Tuesday, October 30, 2012

TTYU Retro: Hard Choices Require Consequences

One of the most compelling things you can encounter in a story (either short or long) is a hard choice. The character gets to a certain point in the story and has to decide whether to take this path or that one, whether to hurt someone by doing one thing or hurt another person by doing something else. I don't know about you, but when I sense a hard choice coming it engages me wonderfully. Oh, my goodness, look at the conflict that is going to come out of that!

This is good. However, the big risk with setting up a hard choice is that you have to follow through.

I've read a number of books recently that involved hard choices, and at least two of them have let me down. The author has gotten me deeply engaged in the question of what choice will be made, and what the consequences of that choice might be... and then suddenly changed the game. Either the choice became unnecessary, suddenly, or the protagonist decided she was going to have her cake and eat it too, and for some reason that was okay with everybody.

I found this very disappointing, but when I think about it now, I wonder to myself why it is that I feel so disappointed. Why shouldn't I be happy that this horror for the protagonist isn't going to take place? Why shouldn't I be pleased that in the end, everything is going to work out?

In part it may be because this feels to me like what Janice Hardy calls "nice writer syndrome," where an author isn't hard enough on his/her characters and the story has less impact as a result. It's important to remember that one of the reasons we care about a character is because that character might have something bad happen to him or her. If there are no consequences, it's easy to think that the character's choices simply don't matter. As you can imagine, Janice herself doesn't suffer from this! (Just read The Shifter and all will become clear...)

The other part of it, I think, is the sneaking suspicion that the author might be playing with us as readers. That we're being led to anticipate an enormous consequence, getting worked up with excitement at the prospect, and then told that it really wasn't important anyway. The only way I think one could get away with this as an author would be by leaving so much evidence through the story that there was another way out of the situation, that when readers finally got there the whole thing would click together and we'd say "why didn't I see that option before?"

I realized at a certain point that I'd set up a big choice in For Love, For Power. Unlike in the last novel I wrote, the choice isn't central to the climax of the book (does she go into the magical world or not?); in this case it has to do with the relationships that happen between the characters. I hadn't really thought through it until recently, but I'm realizing that readers will think Tagret has to choose between his relationship with Reyn and his relationship with Della. If I had defused that question too early, say by having Reyn lose interest, or (God forbid) die, then I wouldn't have been taking advantage of all the potential conflicts that my book offers. I think of it as an opportunity that I'm happy not to have lost through lack of attention. Once I started thinking about it as a hard choice, then I realized some changes that could happen in later chapters of the book that would really make things fraught with tension, conflict, and doubt. Since tension, conflict, and doubt all increase the amplitude of the story's impact, I'm definitely going to head in the direction of facing the choice rather than defusing it. There have to be potentially bad consequences either way the choice goes, because a choice that is too obviously good on one side and bad on the other really isn't a choice at all.

What choices do your characters have to make? What kind of consequences do they entail?

It's something to think about.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TTYU Retro: Designing a dialect without changing spelling

I'm sure most of you have read books where the author changed the spelling of words in order to express the pronunciation of a particular dialect. It used to be done all the time (Huckleberry Finn, A Little Princess etc.). Even now it can be done well, and even brilliantly (I think immediately of the dialects invented by Mike Flynn for The January Dancer and Up Jim River). However, if it isn't done right, it can be embarrassing, inconsistent or even incomprehensible.

This is why I don't do it. I still do dialects, though, so this article is about how to make dialects sound different without actually changing spelling to reflect pronunciation.

Fortunately, there is a lot more to dialect variation than pronunciation alone. There are also variations in pronoun usage, variations in syntax, variations in prosody (intonation and meter), variations in the use of the verb "be," and variations in vocabulary. Because I'm talking about writing in English, I'm going to stick to these - but it's good to be aware that in other languages, you can also have variation in other parameters (in Japanese, verb endings also vary by dialect!).

So let's do these one at a time, with some concrete examples. Pronouns (I/you/he/she/they/etc.) are a wonderful tool. Any change you make in the way you use them will be highly visible, because they resist change rather wonderfully (it's extremely difficult to get a reader's mind to accept a new made-up pronoun unless it resembles an existing pronoun very closely).

