Thursday, June 19, 2014

Auspicious Beginnings

The most important part of a story is its first paragraph.  If you don't grab the reader's attention right away, chances are they aren't going to stick around, and writing an evocative and intriguing hook is a sure way to make them turn the page and keep reading.

There are lots of ways to write a compelling first paragraph; some stories begin in media res, others rely upon evocative description to set the tone, or to introduce the protagonist and their dilemma right from the outset, but however it is done, the goal is to immerse the reader in the story immediately.  The wrong way to do this is to lead off with a lot of exposition.

This is probably one of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced writers (and sometimes, unfortunately, by experienced ones, too).  I would say that at least 80% of the stories submitted to the Libram Mysterium anthology series begin with a history lesson.  I think that there is a misperception, especially among writers of speculative fiction, that you need to thoroughly explain your setting and its history before the reader can make sense of it.  This is wrong: the reader doesn't need to know everything right at the start, doesn't want to know everything right at the start, and shouldn't be bombarded with an information dump when they are still in the 'getting to know you' stage of the relationship.

Imagine you're at a party and you've just met someone that you might like to get to know better.  If they immediately launch into a lengthy and detailed narrative of their life history with all sorts of intimate and personal details are you going to want to stick around and continue the conversation, or are the chips and dip starting to look really attractive?  It's too much information too early in the relationship.  This is all stuff that you'll probably want to learn gradually as your friendship deepens, but learning all in the first five minutes is weird and awkward and it will bore the crap out of you.  Instead, when trying to impress a new acquaintance you should try saying something witty and interesting, maybe even something controversial so that, instead of tuning out, they respond by saying 'what do you mean by that?'

Being a writer is a bit like being a stripper.  Your job is to entertain by teasing and titillating your audience; you show them a brief glimpse of what lies beneath with a promise of revealing more as show progresses, and it is that promise that keeps them in their seats.  If you walk out onto the stage stark naked and shake your naughty bits in their faces they have very little reason to stick around for the rest of show and they might even be turned off by the crassness of it.  There is a reason that level of exhibition is left for the finale when the audience is primed for it.

Here is the opening paragraph from a book called Dragonfly by Frederic S. Durbin.  It is probably the best opening paragraph I have ever read:

Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry's basement.  These were things that had happened before, when the wind swung round, when the trees all felt the blood rush to their leaves after the exertion of August and the idling of September; when the chuckle-dark harvest moon shaped pumpkins in its own image, brought its secret wine flush to the scarecrow's cheeks; when the rich bounties of the land lay plump for the taking and the light left them alone for longer and longer at a time.  But when the trouble started before, I was too young to remember.

This paragraph is pregnant with promise.  The very first sentence, 'Bad things were starting to happen again in Uncle Henry's basement,' is a powerful hook.  We know that bad things are happening.  They are are happening in Uncle Henry's basement, and they have happened before.  Those first eleven words are loaded with implication; immediately you want to know what the bad things are.  You want to ask Durbin what he means by that.  You want to learn more.  Durbin has hooked you.  Then, while you're still wondering about that he hits you with some evocative imagery that not only sets the scene but also hints at the nature of the bad things, which we can guess take place around Halloween.  We do find out in the subsequent pages what happened in Uncle Henry's basement years before, which is great because by the time Durbin tells us we are already invested in the story and are dying to find out.  If he'd begun the story by telling us what happened in Uncle Henry's basement we wouldn't have cared and probably wouldn't keep reading.

Handling exposition in a story can be tricky; the information is important, but you need to exercise restraint when doling it out, just like the person at the party.  It is better to reveal information little bits at a time instead of dumping it all at once, which can overwhelm the reader, and as a general rule it is better to show the reader the information than tell them.  This can often be achieved through dialogue or activity, but be subtle.  Don't resort to the heavy-handed 'as you know, Bosworth' type of forced expository dialogue that lazy television and movie writers inflict on us.  Reveal the information slowly and naturally and don't be afraid to let the readers fill in some blanks for themselves.  Part of the fun of reading a story is figuring out what is going on from the hints rather than being told.

But however you decide to write exposition remember these guidelines: 1) not too much, 2) not too soon.  And whatever you do, use your opening paragraph to entice your readers, not to bore them.  Be the stripper; get us worked up and aroused by taking your clothes off a little at a time instead ripping them all off at once.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Getting off the Sidelines and Into the Fight

During the 1970's the neighbourhood I grew up in was pretty rough, especially for small children.  Roving gangs of bullies, miscreant juvenile delinquents, and a serial killer were the realities of my childhood that I needed to deal with.  Wariness was a habit I cultivated at a young age; I was careful not to take the same route home every day and I always tried to spot the bullies before they spotted me.  Most of the time I was successful, but sometimes not and on those occasions I'd come home bloodied and beaten and angry with myself for getting caught.

