Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mortal Engines

I have traveled vast distances in my search for the holes in my own writing logic, particularly YA novels such as Reeve's Mortal Engines which is a cracking bit of fiction - a high-concept idea welded onto a story of self-discovery:

In this post-apocalyptic world, after the Sixty Minute War destroyed North America, population centres have re-built themselves as traction cities and towns. They travel around the globe, the stronger destroying the weaker. The story is based on London’s attempt at global domination by destroying Shan Guo, the last remaining free state of the world. Valentine, a top archaeologist, is responsible for locating MEDUSA, a weapon so powerful that it can destroy whole cities. However, Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice historian; Katherine, Valentine’s own daughter; Bevis Pod, an apprentice engineer and Hester Shaw, a young disfigured girl, all strive to prevent London using MEDUSA.
- Heinemann Resources Sheet

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

In happier times, London would never have bothered with such feeble prey. The great Traction City had once spent its days hunting far bigger towns than this, ranging north as far as the edge of the Ice Wastes and south to the shores of the Mediterranean. But lately prey of any kind had started to grow scarce, and some of the larger cities had begun to look hungrily at London. For ten years now it had been hiding from them, skulking in a damp, mountainous western district that the Guild of Historians said had once been the island of Britain. For ten years it had eaten nothing but tiny farming towns and static settlements in those wet hills. Now, at last, the Lord Mayor had decided that the time was right to take his city back over the land bridge into the Great Hunting Ground.

It was barely halfway across when the lookouts on the high watchtowers spied the mining town, gnawing at the salt flats twenty miles ahead. To the people of London it seemed like a sign from the gods, and even the Lord Mayor (who didn't believe in gods or signs) thought it was a good beginning to the journey east, and issued the order to give chase.

The mining town saw the danger and turned tail, but already the huge caterpillar tracks under London were starting to roll faster and faster. Soon the city was lumbering in hot pursuit, a moving mountain of metal that rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke, the villas of the rich gleaming white on the higher decks, and above it all the cross on top of St. Paul's Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth.
Here we have an unforgettable opening, but Mortal Engines doesn't stop there. The reader is propelled immediately into the world of Tom Natsworthy, and before we know where we are, his world is thrust out of London and onto the packed-earth of out-country. Aside from its originality it doesn't once stop for a breather or a description of the wider world without relating it to the characters, where they are, how they're interacting. And it does it without an ounce of pretension - it's all in the style.

In the quoted passage above we have the description and then we're related what London has been up to recently and in that recap (a backstep rather than a flashback) we get more description of places. And then we're onto the feeling of the people of London, their interpretations of the situation and their hopes.

I must learn to condense more, move on from a single emotion and develop my story like Reeve. Reeve doesn't wallow in one emotion, he deals with it and moves on, always pushing the plot.


Doc! I've got a serious problem. It's with my writing see... I... well... there's several things really.

In order to overcome our weaknesses, our shortsighted endeavours and our verbosity, we need to face them and learn to overcome them. It's a shame I have so much trouble in that regard.

So, let me stand up and say, for the record and the group, I am an alcoholic... er- anti-brevite. I can't help myself. I seem to write only for me, and I get lost in the scene. Maybe I should break it down so that we can all see just how superficial my writing is:
  1. Pretty plates

    Here's a term pointed to by Solvejg regarding Exposition. In my case I laden my magnificent castle of a plate, with all its shimmering shell-like adornments, raised parapets, and hanging balustrades, the glazed windows overlooking the table edge and the conical towers that point skyward like spears, with a bean. One, single, bean. And that's my plot. A bean.

    Personally... I blame Solvey ;) No, it's half-an-half. I needed to learn to write beautiful descriptions. It's just that I now need to let it go and use it sparingly. I suppose I'm always too busy writing for myself - I fail to see that I will be returning to these particular locations again, and because of the way I've filled out the first scene, there will be nothing left to describe. Of course, there's also the problem of no interaction between the character and location - this surely has to be my biggest sin.

