Made to Be Broken

Picasso Quote (Cropped)

I stayed up until 7 AM Monday night reading fanfic and I have not a singular regret. I don’t write it any more, but I still enjoy finding a piece – particularly AUs – that I can stink my heart into. Especially big, chunky stories full of domestic moments, family shenanigans, slow building relationships and quiet character development.

My love of internal development, however, always feels like it’s in direct conflict with my favorite genre: science fiction. I fell in love with sci-fi after first seeing start Star Wars in theaters during the rereleased in 1997. I was 14 and I’d never seen anything like it. I know that my emotions aren’t the same as those lucky souls who caught the bug in 1977, but I very much understand when they say “Star Wars changed my life”.

I spent a lot of my formative teen years falling in love with the adventures of Han Solo, Princess Leia, Mara Jade and more. Some of my favorite books – which I still have within reach on my bookshelves – are The Han Solo Trilogy (Paradise Snare, The Hutt Gambit, and Rebel Dawn). To this day, when I get stuck in a negative feedback loop that women can’t write good sci-fi, I think about how that very series was written by a woman – AC Crispin – and it’s a series I still look back on with fond memories.

One of the things I struggle with in writing in Open Season (my science fiction novel) is that “rule” about “starting where the action is”. In theory I completely understand this rule. No one wants to traipse through one-hundred pages of navel gazing and before the story even gets rolling. Unless, of course, it’s Tolkien. Then everybody worships it as the end all and be all of an entire genre.

Yes, I said it. I do not care for Tolkien. I read The Hobbit; it took me four months over one summer and I still enjoyed the movies more. I also think the first film was the best and Jackson probably should have condensed it into a duology rather than a trilogy. I’m praying a rewatch of TBoFA in extended edition will change that.

However, I did enjoy Hobbit more than Sense & Sensibility, which was fucking agony. I also enjoyed that movie – the Emma Thompson version, thank you very much – a million times more. I have been known to watch multiple viewings of it back to back. And now I’ve fully discredited myself as a proper nerd and bookworm. I’ll wait while you revoke of my Club card.

The rule of starting with action puts me in a sticky place because if I start with Nora being in treatment or the team coming back from a long deployment, there’s no foundation to set its main conflict upon. The entire engine of the story is hinged on a single question for Nora:

What Would You Risk to Be Normal?

Opening the story without proper exposition leaves no time to develop Nora’s baseline before I go fucking it all up with Earthquakes and Grenades Full of Doom. I mean, sure, I could have Nora or the people around her go on about relationships that’ve been shattered by the catalyst of her treatment, memories lost, and how her choice alters the fabric of the family they’ve built over time. But that sounds like a of characters monologuing and listing shit, rather than letting the story unfold. That’s not the same as bringing readers into the family, allowing them to experience her life – decades in the making – as it disappears, one memory at a time beneath her feet.

Without establishing who she is (her hopes, dreams, desires; who she loves, what her motivations are) beforehand, all that’s left is a character the reader doesn’t don’t know, don’t care about and won’t empathize with. In my mind that’s far worse than failing to start with “action”. Whatever the hell that means.

I realize that action can mean a lot of things, but it automatically makes me think of car chases and fist fights. Flashy, loud explosions that desperately attempt to snare the reader’s attention. Rather than taking the time to build the world around them and draw them in. That kind of writing hook immediately puts me off because I’m not good at them. I’m not even “okay” at them. I’m far better at picking a character apart, from the inside out.

I also don’t enjoy writing them. It’s not (typically) fun for me to watch a hero being heroic. I’d much rather see a hero who’s hurting and grappling to cope with a situation they have little (if any) control over. I like to take characters who are experienced, intelligent, mentally and physically strong … and drop them smack in the middle of a situation where that won’t do them a damned bit of good. Case in point, Gregor, the main male character in OS is a former British Special Forces soldier with a several extended military tours, a university degree, and forty-odd years of life experience on his CV.

He’s capable of handling intense, often violent situations and almost anything that life throws at him. Except when Nora’s treatment begins to go very, very wrong. Because it’s not only personal but there’s no direct objective or target he can defend. He’s listed as Vanguard personality type in his profile for a reason.

ISFJ Profile

[All my characters are typed by MBTI personality type, Mass Effect 3 class and which classic 80s X-Men character they’d be. Gregor is ISFJ \ Vanguard \ Colossus.]

He has a wide range of skills, very few of which can help the woman he loves as she begins to deteriorate. Even as she grows more physically and mentally capable. Gregor is a doer who is used to functioning primarily through his ability to accomplish things. Stop the bad guy, be a meat shield for someone in danger, break down doors, reach the high shelf for Nora and so on. None of that does her any good.

