Thursday, August 30, 2012

The sin of prologue

Photo by Guenter M. Kirchweger,
available at
In Part IV, I committed the sin of prologue. Let's skip the attempts to rationalize, for a moment.

Why are new writers told not to write prologues? 
"This is irrelevant, but I'm going to tell you anyway." That's how prologues tend to come across. That's what a lot of them end up being. Because, honestly, if it was relevant to the story then it would be where the story began. If it wasn't a good place to start the story, it could be a flashback scene later on.

The "I'm going to tell you anyway" aspect makes a lot of prologues into an info-dump of sorts, and we've all read about the dangers of starting your story with an info-dump, yes?

But it's got lots of action and dialogue -- yes, but is it immediately relevant to the story? Does it introduce the reader to the main character? Maybe the reader does need to know that your character's older brother died tragically. But they don't know this is the character's older brother, yet; when they're reading the prologue, the older brother is the main character. And then he dies tragically. Now you want them to care about the main character and you promise you won't kill them too? (Are you GRRM?)

Why do people keep doing it?
Let's admit it: there are a lot of prologues out there. In published books. By good writers. Why do they get away with it when I can't?

Partly because they've proven that they know what they're doing, and I haven't. But he can't write his way out of a paper bag. No, it's not fair. I'm trying to rise above the dross of a vast, self-published market, so I have to hold myself to high standards.

Partly because it's hard to shake the feeling that this is important to the story, but it doesn't quite fit anywhere. It's some bit of character development, or world-building, or setting the tone of the story. It happened before the main event. Whatever the reasons are, the compulsion was there. Your gut demanded it, and as I've said -- trust your gut.

Do people read them?
I usually do, I'll admit, though I mildly resent them. Some readers skip them.

So why did I do it? 
Well, it is Part IV. It's not actually the beginning of Disciple -- we're a good 165k in by now. And the prologue ended up being larger than most chapters -- it would have been awkward to drop such a large chunk of flashback into the story later on. I did introduce a character I wanted the reader to care about, and I introduced something that will be increasingly important later on.

But this is all rationalizing. Why did you commit the sin of prologue?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Beta readers and the drafting process

A CP and I got to talking about betas, recently, and it set off a number of thoughts about the process of writing and the process of revising. The analogy of sculpting came up -- the progression from a raw chunk of stone to a rough form (first draft), then a refined form (second draft), and then the small details and polish (third draft and onward, or however many drafts any of these stages require).

The questions that came up were about getting beta reader feedback at various stages, and trying to match up the reader to which stage you were at in the process. That's an issue because writing definitely does involve that can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees problem -- or, to stick to the sculpting analogy, that you have your nose smack up against the rock.

After some digesting of the question, my gut feeling is that beta readers will crit to the "done"-ness of the manuscript... regardless. If they see macro-scale problems, they'll mention them rather than fine detail problems. I mean, if someone asks me to crit a story where the antagonists seem so clueless that there's no tension, there isn't much point in me giving feedback on narrative voice. If the characters have no distinguishable motivations, that's more important than the dialogue.

The process of fixing the lack of tension, or giving the characters motivations, is bound to change the narrative voice or the dialogue along the way. Everything in a story is connected to everything else. To stick to the sculpture analogy, all those fine details are directly connected to the underlying rough form. You can't have a perfectly sculpted hairdo just hanging in space, after all. (Unless this is a science fiction story...)

When it comes to the refinements of a story -- the narrative voice, the grammar, fine-detail world-building, the particulars of dialogue that make it snap -- I have my strengths and my weaknesses as a beta reader. Everybody does, since they reflect our strengths and weaknesses as writers. At that level, I can see why you'd want to pick and choose your beta readers carefully. Before that, though, I wouldn't worry about it too much.

I suspect that who you hand your early drafts to has more to do with how much you trust them to read that crap and still respect you in the morning. :)

I find I'm more comfortable when I respect my beta readers' writing while still seeing its rough edges. Hopefully, they still respect mine after seeing its wrinkles and bloodstains and the occasional gaping hole.

Do you have your beta readers "labelled" by what they're good at critting for?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Character Conversations: Kiefan

On the heels of Tuesday's post about Myers-Briggs personality types and researching how those personality types behave in the real world: a brief character interview with one of my major characters. Kiefan is the only prince of Wodenberg, a small kingdom facing invasion by a vast empire. I'm speaking to him later in the story, during Part IV since that's the part I am currently revising. Kiefan tests as an ESTJ, though he's only a mild extrovert.

It's been a while since I've posted a character conversation -- you can find more of them here. Particularly Kiefan's previous conversation. My side of the conversation is in italics.

