In the Beginning…

Getting back to work on the YA fantasy mystery novel I set aside almost two years ago in order to work on the epic series. (Talk about genre blending…!) Making some good progress. This book might even be viable commercially. But if I’m to cherish any hope of that, I need to get it exactly right.

Shannon OCork’s book How to Write Mysteries may not be the best how-to book on my shelf, but it has some thought-provoking tips. Last night her section on “Writing Your Opening Line” got my attention. I saw immediately that I needed to drill in on that.

This novel is structured with a suspense-provoking opening chapter followed by no less than 19 chapters of flashback. In the opening, a young woman arrives at the office of a private investigator and tells him that she’s about to be accused of two murders. And then, beginning in Chapter 2, we learn how she got herself into this mess.

Unfortunately, a mystery opening in which a new client arrives at the office of a private eye has been a cliche for at least 50 years. But for reasons that would be spoilery to explain, my novel really does have to start there. A strictly chronological telling of the story wouldn’t have a suspenseful opening at all, and the opening would be actively misleading. Readers would think they’re reading a novel about a prank played by a couple of teenage girls, and then suddenly there would be brains and blood splattered across the page. Not good.

I’m stuck with a stock private eye opener. What can I do to make it pop? I think I’m going to juggle it, giving it an interior flashback structure that, coincidentally, mirrors the larger structure of the whole book. Here’s the dull-as-ditch-water opener in the draft:

Seated at his desk and staring sourly at the pages of scribbled notes before him, Oland Graysall had been only dimly aware of the steady clip-clop of hooves from the street, faint and then growing louder, the creak and rattle of a vehicle over cobblestones, until the horse stopped directly below his front window. He pushed his chair back, rose, and went to the window to look down into the street.

A stiff wet autumn wind was chasing swirls of leaves, and the windowpane was streaked with spatters of rain. The driver of the brougham hopped down to the pavement and opened the door for his passenger, keeping one hand firmly on his hat as he offered the other to the woman who emerged.

Graysall didn’t recognize her. A new client, then — either that, or someone paying a social call on his sister.

No way around it — that’s boring. So I grabbed a passage from near the end of the chapter and nudged a couple of sentences. Here’s the opener I’m now thinking of using:

The girl — no, call her a young woman, she was at that awkward but incandescent age poised between the two — pressed her lips together hard, the muscles of her neck clenching. “The money you charge for helping people, does it matter where it comes from? I mean, if it’s not, if they got their hands on it in a way that wasn’t — do you take money from somebody who got it by doing something they shouldn’t have done? Do you have scruples?”

Oland Graysall said gently, “I try to live up to my own ethical standards.”

“Then you can’t help me. Nobody can.” She buried her face in her hands. Indistinctly she said, “It’s hopeless.” She shook silently, and then a thin, prolonged cry of anguish slipped out between her fingers.

Graysall got up and poured a small sherry from a decanter on the sideboard. “Here. Drink this. Don’t just sip it, toss it down. There, isn’t that better? Here’s a handkerchief. It’s clean.” He sat down and watched while she wiped her eyes, snuffled, and regained a measure of composure. “Now, pardon me for being stern, young lady, but we must get one thing settled immediately. You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what this is about. We’ll worry about the money later.” That was a rash promise; he did prefer to be paid; but Jeroe Thyremion’s daughter would certainly have access to funds. “You’ve said twice that your situation is complicated, but in my experience most murders are shockingly simple, when once the loose threads have been teased out of the tangle.”

“You know about murders? And murderers?”

“I do. So please — enlighten me as to the complications. I must have every detail.”

“Must you?”

“If I’m to help you, yes.”

She shook her head in swift little jerks. “I can’t.”

Graysall sighed. “If I don’t have the truth from you, Miss Thyremion, the Surety will. And you’ll like their methods less. A glass of sherry and a clean handkerchief won’t be provided. Let me assure you, I’m quite capable of keeping a secret, when there’s a reason to.”

“Like if you’re being paid.” Sarcasm and distrust colored her words.

“Money has nothing to do with it. I have my own ethical standards, as I said. They’re not invariably the same as the standards the magistrates would prefer that I adhere to, if they knew.”

A few minutes before, Graysall had been alone, seated at his desk and staring sourly at the pages of scribbled notes before him….

