Ye Olde ComNet Index

Observations on Writing

As with my opinions about "Art," my observations on "Writing" are based on a panic-driven understanding of the processes that I acquired as an adult when, after years of contented, comparatively ignorant consumption, I was lured unsuspecting into the production side of the story-telling arena. These observations are eclectic and personal and not to be confused with the opinions and definitions of a college-educated Lit-major.

Hmmm...These topics seem to be proliferating throughout the entire ComNet. Don't be surprised if they take you onto totally non-writebox pages!

Fanfiction: I don't get many requests for my stand on fanfiction, but for those interested in writing it based on my fiction, please check this out.
A Matter of Viewpoint: Choosing a Point of View
More observations on Viewpoint: Which I prefer to use and Why

The following entries are mostly as they relate to my personal experience with these topics:
The Deadly Question :there are many dangerous pitfalls for the Unwary Author. Pitfalls like...the dreaded question whose answer will turn A) my short story into a novel, B) my simple space opera into lit-ra-chur, or C) my single novel into a series.Questions...
In the Beginning : How I got started
The Man in Black
Prequels and Sequels
Strange Publishing History of Groundties :
Selling a book to the publisher is the easy part. Some of the pitfalls of publishing over which the author has no control.

Miscellaneous:
Lord of the Rings: A Journal Supplement : a few personal thoughts on the Tolkein phenomenon.

In the Beginning

Although I'd spent years associating with writers, my first real experience in creative writing blindsided me while I was adapting C.J. Cherryh's Gate of Ivrel into a graphic novel. 

(Prior to that, I had written a whole five pages of fiction in high school.  Oo-oooo. The teacher's response to that attempt was sufficient to discourage me from trying to write again for the next twenty years.)

In the case of Gate, I had a complete novel to work from, a novel rich in imagery and character development and yet so sparse in dialogue, it fit naturally into the graphic format.

But problems arose right (you should pardon the expression) out of the gate.  The novel's opening paragraphs introduce key information that set up the Science Fictional logic structure that underlies what is otherwise clearly Fantasy imagery. . . but there are no characters. No scenes. Nothing to adapt verbatim into a picture-driven story.

Gulp.

So . . . I had to write a scene--actually, a sequence--that could replace this time-condensed introduction.  I talked with CJ to get a feel for what must have happened, found a scenario, and came up with a new opening sequence. Voila': my first fictional writing. Other scenes happened along the way . . . my favorite of the two published volumes being the introduction of the Kitchen's of Leth . . . scenes that showed graphically various sociological or psychological elements that had been handled in viewpointed prose within the novel itself.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was learning to write. I viewed it at the time and still do as an exercise in problem solving; I was learning how to take certain given elements and a question regarding those elements and to resolve the problem in dialogue and plot loop.

According to CJ, it was this ability to write these small scenes, combined with the comments I was making about her works in general, that prompted her to suggest I try writing my own stories when the graphic novel project came to an end. Having nothing to lose, I decided Why not? and said, "OK, how do I start?"

CJ said, "Just pick a couple of characters and throw them together."

I said, "Right..."

CJ: "Well, you could write an outline. Just a page or so, but the characters are the key."

Me: "Right..."

Well, since the graphic's demise happened to occur just before my birthday in 1987, I decided (just for giggles) to actually begin writing on my 35th birthday. I began taking mental notes. I paraphrase:

I've been living in CJC's Union/Alliance Universe for so long, I'm going to have a hard time building a different future history, unless I shift some basic assumptions.

(a) The Technology: In CJC's universe, information travels only as fast as the fastest ship. Hah. Instant communication. *Murfle murfle* . . . I've got enough trouble accepting FTL . . . all right, we'll work it out.

(b) The Philosophy: In CJC's universe, planets are navigational hazards to be avoided. Useful only as gravity wells for holding space stations in orbit. OK . . . I happen to think planets and their associated Natural Disasters keep humans on their toes . . . What if the spacer element shares CJC's notion and we inject anti-planet-buster bigotry into the equation. . . .

(c) The characters. I'll need a spacer faction. A starship, those are useful for starfaring cultures. I'll need somebody in charge. Maybe make female. . .

