GUEST POST: Of Meat Hooks and Desire by Max Gladstone

Today’s post is guest piece graciously contributed by the inimitable Max Gladstone. 

There’s more to life than stabbing people in the gut.  Or melting their faces off with a fireball.  Or being dropped out of a helicopter, or tortured with a potato peeler.

I know, I know, I know, some days it doesn’t seem that way.  Especially for writers!  We get this message all the time: more action, more drama.  Raise the stakes.  Set threat level to DEFCON 2.  And that’s great advice, especially since big brassy external threats are easy for readers, writers, and editors to understand.  They’re also a great way to pace up laggy sections of manuscript: everything’s more interesting when you’re running from a shadow demon.  When Haruki Murakami wants to discuss Hegel, he’s smart to hide it in a sex scene like a dog pill in a pat of butter.

Problem is, your story doesn’t always want DEFCON 2.  Perhaps you’re aiming for a softer pace, or subtler.  Maybe your story’s all about careful machinations and schemes, and Jason Vorhees racing through chainsaw held high will wreck your plans and mood both.  Maybe you’re writing TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and don’t want it to become James Bond.

The first step (for me anyway) is to realize that action in a vacuum isn’t enough to carry a story.  Watch a bad action movie and you’ll find yourself yawning in the middle of a machine gun battle or a giant robot slugfest.  That’s the adrenaline wearing off.  The pure sweet monkey reaction to BIG STUFF MOVE FAST won’t carry you through a single two-hour sitting, let alone the three to four hours distributed over a couple days it’ll take most people to read most books.    But if action by itself doesn’t work, why do we feel action helps stories?

The answer—I think—comes down to clarity of purpose.  In a traditional action sequence, desire lines are clear.  Your central character wants, desperately, to escape the guy with the gun.  To get out of the chair.  To force the bartender to answer a question.  The other characters in the scene have equally clear and conflicting desires: to shoot the main character.  To keep her captive.  To keep his damn mouth shut.

That clarity of purpose makes action work for us.  We know, in Taken, why Liam Neeson punches any given guy in the throat: he needs to get through him to find his daughter.  We know, in Edge of Tomorrow, what Cage wants in every single scene—and even better, he wants something different each time!  We know, when Rild blocks Yama’s path in Lord of Light, that he hopes to keep the Death God from killing the Buddha.  When Aeryn rides into the valley to fight the great dragon Maur in The Hero and the Crown, it’s clear what she wants, and what’s arrayed against her.

If action doesn’t work for a particular segment of story, your job as a writer is to replicate that same effect.  You have to know what your characters want.  And I don’t mean want in some nameless, formless sense, or in the Babylon 5 ultimate-answer-to-the-core-of-your-being way.  I mean, in this scene, what change do your characters wish to bring to pass in the world, and what’s stopping them?  Your nurse might want to replace an IV bag and get on with the rest of his shift, not listen to the wounded detective talk about her daughter.  Your soldier might want to justify her actions on the battlefield; hell, she might just want a cup of coffee.

Clarity is all the more important when your characters can’t talk about what they really want—a common issue in my writing these days.  There’s a scene early in FULL FATHOM FIVE where one character, Mara, visits another, Kai, in the hospital.  This is a huge simplification of a complicated scene, but basically: Mara wants to apologize to Kai, because Kai got hurt trying to help her—but she also doesn’t want to do that, for a number of reasons including she’s afraid to look weak, she’s concerned about Kai’s emotional well-being, and she’s really pissed at Kai for getting herself hurt for what Mara sees as a bad reason.  Kai, meanwhile, wants Mara’s support, but she’s completely incapable of expressing that kind of desire.  Neither of them is prepared for the level of emotional honesty (and, frankly, intimacy) the conversation they should have needs.  So the first several drafts of that scene were delicate character portraits—and worked as such, but were very slow for an early chapter of an already slow-building book.