It’s maybe a tiny bit clumsy in that the phrase “Jeroe Thyremion’s daughter” does not yet clearly refer to the girl. But I think (hope) it will jump off the page and pump up a bit of adrenaline for the reader. What do you think?

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Break Out the Bubbly!

Today I uploaded what I fervently hope are the final versions of all four books of my fantasy series. They are now live on Amazon, at $3.99 each.

I’ve been grinding away on the edits to Book 4, The Firepearl Chalice, for most of 2018. I would have been done a couple of months ago, but I got stuck a couple of times.

When you’re rewriting, the plot is a bit like how the Doctor explains time travel to his companion in an episode or three: There are fixed points in history. They can’t be changed! In the case of my story, for instance, I knew that near the end of Book 4 the good guys had to find themselves in a certain cavern deep in a mountain. The trouble was, they had no legitimate reason to go there.

The reason I had used in the previous draft turned out, on close examination, to be flimsy to the point of nonexistence. It was one of those awful places where you can sort of see that your characters have been reading the plot outline. I wanted them to go to the cave, so somebody said, “Hey, let’s go to the cave,” and off they went. Realistically, based on their own emotions at the time, they would have scampered off in the opposite direction. So in rewriting, I had to come up with a legitimate, plausible reason for them to go where I needed them to go — and for a while I didn’t know what the reason could possibly be. (I came up with what I hope is a good one. At least it’s a lot better than, “Hey, let’s all go to the cave.”)

People sometimes confuse this type of situation with writer’s block. It’s not. Writer’s block, at least if I understand the term, is a sort of paralysis. Either you’re avoiding writing for some emotional reason, or you’re sitting there staring at the screen and the words refuse to come. After 26-1/2 years on the editorial staff of a monthly magazine, where I cranked out hundreds of features, how-to columns, product reviews, and about 2,000 record reviews, I don’t get blocked. Words do not fail me.

Plot does sometimes fail, or at least it sometimes falls apart like a house built of matchsticks.

But enough whining. Here we are! Unless I get a report of some horrid problem with one of the files, I’m done. I try to be careful with file formatting and such things, but it’s just me. I’m the grunt labor and also the quality control department. This afternoon, while previewing Book 3 before uploading it to the great South American river in the cloud, I discovered to my horror that four complete chapters were missing. Ack! I had been assembling the final file over the course of two days, and when I picked it up on the second day I neglected to notice where I had left off the first day. Fortunately, I caught it before the file went live.

Will there ever be a Book 5? Reply hazy — ask again later. Like, maybe in a couple of years. There’s certainly room for the story to continue, but unlike the first three books, which end cliff-hangerily (always coin a new word every Monday!), Book 4 reaches a definite and I hope satisfying conclusion. Still, every ending is a new beginning. We’ll see.

There are some other stories I want to whip into shape. I have a fantasy-mystery series in mind. The first book is already written, in fact. It’s called Woven of Death and Starlight. This won’t be a series with a single long story arc; the plan is to make each story mostly independent of the others. I need to get to that — and when it’s ready to be seen, I’ll probably try to scare up a literary agent again. If by some mischance I manage to land a New York publisher for the new series, there would be a delay of a year or so before the book would appear; the millstones of publishing grind slowly. But mainstream publication of a new series would certainly benefit the Leafstone series, even if it weren’t picked up by the publisher as part of the deal.

I’m going to reminisce for a minute. Indulge me.

The Leafstone Shield started out as a single corpulent novel, back in 2005. “Corpulent” meaning it was 185,000 words. It’s now a bit over half a million, but it’s split up into separate books, so you can at least take a breather before launching into the next episode.

At the time I thought the book was marvelously clever, but in truth it was pretty awful. My agent at the time quite wisely declined to try to market it. And there it lay for a few years. Now and again I would haul it out, take a few notes about possible changes, get discouraged, and put it away again. I really didn’t see how to fix it.

Somewhere along the line, though, I had it up on my website for a few months as a free PDF. A fellow named B. Morris Allen downloaded it, and somewhere around 2011 he got around to reading it. He emailed me and we chatted about it. He agreed with my assessment that parts of it weren’t very good. He said, “Have you thought about turning it into YA?”

