Laugh Like Hell

Is it because we all see what we’re expecting to see? Or is it numbness of the soul? That’s the puzzle.

In my collection I have a dozen novels by Kurt Vonnegut. Probably all of them except Player Piano, which was his first. Most of them I bought when they first came out.

This week I thought I’d re-read a couple of them. He was one of a kind. Nobody else ever wrote like that, or is likely to. I re-read Bluebeard, and then turned to Hocus Pocus.

Here’s what’s odd:

On the back cover of the paperback are laudatory quotes from various book reviews. The fact that they’re laudatory is not odd. What’s odd is that the reviewers pretty consistently seem to have thought it was a funny book.

Terms used on the back cover (excerpting the already brief excerpts here) include “hilarious,” “comic,” “really funny,” “absurd humor,” and “comedy.” Inside the front cover, we learn that the Playboy reviewer said, “Vonnegut evokes the cynical chortle, the knowing grin, the inner laughter that soothes our troubled reflections.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Hocus Pocus is “very funny indeed.”

Nothing in the book is even remotely funny. It’s a grim and biting satire about the Vietnam War, the dismal state of higher education, the U.S. prison system, the heedless, vicious vacuousness of the rich, and the random damage that life does to us all. Human existence stands revealed as meaningless — filled with suffering and the flimsy scraps of self-delusion. There’s not a ray of sunshine anywhere.

Oh, about my title for this little essay? One of the narrator’s friends in the novel reacts to almost everything by saying, “I had to laugh like hell.” He never even cracks a smile while saying it.

Calling the novel satire doesn’t quite do it justice. Some bits of it are exaggerated wildly, but those bits lie cheek by jowl with incidents that aren’t exaggerated at all. It’s a fine novel — Vonnegut at his best. But what book were all those reviewers reading? Was it so painful that they had to convince themselves it had nothing to do with real life?

Probably that’s it.

Terry Pratchett’s novels are funny. Hocus Pocus is not funny, it’s sad. I don’t know if Vonnegut ever wrote a funny book, actually. He was a survivor of a prison camp in World War II, and he carried the sadness of that war with him for the rest of his life. Today we’d call it PTSD.

Some veterans turn to drugs and alcohol. Some commit suicide. A few bang their memories into ploughshares and write novels.

So it goes.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Calyx and Flake

Give a book 125 pages. When I pick up a new novel, that’s my rule. After 125 pages, you can safely assume that you understand the essence of the author’s vision. At that point you can make an informed decision about whether to continue.

I don’t always follow the rule, of course. After only a dozen pages, I could tell that Cory Doctorow’s Rapture of the Nerds wasn’t going anywhere that I wanted to go, so I dropped it.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, though — I felt certain it deserved 125 pages to unfold itself. Atwood is one of those serious mainstream authors, you know. She can’t be expected to reach out and grab the unwary reader on page 3. I’m always happy to see mainstream authors writing science fiction, and of course Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is something of a classic.

After 125 pages, though, I’ve had enough.

Something bad has happened. Civilization has ended. Bio-engineered animals (wolvog, rakunk, and so on) are running wild in the ruins of the cities. The few humans who remain seem to be of an entirely new species, and they seem to be remarkably innocent. They’re vegetarians, for one thing, and naked, and they seem to know nothing of what happened before everything went kerflooey.

But they hardly exist as separate characters; they’re just scenery. The main character is Snowman. His name used to be Jimmy, but that was when he was younger. We gather that he’s the last remaining human from the old days. Given the sheer amount of land surface on Earth, that seems very unlikely, but the story is set in Snowman’s immediate surroundings, and he seems to have no curiosity at all about what may be happening anywhere else.

He sleeps in a tree, on account of the wolvogs. He wears only a tattered sheet. When it rains, he gets cold and wet. The new humans revere him as a prophet of their god/goddess figures, Oryx and Crake. Both Oryx and Crake seem to have been real people that Snowman/Jimmy knew. Crake’s real name was Glenn. Oryx’s real name is unknown. They seem to be gone now.

