The Dangers of Detail Derailment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, kids, we have a first page to discuss. Let’s read it and chat on the other side.

Shadow of Xiom-Thogg

Barbarians clashed on the road to Heliopolis. Three were stout, blue-bearded Sherdens, one of the tribes of sea-folk that sailed forth to harry faltering Egypt. They wielded long, leaf-bladed swords and were protected by horned helmets and bronze-banded corselets, augmented by round shields emblazoned with bulls heads.  One of their number already lay dying, a spear tangled in his guts. She who cast that spear was as alien to the land of the Pharaohs as the Sherden, though she came by a longer and more circuitous route. A green-eyed giantess, pale of flesh and tawny-haired, standing a good head taller than her sea-faring opponents. She was incongruously clad in the manner of a Persian soldier, with a bronze-scaled cuirass over a linen tunic and trousers thrust into soft leather boots. Like a lioness cornered by jackals she battled her tormentors, lashing out from behind a tall wicker shield with a sagaris, the deadly battle-axe of the Persians.

A Sherden made a bold thrust, seeking her vitals, but his blade transfixed the wicker shield instead, narrowly missing the woman’s sinewy forearm. She twisted to one side, tangling the sword in the wreckage of the shield. Unwilling to release his weapon, he was upended and tumbled to the ground. She let the ruined shield fall with the hapless swordsman, and his comrade, seeing an opening, lunged recklessly in an attempt to decapitate the tawny-haired she-devil. Moving with preternatural speed she sidestepped his powerful blow. As the momentum from the spent attack sent him stumbling past her, she brought down the axe, shearing through his horned helmet and splitting his skull in a welter of blood and brains. He fell, sprawling in the dust that thirstily sucked up his flowing blood.  

***

JSB: Ah, nothing like blood and brains to get us going this fine Sunday. Let me say some good things up front. I like this writer’s imagination. There is a vivid “other world” here, and the potential is bubbling in the pot.

In some ways it reminds of the great Robert E. Howard, and the many stories he did for Weird Tales back in the 30s. He could build a world and clash the swords unlike anyone before or since. This author has similar raw material; we just have to chisel it so it makes for gripping fiction.

First off, a tip about readability these days. No one likes big, blocky text. This entry is made up of two Brobdingnagian paragraphs. A browser opening up this book might take a look at the page and think, “Why bother?”

True, readers of epic fantasy are perhaps more tolerant of blocky graphs. But not all, so why turn off a significant percentage of readers when it’s so unnecessary? No one is going to complain that your first page isn’t hard enough to read. So break up the blocks! This page could easily be four to eight paragraphs. (Which reminds me of when Yogi Berra was asked if he’d like his pizza cut into four or eight slices: “Better make it four,” he said. “I don’t think I can eat eight.”)

Now to the heart of it. World building in any kind of speculative genre is a crucial part of the program. But the trick is to do it without overlarding us with details. Our brains (those that aren’t split by an axe, that is) cannot adequately process or appreciate too many unique details coming at us in a rat-a-tat fashion. We will either have to slow down and re-read, which ruins the flow; or we’ll set the book aside, which ruins the chances of selling the next book in the series.

In the first paragraph alone, I count at least sixteen unique details, all demanding to be a picture in my head, and two stopping me cold and sending me to the dictionary (cuirass, sagaris):

  • stout, blue-bearded
  • long, leaf-bladed swords
  • horned helmets
  • bronze-banded corselets
  • round shields
  • bulls heads
  • green-eyed
  • pale of flesh
  • tawny-haired
  • bronze-scaled
  • cuirass
  • linen tunic
  • trousers
  • soft leather boots
  • tall wicker shield
  • sagaris

The point is there’s an exciting fight going on, but my head is swimming with all these details. There are just too many.

So how many should there be? Ah, there’s the skill part of the equation. The answer is: just enough.

Thanks for stopping by.

Okay, let’s put it another way. Don’t let details derail the action. You, author, will have to develop a sense about this. It may be that you’ll require outside eyes to look at your pages: beta readers who are familiar with the genre, crit partners, perhaps a freelance editor.