The solution, which I hit on in the fourth or fifth draft, was to give them a concrete disagreement: in this case, a piece of business advice Kai’s offering Mara, which Mara sees as an attempt to sidestep the conversation she wants to have.  All of a sudden, the nebulous conflict crystallized, and the scene felt propulsive—no machetes or chainsaws required.

A simple exercise has improved my sense for this sort of thing. Take a pen and paper, sit down with an episode of your favorite television show that’s not action-driven, and watch.  Television’s good because it’s so condensed and vicious: scenes are short, and competition is fierce.  I used The Wire for this exercise, which in spite of being about violence rarely features anything a summer blockbuster would call “action sequences.”  For each scene, jot down what the principles want, and notice how quickly that desire is introduced—how little want-less air there is. (Often the desire will be finessed in even before the scene starts!)  Then note the resolution of the scene for each principle.  Two sentences each, maybe four if you’re pushing it.  Pretty soon you’ll see the connection between pace and clarity—how a dinner can feel as sharp as an arrest.

Now, TV pacing isn’t always right for literature.  Few book scenes should be as short as the equivalent TV scene, in part because audiovisual media with human actors is insanely high bandwidth.  A book may need a paragraph to convey what Idris Elba can project in a glance, especially with a soundtrack to support him.  But the principles of clarity and desire hold from format to format—at root books and shows both tell stories.

Maybe this exercise won’t work for you; maybe you have little interest in doing anything that doesn’t involve meat hooks and car batteries.  But still, I say, give it a shot.  Stretch your boundaries.  What’s the worst that could happen?  If this sort of plotting doesn’t work for you, the potato peeler will still be where you left it.

Max Gladstone has sung in Carnegie Hall, been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and nominated for the John W Campbell Best New Writer Award.  Tor Books published his most recent novel, FULL FATHOM FIVE, in July 2014.  The first two books in the Craft sequence are THREE PARTS DEAD and TWO SERPENTS RISE.

Max’s Website: www.maxgladstone.com

Max’s Twitter: www.twitter.com/maxgladstone

Read the First Five Chapters of Full Fathom Five for free!

Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

My friends and I have this game called Shotgun-Shotgun. You take a can of beer, put it on a stump, shoot it with a pellet gun, then run forward and drink the beer spurting out of the can. I can tell you with confidence that I’m good at this game, and although we only play it rarely, I’m unlikely to get much better. That is because it’s really quite a simple game.

In this, it is almost exactly unlike chess. Chess, we are told, takes about ten thousand hours to master, ten thousand hours, mind you, for someone who is already pretty fucking good at chess to begin with. This ten-thousand hour rule seems to apply pretty broadly across the spectrum of complex, multivariate activities, things like basketball and the playing of the violin. To achieve a top level in any of these fields, the evidence suggests, you really need to put in about ten thousand hours of sustained, intentional study.

This is a serious problem for writers of fantasy. Or, to put it more precisely, a serious problem for the characters about whom fantasy writers tend to write.

Take, for example, the hoary old trope of the farm boy who becomes a blademaster. Let’s assume the kid has the necessary natural talent. Let’s further spot him a few hundred hours due to his ability to handle a hoe. He’s still about 9,700 hours in the hole when it comes to the mastery of Kvaaana’va, the glowing, bedragoned, unbreakable antique blade of his people.

Consider the curious case of Rand al’Thor.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

As far as we know, the first time Rand’s ever held a sword is in the third or fourth chapter of The Eye of the World. And yet, by the end of the second book (The Great Hunt) he holds his own in single combat against one of the Forsaken, evidently on the strength of a few dozen lessons squeezed in between a lot of wandering, running away from Trollocs,  and playing the flute. Barely half a year has elapsed since he first holds a sword, and yet he’s capable of battling a full blademaster to a standstill. For those of you not near a calculator, half a year is about 4300 hours, and that’s all the hours in all the days.

Given Rand’s piecemeal, ad hoc practice schedule, a schedule not really suitable for a middle school scrabble club, let alone the martial training of the most important person in the world, it’s more than a little surprising that he gets so good so fast.