At least 3/4 of the first 125 pages is flashback to earlier times. Jimmy and Glenn were teenagers in a high-security compound where bio-engineering was the main occupation of the adults. Jimmy and Glenn watch pornography on the Internet. Jimmy’s mother runs away. There’s nothing very remarkable about all this material. It’s well written, to be sure; it’s just not interesting.

In the post-Apocalypse present day, Snowman is just a pathetic old coot. In one scene he gets drunk and worries that he won’t be able to find any more booze in the ruins. I don’t mind reading about a pathetic old coot if he has a driving motivation of some kind that will propel the plot, but that’s not the case here. There’s no plot. None. The only reason anybody would keep reading would be to find out how exactly it all went kerflooey — and since Atwood is no better at predicting the future than any other science fiction writer, that’s not a good enough reason.

At the point where I bailed out, Oryx has strolled into the flashback. She and Jimmy are eating pizza and having sex. How he met her … we don’t know that yet. And who cares? She seems to have been, before the two of them met, an Asian child prostitute. Some of the flashback is about how her mother sold her to a man, because the family needed money.

As grim as all this is, who cares? I don’t need to read a novel that’s nothing but a nonstop barrage of grim and gloomy, with not a shred of plot to give the reader a sense of hope. I have no more reason to go on than Snowman does.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

it something noun

Maybe because I’m in need of an intellectually stimulating diversion, or maybe just because a guy emailed me and said he has enjoyed the text adventure games I’ve written in the past, I thought I’d get out my half-finished magnum opus and think about digging into it again. One fan is all it takes to get me excited, folks.

The game is called “The Only Possible Prom Dress.” It’s a sequel to my first game (written back in 1998), “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina.” The details of the story need not concern us at present, nor do I intend today to lay out the history of interactive fiction for those who have never encountered it and have no idea what I’m talking about. (The terms “interactive fiction” and “text adventures” mean pretty much the same thing.) Today I mainly wanted to give a shout-out to Eric Eve, who developed the adv3Lite library for the TADS 3 authoring system. I’m using adv3Lite, and it is so very, very effective!

Possibly nobody else in the world is using it at the moment. TADS 3 is not popular even among the tiny community of nerds and shut–ins who care about text adventures, either writing or playing the games. The popular development system is known as Inform 7.

I’ve started to think that Inform 7 wasn’t just a conceptual mistake. It may also have undermined the whole field of interactive fiction. Inform 7 attempts to make writing games easier. It’s a programming language in which, ostensibly, you can write computer code using plain English. A phrase such as “the red ball is on the table” is not simply a sentence in your story. It is literally computer code, and will be understood by the compiler. If the object called “red ball” has not been mentioned previously, this line creates the red ball.

This idea is seductive. “Look, it’s easy! You can write a text adventure without having to know anything about that nasty old computer programming stuff!” Unfortunately, it’s a lie.

This week on the interactive fiction forum, there was a thread about how to code a particular rule in Inform. The point of confusion that arose has to do with whether the author can use the word “it” in the rule, as opposed to “the noun” or “something” or “the topic understood”. Apparently, the compiler is not consistent. Sometimes “it” works. Other times, in a rule that would appear to be constructed in much the same way, the compiler will complain that it doesn’t know what “it” refers to.

This level of confusion simply doesn’t arise in adv3Lite, nor in adv3, the original library for TADS 3. TADS 3 is a C-type language. Identifiers are never ambiguous. The syntax is never ambiguous. Sure, you can write code that fails to compile (or that does compile but has bugs), and you may have to dive into the documentation to figure out where you went astray. But in TADS your mistake is never swaddled in gobbledygook.

Still, there are easily 20 times more people using Inform. I feel sorry for them.

