Tag Archives: Writing

Too Many Fingers

If you’ve been part of a software development and/or engineering team, you’ll understand the concept of unity of purpose. The same principle, it turns out, applies to writing.

They say there are many roads that lead to Rome. If Rome represents the product you want to build, beit a smartphone app, some new whiz-bang hardware, or, let’s say, a story, there’s more than one path you can take to get there. That’s fine if you’re traveling solo. But if you’re part of a team, and different voices are calling out to take this path or that other one or that other other one, it can be a problem. You can end up with a product that looks like the equivalent of a Reaver ship, a cacophony of parts that kinda-sorta work together, but that were never meant to be components of the same whole.

This is why development teams have an architect. This isn’t someone who designs buildings. Well, it can be if what you’re building is, you know, a building. The product architect is someone whose vision of the product carries the day. There can only be one vision, and the team has to buy into this vision. Otherwise, what you end up with is a mess.

The word “mess” has been used more than once to describe a couple of recent superhero movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. The problem with both of these? Among others, too many characters. Too many future movie plotlines to set up.
Dawn of Justice
also suffers from too reaction-to-second-batman-v-superman-dawn-of-justice-trailer-737594
many plots grafted together, too much left out, too many unanswered questions. Why did we need to borrow from both“The Dark Knight Returns” and “Death of Superman” storylines? Each was a major story arc in and of itself and could have carried a movie.

The interesting question is, why do these films suffer from these shortcomings?

ultronThe (likely) answer: Too many fingers in the pie. While these films do have an architect (Joss
Whedon, Zack Snyder) the studios at some level placed too many constraints on the films. Rather
than being allowed to tell a coherent story and tell it well, let’s throw in a few new characters that we want to develop in future movies. Let’s introduce elements that we’re going to explore in future movies. Let’s have more than the last move: bigger, faster, louder.

This was likely one of the reasons the Bond film Quantum of Solace fell short. Forget about telling a compelling story. We need more action that the last film. More chase scenes. And so you end up with a film that has car chases, foot chases, boat chases, and plane chases. Indeed, they seem to have covered all the bases, and the movie is all the poorer as a result. Contrast that with the subsequent Skyfall, perhaps the best Bond ever, where the set pieces and action were driven by the story rather than the other way around.

So what does all this have to do with writing? (Let’s leave screenwriters out for the moment.) After all, most stories are written by only one or maybe two authors. The relevance is that a story has to have a coherent thread driving it forward. Sure, there are supporting characters, several of which can have arcs of their own, but these have to fit together into a coherent whole. You can’t just wander off willy nilly and explore every neat idea. Probably better to keep a “neat idea” file, and to keep your story lean and to the point.

This topic slides into another: How much is too much? By that I mean, I’m not a big fan of filler, even if it’s filler that doesn’t distract from the overall plot. I love a good, thick book as much as the next guy, and I’ve read some series where each book was a door stopper, and yet, I’ve been pretty sure that these stories could have been told with far fewer, thinner books.

It’s a trade off. On the one hand, it can be a real pleasure immerse yourself in the minutia of a new world. On the other hand, you can find yourself wishing the author would just get to the point. Personally, I’m becoming nostalgic for the days when the average novel seemed to be on the order of 200 pages, or even less.

Less, after all, can be more, which applies to both novel length and the number of fingers in the pie.

The Horror!


Horror has changed.

Once upon a time, on a dark and story night, horror was Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, or Dracula. Or all three.

When I was a kid, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was on TV one afternoon while my mother was ironing. I was able to stick with it until Lawrence Talbot spied a full moon and, well, you know what came next.

abbottcostellofrankenstein“MOM!” I screeched. “Change the channel.”

She dutifully did so, switching to a soap opera. After a while I calmed down and begged her to go back to the movie. I was fine then, at least until Talbot’s next transformation.

“MOM! Change the channel!”

I loved it. Loved getting scared right to death. And I still do to this day.

When I was in my early teens, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, and immediately fell in love. The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath remains one of my favourite books. How could you not be scared when the Old Gods were after you? Or when rubbery, foul-smelling, ameboid-shaped abominations poked and prodded you as you descended fitfully to the Dream World and left your sanity behind, one step at a time?