Character portrait coming soon!
I've seen the artist's preliminary
sketches and they look great. 
Keep an eye on the book blog for
Disciple art reveals.
One of the interesting things I learned in researching ESTJs is that you're staunch supporters of the rules of the game -- until you decide the rules are wrong. 

And then they must be mended. Which I mean to do.

And if you see a weakness in those who oppose you... 

All the better.

Your mother taught you that, in using you against your father? 

The war that Mother and Father waged against each other -- left its marks on me, true. In particular, the day I realized it was a war, and I might be a soldier caught in it or I might take control of my part.

There's a bit of difference between manipulating your parents' personal vendettas and defying the (powerful, god-like) saints you're bound to...

Powerful as the saints are, they are still men. Each has strengths, weaknesses, limitations.

You're not exactly in a position to demand an exemption from your saint's rules in exchange for your talents.

I'm no helpless child. Clever of my saint to treat me as an apprentice this long, to keep my attention on what I still needed to learn. Father did the same thing, and I believed it until I realized he no longer sparred with me because I could put him on his ass.

Your saint expects obedience. 

My saint expects victory. And knows full well that if he were negotiating in my place, we'd soon be friendless and facing the empire's armies alone. Even he doesn't doubt we need these allies, after the disasters of the siege. So long as I seal this alliance, he has little space for complaint at how.

I have some reservations about the assumptions Kiefan's making about his saint -- and the other implicit assumptions that he's making. But this should make for some good drama.

Disciple, Part I: For Want of a Piglet will be published in November, 2012. Watch the book blog for information, flash fic, cover reveals, maps, and other goodies... 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Public Service Announcement

Now that we're into the query feedback portion of School's In (over at Unicorn Bell), I dutifully went to post feedback on the submitted queries... and Blogger ate my post.

I grumbled, retyped it, made sure to specify I was using my Google profile, hit the button and... it ate it again.

A few dozen more tries on different entries, using my WordPress ID, and then trying to comment on my own blog... nothing. Blogger won't post any of my comments.

The help FAQ was no help, so I Googled the problem and eventually found this blog post. I switched my blog's settings, under "Comment Location," to "Pop-up window" -- and lo! I can comment on my own blog again!

Here's a screen grab of changing that setting (click to embiggen):

All bloggers wish they got more comments -- how many have you missed out on because someone wrote a comment, clicked, and it disappeared? 

It just happened to me over on another blog. I didn't go through the trouble of finding the blogger's email to tell them there's a problem. Commenting is a knee-jerk thing, usually, so who's going to take the time to do that?

Go fix it!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Characters as Myers-Briggs types

So, I've put my characters in a complicated, emotionally challenging situation. I know exactly what I would do, if all of this happened to me. I'd find a cave and hide in it. Probably write a book while I'm in there.

Fortunately, my characters are not me and their responses are far more interesting than that. 

It's always a challenge to
bring characters into focus.
Photo by Holger Dieterich,

available at
I try to treat my characters as independent entities, even though they're inside my head and all contain elements of my personality. (I am legion, for I contain multitudes.) I try to predict how they will react in a situation, rather than tell them how they'll react. People are hard to understand, though, so naturally I go looking for real-people reactions to situations and use them to improve my predicting ability.

The Myers-Briggs personality types came up in two earlier blogs I wrote (first one, second one) and lately I've been using them some more to gauge my characters' responses.

Briefly, the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types group people by their internal workings -- the interplay of intuition, thinking, feeling and sensing, and how they interact with the outside world -- and describe them in four letters. It's not a perfect system. Nothing is. But it can be useful.

You can find free MBTI quizzes online, and you can find descriptions of each of the types in Wikipedia and elsewhere. Figuring out which type fits your character best is a challenging process in itself, and it's a good excuse to sit down and get to know him/her better.

Some descriptions geared toward workplace abilities, some toward romantic compatibilities. They all tend to use neutral language, though. They focus more on the positives than the negatives. And they're very much generalizations.

So I've been hanging out at the Personality Cafe, (they have free MB quizzes & descriptions there) where each MBTI has its own forum and chat about both MBTI issues and real-world situations. In reading through threads of particular types giving each other advice -- and trying to explain themselves to other types -- I picked up a lot of useful insight into what's important to my characters. Then I tried to translate those things into the context of the world they live in.

Because they're not like me. Which is good.

Bonus: A while back, The Character Therapist polled writers about their MB types and posted the intriguing results here.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three annoying things in my WIP

What is it about lists? People love blog posts of lists. I am writing this at the last minute, to be honest, since I've been distracted this week by starting big revisions on Part IV and squeeing over artwork for Part I. Unlike the big revisions I did for Part III, blogging about these revisions will take some careful consideration. I'll get to them eventually.

