The Fault In Ourselves

I find it amusing to notice how a lot of writers and critics like to talk about the literary fashions of the day as though they are eternal truths rather than today’s fads. In the past week, I’ve seen writers bashing on J.R.R. Tolkien for writing long, info-dump chunks, both in descriptions and dialogue, not to mention for creating scenes (Tom Bombadil, anyone?) that had very nearly nothing to do with the major plot of the books. I’ve also seen another writer taking down Tom Clancy for, again, huge chunks of meandering text explaining the minutiae of the military, and giving huge chunks of backstory for minor characters. In both cases, the writers said something like, “I feel these works succeeded in spite of their flaws.”

Well, all works do, to a certain extent. I mean, Dan Brown can make money by publishing his grocery lists, and he wrote passages in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons that conclusively prove that he doesn’t know how either cell phones or air travel work. But these same writers, who will tell you, “You can’t write the way people did fifty years ago and expect to sell” are saying in practically the same breath, “These thirty-to-seventy year old books sucked.”

Well of course they didn’t suck. The standards just changed. Hell, a lot of people didn’t like them then, but the point is that a whole lot MORE people did, and pretending that the books (any books) both violate fundamental rules of writing AND aren’t in tune with the times is just silly. It’s like saying that Shakespeare succeeded in spite of his obsession with writing in iambic pentameter, or that Sophocles succeeded in spite of insisting on having a chorus parade around the stage narrating it. Obviously, they succeeded either because they did these things and people liked it, or because that’s just how things were done and nobody cared. And they remain classics because they are such good works that even these strange features can’t turn people off to them now.

Now the observation that fashions and styles and expectations exist is a vital one for the young writer to understand. I don’t care how good you are, you are not selling the next fantasy epic in iambic pentameter. But we must not mistake our preferences for the eternal rules of good fiction, or one day it will be us who are wondering why no one will buy our ten-years-ago styled fiction.

Black Panther And Infinity War: Choosing Who Dies On Your Hills.

So, to continue my earlier post on Black Panther, I just really want to know what the MCU was thinking when they allowed Black Panther to die as a result of Thanos’s snap.

And here, I’m not talking about the insensitivity toward a whole lot of Black fans felt by MCU making that move. That’s been discussed, in depth, by Steven Barnes and a whole lot of other people better qualified than me to do it, so I’m not bothering to recap it here. Put simply, it was really bad writing that took a dump on a franchise that MCU had obviously tried to elevate.

I mean, in a sense, Avengers: Infinity War really wrote itself into a corner. Thanos is essentially Sauron, trying to get his hands on a six-part One Ring that makes him invincible. The idea that Frodo has to win by first allowing Sauron to succeed is really fascinating. But they have Wakanda playing the role of Minas Tirith, and losing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But killing off all of Wakanda’s men, save M’Baku, was really foolish. Firstly, you never alienate an entire franchise’s fanbase. That’s just bad marketing.

Secondly, it really doesn’t matter that T’Challa et al. are coming back. Because now, they can never really be the ultimate heroes. They will always be the ones who had to be rescued by the real heroes. And it doesn’t matter that it was random, or that it was unfair. It’s unfair in sports when, say, a wide receiver misses a catch in the end-zone under double coverage that would have been almost impossible to catch, and then a kicker who makes a 25-yard field goal is hailed as the hero for winning the game. The kicker’s job was MUCH easier. But in sports and war that’s just the kind of unforgiving valorization of results that we have to have. In the end, victory is all that really matters, and anyone who’s ever played a game knows that this is so.

In the end, it’s just bad writing to set up characters to be the kind of heroes that Black Panther’s characters were set up to be and then kill off the main hero. It would have been far better to leave T’Challa alive and the king of nothing. Then he can redeem his failure by resurrecting the nation. And it’s not really fair either to point out that other franchises lost their heroes, too, even though it’s true that they did. Peter Quill died, yes, but in some ways, Thanos’s victory was his fault for spoiling the Removal Of The Gauntlet, so he had it coming. Spiderman died, but compared to the rest of the Avengers, he was a kid, hardly expected to pull his own weight. Only T’Challa was a king.

