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Posts Tagged ‘thinkiness’

screw subtlety

I’m running another role-playing game right now, and several times of late I’ve found myself saying the same thing:

“Screw subtlety.”

It happens because I’ll be planning some kind of plot, and chasing my own tail trying to figure out how to introduce a new element without making the player-characters suspicious. This is difficult when the PCs are being run by players — people very familiar with narrative conventions. When I told one of them the prospective fiancée for his nobleman was a meek, sheltered girl, his reply was “Gamer brain calls bullshit. I expect she has twenty-five skeletons and four fresh corpses in her closet.”

In a novel, you can get away with a higher degree of subtlety, because you control your characters’ thoughts. They don’t know they’re in a story (not unless you’re writing something very metafictional), so they won’t reflect on things the same way a player will. And while the same thing is theoretically true of a PC, any time you ask the player to ignore something that’s obvious to them out-of-character, you create a disjunct. Sometimes this can be fun, but other times it’s frustrating, because they have to role-play their character being blind to an idea they can see. Looping back around to novels, again, the same thing can be true of a reader — but since the reader isn’t actively participating in the story, the frustration is usually less severe. If you write your characters well, the reader will go along for the ride, blind spots and all.

So this is why I keep saying “screw subtlety.” Rather than bending over backwards attempting to make something not suspicious, embrace the suspicion! Why yes, this is weird; you have every reason to give it the side-eye. Knowing that up front doesn’t tell you what’s really going on. You’ll have to work to get the rest.

Doing that is surprisingly liberating. I think it’s a cousin to the notion of “burning plot” — making the cool stuff happen now, and letting it generate more cool stuff later, rather than trying to save it and have the lead-up be flat and boring as a result. Instead of making plot out of the characters figuring out there’s something weird with X, let them know that from the start, and move on from there. It doesn’t work in all situations or for all kinds of stories, but where it does, the result can be a lot of energy and momentum.

Which is why this is something I try to keep in mind for novels as well as games. Am I better off trying to come up with a plausible cover story for a given narrative element, or should I just let it show its face to the world?

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/593817.html. Comment here or there.

I don’t have to work on anything right now, so I’m procrastinating with a meme

Several of my fanfic-writing friends have been doing a meme wherein they post the first lines of their last twenty-one fics. Because I don’t feel like doing anything more mentally taxing right now than faffing around on the computer listening to music, and also because that’s a lie and Anthropologist Brain is having thinky thoughts but doesn’t mind listening to music while faffing around collating stuff, I’m going to do this twice: once with fanfic, and then once with my original short stories. I want to see how they compare.

Fanfic first!

three conversations at once

I have other things I should be doing, but wshaffer made a very good point in the comments to my last post, so I’m back for another round. And at this point I’ve made a tag for the grimdark discussion, because I’ve said enough that you might want to be able to track it all down.

To quote wshaffer:

The thing that strikes me about the grimdark discussion is that there are multiple different-but-interlocking conversations going on at once. One is an argument about whether “realism” is grounds for granting a work a higher degree of artistic merit. Another is an argument about to what extent realism actually requires focusing on the darker and more unpleasant aspects of life. And the third is: supposing that we grant that the historical prevalence of misogyny and rape requires that they be addressed in realistic fiction, are there ways of portraying them that do no themselves reinforce misogyny and rape culture?

I love things like this, because they simultaneously clear up a bunch of confusion in my head, and make it possible to see things I couldn’t before. Let’s take her questions one at a time.

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gritty vs. grimdark

Yeah, I’m still thinking about this topic. Partly because of Cora Buhlert’s recent roundup. The digression onto Deathstalker mostly went over my head, since I haven’t read it, but she brings up a number of good points and also links to several posts I hadn’t seen. (Though I use the term “post” generously. I have to say, when the only response you make to this debate is “meh” followed by links to people who already agree with you, you might as well not bother. All you’re doing is patting yourself on the back in public.)

So I’m thinking about our terminology — “gritty” and “grimdark” and so on. What do we mean by “grit,” anyway? The abrasive parts of life, I guess; the stuff that’s hard and unpleasant. Logistics and consequences and that sort of thing, the little stony details that other books might gloss over. It’s adjacent to, or maybe our new replacement for, “low fantasy” — the stories in which magic is relatively rare, and characters have to do things the hard way, just like us. Hence laying claim to the term “realism”: those kinds of details that can ground a story in reality.

But that isn’t the same thing as “grimdark,” is it? That describes a mood, and you can just as easily tell a story in which everything is horrible and doomed without those little details as with. (As indeed some authors do.) Hence, of course, the counter-arguments that grimdark fantasy is just as selective in its “realism” as lighter fare: if you’re writing about a war and all the women are threatened with sexual violence but none of the men are, then you’re cherry-picking your grit.

