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.

In which Alexa reads my novel to me

My wonderful kids got me an Amazon Echo Dot for Father’s Day. This is an awesome little toy. Alexa (the thing’s voice) can play music and set a timer and tell me jokes and do math problems and lots more. It didn’t take me long to discover that Alexa could read books in my Kindle library. So of course I told her to read one of my own books–in this case, Terra.

The first problem was that she insisted on narrating all the front matter–copyright statement, ISBN, etc. There should be a way to turn that off or skip through it, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Then she started reading my deathless prose. She will not be replacing professional audiobook narrators anytime soon. The meaning is reasonably clear in her narration; she pronounces the words correctly (except for the oddball name “Polkinghorne”) and she pauses between sentences. But her emphasis was consistently a bit off: she said “post OFFice” instead of “POST office”; “cell PHONE” instead of “CELL phone”. And she didn’t do dialog right: you need to drop your voice a bit when you come out of a line of dialog to identify the speaker: “Larry said” or “Vinnie said”. She didn’t do that. And of course she made no effort to characterize the speaker; they all sounded just like Alexa (she sounds great, but she doesn’t sound like Larry Barnes). I couldn’t imagine listening to her for a whole novel. I gave up after about a page.

By the way, one of the most popular posts I’ve written is the one where I contemplate whether Jeff Bezos is the Antichrist. Apparently people Google that question a lot, and my opinion comes up second, just after Jonathan Franzen’s.

Maybe I’ll ask Alexa what she thinks.

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.

That one special scene

In my talk to those wonderful sixth-graders I discussed why I wrote The Portal.  It wasn’t because of the science-fictiony adventure story; the reason I wanted to write it was the encounter between the protagonist (Larry) and another version of his family, one struggling to stay alive in wartime in the alternative universe he is trapped in.  And I read them my favorite scene from the novel, where Larry has to view his own grave.  In this world, he died as an infant and was buried behind the family farmhouse:

Mom got down from the wagon and led us into the woods. We came to a small clearing after a while, and in the middle of the clearing a few crosses stuck up through the snow. My head started spinning as I stared at those crosses. Kevin gripped my arm. Mom pointed to a spot in the snow. “Cassie needs to go here,” she said. “Beside her brother.”

I looked at the cross next to where she was pointing. Two words were crudely carved on it:

Lawrence Barnes

I was staring at my own grave.

“That’s the boy who would have been just about your age,” my mother was saying to me. “My baby.”

I think maybe I forgot to breathe for a while. “It’s okay, Larry,” Kevin whispered to me. “Take it easy.”

Kevin and I’d had talked about what would happen if we ran into our other selves in this world. Would we both explode, or destroy the fabric of the space-time continuum or something? Stupid. We never talked about this.

Nothing happened, of course, except that I was as spooked as I could possibly be. But I didn’t do anything. I just stood there in the snow. I was alive, the earth kept spinning, and that other me—the baby who didn’t make it—was still at rest in the cold ground.

And now we had to lay his sister—my sister—to rest, too.

We took turns using the pick and shovel to dig the hole in the frozen, rocky soil. I did most of the work, though—Kevin still didn’t have all his strength back, and it wasn’t the sort of task Stinky enjoyed. It seemed to take forever. It grew dark, and my muscles were screaming with pain after a while—the most digging I’d ever done was a little bit of snow shoveling, and I’d usually complain about having to do that. But we kept at it, and at last the time had come. We lifted Cassie’s body out of the wagon, then slid her down into the ground and covered her up. After that we stood around the grave as darkness fell and said some prayers, while I felt sorry for every mean thing I’d said to her in every conceivable universe.

That scene wasn’t in my original conception for the novel.  But when I thought of it, I couldn’t wait to write it.  It took a while, though; it occurs about two-thirds of the way into novel, and I write my novels straight through from the beginning to the end.

So anyway, here I am writing the third book about Larry and the portal, and today I finished the equivalent chapter in Barbarica–65,000 words in, I finally get to the scene I’ve wanted to write from the very beginning.  Of course, the wise folks in my writing group may tell me that it doesn’t work at all and I should drop it.  Still, I very much enjoyed writing it.

By the way, sixth-graders don’t have a very good sense of how many words there are in a novel (maybe few people have this sense).  Their guesses about the length of The Portal ranged from two thousand words to two million.  It actually contains 103,678 words, according to Microsoft Word.