The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Let’s Talk About Writing

| 86 Comments

Just for the hell of it, ask questions about writing, and I’ll try to sound smart and erudite.  And maybe others will sound smart and erudite.  Using this entry as an opportunity to show how clever you are is discouraged.  For all of us.

 

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

86 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading lately about the importance of knowing about story structure and outlining and whatnot to make sure novels unfold with the maximum impact. Is that critical to your process? Is it possible to tell a story organically by the seat of your pants?

  2. skzb

    “Is it possible to tell a story organically by the seat of your pants?” It is for me. Not everyone works that way, and not all of my stories work that way. Some people need an outline.

    But as to how, well, yeah, structure, form, can be a big part of what to hold onto while figuring out What Happens Next. At some level, if you’re writing without an outline, you’re telling yourself a story, trusting that if you’re fascinated and delighted, the reader will be too. But that usually isn’t enough–at some point, you need to figure out other wise to get yourself to the next thing happens. Having a formal structure is very useful for that.

    Plus, of course, you have to remember that if you’re working without an outline, you’ll be doing a lot more revising.

  3. Speaking of revising, what do you think is a typical number or revisions/rewrites for a story or novel? And is it different for a story vs. a novel?

  4. skzb

    I don’t know enough about short fiction to answer that, so I’ll just discuss novels. In theory, I do four drafts: one for me, one for my critique group, one for my editor, one for the world. But the thing is, whenever I finish a chapter, I also go over two or three times, looking for anything that bumps. Does that count as a revision pass? I don’t know.

    Anyway, that’s my system. To continue from the above question, if I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants, the second draft is the one where the story comes into focus, and might sometimes really be two or three.

  5. David Drake talks a lot about the outlines he does. They may make up like 20% of the word count of the final story.

    Is proper grammar/syntax/spelling important to anyone but me? If I’m reading a story and I see a “you’re” instead of “your”, or a misplaced apostrophe or comma or … it wrecks my immersion. I mean, I will put down a book and put that author in my killfile if it is egregious. (And I mean if it isn’t an author I’m already invested in, like if Mr. Brust or Mr. Drake or the Malazan dudes, say their editor accidentally submitted the second draft instead of the final, I’d be willing to forgive it. But even then, it takes me some energy to get past the error.)

    I assume that most editors at least will try to correct the typos of this nature, and I daresay it seems likely that most authors will want to correct any of those kinds of things just as a matter of craftsmanship, but does it actually MATTER to Joe Readerman?

    I’ve read that there was no such thing as proper grammar/syntax/spelling in like the 1700s, and that it was just all about filling in sufficient letters to make context clear, though I assume that there are many communities where that was the case, and communities where that was not the case, and I wonder sometimes if I wouldn’t be happier if I couldn’t just gloss over those kinds of things

    So that’s the question rattling around in my head. Does it actually matter?

  6. I’m a novelist and have been hammered by critiques for “change of voice” in a chapter from one to several other characters. Have you ever been nailed on this problem?

  7. As someone who writes both short and long fiction, yes, the number of revisions is VERY different. The question is the number of moving parts. If someone smart in my writing group has a good suggestion about Chapter 6 of the novel I just gave them, I may have to change things in Chapters 4, 15, and 23 to make it work. I may forget Chapter 15 in this process and have to do it on the next pass through! There just isn’t room for that in short stories.

    Also, the modern world of longer fiction has greater agent involvement in shaping first novels, so you may find yourself doing another round or two of revisions there. If you have a smart, insightful agent like I do, this is a good thing, because it makes the book better. If you’re butting heads with your agent like one of my friends is, um, not so much.

  8. skzb

    Mechaninja: It matters to me, but that may be because, being dyslexic and a bit sensitive about it, I have such a difficult time with spelling in particular, and an easily correctable error seems, somehow, disrespectful. Yeah, publishers are supposed to have proofreaders to catch that stuff.

    James M. Ward: *wince* Someone at Fourth Street years ago (I can’t remember if it was Marissa Lingen, or Elizabeth Bear) made the observation that every writer gets one or two things for free–in other words, you can do a good job of that without working to learn how. One of the things I got was voice, which means I never had to struggle with it, which means I have no idea how to do it.

