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Techniques in Writing Alternate History

For the past several months, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading recent alternate histories and historical fantasies (I’ve reviewed a couple in earlier posts). As a result, I’ve been thinking about how alternate history works, and what techniques apply to the sub-genre.

Divergence as the Elephant in the Room

At some point, all of us wonder about the road not taken. In our private lives, we wonder how life would have turned out if we’d gone to college B rather than college A, if we’d gotten (or kept) a particular job, etc. The same “what if” question gives rise to alternate history, where we try to imagine our world as made different. Whether the portrayal is fairly realistic (as in Harry Turtledove’s Timeline 191) or completely fantastical (e.g. Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy), alternate history gives us the chance to consider what our world would be like in entirely different circumstances. And that’s fun, because it can give us insight into our own world, culture, and history today.

Because alternate history is so centrally concerned with what sets the imagined reality apart from our current reality, how the timeline diverges must be established very early on. Thinking about it, I’ve spotted a kind of spectrum of divergence in alternate history:

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

On the one hand, we have what I call fulcrum divergences. This method is most commonly found in “realistic” alternate histories, which lack magic, monsters, or really anything that could not exist in the real world. Some event is identified as a fulcrum on which history swings, and when creating the story we have things work out differently.

The best example I can think of for this type of alternate history has to be Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. In our real history, a Confederate messenger lost General Lee’s plans for the invasion of the North. The Union found the plans, and General McLellan was able to turn the Confederates back at the Battle of Antietam. Turtledove asks “what if the message never fell into Union hands?” and proceeds to create an excellent series of realistic novels that paint a Confederate victory and map out the consequences through World War II. Such “little differences” need not be so minor, however: Philip K. Dick posited a world where the Axis Powers won WWII in his classic The Man in the High Castle, nor need the resulting world be particularly realistic (consider Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, where Darwin discovers DNA). Even fairly fantastical stories like Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire series still rely on that one point where history changed. Universal within these stories is that the world’s history follows the familiar path we should all know up to that one key fulcrum moment when it skews Doc Brown-like into an alternate timeline.

The other end of the spectrum are foundational divergences. Typically used in more fantastical alternate histories, foundational divergence occurs so far back in the story’s timeline that its effects percolate through all aspects of the world. The place names, some of the personalities involved may be familiar to us, but they are already skewed relative to our timeline based on events that happened significantly prior to the events of the story.

In Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, or Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command magic has been known and applied within the world for centuries. There is no “point of divergence” with our known history, because instead the impacts of magic diffuse throughout all aspects of society, history, and cultural development. The key difference between such alternate histories and those relying on fulcrum divergence is that all recorded history has to be different from what is known. In these books, the foundational difference (e.g. the presence of magic) occurred or was discovered so far in antiquity that its consequences have percolated throughout the world. As a result, such books can often be enjoyed as secondary-world fantasies.

Between these two poles lie a variety of techniques that authors can use to establish that divergence. Often, authors use a time traveler from our timeline to introduce the divergence. Once in the past, the time traveler proceeds to change (or – sometimes not) the past as we know it.

Excellent examples of this kind of alternate history include books like Eric Flint’s 1632, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Mary Gentle’s First History sequence. In many respects, these books are similar to those that use a fulcrum divergence: in this case, the time traveler becomes the fulcrum. However, they differ significantly in that typically the protagonist (the time traveler) is aware of the divergence or its possibility. This changes the dynamic of the story and significantly alters the reader’s relationship with the hero.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can have an “alternate history” that completely recasts our known reality, which does not take place in any kind of recognizable version of our history. Here, the events of the book are modeled on actual events in our history, but they are depicted in a completely secondary world.

Turtledove’s World at War series employs this technique, depicting the events of WWII in a completely secondary world. Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World (see my earlier review) similarly (though less historically) models aspects of his world on the American frontier.

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in Alternate Histories

The key to constructing an effective alternate history is to keep the reader locked in what Gardner calls the “dream” of the novel. This task is particularly challenging in alternate histories, where the reader knows they are reading something inimical to their pre-existing knowledge of the world. As a result, readers are likely to quickly pounce on perceived flaws, places where the author’s research or techniques fell short. There are several tools that can be used to maintain the reader’s acceptance of the alternate history.