The only way I can see for MCU to come close to redeeming this is for the defeated characters to somehow be brought back prior to Thanos’s defeat, and being absolutely key to that defeat. In other words, for T’Challa et al. to rescue the survivors of Infinity War right back.

Black Panther, The Oscars, and the Writing of Really Great Superhero Movies

So, Black Panther was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and I’ll be the first (actually, the millionth) to say that it deserves the nomination, at least as much as Star Wars did in 1978. Whether it wins or not, it’s a stunning film.

I’m going to preface this with a note: I’m pretty sure that I will never feel, on a gut level, how important Black Panther was to Black Americans. My Black friends who care about such things are absolutely in love with the movie, and I suspect, were I Black, I would be, too, and for a host of reasons I can only partially fathom. I think it is an awesome movie.

And yet… somehow, for me, it doesn’t quite measure up to the very best of the best movies in the superhero genre, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There was just something about it that kept me from putting it on the same level as Captain America: Civil War and The Incredibles. Because these are the superhero movies I watch again and again.

I finally figured it out a couple of days ago, and when I did it hit me like a freight train, because I’ve seen the exact same flaw in my own work, and in other unpublished novels. The problem is that it’s hard to explain. The best way I can say it is this: when you are working with complex characters, it is often very tempting to put them on the stage alone, or with only one other character. Doing so allows you to make the audience focus on them. In addition, it is VERY tempting to make especially your villains into ultimate badasses. After all, the more powerful they are, the more glorious your hero’s victory over them.

Black Panther does this with Erik Killmonger. Killmonger arrives, having killed his former partner, Ulysses Klaue — which T’Challa could not do* — and leverages this into a bid for the Wakandan throne, revealing his identity as an abandoned Wakandan prince of the blood.

But unfortunately, this screws with the film in two other ways. Firstly, it forces the film into a scene that is almost purely repetitive. We have to go through the entire “duel for the throne” that T’Challa just won against the Jabari challenger. It forces us to tread over ground already covered. Secondly, it throws the whole Wakandan throne — or T’Challa’s judgment — into question. If the throne is permanently open to challenge, then how stable can it be? It can’t and the film implies that T’Challa, already having gone through the challenge, would have been well within his rights to refuse the challenge. But he accepts, in what I consider to be the weakest part of the film. It actually makes T’Challa less of a hero, because he places Wakanda at risk of being taken over by a monarch who will have absolute power, who has shown the willingness and potential to brutally destabilize the world, and who has no reason, really, to keep Wakanda safe: Killmonger pretty much blames Wakandan inaction not only for his own terrible life, but for the unopposed colonialism and conquest of the developing world. Why does T’Challa do this? Because of guilt at his father’s action? Because he believes he can’t be defeated? Neither is a good reason.

With the admitted benefits of hindsight, I think that there were ways to avoid this. For example: Suppose the coronation itself is interrupted by the need to apprehend Klaue and the stolen vibranium. T’Challa points out that a true king must prioritize the defense of the nation over his official coronation. Then, while having the wounded Ross airlifted out by Okoye and Nakia, he chases down Klaue and Killmonger. Killmonger shoots Klaue in the back, and then proceeds to fight T’Challa and lose. Upon surrendering, he is taken into custody.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger asks only one favor for his plea of guilt: he asks, as a descendant of the African Diaspora, to witness the Wakandan coronation ceremony. T’Challa accedes to this harmless request. At the coronation, the Jabari challenge. T’Challa wins as we saw in the film (which already hints that the Black Panther must face any and all legitimate challengers). As T’Challa rises in victory, Killmonger reveals his identity as N’Jadaka, before everyone, and claims his right to challenge as a prince of the blood. He is fresh, and T’Challa is tired, but he is within his rights. He has orchestrated the entire situation to be where he is at the right time. It makes him a little less physically imposing, but it makes him frighteningly smart. It makes T’Challa less of a dupe, because how could he have suspected such a plan? His own father unwittingly set him up. And halfway through the duel, of course, Killmonger can start telling him — and showing him — that their “fight” before had been Killmonger deliberately losing. And since it’s all one scene, we don’t have any feeling that this is covering old ground.

