Unintentionally Helpful Villain #15:

Diary Entry #215

Ah, my sweet perdition has ended! And to think that I have one of my very own Librarians to thank for it! A nice enough lad, and bright, too–to save me from the throng of half-catatonic Inquisitors–while I’m slowly roasted upon a pyre, no less!

I have named this Librarian the Head Librarian, and have banished his original name unto the Infernal Tempest. He doth not seem very pleased at all by this turn of events. He groans and bemoans my choice, this Head Librarian.

He’ll get over it!

Diary Entry #216

Mine Head Librarian has finally recovered from the loss of his name. He has taken the time to tell me the tale of his discovery that mine body has been in use by an imposter — mine ex-wife. Thus goes his tale:

As My Lord knows, we few remaining Librarians remained behind along with Your Lordship’s champions, to await your return. When first you–rather, your body– returned from the underground of Kresh, we had very well taken ahold of it, and prepared to annex it into the Realm. To everyone in the camp’s chagrin, you ordered us to free the prisoners, to turn the newly-converted Library building to dust, and to ride away. 

We didn’t know what to think. As we moved northwards, a series of events served to confuse us much further; as we made camp near a brook, it was none other than you, Lordship, that ran along to fetch water for our sick and wounded. Later, you offered your pale horse to the Prime Librarian, Sven, as he had taken an arrow to the elbow from a twelve year old child. You also did not order the child be commended as we have witnessed you to do, but punished its entire village. 

As your loyal subjects, Sire, we are used to a certain amount of…aberrant behaviour where your royal decisions are concerned. Your Lordship will forgive me for saying so but there is a certain mercurial side to your magnanimous character. No, no, don’t blush, my Lord, I speak truth. 

When your…imposter, for lack of a better work, allowed another to ride your horse, we knew we were dealing with something altogether different from our true master. So it was that I volunteered my services to return to Kresh, and to seek out the truth behind your change. 

Your…wife, is it, Sire? gave me permission to leave when I told her my darling, old grandmother had health issues several towns away. There is something disconcerting about your gauntleted hand offering me a healing salve to take on the road; that’s what I used on all the burnt flesh, Dark Lord, it works rather well, doesn’t it?

As I got to Kresh, I heard more and more rumors of strange happenings — villages gone rampant against men, magical animals disappearing, a traveling rabbit-beast–werebunny, Lordship?–do forgive me; and much more, besides. 

I seemed to miss you time and time again; until I heard of a woman that refused to die within enchanted flames, a witch that refused to give up on her sinful ways in so terrible a way that one Inquisitor crier had passed on, and another was on the edge between life and death. That is when I knew.

The rest, Lordship, is history. Now that you are well-rested, we should be on our way.

So he spoke, the Head Librarian, and so I found myself moved almost to a murder spree; so strong was the bond of loyalty that mine men have for me, and so well do they know me! Never would I have thought anyone so familiar with mine character.

Now, of course, I might have to murder this Sven, for he is in direct competition with the Head Librarian, but alas — the road ahead is clear.

“Lead on, minion!” I say, and so we go, to kill Sven!

And also, to punish mine ex-wife for her traitorous body-switching ways.

 

Thursday Recommendation: Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October Issue (Part 1 of 2)

Ah, Asimov’s. Doubtless, one of the best known science fiction magazines in America, perhaps the world. I’ve been subscribed to the e-mag for exactly one year now, and it’s been nothing short of a delight every issue I’ve read. I rarely read all of the magazine before the next one comes out, but I make the effort — hopefully, I’ll get a couple of weeks sometime, enough to read every single issue of the last year of Asimov’s, uninterrupted. That’s pretty close to happiness right there, folks.

At any rate, in this post, I am going to take a few minutes to give you a short synopsis of the four novelettes in the September/October 2017 issue of Asimov’s. They’re really good, and worth your time. Worth mine, as well–or I wouldn’t be going the extra mile to recommend them to y’all!

Wind Will Rove by Sarah Pinsker, is a story about a generation seedship; if you’re unfamiliar with the concept, the generation ship is a hypothetical type of arc ship that takes hundreds or even thousands of years to reach its target; its original passengers and crew pass down the knowledge to their children and so on and so forth, until some far-removed descendants reach their ancestors’ dreamlands.