The perspective that the book is written from, and the narrative voice that is employed, are both essential tools to maintain the reader’s disbelief. This is doubly-so if the book is written in first-person, but even when written in third the speech patterns, word choices, and value systems that our narrator employs contribute to the milieu of the era we are depicting. Recently, I read two alternate histories that execute on this aspect perfectly: Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought and Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command (see my earlier reviews here and here, respectively).

In both books, the narrative voice and the dialog employed by the characters rings (at least to my ear) true to the period when the books are set. The words key characters employ, the value systems inherent in their views, the differences in how different characters speak, in both books the quality of voice and dialog help to lock the reader into the alternate history. In At the Queen’s Command, the dialog is strongly reminiscent of other accounts of the late 18th century. As a result, I am able to believe that while there may be magic, I am still reading a story set in the 18th century I am familiar with. The same applies to Dreadnought, which follows a southern Confederate nurse across the frontier.

Nailing the voice like this is partly a question of the writer’s natural ear, but it is also heavily influenced by research. Reading books written in and written about the time period can help provide the “feel” of that time period. And solid research on word use and etymology can help make sure that the dialog is period-appropriate (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out recently, people swore differently even one hundred years ago). Research and extensive reading are the keys to nailing this aspect of an alternate history.

But there is a flip side to this coin: When we write alternate histories (or even historical fantasies) there is an understandable temptation to shoe-horn massive amounts of research into the text. After all, not everyone is as familiar with the time period as the author. But this natural tendency has to be handled very delicately because people who enjoy alternate histories are likely those who enjoy history. As a result, they are likely to already have substantial knowledge about history, and thus overloading them with historical information may weaken their engagement with the story.

In historical fantasy, this is a danger that I recently observed in Jasper Kent’s otherwise excellent Twelve. Kent clearly knows the history of 19th century Russia, however in many places he assumes that his readers do not. For some readers, this is likely not a problem. But for those of us who are familiar with that time period, the extensive expository background that Kent provides detracts from the rising action of the story. Striking a balance between that need for background and the forward motion of the story is key to writing any story based in history. When I think about the authors who do this well, they apply the rule of “less is more” and leave the reader to infer whatever background they do not already know. If we have to pick between momentum and background, I say always go for momentum.

Imagining a Different Today

If futuristic science fiction is about imagining a possible tomorrow, then alternate histories are about imagining a possible present. This at once constrains our world-building (to a greater or lesser degree, we have to conform to known history) while providing the opportunity for very focused imagination. When I read excellent alternate histories, I often think that it is much harder to paint a maserpiece by coloring within the lines. But the best authors of alternate history manage to do exactly that.

If you’re looking for fun alternate histories, below is a list of the authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy, from your local bookstore or your library and enjoy:

REVIEW: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson

The Keep by F. Paul Wilson Title: The Keep
Author: F. Paul Wilson
Pub Date: December 7th, 2010 (reprint)
August 1981 (original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A gothic horror novel with an interesting monster, solid early tension but a disappointing climax.

In The Keep (first in his Adversary Cycle), F. Paul Wilson does an excellent job subverting staid vampire tropes and reveling in the devices of Gothic horror. Wilson’s deft command of craft as shown in his management of setting, and the gradual reveal of his monster make this book a worthwhile purchase.

Set in 1941 in a remote mountain keep high in the Romanian Alps, the book pits two inhuman monsters against each other. On the one hand, we have the Nazi army. The Nazis are realists, hard-hearted murderers marching across Europe, slaughtering innocents by the millions. On the other hand, we have a supernatural monster (possibly a vampire, possibly not) who brutally murders Nazis one-by-one in the night. With a setup like this, Wilson has an opportunity to do one of four things: he can turn the vampire into a hero (a fun role reversal for a traditional monster), he can turn one of the Nazis into a hero (a challenging prospect, considering their historical baggage), he can show both as somewhat-justified, or he can show both as monstrous. Wilson primarily chooses to take the easiest of these four paths, keeping both the Nazis and the creature who murders them monstrous.

