Friday, March 17, 2017

Sax and Violins

And Brian Eno production values
I have no small amount of violence in my books, particularly the last one where a Werewolf carves a bloody trail through Nazi-occupied Poland.  While its satisfying to read about Nazis being mangled, its pretty violent stuff and he doesn't restrict himself to just bad guys.

There's not much sex.  Life Unworthy has one scene but its one of those old-style "fade to black" scenes rather than a detailed account.  There's some kissing in Snowberry's Veil but its pretty chaste, as I was following a Louis L'Amour template, and tying to write a fantasy version of one of his books.  Old Habits the main character is pretty misogynistic and distrusting of women.

Every so often, someone will bring up the old charge of why its okay to portray violence and not sex.  Europeans tend to sneer at Americans for being "prudish" about sex but comfortable with sometimes gruesome violence.  You can show a man being shot to death but not a naked breast on television!  How prudish!

And there's something to that in terms of ratings systems; its PG to show killing, but PG-13 or R to show nudity.  Why is a naked breast more offensive and damaging to youth than a sword stabbing someone?

Like cheese to a mouse
At the same time, there's something from a storytelling perspective that some do not grasp here.  Sex is pleasurable and necessary human activity, it is a valuable part of a committed relationship, a bonding experience that demonstrates love and brings closeness.  Sex is good, if sometimes used in bad ways.  But its just sex.

Violence is by its very nature conflict resolution.  It is an explosion of activity, but the activity is to a goal or an end, not random and meaningless: it is someone attempting to resolve a situation, even if poorly and misguidedly.

Almost all of fiction writing is conflict resolution, or confrontation.  Conflicts are what builds drama; if everything works out exactly as planned and everyone goes along, there's no story.  Conflict at any level, whether in a relationship, or surviving nature's hazards, or with one's own nature, or against a physical foe, is the basis of fiction.

Sex isn't conflict resolution.  Its not even dramatic.  It is enticing and titillating, it is exciting and engaging, but it has no conflict.  You can have conflict with sex, but that's an addition, not the primary focus.  Adding conflict into a situation is what creates drama, but sex is just a depiction of physical activity no more laden with conflict than tying shoes or gardening.

What makes sex exciting or interesting to read is not its innate conflict, the way it advances the story, or how it reveals character, but rather a visceral pleasure and arousal that we feel.  Its like a joke that isn't so much funny in and of its self, but makes you laugh out of discomfort or shock.  You're not supposed to laugh at that, which makes you giggle.

Frankly, its often kind of boring
In terms of telling a story, violence makes more sense than sex, it fulfills one of the basic tasks of writing: it moves the story, it resolves conflict, and it develops plot.  Like sex, it can reveal much about the characters by how they behave in the process, but that's not integral to violence or sex its self.  But violence is conflict resolution, while sex is just people doing things.

For me, sex is a cheap device, its a way of filling the story out with physical descriptions of activities that are arousing and titillating, but they're still just filler.  It holds reader attention, but not by telling the story.  Its like having a video of two trains colliding in the middle of a play; its not the play at all but wow look at that crash!

I tend to skim past sex scenes, mostly because I find them kind of boring and a little frustrating for me personally.  And they add words and pages without story, which is a waste of time.  Put too many in (or too clinically exact and descriptive in) and you lose me entirely as a reader.  I'm probably not alone in this.

Who, me?
You can do the same thing with violence of course.  One need not know the exact scientific and medical effect of a gunshot, punch, or dagger wound. Spending paragraphs describing specific and exact accounts of bloody, gruesome violent activity stops being conflict resolution and becomes simply pornographic in a different sense. 

Having characters do what they do in life doesn't always have to be conflict resolution or fulfill the requirements of a book: your character can put on their shoes, kiss a girl, or punch a clown without it needing to resolve conflict.  It sets the scene, and helps build character to see how they do things and why.  But if you get too much detail and description, it stops being useful and starts being padding.

And while that can be true about both sex and violence, it is almost always true about sexual descriptions whereas violence serves the story more fully.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Post Holmes

I finished my Sherlock Holmes story and it was a lot of fun to write.  The whole thing is on Wattpad if you care to read it; I claim no special skill at mystery writing and clearly am no comparison to Arthur Conan Doyle.  But it was an interesting experiment, and I learned something about writing in the process which was the whole point.

