Welcome to Davidwellington.net

The home for all the latest news about the books of David Wellington/D. Nolan Clark, as well as his weekly writing blog and the occasional piece of short fiction.

David Wellington is the author of over twenty novels, ranging across horror, fantasy, thrillers and science fiction. He can be reached directly at contactmonster@hotmail.com, or you can follow him on twitter @LastTrilobite.

Finding the Heart of a Story

It’s hard enough just putting a story together. Keeping track of all the details, making sure it all makes sense. There is an endless series of decisions that have to be made before the story comes together, before it feels like it’s done. But there’s one question a lot of writers forget to ask along the way.

Why are you writing this?

Why must this particular story be told?

Just a relation of events, a list of “this happened, then the next thing happened, then one more thing happened” is never enough to justify the work that goes into a project. You need to find the heart of the story. The thing that gives it life. The reason it exists in the first place.

A story without a heart is boring. It may be readable, but it won’t be memorable. You need to find the heart, and everything in your story has to serve the heart. It’s a tall order, but it’s absolutely crucial to good writing.

The heart doesn’t have to be that complicated. A really interesting setting can be enough. A character dynamic you haven’t seen used before. Even just some witty dialogue. It should be something fresh, though, something altogether new or at least a fascinating new take on an old idea. It should be the kind of thing you loved about stories when you first started reading them. The first purpose of a story is to entertain the reader, and if the story’s heart is big and strong enough, you can be guaranteed to be successful at that level.

But say you want to go deeper. More meaningful. Locating the heart of the story is vital to making something great. This is where themes really come into play. A theme that shapes an entire story, that completely informs it, is a great heart. Theme can be tricky, though. Some writers like to just start composing, in the hope of finding an emergent theme. That’s a dicey game, of course. What if the theme never shows itself? You can write an entire novel and realize it has nothing to say. Other writers like to start with a theme, and then build a story around it. It’s a great strategy but it carries its own risks–if you make your theme too obvious, you may come off as preachy, or even guilty of special pleading.

Risks are inherent in all writing, though. The heart of the story, the why of the story, is always a leap of faith. You hope you present your meaning in a way that is comprehensible and–more importantly–resonant. You have to close your eyes and just pray that your story strikes home. It will not always be successful. There will always be people who don’t get you–or choose not to. Yet this is exactly why we write, isn’t it? The hope that someone, at least one reader, will feel the heart of your story beating, and be charmed by it, or alarmed, or simply compelled to hold it close. Finding the heart of your story is a desperate attempt to connect. And sometimes, it really works.

Second Person and Present Tense: Why and Why Not

I risk coming off like a grumpy old man in this post, which is something I’ll just have to live with. It’s my assertion, though, that second person viewpoint and the present tense are overused in modern writing, and that outside of certain usages they should be shunned.

Let’s start with second person, that is, when a writer addresses the protagonist of their story as “you” as if they were telling this character their own story. This is something you almost never used to see. I remember an English teacher I had in high school telling me there was no such thing as second person–that it had never actually been done (he was wrong, of course, but it was so rare back then I didn’t know how to contradict him). You see it more and more these days and while I think there is a place for it, it’s almost never used correctly.

If the narrator is describing recent events to someone with amnesia, perhaps, or describing events that have been foretold but have not yet occurred, then second person might be justified. The main and most important use of second person is in interactive stories–choose-your-own-adventures, interactive fiction games, and the like. I used it myself in my experiment to write a novel on Twitter, which allowed readers to pick each plot development by poll.

Otherwise, second person always comes off as affected, as pretentious, and it distances the reader from the writer in a highly artificial way. Which is not to say that’s always bad! Distancing is a valuable technique, for some stories. If you’re going to use it, though, you should have a very good reason–and the fact that it’s trendy, or cool, is not a good reason.

(Just as a tangent here I’ll say I’m not crazy about first person, either–I like limited omniscience in my narrators, and the freedom that provides to expand a story beyond a narrow range of perceptions. But there are plenty of excellent reasons to use first person and it never really bothers me when I pick up a book with a strong protagonist’s voice).

