The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

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When I’m working on a new novel, I try to turn to old favorites to mine for examples of what I’m trying to do. Brian Evenson’s Immobility is one of those, for me. Today we’ll be examining a scene that’s doing something I’m attempting in the WIP–using a simple setting as an obstacle for a character. As much as possible, I’ll try to avoid spoilers. 

The Challenge:

When you want to have a character alone in a room, interacting with a setting, building stakes and conflict, how can you maintain that for an entire scene? In what ways can settings and characters interact to create forward momentum in a plot? 

I’ve tried this in the past, and whenever I go back to the scene, it always seems to be mostly internal monologue, and it gets a tad redundant the longer the scene goes on. So I went back to a novel I enjoyed a lot a while ago that, at least in my head, had a lot of these moments. 

The Story:

Although I’m a huge fan of all of Evenson’s work, I think that Immobility likely would has the broadest appeal to genre readers. It’s set in a post atomic-apocalyptic world and has a huge backbone of mystery, and a culture more or less foreign to us. One of the things that floored me about it was how the author maintains a sense of suspense and kept my interest despite its rather simple plot, and one of the ways that was accomplished was by allowing the main character’s physical handicap to create obstacles out of rather simple things–in the novel, he simply has to travel a few miles without any mechanical form of transportation. Main trouble being, he can’t walk. 

In that context, the setting of the book becomes a concrete obstacle–it becomes physical in the same way a well-drawn villain does. You’ll see one of the more direct moments of this in the excerpt below:

     The Tunnel was wide and high, rounded at the top, and continued back for what seemed to Horkai, pulling himself forward by his hands, a very long way. It ran deep into the mountain. The stone floor was cool and had been cut straight and polished. It was dusty, but other than that seemed to have suffered no damage. 
     The hall continued straight back, curving not at all. Every ten yards or so, the light that was now behind him would click off and a light in front of him would click on. He counted six lights before he saw, just beyond the sixth one, a thick metal door, like a door to a vault. 
     He knocked on it, but his knuckles hardly made a sound. HE looked around for something to strike it with but found nothing. 
     What now? he wondered. 
     He sat there for a little while, staring at the door, gathering his breath. Finally he struck the door again, slapping it with his open palm this time. The noise it made was only slightly louder. 
     The light above him went out and he was plunged into darkness. Briefly he was seized by panic, his heart rising in his throat, but the light came immediately back on when he began to wave his arms. 
     He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hello!” he yelled as loud as he could. “Let me in!” 
     The noise resonated up and down the shaft of the hall, but there was no sign he had been heard. 
     What now? he wondered again. Should he crawl back down the hall and out again, find the mules, get them to open another gate for him? And if that didn’t work, would they go on to the next, and then to the final one? And what if that one didn’t open either? 
     He pulled himself over until he was leaning against the wall. 
     And what if I’ve been sent on a wild goose chase? he wondered. What if Rasmus was wrong about what is actually here? What if someone was here but now they’re gone? 
    But that wouldn’t explain the redone road signs, unless whoever had done them had left recently. Even if they had left recently, it wouldn’t explain the plants they had seen–freshly watered, not even a day ago. No, someone was somewhere nearby. And with a little luck, they were here. 
He cupped his hands around his mouth again, yelled anew. His voice echoed up and down the hall, but again there was no sign that anyone on the other side of the door had heard. 
     He stayed there, wondering how long he should wait. He was still wondering, when the light switched off again. 
    This time, frustrated, he didn’t bother to wave his arms, just lit it stay dark. 
     There was a hint of something else other than darkness from the far end of the tunnel, the opening out in the night, where the sky was not completely dark but fading fast. There was something else, too, he realized as his eyes adjusted, a strange tint to the darkness around him, not enough to help him see, but something keeping it from being completely dark. He cast his eyes around, looking for whatever it might be, but saw nothing, no crack under or to the side of the door, nothing on the floor or the walls. But it was still there nonetheless, puzzling him. 
     And then suddenly it struck him. He looked all the way up, at the ceiling, and saw there, above his head, a small red light. 
     He clapped his hands once and when the light came on saw ,on the wall above him, a small camera. AS he watched, it made a slight whirring sound, angling differently, looking for something. Looking, he realized, for him. 
     He knuckled across the floor and to the other side of the hall, where the camera could see him. It whirred for a little longer as it tracked past him. He stared at it, one hand lifted in greeting. Suddenly it stopped, moved to point directly at him. 
    “Hello,” he said to the camera. “Can you hear me?” 
     The camera didn’t move. He turned to determine if it possessed a microphone or speakers, but saw no evidence of either. Feeling helpless, he raised his hands high above his head as if surrendering, then gestured at the door. 
     Immediately he heard a thunking sound and the door loosened in its frame. As he watched, it swung open a few inches, then stopped. Because of where he was in the hall, all he could see was the door itself, not what lay behind. 
(pg 113 – 115) 