What interests me, though, are the books which I might call gritty, but not grimdark. I mentioned this a while ago, when I read Tamora Pierce’s second Beka Cooper book, Bloodhound. The central conflict in that book is counterfeiting, and Pierce is very realistic about what fake coinage can do to a kingdom. She also delves into the nuts and bolts of early police work, including police corruption . . . I’d call that grit. Of course it’s mitigated by the fact that her story is set in Tortall, which began in a decidedly less gritty manner; one of the things I noticed in the Beka Cooper books was how Pierce worked to deconstruct some of her earlier, more romantic notions, like the Court of the Rogue. But still: counterfeiting, a collapse in monetary policy, police corruption of a realistic sort, etc. Those are the kinds of details a lot of books would gloss over.

Or an example closer to home: With Fate Conspire. I was discussing it over e-mail recently, and it occurred to me that I put a lot of unpleasantness into that book. Off the cuff, it includes betrayal, slavery, slavery of children, imprisonment, torture, horrible disease, poverty, racism, terrorism, massive amounts of class privilege and the lack thereof, rape (alluded to), pollution, fecal matter, and an abundance of swearing. All of which is the kind of stuff grimdark fantasy revels in . . . yet I have not seen a single person attach that label to the novel. Nor “gritty,” for that matter, but I would argue that word, at least, should indeed apply. A great deal of that story grinds its way through the hard, unpleasant details of being lower-class in Victorian London. Realistic details, at that.

Of course, the book has a happy ending (albeit one with various price tags attached). Which makes it not grimdark — and also not gritty? Or maybe it’s that I was writing historical fiction, not the secondary-world fantasy that seems to be the locus of the term. Or, y’know, it might be that I’m a woman. One of the posts Buhlert links to is from [personal profile] matociquala, who — unusually for this debate — names some female authors as having produced gritty work, and Buhlert takes that point further. This is a highly gendered debate, not just where the sexual abuse of characters is concerned, and if we don’t acknowledge that, we’re only looking at a fraction of the issue.

I’m sort of wandering at this point, because there’s no tidy conclusion to draw. You can have grit without being grimdark, and you can be grimdark without grit, but doing either while being female is rare? Not very tidy, but something to keep in mind. I think I’d be interested in reading more gritty-but-not-grimdark fantasy, from either gender. Recommendations welcome.

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/580211.html. Comment here or there.

Chickens and eggs

mrissa has posted her Minicon schedule, with a panel on which comes first: the story or the setting. To quote the description,

Which Came First

The chicken or the egg? The story or the world? Does the story you want to tell determine the setting, or does your chosen setting demand a certain kind of story to be told in it? Are there some types of stories that simply cannot be told in a particular setting? How do creators balance these seemingly opposing forces in imagining their tales?

Which has gotten me reflecting on that question and how I would answer it. Off the cuff, I thought I probably start more with the setting — hi, anthropology, yeah. But does that hold up when I actually look at the data?

(For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to keep this to novels, but I will include unpublished novels in the list. It’s probably a different ballgame if I look at short stories; that, however, would require more time than I want to devote to this right now, and a refresher course as to what the heck I’ve written.)

Cut for length; I have more novels than you guys know about.

Batman had it easy

Only just now remembering to link to it, but this months’ SF Novelists post is “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” in which I challenge the notion that so-called “gritty” fantasy is a) realistic and b) superior on account of its realism.

(Both that post and the rest of this one discuss sexual violence — quelle surprise, given the obsession gritty fantasy has with that topic — so if you don’t want to read about them, click away now.)

This is part of a much larger discussion floating around the internet right now, which I keep encountering in unexpected corners. The most recent of those is “The Rape of James Bond,” which makes a lot of good points; toward the end, McDougall talks about her own decision-making process where fictional sexual violence is concerned, and whether you agree with her decisions or not, her questions are good ones.

But the part I found the most striking was where she talked about reactions to Skyfall and the first encounter between Silva and Bond.

Cut in case you haven't seen the movie and want to avoid a spoiler.

more thoughts on the epic fantasy thing

My post on writing a long epic fantasy has been generating some interesting discussion in a variety of places: the comment thread, Twitter, etc. I wanted to come back to it long enough to highlight a few lengthier responses that I think make very good points.

The first comes from C.E. Petit at Scrivener’s Error; scroll down to the third bit to find his thoughts. I tend not to talk about “theme” because the word has been so badly treated by high school English classes, but his point is a sound one, and can provide guidance as to how the author might gauge whether their story has begun to grow out of control. Are you diluting your thematic message by adding in all these other subplots? Or, conversely, are you hammering your reader too energetically with that message, by playing through sixteen variations on the motif? (Which is not, of course, to say that the work will have only one thematic message, especially if it stretches to four books or more. But a central line is still vital.)

The second, or rather the second and third, is Patricia C. Wrede’s two-part response to my own argument, which digs further into the question of why authors fall into these traps, and what they can do about them. I want to say that she is 100% right about the arbitrariness of your opening structural decision: even if you base it around some kind of pattern (as she suggests in the second post), ultimately that’s a framework you then try to pour your story into, rather than a natural outgrowth of the story itself. You don’t set out to write seven books because that’s precisely how much character and plot and so on you have to tell; you write seven books because you decided to build each one thematically around the seven deadly sins or chronologically around the years Harry will be in school, and then you try to scale everything else to match.

