Category Archives: Storytelling, Art, and Craft

IOU a story that works: Narrative Debt

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I first came across the term ‘Narrative Debt’ in the appendices to the extended edition on the Two Towers DVD and it struck a chord with me. As a pantser I work with narrative debt all the time, so I understood the concept; I just didn’t have a name for it.

To my mind it is a variation on ‘Chekov’s Gun’. Anton Chekov said, ‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it is not going to be fired, it should not be hanging there.’

Which is a tad prescriptive.

But it also has more than a grain of truth in it.

Not surprising. He was, after all, a great writer.

However, a gun can hang on the wall for an entire novel and still not go off, because the protagonist can’t reach it. He/she might be trying to reach it, they might even get their fingers on it, but the antagonist might stop them pulling the trigger, or they might have unloaded it at some point, or the protagonist might die just as they reach the gun.

The writer’s job is to not  forget that the gun is there, because the reader won’t. ‘Hang about, they’re in the library. There’s a .357 Magnum in that drawer, in the desk that he/she is standing behind. They put it there, you muppet, just shoot the bugger.’  It is best not to make readers think of your hero as an idiot, unless you intend them to think of the hero as an idiot — which is a difficult trick to pull off.

Narrative debt means, to me,  ‘Don’t cheat the reader’. [Caveats apply]

Don’t neglect to tell them something of importance that the POV character would know. (Jack Reacher novels: ‘Echo Burning’: Reacher takes a phone call, gets a one-word answer to a question, but the reader doesn’t know what the answer is until much later.)

Don’t drop in something out of nowhere to fix a plot problem and just leave it there without going back and working it into the plot earlier. (His Dark Materials ‘Amber Spyglass’ too many to mention)

Don’t let a plot, sub-plot, or character just fizzle out and disappear without some kind of closure. (Jason and the Argonauts: Heracles just wanders off halfway through the story and never returns.)

A writer can of course get away with all these things from time to time, (Child and Pullman are very good writers, and Jason and the Argonauts is a couple of thousand years old as a story) but they have to know what they are doing (not entirely sure what the hell Pullman was doing if I am completely honest, very irritating book that). They can’t just do it because it is easier than building a story that works. A writer owes a reader a story that works, that is the contract between the two: ‘Give me your time and I will give you a story worth reading.’

Narrative debt sometimes makes the writing process a lot harder. Tough. That’s the job you sign up to when you decide to become a writer. If you want to just make stuff up that makes no sense, then become a politician (and even they need Spin Doctors to make their nonsense sound reasonable).

A story that works is satisfying. It doesn’t have to tie off every single plot thread in a neat little bow at the end, but it does have to keep its promises to the reader.

I build stories via characters, so most of my narrative debts accrue from interactions between characters and from what I do to them in the process of telling the story.

If I have a character that hates another character and at some point they have to make a decision as to whether or not they save that hated person from some jeopardy, then they have to think about it. They won’t suddenly overturn their entire dynamic with that character just because the plot requires it of them. To be fair, in a first draft they might, but then I will go back and fix it in the second. It is what second drafts are for, fixing plot holes like that.

And usually it is already there in the character, because I know my characters. I treat them as real people. What do you mean you don’t? Oh right, you worked on ‘Lost’ and ‘Heroes’.

In Kinless, I have a character called Kihan. He turns up in the story and makes a decision to do something for this land that he does not know and has no connection with, which will probably result in his death. Several beta readers pointed out that he had no reason to do this in the first draft. However the fix was already there, he had a perfectly valid reason for doing this, it was in the narrative debt relating to the character. He did it because of who he was, what he had been through, and what he wanted to be. And all this leads to what he becomes.

But narrative debt is also a structural thing.

Lovers have to love. Enemies have to fight. Stories have to make sense. A story is a construct. The writer is choosing what to put in and what to leave out. The writer is making choices all the time. The writer’s choices are the story.

Let’s go back to ‘Lord of the Rings’.

Gollum, as a character, had to get his hands on the ring. Aragorn had to become the king. Saruman had to get his come-uppance. Frodo had to be utterly destroyed by his quest to destroy the ring. Those things had to happen because that is the nature of storytelling.

Gollum gets his hands on the ring and in the process destroys it (still the best damn scene in the book). Aragorn had to face up to his fears and surmount them. Saruman betrayed everything he stood for and lost everything because of this betrayal. Frodo had to suffer to get the ring to Mount Doom and such suffering remains with a person. And all the other characters had their own journeys to complete too.

