Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Burly Detective syndrome

I’ve encountered this a bit recently, so I thought I’d write about it. Sample conversation to show what I mean, with apologies to George R. R. Martin. Well, not too many apologies, given how many alternate names or titles some of his characters have.

“Hello, Robert,” said Eddard Stark.
“Hello, Ned,” said Robert Baratheon.
“Nice weather we’ve been having,” said the Lord of Winterfell.
“No, it’s quite chilly,” said the monarch of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
“Chilly? You should see the winters up north,” said the Warden of the North.
“Only if I can see them from a safe distance,” said the King of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men.

By the end of the conversation, this could easily be six different people speaking. Readers already aware of who the characters are may be bored, since they don’t need to have this information spelled out to them again, but readers who don’t know these characters are likely to be confused.

Imagine having a new acquaintance insist that the first time you address them, you use their first name, the second time their prefix and last name, the third time their race and appearance, the fourth time their profession and so on. These are a lot of details to remember, they may not be relevant at that moment and there are better ways to convey them.

There are two main reasons writers succumb to Burly Detective syndrome (as it’s called in the Turkey City Lexicon).

1. They’re trying to provide information to readers.

2. They believe it’s repetitive to keep using a character’s name, so they try to provide variety instead.

It’s relatively easy to solve the first problem and get the necessary information across to readers, so I’ll deal with the second one here. If a story is told from a first-person point of view, this problem is less likely to arise because there’s more variety when it comes to pronouns. Even with stories told from a third-person point of view, though, repetition of names can be reduced in ways that don’t involve constant use of euphemisms.

Pronouns are a much better option when it comes to name replacement. Like "said", they're near-invisible words that don't attract as much attention as a parade of descriptors. The reader should be focused on the story, not on the writer's heroic efforts at varying the way he or she refers to the characters.

Dialogue, if it’s well-written and if the people talking have been characterized sufficiently, is often enough to show the readers who’s talking, even without speech tags. There should be no need to add “the blond assassin said” or “the captain asked” to lines of dialogue, unless the viewpoint character doesn’t know their real names and they’re all in the same scene.

When there are only two characters talking, there’s a little more leeway for tag-elimination. There’s a scene in Gone with the Wind that’s told entirely in dialogue, and although only two characters are present, it’s completely clear who says what. I like trying this for brief scenes within short stories, but it’s probably not as feasible for longer scenes unless these are extremely gripping and the readers are following the dialogue closely.

As well as dialogue, the characters’ thoughts - provided the head-hopping is kept to a minimum - can tell readers which characters are performing which actions without too much repetition of names. Rewriting sentences is also an option. Here’s an example.

Janet knew that either Katrina or Liz had taken the money, but she felt sure that Katrina wouldn’t want Janet’s family getting involved and Liz would offer Janet a cut of it for her silence.

Just replacing the nouns with pronouns might not convey the same meaning, but getting into the character’s head is a workable option.

Janet knew that either Katrina or Liz had taken the money. But Katrina won’t want my family getting involved in this, she thought. As for Liz, well, she’ll try to buy me off. If she’s got the cash to do so.

Anything but Burly Detective syndrome, said the small dark-haired Asian-Canadian writer who was really tired of euphemisms.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Noticer

In a busy bustling world, many things – and people – go unnoticed and fall through the cracks of life. That’s why the characters in Andy Andrews’ book The Noticer need someone to stop, learn their names, listen to their problems and give them a little perspective. Not just on how to solve those problems, but on larger issues as well.

The noticer in this book is Jones, an affable Everyman who moves through people’s lives and appears, angel-like, whenever they’re at their bleakest points. I like some of his sentiments and analogies, especially his comparison of a potential romantic partner to a tree. The entire tree itself may be too large for a passerby to fully look at or comprehend. But all trees drop leaves, and those leaves tell you a lot about the tree’s species, health and so on – if you examine them.

I also enjoyed the story which deals with forgiveness, and the fact that when many people say “I made a mistake”, what they really mean is “I made a choice”. A conscious decision, in other words, rather than an honest error.

However, the book takes a turn for the Panglossian with the idea that if you’re alive, then you haven’t fulfilled your purpose on earth. This is said by Jones in an attempt to cheer up an old woman who doesn’t feel her life has a meaning any longer, but the logical conclusion is disturbing – does that mean that anyone who dies prematurely (including children) has fulfilled their purpose on earth? Makes me think that the best way to have a long life is to find out what your purpose is and then make sure it never happens.

