Dragon Chow

At some fairly early point in the development of my series of fantasy novels (no, they’re still not ready for publication — rewrites are ongoing) I made what in retrospect appears to have been a stunningly bad decision. It made sense at the time, because it has a certain mythic resonance, but I didn’t think it through.

I decided to send my intrepid heroine off on a detour to a land ruled by dragons. The dragons eat people; they consider humans a tasty treat. There are whole villages of peasants whose fate is to be eaten. And of course it’s a staple of heroic fantasy that the hero has to rescue people who are in danger and distress. Leaving those people behind as dragon chow would not make for a Happy Ending.

And now I’m forced to consider what an awful plot problem I’ve created for myself.

To see the problem clearly, we need to do the numbers. Let’s suppose the entire population of human-munching dragons consists of 2,000 of the beasts. Let’s further assume that on average, a dragon eats a human only 50 times per year, subsisting otherwise on cattle or sheep.

That’s 100,000 humans per year. In order to replenish the population loss due to dragon predation, 100,000 new babies will have to be born (and not die due to infant mortality) each year. If a woman has a surviving baby, on average, every two years, the population of peasants will have to include 200,000 women of childbearing age. We don’t need that many men; men are expendable. So maybe the adult population is 250,000, plus more than a million children between the ages of newborn and 14.

Even assuming my heroine can arrange to hold the dragons at bay while a population that size is evacuated, where are they going to end up? We know from news stories in our own world that resettling refugees in already populated areas is not easy to manage. And if the refugees are taken off to an area that isn’t already settled, there’s no infrastructure. There are no stored supplies of grain or anything else in a land where nobody is living. And the refugees won’t be able to subsist by hunting and gathering, because (a) having worked in the potato fields all their lives, they’re not trained hunters and (b) they don’t know what local wild plants are edible.

Fortunately, my heroine has access to well-trained wizards. But I’m not sure how even a crackerjack team of wizards could feed more than a million people on an ongoing basis while they get organized to plant a crop in their new location and then wait months for it to ripen. Even cutting the numbers by 90% still leaves an intractable plot problem: Feeding 125,000 refugees is not materially easier, in a novel at least, than feeding 1,250,000 of them. Either way, you have to have a very large and viable source of food.

This is why I hate writing fiction. I have a fiendish talent for wanting the story to make sense. Pardon me while I go chew on nails for a while to calm down.

The Gods

Here’s a tip. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: If you’re writing fantasy, or really any type of plotted fiction, do not — repeat, do not — include a god or gods in your story. Gods and plot do not mix.

Why, you may ask. Isn’t a god a fantasy creature par excellence? Well, yes. The problem is, gods are too darn powerful. The mainspring of plot is that the lead character (who we’ll assume is human, or something vaguely humanish) has a serious problem. The actions that the lead character takes to solve the problem form the plot. But a god can solve your hero’s problem with the wave of his, her, or its little finger. No more problem! No more plot! And thus, no more novel. Your novel lies on the floor, twitching faintly. It’s pushin’ up daisies. It’s joined the Choir Invisible. It is no more.

Real theologians and real worshipers have this same difficulty, of course. Why does “God” allow suffering, when he/she/it could prevent it? One popular answer is that suffering is instructive. Another popular answer is that because we have free will (supposedly), we’re creating our own suffering. I could go into detail about the weaknesses in those really bizarre and pathetic theories, but this is not the time or place for it. If you want to put both a god and a theological justification of that sort into your book, you’re welcome to do so — but at that point you’ll be writing a religious tract, not a plotted novel, and it’s likely to be boring. It will bore me, for sure.

Anyway, the supposedly real “God” in our real world never does anything at all. Actions: zero. If you put a god into your novel as a source of some action or other, the god is just another character, however vast or dimly visible. A character who is powerful enough to solve your Big Plot Problem, but who lets your lead character suffer instead, is basically a Bad Guy. That’s an evil character. For a human to triumph over an evil god — that’s a viable plot, I’m sure, but given a god’s enormous powers, it’s not a plot whose details I would be keen to try to work out.

You could also write about the conflict between good gods and evil gods; that would certainly be a viable plot, but it wouldn’t be about human beings. The humans in the story would just be pawns. Most human readers want the human characters to be the movers and shakers, so that may not work too well as a plot. You’re welcome to try it, of course.

Fantasy literature is generally about a world that inherently has some sort of moral order. (Our real world doesn’t.) The elements of fantasy, be they unicorns or vampires, tend to be either good or evil, unless you’re Terry Pratchett, of course, in which case they’re just good fun. But it’s best, I think, to let the moral order be inanimate, implied, or exhibited by ordinary, limited beings. A god will only get you in deep shit.


