How to Bridge Between Scenes in a Novel

5 Sep

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

When you move from writing short stories to writing a novel, you quickly realize that the novel’s length means that one or two hard-hitting scenes can’t carry it. More is needed. Each scene must immediately suggest another scene, again and again, until the end. In a way, it’s the opposite of the famous epiphany ending we all learned when reading Joyce’s “Araby”—the concluding sentence to a scene that makes us all grab our hair and sigh. In a novel, a scene must resist epiphany, even if it’s tone and momentum seem to be taking it toward that sort of ending.

A great example of how to create a bridge to the next scene in a novel can be found in William Jensen’s novel Cities of Men. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel’s opening chapter begins, “I saw my father get into only two fights” and then proceeds to tell us about one of them, a fight in a grocery store parking lot. The father and his wife have bought their son, the novel’s narrator, ice cream, and their father is walking back to the car when he hears an argument between a man and woman in another car. He steps in, and a fight ensues. The scene is well written and clearly memorably for the narrator, who observes not just the fight but the ways it could have played out but did not—and also his mother’s reaction and the weather. He’s beginning to place himself in the universe, the sort of coming-of-age moment that naturally builds to an Araby-like concluding line: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” But that’s not what Jensen does because Cities of Men is a novel, not a short story.

Instead, the scene ends like this:

I ran to my room. Seeing Dad cry scared me more than the night’s violence. But I couldn’t tell you why. I pulled the sheets up to my collar. I dug my face into my pillow, closed my eyes, and tried not to think.

I saw Dad fight only one other time. And that wouldn’t happen until four years later, shortly after my mother disappeared.

The ending line echoes the first line of the novel, which is no coincidence. I don’t know which one was written first, and it doesn’t matter. At some point, Jensen knew that there would be a second fight and that the mother, who is so present in this opening scene, would leave, and so the scene is written to introduce both of those elements. Naturally, we want to know more. It’s the last two sentences that do the important work, veering away from epiphany to what-happens-next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a bridge between scenes in a novel, using Cities of Men by William Jensen as a model:

  1.  Write the scene you want to write. It’s the thing that likely drew you to this story, and so don’t give it short shrift. Jensen’s opening chapter, minus the first and last lines, could be a quick short story, almost flash fiction. It has its own narrative arc and emotional impact—which is good. If you have a scene like this in mind, one that you’ve been writing in your head for years or one that you’ve written and don’t know what to do with, let it be itself. Don’t run away from the story you want to tell.
  2. Take away or add something. Play a simple what-if exercise with your scene. What if something essential to the scene was taken away? Or, what if something new and burdensome was added? You’re not subtracting or adding to the scene itself but to what comes next. Jensen takes the mother away at the end, after the scene has wrapped up. It’s a simple move that provides the foundation for the entire novel: establish the emotional relationships in the novel and then mess them up. What can you subtract from or add to your scene in the scene that follows?
  3. Be explicit about the addition or subtraction. I may have said this so many times that I’m beating a dead horse, but there’s nothing wrong with coming out and being direct with your readers—especially if being direct forces you to be direct with yourself about your characters’ motivations. Jensen could not be any more explicit unless he wrote, “Then my mother disappeared.” Actually, that’s basically what he writes, only more artfully. And it’s great. Save your nuance and subtlety for the moments in between big, plot-changing sentences. Make those sentences hard-hitting. Tell the reader what you’ve added or subtracted.

The goal is to turn any scene in a novel into a bridge to the next scene.

Good luck.

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An Interview with Christopher Brown

10 Aug

Christopher Brown is the author of the novel Tropic of Kansas, which William Gibson called “a truly hallucinatorily envisioned environment.”

Christopher Brown is the author of Tropic of Kansas. He was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for the anthology Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows, The Baffler, and Reckoning. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he also practices technology law.

To read an excerpt from Tropic of Kansas and an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Brown discusses writing his story from the ending, how he knew what getting hit by a rubber bullet felt like, and writing a near-future dystopian novel in the current political climate.

Michael Noll

The novel starts out with a fairly tight frame, with Sig escaping custody. We learn that the United States is led by a despotic leader, but the narrative seems less about revolution and more about individual survival. Gradually the narrative frame broadens to include revolution, and I’m curious if you always knew this would be the case. Did you know that Sig would get drawn into larger and larger events? Or did you stumble into them, along with him? 