I requested this book from Thomas Nelson as part of its Book Review Bloggers program because I thought it might be similar to Susan Trott’s The Holy Man. The Noticer shows more of a Christian influence, but I think what really made this not the right book for me was its too-knowing, too-good main character, who even works minor miracles on occasion (as opposed to Joe the holy man, who comes off as quirky and human). It was a pleasant enough read, but not one that really impacted on me.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Five uses for butterflies in fantasy

Because I like butterflies and I was feeling whimsical. :)

1. As a food source

Some species of butterfly gather or migrate in huge swarms. It’s just a step from there to people making preparations to catch those butterflies for food. I’m imagining huge netlike funnels that swallow up the swarms, or concentrated pools of pheromone that attract them.

2. As couriers

The patterns on a butterfly’s wings could be manipulated to spell out short words – or they could be a map. Or the butterflies could simply be infused with magic that makes a message appear when, for instance, the butterflies are popped into the ether jar (which would make them one-use only couriers, unfortunately). We’ll also have to assume some other type of magic that makes them fly to a certain destination.

Con: butterflies are fragile and have natural predators, but if they were brightly colored to advertise their poisonous nature, this might keep them alive for that much longer.

3. As scapegoats

if you have a memory or emotional state that you need to lose forever, a butterfly crawls out of your skin, dries its wings for a few moments and flies away, taking whatever’s unwanted with it.

The color of the butterfly’s wings could correspond to various emotions – red for lust, green for envy and so on. I wonder what would happen to whatever ate the butterfly, though.

4. As mounts

These would be really large butterflies.

5. As agents of biological warfare

I like the idea of butterflies being used to transmit grotesque diseases – and there’s something in it for them as well, if they parasitize their prey. Imagine infected people with dozens of caterpillars wriggling just beneath their skins. And when they think they’re getting better (because the caterpillars stop moving), that only means they’re in the pupal stage and will soon split open to release hundreds of butterflies like jewel flakes, petals in flight, tongues of fire and shards of the rainbow.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Put your dream to the test

“I have a dream…”

Those are four very famous words that showed the power of a passionately held vision. What I liked about John Maxwell’s Put your Dream to the Test is its thoughtful, analytical approach to how people can turn such dreams into reality.

The book is structured around ten questions that help determine whether our dreams are right for us (as opposed to, for instance, what our parents wanted for us) and whether we’re willing to do all that it takes to achieve them. It never gets too methodical, though, and there are plenty of stories of people who did achieve what they hoped for, as well as inspiring quotes and humorous anecdotes.

The book stays positive throughout, though it still acknowledges that many dreams cannot and will not be fulfilled quickly or easily – i.e. no instant gratification. That’s a characteristic of so many great achievements, though. And the author places as much emphasis on pragmatism and hard work as on the value of dreams. A head-in-the-clouds style would never have appealed to me, but this is like the anti-“Death of a Salesman”.

I try to balance my reviews and point out whatever didn’t work (as well as what I liked), but I can’t do that here. I enjoyed this book too much.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Blood in fantasy

So I sat before my computer thinking, “Hmm, what part of the body have I not written about yet?” And “blood” was the first thing that came to mind. I’ll spare you all the second, and just talk about blood instead. There are lots of potential uses of this in fantasy.


The color of blood is a tried-and-true way to indicate the alien or fantastic nature of another species. The Vulcans and Romulans of Star Trek have green blood, and I believe the aliens in Eric von Lustbader’s Pearl series have blue blood (both of which are due to copper rather than iron being in the oxygen-carrying pigment). There are probably creatures out there which have purple, yellow or black blood as well.

What I enjoy is when writers do more than just mention such unusual colors in exposition or description. For instance, in a Star Trek novel (The Vulcan Academy Murders, IIRC), Sarek gets very angry at one point and “sees green”. Very nice touch.


China Mieville’s The Scar introduced scabmettlers, creatures whose blood clots instantly and is therefore shed to create makeshift armor for them. In vampire fiction, of course, blood is food. But there are lots more options.

Blood could be used as a sign. For instance, if a friendly alien injected a little of its own blood into your body, you might suffer a few minor ill effects, but other aliens of the same species would recognize you as an ally too. Of course, you’d show up on their enemies’ olfactory radar as a friend of the opposition.

