Archive for January, 2018

Tragedy and Fiction

So, last week, I went up to visit with my mother/grandmother, and I found my grandmother most of the way through All Clear (which is the second half of Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear duology and the most recent volume in her time travel books). I was delighted, and we did get to have the conversation I read The Doomsday Book for, as well as talking about the series as a whole.

We got to talking about which ones were our favorites, and I waxed poetical about the humor and romance in To Say Nothing of the Dog and the fantastic research of Blackout/All Clear. My grandmother said her favorite was The Doomsday Book. I kind of paused–if you remember from my post on The Doomsday Book, I thought it was the weakest of the series–and then asked her why.

And she said, “I don’t really enjoy World War II as a setting, but I suppose that comes from having lived through it.”

And it was like: oh. Oh. Of course WWII isn’t going to be an enjoyable setting. She lost siblings in that war, saw the rationing, the friends and family sent home in boxes (or not). It must have felt like the world was tearing itself apart. Why would you want to live through that again?

And I felt terribly guilty, especially for talking about how “real” the book’s setting had felt to someone who had lived through it.

WWII is so removed for so many of us. My grandmother is 95 and would have been in her late teens/early 20s during the war. But to me, it’s like the Big War in my favorite fantasy series. It’s something that happened, something that shaped the world, but it’s almost reached mythology at this point. Especially here in the States, there’s not a lot of reminders of what the war did. That’s not universal, of course–I’ve been to Berlin. I’ve seen the remains of the Wall and seen bombed buildings that have never been repaired. I’ve walked the rows of sarcophagi at the Jewish memorial. But I bet even my generation in Germany doesn’t quite understand.

And don’t we all have those things, those events, that were so traumatic, so tragic, that we don’t want to have our fiction anywhere near them? I know what mine is. It’s Columbine. I don’t think I’ve talked about Columbine here, and I don’t intend to start now, but let us just say that I can remember that day almost 20 years ago as clearly if it had happened yesterday, even as most of my memories from that time in my life have started to fade.

I know I avoid media related to Columbine or school shootings like the plague. Even songs that can be interpreted as being about school shootings I can’t listen to. And, to be honest, it’s not that hard. In the great scheme of cultural zeitgeist, it wasn’t that major. It didn’t affect that many people. Something like WWII that affected entire generations is a lot harder to avoid. (Wikipedia tells me 3% of the world’s population died over the course of the war.)

It’s certainly been a bit eye-opening. Sometimes these big, horrible historical things are a lot closer than most people realize. I mean, we’re only a few generations past when slavery ended in this country.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. Is it exploitation to use an event that was traumatic to a ton of people for media designed for profit? Is it sad that terrible things happen? Where is the line where something becomes art?

Makes me glad I write science fiction and fantasy, if nothing else.

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Common Writing Mistakes: Ending in the Wrong Place

Good morning, squiders. Last week we discussed starting in the wrong place. But one can end a story in the wrong place as well.

(To be fair, there are a lot of issues that have to do with what scenes are chosen to be included in a story. However, whole books about structure have been written if this is an issue you would like to explore further. My personal favorite is Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.)

Ending in the wrong place typically falls into two categories:

  • Going too long
  • Going too short

You can probably see what I mean by either of these, but for the sake of completion, let’s use examples. The Return of the King movie is commonly brought up as a story that goes on too long. Part of this is because there are so many characters in so many places and they all need resolutions.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where Arthur and his remaining knights are just about the reach the Grail–and then the police show up and the film is shut off. Yes, it’s purposeful, and yes, it falls in line with the Pythons’ humor, but the story cuts off abruptly and can be unsatisfying.

(NOTE: TVTropes has a whole page of different unsatisfying ending types. You can find it here.)

Endings, like beginnings, are highly subjective, and invariably, you can’t please everyone. If you conclude quickly after your climax, you’ll have people who wanted more. Did the sister end up with the lawyer? What happened to the corrupt mayor? Did magic return to the land? But if you make sure you wrap everything up, people will groan about the story being never ending. So, to some extent, the ending that feels right to you is probably best.

On a related note, there are unsatisfying endings. These typically occur for one of the following reasons:

  • The story seems to be foreshadowing something that doesn’t happen
  • There’s too many loose ends
  • A deus ex machina comes in last minute, robbing the main character of their agency
  • The ending doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story
  • The ending doesn’t fit with the main character’s personality
  • The ending dumbs everything down too far

This is not to say that unexpected things can’t happen in your ending. They certainly can. I think we all appreciate a truly great twist, one that we didn’t see coming and yet falls in line perfectly with what’s come before. In fact, you need to have some surprises in your ending or you run the risk of your readers being disappointed by things being too predictable. They may know a battle is coming, and who the main people in that battle will be, but they hopefully won’t know how it’s going to play out.