Writing a text adventure is not a stroll in the park. You need to be a writer and a programmer both. And not just a programmer. Because you’re creating a model world, you have to think very, very carefully about all of the conditions that might arise in your world, and all the goofy things players may try to do. If you give the player character a book of matches, you have to consider that he or she may try burning absolutely anything. Your game will need to handle that possibility gracefully, printing out a sensible message of refusal. If Mary is wearing a hat but the hat can be removed, you have to write your description of Mary in such a way that the description can switch itself, depending on whether or not the hat is on her head.

Multiply that thought process by about 500 and you have maybe some idea what writing text adventures is all about. It’s entirely enough of a challenge without having to worry whether to use “it”, “something”, or “the noun”.

Posted in Interactive Fiction, technology, writing | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Anarchism with Spoilers

If you could bring a historical figure back to life, not for your own personal amusement but for the good of the world, who would it be? This question seems to have been the mainspring of The Watch, by Dennis Danvers.

His choice was Peter Kropotkin, an activist, scientist, and philosopher whose writings helped bring about the Russian Revolution. Kropotkin died in 1921 at the age of 78. He lived just long enough after the Revolution to see the beginnings of what The Who would later describe as “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In The Watch, a time traveler from the far future extracts Kropotkin at the moment of his death, lets him keep all his memories but gives him back his vigorous 32-year-old body, and plops him down in Richmond, Virginia, in 1999. (Danvers lives in Richmond, and the novel was published in 2002.)

Kropotkin has no money, but he soon has a job as a dishwasher, a small circle of idealistic young friends, and even a girlfriend. He also meets a couple of other temporally displaced men from earlier in Richmond’s history.

There’s not much of a plot, other than Kropotkin’s growing mistrust of the time traveler who has set up the whole affair. This mistrust is crucial to what happens later. Kropotkin is very concerned that he is being manipulated by the time traveler, an imperturbable fellow named Anchee. As the story goes on, he finds evidence of this manipulation.

What’s interesting about the story is to read the reactions of a committed Russian anarchist to the culture of modern Richmond, a city with a substantial black population, much of it very poor, and an unwavering civic pride in having been, briefly, the capital of the Confederate States of America. Danvers handles Kropotkin’s slightly archaic and sometimes befuddled voice very well; his situation reminded me a bit of the innocent at the center of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, except that in Being There, the main character (at least in the movie — I haven’t read the book) is a dimwit. Kropotkin is formidably bright and articulate.

The fictional Kropotkin’s observations of modern life hit the nail on the head. While I’m a lot more cynical than he is about human nature, I appreciate both his idealism and his activism. While working as a dishwasher, he starts saving wasted food from the restaurant and taking it downtown to feed the homeless. He’s clearly a good person.

The ending of the novel, however, is a disastrous letdown. In order to explain how it fails, I’m going to have to do spoilers. If you think you might want to read it, you may want to skip the rest of this review.

Anchee has given Kropotkin a pocket watch with which, he eventually discovers, he can reverse time and visit Richmond’s past. This neat trick is demonstrated for the reader a couple of times, but the jaunts into the past are brief and not suspenseful. Only at the end does the reason for the pocket watch become clear.

Through a rather unlikely series of events, Kropotkin is arrested and locked in a high-security solitary cell. Because a television down the hall in the guard station is sometimes tuned to news channels, he gets (and we get) to overhear the bizarre and vicious stream of propaganda through which he is portrayed to the public as a terrorist. (In light of the events of the past few years, this segment of the book is eerily prophetic.)

While he is being arrested, he manages to hand off the pocket watch to one of his fellow historically displaced persons, a doctor who died in an infamous prison in Richmond in 1863. The other time-shifted man is an escaped slave from 1800 who died in an abortive slave rebellion. After a few weeks, during which Kropotkin is securely locked up, these other two men figure out how to use the pocket watch to suddenly flood Richmond with thousands of refugees from the past, both slaves fresh off the ship from Africa and sick, starving Union prisoners from the Civil War prison.

