Saturday, 19 November 2011

Editing: writer’s bane or necessity?

One of the things that has always challenged me as a writer is the daunting task of editing.  I look at some of the revisions of past work and see the version numbers climbing as high as 80—I say to myself, there’s got to be something wrong with this picture!

But surprisingly, no.

It takes dozens of rounds and sometimes more to capture the compelling flow of a piece of writing, to hone the prose to the quality that satisfies.  But at the same time, one realizes that even after all that, it’s probably not perfect.

The other frustrating point, is that something that was ‘perfect’ two months ago, just doesn’t seem to sit so well now.  A tough scenario, but that is part of the process too.

I think that as the writer changes internally, so the way s/he writes also changes.  In any case, most of the time spent on the author’s part, entails re-writing, re-visiting and re-vamping certain key sections and sharpening the prose.  I thought at first this was just a beginner’s phenomenon, but then after reading the testimonies of writers and studying a wide variety of stories, I realized that this is a shared experience.  Writing is a difficult task.  To get the excellent result in the end requires an immense amount of work—and ‘immense’ is even not strong enough a word.

As for testimonies, I remember reading the author’s forward to the Grafton edition of the Lord of the Rings:

“Then when the ‘end’ had at last been reached, the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely re-written backwards.  And it had to be typed and retyped: by me, the cost of professional typing by the ten-fingered was beyond my means.”

And another excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien, which I cannot help but quote here, even though it may deviate from my point:

“Some who have read the book, or at any rate reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.”

I was thinking—all that work, ten years of it, for that response?  But again, happily, Tolkien’s critics are few, I would safely say.  The success of the films have cemented his literary genius in the eyes of the world.  I did actually read some of Tolkien’s earlier versions of the Fellowship of the Ring (which happened to be available in the local library), and I noticed that there was quite a difference between that rough version and the final one I was so familiar with reading and rereading.  Still, the characteristic Tolkien style was present, but the author had moved whole sections, and the text was a lot cleaner.  So, my ultimate conclusion is, that even if a master like Tolkien had to go through such hoops, what of the rest of the world?

A thought has crossed my mind.  What makes a novel endure over the years?  Is it that the prose is so absolutely creative and rich with compelling characters and original, engaging plots that it becomes a classic?  Or, is it that if some writing catches the public eye and is considered entertaining enough by popular standards to receive a long list of rave reviews, it ‘endures’?  Because of these reviews, the book gets attention, and more people read it, since they’re influenced by reviews, and say ‘well, it must be good’.  Considering the huge wealth of fiction written throughout history, one may ask what is it that really makes a book exceptional—that it is remembered decades down the road?  Whatever the answer is, it makes all the more sense for authors to put in that extra effort to write the story as creatively as possible, if their goal is to make it endure the test of time.

A lot of professional writers hire editors, but there is a big difference between proofreading and editing for style and content.  I don’t know how effective editors can be beyond their own skill as writers.  Certainly a proofreader can spot grammar mistakes, punctuation, and points of rough confusion (eg non-sequiturs), but to take the story beyond the first beta draft, and go the step further—this requires a special effort and I think the editor has to be on an equal level or beyond the writer, and I’m not talking about superficial edits here.  I’m talking about fine-tuning nuances of theme, pacing, character development, the order of scenes, conflict resolution, story line, dialogue, etc.  I think this type of analysis is almost as hard as writing original content itself, and it is no wonder authors hate editing so much.

Somewhere, I believe, the writer has to develop the editing skills to be able to get a manuscript to a 80-90% phase—a place where there is only a manageable portion of revisions left to do.  The danger of too much editing by outside source(s) brings in the problem of the story starting to deviate substantially from the original author’s work.

To compound this situation, there is also the dilemma of receiving diverse and constructive feedback.  Invariably readers and reviewers will have their own opinions of a story, many of them conflicting.  So then, how to decide on what to pick up on and what to leave behind?

Such complexities make one wonder that any author can produce a viable novel from beginning to end, taking into account all the variables.

My own personal editing process consists of first finishing the rough draft with a beginning, middle and end.  This is the easy part, if ‘easy’ can be used to describe the process.  After that, I engage in two rounds of rigorous editing—slow, methodical rereads.  The first round is the most gruelling.  The pacing is generally horrible and the rhythm is wrong, but at least there is the basic essence of the story, however crudely rendered.  The second round is directed at cleaning up the last edits and streamlining the story line.  I pass it on to a good editor and proof-reader then, usually my mom who has amazing skills in this area.  After going through a series of rewrites and repetition of the above process, I am ready to pass it on to any beta readers I can find.  I sit on it for a while, collecting comments and making appropriate changes.  Fresh eyes make a big difference.  If necessary, I start the process over again.  This loop continues for as long as necessary until I’m happy that the story is in readable form.  An overkill perhaps, but the time taken in doing this is well worth it, I think, even knowing that a few rounds of this rigour is enough to make a hardy soul wince.

The good news is—despite how much energy is required to pull it off and the understanding that there are no short cuts in the game—I think writers gain tremendous benefits from the time-consuming exercise and thereby strengthen their writing skills, with the happy result that they become better writers.

I welcome any comments on the subject.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Interview with Brian Poor

Today we have a very special guest, Brian Poor, who has written an original fantasy series Megazaur, featuring dinozaurs.  Not regular ones—but ones with thoughts, feelings, and somewhat psychic connections with human beings.  I have the privilege of interviewing this unique author and quizzing him on his books and his views on fiction writing.

Check out his shared blog for interesting reviews, interviews and literary perspectives from two avid fantasy writers and enthusiasts:

Megazaur: Akysha's Fury

Let’s start with a bit about you and your craft.
What are your influences?  Favourite authors, books, styles of writing, genres?

Tom Clancy without a doubt is my biggest influence.  I love the way he hops from character to character and seemingly throws a bunch of different story lines into his plot and intertwines them together for a big finale.  Timothy Zahn is another and I so wish as a Star Wars fan that George Lucas would take the Thrawn series and make it into the next films. Zahn does an excellent job of writing a fantastic villain with credible motives and actions.  I also have read a lot of novels that I kinda think of as examples on not how to write.  I hate novels that cheat the reader.

Your novel, Megazaur: Akysha’s Fury is based on a pretty cool concept.  Where did you come up with the idea of humans being able to control dinosaurs? 

I was trying to come up with an idea that would be the next Star Wars, something so different that it was fresh and grabbed the reader's attention.  My son got these Imaginext playsets, a castle with knights and dinosaurs with caveman.  He had the dinosaurs attack the knights in their castle and that got me thinking what if…

It probably took two years to create the world where a man could rule a dinosaur with his mind and in the same world, a land of people were denied that right.  The diversity of this rich culture took a whole life of its self.  The first book Megazaur; the 13th omada arcs an entire country's growth from having inferiority complex to realizing they are equals of their would be destroyers—the Megazaurs (dino riders).  So in away, my main three protagonists are personifications of their country more than they are real characters.

The 2nd novel—Megazaur: Akysha's fury—Is the first of trilogy that’s going to explore what happens when a character with a god-given talent for fighting is thrust into unwinable situations as psychological exploration of the duality of love and hate.  I firmly believe if you can love strongly, you can hate with just as much passion, and it's this flip from one to another that creates the perfect villain.