    I hope some else can respond to that question, because it’s a good one.

  9. To bring the outline argument one step further, can you start to write before you have decided on the title? Otherwise, will the title always emerge naturally at some point throughout the writing process?

  10. You can CERTAINLY start to write before you’ve decided on the title. Sadly, the title doesn’t always emerge naturally. Sometimes you must take a completed piece and shake it upside down mercilessly until a title falls out. Sometimes you must repeat this process more than once. Doesn’t make it a bad book, or even a bad title. Just means there is more hair-tearing along the way.

  11. i have a very basic question about workflow. Do you have a specific time of day when you write? How did you develop a discipline when you first started?

  12. How much world building do you do before you start writing? How much do you know before hand?

  13. skzb

    lisa: When I first started, I was holding down a dayjob, and sometimes I’d also have to watch the kids, so I got in the habit of working at stray moments (5 minutes here, 20 minutes there) and of having background voices when I worked. My work methods involve having the TV on. I’ve never felt myself to be disciplined–I mostly work because I need to know how the story comes out, and if I don’t write it, I’ll never know. The ones where I’ve outlined have required much more determination to finish. As for time of day, no. I pretty much live at the computer, with 3 screens, one of which is always open to my current story, so in between computer games and surfing the web, I can type a sentence if one comes to mind.

    Christopher Turkel: As a rule, I wait until I’m at least a little bit into the story before I worry about worldbuilding, then the requirements of the story tell me what I need to figure out. Usually it’ll start with someone eating something, which will require me to figure out all sorts of persnickity details. The Incrementalists was an exception–that involved intensive worldbuilding with Skyler, various friends, and Powers Irish Whiskey before we ever started writing.

  14. How do you not lose faith in yourself?

  15. When collaborating, how do you combine the voice and tone of two authors consistently through the entire novel? Have you ever had disagreements in style in any of your collaborated works?

  16. skzb

    Kelly: Never particularly had any, at least for the first few books. But whether you have faith in yourself or not, you still need to know how the story ends.

    njmagas: Up until this new one, we’ve always cheated by writing different POV characters,so the tone not only can be, but is supposed to be different. I’m working on one now with Will Shetterly where we’re writing it more as a continuous, unified whole, so it may be a problem. I kind of expect not, because he has an exceptional ear for style. But, I dunno, ask me again in a few months, and I might be able to give you a more complete answer.

  17. Thats such a great idea about the screens…its always there and incorporated into the day. I don’t write fiction (yet) but I have a problem with incorporating writing into my workflow…I’m going to try, that thank you!

  18. James M. Ward — I’m not quite sure what your critiquers are on about. Are they talking about voice — the way a narrative voice sounds, word choice and sentence structure and general flavor, and something inconsistent in it in a given chapter; or are they talking about viewpoint, changing from one character’s head to another’s in a single chapter?

    P.

  19. How much do the characters take over the story line and dialog? Namely, you are just documenting what they do, rather than what you think they should do. Does this ever get you in trouble?

  20. skzb

    I’ve heard that some writers see a movie in their heads and see their job as transcribing it, but I could never work that way. I mostly let the story go where it wants to, and gently nudge it along with a baseball bat to the kneecaps as needed. The characters mostly “take over” (meaning they do something I neither expected nor wanted) when I’ve gone off the rails. In other words, that’s one way I know I haven’t been true to either characters or story. It means I need to look carefully at what’s going on. I don’t always let the characters have their way, but I always stop and try to figure out what went wrong.

  21. I wonder about research (of course). I’ve seen authors who say they can justify going here or there, or learning about this or that, only because they can use it in a story someday, and I never know if they’re being facetious.

    Would you say it’s difficult, if not impossible, to learn about something for the pure pleasure of doing so once you think of yourself as an author, or do you still feel free to spend time on subjects that have no discernible use beyond letting you have fun?

  22. Talking of worldbuilding, how much unpublished backstory and background on Dragaera do you have? (Feel free to answer in words, novels’ worth, or any other congenial units of measure.) Are you still improvising a lot on the Vlad books, or do you have the arc for the rest of the series pretty well nailed down at this point? If the latter, any useful advice or interesting stories about how one goes about planning a nineteen-book series?

