So, I’ll start by saying that I have not read His Dark Materials, though the trilogy is now sitting on my ever-expanding reading pile. Nor have I read anything else of Philip Pullman’s. I decided to purchase Daemon Voices because, like any good writer, I am trying to get better at my craft. And I thought Mr. Pullman might be able to help. Well, he has—and brilliantly.
This collection of essays is rich with storytelling examples taken from literature, art, and science. A former teacher, the author knows how to engage the reader without talking down. My only criticism is that he tends to go off on a tangent from time to time about his lack of belief in God or Satan, as though that has anything to do with the task at hand.
That said, I consider this book a must-read for any author who wishes to better understand the difference between story and plot, fantasy and reality in fiction, and why anything beginning with “once upon a time” immediately captures our imagination. Well done, Mr. Pullman.
Book Description From the internationally best-selling author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a spellbinding journey into the secrets of his art—the narratives that have shaped his vision, his experience of writing, and the keys to mastering the art of storytelling.
One of the most highly acclaimed and best-selling authors of our time now gives us a book that charts the history of his own enchantment with story—from his own books to those of Blake, Milton, Dickens, and the Brothers Grimm, among others—and delves into the role of story in education, religion, and science. At once personal and wide-ranging, Daemon Voices is both a revelation of the writing mind and the methods of a great contemporary master, and a fascinating exploration of storytelling itself.
This is the last in a three-part series on better writing. In Part One, I covered prologues and why I don’t like them. You can find that here. In Part Two, I delved into what I like to call “dithering,” or boring the reader to death before you can get to the frickin’ point. Click here to find out what I’m talking about. In this final installment, I want to cover something that, as least in my reading experience, is rare. Nevertheless, I think for the reader it’s a turn-off. Here we go.
Abandoning Your Protagonist This one is a doozy and something that’s still hard for me to get my head around. I started reading a thriller that has received a number of excellent reviews on Amazon. For around the first third of the book, the author had me hooked. The protagonist—a woman—narrates the story which, layer by layer, leads the reader into a world of suburban madness and revenge. At times, I found myself marveling at the phrasing and keen sense of timing. Each character was well drawn and possessed a unique voice. And the narrator’s observations—wickedly funny!
Then, for no reason whatsoever, the author decides to abandon the protagonist, rewinding everything back to the beginning and picking up the story from some new character’s POV. Of course, I guessed that the two story lines would inevitably collide. But, to be honest, I didn’t stick around to find out. If this book hadn’t been sitting on my Kindle, I would’ve flung it against the wall in disgust. Needless to say, I was disappointed. So, what exactly did the author do wrong? Simple. He took me out of the world he’d created for my pleasure and sent me to jail (do not pass Go). He ruined the ride by making me get off in the middle and board a different ride. Here’s what I mean.
You’re watching the classic movie Blade Runner. From the opening shot, you’re hooked as Deckard is unwillingly drawn into a hunt for missing replicants who have already committed murder. Then, just as things are getting good, the director brings everything to a halt, and we go back to the beginning so we can follow Rachael and learn what she’s been up to while Deckard is running around the wet streets of Los Angeles with that fancy gun of his. Now, be honest. Even if you did decide to stay and finish your popcorn, wouldn’t it be jarring to be suddenly taken out of the story like that? Sure, it would.
What should the author have done? Well, if it were me, I would swtich POVs in alternating chapters. Take a look at these excerpts from the excellent thriller Little White Lies by Elizabeth McGregor. She weaves a hypnotic tale of deceit and betrayal involving several characters. Here is Beth, the wife of a man who has apparently committed suicide:
She glanced at him. He had expected to see a difference in her face: sadness, grief, tears. But there was nothing at all. She wore the usual slightly preoccupied look that she had when weighing up a garden, calculating in her head. Beth was nothing if not capable, but he was surprised to see any strength now.
‘Alan,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry about this. I know you’re busy.’
‘Christ! That doesn’t matter.’
‘Is it archaeological, then?’
‘The body. Is it recent, or what?’
‘Beth… Look, why don’t you come in?’
She smiled a little. ‘They all want me to come inside,’ she remarked.
Now, here’s Julia, a neighbor of Beth’s whose daughter, Rosie, is chronically ill for some reason:
‘Mummy,’ Rosie called from the back seat of the car. ‘Stop.’
Julia Woods glanced in the rear-view mirror. She was driving at fifty along the back farm road to the village. She hardly heard what her daughter was saying.
‘What is it?’
‘You mustn’t do that.’
A junction was approaching; Julia changed gear, and then realised what Rosie was talking about. She was going too fast. The car slewed slightly to one side, and clipped the uncut verge.
‘All right. We’re going slow. See? Very slow.’
