Tuesday Tidbits: What We Don’t See

What we don’t tell in a story is just as important as what we do.

I think of stories as being set in living worlds, thousands of other lives, other adventures, taking place around the main thread of telling.

Although some authors attempt to chase these many threads into madness, most stories pull one or two and leave the other stories to fall to the side.

But what if the stories that aren’t being told are just as important as the ones that are?

I’ve always been interested in the art formed by negative spaces. The ability to use the shadows and the emptiness around a foreground object to create a more interesting picture is something that has always interested me as a writer.

Stories seldom start on the first page of the book.

They are the product of all the events that have happened before and during and after, connecting at the point the narrator observes them. Even avoiding philosophy, we don’t get always get to choose what narrative we’re thrust into in our own lives. When living, we have to take the scene set before us and hope we make our way successfully across the stage.

The main character of With Honor Intact runs into problems because she is missing pieces of other people’s stories. The “Tales from the Virtue Inn” series is a fast-moving modern fable, but it is also fundamentally a mystery. Honor’s decision to cut ties with her home as a teenager means that she is missing the crucial pieces of information she needs to survive in the strange world of the magical Inn she is managing.

Honor’s story is as much as about what she doesn’t know as what she does.

It is not magic to face an unfamiliar world unprepared.

It is not magic to balance our duties and desires on a swiftly changing stage.

The magic is that we make the attempt in the first place.

The magic is that we succeed.

The Larger PictureSometimes we miss the larger picture. Sometimes it’s better that we do.

The idea of a living world that the narrator tells of a small fraction of the activity is something that I have wanted to write for a very long time. “Tales from the Virtue Inn” explores the inevitable consequences of missing pieces of the bigger picture in a dangerous, fantastical setting.


With Honor Intact will be available digitally from all Amazon sites on April 23, 2015. To read the first book in the series, you can find The Guests of Honor here.

Every Dog His Day

Dogs like to be of use.

It’s in the bones for them, that need for concrete action.

(I think of that drive sometimes when I write. There are few characters more compelling and terrifying than those who need to serve.)

We do not always do well by them, those dogs of service.

Their need is so far beyond our ability to provide, our ability to give them the purpose they seek.

(I’ve seen dogs who’ve run flat for a week and only grown stronger.)

Sometimes they can overcome it, the wiring that drives them, that makes bright lights into enemies and moving objects into beasts to be herded.

Sometimes they find entire days where their needs lie satiated and quiet.

I like to think that these are the days they remember, the old dogs, fading and frozen.

Days of lazy sun and bright laughter.

Days of purpose served through an ever-rising joy.

IMG_1598Sometimes happiness is as simple, or as complicated, as a good yawn.

 

I’ve been keeping it under my hat until the process was nearly finished, but my second novel, With Honor Intact, is in the final stages of formatting now and will be available later this month. I’ll have more information about that later this week and a new weekly counterpart to the Sunday Ramblings! So, if you’ve been enjoying these strangely focused perspectives on the North, the outdoors, and writing, there will be more of that coming up.


While I currently am not writing about dogs, there are certainly canids and discussions of the perils of service to be found in my fantasy novel,The Guests of Honor. It is available here. The sequel, With Honor Intact, will be coming out later this month.

 

 

A Sense of Scale

I wish that there were more stories about the rich interior lives of garden-dwelling snails and carabid beetles.

I mean this very seriously.

Often when I read I am looking for a sense of wonder, of discovery, of venturing into worlds I could never have imagined if left to my own devices. Whether I look for poetry, mystery, biography or fantasy, I want to feel that prickle at the back of my neck as I see things in a way I have never considered.

The thing is, too often we associate this discovery with grand, world-shaking adventures.

While I enjoy large-scale epics of all kinds, I think that there are equally valuable stories to told about small things, things that fit between the cracks of our lived experiences.

A beetle trying to conceptualize the sky is something that pulls my mind in ways I would normally never think.

It’s not just the size of the inhabitants though.

Too often, grand stories lose the perspective that allows us to relate to and understand the scale of the events.

After the third or the fourth time the universe has blown up and been reversed once again by the hero, it becomes hard to care enough to conceptualize what the universe actually blowing up would look like.

Smaller stories have their own set of pitfalls of becoming so entwined in minutia that it becomes impossible to work out what is or isn’t important.

It’s not that one type of story-telling is better than the other.

It’s that I want a wider range of stories, full of events and insights that make my eyes open in wonder.