Of course, there’s something assholish about totaling up hours and insisting on certain tallies for certain activities. This is fiction, this is fantasy, and I’m totally willing to admit a little flex into the calculation. Rand’s case, however, involves more than a little flex. It strains credulity so violently that the whole fabric of the fantasy is in danger of tearing wide open. If this kid can master a sword in a few weeks, it would seem that anyone can do anything – which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth, given the extraordinary abilities mastered by the other characters. Keep in mind that the whole series, all fourteen books, span just two years. The final eight books cover less than twelve months.

Jordan is far from alone when it comes to this issue of implausible mastery. Part of the reason is that fantasy often doubles as a coming of age story, a fact that puts the writer in a bind. Her first choice is to compress the learning process (whether of sword or magic or bow or politics or whatever) into a preposterous time frame. The second is to dilate the space of the novel in order to accommodate the necessary training. We’ve already seen the dangers of the second approach. Expanding the time frame avoids these dangers, but runs the risk of diluting the narrative urgency.

Of course, writers have found a way to tackle this problem. Anthony Ryan, for instance, in his brilliant first novel, Blood Song, makes use of the frame story, a narrative unfolding in a compressed present, to keep his multi-year tale of training, mystery, and self-discovery from coming apart. Without the frame, Blood Song might seem rambling, unfocused. The frame, however, reminds us that the whole thing is aiming at a clear climax. It gives us a particular lens through which to understand the passage of many years. It’s a smart approach, and Ryan handles it masterfully.

Ursula K. Le Guin does something different in her Earthsea novels. Each book covers a relatively short period of time, a few weeks or months (although Wizard is longer). This gives us the intensity and focus that can be lacking in longer, more wandering narratives. The passage of time, the consolidation and mastery of Ged’s skills, takes place primarily between volumes. The years pass, Ged’s abilities grow, and yet we aren’t forced to witness every step along the path. Instead, Le Guin draws us in for the inflection points, the most crucial forks in the road.

A third approach, quite common in the genre, is to start the story with a young character whose training is mostly behind her or him, who is just at the cusp of a major breakthrough. N.K. Jemisin uses this approach quite skillfully in her beautiful, gut-punching novel The Killing Moon, where Nijiri has already mastered the bulk of his training before the book opens. This allows Jemisin to focus on the crucial final steps, the last lessons imparted from master to student (and dredged up from the depths of the student’s own being) in the story itself.

I’m sure there are other ways to handle the dual issues of training and time. I’d be curious to hear from other readers and writers on the subject. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my own ten thousand hour apprenticeship. If only Lan al’Mandragoran could make me a master of writing in half a dozen quick lessons squeezed in between beer drinking and sledding.

Nebraska Stumps Newton; Three Types of Literary Time

Anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska knows that Newton was wrong. Not about gravity, of course. Gravity is still a thing (sort of), but about his notions of absolute space and time. Newton believed that both space and time were the intrinsic scaffolding of the universe, that they were present even in the theoretical absence of anything else, like some sort of invisible graph paper and silently ticking stopwatch. In his words:

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external…”

Leibniz thought this was a pile of horseshit, and ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the consensus has swung heavily toward Leibniz. Of course, if Newton had just bothered to drive across Nebraska, he would have understood that, despite the neat longitudinal grid of the map, the distance between Omaha and Ogallala expands until it is nearly infinite, while the time you get to spend in Las Vegas when you finally cross the country is always criminally short.

Things are even more complex inside the pages of a fantasy novel (or any novel, for that matter) where we encounter not just expanding and contracting time, but three simultaneously occurring and overlapping time frames.

Hunh?

Time Frame One: Book Time. This is the time frame experienced by the characters inside the story. If the main character wakes up in the morning and is pecked to death by penguins that afternoon, the book covers about eight hours.