In the meantime, three things about Disciple that are annoying me right now:
1. The Caer voice is infectious
Did build a fantasy world of many tongues, despite that I've little skill for such myself. 'Twas a question on how to display them, early on. In time, did settle on that each group of foreigners has their voice, their accent, and do use it whichever tongue 'tis they're speaking. Thus, need not do more than mention a shift in language and leave off anything my narrator can't ken.

Well enough, save the Caer voice... 'tis infections. Sticky in my mind.

'Tis especially troublesome in Part V, as I've broken from my first-person narrator and did bring in a Caer for POV. Full half the tale did go to her and 'tis well settled in my mind, now, that 'tis a proper way to speak. Needs must shake it ere it creeps into Part IV's revisions -- did fight it all last night, in writing Alice's dialogue.

Treacherous thing. Do catch myself thinking in Caer, while musing on revisions...

2. The other voice I developed keeps falling out of the story
At the other end, I needed a separate voice for my other major group of foreigners. Whereas the Caer voice came easy, the Arceal one put up a fight. I've had to go back and revise it a couple times now. Part of the problem is that it keeps dropping out of the story. I tried to introduce it in Part III, but the scene has gotten butchered down to less and less dialogue. There was going to be a fair chunk in Part IV, but now I'm going to cut most of that, too. We won't be hearing from them until well into Part VI, at this rate.

3. Keeping it close to the bone
I recently read Name of the Wind. I enjoyed it, and I was intrigued by how Rothfuss used the jumps back to the "present-day" to remind me that he's promised me an awesome story. Because I could tell pretty quickly that this book was going to only be set-up for later volumes. There wasn't going to be any significant progress toward the character's main goal.

95% of that fat book was noodling around. Fun and well written noodling.

I doubt anyone's going to accuse me of noodling around or wandering away from the main goal in Disciple. I could probably get away with some. While I was writing the first chunk of Part V, I was starting to feel just how close to the bone I was writing -- there was nothing extra in that chunk, no secondary storylines to pad it out a all. I kept thinking we could talk about Gregor's crush a bit more, but my gut kept shooting it down.

It kept saying that the whole chunk was a noodle, I shouldn't have broken away from my narrator -- but the reader needs to know what happened in this part.

Lean and mean, my stories. Perhaps skeletal, though. How much meandering do you like in a story?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Overwhelmed by the vision

I've been suffering from a lack of "mojo" since early July because of a confluence of events. I talked about some of it in the crisis of confidence post. Another contributing factor was a beta pointing out (absolutely correctly) a big problem in Part IV. Then I wrote a chunk of Part V and it didn't help.

Paging the plot doctor... we need to do this again
Yes, I'm slowly recovering. Deciding to get out the chainsaw and fix Part IV helped a lot -- rather than letting the problems in Part IV hang around in an ominous cloud, I'm going to tackle them because they are in fact finite, fix-able things.

They are. I have declared it to be so.

Disciple is going through a dark phase. Its dark night of the soul. When you look into the darkness, the darkness looks back at you -- and we have a history, the darkness and I. The despair my characters feel infects me easily, since they are close to my heart.

And writing Part V will help a little in getting to the end of the dark night of the soul, but the dawn isn't going to break for a while yet.

My point being, though, that the story and the writer are deeply entangled. The emotions in one echo in the other.

The emotion that I would usually want to talk about, here, would be how a writer's confidence echoes into the story. I believe it does. Confidence impacts things as mundane as word choice and sentence structure, and as abstract as world-building. A writer who lacks confidence is more prone to passive verbs, roundabout descriptions, and trying to explain everything up front rather than assuming the reader is willing to trust the writer.

Because they are, you know. Readers don't usually open books against their will, so they're willing to give you a chance. This ties into a bit of advice I got at Viable Paradise: SIN BOLDLY. A novel is just a sin, inasmuch as it's a lie, but when you do it boldly... lying boldly is really just what we call "acting", isn't it? Skits and plays are lies too, but we believe the actors because they stride out on the stage believing it completely themselves. Boldly.

This also ties into the propaganda concept known as "the big lie" (I may be wrong about the exact term). It's also encapsulated in the old saying "Straining at gnats but swallowing camels." My own betas bear it out when they pick at the details of horse care or childbirth, but question nothing about, you know, the fact the evil empire fields armies of monsters -- what on earth do you do with them in peace-time? I hope it's because I project enough boldness, backed up with plausibility, to sin on the page.