The Solution: 

In this small excerpt, there are quite a few tricks to pick up. It’s not a long scene (certainly not as long as the one I’m planning, and maybe that’s a signal to me), but the action here is slow, even slower than most of the action lead up to it, and it’s methodical. Four main takeaways: 

  1. The setting acts very similarly to a character-based obstacle. It has a mind of its own, and after each attempt of Horkai’s to overcome it, it is given a moment to react. The resounding silences, the lights going on and off, the movement of the camera. It’s acting very much like an adversarial ally, because while it’s not working at exactly crossed purposes with him (he wants to be found and it, being half security system, wants to find him) but largely the conflict comes through the incompetence of the system and the mystery/suspense of who controls it. 
  2. Horkai begins with the most obvious of attempts–knocking. And from there he moves to less obvious stuff until it finally demands a discovery (the camera) before the obstacle can be overcome. It’s important, for this part, to know the layout of the setting, to have a good sense of where everything is, excepting the one detail. 
  3. The failures only last a paragraph or two. Horkai makes an attempt, gets a reaction from the setting, then regroups and tries again. By far the longest attempt is the final, successful one, which is not immediately successful but does end up paying off. 
  4. The failed attempts build to make sense of the setting, to teach us how this puzzle works. Knocking won’t work (it’s too quiet) and slapping won’t either (still too quiet) but movement does something (there is a motion sensor). This all leads up to the camera being obvious in hindsight, a kind of foreshadowing. Once he discovers the camera you think duh, it’s a security door. Why didn’t i think to look for a camera?

There’s a simplicity and clarity to this conflict that captivates, although it also helps that it’s at the breaking point for one of the biggest mysteries of the book: Horkai’s true identity. That has to be what gives this scene its sense of stakes. 

Finally:

Keep it simple. Treat the setting as an opposing force, trying to get a word in edgewise. Understand the relationship between your character and that setting: does it want–is it designed to–help them get what they want but need help to do so (yes, but) or does it exist to stand in the way of what your character wants (no, and). For an inanimate obstacle to take on the suspense of a living one, it’s important to consider these things. 

How do you maintain a conflict between character and setting? Any major examples you can think of? Do you notice any tips that I’ve missed from the excerpt above? 

Thanks for reading!

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In speaking about structure, few novels dazzle like A Canticle to Leibowitz, and so I thought it would be nice to look at that structure on one of the prominent levels: the chapter. Beware, spoilers ahead! Well, at least spoilers for the first chapter since largely we will be speaking about plot. But the first chapter is lovely, so I understand if you don’t want to ruin it. 

The Challenge: 

Novels are one of those amorphous structures. Some people say it’s one thing, others say it’s another, and ultimately it’s probably both and more. What it comes down to (what it seems always to come down to with novel writing) is to do what you can to cobble something cohesive together, no matter the strengths or weaknesses of your approach. 

So what can we do to cobble together a strategy? The best way I’ve found is to look at other people’s chapters. 

