Monday, March 28, 2016

Prose Blip – Thoughts

People like to think.
From the moment we awaken, our brains fire minute electrical charges along the neurons that make up the mass of tissue referred to as the brain. These electrical charges are wholly responsible for our thought and consciousness.
And people do it all the time.

We think about things like “what’s for lunch” and “I wish I didn’t have calculus homework today” and “what is the meaning of life”.
Some thoughts are deep, some are shallow, and some are in the middle. All of these thoughts can be used – and should be used – in novels to create emotion.
The deep thoughts, the hurting thoughts, the joyful thoughts, the thoughts of fear and anger and compassion and sorrow all provide excellent snippets of emotion.

But how do we use them?
Let’s ponder that thought.

The Problem with Thoughts

One of the most common ways to express thought in a novel is this:

Oh great, Bart thought, another piece of metal.

Basically, it’s dialogue without tags, and it’s spoken directly in the brain of the “speaker”. We usually indicate thoughts with italics (or underscoring, if you like do that in your early drafts) and they sound a lot like the inner voice that we all have (mine currently has an Irish accent, which is making writing this blog post quite difficult).

The thing is… this way of using thoughts almost always looks amateur. I’ve read maybe two authors who can get away with direct thought-to-italics and not sound like thirteen-year-old kids opening up Microsoft Word for the first time. (If you’re thirteen, I’d apologize, but thirteen-year-old me was the same way so it’s okay.)
Direct thoughts are an easy way to tell emotion. You’ll notice in that thought above that I showed nothing. I didn’t show the chagrin and annoyance that Bart feels, I didn’t show the shape and texture and color of that piece of metal.
I told you that Bart was feeling annoyed (by “oh great”) and I showed you that there was metal (by “another piece of metal”). This is a case of awfully stupid telling. While there are times for telling (someday I really ought to just make a blog post about this…), nine times out of ten you should show.
This is one of them.

“But Aidan I’ve already shown the piece of metal and I’ve shown Bart sighing and muttering obscene words.”
Well then… why tell us as well? If you’ve already shown that he’s annoyed by this additional piece of metal, then why tell us as well?

Here’s the deal: If the prose already shows the emotion given by the thought, don’t tell us the thought.
A nice little guideline for you. If you’ve already shown us the evil knights, you don’t have to give us the main character’s overly dramatic “we’re doomed!” thought.
Also never use that thought. Ever.
There are some thoughts that just need to be included, like “Man, I wished I stayed home today” when the MC is fighting hordes of orcs. But it needs to match your style. If your style doesn’t work with blatant thoughts like this…
Use them.

A Penny-sized Placement for Your Thoughts

But Aidan you just told us to use thoughts in our novels.
Why yes, yes I did. How observant of you.
Here’s the deal: I do want you to use thoughts in your novel. I want you to use hundreds and hundreds of thoughts. Your prose should be littered with so many thoughts that you can pick a random paragraph from your novel and know exactly what the point-of-view character is thinking.

Well, look at your novel. Look at what makes up the majority of the words in your novel.
You’ve got two things: dialogue and narrative.

It’s obvious that dialogue can’t be littered with thoughts, right?
Dialogue is spoken thoughts. It’s literally our thoughts shared with someone else. That is what dialogue is. So, rather than creating a cliché inner monologue, try – when appropriate – to turn thoughts into dialogue. Rather than your main character thinking “oh great, another piece of metal”, have them turn to their buddy and say:

“Well I’ll be kicked to the moon,” Bart muttered, “you’ve got another one?”
Dan nodded. “I like this one even better: see how shiny it is?”

This is still a form of telling, in some ways, but it’s telling through showing. I’m showing you dialogue that tells you something. And that’s the secret. Show me what you have to tell, rather than telling what you have to tell.

Now what about that last piece of prose? The narrative.
In all good novels, the narrative is an extension of your character’s mind. It sounds like they sound, it reacts the way they react. In a way, all of the narrative is one big thought. It’s your character’s thoughts, but it’s the thoughts that don’t get emphasized.
I think that this is the best way to communicate thought. By showing through the narrative your character’s state of mind, you draw the reader in and we read the narrative as a series of thoughts by your character.
For example, one or two word sentences can be used to your advantage in prose, and are basically thoughts without the italics:

“Where is Velin?” The man always appeared at his side, ready to offer unwanted advice, ready to ask for a retreat. Gaream forced back a scowl. “Where is he?”
The same priest from before took his arm, led him toward the doors. “Highness… Sir Velin fell at the gate. He’s dead, Highness.”
     Gaream’s vision blurred, he hardly noticed as the priests led him into the building, as the others followed with their horses. Velin was dead. The man irritated Gaream, for sure, but not enough to make his death… right.

