Monday, April 30, 2007

Annotation + Goals

Okay, new annotation: Chapter Thirty Six Part One

Whew.  I've just done a marathon 'grade submissions' run.  I've gotten through about sixteen of the 26 I need to grade by Wednesday.  I do have to say, reading fiction pieces like this is a lot more fun than grading regular school essays or the like.  I've got a much easier job than I make it out to be.  Still, 900 pages in a few days is a lot to get through.

So far, so good.  The students this year are actually pretty good, thought that's only going to make it HARDER to assign grades.  The trouble is, I know myself.  I want to give everybody an A every year.  It's tough to force myself to give anything else, and so I've forced myself to use a comparison curve, giving 'A' grades to the top students and lower grades to those beneath.  It's rough, particularly since I don't want to imply that those who aren't writing excellent work now should give up or anything like that. 

I want to be straightforward and honest, since I think that's good for someone to get.  Yet, at the same time, I want to reward hard work and progress.  Blarg. 

My goals this week are to finish these grades by tomorrow, then get the Scribbler edit finished and off to my agent.  Then, I'm going to get through every piece of mail in my inbox.  There are still some of you who sent me mail back in January that I haven't gotten to!  By the end of the week, I expect to get through all of those.  Then, finally, I'll get back to Dragonsteel.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Annotation + Thoughts


First off, new annotation: Chapter Thirty-Five Part Two

This is a pretty good annotation, with some nice thoughts on the approaching climax chapters of the book. It's fun to write these, since it brings me back into the books in a way that I usually don't get to.  Right now, I'm editing Mistborn three, and years have passed--in my mind--since the characters were where they are in this annotation.  It's like looking through an old family picture album and writing where you were during each shot.

Warbreaker is wrapping up, and I'm trying to decide what I should do with Wednesdays on the blog.  I think I'll try and continue to produce interesting content for Wednesdays, providing a new chapter from something each week.  Most will probably be sample chapters, deleted scenes, or scraps from books I haven't finished yet.  However, I like the idea of posting some original fiction each week, even if it does make me a 'webscab.'

I missed that whole webscab thing, by the way.  Didn't figure it out until Ms. Fish mentioned it to me on Tuesday.  Interesting how things can grow on the Internet.  My own charged essays tend to still pop up every once in a while on message boards.  (My Tolkien one got linked on the Lord of the Rings online game forums last week.  I wanted to pop on and chat with the people there about it, but couldn't, since the forums wouldn't let me register.  Ah, well.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Warbreaker + #2


First off, new Warbreaker chapter:  Chapter Fifty Seven

It's almost done!  Join the discussion, and find new chapters, here.

We're also getting near to the end of my top ten list of bad storytelling elements.  Today, we'll do:

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)

#2: Tell vs. Show (and vice versa)

It's the age old adage of writing.  "Show don't tell."  Experienced writers use this phrase constantly, beating new writers over the heads with it.  It's the first bit of writing advice I ever got (From Marion Zimmer Bradley, no less.)  It gets thrown around in writing classes and worships, the sharpened ninja star one can use when it's tough to find something else to say about a work.

It's good advice.  However, the way that the pros often use it make it seem like we ALWAYS get this one right, and never cut corners.  I'm here to tell you that just isn't so. 

The reason it goes on this list is because "Show Don't Tell" is such conventional wisdom that every serious writing student has likely heard it dozens of times.  The problem is, they're often not ALSO told that sometimes, you just HAVE to tell.  They're also not told that reader's tolerance for show vs. tell varies widely based on taste, genre, and mood at the time of reading.

Generally, showing something instead of telling it creates more dynamic writing, with more interesting prose.  However, it can also make something confusing, and can make a section of writing take an inappropriate amount of time.  Also, what one writer thinks should be shown, another writer will often think should be told.  I'm reminded of an author who--while I was perusing his book--posted a review of one of my book on his website.  He complained that my writing didn't show enough, while I was thinking the exact same thing about HIS writing. 

The reason for this?  I think perhaps, that he and I make different judgements about where to show and where to tell.  Because of this, we regard each other's writing critically, ignoring the places where each of us DO show because those aren't places where we'd have done it.  It's pretty easy to look through a book and pick out the 'telly' portions, once you have been focused on writing as much as people like Mr. Forbes and I have. 

