This is How You Lose the Time War

In this novella by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar, Red is a covert agent in a war raging across time. She is advanced beyond what we can comprehend as mere 21st-century readers, able to transform into whatever shape is needed, blending into any time and place, subtly adjusting the strands of causality to build new futures in a constantly shifting multiverse, the way generals build battlefield positions on the field of war.

One day, Red finds one of her carefully-laid plans foiled, and a playful message waiting for her from Blue, her counterpart on the opposing side. A rivalry takes shape, and from it, a romance. Attack and counter-attach across time, punctuated by ever more elaborate (and personal) coded messages.

Structure

For most of the book, each chapter follows one of these agents on a mission to a new place and time. Never enough to understand the purpose exactly, or the larger framing of the time war. Then, the text of a letter from one agent to the other. The next chapter, the point of view swaps.

I wondered at first how long the structure could sustain the story. However, the times and places are varied and tantalizing without being entirely clear, and the slow shift from rivalry to romance is believable and satisfying.

There is also an additional mystery woven throughout — an unidentified seeker that follows Red and Blue from chapter to chapter, studying and absorbing the correspondence they believe to be carefully hidden or destroyed. If they are found out, by their own superiors or the enemy, they will both be undone. Eventually, the back-and-forth structure does break down, and it’s the mystery of the seeker that comes to the fore and carries the story to its conclusion.

Respecting the Reader

In proper time-travel fashion, the story wraps around and through itself, as we discover that the characters are far more intertwined than even they knew. The authors make the wise decision to not go too deep into the details of time travel or the complexities of rewriting timelines across parallel universes. It mostly avoids, through obscurity, the inevitable inconsistencies that tend to bring out the worst kind of overly-pedantic reviewers.

The book doesn’t dawdle around, explaining the exact nature of the war, the two sides, or even the agents. We are thrown into a strange world head-first (many, in fact), and expected to keep up. We know that Red’s Agency faction uses advanced technology and bold tactics, and Blue’s Garden faction uses advanced biology and subtly turns the enemy’s strengths into weaknesses. And that’s enough.

I Feel Seen

The book has, at this point, won pretty much all of the best awards a sci-fi novella is eligible to win. Still, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like it was tailored to me.

I was delighted to find references to strategy in the game of Go (atari and lack of liberties). Granted, Go is probably more popular in the West than ever before, but it still feels like an obscure hobby. The characters also discuss Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison, a favorite of mine and the best book that I have ever discovered in a Little Free Library. I don’t expect these things to resonate with the average reader, but they further endeared the story to me.

To Summarize

This is the best book I’ve read in 2021, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes sci-fi, time travel, romance or people who discover what really matters to them, and do everything in their power to protect it. The writing is ornate without being overwrought. The story takes some unexpected (but not unreasonable) twists and turns. It’s a quick read, but feels exactly long enough.

It is, in short, quite good. Go read it.

First Sentence, First Page, First Chapter

As I’m working on my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve reached the point where I have a rough draft of the first two chapters. In some ways, each of these is a first chapter — each one introduces a separate point of view character, in a different setting and vastly different time periods.

I let these chapters “rest” for a week or two, and then came back to revise them. There are many different ways to revise, but today I wanted to talk a little bit about beginnings, and all of the “firsts” of the book — the first sentence, first page, and first chapter.

If there are any parts of a novel that are more important than the rest, they are the beginning and the end. A good ending will often buy the reader’s forgiveness for weaknesses in the middle of the book. A good beginning, on the other hand, is vital to get the reader interested in the first place, and to tee up all of the wonderful stuff you have planned for the rest of the book.

Consulting Some Books on Writing

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while is probably well aware that I am a collector of writing advice, tips and tricks, so I looked through my collection of writing books and pulled out some pertinent ones. If you can build up a little library of books and writing resources that you like, it can be very helpful to focus yourself by picking out a few related books and skimming or reading the relevant sections before you embark on a particular task.