    (I hope the above doesn’t come off as a thinly disguised “When can I get my mitts on HAWK already?” The question is on my mind, of course, but when I find myself dwelling on it, I just imagine Neil Gaiman giving me a stern look and saying “Steven Brust is not your Teckla.”)

  23. L. Raymond: I think it is very possible to keep learning for it’s own sake, but then you’ll discover stuff has worked it’s way into the book, and you won’t be quite sure how that happened.

    Matt: I have maps, but not a lot else. I mean, I once had pages and pages of notes, but over the years I’ve lost them.

    I’m still improvising on the Vlad novels, but I also have a lot of it figure out–unless I change my mind. In general, I only have the high points–major things–planned out. The only advice I can give is: don’t hold anything back. Burn story. Trust yourself to come up with something good next time.

    (Oh, and Hawk is currently scheduled for September 2014, but I don’t know if that will hold up).

  24. Something I’ve always wondered about with the Dragaera books, is for the hidden little tidbits, hints at things that occurred in other books, do you plan those out in advance, or do you decide as you are writing your current book, “Hey, I think I’ll expand on that thing I teased about 3 books ago.” ?

    Personally, I’m dying over here, waiting for Hawk. 🙂

  25. skzb

    Kelly M: Sometimes it’s a thing I already knew about, but, usually, it’s something that just makes that sentence feel right, and then, after that, well, there it is–it’s now part of the world. Once it’s part of the world, it’s something that might tug on my pants leg and go, “Hey, what about me?”

  26. In a Paris Review interview, S. J. Perelman answered the “how many drafts” question this way:

    Thirty-seven. I once tried doing thirty-three, but something was lacking, a certain—how shall I say?—je ne sais quoi. On another occasion, I tried forty-two versions, but the final effect was too lapidary—you know what I mean, Jack? What the hell are you trying to extort—my trade secrets?

  27. skzb

    That’s fucking hysterical! Love it! (Although, to be serious for a moment, I give out my “trade secrets,” because that means there will be more good books for me to read).

  28. Two questions about the business of writing:
    1. How much time and work do you spend on marketing and other stuff supporting the actual writing?
    2. What are the current (or soon) USAmerican health care options for a full-time writer?

  29. skzb

    Howard:
    1. Until this recent book, none. After this recent book, none.
    2. I don’t know of any.

  30. Any tips for keeping long(ish) strings of dialogue anchored to a place and the plot that’s ostensibly being discussed? I find myself quickly repeating variations on “shrug” “nod” and “drinks more coffee.” (Just like real life…)

  31. Mechaninja: The main difference was that dictionaries and other reference books weren’t commonly available. Spelling was looser than it is now, but it was never arbitrary, and grammar and syntax certainly mattered. There was also a more noticeable difference between purely vernacular English, and the language used by people who’d had upper-class educations and studied Latin.

    Another thing to bear in mind is that English prose style is perpetually changing and developing. What seems awkward to you now doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t care about precise language in the 1700s; it can just mean they were doing very different things with it.

  32. skzb

    jdjplocher: Give them their head, let them run; eventually they’ll come back. Later, in revisions, you can cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

  33. Re Mechaninja and TNH, back when educated people learned Latin as a routine, I gather that many applied the rules of literary Latin in their English-language works, despite the radical differences between the two languages. The absence of dictionaries might have meant a little looseness in orthography, but if anything, those writers cared more about grammar than we tend to, because literary Latin has some very formal usage rules.

    I’m told for example that even a writer as recent as Gibbon (18th c.) deliberately wrote English as if it was Latin. You can get a lot of this from Graves’ The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by the way. Graves’ book is possibly somewhat dated, but I think it’s still an interesting read if you’re interested in the evolution of literary English.

  34. Here’s one for you, Steve–and apologies if it’s a dumb question or too specific to me. I’m re-working elements of my VP story, and I’m concerned my “oh, yes!” idea is dumb. Is it too precious to have a story begin with a complete coincidence, such as someone coming out of an interstellar jump right on top of a battle where someone needs help?

  35. skzb

    To me, no, that can work. You’re permitted one of those, depending on how you handle it.

