3 Things I Learned From Startide Rising

I recently read the 1983 science-fiction novel, Startide Rising, with my kids. It’s the second book in David Brin’s first “uplift trilogy,” a series of loosely-related books that take place in a shared universe. I haven’t read these books since I was a teenager, and I didn’t remember too much about them before re-reading.

The previous book in the series was Sundiver, which I also wrote about.

https://wordsdeferred.com/2022/10/24/3-things-i-learned-from-sundiver/

1 – Unlimited Points of View

These books are very plot-heavy science-fiction, and Startide Rising has an expansive cast of characters. If it were me, I would look for a small number of main characters, and follow their points of view, adjusting the plot so that all the important action happens on their watch. That would be challenging in this story, because there are so many characters, in different locations and constantly shifting groups.

Brin sidesteps that problem by not really focusing on main characters at all. Some characters get more “screen time” than others, but it’s hard to say that this is a story about the dolphin starship captain Creideiki or midshipman Toshio or the genetically-modified couple of Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley. The story is about the Earth ship Streaker and its entire crew as they try to escape the galactic armada that’s bearing down on them.

Brin uses some tricks to make this constant switching between viewpoints less confusing. Most chapters are labelled with the name of the viewpoint character, so the reader doesn’t have to guess and the author doesn’t have to use narrative tricks to make sure it’s clear. There are a few chapters where there is no viewpoint character, or the story follows a group from an omniscient point of view. In those cases, the chapters are labelled with the setting. This might feel very heavy-handed, but it’s a simple and clear way to make the reader’s experience better.

Of course, there is still a notable cost that Brin has to pay for this wide-ranging story with so many point-of-view characters. As a reader, it’s hard to feel extremely close to any of these characters. The story focuses on the plot because there is less focus on the specific characters.

2 – Flat Characters are not Always Bad

This is something I’ve felt for a while, but this book certainly emphasizes the point. Because the cast is so big, it is already inevitable that some characters will be more fleshed-out than others. Because there is an intricate plot, some of the characters may be vital because of a few specific actions they take at key moments, while others are core drivers of the story from start to finish.

For those less important characters, they only need to be fleshed out enough that their actions make sense. They are mostly there to serve as cogs in the story machine. They make the thing keep moving. That doesn’t mean they can be free from any development—readers are still going to be annoyed by “plot robots” who do things that make no sense—but the development only needs to go just far enough that the character’s actions are believable.

Deep, rounded-out characters with complex motivations are important (and a lot of fun to write), but in a book like this, making every character like that would result in an overblown, muddled mess.

3 – Don’t Ignore the Ethics of the Future

The main conceit of the Uplift series is that humanity embarks on a project of genetic modification for dolphins and chimpanzees shortly before making contact with a vast multi-species extraterrestrial civilization where this exact sort of “uplift” is normal and codified into a form of species-wide indentured servitude.

Brin contrasts a kind, enlightened humanity, who treat their uplifted “client” species more or less as equals; with  the often-cruel galactic species, some of whom treat their clients as disposable slaves. Unfortunately, this simple, black-and-white presentation of morality sidesteps all sorts of ethical dilemmas.

At the start of the first book, Sundiver, there are hints that Brin is interested in exploring challenging ethical situations. In his imagined  future, there is an advanced personality test that can accurately predict violent and antisocial tendencies in people. The test Is mandatory, and the basis for a class system that limits the rights of those who fail it.

Unfortunately, the idea seems to be included mostly as setup for a red herring in the overarching mystery of the book. Sundiver does, at least, admit that this sort of policy would be highly controversial, even though it never gets into arguments of whether it is right or not.

By the time Brin gets to Startide Rising, there are even higher stakes. The book follows the first spaceship crewed by newly-sentient dolphins, and it puts the ideas of genetic “uplift” front-and-center. It is made clear that humans are trying to make dolphins their equals, but they are still in the midst of genetic manipulation, and it seems that the primary mechanism of this manipulation is through breeding rights. Individuals who show positive traits are encouraged to have as many offspring as possible, while those with negative traits are not allowed to procreate.

This is plainly a species-wide eugenics program in the name of “improving” intelligent animals into sophisticated people. Yet Brin shows barely any awareness that there are moral depths to be explored here. The “client” species accept this, even if individuals with fewer rights don’t like it, and no human ever shows qualms about the idea. When some of the dolphins eventually succumb to primal instincts under extreme stress, it is presented only as justification for these policies.

We live in a world where tech startups are making daily advances in AI, robotics, facial recognition, and dozens of other fields that could have a profound impact on society, but most of those companies are, in the classic words of Ian Malcom, “so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they don’t stop to think if they should.”

