Chew-Toys of the Mind

So Jim Macdonald and I were sitting around the office this afternoon, and – as happens with writers – we fell to discussing Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and how Hammett had managed to come up with one of the handful of infinitely reusable plots.  Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one; likewise Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  Plots like these, once their first artist discovers them, can be remixed, remade, adapted, or otherwise messed around with almost ad infinitum and still retain their energy.

Red Harvest – originally a fix-up of four short stories from Black Mask magazine – was part of the inspiration (along with other Hammett works) for Yojimbo by Kurosawa.  Then Sergio Leone adapted/translated/stole/was inspired by Yojimbo to make A Fistful of Dollars, and Walter Hill subsequently did the same with Last Man Standing.

“If they were to remake Red Harvest as a Muppet movie,” Macdonald opined, “it would still be a good movie and I’d watch it.”

“If they did,” I wondered, “who would play the Continental Op – Kermit or Fozzie?”

And Macdonald replied, “Miss Piggy would play the Continental Op.”

“You mean, a gender-flipped Muppet Red Harvest?”


And I had to concede that he was right.  Miss Piggy would absolutely rock a trench coat and fedora.  And she’s probably the only Muppet who could believably do hard-boiled noir.

When Writers Get Bored

My husband and co-author James D. Macdonald got bored the other day – he’s also an EMT, and he was sitting around the ambulance HQ waiting for somebody in their area of operations to have chest pains or run their car into a tree, but nobody did – so he wrote this.

(This also explains why, in our collaborations, he’s usually the plot wrangler and I’m the prose wrangler.  The secret to picking a good collaborator is locating one who thinks that the stuff you find difficult is actually easy, and vice versa.)

The Muse at War

It’s possible to go through an entire writing career without having to send your characters off to war.  But even in the most unlikely of genres – “sex and shopping” summer beach novels, or literary novels set in darkest Academe – an unexpected plot turn can have your characters heading for the sound of the guns (or the clash of swords, depending upon the era and the tech level), and next thing you know, there you are, smack dab in the middle of a pitched battle.  You may even, if you’re working in some of the more speculative genres, have to make up a battle from scratch.

How, then, to make the ensuing military engagement, if not realistic, at least credible?  There are a couple of reliable ways.

One way, of course, is personal experience.  If you have it, you know already that you do, and you might as well get all the use out of it that you can.  About the only thing you need to remember is that fiction has to be believable, whereas reality is under no such constraint.

The other way, of course, is research.  There’s research done the slow way, when you read political history and military history and Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and the memoirs of a lot of people who got out of their various wars alive and wrote about them afterward, and play a lot of war games and maybe do some historical re-creation on the side, and then put all of that together to synthesize your battle.

Then there’s research done the fast way, where you steal a battle outright.  This is especially useful when the military aspect of the plot isn’t the main thing – maybe you’re more interested in the romance, or the politics, or the class/race/gender/whatever issues – but you’ve nevertheless found yourself in a corner of the story where the only way out is through this enormous set-piece battle that you somehow have to write.

What you do, at that point, is pick a historical battle from roughly the same era-and-tech-equivalent as your fictional one, and shamelessly use the terrain and maneuvers and eventual outcome of that battle as the template for your own.  It helps to pick a relatively obscure engagement – more people than you suspect are likely to recognize the double-envelopment of Cannae, or the defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg – and to pick a single point of view character and stick as much as possible to just what he or she is experiencing.

And then you don’t tell anybody what battle you stole.  If some fan writes you a letter, or corners you at a convention or a book signing, and says, “Hey – wasn’t that space battle in Book Two of your trilogy a rip-off of the Battle of the River Plate, only in space?”, you can give them a big smile and say, “Why, yes, indeed!  How clever of you to notice!”

Wheels and Gears

I’m not going to talk here about “plot-driven” versus “character-driven” stories, because that’s a distinction made by critics, which is to say, from the outside looking in, whereas most writers find plot and character to be so thoroughly intermingled that talking about one as though it excluded the other feels pointless.

It is fair to say, though, that some stories have more in them by way of external incidents than others do, and that one of the tricky parts of writing a story like that is fitting all of the incidents together into a smoothly-working vehicle that carries the reader to whatever place it is that the writer wants them to go.  (Where that place is doesn’t really matter; it could be a quiet moment of personal epiphany, or it could be the final battle in the desperate struggle against an invasion of machine intelligences from an alternate dimension.  What’s important is keeping the reader headed that way, and not letting them wander off into fretful speculation as to why the protagonist is so dense, or how the interdimensional travel equations might really work.)