I realize it’s hard to talk about structure by using a couple of small excerpts. My point is, you’ve got two women in crisis, plus a few other characters who seem to be broken. And the author is able to tell each’s story beautifully in a single hypnotic work.
Recently, I read and reviewedThe Last Victim, a first-rate thriller by the immensely talented Jordan Dane. Like Elizabeth McGregor, this author does an excellent job of moving the story forward, alternating between the POV of the FBI profiler, Ryker Townsend, and the serial killer he is pursuing.
For Readers. Which do you prefer—stories told from one person’s POV or from several?
For Authors. How have you solved storytelling problems when dealing with multiple POVs?
In the first post in this series, I talked about prologues and why I feel they are no longer relevant to good storytelling. You can check that one out here. Now, except for the occasional literary fiction classic, I like to devote my reading time to indie authors. In this installment, I want to talk about a more pervasive problem—and one that is pretty easy to avoid. It happens when the author thinks they need to wait to get to the good stuff. Here’s what I’m talking about.
Dithering Recently, I started a book—a ghost story—and I have to tell you, I was bored out of my skull. I think I got less than twenty pages in and finally had to stop. I just couldn’t take any more. To make matters worse, the novel in question begins with a prologue that could have easily been replaced by good backstory! Frankly, that should have been the tipoff. If you really want to lose readers, be sure to write pages and pages of well-constructed, correctly spelled prose that features characters who all sound the same and where nothing happens. It’s what I like to call “dithering.” And in this case, it was almost as if the author was afraid to bring in the paranormal and instead decided to dissect the daily lives of the boring protagonist and his boring wife. Boring, I tell you!
So, what should the author have done instead? Well, if you’re going to write about ghosts, then begin by scaring the pee out of your audience from the get-go. Same with thrillers. You must grab the poor unsuspecting reader by the throat and refuse to let go until the book is finished. Sounds harsh, I know. But I believe in tough love when it comes to writing this kind of stuff. If you don’t know how to get started, try an exercise. Take your boring married couple and pretend they are serial killers. What would they talk about at the breakfast table? What were they doing last night? What are they keeping in the garage? You get the picture.
Here is an excerpt from Stephen King’s iconic ghost story, The Shining, where Jack Torrance is interviewing for the job of caretaker of The Overlook Hotel. Notice that King can’t wait to reveal the horrors lurking in the hotel’s murky history as Ullman explains what the previous caretaker did:
“I suspect that what happened came as a result of too much cheap whiskey, of which Grady had laid in a generous supply, unbeknownst to me, and a curious condition which the old-timers call cabin fever. Do you know the term?” Ullman offered a patronizing little smile, ready to explain as soon as Jack admitted his ignorance, and Jack was happy to respond quickly and crisply.
“It’s a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalized as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence—murder has been done over such minor things as a burned meal or an argument about whose turn it is to do the dishes.”
Ullman looked rather nonplussed, which did Jack a world of good. He decided to press a little further, but silently promised Wendy he would stay cool.
“I suspect you did make a mistake at that. Did he hurt them?”
“He killed them, Mr. Torrance, and then committed suicide. He murdered the little girls with a hatchet, his wife with a shotgun, and himself the same way. His leg was broken. Undoubtedly so drunk he fell downstairs.”
And that’s from Chapter One! Talk about setting the stage for the savagery to come. The point is, don’t wait to get to the good stuff. In medias res, people! It’s why the reader bought your book in the first place. Also, think about this. Readers can preview your book by reading the first ten percent or so for free. Why in the world would you risk boring them right out of the gate? Next time, we conclude our series with something strange. See you then.
For Readers. What are some things authors do that bore you?
For Authors. Do you have a favorite technique for punching up a boring scene?
I’ve been doing lots of reading lately. Of course, you would expect that since I write books! Anyway, I’ve noticed some things other indie authors do sometimes that drive me nuts. If you’re looking for me to name names, forget it. Professional courtesy and all. What I plan to focus on over the next three posts is what I have observed and what you, being the brilliant writer you are, can do to avoid falling into these habits.
First, I want to frame things up. I’m not talking about an overreliance on adverbs. Yes, we all know Stephen King said the road to hell is paved with them. Use them. Don’t use them. Whatever. Second, regarding hiring an editor. If you’re not doing that, then I suggest you get out of the business. Amazon already offers plenty of self-edited books, and frankly, it doesn’t need any more. Same thing for covers. Hire a professional whydon’tcha. Okay, let’s begin.
Prologues The word prologue comes from the ancient Greek word prólogos. This form was very popular in Greek drama. Merriam-Webster provides two definitions as they relate to literary works. Here is the second, which I think most authors actually intend when they include one in their book: an introductory or preceding event or development.