Science fiction has a long history of considering ethical concerns around technology and culture that doesn’t actually exist yet. Sci-fi is a playground for exploring future ideas before they invade our real lives. It’s an opportunity for due diligence and to anticipate issues that may need to be addressed. More than ever, this seems like something we need.

It’s also only going to make your story better. As an author, you never want to be in a situation where the reader expects you to address something and you just let it go. If you’re writing a mystery and ignore an obvious clue, the reader will get irritated. If you’re writing science-fiction and you gloss over the ethical minefield of the technology you’ve invented, you should expect the reader to be just as annoyed!

Next: The Uplift War?

This first Uplift Trilogy finishes with The Uplift War, where the Terran inhabitants of a colony planet have to deal with the fallout of the galactic conflict started by the starship Streaker in Startide Rising. We’re halfway through it, and I’ll write a follow-up when we’ve finished.

Reblog: Write Small for a Bigger Impact — Joe Ponepinto

Today’s reblog comes from Joe Ponepinto, who reminds us that great fiction often tackles big, heady issues, but it doesn’t necessarily place them front and center. Instead, it forces us to infer that meaning from much smaller details. Fiction is a game of synecdoche, where the minute and the mundane must be representative of bigger, broader ideas.

Writers have to recognize and accept an essential artistic paradox that the more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.

That’s from an essay written by Richard Russo a couple of decades ago. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as I read stories in the submission queue, especially those by newer writers. I can tell they want to say something profound in their fiction. Why not? If you can write something that makes readers take notice, that makes them sit up from their reading and say, “Wow, that’s so true,” it could mean publishing success is not far off.

But many writers go about it the wrong way. Since they want to say something big and universal, they tend to write their stories in the universal. They create settings and characters that adopt the traits of universal subjects, which is to say they become flat and generalized, homogenized into composites. Sometimes the characters in such stories seem written to represent a particular side in a philosophical or social discussion. In reality, though, those “big” topics are so complex and nuanced that they can’t be described efficiently and adequately enough in a short story. The result then is a narrative filled with characters and scenes that don’t connect with readers, and a message that sounds artificial and predictable.

Read the rest over at Jane Friedman’s blog…

Reblog: Get the Big Things Right — Nathan Bransford

Today’s reblog comes from Nathan Bransford, who has worked as an agent, author, and now freelance editor and consultant. He knows that there is a lot of side-work that comes with publishing—from query letters and synopses to promotion and marketing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things that come with writing, but aren’t actually writing.

He gives us a reasonably-sized list of things to focus on when writing and selling a book:

Particularly in this day and age when so many authors are lost in the weeds of Amazon algorithms and marketing strategies and social media and querying etiquette, it’s shocking to me how many people forget this: it all starts by writing a book that people want to read.

And not just want to read: writing a book that makes other people press it into other people’s hands so they’ll read it too.

That’s it. That’s by far (BY FAR) the most important thing.

Unfortunately, it’s also really, really, really hard to do, which is why it’s tempting to focus on things that are easier and feel more in your control.

Read the rest over at Nathan Bransford’s Blog…

The Genre of Inscrutability

I recently watched a show called Bee and Puppycat: Lazy in Space with my kids. The show has had an interesting life, starting as a web short, kickstarting a full series, and then getting a sort of semi-sequel series on Netflix that encapsulates the earlier versions in the first couple episodes. For what it’s worth, I only watched the Netflix series.

The show is a silly and deeply weird cartoon about a lazy girl named Bee and an interdimensional space puppy/cat/thing. Bee is fired from her job for the aforementioned laziness, and Puppycat helpfully takes her to the interdimensional temp agency to do strange odd jobs across the universe every time the pair needs a little cash.

At first glance, Bee and Puppycat is just a goofy cartoon, but it is so strange that I found myself thinking about it quite a bit once we had finished the series. Like a curious kid, I wanted to take this show apart and try to understand how it works.

The Legacy of Adventure Time

Adventure Time was a cartoon that exploded into pop culture. It combined absurdism, surrealism, and what I now think of as millennial-style non-sequitur humor with storylines that took unexpectedly emotional turns and occasionally addressed serious topics from silly angles. While it started as ostensibly a kids’ show, it grew a fanbase that was largely young adults.

Adventure Time changed in tone over the course of its ten seasons, perhaps due to a change in show-runners, influence from its fan-base, or its creative staff getting older. The earlier seasons are whimsical and light, often silliness for silliness sake, while the later seasons seem more burdened by the serious undertones, a little more self-conscious, but also trying to be more than just a series of goofy bits.

Clearly, a lot of cartoon television talent was cultivated around the show, because people involved in Adventure Time have gone on to work on many other well-crafted shows. Among that diaspora, the influence of Adventure Time and its aesthetics are clear. Stephen Universe, Over the Garden Wall, and Bee and Puppycat all share some of that Adventure Time DNA.

