Sign up for my newsletter to receive news and updates!

Posts Tagged ‘how i do it’

If You Ain’t Got That Zing

There are a lot of TV shows I try and just sort of drift away from, because they aren’t doing enough to hold my attention. The latest in this series is Black Lightning, which surprised me, because there are a number of things I like about its characters and its story. But in the end, its dialogue doesn’t have much of a particular element for which I can find no better term than “zing.”

Thanks, brain. “Zing.” That’s a real helpful way of describing it. >_<

Zing is not the same thing as witty banter — though many shows have mistaken the one for the other, and fill their scripts with dialogue that’s absolutely leaden in its attempt to be light. You can have zing in a deadly serious conversation (as Game of Thrones has proved). It’s a cousin, I think, of Mark Twain’s comment about the difference between the right word and the almost-right word being the difference between lightning and a lightning bug: it’s the lightning lines, the ones that leap off the page or the screen, the ones that don’t just get you from Narrative Point A to Narrative Point B but make the journey between them memorable. You see it in The Lion in Winter, which along with Twelve Angry Men made me wonder if this is a quality especially possessed by older stage plays — I haven’t seen enough older stage plays to be sure. At its apex, it’s the feeling that no line has been wasted or allowed to do the bare minimum of work. Think of The Princess Bride, and how many lines from that movie are quotable. It isn’t just because the lines themselves are good; it’s because there’s almost no flab in the script, every word simultaneously developing character and furthering the plot while also being entertaining.

Zing gets my attention, in a TV show or a movie or a book. Without it, my attention wanders a bit; I scrape a general sense of the story out of the mass of words used to tell it, but don’t engage on a moment-to-moment level. With it, I lose track of the world around me because I don’t want to miss anything in the tale. Zing makes me decide, before I’m two scenes into the first episode of a show, that I’ll give the second one a shot. Zing is what makes me plow through thousands of pages of Neal Stephenson making an utter hash of his plot, because he can describe a room in above a tavern on the seventeenth-century London Bridge in such riveting terms that I wind up reading it out loud twice, once to my husband and once to my sister.

I think this is what some people, when teaching the craft of writing, describe as “voice.” I’ve been known to rant about how I find that term completely unhelpful . . . but, well, here I am talking about “zing,” because my alternative is to wave my hands around in the air and make inarticulate noises. That thing. Over there. Do you see?

These days I’m reaching for it more in my own work, especially in one of the things I’m noodling around with right now. A character is hiding in a palace full of baroque decorations and complaining about the discomfort. There’s something jabbing into my back. No. There’s a carving jabbing into my back. No. There’s a gilded carving grinding into my kidney. Better. There’s a gilded figure of the South Wind imprinting itself on my left kidney. Better still.

Doing that for every sentence is exhausting. I have no idea how Stephenson keeps it up, especially while writing books that could double as foundation stones. But I suspect that, like many things in writing, after you’ve pushed at it for a while some parts of it just settle in as habit. I hope so, anyway, because I’m going to keep trying.

Ten pounds of story in a five-pound sack

I can’t say a lot about the work I do for Legend of the Five Rings because I signed an NDA. But the most recent round of brainstorming for a fiction has me reflecting on what this job is teaching me about making sure that the material I write pulls as much weight per word as possible, and I want to discuss that a little. So let’s see what balance I can strike between specificity and deliberately vague generalities!

The context here is that I have a fairly strict word count for each of my fictions: 3000 words max if they’re going into a pack, and 3000 with some wiggle room if they’re being published on the website. That is . . . not a whole lot. And the story of L5R is so sprawling that even with a bunch of writers producing a bunch of fictions, making sure that everything gets mentioned and explored and moved forward means we can’t afford to waste words. It isn’t enough for a given fiction to do one thing; it needs to do at least two, more like three or four, as many as we can stuff in there at once. Ten pounds of story in a five-pound sack.

Take the one I’ve got on my plate right now. The original query from the person I work with Fantasy Flight Games was, “Are you willing to write a story about Character and Group? Something to flesh them out.”

Me: “Sure! What do you think of Scenario?”

FFG: “Sounds good. Maybe you could work in how Character feels about Key Theme, and also expand a bit on Group’s Main Focus.”

Me: “I lean toward having Character feel this way about Key Theme, because that lets me make a contrast with Previously Mentioned Backstory Character. And for Group, maybe Side Character says XYZ — that adds depth to their personality because of Probable Reader Interpretation. Heck, I could even put in Callback to Other Plot A, in a way that layers in some ambiguity.”

FFG: “Great!”

