Realism in Fiction

Tanto Blade - 50mm, 1/60, f/8

Tanto Blade – 50mm, 1/60, f/8

I went to a local writers’ group meeting. The idea was, you bring copies of a section of your writing, read for the group, and they give feedback either verbally or in the form of notes written on their copy, which they handed back to you.  I think this is helpful because other writers can spot problems you might have missed.

My novel is based on history, so one would expect it to be true to the time and fairly realistic. It’s not fantasy or science fiction.  In the section I read, a ten-year-old boy makes an incredible shot with an arrow, trying to save his mother’s life.  A couple of men in the group thought this was far fetched, and that a boy that young could not possibly pull the bow with that much force and accuracy.  In a group like this, if you defend every criticism, people will stop giving you feedback.  So the best thing is to listen and nod, or ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand their meaning.  So that’s what I did.

But here’s the problem:  I studied this period in Japanese history for three years while writing the book. It was a time when people like Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi led cavalry charges into battle at fourteen years of age. I have also trained for years in Japanese, as well as other, martial arts.  I have seen many students make incredible transformations from being clumsy and slow, to confident and precise with their technique.  But these are people who come to class twice a week for an hour or two.

In 1600’s Japan, little boys didn’t have Xboxes or Playstations.  They had wooden swords.  So if we lazy Americans can improve as much as I’ve seen people build skill in a few months of 3 or 4 hours a week, what if you had no modern media distractions and put in 20 hours of hard, focused practice per week… for years?  Japanese people had a capacity to focus on one thing until they perfected it that our short attention spans simply can’t comprehend.

However, my average reader will probably not be aware of all this.  Does that mean I change the story to be more “plausible”?  My goal in writing the story is to entertain and educate, but it is fiction, so I don’t know how important it is that readers think what they are reading is possible in the real world.  I have read some pretty ridiculous things in novels, but I still enjoyed the story. Hey, maybe there’s something I don’t understand myself, right?  My inclination is to focus on things like the note someone wrote “watch your adverbs” (because there was a section with too many of them ending in “ly”), and not worry about the fact that most readers will not have the same understanding I do from my studies.

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Writing fiction: Action versus Detail

This was one of the first things I got advice on when I started writing fiction. Some readers like richly painted environments and detailed descriptions. Others prefer the plot to move forward at a brisk pace and want to see more action. I was still finding my style and I actually hadn’t read that many books before I decided to write one.  I thought I was doing something wrong by not having enough long, detailed descriptions.  Then I read several novels in the genre I was writing and some New York Times bestsellers, and I discovered that writers have different styles.

Some writers don’t spend a lot of time on details, but they are very good about keeping the plot moving and keeping the reader wondering what’s going to happen next. I think I fall into this category. That is, I try to lead the reader in the right direction with brief descriptive details, then let their imagination take over while I get on with what’s actually happening. Some authors spend paragraphs and even pages filling in background story and painting vivid surroundings with their words.  If this is done a certain way, I enjoy it, but I am one of those readers who is tempted to skip paragraphs if descriptions carry on too long. I can imagine what the surroundings look like – I want to know what’s happening.

If the author finds a way to get the reader to care about the main character, then flashbacks and childhood history become more interesting.  Also, if these flashbacks or backstory are done in the form of conversations and details that are actually fascinating or interesting, it holds my interest better. Once again, it helps if things are moving and something is happening.  I am always aware when writing and ask myself the question: “If I were reading this story, would it keep me interested and hold my attention?”

Being a good writer is like being a good conversationalist. You have to filter out those thoughts that nobody cares about. You might think it’s interesting to you personally, but you can’t spout every thought that enters your brain, or people will quickly tire of listening. It has to be something your audience will find intriguing and makes them curious.  Certain books aren’t for me, so I assume that, as a writer, I won’t reach every audience.  But I do know the kind of books that hold my attention, so I try to write in a similar fashion.

Modern media, especially TV shows and movies, are full of big explosions and fight scenes. Many of us have shorter attention spans than our parents or grandparents. It would take an incredible amount of patience for me to read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. They were masterpieces of fiction, but I have simply seen too many kung fu and spy action flicks to truly enjoy them. Sad, in a way.

