Sharing: July 9, 2018

Links to more stuff I like:

Article: Five Books on World Philosophy
The web site fivebooks.com publishes regular articles in which an expert on a subject recommends five books as a starting point for learning about that subject. The site has dealt with a wide range of topics, and is a great resource for discovering new books. (Also for discovering new subjects that you might not have thought about.) The most recent posting looks at “World Philosophy”, i.e. more than just Anglo-European works. I know what I’ll be looking up the next time I go to a university library.
Place: The Walter Bean Grand River Trail
The Grand is a sizable river flowing through South-Western Ontario, and the Walter Bean Trail runs along the river through much of the Waterloo Region. I walk the trail on a regular basis—it’s close to where I live and a pleasant quiet place for an easy stroll. (For those who want a slightly more demanding hike, there are also the Grand River Trails run by the Grand River Conservation Authority.)
Pen: Zebra F-301
I write longhand in a journal every morning. Sometimes I write stories/novels in longhand too, when I need to slow down and think, or when I’m too distractable to trust myself on a computer. My favorite pen is the Zebra F-301 (Fine point, blue ink). I love the feel of the sharp steel tip on good paper. (Gel pens? Maybe for drawing, but not for writing. Too slippery.) By the way, I break off the pen-clip so I don’t have to worry about it digging into my hand.

Sharing: July 8, 2018

More links to stuff I like:

Comics: Marvel Unlimited
For $69 (U.S.) a year, Marvel Unlimited gives you all-you-can-read access to thousands of Marvel comics including much of their back list: all the way back to Fantastic Four #1 and even some earlier comics (from before they called themselves Marvel). When I first subscribed in 2013, I went back ten years and started reading everything Marvel had published beginning in 2003. I’m now on October 2014.

I should note that Marvel Unlimited doesn’t include comics from the most recent six months, so if you want the newest comics, you’ll have to buy those on your own. Or else, just wait six months and they’ll show up for free. (Well, for $69 a year, but that’s almost free, right?)

Role-Playing Game: Geist, the Sin-Eaters (Second Edition)
This is another Onyx Path game, set in the world of the Chronicles of Darkness. In this one, you play someone who dies but comes back to life by making a deal with a powerful archetypal ghost. This may sound grim, but the game actually evokes an atmosphere like Mardi-Gras or the Mexican Day of the Dead: hey, since you’ve already died, nothing worse can happen. So why not live life like a party? On the other hand, you gain fabulous supernatural powers based on the kind of things ghosts do in ghost stories.

Right now the game’s second edition is going through a Kickstarter, so it’s a good time to sign up and get goodies relatively cheap.

Podcast: Revolutions
This is another history podcast, dedicated to revolutions (duh). It’s now in its eight season, where it’s dealing with the revolution that killed the Second French Empire in 1870. Previous seasons have dealt with the English revolution (Oliver Cromwell et al), the American revolution, the French revolution (i.e. the biggie), the Haitian slave revolt, and more. The host, Mike Duncan, does a great job of making history accessible, even when the action gets messy (and of course, during revolutions, things can get very messy indeed).

Writing Exposition: Visual Aids

In previous posts about exposition, I noted that before providing background information, you should try to make readers want that information. You should also present the information in an emotional context—instead of a dry recitation of facts, you should have one or more characters who view those facts with emotion. For example, if you’re going to give a history lesson, don’t have it given by a detached history professor. Have the lesson delivered by someone who loves or hates what happened, so they can inject some feeling into the facts.

Emotion is a big part of providing exposition with “sizzle”. Another part is arranging for an active presentation rather than a passive one. My mantra on this is, A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

At the low end of activeness, you can use visual aids. Let’s take a simple example.

Robin took me downstairs to a quiet room lit by a single candle. The walls were lost in shadow, but as I entered, I could see stray glints of metal all around me. Robin went to one wall and came back with a sword that he held for me to examine in the candlelight.

With a hushed and reverent voice, Robin said, “This sword belonged to my great-grandmother. She fought in the Ice Brigade during the First Mage War. See how the hilt is scorched? She slammed it into a Russian fire mage at the Battle of Berlin. She couldn’t stab the mage because all the enchantments on the blade had been exhausted in previous fighting. But she had a tiny bit of blessing left on the hilt: enough that she could hammer the mage in the head without getting the sword completely incinerated.

This passage packs in a lot of information. Since it mentions Russia and Berlin, the story clearly takes place on a version of our world. But it’s a world where magic exists, and where people with swords fight mages. Women can be part of military brigades. It’s possible for weapons to be enchanted, but those enchantments wear off.

Instead of just reciting these facts, I’ve created a scene where the facts arise in connection with showing off the sword. There isn’t a ton of drama in this scene, but even so, there’s some action. Characters are moving around, looking at things, and so on.

I could go on to have the narrator describe the sword in more detail, and I could use those details to reveal other facts about the world. I could also have Robin show the narrator other mementos from the room, perhaps dealing with later wars and other important events. In this way, I can convey a lot of background without much trouble.

Using objects is a simple way of turning exposition into an active scene rather mere passive statements. In future posts, I’ll look at other approaches.

[Sword diagrams from Nathan Robinson via the English language Wikipedia [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]

Writing Exposition: Timing and Emotion

In the previous post about exposition, I talked about what exposition is and why it’s inescapable. I also mentioned my basic principle on exposition: A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

I’ll say more about that principle eventually. First, however, let’s look at an important question: When/where do you have exposition appear in a story?

Ideally, you provide exposition at a point where the reader wants it. If the reader really really wants to know about a subject, then the reader will eagerly read what you have to say about it.

This means it’s a good idea to create the conditions in which a reader is keen to find out background information. As an example, consider the beginning of Hamlet.