Time Frame Two: Reading Time. The duration of Book Time need not match the time a reader must spend, ass in chair, reading the book. An eight hundred page novel could cover a single hour (probably a really miserable hour), and yet it will take a reader thirty or so to complete.

Time Frame Three: Real Life Time. When you find a really wonderful book, the sort that involves sitting down at 6 PM, reading straight through while pissing into an empty Gatorade bottle, Reading Time and Real Life Time are nearly synonymous. More frequently, however, it takes a matter of days or weeks, Real Life Time, to get in the necessary hours of Reading Time to finish a novel. This happens because of a) other demands and b) running out of Gatorade bottles.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to spend twenty hours over three weeks completing a book that spans twenty years. It can be helpful, even crucial for authors to realize that the emotional responses and psychological developments of their characters are taking place out of phase with those of the reader.

For example, if Jessica sneaks into Jimmy’s house on page twenty-five and takes a dump on his pillow, both the reader and Jimmy could be expected to feel a visceral revulsion toward and (unless the attack is warranted) distrust of Jessica. If the book leaps forward ten years, however, between pages twenty-five and thirty (probably through a section break or chapter break), Jimmy’s feelings toward Jessica have had ten years to evolve. The reader’s have had about five minutes.

I felt this acutely when reading Ken Follett’s wonderful novel Pillars of the Earth. The book spans decades, but I read it in days. As a result, my feelings about outrages committed at the book’s start were still burning hot, even when the feelings of certain characters against whom those outrages were committed had cooled, or changed. I had days to process events they had decades to absorb. Despite having loved the book (I recommend it whole-heartedly), the ending left me feeling a little confused, a little left out, largely due to this disjunction between my emotions and those of all the characters.

Of course, an author can use the overlapping time frames in her favor as well. One trick that comes across particularly well is rehabilitation of dubious or downright evil characters. There’s a guy in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a character we hate in book one. Martin later tries to bring us around to this dude, to make us see 1) that we may have misjudged him initially and 2) that he’s changed. This sleight-of-hand certainly worked for me, and seems to have worked for most readers, and it leans heavily on the fact that, for most of us, years and years of Real Life Time have passed between the character’s initial evil-doing and his later rehabilitation. In Book Time, however, it’s less than a year. It’s the obverse of the situation mentioned above – we, the readers, are ready to forgive, while most of the characters, understandably, are not.

In the end, the most important conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that if Leibniz hadn’t spent so much time dicking around inventing calculus, he could have written some bad-ass fantasy novels.

A Lover, a Piglet, and a Deep Hole; or, Three Types of Tension

I propose an experiment:

Step One: Acquire a garden hose, a stopwatch, two air horns, a terrified piglet, a wheelbarrow filled with manure, and a hole in the ground ten feet deep and six feet across.

Step Two: Trick your wife or husband, boyfriend or girlfriend, romantic partner or best friend, into stepping into the hole.

Step Three: Gently lower the piglet into the hole.

Step Four: Join both of them in the hole.

Step Five: Explain, once you are both at the bottom of the pit, that you’d like to discuss a subject on which the two of you (the two people, not you and the piglet) have historically disagreed.

Step Six: Arrange things such that, as soon as the discussion begins, another set of people begins filling the hole with water, blowing the air horns, and pelting you with manure.

Step Seven: Allow the piglet to race around the bottom of the pit throughout.

Step Eight: Use the stopwatch to carefully time how long it takes the two of you (again, the two people, not you and the piglet) to come to some sort of agreement or compromise on the issue of historical disagreement.

I’ll admit that it’s just possible that these conditions might lead your friend or partner to submit instantly and absolutely, conceding his or her own side of the debate just to get out of the fucking hole already. More likely, however, much more likely, is that something ugly is going to happen at the bottom of that pit, something far removed from rational discourse and compromise, and you’d just better hope to hell that the air horns and the squealing piglet drown out the screaming.

Why would you do this? Well, to become a better writer, obviously.

