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Benjamin Solah dropped a bombshell on the comment section of this post, one so big I thought it deserved its own post.

So here we go:

Benjamin agreed with the idea behind the post that readers can go too far in search of hidden meanings or agendas.

But…

However…

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the world of letters. Just as readers enter the writer’s pocket universe with a series of preconceptions so do author’s create them with their own.

They can be about race, violence, war, politics, civilization, sex, morality, you name it. And they exists whether the author wants to acknowledge them or not. Therefore they slip into the spaces between the lines, mold our word choice and serve as the dark matter/dark energy that powers our creations.

A personal example:

If I had written a story a decade ago with two characters of different racial backgrounds, the character of the dominant sociopolitical structure would have exuded confidence in the idea of “color blindness”, that is, he would have claimed “I don’t see color, I see people”, as it that were a positive value. Having experienced racism from both sides (dominant/oppressed) I can tell you that statement is a load of bullshit. It’s the kind of statement which paves the proverbial road.

Hell is that way. —>

I never meant anything by it. It seemed, at the time, a perfectly reasonable statement made in good faith. But it wasn’t and had someone done an analysis of the character highlighting their racial bias/ignorance they would be right, no matter how many times I tried to defend it.

Sometimes the dog is just a dog, until it starts chewing on a bundle of blond hair encrusted with blood on one end. Then it is something completely different.

Authors, we write what we write and even we don’t know all that lies beneath our words.

Readers, you read what we write and sometimes you see things that we can not (or don’t want to) see.

Art lies in the points in between.

Go on, chew on that while listening to the mellow sounds of Semisonic:

This post expands on a recent Writing Excuses podcast on fight scenes. This is my take on the subject which I think deserves a bit more attention than just fifteen minutes (although the guys did a good job within their time limit).

I broke down my “answer” (for a lack of a better term) into two post. The first deals with how to approach fighting scenes. Fighting scenes are essentially descriptions of actions and will tend to reflect your style of description. Somebody who prefers laundry list types of descriptions (“she had blond hair, blue eyes, a red shirt, short skirt…ect.) may do a blow by blow narration of the fight scene, while writers (like me) who are highlighters (descriptions focusing on key elements, a minimalist approach) my choose a hard hits/killing blow approach (I explain these terms below).

Here are the different styles from the more concrete to the most abstract:

  1. Blow by Blow: Have ever heard a baseball game or a boxing match narrated over the radio? That is a blow by blow description. Since you are not seen the action, the sportscaster has to fill you in on all the relevant details. Works great on radio, but sucks on page. Why? Because it tends to slow down the action and focuses to much on the minutia of a fight. The worse offender of this is Michael Stackpole in his Battletech novels. Great political action, shitty combat scenes. Although he is trying to convey the tabletop feel of the source material (Battletech tabletop/RPG) it kills the momentum of the fight scene. Avoid this whenever you can.
  2. Hard Hits/Killing Blow: My preferred type of fight scene description.  Instead of describing every dodge, shot or swing you concentrate on those actions that have the most dramatic impact, such as the killing blow. Very useful when the Hero/MC is fighting Minions/Henchman (more on them in Part 2) or showing the killing blow that finishes off the villain. Its like watching a boxing match instead of listening to it. Your mind ignores most of the punches but it registers particular hard hits and of course the final knockout. This method gives the right amount of detail without slowing down the action.
  3. Snapshots: The snapshots technique is great when you want to show the chaotic nature of large battles. Remember the two scenes in Saving Private Ryan where the Tom Hanks character zones out and the camera cuts from one close up to the next? A wounded soldier dragging his arm, another taking a shot to the head, a third one cowering behind a wall.  These snapshots give you a sense of the action within the maelstrom of battle while at the same time showing how wild and chaotic war really is. Great for mass battles (5 or more combatants).
  4. The Battle Map: This is the most abstract of all the fight scene description methods. Like the name implies, the action is described from a distance, as if seen on a battle map. The character could be standing on a hill, watching down from an airplane or remotely by some electronic means. This method concentrates on tactics and strategies of mass formations: ambushes, charges, flanking, maneuvers, etc. Think LotR or 300. This approach shows combat on a grand scale. But if you want to focus on the actions of individuals, you will have to shift to one of the other methods mentioned above.