Akysha's fury sets the table for The war of Zantheon, which will satisfy the readers desire to see these dinosaurs in war.  And it satisfies my desire to show you the reader the dynamics of this world and how they come into conflict with each other.

Who is your favorite character in the book?

 Akysha without a doubt.  I'm having as much fun as I can with her character, but it is so hard to keep her following the plot lines I have outlined.  You can always count on her to do what she thinks is right, but it doesn't always coincide with my plot outline and what I need her to do.

And when you get her together with her best friend Okaru (yes he's a talking dinosaur), it's a real blast.  Scenes with those two are what makes writing fun.

What’s your rule on dialog?  Particularly when to use dialog versus narrative?

I don't use a lot of narrative because I learned that narrative is telling, and direct thought and dialogue are showing.  Zahn does an excellent job of building his world with dialogue, and I learned from him that blending dialogue with direct thought, and passive moments when the character is thinking or reflecting works much better than narrating.  I know for me as a reader, I want to be the I-guy, I don't want to sit in the passenger seat, I want my hands on the wheel—foot on the gas, so to speak, so that's how I craft my stories.  Put the reader behind the wheel and let them go on the ride of their life. (while conveniently forgetting to tell them I never got around to fixing the hole in the gas-tank, or the flat spare, and forgot to check the fluids for the last-like 2yrs and—I just sent them off into a jungle of hungry dinosaurs in a convertible.  Oops, I sure hope they survive…lol)

How do you deal with ‘stuck plots’?  i.e. when something is ‘not working’.

You know, I have never really had much problem with that yet.  My characters do come to life and do their own things but never to the point I can't get them back on the course I've set for them.  I think one of the reasons I love Clancy so much is that I am capable of telling my story through different characters views, hopping from here to there to get different perspectives and by doing so giving the reader the entire story, not just one character's view of the story.

How have you been marketing your book so far and what is your feeling on its success?

I'm just starting and I'm trying the slow burn method, because lets face it—the first reaction I usually get is that's just too crazy of a premise for readers to understand.  (Apparently there are only two acceptable plots for dinosaurs—time travel to the past, or bringing them back to life for a zoo) But what fans I do have all agree it's a fun world that makes sense once they read it.  One of my best friends, Susan Stec, hated the first 5 chapters of the first novel, and then she couldn't get enough.  And that reaction is pretty much universal but I expect that.  In a way, I'm compare my novels to 'Watership Down' (Okay so my novels can't hold a match to it, but…lol)  But the premise is the same.  Who wants to read about a bunch of rabbits and who wants to read about knights and dinosaurs on some tropical made-up world?

There’s a lot of action and some scenes of vivid carnage a la dinozaur chomp-down in Megazaur.  Was this intentional drama from the get-go, or a result of the characters just unfolding their karma?

I'm very proud of my action scenes, I spend more time rewriting them than anything because they are the key action sequences of the novel.  Why write about dinosaurs if you're not going to use them right?  But I'm very critical of other novels in action sequences because they don't pace things right and they don't detail the action well enough for the reader.  I see way too much glossing over the details.  This is a world where dinosaurs and humans co-exist and the rules of that world are often defined by conflict.  The reader needs to know what's the likely result of ten men with spears facing a T-rex.  What problems would you have facing a Necroraptor with a sword?  I have Akysha who is the much like the legendary Achilles of Sparta, but how does one sword deal with an Allosaur?  These are all things the reader needs to know and I'm presuming are a major reason they pick up the book.

So all of that does tend to lead a little dramatization, but I do feel it's justified in showing the rules of this world and perhaps lends it the style I want to imprint on the readers mind.  Take the movie 300 for example.  Good story but it becomes a great movie because of the style of its action.  I want the same thing in my novels.  I'm showing you my world, and I want to leave you with the right visual impression, and I don't want you to feel cheated.  You get the fights and they advance the plot and build the world.

What’s your process for coming up with a good story?  What defines a good story to you?

To me a good story is like a rollercoaster.  It has up and downs.  It has twist and turns.  It has moments that take my breath away and it lets me catch my breath before throwing me into the next loop or tunnel.  They say (and I believe) its true there only ten different plots and we all know them by heart, so its up to the writer to pace the plot points in a way that surprises us.  There was nothing new about Star Wars plot wise, but it was the way it was paced and presented to us that surprised and endured.

I'm sure as a writer, if you read that you're thinking—well that doesn’t leave much room to give what I thought was a great idea much hope of being recognized and loved.  I suppose you could say (And I see this so much in fantasy), well Tolkien created this world of Dragons and Knights, but I could write my own version and throw some twists in it and delight the reader (I call this writing down your own personal fantasies and daring to think some reader will be love with it, instead of recognizing—hey, I read this before by a different author and they did it much better—theory).  To me, this is how you take one of those ten plots and make it your own—you imbue them with how a character reacts to certain situations and you show the reader how the character thinks and reacts to it.  For example: a character loses a leg.  What does he think?  I can imagine how it feels and the visceral image of seeing your leg disembodied from your body, but what does he think?  How does he react?

In my first book (this a plot spoiler) I kill off my super-heroish main character that personifies the hopes and dream of my heroes not as a wicked plot twist, but to see what remaining main characters do.  How did they react?  Who dares to pick up his sword and try to carry on?  How in the world do you fight on when your hope is lost?

In your novel 'Freebooter' I'm not hooked until Baus has to explain to the Pirate captain, exactly how he did come upon the treasure (and sword).  I'm intrigued.  How does Baus react?  Does he lie or tell the truth?  It’s a gamble either way, because I don't know what the Captain is going to think or do.  And that's what I suddenly need to know 

So, get me inside the characters head, because I can't get that from a movie and it’s why I prefer books to movies.

In terms of polar characterizations (ie. good guy versus villain), where do you stand?  Are you likely to favor strong, good guy versus villain paradigms, or cross-overs into mixed, good-guy bad-guy type characters?

Aww…yeah!  My favorite question and I'm so glad you asked.  The real villain in my novels are human nature.  I have a word sharply divided by the polar opposites of human nature but each character has to wrestle with those opposites.  You have one culture that's 'Alpha-personality on steroids'.  Men who are the strongest and rely more on animal instincts to survive versus a society of thinkers and creators.  But all of the characters have to confront themselves when the meet someone who is from a different culture and try to understand why they think the opposite way .

In Akysha's Fury—Akysha finds out that when she reacts without thinking (this is this key ingredient that allows her to move as twice as fast a regular human), she's in danger of losing her 'moral high-ground stance' to the raw emotion of killing other men, making her no better than the immoral people she fights.

But the personification of these polar opposites do come to life in the form of Zantheon and the Necroraptors and they both have understandable reasons to be evil. (If you can't tell I'm particularly proud of Zantheon, because he is truly an evil villain who has went off the deep end for reasons beyond his control.)  In the next book, it's going to be interesting for him and Akysha to meet, because he is what she will become if she can't control herself.

