Archive for category Writing
I haven’t posted for a while because in my other profession I have been hectically busy. How’s it going in there? Very well, thank you, but we’re not out of the woods yet. Anyway, I was particularly taken with Chuck Wendig’s take on Things You Should Know When Writing About Guns, and I wanted to do something similar for Archery.
Bows and arrows have been around since hunters decided to stop throwing sticks at the wildlife by hand, and maybe for that reason writers tend to think they are simple to make and use in a fantasy setting. After all, any self-respecting pseudo-medieval character would have known how to shoot a bow and arrow, right?
Wrong. A novice bowman has about as much of a chance of successfully making a bow and arrow that can be used as an effective weapon over more than ten yards as they have of making a red carpet out of fruit. And if you’re within ten yards of your enemy, a bow is the wrong weapon to reach for.
Let’s dispel some myths about novices:
- Most novices can’t hit a 4-foot diameter target with an arrow from ten yards until they’ve been taught to shoot. I know, I help run beginners courses. Hitting a target at 30 yards is impossible. They are using the wrong muscles, they’re not aligned properly and they are more likely to injure themselves that anyone else (string-slap is when the string hits your bow arm on release like a high speed garotte. It leaves spectacular bruises)
- Most novices can’t draw a bow of more that 20lbs in draw weight (the force needed to draw back the string). If they can draw it, they can’t hold it. In order to shoot an arrow more than 30 yards you have to be able to draw and shoot a bow of more than 20lbs, otherwise you’re aiming in mid-air above the target and you have no idea where the arrow is going.
- Making a bow takes skill, time and knowledge. The right wood, taken from the right places, seasoned in the right way, crafted in expert hands, will make a good weapon. Most modern bows are laminated wood because it performs better. Most self-bows (bows made without lamination) are slow, and they warp because the mix of heartwood and sapwood expand and contract at different rates. Waterproof glue for lamination wasn’t invented until the late nineteenth century.
- You can make a bow out of almost any springy material and it will work to some extent. An arrow, however, must be straight and must be made of a material that can take the extreme force imparted by the bow without splitting down the middle at the nock (where the string goes) or shattering on release, or coming apart in mid-air.
- The fletches on the arrow must stay on and must be aligned with a constant offset angle so that the arrow will spin in the air. If they are feathers they should be from the same wing of the same bird so that they curve the same way.
- Arrows all need to flex by the same amount – too flexible and they’ll break, too stiff and they won’t fly straight. Each set of arrows has to be matched to the bow, the archer, and the style of shooting. And each other. Different weights of arrows fly different distances with the same force, so they all have to weigh the same too.
- The centre of gravity must be in the right place, just forward of the centre. Too far forward and they’ll stall, too far back and they won’t fly straight. And if you have any intention towards adjusting your aim between shots, they all need to be identical.
- A bow-string must be capable of holding the full weight of the bow and then stopping the bow from flying apart when it is released. Even some modern materials cannot withstand a bow being released without an arrow to absorb some of the energy. A vine, creeper, or plant will pull apart. Hair is too prone to breaking. String-making is an art, even in the present day.
- You don’t shoot a bow of more than 20lbs off your fingers. Its like holding a cheese-wire and lifting ten bags of sugar. It will slice into the joints of your fingers. You need a tab, or finger guard, thumb-ring or shooting glove – something between the bow-string and you.
So none of this is accidental. Bows, arrows, strings and the accessories necessary to shoot them require skilled craftsmanship. That’s why there were guilds of Bowyers and of Fletchers. You had to serve an apprenticeship and learn your trade. Sure, a makeshift bow could be cut from a hedgerow, but it will be lightweight and prone to splitting. That assumes that you have a string to string it with, of the right length and capable of withstanding the forces involved. Sinew works well after hours of boiling and shaving and careful preparation, and you have the tools to hand.
And then you have to make arrows.
Maybe it’s just easier to go back to throwing rocks at things?
Recently I wrote a piece for Bastard Books about standing at the crossroads of writing and the decisions I am making about what comes next. There is a brief extract below, but click the link for the full article:
With the completion of the fourth and final book in The Courts of the Feyre I find myself at a cross-roads. Up until now I’ve styled myself as an Urban Fantasy Author, because that’s what I’ve written and it makes it easier for readers who are likely to enjoy my work to find me. For most people, though, urban fantasy isn’t a genre, and the words urban and fantasy simply don’t mean anything together. I might as well say goldfish collider for all the sense it makes to them. (Now I have an image of two goldfish swimming around a giant toroidal tank in opposite directions until they collide and scales and fins fly off in spiral patterns. That’s what an imagination will do to you. Be warned.) Click here to go to the full article…
The Eighth Court, the fourth and final book in the series, The Courts of the Feyre, is finished. It’s with my publisher, who may request some revisions or amendments, and after that it has to go through copy edit, and proof-reading, and all the other publication magic but, to me, it feels finished. I’m not going to spoil it for readers by sharing the plot, but I would like to reflect on the series, and what writing the last book was like.
