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PK’s Jaundiced Futurism: On Enhanced E-books Alternate Endings

Enhanced e-books will be a boon for non-fiction. Video, interactive diagrams, the ability to update in the light of new information or research. The possibilities are endless.

Fiction…umm…not so much.

I can see hypertext novels coming back into fashion, though they will have to do away with those bloody irritating links — not very conducive to immersion having every character name and artefact highlighted. I can see illustrations becoming prevalent, though there is a point beyond which the novel becomes a graphic novel. I can even see interactive databases for the more extreme world-building; think of Tolkien’s appendices as a searchable database.

All that I can see being useful for storytelling.

But I’ve read a few posts recently, on blogs and writing news aggregation sites, where high muckity-mucks in the publishing industry also mention ‘Alternate Endings’ as an enhancement.

Why? How does betraying the story count as an enhancement?

There are essentially three forms of storytelling now current in our culture. Interactive games, the media (films, television, graphic novels, radio, audio books) and text (novels, shorts, twitter, blog-stories, and so on. There are slight differences in distribution, but the medium is still text-based).

In games, alternate endings are a great idea. The player is the protagonist in the game, he or she is the one making decisions about how they play, so it’s not a bad idea to make those playing decisions affect how the game ends.

Play the game through, shooting everything with the biggest gun you can get. Not a bad way to play a game for the first time: while you work out how the game engines work. Play it through again, but being kinder to the game environment and to all those realistically detailed creatures you can kill. Some people claim to play Grand Theft Auto while going out of their way to avoid running down the virtual pedestrians the game designers place all over the virtual streets. I have no idea why you would do that, it isn’t supposed to be a simulation of driving in the city, but some people are just strange.

Between those two extremes, there are a multitude of possible choices that the player can make and each choice could affect the ending of the game. All good. All useful. All enhancing the experience and making you want to play the game again. If only to collect all the endings in the same way you used to collect gold rings when playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Obsessive, yes, but games can make you a tad obsessive — that’s part of their appeal.

In the media, mostly films it must be said, alternate endings are sometimes DVD extras. Twenty-Eight Days Later is the one that immediately springs to mind. No spoilers, for those who have not seen it, but I preferred the bleaker ending. I remember watching the film and feeling cheated by the ending they actually used. It felt forced. Please note this is before I even knew the alternate ending existed; once I found that on the DVD, I was even more irritated by the Hollywood ending they chose.

But, and this is important, films (and I suspect TV) are created in the editing suite. They are not created during principal photography. The actual filming simply gives the director options when the film is finally cut together. So much so, that many fine movie actors deliberately avoid giving the same performance in every take. They ‘wilfully’ (as Ian McKellen said about Ian Holm — when making Lord of the Rings) vary what they do to give the director options in the cut.

This is where the alternate endings that end up on DVDs come from. From this exact same process. The director may film more than one ending, because they don’t know how the story is going to play out, they don’t know if the pacing will work, they don’t know if the producers will accept a bleak ending, they don’t know until they have made the film. And since the ending is filmed and done and dusted, well you may as well stick it on the DVD as an extra. That’s a no-brainer.

In text — well novels really, yeah…look, I know these publishing execs have a great deal of experience and are, obviously, very smart people, but…um…have they any idea about how a novel actually works?

Just in case they need a heads-up, I’ll explain.

This is how a novel works. Every scene, every scrap of dialogue, every piece of action, every bit of fore-shadowing, every character interaction, every bit of weather, every setting, every damn thing that survives the editing process and ends up in the finished novel does service to the plot and make the ending of the story emotionally satisfying to the reader. That is a novelist’s duty. We don’t always manage it, but that is our aim.

Alternate endings will destroy what we have tried to create. They will make whole sections of dialogue nonsensical or irrelevant. They will make action scenes seem trite and unrealistic (because if we need alternate endings we can’t kill off characters that need to be killed off because we need them for the alternate ending). They will make foreshadowing a series of red-herrings that are never explained. They will make character interactions bland and boring (because everything will have to be left open to allow for different endings). Even the weather may have to be moderated so there are no extremes just to help keep the ending open. And of course settings will have to be rendered either very sketchily indeed or in so much detail that every single possible interaction between the character and the environment is possible.

Most importantly of all, we will be breaking our trust with the reader. Clever is not the same as honest. A writer seeks honesty, honesty to the prose, to the plot, to the characters. We seek to show the truth through the prism of our own understanding. Readers know this, that is why they read books instead of watching a film or playing a game.

