Tag Archives: David Eddings

#amwriting: consider the scenery

 The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons


The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

I had an intriguing email conversation with a new acquaintance, a young man I met through PNWA at the recent conference. He was struggling in his writing group, trying to get a handle on  the showing vs. telling aspect of writing. As he writes mysteries, the setting and environment of certain scenes are quite important.

I suggested he view the scene through his protagonist’s eyes.

Every memorable element in a fictional story must be necessary to the story.  In creative writing, this concept is referred to as “Chekhov’s Gun,” as it is a principal formally attributed to the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. He said this with regard to the settings for his plays, but in terms of writing, what this means is that if your characters notice a gun on the wall, someone must fire that gun, or it should be removed from the scene.

It was a neighborhood Dionte was unfamiliar with.  Just as he entered Tyrone’s gate, his phone dinged, a text from Ty. He’d had to leave for a minute, but Dionte should go on in and wait in the kitchen. Both men were on the board of the Community Action Council, but he didn’t know Tyrone well, and wondered where he’d been called off to.

What does Dionte see, and how does it register in his awareness?

He went up the walk, climbing the worn steps of the front porch. Feeling odd at entering the home of a casual acquaintance when he wasn’t there, Dionte reached for the knob and turned it. The door swung open, and entering the small sitting room, he was overwhelmed by the amount of clutter.

Tyrone had no TV that Dionte could see, but most of the furniture in the room was buried under stacks of newspapers and piles of laundry. His computer was partially hidden behind a stack of library books and a coffee cup, half full, sat atop them. A plate with a slice of toast sat beside the keyboard as if Ty had left in the middle of his breakfast.

Feeling claustrophobic, Dionte found the path to the kitchen, unsure now what sort of mess awaited him in there. To his surprise, the kitchen was immaculate.

The incongruity of the pristine kitchen contrasting with the clutter of Tyrone’s living room is all noted mentally. Each thing on our character’s path into and through Ty’s home is an image that registers in Dionte’s consciousness briefly, but is not mentioned again.

Tyrone had said there might be a serious problem, but wanted Dionte’s take on it before he brought it up at a meeting. Wondering what it could be, Dionte sat at the table, looking at the clock on the stove, seeing it was 11:15. He’d gotten the text only a few minutes before. Tyrone had to have been called to somewhere close by, as he’d left his house unlocked. He hadn’t passed Dionte in the front, so he must have left through the back.

The sound of someone coming up the back steps caught his attention, and his eyes were drawn to the screen door.

It’s a murder mystery, so who was approaching? What happened next? And why is the toast by the computer important?

Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. This scene could be set several ways, and here are two, one less wordy than the other.

Snow fell softly. Holding a bag of groceries, he gazed at the stairs leading from the walk to the front door, fearing a layer of ice lurked beneath the pristine whiteness.

OR

He gazed at the icy stairs leading from the un-shoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Either way works, but personally, I would go with the second.

Pawn_of_Prophecy_coverIn 1982 I picked up Pawn of Prophecy by the late David Eddings. This was an amazing, eye-opening book for me, both as a reader and an author.  Eddings had the ability to convey a sense of place in a few well-chosen words. He put those words into  beautiful, poetic prose. The book opens in the kitchen of a farmhouse with Garion’s memories of playing under the table in a kitchen as a small child.

Garion’s earliest memories are of being a toddler: the sound of knives deftly dicing vegetables, his aunt keeping him corralled and happy under the table while she works, the sparkle of the gleaming pots and kettles high on the wall lulling him to nap.

“And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long-handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off to sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.”

Later, when Garion has been completely uprooted, this passage becomes important, as it describes the place he thinks of as home. In that paragraph, we see the important things in the room, and we have a visual image of it. The child’s sense of contentment and safety that the kitchen represented is conveyed by the impressions of the kitchen instead of the image of it. The detail supports the story rather than impeding it.

The scenery in the narrative must be organic. It has to be purposeful and not just there to fill the space. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions. We see it only when it needs to be there. Sometimes we see it through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist set in the scene as described by a narrator, but everything we see must be a part of the characters’ experience.