I set out to write this partly out of the fun of writing a Holmes tale, but mostly for several other reasons which were mostly about experimenting and learning.  I wanted to develop Watson as a more rounded and intelligent character, so I had to figure out what there was about him that Doyle had hinted at and mentioned which gave him more substance.  I wanted to demonstrate that Holmes and Watson were essentially modern day knights battling in a different war than the old time ones.  

I wanted to examine how to portray intelligence so that I can write a character much smarter than everyone around them more easily.  I wanted to write a mystery to determine how its done; I'm still not sure if that worked or not.  

The problem with writing a mystery is that as the author, you know the whole plot.  Its no secret to you.  Once you've read a Sherlock Holmes story, you know the entire secret and what happened.  You know the snake climbs down the bellrope and kills the person sleeping in the bed.  You know why the dog didn't bark.  So now when you read it again, the solution is obvious and easy.  The author starts out that way, wondering if perhaps this is too obvious or boring a mystery.

In my previous novels, there's been a mystery of sorts in each one.  In Snowberry's Veil its not clear what Lord Valance is up to or why at first.  In Old Habits, something is going on in the keep that Stoce is in the middle of and its not clear what until almost to the end of the book.  In Life Unworthy, its not certain what's going to happen to Cezar, and what Vladimir is up to is murky until the end.

That's because most of my writing style comes down to asking questions: what happens next?  Why did he do that?  Who is that girl?  I have a vague idea what the basic plot is, then dive in and start asking and answering questions as the story unfolds.  So there's always an element of mystery.

But in writing an actual, intentional mystery, the entire story is focused on that one plot point: the secret behind what happened.  All of the book serves the purpose of unfolding that mystery.  Yet a "fair play" mystery has to give enough clues and information that in theory the reader can figure out what is happening.

So its a balance between telling enough to be fair, but not enough to make it obvious.  And the mystery in this case has to be one that only someone like Sherlock Holmes can puzzle out soon enough to catch the criminals, while surrounded by other people who are trying to solve the case as well.

That was the challenge and I honestly don't know how well it worked.  I was told by one reader that he hadn't figured it out, which is promising, but who knows?  For the author its all so stupidly obvious and blatant that you feel like taking clues away and throwing red herrings in just to protect the mystery.

Another element involved was keeping the story within proper character and time.  I had to research a few things (different neighborhoods in London, how hard it is to get into the British Museum, what a Brit at the time calls a prybar, etc), but most of it was just trying to recall how Doyle portrayed the characters and told the tale.

I wasn't trying to duplicate Arthur Conan Doyle, but I wanted a sense of continuity between the stories, so it felt like it fit in.  I think I did all right with that, given my own twist on things.  I made Holmes a bit less of an arrogant jerk and Watson a bit less of a fumbling credulous dupe, with the presumption that Watson did that as literary devices rather than honest accounting.

I have read a lot of articles about writing intelligent characters, and some were pretty useless (equating "intelligent" with "technologically savvy").  But one in particular had some great ideas, and sadly when my hard drive blew up I lost the link.  He noted that the really intelligent character has easily and quickly figured out what the other characters take time to understand and work out.  They have it in a flash of brilliance, a combination of intuition and fast thinking.  The others have to take time to puzzle it out.  Another aspect is that the really intelligent person is able to connect things that seem unconnected or are not apparently tied together, into something new and useful.

This is important for me, because at some point I want to write a story about a mage, a wizard, and he necessarily must be very intelligent.  I want to portray that rather than just have him throwing fireballs about.  And to do so convincingly and usefully, I need to present the mage as being not intelligent because he has a pointy hat and casts spells, but because he'd be smart anywhere.

I'm reading Father Brown short stories right now, one before bed each night.  G.K. Chesterton does a brilliant job of showing Brown as being catastrophically more intelligent than everyone around him.  He sees, understands, and connects things that nobody around him can, instantly, and completely.  Almost no mystery goes by without Brown immediately knowing what is going on from the slightest clues, then working out how to save the person before they get worse.  That's been informative as well.

So, there you have it; the mystery and why its done.  Hopefully it's an enjoyable read and helps me write a better book next time.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Yo, Holmes

My laptop is down for the moment, pending a new hard drive install.  In the meantime, I've got the yen to write and cannot work on my ongoing projects very easily.  So what I've decided to do is work on a quick fun Sherlock Holmes story.  Its been quite a while that I have wanted to try my hand at one, and I have an opportunity now.