A great science fictional example of pronoun change comes from the work of Aliette de Bodard, who works with the Xuya Empire, a wonderful far-future version of the Chinese empire. In this universe, the Emperor is always referred to as "The Emperor ytself." I'm not sure about you, but the moment I see this I know that I'm looking at a genderless pronoun. There are two things working for me when I interpret this. One is that the pronoun would be pronounced just like the pronoun "itself." The second is that it has a very simple spelling change that tells my brain "look out!" This spelling change also leads me not to expect the default interpretation of "itself," i.e. that there is some kind of genderless object running the empire. There's a lot of mystery surrounding the person of the emperor here, but I don't immediately guess that the place is being run by some sort of machine.

I decided to change pronouns when I was designing the undercaste dialect of Varin, but in a more extensive way. These people start using plural pronouns for each other as soon as they reach adulthood. Now, surely most of you are familiar with the pronoun "y'all" from the American south. When I first learned it I thought it was used as a plural form of "you." Interestingly, though, at least in some regions it is a singular.

y'all = you (singular)
all y'all = all of you (plural)

This was a good thing, because I knew that the idea of pluralizing a pronoun wouldn't push people too far outside their comfort zones. However, I pluralized more than just the second person.

I => we
we => all-we
you => ye
you => all-ye
he/she => they
they => all-they

The result is extreme, but comprehensible once you get the hang of it. I was trying to make sure I introduced it in a very comprehensible context, so the first line that contains one of these pronouns is this:

"Give it to us, then."

Perhaps you notice the similarity to existing English dialects from the UK? This was fortuitous, but I'm ready to use it to the hilt, and you should be too, so remember this: the dialect you create may well evoke existing Earth dialects, and if it resembles one that bears some social similarities (casualness, lower-class) to the group you are working with in your world, this will really help your readers to get the picture.

Variations in syntax are cases when you change the order of words. For most of you, I'm guessing Yoda will leap to mind. He's weird (and possibly annoying) but he is comprehensible. One of his main strategies is to take the object of the sentence and promote it up to the front of the sentence, so that instead of Subject-verb-object, you get Object-subject-verb:

Your father he is.

Now, if you go in and start doing an analysis of everything Yoda says, you'll find he's not particularly systematic. However, when you're altering syntax for your dialect, I encourage you to be so. If you can stick to a particular pattern, then the learning and comprehension burden is reduced for your readers.

I did my own syntactic alterations when I was designing the alien voice for "Cold Words" (Analog, Oct. 2009), and I've analyzed it here on the blog, so I'll direct you to that article if you want lots of details about how it was done. That was a case of rendering an alien language in English, so it had a lot of different feature changes! [An Introduction to Aurrel]

Variations in prosody can be huge. This is intonation and stress, and all you have to do is choose words carefully and put them in a particular order to get it done. You don't have to change spellings, and you don't have to use special words. I have at least a couple of characters whose dialects are distinguished only by word and rhythmic patterning. Here is one example:

Pelismara (standard) dialect:
"You're all right now. How do you feel?"

Safe Harbor sea level dialect:
"Oh, young Master, sir, please tell us now you've not gone deaf or blind, and ease us all our worry?"

I shouldn't forget to mention "be." This is a verb that does a lot of helping but isn't very heavy on content, so perhaps that's why it ends up changing so much. Some dialects of English don't conjugate it at all. "I be going..." "They be good people..." etc. Change your default language on Facebook to "Pirate" and see what happens! This means that not only are people accustomed to seeing the word "be" used in variable ways (and thus will tolerate your alterations more easily) but that using the unconjugated "be" gives a very particular flavor to the dialect you're creating. This can definitely work to your advantage.

The next one to look at is changing vocabulary. In fact, if you're writing in another world, you're probably doing this already. Science fictional neologisms like viewport, commlink, etc. all would fall into this category, and so would created words for objects in fantasy worlds like "laran" psychic power in the Darkover world of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross. The thing to watch out for here is not to create so much new vocabulary that you're interfering with comprehension. SF neologisms have the advantage that very often they're pieces of existing words, like "mods" for modifications. However, if the context is not clear, they can also become confusing. One great thing you can do with vocabulary is create a sense of judgment and perspective. I've mentioned before that any object in a world will tend to be called different things by different people. A weapon used specifically by one group of people will tend to have the name of that group associated with it (in Varin, Arissen weapon or Imbati shot) - but only when being referred to by an outsider group. Arissen would never refer to their energy weapons as "Arissen weapons," because that wouldn't make any sense. They would have intimate knowledge of the variations in these weapons, and so would categorize them based on their function, as bolt shooters vs. arc zappers. Their familiarity with the types would show in the casualness of the terminology. We see similar things in our own world when we're looking at how laypeople versus clergy refer to objects having to do with the church, or how laypeople vs. medical practitioners refer to health issues.

