Tow, Don’t Shell

The advice given to aspiring authors, these days, is, “Show, don’t tell.” Examine the stories submitted to a hundred local critique groups across the country and you’ll find the notation “SDT” jotted freely in many a margin.

At its worst, this tic can lead a writer to spin out pages of what in the trades is called “as you know, Bob” dialog — a pseudo-conversation in which one character tells another things that they both know perfectly well, or that aren’t actually important to them at that time but that the reader needs to know. Don’t do that, kids. If you need to tell your readers something in order for the story to make sense, just go ahead and tell them, for Pete’s sake!

Not long ago I thought I’d try reading Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, which I had picked up at a used book sale and tossed on the shelf a year or two ago, knowing it was a classic but not being immediately drawn to it. Published in 1920, it was a best-seller; it was initially awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (though the prize actually went to Edith Wharton, as the Board of Trustees overruled the jury — high drama on the literary front).

The first chapter of Main Street is almost entirely telling, not showing. Of the ten pages of the chapter, about a page and a half are devoted to showing two brief scenes; the other eight-plus pages are pure telling. Colorful telling, to be sure — and arguably the opening two paragraphs are about a 50/50 mix of showing and telling. Nonetheless, it’s clear that nobody ever told Sinclair Lewis to “show, don’t tell.” And we’re all better off for it.

If we go back to the 19th century, we find Balzac beginning Lost Illusions (1843) with several dense pages describing a provincial print shop. Dickens begins Nicholas Nickleby (1839) with three hefty pages of telling before he introduces a one-page scene.

Turning to today’s action-oriented fantasy novels, on the other hand, we find showing in full flower from the very start. Here’s the opening sentence of The Demon King, by Cinda Williams Chima:

Han Alister squatted next to the steaming mud spring, praying that the thermal crust would hold his weight.

The first brief paragraph of Garth Nix’s Sabriel sets a scene of falling rain. The second paragraph begins like this:

The midwife shrugged her cloak higher up against her neck and bent over the woman again, raindrops spilling from her nose onto the upturned face below. The midwife’s breath blew out in a cloud of white, but there was no answering billow of air from her patient.

There you go — birth and death, all at once. Something has changed in the literary arts over the past century.

The influence of Hemingway would be hard to dismiss. Here’s the opening of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940):

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

Immediately we’re thrust into the middle of the scene. Hemingway doesn’t even pause the action long enough to tell us the name of his viewpoint character for three full pages.

The importance of showing rather than telling was partly, I’m sure, a reaction to the novels of the previous generation — the abstract and punctilious wordiness of Henry James, for example. Hemingway would probably have agreed with the poet William Carlos Williams, who famously said, “No ideas but in things.” The practice of telling was not, to be sure, absolute in the days before Hemingway. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) begins with a conversation between two men; the telling is delayed until Chapter 2. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) begins with a fully developed conversation.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that telling has fallen far into disfavor. A more important factor pushing literature toward showing may have been the arrival of movies and then television. Suddenly audiences were being barraged with drama, drama, and more drama, all of it shown rather than told. The introductory narrations used in first-generation TV drama by Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock are gone. It’s all action, all the time, and preferably with things exploding.

I can’t help feeling that it’s time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, if only by a few inches. Maybe we don’t have to shell the reader with the artillery of our words. Maybe we can tow them along the canal of the story more gently, pausing now and again to let the mules rest while we watch a heron stalking long-legged among the reeds.

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The Story Doctor Is IN

Not long ago I spent $5,000 hiring a freelance developmental editor to critique my soon-to-be-published epic fantasy series. It was money well spent, but that’s a hefty chunk of change. I’m sure there are many aspiring authors who would appreciate some help, but don’t have that kind of money to spend.

Also, I know darn well that there are plenty of aspiring authors who need help, whether they know it or not. Once in a while I stroll over to Amazon and use the Look Inside feature to take a gander at the first few pages of a few self-published fantasy or science fiction novels. Every kind of story problem you can imagine, and some you may never have imagined, is well represented there. Gruesomely bad books are being uploaded every week by authors who have completed a book (yay!) but apparently have no clue about how limited their skills are.

I’m thinking about rolling out an entirely new type of editorial service for aspiring authors: advisory editing. As an advisory editor, I would not do an in-depth job on your manuscript. What I would do, at a more modest cost than most other editors, would be to read your manuscript (full or partial, rough draft or already e-published) and offer suggestions about where you might want to focus your efforts so as to bring the manuscript up to a higher level.

With one author, I might say, “Your prose style is very good, but the story premise you’re using is shopworn. It was a current idea in the 1950s. Here’s a list of newer SF novels you could read that may suggest fresher ways of dealing with that concept.” With another author, I might say, “This is a terrific story premise, but your plot sags badly. For several chapters, there’s no forward movement. I suggest this how-to book on plot construction.” With yet another author, “Your grasp of grammar and punctuation is not up to speed. Your story is solid, but you need to hire a good copy-editor.” Or perhaps, “Your grammar and punctuation are very tidy, but your shifts in narrative tone and narrative distance are distracting. Here’s a how-to book that will help with that.” Or perhaps, “You need to spend more time thinking about the emotions of your characters. They seem flat and uninvolved in their own drama.” Or, “Your dialog is stilted and unconvincing, and your use of dialog tags is not what most people regard as smooth or effective.” Or, “You seem to be trying to tell two entirely different stories, and they’re fighting with one another. Maybe you have two books here, not just one.”