Blood could be poisonous. I’d like to see vampires deal with that, especially on a world they’re overrunning until evolution finally produces that kind of mutation in their prey. Or it could be extremely destructive – completely safe where it’s supposed to be, but expose it to air and it acts like a powerful acid on stone or metal. Which means that in battle against these particular creatures, each edged weapon you have is good for one-time use only.

Or what about a writing instrument? Normally, writing in blood is melodramatic, but what if there’s a good reason for doing so? The scent of the blood (no matter how old) could provide unfalsifiable identification, or the blood itself might act as a seal. I’d like to see illegible squiggles rearrange themselves into beautiful copperplate when someone of the same species unfolds the paper.

Or perhaps the blood acts like the troll’s talking pouch in The Hobbit? Blood, after all, is said to figuratively cry out when evil has been done.

Recovery from blood loss

I remember watching the first episode of the anime Hellsing, where the vampire Alucard is shot about a thousand times and crumples to the ground. Moments later, his spilled blood flows effortlessly back into his body, parts of it turning to a mist and seeping through the air to rejoin him.

It doesn’t have to be this dramatic, though. The Weaponbearers in my manuscript Redemption are able to absorb whatever iron they need from dissolving and digesting metal, so they recover from blood loss more quickly than other species do. I’d expect the same thing to apply for creatures like scabmettlers, which are used to losing a lot of blood at a time – they should be able to replace this blood very quickly.

This isn’t the same as a Wolverine-esque healing factor, though. A pound of flesh won’t be replaced so easily, if at all, and losing a limb will most likely kill such a character.

What other uses could there be?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tired of Victims

Is a character a Victim?

___ The character is treated extremely unfairly or cruelly
___ Even if the character has made a mistake of some kind, this treatment is out of proportion to the mistake
___ It always will be a mistake, since this character will not deliberately do anything wrong
___ The character’s response to the ill-treatment involves confusion, sorrow and guilt, possibly internalization of criticism
___ The character’s response does not involve rational disagreement, cool dignity, defiance, resentment, anger, plans of revenge, counter-threats, etc.
___ The character does not take any steps to change the situation or to escape it (not applicable if the character cannot get out of the situation)
___ Abuse does not change the character’s gentle, sweet, patient nature
___ The character is defended or rescued by other (good) characters, who may be fiercely protective of him or her
___ These rescuers will never encourage the character to toughen up, learn better and try some self-defence next time
___ It’s clear that the author intends the readers to feel sorry for/want to comfort the character

If three or more of these apply, the character may be a Victim. Five or more equals definite Victimhood. All ten and what’s left is a boneless bunny rabbit masquerading as a person. I read such a story today and ended up wishing the protagonist, who has some good points and who I liked originally, would just grow a pair.

Being gentle, soft-spoken, introverted or calm does not make a person a natural Victim. A perfect example of this is Andy Dufresne from Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption. When a couple of the other inmates demand oral sex from him, with the threat of having a blade rammed into his head if he tries to harm them in the process, he replies,

"But you should know that sudden serious brain injury causes the victim to bite down hard. In fact, I hear the bite reflex is so strong they have to pry the victim’s jaws open with a crowbar."

This is a great illustration of character abuse handled the right way. Andy doesn’t get (or need) anyone rushing in to defend or comfort him, but he doesn’t exactly remain the same person afterwards either. And I think what King wants us to do is admire Andy for the way he handles his problems, rather than pitying him for having those problems in the first place.

The Victim is still a popular character, for reasons described in this very entertaining (and very long) page on TV Tropes. And there are stories where such a character has a place – for instance, some romance novels include hurt/comfort scenes with either hero or heroine as Victim to twist the emotional thumbscrews.

Under my hard crusty exterior I have a soft marshmallowy heart, so I usually do have an “aww” reaction on first read of this kind of story. After that wears off, though, I feel annoyed that I’ve been manipulated into sympathy not for the devil but for the doormat. And if this happens more than once with the same character, it just doesn’t work.

That’s one reason I enjoyed Firefly – even though Simon and River Tam did get treated pretty badly, they never came across as Victims. Simon was told he needed to be “steely” and River was so messed up that most of the other characters were wary of her. The take-home lesson I get from that is it’s often better to let characters suffer, grow up, take hard knocks and learn from the experiences, rather than rushing in to dry their tears – or making the other characters do so.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


I’d read Limyaeel’s rant on telepathic animal companions - telcoms for short - some time ago, but when I thought about it just now, I had some ideas for reviving this fantasy cliché.

