Category Archives: Our Favorite Fiction

What are some of the books, movies, or TV that we the Fictorians love?

The Second Book in a Series, or: The Ugly Middle Child

Ahh. There’s nothing like kicking back in a comfy chair with a good series. While I am not a fast reader by any means, you might finish a book in one day and go right on to the second book. When you look at that cover, what are you thinking about? Are you expecting another exciting installment in the adventure? Are you anticipating it will be just as good as the first?

I’ll admit it. Every single time I pick up book two in a series, I have high hopes and expect it to be just as good as, if not better than, the first book. And I should seriously know better by now. Because almost every series I read has a major book two problem, especially trilogies. I’ve taken to calling book two (in any series) The Ugly Middle Child. No offense to all of you middle children out there, I’m sure you’re lovely and probably gorgeous.

Whenever this topic comes up in conversation (which is often, you’d be surprised), I always come back to The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, book two in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Why? Because it’s a perfect example of a book two done well, at least in my humble opinion.

Why?

*Caution: spoilers ahead! I repeat: spoilers ahead!*

Important Things Happen

Gandalf is reincarnated as Gandalf the White. Ents! Shelob! F*ing Wormtongue! If you weren’t entertained by The Two Towers, then you might want to go back and re-read it. While it does what many book twos do — sets up everything for the end — it also deepens the characters by splitting them up to have individual quests. And boy are those quests cool. Some book twos simply exist to set up book three, and the author forgets to make the journey fun. They also forget to make sure crucial things happen in book two, which will make the climax of book three all the more wonderful.

The Introduction of an Integral Character

Gollum. He was whispered about in the first book and we knew him from The Hobbit, but in book two, we really get to see him. We learn his story and see his suffering. And for many of us, we had no idea what an important part he would play in the end. Now that’s how you set up an integral character.

Facing the Consequences of What Happened in Book One

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir is overcome with the allure of the ring, and Frodo and Sam split off to go to Mordor alone. The consequences of this decision play out in the beginning of book two – Boromir is killed by Lurtz, the Uruk-hai leader. While the movie has Boromir die at the end of the first movie, the consequences of his actions are played out in the second book and in the second movie. When Frodo and Sam come across Faramir, Boromir’s brother, they expect the same ring-lust. However, Faramir must grapple with the truth of his brother’s death and resolve not to be like him. Real consequences and real decisions, which only pave the way to an explosive book three.

Too often, book twos feel slow and sloggy, and only serve the purpose of setting up book three. Let us take Tolkien’s example of what a good book two looks like: one full of action, intrigue, important character building, fun, the introduction of integral characters, and making sure the characters face the consequences of their actions from book one, making them stronger and all the more ready to face their ultimate battles in book three.

What do you think? If you liked The Two Towers, what did you like about it? Why was it successful as a book two? Any more examples of a book two done well? I’d love to read about it!

For Stage Or Page

A guest blog by Marie Bilodeau

Back in 2005, I wasn’t getting published. I had lots of stuff in the mail (SASEs, anyone?), but not many bites. I stumbled across storytelling, a performance art completely revolving around stories. I fell in love (with the idea of a captive audience, as most audiences are too polite to walk out). I took a class, started telling, and I’ve now had the chance to be a professional storyteller for 13 years, telling stories across Canada and the United Stated, in lovely settings like theatres, and shiny settings like under disco balls.

In my early days, I thought that stories I’d tell would be great to published, and vice versa. Except for a few exceptions, I have been utterly and completely wrong. But this is so that each story can shine in its own medium, much like books don’t always translate well to movies.

The “why” is still a question that haunts me (haunts may be the wrong word here), but I have unearthed a few reasons:

The Thread

Like most storytellers, I don’t memorize my stories. I get up there and let the words flow (I do practice them, however. Sometimes.)

To make a story memorable, I typically memorize (more or less) three things:

  • my first few sentences (so I can nicely set the stage)
  • my last few sentences (to nail it)
  • a few images / pieces of dialogue (to make it memorable / stand out)

Everything else has to flow for the audience to be able to follow (their brows furrowing is super distracting while you’re telling) and, to accomplish that, I also have to find the story thread. That’s the core of your story – the journey that everything hooks onto, from action to characters, so that it’s easy enough for the listener to sit back and enjoy the journey.

It doesn’t mean your stories are simple or that the thread is obvious! Think about some of the earliest oral storytelling examples: Epics, myths, legends, fairy tales… they all have similar beats. That’s the thread.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, if you know your story thread and you get lost while telling (a banging door, a screaming child, your feet hurt, you’re sweating under the spotlights), you can easily hop back in your story and improvise your way back because you know where to go. The teller must never break their own spell, after all.

The Audience

Your audience is there with you. You’re sharing a story, not just living it alone. You can throw in movement, song, a glance that highlights sarcasm. You’re living a story together, so you adapt as you go, to get your audience to feel or react in the best possible way. You can develop in-jokes, which you share only with your audience.