Writing narrative fiction in the present tense isn’t quite as jarring, but I feel it’s getting overused as well and it comes with its own raft of problems. Present tense suggests immediately to the reader that the story hasn’t been finalized, that the events described are still evolving, which means they can’t be predicted–that the reader who is coming along for this ride cannot be guaranteed a coherent or even complete story. It’s a subtle psychological effect and one that needs to be considered carefully.

The writer who employs the past tense when telling a story is making a compact with the reader. It says that the events that are about to unfold, having already happened, can be examined thoughtfully and with a certain authority. Present tense throws that away. Again, there could be good story reasons to do so. Yet drawing on past tense puts your story in a comfortable and established mold that readers have come to accept as the standard for storytelling. It helps speed along immersion and makes the reader feel like they’re in safe hands. You need a good reason to eschew that comfort level, and more often than not I find present tense narratives lacking in justification.

The main explanation for why people use second person or present tense, I am told, is immediacy. The idea is that a story being told directly to the reader–and only the reader–or one told as it is literally happening is better at pulling the reader in, in making them feel like they’re being dragged along on a breathless adventure. I can see the logic in this argument, but I find it rarely works that way. Typically when a writer starts out in present tense, my immediate reaction is to roll my eyes. When they start in the second person I frown and wonder why they made such an odd choice. But even this dubiety doesn’t last. Typically I pay attention to a story’s tense and viewpoint for the first couple of pages–then learn to ignore it, to put it aside and focus on the plot and characters instead. Whatever immediacy the writer has laid claim to disappears as I sink into the work. Writing is always about choices, and when the writer chooses one of these pretentious techniques it only ever puts me off… for a little while. It’s usually not worth it.

It’s possible I’m missing something here, and I’d be happy to hear from other writers who find second person and present tense useful in their writing. But for myself, I’m going to use them sparingly, and only when I can point to an excellent, organic reason for them to be there.

Flatness and Feeling: Three Recent Works

Note: The following post contains minor spoilers for the plots of All Systems Red, Ancillary Justice, and Blade Runner 2049.

Probably the major theme of recent science fiction has been the way technology distances us from our own emotions. One of the devices authors and directors use to explore this distancing effect is intentionally flattening the affect of a central protagonist, exploring the world through their unfeeling eyes to question and problematize our own relationship with the world. Flatness is a tool, and like any tool it can be used to greater or worse effect depending on the choices the author makes. I want to explore three recent works and try to see where they succeed in wielding flatness, and where they fail.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is a novella told from the perspective of Murderbot, a heavily-modified human clone working security for a scientific expedition to an unnamed planet. Murderbot’s emotions have been medically scrubbed, and its main reaction to the world around it is boredom. Even when its clients are endangered and it is forced to protect them, the emotions this creates are awkward and painful to Murderbot, and it acts in ways to escape them. The novella has gotten a lot of hype recently and it’s a nice character sketch but I think it’s the least successful of our three works. Murderbot’s perspective, while compelling, is never really challenged by the story. Almost always, when the humans in the tale act emotionally or with any kind of humanity, they are shown to be foolish and even suicidal for doing so–Murderbot is hardly a Mary Sue, but it does solve every problem in the story through the application of pure logic. Furthermore, anything Murderbot doesn’t care about (which is pretty much everything) is given short shrift here. Early in the story Murderbot fights a giant alien monster. It should be an amazing scene, but it fails–we get Murderbot’s clinical analysis of the creature but no actual description. It can’t even decide if the monster has teeth or cilia. Later on we find out why this planet is special as a setting, and Murderbot dismisses this vital bit of plot information in a couple of sentences. The problem with All Systems Red is that there’s no contrast. We get Murderbot’s grayscale world but nothing else. No visual description at all. The human characters are almost interchangeable and there’s very little interpersonal conflict.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie fares a little better, though I still had problems with it. The main character is the last survivor of a hivemind made of former prisoners of war who have been conditioned to be unfeeling and perfectly loyal soldiers for their own conquerors. The flatness here is leavened–the protagonist is allowed to feel affection for her former officers, and in fact appears to be on a revenge mission (we learn later that it’s much more complicated, and much less sentimental). The action takes place on three different worlds: a marshy planet only seen in flashbacks, a lonely ice world, and a space station with complicated social hierarchies. Leckie does a fair job describing the two planets in compelling detail (the station not as much) and there’s a set piece involving an ice bridge that adds some much needed action to a very cerebral plot. The flatness of the story works against it much of the time, however. Most of the story’s action is described in the briefest possible terms, to make room for long passages of guarded dialogue. The actual plot, which remains mysterious almost until the end of the story, is convoluted and never allowed to evolve organically. We are given mention of aliens and space battles but these are abstracted away, pawns in a five-dimensional chess game where nothing really matters but who wins. The flatness here is a mark of intellectual superiority: the few characters who do show emotion are either mocked or despised for it, while the cold and callous logic of the protagonst and antagonist are celebrated and far more effective. While Murderbot wrestles with its vestiges of humanity, the Ancillary works hard to get rid of hers–she wants very much to be a spaceship again, not a person, and this goal is seen as worthy. This isn’t a failure of the story, mind you. The whole point of Ancillary Justice is that its universe is far too big and impersonal for humanity to run, and it needs to be administrated by beings with greater mental capacity. It’s an interesting theme but one that left this human reader a little cold.