I'll will say this and then shut up about it.  A great villain can be purely evil or a 'gray villain'.  The villain acts as the counter opposite of the hero and gives them the reason to be heroes.  But where you so often see writers fail is not giving the villain a good reason for being evil.  Why is this guy starving his kingdom and beheading every guy named Jason his solders find?  Give me the reader a reason I can believe and accept.  If you tell me that's how he gets his kicks, then I'm not onboard with that.  And write a great villain, not some carbon-copy version of Sauron from Lord of the Rings.  I'm a huge Star Wars fan, but I personally think  the Emperor was too cartoonish to appreciate.  Darth Vader, well now, he's just as over the top as the emperor but he has style and reasons for being so evil, especially to his kids. (And then with the first three movies, you get the back-story of his charter and it makes him that more awesome.)

What are your thoughts about integrating action with character, particularly with reference to Megazaur?

Actions define your character.  Do they think one thing and then do the opposite?  Is that action something you wouldn't expect?  In real life, we often do the exact opposite of what we think we should.  We are caught by surprise.  We wimp out and disappoint our friends and family or we act boldly which might be out of character.  It's something as a writer you have to think about.  What's true in life is not acceptable in a novel.  You're character is defined by the actions they take and set a pattern that we as the reader then come to expect. When that character acts in away we don't associate with them it has to be defined as a carefully planned exception.  Readers don't fantasy to find reality but to find characters that act as noble or as evil as we want to or fantasize about.  We all want to be heroes or villains. A reader can accept faults as long as the character acts logically in the defined characterization the author lays out.  Kind of a huge responsibility as an author if you think about it.

Where do you see yourself heading as an Indie writer (in terms of genres, types of stories, writing style)?

I will be living in this land of Megazaurs for quite awhile, even if I only have a few fans. I created it, I love it and I have a responsibility to see it thru. Akysha's practically my daughter and I wouldn't abandon her.  After that?  Who knows?  I have ideas and I write them down and I would love to try my hand at horror, but for the next few years, I'll be writing about dinosaurs.

How do you critique or get feedback on your work?

Mostly from a few select people I trust, like my friend Susan Stec and Bryant James.  I'm writing the next two Megazaurs currently as we speak and hope to have them both done by early spring.

How has the release and writing of Megazaur helped you as a writer?

I don't spend enough time writing, I seem to be spending a lot of time trying to get people to read it.  But, I have met some great people, including you that I hope to become friends with, because you help drive me.  I want to compete with you in a friendly way and keep have meaningful conversations about our craft.  It stimulates me. Intellectually. 
What tips would you pass on to other writers based on your experience?

Join a writing group to help perfect your writing.  What seems great to you often isn't and you meet people who can help you become the best you can be.  And oh yeah…when you read other novels write down all the verbs.  You can never have enough!

Thanks, Brian, great answers.  And looking forward to reading new books in the Megazaur series!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Writing winning dialog in fiction

Dialog accounts for at a conservative estimate 30+% of all novel content.  That being the case, care should be taken in architecting it.  Yet this is a huge area which writers come into difficulty.  Why?

This article attempts to probe some of the reasons for the disconnect and explore the major areas of dialog writing.

The truth is, in my opinion, that it is hard to create engaging dialog—at least ones that advance plot, deepen character, and make readers feel somewhat secure in that they’re reading a valuable piece of literature, not something crowded and cluttered by author commentary.  It takes many revisions to get the effect, particularly for fiction longer than novella length.

It really does matter what the characters say.  For example, a good author is always asking questions such as:

Are the characters wise?  Are they sad?  Funny?  Just pricks?  Opportunists?  Angels?  Are they sometimes good, sometimes bad, or largely unpredictable, domineering?  The list goes on.  After pegging the character an author should make sure that it reflects in the character’s speeches.

Consider also the choice of characters.  Is there variety in the story?  Yes, an author can load it up with all kinds of wise-cracking labourers or hoity-toity intellectuals, but is he/she adventurous enough, and daring enough to put a wide enough mix of characters in the story to get an interesting blend of interactions with drama—and still be left with a successful story?  Challenging yes!  But doable?  Hmm . . . There are authors who are wise, and some who are impulsive, both who may take the extra steps to get their characters to speak from their prospective voices throughout the story, consistently.  Ah, quite a deal of work—and requiring a certain amount of careful planning.  Maybe months?  Years?  Time spent in the dark reflecting—gnashing, mulling over constant pros and cons?

(1) Dialog tags: ‘said’ versus the dreaded ‘saidisms’

The age old debate continues.  Should the author stick with the tag ‘said’ or use the myriad modifications of said—such as murmured, whispered, bellowed?  There are advantages of both methods and I’ll explain.

Said usually creates a clean exposition style, but is more conservative in execution; unless handled by a master, the writing becomes quickly dull:

. . . Mary said
. . . John said
. . . Mary said
. . . John said

One master of this approach is J.R.R. Tolkien.  In The Hobbit there is very simple language throughout the story, and most of the tags use ‘said’.

“No good roasting ’em now . . .” said a voice.
“Don’t start the argument all over again, Bill,” he said.
“Who’s a-arguing?” said William.
“You are,” said Bert.
. . . and so on and so forth

Part of the reason for Tolkien’s success, I believe, is that he is writing primarily to a children’s audience (or at least the young reader).  But the bigger part of the picture is that he’s an expert in the field, and the content of his story, description, setting, word choices are masterfully done, and as readers, we don’t give a fig whether the hobbit ‘says’ something or ‘murmurs’ it or just plains ‘belts it out’.  We are completely absorbed into his tale, and I think this is the main point.  Good story development is not dependent on using saidisms or not using them.

This really became apparent to me when I listened to the audio tapes for The Hobbit years ago narrated by Nicol Williamson, the magnificent “Merlin” in the 1981 film Excalibur.  Now this man has an excellent theatrical voice.  Because of his Shakespearean training and his acting experience, he made the characters come alive, while simultaneously switching voices in mid step.  It was always ‘he said, she said’, but . . .

The impact!

Wow.  Again, depending on what style the author is aiming for, I think, will dictate what camp the author chooses to be in.  A word of caution—excessive use of either mode will probably lend itself to problems.

A more adventure-action oriented story, for example, is likely to use more saidisms than one in a literary fictional style.  For example, the Rogues of Bindar series is action-adventure all the way and has text littered with saidisms, which in James Blish’s view, would cause him to have a conniption—or at least roll over in his grave.

“It is unwise, said Blish, to use synonyms for ‘said’ in writing dialog (‘He shouted. . . . He repeated. . . . He instructed. . . . He grunted. . . . He half-whispered. . . . He lipped thinly. . . .’) because such tags are redundant at best—the content of the sentence ought to tell the reader right away that something is being shouted or repeated—and at worst they become preposterous.”

Well, Mr. Blish, I wouldn’t go so far as to bow to your credo (which I find dogmatic), but I understand the point of keeping the text clean.  Taken to an extreme though, an author can lose out on the colour and emotion by stripping out all saidisms and becoming a strict advocate of the ideology.

