Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Monday, April 27, 2015

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 33

Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what works for this bestselling story.



Chapter 33: The Watch

Summary: A few days after the birth, Ian comes riding home on a strange horse with news that The Watch has taken Jamie. As they also took Ian’s wooden leg, it’s up to Claire and Jenny to get Jamie back somehow.

Despite having just given birth, Jenny leads the hunt. Apparently as a child, she demanded Jamie and Ian teach her the skills they learned, like tracking. She isn’t an expert, but she knows enough to spot Jamie’s and The Watch’s trail. Claire and she take a shortcut across country to cut them off.

Unfortunately, when they catch up with The Watch, they see that they have no prisoner. Fearful Jamie might be dead, Claire helps Jenny ambush one of The Watch, tie him to a tree, and demand answers at the point of a pistol. Apparently, Jamie threw himself off a horse as they forded a stream. The Watch shot at him and he never surfaced. They assume he’s dead.

Leaving the man to work his own way free of his bonds, the women return to the stream to search for any sign of Jamie. Jenny is convinced that Jamie isn’t dead. He’s too good a swimmer to have drowned. They finally find evidence of him on the stream’s bank and discover his trail, parts of which are marked with blood.

Because of the baby, Jenny can’t stay to help Claire track Jamie down. They figure Jamie won’t return to Lallybroch because The Watch will have sent someone there to keep an eye out, just in case. However, Murtagh shows up to lend a hand in hunting down Jamie.

Murtagh also brings news that Jenny has a new kitchen maid, the wife of MacNab, the now widow MacNab. Her husband was burned in a fire, and the ashes now float fresh on the wind. Jenny and Claire deduce that the truth is that MacNab is the one who turned Jamie into The Watch, and that Murtagh and Ian took their own vengeance for this.

Jenny asks Claire to walk with her the first little bit of her journey, leaving Murtagh at the fire. She tells Claire that Jamie told her Claire might tell her things about the future and she must do what Claire says. She asks if there’s anything she ought to know. Trying not to be too obvious about what she does know, Claire tells Jenny to plant potatoes and any other crop that stores well for a long time. She says to sell off any land that isn’t productive for gold. In two years, there will be famine and war. Jenny agrees to do these things without question.

Writer Comments: Jenny is such a tough, capable character, it would be fun reading a book about her. She certainly has a flair, and I could picture perfectly the watchman waking up with her holding a pistol in his face. These are admirable traits in a supporting character, and they lend to the rough and tumble highland feel of the story.

Additionally, Gabaldon strikes a startling contrast here between the Claire at the end of the previous part and the Claire now. Or, rather, perhaps I should say she makes a notable distinction between how people react to Claire. Part Four ends with Claire nearly getting killed for being a witch. Part Five concludes with a supporting character requesting Claire demonstrate talents that might normally get her burned at the stake. This says a great deal about the other characters, but it also offers us readers a good contrast, showing us what could happen to Claire versus what does now. Too, it reveals the sort of courage Claire must muster to risk speaking out. Or, perhaps, it simply reveals how much she cares for Jamie’s family.

Contrasts are very important in fiction. The protagonist and antagonist are contrasts. Within themselves, characters should show contrasting traits, desires, and motivations to make them interesting. The opening and conclusion of a story should be contrasted sharply to demonstrate growth. Here, you can see that contrasts can also exist in plot points. Such things help keep a story interesting and dynamic.

Thank you for joining me for today’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Recommendation

As I’ve felt awful lately, I’m behind on work, including this blog. However, I wanted to give you dear readers something for today. So I thought about what the most diverting thing I’ve enjoyed lately while feeling terrible. The answer was simple: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.

So if you’re looking for a great book that’s engaging enough to distract a picky reader like me from days of feeling awful, Words of Radiance
is an excellent choice.

If, however, you haven’t read the first in the series, The Way of Kings, be sure to pick it up first. It’s also a fun read.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Outlander by Diana Gabladon: Read, Chapter 32

Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at how a bestseller like this is written.



