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When Bad Things Happen to Good Novels

Posted by midiguru on September 18, 2015

I’ve written two (unpublished) historical novels, one set in Chicago in 1885 and the other in Italy in the early days of the Roman Empire (in 59 A.D.). I love doing historical research … and I also love getting the details right. You can never get everything right, because historians don’t tend to serve up the kind of detail that a fiction writer needs. But at least the writer can strive not to get anything wrong.

Recently I sat down to do a little tidying up on my Rome novel, with the idea of probably self-publishing it and selling six or eight copies. It’s a murder mystery (as is the Chicago book), so naturally I need to know a lot about how the Roman legal system worked. I tracked down an expert in Roman law at the University of Michigan, and he suggested I read The Criminal Law in Ancient Rome by O. F. Robinson. I promptly bought a copy and started underlining salient passages.

My story has a love sub-plot. The widow of the murdered man is in the process of falling in love with a handsome young slave in her father’s household, and of course he ultimately solves the crime, thereby freeing her from the false accusation, so now nature can take its course.

The details of how they become romantically involved are a bit convoluted. The budding of the romance rests, oddly enough, on the nature of her murdered husband’s will, because the disposition of the estate depends on whether his widow is pregnant. She isn’t, but she decides to pretend to be, so now she needs a surreptitious surrogate father.

And this is where the fecal substance encounters the rotating air circulation device. Here is the key passage from Chapter 4 of Robinson’s book: “…all the slaves in the house at the time of the suspicious death were to be tortured in order to find out the murderer, to discover if anyone had incited him, and to make it possible to punish for their failure in their duty all those slaves who had not prevented the murder — for which they were all liable to be put to death…. Until this [the torturing] had been done the dead man’s will was not to be opened…. While the torture was technically interrogation, not punishment, the two concepts were not always clearly distinguished; the whole purpose of the law was to compel slaves to guard their owners both from members of the household and [from] outsiders at the risk of their own lives….” An addition to the law (probably enacted at about the time of my story) “extended the rule so that all the slaves of the surviving spouse would also be tortured.”

Oh, dear. My love sub-plot can’t get under way until after a dozen or so household slaves have been tortured. But I don’t want to write a description of slaves being whipped or subjected to thumbscrews or whatever the Romans liked to do. And I’m pretty sure my six or eight readers would find that chapter and its aftermath unpleasant, if not worse.

I knew that the slaves would be tortured if they were suspected of the murder, but this passage suggests that the tortureĀ  could and probably did happen even if they weren’t directly suspected — and in my story, one of them is suspected, because it’s a murder mystery, so I need suspects! But worse, the whole love sub-plot just got breached below the water line and sank to the bottom of the harbor. It can’t get under way until after the torture, because the torture has to happen before the victim’s will is unsealed and read.

I love historical research. I hate historical research.

This is the advantage of writing fantasy novels set on other worlds. Nobody can fact-check you. You can shape the story rather more easily, because you’re not constrained by reality.

Now if only the agent who has my fantasy novel sitting on her desk would get back to me….

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Posted by midiguru on August 20, 2015

I love reading mysteries. Lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie jag — bought many of the titles that were not already in my collection.

Her approach to plot is somewhat formulaic, though there are often surprising twists. (That’s part of the formula.) The murderer is usually the person you least suspect. Even if you try to guess based on knowing that’s what she’s going to do, you’ll still guess wrong.

The difficulty with this kind of writing is that in real life, most murders are not very interesting. In order to keep the reader guessing and the police baffled, the author generally has to come up with a truly far-fetched scenario. Sometimes the scenario, when the details are eventually revealed in the last five pages, makes sense. Often, however, it doesn’t withstand even casual scrutiny.

Crooked HouseĀ is one of Christie’s best. The murderer is, as usual, the person you least suspect, but at least the murderer’s psychology and methods make sense.

On the other side of the coin, we have What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw. If you plan to read it, you should proceed no further. Spoilers follow.