This is, after all, what you have to do with your characters all the time. Take the famous scene from The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and the rest attempt to cross the Redhorn Pass in the shadow of the great peak, Caradhras. The fellowship is clearly threatened by weather and rockfall, but the threat doesn’t end there. The strain of the conditions leads to the disastrous decision to turn back, to attempt to cross beneath rather than over the mountains, through the Mines of Moria. One can imagine this discussion going differently had it taken place back, say, in Rivendell, when everyone was well rested and well fed. In the cold and wind, however, battling against the evil of Caradhras, the social fabric of the group begins to fray. There’s no piglet, of course, and no air horns, but close enough.

Tolkien knows, of course, that there are three primary sorts of literary tension: the psychological, the social, and the environmental. These are my terms, not his, and I’ll give a set of examples:

Psychological Tension: Jocelyn has lived most of her life ashamed at having fled from the Goblin Horde that murdered her family years earlier. This shame leads her to take foolish risks in all sorts of situations. The tension that results is primarily a product of her psychology, at least so far.

Social Tension: Jocelyn is travelling with Matt. Matt is an anxious person. His palms sweat at the prospect of riding a spirited horse, let alone facing down a Goblin Horde. Jocelyn’s constant risk-taking leads him to a grim conclusion: she’s going to get them both killed… if he doesn’t kill her first. Matt’s psychological weakness are exacerbated by the people around him, by the social tension that results.

Environmental Tension: Jocelyn and Matt might actually scrape by if all they need to do is walk down the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Nothing would provoke Jocelyn into risk-taking, and Matt, therefore, would be able to keep a lid on his murderous desperation. When we pluck them from Santa Cruz, however, and plop them down in a different environment – in the cellars, say, of the Palace of the Goblin King – things are unlikely to end well.

The three types of conflict are sometimes treated as though they’re separate. You hear people complain regularly of the latest action flick: “It’s all just car chases and things blowing up.” While I happen to love car chases and things blowing up, the point can be a valid one. Environmental tensions that do nothing to exacerbate social tensions are hollow and bombastic. If the characters start getting along better when the city bursts into flames, you (the author) have a real problem.

Likewise, social tensions that don’t chafe against raw psychological tensions are pointless. Imagine: Jesse makes fun of Jimmy’s ears. Jimmy, a level-headed and self-respecting young man, ignores him. Not much of a story there.

Give Jimmy a psychological weakness or wound, however, and we’re off to the races. Let’s say his ex-wife divorced him, saying, “You look like a goblin with your tiny face and huge, stupid ears.” Let’s say he really took that to heart. When Jesse makes his crack, Jimmy’s going to have him hanging over the Brooklyn Bridge by his ankles.

This kind of dynamic plays out all the time in my favorite sport: adventure racing. Teams drop out of races all the times, and at first blush, it usually looks as though it was the environment – the freezing rain, the endless bog, the capsized boats – that did them in.

Closer observation, however, usually reveals something else: the environmental difficulties irritate social tensions (John is sick to death of Jill telling him how to paddle the fucking boat), which are themselves almost always based on psychological issues (John was worried from the get-go that he’d be shown up by Jill, and sure enough, she’s proving far, far tougher than he is). The three types of tension meet in a perfect storm.

The teams, on the other hand, made up of happy people with good senses of humor, women and men who can work hard without taking themselves too seriously, usually endure with equanimity and even laughter the very worst of environmental tensions.

“Literary fiction” (whatever the hell that is) often (but certainly not always) eschews environmental tension as superficial or gaudy. We get tight little portraits of depressed men and women staring at blue jays while drinking themselves to death. Or whatever. Epic fantasy, though, is epic for a reason. It’s great to have a group of unhappy, distrustful people, but if you can put them on a rocky ledge above a gorge with a thousand hungry wolves on their trail and raging wildfires ahead, why wouldn’t you? Also, it never hurts to throw in a piglet.

Just Keeping Going; or What Does the Balrog Do All Day?