Make Up Your Mind, Please

Just a quick kvetch today, a follow-up to yesterday’s post about how you have to trust your own vision for a story and not just follow an editor’s suggestions blindly. As already noted, the editor who is working on my novel series is giving me a lot of very useful feedback. But once in a while I find myself twitching, running in circles, or tearing out the few hairs that remain on my old gray head.

On page 139 she says, “Be careful of giving away the plot in dialogue.” In this scene a character is advancing an idea about something that’s going to happen a few chapters later, and yes, the editor is absolutely right. I slashed those sentences, so as to have the eventual unfolding of events be more surprising.

Then on page 144, still in the same chapter, my heroine is sending a telegram (yes, this is a fantasy epic with telegrams) in order to learn something important. She declines to explain to her companion what the telegram is about. And here the editor says, “This scene is laying groundwork for future plot events, but it’s not feeling immediately relevant or like it’s advancing the story.”

Would you like to have your cake and eat it too? Gee, that would be swell. If my heroine explains to her companion what the telegram is about, I’ll be giving away the plot in dialogue. Aarrggh!

Of Mice and Editors

Orson Scott Card suggests that a novel will have one of four things as its primary focus — milieu, ideas, characters, or events (M.I.C.E.). Naturally, all novels will mix all four in some way, but one or another will predominate. In a hard-boiled mystery, for instance, what’s important are the events. The ideas are likely to be pedestrian and the characters developed only as far as needed to carry the plot forward. In a literary novel, what’s important is likely to be the characters. Lord of the Rings, Card suggests, is mainly about its milieu — Middle Earth. Yes, there are characters, and yes, there are events, but there’s a reason (Card points out) why Frodo has only one elf and one dwarf in his crew: They aren’t real characters, they’re just types.

But enough about Tolkien. As I work my way through the dozens upon dozens of comments my editor has made in my manuscript, I find that, again and again, she wants to know more about the interior feelings of the main characters. That is, she would prefer to be reading a novel of character. What I’ve written is, I think, more a novel of events. Here and there I’m finding it useful or appropriate to go in and clarify my character’s feelings — but there are also passages that aren’t about feelings; they’re about events. Having a character say, “Oh, no!” may be all that’s needed.

So I have to work out how (if at all) to take into consideration notes like these (all of them from one page in the manuscript file):


I did, in the end, clarify or amplify the feelings in that scene a little bit, though probably not to the extent that my editor envisioned. Brian Eno once said something to the effect that if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve in a work of art (in his case, music), comments and criticisms from others will only confuse you. So maybe I shouldn’t be confused by this kind of input. But then, I’m not Brian Eno.

Some of my editor’s comments have proven immensely useful. Whole scenes have been reorganized, or created from scratch. Other times, not so much. Right now I’m looking at Chapter 5 in Book 3. In my draft, the chapter opens with my lead character, Kyura, looking at a house and preparing to knock on the door. She and her friends have, after many travels, finally arrived at her destination. After a couple of brief paragraphs and before she actually knocks on the door, the chapter rolls back to tell, in 825 words, about the final stage of the travel that led them across the valley to this house.

The editor’s comment here was, “Don’t jump back and forth with the narration. There’s no point in opening here if we’re going to jump back and go through all the things we were going to go through anyway. Tell the story linearly and open the story with the funeral [one of the events in those 825 words] to emphasize Kura’s guilt and her profound anxiety….”

While superficially sensible, this comment is just plain wrong. Starting a chapter with an important moment and then backing up to show, quickly, a few days of events (yes, events) that preceded the important moment is a technique I picked up from Rex Stout. His narrator in the Nero Wolfe mysteries quite often does this. What it does is present the beginning of something the reader will care about in order to whet the reader’s appetite and then create suspense by forcing the reader to wait (not too long) to find out what happens next. The events in my 825-word flashback, while they can’t be skipped, are not as important as the moment when Kyura arrives at that house.

Strange as it may seem, I do actually have some idea what I’m doing.

Sing Us a Song, You’re the Grammar Man

Tonight I’m stalking the wily sentence. As a writer of nonfiction I’m quite proficient, but I’d like to learn more about the luminous prose styles the great novelists use. How do they do that? Not that I’ll ever be a great novelist, but I can surely become a better one.

Now and then I get mailers from the Great Courses. I’ve always resisted buying the series of DVDs called Building Great Sentences — this was before I decided I need to know more about prose style — but as it happens, the series has been turned by its author, Brooks Landon, into a nice paperback book. Which I have now bought.

Landon plunges in boldly, but he soon gets in over his head. He approves of long sentences, and I approve of his approval. But early on — on page 4, in fact — he founders while trying to dissect this sentence of Gertrude Stein’s: “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?”

Landon offers eight different paraphrases of this, such as, “Why should a sequence of words not be a pleasure?”, “A sequence of words should always be a pleasure,” and “We should always find pleasure in a sequence of words.” But he misses the kernel of Stein’s meaning. If you’ve read any of Stein’s writing, you’ll know that quite often her sequences of words are, as to their meaning, impenetrable. Opening her book How to Write at random, I come upon this sequence of words: “Custom a custom do accustom they come accompanied they will venture to arrive with a variety of circumstances that they can have come to be to them as if which they can prepare to be alike.”