What you want is an action scene with essential details. Pick a few that best set the stage and flow them in naturally with the action. In fact, that may be a good rule of thumb (though many writers bristle at rules, and use their thumbs primarily on the space bar): allow yourself only 2 – 5 unique details per page in the opening chapter. Everything else should be action.

One more crucial craft point will help you in this quest: pick a point of view! This passage is in Omniscient, which tempts the author to put in all the things they see in their imaginary world.

If, on the other hand, you filtered this action through the POV of a character, you would naturally become more selective in the detail work; plus, readers will be more fully engaged because it is through character that readers bond with the material. A twofer!

Right now you’ve got three Sherdens and one “she-devil.” We have no way of knowing who, if any of these, will be a main character. Maybe this is a prologue and no one here will end up being the MC.

No matter. You still should choose one of these characters to be the viewpoint. When you do that, the action of the scene will automatically take precedence over the details. And that’s what we’re after. [Note: Third Person POV is usually the better choice, but even in Omniscient POV you can select a viewpoint character. See the excerpt below.]

For laughs I looked up a Robert E. Howard story from the January 1934 edition of Weird Tales. Here’s the opening paragraph from “Rogues in the House,” a tale featuring our favorite barbarian, Conan:

At a court festival, Nabonidus, the Red Priest, who was the real ruler of the city, touched Murilo, the young aristocrat, courteously on the arm. Murilo turned to met the priest’s enigmatic gaze, and to wonder at the hidden meaning therein. No words passed between them, but Nabonidus bowed and handed Murilo a small gold cask. The young nobleman, knowing the Nabonidus did nothing without reason, excused himself at the first opportunity and returned hastily to his chamber. There he opened the cask and found within a human ear, which he recognized by a peculiar scar upon it. He broke into a profuse sweat, and was no longer in doubt about the meaning in the Red Priest’s glance.

Notice that we start with action and two named characters. How many unique details does Howard give us? One: small gold cask. No derailment here. We are caught up in the mysterious exchange (an ear? Really?) and what it could possibly mean. Nothing distracts us from the action, which is a hallmark any Howard story.

Thus, my advice:

  1. pick a viewpoint character
  2. give him a name (or her, if it turns out to be the she-devil)
  3. rewrite these 288 words using only 2-5 unique details
  4. with the action established, use 2-5 details per page until the scene ends
  5. from that point forward be strategic in your use of details. Utilize what you need for world building, but never let the details get so thick they interrupt the flow of the story

Others may have some advice, too, so let’s hear it. Help our anonymous writer out.

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Escapism Rocks!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

There’s always been a certain amount of stress associated with being alive. In pre-historic times, this was largely based on concerns over being eaten by large animals. Or by having pointy things stuck into your body by the tribe down the road. At the same time, you had crops to attend to and weather events to deal with. All with no TV, internet, or Candy Crush.

Later on, the Greeks sat around inventing philosophy and giving people more reasons for stress, as in, trying to figure out the point of this bewildering existence. Religion was asking the same questions in places like India, China, and Jerusalem.

As the great historians say, stuff happens. Like war. More stress. In America we had a war oddly called “Civil.” And later joined the right side in a couple of wars big enough to be called “World.”

In between WWI and II, we had the Great Depression, and the stress of actually getting food onto the table. Jobs were scarce. Prospects, in many cases, dim.

Which is where escapism stepped in to offer rays of entertaining sunshine. You had the movies, of course. For a dime you could spend a few hours with Astaire and Rogers, Gable and Tracy, Hepburn and Grant. Radio was pervasive, providing laughs from Benny and Hope and Fibber McGee, and adventures with The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. And comfort by way of “fireside chats” delivered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.

But by far the most popular form of escapism came by way of the pulp magazines. In the 1930s the pulps were booming. Newsstands and drug stores carried dozens of magazines with names like Black Mask, Dime Detective, Amazing Stories, Adventure, and Thrilling Western. Popular series characters (what the great pulp writer Erle Stanley Gardner called “the writer’s insurance policy”) included Nick Carter, Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan the Cimmerian, Buck Rogers, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Bill Lennox.

Indeed, some of our best American writers came out of the pulps—people like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert E. Howard, Fredric Brown, and Horace McCoy. Not to mention the many steady professionals who knew one thing above all—how to tell a dang good story.