In Wind Will Rove, collective memory and knowledge are put under question after a tragedy led to the ship’s loss of all of Earth’s media databases — books, movies, video games, plays, everything you could imagine. What this led to was a recreation of many great works of art by the generations on the ship — most of the original scientists and artists and engineers from Earth were alive and well, and to lose everything that reminded them of home must’ve been horrifying.

What follows is, then, a recreation from memory. Movies reshot with the usage of the ship’s holo-tech, books written a new from memory, and so on. It’s this recreation that Wind Will Rove digs into in a clever, charming way, while using an old folk song by the same name. It’s about more than collective memory; it’s about humanity’s ability to bounce back up, no matter how lethal the wound on its collective behind!

 

I don’t think I’ve ever read a work of science fiction as vibrant as Universe Box by Michael Swanwick is.

Nightmares beyond human imaginng howled and ravaged at his heels. Nihilism and despair sleeted down on his upturned face. But the thief culdn’t have been happier. His grin was so mad and bright that it would melt granite.

His erection was shocking.

That’s an excerpt of the very beginning of Universe Box; it gets a lot crazier from that point onward. The story is filled with literally allusions; one character, for example, originates from Gilgamesh! It’s as far from hard sci-fi as you can imagine, but the humor Swanwick has infused this with makes this a memorable story that you’ll laugh through.

It reads like fantasy, in truth. Fantasy with sci-fi elements is how I would label it, in fact. The devil may or may not appear as well, in the form of an “attorney at lawlessness.” You know. Normal sci-fi stuff.

It’s a strange story, but funny throughout.

 

Grand Theft Spacecraft was a difficult one to get into, but once you did…R. Garcia y Robertson, author of this novelette, does not easily let go. It’s the closest to the space opera genre of the four, with Space Vikings, a Christian Deacon protagonist, a nine year old genius who’s got an AI by the throat, and a princess that may or may not be in need of saving. I’ll let you figure that one for yourselves; but underneath the swashbuckling, grand theft spacecrafting is a story about love, family and…well, blowing space ships.

“Faint hearts never fucked a flag captain.”

Indeed. Oh, there are also space Mongols, very much into Genghis Khan’s ideological beliefs. This novelette is also filled with historical allusions, which are entertaining in their own right.

 

Books of the Risen Sea is a post-apocalyptic story of a small American coastal town (if I got that correctly) by Suzanne Palmer, who’s been doing quite well for herself. It’s about a man’s attempts to preserve books in the library from the slow but certain spread of mold, toxic rain and just about anything else that Nature can throw at him, while dealing with being a parriah in his city for who he is, and his choices.

It’s another very powerful story that starts off slow, and goes onto unexpected places. Caer–that’s our main character’s name–is content in his loneliness, and hungry for story after story. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t see myself in that hunger.

There’s also a robot with a sawhand. That’s right, you read that correctly. Pretty good reason to check this one out, right?

 

Thank you for reading! If you find this little run-down interesting, let me know and I’ll do more. Would you like spoiler-y discussions, as well? Or would you prefer I be even more vague and non-commital? Say it and I’ll make it so! 

Writing Advice: Premise (The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 2)

There are many ways to start the writing process. Some writers prefer to do it by breaking the story in its seven primary steps–to be explored in Chapter 3. Most begin with the shortest expression of the story as a whole, the premise line.

The premise is your story stated in one sentence. As soon as you decide to pursue one idea and codify it within your premise, you’re locked into it — so you better be happy and certain with your choice.

What you choose to write about is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.

Premise is the one decision on which every other decision you make during the writing process is based. If your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story.

Premise is a classical example of the dangers of a little knowledge, its inherent structural weakness is found in the fact that it offers you only two-three scene; the scenes just before and after the twist that makes your premise unique. A novel’s premise may have double-triple the number of scenes that the premise of a movie.

You have to remain flexible and open to all possibilities. This is where using an organic, creative method as guide is most important.

Developing your premise

Step 1: Write Something that may Change Your Life

If a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in your audience. When you’re done, no matter what else, you’ve changed your life.

To follow this particular step, you need to know yourself. For that, you need to explore yourself. Get some data on who you are, via these two exercises:

  • First, write down a wishlist of all the things you’d like to see in a book. That’s what you’re passionately interested in, and what entertains you. You might jut down imagined characters, cool plot twists, great lines of dialogue, themes you want to explore or care about. Write it all down without worry for organization or any considerations.
  • The second exercise is to write a premise list. Write as many premises as you want, as long as they’re one sentence each. This’ll force you to be clear about each idea. It also allows you to see all your premises together, in one place.

