Friday, May 31, 2013

A Word About POV

I just came back from MisCon last weekend, and holy smokes, what a blast that was. MisCon is one of the most congenial science fiction conventions anywhere, and it has a great writers' workshop. I critiqued several manuscripts and I hope the writers got something useful out of my comments. I occurs to me, as I sit here going through a couple of old manuscripts I am now incented to work on again (they're sold, they're sold!), that perhaps those writers and others could benefit from looking at old and new examples of my own rewriting.

I am working through the latter books in a series I wrote quite a long time ago and just now sold to Sky Warrior Books. I am a better writer now than I was then, and one passage in particularly sort of leaped out at me as a way to illustrate one of the greater mysteries of writing that often baffles newbies to the craft: point of view, or POV.

POV, in all its bewildering glory, is the viewpoint from which you are observing the scene with the reader. That can be godlike, loftily “telling” us everything that’s happening; first person, which locks you into one character’s head and the only thing the reader can know is what that character knows; or third person, in which you refer to everyone has “he” or “she” and you can widen the view a little. I like third person myself, though I have written many short stories in first person, even second person (but you have to be realllllly good to pull off a second person story, and there’s not much market for them). My older stuff tends to combine tight third person with a bit of omniscience, as in the first excerpt below, which is the original passage:
Money began to change hands on the sidelines. The King of Sevakand and his heir were fencing together for the first time in months, barefoot and stripped to fighting leathers, an unequal contest to the untrained eye. The King stood a clear hand taller than his brother and was half again as broad across the shoulders, with a tremendous reach, but Alarion was quick and hard to catch as a flea, his blade flickering in and out like summer lightning. The betting grew heavy among the Mreens. The Whites, Alarion's own regiment, slyly prodded the Blacks to lengthen the odds on him. He had been bedridden until two months ago, recovering from a near-fatal wound. This match was the first all-out duel he had fought since. Even so, the Whites were fiercely proud of their prince; they would have died to a man rather than confess doubt in his ability even against his brother, the second-best swordsman in the Citadel.

The Blacks gave odds warily, wondering if the Hav'an's earlier unwonted flinching was a trick, until Treleramon tripped Alarion and brought him crashing to the sand a hair's breadth ahead of the fabled sword of the kings of Sevakand. Alarion rolled desperately away, coated with sand and sweat. The Blacks whooped and slapped down crystals. Treleramon grinned at his brother and took a half step back, gesturing with his free hand for him to get up.

"You are too generous, Majest!" Alarion flipped to his feet in a muscle-straining move that brought a groan of appreciation from every throat in the yard. His sword described an eccentric arc, whipped under the King's blade and ended at his throat. Treleramon staggered back and stopping, grinning, his own point just touching Alarion's naval.

"Draw?"

Alarion snorted. "What would your enemies think?"

He hurled himself backward and they began again, circling like dancers under the hot summer sun. They had to get down to knives to finish it, and Treleramon did not have his younger brother's lithe ability with a dagger. He surrendered gracefully in the end, setting the Whites whooping as they moved to collect from the disgruntled Blacks.

S'Bralic, commander of the King's bodyguard, leaned down to give him a hand up. "You're slipping, Majest." His lean face wore a wicked grin under the black turban of his elite service.

Let me hasten to state that there is really not that much wrong with this old passage. I wrote a great deal in omniscient POV when I was younger, head-hopping merrily and often observing the action from a bit of a distance. This was and is acceptable if you do it right; anything that holds the reader’s interest is pretty much okay; damn the “rules” of writing. But (she said), getting close the character is always, always preferable to watching from on high. This is a common problem that I end up pointing out to people whose work I critique in workshops of all types. 

Because I, too, was once prone to the sin of omniscient Telling, I am rewriting a lot of this old stuff to put the reader back into the main character’s head, thusly:
Money began to change hands on the sidelines. Alarion grinned as he spun away from a parry, catching a glimpse of a tall sarjent dangling a pouch in front of a recruit who looked horrified. It must indeed look like an unequal match to an untrained eye; Treleramon was a hand taller than he was and half again as broad across the shoulders. But he has to catch me to use that thing on me, Alarion thought smugly, and danced again out of the path of the fabled sword of the kings of Sevakand, cast centuries ago from the remains of the ship that had brought the Founders to this world. Dimly he heard a White Mreen from his own regiment taunting a Black to lengthen the odds on him. “And wasn’t the Hav’an flat on his back for two months?” drifted over the shuffle of Treleramon’s boots on the sand as the King spun and brought his sword across sideways in a wicked slash at Alarion’s legs.