The Genre of Inscrutability

The world of Bee and Puppycat is strange and mysterious, and we’re dropped right in the middle of it. Initially, it has some of the trappings of the mundane world. A girl losing her job at the café and needing to do odd jobs to make ends meet is a fairly ordinary premise. But this quickly spirals into stranger and stranger territory. What kind of creature is Puppycat, and where is he from? Is Bee actually a robot? Why is her landlord a small child, and why does his comatose mother cry magical tears that transform everything they touch? Why is pretty much everything and everyone on her island home so bizarre, and yet nobody seems to care?

Mysterious settings aren’t uncommon. In fact, they’re a great way to pull the audience into a story. Pretty much all speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy and some horror) create a secondary world that the audience has to figure out. And while older examples of these genres might have front-loaded exposition and lengthy prologues, time and experience have shown that the most effective way to get into this kind of story is to throw the audience right into the middle of it, and help them to figure it out as they go along.

The implicit promise in most of these stories is that the setting is a puzzle that the audience will be able to solve, piece by piece. At the beginning of the Lord of The Rings, all we know about are hobbits and the Shire and a weird old guy named Gandalf. It’s only later that we learn about elves and dwarves and orcs and ents and more elves and the Numenorians and the Maiar, etc., etc. The extreme fans will read and re-read and glean all the little hidden details, and spend hours debating what the heck Tom Bombadil is. But even the average reader will know quite a lot about Middle Earth by the time they get to the end of the third book. Tolkein lays it all out on the page.

What’s interesting about Bee and Puppycat is that it takes place in a mysterious world full of interesting details, but it doesn’t do much to explain how they all fit together. It doesn’t lay everything out. The setting is a puzzle, but the pieces are all mixed up, and a few of them might be missing altogether.

I’ve started to think of this kind of story as the Genre of Inscrutability.

A Very Bad Idea That Seems to Work Anyway

To be in the Genre of Inscrutability, a story has to have a few key things:

  1. A fantastical setting – it may be similar to the real world, or wildly different, but it’s clear that the setting has some unreal rules at play.
  2. The fantastical elements aren’t explicitly addressed.
  3. There’s some mechanism to make that okay

    Now, thing number one is straightforward enough, but thing number two immediately gets us into trouble. Good storytellers know that you don’t show the gun on the mantle unless it’s going to go off, and you don’t set up a mystery that you don’t intend to resolve. The resolution of the mystery and the catharsis that comes out of it are necessary to make a mystery story feel complete. Thing number two seems like a Very Bad Idea from a storytelling standpoint, which is what makes it interesting.

    The big question, then, is how do we do thing number three? How do we make it okay? To answer that, I think it’s helpful to look at more examples.

    Examples

    The Bee and Puppycat series hints at Puppycat’s past without actually explaining very much. We’re shown what Bee is, but it’s never explained why she was created, or where her “father” is. I still have no idea what’s up with Cardamon or his mom. However, Bee and Puppycat isn’t really about these things at a structural level. The episodes tend to focus on relationships and interactions between Bee and the other characters, or occasionally just between the other characters.

    Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris stories also contain unexplained mysteries. The city is founded on the ruins of a much older (perhaps much more advanced) city inhabited by the mushroom dwellers. The mushroom dwellers go into hiding beneath the city, and collect the refuse the city-dwellers leave behind. While individual mushroom dwellers are superficially weak, it is implied that they are collectively powerful—enough to completely empty the city of inhabitants during The Silence, and perhaps to retake the city permanently in some indistinct future. Who or what they are is never really explained. However, the city and its history are just backdrops to these stories. The mushroom dwellers make it clear that the city itself is a transitory state. There was a before, and there will be an after. They are a natural, elemental force set in opposition to the crass, industrial humanity of Ambergris.

    Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book about a book about a film that tells the story of Will Navidson and his family moving into an old house, which slowly reveals itself to be a supernaturally shifting non-Euclidian space. The book relies on the multiply nested frame stories and footnotes to construct a sense of verisimilitude as well as mystery. Though all of it is fictional, receiving the story through a game of telephone with multiple unreliable narrators only adds to the intrigue. It feels like stumbling into a particularly vivid and heavily documented conspiracy theory.

    Did the Navidson Record ever actually exist, or is it just the crazed ramblings of Zampano? Did the house itself ever exist? And if it did, how did it come to be? How long has it been there? We are never given answers to any of these questions. Instead, we are expected to wonder.

    How to Make It Okay

    The Genre of Inscrutability builds a setting full of mysteries that it doesn’t intend to resolve. This is not to be confused with something like LOST, a very unfortunate show that intended to resolve its mysteries and catastrophically failed to do so. Here, we are talking about purposeful inscrutability.