The story Rogues of Bindar is an intensely character-driven story and demands colour, and so saidisms suit the style—James Blish or not.  I think more pertinent is that awkward handling of tags can be a greater evil than the use of saidisms.  For example, if dialog tags get heavy and disrupt the pacing, then the author has something to worry about.  Should the tag come before the quote or after the quote?  Again, this depends on context.  If there is a great big line of linear dialog, then it’s obvious that the tag order is important and should be broken up or possibly removed.  For example:

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” yelled Quinn.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
“I don’t know, who do you think?” countered Quin.
“Quit monkeying around and help me with this,” ordered Jeb.

While the dialog is passable, too many linear tags make it a bit stultifying.  Slight adjustment:

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” yelled Quinn.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
“I don’t know, who do you think?”
“Quit monkeying around and help me with this.”

We don’t need the last two tags because we already know who’s talking.

While this sequence might be okay in itself, it is still a bit clipped and could be improved—even spiced up to include more of the character’s feeling, and hence sounding more natural.

“Hey you,” grunted Jeb.
“Who me?” Quinn yelled down from his perch.
“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
Quinn puckered his face into a scowl.  “I don’t know, who do you think?”
Jeb’s tone was the one now sounding not too impressed.  “Quit monkeying around, son, and help me with this dreadful machine.”

The last two pre-tags, though unnecessary, offer a pause and character emotion, and serve to break up the linear order of the first snippet.  It depends on the author’s tone: is it necessary to spell out Quinn’s and Jeb’s mood at this time?  The emotions could easily be depicted in completely different context.  This is one of the reasons that dialog tags are critical in conveying the meaning of the prose (saidisms or not—‘said’ can fail here, if adjoining sentences are not included to explicitly spell out the speaker’s emotion.)

“Yes you, who do you think?” retorted Jeb.
Quinn remained neutral.  “I don’t know, who do you think?”
Jeb tried to show compassion to his son but was unsuccessful; he was a father, and he was used to being in command.  “Quit monkeying around and help me with this dreadful machine . . .” he murmured.

Note the use of . . . (ellipses) in dialog for a pause and the combination of saidisms ‘murmured’ with pre tags ‘Jeb tried to show compassion . . .’

There are many many ways of constructing the dialog.

My final thought is that not only do the actual words matter, but the quote-tag combination working in conjunction with the rest of the dialog creates a strong reader impression.  Especially when the narrative supports the dialog, we are prepared for the characters’ next actions and we know, or have some clear idea how they would speak or act under different circumstances.  It is this underlying innateness that marks a key factor in creating reader absorption.

When a writer is going over his/her manuscript, I think it’s a wise idea to analyze each dialog structure and try to assess whether it can be improved or not (either the words in dialog, or the tags, their order, etc).  Ex—if the pacing seems wrong, too fast, too slow, how can it be fixed?

(2) Using profanities in dialog

This is a sensitive issue and is largely a question of style and genre.  For example, one would expect to find more swear words in thrillers and mainstream ‘shoot-em up type’ cop serials than one would in literary fiction or historical romance.  YA tends to have a great deal more of modern vernacular mixed with expletives.

If profanities are employed—and used tactfully and inserted here and there in appropriate situations, I think the device can be quite effective.  For example, one character swearing more than others.  I see a lot of modern fiction overusing expletives to unnecessary degree, a mode which may be amusing for the first few paragraphs, but after, quickly becomes irritating.

As a general rule, I don’t use expletives in my writing because I think there are better ways of dealing with the situation and getting the message across without have to resort to crass techniques and still deliver a great story.  Because I’m largely a fantasy writer, using  profanities in character dialog is a no-no—a definite red flag for anachronism.  I think it’s a poor man’s way out of engaging the reader when there are obvious alternatives.  For example, a fantasy writer can easily make up original epithets, like “Drakes Teeth!” or “Daga’s teats!”.  Certainly, not as punchy as good old-fashioned English profanities, but perhaps it keeps the story more real, and the old anachronistic ‘jar’ out of the equation.  If there aren’t alternatives, or the author’s intent is to use forceful language, then so be it.  I’m the last person to be pedagogic.  But if a story wholly depends on expletives alone then I rather wonder about the depth of the story.  Admittedly, there are exceptions . . .

Christian Cameron, a successful historical fiction writer of the Tyrant series, creates a surprising amount of realism in his delivery of his ancient tales.  He focuses on the heroes’ personal lives and the struggle, the harsh reality of ancient warfare, the crude politics of the era, and a detailed, second-by-second brutal account of sword and shield battles.  Dialog is very snappy here and to the point, with little use of tag embellishment—a device that keeps the story moving and the word count down.  But perhaps a little terse for my tastes.  Cameron liberally uses modern day expletives in his expansive epic Greek adventures.  At first glance, this usage jarred me a lot, because I couldn’t see a character using the F- word every page or so, but I got used to it.  Obviously the style isn’t a problem for his numerous fans.  Yet, I could not help but think that modern day epithets would not be uttered by characters 3000 years ago.  Not to be stuffy, I enjoy Cameron’s stories and admire the hero Kineas, but it’s just on this one point I don’t see eye to eye with his approach.

Bernard Cornwell never uses modern swear words in his Arthurian-historical books and in my opinion he is an exceptional historical writer of the genre.  The Warlord Chronicles is a phenomenal example of his prowess and the dialog and narrative had me gripped from the very beginning.  Highly recommended.

Philip K. Dick’s, A Scanner Darkly, uses California 60’s-70’s doper talk scattered with profanity in such a way that it is almost hilarious, despite the sadness of his theme: the woes of substance abuse and the futility of endorsing a paranoia-ridden degeneracy on drug dependence.  This is at best a very difficult art and only a master as Dick could attempt it and rack up as much success as he has received.

A writer who uses swear words judiciously is John D. MacDonald, and he is a master of the craft.  Travis McGee, his brilliant hero bears testament to my opinion.  Here we have an extremely intelligent man who is operating in a brutal world of scammers and murderers and opportunists, who turns himself into a personal avenger, a salvager, a vigilante and hero all in one.  He builds his own code.  He never himself swears that much, if only to create an ambience, whether be it a ruse or some cunning ploy to create camaraderie with his enemy or disarm him or her enough that he can stage an advantage.  The incidental characters—the villains, the lowlifes—are some of the roughest, toughest, meanest set of criminals you can imagine and he lets loose with their dialog . . . but not for long, because it’s not about the fury and fear and evil in their minds . . . we are back in Travis McGee’s head, or in the head of his equally-astute economist-philosopher buddy Meyer.  Hearing the social take on big bad America through their eyes complements the vivid reality of MacDonald’s plots and makes his stories rise a peg above the sea of crime fiction out there.

Contrasted with Stephen King who has uses a degree more bad language in his books (actually almost humorously), but which at times becomes ear-heavy.  Other times it is quite entertaining, and he’s likely the ‘king’ of the style—one example comes to mind, his sardonic protagonist ‘Gard’ in The Tommyknockers.

The closest I’ve come to using ‘expletives’ in a story, is in the near-future SF short, A Simple Lens.  Even with its lack of coarse language, its tone is largely caustic if not mordant and I stick by its success without the use of hardcore language.  Even this exercise was largely put as a challenge to me to write something in a completely different style and was well worth it.