Chapter 32: Hard Labor

Summary: Just a day or two before Claire and Jamie must leave due to redcoats drawing near, Jenny goes into labor. Claire, who has only seen three births, all of which were performed with modern medicine that’d be of no help to her in this time, insists Jamie get the midwife rather than relying on her. However, she does stay to help Jenny as she can.

The midwife arrives and Jenny’s labor becomes increasingly difficult with little progress. After a while, she grows very exhausted and starts to fear she’ll die. This, of course, gets Claire quite worried. At last, she ventures to the midwife that maybe the baby is “backwards.” The midwife checks and begins trying to turn the baby. Finally, after quite a bit of effort, the child does turn, and things pick up very quickly. Within a few minutes, Jenny’s daughter is born.

Claire goes down to tell Ian that he has a daughter and instead finds the men half drunk. Only then does she realize how frightened Ian was that Jenny wouldn’t make it.

That night as Claire and Jamie get ready for bed, Jamie tells her that he’s actually relieved that she’s barren. Them getting pregnant while they’re on the run would be very difficult. Plus, after hearing his sister scream her way through labor, he never wants to hear Claire suffer like that.

Writer Comments: I always find labor and birth interesting in books, especially when written by a female author. It’s always interesting to see where stereotypes, history, and personal experience collide. Of course, you can never tell for certain which elements an author pulls from each category. For example, if I were to write a birth, since I’ve delivered two children, I could draw on experience to write about pain. On the other hand, as I used hypnosis for the second birth, which worked really well, I also have the experience to know that labor doesn’t have to be all pain. There are tricks. The challenge however would be that most readers probably wouldn’t believe such a depiction. So, as much as we women may rebel against the concept, as authors we are often bound by stereotypes that fuel reader expectations. This is true of birth as well any pretty much every other topic.

However, one thing I do like about Gabaldon as a writer, is how she sprinkles in historical and life details. The midwife does not act like a modern doctor dressed up in homespun. She acts like what I presume Gabaldon discovered midwives acted like during this time. Perhaps even the way they act now to some extent. Such details give the labor and delivery scene much of its unique character.

And, of course, you can’t go wrong with a little cuteness at the end of this event. After his baby sister is born, little Jamie hops up on his mother’s bed and insists that Jenny is his mommy.

The end of this chapter is the important element though. It marks a turning point, however small. Jamie accepts Claire’s barrenness. He even gives praise for it. While it’s clear that her inability to conceive a child bothers her, this is such a supportive thing for a husband to do. Perhaps it will help her come to better terms with it herself. However, knowing books like I do, I wonder if Claire will get pregnant sometime in the not so distant future, just when she and Jamie are least expecting it.

Thank you for joining me for today’s chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Creating Anticipation

What do Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Star Wars have in common?

They all created a sense of excited anticipation in their readers and viewers. And that anticipation led to long lines at bookstores and movie theaters, which resulted in big sales.

While it’s true that this craving in readers for more is a big part of what generates sales, there is, unfortunately, no magic formula to it. You can’t even claim that writing a good story will result in this phenomenon. Some brilliant stories have never seen fame, and some poorly written stories attracted millions of fans.

Comforting, isn’t it?

However, I would argue that there is one element that all such stories manage. They first create a desire in a reader, and then, by the end of the book, fulfill it. You don’t have to agree with this desire or even feel it yourself. If you don’t, you’re probably not a fan of that type of book. But there are common desires among humans. For example, most women want to be desired by a man who is powerful, capable, rich, or some combination of the above. It’s a basic instinct that harkens back to our caveman days. Stories like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey play off of this instinct. Conversely, stories like Star Wars play of our natural interest in discovery, exploration, and seeing a great evil eliminated.

Once these desires are tapped and fulfilled in readers and viewers, it creates a catharsis. That catharsis is satisfying. It’s like the kiss at the end of a wedding, walking across the stage and getting handed a diploma, or sinking your teeth into that delicious meal you slaved over all day to make just right for a special occasion. It’s the thing that makes all the hard work, all the frustration, suffering, and trial worth it. It’s the moment when everything seems to come together and release. Having a desire that it built up and played on, then finally fulfilled creates this same kind of feeling, and that results in a satisfactory experience for the audience.