Now, I'll admit, a LOT of new writers tell way more often than they should.  However, in my opinion, 'Show vs. Tell' is less a skill to learn, and more a balancing act to practice.  You have to decide where you want to use each type of writing.

And, sometimes, you'll decide to TELL instead of SHOW.  You'll realize exactly what you're doing, but at the time you're writing, you'll just be bored by the scene, and want to get past it quickly.  You'll tell it in a few quick paragraphs.  Or, you'll have a side character where you just don't want to spend the effort to explain who they are via their actions, and will just go ahead and give a quick, two-line description instead. 

Is that worse storytelling?  Yeah.  Do I do it?  Yeah.  Will I change?  I don't know.  I, again, see telling as a tool--which is why it's an element of bad storytelling that we all use.

Talk about it on my LJ if you want! (You can post comments there, where we don't have that feature on my main website blog.)  Forgive the rough draft. 

#1 next week some time!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dumbest Amphigory Ever + DONE!

Okay, this is--quite possibly--the dumbest Amphigory I've ever done.  Ha!  Here at the bsblog, we aim for ever new heights.  (or, er, depths.)  Look here for help.

So, my ultra-super-secret-project over the last few weeks is no longer secret, but it's still super cool.  Scribbler is finished (thread on my forums for stats on the book) and I'm quite pleased with it.  There's still a lot of drafting to do, but that's pretty low key.

I spent yesterday in a marathon write.  Got up at seven, wrote until three am, with some breaks in between to do stuff like eat and talk to my wife.  It's kind of funny the feeling I had when I was finally done, at three.  I'd written some 24k words that day, and it was like I'd forcibly ripped every bit of creativity and imagination out of my brain and stuck it on the page.  My head throbbed, and I had trouble thinking about anything at all.  Very strange.  I should have fallen asleep right away, but instead I just lay there, feeling numb. 

It wasn't like it was hard during the actual writing process.  Everything came easily and flowed rather well.  It's just that when I was finished, if felt really, really drained.  More so than other times.

Hopefully, in the next few months I'll have some news on where we plan to publish this book. 

Monday, April 23, 2007

Mail + Annotation


Annotation:  Mistborn Chapter Thirty Five Part One

My email was down for about four hours today, and if you sent to me, you should have gotten an 'undeliverable' response.  It is fixed now, so send again!

I'm working furiously on my current project--only about three chapters or so left to go on it--so, I don't have a lot of time to blog today.  However, I did want to mention that the Pope has gotten rid of the concept of Limbo for children who die without baptism.

This is an amazing change of doctrine, and I applaud the Catholic church for having the courage to take this move.  If there really is an all-powerful, just, and loving God, then I personally have trouble with any religion that preaches damnation to those who die without a chance to listen, learn, or live good lives.  Well done, Mr. Pope!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Annotation + Class

New Annotation: Mistborn Part Four Wrap Up

So, my class is done (pretty much) for another year.  My Thursday evening yesterday was free, and it felt very good. 

Teaching this class is an odd experience.  On one hand, I really enjoy getting out of the house and visiting with aspiring authors.  On the other hand, it's kind of a big pain, and with preparation and reading of student works, it pretty much blows away my Thursdays.  Also, I rarely get to any of the other things people ask me to read during winter semester since I'm kind of worn out on reading amateur writing because of class.  (Still planning to get to your story, Saphy....)

So, it's nice when it ends.  Tomorrow is the final, where we get to watch the Rifftrax version of Battlefield Earth.  After that, all I have to do is read the finals.  Which, of course, is THE most annoying part of the whole process.  After that, though, I'm done for another year. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Warbreaker + #3

First off, new Warbreaker Chapter:  Chapter Fifty-Six

After this one, there are only three more chapters to go!  (And, one of those is really just an epilogue.)  If you want more information about Warbreaker, look right here.

And, it's time for another one of my

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (We all Use.)

#3: Incompetence in the Bad Guys

Let's face it.  In most of the fiction we write, good (or, at least, good as represented by the protagonists) triumphs.  Yet, also, it's a great storytelling technique to stack the odds against the good guys.  Instead of having them fight one foe, you make them face down a dozen.  The brave warrior fights off great numbers; the clever hacker overcomes the best minds the government has to offer; the noble heroine faces down incredible odds to land the man of her dreams. 