As I started to wonder about writing horror fiction, and I read some horror anthologies and sources such as Nightmare magazine, I started to think about what constitutes horror fiction today. It occurred to me that horror has changed. It’s not so much about monsters in the dark any more. There may well be monsters in the dark, but the real horror is what those humans trapped in the house do to each other while the monsters lurk outside.

The classic modern example is TV’s The Walking Dead, a show brilliant in its writing and acting, but so dark and bleak that I stopped watching around the third season. Yes, there are zombies all about, but even as the world falls apart around their ears, people are still hungry for power, for the chance to one-up each other, and as ever, there are romantic triangles.

The idea, I think, is that when horror exists, we discover some truth about ourselves, something we prefer not to think about, a quality better left unspoken. And man, that’s frightening. 

Nobody’s Perfect

We all want to be liked. Yet we all have flaws. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is that our strengths outweigh our weaknesses.

If you think about it, our notion of character flaws and positive attributes depends on the context and on the person who is making the judgement. Quiet humility, for example, may be considered a positive attribute by many, but in the context of a sales department, it might be considered a drawback.

To you, a man may seem to be full of himself, but in the eyes of someone else who is full of him or herself, he is simply self confident and this is a good thing.

These considerations make it all the more challenging to create believable fictional characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. I’ve been known to put away a novel, albeit very well written, because I’ve not found a single character that I like. On the other hand, if characters have no flaws at all, they seem flat. Two-dimensional.

11532830.jpgThis line of thinking came to me while reading Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, because virtually every major character (if they weren’t a villain) was flawed yet likeable. David himself, hopelessly naive, quick to trust, and quick to fall in love. Arguably much too quick to fall in love, and him not understanding his wife as well as those around him who’d spent far less time with her. Sometimes we want to slap him for being an idiot, yet we also cheer for him as he becomes a mature, successful adult.

Dora Spenlow, a lovely butterfly of a woman, dainty and airy, exceedingly pretty, but truly a child in a woman’s body. Yet, she understood this about herself, and this helps endear her to us.

Mr. Micawber… well, really, the list of flaws is too long. Bombastic, long-winded in the extreme, self-destructive, to name a few. And yet, every time I read this book I nearly cheer out loud when he steps onto the stage because he truly has a good heart. He loves his family, is a loyal friend to David, and in the end sacrifices his good fortunes to bring down Uriah Heep.

Betsy Trotwood, eccentric in the extreme, having walked out of her sister-in-law’s life because of her temerity in giving birth to a boy rather than a girl. She also has an aversion to donkeys. And yet, she gives shelter to Mr. Dick and gives David the first loving home he has known.

Clara Copperfield, David’s mother, too much aware of her good looks, too inexperienced in the world, too ready to give herself to a flattering suitor. But she loves David dearly and he retains happy memories of her all his life.

Interestingly, Dickens’ villains had few or no redeeming features, and so were by definition two-dimensional. And yet in the context of his stories they work brilliantly. Dickens’ villains were like the black-hatted, black cloaked, mustache twirling villains of the silent movies that everyone loved to boo as they tied the damsel to the railway tracks. Of all of his memorable villains, Uriah Heep is perhaps the best known, with his fawning manner, fake humility, cold clammy hands, writhing posture, and his propensity for delving into and exploiting the vulnerabilities of those around him.

As many great characters as Dickens gave us, he had one blind spot: his heroines. They were as pure as snow, as soft as the morning dew on the roses, as good as, well, nobody really. Nobody is as good and without flaw as a Dickens heroine. Much as I love Dickens overall, his heroines were his kryptonite. In this book, that would be Agnes Wickfield. She’s just so… good. So understanding. So calm. So patient. Such a loving daughter. Such a loyal friend to David. And I could go on but you get the idea.

Out of all these considerations I can draw few hard and fast lessons, except to provide your main characters with flaws, especially flaws that move the plot forward and ratchet up the conflicts to be resolved. Sounds easy. And it sounds like something that those of us who are aspiring writers will need to practice before getting it right, or at least, getting it better.

After all, nobody’s perfect.