The Story:

One of those seminal sci-fi classics, A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. really is required reading. It first appeared in the mid-to-late fifties as a series of novellas published in Fantasy and Science Fiction and was published in 1959 after a little bit of expansion. This publication schedule is one of the things that gives it its unique structure. The book sprung from the author’s guilt and anger at his participation in the bombing of Monte Cassino monastery in WWII, resulting in a work just spilling with affect. 

Chapter structures really run the gamut. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Marquez designs chapters that take huge thematic arcs spanning over years or decades, drawing their cohesion largely from the way the summary weaves through the events, manufacturing structure wholesale (perhaps I’ll have to do that next time!). As you’ll see, Canticle takes a significantly different route to the same result, although it carries widely by chapter in my chosen story. 

Following we’ll take a look at one of most cohesive chapters, the first. 

The Solution:

Canticle
‘s first chapter opens like with this:

“Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with the girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert” (3). 

This is the sort of sentence that I, at least (and I think many other writers), recognize fairly immediately as an organizational tool. I’ve taken to calling it an “Occasion” but I’ve seen other names for it as well. It’s this that justifies the chapter’s existence, that makes it special, that signifies how it will make the story move forward. The occasion is not always made clear in this direct a way, but it can be often useful to do so in first chapters, since that chapter cannot be riding off of any previous information or any previous suspense.

But this sentence also does something else: it provides a neat, two part outline, a to do list of sorts. 1: discover the blessed documents, and 2: the pilgrim with the girded loins must appear. 


As a further comment on this section (although perhaps I’m reading too far into it), it’s interesting that these events are listed in the order opposite of how they will occur (maybe this immediately destabilizes you–you’re instantly in need of doing a small equation, instantly engaged. It seems at least, to have some momentum to it). So here, at least, is an outline of the run-in with the Pilgrim. I’ve separated the paragraphs out into arcs, each of which involves a desire or intent and obstacles for Francis to struggle against. 

Arc 1. Intent: Solve the mystery of the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: the Pilgrim is too far away. 
           Paragraphs 2 – 10, mostly world building and details about the Pilgrim to set up conflict 
Arc 2. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim. 
           Obstacle: He has taken a vow of silence and wishes to uphold the law of his faith. 
           Paragraphs 11 – 17, he fails at finding answers but succeeds at remaining silent. 
Arc 3. Intent: to build a structure for safety at night. 
            Obstacle: It’s grueling hard work. 
            Paragraphs 18 – 26, which return to alternating between world building and setting up the next conflict 
Arc 4. Intent: Get answers from the Pilgrim 
            Obstacle: He still wants to uphold his vow of silence. 
            Paragraphs 27 -35, in which he fails at keeping silent but succeeds at getting some answers (exit Pilgrim)
Arc 5. Intent: go back to building structure
            Paragraphs 36 – 37, A Brief Interlude
Arc 6. Intent: Explore the pit revealed by the Pilgrim
            Obstacle: it’s too small to fit down; also, FEAR (high chance of rabid animals down there)
            Paragraphs 38 – 44, Francis fails to face his fear
Arc 7. Intent: back to building his structure
           Obstacle: grueling hard work; also, distracted by the possibilities of the pit      
           Paragraphs 45 – 48
Arc 8. Intent: Clear way into pit
            Obstacle: a bunch of rocks and boulders
            Paragraphs 49 – 52, he succeeds in clearing it
Arc 9. Intent: Explore the pit
            Obstacle: fear!
            Paragraphs 53 – 56 

A few things I immediately noticed.

First, there’s a nice balance to the arcs–they seem to switch back and forth between arcs that pursue the plot full-speed and arcs that rock back into the everyday, allowing suspense and mystery to build. The latter also give much needed pauses for world-building. There’s also this almost mechanical, finely tuned balance to the conflicts–he chases his intent with a couple strategies, fails and gives up, but then tries a second time and succeeds. These are try-fail cycles, of course, that oft-spoken-of tool, but they look a little different than I’ve seen because there are basically two complete tries full of micro-attempts. Also, the try-fail cycles with the Pilgrim have a lot of tension because succeeding in one way causes him to fail in another. 