(I have theories about the uses of minotaurs in peace-time :D )

But it's tougher to be bold when your mojo is tainted with your story's dark night of the soul. The bond between creator and creation a two-way street, and since we all love our characters so -- despite the horrible things we do to them, or maybe because of the horrible things -- we're deeply sympathetic to the plight that we're working so hard to get onto the page. How many times have your characters left you in tears? They do it to me too, and I'm usually a very even-keeled person, emotionally.

The cover art for Disciple, Part I: For Want of a Piglet is in development! When it's ready, I'll be revealing it over at my book blog, Disciples of the Fount.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Next Week at Unicorn Bell

The Study Hall phase of the query contest at Unicorn Bell begins on Monday! They gave me the first posting slot, so I spent yesterday polishing that up rather than work on a blog post here.

I also spent yesterday finishing the first chunk of Disciple, Part V so I can put it aside and focus on publishing Part I for a while. And there was a birthday in there too.

Maybe I'll sneak in some revisions to Part IV in the meantime -- the feedback I got from the one beta has been weighing on my mind lately. IV's been suffering a bout of pile-of-crap-itis and it needs to be tackled and worked out. And I'll plot out the rest of Part V. It's good to be busy, but it's feeling more like stress now that I've decided to publish. :)

Need to work on my blog for the book, too! 

Hope your summer is going well -- keep cool!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Death and its story functions

The emotional impact of killing a character in your story can range from major trauma to a shoulder shrug. All deaths serve a function in the story, though.

Killing faceless crowds in a zombie-apocalypse story is expected. (Could you write a zombie-apocalypse story without that?) Enemy minions exist to prove the hero knows a thing or two about karate or gun-fu. Or to prove the bad guy is really, really bad because he kills his own minions. These sorts of deaths function as part of the background atmosphere of the story -- setting the tone and telling the reader how gory this will or won't be.

The deaths of major characters and secondary characters are more serious. I've been thinking about how and why characters die, recently, and yes they're all looking nervous and preparing cases for why they need to survive the story... here are some reasons I might kill them:

Noble sacrifice
These characters didn't "need" to die. They didn't do anything to deserve it, and they weren't obviously red-shirts. Yet they choose to step up and cover someone else's escape, or do something heroic that gets them killed. These can be real heartstring-pullers, when done well. A couple thoughts on getting these deaths right:
  • The character will need some development and reader sympathy. Don't use walk-on, bit-player characters for this -- it won't have the same impact.
  • Careful not to make the character "too good" before their sacrifice. It can be a give-away, it'll make it obvious that they'd do such a thing and it takes the edge off their nobility. At the same time, don't make it out of character either -- though a touch of redemption doesn't hurt.
The most recent example that comes to mind are the ship's pilots in Prometheus. They were not horror-movie idiots, and remained outside most of the drama that was going on. The writers gave them some good banter to develop a little character. And when called on, they made a noble sacrifice which -- given how the rest of the movie went -- was once of the few scenes that really touched me.

Love this photo, let's use it again: Parisian catacombs.
Photo by Atif Gulzar, available at
Too much guilt
A character seeking redemption makes a noble sacrifice as described above. This can be very effective, if it illustrates the fundamental character shift that's needed for a character to achieve redemption -- in other words, if the audience agrees that the character has earned forgiveness. However, the character cannot forgive himself, and his noble sacrifice is a form of suicide. If not, this can look like a cheat, a short cut, and get an eye-roll rather than a heart-felt sigh from the reader.

Perfection attained
This is sort of a Zen thing. It's not the easiest to grasp, as it seems horribly unfair on the surface. The most high-profile example of this type of death (that I know of) is Wash's, in the movie Serenity. The character's final performance (in Wash's case, an insanely difficult flight) displays such mastery and spiritual awareness that -- well, there's nothing more to reach for. Go directly to Nirvana, do not pass "Go," do not collect $200.

On another level, it's the tragedy of someone struck down in their prime. At the pinnacle of skill. It can feel like a cheap shot, to some readers, probably because we want to see people rewarded for perfection and not killed. So proceed with care.

Traditional mentor's death
Story-wise, mentors die because the student needs to make his own way now. They die to raise the tension by reducing the resources the characters have on hand. They die because having them leave would still allow the possibility of a return -- and if they do, they can cheat the story of a properly earned win. 

