Me, and Whatnot

So you may have noticed that I haven’t published a book for a while.

Yup.

I made a deal with myself that I would not embarrass myself unduly with performance energy that wasn’t at the reasonable place I could expect from myself. So I’ve been scrubbing up my writing skills gradually.

Also I really don’t want to be in a place where I’m working on books in a series and have only the first few published. I hate that. So I’m finishing some very, very long series all the way before publishing (and occasionally I make character choices partway through a series that require backwards renovations that wouldn’t be possible so much in an already-published book). So there’s that.

Anyway, for my own satisfaction, here are some of the projects I’m working on right now:

The biggest one is the series I keep writing little notes about at the bottom of my posts, about what’s happening in the novel(s) lately. That one is a science fiction bromance flick with a ton of steamy parts. It’s funny because I meant to write an adventure story with a few kisses sprinkled here and there, but after I’d composed the main characters, the, um, overall subterfuge turned hilariously sexy.

The main characters, you see, are in the power of some very cranky old men, and those cranky old men are all sort of obsessed with the one main character procreating so that they can have foster grandbabies to dandle about and coo over.

So there is sexual distraction to foil the deviousness of these old men while the main characters work on escaping their power.

I don’t know if that sounded overly complicated, but that is the very long and delectably steamy series I am building right now.

I have another book that I’m exceptionally fond of about a young man who dies–the book is essentially a zombie novel, but the zombies are shiny, healthy-looking people, and they eat emotions instead of flesh from regular humans, so that’s very interesting to work on.

The first part of that one (technically I would call it a paranormal book, I think) is finished, but I want to spend quite a lot of time fleshing out the narrative tone so that the reader can fully inhabit the main character’s internal journey as the plot unfolds. Right now for most of the book, the voice is focused more on the action and less on the reader’s reception of said action, so I want more padding as far as tone.

Then I’m working on that beast of a partial redraft, the dragon book.

Sigh.

My issue with the book is purely psychological. I’m making slow, steady progress, but it viscerally hurts to work on it because of some structural issues I accidentally put into the damaged areas (the original draft was the second? third? book I ever attempted to write, so there are some genuine weaknesses to be culled out in the second act).

However, the first part of the book is stellar, so I am pushing through. Carefully.

I have a bunch of other things on the back burner, currently. I’m focused on clearing the queue, as it were, and freeing up some space in my mind while building out the eventual bookshelf of finished things.

Slow, slow, slow, but the tortoise perseveres and all that.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Carrie the invalid is heading back into medical supervision for the second time in one afternoon.

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The Actress Who Would Make A Good Mouse

I worked with an older man a long time ago on a student project. The entire scenario was a mess; he wanted to produce a classical piece, had neither the chutzpah nor the balls to make the attempt, and reverted to a weird blend of neo-dadaism and theatrical posturing to avoid the question.

In plainer language, he really thought that he ought to play Hamlet, couldn’t talk anyone into using him for a real production, and so wrote a very strange half-experimental mish-mash of soap opera nonsense and called the main character Hamlet.

He played the main character.

Anyway, I dropped out of the project partway through for fairly obvious reasons (namely that he was a mess, the project was a mess, and it was a big visual accident waiting to happen), but the guy had the very rare ability to talk coherently about script construction, so I worked with him for a while on doctoring his (very strange) script.

I should explain, I was in the project at first as an actor. This guy was weird.

The reason I’m writing this now is that I’m thinking about something that happened in auditions and then callbacks for the project.

This guy wanted to use a redhead I knew as the Ophelia character. His reason for choosing her?

“You look like a little mouse, cowering into the corner.”

When being yelled at, she cowered in a way he liked, and he felt this was an appropriate flavor for Ophelia.

Yeah, he was an awful man, and I stopped talking to him after a little while, but the actress was flummoxed by his attitude.

This guy, like a lot of male and female directors I worked with over the years, observed female-presenting actors as mere props to be used in shows for the reactive emotions they could display.

Like being a mouse cowering, or having a good and dignified ‘classical’ face.

I pondered this phenomenon for some time, being in the very odd position of a bio-girl taught to act like a boy and present as a trans-male. My life was complicated. Anyway. I thought about this a lot, and I had grown adept, over the years, at mimicking and creating convincing reproductions of a variety of gendered behaviors.

Because of my background, I approached theatre production with an idea that I could use the leftover actors, the actors that no one else knew how to use or was willing to use.

I picked up the scraps and started to teach them things that I knew how to do.

Off-topic: Here’s a practice sketch for motion.

dressage

The reason I’m thinking about this today is that I’ve come, more and more over the years, to see writing as belonging to two general camps: 1. Writing produced by abusers and 2. Writing produced by good people.

Note: Many people who have been abused (and that’s everyone) reproduce abusive attitudes in their writing without at all meaning to; these people are not abusers, and the abuse floats within the writing and is easily fixed.

There are tells everywhere in a genuinely abusive person’s work. The way they strip volition or dignity from some characters while building up the import or abilities of others; the tone they take in describing locales or emotional events; and last but certainly not least, the attitude conveyed by the narrative tone when it comes to disaster.