On my seventh birthday my parents gave me a swim mask and snorkel as a birthday present.  Our family didn't have a lot of money and this was a big deal to me; it was what I wanted more than anything in the whole world.  That evening I went to the park to try out my gift at the paddling pool, and I was excited and happy and not paying attention to my surroundings like I should have been.  So I didn't notice the group of teenagers behind some bushes in the park until it was too late.  They took my mask and smashed it to bits.  They also held me down and burned me with cigarettes, but that didn't hurt nearly as much as losing my birthday present.  I didn't blame the teens who did this nearly as much as I blamed myself.  They were nothing more to me than environmental hazards to be aware of and avoided, and as far as I was concerned, at least at the time, it was my fault for running into them, just like running into a lamp post or falling into an open pit - a consequence of my inattention.

Another one of those environmental hazards was David Threinen, a pedophile who kidnapped and murdered four children in Saskatoon between 1974-1975, including my friend, Robert.  Around that time a man, whether Threinen or a different predator, tried unsuccessfully to lure me and a couple of my friends into his car.  Afterward, the three of us agreed that this guy was most certainly a kidnapper (we were about nine-years-old and I don't think we knew what a pedophile was) and that he would probably have killed us if we'd gotten into his car.  But I don't recall any of us being shaken up by the incident - it was just another threat dodged and quickly forgotten, drowned out by the background noise of ever-present dangers.

School was no picnic, either.  I was an introvert and more interested in books than in sports, which made me abnormal in the eyes of many of my teachers, and their disdain was taken by many of my classmates as tacit approval that it was okay to pick on me.  My naive trust in authority was shattered early on by a principal who took a particular dislike to me for reasons I never learned.  She would often pull me out of the hallway and into her office then threaten me with a big leather strap (corporal punishment was still practiced then) and accuse me of all sorts of absurd things.  I felt scared and confused and betrayed, and I didn't realize until much later that she was just another pathetic and cowardly bully who got off on terrorizing little boys.

Since my natural inclinations trended more towards the academic than the athletic, I was drawn toward activities like science fairs and Future Problem Solvers, which, at my school, only girls were allowed to participate in because, as I was repeatedly told by my teacher, 'girls are smarter than boys.'  Didn't I know that my proper place was on the hockey rink?  This prejudice may not have been the norm at most schools, but it certainly was at mine and it was infuriating to be denied the chance to pursue my interests and aptitudes simply because of my gender.

So my daily grind consisted of getting to school by way of back-alleys and side streets to avoid notice, suffer through seven hours of incarceration at the Sutherland Elementary School Correctional Facility, followed by another dash through no-man's land to arrive home, hopefully without being terrorized, beaten to a pulp, or killed.  Then I'd get to spend a few all-too-fleeting hours holed in the comfortable book-filled sanctuary of my bedroom before having to do it all again.  Wash, rinse, and repeat every day for eight years.  It was an almost unbearable existence that fortunately faded away as I got older, and by the time I grew up it was all just an unhappy memory.

If you have a Twitter account you have no doubt read at least some of the many, many posts made to #YesAllWomen, and even if you don't you've probably heard about it.  Many of the posts these women made struck a familiar chord: their experiences reminded me of my childhood.  Except that while I got to leave all that shit in the past once I grew up, many women have to keep dealing with it their whole lives.  I'd like to say that I can't imagine what that must be like, but I can.  Some of my past personal experiences that are similar enough that I can at least partially empathize and understand what life as a woman might be like.  I'll never truly understand what it's like to walk a mile in their heels, but I probably come just about as close as a heterosexual white Canadian male can.

My first inclination was not involve myself in this discussion and instead follow the old saying: 'better to remain silent and be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.'  This is often good advice, especially when you don't know what you're talking about and in this case opening ears and shutting mouth (or, more accurately, given the nature of the medium, opening eyes and bestilling fingers) is preferable to a hasty knee-jerk response.  But after pondering for a while I realized that I can't sit this one out; I have to weigh in.