I need a bonifide bigot. Somebody young enough to convert. Somebody connected with the instantaneous Nexus ComNet. A bigoted academy graduate, raised in spacer society, goes downworld and gets "religion".

Whoa! Wait. A Female Admiral. PC. Potential role reversal here. How do I want to handle Social Issues of the PC sort?

Quietly.

But I need a problem. Something that will highlight the technical doodads. A weakness in the ComNet. How might it work?

Universal access. Too much data. Overload! Danger!

. . . . .

The day before my birthday, the looming question was: "How does story happen?"

The day after, with Stephen Ridenour and Loren Cantrell and Wesley Smith hammering at my brain, it was: "How do you STOP story from happening!?!"

In the end, there are techniques any author can employ to tighten, focus and embellish any story, editing choices an author makes according to the kind of story he wants to tell and the audience he wants to reach, and how he wants to affect that audience. These editorial choices range from such basics as choice of viewpoint, to how much space to devote to description of the countryside, to whether or not to include profanity. Even how much or how little an author edits is, in itself, an editorial choice.

But those techniques are only the fine-tuning---those aspects of writing that can be taught. The ability to perceive the connections and create a logical bridge. . . the capacity to recognize or create that initial seed . . . that's the magic of writing. Whether that seed is a concept, a philosophy, a world, or a character, it has to originate within the author and every author has to find their own magic for raising it from their own psychological maze.

For me, for the way I approach story-telling, it all seems to boil down to finding a couple of characters, a basic premise, and answering those Questions that inevitably result.

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A Matter of Viewpoint

Viewpoint. Who tells the story and how. In my opinion, this is the singlemost important choice a writer makes. It affects the tone of the prose, the involvement of the reader, and ultimately, how effectively a writer's point is made. It is an extremely powerful tool in a writer's arsenal, one with many subtle variations and ramifications, and I can say quite confidently that the following little introduction will not be the last we see of viewpoint on this webpage.

All viewpoint options have their staunch supporters and all have those who just as emphatically detest them. I personally have my own preference, but I attribute that preference to the type of story I like to read (and write), not to anything inherent in the writing technique. Because whichever method a writer chooses, omniscient, intense third, first, or some intermediate combination, each has its own strengths and its own weaknesses, each can describe the same events, but each will, by its very nature, highlight different aspects of those events, and so affect the way the scene is perceived by the reader.

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In the omniscient viewpoint, The non-involved Author is telling the story. The Author/narrator has an overview of all parties involved, their thoughts and motivations, their associations. . . even things the characters themselves wouldn't know.

The omniscient Author can speak directly to The Reader, can assume within the prose a common knowledge base. It is an excellent vehicle for clearly and succinctly stating a set of facts, for injecting satire or irony, and for making other non-participatory observations on the characters in specific, the state of the world in general, or The Author's philosophy.

For example:

Jeremy Barsili, the most powerful Podroshek Necromaster in a thousand years, possessed the kind of beauty seen only in men of the purest Rialin blood. His dark hair glinted with the mysterious red highlights of a hundred generations of Flandic spice sniffers. But with that red, everyone in the room save Shinrasha knew, would come a slow decline into insanity, leading ultimately to violent death---not necessarily his own.

He entered the room, absorbing his clan's thoughts and emotions, cataloging those thoughts, tagging those who were against him and those he could manipulate to his needs, a process so long a part of him, it had entered the realm of subconscious instinct.

But one mind alone had tempted him out of his lair this night. Shinrasha's thoughts, innocent and ignorant to all he was and would be, drew him like a magnet.

His prey for the night. Unless, of course, he was hers. For who is hunter and who the prey in the tangled web of obsession?

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Thanks to the all-knowing Author, we rapidly know a great deal about this place, the inhabitants, their habits, and their true motivations. The omniscient voice is a pure, and potentially eloquent, vector. The Author can use language as beautiful and evocative as The Author wants, because that word choice alone is telling us nothing about the characters in the story. The words themselves are, but the act of choosing words is subconsciously ascribed to The Author, not The Character.

In first or true third person, the word choice is dictated by the character whose viewpoint you're in. One character might be florid, another terse, another might use every four letter word in the book. The nature of the character affects the nature of the prose.

The Omniscient observer is not hampered by real (storyline) time restrictions. The Omniscient author can stop in the middle of a fight sequence and digress into the history of the world.

