Month: March 2013

Snow Crash reading update

I am still reading Snow Crash.

I’ve got notes on 67 of the 71 chapters, within fifteen pages of the end, but I am still reading.

What have I learned since last time?

This monthly book club thing is not going to work for me.

I’ve done almost no other writing since I last touched the Bluehammer outline a week and a bit ago: my daily bus ride has been completely consumed by reading and taking notes on this book.

Reading a book more critically has value, but it is too time-intensive a process for me to repeat frequently. So, I will finish this book and then do more writing before picking another book.

Having said all of that, here are some more thoughts on the book. Once again, there are spoilers here.

Short chapters increase pace

There is an interesting pacing mechanism in the second half: the chapters get shorter as the action heats up.

Part of this pacing is down to POV switches – the writing is pretty rigorous about sticking to one POV character per chapter, and so when the POV changes that is a new chapter boundary. As the story approaches climactic events, the action for each character is shorter and more to the point. The effect of this is to make the chapters shorter, increasing the apparent pace.

Chickens come home to roost

I’m reading the closing stages of the story, and a very large number of the plot points seeded early have come to fruition now. For example, the Kourier uniform which YT wears has its airbags as explained early in the story and it is put to good use in her escape from Rife’s helicopter.

Echoes

There are several cool echoes and correspondences across the story.

  • When Hiro is getting his regrettably short-term transport, both the bike and his riding gear are scaled up versions of YT’s Kourier uniform.
  • Raven and Hiro are the two most active characters in the book and their personal histories intersect in ways which they only discover at the end. I like the correspondence between them.
  • The mythological mapping is pretty explicitly laid out in the book itself, but is rather pleasing all the same: Juanita is Innana, Hiro is one aspect of Enki while Rife is another (or possibly a manifestation of the underworld ruler), and so on.

Leaves me hungry

One of the things about Stephenson’s books that I enjoy most is that they leave me wanting to know more about the subject matter. For Snow Crash, it’s the Sumerian legends and writing systems – the Babel/Infocalypse event is presumably fanciful, but much of the myth cycle described is plausible.

To the end

I will make another post about this once I have finished reading and digested the story structure a bit more.

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Roleplaying With Kids

I love roleplaying games, and I love playing games with my kids. Putting the two together is not an unobvious thing to do.

My kids can deal with pretty complex games, but they are still young and so a full-on system is overkill on so many levels. There are existing roleplaying systems for kids, but the one I have looked at most closely is both tied to fantasy settings, and apparently owes much of its structure to Dungeons & Dragons.

I do not care for D&D.

My solution to this was to use a system derived from a different roleplaying system called Savage Worlds. This is the system that we are more or less exclusively using in my roleplaying group, and I like it a lot because it is setting-neutral, the core mechanics are simple to learn, and it plays pretty fast. It is still too complex in its full form for the boys to deal with just yet though, so I trimmed it a bit: cut the number of skills, especially, and simplified character creation. In fact, I wrote up characters based on the boys’ ideas.

I ran a short superhero game session, and the boys loved it. We used LEGO minifigs as miniatures, and they battled an alien dragon that emerged from a tunnel and had a blast.

The next outing is to run a game for a group of kids we know – I’m going to use the same basic version of Savage Worlds, but my thinking at this point is to run a story set in Middle Earth. This is a setting I will have to do very little to explain, since there has been so much Hobbit and LotR exposure over the last decade. It is also a low magic setting – one of the difficulties with the superhero game was that the superpowers were a bit complex to run. If I am running a game with 6-10 munchkins, I want this to be as simple to follow as possible.

Besides, I want this to be about story and character and puzzle-solving rather than combat. Combat always ends up more complicated than you expect, and it’s easy for an encounter with even a handful of characters to get bogged down in minutiae.

I will post details of the game system itself when I have them properly written down. I may even post the game materials once the game is played.

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Hard Truths Are Hard

 

I’ve had a recent opportunity to practice accepting story feedback.

I have a writing circle with a friend and former colleague K – well, it’s more of a line since there are only the two of us – and at our last meeting I took along the initial outline for Bluehammer.

In all seriousness, I have had problems with the plot of Bluehammer for a long time inasmuch as it didn’t really have one, or at least not enough of one: the whole point of last November was to inject some kind of driving plot into the narrative so as to engage the reader more rather than having it be a several-hundred-thousand-word travelogue.
And it certainly helped, but it did not help enough: reading the outline to K, even I was bored.

There are a couple of observations which K made and which I wanted to share.

  1. the character narratives don’t relate to each other until very late in the story
  2. each narrative is in sequence, but the timelines are not simultaneous which is hard to convey and potentially confusing

Both of these elements are potentially alienating to the reader. The first one especially is difficult, because it means that the reader is effectively reading three books at once rather than one book. What my friend said was that these are surmountable problems if the world is sufficiently engaging, but while I think that is true in my head I am not expressing that well enough in the writing.