As you can see, changes in vocabulary can hint about attitudes and culture within the group that uses those words. The terms we choose will have flavor, so as you make these alterations, think through which flavor it is you want to impart to the dialogue. If you want to go even further, you can think about how the usage of a particular dialect reflects historical developments, or cultural developments, in the community you're working with (the undercaste plural pronouns have a cultural and historical motivator, for example).

All this is just to say that if you restrict yourself from using spelling as a major tool in creating a dialect, you're really not "restricting" yourself much at all.

Now, go forth and have fun creating dialects!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

TTYU Retro: Aligning characters ambiguously (remember The Princess Bride?)

I'm a sucker for ambiguously aligned characters. Good guys who turn into bad guys, bad guys who turn out to be good guys, those folks are just plain fun. I write stories with this kind of character all the time, but I was reminded of them recently when my kids and I watched The Princess Bride.

I'm sure most of you are dearly familiar with Inigo and Fezzik. During our first viewing I became fascinated by the fact that these two characters are immediately likeable despite the fact that they've just kidnapped the princess along with Vizzini. So during our second and third viewings (since people, especially children, like to see fabulous things more than once) I took a look at our introduction to these two characters.

Basically, after our first view of them which involves them knocking out Buttercup, we immediately shift, not to her point of view of them on the ship, but to their own internal squabbles. Inigo demonstrates curiosity about what exactly they are doing ("what is that you are ripping?"), showing that he's not entirely aware of their mission. Then when Vizzini describes the basics of of his plan to frame Guilder by killing Buttercup and leaving her on the frontier, Fezzik reveals that he wasn't totally in on the plan either, and that he has morals well-aligned with our own ("I just don't think it's right, killing an innocent girl."). We then get an opportunity to witness Vizzini's cruelty applied to his own accomplices as he dresses them down.

This is a good start, but on its own, I don't think it would be enough to convince me that Inigo and Fezzik were anything more than weak bad guys, or at a stretch, decent guys forced into nefarious deeds by circumstance. The point where I really start liking them is when I see Fezzik clearly have hurt feelings as a result of Vizzini's tirade, and then Inigo comes over to him and starts deliberately consoling him by starting the rhyming game. At this point, these two characters are no longer simply henchmen who do their boss' bidding. They are actual people, friends in fact, who care about each other and also have a sense of humor... a sense of humor which they are entirely willing to use at Vizzini's expense ("Anybody want a peanut?"). This pattern is then confirmed as we go forward into Vizzini's mercilessness and Fezzik's inability to use his considerable power (the fact that he's literally dangling Vizzini over a cliff) to win an argument. It continues into Inigo and Fezzik's interactions with the Man in Black, where we are also given glimpses into the backstory of each character. In fact I don't think that it would be nearly as difficult to guess the identity of the Man in Black if we immediately concluded he had to be a "good guy" because Fezzik and Inigo were "bad guys."

I think there are some good lessons to be learned here about what it is that makes a character likeable. Readers and viewers collect evidence in a character's interactions which they use to establish that character's qualities and alignments. Clearly even criminal behavior (kidnapping) can be quickly outweighed by evidence of reluctance and human caring. It's good to remember this if you're creating ambiguously aligned characters, and even if you have a protagonist who has to do bad things. We don't blame Janice Hardy's Nya for stealing, because she's stealing eggs when she could potentially choose to steal something much worse, and then only because she's starving. Her human qualities come to the fore much more quickly.

What do your characters do to show us that they are human? Does it make them seem more complex? Does it make them likeable?

It's something to think about.

Monday, October 15, 2012

So, I bought Scrivener...

Yes, I'd been talking about it, and I finally did it. I think the thing that pushed me over the edge was taking my four separate Microsoft Word files containing my novel, and trying to make them into one big file so I could send it to friends. Simple cut and paste led to weird font shifts, and lots of extra work, and I thought to myself, "I'm not in mid-process any more. I have time to figure out a new program."