Our third or first person narrator would be skewered, and the story would be over.

But the Omniscient Voice puts an impenetrable wall between the reader and the characters. The reader can only be told about events and emotions, not invited to co-experience. Omniscience also demands a certain amount of candor on the part of The Author. The Author is omniscient, therefore, if The Author withholds information from the reader, The Author is playing games, and that may or may not sit well with the readers. In the other viewpoints, if information is withheld, reader ignorance can be attributed to the fact that the viewpoint character simply didn't know.

For example:

A murmur rumbled through the crowded ballroom. Jeremy, some voices said, and Barsilli. Shinrasha stood on tiptoe, straining to see past the gathered Rialin clan, all of whom were head and shoulders taller than she, hoping for a glimpse of the fabled Necromaster.

A flash of dark hair that glittered red in the flickering candlelight. A shiver went down Shinsha's spine, but she pressed between the heavy-skirted debutantes in front of her, determined not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The crowd shifted, and she staggered, almost to her knees, stopping herself with a hold in the soft fur that unexpectedly brushed her hands.

A scent, mysterious and vaguely cinnamon, filled her nostrils, a scent that hit her head like strong wine. She swayed again. This time, a hand caught and steadied her, and she opened her eyes to the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.

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Our poor lassie has no idea what she's getting into. Neither does the reader. And in the intense third, the author has the option to either explain her growing danger through another viewpoint, or leave the reader ignorant along with Shinrasha, depending on how the author needs/wants to build the internal tension of the story.

If the goal is to have only one viewpoint within the story, there is always first person.

I stood in the doorway, waiting. I sensed the admiration . . . the hatred . . . the fear as the Blessed Spice attuned my very body to the thoughts and emotions of my . . . dear family.

There was someone new. Someone pure. Ignorant. Corruptible. For the briefest of moments, my control wavered---my mouth twitched. I controlled my expression and made my entrance.

Voices battered at my ears and my mind. Demanding answers. Begging absolution. I shut them out, seeking that one, pure, childlike essence that would make the next endless night endurable.

A ripple in the wave of humanity, a slight ill-dressed form with hair the color of the Blessed Spice, fell through. I caught her arm, steadied her. Her eyes opened. Pale blue eyes that reflected my face like a mirror. Not a beauty, but that didn't matter. It was the thoughts behind those eyes, the glorious ignorance.

The fascination. She was mine.

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In first person, you get the unadulterated thought processes of a character, with all the warts and misconceptions of the moment, and without the mediating influence of additional viewpoints. As with any viewpoint other than omniscient, it is an unreliable viewpoint, but it's the only one available, and so all understanding of the situation must be based on that one individual.

Those I've heard advocate the style claim it creates an immediate empathy with the viewpoint character, that "I", the reader, becomes "I", the character. For me, it feels rather more like the intimacy of friendship: I'm still removed from the story, but the viewpoint character trusts me enough to tell his/her story directly to me.

The most effective use I've seen of first person is when it takes the form, from the beginning, of personal memoirs, generally written by an individual expecting the world to read his/her story. . . which means he/she considers their story important enough to immortalize.

This takes a particularly self-confident sort of individual.

Personal angst becomes whining when placed in that direct-line character-to-reader communication of first person.

Why is it that while Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire was critically acclaimed it took The Vampire Lestat to really put the series on the Best-Seller map? I think you need look no further than Lestat's own explanation: Louis whines. Louis can't help but whine because it's an angst-filled book all written in first person. There's no viewpoint to put Louis' torment into perspective. Interview becomes a well-written, insightful book that leaves a subtly bad taste in my mouth.

Lestat, on the other hand, save for the occassional diversion into the wonder and the why of it all, pretty much gets down to the "I'm the Vampire Lestat, love me or get out of my face." and gets on with telling his own compelling tale. Louis is literally telling his story to one individual, begging for understanding, Lestat blasts his story to the world, and dares the world to ignore him.

One of the best genre studies in comparative viewpointing is Lynn Abbey's Rise and Fall of a Dragon King. The book begins with a factual account of some rather unpleasant events and actions as they happen. She chose to present this in the Omniscient third, as facts uncharged with viewpointed emotion.