Christopher Brown

I always knew where the story was going to go, but only a vague plan for how it would get there. The ending was the first thing I wrote. I knew who the three core characters were, and where they were going to end up, but not much beyond that. I also knew that I wanted Sig’s trajectory to follow the model traced by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book Bandits, a study across cultures and eras of how a common thief will sometimes evolve into a social bandit and then revolutionary leader.  And I knew that the story had to be found through an episodic approach, in a way that would be truer to real life and structurally similar to adventure pulps. It took a lot of work to write my way into a coherent narrative using that approach, but I think it was the right way to go

Note: Brown discusses Hobsbawm and Bandits further in this post at Criminal Element.

Michael Noll

There are a lot of fighting and battle scenes in this book. What was your approach to writing these? Did you do any research on how they might have played out?

Christopher Brown

The book aims at a speculative realism, constructed as much as possible from the material of the observed world, remixed and inverted. Most of the places the book goes mirror places I have spent substantial time in, all the characters draw from real life, and many of the physical injuries are ones I have suffered (a friend told me what it feels like to be shot with a rubber bullet).  The scenes of armed conflict and uprising draw on a mix of events from revolutions and wars that have occurred in other countries, embellished with real elements I have witnessed (including as a young journalist traveling through conflict zones and as a government lawyer overseeing federal law enforcement efforts), all put together in a way that tries to repurpose the material of American action stories toward more emancipatory ends.

Michael Noll

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the major plot points in the novel hinges on the way people who oppose the government are able to secretly communicate via television. Was this something you made up, or did you discover this as a possibility that could (or actually does) exist?

Christopher Brown

There’s a romance to those analog broadcast technologies, things that once embodied the future and now seem part of a static-ridden past. They have a cool aesthetic that I was intuitively drawn to, boosted by the idea of popular repossession of technologies of institutional power. But the networks I imagined also drew on real technologies I once worked with, at a software company that developed early interactive television systems that could transmit digital information over analog TV networks.  So again, an effort at speculative realism.

Michael Noll

Anyone who reads this book will be struck by parallels with our current state of political affairs. But I’m guessing this novel was written long before our current president had even declared his candidacy. When you began revising in preparation for publication, did you give much thought to these parallels, or did you try to treat the novel’s world as its own creation?

Christopher Brown

I started the book in earnest in early 2012 and finished it in November of 2014. At the time, I thought some of the political elements of the story were so implausible that I sat on it for a while, sending it only to a few colleagues. But everything in the book drew on things I saw in the world around me, in the same way that our current political realities reflect deep currents that have been developing for years. For example, as I wrote in an essay earlier this year, the idea of the businessman-politician running the country like a company has been around for decades. Many science fiction novels that get called prescient are just good examples of naturalistic inversions whose “futures” really just emphasize things evident in the present. During editorial revisions last year, I was obviously aware of current events, but focused more on drawing out the ecological themes that had worked their way to the surface, and fine-tuning the story I already had. The world of the book is an imagined one, almost like another character, and the challenge is letting that world be true to itself within the confines of the story, while at the same time striving for fidelity for deeper truths.

For further reading about the book, some recent essays by Christopher

Dystopia is Realism”—LitHub, July 10, 2017

You’re Fired—Democracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO”—NewCoShift, March 15, 2017

The Persistence of American Folklore in Fantastic Literature”—Tor.com, July 13, 2017

The Big Idea Behind Tropic of Kansas”—Scalzi’s Whatever, July 13, 2017

The Summer of Living Dangerously”—Sirens of Suspense, July 2017

August 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Introduce and Name a Cast of Characters

9 Aug

Christopher Brown’s debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, has been called “a modern dystopian buffet” in a NPR review.

One of the questions that will drive writers—and not just beginners—crazy is whether to name a character right away. You’ll hear and read different takes on this. Some journal editors say that they’ll put down a story that begins with he or she and not a name. But naming a character right away can feel odd. The reader doesn’t know this person. Who cares what his name is? The right answer (there isn’t one) is actually part of a larger problem of introducing characters. Do it well, and nobody cares if you start with he. Do it poorly, and that’s an easy way to write off your work.

A great example of introducing characters well (and handling their names) can be found in Christopher Brown’s novel Tropic of Kansas. You can read read an excerpt from it at Tor.com. 

