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.
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:
- Give the character an objective. Once they have an objective, we’ll want to know whether they achieve it or not
- 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.
- 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?)
- Give it a time limit. Time pressure and a ticking clock.
- 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.
- 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:
- Objective: Keilja doesn’t want to testify against an acquaintance.
- 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!
- Danger: If Keilja doesn’t cooperate, he’s going to be tossed in jail, presumably for a few months of prison rape.
- Time limit: Three weeks to come up with a solution
- 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.
- 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.