TheRavenThis is a collection of ten short stories, many of which are inspired by myths, fairy-tales, folk-lore and poetry. Sort of like Angela Carter’s retellings of well-known stories, Spicer cleverly re-invents these classic tales, telling them in a new way or from a new perspective. All the stories are enjoyable and interesting. My favorites were the poignant “Stranger at the Crossroads,” and the delightful “An Unlikely Friendship.” 

Because these are short stories, I don’t want to discuss them in detail because it may give too much away. Lydia Schoch’s review discusses the two tales I have mentioned above, and she’s much better at reviewing without spoiling than I am. I encourage reading her review—it was what first brought this book to my attention, and I’m glad, because it’s a very enjoyable read, especially for the autumn and winter months. If you enjoy subtle horror, fantasy or paranormal stories, this book is for you.

After reading this collection, I was eager to read more of Spicer’s work. And I also started reading her blog, which is a real delight—check it out; she has written tons of excellent posts on a wide variety of topics, including various writerly matters and book reviews. 

Andrew Crowther is a writer I’ve followed for some time. I was delighted to see he recently started a new blog, and today he has a great post about four books: Vice Versa, Good Omens, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Man Who Was Thursday. I’ve only read Hitchhiker’s Guide, and a few excerpts from Man Who Was Thursday in the game Deus Ex, but I love what Crowther says in this post, particularly:

The end of the world was in the air; it was ten years before the Millennium, and almost subconsciously a lot of us felt that if things were going to end, that would be a good date for it.

As someone fascinated by the concept of fin de siècle and what was sometimes called “millennial madness” in the ’90s, this got my attention. I’ll have to read Good Omens.

Besides that, Crowther has identified the key elements of writing a philosophical comedy.         Which I never even realized was a genre before, but now I see that’s exactly what these books are.

A big problem in my fiction is that my endings are too rushed. I used to think this might be part and parcel of the No Description problem, but I realize now it’s a separate issue. A number of readers raised this complaint with all my early stories, and while I tried to improve in The Directorate, it still came up.

It’s also proven to be a problem with the novel I’m working on now. Several beta readers have said the same thing, and I agree with them. The ending is, once again, too rushed.

At this point, you might be thinking, “So add more stuff then, stupid!”

The problem with that is I can think of nothing else to add. The ending comes along when it does because all the pieces are in position, and it seems natural to tip the first domino and set things in motion. If I add extraneous material, readers will notice that I’m just killing time.

I hate when authors drag things out. The best example I can think of is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. While I liked some parts, there were also times when I wanted to yell, “Just get on with it already!” Since the book hinges on an event which happened in the past and which the reader is anticipating, the way King stalled with one “the past is obdurate” setback after another was annoying to read.

In general, I’d rather something be too short than too long. If a reader thinks it’s too short, it implies they want to read more. Whereas if it bores them by being too long, they’re unlikely to read anything by the author again.

But, better than being too short or too long is being exactly the right length. I have reached a paradoxical point where the book isn’t as long as it needs to be, yet making it any longer would feel too long. Which is another way of saying that something is missing, but I don’t know what it is.

*The title isn’t mine. It’s the title of a Let’sPlay of Knights of the Old Republic II, my favorite video game of all time, which is also notorious for its allegedly rushed ending.

Point Lookout is unbelievably creepy, from the minute you get off the ferry into the deserted, foggy island, with its crumbling amusement park, cemeteries, bands of deformed, mad hill-people trying to kill you, and omnipresent strange hanging dolls and mutilated toys.

It only gets creepier from there, as you discover haunted mansions with an evil brain-in-a-jar, ritualistic sacrifice altars, evidence of plots set in motion by communist spies, a mysterious cult in a church, a quest to recover a forbidden Necronomiconical tome and a chilling hallucinogenic sequence set deep in the swamps. 

(Oh, and there’s also wrecked ship called the USS Ozymandias. You can imagine how I loved that.)