I’m not going to talk about any of those things right now because reasons, but what I am going to talk about for two more seconds is how to discern whether you are, unwittingly or not, writing abuse into your novel.

Big question, right? Seems like a sweeping overgeneralization, yes? Probably bit off more than I can chew with the proposition, hm?

Well, here’s how to tell, and it’s super easy, and it takes about four seconds.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

See, that’s how long it would take to know if you’re writing abusive prose or not.

Curious?

Here you go, and once you know the procedure, it’s simple and straightforward.

First, you fix your mind on the main character. If you write omni-POV or something, focus your thoughts on the central crew whose thoughts the reader inhabits, or whose actions form the primary connection to the reader’s experience.

Once you have a good emotional hold on the feel of the character or characters, close your eyes and thrust the heat of your heart forward in time, towards the end goal.

Every story has an end goal. Every single one has a purpose, an emotional state that is the finishing picture of the words. Even something vague and fantastical, experimental and seemingly structurally formless, has a distinct and meditative emotional state as the clear end goal.

There is an emotional goal of communication you are attempting to achieve in the reader by writing down words.

If you learn to do this for yourself, you can also apply the trick to any story you pick up or absorb through any means; look for the ending, the panache of “I am complete!” within the progression of the words and doings of the main character or group of characters.

Once you have focused your mind on the main movers, and cast your heart-energy forward into the future, towards the ending and coalescence of the emotion conveyed within the work, ask yourself:

“Up or down?”

Is that eventual, tentative emotional conveyance moving your internal energy up and out, or is your energy moving down and in?

If your internal substructures of energy and soul move in and down, your body and mind are telling you to retreat, to hunker in and protect yourself from harm. If your energy moves out and up, expanding towards the verge of your skin and possibly even extending towards the outer world, beyond the boundary of your physical being, then your body and mind are saying, “Yes, I can grow, I can relax; I am safe.”

Now, that is the four-second test, and here is how you evaluate your results.

If you are looking into your own writing, at a particular story, and your energy moves down and inwards, you are flinching in preparation for kickback from potential readers because you know in your heart that you are deliberately hurting people, and you’re preparing for a fight.

If, when you look into your main characters and cast your heart forward to the emotional end, your energy moves up and outwards, you are sharing your true inner self with genuine, human desire for connection and communication.

I’ll give you half a guess which response indicates abusive writing, and the half-guess doesn’t count.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and today in my current novel, a former prostitute is facing demons with a murderer. There is chocolate involved, as well as doctored identification documents.

Why Breathing Is A Better Strategy Than Panicking

mountains

Here is a sketch from me looking at landscapes.

I’m working on expanding my word choice for the current series I’m developing. I’m okay with my general word palette being pretty consistent over the course of one series. My touchstone metaphors and described behaviors are fairly consistent within the universe of each individual series, but I am feeling gun-shy about repeating particular verbs too often.

How Many Times Should A Character [verb], For Example?

On the other hand, I really don’t like it when writers stretch so far beyond the point of casual readability that you feel as if they’re sitting with a thesaurus and making esoteric word choices just to keep from repeating any one word more than twice. I don’t like that either. So there’s a balance I want to achieve.

I’ve been thinking about the time when I, a dancer, was going to my local studio all the time. It was frustrating because one of my important classes got canceled right through the summer that I had the most time to practice, so I got behind on classical training catch-up, and had to practice on my own, which is still good, but not nearly so useful as having a teacher on hand to correct arm placement and all that.

I’m Also Agonizing Over Comma Styles Lately

I was reading a story today where the author made a premise and then jolted into a flashback as a casual way to sneak out of any action happening in the present moment.

I didn’t like that. I thought that author was behaving like a dastardly and sleazy skunk. I’d rather the author gave the premise and then followed through on it, and didn’t squeeze two or three stories into the umbrella of a lie (the lie being, in this case, that all the narrative fits under the original premise). (Because it didn’t! No action happened at all under the original premise! Booooo!)

I think, based on my own experiences, that authors often avoid making action and significant change, and often backtrack and dither. Here’s an example of that:

BAD Writing

Silas pulled out the can of shotgun shells and sorted through for the one he wanted. Today was the day he was going to hunt after that big doe, the floppy black one with big haunches and vicious red eyes.

(Here’s where that sneaky, avoidant backtracking normally comes into play.)

Silas remembered the first time he’d seen old floppy-ears. He closed his eyes as he was lost in the mists of long ago within the confines of his sappy mind.

(Sudden flashback to years earlier!)

He pulled up his jacket and shifted his rifle against his arm as he strode through the empty cars and the discarded clothes and possessions on the freeway. The giant, man-eating rabbits didn’t come out this way often, but it was better to be prepared.

Suddenly! A black do with floppy ears! Her eyes were so red! And her large front teeth sharp, violent! He could imagine those teeth stained with his own blood! Probably the blood from his neck where he thought she would sink her horrible bunny teeth in and chew him limb from limb, or head from torso, really, since it was his neck he was thinking of.