While I share the podcasters distaste for the Blow by Blow, it should not be dismissed out of hand.  In fact a climatic battle scene (popular in fantasy and military sci-fi) can include all of these methods. You kick off the scene with the Battle Map, showing the reader the big picture composed of army formations, terrain and the like. As battle is joined you switch to Snapshots of the battle. A sword thrust here, a horse brought down there, several men felled by arrows somewhere else. Then as you focus on the MC you do a bit of Hard Hits/Killing Blow action to show how much of a bad ass he really is. Then he meets his opposite number and you dip (don’t go into the deep end, you will drown) into the Blow-by-Blow, showing how evenly match they are. Then you pull back from Blow-by-Blow and cycle through all the way back to the Battle Map as the situation turns and you show the fight aftermath.

Well I hope this helps. Next is Part 2, The Combatants.

Writer’s block comes in many forms, none more weird that finding yourself with the strange combination of too many ideas and too little focus. That was my problem going forward with the current WIP. The characters seemed to go places that had nothing to do with the main plot. This situation was made possible by the fact that I chose to write the story using a multiple-person third point of view.

The main benefit of use of this method is that I can paint a wide canvass, loaded with characters that gives the narrative a global scope plus an insight into the villains mind. In fact the story starts with a close third person POV of one of the villains. The main character doesn’t appear on stage until the second chapter.

But after awhile my mind filled with interesting scenes such as a trip to the Himalayas, a fight a top a aerial tramway/gondola lift, and an attack at a guerrilla jungle base. All of them very exiting sequences (except for the last one, it involved fighting a demon that had Mr. Fantastic like powers). All of these scenarios are exciting and fun to write but they do not, did not contribute to story in anyway since they were no segue logical from one scene to the next.

So how do you corral these disparate point of views so that they move the story forward?

  1. You may have multiple characters, but keep in mind who the main and/or principal characters are. He/She or they are the ones tasks with carrying the weight of the narrative. Therefore the bulk of the scenes should be from their POV.
  2. Keep in mind the specific reason for the shift. You may use the shift to show what the villain is thinking or the aftermath of the heroes actions. But remember that those scenes must dovetail into the main narrative and tie in with principal plotline(s).
  3. The transitions should be natural and logical. Don’t leave your reader hanging, finish the scene at an appropriate moment. Again, these scenes must segue into the main body of the narrative. Think in terms of action-reaction or exposition through “showing”.
  4. Any scene where the MC is not present should always push the action forward in one way or another. I had one large chapter with several characters narrating their experiences in recent wars. But at the end these flashbacks served to explain (hopefully by “showing” and not “telling”) the events at the very end of the chapter and push the plot toward a new location.

Apply these rules ruthlessly and you will see your kitty cats fall in line. Sure they will hiss and scratch, but in the end they will behave. Mine did!

P.S. Of  course if that doesn’t work, a pack of puppies will get the job done!

Dwarfs, Elves,  Vampires, oh my! On a recent post (and many more after that) on the NaNo forums the subject of “cuddly” vampires (a la Twilight) came up. The poster said that he didn’t like the recent fad of turning vampires from monstrous blood suckers to tortured goth heroes. I responded that the vampires in my NaNo project were anything but “cuddly”.  If anything they are conniving, manipulative, psychopaths driven by a demonic urge to rape, murder and destroy.  As far from the romantic (in the modern sense of the word,  one which would cause the likes of  Lord Byron, Tennyson or Blake to spit if they heard what passes for romantic these days) vision of the tortured yet irresistibly attractive vampire heroically fighting the urge to drink virgin blood while dating the only virgin left in town as you can get.

This got me thinking about the endless parade of writers that from the beginning of time felt compelled to take familiar character types (the stoic Dwarf, the ethereal Elf or the Vampiric blood sucking terrors of the night) and change them in some way. Of course these archetypes are variations on earlier forms defined by modern writers such as Stoker and Tolkien. The idea behind the manipulation is to take the familiar and turn into something new (if not unique). Problem is that you can only make so many changes before you end up with something unrecognizable and lose whatever advantage the use of the original gave you in the first place.