That is narrative debt.

If the ring was destroyed without Gollum getting his hands on it then he would just be an ineffectual monster who was easily defeated. If Aragorn did not grow a pair and step up then he would be an ineffectual hero. If Saruman did all that he did and got off scot free then what is the cost of evil. And if Frodo did all that he did and returned to his previous life without a care, then what is the cost of heroism.

It’s a debt.

It’s a contract with the reader.

The writer makes the deal, ‘Read my story and I won’t let you down, I won’t treat you — the reader — as an idiot, I’ll pay off on the debts my story accrues.’

Otherwise, the reader might as well read Hansard.

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Storytelling, Art, and Craft, Structure and Plot

So who the hell’s head are we in now?

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Transitions between scenes, between acts, between storylines, are an important part of storytelling. They ease the reader from one place to another without making their eyes stop as they pause to try to puzzle out where the hell they are.

But in multiple POV storytelling, transitions are vital.

Who? What? Where? When?

Those four questions have to be answered at every transition from one POV to another.

Why?

Because transitions orientate the reader. They tell them: WHOSE head they are in, WHAT is going on, WHERE it is happening, and WHEN it is happening.

The biggest problem with Multiple POV storytelling, and the reason why they tend to be longer stories than those using a single POV, is the transitions. You always  have to reset the scene if you are using scene-breaks between POVs.

You can’t just switch and hope the reader keeps up. Clarity, always clarity, who/what/where/when needs to be absolutely clear at all times to the reader.

You don’t really want to confuse your reader with the simple stuff, do you?

If you are using POV shifting or Omniscient-head-hopping  then the Where, When, and What are taken care of by the initial Transition into the scene, but you still have to be absolutely clear about Whose eyes the reader is behind.

Think of it like speech attributions. When writing dialogue you have to attribute the lines to a character. You can sometimes do away with the attribution if it is obvious who is speaking, but it does have to be obvious.

It is the same with POV transitions, you can avoid the attribution of a POV but only if it is obvious and it is rarely that obvious. Err on the side of caution and let your editor tell you if it is unneeded.

Don’t go commando if you’ve forgotten to put your jeans on too.

With the more usual (these days) technique of using scene-breaks between POVs, you have to reset the entire scene, every time.

Even when using fast-cutting techniques, in a battle-sequence for instance, the reader still has to be told where on the battlefield the character stands, what is happening immediately around the character, and when all this is occurring.

There are dodges and tricks you can use to avoid too much set-up. It is a fast cut after all. You can avoid the When portion by having a scene every so often that orientates the reader in time, which avoids having to say, ‘three minutes later’ and other clunky phrases.

But clarity is everything. Clarity is the only real rule in writing. Be clear, don’t leave the reader guessing; unless of course you intend to leave the reader guessing, but don’t be ambiguous by mistake. Readers really don’t like that and your book might well make a nice dent in their wall if you irritate them too much. (Ah eBooks, the joy of throwing a crap book across the room will soon be gone from human experience. Shame that, I think its good for the wallpaper, it’s certainly good for the soul.)

Transitions should ideally take place in the first paragraph of a new scene, or as close as possible to it. And the first thing the reader needs to know is WHO. That is a vital bit of information because it orientates readers to the plot. If they know whose head they are in, then they know the back-story, they know that character’s (apparent) role in the story, and therefore they don’t have to think about this stuff.

They can think about all the other good stuff you are putting into the story scene instead.

After Whose head, the reader needs to know Where and When. If the scene is taking place in the same location as the previous scene then you just have to make sure the reader knows it is the same location. If it is happening immediately after the previous scene then, again, you just have make sure the reader knows this.

But if the location has changed or the time has changed then you have to orientate the reader. You have to tell them Where and When. This is like the establishing shot in a film. Is it a room, a moor, a bridge? Is it dawn or night, or day? This stuff is why multiple POV stories are longer, because this is description and no matter how efficient you are at description it takes up words.

Then there is What. This is not about what happens during the scene, because that is the purpose of the scene. It is about what is happening when the scene opens. Is it in the middle of a fight, a love-scene, somebody having a cup of tea. The scene will play out from there, but there is always an initial What, that helps to set the scene.

The easiest way to do this, and this is about as clunky as it gets because it’s an example, so it is deliberately obvious, is:

 David thought about Mary while he walked across Blackfriars Bridge in the moonlight.

