Lights, Camera, Action

Readers like to see your characters in motion.  Even a story focused on an interior dilemma can be made more gripping if the problem has some physical action to mirror it or contrast with it.  As for stories focused on exterior problems, they’re like sharks — they can either keep moving or die.

Some writers have the storyteller’s version of kinesthetic awareness.  They’re able to keep the complicated three-dimensional moving geometry of a multiple-character action scene running in their heads without having to work at it.  When they need to describe what Character A is doing and exactly how that character occupies space and moves through the room in relationship to Characters B, C, and D, the only thing they need to do is check their mental diagram and it’s all there.

The rest of us have to work at it.

Diagrams on graph paper are one way to do it, and so is moving counters or figurines around on a tabletop.

Example:  For a scene involving an infant, a nanny, a bodyguard, and a wicked kidnapper sneaking in through the balcony, break out a chess set.  Pick out one of the queens to represent the nanny, one of the knights to represent the bodyguard, a rook for the wicked kidnapper, and a pawn for the baby in its crib.  Designate one side of the chessboard as the balcony.  Designate a square on the appropriate side of the chessboard in relation to the balcony as the door.  Put the pawn in the right position for the baby’s crib.  Then put your knight/bodyguard, your queen/nanny and your wicked kidnapping rook in their appropriate places — off the board next to the designated door square, on a square next to the baby pawn, off the board next to the balcony.  Then start moving the pieces to block out the action, and watch how things happen.

(Amusingly enough, writers of romance and erotica can have similar problems, although with a different sort of action.  They have to keep careful track of whose arms and legs are going where, and make certain that nobody ends up in a physically impossible position, or one that’s going to give them muscle cramps if they stay that way for very long.  I’ve heard of poseable artist’s dummies being used to work things out, and have also heard of writers who’ve enlisted the aid of a sympathetic partner for the more athletic bits.)

Pop-Up Targets, Unexploded Land Mines, and Snakes in Cans

These are things that can disrupt your day, ranked in order of ascending troublesomeness.

A Pop-Up Target is something unexpected that requires immediate action, but which you have the resources and ability to deal with promptly. A suddenly necessary payment at a time when the bank account is flush, for example, or an unanticipated piece of time-critical paperwork. The target jumps up, you deal with it, and you move on, slightly more adrenaline-charged than you were before.

Adventures in the Writing Life Version:  The FedEx delivery man shows up on your doorstep Thursday afternoon with a package containing a stack of unpleasantly familiar paper and a cover letter:  Dear Author–here’s the copyedited MS for your next novel.  Please go over the copyedits and get them back to us by this coming Monday.

What you do:  Cancel your social engagements for the next 48 hours.  After a few seconds’ more thought, cancel the rest of your life for the next 48 hours.  Check your local FedEx pickup to see what’s the absolute latest you can hand over the MS and still expect it to show up in New York on Monday.  Check your bank account to see if you can afford that much money.  (If both your budget and the publisher’s schedule really are that tight, phone your editor.  Ask if you can FedEx the MS back to them on their dime, because otherwise it’s coming back to them by Priority Mail.)  Buckle down and get to work on going over the copyedits, and be grateful that you aren’t having to deal with a Copyedit From Hell.

An Unexploded Land Mine is something that you thought that you’d already dealt with, or that you were supposed to deal with and forgot, or that somebody else completely neglected to inform you about back when it should have been dealt with. Some land mines are relatively mild; others can blow you sky-high. What they have in common is that “I should have known about this one, dammit!” quality that adds a touch of frustration and outrage to the whole deal.

Adventures in the Writing Life version:  “What do you mean, I didn’t send you back the signed contracts!” Or, “No, you didn’t tell me you wanted a map for the front of the book and a glossary in the back!” Or, “I thought you were going to handle asking for blurbs, and now you’re telling me that I have to do it?”

What you do:  Send back the signed contracts with a profuse apology for your absent-mindedness, and promise never to be so flaky again.  Grit your teeth and draw the damned map and make up the damned glossary.  Take a deep breath and make a list of writers you know who might be willing to come up with a back-cover blurb for you, then start writing letters.

And then there’s the Snake in a Can. Like the trick jar labeled “peanuts” with the spring-loaded snake inside, these show up completely unexpectedly and leap right out into your face. Also, sometimes the snake is real. A heavy-duty snake has the ability to disrupt your whole life for days, if not weeks, if you can’t manage to stuff it back into the can.

Adventures in the Writing Life Version:  Your publisher goes bankrupt without warning.  Your agent, with whom you have a warm personal relationship and who has been a prime force in building your career, gets hit by a truck while crossing the street in midtown Manhattan.  The company for which you’ve happily written three potboiler tie-in novels and with whom you’re under contract for a fourth suddenly lets go all their in-house publishing staff (including the editor of your novel in progress, with whom you’ve had an excellent relationship) and replaces them with people you’ve never even heard of.

