So I started writing an acerbic polemic post tonight, but I’ve shelved it because it sucked.
As, frankly, have the last few posts. Well, perhaps ‘sucked’ is an overstatement, but they certainly weren’t that inspired. Looking over them again, they feel forced and fairly pointless, like I’m not saying anything all that original or useful.
Blogging has to be about a genuine attempt to share ideas, rather than just clocking in 1000 words every week in the salt mines, and I feel like I’m missing that point. I have ideas I want to talk about, definitely, but I’m giving them short shrift in the push to crank them out, and droning on about things that suck – which, let’s be clear, definitely do suck – isn’t inspiring my best writing or letting me share my passion about writing.
That and it’s distracting me from actual writing. Arcadia needs a lot more love than I’ve been able to spare of late. And the ideas for the new novella continue to percolate.
So I’m going to change gears for a while. Still going to aim for a couple of posts a week, but more creative ones – short fiction, works-in-progress, talking about things that excite me. Things I can talk about without needing to act like I have a unique insight others need to take on board. I think that if I do that for a month or two, it’ll give me time to think about more complex things and work them into a form worth reading.
Then I’ll talk about the things that suck. They’re not going away anytime soon.
Also, I have to be honest – I’m getting married in three weeks, and that’s gotta take the lion’s share of my attention for a while. These paper cranes ain’t gonna string themselves.
Many, many electrons have been killed in arguments about the decline of the old publishing models and the death of the gatekeepers and the new ebook democracy where we all have the power to publish really shit books for free and blah blah blah. I know; I’ve said my piece more than once on the subject.
But something that tends to get lost in the shuffle as people argue about whether ebooks are better than physical books is the question of where you find the damn ebooks in the first place. Not where you buy them – we’re all pretty clear about that – but how you learn that an ebook you might like has been published and is now lost in the overflowing intershelves.
Yeah, I’m talking about book reviews. Ebook reviews. E-reviews. Fuck, I can never keep up with the lingo.
In this, as in other things, Google fails us, because when you search for ‘ebook reviews’ or similar what you get are hundreds of hits about hardware and reading devices. Ditto ‘ebook readers’, ‘ebook recommendations’ and ‘where the fuck can I find a good ebook’. We messed up when we named the platform after the thing you read on it; we should have called them something totally different, like boners. Except then you’d be Googling ‘boner reviews’ and ending up with something that doesn’t resemble a Kindle Fire. Well, not the current model.
So what I’m wondering tonight – and hoping for comments, as I often (and not all successfully) do in these mid-week posts – is where you/we go to find ebook recommendations and reviews.
The Kindle Store
Don’t get me wrong, ebookstores like the Kindle Store, iBooks, Smashwords and so on are great, because that’s where you get the sweet digital wordcrack. And the reviews that go against books, while variable in quality (to put it mildly), can be useful in helping you work out whether a given ebook that you’re looking at is worth the $2.99 of your hard-earned money.
But for finding the ebooks in the first place, store sites are pretty much useless. Genre subdivisions and user-generated tags are crude sorting tools that don’t provide much nuance and require you to read reviewers’ minds so that you pick the same words they used to categorise the work. The other core tool for pretty much every site is a star rating, which again is largely useless; it’s far easier to find a book with just a single review, but that got five stars, than it is to find one with a hundred reviews but only a 4.75 rating. That book may as well be invisible, lost behind a thousand crap books that were well received by the author’s mum.
Or Konrathing, as it is sometimes called. Talking loudly about your own new books, old books, upcoming books and books you dreamed about writing is a key activity for any ebook writer, and can easily eclipse actually writing books in the first place. (See the URL of this blog post for Exhibit Fucking A.) Like it or not, it has to be done, because it’s not like the marketing department will do it for you. The marketing department is a cat, and he’s busy licking his rear while become a Japanese internet sensation.