It was hard. The last year hasn’t been the easiest of times for reasons to do with the health and well-being of the people closest to me. Fortunately everyone seems to be pulling through and things are generally on the up, which is a relief to us all. Setting myself apart from all that to write has been difficult, but even without the events of the year this book would have been hard.
I’ve been working full-time while I’ve been writing, which is great because it pays the bills. I have a job in IT that is engaging, complex and sometimes difficult, and one of the challenges has been the gear-change between working, where I’m thinking about networks, servers and infrastructure, and writing, where I’m thinking about characters, plots, scenes and settings. Writing requires a different mind-set, and I confess that some evenings I wasn’t able to make the switch, which meant that either I got no writing done, or the next day I would sit down and delete everything from the previous day and start again. Although the book is just under 120,000 words, I estimate that I’ve written closer to 180,000 words. Some chapters have been written two or three times before I felt they were right.
I set out with some clear goals. I already knew how the series would end, or I thought I did, and I had to work towards that end in a way that made sense for the characters and the situation that had already been created. There were some questions that were created by the previous books in the series, and those questions needed answers. The series themes, of things hidden in plain sight, of events from long ago having impact in the present day, and of a hidden world beneath the one we know, needed to be continued and developed. The one big question – what has this all been about – needed an answer.
With this being the final book in the series, I didn’t want to bring in a lot of new characters or elements which hadn’t been seen before. There are already well over 50 characters in the books, some of whom are dead, or won’t be seen again, but I felt there was plenty to work with. There are a few minor characters that appear in this book but mostly they’re people we’ve already encountered earlier. The magic in the book is consistent with the magic that already exists. There are some surprises, but those are consistent with what we already know. The world of the Feyre has a lot of detail behind it which dictates how and why things are the way they are, and in this final book more of this will be revealed, but the world will remain largely mysterious. Be assured, there are rules and constraints and reasons, but they’re not in the book. Perhaps one day there will be a Courts of the Feyre bestiary, but not yet.
Most of all, I wanted this to be a satisfying end to the series, and that meant delivering on the promises set by the previous three books. Niall, Blackbird and Alex each have their own plot arc, and each of these arcs needed to reach a conclusion in this book. Each of them had been changed by the events in the series, and in the final book those changes needed to bear fruit – we should feel that they have reached a conclusion and a resolution. It turns out that writing the final book in a series is harder than writing any of the others. I think I said once that if I’d known how hard writing would be I would never have started – that applies even more to a series. I liken it to rolling a snowball – the more you roll it, the bigger it gets and the harder it is to roll, but roll it must.
And when I got to the end that I’d planned from the start, it didn’t work the way I thought it should. I was forced to step back, reconsider, and write a different ending. I like the new ending, but it was a total surprise. I had no idea it was going to end quite like that, but the new ending works so much better.
Before I sent the book to my editor, Lee, I went back to my goals and asked myself where exactly I had delivered on the objectives I’d set for myself. I found the pieces in the text and read them back to make sure I’d done what I set out to do. To me, it’s all there, and that’s why I can say that it feels finished. Of course, I’m not the final arbiter of that, and you the readers must judge that for yourself.
To me, though, The Courts of the Feyre feels complete, and I’ve told the story I set out to tell.
We have reached the final episode in my series, The Twelve Rules of Writing, with this post addressing the subject of submitting to agents and publishers.
To remind you of what Rule 12 is all about, here it is:~
12. When’s the best time to submit my work to an agent or publisher?
Straight away! Agents and publishers are notoriously slow in responding and generally spend their time having lunch or reading books that are already published. By submitting your work before it’s finished you get ahead of the queue and don’t waste time waiting for a response.
Make sure you include critique from your Mum – no-one knows you better – and don’t worry about those pesky submission guidelines. They’re only there for the clueless and you don’t want to be one of those, do you?
All too often, writers finish a piece of work, do a run-through edit looking for spelling mistakes and grammar issues, and then get carried away by the excitement of reaching the end and send it off to an agent in the hope that it will be picked up and published. In 90% of cases this work is not ready for submission. If you do this and then read back through what you’ve sent, you will almost certainly find areas where you could have improved your submission. This is a wasted opportunity.