Klaus Woermann, a disillusioned Nazi officer, is given a somewhat-punitive assignment to guard a remote Romanian castle. Throughout the book, Woermann is the only Nazi depicted in any kind of positive light. He is painted as conflicted, not enamoured of the fuhrer, and disgusted by what the Nazis are doing to the Jews. The scenes written from Woermann’s perspective are interesting in that they show a tentativeness in Wilson’s characterization that is absent when he writes from other (less morally ambiguous) characters, like Magda Cuza or the SS commander Kaempffer. It is unclear to me whether this tentativeness stems from the author’s uncertainty as to how sympathetic to make the Nazi, or whether it stems from Woermann’s own uncertainties as to his loyalty. Irrespective of the source of this tentativeness, I found it an interesting aspect of the character that lent some degree of depth to him.

When Woermann’s troops are stationed in the mysterious keep, they inadvertently set loose a monster that had been trapped there, presumably for centuries. The monster proceeds to murder Woermann’s men, one Nazi per night. As more of his troops are murdered, Woermann eventually gets assistance from the SS through Erich Kaempffer, an absolutely monstrous officer who gleefully intends to set up concentration camps in Romania. The SS officer, and all of the troops under his command, are painted as absolutely inhuman creatures. There is no moral ambiguity, no tentativeness in their characterization. They are vile, cruel, and vicious. Thankfully, they don’t quite veer into the realm of caricature, but their commander at times comes perilously close.

The scenes of terror told from the Nazis point of view are absolutely delightful: Wilson never shows us the monster directly, instead revealing the effects the monster has on the environment and the Nazis themselves. Because the Nazis are never made entirely sympathetic, our fear is kept slightly distanced. Some might view this as a weakening of the book’s horror, but I felt that it actually helped make me more aware of the monster and his actions. The result was to leave the reader uncertain what kind of monster we are dealing with, while slowly building the tension through solid pacing. The monster shares certain traits with a Dracula-esque vampire, but there are enough new and different traits to leave the Nazis (and the reader) unsure of what we are dealing with. Wilson’s restraint is used to excellent effect in these scenes, and they leave the reader hungry to learn more about the monster’s nature.

Unable to stem the loss of life, the terrified Nazis turn to Josef Cuza, an ailing Jewish expert on local folklore, and his daughter Magda. These two characters are the only purely noble characters in the book. The scenes told from their standpoint make it clear that they are sympathetic, righteous, honorable folk…nothing like either the Nazis or the monster. This portrayal of the Cuzas is perhaps one of the better pieces of characterization executed in this book. By setting the Cuzas up as purely good, fundamentally righteous, innocent, and noble, Wilson sets them up for a beautiful fall. To avoid spoilers, I won’t go into the details but it is exactly the Cuzas characterization and how it subtly changes over the course of the book that lends the novel its thematic tension.

The readers learn more about the monster as the Cuzas work to unravel the mystery of what is killing the Germans. The gradual reveal of the monster continues Wilson’s tweaking of the vampire mythos. Throughout, Wilson keeps the monster almost, but not quite, a classical vampire. At one point, Josef Cuza remarks that the monster might not be a real vampire as the myths give us, but that it might be a real creature that at one point inspired those myths. That the reader can believe this theory is a testament to the fine line between classic tropes and innovation that Wilson used to depict the supernatural monster at the heart of this book.

The tension in the book is very well managed, right up to the moment of the final reveal. Throughout the first eighty percent of the novel, Wilson raises the stakes and the reader’s expectations. By the time the truth (and the monster) are fully revealed, the reader expects something powerful, dark, and gritty. Instead, the explanation introduces a cosmology that the reader had little preparation for earlier in the book. The surprising cosmology is clearly a setup for subsequent books in the Adversary Cycle, but here in that series’ first book it struck me as deus ex machina. While the surprising cosmology weakened the climax, the climax remains reasonably solid: the action is dramatic, the stakes and tension significant. But the climax falls just shy of the very high expectations created by the excellent majority of the novel.

