Another One of the Rough Spots

It’s always a tricky bit when — for reasons necessary to the forward motion of the plot — you have to have one character explain to another character a bunch of stuff that the reader already knows.

This is sort of the opposite of the much commoner “how do I work in the necessary exposition” problem, and tends to crop up in long, complex novels, or in novels where the interlocking plot developments are engineered with clockwork precision, or in parts of an ongoing series.  Unlike the necessary-exposition problem, where the characters already have the required information but the reader does not, with this problem it is the readers who are already in possession of the information, and one or more of the characters who must somehow acquire it.

The trick, to the extent that there is one, is to remember that the reader doesn’t need to be given the information all over again; the reader only needs to understand that the character has been made aware of it.  You can be blunt and direct:  “On Wednesday at lunch, the Director told the Chief of Police everything that had happened during the preceding spring.”  Or you can be more subtle, and have a scene with the Director and the Chief of Police talking over steak and baked potatoes, during which you slip in as much as possible of the known-to-your-reader stuff in indirect discourse, while using the up-front chatter for character and atmospherics and other hopefully-interesting new material.

What you want to avoid is having your reader exclaim, upon  finding out that one of your characters is in possession of a particular piece of knowledge, “But how did he know that?”

Crass Commercialism for the Win

It’s been a while since the last such post, so I suppose it’s time to remind the kind people who read my blog that in my offline life one of the things I do for a living is provide freelance editorial services.

I work specifically in the area of genre fiction — that is to say, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, historial and alternate-historical fiction, and horror.  Not coincidentally, those are also the fields in which I’ve done most of my own writing.  Genre fiction comes with a different set of reading protocols than standard mimetic realism, and presents some specialized problems in addition to the ones common to fiction of all kinds, and it really helps to have your editor/critiquer  be aware of such things.

So if you’re a writer in one of those fields and you have a book that you’re looking to polish up for submission, or that you’re hoping to self-publish, I can help.  The details, if you want them, can be found by following either the sidebar contact link, or the link up there in the first paragraph.

Dots and Dashes

Or, This is Not a Guide to Proper Punctuation.

Because where punctuation is concerned, the dirty little secret is that most of the rules are a lot more like local customs.  Different languages have different customary punctuation, and so do different time periods.  Medieval English texts had next to no punctuation at all — once in a while, if the text was meant to be sung or chanted, the scribe might throw in a mark that would someday be a comma or an apostrophe, as a way of saying to the reader, “take a breath here; you’re going to need it.”

Modern editions of older texts — especially the renaissance and medieval stuff — often impose modern punctuation on the material, in the interest of making it more accessible to the reader.  Standardized, or at least sort of standardized, punctuation came in with printing, and it was the printers, not the writers or the readers, who more-or-less codified it.

Even today, there’s a lot more leeway in the area of punctuation than your old high-school grammar texts would have had you believe.  Sure, sentences need to end with a period or a question mark or an exclamation point, and using a comma splice instead of a semicolon is just plain wrong, but when it comes to things like whether to use a colon or a dash, or paired dashes instead of parentheses, or serial-comma-yes versus serial-comma-no . . . you’re on your own.

And don’t worry too much.  You can get away with almost anything, so long as you’re consistent about it.

(Get your dialogue punctuation right, though.  It’s all purely arbitrary, done according to conventional rules that are easy enough to learn and to follow, and to check for errors in the final draft.  And messing them up is likely to put off a potential reader faster than almost anything.)


Looking Backward

Or, the problem with pronouns.

You know pronouns — he, she, it, they, and all those other little words that get called up to fill in for common nouns (cat, dog, gerbil, pigeons) and proper nouns (Tom, Dorothy, Mount Rushmore, the Boston Red Sox) so that our sentences and paragraphs don’t get cluttered up with wall-to-wall names.

The thing about pronouns is that a pronoun is always going to be looking backward toward the noun that it’s standing in for — its antecedent (from a couple of Latinate building blocks meaning, roughly, “falling before”; a pronoun’s antecedent is the word that falls before it in the sentence.)  And  no matter what the actual intended antecedent for a particular pronoun may be ,the reader’s first impulse will be to associate it with the most recently occurring noun of the appropriate gender and number.

