Strike At, Strike With

My first kung fu teacher used to say, “If you’re being attacked, ask two questions: what do I have to strike at, and what do I have to strike with?” In other words, what targets has your opponent left open, and what parts of your body can you use to hit those targets.

The same advice is surprisingly useful when dealing with choreography problems in writing.

I use the term choreography problems for those times when you know what has to happen but you don’t have specific ideas of how to make it so. A simple example is a fight scene: you know that character A fights B and A wins, but you have no specific plans for how the fight goes. Similar examples: A has to persuade B to do something, or A has to gain some crucial piece of information, or A has to change their mind about something.

Whether you write from an outline or by the seat of your pants, these situations come up all the time: you know where you’re starting, and you know where you’re going to end a few pages later, but you haven’t thought of exactly the steps that take you from one to the other.

So what do you have to strike at, and what do you have to strike with?

What do you know about the characters involved? What are their wants, needs, fears, points of stubborn pride, prejudices, gaps in their knowledge, etc.? In other words, what are their vulnerabilities? These can be exploited in order for one character to get the better of the other, whether that means physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

And what materials do you have to work with in the scene? What have you already established in the setting?

The thing is that every scene takes place somewhere; every time a viewpoint character walks into a room, you have to provide some description, even if you don’t go into a lot of detail. So you already know what props are surrounding the characters. You know what they can pick up, point to, play around with. Is there some way you can use the objects or the setting itself to do what you want to do?

Surprisingly often, you can find a solution to your problem. Trying to achieve something in a vacuum is often hard. (“How can A win the fight?”) But trying to achieve it by using specific objects is easier. (“How can A win the fight when the room contains a moose head, a jug of cold coffee, and fifteen bowling trophies?”)

Specifics give your imagination something to work with. Try it and see.

Reduction of Disbelief

Allow me to pontificate.

Recently, I’ve read a number of stories that take place in our contemporary world (more or less), wherein one or more characters come face to face with supernatural or science fictional elements. (Magic. Aliens. Etc.) The stories then spend a great deal of time during which the characters refuse to believe they’re confronting anything beyond the mundane; they prefer to think it’s an illusion, delusion, lie, hoax, etc.

This gets tiresome pretty damned quick. I soon end up yelling, “Get on to the good stuff! Quit wasting my time!”

I’m prepared to accept a short interval of doubt. If someone in our modern world walks up and says, “I’m an alien,” a character ought to have a few misgivings; otherwise, the character seems like a gullible fool, and that’s usually not what the writer wants.

On the other hand, I hate when a story spends any significant time in this phase. I want to read about cool stuff, not about someone who disbelieves in cool stuff! Disbelief is almost always boring and irritating. After all, I know the fantastic elements will turn out to be real eventually—I probably got the book from the Science Fiction & Fantasy section, and I’ve already read the cover blurb. Even if the blurb doesn’t have spoilers, it’s designed to give me a feel for the book and its general ambiance. I picked up the book it looked like it would give me magic or aliens…so writers, stop dragging your feet, and give me what I paid for!

Seriously, any more than a few paragraphs of disbelief are enough to make me skip ahead in search of something more promising. Either that, or I put the book down and never pick it up again. I strongly recommend that authors create characters who buy in quickly…or else make the encounter so clearly beyond the ordinary that even skeptical characters can’t deny what’s going on.

Please. Please.

Checking In

2020. Amazing.

What did I do in 2019? A lot of writing, almost none of which has been published yet. I’m still working on the haunted house novel, titled The Hacking of Hyll House (at least until someone tells me I can’t use the name). I hope the book will be finished in a couple of months, because other stories want to be written too, and I’m not getting any younger.

The holidays were mostly quiet, except when a water pipe developed a pin-sized hole on Christmas Eve, spraying a fine mist all over my basement. I tried to fix it with duct tape (of course), which changed the fine mist into a more manageable drip. I happened to have some old hose from my clothes dryer sitting around, so I rigged it under the drip to funnel the leak into a nearby drain. I considered taking pictures and posting them here, but it would have given my insurance agent a heart attack and/or made me go viral on some belittling website, so I decided against it. I eventually managed to get a plumber in on Monday, and life is dry again.

So that was my Christmas…although I also read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tomaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell which I heartily recommend. And I’ve been dying a lot while playing Control. Dying isn’t fun, but the game is, so it’s worth checking out.

I haven’t made any resolutions for 2020, but I do intend to blog more. So happy 2020, and I hope to write more in the near future.

At the Merril Collection

This year, I’m happy to be the Guest Speaker at the Merril Collection’s annual holiday party, Saturday, December 7, 2019, 1:30 – 4:00PM. Yay!

For those who are unfamiliar with the Merril Collection, it’s a highly respected collection of science fiction and fantasy works, part of the Toronto Public Library system. I’m honored to be invited…and I’ll be reading a bit from my current work in progress, The Hacking of Hyll House. Hope to see you there!

Reading List

While I’m in Calgary for When Words Collide, I’ll be leading a writing workshop. In preparation for that workshop (and just as a useful reference), here are some books I think are useful for fiction writers. (Since the workshop is in Canada, all links will be to Amazon Canada…but by all means, order from your favourite bookseller, whoever that may be.)

On Writing by Stephen King
All kinds of good inspirational stuff from Stephen King
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
The best book I know for writers who are past the beginning stage and are ready to work on specific skills. I think I own three copies.
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
My favourite book on grammar and punctuation…mostly because it’s funny, but it’s also quite useful.
About Writing by Samuel R. Delany
Writing advice by one of the most literary masters of science fiction

 
Also have a look at The Skill List Project, a series I wrote several years ago about all the skills I think are involved in writing fiction.

Villainous Observation

I’m listening to back-broadcasts of the Writing Excuses podcast, and in Season 11, they make an observation about villains. (They tentatively ascribe this observation to Victoria Schwab although they aren’t 100 percent certain.)

The observation is that villains often have a “big picture” motivation for what they do. “In order to save the world, I have to…” “To advance science, I must…” “If I want to improve everyone’s life, I’m going to…” High-level goals are how these villains justify low-level acts of evil: “Murdering a few individuals is insignificant compared to the great things I’m trying to accomplish.”

Heroes, on the other hand, often have small-scale personal motivations. “This villain killed my father.” “If the villains get their way, my friends and family will suffer.” Etc. Paradoxically, such intimate motivations allow a universal connection: any reader can sympathize with someone who wants to avenge their father.

More abstract causes aren’t so easy to connect with emotionally. I may not even agree with a villain’s high-level motivation (do I really want to see America made great again?)…but even if I think what the villain wants to do is admirable, I’m much less likely to continue with, “So it’s okay to commit violence in such a cause.”

I like this observation, and I think it holds true in a ton of fiction: bad guys abstract, good guys personal. I’m passing it on to the readers here, just as something to contemplate.

P.S. But I hate the saying, “The end doesn’t justify the means.” This is often said in the sense of “No end ever justifies any means.” But that’s nonsense. Lots of ends justify lots of means. Cutting people up with knives is usually bad, but if I’m a surgeon performing a life-saving operation, the ultimate goal justifies making careful incisions.

In fact, the end is the only thing that ever justifies any means. Whatever you do, you should have a good reason for doing it; if you don’t, that’s bad.

So I’d rather see the phrase changed to, “Some ends don’t justify some means.” That I wholeheartedly agree with.