However, self-promotion is advertising and as such it’s not very useful if you want an unbiased idea of whether a book is worth reading. More often than not, if you even pay attention to the self-promotion, you end up overlooking the work to examine the writer and the way they present themselves and their work. And that can be great; look at how Chuck Wendig creates and pushes his creative voice/persona. But it too easily takes the spotlight away from the work and gets in the way of finding out whether the stuff they write is as good as they sound.
Word of virtual mouth
The prevailing wisdom is that this is how the word gets out in the modern age – people talk about the books they like online and in social media, other people see it and check it out. Probably true, but not exactly the kind of thing that you can bank on as a writer or navigate effectively as a reader; it’s little better than basing your TV viewing habits on how many Facebook sites are trying to get one million signatures to get it back on / back off the air.
At the same time, sure, I blog/tweet/update/iVerb about cool new ebooks being published by my friends and contacts, and about things I’ve read that I really like. This is what people do; we get enthusiastic about the stuff/people we like and tell other people/stuff about it. But I don’t know how useful that is if I don’t articulate why this news is worth disseminating.
I’m also skeptical about how useful sites like Goodreads and the like are for ebook readers, or in truth for readers in general. When I look at these sites I see a lot of hardcopy books being read, and not usually new ones at that; I also don’t see much in the way of substantive reviews for them. In the end, they’re not really about sharing information about the things you read, but about sharing the fact that you do read. The act itself is the thing being broadcast, like a personal affirmation that you like the things you like and want others to know that. And hey, that’s human nature and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t provide all that handy a service.
Ebook review sites
Do these really exist? No, this isn’t a rhetorical question – I really want to find some! I know they’re out there, somewhere, but they shift and fade like Brigadoon. And even if you find one, it’s a drop in the ocean, because they can only review so many ebooks a day/week/whatever, and I imagine most are labours of love that get put aside when time runs too short.
But damn, a smart, regularly-updated ebook review site with a stable and decently-sized readership base would be my Holy Fucking Grail. It’s all I want for Christmas.
Dumb fuckin’ luck
And sometimes you just see mention of an interesting-sounding ebook in a forum discussion or in someone’s sig block or a stripper has a URL tattooed around her navel and you check it out and it’s the best thing ever.
But that happens less often than you might think. Honestly, that stripper’s novel needed a serious edit.
So anyway, all of this bitching and moaning about not being able to find ebooks to read is self-serving, because it’s also bitching about how I struggle to get reviews and word-of-mouth for Hotel Flamingo and Godheads and how it’s likely to be difficult for the new novella I’m currently planning and that you heard about here first OMG. Let’s be honest, nearly everything on this blog is a desperate (but genuine and hopefully interesting) cry for attention and sales.
But still. It would be good to find stuff to read. And to help others find good ebooks, whether or not they’re mine.
So chime in, please, with ideas, recommendations and stories about how you find the good word. I want to hear.
Apologies for the late post, friends – Saturday night was my buck’s party, and after being plied with videogame-themed cocktails for several hours at The Mana Bar, I was left in pretty rough shape on Sunday. Writing, forming coherent thoughts and sitting in one place doing nothing all proved… difficult.
So what were we talking about? Oh, yeah.
When you describe what your narrative is about in terms of theme, you can end up with statements that are vague and non-specific:
‘It’s about how the concept of secret societies have more power than secret societies themselves’
‘It’s about failure and how embracing it can have a power of its own’
‘It’s about the death of the American Dream’
The thing about those is that they while they’re accurate summations of three of my favourite novels, they tell you pretty much nothing about what happens in those novels or indeed what those novels actually are. (Any guesses?) Which isn’t surprising, because it’s an attempt to describe the core meaning of a narrative, and meaning isn’t concrete. Premise is anchored in tangibles, or at least as tangible as imaginary things can be; if you put a ninja or a Dalek or a ninja Dalek in your story, every reader will agree that that’s what it is. But if your work is based in a theme, that means you’re focusing on subtext instead of text, and everyone reads subtext differently, and the theme you think is strongly evident could be invisible to your readers.