And just what did these stories have in common? I think Gardner himself said it best:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

I believe this is still true. Which is why I’m launching my own short fiction channel via Patreon.

If you’re not familiar with Patreon, it’s a site where artists of various stripes can find support for their work. Friends, family, and fans become patrons of the artist. Usually that comes in the form of monthly pledges, in return for which a patron receives various benefits, such as early access to new work or a personally autographed print.

But there is another model called “per creation,” which seems to me more applicable to writers. In this model, patrons are not charged monthly, but only when an actual story is published. My job is to deliver the goods, which means entertaining escapism for a busy reading public. Stories you can read on the subway or the bus, or while waiting for the doctor, or simply at home after a long day when you don’t feel like cracking Moby Dick.

All of the details about this venture are on my page. I hope some of you will join me in this venture. The stories I publish will not appear anywhere else. You’ll be able to read this exclusive content online, on your phone via the free Patreon app, or on your Kindle, Nook or Kobo ereader.

My first story will come out June 1. It takes place in Hollywood in 1945. There’s a movie studio, a murder, and a studio troubleshooter named William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. He’s going to be a series character, so this would be a good time to get in on the ground floor.

Because in times such as these, escapism rocks.

So what are some of your favorite books, movies, or TV shows when you simply want to escape?

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First Page Critique: Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood

 

(Kirk Marsh, Getty Images. All rights reserved)

(Note from Sweet Joseph: Sorry that we are late this morning, TKZers! In absence of being able to determine why, I’ll chalk it up to a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem. Thanks for your patience.)

Greetings, TKZers, and join me today in welcoming Anon du jour who has submitted the first page of his work Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood for examination:

 Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood

At the end of Earth’s twenty-seventh century, genslaves, humanity’s genetic

creations, fulfilled man’s every desire. They rebounded from disease and injury as if

immortal. Bred to need no rest, labor-genslaves performed menial and repetitive tasks.

Mankind permitted enough intelligence to work, but not enough to aspire beyond their

station. Warrior genslaves possessed unmeasured strength and massive size. They

fought humanity’s wars, died so man didn’t have to suffer, and revived to fight again.

Healer-genslaves with skill in medicine designed cures for man’s diseases. Artists

created mankind’s beauty. Nurturers and teachers cared for humanity’s children.

Scientist-genslaves designed additional genslaves, to make man’s life even more

pleasant. All with genetic shackles of obedience, making them content to remain

subservient.

While humanity relaxed, secure in a position of power, genslave-scientists created a

new order of beings with free will. Did their creation arise from faulty programming,

or a desire for freedom? Unhampered by genetic restraints, these new creatures

took the name Ultra. Brains and brawn, they solved every problem, survived every

wound.

Untouched by disease and unthwarted by starvation, they beat the shackles of death.

They were immortal.

Immortality changed everything.

When Ultras demanded freedom, humans claimed them soulless, inferior,

unworthy, and undeserving of equality. Humans tried to silence them, and when

that failed, punished them.

The Ultras seized liberty by force. Emboldened by the Ultras’ success,

other genslaves rebelled.

Power tilted. Ultras made slaves of their former captors.

Yet among Ultras, leadership arose that considered humans redeemable. They

advocated human freedom and their own government. They sought an end to

galaxy-wide conflict. They sought peace to halt senseless death and destruction,

foster growth, and increase trade.

In 4536 AD, after centuries of war, Ultras and humans met to discuss a truce.

At the peace talks, the Ultras suffered betrayal at the hand of their own kind.

Captured, forced into cryogenic sleep, transported across the galaxy, abandoned

on a planet whose name meant ever living, a half-million woke in their eternal prison.

Too far out on the rim to be worth developing, Sempervia possessed few

natural resources. The scant supplies humans left would have meant starvation and

lingering death for mortals, but the immortal Ultras had no such mercy.

They survived.

For this reason, the first few years in Sempervian history are remembered as the Harvest of Blood.

Anon, I’m going to focus primarily on substance and a bit on form here, sometimes intermingling the two, so I would appreciate it if you (and those of you who are kind enough to spend a portion of your Saturday with me) would bear with me to the end. I hope that it will be productive for you.

