The other day, I talked about portentous weather. Which led, in the course of time, to thinking about portentous names — by which I mean the sort of name that tells the reader right up front what he or she is supposed to think about a character.
The Victorians loved this sort of thing. Dickens positively reveled in it, especially for his secondary characters, who rejoiced in names like Thomas Gradgrind and Wackford Squeers; Gilbert and Sullivan parodied it in Ruddigore, when the trusty servant Adam Goodheart, upon his employer’s assumption of the role of Bad Baronet, changes his name to Gideon Crawle.
These days, most writers go for subtler effects — with at least one prominent exception. I refer, of course, to J. K. Rowling, who didn’t hesitate to give her secondary characters names like Malfoy and Crouch and Shacklebolt, and her readers loved her for it.
Subtle characterization is a wonderful thing. Unsubtle characterization . . . not so much. There are a number of tricks for quick-and-dirty characterization, useful mainly in those forms and media where screen time or word count is tightly limited and strictly enforced; one of the down sides to becoming a writer is that one also becomes entirely too quick for comfort at spotting these tricks in action.
Possibly the most famous of these tricks is the old Hollywood advice for writers of westerns: When your villain comes to town, have him get off the stagecoach and kick the nearest dog.
A bit more subtle — but still not much — is characterization by significant accessory. I read a mystery novel once where the author tipped the readers off that they weren’t supposed to like a particular character by noting with disapproval that he owned a leather couch. (I gave up on that mystery series not long after, when I started noticing that the author appeared to feel more moral concern for crimes against animals than for crimes against people.)
Then you get characterization by opinion, which results in the sort of book where all the good characters share the writer’s political (or other) opinions, and win all the arguments, and all the bad characters espouse the completely wrongheaded opinions of the other side, and generally not only lose the arguments, but meet bad ends. There was, for example, one well-known mystery writer (now deceased) whose villains I could almost always identify before the final reveal, simply by noting which character in the story had committed the most egregious offenses against feminism. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s an entire subgenre of science fiction in which staunch (and usually gun-toting) conservative protagonists have to save the world from the bumbling mistakes, or even the downright treachery, of woolly-headed or hypocritical liberals.
None of these tricks are of their nature inherently bad. They’re bad because they’re exaggerated and obtrusive versions of techniques which, when done with a delicate hand, use telling details of setting and behavior to illuminate the truth. As so often in writing (and art in general), the thing that matters isn’t what you do, but how you do it.
Scholars are using computers “to help reassemble more than 100,000 document fragments collected across 1,000 years that reveal details of Jewish life along the Mediterranean” — a task that previously had to be done by eye and hand.
A lot of the documents retrieved so far deal with the minutiae of daily life: contracts and sales records and legal documents and even recipes. For a historian, and even more for writers who are trying to recreate history for their readers, such details are golden, worth far more, sometimes, than the word about who defeated whom on the battlefield, and where.
(I’d be particularly interested to know the ingredients and techniques involved in what the article describes as a “particularly vile” recipe for honey-wine. Purely as a matter of academic curiosity, you understand.)
It snowed today in parts of New Hampshire, and in other parts the Connecticut river is over its banks and the flood warnings are out for local streams . . . which is a good enough reason to think about the use and misuse of weather in fiction.
For example, there’s emotionally appropriate weather: whenever the protagonist is depressed, it rains; whenever the protagonist is happy, the sky is blue and the sun is shining. You can get away with this maybe once per novel, if you’re lucky and if your readers don’t notice what you’re doing. Use a light hand, and don’t milk your effects.
Then you’ve got ironically inappropriate weather: your protagonist is depressed, but it’s a glorious day out; your protagonist is deliriously happy, but the rain is pouring down. Again, use a light hand. If your narrator or viewpoint character feels obliged to point out the irony, you’re probably overdoing it.
There’s also plot-complicating or plot-resolving weather. The rule of thumb here is similar to the rule of thumb for luck or coincidence: weather effects that make things worse for your protagonist will be more readily believed than weather effects which make things easier. (Also, be parsimonious about these things. Readers will buy one instance of bad weather-luck; you’re pushing it if you expect them to buy three or four.) With weather, remember also to keep your weather patterns appropriate for the region and the season, and don’t forget to lay the groundwork in advance. A thunderstorm at the end of the chapter needs a hot afternoon and thunderheads on the horizon at the beginning of it.
Finally, there’s weather that’s gone missing — stories where every day is neither overcast nor blindingly sunny, neither excessively hot nor excessively cold, neither excessively windy nor a dead calm, neither swelteringly humid nor parchingly dry. We’re writers, people; we don’t need to wait for good weather to film our stories; we can give our chosen locale its full range of seasonal effects. And we had better, because if we don’t, our readers will notice that something is missing.
There are some aspects of the writing business that the march of time has marched right on past, and I don’t miss them even a little bit.
The SASE, or Stamped And Self-addressed Envelope, for manuscript submissions, is one of them — because when you had only one good typescript of a story or a novel, you were going to want it back. So first you had to get an envelope, or a cardboard box, that would fit your manuscript; and then you had to get another envelope or cardboard box that would fit into the first one along with the manuscript; and after that you had to get the post office to weigh first the manuscript and both envelopes (or boxes) and then the manuscript and just one envelope (or box); and before you could put the manuscript in the mail you had to double-check and make sure that the correct address and postage for the outer box had actually gone onto the outer box, and the correct address and postage for the inner box had actually gone onto the inner box . . . and when the manuscript finally got rejected and came back to you, you had to start the entire process all over again.
