The Persuasion Project

northangerpersuasiontitlepage

Original title page of Persuasion, published posthumously along with Northanger Abbey.

Happy bloggiversary to us! Well, actually, our two year anniversary is this coming Thursday, but we figure it’s best to celebrate now. Rather than do a recap of the past year as we did for our first bloggiversary, we’re using the occasion to launch a new series—a live reread of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

So, why Persuasion? It not my favorite Jane Austen (that would be Emma) or J’s favorite (that would be Pride and Prejudice), but Persuasion has been on my mind a lot lately as it seems to keep popping up on my social media. Also, it’s a brilliant novel, which receives less love that the two mentioned above, and that’s just not right. Although, I have often found that the people who love this book, really love it.

Now, the idea of this live reread is that one of us will read a chapter (or two? we’ll see) of Persuasion and blog our reaction in as real time as it’s possible to do while reading. Or we’ll do all of our thoughts at the end of a chapter. Whatever strikes as us interesting at the moment. We’ll try not to neglect this reread and post a little something at least once a month, but we don’t want to neglect other topics, especially with NaNoWriMo just around the corner.

And here goes nothing. My thoughts on Chapter 1 of Persuasion.

 
Chapter 1

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Not what usually comes to mind when thinking about the first sentence of a Jane Austen novel. It doesn’t have the sly humor of Pride and Prejudice or tell us something apt and amusing about our heroine, a la Emma and Northanger Abbey. No, it’s setting up the family at the center of the story, much like Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, Austen’s two least novels. Yet, it’s the right opening for this book. The tone of Persuasion is more subtle and somber than Austen’s others, and as much as the reader grows to adore Anne Elliot, opening with someone so modest and unassuming would feel exactly wrong.

For several paragraphs, Austen continues on with Sir Walter, and every word makes the reader like him less. It’s a bold way to open a book.

Following the introduction of Sir Walter, we hear about his deceased wife and her best friend, Lady Russell. Then Austen mentions Sir Walter’s oldest, and favorite daughter, Elizabeth, as well as the youngest daughter, Mary. Only then does the reader finally meet Anne. But why should we have met her sooner? “[S]he was only Anne.” If you haven’t read the novel before or know anything about it, you might not even realize this is the introduction to the novel’s heroine.

That is until the next paragraph. Austen makes the reader think highly of the dead mother, so that as soon as her best friend sees a likeness to the deceased in Anne, the reader knows this will be a character we care about. And yet, all we get here is this single paragraph, before Austen sets off on Elizabeth and the Mr. Elliot who shall inherit, since Sir Walter has no son.

The chapter ends with a discussion of the Elliot family’s financial problems, and the reader still learns no more about Anne. But why should we worry about her? She “had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early; and as even in its height, her father had found little to admire in her, (so totally different were her delicate features and mild dark eyes from his own), there could be nothing in them, now that she was faded and thin, to excite his esteem.” Actually, how much more does this tell us about Sir Walter than Anne? Come to think of it, given how vain and unlikable he is, do we even believe him? Perhaps Anne has her own sort of loveliness. Whatever the answer, it’s a fascinating way to begin a novel, not even allowing the reader to be certain of what few “facts” we know about the heroine.

~S

Literary Fireworks

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Happy July 4th a day early, everyone! And to our Canadian friends, Happy Canada Day two days late! Camp NaNo has started up again (there are sessions in both April and July), and if you haven’t signed up and started your writing project, you should go do that right now! It’s good fun, and it’s a good way to keep yourself from getting lazy in the summer. I mean, come on—it’s hot outside. You know you were just going to stay inside in the air conditioning anyway. You might as well write a novel while you’re there.

Thinking of writing and Independence Day (the actual holiday, not the movie), we decided to come up with a list of our top ten favorite and most influential American literary works. These are the novels, nonfiction, short stories, and plays that we read over and over, and use as points of reference in our own discussions of how to write well.

Here they are, alphabetical by author, because it would just be cruel to expect us to rank them:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee
Snap went the dragons! We quote this one all the time. It’s probably one of the most enjoyably quotable plays ever written. It’s our reference point for snappy, well-timed dialog. Also, believe it or not, watching the movie version of this on VHS was our first date.

“Sonny’s Blues” James Baldwin
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Baldwin’s masterful short story of jazz, addiction, loss, and family hasn’t lost a beat of its meaning. Even while feeling of its era, it has a timeless quality to strive for.

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
Poor Gatsby. His name has become a sort of shorthand for a certain kind of striving character who doesn’t realize that he’ll never quite fit in and who, invariably, has to die by the end. Stringer Bell from The Wire, for example, or a certain character from our Quartet who is far more morally admirable, but ultimately just as doomed.

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
Love and war have rarely felt so real and visceral. Hemingway’s sparse prose isn’t up everyone’s alley (heck, it isn’t always up ours), but this novel couldn’t be written any other way. Propulsive and emotional, this novel is great for studying pace and structure.

A Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
As we’ve mentioned before, George R. R. Martin is an absolute master of POV. Even if you think a character is irredeemable, once you see the world from his perspective, you understand and sympathize with him.

Long Day’s Journey into Night Eugene O’Neill
Gun to head, if asked to name American’s greatest writer, I (S) would answer Eugene O’Neill. No family is a bigger, more compelling mess than the Tyrones, and while each character is amazing on their own, there are endless lessons to be learned in how people who know each other too well interact. On top of it all, every line sings. “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.”

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Prose as beautiful as any literary novel and worldbuilding to stand with the absolute best in fantasy, the tale of Kvothe, in the frame story and the past, is a masterful mix of mystery, humor, and just damned good storytelling. Watching Rothfuss layer the present, history, and myth is precisely the sort of thing we strive for in our most epic books. Is it Day 3 yet?

The Killer Angels Michael Shaara
Reading this is how we learned how to write battle scenes, basically. Also, it’s an excellent lesson in how to create sympathy for characters on both sides of the conflict, and how to create tension and drama even when the reader knows darn well how it’s all going to end.

The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman
Again, as with The Killer Angels, the outcome is never in doubt. But it’s a fascinating, page-turning read about how that outcome came to be. We drew a lot from this book about the start of World War I when we were writing the start of the war in the first book of the Quartet.

House of Mirth Edith Wharton
Is Lily Bart the female precursor to the likes of Jay Gatsby and Clyde Griffiths? We think she is. An American Anna Karenina, her fate seems so depressingly certain from the beginning, yet it’s a challenge to maintain a dry eye at the end. A challenge we happily lose. It’s the sort of focused character study I (S) am trying to tackle right now in my first modern, non-fantasy novel.

Honorable Mentions
In Cold Blood Truman Capote
As readable as any novel, Capote’s nonfiction gem is a lesson in understanding human beings. Or at least trying to.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather
Such a simple tale of a man literally with a mission, the writing is just gorgeous. It’s also a brilliant example of great archetypal storytelling, which I (S) would love to try some day.

An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser
To be blunt, if it weren’t for how the story gets really bogged down late at the trial, this one might have merited more than just an honorable mention. Even with that pacing issue, Clyde Griffiths’s attempts to find a better life, to get a little bit of the American Dream, is a heartbreaking character study about how striving can go terribly wrong.

Billy Budd Herman Melville
When I (J) was in law school, I took a seminar on “Theories of Justice” where we read this book. It’s a fascinating study in character and motivation. Like The Guns of August on a much smaller scale, it shows people being driven toward a tragic end that virtually no one actually wanted. That sort of tragic inevitability is something we’ve tried to show in a number of our books, particularly the third book of the Quartet.

Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
We’ve been rereading this one recently for S’s book club, so it’s been on our minds a lot. It’s hugely problematic for a variety of reasons, but it’s great for showing how to keep a romance going on the page when the couple are apart for most of the book. And it’s a masterclass in how to make a heroine sympathetic, even when she’s often not especially likable.

J and S

It’s Just Like In…

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Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (snerched from Pinterest)

Is it Sunday already? Where did the week go? Anyhow, J and I are both busy working on projects—I’m furiously drafting his birthday novel, and he is doing his prep work for his July Camp NaNoWriMo book. We’re also reading Gone with the Wind for my book club, and it has reminded us how influential Margaret Mitchell’s work has been on several of our novels and just how often we mention it. This started us thinking about what stories we always end up talking about, and we came up with the following list.

10 Stories We Reference Most

Amelia Peabody Mysteries, Elizabeth Peters
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Emma, Jane Austen
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Harry Potter, JK Rowling (and the movies)
Horatio Hornblower, CS Forester (and the TV series)
Jeeves and Wooster, PG Wodehouse
Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien (and the movies)
Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin (and the Game of Thrones TV series)
Star Wars, (all of the movies)

As we have time, we might start picking these apart here on the blog. In the meantime, we’re keeping our noses to the grindstone.

~S

Welcome Back, Potter

Some thoughts on rereading the Harry Potter series, yet again.

Another school year is now upon us.

Another school year is now upon us.

My summer vacation is, sadly, over, and it’s time for me to go back to work.  Looking back now, I’m pretty pleased with the amount of writing I got done.  I’m not quite done with my reference work on religions, but I had only thought I was going to get halfway through, and I’ve finished about three and a half of the four major denominations.  The file is over 45,000 words now.

S, of course, continues her adventures with fanfic.  I’m sure she’ll have more to report about her experiences sooner or later.  I’ve been helping her by typing a little; her fans are eager for the next installment, and I know she doesn’t want to disappoint them.

Other than working on making up religions and typing and getting ready to go back to work, I’ve started rereading the Harry Potter books in the evenings.  Someday I’m sure S and I will do a formal “reread” of the series, with regular posts on what we’ve read and detailed comments.  But this is not that day.  I’m mainly just reading it because I have to get back onto a regular schedule after months of being able to stay up as late as I want, and reading physical books at night makes me tired.  Also, Harry Potter is fun.  I’ve been reading for a few days, and I’m a little over halfway through the fourth book.  Sometimes it takes me a while to fall asleep, okay?

