Why learning to write is only the beginning

Trader's HonourI’m going to do something REALLY embarrassing. I’ll be posting, below, a small snippet of the very first novel I completed. By the time I penned this, I had already spent some time in various workshops and I’d taken my dutiful dose of No adverbs, no forbidden words, no weasel words and no repetition, and there are indeed very few of those crimes in the manuscript. In fact, I admit that I now use more adverbs than I did back then. I use more passive constructions, and I use more “forbidden” words. Because these words or constructions evolved in the language for a reason, and sometimes a sentence is genuinely clearer when you add the word “that”. Trust me.

So, without further ado, here is the snippet from Trader’s Honour as I wrote it in 2005, with excuses for the absolutely TERRIBLE writing. I’ll elaborate on that after the piece.

* * *

Two days. That was all that stood between happiness and despair.
Two days ago, the morning of the election had dawned without a cloud in the sky and the city of Miran was covered in a sparkling blanket of snow. The beauty of the morning was lost on Rehan. He was tired; it had been very late when he had returned home the previous night. He was sitting at breakfast in the dining room, leafing aimlessly through a bundle of election brochures, wondering who he was going to vote for. The successful candidate would take up the post of commander of the Mirani armed forces and one of the four High-councillors of Miran. It was an important election, but Rehan felt too tired to care.
‘I don’t like the sound of what Nemedor Satarin is proposing,’ Braedon said, gesturing to the election brochures Rehan was holding.
Rehan leafed through the papers until he came to the relevant brochure. It was printed on orange paper and bore just a few slogans “Free Miran of foreign influences,” “Restore our nation to its former glory,” and “Bring back order to our streets.”
‘It doesn’t say much, doesn’t it?’ he said, breaking his fish bread in pieces and dropping them in his soup.
‘No,’ Braedon said, ‘but he has strong opinions that many of the upper classes find appealing.’
Rehan looked up with a frown.
‘What is appealing about freeing Miran of foreign influences? How can we or the merchants function without foreigners?’
‘People haven’t forgotten the war, Rehan,’ came Isandra Andrahar’s sharp voice from the other end of the table.
Rehan looked at his mother, her back bathed in sunlight, which made her hair glow like silver.
‘What does the war have to do with this?’ he asked.
‘You were too young,’ the way she said this made it sound like an accusation. ‘The Asto fighters raided the warehouses in our agricultural district, and what could the Mirani army do? Nothing! The Asto army could easily have pushed their way to our capital!’
‘But they didn’t,’ Rehan said; he looked down at his plate to fish a piece of bread out of his soup. ‘They only wanted to free up their food supplies, which were rightfully theirs anyway. They are not interested in conquering other colonies.’
He still couldn’t see how this had anything to do with the local election.
His mother drew herself up and waved a bony finger at him.
‘When I was a girl, and that dreadful Palayi man – whatever his first name was – was Chief coordinator of Asto, there was a constant threat of war,’ she continued. ‘We should never trust those Coldi people. They are barbarians – incapable of tolerating any opposition. Thania Lingui may seem a lot more peaceful, but what happens when he retires? Will the next Chief coordinator want to have absolute control over Asto’s food supply? We are close, we have much fertile land, we already produce a lot of their food. We need strong defenses to stop them invading!’ and as Rehan was about to put the bread in his mouth, she snapped. ‘And don’t do that! You’re eating like a commoner!’
Rehan sighed, put the bread down and picked up his spoon. Table manners, table manners! Was that all she ever cared about? He was at home, for goodness sake!

* * *

OMG, this is truly embarrassingly bad. It does not violate many Creative Writing 101 Rules, but it’s bad, bad, bad. I’ll explain why.

I used this novel as learning-to-write exercise. I was probably halfway through when it occurred to me that it had to have a plot. I was so wrapped up in my characters that I merely enjoyed seeing what they did. And they did a lot of things. Plenty happens in this novel. In fact, all these happenings are what made me decide to salvage the story, because GOOD stuff happens, but it wasn’t connected, was connected in the wrong way with way too much bullshit that went off at right angles. In other words: I hadn’t learned to write a solid plot and keep that plot on the rails while I was writing.

The POV is weak. I bet that in this piece you can’t even tell who the POV character is (hint: it’s Rehan). There is very little direct internal thought. It just hadn’t occurred to me yet that I could write in that way.