    As we see in Bee and Puppycat, one way to make this okay is to keep that mystery separate from the tension and catharsis. If the story is about whether the main character will follow his dreams and leave his small town to go to culinary school, his mysterious island home is just interesting set-dressing. When he overcomes his fears and decides to go, the tension is resolved in a satisfying way. The mysterious setting is still present, but it’s not blocking the satisfying resolution of the story.

    Ambergris shows another possibility: a setting so grandiose in scope that it is not fully knowable. I cannot know every nook and cranny of my home city. I certainly cannot know all of its long history. Likewise, Ambergris is a setting with fuzzy edges. We might know some of its history, its inhabitants, its streets and buildings, but we cannot know all of it. There is vague malice lurking beyond the torn edges of the map, monsters that might just come up out of the ground one night and whisk everyone away. Such a setting makes the characters feel small and weak in a very big and dangerous world.

    House of Leaves fully leans into the mystery. The mystery is entirely central to the book. The book itself is a puzzle box, a literary game. It doesn’t give away all the clues, because that would be too easy. You have to want the answers and work for them. You can theorize and guess, but at the end of the day, the book just winks, shrugs, and walks away. It’s up to you to convince yourself you’re right, based on the evidence at hand. House of Leaves forces the reader into the position of the conspiracy theorist, just like its numerous narrators.

    In Medias Res

    When I was a young whippersnapper, I once accidentally read the sixth book in a seven-book series. I didn’t know it was part of a series. I didn’t find out until I got to the end and found the whole series listed out. It was a very disconcerting experience. It is the ultimate form of in medias res.

    This is exactly the experience that the Genre of Inscrutability cultivates, but it’s a dangerous game. Some readers won’t put up with it. I have no doubt that all of the stories I talked about above have left readers and viewers behind. Not everyone wants to work to enjoy a story, and no matter how the inscrutable story tries to make it okay, it is requiring extra effort from the audience.

    On the other hand, the inscrutable story offers a real depth of experience to a dedicated fan. One need only look at the wikis, forums and social media conversations to see that fans of this kind of content derive a huge amount of satisfaction from combing through every detail of the work, and then discussing it with other fans. But woe unto the author who accidentally inserts some small error that the fans latch on to as a meaningful clue. Even if you don’t intend to reveal all the answers, internal consistency is still important.

    If you know of any other stories that you think fall into the Genre of Inscrutability, let me know in the comments. I’d love to find other examples.

Get Uncomfortable

I live in the suburbs, but we are within spitting distance of the city proper. Thanks to an intersection of nearby highways, most of the streets in our neighborhood don’t go through, so it’s nice and quiet, but also close to busier areas. Now, my kids range from early grade school to middle school, and this summer they’ve been eager to go out and play with their friends around the neighborhood. They want to go places and do things unsupervised.

The impression I get about children growing up in the 70s and earlier is that parenting mostly consisted of making sure that your children had a reasonable number of meals per day and did chores to build character. Other than that, children just went where they pleased. However, today’s parents have been drowned in stories of kidnappers, serial murderers and razor blades in Halloween candy all of their lives. “Helicopter parenting” is a phrase spoken with derision, and yet there is an awful lot of media focused on all of the terrible things that can happen to a child, if only you take your eyes off them for a moment.

My children want to run around the neighborhood with various other children. They are not particularly good at telling me where they’re going or keeping track of time. But I’ve forced myself to give them a little more space than I’m comfortable with. This is one of the things that I’ve had to come to grips with as a parent. Parenting is a compromise: the kids probably get less freedom than they want, and I get less control and less reassurance. As the kids get older (and they keep on getting older!) the boundaries will keep shifting.

Comfort is Stagnation

My own complete comfort as a parent is not necessarily what is best for my kids to grow and become self-sufficient and responsible. And my own comfort as a writer is not necessarily what is best for my stories to grow and improve. That’s right, you just walked into a metaphor!

Discomfort is the natural human reaction to shifting boundaries and new ideas. To challenge your limitations and grow, you have to work on something you’re not entirely sure you can do. Sometimes these experiments lead to success, and sometimes they fail. But whenever I try some new and difficult writing project, I end up taking away valuable new ideas, experience and skills.

Being a good parent also requires admitting that you don’t always know what you’re doing, and you don’t know how exactly you’ll end up affecting your children. After all, the world is full of well-meaning parents whose parenting styles have contributed to their children’s hang-up and neuroses. We are all, to some extent, the products of our upbringing.

Stories, like children, are a product of their parents. My thoughts, my dreams, my ideas all come out in my writing, either directly or in subtext. My unspoken assumptions may be on the page even when I don’t realize it. However, it’s easy to self-censor.