    This eeks across to the literary quality of the piece (which prolongs reader pain, elicits confusion and closes the book). I have to, have to, have to throw away my pretensions of writing literary YA. There's a time and a place. It isn't now.

  2. Lack of character interaction

    I never give my characters enough to say. They pretty much serve the basic need of the scene and little more. We don't get a sense of character, we don't learn anything about the wider world/scenario, just what is going on at that particular moment - and this in spite of some character template generation.

  3. Stuck in the scene

    And yet, despite the above, I hang the entire scene on masses of pretentious description (it's not pretension when it leaves my brain, I assure you) because, specifically, there's not enough to fill the scene and last a good number of pages.
At the moment, my previous chapter looks like a fluke. I must concentrate to avoid my consternate.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Character/Narrator POV and Interlaced Descriptions

Coming out of another dark spot of self doubt I've been reading much and wide - recently finished Scar Night by Alan Campbell (who worked on Grand Theft Auto). Brilliant book, had me gripped all the way.

After my last slap down I got angry with myself, my inability to write something pacy, coherent and interesting - then I reworked my opening chapter... again. But I'm still not happy, despite Solvejg giving his thumbs up (with caveats). I was worried that there was still no pace to it (though, I'm probably too close to it at the mo' to realise - a kind of word blindness). I felt that the reader just floated along with the description. And it just has no place right up there at the front. So... I needed a breather. I'm kind of wrong, despite needing to do some more work (always more work), but what could help?...

What's great about Scar Night is that it's begun to yield some secrets about the construct of chapters - and, at times, I've begun to make use of them in my writing (mostly subconsciously). Let's look at the opening:

Chains snarled the courtyard behind the derelict cannon foundry in Applecross: spears of chain radiating at every angle, secured into walls with rusted hooks and pins, and knitted together like a madwoman's puzzle. In the centre, Barraby's watchtower stood ensnared. Smoke unfurled from its ruined summit and blew west across the city under a million winter stars.

Huffing and gasping, Presbyter Scrimlock climbed through the chains. His lantern swung, knocked against links and welds and God knows what, threw shadows like lattices of cracks across the gleaming cobbles. When he looked up, he saw squares and triangles full of stars. His sandals slipped as though on melted glass. The chains, where he touched them, were wet. And when he finally reached the Spine Adept waiting by the watchtower door he saw why.

'Blood,' the Presbyter whispered, horrified. He rubbed feverishly at his cassock, but the gore would not shift.

The Spine Adept, skin stretched so tight over his muscles he seemed cadaverous, turned lifeless eyes on the priest. 'From the dead,' he explained. 'She ejects them from the tower. Will not suffer them there inside with her.' He tilted his head to one side.

Below the chains numerous Spine bodies lay in a shapeless mound, their leather armour glistening like venom.

'Ulcis have mercy,' Scrmlock said. 'How many has she killed?'


Scrimlock drew a breath. The night tasted dank and rusty, like the air in a dungeon. 'You're making it worse,' he complained. 'Can't you see that? You're feeding her fury.'

'We have injured her,' the Adept said. His expression remained unreadable, but he pressed a pale hand against the watchtower door brace, as if to reinforce it.

'What?' The Presbyter's heart leapt. 'You've injured her? That's... How could you possibly...'

'She heals quickly.' The Adept looked up. 'Now we must hurry.'

Scrimlock followed the man's gaze, and for a moment wondered what he was looking at. Then he spotted them: silhouettes against the glittering night, lean figures scaling the chains, moving quickly and silently to the watchtower's single window. More Spine than Scrimlock had ever seen together. There had to be fifty, sixty. How was it possible he'd failed to notice them before?
So begins the Deepgate Codex. A brilliant entry point into a series that is well founded on equal part description and action, with a pace that never lets up. It's not often that I finish a 500+ page book in a week, and when I (a slow-slow reader) do, the book must be good - Shirley?