Even better, when T’Challa’s mother recovers him and the heart-shaped herb and takes him to the Jabari, it is discovered that Killmonger, in secret, provoked the Jabari to the challenge (we never do get a very good explanation for why they broke their isolation in the film) and used their chieftain as a stalking horse to weaken T’Challa to ensure his own victory. This can be the reason that the Jabari decide to back T’Challa, to avenge their having been played by the usurper.

I think this approach would have resulted in a more streamlined film, which would have made T’Challa more consistent with his awesome portrayal in Civil War, and does not require diminishing any other aspect of this very fine movie. Of course, it’s not going to happen. That’s not the point. The point is that I hope I — and you, if you’re a writer — can incorporate the techniques discussed to improve our own fiction.

*Actually, and this is a wonderful bit of subtlety in the film, he chooses not to to keep his people — and Agent Ross, his ally — safe. Because that’s the awesome kind of king T’Challa is.

How Not To Pace Your Fiction

So, as I mentioned earlier, last year I got to spend most of the fall semester teaching a group of high school students the basics of fiction writing. I want to talk about the story of a particular young lady I’m going to call BR. BR is a very talented young writer, far ahead of the curve for being a senior in high school, certainly one of the two best in the class. She decided to try her hand at high fantasy. She wrote a D&D-esque story about a young girl, the tribal chief’s daughter, who goes out to slay a bear for her rite of passage.

Firstly, I was very impressed by the consistency of character and the beautiful, clear prose she used. I truly wish I had been that good in high school.

But at the very beginning, I was convinced that I was about to read the story of a Mary Sue who easily annihilated every foe before her. It took me almost to the climax to realize that I was wrong about this, and it took me even longer to realize why I had been so misled. Because it wasn’t a flaw in the character. It was a flaw in the pacing.

Like many young writers, BR had decided to establish her character early on in the reader’s mind. But the way she did this was to have the protagonist’s father organize this huge send-off for her while everyone on the tribe cheered her on. This had two unfortunate effects that BR did not intend:
1) It exaggerated her protagonist’s virtues. And we couldn’t know this, because we had no way of knowing that her father was blinded by his own pride in her.
2) For about the first two pages, nothing happened except the cheering, so the story seemed very static.

BR had fallen into the trap of trying to describe her character and the setting all at once. She knew that she needed to show this rather than tell it, but she used so much dialogue that she ended up more or less “telling” anyway. Note that nothing in her technique was necessarily unrealistic. But the technique set us up with false (and bad)  expectations anyway. She killed the story in the mind of the reader. Just being realistic is never enough to establish your story. You have to do it so that it grabs the reader’s interests. On top of this, BR was so focused on her dialogue that she ignored other parts of the story. For example, before she leaves, the protagonist is blessed by an orc shaman. And as a result, I wondered throughout the story whether she was an orc (which she was not).

Now the way to fix this would have been to cut down the dialogue and have a respectful silence while, say, the orc shaman was blessing the protagonist. Then, BR could have used some quick description and the protag’s thoughts to contrast with the exaggerated praise being heaped upon her and to establish the makeup of the tribe. Then, the protagonist leaves,and we’re right into the action. Probably even better would have been to do the intro in flashback and to start the story “hot:” with her tracking or fighting, or running from the bear. This would have the effect of bringing the readers right into the story until they were interested enough to read through the intro.

It’s a very typical error to make, and one I made often myself. I hope BR keeps writing, as I have.

Writing Roundup 2018: The Bad, The Good, and The Beautiful

Well, for the last blog entry of the year, it’s time for 2018’s Writing Roundup. I’ll start with the bad news.

2018 was my worst year for short story sales since 2014. I was only able to sell two stories to new markets, though I am proud of both sales. “Iron Out Of Vulcan,” about a strange apocalypse that spared only the disabled, appeared in the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and “In The Republic Of The Blind,” a military Space Opera originally written for (of all things) an anthology on Space Marine Midwives (which as far as I know never launched) sold to Amazing Stories. Of course, it is always nice to crack a new pro magazine market, so that is the silver lining.

