March 11, 2013
Today’s post can be found at http://magicalwords.net, the group blog on the business and craft of writing fantasy that I maintain with fellow authors Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, Mindy Klasky, John Hartness, Kalayna Price, and James Tuck, among others. The post is called “Creative Intersections: Pacing and Plotting.” It’s about the steps I take to blend my plot points and my narrative into a story that flows at what I believe to be the correct pace. I hope you enjoy it.
October 2, 2012
Today, I welcome a very special guest: author Max Gladstone, whose first novel, Three Parts Dead, is out today from Tor Books. What makes Max so special? Well, in addition to be incredibly talented, thoughtful, and intelligent (read the post) Max is also my very first fan. Yep. He showed up with his Mom at my first book signing fifteen years ago. He was shy and quiet, but so excited to have read my book and to have a chance to meet me in person. He came to subsequent signings and mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he wanted to be an author some day. Well, here he is, and the reading world is in for a treat. Welcome, Max. So good to see you here.
“Love, Silence, and Pacing” by Max Gladstone
Musicians make love with silence. Melodies and harmonies excite the active mind, but there’s no feeling for a chorister quite like the moment when the choir stops singing and the hall air holds first the note, then the hole left as the note fades.
Silence relaxes tension, yes, but it can also build. John Cage made an entire piece out of the tension of silence. Sure, 4:43 feels like a joke when described, but when performed it can fill an attentive (and unfamiliar) audience with expectation. Until the audience gets the joke, that is, after which point they shift in their seats and glance at their watches (though maybe the seat-shifting and watch-glancing is part of the piece, too).
There’s a dangerous tendency when writing fiction where stuff happens—people get stabbed, chase one another through rain-slick alleys, betray, discover, make love, throw rings into Mount Doom—to fill the story with stuff that happens. Our hero just outran the cops and took shelter in a tenement, but now the tenement’s burning down, but when she escapes the fire she’s held up in an alleyway by a gangster to whom she owes money. One crisis gives way to another without pause and without fail. Endless arpeggios trill along.
There’s nothing wrong with such a sequence, or with stepping up tension, or ‘raising the stakes’ in workshopese. Raymond Chandler was once asked what he did when he felt his story was lagging, and he said: “I bring in a man with a gun.” (There’s a wonderful egregious example of this in The Big Sleep.) But lag isn’t the only pacing problem. A story can also be so swift the reader cannot find her feet, so swift that characters do not grow or reflect: they stagger from emergency to emergency, flailing in all directions like they’re under attack from a swarm of bees. Chandler brought in his men with guns, but he also had a fine instinct for scenes where Marlowe wanders the streets of Los Angeles, ponders chess problems in his apartment, stops into a bar for a drink: for scenes when characters breathe, and appreciate the chaos growing around them.
These rests, these pauses, are not moments of recovery. They are an opportunity for reader and character to take stock of the pain they’ve crawled through, and the pain yet to come—or to build anticipation of a victory, or a love affair, or a brutal betrayal. Events become real in reflection upon them.
Silence is the gateway to consequence. Newlyweds feel their transformation not on the wedding night, but the next morning, when they sit at breakfast alone and feel the world settle around them. After the One Ring falls into the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo sees a vision of Sauron’s empire collapsing, followed by a scene break (that purist silence of white space and uncreated words), followed by a tender moment of Frodo and Sam talking, alone at the end of the world, the rest after the ultimate crescendo. Once Ben and Elaine flee the wedding in The Graduate, they sit on a bus bound to anywhere, and do not talk, and the smiles slip from their faces: the consequences of their actions coalesce, and they become afraid.
Working on my books Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise, an editor or friend would occasionally tell me they felt a scene wasn’t consequential enough, that it felt anticlimactic. At first such comments stepped me back: the points they called out felt like serious confrontations, battles and revelations an entire book in the making. How could I make them more consequential?
But when I re-read the scenes in question, took their pulse and compared them to the rest of the book, I realized that often, caught up in the passion of finishing a book, I’d drive too hard toward the end, leaving out the fractional beats for characters to react, or to appreciate the new dangers they faced. The emotional universe of the book broke, and tension drained from the scene. Returning to the page, I drew out those moments, gave the moments space to breathe. The revised scenes felt better, and readers agreed: if anything, the new chapters felt faster, though I’d added material.
Writing’s intensely personal, and your mileage may vary. Perhaps you’re a natural with silence; perhaps you never push too hard, and risk overstimulating yourself or your reader. But if you feel your greatest pyrotechnics fail to impress, maybe the problem isn’t that your writing isn’t strong enough, or fast enough. Try working like a musician: make love with silence, and space, and see how that changes the feeling of the scene.