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Elements of the Story: the story arc

Elements of the Story 1st Quarter of the MSWhen I first began writing, I wasn’t concerned with the nuts-and-bolts aspects of a tale–I wrote stories to read to my children, and I wrote stories I wanted to read. The stories lived in my mind, and I got a great deal of pleasure from writing them. It never occurred to me to submit them to a publisher, and I wouldn’t have known how to do that anyway.

It wasn’t until my youngest child was in high-school that I began thinking about writing as a vocation, and began looking for places to submit my work. So my evolution as a writer was: I began by writing songs in high-school and also writing poetry, graduated to writing fairytales for my kids and short stories for myself, and finally began my serious attempt at a novel in 1996.

2nd quarter of the manuscriptI began writing for my own pleasure, and had no idea of how to plot a novel. Since that first attempt at a novel, I have completed six novels, and am working on 3 more at this time. Each book has been an improvement over the previous one. Through working with good editors and educating myself,  I feel like I finally understand how  a good novel is constructed.

In my early books, I didn’t understand the way a good story worked. I knew one when I read one, but I didn’t really understand what made that story immersive and memorable.

I had a grasp of how to create characters, and I had a good idea for the basic plot,  but I was weak in the area of structuring the novel. Once I realized that weakness, I set out to resolve it.

For the last two years, that has been the area I’ve worked hardest on putting into practice, and for those who have beta-read my yet to be published work, that change in my understanding of how to write a novel is clear.

Now, I have an instinctive understanding that the evolution of the story can be graphed out in an arc–the Story Arc. I had heard of this concept, and in writing groups some authors will talk about it as if they understand it, but when you read their work it’s clear they don’t.

It wasn’t until Scott Driscoll, author of Better You Go Home gave a seminar on it last year that the pieces fell into place for me.

The Story Arc copy

Some books are character-driven, others are event-driven. ALL of them follow an arc.  For my personal reading pleasure, I prefer Literary Fantasy, which has a character-driven plot. Events happen, often in a fantasy setting, but the growth of the characters is the central theme, and the events are just the means to enable that growth.

3rd qtr of manuscriptI write literary fantasy, with some emphasis on the fantasy. My own books, as in Huw the Bard, tend to be more character-driven than action oriented, as the Hero’s Journey is what intrigues me, but large events occur that cause personal growth. Whether your books are character- or event-driven, there must be an arc to the story.

We have talked about the way the manuscript can be divided into quarters.  Let’s consider the midpoint. The midpoint of the story arc begins the second half of the book. The first calamities have occurred and up to this point, the characters have been reacting to the antagonist’s moves.

The midpoint of the story arc is the Turning-Point, the place where there is no turning back. Consider J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he can see only disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen.  Bilbo has been changing, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands in order to head off the impending war.  Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone , but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and battle is inevitable.

This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: in the first half of the book everything had gone to hell, emotions were high, and the situation was sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist thought he had a grip on it. The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

4th qtr of MSThe second half is where the villain shines–the evil one is on a roll and it’s his ballgame. The truth underlying the conflict now emerges, and it culminates in the third calamity, the third plot point. This is also where the villain’s weaknesses begin to emerge, and the hero must somehow exploit them.

The third quarter of the book, from the midpoint to the third plot point is critical. These events tear the hero down, break him emotionally and physically so that in the final fourth of the book he can be rebuilt, stronger, and ready to face the villain on equal terms.

The third quarter of the book frequently sets the hero on the path to enlightenment, but first he must undergo a symbolic death and rebirth.

If you want to read classic fantasy where this type of story arc is really clear and yet the stories are strongly character driven, you should read:

magii of cyador

 

 

Magi’i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador by L. E. Modessit Jr. (2 books)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pawn_of_Prophecy_cover

 

 

 

The Belgariad by David Eddings (5 book series)

 

 

 

 

Green_Angel_Tower_P1

 

 

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (4 paperbacks, 3 hard bound or ebooks)

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Finding demographics is not finding Nemo

My New Year’s resolution this year is to identify who I am writing for, and tailor my marketing strategy to that segment of the population.

I should have picked something simple, like losing weight, or bringing about world peace.

I would be lying if I said I write for one particular type of person–although Huw the Bard falls into the not-for-children category. I like to think my books can be enjoyed by both men and women.

