Sharing: January 1, 2019

Happy New Years to all!

Okay, I guess that’s a little brief. So…

I feel sheepish about making New Year’s resolutions, but I always do it anyway. Partly, it’s because I get introspective between Christmas and New Year’s—all my usual distractions shut down during that week, so I spend most of the time on my own. Inevitably, I start thinking about stuff I’d like to change. The next thing you know, I’ve made a bunch of resolutions.

I don’t actually start doing them right on January 1. Usually, I start a few days early; I find that if I start right away rather than waiting, I’m less likely to let things slip. Also, if I do let something slip, I can declare a do-over and start again on New Year’s Day. And since my birthday is January 10, I have that as another backstop—if I fumble the ball, I can declare that the resolutions will kick off on my birthday, which is another auspicious day for new beginnings.

To be honest, I’m not looking at serious shake-ups in my life. I just want to use my time better. I’ve resolved to track my writing hours more carefully so that I can see how much I’m writing; then I’ll do more. I also want to get more intentional with career stuff—if I want to keep writing, I have to make sure I earn enough money to keep going. Besides, it’s more fun to write things if people actually read them. So I’ll start looking for ways to improve my visibility. (And of course to improve my writing, but that’s been my ongoing goal forever.)

So that’s what my new year is aiming to be. Here’s hoping it makes a difference!

Things You Might Not Realize About Rabbits

I asked my rabbit what I should write about. He suggested rabbits. So here are some things you might not realize.

  1. Rabbits can’t breathe through their mouths; they can only breathe through their noses. If a rabbit gets stuffed up, it’s very very serious.
  2. Rabbits can’t vomit either. Digestive blockages are bad.
  3. Despite what you’ve read in Watership Down, rabbits are social but they aren’t very hierarchical. They enjoy hanging out with each other (and with humans if they’ve decided you’re cool), but they don’t defer to each other much. In particular, if a rabbit gets a good treat, it will grab the treat and run away to eat in private. Sharing is for suckers.
  4. Rabbits are coprophagous. In other words, they eat some of their droppings. Why? Because their principal food is grass, and grass just isn’t very nutritious. Big animals that eat grass (e.g. cows) have extra long digestive tracts and sometimes multiple stomachs to derive as much nutrition as possible from each mouthful. Rabbits have long digestive tracts relative to their size, but that’s still not very long. By the time a mouthful of grass gets all the way through, it still has a fair bit of nutrition left. So rabbits just put it through again. In practice, this means they actually have two types of droppings: soft (which have only gone through once) and hard (which have gone through twice). They re-eat the soft ones.
  5. Rabbits don’t really have eyelids. They can squeeze their eyes mostly shut by scrunching the muscles above and below the eye, but they can’t close their eyes completely. This is why (ugh) they’re used for testing cosmetics—they can’t shut stuff out of their eyes.
  6. You probably know this one, but rabbits aren’t rodents. They’re lagomorphs. The major difference is in their teeth: rodents have only two incisors (one on each side), while lagomorphs have four (a pair on each side).

For other interesting rabbit facts, check out the web site of The House Rabbit Society, an organization of people who like having rabbits around the house.

Stabilization

Yesterday, I wrote about Destabilization: you can say that a story begins when one or more characters have their lives destabilized, and that the story ends when their lives are stable again. To add to this, let me talk about the forms that the final stability may take.

One possible type of stability is going back to the status quo that existed at the beginning of the story. You often see this in books for kids: all problems have been solved, all monsters are defeated, and everything is back to “normal”. This is fine for children—many kids haven’t learned to cope with change. Furthermore, it means the same story can be read multiple times, and a series of books can be read in any order.

But it doesn’t work well for adults. Adults know that things never stay the same, and they like to see people dealing with change. So even if a threat is defeated (or a puzzle is solved, or the protagonist manages to get home after a difficult journey), adults want to see characters develop. The experience should leave the characters stronger, or wiser, or more wary, or something. Otherwise, the whole experience meant nothing. (That’s perilously close to “It was all a dream”. Haha, everything was pointless!)

The newly established stability doesn’t have to be “nice”. If a character gives up hope, that’s still a form of stability. It may not be an enjoyable result, but it is an ending and may be suitable for some stories.

(You can get away with “downer” endings in short stories more than in novels. Consider horror stories, for example; plenty of them end with the protagonist dying in some gruesome way. However, ending a novel with everything awful may be too grim to satisfy readers who’ve spent hours of their lives on the book.)