I want a grand, world-shaking hero striding across the land.

I want a garden-bound insect trying to eat enough cabbage to reproduce.

I want them both to look up at the sky-

-and be awed.

IMG_1412The sky is always so much larger than the scale we live in

I really am fascinated by carabid beetles and wish there was a much larger branch of story-telling that incorporated them.


For my own take on small versus large stories, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

Their Day in the Sun

I am  fascinated by background characters in stories. Often I use the treatment of these characters as a measure of how much I am going to enjoy the story itself.

There is a fine balance in writing stories and characters that sit to the side of the main action.

It is easy enough to make a story feel as though it is set in a diorama. It is easy enough to create the feeling that if you push hard enough on the surrounding scenery, the entire world will collapse into a pile of two-dimensional cardboard.

It is also easy to become distracted, to create side stories that become more engaging than the main story, that suck all the oxygen out of the plot and the conflict.

Like most spectra in writing, I prefer a balance between the two extremes.

But I also have a secret, guilty, contradict-myself pleasure.

I love seeing a secondary character get a moment to be fully, completely human.

While there is a real pleasure in being fully absorbed in the main character’s life and troubles, it can start to feel as if the world around them exists only to lead to their ultimate goal. Characters appear and disappear, acting as sounding boards or villains. After awhile, it becomes difficult to connect to anything outside of the main character.

This is why moments that connect me to the characters who aren’t telling their story can often be the most powerful points in a book.

In real life, it is easy to become entirely self-focused, allowing the world to spin around us without registering its other occupants.

Moments where we are forced to connect to others, to be reminded of a thousand other stories intersecting with ours, are vital.

When I am reading a story, I look, not just for a main character worth following, but for those in the background who will remind us that the sun shines on others as well.

IMG_1220Even a humble stalk of chard deserves its day in the sun

I am the kind of person who is always looking at the backgrounds of pictures.


If you are interested in my treatment of the background, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor is available here.

The Value of “Nice”

I love reading about small kindnesses. Grand gestures can have a profound impact on a reader, but I hold a deep soft spot for the little touches, the small moments of shared humanity.

Even in dark plots and darker events, moments where I can see characters do well by one another pull me more fully and happily into the story.

In my own life, it is not always the grand gestures that I remember, but the small moments where someone gave me a meal or helped me with a heavy load or explained something that confused me.

I treasure these moments in my own memories and whenever I see something like this in the story, it creates a moment of empathetic remembrance in my head.

I love writers who recognize the importance of small kindnesses and the profound or not-profound impact they can have on characters.

There is no need to dwell on these moments, and indeed they are often more powerful as a passing event.

Surely if we can fantasize about dragons and time travel and worlds without shrimp we can imagine more worlds where there are people who can gift a moment of unthinking kindness?

I enjoy stories where characters treat one another with respect, even if one of the characters comes across as foolish or silly.

While I enjoy sarcasm and witty comebacks, there is something profoundly refreshing about seeing people talk to one another as if they care about one another’s thoughts and feelings.

I do not think that fiction always needs to be a perfect model of the world we live in, although I think that fiction is tremendously valuable as a sideways mirror to our own lives and values.

However, when I escape into a world of mystery or fantasy or far-flung planets, sometimes I like to hope that the good has followed as well as the bad.

IMG_1113The strength of writing is in the blending of the imperfect and the sublime

I have a great weakness for fundamental decency. I am always looking for more stories that involve fundamentally decent characters.


I play around with kindness and its expectations and problems in my own writing. If you’d like to see those ideas, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

A Thing of Joy and Beauty

I love the moment when I’m reading and I forget to breathe. There is nothing like being so caught up in the beauty of the interior world that is being shared that I forget about the rest of my physical packaging.

While I speak often about things that I enjoy and don’t enjoy about stories, make no mistake that there are few things that bring me greater pleasure than a good book.

I still remember the first time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot and sucked in my breath with each consecutive image. The closing lines were:

 We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown              
Till human voices wake us, and we drown

I was twelve years old and I didn’t understand everything in the poem.

But when I put the book down and closed my eyes, I knew that I wanted to read stories that made me feel the way those lines made me feel.

It’s not just imagery of course that can pull the breath from my body. Characters that make me care, plot lines where the resolution is both brilliant and inevitable can hold me so close that I look up only to realize that the day around me has passed me by.

There are few stories that can maintain that kind of moment forever.

But those perfect, beautiful moments that create a world stronger than the one around me?