Who are youIt’s just that I write whatever I’m in the mood to read, and I read everything, Fantasy first, sci-fi second, then mystery, historical, paranormal, books of political intrigue, books filled with naughty vampires. Romance, YA, hard sci-fi, epic fantasy–I read it all. This makes it difficult to categorize myself .

Looking in the mirror doesn’t help.

At IHop, I am a 55+, getting discounts and a special old people’s menu. I am a senior, according to AARP, and am entitled certain discounts when I produce that all-important AARP card.

These things tell me I am an older person, as does the mirror.

However, these visible signs don’t show the woman with mad kick-ball-skills, who plays Lego Star Wars until the grandchild says she’s had enough games for one day, and he’d like to play outside now. They don’t shed any light on me. the person who will read and reread a book until it is nothing but shreds–if I fell in love with it. The gray hair, the slightly less-than-svelte physique–these clues don’t offer a hint about my obsession with Final Fantasy XII.

And that is the problem.

I write for me, and I don’t know who I am.

The Creative Penn offers 5 tips to assist me in this process:

1. First we must isolate what types and/or groups of people the content of the book would interest.

Well-that is just the problem, isn’t it…but they do give an idea on how to approach that:

 "Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

“Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

“Example: If your book is about an archaeologist who uses Stone Henge to travel into the future, your book would probably interest history buffs as well as fans of speculative fiction/sci-fi.  If that hero happens to be a former Marine, your book might also interest military personnel and/or the families.” (It’s a direct quote, so I am ignoring the terrible itch to edit out the misspelling of Stonehenge.)

Okay–I think I can do this. My book details the adventures of a bard who is forced to  flee his comfortable existence and who finds himself running from one disaster to another with death-defying regularity.

2. Second, we must: identify other books that are comparable to your book and look at the profiles of those books’ main buyers/readers.

They also explain that concept a little further “The target audience isn’t always who the book was written for, but rather, who it ends up appealing to.  Twilight draws in tween and teenage girls with its premise involving a normal, everyday girl falling into a romance with an young, attractive male (the bread and butter of many young girls’ dreams), but it’s appeal stretched to the cross-section of middle-age female readers who love romance and enjoyed Anne Rice in her heyday.”  

Alrighty then–I was heavily drawn, as a reader, to David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, Tad Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, P.D. James, Carl Sagan, Agatha Christie, Piers Anthony, and Fritz Lieber–so I suppose my books reflects a certain amount of their (rather jumbled) influence.

Oh, and don’t forget Roger Zelazney. And Mercedes Lackey.

Well that has narrowed it down quite a bit! (Sarcasm–I know, it’s a nasty habit.) I could have included Tolstoy, James Joyce, Horace Walpole, and Louisa May Alcott, but I didn’t have time.

330px-Pin-artsy3. You are next encouraged to pinpoint what is special about your book.

Again, the Creative Penn offers us some insights on how to go about this: “If you tell someone you’re writing a book about a witch who uses her power of communing with animals to rescue a lost dog from an evil dog-napper, then A. Wow, you have an interesting imagination!  B. You may or may not have taken in 101 Dalmatians too much as a child and C. With such a premise, chances are, your story is more light-hearted than scary, so your target readers to which the mystery aspect of your story will entice are more cozy-type mystery consumers.” So what are the few key words, the hook I can use to sell Huw the Bard? How do I boil the plot down to a few key words? This could take a while, but I’m sure I can do it.

Honest.

4. Now we need to determine some demographics.

That’s the problem–I am the demographic, and I don’t know who I am. Mature Audiences, definitely. There is some graphic sex, although it doesn’t devolve into a porn-fest, There is violence, a witnessed rape, and murder. These are all there because they are watershed moments in Huw’s life, things that change his view of the world. There are also a haunted village and a bisexual knight who talks to his horse, so there is humor midst the misery.

chekhov's gun5. Finally, the Creative Penn suggests we feed the previous four tips into each other to gain even more insight and narrow down who our target audience/s is/are.

Just give me Chekhov’s gunnow. I need to shoot something.

Several times.

Seriously–the article I’ve drawn these suggestions from is a good article, and it goes on to discuss how to use your target audience, which I did find somewhat illuminating.

At this point, if I can get even ONE concrete idea that works, I am feeling good about it. After all, it’s January! I’ve got a whole year to get this down, before I have to admit that this New Year’s resolution has gone the way of my weight-loss dreams and visions of world peace.

