Part II in my “How To Be Better than Just Okay” series

I tend to read multiple books at once, because I have a short attention span and too many interests. This often leads to curious intersections between very disparate topics. Most recently, The Plot Thickens explained why I didn’t like The Steel Remains as much as I wanted to.

So The Steel Remains was recced to me with “the worldbuilding is fantastic and two out of the three main characters are queer,” to which I said, “HOW IS THIS BOOK NOT ALREADY IN MY LIFE??” That rec, it must be said, was entirely correct

It starts out quite strong. It has an excellent hook, as they say in industry:

When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options. You can smell his breath, take his pulse, and check his pupils to see if he’s ingested anything nasty, or you can believe him.

Morgan’s writing is excellent, on a stylistic level, with a very tight action sequence to keep it interesting while he establishes setting and character. He drops the gay bomb on page two, when the protagonist, Ringil, ironically observes how being a war hero with a reputation for being good at violence tends to discourage people from queer-baiting.

Yes.

THIS is what straight writers (particularly straight men) tend to forget when they decide to make a character interesting by making him gay: that sexual preference does not operate in isolation. That there’s more to being gay than getting a hard-on for dudes. It doesn’t have to be the defining aspect of one’s personality (indeed, I hope it’s not), and it may not affect the way they interact with society, but if they’re out and proud, it’s sure as hell going to affect the way society interacts with them. In Ringil’s case, he’s reacted to a culture hostile to homosexuality by becoming extremely confrontational about his sexual preference because I’VE GOT A MAGIC SWORD AND I KNOW HOW TO USE IT, SO HOW ABOUT IT, PUNK, ARE YOU FEELING LUCKY?

In any case, it made a very strong start and then just kind of… stalled. Ringil splits the narrative with two other characters, Archeth (a gay lady!) and Egar (token straight guy!), who were both comrades of his in the aforementioned war, though they’ve all gone separate ways since then. And while there wasn’t anything overtly wrong with them, I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for them or their plotlines. I kept thinking that their war history was the story I’d rather be reading. And worse, the more I read of Ringil, the less I liked him. He’s crass and belligerent, I said. Yeah, well, so was my ex-boyfriend and we got along like a house on fire, so that can’t be the whole problem. What is it, then?

Seriously, this has been the story of my life recently. I keep reading books that everyone else is raving about, and all I can say is, It didn’t grab me, and I can’t explain why.

Enter The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman.

Bit o’ background — books on writing tend to be really hit or miss and are viewed with justified skepticism. We look at a book by a no-name author that promises to teach us how to write an awesome novel, and we think, Oh yeah? If you have all the secrets, then why aren’t you a brilliant and famous writer? Occasionally brilliant bestselling authors do write books-on-writing (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Orson Scott Card), but I’ve never walked away from one of those feeling like I actually learned something. More often than not, they don’t know how to explain what they’re doing better than anyone else, they’re just better at doing it. “And then ~MAGIC~ happens!” is not a method you can teach.

This is where Noah Lukeman comes into the picture. He’s not a novelist — he’s a literary agent. Which means that he’s read a metric fuckton of fiction, and moreover, he knows how to read analytically. He doesn’t say, “This is bad and I don’t know why,” he says, “This is bad and this is what you need to do to fix it, make these changes and get back to me.” He doesn’t tell you what to do (“make your characters interesting”); he tells you how to do it. The end of every chapter has a set of specific exercises for you to apply to your writing and see how well you’re doing, and if you can improve it with the principles he’s discussed.

For example, in his other book, The First Five Pages, he deals with stylistic concerns: how to make your prose tighter and more interesting. The Plot Thickens graduates from style to content. The first three chapters deal with characterization — a character’s outer life, their inner life, and how their personality shapes and is shaped by their surroundings. It asks a lot of questions to get you thinking about your characters, to consider aspects of them that may not have occurred to you before, to ask yourself how they would respond to different situations — how do they behave in the face of stress, joy, tragedy, moral dilemmas, and so on?

And that, I realized, was one of the problems with The Steel Remains — although I trust Richard K. Morgan enough to believe that these characters are rounded and well-developed in his head, there isn’t enough variety in the circumstances that we the readers see them in, so they seem to always be acting the same way, and accordingly, come off as very one-note. Moreover, unless an author has a spectacular sense of humor, there are few things more tedious than reading about characters interacting with people they don’t like, and that’s what all three characters spend the book doing. Archeth doesn’t like her boss (the emperor) or the rest of the court. Egar doesn’t like his brothers or the girl he’s fucking. Ringil doesn’t like his family, his friends, or later, the guy he ends up fucking. Theoretically the three of them like each other, but since their storylines don’t actually come together until fifty pages from the end, is it any wonder that I was more interested in hearing about their time in the war?

