Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Animal models of societies

An alternative to the families and societies present in human cultures is to look at animal models instead. These can give your story a very alien flair, a sense that this is a distinct world with different standards. There are a few points to take into account, though.

1. The animal model should be the start of the building process, not the whole of it.

Let’s say you decide that your society should be analogous to a beehive, with thousands of individuals working together to build up and defend their land. Since someone has to handle the reproduction and give orders, there’ll be a queen, and the regular citizens can be workers or drones. Pretty soon these are bees in Borg suits, and so close to the starting point that it’ll be difficult for any writer to develop a story featuring these as the protagonists. There’s no individuality in the collective, after all, so stories are likely to feature someone breaking away from the hive mind and (re)discovering their humanity.

On the other hand, you could start with the beehive idea and take it down a different path. Let’s say a swarm sent out from the beehive society moves through the land, taking people into its number. Why does the land put up with the swarm, or even welcome it? Because the swarm absorbs only the weak and sick, feebleminded people and unwanted infants, so it’s thought of as a useful scavenger. Maybe the swarm feeds on them, but on the other hand, maybe it alters them in such a way that their infirmities are cured but they’re compelled to serve the beehive society. Much more interesting, and the swarm needn’t be intrinsically evil for taking people’s humanity and individuality away.

2. The animal model should not be presented as abnormal

One reason I like A Song of Ice and Fire so much is because George R. R. Martin presents characters like Craster without any narrative prejudice. Craster lives in the wilderness in something similar to a lion pride, since he has over a dozen wives. When they give birth to sons, he disposes of the babies. When they give birth to daughters, he waits till the girls are fifteen or sixteen, then marries them.

I was stunned and revolted when I read about this, but to Craster’s wives and daughters, this is normal, and that’s exactly how it should be. Let’s say there’s another society where women live solitary lives but give off pheromones when they’re fertile. Those pheromones make the men track them down and try to mate with them by any means necessary. It would be counterproductive for the author to include any kind of narrative disapproval. This would only remind the readers of the author’s own presence and the fact that they’re reading a story.

3. There are many types of animal models

I’d like to read about a heroine who lives with a pack and wants children, but can’t conceive because she’s not an alpha. What about a society where women routinely marry three or four men, and give birth to a corresponding number of children, with each man raising one child? Such a society may have much less conflict between males than one where men routinely compete for women. There’s a lot of untapped potential here, and new worlds to create and explore.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mated by fate

Why the idea of soulmates/heartmates/lifemates doesn’t work for me

I’ve read this in published paranormal romances and a few writers’ works-in-progress. Basically, the setup is this : Powerful immortal man discovers that feisty mortal woman is destined to be the one person who completes him and makes him happy.

This plays to both the thrill of capturing the alpha male and the feeling that love is so powerful and special that it was meant to be, written in the stars, planned by fate. It also removes uncertainty. If a tattoo on your palm glows blue when you meet someone (much like Bilbo’s sword when orcs are around) to tell you that the person is your soulmate, well then, no problems. You’ll never marry or fall in love with the wrong person. You’ll never spend time wondering if your soulmate is right for you. You are given 100% assurance that this is the person you have to marry in order to be happy, and then it’s on to wedding plans. I'd like to read this kind of story if it didn't have the following flaws.

1. The soulmate has no choice.

Too often in a soulmate romance, the woman isn’t given any choice other than being with the hero. He may prevent any other man from getting close to her, for instance. Even if he isn’t actively monitoring her, she doesn’t fall in love with anyone else – a neighbor, a friend, a co-worker, whoever. It’s as though she’s read the story and knows what is expected of her when she meets the hero – token resistance followed by ecstatic surrender, as opposed to a reasoned explanation of why she can’t just leave her job, her family, her home or her boyfriend to be with the new guy. Sometimes she doesn’t have such an option because the hero is so powerful compared to her, so they meet on his terms, rather than hammering out a common ground or compromise.

Calling a lack of free will fate or destiny doesn’t make it any less a lack of free will.

2. The hero has no choice either

Sometimes, the story ups the stakes by threatening the hero with lifelong misery or insanity if he doesn’t find the heroine. I’d want a man to be with me because he loved me and enjoyed spending time with me, not because he knew the universe would put a gun to his head if he didn’t.

3. The soulmate has no flaws

Since the realization that someone is a soulmate occurs instantly, the hero and heroine rarely work through any significant incompatibilities or problems of personality before they fall in love or get married. And since that might cause issues later on down the line, the author makes it easier for them by not giving them any such problems in the first place. They get along together well, don’t disagree on major issues like how many children they’re going to have, and so on. Their problems tend to be external, rather than internal.

Plus, the heroine is nearly always beautiful and sexy. It would be really interesting to read about a hero whose Soulmate Ring grew warm when he was around a plain unattractive woman. He’d refuse to believe this, since all his brothers have lovely soulmates, and they’d laugh at him if they saw him with such a dog. The woman tells him he’ll need to be a little less shallow if he wants her to acknowledge his existence, much less marry him. That would definitely subvert the cliché.

Though my take on it starts with the soulmate trope bringing the characters together so they can work on their relationship, and most books treat the soulmate trope as the backbone of the relationship.

4. The relationship can be too paternalistic

Relationships in books (as in life) are often unequal, but no real-life relationship has the man using his powers to watch over the woman from the moment of her birth, which I’ve seen twice now. I find that creepy, to be frank – there have to be some private moments in my life. If the hero secretly watches the heroine, he can come off as a voyeur or stalker.

In Gone with the Wind, when Rhett and Scarlett first meet, he admires her spirit. Since she’s sixteen at the time, and he’s about twice her age, it wouldn’t be romantic if he commented on how physically attractive she was. Instead, he compliments her on her bluntness and guts in approaching the man with whom she’s infatuated. He only kisses her years later, after she’s been married and had a child and grown up just a little, so their relationship never had a May-December vibe.

All these are personal takes on the matter, and soulmate romances are popular with many readers. But these might be reasons why they aren't popular with others.

On writing a series

I read something very insightful on Nathan Bransford’s blog the other day. He wrote:

Professional writers are RUTHLESS with their own worlds and work... For-fun writers linger and linger in the same world or with the same characters and can't bear to start a new world or delete anything. And unless you press that delete button or start fresh or create a new world it's impossible to get better.

This was so relevant to myself that I was a little taken aback at first. Here’s what I did when I first started out writing fantasy (translation : here are the mistakes I made).

I wrote a novel which was set in a temperate, medieval-Europe-type world. The good people lived in the Starlands and the bad ones lived in the Darklands (you already know who’s going to win the cataclysmic, worldwide war at the end). The good people had nuclear families and the bad people had slaves. There were other problems, including the fact that the continent was shaped like North America, but these were the major ones. Since I didn’t see anything really wrong with it, I wrote three sequels set in this land.