We like underdogs.  And yet, because of this, we are forced to write antagonists who are flawed, incapable, and generally weak.  The orcs just CAN'T be as good at fighting as the heroes.  When the storm trooper shoot, they have to miss EVERY SINGLE TIME.  And, if they do hit, they have to hit in a non-lethal place. 

The thing is, in most combat situations, it only has to take one lucky blow to end a hero.  And so, it takes a lot of smoke and mirrors, sometimes, to make a battle seem tense, yet not let the villains actually accomplish anything.

This is a hard one to use correctly, I think.  In some places, you DO want the random villain to land a blow, if only to maintain the illusion that anything could happen, and that the heroes could lose in the end.  And, there are entire genres where side characters (even a lot of viewpoint characters) are never safe from being killed in a random fight.  I see these stories as, in a way, a reaction against the sense villains never succeed. 

There are all sorts of ways around this.  The above mentioned brutality is one (thank you GRRM.)  Another is to make the readers empathize with the villains, so that no matter who wins, there is a sense of loss.  However, even when using this methods, I think that we authors sometimes make our bad guys TOO incapable. 

It's hard to remember, sometimes, but a strong villain increases the strength of the hero.  And, if the readers are going to all notice that the bad guy SHOULD have done something else, then I strongly suggest you have him notice it to.  

A lot of film-makers seem to forget, or ignore, these things.  And, I even see it creeping into my own writing sometimes.  (There were several places in Mistborn where, at the advice of advance readers, I realized I had to make things feel more difficult--make the antagonists more clever, or more skilled--in order to not undermine my story.)

I suggest you keep an eye on this.  It's something that's very easy to cut corners on, and even to get into print.  And yet, it will make a work feel weaker, I think, and readers will notice.  Even if they can't point out just what was bothering them, they will notice. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Amphigory + Updates

Yet another stupid idea for a pun I had.  You'll have to know your cartoons to get this one....

The "Yet Another Secret Project" is going very well.  I posted a progress bar to this on my website a week or so ago, and I'm already well into the book. 

For those of you who don't know, 'secret projects' are what I call books that...well, I'm not supposed to be working on.  Right now, I SHOULD be writing Dragonsteel book one.  It's the next big series I'll do for Tor (after Warbreaker and a sequel.)  However, I got sidetracked by something else.  Maybe I'll post some chapters to my forums in the next little while.  Keep your eyes open.

As for other news, here's a great comic by Sam Logan.  The man's a genius.--beautiful style, wonderful composition, and excellent storytelling.  What else is there to be said?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Annotation + Library Thing + Lady in the Water


First off, new annotation: Mistborn Chapter Thirty Four Part Two

Secondly, you may be interested in a discussion going on over at Library Thing (a website dedicated to indexing people's personal libraries.)  A group of people on their forum are reading ELANTRIS together and discussing it, with input from yours truly.  Direct link to the discussion is right here.

I finally saw Lady in the Water on Saturday.  I put it off, since the reviews were so bad.  I love M. Knight's other works--even the ones critics didn't like.  However, something just felt wrong about this one.  I didn't want to risk seeing one of my favorite filmmakers fail. 

Still, I gave it a try.  Unfortunately, it was bad.  It just didn't work as a movie.  I really LIKED the Village and Signs, and Unbreakable is one of my favorite movies of all time.  But this one was a complete disaster. 

I tried to go into it with lowered expectations, telling myself that the plot wouldn't be good, but that the characters would be excellent.  And, to an extent, this worked.  The characters were pretty good--or, at least, one of them was. 

I just wasn't prepared for how much of a mess the movie would be.  The plotting was terrible, the side characters a mess, and the storytelling just plain bad.  I maintain that M. Knight makes excellent movies, but this one just didn't work for me.  It makes me sad, since I tried very hard to like the movie.  Maybe I'll do an official review later where I talk about what I think went wrong with the show.

Friday, April 13, 2007



New Annotation:  Mistborn Chapter Thirty-Four Part One

Well, the creative writing class I teach is over (save for the final, where we'll be watching a RiffTrax version of Battlefield Earth.)  I'm back to being a full-time writer until next January.  That doesn't mean much for you, save that I'll probably be able to start doing Thursday blog posts again. 

For today, I figured I'd throw up another of my current top ten list. 

