Before I can edit I story, I have to know a few things. I have to read it over to get a sense of the author’s voice (editing means making the story better, but that doesn’t include making it not yours anymore). I also need to know where the plot ends, so that I can shepherd the opening and middle bits along to their conclusion in a logical way*. But the most important part that I need to know, that I have to be absolutely clear on, is who’s telling this story.
That isn’t the same as identifying the main character, or even the narrator. Think of it this way: in order for you to be reading the story, someone from that world has be telling it to you. Ignore the author; unless it’s an autobiography, the author is just the vehicle. They’re the medium allowing the ghost of your dead husband to inhabit their body in order to tell you where he hid the family valuables. The storyteller is going to be the character that gets the story to the writer.** This is the character who lives all the way the through to end, sees everything that happened, or gathers the information from everyone else.
Sometimes they’re easy to find. A story that begins in the first person, and doesn’t end with the narrator’s death, is probably told by that narrator. A story which features more than one perspective can be harder to reconcile, so you need to read carefully to find the common thread. The person who was there in each scene, or the one who could have talked to everyone else, and gotten their stories.
Sure, not all tales have a single teller. They should, but it’s so much easier to go the “third person omniscient” route, and make your narrator God. Sees all, knows all, lazy fucking storytelling. Yeah, people do it. (But not you, right?)
Say I have a story where a single narrator is travelling through the jungle. It’s first person, narrator uses “I”. I know whose story it is, and it doesn’t change. Now what? Knowing that this is Bob’s tale means that I know where certain things should happen in the plot, because that’s how it would happen to him. When he’s talking about going through the jungle and discovering a camp, he’s describing the trip, the weather, the beat-up road… what comes next? It should be his view of the camp as they come up on it. If it’s anything else, a piece of the later story, and then the narrator goes back to describe the setting, it’s going to feel out of place.
When Helen walks into the room and sees a crime in progress, there are a million ways to describe that. The easiest, and worst, is to tell us things she couldn’t possibly know.
Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor, obviously afraid that the masked man was about to kill her.
How exactly is that obvious? Helen can’t know what Mary is thinking, and there’s no description of the other woman’s face, body language, or anything else that would tell us. She could be afraid that the masked man will steal her jewels, rape her, torture her to get the location of the Maltese Falcon, or even be obsessing about the fact that her new carpet is getting dirty. But the author knows what Mary is afraid of, so let’s rewrite it to say that:
Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor. As tears rolled down her face, a masked man stood a foot away, his gun pointed at her head. Helen wanted to cry out, but was afraid the man would kill them both.
We still have the same characters, we get a little more description (because we’re seeing what Helen is seeing), and we have the threat of death. You can even take out that last line and leave it ambiguous; the audience will certain pick up on the fear and tension here. Depending on the rest of the story, the death threat could have already been expressed, or left as implied. But this way, you’ve removed a place where someone might wonder, “How does she know?” You cut out a chance for the readers to lose their interest in the story. Instead, you keep them in the moment, in that room with Helen and Mary, wondering what’s going to happen next.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our readers look for that storyteller. We pick up a book and we expect it to be told to us. This goes back to our childhood experiences of being read to before we read ourselves, and further back to our cultural experiences of oral storytelling. We exist in a society that encourages active telling of tales (through music, tv, plays, movies and other performances). It’s even in the way we describe how we take in a show: we read a story, not “a story was read by us”. We consume entertainment; we create advertising to portray it as energetic, in your face (or your ears), actively trying to push an experience on you.
We bring that perspective to reading, and find the teller in the story. If you know that ahead of time, you can make sure you’re choosing who that narrator is, and how they transfer their tale to the reader. You can make sure that it flows smoothly, the voice is consistent, and there’s no place where the reader wonders, “How would they know that?” without finding out by the end. You can make clear the path from teller to reader, so nothing stands in the way of them enjoying your story.
Or you can hire an editor to help you with that.
* Logical doesn’t mean straightforward. It means that it has to fit whatever rules you’ve decided apply to your story. There’s always rules, a framework, the physics of the thing. We’ll talk about that another time.
** I don’t mean in a metaphysical way, whether you ascribe to pantheistic multi-ego solipsism (aka “World as Myth“) or not.
I prefer British tv, most of the time. It succeeds for me because it’s stripped down, character-driven. Writing is the primary focus, followed by acting, and then somewhere farther down the line comes all of that “production value” stuff. It lacks the shiny veneer of most American shows, where being pretty, slick, and smooth are more important than being smart.