In all, I would say that The Keep is a solid work of horror, with good characterization, excellent tone and setting management, and fine control of tension right up to the climax. Wilson’s depiction and gradual explanation of the monster is exceptionally well done, and the way he undermines certain character’s righteousness is poignant and sensitive. However, the excellent ingredients that make up the bulk of the book leave the expectations very high for the climax, which is weakened by the introduction of an unestablished cosmology. Fans of Gothic horror will find much to enjoy in this book, and I am curious how the remaining books in the Adversary Cycle develop the cosmology further. Having introduced it in the series’ first book, I suspect (and hope) that the subsequent installments will make more effective use of it.

Artist Interview: Elizabeth Goldring

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of commissioning a work of art. Why it was necessary…well we won’t get into that. But I needed a practically life-size baby sky bison (as in, the six-legged flying bovines from the Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon). In doing so, I had the pleasure to work with Elizabeth Goldring, a young artist just starting in the business. Working with her, I thought it might be interesting to do an interview with her and get a visual artist’s perspective on some interesting questions:

1. As a new artist breaking into the field, how would you describe your work?
I like to make work that is subtle yet striking. I enjoy the idea of creating a beautiful object, be it a drawing or a sculpture, that has a quiet strength. The imagery that I use tends to be unusual or unsettling but not shocking or loud. I draw on nature, mostly plants and animals, though sometimes the figure as well. I like to do a lot of different things. I think one of my biggest issues is that I have so much I want to do but only 2 hands and 24 hours in a day.

Cryptobotany by Elizabeth Goldring

Cryptobotany by Elizabeth Goldring

2. What do you think has had the greatest impact on your work? How do those influences affect the work you do on commission versus the work you do for yourself?
I would say that my own experiences have had the greatest impact on my work. My personal pieces tend to be heavily autobiographical though not necessarily in the conventional sense. It’s really in regard to the emotional content, not so much the subjects themselves. The pieces tend to require a lot of repetitive almost meditative actions and in that kind of mindset I end up imbuing the pieces with emotion as opposed to concept.

Commissions are always going to differ from the personal simply because I am producing something to please someone else as opposed to myself. Then there is the difference between commissions that are someone else’s concept that require approval from the buyer versus commissions where I am essentially given free reign. Even in those situations though, I still enjoy the process and I like to think that the work still has my mark.

3. Aspiring writers are usually told to read, read, read. Is there some similar advice for aspiring visual artists? What kind of value does it provide?
The usual advice is know your predecessors as well as your contemporaries, so its a combination of look look look and read read read. It’s important to know where you come from artistically, to know your influences. The past can inspire you in a lot of ways, whether it’s finding something in it that you admire or coming across something that shows what you don’t want to do. Art comes from Art, it does not exist in a vacuum.

4. When working on a piece, what’s your process like? How do you set the priorities for your work in general or for a particular piece?
My process varies depending on what I am working on. Drawings tend to be a little bit more organic while sculptures require more planning because of materials tests and mockups. Drawings still require some planning, but that’s usually just some loose sketches to get a feel for proportions and to try different compositions. Once the initial tests and sketches are done I try to just sit down and work for as long as I can. Sometimes I can work for 8 hours or so only stopping to eat or stretch, other times I can only focus for an hour. Even if I feel like I can keep working after a long sitting I try to walk away from it for a little while so I can come back to it with a fresh eye and see what needs changing. It can also be difficult to know when something is “Done;” walking away is key here so that the piece doesn’t get over worked. There is always more that can be done but there is not always more that should be done and some time away from the work helps in that decision. The finished piece is important to me, but honestly I tend to get lost in what I am doing. I really enjoy the process, it makes me feel calm in a way that few other activities do.