There is no single method that will bring you success with an agent or publisher, though great writing is a prerequisite, but there are plenty of things that you should and shouldn’t do. Bear in mind that submitting requires a different set of skills to writing, where you have already spent many hundreds of hours honing your skills. This is a new skill-set, and you will need to spend time developing these skills, practicing and improving, before you send in your submission.
The following may help you along the way:
Finish your work before submitting
A publisher or agent will want to see that you can not only start a story, but finish one as well. They are not interested in part-completed projects or work-in-progress. If it’s not finished, it’s not ready for submission. This applies to all fiction – non-fiction is different and can work from an outline or proposal. Finish your work before even considering submission.
Polish your work
A publisher or agent will look at a piece of work once. If you submit it before it is ready then you are having them look at work that is not your best, which is a wasted opportunity. Only re-submit the same work to the same agent or publisher if they have asked you to look at some issues and re-send. Resubmitting multiple versions of the same piece just emphasises that you were not ready the first time and makes you look premature and unprofessional.
Have your work objectively critiqued before submission
There will be mistakes in your work that you cannot see because they are your mistakes. We are blind to our own weaknesses. Get someone independent and objective (not a family member or best friend who may tell you what you want to hear) to review your work and give you critical feedback. When they offer you honest feedback that criticises your work, accept it graciously – they are doing you a huge favour. You do not need to pay for this – join a free critique group.
Take a break from your work
Having finished your work you are naturally impatient to see if it will be successful, but time is your friend. If you leave it alone for at least a couple of weeks you will return to it with an objective eye and will almost certainly be able to improve it.
Research agents and publishers
In the meantime you can research agents and publishers. They are not homogenous, they like different things and accept submissions based on different criteria. Be clear on where your work is positioned in market terms and then find agents that accept submissions based on that market. The best agents are the ones who already represent authors who write what you write – likewise publishers. If the agent’s listing or website says “No fantasy” and you’re a fantasy author then eliminate them from your list – no always means no, and you are wasting everyone’s time if you submit.
Check Predators and Editors
Once you have a lits of candidate agents and publishers, ordered by how suitable they are for your work and whether they are open for submissions, you will need to check that they are legitimate. Remember the simple rule – in publishing money flows to the author, not the other way. If there are expenses then these should be deducted from your income. If there are up-front charges, reading fees, assessment charges or deposits then this is a RED FLAG.
Predators and Editors is a website that tracks unscrupulous members of the publishing business. They also have a wealth of resources on submissions – read and digest before submitting. They are also seeking donations to defend against a court case at present, so please consider donating some money towards this. They are a fantastic resource for writers that deserve our support.
Spend time on your query letter and synopsis
If you spend three years writing a novel and then three hours writing a query letter and synopsis then you are doing yourself a disservice. An agent or publisher will read your query letter and synopsis not just for factual information but to get a feel for your writing style and your ability to communicate. It is a showcase for your skills and a sample of your abilities. It should be professional, courteous and clear. It should be short, but give all the information needed to take your query forward. In general it should:
- Be addressed to the named agent you have selected, using the correct form of address
- Include your contact details: name, email address, physical address and phone number
- State the genre and word-count of your work
- Give a brief one-page summary of the main plot, characters and setting
- List any paid publishing credits relevant to this work
- Mention if you are submitting to anyone else (no more than one or two others)
It also needs to include your unique voice and the things that makes your work so special that it will stand out from the rest of the slush-pile. Query letters are hard to write, so be prepared to go through many revisions and to work at getting it just right. You will also need to write a synopsis that summarises the main plot, explains what’s at stake, and tells the reader why they should care. You are distilling 100,000 words down into a page, so make every word count. Have both your query letter and synopsis critiqued objectively by someone independent.
Prioritise your list of agents and publishing according to how well they fit your work. Find a couple that are absolutely right for you and research them in more detail. Read their blog, website & Facebook page if they have one. Read books published by their clients, get to know what they like and don’t like but stop short of actual stalking. Agents and publishers show you what they like by publishing it – you owe it to yourself to find out what that is and see if they’re likely to buy what you’ve produced. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. Put them on your reserve list and find someone else.
In your query you will mention whether you are submitting to anyone else. This is where submitting to a maximum of three agents or publishers wins because you show that (a) you have done your research and (b) that you think they are right for you. Don’t be tempted to lie about this or anything else. If this works out then you are starting a relationship of trust, which you wan to be based on honesty and integrity. Publishers and agents all talk to each other and you have a strong chance of being found out.