Silas brought his gun up and sighted along the barrel, fully prepared to brutally destroy this fine creature of predatory dominance over the fallen, extinguished-almost race of man! The rabbit looked up! She dashed away!

(Return to present moment.)

That darned rabbit always got away, Silas thinks to himself sadly. He was so depressed about how he’d never caught her before that he gave up on the hunt and went back to bed.

GOOD Writing

Silas pulled out the can of shotgun shells and sorted through for the one he wanted. Today was the day he was going to hunt after that big doe, the floppy black one with big haunches and vicious red eyes.

He felt the shiver of the morning air over his bare arms; the rabbits always went for his biceps, because they wanted to taste skin right away under their awful, slathering jowls, and Silas wore a mask and full-body suit to draw the rabbits onto his arms.

He’d rigged a sort of invisible armor, a kind of electrical system that ran from his wrist cufflets to his shoulder gear, and the rabbit who bit down on his arm was a rabbit that got its brain shocked, hard. Silas had thought when he’d first invented the arm-guards that he would be able to stroll among the bunnies and let them bite his arms and kill themselves, but he had found that his arm system was more of a last-defense, as it ended up stunning a rabbit for three seconds and then turned the animal crazy and rabid. He took the massive rabbits out from afar as often as he could.

Silas stood for a long moment at the mouth of his hideout, looking along the destroyed highway and the many piles of scrap metal, where the bunny families had chewed abandoned cars to pieces. He hoisted his ram-fire weapon over his shoulder, patted the useful shotgun buckled to his body, and strolled out into the early morning air to find the black doe.

She’d left her spoor near the left-hand exit again, and it was fresh. Silas licked his lips as he imagined roasting fresh rabbit over a bonfire tonight. He hadn’t eaten a doe for a long time now, almost two weeks, and he hoped to be able to strip her body and store up rabbit jerky for the winter.

Silas tracked the doe to a cluster of trees and spotted her nibbling at a lower branch. She was fully fifteen feet, from nose to fluffy tail, and her hide was slick, ebony, and looked very soft. I will make her into a bed, Silas thought, and he cautiously unfastened his shotgun and put down his larger ram-fire cannon in the same motion. Die, bunny, Silas thought, as he lifted his gun and aligned the sights with her violent crimson eye.

And So

Following through on a premise is a good way to gain trust and confidence in the reader’s mind. Abandoning a premise mid-story (or anywhere within the story, really), is a rude thing to do.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Dave Tinnels is about to have a very interesting conversation with a dead gangster’s bodyguard.

Emotional Texture

Last night I was thinking about emotional texture underlying words. This is so easy to put in, and is analogous to emotional history work and secrets for an actor.

Richness And  Complexity

When you play a character on stage, the first thing you do to develop the role is say the lines out loud, and feel how they sound in your mouth.

As an author, the first draft is a similar experience, as you feel out how the actions go and see how they lay visually on the page when conveyed in words.

More Practice

(Here is a texture study of an octopus that I am working on. Source photos is here.)

octo

Once you’ve felt out the sounds of the action, or the lines of dialogue, you start to play pretend, and that’s where emotional texture comes in.

I was watching a film the other day and was noticing how the emotional texturing had been completely left out of the dialogue. The characters were speaking first-draft words, and the storied history of the implied exchange was missing, though the actors were doing a bang-up job of pushing a lot of emotional history work in despite the undeveloped writing.

Emotional Texture

Emotional texture is created by regular injections of

  1. Personalized, internally-processed sensory input. One particular character sees, hears, smells, feels, or touches something targeted and specific.
  2. That same character has a past-reflective reaction to the sensory experience.

Basically you’re creating an anchor in the deep past within the character and coating that anchor with present sensations. This makes layers within the emotional feel of the character and gives you texture, history, and depth.

Super easy.

Here’s what it looks like when you leave emotional texture out and then what it looks like if you put the texture in afterwards:

BAD Writing:

Damien shut down the simulator and went down the hallway to the murder room.

“How was it that time?” he asked through the speaker grid.

“Pretty good, I think. Let’s run it one more time with, um, the butane levels up another two percent. I feel like we can get a stronger burn effect over the clothes,” a woman’s voice replied.

“Sure thing. Tell me when you’re set in there,” Damien said. A moment passed.

“Go for it,” the woman said. Damien nodded and strolled back to the master desk to activate the fire jets once more.

GOOD Writing:

Damien shut down the simulator; the black grip of the handle made a soft impress against his palm, and the familiar shoot of excitement traveled down his spine as he thought of what the body would look like this time. He’d felt this way ever since his first experiments on the manikins, and the anticipation never dulled. Damien licked his lower lip and went down the hallway to the locked murder room.

“How’s it looking? Did we get the scorch marks?” Damien asked through the speaker grid. A faint crackle came from the other side where one of the women, Avery this time, was overseeing the facsimile corpse while wearing a protective suit.