However, 2018 was also my best year for actually writing, possibly in my life. The first part of the year was taken up by receiving my very first novel contract, which takes a bit of the sting out of the aforementioned short fiction sales slump, from Digital Fiction Pub, for a 53,000-word middle-grade science-fiction adventure on the moon with the tentative title of The Girl Who Wasn’t There. This should be released in 2019.
The next major project that I tackled was the rewriting (at the request of a Publisher-Who-Cannot-Be-Named) of a manuscript I had previously submitted, tentatively titled Beneath The Verdant Tide.
And finally, I finished the draft of the full novel-length version of A Doctor To Dragons, which is tentatively titled All Things Huge and Hideous. I hope to have this released in early 2019, but if you want an early look, the chapters are being released each month to my Patreon backers.

My first novel manuscript took me five years to finish. This year I knocked out two while revising a third, so I’d say that this represents a major leap forward in my production, including the discovery of the fact that I am indeed capable of writing a novel LESS than 125,000 words in length.

All in all, a good year, and I can’t wait for the next one. I hope all my readers feel the same. May the New Year bring you all the best.

Scott Huggins

Fallen Horseshoes To Appear In Anthology!

I’m very happy to say that I got confirmation that one of my earliest published stories, “Fallen Horseshoes” which concerns a blacksmith with a haunted forge, will be reprinted in an anthology this coming year. Details will follow, but for now, I’m going to link to the sample snippet and be happy that this story will appear somewhere other than the back issue of a not-very-well-known magazine.

Handwavio Obviosum: Harry Potter and the Woman Behind The Curtain

Read The Goblet Of Fire to my kids earlier this year, and it struck me that the Triwizard Tournament about which the story revolves is really a great example of an author wanting very desperately to have her cake and eat it, too. If Rowling has a strength as an author, it’s her ability to write characters we fall in love with and hate (because they’re all of us and the kids we went to school with) and her ability to pace her stories to keep us reading.

But she never was a gamer, and she doesn’t understand games. This should have been obvious with her creation of Quidditch, a game that exists for no other purpose but to catapult Harry alone to stardom, by placing him in the position on a team to always, 100% of the time, win (or rarely, lose) the game for his House.¹ And there are no other sports (seriously, when have you ever been to a school where there is ONE sport?) and they never play other schools (which is kind of odd, because there are WORLD CUPS in Quidditch, aren’t there?)

This was never more obvious than the Triwizard Tournament. Granted, Rowling has a serious problem, here: just making Harry the Hogwarts champion by random draw would be a coincidence of the first water, and unbelievable. Of course, she could have had Moody/Crouch make certain of that by using some previously-unknown spell to make him the real champion, but it would have been a dead giveaway since it is indeed only logical that junior and senior (6th and 7th year) students will be the most capable of doing ANY task in a high school. Plus, of course, it loses the entire reason that Cedric can be killed and for Harry to be hated throughout the book.

So Rowling comes up with the whole fourth champion trick. Which serves every purpose except making any actual sense. Consider: the solutions that everyone but Dumbledore arrives at are quite sensible: 1) Don’t let Harry Compete, and 2) Give the other schools additional champions.
When these solutions are proposed, there is a lot of handwaving about some sort of “magical contract” that demands Harry compete, so that we do not pay attention to the woman behind the curtain who does not want the plot to go that way, dammit! But never a word is said about how it will be enforced. The Goblet, having chosen the champions, has no further role to play in the tournament.² There was no reason that Dumbledore could not have agreed to the quite reasonable solution of having Harry operate under impossible constraints (e.g. Giving Harry only one minute to accomplish each challenge). Or, since all the events but the final were judged, and the judges were under no constraints to judge fairly, by simply instructing the judges to give Harry zeroes no matter how he performed.  In fact, it’s kind of out of character that Maxime and Karkaroff don’t do that.
But even so, who does this magical contract punish if it’s not carried out? Hogwarts? How? Harry? Apparently not, because Harry drags his feet over the Second Task and goes into it completely unprepared, and the Tournament makes no move to punish him for his procrastination. This of course would have been the easiest way for Harry to avoid the opprobrium of his fellow students: just refuse to succeed.