Blade Runner 2049 is the most successful work I want to look at today, one which uses its flatness as a perfect counterpoint to its deep emotional themes. Like most film noir, the movie employs a cold, cynical tone that is betrayed by the deeply human story it wants to tell. Its protagonist, K, is a replicant of a new series, one which is free of human desires. He moves deadpan through a world in crisis, performing a job. A job he has no emotional investment in–to the extent he isn’t even bored by it. He’s been designed from the ground up for flatness and his lack of reaction throughout the film is brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Gosling as both incredibly useful and–to the viewer–emotionally terrifying. All of his relationships are abstracted, through-a-glass-darkly versions of normal human interactions, and his final moments in the film are wonderfully understated. His flatness is wielded here like a blowtorch–he forces the viewer to engage with the things he refuses to touch. His opposite numbers in the film, Luv and Joi (what great names), exist at an even further remove and serve to keep his flatness emotionally grounded. When we see our first real human character in the movie his over-reactions and scenery chewing would almost be funny if they weren’t so heart-breaking, an irruption of feeling the movie seems unable to contain. This is flatness used with precision, by a master.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the two novels to a movie, of course. Blade Runner makes extensive use of its visuals to prop up K’s flatness. The lush colors and surreal set design keep the viewer awake through what could have been a very sleepy first act, definitely, and the star power of the actors compensates a lot for the emotional flatness. Yet I think authors can take a lot of lessons from this movie, all the same. We need to always remember that flatness is a device. Whether we want to praise emotional detachment, like Leckie, or just find it awkward like Wells we need to keep it under control–right up until the moment we need to lose that control and let sentiment overwhelm us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

If you’re working on NaNoWriMo, don’t forget to take time off to spend with your friends and family. And make sure you eat some pumpkin pie!

If anyone offers you sweet potato pie and claims it’s the same thing–or better–please do me a favor and give them a nasty look.

The Dreaded Infodump

Exposition is a crucial part of any story. It’s how you create your world and how you share it with your reader. Yet it’s also a great way to bring your narrative flow to a crashing halt and bore anyone who was kind enough to pick up your book. Writers often decry the “infodump”, the long, uninterrupted section of pure exposition which sits in the middle of your tale like an undigested lump of carbs. Yet it sometimes seems like a necessary evil. If you’re writing about a secondary world, especially, you need to convey a lot of setting and character information in a hurry, information your reader cannot be expected to know on their own.

