All posts by eltimbalino

Finding Genre

As an avid science-fiction reader, nobody was surprised that my short-stories followed my interests and I came to identify as a science-fiction writer. I don’t like gore, bloodshed or horror. If a movie looks like it might be down that road, I ask my (adult)daughters if they think it will be too much for me. So when I found myself writing horror, and doing it well, I was very surprised. Even now I still wonder how I can be okay writing it but not watching or reading it.

Then there’s fantasy, a genre where you need to be oh-so-careful that readers know the limitations of magic and superpowers or there is no tension in the narrative. And it can get so derivative, reusing existing blocks to build cliché plots, but when it is done well, it can be brilliant. I’m yet to get more then my ankles wet in this genre, but looking forward to it.

Then there are all the qualitative genre’s like romance, detective, mystery, thriller and so on. I ignore these and let the story tell itself so others can sort it into boxes later.

But to know what genre is for, you have to step back and ask what is writing for? For me, writing is about putting humans in situations that push them to expose what human nature is really made of. While you can do that in a modern urban situation, pushing things beyond extremes is easier to do in science-fiction or fantasy, where some of the rules restricting possible scenarios are broken.

So while Ghost of Newsangtown(not yet released) is able to use the urban environment to explore the impact of sugar-coating death for our children, I needed the far future to really push the gap between the rich and the poor for Asteroid Tours(not yet released). Genre is a tool that enables me to explore and communicate ideas that fascinate me, it is not a pallet of colors or a soundtrack to make a story more enticing.

The Devil is in the Detail

The thin, cold light of morning cast long shadows down the narrow alley, his bedraggled boots clomped heavily on the filthy bitumen. Turning his head to follow the peripheral scampering of a rat, sunlight caught the old man’s profile, his eye squinting against it and then sticking with gummy sleep. The rat was too fast, but something else, a bright sparkle, drew him closer to the trash piled high against the red-brick wall.

He jerked with the realisation that the sparkling bracelet was still around a milky-white wrist; the only part showing of what he hoped was a whole and live person buried in the garbage. Carefully, slowly, he lifted the piece of sodden cardboard to reveal her hand, fingernails bright with finely detailed art. The first finger, the pointer, had a pearlescent-blue background on which, painted in a thick, black gel that embossed the image, a fine tree branch cut across the moon of the cuticle from which swung fine lines of a rope-swing, occupied by what appeared to be a young girl. Below her, the background blue gave way to a textured, two-tone green to give the impression of grass. The next nail, on her middle finger was painted with…

I wrote the above passage to illustrate the line where detail stops dragging the reader into the situation, and instead boggs down the story and pushes the reader back out again. I hope it was describing the nail, but if I lost you before that, I’m sorry. If, on the other hand, you were enjoying the minutiae of nail-art descriptions and wish I’d continued, you will understand my dilemma.

Sales of [book:The Fellowship of the Ring|727798] spiked dramatically with the release of Peter Jackson’s movie. But I wonder how many people managed to trudge through the long, tedious and heavily descriptive passages which made the book so popular many years earlier. Society has changed dramatically since 1954, when The Fellowship of the Ring was first published, and we are now so numbed by rapid stimulation, fast plots, and quick grabs that slow descriptive passages have lost their allure.

I believe the boom of the YA market is largely because it is not just read by YA, but everyone who wants more bang per word.

So this is where I’m at now, finding the balance between drawing the reader in, and losing them in the detail. There are some good tricks, like pointing out an iconic detail so that the reader fills in the rest. Or using details that also move the story forward. But even while writing efficiently, details take time to read and can irritate an impatient reader.

Two solutions that I’m currently considering both put the choice in the reader’s hands. Firstly, I’m planning to write the descriptions as I’d like them read, then edit a second, abridged version for those who want a quicker read. Option two is using some formatting cue that lets the reader know when they can skip ahead, and where to skip to.

Either way, I’m intending to dig myself out of this conundrum by offering the reader a choice of how fast they want their story to move.

Artwork made with these elements:
Satyr by Studio Fibonacci from the Noun Project
Magnifying Glass by Arthur Shlain from the Noun Project
Devil by Irving Gerardo from the Noun Project
Combination of elements by Tim Marsh
Image copyright as per The Noun Project

Dangerous Minds

People think of writing as a creative process, which it is, but it is also a problem solving exercise. When a writer fails to do the problem solving and just uses a coincidence, new ability, or wave-of-hand to get the protagonist out of trouble, the reader justifiably feels cheated.

But what about the times when a writer does do the hard work and solves a real world problem that the real world does not want solved. For example, I recently wrote a short story where the protagonist, an office clerk, needed to kill a CEO. It took me weeks to figure it out. Then when it came to writing it, I had to decide whether or not to release this solution into the world. I opted not to and redacted it, with a great sense of loss.

But it is not just new ways of disposing of opponents that writers invent. I’ve suppressed techniques for using the night sky for advertising, initiating regime change and more.

One could argue that the writer wouldn’t have been the only one to discover the technique and the public would be better forewarned about the possibility. But I believe the likelihood of someone using the idea is greater than the likelihood of everyone who might be affected having read my writing on it. Maybe if I were more widely read, the balance would be different.

