Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Connie Willis drags you into the deep end

Reading a Connie Willis novel is like drowning.  Her very first paragraph is a rip tide that lets you get a breath just often enough not to drown you.  You spend a lot of time treading water, but the liquid feels so lovely against your skin, a blood warm suspension, and you pray for breath and continued immersion in the same bubble rising to the surface.  No ground beneath your feet, but somewhere along the line you learn to stay above water, gain a sense of where land is and strike out in an Australian crawl that you didn't know you could do.  At about the time the book ends, your toes feel the roughness of sand and sea shells and you wade to shore.  Welcome to Willis style writing.   What will you do, probably what I did.  Go dive into another Connie Willis book.

What in heck does she do?  The problem is you can't just sit down and read one of her novels to learn something.  Two tiptoes in and you're out of your depth in story.  So I am grabbing a bucketful from All Clear you can't possibly fall into, but you can shove your head in and peer about.

Bucketful -- take a deep breath and kick:  By noon Michael and Merope still hadn't returned from Stepney, and Polly was beginning to get really worried.  Stepney was less than an hour away by train.  There was no way it could take Merope and Michael--correction, Eileen and Mike; she had to remember to call them by their cover names--no way it could take them six hours to go fetch Eileen's belongings from Mrs. Willett's and come back to Oxford Street. What if there'd been a raid and something had happened to them?  The East End was the most dangerous part of London.

There weren't any daytime raids on the twenty-sixth, she thought.  But there weren't supposed to have been five fatalities at Padgett's either.  If Mike was right, and he had altered events by saving the soldier Hardy at Dunkirk, anything was possible.  The space-time continuum was a chaotic system, in which even a minuscule action could have an enormous effect.

Dry off your head.  Now think about what she did.  First she threw a bunch of names and places at you.  Then she set up a problem; where are Eileen and Mike who apparently go by other names, real names?  They have been gone too long.  Five people dead?  London and Dunkirk on the same page and practically the same breath.  Why is the East End the most dangerous part of London?  Raids?! Altering time?  Space-time continuum?  Well, if you like time travel that last bit wasn't so hard to swallow.  But there is so  much to wonder about that you have to keep swimming just to find out what is going on.  And then it is too late to get out of the water.  You are in for the duration.

With all that tossing of names, places and events, you would think you'd feel over run with information to process. But that is not the case. There is the intimate connection you have formed with Polly who is worried about her friends and their safety in time which does not appear to be playing by the rules.  All that in two paragraphs.  Better read it again.  You only had a couple chances to get a gulp or two of air and probably missed something.

Ready again?  Six hours, they've been gone.  What has Polly been doing while they were gone?  Padgett's? (Those with experience in London know, but the rest of us need more information.)  Hey, that's only an hour away by train, wouldn't she know by now if there had been a raid?  When is this anyway?  How did she know so precisely that there were no daytime raids on the twenty-sixth?  Clearly you must read for a while before you get the answers you need.  Better pack a life vest.

That's Connie Willis.  She dives in and never lets the water grow smooth.  There will be a break or two, but the waves are still coming, though you can float on your back for a bit until things get rough again and they will. Gotta love a writer who knows how to throw the reader in and make them love the drenching.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Learning from the Masters series: Robert A. Heinlein Knew Dialogue

The art of writing dialogue
I have always enjoyed reading Heinlein's books, but it is his dialogue that holds my attention the most.  His characters play with words and by doing so demonstrate relationships and conditions.

This excerpt from The Cat that Walks Through Walls is a great example of how his dialogue clearly separated and defined his characters.  Gwen and Richard have just crash landed on the moon and are hanging upside down still strapped into their seats.  It has been a rather eventful landing, the end of which finished with the space vehicle twirling in a wobble on its rocket end until it lost momentum and fell over.  Not once does Heinlein use a tag other than the initial first person reference to the conversation continuing after the landing, yet it is obvious who is speaking.

    I added, "That was a beautiful landing, Gwen.  PanAm never set a ship down more gently."
    Gwen pushed aside her kimono skirt, looked out.  "Not all that good.  I simply ran out of fuel."
    "Don't be modest.  I especially liked that gavotte that laid the car down flat.  Convenient, since we don't have a landing-field ladder here.
    "Richard, what made it do that?"
    "I hesitate to guess.  It may have had something to do the processing gyro...which may have tumbled.  No data, no opinion. Dear, you look charming in that pose.  Tristam Shandy was right; a woman looks best with her skirts flung over her head."
    "I don't think Tristam Shandy ever said that."
    "Then he should have.  You have lovely legs, dear one."
    "Thank you, I think.  Now will you kindly get me out of this mess?  My kimono is tangled in the belt and I can't unfasten it."
    "Do you mind if I get a picture first?"