There are a couple solutions to this problem, none of which are entirely satisfactory. One is to simply not do it–to shift the burden to your reader. William Gibson is famous for never explaining any of the crazy concepts he dumps on his readers. I remember reading Neuromancer for the first time and having to constantly check dictionaries and encylopedias to figure out what he was talking about–and nine times out of ten, even that wasn’t enough. Gibson expects you to pick things up from context clues. There’s a good reason why he does this, and it’s not just to frustrate his readers. He writes his stories from the perspective of his characters–characters who already know what an Ono-Sendai Deck is for, and what carbon fiber is and why you would build an airplane out of it. He shoves you into their headspace and this builds an incredible sense of immediacy and presence. He makes you live in his world. He’s a master of this, and lesser authors trying the same trick usually fail. Their work becomes impenetrable and mystifying, and not in a good way.

A more common technique is to use “infodrips” instead. Rather than just blurting out setting data in long multi-paragraph dialogue sections, you can deliver your exposition just a little at a time. A sentence here, a few words there, spread out across action scenes and great character moments. This technique helps keep your readers from feeling like they’re cramming for a pop quiz, and it can be effective–assuming it’s done with proper timing. Infodrips are fine in the first act of a story, and can be used sparingly in the second act. If you’re still delivering vital world-building information in the third act, your readers will (rightly) feel like you’ve been holding out on them. Oh, it turns out that the Sword of the Deathmuncher can only be destroyed by stabbing it into the heart of the Night Glacier? A fact which we don’t find out until the Swordruiner is actually on top of said glacier? Your readers will feel cheated. Additionally, infodripping can make your readers feel like you’re holding their hand as you cross the street. Like you don’t trust them to “get” your story unless you’re constantly explaining every little detail.

The best solution, in my experience, has been to avoid exposition wherever possible. Not by leaving everything obscure, but by grounding my stories to the maximum possible degree. Secondary worlds are wonderful places to get lost in, but by tying them closely to the real world, they become richer and they resonate better with the reader. The fewer things you need to explain, the more your readers will sink into the actual story. Cut back as much exposition as you can. If your character is carrying a Kandisian force-glaive, could you achieve the same effect by saying they’re holding a plain old halberd? Does your story need a High Hierophant of the Seven Tyronian Mysteries, or can you get away with calling them the Space Pope? Maybe you can’t! Maybe there’s a real difference, one super important to your plot. More often than not, however, you can easily use a simpler term or a more relatable concept to the same effect.

Look at your story, at what you’re trying to say with it, at what effect you want to achieve. Think about how to achieve that sense of mystery or emotional truth with more grounded ideas. If you do absolutely need to put something in your story that has to be explained in depth, that’s fine. But do you really need two such things? Three? High concept notions are fun, and can make your story stand out. Putting too many of them in one story, however, leaves you scrambling to explain how they work and how they interact–robbing you of time you could be spending on character arcs and building suspense. Infodumps are evil, kids! And the trick to fighting necessary evils is to isolate them and break them down into smaller problems, whenever possible.

Three Act Structure

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to write a book. In these articles I’ve been outlining how I do it, because that’s what I know to write about, but there are no binding rules, no arbitrary guidelines. That said, there are some structural… suggestions that can benefit almost any writer. Stories can have more impact when they follow a basic architecture. Even here there are variations. I know people who stick to the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. I know writers who like five act structures, because that was good enough for Shakespeare, dammit. Personally I work with the three act structure, which is the simplest and, I think, the most effective.

You can think of three act structure as the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Or the setup, the buildup, and the punchline. I like to think of it this way;

ACT I: Oh, look, I’m in a forest.

ACT II: Oh, no! I’m getting lost in this forest!

ACT III: Oh, look, there’s a way out of this forest.

Perhaps I should elaborate.

Act I of any story is the shortest. Sadly, it also has to do the most work. This is going to make up about 25% of your total word count, but it needs to do the following things: establish all the main characters of your story, as well as the setting, pace, and tone. Establish the problem of the story, as well as the stakes (what happens if the problem is, or isn’t resolved). By the end of act one your protagonist must be stuck on a path that leads to a final conflict. That can mean that the evil mustachio-twirling villain has kidnapped their boyfriend. It can also mean your hero has realized they have a drinking problem, and they’re headed for rock bottom.

