Book Reviews (9)

Books 9

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

Danny, a misfit with a desperate need for Wi-Fi and phone signal, joins his estranged, successful cousin Howie in turning a castle into a hotel. As they navigate their difficult relationship and the castle’s surprises, the convict narrator’s story within the story unfolds.

The story of the castle is a good one in itself – the contrast between tech-addict Danny and luddite Howie speaking to our time, their awkward relationship rooted in the trauma Danny caused Howie in childhood, the blend of realist and bizarre. But that story is being told by Ray in a prison writing class, with Ray and teacher Holly’s lives also an interesting course of events, as the challenge of life within prison interferes with the class and we learn about her own state of affairs. It’s a good touch to have a bit of meta in the mix, as the two tales reflect and reach into each other.

The castle and prison narratives are both a strong mix of human drama and the strange, with intriguing characters at the helm. The meta element really adds something on multiple levels, without sliding into the head-scratching complexity or posturing that can come when things go in that direction, making the whole deeper than its two parts.

Really entertaining, thoughtful, and moving.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: a Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason – Chapo Trap House

The book by the comedy/politics podcast Chapo Trap House.

Chapo offers a caustic, ironic, irreverent look at (mostly American) politics from a far-left perspective, saying that ‘you don’t have to side with the pear-shaped vampires of the right or the craven, lanyard-wearing wonks of contemporary liberalism.’

The comedy is a cathartic take-down of the centre and right for Extremely Online failsons, but under the irony are nuggets of insight.

[The liberal] process pits tepid reforms against a deranged and revanchist right wing with no such inclination toward consensus or incrementalism. […] Without an organized and popular Left, liberals end up negotiating themselves into oblivion, moving the country, inevitably, to the right.

The chapter on the world provides a quick Chapo-style riff off Howard Zinn or Chomsky, the chapters on libs and on cons are caricatures of both sides with satirical summaries of major administrations (The young and ready [Obama] threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and declared, “Let’s find some fucking consensus!”), the chapters on media and culture are entertaining satire. The chapter on work is a great broadside against capitalism, railing against the system of wage labour (‘no employer hires anyone unless they can extract more value from them than they have to pay out in wages and benefits’) and the financial system’s destructive gambling.

Even as a Chapo fan, I don’t think their brand of bitterness and irony can make a whole manifesto. What’s missing is a chapter on the left – with, dare I say it, a bit more hope, warmth, and sincerity.

There are a couple of paragraphs here and there that mention egalitarian ideals, a new order where ‘the productive forces of society aren’t spent on inventing new weapons of mass destruction and clever ways to brutalize dissidents but on ensuring that all people enjoy the fruits of their birthright.’ Okay, but this is pretty simplistic, and only speaking to the home team. Chapo is better at tearing down than building up.

A must-read laugh for fans of the show. This book isn’t aimed at convincing newcomers, but as the hosts say themselves: your politics shouldn’t come from their dumb comedy podcast anyway.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

‘Bird by Bird’ doesn’t have much detail on the nuts-and-bolts technique of writing – point of view, showing vs telling, whether adverbs are all evil or not, etc. Its focus is on things like paying attention to life, staying at your desk and dealing with your neuroses until you can finish a shitty first draft, dealing with jealousy, perfectionism, and getting out of your own way.

Lamott is funny and honest, dismissing romantic ideals about writers and being published. This was a refreshing dose of warmth and sincerity after the Chapo book. Although there wasn’t much here that struck me as new insight, her points are still important and expressed with nice jokes and anecdotes.

If you’re struggling with doubts and distractions, read this – you’ll find it very helpful. If you’re looking for help with the gritty details of technique, try Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or David Jauss’s ‘On Writing Fiction’.

Broken Things – Lauren Oliver

Obsessed with the book ‘The Way into Lovelorn’, 12 year old children Mia, Brynn, and Owen killed their friend Summer, following a ritual from their fanfic sequel. That’s what the community believes, anyway. Five years on, their lives thrown off track by the murder, Mia and Brynn try to find out the truth.

Another great ‘story within a story’ thing, with extracts from ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and their fanfic providing clues to what happened that day. The darker elements of Summer’s friendship with Mia and Brynn come to light, as her obsession with Lovelorn and troubling features of her personality unfold. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, shaped by the past as her life and death looms over them.

A brilliant depiction of difficult knotty relationships, the aftermath of tragedy, and darkness tangled up with affection and hope. The mystery has some nice twists and turns, casting suspicion while building to an intense conclusion, and I found that ending a good move.