Which means he struggles a lot with how to cope with the situation. I find that far more interesting than if he were to magically be able to cure her with his Heroic Hero-ness™ and save the day. It’s also not something I can show purely through action, considering the arc of the entire story is an internal journey set off by one or two external events.

This – after 1000 words or so – is why I loathe writing rules. Because rather than help me? I spent  1,083 words trying to untangled a fucking rule, written by some dude who’s probably dead, rather than working on my novel. Because rules, for all the good they can do, get stuck in my head like roadblocks and even when I know my skill and intuition can serve me better … I still struggle to break the habit of fixating on following them.

I think at their core they can be good margins for new writers who are all enthusiasm and no skills, but sometimes? They get in the fucking way. I’ve been doing this, for good or ill, since I was a pre-teen. I’m now in my early 30s. At some point, I’ve become moderately skilled at pointing sentences together. I think I can take the train wheels off now.

Categories: Life, Nerdiness, Open Season, Writing
Tags: ,

12 Responses so far.

  1. Owen O'Neill says:

    Yes! Long posts! The idea of actually having something substantive to say and then saying it! I think that notion is actually becoming radical these days. 😉

  2. Yes, had I known that was the idea behind nesting, I never would have turned it on. I enjoy long posts too much. Of course, when I started I wasn’t expecting any comments for at least the first year, so this has all been a delightful surprise. 🙂

  3. Owen O'Neill says:

    Nesting has advantages, but it pretty much assumes people aren’t going to have long conversations. Guess most layouts stop squishing at some point, but things can get awkward by then.

    Glad verbosity is OK with you. If brevity is the soul of wit, I’m witless. 😉

  4. Wow, I just found my typo in my last post. No worries, I think I got both interpretations. I quite enjoy verbosity, so fear not. I thought nesting would keep things nice and “neat” but the squish factor makes it more trouble than it’s worth. Even from a style point of view having things in a straight row is easier to follow for me. I’m glad it’s a bit kinder to your browser as well.

  5. Owen O'Neill says:

    Sorry. I could have phrased that better. I actually didn’t mean broken in a technical sense, just that my verbosity was might have been getting to be a little much. On my ancient browser, things are somewhat earier to read now with the nesting turned off (it was squishing that final column down pretty narrow), but that’s not an issue with the site.

    And, yes, I am very much enjoying the dialog as well. 🙂

  6. Well, I can hardly complain if they’re broken, it’s been lovely chatting back and forth with you. I believe I’ve resolved the issue by disabling comment nesting, but if you have any further troubles, please let me know.

  7. Owen O'Neill says:

    PS: I think I’m breaking your comments section.

  8. Owen O'Neill says:

    I had a female friend of mine do exactly that with Arwen in the movie. She tried to explain it to me, and it just came down the “it’s sacred”. But when other authors write a female character who is basically the same, they are “sexist.” Why does Tolkien get a pass on being sexist? Other people from his days and age and with his predilections don’t seem to. And why should female screenwriters get it in the neck for doing what this particular woman would otherwise laud them for? It struck me as a lot of cognitive dissonance there.

    I haven’t read C.S. Lewis either, I’m afraid. I think it was the kids. (I tend not to read books with kids as the main characters, although I did like “Red Moon and Black Mountain” by Joy Chant.) The people I knew did dump all other Lewis for the “Christian thing.” I never really understood that either. Again, I mostly see cognitive dissonance when these people go on and on.

    Anne McCaffrey is very interesting to me. She had a lot of breadth as a writer, I think, although my views are colored by reading her when I was in my teens. In the Pern books, I think she did a fairly remarkable thing that was pretty edgy for her day. I’ve read some reviews recently where people called it out as objectionable and evidence of “benighted” attitudes back then, but I really think they missed the point. (I don’t want to drop a spoiler here.) Her early work may seem a dated at this point. (I haven’t read much of her later work. It seemed to lack the spark of her early stuff, or maybe my tastes just changed.)

    “The Ship who Sang” I think was pretty groundbreaking, but I never read the rest of the books that grew out of it. They didn’t seem to add much, IMHO.

    Dystopian is a genre that holds little or no interest for me. Sometimes I get confused about it, though. One reviewer praised our books for our excellent dystopian future. Here again, I was going “Huh?” What’s dystopian about it? Yes, bad things happen, but… (I’ve come to think they said that because our future has slavery in it — though it’s only the bad guys. Maybe that’s all it takes.)