Me: “OOOH. And — just spitballing here — but given the timing, what if we say that Side Character also has Information about Other Plot B, which of course they interpret in Particular Way?”

FFG: “Go for it. But maybe spin it a bit more to the left to emphasize Aspect.”

Me: “Awesome. I’ll have an outline for you shortly.”

It could have just been a story about Character and Group. It probably would have been a perfectly fine story. But the more we can build up these elements, expanding on some things and contrasting with others, making callbacks to previous material and introducing points of linkage in all directions, the richer the fiction becomes.

Not all of this will stand out, of course. Sometimes the work the fiction is doing is fairly subterranean, and only somebody who’s digging into the craft of it will notice that, for example, we’re spinning that last bit to heighten a particular flavor. The overall effect is there, though, and in the long run it pays off: you can poll the readership and they’ll agree that Character Q would never do a particular thing, without you ever saying that outright, because you’ve put enough data points on the table that they can extrapolate as needed. Things become three-dimensional; they feel interconnected. The world feels real.

In my novels I have a lot more room to work with, but it’s still a good lesson to bear in mind. Why just have two characters converse with each other, when their conversation could also be making metaphorical allusions to something from earlier and enriching the reader’s understanding of someone else not present for that scene? Why solve conflicts one at a time, when the solution could be taking out two problems, creating a third, and sending a fourth in an unexpected new direction? This is pretty standard advice for writing, but I feel like the level to which I’m doing it here is higher than usual, and rewardingly so.

Sustaining that over the long run is tough, of course. On the other hand, this is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it will get. So I’ll keep pumping narrative iron.

“Where do you get your ideas?”

When writers talk about questions they get asked too often, “Where do you get your ideas?” is often high on the list.

Which is odd to me, because I’ve rarely been asked that.

“Where did you get the idea for this book?,” sure. Got that one a lot with A Natural History of Dragons and the Memoirs of Lady Trent in general. But as a broad inquiry into my work as a writer, no. Still, it seems that other people do get asked about it frequently, so lately I’ve been pondering it, that I might be prepared when the question comes my way.


The Art of Cover Copy

Yoon Ha Lee recently posted about How to Write a Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen, which is a topic that’s been on my mind lately. I can’t swear that I’m a genius at cover copy — what Cohen calls a synopsis; it’s the stuff written on the back or inside flap of the book, or in the “description” field online — but I actually enjoy writing it. And lately I’ve found myself even thinking of various works in progress from that angle, because figuring out what I would put into the cover copy helps me focus on what’s core to the story, what I want to use to hook the reader.

Basic principles: you want the reader to know who your protagonist is and what conflict they face, and you want to do so in a fashion that’s consistent with the overall mood, whether that’s lighthearted or lyrical or grim. After that, you walk a tightrope between being specific enough to convey flavor and being general enough that you don’t drown the reader in new information. The latter is especially tough in speculative fiction, where sometimes presenting the conflict is nigh-impossible without first explaining the world. (Ask me some time about trying to summarize the Varekai novellas. Or better yet, don’t.) Writing cover copy requires you to develop your eye for what details are load-bearing (the text will make no sense without it), what details are beneficial (not necessary, but they add a lot), and what details are extraneous.

For novels, I often adhere to a three-paragraph approach. The first paragraph introduces the situation; the second introduces the problem; the third leaves the reader with a sense of momentum and/or tension, a clear awareness that you have shown them the tip of the iceberg, but there is much more to come. Yes, it’s formulaic — but formulas come into existence because they’re good, reliable workhorses.

Since discussing this kind of thing goes better with examples, I’m going to dissect my own copy for Lies and Prophecy, because I can say exactly why I made the choices I did. (It’s also my earliest effort, so not the best, but in some ways that makes it even more instructive.)


Story notes

Here’s a thing I’m a little proud of.

Reviews for Maps to Nowhere and Ars Historica have commented on my approach to story notes — not just the content thereof, but the way I put them into the book.

This was an idea I had when I published Monstrous Beauty a few years ago — a way to accommodate the different opinions on and approaches to short stories and their associated notes. It only works in ebook; in fact, it leverages the advantages of the form.

I put all the story notes at the end of the book, so you can ignore them if you want to, jump to them using the ebook’s table of contents if you like to read them first, or encounter them in due course after you’re done with everything else. But the real advantage comes if you’re the sort of person who likes to read the notes immediately before of after the story. (I’ll be honest; I don’t understand reading the notes first. But some people do, and who am I to tell them they’re having the wrong kind of fun.) At the end of each piece I put a link to the notes — and not one of those tiny footnote links that are almost impossible to tap, either, but a nice big line of text. That takes you to the relevant section at the end of the book . . . and then, when you reach the end of a given note, you have two links: “Return to story” or “Read next story.” So if you haven’t read it yet or you want to look back at it in light of what the notes have said, you can easily do that, without having to pull up the table of contents. And if you want to continue onward, you can do that, too.