Another notable difference about describing narratives in terms of theme first is that you decouple meaning from plot and character and make it the major element. That seems obvious, but think about what it implies – by putting theme first, you’re saying that that’s the reason people should read the book, and that the plot and characters are (to some extent) less important. And on the whole, people don’t read like that; they enjoy reading books about interesting characters in interesting situations, rather than going to the bookstore and asking the staff if they have any novels about failure. They may, in the end, enjoy a thematically-focused book more than a premise-focused book because the material is more intellectually and emotionally meaningful, but first they’ve got to actually bother reading it. Themes carry weight, but they are blunt hooks.
I think that on the whole theme is tougher to work with than premise, because you write from a premise but towards a theme. With a premise, story elements emerge from the core concept, and then you hook them into the narrative as needed. With a theme, though, your first question is not ‘what could happen in this scene’ but ‘what meaning should this scene have’? That becomes a target that you work towards, but you’ve got to come up with the story elements that communicate that meaning yourself. That can be tough; it’s the number one stumbling block I have with Arcadia, where I have a great set of plans about theme and meaning but often flail about trying to work out what actually happens in each chapter.
And last, of course, a strong theme is really no better promise of a good book than a strong premise. Neither of them guarantees good writing, and there are many turgid or glib literary novels bursting with themes that can’t save them from being shit books. All other things being equal, it’s perhaps fair to say that if you have the skills to communicate a strong theme effectively through your work’s subtext, you’ve probably got the skills to write a good book in the process. If all other things are equal. Which would certainly make my day job of editing maths textbooks a bit easier.
So what should you focus on in your work – theme or premise?
Well, the right answer is the least helpful one – focus on the one that works for you. This isn’t a box you click in Word at the start of the writing process that helpfully throws up a talking paperclip whenever you go off target. When you get struck by inspiration, that almost always comes as either a premise you want to expand or a theme you want to explore. You know what you want to write and what interests you, and trying to go a different direction, while certainly a worthwhile exercise, is something you have to want to do, not something you do because you think you should. Fuck should. Write what excites you and from/towards the place that excites you.
That said… on the whole I tend to come at things a lot from theme. Not just theme; it’s hard to simply decide ‘I want to write about failure’ and then see what comes to mind. Themes tend to come wrapped around a kernal of premise, just as premises often (perhaps not always) are swaddled in sticky filaments of theme. But still, I find it hard to get really interested in an idea until a strong meaning attaches itself, because I prefer to read/write stories that say something underneath the scenes of hot Dalek-on-Dalek action. (And no, I’m not Googling for that, because I’m pretty sure I’d find it.)
But a good theme is hard work to explore, and like I said, I’m finding Arcadia a handful because the premise is vaguer than the meaning it supports. I need to develop that further – because, in the end, the strongest works are those that have both a premise and a theme. It’s the best of both worlds (not getting an image for that either) – concrete elements that embed in the text and put roots into the subtext, with story events interacting with deeper meaning. That’s the narrative Holy Grail for me; an exciting, engaging story that leaves you a tiny bit wiser at the end of it. It’s what Wolfe achieved with The Book of the New Sun, what Marquez did with One Hundred Years of Solitude, what Grant Morrison almost managed to do with The Invisibles – and fuck it, if you’re going to aim high, aim as high as you can, right?
Interestingly, ‘the search for the Holy Grail’ works as both a premise and a theme. Don’t say I never give you anything.
Anyway, that’s enough on that topic for the moment. I hope it was interesting, maybe even useful, although I suspect it wasn’t concrete enough for that. I might come back to this topic another time and see if I can give more definite discussion, maybe workshopping an idea to find both premise and theme to back it up.
Or I might just talk more about Dalek sex. That’ll drive up the pageviews.
Next weekend, though – angry ranty polemic time is back. Save the date.
A couple of years ago the big argument was about whether ebooks would inevitably replace physical books. Depending on who you believed, print was so past dead the fumes were making our eyes water and physical books would go the way of the buggy whip within a matter of months, or ebooks were pathetic fads that everyone would abandon once the batteries on their Christmas Kindle went dead.