After a while, though, I started getting rejection letters that made me think I should write something different. At the time I was intrigued by the idea of an vicious, xenophobic character losing everything he had and having to rebuild his life step by painful step – could I make such a person sympathetic? Maybe, but the xenophobia meant it would have to be set in another world, one without the clear boundaries of “Starlands” and “Darklands”. One land, then, with several different races struggling for supremacy and survival. And it would be a harsh world, with hot deserts to the south and cold ones to the north, with each race able to deal out death in a different way. Even if they looked weak or seemed pacifist, it wouldn’t be advisable to turn your back on them.

That story became Redemption, which I’m reworking at the moment. I had a good world and a serviceable idea, but at the time, I didn’t do it justice, so I tried something new. Since I’d gone from different-lands-in-conflict to one-land-in-conflict, I went back to the former setup. This time I came up with the continent of Eden.

One thing I like about Eden is that none of its lands is designated as good or bad. Different societies and cultures have different flaws and virtues. The Dagrans aren’t wrong for expecting women to wear long gowns any more than the Iternans are wrong for hunting down and executing anyone who leaves their land without permission. And since I’d tried huge epic battles with the first series, I decided that each Eden book would stand alone, and wouldn’t deal with any lands going to war with others. The first Eden book was Before the Storm.

After I finished that, I thought of writing a story where dragons weren’t pets, antagonists or mounts. What if they were worshipped as gods instead? Since I’d already had a society with “normal” values and structure (Dagre), I tried something completely different for this story, which is called Dracolytes. Karne, the land which serves the dragons, practises slavery and has no concept of the nuclear family – but the Karnish are the protagonists. Karne was a lot of fun to write.

I have another book set in another land, complete and ready for editing, and another idea waiting to be developed into a book as soon as I’m done with Redemption. If I’d kept writing sequels to the Starlands books, it’s doubtful I would have been able to find an agent. More importantly, I wouldn’t have pushed myself to create something new, come up with something better.

That being said, why might writers not do as Mr Bransford said, and continue in the same world?

1. Series are popular in fantasy

They’re popular in published fantasy. Unpublished, the only thing that matters is whether a manuscript can catch an agent’s or editor’s eye. It’s not going to succeed at this unless the writer’s good, and the writer doesn’t become good by staying in a comfort zone.

2. It’s easier to write a series because each book fleshes the world out

This was one reason I kept writing sequels, and it took me a long time to break that habit. When I did, I wrote short stories set in the same worlds – those weren’t sequels, after all. One way to work around this is to write in the same world, but make each book a standalone – that way, rejections for the first book don’t automatically mean rejections for the second as well.

3. What if I run out of ideas?

I used to worry about this. I worried until I was stuck in a subway one day and wondered what would happen if there were tunnels, but no trains. Within half an hour I had a new, different world, and I realized how limitless a writer’s imagination can be. I don’t think it’s possible to run out of ideas as long as a writer keeps thinking and reading and self-editing – not all those ideas will work. But the more you have, the more you can pick and choose from, and the less likely you are to be discouraged by rejection. If every editor says no to the first story, you still have the second one to pitch.

There are exceptions to most rules, and if an agent likes a first book, they'll be more open to the idea of a series. But it's more difficult (for new writers) to get agents interested in a first book that ends with plot points unresolved because they continue through Books 2 and 3.

Friday, April 25, 2008

In the beginning

I like reading and commenting on stories or excerpts submitted for critiques on the Absolute Write forums, but there are many such works-in-progress. So I read the first few paragraphs of each to see which ones look more interesting. That's the same thing agents and editors will do (though they may not have the time to read paragraphs and might just look at the first few lines instead), so it's important to make sure the start is as gripping as possible. I've seen a few things at the beginnings of stories and novels that might discourage readers from continuing.

1. A character is bored.

Jessica looked out of the window at the rain, then closed the curtains. She had nothing particular to do that evening, so she turned on the TV. Reruns again. She wished she didn’t feel so bored.

The only reason I can see why writers might use this start is as a contrast, so that when Trouble enters the protagonist’s life, Trouble looks even bigger and more interesting in comparison. I don’t like to use absolutes, so it’s possible that some writer could take this kind of opening and make it work, though I’ve never read anything like it in a published novel. But there are two reasons why I’d leave Jessica to her boredom and try another story instead.

The first is that readers, in general, feel what the character feels. If the protagonist feels afraid, and there’s a good reason for him to be afraid, the reader will feel afraid too. Likewise, if the protagonist is bored, the reader will be bored as well – and most readers won’t persist past the boredom, hoping the story will be more interesting if they read far enough. Agents and editors are even less likely to slog past such an opening.

The second reason is what it implies about the protagonist’s personality. What I know of Jessica after reading that paragraph is that she’s bored and has nothing to do. Not very compelling. No conflict, no interesting details about her job or her problems or even her appearance. I like to see characters in motion, people with places to go and things to do, women in danger, men in deep trouble, children with problems to solve. I’ll read a story that gives me those, not one where the main character seems bored.

2. A weather report.

The storm cracked above the city. Even before the thunder could roll out, the first drops fell, and soon blankets of rain blotted everything from view. Lightning flickered against the masses of grey clouds.

Is anything happening yet? Well, there’s a lot of meterological pyrotechnics, but if the writer’s lucky, the flashes and bangs will cover the fact that there is no character or conflict at the start. If the writer’s not lucky, of course, readers will move on to something else, something that hooks them from the start. Starting with storms or fog or so on sets the scene – but it’s usually safer to set the scene after the reader’s hooked, and to do it gradually rather than beginning with the weather report.

There are ways to start with weather and still intrigue the reader, though, and one of them is to imply that something’s not quite right in the world. One of the best-known examples of this is the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Dean Koontz does something along these lines in The Servants of Twilight.

It happened in sunlight, not on a dark and stormy night.

Something bad happened in the sunlight, and it was the kind of thing that you’d expect would happen on a night with terrible weather instead. I’m reading on to see what this thing was.

Another way is to open with a great image; a good example of this is William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Opening with disastrous weather, such as a tornado swooping down on a village or on a car speeding up to get to safety, might also work.

3. Descriptions of the setting, unless there’s something unusual about the setting

Jessica’s bedroom was decorated in pale green and white, with lace curtains at the windows and a rug with roses on it. It was a pretty, feminine place and she loved spending time there.

Jessica’s bedroom was in the Twisted Tower, and the servants removed the bars from the windows before they carried her belongings in.