This, it appears, was Anchee’s goal all along — to start a revolutionary change in the United States by exposing our horrifying racist past in a very concrete way. The book was written some years before the current controversy over Confederate statues, but a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond figures prominently in the story, and there can be no doubt at all that Danvers has contempt for the statue and all that it stands for, past and present.

After a few weeks in solitary, Kropotkin is miraculously released from his cell. The release is effected by a band of possibly immortal time-traveling cats. We can only guess that Danvers is a cat person, because there’s no possible justification for this injection of cuteness. The cats have no other relevance to the story.

But that’s not the bad part. Here’s the bad part. Kropotkin strolls out of prison, and of course Anchee is waiting for him. He bitterly accuses Anchee of having manipulated everyone like puppets, including Kropotkin’s new girlfriend Rachel. And indeed that’s exactly what Anchee has done. He has told several lies to bring Rachel and Kropotkin together and to connect Kropotkin with his idealistic young friends.

As we might imagine, a dedicated anarchist does not like having his life be controlled by an outside force. To Kropotkin’s way of thinking, Anchee is no better than the State.

Anchee reveals that he did indeed forge the letter that brought Rachel to Richmond. He then asks if Kropotkin would prefer him not to have done any such thing. Without Anchee’s meddling, Anchee explains, none of this would have happened. Rachel would be stuck in Seattle in a job she hates. The minor characters’ lives would be unhappy as well; one of them would have committed suicide by now. And the transformation of the cultural awareness of the United States would never happen, because those thousands of misery-drenched refugees from the past would never arrive in Richmond. Rather than being rescued, they would die in their own time. None of it would ever have happened.

Anchee gives Kropotkin the choice: Tear up the letter and erase all of the events of the story, or let Anchee mail the letter (several years in the past) so that events unfold as they have unfolded through behind-the-scenes manipulation.

Kropotkin tears up the letter.

This is a downer ending. It’s a soul-crushing ending, frankly. Not just because Rachel will never meet Kropotkin, and not just because the tormented slaves and starving Union prisoners won’t have a chance at a new life in the 21st century. That’s bad enough, but the boulder beneath which the novel lies mangled is the fact that Kropotkin made the wrong choice. He put his anarchist principles above the lives of those slaves and prisoners. Rather than set aside his principles in the interest of compassion, he denied them the possibility of new life.

Up to that moment, all of the fictional Kropotkin’s actions have been motivated by compassion for his fellow human beings. But suddenly, when push comes to shove, Danvers turns his hero into a blind man — a rigid and judgmental moral weakling. “This isn’t a revolution!” Kropotkin cries. “The people make a revolution, not some tinhorn god from the future.”

Anchee replies, “The people are greedy swine.” This line is completely out of character for him. It reads very much as Danvers’s attempt to salvage the ending he wanted by giving Kropotkin a more believable motivation. Kropotkin then (in interior monolog) reflects, “He’s shown his true stripes with that line. The revolution means nothing without faith in the people.”

Evidently the fictional Kropotkin feels that he has to cling to his faith, even though that faith will lead to a whole lot more human suffering. We expect that kind of thinking from Christian conservatives, but not from leftists. Kropotkin starts to smell a little like Stalin, in fact.

Possibly Danvers was searching for a way out of a narrative dilemma. The novel is set in Richmond in 1999 — effectively, in the present day — and obviously Richmond has not been inundated by thousands of slaves fresh off the ship in 1800. Danvers may have felt that he had to have Kropotkin stick to his ideals in order not to force the reader to buy an ending that was obviously counter-factual.

Or possibly Danvers intended the ending as a stirring call to social activism. On the final pages Kropotkin is back in prison. He ends his narrative by suggesting that the way to set him free is to throw open the doors of prisons everywhere and let all of the prisoners go free.

Given the appalling rate of incarceration in the United States today, and the extent to which African-American men have been victimized by our “justice” system, that’s a laudable proposal. I mean, we do need to keep a few obvious psychopaths behind bars — Kropotkin is too idealistic about the good in people, and possibly Danvers is too.

