Ten Thousand Forks

Perhaps no word in the English language is so abused as poor irony (‘like’ is up there). It’s the rallying cry of hipsters who drink PBR and wear T-shirts ‘ironically’. And little needs to be said about that song, which contains nothing which is actually ironic, which, if intended, makes it actually ironic. So it is either brilliant or dumb. In any case, irony has suffered much.

And not only has its true meaning been diluted, its actual use has. We take irony- even as defined – to be brief, pithy and generally humorous in some way. But, my dear readers, but, irony is so, so much more than that. It is a great tool in writing, and is not particularly complicated to wield. All you have to do is understand what irony is, and what its intent is. To the first, we turn to the dictionary:

the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Italics mine in there. Note that is not just for humor. And we thus establish it is using the opposite to get your point across- which is where intent comes in. But that is the 1 definition. Mark this:

a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

So it is not even novel to use irony in writing- in fact, it is ancient. So how do we use it in our story? There are, of course, myriad examples in literature, but perhaps none better – or, at least, more apparent – than in The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe. If you haven’t read it, do so now. It’s available for free in a few places, and is a quick read. I’ll wait.

Read it yet? Good. Let’s continue. The best place to start is with the very obvious ironies: Fortunato is easily apparent- he is far from fortunate, at least within the bounds of our story, but in other areas of life is successful. His demise- unsuspected, and likely unwarranted (more on that in a second), is as unfortunate as can be.

cask.jpgHe wears a hat with bells – in Victorian times, bells were put on bodies being buried (or even atop their graves) to prevent burial of people who weren’t actually dead and were just in a coma. Fortunato’s hat, however, provides him no such favors, jingling away, the only one to hear being his murdered.

So there are myriad obvious (Fortunato is implored to turn back; his health is showed concern for; the Mason joke)- yet effective ironies in the story. This is, of course, the easiest use of it – and there is nothing wrong with doing so. It fulfills the definitions above, telling your reader something  by using opposites to make the point.

But the story, in its entirety, is one of irony. We begin with

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but
when he ventured upon insult..

Yet we never know what the insult is- or if there even was one. Based on my experience, anyone who is willing to plot a years-long revenge is also the type of person who will take insult at almost anything (but I know very few murderers; I may be mistaken). And even if Fortunato did insult the narrator, does it justify his end? There is no way it could. So while the narrator is often called unreliable in this story, I don’t know that that is the best way of putting it. No, he is the opposite of moral sense- any of us (GG’ers will disagree) deem murder wrong and criminal. But to the narrator, it is his duty and morally right and justified. There is an overarching irony to the fact that the tale is from his point of view, and one that is unblinking in his assertion that he did the right thing.

This does something interesting to us – think of a book or movie that follows the ‘good guys’ through a murder investigation. The one that leaps to my mind is Se7en (UGH that name), which is a fantastic film. But throughout it, we are repulsed by the nature and crimes of John Doe. And even though we recognize that he firmly believes he is right, we never sympathize with him.

The narrator in this story, though- we never sympathize with him either, but we are more and more repulsed by him because it is told to us in a sympathetic tone. It is the irony of the story that drives home our feelings about his actions. Imagine it as a conventional crime story- the body is discovered, there is an investigation, it is revealed at the end that he was tricked and lead to his death. Bad enough, right? But by spending the whole time in the mind of the killer, and him proclaiming not his innocence, but that he is in fact just, there is a different feeling. It’s not a shock, not a jump scare or dramatic reveal, but a growing sense, knowing what is coming and being forced to watch it. It is the irony that draws you in and forces you to be a voyeur to an act you despise – and thus the reader shares in the irony.

DESR

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In Praise of Subtlety

Do any of you have that word that you use all the damn time, but can still never spell correctly? And you usually go so far astray that autocorrect looks at it, looks at you, back at the word, and kind of walks away with a defeated shrug, muttering to itself?