To sum up a couple of points in the rant, too many telecoms are used for their coolness (so they’re wolves, cats, pretty horses or even prettier birds of prey) or their convenience (so they function when the protagonist needs them and retire politely offstage when he doesn’t). They also don’t cause him too many problems with their own needs or personalities.

Which got me to thinking. What are some ways to make telecoms really different?

1. Strong influence over the human

I haven’t often seen this in fantasy. Usually, the telepathic animal is an extension of the human in some way, so the human controls the animal. The sole exception to this in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight, for instance, is that when dragons rise in mating flight, their riders are overcome by lust too.

But this isn’t too common an event. What about something that happens all the time – for instance, you feel hungry when the cat bonded to you is hungry? It could even go further than that – for instance, if your wolf decides to take down the nearest mastiff to prove that it’s higher in the carnivore pecking order, could you find yourself on the verge of challenging the mastiff’s owner to a duel?

It would require a lot of personality and training to be the dominant one in such a relationship. Maybe a kind of survival-of-the-fittest system operates and weak humans end up being the virtual slaves of their telcoms (or worse, killed in situations like the duel). That might dissuade a lot of people from trying to get a telcom, or from thinking that an animal familiar means coolness. No, it means constant vigilance and iron control.

2. Plans and schemes of its own

The human can be the one in charge and can decide what to do, but why can’t the animal companion have its own ideas of how they should do it? Or its own goals and purposes? Those could even be a subplot in the story.

I wrote a story some time ago about a young mage who received a hawk familiar as a gift from a goddess and was very pleased, because it showed how Special he was. The familiar, by the way, was bonded to him so that she would die if he did.

Since she had a very healthy sense of self-preservation, she did everything she could to make sure he wasn’t involved in any kind of danger. If, for instance, he dallied with a feisty swordswoman, the familiar would have tried to secretly murder her. Whereas if he’d fallen in love with a pregnant seamstress, the familiar would have loved her, and would have insisted they settle down and get married.

At the time, the story didn’t really go anywhere because the familiar kept shooting any potential adventure in both feet, but if I picked it up again I’d focus more on the characters involved and the novelty of a familiar who had her own plans for the human.

3. Dysfunctional mindset and personality

I must admit, the first thing I thought of here was to make the telcom snarky. Which means it’s been done before, and a quick revisit to the rant confirmed that. But there are so many other psychopathologies that could be tried. For instance, extreme aggression, vanity (e.g. a telepathic Persian cat which insists on being groomed even if you’re half dead from battle wounds), manipulativeness, cowardice or pride (e.g. always trying to one-up the human).

Go for the rest of the seven deadly sins here if you can get away with it. Lust was a definite factor in the character development of the sentient capuchin monkey in Orson Scott Card’s Lovelock, though in his case it was more of an attempt to break out of his programming than because he was attracted to anyone.

4. Unusual animals

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a bear familiar – and I mean a grizzly bear, not a cute little koala. Or an ostrich. Or if those are too large, even a mouse might be useful under some circumstances. I’m dating myself horribly with this reference, but if you’ve played the original Prince of Persia and been stuck on Level 8 until the Princess’s pet presses the floorstone, you’ll know what I mean.

And while I’m not sure how feasible this is, I’d like to see an endosymbiotic animal companion that lived inside the human’s body until it was needed for something. That way, it might not need telepathy – when its physical systems were once again linked to its host’s, the host would be aware of its memories and they could converse.

I just wonder if it would emerge like those chest-bursting aliens.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Panic Room

When I watch a movie, it’s because I’ve read good things about it. With Panic Room, what I read was the premise, which is simple and extremely effective. A home invasion forces a woman and her daughter into their new house’s “panic room” – a reinforced hideaway with lights, supplies, security cameras, etc. – but what the robbers want is actually inside that room.

That sums up the story. You can probably guess that a tense game of cat and mouse develops – the robbers, unable to break through three-inch-thick steel walls, try various methods to make the heroine, Meg Altman, open the door (for instance, pumping gas into the vents). For her part, Meg can’t simply wait things out in the panic room, since her daughter is diabetic and needs her glucagon shots, which are in the refrigerator.