But ending the novel this way was a mistake. It reduced Kropotkin’s idealism to a hollow sham. And Kropotkin was at one time a real person. He deserves better.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Whither & Yawn

Another trip down the aisles in the local library, picking up science fiction and fantasy by authors I’m not familiar with. Today I had a look at 7th Sigma by Steven Gould. More than a look — I read through 135 of the 385 pages before I gave it up as a waste of time.

There’s a place in the world, I’m sure, for picaresque coming-of-age novels. They’re not in vogue these days, and especially not in vogue in the science fiction genre, action adventure being more the trendy thing, but I’m happy to applaud the unexpected broad-mindedness of someone at Tor Books. Evidently they’re willing to look beyond the usual confines of the genre.

The problem with 7th Sigma bifurcates, depending on whether we view it as action adventure or as a picaresque coming-of-age novel. As action adventure, it’s an utter flop. If it’s not intended to be read as action adventure, it’s an entirely different kind of flop.

The story is set in the American Southwest, in the near future. The SF premise is that some small flying creatures — possibly “AI robots” would be a better term — have gotten loose and spread across a considerable range. They’re referred to as bugs. The origin of the bugs is unknown, and nobody seems to be much concerned to figure out either where they came from or how to exterminate them. Also, they don’t seem to be threatening the rest of the country or the rest of the world.

The bugs eat metal. They apparently reproduce by parthenogenesis; when one has eaten enough metal, it turns into two.

As a result of this infestation, the remaining residents of the Southwest can’t use anything made of metal. They ride horses. Long-distance messages have to be sent out to the rest of the country by heliograph, a device that is not described but likely involves mirrors and Morse code.

This could be a fine premise for a plotted novel — but alas, 7th Sigma has no detectable plot. It’s a string of episodes (thus, picaresque) with no rising action or ongoing tension to weld the episodes together. Such a novel can succeed brilliantly; Don Quixote is the best example of that. But it will succeed only to the extent that the lead character is memorable, the episodes themselves memorable, and the writing thoughtful and well polished.

The story in 7th Sigma, such as it is, involves a 13-year-old runaway boy named Kimble. He’s taken in by an older woman named Ruth, who teaches aikido. Neither of them is highly memorable. It would be stretching a point to say that they’re even three-dimensional.

The story, at least up through page 135, moves through several unrelated episodes.

On the road to the creekside land Ruth has bought, our dynamic duo comes upon two men who have been killed by bugs. It seems the bugs don’t like being attacked. Inadvertently stepping on one is an attack. When attacked, they swarm. That seems ominous, but there’s no follow-up. We never see them swarm. This is not Hitchcock’s The Birds.

On reaching their homestead, Ruth and Kimble cleverly bury the remaining junk metal cluttering up the place so as to encourage the bugs to move on. They start building an aikido dojo out of mud brick. Soon a local drunk propositions Ruth because he thinks she’s a whore, and then starts stealing food from their property. They deal with him. He’s tried and convicted, and he’s gone.

Next, a nearby rancher is losing sheep to wild dogs. Kimble is enlisted to stay up all night and scare off the dogs by beating on a log. Soon a pack of dogs attacks, dragging down a sheep before Kimble can chase them off. A few local men band together, track them to a stand of brush, drive them out, and stab them with plastic spears, all but one dog, who seems to be made of metal. Ominous — a large metal beast! But it runs off, and we hear no more of it.

Then Ruth gets asthma, and Kimble has to ride off to the nearest town to get her some medicine. On the way back, he falls in with some other travelers and they’re attacked by bandits. Ooh, bandits! Threatening! But the Rangers drive off the bandits (with a little help from Kimble), and that’s the end of that episode. During the entire trip, nobody has encountered a single bug, much less the big metal dog.