(3) Using words or ways of expressing that a character would never say

It’s unlikely that a pre-teen is going to be using words like ‘preternatural’ or ‘firmament’ unless he or she is so precocious as to be the teacher’s teacher.  Similarly, it is unlikely that an adult is going to be speaking in the hip teenage lingo of today’s youth to his/her son or daughter, or conversely in a child-like voice, unless they have some form of autism.

There are exceptions . . . and here is where original fiction comes into play.

Rogues of Bindar fans will recognize a sophisticated language.  In many of the character speeches there is a style bordering on grandiloquence—at least for the convicts, pirates and hoodlums in profusion.  But thence is the humour . . . Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea—but at least marginally refreshing.  At least two kingpins of fantasy subscribe to this tenet: Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales and Jack Vance in his Cugel chronicles.  My feeling is that there exists a copious quantity of mid-list and bestseller fiction following convention and tradition—so why not try something new?

Also of note is Monty Python—the classic case where we have a group of PHD intellects quibbling over the most trivial thing in the universe, and yet in larger than grandiose terms.  The point being—the actual words spoken are funnier than the situation . . .

To some people at least . . . this is really a test of the credo:

“Rather than accept praise for template cookie-cutter convention let’s risk some bizarre side glances and some ‘I don’t get it?’s for attempting off-the-wall original dialog.”

(4) How to avoid those dreaded inner dialogs!

One thing that always has bothered me in prose is the italic form of denoting inner character thoughts.

Should I break the lock?  No!  It will alert the wrath of the dreaded Helgor guardian.  But, dang it!  The snake was always on the patrol around the perimeter of the dungeon.  Yet . . . how I am to save my beautiful friends?  Can I get to them when they are bit by the guardian’s poison?

This can read like a mental dump.

A preferable solution may be to handle the exposition in narrative:

Breaking the lock would entail the wrath of Helgor the guardian that constantly roved about the dungeon’s perimeter.  Still, to save her friends she must be quick!

The italicized form becomes especially pretentious in overused present tense expositions common in short stories and modern literary forms which try (feebly) to catch trends.

It’s okay, I suppose, used sparingly, but a lot of times the form becomes annoying, if not overdone, and reads like some cheesy, juvenile literary thriller.

If done well, it can be effective.  For example, Steven King, uses a lot of italicized text, sometimes for the better, sometimes worse.  He always seems to nail the character on the head in the end and has a knack for it.  He can pretty much do what he wants and make it work—he has that acuity.  I get annoyed with stories that use excessive inner dialog, especially in dream passages.  I rarely care about a character’s dreams (even if it does somehow advance the plot).  It’s more the character’s actions and waking thought that interests me—particularly in key moments of drama.

 (5) Dialog versus narrative

When should a character speak and when should the narrator narrate?

My first response would be:

(1) A savvy author’s first impulse is to use narrative when there has been a long line of dialog.

Joe said, “. . .”
Mary said, “. . .”
Sue said . . .
Joe said . . .
Sue said . . .
Mary said . . .
etc . . .

Maybe on the third round of Mary’s speeches, it would do fine to write just:

Mary was perturbed at the tone of Joe’s comment and opened her mouth to speak her dismay, but did not oblige.

This slows the story down but the handling might be a good break to the tedium of the ‘said’ structure, adding some breathing space and an interruption of the repetitious character speeches.  Narrative as this replaces the standard speech such as:

“Hmph!” or “Oh, that’s irritating!” or “You irritate me too much!”

H.P. Lovecraft was a master of narrative and rarely if ever used any dialog in his stories.  He used mostly first person narrative, and his word choices and ability to get under the skin of the main characters were eerily uncanny.  He is of an older generation of writers who were very effective at intimate, narrative style.

Jack Vance, another incredibly gifted storyteller, is a wellspring of immaculate and powerful writing-style conventions.  I have learned much from his 80+ SF/fantasy books.  In the short story Guyal of Sfere, for example, part of The Dying Earth series, he uses a simple technique to avoid the italics approach.

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  Then he reflected: this is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition.  I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.

He makes the character’s dialog stay almost as if in narrative.  No quotes or italics and yet the passage reads very naturally.  Compare this with:

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  This is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition.  I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.

It’s okay but almost reads childishly, as if written by a beginner taking a ride on the carriage of thriller writers.

Vance uses a clever handling of the age-old problem, how do characters say their innermost thoughts while alone, and without drawing attention to himself, through italics or some other awkward handling.  Is the character going to talk to themselves, like some mad-person?

No.  There are always alternatives to handle the ‘character alone’ problem, maybe less elegant:

Guyal advanced to his task, feeling more than half-foolish.  “This is a penalty for contravening an absurd tradition,” he thought [to himself].  “I will conduct myself with efficiency and so the quicker rid myself of the obligation.”

The example is passable, particularly the first line, though the second one sounds a bit cumbersome.  If an author repeats this too many times, it sounds as if the character is talking to himself.

(2) Incidental characters’ dialog can be avoided or précised in narrative.  This is especially useful when the number of characters add up in a novel.  Unless the character’s speech propels the story along or adds value, it’s best to avoid it.   Incidental characters’ speeches are the first ones to be nixed.  But how to decide?  When writers’ prose starts to get top-heavy with dialog, I think it’s best to put a cap on it and start stripping text away, or at least condense a character’s quote into narrative or simply move it to a different area, and only if it needs to be included.

The narrator can only really get under the skin of the character, I think.  Other players including the character himself can try to speak the innermost thoughts, but it doesn’t come across as genuinely as in narrative.  I don’t cotton to the more excessive dialog–oriented stories, especially when they’re too jaunty.  For example, even some of David Eddings epic fantasy of the ’80s, The Belgariad and The Malloreon, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I was young, read too much like a screen play.  I couldn’t help but think that as entertainingly popular as the books were—they suffered from a ‘dialog-happy’ problem, where we have a huge pantheon of characters constantly speaking to each other, eating up a lot of pages.

Yes, we get the emotion and flavour quite directly from the speaker but not the subtle nuances of the character’s feelings; we cannot know his/her deepest thoughts.  What is an author trying to do?—Go into a schizophrenic mode and monologue the character in a dire situation every time he/she wants to spill their deepest concerns and fears?

No, best to use narrative.

Whole books can be written on the subject of ratio of dialog to narrative . . . it demands its own blog article.

(6) Proper pacing

Avoid sacrificing the pace of the story for any form of dialog.  Pacing is paramount—so goes my maxim.  If pacing is disturbed, then the whole reader-engagement is jeopardized.  Even if critical dialog advances the plot, I would never recommend compromising the pace of the story for dialog.  If the reader can’t be engaged, then no amount of dialog is going to repair the problem.  The quickest way to disengage a reader is a slow story—but of course the story may not be inherently slow, it’s just that it’s not the reader’s preferred genre, and so, harder for the reader to get into.

It takes a lot of editing and author discrimination to get the tone of dialog and the ratio of dialog to narrative right.  Which brings up the next question:  How to construct dialog?

The classic dialog template is:

“<Short comment>”, said <CharacterX>.  “<Optional more stuff >”
“<Short comment response>”, by <CharacterY>.  “<Optional more stuff>”
“<Short comment response>”, by <CharacterX or Y or Z>.  “<Optional more stuff >”
. . .