It’s a whole lot easier just to do the whole thing by e-mail; or if you’re dealing with hard copy, to slip in an ordinary self-addressed business envelope with a single first-class stamp on it, and put in your cover letter the magic words, “Please consider this a disposable manuscript.”
Today’s “Go look over there!” links, both from the Guardian online:
First, we have the plagiarism scandal du jour: The poet David R. Morgan got caught lifting other poets’ poetry and publishing it as his own: American poet Charles O Hartman realised Morgan’s poem “Dead Wife Singing” was almost identical to his own, three-decades-old “A Little Song”.
Keep an eye on this one, folks; there’s no telling who else he may have stolen from.
Then, on a less dispiriting note, a column on overdone or imprecise metaphors: “A catalyst is something that speeds up a chemical reaction but is itself unchanged at the end of the reaction. Someone who sparks a revolution by setting themselves on fire shouldn’t be described as a catalyst.”
What do I think about the recently announced Kindle Worlds development?
I think it’s a really bad idea, from the point of view of just about everybody but Amazon.
John Scalzi, unsurprisingly, lays out why it’s a bad idea considered from the viewpoint of professional writers in general. (Short version: Alloy Entertainment and Amazon between them take all rights, and there’s no up-front advance to sweeten the grab.)
The blog Letters from Titan covers some of the troubling issues raised from the fanfic community’s point of view. (Short version: Conflict with the community’s traditional gift economy; potential for attempts at corporate control; restricted subject matter by comparison with the anything-goes world of unauthorized fanfic.)
My own opinion? Kindle Worlds isn’t going to give the world more high-quality fanfic; it’s going to give the world more lousy media tie-ins. And I say this as someone who has in her time written original fiction, tie-in fiction, licensed-property fiction (I was one-half of Victor Appleton not once, but twice!), and, yes, fanfiction.
This isn’t the only way, but it’s a good one.
First, you give your main character something to want.
Next (this bit of insight courtesy of Elizabeth Bear), you figure out what it is that your main character actually needs.
Then you build your plot on the tension between the two.
Most story problems occur across all sorts of fiction, but a few of them are specific to particular types of fiction. Writers of historical fiction and historical romance, for example, have the “Tiffany Problem” –that is, the necessity of coping with a historical detail that nobody is going to believe, such as the fact that “Tiffany” is, in fact, an in-period medieval name.†
Writers of science fiction and fantasy, for their part, have problems even at the basic-building-blocks level. If you’re working in that field, your difficulties start right at the beginning of the job, when you have to declare, at least to yourself, the genre of your novel — is it science fiction or is it fantasy? The two may be shelved together in the bookstore, and may share an overlap in writers and audiences, but they nevertheless have different reader expectations and slightly different reading protocols. You therefore need to signal to your readers which genre you’re primarily working in for a particular book.
Published works signal to their audience in multiple ways — the cover art and the cover copy; the advance publicity and the in-store placement; even the choice of who blurbs the novel or who gets an advance copy for review. But a manuscript out on submission goes to the publisher without benefit of any of that stuff; the writer needs to embed the signals in the text itself. What this means is that you need to be clear in your own mind which side of the sf/fantasy divide your story is on, and you also need to be clear about just how much you want to obscure or reveal your story’s position before the end.
There are in fact some novels in both genres where part of the point of the tale is the ultimate revelation that what appeared to be fantastic is actually science-fictional, or that what appeared to be solidly rational science fiction has actually lured the reader deep into the murky id-forest of the fantastic. But playing that game requires crystal clarity in the writer’s mind about what’s really going on, plus a deft hand with the placing of clues and the pacing of revelation. Once your own mind is settled on the question, then you can punch up the details that point in the desired direction and lower the emphasis on the ones that point the other way.
If you’ve done it right, your readers may feel surprised and they may feel disoriented, but they won’t feel cheated.
†That one’s actually fairly easy. Go with a period spelling, like Tiphaine, or go back to the original Greek Theophania. Problem solved.
For anyone out there who might be considering applying to the Viable Paradise Writers Workshop, the application period for this year closes on midnight of June 15th. Class size is twenty-four — with eight instructors on-site for the entire week, this makes for a fairly impressive teacher-student ratio (the nautically-minded among us like to think of it as hitting them with a full broadside.)
Viable Paradise is a one-week† residential workshop held annually in the autumn on the island of Martha’s Vineyard; the focus is on fantasy and science fiction, and the students can submit either short stories or an equivalent portion of a novel for workshopping.
†Why one week, rather than six weeks or a month, like some other workshops? Because not everybody out there in the world can free up that much time in one block. Students can, and people who have already committed themselves to some kind of major lifestyle change, but other people have things like families and day jobs. Almost anyone, though, can hack out a single week — take that overdue vacation from the office, or stock the freezer with a week’s worth of pre-made casseroles and indebt yourself to your mother and your mother-in-law and the teenager next door for the necessary babysitting, and come spend a week with people who actually understand why you’re still obsessing about this writing thing.