David thought = David’s POV or WhoDavid is thinking about Mary = WhatBlackfriars Bridge = WhereMoonlight = When.

Then you can slot all the descriptions and so forth into the scene as usual. The reason that Multiple POV takes up space is because you have to describe it all as the POV character sees them. You can’t go on what another POV character has seen because the reader doesn’t know if this POV character has seen the same thing.

Another reason multiple POVs take up room is because you can’t keep using lines like the one above. Some writers do, some successful writers do, but I’d hardly call it craft. That’s like nailing four roughly equal lengths of wood to another wider piece of wood and calling it a table. It’ll do the job, but it is hardly crafted with loving care.

 The glimmer of the moonlight shone into David’s eyes, reflected from the surface of the Thames, but he hardly noticed. Mary. What should he do about Mary? He turned right onto Blackfriars, the steel cold beneath his hands, when he stopped and stared out over the glimmering river. Did he have the right? Should he do this? Mary. What was he to do about Mary?

Neither is that to be honest, I just knocked it up for this blog. But after an editor has got hold of it, after I have revised it a few times, then it will be crafted with loving care and then — if I’m lucky — it will sing.

Transitions are incredibly important, so make them sing from the page, make the reader barely notice that they are reading a scene-shift.

Because another thing about scene-breaks is that they are where a reader will put the book down and go off to do something else before returning to the book. Scene-breaks and chapter-breaks are like opening lines, so make them sing, but make them into transitions too.

(If you are writing in the Literary Genre, where stories are supposed to be ‘difficult’ and hard to read, just ignore all this. This ain’t art; this is craft. Leaving the reader constantly guessing about all this stuff might well win you a Booker, so go for it — just don’t think writing crafted novels is easy in comparison, it’s the exact opposite.)

 PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

I had no real idea what I was going to write this week then this turned  up on io9. Thank you, Mr Heinlein (and thank you io9 for sticking it where I could see it). Problem solved.

“Oi, buddy, you’re a writer, right? Where do you get your ideas from?”

I should imagine all writers get asked this question—a lot. You can cube that number for writers of Speculative Fiction, and you can cube it again for Science Fiction writers on their own. It’s understandable really.

Everybody, who isn’t a writer, is curious about where writers get their ideas. Writers are less curious and more envious when somebody comes up with a great idea (a ‘Bugger, wish I’d thought of that’ moment is something all writers will recognise (Check THIS out, so very envious).

With non-Speculative Fiction (excepting maybe Crime Fiction, where people back slowly away from the writer in case the scribe feels like doing a little hands-on research) people can kinda see where the idea might come from: a marriage break-up, an historical incident, a present-day incident, a conversation overheard in the street, and so on. Those sort of things make sense to readers, because everybody with an imagination will have had those moments of wondering.

With Fantasy, people can kinda see that the idea may derive from the 7000 odd years of mythology and legend that just sits there in the collective unconscious. Horror pretty much comes from the same place as Fantasy, but it does cross the line into Science Fiction (and Crime Fiction).

But pure SF?

Heinlein’s letter shows the answer. I don’t know if he trawled through his notebooks for his friend Theodore Sturgeon, or if he just started spilling ideas onto the page in a flood, it could have been either, but the important thing is that all the ideas actually built an entire world in very few words.

Even the ‘ghost cat’ idea creates a world in sixteen words.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a reason why Heinlein is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Science Fiction writers. This flood of ideas is part of the why and the world creation is a lot of the rest of it. Everything connects together in Heinlein’s work. He describes a world from the inside in a master class of how to do exposition. (Read the beginning of Starbeast if you don’t believe me). He takes an idea to its logical conclusion and that logical conclusion is the world building, then he lets his characters loose in that world.

Not many writers can do that. Really. It’s a rare gift.

However, the ideas bit is what all Science Fiction writers do automatically. We don’t even think about it. Some science journal or political journal has some article and we instantly think, ‘hmmm, I wonder?’

I wonder: if building bots that mimic human play in online games  will lead to them being used as NPC characters in new games, which will lead to Machine Intelligences being released onto the net; if sons leaving DNA in the mother will allow dead sons to be cloned from these tissues at some point in the future (it is probable that daughters leave the same DNA behind, but male DNA is easier to find in a woman); and so on. Instant extrapolation.