We have here the briefest, simplest rendition for character dialog, and most books in third person follow this model.  The character’s reaction and the character’s identity are neatly proposed, and we have the instant response by the other character(s).  Nice?  Yes—but this template can be modified to suit the author’s need.  For example,

Character X yelled, “<something>”
Character Y grinned.  “<offers some response>”
“<Some short observation offered>” by Character Z.

The short comment at the beginning of the paragraph is important and is usually the best way to handle dialog because it responds immediately to the content of the last paragraph—and the reader knows immediately who said it.  Having a preliminary tag potentially disrupts the pacing, but sometimes the reader should know who is saying the words before the quote comes, for special reasons, hence the pre-tag.  I think mixing pre-tags with post-tags is the best way to construct dialog in general.  It’s all about the rhythm and the author with the best ear undoubtedly creates the most natural-sounding dialog.

(7) Characters should speak in their own voice

This is easier said than done.  Some characters are kinder than others, others meaner, so it is natural that their personality should be reflected in their words.  Unless the character is deliberately being the opposite of who he/she says and is playing a role, this is a pretty fail-safe rule.  It seems obvious, but so often is it overlooked by even experienced writers.  I think this is more from authors being too close to their stories.  This is what editors and beta readers and critique groups help out with most.  Dialog appears in character speeches that sometimes doesn’t fit their character or suit the situation—and this again is mostly a result of being inserted hastily to advance the story and thus propel the next line of dialog along.  But I think it’s a bad idea to weaken the character by gluing pieces of dialog together.  There are always better ways . . .

As an example, character X suddenly expresses the need for some complicated or less than intuitive use of the hammer-spike or some special device cached conveniently to undermine the metal that is binding their cage.  Person X though has no background in mechanics or engineering so could never suggest such an abstruse thing.  Better that someone else had suggested the idea, or leave the capricious escape notion out of the idea bank.  Incidents as these smack of ‘deus ex machina’ handling, which ultimately turns off savvy readers.

(8) Medieval dialog: should it be used in fantasy?

There are different schools of thought on this.

“My Lord, you are certainly a martinet to take that pious stance.”
“But surely, your Grace, you should not expect Mistress Razula to act in so punctual and proper a manner!”
“By no means!  Shouldn’t we repair to the parlour, Your Excellency?  The Regent and the Baron de Bront await your illustrious orders!’

A distinctly British or European tone, with lots of royal handling and high-bred airs.

Dialog of this nature certainly adds to ambience.  My feeling is though that if an author is going to start with this style, then there had better be some consistency with the rest of the story, with it not lapsing into modern usages of English and particularly with anachronisms.  This is a very difficult standard to achieve, and though demanding a careful ear for language and scrutiny, it is a very tasking one once committed to.  I think a writer is going to have a challenge ahead of him/her and have to read a lot of classics and expert authors to study the tone and voice and style before feeling comfortable writing fluently in this style.  I don’t mean just reading Jonathon Swift and Treasure Island a few times.  We see this type of flawed drama in the plethora of cheesy TV programs and low-budget King Arthur remakes out there.  All dressed up in their finery, protagonists spout modern dialog.  I know it’s supposed to be witty in some contemporary way—but my sense is that it is implausible, and often comes across as being tacky.  An example of drama-fiction tastefully done and demanding high praise for its realism (dialogue-wise, story-telling-wise and production) is the excellent British Robin of Sherwood series released in the ’80s.  I can’t help but suspect that the popular Merlin series currently running is an attempt to revive some of this tradition, though difficult to match the finesse of Robin of Sherwood.

These are a few of my thoughts on writing effective dialog.  Please feel free to offer any comments.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Compelling World-building—Luck or Craft?

Thousands of writers have pitched their skills at creating new worlds and associated compelling stories. Some worlds have been more successful than others. Why?

I wish to analyze this issue using four general premises.

Premise 1:

The characters must integrate well with the fantasy-SF world. This is the marker for any exceptional piece of work—the maker or breaker.  If the characters fail to fit seamlessly into the world, then the story is going to have a tough time. Any bit of awkward groping by author or character spells reader disconnect, and that fatal ‘jar’ which takes the reader out of the story.  For example, quick ways to kill seamlessness are anachronisms, dialogue that doesn't fit, characters all speaking from the same voice.

Probably the classic example of a time-tested successful world is the wildly exotic concocted universe of Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”. Though written in 1865, here we have proof of a riot of topsy-turvy characters, unlike any of those conservative times, plunged into a dream world in the interior of the earth. The story marches along at a jaunty pace; we are kept in tenterhooks, as to Alice’s safety and the horror of her never returning to ‘proper British society’.

Why is the world perfect? The rich potpourri of unpredictability is entertaining—Alice and her outlandish guardian The Mad Hatter take centre stage and find an endless number of distractions and challenges—easy for the author to engineer drama.  The setting is rich enough, and full of caprice and eccentricity. There is enough of a dark force and nature to keep the world tempered, and the story hangs together. The Red Queen, in my opinion, is the invariable glue which keeps the story melded (I call it melded, otherwise there may be a falling apart due to an excessive slapstick and farcical component, without the driving force that modern readers demand.)

To similar degree, I would class the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis in similar configuration. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the classic YA adventure, is fundamentally a children’s story which has influenced millions of readers and writers, including myself for years. My first book report written back in public school was on The Silver Chair, the fourth book in the series, and to this day I remember the story’s effect on me! Why, is the series so successful then?–the characters merge seamlessly in the world and the fluid presentation resounds in such a rich context that there is no room for reader boredom or a creation of a distracting question in the reader’s mind—like, why ’o why a silly wardrobe? Or, can a lion really talk? Such distractions only server to kill the narrative and which might crop up in derivative works penned by less-experienced writers than Carroll.

I have attempted in similar fashion to create a playful, imaginative fantasy in my two shorts, The Magic Hoop and Hat, and The Mirror of Eventualities. In the former, an archer is plummeted into the world of mysterious Ynos where a mischievous glist, a kind of changeling creature, befriends the protagonist, and through wise agency guides the archer through his frustrating path in the ‘real’ world above. In The Mirror of Eventualities, a bungling Magus plunges himself unwittingly into an alternate dimension where he must strive to get back to reality to fulfil his destiny, invariably perambulating along lines of his Queen’s thaumaturgical wishes—alas, it never ends so idyllically, in either real life or fantasy, so the reader and the protagonist are unprepared for the ultimate consequence . . .

My observation is that Premise 1: (seamless integration of character(s)) runs so deep, that an author can create even a clichéd world (like a sword & sorcery pseudo-Celtic, mediaeval, dungeons and dragons sphere) and still create a successful tale if the author adheres to the basis of the principle cited earlier and integrates his/her characters with a style and consistency that the reader finds coherently pleasing. This includes the trope of the ubiquitous classic spaceship/ark out to explore new worlds and encountering hostile forces or tentacle-bearing aliens or other malign foes. No holes, or gaps, or breaks in the natural extension of the world itself—this is the blessed formula which creates the necessary suspension of disbelief that marks all good stories. I cite the Shannara series by Terry Brooks as tried and true fantasy, even in a somewhat over-troped world, where earlier pioneers like Tolkien and his followers developed a D&D tradition.