After that, a look at the key patterns will start to emerge about what you love. It’s your vision in its rawest form. The exercises are designed to open you up and to ingetrate what is deep within you already.

Step 2: Look for what is possible

Explore your options. The Intent here is to brainstorm the many different paths the idea can take and then to choose the best one. Ask yourself “What if…?” so as to define what’s allowed in the story world, and what isn’t. Let your mind go free, and don’t censor or judge yourself. No idea is “stupid,” those often lead to creative breakthrough.

Step 3: Identify the Story Challenges and Problems

There’ll be particular problems embedded in the story idea, and you can’t escape them. You want to confront these, and solve them if you wish to execute your story well. Most writers identify the inherent problems of their stories too late (if at all). The trick is learning to spot the big ones right at the premise line. Of course, you won’t be able to diagnose every problem this soon in the process.

Step 4: Find the Designing Principle:

Problems and promises known, you now have to come up with an overall strategy for how you will tell your story. The overall story strategy, stated in one line, is the designing principle of your story.

The designing principle helps you extend the premise into a deep structure.

The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.

It is the internal logic of the story, what makes the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It is what makes the story original. It’s the seed of the story, in short. It tracks the fundamental process that will unfold over the course of the story.

Most stories don’t have a designing principle; it’s already abstract, the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way.

Designing principle= Story process + original execution

It’s the “synthesizing idea,” the “shaping cause” of the story.

Be diligent in discovering this principle, and enver take your eye off it during the long writing process. Don’t do as most writers do, by picking a genre and imposing it on the premise, forcing the story to go through events associated with the genre in question; draw the designing principle out of the one-line premise.

Step 5: Determine your Best Character in the Idea.

Always tell a story about your best character.

The best character is the most fascinating and challenging character, always.

Step 6: Get a sense of the Central Conflict

Ask yourself: “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question over one succinct line. All conflict will boil down to this one issues, codified in your answer.

Step 7: Get a sense of the single Cause-and-effect Pathway

A good organic story has a single cause-and-effect pathway; this is the spine of the story and without it, the story will fall apart.

The trick to discovering this it ask yourself: “What’s my character’s basic action?” One action that your hero takes is more important than any other, and unifies every other action the hero takes, and that’s the cause-and-effect path.

Step 8: Determine your Hero’s Possible Character Change

That’s the second most important thing to gleam from your premise line: the fundamental character change of your hero. Character change is what your hero experiences by going through his struggle.

WxA=C ( Weaknesses x Action = Change )

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weakness and change.

That’s the basic sequence of the human growth – what you, the writer, must express above everything else.

Write down a number of possible options for the hero’s weaknesses and change.

Remember that premise work is extremely tentative, especially concerning character change.

Step 9: Figure out the Hero’s possible Moral choice

The main theme of a story is often crystalized by a moral choice the hero must make, typically near the end of the story. Theme is your view of the proper way to act in the world. It is your moral vision, and it is one of the main reasons you are writing  your story.

Theme is best expressed through the structure of the story, the moral argument where you make a case for how to live, not through philosophical argument but through the actions of characters going after a goal.

To have a true choice, your hero must either select one of two positive outcomes or, on some rare occasions, avoid one of two negative outcomes.

Step 10: Gauge the Audience Appeal

Be ruthless in answering this question of commercial appeal. Don’t fall into the either-or trap of believing that you can either write about what matters to you or what sells. Always try to write something you care about, and also think will appeal to an audience.

Coming Next: Chapter 3 – The seven Key Steps of Story Structure

Magnus Commentary: Well, wasn’t that one hell of an interesting read? While I am far from subscribing to John Truby’s idea that his is the best way of going about writing, this is certainly a fascinating look at a methodology that I’m more than willing to try.

There is also a lengthy writing exercise which calls upon us, the readers of said novel, to attempt to follow these ten steps. It’s in the book, and you should check it out; I’m currently attempting it with an idea for a novel that’s been stuck in my head for some time now, and I’ll be happy to report my progress to anyone who’s interested. Comment below!