Playing Point Lookout, I more than once wondered about the story behind it—there are so many unnerving, disturbing sights that I honestly worry about the mental state of the team that made it. And I haven’t even gotten to what makes it creepiest yet, but let me hold off on that for the nonce. 

While I generally don’t like the stereotype of mobs of evil, in-bred hillbillies—always seemed a little offensive to rural people, to me—I have to admit it absolutely works here. They’re a lot more unsettling than the straight-up zombie skeletons that are also roaming around, because they’re almost human. And it’s not really explained how they got this way, either—there are a number of possibilities.

The main quest of the game is actually its weakest point, but that’s par for the course in Bethesda games. I still enjoyed infiltrating the cult.

The real strength of Bethesda has always been its environmental design, and is that ever on display here. There are a thousand little stories you can piece together from inspecting various aspects of world around you, and pretty much all of them are the stuff of nightmares. The Homestead Motel alone is terrifying.

I also like the puzzle to get into the sinister mansion, even though I had to look up how to do it online, which normally annoys me to no end.

All right, time to lay my cards on the table: yes, I know Point Lookout is actually an add-on for Fallout 3, which, while fun, is actually kind of a stupid game. The writing in the main game is abysmal, as Shamus Young has cataloged in meticulous detail.

The thing is, the general idiocy of Fallout 3 actually makes Point Lookout better. I wasn’t expecting to go from a relatively generic, incoherently-written post-apocalypse into a foggy swamp of psychosexual Lovecraftian horror. But that’s what happened, and the sheer surprise of it added to the fear.

It would, in my opinion, have been the ultimate horror-writer move to create Fallout 3 simply as a vehicle to get people to play Point Lookout. Fallout 3 is the red balloon, Point Lookout is Pennywise. I’ve said it a million times: the best horror doesn’t announce itself; rather, it sneaks in, presents itself as something unassuming and inviting, and then springs the trap. That was the way of M.R. James, and while he was an incredibly screwed-up person, he was a great horror writer. Because every time you start reading one of his stories, you think, This doesn’t seem so bad.  And then…

Not that I think that’s what the designers set out to do. I’m pretty sure Bethesda didn’t take the trouble of getting the Fallout license just to mess with people. My point is just that this is how you deliver a good scary experience: first, change your audience’s expectations, so they’re not expecting to be scared.

Ah, I am a very Narcissus!

I was going to do this as a Twitter thread, but then I realized it’s too meandering for that. It started with this:

Then I realized that the references to Tennyson’s poem come in the scenes I blogged about here–scenes that already had bothered me with their similarity, until I realized the one in The Directorate is way, way better than the one in Majestic World.

I have to be honest with you guys: I look back at The Start of the Majestic World and it seems pretty amateurish to me. There are elements I like (obviously) but the book as a whole I think isn’t nearly as good as I could do now. I toyed with the idea of doing a revised version last year, but I couldn’t figure out a way to coherently “revise” it–it was easier to just start from scratch and make up a new story with a similar vibe. (It’s called 1NG4.)

I’m greatly improved as a writer since Majestic World, which on balance makes me happy-it feels good to know that you’re improving at something. But this leaves me conflicted about whether to even keep it up for sale. Part of me feels self-conscious about leaving something that’s not really my “A” game out there for sale. (It was my 2014 self’s “A” game, but not up to 2019’s standard.)

But I’m also sentimental about it. It was my first real attempt at long fiction, and some of the ideas in it have proven useful for future books. And I really, really appreciate all the encouragement and constructive criticism I got from readers. If not for you folks, none of my subsequent books would have happened. Without Majestic World, there is no Directorate.

I hadn’t re-read The Directorate since about the time I published it, but the other day, I flipped through it to check something about the word count, for comparison to the project on which I’m currently working. I was a little nervous, since the first time I re-read Majestic World after letting some time pass, I was underwhelmed by my earlier work.