Most of the time, re-associating the pronoun with its proper antecedent only takes a fractional second of mental processing on the part of the reader.  The thing is, though, all those fractional seconds start to add up, and the cumulative weight of all that extra time acts like a drag on your story’s forward momentum.  Too much drag, and the reader’s going to get tired and give up.

Don’t let that happen.  Watch your pronouns.

The Good, The Bad, and the Completely Off the Wall: Thinking about Reviews

If you’re a writer, you’re going to get bad reviews.  That’s just the way it is.  Bad reviews come with the life.  If ten people read your book and nine of them like it, you’ll be lucky if one of the nine bothers to say as much in public.  The tenth guy, though, the one who found your book so little to his liking that it made his eyes cross and steam come out of his ears . . . that guy will tell all of his friends.  And write about it in his blog.  And quite possibly send you a personal letter.

To which you, if you are wise, will not respond, because arguing in public with critics and reviewers seldom makes a writer look good.  But while you’re sitting there biting down on your typing fingers to keep from posting a reply, you can distract yourself by figuring out exactly which kind of bad review you’ve got.

The simplest kind of bad review is the one where the reader just plain didn’t like your book.  There’s no point in resenting this one; chalk it up to payback for all the books out there — some of them entirely worthy, some of them vouched for by readers whose taste you respect — that you just plain didn’t like, either.

Then there’s the reader who’s mad at your book because it wasn’t the book he or she wanted to read.  It had romance elements, and your reader doesn’t like having a gratuitous love interest interfering with the plot.  Or it didn’t have any romance elements, and your reader thinks that a story without any romantic or sexual interest in it leaves out a major part of the human experience.  Or your story had not enough politics in it, or it had too much.  Or you wrote an entire book about Subject X without ever mentioning Other Subject Y.  It’s harder not to resent this one, because you worked damned hard on that book, including making the tough choices about which things, out of a near-infinity of things, you could put in, and which ones you would have to leave out, and it’s never any fun to be told that you’ve done it all wrong.

From there, you move on to the reader who seems to have read, and disliked, a completely different book from the one you know that you wrote.  There’s not much you can do about that kind of bad review, except to  conclude that your reader must have put on the wrong set of spectacles before turning to Chapter One.

Worst of all, though, is the completely wrongheaded good review, the one where the reviewer likes your book for all the wrong reasons, or for virtues that you could have sworn it never exhibited.   Complaining about this one feels like kicking puppies.

Thought for Food

Writing, considered as a profession, can be enormously satisfying.  However, it is seldom enormously profitable; and even those writers who have achieved mega-bestsellerdom have usually traveled on a long, arduous, and often stony-broke journey to reach that point.

Which is why most writers’ personal recipe collections are big on dishes that are cheap, nourishing, and tasty . . . primarily cheap.

Lentil soup, for example.  The only things you really need in order to make starving-writer lentil soup are a bag of lentils, about six or eight cups of cooking liquid, an onion, a bit of meat, and a bay leaf, and the meat and the bay leaf are optional.  The meat can be the last leftover bits of a ham, if you’re currently well-off enough to have had a ham; it can be pieces of kielbasa or smoked sausage; it can even be cut up store-brand hot dogs, if  hot dogs are all you can afford.  Once, because what I lacked at the time wasn’t money, but rather transportation to the grocery store, I used a pound of bacon, cut up into small pieces, because the bacon was what I had.  If you’re a vegetarian, you can leave the meat out completely, maybe throw in some diced carrots or potatoes along with the chopped onion.  Season it however you like.  Some people go with curry-style seasoning; I usually go with the abovementioned bay leaf and a bit of prepared horseradish, with a generous shot of soy sauce thrown in for savory saltiness.

Cook like it says on the lentil package, for however long it takes to get the soup to the consistency that you prefer.  A crockpot is good for this; so is a dutch oven on top of the stove.

This will feed one writer for several days, or one writer and family for an evening meal, with maybe a serving left over to warm up the day after.