PS I decided to go without my own thoughts on the premise, as I’m still playing around with the methodology.

Writing Advice: The Anatomy of Story, Chapter 1

I’ve been thinking about today’s blog post–quite a bit, in fact. I decided that instead of offering you some of my own hard-earned wisdom(insane laughter), I would take you on my exploration of John Truby’s well-regarded, well-known book, “The Anatomy of Story.” 

The plan is simple: Make a post about each chapter (sometimes the posts about a chapter might be more than one, depending on how complex the chapter is).  Within these posts I will attempt to extract the most important advice, guidelines, techniques and so on by retelling and rephrasing the most important parts, those that jump at me from the pages of this book; I will occasionally offer my own commentary and views, no doubt a great deal less worthwhile than Mr. Truby’s, but none the less, mine. It is *my* name on the blog, after all…ain’t that right, lads’n’lasses?

I hope that this little adventure will be useful and worthwhile not only to me, but to you as well, dear reader. So let’s begin!

CHAPTER 1: Story Space, Story Time

It’s no easy feat, creating a great story. Showing the how and why of human life — perhaps the end goal of storytelling, all things considered — is a monumental job.

There are numerous obstacles in your way.  Take common terminology: what help are terms like “rising action,” “climax,” “progressive complication” and so on, when we get down to the nitty-gritty of practice? Those terms, so theoretically burdened and broad, are meaningless and lack practical value for storytellers.

Just so with the ‘three-act theory,’ which, while a lot easier to use in practice, is a mechanical view on story, hopelessly simplistic and almost inevitably leading to episodic storytelling.

Great stories are organic – living, breathing organisms that develop, in a way eerily similar to the human body.

We could define a story as: “A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted, and why.

Three distinct elements can be observed: the story itself, the speaker (or storyteller), and the the listener, or audience.

Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices and emotions that led the character to do what they did. Stories are really giving the audience emotional knowledge–what we can easily dub as wisdom–in a playful and endearing way. (Magnus’ commentary: I thought that was a really nice view and explanation on stories.)

The storyteller constructs a sort of puzzle, to be figured out by the listeners. Two major elements go into the construction of this puzzle:

  1. The author presents the audience with information about a made-up character; and
  2. He then withholds the certain information–which is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe, by forcing the audience to figure out who the character is, what his motivations are. That’s what draws the audience to the story; without it, we no longer have an audience, and the story stops.

THE STORY

All forms are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code.

But what is the dramatic code? It is, in simple terms, an artistic description of how a person can grow and evolve. Let’s explore this concept further:

  • Change is fueled by desire. (“I want, therefore I am.”)
  • A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.
  • Characters who go after their desires are forced to struggle; it is that struggle that effects change upon a character.

The ultimate goal of the dramatic code is to present a change in a character, or to illustrate why change didn’t occur. The different forms of storytelling frame human change in differing ways, of course.

The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically or morally. The story body is made of many parts: characters, plot, revelations, the story world, the moral argument, the symbol web, the scene weave and symphonic dialogue.

Theme is the brain of the story, characters–the heart, story structures are the skeleton, and so forth. Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

STORY MOVEMENT

Nature uses a few basic patterns to connect elements in a sequence. Storytellers use these same patterns, individually and in combination, to connect story events over time. Let’s see which those are:

  • Linear Story: Tracks a single main character, from beginning to end.
  • Meandering Story: Follows a winding path without apparent direction.
  • Spiral story: The character keeps returning to a single event or memory, and explores it at progressively deeper levels.
  • Branching is a system of paths that extend from a few central points by splitting and adding smaller and smaller parts.
  • Explosive Story: Has multiple paths that extend simultaneously. These stories also put more emphasis on exploring the story world, showing the connections between the various elements there and how everyone fits, or doesn’t fit, within the whole.

WRITING YOUR STORY

What writing process will give you the best chance of creating a great story?

Most writers use an approach that is external, mechanical, piecemeal and generic. We will work, instead, towards a writing process that may be described as internal, organic, interconnected, and original. It’s no easy process.

You’ll construct your story from the inside out, meaning that:

  1. You must make the story personal and unique to you;
  2. You must find and develop what’s original within your story idea.

With each chapter, your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

Next Up: Chapter 2: Premise

Things are heating up!