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Don’t dump it-deploy it

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADMost of my work takes place in  a world I invented, right down to the religion. Because my world is very different, whenever I sit down to write, I have the most incredible urge to spew background information. I want my reader to understand the world I’ve created, so I want to give them information. Lot’s and lots of information. OMG, do I have information for you.

But is the information for you as the reader, or for me as the author? There you have it–writing it down cements the world in my head.  Now my info-dumps are cut and kept in a file that contains all my background information. I need that info to write the story, but the reader only needs enough bare bones to fire his imagination.

So how shall I do this? A prologue? Well, I’m leaning away from prologues nowadays, although it can be done–David Eddings did it really well in The Belgariad, and Anne McCaffrey also did in her Pern novels. In some cases a prologue sets the stage. But in online writing groups  I frequently  see that a large number of folks don’t bother to read prologues, preferring to get directly to the story. If folks aren’t going to bother reading it, why should I waste my time writing it?

The key to describing the fantasy setting and the social structure of that world is to let the story do it naturally. Deploy the info in small increments as the characters go through their daily life.

Let’s pretend we’re writing a detective novel:

Joe Stone stood, illuminated by the harsh light of the fridge, staring at the six-pack of beer that represented the sum total of his groceries. Grabbing one, he twisted the cap off, and took a long, desperately needed pull.

dump no infoA sour smell rose from his sink as he peered through the broken blinds, more concerned with the dead body in his rundown tool shed than the shabby state of his kitchen. He wondered who the stiff was, and how the dead man pertained to the divorce case he was investigating.

Most importantly, he wondered how he could avoid taking the rap for it.

That he was being deliberately set up was a given, but by who? Pulling his phone  from his pocket, Joe scrolled through his contacts. He had one last friendly ear at the police department, his old partner, Mike Copper. The question was, would Mike believe him or would he leap to the conclusion that Joe had snapped again? 

So, now you have a picture of Joe Stone. He’s probably single,  a private investigator, his home is in disrepair, his empty fridge tells us doesn’t eat at home very often, and he may drink more than is good for him.

Joe is an ex cop, possibly fired for use of excessive force, as he fears he has only one sympathetic ear there. He’s involved in a nasty private investigation, the corpse in the shed tells us that.

TRUST YOUR READERThere’s no need for an info dump to aid the reader in forming a picture of Joe. All that information was deployed by his actions, and while reading the events of the next 72 hours, more snippets will come out, and this complicated man and his world will become more clear to the reader.

Settings make no difference. Writing fantasy novels is the same thing as writing novels set in the real world. Assume your world is real and slip the info in the natural places.

Belnek knelt by the low fire in front of his hut, pulling the turnips out of the coals, brushing the burnt flakes away. His mouth watered, and he wished there had been meat to roast, but once again, when he checked his snares, they had been empty.

Realizing what he had just thought, he gasped,  fearing the god would interpret his thoughts as ingratitude and would make the harvest scant too. He raised his eyes to the east where the shining towers of the gods were said to be. Closing his eyes he, said a prayer to Osin, thanking him for the turnips, asking his blessing on the meal.

Book- onstruction-signNow you see a man who is not rich, but who has a hut and a fire, and has turnips to roast. Prayers come as naturally to him as breathing–he is a devout man, sure his god is all-knowing, and concerned that he is seen as a devoted, grateful man. His snares are apparently empty quite often, so game has become scarce, and it concerns him.

We have the basics of his world, low-tech, agrarian. In that small scene, intimate details of Belnek’s life is shown and in that way the reader has enough info to begin to picture the world outside Belnek’s hut. There is no need to dump a huge amount of information, because it will come out as his story unfolds.

For me the real trick is to rein it in, because I love every last little detail about my imaginary worlds. But that doesn’t mean my readers will love them. Most readers only need the skeleton of the world so that they can visualize it themselves. The hard part is finding that magic moment where you have given them exactly the right amount of details to involve the reader, but not so much they become bored.

Listen to your beta readers, and make adjustments accordingly. If they feel they can be honest with you, they will point out where you need to tighten the narrative, or expand a bit more on the details.

