Thursday 25 October 2018

On Cheating Agency

Being a man with very little focus, I recently let myself get distracted from the terrifying mountain of editing by an idea that occurred to me at work. I wrote a mini-treatment of it at work, talked to some friends (like I mentioned in the last article) and they encouraged me to write some of it. A couple of scenes formed in my head, so I did.

And hated them. They felt flat and short of colour. So I sat down and started considering why, and figured part of it was I'd started in a place and way that didn't showcase the characters' motivations. The agency was absent.

This isn't an article on how agency was important. I considered writing that article but if you're reading this, if you're interested in writing, you know that and you know why.

If I pursue the idea, I'm going to go and make the sense of agency in those characters more standout. But what if I didn't want to? What if I wanted to write an interesting story about people unsure of their place in the world and with no strong motivations? Storytelling's got a problem that can't do that. Hell, Fantasy's got a problem. Just look at all the characters over the years that have had weak agency. One of Fantasy's big archetypes is the great unknown finding someone unsure in their place in the world and changing them.

Now, yeah, the rules says that characters have to have agency. And they say that for a damn good reason. But to paraphrase Terry Rossio, great art is often great because it ignore the rules.

So it got me thinking. How do you ignore the rules of agency? How do you write great stories about passive reactive characters?

This is what I came up with:

1) Foreshadow Growth

I can think of very very few stories where the character lacks motivation the entire story long. If the character has an obvious growth path and arc, that can provide the sense of being interesting that can go missing with a lack of agency. We take that for granted in Coming of Age stories, particularly ones with big prophecies, but that's far from the only way to skin that particular cat. 

2) Between a Rock and a Hard Place

One of the reasons agency is so important is its such a great short cut to dramatic tension. Stick the character in a situation where they have to risk what they desire most and you get to see the wee bugger squirm and plot like mad. If the character doesn't have that sort of motivation, then plot events need to provide that sense of dramatic tension. Once you start forcing a character to choose, they develop agency whether they like it or not.

3) Write Incredibly Well

Its kinda obvious but needs to be said. Great books are rarely those that do everything well, they books that do something fantastically well. Take American Gods. I know people who hate Shadow, hate Gaiman's protagonists in general, but only oxygen has a universal fanbase and American Gods is objectively one of the classics of modern fantasy. Why? Because Gaiman has some of the best story ideas the genre has ever seen, great prose, and writes a killer scene. For a lot of people (including myself) that is more than enough to make a great read.

I'm sure there's other ways of beating traditional story structure here. And, much as I love traditional story structure and believe its valuable, authors should be trying to beat it. Because as one great storyteller said:

"Only a special hero can defy stories themselves - and wouldn't that make a cool story anyway?"

Monday 15 October 2018

Beating the Block

I've been going through some pretty total writers' block recently. I shan't get much into the details but between the demands of real life, frustration with editing and mental health issues, its been total.

So how am I going to get out of the funk? I read a friend's blog the other day on getting back it - Small Steps, Tiny Bites by Juliana Spink-Mills - and realised that I did need to think about taking definite steps to rebuilding my writing habit.

Juliana's article contains a lot of things that I think are very helpful. In particular I think she's right to talk about comfort books. For me, the block includes a loss of passion, a loss of connection to why my stories are important and should be told. Reading the books I love most, the books that helped convince me some things are important, that is one way to help rekindle the passion. 

But there's other things that can help.

For me, music can be huge as both a source of storytelling inspiration and mood regulation. Listening to songs that'll get me in the right frame of mind, rather than any old thing, will help. This thread on SFFChronicles is full of some of my favourites for getting in a storytelling mood but sometimes its less about getting something that brings the ideas and more about something that brings energy. My Shot from Hamilton is my current high energy song of choice but its good to mix it up; for a while it was Psychonaut by Fields of the Nephilim.

Another big one is exercise. Beyond it being just good for you and your mood, there's also the extent to which I think stories on the move. Everyone does stories differently; I don't come up with my stories staring at a computer screen. That's just where I sit when I try to force them out. I come up with them while outside and walking. Its easy to lose physical activity when days are long and boring and you get itchy just to get from A to B to Couch.

