Opening Week: Exposition

And to wrap things up, the opening scene from Profiteer:

For a hundred million years the two-kilometer-long Face had stared impassively up at the Martian sky. Dimitri Olmanov had only been visiting it regularly for the past century.

The first time he had seen it, Dimitri had needed a pressure suit and the sky had burned a hostile red. Today he survived wearing only a heavy parka. Today his breath fogged beneath an infinity of crystal blue that was only slightly tinted by clouds of engineered microorganisms.

His doctor would curse him for not using a respirator. Dimitri, he’d say, your new heart has quite enough trouble with the stress of your job. Don’t burden it with a too-thin atmosphere.

His general staff would object to him being out in the open like this— even with the omnipresent Ambrose. Too much risk in his job without inviting assassins.

The Confed publicists wouldn’t like to have it public knowledge that Dimitri— the Dimitri— had a sentimental streak. They made much from the mythical Iron Man at the head of the TEC.

He could ignore them with impunity.

The Face, Dimitri could not ignore.

He was the most powerful human being in the Confederacy. He needed to remind himself that there were things bigger than he was.

You can start with exposition, You can even start with exposition in a prologue, which is often a deadly combination. What makes it work here is we have a character and a setting, and a good dose of implied conflict. It also gives us a lot of background information in a short span of time, background about the technology, about the political structure of the universe, and about Dimitri himself and his role, and about his character.

Opening Week: Action

Here we have the first part of Stranger Inside:

Jimmy didn’t know how the fight started.

He’d been standing in front of his locker and he remembered watching that asshole Frank Bradley pass by. In Jimmy’s mind there was an abrupt cut from that, directly to the sound of his skull hitting the locker. He didn’t have time to shake the painful ringing out of his ears before he felt Frank’s fist slamming into his gut.

Frank must be having a bad day.

Jimmy felt his back slam into the locker behind him. Copper breath blew from his puffed cheeks as Frank punched his side, above the kidney. Frank’s other hand pressed against Jimmy’s face, holding him back and obstructing his vision. Frank’s hand smelled of sweat and grease.

Jimmy heard a crowd around them, though he could only catch glimpses of the semicircle of students. None of the faces were familiar, though Jimmy wondered exactly who he was looking for. He’d only been here two months—

Another jab in the region of his kidney brought the thought to an abrupt close.

He brought his arms in close to fend off Frank’s fist, which kept pounding. Frank didn’t seem to notice, or care. Frank was throwing wild punches, with little attention to where he connected.

Fuck. Jimmy thought. The bastard isn’t going to let up this time.

Another tried and true technique in openings is starting in medias res, dropping the reader in the middle of an action scene. It looks like an easy way to get a reader involved quickly, but it’s harder than it looks. In order to be involved in the scene, the reader has to have some investment in the character and the situation. There’s a lot less room to show the characters and situation when the fists are flying on the first page. (Compare the level of action here with my last opening.)

Obviously, it can be done.  I’m pretty sure that, by the end of this passage, the reader has a clear picture of Jimmy simply through the choice of POV and narrative voice.  The setting is also subtly but firmly anchored by the references to lockers and students.  When combined with Jimmy’s voice, the reader is pretty sure that we’re in a High School somewhere.  That alone brings enough context to start getting us into the relationship between Frank and Jimmy, and for most readers that knowledge is enough to engender the interest and empathy to turn the page.

Opening Week: Setting the Scene

Now, here’s the opening passage from Wolfbreed.

In the darkest woods in Burzenland, south of the Carpathian mountains, a knight of the Order of the Hospital of St. Mary of the Germans at Jerusalem, Brother Semyon von Kassel, ran as if he was in pursuit of the devil himself.

Mud smeared his mail, leaves and stray twigs poked out from tangles in his hair and beard, soot darkened his skin, and crusted blood smeared his face. His lips cracked and bled as he whispered a Pater Noster over and over. The scabbard for his longsword dangled empty at his hip, and in his hand he clutched a shiny dagger too ornate for one of his order.

He stared out at the dark woods with eyes wide, shiny, and hard.

Drag marks in the loam of the forest floor marked the trail he followed. Occasionally, tar-like smears of old blood marked a tree or an errant part of someone’s armor. He had passed half a dozen remnants of his brother knights; helmets, gauntlets, boots, all marred by their knights’ blood and occasional shreds of flesh or hair.

Half a dozen signs of his dead brethren Semyon had passed since he had burned a respect for the Lord God into the pagan priest who had bequeathed him the dagger in his hand. Semyon prayed that, in the excruciation of the pagan’s punishment, the man’s lips had been compelled to speak the truth.

The beast he followed showed no impulse to hide its trail. Why would it? What fool would brave these woods against it? To confront a creature that hunted men the way a man would hunt a hare?

