Wednesday, June 27, 2012


If I'm going to get in at least one post each month, I have to do one in the next couple of days. So here it is.

The prequel to A Melancholy Humour has stalled a bit. It's really two books in one, the first half set in a tiny village on the slopes of Santo Stefano in Sicily. That part's done (in first draft, anyway), and I'm maybe 20,000 words into the second half.

Chicago circa 1965 isn't a challenge. I recall enough to texture the story with sufficient background. I have, however, introduced a potential love interest for my heroine, and he's turning out to be a bit of a putz. Who knew? Still, even that's not so much of a problem. If he comes across as too dorky, I can fix him in rewrites. (Anyone who can seduce a she-wolf had better not be a dork, if he doesn't want to wind up as dinner. I've got other long-range plans for him.)

I have been spending a lot of time in video games lately, but that's just an excuse. Besides, it's good research -- at least, the gems I prefer really are. Bethesda's open worlds of Fallout and Skyrim are addicting, and have some cool storytelling concepts ripe for stealing. Plus, they're awfully pretty in a dread-filled sort of way.

No, what's been slowing the story relates to my penchant for explaining things. Any first-year writing course will hammer home the need to "show, don't tell." That's rough when you write concept-heavy fiction. One slips into explanation mode far too easily. Furthermore, it's often hard to come up with a way to show certain ideas, particularly nuances of historical philosophy or theological struggles.

I put a lot of explanation into my first published novel, Still Life. In order to make the exposition more palatable, I had various characters explaining things to each other, or arguing about the ideas, but it still dragged on sometimes. In my defense, the story came out of the sense-of-wonder "literature of ideas" Golden Age of 1940's science fiction, where every novel had to have a detailed explanation of the workings of star drives, or the optics of lasers, or the geometry of a tesseract.

A Melancholy Humour had a lot less of that, but still involved discussions of historical issues like the role of bodily humours in Medieval medicine, or why it is that the Office of the Inquisition still exists today. But rather than tell the reader that Vincent is something of a neurotic depressive with suicidal tendencies, we see the story from inside his head so the reader can experience his pathology directly.

Telling rather than showing is a timesaver -- it uses less ink, and if a publisher has a limit on the numbers of words in a novel, it's hard to show everything. That's particularly true when a story is told in a point of view limited to a single character. This is the problem I've been struggling with in my current effort, Lupa Bella.

Observe: I could have Emmett tell Celeste that he's a Ceremonialist Magician, with ways of contacting daemons who give him secret information, and that's how he knows she's a werewolf. Any emotional impact then has to come from Celeste's reactions to being discovered, and to her uninformed assumptions about the reality of Magic.

Or, I could show the reader a scene wherein Em contacts his daemons and learns what they have to say. Emotion then comes not only from Emmett himself, but also from the reader's shock at seeing and experiencing the daemons (not to mention the impact of Ceremonialist Magic going on in the heart of a 1960's Chicago meat-packing warehouse).

The second course takes a lot longer than a paragraph of dialogue followed by one or two of reaction. It also requires being able to break away from the highway of my point-of-view character, Celeste, and take the reader through a backroads off-ramp into someone else's experience. After a hundred pages or more of being in Celeste's head, that's not going to work.

A third alternative is for Em to bring Celle to his temple-room, complete with the shadowy presences of the rest of his Magical lodge, and pull her into one of his ceremonies. By far, this is the best way. If I've involved the reader enough in Celeste's way of seeing the world, the visceral experience of her shock and surprise should shake the reader as well. This is, however, also the most time-consuming way, for we need additionally to see Emmett seduce her into it, not to mention the mechanics of him setting the whole thing up. If done wrong, it will slow the story unbearably, provide a distraction and detour from the main action when it could have been done in a half-dozen sentences.

Finding that balance between a story that gallops with action, and one that progresses more slowly but wrings every drop of sweat from the reader's bones -- that's hard work, and often takes trial and error, or long periods of meditation on how the hell do I show this?

After doing far too much talky-talky in Still Life, I showcased a lot more action and emotion in A Melancholy Humour. I'm trying to tell as little as possible in Lupa Bella, with the exception of occasionally having a character tell Celeste about events from decades before (and even then, I'm considering flashbacks instead). It's a lot longer way to tell a story, and it may force me to break it up into a series of smaller novels instead of one big one. My hope is to have a tale where I explain nothing, but make everything clear nonetheless.