Cartoon of light bulb going on over head. That was the missing ingredient! My three heroines — Kyura, Meery, and Alixia — had been in their early 20s. When I dialed them back to 17, the story suddenly had a new kind of energy. I started slamming exciting new bits into the first part of the story, which had been rather ho-hum. Get the villains into town quickly! Suddenly the project was moving forward again.

Near the end of 2016 I thought it was finished. Four separate books, an entirely new story with the same plot as before, maybe two or three pages total remaining of the 2005 draft, and mostly the same characters as before, though with a couple of essential changes. I accidentally acquired an agent (a story for another time). She liked the story and submitted the first book to a couple of publishers. They weren’t interested.

I started to think maybe it wasn’t ready for prime time. I let the agent go and hired a freelance developmental editor. Through 2017 and up to last week, I’ve been processing the editor’s suggestions and not infrequently altering other things that the editor didn’t flag, but that I could see needed more attention.

And now, for better or for worse, it’s done. I can’t honestly say whether it’s any good. That’s not for me to judge. It will live or die based on its own merits, whatever those may be. What I will tell you is that it’s my personal best. I did my best to tell an exciting story. I did my best to deal honestly with my characters’ emotions. I did my best to write decent prose. I did my best to present a fantasy world about which I personally have some reservations in an effective and believable manner. I know what some of its defects and deficiencies are, but I’ll leave you to discover them (and perhaps others of which I know not) on your own.

I will never tackle a project this large, ever again. That’s a promise.

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Writers of fiction are always advised not to switch from one viewpoint character to another within a given scene. This mistake is called head-hopping.

The reason it’s frowned on is because it yanks the reader out of the story, at least momentarily. Our own experience of the world is that we spend our whole lives within a single head. When we read a story in third-person limited viewpoint, we’re projecting into somebody else’s head. Finding ourselves dropped without warning into a different head is not just unnatural; it calls attention to the fact that the writer is manipulating our perception of the fictional world.

There are several other ways for the writer to betray his or her presence as “the man behind the curtain,” in Frank Baum’s memorable phrase. Some of them are more obvious than head-hopping, but head-hopping is perhaps uniquely disturbing to the reader’s sense of immersion.

Needless to say, we’re talking about third-person narrative here. I don’t think you could possibly head-hop in a first-person narrative, unless you were writing some sort of science fiction or fantasy scenario in which changes in consciousness were part of the plot.

And yes, that has been done. Consider this brief passage from the first page of Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels: “I lay on the floor naked as a shedding snake, and we contemplated our situation.” Because I made the mistake of reading this book first (it’s the middle of a trilogy), the constant shifts back and forth from “I” to “we” were driving me crazy. I was several chapters into the story before I figured out that “I” was Matthew himself, while “we” was an entirely separate entity, a bunch of them really, that were living in his head.

Somebody on Facebook suggested I try Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve. It’s a four-novel series, but after reading 5/6 of the first book I’m not sure I’ll bother even to finish it, much less go on through the series. Reeve is clearly writing for younger readers. They may like Mortal Engines a lot: It’s action-packed, that’s for sure. But the steampunk technology is preposterous, the geography and history are inexplicable, and the social structure of the world is not much better. Really, it reads very much like a comic book turned into prose.

On page 216 of Mortal Engines we’re in the midst of a tense scene between Tom and Hester, and we encounter a paragraph that begins like this: “He turned to Hester in the hope that she would take his side, but she was lost in her own thoughts, her fingers tracing and retracing the scars under her red veil. She felt guilty and stupid….”

The first part of the scene has clearly been in Tom’s viewpoint, and indeed in the first part of the first sentence above we’re still in his viewpoint: We’re being told about his hopes. But then in the second sentence we have head-hopped, suddenly and with only a half of a sentence by way of transition, into Hester’s viewpoint. Her viewpoint continues for the rest of the paragraph, and then we follow Tom as he leaves the scene.

I have head-hopped within a scene in my own work more than once. I do it carefully, and seldom, and only when it’s necessary for the structure of the story. The desire to tell the reader what a second character is feeling, as Reeve does in this passage, is, I would say, not a strong enough reason — and doing it within a paragraph is close to being an absolute mistake. A literary author, perhaps a James Joyce, could conceivably get away with head-hopping within a paragraph, provided there’s a sound literary reason for the switch, but in plotted genre fiction, I would go so far as to say it cannot possibly be justified. At the very least, start a new paragraph!