And, lastly, let’s talk about epilogues. An epilogue is usually (hopefully) a single chapter at the end of a book that shows the main character’s life after the climax. Usually some time has passed (years, in some cases) and they’re used to show how the effects of the story have changed (or not changed) the character.

Epilogues can be fantastic or be mistakes, depending on the story and how they’re handled. Look at how much controversy has surrounded the epilogue from the Harry Potter series. But they can be useful, especially if the climax doesn’t allow for an easy transition into a resolution chapter (such as when something traumatic has happened, or the main character has died, or if it’s important to the emotional arc of the story to show the impact of the characters’ sacrifice, etc.). I sometimes write stories with and without epilogues to see which works better.

Thoughts on endings, squiders? Ideas on how to tell where’s the best place to stop?

Musical Interlude 2018

I was looking at summer camps this morning, Squiders, and one was touting that its 2018 schedule was now up, and in my head I was like, “Why so far in the future?”

I have now remembered what year it is. Oops.

Also, one of my monitors (I have a dual monitor set-up) smells like it’s burning something so I’ve had to turn it off.

BUT ANYWAY.

Every now and then I like to share some songs with you that I’m currently digging, usually because they provide story inspiration of some sort. And it felt like it was time (and apparently so, since it’s been a year!) so here we are.

No Roots (Alice Merton)

I feel kind of hipster about this song (“I was listening to this before it was cool”) but on the other hand, now that it’s on the radio all the time I also get to listen to it all the time. Plus it’s fun to sing along to.

One Foot (Walk the Moon)

I love everything about this song. I hadn’t watched the video before this post and it’s ridiculous, but I have no regrets.

Radioactive (Within Temptation–cover of Imagine Dragons)

I love the Imagine Dragons version, but is there really anything that can’t be improved by a power metal cover? If there is I haven’t found it yet! Also I adore Within Temptation and I wish they would tour over here in the States sometime.

Euphoria (Xandria)

The lyrics are a little problematic in places on this one (and very dark in general) but I love how this sounds like early Nightwish.

Footsteps (Pop Evil)

I can’t remember if I’ve shared this song with you guys before (it’s older) but if I have, uh, well, here it is again!

Have any songs that are hitting your sweet spots right now, squiders? I’m pretty open musically, so feel free to give me a rec or two!

Readalong: Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead

The title looked really barren for a second, and then I remembered that this was our first standalone readalong, so I normally have the series title as well.

Anyway! It’s the 18th! Let’s get to it.

First, the basics. Dream Thief is an early-’80s science fiction novel about Spencer Reston, a sleep researcher interested in the long-term effects of space travel on people. Stephen R. Lawhead is a name I have heard before–he’s probably most famous for his Pendragon cycle (late ’80s through late ’90s) and his trilogy of Robin Hood retelling (mid-2000s)–but I’ve never gotten around to reading anything of his before.

I suspect I picked this book up at a thrift store somewhere along the line, but I have had it for a long time, so if nothing else, I’m glad to have finally gotten through it.

Spencer Reston has recently arrived on Gotham, a space station in orbit around Earth. It’s quite an honor to have your experiment chosen by the station, but things have not been going well. Every night Spencer (nicknamed Spence, though it’s somewhat inconsistent throughout what other characters call him) goes to sleep in the lab to have his sleep recorded; every morning he wakes up knowing he’s had terrible nightmares that he cannot remember.

There’s multiple viewpoints through, and there’s some headhopping which is a bit annoying at times but not terrible. The antagonists also have viewpoints, starting maybe halfway, so there’s no great mystery in how the story is going (or at least what they’re trying to accomplish).

There are some good things about the novel–for being fairly massive (and a bit slow in places), it reads pretty fast. The dialogue is good. The sequence on Mars, though it does bog down at one particular point, is quite interesting and some good scifi. There are some interesting side characters that I enjoyed very much.

That said, some other characters are almost walking stereotypes. There is a single female character of any note who is handled fairly badly. The theme of the story is heavy-handed almost to the point of ridiculousness in some places. And then there’s Spence.