Writing is part of a person's life; it becomes intertwined with everything. If a person is struggling with writing and the standard list of writing exercises and small goals isn't cutting it alone, then it is worth examining how deep the roots go. The most trivial seeming things can help if they create the right conditions for writing. No writer succeeds without getting the words out but there are countless different paths to take to get you to that space.

And in writing this paragraph, I've realised somewhere else I've been going wrong. I haven't been talking enough about writing in a way that creates an enthusiasm for it. It's been a fallow time for forum discussion; private correspondence with friends has gone dry for want of progress. But the feedback goes two ways on that. Sometimes a conversation with others can be the spark you need that particular day; sometimes a word of praise the small win you're looking for.

So that's my to do list. Walk more, talk more, listen to the songs that amp me up, and then easing myself back into the saddle with comfortable books and small pieces of writing. Like this blog. 

Monday 8 October 2018

Five Mini-Reviews

Its been a hectic few weeks here, which I've made more hectic by reading multiple books at once. So rather than decide which one to waffle on about, I decided to write small reviews of them all...

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard - De Bodard’s style here reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay, for better and for worse. She has Kay’s taste for the semi-historical setting, for the usage of humble (and not so humble) characters amid grand events, for elegant and poetic prose and slow-developing epic narratives. It is captivating, but patience testing enough to counter that captivation. De Bodard’s characters seem to lack the grand exuberant passion of Kay’s character, which make them that unfortunate tad less interesting. Nevertheless, I am excited to see how this progresses, particularly Phillipe’s story. If the Kay comparison holds true, this will have one hell of an ending.

Blood of Assassins by RJ Barker - There’s a neat, nifty and unfortunate trait here. Barker has shifted the tone of the book considerably to show Girton’s maturation into a bitter young man. I marvel at the skill but mourn at the loss of the warm wry narrative voice. That’s part of the reason I like this sequel less than its predecessor. The other part would be a large and underdeveloped cast that doesn’t have the great appeal of those in Age of Assassins, and the underuse of the wonderful Merela Karn. In short, most of the book’s problems stem from comparison to Age of Assassins. This means you should read Age of Assassins, because its such an impossible to reach benchmark. You should also read Blood of Assassins if you do, because it’s still an exciting fantasy romp with a little bit of everything.

The Empyreus Proof by Bryan Wigmore - I read this as a beta and I’m currently re-reading it to do a proper review. There’s an interesting contrast in how to do a sequel between this and the above title. Blood of Assassins resolutely follows Girton’s journey; The Empyreus Proof spreads its net wide as the main characters from the last book spread out, pursue other paths and meet others. In general, I prefer the latter I think, or at least when done right. Wigmore’s Not-Quite Edwardian era world is interesting, as is his magic, but the real star turn here comes from the characters’ narrative arcs. The exploration of character, of identity and humanity is something Wigmore does as well as anyone - and the fantasy is here to serve that, not obscure that. 

The Eagle's Flight by Daniel E. Olesen - I do not mean to presume at knowing an author’s mind, but my guess is Olsen wrote this after looking at SoIaF and LotR and thinking: “We need something with SoIaF’s political machinations and semi-hard historical setting married to LotR’s archaic tone and wide spread view.” The result is something fascinating and almost daunting. In tune with the current demand for blood and guts adventures it is not but personally that makes Flight of Eagles a welcome change of pace. It feels genuinely epic and while I sometimes chafed at the slow pace, I always wanted to know what happened next. I urge anyone who thinks those themes sound interesting to get involved.

Hell of a Deal: Demon Trader by Mark Huntley-James - Written by my most recent interview victim (assuming he forgives me recently flaking out for a couple of weeks), Hell of a Deal is a very different beast to the rest of those on display here. A comedic urban fantasy about a man broking deals with hell, it reminds me somewhat of Robert Rankin or Good Omens in the way it deals with British life side by side with the occult. It’s a combination that is very close to my heart and enlivened by a sense of the absurd that’s very similar to Rankin too. Well worth a look.