Naturally, each of these suggestions would be accompanied by a few specific examples of passages in the manuscript where the writer I’m working with could benefit from giving more attention to that particular element.

Brainstorming is another area where some (or many) authors could benefit from the services of an advisory editor. Show me the half-finished manuscript in which you’ve gotten stuck, or toss a few story ideas at me. I’ll ask questions — the same kinds of questions I would ask myself if I were writing your story. Together, we’ll see if we can’t get your story moving forward.

I don’t know how much I would want to charge for this service. Every project might be a bit different. Maybe start with a $100 advance payment for three hours of work, and after that you could decide whether to continue. The point of offering this service would be to help authors move forward without having to spend huge amounts of money, and to help them pinpoint the weaknesses in their work so that they can move forward efficiently and economically, without having to thrash around and perhaps waste money hiring an editor who offers the wrong type of services for their particular needs.

In case this blog post turns into a promo piece for my services, perhaps I should mention my qualifications. I’ve had two paperback originals published by mainstream New York houses, many years ago (Walk the Moons Road by Del Rey and The Wall at the Edge of the World by Ace — both are long out of print). My stories have appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and other magazines. I spent 25 years as a staff writer and editor at Keyboard, where I wrote innumerable nonfiction articles on music technology and also served as the in-house copy-editor. After leaving Keyboard in 2002 I wrote several nonfiction books, also on music stuff and still available from Hal Leonard Publishing and Cengage Learning. I was the series editor for a while for Backbeat Books’ Power Tools music technology series; I also edited a couple of music books for Peachpit Press. It’s a varied resume, but I think you can safely assume I didn’t just crawl out of the woodwork. Also, I have a shelf of how-to-write-fiction books that, if stacked up, would be taller than I am.

Originality

Recently a fellow who had strolled into our Facebook writers’ group was talking up his obsession with original ideas. This is a group of fantasy and science fiction writers, and of course fresh ideas are the meat and potatoes of those genres. But how many ideas are really original? Darn few of them. In truth, most of us are recycling ideas that are decades or centuries old, giving them a fresh twist or two, and sending them off into the world with our own name on the cover.

This is not a cause for outrage, despondency, or chagrin. Thousands of talented people have been laboring in the field of imaginative fiction for decades. In the process, they have unearthed, developed, and possibly bludgeoned to death most of the ideas that will actually support a novel-length work of fiction. If you have an idea that will give birth to a novel, somebody has had that idea before you. Trust me on this.

The ideas that have never been seen on the shelves of a bookstore are, almost entirely, those that are so far out on the fringe that they won’t work. Once in a great while, a genuinely new idea comes along and proves fruitful. But it’s rare.

What matters, as several of us pointed out to this fellow, is not how original or exotic your ideas are, but how you develop them into a story. It’s the development process that sets your tale of King Arthur apart from other people’s tales of King Arthur.

I like to say that originality is both impossible and inevitable. It’s impossible because, during the entire course of your literary career, you may have one or two truly original ideas. It’s inevitable because the insights and limitations you will bring to your exploration of that idea are unlike anybody else’s insights and limitations. You can’t help being original, because you’re you.

I don’t think we convinced him. He kept trotting out new ideas for our scrutiny. One was of an alien race that had eight sexes. This is truly an original idea, I’ll grant you that. But imagine the dating and mating difficulties if you have to find seven other compatible people in order to get it on! Then try to work out how such a species could possibly evolve. And that’s before we even get into the anatomy of the gozintas and gozoutas.

I started musing about originality tonight while dipping into an anthology called The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, Volume One, subtitled Alchemy with Words. I must have bought it — it was sitting there on my shelf. I don’t think I’ve ever read it. In the first chapter, “Roots of Fantasy” by John Teehan, there’s a tidy list of five themes that are notable from the romances of King Arthur: the commoner who is really a king; an old wizard who guides the hero; an enchanted sword or other artifact of great magic; a quest for a relic with great powers; and diverse companions.

And wouldn’t you know it — all five are prominently featured in the fantasy epic I’m writing. The fellow in the Facebook group would probably shriek in horror on discovering such a thing and tear up his manuscript. Far from reacting that way, I’m encouraged and more confident. It’s clear I’m hitting the sweet spot. I’m doing something right.

The originality in my story lies entirely in how I’m doing it. I’m hoping to have Book 1 and Book 2 out by the end of the year, so you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

Sing Me a Song, You’re the Grammar Man

Some people in the Facebook writers’ group were touting Grammarly. I pooh-poohed the idea that it could be useful, but quickly realized that I was talking through my hat. I didn’t actually know. The premium plan is $30 for a month, with a seven-day money-back offer. So trying it out is going to cost me nothing.

I’m pleased to report that I was right. Gruesome examples follow. Here’s a brief passage from Chapter 1 of my upcoming book:

They dithered for another minute, crossed out words, and made corrections. At last the first scholar handed the paper to the messenger. “You’re for the king. Off with you.” The messenger trotted away.

What’s amusing about Grammarly’s attempt to grasp this rather simple paragraph is that it flagged the second instance of the word “messenger,” but not the first instance. The second instance, according to Grammarly, is a “possibly confused word.” “The word ‘messenger,'” the software announces, “doesn’t seem to fit this context. Consider replacing it with a different one.” Since the first instance of the word passed muster — Grammarly accepted it without a qualm — I’d say this “error” qualifies for a WTF.