We all have secrets and darker thoughts. Things we’re not proud of. Shame or embarrassment, enviousness, and worry. We don’t talk about these things with our co-workers. We don’t bring them up at parties. We may not even dare whisper them to our husbands and wives, our trusted relatives or closest friends.

Letting those things creep into our writing is hard. It’s like opening up your soul and letting strangers look inside. We fear being judged. Now, perhaps more than ever before, judging strangers is a popular pastime. But this kind of vulnerability is powerful.

Embrace Vulnerability

Mike Birbiglia has a show called The New One, about becoming a father, and the changes that it wrought on his life. It’s comedy, but it has serious elements too. In one of the darkest parts, he admits that he “understood why some dads leave.” He didn’t leave, but he understands it. That’s vulnerability. It’s the sort of statement that could ruin relationships. But it’s honest, and it’s one of the most powerful parts of the show.

Mike has stated that many people judge him for those statements. He gets messages about it on social media. But he also gets messages from people who connected with it, and his process of working through and accepting parenthood made them feel understood and helped them work through similar feelings.

That kind of brutal honesty, that acceptance of the truth of the situation, no matter how uncomfortable or upsetting, is a hallmark of good writing. Those are the things that audiences connect to, because your secret shame or fear or sadness or loathing feels like less of a burden when you discover that you’re not alone.

Plumb the Depths

Achieving this kind of honesty is difficult. The first hurdle is being honest with yourself. People don’t typically like to evaluate themselves with complete honesty. Luckily, we’re all complex individuals, and we don’t have to dig up all the skeletons at once.

One of the easiest ways to get started is to simply think about negative emotions. What are your fears? Are you jealous of others? What feelings do you have that you wouldn’t want to tell to others? You don’t have to write a biography of all of your problems, but sometimes, thinking through these darker aspects of the self will shed light on a topic that could be a powerful inclusion in a story.

Sometimes, taking an honest look at the unpleasant parts of ourselves can be cathartic. It’s a common-enough trope that the writer who writes about their deepest issues can use fiction as a mode of healing. Hiding from problems rarely helps fix them.

On the other hand, I’m definitely not a mental health professional. If going down these roads makes things worse, it’s possible that you need more than fiction to get to a better place. Don’t embrace the old “romantic” notions of writers who actively hurt their health for their work.

It’s also worth noting that some of the difficult truths in our lives may involve relationships with friends or family. If you’re going to put your loved ones into your fiction in a way where they will recognize themselves (or others will recognize them), talk to those people first. Don’t destroy relationships for a story.

Writer, Know Thyself

It’s difficult to infuse a story with the hard truths from our own lives, but this uncomfortable honesty can take fiction to new levels and really help us connect with readers. If your stories never make you feel exposed, consider whether you’re skirting around these areas of discomfort. It may sometimes be painful, but it’s one of the most effective ways to grow as a writer.

Storytelling Class — Style/Substance

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was style and substance.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

Freya is getting close to finishing the first Wheel of Time book. I asked her if she was excited to continue with a series that has fourteen books. She said she thought she might be 70 before she finishes. She also just started the “Janitors” series, though she hasn’t gotten far enough to form an opinion yet.

I have been working my way through my beautiful new Ambergris hardcover. City of Saints and Madmen was a formative book for me, and I’m excited to now have it in a single massive tome alongside Jeff Vandermeer’s other Ambergris stories. I was however, a little disappointed to find that they actually removed some of the appendices that appeared in the original, so now I have to keep my copy of City of Saints and Madmen as well.

In non-fiction, I started Ways of Being at the recommendation of Cory Doctorow, although I’m only a few pages in.

What Did We Write?

Freya has kept busy writing for school work, and hasn’t worked on any fiction recently. After my Covid break, I’ve been working on getting back into Razor Mountain.

Style and Substance

Each story consists of two parts—two sides of the same coin—style and substance. You can think of “substance” as “what the story is about” and style as “how the story is told.” Substance is the meaning. Style is the actual words. By some definitions, substance is good, while style is just the shallow surface layer. However, when it comes to fiction, each story is really a melding of the two.

Schools of Thought

At the risk of being a little controversial, I’m going to define two schools of thought, and I’m going to call them “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” I put them in quotes because each story is a special snowflake, and I’m about to speak in broad generalizations, so take it all with a grain of salt.

The “genre fiction” school of thought is that substance takes precedence. Genre fiction sometimes even devalues style. Common genre fiction advice suggests that, when reading a great book, the reader should forget they’re reading and get lost in the story—that is, in the plot and the characters. The descriptive text should become transparent. Authors should endeavor to become invisible, and never call attention to themselves.

The “literary fiction” school of thought holds that style is quality. Literary fiction tends to put a higher value on authorial voice. The advice here is that a great book should be overflowing with the author’s unique voice, and the reader should be transported into the mind-space of the author. Mechanics like plot and character are nice, but they need to be described through transcendent prose. Anyone can tell a story. A true author tells it in a way that only they can.