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a United States that, like the dystopia in the television show The Handmaid’s Tale, feels like a version of our current state of affairs if everything we fear might happen actually did. A big chunk of the novel is set in the American Midwest after some natural apocalypse has rendered the land mostly barren and a political apocalypse has made it run by militias who take their orders from a tyrant leader in Washington, D.C. In this scene, a low-level government bureaucrat has been sent to the area to hunt for an escaped prisoner, and we meet the militia men that she must deal with:

The militia were mostly white, generally stupid, and all scary. The kind of men you would avoid if you saw them on the street, especially if you were black and a woman. The midwestern ones were extra dangerous, because most of them seemed kind of nice when you first talked to them. Nice like the guy at church who smiles at you and offers you a brownie before he tells you how he is going to regulate your life.

Notice that we don’t have any names yet, nor any individuals. Instead, Brown shows us the militia as a generalized whole. The details come a few lines later:

The welcome party were a big ruddy guy in bulletproof brown overalls with built-in ammo pouches and the smell of cigarettes, and a little red-bearded guy dressed more like a run-down pastor than a militiaman, complete with a wooden cross hanging from his neck—and a big pistol on his belt. Turned out he was the doctor, Dr. Craven, and the big guy was the commander. Patrol Leader Koenig was the way the commander introduced himself, but then he said just call me Bob.

Before telling us the names of these guys, Brown shows us them: their complexions and clothing, how they smell, and what they resemble. Then we get their names. While this isn’t the only approach toward names and character introductions, it is a useful one to keep in mind. We’re more likely to remember these guys’ names because we’ve seen them and they’re memorable. Brown also makes their names easy to remember: Craven and just-call-me-Bob. Again, any name can be given to a character, but you want to set readers up to remember who they belong to. As a reader, it can be frustrating to stop in the middle of a scene and ask, “Who is that again?”

Brown follows this introduction with a paragraph about the militia compound:

The house was huge, on a big acreage, a suburban home converted to paramilitary command center. The walls were covered with big maps of the area, annoyed in black grease pencil and red marker. Tania saw photos of targets, some of them mug shots, others surveillance photos. Radios and computers and all manner of gear. Styrofoam cups and a big pile of beer cans in a corner. More guys who looked like Bob, other guys who were leaner and harder looking, and one Asian woman who looked toughest of all, even though she couldn’t have been much taller than five feet.

We’re back to seeing the militia as a single entity, not a group of individuals. All the guys look like Bob. Some are a little tougher looking, and one is a really tough Asian woman. She gets the extra distinguishing detail because she stands out in the crowd.

Very quickly, Brown has introduced a large cast of characters and shown us, through his descriptions, which ones we ought to pay close attention to and which ones should fade into the background—literally, since in the last paragraph the men are given the same status as radios and Styrofoam cups.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce characters and their names, using Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown as a model:

  1. Start with your characters as a group. Obviously, this means you’re writing a scene with more than two characters. Place them in one of the crowded places they’re likely to go. Who do they spend their time with? How might an insider describe that crowd? How might an outsider? Either way can work; it just depends on the circumstances of the scene and who is present. Don’t be afraid of generalizations. Use them to sketch out the broad outlines of who we’re about to meet.
  2. Narrow the group to a few individuals. Who is memorable? Or in charge? Or important? Use the natural progression of real-life introductions. We almost always see someone before we know their name, and we tend to notice a few details about them (but only a few; our minds have a limited ability to take in everything that’s going on in a given moment). What stands out about these particular characters, and what conclusions or comparisons might your insider or outsider draw about them. Brown uses the “run-down pastor” image, which is great because, like the group description, gives the reader a general idea of who this person is or how he appears to be.
  3. Name the characters. Do it quickly and as memorably as possible. Brown actually doubles down on Bob by having his outsider character immediately refer to him by name: “Where’s my prisoner, Bob?”
  4. Place the characters in their surroundings. There’s no rule that says we need to see place before characters. Sometimes that makes sense; other times it doesn’t. What’s important is that one set up the other. Brown’s description of the home focuses on the details that remind us who is staying there. Then, we see those characters as inhabitants of that place.
  5. Introduce the rest of the cast in terms of who we’ve met already. We’ve met Bob, and so Brown can say that the rest of the men are a bunch of Bob’s—and a few of them are tougher. Bob gives him a point of comparison. He also focuses on the character who stands out—the Asian woman in a sea of white men. So, when you’re rounding out your cast, introduce the characters the way we’d see them in real life: as similar to the first characters we met or different. 

The goal is to quickly and memorably introduce a cast of characters so that the story can move on to the scene they are apart of.