“This is pretty good, I think,” Avery said through the speaker. “Before you come in I want to see how we do with a little more heat on the inside of the flame and less burn on the shell. Let’s run it one more time with, um, the butane levels up another two percent. I feel like we can get a stronger burn effect over the clothes with the charring we’re looking for.” Avery’s voice came through with a tinny vibration from the combination of the speaker on her suit and the grid in the wall.

“Sure thing. Tell me when you’re set in there,” Damien said. A moment passed. Damien felt the rush of air conditioning tickle against his face and imagined the sear and stink of burning plastic and formative synthetic flesh that would be filling the murder room right now. Avery would be turning the body, arranging the un-singed half of the corpse against the metallic torch the department was developing.

Another light crackle came at the mesh speaker.

“Go for it,” Avery said. Damien tapped his knuckles against the speaker grid and strolled back to the control desk to adjust the fuel settings and activate the fire jet once more.

And So

When writing, consider emotional texture, and see if you’re putting in the kind of emotionally-satisfying ribbing underneath the character interactions and dialogue that lends richness, clear history, and depth to your words.

Emotional texture requires present sensation combined with past-anchored reactions to the sensation. Easy peasy, and enjoyable to write, too.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and Ashley Kelly’s relatives are turning out to be epic heels and destroyers of happiness and childhood. Also, Catero has adopted another son, and the young man’s name is Esteban.

When To Start Fleshing In World-Building

This is what a first draft looks like:

Jeff didn’t mean to kill his sister. It all started the afternoon the alien overlords made themselves known. Jeff won, or lost, depending on your perspective, the lottery for human tokens, and was taken into the mother ship on a Tuesday.

His alien turned out to be a fat corpuscular vein-ridden white blob who had the vague appearance of a Biblical matron, though Jeff couldn’t tell if this was a result of the big gray beard or the colorful, feminine robes.

The first thing that happened to Jeff was a cosmetic surgery to make him appear female on the outside, and the second was a partial body-replacement to make him fertile and capable of carrying a pregnancy. After those two things were finished, he got fitted with what felt like a pair of blue dentures and a pair of spongey earphones. Jeff was ushered back into the room where the corpuscular bearded alien resided.

“Take off your clothes or I’ll kill you,” the white blob-face said. The alien’s voice came vibrating through the spongey earphones and made Jeff’s teeth ache. He took off his clothes. He was not at all used to his girlish body yet, having inhabited it for less than two days. “Speak,” the alien commanded.

“Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said. The blue dentures clamped down on his teeth and gums, and a different sound came out. He could just hear the echo of his own words through the earphones.

“Jeff. I wanted a girl,” the alien said, in a tone that, to Jeff, spelled clear displeasure.

“I have a sister,” Jeff said. He was appalled, as soon as he’d said this. He had not at all meant to draw attention to the existence of Valerie. Jeff was nervous, and wanted to make a good impression. He’d only tried to make small talk.

As he watched the white blobbish alien open a dark cavity and slaver a pale blue tongue over what appeared to be mushy lips, Jeff shivered. I could say that she’s dead, Jeff thought, but this was a lie that would so easily be found out that he didn’t dare. He held his breath and waited for the alien to speak.

“How old?” it asked.

“I’m twenty-six,” Jeff said.

“Not you. The female,” the alien said. Jeff started to tremble.

Tiny Break For Drawings!

Here are some more practice sketches:

torso

This is when world-building comes into play:

Jeff didn’t mean to kill his sister. It (this word is too vague: what started, exactly? Clues can be added here of when/where this is happening, as well as details that can show who Jeff is [age, situation, general physical appearance]) all started the afternoon the alien overlords made themselves known (this could easily be replaced with a couple of details to give more grounded information about how and why they revealed themselves). Jeff won, or lost, depending on your perspective (the word ‘your’ should be replace with an internally-consistent address, and also, info on who would be pleased to be chosen would be wise to insert here), the lottery for human tokens (what human tokens are needs to be at least hinted at hear, to avoid excess reader frustration), and was taken (by whom was he taken? This is a crazy-good opportunity for powerful world-building, especially as it pertains to the aliens) into the mother ship on a Tuesday (what day it was only matters if it adds tone or give more information on Jeff or the aliens, so this phrasing might need to change, depending on how the world-building in the rest of the sentence goes).

His alien (are they assigned to only one? More detail about how the token human process works is needed) turned out to be a fat corpuscular vein-ridden white blob (this must be cleaned up, and also, commas added in when needed) who had the vague appearance of a Biblical matron (promising phrase, but not clear enough, as we don’t know how big he/she/it is), though Jeff couldn’t tell if this was a result of the big gray beard (what?!) or the colorful, feminine robes (how feminine? Are there curves? Again, what?!).

The first thing that happened (this is an extremely passive phrase; who did it to him? This is essential world-building info.) to Jeff was a cosmetic surgery to make him appear female on the outside (details are needed on this, because it could mean several different things. Also, who is performing the surgery, and is it with alien tech? How long does it take, etc.?), and the second was a partial body-replacement (also intriguing, but what?!) to make him fertile and capable of carrying a pregnancy (why? And an alien kid, or a human one?). After those two things were finished (again, by whom? The timeline is too vague), he got fitted (by whom? There’s a pattern of passive actions that is driving me nuts.) with what felt like a pair of blue dentures and a pair of spongey earphones. Jeff was ushered back into the room where the corpuscular bearded (prev) alien resided.