Which one sounds more interesting to read? The second, since it's not only strange but there's action in it, rather than passive description. The only bad thing about the second example is that now I want to complete the story. :)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My manuscripts : Before the Storm

A little description of one of my fantasy manuscripts, the one which gained representation from an agent.

The world

Dagre, one of the lands in the continent of Eden. Dagre is Victorian England's bastard child by medieval fantasy, so people might sit down to a properly laid dining-table and discuss magic-using Iternan fugitives over the white wine (and imports from Lunacy over the red wine). Dagrans are physically identical to humans and can't use magic. This has led to their progress in science, to the point where the land is on the brink of the Industrial Revolution, but it also means that they're highly xenophobic and distrustful of foreigners who do have magic. Dagre's social development is still considered backward by other lands, since women and foreigners do not have the same rights as Dagran men.

The story

Alex is a mare, a woman kept for the use of the nobility and considered lower than a prostitute. Hardened though she is to this existence, she is still terrified when the overlord Stephen Garnath gives her to Robert Demeresna, who is called the Bloody Baron for the atrocities he's supposed to have committed. Alex forces herself to stay calm as Robert orders her to strip, burns her clothes and gives her a sedative drug. Once she's unconscious, Robert and Mayerd, the Iternan captain of his household guard, discuss what to do with her. Even though it's evident she's not carrying any weapons on her, she might still be an assassin. Stephen Garnath is not known for his generosity, and Robert's reputation is an act intended to lull Garnath's suspicions while Robert secretly tries to rally the east of Dagre against him.

With no choice but to take his new gift with him, Robert returns to the east while Alex makes plans to escape from him. But both of them are unaware that this mare is a Trojan horse, carrying magic that Garnath plans to use against his enemies. Meanwhile, Robert's efforts to unite the east against Garnath have attracted the attention of the Quorum, the church of Dagre. The Quorum has developed crude machines such as steam-carriages and calcium carbide cannons, but refuses to give these machines to Robert unless he makes a stand against Garnath's army. Pointing out that Garnath's forces outnumber his own ten to one doesn't work, and even Alex's insider knowledge of Garnath's troops and tactics won't be enough - especially when Garnath orders the magic trap she unwittingly carries to be activated...

The characters

When I first thought of Before the Storm, I wanted it to be a romantic fantasy, but as cliche-free as possible. So Alex isn't a virgin, nor is she an ice princess who never experienced pleasure before she met the hero. She's also sterile, since otherwise she'd have to worry about pregnancy interfering with her duties as a mare. She's cold, proud, manipulative and unscrupulous - but at the same time, she's intelligent and tough and not in need of self-esteem boosts from anyone.

Robert isn't handsome - in fact, her first impression of him is that his attempt to conform to current fashion calls even more attention to the plainness of his appearance. He's also sexually inexperienced compared to Alex (but that goes for pretty much anyone), and that inhibits him from making the first move. However, he's loyal, generous and warm-hearted, with a sense of humor that's directed at himself as much as at others. He'd be good for her, in other words, if not for his also being conservative and traditional about the kind of woman he'll marry - one who, at a minimum, will give him an heir.

Fantasy and romance, thunder and lightning, machines and magic, psychic powers and chemical explosives - all that and more in Before the Storm, which is now out on submission to editors.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Fantasy and the exotic

How do you make a fantasy world different? One way is through the names that you give the animals, plants, food, clothes, musical instruments, any and every thing in your world. When well-chosen, these names can paint a vivid, distinctive picture of another world. When they’re poorly chosen, though, they’re like curly squiggles in a Mondrian painting – they call attention to themselves and don’t enhance the rest of the work.

1. Don’t sacrifice clarity to exotica.

I once read a novel where the heroine had “whistleflower-blue eyes”. Each time I came across that description, I would wonder what shade of blue that was supposed to be, and whether the flowers actually whistled, or were perhaps shaped like whistles. In other words, the description didn’t work either to give me a vivid picture of the heroine or to flesh out the world.

If it ever comes down to choosing between the simple mundane description and the overly elaborate one, the simple description is often going to be the better one. You don’t want the readers to stop, jolted out of the story, as they wonder whether “blackberry brandy eyes” are the same as “brown eyes”. It’s not worth it. If you really need a reader to know that there are such things as whistleflowers, have them wolf-whistle when the heroine walks past. Or maybe the hero could pick a bunch of them and tell her that they’re so dark a blue they’re like ink, but her eyes are darker. Hopefully she takes lapses into soppiness as a sign of love.

2. Don’t call a rabbit a smeerp.

The novel I just completed featured zebras, but I felt I had to call them something different. I’d read the term "zorse" in another fantasy novel, so I started referring to zebras as "stripes".

My critiquer read the first chapter and said, "If this is a zebra, why don't you just call it a zebra?" And he was right. Zebras are exotic enough already; there was no need to give them different names, especially names of the smeerp variety. I first read the rule on this site, which contains plenty of other examples of what not to do when writing.

3. Beware of Star Trek syndrome.

This is where every mundane noun gets the facelift of a adjectival place name, so you have Romulan ale, Tarkalian tea and so on. In the Star Trek universe, not only did this get repetitive, but it didn’t convey much information. I watched a lot of Star Trek, but I still don’t know the difference between Tarkalian tea and Lipton. In contrast, in the Song of Ice and Fire novels, George R. R. Martin makes the difference between Valyrian steel and regular steel very clear, so I can see why people value Valyrian steel. A little of this goes a long way, especially when Star Trek has boldly gone there before.

4. Sometimes the familiar can be strange as well.

Tanith Lee is a master of this effect, using the simple and ordinary in ways that are not at all simple and ordinary. Lee makes throwaway references to clockwork cats, marigolds preserved in ice for a dinner party and oranges which release birds when broken open. Martin is good at this too; one of the Song of Ice and Fire novels mentions “pitted olives stuffed with maggots”. Not as pretty, but certainly unusual. There’s no need to make up words – saying that the heroine picks a bunch of Cladiel flowers won’t be as vivid as her picking a bunch of dragonsbreath, or scarlet showers, or butterfly traps. Common words used in uncommon combinations can work very well.

Use as much imagination as the story needs, but don't use less.

Perdido Street Station

I'd read good things about China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, so I bought it from the World's Biggest Bookstore on Sunday. Here be a great many spoilers, if you haven't read the book.