So what can we learn from this? I suggest a few basic lessons: Firstly, don’t make things you have no interest in (like sport and games) central to your conflict. Secondly, if you create something like a “magical contract” it needs to have an enforcement clause. Real things have real consequences. Finally, handwaving to make people stop asking questions rarely works well.

¹This would have been easy enough to fix, by the way, and still let Harry do his thing. The obvious solution would have been to make the Snitch catchable by every player on the team and then make Harry a Chaser who was just really good at finding Snitches.

²This also would have worked as a partial fix. If the Goblet itself had magically spawned the challenges, this would have actually made sense. It would not have continued the tournament until Harry passed (or failed) his challenge, and additional challengers would have had no challenge to fight.

 

A Modest Proposal: The Bombadil Scale of Sidequests

A friend recently asked in a open forum what the proper size of a sidequest in a novel should be. We all know sidequests: those are the moments in which the characters pause in the middle of their Main Quest to do Something Else. What the Something Else may be has a huge (but not the only) effect on its proper size. This got me thinking, and I would like to propose the following system of measurement:

The SI unit of measure for a sidequest is the bombadil. One bombadil is the amount of gratuitous sidequest necessary to make 50% of readers give up on their first readthrough. No sidequest should ever measure more than 0.05 bombadils, though famous authors may push it to 0.1 bombadil.

The amount of prose necessary to comprise a bombadil is variable, and depends on the general tediousness of the sidequest, the characters involved in the sidequest, how much they grow in the sidequest, and how it affects the progress of the Main Quest. Of course, it also depends on the raw length of the sidequest, but that is not as important as you might think. A truly gifted writer can make the sidequest just as important as the Main Quest.

So let’s look at the archetypal case. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, our heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, all get ensorcelled by an evil tree and freed by Tom Bombadil, a mysterious humanoid who takes them home to his just-as-strange wife for dinner. Bombadil later frees them from an evil barrow-wight and arms them with the treasure it was guarding. Breaking it down we have:

T = general Tediousness: Very High. The characters eat and sleep and listen to childish lyric poetry (10), slightly offset by them getting into two spots of serious and interesting trouble (-2): 8
S = characters exclusive to the Sidequest: 2 (lowest value for this variable is 1)
M = characters on the Main Quest: 4
g = growth of the characters because of the sidequest: Significant, but small. Frodo shows that he is capable of thinking, fighting and securing a temporary victory at need: 4
D = What it Diverts from: Walking to the nearest town. This is difficult, because on the one hand, diverting us from something that should be skipped right over adds tedium, but diverting us in the middle of something absolutely critical to the main plotline is worse, so this defies an easy, linear scale. Allow negative numbers on this one, with zero being the value at which the plot is progressing at a steady, unhurried, pace: Just walking along: -2
Finally, we introduce 4 as a constant, because all great equations have constants, and because a sidequest is only about a quarter as interesting as the main quest at best, a fact writers should ALWAYS remember, regardless of how clever they find themselves.

This gives us the following equation:

TSD²/4Mg = Qs (Sidequest value in bombadils)

And plugging in our values, we get:

8*2*2²/4*4*4 = 1 bombadil.

Initially, I had been going to factor in the sidequest’s ultimate importance to the story, whch would have made the score lower because one of the hobbit’s weapons, acquired on this sidequest, ultimately helps to destroy the Lord of the Nazgul. But the point is that we do not know that, and therefore it has no effect on whether or not the reader gets bored to death and puts the book down.

So, for some examples:

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke’s training sequence on Dagobah: Qs = 0.05 bombadil
T = 5 (cool Jedi powers and a fight with ghost-Vader, offset by boring platitudes on Planet Swamp).
S = 1
D = 0.5 (an increasingly-tense hunt for the Falcon, but Luke has to have a storyline of his own)
M = 1 (no, Artoo doesn’t count)
g = 6 (Luke becomes at least half a Jedi, but undisciplined.