The story I've chosen is one of the over one hundred "unwritten tales" that Doyle throws in only as brief mentions in his tales.  Theres a whole huge list of them, some sounding quite intriguing, such as The Giant Rat of Sumatra and Ricoletti of the Club Foot and his Abominable Wife.  I chose one of the more famous untold stories, mentioned in The Six Napoleons, mentioned as The Dreadful Business of the Abernetty Family by Watson.  The only clue we have is where Sherlock Holmes mentions he was introduced to the case by "the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day."

This obscure clue is a bit difficult to work out; parsley won't sink into anything unless its a whole sprig, and why would you lie one on the butter?  That in its self suggests several possible directions, not to mention why it would interest Holmes.

Yet I am no Arthur Conan Doyle, nor do I claim to be able to accurately mimic his style.  I suppose with great study and time I could do a fair knockoff -- indeed I intend to do just that in some passages -- but I thought of a better device.  Instead, the story will be told by Dr Watson's daughter Beryl, during WW2, years after the death of both men, using a newly discovered set of notes about the case.

With this device, I can have portions of Watson's direct notes but mostly Beryl's era and phraseology, which I am much more comfortable with than Victorian England.  I won't say much here beyond that about the full case other than to say I'm plotting in reverse -- figured out the conclusion then working back from that to how Holmes got there -- and that its going to be two interwoven cases which seem utterly unrelated to all but Sherlock.

But there are some philosophical things I want to establish about the stories.  Too often, people have picked up Holmes and used him for their own purposes or misunderstood the entire point of the Sherlock stories.

As I see it reading Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle had three different kinds of mysteries he'd write. 
  • The first was about the science of deduction; he was not so much interested in the mystery its self so much as highlighting and explaining how deduction works and teaching the concepts of logical, systematic thinking. 
  • The second was about some social topic or theme he wanted to touch on, such as how awful blackmail was. 
  • The third was a story he wanted to write, and he used Holmes as the launching point, such as with Hound of the Baskervilles or Sign of the Four. This usually came from his historical researches. 
As I read other knockoff books about Sherlock, most of them do not seem to understand these purposes and will write about something else, usually tacking on deduction as an afterthought or to make it seem Sherlockian. That's something I hope to avoid -- I want my story to be about deductive and inductive reasoning and the differences, strengths, and weaknesses of each.

Further, people too often do not understand the characters of Watson or Holmes very well.  Holmes is portrayed as a lunatic, a jerk, a half-formed "fully functioning Sociopath" or a dirtbag addict.  The problem is viewing the character through modern eyes rather than as Doyle saw and intended him, in his time period.

Holmes was a Victorian era knight.  In the place of armor, he had official and police backing.  In the place of a sword, he had his incredible intellect.  In the place of jousting, he dueled wits with his opponents.  But the code of chivalry -- the romanticized version -- in which the great knight stoops to help even the lowliest person, following a personal code of honor, facing any difficulty with glee and always with courtesy and dignity... that's what Holmes was about.  That is what Doyle viewed a Victorian gentleman to be; a knight for a "modern" era.

Holmes was the intellectual side, Watson the physical side.  Holmes was a thinker, a scientist, even a philosopher.  Watson was more earthy, direct, and was a soldier.  Between the two of them, no quest, no challenge was too great to attack and defeat.  Their dragons were criminals, blackmailers, and thugs.  Their weapons were more sophisticated and subtle, but often just as deadly.

Further, Watson is not a bumbling retard.  While the show is poor Sherlock, the female Watson played by Lucy Liu is closer to the real character than most.  Jude Law's Watson seems to despise Sherlock and is his intellectual equal, but not as capable in combat (!).  Martin Freeman's Watson started out a strong and capable companion but quickly devolved into the hapless boob.

Watson is a very handsome, capable figure with military training, skill in weapons, and is bright enough to often keep up with Sherlock in the later tales -- even to the point of being praised by Sherlock.  I'll peel back why he so often portrays himself as a fool in the stories, and those who disagree can simply chalk it up to Beryl Watson overestimating daddy.

So, as time goes on, I'll write this story in segments, raw and unedited as I think of the tale on Wattpad.  I have two segments out so far you can read, and as they are added to, I'll alert people on Twitter and Facebook.