30 October, 2014

Description and the Learning Curve

First off, what's the "learning curve"? I've nicked this phrase from Brandon Sanderson, so I'll tell you what it is to him. It's your readers learning about your world. It is highly prevalent in speculative genres for pretty obvious reasons. We're entering a new world.

The learning curve can equally refer to the process of your reader really knowing what's going on in the plot. That's a highly related issue, so I'll touch on it.

I was watching one of Brandon Sanderson's many awesome lectures on Write About Dragons, when he asked the class why we should write with short, sharp description. Credit to the class: they touched on it. All the same, I wanted to scream through the computer screen at them, which I why I'm screaming at them through a blog post now.

We do it because the reader wants the story. Simple as that. They want to know what the smeg is going on. "Matt jumped over the wall." That tells us what Matt's doing. We' know there's a wall there, we know he's jumped over it, and we know, by strong implication, next time we see him he'll be on the other side of it. Great. The rest is shading.

Shading is great. So long as you don't consistently resort to adverbs and adjectives. "Matt swiftly bounded over the abundantly tall wall of stone that was built in 1946 when German settlers came to Townsville on boats made of oak trees, which were a common tree in Germany back then, hence being used to create the many boats that the settlers, one of whom was Matt's great great great great grandfather, used in coming over the Atlantic ocean, which is the world's second largest ocean and" AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHCKKKKKKKKK!!

That's the ultimate way of doing it badly. We've got pointless adjectives, we've got useless information, we've got more useless information that stacked upon the first stuff.

So what do I mean by shading, and how can one do it well? The biggest problem above is that I told you all about the wall. It didn't have anything to do with the story. "Matt shifted his weight to the crutch, swung his bad leg onto the wall's edge, and cried out as the bullet wound stung afresh." That's not amazing. It's off the top of my head. But you get the point. The fact that Matt's using crutches, and that he's got a duff leg because he's just been shot, has to do with the story. I shaded his act of jumping in ways the reader might find interesting.

So again, what's the point? The reader wants to follow your character through your story. They don't want you leading them off somewhere pointless.

How's that relate to the learning curve?

That's the other thing Brandon Sanderson was talking about, and he mentioned how people so often in Mid-grade fiction begin in our own world. Why is that? Why does that solve the problem of the learning curve? (The problem being that, given that the reader must understand a new place with new rules, it's very easy to muddle the story.  It's also a wonderful thing.  It just raises certain issues that must be addressed.) The class touched on it, again to their credit, pointing to the way you get to enter it gently and so forth. They missed the point, though, which ties to how we want to follow the character through the story.

In those books, the learning curve is an inherently vital element of the character's journey through the story. Frequently (Peter Pan, Narnia, Alice Through the Looking Glass and many others) the learning curve, an a legitimate sense, IS the story. We have instant fascination with the things we're going to learn for the exact same reason that readers don't want meandering description: readers want to follow a character through a story. That's why we read.

27 October, 2014

Kickstarter Project: Awesome TV Show

Dear readers,

One of my best friends, a brilliant comedian and performer, Steve Wilson, has begun a Kickstarter project to fund a television show.

Let me tell you something about Steve. He's a friend from High School, and our school had a special gift that few are lucky enough to have: a world-class class clown. He could ruin any lesson. Even the most dour, boring teacher could be brought to his knees by a couple of well-timed words from Steve. If he wanted to make the class laugh, he made us laugh, every time. I remember going to a Bill Bailey gig with Steve, and Steve dared to heckle. Bill stopped everything, bent double laughing, and in reply just told him he was a funny kid. That was Steve at sixteen years old. Everyone knew he could grow up to be a comedian if he wanted.

He's had many hilarious advertisements made (you know the ones that make you laugh instead of throw a shoe at the television, like virtually all other advertisements?), two best-selling circus DVDs, two award winning short films and many other side-projects I won't go into. He deserves even more success than he has.

Steve is awesome at what he does, and if he says something's funny, it's hilarious. I have absolute faith in the show he's about to create, and I'd like to share the Kickstarter page with all of you.

If you trust me on this, and you like awesome comedy, think about donating a small amount to help the Nelson TV industry. Just click the link below.


06 October, 2014

Write Where it Hurts, or Feels Good. Whatever.

Most writers say to write what you love to read.  I say that's very very true, and especially important to new writers, but by going a layer deeper we can understand something about the creative self.

Write what you feel most passionate about. The type of books that have stayed with you the longest, that have really shaped who you are as a person, that have given you dreams and nightmares--those are things worth writing about.

For me, I love reading fantasy fiction, and elements of fantasy will certainly be present in almost all my work. I like science fiction, but usually only love it when it starts to border on fantasy (when it doesn't work to adhere to stringent scientific rules or plausibility). No one can read my stories without seeing my love for fantasy.

The stories I have enjoyed most in my life have been Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. These are grossly underestimated. Bob Howard was a brilliant man, and his intelligence shines through in these stories in his passion for ancient times, the folly of civilization, and the evil of religion. Whether or not you agree with his anti-theist themes, they are ever-present and powerful.

I've probably read A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony twelve times. That's the first book that got me into reading.

But what's the first book that changed my life? A Catcher in the Rye. I read it very young, and it made the whole world make sense. Holden Caulfield made me feel like I wasn't alone, and that other people too saw the way society changes people too easily, how shallowness is lofted as a virtue, and how too many people choose not to notice the problems of the world around them. I am certain that if Holden had been at my school, we would have been friends, and would have listened to Nirvana together. He would have been just as big a fan as I. Things like Nirvana, and A Catcher in the Rye, proved to me that art could really change people, and criticize the world in intelligent ways. That's what made me want to be an artist.

The books that have impacted upon me the most are the aforementioned, 1984, All Quiet on the Western Front, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Fight Club, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, a small selection of Conan stories, and A Clockwork Orange. It's a short list. Those aren't the only books I love (indeed, my favourite genre only crops up once) but they're the ones I truly wish I'd written. And what could inspire my work more than that?

I was also very inspired by two poems in particular: Always Comes Evening by Robert E. Howard, and The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare.

If you're a writer, you'll probably have a list like this. It doesn't matter what's on the list, and if it is populated by the genre you enjoy reading the most, then that's great. If anything, you'll probably have an easier time finding story ideas. Nothing wrong with that. All I'm suggesting here is a different way of deciding what you should write about. It's not what you love, it's a question of who you are, and the answer to that rests with what has impacted upon you the most. The goal of narrative, after all, is to impact upon others.

Now, one needs pictures to stick things on Pinterest, so this one represents something that to me both hurts and feels good. There's beauty to me in the idea of nature growing over the remnants of high civilization, but there's also sadness and horror in it. So this one's for Pinterest, and I guess for me:

(I must note that I in no way believe this sort of writing, this desire to change things, is any better than writing for enjoyment. It is merely a question of knowing who you are and being honest with yourself. If what you love are fun stories, for instance, if that's what made you want to be a writer, you'll probably be really good at writing fun stories, and the world needs fun stories just as much as it needs sombre, gritty things. What I love are dark, gritty stories. That's the only reason I want to write them. It is not because I think my goals are any more important or worthwhile. I have to say this because too many authors use words like "serious fiction", and draw a distinction between "literary" and "popular". Such distinctions disgust me, and I have to make it perfectly clear that I am not one of these pretentious douche-bags.)