The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

Swanwick Writers’ Summer School is an annual week long residential course for writers of all kinds, featuring workshops, speakers, various other events, and large quantities of pie. I’ve been there several times and it’s how I met my agent. This year, for the first time, I graduated from pupil to teacher, and delivered an hour-long session on how to plot fantasy novels. It seemed to go pretty well – my timing was spot-on, nobody fell asleep, and some of the attendees came up with really good ideas. I celebrated with a cup of tea and some more pie.

Now you lucky people get to enjoy a condensed version of my session. Here we go:

The Plotting of Perils and the Perils of Plotting

The great thing about writing fantasy is that you can do whatever you like – dragons! Goblins! Wizards! Elves! Magic! Did I mention dragons?!

The problem with writing fantasy is that, just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should. The existence of things like magic in your setting shouldn’t be an excuse to let basic story logic and decent characterisation slide. Sadly, some fantasy books fall back on lazy cliches and ‘A Wizard Did It’ style explanations for plot discrepancies. Here are a few examples:

*spoiler warnings for the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, the Liveship Traders by Robin Hobb, and the Black Magician by Trudi Canavan. All of which are recommended texts.*

The Dark Lord

A primal force of evil who lives in a dark tower and wants to take over the world because he’s evil. Usually has magical, evil powers like necromancy and likes to dress in black spiky outfits. Sauron from Lord of the Rings is the classic example. While evil plans to take over the world are cool and all, maybe ‘for the evulz’ isn’t the strongest or most believable motivation.

An excellent example of a subversion is the Lord Ruler in the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. These books explore the idea ‘what if the Dark Lord won?’ The first book starts in a world which has essentially become Mordor after a thousand years under the thumb of the immortal and despotic Lord Ruler. Then, after he’s defeated, we understand why he did what he did – and the characters have to then deal with the same problems he faced.

The Magician

A powerful wizard – usually with a long beard, pointy hat, and a magic staff – who aids the protagonist, dispenses wisdom, and controls things from behind the scenes. Gandalf, Dumbledore etc. Very convenient for the author to explain bits of backstory and get the main characters out of scrapes. A bit too convenient.

Akkarin from the Black Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan is a subversion of both the Magician and the Dark Lord. The High Lord of the magician’s guild, supposedly a great and wise magician, he’s revealed to be using dark powers

– and then revealed to be doing so for very good reasons. He also becomes the love interest and tragic hero. This trilogy in general shows the elder magicians as being just as faction-riven and human as anyone else – and they are very much not in control all the time.

Plot Coupons

These are the magic whatsits that must be collected and/or destroyed by the protagonists to defeat the Dark Lord. A handy way to set characters off on a quest to find them in various locations – but arguably lazy storytelling. The Horcruxes from Harry Potter are an example, while The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper is full of them.

Did I mention dragons?

Dragon Eggs

The protagonist finds, or is given a dragon’s egg. Which duly hatches into a dragon which imprints on the main character – who then becomes a badass Dragon Rider. Might seem very specific – but this trope crops up more often than you might think, with Game of Thrones the most prominent recent example. The whole idea is subverted/deconstructed to hell and back by Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, in which it turns out that the objects humans had thought were logs – and have been cutting up and making into ships – are actually the cocoons of the now-extinct dragons. When one dragon is born alive, she’s not very happy.

The challenge I set for my eager pupils was to think of ways to avoid, subvert, twist, deconstruct, or otherwise play around with these overused tropes. And they did well at it, with some cool ideas in just the few who read out at the end of the ten-minute writing segments. I’m hoping one day I’ll pick up a fantasy novel and see myself credited in the acknowledgements as providing inspiration.

I’m calling that a roaring success. More pie!

Hot Stuff

I’m currently revising the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea. One of the elements I’m trying to develop further is the romantic attraction between my heroine and her – let’s go with prospective boyfriend, needless to say the course of true love runs no smoother for them than for any other fictional couple.