Now that the smoke and rhetoric has cleared, I think it’s safe to say that ebooks are here to stay, but that printed books aren’t going away any time soon. We live in an intersticial time when both forms are popular and both easily available, and as someone who likes both books and ebooks and most of all the text and words and ideas both carry and beam into my brain, this is a good thing. It’s a crazy time when all the old rules are being questioned and the new ones still being written, when we have the opportunity to experiment, to play, and to get into interminable arguments about what format or publishing model or piece of equipment is superior to all others.
Case in point – e-readers. There are a bunch of different ones out there now with different features, and tablets that can be used as e-readers, and smartphones, and emulators for PCs, and they all seem to do different things and it just makes my head hurt. Some people say Kindles are best, some say the Nook is best, someone somewhere probably thinks the Kobo is best, other people think you’re crazy for not just having an iPad, and now the Kindle Fire is coming and to be honest I’m not even sure what that is but it’s very shiny.
For my part, I run a Kindle emulator and Adobe Digital Editions on my PC and little eeePC, and that works pretty well. Well, mostly. The eeePC is great, but it’s not designed for reading ebooks, and thus there are always little problems of readability, of page size, of display and of trying to balance it on my knee as the morning bus goes around a corner. And the other problem for me, as an ebook publisher, is that the display I see in the emulators doesn’t really match the way the book will look in a proper handheld reader.
So I’m thinking of getting an e-reader of some description, preferably a cheap one (unless someone really wants to get us His and Hers iPads for our wedding, and if you do I am prepared to allow it). And the relative merits of each brand and type isn’t as interesting to me as to what it does, why that’s a good thing and what impact it all has on the most important feature, which is that it lets you crack open an ebook and slurp up the juicy words inside.
I guess what I’m asking isn’t ‘which e-reader’ is best, but the more general question of what does an e-reader need to be and do? Forget the technical specs and the display sizes – what functionality do you, as users of these devices, want and need in order to read an e-book to your satisfaction? E-ink? E-paper? E-spines? Web browser? Tags and bookmarks? An actual physical book instead?
This is a call for comments. Forget the brand, forget the model, forget whether you can play Angry Birds between chapters. Tell me what matters to you as a reader of books, and why.
I have no idea what I will do with this information. But it all helps my buggy whip business.
Can there be any other question that awakens so much weary terror in a writer’s heart? Other than perhaps ‘will your writing income be enough to pay the rent this week’?
I know that whenever I’m hit with this I umm and ahh and faddlefapp about, because I find it hard to sum up my stuff in a nice package. Not because I am such a genius that my ideas cannot be boiled down to a form comprehensible to the lowly masses, but more that I am a disorganised and overambitious writer who attempts to stuff too many things into a single narrative and can’t cleanly pick out one to offer as the core to an observer. I usually start blathering about ‘stories about stories’ and ‘the structure loops back into itself’ and ‘metatext metatext metatext’ until people back away with a look of terror on their faces and I can get back to the important business of complaining about comics or something.
But it’s an essential question, not just for a reader but for a writer. Because a narrative needs a reason to be written, over and above ‘it’s a good story’. There are lots of good stories already; why will a reader start reading this one instead of another one? The narrative needs to have a direction, and that direction, that creative and storytelling goal, is what you can offer up when readers / colleagues / judgemental parents ask what this proposed book is about. This is something I struggle with, and perhaps talking about it with you, dear reader, will help me get a better handle on it.
I think that, in almost all cases, writers create narratives from one of two sources – premise or theme. The best of them use both at the same time, but you can still tease them apart and look at them as separate concepts. A work that doesn’t arise from one of these sources… well, doesn’t really have any reason to be written, or to be read.
And yet I’m sure such stories exist. Somewhere.
Anyway, so it’s Premise versus Theme in a steel cage grudge match! Two concepts enter – one concept leaves! Well, actually they both leave, but let’s not muddy the drama with facts.
I was originally going to look at both concepts in the one post, but once I started getting into it the ideas needed more wordcount. So this is part one of a special two-part post, with the second half to come next week.
