Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The rhythm of a novelet, why Episode 6 ends with brass, and digressions into a terrible fantasy novelet and a great overture

and for those of you who have just come in, there’s a longer explanation here, or just start with Episode 1 and read your way forward (at 1000 words per episode, you can’t be very far behind). 
 It’s part of a ten-episode serial being published at Light Reading, an online publication that is read by people in the advanced communications industry. So far over in that community, the most conversation generated by “Silence Like Diamonds” has been coming from a single sentence back in Episode 3, the one I wrote about in this blog. They’re having a lively and extremely interesting multi-direction argument/discussion at Mitch Wagner’s blog in Light Reading  (read Mitch’s excellent starting essay and then scroll down to the ongoing comments).
That first blog post from me, though, for Episode 1, was really much more about the technique of a kind of fiction, the novelet. So for you writerly and literary types, let's get back to litsy stuff for this installment of "blogging about fiction at usually greater length than the fiction."
Quick recap, a novelet is a mostly-action good parts version of an adventure* novel, whereas a novella is a real full-on novel that seeks the sort of single intense effect more often associated with short stories. Publishers and especially people that hand out awards have used the same words to refer to lengths, but that’s a silly (and probably dying) use of the words. A 25,000 word story in which Prince Muon of the Lizard People Nation, with the help of his faithful sidekick Sir Neutrino Vaguely-Ethnic, rescues the long-lost Princess Amoeba of the Tribe of Skinners from the dungeons of Petri, flees with her with all the hordes of Morphia pursuing, stops an impending fight between the Lizard Marines and the Skinner Commandoes and unites them to fight against the oncoming Morphians , wins a great victory in battle against Morphia, arrives home just in time to prevent their fathers from going to war, marries Amoeba, but is kidnapped on his wedding night,  thus discovering that his father’s most trusted servant Baron Treacle Nasturtium was behind all the trouble, kills Nasturtium in a rooftop sword fight, and returns to his princess, including the eventual birth of their son Peon, who is going to be the First King of the Lizard-Skinners … all told as quick action scenes linked by brief narrative summary … that’s a novelet.  Also one major booger of a long sentence.** 
All right, so if that’s what a novelet is (artistically if not in word count) how do we outline one?
I thought I’d explain what I did to outline a novelet.  This carries no more recommendation than that 
  1. people are definitely reading “Silence Like Diamonds,” to judge by my incoming emails and the comments at Light Reading, 
  2. I’ve been writing light adventure fiction for commercial publication off and on for a long time, and 
  3. I tend to think a lot about technique (whether my thoughts are worth your while is of course your call). 
 So there may or may not be anything to learn from this, oh my padawans, except perhaps not to follow geezers into swamps. Or there may be.  Just don’t make commandments out of it, okay? Here’s what I did this once.
I was constrained to exactly ten episodes of exactly even length.  And once I realized I wanted to write a novelet, rather than a novella (the other choices might have been a long short story or a pure mood piece, and neither appealed to me), that meant  lots of action.*** But to do a good job with action, you’ve got to make it meaningful; the rejection bins of centuries are stuffed thick with stories in which things blew up, guns went off, traitors were revealed, orphans were menaced, and people boinked on every damned page and back seat, but because none of that action really meant anything in the context of the story, the slush reader tossed it aside.
So how do you balance that action and meaning across ten episodes?
I think of it as rhythm.  Action is stronger if it’s a surprise, and much more meaningful if it’s prepared. (That’s why, instinctively, when someone tells you a story about someone that you don’t know, the first thing they do is tell you some otherwise irrelevant facts to give you some feelings about that person.)
Among the quiet actions, possibly the most effective one is reversal: something that drastically alters the situation or its meaning, so that the person who was on top is now on the bottom, or so that everything that has happened so far is suddenly in question. Robert McKee, in Story,  points to a number of great ones: “Luke, I’m your father,” “She’s my daughter and my sister!”, and “Round up the usual suspects,” are famous lines where big reversals happen.
In general, for action, things should be delayed a bit, to set up the meaning and to establish the quiet you're about to shatter, but toward the end of the story, where surprises normally become scarcer and harder to come up with,  action should be packed together tightly.
So I looked at it this way: 10=1+2+3+4. 
That is, as the reader attention presumably gets more intense, we keep them in a group of scenes longer.
The first episode should be a standalone that invites readers to read more; just give them a character and a situation and have something start the action. That’s sort of the free-in that most readers give us; they want their attention to be caught, so if you put an interesting person into an interesting situation and compel them to do something interesting, the readers will generally come on board (while reserving the right to scuttle right back off if it isn't what they were promised).
The second group of episodes (2 and 3) should get the rest of the players (or most of them) onto the board, complicate the situation, and pull the reader forward with more action. We need to see a few things that make us care about the characters, have a few things go off so that the reader is reassured that the action s/he reads for, and was promised in the first episode, really  is impending. So some major character development (in this case, more interactions with Yazzy, Joy Sobretu, and most of all Markus) should be combined with a swiftly driven plot-oriented events.
