Monday 28 February 2022

Wednesday 9 February 2022

Hand Holding

This is a blog-post about hand holding. The previous sentence was hand-holding, since the title and the image below make it obvious what the blog-post is about. 

Fantasy stories can be complicated beasts. They're potentially confusing even if we forget all the technicalities and twistiness of battles, wars, duels, mysteries, espionage, lies etc that might well bedevil other genres.

Fantasy almost always has magic and often has whole new worlds, so in addition to the convolutions of a regular book, the reader generally has to come to grips with a magic system, different cultures, strange creatures and the like. 

But it's worse (better?) than that. When you introduce magic into the frame then you have to consider all the consequences of magic. If you introduced an easy teleportation spell into a world similar to (or exactly the same as) ours ... that's not the end of it. It's not just people popping up into each other's homes Harry Potter style. It's a complete upheaval of ... well ... everything. With one stroke you've destroyed the travel and transport industries. Cities become meaningless. People can live anywhere without roads. Space exploration is suddenly almost easy. What about privacy and security. The ramifications ripple on.

From a writer's point of view a complex magical world can be explained in a variety of ways:

- Tutorial. This is often called info-dumping, and is discouraged since it's a dry, and not very entertaining way to educate the reader. But it's fast and efficient.

- Observation. Magic etc could be explained simply by watching and having the reader pick things up as they go. 

- Education. The reader could see the world through the eyes of a character who needs the same sort of education that they do - a newcomer - and follow them through their lessons, either formal (school) or informal (mentor). 

- Exploration. The reader could follow a character who is ignorant and sets out to learn through exploration and discovery, figuring out how this stuff works in 'real time'.

And the question through all of this is how much hand-holding the author does. Does the writer put the pieces of the puzzle in front of the reader and assume they'll put them together? Does the writer put the pieces together for them then repeat the answer for the reader three times in three different ways?

Before I was published I used to share short stories on the now vanished Yahoo Groups. During that time I developed through observation and experience, what I called The Rule of Three.

The Rule of Three: If you want 90% of your readership to take onboard an important fact then you need to repeat it three times in the text.

This is not intuitive, but startlingly it appears to be true. Related to this is the observation that some people coming to Prince of Thorns believing it to be a standard medieval-esque fantasy have proved immune to the legions of clues throughout the book and have taken until book 2 to realise that it's set in a post apocalyptic version of our world. They managed not to see the references to modern philosophers, Shakespeare, Plato, Catholicism, plastic, chemical warfare etc, and actual encounters with a computer and a nuke.

This, however, is a game that cannot be won. For every reader bewildered by the obscurity and confounding mystery of your work there will be another complaining that you made it too obvious, that you bored them by belaboring the point.

The best you can do is aim for the optimum balance. Enough mystery to keep the eagle-eyed genius happy, enough clarity so that the distracted Mr/Ms Average reading in short bursts on the commute to work has a chance.

And it's hard. As the author, knowing the answers it's difficult to put yourself in the reader's shoes and say how much does this thing need spelling out? When is enough? When is too much?

Much of the editing conversation between me and my publishers concerns exactly this issue of clarity. I tend to err on the side believing my readers are on the ball, focused on the book. My publisher has perhaps a more realistic vision of Joe/Josie Average making the toddler's lunch with one hand whilst glancing at the book between conversations with their significant other.

But, dear god, it hurts me to in-your-face plain spell things out for you. I want you to have the wonder of discovery and the joy of understanding. So, know that when I let go of your hand, sit you on the sled, and shove you into gravity's care and the guidance of the slope ... it's an act of love!

Friday 4 February 2022

First Lines!

 I was asked about how I write my first lines over on my Patreon. Which set me thinking about my first lines. So I collected most of them together.

Here they are!