May 15, 2012
Some days are harder than others. Sometimes we feel older than our years. At some point the routine weighs more heavily, the responsibilities seem more onerous. Bad news arrives from a distance of both years and space, little moments that remind us of our own mortality catch us off our guard, the slog of the day-to-day seems unrelenting.
I am weary tonight, and my heart is heavy. I could write more, but really that’s what it comes down to. And tonight of all nights, I feel that my time would be better spent playing my guitar, seeing to my girls, sitting with my wife.
If you love someone, tonight would be a good night to tell him or her so, be it with words, or with a kiss, or with the simple act of taking a moment to sit and say or do nothing at all.
April 18, 2012
Spring bird migration has come early to the Cumberland Plateau. Usually mid-April is when birds start trickling in — swallows swoop and dart across fields, gnatcatchers and White-eyed Vireos scold from overgrown thickets just beginning to leaf out, the first warblers — Black and Whites, Black-throated Greens, Yellow-throated — sing from still-bare branches of oaks and poplars.
This year, though, is different. With the uncommonly mild winter and early spring, everything leafed out early — most of the flowering trees are done flowering; nearly all of them have leaves. My wife’s garden is weeks ahead of where it normally is. And the birds, somehow sensing this on their wintering grounds in Central and South America, have already started streaming through in earnest. Tanagers and orioles, grosbeaks and buntings, thrushes and several species of vireo — all are here. And in the past few days the warblers have arrived in numbers. Hooded, Tennessee, Nashville, Yellow, Cape May Palm, Prairie, Blackburnian; Ovenbirds and Waterthrushes. I’ve seen more than twenty species of warbler already this year. No doubt more are on the way.
If you’ve never seen a warbler, you owe it to yourself to look for them, or at least Google “Blackburnian Warbler” (as a for instance) and look at the photos that pop up. These are gorgeous birds, decked out in smart suits of yellow and black, blue and gray, green and brown and red. They winter in the tropics and even the dullest among them look exotic. They are tiny — each could fit in the palm of your hand. And their songs — they offer a repertoire of trills, sweet whistles, chips, and bouncing melodies that, for me at least, is the true herald of spring’s arrival.
But this is a limited time offer. The birds pass through on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern forests of New England and Canada. So look for them soon, or wait until next year.
April 7, 2012
So I’m having a great time at Marcon. I’ve gotten to spend time with Faith Hunter and Lucienne Diver, I’ve met some terrific people, and had a few fun and interesting panels. But I have to admit that I have one strong regret about being here instead of at home. My wife and daughters got to see Alison Krauss and Union Station tonight in Chattanooga, and had I been home I would have gone with them. I love AKUS and though I’ve seen them in concert a few times before I still would have enjoyed seeing them again.
Anyway, tonight I get back to my hotel room and check my messages and there on my Facebook page is a photo of my two daughters standing with their arms around AKUS lead mandolinist and singer, Dan Tyminski, the voice behind the version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” from the movie Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou. I kid you not. I KNOW there is a great story behind this photo. I can’t wait to hear it. And yes, I am totally jealous of my kids.
March 30, 2012
It’s late and I’m pretty tired. But I have glorious music flowing through my head as I get ready for bed. Tonight I got to see two fantastic musicians — Bluegrass guitarist David Grier, and mandolinist Mike Compton — in a great, intimate venue (McCrory Hall at the Saint Andrews-Sewanee School in Sewanee, Tennessee) for free. Yeah, for free. They played for two hours, going through a range of “fiddle tunes,” waltzes, bluegrass classics, blues, and stunningly beautiful original instrumentals. Like I said, glorious.
March 23, 2012
Today’s post can be found at http://www.sfnovelists.com, the group blog on speculative fiction that I maintain along with a group of over one hundred published authors of fantasy and science fiction. It is called “Books and Movies, Movies and Books,” and it’s about the ways in which new trends in fiction markets and the growing popularity of fantasy and SF movies might influence each other. I hope you enjoy it.
February 12, 2012
I was never a huge fan of Whitney Houston’s music — I was into a different sound, a different style. But I was always, always a fan of her voice. Tonight, we were watching the opening moments of the Grammy’s, and they played a clip of Whitney singing at the awards ceremony back in the early nineties. And watching her, listening to her, my older daughter muttered, “Oh, my God.” It wasn’t something she said for us. I’m not even sure she was aware that she was saying it. It just happened, like the soft intake of breath upon first seeing the Grand Canyon or the Aurora Borealis. Whitney was that good. Her voice was a wonder.