It’s not at all clear how Durin’s Bane, the Balrog from The Lord of the Rings, spends his days. Lurking, evidently. Possibly gnashing his teeth, if he has teeth. Maybe playing Skyrim on a console he’s got stashed way down deep beneath the Misty Mountains.  Certainly the dwarves provide periodic entertainment, and once the orcs arrive, he has someone to hang out with. Lively conversation seems unlikely, but one can imagine some really epic drum circles. Whatever the case, he’s clearly pretty excited for the change of pace when Gandalf and company show up.

The interesting thing about the Balrog, however, is that he is only incidental to the central story. It’s slightly surprising that in a tale about the struggle to defeat Sauron, one of the most badass characters we encounter has almost nothing to do with Sauron… and he’s not alone.

Two of the other most memorable creatures – the Watcher in the Waters and Shelob – are also autonomous evils. About Shelob, for instance, the massive spider encountered by Sam and Frodo, we’re told, “But still she was there, who was there before Sauron […] and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness.” She’s not even an independent contractor in the misery business. She’s a total loose canon.

This is not a complaint. I don’t think these monsters are a flaw in the book, but it’s worth asking why they’re there, worth considering what a fantasy novel (or any novel) gains from the inclusion of malevolent creatures and forces beyond the scope of the central conflict. After all, it would be a trivial edit to loop them into Sauron’s ambit of evil, a matter of few tweaked sentences, a couple of paragraphs at most.

It’s tempting to suggest that the ancillary monsters are there just to keep things exciting. Strolling the Mines of Moria without the Balrog would be comparable to visiting the great pyramids or the Mayan ziggurats; the place is gorgeous, certainly, and possessed of a certain archaeological and architectural interest, but tromping around in the dark for days isn’t the sort of thing to make your blood pound in your ears.

SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH

Or we could point out that, though not allied with Sauron, Shelob and the Balrog do help to move the plot forward. It’s hardly possible to have Gandalf the Gray return as Gandalf the White without his trial and death at the hands (claws?) of the Balrog. But then, Gandalf’s transformation could be accomplished just as readily if Durin’s Bane were, in fact, one of Sauron’s henchmen.

So what’s with the random monsters? What’s to be gained from the splintered nature of evil in The Lord of the Rings? Well, everything actually.

The fact that there are foes and forces beyond Sauron himself suggests something crucial about the nature of Middle Earth and the struggle of the main characters. If everything centered on Sauron and his funky jewelry, any victory for good would constitute absolute victory. The inclusion of Shelob and the Balrog, however, suggest a more complicated universe, one that is more inimical to goodness than we might at first suspect.

Even the defeat of Sauron, we realize, will not purge Middle Earth of darkness, horror, or evil; Shelob, though injured and dripping ichor, is not dead at the story’s end. What’s more, our encounter with these few horrors intimates still other malevolent forces waiting undiscovered in forests and caves, mountains and rivers. Evil is not the creation of Sauron, nor will it be defeated with him.

It is the enduring nature of this evil, in part, that makes the ending of The Lord of the Rings so bittersweet. Victory can only ever be temporary, contingent. Somewhere unseen the universe is birthing something awful. Good can never ultimately prevail; the best it can hope is to endure.

This fact, of course, has ramifications for the characters and their struggles. Frodo and Sam succeed, in large part, because their heroism is the heroism of endurance. Boromir, on the other hand, is chock-full of the heroism of battle, but he lacks the ability to keep going, to keep faith and hope in a world brimming with horror. He would be well suited to a high-stakes, winner-takes-all battle, but there is no such battle, no such conclusive victory possible. Boromir is capable of dying in a bright blaze of glory, but he’s not up to the task of living, of persevering, in a world that seems beyond the reach of absolute redemption.

Our world, like Tolkien’s, is filled with Balrogs and Shelobs, and in our world, as in Tolkien’s, the pursuit of the good is often just that: a pursuit, not an end. Heroism doesn’t lie in victory – there is always another dragon or spider lurking – but in just keeping going.