It soon becomes clear that “doesn’t seem to fit this context” is a catch-all message that should perhaps be understood as “the software’s comprehension algorithm just failed miserably.” At the beginning of Chapter 2, I have the sentence, “Tell Meery what the statue had said?” Grammarly thinks the word “statue” doesn’t seem to fit this context. A few paragraphs on, in a flashback, I mention how after Meery’s mother died, “the owner of the apartment building had slammed the door and turned Meery out to beg.” Grammarly thinks “beg” doesn’t seem to fit this context, and suggests “be.” Yowza.

Later in the chapter I mention that a man “looked strong enough to toss a horse over his shoulder and stride out the gate with it.” Grammarly thinks “stride” doesn’t seem to fit this context, and suggests “strode.” This is a complex software error. First, “stride” is in a parallel construction with “toss,” which makes the present tense mandatory (because it’s an infinitive). Second, on what basis would a verb tense error be flagged as “doesn’t seem to fit this context”? That makes no sense at all.

To be fair to Grammarly, it also picked up a word in Chapter 2 that I misused, though it had no idea how I misused it. It flagged “parry” with the same message (suggesting “party,” believe it or not). When I looked it up, I discovered that a parry is a defensive maneuver, which is not what I was describing. This earns Grammarly half a point!

Grammarly regularly flags passive voice verbs — but of course there’s actually nothing wrong with an occasional passive voice verb, so this is an example of the software acting like your seventh-grade English teacher. Once in a while it hits something that isn’t actually a passive verb at all, as in this sentence: “We are educated people, not elves of the forest.” Do you see the problem? It snagged on “are educated,” but it wasn’t capable of noticing that “people” is a predicate nominative being modified by “educated.”

Here’s a weird goof. I have a brief passage of internal monologue in which the paragraph ends like this: “(No, just a coincidence. Don’t think about it. But….)” Grammarly thinks that that’s an unnecessary ellipsis. “The ellipsis in your sentence may not be necessary. Consider removing it.” But … if there’s no ellipsis, we’ll have a one-word sentence: “But.” Quite aside from the fact that the ellipsis is meaningful in context, would Grammarly prefer that one-word sentence? Evidently it would. When I delete the ellipsis, Grammarly goes through the file again and doesn’t flag anything there.

The elf looks at the injured horse and says, “This horse. Its leg.” The elf is not a native speaker of the language they’re using, so his speeches trip up Grammarly elsewhere — no point belaboring the software over that. But here, Grammarly specifically suggests “It’s”. Whaaat? Okay, I guess that would be, technically, a complete sentence in pidgin: It is leg. So maybe I shouldn’t slam Grammarly over its mistake, even though it’s specifically recommending the wrong form, which would add a commonly made mistake to the text.

Here and there it suggests adding an optional comma where I didn’t want one, and then, a few sentences later, suggests deleting one where I had used one. I should write a whole post about optional commas. Once in a while, its comma advice is even worse. Consider this sentence: “Only after she said it did she realize that both she and the elf had spoken Sa’aknan, not Garathian.” Grammarly recommended putting a comma after “said,” which would be 100% dead wrong.

Here’s another Grammarly punctuation booboo. My sentence is, “The afternoon was warm but not too warm, the sky scoured blue by a fresh breeze.” Grammarly wants to change that comma to a semicolon, which of course would be wrong, because the second clause has an implied “was” that’s left over from the first clause. Possibly Grammarly thinks “scoured” is an active verb whose subject is “sky” — but “scoured” is a transitive verb. Does it think “blue” is a thing that the sky scoured? Let’s hope not.

And check this out. My sentence begins thusly: “When the sheets were hung and the empty baskets set back against the wall, Meery grabbed and hefted a heavy stick….” Grammarly wants to see a comma after “hung.” It thinks “and” is “the coordinating conjunction … in a compound sentence.” If this were a compound sentence containing two independent clauses, a “were” would be required before “set back.” In fact, this is a parallel construction (again, the elided copula, and if you don’t know what an elided copula is, you can look it up) in a subordinate clause (“When the sheets … and the empty baskets…”).

Something similar happens again here: A man says, “I reckon the lad and I can manage today,” and Grammarly wants to put a comma after “lad,” because it thinks the “and” is “the coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence.” If this were a compound sentence, the first clause would be, “I reckon the lad.” Does anybody here think “reckon” is a transitive verb that can take a simple noun as an object? No, “reckon” requires an entire clause as its object. Here, that clause (“I can manage…”) happens to have a compound subject. So again, Grammarly is just plain wrong.

Grammarly thinks highly of and consistently recommends what Fowler calls elegant variation, the needless and indeed confusing use of synonyms and alternative phrases when a simple repetition is all that’s needed. In fiction one quite commonly wants to repeat a word because that word is the subject of the fucking paragraph! But Grammarly doesn’t care for it. In the opening paragraph of Chapter 2, Kyura and Meery are hanging wet sheets on the clothesline, and the word “sheets” is used twice. The second time, Grammarly recommends “using a synonym in its place.” The suggested substitute is “leaves.”

Pathetic, really.

Oh, and I love this. In one sentence Grammarly objects to the word “large” on the grounds that it’s a “weak adjective.” The software suggests replacing “very large” with “huge” or “tremendous.” In itself this isn’t bad advice, it’s just wrong for the tone of this particular bit of dialog. But later in the scene I describe a minor character as “a massive, sleepy fellow.” Here, Grammarly suggests “that the noun ‘fellow’ might combine better with an adjective other than ‘massive.'” And what word does it suggest replacing “massive” with? You guessed it: “large.”