Here we have the prologue entry, a 7 page section that precedes the main events by 2000 years (hmm... let's not get into a discussion on the finer points of prologues and whether they should be used or not - here it's employed specifically to introduce 2 main characters: the Angel Carnival, and the city of Deepgate. Being 2000 years before the main narrative, it sits better as a prologue).

Anyhoo, let's look at what we get...

  • Paragraph 1 - The character of the city of chains is evoked in one punchy paragraph. Description to set the scene and locale.
  • Paragraph 2 - A "real" character walks onto the scene and as they arrive, we have them interacting with the scenery, showing clothing but always making it act or react to the location. It never tells us what he's wearing. Instead we know he had a lantern because the lantern's swing knocks against the chains and throws light about, illuminating the scenery. He wears sandals, we learn, because the floor is slippery. And finally we arrive at a specific place (The watchtower door) and another character.
  • Paragraph 3 - Brief dialogue and character reaction to... blood! We learn he's wearing a cassock because he rubs the blood onto it. Emotionally, we get "horrified" and the "gore would not shift"
  • Para 4 - We meet the 2nd character, and have a quick bit description with dialogue - and here came a big epiphany...
The narrator, in Scar Night, is third person limited, but... the narrator, having chosen the first character to align with (Scrimlock), describes things from the chosen character's pov. So, when the narrator writes: "The Spine Adept, skin stretched so tight over his muscles he seemed cadaverous, turned lifeless eyes on the priest", it's not so much the narrator's observation but Scrimlock's.

And this is what I've not noticed prior to this book. That 3rd person pov is not an excuse to separate ourselves from what is going on; the emotion, the feeling of being there. Why didn't I see this before?

This explains why later in the book we get recaps of certain things we have already covered - because we've entered a new character and now they're observing it.

Scar Night - Official Website
Chapter 1 Extract - Pan Macmillan

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch

The anti-climactic ending to F.E. Higgins's The Black Book of Secrets does not detract from either the message of natural justice or stark setting of a victorian age... at least I thought it was victorian. Dark Dickensian influences were abound.

The narrative turns that utilised the full extent of Higgins's three-way setup (Ludlow's diary, the confessions and the 3rd person narrator). They were ways of presenting information to the reader without relying upon other convoluted or contrived methods that would either have required out of character (for the book) info dumps or multiple povs from a many number of characters.

The ending is muted somewhat by its very nature with crisis averted and the reader informed as to what has been concerning Ludlow with his nightmares - and it's not strong enough to carry the suggestion that he has been weighed upon heavily by his "sin". The frog was too obvious a setup (but then, I am an adult... aren't I?) and Joe's reveal was as expected.

And yet... and yet, I couldn't put it down! Higgins has great ability to streamline her scenes, dip in and out and along with ease.

This in particular is of great importance to me at the moment since I seem incapable of choosing when to start a scene, how long to wallow in it, and when to get out again before the reader's eyes roll back in their head. While Higgins spends many a paragraph in describing the characters I waste many of mine in relating past incidents I hope will inform the reader upon the character. I don't feel that either is of particular importance, but then, I've still to learn much about brevity.

So, Higgins... a good read, and the concept stays with you even if the story itself disperses.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Black Book of Secrets

In Higgins's the Black Book of Secrets we have a narrative structure composed of three separate narrators. A brilliant decision that works well to keep the reader enthused with the story. As with many published books it is a masterclass in the ways of doing things right.

As Higgins writes in the blurb:
I came across Joe Zabbidou's Black Book of Secrets and Ludlow Fitch's memoirs in a rather curious manner. They were tightly rolled and concealed within the hollow of a wooden leg. When I unrolled them the pages were brittle and water-stained, and much was illegible. The fragments are reproduced here exactly as they were written. As for the parts that were missing, what could I do but draw upon my imagination to fill the gaps?