Moving along. The Plot Thickens also has a chapter on suspense — not suspense as in “monster about to jump out and eat your face,” but suspense as in keeping the reader riveted to the story. And because Lukeman is freakishly good at what he does, he has an honest-to-god checklist for how to create and enhance suspense. The abridged version:

  1. Give the character an objective. Once they have an objective, we’ll want to know whether they achieve it or not
  2. Make it VITAL. Raise the stakes. Achieving this objective has to be critically important to this character. This is how you keep your plot from being PASTEDE ON YAY.
  3. Add an element of danger. There are many types of danger — maybe to the character, maybe to someone they care about, maybe psychological. Maybe it’s something that’s only dangerous to him. (Kryptonite, anyone?)
  4. Give it a time limit. Time pressure and a ticking clock.
  5. Introduce obstacles, problems to hinder or complicate what should be an easy objective. Can’t run away because your leg’s broken. Can’t catch the flight because you lost your passport.
  6. Anticipation. How much emotional time and energy has the character invested in this goal?

The genre of manga collectively referred to as “sports comics” tends to be good at this. It doesn’t matter that you-the-reader personally couldn’t care less about baseball, or go, or boxing — if the characters are done well, then you’ll be on the edge of your seat because it matters SO DAMN MUCH to them.

To take an example from my own work, since that’s what I have on the brain, the short story I wrote in April follows those directives practically to the letter:

  1. Objective: Keilja doesn’t want to testify against an acquaintance.
  2. Make it vital: If he does, the man is going to be sentenced to hard labor. Just kidding! He’s actually going to be castrated and branded on the face!
  3. Danger: If Keilja doesn’t cooperate, he’s going to be tossed in jail, presumably for a few months of prison rape.
  4. Time limit: Three weeks to come up with a solution
  5. Obstacles: There are mages working for the court who can tell if you’re lying, so perjury is out of the question. Keilja’s life and future is in the city, so he can’t just pack up and run away.
  6. Anticipation: The problem is introduced on page one, and the entire rest of the story is Keilja looking for a way out.

I’m not holding this up as the GRATEST SHORT STORY EVER WRITTEN, but I’m quite fond of it, I think it worked well, and upon reading this, I finally understood, Aha, so that’s why this story came together when so many of my other (unfinished, unpublished) stories haven’t.

And suspense is the second area where The Steel Remains falls down. Ringil’s objective: find and rescue his cousin who’s been sold (legally!) into slavery. Except he’s only doing it because his mother guilt-tripped him into it, and he barely even knows this cousin. Archeth’s objective: find out what happened to a certain city that was annihilated by mysterious invaders. Except she’s only doing it because the emperor told her to, with little more than a vague intellectual curiosity about the whole affair. Meanwhile Egar has no objectives whatsoever, and literally gets deus ex machina’d into the right place to join them for the boss fight at the end, where he serves no particularly critical function. In short, the whole thing felt like it was setting up for the sequel — which I intend to read because this author has potential, he just needs to make his characters CARE more. Changed my mind; decided that he had his chance to make his characters grab me, but they didn’t, and life is too short.

Counter-rec: The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch. Utterly fucking brilliant. Characters with a wide emotional range and goals they pursue passionately, top notch suspense with danger and obstacles and time crunches galore, and laugh-out-loud funny.

***

I feel like I’m only just starting to learn how to read critically. Which — make no mistake — is a good thing, but combined with everything else I’ve been discovering recently (this has been an educational year, in the “builds character” sort of way), it all feels like Shit I Should Have Learned in High School.

11 thoughts on “Part II in my “How To Be Better than Just Okay” series

  1. OK… So now I know why I got stuck halfway in the book (The Steel Remains) :) It’s interesting how some writers are able to present a full cast of characters (A Game of Thrones etc.) that really pull the reader in (and make the whole plot-of-plots not so important as the single stories of individuals) and… some can’t even pull it off with three characters… I’ve had the same feeling as you, i.e. Morgan’s characters do not care, they are not really engaged in the life that surrounds them; it reminds me a little bit of the Sartrean existentialist angst, but with the angst replaced by nausea.