It’s a minor thing overall — a little bit of convenience in navigation. But judging by the numbers of reviews I’ve seen that mention the approach to notes and linkage as a positive aspect, it works exactly as well as I hoped it would. And that pleases me.

The world’s most scattershot progress

I haven’t said much here about my work on the current novel — the one that’s a followup to the Memoirs — in part because it is so unlike the process of writing any other novel so far, I’m too busy figuring out what I’m doing to spare much attention for reporting in.

But hey, it’s useful to talk about what happens when you write a Totally Different Kind of Book. So here goes.


Two kinds of research

I’m starting to think there are two kinds of research — or rather, a spectrum with two ends. Quite possibly it’s a more multi-directional spectrum than that, but there are two ends that seem particularly applicable to my life.

The first kind is reading for facts. This is the type of research I did all the time for the Onyx Court books: I’m writing about a specific thing, and so I need to know stuff about it. What route did Elizabeth I’s coronation procession take? Where were the imprisoned members of Parliament held after Pride’s Purge? When did somebody calculate the moment of perihelion for Halley’s Comet in 1759? What actions were taken by Fenian terrorists in the later Victorian period? This extends to more general questions; a lot of my reading was to fill in broad topics along the lines of “what was life like in this period,” not because there was a specific detail I knew I needed, but because I needed a large mass of specific details to draw from in shaping my plot and laying out my scenes. And often one of those elements would suggest a new dimension to the story, so then I’m off down a new fact-reading rabbit hole; rinse and repeat until my deadline starts breathing down my neck and I have to quit adding to the pile.

The other kind of research is one I used to do all the time — but I didn’t really think of it as “research” back then. It was just, y’know, my life. I took an odd assortment of classes and read an odd assortment of books, and they all poured material into my head, and out of that came stories. This is reading for fodder, and I’m finally back to doing it, because I have several projects in the hopper that are all secondary-world, as opposed to urban fantasy (the Wilders series) or historical fantasy (Onyx Court) or what I think of as world-and-a-half (Memoirs of Lady Trent, halfway between historical and invented). It isn’t that I won’t wind up using specific details out of what I read; the difference is that in the end, I’m not actually writing about those things. Lately I’ve been reading a book on Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, Everyday Things in Premodern Japan, the Mahabharata, a book on the Sumerians, a bunch of Wikipedia articles on ancient Greek philosophy and society because I finished Jo Walton’s The Just City. Am I planning on writing anything set in Georgian England, Tokugawa Japan, ancient India, ancient Sumer, or ancient Greece? Not necessarily. But it’s all going into the mental compost heap, to intermix and break down and become fertile soil for ideas.

Some subconscious part of myself feels like I’m skiving off of work reading these things, because it’s been trained by nine books of historical or quasi-historical fiction to think the only real research is the kind done for facts. I need to do this, though, or else the worlds I invent will stay firmly in the box of “modified analogues,” places that can easily be mapped to single real-world origins. I need to throw a bunch of different things into my head at once, so that I come up with a society where there’s a deified emperor (a bit Roman, a bit Egyptian) and a caste system (a bit Indian) with a meritocratic way of changing your caste (a bit Chinese) and a clockpunky tech level (a bit Italian Renaissance) and so forth, without it being straightforwardly any of those things. If they wind up having an architecture a little bit like Tokugawa Japan or a schooling system like ancient Sumer, it will be because that happened to click into place, not because I had to use one of those societies for inspiration.

As I said at the beginning, these aren’t clearly divided types. “What was life like in this period” is closer to being a fodder-type question than “how rapidly did the plague take hold in 1665,” because it’s designed to help me come up with ideas for that specific period. And you’ll see the Mayan calendrical system with a minor fictional paint job showing up in Lightning in the Blood because years ago I read about it for fun and wound up incorporating it into a story more or less wholesale, complete with fiddly little details about Year-Bearers. But it helps me to remember that fodder-type reading is a form of research, and one that’s very necessary for my job.

transitions, blech

There are certain kinds of transition scenes I detest writing. One of them is the “holy shit, the supernatural is real!” scene common to so much urban fantasy; it was a source of great pleasure to me that I could more or less skip that scene in Midnight Never Come, on the grounds that the reaction of a sixteenth-century gentleman would not so much be “there are faeries under London?” as “there are faeries under London?” (You’ll note that nearly every pov character for the remainder of the Onyx Court series already knew about the fae by the time they showed up in the story. This was not deliberate, in the sense of being a thing I consciously decided to do . . . but I wouldn’t call it an accident, either. The sole exception that leaps to mind is Jack Ellin, and I had more than enough going on in the story to divert him, and me, while that transition happened.) It’s boring to me because the audience already knows the supernatural is real (or at the very least has no reason to be surprised by this fact), and we’ve seen that conversation so many times, making it fresh is really difficult. Your main hope is to undermine it in some fashion, like the time on Buffy when they told Oz vampires and demons were real. “I know it’s a lot to take in –” “Actually, that explains a lot.”