Yes, the plot skeleton is obvious: as soon as the protagonist thinks she's solved one problem, it turns out she’s in an even worse mess. But this is a movie that relies on two things: plot and style. One of the director’s previous films is Se7en, and Panic Room has the same grim lightless atmosphere, almost too much so. A few times I found it difficult to see what was happening. But there’s a great use of little touches like what’s done with the pumping-gas-in-the-vent scene – since gas isn’t visible, a tiny feather in the vent rises and floats along.

Another great scene is the one where Meg takes advantage of the robbers’ distraction to leave the room and try to grab her cell phone. Shot in slow-motion and without sound, this scene drew the suspense out to the breaking point. Very Hitchcock.

So, what did I not like about this movie?

Cliche #1 : The Tank-topped Heroine. If you ever break into a house and are confronted by an attractive woman wearing a tank top, leave. This woman will either take you down faster than a Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert or defeat you through her sheer intelligence. Probably both.

Cliché #2 : The Feisty Daughter. If the heroine has a teenage or preteen daughter, don’t just leave. Run. While praying. Even then, you’re doomed.

Cliché # 3: The Big Bad. This is the end boss in the game. He always has triple the usual number of hit points, so he takes extra long to kill and all the players need to be involved. In this case, the Big Bad is Raoul, the most villainous of the three robbers, who is 1. hit with a sledgehammer 2. knocked over a banister onto the next landing and 3. stabbed repeatedly with hypodermic needles. And he still keeps going. What a guy.

So Panic Room isn’t a film I’ll watch again and again, enjoying character interactions or trying to work out deeper layers of meaning and symbolism. But it does a good job of keeping the viewer in suspense and of being entertaining almost until the end. Not without its flaws, but not without its excellent aspects either.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy birthday!

My blog is one year old today.

It's been fun to write. It's taught me a lot - not just from thinking about the content of posts and doing research for them - but through the comments and feedback I've received from readers. Thanks to all of you. :)

Now, please enjoy the virtual cake while I hammer out a few more posts for next week.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

An ancient evil has awoken

This topic fascinates me.

I’ve read about a hundred variations of it in fantasy and horror, and it still gives me a visceral thrill when I browse a blurb or summary and realize it’s one where the protagonists take on some hyperpowerful, hyperevil creature. Maybe it’s because there’s room for infinite variation with such a creature’s nature or abilities, or maybe it’s because the premise and the situation are so easy to grasp.

This plot ranges from thrillers like Jaws to Lovecraft’s work and all its imitators to epic fantasy (J. V. Jones’s Sword of Shadows series). A few things all of these have in common, though…

The ancient evil is powerful

No two ways about this. Whatever has opened its eyes in the darkness, it has to be epic in its menace. A great white shark can terrorize a seafront town, but to do the same to an entire medieval land, you’ll need an entire race of creatures or else something much larger and stronger.

Even if the ancient evil is physically impaired in some way (like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings), it could have an army to send on the offensive. This is also a great opportunity to pull out most of the stops when it comes to magic – though be careful not to write the protagonists into a corner here.

I once read a horror novel where the ancient evil was none other than Satan, and no one was able to stand against him until the hero remembered that one of Satan’s names was the Master of Lies. So the hero said that he would sacrifice his family provided Satan admitted to wanting them dead. Unable to tell the truth, Satan was defeated, so he turned on his nearly-as-powerful henchman and slaughtered him. Which was convenient, to say the least.

The ancient evil is evil

This isn’t the best place for a conflicted character who has a good side to him (though such a character might work as the ancient evil’s henchman). This is one of the few instances where the antagonist doesn’t need to have any redeeming characteristics or a three-dimensional personality. The thrill of horror operates here, rather than any empathic connection to the character.

The ancient evil is larger than life

I love it when such antagonists have cool names. “Cthulhu” worked well for Lovecraft, though I’ve never been keen on the “Others” of A Song of Ice and Fire. Physically they’re great, but “Others” as a name just doesn’t do it for me. The Dreaming God, the Blindlords (A Cavern of Black Ice), She Who Is Beheaded (Song of Kali) and even Yahweh Sabaoth, El Shaddai (Jericho Moon) are more evocative.

Originality counts here. Yet another Dark One or Dark Lord probably isn’t going to cut it, whereas something like “Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world” will lead me into temptation and bring me face to face with evil. And I’ll long to see how the protagonists deal with that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Five more features to change

Inspired by Writtenwyrdd’s suggestion that speculative fiction writers change something other than a character’s eyes (because that’s the first thing most of us think to change), here are a few other ideas.