Alternate endings are clever, even philosophical profound. Hmmm. Would they be nihilistic, existential, or solipsistic? I suppose that would depend on the author.

I’m not saying that a genius writer at the top of their game could not write a novel where the different endings actually enhance the story, where they alter the way it is read, where they change the way the reader understands the world. But I seriously doubt there will be many novelists of that calibre alive at any one time.

So, publishers, please, for the sake of the art-form I love, and the craft I have learned, and for my own sanity, stop talking about alternate bloody endings for novels.

Unless of course, you want to write the damn thing yourself.

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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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

The Value of Retyping

There’s a danger with word processors. They allow you to fiddle around forever: change a word, go back and change another one, go back change the punctuation, take this story beat from this scene and cut and paste it in to this one. Constant messing around at the margins of the story.

And in the process, you kill the flow of the words. It is no longer this smooth, well-paced, linear flow from one idea to the next, from one scene to the next. You mess around so much that you lose the rhythm of the work. I should imagine pretty much every writer has done this and then spent hours, days, weeks, months, messing around trying to get back what they have lost.

Stop. Print it out. Type it back in. (Using the print out, lets not go crazy and try to remember every word).

That’s my advice.

Make all the changes you need to make for structure, pacing, character development, plot — whatever you need to fix. Make the changes as rough or as fine as you want. You need to change that bit of dialogue, change it. You need to cut and paste that story beat from that scene to that scene so the sequence works, move it. You need to make that sentence work better because it’s bugging the hell out of you, make it work.

Then print it out and type it all back in. The real hard core method is to print it out, delete the original, and then type it back in. The reason to delete is so you are forced to retype even the scenes that work with no cutting and pasting them over; the reason why you retype the scenes that work is because the flow goes straight through them and you need to follow the flow.

I came by this method while reading an old interview with one of the greats of the SF Golden Age (I forget which one, which is unfortunate but it took a while for the message to sink in). He used to type his first drafts on the back of old bills, envelopes, scrap bits of paper, anything. The idea being that he could not possibly submit that to an editor, so he forced himself to retype the second draft.

We have word processors now, so what constitutes a second draft these days? A complete start at the beginning revision, where you fix all these things on the screen. I don’t think so. That’s revision not a draft. That can lead you down the ‘ten years writing the same damn story’ syndrome, because you’re not seeing the story as a whole anymore. You’re seeing it as separate scenes, sentences, punctuation marks. You can drive yourself crazy doing that sort of thing.

A complete retyping of the entire story, the way most writers had to do it before the advent of word processors, that’s a second draft.

Obviously,  people will say that it’ll take too long to retype the entire thing, that it’s quicker to just revise. If you have a good strong first draft, then you’re probably right. Not much point retyping the whole thing if all you need to do is clean up a couple of sentences. But if you have to do anything structural, anything major, retyping takes less time than fiddling and will produce a better story.

You decide (or discover for pantsers like me) that this character is in love with this other character, for instance. You can go back and drop in stuff, work out beats within scenes, play the foreshadow card for all it is worth, but the interactions of every other character will be off too. This sort of emotional involvement affects everybody around the two people engaged in the flirting, moon-eyed glances, sighs and all the other things that people falling in love do.

It affects all the dynamics, all of them. It might even affect the dynamics (at a story-telling level) of characters who never even meet the moon calves.

You can of course go through the whole thing, shifting, adjusting, making decisions, altering this word here, and that word there, and so forth. But it doesn’t alter the fact that, when you wrote the original draft, you didn’t know about the lovers. If you retype it with the full knowledge of this plot point then you automatically adjust everything as you go and as a bonus you smooth out all the bumps in the flow caused by pratting about word-fiddling.

And it takes less time because you are writing free and easy again. You know the story, you know the characters, you have the first draft in front of you and you are reading it. You don’t have to remember anything, you just have to type it in. No better way to spot a truly dodgy bit of writing than when you type it back in again. The damn things leap off the page at you.

Anyway, just a thought. It works for me, it might well work for you too.

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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Asking questions via the situation and getting the character to answer them

See, I’m a pantser, a pure unadulterated seat-of-the-pants storyteller. I know some people reading this will snort right about now and think to themselves, ‘No, he’s not’. They’ll either assume I am lying to you, though only they know why, or to myself. Essentially, they automatically assume that I am either a blowhard or deluded.