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Variety in Voices

Streetcar - Blanche and Stanley

‘How do they speak: talkative/quiet, assertive/hedging, slang/formal, direct/indirect, what style of humour?’ – Character Archetypes

Writing good dialogue is hard. One of the traps is the characters all sounding too similar, generally like versions of yourself. In real life people sound different from each other. That means not just with their own accents and slang, but with how they approach topics and conversations in line with their personality.

Writing accents phonetically is an approach you can take to set a voice apart – everyone remembers how Hagrid sounds. But this can be cringy and distracting. Arlene Prunkl has some useful tips and examples for showing accent and dialect without relying on excessive misspellings and contractions.

Think about words and phrases that a character might use. A tendency to start a subject with ‘so,’ occasionally saying ‘thingamajig’ while gesturing to the object, in-jokes shared with other characters, calling a garage a car hole, favourite swear words (or avoiding them), punctuating sentences with ‘like’. These things can help set the voices of your characters apart, and are an inroad to showing clues about their background and personal traits.

Then there’s the larger level. How much do they speak? How much do they interrupt? Do they ask questions more or less than others? How are they as a listener? Are they sarcastic? Do they approach topics directly or indirectly? And so on.

This is the level that really requires getting in touch with the character, having a feel for how they’d come across.

When we read A Streetcar Named Desire in school we did some work on how the main characters spoke, and tried writing some dialogue as they’d speak it. Mimicking an existing character with a strong voice can be a good exercise in how variety in dialogue styles works.

Here’s Blanche – neurotic rapid-fire speech, full of imperatives, literary/melodramatic:

Yes, something – ape-like about him, like one of those pictures I’ve seen in – anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is – Stanley Kowalski – survivor of the Stone Age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! […] God! Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella – my sister – there has been some progress since then! Such things as art – as poetry and music – such kinds of new light have come into the world since then!

Stanley would never talk like that – he’s a completely different person.

Another exercise is to write the same dialogue from different characters.

Person A: ‘So… Um, I was thinking. Maybe we should take another look at that thing? I know you said the case was settled, but it doesn’t feel right. I think Paul might be up to something.’

Person B: ‘Hey, we gotta go back there. You said case closed, but I’m opening it. Paul’s dirtier than your laundry.’

Character Archetypes – A Sword Isn’t a Personality

sword

A skim through TV Tropes (warning – enormous time sink) will show that, whatever you do, you’ll follow some patterns that’ve come before. Conforming to the odd trope is fine, because it’s inevitable and things are often popular for a reason.

But if a character is made of pretty much only tropes and gaffer tape, that’s an issue. A character like this doesn’t stand out, isn’t realistic, and isn’t nearly as fresh as the first few times they were written. They aren’t a person, they’re an archetype.

Examples:

  • The strong female character whose only trait is being a badass. They’re not like the other girls – they have a sword!
  • Brooding YA hero.
  • The wise old mentor who dies just before the Chosen One can complete their training.
  • The Chosen One.
  • A cynical hardboiled detective, lighting up a cigarette as they walk out of the morgue into the rain, going into a dark corner of a bar to drink straight bourbon, then musing on the incident (probably a woman’s death) that killed the bright-eyed optimism they’d had when they left the academy.
  • The comedy sidekick.
  • The ‘end the world for some reason, I guess’ villain.
  • Adorkable clumsy cinnamon roll.
  • Mary Sue/Gary Stu.

Characters are liable to become shallow archetypes for two reasons – unrealistic features, and a lack of depth.

Make sure the character has a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Real people usually aren’t completely useless, nor can they do everything better than people who’ve been at it for far longer than them. Let them slip up, struggle, succeed occasionally – the plot will be more exciting, and the character will be more real.

Here’s Connie J. Jasperson advising how to do a character sketch. This can help flesh out a person’s motives and backstory. Especially with a villain, it’s important to know what they’re actually trying to achieve.

A meaningful motivation comes from a developed personality. Think a bit about their backstory – how have their experiences led them to be the people they are and do the things they do? Not all of this has to be spelled out in the text. But the more you build an understanding of the character which gives each scene they’re in a distinct motivation, the less they’ll slip into the mould of an archetype.

Give characters features that don’t come in the stock package of an archetype. It’s fine to have a female character be a badass, or a detective be cynical, if they also have other sides that make them distinctive.

Brienne of Tarth is a dank fighter, but memorable for her strong code of loyalty. But more than that – she reacts like a human and says ‘fuck loyalty!’ when there are much bigger issues at play, and has some good bits of backstory adding to her character.