As you’d expect, a lot of what I watch is speculative fiction. There’s Doctor Who, of course. It’s campy, light, and only sometimes serious, just enough to keep it grounded while mainly being fun. I liked Primeval when it was on. Same kind of thing: entertaining, quick, impossible science but not distractingly bad, though I admit that it never got as serious as DW (occasionally) can be. But it had dinosaurs, which always makes me happy. Red Dwarf, the original series, is hilarious. The first three seasons of Being Human were well done. Season 1 of Misfits is shockingly good, (though goes downhill almost immediately after) and is similar in feeling to Attack the Block. Black Mirror is the only anthology show I’ve seen that comes close to being what Twilight Zone and Outer Limits were on their best days.
I like comedies, too: Black Adder, Black Books, Coupling, IT Crowd, Doc Martin. Quick, witty dialogue delights me. And I thought Downton Abbey was good during the first two seasons. But I what I really enjoy are the police procedurals. I love the psychology of the characters, I love seeing modern takes on noir–because they’re all in living in noir worlds. The hero isn’t going to wake up one morning having solved every crime there is. They take the small victories when they get them, choose their battles, fall sometimes, but keep getting back up again. They push forward against the dark, even when the dark is pushing back against them. (more…)
A couple of people bought stories from me, which I will write and post here (free) for you to read. The first is a Mythos noir piece, by request, and this is the opening:
The Night Hours
by Carrie Cuinn
It was about eleven o’clock at night, mid-October, and I was supposed to be washing dishes in the back of the steam-filled kitchen. I was wearing my white buttoned shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a stained apron that belonged to the joint. The shirt was mine, along with the black pants and scuffed but comfortable black shoes, but I was required to wear them. I leaned against the doorway, not quite in the bar, and not quite in or out of the kitchen, either. It was a neutral space, that square foot of in-between, where I could claim to be doing other than what I was: watching Willie Green blow the roof off the place with his horn.
“Hey, Chinaman,” the bartender growled. “Stop ogling the skirts, and get back to work.”
I wasn’t, but didn’t argue the point. Mickey, the barrel-shaped Irishman who ran the place, had hired me because he’d heard the Chinese made great cooks, and couldn’t tell us “Orientals” apart. So there were some things I knew to be wrong but didn’t say. Truth is, there were a lot of things like that.
The kitchen was a square, squat, low-ceilinged room with no windows, but it had three entrances. The single maroon door, with the round porthole, I let swing shut behind me as I left the bar. The black double doors led into the restaurant, where round, red, lacquered tables and pretty girls in embroidered satin gave the impression that this was where traditional Chinese cuisine was happening. Except it was New England, and I’d never seen that blend of tables, patterns, and ink-wash paintings in any kitchen I’d even been in. But I’d never been to China, so what did I know?
Mickey didn’t let colors mix in his dining room. Chances were pretty good that no one eating the roast duck and pan-fried rice knew it wasn’t authentic. Or maybe it was now, a new traditional Innsmouth dining experience, the kind we’d all be getting used to soon enough.
That last door, a scratched steel slab, was all that stood between me and freedom at the end of the night. It was the service entrance, which Mickey like to call the “servants” entrance, because the staff wasn’t allowed in any other way. Oh, sometimes, one girl or another would get the privilege of walking in through the front door for a few weeks, but we all knew the price they paid. All through the evening, the sound of loud voices and clanking silverware burst into the kitchen at regular intervals as the waitresses glided through to pick up their orders, and then back out into the fray. Later, the diners would fade away, and the bar would pick up their slack. On a good night the sound of jazz would leak through under the other door, making our last hour of clean up not quite so bad.
If we stayed late enough, and sometimes old Chen dealt cards and we cooked dinner for ourselves, the way our mothers would have, then all of those other sounds faded away, and the only thing creeping in was the pernicious Innsmouth fog, that stuck its fat fingers under doors and slithered in on its belly. Not even the steel could keep it out.
Update: I raised over $200 yesterday! It’s about 1/4 of what I need but it’s a great start. I promised a new short story, and by request it will be a Mythos tale. I’ve got an idea I’ve been meaning to write down, about Innsmouth in the 40s… Jazz clubs, missing girls, an Asian protagonist. I’m going to start on it now.
Why? Keep reading: (more…)
In April, I:
- Billy Hazelnuts, a graphic novel by Tony Millionaire. (109 pages)
- Alternative Alanmat, edited by Paolo Chikiamco (collection of speculative fiction based on Filipino mythology)
- started and wrote 1201 words on “Family”, a new short story (SF)
- added 400 words to “A Cage, Her Arms”, a short story I’d written last year. Revised it, and submitted it.
- added 251 words to “Snow”, a short story I’d started two years ago.