What worked

Reading China Mieville is a little like reading Jack Vance - both are highly imaginative authors who create wonderfully alien worlds. I especially love the twisted science of Mieville's New Crobuzon. The Remade are humans with the body parts of other humans or animals or even metallic devices grafted to their bodies. The khepri are insects, except the males are large nonsentient scarabs and the females have human bodies and heads that look like giant scarabs grafted on to those bodies. Note to self : consider sexual dimorphism in future work. There are all kinds of evocative names like the Canker River, the Cold Claw Sea, Bonetown in the Ribs. There are mechanical constructs, computers with programme cards and dirigibles, all crammed into a great city of art and drugs and workers' strikes. This is the first fantasy novel I've ever read which used the word Biohazard, and I loved every bit of this.

I read Perdido Street Station in parts, but in other parts I found myself dipping, leaving the story as I thought about some idea or image. In other words, the book was more of a vast colorful landscape filled with intriguing details. I admired from a distance, studied close-up and drew back to admire again the vision and scope and skill in worldbuilding. But except for one instance, I wasn't actually in the book. The same thing happens for me with Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series. I enjoy those books for their settings, and there's nothing wrong with this - they're great inspiration for a writer of speculative fiction, and so was Perdido Street Station

What didn't work

The story begins when Isaac, a scientist, receives a commission from a garuda, a winged humanoid called Yagharek. Yagharek's wings have been amputated, and he wants to fly again. At the same time, Lin, an artist and Isaac's khepri lover, also receives a commission. Hers is from a mobster called Motley, and he wants her to sculpt a statue of him. Since Motley is like New Crobuzon itself - a vast shambling mass of lots of different limbs and heads and so on - this might take a while.

Isaac dives headfirst into the study of flight, buying up all kinds of winged creatures on which to experiment. One of those creatures is a stolen caterpillar which turns to a huge, magnificient slake-moth that feeds on people's minds. Isaac and a motley (excuse the pun) crew of friends have to stop the slake-moth and build a crisis engine that will somehow help Yagharek.

While I loved the setting, I couldn't identify with any of the characters except Yagharek, at the very end. Some reviewers on Amazon said they couldn't buy a human having sex with a woman whose entire head is a huge dung beetle. I didn't mind this, but I did get the impression that most of what fascinated Isaac was below the neck. Their relationship seemed to be based on sex and the fact that they were both rebels against the status quo - not really compelling for me. And both characters acted in ways that I didn't find heroic. When Isaac screams at Lin to come to him and not look back (because a slake-moth has unfolded its hypnotic wings behind her), she thinks something like, Hey, there must be something really interesting behind me, and she looks back. For his part, Isaac reluctantly writes Lin off after Motley kidnaps her, so she ends up being horribly tortured. I could understand this, but later he reneges on his bargain with Yagharek and abandons him, because Yagharek once committed a terrible crime in taking away someone's choice. This is after Isaac has used a helpless and dying old man as mothbait.

Speaking of Yagharek, I really liked him at the end. The story closes on a first-person account from him, when he realizes his former friends have turned their backs on him after they found out he raped another garuda and had his wings sawed off for it. The descriptions of the crime, the sentencing and the punishment were incredibly intense and painful to read, and his shame and guilt came through clearly. I've said before that a skilled enough author can make me like almost anyone, and this book proved that. That's why I felt so upset about Isaac's abandoning the person who had stood at his side and risked his life to fight the slake-moths. I felt Yagharek had redeemed himself, but he had to keep on paying, over and over again, for the crime he regretted. This ending fits with the gritty, nihilistic feel of New Crobuzon, but it's depressing.

Then Yagharek climbs up to a tall tower, and I thought, Oh, he's going to throw himself off. He'll have one last flight, a free fall, an instant of sky before the earth finally takes him. But no... he pulled out all his feathers and decided he would now live as a man in the city. I'm not certain how many men in New Crobuzon have talons and a beak, or what Yagharek plans to do in order to feed himself and keep a roof over his head. It wasn't the most satisfying ending, in other words.

One reason I bought this book was because I'd planned to write a quasi-urban fantasy (part of a modern city wrenched away and slammed down in a primitive world) and I wanted an idea of how different fantasy authors handled their cities. This was an interesting glimpse into a dark, fetid, violent place. I enjoyed it for what it was, but now I think I need to read some George R. R. Martin to cheer myself up. Yes, you read that right.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Description, the sequel

So when do paragraphs of description of characters work? Or any such description?

1. When it’s necessary for the readers to differentiate between characters on a physical basis.

In George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, it was absolutely necessary that readers knew what Prince Oberyn Martell and Ser Gregor the Mountain were wearing, carrying and fighting with before the duel to the death began. Those details just couldn’t be woven in gradually.

On the other hand, a description of a heroine rarely requires a mention of her “full breasts”, “perfectly shaped breasts” or “perky breasts”. Readers will assume that she’s normal-looking in this regard, as opposed to having twin zeppelins or two aspirins on an ironing board.

Descriptions of what the characters look like are often required in fantasy, where people can be very dissimilar from what we would consider the norm. Races in my own work have fangs, blazes, lateral lines, marks, camouflage skin, stingers or more eyes than expected – and that’s just differences in the head and face. A reader would be lost if such differences weren’t made clear.

It’s up to the writer whether to have such details in a paragraph at the start or to weave them into the narrative, but they should be included.

2. When it’s necessary for readers to know what a character looks like.

In Orson Scott Card’s novel Hart’s Hope, the antagonist envies the Flower Princess’s beauty. So how does Card show that beauty? Well, he describes the Flower Princess as being the most beautiful woman ever to have lived, because she has never told a lie. No mention of specifics, so every reader who tries to imagine her will imagine the most beautiful woman for himself or herself.

It’s a clever technique. If Card had written that the Flower Princess had black hair, sapphire-blue eyes, a perfect mouth and high breasts, that would never have had the power of his works-for-every-reader description.

Richard Adams also avoids specifics in The Girl in a Swing. At the end of the novel, I felt sure the heroine, Karin, was drop-dead gorgeous, but on reading it again, I realized that Adams had never described her. He only showed how other characters reacted to her. Their responses made it clear that they thought she was lovely, and so I thought she was lovely too.

The bottom line is that a non-specifc description may sometimes work better than stating exactly what a character looks like. Leave it up to the reader’s imagination – which will paint the kind of picture that works for the reader.

3. When the descriptions don’t risk losing reader sympathy.

Too much description of a character’s beauty – unless the character is in a Judith Krantz novel, where I expect it before opening the book – and I’ll be turned off, especially if such description is a fulsome listing of all the character’s flawless features.

Personally, if I want to make it clear that a character is beautiful, I’d pick one or at the most two characteristics and say that he was broad-shouldered or that she had eyes like mother-of-pearl. That would be much more palatable. Less is more.

I don't mind reading how lovely a minor character is. But identifying with the hero or heroine, feeling what they feel and struggling with them towards their goals, is easier for me if the author isn’t stressing how gorgeous they are.