So okay, let’s talk about premise.
When someone asks you that terrible question, this is what they usually want – the single-sentence high concept for the story. Things like:
‘It’s a western in which the cowboys are all werewolves’
‘It’s an adventure story about a super-smart hero who fights science crime’
‘It’s a thriller where a ninja becomes President in order to stop the Kung Fu Illuminati’
You can see those are all genre-focused premises. That’s a bit heavy-handed on my part, but it’s generally fair to say that genre narratives are usually grounded in a premise, because they generally focus on plot, story and character rather than theme. (Although not all of them, of course.) Things happen in genre stories, and a premise is a package that implies things and the happenings of them. Also, man, I really want to read the book for that last concept.
A strong premise isn’t essential for all forms of writing, although I don’t think it ever really hurts. In some cases, though, it really is essential, and those are when your narrative is in a really competitive field, like TV, film or mainstream comics. The time when you could publish a comic that was just ‘it’s about a superhero who fights crime’ has long gone, and ditto a movie that’s just about a guy who shoots other guys because they’re bad. The premise is the hook that distinguishes your work from all the other bait out there; for all that the DC reboot did wrong (I’ll stop talking about it soon, honest), most of the new titles had solid premises that gave the book a (theoretical) reason to exist.
On the whole, working from a premise is easier because you are writing from it – everything in the narrative emerges from the central concept behind it all, even if it’s a step or two removed from the origin. Which is not to say that it’s not work, of course, but whenever you start to slow down, you can go back and poke the premise until an idea falls from it and then suddenly Obama-Kijuri is fighting not just the Kung Fu Illuminati but also the Gnomes of Shaolin and holy crap this thing just writes itself.
But the hidden danger of writing solely from a premise is that while it’s easy to stay on course, nothing intrinsically connects the strength of the premise to the quality of the writing. By that, I mean that a great premise doesn’t mean a great book; a writer can have a good idea but still lack the skills to write something worth reading. Again, the DC reboot showcases this; it’s littered with titles that have a strong core concept but that are still boring and mediocre. The premise in and of itself isn’t the thing you read; that’s still the words on the page or the images on the screen, and if they suck then the whole thing sucks.
Writing without a strong premise throws up different problems, which I’ll talk about more next week with theme. But in short, it’s what you’d expect – if you don’t have a strong story-focused hook, you can struggle to come up with story events and elements. This is on my mind a lot right now, because at this stage of the draft Arcadia’s premise is… well, it’s there, but it’s not simple and it’s not focused, and it’s making it more difficult than it should be to work out what happens next. I have other tools, but that one is weak, and I need to fix that.
Okay, so that’s enough on that subject. Next week, a look at theme and then an attempt to compare-contrast-synthesise. Or at least to throw around high-falutin’ terms like I know what I’m talking about.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I want to jot down some ideas about Ninja Gaiden Obama and the House of Flying Republicans. It’s gonna be boss.
Let me say it straight up – I fucking love comics. Superhero comics, horror comics, crime comics, art comics, autobio comics, indie comics, all of them. I’ve loved them ever since I discovered the racks of black and white The Brave and the Bold reprints cluttering up the local book exchange when I was like 8 years old, and barely a week has gone by since that I haven’t devoted some time to the Ninth Art of words, pictures and the link between.
I would much rather read good comics and write about reading good comics, which I have decided to do tonight. Specifically I want to recommend five non-superhero comics, all available in collected form, that make me very happy and that everyone else should be reading too.
Atomic Robo (Red 5 Comics)
No other comic in Christendom contains as much joy and explosions per square inch as Atomic Robo. It’s the story of the eponymous hero, a wisecracking, two-fisted robot created by Nikolai Tesla in the 1920s who now heads a scientific thinktank and hits problems until they go away. Said problems include bigger robots, Lovecraftian monsters, evil scientists, Nazis, robot Nazis, Stephen Hawking (he’s such a douche) and Doctor Dinosaur, surely the greatest character find of 2009.