‘Subtlety’ is that way for me. And I use that word a lot because it is a word, like irony (more on that later), which is having its meaning eroded. Not in the same way, of course- people use irony to mean all manner of things which are not, in fact, ironic. No, subtlety is simply being lost.

rain

Pretty, POTC, but not very subtle

 

 

“Show, don’t tell” is an all-to-frequently repeated adage of writing, usually accompanied by some quasi-poetic, insufferably pretentious statement like “don’t tell me it’s raining; make me feel the raindrops (this post might be insufferably pretentious, I realize). It’s not wrong, but it is over-repeated, to be sure. While there are a whole bunch of authors who go out of their way to make sure you feel raindrops, it gets shoved in our faces a lot that it is f**king raining – rain which does not connect to any greater purpose.

 

How so? I talked about it earlier – the gut-punch moments of trauma, for example. It propels the plot, sure, it makes the reader feel something, but is it in service of anything greater?

Personally, I deplore writing a word that only means one thing. And so much of literature these days is just that- one thing, a story, it goes from point A to point B, and along the way some shit happened. I loved, I laughed, I cried, I forgot about the story two weeks later.

Perhaps the preeminent example of this is The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe. In it, Poe doesn’t really try terribly hard to make you care about Lenore, but by the time the door is open – a mere four verses in – we feel apprehension as well:

here I opened wide the door;—

            Darkness there and nothing more.

We, of course, know what is coming, but subtly apprehension is built. What’s more, we know what’s coming- in fact, if there is one thing every person knows about Poe, it is that the word nevermore appears in this poem. But let’s talk about that word; or, rather, half of it- more.

raven

By Adam Flynn

 

The word more closes every verse in the poem, which may not seem terrible subtle, but note that the simple repetition takes the narrator through the gamut of emotion. At first, it cheers our narrator, but drives him madder and madder at the repeated answer. But to us, the repetition is not maddening – it serves another purpose. It keeps a steady beat throughout the story, so that we anticipate that word coming, building to it.

 

But not the subtle shift in tone – the second verse closes with evermore – he is haunted by her. Then five verses of merely this and nothing more – the interruption, at those points, is inconsequential, and those words convey that nothing changes, for us or the narrator. But then the rest of the verses close with nevermore, with no variation. I think of this poem like the drumbeat that builds tension- slow at first, beating faster and faster and setting out hearts pounding and adrenal glands into a frenzy. Movies use it all the time – Poe writes it. So that beat starts neutral, and beats faster and faster as we anticipate it more, until the crescendo:

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

 

Because this time- it’s not the Raven speaking, it’s the narrator. Every subtle layering throughout has led to this – the ultimate resignation of the narrator, and thus, ourselves.

Each use of more serves something larger- not just to convey the feelings, to make us feel, to tell us it is raining, but to set up, build to, a conclusion.

One of my favorite insults of all time is an old British one, that, presumably, has fallen out of use, but goes “what are you for?” which is to say, “what is your purpose?” Ask that of your words- what are they for, what is their purpose? How does it serve, not just the scene, not just the plot, but the entirety of the story and its ultimate payoff?

DESR

Over the Edge

Edginess is all the rage these days. Has been, for a long time, really. Push the envelope. Do something shocking and different. And that’s is all true and good – to an extent.

Once upon a time, a little film you may have heard of called Gone With the Wind made waves by using the word ‘damn’. Scandalous. And for the time, it was. And I am pretty sure we can all agree that standards when it came to books and movies in the era were pretty far out of whack.

Nowadays, not so much. It is, to borrow from V for Vendetta, the land of do as you please. This has some really good instances- think of Ned Stark or the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. Shocking, edgy and unexpected.

On the flipside, you have to work really hard to be shocking and edgy, and a lot of authors jump from that side of the line to outright brutality. I’m not going to debate the artistic merits, or lack thereof, of brutality- if that’s your thing, Marquis de Sade is out there for you to read. But think of the sheer number of books and movies that feature an inciting incident that involves a wife/girlfriend and/or child being some combination of raped/tortured/murdered. Shocking, right?

got.gifSorry, no. A couple things: First, no. It’s lazy. Sure, a significant other or child being brutalized would set me on a path to revenge, but it’s still distasteful. Does that mean it should never be done? Of course not- there are plenty of examples of good literature that include those elements. But it is lazy writing. Because of the emotional punch that the reader receives by empathizing with the protagonist, it elicits a reaction.