The Eye Of The World: Perrin and Egwene’s sojourn with Elyas: Qs = 0.25 bombadils
T = 4 (It’s Jordan’s incredibly-detailed prose, but the whole thing with the wolves is awesome)
S = 1 (Elyas)
D = 1 (It’s about on pace with everything else)
M = 2 (Perrin and Egwene)
g = 8 (This sidequest basically starts Perrin’s character arc as a badass)

Moby Dick: The chapter on whales: Qs = 36 bombadils 
T = 9. A lecture on whales. In the middle of a novel. Only not a 10 because whales are inherently cool.
S = 1
D = -2 (for being Moby Dick. They’re sailing.)
M = 1 (Ishmael)
g = 1 (he learns about whales)

It: That one scene near the end as the kids escape the recently-defeated It. Yeah. THAT one: Qs = 96 bombadils
T = (the exact number defies description, but the Ick factor makes me conservatively estimate it, on a scale of 1 to 10 at) 27.
S = 1
D = 5 (seriously, the book was OVER).
M = 7
g = 1 (in a really disgusting way)

Note that when main characters are uninvolved in the sidequest, you are approaching infinite bombadils, and should just stop.

So, there you have it, a completely objective and indisputable method for solving the worth of various sidequests. You’re welcome.

 

The Lesson Behind The Lesson: Stakes and the Ending.

Everyone should be a teacher at some point in their lives. I don’t mean, of course, that everyone should be a paid teacher in a public school. There are far too many hoops to jump through for that. But in teaching your subject matter, you sometimes discover new truths about it. You’re forced to, when you have to explain your choices to people who haven’t yet developed the unconscious competence that you’ve absorbed through years of trial and error.

This semester, I got to teach about 33 high-school seniors the basics of short story writing. Among other things, I did expose them to a whole list of handy “don’ts.” Don’t switch viewpoints if you can avoid it. Don’t write in both past and present tense at the same time. Don’t end your story with “And then they woke up and it had all been a dream.”

Of course, these being high-schoolers, I got ignored a lot. Having taught high school for years, I am well aware of their tendency to do whatever is easiest, besides the permanent streak of “you can’t make me care” that is natural to the age. But I didn’t expect to get so much apparent pushback on that last one. I had stories that ended when the main character woke up. I had stories that ended when the main character got dragged away to an insane asylum. Or back to their cell because they were already in an insane asylum. Or won what turned out to be a game.

And I realized then that this wasn’t pushback at all: this was the desperation of people who didn’t know what to do to end their stories, and hadn’t seen the common thread that was so obvious to me. Many of my readers will have figured it out already, but for those who aren’t to where they can do that yet (and we all pass through that stage), I’ll spell it out: the problem with all of these endings is that they destroy the actual story.

How do they destroy it? Well it helps, perhaps, to think of a story as a game. A game played for stakes. When you read a story, the characters’ lives, fortunes, their sacred honor, even their souls may be at stake. If it’s at stake, that means they can be lost. When the events of the story are revealed to be a dream, a hallucination, or a game, then that means none of it was ever really at stake in the first place. It’s like discovering that the players around the poker table, wagering thousands of dollars, were in fact playing with Monopoly money.

So I had to break that down for them, and it was interesting to watch the lights go on. And there are even ways around these endings that can make them meaningful. A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge waking up, but you never doubt that his soul was really at stake and that the Ghosts were real. Shutter Island does indeed end with Leo DiCaprio’s character being dragged off to the insane asylum, but it works because he did have a moment of understanding in which he could have chosen the hard road back up to sanity, rather than embracing his delusions. In Larry Niven’s and Steven Barnes’s Dream Park, the game matters because a) the characters are well-defined enough that the game has real-world meaning to them, besides being entangled with an actual murder. The problem with these endings, most of the time, is that the writer confuses emotion with stakes.

We’ve all been really scared by a bad dream. The fear is real. And certainly, the plight of someone suffering through insanity (or even mental illness) is heart-wrenching. But watching someone be scared by a bad dream, or someone be insane, or someone be thrilled by a game is not interesting. That’s like watching an injured athlete sit on the sidelines. It may be very sad that he is there, but it’s not going to change for the whole game. He has no role to play in it, and he will be lucky to get two sentences said about him for thirty seconds of screen time.

You can tell a meaningful story only if the dream, the insanity, or the game have real meaning in the characters’ real lives. Anything less, and the readers have no reasons to care