Writing Miss Fisher

This is one post where I’m not going to pretend to have the answers. Not that I would pretend. Not usually. Rather, I’m going to be asking a lot of questions.

Let’s start with this one: Do you watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries? It’s a remarkable show set in Melbourne, Australia in the roaring ’20’s.

miss-fisher-s-murder-mysteriesPhryne Fisher is something of an oddity in her 1920’s setting, being a beautiful, wealthy, independent woman who’s intelligent and driven. Not to mention fearless. Fisher is not one to hide behind the coattails of a man, as she’s rather adept at hand-to-hand combat and carries a pistol in her handbag. She is, in addition, forthright and flirtatious, and enjoys brief flings with attractive, muscular men.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Miss Fisher is the actor who plays the titular character. Essie Davis conveys volumes with her posture, gait, eyes, voice, and phrasing.

And now comes the big question: How would you capture that in writing? Is it even possible to capture in writing some of what is conveyed in moments in visual media, or must we simply concede that visual and written media are different, each with their own strengths and weaknesses?

Of course, the logical thing to do would be to read one or more of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books to see how she did it. Succumbing to the inevitable, I downloaded an e-version of Cocaine Blues to my tablet. Say what you will about e-books, when it comes to instant gratification, you can’t beat them.

At any rate, Greenwood makes no mention of what Fisher does with her eyes. Nor voice. Nor posture. Her personality is well captured in other ways, though. In one notable scene, a constable expresses to Chief Inspector Jack Robinson that they could arrest Fisher and take her down to the station. Wearing only a lounging robe, Fisher steps out of the robe and, completely naked, tells the inspector that if she is to be taken to the station, it will be like this. Classic.

But suppose you wish to capture the  subtleties of Davis’ performance in writing? Consider the scene in the pilot episode where Fisher first meets Inspector Jack Robinson. The scene takes place in a bathroom where a man was found dead. A chalk outline is all that remains of the victim. Fisher has wheedled her way past Constable Hugh Collins to have a look for herself. A knock on the bathroom door shortly after, and Fisher admits Collins and his superior, Inspector Jack Robinson.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

This is what the characters said, but by itself, this doesn’t at all reflect what actually passes between the characters. Let’s add some annotations.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. [Robinson and Collins share a glance. Robinson nods his head slightly, tacitly conceding that Fisher has a good point.] All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Up until now, Fisher has been lecturing on her findings with the tone of an expert speaking to her pupils. Then, in the blink of an eye, she completely changes gears.

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because [Fisher pauses, adjusts her hair, then purrs the rest of the sentence, large, liquid eyes wide, making eye contact with Robinson.] I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, [Fisher glances at card.] Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.” [Fisher eyes Robinson up and down, smiles, then saunters out of the room, hips swaying slightly. Robinson and Collins follow her with their eyes, then Robinson takes a breath and surveys the crime scene with fresh eyes.]

Well, that captures the feel of the scene a bit better, but you can’t leave it like that. Since most of the unspoken communication comes from Fisher, perhaps it would would be best to describe the scene from Inspector Robinson’s point of view.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle.”

Robinson kept his face even. He’d learned that it was best to let witnesses and suspects talk when they were inclined to talk, and to pay close attention. There was always time for questions and clarifications after they’d said their piece. Still, this woman was something different. Clearly intelligent and surprisingly, perhaps refreshingly, direct. He found that he was becoming genuinely interested in what she had to say. With some bemusement, he realized that she had taken on the tone and body language of an instructor lecturing to her student.

Continuing, Fisher said, “Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested.”

Robinson glanced at Collins, who’d been taking notes. As their eyes met, Robinson found himself nodding slightly to Collins; they had both come to the same realization, that Fisher was making some valid points

“All wild surmise of course,” Fisher concluded.

Robinson wasn’t about to concede that an amateur, and a woman at that, had made some astute observations. “Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police?”

At this, Robinson noted, Fisher’s voice and posture changed completely. Moving closer and adjusting her hair, she proceeded to purr her words, her eyes large and liquid, keeping full eye contact with Robinson. It was with some effort that he kept his face impassive.