But it is overdone, and usually poorly done, and usually the focus is on the wrong thing. Don’t believe me? As any editor how many submissions they receive which feature – and glorify – such brutality. I’ll wait. Back? Told you so. So in addition to being a cheap inciting incident, it’s overdone, and any true edge is lost.

So what would be the non-lazy way of going about it? Think of The Count of Monte Christo- who suffers? Someone innocent? No – our protagonist. We still empathize with him, and with his suffering – in fact, to a depth that we would not achieve were Mercedes raped and/or murdered – which is the road many authors these days would go.

In fact, the tale of revenge is so deep that when he begins to terrorize other’s families, we excuse it! We are so deep in his head, his feelings so much our own, that it traces through the rest of the book. It is not something spurred by a hero kneeling in the rain, holding a body, shouting Noooooooo before going on a rampage. It is a human, who is wronged deeply, and not only goes on a journey of revenge, but by the end, is forced to judge himself for his actions.

Edginess is a useful tool. But it is not the only tool, and if you lean to hard on it, you’ll find yourself with a shallow work, lacking subtlety and substance.

DESR

 

Don’t Listen to Me

If you’re a writer, everyone has advice for you. A lot of it is good, but even the good stuff starts to lose its weight after the thirty gajillionth time you hear it. Here are some I (and a select panel of other [better] writers) have heard that are beaten to death and/or wrong:

Write Every Day: Why? Having a routine is great, and it means you’re being productive. But if you have a different writing schedule, who the hell cares? And not enough focus is on quality. Don’t worry so much about your word count and worry about how good those words are.opinionated

Show, Don’t Tell: Just… stop saying this. Writers say this like it’s a bloody mantra, usually with some lovely variation of don’t tell me it’s raining, make me feel the drops. Two things here: 1. Everyone knows this. 2. Sometimes it is OK to just say something. It’s called exposition. Do it well, and sometimes it is fine.

Write What You Know: The sheer amount and popularity of paranormal romance and YA dystopia suggests this is not essential. Granted, all those books are exactly the same, so maybe they mean write the same book as someone else, beat for beat. Seriously, though, while, yes, you should know what the hell you’re wiring about, write what you don’t know a little. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, or an alien, or a black man in the 1940’s, but those aren’t reasons for me to not write about them. (people need to stop writing that YA crap, though)

Write Until Your Story is Done: Do you like football? I like football. We just went into the offseason, so it’s time for everyone to complain about no football for a while. As soon as the season starts, everyone will complain about having to watch the Jags/Browns game. Your book is the same way- people want to read it, but if it drones on forever, they will hate it. So if your clone dystopian YA book is 150,000 words, you need to cut that sucker down. Less is always more when it comes to writing- make your words count.

 

Love Bites

If there are two words that sum me up, ‘hopeless romantic’ comes as close as any. Tragic romance is generally my speed, but I am certainly a romantic at heart. But let’s talk about writing romance for a bit.

toastNot romance novels, because I have exactly zero expertise in that arena, but romance in fiction in general. Io9 had a great post on the Eight Worst Kinds of Fictional Romances, and while they cite TV, it applies to books too. And for the love of bacon, just stop already. Seriously.

But authors aren’t the only ones who are guilty. I swear, if I see one more Finn/Rey/Poe love triangle/some pairing, I am going to claw my eyes out. God forbid any characters have good chemistry and don’t end up in bed together.

One of the most influential books for me was Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. It is an adventure about a close friendship, and does a much better job of communicating real affection between two people, as well as real issues between those people, than any of these shoe-horned romances that come from jamming two characters together.

If you’re writing, take a good, hard look at why two characters are dating/married/sleeping together. As that Io9 article says, are you just writing a plot point? Because if you are, it will feel flat and your characters will feel phony.

On the flip side, maybe two characters really seem to bounce off each other, and that wasn’t in the plan. Hey, guess what? That’s how real life works, which means that if those characters do get together, it feels natural. But what if your plot points demand they don’t? Hey, also real life. Give your readers a good dose of will-they/won’t-they. Maybe bring them together at the end. Maybe have them never get together. Maybe have one die tragically in the others arms (spoiler alert).