So here are some things I’m noticing, as an amateur writer, as I go through the series this time:

1 The POV is trickier than I remembered.
When we think about the HP books, we tend to think of them as limited third person from Harry’s POV.  But they aren’t always.  And I’m not just talking about the first chapter of the first book, which is a sort of omniscient third person POV, or the first chapter of the fourth book, which is from the POV of the old caretaker who’s about to be murdered by Voldemort.  You may recall chapter 11 (“Quidditch”) of the first book, where Harry is playing Quidditch for Gryffindor for the first time, and someone (Quirrell/Voldemort, though we don’t know that at the time) is trying to knock him off his broom.  Hermione and Ron think it’s Snape, and they run to the other side of the stands and Hermione sets Snape’s robe on fire to distract him.  In the resulting commotion, Quirrell gets knocked over, thereby inadvertently saving Harry.  The interesting thing about this chapter is the way Rowling slides back and forth between Harry’s POV and the POV of his friends in the stands (especially Ron).  There is no break or line of asterisks to tell you that the POV is shifting.  One moment you’re up in the air with Harry, the next moment you’re down in the stands with Ron.  It’s not especially jarring, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that books for beginning writers tell you that you’re absolutely not supposed to do.

2 You actually can unsee the wrylies…mostly.
I read the books as they came out.  In the case of these first several books, that was when I was in grad school (where I met S, as it happens).  Back then, although I had studied a lot of literature, I hadn’t tried seriously to write any of my own, so I hadn’t read any books on how you’re “supposed” to write a novel.  That meant that, among other things, no one had told me how terribly, terribly bad adverbs are supposed to be.  Thanks to Rowling, though, everyone on earth has had a lesson on the horror of adverbs in articles like this one, and this one, and this one.  The thing is that, as I read these books late at night, I don’t really notice them.  Yes, a few of them stick out.  Take this one, for example, which adds a clunky note to one of my very favorite exchanges in the entire series:

     But Ron was staring at Hermione as though suddenly seeing her in a whole new light.  
    “Hermione, Neville’s right—you are a girl….”
    “Oh well spotted,” she said acidly. 

Is there any question at all, even in the mind of the youngest reader, as to the tone of voice in which Hermione would say, “Oh, well spotted”?  But by and large the “wrylies” just roll over me unnoticed.   This isn’t to say that I’m now going to have all my characters constantly saying things “coolly” and “sarcastically” and “irritably” all the time.  But it does make me suspect that a lot of people who complained about Rowling’s adverbs were writers and writing teachers who, thanks to reading a lot of crappy writing in their time, are hyper-vigilant for “problems” that ordinary readers just don’t see.  Also, as the writer of the blog at that second link suggests, the wrylies stand out much more when you’re either reading the book aloud (as S and I have done together) or listening to the audiobook (which S and I have also done together).  When you actually can hear someone read Hermione’s line in an acid tone, the adverb becomes redundant.

3 The stories take a while to get started.
In my U.S. hardback editions, the first book is 309 pages long.  Harry doesn’t even get to Hogwarts until page 111, more than a third of the way in.  Fighting the troll in the restroom (the event that makes Hermione friends with Harry and Ron, thereby finally bringing together the central trio of protagonists) doesn’t finish until page 179, well after the halfway point.  In book 4, they don’t get to Hogwarts until page 170, though that’s much earlier in the story, comparatively speaking, since that book is 734 pages long.  This isn’t a criticism, necessarily.  A lot of what Rowling does in those long opening sections is worldbuilding and setting up clues and red herrings for later in the story.  But it is somewhat at odds with the idea you need to start your story as late as possible (“in late, out early”) and have something exciting happen at the very beginning.  Let’s not forget how Rowling starts the whole series.  With the murder of Harry’s parents?  With Hagrid bringing Harry to live with his aunt and uncle?  No, actually.  That comes later in the first chapter, and as for the murder of Harry’s parents, we don’t get to see that.  We just get to listen to people standing around, talking about it sadly.  No, the story actually starts with a couple paragraphs about the Dursleys, explaining how boring they are.  It’s an amusing little opening, but one can’t help feeling that it’s not at all the way most books on writing a novel would advise to do it.

Anyway, those are the main thoughts I’ve been having on this particular read-through.  As I say, I’m sure someday S and I will do a true “reread” with more detailed comments.  And then you can hear all of S’s complaints about how Quidditch makes no sense as a sport (S played a lot of softball when she was younger, so she has far more experience with team sports than I do).  But for now, I’ve got more reading to do.

J

Default Settings

As fantasy authors, we’re always conscious of the need to make our ‘verse fantastical.  The last thing you want to hear from beta readers is, “Meh, I just didn’t get any sense of the place.”  On the other hand, we need to have settings that feel real.  And that usually means stealing little bits of places that we’ve actually been in our lives.