Given this — and it’s a fine example of Stein’s “difficult” style — it seems clear to me that we have to read the sentence Landon quotes, first, by lopping off the last three words. Stein is saying, to begin with, “Why should a sequence of words be anything?” As we finish reading the sentence, adding the rest of her thought, we can see that a better paraphrase would be, “A sequence of words need only give pleasure. That is its primary function.” Its meaning, Stein implies, is of secondary importance, if indeed it conveys any meaning at all.

To have teased out this meaning would rather have undercut Landon’s agenda. But I don’t want to get distracted by talking about Gertrude Stein. We have bigger fish to fry.

Landon notes that there are three ways to construct long sentences. (Actually, there are four; he misses one.) We can add coordinate elements using “and” or other connective words; we can add subordinate clauses; or we can add modifiers (adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and so on). The one he misses, in case you’re wondering, is that we can make a long sentence by breaking it off in the middle and interject a new element without stopping.

He gives as an example of a long sentence, an example of which he seems proud — proud enough at least to put it in the book — this horrifying mess: “Cumulative sentences that start with a brief base clause and then start picking up new information, much as a snowball gets larger as it rolls downhill, fascinate me with their ability to add information that actually makes the sentence easier to read and more satisfying because it starts answering questions as quickly as an inquisitive reader might think of them, using each modifying phrase to clarify what has gone before, and to reduce the need for subsequent explanatory sentences, flying in the face of the received idea that cutting words rather than adding them is the most effective way to improve writing, reminding us that while in some cases, less is indeed more, in many cases, more is more, and more is what our writing needs.”

He then says, “I would argue that neither [this sentence nor the one before it] is hard to follow….” But of course he’s quite wrong. Why is this sentence hard to follow? If you look closely, you’ll see that it contains three infinitives: “to add,” “to read,” and “to reduce.” The difficulty is that the first and third are parallel in structure within the sentence: “…with their ability to add information … and to reduce the need….” However, “to read” is in a subordinate position (modifying “easier”). Because “to read” interrupts the parallel structure, the sentence is not just wildly self-indulgent but a true grammatical train wreck. When we reach “and to reduce,” we have lost the thread of the structure. We have to backtrack to see what Landon is attempting to say.

At the end of each chapter, he gives the reader a little exercise assignment with which to try out the techniques discussed. Having bludgeoned us with this monstrous knockwurst of a sentence, he invites us at the end of Chapter Four to compose a single sentence (using one or more of the strategies I mentioned above) that incorporates all six of the following underlying propositions:

  1. The boy sat down at the table.
  2. The boy was young.
  3. The boy was out of breath from running.
  4. The boy flopped down into his chair.
  5. The table was made of heavy oak.
  6. The table was covered with steaming dishes of food.

These six elements could, of course, be combined in any of a number of ways — we might write, for instance, “Out of breath from running, the young boy flopped down in his chair at the heavy oak table, which was covered with steaming dishes of food.” — but it’s clear that any sentence we could construct using these elements would be wildly deficient if used in a work of fiction. There is too much information here, and yet not enough. We don’t know where the boy has run from, or why he has arrived at the table immediately after running. We don’t know who has laid out the steaming dishes of food. We don’t know in what sense the chair is “his” chair. We don’t know how young he is; six? nine? fourteen?

We notice at once that “covered by” is imprecise; surely the top of the table was not entirely covered by the dishes. We may also wonder why it’s the dishes that are steaming rather than the food itself, but that’s a trivial detail. “Food” is deplorably vague, and that would be less trivial in a work of fiction. The fact that the table is constructed of heavy oak, on the other hand, would be entirely trivial, and not worth mentioning at all unless this fact were connected in some way to the rest of the furniture in the room, or to the boy’s bone structure (he might be either sturdy or, by way of contrast, as frail as a stick), or perhaps to the overbearing character of the cook, who will insist that the boy eat all of the dishes — or rather, all of the food in the dishes — even though he isn’t hungry, just out of breath.

In sum, to include these six elements and no others in a complex sentence can only give us a dreadful sentence. Should we prize a book that gives us exercises that will have us constructing dreadful sentences? Contrariwise, if we try to construct a valid and interesting fictional scene out of these elements by adding missing details and clarifying what has been left vague, we’re surely going to need more than one sentence.

Oh, well. The book only cost $16, and it reminded me to read some Gertrude Stein.

Long View vs. Wide View

You can buy any number of books on the basic techniques of fiction — and you should. Instruction on how to handle point of view, flashbacks, and dialog tags, on how to develop characters and plot, is readily available, and every aspiring writer needs to master the basics.

