Pratchett’s voice and losing the flow

We’re told that bad writing can knock a reader out of the text, spoiling the flow of a story. But I realised this week that good writing, if it’s not consistent, can do the same thing.

I’m currently reading Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s The Long Earth. As you’d expect, it’s really rather good, with an intriguing premise, engaging characters, and flowing prose. But there were a couple of points early on when that prose took a strongly Pratchett turn, where his authorial voice took over for a paragraph, and it jolted me right out of the story.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Terry Pratchett. I have nearly all his books, even the couple of sci-fi ones he did before the Discworld. I enjoy his whimsical authorial voice – one of the most distinctive in modern writing. But that’s the problem, it’s very distinctive. When you’re reading a book that’s just by Pratchett, that voice is there the whole time, its wit and wonder woven through the story. It makes you more aware of the author on your shoulder, pointing out the absurdities of the world, but that’s part of the ride.

Most of the prose in The Long Earth is more transparent. It’s well written in the way that makes you forget it’s there, letting you be completely absorbed by the story. So when I hit a Pratchettism, even an excellent one, the sudden authorial presence comes as a shock, and a reminder that, to point out the obvious, someone wrote this.

It’s the same problem I had with one of the stories in Joumana Haddad’s Madinah collection. Except there the author made himself so prominent, and there was so little story, that it was just a dozen pages of irredeemable annoyance. At least in The Long Earth it’s a piece of something good that, by being unexpected, unfortunately disrupts the flow of the other good stuff.

I’m still loving The Long Earth, but we often learn from flaws. I guess my take-away from this is to aim for consistency. Also to go back and read some more Pratchett, because wow but Pyramids was awesome.

Has anyone else come across examples of this? Are there other authors where you’re very aware of their distinctive voice? What effect does that have on your reading experience? And am I right about Pyramids or what? Share some thoughts below – I know my opinion, I want to hear yours.

Lessons learned – VanderMeer’s Booklife

Last week I finished reading Jeff Vandermeer‘s Booklife. This is a guide for writers that focuses on lifestyle and the business of writing, things like keeping motivated and how to publicise your work, rather than writing technique.

I knew I was going to find a lot that was useful in this one. I’d originally picked it up from the library and got twenty pages in before I knew I needed my own copy, to dog-ear and scrawl notes across, to mark pages with post-its and crease the spine back while I poured over the most useful pages. Because for me, books are like childhood teddy bears – the best ones don’t get kept in pristine condition, they get loved nearly to death.

It’s hard to sum up what I learned from this book, or even pick out favourite bits. There was so much that pushed me to think about the fundamentals of a writing lifestyle, sometimes succinctly pulling together advice I’d heard elsewhere, sometimes offering new insights and tactics. To be honest, I ended up feeling almost overwhelmed, these was so much to think about.

But if I’m going to pull out one lesson, it’s the importance of planning. As I touched on on Friday, my approach to this blog and to publicising my work has been haphazard at best, as has my thinking about what to write and where to send it. I should have known better – I’ve worked as a professional project manager – but somehow I never properly applied those skills to my writing life. Until I read Booklife I wasn’t applying that to many significant areas. Heck, I still haven’t applied it yet – that’s the thing about a planned approach, you can’t apply it until you’ve had time to do that planning.

A lot of the content of Booklife is ahead of what I need at the moment. Some of it’s ahead of what I can use. But it’s useful to know that that information’s on my bookshelf when I need it. Like any advice, I’ll pick and choose, adapt it to my own situation. But there’s a lot there of value, and even if it just helps me to plan better it’ll be worth it.

Lesson’s learned – Schmidt’s 45 master characters

I recently read Victoria Lynn Schmidt‘s 45 Master Characters, a book which provides templates for archetypal characters that can be adapted to any story setting. I found it interesting, and this week I applied it for the first time.

Schmidt’s book contains what it says on the tin – 45 character archetypes. Those for heroes and villains are described in some depth, showing how they connect to a mythological figure, describing their fears, motivations and things they care about. For example the mystic – characters such as Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Phoebe in Friends – cares about simplicity and taking her time and is sensitive to others’ emotions. Shmidt isn’t trying to say that all characters fit these templates, but instead providing strong foundations from which to build characters.

I used it backwards.

I had a story I was working on, based on Jonathan Taylor’s comments on my diversity in steampunk post. But when I gave it to Mrs K to read, she found that the characters were weak and didn’t draw her in. Looking for a way to fix this, I looked at how they compared with Schmidt’s archetypes. I re-planned the characters around a couple of archetypes, then rewrote their dialogue and behaviour. And you know what? They’re a lot better.

I’m not saying it’s the solution to all the shallow characters in the world, or even in my writing. But it’s helped me create more nuanced characters for a couple of stories since that one, and I’m now waiting on readers to see whether they like the results.

Speaking of which, I should go write a story.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 4: the road less travelled

This is my last post on The Hunger Games, for now at least. It’s spoilerific again, so, you know, read the books first then come back and read this. They’re really worth it.

Despite its title, this post covers the most well-worn territory in terms of the lessons I’ve learned from these books. Because ‘don’t do the obvious thing’ is old advice for writers, but Collins does it particularly well.

It would be easy for this trilogy to become triumphalist. The main character is a skilled, wilful young woman, pressed into danger by dark forces and her own desire to do good. Over the course of the trilogy, it turns into a story of defiance and rebellion against an oppressive establishment. The temptation to turn it into a gung-ho action story of good against evil must have been huge.