Almost all of my first lines! (of chapter 1, not prologues)
Prince of Thorns
- Ravens! Always the ravens. They settled on the gables of the church even before the injured became the dead.
King of Thorns
- Open the box, Jorg. I watched it. A copper box, thorn patterned, no lock or latch.
Emperor of Thorns
- I failed my brother. I hung in the thorns and let him die and the world has been wrong since that night.
Prince of Fools
- I’m a liar and a cheat and a coward, but I will never, ever, let a friend down. Unless of course not letting them down requires honesty, fair play, or bravery.
The Liar’s Key
- Petals rained down amid cheers of adoration.
The Wheel of Osheim
- All I had to do was walk the length of the temple and not be seduced from the path.
Red Sister
- No child truly believes they will be hanged.
Grey Sister
- There are many poisons that will induce madness but none perhaps quite so effective as love.
Holy Sister
- Markus had grown beyond Nona’s expectations.
One Word Kill
- When Dr Parsons finally ran out of alternatives and reached the word ‘cancer’ he moved past it so quickly I almost thought I’d imagined it.
Limited Wish
- I never expected to die in a punt chase.
Dispel Illusion
- The two saving graces of explosions are that from the outside they’re pretty and from the inside they’re quick.
The Girl And The Stars
- In the ice, east of Black Rock, there is a hole into which broken children are thrown.
The Girl And The Mountain
- There had been a great fire and there had been a great flood.
The Girl And The Moon
- Yaz had walked on water her entire life, and now in this place where it fell molten from the skies they planned to drown her in the stuff.
The Book That Wouldn’t Burn
- They named Livira after a weed.
- Being able to see the walls of your prison is a luxury that few are afforded. Make no mistake though: every one of us is trapped.
Road Brothers:
A Rescue
‘I spent a year hunting down the men who burned my home. I followed them across three nations.’
Sleeping Beauty
A kiss woke me. A cool kiss pulled me from the hot depths of my dreaming.
Bad Seed
At the age of eight Alann Oak took a rock and smashed it into Darin Reed’s forehead.
The Nature of the Beast
Screams tore the night, underwritten by the crackle of fire in thatch.
The Weight of Command
In the first glow of a summer’s day the barn held an almost cathedral silence, penetrated only by shafts of light exposing every chink in its walls and turning the motes of dust within to dancing gold.
Select Mode
They call me a monster and if it were untrue the weight of my crimes would pin me to the ground.
‘Serve revenge hot or cold, it will never sate you. It’s a hunger that only grows the more you feed it.’
A Good Name
The scars of his name still stung about his neck and shoulders.
‘They say knowledge is power. But I know everything and have no power.’
No Other Troy
‘Why are we here?’ Sir Makin asked, following me up the slope at a trot.
‘I had a dream.’
The Secret
The moon shows her face and Sim crouches, low to the ground.
In Orlanth there’s a popular song that will get you killed if a kingsman hears it on your tongue.
Know Thyself
‘Honour thy father.’ The words echoed from the throne as Gomst approached, hurrying the length of the black carpet that stretched from doors to dais.
Three is the Charm
I woke in the bed of Abigale Monici. Or rather half-way between it and the floor.

Short Stories (most of these can be found via this page)

Details matter. Most people would say that there’s never a good reason to cut a baby in half. I maintain that you should never cut a baby in half without a good reason. See the difference?
Morality Tale
It sounded like someone beating out a rug, and yet even before he turned the corner Radick knew that wasn’t it.
The Hero of Aral Pass
“War, my friend, is a thing of beauty.”
I once spent a whiskey-soaked night with a very dangerous young man in the middle of the desert, and that little gem is one of the few memories that survived the hangover.
The Devil You Know
Some say we carry an angel on our right shoulder and a devil on our left, and that both whisper to us all the days of our life. The truth though is that we carry them not on our shoulders but within us, and they are legion.
The New World
“A nun?”
“Well.” I tried my penitent face. Despite all that practice, I still wasn’t very good at it. “Nuns.”
A Thousand Years
Trolls are seven kinds of bad news.
“So, what, Nona Grey, is X?”
“Seven,” Nona said with supreme confidence. Sister Apple advised confidence when guessing. With sufficient gravitas even the wildest of lies can be made to sound plausible.
“Nona!” Ruli ran across the quayside careless of her skirts and the master’s hat left tumbling in her wake.
“Scram, kid.”
Mikeos danced away from the minotaur’s lazy swing.
The Ballard of Sophie Nu
“So you’re going to sit in the dark all day listening to classical music?”
Married to the Apocalypse
Rick knew that if he started something, anything, if he just picked up some new project and ran with it, the question would go away.
"It was this big!" Jak threw his arms wide. "I swear. I was so close
to catching it."