If the catharsis is enjoyable enough, that reader will gush about the book to their friends and become excited when they hear a sequel is coming out. They might even line up at their favorite local bookstore to await a midnight release. Perhaps even in costume.

Unfortunately, no one can tell you how to accomplish this with certainty. If they could, editors, agents, and authors would be using it constantly, and to be honest, the reading public would quickly get burned out and desensitized to such books. However, there are a few tips:
  • Write the best book you possibly can. Include solid plot structure, good character development, interesting world building, and all the essentials for a riveting story. (Yes, I know, some pretty horrendously written stories have captured the hearts of millions, but do you really want to be termed a hack while enjoying your success?)
  • Dig into human desires and motivations. Think about human experiences that have touched millions in the past. Survival. Freedom. Righting injustice. Sexual desire. Hate. Love. Vengeance. The desire to know and understand. The question of what’s over the horizon or down that hole or beyond the stars. Explore these questions and desires in your writing. Don’t overdo it, but include them.
  • Deepen your characters’ motivations and goals. If your characters don’t feel it, your readers won’t feel it. Simple as that.
  • Hope for a ton of luck. Luck has just as much to do with success, if not more, than skill.

So, with that last in mind, good luck in spinning riveting stories that capture the hearts and desires of readers.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 31

Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what makes this bestselling book work.



Chapter 31: Quarter Day

Summary: Jenny helps get Jamie and Claire ready for Quarter Day, an occasion when the tenants come to pay rents and handle business with the laird. Jamie and Claire are alike in that neither is particularly concerned for their tangled, leaf-strewn, and generally unruly hair. Jenny has other opinions though and forces them to look presentable. She also lets Claire borrow some jewelry.

After getting ready, Claire goes down for breakfast to meet Murtaugh who has come to deliver what possessions of Jamie’s and Claire’s he could rescue from Leoch. He also tells Claire that Mrs. Fitz made Colum’s life miserable, trying to get him to go and rescue Claire from the witch trial.

Writer Comments: I do like Mrs. Fitz. I hope we get to see more of her at some point. It’s minor characters like her that can make a story much more endearing and entertaining. In fact, minor characters are often what allow a writer to add unique flavor to a story, and they often become favorites among fans. Supporting characters like this should be given plenty of thought and development. They might not ever play a major role in the story, but they should still feel like real people on the page. Otherwise, readers won’t buy them and fall in love with them.

Summary: Throughout the day, Claire lends a hand to providing refreshments for the visiting tenants. Around noon, MacNab arrives with his son, the boy Granny MacNab wanted Jamie to take as a stable lad. At once, it becomes apparent that the father is an unkempt drunk and that he terrifies his son. Jamie escorts MacNab into his study while Jenny, Claire, and the housekeeper bustle the boy off into the kitchens with the excuse of feeding him.

A quick inspection reveals that MacNab does indeed ruthlessly beat the boy, and Claire goes to tell Jamie. However, she doesn’t need to say a word. Jamie sees it on her face when she walks in under the pretense of delivering more refreshments. However, MacNab will not release his son to Jamie.

Just before MacNab leaves, Claire catches sight of Jamie escorting the man off, a companionable arm about his shoulders. A minute later, they return and MacNab looked dazed and quite a bit worse for wear. But Jamie is all smiles and politeness, pleased that MacNab has changed his mind and will now be allowing the boy to work in the stables. He sees MacNab on his way, then calls the lad out to give him his introduction the the household, which largely involves warning him not to cross the housekeeper, especially when it comes to washing behind one’s ears.

Later that evening, Jamie takes Claire off for a confession of I love yous.

Writer Comments: Ah, some justice done. That’s a nice touch to the chapter. It is enjoyable to have a hero beat the snot out of the scum of the world. I wonder if the boy, Rabbie, will play an important role in this book.

As I’ve said many times before, it’s important that all characters, scenes, and elements of a story must serve a purpose, preferably multiple purposes. The tighter the web, the stronger the story’s structure. Along the way, of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have the hero doing a bit of clandestine pummeling of the bad guys.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Series Structure

As I often do when I’m feeling under the weather, I’ve spent more time lately watching old TV series. It helps to distract me from feeling bad. This time, I started re-watching The Pretender. The show is fairly formulaic, like most shows, but it’s also a good study into how to make a series work and some of the structural tools needed to keep things interesting.