What you do:  Don’t keep all your writing eggs in one basket.  Maintain good relationships with everyone in your field, to the extent that it’s possible, so that if you’re suddenly swimming for your life in a rising flood you have people who might throw you a lifeline from the shore.  Resign yourself to the fact that sometimes bad stuff is going to happen that isn’t your fault, and that you can’t do anything about, and that is going to mess up your life more than it messes up the lives of the people actually responsible — but don’t let yourself dwell on it for too long, because dwelling on it only uses up time and energy that you could be spending on writing something better for people who will respect you more.

On Writing Forsoothly

“Writing forsoothly” is the term we like to use around the house for all the different varieties of bad pseudo-archaic diction that infest modern fantasy — historical and created-world fantasy in particular.  J. R. R. Tolkien is undoubtedly to blame for a lot of it, because his characters do like their elevated language; what unobservant readers miss is the way that Tolkien modulates his characters’ dialogue, moving effortlessly from plain vernacular to almost-archaic high formal speech and back again, depending upon the situation and the company.  Strider the Ranger has a much commoner way of talking than Aragorn the Heir to the Throne of Gondor, but at the same time they’re both recognizably the same guy.

It’s probably unwise to play with writing in extreme forsoothly unless you can at least approach Tolkien’s level of skill and language-awareness.  It’s a lot harder to do than it looks, and the failure mode is dire.  But if you’re determined to give it a try — and nobody ever makes any progress in this game unless they regularly try things that they aren’t certain will work — there are a few things it will help to do first.

One:  Ask yourself, “Is this really the direction my writing talent lies in?” and answer it honestly.  If your interior Magic 8-Ball refuses to yield up anything more specific than “reply hazy; ask again later,” find a kind but honest friend and ask them.  Kind, because you don’t want your self-image pulled down and stomped upon with hobnailed boots; and honest, because you’re not asking them for sympathy, you’re asking them for the truth.

Two:  Prepare yourself.  Read genuine period or formal writing until it dribbles out of your ears.  If you start talking in Shakespearean or Regency English at the breakfast table, you’re probably ready.  And a good thing, too, because at that point your friends and family are either bored stiff with your project, or convinced that you’re going nuts.

Three: Stop researching and write.  Don’t worry about getting all the nuances down perfectly; you can always polish the heck out of the language in your second — or third or fourth or fifth — draft.

Four:  Go find that kind but honest friend again.  This time, ask them if the archaic or formal language in fact worked; and ask them, also, whether they think you got it right but took it too far.  As with so many other things in writing, a light hand is best.

(For an interesting example of archaic diction done well in an unexpected venue, check out the historical romance For My Lady’s Heart, by Laura Kinsale, now available again in e-book format after a long while out of print.)

Writing Weather. (Not.)

We’re in the midst of a spell of heat and humidity that makes doing anything, even writing,  seem dreary and unattractive.

Also, there are mosquitoes.

Midsummer in general has never been my favorite time for writing, despite the fact that more than once I’ve found myself head down and running for deadline daylight in the midst of the hot and sticky season.  The dead of winter — that stretch from mid-January to mid-February when this part of the word gets hit with temperatures in the subzero-Fahrenheit range — isn’t much better.  It’s hard to concentrate when your mind keeps drifting off-topic to the question of the winter electric bill.

The best seasons for writing, as far as I’m concerned, are spring, fall, late summer, and early winter.  The temperatures are moderate (for local values of moderate); the weather is mostly well-behaved; and the local insect life is at worst only moderately annoying.

Summer, though . . . ugh.  But I suppose it could be worse.  I could always be trying to write through summer in Texas.  Or any season in the tropics.

There’s a reason I wound up living — and writing —  in far northern New Hampshire.

Tech Notes

I’ve written before about the issue of buried or implied technology in language.

But there’s another technology-related question that writers–especially writers of created-world fantasy– need to be aware of:  What is the general tech level of your story?

A lot of created-world fantasy takes place in a pre-industrial setting.  (Steampunk is perhaps the most obvious exception, but only if you consider steampunk to be a species of fantasy rather than a species of science fiction — a question upon which opinion is divided.)  “Pre-industrial”, though, covers a lot of ground.  Do you mean pre-gunpowder?  Pre-clockwork?  Pre-mass production and interchangeable parts?  Does your society have steam engines or water wheels?  Spinning wheels or drop spindles?  Is your hero’s sword steel or bronze?  Is his armor plate or chain or boiled leather?  Does he pay the swordsmith in barter or with coin?  Does his banker know about letters of credit and double-entry book-keeping?  Has banking even been invented yet?

