Less Is More

I just sent the first draft off to my editor; that makes the fourth Memoir a Real Thing now, ’cause other people are going to be reading it.

Doing the final polishes before kicking it out the door, I came upon one scene where I felt like I needed to amp up the emotional force a bit. So I went to the middle of the scene, stuck in a few line breaks, and started typing a new paragraph that would take what was going on and foreground it a bit more overtly. I wrote a sentence . . . started another one . . . deleted it . . . wrote a second sentence . . . started a third . . . deleted that and the second sentence . . . and after a lot of fiddling, I had a new paragraph, which I joined up to the following text. I looked it over, polished it a bit, tweaked some words — and then deleted the whole paragraph.

Because I was trying to play the wrong game.

These aren’t the sorts of books in which the narrator lays out her emotional state for the reader to marinate in. Those lines I had so much trouble writing? They were too overt. They were modern in style, rather than the buttoned-up Victorian tone I’ve been aiming for this whole time. I don’t pretend this will work for every reader, but: as far as I’m concerned, that scene has more impact, or at least more the kind of impact I’m going for, when I keep it simple. Less is more.

This is on my mind right now because my husband and I just finished watching Agent Carter, and we’re also nearing the end of the first season of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I realized tonight that I’m starting to crave passionate, operatic, heart-on-sleeve declarations of love, because both of those shows feature a lot of very proper characters having All the Feels but never talking about it openly. I said before that I ship Peggy Carter and Edmund Jarvis in a totally platonic way, and I stand by that — but it doesn’t mean I wasn’t flailing during one of the last scenes of this last episode, with the two of them being so very Britishly reserved at one another. And my god, if Jack Robinson and Phryne Fisher don’t kiss by the end of this season, I might throw things at the TV. (A real kiss, I mean. Not a “no I only did that to keep the murderer from noticing you I swear that’s all it was” kiss.)

My reaction means the writers are doing their jobs correctly, of course. And this is the thing romance and horror have in common: they both carry more impact if they tease you for a while first, hinting at stuff and building it slowly before finally delivering the emotional payoff. If you rush the process, it doesn’t work as well. But if you play the tension right, if you see only hints of the monster or the occasional Meaningful Gaze between the characters . . . then you don’t need an enormous payoff to get a lot of energy out of it. One kiss can work as well as — or better than — the characters falling into bed; one brief shot of the monster’s face can horrify you more than seeing the entire thing.

When it’s done well, I adore this sort of thing. Too steady of a diet, though, and I start feeling like I need some characters with a bit less self-control. But tell me: what are your favorite “oh my god this tiny thing was so incredibly meaningful” emotional payoffs in a story, or your favorite “and then we pulled out all of the stops and fired up the jet engines and went so far over the top we couldn’t even see it with binoculars” moments?

Every Frame a Painting

This is a fascinating series of videos.

The video blogger, Tony Zhou, digs into the art of the director and the cinematographer to talk about how they achieve their effects. For somebody like me, who is a dyed-in-the-wool narrative geek but doesn’t know the first thing about the craft of film, it’s like catnip: a chance to understand how one tells stories with images rather than words.

Mind you, I can’t quite follow everything he says. There are times where he’ll try to draw out a particular point, but its effect is subtle enough or he doesn’t unpack the idea enough or I don’t have enough basic grounding in film craft that I end up shrugging and thinking “okay, if you say so.” But many of them are just great, like “What Is Bayhem?”, wherein he dissects the work of Michael Bay. It isn’t about saying “oh, he’s such a genius” — he isn’t. Zhou’s thesis is that Bay imprinted on a couple of visual tricks and then BEATS THEM TO DEATH in every movie he makes. But it’s possible to identify what those tricks are, and to see he got them from or where other people try to copy him without understanding what he’s actually doing. It’s possible to put your finger on why you don’t like Michael Bay’s films (if indeed you do not like them) . . . because the man uses the same visual tricks without much regard for the material he’s using them on. It’s the equivalent of playing a piece of music all at one volume: there’s no dynamics, no contrast, just EVERYTHING IS EPIC ALL THE TIME. Even when the story itself is not actually being very epic at that moment.

I also loved the video on “Edgar Wright: How to Do Visual Comedy”. It hammered home for me some of the reasons why I find Wright’s movies to be a lot of fun, while a lot of other cinematic comedy bores me stiff. I’ve said before that the issue is one of content, and that’s true: I don’t find humiliation funny, I’m annoyed rather than amused by people acting so stupidly I’m not sure how they can even walk and talk at the same time, gross-out humour is just NO, and I’m very hit-or-miss with physical comedy. I like wittiness, and wittiness tends to be in short supply these days, at least in American comedy films. But it turns out there’s more to it than that. Zhou points out that so many movies have limited themselves to only one channel of humour, which is people standing around talking: they don’t use lighting or well-timed sound effects or matching scene transitions or soundtrack synchronization or things entering and leaving the frame in unexpected ways. (It was interesting, watching Galavant after seeing that video; I found myself noting the places where it employed a broader array of tools.) Using all those channels means you can vary your approach, make your point in different ways depending on the context.