Romance is great- I love it, but it is not necessary. And when it is forced into a story, it takes away from the depth of the characters, distracts from the story and feels like a cheap grab at your readers emotions. Consider it as carefully as you would anything else in the story, and remember- less is generally more.

-DESR

PS Hands off Finn, Poe is mine

Weighted Words

There was some little to-do recently about short stories being little more than a learning exercise for longer form works. I’ll talk about the merits of short fiction as stand-alone entertainment another time, but I wanted to talk about my own experience with writing in the medium.

You may be aware that I have a short fiction collection out (you may be aware I have a Kickstarter for it. You may not have backed it. Please rectify this). This wasn’t my original intention; I didn’t really pay much attention to many short stories (though there are some I have always loved). I considered myself a long-form guy, and never thought I’d write much short stuff. But as I worked on the 3024AD universe, I liked the idea of a lot of short stories set in that universe, around ostensibly minor characters. I started writing some (‘The Bounty‘ was the first, if you’re curious, although ‘The Gathering Storm’ I started first, but later re-wrote), and they began to form a major part of the universe, and my writing projects in general.

But I learned something from writing them, something that applies to long and short form, and that has to do with the words. In long form, it’s a sandbox. You can go anywhere, do anything, and I always viewed that as a positive. You can explain Every. Little. Detail. But is that really so good?

Allow me to back up- growing up I loved The Wheel of Time series, by Robert Jordan. Needless to say, I was ridiculously excited for A Song of Ice and Fire and devoured the first couple books. But the same problem started to creep in that had killed my loved for The Wheel of Time. I remember thinking this is never going to end, is it? I don’t know if it’s because you never kill the golden goose, or it’s just that fun to write, or what, but Robert Jordan died writing WoT, and I’m pretty sure GRRM is going to do the same.

The words because wasted to me. It wasn’t even information overload- it was why am I even reading about this? I love details as much (more) than the next person, but there comes a point where it doesn’t contribute to the story.

And that’s what I have learned from writing short fiction- not to leave out details, but to make sure the right words are used, that they have weight and bearing on the story. To be sure, it’s improved my longer-form work, but I think it’s a good lesson that applies across the field. If each word carries weight and adds to the story, it will be richer and vibrant, without the lulls and clutter so common to scifi and fantasy.

DESR

Coming Soon…

I’ve alluded to it a couple times, but I wanted address it directly: There will be a second edition of 3024AD: Short Stories Series One. This is spurred mostly by the need for some additional editing (which you may have noticed if you’ve read it). It’s also getting a brand new cover (pictured), which is along much of the same lines, but the formatting works a lot better. As with the first cover, all praise goes to Johnny Atomic for it.

2nd edition cover

2nd edition cover

But, as you know if you’ve paid attention to me for any amount of time, I want to be more than a ‘self-published’ or ‘independent’ author. So I’m using this as an opportunity to expand my reach. I am going to run a new Kickstarter campaign to fund this effort, both the editing and expanded reach. The goal will be $1,000, which will cover all the basic expenses and rewards, but anything in excess of that will go toward printing and distributing physical copies of the book. I want to establish a solid presence in local independent bookstores, and hopefully in some libraries (if nothing else, some of the small neighborhood library boxes which are popping up all over).

This site will also be getting a facelift soon, and you’ll also be able to buy book(s) right off the site. You’ll be able to pay as much (or as little) as you like for the ebook, and a base price for the physical copy. I think one of the things that is broken with a lot of ebook stores (ebookstores?) is that for, say, my book, you have to pay five bucks. It’s a fair price for a good book, I think, but how the hell do you know it’s a good book? Maybe you’d take a chance at two or three dollars, but at five you’re priced out without a solid reason to buy. This will allow people to read it, and pay what they think it’s worth.

So that’s a preview of what is to come. The Kickstarter will launch next week- I have to put the finishing touches on it (READ: Make a damn video), and set up some promo stuff and then wait for the approval. So feel free to start spreading the word! There will be fun rewards, cool stuff and cookies.

DESR