And this happens pretty much anytime I read anything scientific, or political, or sociological, or…okay pretty much anything I read about pretty much anything…because I’ve trained my brain over decades to do this. And all those stray thoughts stick somewhere in my memory. I only write down really cool ideas (or what I think are really cool ideas). I actually learn about stuff by writing stories about them. Sometimes the stories fail, but I’ve figured out sommat about the idea, then later that same idea will pop up in another story, which works because I understand the idea better now.

Don’t get me wrong here, a lot of writers will do the same thing, some will probably have looked at my two instant extrapolations above and gone “Is that all you saw? Sheesh, what about this…?”

But to answer the question ‘where do SF writers get their ideas from?’ is easy, from reading stuff and wondering how the hell it would affect the world. The “My God, what if” of Brian Aldiss.

If dead children can be cloned from DNA left behind in the mother, what about taking that same DNA and using it to create ‘spare-part’ clones for the children? What about using it to create a designer clone because the first (naturally born) version turned out a bit disappointing? What would happen if the ‘natural’ child was disinherited and the ‘designer’ child became the heir? What would it be like to have a younger, ‘suped-up’, version of you running around with all the money you should have inherited? What would a world that allowed this to happen be like?

That’s where we get our ideas from. But of course, Heinlein, Asimov, Clark, Anderson, Wyndham, Le Guin, Shelley, Wells, Aldiss, Verne, Gibson, Vinge, and all the rest of the greats, have been doing the same thing for centuries.

And doing it better.

But what can I do? My brain is trained now, so I’m stuck with it.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Has SF Lost Something over the Decades?

A friend of mine used to run a second-hand bookstore on eBay. Then he wrapped it up and was intending to take his unsold stock to the tip. This is sacrilege to me—you do not throw books away, never ever. I now have two—yes two—copies of the Da Vinci Code to prove this. My friend (hmmmm, that might be overstating the case here) slipped another copy into the job lot of books he gave me. Oh how I laughed. And I still can’t bring myself to throw ‘em in the bin.

I said I’d take any Speculative Fiction books he was going to toss. So a few hundred or so came my way. I was slowly working my way through them when I stumbled on some SF magazines from the 60s. Specifically New Worlds #107 from June 1961 and Galaxy #81 from August 1960.

So I read them.

And started thinking.

Have we lost something over the decades? Have all the writing courses , and latterly writing blogs, created an imbalance in the actual writing? Has fiction as a whole gone too far in the direction of literary quality and forgotten the basic rule of writing fiction: first tell a good story?

If you ever get a chance to read some old magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, do so. This is just before the New Wave came crashing into the party. You see a similar sort of disconnect with early 1980s SF, just before Cyberpunk spiked the wine with acid, but this disconnect between Golden Age and New Wave is really quite marked because up until that point literary concerns were subservient to the ideas.

The stories in these magazines are good, strong, well written, with clever ideas behind them. Apart from Brunner, Pohl, and Tubbs, they are written by writers I have never come across before—though they might be pseudonyms for famous writers, that sort of thing went on a lot back in those days. These stories were not collected into anthologies. These stories were considered average, normal stories of their day.

The science is, naturally, old fashioned; the cultural aspects can be a little disconcerting; the ideas are tropes that have now been mined to death; and the pace can be a little slow, but I think the average level of story-telling ability is higher than I see now in various modern SF magazines and sites. I was sucked into the stories, reading on to find out what happened next.

Yes, these are rather muscular stories, but they do drag you along. Modern SF, not so much. There are of course reasons for this.

We know all the tropes. We don’t have to explain them, we just point to the version of the trope we are using and get on with the writing. But this means that the idea quotient is lower so the literary quotient has to go up to raise us above the slush pile. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I favour clarity in the prose over pyrotechnics, because I think pyrotechnics are no use if the reader can’t ‘see’ the scene or comprehend the idea, but I do try to write great prose; I love it when somebody says, “cracking line”, or even better quotes a line back to me.

However, I also try to write good stories, with strong characters, and clever little ideas.

The lack of need to explain how a trope, like say faster-than-light drives or time travel, works in your universe (its a warp drive, its hyperspace, its the grandfather paradox, its quantum time leading to parallel worlds) frees up the writer to concentrate on other aspects of the writing. But what we forget is that these are tropes only to those of us who have read a large chunk of what came before. We forget that we should explain at least some of it for new readers to the genre. And in those explanations are spaces for new variations, new ideas, new plot lines.