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (that we all use)

#4: Personal Hobby Horses and Heavy-Handed Messages

This number is ironic for a couple of reasons.  First off, Tage just started a thread over at my forums about a similar topic.  He couldn't have known that I'd compiled this list weeks ago--I guess it's just good timing.

The other reason this item is ironic is because this--talking about not putting heavy-handed messages into stories--is a personal hobby-horse of my own.  It's okay, though.  I'm a professional.  (And, of course, these articles are commentary, not fiction. ... I guess that last part is debatable.)

Regardless, messages.  Some authors, whom I respect, believe that fiction is THE place for didactic messages.  Stories are one of the best places to prove a point, in their opinion.  I don't necessarily disagree.  However, I think that said messages UNDERMINE the storytelling of the story.  And so, while stories might make an excellent vehicle for rhetoric, I think rhetoric can destroy the integrity of a story.

I guess it comes down to your goals.  My goal is not to teach, but to tell a good story. 

However, like all the numbers on this list, I picked this item because I myself have trouble following my own advice in this area.  The truth is, as a writer, when a theme confronts you in the face, you can't HELP but want to bring it out and emphasize it.  Bad storytelling or not. 

A good example of this are the Alcatraz books I'll be releasing soon.  These are intended to be pure fun, stories about a somewhat silly world, with silly magic, and a snarky first-person narrator.  However, as I developed that character, I couldn't help but push a few of my own personal political messages.  (Such as, for instance, my desire to champion the fantasy genre against the forces of literary fiction.)

The Liar of Partinel, one of the books I'm working on for Tor, is partially about the concept of a the value of storytelling in society.  I can't help but include these things, since they're so important to me.  However, the danger here is to let the theme become more important than the characters.  When that happens, you have dangers of having straw men (which brings us back to #7 on my list) and of ruining your story.

So, my suggestion is to keep theme in check.  I doubt you'll be able to cut it out of your writing all together, and I also doubt that I should suggest you try to do so.  However, letting theme and message become more important to you than telling a good story is a flaw that I think the pro writers dabble in far too often.  And so, this is number four on the list.

We'll start into the top three next week!  Have a great weekend, everybody.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Warbreaker + Busking


New Warbreaker Chapter: Chapter Fifty-Five

Explanation for Warbreaker is in this thread.

Also, a very interesting article was posted over at the Washington Post last week.  Essentially, the reporter took a famous violinist, stuck him in a subway station and had him play incognito.  Then, they filmed what happened--trying to see how many people stopped, interviewing some of those who passed by, that sort of thing.  The question was this: Would average passers recognize genius if they encountered it in an unexpected place.

It's a very good article, with some interesting thoughts about the nature of art.  Note that at least one Busker has a response up to the article, and while they make at least one good observation, in general I think they missed the vision of the article. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Amphigory + Bestseller

All right, another quick Amphigory.  I'm not sure how intuitive the pun is on this one, so I'll give some clues below:

The question is, why isn't that one on the middle left selling as quickly as the others?  Hum... I wonder... It must be a...

In other fun news, I'm a Best-selling author!  (Assuming, of course, that you want to use random Amazon rankings on rather insignificant stories as a measure.)  Yesterday, for about twelve hours, my short story "Hope of Elantris" was the number one best-selling short story on 

This is amusing to me because there's been news, recently, on the net of people inflating their Amazon rank numbers for a short time just to call themselves best-selling authors.  The thing is, it's all pretty meaningless.  Amazon is a very small part of the market, and because they update their sales rankings so frequently, it's very easy to get yourself some quick numbers there.  Only people who manage to have a low number on Amazon over a very long period can have any real bragging rights. 

The more amusing thing is, however, the term 'best-selling' is very ambiguous in the first place.  I'm a best-seller at my local bookstores, since people how live nearby tend to go buy my books in larger numbers than people in other areas.  Yet, people go to some pretty big extremes--spending as much as 12 grand on PR firms--just so that they can get number one on Amazon for a few hours, then be able to call themselves 'best-sellers.'

That all said, and knowing that it's pretty meaningless to be number one on Amazon shorts, I did email my editor, take a screen shot, and pat myself on the back a few times.  By this afternoon, however, Kim Stanley Robinson (a Hugo-award winning novelist) had unseated me!  As of this post, I'm down to number six.  What a tragedy!  How quickly we fall!  It looks like my fifteen minutes of Amazon Short fame has come to a quick demise.  Ah, well.