On the other hand, I noticed that when I started reading more, I was able to enjoy more styles of writing – not only books for action junkies. Reading is like listening. It’s a skill built with practice and it does get better the more you use it. I noticed my ability to conjure up the world of the story got better and I moved more easily through the pages.

But back to my original point, I think modern readers in general want to see more action and get bored with long, descriptive passages because of the influence of movies and other modern media.  So I write with this theory in mind, along with the idea that if I like it, someone else out there probably will too. There are many balances to find in writing, and description versus action is just one of them.  You need the right mix of both.

What keeps me reading…

When I set out to write a novel, I ended up reading more than I ever had in my entire life. I read non-fiction material to educate myself on the time and place of my story, but I also read a lot of novels in an attempt to understand what makes a good one. I read with the question in the back of my mind: “Why do I want to keep reading?”

Reading takes time that you could spend doing something else, so why would I choose to read a book?  My two main reasons are education and entertainment, and if I can get both at the same time, all the better.  I am a firm believer in “work hard, play hard”. When you have work or responsibilities to take care of, buckle down and get it done. But a balanced life is also important, and there’s nothing wrong with relaxing and enjoying yourself at the appropriate times.  I have heard that reading books is much better for your mind than watching movies, for entertainment.  Now I am a believer.  After reading about ten books from different authors, it was almost like reading started to become easier.  My mind more easily conjured up places and people, and the story started to come alive more freely.  I would say that reading is somewhat of a skill grown by practice.  As a bonus, sometimes I come in contact with something in my daily life that I would have no clue about, except that I read a well researched novel which talked about it.  When you read an author who really does their homework, you can learn a lot. But I’m getting sidetracked.

One of the big things that makes a story interesting is high stakes.  In writing language, there is an obstacle or problem that the protagonist must overcome or solve. If they can’t, the consequences are scary and very negative.  The hero is spurred into action from a desire to prevent something bad from happening.  If the reader empathizes with the main character, then the reader also wants to see this conflict or tension resolved.  I find it amusing that most of us prefer to avoid conflict, high risk, and danger in our real, everyday lives, yet we find books and movies quite boring without them.  We actually crave these elements in our entertainment, or it’s just not entertaining.  I for one will admit that when I am in the middle of a book and the author has done a good job of creating high stakes and setting things up so that the hero might fail at any moment, I get sucked in and can’t stop reading.  Plot twists like the tables being turned or the good guy encountering a new obstacle or challenge just makes it even better.

In order for the reader to care about the story, they need to care about the main character, or at least the cause he or she is fighting for.  If the reader has something in common with the main character, it helps them to empathize or feel for them. It seems obvious that being human and having some vices and flaws is something just about everybody has in common, and many authors use this angle to create more appealing characters. We admire good guys who struggle against their own weaknesses and even bad guys who are skilled and dedicated to their own goals.  A bad guy with at least some redeemable qualities, or who truly believes in his own cause makes for a more interesting story.  By “bad guy” I mean antagonist. In some stories the antagonist is not necessarily bad, but they hinder the hero in some way or have conflicting goals.  I find myself rooting for a hero who is honorable and willing to make a sacrifice in order to do what is right.  I want to keep reading to see how he manages to overcome all the obstacles in his path.

Another thing that keeps me engaged is something happening.  I get very tempted to skip paragraphs if the description of place or situation go on for too long.  By “something happening”, I mean either action or conversation.  And by conversation, I mean conversation with some conflict. I’ve read some conversations that are truly yawn-inspiring, and others which cause me to forget to breath.  There is certainly an art to drawing out conflict for 300 plus pages.  Delaying the resolution and keeping things interesting is a challenge. Keep things moving but avoid accomplishing the end goal until the right time. But action and conversation both give the reader the impression of immediacy – of being there where the story is unfolding, rather than sitting on the couch reading about something far away.

The main thing that keeps me reading is wondering what situation will face the hero next and how will he or she manage to overcome the odds.  If the story has been dull and lifeless so far, that anticipation simply is not there.  I can tell the difference when I have to renew a library book twice in order to finish it, versus the book I finished long before the first due date. Sometimes I give up and stop reading a book because it simply doesn’t engage me or suck me into the story.  The characters and the things they are facing are simply not interesting to me.