Then there are all the little things that add a lot. Coffee, tea, neither? How do they speak: talkative/quiet, assertive/hedging, slang/formal, direct/indirect, what style of humour? Fashion, gestures, habits, hobbies, music/book/TV taste, etc. It’s a small thing whether someone takes off their shoes at the door and lines them up exactly straight, kicks them off in the hall, or tracks mud over the carpet (unless you have to clean up): but that adds to the overall picture of who this person this.

The point is that a realistic character – a distinct individual with comprehensible motives, and a range of traits that make sense given their life – will tend to be more memorable, and make for a better plot, than a simple archetype.

Franzen’s 10 Rules: You What, Mate?

Jonathan Franzen has suggested 10 rules for novelists. Some of his points are quite interesting, some are more questionable, and some seem to be from fortune cookies. Let’s take a look!

1) The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

OK. This sounds like a good perspective, letting readers have their reactions to the text without swooping in with NO WHAT I MEANT WAS or IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT YOU’RE TOO DUMB TO GET IT. It’s a bit vague though.

2) Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

Well, getting outside comfort zones and exploring topics and styles is a good thing to do. But can we not reinforce the whole ‘starving artist’ thing? Poverty for the sake of art isn’t romantic. Unfortunately, people need cash.

3) Never use the word then as a conjunction—we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.

Haha, no.

‘Then’ does have a subtly different meaning from ‘and’. ‘The character did this, then did that’ is actually distinct from ‘The character did this, and did that.’ The former places more emphasis on only one thing happening at a time, each being fully finished before starting the next; while with the latter the character could be multitasking.

I take the point that conjunctions can be misused to paper over awkwardness, perceived or real. The solution isn’t to ban certain conjunctions.

4) Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

The nugget of insight here is that a first-person narrative needs a strong voice to bring the character to life. However, POV can’t be reduced to a sentence.

Here’s a whole post I wrote on it. Here’s one by Michael James, K.M. Allan , Marcha,  M.L. Davis, and Meg Dowell.

5) When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

When I’m reading something that obviously had good research behind it, I don’t appreciate it less because the author used google. It would be impressive if they got their research by sneaking into the hidden catacombs under the Vatican, fighting off corrupt cardinals perverting the power of a fragment of the True Cross and the undead Templar knights raised using it… but it doesn’t make the actual book any better than if they got the same information online or in a library.

6) The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

Some element of the writer is bound to come up in what they write, but this seems taken a bit far for the sake of a hot take. Probably some of Kafka’s thoughts and life experience are in there, but Anne Frank’s diary or Russell Brand’s Booky Wook is likely more autobiographical than a story about a dude turning into a giant beetle.

It is a cool story – you can read it here.

7) You see more sitting still than chasing after.

confused face meme

8) It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

The internet can be procrastination, yes, but… luddite much? Also, ‘his workplace’. Huh. Either that second X chromosome has the useful ‘no, get off twitter you’re meant to be writing’ gene, or women don’t write, or something.

9) Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I agree. Verbs pulled from a thesaurus can be a lazy way to try to give an event more pizzaz without actually presenting it differently. The important word here is ‘seldom’ – thinking back to Writing Tips Are Just Suggestions. So long as we don’t go mad here, this is solid advice.

10) You have to love before you can be relentless.

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Evil Humans, Evil Forces

Sauron

In Why Can’t Characters Just Be Evil? The Orangutan Librarian wrote about evil in characters, saying that while ‘In the same way a character can’t just be good, we need villains to have a little humanity to work’, at the same time:

I’ve often been disappointed by anti-heroes that fail to do their job properly. Take the example of Maleficent. Now, I’ve got nothing against the film and I get it was made for kids, yet many will agree that it fell short of the mark- chiefly for failing to make the villainess truly malevolent. It’s very notable that the biggest change from Disney’s original Sleeping Beauty is that she doesn’t want to kill the girl here, only send her into a cursed sleep. And it was this reluctance by the writers for her to go fully dark that meant this unforgettable villain lost her menace and consequently that the message revolving round the impact of human cruelty was never properly realised.

While characters who are evil ‘just because’ are boring, the difficulty with having them be a truly malevolent human is squaring up their underlying humanity with the things they are doing. I think part of the reason humanising an antagonist can lead to them not being dark enough is that the writer couldn’t fully get in the headspace of a human who does inhuman things. Writers joke about suspicious search histories, but perhaps it’s for the better our empathy only goes so far in certain directions.

When Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Adolph Eichmann (responsible for organising transport to Nazi camps), she was taken aback by a man who seemed to her ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’; famously commenting on the ‘banality of evil’. Thomas White writes that:

By declaring in her pre-Eichmann trial writings that absolute evil, exemplified by the Nazis, was driven by an audacious, monstrous intention to abolish humanity itself, Arendt was echoing the spirit of philosophers such as F W J Schelling and Plato, who did not shy away from investigating the deeper, more demonic aspects of evil. But this view changed when Arendt met Eichmann, whose bureaucratic emptiness suggested no such diabolical profundity, but only prosaic careerism and the ‘inability to think’. At that point, her earlier imaginative thinking about moral evil was distracted, and the ‘banality of evil’ slogan was born.

Arendt’s pre-Eichmann and post-Eichmann views on the evil exhibited by the Nazis are reflected in approaches to fictional antagonists.

Absolute evil, ‘end the world just because’, doesn’t make for compelling characters, but can work as what I’ll call an Evil Force.

An Evil Force is something like Sauron and the Ring-wraiths. They’re technically people, but functionally they aren’t meant to be characters and aren’t used as such, really. They’re more like abstract forces of darkness for the protagonists to struggle against. This sort of thing is very black-and-white morality, but it’s really satisfying when pulled off – there’s an epic feel to the conflict, the good guys heroically mowing down opposition without making us worry about how Nameless Goon #14’s widow will make it through the winter without him.

An Evil Human is much more complex and harder to pull off. The writer has to come up with a believable, human motive for inhuman acts. There’s a natural temptation to believe ‘people don’t do things like this’, and make the character’s acts too tame or treat them like an Evil Force rather than a person. But an Evil Force can’t work well as a character – imagine how cringy it’d be if Sauron had a large speaking role. What on earth would he say for himself?

The reality is that people can do terrible things thanks to momentary passions, dehumanisation (Margaret Atwood: ‘That is what you have to do before you kill, I thought. You have to create an it, where none was before. You do that first, in your head, and then you make it real.’), following slippery slopes too far, the bystander effect, social influence and mob mentality, corruption of power; all sorts of factors that in no way diminish personal responsibility, but do help explain, for example, how a bureaucrat can come to facilitate genocide.

Maybe I’m being weird, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day (also a decent film) comes to mind, even though he isn’t a villain per se. Through the book we gradually learn how his compassion for the German people and sense of honour, in the wake of the incredibly punitive Treaty of Versailles, lead to him buying into Nazi ideas. And we see how the narrator, his butler Stevens, denied what was happening thanks to the extreme concept of duty he’d been raised with.

Villains are at their best, then, when the inhumanity of their acts is combined with a humanity uncomfortably close to our own.

This was a heavy one. Here, have a silly meme.

Writing Altered States

drinking in bar

Something I come back to sometimes in my writing, for some reason, is altered mental states and related topics. Drugs are an obvious example, but this can also be relevant to magic and a wide range of other possibilities. If your character just lost a limb in a sword fight, they’re not in their usual state of mind.

I wrote a story in uni about a rocket scientist microdosing LSD. My WIP features some drinking, a fictional opiate, and the state in which mages access magic. I recently wrote a story about a lich in Magicholics Anonymous.

If you want to show your characters drunk, on something, or affected through other means, here are some thoughts on how to address that.

Do your research

There’s a good chance you already know how alcohol works (if not, information will be easy to get). Beyond that, you can find reports on what various substances are like in places like r/Psychonaut, r/Drugs, and affiliated subreddits. The YouTuber Cg Kid has apparently taken everything, and candidly describes both the experience and the dark side.

Similarly, you can look up weird meditative and spiritual experiences, sleep deprivation, shock, the effects of solitary confinement, whatever else the plot requires.

The impressions given in general media tend not to be as subjectively in-depth or accurate as what you’ll get from resources like above, though any source has its bias. Marijuana in films and TV has often been made to look like a psychedelic for some reason, and LSD visuals may be more subtle than the stereotypical imagery.

If you’re making a fictional substance, bear these categories and examples in mind:

  • Depressant: alcohol, marijuana.

  • Stimulant: caffeine, cocaine, meth.

  • Opiate: morphine, heroin.

  • Psychedelic: LSD, DMT.

  • Dissociative: ketamine.

  • Deliriant: datura.

Fight the purple

It’s very easy to slip into purple prose if your character has dropped DMT, or is meeting with an entity from another plane of existence to negotiate a pact.