In revising their scenes together, I’ve found it difficult to imply attraction without implying physical attractiveness. And this means I’ve run right up against an issue which has been bugging me in a low-key way for a while now. Namely, as an author, should you make your main characters hot? I couldn’t find any scholarly research on the topic, and I suspect it varies accordingly to the genre, but certainly in my personal experience there are many more books with good-looking protagonists than with plain ones. I find this kind of annoying, especially if not only the protagonist and the love interest(s) are hotties, but the supporting cast as well. The worst example in my own recollection is Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman: a book in which every single character is gorgeous, even the alcoholic who lives in a shack. But there are plenty of other instances – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles spring to mind, or Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries (vampires are obviously particularly guilty of excessive beauty, although you’d have thought the whole mirror thing would cause issues for personal grooming).

What’s the problem with all this literary hotness? Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, not that many people in real life actually look like movie stars. That’s why the few who do get to be movie stars, and the rest of us get to be project managers or supermarket shelf-stackers or unemployed writers or something equally unglamorous. But books – even fantasy books set in medieval societies without cosmetic dentistry or hair salons – are overflowing with luscious auburn locks, sparkling green eyes and perfectly sculpted cheekbones. It can send my suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor. The only thing worse than making characters pretty is making them ‘not pretty’, as satirised mercilessly by Max Beerbohm back in 1911: ‘Zuleika was not strictly beautiful. Her eyes were a trifle large, and their lashes longer than they need have been’.

Not only is it unrealistic to populate your book with babes, there’s also something rather problematic about the way so many authors focus in on the stories of the handsome, neglecting that ugly people have feelings too. I remember vividly a line from Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth: ‘She had sensibilities which, to Lily, would have seemed comic in a person with a freckled nose* and red eyelids … but poor Grace’s limitations gave them a more concentrated inner life’. And yet the book isn’t about Grace, but the lovely Lily. Is it more poignant to see the [spoilers] downfall and death of a young beauty than that of a young minger? Perhaps. We read, after all, to escape from reality, so if we’re going to imagine ourselves into the role of tragic heroine, we’d probably prefer it if she had perfect skin and sleek hair and thighs which never rub together.

The other side of this coin is that the reader generally wants to fancy the love interest, which is what I’m trying to (subtly) make happen at the moment. I’m also trying not to be too obvious, to maintain some uncertainty, not have the heroine go ‘phwoar’ early on and give the game away. Get her – and, by extension, the reader – to love him for his engaging personality and all that. But still imply that he’s kind of a dish. The book I’ve just finished, The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb, does a great job of establishing an attraction between two rather plain characters, although Hobb still describes at least half her male characters as ‘handsome’. And I have to confess I’ve called my heroine ‘pretty’ a couple of times, albeit in dialogue rather than narrative voice.

So I guess the conclusion I’ve come to is that, unrealistic, shallow and vaguely problematic or not, readers want hotties and that’s all there is to it. Even if you try to make characters plain, many readers will just imagine them as hot anyway – a phenomenon known by tvtropes.org as Draco in Leather Pants. So you may as well bow to the inevitable. And if the book is ever successful enough to be made into a film – well, then they’ll all end up looking like movie stars in any case.

*as someone with a freckled nose myself, I object to Ms Wharton’s implication here and will counter it with a link to a Buzzfeed article about hot guys with freckles http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliegerstein/freckle-face-yes-please#.vmd91x3Mz . You’re welcome.

2014 Roundup

So, here we are, my last blog post of 2014. And what a year it’s been. At the start of the year, I was still suffering such terrible back problems I could barely sit at my computer for long enough to write a blog post. Now, I’ve managed to churn out 65,000 words (and counting) on my new work-in-progress fantasy novel, The Silvergreen Sea. Then, I was on extended sick leave from my job at Rolls-Royce. Now, I’ve quit the day job to devote myself to writing full-time. Then, I could barely get beyond a walking radius of my house, and gainful employment was a distant dream. Now, I’ve managed extended trips as far as visiting relatives on the South Coast, and day trips to London. I’ve also taken a temporary Christmas job selling books at Waterstone’s. Which is great when I get to hand-sell books by authors I enjoy, like Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson, or Ben Aaronovitch: and less great when I have to deal with customers who say things like ‘I’m looking for a book – I can’t remember the title, or the author, but it’s got a red cover.’ But overall, I love being able to spend lots of time surrounded by thousands of books, and it keeps me out of trouble. Mostly.

