Category Archives: Craft

Three Lessons from Patricia McKillip

I’ve spent a lot of my reading time lately going through Patricia McKillip. A year ago, I’d never reead a thing of hers; now I’ve read the Riddle-Master Trilogy (Riddle Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind), A Song for the Basilisk, and the Cygnet books (The Sorceress and the Cygnet, the Cygnet and the Firebird).

I started this quest based on a recommendation, and then pursued it to the bitter end as an exercise to work on my poetry and mysticism. McKillip’s language is amazing: beautiful, evocative, dense with challenging layers of metaphor and elliptical meaning. My own storytelling runs to the linear and direct, or at least it used to: after a year of McKillip immersion, I think I’ve gotten a far better sense for the “beautiful prose” part, at least.

That’s the Zeroth Lesson I learned from McKillip: her astounding skill and craft at writing beautiful, layered prose. I’m calling that #0 because I want to get into three specific lessons from the last books I finished, the Cygnet duology. Minor spoilers follow:

First lesson: “You win, therefore you lose” is an unsatisfying conclusion to anyone’s arc. This is a lesson I first ran into long ago in roleplaying game design, and unfortunately it crops up at the end of Firebird. Rather than the protagonists determining the outcome, the villain succeeds, but his success destroys him, without any further involvement or intervention of the main characters. It’s a bit close to a deus ex machina, sadly: villain summons godlike entity, god turns out not to be villainous after all, sucks to be that guy. Thus Firebird was my least favorite of the six McKillips I read.

Second lesson: Your twist can be as meta as you want, as long as it rings true. I’ve long since recognized that an ideal twist (climactic or otherwise) is one that makes the reader say, “I never noticed that before, but now that you say it, it’s so obvious.” The first Cygnet book accomplishes this so wildly, I had to come back and reread the climactic scene the next night. At the moment when the external plot (action in the world, as opposed to character development “internal arc”) comes to a head, when the cruel gods/constellations are about to overthrow the Cygnet, the plot reveals itself to not be an external plot at all. It’s been there to serve as story and metaphor: not just to the reader, but to the characters themselves. McKillip twisted not just the plot, but the structure and nature of narrative itself. It took me some real work to wrap my head around it, but after it sunk in, you can be sure I’ll never forget it.

Third lesson: Never give a character a plot-stopping power. In both Cygnet books, one character is the Gatekeeper, with a deep-rooted mystical power over who comes and goes in the citadel where he works. Yet he fails at his job regularly! In fact, I don’t think we ever see him successfully noticing or keeping out a trouble-maker. Of course, there’d be no story if he kept the villains from coming in and mucking with the lives of our protagonists. But that’s precisely the problem: if his power works, there is no plot. Therefore his power has to fail, and he’s going to look like a loser. Unless you want your character to seem like an incompetent, better to avoid giving people plot-halting powers at all!

This post might sound critiquey, but only because I’m trying to distill specific writing lessons from a pair of her books — to find the rare bits of rough amidst the diamond. Let there be no doubt: I loved my McKillip Immersion Experience, and would recommend it wholeheartedly for anyone who wants to read or write amazing, gorgeous fantasy.

Surviving the Shortlist

Right now, three of my stories have been shortlisted for publication: two pro markets, and one semi-pro. This is great! But it’s also incredibly stressful.

One of the major sources of stress is uncertainty. Short story submissions are always uncertain, but being on the shortlist means the stakes are higher. Obviously there’s nothing I can do now to increase my odds, but is there something I could’ve done, should’ve done? Some element of my story that makes it more or less likely than its excellent competitors?

The two pro markets have each given me an estimated acceptance rate from their shortlist: one is 30%, the other is 50%. No data from the semi-pro, but based on my experience with the market, I’ll guess a rate of 33%. (Remember, these are rates for already-on-the-shortlist. Total acceptance rates run about 1/4/15%.)

Why bog down so much in the probabilities? Because for me, it helps to look at this stage of the process like a numbers game. From the editor’s side, it’s not stochastic; they’re making judgments based on all kinds of factors. Some are even semi-quantifiable: if you had to rank a set of stories by “prose quality” you probably could (even though your list would differ from the next reader’s). So, in theory, it’s possible to know which story is more likely to get selected.

But there are also a host of factors that are completely unknowable. Is your story too similar to another one? Or do they have parallel themes in a way that’ll make the issue/anthology stronger? Have they read too many robot romances lately? Or do they crave something more science-fantasy this week? All these things depend on the whole suite of submitted stories, and the editors’ tastes and moods. From the writer’s side, unpredictable. Might as well be stochastic, really.

So at this point, forget worrying about how good your story is. Doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all blind statistics, inside the black box of the editorial world/brain.

I find it quite liberating to know that I have a 73.05% chance of getting at least one of these three published soon.

Chosen Ones and the Power of Love

In “Chosen One” plots, the protagonist has some born-in virtue or heritage that makes her the One Person Who Can Save Us. This is extraordinarily common in fantasy fiction, though it appears in SF as well (e.g. Jupiter Rising). In “Power of Love” plots, love has a spiritual, emotional, or mystical power that can directly affect the world. This is rampant in Hollywood (e.g. Interstellar); possibly less so in books, but that may be my reading tastes.