Description and sexual tension

On a discussion board that I frequent, I read a post from another writer saying that she wrote a paragraph of description about a hero to build sexual tension.

I’m wary of paragraphs of description, because they too often bring the forward motion of the plot to a halt while the author paints the scene or colors in the characters. I like such paragraphs in George R. R. Martin’s books, because they’re written vividly and well, or in Tanith Lee’s books, because her style is so lyrical. But this was the first time I’d thought of such paragraphs with sexual tension in mind.

A paragraph devoted to the description of a character is routine in many romance novels. Such descriptions are intended more to put the characters into the readers’ minds than to build sexual tension, though. Static descriptions of handsome men and beautiful women can be read without feeling anything. Watching characters snap and spark off each other like flint and steel will often leave readers fanning themselves as they bask in the reflected glow of the flames.

So what are better ways to build up sexual tension than detailed descriptions of the characters’ looks?

1. Sexual tension depends on character attitude.

Jeff had glossy hair, tanned skin and vivid blue eyes. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular and his stomach flat. He was fit and neat and dressed extremely well.

Jeff’s hot, right? Guaranteed to turn anyone on? Well, he turned me off. Since this is nothing but a laundry list of details, it doesn’t make me interested in him as a character or in what happens to him. The details can be spiced up; for instance, I could write that he had eyes the color of lapis lazuli. But the laundry list would have the same problem. At best, poor Jeff comes off as a generic advertisement for men’s underwear; at worst, he’s a complete himbo.

Complete himbo, Kelly thought. Hair by Brylcreem, eyes by Bausch & Lomb. That vivid blue didn’t exist outside of a contact lens. A man couldn’t help having good looks, of course, but Jeff took it one step further by dressing like a male model. Maybe he was gay. Oh well, men like that didn’t notice women like her anyway. At least she could work with him on the Rivers account without such distractions.

Still, when he turned to reach across his desk for a folder, she found herself glancing down at the tight stretch of his pants. Evidently he went to the gym more often than she did. She crossed the room and turned the air conditioner up to maximum. Not only would that counteract the sudden warmth, it might make him put his jacket back on.

Now I’m much more interested. I still get the picture of Jeff as a hottie, but there’s attitude in this description, and the fact that Kelly’s trying not to be interested is a hook. It accomplishes everything the paragraph of detail doesn’t and can’t do.

And Jeff is a little more palatable because the viewpoint character doesn’t describe him in the flattering way that came across in the first paragraph. There’s a reason one of the best-known paragraphs of character description starts out with, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful.”

2. Sexual tension depends on reader sympathy.

Speaking of Gone with the Wind, it’s my favorite novel, and I love the film as well. The picture of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler isn’t what I’d consider attractive – his hair is slicked back and he has a mustache. But what stokes the sexual tension isn’t his appearance, it’s his unrequited love for Scarlett. He’s often cool and sarcastic to her, and yet he’s generous and protective when she needs him most.

No description can convey this – it has to be shown through the story. And it’s that which gets the readers involved, puts them on his side and gets them longing for Scarlett to recognize him for what he is. That’s sexual tension.

3. Sexual tension does depend in some part on a character’s looks.

Theoretically, it’s possible for a skilled author to make a very physically unappealing character attractive. Matthew Woodring Stover made me like a short, fat, stinking, perverted protagonist in his novel Jericho Moon, so anything’s possible.

On the other hand, it’s easier to work with characters who at least meet some standard of beauty. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire features an extremely unattractive woman, but other characters still comment that she has beautiful eyes. I like describing my heroes (from the heroines’ points of view) as plain and unattractive, because it’s fun to watch the heroines’ feelings slowly warming until the point where they realize they’re very much attracted to the men they originally wrote off.

To cut a long story short, I need more than a description of a good-looking man to be interested. If I know who he is, why he can't get the woman (or the man) he loves, and what he plans to do about that, then the handsomeness is the icing on the cake. But the icing can't stand without the cake.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Why should you read?

Would you allow a surgeon to operate on you if he hadn’t watched many surgeries being performed and if he didn’t read medical journals?

Would you allow a stockbroker to invest your money if she didn’t keep up with the financial market?

While these might seem like no-brainers, I’ve come across writers who didn’t read, either in their genre or otherwise. They justified this in various ways – they didn’t have enough time, or they deliberately avoided books in their genre because they didn’t want their work to be too influenced by that of others. I was taken aback by this at first, since I can’t imagine not reading, but this gave me a chance to think about why reading is a good idea.

1. Reading shows you the playing field. A writer who reads only Tolkien and DragonLance before starting a story might well have the impression that successful fantasy novels are set in a land resembling medieval Europe and that parties of adventurers (including a beautiful elf, a gruff dwarf and a mysterious magician) must set out to fight a Great Evil. Such a writer may not realize just how far the envelope can be pushed, just how wide the borders of fantasy can be. They are as wide as a mind, but that mind cannot grow in a vacuum. Nor can it be nourished by itself alone.

Could reading extensively lead to other books overly influencing your own? I don’t think so. Everything you read goes into your mind, but if you have a writer’s mind and a writer’s imagination, what you read doesn’t emerge in the same shape and form (the brain is like the digestive system that way). It’s possible to be influenced by another writer in a positive way, without copying what they write. I love the wonderfully alien, familiar-yet-strange food that people eat in Jack Vance’s books, and I sometimes have my characters eating similarly odd meals, but I make up my own dishes. Writers who are concerned that they might inadvertently plagiarize might keep copies of the books close at hand, or make notes of the exact inspiration so that they don’t repeat it.

2. Reading improves your style. From Dean Koontz’s early work, including Midnight, Whispers and The Voice of the Night, I learned not to use said-bookisms. From Ayn Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, I learned to avoid cliches and the generic when it came to descriptions. This can backfire – my favorite fantasy novel is Watership Down, so when I wrote my first fantasy, I started every chapter with a stanza or more of poetry, which quickly grew out of hand. But reading (and especially reading critically, examining what works and what doesn’t) will nearly always produce better writing.

3. Reading gives you ideas. I could never have come up with my stories if I had shut myself off in the literary equivalent of the sensory deprivation chamber. After reading an Anne Bishop novel, I thought that while a male prostitute forced to service hundreds of women could still be made sympathetic and sexy, that might be more challenging if the prostitute were a woman – and the heroine. At once I had the main characters of Before the Storm.