5. How do those priorities translate into your broader opinions on art and its role/function in society?
I was once told by a professor that making art is the most self indulgent thing a person can do with their life. I think that sums up how I feel about making art fairly well. I will admit, as an artist I am fairly selfish. I love what I do but I do it for me, I have no grandiose ideas about my work changing the world or the face of art or anything like that. I am not attempting to raise political or social awareness or make a “statement”. These are the functions generally associated with art and its purpose, and these are completely valid for some artists, but not really for me. I take a much more hermetic approach to what I do, it is about making things that I think are beautiful and convey the emotions that I need them to. If other people can connect with it on a similar level, then that is a really successful piece, but at the end of the day I am the one who has to be square with what I have created. Again, a lot of this is about the act of doing for me so it is difficult for me to think about their function outside of that. In an ideal world the person who looks at the piece finds something in it akin to what I felt while making it. For some art is a vehicle for some greater message or statement. For others its not.

6. Is there a divide between the “fine arts” and “illustration”? If so, where does that divide come from? Should it exist? And which side of it do you fall on?
There is a definite division between fine arts and illustration, though not as much in recent years. The division usually comes from the idea that fine artists decide what they will make and how they will make it, with only themselves and their intentions in mind. Illustrators have traditionally been seen in a commercial light; usually they are a way of realizing someone else’s vision. There are many illustrators being featured in fine art galleries now, and there is more acceptance of them than there was though I still hear the term “illustration” used as a derogatory term towards drawings. I think the difference really comes from the intention of the work. It’s all a gray area that is open to a lot of debate.

7. For writing, I’ve always believed that technique/craft is one half of what makes great art. Is it the same for the visual arts? And do all visual artists feel that way, or just you?
Personally I think technique is definitely a large part of a successful piece, this holds true for some artists and not others. For some people the concept is the entire point and execution is merely a formality. In the conceptual art movement of the 60s it got taken so far that some artists thought it was enough to come up with the idea or instructions and that it wasn’t even necessary to bring it into physical being. That approach: not for me.

8. Many writers say that the art of writing is the art of re-writing. Does your work go through any kind of editing or revision? How does (or doesn’t) that work?
I think the revision process is a huge part of art making. I do a lot of revisions and editing during the preliminary sketches; that is part of the entire reason to do them. They are like a rough draft. Just as in writing, it’s about trimming things down or adding things in. Revisions can vary in difficulty from piece to piece depending on the materials. A graphite drawing is easier to revise than ink, a clay sculpture is easier to revise than stone etc.

Regeneration by Elizabeth Goldring

Regeneration by Elizabeth Goldring

9. Can you tell us anything about the stuff you’re working on now? Or where can we see any of your work?
At the moment I am working on a series of drawings as well as some sculptures. The basic premise is documenting strange and anomalous occurrences in nature. Specifically plants and animals. It plays off the human tendency towards anthropomorphizing the world around us and our capacity to love what also repels us.

I am currently part of a show at the Visual Arts Gallery in New York City (601 West 26 Street, 15th Floor, New York, New York) that will run through February 15, 2011. I also have a blog where people can see my past and current work until I compose a more formal website:

So with great thanks to Elizabeth and her insightful answers, I think the best way to sign off is to show the results of my own commissioned piece. Here’s Baby Appa, relaxing in front of the fireplace (I apologize for being a lousy photographer – the picture doesn’t really do justice):

Baby Appa by Elizabeth Goldring

Baby Appa by Elizabeth Goldring (mediocre photo by King of Elfland's 2nd Cousin)

An Approach to Re-writing a First Novel

Several months ago, I wrote about my perspective on the differences between writing a novel and writing a short story. Now, several months later I’m knee-deep in re-writing that first draft of the novel, and so I thought it might be neat to follow up on my earlier comments:

Distance Buys Perspective

Writing a novel is an intensely personal investment, made over an extended period of time. It can take months or years of our cogitation, sweat, and emotional turmoil. It’s never far from our minds. We lie awake in bed thinking about how to do certain things with it (at least I do). By the time we write “The End” we’re relieved and rightly proud of our creation. And – I at least – wanted to dive right into re-writing it.

