Recently, the number three has been haunting my writing and reading: tripartite goddesses, ‘Love, Death and Robots’, Kathleen Jennings musing on story structure, three act plays, and so forth. I have been reading ‘How to write’ books by Diana Wynne Jones, Angela Slatter (rereading), Kate Wilhelm, among others, and I’ve come across a clever way to define a character, using the power of three – Three different viewpoints.
When you are first coming to grips with a character, have three different people describe them. The first one loves them, be they a lover, a child, a parent, a sibling, or a close friend of the character. Let this love influence their description. The second one loathes or hates them, and so they see this character from a different perspective, with their hatred colouring their description. Lastly, have someone meet the character for the first time character , and so they have little urge to have emotions tinge their opinions.
This contrasts to my usual technique, which is to ‘interview’ the character for their personality traits, like and dislikes, and personal history. This isn’t defining the character by their own traits so much as how others perceive them. So, you get less of their internal life and more of how they interact with other people. It makes my story telling flow better when I know how my characters interact. Feel free to try this out for yourself.
In 2014, I wrote a post about writing titles, based on a Facebook post I had written five years earlier. I think it’s time I did an update, as fashions in titles for genre novels has changed.
Longish titles are back in fashion. This isn’t to say that one word titles have disappeared. However, the longer titles are no longer as rare. Last year, among the most acclaimed speculative fiction genre novels were How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang; When No One Is Watching: A Thriller by Alyssa Cole; and The Southern Book Clubs Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. As you can see, a long title is no longer an outlier on the bookstore shelves. Feel free to give your own stories detailed titles.
I said in my previous post: ‘What a writer wants from a title is a cluster of words that are memorable. Something that encompasses the theme of the work, without giving too much away.’ These longer titles may give away a smidge more of the story, but still are memorable and distinctive. And that’s what a good title should be – something that makes it easy for your audience to remember when they are looking to talk about it or recommend it to friends.
It used to be the Victorians who favoured long titles for their fiction. Not any more. Everything old is new again.
I am going to be brave and declare that I am a successful writer. I’m not rich. I’m not famous. But I’ve had my first solo book published and another one is on the way. I’ve been published in Daily Science Fiction THREE TIMES. I’ve had several other stories accepted for publication this year. I’ve just had a Steampunk story accepted for an anthology.
This isn’t what I imagined success would be when I was in my teens. Those unrealistic ambitions are now superseded by a better understanding of the publishing industry. I still would like to be rich and a little bit famous – famous enough that people will buy my books simply because they know they will enjoy them. Rich enough to not have to fret about growing old and being too poor to enjoy my retirement (do writers ever really retire?).
So, I’ve changed my definition of what success means for me. I am successful right now! This doesn’t mean I have no goals. I aim to have stories accepted by Uncanny magazine and Clarkesworld magazine; I broke into Daily Science Fiction with persistence. The Aurealis magazine has published an article by me, but I want very much to place a fiction story with them. Winning an award or a grant would be kind of nice. And I want to be published as an speculative fiction author with an audience of adult readers.
Goals mean you are still hungry. But I am not starving to death.
This week I was pleasantly surprised to have a story published by the Every Day Fiction magazine/website. What makes it interesting is that I can read the comments of readers that are rating the story. The first critique was a bit of a slap in the face, but the comments after have been both encouraging and helpful. (As always, setting is my weakness. Sigh.)
I’ve supplied the link above if your interested … it’s a five minute read. Not Steampunk, but still Speculative Fiction.
Having been an Aurealis Awards judge … there isn’t any conscious decision towards what sort of stories win awards. A lot of things are going on with judging any award.
There is a panel of judges, but it just takes one nay-sayer in a panel to knock down the front runners in a close run race. Or, a person on the panel drops out halfway through the judging period and the rest of the panel is scrabbling to make sense of the mess left behind. The smaller the number of people left, the more likely it is that personal taste will affect the end result.
Lately, what I see happening is that the darker, more literary stories are being accepted by the magazines and anthologies – thanks to the popularity of GoT and its darker themes. Fashions in writing happen just like in any sort of human-based activity- just more slowly. Ten years from now, we might be looking at a retro-revival of sword and sorcery or space opera. So, it is these darker stories that are winning the awards.
A good story is still a good story. Do your best to write amazing stories. You might not win awards, but you will get nominated for the short lists over and over again. That is more of an indication of the quality of your work than anything else.
I am currently writing books aimed at middle-grade readers around ten years of age. Ten is an interesting age. Before a child is eight, they are still in the ‘dreamtime’ of their youth where fantasy concepts can seem as true as reality. Many younger children are either completely fearless or very fearful, depending on their nature, because everything is still ‘unknown’. A ten year old is still much smaller than an adult, but the world is no longer unknown territory. A ten year old has a pretty good grasp of the rules of the world.
Then puberty hits and messes up the world view again. But that’s another issue.
This makes writing for this audience tricky. They can tell if you’re talking down to them. They can certain sense insincerity. And they can most definitely tell if the writing and story telling is bad. So, it means you have to write with your heart as well as your mind; which is how we should write all the time, really.
I’m lucky. I still like many of the same things I liked as a ten year old: animals, comics, cartoons, fairy tales. It makes writing for this age group easier, because I can remember how it felt to be ten.
It always seems to surprise people that I write horror stories – particularly my family. I am seen as having a ‘sunny’ personality with little in the way of darkness. This is because I save all my darkness for my horror stories.
As a child, I was haunted by my monster under the bed. (On a tangential note, why do so many people fear the things under their beds.) When I was eight, I convinced myself that the monster had gone to live under my sister’s bed. I never told her about the monster, and she slept in blissful ignorance of its presence. It was a brilliant move on behalf of my imagination, because I was able to sleep without worrying that some paw was going to grab me and drag me under the bed.
By the bye, ‘Poltergeist’ gave me nightmares for years.
Part of my problem is that I have no night vision … a side effect of having excellent colour vision. I can eat carrots until I turn orange, and I will still have very little ability to see my way around in the dark. What you can’t see is scarier when you have a vivid imagination that can fill the shadows with tentacles and teeth.
I’ve found that writing out my night terrors turns them into something I can cope with. It’s hard to be scared of a monster when you can edit out its teeth and slime and stuff. Instead, I can scare other people! Better to be the monster than be the victim…
I read science articles and textbooks for fun. I blame my avid interest in science directly to my avid reading of Science Fiction – I discovered ‘I Robot’ by Isaac Asimov when I was eight. When I had finished reading all the Science Fiction and fantasy books in my high school library – since I went to the same high school for five years, this wasn’t as great an accomplishment as it first sounds – my lovely librarian pointed in the direction of Asimov’s popular science books.
So, I have a large collection of reference books. I’ve read some of these books multiple times, like Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer. Over the years, parasitology has inspired several of my favourite stories to write; I am a big fan of the poem by Augustus De Morgan:
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum. And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on; While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on…
Recently, I’ve come across the concept of Survivor Bias. The best example of this was a study done of number of injuries cats presented with in veterinary surgeries, after the cats had fallen from the height of multiple storeys. Strangely, after the 9th floor, the number of injuries were less than those animals that had fallen from lower floors. Now, you might think that the added height gave the cats the opportunity to control their descent and increase their survival. What was really happening is that dead cats don’t get taken into the vet.
Now, I am inspired with the fictional possibilities of this concept. The fiddling of statistics always fascinates me … people think statistics is such a ‘hard’ science. And yet it is one of the easiest to skew the results, using things like survivor bias and sample size and where you chose to take your samples from.