Dragon Maths

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
Publication: Traditional
Genre: Fantasy

In my first post, I blogged about how I rejected Code Name Verity because, while it had a great hook, that’s simply not enough; a book must follow up the hook with a reason for the reader to care.

Ok, great. Gotcha. A reason to care. But, from a technical standpoint, what does a reason to care consist of? And how do you know if you’ve given your readers an adequate one?

There are a lot of possible answers. But one of the most powerful ways of making your readers care is giving them someone to care about.

That’s what Naomi Novik does in His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in her justly famous Temeraire series. It’s narrated by William Laurence, captain of a British Naval ship during the Napoleonic Wars, and Novik lets us know exactly who he is with efficiency on p. 2, after Laurence has captured a French ship:

Many of [the French sailors] lay dead or dying upon the deck; he shook his head at the waste and eyed the French captain with disapproval; the man should never have offered battle… he ought to have done better by his men than to bring them into so hopeless an action.…

He hooked the captain’s sword on his belt; he did not think the man deserved the compliment of having it returned, though ordinarily he would have done so.

Two things are important here: Laurence’s individuality, and his virtue. His sternness, attention to ceremony, and martial viewpoint comprise the first; they make you feel as though you have met a real, nuanced person. His compassion and his sense of a captain’s duties comprise the second; they make you feel as though the person you have met is worth knowing.

Together these things give the reader someone to care about. Now, all the writer has to do is get him in trouble.

That’s what happens as the sample continues. In short order, Laurence will discover that in capturing the French ship, he has also captured a dragon egg, which will shortly hatch. It becomes clear that one of his officers must attempt to harness the dragon, becoming its rider and ending that man’s Naval career. And when the young man selected for the task proves unequal to it, it is Laurence’s sad duty to step into his place.

And throughout all this, Laurence’s individuality and virtue are fully on display, particularly in the way that he sees it as his duty to sacrifice his own intended future to secure the hatchling for Britain’s war effort. And thus, when the sample leaves off, although the plot is still in its opening stages (indeed, nothing has happened that isn’t revealed on the back cover copy), we are deeply invested in Laurence and in what will happen to him. We care.

So, broken down into a mathematical formula, that leaves us with:

(Individuality + Virtue) + Difficulty = A Reason to Care.

I like math. And also, Temeraire.

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Technician’s Life: Thoughtcrime

A few weeks back, rumors were flying about the internet the upcoming Judge Dredd 2000 AD comic book. The writers had released a couple of panels, apparently depicting Dredd kissing a gay teen. Then the shit storm began.

Fans threatened to boycott. To burn their comics. The rest of the Internet at large united in launching plenty of screed at those fans. “What does it matter,” became their rallying cry. “What does it matter if Judge Dredd is gay?”

While I applaud the writers of Judge Dredd 2000 AD for taking on a controversial and important topic, as a writer, I gotta say, come on, people.

Of course it matters.

The question of Dredd’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter to Dredd’s value as a human being. It doesn’t matter to the respect he deserves, or doesn’t, based on his actions. And it shouldn’t matter to the rights he can exercise in a free society.

But it absolutely matters to the consistency of his character. And, when you are writing a series, the character is ALL. Character is what you are selling. Fans may like your turn of phrase, they may enjoy your twisty plots, they may even admire you as a person. But the visceral connection, the love, comes from character.

Screw with that character at your peril. Remember what happened back in December, when Tom Cruise starred in Jack Reacher, an adaptation of Lee Child’s first Reacher novel? Fans were outraged–outraged–that Cruise had been selected to portray their hero. They boycotted the movie. They raged on the Internet. The very people who you would have expected to be most invested in the movie’s success instead became committed to bringing about its downfall.

Why? Cruise’s portrayal hadn’t changed Reacher’s sexual orientation. Nor his ethnicity, his attitude, or any salient facts except one: his size. The movie changed Reacher’s size. Jack Reacher is supposed to be a big, tall, behemoth, the kind of guy you would think twice about letting inside to use your phone on a rainy night. Tom Cruise is, well, … not.

The Jack Reacher fans weren’t height-ist. They didn’t hate people of short stature. They just loved their character for who he was, not for possible alternate versions of who he might have been. To see him presented in any way other than the one they’d known and loved him as felt, to them, like a slap in the face. And to the Judge Dredd fans, seeing their hero kiss a dude felt much the same.

But wait a minute! Judge Dredd was never straight to begin with! His life was all about the job, not about any sexual orientation  heterosexual or otherwise. Readers just assumed that he was straight.