This advantage transcends genre and extends to non-fiction as well. One of the books I’ve read recently is Survival of the Sickest, which examines the effects that diseases have on us and on evolution. But it also digresses into a description of a parasitic wasp that stings a spider, laying an egg on it before flying away. I expected the wasp larva to eat the spider. Nothing surprising about that.
What startled me was that the larva (while literally feeding off the spider’s living body) makes the spider spin a cocoon where the larva can safely turn into a wasp. That was amazing. I’d never before read about parasitism which could alter a host’s natural, fundamental behavior to that extent – uninfected spiders spin webs, not cocoons. I immediately decided to use that in a story or novel, except that instead of a wasp, I’ll have humanoids or even animals who attach themselves to people, forcing those people to engage in abnormal actions that further the parasite’s reproductive goals.*

4. Reading helps you to query successfully. Many agents want to know who your target audience is. Replying “people who like fantasy” is probably not going to work. Being specific, by including people who enjoy dark fantasy a la Jacqueline Carey or realistic epics like A Song of Ice and Fire, is more professional and more helpful.

The last reason, which is so simple that I’m not going to give it a number of its own, is that reading is just plain fun. I can understand not having a lot of time, since I’m gone from home for half the day, but I read library books on my commute. That’s part of my training as a writer.

*Bernard Taylor used the humanoid version of the cuckoo in a brilliant horror novel called The Godsend.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

To seek out new life and new civilizations...

I first started watching Star Trek when the second series was on the air, and I was fascinated (as Mr. Spock would say) by the aliens. While a lot of them were what’s sometimes referred to as the Forehead of the Week, many others were genuinely different, and compelling because of it. There were the Borg, which operated like a single superorganism with the single imperative to add the biological distinctiveness of every other species to their own, the petty and powerful Q Continuum, and even the Ferengi. I loved watching the various races and societies coming into conflict with each other, and one of the underlying messages of Star Trek, to me, was that such cultures can be different without necessarily being bad.

Yes, there’s a “but”, as in, “I liked it, but”. I’ll get to that soon.

Then came Star Trek : Deep Space Nine, and I enjoyed that even more. The female members of the DS9 crew were just as smart and tough as the rest of the crew, and not delegated to healer-and-nurturer-and-love-interest roles as they were in The Next Generation. Best of all, DS9 introduced other intriguing races like the symbiotic Trill (I love it when there are actual biological differences between races). There was a certain trend of races slowly being domesticated, fitting in closer to Federation standards, but the extent to which DS9 explored the social differences between aliens made up for it. I especially like this exchange, where Weyoun, who worships the Founders, is commenting on another race’s religion.

Weyoun: All this talk of gods strikes me as nothing more than superstitious nonsense.
Damar: You believe that the Founders are gods, don't you?
Weyoun: That's different.
Damar: In what way?
Weyoun: The Founders ARE gods.

Then along came Star Trek : Voyager. Three seasons later, I stopped watching this series.

To be fair, Voyager had other cards stacked against it besides the lack of aliens. Not only did it suffer from Gilligan’s Island Syndrome – if a show is going to be seven seasons long, obviously they won’t get home in the first six seasons, so why pretend that they can? – but political correctness seemed to be more important than interesting characters. Having a female captain or a Native American first officer does not make a show inherently exciting. But since the ship was stranded in a part of the galaxy that no one had explored before, I hoped the crew would encounter creatures with unusual physiologies and unfamiliar beliefs and non-human societies. Instead, Voyager too often settled either for the familiar, standby aliens of Star Trek or for humans in makeup.

Neelix the Talaxian, one of the regular cast and played by Ethan Phillips, was the best example of the latter. In the three seasons I watched the show, I never saw anything that set his species apart from humans. Sure, the Talaxians have colorful Mohawks, spotted skin and odd-looking clothes, but that doesn’t make them aliens - that makes them humans in clown costumes. I read somewhere that it took hours for poor Ethan Philips’ makeup to be applied; what a waste of time, since he was no more alien after the application than before. I would much, much rather see a human who thinks and behaves differently from me than a blue-skinned, pink-haired, pointy-eared creature who calls his girlfriend “Sweetie” (as Neelix did).

Speaking of Neelix's girlfriend, Kes was an Ocampan and looked like an elf – slim, fair-haired, pointy-eared and with mysterious mental powers. Perhaps that was what made the writers try to science-fictionize her species by giving them a nine-year lifespan. This wasn't a bad idea, but it’s been done before, and better. Ray Bradbury wrote a story about people who live for about nine days, and their lives are characterized by a frenzied speed that really sets them apart from regular humans. Plus, there’s not much point in giving any race a characteristic that doesn’t have much impact on their mentality. Other than celebrating her second birthday, Kes might as well have had a ninety-year lifespan. Though she did break up with Neelix along the way; perhaps she realized that with only seven more years to go, she had to spend them with someone more interesting. And from a biological point of view, the Ocampans were seriously flawed as well, since Voyager made it clear that there is only one fertile period in a female Ocampan’s life. Unless multiple births are common, this means that the population halves with each generation.

The best aliens featured on Voyager – those which hadn’t been seen before in the Alpha Quadrant, anyway – were the Vidiians, who all suffered from a ravaging disease which necessitated their stealing internal organs from other people. Unfortunately the Vidiians only showed up in two or three episodes, and the other major antagonists were the Kazon. Much like the Klingons, the Kazon were a savage warrior race with big hair, though theirs was more like huge tangled gobs of keratin. I suppose if I had hair like that, I’d be permanently angry too, but the Kazon took it a step further by being misogynistic, in contrast to the modern advanced enlightened Federation with their Female Starship Captain. Wasn't it enough to make the enemy race ugly and violent? Did they have to look down on women as well?

I tuned in dutifully until Voyager encountered the Borg, soon turning one of them into a beautiful woman in a tight catsuit who wanted to rediscover her humanity. That wasn't why I watched Star Trek. The previous shows didn't just entertain me, they inspired me. One of my fantasy manuscripts is based on the idea of different races, descended from a common ancestor but diverging widely, struggling against each other for supremacy or at least survival. So I'll remember those aspects of Star Trek... but I won't be going back.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

PublishAmerica author appeal

I recently read a blog post from a writer who had submitted her first book to PublishAmerica.

Now I've written quite a bit about PA on this site (and I will finish that article some day!) but what struck me about the blog post was that the writer realized she had made a mistake by signing up with PA. However, she felt that this should not prevent anyone from buying her book. After all, she was as much of a writer as anyone else, and PA has published a lot of talented authors. Therefore, she appealed to readers, asking them to take risks and buy books without checking who the publisher was first.

I agree with her on two points. Firstly, she is a writer. Being published with PA can't take that away from anyone. If she produced a book-length manuscript, that is a wonderful accomplishment and she is a writer. Secondly, PA has indeed signed up many talented authors (and I'm not even counting Atlanta Nights here). No disagreement with that.