One way to put the incidents together is in a simple sequence:  one incident, or plot thread, or bit of narrative plays out from start to finish, and then the next one in line begins its run, and so on until the end.  This is particularly useful in long-form or serialized works, and like a lot of apparently simple things, it’s easy to do a mediocre job of it and hard to do an excellent one.  Good arc-based television, and good comic book series, give examples of how the trick is done.  The primary technique is to start cueing up the next incident before the current one is finished, so that the teeth on the gear of the current arc mesh with the teeth on the gear of the upcoming one without a jolt.  (I could say something about making certain to use bigger and bigger gears as you head toward the overall climax, but that would probably be straining the analogy beyond its natural limits.)

The other way to put incidents together effectively is less like gears than it’s like a braid.  You’ve got a sequence of incidents leading up to Plot Element Solution A, and another sequence leading up to Plot Element Solution B, and possibly a third leading up to Plot Element Solution C, and all of them have to fit together to make up Overall Plot Solution D.  This is good for one-shot stories, where you’re planning to finish the tale and get out; it’s also good for mysteries and thrillers and caper plots, or for any kind of story that requires more than one angle on the action, whether internal or external.

The tricky bits in braiding a story are first, figuring out just how long to stay with one thread before dropping it and picking up another one for a while (too short a time, and your readers are going to get whiplash; too long, and they’ll either grow impatient and skip ahead to the next bit with their favorite character or plot element, or they’ll get so engrossed in the current bit that they’ll forget what they’re supposed to be remembering about all of the others); and second, keeping track of which characters are doing what things when, and making certain that the characters in one thread don’t know about things in other threads that they haven’t been told, just because you-the-author know those things already.

Making charts and timelines can help with the second kind of tricky bit; about all that helps with the first kind is practice, and maybe the knowledge that even the pros don’t get to stop wrestling with it, because every story is different and there isn’t a magic formula that can be applied to get the answer.

You try something, and you see if it works.  And if it doesn’t, you try again.

It’s the trying again that’s the key.

The Iceberg Theory

It’s fairly common knowledge that most of an iceberg – seven-eighths is the usual number – is underwater, out of sight to all but the denizens of the deep.  What’s less common knowledge is that most of a piece of fiction is likewise out of sight to everyone but the author.

Case in point:  a short story Jim Macdonald and I finished not too long ago.  Before I could do my part of the work on it, I ended up researching everything from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to early-twentieth century spiritualists in Denver, Colorado and using the results to construct an entire past history for a particular character.

And then I didn’t put any of it into the actual story, because none of it was stuff that the readers needed to know.  It was stuff I needed to know, which is a different thing.

This is also one of the ways that a short story can differ from a novel.  If we’d been writing a novel using the same general theme and ideas, all of that character history might have become a major plot thread.  This is because a novel can do more than one thing at a time (which is why writing a novel sometimes feels like trying to juggle jellyfish) but a short story only has the room and the time to do one thing, and whatever isn’t directly relevant to that one thing needs to be uprooted without mercy.  If you can’t uproot it without destroying the entire structure in the process, you probably don’t have a short story at all.

(If it isn’t a short story, but you’re certain in your heart and in your bones that it isn’t a novel, then you’ve probably got a novella on your hands, and an entirely different set of writing problems.  But that’s a post for another time.)

Besetting Sins

All writers have them – those prose tics they exhibit when the going is either too fast, or too slow, for them to notice the word-by-word; those all-too-easy-to-fall-back-on scenes and tropes that can take the place of carefully-crafted or character-driven plotting*; those personal or political agendas that will take advantage of an unguarded moment to turn sneaky fictional persuasion into open polemic.

One of my own sins is a horror of being too obvious about things.  Taken too far – as will happen, sometimes, despite all efforts to the contrary – this results in a story that lacks clarity because a lot of the necessary connective bits only exist inside my head.

So I’ve had to make a rule for myself:  When in doubt, spell it out.

It’s a useful rule, at least if you’re me, or if that particular writerly sin is one of yours, as well.

Generally speaking, I find that if I have to ask myself, “Self, are you perhaps being a bit over-subtle right here?”  the answer is usually, “Yes.”