In the first scene of the play, a ghost appears on the battlements of the royal castle. This isn’t the first night the ghost has been seen, so the guards have called in a young scholar named Horatio to see what he thinks the ghost is up to. Horatio tries to get the ghost to talk, but doesn’t succeed. He does, however, observe that the ghost looks like the late King Hamlet. So Horatio decides to go to the king’s son, Prince Hamlet, and tell the prince about the ghost.

This scene contains some of its own exposition. “Hey, that ghost looks like the king who died a few weeks ago!” is a lovely example of quick exposition. But more importantly, the scene sets up a situation in which the audience wants to know more about the late king and his death.

After all, seeing a ghost is dramatic stuff. Something juicy must have happened when the king died. The audience will be eager for details. Therefore, the next scene is a great time to do exposition.

So what happens in the next scene? The royal court is in session, with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude sitting on their thrones. Various things happen to set up events later in the play, but exposition is provided by Prince Hamlet—throughout the proceedings, he keeps firing off side comments and emotional outbursts.

Hamlet is basically pissed off at the world. He’s pissed off that his Uncle Claudius is now sitting on Dad’s old throne; he’s pissed off at Mom, Queen Gertrude, for marrying Claudius two seconds after Dad was buried. (“Gee, Mom, great idea! We saved money by serving the leftovers from the funeral feast at the wedding banquet.”) Hamlet is also pissed off at various other characters, making snide comments on their personalities and generally acting like a sullen teenager.

During the process, we learn a lot of background details about everyone. His complaints also give us personal info on everybody he bitches about. Hamlet’s complaints are also snarky enough to be entertaining and emotional enough to show that he’s a powder keg. They show how angry he is with Claudius and Gertrude. And in the process, we find out that Claudius and Gertrude got married suspiciously fast after the old king’s death.

In other words, we get lots of exposition, but it’s delivered with sizzling emotion. Hamlet isn’t lecturing us, he’s chewing out everyone around him. We’re entertained by the emotional fireworks…and in the process, we learn a lot of background facts.

This example highlights two important principles of exposition.

  1. Before you provide major bits of exposition, set up conditions that make readers want to know the facts.
  2. Then when you deliver the facts, do so with emotion. Don’t just lecture, give a speech. There’s a difference.

That’s it for today. More to come!

[Poster for Hamlet from Wikimedia Commons]

Writing Exposition: Introduction

In writing fiction, exposition means giving the reader background information.

The need for exposition is universal—at the start of Hamlet, for example, the audience needs to be told that Hamlet is a prince, that his father, the king, recently died, and that his mother married his uncle soon thereafter. Since these events happened before the start of the play, Shakespeare didn’t want to show them on stage. Instead, he had to convey the information in some other way.

As I just said, every piece of fiction needs exposition. There’s always a lot of things that the audience needs to know in order to understand what’s going on, and it’s just not practical (or even possible) to present those things as a direct part of the action.

The problem can be even worse in fantasy/science fiction. F&SF often deal with “facts” that don’t exist on our own world—fictional places, for example. If I’m writing about our own world, I can set a story in Toronto and take it for granted that readers will have a general picture of the city. (Of course, I’ll have to explain specific background details that non-Torontonians aren’t likely to know.)

If, on the other hand, I set a story in a fictional city on a fictional world, I can’t take anything for granted. I have to explain history, culture, environment, etc. starting at Square One.

Small details are easy to toss in during the action: My mother lived in Cabbagetown, one of the worst parts of the city. That’s enough to give readers a first impression of the mother’s neighborhood. Later on, you can go into the specifics of what makes it so bad.

But sometimes, you need to give more information than just a thrown-in phrase. For example, if you’re writing about a war, you (usually) have to tell what the war is about. Depending on the needs of your story, this may involve a deep dive into the relevant history, economics, cultural perceptions, and so on.

How do you provide this information without putting readers to sleep? I summarize the basic principle like this:

A field trip is more interesting than a lecture.

Think of all those things we wish that school teachers would do: take us on field trips…use visual aids…make active presentations…tell anecdotes…turn parts of the lesson into games. As writers, we have to do the same sorts of things.

Lectures have their place, but they’re dry. Next time, I’ll talk about how to use more colorful ways to convey information in the course of a story.

Patreon Posts

I just sent out my first post to Patreon patrons. It’s taken me a while to figure out what special thing I can add to these posts, but I think I’ve finally come up with something good.

I have a great concept for a story titled Miracles & Wonders. The story is comprised of small sections, each of which is relatively self-contained. There’s just one problem: I, uhh, haven’t figured out how to end the story yet.

So I’ve decided to send out one section a month, in the hope that by the time I exhaust all the sections I’ve planned and/or written, I’ll come up with a suitable ending. If not…well, okay, my Patreon peeps will at least find out that stories don’t always work out.

So by signing up for my Patreon, you get to watch a story in progress. I hope you find the process interesting.

Sharing: June 29, 2018

More links…

Eye Candy: National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year pictures
In the spirit of my recent post about Eye Candy, the National Geographic just released a whole bunch of gorgeous photographs. Well worth clicking through them all.
Book: Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri
A police procedural thriller set in Italy. The sleuths are both suffering from serious cases of PTSD, making them flawed but sympathetic. Lots of action, but with realistic consequences—whenever there’s a fight, one or both heroes usually end up in the hospital. I’m reading the sequel now, and it’s good too.
Awards: The Aurora Awards
If you’re Canadian citizen or landed immigrant, why not sign up to vote in the Aurora awards? It costs $10 (Canadian) but if you sign up now, you get a substantial voter’s package containing lots of great stories and book excerpts. And (cough cough), you can also vote for my stuff if you feel so inclined.