I was just trying to read a YA novel my daughter got from the library a while back, far enough that I have overdue fees and one renewal on the damn thing, and tripped over yet another thing that really bothers me but not so much that I’ll necessarily pull up a computer and start ranting about it. I actually see it quite often, and it almost always puts me off reading the rest of the book. ‘It’ in this case is the use of internal monologue as a substitute for expository prose.
(Hmm, that’s weird. When I wrote ‘monolog’ the stupid spellchecker prompted me to write ‘monologue’, but when I wrote ‘dialog’ it didn’t prompt me to change anything. Stupid spellchecker.)
As anyone who’s read my posts knows, and hi, whichever one of you that is, I really don’t like expository prose. Expository prose, in a third-person POV context, is the author telling me what everything looks like in some static, how-clever-am-I sort of way, or at least it feels that way to me. Even leaving aside the imagined self-congratulation, it’s still static, a description of what the world looks like before some character comes along to muck it all up, and I don’t really care about any of that. Stories are characters in motion, and I care about what the character currently moving is currently moving through, which isn’t what expository prose describes. Since the character doesn’t see the state of the room before he enters it, I don’t want to know about it either, and I certainly don’t want to know about from the author. If and when the character sees the room, I want to know about it from the character, I want to know what he is seeing, not necessarily what’s there. (This is related to something known in philosophical circles as the noumenon-phenomenon distinction, a distinction between the thing-in-itself versus the thing as it is perceived by anybody. )
Another way to deal with this is to skip out on the third-person POV entirely and use a first-person POV instead. At first blush this looks like an ideal solution, as everything in the story is or should be described as the character is encountering it. This is where I had my little problem with the book I was reading. When writing in a first-person way, a person travelling alone would be perceiving and thinking instead of talking, and thought is a very tricky thing to render. In a first-person story, the character is both narrating and participating in the story. Narrative thought should be kept very distinct from real thought. Narrative thought is the character describing the scene as objectively as possible, as if they were the author. As long as the character is doing things they’ve never done before, or talking to people other than themselves, this is fine. But when this is not the case, I often see this problem.
Most people treat thought like speech no one hears, but that’s a mistake. Speech is a string of words for people who aren’t the speaker. Thought is direct. If I was writing a first-person story I’d be going from perception to reaction with barely a growl or a hmm to indicate whatever cogitation is needed. Putting thoughts into words is a lot of work, and no one goes to that much work when no one will hear it. Okay, maybe someone does habitually go to the trouble of putting their thoughts into words (who isn’t an author), but it feels very phony and artificial to me, i.e., like narrative thought. It gets even worse when it gets done for paragraphs at a time, since those paragraphs would likely be written in italics and who wants to read paragraphs of that?
There are ways to get around this issue in a third-person POV story. My personal favorite is to do all the description of the setting phenomenally, which in this case means ‘as the character perceives it’. (I also try to do it very well.) There may be a rosebush by the door, or seventeen panes of glass in his window, but psychologically normal people don’t notice those things after a while. They notice them when it matters, such as when the rose is in bloom and the scent is forcing its way into your nose, or when they’ve been kidnapped and put into a room that looks just like theirs except for the eighteen panes of glass, and something doesn’t feel quite right…So when I write a story, I write what my characters perceive, which is like seeing but it’s really seeing what they care about and not seeing the rest. The words I use are the words they use, so a person from a landlocked culture won’t use nautical terms or idioms casually, unless he goes to someplace nautical, and the change in his word choice would indicate a change in him. The story is about him, and the setting is part of the story.
I had another idea come to me about my query synopsis a few days ago. I was looking over my most recent version after the latest rejection, thinking of sending it out again, but wondering if something wasn’t quite right with it. The first section dealt with the larger context in which the story took place, with the following sections detailing the actual story, but somehow it just wasn’t quite working. The transition seemed a little jarring.
So I wrote another section after the first, intending to make the transition a little smoother, but once I wrote it, I wondered why I was bothering to make the transition at all. Well, the main reason is because the situation is just that, a situation, pretty static. It’s the people in the situation who are doing the things that make the story go. And once those actions have been performed, one of the big reveals of the story is what effect they have on the situation, to resolve it, all unknowing to any of the actors involved.
In other words, only from the perspective of the situation, do the totality of the actions taken make complete sense. So to describe the story with no more than a few players involved, the obvious place to tell it from is the perspective of the situation. Which is, to some extent, the authorial point of view, and we all know how much I hate telling the story from that place, which may be why it took me so long to think of it. Not to mention the fact that it’s the reveal, you know? It’s the story.