    I’ll say the same thing for werewolves, vampires and pretty much anything with the Seelie Court in LA or Seattle. I did have an idea for a vampire novel 10+ years, in which they were being hunted to extinction by flying robots. I never pursued it that’s probably a good thing.

    Re: prologues and flashbacks — yep. And we are facing a big problem there. The entire first part of our next book is basically a series of flashbacks. We tried to write it linearly and we just can’t get it to work, because (we believe) the reader needs to know where all this is going up front. Otherwise, it is pretty much “Why are you making me read this?”

    The “hook” is the final destination of this part, which sets up not just the rest of this book, but the whole series. But flashbacks can be disorienting. And there are two other plot threads (one minor, one not) that need to be addressed at the same time. We don’t have a solution yet, beyond trying our readers patience. Not sure that’s a good strategy though…

  9. That makes a lot of sense. You’d already been exposed to such a broad base of fiction, that by the time you were introduced to Tolkien, I gather it felt very “old hat”. I can sometimes look past flat language if it’s bolstered by great characters or story, but Big T failed on all accounts for me.

    “If I want dry, there are plenty of history out there that will suffice for that.”

    I’ve said nearly the same thing, and history would probably be more interesting! I would not be surprised if the woman you happened upon was Fran Walsh (though it could’ve just as easily been Phillipa Boyens), both women had writing credits on all the films – if I’m remembering correctly – and it seems like they were both instrumental in trying to even out some of the racism and sexism that runs rampant in Tolkien’s works.

    I remember when the original trio came out and people were pissed that Arwen’s part was expanded beyond canon. One my gods! There’s three remarkable female characters in a sea of men … everyone panic! And it’s happened again with Tauriel. I get that she’s not “canon” but without her, the only female character in the last Hobbit installment would have been Cate Blanchett in one scene. I adore all the female characters, whether new or old, even if most of them were elves. 😉 And I lay the credit at Fran and Phillipa’s feet for any kind of balance present in the films. Without them the entire collection would be an unstoppable sausage fest.

    Genius doesn’t need propping up. […] It makes me think that deep down they worry their darling really ain’t all that awesome and so they need to invest him with things he didn’t do to support their opinion of him.

    I do think there’s a heavy dose of this that goes hand-in-hand with the hero worship. For example, it pisses me off when people insist LotR is this deep Christian allegory. I have an aunt who would argue with me, that it was supposed to be this Pilgrim’s Progress style tale. Meanwhile, I would argue, going from Tolkien’s own words that it’s not. Of course, at the time she was an adult and I was only pre-teen, so she won. This neatly sums up my feelings about him.

    If you want to see allegory, fine. Go for it. But don’t expect or force others to submit to your views. Same thing with OMG TOLKIEN IS LORD OF ALL, HE CREATED WORDS AND PAPER AND THE UNIVERSE! If that’s what rocks your boat? Go for it. But respect that not everyone feels the same. I’m not less of a nerd just because I don’t wanna lick Tolkien’s feet, or because I haven’t read Dune or I prefer x over y. I’m just different. I think that’s my second biggest issue – besides the boringness of his work – the idea that I am somehow less of a nerd because I don’t follow the Holy Book of Tolkien.

    Fuck that. I’ll take C.S. Lewis any day and even his work was a religious allegory, with dry text and some places where he majorly dropped the ball. [The story with the ape and the donkey, so boring and dumb.] And I still enjoyed it more, even as an Asatru-based Heathen.

    Yeah, I’d like to give Dune one day soon, but I’m not in a hurry. It has a lot of componets that I’m just not, personally, interested in so I hesitate too pick it up.

    I’m going to have to compile a list of all the author’s you’ve mentioned, and see if what catches my interest. I’m familiar with both LeGuin and Moon, but haven’t read them. I’m totally going to check out Anne McCaffrey! At first I thought that was Anne Bishop, who’s a fantasy writer who I most assuredly do not like. I’ve also had John Scalzi on my mental list for a while.

    Dystopian is huge right now, and I’m waiting for it – along with vampires – to have its day and then pass into the vaults of time until the next generation. I tried to read some YA dystopian and just found it boring, repetitive and whiney. I’m sure there’s good dystopian out there, but I haven’t found any recently. I’m definitely a sucker for shiny tech, but it has to either be elegant and unobtrusive – none of this LOOK AT ALL THE BUTTONS nonsense – or has to serve the story in direct way. Otherwise all your technobabble is just pomp and bullshit.