    Is this book worth finishing? I don’t have time for semi-good novels, unfortunately.

  2. OMG how did I not notice that you’d responded? I was like, Seriously guys, no one wants to discuss any of this? ;_; sadface

    Apathy is such a turn-off — unfortunately a lot of people still seem to be laboring under the teenage misconception that not giving a fuck is somehow “cool.” I put down a book once because a guy (that I think was being set up as the love interest) was at some regency party being oh-so-jaded-and-witty by making a point of having no opinions on politics. POLITICS IS THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD YOU LIVE IN. IT IS NEITHER CLEVER NOR ADMIRABLE TO IGNORE THAT.

    There was an article I read somewhere on lesswrong.com, talking about how strong emotions are seen as somehow inappropriate for adults — about how caring very deeply about a subject is something that society tries to shame you for, particularly if it’s an issue that most people don’t have a strong opinion on one way or another. It reminded me of a guy I knew who liked to bait me on gay issues, because it meant a lot to me but nothing to him, and then I would always be embarrassed at having let myself get worked up while he kept a level head — as if I’d undermined my position by getting emotional about it. After reading that article and realizing what it was I’d been feeling, I decided, FUCK YOU, apathetic person, SOME THINGS ARE WORTH BEING ANGRY ABOUT. You are a worthless human being and I will not be shamed for caring.

    Similarly, I wish authors would realize that giving a damn makes characters more interesting, rather than less.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear it wasn’t just me, because everyone else seems to have omgloved that book, and I didn’t, I have this terrible fear that I’m actually turning into the bitter and cranky failed writer who bitches about other people’s books because he can’t write anything himself. >_< I want to like the things I read, I really do! (Not least because it’s what puts me in a frame of mind to write.) I’m just not impressed with anything I pick up these days — makes me tempted to say to hell with contemporary fiction and go read nothing but Serious Literature. I might not enjoy that either, but at least I’d be improving myself, yes? o_O

    I’d say don’t bother finishing it, unless it turns out that the sequel makes it worth pushing through the first. I’ll let you know how that goes. ;)

  3. PS, Did you read far enough to get to the Really Weird Sex Scene? Seriously, I don’t know wtf that was about, whether it was supposed to be hot or whether it was deliberately off-putting. I mean, I was making wtf faces, and I like gay sex. I can only imagine how the unsuspecting straight guys reading this book must have found it:

  4. >a lot of people still seem to be laboring under the teenage misconception that not giving a fuck is somehow “cool.”

    Not only is this typical of the teenage mentality but also of the patriarchal culture… In the culture of my country – and I suppose in most of the others – there’s still a _huge_ pressure on little boys: don’t cry, you’re not a girl, you’re a big boy. Grr. And every generation copies this attitude. Adult men had/have been/are supposed to not show their emotions and nowadays so are women, we all want to be like men after all, don’t we ;) More generally, have you ever thought how much the spontaneity is appreciated in children (laughing, talking to themselves out loud, jumping on the sidewalk, talking to birds, waving madly at the sight of someone we know) and how less in adults? :) Every time I try this, I get strange looks from other adults… I’ve got now a little girl and I use her as an excuse to do all this without being stared and glared at; but still, once I got my diploma and started working, I immediately felt the spontaneous behaviour children and (some)students exhibit is no longer acceptable if I am to be treated as an adult (at least in my country where the positive emotionality in public is seen as bizarre).

    >POLITICS IS THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD YOU LIVE IN. IT IS NEITHER CLEVER NOR ADMIRABLE TO IGNORE THAT
    I’m not sure it’s good for me to read your posts, because every now and then I find myself nodding so violently my head risk detaching itself from the place it should be. This a not very common attitude towards politics I do appreciate. Some of my friends (apparently intelligent) turned to anarchist, negationist ideas, they are so disappointed by the politics they don’t even try to think about it – they think their indifference IS a politic choice.

    >reminded me of a guy I knew who liked to bait me on gay issues, because it meant a lot to me but nothing to him […] he kept a level head
    Because it’s easy when it’s not an important issue to your interlocutor(it reminds me of some of my job interviews; I made the best impression when I didn’t care about the job :)

    > everyone else seems to have omgloved that book
    Really? Well. Everyone loves The Da Vinci Code, too.