In an earlier post, I mentioned our honeymoon to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.  Those are really important settings for us, because we went there together, and we both remember what those cities look like.  Another place we both know well is a certain Midwestern public university that we both attended.  It was, in fact, the place where we met.

I swear there are students at this school.

I swear there are students at this school.

I spent ten minutes in GIMP taking myself out of this picture.

I spent ten minutes in GIMP taking myself out of this picture.

Some of the oldest buildings at this not-especially-old school are in the northwest corner, stretched at the top of a low hill in a gentle semicircle, with a wide, tree-covered lawn in front.  It’s a really lovely spot, although it’s far enough from the dorms that people rarely ever hang out there.  I used to walk around the campus a lot, and the sight of that row of buildings always stuck with me, so it made its way into our Quartet as part of the school that our heroes attend in the first novel.

Of course, the buildings there are in the wrong architectural style—something that I guess you would call “Collegiate Neoclassical,” or “Early 20th Century American High School.”  The buildings in our fictional school are more likely gothic.  And when I think of gothic architecture, I always think of my undergraduate university—a place renowned (or perhaps notorious) for its massive, fortress-like gothic buildings.

Boola boola!

Boola boola!

I don't remember having plants on the table, though.

I don’t remember having plants on the table, though.

Promotional picture taken on one of the two sunny, warm days per semester.

Promotional picture taken on one of the two sunny, warm days per semester.

Yay!  My freshman dorm.

Yay! My freshman dorm.

None of this is to say that you can’t write gothic settings without having lived in a faux-Oxbridge dorm.  It’s just interesting how my ideas of what Myrcia looks like are based on places I actually know.  The upside of this is that I have a real sense of what the place looks like, feels like, even smells like.  The downside is that any time I look at pictures to remind myself of certain details, I run the risk of disappearing down nostalgic rabbit holes.

Hey, I can see the balcony where we had that party in the inflatable kiddie pool.

Hey, I can see the balcony where we had that party in the inflatable kiddie pool.

J

#TeamEmma (Woodhouse, that is)

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My well-thumbed and much loved copy of Emma.

“Handsome, clever, and rich,” as J pointed out at the end of his last post is actually a terrible thing to make a character, unless you’re Jane Austen, in which case you’re a genius. I’ve mentioned the great lady’s head-scratching brilliance before, but if that passage in Persuasion confounds me, Emma Woodhouse is the greatest mystery of them all. How does Austen manage to build sympathy for a meddling snob whose cluelessness is a defining trait? In a million little ways is the right answer, but there are five particulars that have always stood out for me. (For anyone needing it, here’s a plot summary.)

1) She’s a good daughter

If anyone thinks Emma is insufferable, may I introduce you to her father? Mr. Woodhouse cannot sit anywhere that could possibly be drafty, leave his house, eat anything other than a thin basin of gruel, or allow others to do anything even sort of fun. He’s a giant buzzkill and a whiner. Yet Emma loves him. She doesn’t even want to marry because she could never leave him. She comforts and reassures him, keeps him company, and is more dutiful than many a daughter with better fathers. The reader’s eyes may roll out of her head at Mr. Woodhouse, but Emma loves him, and we love her for it.

2) Good intentions

Emma is perhaps most famous for sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. In many ways, she treats Harriet like a diverting project instead of a person. But does she really? Yes, she gives Harriet some pretty catastrophic advice on more than one occasion, but she means well. No healthy friendship is so thoroughly dominated by one friend over the other, but when Emma tells Harriet to reject Robert Martin, it is because Emma truly believes she can make a better match for her friend. When Emma encourages Harriet to set her sights on Mr. Elton it is because she thinks he is said better match. Emma wants to improve Harriet’s mind and station, so even though she goes about it all wrong, she does so utterly without malice.

3) She’s funny

A few gems:
“It was a delightful visit—perfect, in being much too short.”

“Mrs. Weston proposed having no regular supper; merely sandwiches, etc. set out in the little room; but that was scouted as a wretched suggestion. A private dance, without sitting down to supper, was pronounced an infamous fraud upon the rights of men and women; and Mrs. Weston must not speak of it again.”

“She could not be complying, she dreaded being quarrelsome; her heroism reached only to silence.”

4) I learned an important lesson today

By the end of the novel, Emma recognizes how she has harmed Harriet and feels the sting of it. She makes a point of trying to get along better with Jane Fairfax, admitting she has been unfair. And in the most important moment of the novel, after she has made fun of Miss Bates, Emma not only feels ashamed, she takes Mr. Knightley’s reprimand: “It was badly done, indeed!” knowing she deserves it.

5) Emma is me

J and I have a running joke with some friends that Emma is the Goddess of Slacker Academics. After she is clearly bested by Jane Fairfax at a party, the next day “She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood—and sat down and practiced vigorously an hour and a half.” Every lazy person with a small talent that could have been improved with regular practice has been there. And then there are the lists. Emma has made many lists of books to read, very good lists Mr. Knightley assures us, but never a list she actually completed. Yeah, I have made some impressive lists. I wonder if J has kept any of them? He helped me make the best one.

