Thursday, October 15, 2009

In order to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative helps if you've been there. Since there are no tours to Tasmarin, or Elizabethan England - particularly the versions with elves, demons and magic - not even a Slow Train to Arcturus, we've got to make it feel like we've taken that journey.

That means artistic verisimilitude, better known in writing circles as the telling detail or Heinleining. Sarah's posted about this a few times, particularly how the one right detail can bring a huge amount of extra "baggage" with it, filling in great big chunks of world-building without anyone knowing you're doing it. It's knowing what the right detail is that's the interesting part.

I've spent a good chunk of the last couple of years focusing on getting the details in and making my writing feel real, because I have a sad tendency to drift towards the curse of talking heads in empty rooms. The way I did this - which I'm offering for discussion, analysis, whatever - was before I started a scene, I'd think about what information needed to go in, where this was happening (what it looked like, smelled like, warm cold or neutral temperature), what was happening to whom and what they thought and felt about it. Then I wrote it. And often micro-edited as I worked to get the right details in.

Then the latest brightshinyhappynew novel dropped in (the epic fantasy with vampires - who are not sparkly) and made me write enough of it to build a clear link to the world and the characters. And I realized to my considerable shock that the Heinleining was happening more or less without conscious input from me. I wasn't working to make the environment real and solid, it was just happening.

So, just to show the evolution, I'm going to splat a bunch of openings in - from the earliest to the most recent, one or two paragraphs apiece. The earliest was written about 2 years ago, give or take. The first two are finished, then there's 60k, 50k, 10k (I chose to write that much then outline it for a proposal) and 20k. Now that I've got the outline done for the steampunk, I'm going back to the space opera to finish it. ConSensual, alas, will need to wait until ConVent finds a home.

And ConVent, naturally enough, starts this set of openings.

Another convention, another con hotel. After a while, they blur together into an indistinguishable mass of faux-elegance and bizarrely costumed fans. I usually go in what you could call Olde Worlde Vampire - three piece suit, John Lennon glasses, cane with a pewter wolf-head topper. Take Gary Oldman in that appalling Dracula movie, and you have the basic idea, except I wear black and my hair is darker. And short.

About 6 months later, I wrote the opening of Impaler. This one is a little different because it starts with Vlad explaining himself, so the grounding is in personal rather than in physical details.

Always before battle begins I am possessed by the need for solitude and prayer. It is a curious thing, for I have never fought as merely another knight. I first ruled men at the tender age of eighteen, when the old Ottoman Sultan Murad and his son Mehmed still thought I could be a Turk puppet.

The next opening, for ConSensual, I wrote early this year. This one is about 60k of probably 90-100k done, but until ConVent finds a home or the characters wake up and start nagging, it'll probably stay where it is.

Nothing says you've left normal reality like walking into a hotel lobby and seeing a Clone Trooper chatting with a Sith Lord. The sign on the back of the Clone Trooper's armor, 'Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies. Tonight. Room 1226', was really just corroborating evidence.
The next of the partials, Long Haul, is at about 50k and was started around mid-year.

Jack McClatchkey strode through the airlock before the iris finished opening, stepping over the partially retracted lens. He didn't so much as hesitate at what the clean-room -- which served Galway Mining Station as a customs inspection station and extra storage the thirty days of the month there wasn't a ship docked here -- held. It was one of the many things he'd learned from his dad before the old man bought it rigging emergency repairs in an uncharted branch off the wormhole lines. You never let anyone official see you sweat unless you wanted them to think you were scared.
The steampunk, tentatively titled Light Through a Harsh Lens, has about 10k written and a 5k outline - I'm considering sending this as a proposal. This was started mid-yearish. This I think is about when I started to really get the hang of the Heinleining skill.

Soft light from a tinted glass tube lit the Apprentice Day Board. Cleaner and less harsh on the eyes than gaslight, it was one of the many benefits even the newest apprentices of the Society of Artificers enjoyed.

And finally, the brightshinyhappynew! epic fantasy with vampires, Blood Oath, where it all seemed to just click into place. I've written about 20k of this one.

"Where is my son?" Lord Karras s'Daria Ashleon glared around the Great Hall with narrowed eyes, his lips drawn back into a snarl that showed his fangs.
Having reached the point where this happens as I write it, I'm wondering what the next step is going to be. One thing I've worked out is that everyone learns the skills in a different order, and can have several different ones all snap into place more or less at the same time. Maybe it'll be "how to get submissions out" - I'm very bad at that part.

What are some examples of books that show an author building their skills? Sarah's mentioned the differences between the various Heinlein books, and with PTerry's Discworld books there's a clear evolution from Color of Magic through Unseen Academicals. So who else, and what is it that's growing?


Sarah A. Hoyt said...

How to get submissions out would be a happy skill to learn, but it's actually somehing you have to force yourself to do. Well, I still do.

As for your evolution, it is more or less what i did, too. The first -- unpublished -- novel where I realized I needed to convince people my characters could breathe and live, I had a little list at the top of the chapter "here is what I need to establish". I also read ALL of my favorite books, with pad and pencil in hand, writing down how much info they dumped into each chapter. Yeah, I'm obsessive.

Now, not only do I drop things in without thinking (and sometimes don't realize I have, and make note to self to do it, until I read the stuff and go. "Oh, it's here.") but when I write one of those things no one is supposed to read, ever, and then re-read it, I get upset at myself if I have a wrong detail. Like, say, cotton before cotton was used in Europe.

Getting better -- most writers, who write (as opposed to talk about writing) absent disease or old age or some other non-controllable factor, get better with each book.