“Because,” Fisher continued, “I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good. I do like a man with a plan,” said Fisher, pausing to read the card, “Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

Surprised by her boldness, Robinson noted how Fisher eyed him up and down, smiled alluringly, then sauntered out of the room, her hips swaying slightly. Without realizing it, Robinson followed her with his eyes, as did Collins. When she was gone, he once again surveyed the crime scene, this time from a fresh perspective.

I could live with that as a decent stab at capturing the scene, but still, you have to be careful how much time you spend on things like eye contact and introspection, for you run the risk of boring your readers. In TV and movies, a glance or a change in expression can occur in a second and it can speak volumes. To express the same thing in writing may take, well, volumes. You need to balance pacing and characterization, and this is where beta-readers can help.

In a similar vein, consider Phryne Fisher’s wardrobe. Fisher sports an amazingly diverse wardrobe and somehow looks good in anything. Her wardrobe nearly becomes another character in the show. But here we come to the same question as before: how do you translate this to the written word? How much space in a short story or even a novel could one sensibly allocate to describing a character’s clothing, and the impact it has on those around her? What vocabulary would you even use? Personally, I’d be at a bit of a loss having to describe in detail 1920’s era women’s fashion.

Questions, questions. But this makes for an interesting thought exercise, and hopefully gives us pause to consider adding some more subtleties to the way in which our characters interact.

Don’t Be That Guy

As has been noted elsewhere, there’s something about the Internet and its inherent anonymity that brings out abusive behaviour in too many people.

Treat others as you would like to be treated isn’t a particularly profound principle. You can derive it very simply if you accept that a world in which you are treated well is better than one in which you are not. Let’s leave that derivation as an exercise for the reader, shall we?

Sadly, there are so many examples of abusive behaviour online that one can only highlight a few. Relentless bullying of teens, to the point of driving the victim to suicide, is all too well known. Twitter personalities such as John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton are frequent targets. Writer Mary Robinette Kowal was famously the subject of abuse from a fellow writer not long ago. And of course, there’s the recent GamerGate debacle which targeted women in the gaming community with vociferous, hateful abuse.

Oddly enough, writers of fanfiction are also subject to their share of abuse. This is particularly puzzling. After all, people write fanfiction because (a) they love the subject matter, and (b) they love to write. They (we) certainly don’t do it for the money. And for this they receive abuse? Really?

It seems that when you put yourself and your work out there, some of the more misguided amongst us take it as an invitation to hurl abuse. Why is that? Are they trying to make up for their own inadequacies? Does it make them feel good about themselves? Odd if it does, because words frequently associated with these individuals include “troll” and “coward”. Not qualities one would normally aspire to, or so you’d think.

It’s entirely possible to disagree with someone in a respectful way. It’s quite alright to provide a writer with negative feedback if it’s done in a constructive way. (“It might improve the story if you deleted scenes C and E.”) But abuse? There’s no place for it at all, under any circumstances, for any reason.

Do you really want to be that guy?

Coincidence? I think not!

When I was a kid, it was a real treat to go to Coles in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto and scour the shelves for Edgar Rice Burroughs. I devoured his books. The Barsoom series, the Venus series, Tarzan, of course, and all those thin, miscellaneous adventures stories. Back in those days, books didn’t tend to be as thick as they are today, and you could find books that were on the order of 120 pages. I prefer smaller books, stories distilled to their essence.

F-234Much has been written about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most acknowledge his gift for creating characters and situations that appealed to the inner Indiana Jones in every boy. One thing he’s criticized for, though, is his over-reliance on coincidence as a plot device. Fair enough. There’s a reason stories of that ilk from Borrough’s era are referred to as ‘pulps’.

Imagine my surprise, then, on re-reading Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, to discover that coincidence is used as a major plot device. A MAJOR plot device. As I read the book, I attempted to keep track of the number of significant coincidences. I lost count.

Let’s just step back for a moment. Dickens is considered in some circles to be the finest writer of English language novels. He’s certainly my favourite. Not only did he create classic characters, he was a champion for social justice. For example, his portrayal of the abusive Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers, was sufficiently spot-on that multiple lawsuits ensued from schoolmasters claiming they were the inspiration for the character. Odd, when you think about it, that people would actually step forward and claim that they were the basis for one of the most despised characters in fiction. At any rate, by coincidence or not, that breed of abusive boarding school soon began to disappear.