When I buy a book on writing, I do try to read it right away and internalize what I can. However, I have plenty of these books that I last read five or ten years ago. I’ll be the first to admit that I only have so much storage space in my internal memory to hold on to that knowledge. But that’s the great thing about books — all that knowledge is still there, in external (paper) memory.

I first pulled out The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by the New York Writers Workshop. In the chapter on fiction, it has this to say about story-opening strategies:

The purpose of the beginning of a story is to introduce character and conflict. Another purpose is to catch and hold the reader’s interest. One way to do so is to raise a question in the mind of the reader. Another way is to quickly immerse the reader in the action of the story, to eliminate boring exposition…conflict, when effectively dramatized, also catches the attention of the reader.

This hits a lot of the points I was working toward when I initially planned the beginning of the novel. However, now that I have a draft, I need to make sure that I actually execute my plan effectively. I’ve set up clear questions at the beginning: why does Christopher wake up groggy on a plane where the passengers and pilot have vanished? I need to make sure that I quickly jump into the action of him making this discovery and then attempting to deal with the situation. I also need to show some of his character through his thoughts and actions in this stressful situation.

Next, I moved on to The First Five Pages, by editor-turned-agent Noah Lukeman. This is a text all about beginnings, and while it focuses on crafting an opening that will appeal to agents and editors in the traditional publishing world, the bulk of its advice applies to any fiction opening, regardless of how you plan to publish.

Lukeman suggests several things to trim and improve:

  • Adjectives and adverbs — This is pretty common writing advice. Replace them with better nouns and verbs, find more unusual or evocative modifiers, or swap-in an analogy, simile or metaphor instead.
  • Sound — This encompasses myriad vague things: sentence construction and the use of punctuation like comma, semicolon, em-dash, and parentheses; “echoes” like the repetition of character names, pronouns, or unusual words; alliteration and the repetition of specific sounds in close proximity; and resonance, the sound of the language separate from its meaning.
  • Dialogue — An overuse or complete lack of dialogue, dialogue as artificial infodump, melodrama, or just generally difficult-to-follow exchanges.
  • Showing vs. telling
  • Viewpoint, narration, and consistent character voice
  • Characterization — Not skipping over properly introducing characters in the hurry to move the plot along.
  • Pacing and progression — Do the individual parts of the story flow together in sequence?
  • The hook — A really interesting or exciting first sentence that still fits with what comes after.

There are many other sections in the book, but these were the things that stood out to me as I skimmed through it this time.

The Hook

The hook is typically considered the first sentence, or less often the first couple sentences. It is called the hook because that’s what it should do to the reader: hook them and pull them into the story.

The first sentence and first paragraph should be concise and exciting — although you can decide what exactly exciting means for you — action, dialogue, or an interesting premise. It will help if that beginning leads the reader into those key elements: holding interest and elucidating character and conflict.

My intent with Razor Mountain is to start the story with Christopher on the plane. He wakes up (which is admittedly a well-worn trope for a book opening), groggy from being drugged. It is dark. At first, he thinks the poorly lit passenger cabin is a shadowy cave. It is only as he looks around and regains his senses that he realizes where he actually is. I’m also hoping to achieve some symmetry with this opening, where the beginning and end of the first act involves a character in a cave. Likewise the beginning and end of the entire book.

The First Page

The first page or first few paragraphs are an extension of the hook. A hook can be exciting and hold the reader’s interest with all sorts of tricks, but that will only take the reader so far if it doesn’t lead naturally into the rest of the book. The first page is an expansion of the hook.

The hook drops the reader into the story and shows one, maybe two important things to get the reader invested. The first page gives you more space to work, but also demands more. The reader needs to be anchored to a place, or people, or more likely both. Enough of the setting and characters has to be described, in order for the reader to start to envision what’s happening. All of it still needs to keep the reader engaged and pull them along.