Mentors can include parents, uncles, anybody helpful to the character. Ever noticed how many stories begin by destroying the character's childhood home and family? Killing the mentor is such a staple, it's hard to give it the weight it deserves. The characters rarely have time to grieve, since the story's plot is taking up their attention. Or if they do have time to grieve, the plot needs tightening up... it's not easy. Some more thoughts on how tricky it is:
  • Didn't have enough time to meet them properly. Therefore, they were only a bit-part character and their death has little impact on the reader.  To combat this, some writers pad out the first chapter or two with everyday life intended to introduce the parents we're about to kill -- wasting valuable story time.
  • Death was not relevant to the story. Yoda died in Return of the Jedi, and... it meant nothing, really.
  • Purpose unclear. Dumbledore's murder was actually perfectly reasonable and on the noble side. But because of how Harry Potter was written, that couldn't be shown to the reader at the time and his death was reduced to a cheap emotional shot that only made me shrug. 
The hand of God
In real life, people die suddenly in car accidents and the higher purpose is hard to see.  In stories, such things can develop a character or set a chain of events in motion. But sometimes a significant character's death is swept up in a larger action sequence and left unaddressed, or the death is "random" and has no real story function. These can really piss fans off.

I try to keep in mind that while I hope my readers are sufficiently immersed in my writing to think that random events are random, the truth is there's no such thing as a random event in a story. Everything is under my control. Every bullet flying in a Matrix-style shootout hits what I want it to hit. I believe that on a gut level, readers know this and they'll call you on it if a character's death doesn't have sufficient purpose.

Maybe writers think that by adding "random" events, they're increasing the realism of their story. Well... I would disagree with that. Unlike real life, fiction is supposed to make sense. And honestly, any "random" event in a story is ultimately the writer falling back on "chance" when s/he ought to be making every event a logical consequence of previous events. They're showing their hand. God does not show his hand.

"Random" deaths can be done, and can be done well. The example that comes to my mind is the death of Buffy's mother in Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- though no, it wasn't truly purpose-less. It was a chance for deep character exploration. And I would argue the writers had earned that "random" death through several seasons of establishing realism in the series.

What purpose did a major character's death serve in your story?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Earning that win -- emotionally

Continuing the topic of story characters earning their wins, some thoughts on character-dependent story elements. See the first part about physical challenges.

Character development accomplished
We've all seen stories where a character simply sets aside a lifetime's worth of habits, beliefs, or fears and fully embraces something they initially rejected or that their society believes is wrong. They cry a few tears, hem and haw a bit, and then they're OK.

As a lifelong fat woman who's ten years into recovering from what popular culture ingrained into my young mind, I find this annoying. Character development is tough.

Fears faced
Once bitten, twice shy. Not "once shy" or someone-told-me-it's-okay and the fears are magically overcome. Fear is a primal urge that makes people behave irrationally, and it's there to keep us alive. The more times a character faces their fears and fights to overcome them, the better developed they are and the more invested the readers will be.

The catacombs below Paris -- I'd love to visit, someday.
Photo by Atif Gulzar, available at
Biases overcome
I have known, all my life -- and experience has reinforced this -- about the universe's contrary nature. If you need a thing, you won't be able to find it. If you don't need a thing, you'll be tripping over it constantly. Things break when you really need them to work, and things only go wrong when you aren't ready for them. If things are going well, disaster is coming to fix that. And if the universe can publicly embarrass me along the way, all the better.

How much would it take to convince me the world is a wonderful, kind, magical place?

Yeah. So the next time a character just decides to see past their racism, sexism, classism, etc., consider how difficult it is to ignore things you know in your bones. This goes double in situations where characters have to suspend their belief in ordinary, reasonable things like "pigs don't fly" or "walls are solid."

Consequences weathered
If your good guys did something questionable, or risky, if they lost a bet and now must pay up -- this makes for excellent character development. It shows the reader what sort of honor this character has, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they'll do when they get desperate. Like facing fears, the more readers see a character putting in the work, the more invested they are in the outcome. A get-out-of-jail-free card is not the writer's friend. 

I love a good redemption story, where a character works their way back to honor and dignity, pays for the mistakes they made, frees themselves of burdens they took on or were punished with. We all want to believe that if we put in earnest, hard work, we'll be rewarded. We like to see it happen to imaginary people, too.

It's a specific form of consequence, one where the character does not start out a "good guy" or penitent about what he's done. Realizing the need to face the consequences of past action is usually part of the character's development. There may be a great deal of disagreement on exact shades and precise amounts, but in general people will know when a character has paid for their past sins -- they're sensitive to when there hasn't been enough payment. Accordingly, writers tend to go overboard in the challenges they put before characters seeking redemption, just to be sure, and that's all right. So long as the character's success doesn't strain credulity.

Are there things a character can't earn redemption for? That depends on your audience and your personal biases. This actually leads into another blog post I'm going to write on the functions of death within a story -- because death is the only way a character can buy redemption, sometimes. What do you think?
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