What I’m talking about here is highly subjective.  The Twilight series is a huge success, but when I tried reading two chapters from one of the books, I nearly went insane from the “he loves me, he loves me not” thought process that went on and on.  Obviously a lot of readers out there really get into these books, but they must be in a different demographic than me, as in very young and female. I mentioned characters and causes the reader can root for.  Taking the Twilight example, I really don’t care if human Bella gets together with vampire Edward or werwolf Jacob, or waffles between both of them for hundreds of pages.  I do care about a CIA super spy who’s running around trying to stop a bunch of sneaky, well organized terrorists who have planted suitcase nukes in cities all over the United States. That’s why I say this is subjective, and there are different audiences who like to read different genres.

Violence in fiction

When I started writing my historical novel, I wanted to be a little different from the style I saw in the historical novels I had read. That style, from my personal perception, was slow moving, full of long and detailed descriptions, and much more drama than action. I wanted to create an adventurous and exciting story that would also educate readers on historical events few people know about.

I am a martial arts enthusiast (I’d never call myself an expert) and part of my training requirements in the past have been to document and describe, in my own words, the concepts and techniques I was being trained in. Calling on this experience, I wanted to describe fight scenes and action sequences in my story in more detail than most other books I had read. I wanted the reader to be able to visualize what the hero and his opponents were doing physically.

When I gave some of my first writing samples to a couple of my friends, they encouraged me to be more graphic. I wasn’t showing enough blood spray and spilling entrails. But while we see these things in movies, I noticed that most of the novels I had read didn’t go into such graphic detail. They let you know the guy got his throat slit, but they don’t describe every gory detail. The books I saw that did describe violence in bloody detail were certainly not New York Times Bestsellers. I find this interesting, and the lesson I take is that books appealing to wider audiences can have violent action, but graphic description is limited to a certain extent.

Personally, I don’t study martial arts because I like violence. I do it because I am fascinated with how the mind and body can be trained and conditioned, and the physical ability and power that comes from it. I do it because it’s great exercise. I do it because I like the art of physical expression through techniques and forms. I am more drawn to traditional Asian martial arts than MMA, cage fighting, or street fighting styles. So my writing emphasizes the art and technique rather than the damage to the body that results.

When one of my friends suggested one of my fight scenes was too tame, especially since the hero left his enemies alive, I experimented by re-writing the scene with much bloodier, bone-snapping description. I also killed all the “bad guys”. Comparing the two, I decided I preferred and admired a hero who could take out all his foes without killing them, which requires much more skill. I decided I preferred the art and efficiency of the techniques to the brutal, cruel, and savage style of the re-write. I am capable of writing that way, but that’s not the kind of story I want to write. Anybody can bend an elbow backwards or stab a knife in someone’s eye socket, but to protect yourself AND your attacker while incapacitating them requires a much higher level of skill, which should be respected. Especially my jujitsu and karate training taught me that making a technique work is much easier than making it work “just enough”. And making it work “just enough” in a real combat situation… that requires an unbelievable level of control and skill!

Another point I want to make is this: If I am reading a really good story, where the characters are interesting and the plot keeps me engaged, I don’t need graphic violence to hold my attention. In fact, I have left darker and more gruesome books unfinished, simply because I felt the main character and his/her ambition or goals were flat and uninteresting. Violence is part of the good stopping the bad, but it doesn’t have to be gruesome or gratuitous to tell a good story.

My book has a lot of violent action scenes (hey, it’s full of old-school samurai and ninja, what else could we expect?) but I have tried to find that balance between portraying a hero fighting his enemies and protecting the innocent, and just going for shock value. There were some things that actually happened, according to historical record, in the time and place of my story that I chose not to describe in detail. For example: people were bound tightly and hung upside down in a pit, over burning human excrement, with only one arm free to signal that they would agree to the government’s terms. The pressure of the blood in the skull created by gravity was unbearable. Guards would actually slit open the forehead to let out some blood and relieve some of the pressure, just to keep the captive conscious and in excruciating pain. Some people had enough courage, strength, and above all, conviction to endure over two weeks of this.