Her life story, sadly, was the stuff of tragedy; her end was sordid and hollow. I want to say that she deserved better, but it seems that so much of the misery of her final years was self-inflicted. What a terrible loss for her fans, an awful blow to her family and friends. And how sad for all of us that her voice was silenced at so soon.
August 23, 2010
I have two posts going up today. The first, my usual Monday Magical Words post, can be found at http://magicalwords.net, the group blog on the business and craft of writing fantasy that I maintain with fellow authors Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, Stuart Jaffe, and A.J. Hartley. The post is called “Snippets” and it’s about . . . well, lots of stuff. The second will be up later today and can be found at http://www.sfnovelists.com, the group blog on speculative fiction that I maintain along with a group of over one hundred published authors of fantasy and science fiction. I hope you enjoy both posts.
Update: The SFNovelists post is now up. It’s called “Thoughts on Writing While Listening to Jazz.” Enjoy.
October 15, 2009
We went up to Nashville Monday night to see a concert at the Grand Ole Opry House. The concert was a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Rounder Records. We were drawn to the concert by the headliners — Bela Fleck, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas. Turns out, though, that we got both more and less than we bargained for.
It turns out that the concert was being filmed for a special that will air on National Public Television in March. Well, we thought that might be kind of cool. We’ve seen lots of concerts that were taped or made into DVDs and it seemed like the folks at those shows had fun. And in fact, our introduction to the whole taping-for-TV thing included requests that we, the audience, give them a few rounds of applause that they could use to edit and fill in space as they put the show together. Polite applause, applause with whoops and whistles, frenzied applause. They taped them all before the show even began. It was a little goofy, but it was fun. The kids thought it was very cool.
Our host for the evening was Minnie Driver, the British actress, who, it seems, is also Minnie Diver, the Rounder recording artist. I know. I was surprised, too. But she was the opening act. She played four songs, all of them her own compositions. They were fine; not outstanding, but not terrible, either. They had a kind of standard pop/country sound. Her band was good, although she didn’t introduce them and something about the way she spoke to them and told us about them gave us the impression that she didn’t know their names. Weird.
After Minnie finished her set, she went backstage, changed clothes, and came back out to play emcee. At the same time, the stage crew moved equipment around. The first band (after her own) that she introduced was a cajun/creole group called Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, and they rocked. I don’t own much Zydeco music, and probably wouldn’t listen to it much if I did, but live it was terrific. Nathan Williams and his band had the entire audience on their feet and dancing for his entire set, which also consisted of four songs.
Then we had another break, while the stage was rearranged, and Bela Fleck came out. I was so excited — Fleck is one of my favorite musicians. He is the most influential and accomplished banjo player this side of Earl Scruggs, and I adore his music. At one point Jerry Douglas came out to accompany him on dobro — another thrill. The two of them a great friends; they’ve recorded together for years. But they only did one piece together, and after Bela had played his fourth number, he got up and left the stage. Minnie came back out to say that they were going to take a small break and then continue with the next act, soul singer Irma Thomas. At this point it was already approaching 10:00. The concert had been scheduled to begin at 7:30, but hadn’t started until 8:15. We’d heard exactly 12 songs, and Bela Fleck, who had been one of the main reasons we’d bought tickets in the first place, had been onstage and off so quickly that I almost thought he was joking when he first got up to leave.
Irma Thomas was fine. I’m not a big fan of soul, but she was feisty and fun, and she was also given just four songs. Another break to redo the stage, and then Mary Chapin Carpenter came out. Her set was terrific. Five songs this time, including her mid-90s hit “He thinks he’ll Keep Her.” Then yet another rearranging of the stage. And finally, at about 11:30, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and the rest of Union Station came out for their set. They got a huge reception, of course, and they played several of my favorite songs. But they played five and went off stage, came back on for a single encore, and were done. Another change of the stage, a few minutes of Minnie Driver doing introductions for video segments that we wouldn’t see, but for which we were expected to applaud, and then all the major performers came out and did one last number.
We got up from our seats to leave the auditorium at 12:20, almost five hours to the minute after we had sat down. We’d heard maybe, maybe, two and a half hours of actual music. The rest had been delays, forced applause, stage changes, and the brief intermission. Don’t get me wrong: most of the music was terrific. Bela Fleck’s four songs were wonderful; the zydeco band ad Mary Chapin Carpenter were great; AKUS was fabulous as always. But we had the kids with us, and we drove an hour and a half in each direction to see this show. We didn’t get home until 2:00 am. I won’t even tell you what we paid for the tickets. And to be quite honest it wasn’t worth it.