Follow Submission Guidelines
If this wasn’t in bold already, I would put it in bold. Follow the guidelines. Agents and publishers are trying to help you by telling you what they would like to see. If they say five pages then send five pages, if it says 1,000 words, then send 1,000 words. If they say no attachments then don’t, for heaven’s sake, send them an attachment. Thousands of authors get rejected every year because they don’t read and follow the guidelines – don’t be one of them.
Check everything three times
Once you have submitted your query and synopsis you cannot get it back. If you have done your research well, then these are very likely the best agents in the world for you, and you won’t want to mess up your one chance with them. Check, check and check again. Check grammar, spelling, format – re-read the guidelines and get someone else to check for you. Ensure you have the right email address, postal address, subject line and anything else.
Stop, go back and re-read your synopsis. Is your query letter perfect? Absolutely perfect? Does it meet the guidelines?
Then when you are absolutely sure, you can send it.
Wait by working
You are going to have to wait for a response. A busy agent or publisher (and most of them are very busy indeed) will prioritise for the existing clients and business first. They will have other work that has to be done and they will fit reading queries into their day where and when they can. They may be reading your query on an overnight flight at 4am, tired and restless, which is why it has to be electric. Yours may be the 60th query they read that day, which is why it has to stand out. In any case, you will have to wait.
Use the time to work on your next project. Don’t be tempted to revise your query letter or synopsis yet as it will just depress you. You will find the mistake you missed, or realise you have left something essential out, almost certainly. Let it go, it’s done. You need to wait as long as the guidelines say for a response before doing anything. If you haven’t heard by the response time, or after three months if there is no guideline, check the agent or publisher’s website and blog – they could be on holiday, sick, have had a bereavement or a host of other things which have prevented them from reading your query. Remember to check that you used the right email address.
If there’s no obvious reason for a delay you can send a polite reminder, stating what you sent and when, asking if they can confirm that your query was received, and requesting an estimate of when you might hear back. That’s all. Occasionally agents and publishers fall into a black hole. This is unfortunate but is often outside anyone’s control. All you can do is move on and try again somewhere else.
Be ready for the response
I worked out at one point that approximately one query in ten thousand, maybe fewer, gets a positive response, but this is not a lottery and not everyone’s chances are equal. If you have done your research, followed the guidelines, polished your work and written something wonderful, then your chances are significantly better than that. Nevertheless, it may be that your chosen agent’s list is full or that your favoured publisher doesn’t have room for you. It may also be that you’re not ready.
If you get: Not for us or No thanks – that means your query has been read and rejected. That may be because it doesn’t fit with the list (back to research) or because your writing isn’t good enough yet (back to writing). Whatever you do, don’t argue or respond – just chalk it up to experience and get better.
If you get comments, such as “I liked this but we don’t have any room on our list right now” or even better, “This would be better if….” then you are favoured. An agent or publisher has taken time to give you feedback and that doesn’t happen often, so you are doing something right. Take it as encouragement, take the comments to heart, and move on. Don’t re-submit unless you are asked to.
If you get: More Please – normally you will be asked for a partial, often the first 50 or 100 pages, as a sample of your work. If this happens then you have attracted interest and the agent or publisher wants to see whether you can develop a story. Spend time going over what you will send them in exactly the way you did with your query and synopsis – remember, you only get one shot at this.
If you get: Please send full MS – Either after a partial or straight away, this means strong interest in your work and at the very least you are probably going to get feedback from a publishing professional. You are going to have to wait again, as reading a full MS takes a lot of time, so when you send it ask them to confirm receipt and give you a date that you can check back with them. Celebrate, then get back to working on your new project in the knowledge that you’re getting somewhere that may or may not lead to a publishing deal.
These are the normal outcomes from a submission, but there may be others – a phone call, questions in an email – some may ask if you can give them exclusive time to read the submission, in which case you need to agree a reasonable time limit before you take your work elsewhere. Adopt a polite, sensible and professional approach and you should be fine.
If you have reached the stage that you are ready to submit to an agent or publisher, then you have reached a milestone. There are many people who never complete a full story, indeed many who want to write but never do. If you have done that then you have achieved something rare.
It is likely that you will receive at least some rejections. When you do, remember that it is your work that was rejected, not you, and that your work can get better. Polish, research, develop – hard work is what pays off. Take every rejection as a spur to learning and you will achieve your goal.
Completing any substantial piece of writing is a beginning, not an end, and only a road to further beginnings.
