Monday, April 21, 2008

Sympathy is the very devil

As I close in on 100 rejections I can see a trend emerging in the letters and e-mails that accompany those stories that don't quite make it.

I can sense I'm making progress in that more rejections express the hope that I'll keep bothering those editors with my stories. Perhaps its rejectomancy to read too much in to that but given the thin nourishmnet from the big table I've had so far those crumbs taste pretty good. Cuspy? Look it up in the dictionary and it'll have my picture next to it.

Three of the rejections I got recently all mentioned failings of character. Those letters mean more than most because they do chime with what I think about where I am at. I now know I can handle setting, structure, dialogue and I'm getting a handle on action.

But character? Hmm - I know that the characters I write are pretty thin.

So I turned to the web and my collection of "how to write" reference books for help. To paint good characters SDL says I need to show them performing actions that are "habitual, purposeful and gratuitous". Reading that I realised the importance of action - in the sense of putting a character in places they must react rather than a sword or gunfight. People reveal themselves by their action otherwise they are just being shuffled from place to place and looking blankly on.

Also important, say folks like Orson Scott Card, are telling details - habits or incidents from a character's past to round them out. Then there are the elements revealed in dialog beats - reactions or additions to the words and the attitude a character brings to events.

I also found this great note by Jim Kelly about how to go about it. There's great stuff here - about how telling in a short story is okay but showing is important too. Probably the best advice he gives is to try it and keep on trying until it works. Writers learn by doing rather than be being told - they are not alone in that.

But I also came across the frightening information that Iris Murdoch felt she had never mastered the art of creating good, for which read sympathetic, characters. And that chimes with what I've felt reading Murdoch, her characters feel like exquisitely made mechanical people rather than living, breathing individuals. Where that leaves me I'm not sure. Perhaps I'd better go and find out. So, if you'll excuse me...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

London calling

I've alluded to this before but I am very superstitious about giving away too much information about the stories I'm working on before they are published. I'm not sure where this phobia stems from but my fear is that the entropic load of a story is pretty light. By that I mean they wear out fast if told too soon.

That fear has made me reluctant to use this blog to promote stories I'm working on. But I've realised a few things. Firstly, I'm not interesting enough to sustain people's attention forever all by myself. And (1A) I don't want the blog to become the place I use to bemoan my lot. Which it has a danger of doing.

The second realisation is that if people do start visiting then they'll do so because they are curious about what I might be coming up with next. So, I'm starting an allied blog (much of which will be reflected here) about a novel idea I've been kicking around for a while. It's a steampunk romp and in that blog I'll work on the setting for it. My tentative title for it is The Brass Boy. Part of the reason I'm doing this is because a public announcment can be a good spur to action. I can ignore my conscience with increasing ease but lots of other people saying: "Hey, whatever happened to The Brass Boy?" is harder to dodge.

Steampunk seems a natural era for me to choose because I've become a Dickens nut over the last few years, have been a fool for Victorian history for years (Flashman!) and Jerry White's magisterial A Human Awful Wonder of God made me realise the parallels between 19th Century London and modern life. The pace of change from 1800-1900 was breathtaking and many people struggled to cope. Just like now. Plus this story I've been dreaming up has been battering me for a long time with scenes, characters and events. It'll feel good to give some of them a home.