Then a friend of Ruth’s visits them for a week. (Still no bugs.) The friend brings a young woman named Athena, who has a bad attitude. But after a few days they leave. Again, nothing has happened. At the point where I stopped reading, the kindly Ranger officer has enlisted Kimble to make friends with some lads in a nearby town in order to figure out who is importing methamphetamines into the territory. Bugs, a local thug, a metal dog, a girl with an attitude, and now a drug gang.

Paging forward, I find that the drug sting takes up less than ten pages; Kimble manages to solve the case in short order, and without any on-screen action at all. The whole episode is handled in the form of a report he makes to the Ranger. Following that, there seems to be a brief school-bullying episode, in which Kimble has no trouble coming out on top because of his aikido training.

I’d call it much ado about nothing, except that there’s not much ado either.

I’d love to pivot and think of this as a picaresque coming-of-age novel, but such a novel requires, I think, more colorful characters, and also a higher level of stylistic sophistication than Gould is able to muster. His characters are flat. The sheep rancher I mentioned earlier? Turning back to page 65, where he is introduced, I find no description of him at all — not a word. Tall, short, fat, thin, young, old, has a mustache, wears a hat, chews tobacco, missing teeth, odd speech patterns, conspicuous facial scars? Who knows? His name is Rooster, so we might imagine he’s a redhead, but even that detail is missing from the text.

When the ranchers set out to track the wild dogs, we meet two more men, Barney Spinoza and Frank Werito, and again, not a single solitary word about their appearance or mannerisms. The writing is entirely colorless.

Here’s the icing on the cake. On page 123, Kimble (who is 13, remember) is skinny-dipping in the pond with a young woman who is possibly eight or ten years older than him. And Gould reports, “He tried to think pure, well unsexual, thoughts, but his mind wasn’t cooperating.”

Steven, Steven, Steven — his mind? Really? Any other writer in the world would have written, “his body wasn’t cooperating.”

After which Kimble and the young woman engage in water horseplay, “with great gouts of water, and more than one dunking,” without a word as to where he puts his hands while dunking her, or how he avoids nudging her with his … er, with his mind while they’re wrestling. Nor is there any indication that he suffers, afterward, from even a single impure thought.

Coming of age? I don’t think so.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Premises, Premises

Browsing in the used bookstore, I picked up a copy of a fat hardback — Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Acheron. For a buck, how can you go wrong?

It was a dollar well wasted. I’m sure Sherrilyn is a very nice person. She has a long list of published novels and a contract with St. Martin’s Press, so who am I to disagree?

The characters in the opening chapter are referred to as gods. One gathers that their abode is Atlantis. The chief god, whose name is Archon, has gotten his wife (consort, whatever) pregnant, and she’s just about to pop. Finally, after centuries of trying, he’s going to have a son. His wife (consort, whatever) Apollymi is delighted. But thanks to a prophecy, Archon wants to kill the baby. The prophecy is that the baby will grow up to kill his father and become the chief of all the gods. Shades of Oedipus! (Without the nasty bits, I hasten to add.)

Apollymi is determined to keep her baby alive, and a surreptitious glance forward at the next chapter suggests that she’s going to be successful. When the boy comes to manhood, we can guess, complications will ensue. Possibly even some of that slayin’ stuff.

The thing that steered me away from continuing to read, however, was this paragraph on page 8:

By Chthonian law, one god was forbidden from ever killing another. To do so would bring their wrath down on the foolish god who’d angered them. The punishment for such actions was swift, brutal and irreversible.

Several problems leap up from this passage. First, the word “Chthonian” hasn’t been used earlier in the chapter. If the characters on the page are gods, whose laws are they compelled to follow? Who is more powerful than the gods? Second, the pronoun “their” has no antecedent. The Chthonians themselves (whoever they are) have not been mentioned at all. Third, as a copy-editor, I would strenuously object to the contraction of “who had” as “who’d” in a sentence about creatures more powerful than the gods. It’s only a minor stylistic infelicity, but these things do matter. Fourth, “forbidden” is better mated with an infinitive than with a participle. The sentence would read better as “forbidden ever to kill another.” Fifth, if you’re going to mention brutal punishments, you really ought to be specific rather than leave the reader guessing.