I had heard about Scrivener from my friend Jamie Todd Rubin, and I started in on my tutorial last night. First impression? I think it's going to be awesome for me. I'm a big outliner and organizer, and this program lets you do all kinds of labeling that will be fantastic, like marking whose point of view different chapters are in, etc.

I will let you all know how things look as I continue on through the process. I'm hoping to move all my writing over to this program so I have one "home base."

So far, it's looking really cool.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

In which I address the "Next Big Thing" Meme (because Mike Allen tagged me)

My friend Mike Allen, who blogs over at Descent into Light tagged me, among others. I'm supposed to answer ten questions about my work in progress, so I'm going to use the book I just finished revisions on.

So here goes:

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

1. What is the title of your book?
For Love, For Power.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
This book came to be as a result of a trilogy I had written. I had written about the downfall of a complex caste society, and I found at the end of it that I had a lot of unanswered questions about the society before it fell - how people lived, and why the nobles were so unhappy (because I was convinced they were unhappy) and how a society in decay managed to keep itself operating. The book was born out of my desire to delve into the intimate operations of this decadence, and also to explore the adolescent psychological development of some of the characters who played large roles in the later story as I had imagined it. Part of this also stemmed from my desire to get past the archetypes of "good ruler" "bad ruler" "nobility" "servant" and "undercaste" and really try to expand these traditional fantasy roles into a sociologically, anthropologically, and psychologically accurate environment, as if they were real (or perhaps science fiction).

3. What genre does your book fall under?
The book is definitely fantasy, but skews toward the science fictional in its advanced technology and in the scientific underpinnings of its events.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I love to try casting my books, though I'm limited in my knowledge of current actors. Here's the best list I've been able to come up with:
Tagaret (protagonist): Kevin Michael McHale
Reyn (Tagaret's friend): Chris Colfer
Della (Tagaret's love interest): Molly Quinn
Nekantor (Tagaret's insane brother): D.J. Qualls
Lady Tamelera (Tagaret's mother): Miranda Otto
Aloran (Lady Tamelera's servant): Harry Shum, Jr.
Grobal Garr (Tagaret's father): Alfred Molina
Sorn (Garr's servant): Viggo Mortensen
The Eminence Herin: Will Smith

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?
A young nobleman battles his insane brother to keep him from seizing power.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I'm represented by the Grayson Agency, and I hope Ashley will be excited about this book!

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took just over two years. That is, if you don't count the first time I tried to write it and only got 40% through before it ground to a halt. The world design took a lot longer.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?
It's something like Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey, only without the S&M; also something like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, but without the gods/magic system.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
As I mentioned above, it was initially inspired by questions about a trilogy I had written. However, I was also inspired by deep social issues that I've been encountering recently, such as the paradoxical effects of politics, the experiences of oppressed women, the question of sexual preference, and the question of how one can begin to recognize the effects of social privilege in one's life.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Three things, I think. First is that it takes place in a glittering cavern city with an ancient history. Second is that including Nekantor's point of view meant I could write an obsessive compulsive paranoid sociopath from the inside (fun!). Third is that we get to peek not only into the noble viewpoints, but into the viewpoint of Aloran, the servant. Members of the servant caste are high-ranking personal servants with a very different view on service and selflessness from what you might expect, and they consider themselves fortunate not to have been born into the nobility!

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged. Mike Allen tagged me, as I mentioned above. I have a few people I'd like to tag, too: Lillian Csernica, Janice Hardy, Dario Ciriello, and Doug Sharp. Tag - you're it!




Wednesday, October 10, 2012

TTYU Retro: A checklist for deep POV (in 1st or 3rd person!)

It's been a year since I first posted my most successful post ever! So today we're revisiting it. I love POV!