(At least I still have this screenshot!)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Elements of Bad Storytelling #5 + Annotation

First off, new Annotation: Mistborn Chapter Thirty Three Part Two

Now, on to the feature article:

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)

#5: Flat Characters

I've tried to get across in these essays that a lot of these things are tools that authors, even the professional ones, use in their writing.  As we get down to the bottom five, I'll be looking at some of the worst corners we authors cut--and, at the same time, admit that I'm guilty of a lot of these things. 

Flat characters is a great example of something we all tell new authors to avoid using, then go ahead and put into our books anyway.  (And when I talk about 'flat' characters in this essay, I mean characters who either 1) Don't progress as the story does or 2) Don't have a rounded viewpoint, expressing depth of thought, and looking at things in more than one way.)

Look on virtually any editor or agent's website, and under the 'What are we looking for?' section, they'll say something to the affect of "We want stories about dynamic characters who change, grow, and who are interesting."

Baloney.  We all want one thing: stories that will sell.  That's one of the reasons we write commercial fiction.  We want to write stories that people will enjoy, and that they will therefore pay money for.  True, most of us authors also have a strong artistic drive--a desire to get the ideas in our heads out, expressed for the world to see.  However, we also want to get paid to do it--for, only by getting paid can we have the time we need to get MORE of those stories out of our heads. 

When it comes down to it, it's very easy to cut corners on characters.  I think doing so undermines the quality of the story--and therefore undermine its emotional impact on readers.  This, in turn, will affect (in my opinion) the story's longevity.  However, that may not actually lessen its sales in the short run.  Take, for instance, the Da Vinci Code.  (Heck, the entire thriller genre in general.)  Here, flat characters are the norm.  The stories aren't about a character who grows, they're about the tension and fast pacing.  And, if a character does 'learn' something, it's in the form of a lesson they're beaten over the head with repeatedly.

So, number five is flat characters.  When we write characters in popular fiction, our first concern is usually to make  them sympathetic.  We want to write stories about characters readers will enjoy, we want to put readers in the characters' shoes, because that's one of the best and most powerful ways to evoke emotion in our readers.  Once we have considered that, we tend to create conflict for those characters, since this not only enhances sympathy, but also creates tension and adds (hopefully) to the plot.  Next, we tend to consider the individuality of that character (though this is often connected to the other two) and come up with ways they are distinctive.  (Powers, quirks, abilities, philosophies.)

Therefore, giving that character an actually character arc--letting them grow and progress in a natural way, and then making their opinions and views rounded--actually comes fourth on the list.  (Or, at least, my list.  Others may do it differently.)  We often talk about the importance of rounded characters.  Yet, the truth is that isn't necessary to make a story work, and so it's easy to skimp in this area as opposed to other means of characterization.  This sort of thing is icing, but I believe it's one of the things that separates good commercial writing from great commercial writing.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone, as I've mentioned.  In my first novel, ELANTRIS, I worry that some of the characters walked the line between being flat caricatures and true, rounded characters.  Actually, as I look at it critically, I think the character with the least screen time (Hrathen) is the one that came out the most rounded, though I've drawn criticism for him since at the beginning of the book, this is rather difficult to see.

Like most of the others in my list, this is something to be aware of, but not necessarily something to let you stop writing.  I think it's a process, learning to give depth to characters.  I think I did a much better job of it in Mistborn, but my side characters there are still pretty flat.  (By necessity--I find that I have a lot of trouble rounding a character unless I give them a viewpoint.  If I can't write from their head, I can't understand them on a deep level.)

Anyway, those are my thoughts on characters.  We'll do #4 tomorrow.  Again, forgive the rough-draft nature of this essay.  I'll clean it up later, once I've had more time to think about it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Annotation + Short Story

First off, new annotation: Mistborn Chapter Thirty-Three Part One

Also, it's been pointed out to me that I need to mention that I have a short story up for download on Amazon.  It's set in the Elantris world, and is actually a small 'fill in the blanks' story that takes place during the climax of ELANTRIS the book.  So, it's probably not something to read unless you've read Elantris.  But, if you have, this fills in a few details. 

People have said that they like it, which is good.  I worried that it was a tad melodramatic, but the reception has been good.  It's about 50 cents.