Those are the moments I read for.

My breath is precious.

A story that can steal it is valuable beyond words.

IMG_0993Some moments and images are perfect in themselves, whole and complete

I love reading. I love the imagery and stories that overwhelm me with their beauty.


I am always working towards creating perfect moments within my own writing. If you would like to see my attempts, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

The World on Their Shoulders

Perfection is a hard life to sell. Especially in literature.

You think I’m joking.

Think about it though. If the main character of a story is the strongest, most powerful being in the universe that everyone loves (and the ones that don’t love them are so irredeemably awful that it doesn’t matter) and they can do anything they want, at anytime they want-

Wouldn’t the easiest description for that be “boring”?

Ignoring the other problem that conflict requires some real risk in order to be conflict, the cold, dirty truth is that we love an underdog.

We see this in all walks of life, not just in literature, but there is something intrinsically satisfying about the relatively powerless facing and fighting the relatively powerful.

(In part, because we often see ourselves as not very powerful and it is so much easier to relate to someone who feels the same way.)

Writers recognize this.

Writers turn themselves into pretzels to try and convey this feeling, even when the characters involved make it a completely ludicrous proposition.

There are a variety of ways to convey the nature of the underdog. Physical, magical, mental, and emotional weaknesses are often used to create a bond between the reader and the character they are carefully following. There are, of course, excellent exceptions to this rule, but an enduring trope in most genres is that the hero starts less powerful than what they fight and works their way towards being able to overcome overwhelming odds.

The problem is that in order to maintain this convenient stance of less powerful versus more powerful, sometimes the readers are asked to suspend all sense of logical connection. If the hero can carry the world in one hand whilst romancing the rest of the universe with the other, it becomes more and more difficult to believe that the cardboard caricatures that they are fighting can really stand up to the Force of Awesomeness. We won’t even get into the ridiculous power creep that happens in many long-running Fantasy series, because what fascinates me the most out of those situations is the desire to still paint the main character as the underdog.

Why?

While I see the fascination of a plucky David, or a completely confused Alice in Wonderland, why not embrace the character’s power and explore the problems that arise from it?

If the main character insists on being the most powerful being in the universe with a bevy of love-lorn followers, perhaps it might be interesting to see what conflicts arise from that position.

The world is a heavy burden to carry and I would love to explore the costs and consequences of that weight.

Just don’t try to tell me that the character with the rock is a superior force to the character wielding a planet on their shoulders.

 IMG_1046As lovely a place as the world might be, I have zero desire to bear its weight

I like to look at power and our complicated love and hate of the way it manifests in writing.


My own underdog is more Alice than David. If you’d like to see that for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

All the Orphans

One of the things that most concerns me when I read Fantasy literature is the dreadful spread and contagiousness of Orphanus Maincharacterus. I have been half-tempted at certain points to look and see if there are fundraisers to prevent the tragic removal of every parental or family figure of a person who is about to star in a Fantasy series.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a tragic backstory. Often these stories use these backstories as a way to explain the shaping of the main character’s goals and dreams.

The problem is that often this feels like an emotional shortcut rather than a fully-fleshed characterization decision.

If these characters had adopted families or circles of family-like friends, then the character development would seem more well-rounded.

Unfortunately, this trope is often paired with a hermetic seal around close personal connections and the main character will start the story without any deep family connections at all.

This puzzles me because familial interaction is one of the richest, most diverse sources of plot inspiration and interaction.

We love our families and sometimes we hate them too (and no, our father doesn’t have to be Darth Vader for this to be true). They shape us and we shape them in a way that is difficult for others to approach, because for most of us, we’re connected to them for the rest of our lives.

We can grow closer and we can drift apart, but they are part of a bond that is hard to forget and almost impossible to completely break.

What I see in the abundance of orphans that I read (and yes, other genres do this too, but Fantasy seems to do this so much more), is the desire to have a main character with a completely blank slate.

No previous ties, no complicating connections, no inconvenient character-shaping except from loss and grief.

I like complications.

I like characters who didn’t spring, fully-formed, from a dark void somewhere in the Land Before the Story Started.

I like characters that walk into the story full of love and frustration and terrible conversations that only other family members understand.

There is a purity to the Hero’s Journey that erases everything except the Hero’s motivation and talents and ability to pull themselves up completely by their own bootstraps without any pesky past connections aiding or blocking them.

But there is something lovely and messy and real about characters that are part of a larger social and familial web that shows its influences in the path the story takes.