Backstory, We Got Backstory

Every story has a backstory.  It’s the crucial information that you-the-reader need to know if you’re going to understand what’s happening now, in the story’s present day.  Or it’s the buried secret that shapes the character of your protagonist, or the skeleton in the family cupboard, or the Dreadful Thing that happened at college in senior year that nobody ever speaks of and nobody ever forgets.

Sometimes a plot only needs a bit of light-weight backstory work, somewhat in the nature of a trellis to support the ornamental vines of the action, the better to reassure you-the-reader that what you’re seeing has something underneath it to keep it fixed in position and to hold it up.   Other times, the backstory isn’t just there for support; it’s the heavy-duty engine that drives the entire narrative.

But no matter the relative importance of the backstory, there is one thing that the writer needs to remember:  What went on in the past of the narrative cannot be more entertaining than what’s going on in the present.  Because if it is, then the writer might as well give up on the present-day portion of the narrative entirely and concentrate on writing about all the past-era stuff that’s actually interesting.

Work and Travel and Cats

Or, why I didn’t post anything over the weekend.

One of our cats died, apparently of old age — we never knew how old she actually was, since she came to us fully grown.  She turned up one winter in our basement (which, because we live in an old house, is more permeable to the outside world than I’d sometimes like), and by the end of that spring had moved in and claimed the status of #1 House Cat.

Then we went on a road trip down to Brooklyn, which involved something like ten hours in a minivan with nonfunctional air conditioning.  Each way.

And I’ve got an editing job I need to finish, and a novel, likewise.

The flow of insightful commentary is a bit sluggish right now, for some reason.  I can’t imagine why.

Things to Avoid, Antagonist Division

One of the things you don’t want to do, when you’re creating your antagonist and putting him through his protagonist-thwarting paces, is to end up with yet another instance of the amazing mind-reading teleporting menace.

You know how that one works:  your protagonist is running across country to escape from the monster, or running from room to room in the big old mansion to escape from the serial killer, or dodging about the streets of the big city to evade the hired-gun assassin-spy.  No matter which way he turns or where he goes, however, the bad guy is always right behind him — or, often, is already there waiting for him.

And a lot of the time, if you stand still long enough to think about it, you realize that there’s no way the antagonist could have gotten to that point from where he was standing before, or that he could have known which way the protagonist was going to turn for help, without being able to read minds and teleport.  Which most serial killers and assassin-spies are not, in fact, able to do.  (The jury is still out on monsters.)

There are two main ways to avoid this problem.  One way is to keep your story moving so fast, and so entertainingly, that the reader never has the time or the inclination to stop dead in his or her tracks and ask, “How the hell was he able to do that?”  The other way is by means of careful plotting and meticulous attention to continuity, which may in fact actually involve tricks like drawing charts and making timelines in order to keep track of what your antagonist is doing during those parts of the story when he isn’t on stage.

When you’re done, if you’ve done it right, your reward will be to have the reader never notice all the hard work that you put in.

One Thing After Another

When you live three hours by road from the nearest city of any size (and by “of any size” I mean “is able to support at least two separate movie theatres and a shopping mall”), you end up listening to a lot of audiobooks.  You also end up realizing that not all books make good road listening.  You don’t want the sort of book you have to devote a lot of mental processing power to decoding in some fashion — at any rate, you don’t if you’re me, and spend a lot of your driving-and-listening time in the sort of environment where it’s necessary to devote at least a portion of your brain to keeping an eye out for moose in the road.

(Important safety tip, here:  Brake for moose.  As far as the moose is concerned, it doesn’t stop for other things, other things stop for it.  Unless you’re an entire pack of wolves, it doesn’t consider you a threat worth bothering with.)

What you want, for driving a long way at night on a moosey road, is a book that isn’t so complex you’ll lose track of everything else you’re doing, but with enough stuff going on that you’ll stay alert and not succumb to highway hypnosis.  Of late, our household has found that the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (available for free download from Librivox) are just the ticket.  Granted, Burroughs is not the most elegant of prose stylists, nor the most original of thinkers, and he can be counted on to exhibit just about every -ism to which a white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant writer from the first decades of the twentieth century might be susceptible . . . but when it comes down to sheer one-damned-thing-after-another plot construction, the man is hard to beat.