The dialogue supplies all sorts of details.  Not only are they upside down, but Gwen's outfit has left her revealing her legs and the borrowed kimona is doing more than just causing a little embarrassment.  Her view is obstructed, she cannot extract herself from her upside down position and it has provided more about her personality and relationship with her newly acquired  husband.  She is handling the situation calmly and able to banter back and forth.  Richard's response to the whole thing is humorous, playful and providing them both with a way to vent off the frustration they are feeling.  Remember they are somewhere on the moon currently upside down in a craft that has not been functioning properly.  The deck has been stacked against them, yet they behave as if being together is their ace in the hole.  How does this affect the reader?  The reader can't help but fall in with them.  They are going to get out of this situation, somehow, and it is going to continue to be humorous even when things get worse.

Another feature of this dialogue is the word choice.  Richard describes Gwen's appearance as "charming."  Clearly he appreciates the view, but he also appreciates the lady he is viewing and repeatedly uses endearments that support that he would view the whole impression as "charming."  The allusion to Tristam Shandy lends spice as well; it is a compliment Gwen takes with a grain of salt.  "Thank you, I think."

Heinlein creates distinct characters, though he has been accused of using the same characters over and over again.  It is more, in my opinion, that he uses the same character type for his main characters: strong, resourceful, nonsensical with a purpose.  But they are not the same character; if they were, the above dialogue would lose its anchor.  There are several cues which assist the reader in tracking who is speaking, but they smooth the reader along.  Richard discusses the appeal of a woman with her skirts over her head, Heinlein describes her reaction to Richard's statement about her landing the craft, and Gwen calls him by name and demands he help her with her belt that she believes is caught in her kimono.  All these help the reader maneuver through the dialogue.  It is a fun piece of dialogue that lets the reader know the conditions and the characters' response to it and each other with ease and without a lot of description or overloaded dialogue.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Jasper Fforde & world building


Always looking at a master's work before tackling your own world building is a good way to not just see the process in action but immerse yourself in it, so when you dive into your own work, the spell has been cast, a sense of the cape of good building has been settled like a lawn about your shoulders.  The magic seeps in and passes out through your fingertips.  Well, maybe not, but paying attention to when it is done well, can teach you how to do it right.

Jasper Fforde builds worlds with aplomb, as though the place and characters were just out there, and he was writing it out as it lay before him, mesmerizing, real.  The first book of Fforde's that I read was The Eyre Affair.  I had just reread Jane Eyre, so I had a fine time revisiting the characters through this new lens.  The setting was a familiar place, and the premise was comfortable to swallow.

I followed the Thursday Next series through to the end and went in search of his next work.  I settled on Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron.  This new world was thoroughly out there, fully realized, different from any real or created world of my experience.  Fforde integrated everything: politics, social interaction, the scope of visual intake, family structure, love, oddnesss within the very strangeness of the world itself which was more than weird enough, might I say "quirky?"  Look at this excerpt.

   "You!" I cried.  For standing on the doorstep was the quirky rude girl who had threatened to break my jaw back in Vermillion.  I felt a curious mix of elation and trepidation, which came out as looking startled.  And so was she.  A second's worth of doubt crossed her face, then she relaxed and stared at me impassively.
   "You've met?" came a stern voice. Standing behind her was a woman who I assumed must be Sally Gamboge, the Yellow prefect.  She, like Bunty McMustard at the station, was covered from head to foot in a well-tailored bright synthetic-yellow skirt and jacket.  She even had yellow earrings, headband and watch strap.  The color was so bright, in fact, that my cortex cross-fired, and her clothes became less of a fierce shade and more the sickly-sweet smell of bananas. But it wasn't actually a smell; it was only the sense of one.
  "Yes," I said without thinking.  "She threatened to break my jaw!"
   It was a very serious accusation, and I regretted saying it almost immediately.  Russets don't usually snitch.
   "Where was this?" the woman asked.
   "Vermillion," I replied in a quiet voice.''
   "Jane?" said Gamboge sternly. "Is this true?"
   "No, ma'am," she replied in an even tone, quite unlike the threatening one I had heard that morning.    "I've never even see this young man before--or been to Vermillion."

Everything is suffused with color references, literally soaked (hmmm, unexpected pun; take it as intended.  Fforde would appreciate it).  I love that Russet's cortex cross-fired, resulting in the unpleasant smell of overripe bananas.  This world of chromatic status and underground color-exposure sneaking renegades rides a tight pencil line.

I cannot imagine the degree of planning and research that went into its creation, but I can appreciate it.  The plot, characterization,  names, development of relationships, economics, politics, medicine, education system, and so forth, all drove the conflict in a slow buildup that felt by page 105 a normal flow of the world this novel developed from.  It was that country next door; you know, that one with odd ideas, but they manage to run the nation that way.  Totally believable, quirky and real.

So how did he do it.  I am sure he has some system of development.  Surely, this did not just fly from the fingertips day after day without the groundwork being laid months in advance.  Time.  He must have used lots of time and thought on this work.  Surely, much was supported by the inspired moment of writing, but planning and development had to come first.