Other particularly good ones: “Jackie Chan: How to Do Action Comedy.” “David Fincher: And the Other Way Is Wrong.” “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film.” All of them are interesting to watch, but I found those five the most comprehensible and eye-opening. If you have any interest in that sort of thing, they’re well worth taking a look at.

excerpt; letters

If you want to whet your appetite for next month, Tor.com has posted an excerpt from Voyage of the Basilisk.

It seems a good excuse to remind you all that you have until the end of this month to send a letter to Isabella and get one in return. (Those of you who have sent one already will be getting replies soon: my progress on those has been slowed by the necessity of finishing and revising the draft of the fourth book.) I have to say, I’ve been touched by the number of personal elements people are incorporating into their missives; it’s wonderful to know that this story speaks so deeply to their own lives, in one way or another. I hope my replies will do that justice.

And now, back to the revision mines!

Three shows that have pleased me lately

I mentioned a while ago that I was tired of grim ‘n gritty TV shows, things full of cynicism and decidedly lacking in color. In contrast, I’d like to recommend three TV shows that are bright! and energetic! and feature almost no death whatsoever!

Bonus, of a sort: all of these shows are short-run, with the longest having only ten episodes. So if you’re looking for something you can marathon for weeks, these will not fit the bill — but if you want something that isn’t a huge time commitment, they’re perfect.


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Books read, January 2015

This is belated on account of Own Book Eating Brain. This is also rather short on account of Own Book Eating Brain. And possibly shorter still on account of Own Book Eating Brain and Making Me Forget to Record Things. What I’m trying to say is, I didn’t read much in January (apart from some research stuff I’m not listing here), and I don’t remember half of what I read, so I’m having to recreate this post facto.

The King of Rabbits and Moon Lake, Eugie Foster. Last of Foster’s short story collections that I picked up after she passed away. Many of the things in here are folktale-ish, but not all; there’s one story (“The Adventures of Manny the Mailmobile”) about a robot, that doesn’t quite fit in tonally with the rest, and the others show a broader range in both tone and cultural source than Returning My Sister’s Face did. Since the folktale-ish stories are what I like best of Foster’s work, I was less pleased with this one than the other, but it still had some material I quite enjoyed.

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss. I talked about the gender aspect here, but didn’t really say much about the book itself. I’m not sure how to say this without it coming across as a condemnation, which I do not intend, but: dear god Kvothe is the Mary Suest Mary Sue to ever Mary Sue. From now on, every time somebody complains about a female protagonist being an unrealistic Mary Sue, I want to hand them a copy of this novel with a post-it note on the cover saying “Your argument is invalid.” There is nothing wrong with occasionally wanting to enjoy a story about a hypercompetent super-genius; the wrongness or rightness of it should not change based on gender.

. . . I just went back to the gender thing, didn’t I. Um. I like Rothfuss’ world; the stuff with sygaldry and sympathy and naming is intriguing, and I am a sucker for that kind of thing. So ranting aside, I did enjoy this. (I wouldn’t have finished reading it if I didn’t.) Ranting once more calculated into the equation, though, I’m not sure whether I’ll read the second book or not.

Unbound, Jim Hines. Third of the Magic Ex Libris series, and ye GODS do not start here, because this is the culmination of a bunch of stuff from the first two books, Libriomancer and Codex Born. I do recommend it, though, if you like the kind of series that first presents you with an idea and then starts looking at it from different angles and breaking it and gluing it back together in new ways. Also, Hines deserves cookies for the single most awesome cipher concept I think I have ever seen. Watching Isaac work his way through that thing made me really wish I could see the text itself, just to appreciate the beauty of its design.

. . . that’s all I can remember, anyway. That may be all there was. Not a lot of spare brain in January, is what I’m saying.


Ladies, gentlemen, and those who for reasons of gender or misbehavior count themselves as neither, I am exceedingly pleased to announce that I have a finished draft of the fourth Memoir of Lady Trent, at 88,748 words.

(What’s the title? You’ll have to wait to find that out until after Voyage of the Basilisk has been released. Because I’m mean that way.)

