboy waves his hat and whoops at the top of his lungs. It’s that touch of pizazz. It’s flourish.

I wanted flourish in my scene with Sir Edward, so for the paragraphs immediately following the example above, I let my protagonist take over. And he did his best to thrill the crowd:

 In France, I often led companies of men. At Nájera I commanded the entire left wing of our formation. But I have never led an entire army out to battle. It has been a secret desire of mine. To thunder toward the French with five thousand howling men at my back, our wind-whipped standard held high above my head.

I have only five or six hundred soldiers behind me tonight. They are men, women and children, and they are not particularly fast. But they howl with the unholy power of hell. Their lurching footsteps thunder upon the heaths behind me. I hold no standard, only a smoldering flowerpot, but I have achieved my secret desire. I ride toward the French with an army.

An army of the dead.

I tried to use the most dramatic language I could, without tipping into melodrama (hopefully I succeeded). I tried to build up the tension slowly, raise the excitement bit by bit like that crescendoing music I mentioned earlier.

But flourishes don’t always required long paragraphs. They can come in the little details, too. The tiny touches you add that that bring a symphony-finale to an idea. In my epic fantasy, The Beast of Maug Maurai, one of the main characters is larger than life. He’s a grizzled old hero named Black Murrogar and I wanted to make sure readers knew that he was something special. So I added a flourish:

Murrogar sat with Ulrean today on the final leg of their journey to Nuldryn Duchy. The old warrior wore a new crimson tabard over the old, blackened mail of the King’s army, the Laraytian Standards. He wasn’t a Standard anymore, but he would wear no other armor. He’d be buried in that blackened chain. If anything ever killed him.

Did you see it? The bulk of the paragraph does a decent job of describing Murrogar, but it’s the little bonus at the end that adds the flourish: “If anything ever killed him.” A small fanfare that makes the passage resonate in a way that description alone could not achieve. Just five little words that I hope will thrill the crowd.

Want another one from The Beast of Maug Maurai? Here are a few short sentences with a flourish at the end. The setup is that a group of soldiers are fighting creatures called thrulls, and some of the creatures try to escape by fleeing into a river called the Serinhult:

  Jjarnee Kruu fired bolt after bolt from his three crossbows. He rarely missed. Thrulls fell thrashing into the water and the Serinhult carried them to another world.

It’s a subtle thing here, but it’s a flourish. The thrulls could have fallen, thrashing, into the water and been carried downstream. But they weren’t. The Serinhult carried them to another world. Flourish. Crescendoing music. Happy cowboy.

Are you not entertained?

11/20/13
muse

My Writing Process–Blog Tour

So i’m taking part in a round-robin blog tour in which writers talk about how they write what they write. It’s a lot of fun, and I want to thank fellow historical writer Adam Haviaras for inviting me. Adam has guest posted here before. He is a ridiculously well-schooled historian and archaeologist and his wonderful writing reflects this. Check out his blog and his books if you love historical fantasy.

Now, about my writing process . . .

 

What am I working on?
At the moment, I am writing the third and final book in The Scourge trilogy. I’m having a great time with this book and I think it might be the best of the three.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
 I have a hard time speaking in broad terms about the genre of my work. I have two series, one that is epic fantasy and another that is historical fantasy. Both series are gritty and as realistic as I could make them. There are no unicorns in either book. Um. Okay, there’s a unicorn in the Scourge, but not a real one. There are no mages hurling fireballs and no elves. Definitely no elves. My work tends to be grounded in history, with bits of the paranormal here and there. The protagonists are usually disillusioned and dispirited, but with a fierce, burning passion that drives them ever onward. There is usually a bit of romance, and many times a bit of violence, and always a healthy dose of black humor.

Why do I write what I do?
I love history, particularly medieval history. I think contemporary people are boring. We dress in dull clothes. We talk about boring things. We have no strong convictions or traditions. Even our wars are boring. People in the Middle Ages didn’t have Wal-Mart or Movember, or even National Secretaries Day. They had craftsmen selling their wares. Their mustaches and beards were a lifelong thing. And a secretary was someone you entrusted with a deep, dark and powerful secret. Medieval soldiers wore armor and stared into the eyes of their enemies as they killed them. Women wore the most beautiful clothing in history and plotted with the best of conspirators. Politicians argued over which of them would lead the first rank of men into the enemy lines. Men fought for honor. Hell, men *had* honor (some men anyway). And horses. They all rode horses, for God’s sake. How can you not write about that sort of time period?

My muse cries when I don’t listen.

How does your writing process work?
I have to have inspiration to write. Something has to kindle the firewood in my brain. A good opening line. An interesting character. An image. The best of my works write themselves. The idea sustains itself. The firewood comes from thin air and the story burns like a furnace. The worst require work. Lots and lots of work.

I start most stories in the same way these days. I get an idea and think about it for a time. The protagonist is important. I need to know what type of person he or she is, and what he or she is trying to accomplish. Then, I throw everything I can at them, to keep them from accomplishing their goal. I come up with a general outline and maybe a scene outline, and then start writing. Sometimes half the scenes I planned actually make it into the book. Other times, only one or two make it.

If the story is sound, the motivation strong and the conflicts believable, then the story will tell itself. You have to listen while you write. Sometimes you step off the path, and the story will tell you to come back. If you don’t listen, you will get lost. If you do listen, you will find your story. Yeah, that’s really a vague and cheesy answer, isn’t it? But there’s truth in it. If you think about the story, really think, the answers will present themselves. The more you listen, the more ideas will come to you. Think about your story in your car. At the grocery store. In the shower. Odd things will pop into your head and you will kick at them to see if they are solid. And all those little, random ideas will come together in your novel in a way that you could never have thought of just sitting at your computer. I could talk about this for days, but I won’t. Just listen. That’s the most important part of writing. Listen. Yoda voice: Listen, you must.

Next week, my friends and fellow 47North writers, Richard Ellis Preston, Mark T. Barnes and Joseph Brassey will continue this blog tour. (I will host Joseph’s post here). Here’s all you need to know about them:

Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United States and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Richard currently resides in California.

Mark Barnes was born in Sydney, Australia, in September of 1966. A strong athlete, he was also drawn to the arts at a young age, penning his first short story as a seven-year-old. He worked in finance and advertising before establishing himself in IT services management. Currently he owns and operates a freelance organizational change consultancy. In 2005, when Mark was selected to attend the Clarion South residential short story workshop, he began to write with the intention of making it more than a hobby. Since that time, Mark has published a number of short stories, worked as a freelance script editor, and has driven creative consultancy for a television series.

Joseph Brassey lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, son, and two cats. In his spare time, he trains in, and teaches, medieval martial arts to members of the armed forces. He has lived on both sides of the continental United States and has worked everywhere from a local newspaper to the frameshop of a crafts store to the smoke-belching interior of a house-siding factory with questionable safety policies.