Are you familiar with what it means when a story is considered “wish fulfillment”? Essentially, it’s when an author writes about what they wish would happen to them. My husband has recently been reading a novel about a man who’s cryogenically frozen, and when he wakes up, there’s a shortage of men and all the lovely, young, nubile women can’t keep their hands off of him. (My husband gave it an honest go, but eventually the book got too ridiculous and he gave up on it.) This feels like that in some places. All the good guys like Spence immediately, he gains intimate friends through no effort on his part (people who are willing to die for him), important people take care of him, etc. Yes, of course, there is the dream issue which is a problem, but there’s no lack of people trying to help him out.

And, of course, the single female character falls madly in love with him.

And Spence is kind of a jerk, especially through the first part of the book (it doesn’t really start to change until after Mars), which makes it a bit more grating.

(Oh, yeah, and there’s no female scientists. We talked about that already.)

So, let’s see. It’s an okay book. It has its good and bad points, but I don’t think I’d recommend it to someone else. There’s better scifi out there, both in terms of story and scifi concepts, and between the character pitfalls and Spence in general, the good points get somewhat overruled.

Did you read this with me, Squiders? Thoughts? Favorite part? What did you think about reading a single book over reading a series? Which would you prefer to do moving forward?

Common Writing Mistakes: Starting in the Wrong Place

Trucking right along, squiders.

(As an aside, Pinterest now allows you to create sub-boards, so I spent a lot of yesterday organizing my most problematic board, unhelpfully called “Your Pinterest Likes” and left over from when you could like pins. I, unfortunately, would both like and pin some pins, which has resulted in a lot of duplicates across boards, but I have gotten it straightened out now. Bwhaha. I wonder how the sub-boards affect the feeds of anyone who follows your boards. Anybody know?)

Now that we’re into story mechanics issues, let’s talk about what might be the most common issue of all: starting your story in the wrong place.

This is ridiculously easy to do. You can start too early. You can start too late. You can pick the wrong character to focus on, or have them do something completely useless in relation to the rest of the plot.

And the most annoying thing is that, a lot of the time, it’s not obvious that you’re starting wrong until the rest of the book is written.

Stemming from this issue is that starting in the wrong place can make it hard to get the rest of the story to flow, which means that you might languish at the beginning of the story, trying to beat it into submission.

Has that happened to you? You just can’t seem to get going because something’s obviously wrong.

(Ask me how many times I rewrote the beginning of my fantasy trilogy before I found a workable beginning spot. I dare you.)

Starting Too Early

This may be the most common of this common mistake. Your character does things, sometimes for chapters, before the story manages to get going. Some people will argue that you have to show what’s at stake for the character to lose before you have them lose it, but this can be done without three chapters of watching someone go through the daily routine.

Starting Too Late

You can get away with starting in the middle of the action, or even working backwards from a later plot point. You can even show a lot of earlier story through conventions such as flashbacks. But you can start too late, and if that information doesn’t come out in a timely fashion, then it feels like you’ve walked into a movie five minutes too late and are missing key information for the rest of the story.

Starting with the Wrong Character

Even if you have multiple viewpoints, there is still usually a “main” character, someone whose stakes are higher, someone who has a bigger journey to go through, to get through the completion of the book. You don’t always have to start with your main character, but realize that readers tend to bond with the first character in a book unless something is obviously a one off (a prologue, or a chapter from a murder victim’s point of view, for example). There also can be the problem of you trying to focus on the wrong character in general, and changing to a different character might make the story work better.

Starting with Useless Actions

Every scene counts in a story. It has to explore characterization, or move the plot along, or introduce new information, or some combination thereof. Yet many authors make the mistake of starting with something that does none of the above, such as going through their character’s daily routine. Can you have their daily routine mean something? Of course. But you do have to be purposeful with your intent. Even an exciting scene, such as a character getting carjacked, is useless if it doesn’t provide something larger to the story.

So, how do you fix this? Look at the story you’re trying to tell. Are you trying to stuff too much in the beginning? Are you leaving out key information? How does your opening scene work with your intended plot?

Some people recommend thinking about where you want the story to end instead, or even writing the ending first. By knowing where the story needs to go, it can help you understand what’s necessary to have it start.

What do you think, squiders? Other ways beginnings are wrong? Ways to fix them?

Common Writing Mistakes: Pacing and Plot Flow

Back to it, squiders!

Also, a reminder that we’ll discuss Dream Thief by Stephen R. Lawhead next Thursday, if you’re planning on reading that along with me. (Have you been reading it? Once again we have a future where all the scientists are men and who knows what the women are doing with themselves. It’s pretty sad in ’60s-era scifi, but this is mid ’80s and he should know better.)