The First Chapter

When the reader turns that first page, you’ve achieved an important milestone. You’ve hooked the reader. For the rest of the chapter, you’ll be doing largely the same things, on a broader scale.

The first chapter is a sort of promise. Whether you’re intending it or not, the first chapter promises the reader an idea of what the rest of the story is going to be like. Since it’s happening either way, you had better lean into it, and make that promise count. Maybe you’ll hint at exactly what they’re getting by highlighting the style of the book or introducing important characters and settings. Maybe you’ll foreshadow future events. Or maybe you’ll be subversive, setting the reader’s expectations, only to shock them with a plot twist later on.

Razor Mountain Firsts

Later this week, I’ll talk more about working on the first sentence, page and chapter for Razor Mountain, as well as all of the other revisions I’m working on for Chapters One and Two.

Razor Mountain Development Journal #43

This is part of my ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. Be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead! You can start from the beginning here.

Last Time

I finished writing the first draft of Chapter Two and read Clan of the Cave Bear.

Writing the Last Chapter (Almost) First

With the rough drafts of the first two chapters done, I jumped ahead — way ahead, to the final chapter. This isn’t something I’ve tried before, but I thought it would be interesting. I’ve done a lot of outlining and plotting for this book, so I already have a solid idea where everything is leading, both in terms of plot and in terms of character arc.

Writing the last chapter actually turned out to be a lot easier than writing the first and second chapters. Part of that was that it ended up being shorter. There isn’t all that much action. I think a much bigger factor, however, is that the first two chapters were introducing the two plot threads of the book to the reader. The last chapter just has to lead reasonably out of the rest of the book, and come to a satisfying conclusion. At this point, most of that hasn’t been written yet, so I can imagine what it will all be, and write my ending accordingly.

Obviously, this means anything I choose to change along the way may invalidate part of the ending chapter. That’s fine. I expect that by the time I get everything written out, I’ll have to re-jigger the last chapter in a variety of ways. What it really seems good for is to highlight some of the themes and ideas that I really want to push at the end. Now, as I make my way through the book, I can look at that and work on pushing those things as I go, so it all builds up organically.

Writing the final chapter also gives me some ideas about the emotional resonance I want at the end. It’s more about how I want the ending to feel than the plot information I need to get across. All that really happens is that Christopher makes a decision, and acts upon that decision.

The First Revisions

The last chapter was a fun experiment, but if I want to start publishing chapters, I need to get my beginning into shape. My first and second chapters have had some breathing room, and now it’s time to go back and revise.

My first drafts are strictly to get words on paper (or pixels on screens, in this case). Sometimes the words come out amazing, but more often I end up with lots of clunky sentences that generally get across what I was going for, some digressions that seemed interesting in the moment, a few bits that I like, and maybe a couple phrases that feel fantastic. In short, it’s a mixed bag.

I like to give first drafts a little time to fade in my memory before going back to them. Some things that seemed great during the actual writing will feel less great when I reread them later. Sometimes the rough patches where I was just dumping words to get the point across and move on actually turn out to need less work than I thought. It’s hard to pretend you’re a reader of the text you, yourself wrote, but I don’t think there’s a better tool for pulling that trick off than a break between the writing and the reading.

I started working on revisions for Chapter One this week, but there’s plenty more to do.

The challenge I always face when I start revising (especially if it’s been a while) is the temptation to go straight to line editing. It’s easy to read a few sentences and find a word here or there that can be improved, a typo or some missing punctuation. For me, at least, that’s what jumps out immediately.

However, I fight that urge. Instead, it’s better to look at the larger pieces. I try to look for any reason to reorder scenes, rearranging dialogue, or otherwise make big adjustments first. By focusing on larger structural revisions before getting into the nitty-gritty, I try to avoid wasting time changing small things that are liable to need rework anyway after structural revisions.

Results

I wrote a rough draft of the last chapter and started getting into revisions on Chapter One.