  36. Do you have a concious approach of not including personal political veiws in your writing? I think I saw it come through in Teckla but that just may be plot and character development. It certainly is no where near as blatant as say, Terry Goodkind (Sword of Truth), Orson Scott Card (Homecoming Saga), or CS Lewis. Has the Jhereg series being inspired by any personal events in your life (I’ll take a non response to that as “non of your business 🙂 ).

  37. skzb

    schmwarf: If something that I identify as my political position enters a book, I make sure the opposite view is represented by someone smart and sympathetic, and the arguments are given good weight. Ideally, my viewpoint character will be on the side I feel is wrong, just to keep me honest.

  38. As to seeing what comes next in the story… what more often pulls you forward, what happens immediately next, or what happens at the end?

    To put it another way, do you usually have an idea how a story will end, and how much do you stick to it?

  39. I’ll generally get an idea for how things will end between halfway and three-quarters of the way through the book. But the emphasis is on generally–sometimes I’ve known from the beginning how it would end, sometimes I have no idea until I get there.

  40. Years ago on the blog you mentioned reviewing some of your earlier work and happily declared “I think I write gooder now that I usta did.”

    To the extent that process by which that process, to what do you attribute that growth. Some, obviously, is simply (heh) experience. I imagine you like all great artists steal thing from other writers, and that little epiphanies happen from time to time that have lasting significance.

    More explicitly, to the extent that you want to make a illuminative/provocative observation on something that is a common human experience, has that gotten better or become “easier” as you’ve written more? Or is the process so unique to each topic that previous efforts barely apply. (Knowing that you think this is a purpose of art has given me another thing to keep in my mind on re-reading any of your works. Thanks.)

  41. Experience, better command of craft from talking about, thinking about it, trying to teach it, and listening to Smart People. I still fear I have little or nothing to say to illuminate the human experience.

  42. “Give them their head, let them run; eventually they’ll come back. Later, in revisions, you can cut away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

    Now that was useful. So stealing this way of doing it. Thanks to our excellent host, and to jdjplocher for asking the question.

  43. Recently I attended my first face-to-face writer’s workshop. One thing that surprised me was half of those who read my story, including the author in charge, didn’t like that it was written in first person. They said readers can more easily immerse themselves with a third person view. The author in charge then told me to switch over anything I’ve written in first person to third person limited and never go back.

    As many of my favorite books/series are written in first person, I was floored. I thought the needs of the story were what selected the POV. (In my case I used it to control information; the story in third person would be significantly different.)

    Is this anti-first person POV sentiment common? Or am I making a mountain from a molehill of a couple naysayers?
    Any advice would be appreciated.

  44. skzb

    Um. “Author in charge?” Really? Seriously? “Author in charge?” Pfui.

    Not only do I recommend ignoring that advice, but I recommend staying away from any critique group that has an “author in charge.”

    And, to answer your question, yes, the anti-first person POV sentiment is common. Idiots are common.

    This might help: http://dreamcafe.com/2013/06/11/ultimate-iron-clad-final-rules-on-criltque-groups/

  45. Roger Zelazny seems to have done well enough with his 1st Person POV stories / novels. I realize 3rd Person POV is all the rage these days (especially in Fantasy circles) but a great 1st Person voice is still my preferred POV as a reader.

  46. It’s hard to imagine hearing that from any author, A non. Surely this couldn’t have been a genre workshop, anyway. But even in the purest reaches of academic/literary workshopping, hearing that first-person is bad is just unbelievable.

    So… let’s see, Nabokov, Salinger, Twain, Faulkner, Conrad, Fitzgerald, I guess none of them were even publishable. No doubt they bribed their agents.

  47. “Idiots are common.”

    I needed to hear that!
    Somehow I missed the “Ultimate Iron Clad Final Rules on Critique Groups” when it first posted, but I’m glad to read them now.

    Johne Cook: I was tempted to write down my favorite first person books–which would include Zelanzy’s–but I thought the length of the list would be silly.

    Miramon: it was a sci-fi/fantasy workshop, which is probably a large part of why I felt like I’d been sucker punched.

    Thank you all!