    Yes, I think that’s where “write the action” came from. I think it’s a verison of “write the hook”, and no worries. Not only is the phrase perfectly spot on for that style of writing, it also made me laugh. 😀

    I completely missed that Marina has replied! I’ll have to remedy that. Update: Bugger, it looks like that post’s comments might have closed already.

    Oh, so glad that I’m not the only one who enjoyed prologues and flashbacks! I know they should be used carefully – like any story device, reallyy – but to take them out entirely? Bleh, no thanks.

    He was a WWII vet. I think that explains it.

    Yes, yes it does. 😀

  10. Owen O'Neill says:

    Again, I have to agree with you. When I came upon Tolkien, I’d already read Lord Dunsany (The King of Elfland’s Daughter), and E.R. Eddison (who’s really weird), and “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”. (Lovecraft scared the bejesus out of me, so I didn’t read much at all.) I’d read some sagas (I have this thing for Vikings), and so when Tolkien was thrust upon me, I was all “Huh?” Yeah, dry is fuck just about covers it. I read primarily for language and if the prose does not draw me in, I won’t bother with it. If I want dry, there are plenty of history out there that will suffice for that.

    As an aside (sort of), i don’t often watch the extra material that comes on DVDs, but I happened upon my housemates watching an interview that came with the LOTR extended DVD set. It was with one of the screenwriters. So I stayed to watch, and while she was praising Tolkien to the skies, she was basically murdering him. It was all couched in “translating” him to the screen, but really it amounted to saying that his work is dry and bloated, and at time muddled. All of which I felt when I tried to read him.

    But people do seem to have this deep-seated need to include their favorite authors in “origin myths”. What really bugs me about that — aside from the disservice it does to those who came before — is that it’s wholly unnecessary. If Tolkien was the genius they believe him to be, whether he invented anything or not is pretty immaterial. Shakespeare invented almost nothing, and Homer didn’t invent epic poetry or the Iliad. Genius doesn’t need propping up. Why don’t these people get that? it makes me think that deep down they worry their darling really ain’t all that awesome and so they need to invest him with things he didn’t do to support their opinion of him. I’m probably over-thinking that, but it’s just irrational to me.

    I actually happy to hear you haven’t read Dune yet. I sometimes feel like it’s a dirty secret when I’m around sci-fi fans and authors and Dune comes up. If you do read it, I’d be interested to know what you think.

    I’ve been knocking around Goodreads lately and this thing about female sci-fi authors keeps coming up. Now when I started reading sci-fi, there were a whole bunch, going back to Leigh Brackett and C. L. Moore (who wrote fantasy as well, including one of the earliest kick-ass women warriors I know of in fantasy). There was Anne McCaffrey, and LeGuin of course, and C. J. Cherryh was very popular, Lois pretty much ruled sci-fi in the 80s, and Melissa Scott wrote some very interesting stuff in the 90s.

    And now I’m hearing about female sci-fi authors assuming male pen names to succeed. (In fantasy in the 80’s and early 90’s it was the other way around — or so I was told.) So I don’t know what happened or if people are just nuts. I know David Weber, Eric Flint, John Scalzi, John Ringo and some other guys blundered into the party, and maybe no one remembers there really was sci-fi in the last millennium? Are people that myopic and gadget addled? Or were the shelves just swept clean?

    It does seem that a lot of what I see now (when I bother to look) is techno-blam and dystopian, and maybe those are genres women are less likely to write in. (Of course, there’s Elizabeth Moon.) I don’t know. But it sure seems like something odd happened there.

    I blame James Bond films, Robert Ludlum and some other guy for the “start with the action” business. I do recall something some 20+ years about there being all this advice for “writing the hook.” Excuse the off-color metaphor, but all too many writers who do that remind of a guy who thinks foreplay consists of yelling “Brace yourself!”

    Prologues and flashbacks are the plague? Uh oh. We’re infected. Badly. And as it’s too late for a cure, I guess we’ll just have to don a mangy robe and find a bell.

    I found your blog through Marina’s blog, where you left a comment. She was talking about the lack of mothers in sci-fi and fantasy, and I’d weighed in, since that has been on our minds as well.

    “Ass from a hot rock …” was something my dad said frequently. “Too dumb to pour piss out of a boot,” was another favorite of his. (I never asked about the origin if that one.) He was a WWII vet. I think that explains it.