Another sub-premise of this feature: If the world itself forces the characters to meld seamlessly, then the author achieves the desired result spontaneously. Looking at some hard core worlds, you’ll see what I mean. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead, The Road, Resident Evil, and similar subgenres of zombie apocalypse.

These stories are so popularly gripping, if not intriguing for reasons largely along the lines of the hostility of the world. In these action-horrors, the world as we know it is turned topsy-turvy: there is anarchy, death, and soul-stripping of the worst kind as humankind’s known systems are undermined to the point of extinction and there are no simple solutions. We are horrified, trapped in our armchairs, waiting pinch-nerved to see how the protagonists can survive against such desperate, dismal, chaotic, brutal forces. Well, provided we are not hokeyed out by bad writing . . . A lot of modern zombie and vampire fiction gets nebulous at times and does not demand the respect or sophistication of the better fiction.

Because the apocalyptic world has been modified in such a brutally vivid way, the characters have no choice but to plunge themselves against the ferocious forces at work and take their best shot at the menace(s) just to survive on a minute by minute basis. The action comes automatically, without the author having to do a lot to build it up in any formal or esoteric sense. Superficially, it seems like a short cut, but it isn’t. The characters still have to engage the audience and use their wits. We have seen lesser forms of zombie and vampire fiction degrading into pure nonsense.

The whole point of mentioning the examples above, is to reiterate the fact that these devices are reflections of the author’s cleverness in choosing them: a sumptuous backdrop or container or containing field which harbours enough forbidden elements and caveats to create the suspense, drama, horror and riveting action necessary to push the reader over the edge, and ultimately pigeon-hole the success of the story.

In the sci-fi film District 9, South Africa’s fulsome ghetto of aliens and alien machinery creates a beguiling background for action and terror. Oddly, the film starts out comically, with the mild-mannered protagonist Wikus uttering his jejune dialog which seems almost unreal—but watch out!—it is a red herring! If the writer(s) were to put a less potentially-menacing array of aliens and machines in place—or stinted on the ruthlessness of the Earth-world organizations wishing to snatch such technology for their own, the story would be less pungent. The film receives a thumbs up for me in terms of seamless integration of character with world.

On the topic of shocking worlds, the space thriller Audra lives up to its reputation. A SF horror—beginning when a military-explorer is intercepted in space by alien forces (see trope previously mentioned)—the sheer atrocity of the situation and the rising events are impetus enough to keep the reader engaged. The world, in this case, the hostility of space, coupled with a modern demonology of technology that allows alien to interface with human, is enough of a catalyst for the story to erupt in fire and grip the reader to the very end.

On another tack, the 1851 story Moby Dick, is okay: we’ve got a quasi-interesting setting, somewhat glorifying the austere melancholy of the sea, but it doesn’t have enough of a gripping plot to keep us engaged for 300+ pages. In this story, I was wondering if it was not so much an issue of the world being dull, for the sea is a rich and fertile setting, but more of what Herman Melville chose to focus on in his novel. The underlying plot, a whaling captain’s obsession for revenge upon a huge white sperm whale after having his leg ripped off, is great, but the discursiveness of the themes and the numerous symbolisms and metaphors and soliloquies employed, inarguably mutes the potential of the action. Melville’s content—the minutiae of fishing and Ishmael’s day to day existence—seems rather dull. Whereas the leviathan Moby Dick has much more of an interesting potential—I wish the author had focussed more on the whale—I think not just I would agree with this, but most readers.

Contrasted with the thriller Jaws by Peter Benchley, we see here an adventure-horror focusing solely on the terror of a mutant shark and the heroes’ attempts at capturing and luring the mutant to its demise—unlike Moby Dick, which plods along at a snail’s pace. Jaws has infinitely more accessible resource to mainstream audiences over Moby Dick.  The point here is not a criticism, but merely a comparison of both books from a world-building perspective in lines of Premise 1.  What are the impacts of both stories? The characters in Jaws (shark included) create seamless gripping action through the harrowing teamwork of Quint, Matt and Martin against the monster, whereas Moby Dick seems like more of a fairy tale with our attention diverted on issues far away from the whale.

In the Dystopian SF-thriller The Jisil-ou-az-lar, the protagonist has not only the mutated spine-chilling fish-forms to contend with, but the competition with the rival steamers and the brigs, and the bleak promise of harshness of a future earth, where polar ice caps have melted and an eternal ocean drowns the land. The hero is a lonely soul; his sombre temperament is reflected in the somewhat lugubrious setting, yet his spirit is strong and propels the action, thus fitting purposefully with the world.

Premise 2:

The world must have a unique element which drives the speculative thrust of the story.

Here we take the blockbuster Avatar as an example—an advanced race of forest beings connect with their winged steeds by mystical-physical fusing with their bodies. The steeds are somewhat huge and ferocious, like dragons, allowing the nature-beings dominion over the skies. The heritage or skill allows the tribe to confront the ultimately technologically-superior invaders that infringe on their domain and who have come to destroy them. A brilliant premise, and the numerous characters weave expertly with the far-world. This is probably the main strength of the story—what with taking out all the special effects and the glitter. Outside of some cheesy dialog in the beginning and scattered here and there, I think this sci-fi adventure ranks amongst some of the finest in the business.

In Touched by the Tithys, we have a harshness of a jungle-forest similar to avatar where winged predators guard evil powers that can freeze a living being to liquid carbon by the lick of their tongue or the waft of air from their monstrous wings. Men and women war with each other; they enslave each other for their own mating purposes. The strife between men and women comprises the main conflict, and one coming-of-age healer’s struggles to understand her primitive world, and who wishes to make a difference in the dystopian light. The heroine, because of the lurking danger of her world, must band with her peers for survival; she is trained in that manner since birth, yet her pugnacity is tempered by her healer’s pure heart which wins out in the end, creating an endearing drama, keeping the reader out of the deadly, annoying ‘jar-state’ and the ‘who cares?’ phase.

In Flowerfly, the cold vastness of the Psanis star system is the arena for conflict. A lone plant-animal hybrid Flowerfly clues into her power and explores the solar system, ultimately to experience various conflicts with the denizens populating the nearby worlds. The very nature of her stark settings leads the reader to ask many questions: what mysteries lie outside her cosmos? How is the ambitious solitary likeable Flowerfly to fulfill her destiny, her audacious quest for exploration and inquiry?

In far-future Phane, the young bullies of an off-world planet are finding their way in the mire of adolescent life.  One from their gang breaks free from the oppressive clique and befriends an old mystic in the hills, purportedly a recluse sorcerer.  The reader learns much about the backward world through the young protagonist’s fascination with the history and the technology of a race long gone.  The off-world description and seamless build-up of tension paves the way for a moving tale, near novella length.