What’s in strikingly short supply is instruction on how to write well.

The result is all around us. Thousands of self-published authors are pumping out novels one after another, novels in which these basic mechanical aspects of craft may be handled rather well (or not), but in most cases it’s clear that the author has never aspired to anything higher than being competitive in the hurly-burly of today’s book market. The same could be said of numerous authors whose books stream from the corporate headquarters of the big New York publishers.

Writers and publishers are taking the wide view: How many books can we sell? What genre does this novel fit into, and how shall we make sure it meets the desires of readers who love that genre? The long view gets short shrift. The long view might be characterized as, “Where does my book float on the great river of literature? From what sources does it spring?”

Rather to my surprise, I’ve found a how-to-write book that invites the aspiring author to take the long view. And not just “invites.” This book digs into the nuts and bolts of what makes memorable novels memorable. It’s called Write Like the Masters, and it was written by William Cane.

In 21 chapters, Cane tells us something about the effects achieved by Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky, Maugham, Faulkner, Hemingway, and others. Surprising inclusions in the list: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming. From this you can fairly conclude that Cane isn’t addressing the rarefied needs of blue-blooded purveyors of capital-L Literature. (There’s no chapter about James Joyce, and thank God for that.) No, this is a book about telling stories, and telling them in masterful ways.

The series of novels I’ve been working on started out with the Young Adult market in mind. YA fantasy is a hot market. But at some point I realized I had outgrown the restrictions of the YA genre. When your story includes 20 different viewpoint characters and a sprawling plot, some YA readers are likely to get restless. So I decided the story would sit more happily in the adult fantasy genre (while perhaps still appealing to more sophisticated or adventurous teens).

After reading Cane’s chapter on how Melville used symbolism, I’m starting to question whether I’m even writing genre fantasy. I’ve now noticed two hugely important symbols in my story. They’ve been there all along; I just never noticed they were symbols. (My unconscious has evidently been hard at work.) I’m now thinking I may need to add bits of dialog or imagery, or even a whole new scene here or there, to tease out the ramifications of these symbols.

Cane has also prodded me to think more deeply about my characters. They are who they are — at this stage of the editing/revision process, that’s not likely to change. But for example (spoiler alert!), when Robner betrays Kyura, I had him doing it because he’s naive and idealistic. It now occurs to me that he may be harboring a resentment and doing it deliberately while kidding himself about his own motivation. I’ll need to edit a certain scene to make his resentment apparent. It will deepen his character. And what about Meery? How does she feel when she discovers just how easily she can kill people? Have I cheated the reader by failing to put her complicated feelings on the page?

The story is drifting away from genre fantasy. I’m in danger of committing literature.

This is not actually an anti-marketing path to take. Writing well may even help my books float up to the surface of the self-publishing swamp. More important, though — I’m basically writing to please myself, not to please some hypothetical reader whose tastes have been botoxed by Hollywood. I enjoy learning new things. Right now I think I’ll probably enjoy learning how to write in a more literary manner.

Literature doesn’t have to be stuffy; Dickens had a sense of humor. Literature doesn’t have to follow the “rules” those other books drill into us, because literature is organic. It’s not cranked out on an assembly line.

I’m less than halfway through Cane’s book. Further revelations will doubtless follow, so don’t touch that dial!

Literary Cow Pies

My quest for ideas about how to write well is ongoing. By “write well” I mean, at the moment, how to write sentences and paragraphs that are strong — that communicate. That are, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful, or at least striking to read and insightful with respect to their subject matter. Sentences that, when you read them, you find yourself thinking, “I wish I had written that.”

In the course of my quest, I made the mistake of buying the Kindle edition of Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. The middle name should, I think, have served as a warning, but I failed to heed it.

I did, to be fair, learn a couple of good things from Bell’s opening section. He dissects the problems with fiction-writing workshops, and points out that until the mid-20th century there was no such thing as a writing workshop. Writers studied the work of their predecessors, and then they wrote. This is a valuable tip.

The bulk of Narrative Design, sadly, is a collection of short stories, each of them annotated in great detail by Bell. This is a lovely pedagogical approach. Unfortunately, the stories stink. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to ask for my money back.

Okay, I only read the first three stories. After the first two I was reeling, but tonight I forced myself to try again. At this point, I’m done.

I don’t mean they stink in any simple way. They stink in the refined way that only self-conscious “modern literature” can stink. It’s sort of a sewage omelette effect.

Bell is enthusiastic about these stories. He admires them. He feels they’re close to perfect. I’m not sure even the Ivory Tower effect will do to explain his dreadful lack of judgment. I’d like to think the book is satire, but it’s much too serious and weighty. No, he means every word.