I pieced the story together as I thought best. I do not claim to be its author, merely the person who has tried to reveal it to the world.
So it is that we have:
  1. Fragments from the Memoirs of Ludlow Fitch - 1st person pov, past tense

    When I opened my eyes I knew that nothing in my miserable life prior to that moment could possibly be as bad as what was about to happen. I was lying on the cold earthen floor of a basement room lit by a single candle, no more than an hour's burning left. Instruments of a medical nature hung from hooks in the beams. Dark stains on the floor suggested blood. But it was the chair against the opposite wall that fully confirmed my suspicions. Thick leather straps attached to the arms and the legs were there for one purpose only: to hold down an unwilling patient. Ma and Pa were standing over me.

  2. Narrative purportedly to have been made up by Higgins to fill out the gaps in the memoirs - 3rd person pov, past tense

    It was not easy to describe Joe Zabbidou accurately. His age was impossible to determine. He was neither stout nor thin, but perhaps narrow. And he was tall, which was a distinct disadvantage in Pagus Parvus. The village dated from times when people were at least six inches shorter and all dwellings were built accordingly. In fact, the place had been constructed during the years of the 'Great Wood Shortage'. The king at the time issued a decree that every effort must be made to save wood, with the result that doors and windows were made smaller and narrower than was usual and ceilings were particularly low.

  3. Extracts from the Black Book of Secrets consisting of confessions - 1st person pov, present and past tense

    My name is Obadiah Strang and I have a terrible secret. It haunts my every waking hour, and at night when I finally manage to sleep it takes over my dreams.

    I might only be a humble gravedigger but I am proud of it. I have never cheated anyone: they get six feet, no more, no less. I have always led a simple life. I need very little and I ask for nothing. I was a contented man until some months ago when I fell foul of my landlord, Jeremiah Ratchet.
Higgins has used a different voice, particularly for each of the confessions, and their use breaks up the narrative structure to give a different view and feel. It works, maintaining (for the moment at least) my interest. Each has varying levels of info dumpage (check out the 2nd style)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Opening Hook, Line and Paragraph

Openings can be either amazing, encompassing themes, plot, or simply functional and drive us straight into the action. Just started reading Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines which opens with:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
How crazy is that? Straight into the action, but, more importantly, straight in there with the high-concept idea that cities are great big traction engines, many stories high, that feed on each other for resources.

I spend forever on my opening paragraphs, and still get them wrong. What follows are the six variations of the openings to my latest project, a YA fiction. As I have tried to find my voice, the style of the piece, where the best place to open is (start late, leave early, etc), and who I want to focus on, I have refined my choices of theme and the narrative concept itself... until I reached version 5. Then, of course, it required others to point out how slavishly I was devoting myself to a sustained bit of action between the protagonist and and a contagonist (check out Dramatica for more on that kind of talk) and really pouring over the pain felt in every limb and inch of the protagonist, with confusing bits aside, and irrelevant descriptions during the climactical moments of the scene.

What had I forgotten to do? Relate it back the protagonist! He may have been suffering but did the reader really connect with him and understand what the pain meant to him? The situation?

No. So, it led me to another rewrite (and I don't me a quick one-two). I rewrite a chapter whole and then edit all the bloody juices out of it until it's a fine sculpture - it's a shame that so many people point out that I've accidentally carved the face off and left both arms. Alas! My Venus!

Anyhoo. The final version opening leads straight to the protagonist and relates to the themes and story message directly...

Version 1
Libraries are many things to many people. The Babylonians used them almost four-thousand years ago to store astronomical charts and constellation maps. They hold all sorts of information; facts, stories, maps, and charts; the most stalwart truths and the greatest of lies.
Version 2
‘Put those down, child. Put those down and come with me,’ said Penthera Discordia with disarming charm.
Version 3
‘Listen to my voice. Relax, child. You must put down those books and accompany me.’ The command slithered through the humid air like a python through underbrush, carving a trail towards its intended victim. The words hissed hypnotically across the counter, eased into sleepy ears by the heat rising to the vaulted ceiling.
Version 4
… and the page shivers. A sliver of polished stone, the width and breadth of a man’s chest, floats up from the book and curls over. Paper thin. In the half light the movement is barely visible.
Version 5
Skull splintering pain. Pain, like the head of a cliff shearing away from a rock face. Its cry resounds off mountains and valleys with the skreee of shattering stone as it avalanches away.
Charles James Sanura had always been afraid of words. Growing up in the city had taught him how wicked they were, spoken to deceive and written to ensnare. One word, he had learned on the streets, was enough to provoke love or fear. Two, he knew from his school texts, could equally pardon or put to death. It required as little as three – and this he did not know – three words to change the fabric of the universe.
As you can probably tell... my mind won't select an opening scene and stick with it. We have an overview, two critical fight scenes (rewritten over and over), 1 scene with the central mcguffin, disassociated pain felt by the protagonist and then my current fave (though it is still hot off the press... so that could change any time soon).