1. Skin

Skin color, texture, etc. is an extremely easy way to differentiate a character or race from the norm. Zoology can provide a lot of inspiration in this regard – the ways in which animals’ hides camouflage or protect them can often be adapted to humanoid skins as well.

When I first discovered the Wild Cards novels, I came up with a few Aces of my own. One of them was Slime, who, as you can probably guess, oozed fluids of various kinds from his skin. Said fluids could be highly acidic (used as a weapon), flame-retardant (a defense), strongly adhesive (enabling him to climb snail-like up the side of a building) and so on.

2. Mouths

Alien or fantastic species might not use their mouths for the same things humans do. Human mouths serve at least two functions – ingestion and speech (intimacy and nonverbal communication are others). An alien might use its mouth simply for talking, and would be as unlikely to put food in there as you would be to stuff French fries in your ear. He/she might also be concerned about how easy it is for humans to end up with food/partially-digested food getting into the respiratory system by accident.

Or, conversely, the mouth might be used for eating alone, and the species would communicate through some method other than spoken speech. Either way, this is a quick and easy way to show how different a species is.

3. Hair

For me, hair is a tricky area. I’d really like to give a few of my characters streaks, but that’s been done so very often in speculative fiction that it seems stale. The ability to change hair color or length would be useful to a character, but it always reminds me of Tonks from the Harry Potter books.

One thing that wouldn’t remind me of Tonks, though, is hair that magically sets itself into different styles. That might be great for a light-hearted story.

4. Hands

Alterations to hands are easy to do, and just as importantly, easy to communicate to the reader. I’ve altered characters by giving them weapons that slide out of their wrists, but I’ve read of fantastic species that have fangs under their fingernails.

And what about palm-located chemical sensors that resemble tightly closed, lipless mouths or stomata? For that matter, I wouldn’t mind having sensors of different kinds in my fingertips either.

5. Teeth

I have characters with fangs – not just the two dainty eating implements prominently featured in Interview with the Vampire but more like a cat’s or dog’s teeth. Zoology comes in handy here as well. I’d like to see characters with the gnawing abilities of rodents, only multiplied to the point where they can chew escape routes through wooden walls in a few hours. Or how about poison-injecting teeth like those of venomous snakes?

Or maybe they don’t have teeth at all, so they expel digestive fluids into or on their food and then absorb the resulting products. I would definitely provide them with individual soup spoons for that purpose.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

An offer I had to review

I admit it. I requested I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse out of sheer curiosity as to why it was published by Thomas Nelson, which is known for inspirational books. The contrast between those and a book about how to use Mafia techniques to prosper in business was intriguing.

Of course, the advice in this book is strictly legal; the author, former mob boss Michael Franzese, doesn’t get into the how-tos of setting up protection rackets. In fact, the book gives an impression of a kinder, gentler Mafia* which has nothing to do with crimes like drug-dealing. On the other hand, even the sanitized glimpses of mob life were interesting, and might be a more palatable read than the real thing.

The advice in the book is fairly basic: play it legal and ethical, lead with your brain rather than your mouth, and make sure that your metaphorical guns are loaded when you conduct negotiations. What stood out vividly were the stories illustrating these points, tales of gangster sit-downs and death threats over matters of family honor. I also enjoyed the breezy, folksy style, though the dozens of quotes (from Macchiavelli’s The Prince and the Book of Proverbs) were a different matter. At only 152 pages, the book could have done with less of these and more of the Mafia stories.

In conclusion, this isn’t a book I’d recommend for businesspeople – too many of the tips seem like common knowledge. But it was an entertaining read for another reason entirely, and almost made me wish I’d had a shrewd underboss for a dad. Because sometimes, it’s fun to walk on the wild side, or to do so vicariously by reading a book.

*And I’ll probably end up with the severed head of a My Little Pony in my bed for writing that.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Thoughts on unicorns

Unicorns are an iconic part of fantasy. They’re beautiful, unusual, imbued with magic and myth… and prone to being overused, especially by new writers. I ought to know, since that’s exactly what I did when I first started writing fantasy. Probably why I’ve never written about unicorns until now; I slept and breathed and ate unicorns until I turned twenty so I didn’t really want to think much about them after that.