In “Depth Charge,” by Craig Bernardini, a young man named Alex celebrates his 21st birthday by getting very drunk in a bar on a Monday night — a bar that he has been frequenting for the past three years. At closing time, Alex climbs into his car and drives it through a barrier into Baltimore harbor in a sort of nihilistic act of bravado. It’s not unlike Russian roulette (which Bernardini thoughtfully mentions as the young man is talking with the bartender) except that Alex has planned how he will escape from the car as it sinks beneath the waves. Being very drunk, he almost doesn’t make it, but then he does.

The escape from drowning is presented by Bell as Alex’s way of coming alive. Bell uses the phrase “freed himself to live life fully” and the word “revivifying.” But really, what we have here is a story about a 21-year-old alcoholic whose life is so pathetically meaningless that he’s trying to kill himself. Next time, he’ll probably succeed. Suicide is one of the ways alcoholics die.

The only other character in the story, Gavin the bartender, lets Alex drive away from the bar while very drunk. I don’t know what the law is in Baltimore, but my guess is, Gavin has committed a crime in letting Alex get behind the wheel. So there you have it — a suicidal alcoholic and a criminally negligent bartender. And we don’t find out what Alex is intending to do until the very end of the story. Most of the story is just Alex and Gavin shooting the breeze in a deserted bar on a Monday night. Inspiring, yes?

I was guessing that Bernardini was an undergraduate participant in a writing workshop — but no, he has a Ph.D. and teaches creative writing. I do hope nobody signs up for any of his classes.

Next up, Bell gives us “A Wife of Nashville” by Peter Taylor. This story is less painful to read than Bernardini’s depressing mess. Its chief difficulty is that it goes on at great length without ever showing a glimmer of a plot. The story takes place between the 1920s and the 1940s. The wife in the title, Helen Ruth Lovell, has a husband, three sons, and a succession of colored cook/housekeepers. As the story goes on, Helen Ruth gradually becomes more mature in her outlook, or possibly more resigned to her dull life, but that’s about it. Most of the story is about her relations with the housekeepers, but there’s no depth to them (because, you know, there wasn’t much depth in interracial relations in those days). Her husband and sons get less coverage than the housekeepers.

Frankly, the story is just boring, but at the end Taylor does a bad thing. He has Helen Ruth reflect on what he evidently intends us to see as the theme of the story: “She felt that she would be willing to say anything at all, no matter how cruel or absurd it was, if it would make them [her husband and sons] understand that everything that happened in life only demonstrated in some way the lonesomeness that people felt.” I don’t always agree with the show-don’t-tell criticism, but in this case I’ll go for it.

Taylor was not a novice, either. He wrote several novels and several story collections. He died in 1994.

Tonight I tackled “Daisy’s Valentine,” by Mary Gaitskill. Again, not a novice; her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, if wikipedia is to be believed. The main character, Joey, is a young speed freak living in New York. He develops what we might charitably call a crush on Daisy, who works in the same office. The office is frankly impossible; there are six or seven people working in what Gaitskill describes as the clerical department of “a filthy second-hand bookstore.” We never actually see the filth; we never see the retail part of the store at all. But I’m pretty sure most retail establishments, even in New York City, are not filthy, because filth tends to drive away customers. Nor is it credible that any second-hand bookstore in the world would be large enough to employ six or seven people in a clerical department. So we’re off to a bad start.

Nothing much happens in the story. After a year or so of dreaming about Daisy, dreams that don’t even seem to be sexual, Joey gives her a valentine. He gives it to her a week late. (This sounds like one of those ideas that New Yorker writers think are stunningly clever.) They start going out, more or less, but Joey is living with another woman and Daisy is living with another man, so they don’t seem to do much other than go out. At the end of the story we don’t even know if they’ve slept together. Joey’s live-in girlfriend has thrown him out, not that their love for one another has ever amounted to anything. But being thrown out seems not to trouble him greatly, and he still has his pointless and unlikely job, so nothing of any great significance has changed in his life, even though the story’s opening sentence suggests that he “might ruin” it. What we have, then, is two pathetic dead-end people, one of them definitely a drug addict, who bumble into a relationship that, while it involves kisses and hugs, doesn’t even qualify as a romance.

Bell’s summary of the plot is, “Simple and sordid — a casebook account of pointlessly self-destructive behavior. Judged by such a bare-bones plot summary, the story is almost too depressing to read.” I think he put his finger on the pulse there. The story is too depressing to bother with, and certainly too depressing to belong in an anthology that purports to serve a tutorial purpose.

In his analysis, he also says, “Not that the cast members of this story are wonderfully likeable people really, but they are portrayed with such convincing detail that the reader cannot help but be interested in them.” Nope. Bad guess. I wasn’t interested. And I can’t quite imagine that any reader would be.

So we have two stories about pathetic losers (Joey and Alex), both addicts, and one about a housewife whose life is very, very boring. Wow, Madison. Do you think you could manage to inspire young writers any more ineptly? Could you possibly manage to put together a book that would nauseate or discourage aspiring writers more powerfully than this? Is this supposed to show us how to write fucking literature?