Have you ever wondered what "deep point of view" is, or thought you might like to try to achieve it?  Essentially, deep point of view means feeling "close" to the narrator in a story. It's a question of narrative distance: instead of being a distant storyteller aware of the story being told, the deep narrator feels as close to the protagonist and her/his instinct and gut reactions as possible. Since I've always loved feeling like I am experiencing the story in a visceral way alongside my protagonists, I've spent a number of years developing techniques for deep POV, trying to push closer and closer. The first article I ever wrote on point of view appeared in 2006 for the Internet Review of Science Fiction: "Point of View: Reading Beyond the I's." Since I've seen people discussing the question of deep POV again lately, I thought I'd put together a checklist of things you can do in order to create it.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind as you enter the task of creating deep POV is this: deep point of view is not created by personal pronouns. It has almost nothing to do with whether you are using first person or third person - you can make third person feel close or first person feel distant if you really try. Any text contains lots and lots of different opportunities to get closer or further away from your narrating character, and the more "close" opportunities you take, the closer your narrator will feel. The list below will give you a sense of where to look for these opportunities. Please do keep in mind that none of these are "rules," and you do not have to do all of them.

I'm going to go through each point of the checklist in detail first, and then repeat it at the end as a summary so you can run through it more easily. (So if you want to get the overview first, you can skip down to the end now and then come back.)

Here we go:

1. avoid overuse of personal pronouns
Personal pronouns are the ones people always ask about first when they talk about point of view. Usually they're either "I" (first person) or "he" or "she" (third person) but sometimes can be "you" (second person). Just because you've chosen one or the other of them does not mean that every sentence, or even every other sentence, should start with one. As a guideline for where you should use these pronouns and where you should not use them, think about dividing your character's narrative into action, perception, and judgment. Action sentences are the ones where your character is doing something, and those are the ones which will use personal pronouns. Perception sentences are the ones where your character is remarking on something that he/she perceives (sees, hears, smells, feels, etc.), and those should not use personal pronouns. Judgment sentences are the ones where your character is expressing an opinion about something that's happening, and those shouldn't usually use personal pronouns either. Chances are, if you're using personal pronouns for perception or judgment, then you're filtering.

2. avoid filtering
Filtering means putting extra words into your sentence that remove the reader from the experience of the character. When you go through your life you probably don't think distantly about what you're perceiving. You hear a car horn and you don't think, "I'm hearing a car horn." You think, "Hey, that's a car horn!" The filtering words in this case are "I'm hearing." Anything that describes the narrator's thought or mode of perception "I heard," "I saw," "I felt," etc. should be considered a filter between the reader and the character's experience. Expressing opinions is similar. You don't think to yourself, "I think that slime is disgusting." You think, "Eww, that's disgusting!" In a way, by writing down "I thought," or other filter words, you're reminding readers of the character's presence, drawing attention to the fact that he/she is a character in a book they're reading. If you do this as little as possible, your point of view will feel deeper.  

3. use internalization
I'm going to pick up here on what I said in #2 above about what one thinks to oneself. Your character is going through the story, acting on the basis of what happens to him or her. In deep point of view you're trying to create the sensation that your reader is deep in the character's head, and that means listening directly to the character's thoughts - most often, right as they are having them. If you try to think of everything in deep point of view as internal in some way, then all description becomes perception. I'll come back to this below, because I'll be looking at a lot of tools to make description feel internal. My point here is that only what the character perceives should be described. Then, once something has been perceived (the character sees a rose; the character gets stabbed, etc.), then the character will have an emotional reaction, possibly one which evokes memories of backstory. After that, the character will form a motivation to respond and then he/she will respond.

Now I'm going to move into some more detailed techniques that involve specific grammar, and will contribute to the success of the first three above.

4. use deixis, or pointing words
When you move through life, you spend a lot of time pointing, both physically and verbally. Which one do you want? That one. Whose is that? Mine. Your character should be doing this, too. The trick to remember as a writer is that all pointing words indicate a "center" where the speaker is standing. Remember when the teacher called your name in class? You answered, "Here!" The word "here" points to the center; it points to yourself. In your narrative, the pointing words should all indicate your point of view character as the center. It's not actually very hard to make pointing words point to the character as the center in the case of dialogue, but it's much harder to remember to pay attention to the pointing words in general narrative. Every time you write "the night before" instead of "last night," you're taking a step away from your character's deep perspective. It's very easy to make pointing words in narrative point to you, as author, without even thinking about it. But in deep point of view, you don't want anything pointing outside the character. That character isn't aware that he/she is in a story, and thus you don't want author-centered pointing to remind readers that the author is still there. Here's a list of some kinds of pointing words that you can look out for (it's not an exhaustive list, so make sure to keep your eye out!).
  • demonstratives this and that (especially this)
Example: "This was what he'd been looking for." 
  • adverbs here and there (especially here)
Example: "He walked into the lab. Here was where it had all happened."
  • adverbs now, soon, today, tomorrow, last night
 Example: "Last night it had seemed only a memory, but now it loomed ahead of him."
  • verbs come, go
 Example: "The thing was coming closer."

