“Tis But a Flesh Wound!”

I just finished reading a nifty YA novel! There was a lot to like, but I had a few minor issues with the writing. On the plus side, reading a novel with problems lets you see the mechanics of story better, sometimes, than a reading a novel where it all comes together wonderfully. When everything in a story works, you don’t see the parts, just the glorious whole. But when there’s a glitch somewhere, you can often see what went wrong, and that tells you something about what to do and not do in your own writing.

In this particular instance, I noticed an issue I’ve often seen before: the author seems to forget things that have happened to the protagonist and should be continuing to affect him. Physical things, like injuries or being wet or dirty. The first-person protagonist of this novel gets hurt a lot, and unless his injuries have plot significance, they seem to fade very quickly from his awareness. Not only that, other characters don’t comment on them. It’s as if they never happened.

Here are a few things the protagonist does during one particularly eventful day in the book, when most of the climactic action takes place. In order of occurrence, he:

  • gets thrown against walls by super-strong evil robots (several times)
  • throws up
  • burns his hand on hot machinery
  • is hurled across a twenty-foot-wide chasm onto a rock ledge, where he lands “chin first” and scrapes up the whole front of his body
  • hikes through the woods in the rain
  • gets swept down a frigidly cold river
  • slips in blood and gets it on himself
  • runs, runs, runs from the scary robots
  • gets tied up so tightly he can hardly breathe and hung upside-down over a burning room

There’s probably more I’m forgetting. Oh, also, by the end of all this, it’s evening, and he hasn’t eaten or drunk anything all day.

The author does a good job remembering that our hero is wet after his dip in the river, and the burned hand comes up later when he’s thinking of his love interest, who he was helping when he got burned. Other than that, though, he doesn’t act like a guy who’s been battered and shredded and exhausted. Nor do other characters look at him and go “DID YOU GET RUN OVER BY A LAWNMOWER OMG.”

Young, healthy people, like our sixteen-year-old protagonist, heal pretty quickly, but this is all in one day. And yes, for most of that day, he’d be running on adrenaline and maybe not noticing his pain, injuries, bloodied appearance, etc. But he’d notice it later, and other people would notice it when they looked at him. When a writer isn’t consistent on this stuff, it’s hard to stay immersed in the protagonist’s point of view. It creates an empathy gap.

But take heart! I bring you an editing tool to help make sure that when your characters get hurt, they stay hurt! (Or wet, or dirty, or paint-spattered, or whatever.) Right up until they logically shouldn’t be hurt anymore!

human outline 1

This image is available for free download here, along with some other templates of the human body. I recommend you just take it off of this post, though, as I cleaned up the lines a bit from the original.

Got a character who’s about to have a rough day? Why not print one of these handy outlines and draw on it to give yourself a visual reminder of what’s happened to her? (The body shape won’t match every character, of course – even without accounting for those who aren’t human – but it’s a start.) You can use it to keep track of the character’s appearance (“You’re covered in mud!”). You can also make note of injuries that might not be visible, but should still affect the character. For instance, if she’s wrenched her shoulder badly, you might shade it in red to remind you that she’s going to keep feeling that awhile, especially if she tries to climb or throw something with that arm.

Have you run into this in your reading (or your writing)?

Being Reasonable

I just read this very interesting blog post about female warriors and how to realistically write a fantasy world in which they are common. Its approach, which I find useful and thought-provoking, is to examine why so many cultures through history don’t have lots of female warriors. To summarize:

(1) The reason is NOT because of physical strength. I’ve always detested this ridiculous claim. Sure, the average woman is less strong than the average man, but there are plenty of women who are stronger than plenty of men. And that’s even assuming that all areas of battle rely on brute strength, which is simply not the case.

(2) A much more logical reason why the situation developed: for much of our species’ history, any given group of humans grew in power and security proportionally to the size of the group. A larger band could send more people to war – and then, unlike now, pure numbers were likely to make the crucial difference in a battle. So sending women into dangerous situations made less sense because women were far more necessary in maintaining and increasing population. As the blog’s author points out, if half of a group’s women are killed, then the next generation born will be half the size of the last one. (We’re assuming that the women killed include half of the ones who would otherwise be reproducing. Of course, in many bands of early humans, this would basically be all of the women of reproductive age.) If, on the other hand, half the men are killed in battle, the next generation could go a long way toward repopulating the group.