Plot development is at the centre of this week’s article in the series Twelve Rules of Writing – in particular the subject of outlining. As a quick reminder, this is the extract from the original article: ~
11. Do I need to outline my story or just write it?
That depends. If you already have a detailed outline in your head, then you don’t need to outline it. If, on the other hand, you have no plot or structure then you need to outline the plot you don’t have. It’s easy, just indent every other sentence until it makes sense.
Outlining is just one of the techniques that can help you if you are struggling with plot, and since we mentioned it, let’s start there:
The purpose of outlining is to allow you to operate at different levels within the overall plot arc. At it’s most basic, we can start with an overall premise and three labels: Beginning, Middle and End. Note that you don’t have to adopt a 3-act structure and if you already have a structure that works for you then use that, but the important thing is that you impose some structure.
Once you have an overall structure you can begin to fill out the levels beneath the overall structure with elements, initially at high level and then in more detail. The point of outlining is that you can dip down into detail anywhere in the plot as it occurs to you without worrying about how you get there. There is a freedom in this that liberates you from the narrative sequence and allows creative expression.
You don’t need software to outline, though there are some useful tools you can use which include outlining functionality such as OmniOutliner, Scrivener, NoteLiner and others, but you can just as easily use sticky notes or index cards. The key elements are that you should be able to expand and collapse each element independently allowing you to focus on that element without worrying about everything that precedes or succeeds it, and that you should be able to move elements about in the structure if you want to. That might be laying cards out on a surface, or clicking and dragging a paragraph.
Potential pitfalls of this technique are in the level of detail to which you descend. If you drop down too far you can over-outline an element and steal all the fun and surprise from that scene so that when you come to write it you find there’s nothing to do and your pen is dry. On the other hand you can push the level of detail so that you are, in fact, writing the scene and then you’ve lost the big picture, which was the purpose of outlining in the first place.
The trick is to stay light and agile, swapping between scenes and adding in detail all across the story arc until you have enough that you think you can write it. Then stop outlining and start writing.
If outlining had an antithesis it would be freewriting. In freewriting we ignore structure and follow the narrative path to discover where it leads. There is a different kind of freedom in this, in that it liberates the writer from structure and allows their subconscious to manifest in the story, revealing new truths and discovering hidden jewels. Writers sometimes talk about characters walking in and taking over, which is an aspect of freewriting – if it feels right then go with it.
The downside is, of course, that you can end up writing material that has no discernable plot – a structureless story without development or progression. In some cases this can be avant-guarde, but mostly not, and it can leave the reader disorientated and unable to follow.
The most powerful tool for the freewriter (some would say for any writer) is the delete key. If something isn’t working then have the courage to delete it. If it was good after all then you will be able to re-create it, if not then it is better gone. This can mean that you are deleting more than you are left with, but if that’s what the story demands then so be it. Remember that freewriting can produce a lot of material quite quickly, so there is seldom a problem with insufficient words.
At its most powerful, freewriting is revelatory and inspiring, but not for the faint-hearted.
Snowflaking is a little like outlining in that it operates at different levels of detail, but it is rather more formal in approach. This technique starts at a high level, one sentence summary of the plot and then iteratively creates increasing layers of detail until the story is written. Note that this is different from outlining in that in outlining you are encouraged to switch levels and move around within the story arc as the mood takes you, but in snowflaking the direction of progress is towards increasing levels of detail.
The power of this fractal approach comes from the link between the overall premise and the final story, and it is almost guaranteed to provide you with a story that is true to the original idea. The weakness is that it doesn’t allow you to deviate from that idea, and can produce results that are formulaic and uninspiring. It also relies on a brilliant premise, and if you have that then this technique can generate a story quite quickly and relatively easily, but if you don’t then it can feel like you are just digging yourself into a deeper hole.
If you really need a formal structure and a regulated approach then this technique can work for you, but don’t let it stifle your creativity.
Backtracking is an alternative approach to plot development that starts with the end and works backwards to the beginning. This sounds initially strange but can be very useful in certain circumstances. If we take the example of a murder-mystery, we can start from how the murder was done and then work backwards to the clues generated, the red-herrings created, the characters who would be suspect and the beginning of the story, which could be where and when the body was discovered.
The power of this technique rests in the questions. Why was the victim killed? Who would want them dead? Had they done something to deserve it? Who would have a motive? Where would the murder take place? Questions are powerful because they feed back into character. What sort of person would kill another human being and then conceal what they had done? This gives you an insight into that character and allows you to write about that person in a way that feels true and vital.
