Writing lessons — hide the ball

Beginners often don’t know what information to reveal and what information to hide. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, writers have to set up a world as well as characters and a plot (which makes me wonder why mainstream literature underestimates SF/F so badly, but there you go). While we are told to “show, not tell,” beginners often try to show everything, which means they end up hiding everything.

Another part of this is cleverness, as I’ve discussed before. We are often trying so hard to ah ha! the reader to the detriment of our story, that we try to hide everything. It’s not just that the heroes are five-toed sloths, they are five-toed sloths on a water world, and they are blind. (Gross exaggeration, No one has ever done this to my knowledge.)

My suggestion is this. Tell the story as if you had nothing to hide. Sure, your first go-round might have a little too much telling, but that’s what editing is for. So now you have a story where there are no secrets except for what happens next. And what happens next is that the reader is powerfully caught up in your tale. They don’t have to worry about deciphering everything about your characters and your world. They just have to be absorbed in your plot.

And that’s the whole point. Not cleverness. Not the slow reveal. A reader caught up in your plot.

Give it a try next time you sit down to write. See what happens.

Sunday miscellany

Saturday’s book signing was swell. Barnes & Noble had me front and center. Several of my friends and family stopped by and I also sold a handful of books to other folks in the store. I spoke with aspiring writers, one of whom was astonished to hear about the vast writing community in Austin (seriously, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a writer). He was taking creative writing courses as Southwestern University up in Georgetown, and I have to say, what are they teaching kids up there these days? He hadn’t heard about Texas Writers League, which is one of the biggest writers leagues in the country. How can you train upcoming new writers without letting them know about one of the huge resources in the area? Sheesh.

Sunday we saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This was one of the better Harry Potter installments. Darker, yet with moments of humor, and the kids are becoming better actors. Rupert Grint has the thankless role of the second banana, and he manages it well.

I’ve read all of the books and I only liked the first three. The remaining four were bloated, self-indulgent, and increasingly poorly written. I admire Rowling tremendously for her accomplishment, and I think the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone) is an incredible children’s book, but after Chamber of Secrets and Azkaban, the books all went downhill. I don’t think I even saw the last movie.

One of the things I liked about this one was that the producers and directors have thankfully settled down with the special effects. God, that first movie was so annoying, what with all the flashpowder whiz-bang magic going on. With HBP, the special effects serve the story instead of the other way around. Even though I write fantasy, I don’t like magic (that’s why in Gordath Wood there’s very little of the stuff). Well, it’s not like I don’t like magic, it’s just that I think it gets in the way of a good story. Okay, that’s not it either. Magic just makes things easy, that’s all.

Darkon and the movies — or, it’s good to be king

Words: 1,410. It was like pulling teeth, and then I made two changes. I told the scene from another character’s perspective, and I asked, “Well, what if she decides she wants to do that?” Boom. Flowage. 

In the last few weeks, here are the movies I’ve seen:

Seven Samurai 

Silent Running



Bridge on the River Kwai

All of them have one thing in common: What does it mean to be a man?

In the Seven Samurai, which I didn’t like as much as I liked The Magnificent Seven, the young kid loses his virginity and kills in battle pretty much on the same day, and the lesson seemed to be he became a man. But the girl he sleeps with turns away from him in the end and he’s the one who is shown as betrayed, his heart broken, when she really got the worst of it. Her father was a jerk. Manhood: having sex, killing people, and hateful fatherhood.

Silent Running: what a weird movie. Basically hippy monk in space. Manhood: doomed obsession. Also, remember that plants need sunlight.

Taken: there’s a great scene in Taken at the beginning, where Liam Neeson’s character gives his 17 yr old daughter a karaoke machine for her birthday. Then her rich stepfather ups the ante by giving her a horse (a pretty damn impressive horse too). Bio dad: 0. Stepdad: 1. But Neeson rescues his daughter from the Albanian sex-slave ring, racking up a mighty impressive body count, and he’s the one she says thank you to at the end.  Biodad: 1. Stepdad: 0. This was a fatherhood revenge fantasy — father vs. stepfather. I think the actual plot was secondary. In fact, you could have played this as a comedy, entitled “Buy Me Love,” in which father and stepfather keep upping the stakes with more ridiculous presents. Tim Allen would be in that.

Bridge on the River Kwai: old-time movie goodness with the best climactic scene ever. I’m sitting there going, “Blow the bridge. Blow it now. Blow it, blow it, blow the fucking bridge!” Manhood — build a bridge for your enemy to show him how it’s done. Manhood — blow up the bridge because this is war. Being a man is complicated. Alec Guinness is splendid.

Darkon: I left Darkon for last because it’s the coolest and because it’s the hardest to write about. These are real people, and even though the theme is reality and fantasy, you can’t watch it without thinking about the theme of masculinity and what it means to be a man in today’s world. After all, the two kings, Keldar and Bannor, are real people in a real world. I thought it was interesting that Keldar basically said that he couldn’t have become a manager in his day job if he hadn’t first become a king in Darkon. And contrast that with Bannor, who is a stay at home dad, and loses the war he starts. I’ve met stay-at-home moms who could have run that campaign and won it (good lord, who storms a castle like that?) — did Bannor lose because of his non-traditional gender role in real life? From what the documentary showed, he hated being the stay at home spouse. Not saying he didn’t love his kids, but he really did not take to the domestic life. Keldar obviously loved what he did, in Darkon and in the mundane world (okay, he may not have loved it but he was proud of himself in the real world). You got the impression that Bannor only loved Darkon.

In Say Anything, there’s a great line: “Don’t be a guy. The world is full of guys. Be a man.”

Bannor was a guy. A good guy, but a guy nonetheless.

I didn’t particularly like either of them — I feel bad about saying this, because these are real people. But I would hate to work for someone like Keldar in the game or in the real world, and Bannor irritated me because if you are going to stay home, you have to do a good job, okay? I felt like his wife — who wisely stayed out of the movie — had an extra kid.

Now the one guy, who was using the game to make small advances in his growth and maturity and maybe eventually to be able to talk to girls and start dating and such? Him I was rooting for.