This little outline I’ve made, seen without the organizing occasion, would come across as pretty disorderly. The cohesiveness of this chapter is not subtle–it depends totally on knowing the trajectory of the chapter: this pilgrim is going to lead him to a set of blessed documents. Knowing that allows us to pick out what’s important and forget what isn’t. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice one last thing. 

This outline does not end with the finding of the documents. In fact, the chapter ends with the following words: 

“The novice stared at the sign in dismay. Its meaning was plain enough. He had unwittingly broken into the abode (deserted, he prayed) of not just one  but fifteen of the dreadful beings [Fallouts]! He groped for his phial of holy water” (17). 

This chapter ends on a pretty suspenseful cliffhangar. We get an implication of danger, but we know he’s going to go down there because the first sentence told us so. We can already start to build the next arc in our minds. His intent will be to search the abode, and his obstacle will to risk injury. Will he have to fail at one of those things to succeed at the other?

We are anticipating this in these final moments of the chapter, partially because of the opening. 


Finally:

It may be more accurate to call this a half-structure. In one chapter we’ve been given half of the occasion, and made to anticipate the second half, which comes in the second chapter. This is probably my biggest takeaway, as that usage of occasion is different than what I’m used to. But also, the structure relies on the balance of the try fail cycles and the clarity of intention and obstacle.

All of these things come together to form a chapter that, if not elegant or subtle, is still enthralling. 



What do you think of the outline? Does it bring any other stories or scenes to mind? For those of you who’ve read A Canticle for Leibowitz, is this reflected in any of the later chapters, or is this strategy particularly first-chapter-ish?

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king-ratClicking the picture to the left will take you to the Amazon page for King Rat by China Mieville. Seems obvious to  me that you won’t be reading this novel in preparation for reading this blog post, but we’ll be talking about plot so beware of spoilers below. Today I’m going to be talking about plot–the first act of a novel–in the sense of how Mieville keeps his readers interested. 

The Challenge:

People (and writing books) have a lot of advice for how to start a novel. Much of this advice seems contradictory–for instance the idea that you need to start immediately with high-stakes conflict, but the sort of opposing idea that no one will care about those high stakes until they care about your characters. So wait, do you start with solid conflict? Or do you start with character? Or is it some strange amalgam of both, precariously balanced? Although I don’t know yet, I imagine it’s some version of the latter, although perhaps King Rat does little to really clear this up, beyond providing an interesting example. 

The Story:

Mieville’s debut novel, King Rat, has its weaknesses. They’re fairly evident: sometimes the prose gets far too purple with little to gain from it, some major characters lack any real kind of agency (which might have improved some portions of the book), and the very end reads like rather forced, disingenuous philosophizing (although that ending still interested me, because of how different it was from most novel ends, philosophically). That said, this book blew me away because of it’s array of morally-grey characters, its distinct plot twists, and a handful of exceptional prose moments, full of poetry and voice. It also managed to really keep my attention in Act 1. 

Well, not exactly. Chapter 1 left me unmoved, and so did chapter 2, largely (although the structure of this piece, with multiple clipped little narratives, was fascinating), but the end of chapter 2 through chapter 8 really had me enthralled. I began to wonder why. What exactly was driving this opening?

The Solution:

Mieville tries to open with high-stakes conflict. The story opens with (following an excruciating driving/subwaying-to-the-story scene) the murder of Saul (the protagonist’s) father, and Saul’s subsequent arrest for this crime. Ultimately, this bored me. One reason for this was simply confusion: beyond the level of mystery, I had no idea what was going on. The disjointed narrative of chapter 2 probably contributed to this. But also, we never met Saul’s father on the page, so his death had no effect on me, and although Saul seemed pretty distraught by his father’s death, it didn’t reach me. 