He leaped clear, panting, enjoying this first full-out match they had fought since last year. Trey was still the second-best swordsman in the Citadel after S’Bralic, commander of the King’s bodyguard, and Alarion wanted badly to beat him, just once. Besides, there was a lot of money changing hands over there. The Whites would never forgive him if he lost.

Treleramon feinted, stepped out of the way of a counter, and tripped Alarion to the sand. Alarion rolled desperately away, coated with sand and sweat. The Blacks whooped and slapped down crystals. Treleramon grinned at him and took a half step back, gesturing with his free hand for him to get up.

“You are too generous, Majest!” Alarion flipped to his feet in a muscle-straining move that brought a groan of appreciation from every throat in the yard. He whipped his sword under the King's blade and up, ending at his brother’s throat. Treleramon staggered back and stopping, grinning, his own point just touching Alarion's naval.

“Draw?”

Alarion snorted. “What would your enemies think?”

He hurled himself backward and they began again, circling like dancers under the morning sun. Treleramon attacked, driving Alarion back on sheer brute strength. Alarion ducked, wove, and finally found an opening when Treleramon’s foot collided with his, jarring them both off-balance. Alarion, lighter, quicker, recovered first. He took a quick step sideways, ducked under Treleramon’s arm, and tapped his sword lightly to the back of the King’s neck.

“You can pick up your head now,” he said, as Treleramon wheeled around, a fraction of a second too late.

Treleramon, his broad chest heaving, gave Alarion a sardonic salute and surrendered. The Whites whooped and moved to collect from the disgruntled Blacks. S'Bralic stepped out from the sidelines. “You're slipping, Majest.” His lean face wore a wicked grin under the black turban of his elite service.

Pretty much everything that was in the original is still there in the rewrite, but now we “see” the scene from Alarion’s POV instead of me telling the reader what’s going on over there on the sidelines. If you are a new writer struggling to “show” the scene, think about the differences here and how to really get inside your character’s head. Confine yourself initially to what he can see, hear, taste, smell, and actually know, and you will go a long way toward mastering the intricacies of putting your reader into the scene with your character.

This excerpt is from the second book in the “Fate’s Arrow” trilogy. “The Mask of God,” the first book, will be out at the end of July if all goes well. I am very much enjoying revisiting this world, and I hope you’ll like it, too.

Until next time!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Horses in Fiction: Firsthand Cavalry Experience

As I hinted awhile back, I have been hoping to line up some guests for this series who have interesting horse experiences different from my own. At Norwescon this year I was fortunate enough to sit on a panel with Jim Franklin, a retired U.S. Cavalry officer, the only person I know who has actually used horses on military maneuvers in combat. Major Franklin is a great guy with fascinating stories, and he has graciously consented to share a few with us.

In his words:
"First let me start with a little background. My experience with horses began very young, growing up on a farm and then in the mountains with a girlfriend in my teenage years who owned horses, so I spent much of my youth riding through woods both during the day and night in the Oregon Coast Range and Cascades. Also, as a Boy Scout, I had used pack animals several times in the mountains. So when the opportunity arose to participate in military operations with horses, and having joined the Army as a Cavalry Scout, who would not jump at the chance?
The two biggest periods I used horses involved a period in the mid-1980s, participating in Central America, dealing with both drug cartels and rebel groups. The second was in Bosnia in 1996-1997.
In Central America, we used horses for several important reasons. At first we were given jeeps and dirt bikes, but those require fuel and maintenance, a large support network that takes up valuable space on supply runs, don’t like many of the “roads”, and make a ton of noise, announcing to people where you are for miles. The solution was to use local wranglers to supply horses, which can eat local food, are used to the heat and humidity, make very little noise going up a “road” (read trail!), and give you an extra pair of eyes and ears, which hear much better than you do.
When volunteers were asked for, I jumped at the chance and was the platoon leader for a 25-40 man mounted “cavalry” platoon, which mostly used the horses to get where we needed to and fight dismounted. No sabers (darn it), just M-16s and M1911 Colt Pistols. It took much effort to train people who had never been on horses before and we had about a 50% washout rate, both in people and horses. It’s funny, because just as many people who cannot handle horses, horses cannot handle people. When we started it was a rude surprise to both sides in how effectively we could move and cover an area, and to the “rebel” forces, because they expected noisy Americans to just move loudly and on roads.
There were many logistical problems, from keeping the horses healthy to teaching people how to take care of equipment. Horse tack is not in the military system, so private contractors had to provide the gear, and much of it had to be returned because it was cheap stuff. We had to design and build a special saddlebag to carry the radios because U.S. Military radios don’t ride well on a person’s back.
The funniest thing that happened was that most of our horses were used to being stopped when any firearms were discharged. Most had been desensitized to the loud noise, but I made a big mistake once. While chasing a group I decided to shoot my pistol from the horse at speed. Well, she decides when the shot goes off that she is supposed to be stopped. So, she stopped. I did not. Cartwheel over her head and down the side of the slope. It was funny, much later.
Point of order, horses don’t like the sound of supersonic bullets; something about the wiz of the bullet before you hear the discharge makes them nervous.
In Bosnia--rather, in the Hungarian and Croatian areas that had to be patrolled--the Hungarians use horses to patrol the borders between them and Croatia, and given that the conflict almost brought Hungary into it, the military has a real good handle on the border. Also, the Hungarians have a history of Horse Archers so the country is covered with horse ranches and excellent riders. In my job as the National Support Element Force Protection OIC (sounds important does it not?) I had several opportunities to ride with the Hungarian border units, on both sides of the Hungarian-Croatian border.
James Franklin
Major, US Cavalry (Retired)