Act II is the longest act, the most fun, and absolutely, without question, the most dangerous. Act two is where you develop all your clever ideas, where your protagonist tries out various solutions to the problem (none of which, of course, work). It’s where you have room and time to explore the setting and build character arcs and do all the fun parts of writing… and if you make a misstep, your story will go right off the rails. Act two is a time of steadily increasing tension, modulated with (occasional) moments of relief. All that exploring you’re doing? Imagine a maze with one exit, and all the various paths through the maze MUST lead to that exit, even if they wind a little bit. It’s way too easy for something to go wrong in act two which then sabotages the most important act…

Act III is longer than act one, but shorter than act two. It’s the most laser-focused of your story’s sections and often the easiest one to write–although, perversely enough, it can also be the thing that kills you. When act three begins the die is cast. Your protagonist knows (or thinks they know) how to solve the problem. They have good, compelling reasons why they MUST solve the problem. The stakes have never been higher. The protagonist works at nothing else past this point–they will sacrifice anything to resolve the story. The antagonist (whether you have a bald, cat-stroking villain or a natural disaster like a mudslide) is moving steadily toward an easy win and they have every reason to be confident. Then the magic happens. Somehow (you’d better know how) the protagonist gets the better of the antagonist in a surprise twist and the world is set to rights. Yay! Then you can have a denouement that’s as long or as short as you like (I prefer super-short), and you’re done.

Of course none of this happens by magic. You need to outline your story (if only in your head) before you start writing. You can save yourself a lot of trouble that way. There’s an old bit of writing advice I’ve found to be almost universally true: if there’s a problem in Act III, it’s a problem with Act I. Go back and look and you’ll see you didn’t set something up properly.

I’ll add two corollaries to this chestnut. First: If there’s a problem in Act I, it’s a problem with Act III. If you have trouble making your protagonist believable (could a four year-old really build a rocket to escape the Mars-beasts?) it’s because they’re the wrong person to face down the big antagonist at the end of the tale. If the setting feels off or boring, it’s because it’s too small to hold the ending.

And finally: if there’s a problem in Act II, it’s because you’re writing the wrong story. Act II is for exploration. Often times, you can explore so far you find yourself in a completely different story–maybe the story you really wanted to write in the first place. If this happens, don’t despair! Either go off and write that story instead… or put it aside, somewhere safe, and go back and find where your act II maze got side-tracked, and fix it!

NaNoWriMo Tips

I’m a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month. I think it’s one of the best ways to get people inspired to work on that novel they’ve always dreamed of writing. Structure is a writer’s best friend (even when sometimes it feels like a frenemy).

Every year I try to post daily writing tips for each day in November on my Twitter. You can follow these at @LastTrilobite (you’ll also get all my retweets of things I find interesting or humorous, for no extra charge). Today’s tip, for November 1st, concerns first lines, and I thought I’d expand on that thought here.

The first line of a book is crucial. It’s what gets the reader invested to read the second line… and so on. It’s also incredibly fun to write it because for once it doesn’t have to do multiple things simultaneously (unlike, say, every other line in the story). It does not need to set the tone of the book, introduce the main character, or anything else. It just needs to grab the reader’s attention. Typically you can achieve this best by writing something outrageous or silly or intriguing. The more outlandish the better!

Whatever you do, though, please don’t make it about the weather. “It was a dark and stormy night…” is considered terrible writing for a reason. Unless it’s literally raining frogs or something, just… don’t.

Of course, if you only write one line on day 1 of NaNoWriMo you’re going to get behind in your schedule. You need to think about the second line, too. And the third, and the fourth… in a longer work, you could easily develop that first crazy line for a paragraph or three. But with only 50,000 words in your project, you don’t have time for that. You need to get to the meat of things right away. After that first line, your first paragraph really needs to start doing some work. You’ll need to introduce us to your main character, establish a preliminary setting, and set the tone. It’s a lot to pack into one paragraph, but it can be done if you’re judicious with your sentences.

You’ve got your work cut out for you. So come up with that first crazy line now–just use the first thing that pops into your head. Remember, you can always change it later. Though you probably shouldn’t–if it made your head spin the first time, it’s doing exactly what it needs to do!

Good luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year, and keep at it!