False Dichotomies

Like most dichotomies, this one is artificial. Style and substance aren’t strictly opposing forces (although they can sometimes fight each other). Some authors make the mistake of crafting page after page of beautiful prose that doesn’t really  tell a story, while others create intricate plots by placing row upon row of flat words like bricks in a wall.

Readers, like authors, are unique, and there are audiences for both of these styles. Science fiction has a big audience that revels in clever plots and is fine with a lack of ornamentation. Likewise, there are plenty of literary fiction readers who care more about delicious sentences than characters who actually go somewhere and do something.

As an author, you can make your own choices about what you value. You may choose to focus on substance, or style, or try to find a happy medium. However, it’s important to understand that there are trade-offs. The more stylized your prose is, the more your reader will have to work to understand what’s going on. Some readers will appreciate the extra layers of complexity, but others simply won’t be interested, and may just put the story down. Focus on style inherently takes some focus away from the substance.

Examples

We looked at a few of my personal favorites when it comes to literary style.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series is a relatively mild example, where most of the stylistic flourishes could be described as “literary comedy,” twisting language for fun and amusement.

Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book with literally complex text that stretches sentences across pages, forms shapes and pictures, and wraps around upon itself. But it is also a narratively complex work, presented by a character named Johnny, who details the work of his acquaintance, Zompano, who himself took detailed notes based on videos shot by a third character, Navidson, whose descriptions of his ever-shifting, labyrinthine, and spatially inconsistent house form the heart of the story.

Finally, there’s Vandermeer’s more recent work, Dead Astronauts, a book that is so dense and challenging to decipher that it almost feels encoded.

These are wildly different examples of a strong authorial voice put to use for different purposes. While Adams is extremely readable, House of Leaves ranges from straightforward prose to deep complexity. Dead Astronauts is lyrical and dreamlike, but so obfuscated in parts that I found it off-putting. And there are many other examples of other authors doing entirely different but equally interesting things with language.

Choosing a Style

Depending on the type of writer you are, you may find that you default more toward one end of the spectrum than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that. Many authors are influenced by their own favorite writers and stories, and you may like to write the same kind of stories that you like to read.

I find that memorable quotes and phrases tend to come from style-heavy writers. Substance-heavy writers tend to make unforgettable stories where you don’t necessarily remember any of the words in particular. I loved The Martian when I read it a year ago. I remember some of the structure (maybe because I blogged about it) but I don’t remember a single line from it.

Sometimes particular stories will speak to you in a certain way. Just because you normally write very straightforward sci-fi space operas doesn’t mean you can’t do a bunch of clever stylistic embellishment in a complicated, self-referential time-travel story.

As with most things in life, it can be good to experiment. You might discover that you can find joy in more kinds of stories than you previously realized. Or you may find that a particular story calls for a particular style.

Great Writing — Good Bones

I don’t read or write a lot of poetry. I’m more of a dabbler. However, I know that poetry is important.

Where fiction has all its twisted plots and detailed characters, poetry (at its best) is a distillation of pure emotion. It’s a few precisely chosen words, polished to razor sharpness so they can cut into your soul. Poetry shows sloppy fiction writers like me just how exacting each word can be.

Maggie Smith is a poet I found only recently, but her work exemplifies the things I like best about poetry. I don’t know if Good Bones would have hit me the same way before I had children, but it certainly hits me hard now.

Good Bones

Go read Good Bones, by Maggie Smith, at the Poetry Foundation website.

The Things We Don’t Tell Our Children

It starts with the things we don’t tell our children. Smith talks about the things she keeps from her children four times in seventeen lines. She keeps the things she did and doesn’t want them to know about. She hides that the world is at least half terrible. There’s a quiet desperation there: the world is bad and I’m part of it. I’m terrible too. I’d rather my children not know that.

Why is the world terrible?

“For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” What an apt metaphor.

“For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake.” Jesus fucking Christ. No wonder you don’t tell your children. While this is literally hyperbole, figuratively it feels true. If we take everything out there in the world and put it all on the scales of good and evil, does it balance out? An awful lot of the time it feels like it doesn’t.

Selling Something Broken

At the end, there’s a twist: “I’m trying to sell them the world.”

As parents, that’s what we do. Children ask a lot of questions, and all too often they’re asking about why things seem to be so awful. We each have our own internal parenting algorithm, refined over time, to provide information, sometimes truth, sometimes opinion. Maybe even lies, when we feel backed into a corner.

We tell our kids about the world, but we can’t resist “selling” it. We want them to be happy. We want them to make things better, even when we helped cause the problems and failed to clean them up ourselves. We need them to have hope, even when we ourselves don’t have any.

