Category Archives: Tristan Brand

Tristan Brand

Future Wisdom

I’ve got a few things I’d like to relay to various past versions of myself.

To eighteen-year old me:

You love reading. You do it all the time, especially when you should be doing other things, like paying attention in biology, or sleeping (though, granted, that’s hard to do when you’re reading Stephen King). Half the time you’re not reading, you’re daydreaming about fantastical worlds, places, and people. Sometimes you even open up a word file and type a few sentences to start off a story.

Why then, have you decided you can’t be a writer? I know you think it’s magic, that it requires patience and care you don’t have, but you’re wrong. Writing is a skill like anything else. That it looks like magic at the end is a function of the time and work the authors put into developing it. You can do that too, if you only believe it’s possible.

Sure, maybe you don’t have time, with college just around the corner. But if you aren’t going to start writing now, make sure it’s for the right reason, and not because you’ve given up before you’ve started.

To twenty-seven year old me:

Great, you’ve just written your first novel! It has a plot, an opening, something vaguely resembling a middle, and a climax. You know it’s not exactly a Hugo winner, but you’re proud of it, and man, now you’ve got a plan and a schedule. Four practice novels a year for three years. Add in some critiquing, self-reflection, and a few workshops, and you think you’ll have it made!

The optimism is admirable, but it should be measured. There are difficulties in writing you don’t get yet, and you’re raising the bar so high it’s going to be hard not to fail to reach it. Again, it’s okay to stretch – but be sure you know you’re stretching. Writing is hard. Make sure you give yourself the time to appreciate that before declaring yourself the next Brandon Sanderson.

Finally, the immensely wise future-me has been kind enough to step in and give yesterday’s me some advice:

Yeah, your planned weekend of writing turned out mediocre, at best. Sort of like the rest of the year’s writing sessions. And yes, it hurts. You’ve got some hard problems to work through that you’re not going to solve over night. But remember that you have a vision and that people believe in you. It’s not going to become any easier, but every day you write – even when it seems like the writing sucks – is a day closer to the novel you know you’re capable of being done.

And don’t forget to have fun. After all, that’s the reason you started doing this in the first place.

Writing What You’re Not

Laja followed Verl into the human bar, slithering closer to him than was polite, as she feared getting left behind more than the breach in etiquette. Inside, her eyestalks recoiled from the harsh fluorescent light. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the room was filled to the brim with the strange pasty-skinned creatures, crammed together eight to a table. So many sharing the same air! She ran a tentacle over her breathing apparatus, making sure it was secured. The human’s language, grunting linear syllabic expressions, made her ears hurt. Ugly / Stupid / Why are we here? she mind-sang to Verl, who, judging by the quivering of his own tentacles, was as horrified as she.

 

***

 

One of the great things about writing speculative fiction is we aren’t limited to telling stories only from a human’s perspective. Our characters can be dogs or dragons or golems or even aliens, like Laja and Verl from the passage above. Though often non-human characters play second-fiddle to a human protagonist, sometimes they take the stage themselves and we, as readers, can imagine what it might be like to walk (or slither) about as another species entirely.

Of course, writing from a non-human point of view presents its own set of challenges, as we writers are all too human (well, most of us, anyway.) Our experience is fundamentally different than that of a dog’s or a dragon’s. Still, this shouldn’t stop us – it’s not like all humans see the world the same. Writers must write characters of different genders, different ages, different cultures, and of different belief systems. Each time we have to stretch our imagination and try to understand the other. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for characters of different species.

I’ve always had a particular love for non-human characters. Aside from the fun of imagining what it might be like to have wings or a tail, they can add a lot to a story by giving us a radically different perspective on things we might find mundane. Take the passage about aliens at a bar from above. Most humans would find nothing odd about stepping into a crowded bar, but for a pair of aliens with totally different cultural and physical norms, the experience becomes a harrowing one. It gives us, as readers, an opportunity to imagine what we might look to beings who aren’t used to us or our behavior. I’ve found such shifts in perspective can lead to unexpected insights and add a great deal to a story.

The passage also demonstrates some of the techniques you can use in writing a non-human character. The physicality of the character is different. Laja doesn’t walk, she slithers. She doesn’t use her hands, she uses tentacles. She doesn’t have regular eyes but instead, eyestalks. Such details are critical in making her perspective believable.

There are key cultural differences too. Laja’s horror at how tightly the humans sit together, and her concern that following her companion too closely might be considered rude, show a fundamental difference in how she see’s personal space. Her reaction to their language and her own mind-song demonstrates major differences in communication and language.