Throughout the rest of the book, she simultaneously develops both Hemanu's past, his "rise" to power, and real-time events, depicted in intense third person, which are leading inevitably to Hemanu's "fall". Hemanu is a vastly powerful sorcerer, by the time the book takes place, but he began as a bull-headed young farmer. He goes through a thousand years of tempering; an unpleasant experience by anyone's measure, but by the time he sits down to write that account---the memoirs which constitute the first-person flashback sequences---he has the cool perspective of a survivor.

Like Lestat, he doesn't dwell on the torment, he analyses his responses with the cool irony of a survivor.

 

                The ultimate legacy: TPI

    

    Carolyn’s stories are about the characters. Period. Beyond character-driven, there is no story, no plot beyond a general direction, until the characters declare their intentions at each given juncture. This “making it up as you go along” is another typical aspect of the bungee-jumper approach. With each decision made, the character’s options become more limited, both as a character and within the confines of the simultaneously developing world and plot. The character becomes defined by his or her internal analysis of options and ultimate choices and those choices drive the plot forward. Multiple characters. Multiple decisions. Interweaving causalities which ultimately find resolution.

    Living on the creative edge? Absolutely.

    Rewarding? Unimaginably.

    But in order to pull off this style effectively, Carolyn had to develop the perfect writing tool. She began consciously considering the question of viewpoint when she was a freshman in college. Back in that dark age of manual typewriters, CJ decided that how she wanted to write wasn’t really covered by what she was reading. First person had the intimacy, but inherent limitations of scope. Multiple viewpoints allowed stories to develop along disparate lines that ultimately intersected, which pleased her complex, lateral processing, but didn’t create the necessary intimacy for motivational currency within the novel.

    So she began working out her own guidelines for a style of viewpointing she calls “Third Person Intense .”

    While I’d never presume to suppose she is the first or only writer to write in this fashion (Indeed, I’ve read other authors’ whose work I would tend to classify similarly, and my own oneshot, abortive high school attempt at writing would indicate it is, for some, the “native” story-telling voice.) however, since becoming aware of the concept I’ve never encountered the term or philosophy in any writing text or in any writerly discussion outside Carolyn’s. I certainly think it’s safe to say Carolyn, with that vast array of novels, has explored the ramifications of it like no author before her.

    Conceptually, TPI  is very simple. Reaching beyond camera angle, beyond the five senses, the reader/writer dives into the head, heart, and soul of the viewpoint character(s) and never strays, focusing the story less on events and more on the causality of those events.

    Operationally, it’s a bit more interesting.

    Viewpoint is the ultimate reader/writer contract. It absolutely controls how deeply the writer involves the reader with the character. Traditionally, viewpoint falls into a handful of basic categories,  omniscient (he/she/it), second person (you), third person (he/she/it), first person (I).

    Second person is used within fictional prose only for the occasional effect, and so . . . ignore it.

    Omniscient is the ultimate safety-zone. At its simplest, it’s simply a god-view describing the events:

    John Smith sat on a bench in the corner of the waiting room of The Golden Goose restaurant, watching the guests come and go through the carved and gilded doorway.

    Outside the Barbary Hotel, Daisy May Grubecker got out of a Yellow cab, nodded to the doorman as she walked past, turned down the hall to her left headed for the Golden Goose. As she passed the maitr’d, John stood up, holding out his hand.

    Suddenly, he stumbled.

    *Yawn.* Oh . . . sorry. Omniscient doesn’t need to be that boring, but in order for it to live up to its “most reliable narrator” billing, it must remain purely observational, reporting events and dialogue, but never entering the heads of the characters. Not the best for reader involvement with the characters.

    Once you pass that barrier, you enter the realm of third person:

    John sat on the edge of the restaurant’s waiting room bench, watching the customers come and go, shadowy silhouettes against the bright lights of the exterior corridor. He ran his sweaty hands across the worn red velvet upholstery, wondering which of those shadows could be Daisy May Grubecker, his blind date.

    Daisy May, DMG to her online friends, tugged at her too-short skirt, and glared at the cabby as she slid her legs out the door. Her spike heels wobbled ominously. She swallowed hard, found her balance, and walked grandly into the Barbary, nodded to the doorman, and following her nose, headed down the hall to the Golden Goose.