“Take off your clothes or I’ll kill you,(are human tokens that disposable? Does Jeff know if the alien really will kill him?) the white blob-face said. The alien’s voice came vibrating through the spongey earphones and made Jeff’s teeth ache. He took off his clothes (what was he wearing? More potential world texture, for how the aliens have dressed him). He was not at all used to his girlish body (what does it look like?!) yet, having inhabited it for less than two days. (Okay, here’s some timeline, but too little and too late in the action. This should be earlier.) “Speak,” the alien commanded.

“Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said. The blue dentures clamped down on his teeth and gums, and a different sound came out. He could just hear the echo of his own words through the earphones. (Can he hear his English words, or only the alien translation?)

“Jeff. I wanted a girl,” the alien said, in a tone that, to Jeff, spelled clear displeasure.

“I have a sister,” Jeff said. He was appalled, as soon as he’d said this. He had not at all meant to draw attention to the existence of Valerie. Jeff was nervous, and wanted to make a good impression. (Why does he want to make a good impression? What are the relations between humans and aliens at this time? Is he some kind of ambassador?) He’d only tried to make small talk.

As he watched the white blobbish alien open a dark cavity and slaver a pale blue tongue over what appeared to be mushy lips, (I still want more of an initial description of the alien earlier on, so I can imagine the mouth and tongue better, if it looks like a mouth.) Jeff shivered. I could say that she’s dead, Jeff thought, but this was a lie that would so easily be found out that he didn’t dare. He held his breath and waited for the alien to speak.

“How old?” it asked.

“I’m twenty-six,” Jeff said.

“Not you. The female,” the alien said. Jeff started to tremble.

And now, with world-building:

Jeff didn’t want to kill his sister. The whole ugly mess, and Jeff’s descent into murder, began one quiet, snow-carpeted Tuesday when Jeff was preparing for his dissertation defense in the university library.

If he hadn’t been fixated on his graduate work, he probably would have heard a lot sooner about the fact that aliens had revealed themselves to the human race, and announced that they were prepared to become benign overlords and advanced mentors to the people of Earth.

Unfortunately for Jeff, he had arrived at the library at five in the morning, his dark blond hair shoved under a cap and his ears muffled already in noise-cancelling headphones, and he remained in a secluded study nook until well past midnight. He missed the entire day’s events, and walked home through the fresh-falling snow without once looking up from the slushy sidewalk.

Jeff only realized something was different when he climbed the concrete steps to his apartment building. His eyes were on the ground, and he saw a thick cluster of boots and shoes lining the higher steps.

Jeff looked up. It appeared to him that most of the residents of the building had attempted to squeeze onto the tiny staircase. More people were crowded in the entryway beyond the open double doors. His first thought was that it was too cold to leave the front doors open. He recognized Mrs. Henaly, and her expression was so tight and pinched that he glanced around at the other faces. They looked excited and afraid. Jeff blinked and looked down the darkened street.

A second crowd of people were jammed into the next door building’s front stoop, and Jeff turned and saw a third collection of gawkers at the steps of the building on the other side.

They were all staring at him. Jeff looked back at them, and no one said a word. Jeff suppressed a shiver and continued up the stairs. He had expected the crowd to part. My grandmother is dead, probably, Jeff told himself, though he knew this was a very unlikely excuse for the kind of attention so many strangers were lavishing upon him. None of the residents of the building moved at all; they formed an impenetrable barrier of bodies.

“Can I get through, please?” Jeff asked. He reached up and pulled his noise-cancelling earphones down to hang around his neck.

As soon as they headphones shifted from over his hears, Jeff heard a load, raging echo, like the thunder of stampeding beasts. The sound filled the air, and seemed to throttle right into his heart, and shake him. He couldn’t imagine how he hadn’t heard it at first, for the noise made his body tremble. He realized, after a moment, that it was not the volume of the sound, but a sibilant quality of portentous rumble that made him vibrate.

I’m afraid; it isn’t loud, Jeff told himself, and he looked around to find a causation for the sound. He could see nothing but the dim shadows of the crowded people at either neighboring building, and when he turned to look at the street, several pairs of hands reached out and pushed him hard from behind.

Jeff stumbled down the concrete steps and fell down in the slush and fresh-fallen snow.

“Hey!” he said, twisting to see who had pushed him.

A personage that Jeff could only describe to himself as an alien stood between him and the stairs.

“Your people have cooperated. They keep the curfew. We will not enter on their steps,” the alien said. The creature was fully seven feet tall, dark blue, apparently naked, and very gracefully-thin. Jeff couldn’t see the eyes at all, but the face looked vaguely humanoid.

“What’s going on? What’s–what is this?” Jeff asked.

“Will you come in good peace, or shall I take you by force?” the alien asked.