Great prose is all well and good but without a great story it is essentially onanism as a spectator sport.

Read some old SF sometime. Those writers knew how to tell a story.

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Feel The Fear

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/September 6th 2012

My first book has just been published by Firedance books.

It’s a novella, or short novel (the differentiation between the two is grey as shaded erotica), of forty thousand words.

But it’s my first published long form story. In much the same way that ‘A Posturing Fool‘, published in the first volume of of Altered States, was my first published short form story.

So the dreaming is over, I am now a published author. It’s a strange thing to realise a dream, even if it is only part of a larger dream, which is to be a ‘successful’ published author—though how I will measure success is unknown to me. (Pantser in life as well as in writing. I make this stuff up as I go along).

A Posturing Foolwas a story I feared, a story I had to write despite the fear. Semi-autobiographical, liable to upset people I care about, and difficult to edit. A scary thing to write something like that, but all writers must write those stories; it’s the only way we grow as writers.

The ‘Tales of the Shonri‘, which can be found here and here, started in a similar way, though not quite so ferociously fearful. Simply put: I was challenged to write erotica. The story A Warrior’s Goodbye was the result. Not sure if it is particularly good erotica, but it is certainly a good story and it led to the ‘Tales of the Shonri‘, which led to ‘The City of Lights‘ which is my first published eBook.

I was scared of writing erotica. Battle scenes are easy, but sex scenes (which are also action scenes) are scary as all hell. Mainly because you have a punch-up in public but you generally get your kit off in private. So, for a writer, the only knowledge you have is your own. You don’t get to watch real people having a delightful time in bed in the same way that you get to see people having a rambunctious time outside the pub every Saturday night.

But still. I wrote it.

And lost my fear of sex scenes. To be honest, I am still more inclined to show curtains blowing in the wind than go all slot A into tab B, because showing sex is pretty unimportant to me, showing the results of sex, how it changes the dynamics of a relationship, how it changes the path of a story, that is much more important. Fight scenes change character dynamics in a much more direct way, particularly if one of the characters ends up dead, and even then you don’t go all parry, thrust, move a foot, on the edge, on the flat, move the other foot, either. Action works best if you don’t describe it too completely.

However, if I need to write a sex scene, and with Medina as a character I pretty much do, then I know I can write a sex scene.

Then again, ‘A Posturing Fool‘ has a sex scene in it, but that was different because when I wrote that story I never intended to publish it. It was catharsis not storytelling. Whereas ‘A Warrior’s Goodbye‘ was written to be read by others, it was meant to be published.

A step-change that.

So I feared to write ‘A Posturing Fool‘ and did it anyway, which led me to a place where I could write another story I feared to write ‘A Warrior’s Goodbye‘, which led me—because that world had to be explored—to write ‘The Tales of the Shonri‘ on Writerlot, which led me to create ‘Tales of the Shonri: The City of Lights‘ as a long-form story constructed from several of the Writerlot stories, which led me to sub it to Firedance Books (albeit as part of the collective already, so foot already through the door), which led to my first published eBook.

Fear see, it just gets in the way, but it’s a hell of a spur to good work. Feel it, push past it, and see what opens up before you.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/September 6th 2012

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Fan Fiction and World Building

I’ve had a couple of revelations recently or the heading might have read: Fan Fiction. Why?

The first revelation came in the comments over on the Passive Voice blog. My standard ‘why’ question was being debated, and I was sticking to my standard ‘I don’t understand the impulse’ position, when  I remembered writing a Dr Who story in my teens. Bang goes my ‘not understanding the impulse’.

The second revelation came when talking my nephew, who does like his fan fiction. I understood the impulse now, but I still didn’t understand ‘why’ people chose to invest so much energy into something they can’t sell. He was adamant that some fan fiction was better than the original fiction. You still can’t sell them, was my response to which he agreed, albeit a tad reluctantly. [EDIT: Kindle Worlds seems to be allowing people to sell fan fiction now, not sure how that is going to work out. A watching brief seems to be in order.]

However, this blog post is more about an insidious problem for writers of fan fiction rather than the legal and ethical concerns. I’m just mentioning them to get them out of the way—and to nail apologists for plagiarists hides to the wall (see below).

The final revelation came from an argument on another blog—I’m not sure which one—where the whole ‘nothing is original and therefore I can plagiarise to my heart’s content’ argument came up. That argument is bogus, bullshit, and should be thrust back down whichever throat it issues from whenever it is spoken, typed, or in any other way preached to the hard-of-thinking.