I’m dealing with a similar kind of thing in the fifth Memoir right now. The scene isn’t about the supernatural being real; it’s a different kind of transition, one I don’t really have a name for. And of course I can’t get into specifics, but it’s one of those deals where something very complicated is going on, only the complication is of a type that doesn’t actually make for great narrative. After the initial drama of the moment is over, there’s a lot of explaining that needs to happen, and a lot of very tedious suspicion that can’t be laid to rest with the right words or a single decisive action. Inside the story, the whole thing is going to drag on for days — probably for weeks. Making the reader sit through all of that would be dire, starting with the fact that I would have to write all of that.

It’s at moments like these when I love the retrospective, consciously-framed first person viewpoint of this series. Because I can 100% get away with Isabella saying “what followed was very tedious and dragged on for weeks, because there was nothing I could do that would resolve it with a single decisive action. But X, Y, and Z got settled — not without a great deal of wrangling and suspicion, but settled all the same, and now let’s move on to the next interesting bit.” Any viewpoint can skip over things, but this one gives me greater latitude to summarize what I’m skipping, without making it seem like the elided material is simple to deal with in real life. Isabella can acknowledge all the complications without getting bogged down in them.

I had no idea, when I started writing this series, all the advantages that would come with framing the entire thing as a series of memoirs. It just seemed like a period- and subject-appropriate way to approach the whole thing. But my god . . . it’s probably the best craft decision I’ve made all series long.

The Traditional Mid-Book Yo-Yo

As some of you know or have guessed, I’m writing a book on spec this summer — a Sekrit Projekt. It’s going pretty well, though right now I’m kind of wondering if I can fit the remaining plot into my remaining projected wordcount.

Earlier today, I was freaking out a bit because I didn’t have remotely enough plot to fill out the wordcount, and the book was going to run short.

Now, if you’re a normal person, you probably assume this means I thought up some additional plot in between then and now. You would be wrong. Before I freaked out about insufficient plot, I was convinced I had too much plot. And before that, I knew I didn’t have enough, not by a long shot. Because I’m at That Stage of the process: the Traditional Mid-Book Yo-Yo.

It happens every time. This is the seventeenth novel I’ve written, and so I know quite well that because I am not the sort of person who outlines rigorously, I have to eyeball the amount of material necessary to get from where I am to the target length. (The only time I can think of when this didn’t happen to me was with In Ashes Lie. I knew a quarter of the way into that book that there was no way in hell it would fit into 110K: I emailed my editor, and she gave me permission to run over, so long as I warned her if it was headed north of 180K. So that one didn’t have a target; it was as long as it needed to be, which turned out to be 143K.) As I draw near, I have to keep checking in with my brain and gauging whether any adjustments are necessary. And I’m constantly changing my mind.

But at least I know that. Which means I can take the yo-yo in stride, trusting that I’ll be able to tell if I’m really going to miss my mark in either direction. And since this book is a spec project, it isn’t the end of the world if I do miss: the worst that happens is I have to look for ways to flesh the book out during revision, or I don’t manage to complete it before my self-imposed deadline. Either of which is fine, if annoying.

I think I’ll be in the target range, though. I usually manage.

A Rose by Any Other Title

I have this novella I’m trying to title, and the search . . . isn’t going well.

In the course of hunting for a suitable title, I’ve been thinking about the structure of such things. And, of course, having thought about that, the next thing to do is look at my own ouevre and investigate what sorts of patterns I use more or less frequently.

(What? I may not be a biologist, but Isabella gets her scientific turn of mind from somewhere. Also, procrastination.)

The material below the cut is a breakdown of every title I’ve put on a piece of fiction — and in one case, a piece of nonfiction — since I produced my first piece of theoretically professional work, leaving out those where the title was not wholly up to me. (Mostly pieces that amount to work-for-hire.) I’ve included unpublished works and fanfiction in the mix, since that expands the data set by quite a bit, but not titles that ended up being discarded along the way.