Comparisons to Hellboy – another series about a two-fisted weirdo using his two fists on monsters and Nazis – are inevitable, but completely wrong. The tone of Robo is something unique, a heady mix of subtle and obvious humour, absurdity, pulp action and the joy of science, with little of the darkness of Hellboy (a series I dig, don’t get me wrong); ditto the smart-mouthed and remarkably human character of Robo himself. Writer Brian Clevinger fills the series with inventive plots and crisp, hilarious dialogue, and the slightly disjointed animation style of artist Scott Wegener give the characters life and personality. This is the kind of comic for which the medium was invented.
Proof (Image Comics)
Another series that gets inappropriately compared to Hellboy is Proof, once again because it features a big, monstrous protagonist who pits himself against other monsters. In this case the monster is Bigfoot, also known as John ‘Proof’ Prufrock, a special agent of a secret Lodge that finds and protects cryptids – legendary creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, the Mothman and the Dodo. Some key differences is that Proof isn’t all that two-fisted, prefers talking over fighting, wears expensive suits and wants more than anything to find other sasquatches, fearing that he is the last of his kind.
Proof is a clever, well-crafted series that takes the core premise (‘what if Fox Mulder was Bigfoot?’) and runs with it in a direction that you wouldn’t expect. Rather than focusing on action (although there’s plenty of that), it’s very much a character-driven comic that uses the crazy world of the Lodge and cryptids as contrast for the internal lives and needs of Proof and his strong supporting cast. Writer Alex Grecian occasionally lets the story and cast get a bit confused, but not for too long, and the scratchy lines and heavy colours of Riley Rossmo’s art convey both horror and moments of humour. It’s terrific stuff, and the second trade includes paper dress-up-dolls!
Dungeons & Dragons (IDW)
It’s obvious that a comic based on the world’s best-known roleplaying game would be a Bible of nerd esoterica that could appeal only to the lowliest basement-dwelling geeks that sleep with a fistful of d20s under their pillow. But I guess no-one told writer John Rogers (Leverage and Blue Beetle) and artist Andrea de Vito this, and so they went and produced an awesome comic that mixes hilarious character comedy with rousing fantasy action that can appeal to anyone with a pulse.
This isn’t just a series about a group of heroic adventurers that fight evil in a fantasy world. It’s The Lord of the Rings as a a caper movie featuring talking skulls, zombie orphans and fights with orcs. It’s the A-Team, except BA is a dwarf with a hammer and Face is a kleptomaniac halfling that stabs bad people. Mostly bad people. It’s a wonderful comic that blends the truly fantastic with believable character motivations and voices, with both stirring action and laugh-out-loud humour that isn’t just tacked on. Plus zombie orphans. I know I mentioned them already, but they’re worth repeating.
Locke & Key (IDW)
From fantasy with a touch of humour to horror with a touch of fantasy. Locke & Key is the story of the three Locke children who move to the family estate of Keyhouse after their father is brutally murdered. While trying to stitch their lives back together, they stumble upon the ancient mysteries of Keyhouse – the well occupied by a dangerous spirit, the Ghost Doors that pull your soul from your body, the Anywhere Key hidden from a terrible evil and the secrets and needs of the family they love.
Locke & Key is the comics debut of author Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box, Horns) who writes like a past master of the medium. It’s a chilling, thrilling, often heart-wrenching series about wounded children thrust into a world of both beauty and horrors and forced to fight for their survival and for each other. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez is a surprising choice for this in some ways, but his exaggerated and slightly-cartoony art proves to be a perfect contrast to the darkness of the story, creating a crazed mix between Narnia and The Shining. Lovely stuff, and if there’s any justice on this bastard planet the recently-produced pilot will be turned into a full TV series.
Hamlet (Allen & Unwin)
Slightly cheating for the last recommendation, as it’s an original graphic novel rather than a series, but it’s breathtaking and brilliant and if you can’t break your own rules for that then what’s the point of having rules in the first place? The story of Hamlet is well-worn ground by now, but creator Nicki Greenberg reinvents it with the same genius she brought to her incredible retelling of The Great Gatsby as a story of monstrous dandelions and sea-horses.
