Lately I have binge read a few longer series and I’m noticing a trend.
The narrative is linear for the first three, maybe four, novels. That is, the reader knows everything that happens because they’re reading the books. Then suddenly there’s a jump. Between book, say, four and five, something important to the story happens off-scene. A new character integral to the story is introduced, or an important sub-plot that provides valuable information takes place off-scene. In the next series book there’s a fleeting reference to what happened off-scene and we go merrily along with the story.
And I go, “Huh? What happened there? Where did that come from?”
As the series continues, we get more and more jumps like this.
If I do my research, I can find these missing stories. They are available, usually as novellas or short stories, separate to the main series. Often with different protagonists.
I confess, as a technique, I find it annoying. I don’t want to have to go hunting for the whole story. Sure, I like my sideline stories to give me new insights into main characters in the series. Acquard’s War, for example, will certainly give you a different insight into Jordan Rossi, but it doesn’t tell the story of what happens in the Linesman books, (hmm. Better make sure of that, hadn’t we) and it won’t tell the story of what happens next to Ean Lambert.
If you’re an author who does this why do you do it?
Is it because in a long series you get tired of writing about the protagonists in the main story? I mean, eight plus books straight and I’d be getting tired of it too. (We’ve always said we’d like to do it like Robin Hobb does. Three books, then write something else and come back to that series—in our case Linesman—refreshed and ready to go. By the end of three novels you need a break.)
Is it a marketing tool? Most of the series I have read that do this are in Kindle Direct. Is writing the shorter stories a way of keeping readers interested while you write the next book in the series?
As of Friday night, 6pm, Victorians are fee to go about their business unmasked (except for on public transport, in hospitals and in aged-care facilities). We can go anywhere, do what we used to do (except we still, in many cases, have to sign into venues), and the government is free to call a state of emergency and put us into lockdown at any time.
I’m happy with this.
It’s been a long road, but I feel it has been worth it, with a relatively small number of people lost to Covid-19, or even waiting for the long-Covid to hit.
It’s a fragile peace, all the more precious because it can be pulled away so quickly by a single person not being careful.
As a writer, this past twelve months have felt as if we’re living in a science fiction future. A somewhat dystopic one, admittedly, but it’s there, and we’ve watched, real-time, how different governments have handled various crises, along with how people behave in emergencies. Not to mention how we get information from the traditional media, social media, and a whole host of other information suppliers. If we can’t get ideas out of all that, then we’re not looking.
I must say, as a writer, I’m looking forward to not having to put 2020 (and 2021) into our books.
Science fiction and fantasy writers don’t have to stick to a set date or place. They can set their books whenever and wherever they feel like setting them. Not like the poor contemporary writer who now has to wonder, ‘Do I ignore the pandemic or don’t I? Do I ignore the politics, or don’t I? If I do, the book becomes potentially becomes dated very quickly. If I don’t, I’ll be accused of being unrealistic.”
It’s an interesting dilemma, and the trouble is, contemporary writers won’t know which way to jump (write) until the pandemic bottoms out. It will be interesting to see what comes out in contemporary fiction over the next couple of years.
Here in Victoria, Australia, it feels as if the pandemic has already bottomed out. A month with no cases, a vaccine coming. We’ll see, and not everyone in the world is as lucky as we are.
When I was a child we had an illustrated copy of Noman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, which is a story about a koala, Bunyip Bluegum, who while on on his travels meets up with Bill Barnacle (a sailor) and Sam Sawnoff (a penguin). Bill and Sam have a pudding with them. Albert. But Albert’s not just any pudding. No, he’s a magic pudding.
The pudding gets stolen a number of times, and our friends continue to rescue it. The book was written back in 1918, and I’m not sure how well it stands up to modern days, but as a kid I loved it.
I especially loved Albert, the grumpy pudding, and I loved the way he could change the type of pudding he was. All you had to do was whistle twice and turn the pudding around.
Different stories have an impact on readers at different ages. I don’t know how old I was when I realised that Bluegum and his friends were eating Albert. I mean, I knew they were, but one day I had an epiphany. Cannibalism. Albert’s friends were eating him!
I haven’t touched the book since.
Get a reader at the right age and a book can really make an impression.
Prior to COVID-19 I had to make an appointment and see my doctor every time I wanted a new prescription. The only time she ever gave me a prescription without a consultation first was when I’d been away, my mother was ill, and I was almost out of medication. That time she left the script with the clinic receptionist, and I had to go in and collect it.