Another thing I try to do is describe things that happen quickly – well, quickly. You’ve been in situations where things happened so fast you didn’t have time to think. It is impossible to describe lighting fast action on paper at the same speed it happens. On the other hand, going on for a page and a half about how a guy draws his sword or what he is thinking in the middle of fast action seems ridiculous to me. The reader simply won’t get that sense of breathless speed with which these things happen. Shorter sentences and carefully chosen words can do a better job.

I also thing it’s important to spend time establishing WHY the hero must fight, what his cause is, and what he hopes to accomplish. If you have violence without cause or reason… well there’s just no point and the story looses its value and appeal.

Violence can make a story more exciting, but there must be a balance. You need conversations, description of settings and people, and non-violent action in between. Even exciting action gets old if it goes on for too long.

Writing my first novel

I’ve been working on the final chapters of the novel I’ve been writing for just over two years now. It’s taken so long not because it’s a thousand pages or extremely complicated. It’s because I am not a full-time writer and I have a day job, a family, and other pursuits in my life that also take time.  Now I understand why many writers are retired and their children grown! Writing takes a lot of time and patience, if you want to do it well.
 I have never read so much in my thirty-some years as when I set out to write a book myself.  I read history books, sifting through pages upon pages for confirmation of a few details critical to my story.  I read other novels about the same time period and geographical location for several reasons. I wanted to know what else had already been written to know how my book would compare, and so I wouldn’t accidentally copy anything too closely. I wanted to learn what to do, and what not to do, based on my feeling about these other novels as a reader. It’s boring? Why? Why does it not suck me into the story? Why don’t I care about what happens to the characters? Or alternately: Wow, this is a good story! What is the writer doing to pull me in and make me want to keep reading?
 Let’s face it, today we are bombarded by slick, flashy, attention grabbing advertisements and entertainment. Everything is engineered to shock your senses and stick in your brain longer than the competition. A slow-moving, meticulously detailed novel simply won’t cut it. I’m an action junkie myself, and I can tolerate bad acting and weak plots in a movie if the fight choreography is solid. So I set out to write the kind of book I would want to read: filled with action, characters who are strong but have weaknesses, an adventurous story, and not too much detailed description to bog things down.
 After I read all the books I could get my hands on about the time period I was writing in, I turned to more modern spy novels. Why? Because I’m writing about a 17th century spy, essentially. Whatever modern spies experience must have some correlation. Strip away the gadgets and modern technology, look at the human element, the goals and purpose of the main character, and try to learn something useful. For example, spies undergo a very rough and dangerous life, full of fear and anxiety, in order to fight for a cause they believe in. That cause could be to make themselves rich or to rid the world of evil, it depends on the individual.
 I discovered David Morrell, Brad Thor, and Vince Flynn, so far my favorite current authors. These authors write about similar characters, though their writing styles are all different. One thing they all do well is to keep the reader feeling that they are “in the moment”. They create a sense of urgency by making it seem that the main character could fail or die at any moment. The lead character must endure many setbacks and hardships in order the accomplish his goal. Morrell, in particular, is good at putting his lead character in the fire and making your smell the smoke and feel the heat of the flames. None of these guys goes on for more than a paragraph with descriptive details about characters or environment. Any history or backstory is presented AFTER the reader is already invested and with the same immediate, here-and-now style. After reading so many books in the past two years, along with my writing, I have a better idea what makes an engaging story and interesting characters. Can I pull it off with my first attempt? I am certainly trying.
 A few days ago, I was working on a scene were my main character gets caught, tied to a pole on the beach at low tide, and left to slowly drown as the tide came in. I got the idea because this was a punishment used in the time and place of my story. I did some quick research to find out the difference in water levels at high and low tide in that part of the world and discovered it was much higher than most places in the US. The challege was to put myself in that position and imagine the water slowly covering my legs, waist, torso, shoulders, over several hours. What kind of thoughts would be going through my head, knowing I would soon drown just as slowly as the water was rising? Well, it’s a futile exercise. No one knows what they would think or do until they really face the situation. But I have a story to write and it must be convincing and engaging. To force yourself to imagine being in situations like that is unnerving and mildly disturbing, to say the least, but if you can’t see it or feel it, how can you get it across to the reader?
 Anyway, it has been a major education trying to write a historically accurate novel which occurs 365 years ago in another country and culture.