The basic formula for an opening (if there is such a thing) is, present a character with a problem, and place them in action in a well-defined setting. There are variants, but almost always you want the POV character nailed in the first two paragraphs, ideally in the first sentence. By the end of the page we should understand what they’re doing and why, and have some clues to where. The reason for this is that readers come with a set of default assumptions, and anything left unsaid risks running afoul of them. A good example is the first person narrator that doesn’t reveal their gender until page ten, chances are at least half the readers get a jolt. This becomes more important the further removed from the reader’s expectations the story is set.

Here we have the reader dumped into 13th Century Transylvania in the first sentence, and by the end of that sentence we’re running with a member of a Medieval military order. And the setting becomes more and more specific as the scene goes on, as does the character of Brother Semyon.

Opening Week: Blank Slate

Next up on my opening page series is from The Omega Game:

Quaid Loman woke up— or at least became fully aware of his surroundings— sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed. His hands shook, sweat dripped down the back of his neck, and he needed a drink more than at any time in the past six months.

He tried to remember the previous night, and he couldn’t.

Quaid rubbed the palms of his hands deep into the orbits of his eyes, and fairy ghosts of color shot across the insides of his eyelids. It was a reflex, born from other long nights he couldn’t remember, and the longer mornings that followed.

It took him a few moments before he was awake enough to realize that the hangover blood-throb— the price of admission for such an evening— was absent.

Even so, Quaid’s breathing was measured, careful. His body still expected the pain. When he finally moved, it was with a slow deliberation, restrained by a fear that was almost an ache itself— the anticipation sharp as it had ever been.

Not just the first drink, Quaid’s barely rational thoughts stepped on themselves, the first thought of drink.

As if to mock him, the pain refused to come.

The opening of any story has to hook the reader and get them invested in what’s happening in the story. One of the best ways to do that is by presenting a character with a problem. Quaid here has a problem, and by the end of this passage its clear that it’s not the one we, or Quaid, first expects. Amnesia is usually a cheap plot device, but here it’s subverted by having a character who’s experienced blackouts before. The hook then becomes not the cliché, “what did I do?” But the stranger question, “why is this particular blackout different?”

Opening Week: Breaking the “Rules”

I recently started following a new group writer blog, Kill Zone, featuring a bunch of thriller writers. They’ve recently had a series of posts critiquing first pages submitted by their readers. I thought this a cool idea, and it inspired me to do my own series of posts on openings, in this case from my own novels, giving some commentary on what I was trying to do.

First up is from Broken Crescent.

Long after the great and terrible battles, long after the world had been broken by the forces Ghad himself had created, Ghad walked between the world and the shadow of the world to see what there was to be seen. At length he came across a man-child crying in the wilderness. Ghad took on the form of an old woman and approached the man-child.

“Why do you cry such bitter tears?” asked Ghad.

“I cannot work the fields, and the College will not take me. May parents abandoned me here.”

Ghad frowned. “Listen child, and I will teach you what the College will not.” And, because it pleased Ghad to do so, he taught the man-child words of power beyond the knowledge of the most learned of men.

The man-child returned to his village and spoke such words that the houses of his parents, his uncles, and his grandfathers were consumed with fire.

And, because Ghad hated man, Ghad was pleased.

–The Book of Ghad and Man, Volume II, Chapter 105

So, in a lot of ways this is an example of what everyone advises you not to do. Prologues are generally considered a bad thing, and prefacing your story with faux documentary articles, news clippings, quotes are also warning signs in most manuscripts. So why do I think this works?

Well, why do people advise against it? Number one reason; it usually stops the action (or defers it), removes us from any actual scene, and makes us that more distant from the actual story— all of which are deadly flaws in a opening. If something like above only provides backstory, it’s meaningless, because the backstory is only interesting insofar as it’s relevant to present action— which by definition doesn’t exist yet if that’s where you’re starting.

In the above, I think I tackled these objections by making a parable that isn’t just relevant to the story that unfolds later (in fact it shows the core theme of the whole work) but is also a full scene that stands on its own terms. It has its own characters, conflict, rising action and a knife twist at the end that happens to be the most important takeaway from the whole thing.

Apocalyptic SFnal Nightmare Scenario of the Day

(with thanks to Instapundit)

Thanks to an NPR article we have a concept worthy of a Phillip K Dick novel, with Orwellian commentary that should scare the crap out of you if you have any imagination— or remember the CIA’s history dealing with other chemical substances.

The money quote:

Does Biology Affect Our Trust In Government?

Zak first got interested in trust more than a decade ago after co-authoring a study that looked at trust levels in different nations and their economic stability. The study found that the higher the level of trust, the better the economic status of the nation.

The work got Zak thinking more generally about different ways to manipulate trust, and so starting in 2001, Zak began spraying oxytocin up the noses of college students to see if the hormone would change the way they interacted with strangers.

It did. Squirt oxytocin up the nose of a college kid, and he’s 80 percent more likely to distribute his own money to perfect strangers.