In one scene in The Leafstone Shield, I head-hopped between the first half of a long scene and the second half. Alixia has run away from her father, whose plans for her are really nasty, and he has sent a couple of goons to find her and bring her back. At the start of the scene we’re in the viewpoint of one of the goons. They spot Alixia, they snag her, and they march her homeward through the streets of the city. During the march, which occupies several paragraphs, there is no interior viewpoint at all — the prose is strictly a movie camera, showing us an exterior view. We then arrive at her father’s mansion, where they drag her into her father’s study and then leave, at which point the rest of the scene is in her viewpoint as she confronts her father.

This is one continuous action sequence, so there’s no convenient place to break it off and switch to Alixia’s point of view. That’s the first point. Second, the viewpoint switch is necessitated by the action itself, not by a mere desire to show that Alixia is scared and furious. Third, the transition is handled using several paragraphs of external viewpoint, so that it’s smoothed over, and not (I hope) jarring.

If you’re writing a scene with head-hopping, are you handling it that carefully?

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I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Laini Taylor’s new book Strange the Dreamer — right up to a few minutes ago. The writing is wonderful, the fantasy premise fresh and vivid, the characters both believable and memorable. But then … but then …

But then I get to the last chapter and it crashes in on me that this isn’t a free-standing novel. It’s the first book in a new series. A trilogy? An endless epic? Who knows?

The thing that chaps my butt is that the book cover DOES NOT TELL YOU YOU’RE READING BOOK ONE OF A FUCKING SERIES. The title page does not tell you. All the time you’re getting fascinated by the story, you DON’T KNOW.

In this book, along with a lot of other stuff that happens, Lazlo falls deeply in love with Sarai, and she with him. There’s more kissing and stroking than I really care for in a novel, so I skimmed those scenes, but it turns out they’re not just fodder for younger readers. There’s a plot reason for them. And now I’m going to spoil the story for you by telling you what the reason is.

At the end of the book, Sarai is dead. Dead. She falls out of this sort of floating palace that I’m not going to bother to describe for you, and her body is impaled on the spikes of a fence, and she’s dead. And that’s not the end of the story, because now she’s a ghost, and ghosts are controlled by Minya, who is evil. Lazlo is good, and has suddenly discovered that he has the powers of a god — but Minya is going to force him to do her evil bidding, because if he doesn’t, she’ll let Sarai’s ghost dissolve into nothingness. Lazlo has fallen so deeply in love with Sarai that he agrees to Minya’s evil bargain. After which, at the bottom of the last page, it says TO BE CONTINUED.

Neglecting to tell your readers that they’re reading Book One of a series isn’t just cruelty incarnate. It’s cheap and manipulative. Readers are suckered into buying the book now rather than wait until the whole series is published.

Yes, I ordered a copy. I got this one from the library. I managed to cancel my order, as it hadn’t shipped yet. I’ll probably get over my snit and order both it and the sequel, which I’m told is due out in October. I’ve also been told that Taylor makes no secret, on Twitter, of the fact that this is the first book in a duology. And of course authors who are being ground to a pulp by the New York publishing empire have zero control over their book covers. Really, I need to direct my wrath at Little, Brown. But I don’t know anybody there, and Taylor does. I think it’s time to send a polite email through her web page, assuming she has something as old-fashioned as a web page.

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Vision and Revision

Not sure where I’m going with this — it’s just something I’m noticing. Twice in the past few weeks I’ve been approached by writers about editing their novels. That’s not a lot of potential clients, but I don’t promote my editing services, because I don’t really need or want a lot of clients.

In both instances, after I took a look at the opening chapters and offered some basic comments (for free — that’s so a writer can evaluate my services), the writer retreated rather than hire me.

Both manuscripts were weak, in various ways. Now, I’m not an abusive editor. I don’t tell people, “This is awful!” But I don’t pull any punches either. I might say something like, “You need to visualize your scenes more concretely. The details in this scene are confused.” Or, “Your hero has it too easy dealing with the vampires in your opening scene. This robs the story of urgency.”

I suspect that quite a lot of aspiring writers have no idea at all how weak their work is. They may sense vaguely the need for improvements, but having a pro point out some basic flaws is not just painful — they’re not ready to deal with it.