Backtracking can be used to plot an overall story, but also at a more detailed level. If you have an event in the story arc that you need to get to but you find yourself blocked, then you can work backwards from that event by asking why it happened. What happened to lead to that event? Who was involved, and what was their motivation? These questions may lead you back to a different point in the story than where you were trying to write from, and allow you to discover why you were blocked.
The weakness in backtracking is that it can lead to plots that seem tenuous and contrived, since there is a web of dependency leading to the final event, created specifically to support that event. When using this technique you should question each link in the chain and ask whether that is really there for the story or simply to make the plot work. Otherwise you may find your story dominated by plot devices and helpful coincidence.
Each of these techniques has strengths and weaknesses and each is more or less appropriate in certain circumstances, so which would I recommend? The answer is all of them. Writers need to develop a range of techniques and tools for dealing with different problems and learn when to use a particular technique. This comes with experience and practice, so trying each if these techniques is a good place to start. You will find that each has benefits and each comes with it’s own restrictions and limitations.
This is not a definitive list of writing techniques and there are others that you can learn and experiment with. Try mind-mapping or borrow Robert McKee’s excellent screenwriting technique documented in Story. Use flowcharts, cover the walls with sticky notes, fill notepads with random notes and build character databases. All of these have their own strengths and weaknesses, and you can discover them for yourself by experimentation.
There is no single recipe for good story writing any more than there is one writer of good stories. Each writer must discover what works for them. But if you find yourself stuck and you’re wondering what to do about it, try a different approach – you might find that you solve more than just the problem you’re faced with.
In this article in my series, Twelve Rules of Writing, I will be looking at point of view from a story-telling perspective. To remind you how this was addressed in my tongue-in-cheek article here’s the original.
10. Which point of view should I adopt?
This depends on genre. If you’re writing pornography or recipe books then second person present is what you’re looking for. If you’ve chosen science fiction you need to write in the future tense and if it’s historical fiction you need the past-imperfect. First person present is essentially for the psychologically disturbed and third person is for insurance policies.
Should stories be told as if the writer is experiencing them, or as an observer? The point of view colours the way in which the tale is experienced as a reader. Let’s take a more unusual example first: ~
You take the stairs, one at a time, ascending each tread as slowly and carefully as you may. Your fingertips brush the smooth waxy grain in the banister so that you sense many hands that have come this way before. Your eyes lift as you ascend, even though you cannot yet see what is at the top. You hear each creak as your weight shifts onto each stair….
Using second person present puts the reader directly in the position of protagonist, which can be useful where the experience is a strong part of the narrative. It is more commonly used in horror or erotica, both of which may benefit from a sense of immersion and direct involvement. A byproduct of this perspective is that it denies the reader free will and the writer is constantly in the position of instructing the reader in what they will do and how they will do it. This can be tiring as it forces the reader to constantly question whether they would follow the instructions as written. Used sparingly it can be a powerful tool, but in overuse it often becomes oppressive and fails to engage.
Shifting to third person perspective gives us a little distance and allows the writer to narrate. The following is in third person past tense:
Tony watched the street from the darkened window. His eyes sought the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He felt he was being watched, and wanted to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, told him that someone watched him in return.
Shifting that into present tense changes the mood, upping the tension:
Tony watches the street from the darkened window. His eyes seek the shadows, looking for a glimmer of reflection or a shape out of place. He feels he is being watched and wants to know why. A glint of metal from beneath a tree, close to the trunk where there should be nothing to catch the light, tells him that someone watches him in return.
Comparing these two paragraphs we can see that the second is more immediate. It has a sense of tension and action that the first is denied because the events in the first example have already happened. In the second example events are happening now and things could change at any moment. For shorter pieces third person present can work very well for exactly these reasons, however over a longer piece it’s hard to maintain the tension through extended periods, especially when the tension ramps down again.
Stories have a natural rhythm of their own, and while publishers are fond of quoting books as having a pace that never lets up, in practice this reads as unnatural and forced. Everyone has to breathe at some time, even characters in a book, and if they are never allowed to consider their actions and reflect on what’s happened then it will seem as if they are flotsam, washed along by waves of events with no control or influence, making them uninteresting as characters. The best characters make the most difficult choices, but how can they choose if they never reflect on their actions?
Second person past tense is rarely used because it is a combination in conflict with itself. By placing the story in second person you are setting the reader as protagonist, but by placing it in the past you are saying events have already happened. As a reader you are even further out of control than you are with second person present.
The other main choice is first person past tense.