  48. Ok, perhaps I am overly paranoid here, but I shall forge ahead anyway.

    Stephen King wrote in “On Writing” that to be a good writer, you must read (of course, I paraphrase). I try to read and write and keep the two separate within reason, taking and absorbing details I find great (i.e. Rex Stout’s ability on characterization or Robert Jordan’s interweaving of plots or your writing style). But when I write, I find these details like boulders in my stories. I try to polish them down, and succeed to greater or lesser extents. But no matter what, I see them and it bugs me greatly.

    What I want to know is do you ever see that in your work, and, if so, how do you counteract it? Do you just accept it and move on?

  49. skzb

    Um. Can you expand on this a little? It seems like there is a really interesting question here, but I’m not quite grasping it yet.

  50. May I try to guess at it?

    When he reads, he finds great techniques that other people have done.

    But then he writes, the great techniques don’t come naturally. He sees his failure to adapt great technique as a giant obstacle and he works hard to overcome it, but it bugs him that his writing at its worst is not as good as the best examples he finds when he reads.

    Is that a problem for you? If so, how have you learned to get past it and actually publish?

  51. Essentially, yes, that’s it.

    I look at my writing and I see these techniques and/or ideas that seem so great when other authors do them. Yet when I try, my mind screams “That’s a Conan Doyle-ism” or you stole that from Gaiman or one of a myriad of other things.

    When I see it, I try to polish it away or remove it entirely, but I still see it. And it bugs me to the point that it can be all consuming. (Almost like if Paarfi wrote like Dumas accidentally rather than by design.)

    I know that part of it is practice, practice, practice at writing to become better at these aspects, but I still see the originator in my works.

    Do you have that problem? And if so, how have you learned to deal with it?

  52. skzb

    Mostly, early on, I gave myself permission to imitate as much as I wanted to, and eventually I realized that it had mostly turned into my own stuff. I still sometimes find myself saying, “Oh, geez, that’s RIGHT out _Creatures of Light and Darkness_, isn’t it? Ooops.”

    I’d suggest the following: Spend some time doing deliberate mash-ups. That is, write a Gaiman story the way Conan Doyle would have, or the reverse. Get into imitation. Wallow in it. Imitate several different people.

    Next time you set out to write your own story, pick and choose bits of things you’ll imitate. That is, if you were to take a world stolen from Fritz Leiber and tropes stolen from Michael Moorcock, and a voice stolen from Raymon Chandler and a general feel stolen from Roger Zelazny, you’d get, well, the Vlad novels.

    Eventually, I think, your own way of telling stories will emerge. In the meantime, keep writing. That, at least, is the best I can offer.

  53. I don’t know if anyone has an answer to following dilemma other than maybe I’m not going to be able to write the novel I want to write. Normally fiction is not what I aim at writing. I’m primarily into non-fiction, and have had paid works published. I have successfully completed some flash-fiction I’m proud of, but never had any attention of doing book length fiction.

    Only I had a dream, a really detailed dream. And when I woke up I though “this is brilliant. I have to write this.” It is this horrifying supernatural dystopia – where people have learned to conjure and control ghost. The horror is that this creates a world of enslaved ghosts, dead labor replacing living labor – and the horror is not the existence of the ghosts but how the rich treat them, and the consequences for living who are not rich. Given my tendencies it makes sense that a horror story I write would in part be about economics. And I have huge sections written, about 20,000 words. I really believe the world I portray is fascination and horrifying with its own weird beauty. And I have a plot, a rebellion being lead by the ‘free dead”, and a living Goth Girl main character named Penny who is involved with the rebellion, including a very funny scene with her and ancient ghosts and the role of copy machines in a modern revolution. I have an ending, I think a good one, though not a happy one. And after three tries I kind of peter out in the middle can can’t get to the end. I tried to let it take its turn, decided the if the story wanted a different ending than I wanted I’d give it a shot at getting there, but that did not do much. I tried forgetting the plot and hoping that if I just wrote history of my world I’d find the story inside it (I referred to this mentally ans “Tolkeining”.) But that did not work either.

    I’m thinking maybe i should just give away the thing to someone who would like to finish it, but who the hell besides me wants to write a Dystopian Dark Fantasy with a Perky-Goth main character and a strong undercurrent of Marxist Economics?

    I can’t finish the damned thing, but I can’t let it go either. The damn story is, so to speak, haunting me.

  54. skzb

    Wow. I want to read that! Do you have a title? “Dead Labor” jumps to mind, but may be too obvious.