This book depicts Hamlet and all his compatriots as inkblots, changing shape and size against a background of clock parts and torn tapestries, pulling on faces like porcelain masks and ripping themselves into sticky shreds with the force of their emotions. The violence and despair Greenberg pulls from the black blob of Hamlet is matched only by the deranged whimsy of every other character, and she explores every possible corner of the conceit to create a surreal, gripping world where the splatter of darkness creates urgent depth against gaudy backdrops. It’s so good.
I could mention many others, such as Scalped (which I’ve discussed before), Morning Glories, Chew, Umbrella Academy and a pile of interesting Vertigo titles. And maybe I will some other time. But these five are on my mind a lot, and they deserve to be read by everyone. Especially you. Because comics fucking rock.
(PS – if you’re a Melbournian, the only place to buy these is the fantastic All-Star Comics in Lonsdale Street. Tell them I sent you.)
Anyone who religiously watches this site for its regular updates would have been disappointed yesterday. (And, well, needs a better hobby.)
While I’ve been trying to keep to a regular Thursday/Sunday schedule, I reached Sunday morning and realised that I didn’t have anything I really wanted to talk about. I had a couple of half-formed ideas, but nothing was gelling for me or filling me with the enthusiasm to write something genuine about it.
And in the end – as I’ve said in previous posts – blogging has to be a genuine attempt to engage with readers, rather than just an exercise in gaining pageviews or getting your name out there. So I think I’d rather skip an update every now and then than crank out filler wordcount just to tick off a box on a self-appointed checklist.
Which is not to say I plan to make a habit of it. I do have some things in mind for the next few weeks, and I’ll spend some time this week developing those ideas. But for this weekend… not so much.
In keeping with my preference to keep overly negative and geeky things off this blog, though, you can find that over at my LiveJournal. I warn you, it’s pretty long. And maybe not that interesting. Then again, if you read this blog normally, you’re probably already inured to that kind of thing.
Okay, that’s a boring title. Maybe I should have recycled some previous hits, like BLOGS: THREAT OR MENACE?, or something tongue-in-buttcheek like HELL COMES TO BLOGTOWN.
But it’s been a long week at the day job, and my imagination banks are wrung dry and would really appreciate being topped up with bourbon and sleep. So, since this is a light mid-week post and I want to save my A-grade material for the paid bigger post on Sunday, I thought I might work my way through my Google Reader blogroll and point y’all at much better blog posts than this one that were written in September (and early October, just ‘cos I can).
(PS I know I was supposed to post this earlier in the week. I got distracted. THIS IS WHY I CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS.)
Jason Nahrung has some interesting thoughts on the market value of writing (especially short fiction) and what kinds of payment/rewards are worth pursuing. I’m not 100% sure I agree with him – I like getting cold hard cash for my brilliant wordplay whenever possible – but he’s got me thinking more about it.
Finally, Chuck Wendig has pushed out a metric shit-tonne of blog posts at Terrible Minds, as usual, and if we could harness his relentless and manic energy we’d never need to drill for oil again. But his most recent post is the most interesting to me, in which he asks whether the focus on self-publishing and authorial control over publication is overshadowing the importance of craft – in other words, does it matter if you keep control over your work if your work isn’t that good? I would have thought that was a fairly straightforward and sensible position, but e-publishing success story Joe Konrath has come out swinging in the comments and suddenly shit is getting crazy. Must-read stuff.
As for me, well, I keep on keeping on. I plan to get back into the sweary polemics this weekend, which should make for a more interesting read.
(Incidentally, if this kind of overview post is interesting to you, let me know in the comments. For that matter, tell me if it sucks possum ringpiece. Just talk to me. I’m so lonely.)
But it’s not all about kayaks and famous cats around here. Every now and then I remember to work on my writing, and then to write blog posts about writing. It’s like the circle of life.
Looking back over the posts I made about story and character, it struck me that I used the term ‘narrative’ a lot.