I was staring into space when it happened, so I didn’t really see. I could feel the wind as the tube train buffeted towards the platform and hear the grinding and squealing as the driver applied the brakes. I was part of the crowd waiting for the train. There was no sign that the guy beside me was in any distress. He just stood there with everyone else, until the train was yards away. Then he stepped forwards, leaned over the edge and toppled onto the tracks.
This is an extract from the opening of Sixty-One Nails, which is written mostly in first person perspective. The reason I chose this was that I wanted to reader to experience the discovery of the world as Niall, the protagonist, discovers it. This is both a strength and a weakness because the reader can’t know anything the protagonist doesn’t know and can’t see anything he doesn’t see. The viewpoint is vulnerable to their prejudices and subject to their assumptions. It also means we can tap into the character’s thoughts, revealing insights into their decision process and emotional reactions.
There is a danger in this that the narrative becomes introspective and locks into self-examination. The character’s voice can take on a whiny quality as they begin to wonder why all the bad things in the story happen to them. This can distance the reader from the character, undermining the empathetic relationship between reader and protagonist. The opposite can also happen, with the character seeming like an empty cypher for the story, manipulated by events and immune to the consequences. The character can seem untouchable, which distances the reader once again.
With Niall, I wanted to have someone who was completely closed off, emotionally damaged from a crashed relationship, immersed in a work-sleep cycle, a workaholic estranged parent who had locked themselves into a numbing cycle to avoid the pain of dealing with the rejection and guilt of his marriage break-up. When he has a heart attack in chapter one, he isn’t really dying – he’s already dead. He’s numb to the world and sees only what’s in front of him.
First person present worked well for this, but when I came to write The Road to Bedlam it seemed insufficient to simply present Niall’s view, especially as his view had shifted. There were things going on around Niall that he couldn’t see and we had come to know Blackbird, at least through Niall’s eyes. Including some passages from Blackbird’s viewpoint, but switching these from first person to third person, allowed me to follow Blackbird’s thread of the story without compromising the relationship. If I had used first person perspective with Blackbird the reader would have gained intimate knowledge of Blackbird’s feelings about Niall, something I wanted to explore later and which forms one of the core threads of the arc-plot.
If you are fortunate enough to get feedback from a large number of readers you will find that some people expect your characters to wear their heart on their sleeve and voice their emotions openly and expressively. Others will want your characters to stop talking about how they feel and get on with the plot. The simple fact is that you can’t please everyone. As a writer, what you can do is be true to your characters. Your choice of viewpoint is linked to your expression of those characters in the context of that story and forms the basis of the reader’s relationship with the character, so it can make or break the empathetic link that is so important.
Point of view is a powerful tool for a writer and like most powerful tools should be used with care. The choice of viewpoint depends on the story and characters and provides the writer with the opportunity to zoom in to a character’s inner dialogue or zoom out to get a wider perspective.
It’s not just for insurance policies and the psychologically disturbed, after all.
In the series following on from the tongue-in-cheek article Twelve Rules of Writing, we are up to rule 9 and the subject is exposition.
Here’s Rule 9 for those who need a reminder or who missed it first time around:
9. How should I deal with exposition?
Here the old ways are best, I’m afraid. First tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you’ve told them. If they haven’t got it by then they should be reading something simpler.
But isn’t the rule: Show, Don’t Tell, I hear you ask? A simple question: do you tell a story or show it? Showing is for dogs and horses.
Exposition is a key part of writing, especially in Fantasy where the world you are portraying may not function like the real world. Often the plot and character action is driven by the difference between the real and imaginary world, and the temptation to explain what the differences are and why they’re there is enormous.
If you give in to temptation, though, what emerges is flat and uninteresting explication, and in the worst cases all sense of the story is overwhelmed by the author explaining some aspect of the world directly to the reader through the voice of one of the characters. It’s as if they’re saying, “I had to work all this stuff out, so you’ll have to listen to me explaining it”.
Of course, no-one sets out to write a story in this way. They set out to tell the wonderful story in their head, but in order to tell it they get bogged down in detail and the tale is overwhelmed by exposition.
Look for these tell-tale signs:
One character explaining to another character something they should both already know.
“Bob, do you remember when we were young and we used to go up to the old Slater place and look for those special mushrooms that we used to take home and cook in butter and herbs? Do you remember how strange they used to taste, Bob?”
There is no purpose to this conversation. Bob already knows about the mushrooms and the only reason to mention them is so that the reader knows too. However, it may be essential for the reader to know about the mushrooms for the purpose of the plot, so getting the information across becomes important. This can be achieved by bringing in new information, and adding conflict.