But those are mere quibbles, bits of fluff lost in the glare of the big problem. The big problem is, Archon has been intent on killing his son. Being the offspring of two gods, the son would presumably be a full-blooded god himself. To kill his son would therefore subject Archon to the dire punishments meted out by the Chthonians.

Oh, and during the course of the scene Apollymi has instructed one of her demons as follows: “Guard this room from everyone. I don’t care if Archon himself demands entry, you kill him.” So let me get this straight: The chief god is planning to kill his son. His wife (consort, whatever) has instructed one of her minions to kill him if need be. And neither of them seems remotely to be concerned about what the Chthonians will think of this.

If the premise of your story is that the gods can freely kill one another, you really ought not to suggest that they dare not do so. Conversely, if they can’t do it without incurring brutal punishment, your characters really ought to have second thoughts about their murderous impulses.

The icing on the cake is the sloppy writing. I could list several examples, which popped out in the course of only a few pages. And here’s one now. Apollymi has asked her niece, Basi, to help save the baby. Basi is the goddess of excess, and is on that basis usually drunk. On page 5, “…Basi asked as she spun around the bedpost while eyeing the demons.” On page 6, Basi “was still swinging around the bedpost.” This is very odd. A bedpost is usually attached to one of the outer corners of a bed. How would one swing around it (the word “around” meaning, by default, “in complete circles”) without running into the mattress? Kenyon does not tell us. This bit of action/characterization is free-floating. If Basi herself is as weightless as Tinkerbell and is literally swinging around the bedpost in complete circles, Kenyon has not bothered to mention the fact. And if she is swinging around in complete circles, how is she managing to do it while eyeing the demons? That would cause severe neck strain, or so one would imagine.

Adding a few careful details would help the reader visualize the scene. Writers are usually advised to help readers visualize the scene.

On page 9, Apollymi has returned to her husband and sarcastically presented him with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. (She has previously given herself a Caesarean using a dagger, although it’s not called a Caesarean because Caesar won’t be born for another 9,000 years; Kenyon got that much right.) After a sentence about how his three bastard daughters, the Fates, have “accidentally cursed her son,” we get this sentence, in a paragraph by itself:

That alone was enough to make her want to kill her husband who stared at her with a confused frown.

A comma is absolutely required after the word “husband.” The subordinate clause is non-restrictive. Every professional copy-editor knows this rule. What, then, are we to think of St. Martin’s Press, when they bring out a beautiful 700-page hardback with an embossed dust jacket after failing to send the manuscript to a copy-editor?

Maybe the Chthonians should have a word with them.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

You Bet Your Life

Maybe I’m not serious enough. Failure of seriousness can be, I’m guessing, a serious defect in a writer.

I don’t remember how The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold, landed in my Kindle. I think it may have been a limited-time Amazon freebie. It’s a straight-up Medieval fantasy, complete with horses, swords, and kings — not the sort of novel I would tend to buy. What carried me along through the first few pages was not an exciting opener. The plot unfolds very slowly. But her writing is good. That and sheer idleness kept me going.

The viewpoint character appears, at the start, to be a scruffy vagabond, though there are hints he’s more than that. As he’s sitting in the courtyard hoping to get hired on as a kitchen scullion, the beautiful young princess and her equally beautiful young friend ride in through the gate, and I’m thinking, okay, there’s going to be a romance here. In the end he’s going to Get The Girl. But even then, the action doesn’t jump into high gear. Gradually we’re drawn into a story of courtly intrigue, complete with nasty villains, sword fights, and just enough magic to stir the bubbling stew.

I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you what happens. Suffice it to say the book is a lot better than I expected. And it set me thinking about my own work.