Good luck.

An Interview with Owen Egerton

27 Jul

Owen Egerton is the writer/director of two films and the author of four books, most recently Hollow.

Owen Egerton is an author, performer, and filmmaker. He is the writer/director of the psychological horror Follow and the author of several books including The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, Everyone Says That at the End of the World and the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying, and newly released Hollow from Soft Skull Press. He also wrote and starred in the Zach Scott produced play The Other Side of Sleep. As a screenwriter he has written for Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney and many others. Egerton is also the host of public radio’s The Write Up and the reading series One Page Salon. Egerton and his wife, poet Jodi Egerton, wrote the writing craft book This Word Now. 

To read an excerpt from Egerton’s new novel Hollow and an exercise on learning what your characters believe, click here.

In this interview, Egerton discusses writing characters with expertise, writing uncomfortable stories in a way that readers will want to keep reading, and finding a novel’s ending.

Michael Noll

The narrator of the novel, Oliver Bonds, is a former University of Texas religious studies professor. It’s a profession that works really well because of the space it gives you to talk about faith and religion in a way that might not be possible for a layperson. But it also presents the challenge of creating a convincing portrayal of someone with a very particular and high-level skill set. It’s the same problem faced by many action movies, including Bond movies (Denise Richards a nuclear physicist because she says the word plutonium), and most recently in the film Arrival (She’s a linguist because she lectures on language in a classroom). How did you approach making Oliver seem like a real academic without getting so far into the weeds of his field of study that non-academic readers would get lost?

Owen Egerton

I think one of the biggest dangers of creating an expert in fiction is making that person too intelligent. Or at least too knowledgeable about any particular subject. I think we’ve all seen a scientist character who can’t think of anything but test tubes and numbers and speaks in scientific and mathematical formulas. But that’s not a person we meet in the real world. Turns out most academics are people—just people—who have read a few more books on one particular subject than the rest of us. For me, the challenge was to allow the subject that Oliver is an expert in to organically inhabit his thinking and his conversation. For example, to describe a pretty morning I might think in my head of the Beatles lyric, but Oliver might think of a Tillich quote. The fun part is an expert knows things that I have to look up. But of course, that’s not always enough to help him on his journey.

Michael Noll

Oliver thinks a lot about the Book of Job, and this novel parallels the basic structure of that story: a good man gets everything taken away from him through no fault of his own. At one point, Oliver explains that the book in the Bible is actually a theological treatise wrapped in a very old tale, which is so much of the middle of that book is Job arguing with people about how to think about what has happened to him. Did you think of Hollow as having a similar structure–using a story premise that we’re familiar with in order to work out the implications of that premise?

Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

Yes and no. The book does loosely follow the structure of Job. But it also starts with an invitation to make a journey into the Hollow Earth. So it doesn’t quite start out in a “Oh I know where this is going” way. But I do think we have a prevalent story in our culture that suffering has a reason—the myth of redemptive suffering. We know the storyline. A character suffers; the character finds new love, new community, or a new calling; The character finds his way out of suffering and is stronger and wiser for it. (I love these kind of stories. They have me weeping in the theater each Oscar season). Perhaps that’s the fairy tale that Hollow plays within and subverts. It’s a good question. I’m not sure my answer does it justice.

Michael Noll

The novel contains moments that are hard to read because they portray some of our worst fears, like the death of a child. That particular fear is actually a common trope in film. Without dead or endangered children, Liam Neeson wouldn’t have a career anymore. But your novel isn’t about revenge (or it is, perhaps, but revenge is difficult when you can’t identify a culprit), and this, I think, makes the premise even more challenging to a reader. We’ll accept a scene with a dead child if we get to partake in the emotional catharsis of vengeance, but what happens to the audience experience when vengeance is taken away? How did you approach keeping the reader from walking away from the novel simply because it was too emotionally taxing?

Owen Egerton

I was worried about making a story that was just too uncomfortable to read, too unpleasant or too dark for dark’s sake. I explored the works of better writers than me to see how they manage writing tragic events and used some of those techniques in my book. For example, the most painful event of the book is Oliver losing his son. That was hard to write, and I knew it would be painful to read. Chronologically that event happens three years before the major action of the story. This gives us a little space, a little distance. And although we know about the child’s death throughout the book, we don’t read about the details until nearly halfway through. This gives the reader a little time to know the narrator, to feel the world, and perhaps trust the author that this painful event is not simply gratuitous or for spectacle sake.
The most important part, for me, was the use of humor. Humor arrived on the page a number of times and saved my ass. For me, the character of Lyle came just when I needed him and saved this book. Humor helps lighten the dark moments but it also highlights the humanity.
You make a great point about revenge. Revenge, when we watch it or experience it, usually feels good. It offers an action to go along with these deep trouble and emotions. It whispers to us that something can be done, even when nothing can be done.