I might throw up another "Ten Elements" post on Saturday, so check back.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling #6 (+ Warbreaker)

First off, new Warbreaker!  Chapter Fifty Four

(Warbreaker is an ebook I'm releasing serially.  Look on this thread for an explanation, along with previous chapters.)  And now, another of my:

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)

#6: Stilted Dialogue

Let's face it.  People don't talk like they do in books.  Or, at least, they don't talk like they do in most books.  There are some few novels out there, primarily in the literary world, that try very hard to capture human conversation in its fullness.  They include the hums, the fractured sentences, the backing up and starting again, and all of that.  If you haven't done it, take the opportunity sometime to write down a conversation you hear word for word.

I'm not saying we need to write books like that.  Honestly, that would make for some pretty terrible storytelling.  A good story is less about  how realistic some of these presentations are, and more about how realistic they FEEL.  The continual starting and stopping of normal dialogue would actually pull readers out, I think, and grow frustrating--just like it often grows frustrating when we try to write accents verbatim. 

That doesn't mean, however, that we as writers have licence to do whatever we want with our language.  I think that a lot of the time, we go into a scene with a specific goal in mind, and force our discussions to conform to these goals.  This, in turn, may advance the plot well--but I think it works to undermine character, as it doesn't let them really show their personalities in the ways that are natural.

A lot of the time, we use what is called 'Maid and Butler' dialogue (where two characters explain things to each other that they should already know for the benefit of the reader.)  We use talking heads who aren't as much people as they are vehicles for getting out the information we want the reader to know.  This is one of the early things we point out to newer writers to avoid--but I don't think that we pros avoid it all the time.  We're just a lot better at hiding when we're doing it.

This may be like numbers 10 and 9 on my list--things that we can't avoid, but should minimize.  However, I think that there are some things one can work on in this area (and I'm as guilty of it as anyone else.)  Good storytelling happens when the author works hard to make each character's voice distinctive, and that their personal motivations are considered, so that in conversation character is shown and enhanced as the plot is forwarded.  I like it personally when the conversation is influenced by surrounding as well--usually in only subtle ways--so that setting is brought into it as well.

Don't be afraid to throw in a few turns in the conversation that focus on things the characters would find important, as long as it doesn't tangent you for too long.  Learn what your own habits in writing are (the words you tend to use more often than most people, the  phrases you particularly enjoy) and decide which characters wouldn't use these things.  During a revision, give them their own unique words and phrases.  (Subtle things, mostly.  You don't want words that draw attention.  For instance, one of my own is 'a bit.'  I use that more often than most.  It's not a distinctive enough phrase to draw attention, but it's one of the subtle clues that a piece is written by me.)

And, stay away from language that REALLY feels like it isn't something anyone would say.  We accept, in novels, language that is too polished for real life.  However, there's a line (different for every reader) which if you cross, will make your dialogue seem cardboard.  It's hard to judge this on your own, so give the story to some readers and see what they say.  However, I'd say that usually, new authors have a problem with cardboard prose rather than prose that is too relaxed, so chances are you're erring on that side (if, indeed, you have troubles.)

Good dialogue often means good storytelling.  If I had to pick one of the two, I'd say cut corners in narrative, but make your dialogue shine. 

#5 Tomorrow!  (Assuming I do a Thursday update, which is never certain around here.)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Amphigory + Updates

We'll see if I have time to post another of my Ten Elements later today or not.  For now, I want to make sure the regular features stay constant.  (These Amphigories sometimes take a lot more time than the shoddy Photoshop job and bad puns imply. :) ) If I don't get Number Five up today, it'll be here tomorrow for sure. 

The trick to this one is to realize what it is those guys are carrying.

Because of the huge-text posts via the Ten Elements feature, I haven't had much space to give updates on other books.  Liar of Partinel (Dragonsteel One) is picking up for me, though there are some things I want to rewrite already.  I'm about 25% through the book, and at regular writing speeds should be done in a couple of months.  (With the rough draft, at least.)  Negotiations with Tor for Warbreaker and Dragonsteel (plus sequels to each) are wrapping up, and I'm pleased with how they turned out. 

It's very nice to be writing again, rather than just editing.  I think that long slump of doing only edits and revisions (November through February) might have put me in a little bit of a funk, since I'm not accustomed to going that long without writing something new.  That's what I get for pushing through four books in a row with minimal time spent editing, however.