Still here? Okay. Leaving aside, for the moment, the business of what Mrs. McGillicuddy saw — it was entirely coincidence, and not part of the murderer’s plans — here’s what the murderer thinks and does. He is estranged from his wife, who is Catholic and won’t divorce him. He wants to marry another woman, who is destined to inherit, sooner or later, a pile of money. In order to avoid bigamy, he decides to murder his wife. This is morally repugnant, but it’s an entirely sensible basis for a mystery plot.

There are any number of ways in which he could accomplish his nefarious ends. He could stab her and bury her in the basement. He could invite her for a weekend at the seaside and push her over a cliff. He could send her a box of poisoned chocolates. But no. He invites her on a short train trip (outward from London) in the direction of his home. He then strangles her on the train and tosses the body out of the railroad car. They’re traveling in a first-class no-corridor coach, so there’s no one to see what he has done.

Mrs. McGillicuddy, however, happens to be looking out the window of a train traveling on a parallel track at nearly the same speed, and she sees the murder committed. She duly reports the crime to the police … but no body is found. Her tale is dismissed by everyone except her friend Jane Marple.

But enough of that. We were talking about the murderer. He has cleverly tossed his wife’s body from the train at a point where it will roll down an embankment onto the country estate where his lady friend lives. He then calmly disembarks at the station and travels back (it is now late at night) to the country estate to dispose of the body. How does he do this? He can’t very well bury it, as there’s a gardener, who would certainly notice a fresh excavation. Ah, but there are quite a lot of ancient, run-down outbuildings on the estate, some of them filled with odd bits of junk. In one barn is a Roman sarcophagus that one of the ancestors brought home from Europe. So the murderer drags or carries the body of his deceased wife into the barn, deposits it in the sarcophagus, puts the heavy lid back on the sarcophagus, and goes home. Mission accomplished.

Of course, Miss Marple’s clever young assistant will eventually find the body. But the murderer has no expectation that that will happen at all — nor, if it is found, how soon that will happen. What if it’s found within days, and can be identified by circulating a photograph, or through fingerprints? (The story takes place in 1957. No DNA.) In that case, the murderer will have some explainin’ to do. Like, how did your wife’s body end up on your lady friend’s property? That’s not the kind of question for which a murderer is likely to have a pat answer.

In fact, his lady friend doesn’t know he has ever been married. If the body is discovered and identified, his romantic plans will go up the spout even if the police can’t prove he murdered her. Yes, this qualifies as poor planning. Nothing in the book suggests that he is impulsive or overly optimistic. He’s a country doctor, not a used car salesman.

Presumably, he intends the sarcophagus to be a permanent, undiscovered resting place for the corpse, though it’s not a very reliable one. He does, however, take precautionary steps. He concocts a fake trail of evidence suggesting that the murdered woman (whose corpse has not yet, at this point, been found, and as far as he knows may never be found) was somebody else entirely. This red herring, which of course fools the reader and also Miss Marple for many pages, directs suspicion at members of the family that owns the country estate. One of whom is his lady friend. But suspicion of what? As far as he knows, nobody even suspects that there has been a murder.

Already his actions are seeming very counter-productive. Rather than dispose of his wife in a sensible way, he has gone far out of his way to involve his lady friend … because, of course, if he didn’t do that, Mrs. Christie wouldn’t have a story to tell. But wait — it’s about to get worse. Much worse.

The provisions of the will and trust under which his lady friend will inherit are, as often happens in Christie’s novels, convoluted. Father (who is elderly and cantankerous) has the estate only in trust, from his father. When he dies, the estate will be divided among his six children, two of whom died years ago. One of the surviving children being, of course, the murderer’s lady friend. But the murderer is not content to expect that his wife-to-be will inherit one fourth of this handsome estate. He wants more. (Why does he want more? Don’t ask.) So he sets out to murder her brothers. The idea is, he has to murder the brothers first, because if they’re still alive when the father dies, the estate will be divided amongst them.