All the characters act like arseholes. They’re also far too forthcoming with information. This is classic immaturity in character development. One of the most important things a writer needs to learn is that what a character says is that character’s perception of the truth, unless the character is lying, but the character doesn’t even need to lie outright for their replies to be coloured. Also, what is not being said is often more powerful than what is being said. Over-the-top-ness of character reactions, as in this snippet, is also classic beginner prose.

Worst of all, I’m using the wrong main character. There is a reason why all the characters are arseholes, that is because they ARE arseholes of some kind, at least in this point in the story. It only occurred to me much later that I was trying to write The Devil Wears Prada from Anna Wintour’s POV. Doesn’t work. You need another character.

All these things above are not really teachable. They are not what most critique groups deal with. They are skills you have to develop through practice, and through reading awesome fiction and listening to experienced writers. Still, if you happen to get commentary of this nature when you begin, you will most likely not understand it at the level that it needs to be understood. The above things are largely intuitive and are why it is so hard to quantify “good writing”. The writing “rules” are really only the beginning.

So, I decided to salvage, gut and re-write the story. I added a completely new character who is not related to this highly dysfunctional family but comes into it as newcomer. To be sure, she has her own stakes, as you have seen in the snippet I posted a few days ago. Because we now see the story through the eyes of someone who is more sympathetic at the start of the story, it doesn’t matter that the three brothers and their mother behave like boors right now. Yes, some of it is only an act, and as my character’s stakes and that of the family intertwine, the abrasiveness will vanish.

Like so (and three cheers to the reader of this blog who can spot the future love affair):

Mikandra stomped the snow off her boots on the mat, slipped them off and put them next to the men’s boots lined up next to the door. She selected the smallest pair of slippers she could find on the rack under the cloak stand. They enfolded her feet with luxurious warmth, and the fur that lined the inside had not yet flattened with use.
She followed Taerzo–wearing similar footwear–across the hall into the living room, where traditional oil lamps burned on the walls and their flapping flames made grotesque shadows on the walls. With its marble flooring, antique hearth and hand-crafted furniture, the house was the epitome of old-fashioned noble households. Well, except for the hub with its blinking lights in the corner of the hall.
In the living room, Braedon sat at the table behind a huge pile of books. He glanced up when Taerzo came in, looked back at his books and then up again at Mikandra. He raised his eyebrows and raked his hair behind his ear. Apart from Taerzo, who was not that much older than her and was considered to be the joker of the family, she found Braedon least intimidating. He was rather plain, straightforward and quiet. He did not wear lots of jewellery or other display of status like his two older brothers. He came into the hospital quite a bit, and was always courteous and kind to the nurses or surgeons.
Braedon gestured to the seat next to him.
Mikandra sat, still clutching the letter. On the page in the book facing him were long columns of financial data. He had a reader on his other side, which was, apart from the hub in the hall, the only concession to technology in this very traditional house. The screen glared more columns of figures.
She was going to show them the letter, but Braedon brought his fingers to his lips.
There were voices at the back of the room, in a section partitioned off from the dining area by a sliding door.
Through the glass in the door, she could see second-oldest brother Rehan in front of the hearth, facing a man who sat on the couch.
“Anyway,” Rehan was saying, the words only slightly muffled by the door. “Whatever has caused it and why ever you did this, your behaviour has been nothing short of grossly inadequate. You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do, and unless I’m satisfied, I will call in the Guild Lawkeepers, and they will get to the bottom of this.”
“You’re not going to sack me?” The man sounded incredulous.
“You’ve worked with us for long enough to know that is not our style. I would very much like to sack you, but it does not solve anything. Sacking you does not put our accounts in order.”
“Uhm . . . I guess.”
Mikandra realised the man on the couch was the Andrahar account keeper, Trimor Estredin, the husband of one of her mother’s theatre friends.
“You guess?” Rehan continued. “What will go a long way towards putting our accounts in order is your story about what happened. Why did you approve these books? Why did you sign all these pages that clearly have mistakes on them? Where is the missing money?”
“I honestly don’t remember doing all that.”
There was a heavy thud of some object hitting wood. “Bullshit! That’s fucking bullshit and you know it. You know what happened. You were there. This is your work! Get the fuck out of here. Go to the office. Come back when you have something to say. Don’t dare run away. Don’t think we won’t find you.”
The man rose and left the room at a run. A moment later, the door shut.
Heaving a big sign, Rehan opened the partition doors. “Fucking numbskull. Blubbering nitwit.” He stopped a few paces into the room, and frowned at Mikandra. Met her eyes. His hair, normally a silk-like curtain over his back, had become entangled in the clasp of his cloak. His cheeks were red. “What’s this about? Any more problems?”
Mikandra lifted the letter.
“I got my letter of acceptance,” she said, but she no longer felt exuberant. Something was very wrong.
“The fuck you did?” He still sounded angry.
Braedon said, “Rehan, please mind your–”
“Don’t tell me what I can or can’t say in my own house. We don’t have the time to deal with fucking pambies.”
He looked at Mikandra. His expression was so penetrating that she felt like fleeing. He was very tall, his appearance immaculate. At least he wore his Trading uniform, the khaki shirt and trousers with the ornate belt and his high boots. But no medallion.
“All right, you win. No more fucking swearing in the presence of women, eh?” He blew out a breath and turned to the window.
Mikandra looked back at Braedon who at least didn’t terrify her as much. “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve had our licence suspended by court order.”
What? A big black hole opened in Mikandra’s mind. A suspended licence meant no sponsorship. It meant no work, no place for her to go to. It meant–how was that even possible? These were the Andrahar Traders, the most influential in all of Miran. “What happened?” Black spots crept into her vision.