This is an excerpt from my current project, in which the main character learns of the death of one of his officers. I want you to notice, specifically, the single word paragraph inserted into the midst of the narrative:
This could be italicized, if I wanted it to be. It’s a direct thought from Gaream’s head to the prose. But I don’t. Instead, I decided to leave it as it is: a piece of the prose. Instead of looking like a thought, it looks like a piece of narrative separated for emphasis. Because of the shortness, the simplicity, it gives you the feeling of terseness, surprise, and no small amount of ‘why me’.

So. Rather than telling us all the things we need to know, why not show us? Why not give us thoughts through the narrative, and leave the italics to emphasizing what really needs to be?

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Friday, March 25, 2016

A Review – Warbreaker

I’m gonna do something different than usual.
Rather than tell you how your novel is awful and how to fix it, I’m going to show you an example of a good novel.

Today, I’m going to review a book written by one of my favorite authors. It’s one of his more obscure books, but one worth noting.
I give you Warbreaker.

Picture found on Sanderson's website; all copyrights to their respective owners.

The Breakdown – Spoiler-free Version

Warbreaker is written by Brandon Sanderson, and was published in 2009 (a blast from the past, hm?).
Rather than coming up with my own summary, I’ll read to you (please imagine a gentle, deep narrator’s voice) the synopsis off of the book jacket, yes?

Warbreaker is the story of two sisters who happen to be princesses, the God King one of them has to marry, the lesser god who doesn’t like his job, and the immortal who’s still trying to undo the mistakes he made hundreds of years ago.
Their world is one in which those who die in glory return as gods to live confined to a pantheon in Hallendren’s capital city and where a power known as BioChromatic magic is based on an essence known as breath that can only be collected one unit at a time from individual people.
By using breath and drawing upon the color in everyday objets, all manner of miracles and mischief can be accomplished. It will take considerable quantities of each to resolve all the challenges facing Vivenna and Siri, princesses of Idres; Susebron the God King; Lightsong, reluctant god of bravery; and mysterious Vasher, the Warbreaker.

Well… that about sums it up.
The tone of the synopsis matches rather well the tone of the book: it seems to be making fun of itself in some parts (“two sisters who happen to be princesses”) but it’s also very deep and philosophical at other times (“the lesser god who doesn’t like his job” has to get philosophical, doesn’t it?)

Brandon Sanderson has been writing fantasy novels for years, now, and he’s done some pretty great stuff. From finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, to starting his own universe filled with steampunk-fantasy worlds (Mistborn, Alloy of Law, etc.) and superhero-fantasy (The Reckoners trilogy) all the way to massive high fantasy tales (The Stormlight Archives). Along the way he’s written a few other things (most notably Rithmatist) and while it seems to be a cliché to compare good fantasy writers to Tolkien, Sanderson actually deserves it.
Each of his worlds is complex and well developed (he spent more than ten years developing Roshar, the world for The Stormlight Archives) and his magic systems are so real.

In Which I sort of Talk, but Not Really

I’d like to take a moment for this quote from a review that’s slapped on the back of the book jacket of Warbreaker:

“Sanderson’s heroines and heroes are outstanding – especially Vasher, the Warbreaker, whose special relationship with his sentient sword is both sardonic and sinister. The mysteries of life after death, of identity and destiny, of the politics of magic, are unveiled through three-dimensional characters. Not only has Sanderson drawn a freshly imagined world and its society, he has also given us a plot full of unexpected twists and turns. In subtle prose, notable for its quiet irony, Sanderson tells the story of two sisters and the god they are doomed to marry. Anyone looking for a different and refreshing fantasy novel will be delighted.”

-Michael Moorcock on Warbreaker

I feel like this review draws out the best parts of this book and wanted to note it. Sanderson spends a lot of time building his worlds. A lot. They have so much detail, so much background, so much vibrant culture, yet he still focuses on the plot and characters.
His story is never sacrificed for the world it takes place in. That’s called real storytelling, right there.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is as follows:

“I try to avoid having thoughts. They lead to other thoughts, and – if you’re not careful – those lead to actions. Actions make you tired. I have this on rather good authority from someone who once read it in a book.”

This amusing little quote is from Lightsong, the aforementioned disgruntled lesser god. He doesn’t believe in his own divinity, which creates some amusing – yet philosophic – discussions between himself and his priests. And the other gods and goddesses, of course.
Lightsong seems intent on being the worst possible god, but ends up being one of the most clever, charming, and sacrificial characters you’ll ever know. His part in the story is fantastically played out.