 

 

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David Eddings – Setting the Scene

Pawn_of_Prophecy_coverIn 1982 I picked up Pawn of Prophecy by the late David Eddings. This was an amazing, eye-opening book for me, as both a reader and an author.  Eddings had the ability to convey a sense of place in a few well-chosen words.  The book opens in the kitchen of a farmhouse with Garion’s memories of playing under the table in a kitchen as small child.

This is the first book in the 5 volume series, the Belgariad and chronicles the childhood of an orphaned boy, Garion, who is being raised by his Aunt Pol who works as the cook on a prosperous farm in a place called Sendaria. Garion has friends, and as time progresses he even has a wistful almost-romance with one of the girls there. But all is not as it appears, and Garion knows nothing of the reality of his family or the world he lives in.

He has other friends; Durnik the smith who is in love with Garion’s Aunt Pol, and a strange old traveling storyteller, Mr. Wolf whom his aunt seems to know well and whom she grudgingly tolerates despite his strange attire and love of ale.

What David Eddings does in the first chapters of this book is truly magical.  He immediately drew me in and within two paragraphs I was immersed in this world–I could smell the smell scents of the kitchen and visualize the people who worked there so companionably in the generous employ of Farmer Faldor. I felt I knew them, and I felt I knew that farm.

I am not a boy, but Eddings put me inside a boy’s mind and I understood that boy on a personal level. Garion’s confusion and dismay as everything he takes for granted begins to crumble around him is real and I felt his anger, his hurt and confusion. I understood his need to stand on his own and I knew fear when he did.

Eddings managed to draw me into that world with an economy of prose. He gives the reader just enough detail to fire the imagination, and the reader’s own mind does the rest, unencumbered by too much of the author’s personal vision of the scene. He does this by describing what the boy remembers of the kitchen, and more emphasis is placed on the emotions evoked by scents and memories of conversations, supported by the merest framework of the scene. Edding’s world is filtered through the eyes of the people who live in it.

Garion’s earliest memories are of being a toddler–the sound of knives deftly dicing vegetable, his aunt keeping him corralled and happy under the table while she works, the sparkle of the gleaming pots and kettles high on the wall lulling him to nap.

“And sometimes in the late afternoon when he grew tired, he would lie in a corner and stare into one of the flickering fires that gleamed and reflected back from the hundred polished pots and knives and long-handled spoons that hung from pegs along the whitewashed walls and, all bemused, he would drift off to sleep in perfect peace and harmony with all the world around him.”

In that passage we see the entire kitchen, and we have a visual image of it. The child’s sense of contentment and safety that the kitchen represented is conveyed by the impressions of the kitchen instead of the image of it. The detail supports the story rather than impeding it.

Many times I see authors try to force an exact, detailed picture of their world on the reader, and it ruins the story for me.  An author doesn’t have to beat me over the head with minute detail; that sort of thing bores me.

What reading the work of David Eddings has taught me is that economy of detail and simple lines often make a more powerful picture than a detailed drawing that looks like a search and find game. Some indie authors set a scene with so much detail it reads like an episode of Hoarders. I understand that, as I too wrestle with the tendency.

In the editing process I have had some of my most cherished passages detailing certain places or people thrown out with the simple phase “This is hokey”, and while it hurts to see those words in the comments, it is true and so it is time to throw out a beloved passage and opt for a lean description.

Sometime I opt for too lean a description and when the comment  “What were they feeling? Howthe belgariad did they show it?” appears in the right hand column  I sometimes wonder why they can’t see it when it is as plain as day.  But upon examination I realize that maybe a line or two more might help explain the emotion of a scene.

Still, it is important to remember that my reader has an idea of what true beauty is, and they may not think a girl with sun-yellow hair in perfect ringlets framing a heart-shaped face with fine, arching eyebrows over corn-flower-blue eyes peering through dark curling lashes is as beautiful as I may think she is. It may be better for me to refer to her as fair-haired and astonishingly pretty, and leave it at that.

If I could ask for any skill, it would be create a world with the precision and fine craftsmanship David Eddings brought to his work. To this end, I read the works of the great masters of fantasy hoping to absorb some of their techniques and wizardry. I also read the works of newly published indie authors hoping to find that one kernel of genius that will strike a chord in my soul and transport me to a world not of my own making.

The next installment in this series will be focusing on just that–indies of great talent whose works are as yet unknown but which have had an impact on me as a reader.

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