And I’ve had a Jane Fairfax in my life. That person who everyone likes and whom everyone naturally assumes will be your close friend, and yet you have a strong, irrational hatred for. A Jane Fairfax. Emma loathes the very thought of Jane Fairfax being in the neighborhood for three months, during which time Emma will be expected to socialize with her, “to always be doing more than she wished, and less than she ought!” Not only does that apply to Jane Fairfax, but to so many aspects of Emma’s life, and I get it.

These comparisons aren’t particularly flattering to admit, but these real flaws are why I love Emma. Austen didn’t shy away from creating a heroine “which no one but myself would like,” but that is precisely where Austen was wrong. Giving the world a heroine as flawed as we are in real ways, not interesting and grandly tragic ways, is Emma’s attraction. Some readers can’t get past Emma’s snobbery, manipulation of Harriet, her vanity and pride, but for those who do, there is a mirror that, if you are not afraid to look, shows you a bit of who you are. And that’s not all bad. She did end up happily married to Mr. Knightley, after all.

~S

Don’t Fear the Reaper, Part 2

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You can’t kill Indy, can you?

In our last post we talked a little about how we decide when it’s appropriate to kill a character. You could scroll down a little and read the original post, but just briefly, here are the three criteria we use:

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

One of the problems with killing a beloved character is that the downside is immediately apparent—you feel bad, and if you’re doing it right, the reader feels bad, too. These three questions help focus the mind on the potential benefits of killing the character, as well as the potential dangers of leaving him alive.

If you allow pity to stay your hand, and you let a character live when he ought to have died, you run into three problems, each of which corresponds to one of the three questions.

1) If you let your character live when it’s intellectually dishonest to do so, your character will develop obvious plot armor, and the reader or viewer will no longer believe the character is ever in jeopardy. We both love Vampire Diaries, but since pretty much every major character has died and been brought back to life, death has rather lost its sting on that show. No matter how hard the writers try to convince the viewers that this time, for once, a character might TOTALLY DIE FOR REALS, the viewers’ reaction is to shrug and think, “Meh, he’ll be back next episode.” The other side of the same coin, as noted in our last post, is that your bad guys lose credibility. If an important good guy doesn’t get killed every once in a while, the villains start to look incompetent. Even the most diehard Star Wars fan, when re-watching the original movie, snickers a little when Obi-Wan tells Luke, “Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise,” since we know Stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a bantha stable. When the Empire’s elite first blast their way into the Tantive IV, they’re awesome and frightening. By Return of the Jedi, when they’re getting their plastoid-armored butts handed to them by teddy bears, they’ve lost any semblance of menace.

2) If you let a character live when it would have helped the story to let him die, then you obviously run the risk of not moving the plot forward, and of having a superfluous character. In other words, your story treads water, with this character just sitting there, taking up narrative space, doing the same things he’s always done. For example, we are fans of the Harry Potter books and movies, but let’s face it; for much of that series, Harry is the brave one, Hermione is the smart one, and Ron is…present. There are a number of places where Rowling could have killed off Ron, starting all the way back with the chess match at the end of the first book (though that admittedly might have been a bit too dark that early in the series). There would have been tears and drama, the series would have moved forward, and Ron’s place could have been taken by Neville and/or Luna, who are frankly much more interesting characters, anyway.

3) If you let your character live when it would have made other characters more interesting, then obviously you lose an opportunity for character development. If a mentor sticks around too long, for example, the reader/viewer will wonder why the hero, rather than the more skillful, more experienced mentor, is the one taking on the villain. The best example of this involves a character neither of us wants to see dead, and a movie that has lots and lots of other problems: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Shia LaBeouf’s character was clearly supposed to be the new, up-and-coming hero. But the audience never warmed to him. This was for a host of reasons, of course, but looming over them all was the simple fact that as long as Indiana Jones himself was there, no one was going to care what “Mutt Williams” did. (One hopes the people making the new Star Wars sequels have learned this lesson).

Here’s an example of how we apply our three criteria in practice. In one of our novels, there’s a character we’ll call Susan. (Names and genders may have been changed here; we still entertain hopes of getting all these books published someday, and we don’t want to give massive spoilers.) Susan is a fun character, sexy and hilarious. She is also a romantic interest/mentor/surrogate mother figure for the hero, Bob. (Yes, they have a very complicated relationship.) At a certain point in the story, we had always planned on killing off Susan, but when it came time to do it, we were reluctant to pull the trigger (or plunge the knife, rather).

So we went through the three questions.

1) Was it intellectually dishonest to let her live? Yes. This was a war story, after all. And while we had accumulated a vast pile of dead red-shirts, and while some of these red-shirts had died in very sad and moving scenes, we hadn’t killed a major character yet. It strained credibility to imagine that Bob, our hero, could keep going on these deadly dangerous missions and never once lose someone he genuinely cared about. Moreover, we had spent a lot of time establishing that Susan is particularly brave and daring. She routinely does the sorts of things that ought to get her killed, and Bob often worries for her safety. Having set all that up, it would have been a cop-out to not have Susan’s luck run out sooner or later.