Another interesting quote from one of my favorite characters:

“You know, Princess, nobody really tells mercenaries anything. It’s unfortunate – but realistic – drawback of our profession. Never trusted. Never looked to for advice.”

(Quote courtesy of Denth, the mercenary.)
One the best parts of this book is how well Sanderson takes a cliché – untrusted mercenaries – and turns it on its head. His mercenaries are funny. They’re not just a bunch of coarse idiots with big swords and small brains.
He takes a cliché and uses it, then breaks it, and creates a new piece of vibrant literature.
It’s fabulous.

Also, that bit earlier about the sentient sword? Well, it’s worth reading the book to find out because this sword is hilarious. And it brings up some pretty deep questions along the way, like “what is evil”.

Downfalls and Upfalls

No book is perfect.
In fact, there will never be a perfect book. There will be some books that have dry parts, some books with clichéd or flat characters, some books with sluggish plots, some books with excessive Deus ex Machina at the end.

Even this book.
I’ve praised it up the proverbial wall, now it’s time to put the book back on the table and tell you this: the book isn’t perfect.

It’s got a few flaws, as well as a few moments where personal opinion might disagree with the themes. But that’s how the world works, right?

An example: there is a moment in the book where a certain character [name omitted because spoilers] undergoes a drastic change of character. While realistic, it happens… too quickly. This moment of change is supposedly stretched out over three weeks, but we don’t get to see any of those three weeks. Thus, the change can be jarring at first.

Another example: some of the surprising twists at the end (his books always have at least two) completely lack foreshadowing. Now, it’s good to have readers go “I never saw that coming”, but it’s not good to get reactions like “Why is that even possible? That’s out of character”. When you don’t foreshadow, you can end up with actions that seem wrong for the given character.
Such is it for this book on one occasion or another. A few of the twists you have to just re-read the book to spot the foreshadowing, but others come out of nowhere and take some getting used to.

As I’ve said, no book is perfect.

Now I usually avoid judging a book purely on “objectionable” content because it really doesn’t matter to me and I’m of the view that such content doesn’t make a book bad just by its presence, but I may as well give you a quick summary so you don’t go reading this book aloud to young children:
This is adult fiction. It’s not a children’s book, and it’s not angst-filled YA. It deals with real themes, some of which can be harsh or uncomfortable. There is mild language and violence, along with some sexual innuendo (some implicit, some… not).
So don’t go reading this book aloud to a five-year-old. Some maturity required.

There’s that, you’re welcome.

One last thing to note: because Warbreaker revolves around characters who are considered gods, Sanderson has several moments where he gets the chance to introduce religious themes. He does so with tact, and they fit with the characters who discuss them. For instance, the malcontent Lightsong frequently argues with his own priests about his divinity, and they often respond with arguments for faith and devotion.

Most of these discussions are purely in character and there are only one or two which you could say “that was clearly directed toward the reader”.
If religious themes bother you, there’s that. But he does an excellent job providing some thought-provoking questions with them.

In Conclusion

Warbreaker won’t be the best book you’ll ever read.
There, have an honest truth.

But if we only read books because we wanted them to be the best book we’d ever read, we could only read one book.
That’s a sad reality to think about – reading only one book. It makes me a trifle mournful just to think about such a reality. I’d rather not imagine such a place.

Instead, we read books to experience new worlds, new emotions, new people, new ideas. And that’s what Warbreaker does. It introduces us to a fantastic world with fantastic characters. Sanderson pulls in the reader and keeps them to the very end.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not the best.
But it is good.
In the end… that’s what really counts, isn’t it?

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Monday, March 21, 2016

World Blip – Of Steampunk and Cyberpunk

Have you ever seen a movie or read a book with a setting like these?

Each of these settings has a name: Steampunk (for the steam/brass) and Cyberpunk (for the chrome/cybernetics). These fascinating groups are coming into their own now, growing in popularity every year.

For the longest time, it was hard to find steampunk or cyberpunk as their respective genres, but now they’re becoming more and more popular. They can be attached to any other genre (from sci-fi to dystopian to fantasy to alternate history) and can be used to make your world diverse.

Maybe you’ve been interested in using such a genre for some time, but aren’t sure how to get started. I hope to address such a thing today.

Bringing Steam to Story

I’ve written a steampunk-dystopian story (Asher’s Song) in which our world has been forced backward, technology-wise, while maintaining the same basic cultures. This, I think, brings up the most important aspect of steampunk: why steam?
If you want to use steampunk, you need a good reason for technology to have veered off in that direction. Consider our world: why aren’t we surrounded by steam-puffing pistons and coal miners?
Because we advanced in a different direction. We went the route of electricity. If our world continues, we might even end up in a world of cyberpunk. It’ll be great.