In fact, let’s not take my word for it – let’s evaluate the blog-to-date with everyone’s favourite tool for text analysis, Wordle!
Huh. The largest word is ‘like’. Either I’m a Valley Girl or I’m addicted to similes.
Anyway, among the various insights that can be gleaned from that image – including the fact that I mention Batman about as often as I mention the titles of my own ebooks – we can see that ‘narrative’ is one of the most frequent terms, certainly one of the top five. I talk about it a lot.
So what is it? Why use that word instead of something that’s basically synonymous, like ‘plot’ or ‘story’? Well, fairly obviously, because I don’t think those terms are synonymous; I think they’re very different things, or perhaps different levels of a complex and multi-layered thing, and I’d like to take a bit of time tonight to make it clearer about where I’m coming from.
The novelist/academic EM Forster broke down the difference between story and plot like this:
We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’
So a story is a linear set of events, and a plot is the means through which one event leads to the next. It’s not the only definition out there, and it’s not one everyone will agree with (I think it’s a bit simplistic myself), but let’s use it as the starting point for a discussion then.
So what’s narrative? Well, my personal definition – which is idiosyncratic and quite probably technically incorrect, but hey, it’s my blog – is that narrative is the communication of plot; it’s how you tell the story. Or, maybe more precisely, how the audience experiences the story – the interface they use to bring what was in the writer’s head into their heads.
If ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story, and ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot, then this is narrative:
Listen, and I will tell you a tale: Once upon a time there was a queen who loved her husband very much, so much that when he died her heart cracked wide in half, like a stone under a mason’s hammer
And so is this:
The autopsy revealed a congenital fault in Her Majesty’s lower left ventricle. This was apparently not detected during the routine check-ups she undertook before the King’s assassination. Suggestions that ‘her heart broke’ are obviously ridiculous.
Tomorrow I will die, and next winter I will return as a ghost, and my dear wife will bring all the castle crashing down with the broadsword of her grief, but today I know this not, and she is happy, and Hamlet who has yet to pour poison in my ear is happy, and my good brother is happy, and so am I, for one more day.
A list of events, whether linked by causality or not, isn’t something people read for fun or for knowledge. Narratives take that raw information and bind it up with voice, word choice, pacing, character, humour, pathos, swearwords and whatever else is required to make it something that captivates a reader and makes them care.
(This definition of narrative isn’t synonymous with ‘medium’, although there’s some overlap – the way in which you tell a story can incorporate the medium you use to tell it. But at the same time there’s huge narrative variation within a medium, so we may as well confine discussion to that bit of the diagram for the moment.)
I can’t think of a better example of narrative versus plot versus story right now than the movie Memento. There’s a linear sequence of events there, as Leonard wanders around doing things almost at random as amnesiac whim takes him. That doesn’t make sense until you look at the plot layer, which explains the events and Leonard’s motivation and reasoning; you can see causality connect the dots back and forth through the sequence. But the narrative layer is where the brilliance of the film exists, the split between two time frames and time directions that throws the linear sequence out the window and makes the viewer do the work of puzzling it out despite the deliberate obfuscation being used. Take that layer out and Memento makes just as much sense – it’s just not anywhere near as interesting. Which is why I’ve always been staggered that the Memento DVD apparently offers viewers the option of reordering the scenes to watch the film in a linear sequence – if you want to watch a less-interesting Guy Pearce movie, eject the disc and watch The Time Machine. Although I guess that’s harder to market as a special feature.
That interface level of writing is what interests me most, both as a writer and a reader. Plot, story, character, place – yes, these are all important. But narrative is the tool (or the interlocking suite of tools) a writer uses to pick up those things and push them partway into the reader’s head – and, if used properly, the reader willingly pulls them in the rest of the way.
…yeah, okay, that’s a pretty weird image. Probably best if I don’t look for an image for that.
So that’s where I’m coming from, and that’s the angle I take pretty much every time I think/talk/write about writing. I hope it makes sense to you.