“Where am I going?” Jeff asked. He tried to see the faces of the people on the stairs of the building, but many of them had retreated into the apartment complex. Mrs. Henaly was still by the open door, staring at him with an inscrutable expression in her eyes.

“Up,” the alien said, pointing to the sky with one long blue finger.

“Do I have a choice?” Jeff asked.

“It would seem you are of low intelligence. Unfortunate,” the alien said, and it crouched and laid hold of Jeff’s shoulder.

“Well, wait!” Jeff shouted, but his body was disintegrating, and the street pulled away from his view.

And then the story keeps going towards the information already established in the first draft

When writing fiction about strange worlds or creatures, I find it best to start with an encapsulating action through-line, and then to go through the draft again and add the padding necessary to create a lush and desirable world.

World-building, to me, doesn’t work very well when you begin with charts and details about cultures. Characters reveal culture, and when you start with strong characters, the culture becomes resonant and living, as you world-build around an established core thread of action and character relationship.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current book, one of Crikey’s employees is having an awkward conversation with his wife right now.

Characters Being Kind To Each Other

I’ve been reading several stories to explore relational dynamics in people’s fiction. Something that keeps catching me off guard is how rude characters regularly are to each other. What surprises me is when the author cloaks acerbic bitterness in the guise of cleverness or an attempt at humor.

Because A Well-Formed Zinger Is Amazing

People being unnecessarily rude to each other is not entertaining or fun. That kind of dynamic is immature, toxic, and unpleasant.

I worked on group dynamics for a while as a director and theatre producer (super small time). I hope you guys don’t think I’m being all pretentious and shit. We were doing community theatre type stuff, but the experimental performance work I was doing with my actors was awesome. Anyway, I explored a lot with managing and shaping group dynamics.

To See If I Could Create Sustainable Magic, Interpersonally, Between The Actors

I had an actor once who gradually turned into such a problem that we had to fire her. The day after she was let go, the rehearsal was incredible. The difference that her being gone made was frankly unbelievable to me. It was as though eight people were missing, as far as needing to carry relationships and maintain goodwill between all the actors.

I don’t actually think it was her (the actor’s) big actions that caused so many problems; it was her constant, never-ceasing way of trying to be funny (and really just being mean). Once the grating, continuous agitation of her ill-advised attempts at humor was gone, everyone got along easily and had a pretty peachy experience.

In Her Absence, Bonding Skyrocketed

I think, and this is just my personal take, that most novel problems are not actually big plot or writing issues; I think most fiction issues stem from commonplace rudeness between characters.

Examples

Characters Being Rude

Bianca waved her magic fan, and a huge spiral of golden dust sprang up from the desert and formed into a hard tower of pure yellow stone.

Good, she thought, pushing back her ebony curls and indulging in a satisfied smirk. Let’s see Bart ignore this, the self-serving jerk.

Bianca’s thick green skirts made a swish against the sand as she swayed into the bottom entrance to the tower and began to climb the stairs.

Bart, the government inspector of all magical structures colored yellow, soon appeared and knocked on the tower door.

“Bianca, you’ve got at least sixteen code violations on this new piece of spellwork,” Bart shouted.

Bianca leaned out of an upstairs window of the tower and beamed.

“Oh, it’s clumsy old Bart! Are you coming to take my tower down?” she asked.

“No, Bianca, but to start with, you have to change the shape of the stairs, and your walls are two inches too thin for the height you have going on here.”

“You’re two inches too thick, silly Bart!” Bianca called down with a ringing laugh.

“Oh, Bianca, you know that I’m in love with you. Please alter your tower. I hate doing the paperwork for a seizure of private magical property,” Bart said with a slow sigh.

“Get your ugly face up those stairs, and negotiate with me in person,” Bianca said. Her eyelashes made a flutter. Bart blushed.

Remember, most people want to be around pleasant folk. If your characters consistently lack common courtesy, re-examine whether it is effective characterization or completely unnecessary jibing. Because narratively-unsupported jibes and take-downs aren’t pleasant.

Characters With Courtesy

Bianca waved her magic fan, and a huge spiral of golden dust sprang up from the desert and formed into a hard tower of pure yellow stone. She’d been planning the structure for weeks, and designing every inch.

Okay, she thought, pushing back her ebony curls and feeling a wave of nerves. Let’s see what Bart has to say about this. Bianca had a crush on Bart, and, to fabricate an excuse for a visit, she had just made several major code violations on her new, ostensibly vital tower.

Bianca’s thick green skirts made a swish against the sand as she went into the bottom entrance to the tower and began to climb the stairs. Her fingertips were trembling. Her mind was on Bart’s green eyes and stodgy expression. Bianca held in a sigh.

Bart, the government inspector of all magical structures colored yellow, soon appeared and knocked on the tower door.

“Bianca, you’ve got at least sixteen code violations on this new piece of spellwork,” Bart shouted.

Bianca leaned out of an upstairs window of the tower and felt like she was about to throw up.

“Oh, it’s you, Bart! Are you coming to take my tower down?” she asked, her insides on fire.