Meanwhile, what made your world choose differently? Is electricity even discovered? Why don’t they use it instead? What about petroleum? Do they use gasoline?
You need answers to those questions, and you need to subtly indicate those answers. DON’T, however, spit the answer right out. Give us the reason slowly. Let us accept your world as we grow to know your plot and characters and setting. The reader will give you the benefit of the doubt for a little while.

Now. Steampunk is more than just steam and pistons and trains and pressure gauges. Each genre has its special twist on fashion. With steampunk, you really have two standard options. Of course, you can deviate (as I sort of did), but there are usually two ways of doing it: Victorian or Old West.
Many steampunk novels are told in an alternate reality where Victorian England has exploded with steam-powered gadgets or in the Wild West where carriages are pulled by wooden horses on wheels and six-shooters are as common as socks.

Now you can deviate, especially when telling a steampunk mixed with a secondary genre. For instance, I use a combination of post-modern fashion and Victorian. Because I mostly dealt with poor people (rather than rich), this meant a lot of drab colors (browns and whites) with a scattering of t-shirts and jeans. I got to use color as a comparison between people. It’s pretty great.

Cyber-plots and Cyber-characters

I’ve not yet had the pleasure of writing in this genre, but I know a bit about it and have a few story ideas which involve such a genre.
Cyberpunk usually takes today’s technology and blows it up into a largescale operation. One of the most popular ways to do this is through cyborgs – part human, part machine.
Computers, 3-D holograms, high-speed vehicles, flashing lights, punk-fashion.
It’s all about the hardware here. Your characters might have bionic eyes, mechanical limbs, extra memory storage inserted into their skull, x-ray vision, lasers, and so forth. Most of the time, big corporations are the villains, or perhaps artificial intelligence, or perhaps virtual reality.
Cyberpunk is what could happen to our world, thirty years or so in the future. Maybe less.
It’s kinda exciting.

Meanwhile, the fashion is much more modern and subjective. Whereas steampunk can give you the guidelines of “Victorian or Old West”, cyberpunk doesn’t.
The best it can do is this: chrome and metallic colors with black.
Really, it’s up to you. Your world can go the leather route, the metallic route, the “dye-your-hair-a-million-colors” route, or any other direction you want. Casual is more common than formal.





Bringing “–punk” Genres to Life

There’s this thing about worldbuilding in these genres: it often becomes the focus. That’s not always a bad thing, but it can be. If your story only focuses on the tech and the fashion – both good things – then you can lose sight of things even more important: the plot (conflict) and characters (emotion). As cool as your world is, the story is more important.

So. Develop your cyberpunk and steampunk worlds. They deserve to be vibrant and well-developed. At the same time, however, introduce them carefully. Do it quickly – otherwise it can be jarring – but do it subtly. Don’t spend two pages describing some piece of tech. Instead, show us the people wearing their peculiar clothing, going about their daily lives. Assume that the reader knows how some technology works and show us what it does, rather than describing it.
Show, don’t tell.
This is another instance where that phrase is best followed.

Both of these genres are great examples of diverse writing: they can keep your fantasy novel from becoming stagnant, they can keep your alternate history from sounding exactly like our world, and they can add a fresh twist to your dystopian.
Go forth and multiply your worlds.

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*note: all photos in this post belong to their respective owners and were found using the following google searches: "steampunk" and "cyberpunk", respectively. No copyright infringement intended. The "world blip" one is mine, of course. Duh.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Conflict vs. Emotion

Every story needs conflict.
Without conflict, there is no story. A story is about change, but change never comes without conflict. That much is clear when you consider the stories all around you. The real stories, the ones worth reading, are the stories with conflict.

And every story needs emotion.
If your story doesn’t make me feel anything, I’m not going to care about your story. People read to escape. They read to see new things through new eyes, from a fresh perspective. We read to experience things we haven’t seen, things that might not be possible in this world. Through that, through the conflict, we want to feel. We want to be so immersed in the story that we cry when your characters cry, laugh when they laugh, fear what they fear.

There are countless ways to create emotion, and countless ways to create conflict.
They’re very similar, and one usually accompanies the other. Emotion creates conflict and conflict creates emotion.
But sometimes… they don’t.
There are times when emotion doesn’t create conflict, and conflict is emotionless. What then? How to we make our scenes of conflict full of emotion, and the moments of emotion tense with conflict?