Yup. Readers do all sorts of annoying things. They make assumptions about your characters’ sexual orientation, race, and, given the opportunity, gender. They space on important information you thought you had conveyed clearly. They develop fixations on minor characters you would just as soon leave in the background.

It’s part of the writer’s job to be aware of the readers’ probably assumptions, and to controvert them, if need be, in a way that doesn’t jar the narrative. I think it goes without saying that this cannot happen in a series’ 35th year.

We have gotten into a habit, as a nation, of being pissed at each other. I do not except myself here. Maybe it’s because our politicians and the media are always demonizing people on the other side, or maybe it’s something fundamental in the way we humans form tribes. But for whatever reason, we tend to assume the worst of anyone who disagrees with us. We assume that anyone who doesn’t want a particular character to be gay must be a homophobe, a bigot, a gay basher. They probably hate women and black people, too.

In fact, I have held onto this post for several weeks, because I am afraid people will see it as evidence that am a secret homophobe. Or at least, a subconscious one. Or at least, I don’t care enough about gay rights, if I’m willing to defend anyone who might object to Judge Dredd being gay.

It makes me sad, and it makes me weary. The fact that I am afraid to speak is evidence enough for me that it must be said: we need more forbearance for one another in this society. We need intellectual tolerance, and we need the benefit of the doubt. In this age of broadcasting all the innocuous inanities of our life, I fear we have become strangely intolerant to thought, if it differs, or even appears to differ, from the Right Opinions. Because after all, anyone without those opinions is Out of the Tribe, and deserving of nothing but the most thorough kind of contempt.

We cannot keep hating each other for voicing ultimately innocuous thoughts like, “But Judge Dredd isn’t supposed to be gay!” Because at some point (and it’s not really too far along the road), hatred turns to self-righteousness. And self-righteousness fuels the desire to keep on hating.

And we could use less of that around here. We really, really could.

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What is Fiction Technician?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how e-books are changing the publishing business. It’s generally agreed that the effects are enormous, but as yet unknown. E-books are having an effect on the profitability of brick-and-mortar stores, on the cost of self-publishing (and therefore its prevalence), on basically every aspect of publishing.

But they’re changing more than that. They’re changing the way we buy books.

For people like me, who do most of their reading on an e-reader, I suspect that the book buying process has become much the same: download a sample of the book and read it. If you get bored, stop. If you get to the end and you’re still interested, buy the book.

For the first time in history, readers have an infinite amount of time to spend with the first pages of a book before they decide to buy. The implications of this for writers are simultaneously completely obvious, and hard to completely get one’s head around. But one thing is clear:

The first ten percent of your book has become your last, and most critical, selling tool.

And that means that you must sustain reader interest at a pretty high level throughout the length of the sample. If it drops off, the reader just isn’t going to hit Buy.

The last book to fall victim to this drop-off, for me, was Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. It’s about a teenage spy who is captured and tortured by Nazis. The book takes the form of the confession they are forcing her to write. In the first pages, she makes it clear that she will confess all.

I was very into the premise, and very into those first few pages, wherein Verity outlines her grim circumstances. Had I been perusing the book in a bookstore, that’s as far as I would have read before I needed to move on with my day. On the strength of those first pages, I would have bought the book.

But as Verity moved into the meat of her confession, my interest waned. And when I got to the end of the sample, there on page 40, I wrinkled up my nose, trying to decide whether it was worth ten bucks to turn the page. I decided it wasn’t. I hit Delete.

For a while, it was hard for me to figure out exactly what it was that made me lose steam on Code Name Verity, until I remembered something Orson Scott Card said when I attended his Literary Boot Camp in 2010.

Forget “hook,” he said. Give us a reason to care.

It was then that I realized that Code Name Verity was all hook, and no reason to care. The hook was top notch: Girl spy! Being tortured! By Nazis! But once we moved past that initial hook, there was nothing to hold me. Her confession dealt with characters who the narrator seemed to find fascinating, but who I frankly did not. In fact, I found them rather typical: plucky girl pilots running about being plucky—without, as yet, any real problems to deal with. I knew they would be recruited into the war effort eventually, but it hadn’t happened yet, and I didn’t know how long it would take. And I didn’t care about any of them.

That hook was enough to get me through 40 pages. But it wasn’t a reason to care, and it wasn’t enough to sell me the book.

And that, essentially, is what Fiction Technician is about: looking at the initial samples of e-books from a writerly point of view. I’ll look at character, pacing, tension, et al, all trying to answer one question: Why is this book selling? Or why isn’t it?

If you’ve recently walked away from a book that couldn’t hold your attention throughout the sample, let me know about it in the comments. How are you buying books these days?

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