  • Who has power and how does it relate to color recognition?
  • The list of names for people, places, occupations, conditions, social status, common phrasing must have been a tremendous effort to create.  The fashion industry, yearly function of having to come up with unique names for the new year's favorite colors, has to be envious or else rubbing their hands with relish since they now had a text that would be their quintessential resource for decades to come.
  • What is the ultimate degree of a color and what the minimum before stopping at grey?
  • The punishment for not following the rules, or breaking tradition or going against social expectation.
  • What are the dangers to stepping past your designated chromatic level?
  • What type of person would attempt to break the rules?
  • How would the hero cope with the conflict against such imbedded protocol? 
  • What would be the benefit of breaking from the rules of society, the legal system, occupation, family position and structure?
  • How does love fit into this? Does it not have a place at all or is it warped?
  • What is the underlying logic of the descent of chromatic recognition?  Did it have a beginning or is it a steady state now reaching an end to the balance due to some new evolution?
The list of questions goes on and on.   But to build a world so different from the one we live in so much must be thought through and committed to paper before the story can begin to tell itself.  I read with pleasure, but a part of me spent a lot of time just being awed by Fforde's creation.

What author's world has held you captive, impressed and blown over?  What important questions must she or he had to have asked before the story could gain traction?  What was the underlying difference it fed from?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Building Character with Kim Headlee

The pen is my sword.
I have written before that writers are readers.  We read for our own enjoyment and to learn techniques, both through exposure to well-written work and through examination of the works we read.  Lu Chi's Wen Fu (which I have cited in the past) said it best: 
When cutting an axe handle with an axe,
   surely the model is at hand.

With that sage advice, I am looking closely at how author Kim Headlee designs character.  One could say she has a head start since she makes use of the King Arthur legend, but it is more of a base of familiarity her readers can walk in with, for she is by no means married to it.  Her characters carry the names and much of the fame, family affiliations and general motivations delineated in the legend, but Headlee deepens, defines and evolves these basic character requirements far past those initial mythological underpinnings.

There is very little background on Guenevere (choose your favorite spelling; there is sure to be one that will fit your fancy).  Headlee builds off this strong character from mythology and adds backbone, a fighting spirit and self-determination.  But first she introduces the character in Dawnflight (Book 1 of the Dragon's Dove Chronicles).  After the prologue setting up the heartbreaking birth that ends with the mother dying, Gyanhumara (Headlee's chosen version of the famous name) arrives in full form in Chapter 1.

     "Keep up your intensity!" Ogryvan swiped at his opponent's midsection.  "Always! Lose your battle frenzy, and you're dead!"
     Neither was fighting in true battle frenzy,, but the younger warrior understood.  Smiling grimly through the rivulets of sweat, the student danced out of reach, whirled, and made a cut at Orgyvan's thigh.  The blunted practice sword could not penetrate the leather leggings but was sure to leave a bruise precisely over the wound he had taken at Aba-Gleann two months before.
     Although the swordmaster gritted his teeth against the pain, his opponent sensed satisfaction in the accompanying nod.

That is great characterization.  We don't know yet that the young warrior is Gyan, the lady who will marry Arthur Pendragon, but we already know a lot about this character: warrior, quick, skilled.  Lines later we see her bested by her father, but we don't know that until the line, "The Chieftainess of Clan Argyll hated to lose."  Even that line informs us well of the spirit of this character and the heavy mantle of power she wields. 

Headlee develops character through action and reaction, intimate knowledge of the mind of the character and well-chosen dialogue.  "Ogryvan whispered, "'Pay attention, Gyan.  This is my favorite part..... All hear and beware!  The Ogre takes no prisoners!'"  What is to follow is a ceremonial pretense of beheading.  But Gyan responds by noting her father's boasting to the watching crowd has drawn his attention away from the "enemy."  She twists out of the role as the defeated and turns the sword on him, shouting, "'Neither does the Ogre's daughter!"

In that moment, the reader will never expect Gyanhumara, Chiefteness of Clan Argyll, to ever be bested for long.  Character realized in just a few pages.  What I can learn from Headlee will take pages and pages to explain and practice.   But I am working on it.

Recommendation: read this book and the next one, too.  I am getting ready for number three.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Smashwords Read an E-Book Week is in full swing

Read an E-Book Week
I love Read an E-book Week at Smashwords, and as of March 2 thru March 8 it has begun.  I along with a huge number of other writers make use of this opportunity to invite readers to check out our books.

Take a look and find a new author to enjoy and follow.

So if you like time travel novels, short stories or are interested in a text about narrative frameworks for fiction novels and shorts stories, you'll find my books set at 25% off with coupon REW25.

Follow this link to Smashwords promotion page to check out the catalog on the enrolled books:  Smashwords Read an E-Book Week