I, in my turn, assume their assumptions come from being too closed up in the mythology of writing classes to allow the words to run free.

But that is my assumption and, like their assumptions about me, it is based on insufficient evidence to be considered factual. So, unlike their virulent desire to prove that I am not what I say I am, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and let that body lie dead beneath the boughs of the unfruited tree. Me? I head for the tree with fruit on it, pick the low-hanging and then climb up to get the inaccessible, take them all down, mash them all up together, and call it a story.

Somebody  sent me a brief snippet from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. Never read the book, heard good things about it, but never had access to a copy. So I’ve only read three paragraphs of Chapter five. I kinda gave up on writing books for lent a decade ago and I haven’t noticed the lack since.

Just like to say, Mr King, what you say in the small snippet of Chapter 5 I’ve read [Quote Stephen King] When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. [Unquote] I hear you, man.

So this is my take on what King says more eloquently in ‘On Writing’. (Oh by the way, reading that snippet. I think he might well be even more of a pantser than I am, I wasn’t sure that was actually possible. )

Character

Characters are real people to me. No, they don’t talk to me. No, I don’t have conversations with them. Hell, I barely know what the buggers look like. But they are real and usually amorphous. From the first moment they appear in a scene they are revealing themselves to me, a bit at a time, piece by piece. Everything they do, every word they utter, every thought that passes through their minds, reveals a little bit more of the puzzle to me.

I really don’t know who they are when they turn up. I don’t know if they are good guys, or bad guys (Okay, sometimes I think, ‘I need a bad guy here’ and create one, but I don’t know what sort of bad guy they are: evil, misunderstood, banal, trapped, whatever) or instigators. I don’t know if they are the love interest, the unrequited love, or the nightmare lover that tears your soul apart. I don’t know if the are the loyal friend, the honourable enemy, or the sneaky little bugger I am going to love to hate.

But that’s fine. I don’t need to know who they are until they show me, which means the reader gets to find out about them at the same time. Very good for pacing that. I’m writing and wondering why-the-hell-did-he-do-that-thing-he-did, which means the reader is wondering it too, and then the question is answered.  For both of us. At the same time. No artificial story beats there, just a ‘Oh right, so that’s what’s going on’ for reader and writer at the same time.

Of course in the second draft there will be rewriting and foreshadowing and adaptations to make the story tighter, but I try very hard to keep the drip, drip, drip, of character revelation to the same beat as in the first draft. I shape it a bit, but I don’t plug it up and place the interaction someplace else, unless I really have to shift the damn scene for story reasons. This is the hard bit of editing for me, not the story stuff, but the character stuff that has to be moved because of the story stuff.

Situation

Situation, setting, where the story takes place, when the story takes place, will lead to the why the story is worth recounting via the how it all plays out.

Unless it is part of an ongoing series (like my Tales of the Shonri  originals to be found over on http://writerlot.net/  and even then I’m creating the setting story by story, which is why some are a bit skimpy on detail) I don’t know what the setting is until I start writing. It is nice to have some sense of place, which may be why King tends to set all his stories in his own backyard, but the sense of place comes from the story-telling process.

The soft touch of the grass beneath his naked feet as he raced down towards the water’s edge, screaming, “Ellie! Ellie! Ellie!”

Just made that up (obviously) so what’s the setting. Grass. Water’s edge. Hmm, okay you don’t get grass running down to the sea, not normally anyway, so it’ll be fresh water. So either a river or a lake then. Some place dangerous probably, because it sounds like somebody is in trouble, mind you it might turn out that he has been away for a bit and is calling out to his love, or maybe he thought she was dead, or maybe she has come back from the dead.

See, situation. Geezer running across grass towards water calling out to somebody female.

From that situation other situations arise. Is she drowning? Does he save her? Does she drown? Does he drown saving her? Do they both drown? Is this a story about the afterlife? Or grief? Or love? Or none of these things? Is she returning from beyond the grave? Is he returning from beyond the grave? Is he returning from a war? Is she now married to somebody else? Is…?

Questions.

Situation is the source of questions. Character is how you answer them. A story is how the answered questions throw up more questions that then need to be answered until there is only a single possible conclusion left. Until you run out of questions that character can answer and are just left with the question of how the character will prevail or endure or not.

I just keep on answering the questions as they come up. I don’t work out what they are going to be ahead of time, because then the characters are answering questions that I already know the answer to, which is a bit like cheating at a test. You ain’t cheating anybody but yourself, or in this case the 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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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Structure and Plot