So, here’s my take. Unless you are planning to rewrite Canterbury Tales, do not use this outdated literary form. In the 21st century, prologues are often used to address backstory. And that is a mistake, in my view. Here’s an analogy. I’ve heard a lot about this amazing new steakhouse. Spendy, but worth every penny, my friends tell me. So, I decide to see for myself and book a reservation.
After I am seated, I peruse the menu and order the best steak in the house. When it arrives, I can see it sizzling on the plate, the red juices seeping out from underneath. The server places it in front of me and, just as I am about to cut into it and enjoy that first tasty bite, he grabs my hand. Then, he begins telling me about the cow, how it was raised, and that time the tipsy cattle farmer got a little too aggressive with the branding iron, which explains why there is a noticeable dent along the edge.
Of course, there are always exceptions. I am currently reading the fortieth anniversary edition of The Exorcist. And yes, there is a prologue. But in this case, I feel it’s warranted. The author, William Peter Blatty, uses it to set the stage for all the bad things to come. He also introduces a major character, Fr. Merrin, who will eventually fight the demon that is possessing Regan. Now, the author could have chosen to include Fr. Merrin’s backstory later. But starting the book in Iraq, where the priest physically confronts a terrifying statue of that same demon, he’s letting us know that not only is evil real but it’s ancient. Check this out:
The man in khaki prowled the ruins. The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar. He sifted vibrations. At the palace of Ashurbanipal he stopped and looked up at a limestone statue hulking in situ. Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.
Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.
He bowed his head.
It was coming.
If you’re going to employ a prologue, then use it as God intended. Generally, I would stay away from them, though. Instead, weave your backstory as you go, letting the reader uncover new connections along the way. This makes for a much more satisfying read. Reading is all about discovery, and it’s okay if we don’t know a character’s history up front. We are willing to trust that the author will reveal all in good time. Next up, we look at dithering. Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean.
For Readers. Have you come across books where you felt the prologue was actually helpful?
For Authors. Have you found yourself using a prologue because you felt there was no better way to tell your story?
I used to ride horses. I know, right? Let me just say that these creatures are beautiful. And when the horse and rider are one, the experience can be magical. But horses are also dumb—and incredibly powerful. Not a great combination, if you ask me. If a horse doesn’t want you on its back, it will throw you. And there is nothing you can do about it. Ask a rodeo cowboy. We’re talking half a ton of raw animal power, people. Oh, and they bite, too. But—and I can only vouch for English riding—show a horse a thirty-inch riding crop, and things can change for the better. You don’t even have to use it—just let them see it out of the corner of their eye.
Lately, I’ve been reading posts by other writers moaning about their inner critics. You know what I’m talking about. The inner critic is that nagging little macher who’s always in your face whenever you try putting pen to paper (not to be confused with one’s Muse). And, as far as I know, it doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are. Mine is a guy, is shorter than me, and resembles Ray Liotta, for some reason. Though he smells like hand sanitizer, I gotta give it to him—he dresses well. Now, I have never met Ray Liotta, so rather than besmirch his good name, I’ll call the bane of my existence “Stan.”
The Prick Who Came to Dinner Stan is not the kind of person who values relationships, so obviously, he’s single. He’s been known to vanish for most of the day—I have no idea where he goes. Maybe he’s torturing some other poor schmuck. Which makes me wonder. Does he talk about me? Never mind. Stan has an uncanny ear, and as soon as he hears me typing on my laptop, he’s in the room, standing directly behind me. Breathing through his nose. Watching every letter that appears on the screen. Well, that’s how things used to be, anyway. Sound familiar?
If he gets the chance, Stan will tell me what I am writing is crap and should be burned. He wonders aloud how I’ve managed to have any success at all as a writer and suggests I look into selling insurance. He enjoys laughing at my analogies, similes, and metaphors, and bawls comically whenever I attempt to craft a tender scene. In short, he’s merciless. Now at this point, I’ll bet you think I hate Stan, right? Well, I don’t. Because as annoying as he is, he’s smart—really smart. Okay, he’ll never invent time travel. But he knows a lousy sentence when he reads one.
Stan, ladies and gentlemen, is my inner critic, and I need him. There, I said it. But here’s the thing: I need him on my terms, not his. If it were up to him, I would never write another word. “The world will thank you,” he told me one time, leaving a trail of pistachio nut shells on the shag carpet. But I’m not listening. A long time ago, I decided to train him. Just like a horse. And although he doesn’t always behave, things have gotten way better.
Now, there are writers out there far more qualified than me to explain the phases of writing in a way that makes sense. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go.
Dreams and Nightmares An idea comes to me, and I jot it down in my Big Book of Ideas. This can happen when I overhear a piece of a conversation or in the middle of the night when I’m trying to fall asleep. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. Most of the time, the idea just sits in that book, collecting dust like a lonely little toy no one wants to play with. Sometimes, I incorporate it into something else. And on rare occasions, it becomes a short story or even a novel. I do not control this process—it just happens. And as I record it, Stan is nowhere in sight.