    How to get past the middle part? I have nothing reliable, but there are tricks that sometimes work. One is decide you’ve already written it, and just move to the next thing that you know, permitting the reader to catch up as best he can. Another thing that sometimes works is to just tell yourself, “I’m going to write a cool scene here,” and trust to your subconscious to find a way to (eventually) connect it to the rest of the book. There is also “stepwise refinement” (though that never works for me) in which you write a single sentence describing in very general terms how the pieces connect, then gradually expanding that into more and more detail until you have a connection.

    I hope you figure it out; this sounds really cool.

  55. My working title is “Deadlands”

  56. I have another question for you. With all this talk of influences on my part, I’d love to know who are yours. I am looking for something and someone new to read. So what are your top five recommendations?

  57. Not Steve, but have you read Terry Bisson? Specifically have you read “Fire on the Mountain” which I continue to think is the greatest alternate history book every written.

  58. @ Gar Lipow: I agree, that story idea sounds really interesting and I want to read it too! I hope you get it written at some point. I’d also wonder how do the living rich reconcile their treatment of the slave ghosts with the fact that they themselves will be dead, and possibly (or probably?) ghosts one day themselves?

  59. skzb

    I don’t think I can limit it to five. Zelazny, of course. Emma Bull is up there. Tim Powers. Patrick O’Brian. Pamela Dean. Glen Cook. Will Shetterly. Gene Wolfe. Neil Gaiman. Fritz Leiber. Raymond Chandler. John D. MacDonald. Skyler White. Jane Yolen. Rex Stout. Megan Lindholm. Jacqueline Carey.

  60. If the author-in-charge of your critique group gives you shit for writing a piece in the first person, give it back to him rewritten in the second person.

  61. That’s a awful lot of work to do just to watch some idiot’s head explode.

  62. But it might be worth it. 🙂

  63. >. I’d also wonder how do the living rich reconcile their treatment of the slave ghosts with the fact that they themselves will be dead, and possibly (or probably?) ghosts one day themselves?

    They think they have a way around it. By the time they find out otherwise the system in place is too strong.

  64. Gar Lipow — Thanks for the answer…and I’ll reiterate. I hope you get this written and published some day, It sounds really unique and fun…..

  65. To chime in on the first person-third person debate (for lack of a better word), I’m writing my story in first person. I wanted to do this because it limits the information I can give to the reader. My main problem when I started writing was dumping a shitload of information on the reader, and I feel that keeping the story confined to the perceptions of a single character makes avoiding that inherently easier.

    Now, to expand a little bit. One substantial benefit of playing with the information you give to the reader is the possibility of the ‘A hah! That’s how this fits together!’ moment. I’ll assume since we’re here that people have had these moments when reading the Vlad novels.

    That’s what I feel is any insight I might have on the discussion. Now, on to my own problems. In the book I’m writing now, I tried to make it possible for such an ‘A hah!’ moment to happen. But I feel it’s missing something.

    There is an organization that is indirectly causing most of the problems in the story. My main characters, the POV character and her Dragon (because fuckin’ DRAGONS!) are have Plot Reasons to visit the area where shit is going down. The organization is also reacting to those Plot Reasons, and has a Plan. When the main characters run into roadblocks between them and the Plot Reason, they discover a lot of the negative effects the organization has had on people living nearby. The main characters personify these crimes in the people who directly caused them, and not the organization that is the actual source. I hint that it is part of a bigger picture, but I don’t make it clear.

    Then I end the book. The main characters persevere, are smart and awesome and ingeniously problem-solving, they deal with the Plot Reason, subsequently messing up the organization’s Plan, and they go home. The ‘A hah!’ moment relevant to the organization doesn’t happen for them. How many crimes against authorship have I committed in doing this? And can I possibly explain them away with ‘But I wanted to try something new with a trope or technique that has been done.’

    My first critical thought for the way my story developed was ‘the reader is going to have the ‘a hah’ moment, figure out what is happening, then hate my characters for being idiots.’ That would be bad. not only for the normal, obvious reasons, but there’s a terminology-theme that I worked in there somewhere that hinges on liking the POV character. So I’d prefer if that didn’t fall flat on it’s face.

