Killing off your characters

A while back I listened to a podcast about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian novel North and South. The panelists made a persuasive case that it is still worth reading. So I downloaded it and read it. The panelists were wrong.

It’s not, you know, terrible. But there’s nothing distinctive about it, and it falls too easily into Victorian attitudes even as the author sometimes seems to be pushing boundaries a bit. Dickens does the same thing, of course, but you can forgive him because he’s so brilliantly funny and inventive; Gaskell is neither. The panelists pointed out that she tries to fairly represent the points of view of capital and labor in the new industrial society that was transforming England. That’s admirable, but those points of view feel pretty dated 150 years on.

Here’s one distinctive thing Gaskell does: she shows no qualms about killing off her characters. Half a dozen major-ish characters die in the course of the novel, several of them for no apparent reason. That is to say, the plot would have worked just as well if the heroine’s mother hadn’t died, followed by her father, followed by her godfather… It’s Victorian England, of course, so it’s not unreasonable for someone to cash in his chips without any warning in his mid-fifties. But it happens enough in this novel that it feels like an authorial tick.

I’m intrigued by this because I’m approaching the climactic scenes of the novel that I’ve been working on. I’m clear on the general direction of the plot, but I haven’t worked out the details–like who’s gonna die. A bad guy or two, surely, but what about the good guys? It seems unlikely that they’ll get off scot-free. Unlike North and South, in my novel people are actually fighting each other (to be fair, there was a pretty good union-busting scene in North and South, but no one died in it). But which good guys? At this point I’m pretty fond of all of them.

I’m interested in finding out how this all turns out. Which is why I haven’t been blogging much lately.

PORTAL on sale for 99 cents!

For some reason my novel PORTAL is now on sale for a mere 99 cents at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I really think you oughta buy it. Here’s its great new cover:

And here’s a random quote from a satisfied reader:

A Terrific Read! I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this. Would the promising story idea deflate once it got past the initial set-up, as so many other books do? It definitely did not, and stayed entertaining all the way through – I could not put it down. I have kids around the same age and I really felt for these boys – they’re lost and are doing whatever they can to stay alive, stay together and hopefully get home. Glad the book was complete in itself, but it would be great to see them have more adventures like this. Overall, two very enthusiastic thumbs up!

 

Let’s count adverbs!

This post about this book (which I need to buy) is great.  Number of  -ly adverbs per 100,000 words:

Hemingway: 80

Twain: 81

Melville: 126

Austen: 128

J.K. Rowling: 140

E L James: 155

One might easily imagine that the writer of the “Fifty Shades” novels would use almost twice as many adverbs as Hemingway, but it’s nice to see some data.

The case against adverbs is pretty clear: they are often a flabby substitute for more succinct prose.  “Hurry” is punchier than “walk quickly”.  And lots of adverbs might indicate that the writer hasn’t done a lot of revising and tightening:

The Hemingway book with the highest usage rate for -ly adverbs, True at First Light, was released only after his death and is considered one of his worst works.  The same pattern is true for Faulkner and Steinbeck, namely that the most highly praised works have relatively low rates of -ly adverb usage.  Among other notable authors surveyed, D.H. Lawrence seems to be the most obvious exception to this regularity.

I often find myself editing out adverbs that I couldn’t seem to avoid in my first draft.

While I’m sort of on the subject, I enjoyed the rather strange novel Adverbs by Daniel Handler (who was much more successful with his Lemony Snicket novels).

Shaping a novel: How many points of view is too many?

I am about to start the final quarter or so of my novel, and I realize that this weekend I’ve already decided on three new point-of-view characters.  Two of them ought to be first-person narrators, in my humble opinion.  I’ve now lost track, but I’m pretty sure I’m approaching 20 different points of view, some of which only show up for a few pages.  This currently feels completely right to me, but what do I know?

To recap: Portal was entirely a first-person narrative.  Its sequel, Terra, continued the first-person narrative for about 90% of its length, and then unexpectedly (I imagine) switched to a couple of third-person points of view at the end.  Here we are in Barbarica, and the idea is to switch constantly among points of view, only to return to first person at the end.  (Hmm, maybe that’s a spoiler.  On the other hand, it’s not too late for me to change my mind!)

Is this a good idea?  The narrative strategy you choose for a novel is pretty much the most basic decision you have to make about it.  In this case, it’s turning out to be a cumulative set of decisions.  Let’s hear what this character has to say, then this one, then this one…  I like this approach a lot for this particular plot.  I just hope readers agree with me.

“Arrival”, time paradoxes, and me

I was eager to see the movie Arrival because my novel Forbidden Sanctuary is also a first-contact story involving a linguist and a bunch of aliens.  There isn’t much overlap between the stories, though.  My aliens are pretty human-like — that’s the point of the novel, really.  Arrival‘s aliens are spectacularly, um, alien.  The plot involves Amy Adams desperately trying to understand what they’re saying before various bad things happen. And it’s really well done, up to the point where the movie springs its science-fictiony twist on us to tie things up, with the result that we’re desperately try to rethink everything we’ve seen as the movie rockets to its conclusion.

Spoiler coming.

I don’t think the twist works.  The idea is that, when Amy Adams finally has her breakthrough and understands the aliens’ language, her perception of time is altered at the same time, such that all time is a continuous now to her, instead of a linear progression from past to present to future.  (Or something like that.)  So that some events that we perceived as flashbacks were actually flash-forwards — except that they weren’t, not really, because they are all part of the eternal now.  (Or something like that.)  So she is able to use information from the sort-of future to solve the crisis happening in the sort-of now.  And over this is layered the personal story of the sort-of-future Amy Adams deciding to have a child, despite knowing that the even-more-future Amy Adams will see that child die, and her husband will leave her when she tells him what he’s done.

This is not the kind of complexity that a viewer can deal with while linearly watching a movie. I am OK with time paradoxes — I have read Jeffrey Carver novels, and I generally understand what is happening (that may be a bit of an exaggeration).   But even I couldn’t completely follow what was happening in real time while watching Arrival, and I wasn’t interested enough to re-watch the thing.

As a writer of science-fictiony novels, I am always worried about how much time I should spend in a novel explaining stuff — inventing some bogus theory about how the portal works in my Portal series, for example.  Or, perhaps more important, making sure that whatever bogus theory I have in my head about the portal is internally consistent, so that readers don’t get annoyed at plot developments that don’t quite make sense.  My sense is that readers will forgive a lot of minor inconsistencies if the story is interesting enough.  But I don’t want to piss them off.

I’m afraid that Arrival, for all its virtues, ended up pissing me off.

From “Portal” to “The Portal” to PORTAL

Got that?

I originally named my novel “Portal”, but my publisher thought that one-word titles weren’t commercial, so they talked me into “The Portal”.  But now that its sequel TERRA has debuted, we have decided to use “The Portal” as the name for the entire series.  At the same time we changed the novel’s title to single-word upper-case PORTAL; it’s also now Book 1 in The Portal Series.

I’m sure sales will skyrocket.

Also, the new cover, featuring the new name, has made its debut on Amazon, although the softcover version still features the old cover.  That will change before long.