2) Did it make sense, dramatically, for her to die? Yes. We had an outline for the rest of the story, and most of the plot from then on was supposed to be driven by Bob’s desire to get revenge for Susan’s death. The person who kills Susan also turns out to be the major antagonist for the second half of the story, so if we had let Susan live, we would have lost that deeper, more personal motivation for our hero to fight the antagonist. In addition, Susan is a romantic interest for Bob. Killing Susan helped resolve an on-again, off-again love triangle, which would have gotten pretty old if we had tried to spin it out for the rest of the story.

3) Were there interesting repercussions for the surviving characters? Yes, yes—a thousand times, yes! As noted above, Susan’s death drives our hero’s actions for the rest of the story. It forces Bob to grow and prompts some soul-searching on his part, particularly after his attempts at revenge end up getting another of his best friends killed. It helps resolve his messy love live, as well. Finally, as we head to the climax of the story, the final apocalyptic showdown between our hero and the bad guys, Bob is firmly in charge of the good guys. He’s an active protagonist, making the decisions that drive the plot forward. If Susan were alive, the reader would naturally wonder why Susan wasn’t there. And if Susan were there, our hero would naturally defer to his old commander and beloved mentor. So we had to get Susan out of the way.

When we considered Susan’s fate in light of those three questions, it was obvious that she had to go. sniff Poor Susan. At least we have the comfort of knowing that she died to make a better novel.

To sum it all up, there are much worse things than death for a character—like becoming boring or pointless. Or worst of all, becoming an actual roadblock to the plot, preventing the hero from moving forward and developing. Let your characters go out on a high note, rather than keeping them around until the reader is grumbling, “Why is this guy still here?” Don’t be afraid of killing characters that you like. You’re just saving them from the indignity of becoming characters that you hate.

J and S

Don’t Fear the Reaper

ned stark

   Sean Bean: Patron Saint of Dead Characters

As mentioned last week, we’re currently excited about the CW show The 100. Back at the mid-season finale, the show killed off a member of the main cast (who we particularly like), so we’ve naturally been thinking about when it’s a good idea and when it’s not to kill a character and how you ought to go about doing it. We won’t mention the specifics of the death on The 100, because it still falls under the statute of limitation for spoilers, as it were, but we agree that the show handled it really well. As much as we will miss the character and the cast member, it solidly hit the Three Keys to Offing the Ones You Love.

1) Would it be intellectually dishonest not to kill the character?

Would you have to twist the plot in unbelievable knots to keep the character alive? Would it make your villains look weak and ineffectual? Is death, in other words, the logical outcome of where you have taken the story?

2) Is it dramatically the right choice?

A continuation of the first question, does the story gain by the death of the character and the way in which you kill the character? Which leads to…

3) Does the character dying have interesting repercussions for those left alive?

If you can kill a character and the rest of the characters don’t seem a whit different because of it, there’s a fundamentally bigger problem. Still, thinking about the interesting possibilities for the characters going forward can help make the often difficult decision to kill a character a little easier.

So, examples. Obviously there are spoilers below, but we’ve decided Julius Caesar, Battlestar Galactica, and A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones are fair game. Still, if you haven’t read/seen any of these and don’t want spoiled, consider yourself warned.

Julius Caesar

To the surprise of generations of schoolchildren, the title character dies at the beginning of the third act (out of five, of course). But that’s because he’s not actually the protagonist of the story; Brutus is. Moreover, you know he has to die because, well, it’s based on a true story, and as far as we know, that’s how the real Gaius Julius Caesar died. If Shakespeare had made Brutus and the other conspirators have a change of heart, or if his Caesar somehow recovered from his wounds, the audience would be sitting there thinking, “Wait, he’s supposed to die, isn’t he?” It simply wouldn’t be credible for him to live.

Killing Caesar in the third act is the right choice dramatically, as well, because as previously noted, it’s actually a play about Brutus, not Caesar. If the assassination were in Act IV or V, then the consequences of Brutus’s decision to help kill his friend would have to be wrapped up in only one or two scenes, rather than half the play. The repercussions of Caesar’s death drive the plot for the rest of the play.  In fact, if he doesn’t die, you don’t have a play at all.

Battlestar Galactica

Plenty of people die during the run of this show, but two deaths stick out as being especially problematic: Callie and Starbuck.

Problem number one with Callie’s death is that it made everyone watching happy. In fact, until we asked a friend, we couldn’t even remember why she had been killed. This very much falls under “fundamentally bigger problem.” Her death didn’t need to happen, but was manufactured as a fan service so that the rest of the characters could go forward without having an annoying character getting in their way. She started off the series as a perfectly fine bit player the writers seemed to let get out of control somewhere along the way.

Starbuck is an even bigger problem. She began the show as a fan favorite of everyone who didn’t have trouble getting over Starbuck being a woman. Then near the end of the third season, she went insane for no reason and “killed” herself. The characters left behind seemed to be in something of a muddle without her, so at least her “death” had some impact. Until the writers undercut any drama her “death” caused by bringing her back to life. Sort of. Starbuck’s “death” reeked of poorly planned shock value that didn’t bear any relation to the character or the plot.

