Saturday, July 24, 2010

Throw a fit

(Let's give a big welcome to our guest blogger Pam Uphoff. Pam is a geologist, mother, Texan -- all right, I know. I should have put that first -- and is best known by those who frequent Baen's Bar as the slush reader extraordinaire.)

Tessellation. It all has to fit together. There's a pattern and a method to it, which I had a lot of fun with last weekend. And another nice set of parallels with writing.

Just because it follows rules on how it is constructed doesn't mean the end result isn't pretty darn individual. And even though each tile has to have the same shape, and relate to the other tiles just so, doesn't mean that the artist can't play around with what's inside them all she wants.

And the artist can break the rules, so long as she does it where it doesn't break the whole. In this case, at the edges.

And you think you have trouble with characters dictating things in your head? The way the angels and demons were insulting each other, I was lucky there wasn't blood shed.

But what, you say, must stay the same in writing?

Well, the World for starters. Even if you're planning on introducing a big tech change, the World must be shown to be one that will gleefully adapt, or reject in horror, innovations. The civ that considers color TV the work of the Devil isn't going to have universal cell phones in ten years.

And unless the character is taking speech therapy, the accents. The quirks of speech. The tendency to rattle on when nervous or to be silent when upset. Mid-book personality transplants are bad.

The rules of magic. And physics, biology and chemistry. If you're going to break those, you need to only play around in the frontier areas, where even the experts have their late night doubts about String Theory or Dark Energy.

What should not be the same? Each character needs to be different. You should not be able to swap the names and have a conversation sound equally valid. The characters will feel differently about the same experiences. Men aren't going to react the same as women. People who are insecure, jealous or nervous won't see the same act in the same way a self-confident, mellow type will.

What can change? The POV, the mood, the pace, the setting of each scene.

What ought to change? The characters. They need to mature. Fall in love. Learn skills, gain confidence. Get beaten up, collect a few scars. Some of them die.

So, in writing, what is your worst problem? Fitting the pieces together properly? Too much or too little change? Breaking the rules in the wrong places?


Dave Freer said...

Timing. I build fairly complicated pavements and all those pieces need to come together not only at the right place, but at the right time.

Chris McMahon said...

For me its trying to set the scene with the world and characters without overloading the reader at the onset. I tend to build and build complexity, so its a tough balance for me to get that clarity and hook up front.

Anonymous said...


I'm having problems with that right now. The detective can't realize this until just minutes before that, and a second and third party's rivalries have to come to a head right then as well. I may wind up with three columns and day-by-day and then minute-by-minute coordination to get them all to the assassination on time.


Anonymous said...


I think that's why so many people want to do a prologue. They can tell the reader all they need to know, and then get on with the story.

Unfortunately the modern reader needs to be hooked, hard, or they'll just wander off and play a video game.

Right at the first, all they really need to know about the whole world is the basic genre. "Medieval w/magic" "Space travel common" "AI's illegal" so further details don't wrench them out of the totally wrong assumptions.


Stephen Simmons said...

Like Dave, Timing is a big bugaboo in my current fantasy project, but for a different reason. No matter how I look at it, I keep having to start with a character who doesn't become central to the story until Volume Three as the first one the readers meet. He does something to set one of the plot-lines in motion that's completely independent of everything that's happening elsewhere in the world, and that happens significantly before the rest of the story-lines "start", chronologically. It's not "prologue", it's just the first chapter -- it's just that this first chapter introduces a very intriguing character who only exists in the margins through the rest of Volume One.

The other problem I have is making sure I have the right "width to the lens". How wide a slice of the world would give the reader the best "flavor" of this or that plot-line? Do they need the whole city and surrounding valley built for them as the characters approach, or can I just zoom the camera straight up to the merchant-house and the pier where the action starts?

Anonymous said...


I'd recommend finding a good spot to start with your first volume main character and go from there. Those critical actions of the minor character can be brought in, in a number of ways. Confession, drunken bragging, telling stories around the campfire.

For a hook, you probably want to start close in, and build the city and valley outward as the story progresses. However, you need to be wary of leaving too much to the reader's imagination. You need some little clues about the tech level and so forth. You might be sure and mention all the masts and riggings on the ships, and the aromatic mix of the city smells of coal fires and horse and ox manure with good clean salt air and rotten fish. Just so the reader doesn't expect the hero to whip out his cell phone and call a taxi.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I've just written 460 pages of a book and I'm not even sure if it is working.

I think it works within itself, but I'm not sure if it works in the series.


Anonymous said...

Well, maybe the series needed a surprise twist or a change of pace. Sometimes you need to listen to your subconscious, even when it seems to have had one too many.

Ask yourself what the reader will be think when reading the book after this one. Will he have a whole new perspective?

Or is it that you needed some really new and different characters for subsequent books?

I've found myself writing murder mysteries based in my Evil Empire. Really, I hadn't realized that they had actual motivation and cause to be mean SOBs. They'll still be the Bad Guys,come the next round with the heroes, but I suspect the readers will understand them a lot better.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, I'm putting it into a ROR, see what my writing group think.

Anonymous said...


You are so lucky to have a good review group like that!