Let’s begin with the title, which reminds me of one of those Swedish death metal records that Jordan Dane probably has in her record collection. It infers that your book would fall into the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, something like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian or Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser. I expected demons throwing fire, beheadings, supernatural disembowelment, and other things which I won’t get into here. After reading your submission, however, it looks like you are shooting for a speculative history novel and series — a very interesting one — with some military elements thrown in, a book that a publisher such Baen,to name but one, does so well. The title really doesn’t reflect that. It’s somewhat of a misdirection.    I would change the title to something a bit simpler which gets your idea across, such as GENSLAVES: Volume One — Rebellion.

The big issue here, however,  is that what you have sent isn’t as a practical matter  the first page of a Chapter One. It’s not even really the first page of a Prologue. It is more of an outline for a future history spanning hundreds years which will provide the spine for a novel, or maybe even several novels. I think you have a terrific idea, but you don’t have the beginning of a story or a book yet.  You have a whole book you can fill, my friend, a whole book where you can show us what you envision as a future history instead of telling us.

One suggestion — out of many possibilities — would be for you to start the first page of your novel on Sempervia, your exile planet.  Present it from the perspective of one of the Ultras on the planet who is either 1) hacking their way through a bunch of their fellow Ultras to get to something they need, 2) trying to stow away onto a rocket back to Earth or 3) escaping from a peril. Show us that Sempervia is a bad, lousy place to live, one where unicorns are eaten and recycled instead of worshipped. Show us that while dropping breadcrumbs of the history and the backstory through the narrative. Mix it up a bit, showing how the inhabitants of Sempervia survive on a day to day basis,  revealing what their short and long term plans are, and exploring how they got to be there in the first place, all the while sticking to that outline.

Maybe you have already done all of the above in pages two through six hundred of what you have written. That is all well and good; but you need to start the book off in a different manner, in order to pull a prospective agent, editor, or reader into it. Think of your first page — going to back to the spirit which your current title evokes — as the hook which pulls the eyeball of the reader into the story. Folks have short attention spans these days. You need to grab them and keep them before they pick up the television remote and start streaming the first season of Animal Kingdom.

If you want a relatively quick and excellent example of how to do something like this, see if you can get a reading copy of the Gold Key edition of the comic book MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER 4000 AD by Russ Manning ( from the 1963 edition, NOT the relaunches that have been published since) in your local library’s graphic novel section. The first few panels of the story, if memory serves, quickly give the readers example of robots doing drudge work before Magnus suddenly shows up, and, after fleeing from the robot police,  uses martial arts to kick rivets and take serial numbers. Manning gradually informs the reader as to how people let robots take over more and more duties (like making coffee, checking people into  hotels, and taking orders at Panera Bread) to the point where robots are running things and human beings are becoming subservient without really realizing it. It isn’t your plot, but it does involve a future history, and Manning, bless his heart, shows us all how to tell a future history story effectively. If you want a longer example, check out E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, or Robert H. Heinlein’s future history series. The latter is particularly accessible.

I have a couple of other points of correction, applying to form:

— Science fiction readers love those new names for future objects. You should be consistent when you create and use them. You start off with “labor-genslaves” (hyphen) and then you mention “Warrior genslaves” (no hyphen) instead of “Warrior-genslaves” before returning to “healer-genslaves” and “scientist-genslaves,” the latter of which turn into “genslave-scientists.” Since you started with “(insert type of genslave here) – genslaves,” when naming your characters, follow that format throughout your first page, and indeed, your novels, and the ones that will come later in this ambitious future history.

— If the genslaves were genetically shackled to be obedient, thus making them content to be subservient, they aren’t going to be emboldened by the Ultras’ success. “Emboldened” wouldn’t be in their genetic programming any more than “obedience” is included in a cat’s genetic makeup, even as they watch the dog doing so and thus being allowed to stay another day, go for rides, etc. Just saying.

— The first time that you mention that the high-end genslaves “took the name Ultra,” set the name off, like so:  “Ultra” or Ultra. Just the first time.

I will now remain uncharacteristically quiet (for most of the day) while our TKZers offer their own invaluable insight. And thank you, Anon, for stepping up and giving us a reason to be here today!

 

 

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