A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

George RR Martin may be responsible for more character deaths than any writer in history, so it’s unsurprising that sometimes he’s been successful, and sometimes made questionable decisions. His two most famous provide an example of each.

We are not fans of the Red Wedding; let’s just get that out of the way. Looking at the 3 Keys, it fits the first, mostly—it is intellectually honest that Walder Frey would kill Robb Stark. Or at least try. Robb and his men have proven themselves sufficiently badass that had Robb lived, we would have bought it. And dramatically, it is quite a moment, but it’s the last interesting dramatic moment in the series for us, because who cares how it effects the characters left behind? Who cares who wins the game of thrones? We, the readers (and viewers), were invested in the Starks winning, and when Robb dies, we don’t care anymore. And other than the Lannisters having one less thing to worry about and Arya sailing off to Braavos, how much do any of the characters care that Robb Stark is dead?

But you can’t say the same of Ned Stark’s death. This is how to kill a character. It would be incredibly dishonest and make the mighty Lannisters look incredibly weak if Ned Stark fails to die. And the drama in that moment is heart wrenching. Plus, so much of what matters in the moment of his death is how it will change the lives of his children, most importantly Robb. Everything about Ned Stark’s death accomplishes precisely what a writer (and reader/viewer) hopes it will.

~J and S

Part of Our World

The other day S and I were sitting around, looking at stuff online (as we do), and we couldn’t help but notice that other blogs have lots of pictures.  And we were jealous.  So S suggested we might want to start posting our own pictures of places we have been that have inspired our writing.  Here are four to start off with.

S and I went to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague in July 2007 for our honeymoon, and I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that we started writing fantasy novels after getting back from Europe.  At the very least, these locations provide a shared frame of reference when we’re discussing castles, palaces, and cathedrals.  S has been to a few places I haven’t (like Denmark and Luxembourg), and I have been some places she hasn’t (like the UK, Italy, and Russia).  But if I say, “I think this part of this church looks a bit like St. Vitus in Prague,” then we both know what it looks like, since we were both there together.

St. Vitus, Prague

St. Vitus, Prague

Our hotel in Budapest was right up in the Castle district, which was really convenient and gave lovely views over the city.  This was right around the corner, for example:

Fisherman's Bastion, Castle Hill, Budapest

Fisherman’s Bastion, Castle Hill, Budapest

How could you see that every morning and not want to write fantasy novels?

Buda Castle was particularly important in the development of Wealdan Castle, one of the main locations for the Quartet.  It’s where our heroine was born, and it’s where two of our other main characters spend a great deal of time in the first and second books hanging out together while romance blossoms.

The cool thing about Buda Castle is that there are bits of the old medieval fortifications around, but there’s also a giant 18th-19th century palace there, too.  So this was a really helpful model when we were thinking about Wealdan Castle, where our heroine’s ancestors have been living for nearly a thousand years.  Here’s the new(er) part:

Buda Castle, Budapest

Buda Castle, Budapest

And here’s a shot where you can see some reconstructed remnants of the medieval fortifications:

Medieval fortifications, Buda Castle

Medieval fortifications, Buda Castle

Here’s a link to an aerial view (not taken by me, of course) that shows that same part of the castle.

In our minds, this became a sort of private park for the royal family, and an important location for our story is based on it.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the pictures.  No doubt we’ll put up more when we find the time to go through all the pictures we’ve taken over the years.

J

Persuasive Yet Mysterious

UPDATE: 7/16/17 I’ve added a note at the end fixing a mistake I made regarding some characters in Persuasion. ~S

In our second post, I mentioned that as English majors focusing on lit as opposed to creative writing, J and I were never taught in a formal environment what makes a piece of writing good. Since we started thinking about this question seriously,  we’ve come up with some interesting, and possibly even correct, answers, but I’m still occasionally haunted by a particular bit of writing, storytelling, or characterization that I simply cannot figure how it was done. After all, one of the most common pieces of writing advice I see is “Steal,” but how can you steal something you can’t understand?

Sometimes, it’s fairly easy to figure out why something is good. Those brilliant openings, for instance, are easy to spot, and what makes them brilliant is often clear. (Not necessarily easy or clear to replicate, but that’s a different problem.) Take the opening of The Great Gatsby.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The prose is beautiful, the idea the perfect mission statement for what is to follow. The tone for the entire novel is right there in those two sentences. Brilliant. And although my chances of ever writing something so extraordinary are slim, I can, in fact, see what Fitzgerald did.

On other occasions the perfect opening might be less overtly and beautifully crafted, but no less apt, and when the reader is lucky, funny. I would give my right arm (and being someone who hand writes everything, that’s a serious sacrifice) to write an opening sentence as delightful as what CS Lewis did in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Again, the tone for the novel is immediate set. And you’ve learned more about Eustace in those first 13 words than most authors could have conveyed in an entire first chapter. It’s a brilliant opening, and there’s no mystery as to why it is.