None of us is as good as we would prefer to think we are, and that includes me! I’m not as good as I think I am. But when someone points out deep problems in your novel, you have to make a choice: Are you going to roll up your sleeves, attack your precious manuscript with hammer and tongs, and become a better writer? Or are you going to hug the manuscript protectively to your chest and back away whimpering?

There are no rules for how to write a good novel, but there are certainly best practices. Most of the problems that I see in manuscripts are due to a failure to understand or apply best practices. Describing a scene physically is important. Understanding and controlling point of view — important. Creating believable characters — vital. Knowing how to insert background information without bogging down the narrative — important. Plausibility of plot — incredibly important. Conflict and rising action — important. A broad familiarity with your chosen genre — essential. Having a reasonably fresh idea for a story — vital. Doing your research in science, history, and culture — essential.

And then there’s knowing the mechanics of prose. Yes, an editor can tidy up the grammar and punctuation for you, but if the material in the scene is incoherent, the editor will be at a loss how to fix problematical sentences. And why haven’t you mastered the mechanics of prose before you let anyone see your manuscript? Let’s face it: A sloppy writer is a sloppy thinker. And sloppy thinkers don’t write good novels.

Capturing your initial glorious vision on the page is only the start of the process. After vision comes revision. If you’re not willing to revise extensively when an editor points out problems, you don’t want an editor, you want a hug from a friend. Your editor is not your friend, and if you have any sense or any hope of becoming a good writer, you don’t want your editor to be your friend.

An editor is not always right. My own experience on the other end of the stick — I hired a developmental editor to read my four-novel fantasy series. I paid her more than $5,000 for the work. And some of her comments were just annoyingly wrong, okay? She was always keen, for example, to know more about the female characters’ emotions, but she never once noticed whether I was showing the male characters’ emotions.

Along the way, she also pointed out some important plot points that I had missed. I have now spent more than a year revising the series using her comments as a springboard.

As a writer, you always have to make your own decisions. You can’t blindly follow an editor’s advice! But in each instance, you need to be willing to weigh the editor’s comment carefully, without getting defensive. Even if you decide, in the end, not to change what you’ve written, you will have learned something.

There’s always more to learn.

Here’s the sad ending, though: Some people are not cut out to be novelists. Some people just plain don’t have what it takes. And they write full-length manuscripts (having perhaps been urged on by NaNoWriMo, a dreadful fad through the heart of which some kind and compassionate person should drive a wooden stake). And then they’re baffled by the response. A few friends may congratulate them and tell them it’s wonderful, and they don’t realize that their friends are being polite, or have no notion of what goes into making a good novel good, or both.

Sensing vaguely that perhaps it could be tidied up a bit, they approach an editor. And the editor takes a look at the opening chapters and thinks, “Oh, dear. There are so very many problems! This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Well, I’ll try to be both honest and polite. Maybe there’s hope for this writer. I doubt it, but you never know.” The editor would like to think that, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, the writer may be a hidden talent, a lovely bud waiting to blossom. The editor does not want to say, “Look — this is hopeless. Take up quilting or bicycle repair. You’ll never be a writer.” So the editor tries to be constructive. Painful feelings ensue.

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Details Do Matter

Once upon a time, there were editors. Or, to quote Cole Porter’s song, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now, heaven knows, anything goes!”

Somebody was raving about a YA fantasy novel by a new writer — Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. I like discovering new writers, so I thought I’d have a look.

Before I go on, I have to say, first, that I am thrilled to see young African-American women writing fantasy and science fiction. This is fantastic! Children of Blood and Bone is set in a fantasy version of Africa, and that’s also reason to applaud. Medieval Europe is so very, very overworked as a setting. The book is full of action, so I’m sure teen readers will like it. The conflict between good and evil is a bit stark — not much nuance, at least not in the first hundred pages. And that’s all I plan to read. One can take only so much.

Adeyemi is described on her website as Nigerian-American. I was inclined to cut her a bit of slack as a non-native speaker of English, until I read the next sentence and discovered she has a degree in English literature from Harvard. I’ve been told she’s an American, but quite irrespective of that, by the time you graduate from Harvard, you ought to be able to get it right.