5. use syntax
This one is directly related to the question of the character's action as I mentioned above. A character's action is anything from "He held perfectly still" to "She grabbed the knife and dived over the edge of the platform." I like to think of it as things the point of view character does which involve intent. Even things like "She looked at him" and "He didn't move" can be deliberate actions on the part of the protagonist. Mind you, they could be external too - they are open to either interpretation - but if everything around them is indicating an internal point of view, then these will be read as internal as well. The guidelines below basically are saying that you want to indicate that your deep point of view character is in charge of her/his own action by placing her/him in the subject position of the main clause of the sentence as much as possible.
  • place the protagonist (or the protagonist's group) in subject position
Example: "She reached for him." "They walked together into her room."
  • avoid placing the protagonist in object or other syntactic position
Example: "He reached for her." (if used too much, can sound like "he" is the protagonist)
  • avoid placing the protagonist in a subordinate clause for action
Example: "As she walked in, the door swung shut." (puts emphasis on the door's action)
  • use empty subject constructions to convey judgment
Example: "It was ridiculous to think anyone would actually follow him."
I'm going to explain this one a little bit. Notice that my protagonist, "she" is not present in this sentence. That's because we're not looking at an action sentence. This is a judgment sentence, and thus, if I said "She thought it was ridiculous..." then putting her as the subject would create filtering, not a sense of action. We often use the empty "It is"/"It was" with judgmental adjectives to think about situations in our experience, so I encourage you to do this for deep POV.
  • use bare verb+preposition combinations
Example: "He walked up."
This one is related to my point above about not putting the protagonist in object position. If I wrote out the whole situation, "He walked up to her," then she would appear in a non-subject position. If I leave "to her" off, then I find it seems more like what someone would think internally.

One last note of caution on syntax: when I say to avoid something, I'm not telling you you can't put your protagonist in these syntactic positions. I'm only trying to say that the effect will be different if you do: the emphasis will seem to rest somewhere other than on the protagonist's intent to act. Sometimes this is what people are actually referring to when they say to avoid "passive" constructions. However, if that different effect is what you want (for example, if you want the protagonist to be perceived as victimized) then no problem.
6. use adjectives, adverbs, and similes with judgmental connotations
In deep point of view, what you're describing isn't what you're describing. It's what your character is perceiving, noticing, and judging. Anything your character doesn't perceive shouldn't even make it into the description (I'll come back to this in a second). Whenever you describe a scene or an object, think through how your character perceives it. Describing something as "red" feels very different from describing it as "dirty red" or "sparkling red." Saying someone moves "reluctantly" is a judgment by the person perceiving it. Maybe that person is only moving slowly for some other reason. A character will compare something he/she sees to familiar things - so what is familiar? If you say her hair is like silk, presumably you know what silk is like. If your character compares something to silk but is too poor ever to have encountered it, you're looking at author point of view, not character point of view. I have a longer article about this, here

7. use evidential adverbs and modal verbs
Whenever you can, it's important to create a sense of internal judgment - even in contexts where you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find it. Modal verbs and evidential adverbs can help you do this. I have a longer article about this, here, but here are some examples of how to use these.
  • can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, have to
These are the modal verbs, and each of them says something about the speaker's evaluation of the situation - likelihood, possibility, probability, will to accomplish something, etc. All of these are very subjective, and thus add a sense of internal evaluation to what is being said. For example, instead of writing "The ninja kicked him, but he quickly recovered from the blow," you could say, "The guy might be a ninja, but he couldn't kick hard enough to keep him down for long." And that brings me to...
  • apparently, evidently, of course, clearly, surely, no doubt, naturally, likely, etc.
These adverbs indicate the protagonist's judgment of the sentence or proposition that follows, how likely or expected it is, and what they think of the source of the information. In fact, you'll hear a lot out there about how you should be avoiding adverbs altogether, but they can be extremely useful. In this article alone I've mentioned them now three times! Adverbs expressing time, adverbs expressing judgment of actions in description, and adverbs expressing the protagonist's judgment of information are all extremely helpful to creating deep point of view.