I typed out the first chapter of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and fed it to Grammarly. It’s a short chapter, but Grammarly found 17 places where Hemingway ought to have used a comma. Using commas would have weakened his writing, of course, but Grammarly doesn’t know anything about strong or effective writing. Grammarly did, however, spot the fact that I had plagiarized the entire thing, which tells me the app connects to an online database.

Next I copied the opening of a self-published book (not my own) from Kindle and tossed Grammarly the raw meat. When not fussing about commas or whining about duplicated words, Grammarly managed to make a mistake that would destroy just about the only good sentence in the whole passage. The sentence: “The Chairman of the Conclave spoke, soft as a snake’s slither.” Grammarly wanted to change “snake’s” to “snakes”! Never mind that that would have made the “a” wrong and also made hash of the sentence.

A couple of paragraphs down, the writer had the sentence, “He pointed a finger at the young man.” Grammarly thought “pointed the finger at” would be better. This was described as “wrong article with set expression.” That is, Grammarly thought this was a standard metaphor, when in fact it’s a literal expression of what the other character in the scene is physically doing. That’s the essence of the problem, right there: Grammarly is not reading the text. Software can’t do that — not today or tomorrow, and maybe not ever. It’s applying a set of fixed rules. If the rules are misguided, misapplied, or even nonsensical in a given context, Grammarly does not know it. And if you’re relying on software to check your grammar, you probably don’t know it either. In order to take advantage of its occasional useful suggestions, you have to be able to separate the sheep from the goats. But if you know how to do that, you don’t need the software.

As a final, acid test, I wrote a deliberately bad paragraph for Grammarly to fuss with. To be fair, it did find many of the errors I had created. I then used its editing interface to change the sentences. I found ways to make the sentences even worse without tripping any of Grammarly’s sensors. That is, I cheated. In the end I had a truly awful paragraph that Grammarly rated as 100% good. Here it is:

It was David’s birthday, a day to celebrate about him. David’s grandmother gives for him the blue and large telescope. Looking through the telescopes at the stars were much bigger and bright than ever while David is looking them. Before the telescope is his own; David could not see much about the stars at all. He hugs of grandma. Separated from his new shiny toy sadness and emotions filled David’s listless joyful and feelings. It was a more exotic gift he never was gotten. Can five telescopes too many?

If you write like this (and I’m sure you don’t — just saying), Grammarly won’t help you at all. In the end, Grammarly gets half a point for prodding me to look up “parry.” Other than that, its advice turns out to be consistently bad.

Beta & Switch

As I near the finish line with my fantasy epic, I’ve posted requests for beta-readers. I have now sent out Book 1 to several readers, and have received a round of responses from people who actually sat down and read the silly thing.

They’ve made a few good suggestions, and basically they’re being very complimentary. They like it — yay!

Sadly, this silver lining has a cloud. These readers are themselves writers, having in most cases produced self-published novels of one sort or another. So I figured, what the hell, the least I can do is buy their books to repay them for their hard work in volunteering to read mine. Scoot over to Amazon, download a few novels to the Kindle app. Mission accomplished.

I’m not going to name names, because one or another of these people might stumble upon this blog, and it would be hideous to repay their support and enthusiasm by ripping holes in their egos. But after slogging my way through Chapter 1 of a novel by one of my readers, I’m compelled to wonder whether the whole idea of beta-reading is a mistake. What’s the point of having someone compliment you on your writing or your characters if they’re not actually writing at anything like a professional level? If my writing were bad (it’s not — I’m just saying…), how would such a reader know? Can I trust their judgment? Clearly not.

If they make specific inept suggestions, I can easily breeze past the suggestion and move on. What concerns me is the big picture. Well, that and the medium-sized picture. The opening chapter that I read this evening was written with no conception of tone or mechanics, no conception of how to ground the reader in the scene, and no conception of how an opening chapter ought to get the plot in gear. If I were making any of these mistakes, it’s clear that this particular reader wouldn’t notice.

I think I’m probably going to scrap the whole beta-reading process. I could certainly use good solid feedback on what I could improve, and in fact earlier this year I paid a professional editor several thousand dollars for exactly that sort of feedback. It was money moderately well spent.

Hiring another editor at this point, though, strikes me as not really very cost-effective. I think I’ll just publish the damn thing, warts and all. The nice thing about electronic publishing is that if I get feedback from readers who bought the books after they were published, I can make a few changes and do a 1.1 release.

Teaser

As I creep toward the finish line with my four-volume fantasy epic, I’m recruiting a small cadre of dedicated beta-readers. Yes, you’re invited! One of my potential victims — I mean “rescuers,” that’s what I meant — asked if I could post the first chapter so he could decide whether to subject himself to the torment.

So here it is — Chapter 1 of The Leafstone Shield. 