Philosophical bullshit based on a grain of truth (no story is truly original, but all creative stories are unique to the author) is still bullshit. If you don’t have any ideas of your own then don’t go stealing mine and asserting your rights to do so with sophistry and pedantry.

So, taking all three revelations as read, that pretty much everybody who writes will at some point write some form of fan fiction, that some fan fiction is extremely well written, and that it is still technically plagiarism and expect to see the inside of a courthouse if you try to steal another writer’s work and sell it without their consent, why do I still have a bit of a problem with fan fiction?

It’s to do with the fan fiction writer themselves. The most common reason people give for writing fan fiction (in my experience) beyond sheer love of the world and characters, is that it allows the writer to explore character and plot without them having to explore world building at the same time. In short, it’s easier for the tyro writer to focus on these aspects of writing rather than have to deal with the whole thing.

So what’s the problem with this?

Well.

Characters and plots are intimately linked to setting. If a writer creates a character, that is not the main protagonist of the story they are fanning (is that a term?—it’s a good one, because fan fiction does fan the flames that can lift a story or a series to a higher level. I’m not against fan fiction, I’m just against people thinking they should be ‘paid’ for writing fan fiction and that the original author should not get a cut—a big cut) then that character is linked to that world. Even if you file off the serial numbers and publish that work as being set in a different world, it will still bear the imprimatur of the original world being fanned.

The world you are born into, that you grow into, defines who you are. If I wrote a novel based in the… um… yeah that’ll do… the Star Wars universe and the story went so well that I decided to file off the serial numbers and release it as an original work then no matter how deep I go with the cutting and the editing, no matter how hard I try to create a different world, the character will still bear the marks of being born into a Star Wars world. Otherwise, it won’t be the same character.

So the story will be lesser for that reason. It’ll be a copy of a world run through photoshop. Jedi becomes some other warrior monkish order, the Empire becomes some other overpowering enemy, droids become some other semblance of AI. But all have the creative DNA of Star Wars running through them like “bloody prequels” through a stick of Blackpool rock.

(And yes I am well aware that people will start yelping about how Star Wars took this from here and that from there and then mashed them all together to make this amalgam of stuff that they called a universe. I’ve got news for you, that’s called World Building. If you take a whole bunch of stuff from a whole bunch of sources and create a world that works without looking like any other world that some other writer created using the same sources then you have committed World Building. It’s a skill, a craft, and in the hands of a master like Frank Herbert or Iain M. Banks [EDIT: RIP. Damn, I hate writing that, one of the finest writers of his generation] or Terry Pratchett, it is an art form. And I’m not talking about the gross level of this is a Space Opera world, or this is a Medieval European Fantasy world, or this is a Cyberpunk world. Those are genres and tropes. Not excuses for plagiarism using the NIO—nothing is original—defence.)

Plots are slightly different, this is where the NIO bullshit comes from, because plots really can be grouped into strands of creation running back to the dawn of time. So much so that modern writers of original works have to takes this into account when storytelling. “Look look, it’s a love story, oh… she died… look, look it’s a revenge story… oh he died… look, look it’s a legal story…” And so on.

You don’t actually have to kill off your characters, but you do have to point one way (the way everybody expects the plot to go) and go another. Unless of course you are so good at this writing malarkey that you can keep the readers on board because they love the characters so much that the plot is just what needs to happen to show the characters off (that is my favoured approach by the way: it is the most fun and the most difficult to pull off, which are my prime motivations for writing stuff in the first place. Though you do still need a strong storyline for them to follow. You don’t get anywhere with characters just wafting around with nothing to do).

But plots are constrained by the world. The byzantine politicking of Dune is entirely different from the more direct politics of the Hyperion Age. And, just as with characters, you can grind off the serial numbers to your heart’s content, but the story will still bear the faded marks of the world it was originally set in.

So what’s my problem with this?

When you are learning to write (particularly in the field of SF&F). You are essentially learning to balance character against plot against setting against idea and/or theme (I throw that last in because some people seem to think it’s important. It is, but I never think about it myself. To my mind, theme is a critic’s bread and butter. I’m a writer not a critic…snobby? Yup, you betcha, after all ‘snobby’ should be part of the definition of the word critic, so sod ’em.)