Michael Noll

The novel is about a character’s sense of a moral universe being stripped away. It’s the same thing that the Lost Generation writers were struggling with—how to live when everything you believed in turns out to be untrue. Unlike, say, a story about monsters rampaging through a city, your premise isn’t easily concluded. How did you approach the ending to this novel?

Owen Egerton

I started Hollow with a question. What’s at the center of everything? Is it love? Is it apathy? Is it nothing? Could it be that the concepts of compassion and justice are just human inventions and not essential to reality? These questions have been asked by wiser minds than mine. I knew I did not want to end with the pat Hallmark answer. I knew I did not want to end with nihilism. And, of course, answers come and go, and it’s the questions we return to again and again that shape our lives. But I did come to an answer in the book’s climax. A thought about what makes up the heart of this world that is so tragic and so beautiful. I don’t think I could word it here very well. It’s taken me a whole book just to get to those sentences.
I did want to end the book with compassion. Compassion in our own suffering and in the suffering of others. Compassion keeps the light on.

July 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Play “This I Believe” with Your Characters

25 Jul

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

A few years ago, National Public Radio ran a series called “This I Believe.” People, some famous and some not, wrote short essays about their beliefs. It was fascinating because of the weight that we give to those three words. To go public and say “I believe ____” is much different from saying, “I think ___.” We associate the word beliefs with something deeply held and essential to the decisions we make every day. Beliefs are not easily changed, and when they challenged, the internal crisis we feel can leave us distraught.

As writers, we can use our characters’ beliefs against them for gripping results. Owen Egerton offers a perfect demonstration of this in his new novel Hollow. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a crisis of faith experienced by Oliver Bonds, a beloved religious studies professor at the University of Texas. After his son dies, his life unravels until he is nearly homeless, his only friend a man who wants to join an expedition to the North Pole to discover an entrance to the Hollow Earth. In this passage, Bonds describes his belief system before his son died:

I believed I believed nothing.

It wasn’t true.

I believed, without ever saying it, that the world was basically good. I believed moral behavior was rewarded by the world. I believed cruelty to be its own kind of punishment. And though I never would have admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, I believed that the most horrible things don’t really happen.

I saw the photos of typhoons drowning entire villages or genocidal wars. Monthly I tithed to charities aiming to end modern slavery or encourage basic health care in poorer nations. But in some deep secret way, I didn’t believe in these tragedies. They were distant, unreal, fantastic. Or, worse, I believed I simply didn’t see the bigger picture, the vague grander scheme that explained these tragedies.

I had one over-arching belief, so basic to my life that I never felt the need to distinguish it as a belief any more than a person would count the sun’s heat as an article of faith. I believed the world made sense.

Clearly, the passage lays out his beliefs, but what makes it really interesting is the phrase “I believed, without ever saying it…” We probably all hold beliefs that are both too important and too fragile to articulate to others or ourselves. We’re afraid to speak them aloud because we know there are arguments against them, and we worry not just that someone might make us look foolish but that we might not hold the belief as firmly as we thought.

Those are the soft points that, as writers, we must press hard upon. And Egerton does, to devastating and thrilling effect.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s clearly state a character’s beliefs, using Hollow by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Start with the easy beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to immediately jump into something as sensitive as our most deeply held beliefs. You’re not likely to share your own with a random person, and neither are our characters. So, don’t make them. Instead, let your characters talk about their beliefs about basic elements of their lives: their partners, kids, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies, etc. Get them talking. This is a brainstorming exercise, and so let your characters say whatever they want—whether it’s in first person or if you’re saying it for them in third person.
  2. Push on those beliefs a little. Try using this sentence starter: “I don’t usually tell people this, but I sometimes wonder if…” You can also change the pronouns to the third person. You’re searching for a belief that is the equivalent of a friends-only Facebook post, something that might require a personal connection to fully understand or that the speaker might not want perfect strangers to know. You can try something embarrassing or funny or whatever. You’re playing, so don’t overthink it.
  3. Keep going until you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Your character is most likely not you, nor even some version of you. But you should still pay attention to your own comfort level. We’re often made uncomfortable by people revealing things that we, personally, are fine with, but we sense that they are not and so we begin to cringe. If something you write makes you cringe, even a little, follow it.
  4. Use the belief against your character. Oliver Bonds believes that the world is basically good and sensible, and so Egerton challenges him with something awful and senseless. How will he respond? What will he do? This is the basis of the entire novel.