So what does he do? He puts arsenic in the cocktail shaker, of course — at a family dinner party where he is conveniently not present, a detail that I don’t think Christie ever clears up. Everybody gets sick, but only one of the brothers dies. Naturally, suspicion is thrown on the other members of the family. That’s Christie’s plot. But look at it from the murderer’s point of view: One of the people who will drink the poisoned cocktails is his lady friend! If she dies of the arsenic, his whole plan goes belly-up. And if the father is the one who dies, the murderer’s hope of increasing the size of his lady friend’s inheritance will go belly-up. He will have undermined his own grandiose hopes.

This is the fatal flaw in murder mystery plotting. In order to make a good mystery, you need the murderer to act like a total yutz.

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Summer Squash

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2015

I enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay’s two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, and I enjoyed his Ysabel, so I figured I’d have a fling at his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Ordered the books from Amazon. Started book 1, The Summer Tree.

Within a few pages, I had realized this must be his first novel. The first-novelness of it fairly leaps off the page. I also had a dim memory of having read the opening at some point in the distant past and having decided not to bother going further. This time, having bought the books, I’m forcing myself to slog through at least a couple of hundred pages.

The premise of the opening is that a wizard from the parallel world of Fionavar shows up in Toronto. He invites five college students to accompany him back to his home world, for reasons that he is rather vague about. And of course they accept the invitation. Not eagerly, but with only the barest of misgivings. And without packing suitcases.

When they arrive in Fionavar, they’re instantly plunged into a maelstrom of courtly intrigue. It’s a stock Medieval fantasy world, pretty much. Swords and longbows and a palace with a wastrel prince and an aged king who is surrounded by duplicitous counselors. Oh, and an ancient evil entity imprisoned by being buried under a mountain. You just know the evil entity is going to get loose before long, if he isn’t loose already. So that’s the story setup.

The first problem is that the two young women and three young men from our own world are not clearly differentiated from one another in the opening. Kimberly, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave sort of share the spotlight. A better way to handle this type of situation narratively, rather than shuttling back and forth, is to use a single viewpoint character and share his or her views of the others.

The second problem is that the young people are singularly credulous. After one evening’s acquaintance, they hop into the magic circle with the wizard from Fionavar, and off they go. When they arrive at the palace, again they seem content to bumble along, asking few questions in spite of the deep tensions that are immediately apparent, and seeming almost unfazed by the fact that their entire lives have just been turned upside down. One of them has evidently suffered some emotional trauma (still unexplained after the first 75 pages) in the recent past, but emotional depth is not a prominent feature of the narrative.

It seems very possible that they were swept up into this seemingly impromptu expedition for reasons to do with Fate, or hidden magical facets of their personalities, or something of the sort. But really, that’s just the young author playing fast and loose. He wants to toss some modern people into a Medieval epic, so there they are, and because he wants them there and they’re his puppets, they’re not shocked or bewildered, they’re just having an adventure.

The fact that the natives of Fionavar speak English? None of the characters seems to have noticed how odd this is. The king also plays chess, and by the same rules that are used in Europe, which is really as profoundly weird as the linguistic coincidence, because chess was invented in India and underwent various developments over the course of a thousand years or so. It’s still played in somewhat different forms in Japan, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere — so how does the king in far Fionavar happen to be familiar with the European rules?

The third problem is the fantasy premise itself. Fionavar is replete with magic — strange beings, glowing crystals, jealous priestesses, magic bracelets, a Seer, a wolf who is there and then not there. But between that mishmash and the standard literary furniture of a Medieval epic, there’s not, as yet, much promise of originality or depth.

The fourth problem is what we might call the Celtic kitchen sink. Several pages are studded with foreign names, none of which are clearly explained to the reader. It’s as if Kay is expecting, or hoping, to dazzle the reader with epic breadth without bothering to nail anything down the way he ought to. Starting on page 1 (and omitting the names of onstage characters), we have Ginserat, Cathal, Eridu, Revor, Dalrei, Colan, Conary, Paras Derval, the lios affar, Ra-Termaine, Daniloth … and that’s all on page 1. Then Rakoth Maugrim, Seresh, the Summer Tree, the svart affar, and later on, in another saga-flavored info-dump, Rhoden, Saeren, Taerlindel, the River Glein, the Latham, Leinen, Gwen Ystrat, Dun Maura, Brennin, Mornir (with an umlaut over the o, if you please), Delevan, Cathal … is your head spinning? Mine is.