I see these two plot components — Power of Love and Chosen One — as “the same thing,” because they represent two facets of the same basic story choice. And that choice is pandering.

The common characteristic here is that success comes through no skill, training, or expertise. You could be revealed as the Descendent of the Hero! (You can worry about your training montage after that.) Maybe you love your Cylon enough to make a mixed-species baby possible! This allows the you, the reader, to more easily put yourself in the place of the hero — but it’s a cheap identification. Forget interesting characters, forget engaging stories, just make the hero able to succeed via things the reader could do.

This is why it’s pandering: it’s a lowest-common-denominator viewpoint. Who cares about education and expertise, if all you need is love? And this is also why it’s more common in movies than in books: because movies want to reach a wider audience, and make them leave the theater feeling proud and justified, as if they could’ve saved the world.

There are ways to write good plots with both of these elements. For example, I forgive Harry Potter a great deal for its ability to make a Power of Love plot work intelligently. But personally, I am tired of stories where Expertise Isn’t Necessary.

Edit: Note that pretty much any “instinct and intuition are correct, all the experts and scientists are wrong” storyline also falls under Power Of Love plot. Exact same thing, different flavor text.

Misleading Advice

I’d like to talk briefly about a misunderstood piece of advice that seriously limited my early writing. And, heck, still affects my writing.

Don’t give lots of internal monologue (an instance of Show, don’t Tell)

Don’t tell us a million things about what the character is thinking; instead, show through POV and actions. Sounds sensible for a 3rd-person POV, right? Even third-person-limited is mostly outside the character’s head. Don’t bog down in the character’s stream of thought, but instead let us see the world.

So, I tried to follow that. I showed my characters’ internal lives through their actions. I provided their habits and fidgets, the physical sensations of their actions and reactions, the things they did and felt as they went about their various (mis)adventures.

And in came the critiques and rejection letters.

The fine editor of Fictionvale laid this out for me most helpfully: “We can watch a movie faster than we can read a book, and get the same things out of it if the book isn’t giving us the *inside* of the character as well as the outside.”

So that little third-person-limited POV needs to stick its eyes inside the character’s head more often. Narrate the world from their point of view. Stick their thoughts right in there alongside the physical things they see. Your narrative doing a bit of telling can serve to show the character’s mind. By doing so, you bring your reader right where you want them to be: in that character’s mind alongside you.

In most genres and situations, if the reader ever has to guess what the POV character is thinking, then you’re doing it wrong.

Plausible Failure Modes

Last night I saw Interstellar, my first Hollywood movie since Viable Paradise. It allowed Kelly and I to try out our new Plot X-Ray Glasses.

One-sentence review: I thought the movie was okay; some great stuff, but also a lot of terrible stuff. But this post is not about Interstellar; the movie is just here to provide today’s example. (Minor spoilers ahead, however.)

What makes a threat feel real?

Early-ish in Interstellar, we have a scene where Mr. Sidekick tries for the first time to dock the launch vehicle with their mothership. The music swells and pounds… but if you ignore the emotional tug of the music and think about what’s happening, there is no tension here. You know the heroes cannot fail; what’s more, you know exactly how they will achieve their goal. What’s missing?

The missing element is a plausible failure mode. What happens if the astronauts fail to dock successfully? Then they never get on their spaceship and the movie ends. The story cannot progress unless the heroes succeed. Worse yet, there’s no tension* about how they will succeed. If something goes non-catastrophically wrong, the astronauts will pull back a couple of feet and try again; but that won’t happen in the movie, because it would make boring and repetitive viewing. While in-story the characters could fail (novice astronauts could crash and die), this is a movie about interstellar travel, with no backup ship or crew. Failure would end or derail the story. This is a challenge with no plausible failure mode.

Contrast with a later spaceflight challenge in Interstellar: their attempt to rescue the spinning and half-destroyed mothership. When that ship exploded, I thought, “I guess they need to get the heck away from the flying wreckage, and the movie’s next act will put them in Dr. Mann’s shoes of isolation and survival.” But instead we have an awesome spaceflight rescue scene! This scene (like most of the stuff on the ice planet) worked very well for me. We had a plausible failure mode, which made me legitimately curious how things would turn out. That curiosity greatly increased my interest in watching the scene unfold.

Moral of the story: a threat will be more believable, and thus more compelling, if it includes a plausible failure mode. Readers will be less afraid of a threat if they realize the writer cannot follow through.

If your threat risks ending or ruining the story, then the heroes cannot fail. If your reader/viewer is sufficiently engrossed that they aren’t thinking about the outcomes, you can get away with this. But if you really want to put the reader/viewer on the edge of their seat (proverbially or otherwise), give the threat a plausible failure mode.

 

 

*: This isn’t the only way to create tension, of course. For instance, inevitability can create tension. To stick to Interstellar examples, consider when Cooper and Dr. Mann** go out on the ice together. However, this generally requires inevitable failure/danger, not inevitable success.

**: While I really liked all the stuff with Dr. Mann, I have to say: they called him “Mann?” For the brilliant driven confident flawed self-preserving person who embodies the best and worst of humankind? Might as well have given him the first name Hugh.