So you are only learning to balance character against plot when writing fan fiction. The world is already there, it’s set in stone, if you’re writing fan fiction then you have probably read it so many times that it is more real to you than the world you actually live in. You are not learning how to balance the character and plot against the setting (the theme/idea really will just take care of itself—really, stop thinking about that nonsense right now. Unless of course you like writer’s block because you get a lie in).

And you only have so many stories inside you. There are only so many characters and plots you can utilise. As time wears on you may find more, but they will still—essentially—derive from your earliest work. That’s just a fact of creative life. The thread of your thematic concerns, your characters, the plots you develop, can be traced all the way back to the first thing you wrote.

A fan fiction writer chooses to constrain those formative writing experiences in another writer’s world.

I’m just not sure that is very wise at all.

[EDIT: Since writing this, I have become aware of Mash-Ups… they do sound like fun :grin:]

 

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Fan Fiction, Storytelling, Art, and Craft, World Building

Writing into the Void

I used to be arrogant about my writing. I knew I could write a good line. I knew I could write believable dialogue. I knew I could create a solid plot out of thin air.

But I was writing into the void. I’m not sure who called it this; who used the word void to describe it. I read it somewhere but I am not sure who wrote it. Sorry about that, but the word resonated not the name attached to it. I used to call it writing into the vacuum, but void is better, void is more precise: it describes the process exactly as it happens.

Writing with nobody to read your work, nobody to see the flaws, nobody to show you the little things you have to know. Friends? Family? They are good for “Can I write?” Not because of what they say, after all they are unlikely to tell you you’re crap, but for the look in their eye as they say it. You can see the surprise, the respect; they know that the story works and they show that to you in their reaction. What they can’t do, however, is read your work as a writer would.

So you teach yourself, on your own, bit by bit, sphere by sphere, move by move. Sitting there writing away, learning how things work on the page the hard way, self-educating yourself to write.

I used to call close-third-multiple: viewpoint writing, because I had never heard of close third and needed something to describe what I was trying to do. Struggling with keeping the viewpoint firmly fixed in a single head in a single scene. Why? Because it felt right. It felt like that is the way it should be. Writing, reading, revising, rereading, revising, rereading…. every time spotting another instance where I let a line slip, when I had fallen out of the character’s head. Learning that the best way to learn how to write close third is to write first person.

Not knowing why this worked, just groping towards a style. I already had a voice. I’ve never had a problem with voice (I started writing at 11 obsessive teenager scribbling is very good for letting your voice through) but style, now that was a fish of a different genus.

And so it went with passive sentences too. Using the grammar checker  — remember when grammar checkers talked about clause splicing and so forth, no readability stats, no way of knowing which sentences was passive and which were not (computers still aren’t to be trusted on that score, not completely; they’re machines: they don’t know the meanings of the words you’re using. So always be careful, but they are useful — just don’t have the green lines on. Because those things are irritating, distracting and utterly worthless).

So I’d do a grammar check. 3% passive sentences. Then I would go page by page. If it flagged up a passive sentence on that page then I’d go paragraph by paragraph. Zeroing in on the sentence. Finding the right paragraph and  going sentence by sentence through that paragraph until I found it. Then altering it. Switching it around. Until it was not flagged as passive any more. Learning how to write sentences first time out of the box so my grammar check always says 1% (0% happens very occasionally. Some sentences have to be passive — it’s not a mortal sin, only a clumsy one).

And so on, with story structure, with character scenes vs plot scenes, with action vs reflection, with pacing. All the time on my own, writing into the void arrogantly sure that I could write.

And then I found writing sites.

I’d done nanowrimo and been on those forums and I think I managed to help some people and upset a whole lot more. Not much changes there.  What can you do? You are who you are.

But on other writing sites I started seeing the wood for the trees. I started seeing the little things that make all the difference. I started learning the lingo. And I started to talk to other writers for the very first time. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, all the time, everyday, bit by bit, and I posted to threads, and I asked the questions, and my confidence grew.

Especially once I started giving and receiving critiques, that is where I started making the hard choices, the writer’s choices. Working for the story not my ego.

Arrogance is based on your own fear that maybe you can’t do this. Arrogance will make you give fixed answers to questions of style and pace and voice. Arrogance will blind you to the way forward.

Confidence is based on knowledge. Confidence allows you to see that there are many answers to any question about the craft, the art, the truth, and they are all correct. Confidence will show you the way forward.

Arrogance is false and confidence is real.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

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Filed under Storytelling, Art, and Craft