I’m not giving up quite yet. I’ll give him another hundred pages, but as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, Kay has some ‘splainin’ to do.

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The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Posted by midiguru on April 20, 2015

Six years ago I wrote an unauthorized book-length manual called The Inform 7 Handbook. There were (and still are) some things I liked about Inform 7, an authoring system for text adventures, but I didn’t feel its built-in suite of documentation was very well organized. So I wrote an alternative.

Inform 7 (called I7 by the tiny coterie of people who have even heard of it) has been updated several times in the intervening years. By now the Handbook is seriously out of date. A few months ago I started working on a revised edition, but before long I got annoyed with a couple of the more glaring limitations of I7. So I set it aside.

Last week two things happened. I learned that a guy had actually taken the old Handbook (which was only ever a PDF) down to his local print shop and had a spiral-bound copy printed up. This made me proud but also sad, because it’s not a very useful document. Mere days thereafter, Emily Short, who is an I7 developer and guru, stepped up to the plate and fixed the main problem that had gotten me annoyed.

So I took a deep breath and started working on the Handbook again. But then …

Read the rest of this entry »

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A Cornucopia of Dreams

Posted by midiguru on March 9, 2015

Had an hour to kill today, over in Pleasanton, between doctor appointments, so I drove up to Dublin and wandered around in Barnes & Noble. Amazon is convenient, but I still love browsing in a real bookstore!

The mass quantities of fantasy novels (both adult and YA) I found simultaneously depressing and inspiring. There’s so much out there! Beautiful covers, bold concepts, fat five-volume epics by authors I’ve never heard of. Depressing mainly because of the avalanche of competition. I’m working on a fantasy epic of my own, and right now the prospect of finding a place for it on one of those shelves feels like lifting a ten-ton weight. Inspiring because I want to buy and read all of them!

Eragon, for instance. Years ago I tried the first book and decided it was tripe. By now I don’t remember why I thought that. But (a) it’s very successful, so Paolini must be doing something right, (b) maybe I was being too judgmental, and (c) peeking into it, the prose style seems not bad at all. So maybe I should give it a second chance.

I splurged and bought all five volumes of Michael Scott’s Alchemyst series. Could have bought the first volume to check it out, but it’s a matched set. My copy of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a different size and cover art for the 3rd volume, because I bought it later. Matched sets are lovely.

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Professional Courtesies

Posted by midiguru on March 5, 2015

For complicated reasons, I’m ramping up my involvement with fiction writing. Specifically, fantasy fiction. As part of the process, I’m resolving to read successful books by other authors.

This creates a bit of a moral conundrum. I know a few people enjoy reading my blog posts about writing. I’m learning all sorts of things about the fantasy field through my reading — some subtle things, some not so subtle. But I need to be very discreet about sharing my observations.

These other writers aren’t just “the competition.” They’re my colleagues. If (when!) my own work is published, I may run into some of them at conventions. How will that encounter go, if I have savagely trashed their masterpiece in my blog?

My basic approach, since the world of books is huge and my patience is limited, is to read the first 100 pages of a novel. At that point I feel qualified to draw some conclusions about what the author is up to. Yes, the story may take an unexpected turn on page 150, but if the author hasn’t hinted about it by page 100, that in itself is a defect.

In the last few days I’ve delved into two different novels in this manner. One has no plot at all, and the other has too much plot. And there’s almost no way to explain what I mean by that without providing examples from these specific books.

Plotting is a tricky business. What it boils down to is that you want the reader to be wondering what happens next. You want the reader to want to keep turning the pages.

The plotless book is mainly just an unrelieved litany of depressing events. After a hundred pages, I’ve given up wondering if something wonderful is going to happen next. The main character, a boy 9 or 10 years old, is mainly an observer. He has no power to affect anything, and doesn’t even try. I feel no desire to keep wading through his misery.