    Many thanks for the comment re: the hug. Maybe I’ll take a rain-check. 😉

  11. I could hug you right now, I really could. Here’s my biggest beef with Tolkien in the smallest nutshell I can manage: If you like Tolkien, fine. But he did not invent fantasy or even big quest novels. He took a bunch of mythologies (Norse, Celt, Greek etc) and plundered them. Which in and of itself is fine, we all do it. But fantasy did exist before Tolkien.

    I realize I’m preaching to the choir here, but the worship of his work – which, honestly, is dry as fuck – irritates me to no end. It’s as though, to some readers, the entire genre and literature itself sprung forth, fully armored like Athena for JRR’s head.

    I just skimmed an article that – basically – said before Tolkien no one had created world building and structure in the fantasy genre. I’m pretty sure if the likes of George MacDonald, HP Lovecraft, Lewis Carroll and Lord Dunsany could rise up from their graves and murder a fanboy, they would.

    I’m all for loving what you love, but not with a sense of blind, sycophantic* adoration that I see in certain Tolkien followers.

    I have tried to read LotH two or three times now, and I don’t think I’ve made it past the fourth chapter. Jackson’s movies are, frankly, all I need at this point.

    I would like to read Dune – or at least try – before I die. As someone who loves sci-fi I always feel like I owe it to myself to read “the classics” … but I rarely ever do. 🙂 Part of me’s all “Hmm, Dune” and the other part goes, “Can’t I just watch the series with James McAvoy instead?”

    Thank you for the names of all those lovely female sci-fi authors! I must make time to explore their works. I think the “women can’t write science fiction” thing is deeply internalized on my part, because when I was finding the genre as a teen most of the writers I found in the bookstores were men. Or women with ambiguous names (A.C. Crispin), so it’s not that women can’t write good sci-fi, but that I lacked exposure to them as a youngling. And still do, it’s something I’m trying to rectify as an adult.

    Starting with action is so embedded in my brain, I cannot even tell you when I first heard it. Another one is that prologues and flashbacks are the plague, and if you write them (and enjoy writing them, as I do!) you’re lazy and looking for an excuse to infodump.

    We don’t feel action is our strong suit at all. It’s like pulling teeth. But then what do we gets praised for? Action! Go figure. I find this really funny in an “Oh Gods, I’ve had this happen to me” kind of way.

    “Ass from a hot rock …” is a new one for me, I like it. Basically everything you said in the last three paragraphs, I’m sitting here nodding my head, “Yes, yes, hell yes!” I’d quote all of it, but it starts at “Anyway” and ends at “doubters”. 😀

    Lastly, I’ve been itching to know and keep forgetting to ask, how did you find my blog?

    I have always wanted a reason to use that word.

  12. Owen says:

    This should probably be ignored. First, I don’t like Tolkien much either. They made us read the Hobbit in high school. All my friends loved LOTR and thrust it upon me. I did finish “The Hobbit” because I had to pass a test on it. Well, I passed a test on it. I actually don’t recall if I finished it. Next , maybe I should admit I also could never finish “Dune.” In fact, the sci-fi classics I could not finish are legion. So arguably I know very little about sci-fi – I just write it with the help of an awesome woman. (What’s this about women can’t write good sci-fi? Practically all the sci-fi authors I can read – except Larry Niven – are female. Though most are Lois McMaster Bujold, whom I’m still miffed at.)

    Anyway, what’s this about starting with the action? Did we not get a memo? Our second book did. Our first sorta, maybe? The third – nope! Tons o’ no action. (Well there is a female marine captain – she gets some action. Sorry! Could not resist.) Then there is action – as in exploding starships. (We don’t feel action is our strong suit at all. It’s like pulling teeth. But then what do we gets praised for? Action! Go figure.) But we did no about starting there, so maybe this book will tank. We’ll see.

    Anyway – for what’s it’s worth from a couple of new authors who may not know our ass from a hot rock (well, I’m pretty sure she does) – my belief is that stories are organic things that grow according to their own rules. Not anyone else’s. Not even mine (our stories get crotchety at times). My job as an author is to listen the damn story and try to understand on its own terms. (And I have to say this is where the co-author thing really helps.) Then write down what we’ve come to understand.

    I think if you take a story and dismember according to “rules” (like start with the action – any others I should know about?) you are very likely to get a mutilated corpse of a story – and what fun is that?

    I also think readers will know that. If you write a story that follows its own rules, I think that is sensed and people will get sucked it. (Well, not all people – and that’s all I’m gonna say there.) But I suspect a re-stitched, reanimated story is not going to light many fires in many bosoms. So would I say (if I were so arrogant as to say anything), just write it. It knows what it wants to be. You know what it wants to be. To hell with the rulemakers and doubters.