I was drifting along, reading uncritically, until I hit a problem near the top of Chapter 4. Zelie, the main character, and her brother Tzain are riding from their little village, Ilorin, to the capital city on the back of an animal of some sort. (Description of animal: vague.) “…the city of Lagos comes into view. Surrounded by a gate crafted from the heartwood of the jackalberry trees, the capital is everything Ilorin isn’t.” Wait — this is a large city, and it’s surrounded by a gate?

Once upon a time, there were editors.

Or consider this description of Ilorin, from Chapter 2: “Ilorin rises with the sun, bringing our ocean village to life. Waves crash against the wooden pillars that keep our settlement afloat, coating our feet with mist. Like a spider caught in the web of the sea, our village sits on eight legs of lumber all connected in the center.”

Two problems leap up here. The first sentence has a dangling participle. “bringing” is meant to refer to the sun, but that’s not how English grammar works. Since participles usually grab hold of the nearest noun, I’ll build a random sentence constructed similarly to illustrate what’s going on here: “Bob held the dog’s leash tight, keeping the children safe from its fangs.” In this example, the agent of “keeping” is clearly Bob, even though the nearest noun is “leash.” In Adeyemi’s sentence, then, Ilorin is bringing itself to life.

If we replace “our ocean village” with “itself,” the sentence is perhaps not quite so absurd, though a good editor would have suggested simplifying it to “Ilorin comes to life with the rising of the sun.” But the phrase “our ocean village” makes it abundantly clear that Adeyemi thinks “sun” is the agent of “bringing.” It’s not. This is a grammatical error.

The other issue is the words “pillars” and “legs.” Pillars are vertical structures, as are legs. If the village were built on pillars, the pillars would be sunk into the floor of the bay. The village would not be floating! What the author seems to have meant is that the village sits on (or between, her later descriptions of the structure are vague) eight long, floating logs that are joined to one another in a hub at the center.

I’m having a little trouble with the physics here. If the logs are hardwood, the weight of the houses and people will most likely submerge them. They’ll never be seen, and waves won’t crash against them. On the other hand, if the logs are light — pine or balsa — they’re going to get waterlogged, and they’ll probably crumble before long and need frequent replacement. Also, if planks join the logs, providing a flat surface on which homes can be built, the planks will prevent the crashing waves from sending spray up onto people’s feet, and again, nobody will see the logs, because they’ll be underneath the planks.

On the whole, this seems a not very sensible way to build a village, when the land is only a few yards away. Oh, and also, waves won’t be crashing against more than the seaward ends of two or three logs. The landward logs will see very little wave action, because the other logs will be in the way.

Flipping forward to Chapter 9, we get much the same grammatical problem in reverse. “The village sets with the sun, making way for a calm night’s sleep.” What the author seems to mean is that when the sun sets, village activity quickly dies down. The first half of that sentence is an awkward, stilted metaphor, but not flawed if standing on its own. The second part of the sentence turns the metaphor into a disaster. The village makes way for sleep? The natural meaning of “makes way” is “steps aside” or “goes somewhere else,” so here the village itself appears to be getting up and walking away. If she had said, “The village’s hive of activity dissolves in the sunset, making way for a calm night’s sleep,” that would work nicely, because it would be the activity that was making way. The village itself making way? No.

Once upon a time there were editors.

Back to Chapter 2. Shortly we learn that there is a “floating market in the center of Ilorin.” But wait — the center is where those eight logs come together. “Surrounded by a rectangular walkway, the stretch of open sea swells with villagers haggling inside their round coconut boats.” Apparently the logs (pillars?) have disappeared. Also, if the water is surrounded by the walkway, it’s not a stretch of open sea. “Open” is a word that has a meaning. Failure adequately to visualize a setting is a common difficulty among new writers, and there it is, on display. And “open sea” is a cliche. Adeyemi went for a cliche rather than describe the scene carefully.

One might also wonder why these villagers, who live in huts that rest on planks, have bothered to climb into their boats in order to do their marketing. How do they even get the boats into the market area, when the area is surrounded by a walkway of planks? “Market day, honey. Guess me and the boys will have to haul the boats up over the walkway so we can set down in the water there and do our barterin’.” That’s not a quote from the novel; I made it up. But doesn’t her description of the market imply something of the sort?