In the book with too much plot, the main character has a clear goal — to rescue her father, who has vanished. She faces terrible dangers, and takes some decisive actions. That’s all to the good. But she’s not just the main character — for the first hundred pages, she’s basically the only character. (The book’s title is her name, in fact.) We know she’s not going to die in any of her horrible encounters with monsters at every turn in the road, because if she died, the story would end. And for quite a stretch of time, she has no companions who might be gravely injured, or disappear into a crevice in a glacier or whatever.

Eventually — big surprise! — she will run into a handsome young man who will turn out to be a both a prince and an expert swordsman, and they will fare onward together. Even then, we can be confident that the young woman will emerge victorious from her next agonizing difficulty, just as she did from the last one. And there’s nothing else to care about. No matter how nasty the author makes her journey, she is in no danger at all. As a result, her travails, no matter how harrowing, soon become tedious.

You know who I like? Carl Hiaasen. I read his books clear through, from beginning to end. They’re not fantasy, of course; they’re crime novels. But he keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Things that you don’t expect keep popping up, in part because each story has several viewpoint characters, and in part because he has a well-developed sense of whimsy. Some would call it sarcasm. He’s clearly having fun making up the story, and he wants you to have fun too.

That’s not the only way to make a plot that will grab readers, but it’s a good one.

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Where to Begin?

Posted by midiguru on January 30, 2015

As a writer, my motto is, “Well begun is half done.” But that’s about developing a solid outline, and applies equally well to fiction and nonfiction. Writing a good lead sentence for a nonfiction article is of course important. But in the case of fiction, the question of where to begin the story can be rather vexing.

The Latin phrase in medias res, “in the middle of things,” is a valuable touchstone. Begin at a moment in the story when events have already started bubbling up. This is a fairly modern idea, however, and has as a great deal to do with the desire to sell books. If someone picks up your book at the bookstore and opens it to page 1, you want to grab them from the very first sentence.

John D. MacDonald, who sold a lot of books, once started a novel with the sentence, “We were just about to give up and call it a night when they threw the girl off the bridge.” This is an approximate quote — those paperbacks are in a box in the garage. But you get the idea.

Here’s the opening of The Neon Court, the third volume in Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series (paragraph breaks omitted): “I thought I could hear footsteps in the darkness behind me. But when I looked again, they were gone. I was in the middle of a sentence. I was saying, “… ‘dragon’ is probably too biologically specific a way to look at the …” Then someone grabbed me by the throat with the fist of God, and held me steady, while the universe turned on its head. There was a hole in the world and no fingers left to scrabble. I fell into it.” We have no idea what’s going on here, but the writer is doing her damnedest to make sure we will want to keep reading!

This sort of opening was not always the fashion. Here’s a rather more relaxed opening, which you may recognize:

This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history. Further information will also be found in the selection from the Red Book of Westmarch that has already been published, under the title of The Hobbit. That story was derived from the earlier chapters of the Red Book, composed by Bilbo himself, the first Hobbit to become famous in the world at large, and called by him There and Back Again, since they told of his journey into the East and his return: an adventure which later involved all the Hobbits in the great events of that Age that are here related.

Many, however, may wish to know more about this remarkable people from the outset….

I’m trying to find an agent for a novel that I’ve written (the first volume in a projected series). Agents typically ask to read the first ten pages — but if you think you have ten pages to get the agent hooked, you’re kidding yourself. If they don’t like the first paragraph, you’re dead in the water. So I’ve been thinking about how to strengthen the opening of my book. While pondering this question, I wandered down to the local public library and happened to pick up a volume containing three novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Today she’s best known — or known at all, really — for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it wasn’t her only work. The opening passage of The Minister’s Wooing gives us a unique look at the question:

Mrs. Katy Scudder had invited Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Jones, and Deacon Twitchel’s wife to take tea with her on the afternoon of June second, A. D. 17–.

When one has a story to tell, one is always puzzled which end of it to begin at. You have a whole corps of people to introduce that you know and your reader doesn’t; and one thing so presupposes another, that, whichever way you turn your patchwork, the figures still seem ill-arranged. The small item which I have given will do as well as any other to begin with, as it certainly will lead you to ask, “Pray, who was Mrs. Katy Scudder?” — and this will start me systematically on my story.