*****

1: Onions, Scholars, and Blue Lightning

In the heat of the afternoon the plaza of Tyvik the Wish-Bringer seethed with life. Hundreds of merchants had set up stalls and loudly touted their wares. Farmers from the surrounding districts hawked fresh produce, and food vendors waved sizzling spicy meat on skewers. Craftspeople had spread their plates and shirts, scissors and shoes, potions and amulets, baskets and jars on tables beneath fluttering awnings. Children ran and whooped and chased one another while streetcorner orators harangued the crowd. Stylishly gowned matrons shaded by tassel-tufted parasols took tiny steps in their satin shoes, pretending not to notice the filth underfoot. Three red-faced men struggled to manage a snarling demon, tugging ropes looped around its neck while it strained at the chains that bound its taloned hands. A pair of uniformed Watchmen paced, wicked-looking long-barreled rifles strapped across their backs. A high-wheeled carriage, one of the new horseless kind, made slow headway through the crowd, the blue-liveried driver on his high perch between the gleaming brass lamps cursing and snapping his whip close enough above people’s heads to knock a few hats off.

Market basket on her arm, Kyura worked her way down a broad aisle between stalls. Other than picking her way carefully, holding her purse tight, and keeping an eye out for bargains, she barely noticed the hubbub. Uppermost in her mind was the need for trout. Catfish would do, if no trout were to be had. Also candles, salt, a jar of honey, and a bag of onions. In three hours the inn’s guests would be wanting supper, and the cook could surely summon up something savory with fresh catfish and onions.

When Kyura was younger, Aunt Timabara had brought her to the market and taught her how to count her pennies and see that the produce was fresh. Aunt Timabara was gone now. At seventeen, Kyura took money from the cash box herself, and went to market. Someday, when Uncle Dulan was gone, the inn would be Kyura’s. And yes, there were moments when she wished she could trade the catfish and onions for silks, exotic creatures, and the clash of bright swords, and had to remind herself that it was foolishness to wish for things that would never be. But most often she was either working too hard or exhausted from working too hard to waste more than a minute or two teasing herself with daydreams.

She was slim, with long dark hair, a chin that she thought too prominent, and a nose that she wished was short and turned up rather than long and narrow. The boys she knew — a few stolen kisses on a warm summer night, but none of them had stolen her heart away — would have said she was very pretty, but she seldom had an extra penny with which to be vain about it, and was far too busy to use a curling-iron, though she had one (somewhere).

At the center of the market plaza, towering above the stalls, presided the gray and solemn statue of Tyvik. Seated on a cube of stone, more than twenty feet tall at the crown of its head, handsome once but now crusted with centuries of city grime, half its face sheared away by time and weather, or perhaps by cannon-fire in some long-forgotten battle, the statue gazed out across the plaza, its eyes now benign, now sad or thoughtful or stern as the light and shadow played across them. Tyvik had been a god once, if there were such things as gods, but he no longer had any worshipers; all that remained of his divinity was this massive misshapen relic. His temple, a mile to the east on the riverbank, had been swept away long ago in a flood. Only a few bare pillars jutted up from the water to show where it had once stood. But the statue in the plaza remained.

As Kyura neared the statue, a change in the tenor of the voices on all sides snagged her attention — that, and a cool mineral odor that slid around the mingled scents of sweat and fresh produce like water over rocks.

People were pointing and saying, “Look! There!” Pale veins of blue lightning snaked up from the base of the statue, and a dark unruly tornado of crows swirled around the statue’s head, crying out raucously.

Somebody shouted, “Back! Back!” The crowd retreated, leaving an untidy pool of emptiness around the base of the statue. Kyura knew why: Occasionally Tyvik stood up and walked, pacing aimlessly across the plaza, tipping over the tents and dragging them along, his slow stone footfalls jarring the ground and rattling nearby windows. And sometimes he spoke. She had never seen him move or speak, but she had heard the stories. On one of his meanders, years ago, Tyvik had stepped on a dog. People still talked about that.

A young man wearing the yellow vest of a messenger rushed past Kyura, nearly bumping her, and dodged away into the depths of the crowd.

The veins of pale fire sought upward across the surface of the statue, probing, retreating, dimming, brightening, casting off occasional crackling sparks. More crows angled in swiftly from here and there across the city.

As the veins of lightning crept up the statue’s neck toward its defaced face, the messenger returned, elbowing his way through the crowd of onlookers to clear a path for two scholars in long flapping brown robes and broad-brimmed hats. The scholars carried writing-trays laden with paper and pens, which threatened to spill, but they managed to reach the base of the statue without mishap, or as close to the base as they dared go, and unlimbered their writing implements.

The statue’s mouth opened and it began to speak.

Kyura was standing at the leading edge of the crowd, not more than fifty feet from the cube of stone on which the statue sat. Its eyes ought to have been leveled at the city skyline, but though its features hadn’t altered or its head tilted forward, she was awash suddenly in a queasy feeling that it had dropped its gaze to look down at her, the eyes (angry? amused? indifferent?) drilling holes straight through to her soul. Her back and neck and shoulders prickled. Less curious suddenly about what Tyvik might say or do, she suppressed an urge to run.

The statue’s voice was impossibly deep, a grating rumble punctuated by long pauses and what sounded like inarticulate groans. The crowd had fallen silent, and hundreds of faces gazed up at the seated figure, rapt. The utterance went on for some time, and the scholars scribbled busily. Kyura thought perhaps she recognized the words “dragon” and “tower,” but if Tyvik was speaking Garathian, it was an archaic dialect.

Eventually the pale lightning veins retreated into the base of the statue and then into the ground. The cool smell dissipated, and the crows lost interest and flew away. Conversations started among the crowd, and people drifted warily closer to the pedestal. A few moved in to peer over the scholars’ shoulders, but most people drifted off, back to their business, whatever it was.