Also – as I tell myself from time to time – don’t worry about being too obvious.  It’s actually fairly hard to be too obvious, and if you are being too obvious, trust me, your editor or your beta readers will let you know.

(And if you’re Vladimir Nabokov or James Joyce or Gene Wolfe, then you’re playing a different game altogether and a different set of general rules apply.  Also, you’re probably well beyond needing advice from me on anything, though possibly a good recipe or two might still be useful.) 

*Not that “carefully-crafted” and “character-driven” should be taken as mutually exclusive!

Plot Device Obsolescence, Continued

I’ve written before about how technological change has made some plot devices obsolete; and also about how social and cultural change have done the same.  Today’s blog entry is about another example of the second kind of obsolescence:  the changing fortunes of Forbidden Love.

Forbidden love has been a reliable plot engine at least since the day when Paris looked at Helen across King Menelaus’s dining-room and started a ten-year war.  That much, at any rate, has stayed the same – but what counts as “forbidden” keeps shifting, and an observant writer needs to keep an eye on the trends.

It used to be that writers could add the plot-energy of forbidden love to their stories with a simple “Alas!  Your/My parents would refuse their permission for us to wed!”  That particular old reliable (and the related “Our countries/religions/ethnic groups frown upon our love!”) has fueled countless tragedies and probably an equal number of romantic adventures, but the passage of time has deprived it of a lot of its juice.  Impatient modern readers are likely to say to the characters, “For heaven’s sake, you’re both over twenty-one; just go ahead and marry him/her already!  Your parents will get over it.  And if they don’t, you can always leave town.”

A similar fate has overtaken “Alas!  If only one of us were not already married!”, along with all its lesser included tropes, such as the mad wife in the attic.  So long as divorce was both difficult to obtain and a source of scandal, the lovers’ predicament could generate everything from romantic angst (the classic Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle, for example, and all its fictional cousins) to murder (The Postman Always Rings Twice.)  Once again, a modern reader is going to wonder why the characters are making such a fuss over something that can be settled with a couple of visits to a good lawyer.

These days, not even “Would that we could acknowledge our love – but alas! we are of the same gender!” can be counted on to provide one’s plot with a forbidden love.  And a damned good thing, too; an increase in social justice and general human happiness is worth losing the occasional plot device.

But social and cultural plot devices, like matter, are neither created nor destroyed; they just change form.  My own candidate for the next likely source of forbidden-love plot energy is the workplace:   “Alas!  Would that we could acknowledge our love, but if we did so, one of us would either have to quit or request a transfer!”

It’s not quite as juicy as some of the oldies, but throw in a “Both of us are mission-critical personnel!” or “The only current job openings in my specialty are in Kuala Lumpur!” and maybe we’re getting somewhere.

Unexpected Ingredients

When you’re constructing a piece of fiction, sometimes what you need to make an old standby memorable again is an unexpected ingredient, a theme or a place or a character that the reader isn’t expecting to find in combination with the other, more familiar elements in the story.  Time was, something as simple as switching in a female character for a male one in a particular role was enough to add the requisite element of strange; these days (and if we’re not all grateful for it, then we damned well should be), the entry into the narrative of a person of the female-presenting kind is not remarkable enough by itself to push the story off of center.

(Actually, these days it’s inadvisable to rely on the mere presence of any character type to provide your story with a hint of strange.  Well-drawn characters are going to have better things to do with their personal narratives than spending them being decoration for other characters’ plots – and if you aren’t going to create well-drawn characters, what are you doing in this game?)

But doing something unexpected like, say, using the story of a zombie apocalypse in order to examine philosophical issues such as the relationship of the individual to the larger group, and how to live a moral life in an imperfect world . . . that’ll provide you with more than enough strange to keep you going.

And as an extra, a recipe, also with an unexpected ingredient:

Beef Short Ribs Braised in Coca-Cola


  • At least 2 pounds boneless beef short ribs (if what you’ve got is bone-in ribs, make that at least 3 pounds)
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced (I also throw in some dried minced garlic partway through the cooking time, because we like our garlic around here)
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • 1 can of Coca-Cola
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • fresh-ground black pepper, to taste (we also like our pepper around here, so I’m generous with it)



  • Put your short ribs into your crockpot.
  • Season with the salt and pepper.
  • Add the onions, garlic, and scallions.
  • Pour in the Coca-Cola.
  • Cook for 5-6 hours on high or 7-8 hours on low.
  • Serve over egg noodles.  (Actually, over whatever starch you prefer, but we like our short ribs with egg noodles around here.)