So I wrote a synopsis in which the Situation was the main character. What were its goals? To achieve a resolution. Why did it want them? Because all stories naturally desire resolution, i.e., to be reduced to the least unstable state. these goals were so obvious they could be taken for granted. The question was really how, or to put it another way, what constitutes the least unstable state.
A lot of actions could reduce the instability of the story, for example, killing all the characters in chapter one, but that’s hardly a satisfying resolution, or the least unstable state. What constitutes a satisfying resolution depends on the type of story it is, which of course means that the type of story it is depends on the resolution that works best. In a badly done story, no resolution works best. A romance that has an unhappy ending, a comedy that leaves you confused. One might achieve a greater degree of satisfaction by recasting the story in a form which makes the most total sense. In The Producers, a failed historical drama becomes a wildly successful comedy. Ex Machina looks like some form of romance until it becomes a horror story.
(Which is not to say that a properly resolved story has no defects. i just watched a nice little romantic comedy called The Rewrite, which despite the ending managed to miss a number of opportunities for minor story arcs to be resolved, for several characters. But these were all subplots, not para- or coplots, so the story didn’t suffer badly from them.)
So the takeaway from all this is that in order to properly describe stories of the sort I seem to end up writing on a regular basis, I have to abandon the reveal, at least as far as the query letter is concerned. The real trick is to do it in such a way that the ending is still a surprise.
I was talking to a librarian just yesterday, and I gave myself the idea of a story with no hero. The more I considered the idea, the more I wondered if I was not already writing such stories, even the short ones, where you’d think there wasn’t enough room for tangled skeins of story lines.
I started out writing fantasy novels, with the premise of a man who was an incarnation of the Holy Will being called on by the Gods to do the work they needed to have done. That first story, Unbinding the Stone, was mostly about him, my Hero, but even in that book he had companions who played a significant role in how the story played out, although they tried not to do everything. I think that first book was the last book where I had a hero.
I traded that role for a host of MCs, all of whom were necessary to the resolution of the story, none of whom were sufficient to the resolution of the story. While Tarkas, hero of the first book, played a dominant role in the sequel, A Warrior Made, I can’t say that the story would have been resolved without the efforts of all the other MCs, each on their own arcs that all came together at the end. I think that book was the last where I had a villain.
Instead I have situations, often fantastical or supernatural in nature, as in St. Martin’s Moon, in which people act according to their natures. Some, with a bad nature, act badly, but the main characteristic of the villain is lacking. They are not plotting, nor are any of my other MCs planning their reactions to what he does. They aren’t necessarily reacting to him at all. It’s the situation that matters. Simply defeating the bad-natured MCs won’t resolve the situation, which is what needs resolving if the story is to have a satisfactory conclusion.
I don’t know if there is a technical term for this type of story. Do you? Most genre fiction I’ve read has a villain, with henchmen and a plan, and a hero who works to stop that plan with the assistance of any number of lesser characters. I’ve never heard of a genre novel without a hero. Have you?
Here’s a trick question: When did Luke Skywalker become the hero of Star Wars? It wasn’t eight o’clock, Day One, that’s for sure. When introduced he’s an unhappy dreamer without any real spine whatsoever. He wants to leave the farm and do ‘something’ but he doesn’t know what exactly, so he never can muster the courage to leave his family and go after it, whatever ‘it’ is. When the fam gets wiped out, he immediately hitches his star to Old Ben’s wagon, following him into the first adventure that comes along. They get captured, Ben goes to arrange their escape, and that’s when it happens. When R2D2 discovers the princess is on the station, it’s Luke who says, “We have to save her.”
Luke Skywalker made the decision. That’s what leaders do. The ignore the usual causal relations and do what they choose to do in spite of them. And when that decision is in favor of something that he or she feels is the morally right course of action, that’s when they become heroes. Or villains. The Kingpin chooses to order evil acts performed which he genuinely regrets but regards as necessary to a cause which he believes is right.
It’s not a requirement to be a leader that you be the smartest or the strongest. Kirk is not smarter than Spock, but he is the captain. Nor is it enough to be out front, first among many. What gets all those CEOs constantly installed on one corporate board after another in spite of their many failures is their ability to decide, to select or even invent a course when circumstances don’t select one for you, or even push them in a different direction.
Jack Burton is a clown and a fool, but he is also a hero and a leader. Surrounded by an army of ninjas, led by a wizard, when the false wall is discovered, it’s Jack who says “F*ck it”, whips out his knife, and slices away, with all the others looking on in admiration. They had the skills, the powers, but he had the ability to inspire them to follow.