Endings are also frequently easy to spot when brilliant. Again, look at The Great Gatsby.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

All the promise set up in the opening two sentences, paid off here in the closing. The metaphor is lovely and apt, and if you dig a little deeper, as did Stanley Fish in his book How to Write a Sentence, the rhythm of waves is highlighted by the repetition of the letter “B.” (Really, read the sentence out loud.) All of it’s brilliance might not be immediately apparent, but with a little work, you can puzzle out its genius.

For elegant simplicity, there’s the ending of Return of the King.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

What better way could there possibly be to end the epic quest than that? After all of the danger, strife, loss, and victory, Tolkien opted for the quiet ending. Brilliant.

Brilliant moments in the middle, though, often prove tougher to see and understand. But some authors have gifted us with obviously great set pieces. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov is an obvious example, particularly because it can even stand independent of the larger work. Its ideas are so strong, they need no other words.

Another, and more recent, set piece that I particularly love can be found in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes. The novel tells the story of a single battle, and after establishing the tone and structure of the book, he departs for a particular charge. The POVs are literally disposable–each POV only lasting until the character is killed, the narrative then picked up by the killer. Clever and appropriate, the chapter moves the reader across the battlefield, the structure underlining the gruesomeness and unheroic nature of battle.

But what about a passage in the middle of a novel written by an author difficult to “catch in the act of genius”? Virginia Woolf famously said Jane Austen was the writer hardest to catch in the act of genius, and after spending two years trying to understand how Austen made a favorite moment in Persuasion so extraordinary, I still don’t know that I’ve figured it out. In the scene that has me flummoxed, our heroine, Anne Elliot, is visiting her sister and taking care of her two young nephews. Anne is trapped in a room with the two boys as well as with two men, both of whom proposed to her, but were refused. One is her brother-in-law, Charles Hayter,* who she refused without regret. The other is Captain Wentworth, and her decision to revoke her initial acceptance of his proposal has haunted her ever since.

Here’s the passage in question.

There being nothing to eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him tease his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”

But not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room…. But neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.

So, what did Austen do here? Why do I return to this passage over and over again nearly as overcome as Anne? The prose, as always, is flawless, the characters behave as they must, and the action is described elegantly. But that doesn’t explain why this scene has such a hold over me, and why I obsess over its brilliance. I think the attraction is Austen’s ability to make the little incidents of life feel so important. I’ve run across writing advice that preaches the stakes must always be high, in fact, they should as often as possible be death. Anne is in an awkward situation, but no one is about to die. Literally at any rate. But this is precisely what Austen does so well. She makes these simple scenes in drawing rooms seem as though the stakes are, indeed, death. Stop and think about this: how many of us have been in battle, sailed off to a magical land, or gone on a great quest to destroy evil? On the other hand, how many of us have found ourselves in an irritating situation in front of someone we love who we fear doesn’t love us back? Austen’s stakes are the kind most people can actually relate to, and when we remember those moments, they certainly felt like life or death.

But Jane Austen is hardly unique in finding the drama of ordinary life. Surely, there must be something else, some other mystery in need of solving to explain how she did it. On different readings, two things have occurred to me that shed some light. My first clue: I never highlighted this passage until two years ago when I was reading the book for the third or fourth time. How had I never noticed it before? How did I miss the pathos? This is hardly the first, and I doubt the last, time something positively brilliant jumped out at me for the first time upon rereading a Jane Austen novel. The second clue emerged when I went back to reread just this passage. For anyone who has never read Persuasion, you probably read the above and made some sort of face, either a confused squint or an eye roll would be my guess. “What on earth is so special about this?” you ask. It doesn’t stand especially well on its own, ala “The Grand Inquisitor.” In fact, I’ve rarely been so moved by a scene in a novel that so utterly and completely depends upon what came before it. Without knowing Anne in particular, what I quoted is nearly meaningless.

And this is what drives me crazy as a writer attempting to steal from my favorite authors. I can’t steal this scene. I can’t in some way take this and make it my own, because there’s no single piece to steal. This scene only makes sense, is only obviously brilliant, when read in sequence with the nine chapters that came before. Austen has so thoroughly interwoven characters and plot and theme that you cannot examine anything bit by bit. Aside from a few excellent opening sentences, there are not passages in her novels at which to point and say, “See? Brilliant.” She has hidden her genius in plain site, in every word and decision to the extent that you can’t see it. So, even if I am right, even if I have solved the mystery, I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything as far as “how” to do what Austen did. Other than be totally brilliant all of the time. Talk about difficult to replicate.

S

*Having just finished rereading Persuasion, I realize I made a mistake here, but I am firmly blaming Austen for this one. There are no fewer than four characters named Charles in this novel: Charles Hayter, Charles Musgrove, Sr., Charles Musgrove, Jr., and Charles Smith. Charles Musgrove proposed to Anne, not Charles Hayter, who eventually weds Henrietta Musgrove.