    A man rose as she passed through the gilt doorway, took a step forward, and the next instant, he was in her arms.

    Third person, still a bit remote in this example, but beginning to achieve some identification with the characters. The big problem is, it’s a floating viewpoint. You get potentially a lot of information, but never actually settle into a single character.

    Many people would claim the ultimate reader identification viewpoint is first person:

    I sat in the corner of the waiting room, feet flat on the floor, terrified I’d wrinkle my rented suit, and rubbed my hands across the worn red velvet of the couch, trying unsuccessfully to dry the sweaty palms.

    I stared at the doorway, half-blinded by the exterior corridor lights, wondering which of those shadowy silhouettes was . . . her. DMG. Daisy May Grubecker.

    My blind date.

    Email, God’s own gift to nerds, had brought us together and I’d just begun to wonder whether I should leave it that way, when suddenly, one of those shadows paused. Slim. Elegant in a sleek black dress and sexy, impossibly high, spiked heels. Could it be . . . ?

    I swallowed hard and rose to my feet, took a final swipe at my slacks to dry my hand, and stepped toward her, hand outstretched.

    My foot caught on the thick carpet. I was falling, clumsy fool that I am, right into her waiting arms.

    And indeed, with first person, you finally begin to get some sense of causality, emotion and intimacy. However, for me it’s a bit voyeuristic. There’s less direct identification with good old John Smith than there is a sense of sitting beside him as he tells you all about this disastrous date. If emotions run too high, if the world (read plot elements) turns against him, there’s a serious danger that John will begin to whine as he attempts to make me understand the depth of his travail.

    Besides . . . the one thing you know going into a first person book is that John Smith survives his date: he must, because he’s sitting there telling me (or at least his diary) all about it.

    The beauty of third person intense is that is gives you all the intimacy of first person, plus the flexibility of multiple viewpoints.

    Feet planted flat on the floor, terrified lest he wrinkle his rented suit, John cowered in the corner of the Golden Goose waiting room, keeping the potted palm between him and the overbright entrance. Shadowy silhouettes came and went through that gilt and carved doorway, and with each new arrival, he sank a bit deeper into the worn velvet cushions.

    He should forget this nonsense, leave well enough alone. Email was God’s own gift to nerd’s like —

    A shadow paused in the doorway. Sleek. Dark-haired. Impossibly high heels—

    Could it be . . . ?

    #

    Daisy May Grubecker—DMG, thank you very much—paused in the doorway, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the restaurant’s dim lighting.

    Made a gal suspicious, that did. Made her wonder just what they were trying to hide in their mystery meat.

    And speaking of meat . . .

    She resisted, not for the first time since escaping the cabby’s rude gaze, tugging at the much too short dress she’d “borrowed” from her roommate, fought the tendency of her left foot to topple off center, and searched the shadowy foyer for one John Smith.

    Like she believed that. As much a handle as DMG, she’d bet.

    Beyond an over-watered palm, a slim figure slowly rose to its feet. Not bad. Not the whale she’d feared, not the Adonis of her fondest dreams. Light glinted in the head area. Glasses? She could live with that. Besides, if he had nice eyes, there were always contacts.

    He was bright enough, she knew that from the emails. Now . . . to see if he was housebroken.

    

    Oops. Sorry. Got a bit carried away. Want to know what happens? Well, he falls. She catches him. The stilettos break and they go down. He hits his head on the potted palm, and she at least thinks he’s dead. Beyond that? Well, gee, I dunno. They haven’t told me yet. If I’m lucky, I’ll never think about it again. Unfortunately, thanks to that last bit from DMG’s viewpoint . . . I might wake up in the middle of the night with her story: such is the insidious nature of this style of storytelling.

    Insidious, indeed. If C.J. Cherryh’s a “hard read,” her TPI’s an even harder “write.”

    But wait! (You cry, in frustration and distrust.) Didn’t you just say it was easy?

    It is. Very. At least when a character wants to talk. It’s not the writing that’s hard, just as it isn’t necessarily simply following the story that makes her a hard read; it’s that same character identification. Sometimes viewpoint characters are nice folk, folks whose minds are like comfortable slippers and a warm fire. Sometimes, again, they aren’t very nice. Sometimes it’s necessary to slip on the cloak of the antagonist, and sometimes the protagonist is less than well-wrapped, a victim of child abuse or a leader who must wield great power ruthlessly.