Thank you, Jim, for taking the time to share with us a little of the real world of horses in the military. And thank you for your service. It is much appreciated.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sidekicks--Who Needs 'em?

I'm working on Seaborn today, trying to get the final revisions back to my editor. As I watch my heroine, Nes, trying to get through a particularly rough patch, it occurs to me why the whole kickass female thing is starting to strike me as way overdone. Yes, I believe women are as brave, as tough, and as ingenious as men in getting into and out of trouble, each in her own way. And yes, I don't want to read about wimpy females who have to be rescued all the time.

But... there is a limit to what your hero/heroine should be able to manage. What really bugs me about the overblown hero thing is when the guy/gal doesn't seem to need anyone else. The other characters are just there to make the reader feel reallllly good about the hero. The hero's flaws (if there are any) are so miniscule that they really don't matter to the outcome. Their sidekicks may be colorful and fun, but they often seem to exist just so the hero has someone to talk to. Bleh.

Give me a hero (or kickass heroine) with some real flaws, some fears, some character traits that won't win any prizes for congeniality or tact or best team player. Then give them sidekicks who challenge them as well as support them. In Seaborn, Nes, a daughter of the Water Clans, has one paralyzing fear that humiliates her, crops up whenever she least needs distraction, and affects even her relationships with people around her. It's terribly hard to be impressive when you're puking your guts out, and she knows it, which only makes her angrier. She so wants to prove what she can do, but there’s this phobia getting in her way. Haven't we all been there, wanting badly to impress, only to have some stupid fear or flaw or mistake crop up to kneecap us?

This is why I love supporting characters. Friendship is one of the most interesting and basic bonds between people. Watching strangers bond in a story is always satisfying; the hero’s journey, when well done, is built on trust and friendship and achievement by all the members of the party. I really want the hero to fail now and again to give everyone else a chance to shine. I want the lesser characters to contribute to the story and be important in their own right. Having just re-read Stephen King’s homage to friendship, “It,” I realize how strongly I am drawn to stories like that one that depend on a disparate cast of people with real strengths and weaknesses, who are challenged to pull their own weight and step up when it counts. Some will manage it; some will fail. This is the essential story, the one that goes way beyond fulfilling the quest. How boring Frodo would have been without Sam.

This melding of talents and strengths (and weaknesses), I think, is one of the things that makes the Harry Potter series so popular. Harry is not the brightest, most talented kid at Hogwarts, nor even the bravest (that honor goes to Neville). He depends on his friends to help him get through, as they depend on him to lead, to keep fighting, to give them heart in their worst moments. That is his strength, the hero’s strength, that I think many writers of heroic fiction forget. The current popular meme of the kickass loner who doesn’t really need anyone else to accomplish the mission, while fun to write and explore, is less interesting to me than the hero who both inspires and needs other people.

Hmm. Perhaps this is why the cast of the Masters of the Elements series keeps growing! I like watching what everyone else can contribute. Seaborn uses the skills of all four of the talented clans to get where it’s going. My heroes will have been “up the creek and over the mountain” before it’s done. And so will Nes, phobia and all--with a little help from her friends.

You can check out the first two books of the Masters of the Elements, Firedancer and Windrider to see what I'm talking about and to catch up on the series thus far. Firedancer was a finalist for the 2013 EPIC Award for Fantasy.