I want my money back.

Sensitive Issues

In editing Book 2 of my series, I have now reached the scene where Something Bad Happens. My editor is, perhaps understandably, disturbed by this brief episode. But while I take her ideas seriously — considering how much I’m paying her, I’d be a fool not to — I’m not persuaded that her suggested alternative will work.

I have several concerns here. First, I don’t want to upset readers who are sensitive to this issue. Nor do I want to sensationalize it in any way, or use it to titillate. But nor do I want to censor myself. Second, I try to write realistically. The scene is technically G-rated — no body parts more intimate than fingers and legs are mentioned — but there’s no doubt at all what’s going on. The motivation of the evil character is also realistic, I think. Third, I really do need the plot to move in a certain direction, and for that to happen I need an emergency. Something more muted won’t quite do the job.

Okay, I’ll stop being mysterious now. The evil wizard is trying to get himself out of a legal morass by offering his 9-year-old daughter to a pedophile judge. In the scene I wrote, the girl is sitting on the judge’s lap as he negotiates the arrangement with her father. They’re all fully dressed, but the judge is doing things with his fingers.

Nothing bad is actually going to happen to the girl, other than being groped. Within a couple of hours, she and her older sister will run away. They will suffer no further indignities (and indeed, at the end of the book their father will be, quite fittingly, killed). But they have to run away in order for the plot to work. To my way of thinking, if the threat is less graphic the two girls will try to convince themselves that they misunderstood the judge’s intentions. They will prefer to hope for the best. They won’t run.

It’s clear, however, that my editor is more freaked out by this scene than I expected. Other people may react the same way. I don’t want the scene to destroy anyone’s affection for the story. But I do need a genuine plot emergency; everything that happens in the scene is in character; and I don’t approve of censorship.

I think perhaps my own jaded attitude toward sex is affecting my thinking. I know that people (especially the male of the species) are aroused by quite a variety of different things, not all of them involving a healthy respect for personal autonomy. That’s the real world. Also, my own background has enough low-grade sexual trauma in it, trauma from which there was never any prospect of my being protected, that I’m probably a little irritated that my editor thinks I should rush to protect a girl who doesn’t even exist. I’m afraid my attitude boils down to, “Shit happens. Deal with it.”

I will probably compromise by adding a few sentences to show how traumatized the girl is, if I can do that without sending the story off on a horrible tangent. She’s a very minor character, and this sort of trauma is not what the story is about.

It frankly didn’t occur to me that she would be traumatized, and that’s probably my failing as a writer. But I can’t afford to pull the plot apart and leave it in a smelly heap on the floor in order to prove to the world how sensitive I am.

I’m probably not that sensitive, actually. I’m not even sure I want to be that sensitive. As Frank Zappa once said, “Broken hearts are for assholes.” But then, the Seventies were a different era in terms of sexual mores. Zappa also has a song with the line, “She’s only thirteen but she knows how to nasty!” You couldn’t say that in a song today. Are we more enlightened today, more aware and sensitive, or are we just more straitlaced? I will leave you with that conundrum.

Doin’ It in Style

Dialogue, I’m starting to feel, is one of the less interesting things that can happen in a work of fiction. As I re-edit my novel, I’m finding, first, that it’s rather dialogue-heavy, and second, that I’m getting bored.

If I’m bored, there’s a good chance readers will be too. So I started thinking about ways to make it a more absorbing or scintillating read. I’ve always known that my prose fiction is, let’s say, proficient but workmanlike. Once in a while I happen to toss off a lovely sentence, but I’ve never searched for those sentences. If one occurs to me, fine. If not, I’ll just slog on through the dialogue or whatever. (I do write fairly good dialogue. But still….)

I went down to the local library and borrowed me a stack of literature. I already have a certain amount on my shelves (Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway), but my collection is very spotty.

Of the things I’ve looked at, Fitzgerald seems consistently closest to what I’d like to aim at stylistically. His stories, not so much; The Great Gatsby is about idle rich people living on Long Island a hundred years ago, and who cares, really? But the prose! Here’s a quick example. Daisy and Gatsby have just found one another after a separation of some years, and Daisy is now getting a tour of Gatsby’s mansion (the “feudal silhouette” below):

With enchanting murmurs Daisy admired this aspect or that of the feudal silhouette against the sky, admired the gardens, the sparkling odor of jonquils and the frothy odor of hawthorn and plum blossoms and the pale gold odor of kiss-me-at-the-gate.

Who else would think to describe odors as sparkling, frothy, or pale gold? That’s Fitzgerald. Kiss-me-at-the-gate is, by the way, a type of honeysuckle. Fitzgerald clearly means the reader to understand this as a not even faintly subtle reference to the re-emergence of the broken romance between Gatsby and Daisy. He’s messing with us, because he can.