Money is a lot tighter now; only this morning I’ve had to turn down a posh Christmas dinner – something I would have said ‘yes’ to unthinkingly two years ago – because I simply can’t afford to go. But then, one year ago, I would have had to turn it down because I simply couldn’t have sat down for long enough for eat a seven-course meal. I know which situation I’d rather be in. And, let’s be honest, if I check my privilege, I know I’m still better-off financially than the majority of my fellow citizens, so I’ve really got nothing to complain about there.

It hasn’t been all good, of course. Efforts by me and my agent to find a publisher for either my first novel or the in-development second one have met with disappointment thus far. But hey, maybe 2015 will be the year that we crack it. And I’ve now got enough time available to write my books, so if the first one doesn’t make it, maybe the second one will, or the third, or even the fourth. One thing I’m certainly very, very rich in is ideas. So I’ll raise a glass of what a friend of mine refers to as ‘aggravated wine’ to the festive season and the end of another transformational year.

Strong Female Characters in Distress

If – like me – you’re a hopeless social media addict, you may have noticed a shitstorm going off lately in cyberspace under the loose collective term of #GamerGate. I’m not going to attempt to recount the whole distasteful and – sadly – ongoing saga here, but if you’re interested, see the links below. When I attempted to explain it to my husband, his first question was ‘is this a thing on Twitter?’ to which the answer is, yes, it is a thing on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact IRL: actual people have been forced out of their actual homes in actual fear for their actual lives because of this shit. A movement which was kicked off by concerns about the ethics of game journalists and developers has culminated in threats to shoot up an entire university campus in order to stop a talk by Anita Sarkeesian – who is neither a journalist, nor a developer. Sarkeesian is a feminist cultural commentator whose series of videos criticising the representation of women in video games has, it’s fair to say, raised a few hackles, and has been raising them since long before GamerGate became a thing. The most succinct summary I can give here is this:

Sarkeesian: The portrayal of women in many popular video games is kinda sexist, and this has troubling implications for the attitudes of those who play them.

Trolls: You’re wrong you stupid lying c%&$ and if you don’t shut up we’ll rape and kill you.

Me (thinks): Yep, those guys have definitely made an excellent argument for how video games definitely don’t encourage violent misogyny.

Sigh.

Anyway, what does all this have to do with little me, back in meatspace? Well, if there’s one conclusion you can draw from the escalating hysteria, it’s this: people care about the representation of women in media. They care a lot – one way or the other, whether it’s the gamer dudes who are screaming someone is trying to take away their T&A, or the critics who are suggesting there should perhaps be more to creating female characters than the jiggle physics. Literary women seem – thankfully – to inspire fewer death threats, but they still matter. They certainly matter a lot to me: from my love for Sophie Hatter, the lead character in Howl’s Moving Castle – a shy young girl who spends most of the book magically transformed into a cantankerous old woman – to the nausea I recently experienced when reading Raymond E. Feist describe an elven princess with the words ‘her terror as thinly veiled as her body’ (sorry, got to take a vom, BRB).

Female characters in fantasy have thankfully evolved a bit from the days of being either largely absent (thanks, JRR) or terrified eye candy. But some writers still seem to struggle – like Patrick Rothfuss, who I heard speaking quite earnestly at World Fantasy Con last year about the importance of women’s representation, yet still couldn’t manage to put any women in The Name of the Wind who weren’t either sexy damsels-in-distress, or the protagonist’s dead mother. Funnily enough, women writers like Robin Hobb or the (by me) recently-discovered Elizabeth Bear usually seem to do a bit better, and it’s their example I’m endeavouring to follow.

In these discussions, you often hear bandied around that most dreaded phrase, ‘Strong Female Characters’ – a phrase which, frankly, makes me want to hurl. Again. Why? Because proper representation of women isn’t all about broads with swords. It’s about the fundamentals of good writing, about thinking your way inside someone’s head, about realistically portraying both weakness and more than one type of strength. Suzanne Collins gets it right in The Hunger Games: Katniss may be a BAMF, but she also has flaws: physically strong, but troubled and awkward, she’s beautifully counter-pointed with Peeta, who makes up for his lack of BAMFiness with emotional intelligence. The point about good characterisation of women is that that you shouldn’t just create a bunch of characters who are ‘strong’ and then give a few of them tits. The point is, you should create a whole cast of characters who are deep and rich and nuanced, who have fully realised personalities, who have hopes and dreams and fears which extend beyond being rescued or which boys they fancy, and then give slightly less than half of them dicks.