Because of the audience, the stories are never told the same. And because of you, the teller, they’re always a bit different.

You’re not just words. You’re a full package experience!

The Silences

These are similar to the breaks and white spaces in writing. But in telling, the hardest thing to get used to, and the most important, are the silences. It’s letting that empty space sit, so that your audience can digest something you’ve told them, make the connections and follow where you might be heading, sit with their emotions for a few moments. And you’re holding them by looking at your audience, sweeping over them and making eye contact, and they’re looking back, and every second feels like an eternity. You’re not there to hide, my friends. You’re there to deliver the story, silences and all.

Telling and writing may not be interchangeable (fully), but I know that they’ve helped each other get better. I’m better at story because of both of these art forms. Parsing a story differently is a great skill to develop, so even if the stage is not for you, definitely find a different medium to try out. Those skills will be handy in one way or another.

Check out some storytelling! 

About Marie Bilodeau: mariebilodeau
Marie Bilodeau is an award-winning science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer. Her latest book, Nigh, which she fondly describes as a “faerie-pocalypse,” is currently being serialized in bite-sized chunks, and is all about exploring tension through setting. Find out more about Marie at www.mariebilodeau.com.

Three-D Writing: Part 2 – Taking Risks with a Cauliflower

A guest blog by Karen Traviss

On Friday we looked at ways to boost your storytelling by reworking your manuscript as a comic or a movie. This week, we move on to cauliflowers. Talking cauliflowers.

I’m not immune to the ruts and barriers of writing even at this stage of my career. If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know that the ability to spontaneously create sentient vegetables in a story, without apology and actually making it work, was a gift I envied, so I set about trying to acquire it. That was easier said than done. It wasn’t that I wanted to write fantasy per se, but that I watched how effortlessly manga and anime just went for it and made the utterly bonkers somehow seem perfectly reasonable.

For some of you, that’ll be how you write anyway, you lucky people. My natural habitat, though, is realism. That’s inevitable after careers in news journalism and related school-of-hard-knocks trades, and I’ve built a business on it. My readers like authenticity and I’m known for doing nose-bleeding amounts of research for the smallest detail or even for the background awareness that never makes it into the book. But the other side of rigorous realism is an inner censor: the disapproving mental voice that speaks up when it encounters a wild thought, and says, “Don’t be so bloody daft, that would never happen.”

We don’t need self-censorship. We already have too many external censors trying to tell fiction writers what they’re allowed to do and trying to prevent them from publishing what they don’t approve of. Censorship kills fiction: it makes for cookie-cutter stories built from tick-lists, and – perhaps worse – it removes an important safety valve for society. Fiction is where we can say the unsayable and make sense of what we see without enacting it in the real world. “What if?” Those are the most important words in fiction, and we don’t need a zampolit to give us permission to answer the question.

What some of us need, though, is a way to be equally defiant of the inner censor. For me, that meant risking falling out of love with anime and manga by analysing it. (Later I extended that to live action drama.) Usually, I have to choose between creating or consuming, because once I pick a side I can never switch back to the other again. But for some reason, this time I managed it. The Japanese – and the Koreans, I later found – take risks in fiction that we often shy away from in the West. Maybe I don’t see their taboos in the gaps because I don’t understand enough about their societies, but what I do see is a healthy sense of abandon to uncertainty. They really go for What If.

Genre lines seem not to exist. Random and incongruous is the order of the day, and they dip in and out of other cultures and mix nationalities without apology or apparent fear of “appropriation.” There are some consistent character archetypes, but nobody’s guaranteed to survive, win the love of their life, or even succeed in their quest. Happy ever after seems quite rare: but there’s plenty of suck it up and make the best of it. There’s often a massive reveal at the halfway point that changes everything you thought about the first half. And then there are the techniques like timeline loops and flashback reveals which can look odd to western writers who’ve been taught that you can’t hide things from the audience. (Okay, that’s still a big challenge if you write very tight third POV.) Somehow, the Japanese and Koreans make it all work magnificently.

So, having watched more Japanese and Korean TV and movies than I thought was physically possible, I felt I had a good grasp of what they were doing and how they did it. (And boy, did I enjoy it.) But recognising what they’re doing isn’t the same as being able to do it yourself. If I sat down and tried to force something wackier or more random onto the page, I just ended up doing what I always did: extrapolating, based on reality. That’s how I tell a story. I take the environment, work out the type of characters most likely to be there, shove them together, and let them run like a computer model.

Characters need to behave like real humans, but nothing else needs to be real. I still struggled with creating the unrealistic and the un-sensible. Eventually, the first glimmer of a turning point for me was when someone pointed out that I was often surreal and off the wall on Twitter, so why couldn’t I do it in a novel?

Because Twitter is a series of throwaways, the equivalent of a casual chat in the pub. That’s why.