Also, when you think you've all the skills down pat, you'll notice that -- not that this applies to you particularly -- now that you got your detail soooo good, your plot clunks. Or your character is out of phase. Heck, just this Sunday I realized WHY one of my early novels is unpublishable, and it's plot -- I couldn't carry one in a bucket. Things happen to character and mostly around character, not swayed by his actions.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the one of the best examples of adding verisimilitude, and a prime example of "Heinleining" (by Heinlein, no less) was RAH's famous -- if not legendary -- "the door dilated."

Now I gotta go sort out this granny werewolf plot while it's still fresh in the mind...

Anonymous said...

How about Janet Evanovich, on handling POV?

Okay, Full House is a romance, but the every other paragraph head hopping made it utterly unreadable.

In her more recent stuff she sticks to first person and it works much, much better.


Kate said...


Oh yeah. Learning how to send that stuff out would be nice. Or at least, an improvement on what happens now.

You're not wrong - as soon as I get one thing down something else starts nagging at me and I have to work at that, plus I'm fumbling in the dark again. That short space of time between when the little light bulb goes on and I"m going "Ooh! Now I can do that!" and when darkness and confusion descends once more is nice.

Kate said...


There's a very good reason it's called "Heinleining". I suspect if you were to read early Heinlein the Heinleining wouldn't be as well done as the later Heinlein. Although I could be wrong. Some writers seem to show up indecently talented and get better from that.

Granny werewolf? Why do I get the feeling Red is in deep, deep trouble?

Kate said...


Yes, changes in handling points of view are a pretty good example. My never-to-see-the-light-of-day handwritten while I was in high school manuscripts are like that. You get seasick or possibly whiplash from all the head-hopping (Mind you, back then I couldn't hold a plot in a bucket and I had no idea how you made a character work. I was pretty much all guess and nothing that worked. Evanovich obviously had at least some of that other stuff down in her early books!)

Chris McMahon said...

Interesting mix of first pars there Kate. My favourite is definitely the Vlad one - seems to have so much presence - but then against first person seems to lend itself to that.

If only I had time to go read all those old masters again, but I'm still caught in the compromising between reading and writing in the time I have, and writing wins.

I recently read King Beyond the Gate again, and earlyish Gemmell. I was surprised at how weak this was against some of his other books.

Kate said...


Yeah, the Vlad character has a lot of presence. He keeps nagging me to write more, but I want to sell Impaler before I start accumulating sequels, prequels and what-have-you. That book was originally going to be written in third person, but Vlad's voice happened, and that was that.

It really is striking reading the early work of someone you admire after reading their later work, isn't it?

Chris McMahon said...

It sure is, Kate. I guess I was a little shocked, since Gemmell is one of my idols, but I found myself frustrated by his lack of craft. Maybe I'm improving as well, and my own standards are lifting. I kept thinking, damn, that's not the way to do that, or way too passive, DG.

Anonymous said...

Kate, if I remember correctly, "the door dilated" was in Beyond this Horizon from back in the 1940s, so that was early Heinlein! Even back then he was Heinleining like a master. He was the very definition of the Indecently Talented Writer right from the get-go. Me, on the other hand, while I'm still knocking off the rough edges from the "Talented" and "Writer" parts, I utterly excel at "Indecent." :-D

As for the "Granny Werewolf" thing -- I blame Sarah. She started it. Okay, I started it. Sarah tossed it back into my lap, and I had to run with it. I'll let you know how it works out ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


For me that revisiting the idols when young is even more striking, because there's a language difference. There's this book by A. E. Van Vogt that I considered one of my favorites till I read it in English. Let's say the Portuguese translator wrote a whole different book. Much better foreshadowing.

Also, I didn't know anything before oh... The door into Summer existed for Heinlein. I discovered them all -- including the juveniles, yes -- as an adult and was very shocked at the stunning lack of craft in some of the earlies.

Though perhaps that's not fair. Writing standards were different then, and the language used.

One of the things I found recently is that while trying to re-read Dragon Riders of Pern, the language annoyed me. I used to love those books -- I mean, I re-read them about fifty times. But now the language feels stilted and odd. No, I"m not saying McCaffrey did it wrong -- I just think the language I read, as it were, has changed in the last twenty five years. Perhaps the language I use too. I'm less formal and the books I read are even less so. There's nothing wrong with Dragon Riders, natch, but it will take me a while to even get in the flow of it, before I can enjoy it again.

One of my friends -- Joking, I think -- said that writing is in a way a collaboration between the writer and the reader. There is an element of truth. There's something a reader brings to it. For instance, royalty and nobility the way most Americans write them feel odd and wrong to any European, because those who grew up in Europe bring a different set of preconceptions to that page. You could say we're not so much learning to write, but how to write for our current audience. (And I'm rambling, so I'll take cough meds and hit the mattress.)

Kate said...


Yes, your standards are improving as well. The better you get at writing,the better you get at identifying what other writers do - and their flaws. It's not always a good thing, since that inner critic is bloody difficult to switch off.

Kate said...


I can't really comment on how "Indecent" you are, since I tend to be rather that way myself. I never offer anyone moral support, only immoral.

Granny Werewolf sounds like a lot of fun :)

Kate said...


I used to love the Pern books. Then I started noticing! All! The exclamations!!
Then they got irritating. Now I keep them more for nostalgia value than any serious re-reading.

I'm not really sure if times and styles changed or I did - I haven't looked at any of the latter McCaffrey or her imitators in a long time.