A bold little merchant went straight up to the scholars and said, “What’d it say? It’s a prophecy, ain’t it? What’d it say?”

“It’s not for the likes of you,” one of them said. “It’s for the king. Get on.”

“We got a right to know, don’t we?”

“You have what rights the king says you have.”

“The king don’t care. He sits up there all high and mighty—” The merchant waved his arm at the royal palace, which crouched atop a steep-sided rock that all but abutted the south side of the plaza. “—and when there’s trouble, we’re the ones who catch it in the teeth.”

“Get on, now. We have work to do.”

After a grumble aimed back over his shoulder, the little merchant marched off. The two scholars put their heads together (their hat brims colliding), murmured, and scribbled. The trout she hadn’t yet bought were calling to Kyura, but her curiosity was a burning itch. Soon she and two or three others were the only onlookers who remained.

One of the scholars said, “That’s it, then. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Holding up a piece of paper, he read aloud from it, not making it a proclamation, just reviewing the text for the benefit of his colleague:

Come far and his kin with a horn that is broken,
Their birthplace Sa’akna as it is hers, bringing
A part of the wheel a heedless boy shattered
To her, the boy’s cousin, who labors obscure,
An unknowing hope, the savior of thousands,
Conversing with dragons and known by the sea,
In the hostelry signed by a pitcher of silver.
An old one is freed from the tower of pain
By her and two others. The tower collapses
In flames, the city in turmoil, the blood
Of innocents paid for in blood of the wealthy.
Pursued by a priest and an ogre, they flee!

“Sounds about right,” the other agreed. “‘Wheel,’ though; are you sure ‘disk’ wouldn’t be better? Or ‘circle’? And ‘tower’? I still think he said ‘vault.’”

They dithered for another minute, crossed out words, and made corrections. At last the first scholar handed the paper to the messenger. “You’re for the king. Off with you.” The messenger trotted away. The scholars stoppered their ink bottles.

Most of the prophecy made no sense to Kyura, but the bits she understood terrified her. The statue had been looking down at her! She had been born in Sa’akna — and a shattered disk — and a pitcher of silver? Her uncle’s inn was called the Silver Ewer! But the blood of innocents? The tower of pain? Conversing with dragons??

Trout and onions receded into the dim and misty distance, and she turned to run, but after a few swift steps she faltered, though her heart was still pounding, and turned to look back at the statue. Tyvik certainly wasn’t looking in her direction now. Her imagination must have been playing tricks on her, that was all. The statue couldn’t possibly have been talking about her. What a ridiculous idea!

Act like a grown-up, she told herself sternly. Do your marketing. It will come to nothing, you’ll see. In a few days you’ll be laughing about it.

But right now she didn’t feel like laughing. 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.

 

The Presence of Other Worlds

The title above is borrowed from a book I read many years ago — a biographer of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Interesting guy, Swedenborg. Drank 40 cups of coffee a day. Had visions. Founded a religion. But that’s not what I want to talk about today; I just borrowed the title.

In opening a novel to read it, one enters another world. That world may be very like the world we know, or it may be strikingly different, but in any event it’s another world. The first task of the fiction writer, then, and perhaps the most important task, is to imagine and then bring to life a world that readers will want to enter. If your newly minted world is a jumble, or boring, or unpleasant, only the most masochistic reader will slog on through to the end of the book. Most of us will put it down quickly.

I sometimes cruise the aisles of the mystery section of the local public library, looking for mystery authors whose work I haven’t read. I grab a couple of books by writers who have multiple titles on the shelves, bring them home, and crack them open.

I seldom find myself in a world where I would want to spend much time. A happy exception was the series about Inspector Montalbano, by Andrea Camilleri. Set in modern Sicily, they’re not great, but they’re pretty darn good.

A more typical experience was provided this week by Brought to Book by Anthea Fraser. It’s set in modern England (in a charming small town not too far from London — a charming small town, that’s the first red flag). The main character seems to be Rona Parish, a successful writer who is evidently destined to become an amateur sleuth.

Amateur sleuths are the norm in the “cozy” subgenre of the mystery genre. Amateur sleuths who are successful writers rather than, you know, somebody’s maiden aunt are not the most interesting characters, both because one suspects the author is showing a want of imagination and because writers are not really very interesting people, what with all the time they spend with their noses buried in a word processor. But whatever.

There has been, as usual, a suspicious or at least odd death, and the police seem not very interested in trying to discover foul play — again, a standard trope in the cozy subgenre. The cops are always well-meaning but inept. It will, I’m sure, be up to Ms. Parish to ferret out the evildoers.

She has been hired to write the biography of the dead guy — another famous writer, wouldn’t you know it? So she will have an excuse to trundle around and interview the suspects.

But that’s not the problem. Here’s the problem with cozies in general, and with Brought to Book in particular. After 20 pages, we have learned about Rona’s unusual living arrangement with her husband Max, and what he does for a living. (He’s an artist. A successful writer and a successful artist. Already this is feeling awfully shallow, isn’t it?) We’ve learned that Rona’s sister is divorced and is wary of her former husband. We’ve gone on a walk with Rona and her dog Gus in a public park, and watched Gus retrieve a ball that Rona threw. We’ve learned where Rona parks her car, and her cooking habits, and the kind of house she lives in, and the reconstruction she and her husband had done to the house after they bought it. There’s no onstage sex, but we’ve learned that Rona and her husband drink brandy before having sex, and listen to a CD (before or during, you’ll have to imagine that part).