Note that we do this all the time in fantasy: it’s called a trilogy. You sign a contract for three books, okay, and so you plan your story based around that arbitrary decision. I’d venture to say that the vast majority of series that are planned as trilogies end up as exactly that. There are exceptions (Terry Goodkind, as discussed in Zeno’s Mountains; George R.R. Martin; the Hitchhiker’s series), but it seems that most of us are capable of sticking to three books when that’s what we said we’d do. It’s only when we go beyond three that our control seems so liable to slip — because we have so few models for how to do it right, and because one more book is much less expansion when it’s ten instead of nine than when it’s four instead of three. And, maybe, because if you’re selling well enough for your publisher to support nine books, they’re eager for you to make it ten instead.

But we manage it with trilogies, and TV writers manage it almost without fail when they write shows with season-long arc plots. Absent the network jerking them around, they finish their story in twenty-two episodes of X minutes each, period, the end, no “please just one more ep” or “sorry, this one ran twelve minutes long.”

Is that kind of discipline detrimental to the story? Sure, sometimes. But so, manifestly, is allowing one’s discipline to falter. And I say — with the spotless virtue of an author who has never yet had a publisher throw stacks of money at her, begging for a bestselling series to continue — that I would rather make myself find a way to tell my story more efficiently, with fewer digressions and wasted words, and end it while people are still in love with the tale, than risk losing sight of the original vision in a swamp of less productive byways.

(“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” Speaking of tales planned as trilogies, and delivered that way, and in my opinion all the better for it.)

It isn’t easy. As Wrede points out, it requires frequent check-ins with your plan, however you may have built said plan. It may require you to murder some very beloved darlings. But just as a sonnet’s structure can force you to make really good use of your fourteen allotted lines, so can a fixed length to your series.

This entry was also posted at http://swan-tower.dreamwidth.org/579046.html. Comment here or there.

How to write a long fantasy series

It took three years and two months rather than the two years I initially planned, but I have, at very long last, finished the Wheel of Time re-read and analysis. And as I promised quite some time ago, we’ll end with what I’ve learned.

This post, unlike the others, is not WoT-specific. I’ll be referencing the series, because it’s the primary source of my thoughts on this topic, but the point here is to talk about the specific challenges of writing a long epic fantasy series — here defining “long” as “more than a trilogy, and telling one ongoing story.” (So something like Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books wouldn’t count, since they’re a conglomeration of multiple trilogies.) My points probably also apply to non-fantasy series, but other genres are much less likely to attempt multi-volume epics on this scale, so I’m mostly speaking to my fellow fantasists.

I do not pretend this is in any way, shape, or form a recipe for commercial success with an epic fantasy series. After all, most of this is a checklist of errors I feel Jordan made, and you could paper the walls of Tor’s offices in fifty-dollar bills with the cash he made for them. Nor am I claiming artistic failure awaits if you fail to heed this advice; you might squeak through on luck, or just really good storytelling instinct. But I do feel that bearing these points in mind can help the would-be writer of an epic series avoid falling off some of the more common and perilous cliffs.

With all of that intro material out of the way, let’s get to it.

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a set of very interesting questions

I could see giving this to physics students as a brain-bender. (In fact, I won’t be surprised if it turns out somebody already has.)

In the first scenario, I believe — operating on the remnants of my physics knowledge — that it would accelerate downward. Gravity still acts on the rod; it will move, and the bits of it that pass through the blue portal re-emerge from the orange one with their momentum conserved, so it’s (I think) functionally no different from letting it fall a really long distance. Probably it will achieve terminal velocity at some point.

In the second scenario, I think the rod would accelerate the other way? But I’m not sure. The falling orange portal would push some of the rod back out the blue portal, which pushes more into the orange portal, and you’ve basically got the same situation as in #1, except in the other direction. But the part I can’t figure out is what happens when the orange portal comes to rest atop the blue one. (Or even not directly atop it — you could stop any distance away that is less than the length of the rod.) Does the rod bend? There’s no longer enough room for all its length between the portals, so I feel like it must, but I’m not sure how the force for that works out. (And actually, if the rod is allowed to move as in scenario #1, then I think you get this problem right away. Because then the rod is trying to come and go from both portals at once.)

In the third scenario, I think that if the portals are shot as depicted in the diagram, you’ve made a weak projectile. Move the orange portal, and now the rod falls through the floor and out the wall. (If you’ve let it build up momentum via the first scenario, then maybe it’s not so weak.) But that assumption depends on what I think is an as-yet unanswered question in the games, namely, what happens if a portal goes away while something more solid than a beam of light is athwart the boundary. I’m presuming it severs the object in question, so that you’ve basically made an ordinary piece of pipe with a solder in the middle, which then falls through the blue portal. I’m not sure we ever saw that issue in action during the game, though, at least not as a puzzle. (Probably people have left turrets or cubes balanced on the portal boundary and then shot a new one; my guess is they fell to whichever side had the majority of their mass. But that may just be a coding default, rather than a conscious choice on the part of the designers to say that portals can’t slice objects in half.)

It’s been years since I thought about this stuff, though. Tell me, O internets: where have I got it wrong?