Warbreaker tomorrow!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling #7 + Annotation

Two links to Begin the day:

First, Another mistborn Annotation: Chapter Thirty-two

Second, a link to another Cool artist who likes my books!  This isn't the same fan artist as last week, but someone new.  I think they may be posting some art of my work eventually.  If they do, I'll put up another link.

Third, here's our feature:

Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use.)

#7:  Characters who think too much like we do

This is a tough one to talk about, since there are a lot of different aspects to this concept, and they're of varying important to me. I'll look at three ways writing characters like ourselves can undermine our stories, yet explain why it is that we often use them anyway.

We are human beings, and as such, we are confined and limited by our experience.  We can really claim to 'know' very few things, particularly when it comes to how others feel and think.  A writer learns to approximate and guess, and I think this is one of the great arts of a novelist: The ability to write about what you DON'T know.  I've never been a sixteen year old girl, yet a wrote a whole trilogy from the viewpoint of one. 

And yet, because of our limitations, it's very difficult for us to avoid writing characters who sound like ourselves.  More than this, it's very difficult to avoid writing protagonists who think like we do, and then writing villains who oppose those thoughts.  A religious person, I think, is more likely to write an atheist as a villain--where an atheist might similarly put zealot believers in the roles of all of their villains.  Along these same lines is a lesser sin--the sin, particularly in fantasy, of making characters and society act like ones from a modern day counterpart.  I'll talk about all of these issues separately.

The first is, I think, the most difficult to deal with.  How do we stop our characters from sounding like us?  Each character I write is, in a way, a different piece or aspect of myself.  This makes it very difficult when writing novels to make characters that aren't repeats of characters I've written before.  Yet, I think that by pushing ourselves, writers CAN innovate and stretch themselves.  Some of us, however, tend to get lazy in this area.  In some long series, I see authors taking less and less concern for this, and writing characters that grow more and more similar in voice and action.  It's bad storytelling, but it's something that a whole lot of pros do.

The greater sin of the three is, in my opinion, writing villains who think differently from yourself.  Now, this isn't a hardfast rule, of course.  I disagree with people who murder others, but I'm not going to force myself to avoid making a murderer as a villain.  However, if I were to make every villain in my books an atheist, while all of my heroes are staunch theists--and then are always proven right over those darn godless atheists...well, I think I'd be undermining the story itself.  Instead of telling a story, I begin to tell a parable which only expresses my own limited worldview. 

For this reason, I think it's an oft-ignored element of good storytelling to try making your heroes see the world very differently from yourself, and an element of bad storytelling to always make your heroes view the world--even view morality--in the same way you do.  It's tough, sometimes, to stretch in this way.  I'm an optimist, and so writing pessimistic characters is tough for me--particularly doing so, then not having them get proven wrong by the narrative.  It's tough for me to create characters who don't see the same way I do in 'charged' moral issues, like homosexuality or abortion.  And yet, my favorite authors are the ones who can present characters on both sides of arguments like this, and have them both be sympathetic.  This begins to achieve what I see as one of the grand purposes of fiction: To show through sympathetic characters that there are those who see differently from yourself, but who are still intelligent, capable people.  By including someone who disagrees with you, I don't think you necessarily advocate their position--you only advocate understanding them.  (Some readers have trouble with this distinction, however.)

It's very hard to do any of this without getting preachy or undermining your story.  Yet, I think this a corner we shouldn't cut.  We may not achieve it perfectly, but in striving, I think we will enhance our stories.  I know a lot of authors do this anyway, and not all of them are lazy--they simply believe that having a message, at the cost of their story, is a worthy price.  I disagree.

The final aspect of the three I listed above is that of making characters who live in a past setting, but who think like modern people.  I'll raise my hand high as someone who is very guilty of this, particularly in Elantris.  I've tried to walk the balance better in my later books, but to be honest, I'm not sure which is 'worse' storytelling.  To have characters who act somewhat like modern ones, thereby undermining the culture and history of your world slightly.  Or, to have characters won don't think like modern characters--but who by acting in the ways they do, become difficult to sympathize with or relate to, and thereby undermine the narrative in other ways.  No easy answer on this one, though I do think it's something we should consider.

We'll move on to #6 tomorrow!  Again, please forgive awkwardness in language above.  It's a rough draft, still.