(Also, I kind of want to punch the main character in the face, but we’ll get to that next week.)

Today we’re going to talk about issues with pacing and plot flow. Pacing is the speed of your story, and everything affects it, from how often you hit your plot points to your dialogue, your description, and even the length of your sentences. Plot flow is related, but is essentially the order your plot happens in and whether or not things make sense.

Have you ever read a book where you realize you’re halfway through and nothing’s happened? Or where things happen so quickly you’re exhausted just thinking about it? These are pacing issues.

The range of what is acceptable for pacing varies widely, with some genres tending to be faster (a lot of thrillers, for example) and others slower (romance). Some readers are willing to accept a slower or faster story pace than general as well, so you may find that some of your readers are fine with your pace while others are yelling at the book.

Pacing is a hard thing to work on. To some extent it’s instinctual, and it can help to read books to use as an example. Personally, I’ve found that the best way to get pacing to work better is to make sure you’re hitting key plot points when you’re supposed to. Too spread out, or lacking them early in the book, and your pacing is too slow. Too close together or bunched in weird places, and you get other problems.

Plot flow is directly related to pacing in that if your flow is messed up, your pacing is probably also messed up, and vice versa. If you have five things happen within a chapter and then another five chapters pass before anything else of note occurs, well.

But plot flow issues can also include what’s happening, and in what order. Is your character learning things before they should? Are they doing things and then doing them again because you forgot they’ve already been there, done that? Are you skipping key scenes that will help explain what’s happening? Are you forcing things to happen because you feel like they have to, not because they flow organically?

Plot flow issues can be hard to see while you’re writing as well. Some are obvious, such as when you get your character into a situation with no way out except some deus ex machina that stretches disbelief. But it might not be until you start getting feedback from your betas that you realize that you never showed your characters falling in love.

Perhaps the best way to avoid plot flow issues is to outline. If you know how your story is supposed to go, and what steps you need to go through to get there, it’s harder for things to sneak in (or get left out).

(See posts about outlining for more information on the subject.)

Thoughts about pacing and plot flow, Squiders?

Another nonfic post on Tuesday, and then the Dream Thief on Thursday. I hope everyone has a lovely weekend!

Star Trek Discovery, Mid-Season

Back in October, we talked a bit about Star Trek Discovery, which was fairly new at that point. And I think I spent most of the post complaining about CBS Access, actually.

(We have managed to get several free months out of CBS Access now, so I’m a little less grumpy about the whole situation, though it is still stupid and we had to buy my MIL a Roku for Christmas so she could watch the show.)

Discovery had 9 episodes in the fall, then went on a mid-season break, and started back up this past Sunday with the second half of the season.

(I have Feelings about Sunday’s episode. Most of them fall into the “sdfhkesfhsfhddf amazing” category but I am also REALLY MAD about one little part so I haven’t been the best conversationalist on the topic.)

So, now that we’re further into the series and the show is more established, how do I feel about it?

I love it. I unabashedly love it. Have there been some less than stellar episodes? Yes. Are there some characters that I don’t like that much? Yes. But that’s television.

(Stamets is no longer a no-go for me, but I still don’t like him as much as I want to like him.)

(Tilly, however, I ♥.)

The acting is great, the writing is good, the throwbacks to the original series and even Enterprise make me happy, and for whatever flaws you want to point out (mileage on that seems to vary person to person), the story is interesting and engaging. It is good television. And it is good Star Trek.

(Though I am sad that it is too adult in content to be able to watch with my kids. Most episodes are rated TV-MA, and it does get dark and scary in some places. But I can still watch TOS and TNG with my kids when they are willing to sit down and watch Trek with me, which, to be honest, is not often.)

(Though we did watch this very interesting Next Gen ep the other day that I don’t remember, about a Romulan who comes to the Enterprise with information, fully intending to betray the Empire to help avert a war, but the Empire has fed him false information so he basically just proved he was a traitor and the Federation got nothing useful.)

(I ♥ Romulans.)

The new plotline that started up on Sunday is amazing and I wish I could gush about it more without revealing major spoilers. I’m super excited about this week’s episode.

So if you’ve been holding out on watching Discovery for any reason, I’d say go for it. As I said last time, it takes a few episodes to get the shakes out, but man, it is so worth it. You should catch up now, so we can flail about the next few episodes together, because they promise to be doozies.

Watching Discovery already, Squiders? Thoughts? Captain Killy, amirite?