The danger, which Stowe alludes to, is that if you jump straight into the middle of things, your reader may be more bothered and bewildered than bewitched. And the more complex the tale, the greater the danger. I once encountered (I won’t say “once read,” as I quickly gave up) a fantasy novel in which about fifteen names of people and places were shoveled into the first four pages in a panic-stricken attempt to explain the back-story to the reader, but without any explanation of who or what any of them was. I’m sure it all made perfect sense to the writer. But as Stowe wisely points out, you know a lot of things that your reader doesn’t.

The openings of Henry James’s novels tend to be rather opaque, but one has the sense that something is being described that is, if not of great moment, certainly worth pondering. I haven’t read James’s The Spoils of Poynton, but I think its opening illustrates this quality:

Mrs. Gereth had said she would go with the rest to church, but suddenly it seemed to her that she should not be able to wait even till church-time for relief: breakfast, at Waterbath, was a punctual meal, and she had still nearly an hour on her hands. Knowing the church to be near, she prepared in her room for the little rural walk, and on her way down again, passing through the corridors and observing imbecilities of decoration, the aesthetic misery of the big commodious house, she felt a return of the tide of last night’s irritation, a renewal of everything she could secretly suffer from ugliness and stupidity. Why did she consent to such contacts? why did she so rashly expose herself? She had had, heaven knew, her reasons….

This is all very mysterious, but it’s so well written that the reader (at least, the reader who has a decent vocabulary and can parse long sentences) is bound to feel confident that all will eventually be made clear.

Somewhere in the chasm that separates Kate Griffin from Henry James, I’m hoping to find a sweet spot.

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What Is a Novel, That Thou Art Mindful of It?

Posted by midiguru on January 27, 2015

Being a literary agent has to be a tough gig. For starters, it’s 100% commission. If you take on a book but can’t find a publisher, you’ve wasted whole days of effort, with not a cent to show for it.

I can understand that agents want to represent books that will sell — and the more copies they sell the better. Not just because of the up-front payback, but because the agent will continue to pick up 10% or 15% of the author’s royalty, perhaps for years, with little or no further work.

Publishers have statistics on what’s selling and what isn’t, so they have some kind of basis on which to make a choice between manuscripts A and B. But so many factors come into play in the marketing and sales figures for a book that, in the end, there’s a lot of voodoo in trying to guess what will sell. Was the cover badly designed? Did the right reviewers like the book? Is the author attractive and personable on talk shows? Did we have enough budget for bookstore placement on the front tables, or did the book languish on the shelves, unseen by browsers? Does the topic tie in with a hot news story? Voodoo.

A couple of days ago, moved by some obscure impulse, I thought I’d try reading Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope. I’ve never tried Trollope. Rather to my surprise, I quite like it. Trollope was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, but seems to have been far less concerned with social issues. The characters in Barchester Towers are genteel. The servants are nameless and faceless; no working-class issues intrude in the lives of the main characters. And yet the book is both humorous and insightful.

It has been in print for 150 years, so clearly it has what a marketing consultant would call “legs.” Given that fact, and given as well the sharp differences between Trollope’s approach to the presentation of a story and the approach of almost any modern writer whose work is in print, the observer of the modern publishing industry may perhaps be forgiven for inquiring as to how much of the received wisdom that is today rampant among publishers and literary agents concerning the sales potential of works of fiction enjoys no firmer foundation than the Ptolemaic theory of the organization of the celestial spheres. (And that’s a thoroughly Trollopian sentence, if I do say so.)

Today, authors are sternly admonished to “show, don’t tell.” Yet Trollope not infrequently spends pages telling before he consents to show a brief scene. The scene itself may, in fact, be told rather than shown, with indirect and summarized dialog and not a direct quotation or a glimpse of facial expression anywhere in it.