Links:

A brief summary of GamerGate http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

Interview with Anita Sarkeesian https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/anita-sarkeesian-gamergate-interview-20141017

Fan fiction – under the rock

After a couple of recent Facebook conversations with friends on the topic, I’ve decided to lay down a few thoughts about fan fiction – although it’s quite difficult to write about something so huge, varied and frequently deranged within the confines of a single blog post. Fan fiction is generally little-seen by much of mainstream society, but use the lever of the Internet to lift the rock of the original work and you’ll find a writhing, teeming mass of fanfic creepy-crawlies beneath. Alternate universes, unlikely crossovers, flipped genders, male pregnancies… it’s all there. Quality also varies wildly, from eye-gougingly awful to actually really good (in some cases, superior to the original). Some things, however, are reassuringly predictable – as one of my friends put it, ‘I think I remember where 99% of these fanfics end up…’ ie, with some man-love. I’ve heard a few theories as to why ‘slash’ fiction* has become so popular – something to do with the lack of well-drawn female characters in many works, or women’s desire to write romantic pairings free of gender-based power dynamics, or teenage girls exploring their newfound feelings about BOYS in a safe context, blah blah. Personally I think it’s because guy-on-guy is hot, duh, but that’s just my opinion.

From the point of view of a writer, fanfic is an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, it’s a fun way to get started as a writer, and a while back I did actually start developing some Harry Potter fanfic into a fantasy novel. This book was subsequently abandoned and I’ve since written only wholly original stuff, but there have been some high-profile cases of books which started life as fan works eventually becoming published in their own right – ‘The Mortal Instruments’ series (Potter), ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Twilight), and ‘Temeraire’ (the Aubrey-Maturin series). On the other hand, it must be a bit weird to see your beloved world and characters getting mashed around by some ham-fisted and possibly drunk amateur scribbler. Robin Hobb compares the experience to seeing a family picture photo-shopped to put everyone in compromising positions, and other writers have expressed their horror at discovering first-hand that Rule 34 (‘If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions’) does indeed have no exceptions. And in the worst case scenario, there can be legal wrangles which end up destroying part of the author’s copyright, as happened to Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is why most writers, even if they tolerate the existence of fan fiction, make a point of not reading any, especially if they’re writing an ongoing series – things can get very messy if a subsequent installment has a resemblance to a previously-published fan work.

What’s my attitude? Well, Patrick Rothfuss was completely delighted when he discovered some slash based on his books (and it’s pretty well written too, in fact), considering it proof that he had truly arrived as an author, and I think I’d agree with him. Fanfic, after all, is evidence that your story has affected someone. Even if they hated it. So they felt the need to bring your dead character back to life, hook him up in a three-way with Harry Styles and Wolverine, and then get him pregnant by both of them at once? Well, why not eh – in the happily delirious world of fan fiction, anything is possible.

Links:

Patrick Rothfuss’ blog, with his delight at finding some slash: http://blog.patrickrothfuss.com/2008/02/yes/

A summary of the Marion Zimmer Bradley case: http://jimhines.livejournal.com/507999.html

Robin Hobb’s blog, with an excellent summary of the case against from an author’s point of view: http://web.archive.org/web/20051124223715/www.robinhobb.com/rant.html

 

 

*the term ‘slash’ derives from writing the names of the couple with a / in the middle, as in ‘Kirk/Spock’. It has nothing to do with the guitarist from Guns ‘n’ Roses. Although, if you were wondering, yes, Slash slash is available. These days, many fandoms create cute portmanteau names for couples instead, like ‘Johnlock’ (very much not to be confused with John Locke) or ‘Merthur’. Or ‘Slaxl’.

Convention, Convalescence and Creativity

So, in my last blog post, I announced I was about to attend the World Fantasy Convention down in Brighton, get some inspiration and motivation, and then take a week off work to crack on with some writing. How did it go?