The Conflict of Emotion

One of the simplest ways to create emotion in your reader is showing it in your characters.
When your character feels something, your reader will probably feel it, too.
I say probably because not all character emotions fit your reader. If your character is angry, your reader won’t necessarily be angry. Instead, they may be sad that your character has to be angry at their child or whatever.
The idea is thus: creating empathy creates emotion.

If you show (the key word is show) your characters having emotion, your reader will have emotions, too. Your reader will begin to care about the story, and that is the most important emotion for them to feel.

Emotions are usually offshoots of conflict. Someone stabs someone else with a knife, the stabbed person feels pain. The victim’s girlfriend feels desperation and panic. The guy with the knife feels triumph.
And it all comes from a conflict; one guy has a knife, and he wants to stab the other guy. The other guy doesn’t want to get stabbed.
There it is: conflict.

Sometimes, however, emotion can suddenly happen and there is no real conflict. These emotions are usually grouped together into the idea of “angst” or “teenagers”. Emotions that happen for no particular reason are stupid.

This is not to say that a grieving person can’t suddenly feel really sad, even though they’d been happy all day. That sudden sadness isn’t without conflict. Grief can hit a person at random times, especially when they think they’re getting over it. It’s the ripples of an older conflict.
So what do you do when your characters are feeling emotion without a conflict to accompany it?
Simple: add conflict.
If a scene is without conflict, it needs conflict. If it doesn’t have conflict, it doesn’t deserve a spot in your novel or short story or financial report.

It might happen that adding conflict means that the emotions have to change. That’s fine. Emotions that aren’t there for any particular reason usually aren’t that strong anyway.

The Emotion of Conflict

All real stories have conflict.
Yeah, I’ve already said that, but it’s worth repeating.
Conflict is to story as cacao is to chocolate. You can make chocolate without cacao, and you can make story without conflict, but they’re both disgusting that way.

It’s easy to make conflict, really. You take a person and their goal, and you stick something in the way. That something can be anything from the weather, to traveling a long distance, to themselves, to their best friend to their enemy, to an army of orcs.
And there it is.
Easy enough, right?
Well, it’s easy until you realize that there’s no emotion. Everything feels stale, even though there’s conflict. Your villain is stronger than your hero and is threatening to kill them, but you’ve got nothing.
The hero feels flat, the villain is stale, the scene is stagnant.
Nothing feels right.
What now?

The lack of emotion is a common mistake in writing. If your characters don’t feel emotion, then your reader won’t feel emotion. Even if you’re writing a cool-headed character who bottles up all their feelings, your reader still needs to see those feelings. Without them it’s hard to read your story.

Another way emotion can go missing is in your prose. If you write a tense scene the same way you write a casual scene, the tense scene won’t feel tense.
Tense scenes need the snapping, concise imagery of near-panic. They need to feel vivid and real, like they’re happening around us at the very moment we read them. Even if they’re written in past tense.

Your prose can make a scene emotional, even if the characters aren’t all that emotional. Sometimes a character without emotions fits, but the rest of the narrative has to make up for it in stark detail.

So how do you add emotion to conflict?
Show us the thoughts and feelings of your characters. Characters who feel things and show them through thoughts and actions are characters your readers will relate to. How your characters react to a situation will determine the emotion of your reader and will heighten the conflict.
Match your prose to the scene. A gunfight should have more tension than a tea party, in most cases. But then, there can be some pretty intense tea parties. Just a fair warning.
Heighten the stakes. No, I didn’t talk about this one earlier, but I thought I’d mention it. If a conflict feels stale, that could indicate that it’s a weak conflict. There’s not enough that could go wrong, should the hero lose this conflict. Make us care more, make us want the hero to win more than anything else in the world.
Do it.

The Variance of Conflict and Emotion

The thing about emotions, they get old when presented over and over and over.
Same goes with conflict.
If your story has the same series of conflicts and emotions over and over and over, then we’re going to get bored quickly.

Example: character fights, loses, and feels bad. Then they try again, lose, and feel bad. Rinse and repeat four times.
By the third time, your reader will be bored.

We want diversity in emotion and conflict.
If you’ve already had the character lose two puppies and cry over them, don’t introduce a third sickly puppy unless you intend for this third puppy to survive. Your reader won’t feel bad about the next puppy because we’ve stopped caring about your story.

Never let us stop carrying about your story.
A story should be a whirlwind of emotion, a rollercoaster of conflict and loss and achievement and burden and success and strife and emotion and overwhelming odds and ultimate sacrifice and ultimate victory.

That is a good story.
That is emotion and conflict weaved together to make your story strong.

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The Rough Draft (Vera Aisling)