The Littlest Shodanho II Enters the Home Stretch

(Actually, owing to a clerical error, the card on which my class attendance is recorded lists me as wakashodan II. Which would make me ~two belt ranks higher and twenty years younger: the wakadan are the black belt kids. But whatever. <g>)

I had another belt test on Friday, 11 months after the last one. It would have been a good deal sooner, were it not for ankle surgery intervening; one hopes I will not face such an obstacle again this year. Because at this point — having attended class last night — I am 59 classes away from being able to test for my Real True Black Belt. Actual shodan, instead of shodanho, the “probationary” black belt degrees that in our dojo precede the thing itself.

There are three classes a week that I can attend. 60 classes at three a week is 20 weeks, or roughly five months. Except there are holidays; there are times when I’m out of town; there are nights when I’m sick or just plain don’t feel like going. My goal is to test for shodan by October, which will be the seventh anniversary of my first class. That’s eight months away: gives me a realistic margin of error for the classes I’ll miss, while being tight enough of a timeline to motivate me to get my lazy carcass to the dojo.

It’s a long, long road to a black belt, at least where I study. (Longer when you have two ankle surgeries along the way.) But the end is finally in sight.

Undermining the Unreliable Narrator

In my recent discussion of The Name of the Wind, one of the things that has come up is the way in which Kvothe is an unreliable narrator, and the text does or does not separate the character’s sexism out from the sexism of the story as a whole. This isn’t solely a problem that crops up with unreliable narrators — it can happen any time the protagonist holds objectionable views, or lives in a society with objectionable attitudes but you don’t want to make the protagonist a mouthpiece for modern opinions — but it’s especially key there. And since I brought it up in that discussion, I thought it might be worth making an additional post to talk about how one goes about differentiating between What the Protagonist Thinks (on the topic of gender, race, or any other problematic issue) and What the Author Thinks.

I don’t pretend to be a master of this particular craft. That kind of separation is tricky to pull off, and depends heavily on the reader to complete the process. The issue is one that’s been on my mind, though, because of the Lady Trent novels: Isabella is the product of a Victorianish society, and while my approach to the -isms there hasn’t been identical to that of real history, I’ve tried not to scrub them out entirely. Since the entire story is filtered through her perspective (which, while progressive for her time, is not always admirable by twenty-first century standards), I’ve had to put a lot of thought into ways I can divide her opinions from my own.

There are a variety of tactics. Because I think things go better with concrete data rather than vague generalities, I’m going to continue to use The Name of the Wind as an illustrative example.

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Free at last . . . .

According to records, on February 13th of 2014, I started physical therapy.

It felt a little ridiculous: I had a sprained toe, which is not exactly a major injury. But hey, if you can’t really bend it for months on end . . . so I went to PT, and it got better.

Then, in April, just as that was drawing to a close, I found out I needed ankle surgery. Since I wasn’t going to do that until after the karate seminar in Okinawa, my orthopedist advised that I go to PT beforehand to stabilize the joint as much as I could. So I did that for three months, and then I went to Okinawa, had surgery, got out of the boot — and went back to PT.

And it dragged on. And on. And on.

But as of today, I am free — ish. My remaining issue is mobility, rather than strength, and in some ways the strength work we’ve been doing at PT has been hampering improvement in mobility, because of the way it puts stress on the muscles. The biggest things that help now are heat and massage, and I don’t need to go to PT for a couple of hours every week to get those. So my therapist told me to cancel my remaining appointments, and to check back in with them in a few weeks. For the first time in just shy of an entire year . . . I do not need physical therapy.

It’s about goddamned time.

The Absence of Women

The other day on Twitter, I commented about the absence of women from a book I was reading. Because Twitter is no place for long explanations or nuanced discussions, and also because I was about to go to karate and didn’t want to start a slapfight with fans of the book that might pick up steam while I was busy, I declined to name it there — but I promised I would make a follow-up post, so here it is.

Before I actually name the book and start talking about it, though, two caveats:

1) If you are a fan of the novel in question, please don’t fly off the handle at the criticism here. This is not meant as an attack on the author (who is, by everything I know of him, a really good guy), nor an attack on you for liking it. In a certain sense, it isn’t even an attack on the novel. I’m dissecting this one in great detail not because it’s The Worst Book Ever (it isn’t), but because it’s a really clear example of a widespread problem, and one that would have been trivially easy to fix.

2) Please don’t answer my points here by saying “well, in the second book . . . .” This thing is 722 pages long in the edition I read. That is more than enough time to do something interesting with female characters. I would be glad to know if the representation of women improves later on — but even if it does, that doesn’t change my experience of this book. It stood alone for four years, until the sequel was published. It can be judged on its own merits, and what comes later does not negate what happened first.

Okay, with all of that out of the way (and maybe the caveats were unnecessary, but) . . . the book in question is The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

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