Point of View in Fiction

Another companion post to the Ten Home Truths of Starting in Self-publishing, this one on point 3: Make sure you can write.

I see a lot of self-published fiction or unpublished fiction as submissions in the slush. When looking at first chapters, there are a number of problems which stand out as needing attention, before I’ll consider downloading the rest of the book. I want to say a few things about Point of View (POV), because one of the things that mark a book that’s not ready for publication is a poor handle on the point of view.

Why is this important? In the past, a lot of fiction was written in omniscient style, where the book was told through the eyes of a god-like narrator. Even today, you will occasionally find an established author who “hops heads”, in other words, the POV is not tightly attached to one particular character.

Why can this be a problem?

The most important reason is that it’s confusing. Because most novels these days don’t use god-like narrators, readers are used to seeing each scene (or even the entire book) through the eyes of a character. They become used to that character’s quirks and personality. Moreover, they want to see the book through a character’s eyes, because character is considered to be an important element of the story. The character is more than a narrator or a pair of eyes. The character interacts with the story.

When you’re in a character’s head, you don’t know what the other characters are thinking. They may be doing things your character doesn’t understand, but the moment you move out of your character’s head, you break the reader’s intimate connnection with your character.

Maybe, too, there is a third person in the scene, and you’d like to explain what they’re thinking, too.

After you’ve head-hopped a few times, the reader gets confused. Not so much about the content of the story, but about whose story you’re telling. See, while you’re in a character’s head, the story belongs to this character. The character has something at stake or wants something. The character has backstory. We feel sympathy or interest for the character. When you break the POV, the story no longer belongs to the character.

There are a few other issues with head-hopping:

The story runs the risk of becoming too explain-y and exposition-heavy if there are three characters in the scene and you have to explain what they’re all thinking.

Covering what the other person thinks reduces tension. The tension is upheld because we don’t know what the bad guy wants. Your protagist can guess, but not look into the bad guy’s head. So, when the two have a discussion, you’re going to spoil the tension by telling the reader what the bad guy thinks. That’s poor storyteling technique.

“Don’t hop heads within a scene” is not a rule to follow off a cliff. It is a principle to understand, and if you understand it, you won’t hop heads, because your storytelling skills will be better. You will also understand that there are situations (mainly in old-style narration or fairytales) that hopping heads is the convention, but that the audience for these is very limited.

The ‘danger’ of writing in first person

Also posted on my author site.

When talking about point of view (POV) and writing in first person, inevitably someone will bring up that it’s OK, as long as ‘it’s done well’ and that ‘it’s not for beginning writers’. Invariably also people can’t quantify what is meant by these statements and the sentiment against writing in first person is merely described as ‘I don’t like it’. Well, that doesn’t help the writer very much, because if it can be ‘done well’, just what constitutes ‘well’ and what ‘not so well’.