Today, the authorial intrusion is considered anathema. Pausing in the narrative to address the reader directly will get your manuscript tossed into the out basket in a trice. (Kurt Vonnegut got away with addressing the reader directly. I can’t think offhand of another modern author who has done it.) Yet Trollope intrudes in the story, not often but often enough to deeply offend the sensibilities of any modern editor. After introducing two unsatisfactory suitors to Eleanor Bold, a young widow who has a bit of money, Trollope steps out from behind the curtain to reassure the reader that she isn’t going to marry either of them. And he tells us why: because that kind of suspense is a cheap effect, and he doesn’t want to indulge in cheap effects.

Can any of us imagining a contemporary author doing anything of the sort?

Reading Trollope has forced, or allowed, or encouraged me to reconsider what it is in a novel that is important. I’m pretty sure the current crop of literary agents doesn’t know. They may know what will sell (though they may be wrong about that too), but do they know what’s important? Or even what forms of alleged novelistic malpractice would impede the sales of a book?

To be specific, would a modern reader truly object to a well-placed authorial intrusion? How would we be able to find that out? We can’t do a scientific experiment, because we don’t have a sampling of novels with authorial intrusions whose sales figures we can tally up. There aren’t any new novels like that. We can’t know whether a fine job of telling is actually just as effective as a fine job of showing, or would sell just as many books, because so few modern novels engage in telling to the exclusion of showing.

What’s important in a novel, it seems to me, is not how closely it hews to the conventional wisdom concerning what will sell. Any number of things can be important, but that isn’t one of them. A novel can deeply explore character and the human condition. It can provide page after page of breathtakingly beautiful prose. It can concern itself with important social issues. It can innovate in form, style, or genre. It can be fast-paced and thrilling to read. But a single novel can’t very well do all of those things. So the writer has to make choices about what will be the most important ingredients in a given novel, and what will be set aside.

Quite possibly, a return to the broader, more generous literary style of the 19th century would be the best thing that could happen to a book-length manuscript. Convincing an agent to take on such a manuscript, though — good luck with that.

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The Perils of Publishing

Posted by midiguru on January 26, 2015

As noted a few weeks ago, I have a long list of literary agents. At present, I’m going down the list and sending out query emails, trying to find an agent who is willing — no, not just willing, excited — to market a multi-volume fantasy epic that I’m writing. So far, it’s not working. Some agents don’t respond at all to a query. Others send you their standard “sorry, not interested, best of luck” reply.

In essence, then, trying to find an agent is a little like standing on a street corner shouting, “Please, everybody — ignore me! Reject me! Ignore me! Reject me!” If that’s the response you’re hoping for, you’ll be pleased to know that the process works just fine. But if you have, let’s say, any lingering abandonment issues dating back to early childhood, trying to find an agent is likely to take an emotional toll.

This week I haven’t been working on the project at all. After drafting five chapters of Book II, I started thinking, “Why bother? What’s the point? Until I find an agent, this is a waste of time.” I’m not going to try to defend this unproductive attitude — just saying, that’s how I’ve been feeling.

I really would like to go on telling the story. I quite like the story. In order to get back to work on it, I need to engage in a little psychological subterfuge. A creative self-deception, if you like. What if 50 agents in a row aren’t interested? (That’s what it feels like already, after queries to only eight of them.) In order to move forward, I need to develop Plan B.

I’ve always rejected the idea of self-publishing. My idea of how being a writer works is, my job is to write stuff. Marketing the stuff is somebody else’s job. I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not good at. But alas, the world doesn’t always arrange itself so neatly.

Self-publishing can take many forms. At its simplest, you turn your word processor file into a PDF and upload it somewhere. Then maybe you give the download link to your friends on Facebook, and you’re done. No money changes hands, and maybe one or two people read what you’ve written. Or maybe nobody does.

At the other extreme, you can spend a couple of thousand bucks on a professionally designed website for your fiction. You can prepare your files for printing on paper by one of the print-on-demand (POD) services. When you receive your box of sparkling shiny new books from the POD people, you can mail copies off to the list of book reviewers you’ve carefully researched. You can become active on a variety of social media, engage in conversations on forums, and politely make sure everyone has a link to your website. Oh, did I mention the website will need an e-commerce page where people can buy the book through PayPal? You can make sure Amazon has a Kindle edition of the book. You can attend conventions that cater to fans of your genre, set up a card table with an attractive cardboard display of your book cover, and autograph copies for whoever wanders by and betrays an interest.