But that isn’t where the story goes. Everybody in it has their flaws, and the people who stand out against the darkness aren’t always good themselves. Shallow, unpleasant institutions can be turned to good ends, and good intentions can lead to terrible consequences, as shown by the deaths that follow Peeta’s act of generosity in District 11.

The romantic arc doesn’t pan out in an obvious way either. The love triangle isn’t neatly tied off with one party nobly sacrificing himself or finding another love. Feelings are complicated and difficult, love can be a challenge, and in the end Katniss doesn’t fall into a burning well of passion, but into the hard work of building a life together. I was happy with who she finally chose, but couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t a healthy situation for him. The story didn’t show pure, romanticised Hollywood love. It showed a more complicated truth.

Collins’s choices about plot and character arcs often make for an uncomfortable read. But that makes the books all the more satisfying. They feel real. They feel raw. And if I can make such courageous choices, it’ll make my own writing a lot better.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 3: agency

I’m on the Hunger Games again today. Again, spoilers for the trilogy – please go read the books first, then come back.

When the Hunger Games film was released, much was made of Katniss as a female lead. Some people praised this strong female role model, drawing comparisons with the way Hollywood normally treats women. Others were more critical, challenging whether she actually has any control over her life, or is just a victim with more action. These are interesting points, but for me they point at something deeper, highlighting how Suzanne Collins treats individual agency in these books.

First, a point of terminology. Agency, a term I first came across in an undergrad social science module, refers to a person’s level of free will and control over their own life. It’s contrasted with structure, where our actions are defined by the existing forms of society and the world. So, when a criminal burgles a house you could ask how far this was his choice (agency) and how far it was the result of his limited learning opportunities and poverty (structure).

How does this related to Katniss? She’s flung into a life-threatening struggle by a brutal society and historic circumstances (structure), combined with her own choice to protect her sister (agency). Within the game, she is severely constricted by the nature of the game (structure), and by the plottings of others (structure, or at least not her agency). But she deals with this using her own skills and force of will (agency). Her actions are seldom a matter just of free choice or constraint. The final act of defiance with the berries is one of desperation, a startling free choice that goes against all the norms (agency) but is still constricted by the circumstances of the game (structure). In the world of the Hunger Games, as in real life, structure and agency are not separate but intertwine in a complex fashion. Freedom is a matter of compromise and interpretation.

This exploration of agency goes further in the later books, as Katniss is drawn, sometimes without realising, into the politics of Panem. Agency becomes much more complicated, with people acting as groups. As the resistance led by District 13 make harsh decisions, it becomes harder to tell how far any of the characters are following a path they would choose, or how far they are being driven by circumstances. Even as they make collective decisions, does this give them agency as part of a powerful group, or restrict that agency through the structures of the group.

Looking inward, Katniss’s own agency becomes questionable. As she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, how far are her decisions really a matter of free will (agency), and how far are they defined by the disorders from which she suffers (structure)?

Many stories simplify these issues, presenting characters as in control of their lives, or breaking free of the structures that bind them. Much like The Prisoner, their tales cry out ‘I am a free man!’ The Hunger Games takes a much more nuanced approach, and it is this that makes it so difficult to define Katniss’s place as a female lead. This is a strength of the books, not a weakness.

So, if you’ve read this far, what do you think? Did you see the same things in the books as I have? What do you think of Katniss as a lead character?

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 2: like an onion

Before I start this post, I should say that there may be spoilers for The Hunger Games books. If you haven’t read them, you might want to come back to this later. You might also want to go out and read them right now – seriously, they’re brilliant.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I discussed how well Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy gets inside the head of Katniss, the story’s protagonist. That skill supports multiple layers of understanding of the story, which also enrich the reading experience. To steal Donkey’s metaphor from Shrek, the Hunger Games is like an onion, and today I want to peel back the layers.

Firstly, there is Katniss’s understanding of events. Katniss’s limited understanding of people, along with the emotional scars she aquires during her journey, allows her only a limited understanding of events. She sees only the surface of what’s happening around her, or reads her own specific interpretation into the motives of others. This adds depth to the character, as it reveals her flaws, her mental habits and her emotional state. It’s a skilful piece of show not tell that adds richness to the character.

Then there’s the level of understanding a first time reader can achieve. Collins’s deft portrayal of Katniss’s thoughts and feelings allows us to see past what Katniss understands, and gain a deeper understanding of events. We see the things that Katniss doesn’t, such as Peeta’s very real love for her. As the political plot unfolds in the second and third books, our understanding is usually ahead of Katniss. How far ahead depends on the reader, but any reader gets to feel smart at working out things that Katniss hasn’t. This also adds a pleasing layer of irony to reading Katniss’s thoughts, and incredible tension as we realise that something she’s going to do, for the best of reasons, is completely misguided. To go back to the example of Peeta, we know what emotional harm she’s doing to him long before Katniss does.

Lastly, there’s the layer of plot that provides big surprises, the things going on behind the scenes. The biggest example of this is the finale of the second book. There are hints throughout the book at something going on, not enough to allow the reader to gain a full understanding, but enough so that everything slots into place afterwards. It left me reacting with a satisfied ‘aha!’, rather than a disappointed ‘what the?’ when the twist came. It allows for surprises for the reader as well as Katniss, and adds extra pleasure to re-reading.

There’s a natural tendency when telling a story to want to put it all out in the open for the reader to see, if through the skewed perspective of your characters. But Collins’s approach makes her books far more satisfying, in both plot and character.