My inner censor – even if I do apply common sense and a healthy wariness of getting sued – is off duty on Twitter. I don’t expect to have to do anything long-form or smart with a random observation, or have my career hinge on it, so I let it loose.

That realisation taught me that I have to be prepared to grab the loony thought and hold on to it, write it down, and ignore the voice that tells me to be sensible.

Over a lifetime I’d learned not to listen to the free association that was my brain doing what brains are made to do – trying to create patterns, even when those patterns are misleading and don’t exist.

I’m working on it. Some days I get a glimpse of what’s possible, but it’s still not how I think naturally, and maybe it never will be. But if I can detach enough from my own self to think like each character that I create, and believe what they believe and see what they see while I’m in their heads, then I should be able to detach a little further from the real world.

In the meantime, I’ll keep gorging on anime and sit glued to the latest Korean supernatural police procedural comedy thriller romance series (yes, all in the same show) and hope some that breath-taking ability to ignore risk rubs off on me. When my inner voice says, “You need a talking cauliflower there… ,” I shall be ready to listen.

About Karen Traviss:
KT
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former journalist and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, and the sequel, Black Run, are available now.
Website and newsletter sign-up: www.karentraviss.com

Twitter: @karentraviss

Three-D Writing: Part One

A guest blog by Karen Traviss

Some day – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, as the man said – you might find yourself wondering why suddenly nothing you write seems to come alive on the page.

I don’t mean writer’s block. You’re still churning stuff out, knowing where you need to go, but when you read it back to yourself it feels flat and lifeless, regardless of the amount of information that you’ve imparted to the reader. It’s hard to put your finger on it: there’s nothing actually wrong with it. All you know is that it just doesn’t fly.

Sometimes walking away from it for a couple of weeks is all you need to see it with new eyes, but you might not have the luxury of time, or it might be a symptom of a broader problem, that you’ve run out of creative juice. It’s not that you don’t know where to take the story next: it’s just that you can’t see a better way of telling it.

There are always different ways to tell the same story. Only you know whether your current version is “wrong” – trust your judgement the way a painter or musician does instead of assuming an outsider will know better – and one size doesn’t fit all. But one way of finding alternatives is to learn from the techniques of other media. Take your troublesome story, chapter, or scene, and see how it works as a comic, movie, or game.

I’m a visual thinker. I have to “translate” my books from mental movies into descriptions and transcriptions. I write comics and games as well as novels, and when I get an idea for a story, my first question is which medium would suit it best. But I’d take a guess that most novelists never write anything but prose fiction or essays, and many don’t read comics or play games, so they’re not used to applying images to story. My advice probably sounds useless: how can you learn anything by doing what you don’t know how to do and don’t even consume? But if you think of yourself as just a writer and reader, you almost certainly watch TV and movies as well. You can use those instead. You already know more than you think.

Take a scene or a few chapters of your manuscript and jot down a summary of what happens. hen imagine that extract as scenes in a movie or pages of a comic. (Grab a video or find a comic in a similar genre and take a look at it first if you’re not sure where to begin.) Then sketch a storyboard of your novel excerpt – stick figures and lollypop trees will do fine – and see what lends itself to images and what doesn’t. And fill those panels with every object you think will be there, even if you haven’t mentioned it in the manuscript. Your brain will probably rush to fill empty spaces anyway. It’s very good at show-not-tell.

You don’t have to get it right. You’ll have clunky transitions, and panels or shots that you just don’t know how to fill, but those gaps will be equally useful in understanding how you can bring your story alive. When you need images that grab the eye, you’ll realise that maybe you need to start the intro with a guy wandering around a museum and being moved on by the staff because he spends so long in there, and ditch the opening where he’s just sitting in his room while he ponders how much he loves history. Just write in what you’re trying to convey in any gap and go back to it later.

Now take a look at the finished storyboard, gaps and all. Does it turn out to be all talking heads because the characters aren’t anywhere specific or doing anything that adds to the story? Do they move around in interesting and relevant settings? Are there objects in their field of view that add information when examined, a portrait on the wall or a warning sign, like discoverables in games? Does the scene end on a dramatic image with an implied “To be continued” panel like a comic? Find your gaps and visually boring sequences, and from those filled gaps, more ideas will flow.

The opening line to this essay is, as I hope most of you know, from the movie Casablanca. Whatever film you use as a crash course in visual grammar to pep up your manuscript, don’t pick that one. The irony is that one of the greatest films of all time is, when you analyse it, almost all talking heads, very few locations, nearly all interiors, and almost no action. But with a great cast, a cracking script, and a solid story, you can get away with it. Just not this time.

Part II: Learning To Take Risks.

About Karen Traviss:
KT
New York Times best-selling author Karen Traviss is a former journalist and has also spent way too much of her life around politicians and police. Going Grey, the first in her new techno-thriller series, and the sequel, Black Run, are available now.
Website and newsletter sign-up: www.karentraviss.com

Twitter: @karentraviss