After seeing a lot of published and unpublished first person stories, I have some thoughts about this. Feel free to comment.

First person tends to be very voice-y

How I got this injury, Doc? Well you’re not going to believe this but we were in the undercover car park and there was this dude, who, you know, didn’t like me parking in his spot and so he honks at me, and gets out of the car and starts swearing, like, you know, half the words I never heard before. So I got out. He was massive, man, massive, and I was just standing there, trying to back away, except my butt was already against the passenger side of my car and I had nowhere else to go. And then Josh, idiot that he is, decided to wind down the window, and so I fell with my butt through the fucking window and into his coffee.

Obviously this character needs a good kick up the behind. He suffers from over-use of certain words, and he’s hands-up-it-wasn’t-my-fault kind of whiny. Do I really want to spend a whole book with this guy? I fear it will get annoying very quickly.

First person can be very meandery-talky

I grew up in the country where we never had the opportunity to learn music, so when I first saw a French Horn I thought it looked like a demented trumpet. I was twenty-two at the time, and awkward, shy and very much like a country bumpkin. But my best friend played in this orchestra and asked me to join. At the time, I could barely tell one end of the trumpet from another, but he said that didn’t matter. I got lessons. My teacher Sophie was the craziest person I’ve ever met. Apart from the French Horn, she also played the piano and was an accomplished artist. She lived in an old house in the Inner West, shared with four other students. This is how I met Dave…

Yeah, yeah, blah, blah already. This life history continues for two pages into the story and nothing has happened except a meandering recount of some person’s life. I’ve lost interest.

First person can be distant

In the first example, because the story is narrated, rather than presented in real time, the author puts a filtering layer between story and reader, namely the opinions and interjections of the first person narrator. It’s not that you couldn’t do this in third person, but it’s more instinctive to do this in first person.

Basically, if you end up narrating instead of presenting a story in real time, you tend to over-describe and lose tension. Sometimes the gained flavour of the character’s voice is worth it, but I suspect that any character who sounds like a standard teenager or uneducated lout ends up annoying a lot of readers long before the end of the book. In similar fashion, a character who just waffles on about something while the story’s setting is devoid of action or setting in the here and now will bore a lot of readers.

unreliable narrators

An unreliable narrator is a main character who has a secret, and keeps that secret from the reader for quite some time. Or it is a character who feeds the readers lies about him/herself or about the other characters.

I’ve realised I have two stories with unreliable narrators.

In one, a novel, the narrator has been mentally doctored, so in effect probably has an excuse not to remember everything truthfully. That said, he does not reveal a major detail about himself. It has been his character, for a long time, to keep this detail an utter secret. He loathes talking about it, and goes through extraordinary pains to keep it a secret. I thought it would be natural to also keep it a secret from the reader. Yes? No? What do you feel about this?

In another story, a character knows something that a second character very much wants to know. But it isn’t in this character’s nature to reveal such details about herself and about someone she protects. In fact, she thinks the man’s curiousity is amusing, but she thinks the subject of his curiosity is utterly unimportant. At what point in the story would you like to know as reader? When the man first asks her or when she chooses to reveal it?

In both cases, neither ‘secrets’ are vital to the plot of the story, but they are part of the character’s personality. Do you think personality is enhanced by revealing the secret early on or by keeping it a secret for a while longer?

writing in first person

So, it’s getting towards the boring end of the afternoon, where my editing brain has zonked out, and I opened a file with an almost-finished short story, and I found myself just staring at it, or, more accurately, being annoyed with Word defying my attempt to make the file display at full screen size (yes, I know, I don’t understand it either).

So I asked Twitter what I should write about, and someone (waves to Bryan) suggested I write about ‘the pitfalls of writing in first person and how to avoid them’.

I thought about that for a while, because the previous few posts have been about science, which means I am overdue for a post about writing. But… just what are the pitfalls of writing in first person?


Other than that some people claim to hate it, except ‘when it’s done well’.

So what is ‘done well’ and how does ‘done well’ distinguish itself from ‘not done well’?

