If I was asked to make a list of books or movies that left me wanting more, I’m not sure I could give you one. I have a bunch of movies and books that I’m constantly going back to, though. Rewatching and rereading are some of my favorite things, but I don’t know if it’s because of any sense of wonder, since relatively few SF or fantasy novels are on my lists, and where they are, it’s not usually because of their distinctive SF/F elements.
As anyone who’s read my stories (come on, there must be one of you) knows, my main interest is not the gizmos, but the people using them. So maybe my ‘sense of wonder’ is about other things.
What makes even the gizmos wondrous, to my mind, is the human relation. One comparison I often make is Hellboy vs Van Helsing. These two movies both end with climactic battles between giant monsters, but in Van Helsing they’re smart enough to morph back into human forms every so often. Give us human beings someone to relate to. Hellboy had neither, and it was hard to care much about a climactic battle between two cartoons, neither of whom looked human.
The climax of Phantom Menace (Star Wars episode 1, I forgive you for forgetting about it) had much the same problem. A war of CGI robots versus aliens isn’t very enthralling. Far more ‘wondrous’ was the scene of Ben stepping out onto a platform in the middle of this giant empty shaft, in A New Hope. While I love the Godzilla movies, most of them fail to instill any sense of wonder, except for the American versions (yes, even the bad one), which constantly show the giant monster from a human perspective.
Having just taken a look at my DVD collection, I notice that the SF/F movies I have in it (a small percentage, more F than SF) all have a significant human component. The Adjustment Bureau, Next, The Princess Bride, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Dark City, The Truman Show, District Nine, Dr. Horrible. I’ve watched any of these more often than any of the Harry Potter films. I prefer Back to the Future 3 over either of the first two. I have Buffy and Angel, but I rewatch Chuck, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me. Except that I don’t rewatch Chuck anymore, since I finished my fanfiction rewrite, a rewrite (of the gizmo-laden plot) that I created precisely because Chuck’s human themes inspired me to write it.
That’s the name of the first chapter of David Gerrold’s book Worlds of Wonder, which I bought from him personally at I-Con last weekend. We also traded books, a copy of my St. Martin’s Moon for his Little Horrors. He may read mine (I suspect lots of authors trade books with him), but I’m already reading WW. I read the bio at the front, and noticed that he failed to mention a book that I had on my shelves, a Star Trek novel called The Galactic Whirlpool. I got it signed the next day, of course.
This chapter is more in the way of an introduction, some biographical notes and a discussion of the basic nature of stories which will underlie the rest of the book. So it’s a bit unfortunate that the definition of a story presented in this chapter is not one I entirely agree with. “A person has a problem, he explores the problem until he understands it, finally he makes a choice (usually a difficult one) that produces a transformation of understanding and resolves the difficulty. So a story is about the experience of problem solving and the lessons learned.” (p. 4)
I’m not sure I agree with the whole ‘makes a choice’ bit. Sure it feeds into the whole idea that the hero makes his own destiny, chooses his course, etc. But I like to think my heroes will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is, so making the choice is pretty much a given once a proper understanding has been reached. That’s why they’re heroes. (Which may be why we’ve started calling them ‘Main Characters’ or ‘Protagonists’, rather than heroes. ‘Hero’ has a certain moral component to it that those other terms don’t.)
The problem for a hero is understanding the issue. Sometimes the hero has to make a difficult choice, relinquish some cherished belief, in order to achieve the necessary understanding, but once he has it he’s good to go. Which may be why my stories have so many characters in them who aren’t the hero, because watching a hero do the right thing is dull. Maybe frenetic and plot-heavy, but worth little in terms of character development.
Or it could be Mr. Gerrold’s science fiction background talking. The understanding the hero arrives at could be a theory, like all theories in need of verification. The difficult choice could be the Hero’s decision to test that theory with his own skin, and perhaps those of his group.
On the other hand, regarding his remarks on the benefits of enthusiasm over rage as a driving force behind the writing, we are in much more agreement. I’ve never written from rage, so I have trouble imagining how that would work for me. Enthusiasm, however, I have a lot of experience with. I wrote the equivalent of 8 novels thanks to enthusiasm, in the fanfiction realm, which also served to fulfill my million-word apprenticeship, about which more in some other post.
I was given this book in exchange for a review, but it is the sort of book I like to read and I am definitely recommending it to my own daughter, who shares my tastes in this.
This book introduces the two heroines of the series, Harmony and Elise, two girls living very different lives in different parts of the country, with very similar problems. Harmony, the strong-willed and self-reliant daughter of a ‘wild-child’ mother, first accidentally wishes a young man to death in a fit of embarrassment, and then restores a box of dead science lab frogs to life. Elise sees ghosts, and those around her see them too. As their powers grow and the manifestations become more severe, they are offered refuge at a school for students with gifts like theirs, only to find that they have simply traded one set of problems for another, increasingly dangerous set.
While I expect any story about a school for magically-gifted youth will invite a comparison to Harry Potter (one of the girls even refers to herself as a ‘mudblood’), I was more charmed with similarities to movies such as The Sixth Sense (and perhaps Groundhog Day) and a personal favorite of mine, the TV show Pushing Daisies. But these are small things, and the story goes its own way with all of them, which I very much appreciated. The real hazards the two young ladies face are far more mundane than any at Hogwarts, and more relatable, the magical overtones being highlighted by the alternating chapters, which allow us to see each girl from within and without as they A very enjoyable book, the first I have read in this series or by these authors. In the interests of full disclosure form their partnership.