The basic episode structure of The Pretender goes like this: Jarod the Pretender finds someone who’s been wrongfully accused or hurt. With his super-genius abilities, he pretends to be a certain profession (doctor, police officer, plastic surgeon, skydiving instructor, etc.) to find out who’s really responsible. Then he simulates the events that led to the victim’s hurt with the perpetrator to force a confession, which he records and turns over to the police. After righting the wrong, he disappears to do it all again somewhere else. Oh yeah, and meanwhile, The Center, the organization that captured Jarod as a child to use his super-genius for evil, spends the episode trying to catch him.

Truthfully, the formula could get old fast. But the writers of The Pretender are smart enough to head this off. They include the following to keep viewer attention:

Jarod’s personal goal/motivation: No matter what else is happening in an episode, outside the formula, Jarod seeks one thing and one thing only: his family. He neither remembers them nor even knows if his real name is Jarod. More than righting the wrongs he helped make by allowing The Center to use his genius for evil, more than escape, Jarod wants to know who his mom and dad were, if they’re still alive, and to be able to connect with them and love them like a normal human being. Thus, you have immediate emotional appeal that can carry through multiple episodes and seasons.

Dribbling Out Information: Every few episodes, a new piece of the puzzle to Jarod’s past is revealed. New information about the other main characters comes out and about what The Center is up to. This helps maintain view interest as well and slowly raises the stakes of the show.

Shifting Loyalties: Aside from Jarod, the other characters have shifting loyalties and gray motivations. For example, Sydney, the psychiatrist who raised Jarod, clearly loves Jarod like a son, but he will do things to help The Center try and capture Jarod. During any given episode, you’re never quite sure which side Sydney will side with more.

Breaking the Formula: After several formulaic episodes, especially in the second season, the show starts to play with the formula. An episode might begin where a normal episode would end, but there’s a complication and things don’t go smoothly like normal. Another episode might break the formula entirely and deal with other aspects of the show’s overarching plot. Sprinkling in these episodes helps prevent monotony.

In general, what shows like The Pretender must do to be successful is treat the whole series as a single story that must change and grow over time. Additionally, each episode includes its own full structure and story that contributes to the larger story. This approach also works well for book series.

So when you don’t have the time to read thousands of pages to study good series structure, pick a TV series that accomplishes the same thing. They must follow the same rules.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon: Read, Chapter 30

Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what works in this bestselling novel to improve ourselves as writers.



Chapter 30: Conversations by the Hearth

Summary: The next evening, Jenny tells Claire and Jamie about what it feels like to be pregnant. The talk soon turns to undertones that draw her husband, Ian, off to the bedroom. A little overtaken by the elderberry wine he’d been drinking, Jamie soon takes Claire as well.

Writer Comments: Almost all of this chapter has to do with pregnancy. Of course, mostly Gabaldon focuses on Jenny’s current pregnancy, but there are hints of Claire’s pained disappointment that she still has not conceived.

However, I’d like to point out an important fact here. To write this chapter, Gabaldon had to be very familiar with her audience. No audience composed of any great number of males would put up with this level of detail. Men as a general rule do not like to be given much detail when it comes to female reproduction, at least the parts they don’t directly participate in. Women, on the other hand, tend to be fascinated with it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions, but when considering an audience, an author must go with the rule rather than the exception.

When writing fiction that has a larger female audience you can get away with discussing female issues in greater detail. I’m sure the reverse is true for a male audience and male oriented topics.

One other note: As of now, we’ve had several chapters in a row where little has occurred, and since Jamie and Claire have arrived at Lallybroch, the direction of the story has become vague. I can only assume that Gabaldon intends for Jamie to eventually be pressed by the English, perhaps for Claire to become pregnant. Beyond that though, I’m not sure where she’s going with things. In you own writing, it’s important to make sure that every scene serves at last two or more purposes.

Thank you for joining me for this chapter of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. We’ll resume this read next Monday. Until then, swing back by on Friday for further forays into fiction, the speculative, and life.