This is the world into which Fraser has invited us. Time for the Shatner impression: It’s ped-ES-tri-an.

As to the nature of the crime (and of course it will turn out to be a crime), Fraser has revealed very little. The dead man was found floating face down in a pond, and that was six months ago. As an urgent predicament, this falls rather flat, but at least we can listen to a CD while drinking brandy.

Here, for your delectation, is the opening paragraph of Chapter Two:

Max left immediately after breakfast. When he’d gone, Rona went back upstairs and had a shower, after which she surveyed the contents of her wardrobe for several minutes before deciding on narrow brown trousers with matching jacket and a cream cashmere sweater. Smart but businesslike, she told herself.

Doesn’t that grab you by the short and curlies? Just for kicks, I took Ross MacDonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse down from my shelf. Here’s how Chapter Two starts:

He came back, though, wearing a purged expression which failed to tell me what had been purged, or who. I took the hand he offered me across my desk, but I went on disliking him.

This is not an especially striking paragraph, but the difference between MacDonald and Fraser is palpable. In MacDonald’s paragraph, something is happening. We have entered a world where unpleasant things are lurking just out of view. And we neither know nor care what private eye Lew Archer is wearing.

If you want people to read your novels, invite them into a world of intrigue, or exotic beauty, or bitter struggle. All three at once, if you can manage it. And no matter what you do, you must not have your lead character fretting over her wardrobe choices and deciding on a cream cashmere sweater. Just don’t.

Runnin’ on Empty

Didn’t George Orwell say, “Ignorance is wisdom,” in 1984? If he didn’t, he should have. I’ve ranted about this before, but it keeps coming up. A guy in the Facebook writers’ group where I hang out responded to a post mentioning a certain how-to-write book by saying (paraphrased), “Pretty much everything you need to know about writing you can learn in a high-school English class.”

I asked if he would want to drive across a bridge designed by someone who had never studied engineering, or have an operation performed by a surgeon who had never been to medical school. He huffed that those occupations require licenses, while fiction is an art form. That response, of course, completely misses the point, but the guy had already demonstrated that he was going to miss the point.

He is apparently convinced that the only actual skill he needs to know in order to write novels is how to construct grammatical sentences. Among the things that won’t be taught in high-school English, I suggested, are characterization, plot, conflict, rising action, theme, the effective use of flashbacks, world-building, metaphor, and the efficient way to use dialog tags.

To be fair, I did read both Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye in high-school English. The teacher must have said a few things that went beyond constructing grammatical sentences. By now I can recall only one such item: I first learned about symbolism from reading Lord of the Flies. So okay, high-school English is not useless. But neither are how-to-write books.

The person with whom I was having this conversation then said something like, “I guess you won’t want to read any of my published books, then.” At which point I pointed out to him that if his books are self-published (they are) or published by a vanity press, the word “published” in his response is nothing but empty puffery. It’s meaningless.

I went and glanced at his work on Amazon. I would dearly love to draw some diagrams for the three or four of you who read this blog in which I display his ineptitude by analyzing the first few pages of his most recent novel. But I dare not. He might be litigiously inclined. If he sued me for libel I would win, because reviewers are allowed some latitude, even when they deploy snarky rhetoric — but being sued would be an annoying and protracted process, so I’m not going to go there.

Would he be able to apply the lessons in a how-to-write book if he did condescend to read one? Well, it’s nice to be optimistic. Maybe he would.

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll spend three bucks on his latest flatulent opus, change a bunch of details, and write up a critique. It would be as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, and probably more fun.

Worlds While U Wait

There’s a scene in the 2nd or 3rd Star Trek movie, I forget which one, where some sort of high-tech projectile is launched at a barren planet. In a burst of light, the planetary surface springs to life. A fully functioning biosphere arises in the twinkling of an eye.

The technical term for this transformation is “terraforming.” A planet is made to resemble the Earth (Latin terra). The advantages of terraforming for human interstellar travelers are obvious: If you can turn any old rocky planet into a Garden of Eden, the galaxy is your oyster. (And we’re going to sidle away from that image without examining it too closely.)

For that reason, terraforming is a popular topic in science fiction novels. Kim Stanley Robinson had, I believe, a success with his trilogy on the terraforming of Mars. I dropped out halfway through the first book when I hit a scene where it became painfully obvious that Robinson didn’t understand the mechanics of lighter-than-air travel using a balloon or dirigible. If he didn’t know how balloons work, I figured, he wasn’t going to be much use on the science of terraforming Mars. But that’s beside the point. The point is, the subject of terraforming is a rich source of story ideas.

Unfortunately for authors, terraforming is about three orders of magnitude more difficult than you think it is. And that’s probably true no matter how difficult you think it is.

Finding a planet of suitable size whose orbit is at the right distance from its primary to provide a surface between the freezing and boiling points of water isn’t even the start of the difficulties. The planet is going to need an iron core that’s rotating in relation to the surface. Why? Because the magnetic field generated by the core is what keeps life on the surface from being toasted by cosmic rays. If the planet doesn’t already have a rotating iron core, there is no conceivable technology that could create one, so your terraformers may have to hunt for a while to find a planet that’s a good candidate.

Nor are cosmic rays the only source of toasting. Your planet is going to need an ozone layer high in the atmosphere to screen out the ultraviolet light.