I don’t frown on the practice as I have done a bit of archetype twisting in my day (about a month or so back). Yet it pains me when I see author after author fail so miserably at it. While the author might think that his improvements are “cool” the end results are trite, cosmetic and downright disappointing. The reader is left wondering why the author engaged in the exercise in the first place. So I came up with a few tips that will (hopefully) help my fellow nascent writers to avoid the obstacles on the road from the familiar to the memorable.

First a few questions. Honest answers to these questions will yield the best results:

  1. Why did you choose a particular archetype?
  2. Do you know/understand the history behind the archetype?
  3. Are you changing the archetype for purely arbitrary reasons,  that is, you think it would be cool to have rhinos on submarines?
  4. Or have you always hated the archetype in question and think you can do better?
  5. Is there more to the these changes than simply creating a anti-archetype? Are you doing this because you’re in a contrarian  mood?
  6. What is the role of the archetype in the story; accidental, background, or central to the narrative?
  7. Would your narrative goals be better served by abandoning the archetype all together?

Like I said before, familiarity is what drives many an author to choose a given archetype. This is especially true of modern fantasy and science fiction books, in all their variations. Both the author and the reader know the archetype and feel comfortable with it.  No need to create an entire elven language (unless you’re Tolkien) or describe how a vampire’s gaze overwhelms it’s victims senses. Just drop the dwarfs down the nearest mine shaft and concentrate on writing that exciting battle scene where the stalwart defenders of the underground realm battle the incoming goblinoid hordes. But we already read Lord of the Rings (OK, I saw the movies, tried reading the Hobbit and fell asleep on the their page)  so we want something more than the fall of  Moria. So the author introduces a few changes into the dwarf archetype. His dwarfs are not the dour hammer swingers of Tolkien’s lore but singing sensations to rival he likes of Elvis (Costello or Crespo). The attacking goblins go from an unorganized rabble to a disciplined army that fights for duty and honor.

But in order for these changes to stick an understanding of the archetypes in question is a must. You don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of western European mythology, but understanding the history behind the myth will help you preserve enough of the archetype so that it remains recognizable to the reader.

Questions 3-5 deal with the particular reasons for the changes in a given archetype. Many a writer makes cosmetic changes based on what their DMs allowed on the gaming table while playing D&D. They go for what they think would be “cool”.  But just reversing the archetype role or characteristics is not good enough. Doing things just to be contrarian or different is  a waste of time. Might as well slap a goatee on the character’s chin and call it a day.

Which brings us to question #6, the role of the archetype in your story. Cosmetic changes are great, if you are coding a video game. A player will notice something out of the ordinary, gawk at it for a second or two and be on his way to kill the boss monster. Same thing in your book if its something that lies at the bottom of page 267 where a secondary character explains why the main character should never go to beyond the Impassable Peaks of Doom (which we know that the MC will, in fact pass with some difficulty). Things change as the archetype(s) inch their way to center stage. Without a solid explanation the reader is apt to question why is the handsome yet ravenous vampire zipping from frozen packets of goat’s blood instead of dinning on warm blood of his seventeen year old date with the body of a SI swimsuit edition cover girl. Solid answers to questions 1-5 will (hopefully) prevent the local bookstore from shipping back boxes of your latest offering to the publisher.  You need reasons why the character does not fit the mold, answers that go beyond “Well I think vampires are seriously misunderstood creatures”. These reasons should have a direct connection to the story so that it lends depth to the character and through him to the narrative.

Last but not least, could you do better without relying on the archetype? Creating a new alien race that does not read like a Vulcan on steroids is hard, yet if the changes are drastic enough as to erase the fundamentals of an archetype, I suggest you abandon it all together. Go with something else. Something that fits your vision and the needs of the story. A knight that uses a gun is not really a knight, he is a gunfighter. Go with that instead.

I hope that the above helps you in some way. I can’t wait to read how the goblins barely won the battle against the singing dwarfs yet earned their respect by their honorable behavior in battle.

Until then….

Well, the course is set and we are lock and loaded. As of midnight we start sliding down the crazy chute to NaNoville!

Here is a hint of what my novel will be about:

Enjoy the ride!

Yes, what was once just another WIP has become my NaNo project. Expect updates and press releases as well as much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Enjoy!