But that’s not wise. Because after we’ve just finished writing the book, it’s still up at the forefront of our minds. The characters names roll off our tongues, and we could recite the events of the plot backwards and blindfolded. Even if we can’t recite the text from memory, we still know what the sentences should say. At this point, we’re too close to it for effective revision. Where the story has narrative pot-holes – missing plot points, pacing issues, clumsy writing – our minds fill them in, gloss over them, because we know how it should work. It’s like having beer-goggles on: our minds won’t let us see the reality.

Which is why all of the smart advice out there tells us to wait. To put the book away. File it in a drawer, forget about it for a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, work on something else and then come back to it. Coincidentally, Kay Kenyon – one of my favorite science fiction authors – just posted about this exact issue. Unsurprisingly, I agree with her with all of my heart. But, like avoiding sweets and getting regular exercise, it’s not easy.

Letting it settle is one of the hardest aspects of writing a novel that I’ve discovered. While waiting to go back to my first novel, I took the time to write a second novel (okay, technically a graphic novel – but I figure it counts). Even though I intellectually know that I need to leave that graphic novel aside and let it settle, I still want to dive right into it and do the re-write. Which, much as I am loathe to admit it, is probably proof that I’m still too emotionally and intellectually close to it for proper revision. But it really makes sense to resist the temptation, because it lets us spot weaknesses that otherwise we would miss.

The Re-writing Attitude

Getting ready to re-write my first novel has been a mix of trepidation and hubris. On the one hand, I’m worried that as I take another look at it I’ll discover that it sucks. Then my ego kicks in and says “What are you talking about, the book is great, it can’t possibly suck.” Of course, that ego is a thin veneer over my own insecurities (which, of course, I quash). Which is why I found it helpful to keep the following statement in mind as I sit down to re-write:

Most first novels don’t get published. It’s okay if it sucks: we re-write to make it better.

Ask a bunch of authors how many books they wrote before they ever got an agent, or before they ever sold one to a major house. The number will surprise you. I’ve regularly heard debut authors talk about having five, six, seven finished novels (sometimes entire series!) in their drawers at home. That’s because writing a novel is a skill, and it is a skill that takes time to hone. Writing short stories can help with some of the craft, but it takes a different set of skills to write a great novel. In many ways, I think of it like playing a sport: how many games did Babe Ruth have to play before he could hit a homerun in the major leagues? How many pick-up basketball games did Michael Jordan play before setting foot on an NBA court?

It’s alright if the first draft of a novel sucks. That’s why it is the first draft. Because, if we’re serious about writing, we’ll produce a second draft that will be stronger than the first. And if need be, we’ll write a third draft that’s even better than the second. And at some point, perhaps, the finished product might be polished enough for publication. And if it isn’t, well then the skills we’ve picked up and practiced will help us write our next book, which will be better than our first. At least that’s the theory.

The Process of Re-writing

The Professor – my fiancée who edits YA books for a living – gave me some really good advice on the re-writing process. Of course, being male and knowing better, I promptly ignored her excellent advice and it bit me in the ass. Her advice on the process of re-writing:

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

When I initially picked up my first draft and started to read it, I did it with pen in hand. I dove in and attacked clumsy sentences, poor word choices, weak verbs. In the trade, this is called a line-edit and apparently it’s a classic first-time novelist mistake. The point of the re-write isn’t to fix the little flaws that have crept into the work. The point of the re-write is to spot the BIG structural weaknesses. If we’re bogged down in the minutiae of the sentences, we’ll never see the yawning pacing chasm or the gaping plot hole. We won’t see the forest for the trees.

I realized this about mid-way through my book. I had a niggling concern about a structural issue (the pacing), and it just wouldn’t leave me alone. But I couldn’t diagnose the problem effectively, because by jumping right into the sentences, I had gotten in too deep, too quickly. So I had to put it down again, walk away from it again, and then approach it a different way.

