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Monday, October 12, 2009

Momentum and Description

I've talked several times about working to regain momentum after life events, vacations, distractions such as revisions or proof reviews for earlier books. I usually have a few days of spotty work, where I'm easily distracted, trying to pick up the threads of plots and subplots, the dynamics of character understanding, of relationships, of evolving mysteries... At times words flow. At times, they're balky and spurty, like turning on the water after the main system has been shut off for a while and is full of air bubbles.

For me, three things contribute to word flow:

1. Familiarity with characters and situations; ie. not having to pry details of goals and motivations from a character, or invent that parallel world I've been putting into square brackets to look at later;
2. Knowing (and liking) where I'm going;
3. Having my mind immersed in the writing - the ability to focus

There are also some important intangibles, like having chosen the right starting point for this section of the book. If I hit a major block, it's usually because I've headed off in a wrong direction - see earlier postings on what I do when I'm stuck.

I'll also get bogged down in description, especially the first time I visit that particular place. Sometimes I go around in circles for not much reason, like the library at Castelle Escalon. Is there a need for this library to be all that different from other libraries I've described? Probably not. Back up. Go a different direction.

Sometime the thinking time is fruitful, like my time figuring out what I meant by "three water gates" to the Spindle Prison. It expanded what I thought was a throwaway scene between Anne and her hostage brother into something creepy and meaningful.

I wrote the first few paragraphs of her journey to the prison on my last wonderful, productive few days in the mountains with fellow writers. I figured I'd be done with the chapter within a days of getting home, as I had gained so much Momentum from the retreat. But completing Chapter 14 took me an entire week. The crucial reunion at the end of the journey kept moving further away. Why? What happened to Momentum?

As Anne was seeing the city of Merona after half a month in the closed world of palace life, I wanted her to witness more evidence of the changes that were happening in the city as a result of the Bad Things Rising in the world. Which meant, of course, that I had to figure out what they were. Something different, larger, creepier than the things she had seen fourteen days before when arriving at the city. That took a bit, but I was happy with what she discovered, like:

A few turnings farther down the hill, Duplais pointed out another deserted tenement. A cracked signboard, painted with three gold balls, dangled by one corner over the door. The windows and door gaped black like empty eye sockets. Air rushed into them as if they were sucking every breath out of the world.

Then we got to the Spindle.

It's important to judge how and when to describe settings in detail. Too much can slow the pace of the action. There are even times when the first visit is not the time to do it.

We visited the Spindle once in The Spirit Lens. Portier visited a prisoner there. The problem was, we were building up to the climax of the book. Portier was in a hurry, and I didn't want to reveal the details of his discussion with a certain prisoner. It would have been cheating to give readers a detailed description of the locale, and then skimp on the meat of the visit. The narrative is supposed to reflect the point-of-view character's state of mind. Portier was in a hurry to accomplish something on his visit. He was focused on that and not on the prison itself. So we learned that the Spindle is a grim tower prison, set on a nub of rock in the deepest channel of a river. And it has three water gates. That's it.

In The Soul Mirror, the atmosphere of the journey to the prison, the place itself, and what my heroine discovers there is quite relevant to the actual events that occurred inside, and her growing certainty that there is something BIGGER going on.

And, of course, there is. Poor Ambrose. Not a good place at all.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fascinating and Depressing

Here is a great blog post about science fiction and fantasy's continuing struggle for literary recognition:

John Howell on sffmedia

As anyone who's ever heard me rant, this is a pet peeve of mine. I groan every time someone says, "Oh, you're published! What do you write?"

And I say, "I write epic fantasy."

And the face blanks out. "Oh, my kids read that."

Or, "Oh, I don't read that sort of thing. I like to read about real people."

And, of course, it doesn't help that fantasy is dissed by many hard sf writers in exactly the same terms as Atwood disses sf. "Oh, fantasy is nothing but elves, dragons, and unicorns. That soft and fluffy crap. Where's the tension, when any problem can be solved with magic?"

But, of course, such criticisms have to keep us honest. Bottle up those elves and unicorns. And don't let magic solve every problem!!

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