Brian Aldiss’s excellent visionary fantasy Hothouse deserves some attention. Meticulous detail and vivid description offer credence to the master’s world itself, coupled with the breakneck pace and the excellent SF premise, which create a profound tale. Plantpods travel in space on cables between Earth and Moon; we are left wondering how do they survive in such a vacuum? How large are these colonies? The author creates enough rich texture in his description; we are naturally asking these questions on our own and extending the author’s suspension of disbelief. The relatively human characters involved in the web give us a measure against the evil, alien presences out there. The questions are left lingering in our minds, without the author having to write about them directly. What genius! A powerful world!

On the topic of Aldiss, we also have Super-Toys LastAll Summer Long and Other Stories of Future Time, a title story which formed the basis for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. The story—or the film—was very well executed in my opinion, and again, Aldiss’s uncanny ability to craft an engrossing, uncanny read is phenomenal. The sheer profundity of the futuristic world of earth and its massive spread of time is breathtaking. Alas, a master of the field does it effortlessly, and not without significant craftsmanship. Who knows what went on in Aldiss’s brain back in 1969 when he came up with this glorious concept, and then coupled the idea with Spielberg and Kubrick. We get SF-computer-android-millions-of-years-in-the-future where androids have the power and intelligence of humans and can restore visions of the past through undreamed-of technology. The world is staggering; set up with masterly care.

Robert Silverberg writes, in his excellent, “Worlds of Wonder—Exploring the craft of SF” that a science fiction story ought to be built around some idea that stimulates thought. I add, that ideally it should be original too!

The Brain Machine was an attempt at following that rule. Yes, artificial intelligence is inevitable in our horizon, and is no new idea to readers and writers alike, but do we have a media-telenet interview with a mad scientist demonstrating his AI creation? Does most AI fiction have to so insidiously revolve around Machiavellian possibilities? Again no. The Brain Machine attempts a new foray into the concept.

Another means by which authors can enhance their themes is through means of a lengthy time-arc as seen in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monoliths, for example, extend an ancient, intricate mystery, in which Clarke’s story attempts to explain, over protracted time, the alien sentinel as observing the history of humankind over millenia, along with its curious denizens. The concept is ingenious and coupled with the whole Jupiter exploration and the fastidious ‘Hal’, the onboard computer, create a world that is rivetingly original.

The short story, “Benevolent Influence” attempts in some way to offer a daring, albeit, trope-heavy, theory for evolution, along similar lines as 2001. The world in this story, is surprisingly set up intrinsically by recorded history as we know it. The earth has born witness to a huge time-arc (millions of years), and with the reader’s common knowledge of the earth’s history as researched by palaeontologists, evolutionists, anthropologists and scientists, we get a believable framework for ‘what could have gone before’ if we consider a cunning alien interference. The various life forms evolving on earth over the aeons form the rationale—such as the dinosaurs, the fishes, homo sapiens, which become the protagonists of the story, and only solidify the premise and the coming of the twist at the end.

Premise 3:

The most awesome worlds are not just what comes to the author’s mind. They are carefully engineered brainchildren: revised and tweaked to ultimate perfection, maximizing the impact of the character’s development.

The effective world is one which is constructed in such a way as to further the character’s conflict and deepen the theme.

It’s not just enough to slap together a few pieces of fantasy or SF, fiddle with them and put a half-baked story around the edges. It’s not just ‘pick the world’ and now let’s ‘build the characters’. We generally must start with some idea of what the world is and modify it, evolve it in our mind, let the characters and action gestate and become clearer, then flow in a moving, profound harmony of precision, implying deeper significance to the betterment of the drama.

The perfect example of this is Brave New World. Huxley’s depiction of his futuristic dystopia is so disturbing and emotion-grabbing that it brings the reader to tears; and yet it remains so stifling to the protagonist that it forces his incisive intellect to analyze his world, try to figure out why it is like this, grasp its existence and make a stand, even though it defeats him in the end. The world is so evocatively scripted right from the very start, that we are constantly identifying with the main character. We are carried along with his plight, caring for his emotion and his pain. It is our plight that we care for upon reflection, as we are naturally drawing parallels from Huxley’s far-future creation to our own. Huxley’s fictitious world exhibits certain degenerate elements: the dependence of the masses on technology, the controversial genetic manipulation of food, animals and crops, and the insidious ramifications implied, as well as birth control gone berserk.

Fritz Leiber’s World of Lankhmar demonstrates a different sort of mastery: we have thieves, ruffians, wizards, sorceresses, pirates, rogues, giants, and any number of colourful creatures and locales and places. It is a land rich with colour and action.  The heroes—invariably Fafhyrd and the Grey Mouser—come to real life and are awarded rich potential for adventures and heroic (and not so heroic) action due to the nature of the exotic flavour riddled throughout Leiber’s Lankmarian world. I have only the highest praise for Leiber’s contribution to heroic fantasy—especially the first three volumes of his series.

In Tim Stretton’s entertaining The Last Free City we have hierarchical and intricate organization. A tightly-knit society where etiquette and tradition rule, and tradition seal the acts of most of the characters—most, except the rebel protagonist Todarko who goes up against the grain; his emotional convictions won’t let him sit back and stay complaisant, nor the disgruntled second-in-line descendant, Malvazan, who is constantly seeking recognition. Stretton is attempting to bring life to a world which defies change. Its petty politics and machinations of the ruling class clamp individuals down, heroes and villains alike. I admire Stretton for the purity of his attack. He is not relying on magical tropes or talismans to ‘jazz up’ his world, or serve as convenient means to get his characters out of jams. No, they must fend for themselves and use their own wits. This is somewhat artful and to be admired in today’s world of ever-growing adventure and pseudo-magical tales. The strength of “The Last Free City” lies in its vivid depiction of reality of its participants. They are linked together in complex ways, and are intelligently-wrought humorous characters who meld perfectly with their renaissance world.

Premise 4:

Putting some limitations on the world or its potential makes the story more interesting for the reader.

(1) A limitation inspires character(s) to discover creative ways to get beyond the limitation(s). This gives rise to richer plot and action.

(2) The hint of a ‘potential’ untapped in the world inspires a protagonist to explore the potential even more, though there may be insurmountable risks. Again, this creates a richer storyline.

Some examples of limitations on magic:

(1) The ring that Bilbo Baggins carries in The Hobbit that is used to escape his foes by becoming invisible: Gandalf warns the Halfling against employing the talisman and we don’t know why until later in the The Lord of the Rings when Frodo Baggins hides from his enemies through means of the ring, but with the tragic side effect that its grip on him becomes ever more insidious and addictive.

(2) Cugel the Clever’s boot wax in Jack Vance’s Cugel’s Saga: such wax spread on a wayfarer’s boot gives an object buoyancy when the object is kicked—often with the disadvantageous effect of having the object rising into the sky and disappearing forever.

(3) Baus the Bold’s magic talisman wielded in Rogues of Bindar: it allows the hero-and-villain to play tricks on his enemies and save his skin more than once. The talisman’s power is enduring for no more than ten minutes—not an eternal, lasting power—which makes the wielder’s task a little bit more difficult. The protagonist must think carefully on its use. Improper technique, leads to, well . . . mishap.

These are a few of the observations I have accumulated on the topic of successful world-building. I find it a fascinating subject, and I’d love to hear your opinions and comments.