Faulkner’s prose is less flowery, but often extraordinary. What scares me about reading Faulkner is that I might start writing in the hillbilly dialect of his characters. I dipped into Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and found it beautiful but impenetrable, like an overgrown hothouse strangled in orchids.

At the library I also picked up Iron Council by China Mieville. I’d hazard a guess that Mieville is trying to show off his mastery of style, but his prose is impacted. It’s as hard to untangle as Woolf’s in The Waves, but because he’s writing plotted fiction, at least nominally, the reader is at a disadvantage. And of course Mieville is not aiming at beauty. Here’s the first paragraph of Iron Council:

In years gone, women and men are cutting a line across the dirtland and dragging history with them. They are still, with fight-shouts setting their mouths. They are in rough and trenches of rock, in forests, in scrub, brick shadows. They are always coming.

What does “dragging history with them” even mean? And the grammar — “rough” is an adjective (unless you’re on the golf course, which doesn’t seem to be the setting here), but “trenches” is a noun, so how can those two words be placed in a parallel construction? No, Mieville doesn’t provide a model for the stylistic mastery I’m hoping to learn.

One thing I’ve quickly learned is that the rules being peddled today to young writers of genre fiction are, to a not inconsiderable extent, twaddle. Consider “head-hopping.” We’re told in no uncertain terms, by any number of authorities, that a given scene should be seen strictly from the point of view of one character. If one feels a need to switch to a different viewpoint character, one must leave a blank line and begin a new scene.

But here’s Somerset Maugham, in a story called “Rain.” The main character in this story is Dr. Macphail, and we see most of it from his point of view. Yet suddenly, in a scene where Macphail and his wife are talking to Mrs. Davidson, a thoroughly obnoxious Christian missionary, we get this:

She [Mrs. Davidson] looked from Macphail to his wife, standing helplessly in different parts of the room, like lost souls, and she pursed her lips. She saw that she must take them in hand. Feckless people like that made her impatient, but her hands itched to put everything in the order which came so naturally to her.

After a paragraph of unbroken dialogue that could be heard from any point of view, suddenly we’re back in Macphail’s POV again. Apparently Maugham never got the memo on head-hopping.

Neither did Virginia Woolf. On page 1 of Mrs. Dalloway, we’re clearly in Clarissa Dalloway’s point of view. We hear her thoughts as she sets out on a walk through London to buy some flowers. But at the top of page 2:

She stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall’s van to pass. A charming woman, Scrope Purvis thought her (knowing her as one does know people who live next door to one in Westminster); a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness. There she perched, never seeing him, waiting to cross, very upright.

We’re in Purvis’s head — and then he’s gone. In the next paragraph we’re firmly back in Clarissa Dalloway’s POV. We can infer, if we like, that Purvis is driving the van, although it’s a bit odd that a van driver would be living next door to the Dalloways. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, Woolf needed to give the reader a view of Mrs. Dalloway from the outside, to establish her character and appearance, so she did what was needed.

Of course, you have to be a fine writer to pull off this kind of effect. The novice is well advised to learn the rules first — and then set them aside.

There’s a Zen story about an apprentice to a famous painter. The apprentice said, “Please, master — tell me how to paint the perfect painting!” The master replied, “Oh, that’s easy. Just become perfect, and then paint naturally.”

Once you know how to write, not perfectly (because nobody writes perfectly) but very well, you can set aside the rules and just write naturally.

Dangerous Boys

During the period when my plan was to release my (still upcoming — doing lots of edits, thanks for asking) fantasy series into the popular but overcrowded Young Adult market, I did a bit of reading in the YA fantasy genre. The one ironclad story element, I found, was that the heroine (girls are the biggest market segment among the readership, so many of the lead characters are girls) simply cannot have a Good Parent. Her parent(s) must be dead, missing, evil, neglectful, or seriously ill. It’s not hard to see why. The YA genre is about young people who are facing adult challenges for the first time. A lead character who had a Good Parent wouldn’t be forced to grapple with those challenges herself. She could go to Mom and get good advice. Also, modern teenagers are often in conflict with their parents. a Good Parent would be seen as the author being insufferably preachy.

But that’s not today’s topic. Today I want to look at the girl heroines’ love interest. This is usually a boy; gay YA is by no means unknown, but for reasons that will become clear in a moment, we’ll stick with the girl-boy pairing.

The boy who is the love interest is usually at least a little dangerous. In vampire fantasy, of course, the boy will be a vampire, which is Very Dangerous. I also picked up one zombie fantasy (and quickly put it down) in which the boy is a zombie. Dead, in other words. No body heat. The word “yucky” doesn’t quite seem to cover the situation, but the book was brought out by a mainstream New York publisher. Go figure.

The reasons for this cliche lie deep in our species’ evolutionary past. To oversimplify only slightly, sperm are plentiful, cheap to produce, and easy to replace. Eggs are a scarce resource. For this reason, the mating priorities of the human male differ somewhat from the mating priorities of the female.