I recently re-posted a story of mine on the http://www.fanfiction.net site, called ‘When Ellie Found Out‘. I had posted it before, as a prequel episode to the first season of my series called nine2five, which I had originally posted as a series of standalone episodes. When I decided to gather all the chapters in one place, I decided to append them to WEFO rather than create a new file, which I now think was a mistake. The funny thing is, that even though it’s a reposted story, I’m still getting comments on it, from people who didn’t see it before, or who just like to comment. Some of those comments take the form of, “This is so much better than what they did on the show”, which is a comment I got fairly often.
What they did on the show (in this particular case) was separate the leads, i.e., take a romantically-involved pair and place them apart, either physically, emotionally, or both, so that their struggles to be reunited will fuel the story for as long as the storyteller can make it. (What I did in WEFO, which was prone to backstory and exposition, was tell about how they got married, so that no one would separate them.) As story-telling mechanisms go, separation of the leads has a lot to recommend it, otherwise they wouldn’t use it so often as a short-cut to ramp up the intensity of the drama, which is where the problems arise.
Tropes like this one, or others like ‘endangered children’, or any of a number of forms of ‘intolerant ideological fanaticism’, are like story drugs, artificial stimulants that keep a story moving but without any real story in them. They are, in effect, pure drama, with no other story elements to speak of. What ends up happening is what you’d normally expect to happen when someone takes stimulants without food, the story keeps going and going until one day it keels over dead. I watched the first episode of season 2 of Glee and was immediately repulsed by the blatant self-sabotage of all the lead characters, which they would no doubt spend the rest of the season trying to repair. The last episode of season 1 of Newsroom did it for me, with all sorts of romantic partners making all sorts of wrong decisions. Tom Clancy used to use them a lot, but at least in his stories they weren’t critical elements, so the stories didn’t die from them.
They aren’t always drugs, of course. If the separation of the leads or the endangerment of the child are built up to with proper character and story logic behind them, then they’re perfectly fine mechanisms. In the canon fiction I was revising, the leads were separated very blatantly and artificially, and the show suffered almost immediately as a result. Many addicts of the first two seasons stopped watching halfway though the first episode of the third, as I did with Glee. Worse, when the showrunners realized how much they’d botched things, they went too far in the other direction, creating a full season of feel-good episodes to counter the previous season of angsty episodes, a heady dose of too-little-too-late, in my opinion. (I eventually separated them in my story as well, but only after a season and a half of development, first his and then hers, and a plot twist that made the separation logical, necessary, and most important, temporary.)
It’s very important to be wary of tropes. They combine story-logic with storyteller logic, which is why they’re useful, but they should never be used in such a way that the the telling of the story trumps the story itself (unless that’s the point of the story, in which case have fun). In my opinion, authors should be invisible in their stories, while using a story drug to force it into a preferred path is as diametrically opposed to ‘invisible’ as it’s possible for an author to be.
It occurred to me a few days ago that perhaps the reason I was having such trouble with a synopsis for Ghostkiller wasn’t because of me or the story, so much as the way I was thinking about the story, categorizing it. Determining a story’s genre is basically figuring out which box you toss it into, so people who are looking for books of that type can go looking in that box. It’s a time-saver for publishers, booksellers, and customers, but like all such things it runs the risk of dropping a lot of stories that don’t fit in a box, or fit in more than one.
I think a lot of the advice I found on the web for writing query letters falls into this trap. A query for a genre novel is described very simply.as one hero with one goal and one antagonist. The goal for the hero is very clearly spelled out, etc. It’s all pretty simplistic, which is probably why genre novels are considered a lesser variety of literature than a literary novel. There are other reasons, too, I guess. One of the arguments I heard against an important philosophical article in favor of abortion was that the author was using more and more farfetched hypothetical constructions to make her point. The further she got away from ‘real life’, the less merit her arguments had. A genre novel about werewolves is fun but can’t tell us much about real life since there are no werewolves in real life.
Which isn’t a mark against genre novels as a class but against poorly-written ones being taken as representative. There’s no reason a single genre novel can’t have monsters, chases, mysteries, and true love, except that the author is only aiming for one box at a time. (I had a reviewer of one of my stories refer to it as being a 2D writer, rather than a 3D writer.) I’ve read many genre novels with important insights to human concerns in them, made more available by the fantastic nature of the story, not less.