One problem is that most unicorns follow the template above. They’re sleek and beautiful and graceful and magical. I tried to make some of my unicorns different by sticking wings on them, which probably didn’t help. A lot of stories do the same thing – making their unicorns even more special in some way – and that still won’t stand out from the pack.

So what else can be done to differentiate unicorns?

Make them fantastic

One thing I loved about The Last Unicorn was the unicorn’s cool detachment from the other characters. She was calm and controlled and different.

Unicorns are fantastic creatures – make them act that way. If they behave and feel like humans with hooves and pointy horns, the story’s likely to be a dull one. Unless the story is deliberately adhering to myth, a single unicorn should be more than just a pale feral creature that’s tamed by a virgin. Likewise, a herd of unicorns should have their own customs and group behavior.

Make them flawed

If the unicorns are actual characters, as opposed to being token Magical Creatures appearing in the story, I want them to have real flaws, even serious ones. Just because they tend to be beautiful on the outside doesn't mean they'll all be pristine on the inside as well.

While the manuscript I completed about unicorns is one of my Cautionary Tales (because I did so many things wrong in it), there’s one thing I did like about it. One of my unicorn characters had lost his mate, the love of his life. She had been abducted by humans, and although all signs pointed to her being dead, he wouldn’t accept that and was obsessed with finding her.

As a result, even though he was extremely intelligent, he refused to recognize any evidence of her death and was also bitter and hostile towards most humans. Writing about him was always enjoyable (albeit a little painful) because he caused so many problems for himself, and yet remained sympathetic. To me, anyway.

Make them ugly

This is something I’d like to do if I tried writing about unicorns again. Why are unicorns always beautiful? Why should they always be beautiful? Maybe they carry scars from escaping hunters. Maybe they have brands that show which demons they serve. Maybe they’re simply ugly in a way normal horses aren’t – misshapen skulls, horns the color of blood or obsidian, what have you.

Or maybe my future unicorns will just look like Clydesdale farm horses rather than like Eight Belles.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Speech quirks

When writing dialogue, it’s easy to show who’s saying what, since a simple “Joe said” would do this. It’s not so easy to familiarize the readers with your character to the extent that, even without the speech tag, they know Joe would have said that particular line of dialogue, while Jane would have said something else.

Lisps, pronunciations and accents

These are prone to being abused, which is one reason writers are often cautioned against writing dialect out phonetically. I could understand the Yorkshire dialect in James Herriot’s novels, but in Richard Adams’s The Plague Dogs, the fox’s dialogue was incomprehensible (which also made it difficult to sympathize with him when a fox hunt took him out).

It’s difficult to show most accents in written dialogue, and unless this is handled carefully, it can come off as stereotyping the character. This probably won’t matter if you’re writing humor or humorous scenes, though. I loved it when Jaime gets the lisping Vargo Hoat to say “sapphires” in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords.

Unusual pronunciations could work as well. I alternate between pronouncing “schedule” as “shedule” and “skedule”, one of which is the British way of saying the word. On the other hand, to use alternate spellings in the dialogue to show this every single time a character speaks can be distracting. Doing this just once or twice might be more effective.

Foreign words

I really like these when the foreign word is something which doesn’t have an exact or brief equivalent in English. This can be used in speculative fiction as well, since it’s easier for most of us to make up a few words than to develop an entire language. As long as the words sound alike – a language which uses a lot of vowels and soft consonants will probably sound different from, say, Tolkien’s Black Speech – this will sound realistic enough.

One caveat is that the readers should have an idea of what the foreign words mean. Another is that such words don’t descend in an avalanche on the reader. It can be confusing (and frustrating) to read a passage like, “He dropped the durmik and reached for the illinga instead. Shor! The pidril had been at it!”

Jack Vance pulled this off in his novella “The Moon Moth”, where the protagonist has to carry and use a variety of alien musical instruments on a world where everyone communicated with music. But he did so through footnotes to explain the different instruments, and now that I think back on the story, I can’t remember any of the names of those instruments.

What not to do

Having a character’s dialogue in ALL CAPS will come off as an Owen Meany impression, and won’t be very easy to read. Bolding it or setting it off by asterisks, both of which I’ve seen in speculative fiction to indicate that a non-human is speaking, can make dialogue seem cluttery. If a character refers to blood as ichor and swears by the Fallen God, I can probably tell he’s a demon without his speech being in a Gothic font as well.