Re-reading parts of The Directorate, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is good! No wonder I worked so hard on it.”

I’m not saying that to brag; I’m saying it to say that the way to improve as an author is to write, publish, and get feedback from readers. Including–especially!–negative feedback. There may be some things that you look back on and wince a little, but it’s worth it.

 

boat classic clouds cruise
Photo by Inge Wallumrød on Pexels.com

I love ship names. I don’t know why, but I get a real kick out of it when writers name their fictional ships. My favorite example is in Robert W. Chambers’s The Repairer of Reputations, when the characters all go out for a walk and see the ships in the harbor of fictional future New York, and Louis rattles off the names of the vessels. I loved that.

I think the reason I’m so fascinated is that every ship name has a story behind it. You see a ship name, and you automatically wonder why it was given that particular name. It’s an implied story all in itself.

This goes for spaceships in science fiction too, by the way. In fact, I might even enjoy those more, because there’s more room for unusual names. I’m working on a story now that has a spaceship in it, and I’ve been struggling to come up with just the right name. It’s an important consideration–the story that the name suggests to the reader will color their perception of the characters who fly it.

Some fictional ship names I like:

  • Alert–from H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu 
  • Nostromo–Ripley’s ship in Alien
  • Invisible Hand–General Grievous’s flagship in Star Wars: Episode III
  • Tempest–Pathfinder Ryder’s ship in Mass Effect Andromeda
  • PRCS Wall Cloud–a ship carrying a virus in Deus Ex
  • Pillar of Autumn–one of the first ships in Halo

Wikipedia has a list of more fictional ships. Frankly, from skimming it, I think writers aren’t being bold enough with names. The U.S. Navy names ships after famous battles–we need more of that in fiction. Also, more named after obscure historical figures, please.

mini red hearts wallpaper
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

[Thanks to Lydia Schoch for inspiring me to write this. Be sure to check out her post on fictional romances.]

You’ll notice I don’t often write romantic sub-plots in my stories. I was feeling pretty bold with 1NG4 and included one, but it’s largely implied and in the background of the larger story. 

Romance is hard to write. You need characters who work on their own, and also complement one another. It’s about balance. If you get unbalanced characters, it doesn’t work—or at best, it only works as wish-fulfillment for people who want to imagine their perfectly ordinary self being married to a demigod or goddess. 

And if you’re writing a story where the romance is the plot, then you also have to come up with some reason why two characters who clearly belong together aren’t. Usually social expectations are the best mechanism for doing this, to the point that it’s a cliché—A can’t marry B because it would violate all of their society’s most sacred traditions!

The problem with these sorts of stories is that too often, it becomes more about the pursuit, and in the process, one character gets reduced to nothing more than a McGuffin that the other character is trying to get. I hate that.

Here are some fictional romances I consider effective. You’ll notice that they are generally sub-plots, or at least not the sole focus of the story.

Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell (The Mummy) 

Image result for rick and evie o'connell
Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) The Mummy. Universal Pictures. Re-used under Fair Use

This works because it’s pretty well-balanced—Evie’s brains and Rick’s adventuring skills make them a natural team. This is what I mean—if Evie were always a helpless damsel in distress, or Rick were always a big stupid lug, it would be dopey. But as it is, you can see why they would gravitate to one another, apart from “It’s a movie and we need a romance.”

Thomasin Yeobright and Diggory Venn (The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy)

When you read about Return of the Native, 90% of what you hear about is Eustacia Vye this, Damon Wildeve that. I love the book, but as far as I’m concerned, both of them can go soak their heads. Oh, wait—I guess they do. Sorry if I spoiled this 141-year-old book. Anyway, what I like about the book is Venn’s loyalty to Thomasin, and his (admittedly credulity-straining) adventures as the almost super-human “Reddleman” looking out for her.) 