OK, I can imagine a few scenarios. You may have prose that is overly voice-y which may annoy some readers. The prose may succumb to too much internal thought that is whiny and boring. Inexperienced writers may start two in every three sentences with the word ‘I’.

But are any of these things unique to first person writing? Not in the slightest! You can just as well have an annoying voice, whiny internal thought and repetetive sentence starts in third person, or second person if you want to be contrary.

So what does it mean when someone says ‘first person is not done well’? It means, my dears, that your writing overall doesn’t work for them, and wouldn’t have worked for them had you replaced all your I-s with he-s or she-s. It means that something in the writing jarred them, and it most likely wasn’t the fact that you wrote in first person.

Not convinced? Take a random book, and ask random readers who mentioned they enjoyed this book a lot to identify the POV. Most likely, a significant number of them will say ‘I don’t remember’.

So: first person or third person, it does not matter. What matters is that your writing doesn’t bore the reader, regardless of POV.

And those avowed first-person haters? It’s their right, and no one or nothing would probably change their mind anyway. There are some things some people don’t like. That’s OK. After all, nothing is going to make me drink Coke either.

What Point-of-view do you choose?

Point of View (POV) is one of the implements in the writer’s toolbox that can make a huge impression on the feel of your novel. Here are my thoughts about it.

First, some definitions:
First person: this will have an ‘I’ character. The viewpoint is necessarily constricted to the head of the main character, who will be somewhat of a narrator. It’s more or less implied that a book written in first person will have only one POV character, but that isn’t always true. More adventurous writers may choose a mix of first person narrators, or sometimes a combination between first person and third person.
Drawbacks: first person has a tendency of slipping into narrator/lecturing mode.

Second person: this will have a ‘you’ character. I’ve seen second person short stories. Some of them work, others less so.
Drawback: because it’s new and considered ‘literary’, some people find it very annoying. Some people even find first person annoying. To the writer, I think second person is a style that would be hard to maintain for novel-length fiction.

Third person limited: this will have a third person (he, she or it) character, and while that person has the POV, we will be privy to that person’s thought. This is the most common POV type in fiction. The convention is to stick to one character per scene, or sometimes per chapter. Sometimes there is only one POV character in the book.
Drawbacks: it is very tempting to introduce too many POV characters.

Third person omniscient: this type is fairly common in fairytales and epic fantasy. In true omniscient style, we are privy not just to one character’s thoughts, but either to all of them or none of them (cinematic view).
Drawbacks: this style creates a lot of distance between reader and character and can become quite clinical and unemotional. As for the cinematic view—the main advantage of a book over a movie is that we can be in the character’s head. Why throw away that advantage?

What POV would you choose for your work?
The convention is that most work is written in third person limited. It seems to be what readers expect. There is also a fair bit of first person fiction being published. Omniscient has fallen out of favour, and I’m yet to see a novel written in second person, although such novels probably exist.

POV tends to be highly dominated by current conventions within genre. If you write epic fantasy, you write in third person with multiple POV characters, or omniscient. If you write chicklit you write in trendy first person or limited third.

But there are drawbacks to following the mould. If you write with multiple POV characters or omniscient, the reader will lose connection with the character each time the narrative skips to another character. By doing this, the writer shifts the focus from the characters to the overall story. Besides in epic fantasy, this technique is also common to hard SF, where the author will switch characters purely for the sake of showing off another part of worldbuilding. Fine, but don’t expect the reader to identify with (or indeed remember) any of the characters. On the other side of the spectrum, there are several fantasy series I’ve found slow to read because each character has his or her own personal story, so each time the author switches character, another story starts. There are books I’ve flung aside because they have eight POV characters, and after eight chapters, each with a new character, we’re a third into the book, and the plot has made next to no progress.

POV is an excellent tool for artificially beefing up the word count. Novel too short? Just add another POV character, with his or her (often pointless, but mildly interesting) story. It slows the pace of the novel tremendously, but hey, you get a much fatter book.

I think before you decide what POV to use for a novel, it pays to consider what you want from your novel. Do you want a sweeping, epic feel, but with less emphasis on individual characters. Do you want a gritty, personal feel from a much more limited viewpoint? Do you want a fast pace or a slow pace? Could you possibly, within your chosen genre, do something that’s just a bit outside the current conventions?