    But with the ‘a hah’ moment, I feel that all you can do is put the information out there. If the readers see what is happening before the characters do, isn’t that because of perspective? I have worked -really hard- to make sure it is not plausible that the characters figure it out, keeping them stressed and thinking about concrete, here-and-now problems. The readers aren’t in a foreign country, hiding out in the woods, with a resentful populace shunning them every step of the way, and an authority that keeps telling them they are unwelcome.

    So how do I tell the readers that they might be ‘smarter’ than my characters, and that’s okay? Thoughts? 😀

  66. Also, I recognized the possibility of an ‘A hah!’ moment as a mystery theme, and for the entire book I try to use mystery-genre tropes to get readers thinking ‘why is this happening? I thought it was a simple Plot Reason. The -characters- thought it was a simple Plot Reason!’ So if they get thinking, and then they figure out that there is an entity at work that has a Plan, and the characters are fucking it up, I really can’t blame anything but myself.

  67. That’s a hard one. I’m not sure if I have a better answer than, “it works if you can pull it off,” which I know is useless. My inclination is that there needs to be a reason that’s fairly clear and obvious why your POV characters and protagonist don’t get it, but what that is, I don’t know.

    Setting has a lot to do with it. For example, if everything was based on computers, you could describe something in such a way that the contemporary reader would say, “Oh, it’s a computer,” and your characters, from a setting where computers don’t exist, would just be puzzled. You might be able to pull something like that, off.

  68. “My first critical thought for the way my story developed was ‘the reader is going to have the ‘a hah’ moment, figure out what is happening, then hate my characters for being idiots.’”

    First off, what if a reader doesn’t get it? He goes through the whole thing and never gets the critical insight. Will it still be a great story that he’s glad he read?

    Do you give enough hints in the story that the reader can be sure that YOU got it? What if you didn’t see that yourself? That happens to me a whole lot, I see background in stories that to me is implied, but the writer gives no hint that he noticed he was doing it. I can’t blame the characters for not getting it when there’s no evidence that the writer got it, when it might in fact not be there.

  69. I like the feedback, because it’s gotten me to think why a person might recognize the patterns I’ve established in the story. If someone has fairly extensive experience with this kind of thing, they will recognize it. Therefore the characters have to be mostly naive in this specific field. Which is interesting, because while the Dragon doesn’t care one way or the other about these kinds of things, the main character believes she knows a lot about it when in fact she doesn’t. That’s interesting. And it goes well with stuff I already have. Even cooler.

    Thanks guys. This really helped me organize my thoughts. 🙂

  70. One interesting thing is how to bring us up-to-date in an environment which we are not familiar with. Find some way to give us the important parts early in the story without making it a travelogue. A fun way is in Daniel O’Malley’s _The Rook_, where the protagonist had her memory magically eliminated – but her former self knew it was happening and sets herself up for it.

  71. Computers are an interesting change. We are seeing a change to when people are ubiquitously connected, with GPS and Big Brother. An interstellar civilization that doesn’t have at least today’s connectivity while on planet approaches fantasy.

  72. The aha moment is great, but it’s hard to manage.

    I like the idea of actually breaking the concealed-story meta-trope the other way, by having characters realize the supposedly hidden super-secret essence of the plot early through inference and intuition, having them reveal their guess to the reader (as opposed to keeping it secret which is usually an obnoxious trick) and then still having mysterious cool stuff in store to surprise them, even when it turns out they are correct.

    A viewpoint character who legitimately doesn’t have the information to reach a conclusion about what’s going on is no problem at all, but I get tired of figuring everything out in advance while the protagonist still has no clue. In stories in which the secret revelation is badly telegraphed, the entire unfolding of the plot can be almost excruciating. For example, for me LA Confidential should have been a great movie, but for whatever reason I guessed the bad guy moments after his first appearance, so the rest of the movie was a dull trudge towards the finish line.

  73. skzb

    Funny thing; I’ve just been watching an old, short-lived TV show called, “Hack.” I was just recently annoyed by an episode for exactly the reason we’re talking about here. We meet a character who, in the first 10 seconds, made me go, “Oh, he’s running THAT old scam,” and the main character, a supposed ex-cop, never figured it out. To which my reaction was something like, “The title is not supposed to refer to the writers, yo.”