Well, not quite according to plan. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Convention, but I did enjoy it very much: I got to see some great writers including Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and my personal heroine Robin Hobb. I met some interesting people – a mixture of fellow writers, agents, editors, and fans. I walked along Brighton promenade several times and admired the beauty of the sea in all its different moods. I picked up some tips on topics such as world-building and ‘that difficult second novel’ (timely!). I successfully resisted the temptation to buy any books, but did succumb to a vinyl copy of Janis Joplin’s ‘Pearl’ in a record shop round the corner from my hotel (it totally counts as research). On the negative side, I didn’t get a wink of sleep all weekend, and I suffered from terrible backache – the writer’s curse – which had me chugging back painkillers washed down with wine.

This all left me in a bit of a state by the start of this week, which I had designated for a detox and get-down-to-some-serious-writing. The detox bit has been going all right, but the serious writing – not so much. On Tuesday morning, whilst doing some exercises to try to loosen up my back, I managed to sprain a ligament in my knee, so I’ve been hobbling around, unable to either walk properly, stand up properly, or sit down without my back screaming at me. Less than ideal – I’m writing this lying in bed, propped up on some pillows, feeling sorry for myself. Oh well, shit happens.

I have written a few things this week, some of which may well be appearing on this blog soon, although it hasn’t been quite the productivity-fest I was hoping for. But you can’t force these things – with luck a bit of convalescence will help me ferment some creative juices for later enjoyment. And I have started developing an idea for a new character in Forever 27 – who even has a name!* – so my next task will be to introduce her into the story and see how she gets on with the other characters. I’d tell her to play nice, but I don’t think she’s the type. Which is why I’m looking forward to working with her.

 

*crap, while writing this, I’ve just realised her name is nearly identical to another character’s. Gah! Back to the character-naming board…

Foreshadowing

Should you foreshadow, or should the ninja space whale come as a surprise?

I am currently editing (or, rather, re-editing) the revised version of my novel, The Heartland of the Winter (having managed to piece back together the work I lost in last week’s Tea-on-Laptop Disaster). One of the things I am trying to decide is how much foreshadowing to do. Some readers have suggested I should do more; some have said it’s fine as it is. Ultimately, of course, I need to go with my own judgement, although being so close to the work can make it difficult. Part of the problem is that the tale changed in the telling: for the better, but this does mean the earlier parts of the book were written with a slightly different climactic scene in mind.

Ideally, what you want as a writer is that the reader will be initially surprised by the twists and turns of your plot, but will then say ‘of course, it had to be that way!’. It’s a delicate balancing act: give away too much early on and it’ll be predictable, give away too little and your revelations will come out of nowhere, leaving the reader feeling cheated. If your character uses a get-out-of-jail-free card, you need to show them picking it up earlier on – but not too obviously.

As well as the general issues around foreshadowing, there are some issues which are peculiar to the fantasy genre. One is that you’re not restricted to real-world rules. Which is part of fantasy’s appeal, but can also be its downfall if you resolve your plot by just making up new bits of magic on the fly. A hallmark of well-written fantasy is that the author creates a world which has its own internal logic, so that any magical or otherwise fantastic solutions to the characters’ problems feel consistent with what has gone before. IMHO, Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey get it right; Naomi Novik does not. Since the fantastic elements in my story are quite downplayed, my current issue is more around character motivations, but I expect this is something I’ll have to deal with in future books. Assuming I get around to writing any.

The fact that fantasy books often come in series is the source of another potential issue, namely that you need to start foreshadowing stuff which will happen not just later in the same book, but in a subsequent volume. As the gap between set-up and pay-off widens, readers may completely forget about something that happened two books and five years ago. Or you may have the opposite problem: that the fans have guessed everything in vol.3 by the time vol.2 comes out. The internet makes it very easy for fans to put their heads together and figure out what you’re up to. The author is then left with the options of either carrying on as planned, only it won’t be much of a surprise any more, or making it up as they go along. The 7th Harry Potter book suffered from this: fans had already figured out who R.A.B. was and the identity of the final Horcrux, so JKR threw in some previously-unheard of stuff about Deathly Hallows which left many feeling a bit cheated. A Song of Ice and Fire may well be headed the same way. But hey, I think this falls into the category of ‘problems I would love to have’. And then the ninja space whale killed them all. The End.