And maybe part of the reason I was unmoved by this initial conflict was a lack of a clear desire for the main character. Actually, Saul does not develop a desire at all until the end of Act 1, and does not become fully active until the end of Act 2. 

But when the title character hit the page, he immediately increased my engagement with the story. He was strange, he was gross, he was dark and of questionable morality. And that level of engagement for the next six chapters remained fairly high (on average), but also kept a number of those qualities, following a fairly predictable sort of structure. Each chapter had a central purpose. Chapter 3 showed King Rat and Saul escaping from prison. Chapter 4 described Saul’s lunch. What made these chapters intriguing was context–all this took place in (as the text constantly affirmed) a new world. This Act 1 is a kind of exploration, and that exploration has the same flavor as King Rat himself–in Chapter 4, Saul’s lunch is strange and gross and dark. 

Two caveats here. (1) There were some mini conflicts going on, although they didn’t really capture me. These were necessary and important in the longer term of the plot, foreshadowing later conflicts that come to the fore in acts 2 and 3. (2) If you broaden the definition of conflict enough, you might argue that this whole act is a conflict, Saul interacting with and coming to terms with this new world he’s exploring. And there’s a good point there, but I think it overgeneralizes something super practical: some readers engage most with a story when it takes them somewhere new. Exploring a world vastly different from your own is a pleasurable part of reading. That pleasure can drive a reader through your story. 

When does lunch capture a reader’s interest? When it’s surreal. 

When does an easy prison break become intriguing? When it launches you into a new world. 

Finally:

Despite its failings, I fully recommend King Rat especially if you enjoy genuinely strange novels. What works here works exceptionally well. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was that strangeness can drive a story, and sometimes frontloading conflict for the sake of frontloading conflict can do more harm than good. 

What’s your take on strangeness vs. conflict? Let me know in the comments. 


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F&SF marapr16This week’s story isn’t available online (sorry!) but if you click the picture to the left you’ll find the page for F&SF March/April 2016 where it appeared and, from there, links to places where you can purchase a copy. I love reading F&SF because it is one of the most eclectic mags around, and if you give it a try you’re bound to love at least a handful of the stories in these huge issues. And just a warning: spoilers ahead. I’ll be talking plot, so there’s really no avoiding them.

The Challenge:

Sometimes one problem is not enough to get your character to the end of a story (although sometimes it is). Sometimes, you have to continually get your characters in trouble again and again, and it can be hard to think up compelling ways for them to get in trouble. It is, in fact, easy to brainstorm real awful, obvious things (off the top of my head: a set of apocalyptic heroes are starving, looking for food, so they go hunting but they can’t catch any meat, then they find out they’re poaching land claimed by a dictator, then a zombie hoard comes upon them and those zombies eat them alive).

What strikes me as more challenging is coming up with believable challenges and obstacles that push the story forward with out the sigh-worthy melodrama my above example.

The Story: 

Now, I can’t confess to being a die-hard Cat Rambo fan, but one story I read recently that really impressed me was “Red in Tooth and Cog” in F&SF‘s March/Apr issue. This story has a super clever premise: if all your appliances are vaguely self-aware and have the ability to modify themselves, what happens when they get loose? Rambo answers: they form an ecosystem and a society that we can witness only if we’re paying enough attention. 

It’s a really neat story, and it does awesome work as far as getting the character into trouble in ways that are believable and that we can relate to. 

The Solution: 

What I’ll offer first is a sort of outline of the trouble that the main character, Renee, gets into, with some commentary in between each one. If mundane, the start of this story is decidedly distinct and bold. Here is the first data point, the first piece of trouble, that I offer. 

1. “It was an expensive, new-model phone in a pretty case, and that was probably why it was stolen.” (40)

Doesn’t sound super interesting does it? But, you know, losing a phone is something many modern people can relate to and it’s an absolute pain. To help us toward this feeling, Rambo actually begins the story with a short meditation on the value of phones and, through negation, what you lose when you lose your phone. And to keep up the interest, we are shown our first glimpse into the mechanical ecosystem of this future Central Park. Her phone was stolen by a semi-conscious can opener. 