  74. “An interstellar civilization that doesn’t have at least today’s connectivity while on planet approaches fantasy.”

    We’ve had that for a fraction of a lifetime. What else would an interstellar civilization have to have, that we can barely imagine?

    Here’s one possibility — they might have to know how to design societies that the overwhelming majority of citizens support fully even though they know the societies were designed on purpose.

    And those societies might have far less connectivity than we do, because they might decide that this level of connectivity simply does not work for them.

  75. Yep, there might be a society that doesn’t want our connectivity. But the author needs to show me something of that decision.

  76. Charles Stross hates Word, but uses it anyway
    http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/11/cmap-why-do-you-use-microsoft-.html
    Is it really necessary for an author?

  77. Yeah, his argument is weak. There are lots of tool choices these days that read .doc and .docx and write .rtf and .pdf, and as he says, Word is just lame. I just wish Adobe hadn’t screwed over FrameMaker with ludicrous prices, because it would otherwise be the best word processor around. In the meantime I use Google Drive docs for most things when I have good connectivity, or Libre Office for local work. I too have a copy of MS Word sitting around on one of my machines, but I almost never use it, and could live without it.

  78. skzb

    I write in emacs and print in OpenOffice or LibreOffice, depending on which computer I’m using.

  79. My problem is that as a non-fiction writer is that I use footnotes and headnotes and footers and headers. And if I do this in other processors they tend to get frelled when pulled into Word. So use word if I’m going to use those features. Anyway. while I hate the ribbon Word XP is great as far as I’m concerned. Does not get in the way – can concentrate on my writing and not worry about the word processor. Probably just cause I’m used to it.

  80. And Stross’s argument is NOT lame. He has LIbre office. But his editor was using “Track Changes” . And while Libre Office is compatile with track changes, on a series of manuscripts cumulatively the size of war and piece with no slack in the schedule he did not trust Libre Office and Word to work perfectly together in keeping track of changes as pieces of the manuscript were exchanged back and forth and collaberatively edited. I don’t blame him.

  81. Ah, nostalgia. The first time I used Word, I had been given my very first tech-writing assignment. I was supposed to continuously update a document that was already 550 pages long. It had been written as a collaboration using Word 3.5, several versions of Word 95, Word 98, Word for Mac, and probably a few others.

    I kept running into weird compatibility issues. It probably didn’t help that the boss said I had to do it with Windows 3.5 because we had some customers in eastern europe that used that, and that way we would be sure they could handle it. About half of the time it would crash when I tried to do a spellcheck, destroying the original document. I had to make a manual backup each time.

    It’s possible I had some Word viruses too.

    I made a list of the top Word bugs that bothered me, and when it reached 30 I complained on the Word Usenet forum. Some Microsoft shill said Word was no problem for him and if I couldn’t handle Word I should ask my supervisor to assign something within my capabilities.

    Oh well. Now that Word is mostly compatible with itself, it’s a no-brainer to choose to use it.

  82. I’ve read that Pages is better than Word for people who write on different physical platforms (such as an iPad and Mac). But that only helps when you want to work on devices that have Pages. And (I believe), when your agent or publisher has Pages.

  83. My guess is that if Steven King or somebody like him runs into this situation and says “I want to use Libre Office” then everybody involved will use Libre Office. And then when he tells people (and if it’s obviously better) other writers with the same publisher can say “Hey, you used Libre Office for Steven King, you already have it set up, can you do it for me too?”. And other publishers will hear that Steven King thinks it’s better, and likely they’ll switch too.

    He can do it because he’s the King.

    But it’s hard for anybody else to take that initiative.

  84. Speaking of Charles Stross, check out today’s Blog:
    http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2013/11/trotskyite-singularitarians-fo.html
    “Trotskyite singularitarians for Monarchism! A political speculation.” (Stross is has a long republican (non-monarchy) history).

  85. Not a mac person but agree that Pages is Da Shit. Especially if you have a touch screen. Played with it on an Ipad an admit that it would make my life easier. Maybe enough easier to be worth the translation isssues. Though from what I understand, Apple and MSoft work closely enough together that the translation might be smoother, Once in the collaberation stage – that is editing – back to wordl

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