The goal is to discover your story’s plot by finding out what your characters believe and introducing elements that make those beliefs seem untenable.

Good luck.

An Interview with Nicky Drayden

20 Jul

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods, named a Wall Street Journal and Barnes & Noble pick for best read of the year so far.

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Shimmer and Space and Time. She is a systems analyst and resides in Austin, Texas, where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required.

To read an excerpt from The Prey of Gods and an exercise on foreshadowing later novel developments, click here.

In this interview, Drayden discusses throwing together random characters from her sketch file, creating consequences for fantastical elements, and getting readers to identify with characters.

Michael Noll

There are so many different characters in the book—and so many different aspects from various types of science fiction and fantasy genres. Were all of the characters and all of the elements (gods, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation) present from the beginning, or did you discover some of them as you wrote?

Nicky Drayden

Right before I started writing The Prey of Gods, I picked six random characters from my character sketch file and stuck them in a setting together. I had a pretty good idea of what would happen in each character’s first chapter, so many of the plot and genre elements were at least seeded in my mind, but I had no outline beyond that. Weaving together these disparate storylines was one of the most challenging parts of writing the novel. But it was a lot of fun, too.

Michael Noll

In the same vein, there are so many wild things that happen in the book—which is one of the traits that reviewers have remarked upon, favorably. In a way, the novel reminds me of when I used to teach creative writing to third-graders, and every story they wrote gradually added new layers: dinosaurs, ninjas, robots, meteors, etc. At a certain point, their stories weren’t really stories anymore but accumulations of interesting things. Your novel is like that in a way–it’s full of scenes that seem more imaginative and interesting than the last one, but never collapses under the weight of so many cool elements. Was it ever difficult to maintain an air of plausibility? Did you find yourself cutting scenes or parts because they seemed like one thing too many? 

Nicky Drayden

Wow, I would totally read a story about dinosaur robot ninjas in a meteor shower! Yeah, I probably walked right up to that line of “too much” and spit over it. I never questioned if I was throwing in too much spectacle, but I did spend a lot of time setting up consequences to the fantastical elements to make them more palatable. Mind control can be seen as your standard wish fulfillment scenario, but when you learn that every time Muzi control someone’s mind, he gets imprinted with that person’s darkest memory, all of a sudden readers are like….ohhhhh. The plot is outrageous and fantastical, but the consequences of those fantastical elements are real and relatable. At least, that’s what I was aiming for.

Michael Noll

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

The basic premise of the novel is eye-catching, but we don’t really learn what it is until about 60 pages in—and that one short lab scene is just one part of the overall plot. One of the things that you sometimes hear as a writer is that the plot should kick off early. Did you ever experiment with front loading the plot in a different way?

Nicky Drayden

Establishing six different characters takes a bit of time, and basically you have the equivalent of asking your reader to start six different books. This requires a reader to put tremendous trust in the author, which can be tough with a debut novel. If you start off with interesting characters in sticky situations, I think you can get away with quite a bit before readers start wondering when the plot is going to kick in. A hallucinogenic drug. A secretly sentient AI. A nail tech giving magical manicures, and a little girl who discovers she can fly. You get all that in the first four chapters, which gives you a taste of the strangeness to come. And the upside of having six characters is that almost every reader will be able to identify strongly with at least one of them.

July 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

Give Readers a Sneak Peak at the Wild Action to Come

18 Jul

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

As a novelist, you will one day inevitably be required to write a query letter or pitch an agent in person, and you’ll quickly realize how important it is to get straight to whatever element of your story can fascinate and intrigue in a sentence or two. It’s an instructive experience because it reminds you about the power of story and what makes people pick up a book in the first place. But you’ll also quickly learn that a great pitch or query is not necessarily accompanied by a great novel. Or, the skills for one are not the skills for the other. Even a novel with the most amazing concept and premise in the world needs to build compelling, rich characters within that premise.