“Now you listen to me, Bob. You got to stop eating the mushrooms from the old Slater place. They’ve changed somehow. They ain’t the same as they were when we were kids, and if you think I’m donating one of my kidneys when yours stop working, you got another thing coming.”
Long passages of factual information (will there be a test later?).
The castle stood on a basalt outcrop riven by time and etched with the passing of years, formed when the world was young from the extruded molten rock from the volcano beneath it, which cooled and solidified to form the foundations seen now as the dark rocks of the….etc. etc.
If you find yourself writing long descriptive passages with dense factual information, ask yourself: If I take it out, does the story suffer? If not, it’s fine to keep it in to give you a strong mental picture while you are writing it, but lose it at the edit stage. If the reader really does need to know this, make it immediate and personal and keep it to the relevant information.
As Jamie trudged up the long path to the castle at the top of the high outcrop, he could feel the heat from the black rock through the soles of his thin sandals. Sweat ran in to his eyes as he peered up at the high walls, the heat of the day reflecting dully from the igneous basalt.
Sections which detail quantity or measurement.
The river crossing was particularly difficult as the banks were now seventy two yards apart and the river over ten feet deep in the centre, and though there was a ferry, it cost four crowns and three shillings, which was more than the three crowns, twelve shillings and fourteen pennies that Karum had in her purse.
As a writer, you need to trust your reader’s imagination and let them do some of the heavy lifting for you. Ask yourself, do they really need to know how wide the river is, or how deep? Would the character be able to measure it, and if so, to what purpose? Aren’t they more likely to make a snap assessment?
Karum emerged from the trees onto a wide pasture, a water meadow where cattle grazed when the river was not in flood. Even though at this season the river flowed within its banks she could see that it was too deep to ford. She emptied her purse into her open hand. It would not be enough for the ferryman. She would have to find some other way.
Passages which rely on ‘because’ or ‘for the reason that’ or even ‘in spite of':
In spite of the ancient custom that men would never wear hats in the temple, Jim’s father refused to doff his cap within it’s precinct because the shiny pate of his head would catch the light from the golden statues in the courtyard, making his bald head look yellow.
This lacks the immediacy and conflict to bring it to life. If the tradition of removing hats in the temple is somehow important to the plot, then it has to come out through conflict, perhaps in dialogue:
“Take your cap off,” whispered Jim.
Jim’s father looked into the courtyard where the golden statues reflected the afternoon sun. He looked at the back of his hands. The yellow light already tinted his skin a sallow and sickly colour. He could feel the sweat on his bald pate under the cap.
“I’ll leave it on. It’ll be fine,” he said.
“No hats in the temple, Dad. What’s the matter?”
“It’s nothing. You go on ahead. I’ll wait here.”
“We’re only here because of you. Take it off.”
The use of a prologue to set the scene is particularly prevalent in fantasy. Usually it involves the settling of some ancient conflict which then has consequences for the characters of the story many years later. Setting aside the cliché, we should look at the reason a prologue is used. Most often it is to explain what the story is about so that the actions of the characters can be seen by the reader in the context of that ancient conflict.
This is exposition, placed boldly, right from the first page, and is likely to result in rejection from publishers and agents, who see this a lot and will be unlikely to read on to discover how original and brilliant the rest of the story is. But if your story relies on an ancient and forgotten conflict to explain the actions of your characters, how do you deliver that explanation without resorting to exposition?
For this we turn to the secret intelligence services for inspiration.
The Need to Know
Adopt the MI5 approach and deliver information on a need-to-know basis. Only explain back-story (using the techniques outlined above) when the character has earned the right to know and has an urgent and pressing need for that knowledge to guide their actions.
This has a number of advantages:
It makes the revelation timely and relevant, slotting into the story in a way that feels natural for the character, and adding depth as a new context is revealed for the events to that point.
It avoids the reader having to memorise the detail in the book in order to enjoy it – after all, this isn’t supposed to be a memory test. Your reader may have to put the book down for a week or a month, and it would help if when they picked it up again they didn’t have to start leafing back through it to understand what’s happening.
It allows the characters to discover the information through the events of the story rather than having it explained, leading to mystery culminating in revelation. This is a powerful tool for story-telling, which builds empathy between the characters and the reader as the reader asks themselves; if I discovered that, what would I do?
All this comes back to showing the reader what’s happening through the actions and discoveries of the characters, rather than telling them through exposition or by narrating through a character voice. Letting the story emerge at its own pace allows you to increase the suspense and develop depth and complexity, so that the characters shine through.
So it seems that showing is not just for horses and dogs after all, but for authors too.