“No, Bianca, but to start with, you have to change the shape of the stairs, and your walls are two inches too thin for the height you have going on here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Bart! I’ll get right on that!” Bianca called down with a gasping laugh.

“Do you want a complete list of the problems, Bianca? I’d hate to have to come out again. Your work is usually top-notch,” Bart called.

“Would you like to come in, Bart?” Bianca asked. She waited for his answer and felt ready to explode with heat.

“Well, your floors are showing up as layers of compressed sand, Bianca, down in the office. I’d rather speak to you outdoors. I don’t want anything to collapse on me,” Bart explained.

“I’ll be right down!” Bianca cried, and she almost started to sob as she ran for the stairs. Now, she reflected with abject misery, he will think I’ve lost my mind and become incompetent. I should only have made two violations. Darn!

Conclusions

Readers, in my experience, are very sensitive to rudeness, coarseness, interpersonal cruelty, and advantage-taking of any kind.

Ill manners are like a very strong, distinctive color on a paint palette; indiscriminate use of poor behavior mars the work as a whole and turns off most readers (the majority of whom have an intuitive grasp of gentility).

Just as with a neon green or a harsh, burning yellow, rudeness can highlight and set off a piece of fiction. Often, the rudeness of one character, or in a particular part of a scene becomes the distinctive turning point of an entire story. Highlights only work when they’re used very carefully, and kept out of the rest of the work. Be careful of what your character’s rudeness is communicating to the reader, and make sure zingy snips of humor are actually funny, and not subtle put-downs, because those add up over time and leave a sour taste in the reader’s mind.

ris2

This is a super rough sketch of a character from a story about centaurs. This guy is a leader from the Tree Islands, and he’s in love with my main character, Eueen.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I’m rewriting a section from one of my manuscripts where my main character, alas, was being unforgivably rude for no reason at all. Bad writing on my part. Also, today is Tuesday.

 

How To Prevent Gaping Plot Holes

Writing a novel is a complicated business. The last thing you need, as an author, is a gaping plot hole. Want to know how I avoid them?

I Feel So Silly

I feel silly talking like this, you know, because I have about twenty completed manuscripts, in various stages of editing, but only two works published right now. So here I am, talking about how I’m managing things, and I look like a kid who dashed out a couple of novels last year sometime.

But I Do, In Fact, Finish Books

My background is in acting and performance, so I care a lot about presentation and overall effect. Ergo, I’m sitting on a lot of completed work and shoving it around in different ways until I feel it has the proper zing, as a body of work. You know. Because I’m vain.

Anyway, Plot Holes!

To me, there are three different kinds of plot holes:

  1. Emotional Plot Holes
  2. Actual ‘Plot’ Plot Holes
  3. Thematic Plot Holes

Emotional Holes

Emotional holes are where a character’s motivation is missing, or a whole social group’s mindset is too convenient, or shaped against what would feel natural to the reader. Any kind of authorial cheating, in an emotionally justifying sense, is a plot hole, to me, because that kind of skipping or bending the natural progression of emotions creates a blank space in my mind, where I can’t follow the next part of the story.

Regular, Plain Old Plot Holes

Actual ‘plot’ plot holes are the conventional ones that everyone hears about, or that you probably think of when you hear “Plot Hole.” You know, a literal gap or inexplicable (or unjustifiable) blip in the structure of the storyline. This is a problem in the literal events or described actions in the plot.

Theme Holes

Thematic plot holes are, for me, the most common and irritating problems in a story. This is when the author changes core themes in the middle of a story, or, more usually, right in the last few chapters or scenes of a book.

People do this (thematic holes) all the time when they write stories, and I hate it. I hate it!

Let’s look at some examples, and then I’ll give you my two-step process for keeping glaring plot holes (all three kinds) away for good.

Examples

Setup:

Gobo, the last surviving chieftain of the blumbeheads, was the first and the last of his people to take up the wind spirits on the offer to become fully materialized in bodies of flesh and blood. Before Gobo took flesh, his people’s bodies were composed of soft, silky bubbles. They easily burst and often died by accident in the breezy flurries that came over the mountains and drove the blumbeheads down against the pointy grass.

Gobo’s people were not extinct, because they reproduced so easily and quickly. Many times, a blumbehead gave birth to thirty little ones in the morning and perished quietly in the mid-afternoon. Gobo’s particular forefathers, the ancient chieftains, had been thicker than the others, less easily destroyed by the natural obstacles all around them, but Gobo, seeing by the increasing breezy turbulence that he was probably going to die really soon, went to the top of Mud Mountain and asked for a coating of flesh and blood.

This was the beginning of man. Gobo was lonely, of course, and so he scraped off some of his still-soft new body and slapped it over a bubble that was drifting around nearby. Now there were two, Gobo and his friend. Their bodies hardened soon, and Gobo could no longer make new bodies by taking off his own flesh.

Before too long, all the blumbeheads were contriving to roll in mud or tar, and soon there were no true blumbeheads left at all. Most of Gobo’s people died in the pursuit of fleshy forms, and not one of them thought of climbing to the top of Mud Mountain to ask the wind spirits for a physical body.

