Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Every kind of emotion in a novel can fit on a graph. There is the climactic curve, which should increase steadily to each climactic point in the novel, fall and then begin building again for the next climax, like the 1812 Overture. And the G/I curve, which Kurt Vonnegut introduces below (which, combined with some beta reading I've been doing got me thinking on the subject).

Those are macro-curves, which detail an entire story, but each character should have their own emotional curves within scenes. For instance, in the first draft of Aetherstorm, I had Konrad running in fear of his life. He accidentally stumbled into a party and ended up fighting a sort of swashbuckling duel with one of the guests, complete with witty repartee. It was a great scene, but it stood out like a sore thumb, because people who are fleeing in panic don't suddenly collect their wits, pass some urbane banter and finish their opponent with urbane wit.

Which made me think of how emotions, and character development intertwine in the greater picture. Some emotions, such as fear, play out in a curve within one sequence and then after a few minutes, hours or days, the emotion is forgotten. Other emotions get reinforced by ongoing experience. The writer becomes more and more frustrated over time as he continues to face rejection (not speaking from personal experience or anything :P ). The grieving father who turns to alcohol only drives himself further into depression. If there is nothing inciting the emotion to change it will carry-on in a fairly smooth and predictable manner, only jumping erratically when something significant to that emotion comes along. Grieving father finds out it was all a mistake and his son is alive after all, or the writer catches his big break.

I think it's these bigger emotional curves that define characters and character development and having predictable emotional curves is what defines a character we can all fall in love with.

Maybe that's all obvious to some people, and maybe it's been said before, but that's what I learned about writing this week.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Character Studies

Characters are the motive force behind any good story. You can have the most amazing plot, world building, write the snappiest dialogue and create prose that makes editors shrug and say, "I have nothing to say", but if the characters are flat and lifeless the story will never succeed to any great degree.

Building good characters is essential to writing good fiction.

So, what makes a good character?

They are a living, thinking, autonomous person. One of the tests for me is that my characters don't always do as I say.

They have emotional consistency. This is one I figured out only after a pile of rejects unfortunately. I knew one of the scenes near the beginning of Aetherstorm was a little out of place, but I loved it, it was clever and witty and I couldn't really place my finger on what was wrong. Then I figured it out. On page five he has the crap scared out of him, then a scene later he's all suave and clever, it felt completely out of place.

They come across on the page. This has been the toughest one for me to learn. I thought I knew what was going on inside my character's heads before I really spent the time to focus on this. One whole edit of Aetherstorm was spent scene-by-scene putting myself inside their heads and thinking, "Okay, I'm Konrad. X just happened, how does that make me feel?"

As I went through and edited for character, I found that, with Konrad (the lead) especially, it gave me a ton of insight into who he is and he changed in nature from how I had envisioned him. In my early drafts he was essentially a nice guy, caught up in something bigger than himself.

Then I started to really think about who he was. All those Psych classes I took in college began to pay off. I thought about how he lived, and where he came from. His mother died when he was a baby, and his father raised him. His mother and father were stowaways when Himmelberg first launched so they aren't even legal citizens, which places them in a sort of permanent underclass. Add to that the fact that his father had been the product of some experimentation which made him much stronger and faster than a normal human, but he and Konrad cannot use their advantages, because non-humans are automatically labelled mortal enemies of humans and killed on sight. That makes for a mess of an adolescent. He feels he's better than everyone else, but lives as the lowest of the low. That's at the core of his personality. Obviously anger and arrogance are his biggest character flaws at the start.

Over the course of the book he does a lot of things to survive that haunt him. Guilt and the fear that he's turning into exactly the sort of monster humans believe he is keep him up at night. He turns to alcohol and starts to alienate his friends. Everything got a lot darker in the re-writes, and I think the manuscript is better for it. Konrad is certainly a lot less likeable at the end of the newer drafts than he was in the early ones, but he's also more sympathetic and more real, which I think plays well into the bittersweet ending which was inevitable once all the pieces were in motion.

[Mask picture modified from a picture found at http://bobbasset.com/, the background photo is by Charles Bodi (who has an amazing collection of beautiful abandoned factory pictures at ridemypony.com)]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hey, What's the Big Idea?

I think the big idea, or high concept, of a story is one of the most important things for an aspiring writer to consider before setting pen to paper.

I believe there are two main ways a book sells to a publisher.

1) The author is a known quantity so the editor knows they have a saleable product.

2) The concept for the book is so catchy the editor just has to read it for themselves.

That's opinion but it seems to hold true most of the time. I've seen lots of dreck by established authors on the shelves. Unfortunately if you are not an established author so you cannot take the easy route. On the other hand if you go and find just about any debut book from a new author published in the past 5-10 years you will find the idea is usually quite original and the first quarter of the book is very engaging. Often they tend to fall off after the first book, especially in a series. IMO Derek Landy, Joseph Delaney (who had published before The Spook's Apprentice, but nothing really successful), and Brandon Mull are all good examples of what I'm talking about. To be clear, I'm not saying their follow-up books are poor, they are all very good, but the first is the best and the first quarter of a first-time author's book is normally amazingly tight.

Derek Landy - Skullduggery Pleasant, a girl falls in with a noir-style detective who happens to be a wisecracking, fireball-throwing living skeleton.

Joseph Delaney - The Spook's Apprentice, A young man is apprenticed to a witch and monster hunter in medieval times.

Brandon Mull - Fablehaven, Two young siblings spend the summer on their grandparent's nature reserve only to find out its a preserve for all variety of mythical and magical creatures.

Maybe I haven't expressed them all as well as possible, but I think you get the idea, all were created around a highly original core idea. All these are YA fantasy because that's what I've been writing and reading myself lately, but if you look at the larger picture, what are the standout books across all genres in the past ten years or so? Think about it. And what do they all have in common? An amazingly clever premise that can be summarised in a few words.

Blindness - A pandemic disease renders people blind. Scientists cannot find a cure.
The Time Traveller's Wife - Title pretty much sums it up.
Harry Potter - A young boy goes to wizarding school.
The DaVinci Code - A man finds riddles within DaVinci works that hint Jesus lived a very different life from the story in the Bible.

Even Twilight, which I know many writers love to hate, has a really engaging and original concept behind it.

It's not a new phenomenon either if you go back to older titles it holds.

The Hobbit (may not seem amazingly original now that it's been emulated a million times, but groundbreaking when it first came out)
James Bond series (as with The Hobbit, it's been copied so many times it no longer seems as original as it once was), Lolita, The Name of the Rose.

So, whatever you're writing next, if you're working towards being published make it a grand idea. Something big, bold and original.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Yes, I am still alive and working on my manuscript. Through some tough edits, cutting many of the passages I loved dearly, but didn't quite fit the feel of those around them, adding new material where it was needed and creating a depth of character the story lacked in the early drafts, I feel I finally have something to be proud of. I think this may be *it* for me, the one that gets me published and on the road to successful authordom.

I thought all authors shared a certain sense of self-doubt. I certainly have it in abundance, maybe I'll feel different when I'm published, but I doubt it. So I was surprised to hear today that V.H. Naipaul (Nobel and Booker Prize winner) told an interviewer at The Guardian "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me." and added "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too."

On the other hand perhaps that only speaks to how deep his own doubts lie. He doth protest too much.

Anyhow, enjoy the Kate Bush video, I was reminded of it today and thought I'd share. It was my favourite video at the time (I know, dating myself here). It's interesting as I look back how many times an affinity for steampunk shows up in my history that I was unaware of before I started writing.