The problem is that while you can be a writer without submitting anything, or with a manuscript printed by a vanity press like PA or AuthorHouse, when you want to sell books it's a somewhat different ball game. Firstly, a book put out by PA will be unedited. Secondly, it will be overpriced. The vast majority of PA-printed books are sold to authors, who need to buy the books to sell them to readers and who aren't likely to unfavorably compare the price of their own book with that of one published by Random House. Finally, the book won't be readily available for a reader to look through beforehand.

All that amounts to quite a risk for readers, and I hope the author knows this, because what she's asking for looks like either a gamble or a gesture of charity to me. And considering that PA has put out a lot of books which sank without a trace, that's a big gamble. The dice are weighed in favor of the house. How am I, a reader with limited finances, to know which of PA's supposedly "30,000 happy authors" is a good enough writer that their book transcends's PA's lack of editors and copyeditors? The PA logo on a book is a warning sign that tells you this book was not screened for quality. You buy at your own risk - maybe you'll get something good, maybe you won't. But personally, I'd rather buy something I knew was good.

Unfortunately, realizing PA is a bad choice doesn't negate PA's stamp on a book or make the book any more competitive in the market. Better to take the energy and passion that might have gone into marketing and selling that book, and pour it into writing another, better book. Then keep that one far away from vanity presses.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Flower power

Strew on her roses, roses,
And never a spray of yew! ~~~ Matthew Arnold

I was on the subway today when I saw a man carrying a bunch of flowers. I'm shy with people I don't know, so rather than looking at the man, I looked at the flowers. There were two red rosebuds, partly open, and several sprigs of baby's breath.

I wondered who the recipient of the flowers was. A wife or girlfriend or date, or maybe a family member? Difficult to tell, because the bunch - can't really call it a bouquet - was so generic. Red roses and baby's breath go together like macaroni and cheese, costing perhaps a bit more but taking just as much time to think of and prepare. They're polite and impersonal and unfortunately dull.

If I were receiving roses, I'd want any color other than red - perhaps salmon-pink or a white that's slowly ripening into cream. Then again, my favorite flowers are dandelions, so I should be getting plenty of those soon.

Flowers in fiction need to be as well chosen as those in real life, which is why I like the red carnation motif in Judith Krantz's Mistral's Daughter . At least it wasn't a red rose. If the heroine receives "a bunch of flowers" (which she did in Tim LaHaye's and Jerry B. Jenkins's Tribulation Force), that won't be as vivid and interesting as

stems of Hawaiian Torch Ginger, three feet tall; their large heads were cones of petals with the sensuous texture of soft leather and the color of blood.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Flowers can be as exotic as this, or as those in Anita Desai's The Village by the Sea, which describes blossoms of hibiscus mutabilis that are white in the morning, turn pink by midday and darken to a crimson knot by nightfall. But a thoughtful description will lift even a rose off the flat printed page.

Maybe the rose is one of those which are naturally thornless, or it has heart-shaped petals. An armful of daffodils will mean something different from a vase of calla lilies - to me, daffodils are cheerful trumpets sounding the first notes of spring, while lilies are cool and dignified... beautiful, but also churchish and solemn.

Have anthuriums or daisies or a bunch of paper origami flowers. Just don't be generic and forgettable.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Ethshar novels

If you haven’t yet read Lawrence Watt-Evans’s Ethshar novels, I recommend them. They were out of print some time ago, but I found most of them in second-hand bookstores, and I’m glad to see that they’re readily available again. The worldbuilding and system of magic are good, but what really distinguishes these books for me are their protagonists and plots. The typical Watt-Evans hero is a likeable Everyman who wants a quiet life, and who solves his problems through wits, common sense and good nature rather than through magical power or because he is Chosen by Destiny.

The first Ethshar novel I read was The Misenchanted Sword, which begins with a scout called Valder losing his way behind enemy lines and coming into possession of a magic sword. The sword attacks one opponent at a time with superhuman skill, but after it defeats one hundred men, it will turn on Valder and strike him down. Oh, and he can’t be killed in any other way, nor will be die naturally (though he’ll grow old and feeble and blind eventually).

At this point, a lot of fantasy novels might have had Valder using his newfound magic artifact to rise in the army’s ranks and kill the enemy commander and win the war and save the kingdom. That was what I expected, but instead Valder became an assassin, albeit a reluctant one who didn’t like killing and wanted to settle down and lead a safe life as an innkeeper – which he did as soon as the war ended. But he could never get rid of the sword, and it was a target for thieves. Worse, it was inextricably bound to his own life.

The novel doesn’t have a grand, gripping, epic plot; instead, Valder’s life is more a series of episodes connected by the sword. And Valder is a pleasant, down-to-earth protagonist, without deep flaws or a dark past or unrequited love or even flippant commentary. But it’s that very normalcy that I like; it’s a breath of fresh calm air in the fantasy genre. I wouldn’t want too much of this, but I have to say, a fantasy novel that can hold my interest without even an antagonist is a pretty good one.

The system of magic in Ethshar is also well-thought-out, and the novel which best highlights this is The Unwilling Warlord. The war in this story is on so small a scale that it would be little more than a scuffle in the Martinverse, but it’s still tense as a group of very underpowered magicians take on an army which far outnumbers them. I like the way Watt-Evans ensures that no warlock will ever get too powerful – the stronger they become, the more attuned they are to a distant, mysterious something called the Aldagamor Source, which finally attracts them to itself like a magnet draws iron filings. They are never seen again. I would love to read a novel about the Source and what it does with all those warlocks.

The Ethshar novels don't need to be read in series to be enjoyed, so I'd urge anyone wanting logical but light-hearted fantasy to dive in.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Terminator II : Judgment Day is one of my favorite science fiction movies, so when I heard that a sequel to it was being made, I read about it on the web before it came out. Something about the descriptions of it dissuaded me from watching it in theatres. Then I moved to Canada, where I don’t have a DVD or a VCR – or a TV, for that matter – and I thought, shoot, now I’ll never see the movie. That’s when I realized I might still be able to see a few scenes on YouTube.

I found about half of it on YouTube, thoroughly RiffTraxed, and I soon realized that it deserved every bit of the ribbing. Here are some of the reasons why.

1. Terminator 1991 vs. Terminator 2003

The Terminator in the second movie was interesting because he behaved like a robot. All discussion of Schwarzenegger’s acting style aside, when I watch science fiction, I like to see aliens being alien and robots being robotic. T-1991 only picked up slang phrases because John (as a teenager) taught them to him. Where did T-2003 get them? Surely adult John didn’t program him with them before sending him back in time? “OK, you have to stop the T-X and make sure I stay alive to save humanity. Oh, and if anyone bothers you, stick your beefy paw in their face and deadpan, ‘Talk to the hand’.”