To illustrate the difference, think of a battle scene in a fantasy novel. Think of how this would look on the page in omniscient POV, where the narrator would know what is happening, or in limited third POV, where a character fighting on the ground would have next to no idea of the overall picture.

I think part of the reason why Joe Abercrombie has been such a success is because he makes the story so personal for his characters, because he uses third person limited in an epic story. Consider how a book would be different if for example you used an omniscient POV for an urban fantasy, or first person in hard SF. The choice of POV would dictate the way you told the story. That, in itself, could bring a fresh perspective to your fiction.

prejudice against first person?

OMG, I thought we’d seen the end of this sort of silliness.

When I first started looking for markets for my work in 2005, it was not uncommon at all to find in the submission guidelines for a magazine or agent the line that works written in first person would not be considered. Thankfully, that prejudice has disappeared, thanks to some excellent books written in first person. Well – almost. Some people still insist that all their submissions have to be in third person (and past tense, too).

Exactly what it is that Haters Of Things hate about first person, I’ve never been able to understand, except perhaps that it’s different, and Haters Of Things hate ‘different’. Literature is made of ‘different’. Sometimes, writers use ‘different’ to prove a point. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But is this a reason to blanket-reject anything that attempts to put a fresh face on narrative voice?

Please, go and pull the other one.

To be contrary, I wrote a flash story in second person future tense, just to prove I could.

Anyway, I’m glad to report that first person is no longer ‘different’, thanks to popular books like Hunger Games, which, incidentally, is written in present tense as well, another form of writing Haters Of Things tend to hate.

Honestly, people, open your mind to new styles when reading.

*No, I’m not a great fan of Tim Winton’s quote-mark-less dialogue either, for the simple reason that it’s hard to figure where the dialogue starts and where it stops, but eventually you get used to it, and then it’s almost like reading a ‘normal’ book, so in the end, my judgement about this could be summed up in ‘I don’t mind’.

from the slush minion’s diary 1

I have now logged more than 150 slush pieces for ASIM and I thought I’d write a bit about the experience.

I’d like to tackle the incredulous question asked by a dismayed writer: can you really tell within one paragraph whether or not a submission is going to work for you? (please note the for you in this sentence – every reader and editor is different).

The answer has to be: usually, yes.

Trying to quantify why is probably harder, aside from submissions with poor grammar (of which there are surprisingly few) or punctuation (of which there are a lot more – learn to punctuate dialogue, dudes!), but I’ve run across a few issues I can identify, one of which is:

The piece has a poor handle on POV (point of view).

Consider the following start of a short story (which I’m making up on the spot up for the purpose of demonstration):

She held the gun tightly.
David followed her up the stairs, wheezing and clutching his side. His hair was plastered to his forehead. ‘I’m not used to this anymore,’ he panted.
She pushed away revulsion. Since when had he let himself go? He used to be so fit.
‘In here?’ she asked, nodding at the door.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If I lay my hands on the bastard who has my son…’

This start does a number of things right: there is action, the prose is functional, not overly wordy, and we are thrown into a situation that makes the reader wonder.

But who is the POV character? This piece of text tells us far more about David than about the main character, who – for crying out loud – doesn’t even have a name yet. She seems to be some sort of kick-arse gun-wielding assassin, but we don’t know. We don’t know why she’s there (presumably because she’s paid, in which case her motivation for being there is not very strong) or what she’s feeling except for contempt for David (and this doesn’t make me like this anonymous person).

I’ve found this sort of thing very common in the slush pile. I wouldn’t press instant-reject, but I’d read on to see if the main character becomes more defined. Usually, though, this doesn’t happen. The POV in the story is neither well-defined, nor is the main character the person whose story the writer is telling. From the above crappy example, I’d say this is David’s story.

A few thoughts on this matter:

– For crying out loud, name your main character as soon as he/she enters the story (* and **).
– Consider who the best character is to carry the story. Who has most to lose?
– Write the story as if you were that person. The most prominent emotions and impressions will be that person’s.

* There are some plot types where not naming a character is a plot point. Try avoid this, though, unless you’re 100% certain that it’s necessary.

** Naming a character is impossible when you write in first person. In that case, I’d advocate getting an ‘I’ into a sentence before you mention any other characters. Definitely don’t wait until other characters have been doing things for half a page.