“This place could be beautiful. You could make this place beautiful.”

The Moral of the Story

Every time I read this poem, I change my mind about whether it’s supposed to be hopeful or despairing. Of course, it doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other, but I feel like I ought to be able to suss out an opinion. This is what keeps the oft-derided field of literary criticism alive: that feeling that we need to figure out what the work is “trying” to say.

Ultimately, I think the poem may not have an opinion. It’s just describing the way things are. There might be a lesson in there for us. When you write about something, you don’t have to inject your opinion, positive or negative. Sometimes you can just tell it like it is, a reporter on a made-up world. Leave it to the reader to decide how they should feel about it.

Short Story Advice Roundup

The Short Story Series

This is the end of my short story series, at least for now. If you’re a writer who only writes long-form fiction, I’d like to try one more time to encourage you to at least give short story writing a try. I’m a firm believer that the more techniques and styles you have in your arsenal, the more they all inform each other and add depth to all your writing. Besides, short stories are fun to write and fun to read!

I wanted to wrap things up by pointing you to more short story writing resources. If you want to dig deeper, there are tons of articles. Here are a handful of the ones I’ve found useful.

For an introduction to some of the possibilities of short stories:

What is a Short Story?Reedsy

For important elements of a short story:

How to Build a Short Story from the Ground Up — Chris the Story Reading Ape

For some advice on keeping your short story short:

How to Keep Your Short Story Short — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

To avoid some common mistakes:

Common Mistakes in Short Story Writing — Chris the Story Reading Ape

To keep the reader interested:

Forget Hooks: How to Pull Readers Through a Short Story by Making Promises and Raising Questions — Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

For writing to a specific length and theme:

Gaining Readers Through Writing Short Stories — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For an annotated description of the process that goes into a short story:

Writing the Short Story, Part 1: Experimenting — Life in the Realm of Fantasy

For advice on which markets to send your stories:

Submit or Surrender? A Tale of Three Publishers — Aeryn Rudel’s Rejectomancy

Storytelling Class — Scenes

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was scenes.

We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?

What Did We Read?

I’ve recently been reading the Maus graphic novels, the Timeshift anthology of time-related sci-fi, and Mort (a Terry Pratchet Discrworld novel) at bedtime with the kids.

Freya has been reading the first Wheel of Time book. She said it was a little slow at first, but she’s enjoying it now that she’s halfway through.

What Did We Write?

I’ve only been writing Razor Mountain recently, and trying to get ahead on blog posts. Freya hasn’t written any more of her book recently, but she has been writing poetry, including one about all the many fragrances of bath bombs.

What’s In a Scene?

Today’s topic was the structure of scenes. A scene is the smallest “unit” that we typically break stories into. A short story might have only a couple scenes, while a novel can have dozens or hundreds.

The beginning and end of a scene are often delineated physically on the page with a line break, chapter break, or asterisks and similar markers. However, it takes more than that to make a scene feel cohesive. There are a few different tools that can help a scene feel like a single unit of story: setting, characters, and theme.

Setting

A scene is typically a section of the story that occurs entirely in one setting. In this case, I use “setting” fairly broadly. It can refer to a specific location or a specific time period. Most of the time, a scene will take place in one location and cover a specific, contiguous period of time. For example, two people meet in a coffee shop, have a conversation, and then leave.

In some cases, some characters may enter or exit in the middle of the scene, or the scene may start in the middle of the action, with the characters already in their places. In these cases, it’s usually the static setting that holds the scene together. All the action happens in the same place, over a specific span of time.

You can think of this in terms of a stage play. The scenery for the scene is ready and the lights come up. Are the characters already on the stage? Do they enter or exit during the scene? Eventually the scene ends and the lights go down so the props can be replaced and a new scene can start.

Characters

It’s also possible for a scene to move across multiple locations (in time or space) or take place in multiple locations simultaneously.

For example, in visual media like TV, film and comics, it’s common to have a “split screen” scene where a narrator in one location (in space or time) narrates action set in a different location. This lets the writer play with juxtapositions or relationships between the narration and the action. Imagine a scene where a person talks about falling in love while a montage of scenes with the happy couple flash by. Then imagine how the mood changes if the character is instead talking about slowly falling out of love.

In a plot like a heist, there might be a single scene that jumps between several bank robbers in different areas of a bank, each one carrying out their part of the bigger plan. Everything is happening at the same time, or in sequence, but in many different locations.

Fuzzy Edges

While most scenes have an obvious beginning and end, not every scene is so clearly delineated. One scene may blend into another. Often, this takes the form of “zooming in” or “zooming out,” and may involve a change of perspective.