A great example of character building in a novel with a wild premise is The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden. You can read an excerpt from the novel at Tor.com.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a futuristic South Africa, where personal robots called alphies tend to their owners and the government harnesses technological advances to raise the standard of living. We follow six different characters as this world starts to come apart. We’re introduced to one of them, Sidney Mazwai, in this scene. She works at a nail salon, and one of her wealthiest clients has walked in, preparing for a fundraiser for a politician whose family her own has known for centuries.

“Centuries, you say?” Sounds like the perfect opportunity to hear a long and convoluted story about how Mrs. Donovan’s family came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War with intentions of raping the country of its precious metals and gems. Not that Sydney needs a refresher history course since she’d actually lived through it nearly two hundred years ago, but it’ll give her a chance to do the thing that’s the other half of getting those fat tips. Sydney grabs a small bottle of organic botanical oils and squeezes a drop onto each cuticle, then she rubs as Mrs. Donovan drones on incessantly about her lineage. Warmth buds inside that empty space right behind Sydney’s navel, and it travels up– prickling like the skitter of centipede legs–through her chest, over her shoulders, and down her arms, and then finally into the pads of her fingertips which glow as subtly as the sun peeking through gray winter clouds. Mrs. Donovan’s nails lengthen, just a few centimeters—enough to notice, but not so much to raise suspicions. Sydney then rubs out all signs of imperfection and hangnails.

By the time she gets to the left hand, Sydney’s stomach is cramping, but it’s nothing a couple of aspirin won’t take care of. When she’s done, she reaches into her alphie’s bottom compartment and pulls out a bottle of clear coat, keeping it palmed safely out of sight. The empty spot inside her grows as she reaches into Mrs. Donovan’s rambling thoughts and pulls out the shade of the dress she’ll be wearing tonight. Sydney clenches her fist, envisions a nice complimentary color, and opens her hand to reveal a feisty shade of mauve.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Mrs. Donovan says as the first coat goes on. “I swear, Precious, the colors you pick for me are always spot on. Sometimes I think you can read my mind.”

In this scene, we’re introduced to various aspects of Sidney’s life and personality. She’s on the bottom end of a class and colonial divide, she can create a facade that hides the resentment she feels over this divide, she has magical powers, and those powers take a physical toll on her when used.

Now, imagine how else those aspects of her character could have been revealed. We learn, not long after this scene, that Sydney’s powers extend far beyond cuticle manipulation. She is, in fact, the “ancient demigoddess hell-bent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters” mentioned on the novel’s back cover. But you wouldn’t know that from this passage. Instead of devouring the woman, she does her nails. It’s the opposite of what you’d talk about in a query letter or pitch. But it’s essential to building the novel.

Novels require pacing, whereas pitches do not. A novel must build up to its wildest moments, and the distance between the mundane and the wild also creates mystery: how are the mundane and wild connected in this one character?

It might be tempting to cut out mundane elements of your story, but a novel without quotidian scenes won’t work. The key is to hint at the wild stuff in the middle of the mundane, which is what Drayden does in this nail salon scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s hint at the wildest parts of our story, using The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden as a model:

  1. Identify the wild part of your story and locate it in a character. This applies even if your character isn’t magic, like Drayden’s. Every novel has a dramatic scene in which a character acts out of passion and desire. The nature of the act will vary, depending on the novel, but it’s there. It’s probably what led you to write the novel in the first place. So, know what it is and make it something that exists internally in the character. Don’t rely exclusively on external events to drive the action; it will lead to a boring character whose actions feel unconvincing. In other words, what is your character capable of doing?
  2. Give your character a daily grind. Drayden makes Sydney go to work at a nail salon. In many novels, work often supplies this daily grind. So do family, friends, and household chores. Find something that your character does in a thoughtless, mechanical way. In itself, this helps build character because we learn what your character is dissatisfied with. But it also provides a way to surprise the reader, who will sense the character’s boredom with the act and so won’t see the wild part coming.
  3. Build hints of the wild part into the grind. This almost always takes the form of quiet rebellion. Your character pushes back against the grind (and the people who embody it) in ways that help your character (either by giving them the satisfaction of rebellion or, as in Sydney’s case, benefiting them in some tangible way). This rebellion is where you’re really crafting the character. What hints of the character’s wildness are present in that rebellion? How does she conceal it? Both the wildness and the deception will likely become essential to the character and provide building blocks as you move into the more dramatic parts of the novel.

The goal is to build a character and world with an eye toward the sort of dramatic action that might appear in a query letter or pitch.

Good luck.

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