K made some good suggestions for story rearrangements, but the basic options I have are:

  1. rearrange the story to make it comprehensible without being me
  2. make the writing truly excellent – which, y’know, it should be anyway, but I’m not a literary writer
  3. abandon

I mention the third option because although I have been working on this story since 2005 and I love the setting, it is proving harder than I would like to extract a solid story from the setting and characters that I have in hand.

Still, work to do on it still, and I am glad of hearing the hard truth from a friend rather than shouting into the void of editors ignoring me.

Time for some heavy outlining if I’m going to fix this.

 

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The Point of Point of View, part 2

Last week I talked about first and second person points of view. Today I want to talk about third person, and about switching POV.

Third Person In All Its Varieties

Third person point of view is when you refer to characters in the third person, either by name or pronouns (he/she/it). This is by far the most common POV in fiction – it’s pretty close to the default choice, in fact.

However, you may need to think about what particular variety of third person you use:

  • third person limited – reporting events in the third person, but from the perspective of a particular character. This may include a window into the character’s head, so you learn their thoughts and emotions.
  • third person objective – reporting just the facts of a narrative without insight into any character’s internal state.
  • third person omniscient – the narrative is given from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator who may have their own voice, and who has insight into the internal state of all characters.

The omniscient perspective is I think the hardest one to pull off, because it can be so confusing for the reader – who is thinking that thought? This is a variation on difficulties with attributing dialogue without overuse of dialogue tags, except that there is no standard convention for conveying that a thought is being written (he thought/she thought is a lot more intrusive than he said/she said).

That’s not to say that it is not an attractive or potentially effective option: Dune would not have been the book it was without the omniscient insight into the characters’ motives. Of course, this constant use of character thoughts to convey critical plot development was one of the reasons that Dune was considered unfilmable for so long.

The obvious advantage of the omniscient POV is that you can tell a story succinctly because there’s no mucking about with hinting at a character’s mental state with expressions and tones of voice. However, another problem here is that the storytelling becomes too much about telling and not enough about story. There can also be issues in choosing which characters to look inside the heads of.

The objective POV is the usual perspective for journalistic or factual writing, but it has a place in fiction too – if you want your narrative to be conveyed by subtle shades of character interaction without telling the reader explicitly what the motives or effect are, then this is for you.

Third person limited is almost like first person in that you are following a particular character. You can carry the camera near to or far from the character which can help in conveying dramatic irony (where the audience knows something the character does not), but frequent insights into the character’s thoughts really need the narrative to be close to the character. If the narrative maintains a very close relationship with the character, then you can hit similar issues with first person of not being able to convey all the points of the story you need because they happen somewhere else.

Switching Point of View

It may be that your story is best told from multiple points of view. This is typical when there are multiple MCs – where more than one character has a major story arc.

An oft-quoted – even canonical – example is George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (televised as Game of Thrones after the first book), but William Gibson’s Sprawl novels (Neuromancer and its sequels) have a similar structure: each character gets a chapter, and the POV shift is strictly on chapter boundaries. The chapters themselves are generally third person limited, where you get insights into the focus character’s mind as you go.

But there is no requirement that all the chapters follow the same POV style. Two of Iain Banks’ novels which play with this are Complicity andFeersum Endjinn.

In Complicity, the POV alternates between third person and second person, part of the conceit being that it is conceivable that the different chapters are actually being written about the same character.

Feersum Endjinn is a more conventionally structured story, in that it is clear that the chapters are about different characters. However, the narrative switches between third person limited for most of the characters, and first person Glaswegian dialect for one of them, a man called Bascule. Personally, I found myself dreading the Bascule chapters because I had so much trouble following them.

In any case, whatever the merits or demerits of the specific POVs used in Banks’ books, the transition between POVs is clear: the perspective changes on a chapter break. Such a strong boundary between POVs is not just a matter of convention. As I discussed in talking about the omniscient POV, a poorly indicated perspective shift can really break the reader out of a story.

Something that can be particularly jarring is if a story has been told consistently in a particular POV and then jumps to another character mid-scene without any signal. It’s a very easy thing to do as a writer, but it’s really hard to read.

The questions I ask myself when thinking about point of view are:

  1. is this one person’s story? If so, consider using a first person POV unless a lot of things happen away from the character
  2. does the story have a small number of primary characters? If so, consider multiple third person limited narratives.
  3. does the story have epic scale? If so, consider whether the internal states of the characters are important or not to the story

The point of these questions is to make the story as immediate as possible.

Personal Demons

I have a novel written from a first person POV – this is the one which I mentioned before as having a lot of meetings in it. In trying to rewrite it, I decided to try mixing third person limited and first person POVs, interleaving the first person elements in the present but using third person the MC’s past, and the stories of other characters.

Golly gee whillikers, but it was a mess after that.

There’s stuff in there I like, but it is a story best told from first person and I need to simply make the MC more active so that most of the story I need to tell happens to him.

What are your stories of POVs that worked or otherwise?

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