So women were excluded from battle for reasons which, while once practical if a community wanted to survive, are now totally vestigial. Still, the population issue may be relevant in many fantasy worlds, so the author addresses some ways in which writers might design worlds that need not bow to these reasons and exclude women from combat.

I appreciate the author’s approach because I think it is vital to be able to distinguish reason from justification. My mom used to tell me that there is a difference between a reason and an excuse: an excuse excuses a behavior, making it okay, while a reason explains why it happened but doesn’t, in itself, justify anything. Things usually happen for one or more reasons, but often have no excuse. Most people would agree that it’s important to understand the reasons that a bad thing happens – that way, you may be able to prevent it, or at least know when it is likely to happen again.

I feel the same way about basically anything that a writer does that makes her fantasy world different from the real world. The fantasy world, and the writing, will likely benefit if the writer is aware of what has to be different in her setup so that this new world order will make sense. For this reason, I’m especially interested in work-arounds that allow fantasy worlds to be free of sexism, homophobia, etc. without becoming unrealistic utopias. Because I don’t want a world free of problems – that would be boring to read about – but frankly, I am sick to death of girls having to dress up as boys if they want to fight. As a fan of equality, I’d like to read more stories that have that as a basic premise, but as a fan of logic, I’d like for the equality to make sense.

Of course, figuring all this out is also an exciting opportunity to add depth and uniqueness to your worldbuilding! For example, if you want to write a fantasy world without homophobia (ooh me me, I do, I do!), you have to work backwards from some of the reasons (not excuses!) for homophobia’s existence in our world, and figure out how each reason doesn’t exist or doesn’t cause problems in your world. For example, one issue you might encounter is confusion about how inheritance works for gay couples, especially those who stand to pass on titles and power as well as possessions. How will this be addressed in your fantasy world? If a country’s queen marries the girl of her dreams, who will be the next queen or king of that country? Is there a strong adoption system? If so, how is a child chosen for such an important family? Does the child need to be a blood relation? Or maybe the rule of this country isn’t inherited at all – maybe the queen came to power through combat, or was elected, or was chosen in some kind of magical selection ceremony.

Conversely, I wish many authors would look at the ways in which their worlds are similar to ours (or to their own experiences), and see whether it really makes sense for the reasons behind a certain quality of our own world to also exist in the fantasy world. Perhaps different reasons exist that cause the same effect. Or maybe the author just hasn’t thought about it. I think this is the likely explanation for the many fantasy worlds in which the great majority of people are pale-skinned, often with light eyes and hair. Do they all live in worlds that are perpetually cloudy, causing them to evolve in a way that allows maximum absorption of vitamin D? Did they all evolve in one or a few such areas, then spread over the rest of the fantasy world in a conquering wave, desperate to escape the fantasy equivalent of Siberia? Is magic somehow involved in their coloration? Or is it just that the author primarily knows, interacts with, and reads about white people, and most of the characters s/he comes up with tend to be white?

Have you dealt with manipulating causation to achieve your ends logically when writing fantasy? What are some things you’ve changed in order to make a particular quality of your world make sense?

Life Imitating Art

I’m continuing to edit Dragons Over London for submission to a contest, but in the meantime, I am doing one of those strange, researchy things that I sometimes do. I’m attempting to make food out of acorns.

More specifically, I am attempting to make acorns into flour, that I might add this flour to other ingredients that would be available to Rabbit’s family in Rabbit and Cougar. Since there is a feast scene set in his remote forest village, I want to know that the ingredients available to the villagers (a) could, practically speaking, make all of the foods that appear in the scene, and (b) would not cause those foods to taste horrible, or to look bizarre in some way that I should note and have not.

So: acorn flour. I used the lovely instructions on the blog Ramshackle Solid and an online article from Backwoods Home Magazine for reference in the endeavor.