When I was a kid getting beaten on, I recall that most of the toadies that trailed along after the bullies weren't really bad guys.  Left to their own devices they probably wouldn't be inclined to pick fights or torment anyone, but they would gravitate around an alpha bully, follow his lead, and pile on to whatever target of opportunity he set his sights on.  They might hold your arms while he beat the crap out of you, and they might kick you a few times when you were down, but this was mostly for show.  Most of these guys were scared and joined in to avoid becoming targets themselves.  Then there were the spectators; they didn't join in but they also didn't speak up and they certainly didn't intervene.  They, too, didn't want to call attention to themselves.  One time on my way home from school, I came upon a couple of guys beating up my best friend.  I joined in the fight reckoning that if I evened the odds maybe we could fight them off, and if not at least my friend wouldn't have to stand alone and outnumbered.  Unfortunately, once his attackers focused their attention on me, he left me holding the bag and joined the bystanders to watch me get beaten bloody.  I didn't care.  I'd rather stand up to the bullies and get beaten than watch from the sidelines.

One of the common knee-jerk comments made by men responding to #YesAllWomen is that 'not all men are like that.'  Of course they aren't, not even close.  But statements like that are a defensive response made by guys who may not be abusing, harassing, or discriminating against women, but they sure as hell are standing on the sidelines watching.

We hear stories of violence and discrimination against women every day, but often it gets drowned out, like all those dangerous encounters in my youth, by the background noise of the perils of daily existence.  They get lost against a backdrop of shootings, stabbings, unrest, environmental disasters, dirty politics, and the distracting antics of Rob Ford.  But when you filter out the noise, which is what #YesAllWomen is doing, you can see just how pervasive misogyny is in our society.  Just this morning I was lying in bed listening to a report on the CBC news of a young woman in Saskatoon who was kidnapped and beaten by her fiance when she tried to return his ring and break off their engagement.  This sort of thing happens every single day.  And that is in a comparatively tolerant and egalitarian society like Canada.  It doesn't begin to compare with countries where women are stoned to death for having extra-marital affairs, threatened or killed for trying to get an education, or imprisoned for the crime of being raped.  When 50% of the world's population is being singled out for persecution (more if you consider other disenfranchised groups, like homosexuals, who are also denied the rights many of us take for granted) this not a women's issue, it's a human issue.

It isn't enough to just be the guy who isn't abusing women.  War is being waged on our friends, our wives, and our daughters, and it's one that they cannot win on their own.  This is a battle that must be fought by men.  I won't be a toady and I won't stand in the crowd watching from the sidelines.  It's time to wade in and start swinging because I'd still rather take a beating than let a friend stand alone and outnumbered.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Review: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

I've found that the very best stories usually hook me with the first paragraph.  Sure, some books start slow then pick up steam (or not), but I've rarely seen a book start strong and then go downhill.  So I'm always delighted when I find a book whose first lines make me want to keep reading: I just know that there is a good story to follow.

Such was the case with the first book in Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal series, which I recently bought on a whim because I liked the cover.  And, fortunately, as soon as I read the first paragraph I was reasonably sure that I had not misjudged the book by its cover:

Walpurgisnacht, the Hexennacht.  The last night in April.  The night of witches, when evil walks abroad.

It was short, it was sweet, and it set the tone for the rest of the book.  This is the story of Johannes Cabal, a thoroughly callous and self-centered scientist who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the secrets of necromancy.  Now he wants it back.  Cabal journeys to hell to barter with Lucifer and makes the following wager: he has one year to consign one-hundred souls to damnation or lose his own for eternity.  Satan doesn't send Johannes away empty-handed, however: he lends him a long-abandoned carnival train to help him on his quest.  Cabal, an anti-social introvert, considers the prospect of running a carnival more of an ironic punishment than a boon.  One sympathizes.  Imagine the character of Sheldon Cooper, from T.V.'s Big Bang Theory (or me) forced to rely on personal charm to seduce unwary patrons into signing away their souls and you will have a good idea of just how out of his depth Cabal is.  Satan doesn't like to make these wagers easy, otherwise everybody will be wanting one.

This book was inspired by Ray Bradbury's classic, Something Wicked This Way Comes, when Howard wondered where an evil carnival would come from.  In Johannes Cabal the Necromancer he sets out to answer this question.  The story is cleverly and eloquently written and is laced with sardonic wit that is likely to appeal to fans of British comedies such Black Adder.  Indeed, were this book ever adapted to the screen, I can't imagine anyone better than Hugh Laurie to play the title role.  Cabal is an unapologetic misanthrope who is more than willing to sacrifice anyone, even his own brother, Horst, to achieve his goals and who won't hesitate to kill anyone who stands in his way.  Yet we are allowed, on occasion, to catch ephemeral glimpses of the good man locked deep within who gives us hope that despite Cabal's rapid moral deterioration, redemption might not yet be beyond his grasp.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer may not be to everyone's taste, but if you have a love of the macabre and an off-colour sense of humour that makes normal people stare aghast, then it might just be for you.