As the destiny of the princess unfolds, as the curse of the novel’s title strikes the rest of her family and swirls darkly about her, both her fate and the fate of the scruffy vagabond (who by this time is her tutor, and somewhat less scruffy) are very serious matters indeed. The term “life-or-death” doesn’t quite cover the situation. Yes, death threatens, but it’s more than that. To borrow a metaphor from poker, the important characters have pushed all of their chips into the center of the table. They could have done nothing else. They have no life beyond or outside of the life-or-death struggle. It’s the only thing that matters.

This is an important lesson for me as a writer. I’ve been struggling with a few tough questions relating to the revisions of Book 4 of my epic. As I flipped the last page of The Curse of Chalion and switched off my iPad, it struck me that neither my heroine nor my villain has pushed all their chips into the center of the table. The outcome of their struggle is important to them both, yes, but it’s not the only thing that matters.

My heroine is betting her life, in the sense that she braves great dangers. But she could change her mind and walk away from it all. If she did that, would she feel a sense of personal failure and regret? Yes, certainly. But what’s driving her on is a sort of abstract sense of duty. There’s nothing inexorable about it.

Same deal with the villain. At any point he could shrug, say “Okay, you win,” and head back to his palatial estate in the foreign capital. He’s driven by arrogance and greed, but if he were to give up, it would be no more than a minor personal setback for him.

The first version of my epic, written more than ten years ago, was rather tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t very good comedy, but there was a fair amount of silly stuff. When I set out to rewrite it in 2015, I made it a lot more serious, but there are still a few comic elements.

Would you like an example or two? Happy to oblige. In one scene Madame Scraull, the strict and rather overwhelmed governess, has been temporarily blinded by a wizard’s spell. In a complex struggle in the aisle of a railway coach, she tries (unsuccessfully) to stab an ogre with her knitting needles. Does the ogre respond by breaking her jaw? No, he does not.

Here’s another. The travelers have been warned not to stay at Briarstoke Manor, but for reasons that need not detain us, no other inn will have them. Here is our first glimpse of Briarstoke Manor:

As an inn it had in its favor one characteristic: It was large. Several wooden structures of varying age had been appended to the main building with more ambition than architectural acumen, and outbuildings of varying decrepitude attended the assemblage like moldering handmaidens waiting upon a bride who is dead but refuses to lie down. Two of the windows were boarded up. In the front yard, tall grass had grown up around the wheels and through the floorboards of a rusting wagon. Even on a clear, sunny day the air was thick with a damp, unhealthy odor, which doubtless emanated from a pig farm that abutted the inn on one side.

I’m too fond of this paragraph, one of the very few surviving from the original version, to consider deleting or changing it. Briarstoke Manor is indeed a dangerous place, but it’s dangerous in a funny way.

If you’re writing comedy, I don’t think your characters have to be all-in emotionally. They don’t have to bet their lives. (The title of today’s little essay is taken from a comedy quiz show that starred Groucho Marx, so it’s by way of being a double entendre.) But trying to mix bits of comedy into a serious dramatic epic may have been a gigantic mistake on my part.

Comedy isn’t just about pratfalls: It has to do with a certain ironic distance that the author inserts between the story and the reader. Consider this tiny excerpt, from the very end of Chapter 1 in Book 1, The Leafstone Shield. A large and prominently placed statue has just uttered a prophecy. While enigmatic, the prophecy seems to have referred to Kyura, who thinks she’s a very ordinary girl buying supplies in an outdoor market. Oh, and while the statue was speaking, crows were flocking around it.

Worry, obscure but implacable, crept through her the way the veins of pale fire had tickled their way up and down the statue. Fortunately, crows weren’t buzzing around her head, those were only flies. She waved the flies away and went on about her business.

Those last two sentences create ironic distance. While not humor per se, they’re clearly comic writing.

I don’t think it’s possible to get rid of all the ironic distance in my story. Nor would I want to do it if I could. The question, then, is how to make my characters push all their chips into the center of the table without changing the tone of the text and cutting out the fun parts. This is going to require some careful thought.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment