Sunday, November 25, 2012

Filtering Character Perceptions

I'm a member of an online critiquing group, and I have several people with whom I exchange comments about novel chapters. I also read books about craft belong to some online writing communities. These have helped me to broaden my perspective as well as expand my vocabulary of writing related terms. One term that someone used a while back was "filtering." I wasn't familiar with the term as such, though when I looked it up, I recognized the phenomenon.

I was thinking about this the other day, because I was reading a friend's excellent chapter, and the only real thing I noticed about it was the use of filtering in some passages that were meant to be very emotionally intense and action heavy. It's a common thing for writers to do on first drafts, and fortunately, it can usually be fixed, or at least reduced.

When a writer employs "filtering" he or she is using phrases like "he thought," or "she noticed," or "Tom realized that." In essence, they are telling the reader what is happening with the pov character, not showing.

For example:

Tesk glanced up at the gilded ceiling, trying to hide the curiosity and awe she felt. To a country lass, Lord Campion's villa resembled a museum. If this was just the parlor, she wondered what were the banquet hall and ballroom like? She smoothed her skirts, then stopped when she realized that her sweaty hands were staining the green muslin. You can dress a farm horse in the trappings of a blooded mare, she thought, but no one will take her for one.

This is not wrong, per say. But the use of the filters (bold-faced) creates some distance between the character's perceptions and the reader's, and reminds the reader that he or she is experiencing narrative and not the character. The "she thought" is not technically filtering, but it is an unnecessary "dialog tag," on internal dialog, which has a similar effect to filtering of a character's perceptions.

Here's a different approach:

Tesk glanced up at the gilded ceiling, trying to hide her curiosity and awe. To a country lass, Lord Campion's villa resembled a museum. If this was just the parlor, what were the banquet hall and ballroom like? She smoothed her skirts, then stopped. Oh hells, her sweaty hands had just left stains behind on the green muslin. You can dress a farm horse in the trappings of a blooded mare, but no one will take her for one.

Same scene, same information, but in the second example, it's presented to the reader more directly.
Of course, in writing, there are few hard and fast rules, and there are times when this is necessary to make something clear to the reader. For instance, you may need to employ one at the very beginning of a scene when you want to establish point of view, or when writing in omniscient (where you can change perspectives in a scene and sometimes need to clearly "tag" which character is perceiving or thinking something). Filtering can also be beneficial when the actual act of realizing or noticing is the point of the sentence. But when writing in limited third in particular (and limited third is a very popular point of view in genre fiction these days), these filtering terms are often unnecessary and distancing. Avoiding filtering when it is feasible to do so makes the point of view feel deeper and more immediate and removes that layer of gauze from between the reader and character.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Web as a Platform for Hurt Feelings

I've been online in one form or another since the early 1990's, and the expansion of the web, both as a useful tool and as a major time sink blows my mind. I played WoW, an online computer game for several years (I still log on to my account now and again but spend very little time playing anymore), and several years ago, one of my so-called "real-life" friends who also played WoW commented (in response to being passed over for his guild's "core" raid team because they already had enough shamans) that the internet was shaping up to be yet another tool that humans use to hurt each other's feelings.

This study, performed by a researcher at Penn State [] suggests my friend was right. According to this research, college students find online rejections just as distressing as face to face rejections. Although the investigators caution that their results may not apply equally to older demographics, I wouldn't be surprised if future research finds that us old fogeys can also be deeply hurt by things that happen on the web.

As a mature adult with FB friends who are (mostly) mature adults, I am at least spared the horrors of internet bullying, sexual harassment, or those awful pranks where a bunch of popular kids will friend, then promptly unfriend, an unpopular peer. But I definitely feel a genuine stab of pain when someone I know and think I have an amiable relationship with in RL ignores or rejects my friend request.

Even worse is when someone unfriends me with no (by my way of thinking) provocation or explanation. Since FB doesn't send special messages saying you've been unfriended, it can take me several days or weeks to notice that someone is no longer on my friends list but is still active on FB. This has happened to me (with a person I'm friendly with--I thought--in real life). It has, I'll freely admit, undermined my feelings towards this person. Every time I see her now, my smile is a little bit forced.

There are also those little hissy fits and small dramas that some people throw on social media of various kinds. In these cases, the people may not eventually unfriend one another, but if you get caught in the crossfire (by inadvertently posting a comment in a thread you didn't know was heating up because of something simmering below the surface), you almost wish they would. I really scratch my head when two people who do have a robust RL relationship use FB or twitter as a platform for, say, marital or familial quarrels or try to draw their friends (and more distant acquaintances) into the drama.

The thing is, there really isn't any good way to know if someone is hurt or angry by something that's said (or not said) in an online environment unless they choose to tell you. Yet communicating one's hurt or anger is almost guaranteed to engender hurt and anger (and possibly drama) in turn. Withdrawing is often the easiest way to deal with conflict in this setting.

I wish I had some words of wisdom on this issue that were more profound or unique than simply enjoining people to always keep in mind that there's a real person on the other end of every internet communication and to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming they said something specifically to hurt you. Obviously, I don't want to force someone to be my FB buddy, critiquing partner or twitter followed if what I have to say bores or offends them. Logically, I know that no one is 100% popular and I know that even my nearest and dearest consider me quirky and off the wall in some ways. But emotionally, I want to be loved.

It's certainly true that humans, like other social animals, evolved in an environment where interactions were face to face and conflicts were resolved fairly quickly. Being a member of the pack, herd or clan was important to one's survival, so that stab of guilty shame and sadness one feels when rejected or rebuked is a neurological and endicrinological survival mechanism that's been shaped over millions of years. The development of language, writing and finally the internet has only expanded the opportunities for social embarrassment and rejection. I'm not convinced that our social conventions, let alone our hard wiring, have really caught up with what it means to be able to communicate instantly and remotely, let alone given us the tools we need to do so responsibly and compassionately--and to put these communications into an appropriate perspective.

But unless one wants to take the approach my husband has embraced (no social media and minimal e-mail communication), we'll have to muddle through and hope for the best.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Perils of Novel Length in Fantasy

I sat down and really started writing my novel about a year ago. For the first time in my life, I really got bitten by the bug and soon became so obsessed with the story and characters that skipping a day of writing became almost unthinkable. One thing that helped feed and maintain my focus was the discovery of a good and supportive online fantasy writing community that consisted of many aspiring (and some published) writers who critique one each others' work and provide everything from amusing diversions to hard-bitten advice.

I've been an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction for most of my life. I have certain preferences, and it's easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that your own favorite authors are "typical fantasy writers" in most respects. For instance, I prefer traditional "other word" fantasy, set in pre-industrial sword and sorcery societies, and I prefer stories where the magic system in painstakingly developed and made as realistic as possible. I also tend to refer complicated characters with a rich inner life and for there to be an element of romance, or at least emotionally satisfying relationships, somewhere in a story.

Another thing I tend to prefer are books that are fairly long. Although few of my favorite authors wrote debut novels as long as Patrick Rothfuss's, most of the fantasy novels on my bookshelves (and for that matter, most of the books I read in other genres as well) are considerably longer than the 80,000-100,000 words that is often cited as the average length for an adult novel. Fantasy is different, I always figured.

So as I got enthusiastically into writing my budding epic-length book, my writer friends who are a bit further along than I am had to break the news gently. Fantasy is not all that different with regards to length restrictions--at least not fantasy from first-time novelists who have not won the Writers of the Future contest, received a Hugo or Nebula for a piece of short fiction or won some other prestigious honor as a budding writer. In fact, the number that comes up most often as a target length for first-time fantasy writers (even those writing in the high fantasy tradition) is 100,000 words. The upper limit most agents and editors will consider from an unknown talent is around 120,000 words. Ouch!

The reasons given for this make sense, really. Longer books take more time to edit. Longer books cost more to bind and ship and take up more room on bookstore shelves or in warehouses. It's one thing to publish a 150,000 word plus wrist-sprainer from an established writer who has a loyal fan base and a track record of at least respectable sales. It's another to risk extra money on a first timer that no one's heard of yet (and sadly, there are plenty of first time novels that just never sold all that well, in spite of being quite good).

But it's still a frustrating issue, as many fantasy readers want and expect longer books. I wonder if a short little 300 page paperback by an unknown will even draw a browser's eye if it's sitting sandwiched between two much longer novels by well known authors. Of course, length is less of a factor with books bought online, as one does not search visually in that format (but then there is the issue of how a reader finds a first-time author at all on Amazon and B&, since readers tend to search for their favorite authors there or go off the sites' often incomprehensible recommendation system).

Be that as it may, I've had to edit Umbral Heretic down by quite a bit. I'm now hovering just above the 120,000 word "upper" limit and am at the point where some of my readers' suggestions are to add things rather than take them away. Overall, shortening the story has probably improved it. I don't have any of those elaborately detailed long journeys where nothing happens except description of the world (often cited as a pet peeve about fantasy, even by fans of the genre), and I've been complemented by some readers for having "just the right amount" of description to give them a picture of my world and characters without going overboard and bogging things down. I've streamlined my dialog and have no 2-3 paragraph monologues by a single character (I mean, really, how long are any of us allowed to go on for that long without being interrupted in real life)? But there were some scenes and characters that it broke my heart to delete.

I guess in the end, I'll have to see if the length cutting was a worthwhile sacrifice. And if the novel wins big and gains representation, I am given to understand that more cuts (and possibly a few additions as well) will be in its future.