The male is usually quite ready to have at it with a random strange female, because he risks nothing. As the song says, “Slam, bam, thank you, Ma’am.” If a baby is the outcome, maybe it will survive to carry on his genes. If not, there’s no loss. He can try again tomorrow.

The female needs to adopt a different strategy in order to insure the survival of her genes. She’ll be pregnant for months, and then caring for an infant for several years, so she needs a mate who will stick around and provide food — that is, a supportive, nurturing mate. However, she also needs a mate who is strong enough to provide effective protection against lions, tigers, and bears. He needs to be ready to fight. Those two character traits are not very similar. In some men they’re balanced, but in other men the nurturing outweighs the aggressiveness (in which case they’re too weak to defend the woman effectively) or the aggressiveness outweighs the nurturing (in which case the woman runs the risk of being battered).

Given the available talent pool, whatever it is, a woman needs to make the best choice she can of a mate who combines those two traits. The man may attempt to deceive her by appearing more nurturing than he really is, but that’s a topic for another time.

Ideally, then, we would expect a woman to want a man who is fairly reliable (and if possible a good provider) but also slightly dangerous. So it’s no surprise that the love interest of the YA heroine is often stamped out by that cookie-cutter. The guy can’t be too nice.

Right at the moment I’m having ongoing discussions with the editor whom I hired to do a developmental edit on my series. She has provided some very, very useful comments, and I’m making significant revisions to Book 1. But because this particular editor has a background in helping abused women, she’s sensitive to certain issues in a way that many editors, even female editors, may not be.

In Book 2, I wrote a brief passage in which the good wizard, who is recovering from a terrible injury suffered in a battle, is reflecting on how he helped the three heroines in Book 1, or tried to. He is probably in his 50s, though I didn’t nail that down. Here’s his internal monologue: “She [the main heroine] and her friends had relied on him, and he had led them astray. And destroyed his own life in the process. How could he have been such a fool? True, she did have a certain strength of character, and she and her young friends were pleasant to look at. He wondered ruefully if, old bachelor that he was, he had forgotten to use good judgment because he had been thrilled by the thought of helping three attractive almost-grown girls in their mad escapade.”

The editor’s comment when she read this passage was: “This is immensely and horribly creepy, and makes all his behavior in the first book seem self-serving and borderline predatory.”

What? Really? She seems to be saying here that if an older man is influenced by a young woman’s attractiveness, it’s horribly creepy even if he never says or does anything even remotely inappropriate. I don’t see any other way to interpret her comment. And as an older man myself, I resent it.

The editor and I are having ongoing discussions about this. Clearly she overreacted. I hope we’ll be able to work it out. But that’s not why I thought it was worth blogging about. Here’s what I find interesting.

Also in Book 1 my two auxiliary heroines (lead characters 2 and 3, who are also teenage girls) are acquiring boyfriends. Hey, there has to be some romance in the story, right?

Heroine 2, a spoiled (but very beautiful) rich girl who is on the run from an odious arranged marriage, has fallen in with a boy who is a pickpocket and a thief. He has a knife scar on his cheek. Clearly, he’s a street punk. Not, one would think, a suitable life partner for her. Probably not a suitable life partner for any woman!

Heroine 3, meanwhile, is getting warm fuzzy feelings for a boy who seems very nice until he takes off his hat. When he takes off his hat, she finds that he has horns. He’s a half-breed demon. Demons in my fantasy world are just another human-type race, not supernatural, but they’re hyper-aggressive and dangerous. This young man even admits to her that on one occasion when badly provoked, he ripped a couple of men’s arms off. Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous!

My editor raised not an eyebrow about either of these pairings. That’s what I thought was interesting. I don’t have the faintest idea what her thought process was. Quite possibly she knows the genre well enough to understand that dangerous boys are a necessity, so why fight it? But when it came to the remote and tenuous possibility that an older man might have lustful or even simply admiring thoughts about a young woman — sound the alarm! Pirates on the starboard quarter!

There are two morals to this story. The first is, don’t be afraid to write about dangerous boys. The second is, your editor is human. Her notes on your work are not carved in stone, nor handed down from Mount Olympus.

And that’s okay. Through discussing the topic with her, I’ve realized I need to make a few adjustments in the conversations that both of the girls have with their new boyfriends. I didn’t think it through, because of course the author knows these boys aren’t going to cause any serious trouble. They’re just sexy because they’re slightly dangerous. But the girls don’t know they’re safe! The girls will be cautious.

Although, now that I think about it, when are teenagers of either sex ever cautious about who they hook up with? It’s been a long time since I was a teenager. I think when I’ve put this series to bed, I’m going to have to write a novel about an old guy. A geezer. Yeah, that sounds about right. But what if he meets a cute young woman? Oh, dear. In that case, I’ll probably need to find a different editor.