First off, I collected a big bag of acorns from a Chestnut Oak, convenient in its proximity and in that the acorns are huge, so needed fewer. I then attempted by various methods, including sunlight and the oven, to dry them. This was not especially successful, and the oven-drying business ended when my dad preheated the oven while my trays of acorns were in it.

It is difficult to tell whether these acorns are much worse for the wear, so I am continuing the attempt. I’m now shelling them and chopping the kernels. Next stop: blender! And rinsing acorn kernels of poisonous tannic acid!

Of course, my methods are not . . . um . . . canon? What I mean to say is that Rabbit’s family does not have a blender. They could achieve the same effect with a mortar and pestle, but I don’t think my family has one, and I don’t have that kind of free time anyway. They would do a few other things differently, too: I’ve read that acorns can be effectively drained of tannic acid by being tied in a bag and left in moving water for about a week. For large volumes of acorns, this would probably be more efficient than the method I plan to use.

So, huzzah! Authenticity!

I Should Practice Calling It “Research” . . .

. . . because someday, I could get school funding to do things like this! 😉

On Tuesday, I got a chance to do the most interesting thing I’ve ever been able to call research. This seems appropriate to mention, since I talked about research last week.

My research opportunity was a trip to Biltmore House in North Carolina. A few weeks ago, wanting to design a mansion that appears in The Dogwatchers, I searched online for mansion floor plans. Most that I found were, strangely, too practical. They had a few rooms unusual in less-expensive houses (game rooms, indoor pools, etc.), but mostly, I saw conventional rooms in larger sizes. There were certainly no corridors.

Biltmore House, finished for the Vanderbilts in 1895, has forty-three bathrooms. Towers. Twenty-one bedrooms just for servants. A bedroom with gilded walls. An entire room devoted to showcasing a model of the Biltmore House. Not to mention hundreds of paintings, prints, friezes, sculptures, fountains, figurines, ornate furniture, tapestries, and decorations that simply would not have occurred to me (see above, “gilded walls”). I even got a brochure that showed me the floor plans!

Touring the Biltmore helped me in two unexpected places. First, though I had hoped to find floor plans for a mansion in The Dogwatchers, it ended up being more applicable to a totally different mansion that appears in Rabbit and Cougar. Then, too, I found something even more exciting than floor plans: a real sense of an extravagant mansion as a home. In Rabbit and Cougar, one important character was raised in such a place. Walking through that amazing house helped me know him better. It was particularly interesting to think of how the two homes in my novels would each differ from the Biltmore based on their inhabitants, their surrounding areas, and so on.

Beyond that, I’ve continued to edit. One thing I’ve found helpful in this process is to keep a chapter-by-chapter log of events, recording in a separate document a list of chapters, each with a note for every important happening therein. It’s a sort of retroactive outline. This is great to keep track of plot-related events, even small ones (“First mention of . . .”), but also because it helps me recognize things I need to cut. I keep running across things that, when I condense them to a sentence for my outline, are clearly unimportant to the story – even boring. I’ve never planned chapters this way in advance; with Lord of the Dark Downs, I kept track of events in this way as I wrote them, but that was to remember whose POV described each event. (That novel had a lot of POV-switching.) I don’t know that I could do this in advance. I usually know, while writing, what will happen in the rest of my current chapter, but not after that.

A friend recently expressed trepidation about a class requiring the writing of a novel. (You know who you are. 🙂 ) I suppose it isn’t for everyone, but I recommend that anyone who likes writing try it out. NaNoWriMo might be a good introduction for people who don’t have class deadlines; it provides an online environment of sympathetic companions to the process. It’s also excellent in helping people restrain their editing impulses while working on the first draft. I enjoyed NaNo 2006, when I wrote Dragons Over London. As to the nature of novel-writing, it allows for an expansion of plot and character development that I absolutely love. It also lets you unpack slowly, if you will: for example, my funny short stories are much more laugh-a-minute than are my novels, though I consider them humorous as well. Furthermore, the structure of chapters differs a lot from that of short stories. I actually like novel-writing much more. True, I sometimes get ideas that demand short-story form, and I’m more than happy to write them, but novels are my passion. I wish my friend the best of luck, and encourage everyone who writes fiction to try at least one!