There is no need to eliminate the Tragic Backstory entirely from works of fiction.

But if all the fantasy cities are full of orphans and only children, perhaps it is time to investigate whether this a kingdom not of magic, but of cliches.

IMG_0813Let a thousand orphans bloom! Just be wary of creative rot.

I am fascinated by how we do and do not write write about our families.


 

Family, in its various blood and not-blood forms is a large part of my story-telling. If you would like to see how I handle it in my own writing, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

I was also alerted to a lovely little review of “The Guests of Honor” available over here. One of the things that makes me happiest as a writer is when people have fun with my story. If you are someone who is interested in a thoughtful discussion of what worked and didn’t work for a reader of my story, please check out My Little Book Blog’s review.

Can You See What I See?

When I read fairy tales, I wanted to be the dragon.

Even in the watered-down versions I read before I found the real stories, the knights and princesses seemed to be made of very thin cardboard and so remote that it was hard to care about their lives or dreams.

The dragons, at least, were understandable.

Plus, they could fly.

I’ve heard more than one interview with an author or the creator of a successful television or movie franchise where they remark in bewilderment that they have no idea why their consumers are so much more drawn to their villains than their heroes.

There are many reasons for this, starting and ending with what we like to write not necessarily being what people like to read.

I want to talk about dragons.

See, the thing is that most of those knights and princes and princesses were saying the lines that the story thought they should say rather than what a living, breathing person would actually say in the situations they faced.

Now dragons, dragons seldom spoke in those stories.

When they did speak, it was for important things: death, valuables, flying about terrorizing the countryside.

I didn’t have to agree with what the dragon wanted, but I could understand it. Their desires were clear and obvious, backed by their words and actions.

Now the rest of those characters…

While being a hypocritical muddle or a walking morality play is true to many real-life people and situations, it is a lot less fun to follow as a perspective.

Creating an ‘evil’ character allows room for charisma, for showy depth of characterization.

Creating a ‘good’ character seems to strait-jacket the ability of the character to find their own feet and voice beyond what the story needs them to say.

The thing is, many good characters are blind to the destruction they leave in their wake. The story needs them to get from Point A to Point B but very little time is spent on the price of that movement. We do not always consciously acknowledge this hypocrisy, but it often becomes hard for us to empathize with those who show little empathy themselves.

The evil characters at least have actions consistent with their perspectives.

When I read about princes bravely charging towards the dragon, their lances upraised, it was hard to forget the villages they had destroyed on their way to their destiny.

When I read about dragons, I thought about what the world looked like when you could fly so high that the petty concerns of everyone else faded into tiny pictures on the ground.

(Really, most problems could be solved by giving heroes more flying sequences.)

(Get on that.)

IMG_9248We like to look up. Be willing to help us look down.

I have many thoughts about the higher connection with villains than heroes. Here are a few of them.


I have a few ways I’ve tried to handle the normal hero/villain dichotomy. If you’d like to see my attempts, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

 

Catch Me If You Can

I don’t like thinking of myself as a fish.

I have to admit though that my relationship with stories bears a startling resemblance to those wide-eyed salmon that my grandfather used to reel in beside me.

I never have enough time and I have reached the stage in my life that I refuse to let entertainment that I’m not enjoying guilt me into continuing to spend time with it.

Bluntly, if you want to keep me reading, you’ve got to hook me.

I have a clear list of things that will throw me out of a story, but I found it much more difficult -and interesting- to consider what it is that pulls me in.

Oh, there are structural and technical things that will keep me reading and general topics that will somewhat hold my interest, but actual hooks are a lot harder to define.

As I started writing and re-writing my ideas for what it was that made me take the bait, I found it all coalesced around a single point.

Make me care.

Adrenaline-jumping action, toothsome description, and puzzle-box plots are all excellent at smoothing my path to reading.

But…

The stories that I can’t put down, that wreck my schedule and my personal relationships, are the ones that make me care.

Whether I care about the characters, the setting, or the results of the plot laid out in front of me doesn’t matter as much as making me invest myself in the first place.

My life is too short to throw myself away on just any hook.

Give me the bait that speaks to me and I will gladly throw myself out of the water and into your world.

IMG_9218To make me swim upstream you’ve got to give me some motivation.

Reading is one of the more personal and involved forms of entertainment. I like to think about what motivates me to make the story choices that I do.


To see my own ideas for hooks, you can read my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor. It is available here.