Stability doesn’t mean that every loose end has been tied up. Stories that are part of a series almost always have loose ends; a dangling thread in Book 1 may start the plot in Book 2. But even stories that will never have a sequel may have loose ends. If so, I think it’s useful to acknowledge the loose ends in some way. Otherwise, readers may just think that the writer fumbled the ball. By acknowledging I mean something like, “George never did find out where the dagger came from,” or something like that. (Preferably something more elegantly phrased, but still.)

One way or another, a story begins when the first domino falls. At the end, readers should feel that there are no dominoes left, even if the dust hasn’t completely settled. If dominoes are still in motion, the story just isn’t over yet.

[Photo of dominoes by Peng [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Destabilization

The latest episode of the Writing Excuses podcast dealt with how to finish a character’s story. During the discussion, they described good plot structure as circling back on itself. I understand what they meant, but I worry about the concept being misinterpreted; beginning writers may think that you have to end up at the same place you started, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes this does happen (as in the classic Hero’s Journey), but plenty of good stories don’t make this kind of circle. So let me put my own spin on the point.

Stories begin with some kind of destabilization. Something pushes or tempts one or more characters to break their routine. For example:

  • The characters leave home, temporarily or permanently
  • A new person enters the characters’ lives (often summarized as “A Stranger Comes to Town”)
  • The characters encounter a puzzle and decide to solve it (this is the plot of most mystery stories)
  • An event occurs which makes it difficult or impossible to continue with the status quo
  • Some incident, large or small, induces the characters to make changes in their lives

Now it’s possible for things to occur without destabilizing the characters’ lives. Lots of people go on trips without being changed, and a typical police detective solves plenty of “mysteries” without being strongly affected by them. A situation only becomes “story-worthy” when characters truly are destabilized.

(And let me say as an aside, new writers are sometimes reluctant to destabilize characters. Few of us like being destabilized ourselves, and if you identify with your characters, you may be inclined to keep your characters cool and unaffected by whatever happens. This is a mistake—characters should never skate through plot situations. Even James Bond has to sweat.)

So if a story starts with destabilization, how does it end? When the characters’ lives are more or less stable again. You don’t have to resolve everything—life is seldom so neat. And “stable” doesn’t have to mean “happy”; characters may end up dead or in terrible circumstances. (See, for example, the ending of Hamlet.) But an ending will feel like an ending if there’s nothing that’s going to propel much further change in the situation.

In other words, you can look at story structure as starting with a state of stability, then getting destabilized, and eventually returning to stability again. The final state may or may not be similar to the initial one; it could be wildly different. But if the final state feels stable, the audience will understand and accept that the story is over.

[Photo of Leaning Tower of Pisa by Saffron Blaze [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

What I’m Reading: December 7, 2018

I always have a number of books on the go for one reason or another. Why not share?

Fiction: At the moment, I’m reading superhero comic books (gee, I wonder why?) and I’m mostly making use of my Marvel Unlimited account. (It’s a bargain, providing access to almost all of Marvel’s backlist for only $69 (U.S.) a year!) Right now I’m working through November 2014, so that means the “Axis” and “Spider-Verse” events (among others).

Other comic series I follow devotedly: The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, The Wild Storm by Warren Ellis, and Giant Days by John Allison.

Bathroom reading: Beyond Weird by Philip Ball, a book on quantum theory whose aim is to get past the “Wow, isn’t this weird!” stage and to work on demystification…to the extent that quantum theory can be demystified.

Kitchen reading: I always have a book in my kitchen for when I take a snack break during writing, or when I’m waiting for water to boil, or for all those other times when I’m in the kitchen with a few minutes to fill. At the moment, I’m reading Plant Biology by Alison M. Smith et al, because I don’t know nearly enough about botany. (Everybody should ask themselves what they don’t know enough about and then start correcting that omission.)

Cheap Explosions! And Editing!

Woohoo! The Kindle version of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is on sale today at Amazon.

Update: It’s also on sale at Kobo. (Oops, sorry for missing that.)

And while I’m here, let me put in a plug for my editing services. If you’re a writer, new or established, I’d be happy to work with you to improve your latest manuscript. I can give you my overall thoughts on character, plot, structure, etc., or detailed notes on your complete novel. Give me a shout at j.a.gardner@outlook.com for more information.