The amazing thing, once you’re done, is that this dish tastes nothing whatsoever like Coca-Cola.  But it doesn’t taste like short ribs braised in the usual red wine or beer or beef stock, either.


Plot Device Obsolescence, Part the Next

We’ve already talked about how new tech can make old plot devices unworkable (with cell phones being the primary example.)  But there are other plots and plot developments that time and social change have rendered, if not dead forever, at least unusable for the foreseeable future.

Consider, for example, the persistent suitor.  Used to be, you could play this one for comedy, as in the Warner Brothers Pepé Le Pew cartoons, or play it straight, as in the long courtship of Anne Shirley by Gilbert Blythe in the Anne of Green Gables series, or in the equally extended courtship of Harriet Vane by the titular hero of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

These days, not so much.  No matter how good the writer or how well-presented the material, a goodly portion of the readership is going to take one look at the relationship dynamic and go, “Ugh! Stalker!” and lay your book aside, possibly by throwing it against the nearest wall.

And what if your presentation of the relationship is well-written, firmly based both in character development and in historical and regional context, and unquestionably believable?  In that case, a certain proportion of your readership will call you out for knowingly perpetuating a harmful stereotype by making it look good.

Really, there’s no way to win on this one.

As usual, I’m not saying “Don’t ever go there.”  What you decide to write is your call, and nobody else’s.  But I am saying, “If your muse is telling you that’s where you absolutely have to go, then do it with your eyes wide open to the consequences . . . and be sure you do it well.”

Backward, Turn Backward

If you’re a long-form writer with a number of stories set in the same fictional milieu, the odds are that at some point or other you’re going to find yourself writing a prequel. (I don’t think the term counts as a neologism any longer, since at least two respected on-line dictionaries vouch for its existence since at least 1972, or possibly as early as 1958.) Writing primarily short stories isn’t going to get you out from under this particular Sword of Damocles, either, since at some point you may be inspired — or be offered money, which often comes to the same thing — to expand a short story or series of short stories into a novel, or to write an origin story for one of your characters.

At which point you will find yourself engaged in one of the more masochistic pleasures of the writing life, that of retrofitting a backstory.

The big challenge in writing a prequel lies in the necessity of keeping your plot consistent with what’s been said or implied in the existing material, while at the same time writing a story that’s interesting on its own — the latter being, in my opinion, the more important job of the two. Not surprisingly (this is a blog about writing, after all) I have some thoughts about how to go about it.

Thought one: Writing a prequel is, in some ways, like taking off on a road trip with a certain number of must-hit way-points that you can’t ignore, even if your start point and your final destination are left to your discretion. When my co-author and I wrote The Gathering Flame, our prequel novel in the Mageworlds universe, there were really only a handful of such points: a couple of political agreements, two or three military engagements and a couple of daring space exploits, and the birth dates of a couple of children whose relative ages and birth order had been set in the original trilogy. (And it was the kids who gave me the most trouble, believe it or not.  The family setup in the trilogy had been established for effective storytelling in the context of those books; for the prequel, I had to go back in time and figure out not just how but why things had worked out that way, in a fictional milieu where “oops!” was a less-than-believable explanation for such things.)

So when you’re contemplating a prequel, it helps to make a list before you start of what your known past facts and must-hit way-points actually are.

Thought two: Not all of your known past facts and way-points are going to be of equal importance. Some of them, in fact, you may have to jettison or flat-out contradict for the sake of creating an effective story this time around. Yes, if you do that, you will probably get letters from readers pointing out your mistakes. Console yourself, in that case, with the thought that you’ve got readers who are paying close enough attention to what you’re saying that they can catch such things. Or you can point out to them that even in contemporary consensus reality, not everything comes with a completely known and consistent backstory, that “exactly what happened” is something that journalists and historians struggle with every day and don’t always come up with definitive answers, and that the bits and pieces of our lives don’t always match up tidily at the edges.

Or, as one of our own fictional characters said, in the (utterly invented, because we made it — and him — up) epigraph to The Gathering Flame: “What you have to realize, son, is that almost all of the people who were there at the time are dead. And everybody who’s still alive is lying to you about something.”

That would be the on-line OED citation, which alas I cannot verify without purchasing a subscription.