You need to think about all of these things if you’re not going to have your story taking place in an ersatz-medieval RennFaire fantasyland — and you need to make certain that your tech levels match across the board.

(Yes.  This means that you have to do research if you’re going to write fantasy.  Books like The Timelines of History and television programs like the old BBC Connections series are a good place to start.)

To Be or Not To Be . . . Likeable

Among the many arguments swirling around the internet this week (I swear it must be something in the air, like pollen) is the brouhaha stirred up by Annasue McCleave Wilson’s  interview in PW with novelist Claire Messud.

In the course of interviewing Messud about her latest book, The Woman Upstairs, Wilson observed that:

I wouldn’t want to be friends with [the protagonist], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

To which Messud responded:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

Whereupon the literary blogoverse was plunged, as they say, into war. Panels of literary experts were assembled to discuss the relative literary merit of likeable and unlikeable characters; the interview question itself was more than once called out as sexist; and other authors and readers then took to the net in defense of likeable characters, and in opposition to the idea that reading for the company of such characters, like reading for the story, is a lower form of literary engagement.  (A few mostly-woman-shaped people also pointed out that women writers of both popular and literary fiction would do a far better job of combating sexism in literature and publishing if they had each others’ backs, rather than looking for opportunities to stick knives in them.)

What do I think?  Well:

I don’t subscribe to the castor oil theory of artistic merit. (“Yes, it tastes bad; but you should take it anyway, because it’s good for you.”)  I think that if you’re going to expect your readers to spend several hours in the company of a character, you damned well ought to give the reader something in return — maybe a likeable protagonist, maybe an interestingly unlikeable one; maybe an intricately convoluted plot; maybe exquisite prose and imagery; but by God, you’ve got to give them something.

Actually, I’ve always thought that Hamlet would have been fun to hang out with, in his Wittenberg days. And I kind of liked Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49.

Random Thoughts on Point of View

Point of view is a tricky thing to get right, and it takes a lot of practice.  As a general rule, you should be inside only one character’s head per scene, and you should make it crystal clear to the reader which character that is.  While you’re inside that character’s head, only what he or she can directly observe should get reported to the reader (therefore, no seeing what’s around corners that your character can’t poke his or her head around.)  Also, any commentary on the action should be filtered through the viewpoint character’s perceptions and attitude.


First person, and single-viewpoint tight third person, are good points of view to use when part of the impact of your story depends upon keeping some plot elements secret from both your POV character and the reader until the time is ripe for them to be revealed.  Try to avoid writing yourself into plot situations where your first person narrator knows something that the reader doesn’t; it’s a tour de force if you can pull it off, but the failure mode isn’t pretty, and even a successful attempt is going to leave a certain number of resentful readers in its  wake.


True omniscient point of view is fiendishly difficult to do well, and it’s a good idea to master multiple-viewpoint third-person first.  The longer the novel, and the more ground it covers, the more point of view characters you may need — but when in doubt, err on the side of parsimony.

The Do-It-Yourself Method

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the just-you-and-the-Norton-Anthology method of bringing yourself up to speed on the English or American literary canon.

There is not, alas, a Norton Anthology of Science Fiction that can serve a similar purpose. There’s The Norton Book of Science Fiction, but it’s much more limited in scope, containing only American and Canadian short fiction from 1960 to 1990 (the anthology came out in 1993.)

John Klima, in his essay The Ten Most Influential Science Fiction & Fantasy Anthologies/Anthology Series, provides a list of books which, taken all together, can give you a sense of what was considered important or groundbreaking in the field at different times.  The downside is that you’ll need to buy or borrow a stack of books instead of just one.  (I know, I know . . . the thought makes you weep hot tears.)

But if what you’re looking for is a single Big Fat Volume that you can read from cover to cover in lieu of a full-dress classroom experience, then you might want to give this anthology a look:  Sense of Wonder, edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman.  It covers science fiction from the beginning of the twentieth century up to the present, and includes essays as well as fiction.  (Full disclosure:  I have an essay in this anthology, and my husband/coauthor and I have a short story in it as well.)

Wheel Comma Avoiding the Reinvention of

If you’re going to work in a genre, you need to know the history of the genre — what’s already been done, what the average reader’s expectations are, what the assumed knowledge base of your readership is.

This is one of the few places in the writing game where English majors actually do have an edge — they’ll have been force-marched through a lot of this already, and for mainstream writing, either literary or popular, that’ll just about do it.  If you aren’t an English major and don’t want to be one, you can do it yourself with the aid of a halfway good public library, or with the internet and a copy of an English Lit or American Lit survey syllabus.  (Or you could just buy a used edition of the Norton Anthology of English (or American) Literature, read it cover to cover over the course of a year or so, and form your own opinions.)