Monday, April 07, 2008

Explaining the Setup

"Sparrowhawk, if ever your way lies East, come to me. And if you ever need me, send for me, call on me by my name: Estarriol."

At that Ged lifted his scarred face, meeting his friend's eyes.

"Estarriol," he said, "my name is Ged."
Naming is a big thing in Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. Not only is it wrapped up in the themes - to know the name of something is to have power over it - but over the first 70 pages that lead up to this extract the reader has a good understanding of that names have a special place in this world.

We have had a great setup with Le Guin clearly developing the nuances of names, so when we reach this part, and we get the explanation (info dump if you will). It is a big tell that follows:

Then quietly they bade each other farewell and Vetch turned and went down the stone hallway, and left Roke.

Ged stood still a while, like one who has received great news, and must enlarge his spirit to receive it. It was a great gift that Vetch had given him, the knowledge of his true name. No one knows a man's true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it. In front of other people they will, like other people, call him by his use-name, his nickname - such a name as Sparrowhawk, and Vetch, and Ogion which means 'fir-cone'. If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man's name, holds that man's life in his keeping. Thus to Ged who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakeable trust.
but then, how else do you set that out clearly? Would we have understood the meaning to Ged without it having been stated here?

This also raises a point about the difference between Show and Tell... what we have with the old S&T debate is that writers must show, in order to maintain reader interest - integrated descriptions of action, emotion, characters and setup that weave together.

The character was angry... is a tell.
The character threw down his ale an unsheathed his sword... is a show.

With exposition there is only so much showing that can be done. It's essentially an info dump and in order for the reader to understand fully what they are being told, the writer cannot flourish with a show. They must tell.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Podwatch Review the Litopia Podcast

The first major review of LITOPIA AFTER DARK has appeared on Podwatch... and it's a HIT!
You could be forgiven for thinking a podcast hosted by literati would be stuffy and outdated, but that does not begin to describe those involved in Liopia. Rather, the show is accessible to any reader or writer with an interest in the area, and the discussions are interesting, entertaining and contemporary. When I speak passionately to someone about how great podcasts are, Litopia is precisely the sort of thing I would use as an example. The subject matter is too narrow for most TV or radio, but for their target audience this podcast will be a godsend.
Over the past 2 years, podcasting has gone from a handful of enthusiasts talking about technology, to a thriving community of content creators — both independant and mainstream.

There are now thousands of podcasts to choose from, which sounds great until you try to find a favourite. I believe it is the future of broadcasting, but there is a lot of dirt to dig through before finding a gem. This is where Podwatch comes in — every week I will do the hunting for you, and will provide comprehensive reviews on the best and worst of podcasting.

As a regular panelist I'm so pleased with this development. It's a real sign that Peter Cox continues to be the defacto Word-pusher on the web. Certainly it is a brilliant outcome since Podwatch only reviews the top podcasts in their genre, and the Litopia podcast is being compared to shows that attract hundreds of thousands of listeners - The Best on the web.
9.5/10 Overall If you are a writer, or simply someone interested in literary culture, Liopia should be a permanent subscription in your podcatcher. Cox is likable and does a great job at covering all the news you will need to stay in the know.
You can read the full review here.

Or, you can listen to Podwatch's Tom's podcast on Litopia here.