    A reader lives with this identification for at most a few days, and only experiences those elements of character history and psychology necessary to the book. Then, they move on to other books, other characters, likely to more comfortably remote viewpoints. A writer lives with the characters for months, experiencing all the details that made them what they are, sometimes receiving the news from a recalcitrant character in the middle of an otherwise quiet night’s sleep. No good villain is simply evil incarnate: something created them, drove them to the depths of depravity. No individual of courage, character and options got to that state without physical and mental tempering. TPI, by its very nature, forces the author to face those details, to walk in a character’s mocassins in ways no other viewpoint requires.

    Never having written any other way, I can’t say whether those who write remote third or omniscient or first experience similar identification; I can say it’s certainly theoretically possible to write remotely without it. It’s not possible to write TPI without total commitment to the viewpoint characters. Sometimes, that means waking up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat from dreams not your own, sometimes it means examining your very thoughts with suspicion, wondering if they’re yours or the current character’s . . .

    Which brings up another cool-Cherryh story. Back in her university days, she had two tests to prepare for: one on the Civil War, another on Machiavelli ’s The Prince. The night before, she studied her notes for American History, then put the notes for The Prince on audio tape, which she then played on continuous loop as she slept. (Yes, Virginia, the original Cyteen “sleep tapes.”) The following morning, barely awake, she got her Civil War essay question: It’s the day before the attack on Fort Sumter. You’re President Lincoln. What are you going to do to stop the war?

    Carolyn’s somewhat sleep-deprived answer? A carefully selected series of arrests and assassinations, all well-supported with logic, of course. She says she doesn’t recall taking the test, but her horror when she began the test on The Prince and realized what she’d done to her American History final in the previous period is quite clear.

    She needn’t have worried. She (and Nicolo M.) received an A.

    The inescapable truth of writing is that all characters ultimately come from within the writer. The truth of TPI is that sometimes, they rule. When Carolyn’s writing Signy Mallory, you don’t walk up behind her and say Boo! Unless, of course, you want a fat lip or broken rib. When she’s writing Caith, you don’t let her drive because cars flowing through an intersection might just (and did) become a flock of sheep.

    Suffice to say, in a household full of TPI writers (and at one time we had three living together) the term “designated driver” takes on a whole new meaning.

    Are there TPI-specific mechanisms? The dreaded “rules”? Well, yes, in a way there are, and such as they can be codified, Carolyn has done herself, free to all at her website (http://www.cherryh.com), where she has posted an entire section on writing tips that is fun and fascinating reading, even for the non-writer, and one of those articles is specifically on viewpointing.

    There: I’ve done it. A cite. Sigh . . .

    Well, now that I’ve crossed the line, I can point out that in the above example (remember John and DMG?) I . . . stretched one of the guidelines. In general, a scene is “dedicated” to a single viewpoint. This creates an instinctive trust between reader and author, a trust that allows the reader to settle firmly into that character for the duration of the scene. Establishing the various viewpoints early in the book creates . . . pocket of resonance, if you will, within the reader’s gut that automatically kick in every time the story slips into a character’s voice. Once that trust exists, a single hint at the beginning of the scene triggers the resonance, and the viewpoint is set.

    In the above example, in order to illustrate the dual viewpoints and to reflect the previous examples, I shifted viewpoint as DMG enters the room. This is something of a “pseudo scene break,” but is seriously stretching the definition. Also, the beginning of John’s VP reads like the establishing opening of a scene where the viewpoint is being set. The subsequent handful of paragraphs doesn’t allow time to settle into him.

    Alternatively, were this well into the book, his viewpoint could be set so firmly that it is sufficient trigger for the reader.

    Never, as Carolyn stresses, follow a guideline over a cliff. They are suggestions for achieving an end, no more, no less. They are neither comprehensive nor universally applicable. They are the means to an end, not an end in themselves, and that end is character identification on a gut level, not an intellectual one.

    Never follow rules over a cliff. And that includes the so-called “rules” of grammar.

 

More observations on viewpoint.

 

 

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