 

 

Book Recommendation: Fahrenheit 451

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Ray Bradbury is one of the great American storytellers of the 20th and early 21st century.  I’m currently making my way through his “Zen in the art of writing,” and let me tell you…it does not disappoint.

This post is about Fahrenheit 451, a book that Ray Bradbury wrote with a certain message in mind; a book whose theme transcended Bradbury’s idea that television destroys interest in reading literature. Instead, it has become a quintessential dystopian tale about the dangers of censorship.

Why? Because in Fanhrenheit 451, firemen burn books. That’s right; gone are the good old days when firemen would extinguish fires. Now, their purview is somewhat different; burning books, since those contain dangerous ideas, ideas which one minority or another found offensive; which, it was decided, needed to be purged since they were too dangerous, too prone to cause in-fighting and whatever else nasty business you could imagine.

Gigantic TV sets that cover the walls, and ear shells, which blast entertainment into people’s heads are all that entertains people. They’re never off, not for a moment. Does that sound eerily familiar, perhaps?

One of the best things about books is that you can shut them when you need to think.

Well said, that. Fahrenheit 451 is filled with memorable quotes and haunting descriptions. Written in 1953, it never the less remains deeply relevant to this day.

It’s a short novel, some 200 pages–less, perhaps. Bradbury’s prose is beautiful, poignant and memorable. No surprise, if you’re at all familiar with the author you’re dealing with.

It’s well-worth your time. Go get it! Now!

 

 

 

Writing Advice: Showing and Telling

Early on, when I first started sharing my writing, a number of people gave me the following advice: Show, don’t tell.

That’s good advice, I thought; it helped me in identifying a particular weakness my writing had at the time. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that this particular piece of advice should have a caveat: Show, don’t tell…much.

Anything good I’ve read has both Telling and Showing. To only Show, or only Tell will inevitably end up as…well, not good! The point is, if you’ve got something that you’re afraid is too Tell-ish, perhaps you should leave it that way…at least until you get a clear look at your work.

Let’s unpack the two.

Showing is a way of describing what’s happening via the feelings that an event causes in the character that lives through it. Instead of informing, “She was afraid,” you try and show the fear; “The blood froze in her veins,” is one way to Show fear, and an unmistakable one at that. It doesn’t literally happen– most of the time, at least– but it gets the exact sentiment across. When you’re Showing, you will find yourself always looking for the right verb, since verbs create vividness in the mind of the reader better than most of the tools in your kit.

Telling is describing things as if you see those happening to someone else. It’s that part of your mind that’s narrating experiences in a calm, disaffectionate voice even as the rest of you is too busy with the heat of the moment, drowned in waves upon waves of emotion.

The ultimate reason for using both Showing and Telling is simple, really–the way we go through life is not only through us experiencing it, but through our awareness of the experience, as well. Showing and Telling aren’t opposites — they’re the end of the spectrum. Your works shouldn’t suffer from a complete lack of one and a drought of the other; explore the spectrum.

Enjoy the freedom that writing grants you and follow your vision!

PS If you’d like, you can try a fancy little exercise! Write a short scene, by only Telling. Rewrite it by Showing, and then — rewrite it a final time, this time by using both Telling and Showing!

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain #13: A Horrible Truth

Diary Entry #0197

Seventeen-score men died unto that faithful night whence I chose to lead the disgruntled women–wives, grandmothers and daughters, one and all–against the brutal injustice of the patriarchy. The next morning they all wept and came to regret their actions. Their tears should’ve touched me…but only filled me with great distaste for all of humanity.

Thus did I learn that mine wife’s body can persuade men and women to act as its inhabitant demands of them. I attempted to call this ‘Feminine wiles’ but, alas, my ensorcelled quill–which acts as my sometime editor–took issue with this particular term of endearment.

Bah, if only I had the limitless magical energies that lay within mine vessel, mine body! Then I wouldn’t need suffer unwanted editorial opinions such as this.

Diary Entry #0198

I left the unnamed town, with its predominantly female population, behind me. I took A Horrible Truth with me, of course; such fine artwork has no place in a rundown little town with no name.

I particularly enjoy the strokes of the brush that painted it… Especially as they have been made by my own gauntleted hand. There is but one place in this insipid human kingdom in which mine wife would go, if she is pursuing the life of an artist.

Karogar, cursed be its name.