But let’s not worry about that yet. Ozone is made of oxygen, and you haven’t got any oxygen. Oxygen is produced by photosynthesis. In order to put free oxygen in the atmosphere, you’re going to need plants — or, at the very least, cyanobacteria. But let’s not worry about that yet. First you need water. Billions of tons of water.

Our best theory about where the water on Earth came from is that there’s water in comets, and early in Earth’s history (like, four billion years ago), the surface was being bombarded by comets. This is a very reasonable theory. Science fiction writers may therefore want to imagine that terraforming a world (either Mars or one in another solar system) will involve steering a whole bunch of comets in from the outer edges of the solar system and crash-landing them on the planet. Computing the proper trajectory so as to get a comet to hit a planet is fairly trivial, even for a 21st century computer. But first you have to find the comets, and then you have to propel them.

The amount of rocket propellant required would be non-trivial. If your shipload of intrepid explorers is in some other solar system, they definitely won’t have brought along the amount of rocket propellant required. Whether it’s even possible to travel by rocket to another solar system is very doubtful, so your novel is going to have to propose some form of magic physics, both to move your explorers’ ship and to then move the comets.

The comets, even after you find them and aim them in toward the inner part of the solar system, won’t arrive for some years. Until they arrive, the terraforming can’t even begin.

Once you have a planetary surface swimming in fresh ocean, what are you going to do? Our current technology is not able to build even a single living cell from scratch. To design an entire ecosystem, which will of necessity contain millions upon millions of species (many of them microbes), is not something that contemporary science can even imagine. And to drop the entire ecosystem down on the planet at once, trillions of tons of living organisms — living earthworms, living insects to pollinate the living plants, living bacteria to fix the nitrogen in the plants’ roots — oh, wait. We forgot the part about the oxygen. Your plants and earthworms are about to be toasted by the ultraviolet radiation. You have to make gazillions of tons of oxygen before you initiate the cycle of seeding living organisms. How are you going to do that?

If you can wait a couple of billion years, this stuff gets a lot easier. Life on Earth has been around for at least 3.5 billion years. But for the first 2 billion years and more, it was all single-celled life. There weren’t even any jellyfish yet. Multicelled life appeared on Earth only around 500 million years ago. And even then, the evolution of vertebrates who could live on land proceeded very, very slowly.

I’m not saying that terraforming is impossible. I’m saying merely that it would require Godlike powers. If your interstellar travelers bear even the faintest resemblance culturally or technologically to the familiar humans you meet on the street, forget it. There is no conceivable technology with which any alien species, much less humans, could produce a livable planet in less than a thousand years or so, and even that vastly accelerated process would be so filled with pitfalls that your Godlike aliens would surely have to work the kinks out by trying and failing multiple times.

This is why I write fantasy rather than science fiction. Science fiction is too hard.

You Just Don’t Understand…

It is a curious fact how often those who are most in need of insight into how they might improve their fiction writing are also among the most reluctant to accept suggestions. In the past I’ve suggested that this is because the craft of fiction is largely invisible. My words on a page will look very much like your words on a page. To discern the differences, you need already to have a grasp of both the technical elements of prose and the felicities of prose style.

Beyond that, I think we can point the finger of blame at the dumbing down of the United States. Abroad in the land is a widespread and pernicious view that expertise is not only unnecessary but suspect — that, as the phrase goes, my ignorance is just as valid as your knowledge.

A third factor, and one that I’m sure I ought to pay more attention to, is the depth at which aspiring writers are emotionally committed to — we might almost say ennobled by — their scribblings. A bizarre and garbled story concept that has no hope whatever of being commercially viable or even of passing interest to more than a few readers may embody the working out of some deeply felt emotional need on the part of the writer. Beyond that, an inept writer who has been emotionally abused (quite possibly for reasons that have nothing to do with his writing) may need not only to put words onto paper as a raw outpouring in order to demonstrate to himself his own unimpaired competence; but may need also, and more imperatively, to see that outpouring validated, as unlikely as the prospect may be, through the unstinting admiration of others. In such a case, the writer is bound to take criticism of the writing very badly — to experience it as a personal attack.

If one participates, as I do, in an occasional public forum whose ostensible purpose is for writers to discuss their work and their struggles with it, how is one to work out whether a given writer is really seeking comments that will improve her work, or whether she is actually seeking unqualified approval and emotional support using the presentation to others of her dismal writing as a springboard or game marker?

One might also ask whether, in the latter case, one ought to tiptoe quietly away, or whether one ought to suggest ever so gently that she might better achieve her emotional goal by improving her writing rather than by defending it in its decrepitude.

For my own part, I’m quite aware (or I hope I am) when I do things in a paragraph or chapter that may be frowned on by other knowledgeable writers. I’m not always willing to change! I’m trying neither to maximize the commercial potential of my work nor to live up to some rigid and exalted standard of “good” writing. Sometimes I write a passage in a certain way just because I’m having fun. I’m satisfying my own emotional need or my own peculiar taste, and that’s all I aspire to do.

My longstanding motto is, “There are no rules for how to play with the toys.” If the novel you’re writing isn’t your favorite toy, you’re probably writing the wrong novel.

Yet at the same time, I try not to invalidate whatever criticism I receive (unless it’s plainly just wrong-headed). Sometimes other people have good ideas. Sometimes they notice things I have missed.

None of us is so smart that we don’t need a second opinion from another story doctor. If you think you’re a misunderstood genius, you’re wrong. As the Firesign Theatre once put it, we’re all bozos on this bus.