The Dreaded First Draft This is where I sit down to the blank page. Or, in my case, the blank screen. By the way, this stage applies to short or long fiction. I’m a pantser, so I have only the vaguest notion of how to write this thing. I have a protagonist and, if I’m lucky, an antagonist. But other characters come into the picture as I go. The minute I start writing, Stan waltzes into the room, ready to tear me a new one. But before he can take his place behind my chair, I show him the riding crop. His eyes get huge, and he slinks away, muttering something like “Just for that, I’m eating all the Häagen-Dazs.” But don’t be fooled. He’ll continue trying to get back into the room, usually pretending to be the cable guy. My job is to keep him out until I finish the day’s writing. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting.
The Baby Edit This happens the next day. I read what I’ve written and invite Stan to join me. That’s right. This pomaded idiot is like a kid in a candy store as he goes to work, pointing out lame construction and tired clichés. After allowing him to eviscerate me, I kick him out and proceed with the next day’s writing.
Keep in mind these last two phases continue until I finish the book or story. Sometimes, I get stuck and work on a different project. Currently, I have at least three unfinished novels kicking around. I’m pretty sure I will finish them. But even if I don’t, others will take their place.
The Mother of All Edits This is where I edit the entire manuscript, with Stan at my side. I leave the crop on the desk so he can see it, in case he gets any ideas. Usually, he keeps his snarky comments to himself and provides useful suggestions on how to improve what I’ve written. This process takes days, and when I am finished, I set the work aside. I may go through this stage half a dozen times over the course of months. When I am absolutely sure the thing is perfect (nothing is perfect, but you know what I mean), I send the book off to my editor.
Wrapping Up So, there you have it. Every writer approaches the process differently. No matter how you write, though, there is one thing I would advise. Never mix writing and editing. That’s like inviting Stan to sit down. And you don’t want that, trust me. For one thing, he’s never had an original idea in his life. Also, writing is miserable enough without saddling yourself with a banshee screaming in your ear over every ill-chosen bon mot. Not to mention those pesky adverbs. Anyway, enough. I’d love to hear how you deal with your inner critic. Why not post a comment? In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote.
You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished. ― Will Self
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more. Mostly, I stick to contemporary fiction—especially in the genres I write in. This helps me in two ways. First, I get a look at the competition. And second, I see what’s hot and what’s not as far as reader tastes go. But there’s another benefit and, depending on what you buy, you can take advantage of another writer’s research.
But wait, you say. I thought writers just make crap up and hope they can fool you. Well, that’s true—for bad writers. Good ones take the time to learn about the world they are constructing and endow their stories with a rich undertone that immerses the protagonist—and the reader. Here’s an example. I just finished a novel about a journalist who gets caught up in a conspiracy that involves soulless corporate giants and an assassin with a love of greasy food. To be honest, the book isn’t great. Though the story is well constructed, I felt the principal characters lacked believability. In other words, they just didn’t ring true. Nevertheless, I am so glad I read the book. Here’s why.
The Only Source of Knowledge Is Experience Einstein said that, and I happen to agree wholeheartedly. The author of the book in question is a former journalist and, when it comes to dogged reporters on a beat, he knows what he’s talking about. I really enjoyed learning about the mindset of the journalist, as well as hearing the faint praise and jeering commentary about the profession as a whole. The author has also peppered the story with discussions of the power of big media and print vs. online. I’m not saying that after reading the book I could go off and write my own novel about a journalist/detective. But I could certainly create a secondary character who’s a journalist and make them sound authentic. Experience counts.
Reading for Pleasure and Learning When I was a kid, I always compartmentalized my reading. There were books I read to learn and those I devoured for pleasure. But it was rare that a book served both ends. I say nuts to that! Providing you pick good material, every book can be a learning experience. Often when I read, I like to pore over the language. This is what helps me to write better. But I am also aware of the setting and the jargon a character uses. Recently, I reviewed a horror collection. There was one, in particular, I fell in love with—“The Corpse King” by Tim Curran. Now, I could be wrong, but I am of the opinion that the author researched the hell out of the period and in particular about how resurrectionists plied their trade. This is an excellent example of a story that is pleasurable to read and teaches you something in the bargain.
Apply Your Knowledge I’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about the demonic and possession. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I do bring that background to the stories I write. The last thing I want is for someone in the know to read my work and dismiss it as uninformed drivel. And this is apart from the writing. Readers either like my work, or they don’t. I just don’t want to be accused of ignorance when I could have just as easily researched before I wrote. And neither should you! Remember, writing isn’t just about the words—it’s about what’s behind them. Have fun.