BAD WRITING: Emotional Plot Hole (the “why” of continuity is completely absent)

After Gobo realized his superiority to the group, he chose out several followers, murdered the rest of the mud-people in their sleep, and traveled up the mountain the kill the wind spirits, too.

He led his new, savage folk to the edge of the sea and they took up fishing and learned how to eat food instead of air.

BAD WRITING: Actual ‘Plot’ Plot Hole (pieces of this plot are missing . . . )

After Gobo was substantial, and had gained a fellow fleshy person, he decided to go over and join up with the other physically-sturdy living things on the land just next to the blumbehead’s ancestral fields.

Gobo’s best friend said they really ought to go after the wind spirits, since the war between the wind people and the blumbeheads’ creators was getting so bad lately.

The war was over quickly, and everyone got back to normal life, except that Gobo’s son was really angry about how the final battle had gone, so he killed his father.

BAD WRITING: Thematic Plot Hole (the deep subject matter changes suddenly)

Because none of the other blumbeheads climbed up Mud Mountain and requested help from the wind spirits, but mashed clumsy bodies for themselves from mud or tar, the wind spirits grew weary of helping protect them, and blew away to the other side of the world.

Abandoned to themselves, Gobo and his true-flesh friend looked over the clumsy iterations of men the blumbeheads had formed themselves into and found themselves disgusted.

“We are different to these creatures,” Gobo’s friend said to him.

“Let’s go and figure out how to conquer all the world, since we’re better than everyone!” Gobo exclaimed.

“Wow, excellent plan!” his friend agreed.

GOOD WRITING: No Plot Holes of Any Kind

The wind spirits, disgusted by the disobedience and ingratitude of the blumbeheads, blew far away, and Gobo found himself all alone with his fleshy friend, and the ruler over a vast array of monstrous tar- and mud-formed people.

Gobo didn’t like this state of affairs, and one night, he had a whispered conversation with his friend, who was a man called Pecko.

“Let’s chase after the wind spirits, and ask for help to make equals for us,” Gobo said.

“You mean, to form mates, and have progeny?” Pecko asked.

The blumbeheads, having mashed themselves into physical forms without the help of the wind spirits, could no longer make children. Gobo and Pecko were sure they were capable of some manner of procreation in their new and interesting bodies, but they were both male.

“You really should have thought of that, when you put your malleable flesh onto another blumbehead,” Pecko added. “You might have chosen a female.”

“I realize that now, but I still like you,” Gobo said politely.

“Well, let’s go and see if we can find the wind spirits, and we’ll ask for help,” Pecko agreed.

Gobo and Pecko stole away that same night, and covered the signs of their departure. Without their chieftain, the clumsy mud people who had once been beautiful blumbeheads got into petty fights, destroyed each other, and soon became extinct. Their half-formed bodies of earth and tar crumbled back into the ground and no sign of their existence showed.

Gobo and Pecko journeyed for many months through mountains and over rivers and into dense forests before they found a the leftover scent of a true wind spirit’s presence.

“We will find them soon,” Gobo assured his friend. Pecko nodded, and they went on.

Two Useful Ploys to Avoid Any Bad Plot Holes

First: Follow the first idea all the way to conclusion

Stick with that idea, and don’t add to it, improve it, or try to fancy it up with extra notions. Clean, powerful story comes from rhetorical simplicity and focus.

Every story, no matter its length, begins with a flavor, a rhetorical spark, an initial impression. If you follow that actual idea all the way to the ending point, and into whatever new forms of fresh idea that such an ending inevitably produces, you won’t have thematic plot holes, and if you are faithful to the nuances produced by the idea, you won’t have ‘plot’ plot holes, either.

Emotional plot holes are tricky, and often require outside input to avoid, but as long as you have one or two trusted readers who will be brutally honest with you about when your characters stop making sense to them, and as long as you get really good, over time, at understanding vulnerability and coherent characterizations, these should be taken care of as well.

Two: Listen to your readers

You’ve got to find someone who understands you, cares about story, and wants a good book more than they want to be friends with you. You can’t make a great story without feedback, but you have to have the guts to listen to unpleasant things about how poorly your story is communicating in the weak parts.

Really good readers are hard to find, but they’re the best way to avoid plot holes. An excellent reader will get indignant and somewhat incandescent with rage over blips in the story.

Over time, hopefully, you get better at sensing potential plot holes yourself, and have fewer issues with initial drafts.

In Conclusion

I think there are three different kinds of plot holes.

  • Emotional plot holes (inconsistencies within character or social reaction)
  • Actual ‘plot’ plot holes (problems in the construction of the sequence of events)
  • Thematic plot holes (changes in deep subject matter of the plot at any point within the story)

Plot holes are avoided by remaining faithful to the rhetorical core of the initial story idea, and by listening to the brutal honesty of your best readers.

You’re reading Victor Poole. In my current novel, Crikey just got a new bodyguard this morning, and some of Crikey’s uncles’ guards are coming later tonight to see if they can integrate into Crikey’s household. Some of Crikey’s uncles are talking about moving in to his building permanently.