For example, the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a description of our galaxy, the evolution of the human race, and the problems that beset us. Then it “zooms in” to one woman in particular, who has an important revelation. Then, because it’s Douglas Adams, we are told that the story isn’t about this woman at all. It’s about a terrible, stupid catastrophe and the book called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Then, at the start of the next chapter, it does the same thing, zooming in on the protagonist’s house, and eventually the protagonist himself.

This example shows nicely that this sort of zooming out can happen in location (zooming from outside the galaxy to a particular café in Rickmansworth) but also in time (across the entire evolution of humanity to the modern day).

“Zooming” can also encapsulate a change in the level of specificity, where the author glosses over less important details until reaching a place and moment in time where the details are important. This is often done for the sake of continuity. A character might spend one scene talking with a friend, then have to drive across town to speak to another friend. The drive isn’t very interesting. So the author describes the first conversation in detail over several pages. A short paragraph describes the uneventful drive, and then there are several more pages of detail for the second conversation.

Theme

These aspects of location and character are the logistics of a scene. The level of zoom or specificity are stylistic choices. But there is one other thing that can affect whether a scene feels satisfying and complete: the theme or arc of the scene.

Each scene needs to have some purpose in the larger story, and oftentimes scenes fulfill several purposes at once. They could provide new information to the characters or the reader. They could show some change in the character, perhaps resolving a goal or revealing a new goal. They could create or resolve a mystery. They need to drive the story forward in some way.

One of the more common challenges in fiction is when the logistics of the story require things to happen, but those things don’t actually feel like they’re furthering the story. They are like the character driving across town between important conversations.

It’s easy to make a whole scene out of these kinds of unsatisfying story beats, and the scene will inevitably be a dull one. Sometimes these scenes can be cut completely. Other times they can be replaced with a little bit of connective tissue, like the zoom-in or a quick, summarizing description of the necessary action. Sometimes, by looking at the larger picture, you’ll find that the story can be tweaked so the boring part isn’t needed at all.

Class Dismissed

That’s all for this class. We’ve been doing fewer of these little “classes” over summer, since…well, we’re outside and enjoying the warm weather while we can. I do have at least one more planned though, before school is back in session and our schedules get busy.

Three Things I Learned From Locke and Key

I was on vacation this week, and along with some other vacation reading material, I borrowed the first three volumes of Locke and Key from my local library. It’s a suspense/mystery/horror comic series. As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be reviewing from the angle of useful writing lessons I took from these books.

The story of the Locke family begins with a murderous attack in their own home. Rendell Locke, the father, is killed, and his three children and wife Nina are left severely traumatized. To get away from it all, they move to the ancestral Locke house, in ominously named Lovecraft, MA.

In the new house, the children soon discover that there is some kind of paranormal creature lurking around who seems to have a vendetta against the Locke family, and the house is filled with strange keys, each with their own magical powers.

1 – Don’t Raise Stakes Too Quickly

The very first scene in the story is a home invasion and murder. There are a couple problems with this. Firstly, we don’t know any of the characters yet, so the situation loses some of its punch. It’s obviously a bad time for everyone, but the characters are still strangers to us, so I didn’t sympathize with them as much as I might later on.

Secondly, the stakes are immediately sky-high. It doesn’t get much worse than being chased by a crazy murderer. Later on, when the kids are worried about classes, making friends, or relationships, it all feels small and unimportant in comparison. How do you ramp up the tension from that beginning?

I think it might have been better for the story if the entire incident had happened “off-screen” and only been revealed in flashbacks.

2 – Make Characters Likable in Some Way

All the living members of the Locke family are traumatized. Nina becomes an alcoholic, while the kids try to take solace in relationships, and later, in the powers of the keys.

However, in these first three volumes the characters’ relationships with one another steadily deteriorate. They are all unhappy and everyone acts selfishly most of the time. Only when there’s an immediate threat of physical harm do they work together.

In recent years, there has been a sharp uptick in TV “anti-hero” dramas like Breaking Bad or Ozark. These are shows where the main characters do bad things, and they escalate by transforming the characters into worse and worse people. I’m not a big fan of these shows. Why would I root for someone who shows no positive qualities?

The Lockes are hardly anti-heroes, but they have the same problem. Why should I root for these characters when I never see them in a positive light?

3 – A Good Mystery Keeps You Reading

What kept me invested in the first three volumes of Locke and Key is the mystery. What is the origin of the keys? How are they tied to the house? Who is this villain, really, and what is their ultimate goal?

Even when I wasn’t that invested in the characters and their troubles, I still kept reading to find out more about these mysteries. Wanting to know more is a powerful way to keep the reader engaged.

Vacations Are Great!

I don’t know if I’ll read the rest of Locke and Key. I borrowed it from the library to try before I buy, and it hasn’t compelled me to keep reading.

On the other hand, I enjoyed all my extra vacation reading time, and I feel rested and energized to get back to my writing projects!