Overwrought similes and metaphors can just be confusing word salad. Don’t be afraid to do a bit of telling, or trim down some of the detail and give readers space to picture it themselves. If you’re being metaphorical, base the metaphor in relatable physical things so the reader has something solid they can hitch their imagination to.

For example, it’s much better to describe an opiate as a warm, heavy blanket than to write a paragraph about thoughts going quiet.

Down-to-earth details

Well-chosen details, particularly physical, can add great realism and nuance while fighting purpleness. Infinite Jest does this well, including things like itching behind the eyes, saliva, a clinical taste after injecting which addicts end up associating with the high, and so on.

Bringing in the five senses, and mentioning side-effects in a non-didactic way, are ways to make something outside most people’s experience much more real, showing you didn’t just skim the opening sentence of the wikipedia page, while avoiding an excessively rose-tinted stance.

Use external behaviour – what they say, how they move, how they interact. You can write a drunk character without a single word about how they feel.

Use the contrast

Don’t focus solely on how the character feels inside.

This is an opportunity to reveal new facets of your characters, to make them lighten up or to make them get reflective. Show a talkative character drawn into themselves, exposing hidden depths; or a normally careful character losing their inhibitions to explosive effect. Show a seasoned commander unresponsive, a background follower recklessly leading the charge.

Contrasting with the way they normally present themselves will add dimensions to both the altered state and the character in it.

On the level of sentences

Something to consider is changing up the rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs to help paint the experience. This can be quite powerful, and might buy you points from the literary crowd for being ‘experimental’ if you take it far enough.

So a character. In an opium den. Might be nodding out. So short sentences like this. Can help show a sleepy daze. As everything slows down. And it’s hard to think.

Or if they’re on like coke or meth or adrenaline in a battle well it’s going a mile a minute and you’re not going to get a paragraph or much punctuation really for a while there might be multiple strands of thought going back and forth rapidly just freewrite a bit and see what comes this will help you get in the right zone of mind too.

Apply this in their dialogue too.

Do you find yourself writing this kind of thing much? How do you approach it?

The Moral of the Story

Pepe Silvia meme

Your story – what does it all mean? How can you give it a good theme, something for readers to interpret and think about?

Well, it’s okay if a story doesn’t have a moral. It’s fine for something to be fun or scary or sad or whatever simply for the sake of it. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of escapism – even, perhaps especially, in today’s crazy climate. You are not obligated to comment wokely on everything that happens all the time.

But meaningful fiction is great and important too.

The big risk with trying to Say Something is that you bash the reader over the head with it. An overwrought attempt at theme can come across as the unholy pretentious spawn of a story and an essay. Hey, why not write some non-fiction then?

In On Writing, in line with his pantser/gardener approach, Stephen King says that:

starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories[…]

This article takes a similar view, but says having ideas in mind from the start can be helpful so long as it’s with a light touch:

if you approach your theme front ways on, it’ll sound crass and didactic, so what do you do? Well, the most important thing is to write well. If your stories, characters and prose are superbly knitted together, you’ll start to see themes forming like a mist rising from a field at dusk. It just happens. Secondly, it’s fine to have some ideas in mind as you write. They should stay towards the back of your mind, though. Stories must be told through character and action, and it’s these things which should occupy your conscious attention. But if those things are at the back of your mind, then they’ll wriggle their way into your work.

Kristen Kieffer takes a more ‘plotter’ approach here. She says that ‘You can make a point of choosing these themes during the pre-writing process,’ as well as letting it develop naturally and emphasizing it in later drafts.

Kieffer suggests building theme by considering the implications of your character arcs:

Take a look at the main character(s) in your current work-in-progress, and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is my character at the beginning of the story?
  • What are their flaws, and what holds them back from happiness or fulfilment?
  • How do the events of my story shape my character for the better or the worse?
  • Do they overcome their characters flaws and the obstacles that stand in their way? How so?
  • Who has my character become by the end of the story?

Once you’ve answered these questions, review what you’ve written and try to identify any themes that naturally arise. What are you trying to say about these topics?

This is a more deliberate approach that can be used to plan theme in a first draft. But notice that it still avoids approaching theme ‘front ways on’, to hopefully not be ‘crass and didactic’. This more plotter/architect tactic still takes King’s point about fiction that ‘begins with story and progresses to theme’.

Where King first writes the pure story as a first draft, then thinks about theme while editing, Kieffer’s approach suggests planning character arcs, building theme through that, and then writing a first draft which has both story and theme there from the start.

In both cases the theme arises for the reader through implied points and subtext, from the story itself instead of from a heavy-handed author dropping in to give a speech.