To take the stakes further though, as Cat knows she must to keep the story going, she piles on to what has already been lost. The phone didn’t really matter, but the case “was customized, irreplaceable.” And that mystery carries us until we learn Renee’s grandmother’s gemstones had been set into that case, and that not only does Renee really want them back, she is also soon to see her grandmother, who will be very angry to find the gems missing. Renee spends a few pages searching the park and learning about this ecosystem, which is fun and the little bit of stakes in the background tells us it’s heading somewhere. She briefly mentions that she has “creative time” at work that allows her freedom to be in the park. 

So you know where this is heading, don’t you?

2. “Work was suffering” (51). 

What relateable trouble to be in: she got a little too invested in something outside of work and now her job is in jeopardy. It’s perhaps even more relateable than losing a phone and is definitely an increase in stakes. Losing a job has all of these implied horrors: eviction, hunger, crushing poverty. And we’re at this point in the story where we know that Renee can’t just give up her trips to the park. She’s too invested! 

At the same time, the ecosystem in the park might not be around much longer. A park inspector is coming with some drones to scan the park for anomalies and when she finds them, she’ll send all the appliances for recycling where they’ll be shredded down to bits. 

So we know where this is going too, but we’re waiting for it in suspense the whole time. 

3. “Her supervisor called her in, a special meeting that left her hot-eyed, fighting back tears” (54). 

Not surprising right? But then, it is, because she doesn’t get fired. Or written up. It’s a warning, an opportunity, a choice: give up your obsession, come back to this job you don’t really like (her training is in art) and you can keep your job, your lifestyle, your home. You can go back to the happy bejeweled-phone life you had before. She reacts to this choice presented to her, and it could be really easy to have her just walk away at this point, choose her job–all the conflicts are resolved, there’s no obstacle to push the story forward. 

But then the next paragraph happens. 

4. “There’s a way to save the creatures.” 
     “What is it?” Renee asks. 
     “It’s illegal.”
     “But what is it?”

Right here, this exchange, made me give in to this story completely. On one hand, as a writer, I was thinking, isn’t that such an obvious move? Create a new struggle in the next paragraph? But then, it’s elegantly done (because a lot of foreshadowing has led to this point) and it’s exactly where it needs to be. Just as the tension drops away, it spikes right back up. And it’s the perfect time for this mission to appear because it is part of the choice she was presented with by her boss. 

This could be a way out of her obsession. Let them all die. 

And it’s brilliantly done because, even though she could easily get caught, it’s as simple as pressing a button. In the end, if she presses the button, she saves the little creatures and probably loses her job. If she doesn’t press it, she keeps her job, but loses this new world she’s discovered. 

The tension of this leads us right to the end of the story. What do you think Renee chooses? 

Finally:

It’s an incredible structure. Very well controlled and thought out, and quite relateable. Ultimately I think the lesson I take from this story is that stakes don’t actually have to start with life and death, as long as they grow to something serious during the course of the story. And sometimes the trouble can be really mundane, everyday stuff, and that can have greater impact than all the zombie hoards on TV. 

A lost phone? Trouble at work? Breaking the law for the greater good? We get these kinds of trouble.

They harbor immediacy. 

The first two, at least, are pretty common. And are completely free of melodrama. 

So when thinking of getting your character in trouble, maybe the best place to start is by mining your own life? Maybe something you take for granted would become real serious if it was threatened. Also, an even bigger takeaway: if you’ve run out of trouble, make more in the very next sentence. Don’t skip a line. Don’t transition. Just do it, and probably go back to foreshadow. Sometimes we are wrong when we’re writing and we feel like a move is clunky or obvious. 

Do you have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? What are your experiences with getting characters into trouble?