8. use articles "a" and "the"
I just wrote an article about this one last week, but I'm going to add to it here. "The" indicates known information. It is especially useful in indicating places or things that your protagonist is already familiar with. As such it's really useful when you want to create a sense of internal point of view, because you can use it to reflect your character's internal knowledge. Be careful not to use it to reflect your own (the author's) knowledge rather than the character's. "A" indicates new information. As such it's a really critical tool because "a" is the primary indicator of noticing. If your character uses "a" with something, that means he/she has noticed that thing. Watch out for this, especially if you're trying to get a message to your reader without having your character get the same message. For example, your character can walk into a room where there's a really important key (a clue, or something needed to advance the plot), and just see it as "a room full of junk" (in which case the reader won't know the key is there) or "a room full of junk like old books, keys, and stationery" (here the reader might be able to pick up that the key is there, especially if some other hint has caused them to look for it). Here's the trick: the minute the character says she sees a key, that means she's noticed it. It's then up to the author to decide whether to show how the character responds - whether she looks by without thinking it's important, or whether she goes, "hey, that's the key I was looking for!" 

9. use voice
Voice is a topic about which whole reams of information can be (and have been) written. What I'll say here is that if you're striving for a deep point of view that directly relates the inner thoughts of your protagonist, then those thoughts should reflect the way that character actually expresses him/herself. If this is a person who speaks a dialect, then the dialect should influence the internalization as well as the character's dialogue (though the internalization doesn't have to be quite as extreme as the dialogue). If this is a non-native speaker of English, find a way for the narrative and internalization to reflect that (as well as the person's level of proficiency in English, and level of education, so they don't sound needlessly stupid). If this is a person who swears, then that should show up in internalization. Whenever you can, consider whether your character's reaction would be worth expressing with direct thought exclamations. These are things like taking "He wondered if he could..." and turning it into "Could he...?", or taking "He wished..." and turning it into "If only...", or taking "She didn't want to..." and turning it into "No way would she..." or even "Damned if she was going to..." These can of course be overused, but they certainly will deepen the reader's sense of your point of view.


So, now that we've discussed everything in detail, here is the summary checklist:


1. avoid overuse of personal pronouns
  • Personal pronouns are for action with intent.
  • Try to avoid them for perception and judgment.
2. avoid filtering

3. use internalization
  • all description becomes perception.
4. use deixis, or pointing words
  • demonstratives this and that (especially this)
  • adverbs here and there (especially here)
  • adverbs now, soon, today, tomorrow, last night 
  • verbs come, go
5. use syntax
  • place the protagonist (or the protagonist's group) in subject position
  • avoid placing the protagonist in object or other syntactic position
  • avoid placing the protagonist in a subordinate clause for action
  • use empty subject constructions to convey judgment
  • use bare verb+preposition combinations
6. use adjectives, adverbs, and similes with judgmental connotations

7. use evidential adverbs and modal verbs
  • can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, have to
  • apparently, evidently, of course, clearly, surely, no doubt, naturally, likely, etc.
8. use articles "a" and "the"

  • "The" indicates known information.  
  • "a" is the primary indicator of noticing
9. use voice
  • dialect
  • profanity/swearing style
  • "direct thought" exclamations (if only, no way, damned if)
I hope you find it helpful in your own writing and editing.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

I finished my revisions! And the nerves are ramping up...

Yesterday afternoon, while my kids were playing with some friends, I fixed the last thing on the list of revisions to my novel. I've been working on For Love, For Power for more than two years, and it has been fun, difficult, and occasionally heartbreaking. The heartbreaking part was two years ago Thanksgiving, when we had a break-in and both our computers were stolen. I was fortunate in that I only lost two and a half chapters of my work. Rewriting those two and a half chapters did make them better, but still...

This novel takes place in my Varin world, which some of you are familiar with and others of you might not have heard of (especially if you've joined the blog recently). It's a world I've been working on, and working in, for twenty years or more. The first story ever published from it was "The Eminence's Match," in Panverse Publishing's Eight Against Reality anthology. In fact, that was the first time I felt I'd really achieved a story that executed this world in a way I could be proud of. And I'm happy to say that For Love, For Power has built on that. I love how it turned out.