My second time around, I followed The Professor’s advice, and read it just as a first time reader would. I read through it – cover to cover – without a pen in hand. I was reading it like I hoped a typical reader (or an agent, or an editor) would. I was paying attention to my response to the text, to see where my interest flagged, where the story got my heart racing. I wanted to find where the book worked well, and where it lost me. Sure, I still saw the occasional weak sentence. But I resisted the (often difficult) temptation to pounce and fix it. Instead, I tried to figure out if the bones of the story worked.

Here’s what I found (in ascending order of importance):

  1. The events of the plot – at a general level – work reasonably well.
  2. The world-building seems reasonably solid, with compelling settings and believable (and interesting) factions/characters.
  3. The themes of the book can be emotionally and philosophically interesting.
  4. I lost interest around the 25% mark, and didn’t have interest until the last 5% of the book.

That last one is really important: reading through the book, it fundamentally failed the “So what?” test. That failure was evident in the way that the book slowed down and lost the reader’s interest. That, however, is just an observation: a fact. It told me nothing about why it lost the reader’s interest. In thinking it through, and discussing it with The Professor (who was awesome enough to take a look and give me a professional’s opinion on where I dropped the ball), the major failing’s cause was the protagonist’s motivation. It didn’t ring true, it didn’t work, and as a result, the reader just didn’t care.

Responding to a Major Flaw

That’s a major, major super-mega-important flaw. Characters are their motivations, and so if the hero’s motivation isn’t compelling…well, the story’s missing its fuel. That’s also not a quick fix. That’s not something that can be addressed by “sticking it in” as an editorial after-thought. To get that kind of motivation right, it needs to be ever-present throughout the story, from the first sentence all the way through to the last. And it should have really started with a question I’d failed to ask myself at the onset: why is my hero the hero?

The answer – if I’m being honest with myself – is that in the case of this novel, his was a convenient perspective and I wrote the opening chapters with a nifty voice that I happened to like. Alas, that’s not enough of a reason. So back to the drawing board. I took a look at the story, rotating it in my mind and considering all of the characters’ motivations and trying to determine how I could find/develop a more compelling hero. As I did this, I found the answer staring me in the face: the book had a major character, who did have motivation, and who was compelling…he just wasn’t the original focus. The solution (perhaps) would be to make that character, or someone like that character the hero.

Of course, this would mean re-writing the whole book. I wouldn’t be able to keep the eighty-three odd thousand words I’d written over the course of five months. I’d have to junk it, and basically start from scratch. That is not an easy call to make. It took a lot of work to write those words, and some of those words were (I think) pretty good. But I faced two basic choices: I could either trash the whole novel, or I could take another stab at it by writing it all over again from a different perspective. Rather than throwing in the towel, I decided to (literally) re-write it.

My reasoning was pretty straightforward: the bones of the plot, the world-building, the themes, they were all solid. I had gotten them right once, I could get them right again. It was my hero/narrator characterization which had failed. I’d written a book once, right? Surely I could do it again. So I decided to re-write it. This also gave me the opportunity to re-imagine what kind of motivation I wanted to give my (now-different) hero, and to play with the components of the plot to add more tension and raise the stakes. It’s an opportunity to take another stab at the whole project, and make the whole thing that much stronger.

Looking to the Future

And so now that’s what I’m doing. It’s early days yet. I’ve got a revised outline in place, and I’ve re-written the first couple of chapters. I’m thinking that maybe, as I get further along in the re-write, I might be able to re-use some select passages from my earlier draft. But I’m not certain of that. If I can, great. If not, no big loss. The actual process of writing the book is going smoother (and it seems faster) than on the first go-around. That’s probably because I’ve been living with these characters and this world in my head for almost a year now. It also suggests to me that I’m on a better track: the experience is reminiscent of writing the graphic novel I finished a couple of weeks ago, which has much simpler motivation (it might have other issues, but the motivation at least should be pretty solid).

I don’t know if this re-write will make the book good enough to vie for representation and publication. I’m hopeful, but if it ends up not being good enough…well, that’s alright, too. Because the process has taught me a lot about myself as a writer and about some of the skills that are essential for writing long-form work. And so even if this first novel ends up collecting dust in a drawer, I’ll still say it was damn well worth it.