Miranda Lawson and Commander Shepard (Mass Effect 2-3)

Image result for miranda lawson shepard
Commander Shepard (voiced by Mark Meer) and Miranda Lawson (voiced and modeled on Yvonne Strahovski) Mass Effect 3. Electronic Arts. Re-used under Fair Use.

Am I the only person who doesn’t hate Miranda? I might well be. Most players find her stuck-up, but I like her. Maybe part of it is that because ME 2/3 built up Commander Shepard as this awesome hero, and Miranda seems like the nearest thing to his equal in a universe that otherwise regards him as something close to a God. She saved his life, and she’s genetically engineered to be perfect, so she  can meet him on even ground. I like that. I don’t see an equivalent romantic interest for female Shepard.

But maybe it’s just my fondness for Australian accents that’s making me biased here.

Honorable Mentions: Unrequited Romances

I started out to make a list of good requited romances, because those are harder for me to write than unrequited ones. But that’s not to say that an unrequited romance can’t make for a good story, because it absolutely can. In fact, the advantage of these stories is that they have conflict inherent in them, as opposed to having to be introduced externally. So, here are some good ones:

-The Carlo/Corelli sub-plot in Corelli’s Mandolin. One of the most interesting things about the disastrous movie adaptation was that this was the only romantic sub-plot that even remotely made sense. 

– The Atris/Jedi Exile relationship in Knights of the Old Republic II. I talk a little about that here. Actually, KotOR II is brimming with tons of unfulfilled or outright doomed romances. Chris Avellone is great at writing those.

-Elsie Maynard and Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. Just listen to this.

And now, for my favorite fictional romance…

Jane Ballard and Dan Frost (Jane Got a Gun)

Jane and Dan
Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) and Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) Jane Got a Gun. The Weinstein Co. Re-used under Fair Use.

Come on, you all knew this would be here. I love this movie, and a big reason why is the relationship between the two leads. The way they gradually rekindle their relationship under brutal circumstances makes for a great story, and the carefree romance of their past contrasted with the grim present is very powerful. True, a lot of what makes it work is the acting as much as anything—the same lines with lesser actors wouldn’t work as well.

I suppose that writing romance for the screen or the stage is easier than writing it in a novel. In a visual medium, putting two attractive people with great chemistry together gets you at least halfway to making the audience to buy in. On the page, though, you have to do a lot more work.

[This started out as a comment on this post by Phillip McCollum. Then I couldn’t post it for some reason, and I realized it was really too long to work as a comment anyway. But you should read Phillip’s post before reading this.]

The big mistake I initially made when I started writing fiction was not doing enough description. I’ve talked about this before, and how it took my friend Pat Prescott repeatedly encouraging me to do more description before I finally got the message.

In my arrogance, I thought that description was boring and a waste of time, and that I was a genius for not doing it. But description isn’t boring—only bad description is boring. Done well, it seems like an integral part of the story.

There are probably other ways that I’ve gotten better at writing over the years, but this is the one that comes immediately to mind. And I want to stress that it was only because I was lucky enough to have a reader like Pat who would tell me (more than once; kudos to him for his patience) that I needed more description. If not for that, I would probably still be blithely bumbling along, writing stuff that contained no description, and thinking I was brilliant for doing so.

The real point here is less about description than about listening. Listen to what your readers tell you. A reader who is willing to comment honestly on your work is the most valuable thing a writer can have.

kreia
Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”. Possibly my favorite fictional character, and a great example of a well-written female character.

A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:

“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”

I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.

“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”

Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.

Stereotypes

The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.

But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.

This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.

Writing From A Female Perspective

You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.

The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.

The Miranda Lawson Problem

Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.

Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.

But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.

BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.

Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.

This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.

Mary Sues vs. Competent Men

There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.

The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.

Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.

And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.

As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.

Have Female Editors

One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.

That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.

“Everywoman”

As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.

The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)

It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.

Conclusion

Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.