This means I am very very nervous now. I'm not sure how many of you have projects that have been this long in their creation (world + novel), but I'm sure you have projects you care about deeply. Whenever something like this is about to hit the world and be evaluated, I get super-nervous! Feedback is really important to me, so I have one more person looking at it (and may ask one more) before I send it to my agent. That's when things get really serious.

Yes, I am rather fried in my brain. Getting this out was a huge effort that required an enormous amount of drive and concentration, and right now I just want to sit and cuddle my cat! But I will keep you all updated as the submissions process on this one begins.

Thanks to all of you who have supported me! You're the best.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

TTYU Retro: Chapter Transitions and Story Drive

What is it that creates the sensation of story drive?

There is no one single thing that does, of course (no surprise). A character with goals, a sense of danger, making sure not to include any irrelevant description (or any description that doesn't fit with the mental state of a protagonist in a dangerous hurry). But that generally is what happens within the narrative, as you're reading along through a chapter.

How do you sustain story drive over a chapter break?

Point 1: A cliffhanger ending alone is not sufficient.
Cliffhangers come in different forms. Someone can be literally hanging from a cliff, can make a dangerous discovery, etc. Anything that makes a reader go "Aigh, what happens next?" Just make sure not to keep the answer hidden. Pick it up in the very next sentence if possible. I can't tell you how frustrating it is to be left demanding the answer to something and then either have the answer appear in backstory to the next chapter so you never see it, or have the next chapter not address the question at all. It doesn't have to answer the question directly, necessarily, but please don't make me ask that question and then hide the answer outside the narrative. "Aigh" quickly turns into "Argh!"

Point 2: A continuous timeline is helpful for drive, but not necessary.
I really really like switching chapters inside of a critical moment. One chapter ends one second, and the very next second, the next one starts. For example, I have one direct handoff (this is my nickname for them) where Tagret's father takes him into a room and Tagret discovers that his father has been interviewing the servant Aloran. This is a real shock for Tagret because it's a move that will really upset his mother, and he's been fearing that his father is hiding something from his mother. The instant he makes the discovery, I switch chapters and begin with Aloran going, "Oh, no, it's Tagret!" We already know what the stakes are for Tagret, and it's less obvious how Tagret walking in is bad news for Aloran...but it is, and switching to his point of view allows me to show that, and then have Aloran take the narrative in a different direction immediately thereafter.

When you are using a continuous timeline, even if you aren't using a direct handoff, your readers don't have to do the work of re-orienting themselves every time they start a new chapter. This is work that will pull them off the drive of the story conflict, so if you want high drive, try to reduce the amount of orientation work they have to do at the beginning of any chapter.

Point 3: Even without a cliffhanger, and even without a continuous timeline, you can create a sense of direct continuity between chapters.

The way I recommend doing this is to look for cohesion elements. These are things that readers will recognize because they have seen them in the previous section of narrative, and they then show up in the next. Cohesion elements are very flexible. For example, you could have an object in the first piece and then have it appear in the second piece: I'm imagining a scene where a criminal encounters a hand mirror at a crime scene, and then in the next section you have the detective picking up the mirror to examine it as evidence. (I'm sure you've seen this done on TV also!) It doesn't have to be an object though. It can be a topic of conversation picked up by the protagonists. Or it can be a location. A location can be mentioned in conversation in the previous chapter and then you can show up there in the next one. It can be an activity that appears on either side of the divide (with or without different people engaging in it), or a theme.

Point 4: If you have no obvious cohesion elements, you're placing a big demand on your readers. You're saying to them, "Trust me, this is relevant." And in fact they'll probably go with you up to a certain point... but they will be actively searching for cohesion elements. In Dragon in Chains by Daniel Fox, he achieves a very dreamy sense of the entire story by not connecting all the pieces directly, but by making sure to drop cohesion elements when you're looking for them (sometimes two or three paragraphs into the scene, and you'll have this "Aha!" moment). It's very effective, but it's also risky and I could imagine some readers feeling confused at different points.

When you're working on a novel, keep your eye out for these cohesion elements. Try to use them consciously to bind the story together and keep up a sense of drive. Be aware that tiny things can make the difference between your readers taking a running step between chapters, taking a slow step, taking a long floating leap, or floating right off the page and out of your book for good.

It's something to think about.