There’s a trap here, where in our attempts to write a non-human character as believably as possible, we let the differences in their culture and physicality interfere with the story. I’m working on a novel right now from the perspective of a dog. A real dog probably spends an inordinate amount of time sorting through scents, but if I spent paragraph after paragraph simply describing what everything smelled like, no one would want to read past page two. It’s important to find the proper balance between keeping the perspective compelling and not letting it get in the way of the story.

One example of a very well done non-human point of view is Scriber from Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Scriber is part of a race called the Tines, wolf-like creatures that live in packs governed by hive-minds. One subplot of the novel follows Scriber as he tries to save the lives of two human children stranded on his planet. Vinge paints a vivid picture of the Tines’ world, as well as what it might be like to be a being that has control of multiple individual bodies.

For those interested in reading more novels that feature non-human perspectives, here are a few more examples I recommend checking out:

  • TenSoon, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. TenSoon is a kandra, a being that can absorb a dead body of any other species and takes its form. In particular, I think Brandon does a wonderful job of creating a unique culture for the Kandra, who are bound by a contract that prevents them from doing violence.
  • Chet, from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn. A rare example from a non-speculative fiction genre, the novel is told from the point of view of Chet the dog, owned by a detective named Bernie.
  • Auron from Dragon Champion by E. E. Knight. As ubiquitous as dragons are in fantasy, novels where they get significant point-of-views seem rare. All of Knight’s novels in this series are told from the point of view of dragons born of the same clutch, who find themselves orphaned at a young age and forced to fend for themselves.

 

One Saturday with Sean

2011 was the year I first started writing in earnest. I made it my goal to write a new novel every three months. I wasn’t trying to produce finished products but rather to prove to myself I could write a novel start-to-finish, as well as to experiment with different writing styles and genres to see what worked for me.

I spent seven years in school learning math. One of the nice things about a subject like mathematics is constant and (mostly) objective feedback. A professor will grade your homework assignments and exams, the results of which serves as data to help you improve your process. You learn when you’ve done something right and when you’ve done something wrong.

Not so, in writing. You can spend days hammering away at a piece and end up with something that isn’t clearly good or bad. That’s where I found myself. After writing three practice novels, I was left frustrated. Some days they’d seem promising; other days, hopeless. I don’t mind doing things wrong as long as I know what I’m doing wrong, but with writing I couldn’t always tell the difference. I hated not knowing. I’d approach each writing session with a feeling of dread, no idea if I was moving forward or backward.

Fortunately, I had my best friend Sean.

Sean’s not a heavy reader and didn’t know a ton about the fantasy genre. He was running his own business at the time and worked so many hours I don’t know how he stayed sane. Despite all that, during one of his rare free weekends right around when I was finishing that third novel, Sean chose to spare the time to fly up and visit me. We didn’t go to a movie or play video games. Instead, we spent an entire Saturday in front of a white-board while I went through everything I’d done in trying to write that novel.

I went through my plot in excruciating detail, talking as much about my process as I did my characters. I talked about what I wanted for the novel, an epic fantasy story about a human and dragon raised as foster brothers. About how a promising start fell apart in the third act because I didn’t know what to do with half my side-characters. I talked about my struggles with dialogue and action sequences, and how my plan for a really cool revelation toward the end fizzled because I couldn’t come up with anything even remotely clever.

Throughout it all, Sean asked questions, made comments, gave me his take. Some things he liked, others he didn’t. He’s got great intuition for when something doesn’t feel right, and with his help we were able to pinpoint some missteps I made along the way. In particular we figured out that Coren, one of the main characters, didn’t have clear goals much of the time, which left some key conflicts vague and important scenes weak. I was too close to the novel to see that, but when Sean pointed it out things became much clearer. Yeah, I had made some mistakes, but now I knew why, and I knew I could fix it in the future.

Now, I need to mention, Sean didn’t come up and spend his day talking about my failed novel because I begged him to. It was all his idea. He wanted to come. He knew how important writing was to me and wanted to support me. He didn’t just critique my ideas, he told me which ones he loved. Actually being able to see the excitement in someone else’s face as I described a particular character or conflict felt amazing. It showed me that even though the novel hadn’t worked as a whole, at least it had potential.

That Saturday took me out of my mental rut. It gave me the fuel I needed to move on to the next project, and it helped me remember that no matter how lonely writing sometimes feels, as long as you have good friends, you never truly have to do it alone.