Then came COVID-19.
My first prescription post the onset of COVID-19 was another pickup script. We were into stringent lockdown by then, so this time I had to make an appointment, mask up, go to the doctor’s surgery, call them when I got there and tell them what I was there for. They brought the script to the door for me.
The next time I had to get a prescription the doctor called me and consulted over the phone, while I provided some of the details she usually took like weight and blood pressure. She emailed a script through to my regular chemist. He lost it. I had to do some frantic phoning to get the clinic to resend, but we got there in the end.
Last time I needed a prescription we were in another mini-lockdown. I made an appointment, the doctor called me, we discussed blood pressure, etc. Then she sent QR codes to my phone for the prescriptions, which I took to the chemist and he filled.
He also sent the repeats as QR codes as well, which was a bit unnerving.
It’s lovely to see an industry respond to an issue like this (getting prescriptions through a pandemic) and do something about it that works for everyone involved.
Now, all I have to do is make sure I don’t accidentally delete my script repeats off the phone.
I was telling Sherylyn about the fantasy I was reading the other day. “It’s not a great book,” I said. “The main character starts at rock bottom. Twelve months later he’s equal second-in-charge of a secretive government department. Everyone respects him, he’s made friends with all the powerful people in town, and his magic is increasing fast.” And then, because I was being honest, I added, “It’s not realistic, because his meteoric rise to fame and power (and his ability to defeat the bad guys) is way too fast, so you have to suspend belief to read it.”
“In other words,” she said. “He’s a Mary Sue.” (Technically, he’s a Mary Stu, but let’s not quibble.)
“No. Well … yes. But I’m enjoying the story anyway.”
So much so, in fact, that I went on to read the rest of the series. I liked the characters; I liked the idea behind the book.
But it got me thinking about Mary Sues. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a Mary Sue is a story where the character is too perfect. They have few weaknesses, if any, and they’re often the author putting an idealised version of themselves into a story as a kind of wish fulfilment. They’re also usually written as a new character in an already-canon of work. A character in Star Trek, for example, who comes on board the Enterprise and saves the day while our regulars—Kirk, Spock, et al—all look on in awe. Or a Sherlock Holmes rewrite, where Holmes and Watson look on admiringly from the sidelines while our Mary Sue solves the mystery.
Given that our ‘perfect hero’ in the novel I was reading was the protagonist, then technically the character wasn’t a Mary Sue in its purest form. However, he was certainly too good to be true.
As a reader there’s a fine line as to when I’ll put a book down because the character is so unbelievable. I persevered with this one. I liked the character. I liked the idea behind the story. I liked the secondary characters. I was in the mood for a story like this. A whole lot of things came together to keep me reading. Another day, another mood, I might have thought ‘this character is too perfect. It wouldn’t happen that way,’ and put the book down.
Our 92 year-old neighbour came by last night to use the phone. (92 on Christmas day.) We called her son for her, and he’s coming around tomorrow. After we hung up the phone she insisted on giving us two dollars.
“No, no, no,” we said. “We don’t need the money.”
“You must. Phone calls are expensive.”
“But we’re on a plan,” we say. “Calls are free.” Well, not free, because there is the plan, but, “Making a call for you doesn’t cost us any more than we were going to pay anyway.”
She doesn’t comprehend phone plans at all. To her, each call costs money.
It’s the same every time. She comes by every couple of months and asks us to call her son. (I think her son gave her a mobile, but she doesn’t like to use it.) She offers us money for the call. We refuse, she insists, and eventually we take it because it stresses her if we don’t.
As I added the latest $2 to the tiny pile of coins we’ve collected from calling our neighbour’s son, I realised that her phone calls are the only time I have touched physical money in the last eleven months.
It’s been tap and go on everything, and I mean everything, since Covid-19.
Contactless payments are the only way I have paid for anything. No one wants cash, because of the risk of spreading coronavirus. Of course, that means that any data harvester who pays for the information can now tell that I buy two regular-sized coffees a day from the 7-Eleven, and how much take-away I buy every week.
Actually, no. They always knew how much takeaway I bought.
I think there will always be a place for cash—even if it’s not physical coins, but for some kind of money that can’t be tracked through the system—it’ll be interesting to see what that turns out to be over the next fifty years. I’m not sure it will still be banknotes and coins.
We’ve all read books where the characters are too stupid to live. There’s even an acronym for it, TSTL. They’re stories where a character does something they wouldn’t logically do, and that action drives a major part of the plot.