The third group, of 3 episodes (4, 5, 6) has in some ways the most complicated job to do.  Since the fourth group (7-10) needs to be an explosion of action, we need to prepare for it with a much quieter mood. 
Yet there’s neither space nor reader tolerance to just do a pure mood piece; in that third group, stuff needs to happen, but it needs to be quiet stuff happening quietly -- yet noticeably important, intrinsically interesting stuff to keep the reader from going back to watching reality TV or playing Angry Birds.   
In this case, the stuff was relationship stuff (which is bound to be quiet because Yip is quiet and shy, and hardly going to throw herself at Markus, who in turn is not the sort of clod who comes on to every woman in the first ten minutes). Secondarily, the third group included several big reversals, leading up to a chance to see where Yip is coming from (i.e. her family), and to make the stakes at issue both more personal for her and bigger and more complicated.   And then …
Well, I wrote the first trumpet notes into the end of Episode 6.  From here on, hold onto your hat.
So the rhythm, roughly, is
Part 1 (length 1): A few intriguing notes about character and situation, and just a hint of action
Part 2(length 2): Fulfilling the promise of action, maneuvering more cast onto stage, complicate the situation (especially taking out the easy exits, which it’s vital to close early lest the reader ask “Couldn’t s/he have just ….?” later on.)
Part 3(length 3): Deeper and more intense quiet views of the world of the story, with quiet relationship action and reversals to keep things moving, getting people’s attention focused before –
Part 4 (length 4): Hey, that would be telling. But if you’re looking for excitement, it starts in a big way on Friday, with Episode 7, and doesn’t let up for quite a while after.
It's the rhythm, roughly, of  the William Tell Overture.  (Not just the 3rd part, which is the “Lone Ranger” bit). Uncut, Rossini's opera is three hours and forty-some minutes long, and a great whacking bloody thumping wonderful noisy experience it is too, full of all the blood and thunder anyone could want. Think of that as the novel from which the novelet of the William Tell Overture will be drawn. 
In about twelve minutes, the overture tells us the "good parts version" -- here's all the action you're looking for, jammed together tight.  The first part flows from the gentle, quiet, slightly tense opening into a dramatic and exciting representation of the storm on the lake (a scene which beats hell out of that silly business with shooting the apple off the kid's head, by the way). The third part is one of the most stirring brassy pump-‘em-up pieces in all of Western opera. But in between, the second part is the nature theme – representing Tell and his friends/family hiding out in the pretty woods and enjoying nature. It's there that we get a sense of why Tell is not just another rebel superhero overturning the wicked order to create a better world; he's a good man of the forests and the land and all that nature stuff, pure as a summer rainfall in an old growth forest, lightly scented with .... well, okay, but it   has been used for countless shampoo, deodorant, and feminine-hygiene commercials, and is too much of a cliché to use for people sitting quietly in pristine wilderness anymore.  And it dwindles down to almost nothing just before BOMbuddaBOMbuddaBOMP BOMP BOMP BOMP!
And that, anyway, is how I’m trying to keep you amused. The rhythm of the novelet is not just about packing it with good stuff (by which a novelet reader usually means "action," but keeping that good stuff fresh, surprising, and meaningful.  
Those of you who haven't deserted yet, thank you and I'm glad it worked.
*or I suppose romance, erotica, or horror, or any other kind of book-length story that sets out to evoke strong emotions
**On the other hand, 12,500 words in which elderly Prince Muon visits his middle-aged son, King-To-Be Peon, and after a long ride together in the golden fall sunlight to visit Amoeba’s grave and brush the leaves from it, realizes that he understands Peon better than he thought he did,  and that the thing that unites them most is that neither of them really understood Amoeba, but both of them deeply loved her … that’s a novella. And a considerably shorter sentence.
***a small but important point: action means much more than sex and violence.  Action is anything that is intrinsically interesting and also irreversibly changes the course of the story.  When Han answers Leia with, “I know,” that is action, maybe the biggest action in that movie (if like me you’re already tired of all those pompous good and evil bores in the Jedi plot whacking each other with light sabers). When Huck tears up the letter with which he was going to turn in Jim, that teenage boy shredding paper is more action than the two whole chapters of a violent frontier feud in the same book (and if you don’t believe me, just ask yourself which scene you remembered before I mentioned them). Stephen King fills ‘Salem’s Lot with a whole small-scale vampire war, but for me, anyway, the half-page while Ben brings himself to stake Susan is the strongest action in the book.  Now, by chance, you may not agree with my definition of action.  If so, stop reading a footnote to a blog post you won’t like, and go read something you enjoy. Sheesh. Do I have to tell you everything?