D.M. Atkins and I were talking the other day, comparing notes on the various pieces we were editing at the time. One of the things that stood out for us was when authors writing historical, quasi-historical, or fantastic pieces would write scenes, using details from modern, daily life.
This is a common kind of mistake. You’re writing along, caught up in the story, and you don’t realize that what seems like a perfectly mundane detail is glaringly out of place in your setting. Sometimes, it’s because of some fact about your story that you didn’t know. Sometimes, you’re so busy writing to the next plot point, you don’t notice the error. Either way, it leaves something behind that will be a pothole in your readers’ experience of your story.
See, the real problem is tied up in the reason why we include apparently minor, plot-irrelevant details. They’re shorthand for large chunks of setting, allowing you to describe your world through implication rather than exposition. The difficulty is that, when you get the details wrong, you’re implying things about your setting that don’t ring true. This induces the reader to paint an incorrect picture of the setting as she reads, which then produces a jarring experience when you later describe something that doesn’t fit the picture in your reader’s head.
Well, friends, it seems I’ll be a talking head at BayCon this weekend. I’m on nine panels across three days, mostly back-to-back. I’ll likely be brain fried at the end of each day, but it will doubtless be fun.
This is actually something of a dream come true for me. For the longest time, I’ve had this feeling of being on the outside of something, in fandom. Like there was some unseen velvet rope marking the boundary between the actors and the audience.
When I lived in Iowa, I always worked the local SF con, and helped found the gaming con. When I moved to California, though, I didn’t work the cons. I had grad school and a regular life to live, and I was staff at the summer Pagan festival, so I wanted to take the rest of the cons to relax as a regular con-goer.
No matter how beautiful your ideas, or how brilliant your story, it really doesn’t matter (not here, anyway) unless you can communicate it to an audience. If it stays locked up in your head, we can’t publish it, right? For that, you have to get it out of your imagination and into language.
Y’see, language is a way of encoding ideas. You take your idea, encrypt it into words and give the words to someone else. Then, that person decrypts those words back into ideas. It’s not perfect, because no two people have exactly the same understanding of language, so what your reader sees in her head when she reads your work is never going to be exactly what you saw in your head when you wrote it. Still, until someone invents a way to publish telepathy on the web, it’s the best we have.
Natural sounding speech just isn’t good dialog. We don’t usually notice the “ums” and pauses and repetitions when listening to someone speaking in real time because we’ve learned to edit them out before the sound registers with our conscious minds. When we read transcripts of unedited, natural speech, it “sounds” wrong in our heads.
No, put those hot irons down. That’s not the kind of branding I mean. Save it for your stories, people.* I mean branding in the marketing sense.
The common wisdom among publishers is that fans come to expect a certain kind of story from their favorite author, and writing more than one style of book risked alienating the folks who are paying your salary. In a recent blog entry, author David Farland has said that, these days, even writing different settings for different novels is too big a risk for most authors. Many authors write under different names in different genres, as a consequence.
There is, really, only one plot in all of fiction. Your character wants something. Stuff gets in the way, preventing the character from getting it. The protagonist tries and fails, tries and fails, tries and fails. Eventually, having learned from previous failures, the character tries and succeeds. The end. Everything else is variation of detail.
The failure of the character is essential to the success of the story. The reader otherwise has no way of knowing how hard the character has it, no way to know whether or not the ultimate prize is really worth getting worked up over. If it's easy for your character to get, it's cheap, no matter how much the narrator says it costs.