Robotic Melding

I’ve be asked again to provide mental melding on the SF Signal blog.  The topic this time is “The Coolest Robots in SF.”  I’ve cross-posted my entry here, but you should go see the rest:

The coolest robots in SF? That’s a tall order. The field is vast, including everything from the ambulatory logical puzzle machines of Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories, to the Cylons of BSG. Gort to Wall-E. It’s almost an impossible task to narrow it down…But, if we agree that we’re talking about “coolness”, I think it becomes a little easier. If we define cool in the sense that ninjas, Harleys and dinosaurs are cool, and in the way that a ninja dinosaur riding a Harley is way cooler, well I think we can narrow things down a bit (I mean, Wall-E is cute, and cute <> cool).

So my three coolest robots:

  • Bender from Futurama. Bender is anti-social, lecherous, dishonest, and hard-drinking. His only visible means of support is grand larceny. His evil twin is the good guy. If Han Solo was a robot, he’d be Bender, and he’d kick C3P0’s metrosexual ass.
  • The Terminator, from the movie, natch. The Terminator defines cool for cinematic ass-kicking robotdom. The opening scene has him walking up to a set of Doomed Punks™ bare ass naked, and rips a guy’s stomach out for the poor schlub’s clothes. He dresses in a motorcycle jacket, carries an arsenal, wears a badass pair of shades- after doing home surgery on his own eyeball– and, after delivering one of the most quoted one-liners in cinema history, drives a truck into a police station before ventilating everyone in the place. And he’s a time-traveling robot from the future! That will always give bonus cool points.

And speaking of time-traveling robots from the future, there’s one robot cooler than the Terminator by at least five levels of Chuck Norris badassery (and please note that’s a logarithmic scale):

  • The Shrike from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and sequels. If Edward Scissorhands (another good robot, but emo, and emo<>cool) was a prophet, the Shrike would be his God. Here we have an near-omnipotent, near-invulnerable, time-traveling walking knife drawer that- if it doesn’t turn you into sushi while dodging every weapon that you throw at it- takes you home so it can impale you alive in its front yard where you get to writhe in agony forever while it looks on like the silent mega-badass it is.

Writing toward the abyss. . .

I’m literally in the home stretch of Messiah now, a few thousand words from capping off ten books and seventeen years worth of work.  This is where I’m getting all sweaty and nervous.   Especially since I’ve spent 250K+ words so far continually upping the ante, I’m hoping that the climax will justify the build up.  Also nerve-inducing is the fact that I don’t yet have any commitments for what I’m going to write after this, it will be literally the first time in my writing career when I don’t have a contract to fulfill.  This is scary territory for me. . .

Idiot Authors (or, just because you’re published doesn’t mean you’re not a douche)

UPDATE: (3/31/2011) Fixed a typo someone pointed out on Reddit.

I’ve written enough about authors that have shown very public displays of ill judgment that it seemed to be almost mandatory that I talk about Mr. Patrick Roscoe (his name is not a link because you absolutely must hear the story before landing on his site.)  This is especially true because my list of authorial asshats seems to be overwhelmingly female, and we do need some gender balance.

So what did Mr. Roscoe do?  Well, he sent the following to literary agent Colleen Lindsay,  to whom he queried for representation. (Unsuccessfully, natch.)

Colleen Lindsay:

Thank you for making it clear, through your response to my query, that you are unquipped (sic) to represent fiction writers who are working at the very highest level today.

Best of luck with your list of minor writers, third-rate writers, irrelevant writers, non-writers.

You lose, silly woman.

Patrick Roscoe

Wow. I am sort of in awe of this letter. Here we combine, in only three sentences, a pure distillate of unprofessionalism, arrogance, misogyny, and complete absence of self-awareness.  I mean, you got to love the fact that he ranks himself among “fiction writers who are working at the very highest level today,” and yet has to look for representation from someone specializing in representing a “list of minor writers, third-rate writers, irrelevant writers, non-writers.” You just got to love that. And you really got to love the typo in the sentence establishing his literary street cred.

Ok, you’re probably thinking as I did, upon reading the post on Colleen Lindsay’s blog, that we’re just looking at newbie writer syndrome.  After all, you don’t expect this kind of behavior from writers who’ve actually published something.  This is only logical, since this kind of behavior is quite possibly the best way to prevent being published, short of not writing anything.

But, oh dear, Teresa at Making Light lets us all know that this guy, in fact, has been writing quite a while.

And, yes, he has a website whose ironic pretentiousness you are now primed to appreciate.  (And I will draw your attention to his expression on the borderline NSFW author pic.  If not for the absence of a bobbing head I would have pegged the shot as having been taken mid-fellation, but I guess he’s only stroking his ego.)

No I haven’t given up ranting about politics.

But I decided to stop doing it here.  Frankly, most of the people coming to this site are a lot more interested in my thoughts about writing and fiction than my political ravings.  And while I may have a few fans for my rants, it seems that it might make more sense to direct them to another blog now dedicated to such blather.  It really is a win-win.  The fans of my fiction can delude themselves into thinking I inhabit the same political universe they do, and I get to play in a sandbox where I can take my gloves off and let loose without harshing the mellow here.

So, if my politics scare you, you can just ignore them.