While engaged in these estimable activities, you will not, of course, be writing. What’s worse, you will be embroiled in pretty much the same psychological process that transpires as you try to find an agent. You’ll be trudging out into the world and beseeching people to like you. Most of them won’t. Most of them will ignore you. A few of them will take an extra minute or two to insult you and your work.

That’s Plan B. Doesn’t sound so spiffy, does it? Plan C is, you just write what you want to write, tuck it away in a shoebox, and don’t even think about getting published. Other than Emily Dickinson, Plan C hasn’t worked out too well for a lot of writers. I don’t think it would work for me. I seem to need some sort of recognition or support from the universe, some sort of feedback to the effect that I’m doing something that is, in some modest way, appreciated. A check in the mail is nice, but I don’t insist on it. Just some sort of acknowledgment that somebody cares about my wonderful characters, my lapidary prose, and my fingernail-biting, edge-of-the-seat plot.

Quite aside from the emotional barrenness of Plan C, I have a sense of responsibility for my work. If I think it has some value (and from time to time I do think that), I feel an obligation to make it available in some form. And be it noted, Emily Dickinson had severely reclusive tendencies. When her father died and family and friends gathered in the big house for a reception after the funeral, she didn’t even come downstairs. She sat at the top of the stairs and listened. Most of us are more engaged with our fellows.

As for Plan D, at the moment I have no inkling what that would be.

Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »

Writing about Writing

Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2015

I’ve noticed that every time I post a blob/g about writing, I get a few likes and maybe even a follower. This doesn’t seem to happen with my other assorted mumblings. Because I’m tiptoeing back into the fiction-writing maelstrom, maybe I should turn this into a fiction-writing blog.

“April 23: Wrote another 1,800 words!” Zzzzz. Maybe not.

I do think the process of writing fiction is interesting, and worth conversing about with other writers. On the other hand, I’m leery of discussing a work-in-progress. Early on, while reading how-to-write-fiction books (this was in the 1980s), I ran into the observation that if you talk about the story you’re writing, your unconscious mind equates the talking — sharing the story with other people — with writing. Your unconscious will start to think you’ve already told the story, so why bother to write it down? That advice stuck with me.

Also, I’m nervous about looking foolish if I talk about a project and then don’t finish it for whatever reason (like, the plot sinks like a lead coffin to the bottom of the pond, and can’t be lifted out even with grappling hooks).

On the other hand, I love it when I read what other writers say about writing. Holly Black offers some great advice in her blog, for example.

To oil the hinges, here’s a bit of advice for aspiring (or struggling) writers.

While working on my first novel (Walk the Moons Road, long out of print), I had a 3×5 card thumb-tacked to the wall above the typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) The card had two admonitions: (1) Tell a good story. (2) Put the reader in the scene.

That’s the whole secret. If you can do that, you may well have a publishable novel. You’ll certainly have a novel you can be proud of. What constitutes a “good story” — well, that’s a topic for another time.

Putting the reader in the scene is, first and foremost, about remembering to include sensory detail. To do that, you need to immerse yourself in the scene, while writing, deeply enough that you notice those details. Picking the right details, the ones that will evoke the emotion you want the scene to convey, is of course vital.

On a purely mechanical level, if you’re writing a long dialog, and especially a dialog scene where more than two characters are present, it can also mean inserting bits of “stage business” in and around the dialog. If you fail to do this, readers will get confused about who is talking. My rule of thumb is, a minimum of one dialog tag or bit of stage business for every three or four dialog paragraphs. If the dialog paragraphs are short and the characters are arguing, I might stretch to five or six paragraphs, because the attentive reader should certainly be able to pick up which character is arguing what. But if they’re in a heated discussion, they’ll be doing or experiencing things — the fist pounding the table, the grimace of distaste, the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Tell the reader about those things! That’s what puts the reader in the scene.

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