The coconut boats are mentioned in several scenes. Clearly they’re not made from real coconuts, they’re just round boats — sort of hemispherical, that’s the implication of the phrase. I’m not an expert on nautical craft, but it does seem to me that setting out to go fishing in the open ocean would not be at all efficient in a round boat. It won’t be stable in high seas. Steering will be difficult. If they’re large boats, you won’t have much room for oarsmen, because for too much of the circumference the oars would be banging against the sides of the boat if the oarsman took a long stroke. And why would fishermen go to sea in one-man boats, when they could so easily build larger boats that would hold more catch, using planks carved from those quite evidently available large logs? How will you haul a net full of fish over the gunwale of a hemispherical boat without capsizing?

Still in the opening chapters (the real plot crisis not yet having reared its head), young Zelie’s father Baba, who is somewhat addled, manages to almost drown, but her brother dives in and saves him. Then we get this: “Six minutes. That’s how long Baba thrashed out at sea. How long he fought against the current, how long his lungs ached for air. As we sit in the silence of our empty [hut], I can’t get that number out of my head. The way Baba shivers, I’m convinced those six minutes took ten years off his life.”

The most obvious problem here is that these villagers do not, as far as we can see, have clocks. Why would they even have a concept of “minutes”? They certainly don’t have wristwatches — and even if they did, while Baba was thrashing around in the ocean it’s rather unlikely that Zelie would have bothered to look at her watch to time his distress. No, Adeyemi is trying to crank up the tension by emphasizing that Baba was submerged so long that he almost drowned, but she’s doing it in a modern, anachronistic way.

A more subtle problem is that if he’s thrashing, he’s on the surface. If he’s on the surface, he will have air to breathe. If he’s underwater and his lungs are aching for air, he won’t be thrashing. Jamming the two disparate predicaments together like that in one paragraph is, again, an indication that the author has not truly visualized the scene. She’s gesturing at an emergency rather than showing it to us.

Flipping back to the previous page, we find this description of Baba’s plight: “Almost half a kilometer out at sea, a man flails, his dark hands thrashing in desperation. Powerful waves ram against the poor soul’s head, drowning him with each impact.”

No, I’m not going to complain about “kilometer.” We’re past that. The thing is, I’m pretty sure that’s not actually what happens when you’re out in the open ocean. If you’re on the surface at all, a wave will lift you or perhaps, if it’s a really big wave, roll over you, so you submerge on one side and emerge on the other. It won’t ram against your head, not unless the seas are awfully ferocious — and if the seas are that ferocious, they’re going to be tossing the floating village around so vigorously that the villagers will have more to do than stand around gawking at a man who is flailing away in the water. Also, the word “drowning” is ridiculous here. If one wave drowns him, the next will make no difference; he’ll have been drowned. He’ll be dead.

Two fishermen are rowing toward Baba in their coconut boats (that is, one fisherman per boat, as noted above). “The force of the waves pushes them back. They’ll never reach him in time.” But all is not lost. Zelie’s brother Tzain dives into the sea. He “swims with a frenzy I’ve never seen. Within moments he overtakes the boats. Seconds later he reaches the area where Baba went under and dives down.”

The human body floats. Baba will sink only if he has lead weights tied to his belt. Also, Baba has lived in a fishing village all his life, and certainly knows how to swim. Somehow he has gotten swept half a kilometer out to sea, which I think is rather unlikely. Rip tides will sometimes pull someone out to sea (usually less than half a kilometer, I suspect), but rip tides are found only where there’s surf bringing water in toward the shore. Adeyemi never mentions surf hitting the village. (And she lives in San Diego. I learned about rip tides when I was living in San Diego at the age of ten.) In the absence of rip tides, a current is going to sweep a swimmer laterally along the shore, not directly out to sea.

Setting all that aside — though it’s a lot to set aside — let’s see if we understand this scene. The boats can’t get to Baba because of the waves, yet a swimmer is able to overtake them. Is the swimmer immune to the force of the waves? The book is about magic, but the author gives us no indication that magic is involved in this scene, and indeed magic is presumed to be dead until a later chapter. Also, Baba is, you’ll recall, almost half a kilometer away. Half a kilometer is the length of five football fields. Tzain has swum perhaps 200 or 300 yards “within moments” and reaches Baba “seconds later.” Hell of a swimmer, that young man.