I also liked that the T-1991 obeyed John. That made sense and was fun to watch – John taking the responsibility for making the decisions, even at a young age, and steering the Terminator straight by making him solemnly promise not to kill anyone (though the T-1991 only attacks people in the biker bar when they attack him first, and is careful not to actually kill anyone). In Rise of the Machines, however, the Terminator runs the show. He’s not programmed to obey John and he decides where they’ll go. That wasn’t so much fun to watch.

I got the impression that Schwarzenegger’s heart really wasn’t in it by that point, though. When I watched Judgment Day, I didn’t just like Schwarzenegger’s character, I wished I had a Terminator of my own. In contrast, Schwarzenegger’s character in Rise of the Machines looked so tired and out of it that I wanted to wrap him in a blankie, give him a cup of nice hot cocoa and put him in an old terminators’ home to rest.

2. T-1000 vs. T-X.

One of the reviews for Rise of the Machines on Rottentomatoes.com said that what was scary about the T-1000 wasn’t that it could change its shape. What was scary was that it took the appearance of a police officer – someone people would trust and respect. In contrast, the T-X takes the appearance of some random woman. Nothing particularly frightening about that, and the scene where she inflates her chest undercuts the scare potential. I’m obviously not the target audience for that scene, but a character who’s either going to look hot or silly isn’t going to look unnerving and dangerous at the same time.

The other thing I liked about the T-1000 was that its physical capabilities were simple. It could change its body and body parts into different shapes. That was it, and that was extremely cool. In contrast, the T-X seems to have lots of weapons in her Swiss Army Arm – a flamethrower, a grenade launcher, a Terminator reprogrammer and so on. Less would have been more, especially since her clever attempt at making the Terminator go bad didn’t work (is there any antagonist in fiction who has tried to turn the hero against his friends and succeeded?).

3. John Connor 1991 vs. John Connor 2003.

Although young-JC came off as a juvenile delinquent at first, he soon shaped up, showing that he was loyal and idealistic and had a moral compass. In contrast, what I saw of older-JC made him seem weary and cynical. That’s not necessarily bad – Morgan Freeman was great as the weary and cynical cop in Se7en, but even the weary and cynical type has to do something. Older-JC seemed to be stuck in a dog’s cage at first and after he was freed, he talked about a kissing session in someone’s basement. He did eventually stall the T-X, but that was too little and too late.

4. Sarah Connor 1991 vs. Sarah Connor 2003.

In 1991, she was a tough, kickass heroine. In 2003, she was dead. Enough said. There was a female lead in the 2003 movie, but all I remember of her is that she screamed a lot when she wasn’t discussing the kissing session in the basement. Oh, and she has a fiancee. The moment I heard that, I knew the guy was dead, dead meat – he had to be so she would be freed up to marry older-JC.

Judgment Day was good because it took the situation set up by the first movie and put a great twist on it – this time, two Terminators are sent back, and we don’t realize at first that one of them is there to protect John from the other. Rise of the Machines takes that scenario and puts a twist on it – this time, the bad Terminator has boobs. She even acquires a vehicle in the same way the T-1000 does – complimenting the owner before killing her. I suppose the bleak end of Rise is another twist, but by that time I’d lost all interest in it. Hasta la vista, movie.

Juicing up fight scenes

On a site where people post their work for critiques, I’ve read a few stories where the authors seem to be inspired by films and video games when it came to fight scenes. Although I don’t watch many movies – and usually prefer novels – I was riveted to the screen when I watched the fight scenes in Kill Bill, so I can see what the authors were aiming for. One problem, though, is that films and video games are very different media from novels and stories.

Video games are interactive. If I’m maneuvering my Sorceress through the deserts of Aranoch in Diablo II, I’m more interested in finding treasure and staying alive, maybe not necessarily in that order, than the story or how realistic anything is. Films work on different principles too, the story unfolding so fast that the audience rarely has the time to stop and consider what’s happening. A book, on the other hand, can be closed – and may well be – if the reader doesn’t buy into what’s on the page. Films have the added advantage of visuals, music and special effects. But there are still techniques in movies which authors might be able to incorporate into their work.

1. Make it clear what your main character can do. The first fight scene in Kill Bill is between the Bride and Vernita Green – and it’s realistic (if you overlook little details like a suburban housewife keeping a gun in a box of cereal). Because of that, I felt sure the Bride was fully capable of holding her own in a fight, and the showdown in the House of Blue Leaves didn’t come off as unbelievable, which it would have if that was the first scene I’d watched. Likewise, starting with a main character realistically defeating one opponent will be easier for readers to believe than a beginning where the main character takes on four or five assassins at once.

2. Keep the level of realism consistent within the scene. I did read a story which started out with a hero facing several assassins, which I thought might be do-able, depending on the hero’s armor, weaponry, skills and experience. But then the hero went on to take wounds which should have crippled if not killed him, which was definitely not do-able (I always wonder about infection, especially in medieval worlds). I think that’s one reason the battle between the Bride and the Crazy 88 is so gleefully over-the-top – a fight between one woman and dozens and dozens of black-suited guys with Kato masks isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously, and the subsequent violence lives up to that standard. The level of realism is low throughout the scene and doesn’t jar the audience by changing abruptly.

3. Make the audience care about the characters. I like the Bride, but I’m fascinated by the other characters as well – O-Ren and Gogo, Elle and Bill. I didn’t want any of them to lose. In a short story, there probably won’t be enough room to properly develop an antagonist. However, a well-thought-out enemy with at least one positive trait will be far more interesting than either a horde of nameless, faceless swordfodder or a leering, sneering stereotype.

4. Make the antagonists competent. Kill Bill turns this into an art form – everyone the Bride fights is very good at fighting back. Skip this, and it’ll seem as though the protagonists are winning not because of their competence, but because the opposition are weak or witless. Fights need conflict as well as action; if it’s evident that the antagonist cannot win and that the main character cannot lose, the fight scenes won’t be very exciting to read.

5. Give the story some pizzazz. That’s one reason I enjoy Kill Bill – the costumes, the code names and the exotic weapons give a fun, vivid feel to the movie. Probably the closest fantasy equivalent to this is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where the characters also have unusual clothes, monikers and weapons. No need to go to extremes and mention every minor character’s bracers of swiftness, magic cat, and twin scimitars named Slasher and Sparkle – but making major characters as individual, unique and vivid as possible can lift a fight scene from competent to memorable.

The first blog entry was fun to write. :)