Where are America’s science fiction, fantasy, and horror specialist retailers?

I spent last week in London on business. I love London, even in chilly, misty, drizzly January. One of the reasons why is because it is home to Forbidden Planet, the world’s largest and (to the best of my knowledge) only chain (though technically a pair of chains – see update below) retailer specializing in science fiction, fantasy, and horror products. The London megastore sits on two floors, stocked to the gills with action figures, comic books, graphic novels, trade and mass-market books, and DVDs: if it is genre, odds are you can find it there. Split between two somewhat-related separate companies (Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International), the Forbidden Planet brand name offers twenty-five different locations in the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom – home to sixty two million souls – can support twenty five chain outlets, why can’t the US – with five times the population – do the same?

UPDATE: Just a word of clarification since the above might not be clear: Forbidden Planet and Forbidden Planet International are in fact two separate companies. The former has nine stores in the UK, while the latter has thirteen branded outlets in the UK, one in Ireland, one in New York, and two other associated (though not branded) stores in the UK. While the two were related in the past (per Wikipedia), they are now operated as two completely independent companies. However, this fact does nothing to detract from the main point of this post: where are our genre chains in the United States?

Both countries have their share of general media retailers: the United States is home to Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Best Buy. The United Kingdom is home to W.H. Smith and Waterstone’s. Despite the ever-present moans of indie media outlets (whether booksellers or comic book shops), both have reasonably vibrant indie communities. I find it unlikely that the UK has a larger number of genre fans as a percentage of the population than the United States. If that were the case, then the UK would host a far greater number of genre publications (pro, small-press, and amateur) than it does.

Forbidden Planet (at least the London megastore, which admittedly may not be a representative sample) knows the genre business far better than its more general counterparts. The store is clearly divided by product type. Action figures, novelty items, and gaming are in one area. Anime, graphic novels, comic books, and regular books are in another. The book section is impressively stocked and organized along broad genre lines. Each section is consistently sub-divided, with its own “New Releases”, a “Chart” section where top-sellers are shown face-out with shelf talkers, and a general stock alphabetically arranged by author. This structure makes navigating the shelves a downright pleasure. Identifying what is new, and spotting what is performing well within a given category is very easy – whether you’re familiar with the genre or not.

This type of organizational scheme would be unimaginable at a general retailer. However, it is not a product of the stocking teams’ deep knowledge of the genre. Instead, it is the product of solid operational management. While visiting the store on a Tuesday mid-afternoon, I got to watch shelves being re-stocked. The stocking teams used netbook computers with bar code scanners to control inventory and shelf placement. This makes it possible for even new employees without genre familiarity to stock shelves properly. Forbidden Planet earns a gold star in shelf management in my book, especially when compared to recent experiences at (the admittedly beleaguered) Borders.

Several weeks ago, I was looking for a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. I went online, and the Borders web site told me that it was “likely in store” at my local retailer. I drove on over, and proceeded to check the in-store computer. It told me to check in the graphic novel section, where I was patently unable to identify any organizational method. Seeking help from an employee, I was told that it was in fact in stock, and that it would be in the criticism section. Of course, it was not. I checked with a different employee, and was told it would be in with the art books. And of course, it was not. Contrast this ordeal with the simple process of stopping by Forbidden Planet, wandering through the graphic novel section, and finding it precisely in the “M” section of independent graphic novels. I would expect to find this title in both stores, but the operational management of Forbidden Planet left me a satisfied customer while Borders failed me.

The United States has its share of specialist booksellers. Whether it is Borderlands Books in San Francisco, or Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, Massachusetts, many offer a fine selection and deep understanding of genre style and history. However, as a general rule these bookstores are independent one-location operations. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. With so many genre fans in the US, perhaps we, too, could support a chain of specialist media stores like Forbidden Planet? Economies of scale would help with profitability (the interminable lament of the indie bookseller), while technology would make operations and quality-control easier across a network of locations. On an early Tuesday afternoon, the London store was reasonably full of shoppers and needed two cashiers to service the line of customers waiting to buy. Why doesn’t America have something comparable?

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