If you’re working in one of the genres, such as science fiction, there aren’t going to be as many handy guideposts.

But don’t worry.  I’m here to help you.

Ten Books to Help Get You up to Speed with Science Fiction

(Some of these books are every bit as absorbing today as they were when they were written; others are, as they say, “of historical interest.”  Which ones are which — your call.  Mileage may vary; contents may have settled during shipping; and not all souvenir plates increase in value.)

1. Mary Shelley — Frankenstein (1818).  Don’t be fooled into thinking this one is horror.  It deals with what would eventually become some of the big science-fictional themes — the creation of artificial life, the relationship between an artificial creation and its maker, and the permeable boundary between research and obsession.  Also, it extrapolates its fictional science from then-contemporary interests, such as Arctic exploration and electrical experimentation.

2. H. G. Wells — The War of the Worlds (1898).  A groundbreaking early entry in the invasion-from-outer-space subgenre.  It spawned the classic 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast and two direct film adaptations, one by George Pal in 1953 and one by Stephen Spielberg in 2007, and is the ancestor of a host of other works.

3. E. E. “Doc” Smith — Gray Lensman.  (Magazine serial publication, 1939; collected in book form, 1951) The great-grandaddy of all space opera.  The book is very much “of its time” as far as social attitudes go, and its prose quality is at best serviceable.  (At worst, it’s deep purple.)  On the other hand, its slam-bang action and resolute lack of psychological complexity can provide one’s inner twelve-year-old with a great deal of fun, and a more critical reader can always play a rousing game of spot-the-familiar-trope.

4. Robert Heinlein — Starship Troopers (1959.) The novel, not the movie, which has almost nothing in common with the book except the title and a few characters with the same names.  Just about every military sf novel since this one has either been influenced by it, or is in dialogue (sometimes, in vigorous argument) with it.  The Forever War, Ender’s Game, Old Man’s War, not to mention all the Star Trek tv shows, movies, and tie-in novels — all of them are in the lineage.  While you’re at it, read another two or three books by Heinlein — I’d pick The Puppet Masters and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress myself — because his work established so much of what you could think of as the consensus science-fictional future.  Avoid his more vocal fans; and remind yourself from time to time that these books were written by a guy who was born in 1907.

5.  Isaac Asimov — with Heinlein, one of the central figures of mid-century hard sf.  His Foundation trilogy (1951-1953)and the stories collected as I, Robot (1950) are probably the most influential of his works.  (The “three laws of robotics” form part of the intellectual furniture of modern computer science.)  You should also read his short story, “Nightfall” (1941).

6. Samuel R. Delany — When science fiction’s New Wave hit the US in the 1960’s, the young Delany was one of its rock stars.  Try Babel-17 (1966) or The Einstein Intersection (1967); if you like those, work your way up to Dhalgren (1975) and the later works.  (I bounced hard off of Dhalgren, but many people love it.)

7. Ursula K. LeGuin — The Left Hand of Darkness  (1969.) Because it marks the point where science fiction and Second Wave feminism collided and made readers’ heads explode.  Her other big novel from that time period, The Dispossessed, has in my opinion worn somewhat better over the intervening decades, but The Left Hand of Darkness has probably been the more influential of the two.  If you like LeGuin’s work, you might go on to read Joanna Russ and Sherri S. Tepper.

8. James Tiptree, Jr — Her Smoke Rose up Forever (1990.) A posthumous omnibus collection of short stories by an influential writer, famous for, among other things, actually being Alice Sheldon.  (She wasn’t the first or the only woman in sf field to hide or at least partially obscure her gender — C. L. Moore, Andre Norton, and C. J Cherryh all spring to mind — but she remains noteworthy for the thoroughness of her cover and the later embarrassment of certain critics who had previously declared her writing “ineluctably masculine.”) The James Tiptree, Jr. , Literary Award is named in her honor.  Notable short stories (included in the collection): “Houston, Houston, Do You Read” (1976), “The Screwfly Solution” (1977)

9.  C. J. Cherryh — Pride of Chanur (1981)  You can’t have sf without aliens, and C. J. Cherryh gives some of the best aliens in the business.  Pride of Chanur is shorter than a lot of her work, and more accessible; the novel’s felinoid aliens (yes, the title is a pun) are different enough to be believably not-human, but not so far away from oxygen-breathing mammalian norms as to be completely inscrutable.

10.  William Gibson — Neuromancer (1984) Science fiction meets the computer age, and the cyberpunk genre is born.  If you like the flavor, read Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson and work your way outward from there; also watch Bladerunner on DVD.