    >fear that I’m actually turning into the bitter and cranky failed writer who bitches about other people’s books because he can’t write anything himself.
    No, you’re really not :)) You were very subtle about it. Still, I’ll be waiting patiently for more of your own fiction; what I read gives me confidence I’ll like it.

    >I’m just not impressed with anything I pick up these days
    I know the feeling; been there 3 years ago, hopefully never again :) Do you read also crime stories? Have you read Stevenson’s Donald Strachey Mysteries series (one of my latest discoveries)? If Y, what do you think about it? I’ve read only the first three, but I was really surprised by the quality, believable, witty dialogues, plausible (!!!) relationships, a detective who is gay (and not a gay character who is, in his spare time, also a detective), breezy tempo.

    >Serious Literature. I might not enjoy that either, but at least I’d be improving myself, yes?
    Yes… I stopped improving myself at the uni… Three last volumes of Proust await!

  5. I think not… My Kindle says: 40% of the book and there won’t be more :) There was the rape-at-schoold scene, really off-putting – but I don’t think you’re talking about that.

  6. Donald Strachey Mysteries?? Gay detectives? WHY IS THIS NOT IN MY LIFE ALREADY? :O

    (In other news, I found out why I wasn’t getting comment notifications — apparently gmail has been eating them as spam. And here I was like, Why does no one want to talk to me anymore? :( )

    I was improperly socialized, so I am unabashedly and inappropriately spontaneous pretty much all the time. One time I recall in particular, I was out on the street and I’d hopped up on the curb and was walking on that like a balance beam, the way kids do for no other reason than because it’s there. Then I realized some people were looking at me funny, and oh yeah, right, that’s not something you usually see a man in a business suit doing. I think a lot of it also has to do with kids having more energy — they have energy to burn, whereas adults often tire themselves out just getting through the day on power-saver mode.

  7. Ah, then you probably didn’t get to it. He meets that whatever creature that was being built up as a big scary thing, they fight, then they fuck, Ringil hangs out with him for a while, then decides he doesn’t like where that’s headed, and takes off. The relationship in no way deepens either of their characters, and causes him no conflict later when he has to kill the guy For The Sake of All Humanity. /spoilers

    That is not my cat, I just googled “wtf cat face” or something. Although now that you mention it, he does look uncannily like my cat.

  8. >Donald Strachey Mysteries?? Gay detectives? WHY IS THIS NOT IN MY LIFE ALREADY?
    Exactly, WHY :)
    Richard Lipez aka Stevenson, journalist is a veteran of this genre, his first book in the series was published in 1981. The main character reflected his own struggles with his identity: he was then still married and apparently this novel, DEATH TRICK, helped him to realize he really was not heterosexual… (he published the novel under a pseudonym in order to protect his family in the small community they lived in). And the book was for me a fascinating discovery of the gay culture before HIV, in the old days of “gay dico, police corruption and tacit policies of harassment”, like one of the reviews says.
    I really liked ‘Death Trick': I found it interesting and refreshing, and well written, but it was ‘On the Other Hand, Death’ and ‘Ice Blues’ that really sold me on this writer: the development of the relationship is plausible, all the characters have their own personnality, no one is left hanging; the dialogues are snarky and funny, the intrigue pulls you in… And the characters live in a real world, not in some kind of fantastic Cinderella-like America or UK most writers of slash original fiction like to write (probably because it’s easier… After all, the world-building is simply an obligatory setting for sex scenes, so why bother…).
    I find Lipez the best gay crime story author I’ve ever read.
    Here’s his biography, if you’re interested: http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/bios/Lipez__Richard.html

  9. Um, the Adrien English Mysteries series by Josh Lanyon is not so bad… I mean, there are unbelievable parts of plot, especially in two last volumes (prized highly by readers on Goodreads :o); sex scenes seem sometimes stuck artificially to the narrative (one of the main problem I have with sex scenes in ff and in original fiction, no matter the sex of protagonists: it’s so rare to read a well written sex scene that adds something to the characterization; Manna Francis or seperis’ Smallville stories are good examples of how it should be done…). Well. So there are plenty of things that annoy me in the Adrien English series, but the main character is ironic and sarcastic in a really compelling way, his counterpart’s behaviour is plausible (at least at the beginning when he is deep in the closet), so it was rather a pleasant read. Not to say I’ll be back. As for Stevenson’s books, I’ll reread them, I’m sure.

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