- blog posts here, including:
- Barbie, Burquas, April Fool’s Jokes, Writer’s Advice: Small Failures Hurt Us In Big Ways – my most viewed blog post ever (1234 words)
- All Our Young Potential (911 words)
- ADHD, a Serious Caffeine Addiction, and Me (925 words)
- Editing Tips #1 (897 words)
- Editing Tips #2 (1596 words)
- reviews of Richard S. Carbonneau’s “The Marvel: A Biography of Jack Parsons” for SF Signal (697 words) and Billy Hazelnuts (see above, 600 words)
- erotica for a client (4 stories, 40,000 words)
- was written up as part of “Women in Genre” month – read my post about that here (also includes links to free fiction by me)
- and on AC Wise’s list of “Women to Read“
- been more active in the SFWA, including:
- participating in forum discussions
- volunteering with the Bulletin as a proofreader
- interviewed outgoing SFWA President John Scalzi for the June issue of the Bulletin
- started using the StoneCoast “Magic Spreadsheet” on April 14. I wrote fiction on the 14th, 15th, 21st… for a total of 1,298 words.
Wrote 7,140 words of non-fiction and 1,852 of fiction. Worked on one new story and two older stories I’d held on to (which is why we always save old, unfinished, work). Submitted one story to a magazine (will hear back around the end of May). Edited 40,000 words as freelancer, and got a couple of Dagan Books projects out.
Honestly, it wasn’t enough. I should have done twice as much as I did. I should be getting more done each month, making more money, writing more words. I had a lot going on during April–medical stuff, personal drama, job hunting, multiple meetings for Logan’s school/services–but I don’t feel justified in how little I accomplished. I had to step back from my SF Signal column, which bothers me because I asked for that opportunity, and because I love reading & writing about comics.
I have to remind myself that one bad day, bad fight, bad week… it’s not the end of the world. Being upset and stressing over what I lost takes up more time than the event that caused the drama in the first place. Everyone kept telling me that “April is the cruelest month” and perhaps that’s true. But if it is, April’s over now, and I need to start thinking that May is going to be different. Better.
No advice for May. Instead, let me know what your goals for the month are.
1. Your first two novels are scheduled to be published by Angry Robot books this year. You originally submitted during AR’s “Open Door Month” in 2011. What was that process like?
The Great Angry Robot Open Submission was probably one of the most fantastic and angst filled experiences of my life, which is unusual for me because I usually live a pretty happy, zero-angst life. I’m like a cross between that singing meerkat in Lion King and a Labrador Retriever.
The robot overlords, Marc Gascoigne and Lee Harris, opened their doors to subs for one month in March of 2011. The subs went through four levels of review, from query and chapters, full manuscript, editorial and finally to acquisitions. At the end, out of a nearly a thousand submissions, twenty-five manuscripts made it to editorials and five received deals. The entire process from submission to signing the deal took fourteen months.
An added bonus about the open sub process was that fourteen of us in the editorial stage bonded on the Absolute Write forums and created our own social Group: Anxious Appliances. Since our inception, we’ve been the most active writing group on AW. Not gonna lie. Those guys kept me sane. I got pretty batshit crazy as the process drew to a close.
2. Once your book was in to the final stages of consideration, you got an agent. How did you find yours? Looking back on it, should you have started looking sooner, or waited longer?
I did query an earlier draft of The Lives of Tao a few years ago. I received some great feedback, and a request for a rewrite, but things fell through. It was still a great learning experience and helped me develop as a writer. It’s fair to say the book wouldn’t be what it is without the suggestions and changes I made from their critiques. I took a year off from the book and then rewrote it with a fresh pair of eyes.
After the manuscript was promoted to editorial during the open sub, I leveraged the potential deal and began querying again, and received offers from two agencies for representation. I was very fortunate to sign with Russell Galen of Scovil Galen Ghosh, who was one of my top targeted agencies. What better person to lead your career than the guy who represented the authors that wrote the books and movies you grew up with (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Screamers)?
3. You have a wife, an executive-level job for a major corporation, family, friends, and a dog. How do you find time to write?
There’s a lot of time in the day. You just have to figure out how to prioritize what is important and what isn’t. I admit to being an OCD kind of guy. I am a single purpose driven machine, like a Phillips screw driver.
During my hardcore martial art days, I used to drive an hour to my friend Tony Marquez’s school (he was the original Kung Lao in Mortal Kombat), Extreme Kung Fu, and train at his facility. Then afterward, I drove thirty minutes to another school where I learned from a Bagua Zhang/Tai Chi master. It was four hours of training a day, six days a week. This went on for many several years.
One day, I thought to myself. “Man, I’ve always wanted to write a book. I don’t know how, but I’m going to figure it out.”
So I gave it a shot. Without knowing what I was doing, I began to write when I had the free time. Eventually, writing took over all my other hobbies. I stopped clubbing. I retired from martial arts. I quit raiding in Wow (that freed up a crap ton of time), and focused on what was really important to me. (more…)