This doesn’t mean that I suppress every unpleasant invention, not at all. I’m not even convinced that a comfortable world is a better world. I’ve seen what lounge chairs do to people. So I draw the line at truly unique ideas that took some rather lateral thinking which have a severe or global impact. Sometimes I’m lucky enough that I can reveal 90% of the solution and leave the tricky discovery out without weakening the narrative.

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Artwork made with these elements:

Knife by Antony Bayo from the Noun Project
Brain By Max Hancock from the Noun Project
Combination of elements by Tim Marsh
Image copyright as per The Noun Project

Camera Head

Any reader who immerses themselves in the world of their story will know when the author has failed to do so before them. Signs such as closed doors later banging shut and similar inconsistencies will add up. It is something the reader feels rather than figures out, and it thwarts their efforts to imagine the world they are in.

When I write, immersion is achieved through the metaphor of a camera.

Recently I’ve been playing with where this virtual camera is located. Hovering it in the corner of the room results in a different writing style compared to shoving it close over the shoulder of an active character. In ‘The Jasper Chronicles’, the camera is the point-of-view character’s eyeballs.

I’ve found that the closer the camera gets to the action, the grittier and more intense the descriptions become. I tend to incorporate a broader range of senses as well. But this slows the narrative down and will miss out on events outside the field of vision or even the character’s attention.

Getting into a character’s head also applies a filter. Writing from the perspective of a character familiar with the current environment blocks my tendency to describe it. Choosing to shoot from a character that has been dropped into the same environment for the first time will bring the reader’s focus to the things that grab that character’s attention. And it’s not just a new—old filter. A character interested in food, will relate a scene differently to a character interested in fashion.

At this stage of my writing, I’m ‘shooting’ scenes from a single character and riding on the momentum of the scene. But recently I’ve been considering re-writing scenes from multiple cameras so that during the editing process I have the opportunity of splicing ‘footage’ together as well as removing unnecessary frames.

My greatest concern is how to signal the reader when a camera has changed without throwing them out of the story. Please post any suggestions you might have in the comments section.

Artwork made with these elements:
Camera by Isabel Sierra from the Noun Project
Person By Road Signs, GB
Combination of elements by Tim Marsh
Image copyright as per The Noun Project

Generating Empathy for a Malign Protagonist

Using a malign protagonist can broaden the possibilities for your story, avoid clichés and allow a more dramatic character arc. But this choice comes with a cost. If your reader does not like your central character, the story of their travails will be less likely to interest them.

Love them by proxy

kind mother with malign protagonist
Kind mother with evil son. Picture of malign protagonist by Timothy Marsh

If someone else has a soft spot for the malign protagonist, your reader will wonder why and look for likeable, or even just forgiveable traits. Your supporting character can also point the traits out for you by the way they respond. Make sure that the supporting character has your reader’s empathy and respect. You can achieve this by having your character press the ‘integrity’ buttons, responding to things in a way the reader would, wanting things that are universally desired and showing character traits that role models have in common. Make your reader think, ‘If such a great person as that likes the evil hero, there must be something good in him.’

Generate enough empathy for your supporting character and your readers will want what they want, even if that means success for the malign protagonist. Keeping the supporting character’s hopes and fears for the protagonist clear and passionate will draw your reader into their plight.

We are sheep. By nature, we tend to follow the majority. So when other’s like our malign protagonist, we will move with them. If you have more than one adoring supporting character, this can lend weight to the sheep effect. Be careful not to spread the reader’s focus too thin by trying to get them to invest emotionally in many, unnecessary supporting characters.

He’s My Protagonist and I’ll Love Him if I Want to

You have the faulty human brain on your side. Use it to your advantage. Readers are easily coaxed into supporting and forgiving the actions of their protagonist, even when they are far more treacherous, vengeful, and violent than the antagonist. We are tribal creatures and our tribe is always right.

To keep the line between friend and foe in sharp relief, bring your point of view up close and personal with your protagonist and keep your antagonist at arm’s length. Also use language that forgives your protagonist, then use vilifying language for the antagonist. For example:

Our evil hero leant against the cold stone parapet and, using the eyeglass inherited from his ancestors, surveyed the enemy’s gleaming white tower. Little did he know, antagonist was at that very moment using his sneaky spyglass to leer into his personal living spaces.

Keeping home-team loyalties burning and fostering resentment towards the antagonists will give you a lot more scope to let your protagonist step outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour without losing your reader’s support. But be careful with this. Automatic forgiveness will weaken the evil portrait your are painting of your protagonist and undermine your efforts to dig a dramatic low point in your character arc.

Hate Who He is, Love What He Does

The reader does not always want to know what their protagonist is up to just because they love them. If your protagonist is skilled, resourceful and cunning, you can drag your reader along with pure fascination. This is not so easy to achieve, because you need to create real problems and solve them creatively. No short-cuts or easy-outs or you will lose your reader’s trust. But take heart, while your protagonist formulated the solution between when the gates burst open and the hoard poured in, you have the luxury of weeks on the Internet.

The line between admiration and love is thinner than a strand of silk. Not true for real love, but good enough for the reader’s love of their malign protagonist. Keep thrilling them with brilliant moves and eventually they will want him to prevail regardless of the atrocious personality the character has been burdened with.