The issue, I think, is whether the novel is driven by characters or by some other element. A ‘literary’ novel is a story about people and their lives, no linear plot, no arch-enemies. This is not to say that a novel about characters can’t have genre elements. Magical Realism seems to me to be that sort of story, but a little further along the spectrum you might find what I will call Realistic Magicism, where the genre component is larger, and independent of the lives of the people in the story, even though it is mainly explored through those characters. The more genre stories have the characters more subordinated to the genre elements. Some stories can have more than one genre.
Ghostkiller is not solely or even predominantly a genre novel, I think, and my mistake was in thinking it was. I thought it was some variety of paranormal, like Urban Supernatural, but now I think it’s further along the spectrum than that. I write genre novels through the characters. Everything, the plot, the setting, even the action, is described and presented from the point of view of the character doing it or perceiving it. If you see me, I did it wrong. As a result my stories are complicated, with lots of people each doing their own things at the same time, none of whom necessarily know why. The ‘plot’ is usually all of them reacting to some unseen not-necessarily-natural force, which they may know nothing about at any point and are certainly not moving intentionally to counter. The ‘Big Bad’ of St. Martin’s Moon was lycanthropy itself, but no one was trying to defeat that.
The standard methods for summarizing this type of story don’t apply, or maybe I wasn’t clever enough to see how to apply them. I couldn’t see how to render it through the lens of a single actor, whose intentions are so limited. Unfortunately, I also had a great deal of trouble finding any examples or instructions in how to write a query for a more literary type of novel. If I had, perhaps I would have come to this conclusion much sooner. I have a new synopsis done, which took far less time and effort than any of the aborted efforts I have for the older view of the story. Every paragraph begins with ‘they’. The story is presented not as a sequence of plot elements but as two lives and how the events of the book will change them.
Which is what the book is about.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I haven’t yet managed to come up with a decent synopsis for Ghostkiller. I haven’t come up with one for Unbinding the Stone either, and I wrote that 13 years ago. I was fortunate enough to receive a very nice review comment from no less than Tanya Huff, in which she described Stone as being ‘remarkably complex and often very funny’. The complexity wasn’t intentional then, and isn’t now. It’s just a function of how I write.
What should come as a surprise is that I’ve actually been considering self-publishing Ghostkiller, a prospect that fills me with very little pleasure. One thing that did give me some amount of pleasure was the act of designing the cover art for it, and even some of my other unpublished stories.
A friend of mine at my job, before she moved on to a new company, told me about a graphics program called GIMP, which I promptly downloaded and found very confusing. But I wanted to create a cover for my Chuck fanfic called ‘Nine2five‘, so I pushed on, using trial-and-error to make the damn thing do what I wanted. I don’t think I did anything right, but still I managed to come up with this image, which has been the cover art for all three seasons of the story (over 600K words, equivalent to seven novels, written over four years). I really should have separate images for each, but I forgot how I did it, and trying to recreate this image was a daunting task. I might try it again, now.
The idea for the Ghostkiller cover was pretty nebulous at first. I remember years ago talking to my publisher about it, when the story was little more than the first chapter. Ghostkiller is a story of more than a little strangeness and complexity, one of the reasons I’ll have to self-publish if I ever want it to be published. (Most publishers, most ‘entertainment industry’ types in general, especially the big ones, shy away from words like ‘complex’, and anything that hasn’t been tried and tested.) It started out as a story about ‘a man who kills ghosts for a living’, but it didn’t stay that way for long. The technique for killing ghosts was the focus of that first chapter, since ghostkilling was a unique idea, as psychic talents go. I had to show it in action, which involved swords and coffins. (Really the thing in the coffin.) My original idea for the cover was very complicated, and unworkable, at least by me. It also wouldn’t have been especially eye-catching, and that’s what covers are supposed to be, right?
Undermind is a short story I wrote a long time ago, for a contest. The idea was to write a story of a certain length that employed a specified phrase in some way. The first time I entered the contest it was for the phrase ‘hard port’. I used it five different ways, but didn’t win. (The story was eventually released as ‘Boys Will Be Boys’, which I have just discovered is no longer available. Something else to think about releasing on my own.) This time around the phrase was ‘dark glass’, which gave me lots of ideas, most of which I’m still trying to write. In this case the dark glass was a mirror, to reveal one’s inner and darker nature. My problem with the cover is simply that mirrors as cover images are pretty trite. The story is much more original than that, but the originality isn’t really visually striking, so I swallowed my pride to come up with something that was.
Hopefully I can use these. There’s more to the game of cover art design than simply making interesting images, which is one of the things that makes me reluctant to jump into the self-publishing biz. This is the way I’d go if I had to do it all over again, so I have that at least. I find myself wondering if creating a cover first would help clarify the story, or make it harder to develop.