Romance writing gets a lot of schtick for characters who are TSTL. Whether they’re full-on romance or just have romantic elements, stories can often have a romantic sub-plot where the characters misunderstand each other and that causes problems. Our two would-be lovers go around angry at each other, doing stupid things as a result, while the reader sits there screaming at them, “For goodness sake, talk to each other.”
It’s not just romantic leads, though. A lot of fantasies start off with the hero (or heroine) going off on a half-baked whim, too. Let me give you an example.
Take twin brothers who haven’t seen their father in ten years. Father writes and asks that they meet him at his new cottage, and that they be there for their thirtieth birthday, as he has something important to tell them. The younger (by four minutes) brother has twin girls at home and his wife is expecting again. The older brother has a relationship with the head of the Mage academy in the city.
As they get closer to the forest, they hear disturbing stories about the creatures in the forest. So much so, they’re already wondering why their father wants to live near it.
Then they get to the cottage itself. There’s no father, but they see signs of a struggle, and tracks leading into the forest.
Youngest brother says, “Our father’s in danger. We have to save him. Let’s go.”
Older brother, “But it’s dangerous in the forest, and neither of us know how to fight.”
“It doesn’t matter. Dad’s life is important.”
So off our heroes race, unprepared, into the dangerous woods, and the whole story is about them rescuing their father, the angst about the partners they’ve left behind, and of course, the mysterious thing their father was to tell them on their thirtieth birthday.
How likely is this? They’re thirty years old, for goodness sake. Settled. Are they just going to run into the forest? They don’t even know if their father really is in there. They’re unprepared, untrained and likely to die. TSTL.
Many readers won’t read past the first chapters. They haven’t got time for a character who deserves what’s coming.
Bit what does it mean as a writer if your characters are TSTL?
In our experience, it means we’re at least one draft off a workable story. And yes, we too have written stories where the co-writer comes back and says, “Why didn’t he just tell her what he planned to do. I mean, they talk to each other normally, don’t they? Why hold this particular piece of information back?”
Why? Usually because the author decides that’s how the story has to go and they’re trying to cram the characters they have created into that story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a plotter or a pantser you can still force a story down a path that doesn’t make logical sense.
Let’s go back to those twins who go off into the dangerous forest to find their father. The whole story revolves around getting into that forest and on the things that happen there.
Are these two, in any logical storyline, likely to go into the forest alone?
Probably not. If they have any nous they’ll go first to the local law, and if the law doesn’t help, maybe they’ll hire an experienced tracker or someone who knows the forest, to go with them. They might even decide not to go into the forest at all, given they don’t know their father really is in there.
That’s why I say you’re at least one draft off a workable story. You need to fix this massive logic hole before your story is done.
An easy way might be to arrive at the cottage and see their father fighting with one of the forest monsters. They join in the fight—he is their father, after all—and when the monster drags their father off, they chase. That might work, and you’ve only really got one big scene to change, plus maybe some angsty bits where they’re thinking about how they might have done it differently.
If they choose, instead, to find a tracker, then you’ve added another character to the story and you have to write them in. Adding a character isn’t simply a matter of, ‘hey, there’s another person along, mention their name on occasion’. The newcomer will interact with the brothers, they’ll have their own thoughts and feelings and ways of doing things. And if you’ve done it properly, that will change what happens in some of the fight scenes, and how the brothers track their father. Basically the whole rest of the book.
Alternatively, you can change one of the characters to be the sort who does rush off and do this sort of thing, and have his twin always follow to rescue him. Then you’ll have to rewrite the characters to match.
Like I say, there’s at least another draft to write. Probably more.
On Thursday morning we braved the pandemic and saw Wonder Woman 84 at the movies.
We did it early, and we did it in Gold Class, which has limited seating and lots of space between seats. It was nice to get out of the house and do something and lovely to see a film on the big screen. The movie (with ads) was three hours and we wore masks for the whole time. For all you people who have to wear them all day, every day for work, I salute you.
I enjoyed Wonder Woman, although it was nothing compared to the original, which ranks as one of my top ten movies of all time. That’s a hard bar to match. Although, now, of course, I think we should all come up with ways that Steve can come back
For those of you who have seen the movie, there’s a scene where the bad guy storms the Whitehouse. Thursday morning was Wednesday night US time. We woke to news of people storming the Capitol in DC. I must say it was surreal spending the morning reading the news and then seeing a movie where people stormed that same building. It certainly changed the experience.