Come to think of it, if there are high waves, how can they even see Baba thrashing around out there? Why didn’t the author think to tell us that Baba was visible sometimes and not visible at other times?

Okay, just one or two more items, and then I’ll go play a game on my iPad. In Chapter 3, we have a different viewpoint character, the princess Amari. A big problem has reared its head in the throne room. Admiral Ebele has brought bad news. “Beads of sweat gather on his bald head as he stares at everything except Father.” How many eyes does the admiral have, that he can stare at everything in the room? Or is his head jerking around rapidly? And really, would an admiral — an admiral! — who has just brought bad news to the king, who can quite casually have him put to death, be so flustered that he would be visibly in a panic, his head jerking around, avoiding eye contact with the king? No. The admiral’s shoulders would be stiff and his jaw set, and he might flinch rather than meet the king’s eyes, but he would not be looking away from the king. He would be striving with all his might to look as if the king can have every confidence in him. The writer is gesturing at a character’s emotion without having considered how the character himself would deal with his emotion.

On the next page the admiral is still rather distraught by his confrontation with the king: “Admiral Ebele all but trembles.” If the admiral were the viewpoint character, this would be weak writing, no worse than that — but this sentence is from the point of view of Amari, who is across the room.

Okay, class — raise your hand if you can imagine what it looks like when someone “all but trembles.” Anybody? No?

Once upon a time there were editors.

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Casual Racism

A hundred years ago, racism was common in fiction written by white people. It can be shocking, when reading something by a fine writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald, to see him quite casually refer to a Jewish character using a stereotype. Today, the careful writer will naturally try to do better.

When writing a big-screen fantasy epic, however — a story not set on our Earth — it can be easy to fall into a racist stereotype without realizing it. “Hey, these characters aren’t even human! What do you mean, I’m racist? Don’t be silly.”

Today I finally, belatedly, noticed my own casual racism. Fortunately, Book 4 of my epic is not yet published, so as I’m rewriting I can change some things.

Portions of Book 4 are set in the ruins of a great city. If you imagine Imperial Rome in a warmer, wetter climate, with the ruins of stone buildings sticking up out of a swamp, you’ll see it clearly. When my characters enter this former city, they encounter some little men and women called imps. Terrible name, I know, but the epic includes dragons, elves, wizards, and an ogre, so why not toss in some imps? They’ll make the setting more picturesque, and add some colorful action and suspense!

I reached a point in the rewrite where I’m about to relocate a few thousand refugees (human) to the ruined city, where they will shortly come face to face with the imps. As I asked myself how that encounter would play out — what the imps would do, and how the two races could arrive at an amicable living arrangement — the one-dimensional nature of my imps rose up and smacked me in the face.

How might you detect that you’ve stumbled into a racist stereotype and need to rewrite, when the world you’re writing about isn’t even our Earth? Here are some vital clues:

  • All of the members of the race behave alike. If there are any named individuals, they have the same characteristics as the rest of their crew.
  • They have an odd appearance, often involving skin color or the shape of the eyes.
  • They jabber in an unknown language full of guttural sounds, and they all tend to talk at once.
  • They’re hostile without provocation, attacking in a group. When your good guys attack them, they all panic and run away in a group.
  • Their technology is primitive. Stone spears, wearing loin cloths, living in one-room shacks with thatched grass roofs, that type of thing.
  • They are superstitious, for example believing in spirits that must be placated with sacrifices.
  • They’re sneaky and can’t be trusted. They will agree to do something and then break the agreement.
  • They have nasty habits, such as eating raw meat or chewing vegetable leaves and casually spitting.

Your racist stereotype doesn’t have to have all of these characteristics to qualify as offensive. And note that the stereotype does not necessarily include the race being evil! Probably nobody will object if your elves are all good and kind and noble and beautiful, even though that’s an awful racist stereotype. On the other hand, if your story contrasts the good, kind, noble, beautiful elves with some dirty, conniving, violent, savage, weird-looking orcs, you’re in deep trouble. (Yes, Tolkien was a racist.)

Unhappily, seven of the eight bullet points above describe, in one way or another, the imps in my story. Oh, crap. Without for a moment realizing it, I was using a 19th century white European’s viciously distorted view of Africans. Time to break out the hammer and tongs and start rewriting.

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