In other books, Dickens weaves a huge web of plot and character and theme that somehow all come together into a unified whole. I suppose plot wasn’t something he had a knack for in his first handful of books. Here is Nicholas Nickleby, our favourite protagonist, wandering aimlessly about London, only to walk into the very coffee room in the very hotel where his nemesis is speaking of Nicholas’ sister in an untoward manner. Here is poor Smike, the ill begotten friend of Nicholas, walking home, when who should see him on a street corner but Wackford Squeers. Smike is taken. Nicholas rings Squeers on his mobile and says, “I will track you down. And I will kill you.” Wait, sorry, I’m getting my stories mixed up. But you get the idea.

Does it make it better to admit your use of coincidence with a wink?

‘That Mr Frank and Mr Nickleby should have met last night,’ said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking around the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say: ‘that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence, a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don’t believe now,’ added Tim, taking off his spectacles and smiling as with gentle pride, ‘that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!’

I don’t think so.

All of this isn’t to say that coincidence has no place in plotting. One of my favourite movies uses a big, whopping coincidence to set up the key conflict, and it works beautifully:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

How you use coincidence to advance your plot is ultimately a matter of taste and style. My suggestion is that coincidence is a spice best used sparingly.

How Do You Write?

I first learned about discovery writing from the podcast, Writing Excuses. This is a technique whereby you create a setting, populate it with some characters, then make things difficult for them. Depending on the genre in which you’re writing, you might blow stuff up, let the monsters out, create a love triangle, or kill someone. Maybe all of the above. Then you sit back and see what happens. Even the writer doesn’t know what comes next.

That’s not what I do. Maybe its my career in computing science, where I didn’t start to build something until I had some concept of the end result, but discovery writing scares the hell out of me. It’s taken the writing of a dozen or so short stories, feeling my way in the dark, to understand how it is I do go about writing.

First, there’s THE IDEA, the flash of insight that becomes the basis of the story.

If prolonged exposure to the time vortex can cause human DNA to resemble Time Lord DNA, then… (“Fate of the Earth”).

Suppose we took the characters from Castle and set them in the old west (“Western Castle”).

You get the idea. So that’s the start. Next comes the end state. In other words, before I start writing, I always know how I want the story to end. After that it’s just a question of how to get there from here.

Some writers blast through a story, never looking back until the first draft is complete. Then they make a second draft, and so on, until they’re satisfied that everything works. Not everyone does that. I’ve found that I’m a revise-as-you-go writer. I tend to write in chunks. Usually, a chunk equals one scene. I revise constantly. When I start to write on a given day, I look over the previous scene, and revise as required. This, I find, serves two purposes: it puts me back into the story, and gets my juices flowing so the words start to flow for today’s scene.

In practice, I rarely spend more than two hours a day writing, and many days it’s less than that. It’s slow but steady work, but extremely satisfying. Without that creative outlet, I find myself increasingly restless as the day goes by. I need that writing fix.

I’ve used a beta reader at least a couple of times now (hi, Twisha). It’s helped in ways I didn’t expect, pushing me to become better at world building, fleshing out characters, and making situations believable. In fanfiction, where there’s no editor to review your work, a second set of eyes can be very helpful.

I’ve added a new step recently. When the story seems to be all there, I get my computer to speak it aloud. It’s both entertaining and instructive. Detecting awkward sentences is easier when you hear them spoken.

As for tools, I’ve settled into the habit of using Google Docs for my fanfiction and Apple’s Pages for original fiction, just because I just like to be familiar with more than one editing program. They’re both excellent. Google has a slight edge in that it keeps dozens of versions of your document in the cloud. Pages has the advantage of existing as both a cloud service and a stand-alone, local program. While Microsoft’s docx file format is a lingua-franca for exchanging documents, you don’t need to use Word to create those files. I have Microsoft Office installed on my MacBook, but honestly, I rarely use it.

And that’s about it. At least, for short stories. I have a concept for a novel, but just a few pages written, so it remains to be seen whether this approach will scale up. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

So, how do you go about writing?