I’m definitely looking forward to volume 2 and the next stage of their story.
I’m writing a scene in my story, in which a vagabond priest is speaking with the MC about his visions, and the tales he makes out of them (the book is called Tales of Uncle, so a large number of tales can be expected to figure into it). At this point, I became aware of a subtle sort of trap raising its ugly head, and moved to steer clear.
The trap is what I call the Echo Chamber, not that I claim any originality in the name. I first heard of it in a political context, referring to a group of apparently independent organizations that are in fact working together to repeat the same arguments, making them sound more plausible by the repetition.
In a literary context, the trap is framed as a set of characters who end up agreeing with each other on various topics. Character A says X, and character B nods his head and praises A for his wisdom. Then B starts talking and A is the one nodding his head. In a polemic, the role of B is to simply nod his head, and A gets to do all the talking. The echoes here are not spoken comments so much as the universal success enjoyed by everyone who agrees with A. Character C, who is opposed to A, is of course a venal boob, a callow fool, and easily outwitted.
I’m clearly not a fan of this technique, so I took great care to avoid it myself. It’s not hard to do, if you the author have made your characters correctly. A character will be a hunk of the author’s own soul, of course (unless you’re one of those authors who uses ‘characterization’ to construct a character to be the robot you need for your story to work), but not all of it by any means, and different characters will be different hunks. Since they will have in common about as much as your thoughts on Shakespeare and lemon pudding, it isn’t hard to have them agree on the basics but disagree on the details.
If you’re really schizophrenic you can have them disagree about the basics too, but an author who’s been paying any attention to his life at all (and they all should), would have a solider foundation than that. Writing a book ought not be an Echo Chamber so much as an Argument Clinic, with the author coming out of the experience of writing it a new and larger person. Writing a book that isn’t a piece of self-analysis on some level seems a great waste of time and energy to me.
Back when I was writing my many stories in the Chuck fanfiction realm, I often thought of it as great practice for any future writing I would end up doing. Having already written St.Martin’s Moon at that point, I knew that there were certain types of writing which I was not very good at, such as mystery, with its focus on pacing and plotting, and horror, with its focus on pacing and setting/ambiance. Chuck was a great mixture of light and dark, romance and comedy combined with spy action and some darker drama. My own strengths were in the romance and comedy areas, I thought at the time, where my ability to write strong dialog and characters was most important. The slow and methodical pacing of a spy story, mixed with the occasional burst of action, was what I needed work on.
I was mainly thinking of my more normal stories when I thought this, such as the stories of my Nine2five series, in which I rewrote the last three seasons of Chuck to be more of a piece with the first two. The third season, usually abbreviated as S3, was a very dramatic turn for the show, which the producers thought of as a Hero’s Journey type of story. Which may have been their vision, but if so, they were very poor story-tellers, since the first two seasons weren’t so strong on the Hero’s Journey and they were very strong on the romantic comedy spy adventure. (In fact, the show never did become a Hero’s Journey type of show, as nearly every step along that Journey was erased and forgotten by the end of the episode.) S4 and S5 were far worse, in terms of story-telling failures, so fixing the whole series was quite a lesson plan for a practicing writer. (I added the links to my stories in case anyone wants to read them, but they do assume you know the show, so a great deal of exposition is left out. You have been warned.)
That said, however, the story that is coming to my aid at this moment is not Nine2five but a much less ambitious and more experimental piece called ‘Not This Time‘. This story came between my more typical stories, such as ‘Hannah HISHE‘ and ‘Chuck vs the Epilog’, and Nine2five, and may have contributed to my development of the ideas for the latter story. What made ‘Not This Time’ (hold on while I save that title on my clipboard, just in case I need to write it a lot) experimental was the problem it was written to solve, as regards the finale.
In addition to the will-they-won’t-they trope that makes so many shows so painful to watch, the finale for some reason included the amnesia trope for one of the most popular characters, so all of the development that character had undergone over 5 years of show-time was completely erased. (The producers for some reason thought this was a good thing. I have my own theories on the matter, which I have written elsewhere.) As part of the ‘drama’ of the whole thing, she had occasional slight flashes of memory, to give us faithful viewers hope that our beloved character was not irretrievably lost, I guess.
‘Not This Time’ was written in that context. I wanted to do a story showing how the woman had been changed over the last five years and stayed changed, in spite of the loss of memory. I would do this by using several characters who were known to her before the show started, and show how her memories of those people had not changed, but her feelings about them had. I can’t say it was my most successful story, but it did take me to some very dark places, in addition to practicing different types of story, such as my first song-fic, which I don’t think I did quite right.
This is all coming out with my current novel, a story that is a compendium of stories being told about the main character, Tarkas, in the context of a real-time adventure that is slowly unfolding. The original idea was to have these stories told by Tarkas’ son Janosec, which they were, in the beginning. As the story went on, I found myself in a situation where Janosec had to go away for a bit, and I could either follow him and listen to a repeat of a story I’d already written, which I didn’t want to do, or find someone else to follow. Fortunately I’d already introduced such a fellow, so I followed him to a variety of places, where I was able to continue the story-telling motif, with different characters as the teller, sort of the inverse of the style I’d used in ‘Not This Time’. Rather than one person remembering several people, and seeing how she’d been changed, I had several people remembering one man, to show how he looked to their different perceptions.
It’s a very experimental idea for a novel, I think. Certainly if anyone trips across this post as they traverse the inter-web and can think of stories like this one, I’d love a heads-up about it.
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.